of Hearts By Dennis Ezechukwu
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Emptied of Hearts
By Dennis Ezechukwu
Click here to send comments
Click here if you'd like to exchange critiques
EMPTIED OF HEARTS
"...Do not tremble then
But turn, brothers, turn upon your side
Of the loosening mats
To where the others lie.
We have drunk tonight of a spell
Deeper than the owl's or bat's
That wet of wings may not fly.
Dedraggled up on the Iroko, they stand
Emptied of hearts, and
Therefore will not stir, no, not
Even at dawn for then
They must scurry in to hide.
So let us roll to the beat
Of drumming over the land
And under its ample soothing hand
Joined to that of the sea
We will settle to a sleep of the innocent and free."
'NIGHT RAIN'- J.P.Clark
"Mama, why do some people throw away food?"
"In this hardship?"
"Yes, in this hardship", challenged Jacob.
His mother who looked stupefied bent her head and continued peeling the melon seeds inside a raffia tray, which she placed on her laps while sitting with legs stretched out on the bare floor of their veranda. He looked sternly at his mother not noticing her salient features--thick dark hairs with grayish strands, which adorned her head that seated queenly on the graceful neck.
On looking up after skinning a few seeds she enquired, "Was that what you were taught in school today?"
Jacob paid deaf ears as he became aware of other features of this woman the elderly people called Josephine. She looked pensive as she, without looking inside the tray, resumed the exfoliation. The stress lines on her face obliterated its beautiful curves. The pool of pains in her eyes made her blink. She stopped scaling the seeds.
"What is the matter with you today?"
"I noticed that at chief Ezike’s house not more than an hour ago", said Jacob, as he threw away his face, jerking the school bag he hung on his shoulder behind his back.
The name "chief Ezike" sent chilled tremor down Josephine’s spine, making her to shudder and squint. Worries creased her face. After hesitating, she plodded painfully.
"What were you at Chief Ezike’s house for?"
Jacob who now looked like one with a broken arm began explaining to her. He did not allow her ask further questions the moment he finished.
"Answer me mama, why?"
"Why do they throw away food at Chief Ezike’s house when we barely have enough to eat?"
He nearly sounded to her as if they too must be throwing away food. Josephine smiled weakly.
"My son you called him Chief. Chiefs have money". She put up a faint smile as if to suggest her answer was too intelligent. However, she knew she sounded unserious. Jacob would not plod any further after repeating thoughtfully, "Chiefs have money".
* * *
When Jacob was younger, achieving something was virtually impossible for the majority in his community. Many parents were at the mercy of the precarious economic conditions in the country and conditioned to witness their offspring coil like creeping plants up the tree of life that has a bleak top.
Jacob’s family lived a life of penury that paying school fees was a torturous existence. Most times, Josephine borrowed money to do so.
But, luckily, after their senior secondary, Jacob’s elderly siblings, Peter and Justin, got jobs at the same transport company. The first, a bus conductor and the other, a booking clerk. They made far-reaching sacrifices to make sure Jacob finished his senior secondary without the hitches that had characterized the past.
Jacob for the first time wore neat school uniforms and had some textbooks of his own. As his learning and knowledge widened, the phenomenon of hardship began to explain itself. He observed live as it was lived in his society.
On one occasion in his third year in the senior secondary, he had followed a classmate to their house to collect a textbook and discovered the boy had a bedroom to himself (when his family had only two).Above all he was stunned to realize that the boy had a leftover breakfast.
"Ah! So food could be enough for one to eat?" Jacob had wondered when the classmate hinted he was going to throw away the leftover to their dogs. He wanted to ask for it--he did not have his breakfast, as was the case in most mornings. But the boy had already thrown some dirt into the dish before he could free himself from hesitation.
So, immediately Jacob got home, he faced his mother.
* * *
That night, Jacob did not go to bed until about 2.30a.m. He sat leaning backwards on the wall that separated the veranda and the living room, supporting his head with the palm of his right hand, with its elbow resting on a stool. Some books lay open by his side. The lamp burned away as his thought led him into the labyrinthine passages of life that he had never thought or heard of in his twenty-five years of existence. It was dead calm except for the occasional cricket cries and the ceaseless snoring by Ebele, their last-born.
Jacob was used to these sounds that he now hardly noticed them. The door to the room clicked open. Josephine appeared and leaned on the doorframe, looking at Jacob, with her hands folded across her bosom. She stood for a while wondering at her son who appeared deep in thought. The light that fell on her sheen face quickly captured the picture of a peaceful face gradually soaking in a pool of anxiety.
"Jacob", she called.
