After a while, my plans began to unravel. I realized that I would never be able to enlist Naema's boyfriend. Naema herself would block the plan. In fact, until that night she had been taunting Maisha to move out, saying that if she were as old as Maisha she would have left home long ago. Besides, even if I fled to the Kibera slums, as soon as we touched the tourists, the police would come and arrest my parents and dismantle our shack. They would take away Maisha's trunk and steal her treasures.
Baba started awake, as if a loud noise had hit him.
"Is that Maisha?" he asked, closing his eyes again.
"No, Maisha is working," Mama said. "My Maisha commands musungu and motorcars!" she said, her good mood returning.
"What? What musungu, tarling?" Baba asked, sitting up immediately, rubbing sleep and hunger from his eyes with the base of his palms.
"White tourists," Mama said.
"Uh? They must to pay ma-dollar or euros. Me am family head. You hear me, woman?"
"And no Honolulu business. What kind of motorcar were they driving?"
"Jaguar," I answered. "With driver. Baba, we should not allow Maisha to leave"
"Nobody is leaving, nobody. And shut up your animal mouth! You have wounded my wife! Until I break your teeth tomorrow, no opinion from you. No nothing. Did you thank the ma- men for me?"
"No," I said.
"Aiiee! Jigana, where are your manners? Did you ask where they were going? Motorcar number?"
"So if they take her to Honolulu, what do I do? Maybe we should send you to a street gang. Boy, have you not learned to grab opportunities? Is this how you will waste school fees in January? Poor Maisha."
He squinted incredulously, and lines of doubt kinked up his massive forehead. He pursed his lips, and anger quickened his breath. But that night I stood my ground.
"I don't want school anymore, Baba," I said.
"Coward, shut up. That one is a finished matter." "No."
"What do you mean by no? You want to be a pocket thief like me, . . . my son? My first son? You can't be useless as the gals. Wallai!"
"Me, I don't want school."
"Your mind is too young to think. As we say, The teeth that come first are not used in chewing.' As long as you live here, your Baba says school."
"You telling me never? Jigana!" He looked at Mama. "He doesn't want school? Saint Jude Thaddaeus!"
"Bwana, this boy has grown strong- head," Mama said. "See how he is looking at our eyes. Insult!"
Baba stood up suddenly, his hands shaking. I didn't cover my cheeks with my hands to protect myself from his slap or spittle, as I usually did when he was angry. I was ready for him to kill me. My family was breaking up because of me. He stood there, trembling with anger, confused.
Mama patted his shoulders to calm him down. He brushed her aside and went out to cool off. I monitored him through a hole in the wall. Soon he was cursing himself aloud for drinking too much and sleeping through Ex-mas Day and missing the chance to meet the tourists. As his mind turned to Maisha's good fortune, he began to sing "A Jaguar is a Jaguar is a Jaguar" to the night, leaping from stone to stone, tracing the loose cobbles that studded the floodwater like the heads of stalking crocodiles in a river. In the sky, some of the tall city buildings were branded by lights left on by forgetful employees, and a few shopping centers wore the glitter of Ex-mas; flashing lights ascended and descended like angels on Jacob's dream ladder. The long city buses, Baba's hunting grounds, had stopped for the night. As the streets became emptier, cars drove faster through the floods, kicking up walls of water, which collapsed on our shack.
Back inside, Baba plucked his half-used miraa stick from the rafter and started chewing. He fixed his eyes on the trunk. A mysterious smile dribbled out of the corners of his mouth. Eventually, the long stick of miraa subsided into a formless sponge. His spitting was sharp and arced across the room and out the door. Suddenly, his face brightened. "Hakuna matata!" he said. Then he dipped into the carton and came up with a roll of wire and started lashing the wheels of the trunk to the props of our shack. For a moment, it seemed he might be able to stop Maisha from going away.
Copyright © 2008 by Uwem Akpan
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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