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This is not the same world Daddy grew up in. In his world there were all kinds of colourful birds singing purple hymns on the line outside the window of the room he shared with his brother every morning. “They used to wake us with their music,” he told me. There are very few birds now and they rarely come around our area; I haven’t seen any in weeks. The Government has been collecting every one that breaks the sky or perches on a tree and keeping them in Tarfiki Zoo because they fear that leaving them out in the world is not safe. There are people even now who still eat birds; Tobi from my school told me that pigeons are so delicious just watching them fly or sit on a line makes his mouth water. I want to go to the Tarfiki Zoo but Daddy cannot yet afford to take me there – the Zoo is situated in Kano, 935.5 km from here in Abeokuta, and now that petrol is beginning to wither in the Niger Delta after years of plunder, as Mr. Kuforiji told us in History of Nature class, transportation has become very expensive. Now I trek to school because father can only afford to give me fifty naira for a stick sweet. He works at a bakery. We have a small farm near our house and that is where we feed from. Most times he brings bread, the Bishop gives us eggs, and so we have bread and eggs for breakfast on weekends. We fetch water from the stream that runs at the back of our house and purify it using a biosand filter – layering fine sand, charcoal, and some pieces of gravels in a bucket – designed from a manual drawn by his grandfather whom I never knew, of whom there are no photographs.
The only way I get to see birds is to go to the library in school, where Mr. Kuforiji sits and manages, in the absence of the librarian Mr. Oguns, who was recently transferred to another school. I search the shelves for books on birds and deer and dogs and cats, sometimes even snakes. There are not a lot of books, a lot of them were written after the fauna world began to disappear, the animal kingdom dying. Most of the images in the books were picked from the internet, from the posts of people who were curious about the world and fascinated by the moments they were in enough to take a picture or two and kind enough to share.
“Nigeria, its government back then, the people, no one minded the world around them,” Mr. Kuforiji told me. “The scholars were writing about politicians, and there were very few environmental scientists – there was no funding anywhere for anyone who wanted to document how sparrows migrated or even what they ate or where in the country they abounded.”
I have seen sparrows in some of the books, they are the most commonly documented. There are the ones with brown feathers, grey around their breasts and necks; and there are the yellow ones with black stripes. They are small and have short beaks and they are said to eat grains, seeds, insects, warms, ticks on trees, ants. Mr. Kuforiji told me that there might be some at the Tarfiki Zoo, those ones eat just grains and seeds because that’s what’s available.
“When we were kids, my brother and I, on weekends, we would go into the bush and shoot catapults at sparrows,” Daddy told me. “We would bring them home, a bruise on their wing or belly, blood tinting the spot. By the fire behind the house we would prepare them and eat them. Sometimes we didn’t eat them: We put them out on our balcony and watched them try to fly with a broken wing.”
When Daddy tells this story, there is always a film of tears in his eyes. I wonder why, though I know he feels bad about what he and his brother did as kids, but he grew up in a poor family and they hardly had food to eat three times a day. He has told me of going to school in torn uniforms, worn sandals, without stockings. But when I tell him this his reply is always the same: “We could have found some other way to get by without bruising this world,” and he really feels sorry that he bruised the world. Every time we prepare food, before we eat, he takes the food outside and spills some on the ground. Mommy complains that this is wastage of food, food that is not surplus, but he won’t change his mind. And he tells me to do the same all the time. “Before you drink anything, spill some of it on the ground. Before you eat anything, drop some of it on the ground,” he instructs.
I asked him why once.
He replied, “It is so that you can be conscious of the Earth, Dupe. We did what we did to the Earth because it was just there, we weren’t conscious of it in anyway. The Earth is a breathing thing, its chest, like yours and mine, heaves. You have to know that it is there, alive. This will always remind you. It is like the Sacrament, partake of this as often as you can so that you can remember me.”
But it isn’t always easy to do this, especially when I am in school. Other students laugh at me and call me mumu when I spill a spoon of my beans on the ground.
“What is this mumu doing?” Tobi said one day when he saw me, pointing at me and shaking his head at the boys and girls who always follow him about, dancing around him like robots. I said nothing. “You are giving your food to the Earth, yes? Does it have a mouth? Did anybody tell you that the Earth eats cooked beans? You are a big mumu sha.” He burst out laughing; his compatriots joined him.
