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Once Upon January: A Poem by Emmanuel Isuku

Image: Wiki Media


January is dull; the dullest
Of its brethren with sick breath
Like a woman gnawing teeth
In labour pangs
Stirring up rancid smell
Of goats. And arid harmattan dust
Settles on verandas and roofs
Enslaving dusk to dawn
Until the sun rays are bold enough
To announce a temporary defeat;
The azure is barren –
The clouds strolling up high
Are white as the saliva
Of a pregnant woman;
The rain is nowhere in the sky:
The earth heats up with the anger
Of a starved fellow, and in turn
Frustrates the near-death shrubs
Shaded with dust
And embraced by the skeins
Of ambitious spiders.
The earthen pots are dry
To crack; the bowls
Under the eaves host
On their surfaces
Cobwebs, sand and
Ash from burnt brambles.

When the roosters raised their voices –
The herald of a harmattan dawn;
Dew blessed the dying vegetation
As they rustled to yet another crow,
My siblings and I
Warmed our heads with pails
Away to the brook
Some miles into the dark.
We strayed (like goats lost in the moon night)
The narrow path
Flanked by sturdy vegetation
Embracing across it
In sheer defiance
A little above the ankle.
We moved either fast or slow
With charred lips and broken heels;
I led the procession
As if we were off to nowhere,
Folding into ourselves to halt the
Tormenting cold.
Occasionally, we loosened the
Tight grip of our arms over our chests
Under the shady trees which were warm –
An isle in deep blue sea!
We saw and we heard
What plucked out our hearts
Lying them neatly on our palms to quake:
The shape of a man
In possession of an earthen pot
Twice his size and
Coughing out smoke;
The furious hoots of owls –
A message lying shallow
In their bitter cries –
‘This is a forming dawn,
Why trouble our repose?’

And we measured our reluctant steps
On the bushy trail
Until the busy junction
Showed up mercy of comfort.
To the left was a blind path
That led to our farm
Which spread in solitude
Down the Ohuaeke hill
Near the angry waterfall
Drumming with enthusiasm.
There I met someone I knew,
‘Uwen, you remember me?’
‘Why, our feet shook
This trail New Year eve.’ Said he.
‘Is your water pot dry soon?’ I asked
‘It hardly makes a day.’ Replied he.
‘Do you extract oil from palm fruit?’
I asked slightly humorous.
‘No,’ said he, ‘in our home,
We use water liberally;
Unlike most people,
We don’t leave sweat caked
On our skins
While the night lumbers.’
I went off abashed!

Then we got to the brook
When the dawn
Rubbed its grey hue
On the poor misty surrounding
And the chilled harmattan tightened
Its hands on the poor morning
Like an angry man
On the neck
Of his unfaithful debtor.
When we were up the great hill
Roofed by trees interlocking,
I heard the bored croaks of frogs
Which the sounds of our feet
Had pushed into silence
Leaving the dawn dumb –
Yes! A voiceless dawn
Denied of even dim crows.
Only few cocks remained downtown
Near my home;
The ones that survived
The naked harmattan
When it began were
Gone with the celebration wind;
Our cock – I broke its legs with stick
On Christmas eve
When it seemed impossible to catch.

The brook’s as lean as
The lap of a starved cow
taking its source
From the crook of two roots
Of the big mahogany tree
And running in solitude
Between the two irregular hills.
The villagers venerate it like god;
It hardly goes dry –
It only suffers emaciation
In dry season.
When the thirsty tongue
Of harmattan licks to mould
The wane streams of
Neighbouring clans,
They come to the brook,
Supplication rolled over their tongues.
We drowned our feet in the lazy flow;
Freezing it was! I let out a scream
Until my feet were tormented to numbness.
And then we filled our pails,
Walked over the fading meadow
Up the shady hill
Tracing the path home.

We troubled our knees
On the tear-filled earth
Craving for a splendid noon,
But the one before us
Wore an utterly hideous livery;
A blank haze held the air
In chains, bleeding the palms
And heels to perfect peroxide blonde.
Nonetheless, we ran
Our feet daring to quake the terrace;
Our skins – white like lepers’
In spite of the palm kernel oil
Spread on our tans,
Appearing it’d serve eternal
On our torn skins when
We scrubbed ourselves with
Soap, sponge and water
Until the flesh nearly peeled off.
And the smell of roasted cashew nuts
Perturbed the bored air
(An alluring smell though)
But I’d none of roasting;
The last time I roasted,
I got a horrific burn on my face;
I won’t forget until my memory goes black
And the earth – my sole blanket;
The black spots so-created still
Giggle lively on my age-creased face.

And the calm even time
Came carrying on its debilitated
Shoulders, buzzing activities;
The harmattan set loose
Its grip in preparation for the eve
But altogether,
I found it uninteresting – this evening;
My interest drowned
In watching toothless old people
Rubbing their stress-marked backs
On the rests
Of their armless chairs
Piping ceaselessly,
Smokes building up from their mouths
Disappearing eternally
Over their heads;
And young men,
Flexing their muscles,
Playing all known games
Near the sawdust square – the arena;
Smokes curling up from chimneys
And dry grasses the evening sweepers
Set ablaze in their frontages.
The broods were travelling homewards
Chewing bitter songs,
The sun – buried once again beneath
The dark and silent hills;
Soon the dusk would paint the sky grey.

That was January life scores ago
In this countryside –
When my blood – a hot coal
Inside me;
Dreams were more than dreams;
Hearts rubbed against paradise –
A warm and brief interlude
That came between
A sickly childhood and a dark old age;
The world to me now –
An everlasting night;
And once again my memory falls
On this time of the year (an idle one)
When hoes and spades are laid to rest
Under bedsteads
Until the rains grace the sky;
We  only mulched the yam moulds
And set dry bushes ablaze
Hunting games which escaped
Their abodes suffocated.
O! I journey into the distant past,
My heart melts into paste
In this shore of nostalgia;
My own sky’s belching dusk,
The roosters are returning with blind faces
And soon it’ll be my eternal night –
Moonless and dumb
For I don’t trust my breath;
Not now, not anymore,
Not when I sense it won’t tarry
Till the lean moon gathers flesh;
I’m used up; I’m dry;
I’m nearer death now than life.

© Emmanuel Isuku

Ohikhuare 'Emmanuel' Isuku
Ohikhuare 'Emmanuel' Isuku
Ohikhuare 'Emmanuel' Isuku is a Nigerian writer. His play – The Ballot and the Sanctuary (released under the pseudonym Emmanuel Isuku) – was published in 2014 by University Press, PLC., Ibadan. Currently, he is at work on a full length novel.


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