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Reflections

By amaka All Rights Reserved ©

Other

CHAPTER ONE

Captain Roger Erik Wakefield sat back pensively in his reclining chair, feet up on a side stool, smoking a fine Cuban cigar, as he listened to his childhood friend—W. R. Crocker. The animated administrator was sat next to him, sipping a glass of whisky as he nailed home some very salient points. In the background was a group of young men who were talking, laughing and smoking as they stood round a barbecue pit tending the sizzling steaks, ribs, fresh corn and sausages which were slowly grilling on the huge fire—these junior officers were essentially in charge of the meal. The older men lazed about on scattered lounges watching indulgently as their wives sat in small clusters gossiping about the new line of clothing by the Zara House of Collection, whilst they kept an eye on their noisy kids who were running around the lawn. Uniformed waiters mingled with the crowd, handing out iced drinks to thirsty guests, intermittently. On the opposite side, long picnic–tables were arranged in the shades of giant Iroko trees, to one side of the green lawn.

It was Saturday Morning. The group of workers from the Administrative Headquarters always got together on the weekends with their families to unwind and catch up on the latest gossip.

Wakefield held a glass of sherry in his left hand as he puffed hard on the bulging cigar, filling the air around him with billowing smoke. The cooking meat smelled absolutely divine—he couldn’t wait to tuck into its rich, juicy, succulent scrumptiousness.

His long–suffering wife—Sheila, sat across from the two men, as far away as she could possibly get without appearing politically incorrect. They were high–school sweethearts and had co–habited for nearly thirty years. Yet, she still couldn’t stomach his maddening smoking habit. She had been praying for decades for him to quit smoking, but alas, nothing seemed to sway him; not even a recent health scare.

The two men were expounding a subject which was rapidly becoming the topic of many-a-heated debate across the largely sleepy continent and it centred on the controversial issue of African nations gaining their independence from the British Crown.

“My good man, it will be a long time before there can be any hope of self–government or even effective nationalism in African Crown Territories, let alone in all of Africa.” Crocker was saying. “And do you know why?”

Wakefield shrugged indulgently, taking a short puff before returning his full attention to his companion. “There is really very little to build any homogeneity of feeling upon. You know—.” He continued, pausing occasionally to sip his whisky.

Wakefield listened, nodding his head intermittently in agreement.

“Invariably, if you walk along a straight line merely a hundred mile or so in length in Africa, you will traverse peoples and cultures which for all their similarities scarcely touch on a single point down at bottom.”

“Hmm.” Wakefield drawled reflectively, taking a longer puff. “True talk, old chap. It’s actually very frustrating to administer to the needs of a hodgepodge of persons who are gravely fratricidal in outlook.”

“Righty, o. When will the Munchi feel himself at one with the Yoruba, or the Hausa with the Igbo?”

“Very well said, Crocker.” Wakefield drawled, shaking his head grimly as he took a much longer puff.

“True. The southern protectorate—.”

Sheila bobbed her head as she silently ruminated on Crocker’s all–pervading, rhetorical question. His deduction was on point and she agreed with him whole–heartedly. The answer to his very crucial question was sure to have a momentous effect on the future of the leadership structure which was presently in place in their current service base—Nigeria. The nation was made up of a vast number of divergent and independent, mutually–incompatible ethnic civilizations and kingdoms which were lumped up by the British Crown at the turn of the century; even though their people hardly shared anything in common besides the pigmentation of their skin. To a large extent, these ethnic groups distrusted one another and essentially, didn’t always see eye to eye—inadvertently, differences in religious belief, past conquest efforts, and the politics of tribal affiliations effectually fuelled the sense of unease that was prevalent in the region. In a desperate bid to develop a united front out of the conglomeration of diverse persons who occupied the land, representatives from the two protectorates and the colony of Lagos came together to form the Nigerian Youth Movement. But in spite of the group’s inordinate attempt to speak with one cohesive voice, the problem of mistrust perennially dogged the association—the persistent internecine malady which had eaten deep into the fabric of Lord Lugard’s unification effort, proved to be near–impossible to arrest. It had always been the case of a fish and a bird falling in love but being unable to build a home together. From what she could gather from the heated arguments which had been going on for weeks, it was becoming increasingly uncertain if Nigeria would ever experience homogeneity to a point where the various ethnicities would come together to effect self–rule. Only time would tell.

It is illiberal to assume that impoverished persons acquiesce to the grim control of paucity over their warped destinies, without putting up fights. Such a Schadenfreude view would be highly disingenuous, lacking in candour, and a complete injustice to persons who inadvertently find themselves natanting against the turbulent tide of exiguousness, whilst shackled to its ardent, tenacious clasp. Many strive to stay atop the rapid, swirling undercurrents of privation by clinging to passing driftwoods, and unattainable mirages, but eventually lose their weak grips and plummet into its dank, sanguinary, and murky depths. Yet, relatively few ever receive any accolade for their relentless effort to stay on top of things.

Driven by a scorching ball of despondency spurred on by acute appetence, and a nagging concupiscence for self–preservation, which thwacked away determinedly somewhere within the deep recess of her troubled mind, an unkempt, dishevelled–looking, heavily–pregnant girl, with wild, dust–streaked hair, stood in front of a market stall, begging for a free meal. Barefoot, she was clad in a torn dress, carrying a worn sack bag and very little else.

Fumnanya glanced at her and caught a quick flash of desperation in her exhaustion–coated eyes. Reigning in her disgust, her arbitrating eyes roamed over the girl from head to foot, before she muttered in clipped tones. “Sorry, I don’t have any food for the likes of you.”

For a tiny, pulse–quickening, reptilian–swift second the girl attempted to respond with a sharp retort of her own but her voice had caught dry in her throat, rendering her momentarily aphonic. She nodded, and simply turned away, ending the needlessly condescending ordeal.

Opprobrium sheathed itself around her heaving, protuberant figure as she galumphed away awkwardly, trying not to notice the gut–wrenching, condemning stares her presence was eliciting from the judgmental, sanctimonious charlatans who had invaded the Nteje marketplace that afternoon. It was nothing but a sport of fun for them to strike so viciously at her with their venomous, fang–like tongues, and carelessly attack the fragile, torn fabric of her badly–shaken nerves.

“Why do these pubescent, teenage girls spread their legs out wide for neer-do-well rapscallions who can barely bathe their reeking armpits on their own?” Fumnanya muttered waspishly to the food seller next door, as they watched the girl accost yet another stall.

Munachimso shrugged.

“Imagine the cheek of it. She wants me to feed her for free. Me! Was I there when she was enjoying the fondling, caressing and pleasuring that led to the formation of that great big mound that is now standing in judgment before her? Eyin let her bear the consequence of that one act of hedonistic pleasure, alone. I have my own cross to bear.”

“Ha, ha. Fumnanya!” Munachimso scolded. “Eyin don’t be so harsh and disparaging.”

“And why ever not?”

“Well, because you don’t know her story.”

“True. And you know what; I don’t really care to.” She scoffed tartly. Having said her piece, she turned back to her cooking, stirring her Ogbono soup with a long, wooden spatula. “Hmm!” She purred delicately like a content little kitten—the consistency was just right.

The girl eventually waddled out of the market as no one seemed inclined to assist her. Pausing momentarily on the rickety, derelict footbridge that ran across the crater–like, water–filled ravine which meandered in the manner of a fluid, form–twisting funambulist, around the uneven, undulating perimeter of the rowdy, ancient market, she stared reflectively through the stagnant waters at the network of calamitous events that practically shaped her current predicament—strangely they didn’t even last a year, yet they had turned her organized, sheltered world inside out, leaving a lasting, up–heaving impression on her badly damaged psyche.

