An excerpt from the novel by Ewa Gerald Onyebuchi
It was supposed to be a chuckle. But Kanayo could not manage it—the laughter that boiled in the pit of his stomach, travelling up his chest and flaring through his veins. Before he realized himself, a loud, vicious sound erupted from his lips. Audu, the reason for his outburst, had already straightened up, knees firm against the cold linoleum floor. From the left corner of the spacious room, Fr. Moses Ojomo, who also doubled as the school’s principal, held sway in a swinging chair behind a desk made from pure hardwood, book in hand. Looking up from the book, his gaze rested on them.
“Who was that?” He growled. “Who did that?” His eyebrows were deeply furrowed behind those thick-rimmed glasses that presented him like Kanayo’s father. If not for a forehead duly accentuated from the rest of his features, Kanayo would have mistaken him at that moment for his father.
He gulped down balls of phlegm as Fr. Moses rose from his chair, his forehead contorted in a broken circuit of veins splayed out as though seeking freedom from his face. Strutting forward he held a long three-pronged whip and cracked it against the leg of the desk.
Kanayo swallowed more spittle until he felt a sharp sting at the back of his throat. He scanned the length of the whip. Its puffy body bore close resemblance to the koboko his father hid at a corner in his study. Before the arrival of koboko his father wielded a belt—an accessory he always wore around his trousers belt loops and rolled it out with an accustomed ease—on them each time they broke one of his bucket lists of dos and don’ts. Each time he descended on them, their mother would stomp out of where ever she was to kneel before him, hands clasped in a prayer mood, begging him to have a change of heart. But he wouldn’t listen. And then this would go on and on until one day he flung the belt at Chimezie, Kanayo’s elder brother, aiming for his chest. Instead, taking a different route, the buckle met his eye. Chimezie fell to the floor, clutching a bleeding eye.
Koboko wasn’t something they could break, although flexible. The least Kanayo and his siblings could do—though he was sometimes the last to agree to this plan for fear of being caught—was to keep kobokoaway from their father, stashed from his reach. Yet, no matter where they hid koboko, his father always found it.
Fr. Moses snapped, shooting his eyes at them, and Kanayo could barely recognize him. This man who sometimes visited his parents in the evenings at Itakpe, and his mother would plead with him to stay a little longer while she wrapped up with dinner. Even his father joined his voice with hers, pleading with him to stay for dinner, until Fr. Moses reneged on his decision saying, “Prof, it’s because of you and madam o. If it’s any other parishioner, I won’t even agrhisee to stay behind.” He crouched in the middle of two arm chairs and watched them— father and Fr. Moses—staring intently at the TV, laughing and cheering as Undertaker flipped Tripple H over in a bid to smack his head on the ring. He was lost in that brief moment of shared euphoria.
Kanayo stole a quick glance at Audu who was busy picking at his nails and moving his head sideways, as though he was swaying to a melody he alone could hear. Unperturbed. He felt a slender pang of jealousy towards Audu, this boy who could slide in and out of character. Audu who pranced about with an air of pride in himself, in his gross ability to defy stipulated rules and regulations. Audu who had eyes and ears everywhere; a boy who wasn’t scared to walk shoulder to shoulder with his seniors, fist-bumping them at will. Audu was always in the company of bad boys. The sort of boys who smoked joint at hidden corners of the dormitory and classrooms until their eyes were flushed red, and soon he began to puff a stick or two like them and pick on other junior students.
Kanayo could not bring himself to say Audu was the reason for the outburst. How could he tell Fr. Moses that Audu had been twerking moments ago and licking his index finger as though he were giving someone a blow job. He couldn’t betray his friend. Yes, his friend. That was what Kanayo regarded him. A friend. Or maybe there was more. Audu had grown to occupy a soft spot in Kanayo’s heart but sometimes, he doubted his place in Audu’s life. He could not help but worry that the thread of friendship between them—if it was actually there—was slowly coming undone. It seemed to him that he was the only person holding unto it, clinging to its frayed edges like a birth right while Audu’s own end remained lax as though he was barely making an effort. He noticed the laxity between them in class each time Audu rose from the middle of a discussion and strolled to the rear of the class to be with his guys. Sometimes, Kanayo wondered if what Audu felt for him was love or hate or just admiration. Once, when a student said something nasty and the entire class broke into a raucous laughter, the teacher on duty roared, who was that? And within a nanosecond, Audu shouted, it was Kanayo, sir. Of course, he was flogged that day by the teacher who kept twisting his face as though somebody had stepped on his toes as he lashed Kanayo’s back with the dongoyaro stick. Kanayo had cried that hot afternoon. Not as a result of the darts of pain that shot right through him, but mostly because of Audu, who slouched into his chair, his face wrapped in a tranquil silence.
