“Hey, Nzube,” the voice announced, “your uncle, Onyeabo, has returned.”
I broke off from the play and stood staring at Ekwutosi. “It’s a lie.”
“It’s true.” She was munching on something, her cheeks pumped up, her left hand hidden behind her. In her tight, sleeveless, pink blouse and piped knee-length yellow skirt, she looked like a big doll.
“Ekwui,” I called her by the shortened version of her name, “if this turns out to be a lie, we are going to fight again.”
Ekwutosi had always been my rival. We were born the same day, my mother had told me, as hers had her. We had fought many times to establish who had supremacy over the other. She had thrown me three times and I had also thrown her the same. Sometimes as we fought, especially when the elders were absent, none of our mates would separate us. They would clap their hands across their mouths and roar in glee, urging us to carry on. They had labelled us as gunpowder and fire that would remain perpetual enemies. But in spite of our fights, we would still talk to each other, as if our relationship had been like that of salt and oil.
“I’m telling you the truth, Nzube.” She brought her left hand to her front, stretched it towards me and opened it. “This is the biscuit he gave me.”
I ran, without hesitation. I ran because I now believed her. Biscuit was a rare treat in our village, and there was high probability that anyone eating it here had it from a returnee from town.
In no time, I reached an udala tree a short distance from the village square. As I was about to veer left to take a sinuous narrow path flanked by withering shrubs, I heard a thud behind me. I stopped and turned. One udala that had just fallen stared at me. I rushed and picked up the fruit. It was a beautiful, round, yellow-orange. Its base was tipped like a cone, and its top looked like a dome. The fruits of this particular tree hardly fell in February because the majority of them were still unripe, unlike most udala trees that had already exhausted their fruits. By March when its fruits would all ripen, we children would cluster around the tree, waiting for its blessings. I looked around briefly and took off again.
On getting to our gate, I found it locked. It was a structure constructed by cutting bamboos at measured lengths and splitting them into narrow sizes with a machete. Some of them were laid down horizontally, and others vertically. In these positions they were nailed at their intersections. One side of the resulting door-sized network construction was finally hooked to the gatepost to allow for two flexible joints. I hurriedly loosened the wire with which the other side of the gate was secured to a hook on the other post, swung the gate aside and passed through.
The red-earth wall surrounding our compound was topped with thick palm branches to shield the wall from rainfall. Our main hut, thatched, stood on the left, a little away from the gate. It contained three small rooms—my father’s, my mother’s, and our general room. On the right, about fifteen yards opposite this hut, stood our kitchen, also a hut. Beyond this was another one for my late grandfather who died six months ago. And behind my grandfather’s abode was situated a barn enclosed with a wooden fence adjoining the compound wall. Although my father was not a great farmer, about fifteen stacks of yam towered above the wooden fence.
I opened our main hut and entered. Picking a plastic bowl, I poured some cups of water into it, took it outside and washed my face, hands and legs, and the fruit. Then I returned into the house with the bowl and put on another dress. I wanted to look neat before my uncle, to impress him, to earn his compliment. When he came home at Christmas two years ago, he berated some children for their scruffiness—including me.
As I left our house, I wished that my father had come back from tapping his afternoon palm trees to welcome his younger brother, a truck driver in Enugu. Maybe he had stayed behind to tap the trees for the evening before finally coming home. Sometimes I pitied my father for his job. It was so exacting climbing with a rope twenty or more palm trees three times every day—morning, afternoon, and evening. But he seemed unbothered about my sympathy. Once, I had gone into the bush with him, and he was climbing the trees with ease, as if he were running on stairs. I had held my chest in fear until he had finished tapping all the trees that evening and walked up to me and said, “Time to go, Nzubechukwu.” And while we were going home I asked him why he was running atop palm trees. He replied, to my astonishment, that he was unaware of my observation.
Uncle Onyeabo’s house stood five compounds from ours. Our village, dotted with coconut trees, oil palm and ora trees, was dominated by mud houses with many earth-walled compounds. Some of the houses looked rectangular and were capped with atani roofs, layers of sheets made by entwining raffia leaves. Others were just small round huts with pyramidal roofs made from tares. Only a few houses in the area had been crowned with corrugated iron sheets. And my uncle’s was one.
The house was already filled up with people. Idodo loved it when one of their few children in towns came home, especially one who had been away for more than six months. They would flock there to receive their own share of the person’s fortune. They believed that anybody living in towns like Enugu, Onitsha, Aba, or Owerri was already keeping bags of money.
“Welcome, Uncle,” I greeted when I entered. His four-roomed bungalow, built of concrete blocks, was newly cemented and yet to be painted. But it was already a mansion in our eyes, commanding our respect for its owner.
Uncle’s black eyes ran over me immediately. “Come, come, come, Nzube. You’re already a big woman.”
I started rubbing my eyes with the back of my left hand.
“Come here and stop being shy.”
I slowly walked to him, and he held out his right hand from an armchair that swallowed his average height. I curtsied. His fuzzy, soft light arm rested on my shoulder, and I perceived the smell of something like perfume.
“Where are your mother and brothers?” he asked.
“I thought they were already here.”
“I haven’t seen them. What about your father?”
“He hasn’t come back from tapping his evening palm trees.”
“Tell him to keep for me whatever quantity of wine he gets tomorrow. Anyway, I’ll tell him myself when I come to greet him later.” He asked about my school, how I was doing, and I told him what I knew. He rubbed his soft hand on my shoulder rhythmically as he spoke.
A figure appeared at the door of the inner room. It was his wife, Auntie Nkechi. She was black and tall, and was wearing a plum dress that stopped at her shins. Cradled in her arms against her left lung was a chubby baby boy. He might be about eight months old.
“Welcome, Auntie,” I said.