If only she had done things differently, perhaps she wouldn’t be caught up in this mess. She should have sought a second opinion before wading into the relationship like a headless chicken. Now she understood why Nnayin always drummed it into their young heads that wisdom was like a baobab tree—no one person could fit his or her arms around its entire width. But one of the court–girls in Obi Anyanwu Ezechima’s palace, she had been mesmerized by the larger-than-life sized Prince Onojobo—a trader from Idah in Igala–land who had regaled her with captivating tales about life in his father’s royal court.

She contemplated ending it there and then, in the ravine, but abruptly came to her senses when he kicked her hard; warningly. Unrepentant, she shrugged off the unpropitious, grey thought, tucking it secretly away in a little compartment of her subconsciousness, for future use.

The girl had in her underwear a few shillings which were hidden away. But she dared not touch them as they were meant to be used as payment for her delivery—she had been saving them for months.

She was slowly loosing strength; having gone on a compulsory and unsavoury cocktail of fasting and dieting since the previous afternoon. The blazing noon–day sun was shooting sharp, fiery, calculated darts on her clamy, over–heated skin and unconsciousness was waiting patiently to pull her into its blissful, welcoming embrace. But she couldn’t give in to the luxury of catalepsy. She still had a long walk ahead of her.

She walked a few more yards and lost all her strength. Shrugging off her misgiving, she sank unto a tree stump, which was sunning itself lazily, right next to the raffia gate bordering a huge, corn field. A glum look was plastered on her pale, tension–lined but determined face, as she let her head drop low onto her massive, straining chest.

This stretch of road always contained heavy traffic. Scores of hurrying, sweat–drenched commuters were lengthening their strides in desperate attempts to escape the painful, hurting rays emerging from the flaming, orange–coloured orb. But no one appeared to notice her. If they did, they certainly paid her no mind.

Tormented by exhaustion, hunger and thirst, she was now also beginning to feel the faint stirrings of contraction. Sucking in a deep, calming breath, she looked up into the suddenly grey–blue skies, and smelled a storm, approaching. Time to go! She slowly pushed herself back to her feet, with super human strength.

Mind strangely numb, she steeled her mind to pull it together as she pushed one foot ahead of the other like a clumsy hermit crab, praying she would make it to the safely of the clinic before her water broke.

Ugoorji suddenly felt a strange, visceral charge send walnut–sized goose bumps and freezing chills all over his body. Without any discernable reason his inimitably umbrageous spirit became inundated with a surging flood of unrest.

The suddenness with which the feeling burst forth into his consciousness made him to pause in mid–stride. He could sense some imminent, anathematized palaver close by. Not one to ignore anomalous or outlier experiences, he was very sensitive to the mood of his spirit and had learnt to trust his hunches, intuition and guts.

The girl skittered perilously under the weight of her bouncing belly as she walked. She couldn’t see the road in front of her because of the rivers of salty sweat and the blinding glare from the blazing sun, which was entering her eyes. She had been walking to the birthing clinic for hours, and was now practically operating on empty tank. Nearing a three–prong, dusty, dirt–road, she stumbled as her foot caught on a tangled web of exposed, protruding roots and tripped over.

“Oh! No!” She cried out in shock; reeling and crashing to the ground.

From an alleyway a short distance away, Ugoorji heard a muffled cry, and a heavy thud, followed by a low moan. “What was that?” He whispered. It sounded like someone in distress. The sound was just ahead of him.

Without giving it a second thought, he bolted across the path, narrowly avoiding running smack into Tatafo, his wayward, heavily–pregnant goat which was being chased home by his second son—Ekene.

He tossed his hoe and basket at the boy and asked him to take them home.

Half–demented with pain and exhaustion, the girl was now lying face down on the ground, her burning cheek resting on her outstretched, dust–streaked arm.

Ugoorji got a fright when he found her. Half–conscious and delirious, she was pale and unmoving—a sack bag was lying beside her.

Calm down! He advised his wildly palpitating heart. These were not clement times for a pregnant woman to be out on these roads, alone. She must be with someone. His anxious eyes quickly jogged around the spot—she was definitely alone. His sanguinity caved in, and a tsunami of panic came flooding in. What should he do? Where was she headed?

From the distance he suddenly heard effervescent drumming from Madueke’s retinue of drummers and a sudden thought popped into his head—she must be on her way to Madueke’s maternity clinic! That was it. It was just up the road. Poor thing!

It was no use asking anyone for help—he could manage the short distance.

He bent over and with a physical strength born of necessity, gently lifted her slight frame up into his arms—bar the enormous mound, she was emaciated and he could feel her bony ribs.

When she felt herself being lifted off the ground, she briefly opened her eyes. Tears of pain glistened in them. She smiled weakly through them, in gratitude, before slipping back into unconsciousness.

Ugoorji was stomped. She had a beguiling smile and the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.

When they arrived at the clinic, he walked up to the front desk. The woman at the crowded reception directed him to the next room, which was filled with maternity staff.

Treating her case as an emergency, bustling mid–wives tried to stabilize her—she was weak, unresponsive and struggling to breathe.

Frowning, Ugoorji walked over to a bench, and sat down.

As he waited, he glanced around the busy room which was crowded with folks waiting to be attended to—it was so noisy, it felt like a rowdy, indoor market. He mentally shut out the noise, focusing instead on the frail–looking girl. Who was she? And why was she all alone in her condition?

The door beside the reception opened—a rotund, buxom–looking Matron poked her huge head around it, and entered carrying a carved, wooden box.

Ugoorji looked up absently.

“Who came with the young girl in a blue dress?”

“I did.” He replied, jumping to his feet.

“Can I have a word?”

When he heard the acerbic note in her voice, Ugoorji took a quick look around, and then quickly went over to her.

“Is there any place less public than here where we can talk?” He asked with a glance at an elderly gentleman, who was clearly trying very hard to appear as though he wasn’t keenly listening in on their conversation.

“Let’s use my room. We can talk better, there.” She replied unsmilingly, herding him unceremoniously up into the privacy of her box–sized office.

“How long has she been in this condition?” She began without any preamble.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know!” She gawked in shocked disbelief. “But what caused her to get like this, in the first place?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“You don’t know!” She scoffed, eyeing him suspiciously from head to toe. “You don’t seem to know very much, do you? Anyway, she is in very poor shape. Is she your wife?” She asked, eyeing him guardedly, a deep, heavy frown forming across her thick brows.

She heard his breath catch in his throat, before he shook his head. “No. I found her on my way home from my farm. She had passed out near that junction where three foot–paths meet, under the great Ube tree.”

“Oh! I see.” His anxious response instantly ironed out the furrowed crease between her brows, like magic.

Every ill–fated ancestral story is traceable to an inexorable, dramatic event which is performed out of the blues, before an unrehearsed audience; leaving a long–lasting disastrous effect on a community’s primordial, foundational crux.

Akubata’s story revolved around determination in the midst of tribulation, and conviction, the faith of a mustard seed and the power of faith to change, transform and restore, and it started off as a most peculiar intrigue.

A group of lanky, pimple–faced boys, watched with baited breath as their age–grade leader set a ring of fire to the bush area on the outskirt of the village, marking the official start of the hunt.

It was a warm, sunny day, full of promise that a new farming season would soon take off. The sun was in their faces and rivulets of sweat poured freely down their smooth, glistening skins, mingling with fine layers of caking, airborne dust which clung desperately to their bare torsos. It was dry season—a period usually marked by scarcity of game. At the close of the annual harvest, Obi Iweobiegbulam—the paramount head of Umujiaga charged the boys in Obierika’s age grade to organize an impromptu hunt.

The atmosphere was charged—there was heightened excitement in the air.