Her voice was calm but highly penetrating that Jacob rather that get startled felt a stroke of affection he had hardly experienced in his life. He turned instinctively. Looking at his caller, she looked taller than the woman who had dominated his life since he was born. His glance changed to a quizzical look. Josephine thought he was in pains and enquired lovingly,
"What is bothering you my son?"
Her firm voice cleared all the aberrations for Jacob, who was having difficulty in making out whom she was. It was still his six feet tall mother.
"Jacob, talk to me. I'm your mother", she said, coming out fully in her floral wrapper tied above her bosom, flowing down and covering her knees. She stood akimbo by his side.
"Mama, there is no problem". "Are you sure?"
"And why haven't you gone to bed?"
"I'm doing my class assignment".
"Till this hour? You know what time it is?"
"I will soon be through".
"Alright. Hurry up and go to bed. If not, you won't rise early to prepare for school".
Josephine was satisfied and left. Immediately the door clicked closed behind her, Jacob picked an exercise book and a pen and began to articulate his musings.
For the first time in the thirty years history of Nsugbe Boys High School, an interesting critique was published. Jacob was amazed when the students and some teachers were crowding the notice board where he published his write-up whose copy is this:
I AM PREPARED
Since I was born, I understand hardship to be a way of life. I saw you my peers having similar view. However, hardly have we cared to ask why life should be all about suffering. Hardly do we notice that there are few in our midsts who have not known suffering. Those who always throw away food to dogs while we barely have enough to sustain our lives. Those who park cars inside large rooms while we crowd five to eight in a bedroom. Hardly do we ask why these few are always beaming with smile while we sulk and gnash our teeth.
Look at these few in our midst. Most are chiefs. Why are they called chiefs? Why do they throw away food? My mother told me it is because chiefs have money.
Later I asked myself, "are chiefs the only people who struggle to earn a living?" I quickly answered "no!" Why then are our own labours not yielding riches? I quickly answered again, "Our labours do yield fruits!" where then are the fruits of our toil?" They are somewhere, in some people’s bags. And these people are mostly the so-called chiefs, those abusing one public trust or the other, the evil men we have in our midst today.
Look at our school for instance. The once famous Nsugbe Boys High School is now in ruins: most ceilings had fallen off; some roofing blown away by rainstorm; doors and windows given way to thirty years of use, laboratory stocked with expired chemicals and obsolete or broken equipments; blackboards and desks furrowed by pets.
Did the people not notice this dilapidation? They did! Our fathers and mothers contributed huge sums towards the rehabilitation of our school. What happened then? Those especially the chiefs entrusted with public offices who collected the levies conspired and split the fund among themselves.
Today we still stand in our Assembly Hall with its blown-of roof and broken floor to conduct our morning assemblies. Today our students perform poorly in the senior school certificate examination because of poor learning environment. Today our future is bleak while that of our mates whose parents feed fat on public wealth is guaranteed. Today they eat and throw away food while we starve.
Fellow students, Fellow deprived indigenes of this community! I feel we must not go hungry. I feel we must have our future and the future of our children guaranteed. I feel we must do something. The hour is now. Now!!! We must get the fund meant for the rehabilitation of our school back from those who embezzled it. We know all of them. If we make up our minds and take up our responsibility as indigenes of this fallen community, we can get back all the pennies that were stolen, no matter where they are kept. Let us restore glory to our community. The hour is now. Now!!!
I am prepared! Are you?
Virtually every student, after reading the commentary, began shouting, "I am prepared!" Soon the vociferation of "I am prepared!" rent the school air.
When one student yelled, "we are ready!", the chorus changed. The students continuously cried ‘we are ready!", entering the various classrooms.
As the breeze of protest touched almost everyone, they began drumming on desktops, windows, doors and the black boards.
Mr. Jerry, while this was going on, had called Jacob. The latter was apprehensive. Mr. Jerry was his English language teacher and academic mentor. Jacob respected him so much. He had guided his learning and he was turning out the most brilliant student in his class. He was afraid Mr. Jerry would reproach him. Mr. Jerry’s tall and stout stature at that moment became too imposing for him. So he moved cautiously towards him not knowing how to break off and run away.
As he got close to him, Mr. Jerry extended his right hand. Jacob was confused and doubted if that was a time invitation. He began to relax as Mr. Jerry smiled and said,
"Come on. Shake me".
Jacob responded, putting up a smile that was ready to quench instantly the moment Mr. Jerry stopped smiling. However, the smile on Mr. Jerry’s face rather than cease, broadened. Jacob finally felt at home. Mr. Jerry, still holding Jacob’s hand and shortly placing his left on Jacob’s right shoulder, proudly commented,
"I have read your work. It is an excellent piece"
"Thank you, Sir", replied Jacob, uncertain if that was still a right response in a situation like that.
