“The Praegustator Who Spied on the World”: A Short Story by Samuel Kolawole

January 13, 2024
20 mins read

By Samuel Kolawole

Thursday, December 25, 2014.

 I ate them before they ate me – Idi Amin Dada

To
say Bowter Bweter ate to earn a living would be inaccurate since the only other
option was being fed to the crocodiles at the falls. What penalty could be
greater than being thrown to those saw-toothed reptiles? Only the Conqueror of
the British Empire had the answer to that. He was the Lord of All the Beasts of
the Earth and Fishes of the Sea.

For
Bowter, spying on the world around him was his own way of breaking free from
the limited options life offered him. He worked part of the morning thrice a
week, and in the evenings for the rest of the week. He dressed hurriedly as if wearing
clothes were a burden, and hardly groomed his body (hair sprouted out of his
ears). He woke up late but never missed the covered pick-up truck because he
made little preparations for work. He would walk for about ten minutes from his
little apartment embedded in the heart of his neighbourhood and wait for the
truck from the Bureau of State Research to arrive. He had no control over what
happened in his workplace. He was told what to do. Outside work, there wasn’t
much else to do. He had no one to talk to. He wasn’t really much of a talker
anyway. People took little notice of him but that didn’t bother him.

After
work, he would sit in his room wearing only shorts and drink from a bottle of waragi held
between his thick calves, while looking out from his window. Bowter loved
watching people who could not see him. That was something he could control. That
was in fact what propelled his life forward. It was what distracted him from
all the wasted days of his past and all those yet to come. Sometimes he watched
the same people go through the motions of life and work but that didn’t matter
to him.

He
would stare like an owl, his eyes roving, trying to figure out if there was
something going on beneath the things he saw. He would shun the sounds in his
room: the creaking of roof beams, the hum of the refrigerator, the faucet that
wouldn’t stop dripping, something creeping along the floor or wall.

He
watched the daily exodus of worn heels from Chowdhury and Sons, the Indian owned
shoe factory far off, and the thick fog of red sand as company trucks chugged
by. He watched people stream in and out of bars and cafes. He watched mongrels
trot on side streets, mate in little corners. He watched them long enough to notice
when they spawned scrawny little puppies. He watched women with Afros and
garish makeups make trips to the seedy drugstore down the road. He watched
people gather around the newspaper kiosk like tiny insects milling around
something sugary, debating with much heat. He watched random pedestrians stop
to join in the argument before ambling on.

He
knew when the thick-lipped butcher arrived with fresh meat and an army of green
flies. He knew when the bell jiggling evangelist with his spectral white robe
and wild unshorn hair began his sermon of a new heaven and new earth. He knew
the light-fingered boys and where they lived. He knew that the dreadlocked man who
sold arts and crafts fooled around with the road sweeper.

He
pondered on the things he saw. He imagined alternate scenarios, he questioned,
he inferred. He kept his ideas and opinions to himself. In the end, it was just
about watching, pondering and questioning; nothing more.

The
short drive to the Den gave the praegustātōrēs just a little time to take stock of
their lives, pray to their gods, and worry about what would happen when the
vehicle finally stopped. Arrival was signalled by the raw grinding yowl the
brakes gave off when the pickup went up the hill in the quiet neighbourhood where
the Den was located.

They
usually stopped in front of the gated compound with high barb wire fences and
waited outside until a squadron of guards with their dogs emerged like hyenas
slithering forth from their lairs. Commander J, the leader of the squadron was
a tall man with a walrus’ moustache and a regal paunch that spilled over a belt strapped
with pistols on both sides.His pants always looked like they were about to drop.
He would stare at the praegustātōrēs with his piercing black eyes then give a
little dry whistle and snap his fingers. Almost at once, the dogs would snap
out of their leashes and scamper around them to sniff their crotches. When they
had been thoroughly checked, they would be led to the innards of the Den and
ordered to sit in the dining hall studded with wooden tables of various shapes
and sizes. Then the meals would be served from small cooking pots under the
watchful eyes of the squadron. The cooks from State House Catering Department served
different dishes so no praegustātor ate from the same pot.

Having
grown up experiencing life’s vicissitudes, Bowter had imagined his end to be a
swift one-a dagger to the lump in his neck or a bullet right in the forehead.
For him, the worst thing about dying was having time to be scared of death,
going through the interval between the certainty of death and death itself. It
was like crossing that threshold between life and death in slow motion. With
his job he knew he would die a slow death, a sure death.

