The child stirred in his sleep, restless, wedged between my wife and I on the mud-bed. I watched him with my half-shut eyes in the dim light provided by the clay-lamp. Suddenly, he sat up, cleared his eyes with his fists and then struggled to his feet! I froze with trepidation at this unbelievable spectacle. I held my breath tight lest I betrayed my shock and denied myself the privilege of further discoveries. He looked furtively here and there to ensure no prying eyes were watching him. Satisfied, he gingerly climbed down from the bed with a little patter of his cherubic feet on the floor. Instinctively, I stretched my hand to touch my wife but met hers mid-way as if in telepathy, clasped together in a perfect understanding. So all along our child had been deceiving us that he couldn’t walk!
A clatter. And we turned soundlessly to see what our child was up to in this night of horror. We saw him holding the soup ladle with his right hand while he lifted the lid with his left hand. He dipped the ladle into the pot, obviously fishing for pieces of meat in the soup. After a short while, his search seemed fruitful as he brought the ladle with his catch into his fish-mouth, chewing silently like a goat, ruminating. At last, we’d caught the mysterious meat-thief red-handed but our invulnerability prevented us from making it known to him the same way a wise man would not shout for joy when he ran into his best friend whom he had attended his funeral a few market weeks ago. The best thing to do in such circumstances was to pretend blindness because in the history of our people, nobody ever saw a ghost and lived. There were certain things the eyes must not see otherwise the owner must either go mad or die suddenly. In like manner, we heeded the wisdom of our ancestors this night and held our peace. Besides, we knew within ourselves that this child of ours was no ordinary child like all other children in Loko but a spirit-child, a changeling destined to torment his parents.
Two market weeks ago, my wife had complained to me of the incessant missing of meat from the soup pot. When I suggested she conduct an inquisition on our housemaid, Ene, she said that she had already done that, and that the poor girl had pleaded not guilty. She even went further by swearing on the graves of her parents who died tragically during the last great flood that claimed many lives several years ago. That year, the river god was angry with us and expanded his territory. Despite this solemn swearing, my wife still unleashed the skin-peeling koboko on her as a hardened liar. What was she insinuating in the first place? Apart from my wife and I, who could have tampered with the meat in the soup pot if not her? Our only child Obagu was only three years old and bed-ridden. From that day, my wife decreed that henceforth the soup pot would be kept in our bedroom, while the housemaid slept in the parlour alone. Little did we anticipate that the culprit would turn out to be our three-year-old son, Obagu, whom we had all thought was lame! Wonder of all wonders!
I met my wife, Tani, when I was in my mid-twenties. A peasant farmer, I also fished on the River Benue as my sideline. As a young man, two passions dominated my life – women and our locally brewed beer called burukutu. In short, my world revolved around these two orbits like the earth around the sun as our Indian teacher used to teach us during our Nature Study classes several decades ago. After the hard work on the farm in the daytime, nothing soothed a man like burukutu and the cosy lap of a woman in the evenings. In those emotion-wrought days, we used to hunt for them during moonlight dances. Oh, what memorable nights those were! While the half-naked maidens, smeared with camwood, danced provocatively to the rhythmic throbbing of the tom-toms, our hearts palpitated along. This was how I met the young proud girl who was to be my wife. During the usual lull in the dancing, I pulled her to the nearest corner under a shady dorowa tree, and the rest became history. Her heart-rending scream as I took her brutally told me that I was the first man to go into her inner chamber and know desire.
Before this night of conquest, I had long been eyeing Tani with the lustful, rheumy eyes of a lover-drunkard. In fact, every man did who still felt some tickling sensation in his loin-cloth. She was the acclaimed belle of our village, Loko, whose beauty the elders unanimously adjudged was only comparable to a mermaid’s. This made her the sensuous dream of every full-blooded man except, of course, the eunuchs. Tall, fair-complexioned, full-fleshed and with a pointed nose, Tani walked with the gracefulness of a gazelle, gently swinging her well-moulded behind tantalizingly like a ripe fruit caressed by the evening breeze. Young, healthy-looking men moaned with pain like gonorrhea patients after peeing anytime she flit past, treading the air like a swimmer. Like most beautiful girls, Tani was aware of her power to work up emotions in men and allowed it to go into her head like too much wine that intoxicated the brain. So much was her pride that nothing delighted her like rejecting eligible young men who sought for her hand in marriage. It was during this time that I appeared on the scene of her life, armed with my Standard Five education. Among the young men of my time, I was the most educated even though I dropped out of school at Standard Five. In those good olden days, that was no mean achievement, what with the celebrity status that went along with it. So, when I eventually made the usual overtures to her, she quickly succumbed with gratitude in her eyes.
Our marriage a few days later was the talk of the town for days on end. The people of Loko and its environs talked about our compatibility and youthfulness and predicated a happy home for us; a home full of the giggling voices of beautiful children. Young men of my age-group patted me enviously on the shoulders and whispered how I’d outsmarted them to marry the goddess herself. This was before the nightmare of our lives began to unfold.
