Gba-gam! Gba-gam! Gba-gam!
The clanging sound of the school bell ripped into my dream, yanking away the image of Anulika as she bent toward me, her lips pursed as she finally prepared to give me that kiss I’d been asking her for in real life, since we entered JSS3 and her breasts started jutting out in tantalizing mounds against her school uniform. Even in the dream world, it wasn’t meant to be.
Gba-gam! Gba-gam! Gba-gam!
I swam up to wakefulness, helped along the way by insistent hands shaking my body.
“Eze! Wake up!” Joseph hissed from beside me.
I groaned in protest as he whipped my blanket from around me. An especially cold draft wafted over my exposed body and I shivered. “Wetin dey worry you?” I growled sleepily.
“Wake up joor! They are ringing the bell for jogging.”
The bed on the top bunk above mine creaked violently as the boy lying on it came awake himself. He was another friend of mine, Ibuka, big, rotund, with the kind of fair, supple cheeks that begged for a teasing pinch every now and then. One day, I’d always worried, his bed would creak one last time and he’ll come crashing down on me.
“I don’t want to go for jogging,” he whined.
Duh? Who did? No student, except of course the SS3s, liked going for jogging. For two reasons. The waking bell was always sounded by 5 am. Always. That annoyingly-sprightly SS1 boy, Kelechi, whose job it was to ring the bell, never failed in his duty. I mean, seriously, doesn’t he sleep? 5 am is that pre-dawn period when the night cold is at its most delicious, when your dreams have you perched on a precipice, before it sends you hurtling down into a cocoon of fulfillment. Then you awaken. And it’s morning-time. To have that rudely interrupted by the jogging bell is just plain unforgivable. Outrageous. Kelechi needs to be lynched. Beaten properly in a corner of the Appian Way that leads to the staff quarters.The second reason was the school prefects – those whip-wielding, stone-faced lords and ladies who stood for the upholding of school rules and regulations. And the assembly of erring students was the unfortunate lot that got to bear the brunt of their wrath.
If you come late to the car park where jogging commenced – thwack-thwack!
If you’re caught strolling instead of jogging – thwack-Thwack!
If you aren’t putting on the appropriate jogging uniform – thwack-thwack-THWACK!
Those canes are to be feared, I tell you.
So, since I’m missing the knickers of my uniform, and Joseph hated – hated – wearing the pink-and-blue attire, and Ibuka could not jog five steps without breaking out into heavy, gasping, blubbering breaths, and since staying back in the hostel and deciding not to go was not an option (the prefects usually came with their canes to drive us out of our beds), my friends and I started sneaking off to the cluster of vegetation that spanned one side of the staff quarters. We would skitter down the assembly ground, cut across the blocks of classrooms, dash down the road leading towards the school borehole, wade across the small spring that cascaded beside the borehole and hurry up the rocky path to a grassy plain. There, in the midst of soil mounds sprouting cassava and maize stalks, we would settle down to snatch back our interrupted slumber from earlier on. The frenzied clamour of students gathering to fetch water from the borehole at sunrise usually woke us up. We would then rise, dust off the dirt and crushed greens from our bodies and hurry down to join the rest of the school in the start of a new day.
Been working for us for a week now.
And so, on this early morning, as students stumbled out of the bunks, loudly yawning and spreading the wonders of their morning breaths around, the three of us hurried off on our bush rendezvous. It took some stealth. We dodged behind a tree when we spotted Senior Adindu approaching, and acted like we were headed for the car park when the hulking figure of Senior Kingsley suddenly loomed before us. It helped that the pre-dawn darkness hadn’t completely let go of the atmosphere. Soon, the roaring sounds of water from the direction of the spring swelled around us as we approached our hideout. Ibuka’s irritating wheeze resonated close to my ears as he waddled along behind me. Joseph brought up the rear.
