“As a rock on the seashore he standeth firm,
and the dashing of the sea waves disturbeth him not.
He raises his head like a tower on a hill,
and the arrows of fortune drop at his feet.
In the instance of death
the courage of his heart sustaineth him;
and the steadiness of his mind beareth him out…”
Seafaring is a sour enterprise. For him, it always has: the pervasive foreboding, the storm and the waves colluding to smash him to bits, the frosty nights calling dibs on his soul, the flaming mornings he trickles into existence to watch parts of him turn fugitives and escape his onerous attempt at survival. His life is the postscript of an argument, pointless absent context. Yet, he doesn’t unhinge. His passion never dwindles, for his demons are subjects, and he is master of himself. At first light, about the time the sea gathers its remorse into a mild rage, with eyes constricted, hands parallel and firm, back ramrod straight, and mind set on the discipline of self, one push at a time, he ascends into perfection. This way he emulates Juvenal: mens sana in corpore sano.
Regrets become distractions, likewise fantasies. Nothing can kill me, he mumbles silently as his eyes set on a liquid horizon and hands, like wings, surf the tepid wind… so far he continues to escape, even if gradually. This surety steels him. And for this reason, he never hurls phlegm into the face of the sea. Unlike the others, irked by what is adjudged nature’s maleficence. Not because he can’t, but because he won’t. He knows the futility of seeing the sea as a foe, and its tempests as transgressions. And what choice does he have? After how many years? The sea is his ally now; although not in the way Coleridge would perceive or write about it. Wherewithal has its way of tempering fact – this, experience had taught him. But, perhaps, Milton. Yes. John Milton. That allure of incapacity, of resignation to what is, that only Milton would know.
He is the six-feet-tall deck-hand, attending to the excesses of sea-travel and the inadequacies of men. Picking up the slack and running impossible errands. Yes boss to the captain, and sneering at the stowaway. But he is also a favourite, beneficiary of timely benefits, like a moment’s peace, away from the bother of raising masts and furling hurls, of crass commercialism and mindless ruptures. Times like this he thinks of fate and its trappings. The others call it foolhardy – retrospection. And perhaps it is. But in a place where routine is an enterprise and its worth his brothers; where solace is the abscess of forgetting that is their minds; where at night the boatswain, the quartermaster, and the crew gather into a circus of counterfeits preposterously similar in their responses to tales of the past – tales of escapades with the Arabian, Caribbean and Asian whores – it would be dastardly to consign to a life of (thoughtless) objectivity. So he doesn’t, staging the sort of rebellion his brothers consider wasteful, and obtaining through it the gifts of existence: curiosity, Art, poetry.
He’d found Milton through the first of these gifts, abandoned and left to rot beside an old broken pipe during one of their onshore undertakings. Each of them had heaved salt bags from the El Mariachi, their ship – burly sacks that ripped their skins and spat on their souls, stinging their resolve and sinking their knees in servitude – to deliver to an Arabian salt merchant in Cape Verde. It was gruelling as it was arduous. After a few rounds that had him spew profanities through gritted teeth, he navigated a bend to ease himself and saw the petit and dog-eared Milton: a fist-sized sand-coloured paperback huddled against a column of grime. Inanimate, yet full of life.
He had run chapped fingers across its mottled skin, wiped its filth, and snapped its spine into place till the pages fluttered in relief. And when he was done, the two became inseparable – Milton in his heart; he in Milton’s lyrics. A treasured union. He did try to engage his brothers in this love of Milton, to assuage their souls through its treasured volumes, but none had patience for what was considered trivial. Miguel, whose sobriquet is the Caribbean grizzly bear, had called him punta in an offhanded way. Kalifa merely snored his way through the renditions. Others fell between: Ross, the English; Umslopoogas, the Zimbabwean cheetah; Gale, the Cantonese; Danbaba, and the one ominously referred to as Babayaga, the eater of flesh.
It isn’t anyone’s fault, he knows. Life at sea is one of compromise. And all they can to survive they must do, even if they are disremembered litanies traipsing on the fringes of fraught tongues. Reality to them is the finish of infinite rituals, a paradox each inadvertently furthers, and which induces illimitable eccentricities. He had thought Musaka queer for screaming obscenities at inanimate things; thought Kalifa troubled when he began to refer to himself in the third person. Babayaga he avoids, as one does a leech. Who slices bits of himself into his meal, boastful of an ancestry where men ate themselves? Yet, it these oddities that sustain them, expunging their iniquitous existence and keeping them further from perdition.
