Pako knew the drill; he would stand aside until the headmaster was through with the entire mental test. Then he would ask Pako to stretch his hands forward and stick out his buttocks. The whistling sound of the headmaster’s whip would travel the entire corridor to other classes, signaling terror to other dullards. Each lash that descended on his patched buttocks made me flinch, but Pako would maintain a masked face, like a clay effigy in Amese shrine. The only way Pako showed pain was an insignificant contortion on his face as the cane landed. Pako’s defiance and nonchalant attitude enraged our headmaster and he would continue to lash the boy.
“You goat…you don’t want to learn…you dirty pig…all you know how to do is fight and kill rabbit…you cow!” He would call Pako the names of all the domestic animals in the village. Pako would fix his eyes beyond the broken windows of our classroom straight into the garden, his mind focused on the tropical afternoon breeze moving plantain leaves, the hot sun baking papaya fruits and birds sucking at sunflowers.
After a hectic lashing one Monday, I decided to do something for Pako. I couldn’t stand the beating anymore, because my headmaster seemed to enjoy the routine.
“I can teach you the trick of multiplication,” I ventured on our way home.
“Since when did you become a magician?” He barked at me.
“That is not what I mean, I mean…” I stammered.
I could not explain myself to Pako; his anger fuse was shorter than the distance between a matchstick and the side of a matchbox. So I let the matter rest. A few days later, I noticed a change. Instead of the lion and antelope look we gave each other, he relaxed, and he started treating me differently, almost like a friend. Not that he apologized for the knock on the head he had given me. By the third week in school, after I’d taught him the trick of Mental, he allowed me to follow him around to some of the places he went.
On Fridays we were required to bring handwork to school; this could be a woven basket, brooms made from palm fronds, or bags made out of raffia. To get brooms, we would go looking for short palm trees to harvest the fronds.
The only place we could find wild short palm trees was the forest near the burial ground for children and village outcast. I could never have gone near such a bush by myself; I would rather take the beating of my headmaster. But Pako knew no fear and he did not mind taking me with him whenever he went.
Though Pako was slow in school, finding things in the bush was second nature to him. He knew where different trees and vines grew. He started teaching me how to set traps for different animals. The diameter of rope that caught a grass cutter was different from that which caught a squirrel. As for rabbits, he did not waste his patience with them. Pako knew what holes housed rabbits and he would dig the hole with a small hoe and smoke out the rabbit within few minutes. No rabbit ever out ran him, but you had to stay out of his way, or he could trample you as he tried to catch the fleeing rabbit.
One day Pako chased a rabbit right into Amese’s shrine, which housed the most revered god in my village. It was considered an abomination to kill anything that ran inside the shrine, because Amese was said to have saved our ancestors from getting slaughtered by enemies during a tribal war. Pako and I waited outside the mud shrine for the rabbit to come out. As soon as the rodent ventured out, Pako’s cutlass decapitated it right away. Once I got home, I told my father about the events by the shrine. My father quickly sprinkled chalk all over my body, grabbed one of my mother’s day old chicks and spun it round my head before throwing it away as a sacrifice to Amese. This was to ward off the inevitable dire repercussions of such a sacrilegious act.
Since Pako feared nothing, I knew he never told his mother. The only time Pako ran from anything was when we found a snake in a rabbit hole. He dreaded snakes because his father died from snakebite though many villagers believed it was more than just a snakebite that killed Okoduwa, Pako’s father. Okoduwa’s death was traced to a land dispute between him and Uduebor, a well known witchdoctor. Any sensible man would not have troubled witchdoctor, because of his juju power. But not the goat-stubborn Okoduwa. He dragged Uduebor to the elders’ council over a small piece of farmland. The elders awarded the disputed land to Okoduwa because he was great talker. After the verdict Pako’s father was so happy that he shared kola nut and alligator pepper amongst the elders. Meanwhile, villagers heard Uduebor saying, “No one steals a lion’s cub and lives to tell the tale, no, no, not in this village while my eyes are still open!” He spat large soot-like phlegm to his left side, rested his bicycle against a clay wall, and disappeared into his dreaded dark hut. The December day that was sunny, got cloudy and a heavy thunderstorm drove people to their homes.