"What you have written about is a fact. But the problem was who could make it public". Jacob stood, lacking not even the right thing but something to say. Mr. Jerry released his hold after shaking Jacob’s hand again before the latter started feeling uncomfortable.
"Don’t ever be afraid of any rebuke from anybody. If anybody should accost you, just let me know immediately".
He admonished Jacob and erased the little doubt he was having about the rightness of his critique.
The aroused students who began coming out from the classrooms as they chanted, attracted their attention.
Already some were sweating. Most bore the look of hawkers at motor parks. The dust they were raising and the papers and few empty cans they were throwing into the air heightened the tension.
Suddenly the students stopped chanting and screamed like a band of migrating bees buzzing over a town. It was a herald for the school principal, Mr. Eze, who drove hastily towards them. He has been alerted about the latest happening and was rushing to stamp his authority. Mr. Eze was a dread to every student.
"Stop!", he ordered loudly as he hopped out of the driver’s seat, leaving the door of the red Peugeot 504 saloon car open.
"Shut up!", roared Mad, the most stubborn boy in Jacob’s class. Others took a lead from him and the shout of "shut up!" filled everywhere.
"Will you keep quiet?", bellowed Mr. Eze after gaining some composure. Immediately, the reaving of his car engine distracted him. He turned automatically and saw his car in full gear, reversing. Mad was at the steering. The principal rushed to stop him. But just as he started off, Mad collided the car onto one of the mango trees around. The students greeted the clash with a yell. Mad bounced out looking wild as ever in his emaciated stature, and bellowed, "kill him!". This was welcomed with a loud hailing that was quickly replaced by the shouts of "kill him!"
Mr. Eze was swarm upon by the embittered students like club fans would a referee who was partial against their home team that had just lost a football match. Some students carried him to the car, threw him into the back seat and cried for matches to set him and his car ablaze. They barricaded him against escape with clubs as they waited for a source of light. One had already removed the lid to the petrol tank.
Mr. Jerry and other teachers who were around quickly intervened. Mr. Jerry especially had the respect and love of almost every student.
Nevertheless, the students were not yet done with their principal. He was one of the five men who embezzled the fund meant for the rehabilitation of their school.
"Are you refunding our money you stole or not?", queried Mad to the thrill of the agitating students who yelled in accord.
"I will. Please spare my life. I will "Mr. Eze rushed the reply. His bulging eyes flickered in absolute fear of the direction the next club would be landing on his already pummeled body, which was covered with torn cloths that were had been stained by his blood. His answer was met with a wild jubilation.
Though Jacob had never thought events would turn out this way, he was nonetheless thrilled. While he was awake the previous night, he had thought the evils in his society sprouted and developed strong taproots because people did not care to weed them initially. Therefore, with time they seem invincible. He believed such evil trees could be uprooted when the whole community gathers with their hoes, machetes and axes. Better when the windstorm came blowing.
The demonstration was a storm, a wild one, whose force was incomprehensible to Jacob.
Nevertheless, Jacob was happy. Revolution was one of the trinities he believed in. The other two being God and Humanity.
Leaving the principal humiliated, some teachers aghast while others happy, the students now in a transformation movement, matched out of the school premises carrying clubs, sticks and mango tree branches, chanting.
Song Leaders: Shall we?
Chorus: Yes! Win, win, win
Victorious we must be
We must win
All our enemies
Song leaders: All our enemies?
Chorus: Yes! Win, win, win
Victorious we must be
We must win
All our enemies
Song leaders: You mean public fund embezzlers.
Chorus: Yes! Win, win, win
Victorious we must be
We must win
All our enemies
Song Leaders: Those who sabotage communal efforts?
Chorus: Yes! Win, win, win
Victorious we must be
We must win
All our enemies…
The town rumbled as the aggrieved students matched to their enemies’ camp. People joined them either tacitly or overtly. Young men and women who had no one to sponsor them in school and were doing menial jobs or idling away were the first to join the crusade. Primary school pupils readily threw away or left their school bags behind and were especially useful in chanting and carrying leaves of plants and hastily written placards. The elderly came out from homes, shops and farms and waved in solidarity as the people matched on, chanting, without directions from anybody. They knew their targets. It was a day of salvation.
On the evening of that same day, Jacob’s mother was furious with him and full of fears for his safety.
"Jacob, listen to me. I said, listen to me before thunder will break that your naughty head".
