Fiction

Memories of River Ethiope: A Short Story by Ochuko Tonukari

As I stood somewhere at the back of the Sapele market a few days ago, a wave of nostalgic feelings welled up in me. Oh my! It was good to be here again after some two decades of staying in faraway lands. I felt happy and peaceful as if I were in the company of an old and very dear friend, when, with child-like fantasy, I gazed up through the beautiful body of water ahead.

Indeed, I shall always love the River Ethiope as it meanders through the Sapele countryside. I cannot for a second remember a time when I did not love it. I remember being taken there as a little boy by my mother when she went to do the laundry, and I recalled quite vividly paddling at the edge or sitting down in the mud, splashing the radiant water with my feet and hands, admiring the glitter of the sunshine that turned the drops of water into diamonds and enjoying their refreshing coolness on my body. Many a times I would venture out too far until called or pulled back by mother-to be scolded, spanked or sat down firmly close by her side. For a short while I would be quiet and still for much as I loved and respected her, I was, even at that tender age-just a little afraid of her anger. These are my earliest memories of this side of River Ethiope, where I idled the time away, whilst my mother washed the clothes and gossip with the other women. There was indeed no lack of company-always plenty of other children to play with: to throw water at, to chat and shout with, and to splash and tumble about within the shallows. It was a pleasant moment! Sometimes we would catch glimpse of a little fish and try to get hold of it with our hands, but even if we managed to touch it, which was very rare, it always succeeded in slipping and slithering away. I do not remember a particular time when we actually caught one, however, hard as we tried.

Later on, of course, it was different. When we boys were older, we learned to catch fish properly and then we would stand at the road-side selling them to passers-by in buses and cars, or better still our mothers would take them to the market for sale. I can still remember to this day how proud and exhilarating I felt the first time I caught a fish that my father thought was big enough for my mother to take to the market. All those who heard of it said I was a hero and I strongly believed I was.

There were equally other fun-filled moments too. For instance, when some shallowly parts of the Ethiope River were too dry to harbor any fish, there were very many games to play. Then I would jump smartly from boulder to boulder, imagining as young lads would, that I was performing all sorts of feats of daring. I was the most famous hunter and fisherman for miles around, and everyone from the neighboring Idjerhe and Okpe villages had heard of my courage and feared me. Endless tales of heroism and adventure I wove during those nightmarish, terrifying and frightening dry-season days, leaping from rock to rock in the river bed, or resting, my imagination still active, under the shade of the trees lining its banks. With my tiny catapult I would aim at some brightly colored birds chirping and perching on the near-by trees.

In those days, we were fiercely warned not to get to the bottom of a certain iroko tree, somewhere in the densely forested area of the river. This was due to the general belief that a female deity called mammy water lives in that area of the river. But I just would not listen. On one fateful day, I took my dog and went to discover the mystery behind that tree by myself. The so-called tree was full of life. Yet it was difficult to see either birds or insects because the leaves were so thick. I knew many birds had built their nests there; I suppose because the thick leaves hid and protected them so well. However hard I tried, I could never see them. I knew they were there because I was woken every morning by the birds chattering and flying out of the tree onto the Sapele sky. They did not seem to go far from the tree. Later they would tease my dog by walking on the grass until it ran after them, and then at the last minute they would fly up out of its reach. It always chased them hopefully, although it never caught one then, perhaps because it was a dog and not a cat.

The more I looked up into the dark green above my head, the more charming and captivating the tree seemed. I could imagine the sap flowing up to all parts of the tree as blood flows through our veins, keeping us alive. I wondered if it felt any pain when one of its leaves died and fell to the ground, or when one of its branches was torn off in a storm or by some stubborn boys like me, trying to reach its fruits. At last a gentle breeze began to caress my cheek and the leaves swayed majestically as if they were dancing to the rhythmic music of some unseen gods, or as if they, too, had been feeling the heat of the afternoon sun and were deriving pleasure from the cool breeze of the Ethiope River. I thought how different they would look in a storm, when they seemed to be hanging on to the tree for their lives, screams lost in the noise of the wind as it tried to tear them off the branches with strong, claw-like fingers.

In my strong zeal for more escapades, I decided to move deeper and deeper into the sublime part of the water. At once, I began to see, not an ugly, terrible world full of wickedness, but a beautiful, romantic world full of roses and sunshine. As I gazed more at the aquamarine of love, it was as though I had come face to face with the rivers of my destiny. Suddenly, I felt a sense of being watched, a sense of surprise mixed with fear. It was a most uncertain moment. Then I felt real fear tingle all over my body, making my being pulsate terribly. But I was bent on exploring new places beyond the blues. I remembered Defoe in Robinson Crusoe and his adventurous inclinations and I felt uplifted. Defoe was indeed my kind of man. He was a superman who never panicked amidst horrendous circumstances. He was a terror nonetheless.

