I stand before you here in the magnificent court of Bechukwu, in Eluigwe, the land of eternal, luminous light, where the perpetual song of the flute serenades the air—
Like other guardian spirits, I have gone to uwa in many cycles of reincarnations, inhabiting a freshly created body each time—
I have come in haste, soaring untrammelled like a spear through the immense tracts of the universe because my message is urgent, a matter of life and death—
I stand knowing that a chi is supposed to testify before you if his host is dead and his host’s soul has ascended into Benmuo, that liminal space crowded with spirits and discarnate beings of every hue and scale. It is only then that you request that guardian spirits come to your dwelling place, this grand celestial court, and ask you to grant the souls of our hosts safe passage into Alandiichie, the habitation of the ancestors—
We make this intercession because we know that a man’s soul can return to the world in the form of an onyeuwa, to be reborn, only if that soul has been received in the domain of the ancestors—
Chukwu, creator of all, I concede that I have done something out of the ordinary by coming here now to testify while my host is still alive—
But I am here because the old fathers say that we bring only the blade sharp enough to cut the firewood to the forest. If a situation deserves exigent measures, then one must give it that—
They say that dust lies on the ground and stars lie in the sky. They do not mix—
They say that a shadow may be fashioned from a man, but a man does not die because a shadow has sprung from him—
I come to intercede on behalf of my host because the kind of thing he has done is that for which Ala, the custodian of the earth, must seek retribution—
For Ala forbids that a person should harm a pregnant woman, whether man or beast—
For the earth belongs to her, the great mother of mankind, the greatest among all creatures, second only to you, whose gender or kind no man or spirit knows—
I have come because I fear that she will raise her hand against my host, who is known in this cycle of life as Chinonso Solomon Olisa—
This is why I have hastened here to testify of all I have witnessed and to persuade you and the great goddess that if what I fear has happened is true, to let it be understood that he has committed this great crime in error, unknowingly—
Although I will relate most things in my own words, they will be true because he and I are one. His voice is my voice. To speak of his words as if he were distinct from me is to render my own words as if they were spoken by another—
You are the creator of the universe, patron of the four days – Eke, Orie, Afore, and Nkwo – that make up the Igbo week—
To you the old fathers ascribed names and honori cs too numerous to count: Chukwu, Egbunu, Oseburuwa, Ezeuwa, Ebubedike, Gaganaogwu, Agujiegbe, Obasidinelu, Agbatta-Alumalu, Ijango-ijango, Okaaome, Akwaakwuru, and many more—
I stand here before you, as bold as a king’s tongue, to plead my host’s cause, knowing that you will hear my voice—
THE WOMAN ON THE BRIDGE
CHUKWU, if one is a guardian spirit sent for the first time to inhabit a host who will come into the world in Umuahia, a town in the land of the great fathers, the first thing that strikes the spirit would be the immensity of the land. As the guardian spirit descends with the reincarnating body of the new host towards the land, what reveals itself to the eye astonishes. Suddenly, as if some primordial curtain has been peeled off, one is exposed to an interminable stretch of leaf-green vegetation. As one draws closer to Umuahia, one is enticed by the elements around the land of the fathers: the hills, the thick, great forest of Ogbuti-ukwu, a forest as old as the first man who hunted in it. The early fathers had been told that signs of the cosmic explosion that birthed the world could be seen here and that from the beginning, when the world was partitioned into sky, water, forest and land, the Ogbuti forest had become a country, a country more expansive than any poem about it. The leaves of the trees bear in them a provincial history of the universe. But beyond the exaltation of the great forest, one becomes even more fascinated with the many water bodies, the biggest of which is the Imo River and its numerous tributaries.
