#30DaysWritingChallenge — #Day13
“Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” — Jean Jacques Rousseau
FREEDOM OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT
September 13th. The date that brings anxiety. It is the day you complete your sentence and get released. Something lurches in your stomach. Excitement? Maybe. You would see your daughter again, after all this time. The thought fills you with both joy and apprehension. You’ve been locked away for seven years. For seven years your daughter has not set eyes on you. She was eleven when you were wheeled to prison in a Black Maria van for leading what was designated as a criminal organization after you and other leaders were arrested for disrupting the public peace.
The memory fills your mind; fond memories of the days you and your friend, Camus, founded the Freedom Pioneers. Both university lecturers in Political Science, you were passionate about political freedom and vehemently opposed to the government in power at the time. You both spoke against the policies that were introduced by this government with aggressive language, often calling on the people to boycott some of these laws. And young students in your university classes, their blood hot from the lack of infrastructure and frustrated by the academic calendar imposed on the school by the government, soon joined your group.
Passionate about steering the future of the nation away from the corruption that was rife in the political scene at the time, you taught them approved topics in class and set up an underground movement to teach them “the truth”. But, soon, as all things are bound to, things spiraled out of control when your followers staged a protest and you were arrested, alongside the key leaders of the organization. Your mind wades back to your daughter. She would be eighteen by now; a whole adult. Capable of making decisions on her own. You wonder if she had decided to not love you anymore for not being there all this time. You are torn between bursting into tears from happiness and playing nonchalance over the whole ‘good news’.
You’re seated on the floor of your prison cell, rummaging through thoughts of the many waters that have gone under your bridge. The cell stinks of piss, sweat, frustration, hate and the sticky bodies of seven other inmates who haven’t had their baths in a week because the water supply to the prison has been epileptic and water was rationed. On the walls of the prison cell, inscriptions in dilapidated vocabulary — what the prisoners have come to call prison language — communicated the state of mind of the people who wrote them.
“Na who die naim free” stares at you boldly from the wall directly opposite you.
You imagine what the author must have had running through his mind when he wrote that. Maybe he had died in this very cell. Maybe he was released when he completed his sentence and is living his best life now. Maybe he was dragged out and shot in the open field behind the prison quarters. Maybe he even lost all hope before the day he died.
But you had some hope to hold on to. Seeing your family again and being with them; inhaling wisps of your wife’s perfume after she had had a bath; feeling your hand through your daughter’s kinky hair; all of that is the hope on which your freedom was built. Somehow, you feel you’d only be free when you are with your family. You do not want to believe that only death could really bring freedom even though there’s an inclination in your heart towards that angle. You sigh. The sigh, a culmination of your frustration and inner struggle, stirred your cellmates.
One of your cellmates snorts in his sleep. It is Fatso, accused of murder and condemned to death by hanging a few weeks ago. You notice how peaceful he is in his sleep and somehow, you give him the benefit of the doubt. You imagine that he was probably framed for the murder. For the duration of your stay in this cell, he’s been, by far, the most hilarious and friendly inmate.
After he was sentenced to death, he walked solemnly into the cell, raised his fat head and announced that the well-fed judge had sentenced him to death like a “pig wey kill pesin. Like say I no be human being” and as he slumped into the hard floor, he chortled and exclaimed that he thinks he would finally be able to sleep without having to tolerate the snoring of the other cellmates when he was killed. And the entire cell reverberated in laughter, with tears leaving the corners of some eyes.
As you watch Fatso, you remember the blessed peacefulness that flushed on his countenance the day his death was announced. You remember how, when someone asked him how he was so peaceful about the whole death sentence thing, his reply was that no man can kill whom God had not signed off.
“I commit the offence. God don sign am make I die. Na my payment be that.” And you wonder at the way his replies are always so philosophical and full of depth, despite the incredibly simple language. But you shrug at the thought of being signed off by God even though you’ve argued severally against the existence of a God. You sense the fear creeping into your thoughts.
You count the number of months before your release. Three. You heave. It’s a heave of worry more than of relief. You’re worried that eventually, death would be the only freedom. You are worried that on the day of your release, your wife and daughter would not be standing outside the door of the prison with your relatives, waiting to take you home to warmth. You’re worried that your relatives would bring you the news that your wife had married another man; that she had given up on you; that everyone had given up on an ex-convict and had moved on. You’re worried that your lecturing career would never reach its peak because the government would not employ an ex-con. You shudder and slide down to the bare floor of your cell.
