‘Nkechi wake up. Wake up! You can’t miss the early harvests again today’, Mama screamed out at the top of her lungs. It was becoming a trend as Nkechi was beginning to form the habit of staying late in bed even though she knew the importance of going out early to get the worms. If she doesn’t get there on time, she would have very little of those worms for Papa and Ikenna for their evening forays. Nkechi was 14 while her brother was 16 who has grown up to be a strong young man which made him the perfect teammate for Papa whenever they went out fishing.
The Okoros were just one of the many fishing families in Okihua village. There was very little farming done there since they could get most of their farm produce from the neighboring village whose core occupation was farming. So, their coexistence was seamless and peaceful while thriving in this very special and symbiotic relationship. ‘The lands were fertile on the other side. So, let them worry about the tilling’. Father would occasionally say while they walked the long narrow roads to the Riverside. ‘We would do fine selling our fishes and crabs’. They have survived like this since the days of his father and the fathers before. So, his reassuring advice kept him from worrying about the possibility of a famine in their land any time soon.
Nkechi got up sluggishly at first, but as Mama came closers, she had to quickly inject some springs into her steps. Otherwise, she had to brace herself for the possibility of a heavy-handed slap that would land violently on her cheek. ‘Mama, I am ready. I will get there on time and get many fresh ones today. You’ll see’. She said quickly as she hastily got her tattered wrapper and the small chewing stick by her mat. It was already half way chewed up, but still had two or three days of use left as she assured herself. She could hear Papa coughing loudly in his room. ‘Good morning Papa’, she shouted out greetings in that direction as she ran quickly with a small bowl under her armpit.
In the evening, after Papa had selected the best of the worms brought in earlier in the day. His mood has been a very happy one all day which was a telling on how pleased he was with the new baits. Papa was a very difficult man to please when it came to quality of just about anything. ‘These ones are too tiny’; ‘Those look very sickly’, ‘Are those ones not dead?’ he would rave and rave about the worms. He would even ridiculously claim that he would not eat ‘those types’ of worms if he were a fish in the Akpara river. You never can predict what he would say when he is vexed. Today was different and the home was mostly peaceful even as he prepared to go out with Ikenna. ‘Ikenna! Ikenna!! Ikenna!!!’ He shouted out while waiting outside the hut for his son.
They walked briskly down their usual path which was damp from humidity. This was, however, the least of their worries. They just needed to make a big catch of the cat and tilapia fishes. Their aspiration was not at all, unique to them as many other families with same expectations tagged behind just as others where many steps ahead. They walked on with a lot of anxiety especially seeing the other families ahead. It always feels like a competition every time they do this. Papa’s competitive attitude has been transferred to him as he has began to act, unknowingly, like him in those situations.
As they approached the Riverside, the wetness from the humidity had surprisingly reduced. ‘It should be more at this point of the journey’, thought Ikenna, but instead, he felt his legs dragging slightly from a substance he couldn’t immediately identify. He looked up at his father, but he was immersed in profound thought as he looked away. ‘Something is not right’, continuing in his thoughts. Unlike in most other days, more people than usual were returning from the riverside with blank expressions on their faces as they walked past them.
After the fourth family walked past, Papa had to asked that pressing question. ‘What is happening at the river my brother?’. He only got a sideways shake of the head and a silent response that clearly said, ‘Go and see for yourself’. At this point, we started running down with increased anxiety, mixed only with fear. The bowl of worms came crashing to the ground, followed immediately by the bag of hooks, lines and the fish collection basket. The river was all black! It was stagnant and smelled of dead fishes which were visible, floating above the viscous black liquid. Papa collapsed instantly!