Dawn quietly crept into the tiny corner I made my bed. It was Tuesday. I could hear my uncle in his usual sonorous voice instructing my big cousins to load the open roof pick up van with supplies we’d be needing at the farm. I tried to force myself back to sleep hoping I’d be forgotten somehow, and I could return to that warm dream of me at the departure gate, at the brink of climbing into that wide bodied plane at the airport, to be whisked off the ground to somewhere I didn’t care. The thought of flying in the sky was more than enough for my imagination to worry about final destination.
I turned from side to side on the flat laid out twin cushions but it seemed I’d have to wait for another odd opportunity to complete the dream as I only succeeded in rejuvenating the pains in my shoulder joint. I opened my eyes and slowly sat up with my back to the wall. I scratched my itchy body over and yawned lazily. The bed bugs on those cushions and their winged partners must have had a swell time the night before, feasting on my lean blood. The thought of giving uncle Ayo another opportunity to call me lazy made me drag myself up slowly and walk unsteadily to the door, grabbing my toothbrush from a nearby small blue plastic container. I slowly eased the door to our room open, hoping I wouldn’t meet my uncle in the sitting room. Thankfully, he wasn’t there. I went out to the back yard and quickly brushed my teeth and rinsed my face with what was left in the bowl and dashed back into our room to retrieve the ‘companion’ I had brought along from Lagos – a glossy catalogue containing pretty white girls and boys my age, modelling nice clothes and sneakers with ridiculous price tags I thought were too cheap to be true. All were within the range of five and nine with a sign I later came to know as the dollar sign, stamped underneath the pictures. I was quietly scheming to save up as much as twenty – five naira so I could buy myself two shirts, a pair of combat shorts and the blue sneakers with a Nike logo on the sides.
The front yard was gradually becoming crowded as hired laborers began to turn up in groups of twos and threes. Gbemi, a girl that was dying to be the girl of a boy from the city drew closer to me and said in her usual unchecked English: how is your night? Do you sleep well? I nodded my head in affirmation.
My uncle emerged from the house and asked if everyone had arrived and when it was confirmed that they’d all arrived, he got behind the wheel and some of us climbed into the back of the pick up while the older ones jostled maliciously for the spare two seats at the front beside my uncle. In the end, the lucky two settled down while the unfortunate ones grudgingly retreated to the back to join us. Gbemi seldom failed to pick a seat beside me on the ride to and from the farm and whenever she missed the opportunity, her eyes never left mine. Naturally, she got some pleasant aliases such as Ruth (a name synonymous with ladies who’d displease themselves to please a man) and some harsh ones alike, but she didn’t mind as long as she didn’t have a rival.
The day was gradually getting to its brightest and the sun had taken its position in the sky, radiating at almost full intensity. It was only some minutes before seven that morning in the third quarter of the year. It was August to be precise. By this time, maize that were not yet harvested would have long given up its fluid, sweetness and green foliage for scorched brown foliage stalks supporting dehydrated maize cobs. This suited my uncle fine as he’d store them in sacks for a time of scarcity before selling.
As we approached the vast expanse of cultivated land, I took out my nail from my pocket with a string tied to its base and wound it round my wrist so it won’t drop off among the shrubs and get missing; this made tearing of the foliage easier.
I hoped to get a not too long row to start with to help boost my psyche. For me, the longer the columns, the faster the boredom.
The vehicle had barely stopped when some of the males among us started jumping off in a ‘show off’ manner, maybe in a move to impress some of the ladies, most of whom I considered ugly and primitive.
I was not as lucky as I had hoped but was compensated when my uncle decided to join me in my row from the other end. I was eager to impress him with how fast I could be at work. We finished our joint row in no time and we moved to another much longer row and I continued at the tempo that my uncle had set but soon began to grow weary when I got half way. He was nowhere near the column. I looked for him but he was not at all in my row and nowhere in sight. After cutting down a few more stalks, I sat on one of the ridges to catch my breath. Soon, I heard the roaring sound of the pick – up receding. I had almost gotten to the end when I saw Gbemi harvesting towards me. “I know you have tired” she said, smiling. I nodded again but didn’t say a word.
After that row, I moved to a cleared portion where all the harvested maize was heaped. I took out a wrap of eba from the warmer and served myself some okra soup. I devoured it and drank some water and let out a loud belch. I brought out the catalogue from my back pocket. It had become damp from my sweat. I spread it on the heap of maize behind me and decided to catch a quick nap.
I had barely shut my eyes when I noticed that my environment grew unusually quiet. The chirpings of birds muted, the buzzing flies gone, even the swaying palm fronds not far away ceased. I knew there was something ominous about the silence. Then I heard footsteps approaching, I tried to open my eyes but it remained clamped shut. I tried turning my head to no success. I became distressed and wished I had picked another row of maize. The sound of an approaching motorcycle made everything normal again. I quickly jumped up, leaving my catalogue behind and dashed right back into the heart of work without saying a word to anyone about what had happened.