When one could see the sublimity of the water and everything underneath, there was a propensity to feel that one is close to the shallowest part of the river. This was a well concocted trick from the goddess. For as I stepped into one of such areas of the River Ethiope that day, I realized it was the deepest; it was like the more crystal clear, the deeper it became. As I tried to swim as quickly as I could back to the bank of the river, I felt an angry surge of the undulating wave pulling me back. And as I struggled to stand on the river bank, I saw a most feminine figure gorgeously dressed in red apparels and adorned with the costliest ornaments. Her eyes were lovely and enticing. She was like the poets’ dreams of the gliding sylph that haunts rivers and fountains by moonlight. Suddenly, the melting languor of her petite, limpid eyes stole into my veins – I forgot all but her. I was in that high delirium of passion in which love, and love only, seems the keynote of creation. I looked again at this strange aquatic woman-that day was a feast of fairyland; the night’s dreams of rapture. No! I never got tired of gazing at her; her beauty never palled on me. She grew fairer with each moment and within a short time, she had struck the depth of my being. It was as if she discovered how certain sweet looks of hers could draw me to her side, a willing and devoted slave; she measured my weakness with her own power; she knew-what did she not know? I torture myself with these foolish memories. All men past the age of twenty have learned somewhat of the tricks of women-the pretty playful nothings that weaken the will and sap the force of the strongest hero.

But somehow, I discovered she was getting closer to me by the minute. Could her beauty also be her source of enchantment? I thought aloud in my child-like state. Is this not the much talked about mammy water? I shuddered. All of a sudden, my legs obeyed the orders from my brain and I ran home. That was the last time I ever strayed to that area of the River Ethiope. I discovered that discretion was the better part of valour.

But above all, I love the River Ethiope when it was in full flood, surging and swirling over the rocks and spilling out over the surrounding bushes. At such times I would toss bits of branches into it and watch them twisting and turning as they were hustled away downstream at great speed. It was then that I would crave for a boat and imagine myself carried miles downstream to places whose very existence had never as yet been discovered; or perhaps searching for gold or some precious ornaments in some never-before-seen reaches of the Ethiope River; or being taken down to the sea and across a wide ocean by some benevolent spirits where, after hair-raising adventure, I found myself washed up on some far-distant, unknown shore, inhabited by strange, gentle people who, because of old legends about a black god coming to them over the river, worship me and make me their king!

I still spend a considerable amount of time by the river, though I have long put away childish dreams. I fish a little and chat with my friends, and tell them tales from my days at the river – tales of the strange beings and places I have seen and the wonderful things I have done. Most of them were true; but some were over-flogged here and there with dreams left over from my youth and the long hours I spent playing and dreaming by the river.

I do not like the portion of the river Ethiope River that runs through the side of my mother’s stall on the edge of the Sapele Market. It has always been a source of worry and trouble. At a very tender age I could sense my mother’s anxiety about that part of the river. On most occasions, she was always perturbed if I strayed beyond sight when she was busy trading, in case I had fallen in, for fear that I might drown.

I can perceive the unpleasant odour of the river’s tributary that runs through the market especially during the dry season. Even though I was used to it, and even though I was still a child, I loathed that smell. I do not know if this was partly because my mother disliked it so much – perhaps so. But all I do know is that it made an impact on me so strongly that, even as I am reminiscing about the whole thing, my nostrils are filled with it. Again, I hated the market area of the river for its filth and because of the slimy little trickle of water that could not wash the repugnant rubbish away. But in the rains I feared it. Each evenings at the heights of the rains my mother always carried as many of her wares as she could from her stall, helped by us, her children, my brothers and sisters and me. At home especially in the night, I would overhear her asking my father whether he thought the river would flood that season or not. As if he knew! It was such a source of worry to her that she would have many a sleepless night over it. But what could she do? Elsewhere, stalls are difficult to come by, and the ones in strategic locations were too expensive for people like us.

When I was old enough to help her after school, I would watch the sparkling water rising higher and higher, and observe the planks of wood, the cardboard boxes and the debris that went speeding past our stall. And I would pray-how I would pray-that the river would rise no more. But the river only comes swirling round my feet, washing against the slim poles that supported our stalls. Seldom did it come higher. But there was one year I remember more than the others. In that year, when the Ethiope River was already very high, there was a great storm with the rain coming down in torrents hour after hour, as though it would never stop. Throughout that day, the river was a river no more, but a raging force, sweeping all before it. Bits of stalls, merchandise, sheep, hens, cocks and goats all rushed by, unable to withstand the strength of the flood. I heard the women crying and the men shouting. It was chaos. At once I felt a sharp pain on my leg and looked down and saw that I had been stung by an insect. That stopped my daydream.

“A good thing, too,” you may be thinking. Whoever is obsessed about a river like that must be mad. Well, perhaps I am, just a little. But some of you may be a little madder in the same way particularly when you have an opportunity to take a flight down memory lane.

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