Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Mahmoud's Letter.........i

In the letter Mahmoud wrote, he wanted the reader to sense the sort of man he felt he was. In the manner he described what he had seen and heard in ambitious English, he wanted the reader to know that, although, he had spent most of his life in rural Adamawa, he was a man still capable of being learned and refined. The handwriting was forced cursive, and so when one drew one’s head backwards and peered into the letter, it seemed the words were of a foreign language. Yet, the failure to sculpt events in beautiful handwriting did not deter Mahmoud from presenting the letter in the manner he felt was elegant. He had placed the letter in those air mail envelopes with streaks of red and blue across the four edges, and had presented it to my father, with his head bowed. His head remained that way while my father read the letter inwardly. After he had read the letter to himself, my father asked that I call my mother so he could then read it aloud. When my father began to read, he let Mahmoud’s words escape his mouth in a stoic tone, as though he had before hand braced himself for the daunting task of reading a letter laden with grief. The manner he read it out slowly, dragging out every word, made it seem like he was
reading an elegy. And this elegy was for my own death, because as I stood in the living room, that night, with my father reading, my brother disconcerted, my mother listening and her legs trembling, I felt that my consciousness would dissipate, vanish like ether on skin.

My family moved into our new house, before it was completed. The estate our house was located in was one of those areas in the outskirts of Port Harcourt, where land was cheap and had not been fully urbanized. There were only ten compounds in the estate, and in between them were unsold plots of land that teemed with thick, green shrubs, Yam and Pumpkin tendrils and wild Elephant grass. The road that lead to our house was unpaved, and was only a stretch of alluvium-covered ground. And so when it rained heavily, the alluvium became soggy, and would exhaust all its ability to absorb water. The road would then be flooded by a creek of coral coloured water. And for us to get to our house, my father would have to slowly drive the car, and we would have to raise our legs, as water streamed in. Sometimes, the engine would fail, after being clogged up, thick smoke would extrude from the bonnet, and we would have to walk, knee-deep, in the water to our house. On our third night in this estate, one of our neighbours had been robbed at gun-point, in his house, by thieves. It was then that my father had decided that we get two gate men.

When my mother could not swallow the fact that the roads were flooded because the gutters were not deep enough; she asked our two gate men to dig out the silt and garbage that had settled in the gutters.They followed her order. Mounds of black-brown earth with old, crumpled plastic bags in it, remained on the sides of the road when they were done. It was Mahmoud who tried to convince an unflinching Boniface that the dug-up earth would be washed back into the gutters by rain. But, Boniface did not budge; he seemed convinced that the black-brown earth would flatten itself, naturally, on the ground. They argued, until my mother settled the case, and ordered Boniface to clear out the mounds of black-brown earth, himself. It was situations like this that endeared Mahmoud to my mother.

The first sentence in Mahmoud’s letter reminded my father of the “deep and passionate reverence” he had for him and how he was “bountifully grateful” to my father agreeing to sponsor him in the university. He wrote on how he had always wished, back in Adamawa, that he could read and speak like an educated man. He wrote that he never wanted to go into the carpet-selling business that his father had, but that he wanted to be a lawyer, "a man of integrity". But these dreams of his never seemed like they would “come to past”, until he began to work for my “honourable and
with-no-doubting honest” father. After his praises for my father, Mahmoud then went on to say that he could no longer keep quiet about the things that had been happening the last few nights. When my father read this sentence out, my mother’s face livened from its former ambivalence. With her head raised, she glared at Mahmoud. She wanted to speak, most-likely demand that my father stop reading the letter and go straight into revealing the things that happened in the night. She muttered words and then my father raised his head to her, signaling that she hold her peace and listen first.

“The aim of this letter, sir, is to inform you that Boniface has done unmentionable and sinful things with someone in your family” my father read out. My elder brother, Bode, rumpled his face in suspicion. His eyes went to the guestroom, where Jumoke, my father’s younger sister, slept in. Jumoke had returned to school that afternoon. Bode then stared at Mahmud trying to see through his dignified, impenetrable look, if he had finally confirmed that Jumoke was the one tip-toeing out of the house every night. But, the hardy look persisted on Mahmoud’s face. My father read out the sentence where Mahmoud claimed that he was in a good position to see what went on in Boniface’s room at night. Mahmoud was speaking of the shack that he and Boniface
both lived in. The shack was by the gate, and it was built from planks of wood nailed and held together in some areas with cement. The shack was divided into two rooms. My father had promised the gate men, that when our house was completed, and all the finishing was done, then a boys-quarter made from bricks would be erected for them.

When my father was done reading the letter, there was silence in the room. No one
stared at the other person, but everyone’s eyes remained on the letter fluttering on the centre-table. My mother did not utter any words, but she looked like she was trying to pull together separate, puzzling thoughts like trying to stick together shreds of a torn note. And when she had finally placed the shreds together, so that they formed a whole, she stared in disbelief at this coherent whole fluttering on the table.

She erupted “Aye mi o!”-“My life!”

With her face now molded in disbelief and disgust, she demanded that someone drag Boniface to the living room to prove what Mahmoud had written in the letter. No one moved, not even Bode who initially seemed ready to go grab Boniface. Mahmoud who stood fixed at the door, only willing to move at my father’s command stayed where he was. It was only after my mother had screamed again, her voice almost guttural,
that Mahmoud hurried to go drag in Boniface.

That smile on her face was eerie in how it bordered amusement and anger. As soon as my mother saw Boniface at the door, she sprang from the sofa, and lunged at Boniface. Her finger nails struck Boniface’s cheeks. He wailed and asked, in an
incoherent and intimidated tone, what he had done wrong. His beards became matted, as blood flowed down into and coloured them maroon. Then the blood began to seep through his beards, as though liquid dripping from a sieve. The blood flowed unto his singlet, mixed with the sweat on his chest and formed an inverted, blotchy red gable.

Sometimes it seems that inanimate things can come alive, when the space they are in is sated in emotions. It is almost as if these things around us can borrow our emotions and then possess feelings of their own. My father’s stoic silence, my brother’s gnashing of his teeth and rumpling of his face, my mother’s screaming and my feeling of dying crowded the living room with too many discordant emotions, that my painting seemed to speak those things I hoped it would. My painting that my mother had finally agreed that I could hang on the living room wall now seemed to be a floating window into the life of someone. The eyes, each an hazel gem at the bottom of a sea of white, stared, curiously and entranced. Slender fingers joined as if woven together, swaddled a mouth. The deep-black hair of the young woman matched with the pitch-black of the night, as though night was a drape the person had powers to open and reveal her face in an unexcited peekaboo manner.

“We should call the police, this is rape!” my mother declared to my father, her eyes now misty.

“How long has this been going?” my father asked, turning to me.

“How long Eniola? Your father is talking to you! Wayward girl!”

“The last three nights” I said.

“Three times? You let him touch you on three occasions” my mother said, her face
looking like it would disintegrate.