Vacation

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BY MICHAEL AGUGOM

I chose to spend the long semester-break in my village for just this reason: to enjoy reading beside the flowing stream of Ogbunike Caves. It was something I had always wanted to do after I read Chike and the River, back in JSS one. Not that the story had anything about the stream or the caves in it; it simply aroused a longing in me to soak in my idyllic hometown. I was born and raised in Lagos—had never traveled beyond its boundaries. I only heard stories of Ogbunike Caves and its streams from my mother and had seen the movie Full Moon, which was shot at the caves.

To me, my hometown would be my exotic getaway. I had my opportunity while an undergrad at UNILAG.

I arrived in Ogbunike, at Aunt Nnene’s house. The town was everything I had imagined it to be: bucolic in a most alluring way. Waking up in the mornings to the tweets and coo of birds, to the morning chill, and touching raw dew on leaves were all I needed to tell me I was no longer in crazy Lagos. But four days, or so, after my arrival, I still hadn’t been to the caves much less read beside its stream: my cousins were too preoccupied with getting into trouble, and Aunt Nnene was too busy harvesting cassava to take me there.

That late afternoon, I decided I would ask my way to the caves. I was in the living-room, rummaging my bag for one of my course-required novels to take along when I looked out to the frontage and saw the men march into the compound. I heard his husky voice yelling, that’s one of them! Catch him! Go-o after him! He mustn’t escape!

I darted off, making my way through the back door. I made a zigzag manoeuvre of the small bush at the backyard; burrowed through a narrow thick path; came out to a broad foot-path; and dashed into the big-bush. There were three of them, and a man in mufti: the three were policemen, the one in mufti was Nna-Emi, owner of the dead goats. He charged the policemen after me. Aunt Nnene’s bungalow faced the open road; it has an expansive frontage; she neither had gates nor fences like many new buildings in the village; the central living-room door opened like palace gates to the street; and the worn out curtain, torn in-between, swayed to the evening breeze—I was glad I could see them in time for me to escape.

Get that rascal! He mustn’t get away! Go after him, Nna-Emi bellowed further and I could hear their feet obeying.

Obidi was returning from the farm. He’s my cousin. He had gone to set traps for bush meat. When he saw me tearing into the thicket, he opened his mouth to ask; I didn’t wait for him to ask. All I did was let out a sort of yowl, Police! between panting breath. And he got the message. He dropped his hunting tools, joined me, and fled.

That one too, get them both, Nna-Emi shouted.

Obidi dashed right, I went left. It divided our chasers into two groups. That made the escape easier. The two policemen, hard on my heels, had poor knowledge of the thicket. I manoeuvred so well, navigating the thickest and most dangerous spots. In no time, I was well out of their sight. I had been in the place a few times to help Aunt Nnene harvest cassava. There was a mango tree. Under a different circumstance, it would have taken me painstaking effort to climb it: I haven’t learnt to be a monkey like other boys in the village. But that evening I climbed her seamlessly and faster than a monkey would as though it was a guava tree. I perched on the nearest branch with more shades. And there, had my breather. If I had gone any further into the big-bush I would have been lost. The only sound I heard momentarily was my own panting; it was ferocious, as though an unseen hand was tugging at my chest and rib cages to tear them apart.

From the safe branch I could hear the policemen, a few feet behind. Their voices came as whispers, cursing in dismay. They retreated. I was relieved. But my relief was short-lived. Just as I was relishing the safety and recovery from the spontaneity of the entire drama, I noticed a glistening sinuous movement from the other branch of the tree. It was a viper—huge! It was gracefully advancing towards me. It was with the seamless effort it took me to get on the tree that it took me to get off it. I covered a good distance before I sat on an outcrop on the farm road and rested. I lumbered home more apprehensive than enervated.

