He lost his religion in church. Twelve years old and Nimi knew there was no God. His mother had left them by then, just like his father, though she had left for a better reason. They were living with their grandmother, he and his brother, Abiye—seventeen months younger yet demanding an equal share of food and toys. Abiye had always been a magnet for hugs and high fives. As a baby he’d howled for attention; later he performed for it by doing what was expected of him. For their grandmother, Abiye’s routine was to pretend to enjoy Sundays, forgetting that Mama had never treated it as holy, never dragged them off to church except for her sister’s wedding.
Their grandmother, however, spoke to God all the time. She never missed Sunday service. In her house—Big Mama’s house—the act of worship was a fact of life, like air, water, money, a good name, or mothers and fathers going their separate ways.
The Sunday morning of Nimi’s fall from grace was no different than those that had passed since their mother dropped them off with Big Mama for a sleepover two months before. Nimi had suspected there was something odd about that visit, since Mama had loaded too many suitcases into the Beetle. On the drive across town, she wasn’t her usual no-nonsense self; she ignored their back seat roughhousing and only once glanced at them in the rearview mirror to say, “Promise me you won’t give Big Mama any trouble o”—words that Nimi took as proof they would be visiting for longer than the weekend. He was relieved to hear the Beetle’s engine the next afternoon. At that familiar rumble, Nimi pushed up from his knees and raced his brother across the chalk-lined courtyard where they’d been playing a match of counter-ball; their bare feet smacked along the corridor all the way to the parlor, where they fell in a tangle of limbs as Abiye tripped his brother from behind. The front door swung open to reveal their mother’s figure aureoled by sunlight, at which point the boys ceased their wrestling on the dusty rug, raised their hands to shade their eyes, and then piped together:
“We went to church today!”
Their mother had arrived with a military truck loaded with furniture. The boys watched in startled silence as three soldiers alighted beside the truck, all wearing fatigues whose camouflage matched its bodywork. At some unseen signal the men broke into movement and opened the tailgate, began unloading the tarpaulin-covered truck bed, hefting furniture through the corridor of Big Mama’s house, singly or as a team, their labored breathing echoing off the ceiling and their boots drumming the linoleum floor. The door to the apartment on the other side of the courtyard—the low-roofed outbuilding that was the only part of the house the boys had never explored, as the woodworm-scarred door was always padlocked—had been wedged open by their mother, and it was into this cramped space that she marshaled the men to set down the antique bureau on whose drop-down desktop the boys had done their homework for as long as they could trace letters. And then the jigsaw pieces of two spring beds, which their mother reassembled in the adjoining rooms that mimicked a parlor and bedroom. No tables, and only two chairs—one corduroy-upholstered armchair out of a three-piece collection, one straight-backed chair from the pinewood dining set. The boys didn’t have long to marvel at the magical capacity of this new place to swallow everything from the four-bedroom bungalow they had called home for most of their lives. The soldiers kept feeding furniture through the doorway until the apartment was full. Then they piled the leftovers on the ground of the courtyard, like a bonfire of the vanities, the wreckage of a former life.
The marriage was over. The children didn’t believe it then, but they would grow to accept it. As one weekend turned into another in the Goodhead house, the Browne brothers, who now observed everything with a heightened attentiveness to the fickleness of adults, began adjusting to the unsettling circumstance of answering to a mother who herself answered to her mother. They overheard the grudging gratitude Mama expressed to Big Mama for sharing her home with them, and they noted their grandmother’s indulgent manner as she advised her daughter on how to rescue her marriage. Even in a coded language, the Kalabari mother and daughter switched to whenever discussing secrets, the boys could decipher a tension. Eventually any conversation between them seemed to carry the risk of confrontation. Over the weeks that followed, the boys could sense the swelling of their mother’s bitterness. In her face they would sometimes catch fleeting expressions of her anguish. At night they listened as she drifted around the courtyard, sobbing to the walls. Even the food she cooked began smelling of fear and tasting of too much salt.
And then she, too, left them behind.
One of the inside jokes in the Goodhead family was that Big Mama always crashed into bed on the right side and tumbled out on the left. Everyone knew she was a clockwork creature, a follower of routine. Even the birds could attest to this, as every night before Big Mama shuffled off to bed, after banging closed all the windows in the house and appeasing her secret terror of dying in her sleep by sniffing at the gas burners to check for leakage, she would bend down in the courtyard and scatter bottom-pot rice or brown-bean pickings on the courtyard cement. (On those nights when her cooked meals couldn’t serve as birdfeed, she reached for a tin of red sorghum grains.) In the morning, when the sun-weathered door to the courtyard opened, the pigeons would pause their pecking, cock their heads, and then burst into motion, their bodies rising into the air like a leaf storm.
