It was in the rhythm of this suspense that Omenka the carver decided to tread where the likes of Akuka had failed. He had seen Mkpurumma once. It was not in his manner to turn around on account of any woman, but that day he mortified himself with not less than seven glances. Some even would stare at her like a sheep that has seen a masquerade. But he held on and went into agu in search of uli, his mind derailing on that feminine figure behind him. He toiled but got no spoil. It was unusual to look for uli in agu forest for few were its users now. Ekemma was dead, the uli designer of breathless aesthetics; whose lines, patterns and symbols were speechlessly boundless.
So, Omenka had no reason not to have gone home with some uli pods few minutes he went in. It was later in the morning that Chianu brought him home after morning inspection of the palms. It was njuju ohia that touched him, a magical herb that confuses one if it touches him in the bush. The effect is that the victim walks up and down till one who knows that the antidote is to slap the victim hard on the face performs this ritual. How could this happen to Omenka if he had not lost his concentration to the thoughts of Mkpurumma?
Omenka sat transfixed looking at a broad plank of Oji tree leaning beside his hut. With the rising of the morning sun, he stood up and had his bath. Then, he stalked to his obi, offered kola nut, poured libation and drew nzu on the floor. Suddenly his face lit up like a young moon in a deserted dark cloud. He smiled and folded tight the knot of his wrapper; walked to the dwarf Ojukwu palm tree by his Obi and plucked two ripped osukwu palm fruits which he chewed on to lubricate his stomach lest the worms protest his fast. Spitting out the fibre and little nut, he made for the plank and shouldered it with a heave. He left it on the Ogbu tree by the right side of his compound and began to work his mind out. He would stop, and then begin again having listened to a seemingly distant thought. The intensity of the sun was now unsetting but Omenka could not be limited by the gradients of the day as long as his blood stream was pumped by his excitement on the shores of captivity and creativity. He worked till the traveled chickens chuckled home to relax a little while before the day finally shut out. And with the approaching dusk, he lighted his ulimmu which smoked away while it caste sparse patches of light. Basking in the euphoria of a job embarked upon, he retired for the night. Once in a while, he nodded to the emerging course of his mind or induced to do so from the bargains of sleep. He slapped his lap to ward off one stubborn mosquito or another and then dozed off till the cock crew at dawn.
There were clusters of drowsy chickens outside while shadows hued here and there. Omenka washed his face, thanked the gods for sparing his life and went to have a look with contentment at the masterpiece his hand had made. He cut a little stick of ogilisi and chewed as he prepared for a decisive journey to a distant place. He had lighted a small fire on which he was gently turning over some plantain leaves to make them malleable. After wards, he began to wrap the carved work with the leaves, and tied it with elastic ekwere twine from palm frond. Certainly when a wood insect gathers wood, on its head it carries it. When the okpukonsi beetle considers insightfully what good the ball of faeces it bears home would do it, the load lightens.
“Amaigbo, here I come” Omenka whispered to himself and set out for a journey of miles and uncertainties to Nnabuike’s compound.
A man, with whose name a Town is known or respected, is never hidden in public. And so, Amaigbo knew the entrance of Omenka, a true son of Umuokwe. A carver of an overwhelming ingenuity whose presence every tree revered. He came, heading resolvedly to Nnabuike’s compound. Traditionally, a man does not just walk up to his fellow man’s house in search of his daughter. Omenka knew it, but he as well would prefer to take the bull by the horns. Behind his mind was the picture of Odudu who was put to flight with a local double barrel by Ukpaka when he came unexpectedly for his daughter. Mkpurumma did not tell Omenka to come and see her people, so Nnabuike was not expecting any serious guest after all. However, though Omenka knew he was taking a risk, he was convinced that a calculated one is worth a trial. So he came, for no one marries his own daughter.
The villagers followed him, searching mentally, impatiently of the content of his load. There is no need peeping through a package that would definitely be opened. The darkened pregnant clouds could of course either fizzle out by rains or by winds. Beads of sweats streaked him like rains even as he got to his destination and bent to unload his load.
Nnabuike cleared his voice expectantly, ran his finger over his lips and smiled!
“You are welcome”, he replied to Omenka’s greetings.
Omenka looked from Nnabuike to the small crowd that has gathered a little far off.
“Nnabuike, I greet you once more. Your people are here to confirm the age long truth that a tree does not make a forest”.
