Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away | Chapter 25 of 45

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

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Mama paced the veranda for an hour while she waited for Dan and turned white from the breeze. Still, she was not as white as Dan. I had never seen such pale skin.

Of course I had seen white men before, in Lagos, wearing business suits, rushing from their office to their driver, or from their driver to their office, but Dan was surely the whitest man in the world. I could see through the skin on his arms. His veins were the color of the hottest part of a flame. They branched down his hands and forearms, which were poking out from his short-sleeve shirt. The shirt, its top buttons open, was stuck to him with sweat despite the cool of the breeze. I noticed he had no hair on his chest. Even Ezikiel had three chest hairs. I wanted Ezikiel with me, standing next to me. But he would not come out of his bedroom. He had put a chair against the door to prevent me from getting in.

Dan had red hair, the color of a cockroach wing. His lips were pale. At first it looked as if he did not have any. He smiled. His teeth were see-through at the edges. Had he brushed them too hard?

“How are you?” He stepped forward and stretched out his hand toward me. In his other hand he was carrying a red-and-white basketball and a striped hula hoop.

I stumbled backward and nearly fell off the veranda. He laughed. His laugh was very quiet and tinkly. It sounded like he was pretending to laugh at a joke that was not funny. He handed me the hula hoop. His eyes moved up and down and around me.

“Thank you, sir.” I forced a smile at Dan and held the hula hoop tightly. I was wearing a clean wrapper and a T-shirt that said “Nike” on the front. They were my very best clothes, but they were still old enough that tiny holes had appeared from too much washing. I did not own a bra, and there was a tiny hole on the front of my chest. It was only the size of a Lagos mosquito, but it was all I could think about. I crossed my arms, hugged myself.

“Ooh ooh, oyibo oyibo.” Celestine ran toward the veranda. She had changed from her dress into a Lycra top and wrapper. One high-heeled shoe stuck in the ground. She had to stop running toward Dan, take her foot out of the shoe, and bend down to pull it free. While she was pulling her shoe, Dan looked at Mama and raised his eyebrows high. She smirked. I did not like the look that passed between them.

“Hi. You must be Celestine.” Dan reached out as she ran toward him.

Celestine threw his hand aside and knelt at his feet, her head bowed so low she appeared to be kissing his sandals.

“Get up, get up. Please, please,” said Dan.

He offered her his hand. Celestine laughed as she stood. Soon they were both laughing. I’m not sure why they were laughing, but at that moment Grandma walked past. She said nothing but sucked her teeth. It sounded like a bird calling. Then she walked into the house without greeting Dan at all.

“Dan,” Mama said.

Her voice was louder than usual. It made Dan stop laughing. He walked to Mama’s side and coughed, with laughter occasionally still bursting out of him as though he was an engine running out of petrol.

It was late afternoon when Alhaji returned from the Executive Club. He climbed out of the Peugeot to find Dan sitting on his veranda chair, reading an old copy of the Pointer. When Dan lowered the newspaper and revealed his white face, Alhaji’s jaw dropped.

“Welcome, welcome,” he said, after closing his jaw.

As he walked toward the veranda, Alhaji made no other sign that he was not expecting to see a white man sitting on his chair.

“Hello. Pleased to meet you, sir,” Dan said, shaking Alhaji’s hand instead of kneeling or even saying “Doh.”

Alhaji kept his eyes on Dan the whole time, but I could feel the questions leaking from his skin:

Who is this oyibo?

Has he been sent from the Western Oil Company to interview me?

Do they have a crisis in quality management that requires my urgent attention?

Do they want my help in a diplomatic matter involving the fighting between Ijaw and Itsekiri and Urhobo tribes?

Has the president sent this man to deliver his personal reply to my letter (which I wrote some weeks ago)?

I giggled, causing the eye contact between Alhaji and Dan to disappear. Mama stepped forward and opened her mouth to speak just as Celestine said, “This na Timi boyfriend. Dam.”

Mama’s boyfriend? Celestine had it wrong; Mama had said that they were friends.

