THE PRESENCE

NEWLY THE sun shone anew. Happy the multitude was to see again their surroundings. But where were they? A no-land. Only space and space and space. But no footprints and not a voice on the wind.

We seek the voices, we hear the silence. The multitude is faced with the choice – to turn inwards or to turn outwards. The multitude turned inwards and became a nation. Generations later, the nation turned outwards and faced the world.

Thus was the first Pride born. For the nation was too much for the world.

Let us leave the world and the nation, the multitude, the space and the silence, and look at the street. A busy street. Hawkers, traders, pedestrians, beggars, jam the sidewalks. Busses, cars, motorcycles, cram the roads.

Above them, an unsmiling face, almost but not as large as the sky, looks down guardingly upon them. The face is not the face of a loving protector, that much can be deduced from its features. It is the face of a prison warden. Emotionless and evil. Because the prison is his.

A face turns upwards. One of the people on the street has a strange sensation hard to describe. She looks up, sees the face, screams and collapses. People walk by her. Others stop. She is dead. They cross themselves, mutter prayers and walk away.

Let us go back to the nation. The nation has arisen. It is all-powerful. It runs like a well-oiled machine, a high-tec computer. It shut itself out of the world for generations. It let nothing in, not even nature. Now it is ready to face the world. It towers over the rest of the world and opposes all who seek to break away from this new sway.

Others raise their gazes too, see the face of the guardian of evil. They collapse and die too, just like the woman. But the souls of the dead have risen too, they mingle amongst the living and strengthen invisibly their resolve. And sometimes now when I look up at the giant face of the prison-guard in the dark dark clouds above us, I see a slightly worried look in his eyes. Things are going wrong. He feels it. But he cannot put his finger on it.

Why are people looking up?

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

NOTHING GOING ON BUT THE RENT

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A little familiarity with, even if not necessarily proficiency in, “nigerian english” might be necessary to understand this story. 🙂
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My landlady was not a very bright person. Really, amongst all the stupid people I’ve met in my life, she must be the daftest of them all, or so it seemed to me at that moment. I stood behind her and saw the danger ahead. But this woman, instead of going left, she actually went right. Was she mad? OK, now that she had gone right, how did she expect to come out of this alive?

The truck was hurtling straight down upon her at blinding speed. Have you seen a speeding truck before? A monster, grim and merciless. The terror it awakens in the heart is raw, real, paralysing. You see death, literally. Death does not smile.

And into the path of this on-rushing death she stepped. Madam, you love death? Then, so be it! But then not even I am so cold-hearted, in spite of all the horrible things this terrible woman had wrought upon innocent me in the past. It would be good to save her life, to spare myself any future battles with my talkative conscience, and to put her in my debt also.

The slap I gave her sounded like a ringing bell proclaiming victory. I relished the slap thoroughly, my palm jubilated, the woman took off like Arik and flew to the left, out of the path of the on-rushing accident. As she went air-borne, she took me along with her, for my palm was still stuck to the side of her face. We crash-landed into safety on the sidewalk and I disengaged my jubilating palm from her warm oily face. The truck roared past. I had just saved a human being’s life.

Life. Is that not what it’s all about? You would have thought that she would be grateful. No, instead she took offence at the joy of my palm.

“Heei!” she shouted, “this my tenant want kill me oh!”

The word ‘kill’ is the code word. And the speed with which the crowd gathered showed practice in such matters. This is the land of jungle justice, staccato accusation and swift execution. Death, who had formerly been sitting on top of the truck, glaring at her as the truck rushed towards her, had now hopped down from the truck which had long disappeared into the wilderness of Ikorodu Road. Now Death sat cross-legged by my side, betwixt the crowd, and stared at me accusingly as if I had ever done anything against him in my life. The thought suddenly occurred to me that he might be upset with me for not having let the truck do his will.

Before I knew it, the crowd had pulled the woman, my landlady, up and I was still lying there, feeling the jubilation in my palm tingle away. The crowd crowded itself around me like a crowd. It was crowdy. From crowdy comes, rightly, rowdy.

“Hired Killer!” a strange voice, full of mortification and aggression, barked down at me.

