You adjust the glove on your left hand, tighten the loosened knot once again. Yours has not been dipped into bucketful of broken glass pieces as all the other boxers often do. Neither have you smoked on potent hemp to lift your spirits. All you have is an amulet; a charm for good luck and protection given to you by Mimi. It is a necklace made of a yarn of string and has what resembles an elephant’s tusk for its pendant. You clutch unto it and pray for the spirits to guide you. You were certain that when going up against Shago it will take more than just good luck to see you through. The chain wrapped around your leg like a vine seems heavier than usual and slows down your pace.
A voice warbles through the weather gramophone. It rambles on but you cannot make much of the words spoken. It is not until you notice that all eyes are affixed on you that you realise that it is your name that he has called. He has called you Danlami instead. You mumble lowly that your name is Danladi. The odds are certainly not in your favour. But still you muster what is left of your courage and begin your long walk to the centre stage. Your shoulders slouched, your eyes tracing the footprints on the earth. There are a few bouts of applause here and there. Even the drummers do not seem to beat as feverously.
The speaker in his white, well what used to be a white Caftan, the collar is now a fine brown from layers of dirt. There are blotches of sweat around the armpits. He begins a scratchy introduction of you. He still cannot seem to get your name correctly and whispers questions to you before announcing it to the eager crowd; he does not recognise you as the son of Al- Mage the great, and you are slightly grateful. Rather he taunts you about the slimness of your arms, the curliness in your hair. The crowd roars in delight. You smile back nervously and bounce on your toes from side to side hoping to shake off the nervous bouts before the settle in your bones.
The speaker continues his introduction, from the rise of enthusiasm in his tone, the growing excitements in the crowd, the wriggling faces peeking to garner a clearer view, the swooning mata and the increase pace of the drums you can feel Shago even before when you see him. A bevy of these young girls, one you recognise from the streams, fill the ring; dancing and singing songs about great legends and dashing knights. The red beads on their waist jiggle in rhythm with the drums. Despite their racy dancing and the sweet melodies in their voices, the crowd seems uninterested and begin to boo and shoo them away. They long for their hero.
As though he is aware of the growing restless, he sweeps in like a rush of cool breeze, he leaps in through the crowds. His shadow is welcomed with wild applause. The little boys jump and wriggle in delight. One of the dancing mata faints and she is carried off by the dancing bevy. Shago leaps graciously. He does a few cartwheels and summersaults. The older men nod in open admiration. The little boys try to imitate him. The speaker’s mouth is agape in awe. Shago struts about in his peacock stride, breaks into a run and shakes eager hands around the ring. The red of his shorts is bright and piercing, like a hibiscus flower in full bloom. He walks up to you, sizes you up and smirks even though he has to look up at you.
The umpire runs through the rules of engagement, he looks in between your fingers and toes for sharp objects. You can smell the fading wisp of marijuana fumes settle in the spaces that divide you and Shago. He doesn’t seem to listen to all that the umpire says, he has probably heard them several times before. He listened to them barely minutes ago before knocking the mouse out cold. But for you, you take mental note of all that is being said, especially the ones that would keep you alive.
He leers at you. You leer back unconvincingly. Heady from the marijuana fumes you may have inhaled, you attempt to taunt and tease him about the staleness in his breath, the red stains on his remaining teeth. Umpire recedes away into the background; so does the beating drums and the dancing damsels. And now all that remains is the silence. In this silence you can hear the shallowness of your breath, the cawing of birds in the distance. You breathe in. You let it out.
Utter silence. No more cawing birds. No more shallow breaths.
You stand with your backs tilted in opposite ends, with his left feet placed beside your right. Your gloved hands hanging idly. The piercing sound of the whistle pierces through the air. Shago lungs forward predictably. You have watched him several times, you can predict his movements. His gloves, laced with broken glass shimmers like a mirror in the sun. You duck swiftly, weave back when he throws an uppercut. You feel the breeze whistle as the blow sweeps past your ear. You understand his style. Too much brawn, not enough brains. He will try to use his strength to intimidate you. You hope that after a few careless swings and grunts he will tire. A kick to shin follows. It grazes your stomach, stunning you for a few moments. Another punch follows but connects to your jaw this time and another to the left eye. The crowd roars in delight. You see what seems like stars, you see two Shagos instead one. The ground seems to be caving in. You feel your knees give in. It seems too early to end. Not yet. You scamper back, hopefully find a few minutes to find your footing. You rub the soreness in your jaw. You look at your hands, they are stained with blood. You can feel your eyes closing in as though you are high on burukutu.
Shago ceases the moment and lunges forward with another attack, you are able to swiftly manoeuvre your way out of it. You cleverly set out your foot and he trips over. The weight of the chain on his legs makes him go toppling into the crowd. You look into the mesh of amused faces. You can finally see a face that deeply resembles Baba from this distance, and his lip twitches in a smile. It feels like flying. No. Better than flying. You cannot find the right words to describe it. There are fluttering of a thousand butterfly wings in your belly.