Isichei, the songbird raised a song as they stood outside the ring waiting for the fire to begin to burn toward the centre. In a little while, the heat would force little animals like rabbits, rodents, grasscutters, and small antelopes out into the clearing. The boys had chosen the stretch of land bordering Umujiaga and Ezeoba for the hunt as it was a favourite breeding place for wild game.

As dozens of cutlasses waited to claim their unsuspecting preys, the aroma of frying garri began to waft to their sensitive nostrils from Ichie Zinachukwudi’s nearby farm. The prime minister’s daughters always made palm oil laced garri from the leftover cassava produce which he apportioned to them at the end of each farming season.

Suddenly, as the flames picked up, scores of black kites began to gather in the blue skies. The boys watched the milling birds which were looming menacingly in the blue skies, forlornly—their appearance was not a good sign. They began to throw stones at the undeterred birds of prey as they swooped down and started to grab burning twigs from the ground. The desperate boys increased the attack as they began to drop the twigs all over the forest floor in obvious attempts to flush large insects from the surrounding undergrowth.

The boys kept up the pressure. Frustrated, the kites reluctantly abandoned their macabre enterprise and began to fly off, southwards, in their droves, Ieaving in undignified shame. But in the wake of their forced departure, they left behind a raging fire; fuelled by heaps of dry leaves and grass which were scattered all over the congested forest floor.

The boys bravely fought the flames but in the blink of an eye, the fire started to race eastwards, towards Ichie Zinachukwudi’s cassava farm as though propelled by the diabolical manipulation of an invisible puppet master. Before they could gather their scattered wits about them, it had overpowered them and begun to burn the dry, russet–coloured grass with great relish and wild gusto—it was very dry that year and the parched vegetation provided ample fuel for the licking flames. Quick–thinking passers–by promptly joined in. By divine intervention, they were able to quench its raging thirst before it could do irreparable damage to the farm—it did however do substantial damage to the western border of the field.

The sober boys were surveying the extent of the damage and pondering how to break the news of the unfortunate incident to Ichie Zinachukwudi when his last son came storming through the smouldering embers; he was followed by two sweating farm workers who were trying to restrain him.

Adigwe, a foul–mouthed, offensive, wise–cracking clout prone to temper tantrums, was livid as evidenced by the thunderous expression his dark, frowning face was wearing.

Obierika, who was at the tail–end of the crowd gingerly picked his way as casually as he possible could towards the stony–faced boy. When he reached his side, he gestured to the teenager who belonged to the age–grade, a step lower than theirs, to step aside so they could talk.

But Adigwe would not respond. He just stood on the spot eyeing him intensely for a few long minutes. There had never been any love lost between the two boys. A shade of annoyance crossed over Obierika’s face. Snubbing Adigwe, he turned to Isichei, and began to instruct him to count the boys to ensure that they were all accounted for.

He started when someone grabbed his left arm fiercely, from behind.

“How dare you turn your back on me?” Adigwe snarled.

Obierika turned. “Listen, Adigwe, you need not get physical or aggressive with me. I understand your grouse but what happened was purely an accident. No one envisaged it and we certainly couldn’t avert it. The boys here are my witnesses.”

“They are not credible witnesses.” Adigwe barked, jutting out his jaw and glaring at Obierika. “This here is clearly a case of arson. You deliberately started the fire because my father warned you to keep away from my sister, Ofunonyeadi.”

“What! That’s a blatant lie. Take it back.” Obierika flared in outraged tones, balling up his fists.

“I will not. You know that I am saying the truth. One does not need a mirror to see what he is wearing on his wrist. You are a complete phony—your guilt is written all over you.”

“How dare you? My goodness! How can you be so crass and uncouth?”

“I dare because it’s true, and you know it.” The younger boy challenged.

“Adigwe, calm down.” One of the farm hands stepped in sleekly, in an attempt to diffuse the mounting tension. “This is getting us nowhere. Forget about his motif—that doesn’t really matter. Let us go back and examine the full extent of the damage to the farm so we can report the situation to your father accordingly.”

“Cheluchi, I will not calm down.” Adigwe thundered, his eyes glinting with rage at Obierika. Nothing would make him back down for this hated spawn of Satan who had the audacity to pursue his only sister.

“You had better listen to him.” Obierika advised.

”Mind your bloody business. He wasn’t speaking to you.”

Miffed, Obierika snapped. “Go to hell.”

“You go to hell.” Adigwe yelled right back, staring Obierika down.

“Boys, this is getting us nowhere.” Cried the second farm hand—Nnamdi.

“You know, Adigwe.” Isichei chipped in, in quiet notes. “You are totally wrong. What happened was really an accident. I swear it by the gods. We all witnessed it.”

The other boys around him nodded their agreement.

Adigwe turned to them with a nasty sneer on his face. “Of course. What is to be expected of his lap dogs? You all owe your allegiance to your leader and will say anything to defend him. If the incident was not premeditated, why did he choose this particular spot? Why didn’t he choose a location close to his father’s farm? Why here? Anyway, just know that we won’t be taking this lying down. You’ll definitely pay for this, Obierika. This, I promise you.”

Obierika turned away dismissively. “My friend, go to hell. Do whatever you want. I owe you no explanation.”

“Mark my words, Obierika. You won’t escape so easily this time around.”

“Adigwe, please.” Isichei cried out.

“You know what? I’ve had enough of this buffoon. Eyin, leave him alone. He’s just an empty vessel. He can’t do squat. He’s always been nothing but warm air. Come on guys. We need to return to Obi Iweobiegbulam to update him.”

“What! You arrogant dog.” Adigwe swore. Balling his fists up, he ran after the departing Obierika, hitting him hard between his shoulder blades.

Obierika staggered slightly. The other boy was three years younger but pretty sturdy and he hadn’t expected his punch to carry so much weight behind it. He swung around, furiously.

Adigwe stood his ground, fists clenched, face rigid with fury and outrage.

“You little jerk. How dare you.”

A desultory fight ensued. The scrap quickly turned nasty and the farm hands tried to separate the snarling pair who was exchanging stolid fisticuffs, scratching and throwing each other to the ground. After much exertion, they eventually managed to pull Adigwe away before the other boys could jump into the fray.

Swearing, Adigwe left in a blind rage, threatening hellfire and brimstones as he was dragged away.

The meeting with Obi Iweobiegbulam took far longer than Obierika had envisaged. By the time he got to his father’s compound, he was confronted by a churning sea of fuming faces from Ezeoba, which was spread out all over the yard like pollen from the feather–weight Uziza plant. He could hear their buzz–like resonance from afar; even before he approached the gate.

He noted a few recognizable faces as he paused on the outer periphery of the entrance—Adigwe was at the front of the crowd. Boos and derisive taunts immediately welcomed his appearance. He hesitated, growing pale with apprehension, but managed to walk in through the gate on slightly shaking legs, looking hesitant, but at the same time, stoic.


The noon–day sun was just stirring from her well–deserved slumber. His mother stood under the shades of the great Ube tree in the middle of the compound. His grim–faced older brother stood to her right. His heavily pregnant wife stood on his other side; her face wet with tears. She had worry lines spread across her plump, comely face. He could tell by the lines of Odogwu’s tightly clenched mouth that he was desperately trying to hold back his legendary rage. Obierika eyed him worriedly. He prayed that he would keep it together. He dreaded his brother’s temper. Odogwu was supposed to have gone through the Ogbu initiation—a rite which was specifically carried out on headstrong young men to prevent their hot blood from pushing them into taking human lives in uncontrollable fits of rage. However, Nne hadn’t seen the need for it, despite Nnayin’s dogged persistence. “He’ll grow out of it.” She insisted.

