After all fears had been dispelled about the rain falling again that day, the visiting grandmother balanced the last bucket on the rim of the water butt, heaved it on her head, lowered herself gingerly below the head jamb so her body and what she was carrying could go through at once, then stepped in. She must tread the bare living room floor with equal care lest she spill it on herself – she had an aversion for the chill of rainwater and how it made the skin feel slippery. Her daughter was to give birth in ten days and this was one of such things she must bear till that happened. Even when that happened, she knew there would be no real respite, for the chores would swell with the arrival of the baby and she wouldn’t return to her own house until after three months when the baby would be old enough to be cared for by its mother alone.
The two naughty kids were to remain indoors and play with their sister without causing their expectant mother as much as a stir in her sleep. The red-earth ground around the house was too slippery to play hide and seek on, and she had told them so. ‘Remember we’re living on the hillside. I won’t take any excuse from you for going outside,’ she held her ear at the lobe, in between her thumb and index finger, as she often did while conveying the solemnity of her instruction though they knew the house was actually quite close to the bottom of the hill.
The pinewood door flipped shut behind her, knocking down with a plop a single drop of water that had shimmered and clung to the bevel of the roof for minutes on end. After this, there was quiet everywhere save for the milky brown flood sloshing around the base of an electricity pole down below the slope. Its flow from a crack up on the side of the hill had subsided with the rain. Over the couple of weeks past, the showers had grown more frequent with the coming-to-an-end of the rains. As they came hard against the sides and the brow of the hill, the cracks below the topsoil had widened and gave way gradually and, because the cracks were shallow and thin and sparse on the surface, they could not be discerned.
Behind the house rear wall, within a depressed ground itself hollowed out by erosion, much of the flood had thickened to a pool that could not flow further. Eno, the kids’ father, had gone up the dirt road a quarter of an hour ago. He was going to borrow a shovel somewhere in the neighbourhood to dig a channel about the house by which he would divert the flood onto the road.
He and his wife, at separate times, had watched people – mostly prospective homeowners who were locals – climb the long steps cut in the slope, up to the crest of the hill. They went there – the homeowners – without their workmen, with sacks and shovels to collect sand for use on their sites. Everybody came here: people from town in their private cars, commercial dumper truck drivers, army officers coming to make sandbags to be used as a bulwark against smugglers at the border of the city. Into the slanting edge, just three feet from the base of the cassia trees at the top of the hill, they had dug out tonnes of earth, leaving behind a vast, insatiable void, the size of a cave.
Despite the unfaltering reassurance from the weathergirl during the mid-morning news that the gale witnessed in some parts of the downtown would, in no way, sweep over to the eastern suburb, Eno had wrestled, from time to time, with the urge to let the children attend school. He himself wouldn’t go to work. He had rung his project supervisor to talk him into accepting that the weather was not perfect for laying the toilet pipes of the new hospital building on Calabar’s Nsemo Street into the soak-away.
That the children pestered him around the house for long did not make him budge. The girl, at a point, had clung to her mother’s gown, going as far as to hound her where she was stirring yam porridge on fire, prompting the older woman to shoot her a vile look and tell her off.
The rough, swirling rain had raged all morning at a pace that could not be tempered. When, at last, a lull came in the rainfall, he would only allow them to go on condition that he walked them down to the school gate. They all were united in agreeing to this at once as though their nodding response had been rehearsed ahead of time. Hardly had they gone eight metres away than everything began to darken around them. Eno had descried a mantle of cloud, the colour of smokescreen, overwhelming the day then herded the kids back into the house. He didn’t have it in him to take a chance with their welfare especially now that the incidence of child kidnapping was unarrestably high.
Now, through a parting in the cloud came the blue of the sky and, beneath this, the day unfurled itself slowly under the rising sun. There was a bang on the rear wall. Its reverberation made the backdoor of the kitchen shiver and clatter. A boulder, half encased in moss, had been unearthed in the escarpment above and rolled down into the wall. Springing to her feet, the grandmother released the skirt she was washing in front of the bathroom without knowing it and approached the door between the passage and the sitting room with clammy hands. Hand on the door jamb, she retied the slipping wrapper around her stringy waist with the other hand and called out into the living room, where she last saw the children. ‘Get in here now, you little rascals’, she bawled in a voice roughened by urgency.
