Efe is sitting with Otamere under one of the ebelebo trees that is scattered like rubber seeds at the backyard of the house. It’s Monday, and they are on mid-term break from school. Efe asks his friend if he thinks captives can find any form of happiness. Otamere is smiling in his usual manner of chic ordinariness, the kind he wears when he’s about to recount one of his numerous fables. Efe will not admit this, but this is why he likes him, the relative easiness with which he calls on stories to answer questions — questions no child should be caught asking. Even more so, questions 12-year-olds should not find answers to.
“Hmm, Efe,” Otamere answers in a voice dancing with adult pretentiousness. “Once upon a time, a little girl followed her mother to the zoo, she saw how the different animals seemed happy as though they didn’t mind the cage, as if they thought the cages were mere improvised furniture. Surprised, so she asked her mother the reason for the animals’ unfound cheerfulness. Her mother said it must be because they are animals and they are dumb; she said this with a glaring lack of interest. Still dissatisfied, she asked the zoo guide”.
Otamere is looking up at the sky like one who can see what Efe is missing.
“The guide looked on the little girl and answered,” he continues as he picks a deciduous branch from the ground, “Lass, they are cheerful because they chose to be.”
Otamere stands and throws the branch into the poto poto in front of them. “You see Efe, you see, it depends.”
Efe wants to tell him that he is in a cage too, but he’s not finding any cheer. He wants to say to him that Uncle, his stepmother’s younger brother that lives with them is asking him to do things to him that the blonde girl was doing to the big black guy’s thing in the blue magazine that Rilwan slipped into school at the beginning of the term, things that make his throat sore. He wants to tell him that his tongue still remembers the slimy remains that make it tastes like sin, the kind Pastor Toritse talks about every Tuesday on the assembly ground. He wants to say many things to him, but he remembers the thick, taut vein that was on Uncle’s forehead as he threatened to kill him and anyone he mentions those black nights to. He thinks of calling his bluff, but he knows Uncle has a reputation for making good his threat. Efe does not say anything to Otamere. Instead, he smiles and says in bini, “Let me go home now and read for tomorrow’s test.”
The wall paint in the staff room is faded leaving behind an impression that it had at some point been blue. Empty chairs are neatly paired with tables, they are mostly always empty because it is a public school and teachers do other things to supplement their meagre government salaries. ‘Nah shoulder dem dey put government work, nor be head,’ they would tell you.
It is Friday; the staff room is empty now leaving only Corper Bola (as she was popularly referred to). She’s grading the just concluded JSS2 CRS test. Efe is sitting across from her looking blue. She had become fond of Efe after that day in class.
She was teaching the story of the woman who was caught in adultery in the Bible. It was Tonto’s hand that first went up, even though she knew it was against the code of the class to ask questions while Corper Bola was still teaching. Rule number three: for the reason of order, write down your questions, and we’ll attend to them after the class. Tonto was shy and never asked any questions, and so, if she couldn’t wait to ask this time, it must be important, Corper Bola reasoned.
“Ask your question Tonto,” Corper Bola gestured at her.
“Thank you, ma,” Tonto said rambling, looking at her desk as if she had carved the questions there. “My father has three wives, is that one still adultery too? “.
The class fell quiet. Whether it was because of the awkward question or the marooned look now on Corper Bola’s face or both, it was unclear.
“Tonto, that’s a whole different and a more complicated matter” Corper Bola struggled to answer, “we will have to keep it for another of class, ok?”.
Tonto gave the nod of one who had no choice as she sat, eyes still looking down. They all knew it would never be revisited; it was not the first time a touchy question would be booted to the next class. It was at this point when the class was still trying to find their way to initial normalcy that Efe spoke; he stood up without raising his hand, breaking Rule 2.
“But excuse me Corper, this is not really a question,” he said waving the forefinger of his right hand horizontally “do you not think the Bible is grossly unfair to accuse only the woman of adultery when it usually takes two people to do it? Where is the man in the story?”.
This threw the class into blares and cheers, ‘two people to do it? Baddo! How you tey know? Nah you oh!’
Corper Bola had to hit her cane that she never uses repeatedly on her table to get her class back. ‘Cease your noise!’ What has gotten into my students today? She wondered.
“Efe, it is not the Bible I think, but the men that were unfair,” she said suddenly looking at her wristwatch as though she just realised she owned one. “That’s why Jesus… Oh, our time is even up self”. She then asked Efe to see her before the end of recess.
Corper Bola had taken an instant liking to Efe; there was something about his eyes that held the promise of something she couldn’t yet put a finger on. Efe would later find that Corper Bola was, in fact, different from many adults he knew. She listened when he talked, asked what he thought and used colourful grown-up phrases like ‘you are entitled to your opinion’ and ‘c’mon now.’ Efe felt different with her and got to like her for it. It was easy to like someone who did not remind you that you don’t yet count because you’re a kid. From time to time, he dropped in to talk to her
Efe is sitting across her today for a different reason. Earlier, during the test, he had asked her for permission to stand throughout the test. Corper Bola, thinking that it was a show to overplay his hand, she denied him. It was when she saw him got out of the hall that she knew something was wrong with how he walked.
It is Otamere who first noticed that Efe had started to walk awkwardly that morning when they were walking to school; Efe, Otamere, and Benji.
“when did you nah still start this shakara nah?” Otamere called him out, laughing mockingly. “Walking as if you’ve grown a giant brokos overnight.”
The other boys in their class had started to walk stylishly this term, something they picked from TV; ‘blowing guy,’ they called it, except the way Efe walked now was quizzical. He heavily swung his legs strangely apart, slightly pushing out his buttocks like he was holding a secret in his groin.
“Don’t mind him, it’s all those zombie in class that he’s copying so” Benji added not looking up from his CRS keypoint.
