“It’s the curse,” said the old man, his moan almost inaudible. His eyes steadied skywards: the sky was bright and the sun that hung over it radiated its burning rays ruthlessly over the sparse land like it was sanctioning it for some crime. Pa Afeso slowly turned his eyes downwards and fixed them on the plants around him one after the other. They were withering, some dying outright.
He stooped in his gait and plucked an okra leaf, his eyes staring at it penetratingly, his head rising and falling solemnly, thoughtfully. The deep lines on his face became deeper like those cruelly carved on the bark of rubber trees by villagers collecting latex. “It’s the curse,” Pa Afeso repeated with a slight tremor in his voice. He shook his head sadly.
“What curse Papa?” asked Odion.
Odion’s eyes bulged like they would fall out of their sockets. He looked at his father but could not place what the old man meant. Was this another effect of old age, he wondered. He had not expected to be told anything of a curse when he decided to invite his father to the small farm he cultivated.
“You wouldn’t know my son . . . you wouldn’t know.” The old man’s eyes misted in tears, thickening the huge round bags under his lids.
“But you can tell me father, what is it about?”
Odion knew his father well enough; he knew that his father’s lack of interest for the practice of his profession these days was the machination of old age. So, seeing the devils work in his idle mind, the son had decided to keep his father busy by engaging his mind this day. Taking him to his small farmland, Odion had asked his father to teach him about herbs and roots. But the rains had been poor, and the soil broken, giving the struggling plants a dying look.
Pa Afeso looked up a long time, counting the clouds with his upended fore-finger. The clouds seemed to swell, casting ever-intense rays of the unforgiving sun on the earth.
Taking his eyes off the skies, he looked again at the dying plants. “But all had been well,” he whispered. “All had been well.” His brows furrowed, mottling his aged face. He stood, hands akimbo.
“We have to go to the elders at once.” He took a faltering step towards the village square but the effort made him wince.
There was once a time, when the renowned healer was sought after from all over the outlying villages; Igbira, Udeni, Emede and even the great kingdom of Aviara. Age had made Pa Afeso lazy, losing him a bee hive of clientele. He did nothing these days except huddle together in the village square with the elders and whisper in hushed, agitated tones.
Upon seeing the dying crops, a sudden change had come over the old man. The lines on his face deepened like poorly dug ridges. His stoop worsened plus he had a slight tremor in his voice, which wasn’t there before.
“But Papa, I see no curse but the effects of a harsh sun.” Odion insisted, still worried by his father’s sudden demeanour.
“You know nothing of these things my son.” Pa Afeso wearily lowered his buttocks onto the trunk of a fallen Ogbolor tree. “But I will tell you, I must tell you . . .” He felt relaxed somewhat; relieved of the rheumatic pain he had been putting up with in his waist. Pa Afeso looked about him nervously. Though anxious, he was no longer in a rush to get to the elders. He cleared his throat with a loud grunt and began his tale in measured tones: “It was a long, long time . . .” He coughed, a loud whoop that rattled his rib cage.
“Sorry Papa.” Odion was patient, ignoring the burning sun on his nape. He walked to a lone Iroko tree, towering just beside his father’s resting place, and rested his back.
Just as Pa Afeso was about to continue, a loud scream suddenly rang out in the distance, startling the two men. Odion knew immediately from whence it came ─ the silver-roofed mud house standing to the east of the farm.
“Ome!” Odion panicked. “Father, we have to hurry to the house.”
A big tear drop rolled down Pa Afeso’s cheeks. “It’s the curse. I told you.” His voice trembled like the strings of a guitar. “We have to get to the village square at once.”
“Father!” Pa Afeso’s attitude bothered his son. “Ome might need our help. We can go see the elders after we’ve seen to her safety.”
The old man hung his head to the side and listened intently to the sounds he alone could hear. A frown creased his son’s face.
Having noticed his father’s strange behaviour for the past three market days, Odion had dismissed the obvious, attributing his queasiness to old age. Looking at his father now, he was not so sure.
Holding the old man’s hands, Odion began the short trek to his home. Pa Afeso was squeamish; slapping his body every once in a while as if invisible ants crawled all over him.
They met Ome seated on the ground nursing a swollen ankle. The kitchen knife and a freshly dug hole that she sat close by caught Odion’s attention. He let go of his father’s wrist suddenly and rushed to her side. “What happened?”
Ome gave vent to an irresistible urge to sneeze as if that were the answer to the question asked her. She wiped the mucus her sneeze had sent out of her nostrils with the back of her left hand. “I was trying to slaughter the chicken as you directed when it pecked my hand and escaped,” she said with clenched teeth, then pointed her slender right index finger towards a huge stone that lodged, half hidden in the reddish brown earth. “It was while chasing after it I kicked my feet against that stone.”
Odion aided her to her feet. He put her arms across his shoulders and walked her step after step into the house, and then, had her seated on the wooden armchair. “Rest here, you will be fine in minutes,” he smiled at her.