Most days, Big Mama lingered in the doorway until the flock dispersed before advancing into the courtyard. On this Sunday morning, however—Nimi’s fateful Sunday in September—she ignored the flapping and struck straight across for the boy’s quarters.
“Lionel Nimitie Browne!”
The shrill of annoyance in her tone corkscrewed the silence open. Moments later, Nimi was slouched before her in his undersized pajamas. She waited while he yawned out his sulfuric breath and rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, thinking to herself how young he looked despite his maturing frame. His twelfth birthday was four days away but already he was taller than her. And yet her grandson took no pride in this whenever she mentioned it, because Big Mama was the shortest adult he knew.
“Ibaate, my son,” she said in reply to his mumbling. Her voice had softened. “Wake up your brother. Start getting ready for church.”
Abiye had already laid out his Sunday clothes on their mother’s vacant bed the previous day. Nimi roused him by tickling his foot until he sat up whining, squinting at the clock above the daylight-filled doorway. He rolled off the bed and staggered toward the pail of water he had left outside the doorway the night before. The sounds of his splashing filled the courtyard as Nimi opened the windows and dressed the bed. He was ironing his etibo shirt when Abiye padded back, nude and soap-scented, with suds in his ears, and humming a hymn. “You have soap in your ears again,” Nimi said, his tone impassive. He unplugged the steaming iron and bent down to hide it under the bed. Spinning around as he straightened up, he sprang at his brother in an effort to clean out his ears with a finger. Abiye had been watching for this move, a playful ritual of their father’s, and he twisted out of reach deeper into the room. Then he threw back his head and yeehawed like a cartoon bandit, leapt onto the bed with his legs spread apart and reached down with both hands to grasp his cherub’s penis. “No, Abiye! Don’t rumple my clothes!” Nimi cried out. And then, turning his back, he strode out of the room as his brother thrust his hips and mock machine-gunned him.
This was the first Sunday since their mother had moved to Ibadan; the first weekend since she told her children she needed to leave them behind in Port Harcourt. The talk she’d had with Nimi was still fresh in his mind. She had called him into her bedroom and shut the door so that Abiye wouldn’t hear them. She’d described where Ibadan was in relation to Lagos, explained that a university taught adults to earn more money, and then confessed that she had to leave before his birthday. She was lucky to have a firstborn like him, a boy whose maturity was the reason she could confide in him. She called him her “small daddy” because she depended on him more than anyone else alive. She wished her father had lived to see her boys, he would have been so proud of how responsible they were. “But what’s past is done,” she said. “I have you now.” From her face Nimi could tell that the person she was thinking of was neither him nor her father. Between mother and son that day, the things unsaid were understood. And so he nodded to everything his mother said until the tears, which he’d been holding back ever since the move to Big Mama’s house, stung his eyes. He sniffled and swallowed as he swore in silence that he would never be like his father.
That was why, as he marched off to the bathroom, Nimi let his brother be rather than wrestle him off the made-up bed. He would give Big Mama no reason to complain. Not about noisemaking, rough play, delaying her from church. He would not give her cause to bemoan their mother’s absence. Abiye had cheated: He woke up last and had done no housework before bathing, even though it was his turn to sweep the courtyard. But that didn’t matter so long as he, Nimi, the Small Daddy, was ready for church before Big Mama.
When he returned from the bathroom, Nimi found his breakfast on a tray beside his clothes on the neatened bed, a peace offering from Abiye, who had left the room. Nimi was grateful for this gesture, since he hadn’t thought to ask his brother to make breakfast for two, and it wasn’t one of Abiye’s duties to serve his older brother. In their mother’s absence, Nimi was the “chief chef,” the title and task she had given him on that last evening she sat with her sons to split the running of the home between them. He was the one she’d authorized to collect money from Aunty Ibiso and go to Creek Road Market, the one who decided what to put on the fire, under Big Mama’s supervision. It was his duty to cook for both of them. Breakfast, which involved no cooking, was the only meal his ten-year-old brother was allowed to prepare for himself. Nimi ate as he put on his clothes, spooning mouthfuls of milk and cornflakes in between each shirtsleeve he pulled on and trouser leg he kicked into. He finished buckling his Cortina shoes before slurping the last of the cereal out of the bowl, then picked up the bread—two fridge-cold slices stuck together by a thick layer of margarine, which he munched on while shutting the window louvres and locking the door behind him. He skipped around the cluttered square of the courtyard, the pigeons staring down from the corrugated roof edges in crouches of puzzlement, until he finished the sandwich in one last bite that puffed his cheeks out like a wrenched milk tooth. After wiping his hands on the rung of a ladder angled against the courtyard fence, he entered the corridor and ran to join Abiye in the parlor just in time for Big Mama to emerge from her bedroom and commend them both for timeliness.
