By Ter Injo Lawr
The three children emerged from a footpath onto the road ahead of the man who looked like their father, their light complexion, long aquiline noses and thick woven hairstyles differentiated them from the crowd of mostly dark skinned people who thronged the road.
Each of them carried a basket made of raffia; their father marched behind them with a bigger basket, though his was draped with a cotton wrapper preventing anyone from seeing its content through the wider perforations.
Manji, a tall youngster and the only dark skinned of them hobbled a little behind on account of his protruding belly and the attention which Muri; the chimpanzee who balanced on his shoulder drew from the crowds. The chimpanzee wedged a small Congo drum under his armpit, upon which he struck a small wooden stick at intervals, making musical sounds as they went along. Several disorderly children followed them from a safe distance, making faces and taunting Muri as they left a hail of dust in their stride. Muri ignored the children, only glancing indifferently at them once in a while.
A few hundred meters to the Market, Omo instructed the children and they dutifully laid down their baskets under an umbrella tree and rested. The taunting children who had been trailing them sensing that the family had stopped, halted, gradually retreated and kept a distance.
Omo bought bread and Soya milk from a hawker and they all ate happily. As they ate the regular market goers passed by, moving in various directions, while a few hawkers loudly called out their wares in hope for patronage.
The family waited for the market which had opened for only a few hours to peak, as it was always better to operate when the buying and selling was at its highest points. As they waited, the hustlers discretely appeared, hardly exchanged greetings with Omo, and then briefly discussed with Manji before proceeding ahead towards the market.
Omo despised the hustlers who had informally become part of his Circus when Manji had joined two years ago, but there was nothing he could do to separate Manji from them. Manji owned Muri; the Chimpanzee that normally attracted larger crowds with funny dresses and acrobatic display, and which had seriously increased their success. And of course the hustlers regularly volunteered what they claimed to be one quarter of their earnings after each show, and the money was almost always more than what spectators willingly contributed based on the thrills of their performance. Omo had realized long ago that he could live with them, though he avoided any direct dealings with them.
After a while Omo got up, and his children quietly followed him as they made their way towards the centre of the market, ignoring the queer looks people who knew them for who they were gave them. On recognizing the circus most people hastily made way for them while surreptitiously pointing them out to others as cunningly as possible.
Omo located a fairly spacious portion in the middle of the market; he needed a large space since he knew the crowd would build up. They settled down and Muri handed over the Congo drum to Manji who began playing it. Muri jumped from his shoulder and began dancing; he would twist and jump, balance on one leg for an unusually long period, then follow up with a variety of acrobatic displays that soon drew the much needed attention. Omo’s children had by now placed their boxes in a square pattern within the large circle that the bystanders had created.
Then, Muri matched up to Manji and collected the small drum and sat on it, then dipped his hands into the pocket of his gown and brought out a brassiere which he quickly fastened on to his chest. This action drew pockets of laughter from the curious crowd; Muri then brought out a makeup box complete with a mirror, and began painting his face. It was such a spectacle; a Chimpanzee dressed up like a young girl painting and making up its face, and the crowd loved it.
Without giving away his point of focus Omo scanned and briefly observed the hustlers as they casually positioned themselves strategically amongst the crowds, mingling freely and showing curious excitement just like other on-lookers.
Muri handed the drum back to Manji who began playing and the Chimp began dancing again. Then, without prompt the children opened the boxes.
Six huge snakes, a boa constrictor, two cobras and three pythons long and gleaming in the midday sun glided stealthily out of the boxes and all hell was let loose. Pandemonium set in; people screamed, jumped and fled all in attempt to get away from the snakes. Only an equally criminal minded observer could have seen the hustlers at work, as they crashed into people and picked pockets in that brief interval of chaos.
However, the snakes moved inwards and so the crowd though more distant, maintained their presence knowing that they were not immediately in harm’s way, and that more entertainment would come.
Two of the snakes glided majestically towards Manji and crawled onto his legs, and each went up on a separate leg into his trousers. The crowd was ecstatic, just then Manji put his hand around his waistline and stretched out the elastic bands of his trouser and pulled out the snakes from his waist, holding one on each hand. Then he began running towards the densest portion of crowd and made to throw the snakes at them. They heaved back in fright and the hustlers had another quick session.
People began to show appreciation; some threw money at them, mostly Five and Ten Naira notes motivating them to do more.
Manji dropped the snakes which quickly crawled back into the basket, and then he began another round of tricks. He brought out a gleaming sword, turned his face skyward, opened his mouth widely and began inserting the sword calmly into his mouth; it went in, all one and a half feet down his throat.
The crowd shouted in ecstasy overwhelmed by the ability of Manji to swallow the length of the sharp sword. Gradually Manji removed the sword from his throat and in quick succession caught two oranges one of Omo’s daughters threw at him, and then held the sword in one hand and the oranges in the other. He threw one orange above his head, and then with one swipe of the sword divided the orange neatly into two pieces.
Manji picked up one of the snakes after dropping the sword; pushed the head of the snake into his mouth and guided it down his throat until at last only its tail remained. The crowds went ecstatic; people shouted, screamed and jumped, some covered their mouths and gaped, while a few women simply took to their heels in fear. The pick pockets were busy at work as Manji gradually pulled it out of from his mouth.
As the crowd calmed down from the marvelous excitement of his act, one very old man suddenly started shouting as riotously as he could, it seemed someone had stolen from him and he was making a big issue of it.
“I must have my purse back.’ He demanded repeatedly of no one in particular, but making sure he was heard above all the commotion. He shouted this repeatedly without eliciting response from anyone.
