The boy who lives in the yellow two-storey is coiled in a foetal position at the far end of a small, dark room. He is untroubled by the drool of saliva crawling down a pair of cracked, harmattan-whitened lips. His thoughts lay elsewhere. The girl who stays in a newly-built red bungalow with those in-vogue aluminium roofing sheets has not spoken to him in thirteen days. He drags himself away from his present position and tries to squeeze an unnaturally large head through six holes drilled into the wall. He is waiting for the used-up, washed-up, unhappy old crone he calls “moommee” to release him.
The boy’s mother gives him a bowl of garri and kulikuli every afternoon. She has an actual name he cannot remember. Janet or Jemima or Justina. If lunch fails to arrive quick enough, the boy bangs non-stop on the huge iron door with his spoon. His mother adds to the meal, a fried fish head as a peace offering. The room which doubles as a poultry, is cordoned off the main house because moommee wants “privacy.” It smells of chicken shit all the time. While he eats, she drones on about her time as the belle of the village. Every man with a working thing wanted me, even the chief. Men from wealthy families, but your useless father started blocking me every evening at the stream just to get me pregnant and disappear. My uncles had to force him to pay the bride-price. Talking so carelessly always earns both of them a beating. The boy admonishes himself: “Henry, be normal,” and goes so still, it’s almost impossible to breathe. Two red ants race up his thighs and there’s an itch at the tip of his prick. He stifles the urge to scratch. If he impresses her, she might forget the padlock.
“If I catch you…near that fence…” warns the boy’s mother, engulfed in a whooping fit from which she takes intermittent breaks to curse the sickness that has found a home within her chest. He races past her, stops, turns, and says “yez moommee” adding a slight tilt to his shoulders, showing he understands the warning they both know he won’t obey. He scales the fence and dusts his shorts, ignoring an ugly scratch around the knee.
“Kate,” he calls, over and over in nervous whispers. He’s shaking because the girl is his best friend and the only person who ever laughs at his jokes—his words never sound as they do inside his brain. A tragic fear that they have turned her against him strikes his heart so he decides at once, not to return home without seeing her. Beads of water pool under his eyes. It seems she does not care that their sand castles have collapsed and butterflies refuse to visit in her absence. He borrows choice words from his father’s “just a few bottles with the guys” collection, bellowing “fek you” and “die bish.” Goosebumps cover his tingling, pale skin. The green wires dancing underneath, are mocking him. He wants to catch one, pull it out, cut it open and watch his blood gush. He continues shouting until moommee swears loudly, her anger transported over the barrier by the wind. He hurries back not realising that in his haste, spirogyra from the fence find their way into his toes.
The boy cries because he misses the girl’s laughter, batches of joy melting into each other with undulating amplitude. The way her eyes grow bigger and rounder, watching him leap into their compound. Her outstretched hands clasping his as they spin around in a circle until she is out of breath—he always looks out for her first signs of exhaustion. Stripes of a flowery gown gliding in the breeze. He wants to see her even if it means she’d push him away, turn towards the flowers, and lower her voice, excluding him. It makes him want to stamp them under his feet.
The girl’s mother and the boy’s mother trade insults on the steps leading to the front door of the two-storey. She is demanding for that scoundrel and threatening arrest. The boy flattens his cheeks against the ground to catch a glimpse of the commotion. With a quarter of his right eye, through a tiny opening between the edge of the door and the uneven cement floor, he can count four feet; two fat and fleshy, two thin and scrawny. His mother, shrunken in the face of great fury, mutters: “It is God I’m using to beg you, madam. Leave my house. What can I do that I’ve not done, ehn? Will you say you don’t know that his father is good for nothing?”
The boy’s mother buys a bigger padlock—she secures its keys in a rope hanging from her neck, and new chains for imprisoning his ankles and wrists. After days of shitting and pissing himself, his shackles change colour from a glittering silver to a dirty, dusty orange. Garri and kulikuli has become unreliable—the boy waylays and devours the occasional lost cockroach or rat. His mother when she shows up, stares at the ceiling for like five seconds, bawls “Henry,” but when he lifts his eyelashes or turns towards her, she hurries away—horror replacing curiosity, and bolts the lock. He continues asking for Kate until talking hurts his throat too much.
