The wind blew violently that night. Doors and windows hitting themselves as if an earthquake was imminent. The absence of the electric light worsen the frustration, as Femi looked out from his wooden window. Only that the air was cool enough for the night.
Few minutes later, it began to rain, and even if it rained forty days and forty nights, the rain will not flush the spillages that have wrecked the waters of the creek, he thought.
King, his son watched from a room opposite Femi’s, and noticed his father’s usual calmness. Maro was fast asleep: Femi’s only daughter who was the apple of his eyes. His wife Isioma returned the third time and asked him to get some sleep, but a troubled heart will stay awake. Besides, Isioma lost her charm after she adopted nagging as her new attitude.
Femi remembered Lagos, and how he lost his job in his weakest time in life. That evening, when he was sacked, marked the beginning of his solitude. He remembered how he had worked till 4pm that day, hoping to get some money back home to his waiting family, then, the manager told him that the machine in his section had been destroyed, and everyone in that section will not only lose their jobs, but will not be paid what was owed them.
He almost fainted when it became real. He remembered what his father used to say: the greatest thing to own in life is to own what belongs to you. He nodded in pain.
His return to start life again with his family in Warri, where he was born, made life easy, because he could get help from old friends to move on. He thought of his country side, the last time he visited, only dried fishing nets and broken boats laid on the shore. The fishermen had given up fishing! Even though the oil companies promise heaven and earth, the dirt from politicians was another toxic affecting them.
He shook his head in pessimism, as he saw that the strength o the fishermen had gone, and what awaited them was a murky road ….
That shadowy future pushed the young ones took to rebellion as the panacea. Even king had threatened to join the militants. He once told Femi that his initiation was fast approaching. Isioma gave her support, which increased Femi’s hatred for her. Femi warned King, and told him the dangers of getting involved with such rebellion. He took his mind to that countryside again, and tried to imagine how bad the place may have worsened.
Maro had been looking at the river, from the frail and decaying verandah of the old house. Femi was busy inside checking the extent of the damage in the house. Memories flashed before his face, as he remembered how busy the house used to be. They used to gather fishes in their sizes to sell to traders, especially from Lagos and Onitsha.
The world gets older everyday, he thought. He saw that liveliness was forever gone, lost and never will return! He tried to bring back the aroma of pepper – soup fish and fried plantain he enjoyed with his friends after swimming the stream that flows from the river Niger. The stream shimmered like liquid silver when the sun is scorching. But, that stream has lost its beauty, because the oil – spill made a ghetto – gutter of it. The politics of oil has taken everything, he concluded.
“Maro, come inside, I don’t want you there alone,” he told her calmly. She stayed for about five minutes more, before she went in. She noticed Femi’s face, that it wore disappointment….
“What is it, Papa?”
“Nothing… Nothing is wrong my dear. It’s just that I left this place without some care, see everywhere”, he said looking round the house. Maro noticed that everything in the house was old. The cobweb that cocooned the decaying furniture attested to that. She looked at the calendar on the frail wall, and saw that it took time to seven years ago. Some wooden cups still lay scattered behind an earthen pot. The bolt that held the small window of the room was useless, because of the severe damage moths had done to the wood. An old radio’s parts were kept close to an old stool, the cobweb that possessed it thickly, revealed how useless it was.
Worse, the furniture in the room was broken like a collapsed building, while the carpet was badly worn out with many holes that looked like a bad road’s potholes. Maro saw everything and almost asked his father if they left the house during a war. The room is like the state of the creeks, Femi thought.
“Papa, will you not teach me how to swim before we leave?” she told him to remove his heart from the state of the room.
“You cannot go to any of the streams, they are not the same again, Maro”.
“But we can try,” she told him smiling.
“You heard me; the streams are not the same again. And, please let’s not talk about this anymore,” Femi told her wearing a serious look.
“It’s time to return to Warri”, he told her. She smiled, even though she had to keep her questions.
The bush was dark, while night birds cried from a distance. King knelt down as some young men circled him in turns. He had been brought to be initiated into one of the militia groups. His back ached from the previous beatings he had suffered. Few minutes later, his heart was forged into iron.
