Rumpus Original Fiction: You Are One of Them

By

 

 

 

4 a.m.

Birnin Zumunci.

Everyone here is new. Everyone has run away from somewhere. Some of us are from Unguwan Gobe Da Nisa where peace lives in the graveyards. Some of us are from Unguwan Wakoki where the only road to the city has belched a forest. Some of us are from Unguwan Guza where the river loves our houses more than its banks. So we learned to live on top of the water. Some of us are from Unguwan Karatu where our schools bask under Dogon Yaro trees and our teachers are leaves falling off. Some of us are from Unguwan Taba Ka Lashe where tomorrow is a boy with coily hair and brown lips and a girl with noiseless laughter and eyes that never look at the sky. Some of us are from Unguwan Ubanka where pastors and imams give prescriptions for all our aches. Some of us are from Unguwan Uwaka where Saturdays roll us around the neighborhood on chants and claps of: Amariya da ango. Shaligidi. Suna cin bazuka. Shaligidi. Bazuka ya kare. Shaligidi. An aike ango. Shaligidi. Ango ya ware. Shaligidi. Some of us are from Unguwan Sai Ka Dage where the sun fries our bodies as though our humanity was an irritant. And our mothers tease it with slices of peppery sneezes over the grinding stone in the kitchen.

4:30 a.m.

“Good morning, Mama,” I say, rubbing my face.

“Good morning. Did you sleep well?” Mama fiddles with the knob of the lantern on the table. The flame bobs to a bright yellow and casts an image of Mama on the wall. The head is draped on the ceiling. It looks down as she leafs through her big black-cover bible, then at me. I blink. It disappears.

“Yes Mama. Ke fa?”

“Nima fa…kalau, kalau.” Mama leans on the backrest, tilts her head and rolls out a hum. It comes off scratching her throat. She stops and starts again. Slow and low. It rises. Her hands sway, gently.

 

I am snuggled between Mama’s legs. My hair revolts against the comb in her hand. But my wince drowns in Papa’s grunt as he pulls off his black boots and puts them outside by the door. The smell floats and diffuses. “Welcome,” Mama says. Papa unbuttons his starched shirt—the one with a bold insignia, FIRST BANK SECURITY NIG LTD on the breast pocket. “What did you do in school today?” He strokes my hair with one hand. And with the other whips up my spelling exercise book. He makes a face at B-and-its. Bandits. “It’s the topic Mallam Sanusi taught in history class today,” I want to say. In the beginning, there were no words but letters. Alphabets living apart from each other until B grew an eye and a canopy of mustache swallowed up the spaces and cooked itself a word in whose rubble we grope. How to erase the word: build spaces among the letters and Di(t)sband. Disband. “Get me the dictionary,” Papa says.

 

The room swells with Mama’s humming. “Bless the Lord, oh, my soul, oh, my soul, worship His holy name….” When we sing this in church at the beginning of service, the mud floor and wooden walls vibrate as though the heavenly hosts were here. Pastor Sonkai would sprinkle the water he calls holy on us. He would touch our heads too and some members would wriggle on the floor like dying snakes. Their lips clatter and sputter languages only God and the pastor understand. The only time he touched my head, an army of men scrambled for my throat. But my scream brought his hands firmer. So, I let myself fall to the ground.

 

I drag through Papa’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (6th edition), looking at nothing but the soft screech of the pages. “Haven’t you found it?” Papa says. “No, Papa….” But he slaps his thigh and flips through my math notebook. He stops at where the handwriting of Mallam Sanusi is a circle in red with two glaring eyes. Papa wipes his face and scratches his head. Mama strolls in with a tray of tuwo and miyan alayyahu. As we sit around our bowls of food, Papa and Mama say something with their eyes.

5 a.m.

“Let’s pray,” Mama says as the call to prayer from the mosque beside Mallam Abu’s shayi store rings. God is great. I testify that there is no god but God. I testify that Mohammed is the prophet of God. Feet rustle in quick succession along the narrow path of our back window. Come to prayer. Come to salvation. Prayer is better than sleep. There is no god but God. The muezzin’s voice rises to a pitch, spreads a ripple of undulations, and falls softly as though to give rein to the cacophony of cockcrows. Mama stretches and yawns. A curt sound leaves her buttocks as she rummages through the line holding our clothes. Mine are supposed to be on one side and Mama’s on the other. Now they have slid to the center because the nails at the ends of their slacked line are loose. And there are numerous holes in the wall already. Mama ties a red scarf about her head. I wrap myself with the bed sheet and roll out.

5:30 a.m.

I blow off the light in the lantern and open the window. The shine of the morning pours on my face and spreads twinkles on our L-shaped street and beyond, on the stretch of rows littered with blue, gray, and brown trampoline walls and roofs that keep those who have recently arrived. It is bordered by the Kalashe River, our only source of water, and Kasuwan Laushi where Mama sells garri. Today, she has only one sack left. It is two weeks since supply came from the city. But I don’t want to keep thinking about that. I want to go back in black skirt and long-sleeved white shirt and white stockings and brown sandals. I want to wear a frown in Mallam Sanusi’s class and pretend I do not see Kabiru’s eyes on my growing breasts more than worry about finding the x in an equation.

