It was drizzling outside. Tiny raindrops crashing on the roof like muffled sounds of a trotting horse. But in Moreni Dike’s mind, it was a deluge of the things that haunted his every step. And he felt like a lone ship at sea—lost and floundering—soon to be forgotten like the ash and soot from yesterday’s fire. He had had the greatest quandary of his life two weeks ago, when he was caught by the police at a ‘sordid’ and ‘salacious’ party.
“I died at that party,’’ he muttered darkly. “Whatever crawled out of there was only a shadow.’’ There was a sudden rap on his door. Mother.
Mother’s dulcet voice came through the keyhole, calm like the gentle rustle of the air. “I am coming in,’’ she declared in a tone that brooked no argument. He strained his eyes to look at her. A golden light sat defiantly in her grey eyes and the smell of perfume clung to her. With her high cheekbones and ebony face, she stood tall like his favourite celebrity, the ever-dashing Genevieve Nnaji. He tore his face away from her as she sat beside him on the bed.
Morenike drew his sleeping furs to his chest. “Good afternoon, mother.’’
Mother glanced at him. “It’s almost evening,’’ she said by way of correction and paused for a while. “You must have really liked this boy,’’ she finally added.
Like. That one word brought a bitter twist to his mouth. “He was my friend,’’ he said, “and our bond transcended the kinship of brothers!’’ He could feel the rage gathering momentum deep within the furnace of his soul. He drew his fingers to his face and wiped a tear with his thumb.
Mother sighed. “I think you should go down to Mama’s,’’ she said, not unkindly.
He shook his head, “No.’’
“The harmattan is not yet broken in the village,’’ she urged. “There the cold wouldn’t steal up on you—’’
He raised a dark, lean hand. “I’d not have you foist me on grandma,’’ he said, curtly. But he left his main reason unsaid. “I like it here,’’ he added.
Mother stared at the wooden door. “Then you should get out of bed,’’ she chided him. “You’ve been locked in like a hermit—’’ she paused and stood still like one of the carven images of the founding mothers of her village, “—and I don’t know why. It’s not like I resent you because of what happened to you or what you did.’’
He jumped up with a start, his eyes afire with curiosity. “You aren’t mad?’’
She turned to look at his ashen face. “It’s the system I am mad at, not you. I worry your father’s people will sooner get wind of it and you know them and their wagging tongues, they will talk…’’ her voice broke, and she drew in a lungful of air, “They will say I am negligent and bad at parenting.’’
He scoffed, “They can wag their ruinous tongues all they like, I don’t care.’’
Mother rose to her feet and paced the room. She stopped to face her golden child, “Becky is before the dining table, leafing through my manuscript. She thinks it’s ripe for publication. I’d love it if you could join, another pair of eyes are welcome. I am so nervous with excitement!’’ Mother was a literature teacher in one of the leading colleges in Lagos. And poetry was like a prayer to her. The way she dressed, cooked, and talked screamed of poetry. And with her talents, she drew everyone toward her.
“Will you join her?’’ she asked with a silent plea in her eyes. “Becky is a fine girl,’’ she winked at him.
The first hint of a smile broke across his face. “You’ve unearthed one of your students to steer me into heterosexual romance?’’
Mother drew her fingers to her face and let them trickle down again like rain. “That’s not what I mean, and you know!’’ she threw her head back and laughed.
He wanted to go to her and hold her in his arms as they’d often done when he was younger. Father had quit them four years ago to pursue his dreams in New York and both Mother and son never quite forgave him that.
“See you later,’’ she quipped.
“You only wear this red dress when a gentleman is on his way,’’ he pointed out plainly. “Who are we expecting now?’’
Mother ignored the subtle sally in his tone. She loved him for this, his uncanny ability to toy with words. He was her best student. “This hot gown is for the good DSP Philips,’’ she said, unabashed. “Flaming, right?’’
Morenike cleared his throat, a prelude to a sarcastic remark, she knew. “That man gloated over us like a ghost from a haunted dream,’’ he said with some heat. “He promised we’d all be spending the next decade behind bars!’’
