Friday, May 11, 2012

Auto Da Fé by Rotimi Babatunde

Sinister playground games prove to be a rite of passage for the characters in Rotimi Babatunde's African moral tale.

All day long the talk had only been of the film to be viewed that afternoon and already a small crowd of uniforms was clustering around the door of the screening hall but far away and lost to all the frenzy, the boy with eyes half-closed stands rooted to the concrete expanse of the hostel rooftop, solitary on that giddy plane bare but for the cup crusted green in the corner and the sunbleached book gradually weathering to dust (beside the closed metal hatch door flat with the surface of the roof), his shirt billowing in the high winds gusting strong and steady.

Calmly he tilts his face into the coolness of the wind and taking in a deep breath his chest heaves, the sharpness of the rainclean air bringing a smile to his lips because now the same wind would be blowing tipped with the smell of ripe mangoes on his father's plantation. If not for school he would have been up on a mango tree hidden in its thick foliage, his teeth sunk in the fleshy sweetness of its foetus-shaped fruit freshly plucked while in the distance the women putting fruits into brown bags would be as small as dolls and in the other direction would be the stream - a long silver thread flowing without haste through the lush green.

His father always says the biggest catfish are to be found at the bends and every Saturday they would be seated on a promising bank, their hooks lost in the water. He hears the lazy purling of the stream on which skating insects enact strange dances and the rustling of bank leaves in the breeze, sharp, the boy gulping in lungfuls of freshness like a silent mantra fervently repeated, his eyes half-closed.

They are startled wide-open by a shout from below, a shout muffled by the concrete. A slight frown creases the boy's face and his body stiffens, keenly listening. Someone shouts again. There is a babble of excited voices, those of his fellow students, but he can identify none and only barely catches the phrases, the obscure babble.

They are here by - Have you seen it? - It is gone - What did - Come again - Many of them I've found them! - What did he say? - Small ones - Says he's got them - Many? - Yeah! - Should I bring them?

Suddenly, all the voices shout together. Then silence. Again the mass shout comes and comes, alternating with brief silence, five shouts before someone breaks into a victory song. Other voices join in welling it up to choral richness, and footsteps stamp down the staircase, running down with the victory chorus punctuated by whoops and the yells quickly getting fainter, then they are silent.

The boy's furrowed brow smoothes out. A bird's hoarse shriek sounds, shattering the silence. He turns to peer in its direction, the courtyard of concrete and stone below. It is bounded on one side by the building atop which the boy stands and on the other by a building exactly similar. At the far end of the courtyard a water reservoir squats its mammoth haunches while the other end is open but smack in the centre of the courtyard stands a baobab tree. On it a hawk perches, flapping briefly now and then into the air, shrieking with a piercing larynx on the tree now completely bare of leaves.

The boy remembers a few weeks ago. The housemaster with a group of students hacked a groove around the tree's girth, deep like a purple noose. Into this he spilled several chemicals saying the tree's roots were wrecking the concrete. Then the mighty baobab was still crowned with leaves and in the boy's fancy the courtyard was the tree's, the surrounding architecture only there to showcase its gnarled splendour—maybe because it always brought to mind the even bigger baobab rooted on the outskirts of his father's plantation.

His father once told him the enormous tree was the ugliest thing he had ever seen, but also the most awesome. Coal-black scarification of lightning adorned it all over, like knifescars on the face of a veteran thug. Thousands and thousands of ants with bite as painful as wasp-sting march ceaselessly on its boughs, the vast universe of branches. And the housekeeper said that in the old days childless women came from as far off as villages beyond the distant hills to dance naked round it under the full moon and some months after they were sure to have their bellies bulging as it was the big moon itself they had swallowed.

But wasting away at the height of the verdant season the baobab between the school buildings was only a mere intimation of that forbidding grandness - a skeleton desolate of foliage, its fallen leaves on the courtyard swirling brown in the wind.

Nightly from its crown there was the regular hooting of an owl but for days now in the dead darkness the listening boy has heard nothing and he wonders why. Down below in the afternoon brightness there was just the hawk shrieking with savage power, flapping around the baobab and perching now and then on its branches the housemaster compared to the wicked fingers of a witch, the naked branches stretching upwards towards the rooftop where something startles the standing boy - a call from below that sounds like his name.