“Nzube.” Auntie Nkechi smiled at me, and dabbed with the right hand her finger-length sectioned black hair that tapered helically like a snail’s shell.
Uncle Onyeabo let go of me and I straightened up, stretched forth my right arm and opened my hand. “Take, Auntie.”
“You brought me udara? Thanks a lot.” She took the fruit.
Uncle Onyeabo admired it. “That will be sweet.”
“Of course, it will,” Auntie Nkechi said. “Unlike the ones we take in Enugu, plucked unripe and brought to the market.”
“Are there people that pull off udara from its tree?” a woman seated asked.
“Yes,” Uncle Onyeabo replied. “They pluck them unripe, boil them a little and keep them for some days until their colour changes almost like the naturally ripened ones.”
“Do they taste sweet?”
“How could they when they are not allowed to ripen normally?” Auntie Nkechi answered the woman.
“That’s evil,” a man said. He placed on the table a class of whisky he had just downed. “Harvesting udara like maize. The fruits are allowed to fall on their own.”
“Not so these days in many places,” Uncle Onyeabo said.
“True,” a second man said. “At Umuino, children shoot udara with their catapults.”
“That’s why barren women abound there,” the first man noted. “In the past, udara was allowed to fall down on its own, and the blind could pick it up. If a woman found it difficult to conceive, she would be asked to sit under an udara tree for some days and pick up the fallen fruits, representing children. If her case was minor, she would become pregnant soon after the ritual.”
Uncle Onyeabo laughed and explained that such a view could be deemed valid in the past, but not so currently. “The world is changing from the way it formerly saw things.”
“The world is not only changing,” the second man said, “but close to ruin.”
I tried to carry Auntie Nkechi’s baby, but the boy refused me. I then moved to a chair occupied by a woman and perched on its arm. My uncle was dishing out different things to different people. Some he gave body creams; some balls of onions; some small sachets of salt; a few others tablets of toilet soap. But I was interested in the biscuit. It had been over six months since I tasted it last.
“Come, Nzube,” Auntie Nkechi said.
I followed her to her room. “Auntie, where are my other cousins?”
“Oh, you mean Ujunwa and Nnedi and Maduka? They are fine. Maybe at Christmas, you will see each other.” She scrambled for something in a sack loaded with things, and later handed me a loaf of bread, saying it was for my brothers and me.
“Thank you so much, Auntie.” I knew they would be glad to see the bread, Ikenna and Obere, my younger brothers aged six and four respectively. I did not bother about the biscuit again. Bread was preferable.
We came back to the living room, now suffocating with more people, and she got busy greeting them. A woman carried her baby and started throwing him up and catching him in midair. I resumed my seat, and as I looked outside, there was my mother hurrying towards the door.
“You’re already a big woman, Nzube,” Uncle Onyeabo repeated, startling me this time, diverting my attention from my mother. His voice was larger than him, resonating.
I tilted my head and unobtrusively surveyed my slim body. Was I really a big woman now? I raised my hands to my chest and surreptitiously felt my breasts. But they had not yet distended. Their teats were as flat as boys’.
“Yes, she is,” Udegbuna said, one of the elderly men drinking wine. “Very soon, a suitor will bring us wine and we shall drink with our horns.”
“Not so soon, nnam,” Auntie Nkechi said. It was customary for young women to address an elderly man as nnam, my father; and for the young men to address an elderly woman as nnem, my mother.
“What do you mean, my daughter?” another man asked.
“As your kinsman, my husband, has said, the world is changing and we must be adapting.”
“Whatever direction the world likes, let it change. But I, Udegbuna, am sure that the change won’t deprive us of pots of wine from Nzube’s suitor.” He turned to the other men, about seven. “Am I lying, my people?”
“You are not,” they chorused, and laughed and swigged their whisky.
Auntie Nkechi squinted at them. “Education first. Marriage comes later.”
My auntie’s response was like anathema to Udegbuna. Thus he asked with a scrunched face, “Is that what township has taught you?”
My mother now rushed in, her long face streaked with sweat. In haste, she greeted Auntie Nkechi and Uncle Onyeabo, and grabbed me by the hand and said I should go back with her to our house immediately. Everybody looked at her in a manner I thought suggested she was discourteous. But she did not mind. She pulled me and I trotted behind her, wondering what was amiss.
“The worst has happened,” she said after we hurried out of the compound.
I yanked my hand away from her grip and stopped abruptly. “The worst? What worst?”
She did not stop, nor answer. She rather broke into a run and I followed suit. We snaked behind two compounds, ran straight ahead and took the left at a bifurcated, marmoreal path. Because she was tall and leggy, her single stride was mine double; and shortly, she left a big gap between us.
When I ran into our compound, six women and a man were seated in front of our main house. Ikenna and Obere stood beside a woman who was haranguing my mother for defying her instruction not to fetch me.
“He is in his room right now,” my mother said to me, ignoring the woman.
“Who?” I asked, confused, breathing hard.
“Your father. He fell from a palm tree.”
“My father!” I could not believe her.
“Come in.” She turned briskly and started walking into the house.
I threw the loaf to Ikenna and hurried inside.
Four people were in our general room. Two men were attending to my father in his room. While one man held him on the bed, the other soaked a piece of cloth in a pot of hot water and pressed the cloth on my father’s waist. He groaned with poignancy.
“What shall I do?” I said. I wanted to enter there, but the two men ordered me to stay with my mother and others at the general room. Perhaps they did so because my father was naked.
“Did you see any blood on him?” my mother asked the two men.
“No,” one of them said. “I’ve examined his body properly. Maybe he has internal bleeding.”
“It was a terrible fall,” the other man said, “but thank God I heard his cry from the road and ran to his rescue immediately. Otherwise, the story might have been different by now.”