Consciously or unconsciously one’s expressions always evolve from his state of mind. Omenka’s words are wont to be on woods or chisels. He talked about trees and woods. Once in a funeral of an Ozo titled man, he referred his admittance to the spirit land as a good wood dying to make a good gong. A good gong can never emerge from a weevil infested wood no matter the strength of the spirit or spirits that inspire the carver. Omenka hardly stopped when he talked about wood and crafts. He talked about the colossal Akpu tree beneath which laid a gargantuan ancient gong that once clapped like thunder bolt; and made the tree shower seeds subtended in buds of wools. It was Eke, according to folklore that carved the ekwe from a sacred Iroko tree. An awesome edifice that echoed over Ekeama and beyond at one strike! It rang at only events of great importance to convene the villagers to Ama, the village square. The defaced images on the gong symbolized the communion of the elders of Ekeama with Eri, the father of Eke; an ancient speech that had subsisted. Meanwhile, Eke died on the day he finished the gong! The oracle said he had attained apotheosis and living would be degrading. And finally, Omenka breathed in and out and then disclosed his intention.
“I saw a white hen yesterday. I followed its footprints from oru and today they said it ran in here. I have come to take it home before tomorrow.”
Nnabuike cleared his throat and fixed his eyes on the ngwugwu which his guest had come with. Omenka was the son of his father and he knew when gestures speak and what they say. He unwound the strings ceremoniously till the last akwukwo jioko flaked off. Every body stood agog, heads propped over heads to be hypnotized. Before them stood an mgbo, a carved wooden door of a magnificent poise; but the awesomeness was on the embossed figure on it. Mkpurumma was represented head to toe as if she was standing before a wooden mirror! Could she have been the njuju ohia that led Omenka’s mind stray to the spirit land of retentiveness and inventiveness? If he actually went to the land of oblivion as one of his neighbours jeered, he did wander like a Lion there and came out with a fattened game! The small crowd grew bigger as they were awed with this first of its kind. Nnabuike thought of no other thing, but how he would mount the door at the entrance. Njelita had just erected a thickened mud wall a couple of days ago.
On one of the days Njelita laboured on the walls, he almost collapsed when Mkpurumma stopped briefly beside him and said dalu oru on her way home from the stream. That day he ate nothing in reverie of that soft voice that spoke to him. He told his friend Obierika that it was enough for him. He knew that the struggle over Mkpurumma was more than the proverbial fight of the two elephants and the grasses would not even live to tell the tale. Working on the mud wall opened his eyes to the influx of the elephants, among which were two rich traditional rulers from far away lands. So he quietly withdrew his unbridled craving; for the lion’s liver is a vain yearns for the dogs. But Obierika did not even believe that Mkpurumma would notice him, let alone talking to him. Who would blame his disbelief when he believed that Njelita escaped imbecility only by a breath of a whisper? Oso churuo nwa nkita n’ama onye nwe ya, o maghi ata aru, o gbowa uja! It nearly would have turned to manslaughter if Obierika did not take to his heels. The insinuation was as good as taking away what remained of Njelita’s pride and he could not take it; not even from Obierika his friend. It came to pass that where the quest ended for the likes of Njelita, Omenka picked up. He stole a glance at Nnabuike and smiled generously within himself as he watched him struggle with the thoughts of where best way to display this wonder of a wooden door.
As a child is given a name and it follows it in the course of its life as with destiny. Such was Mkpurumma’s fate and even as she appeared to greet the guest at Nnabuike’s invitation, everyone was dazzled. Just as the seed of beauty which her name means, she flowed like a gentle morning stream. Her virgin breast stood like an okro in an early noon’s sun. Around her hip, wound a mud red jigida spotted at intervals with small black ones. Who could have plaited her black hair with beads so beautifully interwoven if not the famous Udenkwo of Iruama? And the beads of aka she wore so gracefully complimented by the aesthetics of well patterned uli designs drawn by Nwojikwe around her slender neck. A line ran beneath a triangle from her forehead to the nose and stopped on the middle of her upper lip. It started again with dots descending from the lower lip to the jaw. As she bowed before Omenka, her luscious body glistened with the reddish uhie that Uzubodu her mother applied on her. Omenka thought it was a hallucination as he heard Mkpurumma whisper “di m” when she knelt before him. Who would blame her for allowing “my husband” escape from the secrecy of her heart? It was only the pride of the African woman that secured her from the same njuju ohia that struck Omenka the day their paths crossed, for Omenka is not without his manly charms accentuated by the magic of his craftsmanship. She came home bemused that day. Everyone was worried but Uzubodu. She knew her daughter more than anyone else and only asked Mkpurumma who the man was in the privacy of her mkpuke as they prepared supper. It was as if she had an oracle that revealed things to her. On one occasion, Mkpurumma had asked her how she knew the things she did her in absence. And she said,
“I was once someone else’s daughter and now your mother.”
On another day, she lied that she broke her earthenware pot because she struck her foot on a stone on her way to the stream. She later asked Uzubodu how she knew it was not so.
