Read The Famished Road Online

Authors: Ben Okri

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

The Famished Road (8 page)

BOOK: The Famished Road
10.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
‘Where’s the riot?Where’s my camera?’
Dad laughed. The photographer shook his head, groped for his camera among Dad’s shoes, couldn’t find it, and cried out. He eventually found the camera in the empty pot of stew, amongst the bones of the boar. He snatched it out, cleaned it with his shirt, and staggered off to his studio.
When the landlord was woken up he jerked his head, looked around suspiciously, and said:
‘Where’s my rent?’
Then he climbed into bed and put his arm round me, as if I were a woman. Dad dragged him out into the passage and left him to his devices. In the room the bearded man woke up and wondered if the feast had begun yet and asked why he hadn’t been served any boar’s meat. One of the children started crying. When Dad came back into the room the bearded man asked for some beer. Dad drove him out. It was only after they had gone that we saw the debris of the feast. Our clothes were scattered everywhere. Two chairs were broken. Glasses had been shattered on the floor and it was a wonder that no one had cut themselves. Someone had vomited half out of the window and half in. The place stank of the children who had wet themselves in their sleep.
Mosquitoes whined. Dad lit a coil. Mum swept the floor, arranged the clothes, cleared out the plates, cutlery, and bones. Then she disinfected the room. Dad sat on his chair, drinking and smoking quietly. Mum spread out the mat. Then she blew out the candle and went to sleep.
Dad sat alone in the dark. Every now and again he said:
‘We have kept our promise.’
The only points of light were the mosquito coil, its smoke spiralling to the ceiling, and his cigarette. In a way I came to think of Dad as a cigarette smoked alone in the dark.
I watched him that night as if he were a fabled being. Sometimes he got up and paced the room, perfectly avoiding Mum’s sleeping form, his cigarette vanishing and reappearing. I watched him go back and forth. As I watched him, the darkness expanded. I saw Dad’s cigarette at one end of the room and heard him pacing at the other end. It seemed he had become separate from his action. Then I saw multiples of him smoking at different corners of the room. I shut my eyes. When I opened them it was morning and Dad was in his chair, asleep. I turned over. I heard him creaking his joints. When I turned round again, Mum was up, the mat was gone, the room was clean, the mosquito coil was just an aluminium stand and a spiral of ash on the centre table, and Dad was no longer asleep in his chair.
I LEARNT THAT Dad had gone out early to look for a job. Mum was exhausted from the search, the feast, all the walking, the worrying and the cooking.
That morning she brought out her little table of provisions to the housefront. She sat on a stool, with me beside her, and dispiritedly crooned out her wares. The dust blew into our eyes. The sun was merciless on our flesh. We didn’t sell a single item.
In the afternoon, the people that Dad had borrowed from to buy drinks came to collect their money. They threatened to seize Mum’s goods. They hung around till evening. Mum begged them to wait for Dad to get back, but they wouldn’t listen.
What annoyed Mum the most was the fact that the creditors were people from our compound, who were at the feast, who had gotten drunk on our wine and had thrown up on our window-sill. The loudest amongst them was actually responsible for breaking the back of the chair and destroying two glasses. Another of our creditors, as we learned later, was Madame Koto. She was the only one who did not come to drag for her money. But the others hung around Mum’s stall and spoiled her prospects of business.
