Dawn broke with cries. It wasn't unusual. Yet I sat up on my bed and listened to ascertain where it rang from. The undulating cries resonating from half a mile away distorted the peace the mid-night rain had brought. I stood off the bed, tiptoed across the room. Successfully, I opened it's wood windows without waking my younger siblings and cousins who were still asleep on the mats spread on the cold floor. What a wonderful day it would have been if today was like yesterday or two days before when I awoke without their quarrels and cries.
Like a cock crow, there was no day that passed without Mazi Odiekwe booming out curses at his wife; Nma Chinelo wailing from a thorough beating. They had become as famous as Mazi Nduka's gramophone, more famous than Elochukwu's Palmwine Joint. They were so popular that if you were anywhere within the seven clans of our village, you would hear phrases with their names. The most ridiculous I ever heard was in the strangest place; the House of God.
My family's church, Our Light for the Soul Protestant Church a.k.a Isiuwa had shifted its vigil to daytime. This was for the safety of those who wanted to attend but would rather stay back for fear of being murdered. There was barely a fortnight that passed without someone found dead.
Although we dragged our feet all the way to Isiuwa, we didn’t dare to not show up. I never liked attending Isiuwa. Truthfully, I preferred Saint Johns which was a stone's throw from Great Grandfather's Obi. The day I sneaked into the church with Chisom, my father, a lanky disciplinarian entered the church and stood beside me. I realized rather too late that he was next to me, it was the least likely place he'd be. Before I could dash out of the church he gave me a knock that must have left a depression on my head.
The vigil had been boring until deliverance time when Mazi Uwadiegwu dragged his son, Ebenezer, by his ear to the front of the church. "The spirit of Odiekwe and Chinelo get out of him in the name of the Lord." Pastor Abagana cried out when he laid his hand on Ebenezer's forehead.
I didn't know how to keep a straight face and not laugh. My laughter rang the loudest. Unfortunately, my father was not sitting far away at the podium with the other leaders. I hadn't noticed that he had doubled as an usher, due to the large turnout of people and was standing a few inches before me. In my fit of outbursts, I peered into the mirthless diamond carved face of my father. For some unknown reasons, it increased my laughter. I almost braced for impact before his knuckles landed on my recently shaved head.
The sky was painted with different shades of blue and the air was clean and cold. I heard cocks crow in the distance, I watched the green leaves of the tall trees a few meters away from my window ruffle in the wind and the birds that flew above them in random patterns. I folded my arms and tried listening to them chirp, a habit that had always helped in shutting out Mazi Odiekwe and his wife's brouhaha. I tried hard, yet I could not hear their chirps over the steady rising cries of Nma Chinelo. It seemed her throat and mouth had been enlarged for the sole purpose of ruining this brilliant day.
Loud bangs at the door and Chukwuzoba’s screams forced me away from the window and stirred everyone awake. My elder sister, Theresa never calls me by my full name unless I had done something punishable or there was something urgent. Hastily, I unbolted the door. I had never heard her call me with so much anxiety.
Tears streamed down her face, she used the hem of her wrapper to dab the tears. My siblings and cousins filed out to see what made her wake them. "Teacher is dead." There was only one man we referred to as Teacher in my house. I could still hear his wife's cries; perhaps he is still pelting her with punches.
"Teacher who?" Owolabi asked.
"Mazi Odiekwe is dead." Theresa screamed and fell on the wet soil of our compound. “It murdered him." She wailed.
"Kuwadi, will you get up." Kuwadi was her given name but she had made us call her Theresa.
"Who told you this?" He spat at her, he was in his faded red wrapper. He was standing close to the kitchen bearing his big white-coated stainless cup and a long chewing stick.
"Father, while I was sweeping, Okwubilo ran by and told me." He dropped the cup on the cover of the earthen pot next to the kitchen door. He faced us.
"Where's the mother of you?"
"Mother has gone to the farm."
"Mother has gone to the farm?" He muttered. "Did she go alone?"
