She has been expecting him. For days on end. But she keeps calm. Like a bottled-up wine ready to burst. He has arrived. Finally. And now they are locking horns with each other. She is propped against the doorpost, backing us, holding the door ajar. We peek from inside our small apartment, from behind her. We know she is scowling at him. We know she is wagging her finger at him. To emphasize her point. Definitely. Her entire frame trembles with utter scorn. Trepidation surrounds us, our faces streaked with worry lines. We wait for him to smack her on the face. Hard, as always. (And once he shoves her aside and barges in, she swoops on him. Like a tigress. Then he gives her a gash, a bloody gash. Or two. We dread it. Really.)
But he doesn’t look like he will smack her today, even as her voice drops acid. He sneers instead. And he kind of looks unabashed. Like a man who gives not a hoot as dirt is being dredged about his secret life. That does not surprise us, though. What surprises us is he makes no attempt, not even the least attempt, to barge in this time. Like he has suddenly become a gentleman, a real gentleman.
My twin boys, she says at the top of her lungs, need a responsible father, a human being, not a dog that refuses to be castrated. And definitely not an uncaged panther that refuses to be tamed.
But, he says, I just told you I came to treat them both to a pizza.
We crane to take a better look at the colorful cardboard box. Gee, it is true. Pizza! But we are not interested. He should keep his goddam pizza to himself. Or we fling it to Warwick without thinking twice.
Tell me more about Warwick, she says, her scathing voice quaking with fury. Like she just read our mind.
Warwick? he says, noticeably poised to shove her sarcasm back to her. Well, it’s a lovely city. Beautiful indeed. Greetings from Warwick.
See, I’ll surely bring you down, Muna, she says after a moment’s silence. You think you can walk out on us just like that and get away with it? Warwick is now where your home is, eh?
His eyes are now frosted with ice. He bores them into hers. I love Warwick, he says. And you can’t do anything about it, Zara.
I can’t do anything?
There’s nothing you can do, Zara, he says, his face crumpling. This is UK, not Africa.
We shall see, she says, even if you fly higher than the eagle, or nest among the stars, in that lovely and beautiful city of yours.
He sneers again. This is London, he says, not Umukuruchi. Who cares, anyway? Not even Warwick.
She cocks her head and gives him an undaunted pose. And what’s that supposed to mean? she says. We can feel her eyes narrowing.
I no longer care if you spill the beans, he says. London doesn’t care, neither does Warwick. Not even your next-door neighbors. Everybody in UK minds their own business, you know.
She laughs a derisive laugh. It is kind of deafening. Like the raucous cackle of a fowl seeking where to lay her eggs. Look, she says, your boys already know everything. They know that some English woman, somewhere in Warwick, is heavy with child, their father’s child. Seventeen-year-olds are not kids anymore, you know. Back home, my father knows. So does yours. And the whole of Umukuruchi.
His sneer grows bigger. And thicker, too. So much so we wish we could cut it with a knife and sling it to Warwick, where he has chosen to belong. Or, better still, hurl it to blazes.
Hear me well, bitch, he says, his eyes popping with resentment. I don’t give a shit. The whole world can know for all I care. You—
She slams the door in his face and latches it immediately.
A lump jumps into my throat. It makes my heart clench with gloom. I look at my twin brother. His screwed-up face tells me he feels the same way, too.
Catching her breath, she is livid with the pain of Dad’s brazen betrayal. She turns to look at us, her flared skirt billowing around her slender legs. In an effort to make her believe we are not in the least perturbed, I paste a small smile on my face. Immediately. Yes, a faux one. My twin brother does the same. We really do not know what to say. Our shoulders lift in a shrug instead. But we hope our smiles will soothe her. Faux or not. The light, needless to say, has gone out of her life. For her eyes are two pools of misty sorrow. She blinks. And we know she feels the prick of tears. A trifling quivering sigh escapes her glossed lips. She is working hard to get a grip on her overwrought emotions, we observe. A stoic smile creeps onto the corners of her mouth, bringing back color to her otherwise wan face. Our hearts are golden once again. Candidly. So we grin from ear to ear, our eyes crinkling at the corners.