 

Papa dangles one leg over the arm of the chair while Mama taps along as I chant the letters of the words Papa has written for me on a white paper. I cannot go to bed until I have mastered them. Ge-yu-en, em-ee-en: Gunmen. Ee-en-cee, ar-oo-a, cee-hech, em-e-en-te: Encroachment.  

Papa puts an index finger across his lips and points to the transistor radio tucked to his ears. He walks about to get a clearer signal and holds it closer when the sshh sshh fades for a thin voice: Breaking news. Reports just reaching us say… 

5:40 a.m.

The feet that walked past earlier are returning. Among them, Mallam Tunda, the yam-seller whose tent is next to Mama’s at the market, peals out a stretch of chuckles. It tumbles in my ears like rough stones. Mama grunts. She teases him each time he talks about marrying me, saying he has spoiled his chances already by his now brown teeth and lips. But he would burp and throw more nubs of goro into his mouth. “Remind me later to pay him the two thousand naira for the tubers we collected last week…How much do we have left?” I rummage under the pillow for our debtor’s exercise book. “Five thousand…” I say. “Hmm, Hadiza still owes us. Ronke too. Ah, yes, you have to go to Haibib’s tent today. He promised to pay today for the two mudus of garri he bought last week,” Mama says, pacing about. “Also, give mai adashe a thousand naira. I hope we can save up to twenty thousand this month.”

 

“One hundred killed in Unguwan Maigero last night.” Papa sighs. Mama’s lips clap against each other. “Azzalumai…Allah ka kare mu fa,” she says, flinging her hands. I shuffle to the window. The sun is an orange ball in the sky. A red and black spotted cock chases a brown fowl. They circle around until the cock pins the fowl down. A fly perches on my forehead. It buzzes away as my hand comes swinging. I pull the window closed.

 

“What are we eating for breakfast?” Mama opens the pot of yam porridge and closes it. “I warmed it last night before bed,” I say. She pulls at the sack of garri from behind the door and makes to untie it. But her hands fall on her sides. She drags herself across and sits heavily on the chair. The wrinkles on her face have grown deeper. Her lips part but nothing comes out. She nods to hold off a quiver moving about her body. I have seen her cry before. When, at night, she thinks I am asleep and asks questions God never answers.

 

Bangs on our door. Bangs on our window. Papa pulls and dumps me into the dusty darkness of the roof. Mama climbs in. “Quick. Quick.” Papa’s voice rushes after us as we scrabble across the ceiling.

 

The river in Mama’s eyes wears a crescent of Papa’s face—beardy, broad nose and fat lips, smiling and frowning. My heart shatters into rapid beats. And a stew of voices sizzles.

“They are coming. They are coming.”

“Who…?”

“They are coming,” I say again and fling the door wide. Mama’s voice chases me through the streets—it is a chorus of defiance, it is a rebuke slapping the air, squeezing my chest, it is men, it is women, refusing to die, it is a resounding “No” at the end of each sentence, the verb our nouns have become, it is the patter of metals, the hiss of burnings, the scatterings of booms and bangs and bodies like morsels of a rushed meal, it is the whine of missing children, families, my classmates who are now poems of names—Juliet, Ibro, Hauwawu, Talatu, Danlami, Hassan, Mairago—of dreams they can’t wake up from, of God folding His arms and smacking His lips and pulling at His beard, and watching the theater outbursts of His creatures turn His face into a caricature, wondering what to do with us, what humor He can make out of us, it is Mama cooking a pot of pleas for God to dine, it is Papa waving and flailing and coughing out Jesus-Jesus at the end of each order to die, it is the large face of Jesus on Mama’s bible, staring at me like unblinking guards, it is Pastor Sonkai, unscrewing his mantra of night-never-lasts-long-for-our-morning-is-here, it is the men who come to chew our bodies with machetes, and spell our memories with scampering, it is me searching for silence away from my head.

My legs crumble under me at Kasuwan Laushi. A pool of men and women, soaked in dust and sweat, throw fists and shouts. The wail clinging to my lips slips into their simmering chants—Bandits are not Spirit. No to Banditry. Kidnapping is inhuman. We are Citizens, not Games. Our Lives Matter. Justice, we Want. We must get them. We must get them. Enough is Enough. Before the chanters are bodies. Some stare at the sky with closed eyes. Amidst a chorus of jeers and groans, one counts his breath with a sputter of words—s p o n sor, ra n som, pointing at the fat-faced image of a smiling politician on his red-soaked polo. Some sit, hand strapped to their backs. Mallam Abu, Pastor Sonkai and the muezzin too, their heads hide between their legs. At their feet a huddle of rosaries, masks and machetes and bindigogin gida lay like rejected offerings. They are dragged by the waists this way and that way like rags, and kicked and slapped and shoved into a waiting black van. A military helicopter gyrates overhead. Everyone cheers and goes about their tents. Umbrellas pop open. Brooms shush. Yam, dankali, beans, ugwu, gwaza, atarugu, rice, acishuru, fish, are getting displayed on tables and on the ground when my shoulder heeds to a tug. “Let’s go home,” Mama says.

 

 

 

***
Rumpus original artwork by Iris L.


Ifeanyichukwu Eze studied Philosophy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He explores survival as it reveals the layers of being, the utopia of place, and the intersections between faith, identity, mental health and death. His works have appeared in Guernica, Adda, The Temz Review, The Offing, Memoir Monday, The Dark, Agbowo, and Akuko. More from this author →