“Actually, it’s Dan,” said Dan, but nobody was listening.

Alhaji took the Marmite from his medicine bag and unscrewed the lid. He sat in the chair and applied some to both of his temples, rubbing slowly, closing his eyes. It was not a good sign.

We all sat down. Celestine served tea from a chipped china tea set that I had not seen before. My cup and saucer clanked together as though they did not fit.

I could feel Dan watching me. I moved my arm to cover the tiny hole in my T-shirt.

“How’s school, Blessing?”

I looked up at Mama. She nodded very slightly and flicked her eyes toward Dan.

“I do not attend school, sir.” Mama sat back into her chair.

Dan looked at Mama with a thick line between his eyebrows.

I saw the shadow of Grandma in the doorway and felt brave at once. “I am training to be a birth attendant,” I said.

Mama groaned and put her hand over her eyes, and Celestine sucked her teeth. The shadow of Grandma became taller and bigger, and filled the doorway.

Dan did not say much. Every few minutes he took two bottles from his bag: sun cream and mosquito repellent. He sprayed himself all over and then offered the bottles to us. We shook our heads. Then he put the bottles back in his bag. He listened to Celestine’s stories about European Fashions and Professional Town Mourning, and he listened to Alhaji, who had stopped rubbing his temples and started hushing Celestine to bring the conversation back to Petroleum Engineering. Nobody mentioned politics. Or religion. Or Grandma’s shadow in the doorway. Or Ezikiel hiding in the bedroom.

“What are your interests, Dam?” Alhaji eventually asked. He had put the Marmite away in his cosmetic case and taken out a pot of tablets. He shook the pot.

Dan jumped slightly and looked at the gate.

“What team do you support?” Alhaji’s voice sounded squeaky and high as if it was being pushed out too quickly.

Dan looked at the sky and I thought religion would come up, after all.

“Oh, I’m not a football fan,” he said.

Alhaji looked puzzled. “You prefer NBA?”

“No, no.” Dan laughed. “Of course I’m interested in culture and art, music, that kind of thing,” He flashed a look at Mama. “But my main interest is ornithology. Birds.”

I looked at the ground, concentrating on the strap of my sandal.

“Dan’s a keen bird-watcher.” Mama laughed, throwing her head back. I felt my cheeks get hot.

Alhaji scratched his chin. “What do you watch them for?” he asked.

Dan’s smile increased until his see-through teeth were on view and his lips almost disappeared. “I’ve always been fascinated with birds, since I had my first binoculars when I was four. You know, I watch their habits, record the unusual species. It’s really a fascinating hobby. Really fascinating. Really. But of course, I don’t get much time at home. Never enough hours in the day.” He laughed and looked around at us all. We had our mouths wide open. Except Mama. She was smiling and nodding, smiling and nodding.

“It sounds funny when you try and explain it,” said Dan, still laughing.

Nobody spoke. Alhaji had stopped rubbing his chin. A large frown between his eyebrows was splitting his head into two. Eventually a bird flew over us.

Alhaji jumped up. “Look! There’s one!” He pointed to the sky, stabbing the air with his outstretched finger. “Do you need a pen and paper to record it?”

Dan smiled. “Oh no. Thanks.”

A few seconds later and another bird flew over us. Then another. “There! Two birds! You see? Get a pen for him. Quick!”

“Please, no, no, thank you. No, honestly. No, no, thank you, really,” said Dan. “I only record the unusual species.”

Alhaji sat down and folded his arms. “Well, why say something when you mean something else? You said you like to record the birds. Most species here are unusual. No gray birds in our country! You are in Nigeria. You see?” Alhaji said Nigeria in four parts: Ni-ger-i-a.

Celestine refilled our cups, and we all slurped our tea. All except Dan, who was a silent tea drinker. But I did notice that his cup and saucer were also clanking together.

