The wind rattled the corrugated roof of our one-story apartment building in the outskirt of Owerri main city. We lived on the first floor with its veranda facing the uncompleted house where Joe Ninety was busy putting splinters of wood together and was about to set them on fire. She poured kerosene on the wood, struck a match, and dropped it. she quickly stepped back and watched the flame bite at her like an angry dog. Mother said something about the dusty windows, Father said something about the colonialists stealing South African lands. This was July 1993, mother’s stomach was almost out, Aunty Nkoli had already come and left. She gifted Mother a blue baby bath washbowl which she stored on top of the wardrobe in our bedroom. The maize comb had begun to mature, their silk had turned brown at the tip, and the green leaves burned with light from the early morning sun.
Joe Ninety began to shout again, this time around it was about Simeon her eldest son, a good for nothing man who at thirty-five still fed from Joe Ninety’s hands and meekly swallowed all the earthly insults that came out of her mouth, day after day. I used to imagine how gruesome waking up must have been for him, worst of all, enduring the stench of Joe Ninety’s mouth every day of his life. He was short and squatty. He walked with a slight limp. He was funny and tricky at the same time, especially when he made his awkward jokes. He did try to make something out of himself, but he was lousy at it. He opened a barbershop which didn’t last for more than a year. He used to cut our hair on Sundays because father had no money to send us to another barber at the marketplace who was terrible at his job too. At some point, I stopped going to Simeon’s place and saved a little more for the funky barbershop with green and red dancing light, right by the main road. The barber there always added a little style to my hair and told me it was called punk. On my way back when someone asked me what style I had on; I would gladly say Punk! Simeon barbing skills were crude, he used clippers that clattered like a roaring engine to manually scrap hair out of our head right by the pear tree with its leaves touching the rusty metal roof. I doubt if he ever made anything meaningful out that venture. Every day that I watched that house through our louvers, it seemed as if something invisible was eating through the foundation of their lives, slowly tearing their sanity to pieces. Felix her husband, a man who was quiet as a still glass in a cupboard, all of sudden decided to leave the house where Joe Ninety was almighty lord and savior and dished the food herself according to everyone’s endeavor in the family. Felix was no better. Felix never had a job, never drank, never chased after women like the other men on the street. I saw him occasionally, almost like a flash, very early in the morning, and sometimes, late in the evening. One day, he disappeared from the face of the earth and we never saw him again. From our windows, one could see reality reeling ceaselessly.
“Simeon, where are you? I asked you to start cooking the rice and you went ahead to do something I don’t know,” Joe Ninety screamed and woke the street from sleep.
Simeon walked out from the corner of the house dragging his trousers, adjusting the rope sewn to the girdles, and murmuring something inaudible to me. Maybe he called for a truce and Joe Ninety calmed down. The television started playing Hugh Masekela’s, Stimela. Gradually, a jolting sound thundered through the television speakers and startled me. Trains huffed and puffed through the South African grassland. Open terra firma, sons of stones with sore eyes and tired minds, squeezing themselves to get on that soulless train that traversed the length of South Africa. I turned away from the window and looked at my Father. He sighed and groaned in pain. The crease on his face darkened and his eyes blinked. He was still healing from an accident that tore away his flesh and nearly ate into his bones. His eyes were filled with pity and hopelessness. A sharp bitterness shot across his face.
“The brutal bloody colonialists,” father said and sighed again.
...There is a train that comes from Angola and Mozambique...
Deep, deep, deep down in the belly of the earth are they digging
and drilling for that mighty evasive stone ...
Jikichim. Jikichim. Jikichim.
An imaginary trained waltzed through my subconscious and lumbered into the belly of the river with mist roaring in the distance above Joe Ninety’s uncompleted building, carrying men I would never know and would never see their faces, but conjured from within the rattling metallic voice of Hugh Masekela. These men worked for nothing, they toiled day and night and night without food and rattled back into the trumpet when he blew life into it.
“What eats you eats us,” father said and looked at Hugh Masekela performing in Graceland.
I watched birds gather on the orange tree which belonged to our neighbor that lived upstairs. They owned a large portion of the garden in front of our fence where the corn silks were browning. They once laid claim to all the fruits in the garden. Her children told long stories about how they were the first family to move into the apartment, and that was why the landlord left the piece of land in front of the house to their care. Simeon was now splitting firewood, while Joe Ninety walked around with wrapper tied around her chest. She occasionally stirred the pot of rice around and brushed her teeth with a chewing stick at the same time. Lucky enough that was it for Joe Ninety today, which was unlike her. Her usual self would have screamed down the street for a lot less.