The crowd pushes Shago back into the ring. He shakes his head furiously and turns around bewilderedly, briefly stunned. He looks at you with bloodshot eyes and charges at you like a maddened bull. He comes at you but you can read the next move, it will be a straight punch to blind the other eye. You duck and rise with an uppercut which hits him right beneath the jaw, then you dodge to the right and plant your elbow in his rib with all the might you can muster. He lets out a grunt and falls on you but you push him out with a kick. You let out a joyous yelp as he staggers back. It seems like victory is lingering close.
You see the future, an end in which you see the men along the aisles hurl you on their strong shoulders, chanting your name over and over again. The sky raining naira notes. The mata singing songs of a new legend. A king greater than his father. And Shago, well Shago is somewhere trampled in the dust. He has been long forgotten. Baba rises from the crowd, he is not smiling rather he is beaming. You even hear his laughter. Throaty and rusty. The laughter of someone who seldom laughs. You kneel before him while he blesses you. There is a twinkle in his eye. And the past is rewritten. Nothing matters anymore.
And those stories you always told Audu and Aliyu are no longer make belief. For now you and Baba actually take those long walks before the sun rises in the western horizons. And you do spend your nights with freshly brewed tea in the open fireplaces, sharing your stories of love and war. And although your mother is not there with you to share these moments, things seem to be well. You seem to be at peace.
Your dreams are cut short as the sprays of sand graze your cheek. The crowd roars as Shago comes charging with a leaping punch, you attempt to duck but he reads it and plants a sturdy elbow on the small of your back. The sharp pain blinds you. He follows with a knee to your lower stomach. You push away. Then a punch comes through from the right. You intercept it, and place a weak kick against the side of his head. You can feel the calve throb with the impact. The muscles in your stomach clench and unclench. Shago locks you in a bear hug. You nod him, temple against temple. There’s is a dull tinge of marijuana in his breath. You cringe but focus on what is at hand. Shago is tiring out. You can feel it in the slouch of his shoulders, his slurred breathing.
The gods of Dambe seem to be smiling in your favour today. A few more jabs to his rib follow, with each one he lets out and oomph, the crowd lets out cries of delight. The rush gives you all the strength you need. Shago staggers back, trying to regain his balance. There are a few metres between both of you now. The victory is now yours’. Almost. No longer a dream with eyes wide open.
You take the chance; cease the moment. Despite the weight of the chain wrapped around your leg you run with the winds beneath your arms, you run to what would be your freedom. Once this kick hits Shago in the chest, his back would hit the earth. His spirits knocked out cold. You look into the crowds once again, hoping that Baba is perchance watching this. You see the same face with the twitching lips, turn his face and begin walking away from the crowds, away from the rings. For this you do not see that Shago has regained his composure, all you can feel is the wind taken off your wings. This must be like when a bird is shot out of the sky, you think to yourself as you come spiralling down.
Shago hold you in a firm hold. His feet firmly on the dragging chain wrapped on your leg, his right hand locking the other suspended in the air. You attempt to wriggle out. He punches you in your shoulders to subdue you. Then another to your temple follows. You wince as the glass pierces through your skin. Your blood seeps out. It stings because of the sweat on your skin. A punch to the right rib connects and then another. More cheers and wild clapping from the crowd. You may not be able to see clearly anymore but you can still hear it.
The sweat makes your skin slippery enough for you to break away from his lock. But now your knees tremble, not with fear but rather exhaustion. Another punch comes to you but this time you do not attempt to duck. You want to feel the pain, to dull the disappointment and the confusion that taints your heart. You close your eyes and allow yourself to fall freely, with your back first.
As your back touches the earth, images of flashback and alternate endings dance in your head. You relish the moments of victory. The crowd cheering on for you. The new songs that would have been sang in your name. The opportunity for you to finally walk through the fields with your head held high. The gift of Baba finally looking at you with a glow in his eyes. As your back touches the earth, you realise that you have always had your own crowd cheering for you. Your head was always held high when you, Audu and Aliyu sat on those low mud walls on lazy afternoons. And the glow, that glow of acceptance, you found it in Mimi’s eyes, and in Audu’s and Aliyu’s. And that was enough. Today, it was just enough to see you through the next day.
One day you too would have one who would call you Baba with skin just as fair or maybe even darkened by many suns. And you would tell them it was okay if they wanted to slaughter cattle or whisper to them or perhaps run away with a band of wandering dancers. Whatever they wanted. Whatever they needed to wake up every day with a smile on their face, a sparkle in their eyes. You would be the best Baba in the world. You were sure. These thoughts warm you as things blend into a perfect black.
The sunlight licks your skin. There is a clucky hen and her fluffy chicks pecking at the fraying ends of straw mat. You yawn noisily. You stretch and check your skin for scars and bruises. You cannot see any but you can feel a dulling ache in your right shoulder. You smile as your rise and inhale the fresh morning breeze. You pick up your cane and walk towards the lush green fields. You hum underneath your breathe, the melodies the mata had sang in your honour.