For All That’s in A Name’s Worth

Padade[1] sat too close to the fireplace. He needed all the warmth he could get from this harsh, cold world. A coldness ostentatiously intensified as the bamboo wall fenced him in his father’s compound.  The compound had a deafening silence, thicker than the impenetrable walls of Babylon, which a single bit of emotion could not slice. A giggle or cracked laughter was long obsolete while a sigh, a frown, a muffled cry or the like passed as routine feelings and blended into the unusual atmosphere with unequivocal ease, tampering nothing in its wake. The fronds of the closely huddled plantain trees swept the unkempt ground with every gust and the barren mango tree shed its browned leaves in every direction like a milk churning machine gone wild, keeping the plantain trees ever-busy. The birds tweeted annoyingly and a chance noise irately got on the nerves of anyone hearing it. Broken calabashes, gourds, decomposing wastes, litters and ends and bits of cooking condiments were interspersed in between the browned leaves and decaying faeces.

The bamboo fence was breaking down, – ripping the multi-squared lattice into larger cracks. Close to the entrance, the only cow Ajani, Padade’s father, had was reclining in sickly fashion. Its bones almost bore through its frail skin of white and black left and its sunken eyes barely opened for a second. Lazily it threw its tail to ward off the buzzing flies attracted by its sickly smell. At the far end on the right, the embers burnt with vicious excitement and sent sparks and flares wildly in the air. The sparks and flares died instantly, but one flare lingered on. It held on to the fiery life it had desperately, greedily, stubbornly. Its twinkling light raged dangerously and shone brilliantly. Padade watched it keenly. His eyes caught the twinkle and shone brilliantly too. It began to itch and he rubbed. The stubborn spark was gone. He bent to make patterns on the floor with a sharp flint. Irregular here, regular there, and then an unconscious mix of both. He cleaned it off with his bare foot, scraping the parched, hardened sole against small hard irregular stones. He set forth drawing again. The image started as independent scribbles, later joined together by outstretched lines. It metamorphosed into a woman laying tiredly on the ground, a man climbing over the woman and kept materializing until the image became a dense mass of confusing lines.

A stone missed his bent back by a hair’s breadth. He dropped the flint and watched Asabi, his mother, from the arch in between his curved leg.

“You, this satanic son! Did I go to the woods to fetch wood for you? Why don’t you go and fetch your own wood ehn, instead of stealing mine?” She was saying through her cracked voice.

She stared at him, her eyes devoid of any maternal affection. Her brown hair adorned with sand that had refused to be shaken off since the last mourning. She had vowed it would not be washed off until she bore a son, no, just a child, that would stay. Her face, once beautiful, was the pride of the community. Now it was the image of pity. She became the gold-coated stone scratched by the hands of time and wear but once sought after through thick and thin, rain and sun, fire and brimstone by the most eligible, eligible, somewhat eligible and far-from-eligible classes of the times. She was just thirty-nine but could easily pass for sixty. Her sagged tits hung freely and rested on the faded polka-dotted wrapper she tied loosely against her shrunken stomach. Her eyes, – briefly focused on Padade, – bemoaned a hope longed for, finally actualized and wished it had never been hoped for at first. Where once she could have given her life to have a child, she was determined to give anything to lose this child. She spat on the floor, chuckled cynically and rubbed it with her bare left foot.

******

The eerie silence in the compound was broken by the rattling of the Ifa priest’s stick in the main hut. Asabi shot a glance at the direction and winced wickedly. She shrugged and continued her work. Recently she had given up being an audience to the weekly ritual and would surreptitiously side-glance the main hut or laid attentive ears for the throwing of cowries as she diced the vegetables or watch the watery soup boil. The hope of any change in the gods’ disposition had vanished in her mind and she openly nurtured her resentment to the surviving son of her hips.

The dilapidated main hut stood disjointedly at the centre of the bamboo fenced-in compound. There the beautiful journey of Padade’s life began and there it was taken from him. He was approaching four years when he sat dreamily on his mother’s laps. His father looked glumly at the divination board as the priest mumbled some vague incantations. He cringed mildly as Asabi carefully contemplated the incisions on his back, arms and the back of his head. A hundred and twenty serrations, she counted, to herself, lining his body like foot soldiers in linear war formations. He watched, with mechanical curiosity, the stones falling off the priest’s frail hands onto the board repeatedly. The gesture he had grown accustomed to know like the back of his hands, as he grew old enough to decipher sounds and identify gestures and faces. He would always look forward to the weekly visit of the priest. The visit always had on its trail a longing ready to be fulfilled, a hope, – though disappearing as the priest’s back is turned to the compound, – that had deserted the compound and the only entertainment for his friendless self for the week.

“The gods are adamant on this issue.’ The priest coughed. His gaze intently scrutinizing the board for any change in the gods’ disposition while fearing to meet the eager, anticipating eyes of the hopeless parents. He shook his head, ‘There is nothing we can do. This child has come to stay.”

“But you said ‘as long as he stays alive…’” Ajani protested. He could not come to grips with the fact that a product of his manhood could bring so much bad luck to him and his family. He would not hear any of the priest’s prediction from the start and his wife’s constant nagging, and concluded there must be a mistake in the god’s message or the priest’s interpretation. To wait so long for that feeling, a longed for paternal sensation and be told it had to be taken back before he could even savour the feeling. They must be joking! Probably if the priest reads it continuously, he would get the message right. Thus, the priest became a weekly guest in the compound.

“‘…your farm would sprout weeds for produce and your cow would emaciate,’’ the priest cut in Ajani’s thoughts, ‘‘you shall become an object of pity and ridicule in the whole village and beyond. All these and many more would be added to you and your family. It is a curse from your late sons.’ I did not say that. That is what the gods said. I am just their spokesperson.”

“My only cow would emaciate?’ Ajani repeated as though that was the only thing the priest said and he was just hearing it for the first time. ‘Look at me. How do we survive when the cow providing us with milk we sell emaciates? Look at me. I am not in a position to go to the farm.”

Ajani shifted on the chequered woven mat. His limp legs did not move. Asabi shifted her gaze to hide the pain that was beginning to well in her heart and rubbed Padade’s back absentmindedly. She had not imagined that her charming, well-chiselled prince that courted her to the depths of romantic pleasures and extremities could be confined on a mouldy mat as a flabby crippled man. She caught Padade’s large innocent eyes and a needle-like pain seared her heart. Sharp, sudden. A brief moment, he looked at her and smiled innocently. She had caught his eyes then and pushed him off like a soiled bag accidentally thrown on an obsessive-compulsively clean sanitary inspector’s laps.

“How could a son from our loins be happy at our tribulations?” She cried sharply.

“How could you have turned the corpse of your late son into a public exhibition in the middle of the public square ten years ago despite my warnings?” The priest retorted.

“We were broke. Do you know how much it costs to afford a befitting burial for eight dead sons within the space of fifteen years? Just as we are paying off the debt of a naming ceremony and burial, another is being born and dies. It was just like a cycle.”

“We could not even afford the services of a digger, not to mention the akara to feed the village anymore.”

The hut was silent. Ajani watched Padade, meditatively. It dawned on him there was no resemblance of sort between Padade and the eight dead sons whatsoever from their birth until their individual age of demise. There had not been any marker tying them to each other, except the fact they each failed to stay, except this, and what better pretext than blame it on  the surviving one. Padade. He sighed. He was tired. Tired of everything; the priest, his interpretations and the adamant gods whose message never changed despite the changes in the cowries’ landings and sounds, his wife’s constant naggings and, above all, this son that had come to stay. Padade, on his own hand, nursed his bruised knee against the mud wall he hunched up against. The once light-brown colour of the hut’s mud wall began to give way to a hostile dark brown, almost the shade of pitch black. It caught on the three faces directed at him and it seemed the only things visible in the room and the world were three egg-like torches pointing at the four year old.

******

Now, at eight, Padade betrayed any sign he is, or was, an abiku. No fitful slumping, white-eyes or feverish cold seizing him during his birthdays or special events, – though he never celebrated any. Probably the fact that he never had a special occasion celebrated accounted for this. He was just that ordinary child single-handedly picked out for ostracism, by the whole village and the world at large, for no reasons other than he was the only one who survived out of nine sons. He couldn’t even picture how the interior of the main hut looked like now. The crane chair might still be there, the chequered woven mat might be leaning on the wall or Ajani would be crouching on it and the palm wine gourd, which Padade could not lift himself but always dipped his hands into and lick the palm-wine from, might just be broken. Or the black and white pictures of his happy father and mother holding babies, supposedly him come to the world in different times, in different poses might have been taken down. He could not help but muse, at certain times, over the mud walls, of the main hut which he playfully threw with Ajani when he was small, falling apart. He freely crawled and roamed into all the rooms in the compound and often spent days without coming out from the main hut when he was little. Now he was banned from the hut and all the rooms in the compound. He could not even leave the compound. All the villagers seem to be waiting for him at every corner, ready to point accusing fingers and scornful eyes and throwing stones and what-have-you, spitting at him and saying, rather perfunctorily:

‘There goes the wicked son.’

‘If I had a son like him, I would have killed him with my bare hands.’

‘Wicked son, pity your parents and die.’

‘What in the world did such wonderful parents do to deserve a devilish son?’

The fireplace became his room and his home in the middle of his strange home and village and it was abandoned to him only because he stubbornly refused to leave it.

******

“Kulu-kulu, kulu-kulu, kulu.” The cowries gave off as it danced on the divination board on the ground. Padade turned his neck and caught his mother gazing through the slight opening in the doorway. He now turned to face the main hut. His father was not in sight but he could see the old priest in white wrapper. White linen drapes around his right shoulder and chalked patterns encircle his eyes and ankles. He moaned deeply. He threw the cowries, half expecting the sound to change slightly or a different message from the gods and half wishing the visits could end. He shook his head and gave up the pretence.

“There is nothing else to say… I fear the gods are not prepared to change their minds.” The old man grunted in resigned submission. Ajani did not say anything. After what seem a long wait the cowries danced as they were thrown in the bag and hit the divination board in defeat. The circle of waiting on and testing the gods’ patience was over. The inevitable had to be accepted.

******

Padade turned and bent to stroke the embers. Through the curve in between his legs, he watched the old priest shuffle out nervously, Ajani pushing himself out with his hands behind him and Asabi trying hard to ignore their presence. She had only four pieces of yam left in the coal pot and none to spare for a stomach’s owner who could not help lighten their problems. Soon she would support her husband to the cleared path close to the market to beg for alms and she intended not to speak so she could save enough voice to beg for alms.

The embers were beginning to die. Through the waning light, his life flashed briefly and deceptively taunting. They said he had lived and died eight times. He could not remember a minute second of any such previous existence. Only the pictures he saw on the walls and the serrations on his back and head that Asabi was wont to subject careful examination. He had not even set eyes on them and did not know if it was true or they even existed. They could be wrong, as they could not be right. To the tale of coming eight times or not, the peace of the family might as well depend on his death. However, of that, for all that is in a name’s worth, he would not give them the pleasure of counting him as the ninth casualty. He had come… to live.

[1]  Padade literally means Come Back.

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