"Jide!" his name sounds once more, this time much nearer, and he knows the voice. Zuka's. His fingers bunch into fists, and as the steps get louder he knows they are from two pairs of feet. Zuka is coming with someone. The boy's gaze swings furiously, a wind vane in raging turbulence, swings in all directions across the expanse of the rooftop as if looking for a sanctuary, but the concrete on which he stands is bare, and with the footfalls memories of the day before rush again like the wind into his head.

The bell had shortly been rung calling the students in from the afternoon break. On Jide's entering the class Amoa and Zuka and the gang started shouting "Village Boy! Village Boy!" The boy walked on to his desk, his face blank of expression as if deaf. Someone pulled out his seat from under his buttocks as they descended in the motion of sitting. Then he was on the hard floor and the whole class was laughing, including the girls, shouting the painful chorus, "Village Boy! Village Boy!"

The footsteps stop, halting the echoing chorus. An irritant sound of grating as the rusty hatch flat with the rooftop is pulled ajar. Out of its mouth opening down a stairway a peeping head juts, then another, breaking the solitude of the rooftop; and seeing Jide the bodies of the two heads, two boys clamber unto the concrete.

"Jide, come here!" The taller boy shouts. "So this is where you hide."

"Leave me alone, Zuka."

"Village Boy! So you think you can run away from us." Zuka turns to his companion, a boy short and fat. "How did you even find him out? No one would have thought of this place."

"I saw the jerk when he was sneaking up here."

"We should even have locked the hatch from below. So that he can remain alone high up here till Judgment Day."

The two boys burst into laughter.

"What do you want from me? You had better leave me alone. Go away," Jide says.

Zuka begins walking towards him. "You are threatening me. Do you think you can beat me?" His voice rises. "You! An ordinary village boy!"

"If you touch me I'll grab you and push you down. I swear I'll grab you and push you down."

Zuka abruptly stops. He and Jide stare icily across the short distance straight into each other's eyes, with chests heaving, their fists bunched. Zuka licks his lips, and his fingers unclench. "I am not here to fight you. Who will waste his time fighting a local pig like you? We want you to check something for us."

"What?"

"We found some little birds in a nest in the toilet ceiling. The new toilet. One of the twins said you might know what sort of bird they are."

Jide's face instantly transfigures. His eager eyes shine as if lit from within. "Birds? Little birds. Where are they? How many? Let's go!" he gushes out, voice throbbing with excitement.

"Downstairs."

"What colour are they? Let's go quickly and see them." He takes only two steps before stopping and his face hardens. "This is just one of your dirty tricks. You think I won't know? Leave me alone."

"We are serious," says the fat boy. "Five of them. With very big eyes. Let's go Zuka, if he doesn't want to come."

"Wait!" Jide shouts, despite himself.

And the three boys walk across the rooftop, to the hatch. One after the other their heads disappear as they descend through the hatchway. Grating harshly the hatch is closed above them, slicing the sunshaft dark. And they race through the dimness, down the flights of stairs, the rust-coated banisters swiftly running past, and in the onrush Jide sees nothing but images, magical, of little birds.

Those baby partridges one often sees hidden in thickets on the plantation (their mothers when startled towering skywards with the suddenness of gunshots) and the purple chicks of the water ducks running on shanks hardly thicker than broom strands - running behind their mothers along the banks together winding away with the stream. Then there were the nests plucked down by savage storms, like the one with the three warblers he tried being a wet nurse to, but watched helpless with watery eyes as they died within two days, his droplets of water and carefully prepared meals shunned like a defiled sacrifice. And more in the whirling kaleidoscope of trees and nests and chirping birds as the three boys race down the flights of stairs taking the steps in twos and threes, panting all excited down in the dimness.

