The Young Men And The River
“Are you through with your chores?” Chuma asked across the dwarf wall that separated his father’s compound from the next. Ejike to whom the question was directed had drifted to the wall to hang edible weeds he had harvested from the woods for the goats that were housed there.
“Not until after this,” he replied; adding, “what about you?”
“I have finished since. I thought we would have gone together to get those goat fodder. It was like you were never coming back.”
“I had to wander very far. These goats are becoming very selective of the kind of grass they eat.”
“Then you have to accompany me to get mine.”
“But I have already gotten mine, can’t you see.”
“You can always keep me company. We will go to the river, swim a bit and on the way back we can collect those ferns that your goats like a lot.”
“The river this late? There will be nobody about that vicinity by now, I can swear.”
“Our we going there in search of people?”
Unbidden, Ejike immediately knew without doubt that his friend was up to his usual pranks. Deep inside he could swear that rather than what he was saying, he must be up to a different agenda. Much as it always came to a surprise to Ejike when he noticed this rather protuberant aspect of his friend, he always accepted to play along. So much that it could now be said to be the remote basis for the union.
Though they were almost always together, Chuma and Ejike were not blood relatives. Although their compounds lay side by side, they were really from different villages. Ejjike’s father only migrated to the quarter when new habitations became hard to find in their landlocked enclave. Indeed, it was Chuma’s father’s magnanimity that made the ceding of the land to him possible, both having been friends as youths. A relationship that stretched back to the night they were initiated into boyhood in the sacred forest.
Like their parents before them, lack of consanguinity was no hindrance to their burgeoning relationship. As if ordained by the gods, their sons had taken a liking to themselves even before their own initiation into boyhood. Living next door unlike their parents, theirs had started as soon they were often left together to eat the native sand as the grownups played games.
Not even the disparity in the sizes of their fathers’ compounds, for that matter, could come between them. O yes, for while the Chuma’s father’s was as big any other compound that housed as many wives his father presently had, Ejike’s father’s compound was truly a study in the frugality that was the trade mark of its occupier.
In the local parlance, Chuma’s father had all it takes – barns, wives, cows, goats and what have you. Like expected, the expansive compound was always brimming with activity. So much was this that the children from there hardly had any need to seek company from outside its four walls. It was even in the rumor mill that the grown ups among them were in the habit of co-mingling across sexual barriers permissible between relatives.
Ejike’s father’s own habitation was an exact opposite of his neighbor’s. In what appeared to give the man a strange twist of character, he lived in his little house with his one and only wife and children. He had just one barn and made no effort at living to anybody’s expectations. He could not however be said to be lacking in means no matter the ramification.
However, while Chuma found companion enough within his father’s compound, he never frowned at any opportunity to trip with Ejike. Slowly the two had built a relationship both parents knew no one could come between – like theirs’ before them both were sired. Being of almost the same age – Ejike was two moons Chuma’s elder – they did all they had to do together. Once each was through his household chores, they would fashion a pastime to spend the rest of the day doing.
In no time armed with the knives with which to harvest the ferns, they set sail for the river on foot. Aware of the distance, they moved at the pace necessary for an early arrival so as to meet their expectations. Ejike knew that all a bounteous harvest of the ferns would justify the duplication of duty he was undertaking.
In fact, he had only been able to use the subterfuge because his parents were not around to hear the excuse. All the more so because of the suppressed suspicion that his friend must be up to something else that could turn out interesting. Like the rainy day he lured him out for another reason and they had veered into stealing local pears...
**** **** ****
They arrived their venue of first choice to meet its waters as still as a lake’s. It was too late in the day to meet the normally little crowd that only ventured that far for recreation’s sake. Most stopped at the source of the stream further up where its waters are collected pure and untainted from the rocks for drinking. A look at the crystal clear waters of the smooth-flowing river exposed silvery fishes celebrating the absence of humans.
“Exactly what I bargained for,” an excited Chuma said. “This is the best time to go for fish here?”
“Fish, with our bare hands? ” Ejike interdicted his fears about his friend’s real intention justified at last. “I thought we were here to swim?”
“Not in your life, when I actually came with a hook.”
