——————Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes
——————and unto the judgments, which I teach you
THE SCHOOL BELL could be heard all the way from the bridge on the main road. We walked in style, shaped by the wind, toward the gmelina trees by the tarred road. The road ran straight to the roundabout at Assumpta Cathedral, and from there branched in two, one fork leading toward Port Harcourt, the other to Onitsha. The tarred road sloped sharply down toward the river, creating a deadly gully. Down there, people lived in squalor and sold salted, fried plantain chips that came as either ripe or unripe. We ran down the sloppy path and bought ripe plantain chips for lunch. Dressed in bright white shirts and trousers, we marched through the dim forest, where our polished sandals reflected any trace of light.
It was Ebuka who first mentioned Tupac. He tapped my shoulder and asked, “What do you know about rap music?” Then he started rapping “Dear Mama” as we approached the swamp. We clapped for him and told him it was good, Kachi and me.he school bell could be heard all the way from the bridge on the main road. We walked in style, shaped by the wind, toward the gmelina trees by the tarred road. The road ran straight to the roundabout at Assumpta Cathedral, and from there branched in two, one fork leading toward Port Harcourt, the other to Onitsha. The tarred road sloped sharply down toward the river, creating a deadly gully. Down there, people lived in squalor and sold salted, fried plantain chips that came as either ripe or unripe. We ran down the sloppy path and bought ripe plantain chips for lunch. Dressed in bright white shirts and trousers, we marched through the dim forest, where our polished sandals reflected any trace of light.
Kachi could almost pass for a half-caste. He was shorter than Ebuka, taller than me. Kachi was the one who suggested we go through the forest. Ebuka didn’t want to. He said they were waiting for him today, and he didn’t know how or when they would strike. Better to go through the main. I was the one who said we should go by the river. The river was covered in flowers and ferns and smelled like rotten eggs. By the palm trees we turned and followed a smaller path.
“Can you lend me your Tupac CD?” I asked Ebuka.
“Yes, but make sure you return it without scratching it. It belongs to my elder brother.”
Three weeks ago, Ebuka’s parents had bought a new VCR machine and placed it right under the television set. It was raining when he came to my house and asked me to come and see it. I sat and watched a wrestling match between the Undertaker and Hulk Hogan. The electricity went off, and only light from the orange sun dropped in through the window lintel. A wall covered with green moss blocked half the sunlight. The rays were golden, sharp, and filled with tiny particles running away from each other in a lyrical, chaotic way. I raised my hand to touch them. The musky smell of Ebuka’s living room filled my nose. On the dining set with its torn chairs sat a basket of fruit. The first time I saw it, I thought the fruit was real. Only when I touched it did I realized it was made of rubber.
Ebuka, Kachi, and I walked down the little path toward a gmelina tree as tall as a three-story building, its green leaves trembling in the wind. A cluster of monarchs swelled on the cassava stems rooted by the tree.
Out of the forest stepped Edwardo and his boys, wielding deadly weapons, mostly notched and scarred sticks. Ebuka tried to run, but they tackled him, and he hit his head on a stone. Luckily, his hand hit the ground first, but a lump as big as a mango swelled from his head. He stood up and staggered towards the gmelina tree. Before I knew it, Kachi had joined the fight. A black belt in taekwondo, he beat the four boys so easily that my charging in would have meant nothing. Ebuka recovered, stumbled again, then punched one of the boys in the mouth. The boy’s teeth chattered like a jar of coins, releasing blood and spit from the side of his mouth. We chased the boys all the way to the fence and watched them scatter to the wind.
“Men, you gave that boy a deadly uppercut,” I said to Kachi.
Kachi was no troublemaker. He was in no gang. Just strong willed and a man of his own. Sometimes he could be annoying, though, especially when he chose to talk our ears off about some western philosopher. He read all the shit he could get his hands on. He was disciplined and listened to Jim Reeves all the time, like an old man. Well, I would give it to him, because he was the oldest among us, almost twenty-five during our last year in senior secondary school. Sometimes when I came by their house, I would see him practicing tai chi, pushing energy from within and directing it into the wind. If life rewarded us according to efforts, that boy would have a billion today. The last time I heard from him, he was in an office in Enugu, earning trifles and struggling to make ends meet. The violence the nation gave him was stronger in his mind than a clenched fist. When his father died and Kachi couldn’t afford to bury him, he posted on Facebook asking for help. A luta continua. I gave what I could to my comrade.
“I didn’t give it to him fully. If I had invoked my tai chi, his jaw would have shattered,” Kachi said.