Thirty years after our marriage, the cry of a child was never heard in our house. Thirty years of endless pain and fruitless search for elusive solution to our childlessness. Ours was one endless pilgrimage from one hospital to another, from one traditional healer to another, all to no avail. And time, the no respecter of mortal man, ground on ruthlessly and steadily, greying our heads and marring our faces with wrinkles. Then came the great pressure from my people to marry another wife who would give me a child that would continue my lineage whenever I joined my ancestors. This, coupled with the gossips in Loko, aggravated the whole situation. We were like two poor pawns of the gods pitted against several forces of nature and man. My people said that what I had married was a man who only ate my food and defecated without producing any issues. She was the witch who ate up all her children in the spirit world. No wonder that she was as beautiful as a mummy-wata! When I stood my ground, they turned to my wife to confess what she had done to their lost son. What herbs had she cooked in my food to make me love her so blindly? In fact, our childlessness estranged my people from me. It dethroned the happiness of the early days of our marriage and in its stead, an all-pervasive air of mourning reigned supreme. This continued until my late father’s friend, Chief Adoka, the son of Hedgehog, the Thing-that-the-snake-swallows-and-must-vomit, invited me to his house one evening. After several hours of skirting around the object of his invitation, he finally hit the nail on the head. What had I been doing so far about my wife’s barrenness? He was my father’s childhood friend, so I bared my heart to him. I told him how we had tried even the white man’s new religion for a spiritual intervention without success. The suggestion to try the church was solely my wife’s. Like school, I’d always found the rituals in the church so boring, what with the endless clapping and singing when one could do with a calabashful of burukutu to wet the parched throat! Anyway, on Sundays, I allowed my wife to go to church while I went along with my friends to the beer-market, Makwalla, to drink away my life’s problems. The latest gossips of Loko and the neighbouring villages could easily be gleaned from the boisterous discussions at Makwalla. Beer has a magical way of loosing truth from the palate of a drunk’s mouth like the fear of impending death. Like carefree children, we talked, joked and fought amongst ourselves over a big gourd of burukutu, frothing at the edges, trapping flies. This was life, man, and must be enjoyed to the fullest before the worms laid claim to your festering corpse when you finally died, we philosophized.
‘Have you tried the Great Shaka of Omela village, son?’, asked my late father’s friend after a brief silence.
‘And you think he’d do more than what the others have done?’, I asked rather pessimistically.
‘Nothing is beyond the Great Shaka, son’, replied he, stabbing the air with his right fist for emphasis. ‘His blindness is as a result of the eyes he has in the other world of he spirits. Go and see him, son, and your wife’s barrenness shall be over.’
The following day, before the first cockcrow, my wife and I set out for the village of Omela to see the Great Shaka. On arrival, we made the necessary enquiries and were directed to where the great soothsayer lived in isolation, his hermitage. We took the only footpath that led to the creek where the two boulders met over a stream. We walked and walked for what seemed an endless journey, until we found ourselves in the heart of the forest. The trees were so big with widespread branches such that the sunlight was blotted out as if we were in an underground tunnel. Apart from the gurgling sound of a nearby stream and the occasional twitters of birds, there was an eerie silence of the graveyard. Fear held us captive, yet we were determined in our mission to find the final solution to our childlessness. Then we saw the two famous boulders, interlocked over the stream like two mad lovers in a demented embrace. A bamboo curtain was draped over the dwarf entrance door to the forbidding cave. Soundlessly, we picked our way towards the cave, side-stepping dry leaves lest they explode like thunder under our feet. Suddenly, we heard a blood-curdling, guttural scream from within, freezing the blood in our veins. We stood stock-still in our tracks, with goose bumps all over our bodies. Instantaneously, the bamboo curtain was roughly parted and out ran an old man of nondescript age from the cave and into the ankle-deep stream, wading furiously and screaming at the same time as if something was after his life. Attired in a threadbare wrapper around his frail waist, he had on a brown singlet that was once snow-white. On his head sat a locally-woven cap, curled up like a snake, intimidating. His ghost-like appearance alone was enough to instill mortal fear on the beholder. He was like an apparition, with his long white beard reaching down his waist like a lion’s mane. He paused when he saw us, his eyes holding us in a piercing lock. He screamed again as he made the bank, muttering some gibberish only he could understand.
‘Welcome, Your Majesty’, he quickly genuflected before us, much to our perturbation. ‘What a great honour to an undeserving servant like myself to receive Your Majesty in my humble abode!’
We were taken aback by this unexpected welcome. Could he have mistaken us for some people? No, I had to intervene before this old man carried this obsequiousness rather too far.
‘You must be mistaken, Ancient One. We’re ordinary villagers from a neighbouring village’, I said in my most conciliatory voice.
‘My greeting is to the illustrious woman and not you!’, came the curt reply. I turned to look at my wife. The shock of incomprehension was visible on her face like mine.
‘She is my wife, Old One.’ I corrected.
‘Yes, I know.’ The sarcasm was as blunt as it was cutting. ‘As a child would its surrogate mother!’ He spat significantly on the ground. He stared at me for a while with deep forbidding eyes that could not see and crowned it all with an ominous hiss.