"Eh, Father." My immediate elder sister, Nwamawu who was standing at Mother's doorway answered.
"This woman! Why did she go to the farm this early and alone?"
"My mother has gone to uproot cassava." Adive, my youngest brother piped.
"Zoba, Owolabi, go wear a shirt we are going to the farm now!"
Bearing his machete, Father led the way to Umuola; the farthest clan to ours. He had changed into his farm clothes, a blue singlet and brown khaki shorts. I wonder how he copes exposing his body. Never would I be found in nothing else but a pair of trousers and a long-sleeved shirt. I could neither tolerate the big flies that sing in my ears, the wet leaves that splatter against my legs, or the tiny flies that would bite and leave swollen patches all over my body. The latter is the reason I would drag my legs when going with Father to plant and harvest yams at his farm.
Owolabi and I took slower strides, yet it was enough to keep up with Father's careful pace. The red ground was still wet, one had to be careful or would see himself lying face down before hearing his foot slip. Owolabi had slipped twice, the last one would have had him flatten on the ground if his foot had not encountered shrubs.
"Owolabi, take it easy." My father advised.
"Yes, Father." He snorted. "You know I can't fall," Owolabi muttered to my hearing alone. Owolabi calls my father, Father, as we did, but calls his Baa mi.
"Of course," I giggled. "You are always lying on the ground." I jeered at him. I stooped down with my arms stretched away from my feet like I was about prostrating.
"Baa mi, eka ale." That was the greeting they say to their father when he comes visiting.
"That one is greeting, my friend." Owolabi sneered.
My cousins are Yoruba. Their father was the plump man with elaborate tribal marks on his cheeks. He comes visiting every two to three weeks in a 911. It seemed I and my siblings were more enthusiastic about his visits than his kids. If you ever saw the goodies he loads in the big plastic bags he brings, you would understand. The biscuits, chocolates, cashew nuts just to name a few would have escaped our mouth. If not for Aunt Isoso's transfer to another school, my cousins would have remained at Onitsha. They had to put up with us while their parents secured accommodation at Umuachi. My father's younger sister, Aunt Isoso, was a school teacher. She had met Owolabi's father, a truck driver while she was a student at Onitsha Girls College. They had both successfully weathered the tribalistic resentfulness from each other's sides and proved beyond doubt to all that love was indeed boundless.
We had been walking for more than a couple of miles. And for the past five minutes, we had not seen nor ran into anyone except The-Man-From-Mountain-Hausa, the lumberman.
I had been to Mother's farm a few times. I remember it being quite far, and it was always busy. We turned from the road into a bush path, the shrubs quickly grew into bushes and trees. Unlike Father's farm where you could see far off into the distance, the bushes lining the route enclosed and squeezed breaths out of me. I slapped my body as frequently as I felt the stings of bites or as frequently as the wet leaves splattered my legs. In the haste to get Mother, I had put on a shirt and rushed out. It was on the way I realized I was in my shorts.
The bushes birthed a clearing and then a large expanse of dark-colored soil with numbers of heaped earth with stems of cassava bearing leaves shooting out of them.
"Your mother has not come here today." We must have looked skeptical at him. "Did you see footprints on the ground?" He bellowed. I was in a great battle, pardon me if I hadn't taken notes of any footprints. I dared not say such aloud. My father was always hostile when sober.
We took a brief tour to ascertain that she was not on the farm. Soon we were on our way back home. The thought of repeating the long journey was more tiring than the walk itself.
"What are you children doing outside this early with what is going on?" Nnekwu, the palm wine tapper startled us. He was in his usual worn-out shirt and shorts. With his woven raffia climbing rope slung around his torso, he rolled his Longjohn along a bush path. On the seat of the bicycle were tied two blue plastic gourds and a cutlass. Nnekwu was one of the best palm wine tappers in the whole village. I have heard several elders shower praises on him. And he tapped for several people including Ogbuefi Igbenekwu and Ogbuefi Udodinma.