“I cannot take this from anyone of you,’ he shouted again after an interval. ‘I must have my pension money and all contents of my purse back or I leave you to Karma. I am saying this for the last time.” It began to look like the old pensioner had suspects in mind, for he directed his anger and pointed his crooked finger towards Manji and Omo who were in the centre of the circus, and not at the crowds from amongst whom his pocket would most likely have been picked.
“I know you are all the same, no problem, I must leave. But one by one you will pay dearly for playing these wicked tricks on an old ex-soldier like me.” He moved backward, bent down and made an inscription on the ground, spat out the mashed kola he had been chewing to the inscription, touched his finger to the mashed kola in the inscription, brought it up to his mouth, pointed it to the sky, swore, and then left the market with anger still visible on his withered face.
Manji again picked and beat the drum and the monkey danced again to the delight of the crowd, but he soon dropped it and picked up his sword, the old soldier and his threats now gone with the wind.
He removed his shirt, then used it to wipe sweat from his face and on his large protruding belly, and then picked up a long cane of the sugar plant and used the sword to rapidly cut the Cane into smaller bits, once again showing the crowd the razor sharpness of its blade.
Then, Manji placed the sword on his belly and ran it swiftly across; left to right, back and forth and then with a grin on his face waited for the reaction from the crowd. At first, a thin whitish line appeared on his mid section, it gradually turned crimson and finally bloody. Suddenly, a deflating sound of air escaped his belly and his intestines accompanied by other internal body organs and juices emanated gently out of his body, releasing a heavy decaying odour into the environment.
At first Manji saw the usual expressions of surprise on most faces in the crowd, which he was used to. But then unexpectedly noticed shock on the faces of Omo and the children, who were used to his stunts. And then, following Omo’s gaze and looking down upon himself; he saw the damage he had caused, just as he sensed the sharpest and most severe pain he had ever felt.
The crowd went hysterical, every one took to their heels and the show ended abruptly. Omo moved towards Manji, but the spilling mixture of flesh, blood and some digested food shocked him to a standstill a little distance away.
Manji tried containing the spillage using his hands without success for a while until overwhelmed by the anguish fell heavily to the ground. Omo commanded the children who picked their baskets and hurriedly away, in order to avoid any business with the Police, leaving Muri who stood with his benefactor till death.
Omo knew that Manji could only die. How many times had he warned him about the hustlers and the nature of their trade? And to imagine them stealing from the sinister looking old man who had thrown curses. As far as he was concerned and as the whole crowd could bear witness; the damage had been self inflicted, a man had torn open his stomach with his own hands.
Later that night, Omo dispatched his children to their mother, he still vividly remembered the several warnings his mother-in-law had given him about snakes and the downfall of man even at creation and had advised him to find a better trade. He quickly packed the four baskets with their usual content with the singular intention of leaving town and the calamity behind; the singular misfortune had changed his course in life.
He decided move to a bigger city, and with time establish a new circus there with better prospects.
He covered the boxes with a light cotton material so as not to draw attention to their contents. He had been turned down several times when looking for transport if by accident any passenger discovered the nature and contents of his boxes; because as soon such a passenger drew the attention other passengers he was always rejected.
He was the last passenger to board the Peugeot 504 Estate, and the driver with no idea of his luggage charged him a fare, which he paid and they soon embarked on the journey.
Halfway through the journey they had a head on collision with a Mercedes 911 lorry. The lorry’s weight compressed half of the Peugeot, instantly killing four of the seven passengers. Omo was one of the three surviving passengers in the backseat, their positions behind the others having prevented them from more severe impact, but they were trapped in the wreckage.
Soon enough sympathizers gathered other road users also stopped by to offer help. Then the snakes escaped from the boxes and spilled onto the road and on sighting them, the helpers took to their heels and abandoned the scene in fright. It seemed the snakes sensed the danger their benefactor was in, and so they formed a protective ring around the spot.
Omo and the two surviving passengers remained effectively trapped in the vehicle with varying degrees of injuries, one of the men was hysterical with pain; screening and shouting about his legs which though mangled and bleeding were firmly wedged within the wreckage.
Omo had a deep cut and was bleeding on the head and his legs too were trapped, and so he could only moan a little; was disoriented and did not realize where or in what condition he was.
The crowd decided to find a way around the snakes, when they began throwing stones at them, the snakes simply crawled back into the vehicle. The hysterical man on sighting and feeling a snake gliding across his damaged legs suddenly kept his pains, overwhelmed by chilling fear of the reptiles crawling all over the wreck.
The sympathizers were in a real dilemma, they could not help the trapped people, they could equally not throw stones towards the vehicle and none would dare to move any closer.
They exchanged ideas and opinions, it was bad most of them agreed for anyone to travel with live snakes in a vehicle, but others countered reasoning that perhaps those were the articles of the owners’ trade, all agreed however that the consequence as it stood was bad.
The big cut on Omo’s head continued to bleed, and he was dizzy and giddy and could hardly see. But when one of snakes made body contact with him, an all too familiar sensation passed through him and in that brief instant he realized he was trapped in an accident and the distant voices he heard were discussing his snakes, and how they had obstructed the extension of the help that should have been theirs. He thought again of his Mother in-law with his last breath as he uttered a frightening guttural sound which was a signal of liberation to the reptiles. The snakes scampered excitedly causing another round of fear to the sympathizers who further retreated away as the snakes also fled into the nearly bushes and freedom.
After a reasonable interval of contemplation, the crowd summoned courage and moved towards the vehicle, only to discover that all occupant of it were already dead.