Mom, Chuma says, you really shoved it to him.
But his infidelity looms larger than ever, she says, shaking her head gently. But I’ll overcome. We certainly will.
He’s such a lousy man, suited only for booze and women, I say.
I don’t want to have a step-mom, Chuma says. You and Dad didn’t need to continue coding her name with Warwick, anyway.
It’s all right, my sweethearts . . . Now, you both must be good—and brave enough to swim against the tide.
I want to live the rest of my life in Africa, Chuma says. Like he is grumbling. London sucks, let alone Warwick.
Yes! I say, glee lurking in the depths of my eyes. Africa is it! Besides, Grandpa has not seen us yet. Ever since we were born. Just our photos.
I’d like us to fly to Africa. For good, Chuma says.
That’s exactly what I mean, boys. We’re going to live in Africa since I don’t work anymore.
With Grandpa? Chuma and I say in unison, our eyes round. Like saucers.
Yes, with Grandpa.
We’ll go away from Dad. Far, far away. We’ve had enough of his rash ways. I, particularly, will not be his friend anymore. Never again. Even if it rains fiery coals and burning sulfur. These comments spring to my tongue. But then I bite them back. At the same time, I will myself to utter them, with dauntless clarity, above the ensuing babble of excitement.
But how on earth are we going to cope in Africa? Chuma suddenly says aloud. We all know Grandpa is not cash-rich.
An eon of silence falls upon us again.
Of course he is cash-rich, Mom says. Not very much, though. But he’s land-rich. And he has a very big farm. And many farm hands in his payroll.
That makes no difference to me. I am sure my twin brother feels the same way, too. My anticipation takes a nosedive. Mom, I say, our education will suffer.
Never, Mom says, shaking her head vigorously. There are good schools in Africa as well. I’ll work for Grandpa in his farm and earn enough to pay for your tuition, both of you.
We brighten up.
Mom offers us a sunshine smile. Grandpa will pay me well, she says. You’ll see.
We lower our long-limbed frames into the long leather couch and slump down into it. We cannot stifle the sudden jolt of hope—and the excitement that ripples in our insides.
The babble continues.
Then she sits between us and, with enormous mirth, pulls us to herself. Nothing, she says, absolutely nothing, will happen to my twin babies. I promise. See, we can live without stuff, but can’t without love. She kisses us. Then, as she sobers a little, her eyes flutter. And a little tear spurts out and falls to her cheek.
* * *
The sun, blazing, hangs way up in the sky. Like a huge lantern. It bathes us in a shimmering light as the taxi bounces over the top of a hill, roaring. The driver steps on the brakes, then stops with a lurch. We are overjoyed to see ourselves at last in Africa. Like a dream, a big one. We step out and hear the whisper of scorching wind rustling the distant giant pines. Swiftly, the wind approaches us and begins to caress us and welcome us to Umukuruchi, the land of our ancestors. It is like we are being hit by the heat waves that emanate from the blast furnace of a goldsmith. Exactly the way we felt at the airport when the British-Airways plane, that gargantuan monster, lumbered to a stop and opened its jaws and spewed us out.
Mom rumbles around in her handbag. She finds a couple of the five hundred naira bills she bought with her sterling at the airport. She doles out two or so as scrupulously as any miser and slaps them on the driver’s waiting palm. The taxi reverses and speeds away, leaving behind puffs and puffs and puffs of dust. Our luggage surrounding us, we dig our hands in our pockets, take three or so steps forward and begin to gawk at Umukuruchi in the sprawling valley. Lush farmlands. Verdant trees and shrubs. Timeworn thatch houses. Shabby little huts and shacks. A few storey buildings with corrugated roof sheets. They all flank the somewhat steep, winding streets.
I look up and behold the sky. The clouds are scudding. Then I close my eyes tight. I see jolly Africans, my wonderful brethren, assembled on this very hill. They are drumming and singing and dancing. The drums, deafening, with that ancient African rhythm, send the dancers swirling. Like dervishes. They are celebrating the coming home of Zara, their daughter, their illustrious daughter who has been away for donkey years. Literally, Mom interprets the lyrics of the lively song for us:
We are proud of Zara
The little Zara of yesterday
Our beautiful Zara
For travelling through the seas and the oceans
For getting the Whiteman’s education
For producing two sons for us
Namely Chuma and Chuka
A lovely set of twins
Between whom we cannot tell
Which is Chuma and which is Chuka
We are proud of Zara
For remembering her roots . . .
