“Baba.” She is wearing a worn-out ankara skirt-and-blouse. It is patterned with many diamonds ringed together in concentric circles that swim in a red ocean of yellow stars.
“Baba.” She taps him twice. He is watching a Nollywood film with his wife and seven other children whose eyes are faithfully married to the TV. A lady is about to find out her mother is the reason behind her barrenness.
“Baba. See. See.”
He changes the channel to NTA Jalingo. Some traders told him in the afternoon, at his fish stall in the market, that there is trouble in Wukari; one said it owes to a bank robbery, another, a riot. He wants to watch the 9:00pm news and find out what happened exactly. The children look miserable. The newscasters say nothing about the matter and so he switches back to the movie channel after some minutes, to the relief of his children. His wife has been enjoying the movie, too.
“Baba. Baba. See.”
“Yedza, my baby. What is wrong?” He has turned to her, smiling. She is smiling too, as she shows him the jagged network of Biro marks on her raised palm.
His smile is broader. He carries Yedza and places her on his laps. He tickles her. She wriggles, laughing hard.
“Bring one biscuit from the other room…” Yedza is three years old but she knows that word. Her eyes sparkle. She is rolling her head gently, making squeaky sounds with her mouth and grinning widely. “Let me give my princess.”
“Yes, Baba.” Ngami kicks forward his five year old legs and leaps up from the ground, his rumpled, plain white gown almost felling him because he hasn’t taken his eyes off the TV screen. He wants to see how the lady’s mother, now rolling on the floor under the heat of some unseen fire, confesses her sins before the crowd in the market. Ngami’s reclusive dizygotic twin, Vandinyan, is seated on the ground, too, his head drooping every now and then without letting off the finger-length of saliva hanging precariously from his open mouth.
“Vadinyan, go and sleep,” says Pheetami, the third child. He is ten.
“I am not sleeping.”
“You are not sleeping? Then why is your eye red?”
Vadinyan doesn’t answer. He is now looking at the TV screen as though he has been doing so continuously for the last one hour.
Pheetami glances towards the door of the other room to see Ngami coming with the packet of biscuits. His gaze shifts to Ibrahim, his immediate elder brother, but he quickly looks away. They haven’t been talking for three days. Ibrahim took the bush meat Pheetami’s trap caught, on Friday, and sold it to a woman living two streets away.
“Jamila, did you cover the pot of soup?” She does not answer. The market crowd are about to burn the lady’s mother despite fervent pleas from her daughter.
“Jamila!” A chorus of calls.
“Ehn–ehn…what?” Jamila replies, turning around, startled.
“Mama is talking to you,” says Pepheelo, who is a year younger than Pheetami. She is giggling at her eldest sister’s surprised response. They all know Jamila’s love for movies. Yusuf, who is next to Pepheelo, once joked that the TV has two invisible hands that always cover Jamila’s ears whenever she watches a movie.
“Mama sorry. I–I didn’t hear you.”
“You and film. Heh!” She coughs out a laugh and asks again, “Did you cover the pot of soup?”
“OK. Watch your film o. Let the hand of the TV not slap any of my children because of you.” Loud laughter. Even Yedza is laughing. Yusuf just wears a weak grin. His friends call him Rambo.
She looks at Pepheelo, her daughter, for about twenty seconds. Pepheelo is not aware: she is eager to know the fate of the lady’s mother as two brothers struggle through the crowd with clubs, towards her, after she confesses that she killed their mother.
“Oooooh–oh! NEPA!” The kids are livid. Yedza begins to cry. A respected elder in the community had come to the mob scene and was about to say something before the TV screen blanked out. It is raining lightly. The rumblings in the sky filter into the room.
In ten minutes, the drizzle becomes a downpour. Pheetami and Ibrahim try to close the crude zinc and wood constructed window of the living room. Jamila and Pepheelo dash into the inner room to close the window and bring two buckets; water is trickling down from two spots on the ceiling of the living room. Yedza is screaming. She is now in the arms of her mother, who is gently tapping her on the back. The taps are not working.
A loud thunderbolt strikes, mildly shocking Ibrahim and Pheetami. They both scamper away from the windows and hit their father who is about to switch off the socket to which the TV, and DVD player are plugged. Just then, a sharp scream flies out from the inner room.
