When He was creating you, He put a lamb in your heart and enjoined you: ‘Dear Child, go into the world and be gentle and meek like the lamb’. But when He was away on just a moment’s respite (for even the Creator must have respite from His work), the devil, walking Creation’s Garden, chanced upon your innocent being on the first lap of your journey to the world. Because you were still pliable (like clay), the devil seized your heart and put a snake in there, pushing you down the conveyor belt quickly, lest the Almighty returned from His respite to see the corruption of His work. The devil enjoined you as you went: ‘Dear Child, go into the world and do evil!’
These thoughts made Ganiyu grit his teeth. Those days of cruel admonitions, those days when they suffered the torture of Ismaila Buka’s wit and acid remarks! Those days when they were stretched out on their backs like cow-hides, held by the huge muscular hands of their bigger pupil colleagues and received the alligator-pepper-fevered violence of Ismaila Buka’s koboko (which Buka said could chase out the most obstinate of devils) and the spittle-spraying chorus of his angry voice as the horse-whip descended in quick, maniacal, sensation-dulling succession, like a koranic recitation gone berserk. Ah, to remember those days at the koranic school!
It took Ganiyu quite a long while to pick himself up from the small heap he had formed at the worst part of the dirt road. The grime clung to his danshiki and so did the smell of rotting flesh, for he had landed on the very top of a sacrificial offering (three potsherds) bearing the entrails of an animal he could not identify, and a soot-covered calabash that contained some dark-blue concoction and parrot feathers that exuded an infernal stench whose origin he did not know and would probably never know. He felt humiliated, and even in this humiliation, he could see the children of the street, mirthful with laughter, break into a run, scattering, like exploding rubber seeds, in different directions. The anger came upon him then with the fury of a whirlwind, encompassing his small bulk and shaking him with such a violence that he felt himself being lifted clear off the ground, so that he unconsciously flailed his hands. The veins in his neck stood out and his brain grew hot like molten lava. He would kill these children if he lay his hands on them; he would kill them and no one would ask him questions. Allah!
The fact that he would not be able to identify the real culprits who had brought him this shame did not matter. The children belonged to the street; they were all children of the devil (for was that not what Ismaila Buka used to say of stubborn children?) and he would treat them like a mass. He would spare none of them, for any punishment one of them suffered was the punishment of all of them. And the punishment of all of them was the punishment of the whole street, of its useless, wicked inhabitants – its men and women who begot the children and who stood or sat in mirthful groups around the verandahs, tittering and making music out of his humiliation. He spat. Allah! The whole street has witnessed my fall!
His left knee hurt badly and, as he bent in the half-light to examine it, he could feel the sharp, spine-tingling pain. I bruised it in my fall. It was on the knee that I first landed. Bending lower still, in spite of the pain, he took in the full weight of his injury. There was a deep gash where his skin used to be, and now it oozed blood and was covered by the earth and grime. He tried to walk, but found he could only do that with some effort – by putting a great deal of his weight on the right leg for the time being.
I will have to limp to work, a moving pit latrine.
The thought of the pit latrine made his entrails revolt suddenly, and he felt like vomiting. But he held himself back with incredibly great effort.
I will have to get a sonsorobia. But I wonder if that will kill this smell on me which is like that of a five-day old corpse. It’s like I have died.
And now, he was like the typical cripple who, suddenly getting back the use of his legs, was beginning to walk anew. It was painful and odd, but he had to make use of his leg. He had no choice.
When I get to the chemist’s yonder, I will buy red-and-yellow capsules. This leg hurts like death.
As he limped down the street, he could breathe in deeply the air of merriment. It was as if a small celebration had, at his own very expense, began on the street verandahs. The radiograms blared Christmas carols and the sharp sound of firecrackers and knockouts rang out in the humming, deepening, dust-laden night air.
They must be celebrating my fall. Not just the approaching Christmas.
At this point, it was difficult for him not to play, in his mind, the whole nightmarish experience – his fall, his humiliation, his despair. He saw it slither into his path from the corner of his mind, which in fact was the shrub that flanked the road. It moved with an evil that was real and true in the half-light. It was no make-believe snake (it did not look like one) and his heart had leapt with his fear. To step on it; to step on a live mamba! His reflexes were sharp, even as he shook in horror. Next thing he knew, he was flinging himself backwards and rolling over many times, wrestling with a fear that was macabre and a panic that was palpable.