Tobi has asked me to date him many times, but I have little interest in boys like that, especially this one whose mouth waters at the sight of disappearing birds, this one who calls me a mumu – so every chance he finds he scorns me, makes people laugh at me. But I ignore him, that is what you do to an idiot.
Mr. Kuforiji has also questioned my spilling of food many times. “What is this thing you are always doing?” he asked once when I had just returned to what I was reading, Before the Blackout: A Brief History of Animal Life in Nigeria, from spilling some water on the earth.
I told him it was an act of consciousness.
“How?” he asked, obviously bewildered.
“It just helps me to always be conscious of the Earth, sir,” I said. There is no way I will explain it to people to make them understand, and even I don’t understand everything, but I trust that Daddy is right, and I have begun noticing how carefully I walk now, how I hardly nip flowers from their stems anymore, how when I do I stare at the white blood and ask the Lord for forgiveness. Once I bent, touched the Earth, and tasted it. I don’t know what that taste was. Maybe I am taking it too far, I think, Daddy did not say to not nip flowers, or to walk with care, but it seems that truth stretches and the more you stay to witness that stretching, the more you stretch, too, and you continue to enter this long many-sided relationship.
Mr. Kuforiji shook his head. “I get it,” he said, but I knew he didn’t.
Daddy tells me about butterflies, too; he calls them small living paintings. “They were so finely patterned, it could only have been God’s hand. Their wings were always clapping but without any sound. They perched on trees, and drank at the small pools of flowers. We used to trap them, too, my brother and I. We would keep them in a bottle where they would fly and when tired just lay there at the bottom until they died.” Butterflies are now totally extinct, gone forever, never to be seen again. “You won’t find them in the Tarfiki Zoo or anywhere in this world,” Daddy said. “You will only probably find the dead ones drowning in a jar of chemicals in an aurelian’s lab.”
“Daddy, aurelian is the old word,” I said.
“Is that so. When last did I read these things?” You cannot open a book when you have to knead dough, fill pans, and place them in the kiln, he tells me; the kiln always makes me think of hell; to be trapped in that kind of room is the scariest thing in the world. But the Bishop tells us that no one is going to hell, all of God’s children will reign with him in the end, in glory, though there are levels of glory. “What is the new word?”
“It’s a lepidopterist,” I said.
“May the Lord continue to help me to help you learn these things,” he said, picking up his radio. There was the line from the National Environmental Concerns Commission (NECC) about calling a certain number or sending an email to a certain address to report the notice of birds or other animals that need to be kept safe, an act for which you will be compensated. “You will see one, call them to tell them. They will come, take the bird or deer – Banji, my friend, he saw a deer and called them. They took the deer and did not give him shingbain. The funds set up for compensation is in Uchendu’s many bank accounts in Nigeria and South Africa and Europe. And you know what’s funny? Nobody is keeping these animals safe anywhere. Word came out a while back from a journalist that they are selling these animals to America for good money. They killed that news. America that has more than us is buying from us the little that we have, and is doing so illegally. If I see a deer I will bring it home to you my dear.” He smiled.
I smiled back. This man who loves me so much, who will bring me a deer, what will I bring him, what can I ever bring him that would be enough. I wanted to say I love you, Daddy, but he does not know how to say it back, and it feels a little awkward to say those words and not hear them said back to you. I will bring you a deer my dear, that is his own way of saying it. And I love him. I will always love him.
But it is the fireflies that Daddy longs for the most. He says they were tiny delights, blinking small colourful lights in the night, flying. “At night we would go out to collect them in a jar. We would place the jar outside and watch them play in the jar. It was magic. We were so fascinated by them. At night I used to dream of them: I would be in a field of flowers, plenty of them dancing around me. In some dreams I ate them and I would stand before a mirror and imagine that blue, green, yellow lights were splattered on a wall in my throat, a fine abstract painting made there. The day I saw your mother for the first time, that night I saw her in my dream, in the dream she had fireflies in her hair, and I knew she was the one.”
Mommy always laughs, says, “You did not know anything. If you knew that night, why did it take you two months to finally call me, though I gave you my number and you promised to call that same day we met in the bus?”
