American 419 and other stories excerpt


THE ANNIVERSARY

   We are in the living room of our apartment in Jos. It’s Saturday afternoon in September, and the sky is dark with grey clouds. My brother, Abubakar, is sitting on the armchair. He is six years old, I’m eight. There is an eerie silence outside our house and from time to time we hear the sound of bombs going off in the city. This is the first time I’m hearing it in real life. As I shift to sit properly in my armchair, another bomb rocks the city, and Father gets up, glaring at Mother.

   “Suicide bombers,” he says.

   “Killing Christians,” Mother says.

   “Today is the anniversary,” Father says, searching my face to see whether I understand. I don’t. He turns to Mother. “Let’s leave. Please. I don’t want to have visitors.” Father looks like most Hausa Muslims, slim, dark-complexioned, and lean. He has a small hand, wide nose, and small head. Wearing a long gown and a white cap, he is about six feet tall. People say Abubakar looks like him.

   “No matter what happens,” Mother says, “Arziki and Abubakar must be safe. They must not be in danger.”

   Mother is a fair-complexioned Yoruba woman. She has high cheekbones, a smooth skin, small eyes, and she’s far shorter than father. She looks like a prosperous woman because of her corpulent stature. Father and his people say I will look like her when I grow up. This is why they call me Arziki. Father gets up, clenches his hands into fists, and glares at the door.

   “I can feel it,” he says. ”I can feel it.”

   “Just don’t put the children in danger,” Mother says.  “It’s not good for them at all.”

   “What is …”

   “Quiet there,” Mother snaps at me. “When your father and I are talking, keep quiet. Do you hear me?”

   “Yes, Mother.”

   I know they are hiding things from me. They didn’t used to do so, but they started a few days ago. When they see me coming, they will stop talking so I don’t know what they are saying. If they have to talk, they whisper. As I think about their strange behavior, the sound of gunfire comes from the end of the street. Father jumps up as though he has been bitten by a bee. He sits down. Mother stands up and sits down, not knowing what to do. She and Father exchange glances, get up, and walk toward each other. They whisper, nod, and then Mother comes to meet me.

   “We’re going to check on some friends,” she says. “Don’t open the door for anybody.”

   “Yes, Mother,” I reply. “But is anybody coming?”

   “Arziki, I said don’t ask foolish questions today,” Mother says. “Do as you’re told. Don’t open the door for anybody. And look after your brother. Get me?”

   “Yes, Mother,” I say.

   She and Father rush to the door, stop, and look at each other. Father opens the door, peers outside, then slips out. Mother follows him, shutting the door behind her. Abubakar begins to cry. After turning the key in the lock, I go to his armchair, sit beside him, and start to tell him about the tortoise and the snake. A few moments later, he falls asleep. I walk to the window, push the curtain aside, and look at the street through the closed louver window. A long building is in front of me across the street. It contains many stores. It had been deserted since yesterday when Mother and Father told me not to go to school. This is strange on their part. Everything they do has been strange. As I stare at the building, I wonder why Mother and Father stopped me from attending classes. I don’t know the reason.

   I stare away from the street and look at the show glass at the corner of the room. I can see a brown bottle in it. On the dark glass, in white capital letters, stand the words MIRACLE POLISH. I know the liquid in it is thick, slow, and greenish white. Father bought it from a stranger years ago. When used to clean a mirror, it transforms it, giving it a freshness to peoples’ images. Everybody likes it and wants to buy it, asking Father to take them to the stranger. The person who likes it most is Alhaji.

   Across the street, I see Alhaji’s store. Alhaji is one of the few Muslims having a store in the building. He has been operating it for over ten years. Far longer than when mother opened hers for teaching English lessons. At first, Alhaji and Father were good friends. He used to give grilled meat to me and Abubakar, and Father approved of it.  During Sallah, he came to our house to eat rice and ram. He and Father used to play draughts with each other. But last year something happened. I went to stay with my uncle in Bauchi at the time. Father and Alhaji stopped talking. When I ask Father why, he shouts, “Quiet! Don’t ask me foolish questions again.”

