By Eyitemi Egwuenu
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This story titled "Broken Melody" is fictional and deals with the The "Osu".
The Osu is a caste system that is practiced in the Eastern parts of Southern
Nigeria..It is staged in a village called Aniocha and the period is the first
few years of the twentieth century
Life is a river. And so is death.
A river whose limpid waves lap at its banks, ferrying grains of whitewashed sand
- freights of forgotten hopes. A river with dark currents, restless, perturbing
the bleak bowels of the deep, masking the light of day. A river flowing in its
destined course, its supple ripples looking back longingly, but never to return
- gurgling over rocks that stand sentinel at a bend, the lollop, a lame attempt
at a last farewell.
This river has flowed down the months, trickled through the sieve of days - the
interminable hours, straining my joy leaving a stony heart. It has meandered
through the eternity of a cycle - a full year - eroding the heart but not the
pain, dulling the tale but not the memory.
It looks innocent enough - on the surface. Its flow is undisturbed save for
occasional frowns when the gentle breeze breaks into a ripple on its brow -
calm, serene, bearing the history of its source to a destined sea.
Evening welled up from the east. Up ahead the yellowing sun emptied its gold in
the pockets of the west - daylight was being brought to penury. Tall trees
swayed in the breath of the waxing shadows, their silhouettes darkening the
mysterious dark waters of the brooding stream. This stream - this river, that
holds my memory in its clutches - that feeds it with embers that burn my soul.
This river that holds a life I had - a life lost in a watery grave. The tale
will be told but will never be finished for this river flows eternally - never
to be dried up - furnished by unending tears.
Sorrow, bleak and hapless has mastered my heart. The cold hands of the dark
reaper has swung his Scythe at a cherished blossom. All is lost.
It was here by this river that runs its course through my little village, that I
loved - and lost. It was here, a year ago that this watery vault gulped my
vessel of love - my bride.
This little village of Aniocha has had its fair share of some history but I
guess the annals would not be complete if the story of a prince is not told - a
prince who loved a lady at the peril of a kingdom. The idea of love is not
strange to my people for there are no people in this world , if they be men with
heart within, and eyes without, that are immured from the touch of that divine
spark. And for a prince and heir to the throne his privileges and opportunities
are more far-flung. There were ladies aplenty who were willing to offer up their
love if he had but carelessly nodded to them.
But who can tell where the lightning will strike, who can say for sure where
that spark, small it may be will start a flame. For there is a thread that runs
through the affairs of men - and that thread is blind.
The sinking of the sun unreels my thoughts - pulls it out from the dark abyss of
memory. The same way the lord of the day falls now, swallowed up the
machinations of the western sky, so the love of my life fell consumed by a
I am master over a portion of the earthly realm - my people are quick to do the
bidding of their future king. But a king is a king. A king is a man. Love also
is a king. Love is man’s king. I had no choice - I had to obey the voice of the
monarch - my feet could only go where my heart pointed - even if that path was
against the wind - against an ancient tradition - against the very foundation of
our existence. For my love great as it was, was lighted on none other than on an
Osu. Of that the land would have no part.
For an Osu is a slave - in fact worse than a slave. They were individuals who
had been dedicated to a god. They are to have no form of associations with the
so called freeborns even in the most trivial of things such as eating together,
buying and selling in the markets. Such and other forms of interactions must be
had strictly between their kind. And intermarriage was definitely out of the
question. A freeborn can not marry an Osu and emphatically not if that freeborn
happens to be the prince - heir to the throne. But the waves were fervent in
feeding the cascade of events. The lodestone that was my heart, spun with the
erratic gusto of a crazed drummer and finally settled pointing to the hut of an
The darkness kept its march as Night spread its wings over the silent earth.
Here I remain - here I sit at the threshold of twilight. Vain longings. Heart
The bank of this river was a favourite spot of mine even before the eclipse that
plunged my heart into eternal darkness. It was a calm and restful place for a
quite soul to retire and contemplate the workings of nature. A haven where one
withdrawing from the stench and narrowness of human society committed oneself to
the dark recesses of leafy woods and inhaled the aroma of the evergreen.
It was here - here in this humble surrounding that I first met Ifeoma. She had
come to the river to get some water. It was in the cool of an evening. She had
come in the company of a friend. I did not see them as they approached the
stream but the spirited chatter of their voices reached my silence subdued ears.
