Traitor by Chiaka Obasi

A young Nigerian schoolboy wonders what has become of his Papa - and something sinister is afoot, in Chiaka Obasi's criminal tale

Mama behaves strangely these days and expects me to accept that everything is alright in our house. How could I be my usual self when Papa has been away for too long? Today is the fourth day since he left for Enyimba City. He had said he was coming back the day he left. Every day, when I ask Mama, she tells me he will come back the following day. I miss Papa so much. Mama shows me her teeth, but I have long known she is not smiling. It is obvious she is not happy. At times, she pats my head playfully. But there is something awkward about the patting. I feel her hand shaking. It appears she is compelling herself to touch me. She no longer sits at the dining table to eat with me. The last time we ate together was the day after Papa travelled. It was during that lunch at the dining table that Mama's cell phone vibrated and beeped. It must have been Papa that called; I saw Mama's face brighten as she picked the phone and said, "Hello, D."

D is what she calls Papa. But that was the only thing she said, with the phone held to her ear. She did not laugh as she always does whenever Papa calls. She did not call me and ask me to speak to Papa as she always does whenever Papa calls. Her eyes widened, reminding me of Aunty Kenna's the day we saw a long black snake coiled up beside the porch. Mama raised her hand and covered her mouth, as if to stifle a scream. Then she ran to her bedroom and locked herself in. I heard her say, "D! D! Are you okay?"

I was sure she was talking to Papa, but I became confused when, the next moment, she said, "Hei, please, what did he do?"

I suspected then that she was talking to a group of people and not a person. I could sense sheer terror in her words as she said, "Where do you think I will get that kind of money?"

I knocked on the door several times. She did not open it. I thought I heard her crying, but when she finally opened the door and came out, she smiled - though her eyes were red - and told me that there was no problem.

That was the day Mama stopped eating with me at the dining table. I wonder if she eats at all. It is Aunty Kenna who cooks my meal these days. She waits at the table as I eat so she can clean the table and the dishes when I am done with eating. She also sits by my bed and waits until I fall asleep or pretend to be asleep. I do not want Aunty Kenna beside my bed. I want Papa or Mama. They can tell me some moonlight stories. They can open my workbook and look at my homework. Aunty Kenna does not tell moonlight stories. She just sits there, at the edge of my bed, her arms folded across her chest. She is always silent. She looks worried these days. I suspect there is something she is hiding from me.

I hate the quietness of our house lately. It is so quiet that while I am in my room, I can hear the tick-tack sound of the clock inside Papa's reading room. Mama does not want to listen to the radio anymore. She turns off the television whenever it is time to listen to news. Her eyes are always red and puffy. She is always whispering into her cell phone. She always goes out these days, telling Aunty Kenna to lock up while we - Aunty Kenna and I - are inside the house.

"Don't open the doors for anyone! And there should be quietness here. I will tell Aboki the gatekeeper what to do."

I wonder who and who Mama does not want to come to our house. Why should Aunty Kenna and I remain indoors? I have stopped going to school. Aunty Kenna tells me Mama says I will be safe at home. I do not like it when I do not go to school. If I feel ill and Mama says I will not go to school, that she'd rather take me to the hospital, I tell her immediately that I no longer feel ill. I would not want to go to the hospital and come back before noon to stay in the sitting room with Aunty Kenna. That means that I would be waiting till evening when Papa, in his dark red jeep would drive into our compound from the road. But these days, I am not waiting to see Papa. It seems he is gone for good. I just sit inside the sitting room until Mama comes home and begins to whisper into her phone whenever it beeps. I do not like this. Since Papa is no longer at home, I want to go to school and play football with Somadina and Nkemjika and tease Jane and Chineme. Somadina is the fair boy with curly hair who joined our school last term. He tells us he returned with his parents from Great Britain last year. They stayed in Lagos and came down to the East last term. Somadina tells us that his mother is English and his father Igbo. Though I have not seen his parents, I believe him because he looks like the British. Nkemjika and Chineme are brother and sister. We have been friends from our first year in Future Leaders International School. Jane had joined us two years ago, when we were in our third class. Her mother, who Mama tells me has been her friend since their secondary school days, is divorced from her stepfather, an African-American. Jane and her mother came back from United States of America the year she joined us. I would rather play with these friends of mine in school than stay at home. What do I gain staying at home with Aunty Kenna? It seems she is conspiring with Mama to imprison me in our house. Her silence is really getting me worked up. I decide to ask her a question because I am sure she knows something.