That river weaves itself around the forest in a complex circuit comparable only to that of human veins. One finds it in one part of the city spouting like a deep gash. One travels on the same road for a short distance and it appears – as if out of nowhere – behind a hill or an enormous gorge. Then there, between the thighs of the valleys, it is flowing again. Even if we miss it at first, one only needs to tread past Bende towards Umuahia, through the Ngwa villages, before a small, silent tributary reveals its seductive face. The river has a distinct place in the mythologies of the people because in their universe, water is supreme. They know that all rivers are maternal and therefore are capable of birthing things. This river birthed the city of Imo. Through its neighbouring city runs the Niger, a greater river which was itself the stuff of legend. Long ago, the Niger overran its boundaries in its relentless journey and met another, the Benue, in an encounter that forever changed the history of the people and the civilisations around both rivers.
Egbunu, the testimony for which I have come to your luminous court this night began at the Imo River nearly seven years ago. My host had travelled to Enugu that morning to replenish his stock, as he often did. It had rained in Enugu the previous night, and water was everywhere – trickling down from the roofs of buildings, in potholes on the roads, on the leaves of trees, dripping from orbs of spiderwebs – and a slight drizzle was on the faces and clothes of people. He went about the market in high spirit, his trousers rolled up over his ankles so as not to stain the hems with dirty water as he walked from shed to shed, stall to stall. The market seethed with people, as it always was even in the time of the great fathers when the market was the centre of everything. It was here that goods were exchanged, festivals were held and negotiations between villages were conducted. Throughout the land of the fathers, the shrine of Ala, the great mother, was often located close to the market. In the imagination of the fathers, the market was also the one human gathering that attracted the most vagrant spirits – akaliogolis, amosu, tricksters and various vagabond discarnate beings. For in the earth, a spirit without a host is nothing. One must inhabit a physical body to have any effect on the things of the world. And so these spirits are in constant search for vessels to occupy, and insatiable in their pursuit of corporeality. They must be avoided at all costs. I once saw such a being inhabit the body of a dead dog in desperation. And it managed, by some alchemical means, to stir this carrion to life and make it amble a few steps before leaving the dog to lie dead again in the grass. It was a fearful sight. This is why it is considered ill advised for a chi to leave the body of its host in such a place or to step far away from a host who is asleep or in an unconscious state. Some of these discarnate beings, especially the evil spirits, even sometimes try to overpower a present chi, or ones who have gone out on a consultation on behalf of their hosts. This is why you, Chukwu, warn us against such journeys, especially at night! For when a foreign spirit embodies a person, it is difficult to get it out! This is why we have the mentally ill, the epileptic, men with abominable passions, murderers of their own parents and others! Many of them have become possessed by strange spirits and their chi are rendered homeless and reduced to following the host about, pleading or trying to negotiate – often fruitlessly – with the intruder. I have seen it many times.
When my host returned to his van, he recorded in his big foolscap notebook that he’d bought eight adult fowls – two roosters and six hens – a bag of millet, a half bag of broiler feed and a nylon bag full of fried termites. He’d paid twice the usual price of chickens for one, a wool-white rooster with a long tapering comb and plush of feathers. When the seller handed him the fowl, tears clouded his eyes. For a moment, the seller and even the bird in his hands appeared as a shimmering illusion. The seller watched him in what seemed to be astonishment, perhaps wondering why my host had been so moved by the sight of the chicken. The man did not know that my host was a man of instinct and passion. And that he had bought this one bird for the price of two because the bird bore an uncanny resemblance to the gosling he had owned as a child, which he’d loved many years ago, a bird that changed his life.
Ebubedike, after he bought the prized white rooster, he embarked on the journey back to Umuahia with delight. Even when it struck him that he’d spent a longer time in Enugu than he’d intended and had not fed the rest of his flock for much of that day, it did not dampen his spirit. Not even the thought of them engaging in a mutiny of angry cackles and crows, as they often did when hungry, the kind of noise that even distant neighbours complained about, troubled him. On this day, in contrast to most other days, any time he encountered a police checkpoint, he paid the officers handily. He did not argue that he had no money, as he often did. Instead, before he came to their stations, where they had laid down logs studded with protruding nails to force the traffic to stop, he stretched his hand through the window clutching a wad of notes.