Downstairs, they burst through the entranceway into the sunlight bathing the courtyard where two boys now stand. One clutching a lantern looks exactly like the fat boy that came to the rooftop, looks like his twin, must be his identical twin. The other is bespectacled. At his feet on the concrete lie a clump of pink flesh, a group of nestlings with feathers still limp as if freshly stuck and the gum not dried. The bespectacled boy repeatedly prods the awkward birds with his smart boots, his brows puzzled over with wrinkles and looking up to stare at the new arrivals halted before him, the round lenses of his spectacles glitter in the sunlight, two staring pools of swimming light.

"We found him," Zuka says, his breath coming fast and sharp.

"Where?" asks the boy in spectacles.

"Hiding on the rooftop."

Squatting, Jide observes the little birds closely. He looks up - at the bespectacled boy. "Amoa, you shouldn't have placed them like this on the concrete. Can't you feel it's hot? It is hurting them."

"No, it is not yet hot." Amoa looks down at the brood. "We are going to burn them. Then it will be hot."

"These little birds?"

"Yes."

"No, you can't. You will have to..."

Amoa cuts him short. "What sort of bird are they?"

"They are owls," Jide replies.

"Are you sure?"

"I'm dead sure. Owlets. See their eyes, and their moonround faces."

"What are owls?" Zuka asks.

"They are those birds that hang upside down in caves," says one twin.

Jide shakes his head. "Not at all. Those are bats but these are owls. The old women that work on our farm say owls are very wise. They fly and hunt at night. Sometimes at night you must have heard one hooting on this baobab. Some people say they are sacred to the god Esu. "

"Fuck the god," says Amoa.

"We are going to burn the owlets. Let the god save them now if it can," Zuka adds, with a scowl.

There is silence. The five boys stand alert on the courtyard, glancing occasionally at each other, their breathing coming deep. At their feet under the hot sun the owlets squirm.

Amoa turns to the twin holding the lantern. "Are you with the matches?"

"Yes." The twin removes a matchbox from his shirt pocket. Smiling he shakes out of the lantern the splashing sound of liquid. "It is filled with kerosene."

"So you are really going to burn these owlets!" Jide exclaims, his face distorted by shock. "You must be crazy."

Amoa glances at him, his eyes stern. "Why on earth shouldn't we?"

"For one, they are living things..." Jide begins.

"Village Boy!" shout the twins.

Zuka looks down, and grins. "Wouldn't it be nice to see how they look when they are burning?"

"Of course, I'm dying for it," Amoa says.

"It will be horrible. You mustn't. Don't you..."

"Village boy!" the boys shout. "Village Boy!"

"Listen to me." Jide is now nearly screaming. "The poor things are alive for Christ's sake. They feel pain. You can't just..."

"Village Boy! Village Boy!"

The four boys begin laughing. They speak quickly after each other.

"These birds came from the bush."

"From the jungle. From the darkness."

"Can he tell us what they are doing here, the local boy."

"My dad says the bush is backward."

"And our pastor also. He said it is our duty to spread the gospel into the bush areas."

"That must be because they still worship devils there."

"Like Esu."

"The bush boy said now that owls belong to Esu."

"They are heathens, these village people. Worshippers of..."

"Satan and all these black gods will burn forever in hell fire."

"We're wasting time. Let's burn the birds."

"Yes, now!"

There is a pause. Jide's body jerks forward, his voice pleading earnestly, "Wait. Why don't you give them to the agric mistress instead? She'll be delighted and may even give you marks."

"The agric mistress can go to blazes," says Zuka.

"Sure." Amoa takes a few steps forward bringing his face very close to Jide's. His voice is low. "In your heart you know that we should burn these owls. But you're simply scared. You are just being a chicken."

"No. I am not scared."

"Liar. You are just being a sissy."

"Stop it. I am no sissy."

"You are scared."

"I swear. I am not."

Amoa collects the lantern and matchbox from the twin. He presents them to Jide. "If not then strike the flame on them."

Jide's jaw drops, hanging his pink mouth wide open like his startled eyes. They starkly see the sootblack ruins of his father's poultry house destroyed overnight by fire last harmattan. And the holocaust of trapped birds burnt in the cages, bones stripped clean and dull ash, their charred flesh stuck to the metal bars still warm. He catches the faint whiff of acrid flesh. "I won't!" he shouts suddenly.