“What can we do with just a hook Mr Fisherman?”
“All we have to do is fashion fishing lines and try our lucks.”
In no time the friends forgot all their other cares as they got busy. All they had left to do was to improvise lines, signals and sinkers, materials for which abounded in the bog about.
“We need a strong enough wood for the pole,” Chuma suggested.
“Like from which tree?” Ejike queried.
“Do I know? Perhaps the oil bean will do, it has the strongest stem of all.”
“Who told you that? Are we fishing for whales?”Besides we need a stick with enough elasticity.”
“What other stem can do then?”
“It has always been the bamboo.”
“These ones,” Chuma said pointing at the clusters of the species that lined the route to the stream in quantum, “that are all over the place?”
They resumed the preparations in earnest. Because they had not come out in time enough, the sun was already setting on them, casting their long disfigured shadows on the shrubs as they labored with the best of efforts. Just like Chuma had bargained as he hatched the plot.
“How come you remembered to bring a hook?” Ejike asked.
“Why not,” Chuma reassured. “Otherwise we would be laboring at nothing. It is the head that drags the ear along.”
“I was just asking,” Ejike cajoled, “lest we end up like the farmer that went to the farm without his hoe.”
“Then he would have gone to do something else other than farm.”
“Like what and what?”
“Perhaps, to savor that unique pleasure of easing himself in the open; as farther from human habitation as possible. What can I say?”
“Unless that; like we would only have ended up only swimming, were we in his shoes.”
From then,minimizing their talk to the necessary, they got busy with their knives and hands and in no time had a fishing line ready for engagement. The rough signal – fashioned from the heart of a decaying raffia palm stem they had also rolled over to obtain earthworms to be used as baits – put a befitting cap on their efforts. Like it was, it appeared feathered enough for the task ahead.
“My god!” Ejike exclaimed, “it is almost sundown. We are like the proverbial bird that remembers to prepare herself a nest at the point parturition.”
“But that is the fun of it; the joy is often in the quest and not the acquisition.”
“Let the joy be wherever,” Ejike continued, “I just don’t want my mother beating me again for homing very late after all the warning she expended about it just yesterday.”
“Of course, she keeps warning me even when I come home earlier enough than we could probably end up making home today. You can imagine what will befall me -.”
“So, if I got you right, we then carry all these instruments we have fashioned home without strumming a tune?”
“We can always come back tomorrow.”
“You cannot be serious. We are not leaving here without making enough catch for the energy we expended at making these implements.”
“That’s the more reason we shall have to come back some other day; and on time.”
“Just so that your most dotting mother will not give you the beating of your life. Overgrown baby.”
As he said this Chuma was already headed for the river bank. Ejike followed his footsteps, knowing that he virtually had all the answers. Even following him, Ejike was baffled at the effrontery that he exhibited. As if the setting sun was the least of his cares, he kept walking along the riverbank till he got to where the river formed a kind of chicane to veer to the west.
“Where do you think we are headed,” Ejike asked as Chuma walked on still.
“O,” Chuma said looking back as if he did not know that he was behind him, “are you still there, thought you were home already.”
He subsequently sat on a steep crop of stone and cast the line into the waters of the river that appeared to form a puddle, away from the flowing body that sailed effortlessly on. The hook aided by the sinker went down leaving the signaler floating on the eddying pool. In no time the floating signaler appeared to be doing a jig on the water, and then as it was been drawn into the water by a force tugging from underneath, Chuma virtually hurled the line with its new appendage overhead.
The hapless captive wiggled where it fell till he extricated it from the hook. He put it in the bag he had also concealed from Ejike - like the hook - as they were en route. At ease like never before, he ten handed over the bag and its new content to a mesmerized Ejike for keepsake. Ejike who had not really had the experience before now was for once excited. He often heard of people going fishing but had never imagined it as sportive as this was turning out. There and then, he forgot everything about the setting sun as Chuma flung more of the sinister looking fish ashore for onward transmission into the bag which he strapped around his waist as directed by his more accomplished accomplice.
