The men searched in and out of Umuezike. They sang mournfully in esoteric, “A chowa mma ekwu, a na-achocha na ngiga.”
If there were footprints of a wild cat, the hunters could have perceived from the time it entered the land; otherwise, a lion is not anonymous in the heart of the jungle. Okotu would know from his hut. There were still patches of tick bushes and forests though, but the last man, Ogbuagu that killed a lion, is now with the ancestors. Hence, Udechukwu and Nkasiobi could not have been possibly devoured by one!
Yet, ones name seeks him in the path of his destiny. Come to think of it, how on earth, did a lad, whose name was Udechukwu, meaning “the splendor of the great god,” prefer to answer Udene, the vulture instead? Or do you not know that Nkuri, means, “to destroy, to break, to devastate….?”
Indeed, in rituals, words effect what they say!
Lions. Yes lions roar, prowl and kill only in folktales now or at about some far distant lands farther away from Umuezike’s knowledge. Yet, the dried Lion’s hide, hung in honour of Ogbuagu, in his guest hut, rose in Ozo’s mind from there. Heavy beaded droplets of blood dripped down its whiskers, as it belched satisfactorily. It stretched to ease, unfurled its paws, winked and opaquely faded as weakness stole him away to sleep. The owl hooted on the Ogbuchi sacred tree over his ancestral altar and embellished his dreams of a nightlong.
He drew his machete from its scabbard, pulled his den gun with a grin on his face. The furrows on his forehead were grievous and on his left eye was smeared ash, mixed with water. It was war. The war gong boomed while warriors loomed with their shields and arrows, crouching and stalking some invisible foes. His heart was bitter as the scene of the Umuezike -Ikoro tribal war reincarnated in him. He was his father, and he had to fight to protect his son himself. War is evil he repeated but would not remove the sacred palm frond clenched in his mouth. Suddenly, an enemy appeared in smokes before him as in the tale of the war Odimegwu his father told him.
He shouted and rose in sweats from his bamboo bed “as the assailant’s machete tore his left arm!”
“It was a dream,” he gasped in relief. War is evil he muttered, remembering Odimegwu lost an arm in that untold clash.
Ozo knew his son Udechukwu. He knew one does not ask the he-goat where he slept, but how was its night. Yet, the dream was a bad omen. He remembered the hooting of the owl from the dream. He wished he had his peace and whispered, “His mother can explain better where he came, surely not my blood. And let him thank his Chi slavery has ended.” He said that as not to betray his fears, for no one gains by losing. No, not a son, for our children are our wealth, our health and our strength.
Moreover, if they do not return, there would be another ritual burial as last known after the tribal war, when some warriors did not come home. Trunks of plantain were wrapped with palm fronds and buried on their behalf. But something happened! Ikuku returned after years over his burial. He was thought to be a spirit that it took all the oracles to speak; and when they spoke, they reinstalled him. Then, Ayaka was still powerful. He cut the left palm of Ikuku and when blood spilled, he declared “blood is flesh.” That meant he was not a spirit. Consequently, there’s been no haste in celebrating death.
Udene laid bedraggled beneath a wild apple tree all alone. He was not breathing. He was not dead. He was in the thin line between life and death. Nkuri was over the other side of the line, calling him to come close, but the further he went, the farther he walked backwards. Sadness smeared on his face as he seemed to mutter words like, “mama mama….” It was two days he laid there breathless, and the third night they left home.
The sacred forest of Uma at night, is to light, what the secret of the owl, is, to the noon day, apart from the guarded knowledge of few hunters who dared the spirits. One does not hunt bare handed. Hunting with a den gun and clubs and traps is hunting bare handed. Okotu is one of the great hunters who do not hunt like that, and the crevices of Uma at night and noon knew his footprints. He is believed to have got his otumokpo charms from the water spirits. He emerged, deploying his steps, crouching, stalking with his headlamp off. He could see clear in the dark like the cats or bats. He perceived a presence from a distance and was sure it was beneath the tree. He drew closer and closer; with an eye shut parallel to the nozzle of his gun, he slowly clung on his trigger….
It hasn’t been long Okotu recovered from a shock and began to hunt again after four years of anguish. He had shot an antelope one certain night between the boundary that separated Umuezike and Umuezu, but when he came forward, a man laid bleeding from the heart. It was an antelope when he shot it! The elders of Umuezike confirmed it from the hoof prints that trailed. Okotu killed a mantelope, not a man and that was why he didn’t go on a no-return self exile, for it is an abomination to kill. Secondly, the people of Umuezu had been warned not to trespass the farmlands of Umuezike, even there was once a clash with casualty. It was that their forefathers leased the land at some point in time.
However, the age long ravages of the farms of Umuezike at night, by some irate beasts ceased with the story of a hunter who killed an antelope that turned a man.
When an ant stings the buttocks, it learns to sit with caution, and one does not hang a stone with a string over his neck because of his fame at eating palm kernels. Hence, Okotu held his breath and the trigger; flooded his headlamp and beheld Udechukwu! Strangely, he let the trigger loose over the air, hot ash, pebbles and pieces of metal perforated the close by leaves and trees. “Okike doo” he gasped. Udechukwu woke and saw everything white like as if the sun shone directly in his eyes. He remembered nothing. He struggled to know where he was, to ward off the light and or to run away. He could not move for numbness ran through his bones and nerves. Blinded and despaired, he went unconscious.
