“GOAL!” Akpan blared in my ears.
My shoulders dropped as the first wave of defeat and shame washed over me, like cold sweat. I looked down at my slip and the tears blurred my view.
I looked up. Before me, was the old box Television. The benefactor of everybody’s attention in that moment. I squinted at the screen but still, I could see nothing. I could still make out the jubilant reds on the TV and in the background, the blues sauntered off, face-fallen.
“See, Udoh is crying!” Ubong jeered, nudging me. I snapped to recompose myself, quickly swiping at my face to rid the tears but I was already late. The boys closer to us were already turned in my direction, gloating faces with wide mocking mouths and laughing eyes taunted me.
Irritation took over and I barked feeble threats. “I will break your square head oh!”, I shook my fists in a boy’s face. His carefree laughter stung and he pushed me, I staggered.
“Stop it!” I ranted but mentally refrained when I heard my own voice. I sounded like a wounded puppy. Still, I barked on, raising fists but my charade was met with more laughter and taunting. I finally folded my arms, resigned to the mockery, watching the scene around me, doing my best to ignore the boys laughing at me.
A few boys jubilated like grasshoppers. I went green with envy as I watched them. Their cheery smiles made me want to gag! Some other boys gyrated aggressively, throwing curses and obscene names at the players on the TV screen, as if they could hear them. Some of the other boys remained unmoved, glancing up from their white strip of paper every now and then at the TV like secretaries.
Jerome was amongst them. He was one of the older boys and the son of the town’s famous wealthy politician. He squinted down at his paper for a moment, his beady eyes protruded from their sockets, they were halfway covered by his eyelids. I always thought he resembled a chameleon.
Suddenly he looked up and let out a shrill yip!
“Boys, my game don enter! Free bottles of stout for everybody!” He announced, rising from his chair, towering over every other boy in that viewing center. Most of the boys cheered and some others who fanned the losing team managed a weary smile. I was one of them. I had only taken beer a few times before and although it was richly bland, the taste was also soothing.
Papa and his brothers always drank beer at every event. It was a man’s drink and it made me feel older and stronger.
“Udoh, look at the time?” My little brother stuck his hand before me, presenting the small face of his toy wristwatch. His name was Imoh.
“It is two o’clock and we haven’t done any chore in the house! Mama will be coming home soon! Let’s rush home and do something before then.” He whined, tugging the collar of my shirt.
I shot a glare at his small round face. He resembled a bloated tomato; his cheeks and neck still had baby fat and his eyes were small and pinched like a cat’s. Our relatives called him ‘African China’, all the time. There was no nickname for me. Just plain and common ‘Udoh’. My little brother’s face was only appalling to me, although he had an oblivious way of attracting favor from my parents and light change from our visitors.
“Okay!” I sighed reluctantly and led the way.
Our home was just a few houses down the street from the viewing center. I plodded on in despair, evaluating my losses. Next to me, Imo skipped happily, pleased his club won. My thoughts drifted to the money I had spent on the betting and in the back of my head, Mama’s scowl loomed. I shuddered, remembering my deeds the previous night. I wondered if Imoh had been awake?
Had he seen me take that money?
Possibly not. I had held out my dirty sock long and hard over his face while he slept. He could never endure the smell of a week’s worth of dirt and sweat. He would have shrunk away if he was pretending to asleep. But he didn’t. He remained still with the only movement on his body coming from his expanding and deflating chest.
“Udoh! Imoh!” Mama’s voice sent lightening through me and I paused to feel the thunder. It came sharp and heavy! A smack to the back of my head made me stagger forward, but her claws grabbed me by the collar, and reeled me back. I trembled in her grasp and gave a tentative glance at Imoh. Maybe she had realized that her money was missing and Imoh had only been waiting to rat me out. He wouldn’t miss out on the chance to be portrayed as the holy child, the favourite born. He was standing next to her, unharmed, untouched. Anger welled in my gut and I wanted to protest.
I looked up at those glaring eyes and that signature scowl. My fear subdued my anger and discipline took over.