Now this was the thing. I hadn’t done anything wrong that would warrant for my head by the police, at least that’s how I saw it. But I had to make that run. You don’t have to be a culprit, a suspect, a anything for you to be arrested. You just have to be innocent and stupid enough to be at the scene of an arrest. The police as we knew them didn’t go anywhere for arrest and return empty-handed, it infuriated them more than the offence or crime committed. Truth is: arrests put money in their pockets.

Obidi was skulking behind the outhouse when I returned to the house. He had the look of a squirrel about to cross a narrow path. We knew why Nna-Emi brought policemen to the house. It had to do with the dead goats. They had come to arrest Lambface and those whose hands were tied to the two dead goats. I wasn’t sure whether my hand was in it too. And I still thought Nna-Emi mistook me for Obidi when he charged the policemen after me. My involvement in the matter was at a point I felt it was safe to play a role. I feared if I was counted among them then my place in my aunt’s heart would be ruined. She saw me as a lamb, unlike the wolves she had as children.

Lambface was not at home at the time the policemen came. Wherever he was he must be aware policemen had been to the house: he always had his ears close to the ground. I figured the police wouldn’t stop coming until they made an arrest. I lamented, oh God! I saw this coming! I had premonitions about those goats! For God’s sake I was supposed to visit the cave, that’s why I came home in the first place, not this madness—

Don’t be ridiculous, Obidi snickered, I thought university boys were more adventurous.

You call this adventure?

You’re spineless! Anyway, they won’t return today. Let’s go find Uncle Lambface.

Lambface is elder brother to Obidi. His birth-name is Udoka, but hardly anyone remembered him by that. He was nicknamed Lambface because he had the mind of a wolf and the face of a lamb. The only person that still called him Udoka was Aunt Nnene, his mother. We added uncle because of the wide age gap between him and us. He’s the first child of Aunt Nnene from her lady-adventures before she got married—so I heard. Obidi is her first son from her marriage. And she wasn’t married until about nine years after Lambface was born. Obidi was born a day before me which doesn’t make him my senior as he tended to think.

Lambface had always been a wolf. It was told that a few months after he was born, one day he suddenly stopped breathing, throwing everyone into panic. All effort to resuscitate him failed. When everyone had given up, thinking he was dead, he resumed breathing again. Just like that. And giggled.

The evening I arrived in Ogbunike he took a policeman’s motorbike right from the man’s doorpost unseen. The policeman had to trot from house to house the following morning threatening he’d use otumokpo, spell, on the person that stole his bike if it wasn’t returned. Lambface was unfazed by the threat. We, Obidi and I, had to beg him to return the bike: we’d seen him the night before steal into the house with a bike, but we couldn’t tell where he got it from until the policeman made his threat.

How useless can the police be? Lambface retorted, he can’t even find his bike by intelligence work. Make him use him charm, I dey wait for-am!

Aunt Nnene walked in on us in the heart of the conversation. And it didn’t take her any effort to make sense of the subject. The rest was settled: If Lambface dreaded anything, it was that his mother should come in the way of his matter with anybody, she ruins the taste of it for him—what she wasn’t aware of made a good caper. Later that evening, he returned the motorbike to the policeman’s doorpost. The policeman never learnt who took the bike much less how it came back. He went about bragging that his threat worked; and that he indeed would have carried out the threat had the motorbike not been returned.

The night before the policemen came. There were noises. Stamping hooves from the backyard and loud bleating. It wasn’t unusual. The noise came from goats: their nocturnal meeting place was at Aunt Nnene’s backyard. The shallow well at the backyard was covered with sheets of zinc. Not really a well; a reservoir: it collects rainwater channelled into it from all sides of the building’s eaves. These goats would mount the well and begin to stamp their feet excitedly. Aunt Nnene had once complained to the two goatherds in the kindred to keep their animals in their pen at night. But nothing seemed to come out of the complaint. We suffered their disturbance up till that night.

Lambface, Obidi and I were the only ones in the house when the goats began their nocturnal torture. Aunt Nnene attended a wake-keep. Unlike before, the goats’ bleating came stronger and more determined, forcing us to wake up.

