How long had it been since I had seen the beaming sun? Four or five weeks ago, I couldn’t tell. All that was clearest to me was the bleak nothingness wherein I wasted daily. If years had passed, it wouldn’t be a surprise to me. I had lost track of time, and time held no memory of me any longer. So, it could have been days, months, or years since I had been here: this stockade, this void, this lightlessness.
All I ever tasted of freedom these past infinite-odd days, months, or years had been when the door was opened a crack, and my bowl of frowsy soup pushed in. From what I could make of hunger pangs, I could calculate that I was only served a meal once a day. I chose to believe that was the closest I could come to telling time. However, once, I had almost died waiting for a meal. It had to have been up to a week that the meal never came. Possibly, they would have concluded it was best I starved to death.
I had laughed because I knew hunger wouldn’t be the end of me. Truly, a lot of things ate into the framework of my life, intent on leaving nothing for me, but hunger was the bottommost on the list. The retribution I was served was just enough for my absolute waste, but even more envenomed was the guilt that spread across my heart. Guilt was slow in its pace, but it killed every bit of me.
I was paid what I deserved. If I were allowed to die in this blackness, it would be good riddance. The lawfulness out there needed not be corrupted by me anymore. If I were taken out and served a cruel death — hanged on a tree, pulled around the village by a horse, stoned, set ablaze, or speared on all sides by a handful of soldiers and allowed to bleed till it came to an end, just as was befitting an evil like myself — then, that would be even better! All I wanted was to take this guilt off.
If there was to be any beginning to the story of what I have made of this thing called life, it would be when I had completed my first assignment — I was to snatch a purse and flee! Master had made it so easy with his excellent explanations. He had told me that all I had to do was to have faith in the swiftness of my hands. He had taken me to the market that fateful, heated noon and shown me the plump woman whose purse was to be taken. He had asked me to walk boldly through the dirt path and get to the store where the plump woman stood, haggling over the price of fruits she wanted to buy. Master had instructed that once I laid my hands on the purse, I should run as fast as I could.
I did as Master bade, walked down the path with confidence, and as the plump woman still tried to save herself some cost, I pulled at the purse in her hands and hurried off to the south, through a dark alleyway. I could hear the woman scream the word ‘Thief!’ behind me, but I kept running as south as my legs could get. I knew she was so fat that she wouldn’t come after me. I could imagine the huge smile on Master’s face as he had watched me execute my first robbery. I became a fulfilled seven-year-old stooge that day. I began to look forward to more robberies and I soon became Master’s favourite. He wouldn’t give the other boys a job without putting me in charge.
All of us, a gang of eight men, skilled in a number of vices, were devout followers of Master. We knew we were indebted to him. He had picked most of us from all sorts of desolations where parents had abandoned us. I was one of those infants with just enough luck to have been spotted by Master in a ranch. He oft told me the story. Only two among us had run away from home and pleaded with Master to make them useful when they met him. He took us all under his roof and became every shade of the persons we needed in our lives — a father, a friend, a teacher, a judge; Master was everything.
When Master died, the world seemed to have rolled out of state. However, we knew better than allowing the sense of loss overwhelm us. We knew that Master wouldn’t have us whining about how difficult life was in his absence. We decided to console ourselves with his words: Does it have worth? Lay your hands on it right away! We resolved we would protect everything Master lived for, and that began by deciding who would step into Master’s shoes. Despite being the youngest, I began to lead the gang because everyone thought that would have been Master’s will if death had been so kind to allow him decide. Master shouldn’t have died so early. He shouldn’t have died so healthy. Death came by night and stole him away. We never got to hear him charge us to theft when the morning broke.
Truly, Master’s shoes were a perfect fit for me. Giving orders came natural to me. We grew stronger after we began taking in more helpless boys. The poor urchins did the small thefts on the streets while we, the older ones, invaded villages, ransacking and plundering. Not too long afterwards, we became infamous, and there was a price for our heads. I secured a hideout for the gang. We held rendezvouses before every operation, and it was mostly never a failure. We did suffer loss after every one of the invasions on villages. Soldiers always came after us. Whoever they captured, they handed a slow death. It didn’t matter, I oft told the boys. What mattered was that whoever made it out was alive, free, and had food on his table.
