The thunder struck, followed by lightning. The chief priest dashed out of his hut, he looked up to the sky while rotating three hundred and sixty degrees and ran back inside. He dashed out again but this time with his staff and a leather bag hung by his side.
“It is time.” he said.
He faced eastward and struck the staff thrice on the ground, the bell tied around the staff rattled with each strike, immediately after the third strike he swirled like a whirlwind and disappeared instantly.
He paced back and forth with mixed feelings, torn between anxiety and happiness. He sat on the bamboo chair in front of his hut, he stood, paced a little, sat back again. He found temporary solace in surveying his compound and priding of his achievements so far.
He built three huts, lined up in such a way that they formed an arc with his at the middle and the other two for his two wives. The huts were surrounded with raffia palms leaving ample space around them. At the front stood three barns filled with yams, they were strategically placed there to flaunt his wealth to visitors and at the back is the kitchen. Due to his philanthropic and bragging nature, he was known in Nawfia village as Nwoke chi umu, a name he believed to be the irony of his life. He was a successful man by all standards but one thing eluded him, a child. He hadn’t been able to father a child for the past fifteen years. He had gone to different native doctors but each repeated what the other had said. He recalled the village high priestess telling him that “today will come.”
It took the sharp cry of a baby to bring him out of his reverie. He sprung up immediately and ran joyfully to the source but he was checked at the entrance of the hut by a midwife who announced happily to him, “you have a baby girl.”
His shoulders fell, his expression changed to that of disappointment. He was hoping for a boy. “How is my wife?” He asked, in a flat voice.
The midwife hesitated, all trace of happiness gone. “She couldn’t make it.” She replied as apologetic as she could.
He stared at her befuddled and then blinked in an attempt to regain composure. It is not enough that he was given a girl instead of a boy and now his wife has to be taken. The pain came prickling his whole body like a needle, making him forget he was a man.
“No! No! No!” He shrieked and slowly turned his back at the midwife. He looked up to the sky raising his hands in lamentation. “gods of our land, what have I done to deserve this. Have I washed my hands and cracked palm kernel for the chicken?”
He folded his arms around himself and walked dejectedly back to his hut shaking his head and muttering to himself, “This is more than I can bear.”
The nurse watched him for a second, shook her head in pity and went back inside.
It was those cool evening, complemented with a gentle wind that caressed the skin, the kind of weather everybody love. The sound of pounding mortars as mothers prepare dinner filtered through the chirping sounds of birds and insects; fathers sat in front of their huts chilling down with their palm wine after the day’s farm work and the children singing and playing, shouting at the top of their voices.
Savoring the moment, Ikenna and his friend sat in front of his father’s compound playing Ncho, a game played by digging twelve holes in the ground with each hole filled with four seeds- each player passes the seeds one at a time along the holes until he/she encounters an empty hole.
They were in the middle of it when it landed in their midst with a thud. The moment they saw it, they bolted upright and ran as fast as their leg could carry them towards Ikenna’s the only hut in that compound with Ikenna screaming at the top of his voice “Papa! Papa! Papa!”
On hearing Ikenna’s voice his mother ran out of the kitchen towards the hut, shouting “Ikem! Ikem!”
His father came out of the hut and Ikenna ran to him panting.
“What is this all about.” he demanded as the mother rushed to her son to inspect his body for any sign of injury, a possible explanation for this madness.
“A tu..sk, papa.” He stuttered.
“What tusk?” His father asked, a little bit irritated at his son’s lack of communication at the moment.
“A tusk fell from the sky, papa.” he said, pointing his shaky finger at the front of the compound.
His father followed his finger to notice a white tusk standing in front of his compound with the opening facing the sky. He stared in disbelief and then went closer for a better look. His wife stood back with the kids. She called out apprehensively to her husband to approach the object with caution but his mind had drifted to a world of its own. Maybe the gods has answered his prayers, he thought happily. He would trade the tusk and use the money to acquire land. He would become rich in no time. No more eating from the floor. He had been used by the villagers to define poverty. “Do you want to be like Ikenna’s father” was the everyday warning of a father to his lazy son.
His sense of reasoning became overwhelmed by his hunger for riches. All that will change now.
He reached for the tusk but the moment he touched it, a bolt of lightning or so his wife and the kids thought, emanated from the tusk and struck him hard, he shook vigorously and fell in a paralyzed heap with white foam gushing out of his mouth and eyes wide open.
“Ewooo!” His wife panicked and ran to him. Ikenna ran after his mother screaming “Papa! Papa!” while his friend ran back home too frightened to remain. She knelt before him and lifted his head on her lap.
“Papa Ikenna.” she called in desperation. “No answer”.
“Papa Ikenna,” she shook him. “No answer”.
“Papa Ikenna!” still, “no answer”.
“Chim egbuo mu!” She wailed. “I warned you, but you wouldn’t listen. I am too young to be a widow. Ewu ata mu igu na isi!” Ikenna wailed along with his mother. Their neighbors heard them and within seconds the villagers swarm into the compound like bees.
Ikenna stood beside his mother after so much crying perplexed, he looked down at his father, and then to the tusk, then to the villagers, he didn’t know what to make out of this commotion. He overhead some of the villagers draw conclusions on what happened without even hearing the story or showing any vestige of sympathy. Some say it was the gods’ punishment for the atrocities his grandfather committed, for he was known to steal sacrifices offered to the village god; some say it was because his mother came from a promiscuous family, only a few sympathized with them and helped carry him into the hut.
He heard one of the elders announce in recognition “this is the tusk of Nri.”
Ikenna looked on as the announcement aroused confusion and fear among the villagers, for they have heard of the almighty Nri. They murmured at the news and rested their expectant eyes on the fellow for further clarification.
“But the question is” he continued “what is it doing here.”
The chief priest appeared in Nri shrine the most horrific shrine ever to exist. Even the gods tremble at the sight of it. It was located in a remote forest, in between two giant trees and facing east. At the stem of each tree hung two skulls, a red cloth was tied between the trees from the stem down to the ground, in front of the red cloth stood a gigantic wooden mask of Nri, black in color with dried blood and white feathers all over it. Flanking the mask are two small clay pots filled with water used for purification. Around the mask were littered with all manner of fetish objects- pieces of bone fragments, a calabash filled with eggs, a mat, a gong, cowries, a chunk of white chalk and a collection of herbs.
Nri, the god of fire was legendary- story has it that the shrine was erected on the grave of a man named Nri, the father of Umunri clan. It was the home of the famous and revered tusk of Nri, a symbol of unity. Nri was so powerful that the neighboring villages dreaded entering into war with Umunri clan. His manifestation was seen as a ball of fire that leaves the carcass of his victims as black as charcoal.
He went straight to the left side of the mask but it wasn’t there. The tusk is gone. He gyrated in jubilation round the shrine while shaking his staff. He then stood in front of the mask and sang his praises to Nri.
“Anu ana agba egbe ona ata nri!
Okirikiri ka ana agba ukwu ose anaghi ari ya ari!
You hold the yam and the knife; whomever you give he/she takes! ”
He danced backwards lifting each leg as he did so, he rushed forward, turned sharply stamping his right foot, he repeated the same move and then stood in front of the mask. He struck his staff on the ground rooting it on that spot and reached into his bag, he brought out a white cock, broke its neck with practiced dexterity and sprinkled the blood on the mask.
“Ihe ikwuru ga eme!” He extolled and hung the dead cock directly above the mask. He stepped backwards away from the mask.
“I better go find the tusk before someone else does.” He struck his staff on the ground while facing east and disappeared instantly.