Author: Idoroenyen Udoh
Tito found the worn-out rag in a pile and rolled it around his palm, hoping to stop the bleeding, he could get an infection, but there wasnʼt any choice. He wasnʼt going to allow more mishaps to deter him, no, not this time around. Tito had succeeded in convincing his friends, Tega and John, to come along, and so far, everything was going well but his hand. How difficult can it be–it was simple.
Crude oil pipes ran through the mangrove swamps that he was accustomed to. Further was the forest where his father fell trees for his workshop. Wood there was different and stronger. Until the pipeline explosion, you would find Tito there after school. Now, along with other children, he was banned from going there. People nowadays were locked up in their homes, afraid of being seen. Because there was the military, the militants and then pirates. One could be framed for busting government pipes, the army men were getting more ruthless, children were not soared. Tito knew this, he knew how costly oil was, but his father was unaware he knew how much, and that Tito was planning to save the oil dripping on the ground, wasting away and taking the plants with it.
After knotting the ends of the cloth across his palm, Tito fidgeted around a bit. It was too dark in the room. Only a few rays of light slipped in from the cracks in the window. Where was the full moon today? he thought to himself. When the moon shined brightly before the rainy seasons, the tiny room he shared with his younger sister would be half lit up with the rays that had white petals dancing in it, too small to see without straining your eyes. Titoʼs back against the wall, trying to get as far away from his sister as possible. He glided his feet on the cement floor so he wouldnʼt step on a toy or trip over anything by accident. The door didnʼt creak, thank God. He remembered to grease the hinges in the morning. Making it out of the house from the sitting room was nothing. In seconds, his face had already met the cool breeze outside.
The neighbourhood was quiet except for a few crickets chirping in the dark. Fresh scents of grass soaked in mist lingered in the air. For a while, Titoʼs mind was clear. But that didnʼt last, and he started to notice a sensation brew in him. He wasnʼt sure if it was excitement or something else, but he chose excitement. Tito held his sandals close to his chest as he picked up the plastic jerrycan. It was kept near the door where it could be found easily. He paused for a second to allow his eyes to adjust. The moon wasnʼt fully out yet, and the trees resembled parade dancers swaying from side to side. Tito jumped down the veranda and felt his feet sink into the moist earth. He remained still. When he was sure no noise came from the house, he crept off to the spot himself and his two friends were to meet. A stone throw from his home, Tito stopped to dust his feet and wear his sandals.
It was months ago when oil spills began to affect their tiny community. It started in one afternoon. Something strange floated in the sky. A dark cloud with no end made its way from the south. The school principal walked into his class that day and ordered all to go home because a storm was coming. Tito was in class that day when the principal walked in and told all of them to file out. Excitement broke out in the class. For one, the school day was over, and two, there will be a storm. He skipped home and found neighbours hastily locking up their windows and doors. As Tito got to his house, his father pulled him in. In the morning, they found black dust on the roofs and grass. The soot also darkened the forgotten clothes on the clothing line. Before the oddity, the people still went along in solidarity with other communities experiencing a problem from the oil drilling. Besides, the protests and threats seemed to draw government attention and they were in dire need of it. For months, the community school was locked up, and the clinic had no medicine.
Tito gestured for Johnʼs jerrycan, pointing at his own then pointing back at John.
“here” answered John, pulling out a yellow pail from behind his legs. “and,” John held up a torch and let it dangle in front of Titoʼs face. Bringing a torchlight hadnʼt crossed Titoʼs mind at all. Now he saw the need for it. He glanced at Tega and Tega nodded, indicating he too was ready. Together the three boys headed away.
It didn’t take long, in time they were already weaving their way through dense shrubs in the heart of the mangrove. Tito slowed down at some point to re-tie the cloth around his palm then gripped his jerrycan tight. Each one watched his step for fear of what crawled and was ready to strike.
“My brother told me that pirates hide here. Pirates are not militants, right?” asked John.
Tito felt it wasnʼt the time for a chat but it will do both of them good.
“When did he tell you that one?” asked Tito.
“one day, I canʼt remember,” answered John.
“pirates?” Tega gave a questioning look.
The air was still and it made Tito sweaty and feel hot. He switched the pail to his left hand and fanned himself with quick waves of his hand, but it was useless.
“Are you fine?” asked John.
“Yes, itʼs just hot. Don’t worry about what your brother said, you won’t find militants here. It’s only the army.”
“militants?” whispered Tega. They ignored him.
It was always like that during the time of the year. Tito knew that well, but he had never felt so sweaty for only being in the forest, and the sensation that was in him earlier felt like stone. It was odd.
Tito’s right foot sank into mud and leaves.
“We are at the swamp,” he whispered over his shoulder.
Johnʼs torch flickered on. The light from the torch was weak, so it was still hard to see through the murky water. Josh then directed his torch at the bushes and scanned the area around.
The three boys stood by the bank and gazed into the swamp. No one dared to go in. Many scary thoughts began to float in Titoʼs head, thoughts of crocodiles and snakes.
“I will go first,” John announced, and Tito was relieved.