Mother smiled thinly. “He was only doing his job and besides, he helped you get away.’’
He raised his eyes to her. “I wouldn’t have needed saving if I were in New York,’’ he quipped, sly as a fox.
Mother’s eyes grew hard. “That’s where the devil went,’’ she told him, and the room turned cold. Mother’s hatred of Father was a madness in her, and perhaps she thought if she called him the devil long enough, he’d grow horns overnight.
“I hope this DSP—’’
“—knows you are a consort fit for an emperor.’’
Mother’s face coloured hotly. She trudged on silent feet toward the bed and leaned over to kiss his cheek, slightly near his upper lip. “You make me wanna have a baby again,’’ she said and smiled.
“Is this a threat?’’ he laughed.
“Well,’’ she replied, “if my only son wanna date guys like him perhaps I should start breeding again. I am still young, and I could have another son!’’ Her laughter cracked the air like a sudden bark of thunder. With that, she left him.
Then his mind went numb all over again, Mother’s fire gone from the hearth of his heart. He was suddenly cold.
The memory crashed on him.
Morenike Dike went to his favourite shop to place a bet though he wasn’t much of a gambler. It was the thrill of it that animated his imagination.
“That was close,’’ someone was saying. “Better luck next time!’’ Morenike glanced at the boy next to him. He was lean but strong, dark yet smart in his grey pants.
“Do you want me to pick sure games for you?’’ the boy asked as he shuffled over to him.
Morenike averted his eyes, ”I don’t gamble.”
”I am not here then,’’ the boy smiled but didn’t walk away.
Morenike wanted to ask him to move but he thought better of it. The boy was shouting out encouragement to his fellow gamblers. That was when something he’d never known was inside of him first stirred. He took a timid step forward. “Why don’t you play?’’ he asked.
The boy turned to him. “I would if I had some money,’’ he said with a shrug of his shoulders.
”I will lend you some,” Dike said to him, ”just don’t lose.”
The boy’s face narrowed. “I never lose, after all, I am the African god of gamblers,’’ he declared. ”How much do you have on you?”
The boy knitted his brows, a slight smile parting his lips. “A thousand dollars or pounds?’’
“Naira!’’ a startled Morenike threw at him.
“That’s a fortune.’’ Morenike felt mocked. He fished out a clean note from his pocket and handed it to the boy.
“It’s all I’ve got,’’ he said sternly.
The boy clutched it from his fingers. “I will triple this, and we can split it even.’’
Hmm, a fair gambler. “Deal.’’
Morenike watched as the boy went to the counter and placed his bet. His heart had crept into his throat. He felt he was throwing his money away… but he trusted this boy he’d never known before. In minutes the scores poured over the screen.
They had won.
“How did you do it?’’ a flummoxed Morenike asked.
”I had nothing to do with it, my friend. This is just beginner’s luck for you. Best we run away.”
Morenike shrugged his shoulders. “We could play more and go on winning.”
The boy sighed, “It doesn’t work like that.” He glanced at him “what’s your name?’’
“Daniel,’’ and he clasped his arm. “Your luck rubbed off on me and I won in your name and money. Tempt the god of gamblers a second time and he’d strip you of all you have,” Daniel said to him.
Daniel smiled and handed him his share, “You’ve just paid for my lunch. I owe you one.’’
When Morenike got home, he felt a quickening within his soul. He realised he liked Daniel’s spirit and wanted to be around him. He went back to the Betnaija shop a week later.
Daniel was before a flat screen, screaming. “By the pharaoh’s beard,’’ he wailed. “Just one more goal please!’’
Morenike touched him on the shoulder. “Hey.’’
Daniel turned. “You,’’ he said with a grin. “How have you been?’’
“Come to win again?’’
Morenike grinned. “I see you’ve lost some already.’’
Daniel gave a quick glance at the screen, “Manchester United will bugger you in virtual games and in real life if you give them half the chance!’’
Morenike studied his face carefully. He couldn’t be more than twenty, yet hard times had given him a false look, a false age. He knew he was hungry. “I saw an eatery around the bend,’’ Morenike told him.
“Taking me out on a date?’’ Daniel asked and placed an arm on his shoulder.
