In the ember Months

[Deji Payne]

We stay in different postures beneath the flame trees that line the front of the hostel. The rocky pathway beneath is strewn with orange petals that the trees have shaken off.

I stand beneath the tree closest to the gate, the one farthest from the junction where Counsel lays in wait, the red point from his cigarette winking on and off as he puffs on it to warm himself. It is barely three in the morning, when the bitter winds of Zaria bear with them the vengeance of a single harmattan, and all five of us lie in wait for a single sound, one we have grown accustomed to hearing every morning in the ember months of our six years at Demon.

The wind whistles through the air and I dig my bare fingers deeper into the creases of my jacket, wondering why we didn’t pick a warmer night, why we couldn’t wait until March to break the Sarkin’s rule. In March, Demon is much warmer; the sun breaks free of its enclosure of clouds and lets warmth eat into the stiffness of the trees. The flame trees glow red. Instead of the dull orange that lay abound in the ember months, and the ixora bushes bloom into delicious hues of pink, bursting with flavor whenever we taste their sap. But in March, when the harmattan winds have migrated back to the Sahel to whip up the sands there, we do not think of breaking the Sarkin Ruwa’s rule. We do not have to. The hostels do not expel the fecal smell that blankets them now; our rooms are not permeated by body odors that won’t go away even when you rinse with sachets of water; and when fights break out, when the boys shout and bang their spoons against the balustrades, it is not because a bucket of water has gone missing.

From the tree where I sit, the wind occasionally offers me the putridity of the hostels, doling out to me in ample doses the smell we all try to escape. I scrunch my nose up and scoot farther away from the gate. Spirit has climbed up into the flame tree next to me, lucky to have been assigned to the one with low hanging branches.. 

“Spirit,” I whisper.

A reply comes with two sharp knocks on the bark of the tree. This is how the boy communicates. When he had first shown up at Demon, we had thought he was quiet, shy even. . Counsel had said he was troubled, but Raees had said he, Spirit, was simply being a snob. Habib had smiled too when Raees taunted Spirit, when Raees repeatedly said, “Wetin dey do you sef? Dey no dey talk where dey bring you from?” Raees’s taunts, Habib’s smile had continued until the day at the courtyard, as Raees begun taunting the boy again, pushing and prodding until, in one quick swoop, Spirit took Raees by neck, kicked his legs out from beneath him and threatened to throw him down the well. 

Three things surprised us that day: first was the ease at which Raees went down, the emptiness of his apparent swagger. Second was the swiftness at which Habib’s smile fled from his face and was replaced with eyes that spoke of horror. We had all seen Habib angry, it was one of the reasons he led us five – and all the boys in the hostel knew what his six-foot frame could do when he got angry – but none of us had ever seen him afraid. That day, it was as if all the smiles Habib had for Raees, all the joy he felt whenever Raees did anything as simple as breathe in his direction were suddenly replaced by thick darkness. Third, was Spirit’s voice, an orotund sharpness that cut through the noise of the boys gathered in the courtyard like a wuka slicing through shreds of soft suya; a simple, “E be like say you wan die,” uttered by a frail bodied person we had never heard speak. We continued to call him Spirit, even after that day, even after we had seen his name card. 

“You get any stick for here?” I ask, and Spirit drops down onto the pavement and walks over to hand me a half-used cigarette. I bring its burnt off edge to my nose and breathe in the tobacco. I begin to salivate at the promise of nicotine; I press the filter between my lips and Spirit lights up the edge before scuttling back up his tree. 

Many people would see all five of us now and shuffle away quickly, holding their bags tight as if we would come after them wielding our cigarettes; people who would think that we have nothing better to do with our lives, that our visible restlessness is the foundation of lives as pickpockets and thieves. But tell me, would a group of pickpockets be up at three in the morning so that they can help serve justice? Would restless teenagers plan against the Sarkin Ruwa to make sure that their friends get enough water to wash themselves?