Wow! Chuma says, cutting the trail of my imagination.
I open my eyes. Squinting, I follow the direction of his fascinated eyes. A vast jungle far, far away. As it looms, all we see is a miniature Amazon forest. Then farther away, a yawning river shimmers in the sun, with the city skyline inhabiting a portion of the extensive horizon.
We stride over to sit beside our mother amongst our luggage. She is adjusting her hair and make-up with a hand mirror.
Mom, Chuma says, why didn’t you tell the taxi driver to take us straight to Grandpa’s?
That question has been dangling at the tip of my tongue.
A smile spreads out on Mom’s face. Your Grandpa, she says, wants to take us home himself. He requested the driver to drop us off here.
Our shaggy brows crumple with bewilderment.
Both of you, she says, were deep asleep in the taxi when I spoke at length with Grandpa—with the driver’s phone. For decades, the driver has been the Umukuruchi Community Hall secretary. Everybody in the village has his mobile number.
Chuma and I are wide-eyed.
Grandpa? I say. But why didn’t he come pick us at the airport in the first place, Mom?
He has a lot in his farm to grapple with. But he’ll soon be—
Look! Chuma says, pointing at a sleek Land Rover approaching us. Is he the one?
Yeah! Mom says. That’s your Grandpa!
We haul ourselves to our feet and let out a whoop of joy. My heart flutters with anticipation.
The Land Rover stops and Grandpa hops out. He is much more full of beans than we have ever thought, I think. Our faces almost split in half from our giant smiles as he gawks at Chuma and I. His mouth stretches wide with a smile, then he doffs his hat and bows. And all we see is a glass-smooth crown shining in the sun. We dart to him, and he takes us into his grizzled arms. We fold into his engulfing embrace. Like we are babies again. I inhale the rich aroma of his after-shave. He holds us close, and tight, and smothers us in kisses. I peek at his weathered eyes. They are watering.
He helps us with our luggage. Then we sink our butts into the welcoming back seat. We catch a whiff of the shiny leather and glance at each other. Then there is the smell of polish. Grandpa’s Land Rover, Mom did say in the plane, was bought seven years ago. By Grandpa himself. Yet it is as clean as new. We marvel at the fact that the old man is this squeaky-clean.
He presses hard on the accelerator, and his beaming eyes, through the rear-view mirror, meet ours. We blush a little, and he averts his gaze. He looks at the mirror the second time. Our eyes meet again. And we now give him a grin, that kind that is as wide as the farmlands that roll by. He winks at us, then concentrates on his driving, seeming to know exactly what we have in mind.
Hello kids, he says, I not only polished the car. I also cleaned and polished the entire house. Everywhere. All for my lovely grandsons.
Chuma and I exchange looks again, our brows raised.
Seated in front, Mom simply looks ahead of her. She must be flashing the sweetest of smiles.
* * *
The soft light of dawn envelopes the crescent moon. Dewdrops all over the surrounding foliage. Everywhere. Roosters crow now and then. Kachi takes the lead. Our sturdy boots, to our silent chagrin, sink into the red earth. Yet he walks fast, very fast. As we follow in his wake, we feel like we are pursuing him, like the three of us are running a marathon. (Mom’s younger brother, Kachi is twenty-one. Just four years older than us.)
Take it easy, Kachi, Chuma says, trying to get hold of his breath.
Kachi stops abruptly. And we screech to a halt.
Go right back if you can’t walk fast, he says, glaring at Chuma.
But you walk too fast, I say, daring him.
He steers his glare and his frosty eyes lock with mine. I knew it, he says. My sister has been making sissies of her twin sons all along in that useless place they call London.
Rolling our eyes in consternation, Chuma and I dare not say another word. Nonetheless, I marvel once again at the rich timbre of his rather conceited voice.