There was no taking a step further, no possibility of crossing the room and reaching the front door she had bolted minutes ago. She was standing on the threshold, oblivious of the footfall of her daughter, trudging near from behind. Dread had wrung out every calm in her. What the boys saw at the rear door, tumbling from above the hill sent them scampering back into their room. But the little girl, agile and smart for her age yet benumbed by indiscretion, held open the door her brothers had just left for what was about to happen and watched. It came in the voice of an express train although, as far as she knew, such a train did not ply the city.
Outside, the world around this home was reordering itself. Everything was giving up its place and nothing would belong anywhere again. Bamboo trees – their twigs partially withered – tumbled side by side with cassia branches, letting out a rustle as the wind gave them utterance. The slope’s rain-thawed topsoil crumbled and shot clods of clay over a wide flurry of leaves. Twelve seconds into it, the mudslide had assumed its full force. Further up the slope, through crevices, widened by the strain of accumulated rain could be seen deep brown water, jiggling and glistering under partial sunshine, confined in a hollow. Then, few feet beneath it, a hollow large enough to be taken for a lion’s mouth at full roar suddenly swelled out apparently in response to the pressure within and water burst forth.
But, not long after, an accumulation of debris, stones and coarse clay clumps would reduce the outflow at the opening to mere spurts. The slope, far more desperate to purge itself of every liquid within than ever before, flowed from different points above the houses. There were six gushing points in all through which currents of red earth shading into ashy mud flew down unencumbered. Of the seven houses down below, only the two bungalows on the far left were relatively intact. A long rock, separating them from the rest, was shielding them partly from the devastation.
Increasingly, the whelming sludge thickened above the living room furniture and was overwhelming a tangle of slanting bamboo on its way to the point where the roof had crumbled. It had soared above the flatscreen TV to a point on the wall where it brimmed over the window. Outside, the sticky mud seeped down sluggishly over the front wall, coating it in ashy hue from below the window frames to where its base met the foundation and there was no telling which was which. Beneath a din of mud splash and sloshing flood could be heard a thin distant voice. It was the whimper of the girl calling out to her father inside the miry water. Only her shout, marked at intervals by low gasps, was the sole human sound that came out from here.
Crawling out of the ruin of his house, Aniete, the man next door, rubbed off his legs’ wriggly scratches and gasped slowly. The girl’s shout, enfeebled by distance, reached the air again. On the other side, Eno was pushing through a crowd of bystanders and, with tears in his eyes, craned over two restless neighbours for a chance to hear the voice again. But there was a plash behind him as he was trudging off so he quickened his pace without looking back to the house, unaware he had only his underpants on. The father could not go near the daughter he could hear and the daughter could see the father she was calling. Father and daughter, drifted apart by the barrier of distance and woe, were united by momentary pull of love but love, as it was, could not bridge the gap.
The flood poured and poured from the houses through the windows but it turned to slime and flowed slowly as it crossed the dirt road. Eno could not wait it out again. The mudflow itself had taken only five minutes. Nineteen minutes of misspent expectation that men of the emergency management agency would arrive soon crept into nearly half an hour. Eno, who had stood gazing at the remains of his house, took a step forward only to be held down by Aniete with the shovel shivering in his right hand. His neck hung loose from nervousness though his head was beginning to clear as he shoved a leg forward again.
‘You can’t tell me to keep calm. Don’t you realise my whole family is in the house? I have five people in there and no one is doing anything.’
A bunch of youths, who had been standing by, finally took the plunge by dividing themselves into units and started going up into the buildings. They were armed with machetes, shovels and diggers. From behind him, a dark hefty university student wrenched the shovel from Eno’s grip and, without looking back, rushed to join the others.
What they did first was to hack down the front doors to ease the flow, then waited briefly before wading in. Together, they heaped out the gritty sand in mounds with no thought of handling any personal belongings with care. It was in hewing the tangles of trees to sizable logs and pulling them out from under caved in roofs that they encountered the chief difficulty. But those who did not come with any tools made this easier by heaving the cassia logs and rolling them to the flooded road. Minutes after, they carried the first three causalities out on hacked doors and laid them under the tree. Through the crowd massing around the corpses came a ripple of cry as the process of identifying the bodies began.
Five of the casualties that still had life in them – a young couple, their house help, a dark, hairy school boy blinking behind leaf-plastered eyes and a tall, fat woman picked out by someone as the street cleaner – were taken down to the main road, where a bus was packed, ready to convey them to the hospital. At Eno’s house, the girl was the first corpse to be taken out. Next, two men walking into a room, hunched past a curtain dangling on a rod mint green could be seen though the rest of the body was trapped under a miry mound of broken blocks.