I stood beside my mother at the door. She had started whimpering. A woman held her by the hand and encouraged her not to despair. As I watched her sodden eyes and heard my father’s continuous agonized groan, I got tensed up. Outside I dashed, then out of the compound, ignoring calls trailing me.
Uncle Onyeabo’s house was still swarming with people. The men formerly drinking inside had now set their table outside, for more people had joined them. Children skylarked in the front yard, and women chatted in their small groups. Probably, nobody there had got wind of my father’s accident. So they went on drinking and gibbering and prophesying in the twilight. My uncle was also seated outside. I called him aside, narrated to him my father’s situation, and left.
Uncle’s arrival was prompt. He came by his motorcycle, a red RX Yamaha 125. More people had also come. While some stayed outside, others were inside. I hovered in the general room.
“Brother Onwuma,” Uncle Onyeabo called when he entered my father’s room.
“Brother Onwuma, it’s me Onyeabo calling you. Your younger brother.”
“I’m dying, I’m dying,” my father said and continued to moan.
“Nothing will happen to you,” one of the two attendants said. “You went to the bush to find what you and your family would eat. You didn’t go there to steal, so nothing will happen to you.”
I wished that would be the case.
“Hospital immediately,” Uncle Onyeabo said.
But our village had no health-centre. The nearest hospital was five kilometers away. There was not even a chemist around, and we had no tarred road. But despite these handicaps, Uncle Onyeabo, with the help of other people, carried my father onto the motorcycle outside. Another man sat behind him, holding him tightly while my uncle mounted and kick-started the vehicle.
As I stood, watching them leave, watching my father’s head bending sideways, I became afraid.
The night appeared endless. I lay on a raffia mat alongside Ikenna in our general room, while my mother and Obere slept in her room. I stayed awake late into the night, even after the sounds of human activities petered out. Different animals punctuated the darkness with shrilling and trilling. Some sounds rang to the ears like a small metal-gong; others, like a rattle. Some went similar to the thrusting rhythm of pistons. The trees, now ruffled by the wind, started whooshing. And this was followed by the blazing lightning that flashed through the crevices on our windows and doors. As the wind increased in tempo, thunder boomed, and specks of dirt from under the roof sprinkled on my body, forcing me to shut my eyes. Our hens in a coop behind the house began to squawk, the way they did when something threatened them, like the day a big black snake attacked them and killed some two-day-old chicks, like the night soldier ants trooped into our compound and filled everywhere, giving us the exhausting job of making fire at different locations and burning plastic material to dispel them with the mephitic smoke. Soon after the repeated thunder claps, there was calm. But when an owl started hooting, I glued my body to the mat. It was an evil bird. Idodo believed that it portended danger, and each time the elders heard it hooting, they cursed it, sending its ominous messages back to it. I remembered one night my father heard it scream while we were having dinner. He just went into his room, brought out his long gun, aimed at the bird perching in a tree nearby and shot. Throughout that night, the animal made no noise again.
I now turned my body from right to left when the owl kept silent. Ikenna was deep in sleep, occasionally snoring. I tried to imagine my father’s situation in hospital, whether he was still writhing in pain. This had never happened, my father falling off a palm tree.
I woke up before dayspring to my mother’s hand tapping me on the head. She rose early whenever she wanted to sweep the compound, carrying an oil lamp.
“Wake up, Nzube,” she said.
I groggily sat up on the mat, rubbing crusts off my eyes. The room felt cold. The flame of the oil lamp on the floor kept bending to the will of the wind, casting a dull orange colour all around the room and on my mother’s face. She had sat on a wooden stool at a corner, looking down, her jaw on the left hand, her big shadow frolicking behind her.
“I had a bad dream,” she said, after I greeted her.
Was that why she roused me?
“I’ve never had such a dream before. True.”
I remembered the evil bird. “Did you hear the owl in the night?”
“I didn’t. I slept like never before. I’m troubled now.” She adjusted her wrapper tied across her bust and brought her knees modestly close together.
I yawned and asked, “What kind of dream?”
“Terrible one.” She began to narrate it. Her late mother had been accused of killing another woman’s two-year-old male child with a poison, but instead of taking her mother to our central shrine for her to swear her innocence, our people stripped her naked, except for her wrapper, and took her to Lokwe, our village square. There they flogged her until her body bled. Then she was banished with her load of cooking utensils.
“That was strange,” I said. “But it was only a dream.”
“I’m worried about your father.”
“Nothing will happen, Mama,” Ikenna said, now awake, though still lying down. “After all, your mother is already dead.”
“That’s true, Ikenna.” My mother stood up. “I want to sweep the compound now.”
Ikenna sat up on the mat. “I also had a dream.”
“About what?” My mother resumed her seat.
“Oh, it was…just a silly dream.”
“You won’t share it?” I demanded.
“I said it was unimportant.”
“Why did you raise the matter, then?” I hissed.
“It involved two birds.”
“Birds?” my mother said.
Ikenna nodded. “Kite and Eagle. They were living together on the palm tree behind our barn. One morning, Eagle decided to leave the tree for Kite. Kite begged him to stay, but he said no. And he left the tree.”
There was silence, which frightened me. My mother bent her head on her laps and whiffed out God’s name, shaking her head.
“Mama,” I called.
She didn’t answer.
I looked at Ikenna. “You should have swallowed your dream.”
“But you forced it out of me.”
He was right. I shifted my attention again to our mother. She raised her head quietly, stood up and went back to her room without sweeping the compound anymore.
At dawn, people started coming to sympathize with us for my father’s accident. Some of them said they heard the news late hours the previous day and so were unable to come. They asked questions we could not answer, like how my father had fallen, whether someone was there at that time to help him, whether the tree was very tall, whether he had broken an arm or leg or rib. Too many questions that irked me.