Daddy laughs, too. “I was shy, and I thought you wouldn’t like me. You know.” He pouts, then pushes out his lips and they kiss.
“Close your eyes,” Mommy says.
“Mommy, I’m sixteen,” I say.
“Which means?” She gives me the look a Yorùbá mother gives her child who is beginning to grow wings, a look that means: I am your mother, even if you grow grey hair under your armpits, that doesn’t change. “Go and wash the plates,” she instructs.
I rise like there is a broken bone in my back because I don’t want to wash the plates now, but Mommy will kill me if I don’t do as she says. Although Daddy has thrown out every cane in the house, I get a double slap on my back every now and then, and Mommy’s hands pepper; I do not want one today.
Done doing the dishes, I return to Daddy who is in the farm, weeding.
“The tomatoes are ripening,” I say, joining him in this conversation with the earth.
“Yes. They should be fully ripe by the weekend. You will take some to the Bishop’s house on Saturday,” he says.
Yes! I smile like a mumu. I’ll see Eliza, the Bishop’s daughter. She has the sweetest eyes in the world. I like her so much. I don’t know if she knows this, or how to tell her. We are supposed to pick a date whose name we’ll take to the bishop, but I don’t want any of the boys for my date. I want Eliza. But how to tell her or tell the Bishop. I don’t know how to tell this to Daddy either; Mommy will slap me if she hears.
“What happened to the fireflies?” I ask. “Since nobody was eating them, they were too tiny, had no desirable taste, and few people cared about them. How did they so easily disappear, and in their totality?”
“Our curiosity, our hunger, our nonchalance ended them,” Daddy says. “There were people like me and my brother who plucked them from the air and kept them in jars and watched them perform lights until they dropped cold. There were others who clapped their palms on them for no reason and ended them. There were others who did neither but who did not care – not caring is quite dangerous.”
I remember a conversation I had with Mr. Kuforiji who believes it is a good thing that fireflies are extinct. “Mr. Kuforiji told me that fireflies weren’t doing much good in the world, that they were evil – ”
“How come?” Daddy stands, dusts his hand with his hand.
“He said they were tools of devils. Old men would give jarred fireflies to little girls and take their innocence. Butterflies, too: A woman would give a man a butterfly and take his heart, which she would shatter.”
“Dupe, everything is transactable. The problem was never the fireflies or the butterflies but the men and women who used them in that way,” Daddy says. He returns to the Earth and continues weeding.
“He told me that it was because they were evil that the Sky sucked all the fireflies and butterflies in the world into its mouth, never to be seen again.”
“The Sky is innocent.”
I bring Daddy some water to wash his hands and some more for him to drink. He sprinkles some water from the bowl on the ground. He spills some of his drinking water on the ground.
He gives me the cup. Before I drink, I do the same. We smile at each other.
It is Sunday night. I’m in bed. I took the tomatoes to Bishop’s house today. He was not around; he had gone for church business. I met Eliza. Her mom too had gone for a Relief meeting, so I gave her the tomatoes. She gave me a chilled bottle of Coke, opened it, placed a cup before me, and told me about a book of poems she was reading. It’s by a queer poet who had a deep fascination for flowers. “There are flowers everywhere in the book,” she told me, smiling. I drink the Coke. “I think you’ll like it. I’ll be through with it today. I’ll bring it to church for you tomorrow. Please don’t let your parents see it, it’s about boys blooming flowers in the body of other boys. You get, right?” I shook my head, said, “Thank you.” She smiled at me again, her eyes sparkling, and I looked down at my fingers. I am always shy around her.
I close my eyes and in my sleep a door opens. Eliza, fireflies garlanding her hair. I am sitting next to her on a tree stump. Birds colouring the night with their fragile hymns. I reach out my hand to touch her face. “Can I kiss you?” I ask. She shakes her head. I kiss her, gently. Her mouth tastes like the Earth.
About Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí
Ernest O. Ògúnyẹmí is a writer, literary journalist, and editor from Nigeria. His work has appeared/ is forthcoming in AGNI, Joyland, No Tokens, Agbowó, Southern Humanities Review, the Dark, the Minnesota Review, SAND, McNeese Review, FIYAH, West Trade Review, among other places. He is a staff writer at Open Country Mag.