Fiction

Totem: A Short story by Fredrick Chiagozie Nwonwu

I have always had a morbid fear of snakes. Even as a child, I shied away from the harmless green snake that is abundant in my village and is seen as an asset for it is an effective rodent control. This specie is seen all through the village, and is commonly revered as a totem of the gods to be killed at one’s peril.

My fear of the crawly things was not borne out of any unpleasant experience but is inborn, a feeling of dread and revolting that my family legend said is handed down to me from my grandfather on the father’s side, whose reincarnate I am said to be. Please don’t ask me about how that came about for I know nothing of that life to be able to convince you about the truth of reincarnation. Just accept the elder’s word on it like we all do.

As I said before I hate snakes, and usually go out of my way to avoid them. I won’t even touch a dead one, not to talk of eating their meat which I assure you is as sweet as any meat, if the words of my snake eating cousins are anything to go by. Damn buggers those ones, they only eat the best of things, only eating fresh soup – when the choice meat and fish are still in large supply, and even then, only the best parts. Please take their word on the snake meat, because they know what they are talking about.

Everybody in my family knows about my hatred for snakes and respect my views on them. They even tried their best to keep the communal green ones from my hut, planting snake repellant plants around it and blocking all holes that stubborn ones may want to force their slithery way in. It was this respect for my hate that caused my crazy cousin to rush into my room that hot afternoon. It was just a few moons past my sixteenth birthday, during the wet season (which I hate too) and I was dozing off the effects of a very hot meal, hoping to put off till the last minute the inevitable trip to the palm forest to check my father’s palm wine, a trip that is as important as it is dreadful, taking all the wet dark leafy places where my great enemies may lurk into shivery consideration. Anyway, my cousin, the crazy one, rushed in affecting men with his panic.

“Kadim, Kadim!” he called, using my common pet name. I pretended not to hear, for I know as usual that he is on to another mischief, which, I must tell you, is his middle name.

“Kadim, you sleepy headed son of Madu, how long are you going to pretend to be asleep? You know that I know that you know that I know you are awake, or don’t the eyes of those who sleep deeply twitch? Or are you so unconcerned as to ignore the peril that hangs on your head?” he said, too loudly for the little hut. That’s my cousin, Okwu, noisy as ever. It’s a family joke that only an adult woodpecker can challenge him in a talking contest. Only the woodpecker can never hope to peck wood with the speed at which Okwu pecks words. Knowing he won’t go away until I’ve listened to his news, I opened my eyes and yawned wildly, with all the appearance of one waking from a deep slumber. Like I expected, Okwu wasn’t fooled. He smiled at me in his sly way and laughed in his high pitch.

“Our grandfather thinks Okwu is still a baby when Okwu had breathed two moons worth of the earth’s air before he was born. Any way, you know that I know that you know that I have news for you, and my, my, are they heavy news? Only wait till I tell you the half of it then…”

“Okwu” says I, cutting off his breathless tirade which would have continued none the less “say your say and be gone for I need to rest before heading to the palm forest, father’s wine needs checking.”

“Aha, the palm forest. I don’t think you will be going to the palm forest today grandfather” he paused uncharacteristically to gauge my reaction as I fought to control an exhilarating emotion that jumped in my chest at his words, but since I know that he only calls me grandfather – a reference to my being an incarnate – when he is up to mischief especially when I am the main target, I kept my face unreadable, or almost, for the sly bastard wasn’t fooled “Oooh, I have got his attention at last, tell me was it the palm forest? Never mind, like I said you don’t have to bother your head about the palm forest today, that is, for the elders are meeting in uncle Okoro’s Obi this very minute, and guess who the main topic of discussion is?”

“You know I can’t do that, I wasn’t there, and don’t tell me you’ve being snooping around the business of the elders?”

“Yes, I have” he said pointedly “or how do you think I would have gotten the information I came to give you, and about that information, if you keep interrupting me, I doubt if I can get to telling it before this day closes. You always find ways to take the sting out the telling Kadim.”

“Ok” said I “I won’t interrupt again.” By now my interest has risen though was yet to soar to its peak.

“Well” he said “I overheard the elders talking about you. It was said that a large sacred python has blocked of the Iyi stream and so prevents water from flowing down for the village use.”

“What!” I screamed, mad that he had used up my time as well trying my patience only to tell such tall a tale. I lunged for him in anger. Not that I have ever been able to defeat him in wrestling, for my cousin is a rather strong fellow who makes up for what he lacks in brains with brawn. He cowered from me, not necessary out of fright, but as a token of truce. I stepped back from him as he motioned for me to wait.

“I swear it is true. Chi went to the stream earlier today and returned without any water. People now go as far as Ota stream to get water.”

“To Ota? But that is ten miles away?” I said incredulous.

“Yes ten miles through the hills, for no one is allowed to pass through the shorter cut which you know passes through the Iyi route” Okwu said.

“Ok, let’s say you are telling the truth, how come I didn’t know about it? I was at Chi’s mother’s hut just before the sun climbed overhead and now it is not three arms past the middle” I asked seriously wondering how something of that significance would have occurred without my notice.

“That is easily answered” he replied “no one wants to mention snakes around you, especially large pythons” a sly light shining in his eyes.

I must not forget to tell you that my cousin does not know fear. He particularly likes to catch snakes with his hands and was the culprit in many hateful pranks played on me when we were much younger. Almost all these pranks involved his putting the sacred green snake somewhere and making me unknowingly reach out and touch the hidden horror. All these pranks had petered out as he grew older and he found more interesting people outside the family to practice his more advanced pranks on.

