What manner of joke is Alexander up to for goodness’ sake? Thought Lesley almost aloud. How long would it take him to just defecate in the nearby bush and come back to them? He had been gone for more than two hours now leaving his entire family in the middle of nowhere. And what a horrifying place for him to stop them to go and empty his bowels? The mere thought of it was enough to give Lesley the creeps. The dirt road was flanked on both sides with thick forests, giving the gothic place the eerie atmosphere of a pre-historic shrine. What was more, dusk was fast falling and the sky was overcast with pregnant clouds. In no distant time, she feared, the sky would burst open in heavy showers of rain.
‘Ma’am!’ came the impatient voice of the driver. ‘You sure say somethin’ no happen to oga as I de see am so?’
‘That’s what I am also afraid. I don’t know my husband with this kind of behaviour’, said she.
‘Abi make we go check?’ It was more of a statement than a question.
A brief pause as the driver jumped down from the driver’s seat and slammed the front door shut. Lesley tapped Junior awake from sleeping on her lap while she adjusted Ene firmly on her back. She was praying within herself that her fear would not come to pass, that nothing would happen to the father of her two children, for she could not imagine a life of a single mother saddled with the responsibility of bringing up two little children, unaided – no relations, no friends except, of course, her rival nurses in the military hospital in the army barracks. She alighted gingerly from the car to meet the driver waiting for her. He had already taken his time to secure the lock of the front door. He locked the door of the back seat after winding up the glass and they set out to look for her husband.
The ominous crack of the thunder above their heads heightened the tension in their search like the ill-omened hooting of the owl in the broad daylight. Every now and then, they stopped to clear the creepers on their path. At any vantage point, they stopped to shout and bark his name into the forbidding forest. Silence. No Alexander nor any sign of his clothes to show that a wild beast had preyed on him. Meanwhile, the night was fast falling and very soon visibility would be zero without torchlight or the headlights of the car. Exhausted, they returned to the Station Wagon to continue their journey without him. Hadn’t he told them some few minutes before his mysterious disappearance that his ancestral village, Ole-iku, was about ten more kilometres from where they stopped? If he was still alive, then he had to meet them at the village. They had waited enough for him to no avail.
The windscreen wiper was no match for the heavy downpour that was cascading in torrents from the skies as if the heavenly dam had broken loose and the earth was at the mercy of a flood. The car moved at a walking pace with the rain drumming incessantly on the car-roof like a crazy drummer. Presently, the headlights picked some locally-thatched mud-houses huddled together like a group of chicks drenched by the rain. At last, they had arrived at the village. The dirt road had dissolved into a delta of tributary footpaths, forcing the driver to pull up in the middle of a place that appeared like the market square. The reed-thatched, mud houses were built in clusters, separated by cactus fences. Save for the windy rain, the entire village was deserted like a war-torn village. The rain had obviously chased the inhabitants indoors; to their smouldering hearths.
Where was everybody? Ten years ago, Lesley had had the cause to ask herself the same question when she returned home from the teaching hospital where she was a trainee nurse and saw the desolation that was left of her village, Adaka. Was that the meaning of war? A village once bubbling with human life suddenly reduced to a ghost of its former self like the slough of a snake? No, war is a bitch. It is a monster created by man in his vainglorious quest to annihilate his fellow man. The strange events of this night had, if anything, relived the images of her past, the chequered past of her life which she longed to put behind her with little or nor success.
‘Wetin we go do now, ma’am?’
She shivered involuntarily out of her reverie by the voice of the driver. Yes, how would they trace the relations of her husband? What would she tell them if she were to meet them? Or put slightly differently, who would believe the improbable story that her husband had just vanished into thin air when he left them to ease himself in the nearby bush? She could imagine the disbelief in their eyes that would greet her story. In her mind’s eye, she could visualize the kind of trial by ordeal a newly widowed woman was normally subjected to in her village. ‘What did you do with your husband, eh you witch?’ ‘Confess! What poison did you put in his food for him to eat?’ ‘Tell us the names of your witch-sisters who conspired with you to eat his flesh in the spirit world’, were the usual hail of questions pelted at the unfortunate woman by the inquisitor-relatives. She shuddered to the present and shook her head in self-pity at what awaited her. Thanks to her characteristic inquisitiveness, it would not be difficult to trace her husband’s family. No. How many times had he boasted to her in their blissful moments that he hailed from a long line of warriors famous village-wide for valour in inter-tribal wars? In his words, his family was ‘the last standing offspring of the great Epilogwus of Idomaland’. In short, his decision to join the federal army was not unconnected with the inevitable call of the blood of his ancestors!