Many people do not understand why we do what we do. Like the man on the radio who said, “Those boys from the Demonstration Secondary School in Kongo are examples of why the public school system should be revamped.” Like the Principal, Zero, who finds it important to buy new cutlasses every term so that we can trim the bushes of the school. “If your parents will not teach you, we will,” he always says. “If you boys don’t know what to do with your hands, then we will give you work.” Like our parents, who only have enough to put us here but not nearly enough to make us survive.

It is why all five of us are here this morning. We are here to make sure that we, and all the boys in the hostel, get what we rightfully deserve. What is the most valuable thing you own? To me, it is the jerry can filled with water I have hidden away in the broken creel at the end of the hostel. The most valuable things to us aren’t cigarettes or ganja hidden in opaque tubes of mentholated powder, they aren’t MP3 players shaped like cans of Coca-Cola, they aren’t packets of gold circle deftly hidden in the fissures of boxes; the most valuable thing here in Demon, in the ember months, are buckets of water. It will not matter to us if the water is slightly browned, like the dregs we pull up from the wells that quickly run dry; it will not matter if the water makes our skins sing, if they burn our eyelids and tickle our sphincters as they trickle down our body. It will not matter even if after hours of boiling, it still smells of decay as we pour washed rice into it; in Demon, water is water.

When the wells begin to run dry at the end of September and the school can no longer afford to pump the taps full of water every day, they call the Sarkin Ruwa and he brings one of his tankers of water, drives it twenty kilometres to Demon and fills our tanks. Or at least, this is what he is supposed to do. In our six years at Demon, the male hostels have never had an abundance of water in the ember months. The Sarkin and his boys come with the tanker every morning before the sun kisses the tip of the trees and fill the water drums of the female hostel first, and then they drive past the flame trees, through the wrought iron gates and dump whatever is left inside one of the three black four-thousand litre tanks of the male hostel.

How much water do you think five hundred and twenty boys need a day? How far do you think two thousand litres will go? When we complain to the man who hands us cutlasses, when we share our woes to Zero and to the administration of the Demonstration High School, they say that the girls need more, that they have more things coming out of their bodies, that girls always need to be clean. Boys should watch out for rain and manage what the wells offer.

Today will be different. We will stop the Sarkin before he dumps his offerings into the tanks of the female hostel and even if it just for a day, we will scrub our walls clean. We have planned this well, nothing will go wrong, not with Raees’ knife in play. As we dressed, after waking up to the muffled blares of Habib’s Nokia, I watched Raees slip a knife into his kaftan.

“Why? Will that be necessary?” I had asked.

“Better to be prepared, we can never know what will happen. This will be our Plan B,” he answered.

“There’s five of us; there’s no need for violence. We’ll ambush them, tie them up and take the water, simple.”

Raees chuckled and Habib’s voice filled the room: “But you know they say the Sarkin has a gun. We have to be ready.’

There are a few things I have come to accept in Demon, and one is Habib’s unwavering support for Raees. When we stood under Dogo’s shed and Raees slipped his hands through the metal bars and swiped Dogo’s phone, I had frowned in disapproval. Counsel had looked away and Habib had smiled, a smile that made me want to knock his teeth off his gums. We might not always know happiness but when we forget it exists, we find it lurking in the many smiles Habib shares with Raees.

I do not think we will need knives. After all, we are not bad boys. There are just times when life hands you rice and asks you to make kunun. Tell me, where will you find the mill to ground the rice with? Who will even keep watch as your rice soaks? We are not bad boys; we are just finding ways to make our kunun.

The sound of a horn comes tearing through the silence of the morning. It whips me out of my thoughts. In the same moment the headlights cut through the darkness, we hear the clanking of the truck as it threatens to fall apart. Counsel’s whistle breathes life into the cold that has eaten through my skin and I shoot up as Spirit jumps down from his tree. Our plan is simple: we will stop the truck as it enters the school, before it turns off our lane to drive down the road to the female hostel; we will tie the Sarkin up and force his boy to drive to our hostel and fill our tanks. We will not be needing knives to argue for us. We will not use many words. We have the numbers.

