Mama chides Wale because his amens aren't loud enough. They have to shoot out like arrows to project their prayers to Jesu in heaven. They are having their usual night prayers and Mama keeps emphasizing a prayer point, that Jesu save them from the jagged jaws of death.
"I bind every shadow of death hanging over this household! I reject the nightmare I had last night. Wale, you will not die ni oruko Jesu!"
When she finishes praying, her body drenched in sweat and her breath catching, Wale asks, "Who is death?"
Still on her knees, Mama lays her palms on his shoulders and looks into his eyes. "Death is a smoky figure garbed in a black cloak. He kills people."
“Where does it come from?” Wale says.
“He is lurching everywhere, Wale. Everywhere. But you are saved already ni orukoJesu!”
Wale shivers and his knees wobble. Mama holds him and says, “Do not be afraid. Jesu is looking over you.”
The young boy hugs his mother, finding a haven in the warmth of her bosom. Mama stands and rolls open a mat at the center of the living room. She turns the knob of the hurricane lantern on the short stool to adjust the wick so that it burns less brightly. Then she walks to the adjoining room parted away by coffee-colored curtains. She won’t let him sleep on the bed with her because of his bed-wetting. And the raffia mat is easier to clean unlike the mattress that takes days to dry in the sun.
Wale covers himself with his sleeping wrapper and gazes at the lantern, at the little flame crowning the wick. His eyes soon wander to the walls where the light from the lantern doesn’t reach. He sees the shadows that settle on them like thick smoke and he is reminded of death. He calls mama in a whimper. Mama answers and asks him to yield to sleep, that the blood of Jesu is protecting him. A moment passes and he calls again. This time, mama murmurs. He calls again, “Mama!” and silence answers with a cadence of aloneness.
The shadows start moving on the wall, bending, twisting, and changing form. It is a wrinkled hand with long slender fingers. Then a floating dark cloak. Then a bird gliding over the wall. He draws the wrapper over his head, closes his eyes and listens to his pounding heart. But he could still see the bird perched on a tree branch, pecking at a rotten mango. His best friend Segun is ahead of him, the rubber of his catapult stretched back, aiming at the bird. He releases the rubber and the pebble it holds launches for the tree. The bird falls to the ground. It kicks the air and squeaks. Wale picks a log from the ground and bashes its head. And it stops writhing. Dead.
Wale holds it up by its feet and blood drips from its neck and smashed head. Darkness creeps over the sky and engulfs the sun. The boys would have been afraid if Oga Mufu had not been carrying the news of Ọ̀sándòrun, the eclipse, like a prophecy of doom. Segun unfolds a polythene bag and Wale throws the bird inside. He drops the bloodied log, which falls into a small fire set at Segun’s backyard. The sun is shining bright again. The bird is now naked, plucked off of all its feathers. They stick it to a stick and hang it over the fire. This is quite routine for them, hunting birds.
Today, they use their catapults. Other times, they lure the birds into a cage with a mirror or, while hiding in a thicket beside maize stalks, snatch them as they pick maize on the farm. And all these hunts have always ended the same way: roasted bird meat.
Their mothers are not around. They went to a neighboring town for a church event. The boys are fatherless, so they can do anything they want. The boys are sitting beside the fire, watching as its tongue licks the bird’s skin. The bird sizzles and browns and shrinks as it cooks. A shrill lances out the fire. Wale covers his ears. But Segun doesn't.
“Didn't you hear that?” Wale says.
Segun asks what and leans forward to turn over the bird to stop some sides from getting badly burnt.
"The fire screamed."
Segun laughs and rattles rent the air, rattles only Wale can hear. Then he said, "It's like you are hearing things o."
