Friday 21 July 2017

Excerpts from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Excerpts from The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma:

My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives. His employer, the Central Bank of Nigeria, had transferred him to a branch of the bank in Yola —a town in the north that was a camel distance of more than one thousand kilometres away—in the first week of November of the previous year. I remember the night Father returned home with his transfer letter; it was on a Friday. From that Friday through that Saturday, Father and Mother held whispering consultations like shrine priests. By Sunday morning, Mother emerged a different being. She’d acquired the gait of a wet mouse, averting her eyes as she went about the house. She did not go to church that day, but stayed home and washed and ironed a stack of Father’s clothes, wearing an impenetrable gloom on her face.

Neither of them said a word to my brothers and me, and we did not ask. My brothers — Ikenna, Boja, Obembe — and I had come to understand that when the two ventricles of our home — our father and our mother — held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them. So, at times like these, we avoided the television in the eight-columned shelf in our sitting room. We sat in our rooms, studying or feigning to study, anxious but not asking questions. While there, we stuck out our antennae to gather whatever we could of the situation.

By nightfall on Sunday, crumbs of information began to fall from Mother’s soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird: “What kind of job takes a man away from bringing up his growing sons? Even if I were born with seven hands, how would I be able to care for these children alone?”

Although these feverish questions were directed to no one in particular, they were certainly intended for Father’s ears. He was seated alone on a lounge chair in the sitting room, his face veiled with a copy of his favourite newspaper, the Guardian, half reading and half listening to Mother. And although he heard everything she said, Father always turned deaf ears to words not directly addressed to him, the kind he often referred to as “cowardly words.” He would simply read on, sometimes breaking off to loudly rebuke or applaud something he’d seen in the newspaper — “If there is any justice in this world, Abacha should soon be mourned by his witch of a wife.” “Wow, Fela is a god! Good gracious!” “Reuben Abati should be sacked!” — anything just to create the impression that Mother’s lamentations were futile; whimpers to which no one was paying attention.

Before we slept that night, Ikenna, who was nearly fifteen and on whom we relied for the interpretation of most things, had suggested Father was being transferred. Boja, a year his junior, who would have felt unwise if he didn’t appear to have any idea about the situation, had said it must be that Father was travelling abroad to a “Western world” just as we often feared he someday would. Obembe who, at eleven, was two years my senior, did not have an opinion. Me neither. But we did not have to wait much longer.

The answer came the following morning when Father suddenly appeared in the room I shared with Obembe. He was dressed in a brown T-shirt. He placed his spectacles on the table, a gesture requesting our attention. “I will start living in Yola from today onwards, and I don’t want you boys to give your mother any troubles.” His face contorted when he said this, the way it did whenever he wanted to drive the hounds of fear into us. He spoke slowly, his voice deeper and louder, every word tacked nine-inches deep into the beams of our minds. So that, if we went ahead and disobeyed, he would make us conjure the exact moment he gave us the instruction in its complete detail with the simple phrase “I told you.”

“I will call her regularly, and if I hear any bad news” — he struck his forefinger aloft to fortify his words — “I mean, any funny acts at all, I’ll give you the Guerdon for them.”

He’d said the word “Guerdon” — a word with which he emphasised a warning or highlighted the retribution for a wrong act — with so much vigour that veins bulged at both sides of his face. This word, once pronounced, often completed the message. He brought out two twenty-naira notes from the breast pocket of his coat and dropped them on our study table.

“For both of you,” he said, and left the room.

Obembe and I were still sitting in our bed trying to make sense of all that when we heard Mother speaking to him outside the house in a voice so loud it seemed he was already far away.

“Eme, remember you have growing boys back here,” she’d said. “I’m telling you, oh.”

She was still speaking when Father started his Peugeot 504. At the sound of it, Obembe and I hurried from our room, but Father was already driving out of the gate. He was gone.

Whenever I think of our story, how that morning would mark the last time we’d live together, all of us, as the family we’d always been, I begin — even these two decades later — to wish he hadn’t left, that he had never received that transfer letter. Before that letter came, everything was in place: Father went to work every morning and Mother, who ran a fresh food store in the open market, tended to my five siblings and me who, like the children of most families in Akure, went to school. Everything followed its natural course. We gave little thought to past events. Time meant nothing back then. The days came with clouds hanging in the sky filled with cupfuls of dust in the dry seasons, and the sun lasting into the night. It was as if a hand drew hazy pictures in the sky during the rainy seasons, when rain fell in deluges pulsating with spasms of thunderstorms for six uninterrupted months.

Because things followed this known and structured pattern, no day was worthy of remembrance. All that mattered was the present and the foreseeable future. Glimpses of it mostly came like a locomotive train treading tracks of hope, with black coal in its heart and a loud elephantine toot. Sometimes these glimpses came through dreams or flights of fanciful thoughts that whispered in your head — I will be a pilot, or the president of Nigeria, rich man, own helicopters —for the future was what we made of it. It was a blank canvas on which anything could be imagined. But Father’s move to Yola changed the equation of things: time and seasons and the past began to matter, and we started to yearn and crave for it even more than the present and the future.

(Source: The Punch Magazine)

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