During break time, Kanayo found himself pleading with Audu to stay a little while with him under the mango tree behind their classroom, to let him snuggle up to him. Audu was always in a haste to leave, to be somewhere else. Standing up to leave, he would say, don’t worry, babes, I’d be right back, ok. Still, he never returned.
There were moments Kanayo thought he was over doing things. Perhaps, he needed to take things slowly with Audu, one of the most sought-after male students in school. The fact that he was everyone’s guy left Kanayo hollowed with sadness. He wished he was the only guy in Audu’s life. The only reason for the smile grazing his face—even this, he knew was selfish.
Fr. Moses cracked his whip. “You think I am joking here?” He glanced back and forth between Kanayo and Audu and then back to Kanayo immediately, as though if his eyes lingered on Audu they would fall off. Kanayo felt a gnawing pain around his knees but he couldn’t afford to lean on anything, couldn’t bring his hands down to his side, else Fr. Moses pounced on him like a lion. If not for Jerry, that stupid class captain who had included him on the noise maker’s list, he wouldn’t be here right now, in this cold room while class was going on. While it wasn’t astonishing to find Audu on the list since he was a regular customer of nuisance, the annoying part was that they were the only culprits on that list. How possible? What game did Jerry play? Even with both eyes closed, Kanayo could reel off the names of the other students guilty of disturbing the class.
Fr. Moses should flog them already, he was tired of kneeling on this floor. Since he started this school a year ago, this was the first time he would be punished by the principal, though he had heard stories of how Fr. Moses dealt ruthlessly with boys who fell into his black books.In addition to flogging, he compelled the students to either wash the toilets behind the senior blocks or clear the school farm flooded with thickets of stubborn grass.
He drew nearer until a single stroke of the cane separated them from him. Kanayo cracked his knuckles, preparing himself for what was coming. Which side would Fr. Moses prefer? His palms or his buttocks? He could afford to take the strokes on his palms or any other portions of his body but definitely not his buttocks. He wouldn’t be able to sit for days. Shooting the whip at him, Fr. Moses said, “Kanayo Ugwu, Son of Professor Charles Ugwu, my good friend. Hmm… I pity you. You know why?” It wasn’t a question begging for an answer, Kanayo sensed. Pushing the glasses back from the bridge of his nose, he droned on. “Continue following this one, this riffraff.” He poked Audu’s face with the whip.
“I beg leave me jor,” Audu snarled, shoving the cane from his cheek. “If you injure me, you go take me go hospital o.”
His eyes stood out in disbelief; his mouth was curved in a wide o. “Did you just open that thing you call a mouth to talk to me like that?” He shot Audu a red-hot gaze that could set a house ablaze. But that was it. He did not raise a finger at him.
“Sometimes, I wonder who you resemble in your family.” He was tapping the whip on his palm, scrunching his nose. “Your father is a good man, and your mother so respectful and hardworking. But you… you are a complete buffoon.”
If asked to explain how he did it, how he was able to contain the hot laughter burning in his guts for as long as it took to kill the flames, Kanayo would say it was a miracle.
“Keep fooling yourself,” Fr. Moses added. “You know this is your second year in JSS 3 (Junior Secondary School three)? Your mates are all in SS1 (Senior Secondary).” Almost immediately, he felt a pang of guilt festering in his chest. He shouldn’t have tried to laugh at Audu. Laughing at someone’s failure wasn’t the best thing to do. He hadn’t repeated a class in his entire life and he couldn’t imagine himself repeating one, starting all over again, from scratch. After his mother, who had survived a lot from the hands of his father—those sudden bouts of rage that carved a map of sores on her body, accompanied by his silences, his refusal to speak to her, to eat her food—Audu was perhaps another resilient person in his life. How was he able to nurse the shame and mental torture of being in the same class for a whole session with his successors—boys and girls he had once jeered at and bullied for the fun of it—while his mates transitioned to a new class? Perhaps, Audu was feeling bad at himself right now. Yet, he couldn’t tell. Audu’s expression could pass for both sadness and non-chalance.
At once Fr. Moses turned to Kanayo. Snorting, he pushed a hand into the pocket of his white cassock and pulled out a bone-white handkerchief to blow his nose. Kanayo allowed himself to be distracted by Fr. Moses’ office. Bright showers of the midday sun were blocked behind thick curtains with floral prints. On the wall beside a rectangular shaped air conditioner, hung three large portraits: the Pope, Benedict XVI, a chubby-faced man dressed in a white vestment, the Bishop Lokoja Diocese, Most Reverend Dr. Martins Olorunmolu, and a smiling Rev Fr. Moses, arranged next to each other in order of hierarchy. Beside a table crammed with books and a big black bible at the edge, stood a wardrobe plastered to the wall, revealing a handful of coloured vestments. There was this huge painting of our mother of perpetual succor that caught his eyes. It was propped against the wall at a corner of the room surrounded by a row of lit white candles. In the portrait, a woman wearing a veil wrapped a small child in her arms, a flaming-gold hallow looped over his head. Flagging her on both sides were angelic beings wearing the same loop-shaped hallows above their heads. The painting was the exact replica of the one in his father’s study.