‘Come with me’, he finally said to my wife rather than myself. And we obeyed meekly like helpless prisoners. When we got to the stream, we removed our footwear and waded into the ankle-deep stream after him. He parted the bamboo curtain and invited us into the hut-like interior, his shrine. A clay-lamp gave out a perfunctory illumination to this grave-like shrine. On the rocky walls were hung an assortment of fetish objects such as horns, leopard-skins, amulets, ostrich feathers, python’s tail, human skulls and several other unmentionable paraphernalia of his profession. He brought out two giant tortoise shells, the biggest I had ever seen, and bid us sit down on them. We obliged more out of fear than for comfort, while he went about rummaging through his lion-skin bag. Every now and then, he’d yodel and reel out some mumbo-jumbo, laughing insanely as if he was communicating with some invisible spirits. Suddenly, he broke into a frenzied dance, singing in a sinister voice like a snake hissing in the dark. We watched, speechless, as he wove himself into a macabre dance. He danced and danced like a young man in his prime and stopped as suddenly as he had started. He took the lion-skin bag and proceeded to bring out some strange objects such as a dried chameleon, amulets, cowries, a crocodile’s head, a lizard’s penis, etc. he recited some incantations as he began to cast each of the objects. ‘O, the blindness of mortal man!’, he mumbled several times, shaking his head.
Once upon a time, began the great revelation, my wife Tani was the royal wife of the King of the River Benue. The King loved her so much that she always had her way in anything she wanted. Then came the day she insisted she must have a taste of what it meant to be a human being. This request angered the King so much but because of his great love for her, he could not refuse the littlest of her requests. He let her go, though not without his having blocked her womb so that she would not give birth to any child on her earthly sojourn. The only solution, he told us, was to make the necessary sacrifices to appease the King of the River Benue. The sacrifices must be made in the middle of the night in a canoe a-sail the big river. He prescribed all the basic items we must buy and that he would come to Loko a fortnight later to perform the sacrifices. Lighthearted, we thanked him profusely and the gods of our forebears and took our leave.
The next few days to the day of the sacrifice, we were caught in a fever of preparation. We set about buying all the things required for the sacrifice. We bought three costly jewels, four bundles of white cloth, five healthy tubers of yams, two white cocks, one elephant’s tusk, three sticks of white chalk, the umbilical cord of a newly born baby, etc. Our house wore a happy look of a newly married couple because of these items. On the day of the sacrifice, I watched eagerly as the sun embarked on its homeward journey beyond the hills, a golden ball of fire in the western horizon. I hurried to the riverside for the last-minute check of the canoe that would be used for the mission. I chose my biggest canoe with enough room for the Great Shaka, my wife and I and the items for the sacrifice. I ran my hand fussily over its body like a lover, pleading with it not to let us down in the middle of our mission, when the waves were at their most tempestuous. Satisfied, I hastened home to receive the Great Shaka.
He arrived when it was dark enough to travel incognito. I took him in and showed him all that we had bought and he nodded his approval. A man of very few words, he talked only when it was absolutely necessary. For a man who communed more with the spirits, mortals bored him to death with their ignorance.
We got to the Big River in the middle of the night, the odd hours where the living were dead asleep while the dead walked the earth. I dropped my load by the canoe and helped my wife set down the big basket on her head. As if the moon and the stars had a foreknowledge of our mission tonight, they stayed indoors in their heavenly abode, leaving the world in pitch-darkness. I struck a match and it spluttered alive. I shielded the flame from the icy wind while my wife hurriedly brought the clay-lamp. After lighting it, there was a pause.
‘Strip!’, the Great Shaka commanded, turning to my wife in his blindness. I saw her stiffen with horror.
‘I said remove all your clothes, woman!’
It was unmistakable. I placed my hand on her shoulders, reassuringly. Go ahead and obey him. We had done all sorts of things in the past to get a child without a glimmer of hope. What was a single night to us? Hadn’t the doctors in the cities probed her private parts more than it was decent? My wife gingerly removed her clothes like a virgin bride at her first lovemaking and stood shyly, as naked as the day she was born. Somehow mischievously, I felt a wave of hot desire course down my loins.
‘Spread the wrapper on the bare sand and lie down’, continued the Great Shaka.
Mechanically like a zombie, my wife obliged. The great seer dipped his right hand into the lion-skin bag and brought out some powdery substance with which he proceeded methodically to rub all over my wife’s body. My wife gritted her teeth to prevent herself from screaming at the claws traversing all over her body. He also smeared her with camwood.
‘Your beauty must blind him’, he said between clenched teeth.
A few minutes later, he cleaned his hands with a piece of rag and asked her to stand up on her feet. I was horrified at the expression on my wife’s face as if I was around and allowed a stranger to rape her in my presence. Instead of being guilt-ridden, the thought of how we needed a child very badly more than vindicated me. Acting on a gesture from him, I quickly arranged the items into the basket and lifted it should-high into the canoe. I pushed it till it reached the ankle-length level of the river and we climbed into it.
