When I touched the red floor with my thumb, the paint smeared all over it. I dragged my index finger on the white wall as I crossed the corridor. I paused at the Formica door and looked at my index finger smeared with white and red dusty paint. It was a sunny day, but the three-story building behind us shielded the morning sun. Only a slanted sheet of sun found its way through the topmost glass louvers. They all looked dusty. I was supposed to clean them today.
The rays were golden, and tiny particles of dust fluttered in the light along a path carved by the sun. Some of the chairs at the dining table were broken, but we didn’t care. There were more important things to do with money in the house. My school fees weren’t paid yet. A few days before, I’d been sent home from school, and Father said he would give me the money by the end of the week.
Because the earth was moving, the rays moved too. I watched the movement on the back of the tattered wooden chair in our living room for a while. I walked to the kitchen and washed my hand. The red and white paint on my hand dissolved and washed down the drain. Through the window, right in front of me, I could see the verandas of the two-story building behind us. Margret was playing on their veranda with her pink toy. They lived on the first floor, to the left.
She never came out to play with us in the evening. We heard they had it all, everything they needed in their house. The only time I saw her outside was with her family, riding their bicycle towards the river. Kacey and I sat on the slanted cement floor at the front gate and watched them go up and down. Kacey and I had been friends for a long time, probably because it was convenient for us to be friends. Our parents didn’t have a car like Margret’s parents, and we both walked to school.
Margret was wearing a beautiful white gown that kids wore only to parties or church service. I mean, they were so rich she could wear anything, any time any day. My red shirt torn at the collar had Australia written on it. My brown khaki pants were bought for cheap at the second-hand market by my sister.
Margret, the golden girl with golden black hair that sparkled in the sun, leaned on the old railing in front of their porch wiping dust with her index finger. Her life was just the opposite of mine. Her life was exactly what I imagined a good life to be. Almost everything I dreamed of. I wanted to go to their school where the boys wore a checkered purple button-up shirt and plain purple pants.
There were hundreds of pigeonholes beside their front porch where birds nested all year long. The pigeonholes covered the staircase. I once brought home three little birds that fell into our compound, just by the tap gutter right beside the fence. The green moss spread thin under the running water. The green moss spread across the wall. The green moss was all over the pigeonholes. Snails crawled on the wall, leaving slimy trails behind.
All manner of things were left to dry in the sun. A tray with Egusi that our neighbor Mama Odinaka placed on her side of the fence. Corns hanging by their combs that my father put out in the sun. Bitter leaves. Broken bottles with a variety of colored liquids.
A cat walked through the fence, avoiding all the things placed on it. When it got to where I was, it pawed and jumped down. The neighborhood black cat belonged to no one and was hated by everyone. They said it was possessed by an evil spirit. Mama Odinaka said she saw the cat’s yellow eyes in the middle of the night and had bad luck the next day. I watched the cat walk to the far end of the fence and disappear behind Mama Odinaka’s window.
When I lifted the bird’s nest, I saw two little birds in it. The third one died under it. I took them inside our house and spent the whole day carving out a home for them with an empty carton. I trusted those birds to survive, and the birds trusted me to keep them alive. I fed them grains which we had plenty of because my dad was a farmer. I gave them water to sustain them. Two days after, I found both of them dead in the cage wired with a light bulb. My sister’s chickens once got burnt in one of the cages I constructed with a lantern. I think the chickens must have pushed the lamp down at some point. When we woke up in the morning, only their charred remains were found.
These were the days we wished things were a little better for us, but watching the sun gave me a kind of hope. A flash of satisfaction.
I cleaned my hand and came outside to watch Margret play in her immaculate white dress. For some reason, I was too ashamed of whatever we were. Too ashamed of the Yamaha motorcycle parked by my father, beside the dining room window right in front of the house. Too ashamed we didn’t have a television set that was working, neither did we have a VCR machine.
The light breeze made me feel better. It was the month of November when harmattan was beginning to shape everything. The one-story building we lived in was shaped like a box and placed in the middle of the street. The shape of the street like a falling giant halted in front of the river. The shape of Margret’s laughter echoing through time, again and again.
