15 Apr November 1977, O Brothers (Part 2).
One day, a hunter showed up at my father’s school. He wanted to speak with the principal.
“I believe one of your students is living in the forest,” said the hunter.
“What? In the woods?” the principal exclaimed.
“No,” said the hunter. “I said ‘forest’. In fact, more like ‘jungle’. The hunter attempted to correct the principal. “He told me he’d been there for over three months.”
“Oh my God, that must be Lani Ayoade!” Dismayed, the principal continued, “Bloody ‘ell! We’ve been searching for him for months now! Can you describe him, just to be sure it’s really who I think it is?”
Lani Ayoade was quite famous in school, even more famous since his disappearance.
“Frankly speaking, I’m still amazed about how he survived the forest up till now.” the hunter said.
My grandparents immediately left Lagos upon receiving the news. On arrival at Ile–Ife, they sought out to find him in the forest, along with the principal and the hunter, who came back for them the following day. After driving a few miles, they came to a bush path where they could no longer continue by car. They had to trek through the jungle.
“The hunter brought an old rifle and a machete with him,” said Grandma as she described the scene. “However, it didn’t rid us entirely of our fears as we continued to disappear into the sinking forest. The bushes were so tall we could neither see to both sides of the forest path. Sometimes, the bush path discontinued into freshly grown tall grasses showing that no one had been around for months. Not even the hunters. Thanks to the hunter, who continued to clean out the path for us with his machete.”
“Finally,” Grandma said, “we arrived at a secluded area where we found a shack. We could hear a waterfall. We knew it had to be nearby, but we couldn’t catch any glimpse of it from where we stood. We stared at one another, petrified that this could possibly be the spot Lani called home. There was a small area which seemed like a kitchenette. I called out his name, hoping, when the response came, that it would be my son’s voice. No one answered, but I tried a few more times.”
“We stepped into the shack,” Grandma continued, “trying to search for any proof our son was truly alive. Behold, there was a snake on his bed. We weren’t sure what kind of snake it was because we didn’t stay long enough to find out. Nevertheless, it must have been about 20 feet long and half the width of an electric pole. We took to our heels but returned about half an hour later. This time, we found Lani drying up. He must have gone swimming in a nearby river, probably where the sound of the waterfall was coming from. Initially, he staggered at the sight of us, then made a disappointed sigh when he saw the hunter standing in our midst. I broke into uncontrollable tears. Grandpa was dumbfounded. We simply came to terms that our son was genuinely troubled. We told him we found a snake in his bed, but he laughed it off like it was nothing.”
According to Grandma, my father wasn’t worried about the deadly snake. He talked about it like it was a close friend who had just come by to visit. “They come around to play sometimes,” he said.
Grandma continued, “It was hard to accept what we witnessed about your father firsthand. He was no liar, so we knew all he told us about the jungle was nothing but the truth. It was challenging to believe our ears, and it wasn’t easy to accept what we saw. It seemed like a fairy tale, comparable to Tarzan in the jungle, but without Jane. My son was the boy who found comfort in a world of danger.”
The principal asked my father how he managed to survive, and he replied, “I had a lot of food supplies when I came down. I cooked until I ran out of food items a month ago. I now live on fruits and whatever food I can harvest from the forest or fish from the river. Look around, I could never starve around here.”
My Grandma said she and my grandfather goggled at one another when he said that. My father exuded confidence they hadn’t anticipated. He almost convinced them he understood exactly what he was doing.
“If you are worried about schoolwork,” my father said, “I can guarantee you I’m ahead of my classmates, probably by two academic years. I brought all the texts I needed with me from school and I have the school syllabus with me as well. The education system moves at a much slower rate for me,” he concluded.
This part of the story made more sense to me as a teenager, why my father bought the academic syllabus for senior high school for us to study with while we were still in junior high. He made us study well ahead of every academic school year while in high school.
“Your father took pride in being ahead of his colleagues in school,” Grandma told me. “Nevertheless, what we saw was very unorthodox, considering he was just a kid. He did articulate his case intelligently, a witty attempt at displaying a non-written right of freedom to live wherever he pleased. To leave civilization that the world desperately craved for? The western liberty and education so many died for? He preferred primeval convictions to achieve his innermost desires rather than give the norm a try. He resorted to bringing his fantasy world to reality.”
As Grandma continued, I quietly thought I might have something in common with my father after all. If only Grandma knew of my nightly drifting off into another world of my own, unknown to them.
