Join us at the Pagya Literary Festival as we launch the print version of our “Kenkey for Ewes and Other Very Short Stories” anthology.
Join us at the Pagya Literary Festival as we launch the print version of our “Kenkey for Ewes and Other Very Short Stories” anthology.
The beggar put his bowl on the pavement, there weren’t any coins to shake and his throat was too parched for begging. He adjusted the rags that covered his unkempt hair from the raging sun and tried to make his shadow one with that of the traffic light indicator he leaned on. He had been here for four years, and knew every pavement on the street. He watched the people walk past him, smelling of sweat and whatever perfume they used to try to fight the consequences of the midday heat.
Business suits, jeans, calf-length sundresses. All of them seemed to quicken their pace oh so slightly when they neared him and their eyes just glanced at him flicked back forward, staying that way until they were well beyond him. It wasn’t yet time for people to close from work so the steady flow of cars down the road didn’t result in anything more than a few irritated blowing of car horns when a driver didn’t move quickly enough when the lights showed green.
He decided to try again.
“Obaahemaa me pawokyɛw kyɛ me twenty pesewas ma mentɔ nsuo wae”
Said woman in her floral print sundress switched on her selective blindness and walked past him.
“Abrantie ma me sika tɔ nsuo na Nyame be hyira wo”
“Obi ntɔ nsuo ma me na Nyame be hyira wo”
After awhile he gave up. No one was paying attention to him. He decided to pass the time instead by trying to recall what he knew of his would have been deliverers from thirst. There was Fred who worked in some bank and was flirting with one of his co-workers. He hadn’t taken things too far, since he was actually content with his wife and kids. Maame Adwoa, Miss Sundress, didn’t have any such scruples. There were several sugar daddies who kept her very happy. The only reason she didn’t drive around in a car was so her actual fiancé who she’d lived with for three years wouldn’t be suspicious. He wondered when she’d find out she had contracted HIV. Not too long he surmised, she didn’t exactly live the healthiest lifestyle. There was also Joe, who used expensive perfume to hide his halitosis and the fact that he smoked several packs of cigarettes a day and got drunk on weekends. And Marie, and Esi, Boateng and so on.
Throughout the day the beggar amused himself by attaching a life to a face. It was when he heard the giggling that he picked up his battered ceramic bowl again.
“Nkɔla boa me wae na me hia twenty pesewas de atɔ nsuo.”
Most of the children on their way back from school ignored him too, some however looked at him with that mixture of scorn and fascination scorn children are wont to give people in his situation.
Ping! A one cedi coin fell into his tin cup. It was a little girl, a bit younger than the others. She had her hair in pigtails and her uniform looked like it belonged to a private school. Their uniforms were always more colourful, if not nicer.
“Thank you, may God bless you.”
The girl continued to stare at him until he became uncomfortable. He was about to push his luck and ask for more money when an older girl, probably a sister grabbed her away. The poor girl received a few spanks on the head for her generosity.
The man shook his solitary coin for a while and got a few notes from older children and adults. Grudgingly of course, the little girl had shamed some of them and so they gave. It was not much but he soon had about five cedis, which was one ball of kenkey and a fish. With water to drink. A good day. He stopped a hawker for the water he so desperately needed. He sat down again and begun to wait
The sun went down and the moon rose, the people on the street eventually trickled into nothing. It was exactly midnight when the person he was waiting for showed up.
He was in dressed in black from his hat to his shiny black shoes and double-breasted long-sleeved shirt. And he was dressed in black, in the sense that if you looked carefully, it was darker around him wherever he went. He sauntered over to the beggar and looked down his nose.
“Hello brother”, the man said. “Do you have the tally?”
He reached beneath his clothes and handed over the scroll he had been sent to fill. Every person, every suburb in Accra, for five years. He’d managed to test them all. It was amazing how many people you could ask for money if you kept long enough at it. The man in black tutted as he unrolled it and scanned it briefly.