‘Park the car at the front of the nearest house’, came the voice of Lesley, laced with the certainty of a sorceress.
‘Alright, ma’am’, replied the driver, laconically.
Meanwhile, the rain had petered down to a mere drizzle, leaving the musky smell of dead roots, animals and all whatnots in the air. The sound of the land-boat, as a car is called in Ole-iku, was enough to disembowel the villagers from the shelter of their hearth-warm rooms. As if acting in telepathy, many doors opened in unison and out came several men, holding bush lanterns in their left hands. In their right hands were matchets in case the new arrivals were emissaries of war. They were emerging from all the tributary footpaths to converge at the confluence where the car was parked, close to the market square. Lifting the lanterns cautiously to the car windows, they demanded the mission of the late visitors. Had there been any death in the city? After a series of dumb-show acts of incomprehension, they withdrew briefly to confer among themselves. Almost immediately, a much younger man in their midst stepped forward to save the situation with his passable English.
‘They say anythin’ happen for town?’, he said labouriously in a language that was not his forefathers’. When the strangers shook their heads in the negative, he added: ‘Who you want see?’ In spite of his young age and frail physique, one could notice the sudden esteem in the eyes of the older men. At least, one of their own could speak the white man’s language through the nose.
‘I am the wife of Alexander Epilogwu …’, began Lesley, but she was not allowed to finish the sentence before the men burst into a loud chatter among themselves like a group of old hen cackling over a stray cockroach in their midst, repeating the name ‘Epilogwu, Epilogwu’ several times, punctuated by the several noddings of their sagely heads. When this subsided, the villager playing the role of an interpreter continued:
‘They say make I go show you the house’, he offered obsequiously.
‘Why, that’s very kind of you. Do come in.’
The front door of the car swung open and the famous interpreter scrambled in. The other villagers waited patiently for the car to snort alive and drive off before slouching off to their various huts. Cactus trees lined both sides of the untarred, narrow road, as the car negotiated several bends. After about an hour of a nightmarish journey, the car drove into a compound and pulled up for the interpreter-turned-guide to alight and notify the inmates of the house of the new arrivals. Lesley waited with bated breath as the guide made for the house. Minutes later, she heard the audible creak of a door being unbolted in the dark. A young man in his late thirties emerged, holding a bush lantern in his left hand while the right hand was clasped around a deadly-looking matchet. A low whisper followed, with furtive glances cast at the car by the latter before the duo approached the car. Lesley waited from them, tense for the moment the inquisition would begin.
‘Madam, this is …’
But Lesley’s attention was far from hearing the guide introduce the young man to her. No, she was more interested in seeing the face of this man being introduced to her as he lifted the lantern towards the car window. It took her a great amount of self-will not to scream. Alexander! No, this could not be true. Except for the slight difference in stature, this man could pass for her husband who was thickset and swarthy as a result of his military training.
‘You’re welcome, Madam. We’re pleased to inform you that you’re before the last surviving family of the Epilogwu clan …’
And the voice! So similar that were she not the wife of one of them, a stranger would have mistaken one for the other. In her bewilderment, Lesley didn’t notice the guide politely take his leave. No, this was a night of horrors. Come to think of it, this man’s level of education was as good as her husband’s.
They were ushered into a sitting room with a handful of cushioned chairs and one folding cane chair. The light from the bush lantern threw dark, grotesque shadows on the walls. A door draped with bead-curtain led to an inner room most obviously the bedroom. From this room came intermittently the fitful cough of an old woman, battling with an effort to speak to the son in the sitting room who quickly excused himself and went to her aid. There was a brief silence except for mother and son who were discussing in low voices. Presently, the son re-emerged with the old woman bringing up the rear, punctuating her steps with an old staff which she held to support her old frame. She gingerly made for the folding cane chair in the room and threw her weight on it with a sigh. She took a few minutes to recover her breath before launching into a long welcome speech of the ancients.
‘My daughter, you’re welcome’, she began, with the son acting as an interpreter. ‘I understand that you’re looking for the Epilogwus. You couldn’t have come to a better place. We are the last surviving Epilogwus in the entire Idomaland. I hope all is well?’
‘No problem, Ma’, replied Lesley. She knew too well not to raise the anxiety of an old, ailing woman without the proper preamble.
‘The gods of our ancestors be praised. But don’t be angry with me, my daughter. Age may not be on my side now but I don’t seem to know you before. Forgive me if I ask you: who are you, my daughter? What can we do for you?’
Lesley had long expected this question before now while they braved the elements to be in the village without her husband. She had rehearsed her answer several times in the mind.
‘I’m the wife of your son Alexander Epilogwu.’
‘I have not heard of that name before. Alex … what did you say?’
