Nobody knows Rat because everybody in school calls him by his real name, Okwudili, but he will always be Rat to me.
The holidays are thinning out. With every new day, the musky smell of old books becomes heavier at the tip of my nostrils, reminding me that school will resume next week. I understand that school may never be the same. I understand that school will never be the same. Mr. Okeke, the Dorm Master, had resounded in my ears that when the new term resumes, I must never talk to Rat, I must never come close to him, that the both of us are not to talk to each other. I sensed Mr. Okeke told Rat the same thing when he walked over to the car park where Rat’s mother was yanking at his ears. The thought of resuming school terrifies me: the pine tree-lined pathway from hostel to class will revert to its usual bleakness; Sunday dinner, beans and ripe plantain, will be tasteless and difficult to swallow; and night preps will be a recurring session of me falling asleep on the preface of my Introduction to Geometry textbook.
These days, Papa and Mama are always talking in hushed tones. Their eyes dart back and forth in my direction. Everyone at home—Papa, Mama, and the new housekeeper, Chikwado—tiptoes around me like I am shattered glass. Doors are shut with extra care, as if something will snap if they slam too hard. I have started having dreams of flying. Last, I was flying in the rain when a lightning bolt ripped through my left wing. I was free falling when Mama woke me up and asked me why I was kicking the air and screaming the whole house awake.
Pastor Emeka comes in the evenings to the house to pray for me. I don’t like him. His yellow teeth gash at my eye, his breath reeks of garlic, and he spits into my face when he talks about hell and God and Sodom and Gomorrah. Mama always claps her hands and howls church songs when Pastor Emeka is around. After praying, Pastor Emeka shakes my head, so hard you would think he is shaking a cough syrup bottle, speaks gibberish, and gives me a capful of Anointed Oil to drink. I used to swallow the clammy oil until it began to clog my memories, to blur all the times I shared with Rat, to make me feel guilty. But now I spit it into a handkerchief when Mama and Pastor Emeka’s eyes are squeezed shut in intense prayers.
Papa stays in the study when Pastor Emeka comes to our house. I don’t think he likes him either.
“Did you like it when you kissed that boy?” Mama asks this morning, during breakfast. She has been staring at her bowl of oats since we said grace.
“I don’t know.”
“Gbo, Izuchukwu? ‘I don’t know’ means what?”
“Honey, let the boy eat his food,” Papa cuts in.
“Mama Tobi is busy spreading gossip about me. And just the other day, that nonsense salesgirl at the grocery store mocked me with her eyes the whole time she was attending to me. All because I am the mother of the boy who kissed another boy.”
Mama is crying and quaking all over now. She is calling out to god and demanding to know why they have chosen to single her out.
“Go to your room,” Papa says to me.
The rugged stairs grasp my feet as I shuffle up to my bedroom. Clack. The door jams against the frame, unlocked. Mama removed the lock when I came back for the holidays, a month ago. She says it is best this way. My leather box, all packed for the new term, slides off and thuds on the floor when I sit on the bed.
“Izuchukwu, is everything okay up there?” The voice is Mama’s.
Nothing has changed much in my bedroom. It is still painted red. The grey linoleum is still chipped at the edge near the door. The framed photograph of Papa, Mama, and me still hangs, slanted, above the only window in my room. The six-spring bed is still lapped to the wall, facing the bookshelf, my box of old toys covered with layers of dust underneath it. The complete collection of Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad series peeps out of the bookshelf between Young Adventurer’s Atlas and Students’ Companion. Papa bought me the book on the evening before I left for boarding school. He said he hoped I make the bestest friend like Frog and Toad. I doubt if Papa will say the same thing now.
Outside, two grey-winged finches are fighting over a split nut on the windowsill. They stop fighting when they sense I am watching them and fly off when I approach the window. Tiny white tufts from their feathers stud the air as they soar and soar up the warm morning air.
This reminds me of flying, of Rat, of everything.
