I was ten years old when I encountered the raiders from the northlands for first time.
It was a late sunrise and the thin sliver of a last trimester moon still bejeweled the ash-grey sky. The last of the morning cockcrows had echoed across this valley, calling late risers to answer the melody of wakefulness. Across the length of an enchanted valley all appear drab, without mirth, awaiting the infusion of the crimson ray of the summer sun which will soon crest the twin peaks of Enu-ejima to bath this valley with her radiance, then will the hidden beauty of this land be seen in all her glory.
Though, I have seen this spectacle a thousand times, yet I eagerly await its coming with awed eyes each day. My young mind is yet to come to terms with the reflections of light off the lush green leaves and the flutter of forest birds as they welcome the new day with their cries.
Today I knew it will come late, just like it had been doing for several weeks now –the old ones say it is the doing of the gods who sent it on an errand. I do not argue for it is above my minds reach to contemplate the hidden ways of the gods. Lying back on my raffia mat, spread just inside the door of the round earthen hut I share with my siblings, I looked again towards the distant peaks, seeking for that tell-tale shimmer that will send me running towards the eastern wall of our homestead where my vigil heralds the rising sun. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, I tarried, hoping that counting the bamboo poles holding up the thatch and raffia roof will ease the pain of waiting.
I actually heard my name the first time it was called. I did not answer and did not expect to be reprimanded for that since it is dangerous to answer calls from sources unknown, or one might acknowledge a spirits call and follow it to the land of the dead within an infant’s heartbeat.
I was seriously peeved when Adaora my ill tempered elder sister barged into the hut and emptied a bucketful of cold rain water on me. I jumped up screaming and rushed after her. Being more nimble than me, she easily kept me at bay, sidestepping my attempts to grab her and sink my teeth into her calf.
She took to running around the thatch kitchen our mothers use in the rainy season. I followed her gamely, knowing I did not stand a chance of catching up with her but too infuriated to care.
Guessing I was growing weaker, she changed direction and ran towards me, coming close enough for my seeking hands to grasp her waist clothe, barely, then skipping away before I could gain purchase.
Frustration brought quick tears to my eyes and sobs, long held in check, burst fourth with ululations loud enough to bring our mothers running to investigate.
Mama Ukwu, my father’s eldest wife was the first on the scene, her ample bosom jingling in the grip of momentum and gravity.
“What or what is making that boy cry?” she inquired with vengeance, bearing down on Adaora who was then cowering, her mischievous smile having faded off at her first glimpse of mama Ukwu’s fury.
“I did not do anything to him I only woke him up with water since he was sleeping like a hyena.” Adaora said, drawing away from Mama Ukwu as much as he cold dare without admitting too much guilt.
“And you would know how a hyena sleeps? I sent you to call him to eat not to cause him pain.” Mama Ukwu moved with a sudden swiftness that belied her age, grabbing Adaora by the crook of her skinny arm she pulled her against her body. “My husband it is your turn to retaliate.” She said to me.
Adaora glared fiercely at me as I tiptoed towards her. Placing my hands on her forearm to protect me from any sudden moves from her, I bent my head, readily my mouth to give her a bite. She winched as my teeth came into contact with her bare back, but my teeth only glazed her flesh and left no mark. She smiled triumphantly, knowing even then that I did not have the heart to hurt, not in this circumstance anyway.
For a bit, Mama Ukwu looked strangely at me. Then she struck the grinning Adaora a fierce blow across her woven head sending her sprawling. Screaming her lungs out like she is want to, she ran towards fathers hut at the center of the homestead. Apparently she was unaware that father had gone to the twin forest with Nkemjika our eldest brother to fetch herbs and wood for spirit masks. Father is her usual ally and would have come roaring out in her defense.
Adaora’s mother,father’s youngest wife,(my mother is second and Mama Ukwu is the undisputed matriarch of the homestead) who was sweeping the front compound-amaoge,Nkemjika’s young wife, having taken over the sweeping of the backyard and around the yam barn-looked up with non indifference as her daughter ran by. Even if she was inclined to defend her, something she is not inclined to doing, she will never dare challenge the authority of Mama Ukwu who ruled the women and children of our family with a fair but firm hand.