Later that morning, Uncle Onyeabo came back from the hospital and reported that my father was getting better. He asked my mother to get ready so he could take her to the hospital to attend to my father. He said my brothers and me should come to his house and stay until our parents were back. We went.
Today was the ninth day of my father’s accident. Uncle Onyeabo had gone to see him in the hospital, but Auntie Nkechi stayed home. They had been frequenting the hospital, and each time my uncle came back, he told me with a flashing smile that my father was pulling round. I believed him completely.
We were seated in the house in the evening when Uncle Onyeabo rode into the compound. Obere and I ran out and welcomed him, and as we got back inside, Ikenna, who had been sleeping in one of the inner rooms, was standing in the living room, telling Auntie Nkechi that he had had a dream. His face, darker than normal, had some imprints of the stuff on which he had slept.
“Wait,” Auntie Nkechi said. “Your uncle has returned. You can tell him about it.”
Obere and I took our seats. Ikenna sat on the carpet. He started scratching with one hand his tumescent right cheek a bee had stung the previous day.
As Uncle Onyeabo entered, Auntie Nkechi stood up, and took his briefcase and hurried into her room to attend to her baby, who had woken up and started crying.
“Uncle,” Ikenna said, his face squeezed, “I saw my father in a dream, carrying his property out of our compound. He was weeping. I wanted to go with him. But he said that I was still young, that I should stay with my mother and make her happy. Then he waved goodbye to me and left.”
Uncle shook his head slowly and got seated. For a minute or more, nobody talked. I looked at Ikenna. His lips were moving but not parting. Perhaps he still had something to say.
Uncle Onyeabo stood calm for a long time. Then he rubbed his fingers over his eyes and said, “Tomorrow, you all will go back home.”
“How is my father, Uncle?” I asked.
“He’ll come back tomorrow with your mother.” He quietly went into Auntie Nkechi’s room.
“When my father comes back, he’ll give me palm wine to drink,” Obere said.
“Shut up,” Ikenna bawled at him.
Obere stuck out his tongue between his lips like a snake and wagged it derisively at Ikenna, who threatened to beat him.
I ignored them. I was rather uncomfortable about Uncle’s coldness, and so wanted to ask him when exactly my parents would come home, whether it was in the morning, afternoon or evening. A voice, however, told me that such a question was unnecessary since my father had finally recovered and would soon rejoin his family.
Everybody was crying. Children were weeping, women were wailing, men were yelling. There had never been a thing like this in recent years, they lamented. Men kept asking who again could tap for them palm wine as undiluted as his. They wondered how this could have happened. Women eulogized him, telling how genial he had been. Some did not believe that death could be so silly to touch him. But when they entered our main hut and saw my father lifeless in his wooden bed, they howled, they flung their scarves, they threw themselves to the ground, they cursed the day he had gone into the bush, they cursed the palm tree from which he had fallen, they cursed the rope he had used.
Our compound, fairly wide, could not contain the mourners. Breath mixed with breath; bodies mingled with bodies, squeezing and rubbing one another. As more and more people trooped in, so the wailing increased, so they ragged at death.
I was seated on the ground near the middle of our compound. I had drained my eyes with weeping, and my voice had fagged out. Obere and Ikenna had also wept beside me, and none of us had said to each other, “Stop crying. It’s enough.”
Uncle Onyeabo had innocuously lied to us yesterday only to take us home this morning for us to discover that our father, who had returned yesterday with our uncle, died a few hours earlier this morning.
As the mourning continued, a distinctive piercing shrill rose from the entrance to our compound. And like a sheet, silence gradually spread everywhere. I stood up to see what had happened. The voice cried louder. I craned my neck, avoiding those obstructing me. It was my father’s sister, Ugonne, hurling her body about. She had just come. A group of women moved close by her, guarding her on all sides from possibly injuring herself. She pulled off her head scarf and chucked it and stamped her feet hard on the ground. Her wrapper slipped off, revealing her sky-blue underwear, but the women retied it round her waist immediately.
“It is she!” her voice rang out, and she pointed viciously at our kitchen. “It is she who did it. She killed him. She killed him to enjoy his wealth.”
The silence was now intense, palpable, loaded with unutterable emotions. Everybody glanced at one another confusedly, gape-mouthed.
The women held Ugonne until she careened close to our main hut and flopped.
“I said she did it,” she said again on the ground. “It is Chinweogu who killed my brother.”
I looked about me, befuddled. My heart felt heavy, as though I were already full-breasted, and I felt the compound reeled. What was Ugonne saying? Did she mean that my mother, Chinweogu, had killed my father? Or was she talking about another Chinweogu? I could not query myself further, because everywhere had become alive again with the din following Ugonne’s incessant accusation. Everybody had instantly linked my father’s death to my mother. A few men and women drew circles over their heads with their hands and clicked their fingers in rejection of the abomination. Others shrugged and murmured some things indecipherable. Killing a folk member by magic or whatever means was a grievous crime in our land. And so when my father’s sister kept shouting that my mother was behind the death, I knew that something freaky was in the offing.
I hurried to my mother in the kitchen. She had heard the bad news and was flinging her body about, yowling uncontrollably on a sisal mat, her body all ashes from the fireplace. Those women who had sat beside her, consoling her, had now left the room in response to the news. Only two women were still there, but they stood far from her. As I rushed to hold her, they cordoned me off with their hands and ordered me to get out. I turned reluctantly, and while I left, my mother called out helplessly that I should come and hear the allegation made against her. But I could not go back. She had now become an outcast—even to her children.
It was getting to noon, more than two hours after the allegation. Our elders had been consulting among themselves in groups of twos and threes. Low clouds were gathering together thickly, and the leaves of the trees nearby remained calm. Even the chirpy weaverbirds on the palm trees kept quiet as they watched the event in our compound.