Amadike wasn’t so sure. “You are wrong, my dear. Mark my words. This boy’s temper will cause him to kill a man, one day.” This summation eventually became his near–daily mantra. Odogwu hated to hear the gloomy prediction, but it was never far from their father’s lips.

Ezeoba’s spokesman—Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu, began to hush the protesting crowd when he caught sight of Obierika. At first the hooting continued. Then the lot grew silent; but sullen. Tempers were clearly seething beneath the terse surface.

Onwuatuegwu turned to Obierika with a grim, unsmiling face. “Young man.” He began. “Our son—Adigwe, has complained that you deliberately set fire to his father’s cassava farm at the Umunze layout because of a personal altercation between your two families. I am actually here as an emissary of the prime minister on a fact–finding charge. Would you care to explain what happened to Ichie Zinachukwudi’s farm?”

Looking out over the accusing faces, the visibly shaken Obierika tried to calm his knotted nerves but failed abysmally. So he looked away—glancing first at his trembling mother and then back to his frowning brother, as though willing him by telepathic means to keep holding his anger in check.

Eyes nervously glued to his dusty feet and nervy voice dripping with weighty regret, he slowly began to explain what happened. But deafening grunts of scorn and disbelief followed his every word—the boos got especially louder when he got to the part about the kites.

“Incredible.”

“I know it is natural for you all to be suspicious, but please don’t try and don a guilt–mask over my face. I am innocent. The kites truly did start the fire. I have witnesses.”

The statement was followed by yet more contemptuous and disbelieving jeers. “Why won’t you believe me?” He cried desperately in frustration, finally realising that he was actually in a no–win situation. “It’s not the first time kites and vultures have been known to deliberately spread fires in the region. So why do you disbelieve me?”

“Marauding kites, indeed! You lie, Obierika. You lie. That is just a convenient, but lame excuse.” Adigwe threw in testily. “Why didn’t we come across any kites?”

“They were long gone before you and your cronies stormed the scene.” He gritted between tightly clenched teeth.

“Hmm. How convenient.”

“We don’t believe you.”

“You are just feeding us a pack of lies.”

“We demand justice.”

“An eye for an eye.”

Everyone was trying to speak at the same time. Soon, the whole place was agog with palpitable, frenzied madness.

Obierika watched the unruly crowd with worried eyes. His father, Amadike, was yet to return from the farm and his poor, distraught mother was trying to pacify the furious party. But it was pointless to appeal to the crazed lot as no one was ready to listen. So incensed were they, each wanted to draw first blood.

“Obierika, we are not ready to swallow your hogwash of an excuse. Therefore, we demand instant justice—an eye for an eye.” Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu arbitrated, echoing the verdict of the galling crowd. His people cheered following his statement. “To even the score, we will confiscate all the livestock that we find in this compound and the next.” He ruled.

Obierika blanched. No way! Not the livestock! Nnayin would be livid—he would have his head.

As Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu spoke, Odogwu’s face darkened and he slowly turned towards the red–capped chief. Fed up with all the noise and yelling, the tired young man who had entered the compound right in the middle of the mayhem, from an overnight hunting expedition, was forced to confront the two–faced charlatan. For a long time he had been feeling a red ball of anger slowly building up within the core of his mumbling, hunger–ravaged gut and had frantically kept it tightly bound. But as he watched Onwuatuegwu, it suddenly escaped its tight confines—this time, there was no holding it back.

Sensing his intent, his mother nudged him in the ribs to keep him quiet but he gently shrugged her pleading arm off. Enough was enough.

“People of Ezeoba.” He began. The crowd slowly shifted its eye to him. ’This is clearly a futile and pointless exercise which is leading us nowhere. I advise that you all leave and return when the head of this household is back from the farm.”

The incensed crowd instantly began to rain abuses on him for having the effrontery to address them in such a rude, dismissive manner.

Unfazed, he stood his grounds. Cocking his head to one side, he glared at them, his gaze unwavering. “But what would you have me say? We are not making any headway here. You have blatantly refused to accept my brother’s account of the ill-fated incident and you won’t listen to my mother’s pleas. It’s best you all leave and come back when Nnayin has returned from the farm.”

Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu rounded on him, in fury and spat. “Young man, how dare you speak to us in that tone of voice? Hmm, you are foolishly steering the embers of a dying fire with your careless tongue.” He laughed sardonically, shaking his head mirthlessly. “Do not open the mouth of a snake to see what lies beneath—you will not be happy with the sight of its lengthy fangs. Be very careful what you say to us, else you will be forced to swallow more than you can chew. Remember that you can hang an item from where you are seated but when you want to get it down; you will have to stand up. It is easier to start a war than it is to stop it. So show some respect. Watch how you speak to us.”

Odogwu was put off for an infinitesimal minute. “I am sorry. It is not my intention to be rude, Ogbueshi. But we are not making any progress here. So I really must insist that you all leave and come back later. We obviously can’t resolve anything in my father’s absence.”

“How dare you?” The older man paused long enough to draw an exasperated breath. “Your brother and his unruly gang almost burnt down my cousin’s farm and you have the effrontery to ask us to leave your father’s compound. Don’t you have any home training? Don’t you have any manners? Didn’t your mother here teach you to be silent when your elders or betters are––?”

Odogwu’s neck muscles stiffened immediately and he took a stride forward. “Bia, look here Onwuatuegwu, or whatever it is that they call you.” He rounded on the startled chieftain who was staring at him with a gaping mouth; his fired–up, coffee–coloured eyes sparkling with unveiled resentment. “I have just about had enough of your baloney. How dare you come here and insult us in our own home? Respect yourself, o. You can insult me all you like but please do not drag my mother into this. Please, respect yourself.” He warned, his voice quivering under the weight of his mounting fury. “In fact, I am not going to repeat myself again. Just get out—all of you. I am sick and tired of this charade. You lot are abusing my mother’s gentility and patience. I have just about had enough of it. Please leave and let none of you dare remove any livestock from this compound or the next.”

“What did you just say?” The older man asked indignantly. “Hmm. When the bush is on fire, the antelope ceases to fear the hunter’s bullet. Young man be very careful of what comes out of that rotten hole you call a mouth. Remember that wind is never caught by hand. You can never recall your words once they are out. So guard your gobblers, attentively.”

“Else?” He mocked sardonically. “My friend, I asked you lot to get out.” He repeated, enunciating each word very slowly. “So, get out. What are you waiting for?”

“Hmm.” Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu laughed dourly, shaking his head in cynical amusement. “You are very bold, young man. I must give it to you. Albeit, foolishly so. But bold nonetheless. You obviously have not yet learnt the virtue of acting in a circumspect manner. You have refused to show me any respect as your elder. However, you cannot refuse to show the wound or consequence of your action if you continue to allow your wayward lips ride roughshod over us.”

“No. Permit me to correct you, sir. But it is you who has failed to realize that peaceful conflict resolution is way better than fighting. As such any wounds to be left behind are those which have been carelessly inflicted by you.” Odogwu responded acerbically. “Ogbueshi, if you did have good intentions, you would have waited for the owner of the house to return from his farm before coming to table out your grievances or better still, taken your complaint to his farm. Instead you all chose to gather in droves in his compound, clucking all over the place like bloated, egotistical cocks, around a hapless female and her kids.”

“What did you just call us?” Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu stuttered in a stunned voice.

“Bloated cocks. And I am not saying it with water in my mouth.”

The crowd pivoted towards him in shock.

“What!”

“How rude.”

“What is wrong with him?”

“Is this how he speaks to his father?”