All this time Chuma had been throwing the line to the end of the pool, close to where the river turned west. Presently, he relocated to the opposite end, at an angle adjacent to the embouchure of the whirlpool the churning river made at the small estuary. His first cast had hardly hit the surface of the water than the signaler virtually disappeared underwater.
When it did surface after a bit, it hung still as if nothing happened. It caught Chuma unawares. He extricated the line and together they observed that whatever it was that was responsible for what had transpired had carefully gleaned the bait off the hook.
“What was that?” an excited Ejike could not but ask.
“It is only now that we have arrived.”
“It is only now that we have cast a lot.”
“It is getting dark the more,” said Ejike who with the relapse of his apprehension thought they already had enough catch to start heading back home.
“Just wait until I throw this last batch of baits that I have set out for employment on the hook.”
“That will mean getting home when it is already dark.”
“Even at that – we only have to weigh the risks involved. If we get home after dark, we shall be flogged, but if we retrieve baits without casting, the gods will be on us.”
“Us? But it is you that set it.”
“But we are already in it together.”
“But the fish here are too crafty; we may catch nothing after all the effort.”
“True they don’t jump at baits, but we have the added advantage that it is getting dark under there.”
“They won’t even sight it at all.”
“They will but not as well as at daytime.”
“But I hear they see better at night.”
“That’s not true. It’s bats that see better at night, and owls. Not fish.”
“That must be why bats hang upside down, do you doubt that too?”
“Why are you concerned about bats, we are dealing with fish here.”
“But there are all kinds of fish – horse fish, dog fish and cow fish. Perhaps there are also bat fish.”
“I will prove you wrong in no time. Fish is fish, there is no telling one from the other in terms of bait. Though some are craftier than others but they are only fish.”
Just then Chuma pulled out yet another long-cast line, the signaler showing no atom of life ever since. The hook had nothing again. Again the fish had nibbled the bait away.
“How come?” an overtly alarmed Chuma asked as if to the air about.
“But I told you,” Ejike enthused. “Perhaps what we have here are bat fish.”
“Let’s try just this last one then.”
“It is almost dark, Chuma. We have to be going.”
“Just because you scarred of a beating? After all, it is well known that your parents only scold you.”
“Who told you that, it is not true.”
“Something the entire town knows... anyway what do you know? All we have to do is knot stems of spear grass together and the reprimand is forgotten. Your mother even welcomes you with glee like never before subsequently.”
“Don’t tell me what I know. We did that the last time I went with your brothers and ended up beaten still. Besides, there is not a blade of spear grass on our way home.”
“Must we return by the way we came? We will take the detour by the road to the shrine, where young grasscutters used to litter of old. There are a lot of them on that route.”
“That means getting home after dusk.”
“And our parents being the happier.”
“That we returned that late?”
“That you are growing up well.”
“I miss the logic.”
“Are we not almost men? Soon it will be our turn to be initiated into manhood; and once men, we shall start doing manly things. And you are still afraid of your mother?”
“Who said I’m afraid of her?”
“Then one last bait.”
This time Chuma took the time in preparing the bait. After slipping the last pieced earthworm over the hook, he trimmed the extended part to tapper to the end of the hook, giving no room for even the most artful nibbler to have a go. Ejike watched him with an overt-rapt attention as he inspected the handiwork for the last time and tossed the line into where he thought the river was deepest.
Their eyes followed the line’s trajectory as the worm-covered hook aided by the sinker went under swiftly. To their mild surprise the signaler floated just for a split second before dipping vehemently underwater as if to the pull of a force greater than one that could have come from the pull of a mere fish. Taken rather unawares Chuma quickly readjusted his sitting position to haul the catch ashore. But though he tried with all the force he could muster, whatever was at the end of the line kept dragging him into the water instead.
“Ejike!” he called out. His companion had veered to the other end of the river where they would have swam had it not being for their present diversion. “Please come along. This is more than I can handle. Perhaps we should have made the rod with an oil-bean like you had suggested.”
Spurred by the urgency of the call, Ejike made haste to where his friend was engaged in a tug of war with whatever was at the end of the line. He noticed that in the effort he had already clambered down from the jutting of rock he had sat on erstwhile.
