No one remembers now what he did before our fathers went to war.
All we remember is that he was the one who brought bad news. The one who, when his black, beat-up 504 trundled into a street in the barracks, all the children and women whose fathers and husbands had gone to war would shut their eyes and pray that his car did not sputter to a stop in front of their house.
He was the Harbinger.
I remember when he first arrived in the barracks. It was the day after I turned sixteen, two days after Meredith had let me deflower her as an early birthday present because she would be travelling home for her grandfather’s burial.
I remember because I’d gone to see Rita, who lived two houses away from Meredith. She had also promised to sleep with me as a belated birthday present. Her family would be in church, she said, and she had feigned malaria in order to stay at home.
I had just taken off my clothes and was fooling with Rita’s bra strap when we heard the knock and froze.
“Jesus!” I said. “You told me they went to Kingdom Hall.”
I got dressed fast and we crept to the living room.
“Who is there?” Rita called out, adjusting her blouse. She was shaking; my need was a distant memory.
“Hello, I just moved in and I want to borrow a hammer, if you have one.”
We sighed with relief as Rita opened the door and gave the man her father’s hammer.
I studied him through an opening in the curtains. He was about five-ten, with a line of too-white teeth that contrasted with his dark face. He wore a green vest over camouflage shorts and was obviously an officer because enlisted men weren’t allowed to keep their hair that long.
After shutting the door, Rita pointed to my open fly: “Junior, your pingolo wants to cry.”
In my haste, I’d forgotten to pull on my boxers.
Rita and I laughed, relieved, but though she tried to coax me awake, I could never get up to do what I had come there for.
And that was how I first laid eyes on the Harbinger; he had moved into the house between Rita’s and Meredith’s. I never forgot that meeting because that was how I ended up not sleeping with Rita, who was admitted into the university that year and got married when she came home for her first-semester holiday.
He wasn’t a priest or he would have worn a collar like the rest of them, but he was something important. Temisan, whose mother was an army nurse at the infirmary, said he was a doctor but didn’t treat people with malaria or give injections. Instead, he looked into people’s heads, especially soldiers suffering from trauma.
Whatever it was he did, we didn’t take much notice of him until the war started.
I remember the night the war came into our home. My father returned from work with his shoulders slumped. I took his belt from him, the first thing he removed as he crossed the threshold. Then I stooped and waited for him to untie the laces of his military boots and hand them to me.
It was our ritual, as old as I could remember. Stooping with his belt, which was rough against the nape of my neck, I would wait for the two smells to mingle: the stale smell of alcohol on his breath and the rancidness of his stockinged feet as he pulled off the boots. The fusty aroma of those boots was one of the most reassuring smells of my childhood, one that I came to associate with fatherhood and manliness.
But there was something wrong that evening. A smell was missing. There was no alcohol on his breath, and he didn’t say, “Thank you, Namesake,” as he always did when I picked up his boots.
I left the boots standing on their heels at the back, their steel-toe tips hanging a few centimeters up the wall in what seemed like a half-hearted climb, and walked back into the parlor. Mother came out from the kitchen carrying my father’s food. She smiled at her husband.
But he didn’t smile back, didn’t reach out to slap her buttocks as he always did whether I was in the room or not. There was no sound of laughter, of shifting ceramic plates on the tray tottering on the brink of shattering because of the horseplay between two adults in love. All I heard was my mother’s sharp intake of breath, the squeak-squeak of the ceiling fan, the muted tones of the newscaster on TV.
My father didn’t sit up to wash his hands. He didn’t eat. Instead, he looked at my mother and sighed.
“My Sweet, what is it?” she asked, taking one of his hands in hers.
“I am going to Liberia,” my father said and burst into tears.
I am the only child of my parents. The only surviving child. There were two before me and another two after me, but I am the only one who tarried, who didn’t succumb to the first cough or headache that an evil wind blew my way. I grew tall and slender like my mother. But I have my father’s face, the handsome gap-toothed look that my mother said left her smitten the first time she set eyes on him.
My father named me Imoh, after himself and his father before him. He called me “Namesake” and treated me like an equal, because a medicine man had told them I was his father reborn. I even had a birthmark in my left armpit identical to my dead grandfather’s.