After the elders’ backyard conference, my mother was called out of her kitchen. She plodded barefoot to the middle of the compound, her sisal mat in her hand, her eyes dribbling tears, her body shaking. I had known her as a strong woman, but she was now a wuss. She stood and waited until enough space was created for her. She laid down the mat and sat on it, her legs stretched closely forward, her back facing our gate. Six elderly men stood in front of her at a respectable distance, and six elderly women behind her. Everybody else was seated.
“Tell us, Chinweogu, what you know about your husband’s death,” Udegbuna said, the oldest man in the group of men standing before her. He wiped with the left hand his hairless zucchetto-like crown.
My mother began to cry and to shake her head. I wished she had a living brother or sister or parents to be by her side.
“What will she say other than that she killed my brother?” Ugonne asked, seated close by.
“How could I—how could I have killed my own husband?” my mother railed. “How could I have taken away the life of my loved one?” She threw her head back and stamped her feet on the mat several times with the speed of one beating ikoro, a large wooden gong.
“You did,” my father’s sister said. “You killed him. I heard you say you would do so. I knew you had started your evil plan before your announcement. And what happened? You killed him. Now, go and eat his corpse?”
“Oho, you heard her say so, Ugonne?” one of the women in the crowd asked.
“Yes, I did. She said my brother would not come back alive that day when he was going to tap his palm trees for the afternoon.”
Everybody started denouncing my mother. Some said she was a witch; some suggested that she be banished; some said she should be lashed to a tree in the forest for wild animals to feast on her. I saw animalism on the grooved foreheads of men and women as words popped out of their mouths, unrestrained.
Tears filled my eyes as I recalled the little quarrel my father had on that day of the accident in the afternoon before he left for the bush. He had asked my mother to give him the money she had collected from his debtor, but my mother, as usual, said she had used it. He left the machete he was sharpening at a whetstone outside, bearded down on her in the kitchen, grabbed her by the neck, and demanded the money. My mother, taller than he, pushed him down against the wall. He got up, lunged to her again, and lifted his hand to strike her. But she hollered that if he struck her, his hand would wither. My father lowered his hand and went out and continued whetting his machete, still insistent that she must give him the money when he came back from the bush. My mother began to abuse him. He kept silent for some time, but when the elasticity of his patience expired, he started returning the abuse to her. My parents were still in their oral battle when Ugonne came in and asked what was happening. Neither of them told her anything. As my father picked his rope and some calabashes to go into the bush, my mother, still fuming, sweat oozing all over her body, said he would never come home alive. Although my father did not respond to this imprecation, his sister did. She reproached my mother for the reckless utterance and almost fought with her. But my mother asked her to go back to her husband’s house. Ugonne, hefty, said it was because of us—Ikenna, Obere, and me—that she would leave my mother unscathed. Unfortunately in the evening, the accident happened.
“We have a tradition that settles this kind of matter.” Udegbuna raised his iron staff and looked around. “Who knows the tradition?”
Nobody said anything.
“Is everybody silent?” His eyes darted about.
“She must wash him,” a man said.
“She must bathe with the water,” one of the women standing behind my mother added.
Udegbuna nodded and struck his staff on the ground to punctuate his acquiescence.
“She must sleep beside him,” another woman from the crowd said.
Udegbuna nodded again. “You are all right. She must wash him, and she must take her bath with the water. She must also sleep beside him. For a whole day. That is the only way she can prove her innocence.” He turned to the men on his left. “Is this not our custom?”
“It is,” they said.
“That cannot happen!” Auntie Nkechi shouted, springing out from nowhere. “Such treatment is for animals, not for human beings.” She was advancing menacingly on those women standing behind my mother, her baby strapped on her back.
A man stood up and blocked her way. “Go and sit down, Nkechi.”
“I won’t.” She raised her hands and balled up her fists in the face of the man, but he ducked and gave way to her.
Some women, however, rushed her and started pushing her out of the compound, telling her to keep quiet because she was married from another town and so didn’t understand our custom. But she kept struggling to be free, cursing them, lamenting that her only handicap now was the inaccessible road to our village. Otherwise, she would have called the police from the neighbouring town five kilometers away and arrested everybody. But people smirked at her, remarking her as a dreamer for thinking of such a course of action.
Udegbuna ignored Auntie Nkechi, now almost pushed out of our gate. He stretched forth his left hand towards the group of women behind my mother. “Do with her what our tradition demands.” He and his group moved back and took their seats.
The women started a soulful song, a song instigating the dead to fight their unjust killers. The song was not sung often, I learnt later. One could hear it only when the cause of a death was suspicious. The song filled me with sorrow, made me imagine the destination of the dead. After singing the third refrain, they stopped and urged my mother to stand up. And she did. When they began to march her into our main hut where my father lay, everybody gave way as if my mother were a leper. Her long neck slanted sideways, her unsupported breasts swayed in her milky light gown, her long steps changed to that of a duck, as though she was no longer the one controlling her legs. Before she waddled to the door, she stumbled and fell. She got up again and continued moving. I was confused. I wanted to run after her and ask her what was happening. But two women grabbed me and pulled me down, saying I should not enter the house. I began to weep.
About an hour later, my mother came out of the hut with a big earthen bowl of water. She walked to the centre where her mat still lay and set down the bowl. The group of women also came out and went behind her and stood like before. The elderly men rose again, walked to her front, and lined up with Udegbuna at one end of the line. My mother sat on her mat, facing the men. I moved closer to them. My mother’s face was all tears and sweat, and she fixed her gaze on the water. It was brown with some specks floating on it.
Udegbuna turned to his right and left, and wiped his heavy grey mustache with his left hand. “Chinweogu has done one thing. She will now do other things.”
