Father was calm but tense that morning. He woke us up and whispered that the president had been kicked and slapped out of his ‘seat’. And then many aeroplanes were tearing across the sky like arrows before I could ask Father where the president’s ‘chair’ was always placed.
“To the cassava!” Mother beat her palms, shouting as she hurried us, pointing to the small footpath out of the homestead. “Quick! The cassava garden!”
We hurried ahead of her.
“No talking, did you hear?”
We obeyed. Our young hearts thumped in panic.
Mother cried at us to hide our heads in the small holes she had dug while harvesting cassava days earlier. Many aeroplanes ripped the sky with their sharp noses. The noise was so deafening that even the hens came to hide with us in the cassava garden. Mother herself crouched under the leaves. In that hole where we hid, I whispered to my brother Ojuku and asked him why the aeroplanes were so angry and fast, so different from the ones we had often waved at and shouted to the pilot to “bring us bread and soda when you return from Nairobi”. Mother reached me like lightning:
“I knew you would forget like the warthog”, she threatened in a hushed voice, pulling my right ear.
My elder sibling, Ojuku, did not reply.
In the evening Father held the radio and tuned. He listened to the man speaking there and said the president was lucky. The army had saved him.
“This army is foolish!” Father clicked and threw down his hands.
“Nch”, I heard Mother suck her teeth. “It never really helps”.
“You talk like the wife of that president”, Father burst sharply. “You say that and you see we named our son after the Nigerian?”
Mother controlled her voice and said, “Well, the only harvest people reap is deaths – deaths from here all the way behind those distant hills”.
Mother talked about the coup attempt of the 1980s in terms of ‘war’ and ‘death’. But my age knew neither of the monsters. When I asked her the following day, she said, “war is when many people fight and kill; death is when your mother and the people fighting stop breathing – when they ‘die’”. I had seen dead grasshoppers, ants, beetles, and birds, but not dead human beings. My tender eyes had not seen even a dead baby. The mystery was solved many days later…
* * *
It began with Mother calling me from behind the hut and telling me to shout aloud should I see ‘it’ emerging from the bush to catch our chicken.
“Ah, where are you?” she called impatiently.
“I am coming, mama.”
And I ran to where she stood in her clean dress and a red headscarf just in front of the door. Leaving the clay bull behind the hut, I hurriedly rubbed my hands against my pant which was worn out and dirty at the thighs.
“Ah, nch!” she hissed when she saw how dirty my hands were. “You have been touching soil again!”
I looked down.
“The way you keep making your pant dirty with soil and mud,” she went on, “one of these days I will make you wash it.”
I averted my eyes.
“Big-head, do you hear me?”
“Eee, mama,” I nodded.
“‘Eee’ came from your own mouth,” she repeated after me as she adjusted the headscarf. “And when that pant is old, don’t tell me to buy a new pair. You will go to the shops naked to buy salt for me.”
My sister Esi stood looking at me, and she giggled when Mother said she would send me to the shops naked. My brother Ojuku was not with us. He had driven the calves to the stream to give them water before the herdsman would return, and Ojuku would again look to the herd as the man ate his midday meal.
“I am going to the church meeting,” Mother resumed. “I leave the safety of my hens right inside your hands.”
“Yes, mama,” I said.
“See that you shout when it appears, and the dogs will come and chase it away. Do you hear me?”
I looked at her with a blank face.
“Wololo my bright child!” Mother exclaimed as she beat her two palms against each other. “I was sure from the beginning that your teacher is not having an easy time at school with you; I knew you would not understand,” she mocked me. “I mean ng’ech – when it appears, make as much noise as you can and the dogs will chase it.”
Esi giggled again.
“Let the stupid animal not take another of my hens. Do you hear?”
“Yes, Mother,” I said.
“Esi will be cleaning the hut and the dishes.”
Ng’ech – the monitor lizard. All my childhood fears revolved around that mysterious, long-tailed, crawling animal. One day, when I had gone to the fields with the herdsman, he had pointed at the animal for me, from afar, and I had succeeded only in seeing the ageless yellowness of the beast as it hastily crawled out of the path and landed onto a gathering of bush twigs with its bare chest and a great noise. Later, the herdsman surprised me with a thousand things about the monitor lizard, the least understandable being the animal’s deafness in spite of my having seen with my own eyes the two holes of its ears.
“Ah, where does it live?” I had asked.
“A hole in the river.”
“It does not fear at night?”
“It is braver than your father.”
