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Authors: Ben Okri

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

The Famished Road (5 page)

BOOK: The Famished Road
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When the rain stopped, Mum stripped the dead boy’s clothes off me and later burned them with kerosine and herbal fluids. The clothes burned for longer than expected.
Her eyes bright with superstitions, she kept feeding the yellow and black flames with kerosine. When the clothes burned down to curlicues of ash she gathered them into a newspaper and went out in the dark towards the forest.
On her return she seized my hand, pushed me to the bathroom which had millipedes on the walls, and made me bathe from a bucket of specially treated water. I had to use a brown soap which produced little foam. As I struggled to wash myself, Mum stayed outside the squalid bathroom, and told me all that had happened since the night of the riots. The way she told it filled me with wonder about her.
That night, when the crowds separated us, the unleashed Masquerade had pursued women across streets because they were not supposed to see its terrifying presence.
She looked for me in every corner, under every car, had shouted my name where houses were burning. And when she went back home, hoping I might be there waiting, she learned that Dad too had disappeared.
‘In one night,’ she said, ‘I lost my only child and my husband.’
She stayed up the whole night, outside the burnt compound, with all our possessions scattered about the street. In the morning the tenants moved to new compounds. to different ghettos. Mum managed to distribute our property among relations. Then she went to all the hospitals and police stations she could find. She walked the whole city, inconsolable in her loss. And when she was about to succumb to despair, in a last effort she went to a police station in the centre of the city and was told that Dad was there, imprisoned for taking part in the riots. She managed to see him. He had been beaten by the police and there was an ugly cut on his forehead, bruises on his face, and his arm hung. beside him like a diseased appendage. The next day, after much begging and some bribery, Dad was freed. He went to work that day and found that he had been sacked. During that time Mum had succeeded in finding a room for us to rent. She had also found a way to pay a month’s rent in advance. Dad came to his new home bad-tempered and in a violent mood. He fell ill that night, muttering about insane soldiers who had killed white men in wars across the seas.
Mum was frantic over my disappearance. Her friends suggested consulting a herbalist. At first she was doubtful; but after she had tried everything and failed, gone to police stations and hospitals, and been unable to find me, she relented. She was taken to a herbalist. There was a mound of broken glass in front of her hut. Mum had hardly stepped in when the herbalist, a fierce-looking woman with one eye that glittered more than the other, told her from the shadows that she knew the purpose of Mum’s visit.
‘Go away,’ she shouted in a cracked voice, ‘bring me a white cockerel, a bottle of gin, feathers of a dove, and three pieces of chalk. Then I will help you.’
When Mum returned with the items the woman, attired in a severe black smock, consulted her cowries. She made offerings to her goddess who sat in a corner of the room, brooding in the dark with shining sunglasses. Then she told Mum to leave. She wanted to sleep on her divination. Mum came back the next morning and without any preamble the herbalist told her that the fee would be very expensive because the case was very difficult.
‘Your son is trapped in a house of ghosts,’ she said.
Mum was so terrified that she left instantly, gathered all the money she had saved from her trading, took some off Dad, and borrowed the rest. The herbalist went on to tell her that I was being held by a man and a woman who either wanted to keep me as their own child or sacrifice me for money, and that I was surrounded with such powerful spells that if Mum didn’t act quickly I would be lost to her for ever. Mum paid the fee and sat in the dark, listening as the strange-eyed herbalist embarked on the most extravagant conjurations she had ever witnessed. The herbalist wrestled with the powers of the house, trying to break the spells surroundingme. After five hours, during which Mum sat rigid with fear, the woman emerged from her secret chambers and said:
‘I have broken all the spells except one. That one is too powerful for me. Only lightning can break that spell.’
Mum sat confused. The herbalist gave her instructions. Mum went home, her heart heavy.
That night she was lamenting her condition, blaming herself for having lost the only child she had, a child who had chosen to live, when a distant relation paid a visit. She had heard of Mum’s troubles and had come to offer consolation. She brought a few gifts and congratulated Mum on finding me. Dad took it as a good omen. Mum was puzzled. Then it emerged that the relation had seen a picture of me in the newspaper on the day after my accident. That was how Mum traced me to the police station and eventually to the officer’s house.
Mum went back to the herbalist, who now gave the final set of instructions. Mum was to go to the house, to be humble, to thank the officer and his wife for keepingme, to take them presents, and to throw the white cockerel into the room so they could transfer their sacrifice from me to the bird. And then she was to run away from the place as fast as her legs could carry her. But before she could do any of this lightning had to first strike the house. Mum had waited in the rain, outside the house, for three hours. She had stood patiently, with thunder growling above her, watching as lightning flashed in different places, over many houses and trees. And she stayed like that, not moving an inch, till lightning struck directly over the house of ghosts where I was held captive.
