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Thursday, September 21, 2023

A Walk in the Curfew, by Onome Olive Etisioro

“Man is the pollution.”

Evelyn huffed as she remembered her father’s favorite saying. It wasn’t like she hadn’t believed him; it was just that she was still quite surprised at how true his words had been in the end.

Evelyn doesn’t see how the imposed curfew is going to change anything…

Made her wonder, really, what things would look like if there was no man. Or woman. Or anyone of their ilk at all. Maybe then, the waters would always remain this clear. The air would always be clean and clear. Maybe Mother Earth would finally be able to breathe easy.

She stared a little longer at the photo of the clear waters of the canal on her phone before she closed her eyes and drifted off into visions of a tropical paradise.

It was a strange idea, and maybe even a little bit funny, but she imagined that the animals would throw a rave party when all of humanity finally snuffed out along with all their carbon emissions and hubris. She’d had a dream like that once; where animals were the ones hunting down men and locking them in pens and cages because they were the real savages. Because they were the true predators.

Evelyn shook her head. “What are you even going on about now?” She said to herself as she fumbled with her scarf and face mask. She didn’t have time to think about silly things like this, yet, here she was, doing exactly that.

There was, at least, three hours before the government-imposed curfew took effect for the night. Evelyn smirked at the idea of it all. Curfews. She honestly didn’t see how any of that was going to change anything. What would locking people in do, if you were just going to let them all out en masse a few hours later?

She remembered the complete human rush that happened that first Monday after the first lockdown was eased. She remembered how the people teemed out in droves, carelessly ignoring the safety precautions made by the government to keep the virus spread contained. The way they packed together like sardines inside the molues like everything that’d been happening around the world, and even in their own state for the past few months, didn’t have anything to do with them.

But she knew that the virus was real, and that it was right here in the country, whether they believed it or not. She knew that much.

Evelyn sighed and put on her mask, hooking the elastic bands behind her ears and grabbing her umbrella as she turned the knob.

She was only vaguely aware of what she was doing; leaving the safety of her small apartment to ‘go for a walk’ down the darkening street, when most people were beginning to close up, and it wasn’t like her area was as secure as those high end areas. She didn’t think anywhere was safe, anyway. “Staying inside for so long has finally fried your brain.” She muttered to herself as she turned the key in her door and locked it behind her.

When she finally faced the ‘Great Outdoors’, however, she shrank into herself a little bit. Staying indoors wasn’t some sort of punishment to her as other people seemed to take it. She actually enjoyed being indoors, by herself, and away from other people. There was only so much human pollution she could endure – even social media tried her patience far quicker than one would suspect.

“Man is the pollution.”

Evelyn couldn’t turn back now, however. She didn’t want to turn tail and run. She wanted to do this, or she would probably go mad with the “what if” of it all. No, she wasn’t that much of a philosopher, neither was she so much of an activist as her father was. But lately…

Lately, the urge had bubbled up from the depths of her, pulsing through her veins, pushing and pushing her to answer the unyielding call. She knew why, and for a while she’d tried to ignore it. Hoping it would go away. But every day, it had grown stronger and stronger until it had brought her to this moment, this time she couldn’t escape.

Because she couldn’t very well escape her father. Not even now, in death. Evelyn’s chest tightened until she thought her heart was too big to stay in it, until she thought it was in her throat and she was soon going to throw it up right here, in the ‘Great Outdoors’. She pressed a clawed grip to her chest, her throat, trying to push her heart back down, to keep her heart where it belonged.

But she wasn’t doing a very good job, and she knew it. Her heart hadn’t been where it belonged since she got the news. That he didn’t make it. That her father lost the fight to the dreaded virus sweeping the nations of the world. That her father was part of the statistics now. And she couldn’t help wondering at the irony of it all: the man who gave his all for the earth; for the grand ecosystem of the world, had lost it all to the same system. To this faceless, ruthless and careless virus born of that same ecosystem. She wanted to say how vain it all was. How contrived.

“Man is the pollution.”

Evelyn laughed as her father’s words kept echoing in her head, but she wasn’t laughing for the morbid humor of it. She didn’t think she was at a place now where she could laugh at it. But it was ironically funny. He’d always said that man was the pollution, and if he was right, he was as much part of the pollution as anybody else was. And Mother Earth had taken care of the problem in her own way: using the pollutants against themselves. One less pollutant to deal with, maybe.

Evelyn didn’t know why people thought the Earth was helpless. That she was dying. All was without form and void before there was even any life, in the beginning, and the Earth hadn’t seemed to mind then. Why did they think she minded now?

