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Authors: Ben Okri

Tags: #prose, #World, #sf_fantasy, #Afica

The Famished Road (4 page)

BOOK: The Famished Road
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The flies buzzed. The officer waved the fetish in the air. It had emerald snakelike eyes which glittered in the muted lights. The officer said something and the first of the seven figures got up. He became a man with small eyes and a thin moustache. He sweated nervously along the nose. Trembling slightly, he held the image. Then in a tone of sudden vehemence, he swore an oath of allegiance. The moth circled his head.
He swore that under the terrible gaze of the goddess, and under the threat of death, he was honest about the money he had collected, and which he was now presenting.
The seated figures broke into a frightening chant. When they stopped, the first man, sweating intensely in the hot room, broke off a bit of kaoline, chewed some, and marked his forehead with the rest. In a tremulous voice he said that if he had betrayed his oath in any way he should be run over by a lorry. He made a guttural sound. He consecrated his statement by drinking of the potion in the calabash. He brought out the money he had collected, and placed it on the table. Then he sat back into the semidarkness, and became a figure again.
The police officer counted the money with infinite patience. He grunted, stared at the first man, gave him his share, put some under the saucer, and kept the rest. The ritual was repeated with all the men. The moth circled them the whole time. The second man swore his oath, presented his money briskly, and sat. The third man was huge—broad, big-bellied, with a piercing voice, and dull eyes which roved over the room. The fourth was fat, good-humoured, and he made a joke or two, which was received in stern silence. He completed his oath by brandishing a red knife. With discernible reluctance, he presented his money. The fifth man was smallish and had a grating voice. His oath was an interminable improvisation on the theme of his honesty. Swearing to innumerable gods, uttering the names of secret shrines, he shouted that the deities should kill his only son if he was lying. The police officer flinched. The fifth man sat down.
The sixth man was thin, tall, and dignified. He didn’t sweat. The moth didn’t circle him as he enacted his ritual, and the lamp brightened perceptibly when he ended his chant. When the next figure rose a noise sounded behind me, and I hid. Nothing happened. I went back to watching the scene, fascinated that the moth had alighted on the forehead of the seventh man. All through his oath, sweating furiously, he did nothing to get rid of it. He swore his allegiance in an intense mood. And while he was drinking of the potion, swearing his eternal honesty, a photograph of the police officer’s son crashed to the floor. The glass didn’t break in the frame. The hurricane lamp flickered, grew in illumination, and I watched the moth beating its wings against the hot glass. The other figures stared silently at the seventh man. In an unshaken voice, he went on with his oath, while placing his money on the table. Then suddenly, without completing his oath, he put on his cap, and left the house.
The ceremony proceeded as if nothing odd had taken place. The men drank heavily, talked in whispers, improvised songs, and danced vigorously. When the meeting ended, they put on their caps, made their fraternal greetings, and stumbled out of the house in drunken merriment.
I went back to my room. I waited for the last of them to leave. And then I waited for silence. When the silence came I crept out to the sitting room. The police officer was sprawled in an armchair, his shirt soaked through with sweat. There was a fleck of foam at the corner of his mouth. A fly alighted on his lower lip, wringing its spindly arms, drinking of his sleep.
The room stank of sweat and khaki, blood and feathers, ash and fear. The moth had made of itself a burnt offering. Blood had stained the table. Bundles of notes showed from the shirt pocket of the police officer’s uniform. The feathered goddess was now on a nail above the door, directly opposite the picture of Christ and the legend.
The police officer snored. I tiptoed past him, opened the front door quietly, and stepped out into the night. I began to move away when my legs brushed against something hairy. Managing to hold back my scream, I found myself staring into the luminous eyes of a white dog. The dog regarded me for a long time as though it were in two minds whether to raise an alarm. I made a friendly sign, went back into the house and, creeping past the sleeping form of the police officer, slid into my room.

