Life is a river. And so is death.
A river whose limpid waves lap at its banks, ferrying grains of whitewashed sand – freights of forgotten hopes. A river with dark currents, restless, perturbing the bleak bowels of the deep, masking the light of day. A river flowing in its destined course, its supple ripples looking back longingly, but never to return – gurgling over rocks that stand sentinel at a bend, the lollop, a lame attempt at a last farewell.
This river has flowed down the months, trickled through the sieve of days – the interminable hours straining my joy leaving a stony heart. It has meandered through the eternity of a cycle – a full year – eroding the heart but not the pain, dulling the tale but not the memory.
It looks innocent enough – on the surface. Its flow is undisturbed saved for occasional frowns when the gentle breeze breaks into a ripple on its brow – calm, serene, bearing the history of its source to a destined sea.
Evening welled up from the east. Up ahead the yellowing sun emptied its gold in the pockets of the west – daylight was being brought to penury. Tall trees swayed in the breath of the waxing shadows, their silhouettes darkening the mysterious dark waters of the brooding stream. This stream – this river, that holds my memory in its clutches – that feeds it with embers that burn my soul. This river that holds a life I had – a life lost in a watery grave. The tale will be told but will never be finished for this river flows eternally – never to be dried up – furnished by unending tears.
Sorrow, bleak and hapless has mastered my heart. The cold hands of the dark reaper has swung his Scythe at a cherished blossom. All is lost.
It was here by this river that runs its course through my little village, that I loved – and lost. It was here, a year ago that this watery vault gulped my vessel of love – my bride.
This little village of Aniocha has had its fair share of some history but I guess the annals would not be complete if the story of a prince is not told – a prince who loved a lady at the peril of a kingdom. The idea of love is not strange to my people for there are no people in this world , if they be men with heart within, and eyes without that are immured from the touch of that divine spark. And for a prince and heir to the throne his privileges and opportunities are more far-flung. There were ladies aplenty who were willing to offer up their love if he had but carelessly nodded to them.
But who can tell where the lightning will strike, who can say for sure where that spark, small it may be will start a flame. For there in a thread that runs through the affairs of men – and that thread is blind.
The sinking of the sun unreels my thoughts – pulls it out from the dark abyss of memory. The same way the lord of the day falls now, swallowed up the machinations of the west, so the love of my life fell consumed by a monstrous tradition.
I am master over a portion of the earthly realm – my people are quick to do the bidding of their future king. But a king is a king. A king is a man. Love also is a king. Love is man’s king. I had no choice – I had to obey the voice of the monarch – my feet could only go where my heart pointed – even if that path was against the wind – against an ancient tradition – against the very foundation of our existence. For my love great as it was, was lighted on none other than on an Osu. Of that the land would have no part.
For an Osu is a slave – in fact worse than a slave. They were individuals who had been dedicated to a god. They are to have no form of associations with the so called freeborns even in the most trivial of things such as eating together buying and selling in the markets. Such and other forms of interactions must be had strictly between their kind. And intermarriage was definitely out of the question. A freeborn can not marry an Osu and emphatically not if that freeborns happens to be the prince – heir to the throne. But the waves were fervent, feeding the cascade of events. The lodestone that was my heart, spun with the erratic gusto of a crazed drummer and finally settled pointing to the hut of an outcast.
The darkness kept its march as Night spread its wings over the silent earth. Here I remain – here I sit at the threshold of twilight. Vain longings. Heart forlorn.
The bank of this river was a favourite spot of mine even before the eclipse that plunged my heart into eternal darkness. It was a calm and restful place for a quite soul to retire and contemplate the workings of nature. A haven where one withdrawing from the stench and narrowness of human society commit oneself to the dark recesses of leafy woods and inhale the aroma of the evergreen.
It was here – here in this humble surrounding that I first met Ifeoma. She had come to the river to fetch some water. It was in the cool of an evening. She had come in the company of a friend. I did not see them as they approached the stream but the spirited chatter of their voices reached my silence subdued ears. No man I believe ever forgets when he first comes in contact with true beauty – Not the beauty that rouses the senses to brute conquest and acquisition but a beauty that moves you to stand, that stills you to motion, that stirs your heart to such quiet that you forget all that you are and remember this – and this alone – that you are just one man on the face of the earth – no more, no less – one man with a love-throbbing heart. A beauty that peals the bells of wonder and an aura of harmony that weaves a braid of peace.