As happened every Sunday on the stroll to church, Big Mama kept receiving volleys of greetings and batting them back. Amid the tidings of “Good morning” and “Happy Sunday” that rang out from every corner, the boys marveled at how their grandmother—a woman who’d grown up in the same place where she was determined to finish her days—seemed to know everyone in the neighborhood. At her house she seldom received visitors, on account of her reputation as a parsimonious homebody who lagged in gossip and only offered Lucozade and Cabin biscuits as refreshments; but Nimi had noticed that on Sundays she became a different person. Her tone was happier, her compliments more expansive with friends she met on the road. She gestured more often, too, her silver bangles clattering; she never sucked on her painted lips in disapproval at the brothers’ rollicking antics; and her eyes, the lids spangled with bronze powder and the lashes stiffened by mascara, widened and narrowed along to her chatter with a flirtatiousness the boys sniggered about as they shadowboxed behind her back. They were learning that their grandmother’s jauntiest moods were when she adorned herself in finery; and on this bright and beautiful Sunday, with her grandsons in tow, she surfed this carefree wave all the way into church and back out again, laughing along with her parish sisters as they poured through the big wooden doors after service.
On fair-weather Sundays, visiting time began at the close of church. No surprise, then, when Big Mama and the boys arrived at her son-in-law Malachi Horsfall’s house to find the yard packed with cars. The door of the screened veranda was ajar. Big Mama latched it after they entered, and then walked toward the front door with Abiye pulling ahead and Nimi dragging his heels as he tried to hide behind her. Abiye barged through the door into the sitting room, releasing a rush of liquor-scented cold air and buzzing voices that faded as the newcomers stepped inside. Malachi stood up from the gang of faces and, raising his highball glass, announced in the booming voice of a circus ringmaster: “All hail Junior’s grandma!”
“Joker,” Big Mama said with a chortle. And then, “Thank you, thank you—no, please, sit down, happy Sunday. God be with you,” waving her bangles at all the guests. After the hubbub of greetings, Big Mama turned her cheerful gaze on her son-in-law and asked in the lilt reserved for impressing strangers: “Where’s your wife?”
“Bedroom,” Malachi replied and flicked his hand. As Big Mama sauntered toward the back, Malachi pointed at Abiye, who was standing on tiptoe to see above the heads of those lounging on the L-shaped sofa, his eyes locked on the prismatic colors of the biggest television he’d ever seen. “Come here, you rascal!” Nimi was a step away from ducking through the beaded curtain that was still rattling from Big Mama’s passing when he heard: “You too, Nimitie!”
The brothers approached and slowed to a halt as they faced Malachi’s imperial figure. They stood beside each other with their knuckles touching, flanked by the TV and assailed on three sides by the scrutiny of strangers—a pressure under which Nimi seemed to cringe, while Abiye puffed out his chest and grinned. Malachi raised his right hand and took a sip of his rum and coke, with a slosh and clink of ice cubes as it went down. He lowered the drink, thrust up his free hand and said, “High five!” Abiye jumped forward and struck the starfished target with a force that sounded like cracking wood. “Good boy!” said Malachi, and then glanced over, his lips puckered under his Herbert Macaulay mustache. Nimi swung his arm, but at his touch the open palm folded, swallowing his hand and jerking him forward. “I’ve told you before,” Malachi said, his hairless eyebrows raised as he stared into the boy’s face, “you’re too pawpawish. Look at your small brother. Why can’t you be bold like him?” He released his grip by spreading out his fingers. “Now give me a proper high five.” Nimi did as he was told, smacking so hard this time he felt the impact in his tear ducts. As the adults’ laughter swirled around him, he hung his head in shame.
Malachi towered even when seated, and his shot-putter’s physique, the robust thighs almost as thick as Nimi’s torso, the yam-size forearms and hammer fists, imprinted itself on Nimi’s survival instinct. Malachi was a geodetic engineer with an oil-servicing company that paid him so well he could replace his home theater system every year and go shopping for tech toys he found in the pages of Esquire—tough-looking SUVs with advanced telematics; sea-dweller chronometers; those electronic pocket organizers that wowed the children with futuristic buttons and beeps. There was something new to see every time the boys stopped by. Yet Nimi didn’t enjoy these visits as much as his brother.
