He stared at the mellow evening sky as if his life depended on it. The rays of the sun, tan and mellow, invaded the world in sweet gentle ways, transforming everything in its path — lilacs, azaleas, empty tins, shabby shrubs, hills, houses — into its likeness: as above, so below. But Bassey had not come out to see all this. He had come to behold a miracle.
He strained his eyes further at the horizon, to see what he had never seen, what no one had ever seen. He imagined the earth moving slowly with a rumble, taking him and the flowers in front of him along. He imagined everything in motion: the clouds, palm trees, the craggy boulders further down the landscape, the houses that stood about with rusted roofs, the birds that, for the sake of distance, seemed like specks against the yellow evening sky. He envisioned himself swept away by the strange movement, hurtling into space as the whole world turned upside down.
But none of this happened. All the turnings, the flight of sedentary things, the massive migration of vegetation, were in his mind. Only in his mind. How could these not have happened in reality if, as he was taught, the earth actually rotated? How could everything be so still?
He had asked this same question the previous day when his teacher, Miss Thompson, had taught, with a baffling air of certainty, that day and night were the outcome of Earth’s rotation. At first, Bassey thought she was joking — but she wasn’t. She meant every bit of her drivel. And the entire class agreed that she was right. How come? She couldn’t have been right. The earth rotates and travels round the sun only in dreams.
“I don’t know why this is so difficult for you to understand,” the plump woman had said. Did she say difficult? This very nonsense was impossible to understand. “I see that my illustration with the orange did not help,” she added and edged towards the blackboard. Impatiently, Bassey watched her sketch a large circle on the board.
“Looks like her head,” one of the pupils, Jacob, whispered from behind. He, like most of the pupils in the class, was well over fifty years old.
“Who said that?” the teacher said, glaring at the class.
“I said it, Miss,” Jacob admitted, and chortled idly. The teacher just stood and stared moronically at the culprit, furious but in vain. What could she have done? She would not let that long cane in her hands touch Jacob, her elder, in whose eyes she was but a naïve little child.
“Respect yourself, Mister,” she said, fumed briefly, and turned to the board, her frame clouding out half of the circle. “Now listen, Bassey. Pay attention. I won’t do this again. This is the sun. Okay?” She craned her hand above the circle and drew a smaller sphere above it.
“Is that earth?” Jacob asked, chuckling.
“Yes, this is earth.”
Jacob turned to Bassey, wagged his brows, and whispered, “See? It’s going to turn. Watch.”
“Bassey, what is this?” the teacher asked. Bassey could have simply said “earth” but he decided to say nothing. What difference would it make if he said “earth” or “sun, or “Miss Thompson’s head”? She had drawn these spheres on the board before. She had said things about day and night, about light and darkness. Why had she decided to act the drama out all over again? Bassey could not say. She wanted him to really understand — but did she herself understand what she was saying?
“Bassey! What is this?” the woman asked again, her bulgy eyes gleaming with concern.
“Excuse me, Miss,” Bassey said, one hand thrown up. “I don’t believe this nonsense. This earth does not turn. It does not rotate, Miss.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“The earth rotates, Bassey.”
“It doesn’t, Miss. Sorry. The earth goes nowhere. Only the sun rises and sets. You’re still a child. I’m talking to you like an elder. You are an educated woman, I know. But I’ve been on this earth for decades, long before you were even born.”
Miss Thomson exploded like a little bomb, her puny hands flaying in that fit of needless provocation. “Listen, listen to me. I don’t care if you’ve been on earth for one thousand years or since creation. Who cares how long you’ve been on earth? I’m telling you what is true. I’m teaching you science. Now…no more arguments!”
She was teaching him science. But he was not a scientist. He was a happy tailor who, at fifty four, had decided to come to school, to be insulted. He had not come to learn science, but to learn how to read and write. He had come to liberate himself from humiliations. Coming to school, he now realized, was as humiliating as staying back.
The idea was not initially his own. It had come from Mathew, his younger brother, who had given him the impression that formal education was like a passport to paradise. He seemed not to have considered the abundance of grey on Bassey’s hair or the fate of his tailoring job in the course of the programme.
Bassey made an effort to argue, but in the end, as usual, his brother’s opinion prevailed over his. Bassey could not afford any form of dissension between him and his brother, for Matthew was a big man. When he talked, his voice, deep and frightening, was redolent of wealth and influence, all of which he possessed in great measure.
