By: Samuel Ekanem
As Mushood stood up under a cashew tree, where he’s been squatting for the past thirty minutes, a snag from the tree poked into his hair. Before then he’d held up his brown chinous trousers, toddled a step out of where he’d been squatting. But then he freed the trousers, back down over his feet, raised his hands over his head to untangle his hair.
“Awch!” He screamed, as the snag chuckled on his head. His mouth open, eyes tight-closed as the pain needled down his body like injection, he staggered back into his stool.
“Aaahhh, what’s this nah!” His voice, as dry and shaky as a sheep’s bleat, was louder, chasing away birds from atop the tree.
From the way his head suddenly started pounding, he knew the bruising was serious, had bulldozed a strand of his hairs and he’s bleeding. He steadied his foot on the stool and gently, with his hands, he broke the stick a distance over his head, his mouth and eyes still open and tight-closed respectively. He brushed on the bruise with his forefinger, felt a fresh pain as warmths from his finger heated the injury. He withdrew the finger hurriedly and starred at it, the blood floating on a pool of sweat on it.
He pulled over his trousers, belted them over his navel, their edges well lifted above his feet. Pains and annoyance slacked his face. His cheeks swelled and wobbled now and then as he panned his face around the bush. Then he limped off, brushed his slippers on the foot of the cashew tree, the faeces, brown like a potter’s clay, smeared on the tree foot in small lumps.
Birds’ chirps peppered the quietness of the Alaafin Street by the time Mushood came out of the bush. Snaky, the street was tarred; but then the coal tar had peeled off at some points, forming potholes that exposed the redness of the Oyo soil. He spent time starring at smokes emitted by a mountain at the end of the street. It marveled him how the smokes came out of the mountain in a breakneck speed, massing into the sky and sometimes dwarfed below the mountain level by the early December harmattans. If nothing else, he admired the geography of Oyo: the sloppy and bendy roads, the rockiness of the soil, the random germination of rocks that annexed residences and hijacked houses on their pinnacles. These varried his experiences from those in the human populated, busy and rough Lagos where he was brought up. But the overwhelming, bushy landmass and the ancient, rusty-roofed structures that patterned Oyo State made it chaffy, too.
He wallpapered the mountain on his phone.
Mushood sighted three girls down the street. The girls, sixteen-year-olds, dressed in navy blue pinafores, over blue-checked shirts and covered head-foot with white jabs, were of the Community Grammar School, his Place of Primary Assignment, where he, a graduate of Mass Communication, taught Physical and Health Education in the Junior Secondary School and Civic in the Senior.
Mushood’s mouth tore to the either ends in a dry smile, as the girls knelt religiously in front of him in greetings.
“Sadikat, Rokibat, Kabirat, how are you?” He named them, touching their cheeks one after the other, the girls crowding him.
“Sah,” Sadikat said, “I brings cashew for you today, but I am not see you in school.” Sadikat was dark and chubby. Her jab, though always smelling of ewedu, was the whitest and neatest in SS 2. Mushood liked her for this, even though she was as unintelligent as she was ugly, her w-mouthed, charcoal-dark face made her look enslaved in the jab, her body fulling her uniform she couldn’t stuff her hands in her pinafore pockets. And she wasn’t among the noise making cabal – another likeness she earned from Mushood. She’d rather sleep all through his class than make a noise, and would wake up when the class would thunder a goodbye to him.
Mushood laughed at Sadikat’s teeth – big and greenish like rotting pebbles. His laugh seared along the quiet street but thinned off quickly like a mosquito’s whine.
“I like your laughing, sah,” Sadikat said. “Taught me how to laughing like that.”
“Me, Corper,” Kabirat tapped his hand, “Teach me how to speaking English.”
“Yes,” Sadikat and Rokibat nodded. A discomfort settled on Mushood’s face as he moved his gaze from one girl’s face to the other, the girls looking up quietly at his face as though expecting the English to drop from his mouth the way overripe cashews dropped in Iganna, their village. Honour litghtened his face, his eyes sparkling and restless, a greenish vein dividing his forehead like an earthworm.
He smiled again and fingered Sadikat’s jaw. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you laugh and speak English like me.” Sadikat smiled, grasping her jab at the waist, waggling the waist this way and that, spiting the other girls who envied her, judging from the sudden droopiness of their faces, even as they camouflaged it as much with enthusiastic smiles. Mushood noticed this, and so he fingered their jaws, too.