Amoa is smiling. "Didn't I say it? He's scared."

Zuka nods. "We will tell the whole school that you're not only a local boy but also a scaredy chicken. Scared of ordinary birds. Little birds!"

"I say I am not..."

Jide's voice ceases as he hears the laughter of students shouting - Local Chicken! - shouting at him in the desk-lined classroom, on the football field - Village Chicken! Scaredy Chicken! - laughing at him in the dining hall, their laughter following him all over the school like a dreaded shadow.

"I am not a chicken," he says again, but now weakly, his voice little more than whisper.

"Let's burn them without him," one of the twins says.

"Yes, we'll need some dry stuff to make the fire hotter," says the other.

"Those are dry leaves over there."

Chattering excitedly, the twins run off to bring fallen leaves from the foot of the baobab, leaving Zuka and Amoa standing together.

"He thinks he can be stubborn, Amoa. We'll show him we are city boys."

"He hasn't even been to the city before. Spent all his bloody life on his father's plantation. And the punk seems pretty proud of it."

"No flyovers. No traffic lights. No skyscrapers."

Amoa looks at Jide who is staring blankly at the floor, his head drooped. "You should cry for yourself. And if you don't strike the fire you'll see what we'll do to you. You'll see."

Jide looks up with a start, his eyes now bright with a strange new eagerness. "If I light the owlets will you tell them that I am not scared? That I am not a Village Boy?"

"Sure."

"Since you would have proved you are tough"

"Tough. Like real city boys. To be certain..."

"Be a good boy. We will even allow you to run around with us."

Jide collects the lantern and matchbox. "Then I will," he says. "I will burn them."

Looking down at the owlets pink on the concrete, something sharp catches like pain in his throat. Their wide soft faces remind him of his kittens at home. He sees them by the platter lapping up milk with their little pink tongues, the toys of utmost beauty. He winces as fire falls suddenly on them twisting their delicate bodies black. In a sudden gust of wind his shirt billows, and he shudders.

Zuka and Amoa are whooping with delight. Around the captured birds they circle a victory dance. Zuka hurting with eagerness implores the twins to hurry up. And arriving with their hands heaped with the baobab leaves they make a tinder ring around the owlets forever squirming on the floor, the ring like a nest of thorns. Then the four boys rise, their fingers twitching with suspense and expectant eyes fixed on Jide who sees instead a gallery of faces, the shocked faces of his father and the housekeeper and the farmhands and the picking women, their confronting masks of disappointment, but only briefly before the laughter comes again like the cries of the circling hawk and he knows what he should do.

"We are waiting for you," Amoa says.

Jide's shaking fingers tilts the fuel case of the lantern. The smell of kerosene fills the air, the colourless liquid spilling downwards. It splatters on the owlets animating them with life of surprising vigour like an instant storm in a teacup, the weak limbs raising a pink storm that takes them nowhere beyond their stasis under the spattering kerosene. It soaks into the dry leaves cradling the nestlings and further on around the cocoon, the volatile halo of fuel spreading quickly on the concrete.

The boy strikes several matches clumsily, breaking them on the box one after the other. Finally, he strikes one alight. He tilts his face gently skywards, his eyes closed as the matchstick slowly burns upwards. The silence is heavy as the creeping flame brings the searing heat right up to his nails before his fingers drop the burning stick, the four boys watching as the little flame falls landing right on the nest of owlets and raising from its a sudden blaze from which all the boys spring back.

The fire engulfs the birds in its yellow viciousness. Thick smoke belches skywards, and someone coughs. The fire intensifies as the dry leaves of the baobab catch, charring the feathers of the owlets and stretching them out into rigid stiffness, the heat exciting popping noises from their hissing flesh. The biting odour of roasting flesh thickens in the air. And before the watching eyes the birds transform with startling swiftness. The clump of burning flesh sizzles, the birds contracting in the only hell they'll ever know, getting smaller and smaller in the fire busy chewing blunt beaks and eyes hollow and without respite the tiny claws.