He had first stumbled upon it while cleaning the study. His father was standing a few meters away as he swept the floor and dusted the cushion by the window. His eyes met the portrait. He stared at it for a while, enthralled by its simplistic beauty and an air of calm as the child is swaddled in the arms of the mother. “It is a Byzantine icon,” his father quipped. “Eh,” Kanayo said, scratching his head. “You heard me right.” His father droned on about the painting, how much of an ancient relic it was. Most of the words slid out of his mind like thawing ice; they were so complex they made little sense to him. Still, he listened. He enjoyed moments like this, moments when they found a common ground with the quotidian, when his father regaled him with stories about the Biafran war, about America, about other historical events. Yet, the only thing he was able to detach from his father’s epistle was that the portrait became an object of worship once it was discovered by a group of archeologists many centuries later and many miracles were wrought through it upon its veneration.
“Do you know whose son you are?” Fr. Moses’ razor-sharp voice cut through his thoughts. “Of course, you know the reason your father brought you to this school. Do you know he would be disappointed if he found out that you have not changed? In fact, he would be devastated to know you now hang out with this boy, this never-do-well.” He eyed Audu.
“After leaving your class few hours ago, you and this f… Lord have mercy on me.” He made the sign of the cross on his forehead. “Both of you had the guts to disturb the class. Initially, when I got the reports that you now hang out with this boy, I thought they were all lies. Based on his past records, Kanayo wasn’t that stupid, I had thought. But now, you’ve proved me wrong.”
Kanayo’s mind became a rollercoaster of thoughts. What did father Moses hear about him and Audu? Did they include those cryptic moments he had curled up under the blanket beside Audu, fiddling with the hairs on his legs in the cover of darkness? Was he aware of the evening he had skipped mass just to be with Audu under the cashew tree behind the junior hostel, to hear him rant about life? In that split moment Kanayo had caught a different Audu, the part of him that was a stalk of tenderness both in words and in the way he ran his fingers down the gentle plain of Kanayo’s face. He was enthralled by Audu as he puffed a blunt, his face partially veiled in perfect rings of smoke.
Fr. Moses did not divulge what he was told, and Kanayo prayed silently that he wouldn’t tell his father. He closed his eyes and stretched his right hand, waiting for the full weight of the whip to land on his palm; but to his surprise, Fr. Moses did not raise the cane against him. Instead, he reminded him again the reason his father had brought him to St. Harmony’s College without stating the specifics. “Remember the reason you came here in the first place. A word is enough for the wise.” He dismissed them. But Kanayo saw something in his eyes, something dark as he shook his head at him, and this would stay with him for a long time.
Now, they were out of the cold breath of the room, but delivered into the blazing underbelly of the sun. And Kanayo had been transformed into a different person. A creature imbued with fury, whose pace Audu struggled to keep up with. When he called out to him, catching sight of a handful of mostly senior boys in cream-coloured long-sleeved shirt and blue trousers, loitering on the corridor of their hostels, Kanayo did not halt on his track. The bell for siesta must have been jiggled, Audu thought, sidestepping the puddle in front of him. Kanayo did not turn around when he called his name the umpteenth time. It was strange. Kanayo wasn’t the sort of person to get angry this much. Perhaps, it had something to do with what that stupid Priest said. But the man had also lurched some vile words at him, so it couldn’t be the reason he was enraged. It was obvious the priest knew quite a lot about Kanayo and his family. Whatever relationship that existed between them, he was grateful for it. At least, it saved him from been flogged by that old man.
Yet, there was something odd about Kanayo’s outrage. He could sense it in the heaviness with which Kanayo’s feet came down on the concrete-lined pathway, as he squeezed through the maze of ixora and hibiscus plants bordering the narrow walkway leading to the Junior boys’ hostel. It was in the heartless manner with which Kanayo yanked off the purple heads of the plumeria plants beside the tank.
What could be the actual reason for this new found rage? He wondered as he clambered onto the elevated slab of concrete leading up to the hostel’s main door. Maybe, it had something to do with the last thing Fr. Moses said. What did the man mean by the reason Kanayo was brought to the College by his father? What could that possibly be? He would find the answers to these questions roaring in his head.