They said Nnemuru, my father’s mother, was a falcon when she was alive. Her wings were so radiant the rainbow envied them. She was beautiful. She was feared. They also said she swooped down on people’s farms and destroyed their crops. Nnemuru was found dead on a Sunday morning, her back pierced by the pointy cross on the church steeple, her wings arched and stiff. People called it witchcraft. When days, weeks, months, and years passed after Nnemuru died and nobody saw a falcon in the sky, they concluded that my grandmother did not pass her curse to any of her children.
This happened a long time ago, twenty years before I was born. I have heard the story of my grandmother a million times, each time with a tone of finiteness and an assurance that the curse had ended. So, when I started flying at six I refused to tell anyone. At first, I thought it was a dream, until I woke up with a bleeding arm after grazing my right wing on a concrete wall the night before. I also learned that there were other children like me: Amusus. Unlike my grandmother, I am a grey-winged finch. The children who were falcons, eagles, hawks, and albatrosses made fun of how little I was. They would fling me into the wind and catch me just before I hit the ground. So I always stuck with the smaller Amusus: the bats, the hummingbirds, the swallows, the pigeons, and the crows.
Aunty Njideka, Papa’s elder sister, was the first person to know I flew. She visited on my tenth birthday. There was laughter and cake and Jollof rice and orange juice. I slipped out of the house before midnight to fly. I was growing then. My wings were becoming sturdier: they had learned to glide through tricky wind currents and trap air, so I could fly even without flapping them.
“I’m a big finch now,” I bragged as I flew past those Amusus who had poked fun at my petite stature.
By morning, my body was sore. Aunty Njideka walked into my bedroom and found me sprawled on the floor, my legs shaking, my tousled hair filled with dust, pollen, and tiny bits of wood. She closed the door behind her.
“Izu, where did you go last night?” Aunty Njideka’s eyes were like fire, burning the truth out of me.
“I was ...”
“You were flying.”
She clutched me close to her before I could even think of running out of the room. “I am going to clip your wings and scrape off that ridiculous scar on your nape. That way, you will not get yourself into trouble. Or do you want to end up like Nnemuru?” Her grip was firm as glue. Pain spread all over my body, like a knife slicing through the network of my veins.
“Let me go. Let me go.” My voice was muffled into the cup of Aunty Njideka’s palm that gagged my mouth.
Aunty Njideka fished out a pair of scissors from her waist-bag and began to stroke my back, light strokes which grew more intense until two grey wings sprung out. “Close your eyes and count to ten. This will be over before you know it.”
The door opened. Papa walked in, still in his pajamas. He hesitated before asking, “What is going on here?”
“I am saving your son.”
“No? You know he will end up like Mama if I don’t do this.” Papa did not reply. “Look at you. You are a big engineer now. I did you a world of good when I clipped your wings.”
“I am not letting you do the same thing to my son.” Aunty Njideka shoved me aside. She smoothed the creases off her morning dress, sneered at Papa, and left the room. The door slammed so hard behind her I could swear time skipped a beat or two. Papa stared at me, then the ceiling, and then back at me. He paced around the room, both hands buried in his pockets, his lips muttering a strange language.
“Why did you let her clip your wings?” I asked Papa.
The iron spring squeaked as Papa sat beside me on the bed. “Because I was young and foolish and wanted to be a normal child. I did not want to tell my mother that I had started flying. She would have loved it. She always wanted one of her own to follow in her footsteps. But I was scared of what everybody thought about people like us, so I told my sister.”
“Maybe Aunty Njideka was jealous because she was not the one flying.”
“Maybe.” A wide smile spritzed all over Papa's face.
“The things they say about Grandma being mean and a witch. Is it true?”
“No, your grandmother was never what people said she was. She destroyed the farms of men who dispossessed widows of their lands and scared the coconuts out of men who beat their wives. Instead of owning up to their shame, those men spread rumors about her.”
“What type of bird were you?”
