He drew out the straw and heavy headed termites clung furiously on its end. He scrapped them contentedly into a broken earthenware bowl; brought out another from the anthill and harvested. The spittle was drying off, so he ran the straw over his tongue and slid it into the hole; cursing the inedible brownish ones that occupied one of his baits, he smashed them beneath his thorn-torn soles.
“Agaba n’idu!” Shouted Nkuri, who stealthily stole behind Udene’s back, from a nearby shrub; stolen unripe pears protruding beyond the pockets of his masquerade’s eye shorts.
“Nkuri! A na-akurikasi Obodo?” He responded from his repressed shock.
“If not, why not? Since things refused to happen, I decided to be happening. And if people, begin to wonder, I begin to wander” he speaks with an air of one who has travelled beyond the bounds of Umuezike village.
I wonder o! You are still the same, save for your big grammars after these years of apprenticeship abroad. It’s barely a day you were bundled home from Umuezu, and here you are stealing pears, corns, damaging and ravaging the entire village.
Udene, you better ponder and wonder because the rain that fell on the leopard did not wash off its spots.
So you’re a leopard na?
Yes, one that stalks like lions and scares the tigers!
That means you’re a great jungle animal?
Is that a complementation, contemplation or a temptation? Don’t’ add injury to my assault because respect is reciprocal.
Choi! Oyibo! Udene ajo anu! You’re a bad meat, no wonder no living being thinks of you as safe to eat. Vulture, I di egwu na bekee. Your grammar is terrific!
Yes, I know.
They walked through the narrow path towards Uma river. Each step widened the greener and succulent leave-littered path. A wrong location, yes they knew. A tail of a black snake swiftly wriggled into the bush as they approached. They gawked at each other, hesitated and went ahead. From time to time, a brooding quail freaked, squeaked up and disappeared in the bushes. Its offspring could hide under fallen lean dried leaves, or even freeze undetectably. It’s amazing the way they do it. The sun was blazing and the reptiles are sprayed upon stones and every warm surface for sun bathing. Some spread and slept as if they were dead.
Look at that python!
Shsssss…you do not see what you think. Yes, but that’s Eke Ogba, the spirit of Uma.
Is it not looking at us?
Hold your breath and walk as if in the dark.
The day was calm except the intermittent chirps of the sacred birds. From one end of thick gangly branches, monkeys jumped from tree to tree. It is only here that one sees such atypical colourful primates. Mysteriously, only one among them was this translucent. In the sun, it shone like prism; but it wandered in seclusion. The elders called it Nwandufu, the one who misleads. This is because in the past, it had led many children and even some naïve elderly ones who did not know, that its drama of dancing on the pathways, was intent on leaving them stranded in the thick heart of the forest.
From the ongoing, would you think that Nkuri and Udene did not know they should not thread this path at so lonely sacred hour? No, they knew. They knew too well from the folk tales that they would not go to Uma river at mgbachi when the spirits ramble about. The seductive river beckoned on them and they flung their shorts, dropped their wares and naked, they dived into the warmth waiting watery fingers of Uma.
Let’s swim to the island and get palm fruit
Obi akakwara gi?
Why not, ‘am I not Udene. My heart is strong!
Udene kara aka n’amapu ozu afo
Yes, I am the one, the vulture that perforates the belly of a carcass.
They swan to the isolated patch of land at the middle of the river and clung on the reeds to climb ashore. Something stung Nkuri on both hands as he pulled himself up; but he had known pain that it gains nothing troubling him again. He only shouted, “Abia ha!” and continued picking palm fruits. The Eke Ogba rests here after swimming and could twirl from the ground to the fronds. They knew too they had to back off lest, the occupant of the colony meets them on their way back. So quickly, they stuffed their mouths with the fruits and plunged back into the water. Unknown to them, the colour of the water they left in a short while, was not the same as in the one they just thrust in.
It was not long when Udene found he was whirling alone. He starred at the vast mouth of the tawny waters and felt the depth was coming after him too. He stroked futilely, as the widening imagination threatened with all sorts of marine monsters caving in on him. Then he saw bubbles, dented with oily ripples surge some yards away from him. The seeds in his mouth dropped in successive strings.
“Nkuri!” he shouted.
He saw him make a return from the idolatrous bed of Uma. The fowl says it chuckles insects to death, before it swallows and so does Uma. It throws up drowning victims three times from the deep before it finally ingests them to eternity.
Nkuri sprang up again as if from the gnawing fangs of the river, with drooling saliva of waters all over him. He looked roasted in wet muddy water and all of a sudden, he sank back visibly drawn by some strange strings of forces.
