Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away | Chapter 18 of 45

Author: Christie Watson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 4353 Views | Add a Review

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THIRTEEN

The mangrove swamp was full of mosquitoes. Ezikiel and I laughed as we slapped them from each other’s arms. Ezikiel laughed louder. He had been so happy since returning to school. We were looking at a butterfly and trying to count how many colors it had when a loud humming filled the air.

“What is that?” I asked. I looked through the trees at the river. The water swirled. Ezikiel pulled me close to him. He held me tightly.

A boat traveled past us. It was full of boys carrying rifles.

A gunboat!

I held my breath. I could feel my heart rising to my neck.

Ezikiel held me even tighter, pressing my arm against his chest until my arm did not feel like mine anymore. It was only when I opened my eyes that I realized I had closed them.

The boys in the boat carried the guns away from their bodies, in their bare, thin arms, as though they were afraid of them. I looked at the guns. My fingertips felt cold. The boys’ eyes were red. Some of them were wearing nothing on their top half but string vests. They were laughing as they drank from bottles and smoked sticks; the smell was even stronger than the stale smell of the river. They wore necklaces. I could feel something pressing down at the back of my head as I looked at their necklaces. The necklaces were not like the necklaces made from yellow gold that the men on Allen Avenue wore.

The necklaces were made from bullets.

I could feel Ezikiel’s wheeze on my arm, even though my arm did not feel like mine.

One of the boys was taller than the rest, and skinnier than Ezikiel. He wore large sunglasses. His cheek was scarred in the same way as Grandma’s. He smiled widely, showing a golden tooth at the side of his mouth. “Make this slow boat go faster. We need to complete our mission.”

They all laughed. The boy at the back by the engine pulled a piece of rope and the boat chugged and then sped up suddenly. The water at the sides of the boat rose and parted and came to the top of the bank where my and Ezikiel’s feet stood still.

I was glad for the thickness of the trees. I felt invisible. Still, I clung to Ezikiel. I wished the butterfly would fly away. It was bright enough to draw attention to us. My skin was so hot that Ezikiel’s breath felt cold on my neck. He slowly moved his hand over, pushed his fingers through mine and gripped. Both our hands were sweating. I held on tightly to Ezikiel’s fingers until even my own fingers were numb and I couldn’t tell which hand was my own. The boat moved away quickly. We watched it disappear. I could hear the voice of the tall, skinny boy with the golden tooth shouting instructions at the other boys in the boat: Pass that palm wine. Give me your mobile phone. Hold your rifle carefully. Ezikiel moved my hand up to his chest and pressed. His heart was trying to escape.

We slipped through the mangroves and palms, underneath the twisted branches and into daylight, and ran toward home, still holding hands. I did not dare look back.

“You were right. It’s not safe! Did you see that? They had guns, rifles. Did you see the guns?” My voice was scratchy.

“How could I miss the guns?” Ezikiel was breathless. “They had so many, how could I miss them? One boy had two guns. Two, and I say guns but really they were rifles, AK-47s, imagine firing one of those, wow!” Ezikiel’s words were excited, but his hand held my hand so tightly I could feel the bones inside.

I slowed down to let him breathe. “Where were they going? I thought they would see us. The butterfly …”

“They were patrolling the water,” said Ezikiel. “I bet they were on their way to bunker some oil. I told Mama about it but she didn’t believe me—well, you’ve seen it. I told her. What butterfly?”

“How many of them were there? Are they our age? They looked our age.”

“At least ten in that boat.” Ezikiel’s breathing became more normal. His hand let go.

“What if they had seen us?” I asked. “Were they soldiers? They might have taken us. Or shot at us!”

Ezikiel shook his head too quickly. “No,” he said. “They wouldn’t have taken us. They are Ijaw. They were only boys. Wow! I can’t believe we’ve seen a gunboat.”

We did not discuss whom we would tell about the gunboat, but when we arrived home we both fell silent. It was the first time we had not run to Mama to tell her that something happened. Ezikiel moved away from me as soon as we were near the house. But I could still hear his wheeze.

“Do you want your inhaler?” I whispered.

“I’m fine,” he said, but his eyes flew around his face.

I felt my heart move sideways.

Ezikiel became more breathless later that afternoon. His chest sounded bubbly like a pan of boiling water. I could hear him over the sound of my scrubbing the cassava.