GAGANAOGWU, for a long time my host raced through rural roads that tracked through villages, between tumuli and mounds of the ancient fathers, through roads flanked by rich farmlands and deep bushes as the sky slowly darkened. Insects dashed against the windshield and burst like miniature fruits until the glass was covered with small mucks of liquefied insects. Twice he had to stop and wipe the mess off with a rag. But soon after he began again, the insects would rage against the pane with renewed force. By the time he arrived at the boundary of Umuahia the day had aged, and the lettering on the rusting pole with the WELCOME TO ABIA, GOD’S OWN STATE sign was barely visible. His stomach had become taut from having gone a whole day without eating. He stopped a short distance from the bridge that ran over the Amatu River – a branch of the great Imo River – and pulled up behind a semi whose back was covered with a tarp.
Once he stopped the engine, he heard a clatter of feet in the van bed. He climbed down and stepped over the drainage ditch that encircled the city. He walked over to the clearing where streetside sellers sat on stools under small fabric awnings on the other side of the drainage, their tables lit with lanterns and candles.
The eastern darkness had fallen, and the road ahead and behind was blanketed in a quilt of gloom, when he returned to the van with a bunch of bananas, a pawpaw and a polythene bag full of tangerines. He put on his headlights and drove back on to the highway, his new flock squawking in the back of the van. He was eating the bananas when he arrived at the bridge over the Amatu River. He’d heard only the previous week that – in this most fecund of rainy seasons – the river had over owed and drowned a woman and her child. He didn’t usually put stock in the rumours of mishaps that passed around the city like a weighted coin, but this story had stayed in his mind for some reason which even I, his chi, could not understand. He was barely at the middle of the bridge thinking of this mother and child when he saw a car parked by the railings, one of its doors flung wide open. At first all he saw was the car, its dark interior and a speck of light reflected on the window of the driver’s side. But as he shifted his gaze, he caught the terrifying vision of a woman attempting to jump over the bridge.
Agujiegbe, how uncanny that my host had been thinking for days about a woman who’d drowned, and suddenly he found himself before another who had climbed one ledge up the rails, her body bent over as she attempted to throw herself into the river. And once he saw her, he was stirred within. He pulled the van to a halt, jumped out, and ran forward into the darkness, shouting, ‘No, no, don’t. Please, don’t! Don’t do that. Biko, eme na!’
It seemed at once that this unexpected intervention startled the woman. She turned in swift steps, her body swaying lightly as she fell backwards to the ground in obvious terror. He rushed forward to help her up. ‘No, Mommy, no, please!’ he said as he bent over.
‘Leave me!’ the woman cried at his approach. ‘Leave me. Go away.’
Egbunu, rejected, he drew back in frantic steps, his hands raised in the strange way the children of the old fathers use to signify surrender or defeat, and said, ‘I stop, I stop.’ He turned his back to her, but he could not bring himself to leave. He feared what she would do if he left, for he – himself a man of much sorrow – knew that despair was the disease of the soul, able to destroy an already battered life. So he faced her again, his hands lower, stretched before him like staffs. ‘Don’t, Mommy. Nothing is enough for somebody to die like that. Nothing, Mommy.’
The woman struggled up to her feet slowly, first kneeling, then raising her upper body, all the while with her eyes fixed on him and saying, ‘Leave me. Leave me.’
He glimpsed her face now in the pupillary light of his van. It was full of fear. Her eyes seemed somewhat swollen from what must have been long hours of crying. He knew at once that this was a deeply wounded woman. For every man who has himself suffered hardship or witnessed it in others can recognise its marks on the face of another from a distance. As the woman stood trembling in the light, he wondered whom she may have lost. Perhaps one of her parents? Her husband? Her child?