You both have been here for like two days, he says, like he is grumbling. Yes, two days. And yet you have not learnt our ways, the ways of your people, the ways of your ancestors. You’ve got to run, guys. Like a deer. That’s the spirit here.
As silence descends on us, I wonder how possible it is for Chuma and I to learn the ways of our people, and those of our ancestors, in just two days.
Punctuality, he says, is—and will always be—one of my strengths.
In another practical silence we trot past some of Grandpa’s paid hands. They busy themselves with pasture and cows and goats and pigs and fowls. One cow moos, then another follows suit. One pig grunts, then two goats bleat at the same time. A couple of their feathered friends in the pen cackle. Yet the farm hands radiate the unflustered calm of the African poor.
A fat, bosomy woman turning broth in a big pot looks at me, then at Chuma. English fowls with bones as soft as biscuit, she says, pointing the big wooden ladle in our direction. The pot, precariously seated on a charcoal fire, is so big it can contain even a tall man in a fetal position. Perhaps, I think, the woman is one of Grandpa’s cooks. And she must be preparing breakfast for all the hands. The immense heat from the broth causes her eyes and nose to water. With the edge of her wrapper, that piece of cloth which has obviously seen better days, she wipes her runny nose.
They can’t even run, another woman says. She is stuffing the goat pen with a sumptuous amount of fodder.
Hey, you spineless English fowls, one middle-aged man says at the top of his lungs, waving. You must learn to run. Or, at least, brisk-walk. It’s high time. That’s the way we do it in Umukuruchi. He gives a loud guffaw, and the rest follow suit.
Suddenly, a burly fellow milking a cow begins to hum a lilting melody. He seems not to care about us. Those ones, who seem to be familiar with the song, begin to sing the lyrics, one after the other, their hearts obviously merry.
And we are pleased they have left us in peace. Finally.
Mom is already at work, Chuma says. She must be picking eggs from the chicken pen.
That means she woke up five or so, I say.
To work in this big farm, Kachi says, you must wake up even earlier than five.
She has certainly shaken Dad off, I say. And Warwick, too.
And London, too, Chuma says.
She has thrown herself into the grinding monotony of Grandpa’s farm, we can see.
She has to tenaciously hang on to her sanity by working for your grandpa, Kachi says. That is the only way she will be able to pick up the shards of her shattered life, you know. But then—
We spot her from a distance. A stack of five crates of eggs rests on her hands, hands wearied already from too much farm work. She kind of totters on a pair of precariously high heels. As though the stack has enormous weight.
Her stilettos, Kachi says, keep drawing the attention of the farm hands. They say it is silly to wear that kind of shoe while at work in the farm. I agree with them.
Chuma and I choose to remain silent. The farm hands are right, we know.
Even your grandpa suggested to her yesterday to wear something flat, so that—
Mom manages to swivel on her heels, then places the stack on a nearby wooden hutch that almost reaches the roof. She goes back to pick some empty crates and trips. As her arms flail, Chuma and I throw back our heads and laugh. To our relief, she maintains her balance and, hearing the peal of laughter, turns to look at us. Smoothing the folds of her apron, she strides over to us. (She did tell us last night that Grandma loved to always tie this very apron when she was alive. Simply because of its brilliant floral chintz.)
Mom pores over our jeans and t-shirts. That way a starchy headmistress does the uniforms of the pupils under her tutelage. Anyway, we can see the curiosity that flickers in her swaying eyes, eyes that always brim with maternal warmth.
Where are you both going to so early with Kachi? she says.
Chuma and I give her a tremulous smile and tell her to hazard a guess.
She looks skyward. Mmh . . .
I titter. Kachi works in a construction site. Do you know?
Of course, I do.
It’s a tall building, Chuma says. And we—
Sister, Kachi says, his face a peeved mask, I am off to work . . . and they want to catch some fun in the city. He squirms, meaning his patience is wearing thin.
Surprisingly, with no ado at all, Mom loosens her ever-tight reins on us by beaming her approval. She asks if we have had breakfast, anyway.
Oh yes, Kachi says instead, we just had a hearty one to set us up for the day.
Mom looks at Chuma, then at me. And you both have said I bola chi to Grandpa?
