Death’s, the intoxicating sweet pleasure of sinking that cruelly arched tumescence forcefully, brutally into the uninitiated, virginal depths of good… then, hell.
The persistent staccato of automatic rifles were deafening typewriters, ruthlessly banging out the death sentences of some hapless soldiers in murderous copper-jacketed fonts, accompanied by the occasional throaty interjection of burly 105mm Howitzers, colluding big brothers.
From this maelstrom of violence broiling not three kilometres from the destroyed Mangrove hotel cellar-turned- hideout a poet, a writer such as Obidiniru might dip his quill & preserve a distilled moment of inspiration on paper.
But not tonight. Not this very moment at least.
He was hungry, ravenously so – and that, like an exquisitely malignant toothache that scandalously numbs out the quintessential pleasure of sleep, was all that mattered now. Now.
He peered at Egbo in the darkness of the cellar, his face ghostly pale in the poor light cast by the demented, dancing flickers of a huge bush fire faraway. “Those yams.”
A distracted glance, visibly an effort to peel some attention from his thoughts, Egbo offered. “Man, if those shells falling haven’t neutered you, I don’t know what else would.”
“It’s been nearly forty eight hours since your last meal.”
That last meal, eko and beans, they had found preserved in two compartments of a markedly undamaged food flask amongst the fire scorched ruins of the hotel. The partially rotted meal might have been the breakfast some unfortunate guest was enjoying when the shells started falling. When that solo single-minded shell, whistling tunelessly of a promise of hell explosively expunged metal, concrete, mortar & wood, spirits & souls from earth. Presenting a delightful smorgasbord of horrendous delicacies to mother Earth – perhaps a mangled, slow burning leather shoe (the foot still intact within, burnt black at the stump for good measure) to go with the last strangled whimper of the dying child, ma’am? But if your poison is savoury vileness, some smouldering, squishy dollop mashed between the lower, clothed cheeks of a man who lost his head to some flying, recklessly ambitious shrapnel…
“I’m really fine, Obi.”
You’re telling me. Obidiniru threw his wistful gaze out the window again.
Egbo had contracted something that invaded his body with a raging fever, stooling and puking, rashes, and peeling skin; at the moment he was quite incapable of supporting himself for long on his feet. Not eating worsened these things. He faced the stark possibility of death, Obi acknowledged. But food would improve the odds. Also he needed his strength to go in search of help, one of those refugee camps close to where Red Cross had a depot and where Egbo could receive proper medical attention; and if he would have to carry his friend, eating was…
Outside the sky, ever vulnerable with its brilliant, hair-line fractures- lightning- was an alien, livened damask of sombre colours.
Zombies gliding, he thought the clouds looked like. It would rain at some point tonight.
At some point tonight, most likely before Atlas wept great de-salted jewels against Mother Earth’s bosom, he would go for ‘those yams’.
‘Those yams’ were thick, dried vines amorously, possessively entwined around over six stakes sunk into huge mounds about two thousand yards from their hideout.
The subject of its ownership produced only a vague whiff of speculation, for apparent reasons. But it was urgent business.
The urgency resulted from the knowledge that the farm which had not been looted or obliterated during the air raid that destroyed the hotel till that God signed-sealed-and-delivered-gift of a moment was nothing short of a miracle. Likely a short-lived one. Like the stingy gods had slept off while dangling the honeycomb tantalisingly from a string before the child and would wake up soon.
The risks, his awareness of their stark vulnerability, gnawed relentlessly at his consciousness. Knowing that every step towards that farm was one towards possible death was enough cause for hesitation. It might be a landmine. One stray slug. Another shell, for Pete’s sake. But his belly, with its remonstrative assertion, would have none of that.
Better killed by mortar from a recoilless rifle than slow, torturous hunger.
Soldiers, your fellow countrymen, are bravely losing their guts & more on the battlefield while you’re saving yours for mere food. That was his conscience, its didactic intrusion.
Ah, but if one had half their military training, one would have ended the war by now, eh?
Yes but- the impassioned rebuttal- a good part of Ojukwu’s rag tag army constitutes common labourers, civil workers, ordinary men with no military background whatsoever.
Will you turn a mental blind eye to the heart wrenching reality of inexperienced boys’ scouts, teenagers compelled on the force of death to heft bolt action rifles & stalk far better armed, far more experienced death?
