In the head of a cold-breathing dawn when early risers huddled near some fire, a sorry dibia led a whimpering mother and a doleful father down a windy way. They had left home in Agunese near Uvume’s settlement and were headed for Aguezi, a bush charged with deposits of uncontainable charms and catacombs of forgotten life. The dibia, a native doctor from Uvume, clutched a staff of ofo with his right hand and a terrible spear with his left. The woman cuddled her sniveling male child of seven months. And her tall heavily-built husband held a machete. Slave dealers were known to come upon people in such wee hours and it was wise to be on guard. A cock crowed. It was just as if it warned the party of approaching daylight.
The dibia walked faster and the woman followed in such a forlorn manner that her husband had to pat and caress her back silently. Although she loved it when her lord showed such special affection, she was at the moment inconsolable. Crickets chirped away far and near. Thrushes sang out stolen songs. An owl hooted in the distance. The tap-tap-tap droplets of palm wine squeezing out of the top of an old palm tree into a fresh gourd were marking time. And dignifyingly, a brook murmured past a rich alluvial fan and over a litter of bamboo leaves. Suddenly, the dibia stopped and beckoned the couple to bring forth the child. As if on cue, the infant began to cry.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes of blue-dyed cotton. The bush of chirping crickets and singing thrushes became silent as his heart-chilling voice rang through the country. Unsteadily, the dibia snatched him from the unwilling arms of his mother and dropped him on a sandy spot. Without a word, he swiveled around even as the woman began to wail. A caravanserai of chattering monkeys jumped from tree to mighty tree and out of sight. Their sudden appearance reminded the woman of unknown dangers and she allowed her lord to hurry her away even as she stretched out her hands haplessly towards her child and to the soil, calling hoarsely on Ala, the earth deity, to forgive and redeem her own.
For eerie hours until the sun rose and began to shorten the shadows of men, the baby cried. His cries sent shafts of fear into early and later passers-by. Some of them said “tuhiakwa!” and clicked their third finger with their thumb in disapproval of the supposed abomination and hurried on. Then as forenoon drifted into noon, an Aro Uzo hunter who had just migrated from Arochukwu into Uvume’s settlement came silently by. Behind him were two faithful slaves, carrying a dead antelope, killed in the thick of the jungle. The hunter was holding onto a prized Tower of London blunderbuss or uta oku. He had finagled it during a brawl with a Portuguese trading group who had refused to part with more okpogho manilas for a weak slave at Warri.
What is it with this people? He thought. They keep throwing away children like some dumb barbarians. I must see to this one. He asked his skivvies to stay put near an Oji tree and then he walked stealthily towards the direction of the now weak sniffs and his heart began to faint. Looking about them fearfully, his skivvies squatted near the Iroko tree. Agunese was known by the locals as an ajo-ohia or evil forest that harbored fearful things, especially spirits that were said to turn to children only to attract people and send them to the great beyond. The hunter eased himself into the thick of some green foliage to espy on his target. I must think more smartly. I must show myself a warrior of the bloodline of Aro-Okigbo.
An ukpaka twig hurtled down from above to his feet. He jumped in fright and aimed involuntarily, only to hiss upon realizing the cause of his consternation. Then he broke the oil bean twig underfoot. Unable to catch a glimpse of the child, he walked boldly into the sandy clearing and found him lying on his stomach. He was free now of the swaddling clothes. And it appeared the cold had dealt with him; for he shivered as if from some merciless calenture. Ezeodiri, the hunter, picked him up and held him onto himself. What a handsome child! Pity, pity. He would be worth many manilas when he is fully grown! The child was already too weak. Ezeodiri lullabied him as he rushed back to the Oji tree. This prize must not die!
(FOR MY FRIENDS AS A WAY OF COMMISSIONING THE BEGINNINGS OF MY NOVEL: Sunburst on Red Water Tree (The Adventures of Inyi). I began to write formally on the 5th of November, 2012, after some fits and starts. I hope to post the entire chapter one in parts here by God’s grace).