(Good morning, I think, is not a hard thing to say to an elderly person. The way they say it in Africa.)
Mom beams again, then opens wide her arms, beckoning.
Chuma and I submit ourselves to a warm, scented embrace.
Kissing us goodbye, she tells us to not forget our manners.
* * *
We give kudos to Kachi for choosing a route he claims to be the shortest: the woods, then the river.
Because we’re running late, our uncle says over his shoulder, thumping far ahead, the road won’t suffice. Besides, I cannot stand those gaping potholes and those bumps and those blinding clouds of dust. Worse yet, it’s a nightmare having to wait with other commuters, that jostling crowd, for the only bus that crawls to the city and back. Oh, goodness! That bus is very noisy. And rickety.
We agree with him. The bumpy road and the dust? A big yes. But the bus and the crowd? Well, we have to see to believe.
The motorboat, he says, is ever ready to beat the horrors of the rush hour.
Then the whole village should be scampering for it, I say.
It is rickety as well, so they don’t trust it. It is better for them to move slowly in the bus than take the risk of capsizing.
Can we come back to the woods someday to spend our time, Kachi? Chuma says.
Kachi says nothing, yet my heart sings and dances at the prospect. I love the few animal sounds in the background. Squirrels shriek, hopping from one palm tree to another. Sparrows twitter merrily, flitting, with the butterflies, from one flowering shrub to another. Owls hoot every now and again. Monkeys frolic on a couple of trees that look like willows. As they swing, they laugh. With abandon. Some of them chicken out at the sight of us. They take cover and position themselves to peek at us. Carefully. To soak in every detail of us. To watch every move we make. The bold ones simply stare at us, grinning in some way that smothers me with a thrill of excitement. The big old trees all around seem to date back several centuries. Like the villagers are forbidden, by unseen powers, to fell them.
We really would love to come back here, I say. With lots and lots of bananas. It’s lovely.
Kachi halts and turns to look at us. Well, he says after a thoughtful silence, not bothering to share in our exhilaration, if you both want to come play here with those monkeys, I have no qualms. But I am out.
Speechless, we look at his back as he continues moving.
Guys, he says, without looking back, I have no time for such nonsense. Besides, your mother will not approve. She—
Ouch! What the hell! My hand flies up to my head. And I hold it as though it wants to fall, trying hard to condone the sharp pain. It is like a naughty child-hunter lurking in the shadows just tested his slingshot on me. As I begin to figure out what happened to me, anyway, Chuma throws back his head and lets out a howl of laughter, clutching his belly, gasping for air.
One of the adult monkeys, he says, hurled a palm nut at you.
I knew it’d come to pass, Kachi says, still moving. Like nothing happened. Then he says over his shoulder: Look, the rest will join if you don’t leave now.
We run to catch up with him, my hand still on my head in an effort to massage the pain away. I pray it doesn’t swell and wonder how Mom will react if it does. Maybe, if I share this experience with her, she will laugh, too.
But they surely won’t do that if you bring them bananas, Chuma says.
No, they won’t, Kachi says. They’ll be your friends and will always recognize you whenever you come around again. And, trust me, they will demand for more bananas.
Interesting! Chuma and I say in unison.
Then we start all over again to plead. Let’s come someday to play with the monkeys, please. We won’t breathe a word about it to Mom and Grandpa. We swear.
He halts and turns to give us a look that suggests he is ready to box us if we won’t let him be. I won’t betray my sister, he says and continues charging. Like a bull.
It is no use, we decide, knowing our entreaties are like water falling on stone. So we let it pass. (We have come to Africa to stay, after all. So we have all the time in the world to convince our uncle. Or to pluck the courage to damn him and Mom and Grandpa and follow our hearts.)
We hit two trails in no time. One, Kachi says, leads to a place where there are many udara trees. The villagers, he says, take it mostly when the udara is in fruit. And they will go almost in throngs and will push and shove on the leaf-strewn earth for the fallen fruit, the succulence of which they highly relish. We take the other trail. I find myself at the rear once again. Then we begin to bushwhack, slashing through the mosquito-infested rainforest with long, sturdy sticks. Whack! Whack! Whack!