I thought he was lying. I observed, “But it ran when it saw us.”
“Well, it only pretended,” the herdsman corrected me. “You see, that beast has this way of pretending about many things. It even feigns death.”
“Yes; it pretends to be dead when it is not.”
“Can it die?”
“Yes, but very difficult. Only when someone like me hits the back of its head very hard with a club. A hundred children like you can never kill it; but it is able to swallow all such children into its belly, one after the other.”
I hesitated, visualizing the great capabilities of the rough, yellowish beast. Its invincibility boiled inside my small head.
I asked in fear, “What does it eat?”
“As I said, children like you are its best food. But it also eats chicken, eggs, and milk.”
“Yes. If the beast is too hungry to keep quiet, it suckles from the breasts of cows and goats when a herdsman does not see. So I have to be careful while I am with the herd out here in the fields. That is why I carry my arungu and opanga.” He had shown me the huge club and the machete he was carrying.
Much more than the ageless yellowness of the animal I had just seen, what dumb-founded me about the monitor lizard was its rumoured ability to inflict a curse of slow death onto anything it happened to whip with its sharp, long tail. If a foolish dog got whipped by the monitor lizard, the herdsman told me, the mange disease attacked and ravaged the dog’s skin till it died. Not even human beings were safe. The herdsman said that if a child got whipped, either he became a complete zombie, or insanity called all its grandchildren and descended upon that child at once; till pitiful death seized the child and whisked him off the face of the earth.
“What is death?” I had asked.
“Yes,” he confirmed. “When you die, and you cannot breathe, and you cannot open your two eyes.”
“I cannot wake up in the morning?”
“You cannot. Death is more powerful than everybody.”
“Can he beat my father?”
He said, looking in the distance, “Till he cries.”
“Mh, my father cannot cry,” I protested. “Look, but that death cannot beat two people.
My mother will help my father.”
I had seen the herdsman laugh.
I feared that a devil had walked to the monitor lizard and whispered to him that Mother had left our homestead and gone to the church. For no sooner had Mother gone out of my memory than all the hens foraging behind the hut burst out in a great cry, beating their wings, as they ran out of the long grass into the yard. And when I turned to look what it was, my small stomach choked with fear. The bull I was moulding fell from my hands as I stood and cried, “Saaaaau!” facing the direction of the noise.
Cock the protector was the first bird to arrive in the yard, and I marveled at the irony of his faulty parenting. His wings spread apart and the red-black feathers jumbled with panic, he was croaking with wonderful echoes, as if a strange beast had suddenly murdered all his wives and their children. These came flying in the wind behind him with as much noise, and I saw a yellowish whip viciously flashed in the air. Near this I saw the last hen crying for help, her many feathers raining on the grass, and the monitor lizard, its jaw on the hen’s neck, tore with speed in its flight into the bush.
“Saaaaau!” I cried out again.
My sister Esi joined me.
“Going! Hen is going!” she screamed.
This noise threw our herdsman out of the hut where he had been eating in haste. And now he stood near us, all our dogs at his heels. The dogs were frantic and restless, burning with quick tails to be shown where the monitor lizard had gone.
“Where – where is it – where did it go?” the herdsman was asking.
“There – down – bush – feathers,” I pointed in haste. Esi also muttered something about Mother’s oldest hen dying, but her voice paled behind as the herdsman and I went after the dogs which had planted themselves in the monitor lizard’s scent. It was quick chaos in the long grass. The dogs ran. They barked. Under our feet, traces of feathers and fresh blood.
The spirited chase halted behind a gathering of bushes at the end of which stood a lone trunk of bongu tree and thick tufts of stunted lantana camara. Some of these had grown and coiled. The dogs were pulling at the thorny branches as they looked up the tree. We arrived, panting, and the deceased body of the hen abandoned on the grass met our eyes, its neck bloodied, broken and nude without feathers.
“Take this hen,” the herdsman told me.
He rushed forward past me to the foot of the tree where the dogs kept up their madness. Some of them were scratching at the stem with their claws. We looked up the branches and saw the monitor lizard yawning with anger and flashing his tongue at us. Apparently the dogs had hurried him till he could not reach the hole where he used to live, a short distance before you reached the stream. So he had chosen to climb. Now he remained up the tree. Whenever he yawned and hissed, I saw the walls of his mouth, ripe like the inside of a guava.
“Today you must die!” the herdsman yelled at him.
The dogs barked madly.
“You have eaten enough!” the herdsman shouted at the monitor lizard again. “The hens are few because of you and your appetite! After this, there will be no more you again on this earth. You will be dead.”
