The mysterious rustling of leaves left a tingling sensation on the back of Sidi’s neck. She turned back for a second and scanned the silent forest behind her before forging ahead bursting through a tangle of fresh green leaves, thistles and branches. Each one she swept back returned to smack her in the face or brush against her body; nevertheless she hurried on glimpsing the darkening sky as she scrambled up the slope into a small clearing where the trees and their leaves parted ways to expose the cloudless blue sky above. Round eyes shone upwards as her father’s warning came back to her as clear as day. ‘Leave the farm on time and stay in till I return’. She searched for the moon and found none. It wasn’t a full moon night and the curfew bell had rung some time ago.
Sidi stared around confused. She was lost and she knew it yet she would not admit it to herself. Her father would probably be home and worried. He would severely scold her but that was a thing she could about provided she could get through the night in one piece and in a safe place.
It was all Lai’s fault. The stupid boy had hidden her farm hoe and run off laughing leaving her to search for it alone. It was hard to think with the loud thumping in the middle of her chest yet her instincts pointed her towards a sloppy path barely visible in the shadowy thickness of the forest as the darkness descended all around her. Sidi stumbled and scrambled up quickly as the pounding of her heart escalated the rush of blood through her ears. The path was slippery but she was determined to find her way home.
A low pounding sound flittered towards her and Sidi immediately knew she could not spend a minute longer in the forest. She could hear drums. As she took the next step forwards, she slid feet first into a bracken covered hole and a half scream escaped from her lips. Whimpering with fright, she fought the tousled mass of dried leaves and twigs that had come down with her as she struggled to get up. Sidi brushed herself quickly and froze as eerie sounds coming from the direction from where she had been running waffled slowly into the dark pit where she stood. Terror stilled the sounds from her own mouth. She whipped round in the dark hole as her fingers found the edge of the pit and grabbed it allowing her to lift herself up some inches from the ground.
Her eyes, peering nervously out, saw nothing at first in the pitch darkness surrounding her. Then they widened in horror as a curious blue light tunneled towards her and slowly broadened till it overtook the pathway and then engulfed the forest above her in a brilliant glow of midnight blue as the ground thundered with sounds from the feet of the approaching visitors. Ducking back into a squat, she trembled from head to toe.
Sidi rubbed tired eyes as she awoke to the frantic sounds of her name. She yawned and tried to stretch herself.
The movement of people in the forest above her alerted her to the fact that she had spent the night in the forbidden forest. She scrambled up as she realized she was still stuck in the large ditch. Several voices were calling her name but they all sounded far away.
It was her father’s voice, the strong and resonant voice of a valiant hunter. Sidi turned around and cupped her hands around her mouth. “Father, I’m here!”
Soon feet were running in the direction of the ditch and She knew she had to shout louder in order for them to discover where she was hidden. “FATHER…”
“Here, she is over here!”
Excited voices filled the area above her and soon enough someone peered into the ditch.
“I’ve found her.” Hands hurriedly reached into the hole as Sidi waved and they grabbed her and pulled her up.
“Sidi…” Her father knelt in front of the ditch and hugged her to himself. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I’m sorry.” She looked into his sad eyes and realized the worry she must have put him through. “I fell into the ditch and I couldn’t get out.”
“It’s okay. I am just happy I’ve found you.” He cupped her face with a tender look.
The walk home was mostly quiet for the relieved father and daughter. The other hunters chattered amongst themselves and recounted stories of their most recent hunting adventures. Sidi’s father held her hand firmly. He had never been more scared in the eight years that she had been alive. He glanced at her frequently and she also at him.
They reached the village clearing and some began to bid farewell to the others. Sidi’s house was on the narrow edge of the village. Behind it was the path to the local stream where the villagers gathered to wash their clothes or get water for use in the home.
An elderly small woman looked up from her washing. “You’ve found her?”
Sidi’s father smiled and looked down at her. “Let’s go back home.”
“I’ll be along shortly.” The woman promised.
Inside the house Sidi ran into the backyard shed to bathe. She was dirty, having spent a night in the forest. Her father lit a small fire and heated some roasted plantain and goat meat pepper soup. He often cooked whenever he was at home but he knew he needed help with his only daughter. Iya Wura was a neighborhood widow who lived by herself, her daughters having married. She helped out with watching out for Sidi occasionally.
He looked up to see the frail woman approach.
“Thank you ma, she is having a bath.”
“I will see her in the shed. We ought to examine her for injuries you know.” She walked calmly round their hut while He locked up the front gate. “Where did you find her?”
“I found her in a ditch in the forbidden forest.”
“The curfew was yesterday.” The old woman turned around slowly. “How did she make it through the night?”
Sidi’s father shook his head. “I don’t know. She was hidden in the ditch, but then… I honestly don’t know.”
“Have you asked her any questions?”
He walked forwards slowly rubbing a hand on the back of his neck. “I haven’t. In truth Iya Wura, I’m just glad she’s home. Let’s be thankful for that.”
Iya Wura nodded and continued to the back yard. She found Sidi and examined her thoroughly from head to foot. The old woman noted the young girl was growing quickly. She needed a maternal figure for the next phase of her life.
“Sidi.” She asked lifting her chin. “What happened in the forest?”
Sidi stared straight back with unblinking clear eyes. “ Nothing mama.”
“Are you sure?”
The young girl nodded.
Iya Wura looked doubtful. “You didn’t see anything strange?”
Sidi shook her head.
“Run along.” She said with a sigh. “Get dressed and come and have something to eat. The forest is not a place for a young child. Please, don’t ever go in there alone again.”
“Now run along.”
Sidi wrapped the piece of cloth around herself and ran into her father’s hut.
Iya Wura found Sidi’s father turning the plantain on a hearth under the raffia covered shack in front of their home. “You should find a woman quickly. That girl needs a mother.”
He coughed slightly. “I know.”
“There are many young women in the village. Why don’t you pick one? Sidi will begin to ask questions soon and you can’t answer every one of them.”
He was quiet for a while. “I hear you mama.”
“I went to the market earlier on, Yams, vegetables, snails in your home.”
“Thank you.” He stood and shook away the ashes from his hands. “What would I do without you?”
“I don’t know Lekan.” She replied. “Think about what I said.”
“I will.” He smiled as he escorted her to the little gate that kept animals away from their home. “Goodbye.”
He sighed and as he watched her go. He knew she was right. Sidi had already asked various questions about her mother. He knew more were to come but he had not just found the right woman yet.
He heard her voice and turned round. “Come, let’s eat.”
They sat on raffia mats and spread fresh green leaves in between them. Her father dished the pepper soup into two calabashes while Sidi got the drinking water from the large gourd in a corner.
They ate quietly for some time.
“I’m going to go out for a while and I want you to stay at home and lock the doors.”
He looked at her. “I know you will obey me this time.”
“Yes father.” The usually talkative eight year old was unusually quiet.
He wondered what was wrong. He decided to ask. “Did you see anything in the forest last night?”
Sidi looked at him and said nothing.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
She shook her head and continued eating.
“I believe you were scared.”
She nodded and slowly chewed her plantain.
“Well, you are at home now.” He didn’t want to press further.