We are going to steal mangoes from Mr. Chukwuma’s compound, though we are not thieves. We have no choice as we are hungry. Always hungry. And Mr. Chukwuma does not sell the mangoes. Even if he did, we can’t buy them for we have no money. Mr. Chukwuma will not give us free mangoes either, because he is a mean man. He prefers to watch the birds devour the ripe fruits on that enormous tree in the middle of his compound. We have no choice but to steal the mangoes.
I am afraid of this thing we want to do because I had a dream of a man holding a gun, and a beast was standing beside him, blood dripping from its mouth. I do not know the man. It was dark in the dream and I did not see his face. But if I tell my friends about it, they will think I am afraid and laugh at me. No one wants his mates to laugh at him, so I hold my peace.
This is not the first time I have seen a forewarning in my dreams. The first time it happened, my grandmother was the victim. I dreamed of her falling into a deep, dry well crawling with snakes. The next morning, news came to us that she was involved in an accident on the Zaria-Kano Expressway on her way to visit a cousin who had given birth. One day at the Madrasa, I leaned in towards Bilal, sitting next to me, and whispered to him that I had seen a dark cloud hanging over Ustadh Karim’s head in my dream. A week later, our Imam, cap in hand, sorrow in his eyes, announced that our teacher, Ustadh Karim, had been called back to his creator. They said his illness was sudden and brief. Bilal had looked at me, called me a wizard, and vowed never to sit close to me again. I do not like this prophet-of-doom gift. So, when I see any forewarning in my dreams, I no longer say anything to anyone. I let it happen because I do not want to be called names or be looked at with suspicion.
So, I say nothing to my friends as we visit Mr. Chukwuma’s house. There are four of us – Bello, Dan’jume, Turaki and me. Turaki is my brother, but he is not my mother’s son. Bello and Dan’jume are my friends from the neighbourhood. Aside from my dream, I’m afraid of Mr. Chukwuma. People say he keeps a gun in his house. He is a retired soldier. I’ve never seen him smile, not even once, and he doesn’t play with little children like most men do. Whenever our stuffed rag ball flies over his fence, we bid it goodbye because we all know we will never see it again. The one time we knocked on his gate to plead for a ball, his dog – a brown and black menace named Whiskey – chased us. It was that day I learned I could outrun Bello. I was flying.
We are going to Mr. Chukwuma’s compound because Bello, who brought the idea, said that he, Mr. Chukwuma, has traveled. Bello said he journeyed a few days back before Shugaba’s compulsory stay-at-home order. We do not doubt Bello because he is older than us and knows so many things. For instance, it was from him we learned that the flying disease is “korona.” Mr. Chukwuma lives alone because his wife died many years ago and his only son now lives in Lagos. Bello had said that the house would be empty and that we could jump the old man’s tall fence and help ourselves to as many mangoes as we wanted. The hunger in my stomach made me agree to go.
Outside, the streets are silent because of Shugaba’s order. I don’t know if it’s the flying disease or the never-smiling yan’sanda who keep patrolling the mouth of our street that people are afraid of. Yesterday, the yan’sanda came in their van and took away the Imam and two other men because they opened the mosque and prayed. Now the mosque is locked and nobody can pray in it until Shugaba says so. The Imam is Bello’s father. But Bello doesn’t seem worried about his father. Getting the mangoes is his focus. We walk into the next street and enter a stinking lungu that will lead us straight to Mr. Chukwuma’s house. My heart is beating fast. I roll magariya seeds with my tongue. They taste like sugar. Odd. We all know that magariya is sweet but not like sugar. Maybe it is the fear playing with my taste buds. Bello had shared the magariya with us. Sometimes he is generous.
We are a contrasting group. Bello is the tallest, and this gives him a sense of superiority. He has long legs and is good at running and football. We call him Ronaldo even though he doesn’t like it. He insists we call him Ronaldinho because he is a dribbler. Dan’jume is the dirtiest among us. I am not sure he has a toothbrush because whenever he opens his mouth, the person nearest to him scrunches their nose. I never ask why his mouth smells like a pit latrine filled with cockroaches. His clothes are dirty, too. It’s not like we are not dirty too, but Dan’jume’s dirtiness is three times worse. But I like him because he listens a lot. Also, his mother makes the best danwake in our neighborhood. Finally, there is my brother Turaki. I hate that he is brilliant and can recite many more surahs than I can. Many people also say he is more handsome than I.