On my perch beneath a canopy of trees I knew they could not see me. I watched as the pair negotiated the slopy terrain down to the river. I watched the pair but had eyes only for one – one who stood in beauty in the somber light of the evening – illuminating it. I watched, enchanted, the woods all about me fading into nothingness at her approach. Dark and graceful. Lips that seem set in a perpetual smile.
She walked knee deep into the river. The water glad to be so honoured rippled all about in an epiphany breaking in diamond radiance upon the pebbled shore.
Her fetching pale brushed the surface of the water. Tilted. The water rushed in to fill it. She waded it gently to the river’s edge. Her voice – a spontaneous laughter – merry bells – the tinkling of crystals. This goddess waited at the shore for her priestess to join her.
The sun halted its fall at the horizon. To peep. A last peep. A worthy image to loll it. To a blissful sleep. The bowl rose to her head. Her back turned to me. She walked away. The darkness was returning. Then she slipped. And fell.
I found my voice!
“Good evening”. I barely heard myself.
I cleared my throat, as I clambered down from my perch
“Good evening ” I said again
I made towards her – half running, half walking. I reached out a hand and pulled her up. The spilled water in rivulets carved out paths to join the stream. She was initially stunned but started chuckling at the prodding from her companion. I mumbled my sympathy.
“This ground around here can be treacherous” I said
“That, I have found out today” she said, the remnant of a smile still playing on her lips.
“So I guess we start again” I continued, picking up the bowl and made for the river. I returned.
“What is your name?” I asked
“I am Dike. Is it possible to see you again?”
“That depends on what for and where”
“O just to make sure you are alright. That was a nasty fall you had.”
“I will be okay.”
“Whose daughter are you?” I pressed on.
“My father is Okaka. I must go now. Night is falling fast.”
“Okay. Take care of yourself.” I said.
That was the turning point in my life. The wings of love were fluttering in my heart. My poor beating member was on the verge of bursting with rapture. Where was the freshness before now – this air that swells to plumpness my lungs? Where the trees ever this radiant? – these branches of green that like fingers caress the last rays of the sun in a dance of light. Did this heart – my heart – ever beat? I doubt it. Did I ever truly live – till this moment. What is this feeling of cold warmth that ripples my bowels. A veil has been peeled of my eyes and I have seen it – another world. I hummed a tune beneath my breath as I made my way home.
It was full evening. Darkness ruled. But not for long. Behind solitary clouds on the elbow of the east was a flush of silver -harbinger of the mellow splendour of a rising moon. The exalted trees faithfully kept watch with me, their trunks leaning on the night, swaying lazily, their branches whistling a dirge in the wind.
It was on a moonlit night that I saw her again that same day. At the village square. Children ran this way and that – chasing each other worshipping the lamp of the night with their play.
I was returning from visiting a friend. She was running an errand for her father. Bathed in the silvery tide her beauty looked unearthly. My heart was racing afresh. I stopped to greet her.
“Thank you again for helping me” she said.
“I was glad to help”
“My father sent me to get some tobacco for his pipe” she continued.
“And my heart sent me this message, I wonder how to start” I replied.
“Pardon me. I do not mean to cause offence by this. Today my heart has gone out of me and has not returned” I said.
Silence. She said nothing.
“I know that for me things cannot remain the same again however this finally rolls. Dare I dare?”
“I have not know you for long but in these matters time is as short or as long as the heart perceives it. I do not know of eternity but within the confines of time, there are no absolutes. Though it seems I have known you for a short period but long it definitely is because I have waited for this all my life”
Silence. Just staring at me.
“Ifeoma, I have never been in love before and I have always wondered what that experience would make of me. Now I know.”
“You do?” she said
Her response startled me.
“Certainly. Today I have felt the throb of another heart next to mine I have seen the divine in mortal robes. I have looked upon the embodiment of all the goodness of heaven in a lady. My heart struck a note the first time I met you. That note has trickled down the grains of time. I am captive to its deathless refrain.”