“Eh?!?!” screamed the crowd and instinctively drew back one step. If I had been been Ben Bruce and in possession of any common sense, that’s when I should have made a dash for it – bolted away with the full spring and speed of all my unreduced athleticism, in that moment when the fear of a hired killer in flesh and blood in their immediate vicinity paralyzed the life out of them.

But I was distracted by Death. He was still sitting, cross-legged, there in front of me. As if he sensed the quick escape plan that darted into my mind, he scowled and gave me a very threatening look. If you dare try it…!

And in the moment of my preoccupation with Death’s awful mug, the very moment was gone. I did not see the first slap, I did not feel the first slap. Curiously, I heard it. It sounded like a whistle, but I’m not quite sure exactly what kind of whistle. A slap whistle. A whistling slap. In one register it vibrates the eardrum already one micro-moment before impact. You hear it once and then you hear no more. The first becomes the last.

I was confused. Is this what they call a mobbing? After I stopped hearing, I started seeing. Stars. They kept exploding. Why did they keep springing from place to place instead of just hanging still? That was when the pain kicked in. And not just literally. I don’t know why the government, who likes to ban rice and all sorts of other things, has not yet banned the importation of boots. Because the kick to my ribs, the kick that brought back the consciousness which the sonic slap had robbed me of, the kick with which the pain kicked in, the kick that returned to me my hearing, that kick was executed surely by a foot well lodged in a boot, a big strong boot, definitely imported, made I am sure in Russia or Germany.

“Yeeeeiiii!” I screamed, “I don die oh!”

I could not see the sun; dark shapes hovered all around me, hurting me, harming me. Why? And then I heard the dreaded words:

“Tire!”

“Fire!”

“Tire!”

“Fire!”

They were going to put a de-rimmed rubber car tyre around my neck, drench tyre and me in petrol, juice of the Delta, and burn me alive! My teeth went cold.

“Fire!”

“Tire!”

“Fire!”

“Tire!”

I looked to my right, to where Death was sitting down cross-legged, overseeing my extraction from the physical cloak. There was a peacefulness about his countenance that flowed over to me, into me, infected and affected me, a peacefulness that began to creep into my soul.

I seemed to hear a soft slow voice somewhere in the hall of my mind: Don’t struggle… don’t worry… it’s just a journey…

At that moment the tension slipped away from my body, my dogged determination to cling unto life was knocked out of me, aided by a rock, a rock it must have been, felt at least like a rock to the skull. A liquid running down my face, stinging my eyes, blinding me. Warm sweet blood on my tongue. An intimate smell. My blood. So this is how it feels to die.

That was when I heard her voice again, the voice that triggered this happening, bringing it now to its banal conclusion. The first again the last. My landlady was shouting again.

“Abeg, e don do oh! Thank you! My tenant don enter my trap today. Make una call police to arrest am, dem know what to do. Make una no kill am oh! HE NEVER PAY ME MY RENT FINISH!! My rent oh! Make una leave my tenant for me oh! See me oh. Leave my tenant! Abi, who go come pay me my remaining rent money now? Ah ah! I say leave am! Una dey craze? One year’s rent. See my wahala oh. Who send una sef? Busy body! Na so so busy body just full dis Lagos sef! Mchw! I go wound una oh. Ah ah! Police yee! Wey police now?! Which kind bad luck be dis?…”

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– che chidi chukwumerije.

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THE MAN-CHILD … (Easter intuitions)

ONCE, AS I stood outside my house early one dawn, I saw the man-child playing in front of my door.

I called to him:

Child of Creation! What brings you here?

He turned around, looked into my eyes with his bright, warming eyes.

I came to visit the world, he said, to learn its ways and woes.

I left my family and people, and went to the man-child, vowing to protect him from evil men. He, however, did not understand my vow, for he was yet to understand evil men.

And so we set off together, to learn him the world.

We first came across the weary and the poor, and the man-child smiled at them; and his smile, like the sun, melted their sorrows away. He told them stories of life in the higher realms of creation; and his stories, like gentle rain and cool breezes, calmed them and made them sleep, peacefully.