No man I believe ever forgets when he first comes in contact with true beauty -
Not the beauty that rouses the senses to brute conquest and acquisition but a
beauty that moves you to stand, that stills you to motion, that stirs your heart
to such quiet that you forget all that you are and remember this - and this
alone - that you are just one man on the face of the earth - no more, no less -
one man with a love-throbbing heart. A beauty that peals the bells of wonder and
an aura of harmony that weaves a braid of peace.
On my perch beneath a canopy of trees I knew they could not see me. I watched as
the pair negotiated the slopy terrain down to the river. I watched the pair but
had eyes only for one - one who stood in beauty in the somber light of the
evening - illuminating it. I watched, enchanted, the woods all about me fading
into nothingness at her approach. Dark and graceful. Lips that seem set in a
She walked knee deep into the river. The water glad to be so honoured rippled
all about in an epiphany breaking in diamond radiance upon the pebbled shore.
Her fetching bowl brushed the surface of the water. Tilted. The water rushed in
to fill it. She waded it gently to the river’s edge. Her voice - a spontaneous
laughter - merry bells - the tinkling of crystals. This goddess waited at the
shore for her priestess to join her.
The sun halted its fall at the horizon. To peep. A last peep. A worthy image to
loll it to a blissful sleep. The bowl rose to her head. Her back turned to me.
She walked away. The darkness was returning. Then she slipped. And fell.
I found my voice!
“Good evening”. I barely heard myself.
I cleared my throat, as I clambered down from my perch
“Good evening ” I said again
I made towards her - half running, half walking. I reached out a hand and pulled
her up. The spilled water in rivulets carved out paths to join the stream. She
was initially stunned but started chuckling at the prodding from her companion.
I mumbled my sympathy.
“This ground around here can be treacherous” I said
“That, I have found out today” she said, the remnant of a smile still playing on
“So I guess we start again” I continued, picking up the bowl and made for the
river. I returned.
“What is your name?” I asked
“I am Dike. Is it possible to see you again?”
“That depends on what for and where”
“O just to make sure you are alright. That was a nasty fall you had.”
“I will be okay.
“Whose daughter are you?” I pressed on.
“My father is Okaka. I must go now. Night is falling fast.”
“Okay. Take care of yourself.” I said.
That was the turning point in my life. The wings of love were fluttering in my
heart. My poor beating member was on the verge of bursting with rapture. Where
was the freshness before now - this air that swells to plumpness my lungs? Where
the trees ever this radiant? - these branches of green that like fingers caress
the last rays of the sun in a dance of light. Did this heart - my heart - ever
beat? I doubt it. Did I ever truly live - till this moment. What is this feeling
of cold warmth that ripples my bowels. A veil has been peeled of my eyes and I
have seen it - another world. I hummed a tune beneath my breath as I made my way
It was full evening. Darkness ruled. But not for long. Behind solitary clouds on
the elbow of the east, was a flush of silver - harbinger of the mellow splendour
of a rising moon. The exalted trees, faithfully, kept watch with me, their
trunks leaning on the night, swaying lazily, their branches whistling a dirge in
It was on a moonlit night that I saw her again that same day. At the village
square. Children ran this way and that - chasing each other worshipping the lamp
of the night with their play.
I was returning from visiting a friend. She was running an errand for her
father. Bathed in the silvery tide her beauty looked unearthly. My heart was
racing afresh. I stopped to greet her.
“Thank you again for helping me” she said
“I was glad to help”I replied
“My father sent me to get some tobacco for his pipe” she continued
“And my heart sent me this message, I wonder how to start” I replied
“Pardon me. I do not mean to cause offence by this. Today my heart has gone out
of me and has not returned” I said
Silence. She said nothing.
“I know that for me things cannot remain the same again however this finally
rolls. Dare I dare?”
“I have not know you for long but in these matters time is as short or as long
as the heart perceives it. I do not know of eternity but within the confines of
time, there are no absolutes. Though it seems I have known you for a short
period but long it definitely is because I have waited for this all my life”
Silence. Just staring at me.
“Ifeoma, I have never been in love before and I have always wondered what that
experience would make of me. Now I know.”
“You do?” she said
Her response startled me.
