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The Night of The Monster
I remember the first time I saw a soldier; I was about six years old, which makes it 1973 or '74. The Nigerian civil war had just ended and the soldiers were returning home from the battlefront – it was late in the evening, one of those long and hot July evenings, and we stood shoulder to shoulder, sweating, by the roadside as the long convoy of trucks with the soldiers in the open back passed through the town center. It was a long convoy, a whole battalion had been stationed to Gombe, our small sleepy town with only one big street running through its center. There were hundreds of us lining the street and waving madly at the trucks that trundled past in the gloom, like a huge worm: the school children screamed, the young women ululated and waved their scarves at the young, dashing soldiers who waved back and raised their guns high in the air.
The next day the soldiers were all around us: in the streets and shops and in the houses, shaking hands, making friends. Some of them sold war mementos to the town's people: bullets, Biafran currency, expired canned food. Tall tales of heroism oiled these transactions – and soon the tales passed from mouth to mouth; by the end of the week we could point out which soldier had killed how many people at which battle, suddenly we had war heroes in our midst. That was perhaps why Daniel, my closest friend, said to me, a couple of days later, 'The soldiers are here to kill Hammadu Dangar.' 'How do you know that?' I challenged him. Daniel loved to make up stories to make himself look important. 'They just can't post a whole battalion to Gombe just to kill one man, no matter how dangerous he is.' 'Believe it or not, it is true,' Daniel insisted.
Hammadu Dangar was the most dangerous man in Gombe and the surrounding villages, he was perhaps the most dangerous man alive. He was a bandit, a product of the unsettled, lawless war years. I can't remember when I first heard his name, it seems as if it had always been there on our parents' lips, the bogeyman guaranteed to bring us to order when we became too unruly. He was a myth, a figmental creature who began to gain solidity as the days passed. Suddenly my mother's words began to take on new urgency whenever she did not want me to stay out late. 'Hammadu Dangar loves to cut off little children's ears and make them eat them.'
We kids would regurgitate these stories as we returned home from school in the afternoons, or in the evenings from the football pitch, adding details with each telling, competing with each other to relate the scariest version.'He has charms that can make him disappear if he wants, that is why he is never caught after robbing his victims,' Daniel, said. 'Last Friday he saw this old woman in the bush, alone. She did not know who he was. He tried to rob her, but she had nothing, no money, nothing. Annoyed, he asked her where she was going to. "To visit my daughter in the neighboring village, she just gave birth.""And you came with nothing, no money, no food, not even a loaf of bread to take to your daughter?" he asked angrily. The old woman fell to her knees before him, weeping, begging him not to kill her, because by now he had brought out his long knife and was waving it in her face threateningly. "No," he said with an evil smile. "I won't kill you. Instead I will give you something to take to your daughter. It is not seemly for you to have come all this way empty handed. What would the neighbors think?" "Thank you, thank you, may God bless you, young man," the old woman cried. And you know what Hammadu Dangar did next?' We all knew what he did next, we had heard this story many times before, but we kept quiet, we let the raconteur have his moment. He lowered his voice, his eyes formed two wicked slits as he breathed, 'He cut off her ears and wrapped them all bloody in a clothe and gave her. "Give this to your daughter. Tell her from Hammadu Dangar."
We told the stories in relays, and by the time we got home we'd be so witless with fear that we wouldn't have the courage to go out to play in the night. But of course none of us had ever seen him; all we knew were people who had seen people who had seen him. Some said he was tall, others said he was short but incredibly strong and muscular. One day I had a chance to talk to a soldier. Late in the evening Daniel had rushed into my room unannounced, breathless, ‘Come, come and see! There is a soldier staying in our house,’ he gasped. Daniel's house was two blocks away from ours. It was the best house in the neighborhood; his father had just finished building it. It had two garages in the front for their two cars, a huge drug store in the front where the father worked; it was where the whole neighborhood bought its drugs. We entered the house at a dead run, and soon we were standing before Apollo, the soldier, out of breath. He was not as impressive as I had expected. He was seated in front of the storeroom that had been cleared out to accommodate him. The soldiers had to find accommodation were they could because their barracks was still under construction, but most families were happy to take them in. Apollo had moved in the night before, and through the open door behind him we could see a candle burning on a table, it illuminated the room dimly, showing us a tattered canvas bag, still unpacked, lying on the narrow, six springs bed. He was polishing his boots, which he kept raising and peering at, he seemed unsatisfied with his effort even though the boot was already glossy.
