A short story by Onis Sampson
“Why don’t you talk?” Anayo asked. A playful chap, energetic and a fitting model for someone you’d call a jovial little boy. He was only ten, and a year older than I was. As he spoke, it seemed the eyes of the children who clustered me burned right into my soul. Not that I saw their eyes, and not that I raised my head to look at them. But I felt them ominously. Real, overt, and felt from strong cords connected by a telepathic understanding for my little age then.
“It’s because none of you listen. You don’t care to know what I think, feel or say!” That singular outburst from an adrenaline high provoked my latent writing abilities at the end of the day. The children became silent and were overwhelmed by this adult kind of vituperation from a peer. I, too, felt that sense of the overwhelming. It startled me. Perhaps I wasn’t the one who had spoken. My little experience allowed for my state of mind to be one of confusion. Confused I was, yet words were welling inside of me while I remained in my crouched position, looking at the brown grain of sands on the earth and running my hand perfunctorily over them.
My playmates knew me as the silent one; quietude will be an overstatement to them. Chichi, the one they called my little wife, stood at a safe distance overshadowed by my other playmates in front, a group of about to eight to ten children at the playground in our compound at Number 25 Harbour Road, Port Harcourt. I didn’t see her face but her tiny finger nails and straight fair legs with a rounded fullness for a child her age were marks I definitely cannot mistake for another’s. I knew she would be suckling her thumbs at that moment. At seven she hadn’t stopped the habit.
You see Chichi loved to tell stories; she loved to gist, she loved drama but she wasn’t the talkative type. Chichi wasn’t quiet, either. She hung somewhere on the border, somewhere midway between the tip of the northern and southern hemispheres of temperament. While other children of opposite sexes loved to play games in the sand like building castles with plastic straws and other such children games, Chichi and I often sat to discuss stories. Adults often said we acted like adults. It was on one of those occasions that Mama Abobo, the neighbour who stayed downstairs called us small husband and wife. That was how the name started; and that was how the children took to calling us by that whenever we were together or at close range.
But the name never bothered us. It rather drew us closer in a strange way. There wasn’t a dull moment between the two of us. Her stories always kept the atmosphere lively and they brought out something in me: talkativeness. Once, one of our neighbours, a secondary school student, looked at us with a startling disposition and after his melodramatic poise asked, “You, how old are you?” while pointing at me. Talk about connection, about deep telepathy, about tacit and mutual understanding, we shared them all—but keep love out of it, we were too young and unexposed to know about it even though we sort of experienced its highs and lows as very close friends, not knowing there was something like L. O. V. E.
I didn’t know the exact number of children there. However, I knew Emmanuel and Miemie were there. Emmanuel was two years my senior. He and I often played games like cantaball and skeps. Skeps was a game where we’d use soft drink caps to aim and hit another cap as a way of scoring points. Miemie is Emmanuel’s younger sister, three years younger than I was. Amongst us, there was this tacit understanding that age wasn’t just a figure. It mattered but as children who are used to playing, our minds weren’t developed for such politics meant for teenagers and adults.
* * *
Directly before me was Bobo, the only bully amongst us. Bobo instilled fear in all of us. I had once dreaded him myself. He moved to stand right above me in my crouched position. He was my age mate. I’d never had a fight with him before but I’d always told myself I’ll disgrace him whenever the occasion called. The children around us were afraid for me. Suspense came with a sense of omen amongst them. Bobo kicked me but I ignored him. He kept on doing that and gradually increased the severity of his kicks just as he commanded that I replace his video game which I had mistakenly sat upon and broken.
Given to taciturnity and an introverted leaning, they were more surprised by my ensuing outburst,
“Why do you look for my trouble! Why can’t you let me be!” As I hollered at him, they heard the voice of the child in me come back.
“Why did you break my video game? Why did you do it? If you can’t answer be ready for the beating of your life! Can’t you talk?” In that instant my mind went into flashback mode: pictures of hot water spilling off the kettle mouth in the kitchen and pouring on me at age of five flashed through my mind… a car break applied suddenly with a terrible screeching sound right before me… diverse recollections hitting my head in fractions of seconds…
And then I was pushed on my head. The children were chattering and going wild with what I couldn’t place as excitement or fear of some kind. I had no doubt who had pushed me. Immediately, I rose up, took hold of Bobo’s two legs and jerked him up airborne, his heavy frame bearing heavily on my skinny build. The children shouted excitedly.
“Beat him! Beat him! Beat him! Yes, serves him right,” they chorused.
Bobo was on the floor, a lengthy bruise around his elbow. He was motionless. Tonye, a chubby little boy tapped him but there was no response. I saw excitement fading from their faces to be replaced by looks of panic. After a while, Bobo moved his head, turned around to see the eyes that looked at him pitifully. He bowed down his head in shame.
I turned around and walked away. I heard them calling after me. Anayo, my closest friend ran to meet me but I paid him no attention. I reached the iron door of my house, entered and shut the door against him and the world of my playmates. Guilt crept up to my heart intermittently but I struggled in vain fighting it. In the room, I saw my homework on the bed, the book opened like paper kites we often made for playing. I looked at the question again, “Write an essay on an unforgettable experience. Not more than four pages.” There and then it dawned on me I’ve just had one today. Still full of fury and a feeling of accomplishment after defeating Bobo, I went to the dining table and began to write. By the time I was done, I’d written well over ten pages without realising. Pleased with myself, I closed the book and threw it into the bookshelf. This was a startling experience to me. I’d never written something that long and I never knew I had such writing abilities. After this experience I would find myself writing about my encounters with friends at school, church, in the neighbourhood and so on. The process became gratifying. Much later, I took to reading stories by foreign and local authors. There were few children literature books at home so I resorted to reading my father’s books which he used while he was at the university. I found myself reading few pages from the collection, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. By the time I was thirteen, I’d gone through some of the thirty-nine plays and six large poems in the collection, howbeit haphazardly. Reading became a hobby for me. I engaged in it voraciously. I went through so many works by Wole Soyinka, reading his The Lion and the Jewel; The Jero Plays; Death and the King’s Horseman and several others. T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Walcott, Pound and so on, were poets whose writings imbued me with delight and inspired me to take to poetry as well.
At school the next day, my teacher scolded me for going past the four page limit but turned out to say she was impressed with my creativity and the originality of my voice. I wondered then what she meant by originality of voice. Today, in late my twenties, I recall her words once in a while and their meaning opens to me like thick clouds making way for the sun to rise.
PHOTO CREDIT: ONIS SAMPSON, 2017
ONIS SAMPSON is a young Nigerian lawyer, award-winning poet, essayist, playwright, scriptwriter, Author, and writer of diverse genres whose oeuvre is quite ineffable. His book of poems, A city is talking inside my head was recently published by Proofnet Publishers.