‘I will leave you alone now,’ he said, lifting his hands up again. ‘I go leave you alone. I swear to God who made me.’
He turned towards his van, but because of the gravity of the sorrow he’d seen in her, even the momentary shuffling of his feet away from her seemed like a grievous act of unkindness. He stopped, conscious of the rushed sinking in the pit of his stomach and the audible anxiety of his heart. He faced her again.
‘But Mommy,’ he said. ‘Don’t jump it, you hear?’
In haste, he unlocked the back of the van and then unlatched one of the cages, and with his eyes looking through the window, whispering to himself that she should not go, he took two chickens by their wings, one in each hand, and hurried down.
He found the woman standing where he’d left her, looking in the direction of his vehicle, seemingly transfixed. Although a guardian spirit cannot see the future and thus cannot fully know what its hosts will do – Chukwu, you alone and the great deities possess the spirit of foresight and may bequeath certain dibias this gift – I could sense it. But because you caution us, guardian spirits, not to interfere in every a air of our hosts, to allow man to execute his will and be man, I sought not to stop him. Instead, I simply put the thought in his mind that he was a lover of birds, one whose life has been transformed by his relationship with winged things. I flashed a stirring image of the gosling he once owned into his mind that instant. But it was of little effect, for in moments like this, when a man becomes overcome by emotion, he becomes Egbenchi, the stubborn kite which does not listen or even understand whatever is spoken to it. It moves on to wherever it wishes and does whatever it desires.
‘Nothing, nothing should make someone fall inside the river and die. Nothing.’ He raised the chickens above his head. ‘This is what will happen if somebody fall inside there. The person will die, and no one can see them again.’
He lunged towards the rails, his hands heavy with the birds, which cackled in high-pitched tones and stirred with agitation in his grip. ‘Even these fowls,’ he said again, and flung them over the bridge into the gloom.
For a moment, he watched the birds struggle against the thermal, whipping their wings violently against the wind as they battled desperately for their lives but failed. A feather landed on the skin of his hand, but he beat it off with such haste and violence that he felt a quick pain. Then he heard the sucking sound of the chickens’ contact with the waters, followed by vain plonks and splashes of sound. It seemed the woman listened, too, and in listening, he felt an indescribable bond – as if they had both become lone witnesses to some inestimable secret crime. He stood there until he heard the woman’s gasps. He looked up at her, then back at the waters hidden from his sight by the darkness, and back at her again.
‘You see,’ he said, pointing at the river as the wind groaned on like a cough caught in the dry throat of the night. ‘That is what will happen if somebody fall inside there.’
The first car to approach the bridge since his own arrived with cautious speed. It stopped a few paces from them and honked, then the driver said something he could not hear but which had been spoken in the White Man’s language and which I, his chi, had heard: ‘I hope you are not hoodlums oh!’ Then the car drove away, gathering speed.
‘You see,’ he repeated.
Once the words had left his mouth, he resolved into a calm, as it often happens at such times when a man, having done something out of the ordinary, retreats into himself. All he could think of was to leave the place, and this thought came upon him with an overwhelming passion. And I, his chi, flashed the thought in his mind that he’d done enough, and that it was best he left. So he rushed back to his van and started it amidst the mutiny of voices from the back. In the side mirror, the vision of the woman on the bridge flashed like an invoked spirit into the field of light, but he did not stop, and he did not look back.
AGUJIEGBE, the great fathers say that to get to the top of a hill, one must begin from its foot. I have come to understand that the life of a man is a race from one end to the other. That which came before is a corollary to that which follows it. This is the reason people ask the question ‘Why?’ when something that confounds them happens. Most of the time, even the deepest secrets and motives of the hearts of men can be uncovered if one probes deeper. Thus, Chukwu, to intercede on behalf of my host, I must suggest that we trace the beginning of everything to the harsh years preceding that night on the bridge.
