There were five of us that headed for the stream that hot afternoon. Mixed-raced Chibu, who came in from Abuja the week before – who would rather whistle strange-sounding tunes and giggle than participate when we argued at the top of our voices. But he knew things that the rest of us loud lot didn’t. Like the day we were debating how far his mother’s country was, he reeled out numbers so great that the calmness with which they were delivered belied their incredulous distance. None of us doubted him, even though we all knew that he had never been outside Nigeria in his life. Besides, which of us knew what ‘above sea-level’ meant?
The other member of the group was Chibu’s twin sister, Chidinma, who seemed unaware that she was a girl, as she sported a crew-cut, wore jumpers all day long, would best us all in tree-climbing, and would always cut herself the biggest, thickest stick for our ‘war’ games. She hated to be called Chichi, and would howl ‘it’s Chidi!’ in a voice so husky that the first time we heard it had wondered how it could have come from a body so skinny. We all liked Chidi, but had generally agreed amongst ourselves that she had a nut or two loose in her head. We also loved to tease Chibu that God had mistakenly put penis on the wrong body.
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Then there was Stanley, who was visiting the village for the first time. We pitied Stanley for being an only child. The decision to adopt him into our fold was based on the manner with which he held himself. Stiff, like someone in desperate need for friendship but didn’t know how to go about it. His father wasn’t Igbo, so he didn’t understand the language, which forced those of us who spoke nothing else, being born, ‘bread’ and ‘buttered’ in Onitsha, to dust off our English Language textbooks and update our tenses. That was until Stanley took to making long sentences in Yoruba that he refused to translate. Big mistake. Even Chibu and Chidi joined forces with us, all though their Igbo barely made sense. He learnt his lesson in a day, and took to teaching us Yoruba. None of us was really that interested in learning, but it was fun to scream out foreign words.
The most important member of the group, as it goes without saying, was yours truly, Onyedikachi. I was the leader because I knew everywhere and everyone, and could be depended on to discover new playgrounds. I could also convince our mothers to release any of us. Chidi said it was because I was not ashamed to shine my crooked teeth; that nobody wanted to have their day ruined at their sight. I preferred to think that it was due to my handsomeness. After all, no one could resist beauty. But the group disagreed. They said my bowlegs neutralised whatever effect my face might have had. I think they were just jealous.
The last and the least of us was my younger brother, KC, junior to me by three years. He was so smitten by Chidi – despite obvious indications that she wasn’t really a girl and couldn’t care less what he felt – that he pulled stupid stunts like choosing to somersault all the way from home to the stream, instead of walking like every normal human being. It was so like KC to totally forgetting that he was anaemic from sickle-cell, and his mosquito legs could only take so much assault. In the end, he sprained his knees, and I had to carry him on my back. Now how manly did that look, you tell me?
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On that fateful afternoon of the 23rd December, the four of us walked to the stream. KC was on my back, but that didn’t stop him from talking and spitting all over my shoulder; so much that I seriously considered dumping him by the way. We were contemplating how best to utilise the two hours we had been given; that was, after we were done washing the mountain of clothes we had been bullied into bringing with us.
“Let’s swim first, then when we are tired or when those village boys come to disturb us, we can then start washing.”
That was KC’s suggestion. If he wasn’t on my back, I would have slapped him. It was easy for him to mouth off, after all Mummy had given him nothing to do. It was my exclusive job to wash, rinse, dry, as well as baby-sit KC. Like I didn’t have enough on my hands already.
“You forget that the sun will not be up there forever”
I was elated it was Chidi who had to spot out that loophole. I hoped it kept KC quiet for a long time.
“I don’t care. I hate washing,’ remarked Stanley with a vehemence only he could manage. For someone who didn’t have a single laundry, that was something.
“You hate everything.” We all reminded him in unison.
“No, I don’t. I like swimming.” He defended.
To which Chibu mumbled, “Some consolation.”
Trust Chibu to use such big vocab, as he calls it. We resisted the temptation to ask him to explain what he meant. For one thing, that would only encourage him to use even bigger words.
“Why don’t Chidi wash all the clothes, and we can do the rest? Is she not a girl? Girls know these things, boys don’t.” I said to annoy Chidi. I was feeling malicious: if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be burdened with KC.
“Waaka. Your mama,” she cursed, spoiling for a fight.
“Chidinma, shut up,” said Chibu.
If there was one person on earth that Chidi wouldn’t take being hushed or called her full name from, it was Chibu. For the next ten minutes she badmouthed him, but Chibu just ignored her. She may have kept at it had we not come to the stream and beheld a sight that shocked us.
“What is this?” Stanley exclaimed, his voice full of horror. Chidi took a moment from abusing Chibu to investigate. She was as dumbfounded as we were.
The stream looked like a market place. The entire Umudike village must come out all at once, and there wasn’t room for contain everyone. The women were washing at the east end of the stream, squatted hip by hip. At the west end, where they would disrupt the fish nets and lines. The children, naked and excited, were taking turn to dip themselves into the water that couldn’t take all of them. The fishermen didn’t fare any better. Their boats bumped into each other whenever they tossed in fresh nets or retrieved full nets that had been set as traps the night before.
“It’s the sun and the lack of electricity,” analysed KC.
“I can’t swim here,” stated Stanley. “I’d be dirtier by the time I finish.”
“Sharrap joo. You live in Ajegunle, and you are here pretending you’re ajebo. Even half-oyibo like Chibu and Chidi are not talking.” I attacked him.
The others, except KC, congratulated me for being the one to voice out our resentment at Stanley’s superciliousness.
“What do we do now?” asked KC the peace-maker.
An idea came to me. “There’s another side we can go. Follow me.”
We went through a fairly unexplored pathway, battling many overgrown plants. It wasn’t a far distance, but it was enervating with the terrestrial obstacles and darkness caused by the shadows of huge, thick trucks of rain-forest habitation.
“Onyedika, are you sure you know where you are taking us?” she asked. For the first time since I met her, Chidi had a quiver in her voice she was trying hard to conceal.
“Before nko? But, if you don’t trust me, you can turn back o.” I added that last bit because I knew Chidi would rather die than admit she was afraid. As for returning to the stream all by herself, that was utterly out of the question.
Lucky for her, (and for me at that; KC’s weight had really begun to tell on me) we reached our destination. However, for the second time that day, we were presented with a situation we hadn’t anticipated. Lying at the bank of the stream, their bodies intertwined, was a couple. They were naked. The woman was on top of the man, his legs wrapped around her, and his hands were on her ample breasts. Her eyes were closed, but her face was lifted to the sky and to us. If the earlier incident had been a shock, this one knocked the wind out of us that we gaped sheepishly at the pair oblivious to our presence. All of us but Stanley, that is. He had fled the scene as soon as he recognised the woman, and saw that the man with her wasn’t her husband.
It’s been thirty years since that day. While I have no idea what became of the twins. The last I heard of them, they were planning to relocate to their mother’s country. Stanley understandably never returned to Umudike for any of festive holidays, or if he did he avoided us. Well, i would the person that was being avoided, since one generally can’t avoid dead people. Besides, I don’t see anyone doing that to KC, had he lived. And, to the best of my knowledge, neither the twins nor Stanley ever got to know of KC’s death. The memory of that Christmas had stayed imprinted on my memory. I have been married to Shishang for years now; still I refuse all her pleas to spend the holidays in her hometown. It is not that I have doubts about her fidelity. I just don’t want to take chances and have her get caught in the act by her own eleven year old son and his friends.