He was a handsome young man, everyone said. His girlfriend sometimes waited for us beside the warehouse after school. Close to the warehouse, by the motherless baby’s home, was where Ababa Alualua, the madwoman, pitched the tent she made from a trampoline she had picked up from a refuse dump. She staked the trampoline there with four sticks, and there she hid when it rained. There she unleashed her own kind of terror and drew blood. There she waited for students returning from school. She was dark as night and slept on burning charcoal to keep warm. Her skin had burn marks all over and was scaly in places. She wore torn clothes and carried a raging madness in her head. Sometimes she quoted the Bible. “Now therefore hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you!” I will tell you about her later.
As we walked, Ebuka said over and over, swelling with anger, “These boys want to try me, Jesus. These boys want to try me.”
“But what did you do to them?” I asked.
He looked at me. His eyes were greenish-yellow, and I never knew why. He was never sick. He was strong as wood and chiseled slim, taller than all of us. He was the only one among us who was a member of a cult, which he joined because his brother did. The boys who attacked him were members of a rival cult. The last time Ebuka and I talked, he was somewhere in Awka, working for the government, dressed in clean suits. You would never have recognized him. You could never tell he was once that young and bloody. Always fighting. Always taking men down on the dusty road. They all knew him.
“These boys want to try me. It’s a closed matter, and you weren’t here. Neither of you. I don’t want anything to happen to you guys,” he said.
Fortunately for me, I hadn’t touched anyone. When the boys came into our classroom looking for Ebuka, I wasn’t there. But when I arrived, I saw Ekemute beating him with a plank. There was nothing I could do, so I stepped back. I didn’t start being a coward that day. It had always been that way. Writing in my diary was more important to me than getting my head split open. The smell from the dusty window broken by Ebuka’s head lingered in the air. He leaned beside the lintel, bleeding from his head and trying to take them all on. He got four of them with good uppercuts and jabs before giving up. Then one of the teachers, Mr. Njoku, came into the room with a big stick, and the boys jumped through the second-floor window down to the lush sandy soil covered with green grass. That vast field. I once cut its grass in the open sun until my palms bled. All the memories of this place are steeped in blood, and they flood my mind like a sudden rush of waves on an open shore.
We rushed toward Kachi as Mr. Njoku lifted him and called for first aid. When he came back, he had stitches in his head. “Men, I didn’t know. I came in really late. Sorry, brother,” I said.
“I fought them well. Ask Ishi Aki,” Kachi said, laughing it off as if nothing had happened. As if his honor were still intact. As if it had been a kind of victory for him. Ishi Aki said he was right. I realized that Ebuka was nowhere to be found. They had come for him.
Mr. Njoku came back into the room. One boy, who stood with his back to the door, couldn’t tell why the class had gone quiet and continued talking, and Mr. Njoku lashed him wickedly with his cane. He flinched and scratched his back. Chibuike. The last time I heard from him, he was a gospel preacher, married with a child. That boy could never hurt a fly. He was unfortunate to be in a school where blood was spilled daily.
I am hiding behind my narration, as I always hid behind Kachi and Ebuka. The badger quickly learns how to live among stones by finding a home within them.
The bell sounded at eleven. I saw Ekemute walking toward the principal’s office. He was another human fashioned as a mere weapon. Almost six feet two, strong like the root of an iroko tree, eyes red all the time. They said his father was a policeman. Ekemute once came to school with a gun and fired it into the air on the field while a rival cult group ran helter-skelter toward the small red gate at the back of the school. He once beat two boys as big as he was to a pulp. One was a boy called Bonebreaker who looked like Mike Tyson. The other was Markudi Limited, tall and handsome. Ekemute first pushed him into the hibiscus flowers and knocked him unconscious before descending on Bonebreaker. He matched him, man to man, bone to bone. Each punch from Bonebreaker rattled Ekemute’s jaw. Each punch could knock a man out of his natural mind. That was why Ekemute was feared. Like Muhammad Ali laying into George Foreman, like water hauling down the Kainji Dam, Ekemute rose and began landing clean punch after clean punch. The ancient Romans would have loved watching us.
I remember the school painted white. Its name invoking the Holy Ghost. The school bell, the principals, the awkward teachers who grumbled about their unpaid salaries. The teachers who were beaten once or twice by students during one of our numerous riots to abolish any system that would have checked our rotten impulses. The constant wind from the river. After the last riot, the police came and picked up Ekemute. He came back after a few days and told us how he had beaten everyone in the cell until they made him king. Ekemute the king.