Later that night, he gathered his friends to celebrate the initiation. Femi came out of his room and saw them; “king, who are these people?” he asked enraged. Femi saw a different son from the one he knew. His respect as a father was gone, he saw it. King looked at him with disdain and left with his friends.
He stood there for about five minutes, still looking at the road the boys took to an unknown destination. He recovered, its not going to happen in my house, I swear upon my father’s grave, he thought. He turned to leave, but saw Maro approaching him. She was looking very sickly, “What is the problem?” He asked her. She could not say a word, but before him, she began to bend faintly. Femi saw a big problem!
Maro was diagnosed of a hole in the heart. Isioma’s blood pressure rose when the doctor told her the surgery would cost millions of naira, since it was going to be performed by special doctors in India. Femi was in the doctor’s office still trying to beg him get NGOs that will help him. She may not make it, he thought, as he imagined the pain the little girl suffered. A man must learn to carry his own pressure of the world, he though further.
Back in the ward, Isioma sat beside Maro. King visited as soon as he heard of his sister’s illness. Femi came in, the last time he saw king was when he left the house with his friends after the Initiation.
“How is she?” he asked Isioma. She looked away and said nothing. Femi went close to Maro and sat close to her. He nodded his head in frustration, and wandered why this should happen to precious Maro! King opened the door, looked at Maro, and left. He had become the danger Femi feared a long time.
“Did you get some money?” Isioma managed to ask.
“No… No… but I must keep trying, until we got some money to take her down to Lagos and get help.”
“Lagos?” Isioma asked calmly, inviting a quarrel so she could speak to him harshly.
“Yes, Lagos. The Doctor has promised to see if he could help by getting one of those NGOs there,” Femi told her avoiding her face.
“You talk as if it’s easy to get them. You will allow wealthy people see us as beggars to pity and pour their money on. Look, Lagos is everyman for himself, we were there once,” she told him in a frustratingly.
Femi stood up and left the Ward and began to remind himself not to bow to pressure. Hope was close, frustration was closer! Who will help such times? He thought. He began to think of friends who could help the times, Tamuno came up. He knew Tamuno was a wrong choice, but to him, any help will do. He remembered his father once said: the choices you make in life will return with harvest. Despite the fear, he decided to go and see Tamuno.
Tamuno was amazed when he saw Femi. He had known him for integrity and truth. So, he wandered why Femi would visit him. Tamuno was a man who cared less about integrity.
“Is this really you, Femi?” He asked him still amazed. He continued: “What has made you come to see me?”
“Tam, life has gone ugly for me right now. I need any help that is available.” Tamuno looked away and whispered some words into the air. Femi didn’t care about that, all he wanted was help.
“Femi, so after all the years gone by, you still come to me for help?” he asked him mockingly.
“Tam, I have helped you many times, is it bad to return the favour?”
“No, not at all. It’s just that anything you get from me will not be clean. I know you to be a saint, or something close.” Tamuno continued mocking.
“Will you help me or not?” Femi asked him trying to stop his mockeries.
“Okay. What exactly is the problem?”
“Maro has a hole in her heart. I fear for her! I am not ready to lose my only daughter. King has gone wild; Isioma has resumed her frustration. What will a man do, Tam?” he asked in despair.
Tamuno looked away again. He knew Femi was telling the truth, but he must present before Femi, a choice that only he may make.
“Femi, I have heard you. Without delay, I will introduce you to my new business. it’s lucrative.”
“What business?” Femi asked in anticipation.
“Oil-stealing, fresh fuel from a busted pipe. I make so much from it every week. I bet you Femi; you will save your girl and still have enough to give to your nagging wife.” Tamuno persuaded. Femi thought of it….
“No, Tam. You know I don’t like this kind of life. If you have this money, help me save my girl,” Femi reiterated.
“Do I look like God who answers prayer, no matter how great the request? You don’t need help what more should a friend give?” He asked rhetorically.
Femi stood up, looked at him, and walked out of his house. On his way, he thought of Tamuno’s choice, but concluded the business was close to death, since the Joint Task Force (JTF) patrols along the pipelines to check vandals. He thought it a bad risk.
