It was her mother screaming. It sounded as if the past was bewailing the loss of its future. In all of Ebitimi’s five seasons under the sun, she had never heard her mother make noise like that… It was a bad noise… It was a hurt bad noise…like something unseen crying out of that dark place the village elders spoke of only in frightened whispers… The small patch of closely clustered trees in the forest only Yaagba could enter, and only once in seven days, always with a fresh offering bowl in her left hand and a fowl clucking furiously in her right…
“Aaaaaghhhh!” Ebitimi’s mother screamed again and the forest echoed her anew. The sound shattered the peace of the forest and set the monkeys cannoning from swinging branch to swinging branch, screeching as if their tails had caught fire. Birds deserted the surrounding trees, setting off a shower of leaves and panic-hot droppings. The undergrowth erupted as a bigger animal lurched noisily away, grunting repeatedly with effort.
The screaming terrified Ebitimi, but she could tell it did not scare the baby into wanting to remain in her mother’s belly. The poor thing was bent on being born immediately. Mama had spoken often of the coming… “You’re going to have a little sister or brother,” she’d said as they shared a tree stump in the back yard, pounding the bitterness out of bitter leaves in readiness for vegetable soup. “Promise me you will watch over the little one until he is big enough to walk without falling.” Mama had spoken sweetly of what it would be like when the little one arrived; how much fun Ebitimi would have with a brother or sister to play with all the time. But there had been no talk of Mama collapsing in the woods, shrieking, ripped into by involuntary spasms. No one had warned her that childbirth was a terrifying experience that could incapacitate a grown woman, even one as strong and active as her mother. Worse still, help was nowhere nearby.
All those nights she had pretended to be asleep on the raffia mat, listening to her parents talk about that elusive son. Talk? No, they had done more than talk. Her father had threatened often to take a third wife to produce the “many strong boys” he wanted so desperately if her mother failed to do something soon. Her mother often choked back sobs as she pleaded with him that she was doing everything as guided by Yaagba, who knew the spiritual and natural worlds and the ways of all things.
“My husband, the gods choose to delay. We are but dust in the path of their windstorm breath. Can one be held responsible for the choices they make? Have I not given you one child already?”
“A girl! Was that part of our arrangement?”
“A girl is a child-”
“You make excuses woman! You give me excuses! No more! I have six girls from my first wife and one from you. That is more than enough! I married you for a son! A son!”
“It is the first thing I think about in the morning, my husband. And the last thing before I close my eyes at night-”
“Your family promised me a house full of male children! Your body is supposed to be full of sons. Give me a son next or go back to your family. A son! I grow weary, woman. I have had enough of waiting, woman!”
“I will cry harder to the gods, my husband. And I will plead with our mother Yaagba again. Be patient with me please…”
That child of expectation now had her mother thrashing in agony on the grass beside the pile of firewood they had spent so much time gathering. If only there was a way to tell the child to stop hurting her mother, their mother…
“Go!” Mama’s pained voice pierced Ebitimi’s thoughts again. “Find someone! Find your father! Stay on the trail! Go – aaaghhhhh!”
Ebitimi began to cry. Mama had planned to make her father’s favorite delicacy. It was her turn to make dinner for Papa and she saw the food as an opportunity to put their last late night exchange behind them. That was why both of them had broached the forest to gather brushwood. Dry firewood had all been picked out closer to the village, so they had ventured farther than usual into the forest, despite Yaagba’s warnings that strangers had been sighted in the area… Men who did the bidding of masters floating on big vessels that conquered big waters to reach faraway lands… “Bad men” Yaagba called them, spitting bitter phlegm and shaking her scraggy head each time she did. “Bad bad men…” Her mother was heaving on the ground like a goat with its throat inexpertly slit, and Ebi knew she had to go back to the village on her own… The little girl felt the fear rise again.
“Get someone, Ebitimi!” Mama said, pointing in the general direction of the village. “Hurry!”
Ebi used a big leaf to brush off ants crawling up her mother’s writhing legs before turning around. A faint path spread out before her, worn out of the forest floor by many footprints. She took off, her mother’s words echoing like an open hand smacking a naked backside, imprinting the reason for the screams into flesh, repeating, imprinting, repeating, imprinting… She would do anything to spare her mother this agony. Ebitimi ran.
The foliage seemed to be parting for her, just like the stream parted whenever her mother stood her in the center of its flow to bathe her in the morning. As she ran, the shrubs and vines backed away and then recoiled to slap at her, grabbing, asking why she was in haste to desert them, urging her to pause and play. Leaves and twigs crunched under her bare feet. Up above, the branches and tree-tops formed a canopy that blocked the sun, a shield only breached where a giant tree had collapsed and new shoots were still caught in a battle of the fittest to occupy the space vacated. Animals in nearby and distant trees squawked, grunted, cackled and gibbered. Insects on wings buzzed near her ears, keeping pace with her. A screech close up scared Ebitimi and without stopping, she cast her eyes around to see what was making the noise.