The
Conqueror of the British Empire would always squat over his toilet bowl instead
of sitting on it because Koboko, where
people shat into dugout earth never left him. He would always plunge himself
into the school girls his black-booted guards picked from the streets on their
way to school and every cell in his body would dry up, sapped of vitality,
ready to be reinvigorated. He would host guests in his villa to feasts crammed with
silverwares brimming with gastronomic pleasures while the Revolutionary Suicide
Jazz Band serenaded and wouldn’t want anything to go wrong. He would summon the
chefs at odd hours just to satisfy his inexplicable desire to engorge himself.
Bowter could survive many days, maybe weeks, but the Conqueror of the British
Empire would go hungry again. He would host lavish parties. His enemies would
keep piling up.

So
each time Bowter scooped spoons of pilau–rice cooked with spices into his mouth,
ate malakwon prepared with mashed groundnuts or bit into a piece of roast
chicken, steam filling his mouth, his lips shimmering with oil, he was reminded
of his duty, his place in this world, his fate. The fear that one day something
will be set down in front of him that will claim his life clung to him.The fear of
facing that certainty was like a blow to the pit of his stomach, and a lump
pressing down on his chest.

Before
death crept into Kay’s pot, the praegustātōrēs hoped that the rumours were
unfounded, and their jobs merely ceremonial as the whole setup seemed ludicrous
to them.

Kay
was a husky man with a large fleshy face whose thinly bristled jaw knotted and slackened like
a cow’s whenever he chewed. Bowter knew that he had a daughter, even though the
praegustātōrēs didn’t say a thing to one another, as they had taken a vow of
silence. The only thing they shared in common was that they carried out the
tasks together. The pickup was mostly quiet, each person thinking his own
thoughts, but Bowter observed him. Bowter knew that the Field Marshal’s men had Kay’s daughter
because his lips quivered in prayers every time they drove to the Den and he
kept a grainy picture of her in his jacket. He brought it out once in a while
to look at it, his eyes moist with tears.

The
trifling chatter from the guards ended in mid-sentence. The sounds of cutlery
and utensils stilled. A fellow across him had pointed to Kay’s bleeding nose.
Kay quickly dabbed his nose with his napkin and saw the stain. In that first
startled terror, he flung the napkin away. His look softened, he swallowed
saliva, his Adam’s apple bobbing to mark the internal passage of the liquid. A
wave of panic swept across the room. The guards cocked their guns, chairs
dragged and groaned as the praegustātōrēs deserted their tables while
inspecting their own bodies for any manifestations. In no time, Kay was left
alone at the table. Tears fell thickly from his eyes. He coughed out his
daughter’s name. More blood seeped from his nose. When he saw his imminent
dispatch from this life, he reared up toward the Commander, and grabbed his
collar before anyone could make any move.

“Take
care of my girl. Please take care of her; I did what I was told. I did it.” In a
choked voice he cried out to him, lips quivering and frothy with blood. The
squadron tore him away from their blood stained Commander and held him still on
one of the chairs, whereupon a sudden horrendous pain lashed out at him. By
this time the poison had dried up his guts as evidenced by the black-flecked
phlegm he now coughed up. No one could help him. Soon, he was biting through
his tongue, and choking on his blood. In the end his eyes silted and his teeth were
bared like those of a dying dog, his chest juddering with each shallow breath.

His
body was placed in a blanket, wrapped snugly, and buried in a shallow, roughly
hewn out grave in the backyard. The guards herded everyone together. Commander
J paced back and forth, barking orders. He made calls and fired cables. No one
else spoke a word. It was not a time for words. It was not a time for thoughts
either.

The
day seemed to stretch on endlessly. Night fell. Bowter went in for questioning.
In the patch of rheumy light, Commander J barked at him and spat in his face. He
fired off questions and scribbled at full speed in a notepad produced from his
pocket, frowning and looking him in the eye once in a while.

Bowter
answered all the questions he was asked without qualms. He did not know what to
make of what happened. He had no inner musings. No pondering or ideas. Just a
numbing silence.

The
pickup truck dropped him off and he shoved his way through the crowd of people
going back and forth in the final rush of the day. He got to his apartment and
climbed the stairs with exhausted legs. He slapped his door closed and
stretched out on his flea-ridden mattress.

Bowter
stared at the splotched ceiling, wishing that something would happen to pitch
him into the arms of another reality.