The following farming season when Okoduwa went to clear the disputed land to plant yam, a snake bit him. He started rushing home to take an antidote, but only made it to the last stretch of the farm road before he collapsed. Farm women met him foaming in the mouth and vomiting white stuff. His legs jerked as if an evil spirit held his throat. He died by the bank of a little river and villagers carried him adedukenedu, like a bush pig killed by a hunter.
That was the only time I ever saw Pako expressed pain openly. He cried and rolled his body on the hot sand in their compound while elders laid his father to rest. While his mother mourned in the kitchen, Pako tied a black thread in his hand to ward away his father’s ghost in case he was roaming the world looking for a co-traveler to the spirit world.
Since Pako was only a Primary school pupil, there was no money to give his father a proper seven day celebratory burial ceremony. But my father gave him a black goat to perform a basic itolimin rite. The one goat was enough for Pako to inherit his father’s properties and land, including the disputed land with the witchdoctor.
Every pupil in my school knew how my father had given Pako a goat for his father’s final rites, and they were not surprised to see him bringing me a paper bag full of roasted termites. Prior to that time I knew that roasted termites were a delicacy, but I never knew how to catch them for food. Pako had said the best time to catch them was in the morning, at the first cockcrow when the termites came out in swarm for their final mating dance.
I did not eat Pako’s roasted termites. My mother had warned me never to eat food that was not given to me by her. “The quickest way to get poisoned with witchcraft is through stranger’s food” she’d say. On numerous occasions she told me that her eyes followed me everywhere I went, even when she was in her faraway farm. I knew she was not lying. You could never fool my mother, no matter how clever you were. One day, I helped myself to her piece of fish in her absence. When my mother asked me about the missing fish, I blamed it on our goat.
“No goat can reach that high to eat my fish; this must be a human-goat!”
She took me to one side of the kitchen, gave me a cup of water and asked me to rinse my mouth and spit out the contents inside a bowl. When I spat out the water, the bowl of water was full of fish particles from my mouth. She slapped the appetite for fish and lying out of my mouth forever. So even when the scent of Pako’s gift of roasted termites in my pocket filled my nose, my mother’s slap was more in my head.
Our second term in Primary Six came with many changes. The headmaster transferred his albino son, Ajebi from another school, to complete his sixth form school with us, we did not know why. The boy’s skin was the color of a festival pig skinned with hot water. He squinted at the slightest ray of sun light. He couldn’t keep his eyes open for long and neither could he keep his mouth shut. Ajebi behaved like one who had no bones in his body and his laziness was obvious from day one. He didn’t look like he could eat pepper fruit or make toys from cocoa yam stems like the rest of us.
Ajebi was the only one who wore sandals and socks to school, the rest of us went to school on our bare feet. We were used to the dust and hot sand burning our feet in the afternoon when the sun was at its fiercest.
Every morning Ajebi rode on his father’s Vespa motorcycle to school, something we were not even allowed to touch except when given the honor of washing it. Many tales followed him to Uwessan Primary School from the township of Ubiaja. He told us how he ate eggs, toasted bread, butter and drank Lipton tea for breakfast. We could not argue with this albino about any thing because half of the time we had never seen the things he talked about. We did not even have to ask him before he would start confessing and we wanted to hear more.
“We have television and a big radiogram covered with my mother’s antimacassar,” Ajebi boasted.
The talk that interested me most was when he said, “When I finish from this your village primary school,” as if it were not his school too, “I will go to a Federal Government College, where tea, Cabin Biscuit and eggs are served for breakfast!”
Who in his right sense would give a child egg to eat? We swallowed his boasts with more than a pinch of salt. But any place where children drank tea before going to school was not something that could be ignored for long in my village.
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