If it weren’t for an early unctuous sun that morning, streaking in boldly from the torn unwashed curtain that barely covered the louvered window, Ahaneku would have slept on for a longer time. He had arrived home the previous night, spent out. He could still feel his backbone almost snapping from the 700-mile journey. It was a rough ride; he had sworn on arrival that he would never make such a tiresome journey again. He could still hear Bunmi’s voice dissuading him from boarding the skeletal road-worn bus, but Ahaneku had insisted the fare was cheap. He knew she was always irked by his frugality but he never gave in to her spiteful persuasions. Ever since they had come to live together—not as husband and wife—he had made sure she never depended on him for anything. She kept a fairly well-stocked shop at Costaine.
The sunrays piercing the louvres fell directly over his face and tingled his eyelids open. He woke and got up slowly, feeling a weighty body, like someone overrun by a stampeding herd of cattle. A growl escaped his lips. His eyes fell on the wall and the ceiling. A deep crack ran across the unpainted wall facing him, a grim reminder of the operations of an oil prospecting firm that visited his village twelve years ago. The ceiling now had brownish patches caused by rain dropping in from a hole somewhere in the roof. He sighed; it didn’t bother him much, for soon, he told himself, he would start his own house.
He heard the sound of pounding in the backyard. The voice of his mother rose above the pestle urging Nnenna, his younger sister to hurry the morning meal. The room was getting warmer. He went to the window. With an effort, he wrenched the louvres open. A dry warm whiff laden with dust swept his face. In it, he recognized the taste of the harmattan.
Two fat boxes that had journeyed with him still lay on the flour begging to be unpacked. There, among other things, were the gifts he had brought home with him—wrappers for his mother, dresses for Nnenna, two chieftaincy robes with beads for his father. The gifts were complete; he could see his family resplendent in their new dressing, joining the rest of the village in a joyous Christmas.
A moment later, he came out of the room, a toothbrush in his mouth. The compound struck him a little queer but soon the familiarity of the whole environment started crowding his mind. The big mango tree, ageless, guarded the entrance of the compound. A dwarfish cashew tree by the left of the compound looked picturesque in its blossom. Ahaneku looked at it for some time and smiled. He could remember several times he climbed the cashew tree with his friend Udeze when they were still little boys. It was Udeze’s favourite hide-out during their moonlight hide-and-seek game. Suddenly, he wondered where Udeze was at the moment. It had been long they hadn’t seen each other. He hadn’t cared to find out.
Then he noticed something familiar: a long crookedly dug-out path made by columns of ants stretched on until it disappeared into the nearby bush. Ants! he thought, then smiled. He swept his eyes in the direction from where the track began. The other end abruptly drew itself into a small anthole.
His mother came up to him at that moment beaming with a joyful smile. He caught her smile and quickly rinsed his mouth.
“Good morning, Mama, and happy Christmas,” he said.
“Good morning, my son. How was your sleep?”
“Thank God you are back after such a long period. This Christmas is certainly going to be a special one for the family. Ha, Lagos! What a long journey. You are welcome, my son.”
Ahaneku could not mistake the naked joy and excitement spelt out on his mother’s face. She was a frail weather-beaten woman but she still fought hard for her haggling preoccupations. She hadn’t changed much, thought Ahaneku. Since his arrival, he had felt her familiar authoritative mysticism which had shaped much of his childhood. And that had been the bond that had held him to her since he left for the city.
Growing up in the village with his younger sister under their mother’s guidance shaped their future, their minds; taught them to fend for themselves. The children saw much more in her than in their father. In their eyes, she was dominant, resourceful and thrifty. Ahaneku proved a ready pupil; he milked the city like the palm wine tapper his palm and threw back little for himself in the form of pleasure. What he made in his clothing business, he sent the profit back to his mother at home whom he believed was the safest hands imaginable. In her letters, she reassured him of the money’s safety and as usual fanned his rookish passion.
His mother was alive with her joyful delirium. “Let them come and see my son! Let Isikwuato come and see how handsome and big my son has become.”
Once more, she threw herself upon him in a possessive hug. She intoned a song and danced up to its tune. Ahaneku watched her express her joy. He sincerely felt happy to be back home.