He got to the hospital about one and half hours later, and noticed nurses in an emergency mood as he got closer. He rushed toward the scene to make sure it wasn’t Maro. It was Isioma instead, who had fainted because of exhaustion!
Femi stood there with hands akimbo. Helpless. Speechless. He imagined a monster somewhere fanning his doom!
“I am gone!” was all he whispered. Isioma was taken to the emergency unit of the hospital. Right there, he steeled himself, and made the decision to dare a risk with too much danger….
“You know, the Joint Task Force used to chase us with guns in the creeks, because of this business. You need to be smart to be alive, brother,” Tamuno told Femi who was sitting beside him in an old car. He returned to Tamuno’s choice after he saw Isioma almost lost her life.
“You know Tam, this oil belongs to us, it’s our right to do whatever we want with that fuel they channel somewhere we do not know,” he told Tamuno to tame his burning conscience.
“Now you are talking. I have been making so much money from it since I lost my job. I drive this Jalopy to avoid suspicion from people,” he revealed to Femi who believed it was his turn to get rich too.
“Are we going to start today?”
“No. You don’t do this business without the night; the Joint Task Force is the biggest problem we have. Soldiers are problem in and outside the barracks,” he told Femi smiling. He continued, “The last pipe we busted had been fixed by a Chinese firm. But we will return there, because it’s easy to carry your goods to the road from there.”
‘Goods’ was the code for stolen fuel, only the thieves knew that code-name. Femi began to learn the slangs that coded this thievery. He thought of the risk again, but his quest to save Maro had cocooned his conscience.
Few hours later, Tamuno stopped his Jalopy. From where they stood, Femi saw giant pipes. A tiny path led towards there. “You can see that the path here is fresh. We pay for this work. You see Femi, we are not alone.”
“How many people do you think will come here?”
“As many that want to take what belongs to them.” Tamuno answered.
Femi imagined those soldiers with their guns chasing them at night. He encouraged himself when he remembered Tamuno’s old car. That will hasten everything since he drives faster than so many drivers I know, he thought. Tamuno took Femi round the bush, showing him other emergency routes. After they returned to where the car was parked, Tamuno said: “This is where we begin tomorrow. We already have big chisels, sledge hammers, and chain-saws from a local feller of trees. You see, everything is ready,” he told him with a confidence that made Femi wished they started few minutes later.
Meetings were held before any of the pipelines was damaged. Spies who monitored the JTF tell the bosses the easy places. Femi thought of the money he was going to make from the risk, and relieved himself with the faith that making enough money for Maro was very possible. As Tamuno drove off, he kept telling Femi of the luxurious life that awaited them.
Femi watched how people cursed, fought and quarreled over their cans to get filled up. He had already kept seven fifty-litre gallons at the back of Tamuno’s car.
“We are stealing what belongs to us.” He whispered. He watched as the fuel ran out with pressures that frighten him. Every person he lived for, were threatened to death. The world was heavy for him, and this was his only resolve, but the choice he made will bring back harvest.
Tamuno threatened a man to intimidate him out of his side as he tried to get enough for the night. Femi tried not to remember King, but his conscience pointed his own sins froms the rushing fuel. He wandered how he changed too fast, and the kind of father he had suddenly become.
Tamuno managed to get his gallons filled; “come and get them, Femi,” He pleaded. Femi quickly went to get them on the boot of the car. Tamuno was drenched with fuel, while Femi was half soaked with it. After about seven minutes later, they were away.
“Welcome to big business,” Tamuno told him excitedly.
“At least today is gone, and money is on its way, my friend,” Femi responded.
“Yes, I will drive straight to our client.” Tamuno said.
Femi looked at him slowly. He couldn’t understand why things will always end up a jinx for him.
“Client?” He asked. Tamuno smiled mischievously.
“You don’t take them home, we could be traced. We sell them quickly to avoid evidences from the police. Every pipeline damaged brings out the police. Do you understand?”
“You didn’t tell me this. You made me believe everything was well Tam,” He expressed frustration.
