by Oluwatimilehin Odueso, first place winner in the United States Embassy Abuja 2017 World Environment Day Short Story Eco Writing Contest.

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 that everyone fought over it. And that 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 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.

“Why?”

“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. His hands still scratching 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 did 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 saffron; 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 deers 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 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 will 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.

United States Diplomatic Mission in Nigeria. For official information visit http://ng.usembassy.gov