When it happened, it was faint, like everything concerning Saro Wiwa. One moment he was trying to pull out a bag half his height and twice his weight, the next he was slow falling to the ground, one leg splashing in a brown puddle, the other buckling under him.
He was sixty-five, too old to be a porter. And a lot of people even thought he was older. His mangled body: bent back, bald head and grey beard, put his age somewhere north of seventy. So he’d been shocked when the manager of the park, Bullem, had ignored his physique, and accepted the lie that he was twenty years younger.
No one rushed to his aid after he hit the ground. There were a few ahs, some giggles, but no one gasped or cried out in terror, and he couldn’t blame them. Even as he lay there in the mud, out of breath, head ringing, he could picture how it all looked.
A clumsy old man had lost his balance, and had a little dip. Nothing to it. He’d pick himself up, probably join them for a laugh, then continue unloading the car. Everyone’s morning a little enlivened by the light comic relief.
Nigerians were ready to laugh at anything this 2018.
But his head didn’t stop ringing after it smacked the ground, and his bones felt like powder, unable to carry his body upward.
He knew he was never going to get back on his feet. He’d lie there until his last breath left and blew open the doors leading to his ancestors. This would actually make him happy. He ached from body to mind, right down to his memories. And all he wanted was rest.
But he felt a hand on his shoulder, another on his arm, a voice, “Come on old man, these boxes aren’t going to carry themselves.”
He sighed, and for a second, he heard nothing, not even his heartbeat, then everything came back in a rush. He blinked open his eyes to meet the harsh glare of the midday sun, burning a hole into his skull. Except, he knew it wasn’t midday yet, it was six in the morning in fact, his first shift.
He allowed the young man pull him up, Eweh, one of his supervisors, less than half his age. “What’s the use of you falling down so early in the day, Old man? We have a lot of work to do, get moving.”
There was a time he’d have felt a flash of anger at being addressed this way. But that time was long gone, had been long gone since he showed up at the park eight years ago and begged Bullem for a job. It had taken with it his fear, ability to love, and every other element that built up his character. leaving behind a shell that was waiting for the day it got cracked.
He stood in the soft morning dew, head raging as the world came alive around him. Passengers bickered over bus fares with supervisors, child hawkers passed with their trays of nuts and rotten fruits, the food seller opened her canteen, a white robed prophet rained fire and brimstone on everyone.
“So?” Eweh said, widening his eyes. “Get to work.”
But Saro Wiwa knew one more step would shatter him. His breath would’ve ceased already if not for the morning dew percolating on his skin.
“Oh my lord,” Eweh was yelling in his face now. “Would we spend the whole day waiting for you to unload a single vehicle?”
The more the dew gathered, the better he felt, but he wasn’t there yet. His head continued to boil. He stretched a hand towards the box, and this sent shocks streaking towards his brain. He felt like someone had dropped an anvil on his skull. He almost threw up.
Saro Wiwa knew he was done, unless he could somehow lift that box and all the other boxes that’d come his way this morning. He glanced around. Shapes blurred into each other, and he couldn’t tell objects apart. Was it twilight? Why was he so hot?
Then the idea came to him. A bottle of water. A cold, maybe icy, bottle of water, pressed to the forehead was all he needed. If he could get some ice to his skull, the flaring would stop. He set a foot forward and it took root. He moved the other, and he was on his way.
“Papa,” Eweh yelled. “Get back here now.”
He ignored him, no point trying to explain anything to such an impatient man. He’d get his water, rub it on his forehead and return to finish lifting. The entire kerfuffle of the morning would be forgotten when he returned and tidied up his job.
He was sure of this because every event in his life faded into an insignificant scab that fell away without him even knowing. This was his birthright.
That wasn’t to say he wasn’t aware of lives unlike his.
Take Ken Saro Wiwa for example. What a man, what a life. Arrested in 1994 under a false charge by the Federal Military Government at the time, and executed a year later. His death had rocked the country.
The quarrel was oil.
Nigeria had lots of it, and the FMG wanted to sell as much as they could. They didn’t care about gas flares or oil spillage, despoiled farmland or diseased livestock, sick villagers or deserted villages. And this incensed Ken Saro Wiwa. Born to the Ogoni whose way of life was being decimated by big oil corporations, he returned from his schooling abroad to fight for the rights of his people.
When he was imprisoned for the murder of pro-government supporters, numerous world leaders lined up to plead with the Head of State for a fair trial. But this only seemed to inflate the man’s ego, strengthen his resolve to murder this brave warrior who dared protest his rape of the environment.
How the old man would’ve loved to be part of Saro Wiwa’s band, to wander through oil soaked swampland galvanizing Ogoni people. To sensitize the world and resist the government, to share a cell and the adulation of the whole country with Saro Wiwa.
Instead, he watched from the outside. Heard neighbors cry for the man, while cockroaches crawled over his thighs in his empty room. Listened to drinking companions extol the virtues of activism, while his heart was encircled by the icy squeeze of loneliness and grief. His father had died before he was born. His mother, that ally who had seen him through days of famine and deprivation had just died a week ago. His income from working the civil service as a janitor hadn’t been enough to hold a wake, pay for cemetery space, or even buy her a coffin.
He’d wrapped her in a mat, and thanked the universe that she’d been a devout Christian. Her church, which he’d never stepped foot in until the day of her internment, buried her in a little plot at the back.
They had no extended family. No one other than him cared that his mother was dead.
When Saro Wiwa was executed, the international community came down hard on the Head of State. The whole country mourned. Even the Pope too, according to rumour.
“Papa, what did you say?”
He couldn’t remember saying anything to the orange coloured girl in front of him. There were voices all around, young men, he could tell from their smell. Dew was coming down in waterworks, maybe an actual downpour had begun. There was so much water on his face that some of it streamed into his eyes and nose. When it got into his mouth, he saw that it was salty. He tried to raise his gaze, but the sun pounded it back down.
“Papa?” the girl said again.
It came back to him now. “Water.” That’s what he wanted, cold water to fizz out the fire in his head.
He watched the girl retreat into the shop and come out with water. He could see through the plastic container to the liquid twirling within, condensation dripping down the other side of the bottle. Life.
“Money?” the girl asked. Her voice was mild, respectful, unlike anything he’d ever gotten at the park.
Not that he could complain, after all, the park had saved him. When he staggered in there, he’d been living hand-to-mouth, retired from his civil service position without any savings or pension because he’d discovered on the day of his retirement that his position hadn’t been official. He’d been one of the ghost workers the government usually talked about, one of those people put on the payroll by corrupt civil service directors who siphoned half the employee’s income so the employee got paid less than minimum wage. He was too old to get work as a security man or driver. He’d been reduced to begging for scraps at traffic lights in the city, enduring the glares of motorists when he knocked on their car windows, asking for alms.
There were lots of them, beggars. And when a van ran into their member, an old woman with pus in her eyes, he knew it was time for a change of occupation.
He was led to the park by an unseen force, and when Bullem stared right at him after the lie about his age, he’d expected the ground to rip open for the devil to claim him once and for all. But Bullem had read him the rules of the park instead. And he’d dived right into the abuses and disrespect of porter work. Men too young to know the fabric of the country, called him stupid, and made him dust their chairs.
The girl grunted. He couldn’t fault her irritation. A bumbling old man was taking her time, after all. But why wasn’t she giving him the water?
“Water,” he stretched out his hand.
“Yes, but where’s the money?” the girl sighed. The men around her laughed, joined by a nearby crowd. He bent his head and shocked himself with the return of his shame. It felt strange, but he welcomed it.
He thrust his hand into his pocket, and felt something lithe and crisp. He wanted to yell out to all the men laughing at him that he had money. He’d taken a whack to the head and it was messing with his processing, but that didn’t mean he was a stupid old man who expected to get water for free.
He drew the money out, realizing his mistake the moment he opened his palm and saw an explosion of currency notes. There was a sharp intake of air, maybe by the girl, maybe the people around her. If his sensory ability had been affected by the fall, it was even more impaired now by the rush of information coming at him. This wasn’t his money, it was the passengers fare. They paid it to him after he unloaded their luggage, and he was supposed to keep hold of it until the driver arrived.
The ringing in his ear became like a fever. He grew hot, but shivered down his back. One of the rules of the park was that he was never to leave with the fare. He had to return before Bullem found out.
A hand grabbed him by the shoulder, another by the back of the neck. As he tried to turn around, he felt an elbow in the midriff. It was soft, almost like a prod. A warning, these guys didn’t want to hurt an old man. He wasn’t up for this. Couldn’t these people tell he was just an old man who wanted nothing other than to still his weary bones?
He tried to look into their faces, but all he saw were shadows and blurs. One of them pried open his hand and snatched the money. Then they let go and took off.
His head pounded, bile poured out of his mouth. His feet were planted on waves that curled and dipped, and he threw his hand around looking for support. He’d seen something like this happen to people a lot of times, and from that experience he knew that a mob should have risen by now, shouting, thief! thief!
But all he heard was the girl’s gasp. He turned around to vent his wrath on all the unhelpful onlookers, but almost embarrassed himself talking into emptiness. They were alone, just him and the girl.
His mouth dropped open, but he pushed it back shut and set after the thieves. There was no time to waste. His legs were feeble and already no match for their youthful calves.
He met Eka at his mother’s grave.
He found her kneeling on the grass beside the tombstone, yanking at small tufts of weed. She was the groundskeeper, and before that, daughter of a fisherman, an ongoing existence of impoverishment.
She introduced herself and shared her breakfast of bean cakes and pap with him, then asked about his mother. He told her everything, how his mother used to bathe him in the stream as a child, how they went fruit hunting, his mother propping him up mango trees and standing underneath with cupped hands, ready to catch the fruit. He told her about their forced migration, how their crops had died for three straight planting seasons, forcing his mother to take him to the city in search of work. She’d become a maid, and he’d joined her when he turned ten. From there, he’d graduated into laboring, weeding backyards with hoes, and trimming lawns with machetes.
“How did you go from that to this?” she asked, genuinely impressed by his civil service job.
He drew his breath and told her it was one of his mother’s employers, a director in the civil service, who’d made it happen. And she held his arm and nodded in a way that made him believe she understood.
She said she wanted to see him again, in church this time. And the day he turned up, she told him it was the biggest achievement of her life, getting him to come. She followed him back to his cubicle at the low housing project, and made him dinner. The place seemed to expand, teem out in every direction and radiate, with her as the nucleus. It didn’t feel like his apartment, it was paradise.
For twelve years, he saw the face of God. They fought, had disagreements, days in which they went through time indifferent to the existence of each other. But those moments paled in comparison to the times they embraced under a blanket and went to sleep in the grinding cold, the times one of them returned home from a backbreaking day and found the other’s ears waiting, hands ready to massage and soothe all that frustration away.
They were breath to each other, and the day a doctor called him into an office, looked him in the eye and whispered, “We did everything we could, sir,” his life had floated away along with her.
It was a stroke that had done her in, a weak heart compounding everything. And when he returned to his cubicle, the silence had almost driven him to homelessness. He quit church again, unable to rouse himself to face the congregants who’d known her. It took his fellow tenants a week to find out she was dead, and even then all they did was waylay him along the corridor and offer their condolences.
He spent nights muttering to himself, “Eka, Eka.” He’d sit up and go to the window, staring out into the pitch black, “Come back to me.” His tears burned like acid. “Please.”
In those months, his mind turned to Zina Saro Wiwa. A picture taken during her father’s wake showed her, her mother and two other siblings, huddled together. Zina’s face, the most prominent. Those papaya round cheeks, prominent lips and chin like her father’s, jutted out towards the viewer.
She looked regal in her sorrow, more like a monarch mourning the desecration of her people, than a daughter grieving her father’s death. She was pained, he could tell, but the pain didn’t control her. He wanted this now, to hold up after Eka, to go on with dignity.
That was the first time he called himself Saro Wiwa. After that, it was easy to keep doing so. Saro Wiwa gave him strength, promoted his struggles from the banal towards the epic.
Telling people he was Saro Wiwa gave him permission to wrestle with existence.
He couldn’t see the boys, but a powerful force drew him in one direction, and he trusted it was the way they’d gone.
“I’ll beat you up,” his voice stammered from his running. “I’ll beat you up so bad you’d never steal from an old man again.”
He could feel every loose screw in his head, could anticipate the loud rattle it’d make if someone shook him. Yet, he was a hundred percent sure he’d give the thieves a thorough beating if he caught them, then have a long, indulging rest afterwards.
It wasn’t a rage thing, it was an honour and responsibility thing.
He’d been alone, destitute and hungry when he stumbled into the park. Bullem had taken a look at him and given him a modicum of life back. He wasn’t going to repay Bullem with complacency. He’d get that money back even if it cost him his life.
The ringing in his head lessened for a second, and he realized the steady hum of the environment had given way to something else. Silence. All around him was green – lush, supple green. He must have been running for half an hour at least if he was now in the forest. He couldn’t tell what time it was, and he knew Eweh would be looking for him back in the park. But he couldn’t return without the money. They’d fire him, and if things went badly, he could end up in jail.
He had a metallic taste in his mouth, his lungs seemed to punch his ribcage with every breath, his heart thrummed instead of beating. He stood for a second and saliva drooled down his neck. They were voices all around, and he covered his ears with his hands.
Every man was the star of their own life, but he’d never felt this way about himself before. All he’d ever wanted was to be acknowledged. Not for his pain to be taken away or for someone to help him out. He wasn’t a snowflake. He just wanted the world to say to him, like it’d said to Saro Wiwa, I see your suffering, and I respect it.
“Stop” he yelled. “Stop, stop, stop.” The bazaar of sound in his ears seemed to listen. It distilled into one single voice, a clear pointer, beckoning at him.
He answered the call, brushing aside thickets and branches, stepping on shrubs and bushes until he arrived at a clearing.
There were three men facing him on low stools. One held a calabash, stirring the contents with a bamboo stick. Another was pinning a stack of leaves to his hair. The last had a small mirror in his hand, which he wiped over and over with a white rag. The thieves.
His exhaustion was like an anchor around his neck. He thought about his vow to thrash the robbers, then looked up at the three men who hadn’t shown any sign of noticing him. He took a step forwards, “Water,” he cried.
The one with the mirror looked up, wiped his face with the rag and said, “Ah, you’ve come.”
They all murmured, then the one with the calabash stretched it towards him. “Come and drink.”
His only instinct was to obey, and he went forward, hiding his eyes from all of them. When he took a gulp, the fire that’d been brewing within him enlarged and burst out of every orifice in his body. He was enflamed from head to toe, and even his thoughts caught fire and burned away.
Every single race he’d run in his lifetime came to him. He bounded arm in arm with his mother, feet sinking into sand dunes in the desert. He ran after Eka through a field of yellow grass and tiny pebbles that stuck to his heels. Followed wards of money that hovered just out of his reach.
And then he was on his back, head cradled by the man with the leaves, who squeezed them into his mouth. He just wanted to rest. As the juice slid down his throat, he felt the fire die, the ringing ease up, and his heart flicker like a feather. A hard life quenched at one beat per second. And it was good.
He sighed, closed his eyes, and settled in.
Reyumeh Ejue, is a fiction editor at Red Fez Publications. He has been published in literary journals and magazines such as, Ragazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Ginosko, and Green Blotter.
Related country: Nigeria
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