The river was as dark as a flowing coal tar, glistening like a snake in the dark. The silent, ominous night was only broken intermittently by the heart-thrust strokes of my paddle. Now and then, a swarm of seagulls would fly past our heads, crying creepily like little wizards. As I paddled and paddled into the silent night, my mind was pre-occupied with the mission ahead. What would happen after the Great Shaka had invoked the King of the River? The very thought of it made my body break into rivulets of sweat in the cold open air. In my mind’s eyes, I could visualize the nightmarish scene very well. The Great Shaka called and called the King of the River by all imaginable praise-names and appellations on earth, enough to melt the stone-heart of the most implacable god. Suddenly, there was a tumultuous sound like in a tsunami and the river parted into two, with our bobbing canoe borne up on the crests of the waves like a toy paper ship in a bowl of water. As our canoe was about to capsize under the whirlwind of the waves, I heard my wife scream sepulchrally ‘No-o-o!’ In the midst of all this calamity, the soothsayer was as unruffled as a cat nestled in the arms of its faithful lord. He could as well be in a different canoe! ‘Don’t be afraid’, he chided us like little children. Gradually, with the slowness that befits only the royalty, the fearsome King of the River began his snake-like, unhurried appearance from the deep. The water glided shimmeringly down his body like electric current, sparkling. He stood in an intimidating posture like a huge rock in the middle of the sea. His head was too hideous to behold without going blind or shedding blood. His trunk was half-human and half-fish with fins as big as the wings of a large evil bird in the era of dinosaurs. He had a grasshopper’s head and a long beak of a mouth. Two reddish lights in the twin hollows of his skeleton head, were his forbidding eyes. After a long piercing gaze at us, he suddenly let out a loud cry, flapping his fin-arms on the river. This agitated our canoe by spiraling it convulsively on the waves and then, oh the gods of my ancestors…!
‘Here, here, here!’ I was jolted awake by the voice of the Great Shaka. ‘This will do!’, he reiterated when I seemed not to have heard him.
It was when I looked around ourselves that I noticed that we were in the middle of the great river. I stopped paddling for the Great Shaka to perform the ritual. He took his time as he brought out the items, one after the other from his lion-skin bag. First he brought out his gong and rapped it three times before reciting the incantation:
O you all-knowing and all-seeing god
It is to you that we run to
When our house comes afire.
The child runs to its father
When a scorpion stings it;
When life stings us more than
A scorpion’s tail
It is to you our feet hasten to
For a man can only thrust his hand
Into his anus!
O you unfathomable god!
What is the secret of the cockerel
Knowing the right hour to sound its gong
Or the snail to drag a mountain on its back
Without a helper?
When our ancestors migrated here
A land as barren as a rock
Did you not take pity on them?
You let out a drop of your urine
And bid it expand to the river
We know today.
O you god of primordial beginnings…
He reeled out one proverb after another; crying and pleading at the same time. He cited copious instances where the King of the River had never failed his people in the past before right from the first founder-ancestor of the village of Loko. Was it in our generation that he would do that? The gods forbid! When he was through with his passionate invocation, he ordered my wife to make the sacrifice by herself. She lifted the entire basket of the sacrifice and lowered it into the pitch-dark river. A loud pluu-r in the dark crowned our mission with success. He assured us that the King had graciously accepted our humble sacrifices and had unknotted my wife’s womb. By the time I had paddled back to the shore, I was totally worn out and famished.
That night in spite of my fatigue, I made love to my wife as the Great Shaka had instructed and she took in. My heart swelled up with boundless joy as her belly swelled with my seed. The happiness that had long taken leave of our house started drifting in like the bluish wisps of dawn streaking through our raffia window. Soon this house of mourning would witness several naming ceremonies. I was no longer worried about my advancing age again. Let cruel old age creep up on me and dye my already greying hair as white as cotton wool, I’d not die without somebody to continue with my lineage. A male child was all I wanted. Feverishly, I kept count of the months like every childless, expectant father. When the ninth month came and my wife was still not delivered of our male child, my heart sank deep with utter disappointment. Or could it be that she was carrying a big stone in her womb? Only the other day, a nineteen-year-old woman gave birth to a big stone which the witch-doctor said was planted in her womb by her wicked, barren co-wife. I was truly afraid of what would happen next.
The news came to me three months later while I was busy fishing on the River Benue. That day was my most unlucky day as a fisherman. Fish avoided my line as if they could smell me from afar. No sooner had I sighted a school playing freely than they scurried away before I could cast my net. The air of foreboding started in the morning when I was hurrying for the early morning catch. My baggy trousers gathered dew as I hastened along, breaking earthworms surprised by daylight from their nocturnal tryst with my feet, when suddenly I stumbled on my left foot. This was a bad omen enough for me to turn back, but no, like the tortoise in the adage, unless I was disgraced, I’d not heed the wisdom of our ancestors. Now, after several futile attempts to catch fish with the sun already setting in the west, I heard a loud shout from the shore. It was repeated. The nearest fellow fisherman to me on the river said I was wanted on shore. Relieved, I paddled fast to the shore only to meet my close friend Adiaku wearing a tragic countenance of the bereaved.
‘Adiaku, what is the matter?, I asked with a trembling voice.
‘They want to see you at home’, was his laconic, suspenseful reply which heightened the tension building up on me rather than ameliorated it.
‘Is anything wrong with my wife?’, I asked quiveringly.
‘Nothing. Only that you are now a father’, he blurted out. In fact, the way he said it one might think that I’d just lost my beloved wife Tani and the child in her womb. Maybe, there was more to it than he had told me. For what kind of good news was this when a man’s best friend could not look one straight in the eye and deliver it? No, there was more to it than I was told. I left my fishing tools in his care and set out for home.
