Once it happened that a man, who during the civil war had turned government informant, went to visit his next-door neighbors, in order to see that government soldiers arrested them before they had time to escape.
A year before the war he had had a dispute with them about a chicken which the neighbors’ son, a boy of about seven years of age, had killed with a stone while he and this man’s children were at play. But as small a matter as it would have seemed, that quarrel could well have broken down their houses, leaving everybody plunged and buried under the wreckage. Blows were exchanged between this man and the boy’s father, who severely beat him up severely and refused to pay for the chicken. That was two years ago, but this man had not forgotten.
That night the neighbors, seated at table and having their evening meal, heard a knock on the door. The father, in the act of raising a spoonful of rice to his mouth, froze as if a dentist had told him to sit still with his mouth wide open because a tooth was about to be extracted. The mother too became paralyzed on the spot and sat, hardly able to blink, like a statue in the rain. But the little boy paid no attention to them, though he heard the knocking too, and went on eating. Ever since the war broke out they had had very little to eat and that evening he was as hungry as a locust.
The knocking continued. Whenever it stopped, a man, talking as if his mouth was filled with water and left his voice barely audible, would call out, “Neighbors, da Gbassy. The soldiers tryin to kill me-o. Please open the door. Neighbors, please help. Neighbooooooors…”
But the wife and husband, whispering to their son to keep silent, made no response. A knock on the door in the middle of the night in those days of the war nearly always meant the arrival of government soldiers and plain-clothed security operatives, who often came to pillage and plunder, and then arrest and torture, possibly even slaughter, anybody the government believed a traitor. The man and his wife sat trembling, like victims just before their executions are announced and one could almost hear their bones knocking together. But there was a look of amusement on the little boy’s face and he seemed just on the verge of dissolving into laughter.
But then the father said something to the wife, who looked at him wide-eyed and aghast and motioned at him to not 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 man opened the door. A man with his clothes torn and disheveled and who had on just one foot of shoes with his big toes peeking out of it stumbled into the house, breathing heavily and looking as if he had just managed to escape with his life. His eyes were full of fear and he trembled as if his limbs were held together by pieces of strings. The father smiled 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 if unsure what to do. The father smiled again and motioned him to a chair. Nodding his head, he sat down.
“Let me get you something to eat,” the wife said and, forcing a smile at Gbassy, got up and went into the kitchen.
But already the little boy, smiling, was motioning at the man to eat along with him. But 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 so often the woman would look up from her plate of rice and palm-butter, which she had begun to toy with, and gaze at Gbassay as if she wanted to run off to the toilet but his presence had restrained her; it was all she could do to look in terror at him. More than once Gbassy caught her looking at him. This for some reason seemed very amusing to him. Of course ever since he came in he hardly looked the picture that only a few moments ago he had painted of himself; and on his face a smile lingered. And there was a mischievous gleam in his eye, as of a man when he must look on the misfortune of his enemy. But the father ate with neither looking at Gbassy norsaying anything to him. The little boy observed all this. But he could not understand why his mother seemed afraid of the man and his father was behaving as though he had never seen him before. The child knew that Gbassy was one of their neighbors and that he lived just beside their house.
But 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 toward Gbassy ill feelings of his own. Because from the people seated with him at table, to the food he was eating, to 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 broke out, had eaten nothing but snails, which he got up at five in the morning to look for round the vicinity, 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. And 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 them. Even he could recall that the man had had two cars before the war. There were these two large dish cupboards, built of solid wood and full of expensive breaking dishes. Then there was the dining table, built also of oak wood 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 middle of the night. And when he looked at the wife, the father and the son and saw how their faces shone with health, 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 with repugnance.
After that he thought about the chicken palava, 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 chicken poultry if he wanted to, but chose to beat me up instead of paying for my chicken. But tonight I will make him pay.”
At that moment the wife looked up at him again. He smiled at her as before. But as usual 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 palava 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 struck her the husband had joined in because he could not be expected to stand while another man beat his wife. “Like most empty-headed women she is proud and haughty, and these are the types who destroy their husbands for nothing,” Gbassy said to himself.
Smiling, the boy turned and looked at Gbassy. As before Gbassy smiled back at him. For a moment they sat smiling at each other until the man reached for a glass of water and became again absorbed in his own thoughts. The child can hardly be to blame 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 got into a 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 gone take him away. A day after that, however, the child was seen at his house. The mother, finding him, had beaten him heavily. The child had since grown afraid and came no longer to Gbassy’s house to play with his children. But even though the child’s parents no longer spoke to him, 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 him, thought Gbassy, turning to look at the father across the table.
To be con’d.