“You dog–faced progeny of Satan, how dare you speak to my father in such a rude manner?” A fired–up, brash voice suddenly yelled, before its owner tore his wiry frame away from the stunned crowd. Odogwu recognised him instantly from a previous run–in with unruly youths from Ezeoba.

The pumped up crowd began to yell the young man’s name in frenzy. Encouraged, Nwokobia threw a punch at Odogwu but the adroit wrestler ducked and jumped away unscathed. He kept the blows coming. The angrier he got, the more punches he threw, but none of them met their mark—they had the crowd in a frenzy now.

As they sparred, Odogwu’s right arm snaked out and hit his jaw—a startled tooth came flying out of the confines of his mouth. The crowd’s roar climbed to a higher pitch. “You bastard—.” He cried furiously.

On hearing this, Odogwu raised his muscled arms and struck Nwokobia across the face. The blow threw the boy off balance and he fell on his back. Vexed he jumped right back to his feet and deftly looked around for a useful missile. Something caught his attention. The crowd gasped as he bent over and nimbly picked up a fat piece of driftwood which was lying on the ground. Then throwing his full weight at Odogwu, he swung the club and hit him squarely on the side of his head. Odogwu lay flat within seconds. The crowd went wild. He tried to get up but felt dizzy when he did.

Nwokobia briefly paused to absorb the adulation of the frenzied crowd, before he swung a second time with the piece of wood. This time, Odogwu deftly reached into his hunting bag which was slung loosely across his broad shoulders and grabbed his hunting knife from its leather sheath. No one saw it coming—it all happened within a fraction of a split second. When the other boy brought his weapon down, he slashed his neck with it.

Nwokobia doubled over unto his knees; a crimson trickle flowing down his neck. Then he fell face–first into the dirt, still clutching the piece of wood and didn’t move.

Someone screamed. Odogwu looked up. It was Ujunwa. The knife fell out of his hand with a loud clatter. Trembling almost violently, he turned and stared at Nwokobia in stunned horror. The wound was bleeding profusely and blood was fast collecting on the spot.

At first, no one moved. Then Ogbueshi Onwuatuegwu’s frightened voice was heard in the background as he bellowed out orders, urgently—the hushed crowd immediately snapped to attention. “Quick. Grab him. We must save him. He is my only son. Please, take him to Eze–Nmo’s shrine. Hurry. He’ll know what to do.”

The younger boys immediately grabbed the half–conscious Nwokobia and carefully carried him out. After they left, the now–sober remnant began to trickle out of the compound without a word, ’til they left only heavy, glum silence behind.

As soon as the last man from Ezeoba left, Obierika’s mother ran forward. “You boys will be the death of me. Euuu, Odogwu, you finally did it. You finally killed a man. Your father warned me, but I wouldn’t listen. I must go and fetch him and tell him that his evil prediction of doom came through afterall. Euuuu. Chim, o. This is too much for me to handle.” She cried brokenly, hurrying inside the house. “Too much.”

Nwokobia’s blood was smeared everywhere. Obierika stood huddled in a corner, hot tears streaming down his cheeks as he stared at the spilled blood. He couldn’t believe that a young man was at the risk of dying because of him. If only he had handled the situation better, perhaps this tragedy could have been averted. Opposite him, Odogwu tried to keep his panic in check but his fingers were trembling badly. The thought of what he had done utterly terrified him. He had never killed a man before. He could only pray that the gods would be magnanimous enough to spare Nwokobia’s life. He threw a wild glance at his un–customarily silent wife. Ujunwa was clearly in delayed shock. He frowned grimly. In her condition, that could cause complications.

Ujunwa was chilled to the bones and she was shaking like a rain–drenched guinea fowl. Her bottom lip was trembling, and her eyes were swollen from hours of weeping. Odogwu absently noted that the front of her dress was wet as he pulled her close; his vacant stare fixed on the drying pool of blood, which stood in crimson judgement against him.

Within minutes their mother ran out of her hut clutching a dangling head tie. She was wrapping it round her head when her stray glance fell on Ujunwa’s dress. She quickly ran up to her pale–faced daughter-in-law; a worried expression etched on her sweating face. Wiping her wet, clamy hands on her horse–patterned abada wrapper, she pulled the trembling girl out of her husband’s loose embrace. “Bia, Ujunwa, your water has broken. Didn’t you notice?”

She shook her head, looking confused.

“Are you in pain?”

“No, Nne. I just feel a little dizzy, numb and cold.”

“Here, sit down, dear. You are not due for another three days. The shock of today’s event must have induced early labour. Obierika, run to Umujiaga as though you were being pursued by a ten–headed demon from hell, and fetch Nneochie. Be quick. Tell her to hurry—we have an emergency on our hands.” She instructed, setting all thoughts of fetching her husband, aside—this here was priority.

He sat up abruptly moments later, when the court clerk—Ajufor, rang his ancient bell signalling the end of the judicial process. ‘Thank goodness!’ He muttered underneath his breath; bending over to retrieve his errant fan which had fallen to the floor. When he glanced back into the crowded room, he noticed that it had suddenly gone silent and the men were all staring—what was it that was said about bad–smelling fart traveling far and fast? They must have already heard about Diaba’s escapade in Ahaba. He turned away, ashen–faced, and left the gathering of elders, clutching his ebony walking stick tightly to his side.

On his way out of the room, a man dressed in a flowing tunic made out of velvet came out of the shadows. Nze Akudinobi stepped aside and bowed to him. Dressed in full regalia; with a single, parrot plume stuck in his red cap, he cut a very impressive figure—he had the impressive and dignified look of success wrapped, effortlessly, about him.

With great effort Nze Akudinobi shook off the blinding daze that had beclouded him since the previous day, when his prized, stellar child returned home from Eze Anyanwu’s palace in utter disgrace. “Igweeeeeeeeee!” He greeted, reverently.

“Nze, what is this that I am hearing?” The monarch began after responding to his greeting. “Is it true?”

Nze Akudinobi shifted uncomfortably—bad news sure travelled far.

The Obi immediately noticed just how tense he was.

“Yes it is, your royal highness.”

“But this is impossible, Akudinobi. How could it have happened? I sent Diaba across the great river to serve my cousin and his wife, in recognition of your meritorious service in Nteje. How could she go there and display such wanton behaviour? This is very disappointing.”

Nze Akudinobi stayed mute.

“By the way, I thought she was supposed to be betrothed to Nbachu—Mrapor’s nephew. What happened to that union? By the gods—.”

Akudinobi kept his face averted and his troubled eyes fixed shame–faced, to the ground as he listened to the tirade—full of the loquacity of embarrassment. Eze Ngwube had every reason to be upset. Like him, he had not seen this coming, at all—none had envisaged it. In his wildest imagination, he would never have believed that Diaba, the esteemed child of his youth who announced his virility to the world, after many years of waiting on the gods for a child, would betray him in the cruellest way imaginable.

“Where is she, now?”

Nze Akudinobi shrugged miserably. “I do not know your royal highness. I threw her out of the house yesterday afternoon, in a fit of rage.”

“That can’t be true, Mazi Nwokedi. Are you sure we are talking about the same person? Surely you must be mistaken. I have known Diaba since she was a child. She is a very responsible young lady. She can’t be embroiled in such a dirty scandal.”

“Well!” He shrugged. “This is what my last wife—Osita, told me last night. Apparently, there was a huge row between Nze Akudinobi and his heavily pregnant daughter and he refused to allow her into his house.”

“But how did Osita find out? How reliable is her source?”

“His last wife—Ugonma, let the cat out of the bag. You know she is close friends with my wife.”

“Then the story must be true. Euuu! Alu! Abomination. Poor Akudinobi! No wonder he was shrouded in a dank cloak of abject misery through–out the meeting. He looked like—.”