I could see that the monitor lizard was trapped in panic. He opened his mouth, and I saw the ripe guava again. His forked, blue tongue kept sliding out between the jaws. Under the tree, the dogs barked.
“Tell Ojuku to bring the spear!” the herdsman was telling Esi, who hurried over the tall grass.
“To bring?” she stopped on her track.
“I said spear – spear!”
Esi ran back to the hut and re-emerged with Ojuku. My brother was carrying the spear as they ran back and joined us under the bongu tree.
“I am going to spear him,” the herdsman told us.
Esi cursed, “Look how he has killed my mother’s hen!” I had now given her the dead hen, and she carried it in her hands.
As the herdsman took aim, Ojuku warned, “I hope you do not miss. If you do, then you are not your sister’s brother; not even your mother’s child.”
“I will not miss.”
I asked, “If he whips a dog with the tail?”
“We will kill him before he does,” the herdsman explained.
When the herdsman took aim, the dogs became more agitated than before. He hurled the spear. The blade slipped between a branch and the trunk, and then we saw the weapon bury itself into the monitor lizard’s belly. Long intestines burst loose and the monitor lizard opened his mouth as he began to fall. He was on his way down, its claws trying in vain to grab at the branches. When he reached the grass the dogs were all on him, ranting, roaring, tearing; and the herdsman inserted the spear into his mouth to prevent him from biting any dog. Esi was screaming behind me while Ojuku wanted to run away.
And then the monitor lizard was dead with sunken eyes, a long tail that looked dangerous, sand-like skin, worn claws, and its yellow agelessness. Mother returned in the evening and gave me bananas for being the death of the beast.
Many days after the death of the monitor lizard, and after the smell of its rotting carcass had stopped seeping through the sorghum shamba into our yard, Father received a neighbour in the morning. Neighbour Odoro was father’s close friend, and they sat sipping porridge under the mango tree.
“Eh,” Neighbour murmured loud enough for Mother to hear from the hut, “today I have been served hot embers in this homestead.” Then he shook the calabash gently and swung it sideways for the porridge to cool.
“Ooyo, no,” Mother begged from the depths of the hut. “Blame me if the porridge is too hot to take. I did not cool it long enough.”
Father mocked fondly, “Ah, these days he has become a baby. Even warm porridge is hot embers.”
“You know that is a lie.”
“As if what I have in my calabash is not the same porridge you cry about.”
“Well, but who am I to swear that you have not been practising each morning?”
Mother said, “Ah, you two are talking too much; are you women today?”
The two always talked this way whenever Neighbour came home to visit. In the end they reminisced about their youthful days, about how they began fights and beat up other young men during the village dances back in Kano, the place where they had both grown up before buying land in the settlement scheme. Occasionally Father made me follow him to Neighbour’s homestead where similar talks went on unabated in the small space surrounded by countless whistling birds, huge trees, and strange flowers with red leaves.
“I am looking for my dog Sibta,” Neighbour started again.
We knew the dog.
“Your dog,” Father said.
“I have not seen her for days.”
“For days. And who told you I have been hiding her?”
“Ah, no one said so; unless you are passing me the news that you have been hiding some dogs. And in that case I would wonder what you do with hidden dogs.”
The two laughed as Mother emerged from the hut with roasted cobs of maize.
* * *
The disappearance of the dog Sibta became enmeshed in mysteries. Father said, “This village is bush and cane crop everywhere. It may be ng’yelo that has eaten her – python.”
“Stop wishing my dog ill luck. I do not like to imagine such painful death.”
“Ah, then you seem to know where your dog is, Odoro.”
“That is not true. I pray that my Sibta comes back.”
I asked Father, “What is ng’yelo?”
“You see that trunk?”
“Ee,” I nodded.
“Ng’yelo is a snake with a chest as thick and large as that trunk, and it reaches from here to that tree.” He threw a small stone nearly ten metres away from where we sat.
“When you see it, you will agree that it is the father of all snakes.”
“What does it eat?”
“Many things including children. But dogs are its best food. It loves them better than you love chicken.”
“A dog has teeth.”
“Yes. But ng’yelo throws his whole weight onto a dog as he catches the dog with his two lines of teeth; wraps his heavy body round it; prevents the dog from breathing; breaks the dog’s bones till the dog dies; and then he swallows the dog faster than you can swallow the small nyatonglo fruit. As for you, small as you are, the snake will not stop looking for food after he has swallowed you. When the father-snake traps you one of these days as you go to break my sugarcane, please don’t cry with my name. Just die in peace.”