Celestine tutted loudly, then smiled at Dan, before walking away slowly, with such hip movement that she reminded me of a riverboat during a storm. Grandma walked past with a bucket and went back to her garden area, where she poured water on her herbs and cacti. She started talking, loudly. “A wise fish knows that a beautiful worm that looks so easy to swallow has a sharp hook attached to it.” Then she whistled. I had never heard Grandma whistle before.

Snap came running toward us, and saw Dan. He growled for the first time in his life and ran at Dan’s leg, which was uncovered by his very short trousers.

Snap opened his mouth and bit.

Dan was collected by a Mercedes containing a driver and a security guard who was carrying a rifle. The guard was wearing mirrored sunglasses, making it impossible to know where his eyes were looking, or even if he was asleep behind them. I wondered if the glasses were given in school when he learned how to be a security guard. Did such a school exist? Or was he given a rifle and a pair of sunglasses by the Western Oil Company? Why did Ezikiel not come out of his room? Why did Mama lie and say that Dan was only a friend?

These questions filled my head as Dan was saying good-bye to Mama. They were kissing underneath the almond trees. Dan did not notice the black kite hovering high above them. He did not hear Grandma muttering. “Big trouble,” she said repeatedly. “Wahala, wahala, wahala.”

•   •   •

Ezikiel came out much later. “I don’t want to hear about the oyibo,” he said. He had been acting strangely since he arrived back from school, but he would still not tell me what had happened. Maybe he got a B instead of the A he was hoping for? He cannot have failed. That was not possible. But as I watched him closely, I felt bubbles in my stomach. He did not look at Mama. He did not even look at me. I thought he might go to Alhaji’s room and read, but he remained nearby, playing with the basketball, weaving it in and out of his long legs as he listened to Celestine talk about Dan. Even the ball sounded sad as it bounced slowly, with a dull thump on the ground. I kept my hula hoop on my lap. I did not want to upset Grandma further, but I could not wait to put it around my middle.

Snap was lying pining and wailing under the veranda. Boneboy was stroking him and singing to him. Alhaji had had to kick Snap to get him off Dan’s leg. Snap was not a dog used to being kicked. His ears had flattened and he had cried a new-baby cry.

“He bit him hard,” Celestine said.

We all shook our heads. “Poor man,” we muttered. “Terrible thing to happen.”

Grandma leaned forward. “I bet he thought it was a bone.”

“What?” asked Alhaji.

“Well, that oyibo’s leg,” continued Grandma. “All white and thin. I bet poor Snap thought he was lucky to find such a bone.”

A few seconds passed while we looked at one another. Celestine let out a laugh. Then Grandma. Then Alhaji. Then me. The laughter built up so much that tears were running down our faces. We laughed so hard we had to hold our bellies. We could not stop. Then Ezikiel looked at Mama and said, “I wish Snap had bitten him harder and broken his leg.”

Everyone fell silent.

I picked up the broom and pretended to concentrate on sweeping the floor. My ears were wide open.

“This white friend. This white man. This oil worker.” He spat the words out of his mouth as if they tasted disgusting. He looked straight at Mama and raised his body high, puffed out his skinny chest. “You say he’s a friend?”

“That’s right. I told you. He’s a friend. You should really have come out to greet him. It was a bit disrespectful, Ezikiel.”

“You know the reason he is your friend?”

“Ezikiel, I don’t have time for this. I’m tired. Anyway, what are you talking about?”

“This white man. This friend.” Ezikiel paused. I opened my mouth to speak, to say something before Ezikiel said something worse. Maybe he really had failed his exams? He was going to say something bad. I needed to stop him. But the words got stuck and did not come out. Ezikiel was about to say something worse, and I could not speak to stop him.

“I don’t want money from your friend. I don’t want school fees from him. I refuse to go to school with his money! He’s after one thing,” Ezikiel said. “One thing only. You are prostituting yourself!”

The bottom of my stomach dropped. I did not even pretend to sweep. I was still, but the broom was shaking. Maybe I misheard. Surely, Ezikiel would never speak to Mama in that way. Alhaji’s mouth dropped open. Celestine screamed. Grandma said nothing but raised one eyebrow and spat into the air, quietly.

