I would see him coming from a distance and zap into the shop as fast as my seven year old legs could go. I would watch from behind a show glass as he passed, his body moving in drunken motion. I was terrified he would stop, come into the shop and get me, so I would count to a hundred to make sure he was out of sight before coming out of hiding. There were days when I was the only one in the shop and I was attending to a customer. My knees would shake even as I become extra attentive to the customer, keeping my eyes fixed on whatever item we were bargaining on. On other days I would be returning from school or church and see him approaching from the other end of the road. I would look for the nearest adult and ask to be helped across the road.
His name was ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore.’ Or that was what everyone referred to him as. I never found out what his real name was. I never saw him speak to anyone or anyone speak to him. I never saw him buy anything, I had no idea where he lived or what Rebecca or Mama Rebecca looked like. ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore’ was a tall man on his right leg. His left leg seemed to have two knees angled in reverse directions so when he dropped it, he went first one way, then another like a dancer with his body bent as if he was trying to pick something up from his left side without bending his waist. He was not a pitiable sight or even an amusing one. He was just ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore.’ His face was set like granite and that was what I always saw. According to the local aprokos, ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore’ hadn’t always been a cripple.
It was a dark moonless night; the only sounds were crickets from surrounding bushes going about their business. Four figures climbed over a gate, dropping into the compound one after the other. It was a bungalow housing seven one room apartments. The families within was fast asleep, if you put your ears against any of the doors, you would be rewarded with maybe a snore but that was it. The men gathered around the first door from the right and at a signal the burliest kicked the door in. Two of them went in. The man of the house woke up first, then his wife. She immediately broke into tears. In the other rooms the families heard her voice and began hiding their valuables. Their turn would come and they wanted to be prepared.
“Abeg we no get anything, money no dey the house,” she said over and over again tears running down her face. The robbers ignored her and concentrated on the man.
The leader of the gang motioned him to get up. “Bring the money.”
“Which money? The one you gave me to keep?”
The robber didn’t respond; he would have landed the man a slap but to do that would require some upward stretching. He knew a more effective method.
The sight of the robber’s gun pointed at her husband sent Mama Rebecca into frenzy. She threw herself at his feet. “Biko wo gwo, abeg no vex o, oga abeg no vex. No vex. I take God beg you no shoot am. Na my pikin them papa. I beg o!” Her voice went up a notch with each word.
“Oya tell your husband make e bring the money.”
Mama Rebecca paused. There really was no money in the house. She wondered why her husband didn’t just explain the situation instead of being pigheaded. Their four children were off on holidays to various relatives’ houses to save the cost of food for the duration.
She broke into fresh tears and more frantic pleading.
“Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore! Oni Rebecca, I say don’t beg anymore! Let them do their worst.”
The robber’s eyebrows pulled together. This man was not afraid? He cocked his gun moved away from the woman. Two quick shots at the man’s left leg and there was blood everywhere. The sounds of the shots and Mama Rebecca’s scream pierced the night air almost at the same time. In their rooms the neighbours cowered in fear. They began to bring their valuables back out. It was not worth losing their lives over.
The leader of the gang left the room and motioned to his boys. They left the same way they came. The silence had been broken.
All of this happened long before we moved to Ekpan, maybe even before I was born, but I heard the story so many times and replayed it in my mind so often I felt like I had been there. What happened next was what made the man the legend he became because as the story went, he dragged himself out of the house and all the way to the nearest hospital. When he got there, the gate was locked. He crawled under it and made it to the nurses’ station, asked for a doctor and collapsed.
I wondered why his wife or the neighbours didn’t help but no one knew the answer. By the time I met him he had become ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore.’ At first I wasn’t scared of him; he was just a story that passed by our shop to wherever it was he went every day. Until one afternoon. My brother and his friends returned from school and stopped by our shop to drink water and play with the toys we sold. Oyibo was the first to see him approach from a distance. “See, Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore dey waka come.”
The boys scrambled to get a look at him. No matter how many times we saw him, he still fascinated us. “Hey, who go fit call am?” Obaro asked nudging Oyibo and my brother. They both looked at him like he had gone mad. “You dey crase? You wan die?”
“Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore!” I didn’t wait to see the reaction, I took off to the back of the shop and the boys joined me one second later.
“Mary, what were you thinking? What is wrong with you?” my brother asked, placing a well aimed knock on my head. “Oyibo abeg spy whether e don pass.” Oyibo, an albino, was the least naughty looking so he got all the difficult tasks.
“E don pass.” The boys left the hiding spot but I stayed back. What was I thinking? My heart wouldn’t leave my mouth as I thought of the fate that awaited me. Rumour had it that any child that called that name and was heard was never forgotten or forgiven. He would catch you one day and bend your leg until it looked like his.
The rest of my childhood was spent in dread of ‘Oni Rebecca don’t beg anymore.’ We moved away when I was a teenager but I never forgot him. And I don’t think he forgot me.