How did he get here? What sustains him? These are irrelevancies, for tonight he is unsure, and Milton isn’t helping much. The sea quietly rumbles in the background, bobbing, stretching, and reaching for whatever seaman it can. Once they had had a small jamboree and Dafar, the boatswain, in his characteristic self, had drunk enough and had tipped over with an inaudible thunk into the sea. By morning they had drifted too far to realise the old Massai was missing. After minutes of frantic search, Kalifah had fess up that, “Kalifa hears one time the old fool say he will swim home.” This silliness others had laughed off, clutching their midriffs and smacking one another in a playful yet implicit recognition of their precarious existence. Such is the absurdity of their lives – and deaths. Like pawns they are dispensable; vulnerable like Kings en route checkmate. But on this night there is a little hope in form of a letter. His fingers quiver as he squints hard under the blast of moonshine to make out the few characters rough-handling and sea-travel hadn’t eroded.
You have a daughter now. Her name is Hassana. Things have changed Buba. Come home.
His heart is heavy, weighed down not with the burden of unexpected fatherhood, but with the lack thereof. It could have been, four years ago, when it was dated to him. But this nomadic existence he is victim rather than culprit of has him too past-tense to take registry of any immediate passion like joy. He sighs.
“That is Jamilah, me correct?” Miguel snuggles close.
“Yes.” He responds.
There isn’t much to be said, the men exist as though through telepathy, like a colony of antiquated shamans, each completing the others’ thought.
“Hmmm. Your woman, she love you, no?”
This draws his lips into a grin, although it could pass for concealed disgust. This intrusion slightly annoys him. He grunts a reply.
“Me no hear from me woman long time.” Sighs. “She forget me. Me forget her too!” the Caribbean replies. He knows this story, has heard it a thousand and one times. A tale set in progress by the quintessential husband expending sinews and blood, serving man and god to love his family, and terminated by a promiscuous wife, a tomato merchant, nature, and the horrors of the post-colony.
There is a picture attached to the back of the letter. The picture is stuck to it. It wouldn’t yield to his prodding as it is now glued to the letter. He fondles, careful not to detach it wrongly lest the memory goes to ruin; yet he is anxious enough to rip it apart. A sickening sequence ensues: prod and withdraw, prod and withdraw. His fingers thread cautiously like a curator assessing a relic. They pillage along the edges of the union of paper and matt. Jamilah, ever wise, didn’t use gloss; she must have considered the possibility of delay – this draws a silent laugh from him as it comforts him his place in her heart remains secured. The converse holds true for Miguel, who sensing the deckhand’s clumsiness snatches the letter from him.
He is arrested by the taunts of fate: should he attempt to recover the letter, he could risk shredding it in the tussle; yet, resigning to the Caribbean’s deftness is equally risking same, if not more. He watches the Caribbean for the slightest of errors, ready to intercede. His heart palpitates in response. After an eternity of torment the union comes undone. And like a new father he is handed a child to love and care for. He tucks the picture between the greasy pages of Milton.
“Your daughter. She pretty. Me like she smile.”
“You go back to Nigeria now?”
To this he replies not. Doesn’t need to. They are kin after all, knitted at the soul by a bond deeper than blood. He looks up to the remaining seamen emerging from wherever obscurity had wheeled them; watches them pull on their boots, wear their socks and gloves, and don their hats; watches them slumber into wakefulness and, like a procession of acolytes, stagger to their posts. It is a beautiful sight, this solidarity. And a beautiful night, even though absent stars or constellations. As if in defiance of their will the Earth plots against them. The wind is almost still, dispensing grace with unconcern. Yet they manage to change course, for beneath the stark curtain that is the sky and the gentle huff that is the wind is a resolve that refuses to break, the synergy of personas, and men zapping about in the dark, stumbling and steadying, striving against every odd, against the sea itself, to bring a brother home.
Milton would love this, he thinks.
The country is different from when he had left, or was made to: more structures, less humanity. Souls litter everywhere, dribbling from conked out pipes onto intolerant dirt roads. High rises are shadows of boundless lusts and middle-class privation. Architectures are denominators of setbacks and progress. But the Niger is still the same – banking indigence and coursing with abandoned hopes. His walk is unsteady yet brisk, for he fears recognition. He leaps over the guardrail separating past and present, saunters between the agglomeration of parasols and retail commodities adorning the seaport, and struts into the Port Authority Office. Once there he takes a number, queues up, watches faces dissolve into haphazard plots, and states his name and destination upon his turn.