The old woman stopped dancing. “Chei. God is wonderful. My son, you don’t know how miserable I would have felt had it been you didn’t return this xmas. Your old mama has been dying to see you.” Then raising her voice, “Nnenna, come on, hurry up with the breakfast. Your brother must be hungry by now.”
After a while, Ikenna said, “Mama. I have not seen Papa this morning.”
“Oh, he has gone with your uncle Ibeka to see Mazi Udokamma. Ibeka came to say welcome but we told him you were still in bed.”
“How is he? I hope he is fine.”
“Ibeka is ok, always looking very young. Anyone who sees him with your father will believe your father is his elder brother. That’s the problem with your father. Tell him to leave ogogoro and your name would be included in the list of his enemies.”
Ahaneku’s greatest relief was his father, Mazi Okana. The letters he received from home stressed the depreciating health of the old man. Mazi Okana was still his old self—only an occasional spontaneous coughing. Wrinkles had set in and had creased the old man’s face, making him look a little older than the last time he saw him. He was addicted to ogogoro, a hot drink with an alarming alcoholic content. To Ahaneku, it was primordial to take away the bottle from the lips of the old man if he was going to live longer. That had given him a lot of worries.
“Yes, Mama, on that issue I wrote him several times.”
“Of course I know you wrote him, but the question is: has he stopped drinking Ogogoro?”
“But he told me yesterday that he has…”
“Yes, that he has since stopped drinking ogogoro. That was what he told you, wasn’t it? Just watch him. Before the sun goes down today, you will see him clutching a bottle.”
“Well, God help him then,” was all Ahaneku said.
He turned to go back into the house then stopped.
“Er, Mama, you know the main reason that brought me home.”
“I don’t think I will waste time to start laying the foundation. Tomorrow I shall go and get some bags of cement from town.”
“Good,” said the old woman.
Ahaneku paused for a second. “The money you have been keeping for me, Mama. I think I will need it. If possible you can give it to me now that the house is less crowded.”
His mother smiled proudly. “Yes my son. The great son of his mother. You will certainly make us proud. As for the money, it is very safe. When you are ready, we shall go and get it.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
Ahaneku went back into the house. Behind him, he could hear his mother singing praises to God. Indeed he felt very happy to be home.
He met his mother in her room. He was putting on a pair of sky blue jeans and a short-sleeved t-shirt advertising the full-blown face of a foreign musician. She saw him and rose.
“Aha, my son, I can see you are ready. Follow me.”
She led him out of the room. A little surprise struck Ahaneku’s face. Why didn’t his mother keep the money in her room? Perhaps she must have given it to someone whom she believed could keep it safer than her. He shrugged and followed her.
They came to the backyard which puzzled him the more. Nnenna was almost through with her cooking. Ahaneku caught the unforgettable aroma of okporoko soup and smiled. Nnenna returned her smile, trying to shield her eyes from the rising smoke. She threw slices of ugu leaves into the boiling pot. She stirred the soup, then closed the pot.
“When you are through,” the old woman told her, “you dish out your brother’s and take it to his room.”
Ahaneku and his mother went on and came to the yam barn. He wondered what his mother was up to. Maybe she had already collected the money that morning and placed it there for safety. The thought seemed to appease his waking mind. Presently, they came to the entrance of the barn. His mother agilely unfastened the icheku door. She ushered him in. She closed the door and hooked it from inside.
Once inside the barn, Ahaneku marveled at the long stretch of tubers of yam neatly tied and arranged according to sizes and species. Inwardly, he felt proud that his father was still strong enough to do yam farming. It all promised a great yam farming when the farming season resumed the following month, Ahaneku thought. They passed rows of tubers of yam. Somewhere right at the back of the barn, they came up to a spot.
“Here we are,” the old woman said triumphantly, pointing at a fading mound of earth. At first, Ahaneku thought she was trying to draw his attention to an object or something on the ground, but he couldn’t see anything. The mound was barely noticeable, something that could have passed on for a previously dug out rabbit hole now refilled with earth.
Then suddenly a crazy thought hit him squarely on the face of his mind.
“Mama, I can’t understand. You mean…” He was fighting hard to believe what had come over his mind.
