There was a collection of short stories, enriched with the wisdom of the tortoise, like the ones we were told. Most of the books presented me with a world similar to the one I lived in – dirt roads, cornrowed hair, black skins, and straw beds.
I was hungry for more books. I would strip the cupboard of all the books just to find something new to read. Some books had lost pages, even their titles. I read them like that. A copy of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was like that. There were James Hartley Chase’s Tiger on the Tail, and under the name of Raymond Marshall, You Find Him, I’ll Fix Him. I read Grandpa’s lesson notes, letters, and marvelled at his handwriting. There were the old black and white photos of his not quite younger years.
I learned new words and expressions. I wrote them on sheets of paper, which I later transferred into a notebook. I would pause my reading to circle a word or underline a phrase or sentence. I read more. New words came my way. I became obsessed with the dictionary. An old Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary was handy. I wanted to know every word. I thought I could. But there was always something new. One new word. Two more. A dozen more.
I would later be called Dictionary in senior secondary school by my classmates. I was at ease with words and their meaning, vocabulary oriented. It was an honour to be looked up to in class, or approached to explain the meaning of new or unfamiliar words.
As a daily chore, after Morning Prayer, I swept the compound with a broom of palm fronds. I swept the leaves that littered about; I washed the plates before and after meals. These were chores I was familiar with. I did that every morning before I went to school back in Kaduna. Mama was an early riser. Sometimes, it was she who woke me. There was farm work too. We went to the farm particularly on Saturdays. It was a new experience, tilling the soil, weeding, and making ridges. We brought firewood for cooking meals after such exercise.
Then I looked forward to reading and so remained locked up within myself, digesting words, sounds and voices, and replaying them on my mind, retaining new words, Igbo words too, quietly, dialoguing with myself.
While Grandpa’s books fed me, news from Kaduna was that life was getting back to normal. Business was beginning to bubble. People who had left had returned. Some displaced persons had found their way back, back to safety among their tribes, Christians among Christians, Muslims among Muslims.But I was excited. I hoped Tema had returned. Returned from wherever. I wanted to go back, to be with my friend, to laugh, to play again on the streets, under the Northern sky, holding hands, to behold the city again, to bask under her sunset without fear. We would make traps. We would go hunting. We would lay our traps. My trap would catch nothing. He would catch a dozen bush rats. We would make kites; we would fly them. They would take our dreams to the sky. His would fly higher than mine. We would slice tins, empty tins and make cars, our dream cars. We would build houses, our castles, not building them in the air, but in the sand.
And I would tell him of the books I had read, of the new words I had learnt. I would show him my notebook with many words. He would smile at my accomplishment.
I wondered what he could have been up to. Reading like me perhaps, or going to the farm. Hunting? When our teacher asked us what we wanted to be in the future, Tema said he wanted to play. Just to play. We laughed. The teacher looked at him steadily. I didn’t know what I wanted either. Play was the most feasible thing to do.
Mama said, “Happy Birthday.” It was November 23. I had turned sixteen. But Tema didn’t return. Tema was never found. The last of him was the last of my childhood.