You see your wife’s face in the light coming through the cell door, she is smiling a reassuring smile to you, telling you without words that after here, your life was secure; that she was waiting for you to come out and love her and Ife, your now eighteen-year-old daughter. She tells you that Ife was doing good in school; that she was topping her class but that the someone in the class had leaked that her father was in prison and they were making fun of her because of your absence, calling her ‘fatherless’. The word hits you like a blow. Fatherless. Less fatherly. The words create a haze in your dream and you’re running around circles of letters of hate stuffed in Ife’s bag and around catcalls and jeers at her. You are running and then you’re not. You’re now staring Ife in the face and there are tears on her ebony cheek. But she is a really pretty young woman. Like her mother was when you both met in your undergraduate days.
A ray of light from the sun rests on her face and the tears turn a golden glow. You extend your right hand to touch her on the shoulder, you want to hold her close to your face and smell her hair, you want to count her heartbeats and reassure her that all was well but as your hand reaches to touch her shoulder, the simultaneity of Fatso’s engine snores and rattling of baton on the iron bars of the cell door jerk you up from your slumber. You raise your head and see the cell warden standing there in the light, his arms akimbo. There’s cold sweat on your forehead and at the back of your neck. You make to enquire what the warden required of you but he saves you the stress and brings out a list, reads from it in a loud voice.
Fatso. He jerks from his sleep and wipes his eye with the back of his hand, takes in the scenario and smiles a knowing smile. “Day of reckoning for me” he enthuses before hauling himself up from the damp floor. The warden wrenches the cell door open after trying a couple of keys from a bunch in the lock and Fatso shuffles out. You wonder how it must feel to know the day you will die. Fatso is calm. He turns and greets the gang with a tired bye before being shoved off by the impatient warden. The light coming in through the cell door dims now, as if in respect of the soon-to-be-killed.
You want to blame the judicial system for this inhumane treatment of people then you remember that you’ve always advocated for severe justice to offenders of the law. It is at this point that you realize that Fatso had been your friend and prison buddy for close to one year yet you never knew his real name till the day of his execution. Someone — Felix the rapist — begins to whistle a familiar tune. One you and other of your schoolmates had sung in procession when a student or lecturer died.
“wen ai remeba Fatso, water run away mai eye oooo! Aye,aye, water run away mai eye…” and you join in, not minding that you were once a respectable lecturer. You join in the mourning of your prison buddy. You are now a prisoner. Nothing else matters.
You’re swinging a machete in the yard within the prison walls alongside other inmates. They are singing a ‘church song’ but you do not partake. Not because of the song being about God but because you want the emptiness of your brain to focus only on tomorrow.
Tomorrow would be the 13th and your wife came to visit yesterday. She had come to inform you that she’d be around with her new car to pick you up at 10am. You smiled a very hard smile and she smiled back; her smile had softened your heart and made you wish for home even more. She reached across the table to touch your hand but the warder on guard snapped “MADAM no touching!” You remind her how much you love her and how much you’re proud of her gallantry all these years.
She tells you that four years is a small price to pay for freedom and something lurches in your stomach. It is the mention of freedom. You begin to wonder again if indeed you’ll really be free after this without actually dying. She mentions something about your daughter being at school and that she sent her greetings and love. Something jumps in your heart.
“…when I was praying and talking to my father, somebody touched my soulllll…” you snap back and find that your hand is still swishing back and forth in the rhythmic frenzy of a song. It is a song you had learned in college:
“Leave your wife and join the army
one more river to cross. 2x
one more river, one more river
one more river to cross.
One more river, one more river
One more river to cross.”
You shake off the song and continue clearing, knowing that even if you left your wife for four years, she would never leave you. She would be standing in front of her new car tomorrow, waiting for your release.
You step into the sunshine after signing your release papers. In the open space of the prison’s yard, you see no car. Your wife isn’t there to take you home. You check the brown-strapped watch on your wrist; the time is thirty-six minutes to twelve noon.
Fifty-four miles away, your wife is gasping for breath, blood flowing from a hole in her head where she had been shot. And as her mind begins to wane, she remembers she should have come get today.