How would Okotu the hunter take home an unconscious lad instead of a dear, grasscutter or any other spoils, without raising mind to the past? He looked at the cloud, the early morning cock had not crow, so the moon was yet to cross; one does not pluck the whiskers of a live lion without getting hurt. Nothing escapes the watchful eyes of this village any time, apart from those hidden away by taboos and customs. Wine tappers tell the tales of dawn, drunks of the day and from dusk, the night guards who keep vigil till dawn. If he bears him home, it is only the gods would know beforehand, he didn’t shoot another man, but that is not enough. Humans should also know. In this difficulty, he searched for herbs that have resuscitating potency. Ogirisi has such powers, but it is rare to find them in the wild. The wild Newbouldia has shrunk leaves than the breed used in building fences, barns, and setting out boundaries at home.
The day had awoken from sleep and concealment of the dark. He met a few wine tappers going home or straight to the market and a couple of farmers who must have come earlier from what they have worked. One who met him divert to the path that led Uma shuddered. By the time he came back, there were a couple of vultures perching and hovering over the tree where Udechukwu laid lifeless. An ant infested log of flesh! He picked his gun from where he abandoned it, and scared the vultures away with a shot. He beat off the insects and fanned Udechukwu with the herbs. If one does not wake within the time abana yam is cooked and done, then he is dead.
Udechukwu did not die. His spirit came back slowly like a seedling sprouting through earth. His eyes opened to the sun. He gave him water, and he sank it like desert sand. He shot a squirrel with his catapult and roasted for him, he ate everything and it was time to walk home. He trudged, Okotu stalked while they walked. He knew the sacred hour of mgbachi was coming before noon, so they must set their feet behind the ambience of Uma lest they meet the spirits. The elders know this.
“Where is Nkuri?” Udene blurted like an unprepared rain.
Rumours, like wild fire, that starts here and stretches there and everywhere, rose to spread that they have been found. People ran to ama, the village square to see for themselves. Someone quoted another, who said that someone else said he saw two of them with his eyes! Everyone soon heard this version amidst numerous too scary others and prayed it was so. Whose voice could one hear in the uproar? Mazi Okwundu kept on raising his hands to heavens without speeches or with mere mutterings, while staring at Udechukwu. It was just few days ago he warned Ikemba his son, to desist from the company of Nkasi and Ude. “When the goat that does not eat cocoyam goes with the one that eats cocoyam, sooner or later, it begins to eat what it never used to eat” he sternly warned. It would have been a different story, if he didn’t heed his father’s reproach.
Udechukwu barely had enough space as people pressed on him. He didn’t hear their voices. He heard only the turbulent Uma. He didn’t see the people, he only saw Nkuri plunge the second time. He didn’t remember any other time. He was resolute to rescue his friend the third emission, when unexpectedly the python drove in its head on the bank of Uma. He swiftly sank in and that was the last he remembered! Had Nkuri come out again, he didn’t know, nor did he know how he sat beneath the tree.
Those who place sacrificial items, go out at night as to evade the probing eyes of the day. Sacrifices are made to the spirits on the path ways especially on crossroads, on the river banks and elsewhere the intended spirits are likely to pass by. Sometimes, people from other villages are directed to go to another where there is a more powerful deity to offer sacrifices. Yet, it must be of a grave cause to go down to Uma for this ritual, especially at late or early hours. Such was the reason a stranger, clad in the cover of night came to Uma. He had dumped the prescribed items, goat strapped to silence with black, white and red cloths, thirty six pieces of cowries, a white chick and four eggs placed in a rough little basket, when he saw a floating figure not far away from his canoe. He thought it was aguiyi! These monstrous reptiles are sacred totems and as such are not killed, but they kill. He kept calm like a floating log of wood; till he noticed it was no crocodile; but a drowned person.
One can turn his back to a feast, but not to a dying or dead man.
In the face of two evils, one chooses the lesser one. Udechukwu chose to stay beneath the waters of Uma, than in the abysmal belly of the retiring python. He ceased his breath, till he breathed no more, and washed afloat. Where is Nkuri? He can’t explain. Indeed, there are many things one cannot explain in this life; mysteries and myths.
In the nightfall, ama stood deserted as pathways led people from where they came. Only two families, closed friends and relatives or enemies stayed in the dark. Some held their hands on their breasts, some clung unto their arms; some stood with hands on their waists walking and stopping as if hypnotized. When a man lays his hands on his head, know that aru mere! An abomination or some kind of misfortune has happened.
Where is Nkasiobi? No one knows. Udechukwu who is to tell, has no speech. He didn’t hear their voices. He still heard only the turbulent Uma. He didn’t see the people, he still only see Nkuri plunge the second time. He didn’t remember any other time. His mind is haunted. They bore him home like a lame, hoping the gods would restore his tongue.
It is with its tongue that the snail sails through thorny stocks. Yet, when the snails inhabit a farmland, slowly, indeed unhurriedly, the farmer soon would come to reckon the ravages of its teeth.
“Tomorrow, we shall go and inquire,” they said.
If only the gods can speak.