The sun had gone past the centre of the sky and I knew that Grandma would be back from the farm soon. Whenever my shadow stands or trots after me when I’m facing west, then I know it won’t be long before I see her trudging into the compound, bent from the weight of a bundle of faggots or a sack of cassava, balanced on her head.
The farm was miles away and you had to ford a small river, when the tide was out, on your way there and back. Aside the small patches around the homestead where the women cultivated pepper, okra, and pumpkin leaves, everybody had their farms on the other side of the river. Occasionally, an unfortunate woman would lose all count of time and tide and would be forced to abandon her things on the other side, swim over, and go home with nothing else, save the wet clothes sticking to her back. Grandma, to the best of my knowledge, had never been caught by the treacherous tide; she always made for home at the earliest opportunity.
I roused from my ritual afternoon nap, with a bored look in my eye. Everywhere was quiet. Rising up from my mat, I toddled outside the hut, rubbing my eyes with the heels of my hands. I wondered where all the children in the compound had gone. They were, probably still observing the traditional afternoon siesta. There was nothing else we, kids, did other than to eat, play, and sleep until the older folks come back from the farms. All the older kids attended the dilapidated state school, almost three miles away. And you had to be as old as seven, even eight, to begin school. But nobody attended school these days. It was quiet and spooky and overgrown with elephant grass, ten feet high. School was on vacation.
I was getting into my plastic flip-flops when Barida sped in and squealed to a stop before me. Barida was about seven—only a year older than I—wiry, energetic, and pugnacious. He was very dark, with black kinky hair that crept close to his thin eyebrows. But for a pair of cheap pants which hung uncertainly from his skinny waiste, he was bare; in fact, in all the time I spent in the village, I never saw him in a shirt, not even once. He was always pretending to be racing a bike, this Barida. He would hold his hands before him and blow air forcefully through tightly-pressed lips, as he tried to mimic the revving sounds of a motorbike. He would stamp the ground with one foot, wind his clenched right fist in a very familiar motion, and jerk forward as he released the clutch. He was so good at it that, most times, I would join him and race around until my jaws, lips, and legs would ache.
“Hey,” I called, excitedly, “I was coming to your house.” I said in smattering Khana.
He didn’t say anything to me until he’d turned off the ignition and carefully packed his bike. He replied in the same dialect.
“I’ve be-been loo-looking for you, too.” He was out off breath.
“Been sleeping,” I yawned.
“I tried to. But couldn’t. Is your grand mother back?”
“Let’s play hide-and-seek.”
“Just the two of us? Why not let’s call Friday and Dumale?”
“No,” he said, with a note of finality in a voice as thin as his frame, “I wouldn’t want any unnecessary squabbles and arguments. Just the two of us would do.”
He blew his nose and wiped it with the back of his right hand.
“I’ll hide first,” he announced. “Kpoju kpoju o!”
I clamped my palms over my eyes, as I echoed the corresponding response after him. When I took them off, he was gone.
We had been playing for a while and it was my turn again to look for him. This village boy could hide so frustratingly well! For close to ten minutes, I looked for him without any success. I try the back of doors, empty barrels for collecting rain water, the plantain groves behind our house, the rustic bathroom and pit latrine; I even tried Grandma’s perpetually dark bedroom. I was at the verge of tears and contemplated calling the game off, conceding victory to Barida.
I sauntered over to the water pot by the door leading to Grandma’s room and took a long drink from the large enamel cup placed over its lid. The water had a smoky flavour to it; the special flavour had been achieved by placing the upended empty clay water pot over a smoldering fire. As I replaced the cup, I perceived that the room had grown a shade darker. I swiveled on my heels, half-expecting to see my elusive friend grinning at me from the doorway. First, I saw a long shadow fall across the doorway and the next instant I was looking into the wrinkled visage of an old man.
He was dark, shriveled, and diminutive. Every single strand of hair on his body was grey, even his eyelashes and the few strands that trickled down his bony chest and disappeared in his dirty, discoloured singlet. He had about him a threadbare loin-cloth that reached down to his bare feet. I stared down at them: they were dirty and cracked and the toenails were long, grimy, and gnarled. I didn’t know him and had not seen him before. I shivered.
“My son,” he croaked, doddering towards me. Instinctively, I flinched, backing towards the hearth. He stopped when he had got through the doorway and regarded me through shifty, curiously, brown eyes. I felt like I was being examined by a cruel juju priest who was in need of a suitable sacrificial beast.
“I’m thirsty. Get me some water!”
I had configured my lips to say there was no water; however, I gulped down the words, turned and gave him water from the huge water pot. He stretched forth a dry veinous claw and I placed the cup in it. I wrinkled my nose and stepped back, hoping that either Barida or Grandma would come any minute. The man’s arm trembled as he drew the cup, slowly, to his parched lips.
The cup shielded his face from my view and I stared down at his legs: although they were half-covered by his loin-cloth, I could see that they were crooked, somewhat disfigured.
The man grunted and I looked up to see the cup thrust in my face. I snatched it from him, my eyes not leaving his face. His lips were still parched and, despite all his trembling, he hadn’t dribbled any water on his bearded chin. I gazed into the empty cup and recoiled with both fear and disgust.
“Thank you, son,” he squawked, eyes glittering.
I didn’t say any thing; I just stared. He returned the stare. I lowered my gaze and turned to return the cup to its place on the lid of the water pot. When I turned around, there was no one in the hut.