I knew nothing for a while even as I lay still. Until the laughter came like the cacophony of exploding rubber pods. And I saw the many forms of the children – wraiths and millipedes – emerge from the bushes, breaking into a run, and then disappearing into the belly of the on-rushing dusk, into plantation gardens, half-completed and completed buildings that dot this over-crowded street of evil. And the mothers and fathers on the verandahs… Then I knew…
Why would the children choose to play such an expensive game on Old Ganiyu?
They want to laugh at my expense. Because it is Christmas season and they have money to buy rubber snakes.
He wished he had known. He would have reached for the toy and the string its owners had used in manipulating it across the road, snake-fashion. With the ‘snake’ and the string, he would have sprung at the urchins who crouched (he could understand now) somewhere in the undergrowth, not very far from him, waiting. He would have strangled them and made everyone realise that pulling jokes on Old Ganiyu had its limits. Allah, I wish I had known! But I will have my own back!
The next day saw Ganiyu walking down the street on his way to work, looking as sombre as a pall bearer, though his senses were as alert as a cockroach’s. As he looked out for the familiar, suspicious gathering of children, he suddenly began to sweat, in spite of the harmattan haze. Of course it would be futile looking for the particular children who had contrived his humiliation the day before, as children filled the street, flying kites, building sandcastles and caterwauling. But he was confident that his chance would come.
He limped slowly down the street (because he still felt pain on his left knee, although he had, on his own accord, treated it with the red-and-yellow capsules and the cotton wool he had bought from the chemist’s shop). He fingered the string of the catapult he had neatly concealed inside the pocket of his danshiki and his excitement grew. It was a small catapult, but Kinuko who had recommended it to him after listening to his tale of humiliation called it ‘Big Pepper’. Kinuko was a fellow night watchman at the Bexton Supermarket who had fought in the Civil War and who said the ‘Big Pepper’ was one indispensable demobilising weapon that came in handy, in spite of the sophisticated military arsenals at the disposal of the soldiers, during the war. That he was the unacknowledged hero of the war, Kinuko always wanted everyone to accept, and his voice always bore the mark of his pain, apart from its crushing lucidity and humour, whenever he revealed that he sold his manhood to the war. (People who listened to him often wondered what he meant, especially when they knew that he came out of the war complete with his vital organs).
“You never know,” he would defend his infertility. “It could be shell-shock. “You need to see what I saw during the war. Machine guns booming and mortars falling…”
Like Ganiyu, Kinuko had no children, though, unlike Ganiyu, he had a wife. But Old Ganiyu had nothing to blame on the war. His had been the ordinary life of an ordinary man and he had lived it as quietly as he could. When the crisis broke out, he had tried enlisting in the army in Kano, but he was not accepted because of his hunchback. As a field soldier, that is. But he was valuable as a cook, and the man who did the menial jobs for the field soldiers. His constant regret was the action he had to miss in the front down South. As a child, he had played soldier with his mates, and his one dream had been to lead a Jihad to fight and unite the people of his country for Allah. He refused to get married, because he thought he saw fulfilment in being alone. “I am a hunchback, anyway… who wants a hunchback?”
The children probably suspect me, thought Ganiyu now as he fiddled with the catapult. Kinuko’s instructions were very clear in his mind. He had to keep an eye on the children. You never know, after what happened yesterday, they may be up to new tricks. “Be on the alert. Your aggression may not necessarily be loudly provoked. What you seek is revenge and any child you see who appears capable of mischief is good target. Select the grittiest pebble, aim neatly at the little godforsaken devil and pull the string. Then hurry down the street as if nothing had happened and let the child enjoy the sheer violence of the punishment.”
Were the children clairvoyant? Did they know his intention? Did they know he carried a sinister catapult? After every humiliation he suffered in their hands (and he had suffered many) Ganiyu had always walked down the same street with no vengeance in his heart. And the children had remained in collected groups, confident and within his reach; and had even had the effrontery to try new tricks on him. But now that he was ‘armed’, they did not come anywhere close to him.
They know, they know! He could not, however, say exactly how they could have known.
Maybe it’s their guardian angels. Evil things! But I’m not fooled. I’ll continue to pass this street. It’s the only street I take to work and I’ll continue to be on my guard.
Old Ganiyu took the catapult with him every day he went to work, and like the other day nothing happened: no children played any new tricks on him. The children went about their business, not appearing to even notice him.