As the two men tugged at the legs, a layer of gravel and peeled plaster crumbled and sprang apart above the figure. The rubble slid leftward, clanged into a small aluminium bowl, burying it. Slowly, the body came out indistinguishable, besmirched nose to navel with glassy mud and lines of blood going purple. When they laid it under the tree for the crowd to see, the figure could not sprawl out fully, for it had begun to stiffen. Aniete was on his feet elbowing his way to the front before Eno could register the muffled voice of the crowd where he stood at the back of the crowd. It was a little argument that had to do with the identity of the body. Aniete glanced at the dome of the figure’s belly and, seeing the futility in seeking further details, announced it was Eno’s wife.
A damp towel had been wrung out and rolled up to make a pillow against which the woman’s head was propped. Where they crouched on either side of the motionless figure, under the gaze of the crowd, the two rescuers, well adrift of the art of emergency evacuation, were looking up, still holding on to the woman’s arms. The cluelessness on their faces as they felt for life in the veins, bulging with congealed blood, was partly distorted by the wailing around them. Her sandy lashes fluttered feebly, letting go of their grains. Yet no one in the crowd noticed. Neither could they discern there was a fragment of life in the motionless body. Such was the way of grief.
At length, the red van of the emergency management agency pulled up beside them. Eno untangled his crossed arms, leaving them hanging on his sides. He was apparently calmed by his new posture although Aniete, who had been watching him from the corner of his eyes, could sense he was still considerably distressed. From one of the fallen houses, the fierce breath of a bursting soak-away came over to them. However, the flurry of movements particularly the lifting of the corpses onto the back of the van made this less distinguishable.
Stirring again from the tempest of agony stirring and stirring within him, Eno watched the scene as they heaved the remains of the kids and his mother-in-law and piled them on other corpses, for the van was a small one. He shoved forward, forcibly pressing his wife’s corpse down to the ground as three rescue workers lifted her clear of their mud-splashed wellington boots.
‘I need some time with her. You can attend to the rest,’ said Eno, kneeling in the mud beside his wife.
‘Cheer up, gentleman. I don’t think this is the right time for that. We need to do our job and take all of them to the morgue at once,’ said the leader of the team, behind a pair of dark glasses, placing a hand on Eno’s shoulder.
Eno instantly threw his hands away. ‘Who bloody cares? Is this what you call a job? It took you a whole day to drive here from your station as if you were waiting for all of them to perish first. Tell me, are you employed to save lives or watch people die like fowls? Is that what you are paid to do?’
He didn’t wait for any response. He reached for the cloth covering her face and yanked it off at one pull. He saw her face again but his cry this time was no more than a tearless whimper interspersed with snuffles. Now as his head struggled to clear, a thin condensation of sweat from the heat within covered his forehead despite the keen air. For a moment, he longed for tears to come, to brim the red, wrinkly eyes and wet the lashes as a worthy way of paying his own last respects to this woman but tears would not oblige him. Involuntarily, the veins of his scrawny neck twitched with every gasp whenever he looked into her face. His eyes met hers again and flickered but hers stood rigid and motionless as she stared back. Beneath her nostrils, the great pink lips were shading into dove grey under the cruel watch of death. Then he placed his palms on the mucky hair behind her oval face for the last chance to feel the silky mass he loved to stroke every night before sleep but felt constrained by the heaviness of her head.
Before Effiong rounded the corner onto Atakpa Street with his new BMW and curled to a halt in front of the barber shop where they had both agreed to meet, Eno had gone out already. He shut down the engine and came out. Effiong leant his butt on the driver’s seat door and, laying one leg atop the other, beckoned at the apprentice boy who was looking up at him behind the sliding door of the shop set a little below street level.
‘I came to see my elder brother. We’re to meet here by four thirty.’
To make a mental estimate of his age, the boy looked into his face meticulously. Then he scratched the tuft from the middle of his head down to the lowest hair on the right scalp in an effort of remembering.
‘You mean that man with a small scraggly beard who likes to talk fast?’
Effiong got stuck on the description but considered the latter part of it and said, ‘Precisely. Any idea where he is?’
‘I don’t really know. He was sitting out there some minutes ago. But his phone is inside where he is charging it. Obviously he’s going to come back.’
‘Yeah. I’ve called him twice but it kept on ringing. Thanks. I’ll wait for him.’
