Ray wore an undisguised look of consternation as the door closed behind his father. “What are we suppose to do now?” he asked. The twins stared at him without uttering a word. As Nkechi sighed, her twin sister turned to gaze at the opposite wall. Ray knew that both women quite understood him and the implication of their father’s decision this evening. He had been anxiously waiting to know if his father would insist on the Christmas travel, and just about when he seemed to have exhausted his guesses sweating out the time with his elder sisters, he heard the tap on the door of his room. We’ll be leaving on the 21st, his father was precise. His old man could have handed them fig leaves in the marketplace. They will be spending more days in the village this time than they had done a couple of years ago. This was about his father’s promises to their kinsmen.
Ray’s father had made a solemn promise to be returning for Christmas with his family in two years intervals. The two situations that prompted this decision were the death of his father and the emergence of new roles for him in the family. By virtue of his age he has become the oldest in the kindred. He is expected to lead and represent his people in the town union council. Although he had acquainted his family with this situation, but unknown to him, Ray did not quite agree with the whole idea. What did not go down well with the young man is the oversight of dragging him and his sisters into the mud of primitive village life. It was as if their feelings and opinions were quite irrelevant to be taken into consideration.
The time Ray traveled for his grandfather’s burial was his second visit to their village since he was born. His first visit was when he was barely three years old and he has lost memory of that journey long ago. But the second trip genuinely intrigued him. Ray was surprised by the love doted on him by his father’s people. And so when they were traveling again that same year for Christmas he was full of hopes and happiness. It was going to be his first Christmas in the village. They arrived on the 23rd December early enough for the impending feast. Ray believed he had been previously inducted into the communal life of the villagers during his grandfather’s burial. Seeing the cultural activities, the colorful masquerades and even being integral part of the incessant meetings in their family house, to him, was sufficient to buttress this assumption. But one incident however dented his expectations and marred his happiness that Christmas.
Ray’s father was the first to be educated in their kindred. Perhaps he took this as a privilege to undermine the belief of their people. He was irritatingly too obsessed with his desire to tour round the country to care about anything else. Ufuogori, his father had nicknamed him. The young man’s flair for enjoyment and travelling disgusted the old man. It took Ray’s father five years after his younger brother got married before he resolved to settle down in Lagos. Then he met a lady who grew up in the city. Her parents were from Benin. They fell in love and decided to get married. But his father was not going to allow this proposed union. One of the things that did not augur well with him was the fact that the woman was not from Igboland. And most importantly, the old man wanted his son to marry someone from their village who could help to cage the restless feet of the educated young man. But Ray’s father did not give in to the old man’s pressure. He hurried the marriage without the consent of his father and to the dismay of their kinsmen. In the anger of this insult the old man disowned his first son. Nothing anyone did or say could salvage the crumbling relationship. It was not until three years ago that they finally reconciled as the old man felt he was nearing his grave. He would not leave his house in disarray. He didn’t want take his anger and sadness to the grave. One thing the old man acknowledged before his death was that he misconceived his daughter-in-law. She was actually what he wanted for his son, though she was not from their village.
Ray’s knowledge of village life was acquired during their grandfather’s burial. His cousin through his untiring explanations acquainted him with the things of the village. Chijoke was two years younger than him. The boy was then in secondary school. He was the only son of Ray’s uncle and the last issue in the extended family. The other person that also provided Ray with additional knowledge was Chinasa, Chijoke’s immediate elder sister. It was between this two that the supposed induction was fully realized. His older cousins were too busy attending to their husband’s people to give him this service. Ray’s sisters hid behind his eagerness pretending they were as well assimilating the cultures of their people. Nothing in the burial rite seemed to spur the young man against the life of the villagers. Right after that event he had proudly recounted his stories to his friends. He seemed genuinely eager and enthusiastic. But the Christmas visit that same year marred his joy and killed the enthusiasm.
The unanticipated problem which brought Ray’s spirit down was his real encounter with their village youths. This was about an incident during the communal work on the path to the village stream. It was a compulsory work for the youths in the village. The crier made the rounds clutching his metal gong. Although Ray did not understand what the metal gonger had cried that night, Chijoke was available to explain this to him. The next morning, even before his cousin came to fetch him, his father summoned him with his sisters and instructed them to take part in the communal work. It was important they learn the things of the village. Their mother had willingly started this with Unyom Okpu, the committee of the village women. Ray needed not to be persuaded, he was quiet eager to learn everything that he had heard about in the village. But what he was sure was that he could not say the same about his sisters. The twins had always hated the primitiveness of their village as they called it.