“She must do all of them,” Ugonne said, shaking her head. “She can’t be living, whereas she has sent my brother to the land of the dead.”
“Keep quiet, Ugonne,” a man from the crowd said. “Chinweogu is here and must defend herself accordingly.”
“We need a cup,” Udegbuna said.
One of the women standing behind my mother stepped forward and put a calabash cup down on the mat, the calabash cup that looked like the number 8, with the top finely cut off.
Udegbuna gave the other men a signal, and they all lifted their hands and stretched it above my mother. Then they began their bloody incantations, and after a while stopped. Udegbuna directed my mother to fill the cup with the water and wash her face with it.
I looked at the water again. It appeared dark now, the dirty specks still floating on top. Something struck my mind, a story of a woman asked to take a bath with the water collected from the washed body of her dead husband to prove her innocence of his death. The dead man had been placed on his bed and a bowl kept under it to collect back the water. I was filled with spite the day I heard the story, and cursed the executioners. I guessed this was what my mother was being subjected to. Thus I shouted “No!” and took a step to reach her. But some women grabbed me. I struggled in vain to free myself. When they saw that I had exhausted my little energy, they let go of me. To my shock, my mother was already standing over the bowl and washing her face with the cup of water. Done, she threw the cup into the bowl, sat down again and began to spit.
“Over to you again,” the old man said to the group of women. “Take her to the back of the house and let her wash herself with the water.”
“No!” I said again and wanted to dash to my mother. But my earlier captors did their job well, this time spanking me.
The women asked my mother to carry the bowl of water. She stood up weakly, and bent over and lifted it. In a file, they led her to the back of our kitchen. When they returned, her body was wet. To cap it all, my mother was locked in the room so she could sleep alongside my father’s corpse on the same mat till the next day. Udegbuna made some incantations in front of the hut, slit the throat of a cock with a knife and sprinkled the blood on the lintel, the door, and the doorposts. He said if my mother died before dawn, it meant she was my father’s killer; if she survived, she would be under surveillance until after four days. Then she could be declared innocent.
This last segment of the defence ritual cut my heart deeply. I detested my people. I detested the sand I treaded on. I detested the breeze blowing gently that evening. I detested the cloud above that had been quarreling with the sun, forcing the luminous body to bow out. The thought of my mother sleeping on the same mat alongside my dead father drove me crazy. I didn’t know again whom to cry for: my father or my mother.
As people started leaving, for it was already sundown, Uncle Onyeabo materialized and gathered my brothers and me, and said we would sleep in his house and return home the next day. I didn’t want to go with him; I was so angry. He was here and couldn’t defend my mother, couldn’t even support Auntie Nkechi who wanted to defend her. But Uncle Onyeabo seemed to know my thoughts, and said, calmly, along the way, “I couldn’t do anything, Nzube. It is an age-old deadly tradition which I alone can’t abolish. And I don’t want to die yet.”
I lay on a mat alongside my brothers in Uncle Onyeabo’s living room. But I remained awake most of the night. I was thinking about my mother. Maybe she would not sleep in my father’s room, or she would open the window. But the elders had warned that she must comply accordingly for her own safety. They had invoked evil spirits to visit her upon disobedience. I recalled my mother’s dream about her own mother accused of killing another woman’s child, the whole community punishing her. I thought about Ikenna’s dreams: one in which Eagle deserted a place he had shared with Kite; and the other in which Ikenna said our father had waved goodbye to him. I tried to analyze the dreams’ relationship with his death and my mother’s situation. But I knew that this intellectual strain was too big for the little pulp in my skull. My mind reverted to Ugonne with morbid hate. Should my mother survive this ordeal, I was going to dislike Ugonne; I would never greet her again; I would never take the same route she had walked past; I would never allow her to enter our compound anymore. But I was afraid that my mother might die of something else, not of being guilty of my father’s death. She might die of shock. She might die of loneliness. She might die of hunger. She might…
It was morning. I had been roused by a rooster crowing in the compound. And as I listened, I noticed that many others far away were already at their minarets, alerting many more to wake up. I rose from the mat furtively. We had slept without any light, so I could not tell the exact time from the wall clock. I fumbled towards the door and unbolted it and poked my head through the crack. Darkness still held supremacy outside. I looked back into the room. My brothers’ deep snores indicated that their souls were miles away. I turned and peered into the darkness again. My eyes had adjusted to it a little, and I could make out some figures. Quietly, I squeezed myself through the door and closed it. I groped down to the steps and nearly fell upon stumbling over a small hard object I could not recognize. I tiptoed into the front yard, barefooted, heavyhearted. A moist breeze was blowing and my feet felt the dampness of the sand. There was no moon; only few stars were visible. As I moved, hundreds of different shapes began to appear, and before I reached the gate, they increased to thousands and to millions. A cock in a cage nearby clapped its wings and bellowed, and his wife cackled beside him. A fly buzzed and bumped on my right cheek. I slapped it off. Its stench made me hold my breath briefly and, feeling a tingle on the spot it had bumped, I spat. Annoyingly.
“Nzube!” a voice shouted from the house.
“Nzube!” That was Uncle Onyeabo.
I ducked behind a young mango tree, facing the house. How did he know that I had left the room? I wished that a firefly nearing my side would snuff out its bulb. Around me, another set of intangible figures slithered and swarmed, first like snakes and then like little dark birds. I sprang up and belted towards the small metal gate. I had just touched its bolt when a light from the house flashed and exposed me, with an accompanying female voice. I trembled, flopped and began to cry. My mission had been foiled.
Auntie Nkechi and Uncle Onyeabo ran to me and the latter pulled me up.
“Where are you going this early morning, Nzube?” Auntie Nkechi asked while she flashed all around me the torch of her Power-King brand of radio, perhaps to see if I had sustained any injury.