Nine
AFTER I HAD bathed, after I had eaten, they made me sit in Dad’s chair and asked me to tell them my story. I began telling them when the lights changed in the room and mighty hands lifted me up and put me on the bed. I saw Dad smiling beneath his bloodied bandage. Mum shifted the chair and centre table, spread out a mat and slept on the floor. Dad sat on his wooden chair, smoked peacefully, and lit a mosquito coil. I listened to him talking to the silent room, asking riddles that only the dead can answer.
I slept all night and all day. When I woke up it was evening. The room was empty.
A kerosine lamp burned steadily on the centre table. When I first opened my eyes on the new world of home everything was different. Large shadows everywhere made the spaces smaller. The floor was rough. Long columns of ants crawled alongside the walls. There were ant-mounds near the cupboard. An earthworm stretched itself past Dad’s shoes. Wall-geckos and lizards scurried up and down the walls. At the far corner of the room a washing line was slack with the weight of too many clothes.
Mum’s objects of trade were all over the place. Her sacks were piled around the cupboard. Blackened pots and crockery and basins were scrambled everywhere. It was as if Mum and Dad had moved in, dumped their possessions wherever there was space, and had never found time to arrange anything. The more I took in the cracks in the walls, the holes in the zinc ceiling, the cobwebs, the smells of earth and garri, the cigarette and mosquito coil smoke, the more it seemed we hadn’t moved at all.
Everything felt the same. The only difference was that I wasn’t used to the sameness.
The light in the room was dull in the evening. Mosquitoes and fireflies had come in. A dying fly buzzed its last song up on the ceiling, among the net of cobwebs. The lamplight kept fluttering, its black smoke drifted up to the ceiling. The smell of burning wick and kerosine smoke reassured me. I was home. And being at home was very different from being in the comfortable house of the police officer. No spirits plagued me. There were no ghosts in the dark spaces. The poor also belong to one country.
Our surroundings were poor. We didn’t have a bathroom worth speaking of and the toilet was crude. But in that room, in our new home, I was happy because I could smell the warm presences and the tender energies of my parents everywhere.
Hanging on crooked nails on the walls, there were framed, browning photographs of my parents. In one of the pictures Mum sat sideways on a chair. She had a lot of powder on her face, and she had the coy smile of a village maiden. Dad stood next to her. He had on a baggy pair of trousers, a white shirt, and an askew tie. His coat was much too small for him. He had a powerful, tigerish expression on his face. His strong eyes and his solid jaw dared the camera. He looked the way some boxers do before they become famous. There was another photograph in which I sat between them, small between two guardians. There were smiles of shy sweetness on our faces. As I stared at the photograph in that little room where the lamp produced more black smoke than illumination, I wondered where the sweetness had gone.
I went out searching for Mum and Dad. They weren’t in the backyard. In the kitchen women sat in front of a blazing wood fire, sweat dripping from their faces, their fleshy arms and partly bared breasts glistening. I watched them as they fried bean cakes, chicken, and fish, and as they prepared delicious-smelling stews. When they saw me they raised their voices in bright greetings, and I fled. At the housefront Dad was narrating his prison experiences to a rowdy gathering of men. Mum was across the road, haggling with an old woman. Dad got to a point in his narration where he thought it necessary to illustrate a particular action. He leapt up from his chair, bristling with good humour, and began marching up and down, stamping his boots on the earth, swinging his one good arm, dangling his head, shouting war charges in seven languages. It was meant to be an impersonation of the insane soldier who had fought the British wars in Burma. His mind had been unhinged by the blast of detonators, nights spent with corpses and by the superstitious incredulity of having killed so many white men. He had become a man who knew only two things—how to march and how to charge. He marched all day long in prison and he charged all night long in his sleep. The men laughed at Dad’s impersonation and Dad laughed so explosively that the bloody patch widened on the bandage round his forehead. No one noticed. I made a sound; Dad turned and saw me. And when he saw me he abruptly stopped laughing. After a longmoment he started moving towards me and I ran across the street, towards Mum. Half-way across I saw a bicyclist pedalling furiously at me.
Mum screamed, I fell; the bicyclist wobbled, missed my head, and cursed as he sped away. Mum rushed over, picked me up, took me back to the housefront, and gave me to Dad to look after.
‘Why do you keep running away from me, eh?’ Dad asked, with sadness.
I said nothing. I stared at the faces of the compound men, big faces stamped with hardship and humour. The night slowly descended on us and the kerosine lamps came alight, one by one, along the street.