Maybe they’ve decided to leave me alone for good, he thought. Now, I’ll go down the street in peace. He even began to think that he was probably over reacting; that, maybe, he could make them Old Ganiyu’s friends. They’ll call me Old Man, Hunchback, but I’d laugh at them and they’d be tired. They’d plant plastic snakes on my path and I’ll kick the things and laugh and they’d know I’m no fool. I’d admonish them (not beat them like Ismaila Buka used to beat us at the Koranic school in those days) and I’d tell them not to play pranks on Old Ganiyu. They’d stop putting plastic snakes on my path in the half-light, or hurling stones and banana peels at me. I’ve walked down this street for months and the children ought to be my friends. I ought to be one with the street.
But a painful smile creased his face the moment he reached this point in his thinking. Haba, children will always be children. They’ll always be evil!
* * *
The rainy season soon came, and with the violence rainy seasons are known to come with in the city – tempestuous storms and regular flooding. Ganiyu hated the evenings when it was raining and he had to go to work. Ozolua Street was sure to be in flood as it became the reservoir into which the water, debris and muck of the city emptied themselves. A tunnel led to the moat and it had been constructed with millions of naira to combat the regular flooding. But it had been blocked for years with the muck and corruption of the city, and nobody seemed to care. The flood period was the season the children of Ozolua Street loved most. It was the season when the bowels of the tenements opened and they, tiny snakes, wriggled out to gambol and caterwaul in the brownish water.
The water in Ozolua Street was always knee-deep in the flood season, and, when the rains were heavy and regular, the level often rose beyond that and beyond, too, the small fortresses of hurriedly constructed walls in front of the verandahs of the houses to keep water from the rooms. And then the rooms would become water, with the water rising to bed level (and sometimes above it) and making lightweight objects float. Because of the flood situation in Ozolua Street, a mischievous journalist in his gossip column had spoken of his longing for a day that the government would contemplate supplying necessary facilities to the flood site to turn it into a giant-size swimming pool where the state’s athletes appearing for the next Olympic games in Siberia would be trained!
Ganiyu always took his umbrella along. With rolled sokoto, he would make his way through the street, avoiding as much as possible, the deep gorges and ditches that lay their snares before the unwary traveller. A walking stick came in handy. In spite of his hatred for the rains (and the flood), he always felt an upwelling of the spirit. The humiliation he had suffered seemed a distant memory. The scars seemed to have healed; the pains seemed to have gone. Only the beauty of flame trees and of jacarandas was what he knew. It was moments like this that his mind would wander nostalgically to his childhood, to fifty-five or so years ago when he grew up in the backstreets of Kano with his two brothers whom he last saw when they were going to enlist in the Nigerian Army in Kano, and they ate tuwo and suya. Ah, those were restless days in spite of the power of the Religion, and Teacher Ismaila Buka of the painful koboko! Life was lived in complete abandonment, but, no, they did not play pranks on older people. The Religion forbade that. We did not plant plastic snakes on the paths of travellers to scare them. The Prophet would not have liked that.
Ah, he was so prepared to die for the Religion in those days! Yes, those days before the bombs began to drop, before the war began and brothers began to kill brothers. And what purpose was there in all that? Was war not supposed to be fought for the Almighty and not man? It was senseless killing. It was plain genocide. And he had blamed the Almighty for the senselessness of it all; its sheer meaningless and lack of logic. Could the Almighty not have intervened? Could He not have brought the people under His command, His power, and used them for the glory of His honour? Or was it deliberate? Was it the Almighty’s design? He realised that not much had changed since the war ended and decided that it could not have been His war. Why could it be when the rich were still amassing wealth and growing richer by the day while the poor still suffered the yoke of poverty and oppression? When you look back at that war, those who died were the poor, the poor ones like my brothers whose loss killed my poor parents…Those who benefited were the rich ones, who became even richer…
Other thoughts grew like bacteria in his mind. He allowed them incubate and fester. The Almighty’s will is sometimes strange, he thought. The Almighty moves in mysterious ways. For some odd reason, he found himself smiling. It was the inscrutable smile of a mask.
One day, Ganiyu went to work. It was the dying days of the flood season. The grasses had grown beautiful and lush like the hair of a mermaid, having made the most of the regular rains. Ganiyu was humming a tune by Dan Maraya Jos as he walked down Ozolua Street. He felt light-headed; good. The children were about their own business, playing, mindless of him. Throughout the flood season, they had been about their business, but he was sure as he knew he was Ganiyu that now that the rains were disappearing they’d soon forget the joys of floodwater and turn their attention on him. He did not trust the children. He never would.