She ran into a tree. It was as if it had magically appeared out of nowhere. Her nose hit the tree trunk first, sending pain like she had never felt before shooting through her head and all over her body. Ebi’s eyes watered instantly and a sob escaped before she remembered her mother was probably in worse pain and was in need of help. She stifled the sob quickly, got back groggily on the faint trail and started running again.
The path directly ahead meandered around the forbidden clump of trees. Ebitimi stopped, panting, her heart booming. She needed to catch her breath for a moment, in readiness for the spurt of speed she would muster to pass the scary circle. Just as she felt her legs were ready to propel her forward, Ebi looked at the ground. There was a snake on the path, its head raised, looking at her. It wasn’t like any of the snakes her mother had assured her were harmless, so she knew she had to stay away from it. Those were her mother’s very precise instructions.
“I see you crawler,” she muttered. “I see you and I stay away.”
Ebi stepped off the trail, her eyes unwavering as she watched the snake watch her, its head turning slowly to follow her progress. She started walking around it in a half-circle, with the intention of returning to the path further down.
And that was when she heard the sound.
Some people were coming her way, but the undergrowth absorbed much of the clanking sound preceding them and made it difficult for her to determine the direction from which they were coming. Ebitimi wondered if they were from or heading to her village. It could mean help for her mother.
She could hear words now…
What language was that?
She thought of running or calling out to them for help, but the snake was still there, dark as death, blazing eyes pinned on her…
No, it wasn’t.
The snake was gone. She had glanced away only for a moment, but it was enough for the creature to slip into the underbrush. But Ebi realized the disappearance only created a different problem. Was the animal slithering away from her, alarmed by the oncoming footfalls, or was it using the grass, saplings and low vines as cover to sneak up on her?
Ebitimi began to move backwards as quickly as she could, half bowed, eyes scanning the ground for any sign of the snake. Bushes got in the way, making her stumble. Tree branches became hands in her mind, slapping and grabbing, scaring her into retreating faster, frantically. Her nose was ticklish. She brushed at it with her forearm, re-awakening the searing pain. Now there was a streak of blood on her arm. She would use a leaf to wipe it off…
She was in the forbidden grove.
Somehow, she had walked back first into the cluster. It was like venturing into another world. The trees towering above her seemed to be closing in, concocting a plan that would end up with them choking her and grinding her fragile bones. Ebi felt very small.
There was a shrine in the corner under the biggest of the trees, a bulging behemoth with a tangled mass of branches that swayed eerily in the air like groping hands, even though there was no wind. The little girl was paralyzed with fear. She had to be standing before the mother of every tree growing in the forest…in every forest. Animal skeletons, shards of ritual pots and other remnants of sacrifices littered the ground before it in layers. The distant rattle of metal in the air added a dream-like quality to the moment.
A voice barked what sounded like orders in the same strange language Ebitimi had heard earlier, followed by a disembodied shriek that scattered the birds on every nearby tree. Ebi knew every big tree in the forest had a spirit and this had to be the giant tree’s spirit that was screaming a warning at her, telling her to run, disappear, or be swallowed whole and stripped to the bone. The sound broke her out of the trance that had engulfed her and the little girl’s legs grew wings of their own accord. She bolted out of the clump of trees, limbs flailing, through the woods, her bloodied nose dripping snort. She could not process any thought in her panicked state, but she ran nevertheless, instinct compelling her to get as far away as possible from the sacred grove, the voices and the eerie jangle of metal.
After some time stumbling through the bushes, Ebitimi stopped to catch her breath and take in her surroundings. There were huge trees everywhere, but none that seemed familiar. More importantly, she was nowhere near the cluster anymore and only silence enclosed her. She had lost all sense of direction. There had to be a way back to the path, Ebi thought. She only had to find it. Her mother had often assured her that all paths — like all rivers — eventually led someplace, and to people. She needed desperately to find the path. Any path. Her mother was relying on her to bring help.
Sobbing quietly, Ebitimi wandered from tree to tree, careful to avoid unknown animal cries and disturbed bushes. She finally burst onto a trail. It didn’t look familiar and she had no idea in what direction she ought to go, but she listened for a sound to guide her, hoping the village was nearer than she’d thought.
Ebi decided to try one way first. If it led nowhere soon enough, she would retrace her steps and try the other way. She would be alright as long as she remained on the trail.
She saw the figure lying on the ground as soon as she followed a bend in the path. It was her mother. Dismayed, Ebitimi realized she had deviated so significantly from her planned course that her feet had only brought her back to where she started from. She ran to her mother, the tears of frustration gushing from her eyes like water from a stream’s rocky source.
“I am sorry Mama. There was a snake and I got lost and I heard a loud noise-”
“Shhh, Ebitimi, you tried. You did your best. Don’t cry. You did your best. It seems the gods have other plans…”
Ebi stared at her mother. She could tell Mama was still in pain and bleeding; she seemed changed, somehow shrunken. There was a small rock with a bloody jagged edge beside her. It looked like it had been used to hack something.