Ever since they first met, when Nimi was about ten, Malachi singled out the older brother for high-five teasing. Even worse were Malachi’s calculated displays of arithmetic prowess, always giving the answers to the quadratic problems he kept lobbing at the boy’s head. At first Nimi didn’t hate the quizzing so much, but that changed after Malachi’s marriage to Ibiso, Big Mama’s second daughter. Malachi’s final visit to the Browne’s rented bungalow was to meet the boys’ father, who had just returned from another of his business trips. The next time the brothers saw Malachi was in the ribbon-and-balloon-decorated aisle of Big Mama’s church, on his wedding day. (The boys’ father did not attend.) To Nimi the groom looked brooding, gloomier than he’d ever seen him before. But then perhaps all men appear that way at the altar.
But now, in the present, Nimi was reminded why he had grown to loathe the know-it-all tone Malachi adopted whenever he answered questions. “Whose children are they?” The question came from a woman seated on the L-shaped sofa, two places away from Malachi, who raised his voice to address everyone. “They are Siya’s kids. My in-law—Ibiso’s senior sister.” His reply was a preamble to the tale he obviously wanted to tell, because he went on to tattle that the boys’ father was a foreigner, a Jamaican living in Nigeria, and that, as anyone with sense had known would happen, the rootless fellow had deserted his family because of a woman. At this disclosure Nimi’s cheeks goose-pimpled from the attention of the eyes surrounding him, and then the guests began darting questions at Malachi. He sucked their fervent voices into his narrative, which he told without pausing, like he was blowing into a balloon. The children stood there listening with chastened faces as the adults poked around the most painful parts of their lives, until someone with sense, a man whose soulful mudskipper eyes would appear in Nimi’s dreams for days afterward, looked at the brothers and said, “You can go.”
During these years the Browne brothers lived in Port Harcourt without their mother, Nimi tramped to the Horsfall residence almost every Sunday to collect their living allowance from Aunty Ibiso. She was the money keeper, the trusted bank to which their mother sent the savings her children lived on. (That she lived near the boys was a happy coincidence and convenience.) And every Sunday, except for the hiatus that swung around twice a year when their mother returned to spend the holidays with them, Ibiso was waiting to vet his shopping list and nudge his conscience about the spiking price of tomatoes. Nimi entered Ibiso’s house more times than he entered God’s, as he had to go for money even on those Sundays he refused to go to church. Ibiso was the sibling closest to Mama’s heart. Ibiso was also the one the brothers ran to whenever they had to bring an adult in for some transgression at school. For the PTA meetings, they had no qualms about sending their grandmother, but when the summons meant a scolding afterward, they preferred their easygoing aunt. And yet, for all her gentleness, Ibiso was hardheaded about money. Unlike Malachi, who remained a spendthrift until he lost his petroleum job and began leaning on his schoolteacher wife for mustache-trimming money, Ibiso kept her eyes on each kobo in the naira. She read every receipt Nimi handed over before stashing them away in the same repository each week, a manila folder that was stamped on the front in block letters, principal’s office. She always collected the change from Nimi’s last visit before disbursing new funds, and knew what he owed even if he’d pocketed just a few coins for himself. It took him many months to build up the nerve to submit his first fraudulent shopping list. That time, his doubling of the cost for surplus items went unchallenged; but the next Sunday, when he tried again, she said in a pensive tone as she studied the scrap of paper scribbled in his hand: “You boys need pocket money.”
She gave him his first wage-earning duty: babysitting her child four times a week. Nimi was thirteen years old; Ibiso’s son, Malachi Junior, was almost two. Abiye was also conscripted into playing with their cousin, as Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays were his clock-in days at the Horsfall home. The brothers’ instructions were kept simple: Keep Junior safe and occupied; keep him away from the parlor when his father was reading the newspaper or watching rugby on television; and keep the boy away from the bedroom when his mother, who was heavy with her second child, was catching up on rest. For Nimi’s ears only, one more directive from Ibiso: If she ever caught him padding the shopping list again she would cut off his babysitting allowance and assign the shopping duties to Abiye.