Once at the fence, we pause. I stare at the tall wall and wonder how we will scale it. Before I know it, Bello shoots forward and begins to climb. He doesn’t find anything difficult as long as it is not Quranic verses written on a slate at his father’s Islamiyya. Bello told me that the letters on his slate keep moving around, making it hard for him to read Arabic words. I have never heard of such a thing. It’s weird, but I believe him. Although Bello lies a lot, I know when he is telling the truth. The wall is quite rough, and we don’t encounter much trouble climbing it.
Once inside, we all stand to take in our new environment. Mr. Chukwuma’s compound is large. The air smells different, undisturbed. For a moment, I wish it belongs to my father or that Mr. Chukwuma is my father. But I remember how mean he is and dismiss the thought. The aluminum roof of the large house is bright like a mirror under the sun. It hurts my eyes like when Turaki’s mother once rubbed pepper in my eyes and I couldn’t see for two days. All is silent except our breathing, the tree leaves attacked by the wind and the hooting of an unseen bird. I sigh, out of satisfaction.
Bello is the first to move again. The tree is on the other side of the compound. Before long, we are all speeding towards it like children running into the arms of their mother who has returned from the market bearing gifts covered in shiny wraps. We pause at the foot of the tree, looking up and letting out plenty ooohs and aaahs. Faces glowing with pleasant smiles. Over-ripe and half-eaten mangoes litter the ground. It must be the birds. Turaki picks one and readies to bite into it. I beat it out of his hand. He turns with a scowl and a balled fist.
Bello hisses, “Fool! You have a bowl of shinkafa before you, yet you want to drag a grain with the ants. Fool!”
“We shouldn’t have come with him,” I say. Turaki gives me a mean look. I can be scared of anything but not Turaki. Never. Though we are close in age, he has never beaten me in a fight. The last time we fought, I pinned him down and filled his mouth with sand, after he sunk his stinking large teeth into my skin. It was two days ago. His mother and mine quarreled because of that. I got a nasty ear-pulling from my mother and an unforgettable lashing later on when our father returned and his mother reported the matter to him. I am still angry with Turaki. I am always angry with him.
There is no time to waste anymore. We start to climb the tree. But no sooner had we started than Bello, angered by the mad rush, shoves us away, “I’ll climb the tree alone. I’ll pluck the mangoes and throw them down,” he says. None of us objects to this new law. We wouldn’t be anywhere near Mr. Chukwuma’s fine house without Bello and his idea. And now we are on the verge of helping ourselves to some juicy fruits. Bello is as deft as a monkey. He is high up in the dense spread of branches in a flash. He shakes the branches and a hail of mangoes rain down. We scamper about in pure delight. “Don’t eat any! Don’t eat any of those!” Bello warns from above. We know better than to go against him, and so we gather them in one heap. In no time, we have gathered enough.
Bello, satisfied, comes down to join us. We all sit at the foot of the tree, the heap before us. Bello examines it and picks the largest fruit. We watch him as he eats away. My stomach grumbles, loud and clear, as bulbs of mango juice trickle down Bello’s fingers to his arm. I swallow air. The others too swallow air. When our self-designated leader picks a second mango, I protest. He allows us to dig in. We do it with much gusto. We devour as though we are in a competition to see who will eat the most. The pile disappears in no time. Only one mango is left. Turaki and Dan’jume begin to drag it. Bello seizes it and hands it to me. I examine the mango’s skin and don’t find it appealing. I toss it over to Dan’jume who accepts it and sticks out his tongue at Turaki. The look on Turaki’s face makes me smile. I always find the slightest chance to annoy or punish him for the lashes I received from our father.
I rise and make my intention to climb the tree known. Bello disagrees. He hates to feel challenged. To feel not in charge of things. I let him have his way. This time around, he is more careful. The branches do not vomit like the first time. Bello sits upon a branch, plucks a giant mango and bites into it before sending it down half crunched. Dan’jume and Turaki war over it. After eating three, Bello ruffles the branches and mangoes rain down again. We get busy like ants and collect the mangoes into a heap, bigger than the first. Once down, Bello divides the heap into two. He decides that we eat one and leave with the other. When we finish eating, Dan’jume argues that the pile we are to go away with is too small. Again, Bello refuses my request to climb the tree. “We’ll come back tomorrow and I’ll let you climb,” he says.
I don’t think coming back here is a good idea. “What if the old man returns?” I ask.
“He’ll not,” Bello says.
“How do you know that?”
“Korona is flying in Lagos. There are more soldiers over there than here. He won’t come.”
“He was once one of them, what if they just let him pass?” I say.
Bello thinks for a moment and nods. “They can let him pass if he gives them money.”
“All soldiers collect money from people on the road.”
“It’s a lie. How do you know that?”
“I just know. But I don’t think he’ll come. Lagos is a very far place.”