'He has to see his reflection in the toe-caps before he is done,' Daniel whispered to me. Apollo did not look heroic, he was wearing a green singlet and short knickers – his legs and arms were scrawny, his left jaw was crooked; it had been grazed by a bullet, we later learned. ‘If the bullet had gone in an inch more to the right, it would have killed him,’ Daniel said. I stretched out my hand as Daniel proudly introduced me, ‘This is my friend, Helon.’‘Ma friend, how you dey?’ Apollo drawled. Only one side of his face moved when he spoke, that and his pidgin English, which I was hearing for the first time, made me want to laugh, but something in his, dull, washed out eyes scared me. I ran away.
Apollo became our friend, even after he had moved out of Daniel's house to a room in the brothel across the road we still went to him, and ran errands for him. His favorite haunt was an open zinc shed across the untarred road that passed in front of the brothel where another soldier’s wife sold the rot-gut spirit which came to be particularly associated with the soldiers, Ogogoro. The soldiers would congregate there in the evenings, some still in their fatigues, knocking back the spirit, playing draughts by lamplight. There were fights there sometimes, and loud war songs, and strong language like ‘Fucking bastard’ and ‘Ah go kill you O!’ which gradually found its way into our vocabulary. Apollo was never part of the fights. He always sat to one side, the bored look in his eyes, and for some reason the other soldiers never involved him in their arguments. There were all sorts of stories about him that mostly trickled down to us through Daniel, who was very territorial about Apollo. ‘He got that wound in a hand to hand fight with Ojukwu, the Biafran rebel leader,’ Daniel would tell us authoritatively, and the next day a new version would emerge, ‘He fell from a plane, in a parachute.’ ‘Pa-ra-chute,’ we’d echo, rolling the strange syllables on our tongues.
At this time Hammadu Dangar was in a neighboring town, unleashing mayhem, but the wind of fate was gradually blowing him to our town, and to a fatal meeting with Apollo. Days, or weeks, or months, after the coming of the soldiers, on a warm evening, the town crier stopped in front of our house and banged on his iron and called out in his loud voice, ‘Listen, people of this town, to the words of the king. The king said Hammadu Dangar has been sighted coming to this town. No woman or child should stay out late…’Daniel and I were thrilled; here at last was our chance to see the monster in the flesh.Among the adults in our compound the tension was at fever pitch, they tried to hide it from us, but I could see it in my mother’s creased forehead as she gazed into the road as if expecting to see something emerge in the distance; and in the hushed conversations that always broke up when a kid appeared. My outings had been reduced to school alone – no more football in the afternoons, or hanging out after dinner with Daniel and other neighborhood kids in front of Daniel’s house. I took to spending most of my time in my mother’s shop – she was a seamstress with a shop in a long row of shops in front of our house, all the shops faced the narrow strip of tarred road that ran through the town center, and from which smaller dirt roads led to the bar rooms and brothels and cinema halls that lurked in the outskirts of town, 'the devil's quarter' our parents called that part of town. Daily I’d watch the men return from work, dirty and hungry, and a while later come out of their houses in clean shirts and trousers and head off into the alleyways and side streets, to return later in the night, unsteady on their feet, singing songs or cursing, or sometimes all bloody from bar room brawls.