"Mama leave me alone! Was I the one who destroyed things?"
"You were not. But you were the one who first thought of such evil plot.
"Mama, they deserve their fate. They are the people causing hardship in this town."
"How did they cause hardship for you?"
"They are forestalling progress by using what belonged to the whole community for themselves alone".
"Keep on rambling there. I have warned you to be very careful. You are growing up and instead of becoming reasonable, you are turning out stupid".
With this, Jacob angrily dashed off. He knew the house would not contain both of them that might. Josephine herself knew her son was not becoming any stupid. She was afraid what happened to her husband could befall Jacob.
The whole community knew the few evil men among them who were making things hard for the less privileged. But the problem was who would talk.
Once, Jacob’s father, Michael, had talked. He had exposed Chief Ezike in particular and three others for selling a parcel of land that belonged to the community and pocketing what accrued thereof. Chief Ezike had assured Michael that year was to be his last on earth. It happened as he promised.
So as this happened, Josephine was not happy her son at such young age would be the one to question the status quo, In spite of the motley of men in their community.
Night came. Jacob was nowhere to be found. Josephine sat on a stool at the veranda of the two-room, thatched mud house. The light from the lamp a few meters away illuminated her slim figure.
Her legs clasped together. His ankles rested on her lapse with the joined palms falling on the knees. Her head titled like that of a widow mourning the death of a young husband. The headgear hung precariously on her hairs. Soon tears dropped from her weak eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She sobbed. Ebele, full of trepidation, leaned against the door and watched helplessly.
At school, Mr. Jerry walked solemnly with a torch–light, assimilating every evidence of the day’s demonstration strewn on the ground, till he got to the notice board. His dark complexion was enhanced by the night. He looked at Jacob’s critique for a moment before opening the notice board that was covered with a transparent glass, framed with a hard wood. The hinges creaked. Its sound was amplified by the serenity of the night.
Mr. Jerry religiously removed the material, tearing in the process minute parts of it where the adhesive was so strong. For him the content was the best piece of literature by a native social crusader. He intended preserving it for the future generations so that they may learn of the manifesto of their forbearers and never depart from it. Now he was happy his many years of subtle conscientization of the students was yielding fruits.
Josephine by now had stopped sobbing and Ebele, having been exhausted had gone to bed. Marks of tears were still visible on Josephine’s eyes and cheeks. She was full of expectation.
The sound of a foot matching on a dry leaf caught her attention. She quickly wiped her eyes and checks with the loose end of her wrapper.
"It’s me," answered the croak voice that terrified her the more.
"Who?" she enquired as she stood up, picking the lamp and holding it forward, illuminating herself more in an effort to see who was approaching.
By now, she had known it was Jacob’s school principal. Relative clam returned to her.
Mr. Eze emerged into view with two armed police officers. Fear once again descended upon Josephine. She trembled and muttered, "What happened?"
As the principal and the men stood before her, pity overcame her. The short figure of the principal was like a flesh patchwork. He sustained a lot of cuts and bruises and stank of chemicals.
"Where is your son, Jacob?", asked Mr. Eze
"You mean you did not see him too? Eeeh! This child will kill me-o-o!", she loudly complained and broke into a cry.
The principal who became furious made a sign to the policemen to search the house. However, one of the police officers thought otherwise.
"Madam, stop crying", he said. "Nothing will happen to your son. It is most likely he is with one or two friends chatting. He will surely be home. When he comes home tell him to report at the police station. We need him to do nothing but write a statement about the incident that happened today at his school.
"Are you sure he will be home?" enquired Josephine.
"Definitely", the same officer replied. He was certain they would get Jacob that night. "Let’s go Sir", he finally said to the principal.
"Aren’t you arresting him again?", exploded Mr. Eze.
"Arrest who? My son? My God, come and deliver me-o-o"
"Madam we are not here to arrest your son. We only need him to write a statement", the bull reassured Josephine. With an air of command he added, "Let’s go". He was visibly angry with Mr. Eze whom he believed lacked a common sense.
"Would the woman be up by 2Am expecting her son if her son is home?" he thought as he left.
The other police officer followed him. The principal looked sternly at Josephine, presenting the look of a disgraced monster, and threatened.
"You! Don’t worry. You shall see".
Josephine gazed at him with trepidation. She knew Mr. Eze, dared not be challenged. She fearfully watched him jolt his fat buttocks like an infuriated swine as he tried to keep pace with the officers. Unknown to Josephine he was afraid Jacob would surface from the darkness and leap on him. She turned, as he vanished into the darkness, to keep the lamp. The moment she sat down on the stool and lowered her head, Jacob appeared quietly.
