Riding Monkey with Pako by Victor Ehikhamenor
It was not uncommon in my village for a schoolmate to die of high fever, measles, malaria or polio. We would march in a single file from our primary school compound to the dead pupil’s house to pray in the open yard and sympathize with the family.
Our school catechist, Mr. Michael, would make us say the rosary uncountable times under the burning sun. Our knees would dig into the hot sand while we chanted Tue Maria, gracia von, Hail Mary Full of Grace, and Our Father Who Art In Heaven until we got lost in the chant and fell into a drone. The parents of the dead child would come out and watch us with red eyes full of tears as we prayed to unknown saints.
I said this prayer for the dead with lots of energy, because I knew Mr. Michael was listening to all our voices even at such a time of mourning. If he did not hear your voice, when we returned to school he would lash you with his cane or report you to the headmaster, who would call you an “idol worshipper.”
The day we went to Pako’s compound and knelt with rosaries in our dusty fingers, I did not say Tue Maria, gracia von or any prayers. I did not see the use of the prayers anymore and did not care if Mr. Michael heard my voice or not. I buried my face in the hot red ground where I used to play with Pako, packed burning sand in my mouth and swallowed my cry. I couldn’t look Pako’s mother in the eyes; I felt them drowning me with tears.
I met Pako in Primary Four. We did not start Infant One together, but because the new headmaster, Mr. P. E. Iyoha had canceled automatic promotion, Pako got stuck in Primary Four.
Uwessan Primary School was neither big in structure nor in population of pupils; it was easy to know everybody and what they did inside and outside the fenced school compound. The teachers sometimes had to go around the village, chasing children to come register for school. Some parents would cooperate; others would hide their children because they needed them for farm work..
Pako, a rabbit hunter and a lover of the meat of the giant rat, was one of those chased from the bush to come start school. In Infant one, he was older than everybody in his class. Rumor had it that he was ten years old and already smoking SM and Gold Leaf cigarettes behind the school latrine. Nobody could ascertain the truth of this; it was difficult to differentiate between his near pungent smell and the acrid smell of SM cigarettes.
We all hunted rabbit or ate giant rats though not as often as Pako. He had all the materials to go hunt rabbits - a small hoe, short cutlass and ubata for smoking out rabbits from their holes. Pako also had a catapult for shooting down birds from high trees.
Pako did not tolerate any nonsense from fellow pupils, but he never fought within the school compound. He waylaid and set traps for his unsuspecting prey under the kolanut trees outside the school premises so the headmaster and teachers would not witness his exploits. For four years, I did not fall into his trap. But nobody went through life in Uwessan village that easy. Trouble was always waiting for both old men and small boys. Now that I was in the same class as Pako, I knew it was just a matter of time before I crossed his path.
My luck came to an abrupt end in Primary four when I refused to let him copy my answers during our first test. I’d ignored his “Pss pss…Deboy, let me see what you wrote for number two.” I wanted to remain at the top of my class as usual, because any other position would earn my mother’s wrath and a walloping with her slippers. Though my mother was illiterate, she had an uncanny way of sniffing out the truth, so I never shared my answers during exams But that resolve disappeared as salt sprinkled on water. I thought Pako had forgotten about how I treated him in the exam hall, I didn’t know he was not a boy who forgot such things. He may have memory problems with multiplication, but when it came to dealing with brats his memory was sharper than the small knife that he carried in his pocket. He treated those who disrespected him the same as rabbits, rats or birds – he beat them to submission.
I was in the midst of Thomas, Fidelis and Godday, my classmates when the headmaster said, “School dismissed!” and we shouted “Hurray!” and rushed out of the school compound. Suddenly I was alone. I did not smell the danger lurking under a kola nut tree outside the school gate, whereas the other boys had seen Pako far away and changed their course. He had a poisonous anger on his dark face, and he was bristling like a scorpion. The tribal-marks which formed the number 11 carved both side of his cheeks seemed longer than usual, and his eyes were red. He pounced on me before I could run to a safe place, where the elders would’ve shouted zorlobor- leave him alone. Not that I could outrun Pako anyway. He was the fastest runner in my school; he represented Uwessan Primary School during sports competitions. Without any further provocation he approached and blocked my path with his dust coated right foot and pushed my school box from my head. The aluminum box, with Yeti lock flew from my head as if it had wings, and clattered to the hot red earth under the kola nut tree. The contents of my box - My Reader, two Big Exercise books, one ruler, a HB pencil, carver, fountain pen and Quink ink bottle decorated the tree’s base as if I were some road side trader at the village market. I did not say a word or dare look Pako in the eyes; instead I fixed my gaze on the sand-coated nib of my fountain pen which I feared would never write again.
Pako stood right in front of me; his long shadow was as overbearing as the smell that came from his tattered patch patch uniform. I lowered myself and started gathering my belongings. The more I tried to remove the dust from my books the more they looked like I’d excavated them from a muddy pond. Fear of further humiliation displaced the anger that was rising in me. I waited for the final assault from the enemy.
Apparently Pako was not in a hurry; he knew how to disable his prey and allowed them to ferment in fear. When I thought the worst was over, I felt a stone-like knock at the center of my head, which I’d shaved the previous day so that my mother could rub medicine on the ringworm forming on my scalp. Pako had delivered his legendary koah. His knuckle rap on my bare head sounded like a gourd dashed on a rock. A million stars rushed out from my eyes and everything around me became blurry and dark .
From the faraway land that Pako’s knuckles sent me to, I heard him say, “That should clear your ears next time so you can hear me call you, stupid goat!” His voice trailed off; in my half blindness I saw his shadow move. When I looked up, all I could see was the labyrinth of threads that formed the patches of his blue khaki knickers and his raffia school bag hanging loosely on his left shoulder. Though Pako looked short and underfed, every bone in his body was strong like iron.
As I nursed my pain, I wondered where had the elders gone? Usually they’d stay in verandahs gossiping while they fanned their wrinkled brows with folded shirts. I later found out that they had gone to see the new Peugeot 504 car acquired by Mr. Clifford, the court clerk.
During subsequent exams, I did not need any knuckle raps on my head to remind me to adjust my seating position in class to enable Pako copy my answers. But I was not foolish either. To maintain the top position in our class, I’d write some answers wrong. When I was sure Pako had copied them, I’d erase them and re-write the right answers. While I got 100 percent, Pako ended up with 90 or there about. Though he was not fooled by my slickness, he was content.
The only time he had problems was during mental exercises. I could not help him with that. Mental (as we called it) was introduced by our headmaster. He would come to our class first thing on Monday mornings carrying his “Gear Thomas,” a cane made from ukan twine, ready to administer his on-the spot test, five questions for each pupil designed to test one’s ability to think on his feet. We weren’t allowed to look at our notes or use pencils to draw lines and count. Only brain, fingers and one’s mouth were allowed. Mental questions were always multiplication.
“Pako Okoduwa!” Our headmaster, smelling of kola nut and tobacco, would yell at Pako.
Pako would walk to the front of the class like an unwilling goat being led to a shrine for sacrifice.
“Two times two?” headmaster would ask.
“Four times two!”
“Are you deaf - I say four times two?” The short man who tolerated no idiocy would bark.
“Ten, sah!” Pako’s low voice would signify uncertainty.
Pako’s answers beyond “two times two” were always wrong. He had crammed “two times one ah two, two times two ah four” that we shouted everyday from Infant One to Primary Three. Multiplications beyond what we’d memorized were lost to him.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas