Solomon is only half-listening to the lecturer when he sees the woman. He leans out of his seat to get a clearer view, but the window’s dirty panes make the figures on the other side harder to decipher. He whispers to his classmate, Charles, who is seated next to the window, “Abeg open that window small, I wan check something.”
Charles looks around to make sure the lecturer is not looking and pushes the window. Solomon looks out without the encumbrance of the glass panes. Sure enough, the woman is who he thinks she is. She wears makeup now, and has an expensive-looking wig sitting nicely on her head. She is fatter than Solomon remembers. But she seems to wear the added flesh well, hunching her shoulders as though extra shoulder pads were added to them. He’d last seen her five years ago, but the memory of the last time he saw her still camps in his head. He’d flushed and flushed, but it always managed to bubble up to the surface, defiant as a precocious three-year-old. As he stares, his heart picks up speed. Instinctively, his right hand goes to his chest and moves up and down slowly as though massaging it into stillness.
After class, he walks away from the rest of the students. The woman is leaning against the door of her car. She has her back to him, facing the two other lecturers who are close to the car’s bonnet. One of them points beyond her to Solomon and she turns. She plants her glasses better on her face. Solomon draws nearer, wearing his smartest student’s smile. The woman has an uncertain smile on herself. In that brief moment, it is obvious she is trying to place him somewhere in the past.
“How do you do, young man?” she says finally.
Solomon wonders if he should respond with the correct ‘How do you do?’ or tell her that he is fine. He settles for the latter, coming close in the event that she wants a handshake.
“You look familiar. Do I know you?”
“Yes,” he answers. “We used to go to the same church in Nasarawa. Evangelical Church Winning All, ECWA,” he says, adding the acronym as though it wasn’t immediately apparent. “Your son, Faith, was my friend.”
“Oh, yes, yes,” she replies, hitting her forehead with an open palm. “You people left soon after Faith’s accident, abi?”
“My father got a job in Enugu here,” Solomon replies.
“Me too,” she says. “I’m with the Ministry of Education.”
“Wow. This world is a small place, a really interconnected small place,” she says to the other lecturers and they nod. “Your name is Bature, ba?”
“No, Solomon. Bature is my elder brother.”
“That’s right. You have grown into a tall young man. And you are a law student too. Your mother must be so proud,” she says, gesturing at his white and black uniform. “Now that I know a student of yours, maybe I will be lenient with my grading so that this your loss of accreditation will not affect this young man here.” She turns again to the lecturers and they beam at Solomon, the bearer of good fortune.
“It was nice of you coming over to say hello,” she says.
She is preparing to step into her car.
“Can I speak to you? Privately?” Solomon says quietly.
The woman looks ambushed, caught with one leg inside the car and the other outside.
“I’m really out of time now, maybe next time?” Her tone is supposed to be placating. It fails.
“Shey, we are coming back here on Wednesday?” she asks one of the lecturers who nods.
“We will see on Wednesday,” she says and eases all of her body into the car.
Before Solomon’s father got a job as the computer analyst for the Student Affairs department of the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus, he used to be a secondary school principal in Lafia where they lived. It was around the time that the insurgency lost its foreign sheen and became something the president talked about on TV, repeating it together with words like “Boko Haram” and “bombings” and “terrorist attacks”. In the Danladi home, the tales of the bombings only made appearances in the evenings over a meal of Tuwo and MiyanKerkeshi. They happened in far off places like Kano and Yobe, and filtered in like gossip – true but not affecting them.
Their neighbour, Dr Ekimini, who taught at the University of Jos, used to bring them a new story each evening. His visits were in brotherly solidarity because for him, the insurgency and persecution of Christians was the same thing. He was the only other Christian on their block save for the woman who had a big supermarket at the end of the road, but she didn’t visit. He told them of Christians being persecuted and murdered, like Rebecca who was butchered in Gombe because she insulted a mallam’s kettle, or the tailor that got beat up because he was caught eating during Ramadan, even though he wasn’t Muslim, or the market in Bauchi that was nearly razed down because someone beat up an Alfa in it. For this last bit, Dr Ekemini pointed out that it was still a persecution of Christians because why was it that the section of the market that was most affected was the area most populated by Christians? When he spoke of these people, it was with practised intimacy, an unusual familiarity. Rebecca became ‘our sister Rebecca’ and the tailor, an innocent, struggling Christian.
There was no urgency to the stories, no call to action of any sort for them, so Lafia remained mostly unaffected. The changes that were introduced – the handheld scanners church ushers wielded like batons, frisking anyone entering church premises, asking women not to carry big handbags into public places, filling drums with concrete and placing them at intervals to add as speed checks – seemed like overkill, unnecessary precautions for the problems that actually plagued Lafia. The town’s sickness was more localised, mostly ethnic skirmishes between the dominant Eggon and the Fulanis. In Lafia, their daily lives remained unchanged, and Solomon and Faith were best friends.
Faith was a beautiful boy. He was one of those boys for whom the term did not seem incongruous; he wore it well. It matched the fairness of his skin, like the insides of freshly cut paw-paw, his eyelashes that were long and curved upwards, and his dimples that bore holes into his cheeks whenever he smiled. He was also aware of the power of his beauty and was comfortable wielding it. And so, at such a young age, eleven years, he knew to ask the girls who smuggled love letters to him that he wanted his shirts mended or a stick of suya in return for playing with them. Faith’s generosity was expansive and enlarged to include Solomon, who shared the sweets and had his assignments done for him too – perks of being best friends with the cute kid.
Mummy Faith used to be in the choir. She used to live alone with Faith down by the barracks. Her husband, Faith’s father, had been posted to the town when Faith was a baby, but he died in the fight against Boko Haram. The army had let her stay in one of the buildings in the barracks. They were Igbo, and when the Pastor used to say that every tongue praised God, Solomon imagined Faith and his mother talking to God in their own strange language. Every Sunday, Mummy Faith and her son would come to the church. She would deposit him at the children’s department and then go over to the choir stand in the big church, and because she never left the choir stand, Faith knew to leave the church and to return before the end of service, in time to meet his mother.
The day Faith died, he and Solomon had left the church soon after Sunday school. The sun blazed a trail before them, leading the way through a bush path that ran behind the church. Faith was in front, pausing every few minutes to wait for Solomon, whose trousers slipped because in his haste that morning he had left his belt at home. Faith grumbled that if they were to put in two rounds of gaming before heading back, then they had to move fast. From the bush path, they burst into the market. They walked past the people that sold white shirts – the different shades of white shining like a disarrayed choir of angels, past the almajiri boys who didn’t bother asking them for money, past the old men and women with gnarled limbs courtesy of leprosy.
The gaming centre was opposite the market, with the stalls standing shoulder to shoulder with the barbershops. The place was always humming with energy, with the shouting and pushing of boys migrating from the barbing salon to the gaming shops and back again. An untarred road ran between the market and the gaming centre. In the evenings, the market women would relocate to the side of the roads, setting up unpaid-for makeshift evening stalls. But that time it was free of traffic. Faith crossed and waited as Solomon shouted, “Wait!”
He’d found twine and was trying to make his trousers stay on his waist.
Faith’s eyes were trained on Solomon. He was the picture of impatience, complete with akimbo arms and tapping legs. Midway, Solomon paused. A group of men was advancing on Faith’s side of the road. Six of them. Lanky, almost frail-looking. Unremarkable, except that they marched with the determined swagger of men going to war. They were the kind of men that one turned to look at, something in their demeanour telling you to be wary. When Faith saw them, for a split second, he wavered between crossing over to meet Solomon or entering the gaming shops. Before he could make a decision, one of the men grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt. The group stopped and formed a ring around the man and Faith.
“Ga shi nan. Ga dayansu!” he shouted. “He is one of them.”
“Are you sure?” the man who seemed to be their leader asked. He was stockier and a bit older. He looked weather-beaten and tired.
“Yes. And that other one too. They are part of their secret meetings,” the accuser said, pointing at Solomon.
Everything else happened very quickly. Quicker than can be crammed into seconds or minutes. So fast that when the police came, they had to find pieces of the story from the market women, and some from the gaming boys, and others from the barbers, yet the picture still had some missing fragments.
From his position across the road, Solomon had seen Faith make a dash towards him, an uncalculated move, more in the fashion of impulsive action because, really, there was no way he could have possibly outrun the men. When the gun went off, Solomon and the leader shouted “No!” at the same time; his, the mangled cry of a hurt cat, the leader’s more of a grunt, a bark, an order. Faith hit the middle of the road, and his blood spurted out, adding colour to the brown earth. His limbs were all in the wrong places, but his eyes were trained heavenward.
“Stupid boy, the mission never start,” Solomon heard the leader shout to the man whose gun the bullet came from as the pandemonium opened up and swallowed them.
Faith’s mother had been leading a song when a man showed up at the church’s door. He was an odd sight, standing out in the carefully arranged seats, with the women on one side and the men on the other. Mummy Faith only faltered a bit but continued singing, and the ushers made for the man, hoping to escort him from the church quietly. But then he started shouting, “You are here singing, while your son has been shot.”
Mummy Faith outran the men and the women and the children and got to the scene first. She walked around him as though she could not recognise her son. And then she swooped on him and gave a long wail. Her cry was also a dirge, and she rocked him back and forth as though he was merely having difficulties breathing. Her voice, raised and quivering, bellowed, “Chineke, igbarankiti?”
The other Igbo members of the church gathered around her, crying in solidarity. No one else offered to help: there was something about that grief that made them know that it could only let in one’s kin.
Suddenly, Mummy Faith looked up, as though by inspiration of the Holy Spirit. She leaped to her feet, and Faith dropped from her grasp like a rag doll. She came to Solomon and asked, “My child, what happened? Shey you were here, what happened to my son?”
The other women came and drew her back. “The boy is still in shock. Didn’t you see him hiding in the gutter when we came? He, too, was almost killed. Come, come with us,” they said.
“But did you see anything? Did you see this person that made me a childless woman?” she continued asking as the women took her away. The men used the opportunity to pick up the dead child.
Solomon could not say anything. The words were lodged in his throat, unable to go down or up. His eyes were on his brother, on the other side of the road. Bature was standing with the other church teenagers, looking at him with such sad eyes.
On the walk home from school, Solomon wrestles with the thoughts in his mind and is happy no one is around to bear witness because sometimes he stops or punches the air or laughs out loud: he is most expressive when conversing with himself. There is still no victor when he gets home, so he shelves his thoughts for another time when they can spar unobserved. He hears the singing of his mother’s sewing machine from the veranda. It is the beginning of the academic season, and some of the church women have given her school uniforms to sew. Solomon and his brother would have to iron them later, something they both loathe for the drudgery of the work, and also love, for how crisp their uniforms turn out because of the forcedly learned skill.
“Eey, me baguu,” Solomon says. “The last lecturer did not come.”
Solomon’s mother, Mrs Danladi, is a quiet woman, and being in the company of three men amplifies it so that she always appears cowered. Her hair is covered with a headscarf, tightly wound around her head, leaving no doubt about its intentions.
She looks at her youngest child and regards what he said as though it is something profound. But the profundity is, of course, hers. The prism with which she views everything is coloured by solemnity.
“Is everything okay?” she asks.
Solomon leans on the door. His usual itinerary would have been to greet his mother, perch briefly in his room to shed his white shirt before finally coming to a stop at the kitchen. Sometimes he skips the first two stops.
“I saw Faith’s mother today,” he says.
“Isn’t she the one whose son died that time? That fine boy that was your friend?”
“Yes, that’s her,” Solomon says.
She gives a long sigh.
“That boy just died for nothing. Such a careless, stupid death,” she says. “You said you saw her? Here?” she asks.
“Yes. She was one of the inspectors for the faculty.”
“Well, that is a good thing. At least she will give your faculty accreditation because of you. You see how God works?”
Solomon smiles. It is not unusual for God to get the credit any time a fortunate event happens. He sometimes wonders what his mother would do if the consciousness of God were not always wrapped around her like a cloak. How sparse her vocabulary would be.
In their room, Bature is lying on the bed, playing a game on his phone. A few weeks back, he would not have dared to. But since passing his third MBBS exam, even getting invited for a distinction viva, Bature spends equal amounts of time between the TV in their sitting room and his bed. Their father allows him, even volunteers a smile when Bature grumbles about being asked to switch the channel from TraceNaija to Channels for the evening news. There was a time when their father would have banned him from the sitting room for as much as passing the remote slowly.
Their room is an orderly mess. Solomon’s side is strewn with clothes, and his cup of tea is still on the floor, with the unfinished piece of bread from the morning. Bature’s side is immaculate, his items arranged in such orderly fashion that it looks Spartan.
“Any additions?” Bature asks.
Solomon and Bature have this joke where they tell each other the stupidest things people have asked them about their hometown. It ranged from people immediately assuming he was Fulani, and him having to tell them he wasn’t, and he wasn’t Hausa either, and did they know the two weren’t the same, to people being frankly surprised he could not speak Hausa, to which he’d reply that he was Eggon and that they had their own dialect. And then there were people who could not believe he was not Muslim, like the lecturer-priest who seemed genuinely concerned for his welfare upon learning that fact.
The lecturer-priest had been endorsing their course registration forms and had been impressed when he saw that Solomon was from Nasarawa, yet was admitted on the merit list (“You must be the exception,” he said). Then he’d been further astonished that he was a Christian. At this point, he dropped his pen and folded his arms around his midriff. The two other students in the room paused too.
“Your parents let you?” he’d said, widening his eyes in disbelief.
“My parents are Christians,” Solomon replied.
“How did they become Christians themselves? Were they converted?”
“No, my father’s father was a Methodist bishop sef,” Solomon said.
“You don’t mean it?”
It wasn’t really a question.
“Wow, see how far the light of the gospel has gone. You see, it just takes one man answering the Macedonian call,” the lecturer-priest said, putting on his priestly voice and his priestly face. The students nodded solemnly.
That night, Solomon made a series of broadcast posts on his WhatsApp status explaining what it meant to be Eggon. It was more in the texture of a rant, a call-out of the often overlooked bigotry he’d experienced in the East. He must have been successful because none of his friends responded with a Ha-ha emoji, and one had even written on his status, “Who offended our Christian Eggon Brother?”
“No,” Solomon replies now, taking off his white shirt. It is still crisply ironed. He places it on a hanger. He lies beside his brother.
“Solomon, there is food in the kitchen oo,” his mother calls.
Solomon does not respond. The singing of the machine continues as if she had not expected him to.
“Wetin dey sup? You dey alright?” Bature asks.
Solomon can hear that he has paused his game, waiting for his response.
“I just get small headache,” he replies.
“Na all the night class you dey go. School never start una don dey do night class. Una first-year law students too do,” Bature says and continues playing his game.
“Get up,” he says after a while. Solomon sits up on his elbows, and Bature pops two tablets into his palm.
“We don’t have water,” Solomon says.
Bature gets up to the kitchen and returns with a can of Sprite. “Tell Mummy say na me drink am when she ask.” He smiles.
He lies back down and continues his game.
“I saw Mummy Faith today,” Solomon says.
Bature pauses his game for the second time, but this time the silence is not burdened with concern for his brother. There is something ominous about it. It is weighted by expectations.
“Where?” he asks.
“In my faculty. She is one of the supervisors for our accreditation.”
There is a momentary silence.
“It is sad what happened to that boy,” he says finally.
After this, Bature does not play his game anymore. He rolls in the bed for a while and then gets up and leaves the house. When he comes back, Solomon can smell marijuana on him, an almost fetid smell that is at once suffocating and soothing. The last time Solomon smelled marijuana on him was when he was taking his exams. He used to store the wraps in their room, and when Solomon found them, almost mistaking them for the meat spice, thyme, Bature told him smoking calmed him. Solomon never mentioned it to their parents, even though his father had once specifically asked him if Bature was ‘using’ anything. Betraying his brother would have been a greater sin than lying to their father.
Bature lies beside Solomon again, and the way they are both breathing, the way their bodies are prickly, alert, the way their hearts respond to each other’s rhythms tell them that they are both waiting for something. Finally, Solomon says, “I am going to tell her about how her son died.”
The Sunday before Faith’s death, Bature refused to join the family to church. This rebellion had been brewing for a while and had been exhibited in the little things – going late to church, playing Lucky Dube’s music at high volumes even at night, wearing his trousers low to reveal his boxers when he walked around the house, refusing to comb his hair except when going to school. He was at the rebellious stage of teenage-hood, in his final year in senior secondary school, right on the cusp of adulthood. He’d discovered Karl Marx and Nietzsche and Dawkins and peppered conversations with their quotes, talking about them in personal terms, “After all, it was Marx who said…”, “Dawkins was once at an airport and said…”, as though they were his seat-mates in class and he’d maybe even lent them his pen sometimes. That Sunday was the first time, however, that he openly defied his father.
Solomon stood with his mother at the door as his father confronted Bature. He watched as their father asked Bature why he wouldn’t come to church with the family and he spread out his arms and answered, “What is the point?”
Their father had then gone on to extol the virtues of not forsaking the gathering of the brethren, and Bature, in a softer, firmer tone, refused to budge.
“But how will you not going to church solve anything?” Mrs Danladi asked.
Father and son turned to her as though she was interrupting.
“It is clinging to religion that is making us unable to see. We have injustice everywhere, our neighbours in Kaduna and Kano are being slaughtered every Sunday. Even here, the Fulanis are dealing with us. Yet we just fold our hands, hiding behind religion.” He added a quote he’d used a lot in the preceding months, “Religion is indeed the opium of the masses.”
“You see what I said about all your stupid books he’s been reading. Instead of preparing for his JAMB, he is filling his head with nonsense.”
Their father was addressing their mother, and Solomon found it odd that he sounded furious only when he faced her. When he spoke to Bature he sounded weary, like the end of a long journey. He clenched and unclenched his bible, as though his grip on the faith was slackening.
“Have I taught you nothing all these years? You think understanding God is that simple?”
Then he sighed.
“I am very late today. Let me come back first.”
As they headed off to church, they heard Asa’s ‘Bed of Stone’ blaring from Bature’s and Solomon’s room.
In the evening, Bature came out to find his parents in the sitting room. They were watching a John Boyega movie, their chairs pulled together, and his mother’s head resting on his father’s shoulder. Bature found it unbearably intimate. Faith and Solomon were outside making paper kites.
“I want to go to the field,” he said to no one in particular.
He was dressed in the true aspiring footballer attire: jersey shirt tucked into a jersey short pulled down to almost below his buttocks, dirty stockinged feet in a dirtier pair of boots.
“You won’t go to church, but it is football you want to go and play?” his father said.
His mother touched his arm, gave it a gentle caress, and he swallowed the rest of his words.
“Bature, your father has something to tell you people. You have to come back on time,” she said.
“What is it?”
“Just go. When you come back, he will tell you.”
“Abeg, tell me joor.”
“He got that job at UNEC. We will leave here soon. Oya, take your brother with you,” she said.
“But—” Bature began.
“And Faith too. You people will escort him home afterward,” she cut him off.
“What will they be doing when I’m playing ball?” Bature asked.
“That one is your business,” she said.
Faith and Solomon walked ahead, test-running their kite. The sun was dying slowly and the breeze was picking up. Children were let into the streets, with their parents lounging on long wooden benches outside their houses. Music blared from different households, and instead of sounding discordant, the sounds met somewhere above, merged, each tempering the other, birthing an almost melodious symphony. It was the sort of evening that allowed one exhale.
“Solomon, make una come this side,” Bature called, pointing at a path on the roadside.
“But the field is that way.” Solomon pointed straight ahead.
“I no dey go field,” Bature said.
They stopped moving. Four questioning eyeballs stared at Bature, with the kite fluttering somewhere above.
“Where are you going?” Solomon asked as though in accusation.
“I dey go meeting. E no go too tey. Make we go,” Bature said.
Solomon did not say anything. He looked instead at the rows of shops on one side. Beyond the shops, sharing a wall, was the field. They could hear the sharp voices of those asking to pass ball and move, move, move.
“See, this meeting no go take time,” Bature bargained.
“My mummy said I should not come back late,” Faith said.
“And this kite is spoiling. We need to make another one,” Solomon added.
“Don’t worry. We will escort Faith home after,” Bature said. “And I will buy suya for you when we are coming back.”
“Let’s go,” Faith said.
The meeting venue was the veranda of a large compound bordered by flowers that grew wildly, forming an untamed hedge around the walls. Someone had peeped at them from the gate’s pigeon opening before unlocking the gate.
Inside, there were three benches placed on each side of the veranda’s wall. The fourth wall was the door. Several young men were seated.
“Who are they? Are they new members?” a man asked as they climbed the stone steps up. His shirt was unbuttoned and he wore dark shades.
“No, they are my brothers,” Bature said. He sounded as meek as Moses.
“Then they should not be here. Let them stay outside,” the man said in what could be impatience or anger.
“You people should wait in the compound for me,” Bature whispered to them.
“What will we now be doing?” Solomon whispered back, and for a moment, Bature was at a loss.
It was Faith who said, “Oya, let’s build another kite.”
“Let’s begin, you are the last person we were waiting for,” the man said when the boys left.
“Ombatse!” Bature shouted.
“It is time,” the other members responded.
It was almost dark when the meeting ended. The men walked home in small clusters. They all seemed high-strung, chattering animatedly in Eggon. Solomon and Faith walked behind Bature this time, their kite folded, under Faith’s armpit.
The man who had first spoken earlier walked with them. He made small talk, but it was apparent he had something weighing down his words. When they were at the junction where they could see the four-storeyed building before their house, he said, “You should not carry your brothers for meetings again. It is not safe.”
“Why?” Bature asked, looking at the boys. It was too late to ask them not to listen.
“We don’t know those that are our enemies or not. I think there may be spies amongst us. Don’t expose your family to danger.” He turned and left.
Bature glanced at Faith and then at Solomon and it was obvious he was scared. But what he said to them was, “If Mummy asks, tell her we went to the field, do you hear?”
The boys nodded.
“Now, let’s go and buy the suya.”
“What is ‘Ombatse’? Who are those people?” Faith asked.
“Don’t worry, one day, when you are grown, you will get to join too,” Bature said, looking at Solomon.
One week later, Faith was dead. And two months afterward, the Danladis moved to Enugu.
The day after seeing Faith’s mother, Solomon is startled to see his father at home when he comes home from school. He is seated on his seat, the one with a direct line to the TV. The fan rotates furiously, but the TV is not on.
“Solomon,” he calls, even though Solomon is standing right in front of the sitting-room. “Come and sit down.” He indicates the couch beneath the framed picture of his mother.
“Bature!” his father calls.
Bature comes in. He looks subdued and his shorts are on his waist, with a belt holding them firmly. He sits beside Solomon.
“What is this thing I am hearing about that Faith boy?” their father asks.
He had not known Faith, so Solomon had to explain, in some parts helped by his mother, who comes to stand by the door as though afraid to intrude. When he is done explaining who the boy was, he launches into the story. His father is not surprised, and Solomon can tell it is because he must have heard the story before. Bature must have told his mother, who told their father, the channel of communication employed in their home.
“I remember now. But I thought they said that boy’s death was a mistake? That there was no way an Igbo person could be a part of the Ombatse. The governor even made a broadcast about it,” their father says at the end of Solomon’s story.
Solomon remembers that broadcast. That night, the stills of the carnage caused by the conflict: bodies, 23 of them laid out like suya stalks, a razed down church with the members conducting service in the wreckage, houses with blown-out roofs yawning into the sky, rolled out on the screen, keeping tune with the governor’s solemn tone. The governor had recounted the history of the Eggon-Fulani conflict over grazing land. The conflict that had festered over time, manifesting in little skirmishes and had eventually, like a boil that was not lanced, spilled its content of its own accord. Things came to a head when the community leaders warned the Fulani herders that their cows were destroying their crops, and when they did not respond, the Ombatse had poisoned all the crops, killing the cows. The Fulanis had retaliated and killed people suspected to belong to the Ombatse, including their family members.
“No, that was not what happened,” Solomon says.
“I know, I know,” his father responds. “You are saying he was killed because they thought he was…”
He doesn’t complete the sentence, glancing at Bature before stopping.
“But you are not sure it was the Fulani that killed this boy because they suspected he was your brother. It could be totally unrelated?” His question is directed at Solomon.
“No, it is not,” Solomon says, and the ice in his tone tells his father not to object.
“Oya, what do you want to achieve by telling his mother?” their father says, leaning back and clasping his hands on his belly.
“The truth, Daddy. I think she should know how her son died,” Solomon says.
Their father looks at him as though he just uttered flawless German, then bursts into laughter.
“What do you know about life and the truth, Solomon? Do you know what she will do to your brother? He has his life on track now; do you know what this truth will achieve? In fact, why are we even discussing this? I forbid you from telling that woman anything,” he concludes. “Please, bring me my food,” he says to their mother.
“No. I have already made up my mind,” Solomon says.
“What did you say?”
“I am going to tell her the whole story,” Solomon repeats in an even tone.
Their father looks at him as though about to explode. He is on the brink of something, anger about to segue into wrath. He swallows and says calmly, “Then, get out of my sight if my words mean nothing to you.”
A blanket descends on the house, heavy, like a garment of mourning. It is so discomforting that Mrs Danladi packs up and leaves for church, abandoning the clothes she is mending. Solomon stays alone in their room. Bature is stationed at the backyard smoking wraps after wraps of marijuana, smoke rising like Abel’s offering. Their father does not say anything.
Solomon drifts in and out of sleep. Once, he thinks he hears his mother’s voice outside the window at the backyard where Bature is.
“Tell me, my son, did you know what the Ombatse were doing?” Her voice is low, but the night is so silent that the winds carry her words into the room where Solomon lies.
“No, I swear! I was not even a proper member yet.” Bature’s voice breaks in some places.
“If I had known it would escalate to that point, I would not have gone ahead to join. How could I have known?”
“But we told you. Now, look at you. Look at your life. See how everything is about to slip away.” Mrs Danladi is grieving like she is in a Nollywood flick, loud and almost pretentious.
Solomon slips into sleep again. The next time he wakes someone is warming soup in the kitchen, but no one calls him to dinner. His stomach growls in protest. He feels chained to the bed and forces himself to fall asleep again. Bature comes in at midnight to tell him their father wants to see them outside.
Solomon moves around in the darkness, seeking out his pyjamas. Bature is a solid mass near the door, each successive sigh announcing that there are words lodged in his throat.
“But Solomon, how far na…” He begins and stops. Solomon pauses, willing him to ask him into the conversation.
But Bature hesitates and gives another sigh. “Make we see Daddy first.”
The moon is out, illuminating the lecturers’ houses around. Their father is tying a wrapper, a habit he borrowed from the Igbo lecturers that are their neighbours. He has a large rechargeable lantern on the floor, but the lantern is uncharged and the wan light casts a pale glow on all of them. Mrs Danladi is sitting opposite their father. She folds both hands across her bosom and leans forward on her seat. If she fell, it’d be chin first. Bature goes to join her on the bench, and Solomon sits beside his father.
“Do you know that woman has two children now? She remarried and they live in Onitsha.” Mrs Danladi gives no preamble. “I asked Sister Beatrice this evening in church. You know she always knows somebody who knows somebody.”
“That is not the point, Mummy,” Solomon says.
“What then is, Solomon? Have you thought about the fact that this woman may have moved on? Have you thought about how this may affect your brother?”
The other two do not contribute. This is Mrs Danladi’s turn.
“What kind of brother are you? Bature used to pray with me for a baby brother. He was just five, but he wanted you so badly that God eventually answered his prayers. Now, you want to be the one that will ruin him?”
“Take it easy,” their father says.
“Leave me alone, Akolo.” She turns to Solomon and continues, “Do you know the police locked up all those Ombatse boys and their matter is still in court? Instead of thanking God your brother was spared, you want to hand him over to them. You think that woman will thank you? That she will pat you on the back? You are an Eggon boy who is already thought to be a terrorist.”
“It is enough,” their father tries again.
“I don’t know why your father will not just lock you up in this house for the next one week since you are silly.”
“What are you even saying?” Solomon stands as though in combat. “You were not there.”
“I was. We were there, weren’t we?” She turns to Bature for confirmation.
“When they shot him? Those few minutes before he died? No, you were not there. None of you were! You did not see him lying there on the floor, asking for his mother. You just came afterward.”
They are quiet.
“If it were you, wouldn’t you want to know? If it were me that was shot, and someone knew what really happened, wouldn’t you want to know?” Solomon almost whispers it. He looks defeated and takes back his seat. “Why is nobody on my side? Why is nobody on the side of the truth?”
“My own is, if anything happens to your brother because you want to be Jesus, I will not forgive you,” Mrs Danladi says.
The weight of her words hangs in the air, and she gets up and walks into the house.
“Solomon,” their father begins, “I have thought about this thing you are planning to do, and there is no way it is going to end well.”
He does not hurry.
“I have taught you to be good men. I have given you the bible and your conscience to guide you. But Solomon, you two are my only sons. My only inheritance from God. I cannot come to this strange land and lose you.”
He turns and places a heavy hand on Solomon’s shoulder.
“Your brother here tells me tomorrow the woman will come. But don’t forget, even God cursed Cain for betraying his brother.”
He turns to Bature.
“God is my witness that I warned you. I warned you, but you thought you knew better. Whatever happens, this is on you.”
He gets up and follows his wife.
“Guy, why you wan do me like this now?” Bature says when they are alone.”I be your brother oo. It is just me and you. Have I done anything to you?”
He is waiting for an answer. And Solomon has no words. He feels like Jesus in Gethsemane, the weight of the assignment pressing on his back, crushing him on the way to Calvary and pinning him to the cross. He wants to explain, ask for absolution in advance, tell his brother how this is bigger than him and their parents and Faith’s mother. But he has no words. There is no way to explain how, on some nights, he cannot shut his eyes because on the other side, Faith would be waiting for him, asking him the same question over and again: But why did you not tell my mother when she asked?
“I am sorry, Bature,” he says. “I am so sorry.”
“Fuck you, guy,” Bature responds. His tone is the full stop at the end of a sentence. Everything he feels is summarised and expressed in those three words, and there is nothing else left. When Solomon goes into their room a while later, he finds Bature asleep, curled on to his side, at peace.
The next morning, Solomon wakes to see his mother looking at him. She is standing by the door and when he looks up, she moves from the door, and the sun rays fall on him. The pain is searing. It seems deliberate, punitive even, what she did. He sits up and shields his eyes.
“Mummy, good morning,” he says.
“Solomon, good morning,” she replies.
Bature’s part of the room is well arranged, and he is comforted because it is something he recognises. Between the time he slept and woke up, something remained the same.
It is evident that something has.
“Your brother is at the police station.”
She stands with her hands akimbo.
“Your father felt it would be better to go with him so they can make a report and then they will go and tell the woman later. I’m going there. They’ve been gone for too long.”
She turns to leave.
“I’m coming with you,” Solomon says. He swings over the side of the bed. It feels as though his feet cannot find purchase. But he plants them firmly on the cement floor, getting up.
Mrs Danladi gives a sigh.
“Don’t worry, Solomon. Just stay here.”
He gets up and begins to get dressed. Her eyes are trained on him as he finds a jean trouser and a shirt and runs a comb through his hair. She starts crying. The sound unlocks something in Solomon, and he joins her. They are both standing, he, with a comb in his hand and in an unzipped jean trousers, she with her headscarf untidy, clutching her handbag. There is an incompleteness to their postures, as though they are unprepared for that moment, but still, they plod on, sharing their sorrow equally between them.
“Tell me, my son, were you really going to do it? Were you going to tell that woman?” Mrs Danladi asks.
He doesn’t get to answer because just then, their father’s car glides into the compound, with Bature sitting in the front seat. And in the joy of that moment, Mrs. Danladi forgets to get her reply. As Solomon watches his mother walk out to meet them he has no doubt about his answer.
Joshua Chizoma is a Nigerian writer. He was a finalist for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing and the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize. He won the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Short Story Prize and his story ‘A House Called Joy’ won the 2018 Kreative Diadem Prize in the flash fiction category. His works have been published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, AFREADA, Entropy Magazine, Kalahari Review, Prachya Review, and elsewhere. Joshua has a law degree from the University of Nigeria.
*Image by Nsey Benajah on Unsplash