Ama said men rape women when a wildfire breaks out in their waists, and that the logs just below their waistlines are almost always on fire. She said only a man’s water quenches his furnace, howbeit the gods have drilled the source by which his stream is set on its course between a woman’s legs. Mother said he wouldn’t get his fiery body off you until he, being an epileptic dog, rumbles in seizure as his water puts the fire out.
But when the ambushing firemen appeared from the forest paths and shared the Urie waterside with me, there were no rumbles, no growling from epileptic dogs. Ama also said it felt like a lifetime, the mere two or five or ten or thirty minutes of men’s raiding. It depended on the number of burning men and how your urim—a personal god—chooses to deal with you for transgressions unatoned.
My firemen were disappointments. They didn’t hang on to be cooled, for their stream to be set on course. They hurried off towards Ivuru, the eastern mountains, with herky-jerky waists stuck in unresolved desire.
If only the raping men had pre-informed me, I would have cursed, fussed, sworn and dashed to Apa’s hut to alarm him. I would whine and he would breeze out, his infinitely sharpened machete at hand, and then return with their heads dripping fresh blood from the goatskin bag always slung across the tree trunk he had for shoulders.
Apa’s urim worked wonders through him. Some said it was because he sacrificed the most livestock in the annual kakeneipie festival, and others said he had toiled his way through the ranks and deserved an uncontested spot among the great men of the clan. But why would I or anyone else who calls him father care? We leave small talk and speculation to failed men and families. He says so when his little children cluster in his stuffy hut, listening to folk stories they had heard a million times.
“Inu,” he would call me by habit, often to say nothing new, “Ikei would keep your beautiful wings flapping as he does for the sunbird.”
“Thank you, Apa Ashi.”
Or, maybe I hadn’t been raped after all. What those men—one bald and built, the other thin and tall—did to me is hard to explain, and it didn’t make me feel the hate Ama said rape stirred in a woman.
Apa, on the other hand, would rather be circled in enemy territory than caught romancing whatever seemed a threat. No one would dare put at risk, let alone harm, a soul belonging to his household. Not with the deadening dread his name so imperially imposed. Who would think of such suicide in all of the clans and the distant lands? Our father spoke of what called others to alarm like something to be craved, like an opportunity to further engrave his name on the sands of time.
The thundercrack of a slap Ikwen received in Apa’s hut that clear-skied evening must have echoed to the underworld, the realm of the spirits. “Where were you and Ashi when she left the compound?” When Apa barked this way, the dogs either buried their tails under their bellies or hid them between their legs. They sought cover like snails recoiling to their shells.
I stood dead, watching from the threshold. Apa had just finished his customary sacrifice to Ikei, the urim of war and strength and his sleeping mat was rolled up on its bamboo platform. The hut stunk of cassava stem, plantain peels and dog excreta all dried and burnt in a clay pot on Ikei’s altar. It was a small corner at one end of the congested space. He stationed Ikei on it, alongside urine-daubed cowries, kegs of palm wine, dead bees and the four skulls of the wild beasts he had killed far away in Ikom forest.
The one that came with the most glory was that of an evasive lion that’d killed dozens in Ikom. It hung high above from the sagging thatch roof. There also were six human skulls tacked to one end of the mud wall, but it was that of the lion Apa spoke of with the most pride. Killing a man, he says, is no different from cutting the throat of a cock and even women do so.
My father was a man cut out for big things. He was a friend of the gods too.
“A child’s first urim must be their father,” he says. “Or mother for the fatherless.” He snickers.
“Apa,” I once said, “the gods favour you as though you are one of them. Why do they not do the same for Ama?” He laughed his chest out. It was a part of him I’d seen more than anyone else.
“When did you see your first blood?”
“Two kakeneipie festivals ago, Apa.”
Ama used to say, you don’t choose for Urim—Urim chooses for you. He was the supreme father, the almighty one someplace deep and far in the sky, and then there was a less supreme, personal one, down in one’s heart—and on one’s altar at an end of their hut.
I kept at the threshold, eyes on Apa and Ikwen in the palm-oil lamp-lit space. There was more fury to Ikwen’s stance, but he was less monstrous. He was however slightly taller—Apa might have needed to lay a tiny yam tuber on his head to level up. But Ikwen would need a few more years of fufu and fried groundnut soup, stone-lifting, sand-hauling and mountain climbing to bulk up as much as Apa.
