“But you’re going the wrong way.” Eriri said, irritated.
Ónu looked at Eriri, confused. Ómalichanwa was scrubbing the cocoyam leaf like she did with her washing. When it was limp she tore it to pieces and buried it.
“You don’t know your compound?” Eriri asked him.
Ónu blinked. Ómalichanwa rubbed his forehead and blew on it. He shuddered and opened his eyes. He peered at her and exclaimed in recognition, “Nwó’bim, my daughter.” as he pulled her into a crushing embrace. When she finally untangled herself, she stalked off a few paces to the left where she plucked mgbendenji leaves and a poisonous mushroom and gave it to Ónu.
“Eat.” She commanded.
“The leaves will neutralise the poison.”
Ónu grimaced and tossed it to the ground.
She picked them up and looked into his eyes as she offered it to him again. “Eat.”
He took them from her and started chewing it quickly.
Eriri watched them, amused.
“The sun will soon be up. It will renew your strength.”
Ónu blinked and rubbed his cheek. “You should have said that before.” And took Eriri’s as he got up.
“Who is that?” someone cried in the distance.
Eriri covered Ónu’s mouth.
Ónu pulled Eriri’s hand off. “That is my wife!” he spat.
“Don’t!” Ómalichanwa said, glaring at both of them.
“How dare you?” Ónu asked in a loud whisper.
“Do you want me to make you dumb?” Ómalichanwa asked.
Ónu fell silent. He didn’t know if she could. He wasn’t even sure of what she could do.
“Uncle,” Ómalichanwa touched his shoulder gently. “No one can know that I’m here.”
He nodded and patted her head.
A few minutes later, they were neatly tucked into Ónu’s hut and Ónu went to his second wife’s hut. Soon after his daughter had started a fire, Eriri asked. “Could you have made him dumb?”
She laughed. “Oh! No o! I couldn’t think of anything else to say at the time.”
Eriri smiled and was lost in thought. He missed Ómalichanwa, his wife whom everyone believed he killed. She was the belle of the village and her parents wanted her to marry into a well known family but his family were flintsmiths. When she found out she was pregnant she ran to her grandmother’s village, she stayed there for three cycles of seasons. He ran after her. It was the best time in his life, there was no one interfering with their dalliance. Her grandmother had blessed their union in front of the gods.
He wished he had been allowed to pay her dowry when she returned instead they sent her away in marriage to a man older than her father. She escaped and came to him, his instincts fought against letting her stay but he loved her too much to let her go. He had gone to his father’s hut to work on more flints and came back just before high noon to give her food. He walked into his hut and picked up a bloodied machete just as the youths arrived at his compound. He wasn’t even allowed to see her body before carting him off.
He wondered if she would have approved of her daughter coming back to this village. She looked exactly like her mother. She would be pleased that her daughter was wise beyond her years like she was. He looked at his daughter once again and hoped she hadn’t taken after her mother in stubbornness too.
“You’re thinking of my mother.”
“I never got the chance to do right by her.”
She was quiet for a while, staring into the fire. “Your cousin took care of that, but they don’t know about me. For now, it’s best they don’t.” she paused as she watched the fire crackle. “I’m glad you named me after her.”
“It’s what she wanted.” He said and leaned back on the side of the bamboo bed.
Ómalichanwa smiled and nodded. She couldn’t embarrass him by telling him that she could now tell when someone was telling lies.
That night, after sending his guards off to Isekó and Oche-eze’s house, Okpararebisi sent for his son, Anyaeze who also lived in Isekó, his mother; Uzò was the owner of the lewdness hut that once caused rampage in all the communities combined. His son came with his mother, Uzó and Uzó, with four out-cast warriors. Anyaeze’s mother was his grandmother’s best friend but his late mother’s age mate, a widow from her youth. She wasn’t beautiful, but she was envied by her peers regardless. She had a body that beckoned even the strongest-willed man. The first time he met her was the day of his second rite of passage into manhood. His brothers used to pick on him because he was his grandfather Anyanwuze’s favourite so he would go and sit with his grandmother. Since Anyanwuze’s other wives didn’t bear him a son he adopted three of his nephews.
The bullying started a season before the second rite of passage into manhood when their grandfather compared them; no child his age had ever completed the second rite of passage. His brothers put together knew just a third of the proverbs and the morals of every story their grandfather had ever told them.
One day, after his brothers had bullied him for hours, he decided to go to the lakeside. He took a path through Rumuoriji, and he walked half way through when he saw a bird and produced his catapult. He bent down in search of a stone. He found one and walked to it, he was about to pick it up when he heard whistling. He thinned his lips, a deep frown set on his face, intent on knowing who had such a voice, he set out in search of it. He climbed a tree scanning the area. He saw movement and then heard water splash. Startled, he lost his grip and balance. He toppled down a hill and landed near the edge of some plantain trees.
He blinked just as a hand tugged him up by the ear.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to -”
“Close your eyes.” a harsh voice commanded. A few seconds later, the voice ordered more calmly, “Open your eyes.”
He opened them slowly and exclaimed, “My grandmother’s friend, greetings!” He bowed to her.
She stood towering over him, trying to look intimidating with arms akimbo and an eyebrow jutting up. “And you are?”
“Uzò, the last born of Jiriehui.” He got up slowly. She seemed to have grown shorter than the last time he’d seen her.