The central portion of the roof has caved in, letting through a stone about the size of Yedza’s head. It strikes Jamila’s round face, gashing her smooth forehead and the left part of her pointed nose, down through her left cheek. Her body immediately responds with a violent shake of her long legs as she grips her face with both hands, falls to the ground and lets out a piercing cry. Water begins to rush in through the new opening above, over-saturating the small, naked foam rubber beside her on which her parents and Yedza sleep every night. Pepheelo is by the door crying and shouting Jamila’s name. She can do nothing; it is a waterfall that surges forcefully down now, cutting off Jamila from her.
Pheetami is now by the door with Ibrahim, their younger brother Yusuf, and their father, a different patch of fear sewn unto each ones face as they all struggle to look into the room. Without prompting, Yusuf dashes into the room, cuts through the falling water, and crawls towards Jamila, having been felled down by the force of the water as it hit him. Pheetami and Ibrahim follow behind him and the three of them raise her up. They pause, with Jamila in mid-air, wondering how to carry her through the rushing water.
The twins are huddled up with their mother and Yedza their sister, by the corner of the living room, away from the leaks. They are clutching at different parts of their mother’s wrapper and stuffing the air with the loud cries their quivering lips are letting out. Their mother desperately wants to see what has happened to Jamila but her husband adamantly refuses, insisting she focuses on making sure the three kids with her are alright. He glances outside for the third time as he struggles with pushing one of the threadbare settees towards the door and through the rising ankle-high water in the room. The door will give way soon if he doesn’t boost its pressure against the flood of water outside that is almost at the level of the window sill.
Pepheelo leaves the doorway, quickly dries the tears hanging on to the long lashes of her small round eyes, and pulls at the end of the settee towards her, to complement her father’s push at the other end. She is almost by the door when it gives way, hitting and driving her head to the ground under the force of the rushing water which sweeps her, the door and the settee, to the opposite wall along with her father who has instinctively held fast to the other end of the settee. She is stopped abruptly in a seated position in front of the external door on that wall. Her hip bone is broken and blood is flowing from her temple. Pepheelo doesn’t scream. She is unconscious.
Her father is shouting out an incoherent string of words in between his rapid gulps of the brown water he tries to wade through to get to her.
Her mother is weeping but the cries of the three kids with her and the emergency business of keeping them above water, commandeer her attention away from Pepheelo and her father. She is holding Yedza to her chest and helping Ngami to the top of the only shelf in the room, in which the electronics, semira plates and books have found safety all these years. Vadinyan is already up there. His eyes are faithfully trailing his mother whose shoulder is barely above the water.
As the strong hands of their father try to pull Pepheelo up, the weak wooden door she rests on explodes out of the room, permitting the flood to instantly ferry him and Pepheelo to their deaths forty minutes later by a big Dogon Yaro tree straddling the full breadth of a road in the next local government. Two bodies meandering with the massive floods ravaging through the farmlands of the local government uphill, meet with his wife thirty minutes away from the house and accompany her to her death in another local government.
Pheetami and his brothers can’t cross into the living room with Jamila. What remains of the roof has caved in completely, fully blocking access to the other room. The kids struggle to lift the roof but cannot do so. Yusuf and Pheetami help put their eldest sibling Jamila, on their eldest brother Ibrahim’s stout neck and in the neck-high water, they use their feet to find and push the wooden and metal boxes in the room together so they can pile them up and stand on them. It is not enough. They all drown.
The water has submerged the shelf in the living room, and is softly hitting the cold and trembling legs of Ngami, Vadinyan and Yedza, who are all huddled up together. They have been holding themselves, tightly, for as long as they have screamed. Yedza is in between the twins, her dimpled cheeks rubbing the chubby ones of her brothers as all three sob with a roughly synchronous and alternating chant of ‘Mama’ and ‘Baba’, the two names they affectionately called their parents. A sudden surge of the water towards their direction startles them and Vadinyan hits the clock on the wall with his head. It falls into the water and descends to the ground. The time is quarter to eleven.
By 12:30am, the bodies of Yedza and Ngami lie prostrate on the floor of the living room under the weight of the shelf. The ceiling has been raped to total submission by the water. Vadinyan’s body sits by the socket, his head drooping to the side, his eyes open and looking at the clock his fair skinned hands clutch. The clock’s dial still shows the time as quarter to eleven.