By the evening Mum had begun to cough. Her eyes were inflamed from all the dust and whenever she stood up she staggered. When she went to the backyard she weaved about a little as if her failure to attract customers and shake off the creditors had made her drunk. Then I noticed, when she returned, that her eyes had gone strange. Every once in a while, after crooning despairingly to the indifferent potential customers of the world, her eyes would roll round in their sockets. As the evening wore on, when the winds changed, and a chill insinuated itself into the passing of the sun, Mum began to quiver on her stool, her teeth chattering. She went on stubbornly trying to sell her provisions, quivering under the bad wind, her face taut, her nose sweating, her eyes a little distracted. The other compound women who noticed the change told her to rest, but she didn’t move. We sat there, with our wares on the table, in the dark, covered in dust. When Mum finally packed up her table, the evening had deepened, and the wind had begun to whistle in the tall trees. Trembling, determined, and silent, she washed all our clothes in the backyard. She cleaned the room, made a fresh pot of stew, and pounded yam for Dad’s dinner. And then, battered by exhaustion, she went to sleep. But the creditors allowed her no rest. In a renewed effort, they kept turning up outside our room, whispering about the money we owed them, exaggerating the amounts to each new gossip-monger, and knocking on our door. When Mum reached the limit of her tolerance she shouted at them. They vowed loudly never to sell anything on credit again. They went on demanding their money till night fell.
We began to worry about Dad. It got darker and darker, the night birds began their songs, and still he hadn’t returned. When we had exhausted ourselves with worry, when Mum was asleep on the bed, and I was dozing on the floor, Dad stamped into the room, bringing angry shadows with him. His bad temper stank from his alcoholic breath. He lit a candle, saw Mum asleep on the bed, and burst into rage.
‘I have been everywhere in the world, looking for a job to feed us, and you are asleep?Wicked woman that you are!’
Dad fumed and shouted for thirty minutes, without listening, without using his eyes.
Mum got out of bed, trembling violently, and went to the kitchen.
‘Mum is not well,’ I said.
‘There’s nothingwrongwith her, she’s just wicked, that’s all.’
‘She’s not well,’ I said again.
He didn’t hear me. Mum came in with his tray of food. The plates clattered because of her trembling, which she tried to control. Dad, in his fury, didn’t look up at her. He ate noisily and with a mighty appetite. He didn’t even give me pieces of fish or invite me to join him as he often did. After he had finished eating every single morsel on the plates, his mood calmed, and he told us about how he had walked the entire city, under the blistering heat-waves, looking for a job, and had found none. During the silence which followed, Mum told him about the creditors, and Dad found fresh reasons to be angry. He threatened that he was going to beat them up for harassing Mum. He said he would scatter their teeth all over the forest. He said he would beat them so thoroughly that they would become old men overnight.
‘I will feed their brains to the wind!’ he shouted.
Mum expended a great deal of energy trying to dissuade him from such violent measures. But a demon of anger had got into Dad and he fumed and cursed all through the night. He smoked cigarette after cigarette, creaking his joints, striding up and down, filling the room with his restless temper. He grumbled about how much he had helped people and how they had always let him down, about all the creditors who came to our feast, polished off our boar’s meat and beer, and turned round to harass Mum at the first opportunity. He complained bitterly about how people ate off him and then stabbed him in the back. I had heard these complaints all my life. His cigarette burned angrily as he dredged up a fresh variation. Mum would wake up suddenly.
His blistering tirade was aimed at everything. I fell asleep with Dad cursing the treachery of the world way into my dreams.


