Tuesday, 23 February 2010

TUTUMAN {a short story}


There’s a feeling of having crossed an ocean each time Tutuman sits on my knee. Last time, she wore a black slip and the veil she’d thrown over her shoulder, for decency’s sake, had fallen around her hips. We sat in the dark beneath the glare of library lights. My northerner, she used to call me.

“What would they say to see us here?” I asked.

“What can they do,” she cooed, nibbling my left earlobe.

Maybe for the sound of a cricket, I laughed, knowing I’d asked the wrong question yet again.

“My mother called today,” she replied, “that’s why.”

“Nice, my sweet! Glad you got over that mood. You are resilient, but not a solitary rock, not an island. Just mine.”

She nestled her head on my chest, played with my navel, my palms ran across her satiny skin. We were beautiful, just like that; creatures of night, sharing a secret in the manner of crickets well aware that dawn would be our undoing.

“How’s mum, is she at Port Harcourt?”

“No, she’s at my village, Eniwari. Did you see the pictures I emailed?”

Her hometown was in the southern creeks beside a beautiful, meandering river; half-dressed children, their eyes wildly curious about the world around them; time worn canoes bearing nimble fishermen: “Yes, I did,” I said, “Lovely. I’d love to visit. Hope your militants won’t kidnap me?”

She punched me playfully. I kissed her lips. It’s so easy to find lips in the dark.

“There was an incident last week,” she said. I stiffened, did she notice? Tutuman continued, “Twelve people from Eniwari were killed.” It was 9 p.m. and fellow students filed out of the closing library. I thought of my brother and how the universe turns on the edges of coins.

Tutuman was a brown girl with an easy smile. Her voice had a halting sensuality, words pronounced perfectly with a slight Bayelsan accent. The Federal Government had militarized the Niger-Delta, because of local militants who blew up pipelines and stole crude oil; militants who were also environment activists, freedom fighters of a sort. Like Tutuman.

“They were returning from Yenegoa. There was a pregnant woman. Mostly traders. We are just fisher-folk in the delta. But now all the fish is dead from oil spills and gas flares. At a bend on the river, there’s a Navy gunboat. All the people in the small boat kept their hands above their heads, but the woman couldn’t. Maybe for vomit, maybe to spit? So the federal government’s boat, our petroleum in its tank, issued a barrage of gunfire. It’s funny how silent the delta becomes, just afterwards. . .”


I arrived home after a long arid trip across drying savannah-land. Kachollom, my mother, fussed over me. I had my bath, and then we sat to drink tea.

“Umar is losing his mind; he came back Tuesday. Did you know?”

I parted the zanna curtains.

Umar sat there cross-legged, staring at a large mirror. He caught my eye and turned.

“I swear I did not know! Twelve months of water snakes and eerie birds. I wanted to die. It was a small blue speedboat. I didn’t know! I swear. Do you know how chilling an upturned boat is?”

I lifted Umar’s green uniform unto my knee and sat on the bed, staring at myself, knowing I had no strength.

“Where did this happen?”

But the light was up again, we would be unable to hide.

What can they do’, Tutuman had said.

“At the bend on the river just before Eniwari,” my twin brother said.

© 2010 Richard Ugbede Ali