“How did you know I was imitating the big girls who could balance their pots on their heads, swing their hands free and wind their waists to do inyanga?”
However, it was the first literal understanding of the proverb her mother used to say each time she applied uhie on her beautiful daughter,
“if one sets out with pride; the next step is definitely a fall.”
More than these were the maternal discipline and affection with which Uzubodu set as a mould to fashion Mkpurumma. At the age of five she had virtually learnt the secrets of Ogiri paste in Onugbu soup and other local dishes. Her fingers picked every domestic chore as if they were that of an old woman. Yet, she did not fail to reprimand her if she did anything wrong. One does not spare the rod to spoil the child but after a while, she will still bring her close and in that never failing therapeutic words of mothers
“Nne, ngwa stop crying o! You know you shouldn’t have done that. Mma si olu m ebezina. Take this piece of smoked fish and eat. Wipe you tears and rest awhile before you wash that okwa.”
Nne, for that is what they call each other, but with a slight assent.
“Nne, that was the man”, she exclaimed breathlessly as she came in from Obi. “His name is Omenka from Umuokwe. He is a carver. He is so handsome and manly. Nne, he is fair like nzu and tall and ….”
Uzubodu cut her short. “Nnee, catch your breath and sit on that stool. I knew and had expected today. See your eyes are shinning it out. I knew it was not mmuo, but a man that you saw last month you came in bemused. I felt that way the first day I met your father.”
Uzubodu told her it was ihunanya. That once your eyes see him, your heart would be restless until he comes for you.
“Omenka is here and all your fevers have all fizzled out. You love him, don’t you?” Uzubodu asked.
Silence! Well most affirmations are better done in silence for words often over labour the obvious.
Out there in the Obi, Nnabuike and Omenka with a couple off his neighbours had eaten kola nut; and drawn nzu on the floor. It is said that when a man has eaten palm kernel, the shells are not hidden. Omenka’s nzu insignia on the well polished mud-floor of the Obi portrayed his finesse and creativity. After all, it was the same fingers with which he carved out intricate figures out that he made the symbols too. O bughi otu akwa ka Ene na nwa ya yi? Those fingers that gesticulated in the wind and said how many gongs a tree could make! Meanwhile, Ichaka, Nnabuike’s closest friend was lost in a world of daydream over Mkpurumma’s wooden presence as the sun set gradually. And as darkness came to overshadow the clouds of Amaigbo in its usual concealment, Ichaka’s heart finally wrapped his intention of marrying Mkpurumma come rain come shine.
As Omenka rose up to leave, it was clear that he would come back for Igbanye ihe, formal introduction with few members of his family. Since his father, Obiefuna was no more alive, Udekwe, his father’s brother would represent him. However, and most unfortunately, when an elder like Obiefuna dies, the pathway to the sacred road that led to the repository of his wisdom closes and tomorrow suffers for want of posterity and meaning. Omenka did not know his father for he died the week he was born. His father’s mother, Atara, named him Ahamefuna while his mother named him Chetanna in memory of his father. As the days turn into years, the child became a boy and with a vision like that of an eagle, a lion’s strength in his heart, and the craft of a weaver bird in his fingers he began to carve from Okpesi to Arusi of all sizes. He carved for Umuokpu and beyond. Thus was he given the name Omenka which meant a great craft man. Indeed, he had carved a niche from the poverty of his birth to prosperity, name and fame. Omenka is his name.
How painful it is to go down that lane! Death is bad! O kwa dibia gworo ozo ma ozo gburu dibia? Onwu di njo! The death that kills the mother rat does not allow the mice to open their eyes. Obiefuna knew herbs, and herbs knew Obiefuna. He knew the ones to eat and live and the ones to eat and die according to their whispers as he passed them. Such early mornings, he would rub nzu on his left eye to enhance his sight and on his ear to sharpen his hearing, then on his palms and feet to inoculate him from the evil effects of the harmful herbs.
I remember one fateful day; Onyema was rushed in, haven been bitten by Echieteka, the poisonous snake that does not allow its victim to see the light of another day. Obiefuna laughed, rose suddenly, paced like an enraged soldier ant and murmured as he warned an invisible evil. He then went in with his back and came out of his little hut with a smashed and mixed herb.
“Onyema”, he murmured again. “You shall live and not die. You shall harvest your farm and eat roasted yam with your wives and children.” He spat spittle on his leg and mingled it with the pungent portion. “Take him home”, he said. “They call it Echieteka, but you Onyemachi shall outlive today and see echi a si na o teka.” He rose, signaled them to take him home.
Indeed, Onyemachi lived as his chi destined to the bewilderment of all the villagers. As Obiefuna is still remembered for the efficacy of his herbal hands, Omenka his son has carved a niche for himself.