He had seen the principal and the cops enter the entrance to their compound from where he hanged out with some of his friends. They had trailed them and lurked inside the farm in front of the house, swearing to lynch them if they had arrested anyone.They listened with hushed amusement to the conversation that took place.
Josephine was startled when she looked up and beheld her son. She gazed at him, and seemed to be taking in properly, the eyeballs that sank into their sockets, the fierce facial configuration and the lanky frame that made people call him ‘dog’.
"Jacob", she called with an unsure voice that seemed to suggest the figure before her was a ghost.
"Mama", Jacob answered. Josephine rushed and hugged him.
"My son, did anything happen to you?", she asked, examining Jacob in the near darkness.
"I am alright mama"
"Did you see the policemen?"
"Don’t mind the oppressors".
"You wrote the statement?"
"Mama, they only wanted to arrest me".
Josephine shivered at this insight and became speechless.
"It’s obvious they will be here again, tonight, or very early in the morning", Jacob continued.
"How do you know?"
"It’s certain chief Ezike and Mr. Eze will not rest until they get me imprisoned".
Josephine became stiff with fear at the mention of Chief Ezike especially, who was the prime suspect for the murder of her husband. She now recalled the short tragic drama. Jacob was then about two years old when the men who invaded their house under the guise of thieves stabbed his father to death.
"Where did you hide the money?" queried the leader of the gang.
"I have no money at home," pleaded Michael who was nursing the pangs of the heavy clubbing he had received already.
Josephine and their children laid face down on the floor panicking.
"Shut up!", bellowed another who instantly stabbed him severally.
"Mama!" Jacob was almost shouting for the fourth time.
"Yes", answered Josephine weakly as she recovered from her reverie.
"I will not sleep here tonight. I will take a few cloths to my friend’s house. And very early tomorrow morning, I shall leave for brother Peter’s house".
Josephine easily acquiesced to the idea. However, she was to be apprehensive from that moment Jacob left house until Justine came home from Onitsha city the next day to reassure her Jacob was safe.
Peter and Justin were happy about the feat Jacob achieved. They had sworn to avenge the death of their father. It was welcomed news that Chief Ezike was hospitalized due to the injuries the wretched of their earth gave him during the uprising. The three other men ran away when they got wind of the revolt. The oppressed people left the message that they must provide the money they stole from public purse, else they would be haunted irrespective of where they may run.
Jacob went to the city with the hope of returning to finish his secondary education when the matter must have settled down. But the worst was to come. Some of the boys who believed the police had arrested him stormed the police station the next night with the intention of setting him free.
The thirty-four minutes standoff between them and the police saw two police officers seriously wounded and some of the boys sustaining bullet wounds. One was dead. Mad was the victim. Heaven broke loose!
A regrouping of the boys and some other members of the community saw the police station raised down to aches and two of the notorious chiefs lynched that same night. The police feel and the remaining culprits absconded. Though their houses were destroyed.
The news spread like wild fire. Peter and Justin were forced to relocate Jacob to the Northern city of Jos in Plateau State.
Back home rumours abound as to Jacob’s whereabouts. The most popular being that Jacob was inside the forest directing the offensive. The boys and jobless men in the community had transformed into bands of gorillas that dealt with the evil men and the policemen that protected them, gave credence to this.
Jacob spent a year trying to get a school in Jos in order to complete his secondary education. But it was not possible because he did not have any transfer certificate.
While helping in the trading business of his caretaker, he embarked on self-education. In the following year, he sat for the General Certificate Examination (GCE) of the West African Examination Council. He made his papers with distinction. The news thrilled his family who had kept his whereabouts a secret. His brothers were determined to train him at the university.
Jacob succeeded in making the struggle a very lasting one. Because after his first year in the University he came home for the first time since the revolution started. The whole community was agog with the news of his homecoming. He was welcomed with a fanfare.
He noticed with great joy the rehabilitation that had taken place in his alma mater. Mr. Eze too upon the insistence of the students has been removed. The town union government ran by men and women of high moral integrity and wisdom, who because they were either not rich or rich but not bad, had been sidelined.
The one month of interaction Jacob had with his people especially Mr. Jerry saw the youth forming a progressive association that organized the marking of the three years remembrance of Mad’s death. They called it MAD DAY’. This became not only a celebration of freedom from oppression and exploitation but also a vision – a Movement for the Advancement of Discipline in their community.
People felt uplifted and empowered, because the wet of wings in their community will never fly. They will not stir because they have been emptied of hearts. Now the fear of evil and its consequences rule their livers.