***

Bowter
flinched against the shaft of raw sunlight spilling in through the curtains of
his loneliness. He looked out on the streets, his eyes roaming, hoping to
chance upon anything interesting. He saw faces that he recognized or
half-recognized from the street―the familiar faces of strangers from the daily
commute. He turned his eyes towards the arts and craft shop, he assessed the
blue and grey French suits mounted on wooden mannequins in front of one of the
shops. He wondered if he would ever wear one of those and how it would look on
him, but dismissed the thought almost immediately, stifling a sigh. The simple
pleasures of life were just not for him.

It
had been eight months since Kay ate off the plate that killed him. The Field
Marshal had purged the army ranks; helicopters flew overhead, the radio crackled
with the voice announcing a curfew as boots marched into neighbourhoods and
ordered people to hop like a frog in the streets. The prison in Nakasero became
crowded. People vanished and their corpses showed up floating in the Nile like
poisoned fish.Suspected enemies faced firing squads in front of TV cameras.

Not
long afterward, things became calm again. Bowter went back to spying on the
world to distract himself from his troubles.

Feeling
slightly dizzy, he closed his eyes and when he opened them again, he caught
sight of a figure across the street fingering dreadlock hair’s beads. A faded
shawl covering her hair and knotted under the chin gave her face a heart shape.
Her dress was fresh and flowery. Bowter was taken aback by her appearance as
she struck him as odd. Being brown skinned, Bowter reckoned she must be one of
the daughters of those wealthy expatriates at the factory, but then she didn’t
have any shoes or socks on, which was also strange. She had tiny feet like thoseof
a child, so delicate it seemed that they barely touched the ground.

He
got up to pee, and when he went back to the window she was gone.

He
saw her again the next day. It was in the same place with the same flowery
dress but this time around, she was not wearing a shawl. Her hair was long,
black and curled. Her hair flowed down her shoulders. She tried the beads on
her neck one after the other, posing in front of the standing mirror dreadlock hair
provided for his customers. The distance kept Bowter from making out the
details of her expression and he knew at once that he had to create a strategy
to get close to her. What if she felt his eyes on her or caught him looking at
her and she was not happy about it? What if she didn’t come to dreadlock hair
again and he never laid his eyes on her again?

He
got up, walked across the room, pulled out his rumpled towel from his drawer,
picked up a bucket in the room corner and went out to the bathroom. He took a
quick bath. After he came back and dried off, he slathered on lotion and dusted
his armpits with talcum powder. Bowter couldn’t remember the last time he used
anything on his body or was this careful about cleaning himself, at least since
he started working at the Den. For a moment he paused to think about what he
was doing, the strangeness of it. He knew what was happening to him was an
aberration from his life’s regular, solitary course. But then he could not
shake off the feeling that there was something special about her and he had no
way of telling her that fromwhere he was.He had to be up close. With her,
watching from afar wasn’t enough.

He
opened the door and looked down the stairs. He went back in. He wiped his
sweaty palms on his trousers, looked into the mirror again and threw back his
shoulders. When he tripped on the steps on his way down and found himself just
a few feet from her, he thought in a flash that he shouldn’t have come out in
the first place.

She
turned her head around and smiled at him. He froze. He breezed back upstairs as
if borne by an invisible current.

Bowter
put forth great efforts to fight what was sprouting within him. He shut his
window and drew his curtains together. He willed himself to lie down on his
flea-ridden bed and stare at the splotched ceiling. He did what was needed to
crush the sudden attraction to the stranger that had afflicted him.

After
two days of being cooped up indoors, something of a rage began welling up in
him. The desire to see her, even touch her had stuck to him like a flea,
leached into his blood. What if he reached out his hand to touch her cheek? He
asked himself. Would electricity flow between them? How did her cheeks feel?
Rosy? Chiselled?

It
was not long before Bowter became angry at himself for losing control. He
wondered why someone whom he didn’t even know could alter his life so quickly.
He would not be controlled by a stranger. He decided to regain control. He
would go back to spying on the world, back to his vantage point.

Bowter
pulled the curtains apart, flung the windows open and opened a new bottle of waragi.
He saw nothing he had not seen before―a road sweeper pushing a trash cart with
rubber wheels across the street, kids playing street soccer, people buying and
selling, shirtless young boys lounging against the electric pole, sweating out
the lethargy and heat of the afternoon.