After school that day, as Ekemute walked toward the old telephone pole hung with two broken cords, Ebuka emerged from the labyrinth of hibiscus flowers before the junior secondary section, wielding a rod. Ten other boys were with him, mean as fuck. They threw Ekemute to the ground and beat him till he wriggled as if he were caught in the spirit. As Ekemute’s boys quickly gathered themselves to counterattack, the principal saw what was happening, closed his window, locked his doors, and called the police. I could imagine him sitting there, nearly shitting his pants. Father Clement. He could be tough as a bone, but easily gave in to panic when things got out of hand. The students knew this and used it against him.
The staff room was quickly closed, too. Our vice principal peeped through the pillars and screamed. Her hair was permed and wavy, her nails painted red. “Oh, my God!” was all she could say before running back into her office and locking the door.
The only teachers who had the balls to confront the boys were Mr. Njoku and the one we called Oji Ochi Eme Njo, “he who beats and laughs at the same time,” a nickname he’d acquired due to his craftiness and penchant for deception. That man could be laughing and flogging you senseless and make you laugh along with him. He once flogged me for tardiness, even though he knew my father. The green walls of his house by the school gate had peeled year after year to reveal strips of white underneath.
I can still see the dim flash of morning sunlight hitting the school gate. Angels could have lived here, but boys made it a living hell. Every boy who went through that school and survived it became a rebel forever. A veil of bloody memories covered us all. The smell of fallen gmelina fruits. The faint scent of rubber by the tap beside the sisters’ house. The blind boys’ quarters. Joshua the blind boy once went straight for a student’s eye with a compass. He didn’t miss. He stabbed him right in the pupil for calling him a blind boy. Rickety walker. Joshua the blind boy. That last time I heard from him, he was married and still receiving assistance from the government. Two kids growing as fast as shoots.
Mr. Njoku came running from the physics lab, and Ebuka and the other attackers ran into the bush, leaving Ekemute on the ground, bleeding. He wiped sweat and blood from his face, his hand big as a bat. The strong Ekemute beaten to a pulp. His white shirt was drenched in blood and water. They took him in for first aid, and soon the police arrived and shot tear gas into the air, and students scattered in all four directions.
“Serves him right,” Kachi said, a note of victory in his voice.
“Serves him right,” I repeated. My voice was dim, a coward’s.
Uncle Jax once told me something hopeful about cowards: “Onye ujo ji ndu ya na nke onye ike.” A coward holds his life and that of a strong person in his hands. My uncle’s eyes were firm as beacons, watching the grown maize in the garden. The wood would crackle as we roasted corn in the fire. He would always tell me stories. There was no one better than him. All his emotions rose in his voice. “One day, the tortoise heard that his friend had died, and he must cry for him. The tortoise doesn’t know how to cry.” And the story goes on, until the tortoise’s trick is discovered. But when he told stories like this, they weren’t really about tortoises. It was his way of getting at something bigger.
“A man took three steps to the north, looked back, and stopped,” he would say.
He looked up and watched a bird flying in the blue sky, right above the tall mango tree.
“A man drew a circle around himself and challenged the gods to a fight.” He would fan the burning wood and laugh lightly. “The attitude that my friend Okoroafor put up last night, it’s something you should know. Pay attention to the story I will tell you. Remember to use your tongue and count your teeth if anything happens to me.” Then he would begin the real story.
Kachi and I ran toward the second stairs and used the back route to leave the school. Everywhere smelled of human feces. We stepped carefully on the grass, navigating our way through shit and decaying food. Vultures bounced jauntily along the broken sewer pipes. This was where the boys shat most of the time. The school toilet was crawling with maggots.
We ran as fast as we could with our backpacks until we passed the school gate and headed toward home. The day was sunny and beautiful. Little red petals floated on the wind and stuck in our school clothes.
“Men, this might be the bloodiest day so far in school,” I said.
“Every day is a bloody day here,” Kachi said, looking straight at the warehouse. We drank water from the tap by the vulcanizer and looked behind the warehouse building for carbide, which we would use for making fireworks and wooden guns. When we got to the front of the building, right by the roundabout beside the government house, Ababa Alualua there. She was raging mad, blocking the highway and declaring that nothing would move, chasing anyone who wanted to pass with a machete. It wasn’t strange to see her like this; we were used to it. The stench of her skin occasionally wafted across.
“Can somebody get this madwoman out of the road?” screamed an okada man. When Ababa Alualua hit the coal tar with her machete and came after him, he turned his bike quickly and drove away.
Legend had it that Ababa Alualua was afraid of boys in white because of our school’s reputation as a violent lot, so she allowed us to pass. But each time we did was a test of the legend’s reliability. Another boy joined us, and we mustered the heart to cross. We walked close by the fence and avoided looking at her, like Perseus passing through Medusa’s hall.
