By: Maa Salaam
“Maaaa!” I shouted. Mothers and their incessant calls, especially when you were playing, especially now when I was losing and fighting to come back. Uuurgh!
“Maa! I’m coming!” I quickly packed my remaining corks into my pulled-up hem. Junior, my playmate, was still revelling in the wealth of corks he just won from me, his mirror scalp glistening, while musa, having pulled satisfactorily at the edge of his corks with his teeth, was moving in to take my place.
In moments like this, my mother could have been hanging right on your ears. She’s got that kind of shrill that pulls at your entrails.
“Are you counting my voice?” she asked in Yoruba, as I appeared at the other end of the long corridor, her Ibadan accent hissing and slicing. She was standing at our threshold, one hand holding our door ajar, the other akimbo, and staring so hard and menacingly than I felt I deserved. She unleashed the hung hand at me in a scathing shot and sneered. “Look at him, look how he looks, see him!
So jarring was the voice some corks slipped off my hem. But nothing could. Nothing could have made me parted with the corks than would make a tooth leave the gum, so I crouched low to pick them, one hand tightly keeping the cupped hem.
“See? I said it, cockerel! Sheer cockerel! He knows nothing, kpa, nothing but to go digging about with his mouth for the crumbs of other peoples’ lives, cho cho cho,” her mouth a mock beak. “See him, no where in this whole compound he has not pecked open. Whole neighborhood can testify. Cockerel! Coockereeel!” she shouted, clapping right in front of her mouth. “Come right here and face me if you are not a bastard!”
It was early evening, a Friday, and the compound was just humming back its hundreds of lives. As I stood and continued toward the corridor–flanked by boxrooms, thresholds all buckets and basins and potties and devil-knows-what wares–I would probably have stopped just before her, cringing, waiting for her last assault, her sharp tug of my ear dotted with a stinging knock. I would have, like most of my peers, taken her words as nothing but the usual hurl of abuse in the compound. God, curses rained here. Was and is still practically our way of life. We all by now should be struggling with the thickest and heaviest ever gossamer if each curse were a web strewn to and fro the tosser and the tossee.
Short, I would not have given the cuss words a pinch of my soft brain, and might never have had another chance to, if Aunty Martha’s door had not flung open right beside me.
And instantly came the wind. I caught it, the same wind, the same unfittedness that had exposed the withered bum. And I felt it would soon blow open, too, the bum of my cockerel.
Couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on our pavement busily hammering a cork flat. You probably know now that corks had always been my life–our lives, us children. They came in variedly handy as plaything. This flattened one was to make alavinvin. Two holes would be borne through its centre, a thread passed through them and tied at the ends. Holding the thread with two fingers, we would roll, then continuously pull and release for the cork to maintain a zooming speed. We fought with it, aiming the rotating cork at the other person’s thread. The first secret to winning was to make your cork’s edge sharper and your thread stronger, and Junior and Musa must be so plotting somewhere now.
Just slantly opposite me was Chinyere, the dark, sturdy girl who could never do without humming a song while choring. In fact her singing was a chore too, a palpable pull and release of the levers in her throat. Now she was peeling melon seeds amid some Igbo gospel. She, like every other female in the compound, I mean except babies, had had her own fair share of fighting. It didn’t matter who you were, the least you must have done was a slanging match, a mutual, thorough wash of yourselves and your generations in mucky mouths. The last time I checked her profile, it was a brawl with one of her peers, and God, many plastics got the strain of their lives.
Her toddler sister, Ebube, was sitting close and doing her own stuffs too. Tired perhaps of the venture, she wobbled down to me and stared so excitedly at the magic I was doing. Intermittently smiling too. Little children, God alone knows the millions that run in their mini minds. I took a moment, I remember, wondering what I was her age, my look, how much I could speak, how old when I was said to be a notorious sand scavenger; but she broke my thought the instance she found her way up our threshold and made straight for my corks, the reservoir under our rickety table, upon which sat our own devil of wares.
My first instinct was to stop her, my precious corks, but then something expanded in me, something big enough to accommodate her extra soul, so I let go of her handful and she toddled back to her base.