May thunder strike those goats! And their owners, Lambface bawled.

He had hardly finished his curse when the zinc ripped and rustled, followed by spattering thuds and splash. The walls of the well threw echoes of it while the silent night made a storm of it around the house. We jumped out of bed and dashed to the backyard. Lambface pointed his torch and there they were: two poor things in the well bleating in fear, their heads came up at intervals above the water. Lambface’ excitement shone like the moon above us. God don catch them today, he said.

We have to help them out, I said.

Obidi nodded his head feebly in agreement.

Why, so they’d return tomorrow night again? Lambface retorted.

They’re drowning, I said, if we don’t do something they will die in there and—

We’re not doing any such thing. Are you plain stupid? For how long now have these animals been causing us sleepless nights? Who knows if they’re not witches and wizards! They have met their waterloo today. . . Lambface went on and on. He maintained that the goats and their owners deserved this. He insisted we leave them there to drown. And we did. We returned when the bleating stopped. Lambface already had a plan and gave instructions. We fetched a ladder and lowered it into the well. He went in and fetched the goats one at a time. On examining the goats, he was not satisfied they came out with the appearance he desired for his plan. He bid me fetch a knife from the outhouse kitchen. And with it he made adroit stripe cuts on the goats, making them look repulsive. When he was done, he stood awhile relishing his handwork. Alright, he said, let’s go in. We’ll inform the owner when day breaks fully.

Daybreak. From the colour of the pieces of cloth tied around the goats’ necks it was easy to tell whom they belonged to. So we went to fetch Nna-Emi in the morning. He came with us. His face fell when he saw his goats. Lambface observed Nna-Emi stand there awhile glowering at the remains of his labour without uttering a word, and I observed a smirk stand somewhere on the edge of Lambface’ left cheek: everything was going according to his plans. When Nna-Emi did say something, it was in an outburst. I hadn’t anticipated it.

But you could have saved them before they got drowned, or at least call me—

You could have kept them on the leash rather than let them come out here to constitute nuisance every night, Lambface fired back in the same measure of tone.

And silent animosity hovered over us for a while. Nna-Emi must have sensed the futility of transferring his irritation on us, or had a different thought, it seemed, for he broke the silence calmly, but you know they’re animals with no sense.

Then next time the senseless animals should be kept on the leash by the sensible so you wouldn’t look for whom to heap blames on when they choose the wrong sensible humans to disturb at night, Lambface said, maintaining his tone. By the way, what are you going to do with them now? Dispose them I guess. We could save you the trouble by doing that immediately before they begin to go mouldy.

Nna-Emi gave him a stern look but said nothing more. And walked away. Lambface was beside himself with joy: he thought his plan had worked. He was reeling out instructions on what we were going to do with the goats, how we’d dissect them, sell some, roast some, and blah-blah-blah, when Emi, Nna-Emi’s first son, rode into our compound on a wiggly bicycle. Lambface had a crushed look. What? He bawled.

The dead goats, our goats, Emi demanded.

What’s your father going to do with dead goats? It was more an outburst than a question.

I don’t think it’s your business what he does with his goats, dead or alive.

You people are miserable.

Emi ignored him, scooped the dead goats onto the back carrier of his bicycle, tied them to it firmly, and rode off.

Now, that would have been the end of the dead-goat matter had Lambface not been a wolf. A few hours later, he wheedled me into taking a walk with him. The walk was around Nna-Emi’s property. My mind had been off the dead goats at the time but obviously his wasn’t. Not yet. As though to bless his intention for going there, Nna-Emi’s last son, a boy of about ten, rolled a rusty bicycle wheel by us casually. Lambface entreated for knowledge of the dead goats, so what did your father do with the dead goats?

He buried them, the boy said innocently.

What!

He buried them.

How could he bury them?

The little boy gawked at him, apparently confused at the question.