The large crowd at my house set my heart pounding like the sound of taut, raw-skin tom-toms in our African night, nearly bursting open. As I approached, the murmuring crowd parted way for me to pass like a man afflicted with a new plague. The smell of a newly born baby wafted up to me from our bedroom, without the usual cry of a baby to accompany it. A sudden hush fell over the room among the chattering women as I made my appearance. I was relieved when I saw my wife alive, lying pale on the mud-bed by our child. Her reaction was quite appalling. She caught her breath sharply as she turned and saw the cause of the sudden silence in the room. Was my wife also afraid of me, her own husband again? If not, then why this mournful look on her face instead of a victorious smile of welcome? She evaded my eyes guiltily as if she had committed a great sacrilege by giving birth to our first child. No, I told myself, something must be wrong. Out of curiosity, I drew closer to the bed to take a look at our child, my first child at the age of fifty-four years. Instinctively, something forced me to stop short in my tracts, stock-still as my gaze fell on the fear-inspiring freak on our matrimonial bed. The gods of my ancestors! I heard myself exclaim spontaneously. What a piece of horror had my wife given birth to?
There it lay, as diminutive as a prematurely delivered baby with a large foetal head and broomstick legs and hands. On his intimidating head were ridge-like folds of skin, covered with a mat of kinky hair like an adult’s. The pair of evil eyes that stared at me unblinkingly beneath his protruding forehead were definitely not those of a baby’s but an adult hawk’s. The tip of the nose was so flat that each of the nostrils opened up skinlessly like an ape’s. Below this was a slit of a mouth a whale would envy. In the upper gum two teeth stuck out for recognition whenever he opened his mouth like a baby monkey. As I stood rooted to the floor, my mind was busy working. This was not an ordinary child or human being. In a bid to get a child at all costs, my wife and I had turned to the devil with alms-plates in our hands. This was the unfortunate outcome of our folly. No, I muttered to myself, I never sired this evil child from my loins. Wordlessly, I stormed out of the funereal room, determined to see the Great Shaka of Omela the next day.
The following day, before the streaks of dawn had begun to thaw the thick darkness of the night, I was before the shrine of the Great Shaka of Omela for him to unriddle this mystery to me. Calmly, he listened to me without any interruption. When I was eventually through with my narration, there was ominous silence as he paced up and down, staring intently into space.
‘Obagu!’, he ejaculated suddenly in a voice filled with admiration, the way a royal subject would his king with an appellation. ‘Obagu!’, he eulogized again, nodding his head in deep thought. ‘Obagu has come back again!’
‘Who is Obagu, Ancient One?’, I blurted out in trepidation.
‘Hmm’, he sighed, looking at me condescendingly and pityingly as an adult would a child who had asked a question beyond his age. ‘Hmm’, he sighed again, shaking his head sadly.
‘No, you won’t understand, son. The ways of the gods are indeed mysterious’.
‘What shall I do, Wise One?’
‘Nothing. We are just mere pawns in the hands of the gods. Obagu has come back again! You cannot do anything. Go home and call him by that well-deserved name – Obagu!’
I was more than confounded by the great seer’s sudden refusal to divulge any further information when I tried to probe deeper for explanation. He dismissed me with a wave of his hand.
From that day, our misshapen child’s name came to be known as Obagu as the great seer had told me. The next problem we had to grapple with as parents was how to bring him up as an abnormal child. Unlike other children of his age, he was unable to walk on his feet at the age of five until that fateful night where we witnessed his nocturnal exploits. On certain nights, when he seemed bored with fishing in the soup pot, he would be hanging up on the raffia ceiling, with his legs up like a bat. As usual, my wife and I were wise enough to keep this to ourselves, for we were fully aware of the kind of supernatural power such a spirit-child could wield if we were foolhardy enough to catch him at his game. We had heard some strange stories of how some villagers went stark mad or blind at such ungodly sights not meant for mere mortals to behold. Also, our behaviour towards him never changed as we watched him revert to his life of an invalid in the daytime. This continued until his seventh year when he deigned to walk on his feet. His first attempt at talking as a little baby was a word like ‘sun’ that came out of his ugly, slobbering mouth. He would stir restlessly and cry ‘sun, sun, sun!’ several times but we always mistook it for hunger and my wife would suckle him to sleep.
We got him enrolled in the only public school in Loko, a two-kilometre walk away from our house. At school, he excelled in subjects like arithmetic and creative art partly because of the gargantuan size of his head. The only problem he had at school was what his class teacher once remarked in his report card: ‘Brilliant but pathologically rude to his elders and betters!’ It was obvious that he had extended his rudeness at home to his school, which made him loathe going to school like a prison. On several occasions, had he come home from school looking so forlorn and downcast. It was either he had been flogged at the assembly ground to serve as a deterrent for other recalcitrant pupils like him or that his fellow pupils had ganged up and given him the beating of his life. I was often moved to pity on account of his physical disadvantages. The head stood gigantic on a thin, load-wearied neck, with a protruding forehead that nearly hid the eyes like a large rock sheltering two tiny perishables from the harsh sunlight. He stared like a weak ember of fire, with his lipless fish-mouth clasped in a vice-like grip.
