“Let me have my school bag!”
Emeka chased his oppressor with fear as solid as a rock in his heart. He had never stood up to any of the big boys yet here he was, in pursuit of the notorious Jid. They ran across what was left of the football field after Reverend Uzo’s family had randomly planted corn on it, stalks rising and leaning as the hot breeze willed them to. Mama Uzo, the school janitor, claimed that the land belonged to their family because the ‘oyinbo‘ men gave it to them as a parting gift in return for letting one of their children attend the seminary every year. It has been eighty years since then and she still talks about it like it was yesterday.
A month ago, Emeka had been the hearty addition to Umuoke Grammar School’s sixth form. Strange it was, a pupil joining three months to the renowned common entrance exam. All the teachers thought he would fail until he cleared their doubts with his impeccable English and strong math skills.
Spellings. That was the topic Madam Eze was revisiting that morning. She had taken a liking to Emeka after he aced the essay writing assignment she gave them on resumption that term. On the other hand, she hated Jid. His mother wore the most expensive clothes to their monthly umuada meeting, yet she was a local champion; she had the smallest brain and the largest mouth. Two days ago, she had called her a smelling ewu when she asked her to stop wearing her “short short” dresses to the meeting. She came to school, fully prepared to make Jid pay for his mother’s sins.
“Jide or whatever your stupid name is, come and stand in front of your class and spell hippopotamus.”
‘Hupotemus?’ Jid said under his breath. He looked around for signs, listened for whispers of the correct spelling. His head was spinning.
“What are you saying there? Who is telling him the answer? Biko move to the front before I move you.”
He sluggishly dragged his feet to the side of her desk.
“H–,” he began to say.
“Ehen? Finish it.”
“H-u-p-o-t-,” he paused.
He heard Ike say “p-o-t-a-” and someone say “p-o-t-e-” but he knew Ike was not a very smart person so he went with the latter.
“Is he correct?”
Half the class echoed “no aunty.”
“Who can spell it? Infact, Emeka, stand up and spell it.”
Emeka stood up like he was waiting to be called on.
“And what is the plural of that?” Madam Eze was pushing, trying to prove an already obvious point.
“Hippopotamuses or hippopotami, ma.”
“Kuọrọ ya aka! Clap for him!!”
The class was loud with cheering. For those that listened, the spelling and plural of hippopotamus was the only thing that they learnt that morning. Madam Eze used the remaining thirty minutes of her period to give a hundred and one reasons why everyone should emulate Emeka.
‘Emoolet Emeka. Amulate Emeka.’
Jid’s ears were full. The shame he experienced earlier slowly built into anger. He made up his mind to teach Emeka something he didn’t know after school.
Emeka ran faster, each stride weakening as he persisted, sweat staining his spectacles and blurring his vision. He stopped to pant. The big boy stopped too. It was when he looked up that he saw there were not one, but three big boys, all walking towards him. He fell to the grass and two stalks of unripe corn came down with him. He took off his glasses to wipe them clean with the hem of his shirt but he was blinded with a slap to his face. He would have fainted but he didn’t know how to; his body didn’t let him. There he was, screaming from the pain. ‘Fainting people don’t scream,’ he thought. He knew he had to be quiet so he could faint properly but his mouth was involuntary noisy.
“You wan show me sey you sabi spell abi? Spell this one..”
Jid struck the other side of his face so hard his accent changed. His mouth tasted like pidgin English and okpa. He held the wrong side of his cheek and screamed. Fainting would not work now. He was too weak to fight, too weak to faint but not to weak to swallow his pride (and accent) to ask for help.
“Biko melum ebele,” he said, slowly but loud enough. “I can’t fight you.”
The boys paused, looked at each other and bursted out in an uproar of laughter.
“He no even sabi talk the language well. Reset hin head again.”
Oge, the youngest of the trio, raised his hand to ‘give am one’ but he froze and his hand hung in mid-air.
He struggled to let his hand down but Emeka saw the fight turn to fright on all of their faces.
A cloaked old man emerged from where the bushes were thickest, throwing his beaded staff before his legs in a rhythm that would make you believe it was part of his body.
Urine trickled down the undersize shorts Oge wore as did tears from his crying face. Emeka looked unperturbed; he was amused but couldn’t laugh. Ike had fled the scene when Okpanachi appeared. He was the oldest and obviously the most sensible. Before he stopped listening to his father, he’d heard him tell tales about Okpanachi the juju man and his many abilities. “Stories wey dem create to make pikin fear,” he’d say. He never believed any of the lies they kept feeding him and his siblings, not until today.
“Ogechukwukanma Mbakwe, Jidenna Mmachi,” Okpanachi called. He muttered a million incantations in a single drawn breath. Oge was shivering by now. Emeka couldn’t hold his laughter anymore. He let it all out and snorted occasionally, blood pouring from his wounded nose going in and out.
“Shut up there. If you had learnt the trade, you’d have defended yourself against these fools,” Okpanachi said to him.
“I’m sorry Papa.”
Jid’s lips were trembling. He didn’t know if he should beg or apologize.
‘Emeka? Okpanachi’s son? How? When?’
His shaking hands dropped the bag he was holding to the ground.
Looking at the sky, Okpanachi said, “By nightfall, his hand will return to normal.”
He lifted his son, who was now sober, from the grass. Emeka picked up his bag, joined his father, who had begun to leave, but stopped to turn to Jid and Oge.
“Before I forget, this is what you call a spell,” he said, smiling. “Jazz or juju, in other words.”
Emeka and his father disappeared.