Fiction

Lost in Transit: A Short Story by Austyn Njoku

Oku ngwo nye m otu mpi             palm wine tapper, give me one cup
Ka m nuo n’afo                             to drink into my stomach
Nye m otu mpi o o                        give me one cup o o
Ka m nuo n’afo                             to drink into my stomach
Oku ngwo nye m otu mpi             palm wine tapper give me one cup
Ka m nuo n’afo                             to drink into my stomach
Nye m otu mpi o o                        give me one cup o o
Akpiri akpo go m nku!                  My throat is parched!

The drunk would sing and sing as he sways and staggers from one bush path to the other, and from one tapper’s compound to the next, demanding for one cup of palm wine to quench his insatiable thirst for the grey liquid extracted from the raffia tree and some palm trees.  In our village, Umudike Avu, we say that the wine taster is always the first to get drunk. He takes a sip here, one gulp there (when the owner is not looking), and everywhere, he drinks more than everyone else. He soon drops into a ditch, or sleeps sitting on a stool. But this was not the case with Nwamuo. He was not a wine taster. He was simply Nwamuo. The drunk, the drifter. One of those beings that traverse the land, pitching their tents with kindness. No one knows their beginning; no one knows their end, if they end.

It happened during the Nigerian Biafran civil war. There was confusion in the south-eastern states of Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and thousands of families were mourning ‘missing’ persons. So, when at the end of the war Nwamuo appeared in Avu, a town very close to Owerri metropolis, the children were the first to notice him one morning on their way to school.

He was a good-looking young man. Fair in complexion, he had long luscious black hairs draping his head, eyebrows and chest. Never properly dressed, his eyes were cold grey, dead and far away like uninhabited galaxies. They came alive only when he had palm wine in his hands to drink. The children found him in a dry ditch one early morning in Umudike Avu, on their way to school. Thinking that he was dead, the children raised alarm and the whole Umudike community rushed to the scene.

It took the wizened eyes of elder Nnadozie to observe that the stranger was not dead, though his breathing was slow. When they eventually roused him from his slumber, his breath was fouled with alcohol, and his mouth oozed as he asked for palm wine. The children all burst into laughter as the women and elders shook their heads and slowly walked away, disappointed.

“Just look at that fine man”.

“I think say he is dead”

“He is wasting his life”

“Poor woman, his mother”

“Who knows where he comes from?”

“His people would be looking for him now”

“Maybe he is even married!”

“Tuffia kwa! God forbid”

“What won’t women endure, hu?”

The children continued their trek to school, making jests and laughing as they walked. Nwamuo slowly picked himself up from the gutter and discretely followed the villagers home. He had no where else to go. He knew not from whence he came. He was very hungry and thirsty. He could not return to the shack at the edge of the tarred road where he had begged for the palm wine that got him drunk the night before. He had no money. His was a hopeless case.

So, he trailed from a distance as he watched the villagers disappear into their various compounds, one after the other. But elder Nnadozie had to walk a little further to reach his home. Nwamuo followed him. Elder walked very slowly, so it was easy for Nwamuo to get closer to him, though quietly, without rousing his suspicion. Elder Nnadozie was a sixty five years old man. He was still strong, and the whole community thought kindly of him, as he was seen as a wise, nice and generous man.

He lived with his wife, Nneoma and they had stopped making babies. Their five children, Nnamdi, Chiedozie, Munachim, Adaoma and Chibuzor were all grown-ups. Munachim and Adaoma were already married and the first two sons were away at war for Biafra. They are yet to return from that war. Only Chibuzor was still with them, because he was twenty and in a secondary school not far away from the Umudike community in Avu. So, when Rosita and very many others fleeing from the war ran from Mbammiri to Umudike for safety, Nnadozie opened his doors to Rosita who cried to him. Nneoma also welcomed the young lady, though with a warning signal in her head. She ignored the signal. She was a woman and a mother.

Now, Nnadozie could not chase Nwamuo away when he appeared at his compound later that night, staggering and begging for food and a place, any place to lay his head. He looked so pathetic. His cold grey eyes sunken, were even more distant. He called Nnadozie “papa” and something stirred inside Nnadodie’s fatherly heart. He took pity on him. He called out to Nneoma and Rosita. When they came, he asked them to give Nwamuo water to bath, and food to eat.

