I know before I pull the trigger.
This will be a hard kill.
Baba's gun is too old to be silent when aiming to shoot. Even when I sling it on my shoulders and walk, it rattles, making tiny crackling noises as the different wooden parts threaten to fall apart. But it is our gun; it is all we have. It is not often that we see deer around here, in our woods. All that is abundant are bush rats, squirrels and rabbits. And very little deer or antelope. One of Baba's friend, Musa, who has a face so angular I am sure that if I put the straight handle of one of Pegi's wooden spoon against his cheek, it will measure adequately says that he once saw a lion here, in our woods. But Baba simply nodded when Musa said it; later, he told me that Musa often added spice to his stories and that all he probably saw was a wild dog and I wondered if Musa knew that everyone else knew his stories were spiced just like how Pegi knows she has added too much curry to the rice when I don't bring my metal plate to her to ask for seconds.
The deer has still not noticed me. It stands there, grazing lightly, its brown eyes flicking around, waiting to jump at any sign of a predator. Waiting for a predator, a premonition, me. I have not taken a step yet. Not since I spotted it. I must be very careful. I hear Baba's voice in my head. "Slow. Slow. Do not shake," he says. So I start to bring up the nozzle of the gun. I start to aim.
My sister, Pegi, says chicken is very expensive and beef, even more so, so our pots are mostly filled with stock fish; our soups, a thin watery broth. We do not eat most of the kills we make. We give some to the soldiers so that they don't take Baba's gun away, so that they don't break into our room at night to drag away a screaming Pegi, so that they don't call me to stand at attention in front of them while they strip of my clothes and deem that I am fit to hold the baton. But majority of the kills we give to Mammy Kook, the fat woman who shares the rations at the center of the village; the one who never stands up because the rolls of fat between her neck and her waist have weighed her down. Baba says that Mammy Kook used to have a wooden chair, but I guess it must have broken and now anytime I walk to her with a bush rat in hand to be exchanged for egusi, tomatoes and garri, I think of how many men it must have taken to carry those heavy rolls up from above the broken shards of wood. Mammy Kook doesn't not bargain with you. You tell her what you want and she asks you what you can give for it. You give her half a rabbit and she gives you two big onions. It is all you will get. You will not get much else from her. And you will not get much else from anybody else. So we don't have a lot to eat; just enough for our bodies to survive onto the next day to stumble around again to find what to eat. But not nearly enough for our souls to survive.
Baba used to say that there was once food, too much food even, and that it wasn't so hard to live. But everyone fought over it. And we ended up wasting it, destroying the abundance to prevent each other from getting it and therefore setting a boomerang trap for ourselves in the process. He said that the Men of Long Wars took our food away, that they killed the food, the earth, nature itself and most of the people died of hunger. We are all that is left. Little clumps of villages like Oko filled with people slowly waiting for a weakened and corrupt government to send them weekly rations and tiny portions of food to keep their bodies alive. He says that the government has always been this way, corrupt and stoic, but that the people were different, more alive; that the world was hopeful and that most importantly, there was food; that the food was just waiting to be found.
"It will slowly kill them", Baba tells me one day as we are moving slowly through the green forest to check up on our snares. The one we are at now has caught a large rat. It is still alive, its bloodied gray body slightly wriggling around the teak-colored point of the wooden stake.
"What will?" I ask as Baba hands me the knife, the one with the fraying red piece of cloth tied around its hilt.
"Living like that in Oko," he replies and I can feel his eyes on the back of my head as I bring my blackened knees to the floor with the knife in my hand to finish what the snare had refused to do, the metal of the hilt slightly chafing my palm, the red cloth ignoring its duty of comforting my palm.
"It is hunger that will kill everybody in Oko, Baba. Not living inside it," I answer with Baba's voice in my head telling me sharply as I move in for the kill: "Straight through the heart. Don't play around with it. Mercy." I plunge the knife into the side of the rat and feel it squirm for a split second, shudder and go still. It is better now, I whisper to the dead meat, you will not need to stay here and suffer like the rest of us. I look up at Baba and he nods, his right hazel eye smiling with pride and the left one that has a silver-and-milky white color doing nothing as usual. I do not know why he is proud though, he has had bigger kills, does, wild dogs, hogs and I have only stuck my knife through the heart of a rat.
He opens his mouth to continue and brings his hands up to scratch his white stubble. "Minna, listen to me," he says, his voice getting harsher, "no one in Oko will die of hunger. Surely, they will all die with empty stomachs but no single one of them will die of an empty stomach. Our rations make sure of that." It pains me that he is talking about the death of the people in Oko, our friends, our loosely knit family but in my head, it clicks and registers and I know it is true; just like all else that Baba has said.
"So Pegi, you, and I also—" I start to say but Baba cuts me off.
"No", he stops me.
"You and Pegi do not live like the rest of them. And thus, you will not die like them"
"How are we different Baba?" I ask. Everyone in Oko eats the same thing, my own family included, I do not see how we can escape this idiosyncratic normal death that Baba has said will sweep through all of Oko.