“Yes, my son, it’s right inside this hole. The safest place imaginable.” She let out a short dry laugh, then seeing the confusion on Ahaneku’s face, said, “Did you think I would have kept that big sum of money in my room? No way. I am no fool. It wouldn’t have been safe. First of all, there are a lot of petty thieves around Isikwuato who would have broken into my hut when I’ve gone off for my business. Secondly, your father would have sneaked in in my absence when his throat is patched for a little ogogoro. No I couldn’t possibly have taken that risk. ”
Ahaneku looked around confusedly for a while. “Now, Mama how do we get it out?” He let out a nervous tremulous breath.
“Wait a minute, I shall get a hoe.”
The old woman’s eyes darted about the barn. She leapt up like a cat and went for the hoe that hung on a nearby wooden rack. A beautiful smile now spoke aloud the joy in her heart.
“Thank God for journey mercy. Now that you are back, it is time to reap the fruits of your labour, my son. ”
Ahaneku stepped forward to take the hoe from her but she protested.
“No don’t worry, I shall dig.”
She bestrode the spot and started digging. Not long the hoe got stuck into a rustling hold of polyethylene tissue. With a little force, she pulled out the hoe. She threw it aside.
“You see, my son, I told you it is safer. It could stay here forever and nothing will happen to it.”
The top of a round black form, like a submerged globe, came into view. It was a plastic bag. The old woman now used her hands to scoop out earth that covered part of it, the way yam farmers do so as not to wound the yam. Then she took up the hoe again and began to widen the hole.
Suddenly, something struck her eyes. She jerked with a start. Her eyebrows arched upward, giving her face a countenance of horrifying surprise. A low grunt forced itself out of her nostrils. For a moment, the hoe was caught in mid-air. Ahaneku felt the uneasiness, the hesitation. He lounged over for a better view of the hole. Then his heart leapt out of his chest. A broken file of ants had suddenly filled the hole, and with every second was spilling out rowdily in every direction!
“These ants,” the old woman gasped, accelerating her digging. Some of the ants were already attacking the hoe, moving up the handle. Ahaneku, alarmed, fretted about the hole, not really knowing what to do. The ants swelled in their multitudes inside the hole. He felt a sticky cloud of confusion blanketing his mind. His mother, still with the hoe, dug on despite the menacing ants. But the enraged insects bearing their fangs and their stings clutched blindly at anything that came their way.
They got her withered hands before she could shove them off the hoe. Ahaneku heard his mother let out a loud squeak like that of a stifled goose. She unconsciously threw down the hoe. Bewildered, he rushed forward and grabbed it. The hole now blew up into a spectacular hive of fuming ants! With one huge blow, he struck the base of the plastic bag and pulled it out with his left hand. It came out in detached tattered fragments, bitten and torn by the insects. As for the contents, no sign was left to show there had been banknotes inside, having by the actions of the ants been reduced to a powdery greyish substance. Ahaneku, stupefied, shook the contents of the bag. More powdery stuff fell away. Tiny pieces of torn banknotes came out, some falling back into the hole.
Ahaneku’s heart momentarily ceased beating. A mad feeling of despair caught hold of him. It rose to his brain with the fury of a thousand tongues of fire. He clutched his head in despair. Tears swelled in his eyes.
“My money, oh Mama, is this my money?” he cried.
The old woman watched wide-eyed. She let out a horrible scream. She fainted, slumping down perpendicularly to the hole. The young man took no notice of the old woman. Incensed, and with a remarkable daring act, he tore the bag with his bare hands, perhaps to see if luck would spare some untouched remains of his money. He felt the fangs of a soldier ant and squinted. He threw down the plastic bag. With a blow, he squashed the big-headed ant.
He whipped round suddenly and saw his mother lying unconscious. A host of ants had gotten to her feet, moving up towards the length of her body! Ahaneku screamed and rushed at her. With an effort, he wrenched her away from the insane ants. For that daring act he was rewarded with a thousand bites. His body ignited into a unified throb of pain. He carried the old woman and took the direction that led to the door of the barn. Just before he unhooked the door, two black ants stuck their stings into his neck. He yelled painfully. The pain ate through his veins and produced an ache in his head. He swore madly.
Brusquely, he opened the barn door and with his human burden threw himself out of the barn.
Image: Maksim Shutov Unsplash