An Excerpt from Oil on Water by Helon Habila

Source: Parresia Publishers
After a while the sky and the water and the dense foliage on the riverbanks all looked the same: blue and green and blue-green misty. The whole landscape was now a mere trick of light, vaporous and shape-shifting, appearing and disappearing behind the fog. It was early morning, but already we had been in the boat for over two hours, leaving the sea and heading up a tributary, going west. Irikefe Island, also known as Half-Moon Island because of its distinct crescent-shaped coastline, had long since disappeared, swallowed by the distance and the darkness cast by the mist that rose like smoke from the riverbanks. Midriver the water was clear and mobile, but toward the banks it turned brackish and still, trapped by mangroves in whose branches the mist hung in clumps like cotton balls. Ahead of us the mist arched clear over the water like a bridge. Sometimes, entering an especially narrow channel in the river, our light wooden canoe would be so enveloped in the dense gray stuff that we couldn’t see each other as we glided silently over the water. I was wet and cold and hungry, and not for the first time I asked myself if going in search of the kidnapped British woman with Zaq was wise after all. This was our ninth day on her trail. The other journalists had long since returned to Port Harcourt, and I was sure the whole adventure—or rather misadventure—was now to them nothing but a memory, anecdotal currency to trade for a drink on a lazy day in the press clubroom.
Zaq dismissed them with a wave of his hand. —That is the difference between great reporters and average ones.
He was no doubt one of the best this country had ever produced, and because of that I respected his opinion, but right then I’d have settled for food, dry clothes and shelter over greatness, or opinion, for that matter.
—Tell me, Rufus, my friend, what do we seek?
It wasn’t a question, but I answered anyway.
—The woman, and the Professor.
—I said “what,” not “whom.” Forget the woman and her kidnappers for a moment. What we really seek is not them but a greater meaning. Remember, the story is not the final goal.
—Then what is?
—The meaning of the story, and only a lucky few ever dis-cover that. But I think you know that instinctively, otherwise you wouldn’t be here. Everything will turn out fine, you’ll see.
His shirt was wet under the arms and at the back. He was still fighting the sudden fever that had dogged him since we left Port Harcourt, and the more his health had deteriorated, the more he had taken to philosophizing over almost anything: a bat flying overhead, a dead fish on the oil-polluted water, a gathering of rain clouds in the clear sky. But I was glad his mind was still capable of philosophizing. The farther we ventured into the forest, the more I found myself turning to him with questions. I had no idea what he meant about the story and its meaning, but perhaps I would find out before this trip was done. Right now my only hope was that he would continue to hold on till we were back in Port Harcourt, on dry land. Ultimately, things didn’t turn out fine, as I hoped and as he promised, especially for him, but then maybe he was talking not about himself but about me. He might have felt that he had drifted past a point in his river that was beyond return.
In the boat was a bag of dried fruit and a plastic bottle full of water, all of which the old man said were from the priest, Naman. Zaq took out his last bottle of whiskey and, with a heavy sigh, opened it and sipped.
—Isn’t it a bit too early?
—Never too early. Take a sip, Rufus. It’ll keep you warm.
I pushed away the bottle, almost knocking it out of his weak grip.
—Can’t you wait till we’re a bit surer of where we are? We could be lost, you know . . .
—We’ll be fine. The old man here will take care of us.
The old man smiled his big, encouraging smile, nodding his gnomish head eagerly. Beside him his son was shrouded in the dense smoke produced by the boat’s outboard motor, his figure appearing and disappearing with the play of the wind on the mist. The boy looked no more than ten years old, but he might have been older, his growth stunted by poor diet. His hair was reddish and sparse, his arms were bony like his father’s. They were both dressed in the same shapeless and faded homespun shirts and trousers, their hands looked rough and callused from seawater, they smelled of fish and seemed as elemental as seaweed. They were wet from water spray coming off the sides of the boat. The boy saw me looking at him and returned my gaze without self-consciousness, his eyes guileless and full of curiosity, forcing me to turn away. We chugged along into the narrowing river, followed by the motor’s droning roar.