So, when he came across the long object that lay in mysterious grandeur, motionless, across his path in the half-light, his instincts had become alert with intimations and the joy of knowing. Children would always be children, he had always thought, and here he was now being proved right. Did he not say they would never give up? That they would continue to play pranks on him? But he would not fall for it like the other time, he resolved. No, NEVER!
As he watched the object, Ganiyu could imagine the children in the undergrowth, waiting breathlessly (like the other time) for the right moment to begin to pull the string, to begin to manipulate the object, snake-fashion, across the road to the other side where they lay. He could feel their laughter and the laughter of the whole street waiting to explode like seedpods in the harmattan. Old Ganiyu is no fool any more! He scoffed at the imaginary children. He has grown wise.
Two thoughts crossed his mind: to pick up the object, or to gallantly walk over it and continue as if he had not noticed it at all. But he preferred the former. Why, it was better to hold the rubber snake in his hands and let the children know that he was Old Ganiyu, and he was not afraid anymore. It was better to let them know that he had mastered their tricks. Why, he could even take the ‘snake’ to work and show it to Kinuko, or even present it to him as compensation for his ingenious suggestion of the ‘Big Pepper’ which he had had no cause to put to use in the long run.
When he came very close to the long object, he expected it to move, for that was how the other one had moved the other time. But it remained immobile. He had the urge to pick it, but he resisted it. Better to touch it, touch it like a real man. When he touched it, it felt cold and slippery and his spine tingled with the electric sensation. So like a snake. So life-like.
He bent lower and took the object in his hands.
Ganiyu would never know how it happened. One moment, he was holding the object and the other the object was wriggling out of his hand and he was falling backwards with a frightened scream. The meaning of what had happened did not take too long to register. Ganiyu knew snakes well enough to know that the one that had just escaped from his hand was not a plastic one. He knew the sensation well enough to appreciate the fact that he had been bitten. He could not see it in the half-light, but the sharp pain was there all right in the finger where the two fangs had gone in. And then the gift of knowing turned to the fear of dying and the fear of dying took the sharp edge of a profound horror. A mamba, a king-size mamba! Kai!
He did not quite know what to do. In moments such as this, who knew exactly what to do? Ganiyu writhed confusedly between reaching for the wound with his mouth to suck out the poison, running down the street to the chemist’s shop for help, and howling like a blind maniac. But in the midst of these thoughts raged the question “But, Mighty One, what have I done?”
And now the wave of soul-churning nausea had begun. He swooned. His breathing came in gasps. The sweat poured like rain.
I know nothing about this, oh Mighty One. I know nothing. His lungs were on fire. He clutched at his chest. The swooning had intensified. He was like one in a nightmare.
Am I going to die?
The question struck him with the force of a lightning bolt. Its effect was so devastating that he swayed, tripped and fell. He lay in the dust of the galloping dusk. He lay there for a very long time, with nothing about him moving, except the wind, and the grasses which had grown lush and fresh like the hair of a mermaid in the flood season. Oh Mighty One, help me. Save me!
He managed up with tremendous effort, staggered, in spite of the devastating pain. It was strange the way he felt. Am I really going to die. From snake bite! He could hear voices. He could see the small crowd that had begun to form around him, the same way a partially blind man could. He peered. He saw children. Children. More children. He was beginning to lose total grip. He felt tiny arms on him. “Sorry… sorry…sorry”. Solicitous voices. Sympathetic voices. But a deep voice rang out clear in the midst of these tiny near, yet so faraway voices, totally drowning them, “Leave him alone, or do you want trouble?”
“He needs help”, the children’s voices chorused, defiant. “Don’t you see that he is in bad shape?”
Old Ganiyu was muttering: “Snake. Snake. I’ve been bitten by a snake”. He was still muttering this even as he lost total grip and he felt his legs giving way. Many tiny hands formed the soft pillow upon which he fell, as he still muttered, “Snake… snake”.
“Let’s carry him to the chemist’s,” the children’s voices came up. “He can be helped”.
It was like the tiny string that held him to consciousness snapped suddenly and Ganiyu found himself in a long, dark corridor that belonged to the present, yet looked like yesterday. He felt the corridor embrace him in such fierce grip that he opened his mouth for a loud scream. No sound came out. The corridor appeared to widen before his vision. As he gave a deep sigh, everything about him went totally blank, and then he knew no more…
- ‘The Snake’ is taken from the author’s unpublished collection, ‘The Walking Wounded’.