Ozoko seemed fated to live a life of savagery. The story of his birth and eventual death was as complicated as it was precarious. Oredu, his late father was said to be renowned for his matchless hunting skills. He was one of the best hunters in the whole of Agila, and even the neighboring villages across the hills. It was said that there was never a time that the famed Oredu had gone to the forest and not returned with a kill or more of prized bush animals slung over his shoulders. That was what the man was better known for. But there was the other side of him which very few of the villagers knew about.
While he lived, Oredu relied on esoteric forces for his spiritual powers. He believed his pact with these forces protected him from both real and imagined dangers. In fact, he boasted that nobody and nothing could harm him; not while he remained devoted to the gods he worshipped.
In the small thatched shrine or Inekwu behind his compound were the numerous wooden items which for him were the physical representations of those gods.
When the time came for Oredu to marry, he readily chose Ogwugwa, daughter to the late Ijegwu. Ijegwu was the priestess to Owor, the evasive goddess who was rumored to inhabit the sparkling waters of the Oworiwo River.
It was said that on a quiet and eventless evening, as the men were returning from their farms and the women getting set to start preparing the evening meals for their households, Ijegwu went down to fetch drinking water from the very river whose goddess she had worshipped and served all her fetish life. Her pot of water slipped from her grips and while trying to retrieve it, she fell into the river and got drowned before any help could come her way.
She was buried close to the river bank, at a secluded spot where the young boys and girls were now wary of venturing too close for fear of bumping into her angry ghost.
Anyway, Oredu married Ogwugwa. She got pregnant in no time and gave birth to a son, and the son was named Ozoko by the elated and proud father.
Still a toddler on all fours, Ozoko was barely seven months and a few days old when he lost both his parents mysteriously.
Oredu had suddenly taken ill and could therefore not find the strength to go out to hunt in the forest as he usually did. After administering some herbal medicine on him, he was advised by Ikwebe, one of the most trusted of the few native doctors in the village, to stay back in bed and rest for some days so as to regain lost strength. “A man without his strength is of little more use than a cluster of weeds.” Ikwebe had said and laughed raucously, forcing a mouthful of the sour liquid down Oredu’s throat.
For days afterwards, Oredu remained confined to his bedroom and, consequently, the supply of meat from his hunting activities declined in his household.
His wife, Ogwugwa, was simply inconsiderate in the face of the situation. Despite the fact that there seemed to be very little improvement in Oredu’s state of health even after repeated administration of medicine and words of reassurance from Ikwebe, Ogwugwa would not show any sympathy. Instead, she kept complaining about the decreasing supply of meat in her soup pot.
“You’re supposed to know that I was not brought up by my mother to eat without meat in my food, Oredu,” she complained, “And moreover, I don’t see how a common fever will stop a skilled hunter like you from going out to get meat for a family he claimed to care for?”
Ogwugwa continued with her nagging while Oredu shivered violently on his sick bed. He pleaded with her to be reasonable and try to make do with whatever supply that was available in the house until he became well enough to resume his hunting.
But Ogwugwa would hear no such pleas. She had even threatened: “I shall soon stop cooking altogether in this house unless you do something, I swear. After all, how am I even sure that you’re not merely pretending to be sick because you don’t want me to eat bush meat again? Oredu, you must get up from that bed and do something o!”
And so things continued this way for many days in Oredu’s household. Ogwugwa was simply unbearable.
Under that circumstance, the now miserably sick hunter mustered what remained of the energy in his weakened limbs and rose from the bed one fateful evening to go hunt bush meat for his wife. Without adequate preparation, he dragged himself halfheartedly into the forest, hopeful of killing one or two animals so Ogwugwa could give him some peace of mind. In his haste, Oredu did not wear his amulet which was given to him years earlier by Idu, the old juju man from Igumale, the next village. This particular amulet, as explained to him then, was the ‘eyes’ of the gods that could see any harm coming to him and shield him against such harm. Oredu never went anywhere without the amulet. It was always worn round his neck. But on the evening of this fateful day, he either forgot to wear it or he just felt that it was not needed for this hurried mission.
Well, he had not even gone too deep into the forest when, while stalking a young antelope, he mistakenly stepped on the tail of a viper. The snake twisted and sank its fangs into his ankle. It coughed up as much venom as it could into that single bite so that by the time Oredu managed to stagger his way back to the village, he was already losing his breath from an overdose of the venom.
Ikwebe, the native doctor was quickly summoned to Oredu’s compound. He took one long look at the groaning man on the mat and shook his bald head pitifully. “This is no ordinary snake bite,” Ikwebe told the anxious crowd that had quickly gathered, “The gods cannot deny not having their hands in this.”
“Please, don’t let him die.” Ogwugwa pleaded as she wept.
The young Ozoko, strapped to her back with a large piece of headscarf, was apparently oblivious of the sad event unfolding before his infant eyes.
The old native doctor was in the process of emptying the contents of his divination pouch onto the mat at his feet to start making supplications to the gods when Oredu took a deep tired breath. Holding onlookers in suspense, he turned and gave his wife a questioning stare the full import of which was lost in the fading light of the fast approaching dusk. He thereafter closed his eyes…never to open them again.
