My Night as a Knight
The series of gunshots made my shit jump back into my bowels. They were gunshots; nothing else would cause such an uproar. I climbed the toilet and peeped through the small window, forcing myself to believe they were police gunshots.
They weren’t. The police wouldn’t frighten students with guns as to make them scamper to the extent of the Muslim girls abandoning their fallen veils. Only one sect could do that—Boko Haram. I pressed my hands against my chest, if that would somehow steady my heart, and sucked in a deep breath that brought along the reek of shit.
If I left the restroom and mixed with the students running into the bush, I should be able to make my way to the fence before those terrorists put a bullet in my skull. God, help me through this, and I will never sin again.
I dragged my trousers up to my waist and belted them, glanced through the window to ensure there was nobody in bandannas. People were still running into the bush, heading for the fence, pushing each other and screaming Run, Run. Boko Haram. In the midst of the noise came the flushing sound of a toilet. I wasn’t alone. I wasn’t going to die alone.
That must be a girl; male toilets didn’t flush. Their flushers had all been replaced with blank holes. And she must be my classmate; junior students wouldn’t dare to use the SS3 students’ toilets.
No more gunshots now, only screams and squeals from students and staff. I picked up my schoolbag, hung it over my shoulder and opened the door gently as if the terrorists were in the tiny room with me. Then I pulled the door closed, refusing to step out. Anything could happen the next minute, probably best I say a few words of prayer before leaving. Father, forgive me for all the sins I’ve committed, knowingly or unknowingly.
My pastor used to say anytime we prayed, we should pray with a clean heart or else our prayers wouldn’t reach Heaven. If that were true, then my prayers certainly didn’t pass the ceiling, because as much as I tried to keep my heart clean, I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop thinking of that girl some toilets away. She’d probably be scared and wouldn’t mind if I opened the door. And if I’m lucky enough, I might get to see something nice before I die.
God, please forgive me.
Waiting in the toilet till everywhere calmed down wasn’t a bad idea, except for the damp ground that had its water seeping into my socks, making the socks stick to my soles. In a few minutes time, the police will have arrived to secure the place. What silly thing was I thinking? Anyone hoping on the Nigerian police would end up buried in his backyard. I opened my door softly and stood in the outer room. This was my only chance to run, when everybody was still running. Any moment later, everywhere could turn quiet, rendering me the only prey, and who knew when those fanatics would leave.
The restroom door was a few steps away and the females’ toilet was beside me. I didn’t know how it happened, but I found myself knocking at the females’ toilet. No answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. She had to be in there. She hadn’t come out. I would have heard the door squeal. I rested my hand on the door and pushed slightly. The door didn’t move. I pushed again. It didn’t move. No doubt she thought I was one of those Boko haram terrorists and had come to abduct her the way the Chibok girls were abducted.
“Hey,” I called. “Open up. We have to leave.”
She still didn’t answer.
“I’m a student. An SS3 student.” I wanted to mention my name, but I doubted she knew me.
Now the door clicked. She opened it enough to let only one eye through as though the rest of her was naked. It was Naailah Binkola from SS3 A, one of those girls who wore different shades of contact lenses every day. I looked away for her to finish dressing, but she opened the door and stepped out of the stall. She was already dressed, except the hem of her skirt that was somewhat curled up. She said something so fast I couldn’t decipher a word.
I was heading towards the door, hoping she would follow me, when she blurted out something about us waiting in the restroom a little while longer.
“We have to leave now,” I said.
“We can’t. They’re outside.” She sniffed and said something inaudible. “Let’s stay here.”
“Everyone else is running away.”
She walked to the restroom’s door, bolted it, and leaned her back against it. “They’d get us before we reach the fence.” She rested her chin on laced fingers and stared at me with her three eyes, the black dot centered on her forehead serving as the third eye.
“I can’t stay here.” I walked to the door. She leaned tightly against it, gripping it with her whole body.
“Excuse me, please.” I put on the serious face meant for my dog, to force it into its cage when misbehaving. It could work on a girl if I added more seriousness.