“Wow, now you’re waxing biblical.” She huffed under her breath as she stood there, in front of her door, still facing the ‘Great Outdoors’, unable to take a step.

It was just the street. That was all it was, Evelyn knew that intellectually. And there weren’t many people roaming about anymore. She supposed she should have been scared about the outright dangers of walking down an almost deserted street by herself, but she was much more afraid of her own head and her own fear.

Somehow, going out was starting to become something that produced anxiety in her. As if the very air was a big bad wolf waiting to snatch her up and eat her. As if the earth was crouching outside her door, laying wait for her so it could crush her as soon as she left the four walls of her apartment. She knew this fear was irrational and being scared of the outside world would only cripple her even more. She didn’t want to disappoint her father either. He’d been a soldier, facing the earth’s pain and wrath, and soothing her with everything he did.

Besides, she was the pollution, like he was. Ever since she’d heard of his passing, this image had been stuck in her head: this image of Mother Earth wearing a face mask and lying ravaged on a hospital bed, the same way her father had been. Had that been the message? Had the earth been trying to paint a picture of herself using this pandemic?

That she was tired of having to wear a face mask, so the humans had to wear them instead? That she’d been bedridden for so long, and could no longer taste anything, so the humans had to go through it too?

Evelyn closed her eyes. She realised she was imagining so many things at once that she was contradicting her own self. Hadn’t she been the one wondered why people thought the Earth was helpless? And here she was, doing the exact same thing.

Well, no. Not the exact same thing. After all, she wasn’t imagining Earth helpless. She was imagining Earth vengeful. There was a difference, wasn’t there?

Evelyn was hesitating. She knew. Knew that she was being a coward, but she couldn’t let herself catch a breath. Not yet. Not when the ‘Great Outdoors’ loomed over her, waiting for her to make a move.

Well, what was it expecting her to do?

She opened her Android again, trying to find courage in the articles she’d been scouring for weeks already, and probably already knew by heart. Articles about the effects of the pandemic on the environment. Maybe…maybe if she could show the ‘Great Outdoors’ that it was healing itself, maybe it wouldn’t swallow her whole. Maybe the air wouldn’t choke her to death.

The lockdown had done really good things for the Earth. The air quality had improved a lot because of the dip in carbon emissions, so maybe Mother Earth was breathing easier now. And the waters were settling, the canals and creeks were clear now. Undisturbed.

Then what about the waste problems? Or do you think the Earth doesn’t know about those?

Evelyn froze, her eyes widening on the article as the letters seemed to grow bigger and bigger and bigger. Unrecyclable waste has grown in volume, and the halting of agricultural and fishery exports has generated more organic waste. The local market wastes left to decay would produce methane emissions both in the crisis and post crisis months. And the halting of recycling activities by local governments due to the fear of the propagation of the virus and the lockdown orders were making the waste problems even worse.

Evelyn turned the phone off, as her heart hammered in her chest. Why in God’s name was she acting like a child caught doing something bad? Why did she think of the Earth as this vengeful spirit out for her blood?

It was clear, either way, that humans just couldn’t do anything good without leaving some trace of trash behind. It was a human thing. So, her father had been right.

Man was the pollution, and he was really bad at cleaning up after himself. At washing himself clean. Not without defiling the earth he stood on.

But Evelyn knew what she should do. For her father, as well as for the Earth itself. She should clean up after herself. Just like her father had done.

Man might be the true pollution of the Earth, and they might always be, but her father never stopped trying to clean up after them, never stopped trying to get them to do the same themselves. She could do that too. She could be just like her father: she could become an activist for the Earth.

“Starting now.” She murmured and took those first steps away from her door and out into the streets, her eyes taking in the litters on the ground, and the waste carelessly heaped along the walls. She would start fighting for the Earth from here, her darkening street…

She took in a deep breath. Her steps echoed on the paving stones. She smiled as the night gave her a hug.

Nigerians just didn’t want to believe the pandemic was real – there were people whom she followed on Twitter and she’d believed to be totally reasonable who really believed that it was all ‘politics’ and propaganda. Well, she shouldn’t have expected any sort of intelligence from anyone on some social media platforms. All they really cared about was the next trend and the next unfortunate soul to fall into their ravenous jaws.

Etisioro is a lawyer, novelist, and prose poet with a love for literature and food

“A Walk in the Curfew” is extracted from “A Walk in a Curfew and other Pandemic Tales”, a 2020 publication of HOMEF

Readers can download the full eBook at www.homef.org

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