   Alhaji is not the only person who has quarreled with father. Aminu is another person. He and Alhaji used to come to our house with their friends. Aminu used to have a wife, Binta, but Mother said she died at the time I went to Bauchi. Aminu’s wife, like Mother, is Yoruba and a Christian. I don’t know what killed her. Anytime I ask Mother about it, she frowns at me, shouting, “Arziki, no questions today! Can you hear me?” Still, Aminu has stopped coming to our house. When Mother and Father talk about Aminu and Alhaji and see me coming, they stop talking and begin whispering.

   As I look through the window, I see people running along the street, moving away from the nearby market. Though the window is shut, I can hear them shouting in English and Yoruba, “Riot! Trouble. Christians are killing Muslims. They have killed many men.”

   Scared, I leave the window and run to meet Abubakar. The commotion has woken him, and he’s crying. I wrap my hand across his neck, rocking him. Someone begins to pound on the door of a house down the street, and I hear a woman wailing in the next building. It is followed by a shout. A second shout, a third, a fourth, a man’s. A bomb goes off far away in the city, then a mob is chanting, sounding as though it is making its way to our house.

   “Where’s Mother and Father?” Abubakar asks.

   “They’re coming,” I tell him. “Don’t cry.”

   At that moment, people start knocking on our front door. The sound is followed by voices, then something rams against the door, making Abubakar shake with fear. He begins to cry. Ignoring him, I run to the window, draw the curtain, and look at our front yard. A mob is standing outside, and I can hear them chanting. Their rifles, machetes, sticks, and axes are covered with blood. Some of the people carry long sticks with human heads at the tips. I recognize some of them. My father’s favorite cobbler, Ibrahim, is shouting and waving a machete in the air. Hamadu, Aminu’s friend, is facing the street with a Dane gun, as though he wants to prevent a counterattack. Shege, who is always drunk, holds a machete smeared with blood. Usman, whom my father loaned some money three days ago, is shouting and waving an axe.

   As I stare at them, three of our louver windows are shattered by rocks, the shard of flying glass missing my face. Pieces of glass crash on the floor.  I jump back, fall to the floor, covering my ears with my hands, trying to keep off the sound coming from outside.

   “Sani, Sani, open the door!” Aminu calls out to my father. “We know you’re in there.”

   I still can’t believe this is happening. I don’t know what to do. Open the door or not. People started banging on the front door again. Blades of machetes and axes stab at it. The sound of a gunshot crashes into the room, and something shatters on the floor. Abubakar has been holding my hand, staring up at me. I carry him and run into the bedroom. We crawl under a bed and keep quiet. Something slams against the front door, and we hear it crashing down.

   “Sani, where are you?” Alhaji wails from the living room.

   “Matsoraci, tsoro,” someone shouts.

   Under the bed, I can hear the sounds of the atrocities they commit in the living room, overturning the tables, armchairs, and stools. A cutlass is slashed against the floor or wall. They are in the bedroom, screaming like a pack of hyenas. Someone lifts the mattress on the bed, revealing Abubakar and me. Alhaji stands above us. He looks like the ruffians I see at the nearby market. His hair is rough and his face is smeared with blood. His gown is torn by the arm, and he is without shoes. He holds the bottle of miracle polish.

   “Where is your father?” he bellows, his eyes looking bloodshot. “Where’s Sani?”

   “He has gone out.”

   “Barawo Banza,” someone says. “Where is your mother?”

   “She’s not around,” I tell him.

   “Liar!” Aminu shouts from behind. “If I don’t see them, I’ll kill you.”

   “Please, don’t kill me,” I beg.

   Someone pulls Aminu from the way and lifts the mattress from the bed. He throws it against the wall and pushes the bed to the side of the room. He holds one blood-smeared axe in the hand. He stops in front of me, grabs my hand, and places the axe against my neck. I can feel the contact of blood on my skin. Abubakar cries, but someone hollers at him, “Shut up there!” The man with the axe glares at me.