Despite Ibiso’s handouts, a lack of money remained an embarrassment to the boys, who never had enough for their growing wants. Their needs were met at home. They suffered no shortage of food or transport fare to school. Their stay-at-home clothes were decent, going-out wardrobe dignified; their sensible backpacks hung heavy with hardback notebooks. They had cold water in the fridge and a roof that didn’t leak in the rainy season. They even had the Panasonic to themselves, a black-and-white television with a small phosphor screen and chrome dials that selected the UHF and VHF channels only transmitting between 4 p.m. and midnight, except for weekends and public holidays. It was true they lacked an outdoor antenna and had to use metal hangers to strengthen the white-noise signal of NTA Calabar, and they’d been missing a video player ever since their mother sold off the Betamax along with the rest of their father’s high-priced equipment; true also that they wanted the same outfits their cool friends wore to “No Parents Allowed” bashes, and that they hadn’t gotten any new toys or storybooks since their father stopped coming back. Yet the boys agreed they were better off than the woe-faced, fly-ridden children they saw in foreign documentaries about famine in the Horn of Africa. They admitted that they had it easier than some of their schoolmates, whose fees were not paid on time and who borrowed textbooks or pilfered pencils despite having two parents.
For the brothers, their father’s leaving had placed them at their mother’s mercy. His absence from their lives, an unforgivable betrayal, was also a financial burden, their mother claimed. Thus every reason the boys could have given, every argument in support of why they wanted more than they got, would seem ungrateful to a mother whose sole efforts kept them housed, fed, clothed, and in school. Every excuse for why their school grades were dropping—despite them getting all that they needed—was exposed as namby-pamby flapdoodle in light of their mother’s steadfast provision. So the brothers said nothing, but bided their time with bedtime fantasies about prodigal fathers and fairy godmothers, speaking only to each other of the Nintendo Game Boy that Abiye kept borrowing from friends and the birthday wish of a Sony Walkman for which Nimi was already amassing a small pile of Jim Reeves cassettes.
For a time the quest for water distracted the brothers from their money woes.
Water was plentiful in their former life at the bungalow across town, gushing from taps and showerheads. They had no reason to dread its shortage until they moved in with Big Mama, whose house had no running water except for the ancient brass tap of the main supply pipe, located in a three-foot-deep concrete cistern in the courtyard, which squirted and dripped rust-colored water only now and then. At the onset of this parched period—those Salt-N-Pepa music-blasting years in the nineties when public services unraveled across the country—their mother tried to ease the shock of their transition by driving twice a week to Ibiso’s house and returning with the Beetle sagging under the weight of fifty-liter jerrycans. When she had to leave for Ibadan, her parting gift was two empty Shell oil drums that she scrubbed out herself and filled with water, which the brothers replenished either by fetching from the cistern or buying from street vendors until that grew too pricey because the city’s water supply had dried up. Besides scrambling around the courtyard with buckets to catch rainwater, the only choice left to them was to do as others did. And so Big Mama, with many stern warnings to avoid ringwormy urchins, set her grandsons loose onto the streets to forage for water.
Though resentful at first toward the suffer-head trajectory of their existence, the brothers soon came around to enjoying a chore that exposed them to nighttime mysteries. Their water duties liberated them from the killjoy gazes of adults, a chance they seized to explore their neighborhood and understudy its coarsest characters: the cussing sons of ogogoro drunkards, the waterside-raised daughters of sea-snail sellers, and those catapult-wielding gangs of shirtless twelve-year-olds in whose ranks Abiye hunted leke-leke birds and agama lizards in nearby backyards. Four hours of freedom, to be spent as Nimi pleased in the company of wet-bloused girls at the public borehole pump, and with no repercussions from Big Mama so long as the brothers fulfilled their task and brought back water. Night after night, for months to come, they did.
It was water that guided them toward their own discovery of the synergic principle that the bigger the task, the stronger the bond between those facing it. To succeed in their nightly excursions, they became a team, forced into solidarity not because Big Mama said so, but as a consequence of the only thing they detested about their new duty: their scalding embarrassment when plodding the streets with buckets on their heads. This stain on their cool-kid reputations was resolved after they collaborated in scavenging planks and nails from nearby construction sites, and then pooled their babysitting allowances to buy discarded ball bearings and wire ropes from the motor mechanics along Aggrey Road. These odds and ends were used by the brothers in crafting their own borress, the poor-kid handcart that was popular with all the boys. Their contraption served both for work and fun, as they would hurtle down the asphalt roads with sparks shooting from their wheels, one brother pushing and steering while the other rode in the borress along with the jerrycans.
The functionary who palms a bribe will most likely defend their actions with the truism, “Eat where you work.” So it was with the Browne brothers, who learned to milk their household duties for emoluments. With their DIY go-cart they supplied water to themselves and their praise-singing grandmother as well as to anyone else willing to pay. The boys made quick money, as business was brisk. Nimi was rigorous about returning the correct change, while Abiye was seen as the enterprising brother, the one who conceived of schemes for jumping the queue at the public water pump. These qualities in the brothers, their reliability and resourcefulness, were valuable in other ways to some of their customers. Thus the boys were dispatched on errands that included procuring condoms from roadside kiosks, delivering scented letters to underage lovers, and returning blue film cassettes to video rental clubs. It was through these discreet jobs that Abiye got his first chance to smoke a cigarette and Nimi—via the glossy pages of the Penthouse he pilfered from the bedroom of a beardless undergraduate whose TV screen was always colored with porn—discovered, finally, the ritual of masturbation.