Oh! Never mind. So-o, do you know where he buried them?

The boy took us there. Lambface’ excitement returned anew. He gave the boy 20 naira, and made him promise not to tell his father about the little chat. The boy left with his wheel and an indifferent look.

Wicked man, Lambface fumed. Imagine! Good kilos of meat going to waste! We’ll dig up the goats.

What?

You heard me.

I objected. When we got home I made it clear that I wasn’t going to be part of that, buried goats should be left buried. But Lambface wouldn’t relent. He went on to water our thoughts with sweet words; how much sales we could make from the meat and the quantity we’d have for barbecue. He assured us it wasn’t a crime. Despite his efforts at convincing us, I remained adamant on going with him. Obidi did.

They sneaked into Nna-Emi’s property and dug up the goats. In the goats place they lay two cut-out plantain stems and covered the supposed grave. And they returned triumphant.

I was certain whatever troubles the dead goats could bring would be at the point of digging them up. Since that part had been executed adroitly what followed shouldn’t be of any consequence. We cut the goats up and sold some parts to a few women who didn’t seem bothered to question how we got goat-meat, provided they came below market price. Only one of the women asked. If you’re more interested in how the meat came than the good price we offer you, you can take your money to the market, woman, Lambface had retorted. The woman gave up and bought. We left our belly-size and made ourselves barbecue. Lambface bought some kegs of palm-wine and few bottles of beer. We mixed the drinks and sat to a little jollity. And I thought that was the end.

The moon glared arrogantly, and the stars were vivacious on a timid purple sky when Obidi and I made our way to St. Peter’s. Obidi led the way. He had a small torch to augment the moonlight where shadow was cast by tree shades. The ambience of the parish compound shared semblance with the serenity of a graveyard; I wasn’t sure Obidi knew what he was doing, bringing us to this solitary place to find Lambface.

How can you be sure we will find him here, I asked, there is no life here.

Patience. You just can’t hold yourself sometimes.

St. Peter’s was a small church building that hardly could hold a congregation of 100. It was a crude mud-house with a few low windows on both sides. We skulked to the head of the church, so the catechist whose house wasn’t far off wouldn’t be awoken. All the doors to the building were locked from outside; the windows, from inside. I followed Obidi round a bend to the entrance that led to the sacristy which could open up to the altar. He tapped on the left window to the door but it didn’t move. He repeated and pulled, and the window came ajar. It opened to the altar.

I was fidgety, what are you doing? It’s the altar we are climbing into.

Just be quiet.

Obidi, this is God’s house we are stealing into.

Yes. But we’re not taking anything from Him; we are just looking for Uncle, he should be hiding under His refuge, in His fortress, he said with a slice of jest in his tone. Are you going to keep whining or keep quiet so we find Uncle without being caught?

You’re insane.

He climbed into the sacristy. I followed. He manoeuvred his way around the altar. I followed. And into the church. At first, there was no sign of a soul inside the church. Obidi’s torch wasn’t on. Save for rays of moonlight that oozed into the church through cracks and through openings on the window-base to give an outline of the interior, the church was ink dark.

There is nobody here, I said. The echoes of my own voice startled me. Let’s get out of here. I whispered. Eeriness overwhelmed me. I felt as though we were besmirching a holy ground and for a second I forgot why we were in the church.

Obidi whispered, he’s here.

Of course God is here.

Who’s talking about God, Uncle, I mean.

Who is there? Obidi, is that you? came Lambface’ voice.

Obidi turned on his torch in the direction of the voice and there, Lambface was crawling out behind the last pew like a rat.

Yes, Uncle. Uche and I, Obidi said.

Jesus! Stupid boys. You gave me a scare.

We sauntered closer to him.

We will pitch our tent here for the night, Lambface said.

What! In this place? I cried. I hadn’t thought of it.

Yes, in this place, in God’s house, or would you rather go back to the house and get arrested? Lambface said. This is the best place to hide, in the refuge of the Lord, don’t you think.

