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CHAPTER ONE
I

Peter Black was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but the silver soon became plastic when his father died. A formidable adversary had made sure that the name ‘Black’ never remained in the limelight. He took over every possession of the Blacks, leaving Peter and his mother nothing but residence in a dilapidated building at the least inhabited section of the city of Port Harcourt. Hunger ravaged their skins in the day and cold tortured them every night. And it was this suffering that turned the ten-year-old boy into a pathological thief. The first thing Peter stole in his life was a loaf of bread. And he stole it because he had no other choice.

He rose from bed this morning before his mother but he didn’t wake earlier than her; in short, his mother didn’t have a minute’s sleep all through the night, Peter didn’t know that. He just rose and went to the back of the collapsing building to bathe his face and limbs; he always had his normal baths in the stream half a mile away each time he was returning from school. He would bath in the river and take some of the water home to drink. He never gave a damn about cholera. Peter Black had just been enrolled into the Government College, Port Harcourt. It was a public school and his mother didn’t have to pay tuition, not that she would have had any money to pay anyway if asked. She did not even have to pay for books, the government provided stationery. But Peter never had a uniform; he always wore his rag to school, his sartorial pride was restricted to two pairs of shirts and trousers—both too old and torn to be worn presentably. His only pair of sandals was flat-soled already and fostered different holes as if mice had been at them. Peter was never bothered about his rags, but his unkempt appearance was always a constant sadness to his mother. Contrarily, what always bothered and worried Peter was the prospect of food. Some few days, he would be given some leftovers by some students and teachers but he always made sure he remained some for his mother, no matter how little the gift was. Some other days, he’d find some spoiling crumbs of fufu in some families’ trash cans and take home. He and his mother would peel off the greening parts of the food and eat the morsels voraciously absent soup or stew. Very few times, he would luckily catch some fish in the town’s river. They would cook the fish without the benefit of seasoning or pepper—they ate just to stay alive, pleasure was something they could not afford. Still, many of those days always greeted them with hunger, and the nights always lulled them to sleep with starvation. However, Saturdays were usually their most favourite of days, for Saturdays always brought them more than enough food. Black would go out on this day to different events where parties were had and he would beg cooks to spare the leftovers of their meals. Peter Black usually came home with food to last them for three days. After the second day, the food usually turned thickly stale, but they always ate it anyway; they had eaten worse things than mere staleness of food. Their taste buds had dwindled in such ways that they didn’t even always taste the staleness in their mouths.

This particular morning, however, was a Thursday, and as Peter washed himself he wondered if the day was going to bring them food or they would have to drink water all day as they had done two days prior. When he returned into the building to change into his second rag, he saw his mother shivering violently. He immediately forgot what he intended to do and rushed to his mother’s side.

“Mami, what is wrong?” he asked anxiously. He knew his mother was not feeling well. He had suspected it when he woke up and found her still lying down. His mother had always been an early riser; she was usually up long before Peter woke up most times, she would bathe him up and get him dressed for school. When he rose up before her this morning he had assumed that she was only slightly tired; he hadn’t noticed earlier that she was shivering.

“Mami, what’s wrong?” he asked again.

“I’m all right, Peter,” his mother replied, “You’ll be late for school, go and dress up.” Her voice was weak.

“You’re not all right, Mami.”

His mother gave a weak smile, “See, I’m smiling. I’m all right.”

“But you’re shaking.”

“It’s because I’m feeling slightly cold.”

Peter looked outside. Dawn had broken clear and the sun was already peeping from the sky; there was no cold now. The cold of the night had gone. His mother shouldn’t be shivering now if it was only cold; warmth had come. Then he suddenly remembered that his mother had not eaten for two days; the last time his mother had eaten anything was on Monday. The meal he had brought home on Saturday had only lasted them till Monday; he recalled that neither of them had eaten anything on Tuesday. And on Wednesday, the next day—yesterday—he’d eaten only in the evening; the food had been too little that his mother had allowed him to eat it all. Now, he was starving. Peter knew now that it was starvation that had reduced his mother to this shivering shadow of herself. She had grown very thin; her bones were threatening to break out of her shrinking skin, her eyes were very hollow now and the hairs of her head were pulling out already. The graceful woman he had grown to know has his mother had been turned into a scarecrow.

He could not help the tears that ran down his cheeks. He wanted to help her but he didn’t know how. His mother was dying of starvation and he could do nothing about it. This broke his heart, it shattered his ventricles. He had always imagined himself growing up and taking good care of his mother for all the suffering she was going through. But he was still too young to achieve that promise now. His mother needed him more than anything now.