“And what do you intend to do?” she said.
“Ifeoma, how do I say this? A little bird flutters near my minds ears and echoes that which my heart already knows and that is “I love you”. Not just an empty word issuing from the chambers of my beating member but a word rooted and thriving in the very essence of my soul. I desire to twine my love with yours. Will you take my hand – and my heart too? Will my wandering heart find rest in yours?”
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.” she said.
“And what does that mean?” I asked.
“That you would have to wait for my reply.”
“Waiting is a virtue that is difficult to have right now. But it is also a lesson I must have to learn.”
“I would have to beat my thoughts and all you have said to shape on the anvil of my heart.” she said.
“I pray the shape should fit my favour.”
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. It would go through its cycles – its manifold changes and impressions as the mind chews on it.”
“Such constancy of change might blight my hopes.”
“Or do the converse”
“That too. So when will it be?”
“This time tomorrow. Same place” she said. And she departed.
Daily, men pray not to see war, when there is one constantly raging within us. Goodnight my love. Until I see you again and hear what tidings those lips of yours have to offer, peace in my heart will be a privilege I can only imagine.
The night wore on. The sky above was laced with unnumbered sparks – the friendly fires of the stars. The moon’s gleam on the ripples like a ghost crept across the dark waters wafting my memory again to the past.
I had waited for her long before the appointed time. A cloud of anxiety stalled the flow of time. My worry-worn heart hung on my face which for the want of where to look was gazing up at the moon in fixed concentration.
“She would throw her washing water into your eyes” a voice said.
I turned around to see who spoke.
It was Ifeoma.
“What?” I asked.
“The woman in the moon – she would throw her washing water into your eyes”
“I don’t understand” I replied.
“You see those dark markings on the moon – they seem to form a woman, bending over and washing plates. And if you stareat her the way you are doing into your eyes would come the dirty water.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“From here and there” she said chuckling.
“Around and about probably?” I added, playfully.
“From above and below also” she said
“From varied places, it seems.” I continued. “like the wondering heart of a man in love.”
“Or the unsteady steps of a lady about to say “yes” ” she added placing her palm on the back of my hand.
The import of her gesture did not register in my mind immediately.
Then it did!
I felt like singing, I felt like crying. I felt like jumping, I felt like running. I felt like proclaiming it from the mountain top.
She loved me.
Yes, she loved me. She had made it known better than words would have done. The truth of her affection had been graced by better deeds other than words.
What words could do that?
What words could convey her message any more convincingly than her touch had done. May be she spoke after all – a speech of no words; spoke not audible words meant for the natural ear but silent words that were winged with light – illuminating the darkness in my heart; words which my thirsty soul drank hungrily like the dry, parched earth receiving its first rains.
That my protestation of love had yielded same filled me with joy that coursed through my veins in a riot. What fortune is mine that that I have her hand; richer I am with her heart in my keeping. To look into those clear, still eyes of hers and be lost in their wonder. To watch the love in her heart curve her lips in a smile to ravish my soul. To stand helpless before the aura of her enchantment – a prisoner – glad to be caught in those hoops – her arms.
The rest of that evening was spent in each others company muttering, what lovers have spoken to each other I guess since the dawn of time.
There was a time I would have thought this was impossible. That another mortal can engender this flame divine that burns in my heart. That the vessel of a man’s heart could known such peaceful waters in the harsh tempest of life. With sails billowing in the winds of fortune, this brave vessel bears me on into the unknown with a prayer for fair weather on my lips.
I have rifled the basket of the gods and taken their most treasured gem – a lady beautiful in form and bearing – a pair of eyes that hold the stars; dark tresses, cascading like a waterfall to frame a lovely face; a gait that flows with the liquid grace of a sylph – an outward form which was a true reflection of an equally beautiful soul.
Heaven I pray grant us good speed to our habour’s rest.