The strike from Apa easily passed for a shocker because no sooner had Ikwen married his first wife than Apa stopped slapping him. But our father did say often that no matter how tall a well-staked pumpkin grows, it never grows beyond the planter’s reach. Ikwen must have been happy if nothing else that his wives and children were not present to see his face contort like that of a child forced to drink from a pot of bitter leaf water left overnight.
“Apa,” he said, absorbing the shock, pain and fury in a breath, “I sent Ashi to my farm. I had no idea Inu would go to the river.”
“YOU ARE A FOOL!”
“I… I’ll go—”
“Where are your brothers?” He sheathed a machete.
“The playground. I doubt they’ve heard. They’re watching the children dance.”
“Fools! Men, they expect to be called, but they carry water in their heads and holes between their legs.”
Ikwen turned, looking down at me. Literally, that is. Metaphorically, he wouldn’t, ever. I’m too dear a thing and even fury isn’t enough to make anyone forget.
I caught only a faint glimpse of his eyes. And there, in them, was the terror Apa had summoned, the same terror in all his sons. There was madness and rage. More importantly, there was compassion for my tiny, fragile frame. His countenance formed a confluence of experiences. There was a bit of irritation too that may have said, Apa now insults us because of you. Are you so foolish as to go to Urie alone?
“I am sorry, Apa.” Another smack followed, and a third. By now the muscles on his face had adapted to new conditions. Perhaps if Apa had slapped him the fourth time, he would’ve felt nothing.
“Gather your water-head brothers. Ashi is coming along. We head east, to the mountains.”
“Ivuru clan,” Ikwen mumbled, bit his lip and pouted. “Yes, Apa.”
By the time my brothers were assembled, none of them dared ask any questions or say anything at all. Apa had a lance with a long shaft in his right hand, two machetes customarily sheathed on both ends of his waist, a bow and a goatskin quiver across his shoulders. There were short, thick arrows, in it. He also had two curved daggers in leather sheaths tied around each knee and a shield made of double-layered cowhide. It was clipped to the quiver on his back. His sons were outfitted after his likeness, all dressed up in goatskin skirts and vests whereupon cowries were knitted.
There was horror in the air, cold revenge and fiery temper smelling of fresh blood, rolling heads and flesh cut open. Apa had raised more than a large family. His was more of an empire, and there were gossips from shut lips that opened only at narrow edges that king Unimshe was growing envious and wary of the threat my family posed to his position as king in Aboh.
But every time Apa and the king sat together in the mornings under the thatched shed by his hut, smoked bush meat and fresh palm wine served before them, they made jokes about the idle talks of the common people.
“Poor, low lives,” the king would say.
“You can’t expect better.” Apa expected nothing but fear from people. He had also married his eldest daughter off to the king’s first son, a token of their alliance. The friendship was indeed as eternal as it was sealed.
I didn’t weep or mourn or feel like a piece of meat like Ama had said of rape victims. All that happened was merely losing a few things: sleep, appetite, fears and invisible yokes. Weights. I became airy and swoosh like I would soar or float if I let my feet have their way. I became intangible, like the cool breeze that blows over my head when I wash my hair at Urie. It tasted like liberty. A chain was off, flicked out, deep down in my heart. I didn’t weep for days or mourn in travail or feel the sort of despair Ama often spoke of.
And so, I found Apa’s madness outrageous, uncalled for—pure insanity.
“We head over the mountains!” Apa’s syllables were each loud and clear, a breath after everyone.
“Ivuru!” Ikwen echoed. They sprang off the compound and the dogs strutted along.
We still feared Apa even in that state of jealous protection. No one behind dared wail or ask why all the men had to go or show any emotion that suggested weakness until he was out of sight. Ama hadn’t been out all day. There must have been two large water pots inside her head. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to weep as much as she did that day.
Ama would later call me into her hut and have me meditate with her over the reeking of the ritual mix burning in her clay pot. She prayed to Ukuru, the urim of fruitfulness. Ama was naked. She had six daughters whose ears she filled with garbage about rape and one son who was more with his father than by himself. We offered a cock as a sacrifice, pleading Ukuru to make Apa’s mission fruitful.
The firemen stirred sensations resembling all Apa and Ama claimed to happen in children when urim, the lesser but personal god, arose in their budding hearts. I felt the airiness, the breeziness—a nomadic heart searching for a home, or perhaps, an inhabitant for its home.