The brothers took satisfaction in their busying about. They were doing as adults said and also as they did, working and earning for themselves in addition to schooling, babysitting, shopping, cooking, housecleaning, running the home. And, what’s more, their triumph at independence had freed their mother to pursue a better life, even though, given how slowly her studies seemed to be going and how well their water business was doing, her sons thought her unlikely to realize it before they did. The only blip in their daydreams of world domination as Browne Brothers Inc. (the name splashed in yellow paint across their cart and jerrycans) was their own insatiability. They kept splurging on roadside snacks—every day a smorgasbord of myriad permutations: boli, puff-puff, kokoro, abacha-ugba, moin-moin, yamarita, okpa, kuli-kuli, suya, okin biscuit, fura da nono, chin-chin, akara, agidi jollof, and untold chilled bottles of tongue-staining Fanta they could fling into their mouths. But at least they understood their eating expenses. What was harder for them to grasp was how the cash they kept burning through could never slake the craving in their hearts. Like puppies nuzzling around for teats, they went searching for satisfaction without knowing what to look for, and so hurled their money into a hole that couldn’t be filled through absurd compulsion, as Abiye would discover after weeks of wasting his earnings on bubblegum in a bid to assemble the complete set of trading cards bearing the photos of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup team. Still, no matter how much the brothers labored, and in spite of all the cash they kept spending, they couldn’t gum-patch a family back together.
On that first Sunday after Mama left, the same day Malachi chatted so brazenly about their parents’ breakup, Nimi had prayed for God to grant one wish for his twelfth birthday. In church that morning, he waited until the preacher’s homily ended and the red-velvet offering bag began to pass from hand to hand. The air throbbed with the pipe organ’s peals, the staunch harmonizing of the congregation. When the bag reached Nimi, he dropped in a coin and pleaded under his breath, “I want to see Papa and Mama together on October 1,” and then passed the bag to Abiye. Despite the relief that swelled his righteous heart after the prayer passed his lips, that hopeful day—his first birthday since the breakup, a day he met with the certitude that he who weeps shall laugh, as the preacher promised—came and went without celebration, with no sign of his parents.
It wasn’t until years later, one afternoon in July, that Nimi received word of his father’s whereabouts. The brothers had returned from school to find Big Mama waiting for them. She must have been peeking through the curtains, because the front door opened before they even knocked. The boys hurried into the forest-glade coolness of the house and greeted her in desiccated voices, to which their grandmother responded by asking with a silky tone: “How was school today?” She was blocking their path to the corridor; they had no choice but to mumble that school was fine, then readied their sun-baked faces to show repentance as they waited for her to reveal whose offense was about to be reprimanded.
“Your father sent someone.”
The brothers exchanged glances, unsure if they had heard her right, until she opened her mouth to release a flashbulb smile. “Your father sent Feturi. He came from Benin today but had to travel back. He brought letters.” Her voice quavered with excitement. “Your father sent letters for each of you.”
They hadn’t noticed Big Mama hiding a hand behind her back, but now she waved it in their faces, with two airmail envelopes beating against each other as they fanned the air. Inscribed in the cursive strokes of a brazen hand, one envelope read, “To My Dear Son: Byron Abiye Browne,” while the other was for Nimi, who flung out his arm and snatched both letters. Abiye turned to him with anguished eyes, held out his palm to receive his letter, and after staring for wondrous seconds at the calligraphy of his name, he threw back his head, punched the air with the fist that clutched his letter, and yeehawed so loudly that the courtyard pigeons scattered in a burst of flapping. “Control yourself!” Nimi hissed at last. He then turned to their chuckling grandmother and began firing off questions. “Did Feturi say anything? Is he staying with Papa? Is Papa coming back?”
“Read your letters,” Big Mama said, and turned away.