Eno was only four steps from his brother before the latter saw him. He was holding a black plastic bag containing sachet water, a loaf of bread and the bean balls he had gone to buy: his dinner and first meal of the day. Apart from his trousers, he had on a white undershirt, browned by everyday use and slackened at the hem. Effiong could see the area around the neck cocooned in smudges of grime, for he had been going about only with the clothes he wore since the day of the mudslide. As both men shook hands, the motion of Eno’s arm brought nearer to their faces the subtle reek of his armhole, steeped in late night sweat, the colour of ginger. Fugitively, there was a register of disgust on Effiong’s face but Eno felt no shame.
‘How long have you been around?’
‘Seven minutes or thereabouts,’ said Effiong, freeing both hands from where they had held on to the bunched sleeves of his shirt and glancing at his watch. This he did ostensibly to confirm how long he had been here but, in reality, to see how much time he had left to spend in this place.
‘Come along,’ said Eno.
Effiong’s eyes flitted from the shopfront floor with its tapestry of customers’ muddy footprints to the lettering on the green wall in which the name of the salon had been written in charcoal then to the long bench with Eno’s adire shirt draped on one end of it. He stepped forward to his brother with hesitation in his stride. Together, they walked across the gutter, through a plank of wood, to the bench.
‘Ini told me she came to see you.’ Effiong’s anticipation of a response soon lengthened into seconds. To find out what was happening, he shifted his legs leftward on the wooden bench only to discover Eno busying himself with his meal instead. Clamping an angle of the sachet water in between his teeth, he pulled it with both hands to nick it then began to suck it. Next he tore the loaf open, placed the oily bean balls in it and gnawed it as rodent gnawed yam.
‘I don’t take that as a visit. It’s like a stop-over. Or lemme say she put in appearance. You know the kind of thing you do so that people won’t accuse you of doing nothing. Staying with someone for ten minutes doesn’t make a visit. Does it?’
‘Why did she do that?’
‘Who knows? She said she would come back later. I haven’t seen her since then. It’s been nine days now. This is someone whom I almost single-handedly saw through secondary school. Who could have thought one’s sister could treat one so? Well, such is life. It’s at moments like this that one knows his true friends. Tribulation is the true test of love.’
As Effiong let out a sigh of guilt, he strove not to meet Eno’s eyes as though meeting his eyes would let him in on what was going on in his mind.
‘Have you heard anything from the ministry yet?’ said Effiong, changing the subject.
Again and again, Eno gnawed at the squashed bread, his forehead furrowing with each bite.
‘No. The way such things work in Nigeria can be funny. It may take ages to get anything close to compensation or relief from the government. Please I want to ask you for a favour. Can I stay at your place for now?’
‘It’s not that I don’t want you in the house. You know the other room belongs to the kids. My wife’s sister uses the guest’s room like I told you the other day. She hasn’t left since the day you first told me about it. She’s a full-grown lady. She can’t share the room with a man.’
‘It’s not fair the way you and Ini are treating me as if we’re total strangers, as if we’re not siblings. Do you know what it means to lose a whole family in a single day? That house took me over four years to build. Now everything is gone. I can’t continue this way. See, this bench is my bed. There is where I pass the night. This is where I spend the day. What you saw me eating was my first food today. ‘
He remembered his first few nights in the open, how the memory of his wife and children kept sleep away, how this reminded him of his own wretchedness and loneliness, how the image of a speeding car passing by turned into that of the falling cassia trees, grinding his family to death, making the whole experience fresh and chilling in his mind.
‘I got you some fruit on the way.’
‘It’s not about food. I need shelter more than anything in life.’
Gathering his thoughts, Effiong looked down at the bench’s edge between his legs and rattled his car key against it. ‘You won’t believe it, I’m willing to help. But it’s unfortunate that things are just not working out.’ He was already on his feet. ‘Just give me three days to sort things out. Take it from me you will leave here before this week runs out.’
They crossed the gutter. Effiong handed him the bag of fruit. ‘You see, I’m kind of broke at the moment. It’s the money I borrowed from my wife that’s keeping me for now. But I’ll get you some money when next I come.’
Eno considered this statement and remembered it was exactly the same thing his brother had told him last time. Looking at the brand new BMW Effiong bought between then and now, Eno smiled thoughtfully and shook hands with him.