But it was my mother who got my father’s real affection. He called her “My Everything” because, as he never tired of telling me, without her he would have ended up a lorry driver like his father. It was my mother who asked him to apply to the army, who stole money from her mother to pay his fare to Port Harcourt for the recruitment test. She stole money for a second trip also, to Lagos, for his training in Military Intelligence. When he excelled there, the army sent him to India and Russia for further instruction—making him the first man from his village to travel outside Nigeria.
Then she bore him a son to perpetuate his line.
I was almost seventeen when my father went off to war, and in all those years I never heard my parents quarrel. My father was not like the other soldiers, who came home drunk and beat their children and wives with their wide army belts. He was different from the soldiers who fought over the daily “chop money” and clothes for the children. Our home was the peaceful one. The one where others came to settle their disputes, where women whose husbands were late with “chop money” or school fees came to borrow cash.
But that night I heard their first quarrel, and my father called my mother by her name.
“You can retire. You are fifty-six. I can help you finish the house. The supermarket is doing well,” my mother argued.
“Adia, it is not the house. I am a soldier. I can’t run from war.”
“Imoh. Imoh. Imoh. Are you from Liberia? Is your father from Liberia? Let them fight their own war,” she cried and lapsed into our dialect, which I didn’t understand.
“Adia, I will not be called a coward,” my father repeated, as he had since they began. I sat stiff in the living room, the television flickering.
“Imoh, you want to make me a widow. You will not make me a widow. Ah, God will not forgive you.”
“Oh, shut up, woman, and let me sleep.”
My father woke the next morning with bloodshot eyes. Thankfully it was a Saturday and he didn’t have to go to work. He and my mother did not speak, but there was no malice in their silence. It was more a gradual coming-to-terms with their fate.
I did not want my father to go to war in Liberia because things had changed in our barracks since the war began. Men I’d known for years suddenly returned in wheelchairs, with both legs gone, or with crutches digging into their armpits and one trouser leg tied up.
Meredith’s father, an officer, had returned after three months with four of his fingers gone. He’d nodded off in a patrol car, and a sniper’s bullet had narrowly missed his head.
After long years of peace, there was now fear. And whenever C130s landed in Ikeja and disgorged flag-draped caskets, there was grief. But before the planes touched down, the families were visited by the Harbinger.
My father left for Liberia on a Sunday. I remember clearly because I wrote my university entrance exams on a Saturday, the day before his departure. He stowed his military gear in the car and my mother sobbed as we rode with him to the airport.
“Go, don’t wait,” he said to my mother, kissing her clumsily on the cheek. Tears were running down his face, and there was something like shame in his bloodshot eyes as he looked at me before striding away as if in a hurry to get somewhere. “Anyone who leaves for war without fear in his heart is the devil himself,” he’d told me days before.
For the short trip home, my mother let me take the wheel even though I had no license. She was crying so hard she couldn’t see. As I drove, I remembered the story of the soldier who, as his platoon lined up to board the plane for Liberia, had run off into the marsh around the airport.
I knew my father would never run. He would never be called a coward.
My mother did not sleep that night. When I woke the next morning, she was sitting on her side of the settee, my father’s early-morning tea in place before her.
“Mummy, Papa has gone to Liberia,” I told her.
“Imoh, your namesake has made me a widow before my time.”
“Mummy, his plane has not even landed in Liberia. How can you say he has made you a widow?” I settled beside her on the settee and took the cup of tea for myself.
I passed my entrance exams, but my father was not there to see me go off to university. I was the first person from our family to go. I wanted him there; I ached for his gruff handshake, his usual advice, “Don’t fight, son. Don’t join a bad gang. Any wahala in school, come home, you hear?”
My mother, whose life now centered on her business and church, made sure I was well provided for.
But those were terrible times.
I remember nights before I left for school when the Harbinger’s car would drive in and wives and children would stiffen, immobilized, until it stopped in front of a house and I could hear the wife and children break out in loud wailing before the news was even given.
I remember also how those who had been spared the bad news would stumble indoors, relieved yet unable to feel any joy, because every new death was a reminder of how easily it could have been them.
I went to Jos, the university where Meredith had gone a year earlier. Fate had put us in the same department. I was studying law, and it was there, in one of my electives, that I learned about psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, and a little bit about the work the Harbinger did. He was the shrink, something new that the army brass thought would be useful.
Meredith and I became a couple in school. She’d matured into a pretty woman with beautiful, intelligent eyes and hips that flared into ample buttocks, buttocks which—I shudder to remember—I described as identical to her mother’s.