I catch a glimpse of a huge python slithering from the trunk of an enormous tree into the dappled shadows. A powerful surge of adrenalin freezes my blood. The hair on the back of my neck jumps up. Gooseflesh speckles my skin, and my heart begins to somersault in my stomach. Oh my Gosh! I say, holding my breath, sending up an urgent prayer to heaven.
Startled, Chuma and Kachi stop in their tracks. They turn and see me pointing a trembling finger at the gleaming reptile.
Rooted to the spot, too numb to speak, I still hold my breath.
Chuma’s eyes flicker nervously as he tiptoes over to take a better look at the python. He moves very close to me, and I realize he is having trouble catching his breath. I clutch his arm nonetheless. Like he is my fortress and refuge. As we stick together like glue, I hear his heart hammering hard in his chest. (But I am not deterred. We are here in Africa for each other, after all. We would rather trust each other, even in this blatant display of feebleness, than trust Kachi. United we stand, Mom did say in the plane—as always. Divided we fall. Just the two of us.)
Let’s kill it! Chuma says.
A throaty, scathing chuckle spurts out of Kachi’s mouth as the huge snake glides into the thick foliage, out of our sight.
We tilt our heads diagonally and look at him, our brows creasing in bewilderment.
A sour grimace swiftly flits onto his face. Let’s kill it, he says, his mouth pushing out in a pout of mimicry. Let’s kill it, he says again. Then he gives us his trademark smug look, that one that smacks every time of superfluous self-importance. But why on earth do we have to kill it? he says. Why?
We stare at him, lost.
Another cynical chuckle escapes him. Then he bores his eyes into Chuma’s. You said that just to hide your fear, eh? As if you have the nerve to kill a small snake, let alone this. Look, we don’t kill pythons. We don’t kill monkeys, either. It’s forbidden in Umukuruchi. Do you hear, Chicken?
We give him an incredulous look. I dislike him for calling Chuma Chicken. And I itch to yank the smugness from that long face of his.
Do you hear, Chicken? he says again, louder, scowling like an enraged lion.
Oh, my Gosh! Lion! I can’t stand the sight of a lion. Whether here or even in some London zoo. Not Chuma, either. And, I am sure, not this high and lofty uncle of ours. Perhaps, I think, the next encounter will be the distant roar of that big cat. The hairs at the nape of my neck stand again as I image the panther on the prowl, closing in on us. In this very jungle. My heart skips a beat as I see this formidable animal looming in my mind’s eye. Larger and larger. Oh, my Gosh! The menacing glare and the terrifying fangs and the cascading mane and the sturdy limbs and the tough, protracted whiskers and the sword-like claws . . .
But the python is a snake, Chuma says, jarring my train of thought.
I catch a flicker of disdain in his eyes. He, too, is crossed with our uncle. For calling him Chicken.
Pythons in Umukuruchi, Kachi says, are not like other snakes.
Why? Chuma says, whilst I wonder what Kachi is talking about.
They’re special, like those monkeys.
Special in what way? I say.
They’re our ancestors.
Whaaaat? Chuma and I say in unison, bunching our eyebrows.
Kachi simply shrugs. Like he himself is the king of the jungle, the indomitable lion. Some of our ancestors, he says, choose to come back to this world as monkeys and pythons.
They also reincarnate as humans.
Chuma gasps again, his eyes popping.
I refuse to gasp. I have overcome my fear, come python, come lion, come anything.
Feeling a sudden flurry of exasperation, Kachi throws his hands up in the air. Shall we go? I’m late.
A stifled laugh escapes me as we trot after him, Chuma now at the rear. I contemplate the possibility of the dead coming back to life under the cloak of animals. Utterly ludicrous. Why would my ancestors want to hurt me by throwing palm nuts at me? I dare not say gibberish aloud, or Kachi will teach me a bitter lesson. Or two. Decisively. I turn to look at Chuma. Our eyes meet. Thank God, that fear etching on his eyes has evaporated. Obviously.
Why is this place so deserted? Chuma says. I mean, we are the only humans here.
Almost all the villagers prefer commuting by bus, Kachi says. Only a few make this bushy path a thoroughfare. Especially at sunrise—and at sunset.