My wife and I were always Tani and Oche to him and not the usual mama and papa other children called their parents. He talked to us as if we were his equals. My wife bore the brunt of his rudeness in silence like a long-suffering woman save when she was pushed to the wall and she would flare up. I had often walked into them quarrelling bitterly like co-wives. A boy of very few words, he knew how well to hit his adversary where it hurt most. Any time he unleashed such verbal missiles, I’d hear my wife whimperingly complaining at the top of her voice as if she was soliloquizing like some mad woman. Like the sporadic reply of enemy artillery, he would chip in a word or two that would hurt her to the marrow and she would explode in a torrent of words.
‘You evil child! I wish today that if I knew you would be the bane of my life, I’d have fed you to death with hot water as a mere suckling’, she would wail.
To avert a disaster in my house, I never spared him the cowhide whip called koboko. As I brought down the koboko on him, he would not scream nor plead passionately for forgiveness like every other normal child, but stared challengingly at me as if I would be frightened by his ugly mask of a face. In the good olden days when we were little children, any time our parents whipped us, we would beg and whimper loudly as if we were in a slaughterhouse and flee away at the slightest opportunity. But no, not this my son Obagu. He would not budge an inch but receive all the lashes on his body like a young Fulani man undergoing a manhood-testing initiation in a sharro! In fact, in all my life, I’d never experienced such a thing. Spent, I’d fling the koboko away and leave the house for Makwalla. For nothing cheers one up like burukutu when one’s spirits are low. The temporary transportation of the afflicted soul to a surreal world devoid of earthly pains and anguish is the climactic stage ignorant teetotalers call drunken stupor. Any sane man needs this ephemeral anaesthesia burukutu affords to live long as our ancestors did without the help of the white man’s impotent drugs in our hospitals. That was always how I sought refuge when my house was on fire and how it did work!
On one fateful day after I’d disciplined my son Obagu and gone to Makwalla and drunk beyond the normal quota the brain could contain, I found myself on my way home, with a song on my lips, enacting dance-steps, swinging this way and that way, being too happy with life like a man who had no care in the world. Suddenly, I stumbled over a place that looked like my house, fiddled around the handle of the door, and it gave way surprisingly. Blindly, I groped my way in the dark. I was not worried in the least that the clay-lamp was not lighted. Besides, darkness is creative; it allows the mind to embark on a flight of fancy but where was my wife? As if in answer to my unasked question, I saw some chinks of light approach our door and I wondered dumbly if the house was not on fire. The door swung open and I saw an apparition that resembled my wife, standing over me like a guardian spirit, holding a lighted lamp. I was shocked to find myself sprawled on the floor of the parlour instead of being comfortably seated on one of the cane-chairs in the room. Smartly, I got a grip on myself and barked commandingly to hide my shame as the man of the house, ‘Where have you been, eh you woman?’
‘I can’t … can’t find our son, Papa Obagu’, she wailed, sniffing.
‘Who says he is missing?’, I queried.
‘Since you gave him a thrashing this afternoon, he has not been seen and it is almost midnight now’, she wailed louder like a bereaved woman.
‘Now pull yourself together, woman!’ I said authoritatively. I was seeing the entire problem through the lens of burukutu. ‘Where could this evil child of yours have gone to by this time of the night?’, I mumbled aloud.
‘That is the question I keep asking myself again and again. There is nowhere I have not searched for him’, she said whimperingly, looking suddenly old with worry.
With the flame of the clay-lamp fluttering against the cold wind of the night, my wife trotted after me in search of our son. Our search took us to all places she had visited earlier on. No Obagu. At the Big River, my fellow fishermen said they had not seen any boy of my son’s description. Where on earth could this evil child have hidden? We had searched all important places except ... No!
‘No, I don’t think our son Obagu would dare go to such a fearful place at this time of the night’, said my wife, shaking her head for emphasis.
‘Let us give it a try’.
‘You mean the graveyard of all places at this time of the night?’, she asked huskily.
‘Yes, let us give it a try’, I said soothingly. She nodded feebly in her characteristic way of saying ‘As my lord pleases’. I collected the clay-lamp from her and led the way while she followed like a zombie, clinging to me.
The communal graveyard that serves the entire village of Loko is situated at the back of our house. This is where the dead of Loko and its environs were committed to Mother Earth right from the first founding ancestor of our village. Before we plant or harvest our crops on the farm, we always ensure we make the necessary sacrifices and pour libations to the guardian spirits of our ancestors. Surrounded by fig-trees, the graveyard has an awesome appearance of an evil grove where our forefathers used to cast away newly born twin babies and those terminally afflicted by mysterious plagues.
This night, there was an eerie silence, which was rudely pierced intermittently by the hooting of an owl, the reputed bird of evil omen, perched on one of the fig-trees as the night-guard of the dead. Few stars twinkled in the sky like broken pieces of diamond on a black muslin. The graveyard has both big iroko trees and smaller ones like any forest. Some of the smaller trees are so close to the short, cassava-like ridges like yam-tendril stakes. We held our breath tightly as we moved soundlessly like two lost beings in a wilderness, with the clay-lamp giving some of the trees some grotesque appearance of apparitions. Suddenly, my wife let out a blood-curdling scream, which nearly made me walk out of my skin with fear.
‘Look! Look! Look!’, she screamed sepulchrally, frantically pointing at something I could not see. When I lowered the lamp to where she was pointing, I saw a giant rat, the biggest I had ever seen, scurry into the nearby thicket. It was only a rat, I assured her with a sigh of relief.
