The child standing at the foot of the wild mango tree resembles Kombi. I observe him through the missing louvres and torn netting of my bungalow window, my feet swaying the sewing machine treadle whose motion belt has threatened to snap for a while. A lizard leaps off the tree and lands beside the boy. He scrambles to his feet and chases the animal away with a handful of sand, and I smile faintly.
I miss Kombi on these days. Sometimes, I fear Lagos swallowed him and that he will never return home the same man I once knew. Because I know Lagos, I know that being in Lagos is like being at war. It wore my husband, Egwu, made him fold into himself until his bright eyes became sunken and his smile a forgotten sight. I imagined Kombi would be different. He would grow into a fine young man by my side. He would learn a trade, go to school, start a family—anything, but to venture to Lagos. So I set up a fashion business in the heart of Imobi where Kombi joined me after school, learning about the techniques of tailoring. The customers loved him. They had many nicknames for him and said he would marry their daughters. Of course, I beamed with pride. Who wouldn’t? Our lives were perfect.
But good things, they say, never last.
It started with Egwu. He was a kind man. Not the kind of kind man who feels entitled to a reward for his kindness, but the kindness we attribute to guardian angels. It was this kindness that drew me to him in the first place. It was this kindness, also, that ruined him, brought him back from Lagos a lonely-eyed drifter, and I had no access to the world in his head. His business collapsed, he had been swindled and slowly, he succumbed to resentment. Our son, Kombi, was six at the time. He had his father’s eyes; beady and brown, like mud, and skin like honey. He consumed his father’s spiteful ramble firsthand and tried to make him happy again, forgetting that he was only a child and too young to understand. Grief had found a root in Egwu’s heart and he found solace in it. Soon, he refused to go out with the other men to rice farms during the dry season to mill farmlands when the rains came and the ground was wet. He became quiesce, took up more jobs than he could handle and returned home with severe body aches. I oiled his back. I massaged his feet, and hands and spoke softly to him as we listened to the radio in the evening, trying to relive the little flames that had burned brightly when things were good, but my world was destined to burn.
One night Egwu barged into our home, wet from the rain, prancing like a madman. I had never seen him look that way. Kombi was in the middle of the living room, wrapped in a blanket and sketching a replica of a design in a fashion magazine when I ordered him to his room. He stood up and left, but lurked by the corner, eavesdropping.
That night, Egwu told me about how he had gone on with an idea of his to borrow money to start his rice mill. He bought large swathes of land at Kuje and brought surveyors to begin work on the land. Until he learned that the person who sold the land to him had no actual claims to it; gone with the wind, together with the millions he’d poured into the project. The man he’d borrowed the money from, Viper as he was fondly called, was an old friend from primary school, whose round, bald head reeked of nothing but vileness. He had numerous lands scattered across Imobi because, allegedly, his older half-brother was the paramount ruler of Imobi. As I tried vainly to mollify Egwu, there was a sharp knock on the door. Being rudely interrupted, I rushed to see who it was.
“Good evening madam, please is your husband at home? I need to speak to him urgently.” The man flashed a smile that revealed a set of Gold teeth that disappeared quickly as if I had imagined it.
“No– he is…” I stuttered.
They broke into our house.
Egwu was sitting on the couch when they found him and reached for him.
I remember holding Viper’s arms but then his boys pulled me off him so fast that my zipper snapped, and my head hit the edge of our one-seater when I fell. Waves of pain ran through my head, and my eyes blurred instantly with tears.
On seeing me hit the floor Kombi charged towards the men with clenched fists. He looked almost unrecognizable, landing blind blows on the men’s arms, legs, and midriff. One of the men with a gruff face held him by the elbow and rained merciless blows on him, before tossing him to the ground. Kombi folded in a fetal position, clutching his stomach tightly. I crawled to him. My body was weak. My head felt heavy. I touched his shoulder and he flinched, but he did not pull away.
From the crack of the door, I saw the old farm truck the men had driven in, pull away, and the small crowd of neighbours that had gathered, disperse. I gathered Kombi into my arms and wept. The drizzle outside slowly became a downpour.
In the dirty jail at Obuje where they kept all the hardened criminals in the district was where Viper locked Egwu up. It was the talk of the town. I tried to reach him. We tried to reach him. I took Kombi to the Police station at Obuje feeling that his presence, a child, would placate the feelings of the guards but no matter how hard I cried, the police officers refused to let us see Egwu unless I paid the bail fee they set at N2 million. Dat money sef no even reach the money wey Viper borrow your husband.
Kombi became desolate. When he smiled, his lips barely moved to show me his chipped tooth. He stayed out and came home covered in dirt. People told me he got into fights. The darkness, slowly, was starting to reach out to him, I knew it, because I’d known so many boys like him when I was younger, with bright lights in their eyes that were eventually snuffed out by wild wicked winds.
Slowly, I began to save up money for bail, but the amount I had to save up had multiple zeros behind it. With time, all that was left of my once bubbly business was the sewing machine I use now. If Kombi stopped being beautiful to the customers and their daughters, he never stopped being beautiful to me. Even though he’d become as solitary as his father, there was a stubborn courage in his eyes when he looked upon the world.
“My boy, we cannot afford to lose hope; it’ll be fine someday”
“I know mummy, I know.”
People say he is the carbon copy of his father physically, but in character, he is me. So when he told me that he was leaving for Lagos I replied that I had seen it coming. I was hurt, but not surprised. Was it not I who left my father’s house at 16 to learn a trade when my culture sees women only as homemakers? I looked at him from the one-seater in the living room, at how tall he had become, leaning against the wall, staring down at his feet. Then he raised his eyes to meet mine, and I wished he hadn’t. They were stony and determined.