Suddenly, the palace door–reopened and Nze Akudinobi appeared in the doorway.

His abrupt appearance caused the two gossiping men to deal their conversation a quick, premature death. They didn’t dare stare at him as he approached. Instead they shot quick, uneasy glances at each another, worried that he might have heard the last bit of their conversation.

He walked past them, looking neither to the left nor to the right. So caught up was he in his distressing thoughts he didn’t even notice their presence. Shaking his head despairingly, he sighed heavily as he walked out of the imposing metal gate. Things were not looking too good for him right now—a powerful, highly ambitious, and well–respected titled chief, the Obi had not only awarded him the Nze title out of recognition of his committed service to the community, but he had also sent his first daughter—Diaba, to his cousin, Obi Anyanwu, to serve his household in the highly coveted capacity of palace girl.

His desire was for the Obi to honour him with the Özöndi-ichie or Nnekwu Özö title, within the next four years; making him one of the most powerful men in the entire region. The only cloud in the horizon of this highly exalted political ambition was Diaba and her unclaimed pregnancy. He could see his entire political career dying an untimely death if he did not handle the dastardly affair, delicately—he was astute enough to realize that if he wanted to continue to enjoy the trappings and power that came with his office, he would have to turn his back on his daughter and her unborn child, for life. Their crime was beyond pardon—Diaba, for daring to be impregnated by a man she was not married to, and the baby, for choosing to make an entrance into the world, through her accursed womb.

Great men do not make unannounced entrances—a modest appearance is a rarity; an unpardonable oddity and the chances of its occurrence almost next to zilch.

Ebelechukwu was outside the Obi with her co–wives: Onyemunwa and Jingi. The women were sharing a tray of garden eggs, and Ose-Oji paste as they gossiped about their neighbour. Ujunwa was lying on a mat under their watchful eyes. She had been in labour since the previous evening–the baby which had at first given them a scare now seemed not to be in a hurry to emerge. Amadike had journeyed to Ezeoba to see Nwokobia’s father, Obierika was at the back of the house tending the goats and Odogwu had gone to fetch Uziza leaves from the bush, at the midwife’s request.

“Yet again, she was unavoidably absent after boasting for months, that her husband had bought her six new wrappers for this year’s August meeting.” Jingi laughed. “Who is she fooling? Besides, who is she competing with anyway?”

“I wonder, o.” Onyemunwa laughed.

Ebelechukwu didn’t say much. Her mind was far away in Ezeoba with the injured young man—she prayed he would survive the unfortunate stabbing. As soon as Amadike returned from the farm the previous night, she pulled him aside and informed him of the ill–fated tragedy that had taken place earlier. He was upset that no one had thought to alert him on the farm, before things took a nose–dive. Nonetheless, shoving anger aside he immediately summoned an emergency meeting of his Umunna. Concerned about the implication of the dicey situation for the hamlet, the elders turned up en–masse. They spent over two hours discussing the best way forward. At the end of their deliberation, they nominated five elders to accompany Amadike to Ezeoba. It was already too late in the day for anything to be done. So they agreed that the emissaries would leave at dawn for Onwuatuegwu’s residence; with a few young men in tow, to proffer security, in case the youths of Ezeoba tried to stir trouble.

“Ndidi will never change.” Jingi was saying. “But did you hear that she was arrested for beating up her husband?” She asked.

“No.” Onyemunwa answered, shaking her head, in wonder. “When did this happen?” She asked curiously, reaching for a garden egg.

“Apparently, it happened a few weeks ago. I heard it from her so–called, best friend, Mama Osa, who claimed to have been there when it happened.”

“Hmm, that Amazon, she never learns.” Onyemunwa laughed. “I hope she doesn’t rot in there.”

“Oh, she was released three days after the altercation, but her husband refused to take her back.”

“You don’t say! So, she is no longer with him?”

“No. She left with her kids. But no one has seen them since he kicked them out.”

“Euuu, poor kids!”

“Poor kids? My dear, don’t waste a single tear or drop of sympathy on those horrid girls. They are equally as bad and irrepressible as their mother. Do you know that they joined forces with her and pummelled their poor father ’til he was almost like fish pulp?”

“Hmm? Never!” Ebelechukwu quipped, in a shocked voice.

“Oh, oh!”

“I can only pray that she learnt her lesson, this time.” Ebelechukwu chuckled. She was reaching for a garden egg, when, for no apparent reason, the fine hairs on the back of her neck suddenly stood at akimbo. She froze, suddenly sensing that something strange was about to happen. Frowning, she turned towards her companions and found the both of them transfixed, with bemused expressions on their faces, as though in a trance. She glanced towards Ujunwa—the exhausted girl was fast asleep.

What could be the matter? She quickly glanced around the compound–it was uncharacteristically silent. There was no wind, no breeze, no movement whatsoever; nothing to indicate imminent danger, yet, she could feel something odd, coming on. Even the few goats and chickens which could be seen from where they were sat, looked pensive, dull, and out of character.

Suddenly, a long shadow, closely chased by a thick band of creeping darkness, began to run towards them. “Oh, my goodness.” Ebelechukwu exclaimed, sitting up abruptly.

Her cry jolted Onyemunwa from her trance. “Ewo.” She screamed, dropping her half–eaten garden egg in panic.

Stirring, a less panicky Jingi sat up in apparent confusion as she looked at her companions. By now, their bemused faces were in long, deep shadows. “What is going on?”

“I don’t know.” Ebelechukwu responded in a somewhat calm, yet shivering voice. She had never experienced anything like this before.

Onyemunwa began to cry softly, in fear.

“Look!” Jingi cried pointing at the intense, inky darkness that had begun to swallow them.

They started as the petrified screams of faceless persons whose identities they were not able to decipher, began to emerge from the backdrop.

The screams awakened Ujunwa. Scared, she hurriedly waddled across to her mother-in-law. The four women clutched at their quivering bodies, watching in awe as the sky was illuminated by a diamond ring. Though scared, they were struck by the awesomeness of its stupendous beauty.

The totality only lasted a couple of minutes before bemused clouds started to creep across the sky, blocking the sun and casting eerie hued lights, across Umujiaga. People began to run out. Most were in complete awe; too shaken to speak coherently. As Ebelechukwu watched, the clouds suddenly lifted, leaving behind, clear, blue skies—she was shocked anew by the intensity of the prodigious experience.

The four women were still trying to put words to the strange but powerful spectacle when Ujunwa’s baby stirred, without any warning. She gasped aloud in pain as she felt a sharp contraction. The older women instantly forgot about the eclipse and hurriedly helped her across to her hut. Nneochie, who had thoughtfully agreed to stay ’til night-time, was on hand to attend to her.

Obierika immediately ran to the farm to advise Odogwu that his wife was finally in labour.

The labour was quick. The baby was out even before Odogwu arrived. As soon as he emerged, Nneochie used cow–dung to clear the umbilical cord before she placed it in a small, lidded calabash. It was later buried by Amadike near the entrance to the compound; right next to Odogwu’s.

As Amadike re–joined the revellers, Ebelechukwu pulled him aside. “How did things go, Nnayin?”

He sighed heavily. “My dear, things didn’t go as we anticipated. The people of Ezeoba refused to grant us audience.’

She frowned. ‘How do you mean, Nnayin?’

‘We were turned away at Onwuatuegwu’s gate. The family is understandably upset about the blasted tragedy. My dear, I wish somebody had had the foresight to fetch me from the farm before things turned really nasty. Anyway, there is no point crying over spilled milk. The deed has already been done. By the way, I have briefed Obi Iweobiegbulam on the outcome of our journey.’

“And what did he say?” She asked anxiously.