—Do you know where the militants are?
—No, sah. People say dem fit be near Abakiri.
It was all guesswork. The militants always concealed the locations of their camps, because their lives depended on that, and on the ability to pick up their tents and move with the first hint of trouble from the federal patrols that were in constant war with them. Whenever they invited the press to view hostages, or to give lengthy interviews about their reasons for fighting the government, they did so in a village or on a deserted island far from their camps. What was certain, though, was that they never strayed too far from the pipelines and oil rigs and refineries, which they constantly threatened to blow up, thereby ensuring for themselves a steady livelihood. If the old man was able to take us to an actual camp, and if we were able to come back safely, we would be among the very few reporters who had done so. My instinct told me to get down at the next village and make my way back to Port Harcourt; to forget the white woman, because the militants would free her, eventually; to forget the perfect story, because there was no such thing as a perfect story anyway, and I already had enough paragraphs to make my editor welcome me with open arms; to forget Irikefe Island, where we had been holed up for the past five days before the old man and his son came to get us; but, most importantly, to forget Zaq and his desperate, long-shot ambitions. Let life continue as it once did: simple, predictable, full of its own myriad concerns. But what journalist doesn’t hunger for the perfect story, and this one, as Zaq explained, and I totally agreed, was as close to it as any reporter could ever get. The very thought of turning back made me realize how barren, how diminished life would be after the excitement of the past few days, and as we went deeper and deeper upriver, and farther and farther away from the sea, I made no move to stop. I felt hope and doubt alternating in my chest. I felt a stirring of some hunger inside me, something I had never felt before, a conviction, almost, that I was meant to be here, on this boat, on this trail. It was like a breeze blowing through some long-forgotten section of my mind. I knew Zaq could see this stirring hope in my eyes; he could give it a name and describe how irresistible was its pull.
Far ahead, appearing suddenly out of the water, like a mirage, was a huge cliff with uneven steps cut into the rock face, leading up to a dense thicket of trees that marked the beginning of a village. We left the boat and climbed up the tricky stone steps, stopping often to catch our breath.
—Who lives here?
The old man shrugged. —Nobody.
—Where did the people go?
—Dem left because of too much fighting.
The village looked as if a deadly epidemic had swept through it. A square concrete platform dominated the village center like some sacrificial altar. Abandoned oil-drilling paraphernalia were strewn around the platform; some appeared to be sprouting out of widening cracks in the concrete, alongside thick clumps of grass. High up in the rusty rigging wasps flew in and out of their nests. A weather-beaten signboard near the platform said oil well no. 2. 1999. 15,000 meters. The houses began not too far away from the derelict platform. We went from one squat brick structure to the next, from compound to compound, but they were all empty, with wide-open windows askew on broken hinges, while overhead the roofs had big holes through which strong sunlight fell. Behind one of the houses we found a chicken pen with about ten chickens inside, all dead and decomposing, the maggots trafficking beneath the feathers. We covered our noses and moved on to the next compound, but it wasn’t much different: cooking pots stood open and empty on cold hearths; next to them stood water pots filled with water on whose surface mosquito larvae thickly flourished. It took less than an hour to traverse the little village, going from one deserted household to the next, taking pictures, hoping to meet perhaps one accidental straggler, one survivor, one voice to interview.
We left. Zaq looked as if he were about to throw up, his face was sweaty and he raised the bottle to his lips many times before the alertness returned to his eyes. We often stopped to rest, and the river grew narrower each time we set out again. Soon we were in a dense mangrove swamp; the water underneath us had turned foul and sulfurous; insects rose from the surface in swarms to settle in a mobile cloud above us, biting our arms and faces and ears. The boy and the old man appeared to be oblivious to the insects; they kept their eyes narrowed, focused on burrowing the boat through the gnarled, hanging roots that grew out of the water like proboscises gasping for air. The atmosphere grew heavy with the suspended stench of dead matter. We followed a bend in the river and in front of us we saw dead birds draped over tree branches, their outstretched wings black and slick with oil; dead fish bobbed white-bellied between tree roots.

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