Mushood had a nice English accent. Times, his students lost the content of his classes to the aesthetics of his pronunciation. They’d look at and nod to each other even when many times he wasn’t clear about which subject he was teaching which class, would just be chattering, chattering, chattering. Any times Sadikat slept in his class, it’s his English that lulled her to sleep.
“Your English sweeting me, sah,” she’d said one day, when Mushood woke her with a loud thrash on her locker. Confused, he panned his face about, said, “Now, look up!”
“How were exams today?” Mushood sheppherded the girls into his arms.
“We finish our exam today,” Kabirat said.
“Hope you answered my questions well.”
“If you fail my exams, I’ll change it for you next term.”
The girls laughed, though they knew not what he meant by changing it for them. Yet, they knew, inasmuch as failing an exam was the case, then changing it for them mustn’t be unrelated to peppering their buttocks with a raffia cane.
“We are answer all your questions, sah.” Rokibat said.
“Three of us, we sit together when we write your exam sah,” Sadikat said. “If I don’t know something, I copy from Kabirat.”
“Yes,” the others affirmed.
Laughs bulged Mushood’s cheeks. His eyes logged with tears, he quivered the cheeks sideways and breathed out the laughs with the ease of someone used to exhaling cigarette smoke.
“You mean you cheated in my exams?”
“We don’t cheated, sah, we copy,” Sadikat said.
Rokibat said, “Yes. We, we don’t cheated, we copy.”
Mushood coughed out the laughs, hard, pumping his neck. Then he pondered a while, on how innocence, adorning the girls’ ignorance, formed a culture.
“Look, all of you,” he said, the girls looking at him curiously. “What you did is called cheating, okay? When you copy someone’s work in an exams hall, you’re cheating. Do you understand?”
Then Kabirat tapped him, “Corper, if we cheating, is it called copy?”
The question burned Mushood’s left ear as the sun was burning his right. His eyes, fixed at Kabirat’s face, were restless. He scratched his head, and could feel his brains knock inside it as though sunburn had solidified them into nuggets of stones. As he swayed his head about, all in a bid to deciding how well to explain what cheating meant, a rusty smell reached him from the bush. From where the smell came? He knew. That was why he sheppherded the girls across the street, his hands puffed across their shoulders. Across the street, there’s a big log, sawed from a cashew tree in the bush. He settled his buttocks on it after Sadikat had dusted the wood with her jab, kneeling.
“Rokibat,” he said, the girls either kneeling or squatting or sitting on the road in front of him. “If you cheat, it’s not called copying. It’s examination malpractice. Cheating is a bad thing, a sin. If you cheat, you’ve sinned against God and you’ll go to hell fire. Do you want to go to hell fire?”
“So don’t cheat again, don’t copy something from someone again when you write exams. Is that clear?”
Sadikat had been kneeling, but then she settled on the road, suddenly. Her legs flung to either sides, Mushood sighted the front of her white underpant, reddened with blood the deep redness of tinned tomatoes. Regretting, he turned his gaze away slowly and spat. Winds sprinkled the saliva on the girls, in tiny, invisible drizzles. He voiced a ‘sorry’ to them and released another ball that landed successfully on the road. Rokibat walked down to chuckle on the saliva, but, in a play, Kabirat pushed her away and did it with her sandals.
Sadikat gathered the cloaks of her jab and started to mop her face, her body vibrating. Mushood reached for her head, pushed it backwards so he could see her face.
“Corper, she’s crying,” Kabirat said, and joined Rokibat to giggle.
“Because she will going to hell fire.”
A brief curiousness arrested Mushood.
“Because she cheating in exams hall all the time,” Kabirat and Rokibat chorused amidst laughters and gags.
“No,” Mushood smiled, and then laughed. “Come and sit here, Sadikat.”
Sadikat rose slowly but willingly, and sat beside him on the wood, her unvocalized cries convulsing her body time to time.
“Sorry,” Mushood hugged her sidewards, but wouldn’t do that for too long, as the nasty smell from her wherever, waxed stronger by their proximity, found its way into his nostrils.
“If you stop cheating,” he continued, “You won’t go to hell fire, okay?”