It worked, even without me increasing the level of seriousness. She slowly loosened herself from the door and edged her way to the sink.
“Here is not safe,” I finally told her and reached for the bolt. But I didn’t open it. I couldn’t. Not with the manner she looked at me with those three eyes. I let out a huge sigh and leaned by the door. “Why do you think in here is safe?”
“If we go out there, we might not be lucky enough to escape. Those people have bombs. If they decide to throw a bomb towards the bush, many people would end up dead before they can get to the fence. Do you have a phone?”
I didn’t. The school didn’t allow students to carry phones.
I bowed to my sandals, lowered to pull off my damp socks and put them in my bag. She crouched to pull off hers that were already kissing the damp ground. She squeezed them in one hand and used the other to play with the ends of her cornrows. I wanted to tell her to give me her socks so that I could put them in my bag, but the words couldn’t leave my mouth. They remained stuck to my tongue.
It was when night came I finally had the courage to tell her to hand me her socks. I didn’t know if that was me trying to play the good knight to a distressed damsel, but it worked. It plastered an invisible smile on her lips, a smile whose attempt for visibility was clearly hindered by the Boko Haram situation. The urge to smile back was so much I almost gave in, but then, I was able to hold on to my serious face as I received the socks, just the way a knight would do.
It was only now I believed what my biology aunty had said about the nose being very adaptive to smell. I never had believed it was possible to stay in the school’s toilet for hours.
“We have to be leaving now that it’s dark,” I said, unsure of why I said it. Was it because we actually had to leave or because I was tired of the quiet and needed to start a conversation? Of course, I would eventually be the one to start a conversation. The rules said never expect the girl to start the talking.
“What if the terrorists are still in school?”
“The day is dark enough for them to have left. If anybody is around, it should be the police.”
She removed herself from the wall she had been leaning by and walked to open the window, the slit of her closefitting skirt showing a huge dose of thighs that made me scratch my palms against each other. Even if the Boko Haram people were in eye range, it was too dark for her to see them.
She closed the window immediately, looking up at the dirty bulb raying its yellow light to the window. “If we leave now, where would we go? The government must have declared curfew. There would be no taxis. It’s too dangerous trekking through the streets of Kaduna at night.” She glanced at her breasts that outlined her bra. It wasn’t those she should worry about; the u-neck uniform for girls didn’t allow any cleavage and she didn’t modify it the way she did her skirt. Instead, she should worry about those thighs that looked like bags of yellow juices ready to burst at the slightest touch of a needle. ”If we leave now, we don’t know who we’d meet outside,” she said. “Maybe we should wait till tomorrow when enough officials will be in the school.” Her glossy lips barely moved as she spoke. There was this tenderness in them that made me want to believe any word they formed.
She walked closer to me. She had to, for me to hear her whispers. That meant the only way I would keep her close was if I had her whispering, and the only way I could have her whispering was if I made her say something. I wanted to ask her if she knew me, if she knew I was her classmate, but it seemed the only thing that would make her whisper and whisper was a topic centered on the terrorists.
“Do you think these terrorists are true Muslims?” I asked, trying to keep my tone on the whispering level. The lesser my voice was, the lesser hers would be, and the closer she would draw near to me. “They say they kill infidels for the love of jihad, and students practicing western education are infidels.”
“They are not Muslims. Just lunatics.” That was all she said. She was supposed to say more, enough that could force me to believe the terrorists were only deranged people looking for an excuse to kill and abduct schoolchildren. That was what every Muslim said when asked that. Except when dizzy or engrossed by thoughts powerful enough to surpass the urge of explaining Boko Haram’s insaneness and unworthiness to be called Muslims.