“Trust me, you have your share.” He told Femi who already smelled a rat. That night, it was clear to Femi, that, anything stolen had the curse of being stolen, again and again ….
“Why did you cheat me like a child?” Femi asked Tamuno who was driving to a new location. Tamuno had pocketed more than sixty percent of the gain and gave the rest to Femi.
“What do you mean?” He asked pretending.
Tamuno don’t pretend. You know what I mean. You took a larger share of the money and threw me peanuts, is this your gift to a friend in need?”
“Look, Femi, you are the one who needs the money most, if you don’t enjoy your share, then leave this business to me, I can handle it alone.”
He told him to instill intimidation. Femi could not talk because he was afraid to lose everything. Few minutes later, they were behind so many people struggling to fill their cans. Tamuno’s car jerked and made a sound so terrible.
“Ah, fuel tank is empty. It’s good we are in a fuel station,” he said laughing. The car switched off. He tried to start it, but it struggled and gave up. “Bastard”. He whispered in frustration. Femi went down and began a fresh thought on the situation surrounding his life. How did I reach this place in life? He thought.
Tamuno needed to move the car to a more convenient place, to make it easy to load their ‘goods’. The Jalopy resisted. He went down and took two of his gallons, aiming for the opportunity to get his fill.
“We have to be quick tonight,” Femi told him. He nodded his head in agreement and returned his concentration. When he saw the feasibility of getting all the gallons filled up, he called Femi. “Come and hold them, so that I force the car closer here,” he told him. Femi took them and replaced him on the queue. Tamuno tried to start the vehicle again, after running fuel into the car. As he reversed, sparks of fire emanated from the exhaust pipe, and ran directly into the rushing fuel from the busted pipe…. Then, a sound like an earthquake was heard, while a wild fire followed…. Tamuno and his Jalopy were on fire! Femi was half burnt, as he saw some people struggled with the fire to death. Few seconds later, only Femi was spared. Memories of life and death flashed continuously before his face. He was hurting badly, and wandered if he was burning in hell already.
He was breathing faintly, and life was passing slowly like a ticking clock. He whispered a prayer of repentance to God, and managed to look at Tamuno’s car, everything was in ashes. He tried to push a charred body away from his hurting leg, but the life in him was too frail to lift a needle.
He saw charred bodies of old and young people, only he was left with half life. The place was a field of dust! He closed his eye and waited to die, then realized he was still breathing, to him, this was his miracle!
People came from different parts of Warri to see the only survivor of the explosion many people thought was an earthquake. Many of them believed it was obviously not his turn to die.
Isioma was sitting close to his bed in the same hospital Maro was admitted, but a different ward. She imagined how father and daughter would be close to death in the same hospital. The police and fire service had rescued him that night, after they noticed he was moving his burnt leg slowly. Isioma almost cried her eyes out. She took the blame for pushing him to death.
Femi was going through a curse and a blessing despite his half life: Maro’s surgery was going to be taken care of by an NGO in Lagos.
Isioma wandered what he was going to do with that half life. She fell in love with him again! Some women’s definition of love is when the lover will almost die because of them, Femi thought, as he watched her shedding tears profusely.
Femi tried to say something to her, but words were hard to speak. He remembered Maro. “How is she?” He managed to ask.
“She will be fine,” she answered wiping the tears, she continued,” they found an NGO for us in Lagos. She will be flown to India next week.”
Then, he remembered king. He has not been to the house for weeks. They may kill him, he thought, as he began to stretch his leg to stand.
“What are you doing?” Isioma asked him, and tried to put him back to rest. But no, he was determined to gather those children and watch them laugh, smile, and play, like when life was beautiful before things went sour in Lagos.
Isoma resumed her cry. Femi persisted, until Isioma went to him and held him. Femi calmed himself immediately, because he saw promise on her face. He saw that she was going to gather them again, like a hen’s strength for her chicks.
“You will not tell them you love them when they are dead!” he told her and managed to rest on the bed again. He thought of the vulnerability of the future, and living with his half life, including his failure as a father, but prayed on his heart that the miracle that helped him survive will be enough! Only that he will live with the scar of losing so much in the days that waited in front of him….