The sun rays flicked slowly, bringing in a feel of safety. Toma laid on the bed, eyes folded, hands clenched and lips tightened and drawn-out. It was how he folded in Maa’s arms in the night, to be hard, hard enough to repel the fear. I smiled and touched his lips, pushing them back gently. They melted, relaxing into a tender plane. Then he wiped his lips with his tongue and spread his lids apart, squinting at the first sight of sunlight. I left him and moved outside, launching my bare dark skin unto the cold air that whizzed.
Ekereama was a town that once bared noise, a lot of noise. It bustled with people who always had that exoteric feeling, because there were always those who wanted to stick their heads into your house to drop tender and genial grins every time.
Outside, I stood and observed the lonely boulevard. Only the pieces of the war thrived. Like the silence was a manure. Like the tears irrigated them. Like they waited for men to fall to reincarnate. I noticed the grasses that sprang from the hard clays flooring the boulevard because there were no feet treading. The few houses not razed were now inhabited by rodents and creepers. The air was dustless because there were no children to kick their legs against the ground but it was heavy with the smell of decay and ash.
I looked back, towards Maa’s kitchen. Paa walked out slowly, the sparsely embedded hairs on his narrow chest immersed in the cold surrounding, a dashed ceramics clenched into his left fist, and a bottle of Bombay sapphire held in the right hand. He was wearing a blue jean with thick dark spots on the knees and too large around the waist. So the belt went down to the last hole and left a lot of pockets. Paa never drank until just before the war, when every man had to carry a baker rifle- the type we called kpaikpo, or a matchet, or a pump action for the few individuals who owned them. I see him every day and I hated the war, I hated every boy who ran after politicians to compose songs with their names, because they made Paa become a lot of things he never was. Sometimes he will sing and dance and pour a lot of gin on the ground with his friends all through the day, and in the night, those nights he is not keeping guard, he will snore so loud, so that Maa came to our room. They say the singing and dancing and pouring of gin made them fearless, make the enemies have a rethink. But they never say what the snoring made them become- noise makers, maybe.
He saw me standing in front of the main house, looking at him.
‘Motana!’ he called my name and beckoned on me to come. I walked to him. I met a mild rush of ambiguity coming into my nostrils. There was first the smell of everything that laid along the boulevard and now, there was the strong smell of gin oozing from Paa.
He scratched my hairs like I told him it itched me and looked at my face. I didn’t look at his face, not that I couldn’t, but that there was nothing pleasant.
‘Where is Toma?’ he asked me, sending a wave of his alcohol ruined breath into my nostrils.
‘Still in bed.’ I said.
‘Ok. Don’t worry, I will teach that lunatic a lesson. He thinks he can scare my children and break my costly plates.’ He spoke and sipped the Bombay sapphire. Then he handed me the bottle that had a lazuline swaying at the base.
I took and turned a little into my mouth and handed it back to him. It was not bitter. It was not sweet. It was just a meaningless liquid that had so much power, so much to force my jaws apart and make my head shuddering.
‘Did you say he was wearing a white shirt?’ he stooped, bringing his face to within an inch of mine and asked. I nodded and watched him walk away.
Up ahead, Maa was coming with a jerrican of water. When she got to the front of the house, Paa was right there too. He brought the jerrican down and went inside the house. Maa was wearing a pink shirt that flapped so well around the neck and a nude wrapper tied round her chest.
She removed the crimp of dirty cloth that she used in easing off the weight from the water and came to meet me in front of her kitchen.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked, pushing the crimp of dirty cloth into my palm. I held it and shook my head, while folding my lips tightly. I didn’t want Maa to perceive that Bombay sapphire in my breath. It will aggrieve her. It will make her recall all the admonitions a mother should give her child. ‘What did your father tell you?’ she asked with a puzzling voice, shifting between trying to be to mother and a peer at the same. I was undaunted, shaking my head again. ‘Did they say you shouldn’t talk this morning?’ she snapped mildly after two failed attempts to get me to talk. ‘oya go and fetch water now. We have plenty work to do in this house today.’ She ordered and walked back to the main house. Her voice blazed with energy, enough to send me pelting along.