Wale shakes his head and insists it is real. Segun ignores him. He brings down the bird. Wale goes to fetch a bowl of water from a black tank that collects rainwater in front of the house. He quenches the fire. It hisses loudly. This time, he pretends not to hear. They go and sit on the balcony railings and chew their prize. The meat tastes smoky. But they eat it anyway, feigning enjoyment to honor their effort. Wale suggests they clear the backyard and leave no evidence of their engagement lest they get in trouble. So when they finish eating, Segun pours ashes on the fireplace while Wale picks the feathers and goes to pour them in a gully outside. There, Babalola, the boy Mama always warned him to keep away from, is walking down the street toward him. Baba stops and peeks into the gully.
“Hmmm, feathers. Did you kill a bird?” he asks.
Wale thinks telling him that they indeed killed a bird and roasted it themselves is heroic and will make the oldest boy in their class respect them. Baba has repeated the class three times and his tall height intimidates others. So Wale says yes.
“Is this not the seven days bird?”
“What is the seven days bird?”
“It’s as small as a quail, abi? The bird that lifts its feet at a time.”
Baba grins, the three vertical gbẹ́rẹ́ on his chin stretching. “You have eaten death!”
Wale notices Baba is licking his lower lip the way he does when being mischievous in school, like when he says Mrs. Uche covers the whole board with her body and won’t let him write or when he receives twelve strokes of the cane without a tear. Wale raises his eyebrows like he doesn’t care.
“I’m serious. Anyone who eats the seven days bird will die on the seventh day.”
Wale is reminded of Mama’s nightmare, and his face folds into a contour of fright. And Baba laughs at this. Wale forces a laugh to soften Baba's mockery. Then he is laughing hard, like rattling things, like jingling coins, the jingling coins in Segun’s pocket which he shakes as Wale and him approach Oga Mufu’s house. Wale is laughing because Segun claims he will one day beat him in a bicycle race. Segun, an amateur, with his jittery hands that could barely steer. Oga Mufu, who rents out bicycles to the town’s boys, is sitting on a bench in front of his house listening earnestly to a small radio pressed to his ears. He is likely gathering information on what president Olusegun Obasanjo is up to so that he can dominate the argument at the town council meetings. There are three bicycles leaning on a newly painted white wall behind him. They give him some coins and he lends out No Brake to them, the worth of their pay, a rusty bicycle popular for riders dragging their feet on the ground to bring it to a stop.
After riding in turns, with Wale helping to hold the bicycle for Segun and Segun falling a dozen times, they come to the narrow path that leads to Baba Oni Coco Cocoa Plantation and to the new church pastored by his son, their mothers' church. They meet an old woman in dirty iro and buba carrying a basket of kolanuts on her head.
“Iya!” Wale says and tames an urge to hug her. It is his late father’s mother. The woman grins at the two boys and asks in a trembling voice where they are going. Wale tells her he is teaching Segun how to ride a bicycle.
“Iya, we can carry the basket home for you with the bicycle,” Segun says.
Iya chuckles and declines the offer. She says she wishes she were carrying a basket of agbalumo instead as she would have gifted them one each. She pats Wale on his back.
“Be careful on this rickety thing,” she says and let her hand brush over the bicycle's torn seat. And she trudges on. Wale thinks he saw a little whirlwind sink into the seat. But he doesn't trust his senses anymore.
The sun is setting behind the tall cocoa trees and Wale says it is high time they returned the bicycle because Oga Mufu seizes the slippers and shirts of latecomers. But Segun wants one last ride. The bicycle shrills as he mounts it again. Wale pushes the bicycle gently and holds it from swaying. Then Segun pedals out of his grip and rides towards the sunset. He is laughing and shouting, “Finally.”
Wale calls for him to slow down but Segun speeds on.
The bicycle veers off the narrow path and Wale hears a short scream, a crash and then silence. He runs up to the place, his heart outside of him, thudding faster than his little feet. He finds Segun lying in a ditch, No Brake crumbled over his body, the tires still spinning. Blood is trickling out Segun’s neck where a pointed twig had punctured it. And is silent like a smoke drifting to heaven, smoke from a fire chanting death, around which seven cackling entities sit. Wale is lying before this fire, his arms and legs and voice bound. He looks about and finds the entities are actually old women in blood-red wrappers. Shadows frame their lit faces. Wale recognizes Iya sitting on a more elevated stool. Her mouth is knotted like the gathered end of a drawstring bag. Her usually slit eyes which Wale used to wonder how they saw anything are now as wide as 50 kobo coins. She speaks, "I have happily served up all of my children for us to feast on. But I still have one more surprise."
