Several years back…
They were inside the scanty forest behind the palace where they usually met each time they agreed to do so since they began to see few weeks ago. Just like several young couples in Umuoma had, the place was their own marked territory, their secret abode where they were sure †✆ spend time together away from the castigating eyes of the public. The sun had not shined that day. So in place of its restful warmth, the evening held a little chill, and a thick fog hung low in the air which gave the greying day a gloomy appearance. Chijioke, clad in stiff leopard hide and ivory beads attire, was seated on the large stump of an enormous Iroko tree, while his girl Dumebi as usual refused to sit, and so was standing in front of him, laughing at something he said. Chijioke stared at her as she laughed. Then wearing a muggy smile, he closed his hand on her wrist and pulled her to himself. Hastily, Dumebi pulled back to restrain herself, and stumbled, nearly going naked.
“Oh! Stop this rough play now, my prince,” Dumebi scolded him, jerking her wrist away from his grip and quickly grabbing the loosened ends of the small wrapper around her waist. Instinctively Chijioke lurched forward to help her, and stiffened when she moved back.
“Don’t help me. Thank you sir,” she said in a mock tone, looking naughtily at him from the corner of her eyes as she fumbled with the ends of her wrapper. It was a small piece of brown thick manually woven cloth with white strips that stopped well above her knees, exposing beneath it two long straight legs. Initially Chijioke thought to remind her that he had always instructed her to tie her wrapper well, and asked her to imagine how embarrassing this would have looked if it was in public it had happened. But another thought entered his mind.
“What do you think I wanted to do?” he inquired in a slightly embarrassed manner, his eyes innocuously roving around her slim waist. The rows of red beads encircling it made her hips seem wider.
“Do I know?” Dumebi shot back, her attention now fully fixed on the ends of her wrapper she was tightening. For a while it seemed as though Chijioke’s thoughts had been shut out by her curtness.
“As I always tell you, I’ll only be punishing myself if I try to look at you since I know you won’t permit me to have you.” Chijioke said calmly, like one seeking to be pitied. Dumebi went on with what she was doing.
“You know and yet you wanted to…”
“No. I didn’t. I only wanted to help you,”
“And I said thank you,” she replied, finally raising her head up. She had small innocent eyes placed delicately over a small round nose pitched above thin lips that seemed as though they would vanish into you the moment you touched them. Everything about her seemed so delicate; her long slim arms that pointed out sharply at the elbows as she worked, her slim, slightly curved waist, her long head tilted to one side of her neck. The only exception of course was her terse demeanour, which Chijioke was still learning to get used to. Though it was her delicateness that had endeared her to him the first time they had met at the stream junction that fateful morning several years ago. He had just left the place, while she was just on her way there with her mother, with a large basket on her head that made it seem as though she would crumble under its weight. The way her whole body had swum in one swift motion as she bent slightly to greet him had held his interest. Her brusqueness only strengthened the likeness he had for her. To him Dumebi was rare, a special female, and he was delighted to meet her kind which was usually scarce; girls that maintained their femininity without losing their strength and dignity. Not those that acted as if they were delivered with water-yam leaves.
“You should know me better than that,” Chijioke said. Dumebi placed her hands on her waist and stood gazing at Chijioke.
“My prince, I do.” She said knowingly, expecting his next reaction.
“Stop calling me your prince!” Chijioke burst out. At this moment, Dumebi raised her brows as if in jest of him.
“Then what are you?”
“I’m Chijioke, your husband to be,” he said sternly, with sincerity written all over his stretched face. Dumebi knew better than to laugh at his utterance, or worse, take it so serious.
“My prince, please let’s not start that now again,” she said, and began to look around as though she was just remembering where they were. The silence of the track behind the forest was enough evidence that it was getting late.
“It’s getting late already, and Mama will cut off my ears if she calls my name twice and I don’t respond,” she added.
“Then how come you still have ears, since she must have done that several times?” Chijioke inquired.
“They grow back.” Dumebi replied, and they both burst out laughing. The melodious sound of her laughter sent waves of affection riveting through his heart. Chiijioke stretched his hand to hold her again but she moved back.
“Don’t you like me?” Chijioke asked, even though he knew that was the manner she behaved.
“My…it’s not a matter of liking you. It’s a matter of them ever letting us be together,” This time, Chijioke ignored the fact that she was about to call him ‘my prince’.
“I assure you we will.” Chijioke repeated. Dumebi didn’t say more. She looked around the forest again.
“Let’s start leaving,” she said. Chijioke made to get up and then retreated.
“Pull me up,” he requested, stretching out his hands. Dumebi’s lips stretched into a smile and she looked away shyly and began to walk away. Chijioke sprang to his feet immediately and went after her. He tickled her on her sides the moment he reached her, making her laugh so loud that her voice echoed in the forest as they went.
They agreed to meet again three days later.
However, when they agreed to meet again three days later, it hadn’t been in the manner which they eventually did that they had planned. They had met at the village square in the most spirit-wreaking manner they could ever imagine. Chijioke had gone to the square on the evening of that day on the note of a discussion he’d overheard from some guards at the palace about a girl who was about to be condemned for stealing a look at the gods at night. Although he’d heard his parents discussing the case the previous day, he hadn’t placed his mind on it because he’d heard too many of similar cases. Too many. If it wasn’t about a woman caught peeping into the shrine, it would be about one caught roaming about her second’s hut at night, or any of those blaggerdash that made his head ache. And according to him, the traditions of the land were to numerous for a single head to completely take in. So he simply took the ones that came clearly to him and ignored the rest. It was when he’d heard from the guards that the girl’s name was Dumebi, daughter of Ejehu the carpenter that his head had begun to reel. His own Dumebi! He didn’t know how he had gotten to the square that day after he got the message. On getting there, the way he had seen her had split his heart into bits that took off in unknown directions. She was sitting on the floor before a large crowd of gathered villagers. Her face was drawn, and her eyes were teary and looking up pleadingly at Dibia, the village medicine man, who was standing erect next to her.
Furiously, Dibia threw a piece of red cloth on the ground and glared at Dumebi with his cam-wood circled eyes.
“Swear, girl, swear that you didn’t go out that night! Swear!” he challenged her fiercely in his muffled voice. Dumebi bit her lower lips in anguish and more tears flowed from her eyes.
“I didn’t say I didn’t come out that night. But I didn’t see…” the wild exclamation from the crowd drowned the rest of her statement. The voice of a woman wailing loudly was audible from within the crowd.
“The words of the gods can’t be bridged for any reason whatsoever. Yester-night was the freedom night of the gods. It was the night they took a walk through our land. The instruction was for everyone to stay indoors.”
“I only went to urinate,” Dumebi declared innocently, swallowing hard. By now tears had stopped flowing from her eyes, and they were fixed on the figure of a man who was standing at the end of the track in front of them. Chijioke. It seemed as though his sight had suddenly filled her with strength. Then their eyes met.
“The gods cannot be contended with. You have committed an abomination and must face the consequence.” Dibia announced. Gradually, the noise in the ground began to subside.
“From now on, you’ll cease to live within the community of people. You’ve become a property of the gods, and your place henceforth shall be their abode…the shrine!” Dibia pronounced so loudly that his voice broke as he ended his talk, throwing his staff into the ground to seal his pronouncement.
Before his very eyes, Chijioke watched Dumebi led unrestricted out of human society.
That was the day Chijioke’s kindred spirit in Umuoma died.