“Mama, good afternoon.” I blurted like a mare.
“Where did you take your little brother to?” Mama snapped, ignoring my greeting.
“He wanted me to escort him to his friend’s house. He forgot his textbook at Akpan’s house yesterday.”
Mama’s eyes narrowed and darted from me to Imoh. Imoh eyed me in a way that made my heart lurch. I tried to convey unspoken threats with my eyes. I bobbed them profusely at him. He looked at Mama and then looked away fearfully.
Anger welled in my gut again.
“Udoh!” Mama blared in my ear and my anger jumped out a window. “I have been waiting in the house for over an hour. The front yard hasn’t been swept!” Her grip on my collar tightened and I feared she had not yet strangled me because we were in public. “The plates from last night have not been washed! And the waste bin has not been emptied!”
She shook me like a leaf and my brains jangled in my skull.
“I will ask you one more time. Where have you been?” Mama blared.
“Mama, I told you the truth.” I mumbled, not daring to look at her. I waited to feel another smack, cringing for impact…but it never came.
“Okay.” Mama suddenly let go.
I gawked up in dismay. The whole world must have stopped.
“You are lucky. I am in a good mood and we are expecting guests soon. Quickly now. Let’s go home and clean up. Then you will go and buy drinks and ingredients for soup with that money I keep in your father’s beer bottle.”
My heart shrunk and withered. This was the money I had spent at the betting shop.
“Udoh? Do you hear?” Mama barked as she walked away, leading Imoh by the hand.
“Y-yes, mama.” I stuttered but I did not move. She kept heading home without turning back and so did Imoh. I was shivering like I had just been doused with cold water.
I was at a crossroads. I could turn the other way and hit the road, pumping my small feet as fast I could and not look back. I could just keep running till my lungs no longer worked. If I started running now, I’d have the element of surprise and a full head-start before she even noticed I was not following her…
Twenty minutes later I collapsed under a mango tree. My legs burned. I had turned my back on Mama and Imoh and taken flight. I did not hear Mama shout, maybe she had not even noticed that I was missing but I knew that luck wouldn’t last for long. I knew soon, Jerome would come looking for me. That tall silver spooned tout was the town’s private mercenary. After four years of failing WAEC, his father had given up on his son aspiring to any blue collared job so Jerome was stuck with staying in town and learning a trade; forever a terror to the smaller boys: which included me.
Under this particular tree was my favourite spot; a silent sanctuary for me away from the world. No one ever came here and I doubted anyone except the hunters knew about this Mango tree.
I leaned back against the tree and tried to relax. It was cool and silent. I shifted my thoughts from Mama and her unwavering hand to the low grumble coming from my stomach. I wondered how long I would remain here under the Mango tree until Jerome came to drag me by the ear back to Mama. Maybe I should hide in the bushes and wait till sunset when Jerome would be tired of looking for me and Mama would be worried sick about me, then I would go home. She would be too relieved to think about punishing me. Somewhere in my head, doubt panged and worry lingered. Mama was not like the other mothers. She had the grip of a man and a heart of stone. She would wait up mercilessly for me through the night, especially after the embarrassment of not treating her visitors well.
I shivered. Not because of cold but the impending doom. Then I felt it. Something liquid and warm dropped on my forehead. I raised my hand and smeared it, then I held my hand out before my eyes. The fluid was red and thick. The smell was foul and metallic.
“BLOOD OF JESUS!”
I bolted to my feet and shrunk away from the tree, trembling. The words had just come from my lips. Words I barely remembered during prayer. Half of my consciousness screamed at me. Get away! Get away!
The other half was curious. What was it? Was it really blood. There was no denying that it was blood. Just where I had sat, there was a small sand-caked puddle of blood. I had not noticed it before.
Maybe it’s an animal? Maybe I should look?
That sound drained me.
My knees quivered.
The sound was approaching in the distance. Someone was coming in my direction. I dived into the nearest bushes, scraping my hands and legs against jutting twigs and sharp leaf blades, engulfed in the nauseating grassy smell.