It was early Sunday morning, down the river where the train rattled past, the weather was cloudy, but right above Joe Ninety’s house, there was blue sky. We all went to the early morning mass and returned before sunrise. Father never went to church, he believed it was another of the white man’s trick to enslave the African mind. His father never went to church until he was in his seventies before he agreed to be baptized and wed in church. The wedding took place at St. Peters Cathedral. My grandmother dressed in a wedding gown and matched through the altar while her grandchildren sat in the church pews, clapping for them.
Mother bought our clothes with her last penny. She didn’t want her children looking as if they were infested with poverty. Everyone hated poverty here. Yet, its claws were inching into their dried veins season after season. My grandparents sat in the back of a brown Mercedes-Benz car on their way back from Church. Later that evening, they cut the cake together and took pictures. Yet, after accepting Christ, grandfather refused to part with his ofo. He said the spirit of his ancestors abhorred it. He stood up and walked towards the garden where his grandchildren’s umbilical cords were clipped to trees through two generations. He touched the trees, one by one, as if each one was blooming with memories. When Grandfather died, they laid him in state and everyone looked at his face again. Even in death, he was a handsome man. His jaw was white and full of hair.
A train rattled past my mind, past the river. It dropped men at a station somewhere in Soweto and rattled to the next city. I saw my father, my mother, my grandfather, Joe Ninety, Felix, and Simeon, seating on the train. The train burrowed deep into the hinterlands to seek out souls for its endless journey.
The scream of the metal train rattled out of Masekela’s mouth and hurried deep into the clouds gathering above the riverside. I turned away from the window and face father, his eyes where red, his eyes were beginning to go bad too. He stood up and walked over to the brown bookshelf and picked his copy of Zambia Shall be Free by Kenneth Kaunda.
“Our revolutionaries, the black man has suffered. I am telling you,” he said in his usual forceful manner. He turned the book and looked at the picture of Kenneth Kaunda again and sighed, “our revolutionaries.”
“Nobody ever gets anything right anymore. Nobody. Not even Nigeria. Since 1960 after independence, yet the black man is still suffering, things are getting worse. Look at these men, still fighting for their right to exist as a human being. Our bloody educated leaders are the ones me two years’ salary. What heartless beast owes another human one years’ salary and still disguises as human?” He brushed his hand across his solid dark hair.
“Since 1960! Since, yet we are still fighting for electricity in this country, ordinary electricity, ordinary water. Soon they will take the light and plug their ancestors into darkness, evil human beings,” he said.
“Why didn’t you fight to become a leader after independence,” I asked innocently, my eyes beaming with excitement.
He laughed and laughed and asked someone to get him the pawpaw he left in the fridge.
“Oh, you are laughing at me. Let me tell you, I saw the white people oh. All the men in our village who first received the Whiteman’s education are now considered leaders. These men you call leaders are children of catchiest who first joined the white men and sold their brother out for eternal life. Eternal life my feet,” he said and sighed. He chose to see the world through a cynical lens and that must have followed him for the rest of his life.
“Ojukwu fought for the very soul of this country. Ojukwu fought for something beyond independence. He fought for the Igbo people with passion. But what happened to him? Chaos chased him away from his father’s land into exile. He is the only Igbo leader that earned his respect among his people. Our revolutionaries. Leaders. Great leaders. Criminals. Crooks and despots who have looted our lands just like the white men. One of these days, you should read the animal farm,” he walked over to the bookshelf and searched for a copy of the animal farm. A blueish book with an outline of a pig and two farmers digging through hays with shovels traced on it. He pulled it out and walked towards me.
“This is what you should be reading at this time.” He threw the book at me. I caught it midair and tapped the cover lightly. Dust from the cover settled in my nostrils. I looked at the book and placed it on the side stool. I read it later.
My sister walked in and left the fruit on a stool, in a steel tray covered with a plastic tray. He thanked her and began eating. He called her his grandmother’s name. He believed it was his grandmother who came back as my sister. Mother said it was a lie, she said it was her dead senior sister who reincarnated in my sister. Mother corrected him while standing behind the blue cushion with weakened leather peeling away in the July heat. She said calling my sister the wrong name brought disaster upon her when she was a kid. It made the little girl sick. She said it was until her sister appeared to her in a dream and told her it was her and they began to call my sister her sister’s name that she became well again.
Our neighbor walked past the dining window, sniveled, and spit into her cup. She was pregnant too. She was the one who got the smaller portion of the gardening land in front of our apartment building. Soon she sat in front of her house and began screaming the name of all her children just to make a show of the new shoes she bought for them. Father asked me to shut the louvers, but that didn’t stop her voice from filtering in. I sat right back on my seat and starred from photograph to photograph. Father and mother seating in a car after their wedding and smiling through the windscreen when the camera light flashed. Then me as a little boy, dripping saliva from my lips, holding up a clenched fist with a heavenly smile to go with it. My eldest sister, dressed in a blue pinafore, holding a flower and wearing her nursery school graduation hat. My younger sister standing with my father and brother, her bow legs curved beyond recognition.