“You barely made a hundred souls this time my brother and most of the names on this list are children. What happens when they grow up and get corrupted?”
“They are still a hundred names” The beggar rose, unfurling his wings as he got to his feet.
“and that means you don’t get to have your little fun. Brother.”
The other man drew himself to his full height, and around him the darkness grew a little deeper.
“Just a hundred names out of the millions that could be here. A hundred!” He calmed down, but the darkness around him began to swirl even more.”They sin and commit offenses against our Father. They take advantage of His benevolence. They must be punished.”
“Rules are rules brother. And just as you are meant to punish, I am meant to find the hundred by which they should be spared. You have them in your hand. There’s nothing for you here”
The darkness settled, and the man in black rolled his shoulders his composure finally resurfacing. He gave a cocky grin and bowed dramatically before turning around. The words that came from his mouth as he walked away were faint, but the beggar heard them clearly
“I’ll see you at the next town. We’ll see if there are any souls worth saving, brother”
The beggar kept standing. He looked around, ingraining every last piece of the area into his mind then bent down to pick his battered tin cup. He started walking in the opposite direction from which the man had come. It was a long way to the next town and a worthy hundred names was not an easy thing to find.
I lift a handful of sea water to my face and cringe as it settles into the rubbed-raw cracks underneath my eyes. But I do not feel the sharp stinging I prepared for. I do not feel anything. I look up and squint and hope that what I had just seen was merely a sleep-induced hallucination. But it is still there, and it still shines, a light brighter than anything I have ever seen.
I must be dying.
I scoop up more handfuls of the cool water and this time I wash my entire face. The water shoots painfully up my nostrils and I feel a coppery saltiness course down my tongue. I sink down onto the shallow sea bed and the wet sand shifts to accommodate my bony form. I briefly contemplate praying to the ‘ɛpo sunsum’ but I get the immediate sense that even the sea god cannot command this one away. It feels far too real, far too close. It’s certainly much too late for a prayer.
“Ato, bɛsen ma yɛnkᴐ”, I hear my friend Atta call from beyond the grove of palm trees we lay under to watch the sea at night. I hear heavy panting and the retreating slaps of bare feet against soaked earth as he continues to call for me to join him run back into the village to tell someone, anyone of this light charging steadily in my direction.
I feel it come closer and yet I do not move. I cannot move. It is mesmerizing, this growing brightness. I truly must be dying.
I am humbled by this light. It is brighter than a thousand fishermen lamps held together, faster than Paa Quansah’s paddles during the Bakatue canoe races, scarier than the fetish priests performing the morning rituals and I am humbled by it. I do not move. I cannot move. I simply stare at it.
I am definitely dying.
I decide to resign to my fate. The gods must want me back and I am not about to challenge their authority. I feel the cool water seep into every inch of my cloth as I lower myself with my arms spread out and lift my knees off the soft sand of the shallow sea bed until I am floating. I close my eyes bravely, awaiting the next phase of the dying process.
I feel a sharp jerk and the tender flesh under my arms and above my ribcage throbs. I know that when you die, your soul has to leave your body but I never thought this would be an actual physical process. Interesting. I wonder which other part of dying will turn out to be much different than I imagined.
I hear the garbled commands of a voice that sounds remotely like my father’s but I am not entirely sure. This out of body experience is amazing. Maybe I am at my funeral, and maybe the voice is the last call to my dead body to rise before I am mistakenly buried alive. I hear it happens sometimes. I wish that this call would work, that I can wake up and run into my mother’s arms. She is probably weeping bitterly, my poor mother. I am her only son. But I cannot change the ways of Death and as much as I want to stay, I must leave. It’s funny how I don’t even know where I am headed but I know it’s only a matter of time.
I feel a heavy pressure on my back and it builds steadily with every passing second. Maybe it’s the mud piling up on my back. I surely am being buried. The pressure builds. It feels surprisingly very real, almost painful even. It’s crazy how real this all feels, these processes of dying. I always thought death would be painless when I was alive. The pressure still builds. This is more painful than I thought it would get, this steady thudding at my back.
