Once it happened that a man who had turned government informant during the civil war went to visit his next-door neighbors to make sure that government soldiers arrested them before they had time to escape.
A year before the war he had a dispute with them over a chicken, which the neighbors’ son, then a boy about seven years of age, had killed with a stone while he and the man’s children were at play. As small a matter as it would have seemed, that quarrel could well have broken down their houses, leaving everybody buried under the wreckage. Blows had been exchanged between this man and the boy’s father, who had beaten him up severely and refused to pay for the chicken. Two years had passed since then, but the man had not forgotten.
That night, the neighbors, seated at the table and eating their evening meal, heard a knock on the door. The father, in the act of raising a spoonful of rice to his mouth, stiffened as though a dentist had told him to sit still with his mouth wide open because a tooth was about to be extracted. The mother too froze on the spot and sat, momentarily unable to blink, like a statue in the rain. The child paid little attention to them – though he heard the knocking as well – and went on eating. Ever since the war broke out they had had very little to eat. That evening the boy was as hungry as a locust.
The knocking continued. Whenever it stopped a man, talking as though his mouth were filled with water, his voice barely audible, would call out: “Neighbors, da Gbassy. The soldiers tryin to kill me-o. Please open the door. Neighbors, please help. Neighbooooooours…”
But the wife and her husband, whispering to their son to keep silent, remained seated. A knock on the door after dark in those days of war nearly always meant the arrival of government soldiers and plain-clothes security operatives, who often came to pillage and plunder, and then arrest and torture – possibly even kill – anybody the government believed a traitor. The man and his wife sat trembling, like victims just before their execution is announced. One could almost hear their bones knocking together.
But there was a look of amusement on the little boy’s face. Whenever the man called out, the boy’s entire face would twitch as though he were on the verge of falling into peals of laughter. Suddenly the father said something to his wife, who, gazing at him in astonishment, motioned to him not to open the door. But the man merely whispered something else to her, got up and went to the door. The mother sighed heavily, put both elbows on the table, bowed her head and held it in her hands.
The father opened the door. A man wearing torn and disheveled clothes, and who had on just one shoe with a big toe peeking out of it, stumbled into the house, breathing heavily and looking as though he had just managed to escape with his life from a pack of wolves. His eyes were almost popping out of his head. He shook as if his limbs were held together by pieces of string. The father feigned a smile and nodded his head at him, locked the door again and together they went to the dining table. The other man did not sit down but stood beside the table as though unsure what to do. The father, glancing anxiously between the door and the man, motioned him to a chair. Nodding his head, the guest sat down.
“Let me get you something to eat,” the wife said, forcing a smile at Gbassy, got up and went into the kitchen. She was a tall woman of about thirty, slim at the waist and corpulent at the backside, giving her the appearance of a swan; with the neck being more slender than the whole body. As she moved away from the table, her hair bobbed gently on her shoulders and her buttocks swayed effortlessly. Looking was all Gbassy could do not to lick his lips in admiration. She was dressed in a flimsy nightgown which, given the thinness of its fabric, only further emphasized her curves.
Already the little boy, smiling, was motioning the man to eat along with him. Gbassy, smiling back at the boy, nodded and said, “Thank you.”
Soon the wife came back with a plate of food for Gbassy. They all began to eat.
As they ate, every few mouthfuls, the woman would look up from her plate of rice and palm-butter, which she had begun to toy with, and gaze at Gbassy; her face, locked in a grimace. It was as though she wanted to run off to the toilet but his presence had restrained her. More than once Gbassy caught her looking at him. And as he looked back at her he noticed that her face had no evidence of age or stress, either around her mouth or her eyes. There were no wrinkles anywhere and her skin was smooth, like a peeled egg. Gbassy told himself that perhaps the woman would never age. This for some reason seemed very amusing to him. There was a mischievous gleam in his eye, as of a man when he must look on the misfortune of his enemy. The father ate, neither looking at Gbassy nor saying anything to him. The little boy observed all this. He could not understand why his mother, always so assured, seemed afraid of their neighbor or why his father was behaving as though he had never seen him before.
Wasn’t this just Mr Gbassy, at whose house he had played most days before the chicken incident?
Had the child at that moment known what was running through Gbassy’s mind, almost with the swiftness of a bullet, he would perhaps have understood his parents’ response and even harbored towards Gbassy ill feelings of his own, because upon the people seated with him at the table, the food he was eating, the table on which it was set and every other object in the house Gbassy looked with utter contempt. He was wondering where they could have managed to get the rice from when he and his family, for almost a month since the war had broken out, had eaten nothing but snails, which he got up at five in the morning to look for around the vicinity, even though by then the whole neighborhood had turned out in search of the same thing. And here these people had cooked rice and soup and there was even fish in it. He wondered from where they could have gotten the money to buy such expensive furniture, which now he could see in the house, though he knew that the husband had worked as the owner of a respectable newspaper and could possibly afford to purchase it. He could even recall that the man had had two cars before the war. There were two large dish-cupboards against the wall, built of solid wood and full of expensive ‘breakable’ dishes. Then there was the dining table, also built of oak and surrounded by soft chairs that you sank in immediately you were seated. But why this evident display of wealth, as though you alone had money and could choose to do whatever you wanted with it? Gbassy himself had very little and lived in a rickety corrugated house. His only valuable possessions were a few ramshackle chairs, and table and two old mattresses through which rats frolicked and woke him and his family in the night. And when he looked at the wife, the father and the son and saw how their faces shone with health, and how his own family, even before the war, had had very little to eat, it was all Gbassy could do to stop himself from screaming in repugnance.
Then he thought about the chicken fuss, leveled his gaze like the double barrels of a gun at the man of the house, and said to himself, “This man could have bought a poultry farm if he wanted to, but chose to beat me up instead of paying for my chicken.
But tonight I will make him pay.”