Birthday Gifts [story] by Michael Agugom

Tonworio wanted the sea to come to him. He stood at the shore and waited. The moon was cut in half on the sea and its reflection created crystal splinters on the sea. He saw her, the small gentle wave coming. He smiled: the sea held his gift.

He wanted a gift, a present. He knew his mother could not get him one like the mothers of the city children he had seen on Ol’Soja’s colour TV; he knew his mother was poor; he knew being poor meant not having all he wanted, when he wanted it. Now, only the sea could give him a gift, the gift of a kiss. That’s all he wanted.

“Tonworio!” His mother called out from inside. He heard her but pretended not to, daring an imminent blow from her, daring the sea to reach him before his mother did. His eyes remained on the wave, she was coming at the pace of a pregnant woman in contraction. Then he heard the door bang behind him and his mother’s slippers making that noise as the pair slap her feet. She was coming to him from behind. He remained unmoved.

“You’re keeping me quiet, Tonworio. I’ll slap your head off when I meet you there!”

He was unfazed. “Keep coming, keep coming,” he muttered to the sea.

“Tonworio, I’m talking to you,” her mother’s voice came closer, “move away from there at once!”

He would not heed. “I’m here for you,” he said to the sea. He saw her rise to a small mountain size. He shut his eyes, only this way could he enjoy the feeling that the sea would bring. The wave descended from her height and spread out like a mat at his feet. She lapped at his feet and it felt like the cold tongue of a sick dog. She was swallowing him gradually, crawling up his ankle, and the surge of peace, of wholesomeness wound through him, and then her mother’s hand grabbed his shoulder, pulled him away and smacked his head. He did not feel any pain. The feeling from the sea-kiss was worth all the blows that could come from his mother. He grinned; the sea coiled back gently like a snake, smoothing out the wet white sand she left behind.

“Get back in the house,” his mother bawled, “what will destroy you one day will come from this sea. What’s wrong with you!”

Tonworio wanted to dig his finger in the cold sea-sand and write his name on it so that when the sea returned in his absence she would take his name along with her. And she would never forget him in her belly. His mother dragged him by the hand into their batcher. She had not stopped talking: “what’s gotten into you! You no longer listen to me! I’m your mother! You should listen to me; you’re the only eye I see with. Why can’t you understand that?” Tonworio said nothing. He understood her and wished she understood him.

In their batcher, his bed was a mat, the mat was warm. His mother covered him with the blanket the local politician shared during election campaign. The blanket had the politician’s face on it. Tonworio’s mother prayed in heart that her son should grow into a big politician one day. She went out and returned with a gift in her hand. He stared at her son for a few seconds then sat by his side. “You know I would love to give you anything you wanted but I can’t. You know how we’re…I’m sorry I didn’t mean to hit you but you always push my hand to do it. You must always listen to me. You must always answer me when I call you. Here, I bought this for you.” Tonworio raised his head. He saw it was a used toy car. He collected it and beamed a smile at his mother. “Happy birthday,” she said. But Tonworio’s attention was on the toy. She patted his head and got up to leave. She was at the door when Tonworio blurted, “mother, I love you.” He had never said a thing like this to his mother. He had heard it from the city children he saw on the TV. The children said those to their parents when they received gift items. He reasoned it was the right thing to say to his mother, in gratitude. His mother had not anticipated it; she was filled with immense joy. She dashed back to him and kissed his forehead, “sleep well, my beloved son.”

He held the toy to his side under the blanket. He shut his eyes and dreamt of his mother wearing a milk lace dress with a gold embroidery hair-tire. He was wearing designer sneakers, a Denim jean trouser and a Tommy Hilfiger shirt. They were in a pose behind his birthday cake with his name and birthday coated on the cake. The photographer asked them to say “cheers!” They did and the photograph was taken. He cut his cake and shared it with the other island children who could not peel their eyes off his designer wears. He was the only child in good neat clothes. The other children had only dirty pants on and they did not bring him gifts: their parents were either dead or lying in the hospital for drinking the crude oil contaminated waters. Tonworio gave out new toys to every one of the children. They were overjoyed at the gift. They had never been to such a party that gave them more than plates of rice and meat the size of goat droppings. Tonworio was happy because they were happy. He smiled because they smiled, and joy made him bloat and grow taller than all the other children. He relished his new height. Food was shared by his mother so they ate, they drank, they laughed, they danced, and night came. His birthday was over. He lay on a mattress bed, and slept in his dream, his mother by his side.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

Image by Les Chatfield

Michael Agugom was born in Nigeria. He was a TV presenter and producer with the largest TV network in Africa. He teaches English language. His work has appeared in The Capra Review and elsewhere.