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© 2005 - 2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas.


My bag was dragging on the ground.

"Tss, sister," someone said. "Donít lose your money, oh."

Omnipotent, omniscient, only sometimes. What kind of a god would allow that to happen to Ayo? I walked down our street without caring about the potholes. People were hurrying over to the scene, just to see. I passed a woman selling cigarettes by kerosene light. Her head-tie was pushed low over her forehead and she shooed mosquitoes away with a small raffia fan. Had she not heard? The mosquito coil on her display box sent up smoke. I squeezed my stomach to ease the pain inside and realised I was walking with my arms wrapped around my waist.

Ayo was not yet ten years old.

The day my fatherís body was found, I came home from school. A group of women were holding my mother down in her room. They were the women of her former esusu group. They saved money together and my mother had for a while been in charge of taking and keeping their contributions. "Your father is gone," one of them said, before I had a chance to walk into my motherís room. She was my uncleís wife called Sister Kunbi. I could tell she expected me to be sad and instead she made me furious. "I know," I said to her. "He has gone to Lagos." She seemed offended that I wasnít crying. She reached for my shoulder. "This world is a marketplace," she said. "The other is home. Your father has gone home." "This is my fatherís home," I said.

I marched toward my mother. My mother was lying on her bed. I saw tears in her eyes. "Mama mi," I said. "My teacher says I should cut my hair. She says it is growing too long."

I wore my hair cropped because it was against school rules to have afros. Whenever my hair grew longer than an inch, it curled like seashells. My mother was the one person I trusted to cut my hair.

"Mama mi," I kept saying, and my hands were trembling. "Please answer me. When will you cut my hair? My teacher says I should cut it." It was a complete lie.

I walked off the main street into a dark road. On this street, there were kerosene lanterns on every veranda. Behind the houses were palm trees. Some children were playing, others were helping their mothers sell. I walked past a group of teenage boys. Nothing pleased them more than to see a madwoman. If she were naked, better still. One boy shouted, "Were! Were!" as if reading my thoughts. The rest of his group giggled. I ignored their taunts and carried on. At the end of the road, I spotted another boy crouched behind a rusty oil drum, by a small rubbish dump. This one was a young boy. He rubbed his eyes as if heíd been crying. His eyes caught the light of the kerosene lanterns. His head was perfectly round and his nose was small and pointed.

"Ayo?" I said.

I veered off the centre of the road and walked towards him.

"Ayo, is that you?"

My footsteps quickened. The boy ducked behind the oil drum. "Ayo," I shouted. The jeering boys fell silent. Everyone watched as I ran to the oil drum. No one but me could see the thin legs tucked behind it. I reached for the legs and knelt by the boy.

"Look at you," I said. "Where have you been?"

He smelled of human waste and orange peels. I rocked him.

It was Ayo. He had run away so his mother wouldnít kill him. He had been jumping on the septic tank when the surface gave way. One of his legs went in and he managed to scramble out. I lifted him and ran back to our street. I kept dropping him because his body was too long to carry. Eventually he ran by my side. I held his hand to guide him.

"Your mother will be overjoyed."

"She will beat me."

"No, she will be so overjoyed to see you. Run faster."

"She will beat me."

"She canít. She thinks youíre dead."

"She will beat me until she kills me. Sheís warned me before."

"Your mother loves you. You donít know how much. Tonight is not like before. Come, letís hurry."

The spectators in our compound didnít even know it was Ayo when we walked through the gates of our block. They made a path for us because we both smelled bad. It was Mama Chidi who recognised Ayo first. She was coming down the stairs, on the way to her flat to check on her family. She jumped and her glasses almost fell off. I had to remind her about the baby on her back. She ushered Ayo and me up the stairs into his motherís flat saying, "Hallelu, hallelujah!"

Mrs. Durojaiye was sitting in her chair, surrounded by the women who were comforting her. The smell of the septic tank was in her flat. She was still wearing her torn nurseís uniform. Ayo walked through the doorway and she collapsed on the floor when she saw him. Her hands were on her head. She was gibbering and I couldnít understand what she was saying. The other women watched with their mouths open. Ayo crept into the circle we made around him. His mother was by his feet now. She held his legs and began to sob. At first Ayo was stiff, as if he was not used to such tenderness, but his motherís hold tightened and he finally bent to place his head on her shoulders.

No one said a word for a while, and then Mama Chidi laughed. She laughed so hard she forgot the baby on her back, as usual. The other women shook their heads in awe. Ayo was alive, here, in this flat, in this block, on this street, in this part of Lagos. If I had brought in a dead body, if Mrs. Durojaiye were beating Ayo for straying, they would have known what to do, these grief mongers: beg or wail. But to see Mrs. Durojaiye cuddling Ayo, they were not used to that. Mrs. Durojaiye raised her face. "What happened to him?" she asked.

"Let him tell you himself," I said.

Her eyes were as red as tomatoes. I, too, was crying. 

Swallow  will be published in Nigeria by Farafina, April 2008.



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Grief Mongers,  from the novel "Swallow" by Sefi Atta