The sun was making its way into Alpha’s yard for another day of life. He needed fresh coffee beans. Their current stash, that had already been picked, washed, processed and roasted the week before had run low according to his wife, Jeneba. But there was still enough left over this morning to make a dark, bold carafe for him and his wife to enjoy.
Alpha picked the ripened red beans and put them in a sack cloth that had been tied to his waist. The West African morning sun mercilessly began to shine down on him, causing his forehead to produce small beads of sweat. He couldn’t move as fast as he used to. His thick, dry ageing hands cupped the beans with care before placing them in the sack cloth.
“My love, the food done ready!” Jeneba stood in the doorway that led to the back of the house, where Alpha was picking his harvest. Her body long and slender with beauty, her soft black and silver hair was organized into beautiful rows of braids that went past her shoulders. It was hard to tell that she had given birth to eight children over the years. Her features gave the impression of a much younger woman. “Don’t let this food get cold.”
Entering the small makeshift eating area of their village home, Alpha was greeted by the smell of piping hot fried plantains and boiled eggs. He gave his wife a quick kiss on the cheek and flashed a smile. The houseboy rushed over to relieve Alpha from the heavy sackcloth, “Morning, Sir.” Alpha grunted, giving a half-hearted greeting in return. Sheka, the tall, lanky houseboy. Dutiful but sneaky. Diligent but problematic. Alpha watched, as Sheka poured the coffee beans into a wooden bowl and went outside to wash them. He drew a bucket of water from one of the huge barrels in Alpha’s yard. Cans of kerosene used to boil water for cooking and bathing staunchly sat next to the barrels, giving a stoic nature to their presence.
“Leave the boy alone, oh!” Jeneba had taken a seat at the table and eyed her husband. She took a sip of coffee in calm caution. “You know he’s a good boy. He cleans up well around the house, he takes care of the yard – no need to give him a hard time. He respects you!”
“Respect?” Alpha questioned. “There’s nothing respectable about taking things that don’t belong to you.” He stabbed one of the fried sweet plantains with his fork and began to eat. He motioned his fork towards his wife, “If that boy wasn’t one of your relatives, he would have left this house long ago!”
“But how do you know it’s him, my love? We have people coming in and out of this house all day, eh? The children come by with the grandkids before they head off to the city to do their jobs. We have other people helping us around the house, our other relatives–”
Alpha chuckled, “Now you’re covering for him? You know you’re always leaving money around the house. Every time you return from the market, money in the parlor, money in the bedroom – money that doesn’t belong to him!”
“But we don’t know that it’s him– “
Alpha interrupted, “I will not have such unbiblical behavior in this house! Eh? That boy takes everything he sees. His classmates reported him to the missionaries for stealing paper and candies. Those same missionaries I pray and work with every day. Those same missionaries who gave me a very important office to uphold. This house will not be disgraced because of some foolish boy!”
Jeneba sucked her teeth in a dismissive fashion. “You and your church business!”
A few weeks had gone by since Alpha and Jeneba’s conversation that morning. One warm evening, Alpha sat on the front porch, working on his latest project – translating the Bible from English to the village’s native tongue, when he heard commotion coming from inside the house. He ignored it for a few minutes, writing down scriptures on his notepad until the full-blown quarrelling had become unbearable. He went inside and walked through the house to the backyard where the noise was coming from.
“What is it,” he asked irritably. “What is all this noise?” Jeneba had her hands on her hips with a stern look on her face. Two servant girls were standing next to her, looking concerned. Sheka was standing opposite of them. A sheet of fear washed over his face when he saw Alpha step outside.
Then one of the girls cleared her voice and nervously spoke up, “He took it!” She pointed at him fiercely, “He’s been taking the money, sah!”
Sheka quickly denied it, “You shut up your mouth. I didn’t take anything.”
Jeneba clapped her hands in frustration, “But let’s get to the bottom of this. This one is saying you took the money and you’re saying you didn’t take it. Sheka?” Her eyes glued to him as if they were saying, ‘please, say it wasn’t you.’