The boys stand still, saying nothing, their eyes avoiding contact in the silence shattered intermittently by the harsh cries coming from the baobab branches. With amazing haste the fire burns on, its intensity diminishing until it peters and only acrid smoke rises from the pyre.

In the hot ash there would be left only five little lumps of black flesh, featureless and anonymous on the concrete.

After a while, Zuka speaks. "I think... I guess we shouldn't have burnt those birds."

"I also," says a twin. "The smell was horrible."

"And the sight, the way they were twitching," Amoa adds.

"A time came when I started feeling bad in the stomach."

"No wonder Jide didn't want them burnt," says the other twin.

Zuka nods.

Jide is still staring at the burnt owlets, his eyes partially shut as if at painful light. He tears his eyes away from them. Raised, his face relaxes and meeting four complimenting faces a small smile sparkles rapture in his eyes. "It was nothing," he says.

"It was great of you," says Amoa. "He is now with us. What about that?"

"Yeah."

"Sure."

"This smell is terrible!"

The silence again. Smoke rises in wisps from the ashes on the floor, rising up in the silence which Zuka breaks. "Let's do something. We can't just continue standing here, in the midst of this evil odour. Let's go somewhere."

The boys glance inquisitively at each other.

"Hey! We nearly forgot the film," one twin exclaims. "The film will soon start."

"That's true!"

"We mustn't miss it." Amoa looks at Jide. "Will you go with us?"

"Of course."

"Then let's go."

Zuka doesn't move. He licks his lips. "I don't think I want to go," he slowly says.

"Why?"

"Is the film dull? I learnt it's a big hit."

"No." Zuka begins fidgeting. "It is not that it's dull..."

"Then what?" Amoa asks.

"I have seen the preview. It is only about someone going round burning babies."

"Why does he burn the babies?"

"Don't know. He's just burning the babies."

"Since there is a police chase then it is sure to be interesting," the other twin says. "But why don't you want to go?"

Zuka darting eyes look worried. "I don't want to see any more bodies being burnt. The babies, they were burning..." He was almost choking on the words. "Those owlets were horrible!"

Jide takes a step toward Zuka. "Are you telling us you are scared?"

"How can I?" He pauses. His eyes roll in their sockets. "It's just that we don't want to see the film now."

Jide laughs. "We? Why not? That film is a big hit; we shouldn't miss it for anything." He whirls suddenly to face Amoa, startling him. "Are you also scared of the film?"

"I? Surely not. I ain't scared."

"Good. You see?" Jide turns to the first twin. "What about you?"

"No!"

"And you?"

"No," the other twin replies.

Jide swings back to face Zuka. He stares sternly at him. "So you are alone. When even the girls will flock down to watch the film."

There is a pause.

"If anyone asks of you we will have to say you didn't come because you were scared. Of only a film which even the girls will be around to watch. The whole school will know you are a sissy."

"Wait! Can't you understand? I saw the babies burning in the fire. They were screaming. I saw their little hands burning in the..."

Jide cuts in. "We want no sissy among us." He pauses, and looks questioningly at Amoa.

Amoa nods. "We want no chicken among us." Amoa's eyes stare hard at Zuka. His voice is flat. "Are you going to see the film? Yes or no?"

Zuka's face is now strained with anxiety. Looking round, each pair of eyes he meets is hard, like the concrete on which the boys stand. In the silence he licks his lips over and over again, then he sighs and his eyes fall. "I will. If all of you are going I don't..." The words stop, then he continues, "Yes I will. I will."

"Very good," Amoa says. He turns to gaze at a building in the distance, his palm a sunscreen over his squinting eyes. "Let's go. We mustn't be late."

The boys step into motion. They walk across the courtyard, each lost in his thoughts, Amoa and Jide in the lead and the twins immediately behind and Zuka taking up the rear, dragging their feet across the concrete vastness. They walk past the baobab on whose large trunk a garish poster advertising the film is stuck, the tree's fallen leaves crunching like broken glass beneath their feet. And in silence the five boys move on towards the hall in the distance. By its door the small figures of their fellow students can be seen clustered. Behind them the hawk flaps again and again around the naked branches of the dying baobab, its cries sounding hoarse and harsh in the sunlight.

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