I could hear the person’s soft thuds clearly. They had made it to the clearing; my secret clearing.
I was on my stomach, concealed in the bushes. Every atom in my body tensed and I remained still. Before me, a leafy shrub blocked my sight only leaving a few snippets of someone’s legs just a few meters away. It had to be a man’s legs. The jean was tight, showcasing bulging muscles. The man wore a brown sandals. The skin of his feet looked sun-etched and dry, his toes were stubby.
In the silence that followed, I could sift out heavy breathing from the chirping of crickets in the background. There was a rustling of leaves, then the jerk and sway of a branch: Thud, a bundled body dropped like an oversized mango before me. My eyes settled on the face. Milky eyes from a mangled face stared back at me. My body went numb. I knew that boy.
He was Laye, the shoemaker’s son. In the mornings, he went around collecting damaged shoes for mending and in the evenings, he would bring them back, all fixed, topped off with his cheery smile.
Now he was lying there in the dirt a few meters from me, staring at nothing, his ever present smile was missing. I tried to breathe but I sucked on nothing and my head felt like a brick on my shoulders. A scream surged up my throat but my lips wouldn’t let it escape especially when I saw something sharp and fast hack down into Laye’s face...
I did not know how much time had passed but I had been there through it all, trapped and shrouded by shrubbery, trembling and holding bile in my mouth while I watched Laye separate into many pieces.
Long after that I was still there. Long after those big hairy hands had gathered the parts into a sack and tried to cover the puddles of blood with sand. Long after those haunting legs had walked away with the sack dragging behind him. My skin sang in many places, especially on my legs where a million mosquitoes had bit me.
I was no longer trembling but the drive to escape had left me. I could not feel my limbs and I could not remove my eyes from staring at it. Staring at the spot under my favourite mango tree where Laye had been butchered. It would take a million nightmares to expunge the sight of Laye’s entrails from my head.
Even now, I could still see him there, lying on his side, head twisted at an awkward angle with his limbs folded and bound to his torso. There was a sickness in my bones, a nauseating stain that would never leave my soul and I knew my nights would forever be haunted by that milky stare.
Mama and Imoh would be looking for me.
The thought lingered in the back of my mind but it no longer commanded the fear it used to. The sun was setting and soon it would be dark here.
“I used to see him entering this place sometimes. Maybe he is here.”
“You better be sure. Mosquitoes are already biting me.”
The voices alerted me. I knew the voices very well. Jerome and his sidekick, Ubong.
In the distance, I could see light, small halos from torches. I knew they were looking for me and if they pointed that beam in my direction, they might find me; sunlight was glorious and ever present in the day but it could never filter through the dense canopies of the trees and shrubs.
I willed myself to move, fervently concentrating on shifting my weight. My body finally responded and I crept away from the clearing ignoring sharp twigs and blades that scraped my exposed legs as I went.
Ubong’s scream brought me to a jolting stop, draining the feeling in my legs. It was a shrill stab into the ambient din of chirping. I listened and there it was again! Another cry. My head spun wicked scenes before me; what if the killer had returned to finding them in his butchering spot? What if that snarling blade had swung fast and hard, a terrific glint in the moonlight that came down and disappeared into bone and flesh.
“That is a finger! Look at it! Look at it!” Ubong wailed like a weeping widow and the feeling returned to my legs.
“Jesus!” Jerome gasped and then I heard the patter of feet accompanied by the rustling of the bushes before there was silence again.
I did not move. I listened. The crickets resumed their orchestra and the night owls slowly began to hoot. Jerome and his friend had fled. The two strongest and most feared thugs in the village had ran with their tails tucked between their legs and I was still here…alone in a dark forest with a killer lurking about.
The realization germinated in the back of my mind and sprouted, suddenly I could see my Mother and Imoh standing over my small grave and sobbing and maybe, just maybe, the killer would be there too, with an arm draped over my mother’s shoulders, looking down into her eyes, conveying hope and showing empathy.