But Bassey should have said no. For, had he followed his heart, he would not have heard this nonsense about the earth turning and the sun never rising or setting. This fat teacher would never have had the annoying privilege to raise her voice at him.
“It’s okay. Calm down,” Jacob said, referring to Bassey.
“It’s not okay. Don’t tell me calm down,” Bassey bawled, slapped the top of his desk, and rose to his feet. “I’ve had enough of this rubbish!” The entire class turned to his direction, their eyes widening in disbelief. The teacher froze at a corner, mouth parted in wonder, as Bassey made his way out of the classroom.
A few yards away from the class, he heard quick footsteps from behind. Jacob, running like one in some serious trouble, tongue hanging out, had decided to come after him, to persuade him back to the class. He should have known Bassey had already made up his mind: he would never return to that school.
“Calm down brother. You hear? Calm down!” Jacob pleaded, panting as though he had run a great long distance.
“Calm down for what?” Bassey said. “How can the earth turn? You sat there and heard her say all that, and you couldn’t say anything — you couldn’t.”
Jacob smiled as though the matter was even a bit funny. “It’s science, brother. That is what scientists tell us.”
“Rubbish! Who are scientists, by the way?”
“White men. Are they spirits? Are they angels, that we should believe everything they tell us?” He paused to swallow. “Have you not read in your bible about the foundation of the earth? Tell me, how can something that has foundation rotate? How can…” and this part annoyed him most…“how can it go round the sun?”
Jacob chuckled and held his peace, as if waiting for another avenue for amusement.
“What are you looking at?” Bassey asked. “What is so funny about this matter, Jacob?”
“You are taking this thing too far.”
Too far? What did he mean by “too far”? Were the scientists, so called, not the ones who had taken the matter too far, holding as true that which was both impossible and silly?
Bassey was tired of the school, of all schools, and of all forms of learning involving books and blackboards. He had witnessed enough absurdities, from the first day up to this very moment. He had heard how stars were suns, how midday in Nigeria could be midnight in another part of the world, and how the first sets of human beings on earth were toads and monkeys. And now, he had heard the most annoying of it all: that the earth was turning.
“If I return to that school, I’ll lose my mind,” he said, seated in his sitting room, hours after, as Lucy, his wife, went about frenetically setting the dining table in order.
“Is it really that serious?” the woman asked indifferently, a steel tray resting in her hands, on which lay a plate of rice and stew. You could perceive the pungent aroma of the stew and of the smoked fish in it a good number of meters away.
“It is serious. Very serious,” Bassey replied.
“You’re not going back, really?”
“I’ve told you already.”
“What will you tell Matthew?”
What would he tell Matthew? That was the real ordeal, for he could not afford to tell his brother that he had given up on schooling. He sought for a convincing lie: the school had been closed down, Miss Thompson had died, his health was falling, he had received a divine command to stay back, and so forth. But in the end, he decided that he would say it as it was: his teacher taught her pupils complete nonsense, and he decided, by leaving the school, to do away with such things, and to safeguard his sanity and spiritual purity.
It seemed, however, that, by deciding to tell his brother the truth, he had elected to make himself look very stupid.
“This thing is simple enough for you to understand,” Matthew said in a deep, mannish voice that seemed to have jarred every single piece of furniture in the living room. No one in their family possessed such a terrible of voice. From who had he inherited it, then?
“Are you supporting the teacher?” Bassey asked, incensed.
“Yeah, she is right.”
“That the earth, Matthew, that this earth turns everyday?”
“I wouldn’t say that the earth turns everyday. It’s the rotation of the earth itself that causes day and night,” Matthew said calmly, his pronounced paunch staring Bassey in the face like some bad omen.
“Matthew, even you?” Bassey asked, and bent a little to be sure of the person in front of him. Yes, it was his brother, the same Matthew he had known from childhood days.
“What do you mean ‘even me’?” Matthew asked, furrowing his brows in surprise. He narrowed one of his eyes, as he often did when baffled. But Bassey saw nothing baffling about his question or anything he said or did. It was he, Bassey, who ought to have shown all the surprise and squint in amazement.
“You mean this earth really turns, for real?” Bassey asked.
Matthew chuckled idly and straightened in his seat, grunting, as though he had just done something strenuous. “There is a line between reason and sense, Bassey. Things are not always as they appear. You see, if you travel along a road, don’t you notice something like water ahead? But what happens to the water when you get there? It disappears…it disappears because it was never there in the first place.”