With that, they both walked across the road and sat before a table. Morenike bought two coca cola beverages and some doughnuts. Daniel warmed himself into the task of narrating his life to Dike. He was an orphan, he said. The street was the only home he knew, ever knew. Ever since he began to think for himself, he had frequented bet shops. They were the source of his livelihood. Morenike was a great listener.
”I hope to win big one day and set up my own shop,’’ he said.
“But the god of gambler isn’t so keen about that?’’
Daniel smiled at him ruefully, “I see you learn pretty fast.’’
Morenike was pleased with the compliment. He leaned over and said, “let’s have some fried chicken!’’
Daniel wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Still got some cash on you, man?’’
The fried chicken was hot from the oil and Daniel bit into the meat with the dignity of a street kid. “This tastes like ambrosia,’’ he jested.
“My mom would love to hear that from you,’’ he said. “She’s a literature teacher.’’
“Oh. No wonder you are so smart. I love literature,’’ he said. “I like you.’’
Morenike blushed. “Thanks,’’ he blurted out. “I like you too.’’ He lowered his eyes and realised he didn’t have so much of an appetite.
Daniel seemed not to hear him, he kept picking his meat clean. Morenike watched him with fascination and knew this guy could eat fufu in a crowded bus. Mother would surely have something to say to that, he thought.
“You haven’t even touched your meat,’’ Daniel said.
Daniel abandoned his bone on his plate. “I appreciate you buying me lunch and hanging out with a broke kid like me,’’ he said, matter of fact.
Morenike’s hands grew a heart and reached out to touch his arm. “I am happy to be here with you,’’ he confessed.
Daniel looked into his eyes and said, ”I have a party I’d want you to come with. Will you go with me?”
”I don’t know—”
”There will be lots of guys there. Folks like us,” Daniel cut in.
Folks like us? Who are we?
Before that fateful day, Morenike had often imagined himself kissing Daniel. And he’d often wondered what Mother would say. Would she fly into a thousand fits and name him the devil’s own pupil?
Daniel was waiting for him outside the gate of the low-fenced guest house. He was smart in his blue pants and white shirt. “You look nice,’’ Daniel said with a smile.
“Thanks,’’ he replied, nervous.
They went into the compound as the evening began to deepen. Morenike realised with a sudden start of fear that there were no women around. He brushed his fears away and stuck to his friend.
“Let me go fetch us some drinks,’’ Daniel told him and walked into the bar.
Just then, a middle-aged man walked toward him. His perfume announced him. It smelled of privilege.
”Hi handsome,” the man called to Morenike. ”How are you?”
”Hello,” he replied. ”I am well.”
The man gave him a seductive smile. ”Don’t you want to dance? Why is your hand without a cup? Do you want me to get you some wine?”Morenike gave him a long-astonished look.
“Never mind,’’ he said. “My friend is coming over with our drinks.’’ He tilted his head over the keg of a man before him.
The man took the hint and went his way. Morenike studied him as he was trudging across the compound to a knot of boys at a table.
Daniel came with two rubber cups. ”I see you have made a new friend,” his voice had the sharp edge of jealousy. Morenike had the grace to blush. Oh, how his eyes glowed. So, this is what it feels to be fought over. To be desired. To be loved.
”We were just talking and besides,’’ he held his hand, “I told him I was with you.”
Daniel put a cup in his hand. “Here,’’ he offered, “drink. It’s vodka.’’
Morenike took the cup with nervous fingers. What would Mother say? But he was glad to be here with Daniel, spinning the evening out, like a web—a silken web of uncertainty. That feeling of foreboding fell on him and despite himself, he shuddered.
“It is nice here,’’ he said. “I like it here.’’ He hesitated. “But I can see we are all boys,’’ he glanced furtively behind his shoulders, “and men.’’
Daniel snorted. “Yes,’’ he said and gulped down his cup. He was nervous too. He threw his cup away, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Morenike,’’ he said, trying to avert his eyes. “I am happy to be here with you. You are my….’’ his voice trailed.
Morenike went to him and finished for him, “…your friend.’’