Sadikat nodded repentantly, tidying her rather saggier face.
“And you two, come here,” he pawed at the other girls, who’d, still waggling, twinned a few steps away. “I’ll tear your jabs if you keep laughing. You think you’re more brilliant than Sadikat is?”
Kabirat and Rokibat knelt in gagging apologies.
He dismissed them, “Get up! And what were your positions last term? Anything less than third, I’ll change it for you here and now.” He turned and searched the bush for a cane. Sadikat scavenged one for him from the bush – a cashew stick – too big for a cane. He smiled and waved it away. He wanted no cane actually.
“Me, I am first potision,” Kabirat said.
“Me, Second potision,” said Rokibat.
Mushood turned to Sadikat, “You?”
“Corper,” Kabirat tapped him, “Sadikat’s first potision.”
“True, Sadikat?” He said, still looking at Sadikat, whose face, descendant from the aftermath, darkened the more, until he fingered her jaw again, to which she smiled – gradually till her w-mouth arched into a half-moon shape and exposed her greenish-brown teeth.
“Yes sah,” mumbled Sadikat.
Mushood stared across the street, in a brief absentmindedness that accompanied pondering – atop the cashew tree, at the birds, chased away initially by his voice, pecking the tiny fragrant cashew flowers – on the girls always slating out ‘position’ as potition, and then why Sadikat, the most unintelligent student he’d ever seen, who wrote his tests with the customised answer sheets always turned upside down, even her name, the only information she scribbled on the whole paper, wrongly spelt, came first in a class of about a hundred and fifty students.
Kabirat tapped him again, “Corper.” His mind returned, and with a fresh curiousity. “I have a big mark than Sadikat, but we are first, first potition together.”
“True?” He looked at Sadikat, who stilled her face until he put his hand back across her shoulders and asked again as a whisper, “True?”
Sadikat nodded guiltily.
“Who took the fourth position?” He run his eyes across their faces.
Rokibat said, “No body.”
“Corper,” Kabirat said, and this time the tap was on his hand, more painful. “We don’t do like that in my school. In my school, every body take first, second or third potition. If you’re number one in our register, you take first, if you’re number two – second, if you’re number three – third, if you’re number four, you take first again. Me I’m number one, I take first. Rokibat is number two – second, Sadikat is number four, that’s why she’s first potition.”
Mushood crossed his hands over his chest and onto his shoulders as though Kabirat’s words, like a high-voltaged cable, electrocuted him. He stared across the street but at nothing. Guilt dampened his face, drying it as the harmattans dried the bushes. Guilt. Strong guilt: He could’ve told the girls it’s ‘position’ not potition? And Why did the school flatter them with fake results, rather than expose them to and scale them on the right standard? His shampooed hair, chaffy as were the harmattan-tattered bushes, flipped sideways as the harmattan winds blew dust from up the mountain, the dust soaring across his face like smokes. He longed to photograph this, but guilt won’t let him. Guilt froze him as it did the day Chizitara blasted him for doing nothing to secure a good posting in the camp.
“I don’t like the way you’re careless about things in this camp,” Chizitara told him. “This is how you’ll waste this your good English in one village school like that. Your mates are either leading platoons or commanding parades, all in a bid to influencing their postings. Your own, you’re pocketing your hands and freelancing this whole camp like a fowl.”
Chizitara was the only friend Mushood made in camp. It still wondered him how it happened; how he, a reserved but quick-to-be-provoked person absorbed Chizitara’s hostilities and biting arogance till she finally succumbed. From the way Chizitara lifted her legs untimely to the left, right command on the parade ground, where he first noticed her, he’d known that she’s a girl for whom everything was done. It’s why he didn’t hang himself when she dolled her face and walked away when he first talked to her near the unroofed pavilion, and why he looked around to study how many of the other corps members witnessed the shame. But then Joy glared in him the day, at the camp market, both eating shawama in the calabar woman’s tent, Chizitara dismissed a call on the grounds of being with him.
“Can you call back later, please,” she told her caller. “I’m with somebody.”
Joy boomed his heart. Unspoken joy. Finally he was a somebody.