“Why are you crying, Peter?” His mother asked. Her voice was getting increasingly weaker.

“Mami, please don’t leave me.” The little boy was crying visibly now.

“I’m not going anywhere. But promise me one thing, Peter.”

Though Peter Black was too young to understand what a promise was, he still asked, “What?”

“Promise me you will take back all that was taken from us. Promise me.”

“I promise, Mami, I promise.”

His mother began to shake violently again. He couldn’t bear to watch his mother in such pitiable state. He had to get her some food. He quickly ran out of the house to get his mother some food. As he ran the mile, he didn’t know how he was going to get the food, but he knew that he was not going to return to the house empty-handed. He was not going to school today; his mother’s life was at stake. He was already too late anyway.

He ran into a crowded street, sweating profusely. He spotted a nicely dressed man and ran to him.

“Please, sir. Kindly spare some money. I want to buy some food for my mother. She’s dying of hunger.”

“Go away from me,” the man scowled.

Peter followed him “Please, sir. My mother is dying.”

“If you don’t stop following me, I will slap you.”

“Please—”

The man gave him a hard slap on the side of the face. His cheek burned with hotness as the impact of the attack threw him into the puddle of dirty water nearby. For a moment, the ten-year-old boy could see nothing. He heard the man say:

“Go and extort from someone else.”

When he opened his eyes, the man was no more on sight. He slowly got up from the puddle and continued running around, begging people to spare a coin. They all told him to go away. A few of them lied that they had no ‘change’ on them. No one believed his story; the people considered him to fall among one of the desperate beggars’ children who could yarn any falsehood to get money from passers-by. He continued begging people to save his mother, occasionally falling with tiredness and rising with determination. He was perspiring noticeably under the hot weather of that morning.

After many trials without success, Peter Black found loaves of bread displayed on a table. He wished he had money with him to buy the food. He sat down crying at the side of one wall and begged people to bestow a trifle—nobody gave him a second glance.

Realising that remaining crouched there was not right, he stood up quickly. As he rose, he discovered that the bread vendor had left the table and had retired to an inner shop. A thought to take a loaf and bolt crossed his mind but he remembered his mother telling him that stealing was bad; that thieves were bad people. He didn’t want to become a thief, he didn’t want to become a bad person. But his mother was dying, he had to do something, he had to do something, nobody was willing to help him. He couldn’t allow his mother to die—his mother was the only family he had.

He boldly walked to the table and picked up a loaf, as if everything displayed on the table belonged to him. As he grabbed the bread, the vendor came out of the shop and saw him making away with the booty. Peter, seeing the man too, immediately took to his heels.

As he ran, he heard the man shout, “Thief! Stop him! Thief!” There was a magic in the sound. The market men left their kiosks, and the women their counters, the butchers threw down their beef, the mechanics their spanners, tinkers their utensils, painters their brushes, drivers their cars. Away they all ran, helter-skelter, screaming, tearing, yelling, knocking down onlookers as they pursued the boy, exciting the dogs and astonishing the hens.

Peter became afraid. He ran faster—as fast as his small pair of legs could carry him. Although he was already tired, Peter still managed to run with a speed that belied his age. He continued running without looking back, even as he heard the screams of ‘thief!’ grow louder. He knew almost everybody in the market was running after him now. He was more afraid; he quickly cut into another street and ran with all his might, the loaf of bread firmly clutched in his hand he found himself in another narrower street before he ran into a new street with more crowds; he city was a maze of streets. He was dirty and wet, and he knew that he couldn’t blend among the multitude of dry older people, so he hid himself behind a lotto kiosk.

After about a quarter of an hour, he came out of his hiding and made his way home. He ran all the way and smiled when he thought about how glad his mother would be at what he held. He had decided that he would lie if she asked questions about the food. He would tell her that a kind man had given him some money with which he bought the bread. She mustn’t know that he had stolen it or she would be grossly disappointed in him; she might even refuse to eat it if she knew where it had come.

He didn’t stop for a moment to rest on the way; he ran the whole long distance. He reached the house and burst in; there was no door to restrain him from speeding into the building at will. He paused at the doorway to catch his breath. He bent, resting his hands on his knees, and breathed hard. When he believed he had had enough rest, he raised his head and smiled warmly.

“Mami, I’ve brought you food!”

There was no reply. He looked at his mother, she was not smiling. She was not shaking either. Her fixed gaze remained at the entrance. The loaf fell from Peter’s hand and rolled on the floor twice.

Mami was dead.

 

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