“Shall I fetch your inhaler?”

“No.” He shook his head and bent forward, resting his hands on the top of his thighs. “It’s running out. Emergencies only.”

“You can get another from the clinic. Mama said she has the money now.”

I spoke loudly, but I could still hear the rasping sound of his breath. I also felt breathless, as if asthma was contagious. When he stood up I noticed his nostrils flaring every time he took air in. His inhaler was running out. I felt panic rise in my body, right up to my shoulders. I dropped the cassava, moved the bucket of water out of the way.

“No money,” he said, waving his hand at the house. “We need it for school. I don’t want to risk it, in case they spend my school fees.”

“There will be money for medicine, silly. Mama told us we do not need to worry about it. She must have had a pay increase. She must be getting a salary now as well as tips—Alhaji even has money to bribe an electrician to reconnect us. He is going to climb the pole this afternoon. I told you, Mama has money.”

I smiled at the thought of the fan and the radio and cold minerals. Even if NEPA did not provide electricity for days and days, at least if we were reconnected then we had a chance of electricity on some days.

“What if they use my school fees for medicine? What if they use my school fees for the electrician?” Ezikiel’s wheezing increased until his chest bubbled and hissed and whistled. As I ran to Alhaji’s room to fetch the inhaler, I pictured Ezikiel’s lungs getting smaller and smaller and smaller. I pushed the thought from my mind. Must not panic. Must not panic, I thought. But I felt so alone. Where was Grandma?

The inhaler was on the bedside table next to a small blood pressure machine and an electric box that measured sugar levels if you pricked a finger and let blood drip onto the end. I shook the inhaler. It felt too light. Ezikiel was silly. He should have told Mama the medicine was running out. She was going to kill him.

When I ran back, Ezikiel was slumped forward, and his ribs were poking through his T-shirt. He took four puffs, shaking the inhaler before each puff. I matched my breathing to his. It took much longer to breathe out than in, the time left after breathing out was so short only a sharp breath of air could go in. I began to feel dizzy just by trying to copy Ezikiel. Where was everyone? Where was Mama? I looked around the compound for Boneboy, but he was nowhere to be seen. I sat down on the floor next to Ezikiel in case he fell. The breaths became more even. First, in … oooouuuttt. Then in … oouutt. Then back to regular in … out. Slowly, slowly, his breathing was normal again.

“It’s run out now,” he said, when his lips were night once more. He shook the inhaler at my ear.

I wasn’t sure what I was listening out for, but Ezikiel should know. He’d had asthma all his life. He was an expert.

We found Grandma and Mama by the table; Mama was drinking water straight from a cup, without letting the cup top touch her lips. Grandma was wearing clip-on diamond-effect earrings. She had her ear facing Mama’s mouth, but a large frown crossed her forehead.

“Ezikiel’s inhaler has run out.”

Mama stopped talking and looked at Ezikiel. He nodded.

“Why leave it till now?” she snapped. “You must have known it was running out.”

Ezikiel shrugged. “I’m sorry, Mama. I used it up playing football. I was running too fast. I was worried we wouldn’t have money for school fees …”

“So now you have no injection and no inhaler! This is ridiculous. Are you stupid?” Mama looked at me when she said “stupid.” I looked at the ground. “I really don’t need this right now. You’re not little children anymore! I told you we’re fine for money! I told you we don’t need to worry now! Nearly adults and can’t even tell me when your inhaler is running out. You need to start taking responsibility for your own lives.” She held up her hands in front of her body. “Look, I have to go to work. Take this.”

She took five American dollars from underneath Alhaji’s breakfast plate and gave it to Grandma. “Take him to the clinic so they can replace it quickly. Get his anaphylaxis injection at the same time.”

I looked at the American dollars. Who had given Mama American dollars?

Mama ran toward the gate, where an okada was letting a neighbor down on the other side. She beckoned him to wait and turned her head back to me, Grandma, and Ezikiel. Grandma was chanting “an-a-phy-lax-is, an-a-phy-lax-is” over and over.

“Don’t let it run out again,” Mama said, as she climbed on, her legs sticking out toward us. Where had Mama found the money for an okada? “For God’s sake, I really don’t need this right now.”