“So, you don’t expect to see the earth rotate for it to actually rotate.” He made a little laugh and continued with a dignified, all-knowing voice. “I totally understand how you feel, my brother. This argument is not new. It surfaced centuries ago. That was the reason the church almost crucified Galileo Galilei. This same matter was debated during the Council of…”
Bassey was no longer paying attention. He had no idea why his brother was talking about Galilei and crucifixion and Councils instead of going straight to the point. Was that how he lectured his students in the university, telling them one thing when they sought answers to another?
“I don’t understand,” Bassey said distractedly, his attention partly on the setting sun beyond the glazed window of the living room and partly on Matthew and his showy, boring talk. “So the sun does not rise or set?”
“Are you not tired of this sun and earth thing?” Lucy, mouthful, mumbled from the kitchen, a few yards from the living room. She must have stuffed all the chunks of meat in the kitchen into her mouth.
Matthew, discarding the distraction, turned to Bassey, and for a moment, stared at him inquiringly. “How do I do this? Okay, do you have oranges in this house?”
“No, I don’t. Just stop it. I know what you want to do. If I bring an orange, you will turn it, and tell me about day and night, and how one surface gets dark and bright, and all that. Matthew, tell me something else.”
“But you believe that an orange can turn.”
“Who doesn’t know that? We’re not talking about oranges here…Does the earth also turn? That’s what I want to know.”
“Yes, the earth also turns,” Matthew retorted.
Bassey sat for a long time, dazed, unable to lift even a finger. He could not make sense of this growing mystery. Mathew, unaware of the chattering of his brother’s mind, kept talking, drawing countless circles in the air and making references to bygone centuries, and to dead and living scientists.
Bassey stopped him halfway. “Hold on,” he said fitfully. “Now, let me ask you: If truly the earth turns, if the sun does not move. Mathew, if this sun in the sky does not rise or set, why then did Joshua ask the sun, and not the earth, to stand still? Are you listening? Why, Mr. Lecturer? Do you even read your bible?”
Matthew yawned and sank back into the chair. “Well, I’m not a bible scholar. I stopped studying the bible twelve years ago, you know. But I know the story. What should Joshua have done? He didn’t know what we know today.”
“But God knew, didn’t he?”
“God!” Matthew exclaimed with that weird look of his: one eye falling for the other to rise.
“Yes, God. Why didn’t he correct Joshua? Why didn’t he say, ‘hey Joshua, listen, ask the earth to stop spinning. Don’t talk to the sun. Boy, don’t talk to the sun — the sun is dumb. Hey Joshua, the sun does not move’? Why?”
“Well, I don’t know why. I don’t know why your God didn’t correct him.” Now he was beginning to sound blasphemous, saying ‘your God,’ as though he too was not created by that same God, as if his ancestors were really apes, and not Adam and Eve. Bassey did not understand why his brother could lose faith in God whose presence was everywhere but chose to believe that the earth was rotating, even though he had never seen it happen.
“Did you say my God?” Bassey asked. “Matthew, my God?”
“Yes, your God. What do you expect me to say?”
“You two have started this your God debate again,” Lucy remarked, still disembodied. Just then, she clanked the cooking pot shut and shuffled out into the living room, her face sleek with sweat.
“So, this is what school can do to people,” Bassey said, his attention fully on Matthew, whose cheerful countenance was fast disappearing. “God punish me if I return to that school.”
Matthew darted him a glance, his eyes dry and choking. “You’ll go back to the school, whether you like it or not. Do you hear?” He rose to his feet and stumbled forward in a needless frenzy. “Do you know how much I paid for your studies in that school?”
“I don’t care,” Bassey retorted. He would rather speak his mind than forever remain Matthew’s slave. After all, Matthew was his younger brother. And had Providence not been so unfair to him, this brother of his would not have had the privilege to speak to him as if to some ragged street beggar.
“You don’t what?” Matthew cut in, his paunch jiggering as if about to fall off. Then, he bit his lips, picked his hat from the table, and walked towards the door.
“It hasn’t come to this, in-law,” Lucy said entreatingly.
“Leave him alone. Let him go if he wants to go,” Bassey roared. And before he could finish his last sentence, Matthew opened the door and stormed out.
Bassey, exulting in his newfound liberty, turned to his wife, and said, “He thinks he can fool me. He thinks I don’t know anything. Tell me: how can the earth turn?”