“Did those big birds mess with you?”
“Sure they did.”
In the days that followed, Papa reeled out a list of what it means to be an Amusu. We would sit, crouched, on the balcony. This was always in the evenings, when he came back from work. There is a big world out there filled with boys and girls like you, Papa told me.
“Are all Amusus just birds?”
“No. There are cats, wolves, foxes, hyenas.”
“What's the brown scar on my nape?”
“It’s your iyeri. Don’t let anyone take it from you.”
“Amusus can lose their iyeris. And when that happens, they will want to steal from others.”
“How do they lose it?”
“Maybe they scratched it off somewhere, or a wizard stole it to make potions.”
“What happens when I lose my iyeri?”
“You become trapped in the body you lost it in. You cannot shape-shift again.” Papa wound his arm around my shoulder.
“Papa, what happened to your iyeri?”
“I lost it the day I lost my wings.”
At twelve, I was admitted into College Ok, a boarding school two towns away from home. The thought of leaving home for the first time frightened and excited me. At first, Papa and Mama did not want me to go. Papa thought my lanky frame could not withstand the bullying and taunting which was typical for an all-boys boarding school. Mama said her pastor saw a vision that something terrible will happen to me if I go there. But they finally let me go.
On the evening before I left for boarding school, Papa and I went to the bookshop down the street where he bought me the complete set of the Frog and Toad series. He said he was going to miss me, that Mama has decided to sleep in my bed and keep it warm until I came back for the holidays, that the house would never be the same without me.
“Papa, can I fly when I go to boarding school?” I asked when he tucked me into bed that night.
He shook his head and sighed. “It’s too dangerous. Someone might steal your iyeri.”
I go over to the bookshelf and pull out Frog and Toad. A couple of flips brings me to the page with a bookmark that has Rat’s handwriting on it:
Thank you for forgetting this book in the library. I stayed up all night reading it. I love
you it. Especially the part where the two friends were helping each other without the other person knowing. Can we meet after prep tomorrow? Back of hostel.
I run my finger along the handwriting, tracing each perfectly shaped cursive. This note and the neatly canceled words started it all. Rat dropped the book on my bunk and hurried away that Tuesday morning. I thought he had ripped or stained a page.
Something bounces on the window. I turn. It’s the grey-winged finches. They are now perched on the pine tree near our red gate, hurling tiny stones and dried-out sticks on my window.
“Sha! Sha!” I thud against the window to scare them off.
There is no doubt that College Ok is the best school for young boys in the country. All the houses in the school are built with brick to signify the prestige which the school has garnered over its two hundred years of existence. Perfection wraps around the very walls of the school. The teachers walk briskly to their classes, the students conduct themselves with an utmost degree of decorum, and the grasses are afraid to grow past the lawn even when they have not been cut for weeks. College Ok also has a student hierarchy. Everybody knows his place. There is Class A for the super-brainiacs and spectacle-wearing swots, Class B is where the average and above average students slug it out, and Class C students are just there, or as the principal puts it, “They complete the school.” A change in academic performance leads to one moving up or down the hierarchy. Only people of the same class could mingle, stay in the same hostel, or become friends.
Rat was in Class A and I was in Class B when I came to the school. It was only natural for us not to have talked to each other until a whole school year passed. During recess, I would sit on the pavement of Science Lab and watch Rat and a bunch of other boys play chess. The other boys grew tired of playing with him because he always won every game. They kicked him out of their mini chess club. Then Rat would sit on the pavement, just a few meters away from where I sat, bring out his chessboard, and play against himself until the end of recess. As silly as it sounds, I was happy that the other boys stopped playing chess with Rat, because now I was no longer the only boy who sat all by himself during recess.
During recess, one day, one of Rat’s pawns fell off the chessboard and rolled to where I was. I waited for him to ask me to pick up the pawn. He did not. He just eyed the fallen pawn until recess was over. I changed my recess spot after that day to the back of the volleyball court where none of the boys went because they all thought volleyball was girly. I didn’t see Rat again until the school year ended.