He was roused from sleep by a squall soughing through the street. Wind was ruffling the leaves of the tree under which he slept, turning them inside out, twining the branches to the point of breaking until strength failed the wind and the branches regained their original shapes. Towards midnight, the whine of mosquitoes from the gutter in front of the barber’s shop had made sleep impossible. The more he swatted at them through the dark, the more they kept skimming over his ears. At last, he rose from the bench and walked up the road without meeting any soul until he reached the point where it forked into two other streets and, turning to his left, he found the tree lit up by a streetlamp.
His lips trembled as the chilly wind blew across the dew on his moustache. His beard had thickened with the passage of days so that few kinks of hair straggled around his jaw. Though, he spent his days mostly outside the barber’s shop, he had no money to go in and have his beard shaved. He remembered he used to shave himself every nine days. Now it was running into three weeks. But what difference does appearance make when there is so little food to hold the body together?
He lifted his weary body up to a sitting position, for he had gone in the strength of fruits for hours. He had lived on Effiong’s fruits for days. He had nearly exhausted the little payment he was able to get from his project supervisor. He slid his feet into his leather slippers. Then he rose slowly, stretching back to his full five feet ten. As he walked on, the bulbs above the entrance doors of the shops were still burning dustily, still swarming with moths and beetles even though it was five past seven. He heard the sound of a car parking a distance behind him but continued along the side of the road.
‘Eno, Eno.’ The voice, at second call, drew him back from the depth of thought. He pulled the stub of his chewing stick out of his mouth and turned back. The man, probably in his late fifties, had nearly drawn level with him before he realised it.
‘It’s been a while. Sorry for all that happened. I only heard of the incident some days ago on my way back from Kano,’ the fair, wiry man folded his arms across his chest as they went to stand beside the car.
‘Well, pastor, such is life. It’s a very big loss. Just recovering from it.’ When the man asked him where he was headed, he told him of his days on the street. Then he told him a bit of how the incident happened but as he approached the grisly part, emotion took hold of him and his voice began to crack under its pressure again.
‘I came to buy water at the shop over there. You know what; let’s get out of here first. Hop in.’
On the evening of his third day at the church, he sat on a plastic chair in the shadow of his room in the warm open space behind the church building. He was wearing a pair of deep brown chinos and a polo shirt from the small bag of clothes the pastor had brought him the day before. On the day they had met on the street, the pastor had offered him one of the rooms the church used for receiving guests and asked his wife to tidy it up. He had sat on the patio and marvelled at the energy with which the woman took down the dusty hangings, caught lines of cobweb at the room corners on the tip of her broom and scrubbed the floor and the furniture.
Now, he leant back at an angle on the chair with the book he was reading open and lying against his chest. He was watching a scene in the sand under the mango tree just before the compound wall. A small mango fruit detached from a branch as wind surged through the tree. He saw it fall partly on an ant that had come away from other ants filing towards a narrow hole in the ground. It lay on one side in the heated dust, wriggling and flicking a leg, for the other leg had been crushed.
He heard the pastor drag a seat beside his and turned to see him.
‘Hope you’re finding it comfortable?’
‘Yeah. By the grace of God.’
‘I brought you this.’ He laid a bottle of aftershave and a box of hair clippers at his feet. Simultaneously, they watched as the column of ants broke and some of them hurried near the one in distress.
Eno sat up and smiled at the pastor. ‘I don’t know how to begin. I can’t thank you enough for the love you have shown me.’
‘Oh. Don’t mention it. I’m glad to see this brightness in you.’
He looked at the floor and thought of Ini and Effiong. Effiong had not shown up again as promised. He had called him a number of times but he had never picked up.
‘If not for you, I don’t know what could have happened to me out there. You have given me the hope of living again even when my siblings left me.’
‘I’ve told you to forget about that. It’s one of those things.’ The pastor looked at two of the pigeons as they joined wing with wing and began to lift the little bruised one up.
‘I tell you, none of them answer my call anymore.’
The elderly man placed his hand around his shoulder. ‘Well, the beauty of it is that you have us around you. What I did doesn’t really mean much to me. That’s the way I see life. It’s a sort of fellowship. I see your pain as mine, you take my pain as yours. Together, in that spirit, we rise above every hurdle.’
Eno stared as some of the ants lifted the crushed one on their backs, regrouped into the file and continued their journey in the direction of the hole, their black bodies sharply defined against the brown of the sand.
‘Like the ants?’ he said without looking away.
‘Yes, like the ants.’
Image: aka Tman via Flickr (Slightly modified)