Obidi, you said the police won’t return today? I demanded.

We can’t be sure of that, Lambface offered, we can’t take chances. Those bastards are unpredictable.

I was uncomfortable. I haven’t been comfortable with whatever they thought as fun. At that point I wanted to return to Lagos, to campus, anywhere but here. The day I arrived in Ogbunike, and told my cousins what I really wanted to do while here, they made it clear that those were fantasies for girls. Though they promised to take me to the cave but they hadn’t been enthusiastic about it much less me reading at the place. The village isn’t meant for that nonsense, they insisted, the village is to sharpen you into a man, not lazing under a tree with novels and poems, you couldn’t be a man reading those nonsense, man up! And I was tempted to give their perspective some thought but the thought didn’t last longer than few seconds. Now, stealing a man’s goat; running from the police; and, or passing the night in decrepit church building wasn’t my idea of countryside adventure, or manning up. I felt stuck in the village; I still had 20 more days to stay. And if this whole drama went bad I might as well be spending those days and more in a police cell. If my vacation here was a soup it had already gone sour.

Obidi began to make a joke of how I ran from the police and they laughed. I found nothing to laugh to. I couldn’t understand how this was fun. They had no care in the world, and that their mother could be arrested didn’t seem worrisome to them. I worried.

And Aunt Nnene? I queried.

She’s not returning tonight, Obidi said.

This only allayed my fears temporarily. And tomorrow, what happens?

There was a brief deafening silence mixed with loud uncertainties at this, silence of flies dancing at the song of burning firewood, silence of the flies getting carried away and getting burnt in the fire.

Tomorrow will take care of herself. She’s pregnant and I know she’ll have a baby boy, Lambface reassured me. That was his way of saying good fortunes await us. If he had said tomorrow will give birth to a baby girl then that would have implied bad fortune.

For God’s sake! Who takes a man to the police over buried goats? Dead goats! I erupted. I couldn’t hold it any longer, didn’t know how else to blow off some steam over the entire drama.

An angry man. A man who has jus’ los’ two goats, if you consider his total number of goats. And for God’s sake keep your voice down! Obidi retorted. And that silence returned.

We took separate pews and made ourselves as comfortable as we could make out of the place. The biting cold, the tortures cries of night crawlers, and fear made it a long long night.

In the morning, we left the church for our farm. It was agreed that I go home to ascertain the state of affairs. I didn’t get home to confirm my fears.

You bloody rascals! You’ve succeeded in getting that poor woman into police palaver. . .over dead goats! What kind of children do the gods give us these days? If I still had my strength I would have come after you with this cutlass and cut your head off! Bloody rascal! Where are your accomplices, are they in that bush? Even you that just came from the city you are no different from those two miscreants. That what they teach you in the university? Tufia! This was Diopka. The oldest man in the village. He was trudging to his farm. I ran into him at the foot-path. I didn’t wait to hear more.

The news of the entire incident had made a round of the village. I was greatly disturbed and furious and afraid. It was pointless going home. I had a tormenting thought that Obidi and Lambface would have disappeared before I returned to the bush if they somehow get wind of their mother’s arrest. If that happened I‘d have to suffer for their sins. So, I darted off, back to the bush.

There was a mild derangement in the bush as I tore into it. Obidi and Lambface took to their heels the moment they saw me tearing and shouldering menacingly through the thickets. My feet caught tweed, I stumbled, regained my balance, and continued behind them. From the look of the scene, you would think I was chasing them. I called out to them, it’s just me.

Jesus! What’s wrong with you? Lambface bawled.

We stopped and sat for a while to recover our breath. Our panting was rhythmical.

Aunty has been arrested, I said. I anticipated a surprised or disappointed look but got none. Lambface only stared at me momentarily and got up and said, I’m going to the station.

I’m going with you, if he wants apology, we’d offer it. That should end this matter once and for all, Obidi seconded.