‘Didn’t you see its flaming eyes before it ran over my legs?’, she replied throatily in a voice that was hardly my wife’s. ‘It was making eyes at me!’, she added creepily.
‘You are just hallucinating, dear’. I said encouragingly, to disabuse her mind from derailing any further as we moved from one grave to another. Just when we were about to give up our search, we saw a figure that looked out of place in this gothic environment. On closer look, we were relieved to discover that it was our son Obagu, seated on one of the graves with his face resting on his knees, cupped in his palms. He was sleeping soundly, the evil child! In spite of his grumbling, we dragged him home and washed him clean of the graveyard earth with hot water and local soap.
Since that night, I’d always been more careful about employing the koboko on him. One could never tell what next he could do. Moreover, we were advised by relations and well-wishers to shower him more love and understanding and to be less liberal with the koboko. This, if anything, gave him more latitude to misbehave as if we were suddenly scared of him. He flouted my don’ts with impunity, always picked on his mother and refused flatly to run even the simplest errands for me. Before my very eyes, the boy I called my son was growing into something else.
On one afternoon, I came home from the farm to meet him and my wife quarrelling bitterly as usual. My wife’s high-pitched, wailing voice reached me from outside before I made my presence known to them. After she had subsided like an August drizzle, our son Obagu would sting her into hysteria with his caustic tongue.
‘Other children’s mothers are different. Before they are back from school, their food is always waiting for them but not my own. No, we can’t all be lucky’, he stabbed fatally.
‘Go to those mothers, Obagu, and leave me Tani alone!’, shouted my wife, incensed than was necessary.
‘Even the beasts of the jungle know how to take good care of their little ones’.
‘Watch your tongue, you evil child. I’m not your wife!’
‘Who is even praying to be the husband of a lazy woman like you?’, he rounded it off with a disdainful hiss.
‘Cha-ko-ko! Me Tani?’ This was followed with a resounding crash of plates on the floor from within. ‘Is it me Tani that you were calling a lazy woman, eh Obagu? Ehn? The gods of my ancestors! What have I done to be saddled with an evil child like this, eh God? Wait … I say wait. It is me and you in this house ….’
‘I’m not afraid of you, Tani’, came the low, unmistakably sinister threat.
‘Ehen? What am I hearing? Are you threatening me too, eh you evil child?’
I’d heard enough to allow this bitter exchange degenerate into violence before I intervened. Without knocking, I walked in like an actor on cue. Immediately my wife saw me, she made to start complaining, but I waved her to silence.
‘It’s all right, dear. I heard everything.’
Without as much as casting a glance at him, I went straight to our bedroom and retrieved the koboko from where I had hidden it. He knew what I was up to, but as usual, he waited for me. He dared me with his evil eyes but I was past caring. He flexed his shoulders to receive the koboko like a professional weightlifter displaying his rippling muscles. If only this boy had my height and strength, I wonder if he’d not challenge me to a physical duel. As small as he was, he was still challenging me to see how I would make him cry. I flogged and flogged and flogged without the normal ‘Papa, please! I won’t do it again!’ until my right arm ached. Angrily, I flung the koboko away in defeat and left home. Makwalla was beckoning me to its warm arms of solace like the twinkling lights of a city to a weary, sore-footed wayfarer.
I felt at peace with myself and the whole world after every sip of burukutu, interspersed with jokes and the latest gossips in town. I revelled in this world of bliss until my wife’s ghostly appearance threatened this peace. Instantly, the mists of burukutu evaporated from my eyes and I felt invulnerable like a defenceless chick in the merciless claws of a hawk. The harassed expression on her fine face which age had not been able to do harm to, coupled with her girdled waist, was enough to tell me all was not well at home. Our son, Obagu, was nowhere to be found, she managed to mumble. He had simply varnished with his clothes!
Where on earth could this evil child have gone to again? Our search at the graveyard yielded no positive result nor his usual haunts in Loko. All our neighbours and relations could do was to suffocate us with their sympathies over the travails we were passing through as parents. Sympathies were never known to have solved any problem where action was required. The Muezzin’s loudspeaker call from the high minaret for the 2 o’clock prayers had just begun when we arrived at Loko Central Motor Park. Three pick-up vans were then loading. Feverishly, we went from one van to another, making enquiries. In the third van, we found him wedged in-between a buxom woman trader and some bags of groundnuts. On his knees, lay his earthly possessions wrapped with his calico. When I saw him, he was busy staring at the tarpaulin roof of the van with determined expression on his face to notice us. I climbed gingerly into the van and tapped him gently on the shoulders. If I was expecting him to shiver with a start then I was mistaken, what with the offensive look of defiance that he cast at me.
‘Where do you think you are going, my friend?’, I asked.
‘Udege-Amufu’, came his laconic reply.
‘Do we have any relations there?’
‘I’m going to see my son’, said he casually like an old man who had not seen his son for quite a long time. We were accustomed to this kind of prattle from him. As he grew up, we came to understand the ‘sun’ he used to mutter as a mere baby to mean ‘son’. In moments of deep melancholy like this, he always spoke as if he was under a spell. If we could not take good care of him, his son would definitely take care of him.
‘Do you know where this your son lives at Udege-Amufu?’ He nodded in reply.
‘What about the fare? Do you have any money on you?’