Today is the boy’s birthday. A cadaverous man with a bulky stomach, long limbs and deep-set eyes opens his door late at night. “Papa,” he whispers, out of breath. “Happy birthday,” the man replies, flinging a rubber football his son’s way. A woman he’s been seeing sells sport stuff and offered it for free. The boy mumbles “thank you, papa.” His mother starts complaining about something not being fair. He can’t focus enough to understand. His father’s palms connect with the woman’s face. Slaps. Blows. Spittle. She rains profanities at him, and uses her scarf to wipe blood-mixed snot running down her broken nostrils. This. Happens. Every. Fucking. Birthday.
The boy’s father finds his way out of the room. The battered woman also flees, but returns with a small loaf of bread and fried groundnuts in a white nylon—the type she retails for fifty naira. She tries to mask her disgust at her son’s gluttonous gobbling. The visible part of her face is swollen and multi-coloured. He doesn’t try to please her today. He’s proud of his stench. She leans on her knees and looks frightened when he crawls closer. He giggles until his insides twist in pain and he is coughing blood. This is a fresh development. He’s not sure what it means, but is glad for the change of taste. “Kate,” he begs. He is beginning to realise he will not be alive for long. He forces himself to draw a big “K” on his stomach. He wants to say a lot more, but somewhere between his throat and lips, the words mix with doubt and panic, so he swallows them.
Kate showed up sans notice, same way she left, reclaiming her spot in his life without much ado. She confesses she was in the hospital where she got something called an appendix removed, then back home where she fell sick again. Her mother allows them sit in the corridor and play where she can invigilate. Kate doesn’t mind him running his fingers over the scar as many times as he wishes. He watches her every second, desperate to prevent anything that might make her disappear. She’s got a boyfriend—some guy from school who came to see her after the operation and asked her to be his “lady.” “Can you imagine,” she blushes, turning pink. He wants to strangle the idiot.
The man with the deep-set eyes died in shame which is to say, he and a lady—not our football-trading queen, escaped to a hotel one night, but only one person woke up in the morning. The entire staff of that reputable establishment got a peep at his naked, stiff body before some policemen came and arrested the terrified woman. Kate tells the boy that she overheard her mother gisting her father that the harlot’s husband, tired of her untameable ways, put jazz on her kpomo to kill whoever was “eating his food.” The boy has to hit his head on the wall several times, before his laughter will cease. Janet or Justina or Jemima has not stopped talking since the huge, dark man who sells pirated CDs opposite the bank told her she was his omalicha. Her skin is taking on the colour of ripe mangoes and when she goes out, she wears a girdle under tight-fitting jeans and T-shirts to make her stomach look flat. Her son is out of his cage and fed three times a day. His chains come on at night—one leg to the foot of the bedframe. Men belonging to different strata of society come to console “the poor widow.” It’s the boy’s duty to offer each a plastic chair and one bottle of coke, then go sit noiselessly but alert, on a stool in front of the locked room. She entertains her clients with stories of her many sufferings during “my trial” with “that ingrate.” If there is neither electricity nor fuel for the generator, all three relax on the veranda—heat is one thing for which the boy’s mother has developed a great abhorrence. She cracks jokes, flails both arms and laughs without caution, the way he used to act. Sometimes, these men reach out and rest thick, hairy palms on her laps, working their way upwards, making her purr like a hungry pussycat. This is the boy’s queue to get lost for as long as it takes to build ten sand castles.
Fatima Okhuosami is a graduate of the 2019 International Writing Programme Lines and Spaces Tour held at Abuja, Nigeria. Her works appear online and in-print at: The Kalahari Review, Chillfiltr Review, Everyday Fiction, Agbowo press, 101words.org, Third Word Press, Connotation Press, Kreative Diadem, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, CFwriterz Magazine, etc.
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