“Ato, bue w’enyiwa”.
Definitely my father’s voice, a little too coherent, a little too close. He wants me to open my eyes. The heavy threat looming in those three words he speaks is enough to scare me into trying. My eyes open just as his fist crashes into my lower back and I let out a strange, strangled sound. I am not dead.
I follow his eyes to see the light that shocked me into thinking the gods were calling me. It’s attached to a Big Canoe, a looming wooden structure wedged in the wet sand at the shore. In the dark, I make out the figures of other men from our village craning their necks from their crouched positions behind the thick-stemmed palms to watch the Big Canoe.
A thing emerges from behind the light and I hear the quickly gathering breaths of confused people. It looks like a man, two hands and two long legs like my father’s. But it is different. Its skin looks like the inside of a freshly cut yam and its hair runs down its back in waves, just like the sea. It reaches the shore and we stare in puzzled amazement. And then it screams. It did not speak Fante or maybe I haven’t fully regained my hearing because of the water that still stands stubbornly in my ears.
After it screams, other things like it jump down from the Big Canoe and tread towards the shore. The last thing I notice is the different colors of their hairs as my father yanks me up from his lap and drags me along, barely missing the palm trees. On his face is a look of pure panic, possibly terror. I have never seen him look so scared. We speed as fast as our legs can carry us to the house of the king to tell him about the things we just witnessed on the shore. The king must know what they are. He knows everything.
Hurry up, Kofi,” the girl said to her little brother. He was always doing this, but she had learnt to remain patient with him. He was still only eight years old. He trudged along behind her, stopping and swinging his foot at stones and watching his feet slip through them each time. They got to the T-Junction.
“C’mon Kofi” Naana called out to him yet again. The red car they had come to see was approaching from about 500 metres away. Kofi glided nonchalantly to her side, still trying to kick at stones.
“Why do we have to come here again?” he asked, after slipping his feet through another small mass of little stones.”You know why Kofi. We have to find out what happened.””I don’t like coming here,” shrieked little Kofi. Then he stared at his feet and pouted his tiny lips.
“I know Kofi … I know,” Naana replied in sympathy. She slid her palm into his and held on tight, “It will be over soon, I promise.”
She spoke the words with little confidence. It was simply to soothe him. She had absolutely no idea when it will all end. She hated living this nightmare over and over again each year. You have to find out what really happened, The Master had said. She didn’t understand it. They had been coming on the same day for the past five years. Still, there was nothing different to see. She had no new revelations and neither had Kofi. He had always shut his eyes at some point, yet she reasoned that if there was something to be seen they surely should’ve seen it by now. After returning nine times already, The Master’s insistence was becoming tiresome. Naana doubted if there was indeed anything that had escaped sight.
As they stood holding hands, the red Toyota Corolla was now within 200 metres of the T-Junction. On cue, the Tipper Truck poked its front bumper up the horizon of the Hill, from the right connecting road of the T-junction. The voices in the car soon became audible to Naana and Kofi now, and they could hear their mother singing from the front passengers’ seat.
They saw their father nodding in that eternally funny way- his head bobbing up and down just like the bobble-head dog toy stuck to the top of his dashboard. And in the back seats, flailing their short arms all over the place and chanting to their mother’s singing, sat Naana and Kofi from exactly ten years ago.
Kofi wore the same Ben 10 shirt he was wearing now. Naana, wore the same pink t-shirt with the big red love symbol embroidery on the front. Naana leaned forward from the side of the road and readied to peer carefully at the imminent scene. She felt Kofi try to slip his hand from her grip, but she held on tight and squeezed softly.The climax was staged in all of thirty seconds. Their father had spotted the Tipper Truck coming slowly from his left side and he judged accurately that he could move on ahead before the truck got to the intersection. Also, he expected the driver to slow down. But he had succeeded in getting to the midpoint of the crossroad before something punched the back side of his head above the head-rest of his seat. His head jerked forward and he lost control of the steering. The car suddenly spun to one side and lay directly in the path of the truck as the engine died. The shrill screams from within the car blocked any impulsive decision. The crash was as loud as Naana and Kofi remembered it, and the screams as piercing as ever. Naana turned away from the scene and dropped to her knees. She felt Kofi’s hand slip out of hers, but she didn’t try to hold on this time.