My flattened cork was almost ready now, remaining to be made serrated. It was my own little way of trying to outsmart these play lots of mine, to keep our seemingly eternal contest keen as ever. You do not want to lose in these plays, no. Not for the loss itself, but for the taunts that would be thrown at you. Later, when I would be startled by Musa’s ingenuity at how he had practically turned his alavinvin into a blade, sending me and Junior on repeated errands of threading, I would also take a pause and think of Musa’s taunts, our own taunts, as a weeny, innocent version of the curses.
Ebube surfaced again and again, picking corks each time, no more acknowledging my presence, and apparently building her own reservoir. She was growing more excited with each return, the ground a sudden growth to prop her every step. I would soon stop her, I knew, as I made finishing touches to my cork in readiness for threading.
“Hey, is it your counter that you are taking it? Oya, go and return it, go!” Chinyere stopped the tot short. I couldn’t see Ebube’s face, her dot of nose and her pure white eyes, which I guess was all blank barter, but her head the size of a coconut could have just been my alavinvin cork from Chinyere’s stare.
Even though I wanted my corks back, maybe not all, I wouldn’t have stopped Ebube in that manner, the Aleem I knew. Perhaps I wouldn’t stop her that way for the same reason Chinyere stopped her that way: we were both avoiding troubles. At least that was the pervasive idea, pervasive as the musty air that wafted out through doors and windows, smells enough to tell the difference between families, to remind you the fights would always be there, so that when our mothers said, as they often did, “Don’t play with that girl,” or “I don’t want to see you near their door”, you knew all they were doing was to avoid commotion. And it was as though we children were one very prickly, volatile source of these quarrels. In fact, unless our female folks did not hop in, our small playtime squabbles often degenerated into big all-time troubles. But of course being small made us invisible, allowed us carve some nooks and crannies from the walls of discord thrust by our mothers upon our playgrounds, and before you knew it again we had burst into the open, using the rubbles as playthings, until the boys amongst us started seeing the feminity of these fights and the girls started morphing into yet another set of warriors.
“I say go and return it!” Chinyere ordered, feigning to stand, and Ebube turned and tottered back to me, bouncing.
“See how she even dey walka,” Chinyere sniggered. “You better walk well and stop to try to shake that your dry bumbum wey be like okporoko. No amount of Pampers go make am shake, I swear. If you no even careful the bumbum go just fall commot.”
I can’t recall if it was fluffy between our both families then–so many fights and settlements just to fight again–but Chinyere, I recall, hovered somewhere between seriousness and playfulness, somewhere between asking me to either say my cork mind now or forever keep mute about her sister, who had now wedged herself between my thighs and staring shiny-eyed at her terror.
“Oya, come. Leave Aleem come take your baby, baby walankolombo. She go dance for you. That one bumbum even big pass your own. Come.”
The little creature stirred gently, more head than legs, apparently picking some of her sister’s words, but no sooner had she moved her legs than the obliquely opposite door flung open, Aunty Martha’s door, giving its usual jarring screech. She went straight for Chinyere.
“See, me I no get time for all those your talk-talk! I go beat you, useless you here before your mama go come back come face me! Stupid girl!” She had one leg on her threshold, one on the corridor, the words coming out with the rush of a sewer and fingers poking the air hotly.
“Hehe, see me see trouble o,” Chinyere retorted, clapping in between each word. “Wetin I do wey you just come dey swear for me? You see me for dream?”
“Me and you, dream?”
“Abeg Chinyere no want trouble ooo, hey!” she said, pulling her own ear. “I no find anybody so make nobody find me ooo!”
“Oh, you no want trouble, who you come dey sing those songs for? You think I deaf, ba? You think I no hear ibo? Which person yansh dry like stockfish, tell me?”
“Ahahahaha,” Chinyere cackled, a lunatic laughter, still clapping, head twirling, eyes rolling, a momentary theatrics that held us all but Aunty Martha, and who, with a quick roll of her sleeves, instantly lunged at Chinyere, and the next thing we heard was crumblings and cries of plastics.
But who came out was not Aunty Martha, it was her husband, the policeman. “Good evening, Madam.”
“Good evening, oga,” my mother replied, her v pronounced f. “Why are you standing there, ehn,” slipping back into her tongue, “why? See? That’s how you always stretch your neck into people’s houses. It’s even more befitting if you just ask their permission to enter and dig their affairs right under their nose. Stretch the neck and get the knife, that’s ever the fate of a cockerel. Come on, pack yourself inside jee, naughthy thing!”