I moved to Class A at the end of the school year because I topped my class with an average higher than half of the boys in Class A. Mama and Papa bragged about my grades to their friends throughout the holidays and I showed off the new bike Papa got me to everyone who visited us. Like all jolly holidays, this one passed too quickly. Papa and Mama were soon dropping me off at school in their red Volvo.
“Izu,” Papa whispered to me as Mama was talking to the Dorm Master. “Remember no flying, no troubles. Promise?”
On the first night of the new school year, I climbed the roof of the hostel to watch the stars. The boys were howling in the dorms and bragging about where they spent the summer break and who came back with the most janded set of chocolate, milk, biscuits, and cornflakes. It was quiet on the roof. The chilly air soothed my skin. I closed my eyes and imagined how the new school year would be. Rough, I guessed, judging from the haughty glare a group of boys gave me when I was packing my books into my new locker in Class A.
An empty Geisha tin clattered on the roof and disrupted my chain of thoughts. A shadow with four legs and a shaggy tail sped passed me. It was Husky, the hostel cat. The Dorm Master had brought in Husky after we complained of rodents some time last year. Husky stopped and began to growl at a little brown thing. Must be a rat, I thought to myself. Husky had better kill that vermin before it wreaks more havoc on our cupboards.
“Give me your iyeri,” Husky said to the rat.
Blood congealed. Ears perked.
“I’m giving you nothing.” The rat retreated to the edge of the roof, rattling the thunder protector.
“Let’s see how useful it will be to you dead.” The cat bared its claws.
“No flying, no troubles.” Papa’s words replayed again and again in my head. But the words could not stop my wings from springing out of my back. I was becoming smaller.
“Nobody can save you.” With that, Husky grabbed the rat’s ear and flung it off the roof.
I flew over Husky’s head and lurched for the rat. My trembling legs clutched the rat’s tail, mid-air, and we fell among the thorns in the little bush at the back of the hostel.
“Hey, are you alright?” I shook the rat’s head.
The rat changed back to its human form, a boy. The darkness made it impossible to see his face. I furled back my wings and shape-shifted back into a boy.
“Of all the people to save me is a finch!” The boy cursed.
He sounded familiar.
“I think what you are trying to say is thank you.” I struggled to keep my voice low.
“Thank you? I was handling Husky just fine.” The thin slice of moon in the sky caught the boy’s face as he stood up and dusted himself.
“Husky flung you off the roof.” I paused and looked at the boy’s face again. “Wait, I remember you. You are the boy who got kicked out of the chess club.”
“And you are the boy who gaped at my pawn until recess was over.”
"I wish Husky tore you limb from limb, Rat."
Although Rat started calling me by my real name the next day, I never stopped calling him Rat.
After morning assembly, I moved to my new class. The Class A boys hee-hawed and pointed their fingers at me as I sat down.
“New boy, welcome to Class A,” Afam said, giving me a knock on the head. He was a pudgy boy with a small head barely balanced atop a short neck. His best friend, Fela, was moved to Class B.
“I am not a new boy.”
“After crawling out from Class B to here, you are new.”
“Hey, Afam, give the boy a break.”
It was Rat. He had just walked into the class, his hands cradling a copy of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Three long strides and he was sitting on a chair next to mine.
“Care for some?” Rat offered me a half-eaten packet of Snickers.
The first three periods, Maths, Science, and Home Management, went uneventfully. Uncle Taiwo, the Geography teacher, was about to start the fourth period when someone slid a sealed envelope on to my lap. I folded the envelope into my pocket and excused myself to pee. My hands shook as I tore open the envelope in the toilet:
Izuchukwu, I hope I got your name right?
I’m sorry. I apologize for my behavior. I appreciate understood what you did for me humanity last night. You know we Amusus and our pride that won’t let us say thank you be appreciative. I’ve joined the Reading Club. We meet at the library during recess. You can come along.