“Certainly. Today I have felt the throb of another heart next to mine I have
seen the divine in mortal robes. I have looked upon the embodiment of all the
goodness of heaven in a lady. My heart struck a note the first time I met you.
That note has trickled down the grains of time. I am captive to its deathless
“And what do you intend to do?” she said.
“Ifeoma, how do I say this? A little bird flutters near my minds ears and echoes
that which my heart already knows and that is “I love you”. Not just an empty
word issuing from the chambers of my beating member but a word rooted and
thriving in the very essence of my soul. I desire to twine my love with yours.
Will you take my hand - and my heart too? Will my wandering heart find rest in
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no.” she said.
“And what does that mean?” I asked.
“That you would have to wait for my reply.”
“Waiting is a virtue that is difficult to have right now. But it is also a
lesson I must have to learn.”
“I would have to beat my thoughts and all you have said to shape on the anvil of
my heart.” she said.
“I pray the shape should fit my favour.”I returned
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no". she said "It would go through its cycles - its
manifold changes and impressions as the mind chews on it.”
“Such constancy of change might blight my hopes.”I said
“Or do the converse”she replied
“That too. So when will it be?”I asked
“This time tomorrow. Same place.” she said. And she departed.
Daily, men pray not to see war, when there is one constantly raging within us.
Goodnight my love. Until I see you again and hear what tidings those lips of
yours have to offer, peace in my heart will be a privilege I can only imagine.
The night wore on. The sky above was laced with unnumbered sparks - the friendly
fires of the stars. The moon’s gleam on the ripples like a ghost crept across
the dark waters wafting my memory again to the past.
I had waited for her long before the appointed time. A cloud of anxiety stalled
the flow of time. My worry-worn heart hung on my face which for the want of
where to look was gazing up at the moon in fixed concentration.
“She would throw her washing water into your eyes” a voice said.
I turned around to see who spoke.
It was Ifeoma.
“What?” I asked.
“The woman in the moon - she would throw her washing water into your eyes”
“I don’t understand” I replied.
“You see those dark markings on the moon?she asked - they seem to form a woman,
bending over and washing plates. And if you stare at her the way you are doing
into your eyes would come the dirty water.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“From here and there” she said chuckling
“Around and about probably?” I added, playfully.
“From above and below also” she said
“From varied places, it seems.” I continued. “like the wondering heart of a man
“Or the unsteady steps of a lady about to say “yes” ” she added placing her palm
on the back of my hand.
The import of her gesture did not register in my mind immediately.
Then it did!
I felt like singing, I felt like crying. I felt like jumping, I felt like
running. I felt like proclaiming it from the mountain top.
She loved me.
Yes, she loved me. She had made it known better than words would have done. The
truth of her affection had been graced by better deeds other than words.
What words could do that?
What words could convey her message any more convincingly than her touch had
done. May be she spoke after all - a speech of no words; spoke not audible words
meant for the natural ear but silent words that were winged with light -
illuminating the darkness in my heart; words which my thirsty soul drank
hungrily like the dry, parched earth receiving its first rains.
That my protestation of love had yielded same filled me with joy that coursed
through my veins in a riot. What fortune is mine that that I have her hand;
richer I am with her heart in my keeping. To look into those clear, still eyes
of hers and be lost in their wonder. To watch the love in her heart curve her
lips in a smile to ravish my soul. To stand helpless before the aura of her
enchantment - a prisoner - glad to be caught in those hoops - her arms.
The rest of that evening was spent in each others company muttering, what lovers
have spoken to each other I guess since the dawn of time.
There was a time I would have thought this was impossible. That another mortal
can engender this flame divine that burns in my heart. That the vessel of a
man’s heart could know such peaceful waters in the harsh tempest of life. With
sails billowing in the winds of fortune, this brave vessel bears me on into the
unknown with a prayer for fair weather on my lips.
I have rifled the basket of the gods and have taken their most treasured gem - a
lady beautiful in form and bearing - a pair of eyes that hold the stars; dark
tresses, cascading like a waterfall to frame a lovely face; a gait that flows
with the liquid grace of a sylph - an outward form which was a true reflection
of an equally beautiful soul.
Heaven I pray grant us good speed to our habour’s rest.