“Well.” He shrugged. “He said there wasn’t much that we could do at this point. I totally agree with him. We will just have to sit out the situation and pray.” He advised, as they re–joined the others.

There was joy in the air—the kind that came, especially with the birth of a son. Yet, the mood was slightly tainted by the lingering sense of unease which still hung heavily in the air.

“This is indeed the true son of his father.” Amadike teased when the hungry baby belted a loud, indignant scream. “His lungs sound just as powerful as his father’s rapacious hunger pangs” A ripple of nervous laughter broke out in the yard.

Smiling sadly, Ujunwa stared at the innocent little tot who had chosen to make a grand appearance during a sensitive and very dodgy period of their lives, as he suckled hungrily. What would become of them if Nwokobia died? She pondered for the umpteenth time.

Life eventually slipped back into its customary routine; albeit with dark clouds of cloying trepidation hanging desperately in the air. No one was at ease—as was to be expected, frayed nerves snapped on a frequent basis.

Agajunwa reclined against his favourite chair, watching the wizened, dour–faced, old mid–wife as she was shepherded into the sleeping chamber by his teenage daughter—Nwabunor. He was displaying none of the customary jovial cheerfulness which was normally associated with him. When he was distraught, he tended to be somewhat staid and trite but after he had had a gourd or two of fresh palm wine, his tongue loosened; garrulously emitting a steady flow of non–stop cacophonous sycophancy.

There was none of that tonight—he was sober and his heart was as heavy as stale, overnight Fufu.

His twelve year old bride had been in labour for three straight days and he was at his wit’s end. Her case was rather complicated—this was the third midwife to attend to her. The first midwife had disclosed that Anwulika’s pelvis was not mature enough to carry a full term pregnancy. The second had suggested that he take her to the nearest medical outpost as a matter of urgency as she was not trained to conduct C–sections or any obstetric procedures that would help save the lives of both mother and child. He had sought the third out of blind desperation.

Shaking his head despondently, he peered absently through the window—his randy cock, Ututuayanwu, was at it again—dutifully harassing all the attractive hens in his compound. For the first time the antics of the overzealous Casanova did nothing to amuse him. Was the baby coming yet? He pondered miserably. Anwulika had been pushing for so long. Would she survive her ordeal? Would her delicate pelvis withstand the trauma?

He was desperate. Should he send words to her parents? None of her relatives was aware of the situation—he was terrified of them learning the truth, so he had forbidden his wives and children from revealing the truth about her condition to anyone. But now, he was not so sure about the wisdom in taking such a drastic measure—it was just that he was still not on speaking terms with Ibekwe and didn’t know how to approach him.

He had totally alienated Anwulika’s family—out of selfish interest he had kept her away from them ever since the day that he brought her to his house.

His father-in-law used to be his closest friend ’til they fell out two years earlier. Ibekwe owed him a huge sum of money which he promised to repay after the year’s harvest, but three years down the line, the debt remained unpaid and he had no hope of redeeming his promise. So, Agajunwa asked for his ten year old daughter’s hand in marriage, in lieu of the cash. Heart–broken, the poor man complied but his friend’s unexpected behaviour completely ruined their friendship.

Sighing, Agajunwa made a hasty decision—he would keep mute—disclosure would only worsen the shaky, and badly–dented relationship between both families. He could only pray that Anwulika would pull through. Afterall, she was young and strong and had a fighting spirit.

As soon as she entered the darkened room, she noted a tiny, pale-faced, slip of a girl—she was mumbling incoherently and appeared to be fighting some private demons. Nneochie was instantly moved to tears. She was but a child, herself. She had no business making babies. “Are you alright, child?” She asked in a low, worried voice.

Observing her presence for the first time Anwulika looked up in surprise. She recoiled instantly. The woman was old—so old that her hair was completely white and looked like the pristine plumes on a baby dove’s fluffy behind. Hundreds of wrinkles ran down the length of her rough, canvass–like face like tiny adjourning streams, making it appear like an ancient scroll recently recovered from a long forgotten vault.

Swallowing her fear, she nodded to the affirmative—she had actually been praying earnestly for death to pay her a visit—well; it looked as if he had chosen to send his emissary instead.

Nneochie sat on the edge of the bed and mused on the avarice and wickedness of men. Why would a man well in his fifties pick a child for a bride? She didn’t understand it. It was downright ridiculous and barbaric. And why on earth did her parents agree to hand her over on a platter to such a cruel fate, in the first place?

She wiped the girl’s feverish brow and deftly checked her pulse—it was much stronger than she had expected it to be after three days of labour. Satisfied, she worked her nimble fingers expertly around the contour of her distended tummy, and immediately noticed that the baby was in an awkward position. Forcing a casual smile, she prompted. “What is your name, child?”

“Anwulika.” She sounded weak and out of breath—little wonder after her long-drawn-out ordeal.

“Anwuli, my name is Nneochie and I am here to help you. So, do not be afraid. Your husband sent for me. And I intend to help you. Just ease up—relax—loosen up. You are in safe hands–I have been doing this for decades. But I do need your full cooperation. Your baby is not sitting properly. I need to turn her around if you are to ever stand a chance of birthing her alive. The procedure will hurt a bit but I need to shift her position. Do you understand? More so, do you agree?”

“Yes.” Anwuli whispered weakly, wondering why the woman was referring to her child as a girl. “I agree. Just help me, Nne. I am in a lot of pain.”

Nneochie nodded before turning to the trembling, pale–faced Nwabunor who stood watching quietly in the background. “You will have to leave the room now, young lady. But I will be requiring pails of hot water, in due course. So do not venture far.”

Nwabunor nodded and ran out, gratefully.

When they were alone, Nneochie smiled reassuringly at Anwulika. “Ready?”

She nodded, nervously. “Yes, ma.”

“Good. Now, take a deep breath and let your body go. Just relax.”

She nodded.

Without warning, Nneochie made a quick scoop with her right hand, deftly cupped the baby’s protruding legs and slid them further up into Anwuli’s womb. Before Anwuli could react, she spun the foetus around; changing its stroppy breeched position. The entire process took less than two minutes. Anwuli gasped aloud as the baby slid into place. It felt as if her core had been ripped into two equal halves.

“Good girl. Well done. Now, that was the easy part. Your body is now ready to eject your baby. The next time you feel a spasm coming, I want you to push with all that you’ve got. I appreciate that you are weak and tired, but your baby’s life and yours too, depends entirely on you. Do you understand? This is a matter of life and death.”

Anwulika nodded, fresh sweat beginning to pour from her flushed brows as she felt the stirrings of a fierce contraction.

In the outer court, four women sat ensconced in Chibuzor’s kitchen speaking in hushed, excited whispers. As the most senior wife, her kitchen was the largest in the household. They often met in the comfort of the immaculate room when they wanted to discuss delicate matters that were not meant for their husband’s constantly hovering ears.

Agajunwa’s household was not necessarily the most peaceful in the neighbourhood. His wives were always competing for his affection. As a result, fights broke out intermittently between them. However, they were united in their common hatred for their husband’s last wife.

“Serves her right. I hope she dies—I can’t stand that horrid, egotistical, two–faced witch. I don’t know why Nnayin is so attached to her.”

“Miss goody-two-shoes––she thinks she is better than everyone else just because she attended the mission school at Nsugbe. Well, let us see her use her knowledge of the white–man’s language to get out of this. She is definitely a goner. No one can save her.”

“Little witch. I hate her so much. She has totally jinxed our husband. Ever since she came into this household, Nnayin has only had eyes for her. These days, he acts as if we don’t exist. Obim, this. Obim, that. That is his new refrain. Let us see how he will live without his doomed Obim.”