She covered her face and began to weep into her palms, but there were no tears, only sorrowful gasps.
Kofi stood with his mouth blank open. He had seen it. The scene had stayed the same for ten years, but he had finally seen it today. He had always shut his eyes just before the crash, but not today. Today, he had watched and finally seen it. Guilt enveloped him as he sunk to his knees by his sister. He wrapped his arms around her and sobbed out the tearless pain. “It was me, Naana. It was my fault!”
“Noooo. It’s okay Kofi. It’s okay. We’ll keep trying. We’ll come back again. Next year.” she tried to calm him, empathizing with his exhaustion.
“It was me. I d-d-didn’t know! It was me!”
She hugged him tighter, “It’s okay. It’s okay. We’ll be fine. We’ll-“. He gently pushed himself out her arms and stepped a couple of feet backwards. He covered his eyes as he spoke.
“No Naana! Listen! It was me, Naana! I looked! I saw it! IT WAS ME! I-I-I WAS THROWING MY HANDS AROUND. I HIT DADDY! I HIT DADDY! MY HAND HIT DADDY’S HEAD! OH GOD, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. IT WAS ME, NAANA!”
Tyres screeched all around them as cars broke into a halt around the scene of the crash. His little voice sobbed above the wailing voices. He dashed to her and she collected him in her arms. The world suddenly began to grow silent around them, and the air around them began to spiral into a ball of spinning wind. They were swept up in their lock-arm posture, soaring into the clouds and fading into the sky above.
They shook him awake. As he groggily opened his eyes and began to adjust them to the dim light from the aged incandescent bulb in his bedroom, he felt a strong blow against the side of his head.
“Ow!” he shrieked.
There were strangers in his room- Robbers. The pain at the side of his head increased and he quickly realized he had been struck with the back end of some heavy metal. Armed-robbers, he now confirmed. One of the robbers who stood close to him pointed the weapon in his face. He could not remember ever being so close to a gun.
“Shhh. Any wrong move, you go chop bullet. You understand?” a cold voice from the dark figure towering above him announced.
There was really no need to make any move. They were in his one bedroom self contained home. There were no other rooms in the building. There was no one to call out to. From what he could remember, his next door neighbours had made the trip to their village the night before; there was mention about a funeral in the family. He was truly on his own against these men.
He slowly leaned against the head post, sat upright and finally made out the figures of the two robbers who now occupied his room. Both men were at least six feet tall and wore black tank tops. Their bulging biceps poured out of their shoulders.
“Boss, I beg, my name bi Jato. I no-”
“-My friend, you better shut up,” the nearest robber with the gun said softly. The mixture of alcohol and marijuana sprayed out from his breath into Jato’s face.
“WHERE THE BOX DEY?” another of the robbers bellowed from across the room. He had stepped back and was now leaning in the corner close to Jato’s wardrobe, hidden from the dim light pouring out of the bulb.
“Boss. I no get any-” Jato began to plead but stopped short when the gun was again pointed squarely in his face.
“I go ask you for the last time. Where the box dey?” the same man called out from across the room.
They shot him twice in the head. And his brain split open, spilling fluids and the invisible memories of where he had dug out the soil and hidden the box containing the stolen gold.
For years, everybody wondered about Jato’s death. The body had been lying in his bed for a week at least, before it was found, the policemen had said. Questions had been asked, sometimes with the intimidation tactics that were typical of small town policemen. Young men were rounded up and physically abused for answers. Slaps across both sides of the face and the back of the head were distributed freely. Still, nothing concrete was gained. Jato’s death simply remained a mystery.