As if Father saw it coming, the electricity tripped off. The shuddering sound of Masekela’s train rattled through my mind and stayed there. I had recently read a lot of African series and learned about the exploitation of South Africans through the apartheid system. I’ve had read Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams and loved the world he built around bodies working in the mine. I read only when I had the time, but I was learning to escape in those pages. I was ten or eleven, not tall for my age, even my mother was beginning to wonder if I was having a sort of growth deficiency. I wasn’t short either. I was taller than Chuky, the boy in school whose father taught in the college nearby. He was small. So small that when he sat in front of his father 505 Peugeot car, he had difficulty seeing us. Somethings he managed to raise his hands and wave at us. Then we hadn’t learned how to scale that fence by the school side to steal plasticine from the art institute so we could make our artworks. We molded toy soldiers, men, women, objects, and spent most of the evenings designing them with watercolor. After that, we left them beside the water tank in the backyard to dry.
“Let me tell you a story. It is good to tell you, young boys, the story because that is what our fathers gave us too,” Father said.
“What the South Africans are fighting for right now, we once fought for. I still remember the story of a newly appointed black warrant officer in our village during the colonial time. He was a proud man, happy to fill the little space the Whiteman made for them. He walked as if the whole world belongs to him, always puffy, always putting on a red hat tucked slightly to the right. A titled chief. Mazi Okosis. A man of the people. Mazi Okosis. It was through him that the government built the road that ran straight through our house in the village. I mean, then some things were working. Not now that incompetence has killed the civil service. Somebody created by God is owing his fellow human being a year salary and still acts normal,” he lamented.
The funniest part was that they later owed him three years’ salary in a roll, yet the heavens didn’t fall. The sky didn’t break a sweat. The river still flowed west and a lazy sun always rose from the east. It drifts opposite the moonlight until its light fades and the moon brightens the night. If our lives were ruled by gods, it was almost a cruel joke when viewed from the imaginary clouds my head, where the music left my mind, sealed.
“Mazi Okosis used to collect tax at Afor market. He embraced the colonialist violence and cruelty and treated his brothers like lesser human beings. There was another man that morning, a trader, Mazi Okaka, a titled chief, a man who used to wrestle around the villages, built like a hawk. He had once beaten a man to a pulp before, during a wrestling match. Mazi Okaka was selling yam in the market when Okosis and his men arrived. It an afor market day. I arrived at the market to sell vegetables or something, I can’t remember clearly now...” Father stopped and stared at the clock on the wall, the time was exactly eight o’clock. The rain had started falling, rattling the roofs above us. I felt a little bit sad, but I couldn’t tell why. It was a big apartment with three families in it. Two on the ground floor and one family lived on the first floor. Some had it all, while others had nothing. Some had cars, land, and wealth of businesses, while the civil servants endured the brutal military regime and years of unpaid salaries. Father spent most of his evenings in farmland, planting, and harvesting.
“Mazi Okosis walked into the market with two policemen. Colonial policemen, original kotomer. They were wielding den guns and threatened to use it. Everyone started running except Mazi Okaka. He stood there and drew an imaginary line in his mind like a man. Back then, the forest right behind the market place was nothing but the home of the gods. Christianity has destroyed a lot of things. Let me tell you, Okosis walked up to him and asked him ‘where are your tax papers?’ and Okaka answered: ‘I haven’t even sold anything, I will pay tax when I make sell. Is it not so my people?’ and the people answered him ‘Yes, it is,’ they answered and gradually inched away from Okosis and his men. Heaven, the land has given eyes to the blind, the blind has seen what is hidden from mortals. It is the way of the gods. Okosis opened his palm and dabbed a slap across Okaka’s face, tawayiii. The sound echoed across the neighboring villages before returning to settle on those raffia huts holding the trader’s ware. Mazi Okaka touched his chin and looked into the sky and nothing but tears came down from his eyes. The sun was soft and dry that morning,” Father sighed again and looked at the clock on the wall.
The train rattling through my imagination shattered the white cold walls, buzzing with sunlight and traces of war. My father and grandfather were still on the train. Simeon was nowhere to be found, but his father was on the train. His father saw war. He watched dead bodies arrive from northern Nigeria in 1967. The memories of the Biafra war reeled before them, from time to time. To me, our history was nothing but books in the brown bookshelf leaning against the wall.
How did men distill human memories into books?