Nneoma grumbled. Rosita shivered as her eyes and Nwamuo’s eyes met. She became uncomfortable and uncoordinated. She knew that there was something about this drunken man that had just entered into her through his eyes. She never could tell what it was, and she could not confide in anyone. The fear and the mystery tortured her till the reality became unbearable. She had to do something.

Nwamuo became a recurrent decimal in Nnadozie’s compound and family. When he was sober, he helped to fetch water from the village stream. He along with Chibuzor, picked and pounded palm fruits for the extraction of palm oil and palm kernel which were the main economic stay of Umudike, apart from subsistence farming which sometimes yielded a good harvest. He was like a son to elder Nnadozie. He soon made Rosita to forget her foreboding. Children became friends with him. They followed him about in his drunken state, singing and making fun of him. Umudike got very used to him and completely forgot the circumstances of his appearance.

It started the night Nneoma had to go to her in-laws’ village to commiserate with them for the loss of their son who had gone to the war front. Rosita felt uncomfortable out of the fear of the presence of Nwamuo who usually slept on a wooden bed at the out-house, after his drunken conversations and banter with Nnadozie. The night was unusually deep, silent. The eerie, solemn sounds of night birds and other creatures added to the depth and mystery of the night. Rosita who used to sleep in the same hut as Nneoma did, took fright and ran into Nnadozie’s hut.

Nwamuo never again had such a serene sleep like he had that night. He slept so soundly that when in the morning, Nnadozie woke up and walked to the out-house as he always did before breakfast, he did not wish to disturb the peace that he saw radiating all over the sleeping form. He contemplated what transpired during the night. He shook his head slowly, sadly. He prayed to the gods to preserve and protect him as they have done for several seasons. “May my kindness never be my albatross” he prayed. But even as he prayed, he felt some trepidation. Were the gods still with him?

Rosita never again looked into Nwamuo’s eyes. She felt that he was responsible for what happened that night. She had not the will to tear him out of her thoughts. The premonitions returned. She looked gaunt and tortured. She always felt that Nwamuo followed her with his eyes, smiling knowingly. She became worse when after a month, she was spitting and vomiting. Nneoma, who had since returned from her condolence trip, raised eyebrows. Nnadozie summoned a meeting of his kinsmen, and Rosita’s position became official. Nneoma heard signals till her last days.

The rumours had hardly fizzled out before Nwamuo took ill. He had high fever, and miraculously, loss of appetite even for palm wine. As the days went by, he complained of acute pains on the left hand side, below his abdomen. There were no hospitals or clinics within miles around. The native apothecaries diagnosed appendicitis. The mode of surgery was crude and excruciating. Nwamuo was already frail from constant fever. He went into a very deep sleep clutching below his left tummy with both hands.

The clouds gathered and hovered over Umudike Avu. The dogs did not bark. The goats and sheep spoke in very low tones. A cold grey breeze went through the trees and shrubs. The sun, the moon and the stars stayed away. Children never went out to play. The whole of Umudike community mourned a drunken, reckless son they knew not from whence he came. But he had become a part of them. “Papa” Nnadozie was heart-broken in spite of himself. He felt like a father burying his own son. He refused to see the corpse. But Rosita felt warm. She had funny feelings she dared not pronounce.

Six months after Nwamuo was buried, Umudike was its normal self again. Everyone carried on with life and its daily routines. Only palm wine tappers remembered Nwamuo like a birth mark. And this was how Nwamuo chose to announce his return, with a scar. It was then that Nnadozie recalled the drunkard saying: “papa, when I die, I will like to come back to you as a son.” Everyone had forgotten. They had thought it was the words of a palm wine soaked spirit. And it was. A prophecy.

Rosita ran away soon after she was delivered of a baby boy who came out clutching the left side of his lower abdomen. As Nnadozie held the boy in his hands, tears streamed down his crinkled cheeks. He looked up with sadness and said solemnly to his ancestors: “I know the gods do not die. They live with us, in us and amongst us. But why this, why me?” Looking at his kinsmen and other people who had come to see the new miracle, he continued as if he was in a trance; “that stranger you help, ignore or maltreat, may be a god, or an ancestor lost in transit; a wandering spirit sowing sorrow, or an angel searching for its wings. I will bear my cross”.

© austyn njoku

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