Fiction

Dami Lare – Yesterday’s 30 Pieces

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YESTERDAY’S 30 PIECES

Yesterday,

When the world danced on the kennel of doom

Hearkening to the call of drunk taps,

Notes of foolery on a rugged drum,

We swayed like enchanted pendulums,

Tossed about like flakes in the sky…

Today,

When reason plays its pipe

We are whiffs tangled in the battle of some storms, 

Solemn on a pyre, burning low like spent fires…

Through the dampness of the mist, a time which only initiated eyes can decipher as either midnight or wee hour, you see him slink, through the closely huddled ramshackle structures that housed many, out into the starless sky. He passes the pyre as if it exists not, takes a right bend into the welcoming bleakness with steady strides, sure in his steps than he has ever been in his solitary traverse. Head bows in a weary gait; he stands at the end of his journey unwavering like Raffia Palms from an illusory epiphany; he looks back, past you, through the empty air then almost immediately takes a leap, which leaves you more appalled than bewildered; you almost did not catch it. You thought he has fallen, or trips, then you hear the splash as he disappears out of sight into the depths, the depths of his tomorrow, killed in its promise, never to survive.

***

The first thing they teach you, when you eventually grow to understand this whirlpool of chaos, is survival. Well that and its aftermath should you inherently exude traits of a weakling. Never are the ‘whys’ or ‘hows’ explained, more so, by no means do they truly spell grey from black. Like Hooded Grebes, you are abandoned to figure out the winding intricacies of existence and blamed if eventually you do not breast the tape of victory. But the truth is, life is a regenerative vortex of personal intentions and others (if they indeed are anything at all) are merely means to countless ends; but no one would ever teach that, at least not from this part of your world.

***

The fire razes to dust all in its path as all fires are meant to, and that which is unfortunately wedged in its destiny it consumes with a vengeful intensity, like sandstorms of the Sahara. The only difference being debris and soot do not litter the earth after its rage dissipates considerably, neither is it charred vestiges of unpleasant substances; what hangs like stench from the vilest part of hell is an awful redolence, weirdly suiting to the frosty night, rather too familiar to the eastern part of the slum: the rotten pong of burnt flesh. However even fires do not emerge from emptiness and neither does the night. This night does not come to be by mistake or from some magical blandness; this night starts from some precedence, a yesterday, the only thing we as bodies of life truly have in common.

***

Night they say is beauty, embroidered by stardust, and these stars you think are tiny Desdemonas, traipsing globs of the sky like precious tales in a fanciful memory. However, tonight is not of fairy tales: some fancy mystery cloaked in nuggets of wisdom, belched forth from some seasoned voice wrinkled by time and back-dropped by a ruddy moon, no! It is of a history, engraved on the hearts of men in the eyes of a teary night: it is of fire, scorching like the coals of damnation. This night will flicker in the memories of men as tongues of conflagration cast multiple reflections like an enraged river. To you, tonight is a strain fully grown, ignorance beset with pearls and rubies – tonight is madness gone too far. Perhaps you are too young to understand the devices of the hearts of persons, but the holy book admonishes swords to be beaten into ploughshares for a reason. The dying fire spends no time waning into the belly of the night whence it came, still each flicker as it blisters its last in the world of men speaks of a story, an act of ignorance; a tale of betrayal, of bellicosity and belligerence.

***

Morning as people from your sphere of the universe know it to be, unreels with heavy noise which cuts through the assemblage of roadside stalls sprawled lazily across the east side of the neighbourhood, spinning the dreary day into a flurry of activities that swallows up the entire street space within minutes. It is indeed a new day, same as always. Yellow vans pull over abruptly, kicking-forth thick dusts that spiral to the heavens like hasty cyclones. You peep through the blurry glazing of your tiny room while men in grey khakis jump from their bowels like bloodhounds. Perplexed, at first the grey men stand rooted, exchanging meaningful glances like startled children. Fixated, their deliberate silence, thousands of unspoken messages fluttering back and forth among them; countenance betraying bafflement, apparently they are in expectation of an empty neighbourhood, not this, an array of uncouth entrepreneurs and gaunt kids; you guess.

In the drop of a hat, like a comet on a starry night, the mean looking grey men leap into action like furious German Shepherds spurned by a familiar voice, it is as if they are not drawn aback moments ago. You watch as they thrash everything in their paths with practiced menace and curly whips: wooden stalls, plastic trays, weaved baskets and run-down parasols, all containing varieties of foodstuffs and retail items.  Women adorn in varying degrees of faded percales and synthetics heave with frightened arms, as many wares that can be salvaged unto stiff necks of little boys who scurry along in complete ignorance, missing perchance the stinging whips of the men in grey. While few frantic market men in frayed undershirts who do not care how rotund the women’s backsides look urge them on to safety. Gunshots sound off in the background as thick smokes wafts to the sky unleashing a familiar terror on all unlucky enough to have stalls opened. Behind the comfort of a chirped windowpane, you watch as the sun moves to bury itself below a skyline, hiding from the wails of anger receding into the distance, ushering in the dew of a gory evening. You know how it all ends, a road travelled more times than one: the terror of the Men in Grey. This is what you know them to be. Under what seem a blood-moon, men will clatter through the night till the next, whispering under their breath strings of curses while the women, reminiscing times past will weep in the shadows like sore babies, consoled by the innocent eyes of their children. You remember yesterday.