It was a question I had no answer for, but I wanted to try. My father was reading Macbeth while the train transverse the length of African rivers. The train eats human sweat and spits money into the coffers of the colonialists. A drum rattling in my mind brought me back to consciousness, my father smiled and watch the sun rays slanting through the dining windows.
Sixteen hours a day for almost no pay
“Okaka looked at himself and cried. ‘Okaka, me, slapped by a man without a title. A man that has no respect among his kinsmen.’ An agent of the bloody capitalists. Okaka wiped his face like a man and swallowed his saliva. He was a very handsome man indeed. I am telling you what I witnessed, not hearsay. Okaka waited for years until after independence, when the white men had left and handed over to us, to take his revenge. Right at the same market, many years after, when Okosis was weak and frail, he came to the market to buy food one day, unknown to him, it was the day the gods has chosen to pay him back. A man that kills his kinsman can never be addressed as a brave man; he is nothing but a coward. Okaka emerged from the bush and tailed Okosis. He waited until he inched close to the same spot where Okosis slept him several years ago. Okaka sprang up in front of Okosis and gave him a dirty slap that rattled his jaw at least four generations back. They all felt that slap. A few of his teeth flew out of his mouth. Okosis was a coward. Even years after, Okaka took his revenge. What a man gives to another is to keep for him. What a father gives to a son is inheritance. The life of the sea, the life of the land. May it never spill blood again. What has been given has been taken, even the law of Moses favors it. That was it, my son.”
The smell of curry in stew filtered through the living room. Mother must have finished cooking. I turned on the radio to IBC and listened to a Sunday radio program which we never missed to listen to every Sunday. The radioman cackled again and said “tunes of yesterday that deserve another listening, if only for the old-time sakes,” and began playing Ibi Na Bo by Rex Lawson.
There were soft drinks in the fridge, soups, fruits, plantains, and many other things tied in black plastic bags. The claws of hunger were slowing inching carelessness towards us at this time. But the story of hunger can take forever.
The train struck through the hills around the Zambezi river and dropped off Simeon where the sun was burning hot. An old woman set up a shop in front of the road, offering water to those whose curse it was to climb through the desert for a journey of self-discovery. Simeon was cursed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He must role them across the desert and back, for an eternity. Men tried everything to stop the train, and yet it continued to explore new rails. Picking men from stations all over Africa. Maybe it was my destiny to ride on the train too. The train was filled with nothing but hunger and starvation. Yet no one dared to stop it. Father read Macbeth for the rest of the journey. He kept smiling at nothing. I couldn’t tell if he was hungry or angry or mad at the same time. He never got out of the train. He wasn’t even assigned an undignified job which was worse than being on the train for eternity. Something rattled my inside and brought me back to the heaviness of our living room.
What eats you eats us.
I heard those words again in my head, my father was now sleeping, his mouth open and flies danced around the dining table. I imagined the flies coming close to his mouth, I imagined him slapping himself out of irritation. I laughed at myself. I opened the book and started reading. When I heard the noise again from Joe Ninety’s house, I turned around and looked. Now it seemed as if Joe Ninety had gone completely mad, she chased Simeon around the house with burning firewood.
When she got tired, she wheeled her food cart towards the sunset and left her home. Five to six coolers of food stacked in a truck. The muscles on her legs jolting with each push. She was strong, she tried her best like every other person living in the street. In her good days, she let us play soccer in front of her house.
I put my head down on the windowsill and let the wind coming from the north sing me to sleep. Her song came from the sea. It spoke to me in the language of the sea and made my dreams colorful. I saw myself again running around the bank of the river, chasing butterflies. Soon, those claws fitted into my consciousness began to dig through the river and crunched the butterflies under its iron teeth. The beast’s cries woke me up. Mother’s eyes were watching me. she must have known. She must have seen it too; those eyes fitted in the river that woke me from sleep.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said, “I keep seeing the devil’s fingers in my dream.”
“Then you must pray against it,” she said. Her eyes were resolute and firm. A few minutes later, I found my way to the field to catch grasshoppers.
Chika Onyenezi is a Nigerian-born fiction candidate enrolled in the University of Maryland’s MFA program. He is a semifinalist for the Boston Review 2020 Aura Estrada Short Story Contest, and has placed in competitions by Glimmer Train. His short story “Twenty Thousand Cedis” won the 4th Annual Scoundrel Time Editors’ Choice Award in Fiction. He is a 2018 Kimbilio Fellow, and a 2019 writer-in-residence at Craigarden. His short stories has been nominated for Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in TriQuarterly, Image Journal, Prairie Schooner, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Chicago Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Evergreen Review, and elsewhere. In addition to writing short stories, he has a novel in progress. You can find him at www.chikaonyenezi.com