"You come here with me. You come to these woods with me," he replies. He scratches the stubble on his chin as if he is deep in thought and silently waiting for me to put my own hands on my bare chin and join him in blissful thought.
I think Baba has begun to forget and so I point it out to him. "Most people come here Baba. It is not exclusive to us only"
"Yes it is," he says and I look up and see he smile in his eyes. Baba only does this when he wants to reveal something; perhaps a secret of hunting; or how to follow the wild goats to find the best blackberry groves; or even trailing a rabbit back to its hole and smoking the whole burrow out. I used to wonder how he does it. How Baba could speak sometimes with so much harshness in his tone and still smile with his eyes. Pegi was the one who told me, "It is a rare gift."
"No one comes in this deep," Baba says. "Not anymore."
I know this. "And because you have brought Pegi and I this far into the woods is why we will not die like the rest?" I ask.
Baba nods his head and tells me, "Yes." He says that Pegi and I are different; that we have life in our eyes. He says it is because of these old woods. He says that we have joined our roots to the roots of the trees; that we are connected. He says that it is why only Pegi knows where she can find rare spices like rosemary, tarragon and cumin; that it is why only she could enter the forests in the spring months and come back with a sackful of ruby red apples; that it is why I run almost as fast as deer and why I am not afraid to climb up the tall groves of bamboo trees. "You have connected to the woods," Baba tells me. "You are more than everyone else in Oko. Do you not see," he asks, "how easy it is for you to be here? How much you prefer to lie down in the cool shade of the trees rather than under the dusty haze of the huts? Do you not feel the forest running through your veins when you drink from the small spring?" He pauses and looks at me. It is one of his drilling looks; the ones that chill me to the bones; the ones that will etch memories into my soul; the ones that makes me truly understand what he is talking about. "You and Pegi will not die like the rest. Because to both of you, these woods, these clumps of green trees, brown earth, blue-gray sky and clear water is more than another source for meals. It is your escape. It is your life, your bravado to the despair of Oko. And because you are truly alive when you are in these woods, Oko will never be able to kill you. Your lives are as wild and as alive as these woods and Man will never again be able to snuff the life out them again." He raps his right hand on the bark of a thick tree, mahogany. "And if everyone in Oko truly knew this, if they could be one with these woods as you and Pegi are, then Oko would not kill them that easily." It brings tears to my eyes, what Baba said, but I do not let him see even though I guess he knows. I turn around and bring my dirty shirt to clean my eyes and turn around to face Baba who says we should move on to check our other snares, pretending that he has not taught me something useful; like I had not cried over simple words.
The conversation is deeply sated into my brain. How can it not be? It is Baba's meaningful last conversation with me before he goes away. That is what my elder sister called it, going away and not dying. We wrapped him up in thick raffia mats and buried him at the back of the house and then we went to the soldiers and registered it there in their book that Baba was no more. "3313, sir," Pegi tells the man at the desk, and he nods and scratches out something on the big book that lies open in front of him. This is how things are done in Oko. You are born, you are given a number. You die, you number is scratched out. One comfort came out of Baba's death in the form of a small brown paper bag of goat meat that was hidden inside our weekly rations; Mammy Kook had known Baba well. No one gives anything else. No one has anything to spare.
There are no strong men in Oko. Only small-bodied ones. Men whose brown skin have been blackened by working in the sun, planting and harvesting maize, beans and yams. Men whose arms would be heavily muscled if they had full bellies. Some of these men come to meet me when I drag in the deer. It is too heavy for me to carry on my shoulders, I am not strong enough and I am tired; I have dragged it quite far. They are men whose faces I know too well. Musa with the angular face, Tama whose teeth are crooked from chewing the hard sections of sugar cane, Zuba whose eyes are so crossed that his left seemed to be looking up while his right stared below; Baba's friends. The soldiers come to us when they see what we are dragging in. They are shouting questions and smiling so wide I am afraid their faces will tear. I do not know why they are all so happy; it is a single deer and if we were all to eat it, we would each get a single bite only. They follow us to our hut where an elated Pegi dashes in to get the knife with the red hilt, it is the same vibe that spread around when Pegi came back with the apples.
I prepare to go back into the woods the next day. I go to say goodbye to Pegi; she sits outside using the knife of the brown skin of the deer. This is all that is left of yesterday. A pelt that needs to be cured and a few tiny pieces of venison. We have given the soldiers their share, more than their share even because their wide smiles are just excuses to bare their waiting teeth. And Mammy Kook gave us a tiny basketful of peppers and some oranges in exchange for most of the meat and all of the bones and when the pelt is ready, we will get more for it. The little meat that was left shared for the hungry men in Oko. We could keep only a little for ourselves. Pegi says we will eat meat today but that I should not expect a feast. She says it with her eyes and I nod. "I know. It will just be a nice change to eat something other than stock fish. Till I come," I say and I walk out of the house, through the dusty despair of Oko and into the woods.