He died. But no one in the village believed when news spread, like raging fire, that Akanu, the oldest village hunter had died. Few people spoke about it and even those that did, spoke in hushed tones. It was therefore no surprise when Mother called me into the hut that evening.
“Yes Mama,” I answered, running into the hut, with a huge bolus of catarrh drooping from my nostrils. I had licked it several times and when it began to taste sour, I decided to leave it to the flies.
“What are you talking about with your friends?” Mother asked, as soon as I entered the room that served as our bedroom, kitchen and living room. Father’s picture hung loosely on a nail just above the stove. It was the last picture he took before his death and it had already turned black from the fumes of smoke that had accumulated on it. The thick smell of Agbo diffused through my nostrils, almost making me choke. Mother prepared it every day and forced me to drink it.
“Pa Rhino gave it to me. He said it will not let the epilepsy that killed your father take your life,” Mother had told me when I asked why she had to give it to me.
“Ma, Ifeanyi was telling us that Akanu …,”
“Shush!” Mother interrupted, putting her index finger across her mouth. She bent low and spied the room, as if checking to make sure nobody had heard what I had just said.
“Don’t you ever talk about that man again? Do you understand?”
I nodded even though I did not understand. I wanted to ask why but the smoke from the stove really began to choke me, so I ran out to meet Ifeanyi and Chime.
I told them what mother had said so we ignored the topic and began to play suwe. Although our mouths could not speak as we played, our hearts knew we had unfinished discussions and sooner or later, we had to thrash it out.
Our village was the smallest in the town and the only one that was landlocked. We had come to accept our fate that the gods had placed upon us. Our only option therefore, was to walk about five kilometers to the neighbouring village, Amai, where we fetched water from the microbe-infested stream.
Mothers usually sent their children to the stream and many would take their bath or swim before fetching water. Snakes usually came out of their legs and they would groan in pain while the white doctor came to remove it. The doctor told us it was due to the guinea worms in the stream.
Ever since the news of Akanu’s death, mother had not allowed me leave the compound so I was happy when she sent me to the stream that morning. It meant I would have sometime away from home and alone with Ifeanyi and Chime.
“Why did your mother say we should not talk about Akanu?” Chime asked when we were in the outskirts of the village.
“I don’t know. She did not tell me.”
“Maybe she’s afraid his ghost will hear and eat you up,” Ifeanyi said.
Chime laughed and said, “No, maybe she thinks he will make Eze deaf and dumb.”
“Stop talking about my mother like that,” I snapped. “She must have a reason for saying so.”
“Then ask her when you get home,” Chime said.
The stream was overflowing with children when we got there. Many of them had come to fetch water but instead, dropped their buckets at the bank and were swimming or bathing. I heard the screams of a girl. It was Ada – she lived in the compound next to mine. Poor Ada – the snake had also come out of her leg which made her scream. Chime and Ifeanyi wanted to swim but I persuaded them not to because mother needed the water quickly.
So I fetched the jerry-can of water and we began our journey back home. The air was filled with dark silence as neither of us spoke to the other.
“But come to think of it? What do you think must have killed Akanu?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“I heard the gods were angry with Akanu for boasting that he could never die, so they decided to take his life,” Ifeanyi said.
“That’s a lie!” Chime retorted. “Akanu took his life because he was tired of this village. He wanted to challenge the gods in a game of hunting.”
“Who told you that, fish-head?” Ifeanyi responded.
“Me! Fish head!” Chime had already clenched his fist. I knew they were going to fight if I did not intervene.
“Stop it,” I cried but neither listened to me. I tried to hold Ifeanyi but he pushed me to ground and as I fell, I spotted what would make them stop the fight.
“Hey! Look, that’s Akanu’s hut,” I exclaimed.
“Where?” They both asked, turning around.
“Over there. After the Ekete tree”
“Come on. Let’s go and have a look,” Ifeanyi said.
I heaved a sigh of relief – they were no longer fighting – but I now had greater problems – going into Akanu’s hut.
What would mother say if she found out? I thought.
“Why are you dragging your feet Eze? Don’t you want to come?” Chime asked.
“Of course I want to. It’s just that my leg aches,” I lied. I did not allow the boys to think I was a coward. I followed them closely as we got to the door of Akanu’s hut. It was made of bamboo sticks and it gave in easily when Chime pushed it. The putrid smell of Akanu’s corpse filled our nostrils, as we entered the hut. Akanu’s hut was very small – much smaller than I expected. There were only two rooms, separated by a curtain made of feathers. I guessed it must have been from all the birds Akanu had killed.
“Don’t you think we should go back? I think we have seen enough,” I said.
“You can go if you want to. But Chime and I want to see Akanu’s corpse.” The mere sound of corpse sent cold shivers down my spine.
Ifeanyi and Chime entered the inner room followed by myself. I brushed the sheet of feathers and noticed stale blood on it. The feathers had become stiff over the years.
“Finally we are here,” Ifeanyi said.
“Come on. Remove the cover cloth and let us see.”
“Stop it!” I screamed, turning around.
“What’s the matter with you?” Chime asked, holding my hand. “It’s just a dead body; nothing more. Open it Ifeanyi.”
As Ifeanyi drew closer to the corpse, I felt my heart pound out of my chest. It became so loud that I was scared Ifeanyi and Chime would hear my heart beat. My hands began to quiver and I began to feel dizzy. I called out to Ifeanyi but no words came out.
“Leave my hands Chime!” I screamed. But Chime did not move. He seemed not to have heard a word of what I had said. He kept on smiling – revealing his golden set of teeth – as Ifeanyi removed the cloth. Then I saw his face. Yes, I saw Akanu’s face but it was too ugly to look at.
Just then, I felt my body stiffen and I found myself on the floor. Ifeanyi and Chime surrounded me. I saw their mouths move but couldn’t hear them speak, their faces stricken with fear. At first, I thought it was because of Akanu but then I realized they were afraid because of me. Ifeanyi tried to wipe a foamy substance that came out my mouth, while Chime tried to put something between my teeth.
As I shut my eyes, I heard Chime say, “Akanu’s ghost must have eaten him up.”