 

I stayed in bed and didn’t sleep. I tried to interpret all the noises of the house. I heard voices in the wall saying that a victim was awaiting its sacrifice. In the morning the police officer told his wife to keep the doors locked at all times. In the afternoon she went out. She stayed a long time. When she returned I heard her in the kitchen. After a while she brought a plate of beans and fried plantain and left it outside my door. I took it in but didn’t eat. My hunger got so great that I became dizzy. Throughout the afternoon and evening I suffered the tormenting mockery of my spirit companions.
When I couldn’t bear my hunger any more I brought out the plate and was about to eat when a bad smell wafted up from the food. I found a newspaper, poured the food between its pages, hid the wrapping, and left the empty plate outside the door.
That night, in the dark, with my eyes pressed tight, and with all the fury of my empty stomach, I summoned up the image of my mother. When I saw her very clearly, I spoke to her, begging her to come and save me. After I had spoken to her I fell asleep, certain that she had heard me.
Seven
I HEARD SOMETHING rattling the roof. It had started to rain. The wind beat against a window. I got out of bed, crazed with hunger. I sat on the floor, huddled in the dark, and when there was a knock I didn’t even move. The door opened and a giant figure said:
‘Come and eat with us.’
Mesmerised by hunger, I followed the man to the dining table. I sat down morosely and stared at the flies singing over the food. The police officer’s wife filled my plate with generous quantities of pounded yam, choice selections of goat meat, and soup rich in vegetables. The food smelt wonderful and the steam from the bowl occupied the room with its tomato and oregano seasonings. My hunger made the world seem bluish. For the first time I understood the atmosphere of the house, I understood why the spirit had entered me. When I blinked I saw ghosts around the police officer and his wife. They were all over the room. The ghosts were tall and silent and some had weak beards. An incubus with white wings hovered near the window. I blinked again and saw a spirit with eight fingers and a single twinkling eye. Another, in a policeman’s uniform, had an amputated foot. He ate of the food with bloodstained hands a moment before the officer did. A ghost, existing as only a pair of milk-white legs, balanced on the head of the woman. A homunculus which looked like a yellow plant danced on the food. I must have been staring at them in astonishment for the officer suddenly said:
‘What are you staring at?’
I shook my head. Then I noticed that in a corner, across from where they ate with such innocent relish, sitting forlorn and abandoned, was the ghost of their son. He had lost both his arms, one side of his face was squashed, and both his eyes had burst. He had bluish wings. He was the saddest ghost in the house.
‘Nothing,’ I said.
They looked at one another, and then at me. I couldn’t bringmyself to eat after seeing the ghosts play with the food with their bloodied hands. I sat and stared at the flies.
When they had finished eating they got up from the table. The man went to the armchair and his wife brought him a large bottle of Guinness, which he drank with both feet on a stool. His wife joined him. I listened to the ticking of the grandfather clock in the silent house. The ghosts gathered round the man and wife and stared at them in silent amazement. The spirit with the twinkling eye drank the froth of the Guinness a moment before the officer did. The officer drank contentedly. When his wife got up to fetch a soft drink for herself, the ghost with milk-white legs went with her. When the officer went to the toilet the spirit in uniform accompanied him. And when they were sitting peacefully the ghosts stood in front of them so close that their faces almost touched. The ghosts were silent, and did nothing.
The grandfather clock chimed. I realised that the ghosts and spirits were in the house because the officer had somehow been responsible for their deaths. I hurried to my room, shut the door and lay in the dark, staring at the ceiling. When the clock stopped chiming, an orange light suddenly shot through my brain and the darkness became faintly illuminated and I saw the disconsolate ghost of the boy in a corner of the room. After a while it got up and floated towards me and stared down with its burst eyes and lay just above me, its wings stirring the air. I felt oppressed. I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t move. It was impossible to sleep and when I managed to shut my eyes I had the horrible feeling that a heavy form was pressing down on me, compacting itself into my body. I couldn’t scream and I struggled in vain. The walls in the house began to whisper about the seventh man and of how he had been run over by a lorry while directing traffic.