“The one named after me. How are you my son?”
“I’m fine,” Okpararebisi said as he lowered his head shyly.
“Why have you wandered so far from Eli’ikenueze?”
He looked up at her confused, and she explained, “You are in Rumuoriji. No royal ventures out of Eli’ikenueze without a guard.”
Okpararebisi frowned. He didn’t understand why she would say that. He had been told there was no demarcation in the lands. He had never even seen a guard, and why would he need one? They were all equals. Each man’s reign was within his compound. It was once rumoured that she had become mad after the death of her husband and she lives in the forest so it was probably true. He had to leave as soon and as quietly as possible. Why would his grandmother be friends with a mad person? Maybe they weren’t really friends.
“My grandmother’s best friend, can you please show me the way home?” He asked smiling sweetly. He wanted to ensure he didn’t provoke so she wouldn’t bite him – a mad person’s bite was believed to lead the victim to madness.
“Of course. But first, a guest must wash their hands to join in the festivity of the soup pot.”
Okpararebisi looked around. He heard no drums no music nor did he see people. She is definitely mad. “I hear no celebration -”
“It is a parable. It is only in your enemy’s house that you do not eat what is served you.”
Okpararebisi gulped and nodded. What do mad people eat?
“But first you must clean up.” She gestured towards his garments.
He looked himself over and noticed the mud caking on his clothing. He looked up at her embarrassed. She pointed to a large water pot and then to a small one with a calabash beside it. He used the calabash to fill the smaller pot. He had never washed himself without the servants assisting, but he knew what to do. He just had to wait until she had gone away. When she didn’t move, he decided to wash off the mud from just his cloths. She shook her head and went away.
When he finished, he replaced the pot and calabash and followed the path she had taken. It led to a large open space and ahead of him was a tent. The thatched roof was open in patches. It had not been repaired in a long while. Underneath the tent was a pot on fire and beside it was a freshly roasted fish splayed on cocoyam leaves. There was a very small pot of palm oil beside it. The smell of cooking yam wafted through his nostril and his stomach responded. No one was supposed to dig up their yams until after the harvest blessings on the eve of the new yam festival.
She cleared her throat and he spun quickly.
“Here. Put these on. They used to belong to my husband but you will manage it until yours are dry.”
Okpararebisi didn’t think his grandfather would approve because he is only thirteen, but he was hungry and he was being treated well. Besides, it was yam and a few hours away from his brothers would do him some good. He went to the back, changed and was back a few minutes later.
“Let me take care of that.” She insisted with a small smile and took his wet garments off of him.
He grinned bashfully and nodded to himself. It was nice to be treated like a prince sometimes. If she continued like this, she would give him a reason to stop by more often. When she came back, she was holding a large gourd and two little ones. The top of the large one cradled a nest of grass. He knew right away it was palm wine. He must have died and gone to the skies. He licked his lips as she handed him a gourd filled with the white frothy liquid. He had longed for palm wine ever since he tasted it at his cousin Akudo’s wedding ceremony.
After a while, he began to feel dizzy. He got up and staggered wedging himself between the chair and the wood supporting the tent then passed out. He woke up a few hours later to find himself naked beside his grandmother’s friend. Startled, he shrieked, waking her up. She smiled and caressed his manhood. He tried to move away, but her hand was firm and his will failed him. Then she was on top of him.
By the time he got back, it was dusk. He saw masked men in asymmetric order beside his grandfather’s hut. They all had machetes in their hands and small flint tied with a string of leather around their legs. They wore glistening animal hide around their waist. A few, the digits of a man’s hand also wore theirs around their waist as well as across their shoulders. Three had tall feathers on their head held together by a string. All except the ones with stringed feathers held a palm frond between their lips.
His grandfather beckoned him into his hut. He was shivering. The last time he was in trouble his grandfather warned him that he was going to sell him off. As soon as he entered the hut, he knelt down to plead with his grandfather, but his grandfather gave him a stern look. “Sit down with your brothers, child.”
He looked at his brothers, then at his uncles, Omehia, Nwóna’azu and Cheta and frowned. Everyone was present except…
“Your grandmother has just passed, and my days are numbered. You will all have to be strong these few days. I need to determine who I’ll pass this totem cape too. You, sons of my son will be confined to your quarters and will come out only at my bidding. The palace guards are not here for your protection but mine. They are to ensure everyone adheres to my instructions.”
Omehia thought. If none of us can lay claim to the throne, then why did you adopt us? He wasn’t please that his father had chosen his grandsons when he had three sons who understood responsibility. He cleared his throat and asked. “How many days do you need to deliberate?”
“Four. You and your brothers are also not permitted to leave these premises.”
Omehia, Nwóna’azu and Cheta bowed and chorused, “Yes Father.”
He waved them off and everyone got up to leave. “Uzò.”
Okpararebisi froze in his tracks. He fidgeted as he awaited his punishment.
“Where are you coming from?”
Okpararebisi lowered his head, he couldn’t possibly mention where he was.
His grandfather cleared his throat.
“I went to the stream to clear my head.”
“Hmm, my son.” he paused and rested a hand on his Okpararebisi’s shoulder. “A seed that is not dead cannot birth a tree. You’ve to grow a thick hide. Where have you heard that running away solved anything? Now, go join your brothers.”