I watch as Counsel, Raees and Habib hail the truck and the driver steps down. Spirit gives a deep chuckle when Habib moves forward to push the man to the floor and that laugh disappears the next second when a loud bang rings through the air and sends the sleeping birds soaring from the trees. The Sarkin alights from the passenger side with a gun in his hands. Spirit and I run towards the truck and many thoughts pass through my mind. I should be running back, hiding away from the gun, but my loyalty ties me to my group; a peculiar mixture of anger and fear, guides my legs towards danger.

I see it in my head, someone’s blood, maybe Habib’s spreading across the floor. But when we reach them, the only thing spreading across the floor is the glow of the truck’s headlights, the only voice we hear is Habib’s. No one has been harmed. Yet.

“All we want is water, Mallam. It is not fair. Our boys need water,” Habib argues. He stands with Raees and Counsel, in front of the pointed gun of the Sarkin, who stands beside the driver.

“You stupid boys aren’t even supposed to get water,” the Sarkin retorts angrily. We have watched him many times, the Sarkin, with his rounded figure and large beard; we have seen his eyes from our rooms, his protruding stomach making us believe someone like that – someone whose only threat lay in the bulk of his body – could never own a gun. “Your school only pays for one tanker for the girls; the small one bring for you sef, it’s supposed to go to the girls too. Zero said that you are boys, una fit cope.”

The Sarkin’s words bite deep and I see anger building in Raees as he holds Habib down; this is not something that will end well, nothing involving an angry Habib ends well. “We will burn it,” Habib begins. “All this nonsense, we will burn everything to the ground,” he threatens.

I move to him, place my hands on his shoulder. “Calm down, we go figure am out.” But before I can say anything more, Spirit’s voice cuts through the dawn, like twilight slicing through the dark sky to herald the sun’s arrival.

“How much for a truck?” he asks.  

“What?’ the Sarkin says, frowning.

“I said, how much does a truck of water cost?”

The Sarkin heaves a dry laugh and even though it burns that he is mocking my friend, my throat tickles in amusement. Where would we find the money to buy a truck of water?

“Your school pays me twenty-five thousand a month to bring water every day. Una wan pay for two trucks?”

Spirit looks to Habib and a second barely passes as the tension breaks from Habib’s face and a smile appears. He looks to me and I smile back. Let me tell you, twenty-five thousand is not a lot; there are over five hundred boys at Demon and for five hundred boys, twenty-five thousand is not a lot if everyone donates fifty naira. This is what we tell the Sarkin; we will not fight his men; we will not burn Demon down. We will gather the money and pay him every month till the rains return but he must take us to where he gets the water from, so we can be sure.

When he agrees, Raees, Habib and I squeeze ourselves into the truck with the Sarkin at the driver’s seat and wave to Counsel and Spirit who will wait in Demon with the Driver. The truck moves past the gate and passes under the school sign where the ‘-STRATION’ has faded to spell ‘Demon Secondary High School’. We drive twenty minutes on the twisty murderous roads of Zaria; the town is still asleep and the silence of dawn is punctuated by the cries of several muezzins. When we reach Kufeina, where the government has built a large water tank held by long concrete pillars that reaches so high it seems anyone that stands on top of it might touch the sun, we stop. The Sarkin alights from the truck and we three get down and follow him across the floor to the bottom of the pillars where a valve is pointed directly at our face.

“Ready?” he asks and we nod.

The Sarkin slightly turns the lever on the valve and we are hit with a pulsating blast of warm water. I guffaw in pleasure and Raees holds Habib’s hands and says to him, “Smile for me.” My own lips stretch wide and as the liquid flushes away the dirt from my body. I think that this feeling of newness, this bright spark that threatens, like sunrise at dawn, to brighten up our lives is what Raees must have whenever Habib looks at him. As the sun rises, as our spirits flow with the waters that drive our darkness down into the soil, I think of warm sunlight dancing off clean walls, I think of the savory redolence of detergent on scrubbing brushes, I think of happiness, colored by the opacity of a hundred buckets of water.

Deji Payne hides his wings under court robes. An epicurean, his nonfiction has been published in We are Flowers, an anthology of queer writing from Nigeria.

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