As the form pressed itself into me, it began to rain outside and I became calm. It rained steadily. The wind kept rattling the corrugated roof and driving in water through gaps in the window frame. It got cold. I turned and faced the wall. When I realised I could move I got up and sat on the bed. The ghost of the boy was up on the ceiling, like a perpetual bluish haze. Thunder growled above the house and lightning cracked. The rain poured down and the wind, faintly howling, banged away at the window. Lightning struck again. It seemed intent on the house. The whole place, the window and the room, lit up in a candent flash. After a while I smelt smoke drifting in from under the door.
The smoke filled the room and I began to cough and when I ran out I was barely able to see. The smoke was very thick and when I made it to the kitchen, coughing and smarting in the eyes, I discovered that the place was on fire. I banged on the doors and the officer came out, his stomach sagging, his eyes red.
‘There’s fire in the kitchen,’ I cried.
As we fought the fire with buckets of water, the ghosts stood around watching us.
The woman kept weeping. The man cursed. The rain intensified. The kitchen became thoroughly wet. Rain poured in under the sitting room door and soaked the carpet.
The wind broke a window and slugs and hairy caterpillars were blown in. Little snails appeared on the walls. Thunder clapped outside. Inside, the ghost of the boy wandered around the house, wandered right through his parents, without recognizing them, and without being affected by their distress.
After we had successfully fought the fire and mopped the soaking floor, everyone went back to bed. I heard them tossing and whispering all night. I didn’t sleep. In the early hours of the morning, before dawn had broken, and when night was beginning to change mood, there were urgent knocks on the door. The door shook and the banging became so wild and erratic it seemed as if the wind and thunder wanted to be let in. I hurried out of my room, towards the door, but the man got there before me. I moved closer. There was a woman standing in the doorway, her hair bedraggled and wet, her eyes distracted, her neck strung, her feet bare. The rain poured down on her mercilessly. There were dead cockroaches about her feet. I saw a rope round her neck, connecting her to the sky. The rope transformed into a thread of lightning. For a moment I thought I had known her in another life or in the world of spirits. I pushed past the officer. I stood on the threshold. Then, with light in my head, and hunger in my voice, I cried:
‘Mother!’
At first she didn’t move. She didn’t seem to recognise me. She stared at me with empty eyes. After a short silence she suddenly dropped all the things she had been carrying, and embraced me, without uttering a sound. Then she lifted me up into the air and held me tightly to her warm, wet body.
Eight
I WAS AWOKEN by voices in the dark. I was on Mum’s shoulder and I saw faces of women in the rain, faces lit up by lightning flash. They crowded us, arms outstretched, eyes warm. We were surrounded on all sides. The women touched me and looked at me as if I were a wonderful thing that had fallen from the sky. They fondled my hair, rubbed my skin, and felt my bones as if, in being lost and found, I belonged to all of them. I had brought with me a new hope. They too became reasons for staying on this earth, to sometimes taste the joys of homecoming.
Mum put me down. My legs were weak. Everything looked strange. Our new compound looked very odd indeed. I walked on shaky feet, staggering, and Mum took my hand and steadied me. Then she led me to a room, opened the front door and, pointing, said:
‘Your father is waiting for you.’
There was a man asleep on the chair. I didn’t recognise him. He had a bandage round his head and his left arm was in a dirty sling. He was unshaven and his bare chest heaved as he snored. The room was very small. It was full of the mood of his sleep, of hunger, and despair, sleepless nights and the gloom of candle smoke. On the centre table, in front of him, there was a half-empty bottle of ogogoro, an ashtray, and a packet of cigarettes. There was a mosquito coil on the table as well and its acrid smoke filled the air. The man sleeping on the chair was like a giant in fairy tales. His big feet were on the table. He slept very deeply, frightening me with the great movements of his chest.
When lightning flashed outside, and the downpour increased, the man woke up, a stern look in his eyes. Then his eyes changed. They became big and bloodshot.
Bewildered, he gazed around the room as if he had woken up into an alien world.
Then he saw me in the doorway. For a long moment he stayed like that, caught in an enchantment, his arms stretched out. Jumping up suddenly and with such energy that he sent the chair flying from underneath him, he rushed towards me. I ran round the table. He pursued me, but I ran the other way, keeping the table between us. I had no idea why I was running away from him or why he was running after me. When I found an opportunity I fled screaming towards the door, out of the room, but he caught me in the passage, under the torrential rain. Hollering, he kept throwingme up in the air, filling me with dread. And when he held me to him firmly, so that I was overwhelmed with his great bristling energies and his quivering heart, I burst out cryingwithout knowingwhy.
BOOK: The Famished Road
6.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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