Ama’s hut was my go-to for the nights after Apa’s departure. I would watch her closely each time. She would unroll her raffia mat from its bamboo platform, lower it before her altar and cry before Ukuru until the burning mix in her pot goes out like a raping man whose water has been set on its course.
“Inu, shut your eyes and sleep.” Despite the darkness, she saw me each time. Ama saw better in her heart than with her eyes.
But her urim was nowhere near Apa’s. Going by the records, it was Apa’s urim alone that never failed him. So, every time Ama cried to Ukuru, I wondered whether she was painfully admitting his inadequacy and mourning the helplessness or asking him why he hadn’t protected me even though he could. The latter would be out of place. Ama shouldn’t expect the urim whose job is to make women and farmers fruitful to save me from armed men. It was an occasion for an urim like Apa’s. And perhaps Ikei had been unaware. I told no one before leaving the compound.
Each day after the grand departure, I would sit on my haunches or fix myself on the baked clay floor, lotus style, watching Ama have her worship and reflections. They became the same for her. I always joined in, transcending, leaving her behind, journeying farther than Apa could ever go, searching and searching.
Freedom lay hidden somewhere, someplace far beyond the clans. Such days left no small comfort, sprinting shoots in my tender soul. Urim was near, wasn’t he? All that was left were the dreams Apa and Ama spoke of. The prospects were good, the signals promising.
But king Unimshe ceased to grace us with his presence after Apa left—he showed no identification or support. And Akeribo, his youngest son, no longer stopped by. We no longer went to farms and bush paths with bodyguards and maidens. He no longer brought small baskets of cocoa and cassava even though he knew my father had barns of them.
“Take them,” he would say, spirited adolescence spilling from every corner, “I can get you more.”
Ama described men to be creatures of ego, of a wild and unsettling consciousness of self. Maybe Akeribo was now mad that I tried to quench another man’s fire, something I never considered doing for him because I didn’t want to annoy Apa and Ama. Maybe when a man desires you for a quelling of the fire in his waist, he expects you to ignore everyone else’s flames.
Three market days had passed without any sign of Apa when one sunny morning I woke up to screeching wheels and up-close neighing. Horses, the large battle dogs Apa said the eastern clans acquired from foreigners because they needed the prowess of large beasts to make up for their cowardice.
And when I jerked off Ama’s sleeping mat, she wasn’t there by my side. I turned to Ukuru’s altar and she wasn’t there either. If not for the uproar outside, I wouldn’t have found her absence worrisome seeing much of the morning was spent. But as I made out for a glimpse of the confounding unrest, a hunk perhaps Apa’s size breezed past the door of the hut with a baby held like a piece of pork. It must have been Ikwen’s first son.
Had I not heard a bash against the mud wall afterwards, a thud like the pounding of fufu, I would have presumed it was Apa. A soft, brief whimper followed. I reached for the crooked dagger on Ukuru’s altar, but terror soon made it water between my fingers – it leaked off once the hunk of a man squeezed into the hut, coal-black with eyes dripping death.
“Tiny fish. You won’t slip through this time,” he jeered.
Before I would find a voice to scream or a thought for action, my head had already been buried in a cowry bag.
The bag neither let me give out nor receive breath, let alone see what was happening. But there was a beacon of hope: the hunk hadn’t knotted the strings. I slid an arm out from his grip and pulled the bag upward until my eyes were out, more from curiosity and surprise than the need to breathe. The man was as quick as he was strong. In a flash, he sent me back into the bag with an accompanying smack—there rose a dizzying flow in my head.
I hadn’t seen much in the time my eyes were out, before I was bundled into a cart like a bag of cocoyam. I couldn’t tell if Ama and the rest of Apa’s family were being abducted too. But I saw Uyetoshu outside our fence, the king’s daughter whose hair was as brown as the playground sand and her body nearly as white as palm wine. Ama said Uyetoshu began to turn white when she was bitten by a millipede on a walk to the royal family’s farmland.
I saw king Unimshe as well. He stood by one of the carts, his face rife with strife, as resolute as the bark of an oak tree. And there, by his side, his son Akeribo stood and watched as the hunk stuffed me around.
We travelled for days on squeaky wheels, plodding and galloping endlessly as if heading nowhere. All there was for me to see were walls of plank and sun rays breaking into the roofed cart. We halted a few times, mostly for my one-square meals. It would peek in at a corner from a feminine hand, fufu and water—there was hardly any soup—slipped in through a narrow opening half the size of the window back in Ama’s hut.