“Look at my toy,” she said.
I looked at her, smiled and looked away, shyly. Pretending that wasn’t why I came out, but then something told me I was being rude to her.
“It’s beautiful,” I said.
She put down her toy and held the short metal rail firmly and asked me, “Which school do you go to?”
Our lives were so different. It was only I who knew both our schools because I saw her every morning in her beautiful purple uniform, going to school. Sometimes they drove past me, but I doubt if they ever saw me or maybe they pretended not to have seen me. This was the first time she had ever spoken to me, even though I wanted to talk to her a million times on Sundays. I once stood beside them at church, and they didn’t even notice me. She was with her parents and two brothers.
“Bell Camp Primary School,” I said, “right beside your school.”
“You know where my school is?”
“Yes, I walk past it every day before crossing over the flyover,” I said.
“You go to school across the flyover?”
“People say your school is a bad school,” she said.
I kept quiet. I didn’t know what to say to her.
The sun moved to the middle of the earth. The house cast its shadows behind me and kits hovered above, looking for chickens. The rough voices of Oriental Brothers filled the spaces around us. A man carrying a radio with two loudspeakers, and selling cassettes, walked past. I saw him through the metal rail on the fence, right beside the stall. A rough metallic tenor bellowed from the speakers, baring our two worlds to the public. Scorched by the sun above us, we watched each other in silence.
“Onye uta atakwayala!” the fading voice on the radio sang.
I listened, but she still watched me from time to time as if I owed her some answers. As if my silence wasn’t enough to say it all.
What does the world want from me?
The density of the world around us weighed on my shoulders. I was barely nine years old. Barely making sense of the world. I barely knew the reason why the pawpaw tree growing right by the fence was said to be male because it produced flowery little seeds that refused to grow big.
“Wouldn’t they grow big?”
“No,” a voice rusty as the voices of Oriental Brothers said to me. That voice stayed with me ever since then, like plucked strings vibrating in an echo chamber.
The girl moved the toy again and waved at me.
“It’s not a bad school. I have good friends there,” I said.
“Are you good at math?” she asked.
“Can you solve this for me?”
“What?” I asked, squinting closer. I walked to the tank and climbed atop so I could see the paper she was waving at me. I once fell from this tank a long time ago. Not when the sun was high. The day that I fell, it was soaking wet and the light coming out the lanterns in our kitchen looked magical, and I slipped. I had a couple of bruises here and there, and that was it. I climbed on the fence and looked closer.
“Okay, let me read it out to you,” she said, and I nodded my head.
“Three hundred and sixty times four hundred.”
The question stabbed my ears and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know the answer either. I wasn’t going to start mapping all that out in my head.
“John! Where are you!” I heard someone screaming my name. It was Kacy. I knew that voice. I knew what it meant. It was time for soccer.
“I will answer you later!” I told her and jumped down the fence. I ran to the field beside our house. The sun hoisted itself at the blue house close to Victoria Hospital and burned blistering white. The sand over there seemed to be boiling on the surface.
These were some of the days we watched the sun.
We started playing soccer on the field right in the middle of our compound and an uncompleted building. The wind from the river brushed across our brows and sweltering bodies. We passed the ball to each other. It was Kacy who passed the ball to me and I kicked it. It ran through Udenwa’s legs and went over the goal post. Udenwa. Strong as a he-goat. Udenwa came from the village to help his aunty with trade. They later sent him back because he stole two fishes in the middle of the night from his aunty’s pot of soup.
We stayed out there till the sun faded down the river. It burned orange and hovered large on the horizon. Palm trees jolting out of the river covered the lower part of the sun. We sat down there. The three of us. Udenwa and Kacy, talking about spacecraft and how possible it was to build them.
“The Germans can do it!” Kacy said. He was always bringing the bloody Germans into everything. He was always talking about the Second World War. He knew almost everything about Hitler and even believed the Germans could do anything.