When the world came to you at the road without a crack

And whispered of a dream

Where you sat alone, glad,

Inside golden drops

And divine beams

Delighted like the flurry of thousand flocks

Under the sun of two worlds.

It tells you stories of old when the world is tucked away in several parts and everything, a cipher solved. This is not yesterday; it is just a momentary bliss: but you dwell briefly in this anecdote, forgetting the tales of today where nature has turned duplicitous, leaving men to a fate both tortuous and treacherous. Wishful thinking commends itself to you as a proverbial redeemer while you gaze as the morning rolls into an afternoon, and the afternoon gathers weight, pregnant with tears.

***

Yesterday, Akamanughi Benedict painstakingly maps out the tenets of the newly drafted Moral and Trading Code: he stands as the spokesperson of the incumbent district council in the slums, he is a son of the soil albeit, a sort of Dona Marina, and every one loathes him for this.  It is no news to you anymore, the grapevine has it that Akamanughi Benedict has always been in it for the money, well aren’t you all? You dismiss the familiar rhetoric watching as he sways ostentatiously in front of the entire caste of the neighbourhood, a flora designed tarpaulin wrapped dingily around his legs: you ponder how many times he has to pat his protruding belly at the sides before he can successfully tuck the heavy mass into the thick canvass which hides the greater part of his pudgy self and whether he ever sleeps comfortably.

Akamanughi Benedict rasps on like an abbot, repetitively stumping his right foot, pointing with enthusiasm like a passionate Guevara at how the government is trying hard to reform the environment for the greater good; everyone is stupefied, wondering what good can come out of Gomorrah? Benedict ignores the flummoxed faces about him, you watch with distaste as he swipes his tongue against his lips in-between bursts of fervid magniloquence; with his eyes darting around to measure his crowd, he rasps ceaselessly into the morning mist. Squeezed amidst sweaty legs reeking of days old sweat, you manage a little understanding as Akamanughi Benedict explains that the government has ordered the inhabitants to steer clear of the sidewalks and municipal structures they use for itinerant and retail enterprises, and report at the centre where they will be given slots at the new complex built for trading and commercial retailing, dramatically pushing his glasses to position every time it slides down his nose like an infinite battle between an enraged veteran and a recalcitrant neophyte in the process. He reiterates countless times that government officials are coming the next day to allot these slots to the people and as citizens of the nation, they are to put on their best behaviour, behave accordingly and be punctual since the government is not familiar with the roots. You sneer at the rococo, ‘citizens of the slums’ has a more convincing veracity, you snicker again, aware of its deceptive connotation: a steady clangour rises from the rabble. Ejike’s words dance into a puzzle as he manages to exhaust all available words in his repertoire; you eventually give up every smidgen of hope of a significant measure of comprehension. Perhaps Aunty Nene who stares conscientiously like a stupefied gremlin at the butt end of the mob would grasp anything at all, deep down you grinned fully aware she wouldn’t; the other day you took ill she said “How was your health” your heart went out to her pupils at Elementary High, a group of unlucky ones.

The spectacle reaches its denouement leaving you confused and others stupefied, asking one another what the tarpaulin man had said. All they know as they dispel from Benedict’s mansion is they are to stop trading at a particular point and to report at the social centre at the southern part of the slum where they will be given new stalls and shops: a blessing and good tidings they think, or not, they aren’t sure anymore. The government cannot be trusted, as well as Benedict, but the news is too good to be passed up as wishful thinking, they have to believe, it is the only thing their reality can afford.

At night when the world has had enough of the hoax of men, many sleep under the gathering clouds of the slums. That night some sleep with the bones of their livelihood scattered in an uneven heap beside their iron beds, desperate to wait the dawn of a new sunrise, the stratus on a rugged yesterday; among this lot is Babu Aminu. This night the slums and its filthiness drift to a strange slumber.

This world has died

On a path with million faults

For Innocence cannot flower beneath

When the most powerful impulse of the spirit

Lies fallow underneath one too many deceits.

***

The promised morning, Babu throngs along with others, slapping early dusts off the morning street with his crusted heels, elated about the news of the day before. The arrival of inspectors means the government finally remembers the people of Death Valley, as you have heard it called countless times; this is a soothing realisation; even Babu has a different gait this morning, smiling sheepishly and waving all to the warmth of a rising sun. No one ever sees Babu like this, for most times he is more of a dyed-in-the-wool scallywag, whipping up trouble wherever one can be found, destructive with every ounce of energy he can muster. But this morning, everything seems different; he is not the same old Babu, Babu the coyote. You see him as Moses, the one Bishop Biyi emphatically preaches as an angry but faithful leader, you grin, if only that Moses could see this Moses. Even those who drag out of bed, reluctant to head to the trade centre brush aside every smudge of reticence, pick up their weary bones and join in Babu’s wake. It is going to be a different morning everyone seems sure. The atmosphere of the eastern part of Ghost Slum lit up as debris, shards of metals and rotten liquids, a mixture of phlegm and stagnant seepage greets the morning warmth with their sordid appearance. Whatever could have driven Babu to leave his priced son, Akim, who is an avid reader to handle the affairs of his stall while he goes to bring good tidings is sure to be a basket full of blessings and, no one, not even cynical and doubtful Aunt Nene can pass up such offer, regardless of an air of incredulity which seem to envelop it. You make way for her.