However, invasion after invasion, I was left with only two of the older men that knew Master. I had lost friends whom I had grown to love. It began to matter then; I would be left alone eventually. Drunk under the weight of needing companionship, I met her, the loveliest feminine entity I had ever seen. I wasn’t going to let her go despite the opposition from the others. She was going to be a part of the gang, a part of my life, I had concluded. When eventually she came to learn I was the leader of the notorious gang that had emptied all of her father’s coffers, she wasn’t having it.
Just as the night Master died, everything was normal until guards barged into our hiding place. Right before me, both of my friends were killed because they tried to resist. While I was wailing and trying to break free of the firm grip upon me, I was bashed in the head, and how sweet the oblivion was. I woke to this dark stockade and began to await my doom ever since. I didn’t know how much of my sins were known, but I knew it would be unjust to keep me alive. I could recall very clearly how I had, on some twenty-odd theft of mine, taken the life of a young girl who had seen me break into her father’s house.
When I looked into the girl’s eyes, I could see the fright that would incite a scream. Just when her lips parted, I lunged at her and broke her neck. Those guiltless, beady, black eyes remained in my memory ever since then. I deserved this recompense, and woe is me if I am denied the honour of paying for my sins.
A jarring noise that came along with the metal door being drawn open interrupted my line of thoughts, jolting me to the present. I looked intently at the door, but the brightness blinded me. It had been long since I had seen that much light. While my eyes were still shut, some hands grabbed me and lifted me to my feet. I felt so insecure in their clutch, but it didn’t matter. I had never felt secured. I slowly opened my eyes as I was being led out of the stockade I had spent some innumerable days, or months, or years in. I was held on both arms by two guards, clad in full armour. Behind us walked three po-faced guards too.
We got to an open space, and there stood a large crowd of people more than I had ever seen in my life. The guards waved the crowd apart and we started through the path that led to a dais. Upon the dais stood the village chief, seven soldiers armed with lances that were pointed towards a bloody man who was rather helpless; the bloodiest man I ever saw. He seemed to have had more cracks on his skin from which ample amounts of blood seeped than I could count on my fingers and toes. I swallowed hard, believing this was the end of me.
The guards ushered me up the dais and I clambered to the top of it with great effort. As soon as I was up, the village chief turned to the gathered, expectant crowd and asked, “Which of these two men is to die today?” I stiffened, and shut my eyes. There was no saving me, I knew it. Most of the men and women who stood before me had lost their savings to the bandits I led.
“Kill him!” the people roared, my legs threatening to buckle at the bellow. “Kill him! We want him!” Slowly, I pried my eyes open and the people were still chanting the same words, punching the air towards the bloody man. Shaking, I shifted my gaze to the man who was almost dead from bleeding, kneeling beside me. Unlike the soullessness of my eyes, there was a glorious sheen in those reddened orbs of his. An innocent sheen. I gasped at the unthinkable thing the villagers were trying to do. At once, I scurried in front of the man, screening him from the people.
“I am to die today!” I declared confidently before the people. I was about to add another sentence, when a straw hat was flung at me. Had it been a more solid matter, I would have been injured.
“Get out of the way, you fool!” A rotund man who had probably aimed the projectile at me boomed. A split second later, more hats were thrown at me, and the people went on yelling, “Kill him!” and gesturing at the bleeding man. Guards seized me and pulled me out of the way. I walked over to the village chief.
“But, I don’t deserve to live,” I muttered to him. “What was this man’s offence?”
“You are really a foolish one!” The village chief barked at me. “Get out of here, thief!”
I wasn’t having it still, but two guards seized me again and bundled me down the dais, and through the irate crowd who were still calling out for the death of that dying man. The guards let go of me when we got as far away from the furor as we could get.
“You are free for now,” one of the guards told me. “Get out of here!”
“Please, what was that man’s offense?” I asked the guards.
“He is just as foolish as you are. He claims he is the Son of God, and has been going about teaching people that they can be sons of God too. How foolish can you get?” The guards turned about and left me to my thoughts.
That man took my place. He died in my place. He died for me.
Johnson Onyedikachi is a teenage Nigerian creative writer who has unpublished manuscripts of poetry and plays. He recently picked interest in crime fiction and in August 2019, enrolled in an online course where he gained proficiency in article/journal writing including the use of referencing formats (MLA and APA style). He wrote in via email@example.com