‘No’, the old woman said, shaking her head firmly. ‘No, none of my children goes by the name Alexandara. Did this man you say tell you he was my own son?’
‘And an Epilogwu?’
‘Hmm’, sighed the old woman, ominously. ‘Maybe there is another Epilogwu that I don’t know’. There was a pregnant pause.
‘No’, repeated the old woman, rather emphatically. ‘Maybe not an Epilogwu. As you can see, I have only one surviving son now. That young man sitting over there. My other children are all female and are now married with children in their various husbands’ homes, except … No! This cannot be. You see, my first male children were twins looking so much alike. This one here and his twin brother who died several years ago after a protracted illness at Apa. No’, she shook her head sadly, suddenly agitated by the reminiscence. ‘I don’t want to think of him now. Not after their father has joined the ancestors and left me all alone’.
‘I’m very sorry, Ma’, Lesley said, sympathetically.
‘That is all right, my daughter. Perhaps, you have any picture of this man that claims to be my son?’
‘Yes, Ma’, said Lesley, and turning to the driver, ‘Adejoh, could you please get my traveling bag from the car?’
‘Yes, ma’am’, replied the driver, and was gone in a moment.
A sudden hush fell over the room as everybody was wrapped in his or her thoughts. Could Alexander have lied to her of his parentage? No, not likely, Lesley thought. In any case, the whole mystery would soon be unravelled tonight.
‘Ma’am, see am’
‘Good. Thank you, Adejoh’
Feverishly, she opened the bag and brought out the large family album. Drawing her seat closer to the old woman, Lesley opened the album, while the old woman’s son held the lantern over it. The first picture in the album was when he was in Liberia for the ECOMOG Peace-Keeping Mission where they first met and fell in love instantly. In fact, it was love at first sight.
‘This is my husband, Alexander. Is he not …?
Lesley’s statement was cut short by the heart-rending scream of the old woman. What again? Lesley wondered.
‘Oh, the gods of my ancestors!’ wept the old woman, uncontrollably. Her son’s efforts to placate her were in vain. It was obvious that he too was trying ineffectually to hold back his tears as a man. Lesley was appalled by this inexplicable spectacle by mother and son.
‘No, the gods of my ancestors. This cannot be true!’ wept the old woman, disconsolately.
‘What cannot be true, Ma?’ asked Lesley, confused and at the same time afraid.
‘Never mind, my daughter. By the way, where do you say he is at the moment?’
That was it, Lesley thought. The inquisition at last. She braced herself and narrated to them how they had left home together with their two children and how on getting to the outskirts of the village, her husband had taken leave of them to go and defecate and how after waiting for some time without seeing him, they went in search of him in the forest which proved abortive before they finally decided to come to the village without him. There was a graveyard silence as mother and son pondered over this story.
‘Hmm. My daughter, I am afraid, that was his ghost’, she said with a broken voice.
‘His what did you just say?’, Lesley nearly shouted.
‘His ghost, my daughter’, answered the old woman, tragically. ‘What you had seen was not my son but his ghost. He’s no longer alive. He is dead. My first twin son is dead and we buried him here ten years ago. That is his twin younger brother, Ejeh. You can go ahead and ask him if you think that I am lying to you.’
This was too much for a day. ‘No’, Lesley shouted, feeling as if she was going to faint. She felt dizzy, overcome by a wave of nausea. Suddenly, things began to fall into place. What a fool she had been. She could now understand why it had to take her such a long time to convince him to take her to his village to meet his people. He had always found one cogent excuse or the other to postpone the journey until the last time when she couldn’t take any more of it. And when they were almost at the village, he had to vanish in the pretext of going to defecate. So, all along she had been sleeping with a ghost? No! She heard herself scream sepulchrally. This cannot be true. Let somebody wake her up from this nightmare and tell her it was not true. What about the two flesh-and-blood children they had together? What would become of them? Or were they also phantoms like their father? What would she tell them if they grew up? That their father was a ghost when she conceived them? No!
‘His name was Akpaja while he was alive. He was a civil servant and not a soldier before his untimely death’, went the old woman’s voice like a voice in a misty past. She could as well be talking to a statue. For Lesley’s mind was far away. She could not bring herself to believe that Alexander was a ghost. The memory of the first night that they made love fiercely came flooding her mind like a river that has overflooded its banks. What a nice and selfless man in the bed. No-o-o! Somebody was being economical with the truth.
That fateful night was the longest night of her life, as she kept awake throughout the night, waiting for him. The slightest rustle of the wind against the reed door outside brought goose bumps to her body. Had he come to claim her? Would he appear to her now that she knew he was a ghost?