“Home,” I cried. “I want to see my mother.” I slipped off Uncle Onyeabo’s hand and fell on the ground and flailed my hands and swung my spindly legs around.
“Don’t go anywhere now,” Uncle Onyeabo said. “This is four am. Besides, it is against the custom for any of her children to be the first to see her this morning, whether she survives or not. Stay here till dawn.”
“Uncle, why? Why did they treat my mother like this?” I rolled on the ground like an earthworm sprinkled with ashes.
“I’ve told you, Nzube. I didn’t create this tradition, and I won’t be the only person…only person to…to….”
Auntie Nkechi started a low cry and the fowls joined in and the whole compound became animated. Uncle Onyeabo bent over, grabbed me by the hand and begged me to return to the house. At last I stood up and he led Auntie Nkechi and me back inside.
After our breakfast, we got ready to go home. Obere was seated on the motorcycle tank, while Ikenna and I sat behind Uncle, Ikenna holding Uncle’s lungs, I clasping Ikenna’s.
Immediately Uncle Onyeabo braked in our compound, I jumped off the motorcycle, took a few steps and stood stock-still. The environment was ghoulish, deserted. I could hardly believe that here was the same place swarming with people yesterday. But thousands of footprints were still in the sand. My heart ached. I wanted my eyes to detect Ugonne’s footprints so that I could scoop and burn them. In that way, I thought, her feet would in reality become burnt.
“Come here, Nzube,” Uncle Onyeabo said, holding my brothers and facing our kitchen.
It was like a sting, his voice, prodding me. I darted straight to the hut my mother had slept, contrary to my uncle’s earlier warning.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!” I knocked on the door locked with a strange padlock. “Mama! Mama! Mama!” I listened. Hearing no response, I pounded the door harder. I kicked it furiously, I thumped it madly, I jabbed it with my knees, I poked it with my elbows. But no sound indicated that there was a living person inside. I ran to my father’s tiny window behind and banged on it, calling my mother. I put my fingers in its crack and yanked it, but the wood grazed my index finger without giving way. Back to the front door I scudded. Ikenna had also joined me and we cried until Uncle Onyeabo, sad-faced, came down with Obere and started pleading that we go and stay in our kitchen. I concluded that my mother had died. Nobody alive would hear the knocks without responding. I wondered whether she was truly my father’s killer. But no! She wasn’t. She died of something else. We were now orphans? What a tragedy!
Uncle Onyeabo led us into our kitchen. While we were seated on carved wooden stools, he stood by the door, perhaps guarding us from leaving the room pending the time the elders of the clan would come and unlock that hut.
At last people started coming. They sat quietly on the benches, the sand, some flat stones, and the wilted grass which human feet had already flattened on the ground along the compound wall. Uncle Onyeabo had now left the room, and as our compound was filling up, I bolted to the locked hut and began to knock on the door again, calling my mother. Some women came and carried me away, ignoring my cry that they should allow me to die with my mother. I wept until I tasted hot liquid in my mouth, until my eyes dried, until my lungs hurt. Then I lay still on the ground.
“Did she survive?” a voice shouted from the entrance.
I strained my ears.
“Did she survive it?” the voice went on.
I rose and wiped the grains of sand off my face and hands and dress. Here was Ugonne again, the great accuser. Had I the power to turn my eyes into guns, I would have done so and shot her down. Unscrupulously. I hated her voice, her heavy bearing, her wrapper, which swept the ground as she walked. I wished the wrapper could change into a rope and automatically bind her ankles together and throw her down, headlong.
Ugonne hustled to the hut my mother had slept, and knocked hard on the door. She put her ears to it and listened. Probably hearing nothing inside, she knocked again. Then she turned to the people already gathered. “Didn’t I say it? I told you yesterday that it was Chinweogu who had killed my brother. Now she couldn’t wake.”
Murmurings of disapproval swept through the crowd, disapproval of a woman who had mercilessly killed her husband. Some said they had not known that my mother was a witch. Others said it was good that she had died to avoid killing her own children, as witches had no favourites. Such descriptive activities of witches frightened me, and I felt that the people were right, if my mother was actually a witch who might later kill my brothers and me. But deep down in my heart, I did not believe she was, and so dismissed their voices.
“Her evil has doomed her,” Ugonne said. “The snake and what it has swallowed will be buried together. Today.” She sat in front of the hut, bright-eyed.
At last the elders came and our compound brimmed again with people. Written on every face was the unanimity that my mother had died. The elders filed to the house she had slept, Udegbuna leading the line, men following immediately behind him and then the women. Some paces away from the door, they stopped. Udegbuna beckoned to one of the women, Akuilo, and moved to the door with her. Everybody kept silent.
“Chinweogu,” Akuilo said, “we have come to see you. How was your night?”
They all listened.
“Chinweogu,” the woman repeated, “we have come to see you. How was your night? Did you sleep well?”
They listened again after which Akuilo tuned their soulful song, now asking the dead whether they had killed one of their killers. The other women joined her. The song stirred my brain, filled me with eerie images of some dead people I knew, transported me to a cemetery full of red-earth tombs, to a glade full of human skeletons and corpses on which maggots were feasting. The women sang the refrain for about five times and stopped.
Udegbuna poked his staff on the door twice. “Give me the key.”
Akuilo untied the head of her wrapper containing the key and handed it to Udegbuna, who unlocked the door. While they filed inside, I pushed my way through to join them. Halfway there, a woman intercepted me and threatened to slash me for my mulishness. I struggled to break free, but could not. I then sat beside her.
Almost immediately they had all entered there, the elders scrambled out, some falling on the threshold. Akuilo and one woman fell just outside the door, each tumbling over the other, screaming. Udegbuna was the last to scurry out, and his whole body was shaking. In his hurry, he had left his staff in the room. Some people outside also started running in different directions; thus the whole place was turned into bedlam. It was at this point that I dashed into the hut. Whatever infused me with intrepidity I could not tell.