***

The Night is enthrallingly black, lit up occasionally by dying flecks of light finding their way back to the emptiness from which they are animated, yet everyone disperses as sands strewed on the shores of reality. They saunter like weary souls from perdition, rage and melee replaced by sense and regret, urge on by the failing strength of the burning pyre. The night does not play out like the ending of the few revolutions you are taught in school, or the few scenes you opportunely view at the home of raspy Old Soldier. This plot does not have that smudge of optimism that underlines every tale of revolution; neither does it have the stratagem of action: comical interpolations and heroism that somehow seem to prepare the mind for the gory events that characterize tales of uprising. You look back to yesterday and realise, this tale, which has its antecedent in a vivid past, has no pause in time, where side-splitting events softens the hearts of men; life has not pause to allow sanity its due, the world has spiralled causing nausea, belching molten as result and this it does unto the ignorant heads of men. However, unlike most revolutions, bodies do not litter the floor like oysters at the wake of a flood; neither are twisted bloody parts, mangled and gored limbs jumbled across the earth like displaced prawns, no, instead what you see is a figure strapped like dried twig across a blackened pole. And from it whiffs of yellowy smoke like curly fingers of golden light, rise to the sky where they merge and disappear into the dark clouds. The body is that of Akumanugi Benedict; yet it is not a revolution, it is only a night. A night of betrayal and insanity: insanity you do not understand, insanity deeply seated in the affairs of man. Yet this night did not come to be by mistake or from some magical blandness; this night starts form some precedence, some yesterday, which is today’s betrayal. This night is yesterday’s 30 pieces, the thought makes no sense to you, but it registered, hitting you with a strange conviction. Bishop Biyi has preached about Judas betraying Christ the same way with 30 pieces of silver one time, Benedict has done the equivalence, hence today has been betrayed by yesterday’s folly and deceit; you walk off with the thought swirling in your head, tonight is as a result of yesterday’s betrayal. Tonight is YESTERDAY’S 30 PIECES; still it is not a revolution.

You totter along the rough edges of a shattered pavement, wrecked into uneven parts by the spurned remonstrators, wondering why humans would go such lengths to rob others of their entitlements, even the little they have. The parable of the rich man who took the only lamb of the poor man came to mind, you begin to understand. The memories of the morning come viciously like torrents. You hide under a skew-whiff structure to watch as many come running from the centre immediately the thick black smoke rises to the sky. They shout in despair; they leap through the morning air, like petrified livestocks, wailing into the hot air, as dread hit their chests and hands drop unfailingly. They have been swindled, enticed with a Trojan horse. They are at the centre patiently awaiting the government officials who are to usher in the good tidings when the grey men burn and loot their source of livelihood. And at the heart of this rabble is Babu.

The Grey men destroy all and that which they cannot they plunder, burning some and ruining the rest, leaving a host of bloodied backs, snotty face, weeping kids, faint souls and horrible looking welts. But perhaps this tale would have been one of those told about deceit alone if Babu finds his son who is to stay in his stead, the only source of joy he has, his bibliophile son. Babu races down with the strength of the winds, fear gnawing tenacious at his stalwart countenance, only to find his parasol burnt and his onions at the back of a van filled with smiling grey men: his son, nowhere to be found.

He did find his son, and you are there to witness the melancholic reunion. Underneath a pile of dark lifeless bodies lies his bibliophile son. That evening, while others weep and cry at the loss of life and livelihood, one word comes to his mind, Benedict. And with that name, Baba Aminu strides of into the distance, away from the weeping populace.

***

Tomorrow remains a blurry vista,

Etched in memory like jagged lines across distant skies;

And its promises, a crooked lister,

Vain like the passions of a thousand cries

Tomorrow will come and the fire will have burned out as all fires do and, all things will return to its status quo, even the sidewalks and municipal structures will take their place back in the natural order of things. The government will continue to exploit people and will use friends and family members as expendable means; this will not stop and neither will it wane, it is the way of the world and its future; the future which is undoubtedly an unsure tomorrow. But tomorrow the government will come in black vans, and men in fierce red khaki, not grey, will manhandle and arrest many, that much is certain to you, every person in the slum knows. They will bring down the body of Akamanughi Benedict or what is left of it and you will watch as they barge and drag people out of their houses with ferocious cats, but they will not find he who killed Benedict; they will not because no one will talk.

No one will until one reaches his tether end or gets bribed and betrays others and mentions Babu’s name for an illusion of freedom, the need to survive. Still they will not find Babu. They will not, because no one knows where he is, no one except you, but you will not talk and no one will think to ask you, what does Arzan know?

Dami Lare

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