Alpha walked over and looked at the other girl who was still quiet, “Tell me the truth. What did you see? The young girl looked at him, petrified, then looked down on the ground. He commanded, “Look at me. Speak up!”
She swallowed her gulp of fear and explained, “Yes, Pa. It was Sheka. I saw him take money from Ya Jeneba’s purse when she came back from the market. Then I saw him take the money she left on the table in the parlor.” She looked at Alpha, then glanced at Sheka and quickly put her head back down.
Alpha glared at his wife, “You, see? You brought this boy into this house and look!”
Jeneba took a deep breath, deeply disappointed at the newly spilt truth. She knew how far Alpha would go to get a point across. After years of trying to intervene with fierce spankings and harsh punishments on the children they raised together, there would be no exception for Sheka. But that didn’t stop her from trying once again, “But Alpha, wait–“
“No, no, no Jeneba. I don’t want to hear anything!” He shook his head and moved his right arm from left to right, cutting off any discussion or plea.
Alpha told the two girls to go inside, and they ran and made their way in quickly, then peeked out of one of the windows in curiosity, unnoticed. His glare shifted back to Sheka. He took a few steps until he was standing directly in front of him. By this time Sheka’s shoulders were slumped, and tears were welling in his eyes.
“You tell me now,” Alpha queried, “is all of this true?”
Sheka hung his head in shame, “Yes, Pa.”
“You stole money from my wife, who is like a mother to you. Then when she asked you about it, you lied, not so?”
A single tear dropped from Sheka’s eye into the dark brown dust of the ground, “Yes, Pa. I’m so sorry, Pa.”
He didn’t ask Sheka to get a switch from one of the nearby mango trees, nor did he command him to get one of the leather belts he kept in his bedroom. Instead, he pointed to one of the cans of kerosene that sat at the bottom of the back porch, near the barrels of water, “Bring me that can of kerosene.” Sheka looked at the cans and then quickly looked back at Alpha in horror. “Go!”
“Yes, Pa.” Sheka walked over and picked up one of the containers. The flammable liquid could be heard dancing inside the metal container as he walked back to Alpha and handed it to him.
Jeneba, who hadn’t gone inside, still tried to convince her husband to just let the boy go. “He won’t do it again, Alpha. Lef ‘am!” Alpha ignored his wife and instructed Sheka to hold out his hands.
“Please, Pa. I’m sorry!” Alpha drenched Sheka’s hands with the kerosene fluid, then picked up a nearby stick on the ground. He walked over to a boiling pot that contained freshly slain chickens from earlier in the day. The big black pot was supported by three hearty stones with a blazing fire beneath it. He lit up the stick and made his way back to Sheka. Wasting no time, he lit the boy’s hands on fire. Sheka screamed in terror. The fire ignited in seconds, engulfing his brown flesh, creating a smoky glare of hell fire that seemed like it would never stop. He continued to scream, then jumped up and down, and waved his hands to put the fire out. Jeneba’s voice could be faintly heard fussing in the background. Alpha remained calm, which made the burning of his hands even more painful. A bucket of water was thrown at him, then another bucket came and was set on the ground, where he quickly splashed his charred hands for relief.
Many years passed. Alpha and Jeneba were long gone. Sheka grew into adulthood and started a new life 5,000 miles away from the small humble village. He was now in the United States, working and creating a family of his own. His wife had just given birth to a son, who he deemed was an answered prayer from God. He’d always wanted his firstborn child to be a boy. He watched his wife coddle the new bundle of joy in the hospital bed after hours of painful labor. He swelled with pride when she held up the baby for him to finally hold. He carefully took the newborn into his arms, his hands still carrying scars from that day in Alpha’s yard. His son’s face peeked out of the soft cream-colored hospital blanket, his eyes still closed.
Sheka’s wife looked on in admiration, then she looked at her husband and laughed. “I already know what we’re going to name him,” she said with assurance.
“Of course,” Sheka confirmed. “Alpha.”