At Radio Street Clinic, the staff were quick getting Ezikiel’s inhaler and injection. We had to wait only a few minutes in the reception area, which had plastic chairs and magazines set out on small tables. Ezikiel was disappointed when Grandma called us to the door. He had just picked up a copy of The Lancet and was flicking through the pages. He found a page about asthma.

“Come quick please,” said Grandma. She held up the brown bag full of inhalers that the nurse at the reception had given her. “I need to get back to prepare dinner.”

As we left, he looked back a number of times.

Grandma rubbed his shoulder. “You will make a good doctor.”

Ezikiel smiled, then looked away quickly.

We walked home along the dusty road, passing people dressed in ripped-up clothes with their palms stretched out, into which Grandma dropped some leftover naira. Blanket markets lined the other side of the road, selling plantain, oranges, yams, wristwatches, eggs, sunglasses, bush meat, Eva Water. Bright flowers grew from the burned-out cars, engines, and carriages that littered the roadside. They smelled as though they were still on fire. We walked past a stall that had a sign balanced on the table:

GUARANTEED CURES AND TONICS FOR:

HEMORRHOIDS AND PROBLEMS OF ANUS

FEVERS AND CHILLS

ACHING BONES

ASTHMA AND BREATHING PROBLEMS

HERPES AND SEXUAL INFECTION

BRAIN TUMOUR AND ALL CANCERS

BARREN WOMEN FERTILITY EXPERT

DR. TOKONI TORULAGHA. THERE IS NO DISEASE I DO NOT CURE. EXCEPT AIDS.

Suddenly we heard gunfire. Real gunfire. It sounded like somebody clapping quickly.

Clapping and clapping and clapping and clapping.

Grandma threw us to the ground as if she had been waiting for it all along. Dust flew into my face and made me cough. All the blanket sellers vanished, leaving their produce. A market with no people. Some women had left the umbrella they had been huddled underneath. It had yellow and blue stripes. I tried to focus on the umbrella, on the stripes.

“Shh.” Grandma put her finger to her lips. “Be quiet.”

It was silent for a few seconds, before I heard the screech of fast tires on the ground. A group of boys drove past in an army vehicle, waving rifles in the air. They wore berets at identical slants on their heads. One of them was wearing a football shirt the same color as Ezikiel’s. They fired more shots into the sky. They were not laughing or drinking; instead they looked all around the roadside, their heads moving in the same direction at the same time. Surely they would see us. I could feel Ezikiel shaking next to me. He took so many puffs on his new inhaler it would be finished by the time we got home. I looked at him. He was blinking very quickly. I put my face in the dirt and closed my eyes. Ezikiel put his arm around my back. I tried not to shake, but I could feel his arm moving up and down and around.

When I opened my eyes, the truck was moving in front of us. The boys looked the same as the boys we had seen in the gunboat, but I knew they must have been different, they wore different colors, and the gunboat boys had been hatless. There were at least ten boys hanging over the sides. I could smell oil. What were these boys doing with guns? Why did they wear berets?

I looked up as they drove away. My heart had crawled up into my neck. I watched them until they were soldier ants. Their rifles looked like long, thin arms pointing up at the sky.

I stood up slowly, brushing the ground-dust from my clothes. I tried to push my heart back down into my chest by swallowing hard.

“Eh!” Grandma dusted herself down. “These foolish Sibeye Boys.”

“Who are they?” I stood back and helped pull Ezikiel up.

“They look just like boys,” said Ezikiel. “They are boys. Not even men. Boys with rifles!”

“They are not the same boys we saw on the river,” I said.

Grandma looked at me suddenly. One of her eyes was higher than the other.

I looked at Ezikiel. He had his head bent to one side. His wheeze was loud at the bottom of his back.

“They are not good boys,” said Grandma. “Taking hostage and money. All they care about is money. They are stupid boys.”

Ezikiel stopped taking deep breaths with his inhaler. His chest was uneven like Grandma’s eyes. “They don’t scare me.”

“They should,” continued Grandma. “These Sibeye Boys, eh!” She shook her head. “Many villages have tasted those guns. Using their juju.” She watched the road where the truck was disappearing from view. “Some say they are bulletproof.”

We watched the vehicle in the distance. Ezikiel had the same expression on his face that he had when Father had left. “Bulletproof,” he whispered. “Wow!”

“Stay away from those boys,” said Grandma, looking straight at Ezikiel.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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