“Daughter of a god.” The mockery was unmistakable. “Come on, here’s a banquet; dine with the gods and goddesses.”
Once, Apa did talk about men, women and children being wheeled off, never to be returned. He said there were such reports from neighbouring villages and clans, but he never said it like something that could happen to me.
With the new life inside the hay-floored cart came much peace. I was free to fly in the nest. The solitude was more satisfying than anything before it. I got light, brighter than Uyetoshu the white princess. I felt soothing warmth far more comforting than a sunny morning during the rainy season. Weightlessness and airiness encircled; ease lighter than the hunk had it bundling me into the cart.
For the first time in my life, I spent days without having to go to the river for Ama. I didn’t need to gather with the other children in the playground as they listen to ageing women tell fearful tales. I was all by myself. No one sent me on errands with keen escorts brooding. I would sit inside the cart, balancing on the hay, lotus style, meditating, searching and searching. It went on for seven relentless days.
I would feel my heart spew into a thousand streams of wandering liberty as I float as a raft by sea. Those were the days of soaring like the eagle and, like clay or heated iron, taking up other forms. There was magic in my soul. Apa didn’t know, he couldn’t have known how honoured one must be to have foreigners wheel them off.
On the fifth night in the cart, I saw, in a dream, a starry giant three times Apa’s size. He was too bright for bare eyes. “Inu!” He called, laughed, unveiled wings from his underarms and then flew off.
I had the same dream on my sixth night inside the cart. And then, on the seventh afternoon, a nap overtook me. The good Urim up in the sky finally showed compassion with a third dream, the same one, a confirmation, if all Apa and Ama said was true.
Ille, the urim of light. It was glorious, too sizzling for words. I had been reborn, reborn by the sun and moon—only inside a dungeon dark as the region of the underworld where the spirits of evil ancestors are confined.
The seventh day was winding and dusk was setting in when the group of carts came to a sudden halt and the horse riders swung them open. There was some sense of finality as they made giggles and exchanged pleasantries as though they hadn’t been journeying together all along. And there was something else. There was the rushing sound of water, as if close to Urie. And other than the sound of waves tossed here and there, I could hear tongues weave, one into another. Men were chitchatting, jesting in an unknown tongue.
The hunk struck my cart open and fastened my hands and feet with cuffs. For the first time in seven days, I was faced with the light of day. I should have squinted, but why, when the light outside wasn’t half as blinding as the one Ille had now shed inside?
My legs were sour and numb from lying and sitting overmuch. As though the hunk knew, he gave me a hand and helped me out, levelling my body on his shoulder. There were five heavy boats by the river, boats bigger than I ever saw in Aboh, boats Apa may not have been able to singlehandedly push.
Figures like the men in our clan stood by the boats. They held whips and metallic projections. One of them shook his metal and the sound that followed deafened me. Birds on surrounding trees chirped, flying off at once. The chain cuff was such that stretched long enough to let me cover both ears with my hands. The figures laughed, and the hunk bundled us—for we were many—into the boats. Ama and everyone else from our compound were still not within eyeshot.
“Where’s this?” I was contentedly settling in on my tiny boat corner. “Where are we heading?”
“Far from home.” The hunk was bent over the rusty boat, his eyes scanning through the files of abductees.
“Very far. About to go farther, Ikwa.” He called me a fool. No one had ever called someone else a fool more tenderly and lovingly.
I stared at the white-skinned men with intent and caught dry smiles when they looked my way. Ille, the urim of light, had introduced himself in splendour and with majesty, imperiousness that would make even Apa shut his ears with both hands or else be deafened. I’d met a people of light. Need I a village priest’s confirmation?
If Apa had known there was such good in store for me, perhaps he wouldn’t have marched towards the eastern clans. And if Ama had known not all rape ended in tragedy and despair, that some ended in a windy emptiness, a void, a nothingness desirous of an infilling, perhaps she would only have prayed to Ukuru that I meet these people of light.
Or, Ama may have thought of rape that way only because Apa was overly tough and brutish. She hated to be married off to a man who had begun to force his way through things even before paying as much as one cowry bag from her thirty-bag dowry tag. Maybe she was in despair because when Apa raped her, he failed to do so the proper way—for he, unlike the men at Urie waterside, had persisted until the lever finely drilled between Ama’s legs had set his stream on its course.
Image: Chinta Pavan Kumar, Unsplash.com