Sometimes prostitutes from the brothel where Apollo lived came to my mother to have dresses made for them. My mother said they paid well. I'd watch them curiously from where I sat on a wooden bench in a corner. The air would be suffused with their rich perfume; they were always laughing, and talking about their boy friends, and the Indian films they had watched recently. After they had gone I would run my hand on the cloth they had left behind, enjoying its smoothness, imagining it on their skin. It was on such a day that Hammadu Dangar appeared on our street.
We heard shouts from the first shop in the row, at first we thought it was a fire: it was high-pitched and incoherent with excitement.‘Keep quiet, listen!’ my mother shouted at her chattering apprentices, Jummai and Ladi.‘Hammadu Dangar! Lock your shops!’ the words were clear now. Hammadu Dangar! My mother was like a mother hen whose chicks are threatened by a hovering falcon. ‘Grab everything you can and get into the shop, now!’ she screeched at us. She pushed her chair back and got out from behind her sewing machine, grabbing the cloth basket off the cutting table. Now we could hear other shops slamming shut as the words of warning reached them. My mother grabbed my arm and pulled me after her, in a minute we were inside the tiny shop, the door firmly closed behind us.
I could hardly breathe; I was slowly asphyxiating from tension within me and the pressure of women’s bodies pressing into me from all side. My mother was peeping out through the keyhole. ‘Can you see him?' I whispered.
‘SSSH!’ the women hissed at me.
Then miraculously I found my right eye staring out into the street – a nail hole had magically appeared in the door at my eye level. Then I saw him. I had no doubt it was him even though I had never seen him before. He was standing in the middle of the deserted street – he was tall and resplendent in a big, ankle length robe, on his head was a thick white turban. He was too far away for me to see his face clearly, but his carriage was arrogant, his face haughty. He looked up and down the long, empty street. When he moved there was a slight stagger to his steps. He was obviously from the devil's quarter. Then he was gone. After a long while the street began to stir back to life. The monster had passed.
That was the evening he met Apollo in a bar room, the night he died. The whole town came out to see the fight, and to view the dead body, which lay in a ditch for two days afterwards, but I did not see it. For the two days that the excitement lasted I was forbidden to go out by my parents, I was like a dog on a leash, restless, resentful, but helpless.
'For two days he lay in the ditch, that gully that runs alongside the path we take to school,' Daniel told me. He had seen it all. The gully ran the length of the devil's quarter, the rowdiest, raunchiest section of town, and often on our way to school early in the mornings we'd see evidences of what took place the night before: a drunk still curled up on the steps before a bar room, a prostitute throwing out a tardy customer, her wig askew, the make up streaking down her face. And broken bottles of beer all over the oad.The fight had started in one of the bar rooms.Moonshine Hotel,' Daniel said.Night had almost fallen when Hammadu Dangar staggered into the ill lit bar room, his cruel eyes bleary, he had two giggly girls clinging to his arms. A hush descended on the room as soon as people recognized him, some slinked away through the rear exit, abandoning their drinks. Others too drunk to make a quick exit shrank into their seats, averting their faces whenever Hammadu Dangar glanced their way. Only Apollo sat in his corner, his head buried in his glass, oblivious to what was going on. He had been in that posture all evening, not drinking much, just seated alone and silent.
'The fight began when one of the girls went over to Apollo and asked for a light,' Daniel said, 'but other people said that Hammadu Dangar asked Apollo for a drink and Apollo refused him.' I could imagine the girl, thin and giggly, her face crusty with make up, her eyes shiny from too much drink, crossing the room to where Apollo sat, his cigarette just lighted. She sat down at his table for a moment after getting the light; she might have let her hand linger too long over his as she returned the box of matches. Or perhaps, when she got back to Hammadu Dangar she said, 'That man said we are making too much noise. Perhaps he doesn't know who you are.' Her eyes glittered with malicious expectation as Hammadu Dangar staggered to his feet, his face contorted with rage. He knocked down chairs and tables in his way as he made for Apollo's table; he was like a tidal wave, a tornado on the move.