“Our classmates could have escaped since our classroom is the closest to the fence,” I said, and a disgust of my selfish self swept through me, so selfish to care less about the other students who weren’t my classmates. Then there was this hint of hypocrisy, telling me I had said that only to console her, because I cared less about my classmate to think of them getting saved in preference to the other students. I tried turning my mind into a white slate with nothing but the words of how I loved my classmates and fellow students and needed nothing more than their safety. “The terrorist may not have killed anyone. Maybe they only abducted some students like they did in Chibok. And the government officials may have come and gone.”
She said nothing, but only crouched against the wall and looked up to me as if expecting me to crouch too. I crouched and placed my schoolbag on my knees. There was this silence, this noisy silence that obeyed the rule of some things being better left unsaid. There hadn’t been a Boko Haram attack that didn’t result in people dying. Our prayer should only be lesser deaths.
“Most students had gone home before they arrived,” she said. “If there had been any deaths, it would be few.”
The talk about the possibility of deaths made the little food in my stomach stir and look for a way to jump out. Death had become an everyday occurrence in the northern Nigeria, and anytime I heard of it, saliva clung to my tongue and I looked at whoever was next to me and thanked God for his life.
I looked at Naailah and thanked God for her life. “You’re in SS3,” I said, trying to defocus my mind from the students that might have fallen. May their souls rest in peace. That was the best anyone could do for them, my dad would say, to pray their souls rest in peace.
“SS3 A” she said. “You’re in B.”
She actually knew I was her classmate. Maybe I wasn’t as invisible as I thought.
“What’s your name?” I asked, making sure it sounded like a question. She should know that yes, it was possible for her classmate not to know her name even if she was among the fair girls clique. She looked at me with a tilted head that said you mean you don’t know my name?
Yes, woman. I actually don’t know your name. If only I could say that aloud. “I’m Naailah,” she said. I nodded. “I’m Ehis.” She said nothing.
Written in chalk all over the walls were different words of how people did it: Saeed and Amina did it here; Farouk and Samah lasted here for an hour. Who knew, by the end of the night, I could be writing Ehis and Naailah finished it in here. Any guy who read that would go looking for the so-called Ehis.
I might or might not have committed a sin to think of Naailah and me finishing it, but if I were to ask my pastor, he would call it the sin of the mind or the sin of thoughts. Sometimes, I wished I had the courage to argue that with him. We didn’t control our thoughts; they came like reflex actions, like sneezing and laughing, so it couldn’t count as a sin. What was a man, who could die the next minute, supposed to think of when he sees a girl with the right amount of curves? He would want nothing more than to caress one of those breasts and later pray for forgiveness at his slightest chance. Times like this, a man can’t control his thoughts. The mind thinks whatever it wants and any attempt to derail it only results in more thinking, more sinning. If the sin of the mind were actually a sin, it should be one automatically forgivable, providing it didn’t transform into words or actions.
Naailah’s head dropped on my shoulder. She immediately raised it up and rubbed her eyes with her palm. I wanted to tell her I had no problem with her resting head against my shoulder or sleeping against it, but a part of me didn’t want to. A part of me wanted her to stay awake till I could sort out the right pick-up line that could lead to me writing something on the wall. It was that same part I thought of anytime my pastor preached about cutting off the part that caused you to sin. If a hand would cause you to sin, he would say, cut it off. If this part of me that wanted her to stay awake was something tangible like a hand, I would so willingly cut it off. But it was like space, like air, like something surrounding me that couldn’t be cut off. I drew my shoulder nearer to her, but she didn’t rest head on it.
“I can’t believe I’m actually sleeping in the school toilet,” she said.
This was the right time to say the pick-up line. I could say something like maybe you shouldn’t be sleeping, or: there are many things we could do besides sleeping, and that would send the message clearly.
“Maybe you shouldn’t be sleeping,” I said, looking at her with a fashion meant to stimulate her follow-up line, and ignoring that voice telling me I had just turned my automatically forgivable sin of the mind into the sin of words, which was a real sin.
She let out a sigh and rubbed hands over her eyes again. “I know. No sensible person should be dozing in a toilet. The feces and all. I’m just so tired.”