A graduate of Medical Lab Science, Chizitara was posted to a private radio station in the state capital, Ibadan, a juicy posting that was a compensation for the mind-blowing teases she overdosed the Camp Director with each time she and the woman came across each other in the camp. It mostly happened on the camp kitchen road, demarcating the Camp Director’s lodge from the Ajimobi men’s hostel. She’d ambush the woman near the State Coordinator’s charlet, her white-and-white modelled after a snow. Then she’d fly into the woman’s open arm as the woman would bounce out of her lodge, towards the pavilion.
“You’re the youngest corper in this camp, take it or leave it,” she’d tease the woman. “You’re the reason I must become a camp director one day.”
“I’m blushing,” the woman would smile, as delicately as she walked, the words labouring through her mouth as if she’d not opened that mouth in a decade. And she’d laugh throughout as the girl’d walk her all along to her ribboned seat on the platform. Truth was, the CD liked it when she was referred to as a Corper. In her late forties, the woman felt younger and pampered eulogized amongst the young and energetic graduates mobilized, camped, oriented and scattered across the country in a compulsory service to their fatherland. Chizitara realized this quite on time and held onto it till her yearning was hearkened to. Each encounter with the CD gingered Chizitara to decern on Mushood.
“If they post you to the bush, you’re On Your Own – OYO,” she told him, one afternoon, both holding hands across the army quarters. “If you can’t join the media crew or any special CDS group, why not make friends with one of these camp officials, so you can get posted to Ibadan? Me, I must be posted to Ibadan, that’s why you see me following the CD left, right and centre. And it must work.”
“If it doesn’t work..?” He daunted her. She pushed his head, “Stop that! It must!”. They laughed, all along.
Mushood turned the other side of Chizitara’s code tag and starred at the OBS emblazonment.
“What’s the full meaning of OBS?”
She rolled her eyes, and then looked at him with the corners of those eyes, “You see? You mean you’re in this camp and you don’t know the meaning of OBS? I tell you, if they post you to a village, don’t have me in mind o.”
“You’re taking it too seriously, Tara, as if our relationship depends on posting. Even if we’re posted different places, isn’t it a matter of just a year?”
“Did you say just? She paused, snaking her fist off his hand. “One whole year is ‘just’ to you?” Then she walked on and said, “Me, I have no time to waste; I’m a girl. One year means a lot to me – a whole lot. One year can change my status from a girl to a woman, and from Alaafin hostel into a charlet.”
“True sha, because one year will change me from your boyfriend to your husband.”
They laughed. The laughing advantaged his hand across her waist and he felt the texture of her skin soft like verseline.
“But I’ll marry you lass-lass, okay?” he whispered, his voice velvet, warming into her ears.
“No wahala, but you have to show working.” They laughed again.
Chizitara’s waist porch fell off as she geared off towards the CD who dashed out of the State Coordinator’s charlet. Mushood picked up the porch, waited in vain for her, beside the OBS building as she, after walking the CD to her seat, settled in the pavilion for the afternoon lectures. Hanger boiled in his heart: how can she dump him like that? Had she forgotten she’s with somebody? He mobilized his temper to change it for her, for that rubbish that she did. But then his nerves cooled, for Chizitara was too beautiful to be angry at. Her sunny skin, incandescent as in the aftermath of a plastic surgery, was about the most expensive he’d found amongst the girlsfolk. Her cartoon-kind-of body perfected by her standing chest. Or, he thought, how can he pay her back that way, for making his camp life worthwhile? So he breezed across the parade ground, to the camp market, where he chewed away the anger with a plate of pepper soup, drank it off with a bottle of alomo bitters and smoked it out with a stick of wheat, behind the camp market, blowing the smoke into a jerry can else the army officers traced it, fished him out and decamped him.
He’d wanted to reprimand her when they met again later that evening at the camp market, but her smiles didn’t chance him.
“The CD finally made my day today.” She smiled.
“Really? What did she do?”
“She got my state code.”
“Woow. Like… woow!”
Chizitara stood up and danced a short dance in which the only thing he saw was her ‘chest’ wobbling.
“Like..how did you tease her this time?”
“Nothing much. I cleaned her shoes in front of the clinic. She’s so pleased. She called me into her car and asked where I wanted to be posted. Then she got my state code.”
“So where did you mention?”
“You’re not serious jare. Is that a question?”
