At five o’clock, Gilbert surrendered to the conscriptors. Even in his fear of death Gill was annoyed by how skinny and short the angry recruiter was. Given a little bit of temporary authority, a man that skinny had now become fierce. But the angry recruiter was not lean all the way through. He had a peculiarly soccer ball-sized big belly. Gill estimated his age to be around twenty-nine years.
Before Gilbert had time to survey the other recruiter, the skinny one punched him twice. One punch landed squarely on the nose; the other, more forceful punch landed on the mouth. Gill staggered, but out of a vain, manly pride held his center of gravity. Seconds went by and he felt a stream of blood gush down his nose into his slightly open mouth. Several teeth were either missing or dislodged, his swollen red tongue confirmed.
The angry, thin recruiter was gearing up to hit Gilbert a third time, when his partner, a big fellow, stopped him by standing between him and Gilbert. With all the misery and starvation ravaging the Igbos as a result of the war, Gilbert wondered why this recruiter was that hefty, almost like a sumo wrestler. Most of his weight, though, was in his head and face. Over the back of his neck was a hump the size of a baby’s buttock. He looked like a man in his mid-forties; his beard was an exact replica of that worn by the Biafran leader, Emeka Ojukwu.
‘Hold it, shove it!’ the giant roared at his partner, who was jostling to hit Gilbert in the eyeball.
What interested the big recruiter at that moment was not punishing Gilbert but removing him from the backyard, out of the village, and into a war sector. His punishment would come at either Abagana sector or Npkor junction, where the war was raging like a double hell-fire.
Though they expected some bleeding, the recruiters were shaken when they saw how much blood poured from Gilbert’s enormous nose, and in a show of mercy they permitted him to wipe some of it off. He nervously smeared it on his trouser leg.
‘What a dumb fool,’ muttered the humped-neck recruiter. ‘Get moving fast! If you don’t fight for the Igbos, who would you fight for?’
‘Men who want to fight have already gone to war,’ Gilbert wanted to say but didn’t, lest he reveal his acumen. He still planned to pass himself off as an idiot.
A little dew had fallen overnight, and Gilbert felt the wet sand on his bare feet as he walked with his captors from the backyard towards the front. An unlocked metal door separated the yards. With his bloodstained hands Gill opened it and the two recruiters followed behind. Three yards beyond the metal door, the recruiters could see the outer, wrought-iron front gate of the house.
Something he saw on the outside gate set the big recruiter into defense mode. Two pillars, one each side of the gate, held some kind of creature. ‘Hallux,’ he whispered, ‘bring the flashlight.’ Out of his back pocket Hallux brought a dim torch, spanked the bottom a couple of times with his hand to force some brightness out of it, and pointed the beam at the gate.
‘Tails of two giant python; ornamental, I think,’ Hallux said.
By now the moon had had her last dance. From somewhere across the cosmos, fragments of sunrays had begun to flicker over Eziama, making every detail of creation more noticeable.
Gilbert made a monkey face and chuckled meaninglessly. Quickly he bent down and grabbed a handful of moist soil, uploaded half of it in his mouth and began to chew and swallow.
Taken by surprise, Hallux opened his palm and slapped Gilbert across the mouth. Half of the sand inside his mouth came out. It was sticky and red.
Gilbert giggled and thanked the angry recruiter for the slap.
Suspicious of Gilbert’s motivation, the huge recruiter said, ‘It is a fool who fights without fear of death. You are exactly what Biafra needs to win the war – men who do not feel pain.’
‘Say nothing. If you do, say gibberish,’ Gilbert warned himself. He knew they were baiting him to talk, to disagree so that they would confirm that he was not a fool, only playing at one.
‘Actions, not words,’ he told himself. To survive he had to be believable. ‘Act like a goat,’ said an inner voice. Gilbert bent and planted all four limbs on the ground. The recruiters were ready for him. They moved to his side, hooked him by the elbow, jerked and straightened him up. ‘Keep moving.’
Soon they had reached the outside gate. All Gilbert’s hopes of staying alive hinged on the locked gate. How would they take him without unlocking the gate? If the angry recruiter tried to smash the gate, the noise would alert the villagers who would gather and persuade them to free him. So far nobody had come to his rescue, but that wouldn’t last. He could sense that, as is always the case, nobody wanted to be the first to bell the cat.
”Okokpa, the red-combed alpha rooster,” had crowed nonstop since Gilbert’s ordeal began, and that ought to have alerted all the villagers that all was not well in Eziama. Where was Jimmy, the village dog, who heard and investigated every single occurrence in Eziama?
‘God, not man or animal, will set you free. You worry too much’, he cautioned himself, yet the worries wouldn’t go away. Why were his captors not bothered by the locked gate? Were they prepared to throw him across the spikes and onto the narrow streets? If they tried forcing him to climb over the fence, he knew what to do: Refuse. His demise here behind the gate, where in the morning all would see his body and bury him, would be better than death on the battlefield.
He wished he could foretell the future, what would happen to him in an hour, and by the end of the day. That the future was hidden from him worsened his fear. He could face death, but please God let him know the hour, the day, so that he could prepare, he prayed.
Calmly, the giant recruiter reached into the left lower side pocket of his jacket and withdrew a clanking wooly purse. He untied the string, fished out five rusty nails, held them between his lips and began to swap them, one after the other, to pick the lock.
On his fourth attempt the lock opened. Gilbert felt his soul flee his body. By surrendering so easily he had aided in his own death. By playing the fool he had let the recruiters take advantage of him. Direct confrontation with his captors would have had a better outcome for him, he mused, regretting he had taken the fool’s path.
Methodically, the fat recruiter returned the five nails back to the purse, secured the string and stuffed it back in his pocket. Hands freed, he pulled the gate’s flanges at the same time.
‘Move it,’ Hallux ordered, followed by a kick on the rear. Gilbert staggered out into the lonely narrow street.
‘Which way, Max?’ asked Hallux.
Maxwell took several seconds to clear his head and get it right, then he pointed a finger and the conscriptors turned right with Gilbert.