Foreword: I would like to apologize for the problems some of my readers/subscribers have been experiencing on the site with issues concerning subscriptions for updates via email. It is my belief that the problem has been taken care of. You may now subscribe again.
It was a warm night, the kind that made you want to spend it sleeping outside, with your mattress spread out on the pavement, because the air inside the dormitories had been cooked stiff by the sun that blistered all day to the very last stretches of twilight. The hostels were ablaze with light; the loud chatter of the senior boys bounced from one compound to the other, and glimpses of the girls could be caught through the windows of the female hostels as they sashayed through their dormitories, going about their business. Junior boys were scattered all over the junior hostels visiting, classrooms gisting, and borehole fetching water and doing laundry. The warmth of the night seemed to lend a boisterous nip to the atmosphere.
“You told me you will wash my everything if I give you my meat in the afternoon and half of my rice-and-beans during night food!” Joseph exploded. “That was the deal!”
“That was not the deal anything!” Ibuka retorted sharply. “I agreed to wash your clothes – Clothes! That is shirts, shorts and singlet. And now you want to add your boxers and pants and socks.” A rictus of disgust fleeted across his face as he spat, “Nyama! Me wash your pants – am I crazy?!”
“Is pant not cloth, eh tell me? Is pant and boxers and socks not cloth?” Joseph turned his angry face to me. “Eze, see me see trouble o! Is pant not cloth again?”
“Don’t involve me abeg,” I said hastily. I’d deliberately kept my face averted from their dispute as the three of us strolled to the borehole to do our laundry. The environment around us was alive with the chatter of boys standing in clusters or moving about. The crowd condensed the closer we got to the borehole. “When the two of you were busy sharing food, did you call me to judge?”
“Sharing which food!” Joseph spluttered furiously. “I didn’t share any food. I gave this – this – this sense boy half of my night food –”
“Who are you calling sense boy?” Ibuka fumed.
“You! You are the one I’m calling sense boy! After all, that’s how you Mbaise people used to behave!”
“I have heard, you who are not a sense boy!” Ibuka scoffed. “Yet you are looking for a servant who will wash your underwear, abi? God forbid you!”
“I gave you my meat and half of my food!” Joseph roared, further incensed.
“Stop shouting at me joor!”
“Why won’t I shout? Better vomit everything I gave you that you ate, if you know you won’t do your part of our deal.”
“That was not our deal –!”
“It was. . .!”
The two of them quarreled back and forth like so, as we walked down the gentle slope that led to the borehole. Their heated words were however drowned by the din already surging in the area. There were boys fighting to fetch water from the borehole, and lots more dotting the small landscape around, washing and conversing. The half-moon shone drunkenly down from the indigo sky, highlighting the chores and the umpteen conversations swelling around us.
“Imagine that nonsense girl, Jennifer, that is busy feeling tech with herself . . .”
“Finally, I’ve joined Press Club. Soon, I’ll start reading news during assembly . . .”
“That Nelson is such a planless boy – dirty and planless . . .”
“Keke, if I slap you eh, you will drop that my washing soap . . .”
“Common sugar that I begged you, you said no. First to do no dey pain o . . .”
The three of us drew up to a tight spot on one side of the walkway, between a group of Hope House SS1 boys and two friends I recognized from JSS3F.
“Ibuka, you must wash everything in this my bucket –!”
“I have told you that it will be over my dead body –!”
I shook my head amusedly, before upturning my laundry from my bucket and walked away to fetch water.
It is a warm night. The rains haven’t fallen in days, and while the ground still has some moisture in it, the soil has acquired the brittle quality of dry earth. The underbrush rustles as the reptile slithers by, its eyes like glowing coals in the darkness around. Its forked tongue flickers in and out of the snout, sampling particles from the air, analyzing the chemicals found, and the thin black coil that is its body is drawn by its discovery closer and closer to its prey. The atmosphere throbs with the din of several human beings littered all around it, but the serpent’s focus is on the quarry it is tracking. It glides smoothly forward, slipping through soil and foliage, advancing on its unsuspecting quarry.
“Ibuka, it was our deal! Respect the deal that we made –!”
“It was not our deal! What is wrong with you sef –!”
They were still going at each other, their raised voices joining the rest of the din raging around the borehole. Our clothes were on the ground, mine was separated from Ibuka’s, which was a considerably larger heap than mine, seeing as Joseph’s clothes were mixed with his. While Ibuka and I were bent over our buckets washing, Joseph stood beside us, ranting, the underthings that Ibuka had refused to launder for him lying in a forlorn pile before him.
“What was our deal then? Because when I was giving you my food, I specifically said it is for my clothes you will wash –”
“You said clothes, not underwear –”
“CLOTHES AND UNDERWEAR ARE THE SAME THING!”
“STOP SHOUTING AT ME!”
“Haba! Guys, it’s enough nau,” I finally interjected.
“But Eze, is this fair? Is what Ibuka doing fair?”
“I’m not going to judge this matter abeg, so don’t bother asking me. All I want to say is, Joe, since he has refused to wash your underwear, why don’t you wash them yourself?”
“Gbam!” Ibuka cut in with that self-satisfied, help-me-and-tell-him tone in his voice. “The boy is just being lazy, as always –”
“I am not lazy!” Joseph huffed. “I have whitlow on my finger, that’s the reason I made this deal with you in the first place.”
“Which kain stupid whitlow – oya! Show me, show me the whitlow let me see.”
“I’m not showing you anything,” Joseph snarled.
“You see?” Ibuka crowed. “It means you’re lying, you lying Thomas!”
“It’s Doubting Thomas, itiboribo like you!” Joseph spat. “And I’m not a liar!”
“Me, I’m not an itiboribo!”
“Yes, you are –!”
“Then you’re a liar!”
“And you’re an odè!”
“Orí e òkpé!”
And thus began the name-calling, with the two of them hurling the most hateful epithets they could think of at each other. Ibuka was an intelligent bookworm, and so, he knew all the fancy English expletives. Joseph was a Lagos boy, and so, he came back at him with the profane, dialectal swearwords. A Hope House JSS2 boy, walking past behind us with a bucket of water balanced on his head, turned to stare at us – at them – with some curiosity and amusement, before continuing on his way. I sighed, shook my head wearily this time and bent forward to scrub the nasty soup stain that was streaked across the front of my House shirt.
The other nocturnal creatures have gone silent, sensing in that way all preys do the presence of a malevolent predator. The crickets have ceased to chirp, and the throaty rumble of the croaking of the frogs has petered out. All the faunal activity of the night appears suspended, like one giant breath held, while the creatures wait for the danger to pass. Or strike.
The serpent slithers on, winding its smooth, scaly body through plant stalks until it is out of the underbrush, and on the walkway, which is dry, with wet patches caused by the splashes of water thrown on the ground by the humans washing and moving about with containers of water. Loud vibrations thrum through the air and on the ground, alerting the snake to the dominant human presence around.
But it is not distracted from its prey. It knows where it is, silent and waiting, and it slips forward, furtively, advancing, a looming menace.
Just then, however, a foot lifts before the snake. It is startled as its infrared sensitivity picks out the radiated heat of the warm-blooded limb, moments before the underside of the foot brushes dangerously past its head, nearly crushing it to the ground. And the boy, whose leg it is, walks on, his bucket on his head, unaware of his brief encounter with the serpent.
Rattled and incensed by its near-death experience, the cobra rises, its head teetering into the air. It spreads its neck ribs to form a flattened, widened hood. And its forked tongue flicks in and out, aggressively tasting the atmosphere for the next intruder. It is angry. It is waiting. And its objective has changed – to strike at the next person coming its way.
The approaching brightness of someone’s torchlight stabbed at the night in bouncy motions as the handler of the torch moved his arm about. The boy with the torch was in the company of another boy, and I could make out their faces as SS2 boys. Dignity House SS2 boys. I didn’t know the name of the one with the torch, but his friend was Emenike, the SS2 boy our head boy, Senior Nkemka, was grooming to take over his post. They were coming from the direction of the staff quarters, and judging by their boisterous laughter, they’d had an apparent good time there.
“Ibu, please nau. . .please. . .” Joseph wheedled. His rage had cooled, and he was now trying out the tactic of begging Ibuka.
Ibuka appeared to relent also. “Okay, okay, maybe I’ll wash your socks, but I can’t – can’t – wash your boxers and pant –”
“What is wrong with washing them?” Joseph complained.
“You want me to rub my hands around the cloth that you wear on your bum-bum, all that part that enters your nyash when you sit down?” His face had twisted into such an incredulous expression of revulsion, one that was also so comical, that I found myself trying to fight off giggles. But it proved impossible to hold my amusement inside, and ultimately, I gave in to uncontrollable laughter, which had me doubled over and holding onto my knees for support with my sudsy hands.
My mirth must have been infectious, because, first Joseph’s face began to twitch and he began to chuckle, moments before Ibuka joined in the laughter as well. The three of us were now laughing at the ridiculousness of the fracas from moments ago.
Just then, someone gasped behind us. It was a horrified, sharp intake of breath that instantly doused our amusement. The three of us whirled around just as Emenike’s friend, the boy with the torch, choked out, “Snake!”
They were right behind us, momentarily petrified. And the radiance of the torchlight illuminated the cobra posed in front of them. A long, dark, muscular coil, its head lifted into the air in all its serpentine glory, its tongue fluttering in and out of its snout with the accompaniment of its menacing hiss.
The cobra was also right behind us.
The alarming realization of its proximity to us caused my blood to run cold, and the three of us recoiled, falling over our laundry in our haste to get away. Joseph gave a strangled wail before pitching into the bush beside him, while Ibuka and I collided with each other before thudding to the ground.
The alarm was starting to spread over the area, and boys began darting towards the scene. The serpent hissed and reared forward, attempting to strike at the nearest limb. We shrank backwards, and Emenike snatched at the bucket closest to him. It was my bucket, and I watched with intense aversion as he swung the pail at the snake. The bottom hit the snake’s head, and it fell to the ground. Quick as a flash, it began to rise again, hissing furiously. Emenike, filled with commendable fortitude, pounced on it, striking its head with the bucket again. When it fell, this time, the SS2 boy jammed the bottom of the bucket down on its head. There was an audible squelching sound as bones and skin crushed under the impact. The rest of snake’s body trashed about in its death throes, whipping its length here and there. The whiplash struck Emenike on his arm, but he didn’t let up on the pressure of his assault on the snake. The bucket stayed on. The snake trashed some more, and then lay still.
Emenike held for some seconds after this, before lifting the bucket. The cobra’s head was a mangled mess, and its body lay still in death. Suddenly, there was an outbreak of a chorus of loud sounds – the chatter of crickets and the croaking of frogs. I was startled by the eruption to realize that those accompanying sounds of the night had not been resonating for some time now.
Emenike put my bucket down where he’d seized it from, and he and his friend moved over the dead reptile and continued on their way. The crowd that had gathered around dispersed as everyone returned to their chores. My friends and I picked ourselves up, gathered our things and changed our location.
The show was over, the snake forgotten. And the night life around the borehole gradually returned to normal.
I am @Walt_Shakes on twitter