“I can try again. I think the snake is gone now…”
“I’m not so sure that is a good idea. Maybe someone will come soon. If you give me some time to recover my strength, we may be able to leave together. If we go slowly, I should be able to make it.”
Mama’s smile was beatific as she slowly uncovered what appeared to be a listless pile of clothes in her arms. It was a baby bundled up in pieces ripped from her wrapper. “See,” she said, “you have a brother.”
There he was! The little troublemaker! Stirring and purring like the puppies she had seen in the village, suckling contentedly. Leaves and earth and dead ants were plastered to the sticky stuff on his body. A boy! Ebitimi could tell her Mama was extremely weak, but there was a new fire burning inside her eyes that was incredible joy to behold. Triumph! It was rejuvenating. The little girl was excited for her mother.
“Will Papa be happy now?”
“Yes, Ebi,” her mother replied sadly, “Papa will be happy now.”
Ebitimi smiled faintly, letting go of the worries that had weighed on her mind since their ordeal began. Now they just had to figure out how to get back to the village and Papa.
“Do you hear something?”
Her mother was trying to sit up, listening intently. Ebi did too. It was the rattling sound from earlier, like chains swinging ponderously in time.
“I heard that noise before I got lost Mama. I heard people speaking a language I don’t know.”
Her mother’s countenance changed instantly.
“Here, Ebi, take your brother. Quick.”
Ebi took her little brother. He was slippery in the rags so she had to hold on tight.
“Be gentle. Promise me you will take care of him and get him back to your father.”
“Why Mama? You’re coming too-”
“Promise me, child,” her mother said earnestly.
“I promise Mama. You know I will.”
The sound was getting closer, the laborious metallic clatter of lumbering motion in discordant harmony. They could hear voices and footsteps…
Her mother pointed. “Go, child. Hide behind those trees. Do not make any noise, whatever you hear or see. No noise. And keep your brother quiet. If it is safe, I will call you to come out. If anything happens to me, you must take your brother and follow the path again – that way – back to the village. Do you understand?”
The little girl was confused. “What will happen to you Mama?”
“That way goes back to the village Ebi. Go now, hide!”
Her mother’s voice had become a desperate whisper.
“No Mama.” Ebi whispered too. And the fear was back, amplified. Her tears flowed again.
“You will do as I say, child. This is no time for crying, Ebitimi. Whatever happens, you must get back safely to the village with your brother. Just stay on the path. Go now. Please, go, they’re almost here.”
Her mother gave her and the little bundle in her arms a clumsy embrace before shoving them gently away, grimacing from the effort. Ebi stumbled into the undergrowth again, her sleeping brother in her arms, struggling to keep from falling.
“Hide,” her mother urged one last time.
Ebi peeked from behind the tree, shuddering. A man appeared holding what looked like a long thin club with a hole in its snout. Other men followed, holding similar clubs. After them came a long coffle; men, women and children chained in pairs with iron shackles and neck collars. The women looked lost and miserable, the children were crying, and the men had their head bowed in defeat, whipped constantly to move faster by their captors, the men with the clubs. The sight filled the little girl’s heart with foreboding. None of them looked or dressed like people from her village. Ebitimi shrank silently, stifling her booming-scared heart, scampering from one tree to another, trying to disappear. The voices and movements on the path suddenly became animated. It sounded like they had seen her mother.
Mama began to scream… Not for Ebi. She screamed for help in the loudest voice the little girl had ever heard. She begged the gods to remember her many supplications and appear to help her. Ebi sprang up and was about to dash to her side when the baby burped, reminding her of her promise to her mother. She stopped and ducked again.
There was more wailing now. Her mother lamented and the people in chains lamented with her. Mama fought as she was dragged upright and added to the end of the jangling chain link. The march continued. In a short while, they were out of sight and the forest soon swallowed the disturbing rattle of chains. Only the patch of drying blood on the ground was left of her mother.
A broken Ebi waited even longer to be sure the procession was gone. She sobbed and her arms ached as she headed for the village. Contrary to what her mother had said, she stayed away from the trail for the rest of her journey. She was too frightened of running into more of the strange men. As long as she kept the path in sight, she would be fine.
Ebitimi walked until the trees thinned and she began to see huts in the gaps, past the structures on the outskirts, through children in charmed circles anticipating a full moon… Straight into the arms of the first adult she saw standing there like a dog sniffing trouble riding the wind…
Yaagba took the little girl and her new brother in while Ebitimi’s father and a search party of the strongest men in the village followed blood and tracks in the fading light. They were gone all night and most of the following day. Ebitimi heard them the next day saying all traces of the strange men who abducted her mother disappeared at a deserted wooden shed by the big water. Whatever was in the shed had been taken away by boats, they were certain.
Yaagba said the “bad men” from far away had her mother forever now…
Ebitimi cried and would not be consoled.
A short story from the book BLOOD WILL CALL, by Sola Osofisan