“Ta! Look at you, what do you know? I am telling you that the technology they used in the Biafra war was too advanced for you to understand. Ojukwu brought together the best scientists in Igboland and asked them to come up with a solution. These men worked day and night and turned the tide of the Biafran war. They developed Ogbunigwe and used it to demolish the Nigerian soldiers,” Udenwa said.
He never said a sentence and just shut up. He never just uttered a word. He always wanted to have these long conversations with everyone whenever he saw you.
“Udenwa has come again with his lies,” I said.
“Look at you. What do you know? Is it because I am playing soccer with you boys? You guys are kids, oh! Let me tell you something you don’t know. Let me teach you your history. We built armored cars too and refined our oil.” While he was talking, I focused on his oily skin shining in the dim sun, muscles jolting out like he could strangle a man to death with little or no struggle. I looked up at the flowers in front of another yellow house opposite our compound and watched yellow petals falling on the terra firma from time to time. “Biafran scientists would be the best in the world if they were here today. They would have built rockets,” Undenwa said. That was the summary of his argument.
We just wished we could see a spacecraft burning towards the yellow sun. That was all we wished for. Kacy said something about his mother coming back soon and walked down towards their house. I knew he was just tired of Udenwa’s constant rambling. I was left with it, so I sat down on the sand and listened. He kept on talking, but I wasn’t listening. I was now thinking about the math problem Margret gave me. He kept touching my shoulder from time to time, and I kept brushing his hand aside. The flowering pumpkin seedling hung on the metal fence like a wrecking ball. The landlord had earlier warned Mama Junior to stake her pumpkin seeds instead of letting them crawl on the metal rail. The mango rooted by the fence that Mama Junior claimed as hers, but almost everyone living in the apartment ate fruit from it. The soak pit stank, the cement blocks cracked. The dry leaves huddled themselves across the playing field.
“Biafra has everything it takes,” Udenwa said.
“I mean, but we are talking about the people that are doing it now, and if we can see it.”
“Ah, now I understand.” He continued talking again. I laughed inside my head because I thought he was stupid.
I looked down the distance and saw my mother at the back of a motorcycle and ran inside. I remembered that I hadn’t cleaned the louvers she asked me to clean. I tried to dust it hurriedly but I had no time before she knocked on the door, and my sister opened the door for her. I knew that after she dropped her bag, she would go straight to the louvers and check them. I knew she was mad, so I started walking back when she called me.
“Did you clean this at all?” she asked, and I said yes.
“Then you have to clean them again, right now,” she said.
I thought she was going to hit me but she rarely did that. It was my school teacher who used the cane all the time. She said we ought to learn everything as fast as we could. It was in that class that I became friends with Kacy. The last time she flogged us, she asked us all to raise our hands and keep steady. The cane whistled loudly each time it bounced on our backs. It was Eze who wrote our names on the list of noisemakers. It was Kacy who made me talk. He asked me which color to use, and I said red. Eze saw us and wrote our names down. Sometimes, I wonder what happened to Eze, always happy though.
I spent the evening cleaning the windows again. When darkness came, I lighted a lantern and kept it on the dining table. The sound of crickets came from the little garden right at the far end of the fence, and towards the street. My punishment that night was cleaning the windows while the rest of the family watched a show by Donald Ekenta, Iche Na Mmadu bu Ewu, on IBC television station. Donald’s laughter made my heart ache. I wished I was sitting right there with them. I wondered what Donald was doing, maybe pulling out one of his tricks. Dragging a goat dressed in a blouse and glasses. The stench of calamine lotion wafted out of the cupboard when my mother opened it. Everything we needed for medication was stored in there. Right under them were beautiful ceramic plates my mother never brought out except during ceremonies. There was a picture of those ceramics in the living room. They all glittered in the sun while the rest of the family stood behind my elder brother. I remembered that day vividly, the flashlight struck our eyes for a brief second.
It was the same night the town crier hit his gong nearly six times between intervals. It was the rough sound of the gong that made everyone rush to the window.
“Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Everybody listens to my voice!” The man hidden in the darkness walked down the road towards the river and beat his gong again. “Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Everybody listen to my voice! The river is thirsty, again, the river is thirsty. The river is angry too. I will say it again, the river is angry too. Nwaorie said that a human head must be used to appease her. I will say it again, Nwaorie said that a human head must be used to appease her. Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong! Gong!”