I sprung to my feet! It was dark but the moon would usher my path and take me home. I began to squint and feel my way back, tripping and bruising until I came to another clearing. A few meters from the brush was a small hut. I frowned. I had never seen this hut before but I had visited my spot under the mango tree as many times as I could…Could I have been venturing deeper into the forest instead of outwards from it? The thought haunted me and fear welled heavy in my groin.
The hut had small oval windows barely the size of two adult heads and I could see the glow of candle light from within. Its thatched roof sagged awkwardly to one side spilling reeds and exposing the rafters. From one of those jutting shafts, a machete hung. A shiver washed over me. The machete was wildly familiar. Its sinister jagged edge and ominous snarl mocked me. It was the very same machete.
I SCREAMED and something before me stirred, a sprawled mound that could have only been a human being.
I took flight! And everything blurred as went, thrashing through waving leafy branches and ignoring the crunch of hard stones under my aching feet until I stepped on air and the ground rose to my face. The impact knocked me empty and sucked life from my limbs. For a moment I remained there, tasting dirt and seeing haze. My head throbbed madly for a while. I cradled it with my hands. I groaned, slowly rolling onto my back, blinking severally before I could place the features around me. I was still somewhere in the forest, lying on my back, holding my head and staring up at the laced arms of tall trees.
I scrambled back onto my feet, sucking air as memory slowly returned to me.
There was a hut back there…something had moved, I was running and I fell...why?
I looked down and found my answer. I had dipped my foot into a shallow hole but something next to my leg dragged my attention. I stooped slowly, squinting at it. The breath left my lungs when I realized what I was looking at. Smiling wide in moonlight was a sharp toothed metal mouth, lying not more than two inches from my foot. I stared blankly, visualizing the horrific picture I could have starred in.
A series of approaching cracks, reeled my attention and I knew someone was coming. I delved again into the nearest brush, lying flat on my stomach and holding my breath as the orange glow of firelight approached where I had been standing.
Those same Jeaned muscular legs strolled into view and the heavy breathing was still present. I could hear his breath hitch as he stood there, in the same place I had been standing. He made a small tsk tsk tsk as he inspected his empty trap. A dreadful question fingered my thoughts. Had he set the trap for an animal or a human being? I already knew that answer.
Suddenly, I could no longer hear his breathing but I could still see his bent legs from where I lay. An eerie feeling followed, I could feel his twisted gaze sweep over and right past me. I was still holding my breath and I could feel the strain in my head. Then I could hear him breathing again, just as suddenly as I had not heard him.
He got up and walked away, taking the fiery light with him, leaving me alone in the dark again. I did not move, even if I willed it, I could not get myself to move, something fat and heavy sat over me, pressing me numb into the earth; it was fear.
An hour later I moved. It wasn’t a coordinated or planned move but rather a shiver. The temperature had dropped drastically since the sun set and I was out here in the forest in nothing but a t-shirt and shorts. I figured it had to have at least been an hour since the butcher had left with his fiery torch, even now, alone in the dark, I could see silhouettes of him, conjured images of a towering form with a snarling machete.
Slowly, I rose to my knees, using the vague pale light from the moon to make out the features around me. It was still dark and I still was under a large shrub. Before me were some bushes, concealing me from sight.
I didn’t know where I was, the realization frightened me. I must have strayed from my usual route into the forest, to my favourite mango tree. I wanted to go home to my mother. I wanted to go home to my impending punishment for stealing that money. The thought of any punishment Mama had in store, paled in comparison to being strung up from a mango tree and then minced into pieces.
What if I could pick my way through the forest until I found the edge? Or maybe just got as far away from the hut as I could? Then in the morning, I’ll find my way home.
A familiar picture resurfaced in my mind, a gaping mouth of horror. I shook. What if the butcher had planted those traps everywhere in the forest? I would just be walking right into a slow and excruciating death?
The tears stung my eyes before they began to flow and I let them come freely, my whole body racked and shuddered as I succumbed…
The hooting of the night owls woke me. My skin itched in a thousand places and my hands worked fervently, scratching and soothing. The moon was still overhead and luminating a bit of my surrounding. My mouth was parched and my stomach grumbled. I found my feet and wobbled blindly, careful to move in the opposite direction from the trap.