He
let his glance fall on dreadlock hair’s stall. She was there. He peeled his
eyes away for some seconds but could not resist the urge to look at her. Soon
he became transfixed by her delicate image, her smiles, her tiny feet. When he
felt he was ready, he sprang out of his seat and rushed down the stairs.

Now,
a mild wind carried street litter in little eddies and rattled the roofing
sheets.

Bowter
looked straight at her when he got close enough. She smiled at him. This time
the reaction was different. He saw her face. He saw her eyes. There was light
in her eyes, a glint he had never seen before. There was something about those
eyes, the way they reached out and seized him, eyes that spoke of a distant
place, a place of bliss. It was as if all the pleasures in the world were contained
in them. Suddenly he wanted to become those eyes. He wanted to be one with
them. Time stood still and his essence became defined by those eyes. Suddenly
he felt the richness of life and death become only a small speck on some distant
horizon, on a far shore that he would approach slowly through languid waters
with the paddle strokes of old age.

He
opened his mouth to speak but his voice sounded hollow to him. He continued
speaking, froth gathering at the corners of his mouth. His voice was thrown back
at him in a bellow. He moved closer, his hands now reaching out to touch her,
like he was groping in the dark but she turned to leave. He watched as she
seemed to glide over, her dress puffing and billowing in the wind. He wafted
towards her like a leaf, a scent. He was light in the air. He was swift. She
was fast too; moving so quickly she could well have been a phantom. He followed
her, at first through the labyrinth of houses in the neighbourhood, then
through a row of ruined houses and then to a place he had never been before,the
grass high and thick, the trees as thin as bamboo. The sky was a sombre, dark
blue. He was now walking fast, almost running, freedom suffocating him with
surprise, taking over his body. He was a tethered beast broken free. She was a
school girl bubbling with glee. Bowter threw back his head, laughter erupting
from his throat.

He
followed her till they plunged into something thicker and more tangled. They
slowed down. He wished he had brought a machete, something to clear the way but
forged ahead all the same, thrashing through the thick foliage. Nothing was
going to come between him and the lady who had unlatched his soul. He sneezed a
gout of yellow snot into the bush and wiped his fingers on the knee of his
trousers. He grabbed a stick and used it to clear the path for himself until
the bush became impenetrable. When he could no longer see her and was
absolutely sure he could go no further, he gave up the trail. He left knowing
he would see her again. He knew she would come back for him.

Drenched
in sweat and his body stippled with cuts, he lay outside, his cheek against the
cold asphalt. He could hear the sound of his own breathing, the pounding of his
heart. He did not know when he drifted off to sleep.

Bowter awoke
just before dawn, roused by the sound of footsteps clacking on tar, the blare
of horns and voices from the streets. He was feverish and sore all over, he
dragged himself up and made his way to his apartment. His head swirled. People
crossed to the other side of the road to avoid him but he did not bother. When
he got to his apartment he was gripped with the sudden urge to clean out his
room.

He
dressed his bed. He separated the washed clothes from the filthy ones and swept
the floor and cleaned the Formica tops. He would invite her to his room. He
would make her feel comfortable and maybe then he would be close enough to her
to touch her. That hope gave strength to his body. The more he thought about
her, the more energy surged within him.

After
cleaning his house, Bowter proceeded with the task of cleaning himself. For a
long time he kept at it. He washed himself rigorously like he just stepped out
of a jailhouse. He scoured his hair, armpits, nether parts and the soles of his
feet. He gelled and combed out his tangled hair. He was satisfied with his new
look, and decided to go to a street side cafeteria for breakfast. He found a
place, he ate silently and feeling refreshed, he left. It felt good to eat
something without fear of danger. He realized that he had missed the pick-up
truck. They would be looking for him at the Den but he did not care. He did not
consider his actions before taking them. It was as though he was driven by a
force greater than him. He was a spectator to what was happening to him.

After
breakfast he roamed the neighbourhood for a while, expecting to find the lady
with the flowery dress. He went to the newspaper stand and listened to the
talkative vendor and his customers, nodding his head. He used to watch them
from his window, but now he was with them. How things had changed for him.

***

Two
days went by with no sign of the girl. Bowter kept cleaning up, kept roaming
the streets. Nothing else mattered to him. He thought about her. He dreamt
about her. At times, the memories fused with his dreams and when they were over,
it was hard to tell which it had been.Did he really run around his room with
her? Did he feel her breath flutter on his face? Did she seek his lips?

