Under the dying mango tree, i glared out through tear and grit-stung eyes, choking on impotent rage as Victor and his grimy cohorts laughed and kicked the dry, cloying dust over my prone body.
Victor leaned over me, breathing noxious evidence of halitosis into my face, and laughed as i flinched in reflex anticipation of another blow, “See you! This is just a little show for you. The next time you try to form that nonsense again, i will scrape your face on the express!” With a virulent hiss and another scornful laugh, he delivered a final kick to my smarting back and left, surrounded by his prancing companions.
I coughed violently for a bit, clearing out the sand and dust from my throat, as their footsteps receded. Sitting up slowly, i wiped my streaming eyes one more time, blew my nose loudly, then lay back down, shifting my back gingerly across the stony ground. Finally giving up looking for a comfortable position, i just lay still and stared up into the ancient tree above me, pondering matters my 9-year old mind had no business dealing with. Today was a bad day.
My eyes swung away briefly from the tree’s leafy innards, distracted by a bottle-green fly probably drawn to my sweat and blood (and the distinctive smell of defeat?), but the siren call of the dry, crackling foliage drew me once again, and my gaze wandered back upward. Seemingly entranced, my focus remained thus so, even as i felt and heard the two boys approach and settle down on either side of me.
One of them hesitantly brushed at the fly and then touched my shoulder gingerly, “Imoh? Hey. How bad was it? Did he hurt your leg again?”
I remained silent, staring unblinkingly into the tree depths as a dry leaf detached itself with a brittle crack and spiralled down slowly, till a gust of wind swung it up and out of my line of sight.
“Leave him alone, Uwem,” the other boy, Aniekan, muttered sullenly. “Of course he hurt his leg. When did Victor ever NOT hurt his leg?”
I made no comment. I hardly ever did at such times. In the depths of my strangely mature mind, i knew a reply was a waste of time. It never made a difference.
Uwem leaned back and sighed. Shifting slightly, he lay down beside me and stared up into the tree with me. After a brief hesitation, i felt Aniekan stretch out gently too, though he was careful not to touch my smarting arm.
“We should tell somebody,” Uwem spoke up, as he absent-mindedly wove two strands of grass between his fingers, making one of his beautiful and intricately complex creations. His almost perpetually grass-stained fingers flew about their task like frustrated birds. “This has to end. We might really get hurt one day o.” Again, i noted his stutter was absent, as it always was, when it was just us three.
Lobbing a pebble into the tree, in what i knew was a not-so-subtle attempt to make me flinch (i didn’t), Aniekan scoffed, “Tell? Tell who? Teacher? Or your mommy? Do you want to be baptized Mommy’s Pet? If any of our parents come to school because of Victor ehn…”, he left the sentence hanging, as we all silently mulled over that awful thought.
With an excited rustle, the pebble found its way out of the tree, narrowly missing Uwem’s shoulder. He ignored it and shrugged in that loose way of his, almost a shiver, “Well, we have to do something. I’m tired of getting beat up on and having to sew ‘patch-patch’ all over my uniform at night so my mom won’t see. She still does anyway. And i’m starting to look like one of those oyinbo scarecrows!”
Aniekan grunted in his unique approximation of a chuckle and i almost smiled. Almost.
“And i don’t see why you want to let the matter lie, Ani,” Uwem continued, his tone getting more strident. “Victor beats you the worst…”
“That’s because i fight back!” Aniekan replied sharply. “Unlike you. You just cry.”
“Well, what do you expect?” Uwem retorted, in a rare show of spirit. “I’m small for my age! You know that!”
“Your brain is small for your age.” Aniekan muttered, but you could hear the grudging agreement in his voice and that almost got a smile out of me again. But i just kept on staring into the tree, as a stubborn rock seemed to work its way further into my sore back.
We were silent for a while, three 9-year olds who felt we carried the whole world on our puny shoulders. We lay there, breathing in the dry harmattan air, united in silent camaraderie as we listened to the big trucks roar past on the nearby express road, conveying granite, sand and cement from Calabar to Uyo; leaving a pall of dusty exhaust smoke and the smell of burning rubber in their wake.
After briefly enduring the suddenly ripe breeze around us, i hoisted myself to my elbows and then, quickly, to my feet. I could hear Aniekan’s grunt of amusement as both boys also got up, dusting their backsides. Uwem glared ineffectively at Aniekan.
Sighing, i wiped my legs free of sand and shook my shirt out. Some sand had worked its way into my briefs but i would have to bear that till i got to a more secluded spot. That thought brought the unfairness of it all rushing back into my mind and my throat uncontrollably closed up again. Looking at the ground, i stared my anger away and into the annoying rock which had been grinding into my back.
Kicking at it gently, i felt my anger mercifully ebb away and finally, i mumbled, “He wanted to take my ‘Ndube’.”
A brief, almost throbbing silence while they absorbed this piece of relevant information and then Uwem spluttered indignantly, “Jay-sus!! Why didn’t you just give it to him?! Those termites flock to your front yard in droves when it rains!”
Aniekan cuffed Uwem absently on the head, as he looked at me thoughtfully, “Leave him alone, Uwem. You know he’s been saving those specially for us to eat by the stream today to mark the start of the holidays. And those termites are scarce now that the harmattan’s here. Besides,” he added, as a glint of admiration entered his gaze, “Some things are worth fighting for.”
“What things? Termites?! And you guys say MY brain is small. Jay-sus!!” Uwem stalked off ahead, hissing in annoyance as Aniekan squeezed my shoulder gently.
“Its ok, Imoh. Sometimes, its good to fight back, eh?”
Patting me gently, he moved off, favoring his still-bruised shoulder, and holding his slinged arm close to his small and stocky body.
I watched them go for a moment; my friends, my brothers; then followed as i always did, aching in every joint. The old tree rustled a sibilant farewell, as in the distance, the laughter of my friends wafted back to me on the wings of the hot, dry breeze of the newly-birthed harmattan season.
I watched my friends laugh and run; Aniekan, strong-spirited, noble and brave and Uwem, gentle of soul and kind of heart. I looked on them with my far-seeing eyes and knew we were beautiful.
It had been a bad day, but the day was young. And so were we. Finally, i smiled.