We all agree to return the next day. Dan’jume removes his faded blue shirt and we bundle the mangoes in it. Turaki looks up and says, “Where is that huge dog? Did he travel with it?” We all freeze at this. The dog! How did we forget that? My heart begins to thump. In truth, my fear hadn’t died all along. Did he travel with the dog? What kind of man travels with a dog over such a distance? We all stand, hoping the dog isn’t around. Bello is the first to recover, “Why are you all standing like chicken with wet feathers? If the dog was around, would we be here eating mangoes?” He shakes his head as though he too hadn’t paused for a while to contemplate the possibility of the dog’s presence. Bello’s words make sense, but just to appease our curiosity, we decide to look around the house. We abandon the mangoes and creep to the backyard.
Every sound is suspicious, made more profound by our own fears. Knee-length spear-grass chokes the place. They make my legs itch. We see no dog or any other life. There is a cage at the farthest end of the backyard. We hear a scratching noise coming from there. We glance at each other and proceed with caution. “Look, that window is open,” Turaki whispers, pointing to a window ajar. But no one pays heed. The scratching from the cage induces more suspicion than an open window. We are focused on the cage. When we are close enough, Dan’jume halts and whispers, “I think the dog is in there.” The fear in his eyes is so great that the trembling of his hands is visible. It is as if he would soon urinate on himself. It is no secret that he is afraid of dogs, this vicious one especially. The memory of the day it chased us brings a strange bitterness inside my mouth. I swallow hard. In truth, we are all afraid of dogs, but we hide our fear so no one could mock us.
“King of cowards,” Bello sneers and nudges Dan’jume forward. A step further confirms our fears; the dog is inside the cage. Now, my heart is threatening to pull out from my chest, but I do not show fear. The cage is made of strong wood. And through the net, we see the beast inside. The cage is big, but the dog is big too. It takes most of the space and makes the cage look small. The dog looks lean and hungry. As soon as it notices us, it grows restless, pacing and snarling. “Kai, I think we should go right now,” says Dan’jume.
“Idiot! Can’t you see the dog is locked up? It’s not as if it’s going to eat you,” says Bello. I don’t like the way my stomach is turning. The air is heavy and breathing becomes hard for me. I hate the sign of danger. Bello is good at hiding his fear, that’s all. I know he is afraid of night darkness. He said when he was little, darkness consumed his mother one night. And the following day, they covered her with white cloth and took her away.
Through the net, we watch the dog and it watches us too, moving about restless. It snarls and growls deep. Bello enjoying himself wags a finger and the dog rushes forward but the net is a credible barrier. We flank him as he does this, me to his right, Dan’jume and Turaki on his left. The kennel door is held in place by a huge, strong nail half bent over from the side that only needs to be slid away to free the captive. I see Bello’s hands reach for the nail lock and fiddle with it. I take a step or two backwards. With Bello, you never know. You can’t tell what is going through his head. Sometimes, he can be pure evil.
Dan’jume makes a screeching sound. Anxiety is visible on his face. “Don’t open it!” I warn.
“What will you do if I choose to?” says Bello, mischief clouding his voice.
“Please, don’t! I beg you,” Dan’jume pleads, his voice agony-stricken.
“Don’t. I beg you with Allah and his Rasoul!” Dan’jume is about to cry. His legs are shaking.
But Bello, bearing a wicked smile, isn’t ready to end his torture yet, “Whatever I say, repeat it, you hear?” he instructs Dan’jume who nods in submission. “Your father is a drunkard. Do you agree?”
“Yes, I agree,” Dan’jume replies.
“Say it or I let the beast out!”
“Your father is a drunkard.”
“Are you crazy? I said your father, not mine, moron.”
“My father is a drunkard.”
“Say it again!”
“My father is a drunkard.” This is pure humiliation, but I can’t stop it. Bello is in charge. No one wants war with Bello because there will only be one winner. You can’t beat him. I have tried before. I got a bleeding nose and lost a tooth. A boy in our street keeps a scar close to his left eye. He will never forget what Bello did to him.
I’m certain Dan’jume would endure greater humiliation as long as it isn’t that mad dog snarling at his heels.
“Your father is a loser. Say it!”
“My father is a loser.”
“Your father is a womanizer.”
“My father is a womanizer.”
“Your mother is lousy.”
“My mother is lousy.”
“Your mother is a witch.”
“My mother is a witch.”
“My mother is a witch.”
“Your Kaka flies in the night and sucks people’s blood.”
“My Kaka flies in the night and sucks people’s blood.” I have had enough. But as I move to intervene, something else happens. I don’t know if it is deliberate or just misfortune. Bello, still fiddling with the nail lock, slips. And as if the dog sensed this lapse in concentration, it makes a forward lunge and the door bursts open.