The spring is nothing like the frothy cascade of water you see in movies, the kind that falls gloriously over liquid-polished stones. No. Ours is more like a reluctant rush, with an algal-greenish colour which doesn’t quite hide the sight of tadpoles dancing about in its depths. Ebenezer, the I-too-know that’s in my class, and from Unity House, often opined that there were more creatures lurking inside the murky depths of the spring. When he tossed out names like poison frogs, water-snakes and crabs, Obinna, our class bully, threatened him with a good beating if he didn’t shut up. You see, this pathway which led to the staff quarters was a very popular route, and wading through the spring with the water eddying past your feet was part of the journey. Imagine having to do that when you knew that there was a frightful chance of a crab clenching its pincers around the part of your unfortunate legs immersed in the water.
I shuddered now as that thought nudged its way into my mind. I suddenly came to a halt at the bank of the spring, an unexpected move that had Ibuka careening into my back, almost upsetting my balance and tipping me headlong into the water. I swear, this boy needs to lose some of his weight.
I cussed, and snapped, “Watch where you’re going, Ibu!”
“I’m sorry, Eze,” he wheezed.
“Why are you stopping?” Joseph groused from behind him.
I turned to him. Joseph was the cool one in our group; he had that lanky build that wore clothes very well, and coupled with his high-cheekboned, proportional features, he was well on his way to being the Don Juan of our set. Girls found him irresistible. It irritated me when I saw some SS1 girls traipse from their classrooms to the JSS3 block to chat him up. Shameless girls! Can’t they date from their own set? Abi fine SS1 boys don finish? That’s why I like Anulika. She was one of the few good-looking JSS3 girls who didn’t fawn over my friend; she just couldn’t be bothered with him. The thing is, she just couldn’t be bothered with me either.
“Guy, cross the water nah, make we cross!” Joseph’s impatient voice yanked me out of my reverie. “Abi you wan sleep for here?”
I flushed, embarrassed by what I had to say. “What if Ebenezer is right? What if there are snakes and crabs inside the water?”
Ibuka let out a small whimper of fright, which came the same time with Joseph’s bark of scornful laughter. “Ebenezer is a fool. He may be a genius in class, but what does he know about the spring. Did we not cross it yesterday? Did anything bite us? Students have been crossing it for years, still –”
“Every day is for the student,” Ibuka interjected, “one day is for the crab –”
“Shut up, Ibu!” Joseph snapped. “You boys are not serious. Let me pass joor.” He shoved past the two of us, approached the water and lifted his right foot to dip into the water.
The faint gleam of the dying moon bounced off its slick, green flat-top head as the water snake reared from the spring at that precise moment, its snout yawning, its fangs unfurling menacingly. The timing was perfect, and it sank the fangs into the front of Joseph’s rubber slipper, inches away from the beginning of his toes.
“Aarrgghhh!” he shrieked and recoiled from the water, staggering back into me. I caught him before he could fall to the ground and began pulling him backwards. The movement caused the snake to slither out of the water, onto the ground. Its moss-green length whipped about on the ground. Joseph began jerking his feet about, hoping to upset it into releasing its fanged grip on his slipper. But the snake held fast. He had stopped yelling, but the echo of his shouts was carried on by Ibuka, who kept on darting about behind me, fluttering his fat hands, whimpering, screeching, “Help him, Eze – kill the snake! Help him – Heu! Joe don die oh!”
That guy is just hopeless.
For a brief while, one that seemed to stretch interminably, we did the macabre dance – I kept pulling Joseph staggeringly from the water; he kept on shaking his foot; the serpent slithered about, holding on fast; and Ibuka cried and ran about in circles behind us. Finally, the snake unclenched from the slipper, whipped around and slid back to the spring, disappearing inside the water in an instant. Silence, broken only by our heaving pants and the dying sounds of the early morning, stretched around us as we stared after it. All thoughts and traces of sleep had vanished from our minds and bodies. The current of the spring now eddied and sluiced down ominously, and we envisioned all sorts of other monstrous creatures lurking inside it. Waiting. Watching.
“Please, let’s go for jogging,” Ibuka sniffled.
The motion was passed and granted. We turned and started back for the car park.
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