After we thought we might be safe, Ababa Alualua flung her machete at us when we weren’t looking. The stone blade hit the other boy’s leg, slicing an artery. He ran for almost half a mile with blood flowing down his ankle before we stopped by the culvert stone, where we sat down and tried to stop the bleeding. A good Samaritan stopped and took us to the hospital. After the boy was stitched up, we walked down the open street towards Amakohia. At Rapour Hotel junction, I bid Kachi goodbye and followed the hospital road towards our house. Later, Ebuka told me everything that had happened to him after he ran into the bush.
When I got home, Uncle Jax was seated under the pear tree, snoring, his mouth open and a bottle of beer beside him. His eyes opened a bit. There was nothing left in him but the memory of blood. He had fought in the civil war, and his mind was never the same. He was never able to hold a job, always returning to our house. I remember a story he told about the day they fought off a Nigerian attack at Onitsha. How the sound of guns took over his natural mind and still echoed there. That rata-tata-ta-ta-ta. He would demonstrate for us. He told us how he hung on a tree with a bolt action and took out twenty-four Nigerian soldiers from a long distance. The war never left him. It had cracked the soft membrane of his mind. He later died from excessive drinking. Nigeria killed him. The colonial structure left behind killed him. The war killed him. His brown casket was lowered in front of his house and covered with sand. The priest prayed before we left.
The soft sounds of the evening were like cosmic music. A gentle wind blew from the river, fluttering the leaves in the golden sun at the horizon. The palm trees danced. The priest walked to the altar and knelt. We all loved him. He was the closest thing we had to Jesus. They said his mother was a white woman and his father was a Black man from Mbaise. He led the procession, carrying a cross with a crucified Jesus. It was gold with black paint, studded like thorns. The priest passed through the white door frame with its round arch and stepped into the sun. The altar servers followed, wafting incense, in their white surplices and red cassocks. They kept a steady hand. The priest led us through the Stations of the Cross. I stood outside in the sun, sweating through my clothes. The priest turned red but kept performing his rituals. People said he suffered most because his skin was lighter.
We knelt, then stood at the first station: Jesus is condemned to death. The street has given us nothing but blood and water. The church has given us nothing but blood and water. The schools, too. Our uncles, fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers. The brutality of watching blood upon blood has shaped our memories. It is like a blight on a corn seed stored away in a metal jar.
Later, the priest preached in church. He said we should contribute money to finish the church of Christ on earth. We prayed for countries fighting in Africa, for all parts of the world where there was no peace. We prayed for our bishops, for our pope, that God would give them the wisdom to lead his lambs like a good shepherd. We prayed for our leaders, even though they had nothing for us. We prayed for the unity of Nigeria.
When the sun came down behind the priest’s house, its light was reflected by the altar. The priest raised a piece of bread to my lips.
“The blood of Christ.”
The light that touched my face made me feel worthy, if only for a second. I saw nothing but blood when I closed my eyes. I saw nothing but the suffering of Christ. Ekemute, beaten to a pulp. And Ababa Alualua, whose madness was a raging fire.
Now, in California, I am latched to a wormhole of memory, and as I write, I can feel nothing but the wormhole sucking me into the labyrinth of my mind. Every corner of the room is bloody. The memories seem lightyears away, and at the same time seem to touch my skin. In the mirror I see my former self and not this man who works for Microsoft. My doppelganger lives in a vague corner of my mind, where he will remain for a long time. The air is fresh. The coffee is still hot. I sip it and place it on the table. I turn toward the sunlight and touch the window. The sky is red with blood and heavy with smoke and ash. Even though it is far from me, it looms large. The wildfire. I am tired. Maybe I will come back to this later.
A man once told me that chaos must have a voice. A man once told me that language could heal everything. The chambers of my mind are full of wormholes. When it is smashed open, dark things crawl out of it. Each step we took, each drop of blood spilled, each hand, each man, all our fear that lingered in the air, its scent both bitter and tasty—all of it returns to us. If language can set us free, each person who passes through those rusty white gates will taste the burning lips of freedom. If language alone could rebuild those walls, we might look at ourselves again. We might stare into our adolescent eyes one more time.
The bloody boys. The crack angels. The life of the streets. Blood. Survival. It all left nothing but a wound in the memory.
We are worthy, O Lord. We are worthy. Our memories carry the odor of sanctity, like Padre Pio’s stigmata. The hour of the sacrament has finally arrived. Grant us peace.
Chika Onyenezi is a Nigerian-born fiction candidate enrolled in the University of Maryland’s MFA program. His work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Chicago Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Evergreen Review, J Journal, and elsewhere.