Of the wives in our homestead Amaoge , Nkemjika’s wife, is the one closest to us. She is still young enough to join us in our games and still impressionistic enough to enjoy the nightly story telling sessions in my mothers hut, a situation that is soon to change, judging by the observation of Mama Ukwu’s neighborhood gossip club, who avowed that soon when her tummy starts swelling, the child in her will give way to the maternal instinct that is inevitable. Though this piece of gossip was not meant for my ears, I repeated what I overhead to the hearing of my father and was rewarded with a few well placed slaps to straighten my wayward mouth.
I could not resist sticking out my tongue at the sobbing Adaora as I passed her where she was sprawled across father’s threshold, side stepping the missile she sent hurtling my way. It was gratifying to here her cries intensify as I entered Mama Ukwu’s hut. Surely this bawling will continue until father returns, by which time the reason for the tears would have been long forgotten and whatever tidbit he brought for her from the forest will serve to pacify her.
I was sitting squat under the raffia sunscreen outside Mama Ukwu’s hut, polishing off the tasty burnt under layer of last night’s meal of yam porridge spiced with pumpkin leaf when the first whisper of trouble reached my ears. You know that feeling of unease accompanied by goose pimples or/and rivulets of icy sweat. In this case it was brought about by an unusual deep silence that was truncated by a noisy flight of birds followed by a silence that was much deeper than before.
I looked up from my meal to discover that I was not the only one who was touched by the change. Adaora’s mother had stopped sweeping, bloom still held poised in her hands; close by my mother was straightening from her labours beside the tripartite stone hearth, a trickle of tears on her cheeks sparkling in the morning light and the faint wisp of smoke from her well arranged logs attested to the seriousness of her battle with the fire gods. Even Adaora had left off sobbing and was looking towards the northern forest like everyone else.
Leaving my erstwhile intriguing pot, I walked towards the entrance, feeling the tension generated by the shared unease. Mama Ukwu had come out from the yam barn where she was collecting the yams father had already selected for this day’s meal. Her inquiry as to what was amiss was met by a collective blank stare.
Ignoring her call to return, I continued walking towards the gate. I had almost reached the woven bamboo gate door when a loud boom broke the deep silence. We all looked instinctively skywards. We were not alarmed initially, for it sounded very much like thunder and the sky that greet our eyes showed signs of a coming storm and the sent of rain was actually in the air. Across the length of the village, children picked up the rain song and it echoed across the valley. It appeared that whatever it was that caused that feeling of unease, it did not dwell in the world of the younger children and, whatever it was, it has passed.
Still, it bothered me when I noticed at second glance that while the rain clouds were to the west, the thunder like noise appeared to have come from the north, towards the northern forests where an ill-used path curved into the silent hill on its way to Ugwunasa-the land of the seven hills.
It was through this path that father and Nkemjika usually walk on their way to the twin forest. Father is the village herbalist and wood carver, on certain days, marked by the phase of the moon, he heads to the edge of the dreaded twin forest to collect herbs and the special wood he uses for the spirit masks. Nkemjika, who is expected to take over reigns after father, usually goes with him, to help carry and as part of his education-to familiarize him with the herb lore.
The herb lore makes it imperative that they collect between the deeper point of the night an early morning when the night spirits are heading home to sleep and too tired to prevent the taking of plants sacred to them, or so father says.
I had not reached the age when I would have to choose which vocation I will follow. Since my father batters his herbs and masks for food, my family really have little need for farming and much of the cultivation of our vast farm land are done by people as payment for their healings. This is no disadvantage what-so-ever for only the chief priest’s yam barn is bigger than my father’s. I hate the smell of rotting roots and the sickle sweet scent of freshly pound herbs reminds me too much of illness, which I loathe. Though I have knack for carving, I rather prefer carving out things I see in a piece o wood, personal things like animals and abstract object not the spirit masks that father creates-to his great disappointment, I must say.
My cousin Mbachu, who is only two seasons older than me, is already at the land of the seven hills studying the finer points of the four mouthed flute under the tutelage of Obele Okwu the great, a fact that my uncle, his father, stresses every half chance he gets. I can not stop wondering why he thinks it's a thing of pride for his son to be seen carrying the loud mouthed bards flute in the two markets of ugwu nasa, me, I rather be the bard while others run my errands.