“There’s nothing here for me.”
“What do you mean, Kombi?”
“Look around you, mom. What do you see?”
“We live better than average, We live decently! Kombi—”
“My father is still in jail?” He scoffed, “For how much, and have we been able to afford it?”
“We are working, Kombi. We are —”
“Buy everything is still the same. I am done!”
The new behaviour came after he finished exams for his junior WAEC and had been awarded class best. He spent a great deal of his time with his books and on the sewing machine than with me. A few months later, Kombi, ever the wild dreamer, talked about getting us a newer and bigger sewing machine. I told him not to worry. I was used to this one. But Kombi insisted I needed to have a better life. He insisted on many things I didn’t know of, most of which he had gotten from those big books he used to read, and talked about his dreams of setting up a bigger shop for me, for us. He talked about his father sometimes, telling me how he wanted him to be free once again. He talked about freedom, about hard work. We fought. Even though I knew he was right, I could not afford to let him out of my tethers. I had lost his father already; was I supposed to lose him too?
Sunset has approached now. The branches of the wild mango trees have been overgrown. They stretch towards my window and obstruct my view from the road running in front of the house like a brown serpent. One child hides behind one of the trees, her eyes covered by a thin, black cloth, and two other children run around, laughing loudly, each evoking dust.
I look away from them with a sigh and rise painfully. Old age has stolen flexibility from my legs. They crack as I walk towards Kombi’s room. It is one of the places I have learnt, over time, never to touch. But I will touch it today because I must. I remember when the builders were working on this house. Egwu and I, who were heavily pregnant at the time, had stood under a shed, watching as the men mixed cement. Egwu held my shoulder, his black face lit with laughter, and walked me to a portion of the house that was tinier than the rest.
“What’s that?” I asked him.
“Our son’s room,” he beamed, planting a soft kiss on my cheeks.
“Son’s? How sure are you that our baby will be a boy?”
“Because I’m a sharpshooter?”
He was right. I had a son. We named him Kombi. Kombi was a strange name, one I’d never heard of. But the bearer grew up to become a beautiful baby.
He was gone.
Before he left, I felt the coolness of his lips press my cheek that morning, seconds before the room to my door was gently shut and followed by brisk footsteps, mixed with the grumble of motor engines. I rushed out of the house, but only in time to see the vehicle bobbing down the path that led to the main road. “Kombi!” I yelled, my voice slightly breaking. Two boys with shirts billowing in the wind sat at the back of the lorry, neither of them looked like Kombi, but I knew he was there.
I yanked my headscarf and ran back to his room. It was neat. A stack of books sat by his sleeping mat and on it was a piece of paper:
“Dear Mom, when you see this, please don’t cry. I am off to sow in the city to see what kind of tree I would become. I love you.”
For such a very long time I waited for Kombi to come back. One day became two, three, six months. His food on the table remained untouched, and his room accumulated dust.
Where had he gone, what had he gone to do, who was he with?
There were many rumours. Our neighbour Augustus, when his daughter, Judy, came home from the university, she claimed she saw someone like Kombi sleeping under a bridge.
“He looked haggardly and I couldn’t take pictures of him because he ran away before I could look any closer.” Another person claimed that Kombi was now a tailor in Lagos. It was hard to believe anything and there were days I prayed and fasted, I even looked through his pictures and the window in the living room for signs.
Today is one of those days. I left his room hours ago. I read his notes again, visited his textbooks and ran my hands through the clothes he left behind. Now I sit on the one-seater, hungry, but too tired to lift myself. The children in the front yard have stopped playing. In their stead, crickets and nocturnal birds flutter under the soft glow of the moon. A candle on the table burns brightly on the centre table in front of me. It reminds me of the night my entire world fell apart.
I start to fall asleep, but my dreams are full of the stories I’ve heard over the years about my son. In one of them, Kombi falls off into a vast hole in the ground. I cry and run towards him, but then he germinates into a big tree. In one, he is a blossoming wild mango tree. In another, he is an old and rotten baobab.
Suddenly, my eye catches a glimpse of the calendar hanging in front of the broken mirror. The date doesn’t register at first, and then it does. 24th May. It is my birthday. At that moment, there was a soft knock on the door and before I could fully get up to answer it, a tall young man in his late twenties snoops in and smiles immediately when he sees me.
I frown and squint my eyes. “Kombi?”
He runs towards me, hugs and twirls me around.
“I missed you so much mum, it was so hard without you!”
I stagger back softly after he puts me down from the hug. He looks older. How long has it been…
I take him to the chair and ask him to sit and then I turn around immediately to get a glass of water, and food, I had to cook, had he eaten, what happened, where had he been, I felt like doing everything at the same time, divide myself into three.
“What happened, why have you been away so long?” I asked, catching my breath.
Kombi was all smiles
“I was left to fend for myself. Luckily for me, I found work as a cleaner. It was here my life changed. The tailor they hired was only available for a few days to my boss’s wedding, and I stepped in quickly to offer my services and I made sure the dress came out beautifully. Ever since then, I’ve worked with many clients as their fashion designer.”
My chest swells with pride and I put my hand to my mouth and cover it to prevent the yelp from escaping my mouth.
“I made it, mama, we can finally get everything we want, we can get Papa out.”
“Kombi, my son, is back.”
Bio: Evaleni Lawson is an African writer and student journalist who loves writing about aliens, magic, and people. She owns a tiny blog, alteéverve, and has her works published on Lolwe, Brittle Paper and Fiction Niche. You can find her as evalenilawson on X, Instagram and Pinterest, and Evaleni Lawson on Facebook.