But the June-July rains came heavily five years after Jato’s death. The weather-people said it was the highest to be recorded in a decade. The floods had carried few electric poles and cables away. Kiosks were uprooted and dragged away by the currents. The soil had eroded and the ground had split in many places. As people stood in the safety of stronger grounds, pointing and identifying the debris being washed away, Jato’s box floated along unnoticed and its black padlock swung with every movement. The rhythmic clanking of fifty bars of pure gold, inaudible to the observers who were too busy identifying their own properties, silently marked the drift of Jato’s box.
It had been a long and busy day in town. I was exhausted and eager for some sleep. I was walking alone along the deserted path that went through the thin forest and led to the compound of my single-roomed home. I was deep into the forest, but perhaps only one kilometre from home when it began.
It started quietly, with a gentle breeze simply whistling through the leaves. But almost immediately, stronger winds came rushing through from out of nowhere. The trees began to sway from side to side, and the branches began to look like long extended arms, in the darkness. The leaves shook violently and with a dozen rustling sounds. They looked like they would all together fall off unto the ground. Fireflies blinked in and out of sight with blinding pace, at random spots in the darkness. Crickets chirped out an odd discord. It was as if someone had upset their peaceful gathering. An owl hooted a bit too audibly for comfort and I instinctively picked up my pace. A twig snapped under my feet and I shrieked.
Over and above this cacophony, I heard giggles. They were almost human, but it was hard to tell if it belonged to men or women. It was not a familiar tone. I was not a man who scared easily but I quickly broke into a trot. The sounds around me grew louder. I picked up pace and started to run. I was running, or so I thought. Surprisingly, the flickering neighbourhood lights ahead of me were not getting any larger. I kept running and running and running. But in fact, my feet were glued to the spot where I had first heard the giggles. I was not moving. I was running on the same spot.
The hands were cold. They reeked of dust and dirt. Rough fingers covered my mouth. My shouts were muffled. Then everything began to swirl around me. Everything became silent. Everything became dark.
When I awoke, there were faces and voices towering over me. I made out the familiar faces of my neighbours and friends.
“W-What is this? What am I doing here?” I asked, attempting to rise from the ground and failing.
“We don’t know Mensah. We just found you here, sleeping.”
Afi responded. She had her sleeping baby tied to her back with her waistcloth.
“Maamle thinks you are lucky. She thinks they brought you here,” Afi went on.
Hands reached down to help me stand. I was now on my feet and brushing the dust off my clothes. I was still slightly groggy. “They? Who?” I asked, turning to Maamle. She shook her head and mumbled.
“We don’t know,” Afi replied.
I rejected all escorts and walked home by myself. I locked myself in and walked to the bathroom. I didn’t know who they were. Nobody seemed to know who they were, but they were not invited to my house tonight.
As I poured the pail of cold water over my head, a sharp shriek escaped from my throat. I passed my fingers over my head. My hair was gone. All of it. I was bald. My heart was pounding now. I reached out for other parts of my body. My genitals were safe. There was no pain anywhere else. They had only shaved off my hair.
We started Primary Five in high spirits. School was especially fun because most of us had gotten new school uniforms and new shoes and new everything. And most people had the chance to make new friends while the rest settled for their old friends from Primary Four. I got a bubbly girl, Alice, for a best friend. That Alice was smart was a lovely bonus, I knew she would help me with my sums (I hated Math). We were thirty students in Primary Five ‘A’, and our teacher was a pretty lady called Mrs Ellis. At first we all thought she had a big tummy, until Alice told me Mrs Ellis was pregnant, and she knew that because Mrs Ellis was a patient at her mother’s maternity clinic.
Ona Salih was brought to our class three weeks after school had officially reopened. She was a plain little girl with a sour disposition. She was not in a new school uniform like most of us. Her shoes were well-worn, and they would be the only shoes she would wear. Her English was bad, her Maths was terrible. Mrs Ellis had no patience for Ona. Ona was sloppy and would fail at everything she tried her hands on. Mrs Ellis would hurl invectives at her, and the little girl would say nothing.