"Where is Papa?"

She looks at me and looks away before saying, "He will come back soon."

"You liar!" I say. I want to kick her shin. But Mama has warned me to restrain from insulting her half-sister. I run into my room, climb onto my bed and hide my face in the pillow. I usually stay this way when visitors come to see Mama. And many of them come these days.

Our house - especially my room - has become a prison. I miss Papa so much. I want him to come home. I just want to see him.

It is six days now since Papa left. I used to play football in our front yard with him. He is tall and handsome and loves to watch English Premier League matches on cable television. Papa said I am the future Beckham and Okocha who scored fantastic goals for their teams. He said he also loves Enyimba Boys who play in Enyimba City. He had traveled to Enyimba City to meet a business associate. Papa taught me a song which he always wants me to sing to him. He called it Hero's Song.
Though I am younger,
It doesn't matter.
I'll grow up like you,
Stepping into your shoes,
I will be your hero.
Yes, I am your hero.
I will go higher,
And make you a proud father.
I am your hero.

Papa's voice is naturally musical. I want to hear him sing Hero's Song again. I long to hear him at our front yard saying to me: "Hey, my boy, pass the ball, pass the ball."

Today is the eighth day of Papa's absence. Mama is at home today. Aunty Kenna has drawn back the blinds in our sitting room. I watch our gate through the window. I can see Aboki, our security guard, opening the gate. A familiar green Volvo appears at the gate and slowly moves into our compound. It belongs to Mama's close friend, Mama Jane. I watch the car stop under our huge mango tree. I can hear Mama murmuring to herself as Mama Jane comes out of her car. I do not understand what she is saying. She looks lost and depressed. Mama Jane's dress is a 'tie-and-dye' material which has black and purple stripes. She knows the song Papa taught me. She calls me 'Our Hero' whenever she comes to see us. She steps into our sitting room looking cheerful. She smiles at me and says, "Our Hero," and turns to Mama and says, "How is everything, Carol?"

But Mama breaks down and begins to weep. Mama Jane sits on a sofa beside Mama, her face suddenly looking concerned.

"If you don't stop this, you will cry yourself into a state. Are you a child?" she says to Mama.

I think she is unkind the way she has spoken to Mama. Is this not the woman who playfully twists my ears and pulls my nose? She once took us - Jane, Chineme, Nkemjika and me - to New Berries Park and National Museum. That was on a Saturday. We played and had fun till evening. How come she is harsh to Mama today?

"You forget that there are other people this happened to, but they did not die." Mama Jane says, "Why are you so nervous? You should be the rock, that iron lady I have known in our school days."

When Mama has calmed down, Mama Jane asks her, "How much do you have now?"

"Only six million naira." Mama says slowly, shaking her head.

"How much did Henry give you?"

"My sister, nothing." Mama opens her palms like an old woman. "Henry says he does not have money."

Mama Jane drops her handbag and snaps her fingers. "That he doesn't have money? If Henry who works in an oil company doesn't have money, who then has money in this country? Oh yes, the politicians. Who else is stupendously rich? Does Henry not know that these people are Niger Delta Militants? Can't he read the handwriting on the wall? Does he think the militants would take away his brother if he did not work in the oil company?"

I wonder who Mama Jane wants to answer her questions. Mama only weeps and dabs her already wet handkerchief onto her red eyes. I know that Mama and Mama Jane are referring to Papa's brother, Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry works with Gulf Wealth Corporation, an oil company based in Port Harcourt. The whole thing is becoming clear to me now.

"And come to think of it," Mama Jane continues, "imagine that it was Henry that was held and Dan, your husband, was asked to pay this for him."

Mama shuts her eyes tight and says, "Oh! My D! Let nothing happen to my D."

I could not continue keeping quiet any more.

"Mama! Mama!"

But before I can ask her a question, Mama interrupts me and says, "I owe you an explanation my dear. Please, I will tell you later."