When I woke up, Mum was sweating and quivering on the bed. Dad had bought malaria medicines and bitter roots which were marinated in yellow alcohol. Mum’s teeth chattered, her eyes were at odd angles, and Dad sat beside her, his bad arm folded, the blood dried on his bandaged head. He applied warm compresses to her face and forehead. I got up and greeted Mum, but she could barely speak. She held me tightly to her hot body and I began to tremble myself. She held me so tightly that my teeth chattered as well and soon I felt myself being invaded by her fever. My eyeballs became hot. Dad, noticing what was happening to me, snatched me from Mum’s frightened embrace, and made me drink of the bitter dongoyaro, as a precaution. Then he ordered me to go and bathe. I cleaned my teeth and bathed and when I got back, Dad had prepared some food. We sat and ate together from the same bowl, while Mum heaved in her illness on the bed.
We had finished eating, and Dad was preparing to go out, when the creditors came one after the other, as if they had planned it. They knocked on the door, came in, said something vaguely nice about me, expressed their profuse sympathies for Mum, praying that she should recover soon. They asked if Dad’s wounds had improved, didn’t wait for a reply, and then they left. Minutes later, with the air of people who had forgotten something of less than vital importance, they came back again, one after the other, and reminded Dad of how much he owed them, how they didn’t usually lend money or give credits, and how this was a special case, and how hard things were at the shop, and so on. They ended by expressing their sympathies again to Mum, and left.
Their sly and hypocritical manner got Dad very enraged. He paced the room, boiling in fury. Then, suddenly, unable to contain himself any longer, he stormed out of the room. I followed him. He went to the backyard and we saw all the creditors huddled together, talking in low business tones as though they were about to form a limited liability company. Dad went amongst them, scattering the meeting. They tried to run to their different rooms but Dad called them back, each by his particular name, and he insulted them for fifteen incandescent minutes. They bore his insults in silence.
When he had finished with them, turning with his unique dismissive flourish and storming back to our room, everyone was aware that we had just made ourselves three new enemies in the compound. As Dad left, the creditors regrouped and talked more intensely than before. They were like demented conspirators.
When I got back to the room, Dad had dressed up in his black French suit. He offered libations to his ancestors, and prayed for Mum’s recovery. Then he wore his only pair of boots, which gave the room a poignant smell of leather, old socks, and footsweat. As he went out of the door Mum woke up from her sleep, screaming. She wouldn’t stop and Dad held her and gave her more dongoyaro and she twisted around on the bed and then, just as suddenly, she became still, with tears running down her face and collecting in her ears. Dad stayed with her a while and watched her tossing in her sleep. When her sleep had become a little more regular, Dad told me not to leave her side, and to take care of her, that he had to go and find some money, and would be back soon. He went out with his head hung low, as if for the first time acknowledging the blows from above.
I sat on Dad’s chair and watched over Mum. I watched her sleeping face till my eyes began to throb. Then suddenly Mum got up, her upper body stiff, her eyes unfocused, and she began to speak in an unfamiliar language. She stood up and went around the room, clearing things, straightening the table, folding the clothes, brushing Dad’s shoes, fidgeting amongst the pots and basins, speaking in this unnatural language all the while.
‘Mother!’ I cried.
She neither heard nor saw me. She picked up blackened pots and pans with dented bottoms and went out of the room. I followed her, tugging at her, till one layer of her wrapper came off in my hands. She went to the kitchen. Still muttering in a newfound tongue, her eyes blank, she started a fire in the grate and began to cook an imaginary pot of stew. She did everything mechanically, her body actingwithout her mind, as if she were in a dream. When the firewood blazed she placed an empty pot on the grate and sat on a stool and stared at the pot till it started to give off an acrid smell of burningmetal.
‘Mum!’ I cried again.
She turned towards me, looked right through me, got up, went out of the kitchen, and collapsed beside the well. I screamed and women rushed to us and carried her to our room. She lay on the bed, breathing heavily, and the women stood around, casting deep shadows, hands to their breasts, heads low, standing in silence, as if in the presence of a corpse.
I sat on Dad’s chair and watched over her. Women left and returned with confusing medications in green jars and dark bottles, and they administered conflicting treatments, and made her drink strange potions, drugs, oils, and distillates. Mum slept, breathing hoarsely, and the women left. I watched over her till my stomach ached and my eyelids became heavy. Then I woke up with a start. Mum’s breathing had changed. I listened. I watched. Then I noticed that her breathing had become almost inaudible. The room changed, voices sang in my head, a lizard clambered on to the bed and ran over Mum’s arm, and then everything seemed to stop. For a moment it seemed my own breathing had ceased altogether. I drew a breath and a spider fell from the ceiling. I drew another and I fell off the chair. I got up and sat again and then it became clear that it was Mum who had stopped breathing. Flies played around her mouth. She didn’t stir. Then as I watched, as I listened, a sharp pain went through my ears, colours and masks appeared in my eyes, and then as I held my breath I saw a blue mist rising from Mum’s form. I heard a child crying. The lizard scuttled past my feet. I woke Mum up and still she didn’t stir. I called her and she didn’t move. The blue mist grew thicker over her like steam from a boiling cauldron of water, and it collected and became more defined, and I grew really scared when the mist changed colours rapidly, becoming green, then yellow, turning red, bursting into a golden glow, and back to blue again. When I was sure I wasn’t imagining the mist, when it turned reddish silver, radiant in the darkness of the room, I couldn’t bear it any longer.
When she didn’t move, didn’t breathe, I ran all the way to Madame Koto’s bar to tell her that my mother was dying.
BOOK: The Famished Road
10.91Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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