On a normal day, Efe would have replied with a shurrup make pelsin hear word jor, but there was something different about him today, Otamere saw it clearly then. It was not only his walk that had changed, his eyes too, they blinked like they’d been exposed to too many onions. Silence swallowed the rest of their walk to school.
“Efe, what is up with you?” Corper Bola asked looking up from her table.
“Nothing Corper” Efe said shaking his head, not looking up. “Nothing.”
“You know you can talk to me.”
“Yes ma I know, but there’s nothing to tell.”
“Efe, look into my eyes and tell me the way you’re walking now is normal” Corper Bola said in that her sing-song voice she used to always say ‘Paul, an apostle of Our Lord Jesus Christ.’
She knew Efe was defenseless to this; he always spilled when he makes eye contact.
“I’m not supposed to tell you Corper; he will kill you and me.” Efe blurted.
“Who will kill you? And me? Tell me Efe.”
“Do you promise not to tell?”
“You can trust me. Your secret is safe with me.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yes, I promise.”
Efe is staring at the door as he tells her about last night, how Uncle had sneaked into his room, sweating like a fridge that had seen too much NEPA. He had expected Uncle to loosen his belt for the usual bout swiftly but instead, Uncle had nudged him to go on all fours as he knelt behind him. He tells Corper Bola how in the past months, Uncle had taught all the holes in his body the many different ways they were not supposed to be used. He told her how Uncle snuck out after a few grunts and thrusts. He tells her of the many nights before yesterday night. He is still looking at the floor, noticing for the first time the remnant of what could be tiles or carpet or anything when she reaches for his hand and squeezes it in a gentle, reassuring way.
“It will be fine Efe” she finally finds the words.
“But remember your promise!”. Efe reminded her while trying to keep the teary cloud that had now gathered in his eyes, from trickling down.
She does not reply to him, “it will be fine Efe” she repeats instead in a whisper as tears flood her white shirt that NYSC is written on.
Efe’s mother left Efe and his father when he was only 9-months-old. There were many rumours about her whereabouts. One claimed she died in Libya as she was trying to ‘cross.’ Another held that in exchange for euro, pale European men in Italy were using pestle on her when they got bored with using their penises or dogs. Yet another had it that they saw her on the dimly lit streets of Morocco awaiting ‘customers.’
No one knew what had happened to her for sure, so Efe’s father clung to the Libya story. It was easier to believe. It was also easier to tell. “When an ashawo gets married or gives birth, she’s only on leave,” Efe’s father had said shaking his head, heaving his shoulder, throwing his right hand round his head and snapping his fingers as one wishing away the evil that night when Efe woke him up with his cry.
Efe’s father remarried six months after because people said a child might thrive without a father, but not without a mother. He would go on to later die of stroke nine years later when Efe was only 10, leaving his wife, Efe’s stepmother as the sole guardian since all Efe’s grandparents were dead. Efe’s stepmother was not bad; for a stepmother, she was okay. Maybe it was because she couldn’t have any child of her own and Efe was the only thing stopping people from publicly calling her out as barren.
Different men that Efe had to call ‘Uncle’ would come every night, leaving early in the morning before dawn could get a glimpse. Body nor be firewood my sister, her friend, Mama Junior said one evening.
It is Saturday, the day after Efe confided in Corper Bola. The sky is no longer beaming; it’s changing into a sackcloth, it’s about to rain. Corper Bola is sitting outside the shop waiting for Efe’s stepmother to attend to customers. She’s wearing blue Denim and a black skirt. Her sandals are a Gucci make-believe. Today, she’s not looking like ‘a Corper.’
“I have a great thing to tell you ma, it is a very sensitive something,” Corper Bola says as she tries to lose that modish swagger that accompanies the English of educated people. “It’s about Efe.”
“Great thing?” Efe’s stepmother repeats shifting from side to side, fondling with the lumpy fold of her umbrella-patterned Hollandis on the left side of her waist “well, we thank God for great thing Corper. What is this thing about Efe?“
“Sorry ma, I didn’t mean to mislead you, Great here is not a good thing” regretting instantly her choice of words. “This one is great bad news, I fear.”
Her posture is frozen for a minute, throwing a puzzled look at Corper Bola as though she is trying to read the underlying meaning of her words. She is not saying a word, only looking.
Corper Bola takes the look as consent to continue. She goes on to tell her everything Efe told her, things she promised Efe were safe with her. Efe’s stepmother is wearing a look of confusion which can actually be shock or pretense.
“He needs our help; what do we do now?” Corper Bola asks.
“Our? We?” Efe’s stepmother asks Corper Bola, giving her the look, one gives to people too adamant to forge their place where they don’t belong. “You’ve done good for telling me, but this, this one we go treat as family. I sure you understand. “
Corper Bola nods in shock as she’s gestured to leave.
You see now Ms. Soriyan? You see now that not all truth should be told? You see now that dogs don’t eat kola? You see now what it has cost me. You should have kept your promise.
I forgive you sha. Don’t look for me. Don’t feel bad.
See you in a better life,
Your friend/student, Efe Agbonaye.”
Corper Bola’s tears soak the paper as she rereads the letter. Efe had pinned the note to her door the night before the day he went missing.
On Monday when Otamere heard that Efe had stolen his stepmother’s esiso, collected his few clothes and ran from home, he knew at once where he’d be going, the place he always talked about non-stop when his face was swollen with questions that can’t be asked. So, when they were searching the whole of Evboriaria and the neighbouring community, he knew Efe was well in a place where they could not find him, a place where you find children who hang from buses painted in red and yellow shouting New Benin! Ring Road! Main gate!
Osamu Ekhator is a farmer and he writes. He’s @samuhub on social media.