When we got to the center of the village an unknown night life welcomed me. Different songs came from all angles – songs for everything - praising gods, the moon, thunder and the sun. Girls whom the English language tied their tongues during school (we were not allowed to speak our native language in school) sang like birds. It was obvious that Pako was used to the night activities. He knew where to position us, amidst a group with more girls than boys. Before we submerged ourselves in the songs and games, Pako pulled me aside and whispered,
“Look, when it is time to run don’t be running like a foolish man chasing wild animals. This is a different kind of race with a purpose. When everybody is running. Keep your eyes open and follow me wherever I go or hide, you hear me?”
I was getting nervous from too much excitement. My nights were usually spent at my grandmother’s feet listening to old and scary folktales of two-headed spirits and the wily tortoise, of talking spiders and how the moon once lived on earth before a pregnant woman angered it and it receded into the sky.
We were divided into four groups, each for a game of hide and seek. Pako came close and touched me, since I could not see his eyes in the dim night; he whispered “Follow me when I run.” I nodded.
We waited for the leader’s signal for us to run, hide and seek.
“Ogbeh tu tu be ne,
onu ki kere ubha mu oooo!’
The leader’s voice echoed into the vast night, sending feet running to every direction - to dark alleys and dilapidated buildings, gardens and caves.
Pako grabbed me and we took off after two girls. Like a shepherd and his flocks, he herded us towards the dark corner behind our school. We found ourselves shaded by the large guava tree behind Primary Six. All four of us stopped running and plastered ourselves to the tree, Pako’s arms holding us until the other boys flew past without noticing us. As soon as they were far away, Pako spoke in a hushed voice.
“Deboy are you not feeling cold
- this place is cold.”
”No. I am not feeling cold,” I replied timidly.
The October night was hot and humid and I was sweating from running and anxiety. I couldn’t understand Pako’s sudden cold.
“You will soon be feeling cold,” he told me turning to one of the girls, “Josephine let Deboy cover you with his wrapper and I will cover your friend with my wrapper.”
Nobody ever argued with Pako, the two girls adjusted.
I eventually understood Pako’s plot and timidly allowed Josephine to wiggle herself into my wrapper. In the stillness of the night, apart from grasshoppers and crickets, I could hear the pounding of a heart as my mother’s wrapper enclosed Josephine and me. She was taller and bigger than me. Her breast had started to push through her blouse, and they looked like she had mangoes in her chest. I did not know if it was my heart or hers that was beating an ancient drum under my wrapper.
A soft musky scent wafted from Josephine’s face. Was she already rubbing Sensorobia perfume or is it Nku Cream? I wondered in the dark. A lingering sweat snaked down the length of my spine, lodging at my tailbone. Josephine embraced me fully and encircled me in her softness. I struggled for balance as my body began to grow roots. I felt light headed when her fingers reached my neck, like the day Pako’s knuckles rapped painful music on my head, except this was strangely pleasant. The moon above wove in and out of clouds. The entire Uwessan village stood still. Josephine and I became a single shadow, two in one.
Pako had also disappeared further into the night with Josephine’s friend to form their own shadow. I was wondering what Pako was doing with Joesphine’s friend when
an unexpected rain separated Josephine and me and drove us to our sleeping abode. But after that night, I never bothered Pako about city girls. The trees that grew mangoes and pears in the city were also grown in the village; you just had to know where to look. My dream of attending the Federal Government College receded like a dying moon.
Towards the end of Primary Six many things started happening at too fast a pace. Our headmaster excitedly said that soldiers were no longer ruling the country. He also said, the Unity Party of Nigeria won the governorship election in our state. Free grammar schools and secondary schools started sprouting overnight like mushrooms on rotten wood. We even heard that there would be a university at a small town, not too far away from Uwessan. Pako had agreed to go to one of the new grammar schools. I was happy about these new developments.
I no longer participated in school labor or had to bring handwork because I was made the general monitor of the entire Uwessan Primary School by a new headmaster. King Pharaoh was transferred to another primary school and he left with his son, Fedra Gorment. My duties as the school monitor were to make sure the black boards were blackened with charcoals and handle the ringing of the school bell. I also supervised girls who washed the new headmaster’s Honda Roadmaster motorcycle.
One Saturday my father went to Uromi market and came back with a white Raleigh bicycle with a strange golden animal painted on its side. He bought the shiniest and the most elegant bicycle I had ever seen. All the bicycles in my village were black, rusty and old. The news soon spread like palm oil on fingers. “Have you heard? Papa Deboy has bought a bicycle. I have never seen that kind of bicycle before o!” Women coming from the market and men going to the farm talked about it. I did not eat my meal of eba and egusi soup that day. Excitement filled me up. I walked round the bicycle, which was parked in the middle of my grandfather’s parlor, in-between long benches. I made sure none of the dusty children that hovered around touched the bicycle with their dirty hands. The bicycle had a small headlight and a gear. The seat was a cushion, not like the hard worn leather on old bicycles. Even the stand of the bicycle was white; the tires were light yellow, the color of early morning sun.
When my father wheeled it out to show his friends, the ken ken ken ken sound coming from somewhere inside the bicycle was music to my ears. That was why villagers called the bicycle “Kenken”. The spokes sparkled and reflected like new needles.
“I bought it at Obi’s store, you know the Igbo man that sells cutlass and hoes along Mission Road at Uromi market,” my father explained to Isumati and a man named Manager, our neighbors.