“Ejike come quick. Hold the rope and don’t let it slip. Let’s drag this to where we can see it.” From tales he had heard that there used to be crocodiles in the river aplenty till another travesty against the gods of the river has seen them retreat farther upstream to where no one would perturb them any longer. Deep down, he feared one of them had not veered downstream.
As Ejike joined him, together they held unto the line, dragging with all the strength they could summon from their inchoate muscles. Though they made some progress, because their opponent was yet in the water, it still offered some spirited resistance to their intention. Just as it was elapsing into a stalemate, Chuma saw their mistake; they were not pulling in unison. He quickly left the line for the now panting Ejike, walked to his rear and held him by the waist. In no time the head of the slightly-bigger-for-their-strength catfish appeared aground. In no time, the entire fish was dragged out of the water, its fins opening and closing intermittently.
Dragging the now powerless hostage further ashore, Chuma tied the line to a root exposed by the erosion of the shore by the waters of the river. They then dragged it to a safer corner of the clearing and rested a while. Subsequently fashioning ropes from the twigs about, they progressed to bind it up in a bunch. Then they cut out a long, thick stick from which they hung it on their shoulders for the long journey home. Like forecast, they journeyed through the path that traversed the town through the shrine, passing where grasscutters used to feast when men were boys and paths traversed even under pregnant breadfruit trees.
They were yet early in the circumstances. Only it appeared the night was working harder now at the resolution of its age-old conflict with daytime. Shadows that had appeared too long as they arrived had now disappeared all together, the sun become a distant suggestion beneath the horizon. The friends drank this in as they labored home with the new weight that hung from their shoulders.
“To tell the truth,” Ejike who was walking behind said, breaking a long-drawn-out silence, “the last time I stayed out late with my visiting maternal cousins, my mother still gave me a thorough beating despite all the spear grasses we ended up tying up en route.”
“Who did you say you went with?”
“My mother’s elder brother’s son who came over to stay with us a while.”
“How many were you in number.”
“Just the two of us.”
“How many mothers were involved?”
“Just my mother. He did not come with his mother.”
“How many grasses did you knot up?”
“As many as we could, to make assurance double.”
“You see? That was wrong. All you needed do was just tie up one knot and your mother will not see the mouth with which to chide you, let alone the hand to lift up a stick to bit you with.”
“If that be the case then, how many knots of speargrass are we to tie up in the present dispensation?”
“Just two – you tie one for your mother and I tie one for my mother.”
“And there will be no scolding?”
“Not in this life. By the way what were you people out doing on the day?”
“We were hunting squirrels.”
“And how many did you end up catching?”
“None at all; we did not even see the tail of a fleeing young one.”
“Why did you have to go at all?”
“It is that cousin of mine. We were on another errand altogether when passing by a wooded area en route he suggested that we waded in as the place was a sure habitat of theirs.”
“And what did he say when you could not find any?”
“He said it was because it was not in their village; that our village may have a different atmosphere that did not encourage them to stay where he was sure they ought to have stayed in numbers; that he would take me to lesser woods in their place and I would see for myself anytime I came over to their side.”
“I hope he was also trashed.”
"Not at all. Because he was a visitor, I took all the censure on account of having been responsible for everything being son of the soil who knew the lefts and rights.”
“Why in the world did you go ahead to tie up knots when you did not succeed at what diverted you? Do you think the gods are that imprudent?”
“Why not? That should be the time to test their strength.”
“Anyway, today we have some fish in our kitty as well as this big one.”
“So are we to tie or not to tie?”
“Sure we must; otherwise we should have been home by now.”
In no time they got to the intersection by the shrine, where a right wheel would lead to the chief priest’s. They took the left turn that led to the shrine close to where it was said that in the days of old a swarm of grasscutters would have lined their way where they presently stood. From there they could see the field of spear grass through the dull light cast by the dying rays of the sun. It sprawled out before them to nowhere. Strangely, all that portion of land was bequeathed to the gods of the land that guarded them in times of danger.
Carefully downing their heavy luggage, either of them bent down to tie a complex knot with two different stems of the grass each. Afterwards, they took up their heavy load once more and proceeded home without the trepidation of late homers.