As for the pythons, they have always been here, protected like many others by the patronage of one god or the other, at whose shrines large numbers of them can be seen at any given time. In some clans it is the crazy rhesus monkeys, others the pygmy tortoise that gets the highest patronage as the chief totem. But in my village, it is the giant pythons that are superior. They can at times be seen lumbering down one village path or the other looking for cool places to hide from the sun’s heat. As you would have guessed, I keep well away from them, unlike some of the younger children who, waiting until the pythons have swallowed their bi-weekly meal of goat or chicken, depending on the particular python’s capacity, take rides on their broad backs. That, to say the least, is not for me. Okwu would have told me more had we not been interrupted by my father who came into the hut unannounced to stare at Okwu with angry eyes.

“Okwu, what are you doing here?” he asked suspiciously “I hope you have not been sneaking around where you are not wanted?”

Okwu tried his best to look innocent, a look he can not quite manage, being out of character. He managed to mumble something before slinking out of the room after remembering something he was supposed to do for his mother. His attitude, quite theatrical I tell you, caused my father and I to laugh out loud.

Though I had not forgotten about the issue of the python, it didn’t cross my mind to ask father, probably to protect my nosey cousin or because I felt I was not involved. How wrong I was as future events would prove. I followed my father at his request to visit his elder brother, who he has always been drawn to and was closer to than any one else, apart from my mother. As we made our way towards his house, which is situated at the outskirts of the village, I noticed a peculiar way people where looking at me and my father. Some would shout out his praise name or call out my grandfather’s name, to which he will insist I respond. This I did by raising my hand in silent salute, a large smile on my face for I rather like the title of Ogbuagu – one who kills lions.

My uncle was waiting for us when we got to his compound, a cluster of huts arranged in a semicircle behind his massive Obi. Impressive as befits the first son of a great chief.

“My father” this is his usual way of greeting me “you have come” turning to my father he cocked his head to which my father shook his and my uncle nodded, apparently in agreement with whatever it was they were referring to. It was then that I knew that my father had met with his brother earlier that day, the significance of which did not hit me until later when we had settled down in front of the Obi eating fried breadfruit and palm nuts, the best combination if there was ever any.

“My father” my uncle had began “I want you to do something for me; it is something you may not like. No, it is something you will not like, but something that must be done. A thing that only you can do, but something you must be willing to do in order to succeed” he paused and looked towards my father who nodded his head in affirmation.

“Yes, a grave thing indeed for the clan and disastrous for our family” he added, a solemn look shadowing his face.

At about this time I will confess that my mind was doing some additions and heading towards a conclusion that I didn’t like a bit, so it did not come as much of a surprise to me when the issue of the python was brought to light.

To cut a long story short, my uncle spelt out to me that the python blocking the stream is my totem and tradition demands that I, I mean I alone, go to the stream and plead with it to move away from the stream. According to my uncle, the totem is annoyed at my snobbery of it all these years. Was I surprised? That is, to say the least. Yes, I thought my uncle’s speech had to do with the python but I didn’t know I was that involved. You can imagine my horror and helplessness.

Like my uncle said, I have to do it not for my self alone but for my family who would be held responsible for any negative outcome of the python’s anger. Having been reminded of my history and the antecedents of the man whose name I bear and tutored by the python grove’s chief priest who I never liked anyway, I set out for the stream with my uncle, who promised to stay as near as he can when I confront the python.

Locating the python wasn’t hard because it was a big one. The forest was not as dense near the stream on account of the tall trees which obscured the sunlight which would have given strength to the smaller plants. So, apart from the occasional shrub the forest floor was as clear as a well kept garden. It was coiled across the stream, successfully damming it. It appeared to sense my approach for it lifted its head and looked towards my direction. All my previous fears returned in a flood. I turned and would have beat it out of there in a great haste had my uncle not called out to me from his position further back.

“Ogbuagu” he called out “does the lion killer fear the harmless python? Go to it my father, appease he whom you have wronged.” At his words my strength returned and I made my way gingerly towards the python. Stopping a few feet away, I turned to look at my uncle who waved me on. I turned back to the python whose massive body was directly in front of me, reaching into the goat skin bag strapped to my back I pulled out the wrap of sixteen eggs that was supposed to represent my seasons and placed same, unwrapped, before him while talking to him as I was taught by the chief priest.

I don’t know how long I stood their or when the python’s coils went round me. I only recall being lifted off my feet with such violence that only one of such strength can manage. I think too, that somewhere at that point my uncle screamed out my name, but I am not too sure for everything was wheeling then. Yes, I was face to face with my greatest nightmare. The musky smell of the snake choked me and I felt the power of its muscles. I would have screamed if I had breath, for he was squeezing me, tighter and tighter. Soon I started to feel my heart quickening as my breath left me. I knew I was going to lose consciousness even before everything blacked out.

I came to amongst the python’s coils to find my uncle standing a little way off while the chief priest massaged my chest. I looked around in panic to find that the python was still much around and alive. It was then looking at me with an intelligent glint in it’s beady eyes and I can swear that it felt concern for me.

“Ogbuagu” the chief priest said “I think your debt is paid, only never ignore your totem again, even in your latter comings.”

“Yes” I heard myself say in a voice that was strange to my ears “it is paid.”

“And the stream?” I asked looking towards the bone of contention which as if in answer was churning loudly as it rushed to fill the gap between it and the communal water hole.

We left the python there, where it lay feasting on the eggs I had brought. I must confess that I am still nervous around snakes, especially the poisonous variety. Who wouldn’t be?

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