   “Tell lies, I’ll kill you,” he says in a raspy voice. “Where is Sani?”

   “He’s not at home,” I say.

   Alhaji holds the man and pushes him aside.

   “It’s the truth,” he says. “He’s not at home.”

   “What of your mother?” hollers the man with the axe.

   “They left together.”

   “Karuwa!”

   The men turn to the doorway, arguing among themselves. Alhaji suddenly shouts, the bottle of miracle polish falling to the ground but not breaking. A broken piece of glass has pierced his foot. The miracle polish bottle rolls close by me and I grab it and push it toward some Fanta bottles, toilet rolls, and bottles of perfume at the corner of the bedroom. At last, Alhaji regains his composure. He looks around, and I know he’s looking for the bottle of miracle polish.

   “Where’s it?” he asks me. “Where’s the bottle?”

   Before I can reply, the sound of a gunshot crashes into the room. Alhaji opens his mouth in bewilderment, and I can see his Adam’s apple bob as though it is about to pop out of his neck. He limps toward the living room. As he leaves, I see two men rummaging through our wardrobe. One of them has a shaven head and wears a stained blue shirt, no trousers, no shoes, only pants. A line of dried blood smears his cheek. The other is a young man, about sixteen or seventeen. He is only wearing shorts, is tall, and has a wide nose. He holds the leftovers of a loaf of bread. Both of them run after Alhaji. There is the sound of commotion from the living room.  I reach out toward the bottle of miracle polish and grab it, but Alhaji is back in the room. He limps toward me, snatches the bottle, and thrusts it into his gown. Abubakar is crouching at the corner of the room, covering his face and crying. I go to him and hold him.

   At that moment, I hear the sound of a crash in the living room. It is as though the television set had been pushed off the table. As I stand up, Ibrahim and Usman come into the room, holding back Aminu. Ibrahim wears a pair of black trousers, dirty slippers, and doesn’t put on a shirt. Usman wears a gown that stops just below his knees.

   “They killed Idris!” he chants. “They killed Musa. They killed Galadima. Christians must go! The infidels must go!”

   But Ibrahim is consoling Aminu, putting his arm around his shoulder.

   “Sani has wronged you,” Ibrahim says. “The bastard must pay for it. Just don’t worry. He’ll pay.”

   “He’ll pay,” says Alhaji.  “He cannot escape our justice.”

   “The barawo banza has run away,” says Usman. “Kill the children.”

   “No!” shouts Alhaji. “The children are Muslims. Aminu, settle your score with their mother alone.”

   “What did I do?” Aminu wails, shaking his head. “What did I do?”

   Ibrahim and Alhaji hold him, patting his back, trying to calm him down. As they do this, I wonder how Father and Mother wronged Aminu. Before they quarreled, they were good friends. In fact, I have seen Father give Aminu pocket money several times. I promise to make Father apologize to him.

   The mob calms down. Alhaji, Aminu, and Ibrahim stand in a group, saying they would get rid of all Christians. Other people are in the room, arguing. Soon they troop out the apartment. Ibrahim is the last man to leave. He comes over to Abubakar and me.

   “Tell your mother we’ll come back,” he says. “She can only run, she can’t hide. We’ll be watching the house. If you want to stay alive, leave this house at once. Do you hear me?”

   “Yes, Ibrahim,” I say. And he leaves the bedroom.

   Outside, the sound of boom, boom, boom crashes into the air. Abubakar and I go to the living room. It looks as though a hurricane has run through it. Our armchairs are upturned to the floor. The louvers are shattered and there are gaping holes in the window. The show glass is also upturned, its glass broken. The screen of the television is shattered. A puddle of urine flows at the center of the room, and the air smells of sweat, dirt, and blood. Pieces of paper, leaves, and dirt are everywhere. I lock the front door.  Abubakar and I sit in the corner of the room, staring into space.

   As we do this, I feel pain under my foot, and I look at it. Blood cakes from a wound there. I must have stepped on broken glass. My teeth clatter from fear, and my head is pounding. My heartbeats are fast, and I turn when I hear any sound from the street. Once, I squirmed when I heard the blast of gunfire from the center of the city. I feel too worn-out and tired to tidy the room. Abubakar is covered with dust. He must have been stained while lying under the bed. A speck of blood is on his face, dried tears stain his cheeks. I hold his hand and lead him to the bedroom. We sit on the floor and hold each other.  Weary from what happened, we fall asleep.

   I wake to the sound of my parents and some people discussing in the living room. It is not long after the mob left, because I still smell their presence in the air. I creep to the doorway of the bedroom, peeping at my parents and the people with them. They sit on the edge of the upturned armchairs. Father’s long gown looks filthy and is stained by dust and blood. It is as though he has fallen into a gutter. His cap gone, there are blades of grass on his hair. Mother looks very dirty, and her dress is covered by dust, dirt, and bloodstains. I know the three people with them. They all attend Mother’s church, Ministry of Miracles and Wonders. One is the pastor. He is a thin man, bald, wearing a dust-covered pair of blue trousers, the bottoms rolled up, no shirt, no shoes. He has a lot of hair on his chest and his belly is small and lean. His wife sits beside him. She is tall and thin, wearing a dirty dress torn at the front. The third person, a man, is called Saint Barabbas. He owns one of the stores in the long building that stands in front of our house. He wears a dirty shirt and there are bloody wounds on his arms.

   “They killed Udodi Ekechi,” the pastor says.

   “They killed Yemisi Olurin,” his wife replies.

   “They killed Muyiwa Samuel.”

   “They also killed Amadi Uche,” the pastor says. “These Muslims are barbarians. They must not go free.”

   At this point, I walk into the living room, and everybody stops speaking. There is a tense silence for a second, then pastor, his wife, and Saint Barabbas stand up. They whisper to Mother and Father. All of them shake their heads as though they have come to an agreement. The pastor, his wife, and Saint Barabbas leave the room, passing by the unhinged front door. I walk toward Father and Mother.

   “Alhaji and Aminu were here,” I say. “They wanted to …”

   “What is it again?” Father says with impatience. “Can’t you keep quiet?”

   I have never seen him act this way. He does not want to listen to anything I tell him. I sit on the arm of the chair and hold Mother’s palm. She snatches it away and pushes me from her. I fall to the floor, raise myself up, and keep quiet. Abubakar walks into the room and goes to meet Father, who pushes him away. As he begins to cry, Mother puts a finger to her lips.

   “Sh-h-h,” she says. “If you cry, I’ll cane you.”

   Abubakar stops crying, bewildered by the behavior of Mother and Father. He sits beside me on the floor, holding my hand. Suddenly, Father can’t sit down in one place. He stands up and goes to the window, peering outside. He comes back and sits on the armchair, his face looking agitated. Mother looks around as though she expects the mob to appear at any minute. Father coughs, snaps his fingers as though he has come to a decision, and moves to Mother. He whispers into her ear. They’re hiding things from me again, but this time Mother can’t control herself.

   “Where can we run to?” she asks, a plaintive tone in her voice. “They’ve sealed all roads. They search every vehicle.  All Christians are shot. They throw babies out of buses. Vultures are eating them.”

   “Aminu will come again,” Father says. “Today is the anniversary. He has vowed to come. We can’t stay here. I should never have followed them last year.”

   “It’s not your fault,” Mother says. “They would have killed you if you refused. There’s no hope for me.”

   “Think of the children,” Father says. “Staying here is dangerous. I know where we can hide. Aminu spared the children because he knows we’ll come back. He wants to pounce when he sees you. The children could be affected.”

   “Yes, the children,” Mother says. She thinks for a long moment then stands up as though she is ready for battle. “My children must not die.”

   “Mother, are we going to die?” I ask.