I heard some movement outside and approached the door, rather apprehensively. Someone bumped into me and knocked me down. It was Barida. He looked me over, thrust me a hand, and pulled me to my feet. I slapped myself clean, my eyes on his face all the time.
“You spoilsport,” he accused, pouting. “Is this how to play?”
I wanted to ask if he knew the old man who had just left, but thought against it. I would hold my peace until he asked me who the man was.
“Sorry, I was thirsty.” I waited for the question to drop.
“We’ll play again,” he said, going to get a drink from the water pot. I wondered why he had not yet asked the question; surely, he must have seen the man leaving. He wiped his mouth and licked his lips.
“It’s still your turn. I’m going to hide.”
He dashed through the door and disappeared.
As I made for the door, I had a crash outside. I quickened my pace, my heart beating. It was Grandma; she was back from the farm. The crashing sound had been made by the bundle of firewood she had returned with. She had the habit of pitching wood straight off her head.
“Welcome;” I said, going to her.
“Mmmm,” she acknowledged, wiping her face with the edge of her dirty loin-cloth. “Get me some water.”
She drank thirstily and handed me the cup. I knew her coming meant the end of my game with Barida. She didn’t approve of my relationship with the boy. She felt he played too much and would teach me some bad manners, which I would take back to town, when my short visit came to an end. I knew that if my friend, Barida had seen her, he wouldn’t bother to come back to finish the game.
“What happened?” She’d been staring at me all the while.
“An old man came here.”
“What old man?”
“I don’t know him,” I shrugged, took a seat by her on the mud pavement and proceeded to describe the man to her.
“What did he want?” Her voice had a note of concern in it. Or was it fright?
“He wanted a drink.”
“Did you give him?”
I looked down and caught a large black-and-red ant: “Yes. Who’s the man?”
“Don’t worry about him,’ she said, a thoughtful expression on her tired face. A moment later, she heaved a sigh, got up, and went inside.
I crouched behind the door and waited. I knew Barida would finally look behind it when he had exhausted his search. Maybe he knew I was there already and wanted to look there last, just to heighten effect. I listened to his approaching footfalls and braced myself for the eventual cry of triumph when he finds me. But, at the last minute, I heard him pause and directed his footsteps towards the door. And then I heard him speak:
“What do you want?” his voice was harsh and impatient and appeared to be directed at someone outside the hut.
“Water, my son. I’m thirsty.”
The voice, dry and barely audible, was a cross between a squeak and a croak.
“Who’re you?” my friend’s voice challenged.
“Just a thirsty old man. Please, get me some water!”
“There’s no water!” I heard Barida declare.
By now, I had left my hiding place behind the door and was standing, timidly behind my friend, who was standing a few yards away from a very shriveled, ancient-looking man. I immediately recognize him as the very same person I had given a drink several weeks before. Our eyes met and I received a shock. There was this curious and menacing way he regarded me that sent a tremor down my little frame. All the while he tottered there talking to Barida, his gaze didn’t leave my face.
“Go away, old man; didn’t you hear me say there’s no water?”
I tried to call Barida’s attention in some subtle way and to warn him to be careful with the old stranger. But either he was too carried away to hear me or I my voice, muffled by terror, didn’t carry far enough.
“You will regret your bad manners,” the old one managed at length, taking his glittering rust-coloured eyes off me. My friend stared defiantly back at him. The man turned slowly and with much effort. His crooked cane, worn smooth with age and use, tapped softly against the dry hard earth as he painfully lifted, first, one foot, then the other.
“You should have given him some water!” I whispered fiercely. “He couldn’t finish all the water in the pot, could he?”
“What water?” He retorted, turning to face me. “Who told you what he really wanted was water? He could be a kidnapper, for all we know!”
I left him and trotted the way the man had gone—a small rutted track that led out of the compound. Of course, he was no where to be found. When I went back, Barida was prone on the ground, foaming in the mouth and jerking convulsively in the dirt. I raised alarm.
Grandma didn’t allow me to leave the house all through that evening till the next day. From snippets I was able to gather about Barida, the fits stopped, but the boy remained unconscious all through the evening. There was much distress in the compound, especially in Barida’s home. Everyone hugged their bosoms and wondered at the strange illness that had befallen the boy. Grandma, on her quick return from the farm, had asked me what had happened. I had told her. There had been that inscrutable look on her face, and then she had ambled over to the hut in which Barida lay, about thirty metres away. Moments later, an agonizing wail rent the air, accompanied by several short howls and numerous voices talking at the same time.
Alone in a dark house, with only a rusty lantern for company, I mused over the events of the past couple of weeks. I was overcome with terror. I wondered if it would have made any difference had I told my friend about the old man when he had first visited. I was distressed; I remembered Barida’s glazed eyes, clenched teeth, and fist and feet curled into painful balls. I prayed the week to run out quickly: my mum was to come and take me back to town. I stretched out on my bed, and tried to go to sleep.
I heard a dry cough and some movement outside. I kept still and listened. My heart froze to a stop. Shuffle of feet, muffled voices. My hair stood on end and I could feel the goose pimples all over me. I opened my eyes. Grandma was just shutting the door. With her was Uncle Bemene. They spoke in low tones, then Uncle Bemene opened the door and left.
Presently, a fresh wave of howls and wails pierced the still night air. It was a cacophony of both adult and children voices. It kept on unabated for several minutes. I turn to Grandma, but she had turned her face away and was ambling towards her room. It was then I knew I would never see my friend, my brother, Barida, again.