The other women giggled and bobbed their torso back and forth and their large eyeballs darted round their cavities.
"I have decided to gift us my grandson, Wale. He has grown thick enough to be chewy. Look at him."
The women stare at Wale lying on the ground and he feels like each eye is a hook pulling at his body. He attempts to scream but his tongue folds back to block his throat. Soon he is levitating towards the fire, his body getting set right above it for roasting. He begins writhing in anticipation of the burns, shivering in terror at the same time, shaking, shaking to a tugging grip.
"Wake up, wake up!"
Wale opens his eyes to find Segun sitting beside him on Mama's bed. His gaze darts about the room. He registers pattering on the roof. When his sight returns to Segun, he finds his face displeased.
"You doze off easily. You like sleep too much," Segun says.
"I had a scary dream."
"What's it about?"
"I dreamt of Iya in a witch meeting just like the Koto Aiye witches meeting---"
"Stop! Stop! Koto Aiye? I don't want to hear about it. Forget about that and let's play jare.”
“What game should we play?"
"Let's play Oko ati Iyawo."
Segun smiles at him. "I will be baba and you will be Iya." He stands and goes behind the curtains. Then he comes out and says, "Eku ile o. I brought a big bird from hunting today."
Wale chuckles and dances. "Kaabo, my husband, oko mi." He kneels and takes the imaginary bird from Segun's hand.
Segun pulls him up and hugs him, saying he has missed him. Wale says he's missed him too, eyes closed, a grin spreading on his face. Segun draws back and asks Wale to lie on the bed. Wale obeys and lies on thethe ground, the midnight’s breeze soothing the light burns on his arms. His joints ache any time he tries to move. He sees through films of hot tears his neighbors shuffling out their houses and shouting for help. They rush to get water from the black tank and pour it on the burning rooms through the windows. He closes his eyes and imagines he is with them pouring water on the fire, but using a cup. The cup slips from his hands, cracks into shards on the ground and water splashes on the lantern. He curses under his breath and finds a rag behind the sitting room's door and mops the carpet dry. He takes the lantern out, hoping it will dry quickly before Mama returns from the market. He sits on a wooden bench and watches the lantern in the yellow glow of sunset. He is thinking about what Baba said three days ago, about the seven days bird. Then Iya’s voice filters into his mind.
He flinches and lifts his sight off the lantern to the old woman crouching at the steps that lean on the veranda.
“Iya!” he says.
The woman climbs the steps and asks for his mother. His mother has imbued a fear of Iya in him and this is why he always feels awkward around her, but Iya doesn’t mind. Wale has eavesdropped on many conversations where his mother called Iya a witch. She believes she killed and ate all of Wale’s father’s siblings and just last year, she took her last child’s life in a car accident. And his mother has told him never to take anything from her.
“Where is your mother?” Iya asks again.
Wale stammers that his mother is not around. Iya nods and says he should tell her that she visited, that she should unfailingly come and see her. Wale nods, knowing his mother would never go to Iya’s hut. Iya sees the lantern and walks to it. She touches it and smiles wistfully. She says she gave the lantern as a present to his parents on their wedding day. "I am happy that she at least kept this."
Then colors drain from the atmosphere as dark clouds float out of nowhere.
“The sun is shrouded. Dark clouds gather ominously again. Tell your mother to please see me dakun,” Iya says and climbs down the steps. Wale wants to ask her to stay, but his mother would be mad if she finds the “witch” in her home. He knows the rain would start before Iya reaches home. A distant thunder booms. He can’t help it so he calls out,
“Segun! Segun! Come back. You will be caught in a downpour.”