As time went on Mrs Ellis’s baby bump grew. She told us that she had a bun in the oven, and in a couple of months she would have to leave. We all knew Ona was no oil painting; her eyes were too wide for her small face, and her upturned nose portrayed large nostrils. Some of the kids made fun of her. She was no happy child. Once in a while I would offer her some of my mother’s bread, and she would smile shyly and shake her head. “You, nice person.” she would tell me, and then hop away. And that little smile would make my day.
Once, Ona got sick at school. She puked all over her shoes. Mrs Ellis was livid. “Why would you come to school when you’re sick?” she barked at Ona. “Ah. Who can accompany her to her house? Oh my God, someone should call the cleaner, the vomit smells awful!” she said, and I raised my hand. Whether it was genuine concern I get her home or curiosity so I find out where she lived, I didn’t know. We walked for almost thirty minutes, and then she told me she’d go home on her own. Then she smiled again and said quietly, “I will miss you.”
I chuckled. “Why, aren’t you coming back to school?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know.” She waved and walked away.
The next day Mrs Ellis didn’t come to school. “She’s going to give birth soon”, Alice told me excitedly. We got a substitute teacher in the meantime. Ona didn’t come back to school again, and she was not missed by anyone in particular. Sometimes she would cross my mind and I would smile, thinking of the weird, ill-favoured girl Mrs Ellis had been so nasty to.
Just some weeks after, Alice told me her mother said Mrs Ellis had given birth to a girl. She looked forlorn, however.
“What’s wrong, Alice? Is the baby okay?” I asked her. She shrugged. “Today, after school, let’s go to the clinic. I want to show you something.” she whispered. I badgered Alice about what is was she wanted to tell me but she kept mum. I knew her mother’s clinic was not very far from school. I could hardly concentrate on what was being taught. The moment the school bell rang I gathered all my books and shoved them in my bag, trying to catch Alice’s eyes. She nodded and got up.
“We’re going to see her baby in the nursery,” Alice told me. I frowned. What was so special about Mrs Ellis’ baby that Alice wanted me to see for myself?
The nurses were friendly. Alice smiled at them as she told them she was coming to see Madam’s baby. I had never seen so many babies at once. I kept on gaping at the little ones.
“But why isn’t Mrs Ellis’s baby with her?” I whispered. I didn’t get the chance to speak again, for there was Mrs Ellis’s baby. I gasped. Baby’s eyes were very wide and she had a small, round face. I knew these features. She looked frighteningly familiar. Big nose. Big nostrils. I knew why Alice couldn’t say anything. No way. I turned to look at Alice, confused. “She looks like-like-“, I sputtered.
“Ona” we both said at the same time.
“How?” I was terribly shaken.
“My mom said Mrs Ellis doesn’t want to see the baby because it scares her.”, Alice told me. That was when I started to think of the strange Ona, and what she said the last time I saw her. I will miss you. Now my heart was furiously beating.
“Do you know where Ona lives?” I asked Alice, and she shrugged. “She’s disappeared. They’ve been looking for Ona since the baby was born”.
“Come on, let’s go before Mr Ellis comes”, Alice pulled me and we left. We had just got to the entrance when something caught my eye. I froze. “What? Let’s go”, Alice nudged me. “No. look”, I told Alice, and she looked at what had caught my eye. The poster with the title “MASS BURIAL TO BE HELD; LIST OF UNCLAIMED CORPSES.” The first name was Ona Salih, and beside the name was a picture of Ona, and she was wearing a mysterious smile. Her date of death had been listed as 8/02/04. Ona had come to Primary Five in September. I turned to look at Alice, and we both raced to school, saying nothing. I was going to ask my mom very politely.
I wanted a new school. Just in case Ona came to visit, I didn’t want to be around.