Her eyes are more pleading than her words. I approach her and she holds me. Then I hear Mama Jane assuring her, "It will be okay, my dear. Take this."

She opens her handbag and brings out bundles of money. She tells Mama she was able to raise one million five hundred thousand naira.

"That leaves us with a balance of three million five hundred thousand naira, but that may not be a problem," she says. She tells Mama that the abductors would surely accept the total money collected, seven million five hundred thousand naira.

Mama is still holding me. I feel her stiffen as Mama Jane mentions 'abductors'. I do not turn to look at her, but from Mama Jane's look, I can tell that Mama wants her to keep quiet about Papa's whereabouts. Mama Jane is looking at Mama. Her eyes move from Mama to me and back to Mama.

"It's alright. Tell him. He should know what happened," she says, her eyes still on Mama. She pauses and turns to me as she says, "It's alright. I will tell him if you can't."

Mama Jane looks into my eyes and says, "Our Hero, listen. Your Daddy is held hostage. But his abductors will soon let him go. He will come home and you will see him again, and of course, you will play football with him again. Okay?" She smiles at me and winks at Mama.

I want to say, But Mama Jane, who are these abductors? But I do not say it because Mama's cell phone is already vibrating and beeping. Mama's hand is shaking. She frowns at the phone as if it is a strange object. She gently pushes me away and shows the phone to Mama Jane.

"What do I do?" Mama says. "They are calling again."

"Who?" Mama Jane says.

"Who else?" Mama whispers. "The abductors of course."

Mama Jane frowns at Mama and asks her to speak to them. But Mama says no. She does not know what to say because she does not have the exact amount they demanded. Mama Jane takes Mama's phone and says, "Hello, this is Carol."

I am surprised because Mama Jane is saying that her name is Carol. That is Mama's name. Mama Jane's name is Brigit. I am also surprised because Mama Jane is mimicking Mama. Her voice is almost like Mama's. She is punctuating her statements, sniffing as if she is crying. She is saying that they should pity her, that she only has seven million five hundred thousand naira. It is so amusing, watching Mama Jane pretending to be Mama, pretending to be crying and referring to herself as Papa's wife.

"Please accept what I have," Mama Jane sniffs. "You took him away from me. But if you were in my shoes you would understand how I feel. I want my dear husband, my love, back, please."

I look at Mama. She seems lost in thought. It seems she is in a trance. At the same time she looks angry.

Mama Jane has Mama's cell phone pressed to her left ear. Finally, I hear her say, "Please..." She looks at the phone before returning it to Mama. But Mama is still lost in thought. She only comes to herself when Mama Jane says, "They said you must make it eight million. You must pack it in a small carton and wrap it with a black polythene bag. You should drop it at the refuse site along Port Harcourt Road. Then they will tell you where to go and pick up your husband."

Mama screams and punches the air as if she has scored a goal in a football match. She embraces me and says, "Tomorrow we shall go to Enyimba City. You will see your Papa again."

I am happy about this. I will see Papa very soon. Mama embraces Mama Jane and jumps up like a small girl. When she calms down, she says, "Now I have to look for five hundred thousand naira quickly."

As if she is waiting to hear this, Mama Jane says, "Please do."

Mama says, "These militants have made me suffer so much. They are not getting away with this. I must tell Inspector Ademola the latest development."

"You will not that!" Mama Jane's voice was hard and sharp. "Do you want him dead?"

Mama insists that the police must know about this because part of the money she raised came from those who want the police to deal with Papa's abductors. Mama Jane shrugs and looks at me.

"Our Hero, we shall celebrate your Papa's return soon," she says.

Today is the ninth day since Papa left home. Mama and I, accompanied by two policemen in plain clothes, have travelled to Enyimba City in Mama's Peugeot 306. We are happy at the thought of seeing Papa again. Mama tells the policemen as we approach the rubbish site along Port Harcourt Road that she literally went on her knees to beg one of Papa's business associates to lend her five hundred thousand naira. The policemen assure her that their colleagues are somewhere watching. They will deal with the kidnappers when they come for the money. The money will be recovered, they tell Mama.

Strong stench from the debris hangs in the air. Two vultures are perching at the top of the heap.