That was no follow-up line. She needed sleep. I walked to the empty bucket under the sink and turned it upside down. I tore a sheet from my math notebook and placed it on the overturned bucket. “You could sit here and rest your head against the edge of the sink.”
She looked at me with tired eyes and stood, yawning out a thank you. Her thighs widened as she rose, giving me a flash of her white panties. It happened too fast, before I could look away, so God shouldn’t count it against me. She sat on the bucket’s base and touched her eyes to remove her contact lenses. After which, rested her head on the sink, making her cornrowed forelocks fall down her head. Now it was just me and the shits piled up in the toilets.
I was supposed to stop glancing at her thighs and the way the distance between them gradually widened. My eyes were now the ones causing me to sin. I could easily cut them out, but it was those same eyes I used in reading the Bible at church. Since they did more good than bad, it was best to leave them alone. I tried focusing on the nameless insects circling the bulb and crawling on the ceiling. Everywhere was quiet, no chirping crickets. They might have all ran off with the students. Every living thing ran from the presence of Boko Haram.
The first time she touched me was in the morning when she woke me up and greeted me. I never knew I could fall asleep crouched against a wall. I had stayed crouched with the hope of seeing her wake up so I could see her waking-up face and rank her on the beauty scale. Judge a girl’s beauty by her waking-up face; that was the caveat.
“Good morning,” I said. “We should be leaving before it gets brighter.” I rose up and dusted my white shirt that had turned blue from the blue wall. God be praised for the new day, for the lives he had saved and for those that might have left us.
“What if we wait for the day to get a bit brighter? People would surely be in here by daylight,” she said.
“Naailah, we should leave. Outside is now safe.” I peeled off my eye dirt and hung my bag over my shoulder. “We can pass through the bushes and make it safe to the fence, jump over and hire a taxi.”
“I don’t have money on me for a taxi,” she said. “I have money, but it’s in my bag, which is in class,” she added, as if to defend herself.
“I have some money with me.” I touched my pocket to make sure the money was still there.
“Here, this is yours.” She picked my math notebook from atop the overturned bucket. “It was on you while you were asleep. I had to take it so it wouldn’t fall on the wet ground.” I took it from her, praying nothing led her to the last pages that I used as a diary and a jotter for jotting different pick-up lines during those bored moments of math class. Of course, nothing would make her turn to those pages. No matter how bored, she wouldn’t waste her time flipping over the pages of a math notebook. “Thank you.”
I unbolted the door and jutted my head into the darkness. Buildings and trees were silhouetted against the underlit clouds. There was no way to tell if it was safe or not, but I nodded at her that it was safe to move. She followed me out and we tiptoed into the bush. There was this urge to run, to shove the elephant grasses and run until I got to the fence, but she wouldn’t be able to run along. Thanks to her streamlined skirt.
Cocks’ crows hit our ears as we got closer to the fence. The crows became more audible as we tiptoed nearer, the darkened clouds birthing out some light. We reached the fence with our formerly-white uniforms browned. I stretched my hand to the top of the wall, checking its height. When she stretched hers, it didn’t reach the top, but stopped at the height where the spirogyras were thickest.
“Should I go first,” I asked her, trying not to open my mouth too wide to avoid swallowing much of the air that smelt like dog’s breath.
“Let’s go the same time.”
She folded up her skirt far up into her thighs as though it didn’t matter if a boy was there or not, or maybe she thought the morning too dim for me to see anything, but I saw.
We pulled ourselves up the fence and landed on the ground with a huge thud. I looked at her and she was looking back at me, nodding that all was okay. A few cars zipped past on the road, pointing their headlights against themselves, the lights harboring clouds of particles. This could be what my physics uncle meant when explaining the particulate nature of light. I prayed the old man had left the school before the terrorists had arrived.
“The time should be few minutes past six,” Naailah said, dusting off the grasses clung to her skirt.
I dusted off those clung to my sleeves and my trousers. “Where do you stay?”