Though I am yet to reach the age when that decision will be taken, I have made it known to my father that the lore of the night hunters excites me as much as the chanting of the priest-like heralds who carries the tale of our time and times long gone by in their heads. My admission did not distress my father for the ability to hold two vocations is admired and encouraged. Moreover, the oral historians get almost as much reverence as the priests and herbalists.
Caught up in the throes of daydreaming, floating around my imagined future greatness where I serenade the whole clan with recitations of the great deeds of one hallowed ancestor after another, I barely caught the sound of a second loud boom. I was still shrugging off my reverie, albeit reluctantly, when the rumour of screams and bellows reached us by way of the silent forest. Since I was already near the exit, I was the first to reach the bare hard parked earth outside our homestead. From where a clear view of the northern lay open to the eyes.
Our nearest neighbour, Mazi Odilo the basket weaver, was already standing at the edge of the bare patch where the short hardy grass that began at the forest edge met the taller grasses around the village. Here, the trampling of children at play and the stamping of maidens practicing the latest dance steps for the moonlight dances across the years had rid the oddly circular shaped position of all but a few hardy grasses – though stunted and off coloured - clung to a bruised life, no matter how pitiful it is.
As I walked over to them; the sound of our bamboo gate closing told me that some of my family followed me out I sidled close to Mazi Odilo who nodded towards the distant tree line.
"I think the noise is coming from there." He said, addressing no one in particular, though it was Mama Ukwu who answered him, inquiring about the source of the loud noise that all seemed to have understood to not be thunder. Before he had a chance to answer, we spied a figure running towards the villages from the forest.
Since the village is situated within a bowl shaped valley on a small hillock, most of the slopes slant towards the village and only the southern forest that leads towards the seven hills is at the same level with the valley bottom. This advantage of site availed us a clear view the surrounding hills and the edge of the forests that blankets them.
It was Adaora who first remarked that the running man moves somewhat like father, a comment that earned her the ire of Mama Ukwu who scolded her for talking out of turn. But when I peered at the figure that had gotten closer, I also saw that, apart from running with father's wide gait, he was of the same built and carriage.
"Adaora is right," I said, looking across at Mama Ukwu who had her palm across her forehead, blotting out the morning haze as she tried to see the running man better – not that she can ever hope to match the keen eyes of an adolescent. "That man is surely father and he is shouting something."
"Youngman, can you make out what he is saying?" Mazi Odilo inquired.
I cupped my ears and tilted my head towards the northward slope. By trying very hard, I was able sieve through the noise of the coming rain and the howling wind and caught a bit of what he was shouting continually. Baffled, I removed my hand from my ear and turned askance toward Mazi Odilo.
"What is it my boy?" he asked, searching my face.
"I hear what he is saying but I don't understand it." I answered.
"What does he say?"
"He is shouting ‘the northmen are coming' over and over again."
At my words, a change came over the older people within ear shoot; they all went silent and exchanged startled looks. Mazi Odilo beckoned to his son and whispered briefly in his ear and he took off towards the village square.
Though he would not answer my questions I could not help but notice the deep fear in his eyes, a fear the made him appear much older than he is. By now there was no argument as to the running man is my father for he has gotten closer and from the way he moved it appeared like he is in serious pain.
I ran towards him as he appeared to falter and grasping his hand I placed my shoulder under his armpit. I tried not to look at the jagged wound on his right rib from which blood flowed in a steady rivulet down to his thigh, coating it with red.
We were almost close to play circle where a now more substantial crowd were gathered before father lost his footing and slumped onto the ground drowning me down with him. It was when he did not get up again that two of Mazi Odilo's son's ran out under their father's instruction and lifted him up.
Together with my wailing mothers and siblings, I followed Mazi Odilo and his son's to the chief priests lodge which was at the other side of the village. Mama Ukwu and the other children were made to wait at the entrance, I was only allowed inside because father called for me –woman and male children who have not performed the coming of age rites are usually not allowed inside the chief priest's compound.
Though I was allowed into the expansive compound, I was made to wait outside the home shrine and watched from the entrance as the chief priest who examined father's injury carefully for several minutes before shaking his head sadly.
Last edited by chiagozie; Nov 13, 2009 at 03:30 PM.
MADE SOME OTHER CHANGES TO THE STORY