My mother was still alive. She was seated beside my father’s corpse on the wooden bed in his room, her hands under her chin, her gaze on the floor. My father’s window was now open.
“Mama,” I called, standing at the door.
“Mama.” I had added more decibels. I could hear people shouting my name, asking me to come out, berating me for my foolhardiness.
My mother lifted her head, stared at me and burst into a loud laugh.
This was a strange scene. I backpedaled. “Mama, are you okay?”
She laughed louder and stopped. Then she turned to her dead husband. “Wake up. It’s already dawn. Wake up, Papa Nzube. Won’t you tap your palm trees today?” She raised her right hand and placed it on his already bloated hairy chest, shook him lightly and turned to me. “He doesn’t want to wake.” She chortled.
I flew out of the house, terrified.
I stopped beside our kitchen. The elders had scattered and everybody was afraid. Some started asking me what had happened. But I could not say anything. The only thing I did was point back at the hut, my body trembling.
Some minutes later, my mother came and stood at the threshold. All eyes riveted on her. She looked around, her eyes rapidly blinking, and put her hands on her waist and began to laugh. Her dark-brown skin had changed colour, looking ashy, and the downside of her gown was wet, as if she had slipped into enuresis. Her uncovered disheveled hair jarred my sight; and her eyes, receded, pronounced her cheek bones distinctly. When she stopped laughing, she looked straight at me and said, “Come, Nzube.”
I did not go. I just stood staring at her, too flustered and frightened to do anything.
“I said come.” She beckoned to me.
I shook my head and stepped backwards, my eyes wet again. I looked around me. The elders had gathered in front of our kitchen opposite, their attention focused on my mother.
“The snake and what it has swallowed must be buried today,” Ugonne shouted from behind the elders.
“I’ve asked him to wake, but he couldn’t,” my mother said, and grinned. “Nzube is my witness.” She burst again into a loud laugh.
There were murmurings now that the dead had struck my mother with madness which would eventually lead to her doom for her evil.
After the elders finished their discussion, they filed again towards the hut and stopped before my mother. Seeing them, she took two steps forward and halted. They flinched, but after regaining composure they began to calm her down as they approach her, promising her no harm. Then two men, with agility, rushed her and seized her and pinned her down to the ground. She screamed. Some women joined in to bind her hands and legs with a rope. I pushed myself to them and started slapping the back of a man bent over. He appeared unhurt, for he was relentlessly busy with the rope round my mother’s ankles. I grabbed his right buttock and wished that his thick black trousers could give my incisors instant access to his flesh. Without having second thoughts, I pressed my teeth on this buttock, bit it hard simultaneously with a pull. He got the message and kicked his leg backwards. Unfortunately, his strong bone hit my weak patella. The sting was excruciating and I fell backwards. Two women seized me and dragged me out of the place down to my grandfather’s hut. There I remained, weeping my eyes out under the asphyxiating grip of a smelly fat woman who, unlike others, was begging me not to cry anymore, asking where I had got all the energy I had been expending.
Later on, some men were sent into the bush to cut down the palm tree from which my father had fallen. When they returned and reported that the job had been done, my father was buried beside our barn in the late afternoon.
Normally after interment in Idodo, people would stay around at night to comfort the bereaved. But in our case, apart from Uncle Onyeabo, not up to five people stayed behind. They trooped out like ants frightened out of their holes, speculating that my mother would die within the maximum of four days required after the defence ritual. The dead had just struck her with madness, they said, but would kill her within those days. Our elders unbound her legs but fettered her hands with crude blacksmith’s shackles that grazed her wrists to bleeding, saying she might turn violent if left unrestrained. My mother cried and begged them to unbind her, but her plea hit adamant ears sucked of humanity. I felt disconnected from my people, from the village, from anything my eyes could see. What a bête noire everything had become to me!
It was after the four days that Uncle Onyeabo woke up. On the fifth day, he sent a message to Udegbuna, ordering him to come and unlock the cuffs on my mother’s wrists, or risk the police visiting him from the neighbouring town. This threat moved the man and he brought the key at once.
After her hands were freed, my mother, though non-violent, still acted strangely. She would not return greetings promptly. When she did, she asked something irrelevant on top, like, “Am I a beautiful woman? Do you think I can still bear a child?” Sometimes she focused her gaze on the rafters and once she looked down, she smiled and scratched her cheeks with both hands. She behaved the freakiest one morning in our general room when she stopped in the middle of a meal and said some people had warned her not to eat the yam porridge anymore. She started talking with those invisible beings. Uncle Onyeabo, fortunately around, said this development was getting out of hand. The next day, eight days after my father’s death, he took her to a mental hospital in Enugu, shunning the diehards who kept insisting that she should be allowed to die for her abomination, who still held that the dead wanted to torture her before finally killing her, even though she had survived the dreaded four days.
My mother came back on the twenty-third day after she left home, mentally sound. But the trauma of her husband’s death, of the treatment meted out to her because of the death, and of the challenge of facing the future as a single parent made her weep sporadically. And I did cry with her.
Two weeks after my mother’s return, Uncle Onyeabo took me to Enugu to continue my education. The atmosphere there was different, free, welcoming. I relished the sight of electricity, impressive cars, elegant storey houses, beautiful parks and malls, and gaily people in classy clothes. I felt that this was where I belonged. And at school, my headmistress caught my fancy; she could unapologetically denounce anything abhorrent. Her wit and aplomb and command of English appealed to me greatly. I was going to be like her, I promised myself. Then, I would be able to challenge my people and some of their ways. Honestly.
IMAGE: Bigstock.com modified.