Inside the house, I emptied the water Maa fetched into a bigger plastic drum so I could take that jerrican to the river. Then I heard Maa muttering. I tiptoed to the door and buried my ear behind that decaying wood.
‘How could someone be drinking this early? Is it water? Do you want my children to start drinking too, that you had to carry your bottle around in this house?’ Maa talked non-stop, yet, her voice thrived with a majestic peace. It kept Paa muted, like a child. Maa had a way of lambasting him. Those earlier days when he started drinking, she grumbled each time he returned home. Then it got too pathetic, how she was wearing away because she wanted to stop Paa from falling apart, from turning into a man with a misplaced soul. So she grumbled only when he brought his friends home to drink, only when he carried bottles around in the house, because she needed to protect us. Maa also happened to be a woman who knew how to be a wife. Because in all of those talking, Paa never got so heated up to throw a punch.
I moved away from the door when I heard Maa’s voice coming closer to the door. I emptied all the water into the drum. No one came out of the door. But I never went back. I wore my Owen’s Liverpool jersey and headed for the river with that yellow jerrican.
When I returned from the river, Paa had long gone. Maa was clearing her kitchen; discarding shattered ceramics and glasses, and putting cups, plates and other utensils into large plastic basins. Toma followed her every inch.
‘Drop the water and come and start washing these things. Let me go and buy fish and banga to cook. If I send you now you will spend the whole day looking at things outside there and be counting your legs.’ Maa said while doing what she was doing.
‘No, me!’ she snarled, darting those smoky and bulgy eyes at me. Then she whizzed past, dragging Toma along. I carried the basins out of the kitchen torpidly and watched Maa and Toma enter into the main house.
Moments later, they came back outside. ‘If you like use one year to wash those things o!’ Maa said and left with Toma. She had changed into a new shirt, a presentable one, and took the wrapper off her chest to her waist. She wore Toma a blue oversized basketball jersey and gave him a bacco bag to hold.
When I was all alone, sitting on that miniature wooden stool in front of Maa’s kitchen, I felt a dreadful silence wrap me like cobwebs. First, I realized all the birds have gone, then the breeze sneak underneath zinc roofs so that the roofs flapped now and then, sending ripples through my skin, then I felt like I was not alone. It brought memories of the ghost that night. I packed the basins and moved towards the road, away from the kitchen. Then I whistled loudly to give myself the feeling of a company that never existed. ‘Paa is right. There is no ghost. No ghost Motana. No ghost.’ I said to myself. But I didn’t believe myself. I knew Paa didn’t know what I knew. He didn’t see the white figure turning into a cloud before zooming past me, fanning my left ear in the process. Then I continued washing and whistled even louder.
Once, I stood up and moved towards the other houses. I wanted to find out why Epigha has not returned, why Omogai has not returned, why sele has not returned. I wanted to see if their belongings were still here, if their houses were empty. I missed leaving home with the boys to play in some places far away. I hated been alone. I hated the silence. But I never entered the houses, because they were as frightening as the silence that lingered outside. The dark hollow and the spate of musty cold air made me springing back.
After I got back to my stool to continue with the chores, I lifted my head to the people coming along the boulevard from afar. The boulevard was quite straight so it was easy sighting anything from afar. I stood up and watched keenly as they drew closer.
That evening, Paa returned early. The sun was just beginning to vanish from the nightly sky. He didn’t stagger and he didn’t smell of Bombay sapphire or of seaman’s schnapps or of the local gin, at least the smell was not fresh.
Maa sat beside him as he folded the big lump of eba and pushed into his mouth. There was something about her look that evening. It glowed with simplicity and a suspecting calmness. She smiled intermittently and asked if he needed more. He shook his head to the sides and continued eating, acting like he didn’t notice her unusual kind gesture. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe other times he was too not himself to notice that Maa was an unhappy woman; all of those times he came back, hitting the home with that displeasing smell.