“So, you have been looking at my mother’s yansh?” she said.
“Me, look at your mother’s behind? She is not even as fine as you,” I told her, bending down to kiss the full lips she offered me.
We were inseparable, and on campus the distinctions that existed in the barracks— her father was an officer and mine was from the ranks—didn’t matter. The university was a hammer that broke down all walls.
When we were not studying we spent nights talking about Lagos, repeating the stories rife in the barracks about who was sleeping with whom. We remembered the hapless girls who got pregnant the night they lost their virginity and the boys who stole their fathers’ military firearms, went on armed robberies, and never returned.
She told me how her mother cried for an entire month after her father came back from Liberia with his fingers missing, and as we lay together in the darkness of my room, on the mattress spread out on the floor because the beds were too squeaky, I pulled her close and thought of my father and the nine months that had gone by without a single letter.
“I haven’t heard from your father,” my mother would complain every time I called her on a neighbor’s phone. “He hasn’t written a single letter. All I hear is: ‘He is okay, he is okay.’ Why can’t he write himself?”
“Mummy, Papa is fine. If anything happened to him, you-know-who would come to visit.”
“God forbid,” my mother would say.
“You know Papa is a lazy writer. It used to take him two weeks to fill out a one-page form.” This always made her laugh.
“Your father doesn’t like to write anything. That’s why he gave me chop money in cash. He didn’t want to write a check.”
I knew my father would not die in Liberia.
My certainty wasn’t rooted in anything real or easy to explain. It was just a conviction, something I believed would never happen to us, and my explanation was simple: my father loved my mother too much to make her a widow.
Meredith and I didn’t go home often. Instead we stayed back in school and spent our holidays hiking in the mountains that surrounded Jos. Our favorite spot was the Shere Hills, where we could swim naked and then make love on the sun-baked rocky ledges.
By keeping some distance between us and the barracks we were trying to make sense of the destruction visited on us and our friends by people from a country we knew nothing about—except that they had butchered their president and scattered his remains all over the streets of the capital city.
I finally went home when I got word that my mother had taken ill and been admitted to the military hospital. My father had been away for almost two years, without a word. We knew not to worry, because so far the Harbinger’s chariot hadn’t made a stop in front of our house. But my mother was tired of not knowing. The empty house, absent of husband and son, had broken her down. I was shocked when I saw how skeletal she looked.
“Mummy, what happened to you?” I sat beside her and took a bony hand in mine.
“See what you and your namesake have done to me,” she said, burying her face in the pillow.
“Mummy, I went to school,” I said, pulling her toward me.
“And your father, where did he go? To fight a war that does not concern him and to make me a widow before my time.”
“Mummy, Daddy is not dead. What did the doctor say is wrong with you?”
“Loneliness,” she said, wiping her nose with an ear of her wrapper. “Sometimes loneliness is the worst disease.”
That was when the Harbinger began to visit. By this time, he had started looking into the heads of the soldiers’ wives too—to stop them, he said, from going crazy as more and more caskets were unloaded from C130s.
He learned about my mother’s illness and came to see how he could help. He came without his car and was dressed in a T-shirt and camouflage pants, which meant it was a social visit.
Opening the door, I recalled how he’d looked standing on Rita’s front steps asking for a hammer. This time instead of a hammer he asked for my mother.
He had a soft voice and eyes that seemed to see deep inside you. He took my mother’s hand and spoke in soothing tones.
“Your husband is okay, but I know what you are going through. Those who study war call people like you the walking wounded. Loneliness is crippling your resolve and it will cripple you too, if you let it. We must pray.”
His voice was lilting, like a pastor’s, as he prayed for protection for my father, for courage in our hearts, and for strength to overcome the loneliness. We all said amen, soothed and wondering how he did it. When he visited Christians, he invoked Jesus and his father, Jehovah, and when he called on a Muslim home, he invoked Allah and intoned verses from the Quran.
Three days later, after convincing one of my mother’s salesgirls to come stay with her, I went back to school.
It was Meredith who first told me about the rumor in the barracks.
“You know he sleeps with the widows,” she said as I buttoned her top. She had just had a shower and was running late for an evening lecture.
“Who told you that?” I asked as I pulled on my jeans to walk her to the gate.
“My dad told my mum and my mum told me.”
“So, the Army knows?”