"Nnekwu, are you awake?" Father greeted.
"Oh, I am awake. I didn't see you ahead or I would have chased these children home."
Father waited up until he joined us from the rear.
"Where have you gone this early with a cutlass?" Nnekwu asked with his eyes dancing.
"We had gone to the farm at Umuola." Nnekwu must have thought it strange as would anyone. The land at Umuola was for women to cultivate. But, he didn't ask why. It seemed like he was in a haste to unburden something and the question he asked was an appetizer.
"I was just heading to check some of my trees when I met Ejima, my clan's man." He lowered his voice, I could pick his whispers.
"What he relayed made me turn my bicycle around."
"Hmm, it was either a warning for a danger afront or for urgent attention at home."
"What I heard, I can't talk until it's certain that it has murdered Odiekwe, son of Udoakpuenyi." Owolabi and I turned unexpectedly to Nnkewu who was still talking, on seeing us look askance, he covered his mouth with his palm. He stifled what would have been a loud shriek.
"What are you looking back for?" Father's face was cementing with anger. "Have not you been taught that when elders talk children should not eavesdrop? His eyes were aflame. "I asked you a question." In a deft movement, he menaced towards us. I didn't know the question to which I should answer.
"Yes, Father we have." Owolabi quickly answered to save us.
"Let me not hear any of this told to anyone."
Undulating cries resonating from the distance increased with every step we took. Nnekwu continued towards Abor, while we turned into the path that led to our clan. We trudged on in silence. Mother was not in the house. We watched Father tap his foot and look thoughtfully to the sky. Suddenly, he turned to us and said he was going to Odiekwe's. He warned that we remain in the house.
A few minutes after Father had left the house to Odiekwe's, we heard raps of knocks on the door.
"Zoba, have you see it?" Chisom asked as soon as I opened the door. He was standing with Ebenezer.
"What?" Owolabi joined me outside, I shut the door behind him.
"The corpse of Mazi Odiekwe, I thought you were coming from the road to Isiuwa?" Chisom inquired.
"No, but, is it true that he is dead?" I knew the answer but hoped to hear different "And that it killed him?" I added.
"I have not seen it, Ebenezer has," Ebenezer nodded. "that is where I am going now." Chisom concluded.
"My mother's son," Ebenezer appraised. "it is better seen than described. I just hope Eze Mmuo has not come yet or he would have covered him."
I considered what Father would do if he saw us outside. I could withstand some knocks and floggings but could Owolabi?
"Owolabi, Father asked us to stay..."He trotted off down the road before I could finish.
The atmosphere was rent with cries that rang clear and piercing. The cries told pain, anguish, and fear. There were at least fifty onlookers including my age mates. Most of them were men; they crossed their arms over their chests and shook their heads. Some of the women rolled on the ground, others cried looking skywards. A herd of vultures circled the sky above a darkening corpse beside the road. Its bloodied head was unevenly cracked, its intestine unconcealed for its stomach had been jaggedly ripped open.
Owolabi retched, I pushed him to a corner where he stooped and puked. The sight was gory. Turn back you are not supposed to be here. I gave myself a piece of heady schlock advice.
Dirty, emaciated dogs appeared from nowhere and took a deft yank at his bloodied open stomach. This maddened the onlookers. They threw stones, sticks, some drew machetes, but the dogs scampered away before they lost their heads with chunks of intestines dangling at the sides of their bloodied mouths.
The crowd pathed for Eze Mmuo and his four manservants who were dressed in white skirts and carrying a wood frame that looked like the letter H, except that the wood crossing it's mid was as wide as a door. His presence was announced by the metal totem he shook, pulled and stuck in the ground as he walked. There was nothing spectacular about the chief priest; a shirtless plump man in a red long skirt, with a bag slung around his chest, except for the white patterns drawn on his face and torso. I could not tell if he was looking at me or not for his eyes told time. He had eyes turned out.