"This is where the Bakkassi Boys dump the bodies of the so-called criminals they kill," one of the policemen says.

"Jungle justice," the other says.

Our car stops and one of the policemen leaves with the black polythene bag. He approaches the debris and throws the black bag at it. The vultures fly away as the policeman returns to the car. As the car takes off again, Mama calls the kidnappers with her cell phone. She informs them that she has dropped the money for them.

It is my first time in Enyimba City. I do not like what I see. The roads are bad. The gutters are filled up with trash. The traders are all over the place, selling near the road. The rowdiness is worse along Abayi Road. Buses stop in the middle of the road to pick up passengers. Bus drivers and their conductors rain abuses on commercial motorcyclists who confront them. The motorcyclists retaliate with even harsher words. I observe all this as we sit inside Mama's Peugeot 306. Mama's driver is driving at a snail pace. The policemen had said he should while away the time by driving along the streets in Enyimba City until we get a response from the kidnappers. I want to ask Mama about the Enyimba boys, but I know she is not in the mood to answer me.

When Mama's phone rings, she does not put it to her ear. She punches a key pad on the phone and I hear a man's voice which says, "Mrs. Carol?"

"Yes," Mama says.

"Go to the uncompleted building, two poles from Owerri junction." The voice sounds muffled. "Go there now and pick up your husband."

I hear a click from the phone and I know immediately that the discussion is over. At once Mama's car begins to move fast. The policemen are on their phones talking, but I am not paying attention to them. I am just excited at the thought of seeing Papa again. In ten minutes, we are at Owerri junction. Further from the junction, Mama's driver slows down and turns left into an uncompleted storey building. The compound is full of weeds and it seems it has no occupants. Mama and the policemen are looking at the building. But I have seen someone on the ground, among the weeds in front of the building. I point him out to them. The policemen quickly open the car doors. We rush out and run to the front of the building. What I have seen is lifeless. It is a headless bleeding body. It wears the black trouser and the white shirt with green stripes which Papa wore the day he left home. Mama is screaming as she tries to pull the headless bleeding body by its hand. But the policemen pull her away. The world seems to be dissolving into small blue stars and then a thick darkness. This is not my Papa, the one who calls me his hero.

"No!" I scream. The enveloping darkness vanishes. I look at the headless body again. I can see a carefully folded white paper beside it. Mama's name, Carol, is boldly printed on the paper in black ink. I think one of the policemen has seen it too. He picks it up and drags me away from the body. He shows Mama and his colleague the paper. Mama unfolds it. I join them to read it. It is a bombshell. I do not believe any rational human being can do this to us. The message, addressed to Mama, begins with the very words I heard in our house yesterday.

Hi Carol,

You took him away from me. If you were in my shoes, you would understand how I feel. Can you remember how you hurt me many years ago, when we were in school? Do you remember? If you don't, I will tell you, but I will be brief. While in school, I met this young dude, Dan, and told you about him. But you made him leave me. Only lousy women like you would take delight in snatching other women's men, instead of looking for their own man. Carol, you are a heartbreaker. How I hate you. I later learnt what you did. You told me Dan is not good for me, you also told Dan I can't make a good wife. Do you know how I knew? Dan told me! Later, while I was still away in the States, Carol, you married Dan. You, Carol! And the worst of all, Carol, you sent policemen after my men to waylay them, after I told you not to.

You think you are clever. You don't know that Dan has always been mine. Do you know what happened whenever he went to United States of America on business trips? Before your so-called marriage to him, while I was in New York, Dan always came to me whenever he visited the States. After your wedding, he kept seeing me, even after I relocated to Texas. Agu nwanyi, so, it never occurred to you - you yam head - that it was Dan who fathered Jane? Mmm... Carol! I wanted Dan to quietly leave you and return to me. But you have spoilt my plans. You always spoil my plans you little demon! Well you can take back your eight million naira. But I won't let you have Dan again. Never! Bye.


Mama screams and collapses on the weeds. I turn to look at the headless body again. It seems the world is mocking me.

1 comment:

  1. chilling,at first i thought this had the ring of truth about it and then the twist threw me completely.
    a very powerful story
    michael mccarthy