“You are Nigerian? Abu-ba-kar Sa-la-m?” a woman, whose oily and pimpled face is terrorized by the jumbo-sized green beret draped over her head, with the tag officer pinned into an over-starched button-down shirt, queries from behind the shelter of a glass cubicle.
“Yes,” he replies.
“Returning home?” she queries again, this time looking up to match a face to the name.
“The killing has been over for years now. You didn’t hear?” she steadies her head to capture the moment.
“No. I was at sea.” This clause he doesn’t get right. He’d practiced how it would sound – how it must – for the last two days. He had wanted it heavy, soused in emotions for the girl who would ask where he had been. But it sounded flat and vicious, each syllable plagued with reluctance.
“Just watch yourself, Aboki, the country hasn’t forgotten.” The woman casually dismisses him. There is a mocking intent to this farewell.
He claims his ticket, boards a bus, and searches for a seat beside the window. His mind is blank, his body listless. A woman trapped in a buttoned-down dress and a safari makes her way towards the bus; dangling from her hip is a baby. She dumps herself in the seat beside him, and yanks out her left breast in an amusingly negligent fashion. He winces as she stuffs the baby’s mouth with a teat. Like the choreography of indigence, the baby in turn grapples with greed, her small hands balled and fastened around the meal. This is where the decay begins, he thinks – this passionate and primal hunger for self-preservation. He is instantly reminded of Jamilah and his daughter; and for the first time he is seized by a distinct impression of fatherhood – to protect. He stares into the green valleys and brown peaks spiralling backwards like ribbons. The past is now the sea as the bus trudges westwards.
The ride home is protracted with longing as he anticipates reunion and fatherhood. Overwhelmed with emotion, and in want of companionship, he winks at the baby beside him. The baby coos back and reaches for him. He is terrified but takes the chance as a practice toward fatherhood; being a seaman leaves room for innovation. The mother hands her child over. He hums ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’, the only song he knows from back when life was lush savannah and grazing cattle, before his danuwa assassinated the President and the country plummeted into ethnic cleansing. Every Hausa away from the north was culprit. Jamilah had been saved by her mixed origins, while he fled to the sea amidst a trail of headless bodies and bloodletting.
Callused hands, hoarse voice, tender heart, he quietly rocks the baby as the association fills the void within him with warmth. The mother inquires of the picture he constantly checks. Tales are exchanged. Hassana is a sweet name, she says. He would be a good father, she says. He cherishes this company. There are no expectations or trophies – not like with the onshore girls. He even risks sharing Milton, but sleep stays his hand. Silence falls. The bus drags.
Hours later he alights in downtown Lagos. Another bus would take him to Ojuelegba, his home. Suddenly someone lets out a loud wail. He whirls backward and sees the woman dart out of the vehicle and crash to the ground, her baby held judiciously despite the madness. A throng gathers. The woman, still hysterical, points to him then her now-lifeless baby, who is fast turning pale, in a continuous fashion and with a conclusive intent. Her cries are piercing shrills now, punctuated by the booms of the surrounding industrial complexes. It seems a dreadful coincidence, this instance of death. But a mob sees things differently – if it sees anything at all. They seize and begin to pummel accusations into him. It takes a painfully short while, but the verdict is swift. Then everything else happens in rapid succession, and soon he finds himself bound with tires and doused with gasoline.
With hands flailing in the air, he claims innocence, gabbling Hassana’s name in the same breath. He tries to brandish her picture, but chokes on gasoline and blood. A cudgel knocks Milton from his hands, and with it, wafting into the orange sky, is the daughter that was never his to know. The taunting, pleading, and bashing carry on for minutes till the mob disremembers the charges. He then becomes that bloody Hausa. Terrorist, others claim.
The mob weary of its mercies strikes a match. The fire starts solemnly, a dull glow, almost inconspicuous, carousing on skin and fabric, feeding fat, turning heavy yellow tongues, and ravaging with passion. He tries to entreat it, to beat it out of himself, but fire knows not prejudice, neither does misfortune. Thus, he is entangled in a rebellious dance, a prisoner of fate thrashing and failing, kicking and racing, backward, to the sea, to the moment of recognition, of Hassana, of burning mornings and frosty nights, of savage crowds, of fire. Of being fated to a thing so destructively passionate. So personal. So final that only Milton would understand. So he thinks of a line, a perfect line, substituting blindness with death.
“It is not miserable to die; it is miserable to be incapable of enduring death.”