Eze Mmuo stood over the corpse and did some incantations. When he was done, he retrieved a small black container from his bag, opened it and blew its white content over the body. The young men came forward, heaved the corpse upon the mid of the wood frame and covered it with a red piece of clothing. The elongated ends of the frame balanced on their shoulders as they trudged behind the chanting Eze Mmuo who led the way. The rest of us followed.
When Eze Mmuo turned at the junction and took the bushy path leading to Abor, we grew cold feet and retreated to the back. Father had warned that we went nowhere. We had stubbornly taken a chance to see the corpse but it was foolhardy walking towards Father. And we were actually walking towards Father.
"We are walking towards Father!" I yelped.
Father and some elders were approaching us, they were a few feet away from Eze Mmuo. He had seen us. His inflamed eyes burrowing into my skull rooted my feet and everyone's to the ground. It seemed everyone including Eze Mmuo was terrified of my father. On the spur of the moment, a bird fell at my feet, dead. A few more followed. There were no sounds, no chirps, no fluttering leaves, no breeze, no nothing!
We took in short, sharp breaths when the bush vibrated and thrashed about. There was something big in it, maybe a wild animal. Inconspicuously, we began retreating backward as a mouse would when it suddenly chances upon a cat. I tried looking into the bush, but before I saw it, it was upon us.
Blood splashed out from someone's throat. A blink, then it jabbed its talons into Ebenezer, who was standing beside me, sliced his stomach open and painted my purlieus with his blood. That was the cue we needed. The atmosphere at once became foggy with screams, yells, and whimpers. Many darted into the bush. And I knew I should run too, but I was no longer there. I wasn't seeing the six foot tall, green creature with bat-like face, horns, and crooked talons. Instead I saw my dreams burn out. I saw my family. I saw all the sins I had committed. I knew what my destination was and there was no time to ask for forgiveness. I waited with my heart in my mouth.
Had it been so swift that I didn't know when it happened? I peeled open my eyes. The creature had turned away from me and menaced towards Owolabi, who was backtracking. He was hauling stones at it, screaming "bia! bia!" Owolabi turned and raced the way we had come, but, not for a meter or two before he slipped. He fell flat on the wet ground.
The creature stood over him. I watched it unfurl its talons and aim to take a swipe. I felt so powerless. I could not do anything. I was not as bold as my cousin to haul some stones and buy him some seconds before a painful death.
Suddenly, a stabbing scream rose from the junction. The lumberman materialized. He bore a long stick in his hand like it was a javelin. When he was a few feet away from the creature, he aimed and threw it with so much force that he staggered. In a second, the creature winced and stumbled backward. The stick had pierced its abdomen. Groaningly, it forced out the pointy stick. It turned and sprinted in the opposite direction towards Eze Mmuo who had buried himself in the mud.
The lumberman zoomed after it, three men wielding machetes joined in the hot pursuit of the creature which had sidetracked into the bush.
Nobody said anything. We were too spooked to even breathe, except for one of the elders lying in the mud beside Eze Mmuo who had been screaming.
"Why was this elder screaming?" Uneasily, I asked Owolabi who hove into sight, hyperventilating.
"That is Father," He snorted.
"Father?" I had never known Father to be frightened of anything. Before me was a man whose eyes were laced with fear. He nearly took off when Owolabi touched him. It took assurance from everybody to calm him. I still could not believe that my father could be so scared. I thought I smelled urine as we helped him up, but that might as well have been me. We led him home into the arms of Mother.
Days grew into weeks while we waited for the return of The-Man-From-Mountain-Hausa and the three men who chased the creature. That never happened. False news of their return birthed rumors of seeing the lumberman at Otuocha, Ogbunike, Asaba and several other places.
To date, the story of the brave lumberman and the three men who had chased the creature is still told in my village; Umoke, and beyond. Of course, time has added flavor and color to it, but the nucleus of the story remains the same. I tell you, if you haven't been confronted with death, you would never know how fast life flashes by and the agony that comes with that moment.