The
evening of the second day brought a tide of gloom. Three helmeted soldiers from
the Bureau of State Research broke into his room. He knew what they wanted. He
was expecting them. After a heavy blow to the head and repeated kicks, they
dragged him downstairs. His head rang. He smelled blood. A salty, metallic
taste slid down his throat.

He
did not resist them. The blow and the kicks did not hurt him. He only laughed.
He laughed as hard as he could. He laughed as though he was privy to something
they were not aware of. The soldiers were not amused so they rammed into his
head and gut with the butts of their guns. His stomach revolted. Blood ran in rivulets
down his face but he didn’t stop laughing. They cuffed him, threw him into the
back of the pickup truck and began the long drive to the Den. The scales had
fallen from his eyes. Now he knew nothing was going to kill him. Now he knew he
was going to grow old with her. He no longer felt doomed to the same fate as
the other praegustātōrēs. It did not matter how many times he consumed the Field
Marshal’s meals. He was no longer scared of being thrown to the crocodiles. He
was no longer scared of the Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of
the Sea.

The
brakes gave that terrible grinding yowl.

Commander
J entered the interrogation room, his arms clasped behind his back. He paced
here and there for a while, his stomach heaving like a gourd dancing in water.

He
gave an address about the dangers of going rogue. He then ordered for him to be locked
up to drive some sense into his skull. He told Bowter he might not be so lucky
next time. Bowter asked for water and he was given a slap.

Bowter
found a place against the wall of the dark cell. He stuck his tongue out,
tasted blood on his swollen lips. A putrid smell engulfed him. The air was
heavy with the droning of mosquitoes so he could not sleep, tired and injured
as he was. He imagined his lady in another dress, a white dress,
flowing, rising and falling like currents.

When
he was released the following morning he resumed his search for the girl. He
approached dreadlock hair and asked for her whereabouts.

“I
don’t know what you are saying. No girl in flowery dress came here,” Dreadlock
hair said to him.

Bowter
called him a liar, cursed him and sprang at him, clutching his shirt. Dreadlock
hair had a surprised look on his face, the type of look that you would give a
deranged person. Men from the newspaper stand intervened and dragged Bowter
away, but he insisted that he had seen the girl.

He
went back to his room, thinking and gnawing at his fingernails. An idea struck him
and he dashed out of the house. He walked through the labyrinth of houses in
the neighbourhood, and past the rows of ruined houses. He saw no grass high and
thick. No tree thin as bamboo. His ankle throbbed, his mouth denied of
moisture. His feet became weary and heavy as though they were placed in stocks.

He
returned home, a sense of disappointment and sourness filling him. He sat on
the floor of the bathroom and heaved bowl after bowl of water over himself. The
water became discoloured as it washed down his body but it did not wash down
his pining for her.

In
his dreams he saw her with crimson lips and sharply-defined eyebrows. Her lips
teased him. Her voice sultry, filled him with lewd suggestions. He woke up damp
and sticky. He felt the wetness slide down slowly inside his thigh.He lay
exhausted on his mattress. What does one do with desire? He asked himself.

The
following morning he dragged his sore body out of bed, took his bath and walked
to the bus stop for the pickup truck. He did not notice the grinding yowl of
the brakes.

He
floated into the dining hall and shoved the food into his mouth without fear. The
meal tasted like sawdust in his mouth. They stared at him out of the corner of
their eyes as they ate but he did not mind them. When the truck dropped him
off, he went to a bar and drank till the barmaids started clearing the tables.

He
lurched out onto the streets. He stopped to take a piss against a wall, and
then wondered why the streets were so quiet.He heard sounds. Two cats shot past
him and he turned around.His feet felt cold and he realized he wasn’t wearing
shoes and wondered how it happened.He dismissed the thought and staggered on.

Bowter Bweter was
approaching his apartment when an image loomed out of the dark and a smile
gathered at the corners of his mouth.The end

Samuel Kolawole was a 2014 Fiction Fellow at the
Norman Mailer Writers Colony USA. He has contributed short fiction to various
journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories, the book of M was
published in 2011 and received critical acclaim. Samuel is the founder and
Director of Writers’ Studio, Nigeria’s flagship creative writing school now
spreading across Africa.

A recipient of a 2014 Prince Claus Grant by the
Prince Claus Fund for Culture and development, Amsterdam and headed the judging
panel for this year’s Short Story Day Africa Contest, Samuel lives in Ibadan,
Nigeria where he has recently completed work on his second book.

“The Praegustator Who Spied on the World”: A Short Story by Samuel Kolawole

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