The brothers read their letters over and over. Abiye sprawled on his back in bed and tried to catch a glimpse of their father’s mysterious life, while Nimi, crouched in the courtyard, held up each sheet of his three-page letter to the sunlight, scrutinizing every speck of the Conqueror-watermarked paper. When both had read their letters long enough, they swapped and scanned for clues as to who was their father’s favorite. Afterward they compared their understanding of their father’s words. He wasn’t coming back, they conceded. But he loved them—they knew this for sure, because he wrote that word more times than they remembered hearing it from their mother over these long years of their dull-boy-Jack lives. As proof, he had sent along a package with Feturi—fifty thousand naira, more money than they could ever earn delivering water, more than they had ever been given by anyone. It was, he wrote, a gift for his darling brainiac’s soon-come fifteenth birthday and his lovable rapscallion’s thirteenth this March gone by. The wahala was that, apart from their letters, nothing else had reached their hands. Their money was not delivered.
Big Mama had said nothing about the money, not a word. All that sweltering afternoon, they fussed over her, each one offering at different times to bring her cold drinking water in the kitchen while she cooked. At night they trailed behind as she trod down the corridor with her mouth-watering dinner of plantain pottage, and then competed with each other to switch on her color TV and adjust the outdoor antenna for the clearest signal of the News at 7. Afterward they lounged around dropping hints about the money until the “Joy girl” advert during the News at 9, when Nimi, incensed by her stonewalling, asked in a sham tone of eagerness if she wanted to read their letters to see what their father had said about their money. She declined with an absentminded shake of her head, after which the brothers slunk off to bed to spend long hours whispering in the dark.
Two months after Papa’s letters arrived, consuming their thoughts, the brothers left home as usual to fetch water on a weekday evening, but on getting to the public water pump, they found the taps hissing air. Over the ensuing days of that pernicious dry season, as the good-for-nothing pumps gathered rust, the boys had to search farther and slog harder to find water. Their odd-job earnings waned and their overloaded borress began to take up all their free time with its incessant repairs until, along a rutted patch of Creek Road, about twenty minutes’ walk from Big Mama’s house, it collapsed for the final time under the weight of two fifty-liter, two twenty-five-liter, and five twenty-liter jerrycans. While the crayfish aromas of family dinners wafted over the moonlit streets, and the city’s children snuggled beside their parents to watch Willy-Willy on TV or share ghost stories before going to bed, the Browne brothers sweated turn by turn to haul back their precious water, one staggering homeward with a jerrycan on his head while the other squatted by the roadside to regain his breath and guard their stranded cargo. The next morning they refused to go to school, arguing in weary voices with Big Mama about their aching heads and bodies. By midday they were so feverish that she scurried into the street and waved down a blue-and-white taxi that sped them off to the university teaching hospital, not far from where their cart’s carcass lay.
Their diagnoses were no surprise: Abiye had come down with typhoid and malaria; Nimi had typhoid, malnutrition, and a severe ringworm infection on his lower back. The doctor guessed they got typhoid from the bad water they had been scrounging ever since the public water pump stopped running. They were placed on casualty admission for three days, with glucose drips hanging from their arms and drug cocktails shot into their bloodstreams through needles jabbed into their buttocks. On the day she released them back into Big Mama’s care, the ward matron observed that the boys were exhausted. Before nko, they would have shouted into Big Mama’s face if they could have. They didn’t need a nurse to know they were worn out from doing their duty; sick of cooking for themselves; tired of living without a parent. They had neither the single-mindedness nor the team spirit left to fulfill the responsibility of being small daddies unto each other. Three years of this adventure of independence had sapped them dry, and though it was now too late, they wanted their childhood back.
That Friday, returning home from the hospital, the brothers read their finger-stained letters again. This time, they agreed, Big Mama’s refusal to release Papa’s gift to them was a betrayal gone far enough. For too long they had endured her silence, yielded to her evasiveness, her poker-faced mago-mago. Even in the fog of fever, as she leaned over their hospital cots to dab their foreheads with ice-cold towels, they had said nothing to disclose their true feelings about the withheld money. They had given her every chance to do the right thing. It was in this moment—as they huddled together with their sour breaths fluttering the pages grasped in their fists, their pallid tongues flicking over parched lips as they chewed on their grievance—that they agreed to steal back what was theirs.
That Sunday morning, the boys refused to go to church. Since it was his birthday, Big Mama held her peace with Nimi. But she was worried about Abiye—this was a first for him. He gave the excuse of feeling unwell. After Big Mama got dressed, she stalked over to the boy’s quarters and sat on the rumpled bedspread beside her pajamaed grandson to goad him with questions about his mysterious relapse. She listened with magisterial unflappability to his feeble responses and brash cough that punctuated his self-diagnosis; she played along by pinching his wrist and palming his forehead for signs of fever. Eventually she placed two paracetamol tablets on his tongue and spooned generous portions of cod-liver oil into his mouth before leaving him behind with strict instructions to sleep it off. It was October 1, Independence Day, and so, after church was over, Big Mama would flit about congratulating fellow compatriots until nightfall. The brothers knew they had all the time they needed.