Do you think a lion creeps around here? I say.
Kachi turns to look at me. Don’t ask stupid questions.
I notice the adamant set of his jawline, and a tiny sigh of capitulation escapes my lips. As I mule over the meaning of his incorrigible haughtiness, a bee from nowhere stings me on the neck. I yelp. It quickly swells. Another gets me on my bicep. Aaaaah! Then, out of the blues, a good number of them begin to flit around me. Zzzzzzzzzzzz . . . I scamper backwards, frantically shushing the daunting insects, moving almost far away from my companions as the bees continue to buzz towards me. Then I scream for help, wondering why me.
Laughter bubbles up in Chuma. Swiftly, the insects melt into a couple of blossoming shrubs. As though they don’t like the sound of laughter at all. And Kachi, certainly left with no choice, joins Chuma. Clutching their bellies, they laugh and laugh and laugh—like Kachi is suddenly freed of care, like Chuma wants to roll on the bushy path—until we finally reach the riverbank.
The breezes from the river lull us. Fishermen drift along in canoes. And also in bamboo rafts. In rapt concentration, they plunge their nets for a catch. Birds like seagulls and flamingos and falcons wail and squawk and sing as they flap their wings in the air. They swoop now and again over the translucent water perhaps in search of their familiar silver prey. As we fasten our lifejackets, I read the inscription on the boat. Adieu.
That should be the name of the boat, I say.
Kachi takes a close look at it. Like he is seeing it for the first time, too. Yes, it is.
He is right, I think; Adieu is craggy and weathered indeed. Like a very, very old woman. I now understand why it has no appeal to the villagers at large. In a couple of minutes, we begin to mount Adieu, along with the other commuters. Just a couple of villagers. Once we are all seated, they take turns to spin ludicrous tales punctuated with bursts of laughter.
They are chums, I say, lowering my voice.
Yes, Kachi says.
They must have gone ahead of us, Chuma says. It is a whisper.
Kachi nods. Possibly, they did take the trail that leads to the grove of udara trees, he says.
The boat rumbles to life, and the revving almost drowns the din of chatter. I suck in a jumbo gulp of air and close my eyes as the city skyline looms, beckoning. Gee, it feels good. Then I think of the boat’s name again. Adieu. It’s like saying goodbye to Umukuruchi. To Mom. To Grandpa. Like we are not going to see them ever again. Like we have embarked on a journey of no return.
Chuma nudges me. I open my eyes and meet his gaze. He smiles. He, too, loves the experience. Kachi, on the other hand, is obviously peeved; the villagers’ gabbing and high spirits may never end. Like they are utterly unaware of our presence.
* * *
The sun, shining, rises from the expansive horizon, where the river meets with the sky. It is kind of windy, nonetheless. I steal a glance at my wristwatch. Seven-thirty. The construction site, right next to a busy roadway, is fenced with some kind of cloth material with tiny holes. Cars and buses, in the crawling dense traffic, honk their horns. The drivers yell out at one another. The pedestrians push and shove. The cathedral bells clang. Somewhere in the distance a siren wails. And, oh my, heavy smog lingers in the air.
The skeletal frame of the high building stands majestically in the sun. Amid other high-rise buildings, which are clad already in shimmering glass, this framework is akin to the fleshless bones of a Leviathan left exposed to the elements. Chuma and I stand in the sunlight, close to a gigantic crane that towers above the building. Surrounded by busy workmen, we turn this way to look at this equipment, and turn that way to look at another. Then we take two giant steps backwards and raise our heads. Squinting, we see Kachi among the workmen. They are perched at the highest point of the towering steel scaffolding. Like sparrows. Their hard hats gleaming in the sun, they wave at us. As we wave back, the foreman makes a gesture that surely says we should join them up there. (We thought he would never let us, as we pleaded with him, with our eyes, to no end. And we were sure he kept feigning oblivion.)
Thrilled, we run to the changing room. There are stray overalls and hard hats in a locker. We pick two overalls and slip into them. Each of us holding a hard hat, we run to the elevator, laughter fizzing in our mouths. As we go up and up and up, we feel like two birds let out of their cage to stretch their freed wings.