I crumpled the letter, tossed it into the toilet bowl, and pulled the cistern twice to make sure it flushed far into the sewage pit.
During recess, I took a pile of books to the library, not because I wanted to join any Reading Club, but because Uncle Taiwo had given us a list of land forms to study before the next class. Mrs. Adiele, the librarian, checked the pile of books before letting me in. Rat waved at me. He was sitting beside the window.
“Hey,” he said and pulled up a chair beside him. “Did you see my Thank-You Note.”
“More like A Compendium of My Pride Note.”
“One more word from anybody and I’ll throw him out,” Mrs. Adiele said, jingling the tiny bell in her table.
A hush spread across the library.
“I’m …” Rat stammered.
“Sorry. Is it so hard to say? Also, try saying thank you.” My voice had risen notches above what Mrs. Adiele could pardon. I grabbed my books and left before she threw me out herself. It was after lunch that I noticed my Frog and Toad was no longer in my schoolbag, though it had been in the pile of books I took to the library. I rushed back to the library to see if I had left it there but Mrs. Adiele had already packed up for the day.
The next morning, Rat dropped the book on my bunk and ran off.
The two grey-winged finches are tired of throwing things at the window.
“I thought you wouldn’t come,” Rat said as I sat on the tree stump when I came to see him at the back of the hostel that night.
We talked about the book all through the night.
“I think Frog is a better friend. He is the one always trying to please Toad,” Rat said.
“No, Toad is as good a friend as Frog.”
Rat squeezed my hand into his and said, “Thank you for saving my life.”
I slipped my hand away after some time. "Good night, Rat."
“Good night, Izu.”
We became friends after that night. Going for classes together, saving a seat for each other in the refectory, exchanging notes in the chapel, and, soon, sharing the same bed. He taught me how to play chess and I taught him Monopoly. On the nights we shape-shifted, Rat would mount my back and we would fly across the school field. Our friendship made us lose track of time. The days melted away and soon, exams kicked in. Rat and I stayed up all night, studying for each subject.
One of the finches flies off, towards our gate, and the other one chases after it.
“Catch me if you can.” Rat’s voice rang, deep, into the heart of the night. It was the day we finished our exams.
We ran past the classrooms, the school field, and Science Lab. I still could not catch him. I slumped on the stairs of Science Lab to catch my breath.
“You win,” I yielded.
Rat lay beside me and held my hand. “I was just plain jealous that night you saved me because you are a beautiful finch, and I am a rat.”
I laughed. Rat frowned. His eyes were glistening with tears.
“You are a beautiful rat,” I said and kissed Rat on the cheek.
The second time we kissed was a night before the school year ended. We were lying on the school field. Rat pulled me close to him and kissed my mouth. I kissed him back. We looked at each other and smiled.
“To my office, now!” The Dorm Master was standing above us, Husky tagging behind his legs.
The next day, the principal had a long chat with our parents when they came to pick us up for the holidays. We were invited to the office where the principal raved on and on about how he would have expelled us if we hadn’t had the best results in the school.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Papa asks. He is sitting on the edge of the bed. He must have entered the bedroom while I was busy looking out of the window.
“No,” I answer. “Where is Mama?”
“She is taking a nap.”
The bed creaks as Papa shifts closer to me.
“Aunty Njideka called after your mother told her what happened in your school. She told your mother about the wings.” Papa swallows hard. “They told me to clip your wings and scrape off your iyeri. I have spoken to Okwui’s parents over the weekend and they’re going to do the same to him. It will be best for everyone.”
“It’s hard for me. And you have to understand that it is best this way. I’ll just clip your wings. You can still be a bird, you’ll have your iyeri.”
The grey feathers fall to the floor as the scissors in Papa’s fingers snap and snap and snap.
It is the first night of the new school year, and we should not be seen together. But here we are, a boy and a finch with no wings, sitting on the hostel roof, counting the stars.