But that prayer was never to be answered - at least in the affirmative. Our joy
was not to last. My world came crashing the very next day. In my joy I told my
father - the king. And after a brief consultation with some of the palace
courtiers, the sentence fell - she was from the lineage of an Osu so she would
not be suitable for a prince. I pleaded, I remonstrated, but all to no avail.
Then I fell to silence - silence was the last argument to which I could resort.
Who is an Osu? How are they any different from so called freeborns? Does not the
same warm red blood course through their veins? Is the beat of their heart any
less appealing to the ears of The Creator when compared to ours? Why must men
draw a line of seperation where the Almighty has not. The Creator is all-seeing,
all wise with depths of knowledge beyond fathom. We are in no wise pawns in his
hands. Options are laid bare before us and He bids us choose. Let no man say, he
has no right to choose for in every man lies the potential for the making of
something that exceeds mere earthly brute. Yet men choose to spite their
neighbours because they were born under different circumstances. And I am told
to turn my back on my love because of an accident of birth.
They are lowborn?
What does that mean?
Did they like us not come into the world from between a woman’s parted legs? Did
they too not ride the cry of labour-pains.
And what is it to be a freeborn?
What does that mean?
Like them, are four limbs and a head not our lot, we who prance, who scorn and
who never dare to see them as peers; though Death and Deity proclaim us so.
I am a prince and he is a slave!
I am rich and he is poor!
We are freeborns and they are Osu!
One man cries one thing, another cries the other - but in essence what are we
all but exalted dust - some are not as privileged in life as others but that is
no reason to make their already difficult life impossible.
We flatter ourselves with titles and appellations, we bloat our egos deriding
our less endowed colleagues. We forget in our vanity that the day comes when we
will be beaten back to the dust from which we came.
I met with Ifeoma on several occasion - secretly of course. The more I saw her
the greater was my conviction that we were not destined to be apart. She shared
my beliefs about the equality of all men but at a point her resolve weakened.
She was willing to part ways with me for the sake of peace. Tradition was
adamant in this case and she did not know if she could put up a never ending
fight against the displeasure of ancestors past, the reproach of those living
and the scorn of posterity. And at such times I did my best talk her back to my
or should I say our side. Peace in not necessarily won by shrinking from battle.
Such a peace as we would achieve by parting ways would not really be peace - it
would only be a relative calm - the deceptive calm before a thunderstorm. Ours
is only the first of several chains that have been forged - more would follow.
And what would the others do then - withdraw for “peace sake” - that would not
do. We must stand on what we believe - because it is right. We must not bind
ourselves when heaven has proclaimed us free. We are up against a long standing
tradition and it doesn’t seem that we stand a chance but we will keep at it -
for no matter how thin an arm is, there is always bone in it - we must wedge our
resolve firm in our hearts - perhaps the tide will turn, perhaps it wouldn’t,
but we would not be guilty of remaining silent in our chains - such a life
cannot be so sweet to be purchased at the price of bondage.
And if this place that we call home cannot afford us the privilege of being free
to unite our love in wedlock then we must find our home and our fortune
elsewhere. We must live all behind - we must brave it into the world - we must
It was a painful decision to make but what other option was left us. Parting was
not a consideration - it would be unbearable. Let heaven and our ancestors bear
witness that we do this in all good ernest. We cannot,… dare not,… do otherwise.
We agreed to meet were it all first began - by the riverside - to meet there at
the very first stirrings of day light. From there we would make our journey
across the body of water by boat. Downstream would bring us to a neighbouring
town of Ukueze. From there we could continue our journey by road. The option of
making the journey by road from our own town would not be a good one because you
are bound to bump into a townsman who could betray your intention before they
I had waited there for some time when I saw her approaching. I watched her
descending that slopy terrain - the same way she had done some two months ago.
Borne by the fresh, cold breath of morning she came towards me.
We quickly boarded the boat and pulled away from the land. The vessel launched
forward bravely, our hopes its only sails.
No sooner had we done that, than I heard it - the unmistakable sound of running
feet. The bushes along the shore began to stir actively. About eight men came
out of the shadows of the woods going towards the river. They shouted
instructions intermittently for us to stop. I recognized them quickly. They were
my father’s guards - palace gaurds. How were we found out? Who told them about
our bid? Those were questions I knew would not be answered in a hurry. We must
get away from them. If we are captured and taken back to the palace, I could not
bear to imagine what would happen. It was not for myself I feared - I was still
a prince. But my beloved - who knows what they would do to her - her life
wouldn’t matter a bit to them. I would never see her again.