Apollo did not look up when Hammadu Dangar towered above him and banged his hand loudly on the table, making the beer glass fall and roll off the table, pouring drink into Apollo's lap.'What do you want?' Apollo asked. His eyes were sunken deep in his gaunt face; his private demons had him on the rack, torturing him mercilessly.'My name is Hammadu Dangar,' the bandit thundered, for he could see that this man had not recognised him.'What do you want?' Apollo repeated dully, his words distorted by his crooked mouth. 'I want you out of here. I want you to apologize to my girlfriend. No, I think I am going to kill you,' Hammadu Dangar said, the big white turban on his head made him look bigger, taller. Slowly, deliberately, he reached under his robe and brought out a broad bladed butcher's knife, and smiling, held it on the table before Apollo. 'People said it was at this point that Apollo suddenly came to life,' Daniel said, 'He gave a laugh that was even scarier than the bandit's. His hand shot out and grabbed Hammadu Dangar's knife hand at the wrist.' Hammadu Dangar felt the strength in that grip; it forced his fingers to open, to drop the knife. Apollo's eyes glittered feverishly, and in their depths Hammadu Dangar saw a madness threatening to break its bounds.
'Leave me alone,' Apollo said through his crooked mouth. He stood up slowly and stared deep into the bandit's eyes, then he released the hand and left the room. But Apollo did not go home from there, he went to another bar room and ordered a beer, which he took to a corner, just like in the other bar, and lowered his face over his glass. About an hour later Hammadu Dangar came in, this time there was only one girl with him, the thin, malicious one. He was very drunk, he had been looking for Apollo from bar to bar, hurling insults in the streets, knocking down anyone that stood in his way. And now at last he saw him, sitting in the corner, hunched over his drink, not talking to anyone. He went straight to Apollo's table…
'That was where the real fight began,' Daniel said. 'It was to last for hours, it extended from bar room to bar room, into the streets and ditches, even into people's houses.'Soon Apollo was all bloody from stab wounds, but he wouldn't give up. Hammadu Dangar could not be cut by knife, or bottle. He had medicine that turned metal into water, and glass into sand, on contact with his skin. But Apollo would not give up. They fought from early evening till late into the hot, starless night; they tumbled in the sand and into the open gutters. Both were down to their shorts – Apollo's body was thin and tough, like raw hide, like wire, Hammadu Dangar was fat and muscular, round his arms and waist dangled assortments of charms, some looked like infants' skulls.
Soon the word spread all over town: a crazy soldier was fighting Hammadu Dangar. The devil's quarter filled up with people following the fighters from the bar rooms to the narrow alleys, they cheered Apollo, urging him on, even though it was clear that he could hardly stand on his feet. But he wouldn't quit. Then suddenly, when Hammadu Dangar had knocked Apollo down and was standing over him, swaying from side to side, chanting self praises, a stone whizzed out of the gloom and connected with his face. A gash appeared below his left eye, he held his face, blood spurted between his fingers, the people cheered. 'Kill him,' the crowd screamed. 'Stone him to death, his charm doesn’t work against stone,' the people shouted. Now the crowd took over from where Apollo had stopped. Stones whizzed out of the dark, connecting with dull thuds to the bandit's body. Soon he was reeling about, his hands covering his bleeding face. The crowd screamed and roared.
'Then the bandit gave a loud roar and charged at the crowd. The people turned and took to their heels, popping out of the narrow streets like rabbits from their holes, and whenever the bandit stopped they also stopped and threw stones at him,' Daniel said, 'I was there. You should have seen his bloody face, the blood dripping down his big hands and shoulders.''And where was Apollo at that time?' I asked.'Still down, forgotten in the melee. Finally the crowd chased the bandit into the gully, throwing stones at him till he died.' Apollo became something of a town hero after that day. People stopped him on the streets to shake his hand, people bought him drink in the bar rooms, then one day his battalion was transferred to another town and nothing was heard of him again.
Read more ... The Night of The Story- Analysis
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