And Segun stops running and turns back. “My mother asked me to look after the cassava chops she is sun drying. She will kill me if the rain soaks it!” he says. But when he turns to continue running, the rain has begun in the horizon and is spreading toward him. He gives up and races back to Wale. They sit on the bench and listen to the rain drumming on the aluminum roof. A light-skinned woman whose face is a blur walks out the passage and goes to check if the black tank is set properly to collect the rainwater dripping off the roof. They greet her and before she returns inside, she mutters something about saving for blazing days and advises them to go inside as the ropes of rain might soon bend toward their direction. But they do not follow her. Wale is pressed to tell Segun what Baba told him yesterday.
“I want to tell you something,” Wale says.
“What is it?Is it going to save me from my mother’s lashes?” Segun chortles at himself.
Wale doesn’t join him. He tells him what Baba had said with a sober demeanor which breaks short Segun's chortle. They go mute.
“Do you believe him?” Segun asks.
“I don know. But I’m afraid,” Wale says.
“Do you believe we are really going to die?” Segun's voice trembles.
“I don’t know! I’m not sure it’s the bird,” Baba says almost too loud.
“You don’t know?” Wale whispers.
Wale is now squatting with Baba at a corner of Segun’s compound, hidden from the sight and sighs of their mothers who have come to mourn with Segun’s mother. The air reeks of gloom and a groaning silence. Segun’s mother is sitting between Wale’smother and another woman, staring blankly at the sky and shaking her legs. The other women sit on stools and benches at the side of the yard’s fences.
“My mother told me the bird story is a myth,” Baba says.
“But why is he dead?”
“It might be these three gbẹ́rẹ́ on my chin. My mother once said I was born with Àṣẹ on my tongue, the power to make things happen. They made these incisions to reduce its potency. And she warns me to only say good-good things.”
“She is just trying to make you polite. It’s like the èèwọ̀, taboos my mother said are lies fabricated to train children.”
“Shhhhh…Your voice is rising. But see o, I didn’t like my grandfather. He used to send me on errands a lot like I was a slave, like that day I told you about the bird. I had said I wanted him gone that night and he didn’t wake up the next morning. And now Segun.”
Wale gasps and covers his mouth.
“So I am going to die too. I think we should tell our mothers,” Wale says, shivering.
“No, they won't believe us. I think there's something you can do. Do you remember the coin ritual?”
Wale nods. He remembers Segun had once rubbed a coin over his navel as fat as a fist and used it to buy kúlíkúlí from a pregnant woman with the aim of selling the big navel to the unborn child. Segun believed it worked because he said his navel started shrinking from the next day.
“Use a coin to rub your head and absorb the curse of my Àṣẹ. Then you throw it away, perhaps into Aja stream.”
“But Aja stream is too far.”
“You can use a bush too, like the one on the path to Church. Dakun do it as soon as possible,” Baba says and Wale sees regret in his eyes as reddish hues, a strange expression to find on Baba's face.
“Alright. Thank you,” Wale says and feels an urge to confirm that Mama hasn’t seen him talking to the heathen boy. So he glances back at the silence outside their whispers. There is his mother’s metal box. Its edge peeps out from under the bed. He drags it out gently and raises the lid. There are red beads and brown bottles of different medicines. He finds the Milo can where her mother keeps her coins. She keeps the coins to preserve her husband’s memory who collected coins for a year and bought new things for the house on New Year’s Eve, like the radio he bought a week before his accident. His mother is now saving for a rechargeable lamp so that they will stop using the kerosene lantern.
Wale removes the lid and takes a 50 kobo coin. He covers the can, puts it in the box and pushes the box back under the bed. This is the seventh day and he is scared. He rubs the coin on his head and on his body and on his shine-shine Sunday attire. He is going to throw it away on their way to church. When he hears Mama open the door from the other side, he pockets the coin and joins her in the sitting room. Mama is in a green Ankara gown. She picks her purse from a chair and tells Wale that they are already late and should leave right away. She grabs his hand and pulls him to the door. She has been overprotective after Segun’s death and she now prays morning and night to douse her thickening fears, to cast the spirit of death off their abode. She opens the door and they set off down the narrow path that leads to their church. Wale searches his pocket for the coin so he could toss it into the bush. But the coin is not in his pocket. When they get to the part where the ditch is, his mother tugs him forward even faster. His mother notices his unease and releases his hand.