I cringed even though I thought Father was frightening me because I was notorious for breaking his sugarcane and chewing. I had never seen a python before, but Father’s description of the snake brought back memories of the monitor lizard. Why did the monitor lizard die only to resurrect into a long, mysterious beast called ng’yelo? I wondered what snake this was that suffocated its prey into silence before swallowing whole.
Father turned and said to Neighbour, “The children that the mother python gave birth to the other year are now grown.”
“You speak as if you saw them.”
“If you go between the two cane crop farms, the grass will tell you. The pythons have crawled as they follow the cane rats, so the grass sleeps on the ground.”
Neighbour shook his head as he wondered and said calmly, “Mh, my Sibta may have gone forever, a dog I loved.”
In the nights that followed, I dreamt of large snakes with huge bodies and long teeth. They would run after me each time I saw a ripe guava in the bush and had gone to pluck it to eat. Then, in the depth of sleep one night, I dreamt that a python had trapped me. I could not breathe. I tossed, screamed, and when I stirred, I found the blanket blocking my nose and heard Mother’s voice asking,
“Ah, and what is it!”
“But it is this ng’yelo!” I replied, panting. And Mother cursed, “Thu! Thu! Thu! Satan get away!” Then I calmed down and slept again.
Ojuku and I both lay on the old mat that morning. The night before, we had gossiped with him about pythons and how they killed dogs. The herdsman just lay there listening to our small talk about the things that we feared.
I had asked Ojuku, “Ojuku, how does it feel for a python to sit on you?”
“Not ‘sit on’,” he corrected.
“To ‘tie’ you.”
“Yes. How does it feel?”
“I think it is heavy and bad; you cannot breathe –”
“I will beat these children!” the herdsman had barked at us in the night as he struck us with his open palms over the blanket. “If you cannot sleep, go out and help the wizards run in the darkness.”
And then we slept.
I heard footsteps walk to the hut where we lay on the mat that morning.
“Ojuku, your father is calling you.”
“Don’t ask me ‘ee?’ as if you have no ears. I have said your father is calling you two.” It was the herdsman again.
The morning was still cold, so we did not go immediately to where Father was calling us in the shamba. There, Father, the herdsman and a few hired workers were ploughing with our oxen for the planting of the New Year’s maize crop. Instead, Ojuku kept pulling the blanket away from my skin, and I from his:
“Ah, now we wake up.”
“Yes. We wake up,” I agreed.
“But you are still sleeping on your ribs.”
“And you, you are sleeping on your head?”
He pulled the blanket from me.
“Ah, we wake up omera; Father will call again.”
We were still pulling the blanket from each other when Esi came to the door and said,
“Ojuku, you are playing and Father is calling.”
We jumped up, put on our pants, and without even washing our faces, hurried to the shamba with parched and taut bellies, our shirts carried in our small hands. We walked like two fools – one immediately behind the other. The morning sun was blinding. And not having allowed Esi to bathe us the previous evening, we had scratched from sweat so badly that we looked as if someone had been spraying us with hearth ash in the depth of our sleep.
In the shamba, we found Father standing at a corner, rubbing his coloured teeth with a chewed twig the way he always did. The workers walked with the oxen, ploughing as they whistled, praised, and sang. Many small birds were flying and walking about, looking for worms that had been thrown up by the plough. Our dogs wandered in the ploughed areas, searching for the warmest patches of the ground where they could sleep till the sun would be up.
“My two children?” Father called us.
“You have come?” We agreed.
“Come where I stand,” he said, something secretive showing on his face. Mother was plucking cow pea leaves near him. We turned and walked to where Father stood. Then Ojuku, who was walking ahead of me, tripped, flew in the air, fell again, and wildly tore his way back home, nearly running his head into my belly in the process. “Mama! Mama! Mama!” he cried. I jumped back and fell even though I did not run. I saw Father pretending not to see both of us falling there on the ground, not to hear Ojuku screaming, not to know what was happening. “Oh, coward, he is a coward!” Mother laughed and screamed as Ojuku fled. The workers who had been ploughing with the oxen were dying with laughter. I heard the herdsman crying aloud at Ojuku, “Ah, he is a girl! He is a girl!”
