Now, it came to pass that Hometown was blessed with a permutation of neighbors from creation. To the North, South, East, West and in between, many towns bounded them without let. Usually petite and infinitesimal on account of Hometown’s unique history, they collectively and singly looked up to her with trepidation.
Until one of the town’s in an abject show of temerity upped the ante unilaterally. In a brazen show of madness, they town’s people made a move that, permitted to come to pass, would have made it look like they were the town to beat in the environs. The town in question neighbored Hometown to the South; thus, they lived next to her Southern Kingdom.
Like nature made it, the two towns – as they then were – were bound to each other by the natural boundary of a river. Now this was no run of the mill stream. It ran all the way from nowhere and was so swift flowing that it did not even pause to accept sacrifice or any other such niceties often offered rivers in reverence. This had a whole lot of offerings – some in wicker baskets, some wrapped in clothing and yet some left on its bare banks – littering wherever there was thoroughfare to its banks the whole boundary long.
Now the inhabitants of both towns were ordinarily good neighbors; cooperating in all the spheres of life that intertwined them in a formidable truss. In fact, there existed a kind of symbiosis between them that it offered no camouflage to disagreements. What the others did not like, their neighbors abhorred from tempting then with, dating back to their foremost fathers.
Like it was, the time of their early fathers brooked fewer points for disagreement. Indeed, ages were when none even dared ford the river into the other’s territory. In fact, each community on purpose lived as farther away from the other as possible, creating a no-man’s-land that was often the playground of head hunters. So much that none as much as dared make the trespass alone by day, let alone under the cover of darkness.
And so it became that an itinerant son of Hometown had wandered farther than necessary. Many, indeed, had counted him for dead till he sauntered into his father’s compound a changed man one sun-swept day ago. In that span, his hitherto gingerly carriage had lost some sharp curves to the incipient rotundity associated with middle age. Also, the dialect he now spoke with was unheard of in this quarter. To crown it all, his face now bore intricate cicatrices that had him resembling a dancing mask.
He had been accosted by the young men on morning guard in the northern borders of Southern Kingdom as the first rays of the sun made to change gear that early. The boundary to the north had no natural barrier and needed to be patrolled by young men chosen for their ebullience.
“Who goes there!” the treetop observer queried when the trajectory of his tailored steps meant that he was headed south.
Apparently, the returnee had been expecting this for some time now. So rather than fright, he took the question with a dose of satisfaction. To the guards’ surprise, he walked on to a clearing in the overgrown foliage. With undisguised mirth written across his visage, he sat down to break his fast. Evidently, he had walked all night to evade the notorious cannibals infesting the towns neighboring Hometown at that tangent.
Only the eldest of the guards, it turned out, recognized him as they approached following his invitation to partake in the queer assemblage of edibles he displayed on the ground where he sat.
“But you were supposed to be dead,” the fledgling field commander said as he made the connection between his disguised face and the name he said was his.
“Dead?” he intoned in an accent as foreign as the foods he was masticating with gusto. “Then you are dinning with a spirit.”
This was followed by a hollow laugh that was to become a trademark of his from then to when they returned him to his father’s compound; to where news of his return had preceded him on account of their frequent stoppages en route into town.
A small crowd of family members and well wishers were already waiting for him as he arrived with another retinue of unbelievers of the veracity of the rumor of his miraculous return.
He hit the ground with stories. There was barely time for his aging father to propitiate his personal and family gods whom and no other made his return possible. In fact, had he not arrived then, arrangements for his proper burial obsequies would have resumed in a matter of market weeks. This, according to native theology, was to save his spirit endless wandering in the seamless wilderness bordering the living and the dead.
But unknown to them, he had only been wandering in the land of the living. As the endless stories of his journeys revealed, he had gone to areas where no one living or dead in Hometown had ever ventured. In the litany he totaled before the household woke up one wan morning to behold him gone again, one stood out like a depth pole by the river bank.
It was about how every town worth its salt now had a communal wooden gong. Ordinarily, this revelation would have amounted to nothing. Like its two-a-penny fellow travelers out of his sweet tongue, many would have taken it for routine fables expected of a lone traveler to a distant town. The only snag to the tale was the careless addendum to the story that their southern neighbors had hired the itinerant carver of these modern-day wonders to do them the biggest of its type ever constructed.
Ever since the grim news spread to the four corners of the town, the titled men of the land now walked with corrugated foreheads. It was unheard of their neighbors – those eaters of toads – could take a step before them. It was unheard of and all the gods in the land will not spare any of them if it came to pass in their own lifetime.