He unclasped his left fist to reveal a crisp five-naira note. I was appalled. Where could he have stolen this money? Well, this was not the occasion to catch a thief. That could wait for a more auspicious moment. I disembarked from the van to confer with my wife. I explained all that he had said to her and tried to persuade her on the need for us to call his bluff. We had a duty as parents to disabuse his mind from the beginning that he had no son and could not have been able to father any child at so tender an age of eight otherwise he’d grow up in that illusion. And that the son he meant only existed in his imagination. Grudgingly, my wife succumbed to my persuasion and agreed to travel with us to Udege-Amufu. I paid for the three of us and the van took off, making an unpleasant noise like a beetle over a gigantic mound of excrement.
Travelling at this time of the year on the dirt road that led to Udege-Amufu was usually a fierce battle between the weather-beaten van and the long, snaky road. Hilly and uneven, the van would at times climb with difficulty, career off the road as if it would pitch into a nearby ditch and stall suddenly. On several occasions, we’d to climb down to the road to give it a hard push. Then it would snort asthmatically alive like a resuscitated pig and begin to run at a walking pace, leaving a cloud of ochre-coloured dust in its wake. Wise travelers on this road never wore anything white otherwise it would turn brown with dust. After what seemed an endless nightmare, the van eventually rattled to a jerking stop at Udege-Amufu Central Market. Udege-Amufu is a village smaller than our Loko. We alighted and our son, Obagu, led the way.
The sun was already setting lazily on the western horizon like a mother hen coming to roost with her chicks when we arrived at Udege-Amufu. We passed several reed-thatched, mud-houses on the footpath we took. Dogs barked at us as if we were strange beings from another planet. We walked and walked until our feet blistered. When I asked him whether he really knew the place, he said yes and that we would soon be there. When we got to where the major footpath terminated in a cul-de-sac, he branched off to a minor one and we followed at his heels. As we approached one big compound, a dog’s barking could be heard behind the reed fence. Suddenly, the giant dog appeared and rushed at us as if it was going to bite us.
‘Waba! Waba!’, shouted our son, admonishingly to the dog. The effect was instantaneous as the dog paused very briefly and then began to wag its tail in welcome, jumping playfully at him as if it had not seen him for quite a long time. By this time, the inmates of the house had started coming out to welcome us. A young man of about thirty years old was at the head of the team which came to bid us welcome. I bent my right ear close to my son’s mouth for him to tell me the name of his son, which he whispered.
‘Yes, young man, we want to know if Adayi is around’, I asked.
‘My father? We are expecting him any moment from now’, he replied.
He invited us into the large compound and gave us a long bamboo bench to sit down at the verandah while he sent for cool water for us. We obliged and waited in silence. Presently, a young woman, obviously the young man’s wife, brought cool water in a big gourd and a calabash for us. We drank our fill. In my own case, it was a mechanical act because I was thirsty, otherwise my mind was preoccupied with what we had just witnessed. I was yet to overcome the shock that my eight-year-old son could know the name of a man in a village he had never been to before. Then the words of the Great Shaka of Omela came to me like the misty scene of a dream fast receding in the memory of the dreamer. He had said to me rather ominously ‘Obagu has come back again!’ Was it true that our son Obagu had lived before? No, I said to myself forcefully. This could not be true. But the more I thought about it, the more puzzled I became by what had just happened before my very eyes. I was jolted awake from my reverie by the sound of a bell-ring of a bicycle. I looked up and saw a grey-haired man of my age ride a rickety bicycle into the compound. He leaned it against the wall and came over to us. Immediately, our son saw him, he began to tug at my clothes feverishly. What was the matter? I asked. He said that that was his son Adayi that we came to see. I stood up from the seat and we shook hands warmly. If the man called Adayi saw our son, he did not show it as there was no any sign of recognition from the former. He invited us into the large parlour and we entered and sat down.
I was in for another shock when I explained to Adayi the object of our visit to his household. The kind of cheerful equanimity he accepted my story was something else. He listened carefully, nodding every now and then to punctuate my story, without betraying any emotion on his face. When I was through with the story, he then turned to my son.
‘I’m sorry if I could not recognize you immediately, father. Forgive my shortsightedness. Perhaps, you could prod our mortal memory a little?’, he implored.
‘Come’, said our son Obagu and he suddenly stood up and beckoned us come with him. We followed him silently outside. He took us to one spot in the compound barely covered with dry grass and told us that he was buried there in his previous sojourn on earth.
‘Yes, father’, was all Adayi could say like a man in a daze.
‘What happened to the dorowa tree in this place?’, my son asked querulously, pointing quiveringly at the central spot of the compound. ‘I thought I had warned that it shouldn’t be cut down even when I died?’
‘We erred, father. Do forgive us’, came the plaintive reply from Adayi.
We all stood rooted to the ground, speechless and pop-eyed. What other proof did the son Adayi require to acknowledge his father? Apologetically, Adayi invited us to the parlour again. He ordered a hefty goat to be slaughtered in honour of his father come back to life! It was indeed a celebration galore to the entire family of Adayi. We were given the best of hospitality. The following day when we were about to take our leave, Adayi showered gifts on his father Obagu and begged us to take good care of him. He promised to visit him often at Loko.
From that day our house is always deluged with a lot of gifts from the grey-haired son of our teenage son Obagu.