The native doctor hurriedly felt for a vein but found none on Oredu’s wrist. The old dibia propped Oredu’s head and shook him, but there was no response. “His spirit just left him”, he muttered resignedly, his voice laden with pity and bewilderment as he straightened up and slung his pouch back onto his slightly drooping shoulder.
“You must tell him to come back o!” Ogwugwa screamed hysterically, “Oredu cannot just go and leave me and my son like this o! How does he think we will survive without him? Who will take responsibility for me and my son now?”
Ogwugwa wept uncontrollably and refused to be consoled by the women. She tore at her hairs and shook the dead man vigorously.
Later that same night, when preparation was already in progress on how and where to bury her husband, Ogwugwa placed her sleeping son on the clay bed inside the house and slipped out of the compound, under the pretext of going to the latrine. She disappeared into the troubled night and headed out of Agila on foot, through deserted bush path.
By the time the villagers realized what had happened, Ogwugwa had left the village behind for good. Everybody was baffled at the turn of events in Oredu’s household. The dead man was eventually buried on a patch of land near the cross road that led out of Agila, in the direction of Eha-Amufu. As for Ogwugwa, nothing was heard about her for a long time after that fateful night until news filtered in that she had been seen in Katsina-Ala town, roaming the market place and as stark mad as those strange dogs from Ulayi…
After what befell the family, Ozoko was handed over to Ayiho, his mother’s only surviving sister. Ayiho grudgingly took the infant in and accepted to bring him up under her care and tutelage. A grumpy and highly strung woman, she had difficulty relating well with people and, worse still, little patience for romantic involvement with men. It was thought that she should have followed in the footsteps of Ijegwu and presented herself to the Oracles as an offer of spiritual service. But Ayiho never did any such thing. Instead, she chose to concentrate her energy on her small piece of farmland situated a few walking distance behind her compound, growing root crops and vegetables for subsistence purposes.
Anyway, she accepted her sister’s son, albeit reluctantly and then devoted very little time to caring for the orphaned child.
Made vulnerable by the absence of parental love and support, Ozoko’s irritable and wicked aunt gave him just enough attention to remain alive; she was more interested in tending to her small farm than the wellbeing of her hapless ward.
Spending long hours in the farm, her lack of genuine concern for the boy was not hidden under whatever disguise.
Left alone and to his own devices, Ozoko simply learnt to fend for himself. But fending for himself was just a description of the many challenges that confronted him. He tried to provide his own needs each new day as he grew. Yet, he was constantly hungry, dirty and already running in and out of too many troubles around the village for a child his age.
“You should blame your senseless parents for your situation!” Ayiho would be quick to remind him at the slightest provocation. At such occasions she would get a good grip of the boy by the base of the ear and twist so hard that at times Ozoko would fear his ear may be pulled out any moment. “How do you expect me to be able to solve your many problems when even your late parents could not? Anyway, they never did love or cared about you in the first place.”
These remarks from a supposed guardian, couched in the vilest of words, and uttered with sickening frequency would only widen the gulf between Ozoko and Ayiho.
Ozoko grew and with each new day came the somewhat sad realization that nobody loved or cared about him. He longed to be happy; he often saw the smiles of inexplicable contentment on the faces of other children as they clung to their mothers.
With a touch of bitterness, Ozoko accepted his fate – he accepted that maybe he was born to be different; maybe he was born to live alone and go back alone. At a point he even began to have this strange feelings that he might possibly be a demon of some sort and that he may have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for what happened to his parents.
Since nobody seemed capable to show him love, he too started to give back hate. It began in less pronounced ways and then, becoming second nature to him as he grew older and stronger, he did even the simplest of chores with a certain noticeable level of brutality. He would urinate into the pot of drinking water when no one was watching or spit in the soup while Ayiho was out of sight attending to other domestic matters.
Ozoko continued to grow unruly as the days passed. He would filch household items that he could lay his hands on in Ayiho’s compound and sell them to willing buyers at the village market for a few naira notes.
And it was not long before angry neighbors, having a feel of Ozoko’s disturbing behavior, began coming in to complain about missing chickens and disappearing crops from their barns.
“What am I supposed to do with a terrible imp like you, ehn?” Ayiho would shout at Ozoko after the neighbors had been pacified with profuse words of apology from her. At such moments, the recalcitrant boy would stand in a corner, making certain that he was a safe distance away from the reach of his aunt’s grips. Feigning repentance, he would stare at the rough clay floor of the room, drawing an imaginary figure with his big and unkempt toe.
But the next moment, as soon as he was allowed to go away from his guardian’s presence, another neighbor would come storming into Ayiho’s compound, before the day was half spent, to protest the disappearance of goats or pigs with punctured eye balls and blaming the evil deed on Ozoko’s handiwork.
“This boy is trying to frustrate me to death exactly the way he did to his late parents!” The exasperated Ayiho would lament to anyone that cared to lend a listening ear to her over the plight the boy was putting her through.