The river, once silent had opened its mouth again. Whenever news like this hit town, people panicked. People began running around to fetch water and store it away. As if the oracle had indeed spoken, the water tap began to run slow. Our fear dragged us around from there. We lined our buckets before the water tap and waited for our turns.
The town crier walked around the street, and his voice echoing from the distance could be heard in our midst. His part was done. He had delivered a message from the river goddess. The moon was right in the middle of the space between our compounds and Margret’s compound.
At some point, I was the only one left outside. I looked at Margret’s apartment and saw a light through the window. Margret opened the door and came out. I think she smiled in the darkness. There were two black drums right by the window. Clothes hung on the red line tied across the metal pole on the balcony rail.
“What did you do today?” she asked me.
“We watched the sun,” I said.
“Yes, we. Udenwa, Kacy, me, and two other boys that live down the road. We played soccer and talked about spacecraft.”
“I wish I could watch the sun with you guys,” she said.
“It can be boring too,” I said.
“It’s better than playing with toys all the time.”
I didn’t mind trading Udenwa for that toy. He talked too much.
“Well, I don’t know. I have to go. I will still answer your question when I wake up tomorrow,” I said.
“I was just testing you,” she said.
I don’t know if she saw me or not, but I opened the door and walked in.
It was another evening after we had played soccer and began talking, that a man ran out from the river screaming. People ran down towards the river. Udenwa sped ahead of Kacy and me and ran towards the river. Right through the brown electric pole, towards the face-meI-face-you one-bedroom styled apartments. We torched the tank right by the mango tree before finding our way into the narrow path that led to the river.
The river was in front of us, boasting. It had eaten the fattest meat she could find. Margret. The girl hidden both in the sun and darkness had been taken by the river. The girl that wanted to watch the sun with us. Her body was swollen and marked with bits from the river. She laid lifelessly on the river ferns, floating towards the shore. It was Rastaman who dragged the body away from the river. Rastaman with his long dreadlocks, smoking weed under the shimmering orange sun. His bare hairy chest was filled with sweat. We watched him drag her body down the narrow path with cassava planted on both sides, and when he dropped her, water came out of her mouth and the body twitched.
“Jah has taken, Water Gwan! Jah has taken, Water Gwan!” Rastaman said and puffed heavy smoke into the air, flipping his hair towards his right hand.
Rastaman lived in the middle of the river and always docked on our end of the river while on his way to the market to sell fishes. He would often preach to us and ask us to repent. “For the kingdom of Jah is near. Only the righteous shall inherit the halls of my father. Jah Rastafari.”
The light from the evening moon would still bear traces of the same truth in them. If some alien technology could mirror it light years away from now, they would still see Rastaman standing close to the body rubbing his hair with the same hand he dragged Margret with. The light pierced through the mango tree and rested on the cassava stems. We stood under the mango tree watching. Our shadows cast beside us.
“Jah has taken, Water Gwan.”
The river took her and cleaned her mouth. It was said that she got tired of being locked in the house. A couple of days after our conversations, she left the house through the back door and followed the sweet sun shining on the morning flowers when the river called her.
She looked like she didn’t even suffer. She had a smile on her face. Rastaman said she died smiling. Her beautiful hair was studded with seaweed, and she died in her white gown. I wondered if she knew this was going to happen to her when she was talking to me. I wondered. People told the story of Margret as the story of the girl who went to the river alone, or the girl whom the sea lured to its presence. The sea ate her and wiped its mouth clean. People still tell her story to this day. Margret, the girl who watched the sun. She was thirsting for sunlight and nothing else.
Chika Onyenezi is a Nigerian-born fiction candidate in the University of Maryland’s MFA program. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming in Chiron Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Ninth Letter, Evergreen Review, Scoundrel Time, and elsewhere. He is a 2018 Kimbilio Fellow, and a 2019 writer-in-residence at Craigarden. In addition to writing short stories, he has a novel in progress. His website is chikaonyenezi.com.