Kanyinsola Olorunnisola – Angel On Fire
Angel on Fire
It did not come as a shock that the morning after Grandpa died, people flocked into our house like sheep coming to graze on green grass. They wore their finest clothes and gave their condolences, shaking their heads in show of fake pity. The women came first, tying their gele in a comical manner that made me wonder if they had come to entertain or console. They made their presence felt dashing into the kitchen and ransacking our food store. When mother tried to question them, they sat her down in the bedroom and said, “Haba! Your father-in-law just died. Don’t stress yourself. Let us feed you for today.” They wasted no time in cooking pots of excess jollof rice, which somehow got finished. I saw Mama Sola, one of the neighbours who had rudely made herself at home in our kitchen, pouring some food into a nylon bag. She smiled awkwardly and said “Son, I am only saving food so that when all the others finish, I can serve this to the guests”. It was later that I found her handing it over to her small famished-looking daughter who raced outside our gates towards their house.
Then came the old men, most of them from the village. They held their gourds of palm wine and had chewing-sticks caged in their toothless mouths. Gathered around my father, they tried to console him. From time to time, one of them would sigh and say, “Your father was a great man”. He would then follow it up with a mawkish proverb, which the rest often seemed to understand and find common sense in even if it contradicted with what another had just said. They spoke about Grandpa with such air of propinquity that you would be fooled to think they had actually met him while he was alive.
My father’s friends, his kinsmen and my siblings began to arrive in folds. When it seemed the influx of hungry bellies had ended, my mother’s colleagues at the church choir – I am almost certain they called themselves the Oral Vessels of Christ- arrived.
Their voices rang high when they began their greetings. They ate the most food and made the most noise. When I tried avoiding them, their leader, Miss Comfort, a rather tart-looking woman for a choir mistress called at me. Her annoyingly high-pitched voice rang from the living room on the ground floor. “Frank, won’t you come down to greet us? Don’t act like a rude child now,” she said with a deliberate, almost pretentious tone. When they had eaten their jollof rice and flushed it down with plastic bottles of Fanta, they rose and began to sing a mournful song. It seemed to me that Miss Comfort and her merry band of warblers were only out to impress with their harmonious voices.
Then came the pot-bellied politicians who thrust stacked money envelopes in my father’s hand and whispered in his ear. It seemed choreographed as they each came to perform the same ritual; hand money to my father, whisper in his ear briefly, smile and say, “Baba was a great man”. They all referred to Grandpa as “Baba”. He had been like a godfather to them, mother later explained. I detached myself from the folly of it all. When Grandpa had been terminally ill for the four years prior to his demise, everyone had deserted him. Some said there was an evil spirit within him and it was best to stay away.
There were rumours that he had acquired his wealth in rather clandestine ways. The newspapers headlines read “Popular Novelist Exposed as Devil Worshipper.” It didn’t help matters that one of his most valued possessions had been a life-size statue of an angel with thorn-filled wings and a halo around its head. I never quite understood his attachment to the odd-looking piece. I learnt that Mama Sola had told people that the sculpture was a hiding place where he kept the demons he worshipped. Everything he and his family owned was shunned. No one came to our house anymore to eat our food. Then he died and people were eager to rush into our house. They sat on our sofa, massacred our toilets with huge mounds of multi-coloured excrement, munched our food, raided our fridge and emptied bottles of Fanta into their greedy throats.
Why wasn’t I surprised? Grandpa spent most of his fortune battling the ailment (which ailment) and nearly went bankrupt. No one wanted to associate with a broke man. So they found a reason to stay away. They even claimed his later conversion to Islam was because of his longing for forgiveness. When he died, it
was discovered that he had secretly kept a huge sum of money, which my father was now to inherit. Outsiders found out about this and they chose to believe that his death had now cleansed everything. I resented all that was happening. Hypocrites who had avoided us were now cozying up to us. I wished they would all leave. Things got heated for me when my father told me that they would all be staying overnight. The thought of giving up my room for some hypocrites was nauseating.
When everyone was fast asleep, I snuck out and sat on a rocking chair on the terrace. The sound of crickets mixed with the whoosh noise of the dancing trees drowned the loud snoring inside the house. I saw the constellation of stars struggle to outshine the heavenly glow of the moon but the latter effortlessly thwarted them. I listened to people around me – sleep talking.
I scoffed and walked towards my room. Miss Comfort lay stretched out on my bed with voluptuous comfort, legs stretched out and arms flung wide apart, spit trickled down the right side of her parted lips. Streaks of dried saliva clung on the left side of her face on the floor, glued to mats and torn-clothed mattresses where other people. I tiptoed from my room, through the living room and the kitchen back to the terrace. How could I make them all go away instantly? I sat back on my rocking chair and a thought flitted through my brain for a second. I tossed it aside and considered it once more.
I went back into the house, got a matchbox and went to the small generator room near the doghouse. My heart was pounding and my steps seemed to multiply. I thought I heard footsteps behind me but I shrugged it off and calmed my nerves. It was almost as if a different being had taken over my body. I drained the five-litre keg of petrol into the generator struck a match and threw it into the generator.
“Fire! Fire!” I screamed, as my thin voice was thickened with mock terror. I watched as those who had been lying near the generator jumped up from their mats and ran towards the main house. The women clutched at their breasts, looking for their children. The men with buckets of water were trying to quench the fire, which was now spreading towards the main house. The gate, which was directly adjacent to the generator house, was a flame. All the buckets of water poured on to the fire were impotent. Tiny bubble-like balls of fire leapt up, levitated in the air and perched on various objects turning them into charred ghosts of what they had once been.
My intention was to wake everyone. I had expected someone to wake up quickly and stop the fire from spreading. Now it was out of control. In my panic, I ran into the toilet in the third floor of the main house and watched from the window. Buckets of water were splashed on the fire but it could not tame the wild flames. I trembled and mumbled a prayer under my breath. I saw my father running towards the fire His phone latched on to his ear. He was calling the firefighters. I wished I could just snap my fingers and it would all go away.
Thirty minutes later, the fire had spread into the main house. It tore down the gold-embroidered curtains and burnt our family picture that hung proudly on the wall next to my Grandpa’s “personal” photograph. The statue of the angel had also been turned to ashes in my momentary fit of senseless rage, I mistakenly destroyed it. The firefighters stopped the fire before it went past the first floor. Everyone was assembled outside our house. The fire ambulance was filled with people with partially fried body parts – twelve people were wounded.
A feeling of guilt loomed over my head as I sat on one of the cars parked in front of our gate, watching people discussing what had happened with shock written all over their faces. My mother kissed my head and said, “I am so happy you’re safe”. I said nothing. I wished I could say that it was my entire fault but held my tongue. My father came towards us and handed me a bottle of water.
“Are you okay?” he asked, his tone neutral.”
“Oh, I’m okay. Err…I just feel a little dizzy.”
“It will be all right”, he patted my back and smiled. “So, do you know what started it?” “Sir?”
“Mama Bee said she heard your voice screaming first”.
“Well, it’s no problem. One man said he followed the person while he walked towards the generator and set it alight”.
“Who?” My knees went weak as I asked. “Who did he say it is?”
He was wheeled away by the ambulance before he could give me a name. By the time he recovers in the hospital, I will go see him.” He rose and was halfway gone when I coughed.
“What will you do to the person?”
“Ho-ho!” He turned around with theatrical swagger and grinned with a mischievous confidence, which shortly lit, up his distressed eyes. “You don’t want to know, son”.