Or pretend that the female folk (even pregnant ones, Obi, pregnant ones!) who bravely take garri, palm kernels and water to starving civilians, dodging ‘women hungry’ soldiers, and a dozen other perils are thinking only of their own paunch?
“You’re so righteous you should go inhabit some bloody Joan of Arc body and go to war.” He muttered.
“Yams, man, the yams.”
Egbo had earlier suggested he wait till the battle took itself some other place. Not so close.
Now he shook his head, weary exasperation. “You go then if you like.”
“I’m going for two.” The other grinned. “You will owe me your life.”
He clambered out of the cellar clutching a mangled bit of flat iron he’d found in one dark, musty corner.
There was no comfort in the cold, stiff night breeze; it stank of cordite, charred remains and violence, death’s halitosis; the erratic, nervous chatter of the rifles neither close nor distant was unsettling. Doubled over, he started with loping strides in the direction of the yam patch.
So if a solo slug struck him fatally now or he stepped on a landmine, it would be Egbo – if the man survived, that is – telling the story of how even “Obidiniru his close friend was killed going after food”. Killed going after yams.
He twirled a hand about his head hastily and snapped his fingers. God forbid.
A shell exploded thunderously a few hundred metres west and he dove instinctively to the earth, heart pounding madly in his chest, his bladder near melting into urine. Dead, dismembered, decapitated, strewn like some bloody, rejected sacrifice across the large restive expanse of earth…
He lay still, pressed hard against the dark, packed soil, for a minute or two. Hoisted himself to his feet, picked his spade that had been flung several feet ahead. Covered the remaining metres that brought him to the farm. His heart swelled in relief noting the stakes impaling the huge earth mounds were still intact.
He dug methodically, quickly, pausing every now and then to catch his breath or wipe sweat from his eyes with the back of his hand. Occasionally hunger cramps would seize his guts and he’d fall back on his haunches, gritting against the pain till it passed. He exhumed four small, markedly glabrous yams. No mere feat for a survivor of two days of hunger, eh? Barely pausing to gloat over his achievement, he took off his shirt and slung it around the yams, hefted the load on a stiff neck.
Beads of rain were falling intermittently now, as though tentatively gauging what the response of Earth to a watery intrusion might be.
He was already within sight of the shelter, its mangled, crouching remains highlighted occasionally in grisly detail by luminous sketches of lightning across the sky, when the shell struck.
The sensation of impact is one of a giant scorching fist back-handing one sky-high against the intimate, feverish backdrop of hell fire, dregs of sight and sounds barely straining into one’s awareness as consciousness takes a compulsory leave of absence.
It is a place of stars. An ever-whirling bowl of madness; ink-black soup spattered with lunatic, dancing stars…a blurry picture of a childhood Saturday that cannot possibly be real, since mom never cooked breakfast throwing slices of dodo against a huge wall of blazing flames in the dining room without Simi and Rachel his siblings first groundnut-oiling them well well…or did she? A nagging question, cos I don’t want my own dodo charred black o… A giant, swarthy Frank Sinatra lengthens one arm as mighty as Stentor’s holler, across an eternity trapped between Festac and the rest of mainland to retrieve his hat, his way from the lagoon, silently dripping wet…
Obidiniru slowly rose to his feet, weaved drunkenly a few seconds and crumpled to the ground again, groaning. Egbo.
The desolate, blackened ruins of the mangrove hotel which appeared to have taken a direct hit by the shell were now again the cradle of a roaring inferno – and certainly, the grave of his friend.
His heart dissolved in an amalgam of revulsion and grief at the realisation and his eyes wept, brimming with dejected longing as they regarded the flames, like his feet could just fly into the fire and his hands salvage his friend alive.
The flames seemed animated with gleefully poisonous mockery, audaciously poking blistering tongues at the heavens, daring the threatening rain to quench them. No doubt if he did they would welcome him, indiscriminating with their eager fiery love, cuddling him passionately as he disintegrated to cinders.
Egbo. Fondly called the Lender. Perpetually impoverished because it gave him kicks, dispensing all his earnings to every Dick and Harry that asked and then living by the skin of his teeth. He would loan his life, if he figured out how to.
After a few minutes, Obidiniru gathered the yams which fortunately had not been lost with his fall. Then inching close to the fire on his belly with his precious quarry, till the flames tweaked his face hotly, he rolled a tuber of yam into the fire.