His father had died only nine months earlier, leaving him with a pain that was exquisite beyond anything he’d ever felt. It may have been a little different had he been with others, as he was when he lost his mother and when he lost his gosling and when his sister left home. But upon his father’s passing, there was no one. His sister, Nkiru, having eloped with an older man and feeling her conscience seared by their father’s death, distanced herself even more. Perhaps she’d done this for fear my host might blame her for their father’s death. The days that followed the demise were of utmost darkness. The agwu of pain afflicted him night and day and made of him an empty house in which traumatic memories of his family lurked like rodents. In the mornings on most days, he’d wake up smelling his mother’s cooking. And sometimes during the day, his sister would reveal herself in vivid pictures, as if she’d been merely hidden all along by a drawn curtain. At night, he’d feel the presence of his father so intensely he’d sometimes become convinced that his father was there. ‘Papa! Papa!’ he’d call into the darkness, turning about in frantic steps. But all he’d get back would be silence, a silence so strong it would often restore his confidence in reality.
He walked through the world vertiginously, as if on a tightrope. His vision became one from which he could see nothing. Nothing gave him comfort, not even the music of Oliver De Coque, which he’d play on his big cassette player most evenings or while working at the yard. Even his fowls were not spared his grief. He tended to them with less care, mostly feeding them once a day and sometimes forgetting to give them food altogether. Their riotous squawking in protest was what often stirred him in those times, forcing him to feed them. His watch over his flock was distracted, and many times hawks and kites preyed on them.
How did he eat in those days? He simply fed off the small farm, a plot of land that stretched from the front of the house to the place where the motor road began, harvesting tomatoes, okro and peppers. The corn his father had planted he let wilt and die, and he allowed a collection of insects to foment the resultant decay as long as they did not also trample on the other crops. When what was left of the farm could not meet his needs, he shopped at the market near the big roundabout, using as few words as necessary. And in time he became a man of silence who went days without speaking – not even to his flock, whom he often addressed as comrades. He bought onions and milk from the provisions shed nearby and sometimes ate at the canteen across the street, Madam Comfort’s restaurant. He hardly spoke there, either, but merely observed the people around him with a strained mercurial awe, as if in their seeming peacefulness they were all renegade spirits come into his world through a back door.
Soon, Oseburuwa, as is often the case, he became one with sorrow so much that he resisted all help. Not even Elochukwu, the only friend he kept after he left school, could comfort him. He stayed away from Elochukwu, and once Elochukwu rode his motorcycle up to the front of the compound, knocked on the door and shouted my host’s name to see if he was in. But he pretended he was not in the house. Elochukwu, perhaps suspicious that his friend was in, rang my host’s phone. My host let it ring on until Elochukwu, maybe concluding that he was indeed away, left. He refused all pleas from his uncle, his father’s only surviving sibling, to come and stay in Aba. And when the older man persisted, he turned off his phone and did not turn it on for two months, until he woke up one day to the sound of his uncle driving on to his compound.
His uncle had come angry, but when he found his nephew so broken, so lean, so emasculated, he was moved. The old man wept in the presence of my host. The sight of this man whom he had not seen in years weeping for him changed something in my host that day. He discovered that a hole had been bored into his life. And that evening, as his uncle snored, stretched out on one of the sofas in the sitting room, it struck him that the hole became evident after his mother died. It was true, Gaganaogwu. I, his chi, was there when he saw his mother being taken out of the hospital, dead shortly after delivering his sister. This was twenty-two years ago, in the year the White Man refers to as 1991. He was only nine at the time, too young to accept what the universe had given him. The world he’d known up till that night suddenly became reticulated and could not be straightened again. His father’s devotion, trips to Lagos, excursions to the zoo in Ibadan and the amusement parks in Port Harcourt, even playing with the video-game consoles – none worked. Nothing his father did repaired the chink in his soul.
