I recalled being woken up by the cold wind that came bustling in through the cracked wooden window. I stretched out my legs and drew the cotton wrapper over my lithe body and wantednothing more than to go back to sleep but I was already awake so I went over to the kitchen where mama sat preparing food for that day. She was a very robust woman my mama, with surprisingly straight legs and brown skin. I had always felt unlucky because my legs were slightly bow shaped even though everyone kept saying they were legs meant for playing football. I doubted that and never attempted the sport.
Mama sat on a low stool near the timid fire as she heated the left over vegetable soup from the previous night. Her head went up sharply as she heard me come into the kitchen dragging my wrapper behind me.
‘’Nicodemus are you awake?’’
‘’Yes mama. I could not sleep anymore.’’
“Where’s Ruth?” She asked of my older sister.
“You know she never wakes up early.”
Mama smiled and dragged a stool slightly bigger than hers from among the fresh firewood kept in a corner and placed it near the window that was slightly ajar. It was getting brighter outside and I could clearly see the water running down the slope of the compound. I placed my hand on my chin and watched the rain drops fall on one another creating flowery patternsas they jumped up as if excited about something. I remembered the pawpaws I was supposed to get from the farm and became sad. If the rain had chosen not to come down that morning I would have been at the farm trying to pull down two ripe pawpaws with a bamboo stick. A slight gust of wind came through the window and I sneezed.
Mama quickly said ‘’Sickness be far away,’’ and made the sign of the cross.
‘’Nicodemus come closer to the fire. I don’t wantyou to catch a cold.’’
‘’Yes mama.’’ I moved closer to the warm fire and sneezed again. ‘’Mama,’’ I called.
‘’Is it true that Esther’s brother is coming from the city to take them away?’’
‘’Where did you hear that from?’’
‘’From Peter.’’ Peter was Esther’s brother and was the same age as I was.
‘’It may be true. I don’t know.’’
‘’If Esther is going away then I must follow her.’’
Mama started laughing and I wondered why. It was the truth. I had plans in the future for Esther and me. Although I was just ten years old I knew she was going to be my wife
someday. And if that was going to happen I knew I had to be with her every day to protect her from other boys because she was too beautiful. She could be snatched away at any moment.
Esther was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She had big brown eyes, fair skin, and a smile that always played around her thin lips. Her hair was brown and short but it only
enhanced her beauty. She was my best friend and everything about her made me feel happy all the time.
‘’Your uncle is coming this morning from the city. Don’t leave the house until he arrives.’’
I watched as mama pound the yam on the low wooden mortar. The mortar with its cracked edges and blackened exterior was older than me but the pestle had been changed twice. When she was done, she served my portion in a small bowl and served Ruth’s in another. As I ate, I recalled what Teacher Festus had told us in class the previous week. He had told us that eating fufu for breakfast was backward, and dangerous to our health. He told us to eat fruits and tea instead, that the result will be seen. I hissed and swallowed another morsel of fufu.
Fruits were not going to fill my stomach. Esther who sat close to me in class had whispered to me that Teacher Festus’ favourite food was fufu and bitter leaf soup, morning, evening and night. She said he only said so and so because he wanted to act like a white man. A shameful thing.
Ruth trudged into the kitchen as soon as I started cleaning my mouth, my bowl completely empty. She greeted mama and threw a frown my way then proceeded to sit on a worn out mat on the floor. Mama added more soup to Ruth’s soup bowl and joined her.
‘’Mama just told me Uncle Bernard is coming today,’’ I said. Ruth frowned some more.
‘’What’s wrong?’’ I asked her.
‘’Nothing, I just hope he doesn’t come with his evil wife.’’
‘’Keep quiet Ruth. Do not call people names behind their backs, especially your uncle’s
wife,’’ Mama shunned her. Ruth did not give up.
‘’But you know it’s true. The last time she was here, she treated us as if we were shit that
comes out from people’s buttocks. She said our house smelled. All because she came from
the city she acted as if she was bigger than us. I don’t like her at all.’’ This time mama could not say anything. She only sighed and resumed eating.
‘’I hope she doesn’t come,’’ I said hoping to join in the collective dislike for my uncle’s snob of a wife.
‘’Is it true your final exams have been cancelled Ruth?’’ Mama asked.
‘’Yes mama. We have to wait for some time before we can write it.’’
‘’What does that mean?’’
‘’It means that I’ll have to wait for some time before going off to the girls college in Ano. It may even be until next year.’’
‘’God forbid it. You will go this year.’’ Mama sighed again and lamented.
‘’When will this useless fighting be over?’’
‘’It will be over soon. We can only hope and pray,’’ Ruth answered.
When Uncle Bernard came later that morning, Ruth was ecstatic because he had had shown up without his wife and had bought us a thick loaf of city bread. Mama offered him some food but he politely refused saying he ate a lot before he came. He and mama sat in front of the house. The seemingly incessant rain had stopped falling and the sun struggled to find its way from behind the clouds. I could hear them talking out loud. No one bothered to speak in whispers.
‘’You and your children have to come with me to the city,’’ Uncle Bernard finally said after a few formalities. I could see mama’s legs crisscrossed and her head lowered as if paying homage to an unseen person in front of her. She did not answer immediately. When she did, she slowly brought up her head. ‘’Your offer has been heard and is greatly appreciated but my children and I cannot leave. I cannot leave my husband’s house or his farms unattended to. We are one of the lucky few whose farms has not being ceased by the government or taken up by Kertiyu village.’’
‘’But you can’t stay here anymore,’’ Uncle Bernard said still trying to persuade mama.
‘’There are rumours that the government will withdraw its soldiers soon. What will you do when the things start to go bad? Eh? What will you do?’’
‘’We will survive.’’
‘’How?’’ Uncle Bernard was getting frustrated.
‘’Even if I agree to go with you, what will I do in the city? I did not go to school. I don’t
know how to read or write.’’
‘’You can continue your trade. I will help you.’’ Mama was not convinced. I wanted mama
to consider the request, just in case Esther and her family moved to the city so that I would be in the same vicinity as her. I decided it was time to go see her. I wore a clean shirt and shorts before heading to Esther’s house. Kertiyu village and ours were at war and had been for a long time. What started it all was land ownership. Disputes arose everywhere on who owned the lands at certain boundaries and not too long after, the lands in both villages were being fought over. A few people had to die before the government stepped in. That was two years ago and the soldiers still patrolled certain areas to keep the peace. I wondered why the land could not be divvied up to pacify
everyone. I met Esther in front of her compound. She was walking with a slight limp.
‘’What happened to your leg, Esther?’’ I asked in an alarmed tone.
‘’A chair fell on it. But it’s better now.’’
‘’Are you sure?’’
‘’Yes.’’ She smiled and I was happy. ‘’You’re always worried about me Nicodemus. You
should care for yourself too.’’ She told me pointing at a few of my scars. I laughed at how
true her words were.
‘’Where’s Peter? I haven’t seen him for the past two days.’’
‘’He’s in the city with our brother.’’ My eyes widened in surprise and my heart began racing without warning. It felt as if my worse fear had just started its slow ascent to the surface.
‘’No one knows about it so let it be a secret between the two of us.’’
I nodded and asked, ‘’why did you not go with him?’’
‘’Mama wanted me to stay. It’s not permanent. Peter will be back soon.’’
‘’Ok.’’ I said feeling a warm ray of hope.
‘’Let’s go to the river side.’’ She said.
I followed her. Whatever she told me, I was always ready to do. After all she was
going to be my future wife. When we got to the river side, there was no one there. The
water’s current was high because of the rain, making it unfit for swimming. Esther went close to the huge washing boulder with a flat slanted top and sat down. This was the only enormous stone available to the women who liked to wash at the river and it usually caused quarrels among them. Esther beckoned me over when she saw I was hesitating.
‘’Nicodemus, ‘’ she called. ‘’Come.’’ I moved over and sat beside her not knowing what to
say. Only one question remained glued in my mind. I wanted to ask her but I was afraid I
would not like the answer. She did not utter a word too and kept on swinging her legs back and forth.
‘’Papa may say yes to my brother.’’
‘’What?’’ I asked pretending not to know what she had just said.
‘’My older brother Timothy wants us to join him in the city. Papa said he’ll think about it.’’ I bit my lower lip and forced back the tears. Esther’s father was one of those people whose land had been proclaimed by another family in Kertiyu as theirs.
‘’My uncle also asked us the same thing. He is at my house right now.’’
‘’Yes. Mama says we cannot leave.’’
‘’Why?’’ I shook my head so as not to tell her the reasons.
‘’She may change her mind though.’’ I said to give myself a little amount of hope.
‘’She will.’’ Esther said firmly.
‘’Why can’t this stupid fighting stop? We can’t even go to school.’’ I said looking at the river gloomily.
‘’It’ll surely end. Nothing lasts forever.’’
There was another round of silence. Esther started humming a tune. It was sweet and
soothing. It made me think of beautiful things and shoved the thought of the land dispute far away. She drew herself closer and placed her head on my shoulder. I felt sad and happy at the same time.
‘’Don’t go Esther. We have to stay together.’’ I blurted out.
She chuckled and said ‘’you know if my family leaves I will have to follow them.’’
‘’But we have to get married. We can’t do that when you’re far away.’’ she smiled sadly.
‘’We will surely get married. I have prayed to God.’’ She nodded.
‘’I will try and convince my mother to go with my uncle.’’