Desperation exhumed strength in me - I paddled with all the energy I could
muster. They were some way behind me in pursuit in another boat. For a while I
gained the advantage but soon the distance between us began to decrease. Eight
palace guards paddling behind me like demons. It was just a matter of time.
Their boat nudged mine as they came abreast. I swung my paddle catching one of
them on the temple - he tumbled into the water. One of them clutched at my
paddle and yanked it from me. Two others tumbled into the boat and held unto me
pinning me to the floor. The boat was as restless as a hen perched on a
It swung this way and that as I wrestled with my captors trying to beat them
away. Another held on to Ifeoma who was fighting him off to no avail. Then as
quick as a flash her head came down and she sank her teeth into the guard’s arm.
He screamed in pain and struck out in anger with the back of his hands. She went
falling into the river. A cry of anguish rose from my throat. I renewed my
struggle but more powerful hands pinned me down. I called out to the other
guards to save her but they did not heed. I yelled, I threatened, I pleaded, but
my appeals were to a stone wall. I heard her splashing about trying to keep
afloat. What agony filled my heart at that moment in time. Every splash was a
dagger than ran my heart through. Then the splashes became feeble and finally
A shiver ripples through me at this recollection. It is night now and I am still
here. The moon, brilliant and bright filters its ghostly light through the
woods. Night’s creatures broke the silence with a creek, a croak, and a chirrup.
And I am still here.
I was captured. Ifeoma was dead. For days thereafter I prayed for death but the
dark One would not heed. I was locked up in an empty room to keep me from
“harming myself” as my father put it. For days I went without food or a drink
though I was adequately provided with both.
My heart had eaten to its full, how could my bowels know hunger. My sanity was
brought to the brink; for a while I thought I would lose my mind - insanity
would have been a welcome relief from this torture of my mind - that could not
I woke from a troubled sleep, my head aching. Sleep must have washed over me at
the height of exhaustion; I dreamt that I died.
To dream that one dies is not a dream that would not come true some day. I wish
it would be sooner than later.
So the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months. And now a whole year has
rolled by but the events are still as pungent as ever in my mind. After a while
I was allowed my freedom. But I knew I was a changed man. I was still alive,
true, but I knew that for me “living” was gone……forever.
I recall this bitter memory in the silence of this dark woods, beside the river
that holds a jewel I loved but could not save -Ifeoma.
When I look down the rungs of the past one year, down the short vista of twelve
vanished months it has become clear to me that man in all his pride, his hunger
for titles and appellation; in all the certainty which he assumes to possess
concerning the workings of life and living is almost always afraid. Fear is the
common thread that runs through the seams of human affairs.
We are not too busy, we are not too big. We are not too knowledgeable or too
sure of ourselves - we are only afraid. Everyman has a great capacity for love -
to love his neighbours and every one he comes across. He also has a great
capacity to want to share that love - but fear will not let him - for fear
breeds doubt, breeds suspicion - two enemies that makes a man unsure of himself
and his neighbours. Caught between these two foes he attempts to gain control
over his predicament by boxing himself in with a set of instructions as terms
upon which to live his life. These instructions after long use become entrenched
So many, many, many, years ago there was a crisis in the land ( let us say a
famine). And men in their fear were looking for answers which were not forth
coming. Their crops were dying - they were not far off from the same fate
themselves. In their fear they sought for answers desperately. The gods must be
angry, they concluded - the Oracle man confirms their fears.
Atonement must be made!
They would need victims - human victims. But they cannot shed the blood of a
clansman (because tradition says the earth forbids it) so they decided to
dedicate the victims to the gods to appease them. Over time in order to preserve
the originality of those dedicated they came up with rules that none should
marry them except their own kind.
But they are aware that marriage could more easily arise if other associations
were maintained, so they made the rules more stringent - do not marry them, do
not eat with them, do not trade with them.
They became outcasts. They became Osu.....
All because it did not rain.
And many years later I am to suffer the consequence of my ancestors' fears.
The night races on. Soon the light of dawn will pierce this turbid darkness. Day
would be reborn.
In the light of day nothing is hidden. For light is love.
And there is no fear in love.