There were screams and curses coming from the nearby farm belonging to Chief, my uncle’s friend. Soon, I realized it was the voice of my uncle, Idowu, uncle Ayo’s younger brother that lived in Lagos also. I was happy to see a face from Lagos but not necessarily happy to see him. He hadn’t been too nice an uncle. All the same, I was eager to see if he had something for me from my father. I pretended not to have heard his voice and continued slowly with my work.
Before long, my big cousins appeared by my side and said I was being summoned. They looked at me pitifully and escorted me to uncle Idowu who was standing with Chief. Their faces bore sadness and were withdrawn. “Pele” Chief said but I didn’t understand. Uncle Idowu asked how I was faring. I said ok. And he said Uncle Ayo was waiting for me at home. He had something to tell me. It then hit me that something terrible might have happened back home. I felt a pang in my stomach and my scrotal sack shrunk in fear. I feared for my father but was confident that he was too strong a man to get hurt and even if he did, he couldn’t die. I was almost certain the devil would cower in fear if he ever tried to fight him because I believed he was more brutal than the devil. I climbed behind him on the motorcycle and we sped off on the dusty, patchy road.
As we entered into the house, the sombre mood was palpable and infectious. I was ushered into my uncle’s room. He had been joined by two of his childhood friends from Ilorin. They all sat on the edge of the massive bed with their hands clasped in front of them, heads bowed as if in quiet prayers. I leaned on the wall and didn’t say a word of greetings because I was too scared to utter any word. Uncle Idowu joined them on the bed. When Uncle Ayo finally raised his head to speak, he avoided my gaze and kept his voice down.
“Your father had been battling with heart problems for some time which he said was a minor condition that would eventually correct itself. I even asked what the problems were but he wouldn’t go into details and since he never stayed in bed longer than the usual time before dressing up for work, it didn’t make any of us bother about his condition. Yesterday, after buying a newspaper, he had a heart attack on his way to the bedroom and died.” He said those last words with an accompanying loud wail with spells of intermittent coughs. The other three men soon joined in the wailing that reminded me of how I used to sound when I was tired of crying and tears were no longer forthcoming as a little naughty child.
I was stunned by the news. My father? He wasn’t sick when I last saw him about a month and half ago. My mood was soon distracted by the resonating sounds of grown men’s wails. I was too shocked to cry and so turned my face to the wall to hide my confusion from the mourning men. Moments later, my body slowly began to rock with laughter as the sounds coming out from that room had never been heard before. It was as if the grown men were trying to outshine one another in a wailing contest. It was not a usual sight for a fourteen year old. One after the other, they walked out of the room, leaving me to mourn my loss. When they were all gone, I tried to picture my dad dead but the image just wouldn’t form. One part of me hoped the news was true — all that vicious beatings I receive would stop forever — while the other half was confident I’d get to Lagos only to discover that I had been tricked, he’d be there sitting on his favourite chair reading his daily Punch newspaper.
Moments later, I left the room and my first stop was at the bathroom to rinse my face. At the sitting room, my little cousins played around, totally oblivious of the breaking news. I eased the door to our room open and lay on the bed face down. My uncle’s wife came in and sat on the bed beside me and said some words of comfort. She asked if I needed anything, I almost blurted out “beef” but I caught my tongue before the word fell out. I shook my head slowly and said I wanted to be alone. She patted my back and left.
Friday came. It was the day of his burial. A coffin conveying his body had just arrived. I wished I could just open up the coffin to see who was lying inside. I was equally afraid to learn the truth. My mother, her face swollen, obviously from all the tears and sleepless nights, had burst into tears again on seeing her son. I was ill equipped in the aspect of consoling people but I stood close to her and let my eyes wander afar, focusing on nothing until her tears subsided. I climbed in the car beside her and kept my eyes away from hers.
After the burial, I returned to Lagos hoping to see him but he was not there. I waited for night to fall but he didn’t come home either. Days turned into weeks and weeks into month and months into years without him walking in through the door.
After the second week of waiting, I tried loosening up to the new freedom nature had bestowed on me, but I soon realized that only the beatings and punishments had stopped. An innate leash had been planted deep within me that tugged at my conscience any time I decided to go a step further than the normal. Freedom was at large. In fact he never left; he was always standing by or sitting somewhere around the house, watching all the time I was waiting for him to walk in through the door. Now I understood the things I didn’t understand before. I understood his love for me. Now I understood those things that he tried to say but didn’t know how with mere words; they all made me who I am today.
Image: Pic by Neil Palmer (CIAT)