Towards the end of that year, around when the cosmic spider of Eluigwe spins its lush web over the moon the thirteenth time, increasingly desperate to restore his son’s well-being, his father took him to his village. He’d remembered that my host had been enticed by stories of how he’d hunted wild geese in the Ogbuti forest as a little boy during the war. So he took my host to hunt geese in the forest, an account of which I will give you in due course, Chukwu. It was here that he caught the gosling, the bird that would change his life.
His uncle, seeing the state my host was in, stayed with him for four days instead of one, as he’d planned. The older man cleaned the house, tended the poultry and drove him to Enugu to buy feed and supplies. During those days, Uncle Bonny, despite stammering, filled my host’s mind with words. Most of what he said pivoted around the perils of loneliness and the need for a woman. And his words were true, for I had lived among mankind long enough to know that loneliness is the violent dog that barks interminably through the long night of grief. I have seen it many times.
‘Nonso, ih if y-ou don’t ge get y-y-yourself a-a wife s-su su soon,’ Uncle Bonny said the morning he would leave, ‘your aunt a-ah-ah me wi-will h-ave to get y-y-ou one our ourself.’ His uncle shook his head. ‘Be-be-be-because because you can’t live like this.’
So strong were his uncle’s words that, after he left, my host began to think of new things. As if the eggs of his healing had hatched in secret places, he found himself craving something he had not had in a long time: the warmth of a woman. This desire drew his attention away from thoughts of his loss. He began to go out more, to lurk around near the Federal Government Girls College. At first, he watched the girls from the roadside canteens with fitful curiosity. He paid attention to their plaited hair, their breasts and their outward features. As he developed interest, he reached out to one, but she rebuffed him. My host, who’d been moulded by circumstances into a man of little confidence, decided he would not try a second time. I flashed in his thought that it was hardly possible to get a woman at the first try. But he paid no heed to my voice. A few days after he was turned down, he enquired at a brothel.
Chukwu, the woman into whose bed he was admitted was twice his age. She wore loose hair, the kind which was known among the great mothers. Her face was painted with a powdery substance that gave it delicacy which a man might find inviting. She looked by the shape of her face like Uloma Nezeanya, a woman who, two hundred and forty-six years ago, was betrothed to an old host (Arinze Iheme) but disappeared before the wine-carrying ceremony, taken away by Aro slave raiders.
Before his eyes, the woman stripped and bared a body that was buxom and attractive. But when she asked him to climb her, he could not. It was, Egbunu, an extraordinary experience, the like of which I had never seen before. For suddenly, the great erection he’d sustained for days was gone the very moment it could be satiated. He was seized by a sudden acute self-awareness of himself as a novice, unskilled in the art of sex. With this came a flurry of images – of his mother in the hospital bed, of the gosling perched precariously on a fence, and of his father in the hard grip of rigor mortis. He trembled, pulled himself slowly from the bed, and begged to leave.
‘What? You wan just waste your money like that?’ the woman said.
He said yes. He stood up and reached for his clothes.
‘I no understand, look how your prick still dey stand.’
‘Biko, ka’m laa,’ he said.
‘You no sabi speak English? Speak pidgin, I no be Ibo,’ the woman said.
‘Okay, I say I wan go.’
‘Eh, na wa oh. Me I neva see this kain thing before, oh. But I no want your money make e waste.’
The woman climbed off the bed and switched on the lightbulb. He stepped back at the full glare of her female immensity. ‘No fear, no fear, just relax, eh?’
He stood still. His hands yielded like one afraid as the woman took his clothes and put them back on the chair. She knelt on the floor and held his penis with one hand and clutched his buttocks with the other. He squirmed and trembled from the sensation. The woman laughed.
‘Wetin be your age?’
‘Thirty, ah-gh thirty.’