I could not wait to tell Pako, though I was sure he must have heard already. News like the buying of a white bicycle traveled very fast in Uwessan. He would have to teach me how to ride monkey style in the new bicycle. If any boy knew how to ride a bicycle it would be Pako.
Sure enough, he’d heard the news as I told him. Pako also knew all the stages involved in learning how to ride a bicycle.
“You will teach me how to ride pole!” .
“You don’t start climbing a tree from the top, a beginner like you can not ride pole. Do you want to destroy your testicles?” he was pumping out his words.
“You start by learning how to ride monkey, when your legs are long enough you move to pole, when your legs are long enough again before you can ride seat.”
The only thing Pako and I were waiting for was the opportunity to take the bicycle out without incurring the wrath of my father. A bicycle, especially a white one, was not a plaything for small boys. Once bicycles were only owned by white missionaries.
One Friday afternoon, we were let out of school early because our teachers and headmaster had a meeting at the headquarters. On my way home from school, I was praying that my father would forget to lock the bicycle. When I got home I checked to see if my father locked the bicycle. I was able to hold the handle bar and turn it right and left and move it around. Ignoring the hunger that was in my stomach, I wheeled the bicycle away from where it was parked. I let it out gently, cursing the ken ken ken ken sound, and praying it wouldn’t wake my grandfather who was sleeping in his red-cushion chair. I went straight to Pako’s house. I called him and he came out munching a mouthful of roasted yam. He broke into a smile, revealing bits of black and white roasted yam in his mouth. He shoved the remaining piece of yam into his mouth, wiped his hands in his torn school uniform and ran towards me.
“Let’s look for a smooth area. This place is not good, you will fall too much.”
We went to a lonely path and Pako held the bicycle in the carrier behind and showed me how to loop myself around the bicycle, like a monkey. My feet were placed on the pedals, which were so slippery. I gripped the seat with my armpit, and used the same hand to grab the pole in the middle of the bicycle. My left hand was on the left handle bar, and Pako said it was also for holding the brake. He started pushing me little by little and we zigzagged, almost tumbling over.
“Please Pako, I can fall down, but make sure the bicycle doesn’t fall…please,” I pleaded.
I was more concerned with the bicycle’s safety than mine. Sweat poured from my body. I was able to ride short distances before my feet slid out of the pedal, and Pako had a good grip.
We soon found ourselves in the hill that led to the village river. Pako positioned me on the bicycle, so I could perfect the monkey style on my first day of trying. I was getting it, but I was now tired. I took off my blue checkered uniform shirt, wiped my face with it and threw it over my shoulder.
“Pako, you ride, too, I’ll watch you,” I offered.
“No, this is your father’s bicycle. You should keep riding, I’ll ride some other time,” he refused.
“Pako, I mean it. I’m tired, and it’s not everyday that my father will forget to lock it.”
I uncoiled myself from the heavy metal, released the stand and waited for Pako to take over. He was still reluctant to take the bicycle. I saw flash of uncertainty in his eyes, and I understood that Pako knew the theory of bicycle riding, but had never tried riding one. His father had never owned a bicycle, so where would he have found one to ride? But Pako was a smart boy on the street; he positioned himself to ride my father’s bicycle.
He could pedal without slipping off like me, but he could not steady the handlebars at the same time. First he started peddling well, but he soon lost control of the bicycle. I was excited watching him ride monkeystyle down the hill, and I forgot to help steady the bicycle. As he sailed down the hill, he was screaming, “Deboooyyy hold the carrier ooooo!” Before I could catch him it was already too late.
Until that day, Pako had always avoided that path where the villagers had found his father foaming from the mouth. But when my father’s bicycle took a life of its own and started going to the river, for the first time since I knew Pako, he lost control. He slid into the river, and I heard the splashing of water. He disappeared inside the rocky river.
I looked in the river below; the bicycle had fallen on top of Pako. Two yellow tires and spokes spun upside down. The river threw Pako up, once, twice. I was counting. The village river where the sacred python resided did not kill trespassers at once; it would wait to see if any villager would rescue its victim. Pako surfaced for the third time, and I started shouting for help and saying the rosary Tue Maria gracia von, because our catechist had told us to say this prayer whenever we were in danger.
Between saying the rosary and shouting for help, the river threw Pako up for the seventh time. Nobody came to his rescue, and I did not know how to swim. I watched as his hand slid off the bicycle’s handle bar and he was swallowed by the red water.
I stopped saying the rosary.
Weighed down by sorrow after Pako’s death, I refused my mother’s food and could only mutter It is my fault, it is my fault, over and over again.
“Hush,” my mother said, “you did not kill anyone, the curse that killed Pako’s father never left that house. Don’t ever let me hear you blame yourself again.” My mother’s stern warning only made me hurt inside.
I heard the catechist’s voice reciting the last stanza of the novenas, which we had started nine days ago when the river took Pako. The catechist was supplicating to foreign saints for peace and comfort. I did not look up from where I had buried my face. I was listening to hear Pako’s shrill voice calling me for moonlight plays, which we had perfected with Josephine and her friend. Or to plan what kind of adventure we would carry out when we got to grammar school.
The memorized prayers were finished, and I had said none of them. I looked up, at Pako’s mother and
our eyes met. Then louder than any prayer I’d ever said to avoid the catechist’s punishment, a cry escaped from my mouth.Even now, years later, when I remember Pako like this, I feel the fierce sun of my village and taste again the bitter red sand.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas