A QUIET LIFE

— Storytime Online —

There was another uproar of laughter and slight whooping and cheering in the classroom. Akachukwu was at it again, feeling smug of himself whilst making joke about me to the class, while I sat quietly at my desk by the window at the back (where I fancied scribbling faraway, cursed poems and gothic tales, in a quiet poorly lit room), feeling very much irked by his occasional scornful smirks at me; his grandioseness. But I suppressed my facial expressions so that there was no sign of glowering (which had always been his motivation) and managed a grin hoping it wouldn’t appear  menacing, as it were in my mind.

“So, Mpa, how does monkeytail taste?” he asked with a tone that suggested another cold jest.

Akachukwu gave me that name, “the youngest old man” or “mpa” which had turned into a gratifying mockery over time, because of my habit of perching at one end of a bench with hassling old men at Onye Uno’s tavern (who paid little or no attention to my presence) whilst I gulped shots and shots of gin, monkey tail and dogoyaro like it was no man’s business till I was drunk and having vertigo and swaying.

I was just sixteen, but I had begun deriving pleasure from drinking. One day, into the week I started visiting the tavern frequently, Akachukwu said of me that I had borrowed the tuft of beard in my chin from the old men at the tavern;  it was another big, funny joke that cracked everyone up.

— Storytime Online —

Onye Uno’s tavern was a more quiet place than most of the taverns in the community, perhaps because it was situated under a big Gmelina tree, where the only noise that seemed to disturb the tranquil of the tavern were the pleasant, occasional thuds of Gmelina fruit and twigs on the tin roof. The tavern was enormously ventilated by the whirling of tender, whispering wind that rustled the leaves, and felled the dried ones. The price of a shot of gin was not inflated unlike that of some taverns was, because of loud music, and yet they sold bland spirit (though majority didn’t notice some spirit drinks were bland; I only did by the virtue of regular drunkenness).

“Go and ask your father, we drink together, he can explain better,” I blurted. There was a startled, grave silence in milliseconds, before another laughter erupted, louder than ever. Akachukwu was taken aback, I had never retorted before, I had always cowered and acted foppish as though his insults were nothing but mere jokes. But that day’s standing-up-against-him took me unawares, too.

In my side vision, I could see Neto’s mouth thrown open and there was this great astonishment in her demeanor, with the way she clenched a pen and something else in her hand that I was sure were those objects and her palm would be clammy in the end. She would say later, “You shouldn’t have said anything.” Just then, it dawned on me the loathsomeness of my action. That the ndo that would come afterwards as a result of this action, was the kind of sorry that would be engraved with so much pity.

Akachukwu was stout and beefy, with over-flexed muscles all over like a bouncer (the stripper’s club kind of bouncer). He breathed heavily and sprang in his gait. I was no match for him—I mean nobody in the school was. Not even our predecessors. But despite his muscular deficiency, he was every girl’s fantasy and our community school’s sport champion, a very reliable athlete in track and field events.

His chocolate complexion was shiny and attractive. And he was cognitively not doing bad at all. But to me, he was a monster! An emblem of disgust. A story of his that never seemed old, whenever told, was how he had beaten up a male corper with a cane, overpowered him and fed him with dust, and was later given two weeks suspension from school.

Akachukwu ambled towards me and asked “Isi gini, what did you just say?”  I fought the urge of looking up at his face, so I slouched over my desk gazing at his splayed fingers on my desk; he was hunching over me with the meanest of look (I knew, because I could feel his warm breath on the nape of my neck). He nudged my head and repeated the same question louder.

— Storytime Online —

I went numb with bewilderment. What am I supposed to say now ?  I thought to myself, not knowing the best way to present my “ndo” in order not to look timid to the class and at the same time not to offend him further. I wriggled my fingers rapidly underneath my desk. All the supposed waste products in my stomach, lodged cold somewhere beneath my abdomen, rumbled, and suddenly I wanted to fart or better still defecate. A hot fluid dripped on either side of my crotch. My heart thrummed faster, and for a moment, I could barely feel my feet buried in my socks.

“Please,” I pleaded, sputtering “leave me in peace.”

“Okay, sir,” he said pretentiously in polished Brit accent, but cold, and walked back to his seat.

That silent treatment was the greatest threat. I knew that after school hours, I would be fed with enormous amount of sand before lunch (if I still had appetite) or gulp large quantity of water from Kpeke stream, or both.

Neto scurried to my seat and whispered, “Make sure you run home before you hear the bell.” I didn’t show any sign that I heard what she said, neither did I acknowledge with a nod because I knew I needn’t be told.

— Storytime Online —

I was almost thoughtless, but terrified mind was lost in the midst of the goading and taunting class.

Seconds turned to minutes and minutes to hours and the goading had become dreadful, but I was still quiet at my end or, more so, scared. The lessons that came after were less interesting. Soon, I rested my head on my desk and drifted into sleep, into oblivion, into the darkness that always soothes.

 The sleep did not last for long. About an hour or so, someone nudged me rudely. I jolted up to Neto’s wide eyes.

“Didn’t you hear the bell?” she asked with some sort of anger in her tone. But it was too late. Akachukwu, his clique, and some students (who were giggling and murmuring excitedly and couldn’t wait to be spectators) were cheering. They were all over; on the window, door post, and inside where I was with Neto. I gulped and wished it was that kind of fight, where one could tap out and embrace defeat.

“Please leave him,” Neto said.

— Storytime Online —

“Taar!! Albino shut up, don’t put your mouth in this o,” Akachukwu snapped, charging towards me.

Neto was an albino and was always picked on for being too pale and having hazy, blond hair that was short and kinky, worn in big cornrows. She was tall and slender, large-hipped and had onyx brown eyes and a nice set of white teeth, that sparkled — which I found fascinating.

Akachuckwu threw a heavy punch on my chest and a heavier butt on my forehead, which left me crawling for seconds to catch my vision amid the upheaval, because the class was spinning. Everyone but Neto cheered and whooped. That was the beginning of the thorough beating.

Forty-five minutes later I was alone in the classroom with Neto, fatigued, as she squashed and squeezed Onugbu leaf juice in my wounds, while I yelped because it stung. I quietly watched Neto’s pale-white hands on mine, and it reminded me of white chalk on a black board–so unblendable— and I also  imagined her nakedness; what if, after all this paleness  and whiteness, her buttocks were black?  The thought of that made me want to chuckle.

  She shot a quick glance (like she did when she was walking under the sun while her eye pupils danced endlessly) and said, “It’s okay, don’t think about it too much.” Her consolation, however, made the whole incident fresh again and I wished, for the second time, that I hadn’t been in school that day.

— Storytime Online —

***

It was dusk when I got home. I walked stealthily on the dark corridor (mercilessly engulfed with the smell of excreta), almost tiptoeing. My body was heavy with pains and my heart with agony. Just a few steps to my late grandfather’s old study, my leg collided with a bottle which fell and rolled noisily on the floor.

“George, you’re back!” Grandmother shouted from her room. George, my grandfather, whom they said died of pneumonia, had been an academic at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and a hallowed scholar–first of his kind from Umueri. I never met him. I wished I did.

 I wasn’t sure if it was one of grandmother’s senseless talks or that she couldn’t bring herself to believe her husband was dead, but for a year now, she had been rambling and living in the past.

“My brave soldier, did Ojukwu allow you to leave?” she continued.

“Nma, it’s not George,” I replied.

“Oh, Festus.”

” Not… Festus.”

“He is not back yet from his visit to his in-laws’?” she prattled.

I sighed in distress

“Uncle Festus is dead, nma.”

— Storytime Online —

“Oh! When did he die?”

She cried.

“Since 1999,” I answered, making it the seventh time I was answering the same question just in two months on different occasions.

She was quiet for a moment before she asked again, “What year are we in now?”

“2004.”

“Ewoo chim o!” she mumbled the exclamation.

“Then who are you?” she asked. I wouldn’t have answered that question if it hadn’t been for the fact that she would scream, raising false alarm to neighbors for help, that a stranger was about killing her—and that, I didn’t want.

— Storytime Online —

“Okwudili, your grandson.”

“You said who?”—sharpening her voice to scream “Biakwanu o!”

“Okwudili, your grandson!” I said, louder.

“Humph!” she sighed and didn’t say another word, as though she was processing the answers I had given. For about a minute or two, I didn’t hear another word from her room. I assumed she had dropped off, so I trudged into my room. I would love to slump on my mattress—doze off–perhaps sleep into the next morning. But I had chores to attend to; I had to clean grandmother’s room, clean her up (of the excreta), change her diaper, bathe her, make dinner, and feed her, then put her to bed.

 Later that night, in grandfather’s study, I assumed a lotus posture before a candlelight, by the big, sheeny, tawny, mahogany shelf, standing by the window; crammed with almost all kinds of books, mostly tomes (which occupied 7 or 8 inches space on each rack). I had always excitedly scanned the spines of these books on the shelf for novels to read at leisure while lounging in the parlour.

 The study was spacious, with two cushions situated across from each other (I never sat on them) on a dusty, red rug. There was a long crack on the wall by the window, which set from the lintel level to the floor and was occasionally patched by wall geckos and roaches. The study smelled musty, and it smell reminded me of old people. But I found solace and peace in there… for its quietness.

My world was in sheer darkness and sorrowfully drenched in vulnerability. As I sank in my deepest thoughts, I wondered why life had been so unkind to me, so cold. When grandmother was in a good sanity, she often said that life is not completely fair to nobody. But that moment, I was seeing completely the contrary; to me, life had not shown me even a bit of it fairness, it had simply been so cruel towards me.

The bitterness whence my  life experiences were brewed was no doubt from the bile of the most wicked god. moreso, an overwhelming feeling of weltschmerz caved in on me. The most exhausting thought of all was the ignominious episode in school.

— Storytime Online —

The next morning, the tweeting of birds and a distant honking of vehicles woke me. I found out I had slept in grandfather’s study. It was already late in the morning. I squinted at the rays of morning sun when I threw the window open.

Leaning with my elbow on the windowsill, I watched the swallows make their dives from one high cable to another and down to a lower cable  to another lower cable across the street, while enjoying the near-rythimical cooing of a dove and a cackling hen—I enjoyed the stint of serenity. For a moment, the day before was forgotten. I did not go to school that day and Neto would call at my place later to coo her endearing words on how my absence had bored her.

I took a stroll to Onye Unu’s tavern to get high with the crispy naira notes in my pocket—the last money from the previous week’s menial job. My mother sent little money that could barely cover three days- two-square-meal, and yet complained it was too much for rural dwellers like me and grandmother since food stuffs were cheaper in the village. Sometimes she never sent and would put message across to us that she had to pay rent, which often ended with, “Things are hard here in the city.” So most times it was my responsibility to cater for my bedridden grandmother and myself.

At the tavern, it was as usual a place of hassle and plenty incredible tales, cackles, slurping and smacking tongues. By the entrance of the tavern, two fairly aged men bestriding a bench opposite each other, were hunched tentatively over an old chess board, with the pawns, king, knights, bishop and a queen strategically strewn on it. Inside, talking loudly with the volume of a giant speaker in a party, was the garrulous Nwachukwu. His presence was always announced by his uncontrollable mouth.

A famous lore of his which held unto everyone’s lips like a lipstick in a long time with little amusement and disbelief was how the ghost of his brother whom was confirmed very much dead strolled out of his morgue to take things on credit from a nearby kiosk. And Nwachukwu had to pay up on the Friday they came to claim his corpse for burial, after the woman (the kiosk owner), in bewilderment and wide eyes told them, whilst swearing with anyanwu—the sun god—  and was later confirmed by a regular customer. Ever since, Nwachukwu kept on telling other incredible stories, that eventually evolved into interesting myths and laughable subjects in the tavern.

— Storytime Online —

 I found myself a seat at the extreme in a murky corner and ensconced there to place my orders. The whole place reeked of fruity aroma of gmelina combined with that of gin and smoke. With this nostalgic ambience, I would later (when I would be hundreds of miles away from there), in the throes of my addiction to alcohol, wonder what solace and coziness I had found in the midst of drunkards and layabouts, who were there to find temper and got that instant gratification from shots of gin. Just then it came to me like a whisper, This… Is not what you want, you’re lost. But I still got drunk anyways. Intuition does not stop a thirsty tongue from kissing the rim of a shot. After all one’s life could never be trouble-free.

In the evening, I took a coil of twine, a piece of old wrapper, which I knotted its ends around my neck like a neckerchief and an axe, and started out to ikpo-ugwa to fetch firewood for sale. The following day would be eke. I was too feeble because I was like a reed, but I had to and it was not at all an enjoyable walk, so I muttered as I plodded along the lonely snaky path of ezi iyi ede. But it was a day my life would change forever.

As I was seated on one of the logs in the forest, contemplating going home — daring hunger to do its worst in the next four days— I heard a rustling, not more than a stone’S throw from where I was sitting, and almost immediately came the crackling and crunching of dried leaves. Footsteps! I scurried and crouched down behind lopped branches beside a windthrow. I couldn’t figure out my sudden security essence in a forest where everybody in Umueri and the neighboring village, Nteje, came to fetch firewood on daily basis. Looking back, I will simply say I was under the spell of alcohol. Otherwise, I would have caterwauled or whistled the way we usually do to identify whomever we haven’t seen but suspect is nearby there in the forest.

— Storytime Online —

Lo and behold! Lumbering out of the direction, where vines webbed from snags to trees, was Akachukwu with a heavy bunch of firewood on his head, sweating. There was a sudden surge of anger within me that made me seek revenge.  I could almost detect the tiredness in his face, but like they said, every dog has his own day. Without thinking or rethinking and without further waste of time, I swiftly leaped out of my hiding place, which was just five feet away and gave him a two-hand, forceful push from behind. His burden fell backwards, while he made a raucous sound and fell heavily with his stomach on the ground.

 While he was still groaning, I made to run, but… do you remember that same intuitive, whispery voice? Yes, that voice, it whispered again : “Wait and finish what you have started.”  Just then, he rolled over the ground with misty, red eyes, with the mixture of that look on his face when he pounced on me the previous day in class. I saw a stick, sunk deeply in his lower abdomen and his palms already soaked with blood.

 I was at first horrified and panicked but with that look on his face, I had to do more. I reached for my axe which was leaning against a log. Gripping it firmly, I struck his forehead and he dropped. The sharp sound of his skull against the sharp edge of my axe was faint and yet loud. Now his eyes were open but were no longer moving or blinking.

He was dead, with the streak of tears running down the side of his face to his ears, mouth agape. I further hacked his head, neck, chest and other places which I do not wish to recollect. I buried my axe beneath the earth, and hauled his lifeless body to a place of less cynosure by a riparian and placed heavy logs and twigs on him on the soggy ground, so that he could not be seen easily. I didn’t know why I had to do that—but I did it anyway, with neither panic nor doubt.

At night, for the first time, I sprawled on one of the two cushions while I smoked. Fireflies flitted around the flickering flame on the candle joyously. Akachukwu’s parents and friends must have been searching everywhere for him by now— a boy who had gone to fetch firewood but would  never return. Throwing back on that moment, I had smirked scornfully. The tiny blobs of blood on my leg had dried up and were slowly changing it colour from red to dark brown. I prayed nobody had seen me, which later turned out nobody did, and I graced in it. I knew that when his body was finally found, there would be so many tears, lots of eulogies (like he was a saint).

I knew his family would insist on consulting an oracle at Ezi-agulu or Oruma, to know the cause of their son’s death or leave the case under the jurisdiction of a powerful deity (especially Olomankilisi Aguleri) so that the fight would be between me and the spirits.  But I have ripped, chewed and swallowed my heart. What was the worst that could happen? Death is the ultimate. And weeks later, after my grandmother’s death, I would pick few of my belongings and join my mother in the city, where I hoped to find a quiet life.  And later in my  life I would scribble this boring story and read it to my dearests and brethrens and observe their demeanor for any sign of suspicion, so that I would grin and hide the authenticity of this story like it is just a piece of art work.

Nobody would ever suspect I committed that hideous crime, even at Onye Uno’s tavern, in the subsequent days, not even one person would throw a suspicious glance, despite my paranoia. But for the rest of my life, I would travel from place to place restlessly with paled face and shadowed eyes, drinking and smoking, looking over my shoulders, beating around the bush whenever I wanted to lift this burden of guilt off my heart and at last would not be able to utter one word of what I have done, and haunted by Akachukwu’s horrified face in his final moment. I would later be a bipolar patient and would take counseling sections.

— Storytime Online —

I doused my smoke, blew out the flame on the candle and hobbled to my room.

Author: Onyebuchi Nwadu

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