Free Rice by Molara Wood
I chose him from a pack that jostled for the attention of women shoppers.
“500 naira.” His bare feet were caked in mud. Loose threads dangled from shorts adapted from old trousers. The breeze had puffed his shirt into a deflating balloon on the thin body. He was coated in habitual dirt.
“250,” I haggled. A taxi would have cost much more, but taxis were off the roads because of the fuel shortage.
“No, Madam. 400.” Particles fell onto shoulders as he scratched his head. I stepped back. His hair was flecked with sand. Rheumy yellow eyes made me wonder if he had Apollo, the local conjunctivitis.
“300 naira – last offer.” I feigned disinterest and glanced at other load-carriers on the wretched file.
He caved in. At the stall, the trader and I heaved the sack of rice onto the squatting man’s head. He staggered under the load. I feared for the rice. At 6,500 naira, it had not come cheap.
“I can carry it.” The load-carrier read my thoughts. “I’ve carried bigger.” He weaved to steady himself as he rose to full height, neck veins bulging from the strain.
“Don’t worry,” the trader assured me. “These fellows are strong as mules. And they’ve got families to feed.”
I ticked Rice off the list of things to buy for my fiftieth birthday party, and set off with the burdened man across the bridge. A queue of cars, trucks and buses snaked down the main road, tailing from a petrol station. The sun beat down on vehicles honking, hawkers calling out wares, and ice-lolly cycles chiming their bells. Sweat trickled down my back. I’d never have needed a human mule if taxis were not stuck on petrol queues, I thought.
A deafening splash, and I froze. My load-carrier had disappeared, fallen off the bridge. The river lapped violently around the brown sack below. No sign of him. A scream escaped me. I hurried down the side of the bridge and passers-by followed. We spotted the man’s head bobbing in and out of the water, arms flailing. Not a swimmer, he was being borne away in the fast flowing river. Men dived in.
“Save the rice, don’t save me!” the load-carrier shouted. He tried to tread water, away from the rescuers. “I can’t pay!”
“I won’t make you pay.” My slippers flew off as I ran alongside the river. “It was an accident, I know this. I’ll even pay the 500 naira you wanted!”
The current carried him on, near a rocky stretch where the water dropped dangerously from sight. He managed to cling onto a rock, but seeing one rescuer approach, he let go.
“They are trying to help you!” I cried.
“Save the rice!” The river swallowed the load-carrier’s voice as he went under.
The last rescuer came out after twenty minutes, dripping water. The sun went behind the clouds. The temperature dropped. People asked: Who was the man? Did I know him? I shook my head, my tongue heavy in my mouth.
A shout jolted me. Someone had spotted the sack, stalled between two rocks. Many waded in and soon after, pulled the big, soggy lump onto the riverbank. But I could only think of the load-carrier’s legs buckling and tripping over the edge of the bridge, moments before the splash. I turned away. The crowd surged past me, drawn by the prospect of free rice.
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