Udene braved up his spirit. He knew his manhood was useless if he ran away in the face of such trial that would prove his worth. “I am Udene, the bad meat” he assured himself, beating his thudding chest. “If the eagle claims to be the king of the birds, then I, Udene the vulture, is the king of the king-bird.” He was still afraid. His clattering teeth betrayed his loose guts. Feverishly, he turned to ward off a swarm of looming invisible crocodiles.
Shaa shaa shaaa!!!
From a widening dimple that sends ripples to the edge of the bank, it seemed it was the mouth of the river gapping. There, there!
Like a den gun, the still body of Nkuri submerged. Ropes of water clutched on him like strings of a strange catapult, hitched beneath the earth. Udene sprang as if he stepped on a stone, but could not save the plunge. He waited as his frail grasp slipped away the deep dark mud-smeared body. If Uma throws up again, and Nkuri is not untangled from her licentious tongue, then he would soon stand condemned before the tribunal of his ancestors. The night was falling upon earth from the gloomy shades of the sky. The moon and Udene glimmered all alone on the brood face of Uma. Yet, Nkuri might still see the moon again if he does not go to the great beyond the third time.
At home, smokes rise up all over Umuezike in search of her strayed sons. Flutes picked their notes on dirges and swirled to the far away spirit lands, beckoning on the benign spirits to help. The women gathered by Nkasiobi’s mother with their usual maternal camaraderie. When women wail, they sing their sorrows to the heart of Ala, the earth goddess
Ala doo oo!!
As they recant their earthly journey ije uwa, beckoning on their ancestral linage and the gods of the land to come nigh. The night kept its ears wide. Nkasiobi was named to stay, live and comfort his mother Nwoji, as several previous pregnancies led hopes to the grave. Others were either stillborn, or died few days of birth. She performed every ritual including fetching Uma river naked at midnight, so her children would live; but they died. Eight of them all died! She despaired and refused to take in again.
Ichoku is light in the head; a man who knows too well he paid full, the dowry on his wife. Thus, one night he came in and performed his duty which eventually led to a pregnancy. He doesn’t subscribe to Nwoji’s decision to call it a day with child bearing. Though she wailed through the course, but it was only the few things within her dark room that heard her. Ichoku left, a man second to none in jabbering, that he was named after the bird parrot. In her desperation, she declined every further ritual offered or prescribed. Why would she, when none has ever come to stay?
“Woman, bring four mature eggs of a chameleon and go to a four-cross road at a sacred hour and smash them to the ground. Call the four market days Eke, Orie, Afo and Nkwo by name that they may know that their fame, relies on the multitude of children born before them.”
No one doubts the oracles, and Ayaka was one dibia whose words come undiluted from the gods. The consequence of disobedience was demise; death which Nwoji would prefer to any more heartbreak of having a baby on one arm, while standing by its grave. The fear that she would die gripped everyone except Ichoku. The vulture whose wife was pregnant said that birth or death would serve him good since either is gainful to him!
The ninth month came with Nkasiobi m, my comforter, as insisted by Nwoji. If Ichoo cared, the names given by the father traditionally takes preeminence. Ask him the names of his children, he would think till tomorrow. However, the gods must have been lying. Playing and plying their whims and caprices on the strings of our frailty! With this defiance, the fame of Ayaka gradually died like the dwindling of a smoldering wild fire. The oracles ceased.
“Women are evil!” he would furtively in solitude gnash.
Now, in the turn of things, the one whom the gods had earlier sent would be justified. In fact gods have their ways of doing things. Nemesis is the fiery arrow that waits at the tail end of the tomorrow of their enemies.
They went to Umu-Enyi to inquire from Ula, and the priestess said the gods were angry. They were angry because the woman refused to offer the things they requested. They have always said so, the priests and the priestesses; but could it be that the gods needed the eggs of the ogwumagana?
One is left to wonder.
Meanwhile, Nwoji refused to be neither comforted nor cared for Ula and Asika her priestess. Her scarf was being marched upon by their bare feet. She reached to the knot where the lips of her wrapper met, and unfurled it; let the earth behold my nakedness! A woman, whose only male child is dead, is naked of earth. She then threw her hands so that the night is seen by the curious eyes of the day, but the women held her close.
“Hold your spirit mama Nkasi. He will come back before the moon crosses the sky,” a voice soothingly assures from the mourners. They led her into the dim lit red mud hut where she sobbed away in dreams of light and darkness.