She smiled back and held on to his fingers.
He walked into his bedroom and emerged with a small gourd containing black gelatinous content. Odion dipped his hands into it and scooped out a little quantity, spreading it evenly on Ome’s injured ankle.
She winced but sat still, gnashing her teeth instead.
Outside, resting on the wall of the mud hut, Pa Afeso gazed into space. He shook his head once in a while and repeatedly stamped his feet on the dry earth, caring little for the pain his actions evinced.
“It’s the curse, I’m certain it’s the curse,” he said to himself, arms wound tightly round his chest.
Just then, Odion emerged from within.
“Can we go now?” Pa Afeso asked.
“Go where? Oh, the elders!” Odion had almost forgotten his father’s insistence to go to the village square. “Ok, let us go.”
They walked through the burning sun to the square. Six elders sat on three benches kept under the huge cashew tree whose leaves provided a shade over them. The elders bore a burden that etched on their faces just as clearly as the deep lines on Pa Afeso’s. Pa Afeso could see this burden, this tense, anxious look they wore even from the distance. He knew that their mood in the village square at this time of day when they gathered discussing their boyhood days, relating their experiences amidst laughter, and in between gulps of palm wine was a sharp contrast to what it now was. Their jittery looks intuited him that they too must have discerned it, discerned the awful curse in the air.
They too, looked at the seventh man and their old faces worsened.
He had barely walked to where they sat when one of the elders asked, “You saw it, too?”
Pa Ogbe‘s almost toothless mouth was what caught Odion’s attention as the old man was asking the question. Odion saw that he had lost all his teeth except a pair of incisors and a molar which stood solitarily apart like they have nothing in common, and wondered what the cause might have been.
Pa Afeso nodded in answer. Wearily, he sat.
“I saw the other sign too; Ome broke her ankle pursuing a chicken.” He added.
“Chei!” the men chorused.
One of them, a rail thin elder with sunken cheeks nearly fell off the bench in shock. Odion looked at him. He appeared to be physically exhausted. Perhaps he had not been eating well, perhaps he had been drinking in an empty stomach. Odion was not too certain. But he was certain of one thing─ the scared faces of the elders. He continued to look at them and then began to sense something of a trouble. “Papa,” he turned to his father, “what is going on?”
“What is going on?” Odion quizzed the gathering, staring intently at their faces.
“Hmm, my son . . . it’s the curse.” He took a deep breath, then looking at his wizened palms as if trying to discern the past from the zigzag lines that mottled the surface, Pa Afeso continued, “He was right in the end, we were wrong.”
“Who was right?”
No one answered the young one. “Father!”
“Hmm?” Pa Afeso jumped up as if from a dream, startled.
“Who was right?”
Pa Ado, the village town crier, now retired shook his thin legs. “We should never have done it.”
“The rains have not come in three moons, and won’t come until we do as he had cursed.” Said Pa Ogbe, showing off a toothless grin.
“Kill the oldest among us?” asked Pa Ado.
“It’s the only way. Else, all our crops would die, and slowly, our community would become extinct. That was—”
“But it’s just the sun! The rains will come any time soon. There is no curse!” Odion interrupted Pa Afor.
They ignored him.
“What?” Odion was dumbfounded; he held his mouth open like his tongue was caught up on it. “Can somebody please tell me what is going on?”
No one gave him as much as a sideways glance.
Pa Ezono looked at his co-conspirators. Being the oldest, all eyes were turned on him. He shrank back in fright. “But surely you can’t kill me, we are friends,” he croaked.
His words fell on deaf ears. The old man seating beside him stood up and withdrew a dagger from the folds of his wrapper. A stray ray bounced off its shiny blade making the old men shuffle uneasily on their seats.
The ninety two year old Pa Ezono cringed. He raised veined hands to his face. He was so frail, his voice barely carried above a whisper. “Please I don’t want to die. Just this morning I gave you a full keg of palm wine. Have you forgotten so soon? Rukevwhe please don’t take away my life.”
On a good day, the old men would have laughed at Pa Ezono’s attempt at humour, but today was not a good day. Nemesis had caught up with them all.
Pa Simon raised his hands to strike, when a sudden gust of wind blew dust into his eyes. They had been so engrossed in their guilt, under the cool of the Cashew tree that none had noticed the gathering clouds.
Like chariots suddenly let loose, rain drops poured from the bowels of the heavens, soaking up the men within minutes like the very elements were in defence of Pa Ezono. The ground became muddy, slimy before their very eyes. The breeze brought with it cold and the men shivered. They stared in disbelief. The stabber stood, knife in hand, still transfixed in his murderous pose. The dagger fell from his hands; he bowed his head in shame.
Pa Afeso looked everywhere but at his son.
Drenched and shivering from the cold, Odion asked again, “What have you done?”