“Yes, but they say they can’t do anything unless a widow complains. As far as everyone can see the bastard is just doing his job. So you better tell your mum to be careful.” She got up on tiptoe to kiss me.
I pulled back. “My mum is not a widow,” I told her.
But the thought never left me and it intensified into alarm the day the Harbinger’s car stopped in front of our house.
I’d been home for just two days and was sitting inside, watching television with my mum and her salesgirl, when I heard the silence grow taut like a string being tuned. Leaving my mother, I pushed the door open.
He was dressed ceremonially, in his rank of Captain, and carried a small bag under his arm.
“My husband is not dead. He is not dead,” my mother kept saying. She did not shed a tear nor look at my father’s belongings.
“It was a bomb. All that was left was his helmet and Kevlar, his . . .”
“Bulletproof jacket,” I supplied, and he nodded.
“I am sorry for your loss,” he told me, placing a hand on my shoulder as I stood with him beside his beat-up 504.
My mother had called herself a widow from the moment my father left for Liberia, but I’d never believed he was gone for good—until that evening when the Harbinger’s 504 docked in front of our house. Just as my mourning began, though, my mother’s stopped. “He is not dead. My husband is not dead,” she insisted whenever the subject came up.
It was frustrating for me, and ironic too. It took her nine months—with constant badgering from my father’s people, who insisted that their dead brother be given a proper burial so his wandering spirit could find rest—to accept the news and go to his hometown with me for the funeral rites.
The first Saturday after we returned was my nineteenth birthday, and I’d just seen Meredith off when a strange silence descended again. This was different, with nothing in the air to suggest grief. It was more like relief, a drawing in of the breath before a sigh.
Before I understood, I heard the neighbors screaming.
“He’s back. He’s back. He’s back.”
I pushed open the door and there, in military fatigues, was my father. He’d lost weight and his face was furrowed with lines etched by time and something indecipherable.
“Papa!” I screamed too and flew off the steps toward my father—my father come back from the dead, a wandering spirit lured home.
He’d showered and was dressed when my mother returned from her supermarket. She stood by the door, silhouetted against the setting sun, as if framed in a penumbra of fear and confusion.
“Imoh,” she called. And when my father answered, my mother fell at his feet and wept.
“He lied to me. He lied to me. Forgive me, my sweet, he lied to me.”
My father slept in the living room that night and the next.
There was no joy, no sense of relief. It was as if his return had caused some cosmic upheaval that left the world askew.
He didn’t go out, and neither did my mother. I would wake, shower, dress, and dash off, finding refuge with Meredith, whose parents and siblings had gone home on holiday.
On the third day, Meredith and I had just finished making love in her living room and I was nodding off to sleep when I heard my father’s voice.
“Kneel down. Kneel down. Put your hands behind your head.”
The voice was calm, without a trace of anger.
I rushed out to see the Harbinger bleeding from his mouth and nose, kneeling in the street with his hands clasped behind his head.
“You killed me. You killed me and wrecked my family with your lies,” my father said. The Captain stayed quiet, bleeding and staring into the macadam.
“Stop him, Junior. Stop your father,” Meredith urged, but I made no move to stop him as people gathered.
Instead I watched. My father raised the Captain’s own service pistol. I watched him place it at the back of the Captain’s head. I heard the loud report and saw the Captain slump forward.
As I looked up, the people who’d gathered seemed to be smiling, though their faces were as serious as before. There was a release, too, like a collective exhaling, as if they had been holding their breath for a long time. I could feel it all around me: the world had found its balance once again.
Toni Kan, a Nigerian writer, holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Lagos. A magazine editor at twenty-six, he left journalism to pursue a career in communications and public relations, and has worked in the banking, telecommunications, and publishing industries. He is the author of six books, including the story collection Nights of the Creaking Bed, and is editor of The Sunday Sun Revue, a literary supplement. He has received many accolades, including the Ken Saro Wiwa NNDC Prize and a writing fellowship from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. (updated 10/2010)
American Short Fiction, in choosing “The Harbinger” for its Best of the Web feature, wrote: “Kan’s story is a devastating exploration of honor, love, and the desperation of a family during a time of war. It’s told lyrically, in dreamlike sentences that pull you in from the first line. There are stories we like, stories we love, and stories that change us. . . . You’ll feel different after [reading “The Harbinger”]. Something in your heart or consciousness or stomach will, like it or not, change.”