Mama moved quickly; she slapped Ezikiel across the cheek. The words were suddenly out of my mouth. “Stop,” I said. “Please stop, please!” But my voice was lost to the sound of the slap, which took many seconds to leave my ears. Ezikiel turned his back to Mama. He walked at first, but his feet became quicker and quicker and quicker until he was running. He was crying as he ran toward the river. Mama gave me a look so fierce the broom jumped from my hands and fell to the ground.

It was evening when the electricity suddenly returned. We jumped up into the air. I ran after Ezikiel into Alhaji’s bedroom. I pushed the plug for the fan into the wall and stood right in front of it, letting the cool air cover my face and neck. The radio flashed to life with the electric: 12:00, 12:00, 12:00. It reminded me of the sign above the doorway of the Evangelical Church of the Christ Almighty on the road toward Warri. Except Alhaji’s clock radio flashed 12:00, and the sign above the doorway of the Evangelical Church of the Christ Almighty flashed words, such as REDEEM YOUR SOUL BEFORE IT IS TOO LATE, or WASH YOUR SINS AWAY THIS SUNDAY, or ONLY THE RIGHTEOUS WILL BE SAVED. We usually found JFM station and listened to music dancing around Alhaji’s room, but that day, Ezikiel turned the dial to a talk station. I sat down next to him on the mattress. His face was swollen and his eyes were red. What had happened to him?

“Is it your exam results?” I asked. “Did you get lower grades?”

Ezikiel looked at me through his red eyes. He took his report card from his pocket and passed it to me. I held it in my hands for many seconds before turning it over.

Fail! Fail! Ezikiel had never failed exams!

“The Sibeye Boys are looking for new youth members. We are not a terrorist group. I repeat, we are not a terrorist group.”

Ezikiel picked up the radio and looked at it. The sound was not clear. He turned the dial slightly to the left, and there was no sound. He turned it slowly to the right.

I looked again at the report in my hands. I had to read the word “fail” over and over, but still it did not look real.

“Is there no truth, sir, is there no truth that the group is involved with the illegal arms trade, bunkering oil, and even the abduction of hostages?”

“There is no truth whatsoever that our group is involved with these activities. But we do have sympathies for such groups. We believe that our oil riches belong to our people.”

The static returned. Ezikiel turned the dial farther to the right and then tried holding the radio in the air above his head.

“… criminals are the politicians, with their billions-of-dollar bank accounts. The government task forces and the oil company security forces have wiped out whole Delta villages. The Sibeye Boys stand for the Ijaw people. We will fight for the people and take back what is rightfully ours—”

The electricity stopped working before we could hear the rest of the argument. But even though the radio was no longer switched on, Ezikiel did not move. I waved my arm in front of his face but got no reaction.

“Bloody NEPA PLC,” he said.

“Never ever power always please light candle,” I sang, but Ezikiel did not laugh. He did not move at all.

“Ezikiel,” I said. He did not move. He just stared straight ahead as though he was still listening.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “It must have been all the time in hospital. All the time off.”

Ezikiel leaned forward. “I don’t care about school,” he said. “I won’t take money from that oyibo for school fees. And I don’t care about being a doctor.”

I let my mouth drop open. Why was Ezikiel lying?

I looked again at the card. Something turned in my head. Underneath the word “fail” were even worse words:

“Advised to Leave School.”

I put my hand to my mouth. Advised to leave school! That was the real reason that Ezikiel had to leave! I had only ever known one boy to be advised to leave, and he had something wrong with him. It cannot be the right card. I checked it again. Advised to Leave School.

Mama was going to kill Ezikiel.

Ezikiel snatched the card from my hands and pushed it back into his pocket. “I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t even care.”

“I do not understand! How can they do this? You are such a good pupil!”

“I’m not surprised,” said Ezikiel. “Think how long I left an empty seat in the classroom. All that time off.”

“But that is not your fault. Not your fault.”

“Yes, but not doing the work they set is my fault. Failing my exams is my fault. And anyway, I don’t even care.”