Slowly, I started sidestepping my way in, going through the wall than the entrance, her eyes both on and off me, and I was almost in when her voice clutched at my ears again. “Come back here. Can’t you see the filthy legs he is taking inside for me? Since it is every godforsaken corner he would rummage, just to ruffle, just to gossip. Pack your stinking self outside! I have your time today! Come out and let’s exchange it like money!”
I could feel the policeman’s eyes on me as I fetched a bucket of water. His stares used to be tormenting, those arrowed eyes fraught with threats, but not anymore for me; I had twigged the trick. Ha, I will report you to the police, our mothers would say, in an attempt to make us do their biddings, and we would crumple our small bodies into obeisance, the policeman too playing his script perfectly. In fact Musa’s mother went as far as telling him policemen don’t live with “ordinary” people, that this one is just here so that he could torture all us stubborn children, that it had been their collective call as parents. Perhaps the police-dread, were it still there, would have made me think, all my premonitions nonetheless, that the tirade was what it was, meant for me.
More people came out now: Bros. Kalu the sunken bachelor who stays in the adjacent room and always cooked what my mother called “death food”; Aunty Funmi, the lady with whom Junior had told me he once did jangolova, with his pant down; and Mama Sidi, the wrapper woman, always exposing her flabby upper arms that are awfully jagged with stretch marks, and always making some irritating mouth movement as though chewing her own tongue. She walked past me now while I wash my legs, graceless, unwholesome woman, scratching and chewing her way to the toilet, totally unmindful of my mother’s show. She is the only woman I was yet to see fight. Rumours had it then that she was a monster whenever she fought, and that she did it stark naked.
“If you are done with whatever nonsense you are doing, I will be waiting for you right here. In this house is where my seat shall await that accursed ass of yours.” With this, I heard our door slammed, and I looked up again.
All over me were eyes now. While the policeman maintained his stony, straight look, Kalu his pallid hungry facade, Aunty Funmi had that look of hmn, mother-and-son palaver, na una sabi. Or maybe I was even the one staring at these people, the one feeling uneasy and ashamed and finding a way to atone for his mother’s iniquity. I just had this feeling that something wasn’t right. Though nobody has yet come to claim those curses, no likely person apparently, I still felt the weight of something heavily hanging and waiting to crash down. Why?
Notice that she’d been addressing me more as though she was reporting me to a third person; that’s even small. Our language is the deal here. How I wish I used it to tell this story and you would have seen that it lacks pronominal difference between male and female. The “hes” and “hims” of my mother could be for a female–and of course “you” serves no such purpose–and cockerel, as I’ve used it, could as well be feminine.
All said, my mind riveted back to the play. The itch, it was as though Junior and Musa were the ones that conspired to send me away. I quickly doused my legs with the remaining water, no scrubbing, dropped the bucket, and packed my corks silently. Off to San Siro.
Later, some couple of months I think, I would watch thoughtlessly from our threshold, toothbrush hung in my lips, as a woman aptly chided a little child: “Come on … raise your legs, it’s morning.” Then after few seconds she added, “Lest you lose the arch of your soles and spread your feet ugly like a duck’s.” Her whole words were crap until few days later when she and Musa’s mother clutched at each other’s neck in a fierce combat, the former using the same cuss words on the latter. Still around that period,
Tade returned from school chewing gum and her elder sister faced her: “Don’t worry, keep chewing gum, your teeth will soon look like a distorted railway track.” Couple of hours later, I heard her shout from something like fireworks explosion on her cheek. It ended up quite messy until Mr. Osas, the tall muscular man, gave his reason for the slap:”See my teeth, see am well well! Because I keep quiet since, ehn? Curse me again and you go smell ween! Nonsense pipo!” his words all puffs of half-baked sounds.
Now, I only watched as Junior head out to answer his mother, waited for his return so I could take a revenge, kept digging it out with Musa who seemed easier to win, until a loud staccato voice rang out in rapid fire.
I knew whose voice it was, what it shouted, and to whom it was directed. Uneasiness descended on my poor soul as I made my way out to the corridor.