After five minutes of hobbling, I realized the frequency of mosquito bites had tripled. I sobbed as I slapped, cringing from the pain, frustrated by my screaming nerves.
A dense amount of mosquitoes means there’s a water body nearby!
I remembered papa’s crude voice clearly. It almost seemed ages ago since we had ventured out on hunting trips together in his motherland.
I hobbled on, ignoring the painful stabbing in the soles of my feet; sharp twigs had been caught in the soles of my sandals making trekking an uncomfortable feat. As I neared what I hoped was my destination, I could hear the soft tremor of flowing water. I gasped for joy and began to run until the forest gave way to open air and a wide stretch of water. It was the stream! Water!
If I was at the stream…then I was a long way from home.
The realization dampened my spirit and slowly I sank to my knees.
A wet thud in the damp sand. I turned as air swooshed over my head with the wicked glint of metal. I shrieked and tore into the water, scrambling on all fours. The water came up to my face, blurring my senses, filling my nose. I gagged but I waded in father until the ground below me floated away from me.
I balanced with sweeping limbs, gaping back to the banks. A tall form stood out there with a machete slung over one shoulder. I could not see his face but he remained blindly still, looking back at me. He did not follow in after me. He did not follow in after me, why?!
I remained in the water, struggling to remain afloat and he watched me fervently. A terrific while passed between us. Him standing stoic with his weapon and me floating, trapped in the water.
Until he turned and walked back into the shadows of the forest. I did not return to the banks, fearing I would not be so lucky the next time. I remained adrift. The cold of the water seeped into my bones like a sickness, weakening and numbing me.
A flash of firelight in the forest. I blinked but my vision was a haze.
“Udoh! Udoh!” I heard my name and I tried to yelp back. I kicked life into my limbs and struggled back to the banks.
I roused to the warmth of blankets and the heat from a hearth. I slowly stirred, blinking as the features of my surroundings morphed into reality. I knew the old cracked table in the corner of the room and the Muhammed Ali poster hanging on the wall just above it. I knew the sweet smell of fresh Akara wafting in from the slightly ajar door. I also knew the fat head that poked into the room and stared at me.
“Mama, Udoh is awake!”
And just like that, the peace and quiet dissipated into a crowd. They all rushed in from outside. Mama was first to come in after Imoh. Her eyes looked hollow and the bags under them were red and tender, tear stains ran the length of her cheeks, her wrinkles made her look older, her usually combed hair was tousled and unkempt. She collapsed on her knees beside my bed and squeezed me tight against her bosom. I felt her body tremble and reverberate on mine. She sobbed against my head and I cried, overjoyed to see Mama, happy to do any punishment. Next, relatives and strangers I had never seen poured into my room, asking a lot of questions.
I wanted to tell them all I had seen and suffered but those memories where like jagged shards. They cut deep whenever I tried to collect them, so I kept shut and gave blank stares in return for those jabbing questions.
But my resolve came tumbling down when they brought up Laye. A ripple swept through me and next the guttural sobs came, racking me. I curled into a ball and shut them out. Mama drove them away until it was just me, she and Imoh, holding me in a tight embrace.
The topic of the beer bottle money never came up, not even three weeks later, after I had told the Town Head and the police everything. It was a trifling misdeed that was banished from existence, as if Nature acknowledged that I had already been punished for it.
TV – Television
I hope you enjoyed this story! My best writing experiences come from stepping into the shoes of a child. I put my back into this one. 😁😁😁
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Blurb of Letting Go:
Secondary School was a hard time for most of us if not all of us and it was no different for Edima. And from that hell of taunts, self doubt and low esteem, Edima emerged a fiery character filled with loath and self-appraisal until she meets a face from her past; one of the boys that made Secondary School a living hell for her...
One my recents, a romantic story with a tang of action, politics and grudges. I'm positive you would enjoy this read.
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