Chuma fastens his hard hat. We are going to touch the sky, he says, starry-eyed.
Yes, I say, adjusting mine. We’ll touch it! Definitely!
We find the foreman at the precipice. He is waiting for us. We walk over to him. Gingerly. The top of the building offers us a wonderful panorama of the city. Then we realize how strong the wind is. And how frighteningly high the building really is.
The foreman leads us to the scaffolding. As we stand there with some of the workmen, we feel like we are dangling in the air. There is nothing between us and the ground. Just the scaffolding. And lots and lots of yawning air. Suddenly, Chuma’s face becomes expressionless. And pale. Like the face of a corpse. Not wanting to look at the ground, for the second time, he snaps his eyes shut, afraid to move in case he stumbles. I can see the tremors as they are being let off through him. His legs wobble. Conspicuously. And the tense lines around his mouth become visible. More and more.
The view sucks, he says behind clenched teeth. I feel giddy. Can’t open my eyes.
But Chuma, I say, unable to conceal my surprise, we both were eager to come up here. Weren’t we?
He shakes his head. Slowly. Can’t you feel the building sway? Can’t you feel it, Chuka? And . . . and . . . it’s like the wind is worsening it.
Every workman abandons his task and begins to stare at my frozen twin brother.
Chuma, Kachi says, exasperation etched on his perspiring face, if you know you can’t stand the height, quietly leave.
No, the foreman says, leave the young man alone. He’ll soon get over it. He is a man. Like all of us. And I have a little task for both of them. They’ve been signaling me to bring them up here.
Eyes still closed, Chuma swallows hard and says hardly audibly: Come, Chuka. Hold me.
We have no room for sissies here, an irate Kachi says at the top of his lungs. Leave now. Or I take you down myself.
Open your eyes, young man, the foreman says, ignoring Kachi. Be the man you are.
I have to go hold my twin brother, I decide, or he will end up either puking or passing out. Come rain, come shine, I muse, we are in Africa for each other. Panic-stricken, yet cautious, I take the first step, then the second, then—
You hold it there, the foreman says, looking at me, brandishing his hand to stop me. Like he is my baseball coach. I know he will get over it. He is no sissy. He will surely—
Chuma passes out and goes plunging down.
Shit! the foreman says. And his jaw, like the workmen’s, drops.
In stark horror, I begin to gasp, clutching hard on a metal pole. Nooo! Chuuuumaaaaa! Nooo!
As my twin brother crumples on the way, like a shaggy teddy, I hear an incredulous Kachi whisper something that sounds like oh, my goodness gracious!
Then a female voice, like Mom’s, exactly like Mom’s, comes piercing the hot, windy air, drowning the drone of traffic:
I am here to catch you, my baby, she says. Vehemently. I promised you will be fine. Remember.
Still gasping, we all crane to take a better look.
There is another figure beside her, feverishly holding hands with her.
Father and daughter are looking up frantically, yet waiting with dogged determination to catch Chuma. They are surrounded by the other workmen who have been working on the ground.
Chuma, Mom says, don’t be afraid. I am here to catch you. Okay? Your grandpa is here, too! We are holding hands, waiting for you to land.
I am here to catch you . . . Your grandpa is here, too . . . These sentences keep reverberating in my ears until I melt in tears and begin to sob, my shoulders heaving. Vigorously.
We watch as a comatose Chuma lands in the safety of Mom and Grandpa’s waiting arms. Then a sigh of relief, a deep one, ripples through each one of us as the three of them crumple to a heap on the ground. And Mom begins to cry, her shoulders convulsing.
Who is she? the foreman asks, staring down at them, his eyes wide with utter astonishment.
My sister, Kach says as I try to figure out how Mom and Grandpa managed to get here at the nick of time. Did Mom know this was going to happen?
Mom? Here? With Grandpa? I still can’t believe it.
Kachi cannot believe it, either.
Maybe, I ponder, they are not humans, after all; they are angels sent from heaven to save my brother—with such amazing precision in their timing.
The foreman, shaking his head in glaring incredulity, inhales. And the old man? Who is he?
My father, Kachi says.
The twin’s grandfather?
A small smile unfurls on my lips.