At that moment the wife looked up at him again. He smiled at her as before. She did not return the smile but sat in shocked silence, as if he had just told her to go and dig her own grave because she was about to be shot. Gbassy remembered that during the quarrel she had been the most vociferous; that if she had not been there the husband probably would have paid for the chicken and the row would have ended altogether. But she had cussed him, hurled a bucketful of water in his face, grabbed him by the collar and slapped him. When he had retaliated, the husband had joined in because he could not be expected to stand by when another man was beating his wife. Gbassy had heard from a neighbor that the wife was poorly educated and that she had probably never reached high school. Yet he could see that she was beautiful and he told himself that in a society where a woman was rarely judged by her education, such women all too often had the opportunity of marrying men who were wealthy. Besides, he reasoned, a beautiful woman gives a man more consolation from his labors than a wife who is ugly. Gbassy could remember that while the husband, who was a wealthy man, was away at work the woman did nothing but attend to the house, preparing her husband’s meals and taking care of the only son she had borne him. Some of the neighbors said she was given to vanity, others that she was greedy and manipulative, others that she had had only the one child because she wanted to look forever young and that she might well have drunk a bottle of elixir if only it were available.
Sometimes Gbassy would meet her in the street or around the neighborhood. On greeting her, he would get no response, not even as much as a slight nod. And at times the woman would look at him as if to tell him how poor he was. Like most empty-headed women she is proud and haughty; these are the types who destroy their husbands for nothing, Gbassy thought to himself.
The boy turned and looked at Gbassy warmly. As before, Gbassy smiled back at him. For a moment they sat looking at each other, until the man reached for a glass of water and became absorbed in his own thoughts again. The child can hardly be blamed for his parents’ bad behavior, he thought, setting down the half-glass of water on the table and returning to his food. He’s only a small boy and most often the children of rich people are prejudiced only because the parents are bigoted. Gbassy could recall that during the quarrel the small boy had stood in a state of perplexity and had begun to weep after he and his father started to fight. One of the neighbors, trying to soothe him, had taken the child to her house. But he had only ceased weeping after the fight was over and the mother had come to take him home. A day after that, however, the child was seen back at Gbassy’s house. The mother, finding him, had beaten him severely. The child had since grown afraid and came no longer to play there. But even though the child’s parents no longer spoke to Gbassy, whenever the child saw him he would smile tenderly. Well, the soldiers will come for his parents tonight. Perhaps I will be able to save the boy, thought Gbassy, turning to look at the father across the table.
The father had just finished eating, as had the others, and was wiping his mouth with a napkin. He caught the other man looking at him, seemed to duck his head as if a bullet had been fired at him, and with trembling hands laid the napkin on the plate in front of him.
The wife cleared the table and took the dishes into the kitchen, leaving the father and the son alone with Gbassy.
Dressed in a pair of blue pajamas and bedroom slippers, the son got up, smiling again at Gbassy, and went into the living room, which could be seen from the dining area. He sat down cross-legged on the carpet, opened a book, which had been left lying there, and began to read.
Now the father and Gbassy were left alone. At first Gbassy tried talking about the war, as would have been expected; about how government troops were being routed on the battlefield; about the news he had heard over the BBC two days before, which said that the rebels were about forty-five miles from Monrovia. But the father only shrugged his shoulders, coughed whenever he could, and began instead to talk about the weather, telling the man that this December was perhaps the coldest, all the while averting his eyes. To this Gbassy said nothing but sat looking at the father, who, feeling the other man’s eyes mocking him, fell silent.
From outside came the chirping of crickets. Bullfrogs croaked in the swamp nearby, like so many people farting one after the other. From the kitchen came the smell of palm-butter, some of which the wife had left over and was warming to be eaten the following day. The rustle of pages could be heard every now and then from the living room, where the child was reading. The father and Gbassy, making no further attempts at small talk, sat silently at table.
Even so, each was absorbed in his own thoughts, like opponents circling each other and looking for a chance to strike.
The father was thinking about the position in which he found himself ever since the war began and government soldiers and plain-clothed security agents started hounding real and imagined traitors. Already they had burned down his newspaper offices, calling the newspaper ‘subversive’. It was only a matter of time before they would come for him and his family. Once, along with his wife and son, he had tried leaving the country for the United States, but they had been arrested at the Roberts International Airport. It was a few days later that he learned from a former colleague that one of his neighbors – and he never found out who exactly – had been behind the arrest. And although the soldiers had only sent him and his family home, often they would whisper threats as he passed them on the road. The father looked at Gbassy and wondered if he was the one who had been behind the arrest. Could it be that the man had said something to the soldiers or were they only trying to get him as they were everybody else? At first when he had heard the knocking and then the frantic voice of the man calling for refuge he had not wanted to open the door. But the thought that if he had not opened it for him the other man would possibly have harbored a grudge and accused him of something which the soldiers, already eager for an opportunity to arrest him again, would immediately take as gospel, left him with no alternative. Already he had heard most neighbors were turning Judas. And was not the burning down of his newspaper offices enough to leave him feeling insecure? As for the chicken fuss, he thought nothing of it at all.
But Gbassy had thought about it and knew that it was why he had come; that tonight he would make this man pay for the shame he had poured on him by beating him up for chicken business. It was of course not only the disgrace that hurt him but the prejudice of it all. Now he would make him pay. And when the soldiers came for him and his family perhaps he would even help in the killings. This time he thought no longer of saving the small boy.
The wife emerged from the kitchen, went into one of the rooms, and came back carrying a pillow and blankets. These she handed over to Gbassy and said to him, ‘You can sleep in the sitting room. In the night if you would like to use the bathroom, there’s one we have in the garage. Come and I will show you.’ And she left along with Gbassy.
The father got up and went to the child. The boy was reading a tale from Arabian Nights. So absorbed was he that he took no notice even after his father had stood beside him for quite a while. Obviously the father was proud of the child, which could be seen in the way he stood gazing at him and by the warmth which had flooded his face, suffusing his whole being as if it were illuminated by electric lights overhead. Although he and his wife had only one son and the boy was only nine years old, the child had always filled him with pride and a sense of self-sacrifice. He wished his family were in the United States now, for then the child would have had the opportunity for a splendid education. He had wanted the boy to be a newspaperman like himself and possibly even a novelist. Having sent the child to some of the best schools in Monrovia, he had furnished the living room with a number of books, among them stories by Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and Chekhov, all of which he hoped his child would soon read and enjoy, as he had. But here was a senseless civil war in which the child’s future was being threatened for nothing. Every night he was afraid for his life and for the lives of his family. Every knock on the door turned him into a corpse. His thoughts went again to the man who had come to shelter that night and the lingering suspicion that the man was a betrayer. But then he sighed heavily, knelt beside the little boy and put his arm round his shoulders. The child turned his head, looked up at his father, gently touched his hand and went on reading.
The wife came back with Gbassy and said to the boy, ‘Let’s go to bed, Saye.’
‘Mama, I’m reading,’ Saye said, not looking up.
‘It’s late,’ the mother said.
‘I’m almost finished,’ the child said, frowning.
Gbassy said, ‘I think it’s all right if the boy wants to read. Besides, I will be here with him. When he falls asleep I will come to your room and call you to take him to bed.’ And he smiled at the boy’s parents, who seemed only more uncomfortable. But for some reason they said nothing.
Gbassy spread the blankets calmly on the carpet and sat beside the child.
The child’s parents stood there for a few moments, looking down at the man seated beside their son. Both appeared stunned, as if the house had been struck by an explosion. Yet glancing at each other and without a word, they turned and went into their bedroom.