John held his torch and pail high up while half of his torso was in the swamp. The insects that settled on the water immediately rose and winged their way into the boysʼ eyes and nose. They threw out their arms and wove them about to chase the insects away. Johnʼs torch, unsteady, flashed at the trees and sky as he waved insects off. Tito quickly grabbed the torch and directed it back at the swamp. Using the slim tangled roots for support, Tito stepped in. Tega hesitated for a second but joined in too. Tito reminded the others that, as long as they kept to the bank, they would be fine.
The boys paved their way with their containers, pushing out floating leaves and branches. It started to get tedious walking in the swamp. More leaves stuck onto Titoʼs legs, weighing him down. Decayed leaves underneath made it harder to lift a muscle. Tito held his breath from time to time. He felt like vomiting but had to hold it in. The stench coming from the swamp was much, and he was getting more annoyed that they were on the lookout for exposed pipes and still had not found anyone yet. Tega started to whine and irritate Tito.
“Manage!” Tito voiced sharply.
“Donʼt talk to me like that!” Tega retorted.
A swift movement caught them off guard, freezing the boys in their tracks. Something dropped into the water and had formed a bubble on the surface. Within a second, it raced across to the other end.
“snakes!” Tega announced in panic, his eyes wide. Tito glanced at John to see his reaction. John faced down, lost in his assessment of what that was.
“itʼs alright, it is probably just a fish,” Tito said, breaking the silence.
“Let us just hurry up and get out of here,” he said, glancing at John and then back at Tega.
Not that he felt convinced himself, but his friends still tagged along. For Tito, that was good. He couldnʼt manage on his own. Tito was deep in thought, and the other two were too frightened to hear footsteps approach the bank.
“Who goes there!” a harsh voice called out. Light from a heavy-duty torch floated on the leafy branches ahead of them.
John quickly put off his torch and looked at Tito for the next move, while Tega blamed them with his eyes. The figure emerged from the same place the boys had come. The bright light fell on them.
“Look!” Tega pointed to the bank at the other side, “quick!” Tega used the roots that crept into the water to pull himself out of the water. Then John was next. Once John could place a foot on shore, he threw himself forward, crashing into Tega and kicking mud into Titoʼs eyes. Tito fell back into the water. The beam became brighter, and the footsteps louder. At once, Tito wiped it away and held onto a root. He gave Tega his pail and lifted himself. He placed a foot down but began to slip, and immediately, John stretched out his hand, and Tito grabbed it.
“Here,” whispered John, pointing at some trees. The boys ran behind the trees and squatted. Tito could hear his heartbeat. He held his breath and folded himself in, so no part of him would stick out behind the tree.
The person at the other side pointed a bright torch at the swamp. It was a soldier.
“If you know whatʼs good for you, leave this place!” he hissed.
The soldier continued to linger around, but after a few minutes, he left.
Tito closed his eyes and released his grip from the tree trunk. He was thankful for the swamp. Few soldiers roamed around the community and the neighbouring ones ever since the pipe bombings, but seeing one up close took Tito by surprise.
John made a rustle as he sat back in some leaves.
“What is wrong with you?” Tito asked, searching around for any sign of someone watching.
“relax,” John said in a dismissive tone and flashed a grin. He sat cross-legged and leaned back with his elbows on the ground to prop himself up. Has John forgotten about crawling things? Tito wondered. Tito looked at Tega. Tega was sitting up but had his legs folded like Johnʼs. He tapped his fingers to a rhythm on his jerrycan, but it was too soft to hear.
“Whatʼs up?” Tito asked Tega.
“Fine!” Tega answered sharply and went back to tapping his fingers and staring at his front.
It was Tito and John at first, then Tega joined the clique. Tega is five months younger than Tito, making him the youngest out of the three. To Tito, It was nice having level-headed Tega around. John could be overbearing at times.
Tito sensed a tingle in his skin. Something crawled on his back. He took off his shirt and started searching. He began to dust himself with his shirt.
“What is wrong?” asked Tega and John in unison.
“I donʼt know. Something is moving on–”
Tito felt a slap on his back and went still. John cupped his hand on Titoʼs back, arresting the eight-legged creature.
“It is just a spider,” John said, “fear fear,” he smirked.
“Hey, itʼs not just a spider.”
He tried to touch a spider once. Its large abdomen amused him, and he had never seen anything like it before. It was different from the usual tiny spiders. Before he could touch it, his father slapped his hands off.
“You want to poison yourself!” Titoʼs father yelled.
They were in the market for the market day. Many boats were for sale that day, he and his father noticed. His father later explained that they were now useless to their owners.
Tega started to giggle due to what played out before him. Tito stopped frowning and put his hand on his mouth, to suppress a laugh. Johnʼs laughter was the loudest.
Their giggles, drowned in the chirping of crickets, were not music to Bossʼ ears.
“Let us go,” said Tito. He grabbed his pail and rose to his feet. He bent a little after a second thought. That way, he wonʼt feel too seen. John and Tega got up. “We are going to the clearing since we canʼt go back to check the water,” Tito said.
“is that not too risky?” asked Tega
“Do you want that man to finally catch us?” John replied. “Donʼt be afraid, relax,” he continued, with a smile and his usual confidence.
“I am relaxed”
“You donʼt say”
A few kilometres away, a truck pulled up, and the one they called ‘Bossʼ got off his hammock.
“All clear, Sir!”
Copyright @ Hopeasfro
To be Continued…
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