As we journeyed on, the man-child grew into an adolescent. Then we came across the entertainers and singers. He joined them and began to sing with them. That was the first time I noticed that little thing which would one day lead to much sorrow. It was obvious that the man-child was a better entertainer, and soon the others became jealous. But because he was still something of a boy, it would have seemed very foolish if they had expressed these feelings openly. So instead they said that he was an adolescent and should not be with men. They drove him away. As he walked away, I saw confusion mixed with sadness in his eyes, and I did my best to distract him from his inner pain.

Meanwhile the man-child grew into a youth and we came across the workers and the farmers. The youth asked for a chance to work, got it. But his work was the most beautiful and soon he became the recipient of the majority of the customers. The fruit of his farm was also the richest, and in no time more and more of the market-visitors came buying from him. The other workers and farmers grew angry, envious. And they planned against him; and, going to the scholars and the lawmakers, they bore false witness against him.

So the scholars and lawmakers summoned him and he explained his soul, whereupon it became apparent that he was innocent and it was the others who had lied. He became a hero.

By now he had grown into a man, and the scholars and lawmakers bid him stay with them for they perceived a keen intelligence behind his luminous eyes.

He consented, and stayed. But in no time at all, it became clear that the scholars were ignorant and the lawmakers themselves lawbreakers, because the man-child’s wisdom was like a bright light that illumined all inherent defects, much to the displeasure of the scholars and lawmakers. If it became apparent to all that he was wiser than they, that would be the end of their position of prominence and their status. So they promulgated a law deliberately designed to ensnare him, through which they arrested him for being a stranger and a deceiver.

But before they could sentence him to his punishment, I ran ahead to the elders and the custodians of truth, before whom I laid down the entire matter.

All parties were summoned.

I remember that day clearly. Everybody was sitted except the man-child. He stood in their middle and he was no more a child, but a man. His lips were formed into a perpetual, if subtle, half-smile, interrupted by lines of sorrow and a slight furrow on his forehead that both told more than the bitterest words would. Tears ran down my cheeks as I saw what the world had done to the beautiful, innocent child of creation.

Presiding over the sitting was the Prince of the Land, their highest authority. He too summoned himself to the sitting, for no case in recent history had been imbued with so much intrigue or attracted so much publicity.

And voices began to speak. To accuse. But when the man in the heart of the child of creation spoke, it became clear that the lawmakers were the lawbreakers and the scholars ignorant.

The Prince, he was a good man, he decided to let the man-child go free. But the elders were afraid and the custodians of truth were no real custodians of truth, for they realised that if the man in the heart of the child of creation continued speaking, he would soon show that even they were less than they were supposed to be.

They informed the Prince that if he did not convict the stranger, then he would gather enormous power, wealth and force-of-arm, and overthrow the Prince. When the Prince heard this, his fear and ego flared up within him. He charged the man-child to speak again and to make clear his position with regards to this accusation.

The man-child, however, having understood what was going on, shook his head and remained silent. His lips were turned down. No smile played on them any longer.

The Prince became confused. Finally he let the executioners execute the murdering of the man-child, lest he indeed become greater then he was and overthrow him.

It was a bright, hot noon, the day on which he was executed for being the child of creation. Nature wept.

Hours later, I walked away, remembering the times we had shared. Remembering his sunny heart. My heart broke. Then broke doubly. For I saw that the people were celebrating the murder of the troublesome stranger.

As my weeping grew deeper, a Shadow fell upon me. I looked up into the sky and saw the Avenger looking down on us all. And he was not smiling.

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

A LITTLE LAUGHTER

FASSEN DID not know that the three brothers were coming from a war-torn zone. Or, rather, he knew, he just did not understand exactly what that meant. No laughter, no trust, no carefreeness, no childlike play, no joyful working from a love-filled heart – only caution, suspicion, fear, brutality, cunning, callousness. Inner deadening, a certain death. All of which they wished to reverse, to overcome now. The crisis they were fleeing from was not a war-torn hell-hole they’d left behind on another geographical part of the earth. It was the torture they carried within them all the time now, the propensities, the emptiness, the loneliness and the struggle to keep the inner child alive. It was little things that made them happy now – shared chores, small friendships, acceptance. Fassen did not really see all that. All he saw in the three young men were just three guest-workers from the camp, to be treated like everybody else.