Together they had plotted everything, even down to the brand-new stonewashed jeans and secondhand Sony Walkman they intended to buy afterward in Mile One Market. Their plan was to go searching in Big Mama’s bedroom for the cash their father had mentioned in their letters, and to sneak out half of it, leaving behind twenty-five thousand naira as a gift to their mother but also, they told each other with thrilled giggles at their own genius, as a ruse for their grandmother. It would be like Big Bad Wolf hiding under the bedcovers to trick Red Riding Hood, and they hoped to be there to see Big Mama’s face when she found out from Mama that they had taken their money. It was the perfect stratagem, they agreed, and they wouldn’t spoil it by disagreeing over whose birthday it was or who was older and thus deserved the larger share of their take. Since they were copartners in everything, they resolved to go halves, no adult nonsense of seniority allowed.
The brothers sensed what was coming before they sighted the azure-blue Nissan Pathfinder turning the corner onto their street. They stood by the parlor window, their hearts quickening toward flight, and craned their necks to follow Malachi’s approach. The tyrannosaur-toothed tires braked to a stop at the frontage, but the engine kept running as Big Mama—who was buckled into the front seat, still wearing her Sunday head tie—gesticulated at Malachi, her voice trapped by the car’s closed windows. The boys kept watch, their faces grimacing with hope, until Malachi switched off the ignition, clambered down from the car, and marched after Big Mama toward the front door. Abandoning their vigil, the brothers fled down the corridor, their feet smacking the linoleum carpet in wild applause.
Nimi had suspected that something was wrong the instant that Big Mama, after returning to the house earlier than the boys had hoped, slammed her bedroom door and left again. He’d shared his misgivings with Abiye, who dismissed them and yet agreed to keep watch with him at the parlor window. Malachi’s appearance confirmed that one was right and the other wrong, to the dismay of both. And yet, when confronted with the accusation, they denied it in unison. Despite Big Mama’s panicked pleas about the Goodhead name and what their mother would think, both her grandsons kept insisting they hadn’t done anything wrong until she clapped her hands to shush them, then turned and stomped away, locking the corridor door behind her.
Alone with the sweating brothers, Malachi stared at Nimi for agonizing seconds before saying in a voice so gentle it was out of character: “I know it’s you.” Then he shot out his trunk-like arm and seized the startled boy by the shirtfront, began shaking him like a rat while barking in his face, “Thief! Thief! Thief!” He spat out the word like a cat that caught a toad in its jaws, the contempt in his voice the only fixed point in a world spinning so fast that Nimi squeezed his eyes closed to suppress the panic rising into his throat. At last Malachi stopped, released his grip, and spoke with schizoid calmness: “Just…tell me the truth.” But Nimi was too dazed to find his own voice. And so Malachi ripped off a rung from the wooden ladder resting against the courtyard fence and began striking Nimi with it until he fell onto the pigeon-shit-spattered ground and writhed in pain like a worm sprinkled with salt. His howls that night would be the gossip of the whole neighborhood, but they breezed over Malachi’s evangelical face as he straddled the boy and grasped his neck to pin him down. That was when Abiye spoke up.
“Please stop, Uncle Mala. It was me. I did it.”
Malachi’s face twisted into lines of disappointment. He lowered his arm, loosened his hold on Nimi’s neck, and said in a hoarse voice, “You, Abiye?” Abiye bobbed his head and sniveled. Malachi sprang up with a roundhouse slap that bowled Abiye’s head against the corridor door. Nimi pushed up into a squat, with pain shooting through his bones, pressing in on his skull, filling his ribs with each trembling breath. When Abiye tumbled over and began shrieking for their mother, Nimi stood up and said, “I did it too.”
Yes o, they had done it together. Just like when they fetched water. They’d pinkie-sworn on this pact after Big Mama had left the house that Sunday morning, and then Abiye cartwheeled out of bed and raced ahead of his brother to the corridor to collect her bedroom key from under the linoleum carpet, where she’d always hidden it. But just before unlocking the door, Nimi had grabbed Abiye’s hand, hesitant. The sparkle in Abiye’s eyes when he looked around was more than his older brother could bear, for he had sensed that such happiness had little to do with the task before them. He let go and lowered his gaze, muttering that maybe they shouldn’t, he wasn’t sure anymore, and what if Mama found out?
“But how will she?” Abiye blurted out, his mouth pouting open.
Nimi neither looked up nor spoke, and so Abiye turned away, saying with defiance, “I don’t care if she knows,” and then he jammed in the key.