But that prayer was never to be answered – at least in the affirmative. Our joy was not to last. My world came crashing the very next day. In my joy I told my father – the king. And after a brief consultation with some of the palace courtiers, the sentence fell – she was from the lineage of an Osu so she would not be suitable for a prince. I pleaded, I remonstrated, but all to no avail. Then I fell to silence – silence was the last arguement to which I could resort.
Who is an Osu? How are they any different from so called freeborns? Does not the same warm red blood course through their veins? Is the beat of their heart any less appealing to the ears of The Creator when compared to ours? Why must men draw a line of seperation where the Almighty has not. The Creator is all-seeing, all wise with depths of knowledge beyond fathom. We are in no wise pawns in his hands. Options are laid bare before us and He bids us choose. Let no man say, he has no right to choose for in every man lies the potential for the making of something that exceeds mere earthly brute. Yet men choose to spite their neighbours because they were born under different circumstances. And I am told to turn my back on my love because of an accident of birth.
They are lowborn?
What does that mean?
Did they like us not come into the world from between a woman’s parted legs? Did they too not ride the cry of labour pains.
And what is it to be a freeborn?
What does that mean?
Like them, are four limbs and a head not our lot, we who prance, who scorn and who never dare to see them as peers; though Death and Deity proclaim us so.
I am a prince and he is a slave!
I am rich and he is poor!
We are freeborns and they are Osu!
One man cries one thing, another cries the other – but in essence what are we all but exalted dust – some are not as privileged in life as others but that is no reason to make their already difficult life impossible.
We flatter ourselves with titles and appellations, we bloat our egos deriding our less endowed colleagues. We forget in our vanity that the day comes when we will be beaten back to the dust from which we came.
I met with Ifeoma on several occasion – secretly of course. The more I saw her the greater was my conviction that we were not destined to be apart. She shared my beliefs about the equality of all men but at a point her resolve weakened. She was willing to part ways with me for the sake of peace. Tradition was adamant in this case and she did not know if she could put up a never ending fight against the displeasure of ancestors past, the reproach of those living and the scorn of posterity. And at such times I did my best talk her back to my or should I say our side. Peace in not necessarily won by shrinking from battle. Such a peace as we would achieve by parting ways would not really be peace – it would only be a relative calm – the deceptive calm before a thunderstorm. Ours is only the first of several chains that have been forged – more would follow. And what would the others do then – withdraw for “peace sake” – that would not do. We must stand on what we believe – because it is right. We must not bind ourselves when heaven has proclaimed us free. We are up against a long standing tradition and it doesn’t seem that we stand a chance but we will keep at it – for no matter how thin an arm is, there is always bone in it – we must wedge our resolve firm in our hearts – perhaps the tide will turn, perhaps it wouldn’t, but we would not be guilty of remaining silent in our chains – such a life cannot be so sweet to be purchased at the price of bondage.
And if this place that we call home cannot afford us the privilege of being free to unite our love in wedlock then we must find our home and our fortune elsewhere. We must live all behind – we must brave it into the world – we must elope.
It was a painful decision to make but what other option was left us. Parting was not a consideration – it would be unbearable. Let heaven and our ancestors bear witness that we do this in all good ernest. We cannot…dare not…do otherwise.
We agreed to meet were it all first began – by the riverside – to meet there at the very first stirrings of day light. From there we would make our journey across the body of water by boat. Downstream would bring us to a neighbouring town of Ukueze. From there we could continue our journey by road. The option of making the journey by road from our own town would not be a good one because you are bound to bump into a townsman who could betray your intention before they fructify.
I had waited there for some time when I saw her approaching. I watched her descending that slopy terrain – the same way she had done some two months ago. Borne by fresh, cold breath of morning she came towards me.
We quickly boarded the boat and pulled away from the land. The vessel launched forward bravely, our hopes its only sails.
No sooner had we done that, than I heard it – the unmistakable sound of running feet. The bushes along the shore began to stir actively. About eight men came out of the shadows of the woods going towards the river. They shouted instructions intermittently for us to stop. I recognized them quickly. They were my father’s guards – palace gaurds. How were we found out? Who told them about our bid? Those were questions I knew would not be answered in a hurry. We must get away from them. If we are captured and taken back to the palace, I could not bear to imagine what would happen. It was not for myself I feared – I was still a prince. But my beloved – who knows what they would do to her – her life wouldn’t matter a bit to them. I would never see her again.