 

That evening Dad became the guardian giant who led me into the discoveries of our new world. We were surrounded by a great forest. There were thick bushes and low trees between the houses. The bushes were resonant with the trilling of birds and crickets. Dad led us down a narrow path. We passed women with bundles of firewood on their heads, buckling along and talking in strange languages. We passed young girls returning from distant streams, with buckets of water balanced on their heads.
‘Do you see all this?’ Dad said, waving his good arm to indicate the forest and the bushes.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘It’s bush now, isn’t it?’
‘Yes.’
‘But sooner than you think there won’t be one tree standing. There will be no forest left at all. And there will be wretched houses all over the place. This is where the poor people will live.’
I looked around again in amazement; for I couldn’t see how the solid forest could become so different. Dad chuckled. Then he was silent. He put his hand on my head and, with the voice of a sad giant, he said:
‘This is where you too will live. Many things will happen to us here. If I ever have to go away, if I ever disappear now or in the future, remember that my spirit will always be there to protect you.’
Dad’s voice quivered. When he was silent again, I started crying. He lifted me with his powerful arm and carried me on the rock of his shoulder. He made no attempt to console me. When I had stopped crying, he chuckled mysteriously. We stopped at the first palm-wine bar we came across.
He ordered a gourd of palm-wine and kept teasing the woman who served him and who kept topping off my tiny glass. When Dad drank from his half calabash, I drank from my glass. It made Dad happy. He said:
‘Learn to drink, my son. A man must be able to hold his drink because drunkenness is sometimes necessary in this difficult life.’
I sat beside him on the wooden bench, drinking as he drank, taking in the smells of the bar, its odours of stale wine, peppersoup, and fish-sacks. Flies were exultant everywhere. While talking, the clientele kept waving them off from their faces. At a corner of the bar, on a far bench, in the half light of the lanterns, a man sat with his back against the wall, his head flopped in drunkenness as he dozed. Dad ordered another gourd of wine, his face glistening with delight. He exchanged jokes and anecdotes with the clientele, who were all perfect strangers. Then he began a game of draughts.
At first he played without seriousness, joking all the while. He played a game in this spirit and won. He played another and lost. He joked less the more he lost. His voice grew more aggressive and he hit my head with his sharp elbows without noticing. The two men became so obsessed with their game that they began to accuse one another of cheating. Their fists waved threateningly over the draughtboard. Their voices became heated. The onlookers, who had placed bets on the players, were even more passionate than those who were playing. Dad, losing steadily, abused his opponent virulently; his opponent replied with incredible vehemence. I got worried.
Dad placed an absurd bet on himself and his opponent doubled it. Things suddenly got very tense in the bar and Dad drank heavily, sweating. He ordered two more gourds of wine. It got so tense that when the onlookers said anything they were pounced upon. It took long anxious moments to quell the furious exchanges. Dad increased the bet and his head started bleeding again. His opponent, a huge man with a small head, kept staring at Dad with such contempt that I wanted to bite his fingers.
BOOK: The Famished Road
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