I’ll only apologise because of mother, Lambface added, he didn’t want the meat. And he won’t allow us have it. I didn’t kill his goats and I didn’t send them on night meetings. As a matter of fact he also owes us apology. His goats have damaged our well-covers. Uche, go home and—

I am coming with you guys, I said. I figured I was already part of it now and wouldn’t want to be seen as a coward.

The policemen in the station had different looks. Some looked haggard with faded and worn out uniforms. The black of their uniform made it unclear which was even clean. They all looked dirty. We made our way to the counter. Aunt Nnene’s outburst from behind the counter turned the attention of everyone on us. She hurled curses on Lambface for bringing her trouble.

‘Madam, this no bi your house-o! One of the constables threatened her. Shut up! Allow us hear word, otherwise I go throw you inside cell now.

Another officer, the one that would be in charge of our case came in from an adjourning office and took charge of the air. He introduced himself later as Abdul. He was a tall lanky fellow with a scar on his face. After he asked who amongst us is Lambface, Aunt Nnene pointed him out and Lambface was dragged behind the counter while Aunt Nnene was allowed out. She began pleading for her son’s release as though she had just betrayed her son for pointing him out. Officer please this can be resolved—

I’m not a thief, Lambface shouted as one of the constables smacked his face.

Shut up! If I hear fiam you go smell your nyash! Yeye! Why you run if you no bi thief? the constable fired.

Are those the remaining goat-thieves? Abdul gestured towards Obidi and I. Without waiting for an answer, he ordered us to join Lambface behind the counter.

I froze where I stood, panting.

No! My aunt screamed to my rescue. Uche isn’t involved; he’s just a university boy here on vacation. She held me back while Obidi was dragged in and my panting eased.

Lambface was asked to write down a statement. Nna-Emi was sent for. He came with his last son and the woman-buyer who asked us where we got the goat-meat from; she happened to be one of Nna-Emi’s mistresses as I learnt from Aunt Nnene later. We were calmly astonished. Nna-Emi had given his own statement.

And Abdul began deliberation, saying to Lambface, there is an allegation in Oga Nna-Emi’s statement that you deliberately drowned his goats hoping that he will find no use for them—

I didn’t. My brother and cousin here will attest to this, Lambface countered. I didn’t drown his goats. Those goats have been a menace to us until yesterday—

Officer, it’s true. Those goats always come at night to pounce on the covering of my well, Aunt Nnene added.

You didn’t report the matter here, did you? Abdul said, more in a rebuking tone than a question.

No officer. Aunt Nnene’s face fell.

Abdul looked at his wrist watch and began to speak hurriedly. His attention was more on establishing if the goats were stolen. He called forward Nna-Emi‘s son and asked him to identify who offered him money to know where the goats were buried. The boy pointed at Lambface and was quick to add that I was with Lambface. I prayed that the earth under my feet should part and swallow me. It didn’t. If being there was a crime Abdul did not tread that path rather he jumped to find out who the boy saw dig up the goats. Nna-Emi’s mistress corroborated the story with her tale of buying cheap goat meat from us. And Abdul gave his verdict, junta style. He insisted Lambface and Obidi be remanded in the cell until twice the cost of the goat is refunded to Nne-Emi together with a 10,000 naira cell-charge. At this verdict, Lambface opened his mouth to protest but was hushed by another smack across his face.

Madam, thank Oga Nna-Emi here he didn’t ask for the matter to be taken to court, Abdul said, it would have been worst. And, you, university boy, count yourself lucky I’m happy today. He walked back into his office.

Aunt Nnene stood there glowering at her sons as they were dragged through a corridor to one of the cells. She turned to me and said, You’re returning to Lagos first thing tomorrow morning.


Michael Agugom was born in Nigeria. He had a stint as TV presenter and producer. His short fiction has appeared in Capra Review, Referential Magazine, Courtship of Wind and forthcoming in Queer Africa II.

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