“Damari.” That was far in town. I dipped my hand into my pocket to feel my money, and its polythene feel told me it wouldn’t be enough for both of us. Only the low denominations had that feel.
“I don’t think you’ll get a taxi going to Damari. We’ll stop a bike. I walked further into the road, avoiding the streetlights determined to make us visible in the dark.
It was at the gunning of a bike that I finally removed my hand from my pocket and brought out the money, praying it should be more than two hundred naira. There was nothing God couldn’t do. It was a two hundred and fifty naira.
The motorcycle that biked towards us was already looking at us from a distance as though it knew we would stop it. I waved at the bikeman and he halted his bike in front of us.
“Three hundred naira to Damari,” the man said in Hausa, looking at me with a face that expected no negotiation, a face almost mocking me because it knew I wouldn’t negotiate the price. Boys didn’t negotiate when paying for a girl’s ride. They just paid whatever the driver said. And the man probably knew this. Or maybe he only charged high because of our badges that read Zaheen secondary school. Students attacked by the terrorists would pay anything to go home.
“Which kin three hundred naira.” Naailah stepped to the man, her hands on her waist. “Oga, from here to Damari is one-fifty.”
I have never heard Naailah Binkola speak pidgin, even when she spoke to her fellow friends. The highest she deviated from English was Hausa.
“From here to Damari na two-fifty. Gaskia,” the bikeman said.
“Aboki, if you nor wan carry me for one-fifty, dey go.” She added in Hausa that to find a bike wasn’t a difficult task. Her Hausa was accented like the bikeman’s, very fast and fluent, even smother than the way I spoke my Bini to my parents.
“I’ll pay two hundred,” I told the man in Hausa, trying to roll my tongue the way Naailah did when she spoke hers.
Naailah looked at me with cheeks that could be hiding a laugh, except that mourning times like this spared no laugh for the mouth. I didn’t know what could have caused a laugh. Was it my bad-accented Hausa or a supposed ploy of me trying to play the rich guy to her?
She thanked me before climbing onto the bike, her skirt a little drawn into her thighs. That was all she did—thanked; not that I expected more. When the bike moved, she didn’t look back at me, but only rode along. I began my trek of miles.
I would have told her I would see her in school tomorrow or in the near future, but that couldn’t happen. Any school attacked by Boko Haram was closed for at least two months. And before two months elapsed, many of us lucky to be alive would have enrolled the WAEC exam in the southern schools.
Immediately I reached home, and after my family all thanked and praised God for keeping me alive, I went into my room and shut the door. I lay on my bed and covered myself with my quilt, trying to turn my noisy mind into a blank, white sheet.
Today’s terrorism merited a new page of the diary section of my math notebook. The notebook, I could turn into a full diary and tear out the math section since there probably would be no more of math classes. I brought out the notebook from my schoolbag and flipped to the last pages. I opened a fresh page, only that the page wasn’t fresh. Written on it were the words: Call me if we make it out alive, Naailah. 08023645434. Her handwriting was as curvy as those things below her waist. Maybe, somewhere in our talking I had said the right line. A smile almost rose to my lips, but these times afforded only invisible smiles.
My pastor’s voice boomed from the sitting room, calling my name and thanking God for saving my life. God always knows how to keep his own, he was shouting, those that are faithful unto him. I looked at the number in my notebook and then at my Nokia lying on my bed. There was nowhere in the Bible it was written that dialing a number was a sin.
I typed the number on my phone and pressed the dial button. It didn’t ring for long before she picked up. I had to say the right thing. There must be a right line that even my pastor and God would agree on, a line that would be the right thing to say even though it was a line.
“I. Think. You. Left. Your. Socks. With. Me.”
That was all I said before my pastor came knocking at my door and opened it. He was smiling at me, the kind wide enough to thank God for saving my life, and small enough to mourn the fallen students.
“How many people have been reported dead?” I asked him, shifting my phone a bit away from my ear.
“Seven dead and twenty-one injured. A lot were abducted.”
Naailah was saying something through the phone, something I couldn’t hear clearly.
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