Desperation exhumed strength in me – I paddled with all the energy I could muster. They were some way behind me in pursuit in another boat. For a while I gained the advantage but soon the distance between us began to decrease. Eight palace guards paddling behind me like demons. It was just a matter of time. Their boat nudged mine as they came abreast. I swung my paddle catching one of them on the temple – he tumbled into the water. One of them clutched at my paddle and yanked it from me. Two others tumbled into the boat and held unto me pinning me to the floor. The boat was as restless as a hen perched on a clothes-line.
It swung this way and that I wrestled with my captors trying to beat them away. Another held on to Ifeoma who was fighting him off to no avail. Then as quick as a flash her head came down and she sank her teeth into the guard’s arm. He screamed in pain and struck out in anger with the back of his hands. She went falling into the river. A cry of anguish rose from by throat. I renewed my struggled but more powerful hands pinned me down. I called out to the other guards to save her but they did not heed. I yelled, I threatened, I pleaded, but my appeals were to a stone wall. I heard her splashing about trying to keep afloat. What agony filled my heart at that moment in time. Every splash was a dagger than ran my heart through. Then they became feeble and finally stopped.
A shiver ripples through me at this recollection. It is night now and I am still here. The moon, brilliant and bright filters its ghostly light through the woods. Night’s creatures broke the silence with a creek, a croak, and a chirrup. And I am still here.
I was captured. Ifeoma was dead. For days thereafter I prayed for death but the dark One would not heed. I was locked up in an empty room to keep me from “harming myself” as my father put it. For days I went without food or a drink though I was adequately provided with both.
My heart had eaten to its full, how could my bowels know hunger. My sanity was brought to the brink; for a while I thought I would lose my mind – Insanity would have been a welcome relief from this torture of my soul – that could not forget.
I woke from a troubled sleep, my head aching. Sleep must have washed over me at the height of exhaustion;
I dreamt that I died.
To dream that one dies is nota dream that would not come true some day. I wish it would be sooner than later.
So the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months. And now a whole year has rolled by but the events are still as pungent as ever in my mind. After a while I was allowed my freedom. But I knew I was a changed man. I was still alive, true, but I knew that for me “living” was gone…forever.
I recall this bitter memory in the silence of this dark woods, beside the river that holds a jewel I loved but could not save –Ifeoma.
When I look down the rungs of the past one year, down the short vista of twelve vanished months it has become clear to me that man in all his pride, his hunger for titles and appellation; in all the certainty which he assumes to possess concerning the workings of life and living is almost always afraid. Fear is the common thread that runs through the seams of human affairs.
We are not too busy, we are not too big. We are not too knowledgeable or too sure of ourselves – we are only afraid. Everyman has a great capacity for love – to love his neighbours and every one he comes across. He also has a great capacity to want to share that love – but fear will not let him – for fear breeds suspicion, breeds doubt – two enemies that makes a man unsure of himself and his neighbours. Caught between these two foes he attempts to gain control over his predicament by boxing himself in with a set of instructions as terms upon which to live his life. These instructions after long use become entrenched as traditions.
So many, many, many, years ago there was a crisis in the lands (lets say famine). And men in their fear were looking for answers which were not forth coming. Their crops were dying – they were not far off themselves. In their fear they sought foranswers desperately. The gods must be angry, they concluded – the oracle man confirms their fears.
Atonement must be made!
They would need victims – human victims. But they cannot shed the blood of a clansman (because tradition says the earth forbids it) so they decided to dedicate the victims to the gods to appease them. Over time in order to preserve the originality of those dedicated they came up with rules that none should marry them except themselves.
But they are aware that marriage could more easily arise if other associations were maintained, so they made the rules more stringent – do not marry them, do not eat with them, do not trade with them.
They became outcasts. They became Osu.
All because it did not rain.
And many years later I am to suffer the consequence of my ancestors fears.
The night races on. Soon the light of dawn will pierce this turbid darkness. Day would be reborn.
In the light of day nothing is hidden. For light is love.
And there is no fear in love.