Anxiety sickened Chizitara the last day on camp. She’s yet to believe the CD had really posted her to Ibadan. Her temperature had heightened and she didn’t go to clinic because she knew she wasn’t really sick. Mushood noticed her running temperature when they hugged that morning at devotion, after Nigeria had woken from sleep. Her eyes, too, were dull and tearful. No wonder she missed some of the calculated salutations during the passing out parade; her headdress always arriving the air late during the three hearty cheers to the Deputy Governor, who came to declare closed the orientation course. The Deputy Governor shook his head slowly, noticing the slight inconformity, in a mild disappointment that otherwise would’ve been a head nod for a beautiful parade.
The Regimental Sergeant Major who drilled the parade barked at her after the parade: “Mad woman! Great fool! White fowl! Native doctor! Moi-moi! See your useless breats big like pawpaw.”
She wanted to cry but she let it go, after all she wasn’t any of those things the man labelled her. They made jokes out of it: “native doctor,” Mushood teased her, their jungle boots colliding on each other’s as they laughed all the way to the tiled pavement beside Ajimobi hostel, where they lined up for their posting letters. Mushood was behind her on the line and they weren’t talking untill she saw her letter emblazed ‘Ibadan,’ then she fingered his jaw and soared out of the line, jumping. Mushood starred at his letter secretly inside the pavement, tears glassing his eyes. He googled and learned that Iganna, where he’s posted, bordered Nigeria with Benin Republic, and spanned four to five hours to or from Ibadan.
“You see?” Chizitara, who’d been spying behind him said. “I told you, didn’t I? And I tell you again – that place is a thick forest – even network you won’t see. And please don’t think me any longer. It’s over.”
Mushood’s tears were hot, dropped on the letter in quick successions, and intensified when Chizitara waved him a goodbye from inside a bus that conveyed her and other corps members posted to the state capital. He squatted and rained the tears into a gutter by the major road, his luggages stack behind him across the road.
Mushood turned his gaze at the mountain. Tears blurred his vision. He mobbed them with a white handkerchief pulled out of his back pocket. The smoke was off the mountain, as the sun had gone down it. Smiles from the setting sun yellowed across the street, casting on the cashew leaves dancing to the harmattan-chilled breezes. He rolled his gaze down on the girls, at a distance down the mountain side, circling their bodies in a play in which breezes would balloon their jabs into white umbrellas. He couldn’t smile as much as he admired the girls’ play. Memory had dampened his heart, spoiled the evening. Memory. Memory that doomed his service year, and would wreck him till perhaps whenever.
“What did your parents give you when you came first, Sadikat?” He asked, walking the girls down the street.
“Qur’an? Why Qur’an?”
“My daddy are a big Muslim man. He wanting me to know Islam thing very well.”
“Me,” Kabirat said, “my daddy buy me Islam prayer book. Corper,” she tapped him, “I can pray many Islam prayer in my head.”
Kabirat pinched Rokibat’s buttocks and winked at her – talk! talk!
“Me,” said Rokibat, “my mummy buy me no anything. But I have Qur’an book.”
“You want to speak English like me right?”
“Why didn’t you tell your parents to buy you English textbooks instead of Qur’an and all?”
“I tell my daddy,” Kabirat said, “He say they will teaching me English in school.”
“Me too my daddy say like that,” said Kabirat.
“Me my mummy say no money,” Rokibat said.
Mushood looked left and right at a T-junction ending the street. Two women, covered with black jabs, each with a basin of charcoal on her head, bowed to him and crossed to the left.
“I’ll teach you English when I’m back from Xmas break,”
“You want to travel?” Sadikat looked up at him.
“Greet your every body for me,” said Kabirat.
“I’ll give you plenty cashew to travel,” Sadikat said.
He fingered a goodbye on their cheeks, held back, watching them scatter into different footpaths leading to their various homes.
Samuel Felix Ekanem is a Nigerian historical and modern fiction writer. His works, A Bottle of Cognac and Our Father’s House have been published in Down in the Dirt Magazine in America, and have also been selected for the 2020 edition of the CCD&S Literary Anthology in the United States. His True Home is coming up in The Fictional Café. He graduated from the University of Uyo, Nigeria, where he studied Communication Arts. He currently lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he researches and writes. He dreams of doing an MFA someday in America.