   Father grabs my hand, drags me to my feet, and carries me.

   “No time for questions now, Arziki,” he says. “I’ll explain later. Let’s leave — now.” Mother carries Abubakar.

   Father leads us out through the front door, and I look at the street. It is empty and looks strange and unfamiliar. Smoke rises like a shadow over the market, and the smell of burning tires fills the air. I look at the kiosk where Abubakar and I buy sweets and biscuit. It belongs to Mama Fatima, a Muslim. It has been destroyed. Flames billow from a house down the street. Ash and grit fill the air, and a body lies face down in an ungainly twist, legs splayed. Father races up the street, turns a corner, and enters a new one. Mother is close behind him.

   Ahead of us, two men cross the street, pass a woman, and slip into a house with a storefront. Father comes to a halt and is about to turn back, not knowing where to go. But the woman waves to us.

   “Don’t run that way,” she cries. “Come here.”

   We race toward her and get to the storefront. Mother climbs through the store window and then holds the shutter so Father can push me through it. The store looks as though it had been abandoned long before the riots began. The rows of shelves are covered with dust and cobwebs. Metal containers, plastic basins, old shoes, and dirt litter a corner. The store is big, far bigger than the one Mother uses for her English lessons.  The men who crossed the street earlier are nowhere to be found, but I hear voices in the room at the back of the store. Due to the babble of voices, I know many people are hiding there. The woman climbs into the store.

   “Thank you,” Father tells the woman. “Na go de.”

   The woman shakes her head and sighs. Everything about her is long and slender. She has henna-stained fingers, a narrow face, and high cheekbones. Even without speaking, I know she is Hausa and a Muslim. She looks like Maryam, the wife of Father’s brother in Bauchi.

   “It’s the work of the devil,” the woman says about the situation.

   Voices drift from the inner room and someone coughs. Father wears a puzzled look on his face and the woman raises her hand to calm him.

   “Christians,” she says. “Hiding. What put you in trouble?”

   Father shakes his head.

   “They forced me to join them,” he says. “Exactly one year ago. They killed the wife of Aminu, my friend. She’s a Christian. Aminu wants revenge.”

   It all makes sense to me now. Aminu blames Father for the death of his wife. But why didn’t Father and Mother tell me? Did they think I wouldn’t know? Now I know, I’ll tell them it’s wrong to hide things from their first daughter.

   A mob is chanting in the distance. Father looks like a trapped animal, Mother wears a resigned expression on her face.

   “They’re coming for me,” she says. “They know I’m here.” She bends down to her haunches, pulls Abubakar near. “It’s the end,” she whispers. “I’m going to die. Arziki, take care of your brother.”

   “Let’s go into the inner room,” the woman says.

   Father ignores her, pulling Mother away from us, his eyes looking misty, as though he wants to cry.

   “You’re not going to die,” he says. “You’ll live. Let’s go into the inner room.”

   “No,” Mother says. “If they come here and don’t see me, they’ll come in there. Everybody will be killed. I don’t want innocent people to suffer. Sani, go to the inner room. If Aminu finds you here, he might be tempted to kill you. Think of the children.”

   “No,” Father says. “Never.”

   Fear makes me become aware of the stuffy room. No air is flowing in from the street. The dust is so thick I find it difficult to breathe. It billows above me. Abubakar is standing beside me, holding my hand, his eyes wide open, unblinking. I bend down and wipe his face with my palm.

   “Are we going to die?” he asks.

   “No,” I tell him. “Allah will save us.”

   The mob is coming down the street; it sounds as though it is making its way toward the store. I hear the sound of running feet. I move to the door and peer through a crack in it. A woman and a man run past, the woman holding her wrapper up above her knees.  A baby is tied to her back. All their clothes are soaked in blood. The man is shouting in Igbo, and all I can hear is “Run! Run! Or they’ll kill us.”

[The remainder of “The Anniversary” can be found in Adetokunbo Abiola’s collection of short stories, American 419 and other stories]