I slept on a mat in grandma’s room every night while we lived in the family house. It was the type of mat weaved from dried palm fronds. Grandma’s mattress could only accommodate her and my two female cousins, Tola and Toro. I liked to sleep on the right side of the mat. It was the closest to grandma’s cupboard. Grandma’s closet was laminated in plastic formica. My fantasy world existed in this formica.
Every night, I lay on my left side, staring at grandma’s closet, completely immersed in my fantasy world. It was my solace. Although I never shared my interpretation of the blueprint on the formica covering grandma’s cupboard with anyone, I silently craved that moment every night. The cupboard had indefinite interlocking connections of varying depths of brown shades. Every design from the base of the cupboard to the top was meaningfully connected in my imagination. It was more than a printed meaningless silhouette on a plastic material to me. It was a masterpiece of an imaginary world. Gently touching the smooth formica, I often said to myself, “I can live in the shade that looks like a tree with a smiley face. I imagine the rooms are well carved out and hidden in its branches. I will have smaller rooms for all the birds chirping outside on the tree. The path that leads from the tree through the meadow will be my solitude. The animals will continue to graze, or perhaps chew cuds while sitting quietly on the lawn. I wondered if they had any thoughts on their minds.”
In my solitude I would also contemplate the still river. The flowers by the shore were of many colors. They never withered. I could sit there all-day making ripples with the pebbles sitting around me. Oh! I should keep away from the upper part of the cupboard because there are several little huts inhabited by the Lilliputians. I could live there in peace forever. I could disappear into that world and come back to my family whenever I wanted to.”
Clearly, I was just a kid with a vivid imagination, wishing I could transport myself into a perfect world that never existed. My wishes were purely those of a curious child. They were not due to any confusion over my love for the world I lived in, which, of course, I was too young to understand. If Grandma or my parents were to know my fantasies, what would they have thought? If they knew how much I craved for the magical ability to transport myself back and forth between worlds, they might have thought I was disturbed, just like my dad.
As much as they wished to respond to my father’s passionate idea of what education should be in a mid-twentieth century, they were deprived of words.
Grandma continued her story about the forest. The hunter, with much discomfort, rippling from his inability to comprehend my father’s points said, “You must remove this boy from here! Take him back to where he belongs! I am a hunter! This is what I do for a living! I only hunt this way with my friends when we really need to do serious hunting. In fact, it’s not uncommon to get lost around here sometimes. You all witnessed how difficult it was to get around here. As far as I am concerned, I still cannot fathom why, and how, this boy is still alive! Our fathers often say, a word to the wise is sufficient.”
Grandma said she made my father leave the jungle after my grandparents allowed him to pack his books and clothes. They brought him back to Lagos and boarding school was over. From that moment on, he schooled closer to home, while my grandparents made him take more classes at home to keep his mind engaged. He graduated high school a year earlier than he was supposed to.
My father did almost everything right for his family for the first time. He was expected to soon leave the country for college in England, along with some of his brothers. For the first time, my father’s family didn’t have to worry much about him, until one morning when he was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared, again. The search for him continued into a three-day brouhaha without success.
My father’s little sister, Aunty Modina, was the baby of the family, six or seven years old at the time. She was Grandpa’s last child. It was not surprising that it took the little girl quite a while to understand what the hullabaloo in her house was about her disappearing brother. “I saw my brother wash his clothes, ironed and packed them in his bags,” she said to the old man. “He woke me up when everyone was still sleeping and told me to help him with one of his bags.”
Grandma thought it might have been about 4:00 am because most of them were usually awake by five in the morning.
“He carried the other two bags by himself,” the little girl continued. “When we got to the bus station, he gave me some money, kissed me and told me to go back home.”
“Did you see which bus he got on?” Grandpa asked.
“No, I didn’t, but he said, ‘Tell them I’ll be okay if they ask for me.”
No one heard from my father ever since.
Grandpa had two large buildings in one compound, right in the center of Lagos. It was a common trend for men who had multiple wives. Grandpa had four and Grandma was the youngest of them.
“Your father,” Grandma said, “was one of seven sons from four wives. He was always the different one. His early life was such a riddle, so difficult to understand, that he was never able to explain the reasons for most of his disturbing actions. Although your father was a lot of things, no one could argue that he’d possessed a special gift – a sixth sense,” Grandma explained.
To be continued … Look out for Part 3.
Copyright © Deji Ayoade 2020