Esther threw her arms around my neck and grinned widely. I wanted to do the same but I refrained myself. She kept on humming the same tune over and over again. It deeply soothed me. I did not want her to stop. I just wanted to sit beside her, hold her hand and listen to her hum. We remained that way for a long time before Esther stood up.
‘’Let us go.’’ she said.
‘’Can’t we stay for a while?’’ I asked greedily.
‘’Tomorrow we’ll stay as long as you want.’’
‘’Do you want me to carry you on my back?’’ She laughed and walked ahead of me.
‘’Tomorrow I will let you carry me.’’
‘’We have to go my farm first.’’ I informed her.
‘’What’s in your farm?’’
‘’Pawpaw. Two ripe ones. You can have one.’’
‘’Ok. Let us hurry. Mama will start worrying and I’ll be in trouble.’’
We reached the farm only to find out that birds had taken a huge chunk out of one but the other was left untouched. I took the thick long bamboo from behind the cashew tree and brought the pawpaw down with it. It fell with a thud and Esther ran after it. She picked it up and dusted the sand off of it using her bare hands.
‘’What are we going to do now?” She asked holding the bright yellow pawpaw with her left hand.
‘’You take that one. Another will ripen soon.’’ I said looking up at the tree.
‘’No need to thank me. When we get married you’ll eat pawpaw everyday and drink milk.’’
‘’Milk?’’ Her eyes lit up.
Milk was a rare commodity in our village and only a few like the headmaster and Irish priest could afford it. It came in brown tins and was usually brought in by Okoso in his bicycle from the big market. I had had milk twice in my entire life and it had tasted like heaven.
As Esther and I walked back home, we were accosted by Ulom and his gang comprising of Titus and Josiah. Ulom was in the same class with Esther and me and was known for being a nasty bully. Ever since the school closed down, all he did was terrorize his mates in the village with Josiah and Titus obeying his every command.
‘’Esther the beautiful one.’’ Ulom said as he walked up to us, his cohorts behind him smiling awkwardly. ‘’Where are you coming from?’’
‘’I don’t want to talk to you so get out of our way.’’ Esther replied with a stern face.
‘’Is that pawpaw for me? Oh thank you.’’ Ulom laughed and moved closer. I stepped in front of her.
‘’Let us through.’’ I said firmly
‘’Fool.’’ Ulom hissed and pushed me down with one hand. I tumbled on the wet ground; my shirt was stained with red mud. I knew mama would not let me hear the end of it when I returned home. Esther held the pawpaw under her arm and helped me up. She turned around to face Ulom with every emotion she felt projecting through her face. I was afraid too.
‘’Ulom, if you do not get out of our way, I swear to God I will kill you right here and now
She said brandishing the pawpaw in his face. ‘’Do you want to die today eh Ulom? Josiah?
‘’I…I … thi..nk we sho…. Should….go’’ Josiah stuttered taking a step backward.
‘’Yes, let’s go.’’ Titus added.
Ulom came in front of me and spat on the ground. The white mucus almost landed on my
feet. ‘’You’re not ashamed of yourself Nicodemus. A girl is standing up for you. If I were
you, I’ll go and drink poison.’’ That was a lie. I felt so ashamed of myself but I did not dwell on it because the girl was Esther.
They left muttering words among themselves. Esther laughed so hard after and I
congratulated her on her act of bravery.
‘’Who would have thought Ulom would be scared of you?’’ she shook her head and smiled.
As we continued walking, we noticed a throng of people moving fast toward a certain
direction. A few of them turned to stare at us as we gingerly walked. When we reached
Esther’s house, we saw what was stirring up the commotion. The house that had stood tall and proud that afternoon was ablaze and the acrid smoke that poured from it filled the evening air. I looked at Esther. Her face had lost its earlier glow and her eyes gleamed with tears. She ran to her mother who was wailing and raining down curses on the Kertiyu people.
Her mother saw her and hugged her tightly, both of them crying. Esther’s father looked on at his burning house with a strange look on his face. It was as if he did not believe what was going on. He was surrounded by a few men who consoled him but he was lost in another world and did not pay them any attention. The onlookers whispered among themselves and dished out their personalized curses too on the Kertiyu people. Apparently, the arsonists were the family in Kerityu that wanted Esther’s father’s land. They had decided on that very day to pass a message to him by setting fire to his house when no one was around. The next morning, Esther and her parents came to say their goodbyes to mama. They were prepared to leave for the city by taking the morning lorry in Ano. Mama wished them well. Throughout their stay, I remained in my room and cried. As they left the compound, I rushed to the window hoping to see Esther. It was as if she knew I was there and she turned around.
My heart leapt for a moment. I waved goodbye but she did not wave back. I knew as if by
premonition that I was never going to see her again.
Erhu Amreyan is a freelance writer from Nigeria with several short stories notched on her writing pen. She is an esthetics and fitness enthusiast and a sucker for everything made by Studio Ghibli.