Of Snakes and Men

In the silence that followed the clearing of his throat, I found myself shifting uneasily in my seat, in the presence of my uncle. He was not a frightening man by any stretch of the imagination; a slim man, barely six feet tall with skin the colour of the earth. It was the intelligence in his eyes that was unnerving; the cold stare that made me anxious as though he knew every plan I had made and was three steps ahead of me. If I was to describe how I felt, it would be something like being in the same room with a snake, knowing that it lurked somewhere in the shadows where you could not see it, yet it could see you and knew exactly where you were going. What was it Jesus said about being as wise as a serpent?

“You may speak.” He finally said.

Suddenly, I found that my mouth was dry like I had stuffed it with hay. I began to stutter, fumbling to find the right words to begin my well-rehearsed speech with. While my confidence wavered, his stare never did, and with every passing second, I wanted the ground to swallow me deeper. My sister, however, had no such problems.

“Uncle Tochi, I have gotten admission to Lagos City University. We came here to ask for school fees.” She quipped while I struggled to rediscover the lost art of speaking.

Anyone who looked into the room at that moment would have seen an obvious family. Just like me, her older brother, she bore a striking resemblance to the man in front of her with the same skin tone and similar facial features. It was not unexpected, as we resembled our late father, his older brother, and they resembled each other. Our mother used to say that no one could challenge her on who fathered her children, except Uncle Tochi. Thinking about it, my mother said many things, mostly humorous things that made us laugh. A fresh pang of pain ran through my chest.

“Well done, Ada. That’s very commendable.” Uncle Tochi responded.

“Thank you, sir.” She responded with the “sir” sounding like an afterthought. Knowing my sister, it probably was intended to convey her covert resentment.

“But I don’t understand why you came here to ask for school fees when I already gave your brother the money for the quarter, with your school fees and money for school supplies already included.” He fired back quickly, pointing at me with an upward facing open palm having switched his gaze to my sister.

“The money is not enough.” She replied just as quickly, matching his gaze with a straight face I knew was holding back fury.

“LCU is a private school, sir, and they have the best law program currently in the country. We’d need about two hundred thousand naira extra for her to make the necessary payments.” I managed to say, desperate to prevent my sister from becoming agitated.

“I see.” He responded, calmly. I shifted in my seat once again.

I braced myself for what was coming. My uncle had this gift, for lack of a better word, where he would lead you on with a series of questions until you found yourself right where he wanted you, surrendering to his fancy by your own volition.

“I thought the University in Enugu had a good law program.”

“It’s a decent program, Uncle Tochi, and it’s far away from home for Ada. LCU has better facilities and more reputable lecturers.” I replied.

“Don’t we have family in Enugu?”

“We do.”

“And does she not have a scholarship there?”

“A half-scholarship on the tuition, sir, it’s barely fifteen thousand naira.”

“Could she not use that money to augment her pocket money, or travel to visit you?”

“She could, but-”

“Did I give you more than enough for school fees in Enugu?”

“Yes, you did.”

“Then I don’t see the problem. Ada, go to the University in Enugu, study hard and finish with a good grade, and I’m sure you’ll be alright.”

“But, Uncle-” I began but was cut short by my sister, who was becoming visibly agitated.

“Why don’t you want me to go to LCU? Izu and Oby go there, why can’t I go?” She said in a rising voice referring to Uncle Tochi’s first two children who were struggling academically.

“There’s a plan, Ada, a financial plan. I’m responsible for taking care of two families and we live by this plan. Great sacrifices were made for Izu and Oby to be able to go to LCU, and no more sacrifices can be made. I certainly don’t mind you going to LCU, in fact, if I could, I would rather you obtained your education abroad like your late father and me, but at this time, we simply cannot afford it.”

At this point time, I was the one who was becoming agitated. Just like a cornered snake will make a last stand, I found my voice and spoke.

“Uncle Tochi, I’m not being unreasonable here, but except my father’s business is now underperforming, I see no reason why we should be unable to afford LCU for Ada, after all, I know it was my father’s wish for her to go there if she did not leave the country for school.”

For a split second, the cold calculating stare on the man’s face was replaced by a heated scowl that contorted his face and highlighted his wrinkles. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone and was replaced by the calmness that unnerved me.

“Obinna, your father, in his will, gave me a simple yet most important task of raising you and your siblings. This includes giving you a good education, ensuring that you finish with good grades, and ensuring that your materials needs, emphasis on needs, are met,” he replied, “The things that we want are infinite, like I’m sure you know having studied economics, and so there is always the alternative forgone. He also gave me his business to run, which I have done, and kept profitable. I am not going to jeopardize the future of that business because you’d rather go to a fancier school.”

I clenched my fist tightly, using all of my self-control to stop myself from assaulting the man.

The snake.

The business was doing well, and my siblings and I knew the will he was referring to was forged. The signature on the will was in blue ink, and the scrawl was too bent to be our father’s. Father never signed anything in blue ink; it was always black, or green, depending on the nature of the document. The lawyer, who was supposed to be a family friend suddenly changed his car after our father passed. Uncle Tochi did too. And yet, he had the nerve to speak like he was doing us a favour.

Ever since our parents died in a car crash, we had lived at the mercy of our uncle. From the outside, he was the picture of generosity and familial support, yet, he secretly dropped our standard of living to boost his. What did Chinua Achebe say about living by the Niger and spittle? Our father’s business made enough in profits to give both families a comfortable life, but in the face of plenty we often had less.

Uncle Tochi had won this round. But there would be no more rounds. I had had enough.

“Alright sir, thank you for your time.” I said, furious in my calmness.

My sister opened her mouth to speak but stopped when she saw my expression. She turned to thank him and we both started for the door.

“Obinna, trust me that everything will be fine. I’ll see what I shake around to spare another fifty thousand. Things aren’t so easy, but we trust God to provide.” He said.

“Thank you, sir.” I replied with a plastic smile and continued.

Once outside, Ada caught up to me.

“What now?”

“You’ll go to LCU, trust me. I know what I need to do.” I replied, already thinking about the life insurance documents Uncle Tochi had given me to drop off for him, his bent signature, and the amount he was insured for.

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