Ray was in the spirit of camaraderie as he set out in the morning with Chijoke, leaving the twins behind in the company of Chinasa. Women are meant to take the rear while the men scare off the wolf, his father had once said. This perhaps is fostered in the village as part of the mores bonding man and woman relationship. The young duo arrived at the work site to behold a fairly crowd of their village youths. And among these people were about nine half-necked guys whom Ray immediately noticed working with picks. They were using the picks to level the sloppy areas. These men were in no doubt knowledgeable in this as they handled their tools with ease. The sarcastic look they cast at Ray made him very uneasy. It was obvious they were not going to be friendly with him like he had anticipated. He was leaning forward to catch what his cousin was saying when a heavy hand dropped on his shoulder unmindful of the dirty fingers staining his clean red T-shirt. As Ray was turning around to see who was staining his cloth he saw Chijoke with the tail of his eyes scurrying away. And it was at that time he realized that his molester had bellowed at his cousin. Chijoke dropped his cutlass on the ground and ran to join a group of people who were picking big stones from the bush to fill a deep hole dug by flood on the path. He did not wait to explain anything to Ray. He must have been scared out of his wit.
Although Ray turned around to face a sturdy guy in torn trousers, the hand was still firm on his shoulder. “O ginwa bu Chikadibia?” the guy mimicked the Eastern city dwellers. Ray heard him but he did not understand what he said. He spoke again before Ray realized that he might be asking about his Igbo name. He nodded as the guy’s hand dropped from his shoulder. “Ikpo, he is an English man. He does not understand his father’s language,” another guy supplied from the group of half-necked boys. Ikpo, the inconsiderate bully, spoke to the guy and the latter came over to show Ray where he would start working with his cutlass. Ray did not notice that the ground was impregnably hard as a rock and small stones covered the area. As he consciously stooped to start working he was wondering why anybody would pick offence with him only because he was not able to understand Igbo language. Even the one that showed him the place to work had used Pidgin English, and still he seemed to be in league against people not speaking Igbo.
Ray stretched out his hand to attack the grasses with his cutlass. His first strike might have landed on a rock. He felt his hand jarred at the impact. His palm hurt painfully that it seemed to him that the blisters were beginning to form already. As he stood up to nurse his fingers the half-necked guys started laughing and making a mockery of him. Ray became angry and he walked up to Ikpo who he had realized was in charge of the work. After he almost exhausted his patience speaking to the strong looking guy, he was embarrassed as he kept staring at him as if he had not spoken at all. The seemingly peaceful guy that bailed Ray out the first time came to his rescue again. First of all, he advised him to try to speak Igbo language even a little, and then he volunteered to talk to Ikpo on his behalf. The two young men came to agreement to take Ray further down the path. The mediator just pointed towards the stream and asked Ray to go and start from there. Ray obliged. He did not know how far he would get if he continued arguing with the guys. Language had become a great barrier for him. He took his time walking reluctantly to his new portion. He never considered why he was taken far away from the rest of the people.
Ray had barely settled on the grass verge, stretching his neck to pick out his cousin in the bush, when something bit him under the pouch of his testicles. He flinched and squeezed his scrotums as he felt reactive stings on his legs. He struck himself hard instantly forgetting about the pain on his palm. It was either his action attracted the attention of the others or they had been secretly waiting for it. As Ray saw Ikpo and his clique rolling with laughter he realized that he had been tricked the second time. He ran further away from the grasses, scratching his legs and resisting the temptation to tear off his trousers. And just as he was wondering what could be biting him he felt the pain again on his toe. As he bent to strike at it he saw a soldier ant perching on the toe. He angrily pulled off the black devil and crushed it between his fingers.
“Chika, come over here! There are soldier ants that side,” Ray heard Chijoke urging him. His cousin had left the bush and ran out to help him. Ikpo and his men by now seemed satisfied with the punishment meted out on him and so they turned their attention to the new arrivals. Ray spotted a boy and young girl who looked like city dwellers among the five people that just arrived. Devil incarnates, he cursed in his mind. He was moody and speechless as he followed Chijoke into the bush to rid himself of the ants. By the time he returned to join the communal work, he saw his sisters with Chinasa in the company of three other girls arriving at the work site. Ray was immediately galvanized into action. He did not have to think it twice before he moved to stop his sisters from falling victims of the men’s pranks. There was no doubt in his mind that the women rely on him for protection. But as he came to guide his sisters he was surprise to notice a conspicuous change of mood sweeping through the men. They seemed to have lost the conviviality behind their pranks. No one did as much as utter a single word. It was as if they were afraid of disturbing the air around the women. Ikpo’s frown smeared on his face like a local champion who is meeting a superior rival. Although Ray had always noted the effect his beautiful sisters have on the attitudes of young men, but Ikpo’s reaction was quiet inexplicable to him. Could it be the anger of a clandestine competitor whose chances are very slim? Or could it be that the strong looking men have been intimidated by his fragile sisters?