Chibuzor laughed sarcastically. “I don’t know why Nnayin is depleting his already stretched funds by employing the services of these rouge midwives who won’t tell him the truth—she is already set for the journey to the land of the dead—Ajijigwogwo said so. We are just waiting for her to break through the veil. It’s only a matter of hours.”

“Yes.” The others smirked in evil anticipation. “Or minutes.” They laughed in glee.

“Erm, my co-wives.” A tiny voice began from the corner of the room. “I know that Anwulika easily draws the worst out of you lot, but I don’t think it is right for you to be praying for her death. She doesn’t deserve to die. Afterall, it isn’t her fault that Nnayin favours her over us. If you ask me—.”

The others immediacy rounded on her, furiously.

“Well, no one has asked you.” Chibuzor gritted between tightly clenched teeth.

“Listen Loteobi, if you don’t have any tangible or sensible contribution to make towards this conversation, we suggest that you make yourself scarce, before you arouse our anger. Afterall, no one invited you here in the first place.” Ozioma warned.

Picking up her head gear, Loteobi beat a swift retreat. Her mates were very mean women—they did not make empty threats.

No matter how long the night tarries, dawn always breaks—that is irrefutable fact. And no matter how fiercely and desperately one’s subliminal latches on to a state of catalepsy, it can only delay, but not deny the body the right to awaken from inertia.

Diaba was tormented all night by thousands of accusing voices in her sleep. She struggled to blot out the voices by staying awake but their blasé owners insisted on prolonging the on–going dialectical conflict raging between her soul and her sense of guilt, and wouldn’t be silenced. So like a woman under the influence, she kept darting in and out of consciousness.

In the morning, when she finally regained consciousness, she found herself lying on a freshly made bed with a uniformed mid–wife drawing the window blinds. Raising a weak, slightly–shaking hand, she cried out in a low, hoarse voice. “Excuse me!”

Iwebi lowered the shades and hastened over to her. “Morning, dear. What is it?” She asked taking her hot, clamy, feverish hand in hers.

“Biko! Water! Please, I need a drink of water.” She moaned—her voice had drie8d up and sounded hollow.

Iwebi fetched some water in a small gourd cup, at once. “Here, have some. But drink slowly.” She advised.

“Thank you.” She croaked gratefully, after taking a few sips.

“You are welcome.”

Suddenly, she lifted her head and tried to look at her belly. “My baby!” She cried out.

“Your baby is just fine.” Iwebi quickly assured her. “Now that you are awake, I will fetch the Matron. She will be here soon to induce you. We were waiting for you to regain full consciousness.”

Her frown disappeared instantly. “Okay. Thank you, ma. But please, can you pour cold water on me. I am burning all over.”

Iwebi fetched a small basin filled with water from the cooling pot, dipped both hands in it, drew her wet hands from the water, and dropped splashes upon the girl’s hot, feverish skin, trailing them across her face, neck, collarbone, and upper–torso. “I hope that’s better, dear?”

Diaba nodded and gave her a weak, grateful smile.

The children sat under the fruiting pawpaw tree in the centre of the compound. It was already beginning to get dark yet there was still no sound of a baby’s cry from Anwulika’s room.

Six–year old Kanweli studied her glum–looking siblings for a few minutes before she asked in a low voice full of curiosity and disappointment. “Why is it taking so long? Aunty Anwulika has been in labour for three days. It shouldn’t really take that long, should it?”

“Ta! What do you know about babies?” Nwabunor teased, shushing her immediately.

The others giggled nervously.

After a while, their uncomfortable laughter fizzled out into terse silence.

“But should it?” She continued insistently.

Before Nwabunor could answer, Chidiebere asked in a low, grim whisper. “Sister Nwabunor, is it true what my mother says; that Aunty Anwulika will die?”

“Hush.” Nwabunor reprimanded, glancing quickly over her shoulders. “The gods forbid. Don’t speak about such morbid things. Ebere, you really must learn to stop eavesdropping on adult discussions. You will never hear anything good when you listen to conversations between our mothers.” She warned.

A glum silence followed the gentle chide.

Oyinyechukwu suddenly ran up to Nwabunor and tapped her on the shoulder. “Sister Nwabunor, I know what we can do. Why don’t we pray for her?” She suggested. “If we pray to the gods they might hear us and spare Aunty Anwulika’s life.” She explained in a small, hope–laden voice. “Ebere.” She began, turning to the skinny, stuck–up, little girl sitting next to Nwabunor. “I don’t care what your mother says. I like Aunty Anwulika—and I don’t want her to die. So, let us pray for her.”

Nwabunor turned to look at her ten–year old half–sister, a small smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She always knew how to put people in their place.

Comforted by the suggestion, the other children nodded dolefully. Then, one by one they came together, forming a large circle and holding hands; shoving aside their differences they shut their eyes as Nwabunor led them in an unplanned prayer of intercession.

Inside Anwulika’s room, sweat was pouring from the midwife’s brows. Her patient had suddenly gone stiff on her and lost all colour. She didn’t know what to do next. “Anwulika.” She cried, shaking the limp, lifeless body desperately. “You can’t die on me. You just can’t. Please, wake up. Why do you want to give up? Your baby needs you.”

But Anwulika lay as immobile as the still waters of the salty Umuagu stream.

For almost an hour, Nneochie tried unsuccessfully to revive her. In the end she was forced to admit that she had lost both mother and child. “Why did this have to happen?” She cried bitterly. “Now I have the unfortunate task of advising Agajunwa of this grave loss.” She stood for a long time, wondering how she would possibly convey the news of Anwulika’s tragic death to her husband and his lovely kids who had been waiting patiently under the pawpaw tree for hours, to be ushered into the room to congratulate the mother and her new–born child.

Despite her many years of experience, this particular task did not get any easier. “What do I say to them?” She mumbled, bending over dejectedly to cover Anwulika’s body with a piece of Akwa Ocha material that was lying at the foot of her bed. As the piece of cloth touched her tiny frame, it suddenly jerked back to life as though a bolt of lightning had passed right through it. Nneochie watched mesmerised as Anwulika stirred. First, her fingers began to move, and then her toes were moving, then her big, brown eyes opened and she looked at Nneochie in cloudy confusion. “What happened?” She croaked in a weak, confused whisper. “Did I die?”

Nneochie was so astounded, her frail, wobbly legs began to quiver and she slumped in a dead faint. When she came to, she was on the floor. Anwulika was staring at her immobile body in confusion. She sat up abruptly, staring at the incoherent girl. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing—how could this be? Anwuli’s heart had stopped breathing for well over half an hour.

She slowly pulled herself back up to her feet and deftly reached out to check the fate of her baby.

“May the gods hear our prayers?” Nwabunor mumbled reverently, rounding off the prayer.

“Ise!” Cried twelve anxious, solemn voices full of expectancy, in response.

“Now what?” Kanweli asked after they had all returned to their various seating positions.

“We wait.” Chidiebere snapped, shaking her head impatiently. “You are so thick. Don’t you know that the gods are not quick to respond to prayers?”

“That’s not true. My mother said—.” Her comment was suddenly cut–off by the loud, long–awaited, piercing cry of a baby.

The children cheered vociferously, jumping around in excitement.

Kanweli burst into a peal of laughter. “The little one is here. The little one is here.” She cried elatedly, running in the direction of Anwulika’s hut. “Come on, guys. Let’s go see Aunty Anwulika and her baby. I can’t wait.”

The others followed. “Wait for us.” They called out excitedly.

A few yards from the cheering siblings, four sets of astounded eyes swung around watching in undisguised disbelief as Nwabunor ran to the back of the house to fill the first pail of water. What could have gone wrong—Ajijigwogwo’s juju had never failed them before.

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