The dead python prostrated itself on the ploughed soil in thick, fat coils. His skin was wet and yellowish, and patterns of flowery black were woven on his skin so neatly that I thought they had been drawn there by the hands of an unknown artist. His smell was that of rice burning over the hearth, the kind Mother said always came from the mouths of overfed serpents belching in the river. The whole sight of the python looked as though the monitor lizard which the herdsman had killed those many days before had arisen and lengthened into another strange, horizontal beast.
Ojuku returned cautiously and found me viewing the python’s body. Father called him to come nearer.
“A man must not have light legs; a man must not run,” Father said. “But looking at you, I am reminded of the cowardly hare.”
Mother and I laughed.
Mother said mockingly to Ojuku, “I think you will not marry a girl; it is that girl who will marry you.”
Father added and said to Mother, “I think you are right.”
“But I will marry,” Ojuku protested.
“Even so,” Mother said, “between you and that wife of yours, I know very well who will be fighting the intruders.”
Father went to the python and stretched him full length on the damp soil. The thick, heavy flesh was depressing to look at. Father made us know that he and the herdsman had killed the beast that dawn after it trapped our cock. Even in death, the python still managed to twist its body into huge coils.
“You are the one who likes sugarcane,” Father told me. “If you enter too deep to break a cane, he will catch you and that will be the end of you.”
“I cannot run?”
“No. Look at its teeth.” Father opened the python’s mouth and we saw his two rows of needle-sharp teeth, white as rice. “See how his teeth face inwards. If he just touches you, there is no breaking free. He wraps you with his body, presses you, breaks your ribs till you cannot breathe, and you die.” He turned the python and made him face the sky. “Look, these are his claws,” he was touching the two spurs under the snake’s tail with the blade of the spear. “When he has wrapped you, he blocks your nose using these.”
Ojuku asked, “I cannot bite him with my teeth?”
Father did not answer Ojuku. He told him, “Take this spear.”
“Now spear him.”
Ojuku hurled the spear and it merely slipped away from the python’s glittering skin. He tried again with no success. Then I did too, but the spear did not penetrate.
“Ojuku,” Father said. “If a sharp spear cannot cut the python’s skin, I think you are the only child in the whole world whose small teeth are sharper than a spear. So you can as well bite the animal one day when he catches you inside the sugarcane.”
I was swearing inside me never to go into the sugarcane again. I said to Father, “Is he the one that ate Sibta, Odoro’s dog?”
“I think so; look how fat he is.”
Then Father sent me to go and call Neighbour. Odoro arrived and beat the snake with a stick for upwards of two hours, cursing, “You ate my Sibta! You ate my Sibta!” till the sun grew hot. Later, the python was dragged to a place under the huge ng’ou tree. Mother arrived carrying a jerrican of paraffin on her head. This was generously splashed onto the snake, and when he was shiny and wet, Father struck the matchstick. The flame resembled things I had heard of about hell. It was huge, and it swung this way and that, the great body of the snake only twitching silently under it. After some time the python did not move. More paraffin was poured. What struck me was that the fire did not consume the beast. Even as the flame burnt, the python’s lidless eyes kept looking at me from the heart of the inferno…
The bitter sun burned with rage in the days that followed. It resembled a man who had returned to collect his debts. And so struck were we by the spectacle of the python that Ojuku and I occasionally sneaked out of the homestead to peep at the carcass under the huge tree. The first time we went, we found no more than ten flies lazily walking on the python. That fire had turned her great skin ashen-black. But her eyes still retained their eternal clarity. Her mouth was wide open, and it revealed the numerous teeth which Neighbour had tried to knock off with his small club to punish the serpent for having swallowed his beloved dog Sibta.
The strange attraction of death lured us back to the python a few days later. The village air was beginning to change, and the blowing wind occasionally carried thin traces of rotting smell. Where the python lay, we met more flies than we could count. Ojuku and I chose not to use the new path which had been made to circumvent the place of rot. In the old path, we found the python buried in a dark stench inside a universe of blue flies and rolling maggots. The rank smell choked us, and flies ran onto our faces. We fought them away with our hands.
The following month brought clean bones which assumed the long shape of the python. I silently marveled at how fast a huge presence of great flesh had suddenly shrunk to tiny bones which now lay before my eyes. And with the beginning of the long rains, a small brook disturbed the skeleton’s hopeless rest, and quickly broke it along the stem. I bravely touched the skeleton. Sadly, I found that what remained of the python’s head was a small gathering of tiny bones supported below by dry leaves of grass. The damaged head remained silent, and its blind eye-holes echoed in me the frightening eternity of death.
Image: Anthony via Flickr