I looked at Ezikiel for a long time.

I imagined a white coat lift from his back and fly off toward the moon.

“Blessing, Blessing.” Ezikiel called me from the other side of the gate. Why did he not come into the compound? I walked over from where I had been cooking on the fire. The compound was empty. Why was Ezikiel hiding outside? I wondered if he was avoiding Dan. I wondered if he was avoiding Mama, whom he still had not told about his report card.

“What are you doing out here?”

“Come.” Ezikiel held out his hand. In his other hand he held something wrapped in a piece of material.

My heart began to race. “What is that? What’s going on?”

“Come,” he whispered. “Shh.”

Did he have a present for me? Where did he get the money for a present? Fear fell into my stomach. Ezikiel was wild-eyed, all limbs, clumsy and twitchy. He pulled me away from the compound and toward the river. By the time we got there, sweat was dripping down the back of my knees and sand flies were biting at my arms. “Where are we going?”

Ezikiel stopped at the riverbank. He was out of breath. He bent forward and rested his elbows on his knees. His spine curled through his skin and T-shirt like a chain. The river was dark and shiny with a layer of oil. The trees had lost their reflections. I could see the men trapping fish farther along the river, through the mangroves’ thick claws. “Ezikiel,” I said, “will you tell me what is going on?”

Ezikiel’s breathing was normal again. He put the material-covered object on the ground and unwrapped it. I squatted next to him. As the material opened, something bright flashed from inside. Fireflies.

The fireflies flashed even though it was daylight. There must have been twenty in the jar. “I caught them all,” said Ezikiel. I picked up the jar and looked at them closely. They seemed to flash in unison. Between flashes they looked like regular bugs, but flashing, they were beautiful. They glowed like Celestine’s clothes. The air around them became slightly green.

Ezikiel stood. “I have brought you here to be my witness.”

“How did you catch them?” I asked, looking into the jar. “What are you talking about?”

From his trouser pocket he took his asthma inhaler and adrenaline injection.

“Do you need them?” I asked. “I don’t hear a wheeze.”

Ezikiel laughed. “I no longer need them,” he said. “I no longer need any medicine at all.”

He turned and faced the river.

“What do you mean?” I asked, but I knew. Even before he raised his arm. Even before he pulled it back. Even before the inhaler and injection went flying through the air and landed in the oily water.

The injection sank immediately. The inhaler bobbed for a few seconds. I thought about going in to get it. I was scared of the oily water. The river was deep and I couldn’t swim. There were crocodiles. But Mama would surely kill Ezikiel for that foolishness. The inhaler floated downstream, a pale blue piece of plastic that had saved Ezikiel’s life many times. Then it disappeared.

“Oh, you are going to be in so much trouble.”

“I don’t need them. I told you. I’m invincible.”

“Ezikiel, Mama is going to kill you! Are you crazy? She will kill both of us! She has not even seen your report and now this? Oh, we are in so much trouble.”

“Mama cannot kill me. Even bullets cannot kill me.”

He picked up the firefly jar. From the material he showed me a photograph. A small boy the same age and height as Ezikiel was leaning against a Mercedes. He was holding a rifle. His eyes were wild; he was smiling and held the rifle in such a way to make me think it had just shot someone. My breath was coming fast.

“Who is it?” I asked. “What is that?”

Ezikiel waved the picture in front of my eyes. “This is our president’s son. It is time for young men like me. It is our time.”

I could barely hear Ezikiel’s words. I kept glancing at the water where the medicine had disappeared. Ezikiel had turned the firefly lid slowly, putting his fingers at the top of the inside, until a firefly was near to him. Then he suddenly grasped and took his hand out before screwing the lid tightly back on.

“What are you doing?”

“I am protected from harm,” he said. He waved his red string bracelet at me. “My asthma is cured.”

I looked at Ezikiel carefully, but I did not recognize him at all.

Ezikiel put the firefly in his mouth and swallowed.

The firefly flashed in his throat.

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user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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