They both looked at each other, holding hands as the evening fell.
That was when chaos came. The sirens were blaring high and loud. Morenike felt the snapping of his soul. “You need to hide!’’ Daniel said to him.
Morenike’s mind went numb. “Why?’’ he asked.
“The cops,’’ Daniel told him. “If they catch us here….’’
The crowd went wild running like frightened lambs. Why are you all running?
Evening took on a cloak of darkness and with it came queer and darker things. They were in a police station. And he was asked to write a statement. He didn’t know what to do. Everything had happened so fast. I could still remember being captured and shoved into a van. “I was just out here having fun with a friend!’’ he recalled screaming. The officer in charge of the bust, the good DSP Philips was quite sympathetic and allowed him to call Mother. He was grateful. He searched for Daniel, but he was nowhere to be found.
Mother came and ran to him, crushing him in a bone-crunching hug. “Oh my God,’’ she wept. “I was so scared. I thought something bad had happened to you.’’
Morenike felt a hard lump at the back of his throat. “I am sorry, mother,’’ his voice came, hoarse.
DSP Philips cleared his throat. “Madam,’’ he said with a gentle look on his dark face, his tribal marks making him look older than his forty years. “Your boy was arrested at a gay party.’’
Mother’s face could have curdled milk then. “Morenike!’’
Morenike shook his head. “No mom,’’ he cried. “I didn’t know… I went with a friend.’’
“It’s alright,’’ Mother assured him and turned to look at Philips. “Officer,’’ she said in her sweetest tone. “Can you do anything for my son, please?’’ She flicked her braids like raffia fronds. The enraptured DSP murmured his acquiescence and that was how Morenike got off lightly.
Home felt like a cell when they got there. He was still hurting, Mother knew. “I will make some soup for you,’’ she said. “With fish and goat meat, your favourite.’’
“I am not hungry,’’ Morenike snapped, and he went into his room.
Morenike followed the case closely like a personal attorney. Daniel had been among those apprehended. Though Mother forbade him from observing the court proceedings, he went anyway. It hurt him to see Daniel on the dock, the light of his undimmed. They shared words that didn’t require the tongue. They talked through their souls. I will always be rooting for you.
They didn’t require words. Love doesn’t require words. Love wasn’t cold. It wasn’t warm. It was just… love.
Morenike got out of bed and trudged to the dining room. Becky was everything Mother said she was. She wore a brown short skirt. Her eyes were graceful to look at. Another poet in the making.
“Hi,’’ Becky said.
“Hey.’’ Morenike pulled a chair and sat next to the girl. He wasn’t nervous. Daniel had taught him strength. “My mom’s manuscript—’’
Becky cut him off. “It’s so wonderful,’’ she said, upbeat and chatty. “Your mom’s poems capture the young, budding soul, instilling in it the god’s own draught,’’ her eyes were afire with excitement, “a parched mind becomes a fountain—’’
Mother’s laughter cut her off. “Becky,’’ she laughed, “my son doesn’t like girls who talk like that.’’ She roared again before sitting at the head of the table, and steepled her fingers, watching. “So, Beck, you think it’s ready?’’
Becky brushed back her auburn hair. “Yes, it is!’’
Morenike thought for a while. “I wish to honour a friend,’’ he said. “It’s all I can do to remember him by. I think I have a poem,’’ he announced. “In my head.’’
After Daniel had been incarcerated at one of the maximum security penitentiary in Lagos, he and some other inmates were said to have been killed when a live wire fell on their block. Morenike had been mourning him ever since. Today, he hoped to lay his ghost, praying in his heart that Daniel’s soul would find peace in a realm where a boy can be what he wants to be.
Mother unknitted her fingers and placed them on the table and if you could look closely, you’d see they were trembling. “I’d add it, dear,’’ she encouraged him.
It crackles like a quickening flame
Throwing off the fragrance of faltered dreams
Lengthening life’s thread which never quite snaps at twilight.
To sudden plummets below the thatch
Where a fading light groans, lighting the wings of fireflies
As from a great depth.
Who holds the touch of the morrow?
To show the boy his way!
He asks no favour but to live.