My heart leaps as I turn and run. The grass stings but the jaw of a dog against my skin is a worse sting. It outweighs my father’s whip, the burning pain of pepper in my eyes or the ghostly character of Turaki’s mother haunting me in my dreams at night, something I’ve been dead scared to divulge to anyone including my mother. I turn to take a sharp look. Bello is behind me, but I can’t sense the dog. I stumble and sharp tufts of spear grass blinds me for a while. Bello sweeps past me without pausing. But the dog isn’t behind. It must’ve gone after Dan’jume and Turaki who took the other corner out of the backyard. I heave a sigh, but I know we aren’t safe yet. Ahead of me, Bello pants, hands on his knees. He must’ve stopped after realizing the dog wasn’t after us. I’ve always dreamt of beating Bello one day. But this time, I want to pin him down and stuff his mouth with sand for putting us in danger. I wish. But this is not the time for such wild accomplishment. I just hope the others are okay too.
We spent some time thinking of what to do, trying to displace the fear in our hearts before tiptoeing out the backyard. What I see makes me scream. But no sound comes out, only a muffled sound because Bello is so swift. He clamps my mouth with a dirty palm before any sound matures out of my throat. I wrestle for freedom, biting his hand away. In the middle of the compound, the beast is bent over Turaki’s body. There is blood and Turaki is still. I know that Dan’jume, though the more fearful one, is a better runner. Hot tears run down my cheeks and my legs weaken. I may hate Turaki, but I have never wished him dead. No. What will I say at home? How will I explain that we came for mangoes and this thing happened? The dog rips, tears, and shreds the flesh. Without thinking, I turn and half-stagger towards the backyard.
Bello calls after me, his voice trembling. “What are we going to do?” I round the corner and bump into someone. I’m shocked to find Tilde standing before me. He is shocked too and almost pulls something out from his waist before familiarity registers. Tilde is my older brother, but like Turaki, he is not my mother’s son neither Turaki’s. What is he doing here? Did he also come for mangoes? I’m not thinking straight anymore. Nothing intelligible comes from my mouth despite his numerous questions. I only whimper and point towards the compound. Behind him, I see two other boys. They must be his friends. They emerge through the open window of Mr. Chukwuma’s house, dragging out a big box which seems to be giving them trouble. I don’t care what they are doing or what is in the box. All I can think of is the dog digging its famished jaws into Turaki’s body.
It is Bello who explains, “We came for mangoes.”
“You fools! Who let the dog out?” Tilde’s voice holds venom that stings like the grass.
“I… I…” Bello stammers and then diverts his gaze to the grass. Tilde matches into the compound and we all follow behind him.
“Wayo! What have you boys done!?” he exclaims at the appalling sight.
The dog turns to face us. Its beady blood-shot eyes and red jaws usher a new wave of fear rushing through my entire body. It snarls and begins to gallop towards us. I move away. Tilde doesn’t shift even an inch. I’m quite far away from him now, moving backwards. I mean to shout his name as the beast nears him. Is he mad!? What is he thinking!? But the dog slows down and crumbles before Tilde. It whines in pain and then goes silent. Is it sleeping or is it dead? This is madness. I’ve never seen such a thing before. People say Tilde can do bad things. There was a time the police hunted him. They said he did something to a girl. For three months Tilde was nowhere to be found. He didn’t come home. The police grew tired. Nothing happened. He appeared one evening. And that was how it ended.
The dog isn’t moving. Tilde and his two friends move closer to what remains of Turaki. They all look baffled. I try to move but weakness owns me. I still move, but can’t bring myself to go close to the mess. I stop and vomit mango juice. Not one bit sweet as it were when taken in. Bitterness owns my mouth. Dan’jume climbs down the tree where he has been taking refuge all the while and trudges towards us. He is one fortunate bastard. He looks gaunt and small.
Tilde and his friends after conversing in low tones, walk back. Nobody expected what happens next. The gate swings open and a figure slips in. Metal gate creaks. Heads turn. Someone yells something I can’t make out. Tilde merges with the air right before my eyes. An invisible dot. But I have no time to think of this or anything else. Something cracks. I turn and run for the fence. I am first on it. Someone is beside me in an instant. We climb. A deafening shot rings out. Someone screams and falls from the wall. Another boy loses his grip. But I am already clear. My energy baffles me. How did I defeat fear? Tears sting my eyes. I’m infuriated but I can’t place why or what as I run into the open, silent streets. The sound of another shot echoes in the distance. I take a turn startling a nanny goat and a cock which flaps away from my quick strides. I take a turn and yet another, knowing not where I’m headed.
I keep running, running, and running.