‘People have started coming back o.’ Maa told Paa
‘Who?’ he stopped chewing and asked her.
‘Motana said he saw Akere-ere and her husband today.’ She looked at me and said. Paa looked at me too. I nodded in agreement.
‘Olotukeme that ran away like a woman. Fear fear man.’ Paa said and giggled, coughing in between.
‘Who knows he could have been killed if he stayed.’ Maa said drearily, folding her lips glumly.
‘The people that stayed and fought are not humans na!’ he hissed and said. Then he pushed the air aside with his hand to dismiss the whole talk. Maa brushed away the morose look that settled over her face, bringing back that graceful demeanor.
I was sitting on the long wooden stool by the wall while Toma sat on the plastic chair. Maa sat on the other plastic chair, touching Paa’s single sitter couch. The chair was made of just woods and nails- no padded leathers or fabrics.
‘Two of you come and take.’ He looked at us and said. We stood and pitched like we have been waiting for that moment. ‘They have eaten their food. Toma is even overfull.’ Maa objected. It made us pause, the dispirited look pulling my cheeks up. ‘Let them eat.’ Paa insisted, speaking in a soft and loving tone. When maa shrugged, we lurched like starved curbs. We never turned down the opportunity to eat Paa’s food because there was always something different and superior about it. Maa always recooked his portion with ceramics so that it got thicker, leaving behind a far better taste. The tastier part of fishes were always only found in Paa’s portion.
When we finished eating, Paa and Maa had gone into their bedroom. I packed the plates and told Toma to follow me. When we got to the frontage, he saw the darkness, so he turned away without saying a word.
‘Toma, let’s go na!’ I said to him. He went ahead and sat on the chair, shaking his head in disapproval. I stood there, looking into the darkness with the plates in my hand. And when the memories of the previous night started coming, I got in quickly and jammed the door. Paa heard the sound of the door and came out. I was sitting on the stool improperly, with the plates still in my hand.
‘Why are you holding the plate? Go and drop them in the kitchen na!’ he said when he saw me.
‘Am scared.’ I said immediately with a broken voice.
‘Scared of what? Come on!’ he yelled at me, making me to jump up from the chair.
‘Come back. Come back.’ He said. When I turned back, he handed me the kerosene lamp and said, ‘you are a man. Men don’t get scared. See, people that panic and start running don’t even get the honour of been killed by the cartridge. They just kick stones and die on the road.’ I nodded vehemently and left.
Outside, the breeze blew softly, driving through the overwhelming silence. ‘Men don’t get scared.’ I repeated what Paa said to me as I guided myself with the kerosene lamp through the dark until I dropped the plates on the floor of Maa’s kitchen before coming out of the kitchen. Just at the front, I heard a crackling, like woods breaking carefully. I held up the lamp to look around but I saw nobody. Just as I was about to run, I remembered what Paa said. So I listened to where the sound was coming from. I walked gently to the back of Maa’s kitchen, holding out the lamp. Just as I got to the far edge before the rear, the lamp fell from my hand. The glass chimney landed on a stone and shattered, putting the flame off. I followed the falling lamp quickly but I was too late. I picked up the shattered lamp and on getting up, I realized I was looking at feet suspended just above the damp carpet grasses. I startled and fell back, my chest pounding hard. I looked at the man with a very small stature right in front of me. ‘Men don’t get scared.’ It was astonishing how Paa’s voice rang in my head at that moment. The man was backing me so that I had a cold breeze rushing through my face and my head getting bigger and then Paa’s voice ringing.
I wanted to ask him who he was. I also wanted him to turn his face so I could see. But I couldn’t talk. Then he slowly turned like he could read my mind. When he turned fully, I saw Alex flying right before me- the man whose death put the war on a full scale. I looked at what look like a hole in the center of his forehead before screaming with all the energy I had and then crumbling to the grasses.