The eldest of the three, Mugi, had the deepest eyes, depths filled with pain. Eyes that had seen things their owner wanted to forget, but knew he never would. All that was left in him was the urge to take care of his brothers in a peace-filled world.

Fassen, however, did not understand all this. He was a good, clear-minded, clear-thinking, God-fearing young man who wanted to simply do his job. He was usually one of the last of the restaurant personal to go home each night after doing the dishes down in the basement kitchen.

He could not fathom why these three new cleaners, these brothers, after sweeping and cleaning the house and grounds each night, like to come and join in doing the mountain of dishes and other kitchen utensils. Of course things went much quicker, and there was added human company, but it was a mystery to him and to his colleague, Weller, whose job it was. They stared at one another, mystified, and shook their heads.

It was Mugi who had started it first. One night, he hesitated outside the door and thought of the long walk home in the strange darkness, of all the people out there who never spoke to him and his brothers, never even looked at them, looked away, moved away, subtly, whenever they were in the vicinity; and he thought of the two men in the basement kitchen who were always polite and nice to them. And he walked in silently while they were washing up and, quietly, asked if he could help them. They happily consented, glad to have an extra pair of hands to speed up the work. Then he came again the next night, and the next, and the next.

Fassen and Weller began to wonder. Mugi hardly spoke. He listened fully, almost desperately, to all their conversations, and rocked with laughter, even if hesitantly, when they cracked their funny jokes, but he himself made hardly any contributions, or seemed not to.

And then, one night, his two brothers came along with him. Even more ready, almost desperately so too, to laugh, and willing in addition, unlike Mugi, to crack their own jokes, tell their own stories and, joining in conversations, make new friends at last.

Why did they persist in coming here every night and turning their job into a roundly, albeit effective, circus? Fassen and Weller could not understand. Might there be a hidden motive? What did they actually want?

It was Fassen who first started to get irritated, and a little suspicious, after two weeks. Very irritated! A little wary. And of the opinion that this had to stop now. He spoke with Weller about it and after a little persuasion, the younger Weller eventually agreed. So, that night when the three brothers came, they politely – to the brothers’s startled surprise – denied them their now-customary wish.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth,” Fassen said with a shrug of his shoulders, looking up briefly as he dried a tumbler, an enigmatic half-smile on his face, his gaze watchful.

Nziko and Kama, Mugi’s two younger brothers, shrugged and nodded. They quickly rationalised it – it was true anyway. They only requested to join in one last time, since they were already there, which requested was grudgingly granted.

But Mugi did not request anymore. It was not Fassen’s words that had registered with him, but the look in his eyes as he spoke. There had been no hatred or malice there, perhaps, but then there had been no love too. Only a desire for safety and order, and boundries. And this desire for safety and order, and boundries, had temporarily blinded Fassen’s inner eyes to the desperate, momentary needs of fellow human hearts, blocked his view into an appreciation of simple friendliness. Mugi recognised here a lack of understanding for and of the depths of pain within his brothers and himself, of their longing and need for love, for carefree play, for a semblace of normalness, for contact, for a place where work is laughter, just a little laughter.

And because Mugi knew that Fassen was right, in accordance with his job, position, responsibility, and level of understanding of human beings, he did not argue, nor made he any further requests. He could not, even. He felt again like a stranger. He felt again many of those silent shifting feelings he wanted to forget, but knew that he would not. He felt again that pain which one feels when one is almost understood and then betrayed, when one needs just a little shoulder to rest a little head for a little while, but finds none… he felt again the character of loneliness.

So he smiled at Fassen, and would also have smiled at Weller if Weller had not averted his young eyes; then he went outside to wait for his brothers who were still attempting to snatch a little joyousness, still seeking a little laughter, companionship and joyful work with which to cure them their sorely wounded young souls.

And he thought of all the many lonely people walking undetected on earth, singly or in groups, who have also come from war-torn zones of whatever sort, physical or psychical, or both, and more, and who carry deep pains, badly healed scars within them, which nobody understands – and he prayed for them.

And, not long after he was through with his prayer, his two brothers emerged from out of the basement, finished here, and together the three of them walked through the cold night to their tiny apartment in the camp, their home. And, as they walked, they cracked jokes and laughed.

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.
From my collection of thoughts and short stories: amazon cover copy there is always something more 2015