“Are you okay, ọmọ mi?” she says.
Wale glances sideways at his mother who is now at the door. He beams with excitement.
“I can’t find the matches ni, Mama,” he says and goes to take the polythene bag she is holding.
“Ah! I put it under my pillow on the bed,” Mama says and strides to the bedroom. When she returns with the matchbox, Wale is sniffing the bag and is excited he smells Jollof Rice.
“I am sorry we arrived late,” Mama says as she lights the lantern on the short stool. “Our bus broke down on our way home.”
Wale doesn't say anything. He keeps staring at the black bag.
“There’s Jollof Rice and fish in the bag. It’s yours,” Mama says. And as he hears this, Wale brings out a smaller oily nylon bag, tears it open and starts gobbling with his hands.
“You must be very hungry. Pẹ̀lẹ́, Ọmọ mi,” Mama says and goes into the room to undress. While she does, not caring if Wale is listening or not, she narrates how their bus was wahala and how the program started late. She mentions a couple that reminded her of her husband and how she pictured Wale’s wedding when her head tie will touch the sky. She gives a short dreamy laugh. Then she recounts how their bus hit a duck about the time the eclipse happened.
“A big duck, feathers the color of night, with seven ducklings…” she says and Wale is reminded of the bird he and Segun ate that afternoon. He wants to tell her but he is afraid she would get angry and just punish him. So he continues eating and listening vaguely to his mother’s chatters.
“… And Baba’s mother thought we should put a coin in the dead duck’s mouth as atonement. She says it is bad luck to kill a duck this way. Even church hasn’t taken all those heathen superstitions from her. You see why I always ask you to stay away from that Baba boy. I and Mama Segun disagreed and called it what it was, paganism. After all, it was the duck that left her ducklings by the roadside and jumped in our way.”
She stops talking and calls Wale. Wale answers with a mouthful of rice. Something rumbles on the ceiling and his mother complains about how the rat poison she bought is not effective. Then she asks Wale to finish eating quickly so they can pray.
“Is the food even good?” Mama holds up the curtain to peer at him. Wale mumbles. Then she joins him in the sitting room with a bible in hand. She opens the bible’s cover and brings out a coin.
“This is yours,” Iya’s shaky voice says as she stretches out her hand to give him a coin. Wale stands and gazes at the coin in Iya’s palm and the can of coins that survived the fire. He waves that it is not his. There’s a bandage on his arm and around his head. The mud walls of Iya's room wear cracks like the wrinkles on her face.
“It is yours,” Iya says and moves closer to him. “See the shine-shine material of your Sunday wear on it. Your mother must have taken it from you. You can have it.”
Wale stares at her, troubled by her piercing knowing look. And then he realizes the coin for the ritual must have fallen while he was pocketing it and his mother had found it and returned it to the can. He starts crying his mother’s name, eyes shut, in guilt, in grief.
“Mama! Mama! Ahhhhhhh! Mama!”
Then a searing engulfs his skin. He opens his eyes and sits up on his urine soaked mat, still calling his mother. The lantern which he had tilted off balance while rolling in his sleep is lying on its side. And the short stool, carpet and chairs are ablaze, cutting him off the bedroom in an arch of fire. Just the wetness of his urine is pushing back the fire from taking him. He screams for his mother. Mama dashes through the fire into the sitting room, wraps him in a cloth and picks him up. Breathless and muttering "Jesu", she jabs open the veranda side window and throws Wale out. Wale rolls off the pavement and lands on the ground. His head pillowed by ablood-soaked stone, he watches as Mama’s hair catch fire like a matchstick head. As she flails back into the burning house screaming, "Jesu, Jesu, Je--"