‘Abeg talk true, wetin be your age?’ She squeezed the tip of his penis. He gasped as he made to speak, but she clamped her mouth over it and swallowed it halfway. My host mumbled the word twenty-four in feverish haste. He tried to get out, but the woman curved her other arm around his waist and held him still. She sucked with plopping sounds, forcefully, while he screamed, gnashed his teeth and uttered meaningless words. He saw iridescent light tempered with darkness and felt a coldness within. The complex equation continued to erupt in his body until he let out a shout: ‘I dey release, I dey release!’ The woman turned away, and the semen barely escaped her face. He fell back into the chair, fearing that he might pass out. He would leave that brothel, shocked and exhausted, bearing the weight of the experience with him like a sack of corn. It was four days later that he encountered the woman on the bridge.
EZEUWA, he left the bridge that night, uncertain about what he had done, only knowing that it was something out of the ordinary. He drove home with a sense of fulfillment, the kind he had not experienced in a long time. In peace, he unloaded the new chickens, ten instead of twelve, and took the cages into the yard using the torchlight at the head of his phone. He unpacked the silo bag of millet and other things he’d bought in Enugu. Once he set everything down, he was hit with a sudden realisation. ‘Chukwu!’ he said, and rushed into the sitting room. He lifted his rechargeable lamp, pressed up the switch by its side, and a weak white light glowed from the three fluorescent bulbs. He turned the switch up even more, but the lighting did not improve. He moved forward and gazed down at it to see that one of the bulbs had died, its top end coated with a blob of soot. He ran to the yard with the lamp nonetheless, and once the half-light illuminated the cage, he screamed again, ‘Chukwu, oh! Chukwu!’ For he’d found that one of the chickens he’d thrown over the bridge was the wool-white rooster.
Akataka, it is a common phenomenon among mankind to attempt to flip precedence: to try to bring that which has gone forward back. But it always, always fails. I have seen it many times. Like others of his kind, my host ran out of his house back to his van, on which a black cat had climbed and sat gazing about like a watchman. He shooed the cat away. It gave a loud feline whine and dashed into the adjoining bush. He entered the van and drove back out into the night. The traffic was light, and only once did a big semi block the way while it was trying to pull into a petrol station. When he got to the bridge, the woman he’d seen only a while before was gone – her car, too. He reckoned that she had not fallen into the river, for if she had, then her car would still be there. But the woman was not, at this point, what he cared about. He rushed down to the shore, the nocturnal noise filling his ears, his torchlight swallowing the darkness like a boa. He felt the sensation of insects resolve into a concentric fold in the air and net his face as he approached the shore. He waved frantically to swat them away. The torchlight followed the movement of his hand and wavered upon the waters in a straight rod a few times, and then flashed across the riverbank for metres on end. His gaze traced the path of the light, but all he saw was empty banks and rags and dirt strewn about. He walked directly under the bridge, turning when he heard a sound, his heart palpitating. As he came near, the light revealed a basket. The main ra a plaiting had loosened into long, twisted fibres. He rushed towards it, in case one of the chickens had crawled into the basket to get away from the waters.
When he found nothing in the basket, he cast the light on the water under the bridge, down the distant reaches of the river as far as his torchlight could illuminate, but there was no trace of either chicken. He recalled the moment he threw them, how they’d uttered their wings, how’d they tried in agonising desperation to cling to the bars of the bridge, and how they must have been unable to do it. He’d learned early on when he first began keeping poultry that domestic fowls were the weakest animals among all creatures. They had little ability to defend or save themselves from dangers large or small. And it was this weakness that further endeared them to him. At first he’d loved all birds because of the gosling, but he began to love only the weak domestic fowls after he witnessed the violence of a hawk attack on a hen.
After he had combed through the thick hide of night, as one would search for lice on the skin of a densely furred animal, he returned home in anguish. His action seemed to him all the more like something his hand had done out of concert with his mind. It was this, above all, that caused him pain. Sudden darkness often descends upon the heart of a person who discovers that he has unknowingly committed harm. Upon the discovery of the harm it has done, the man’s soul kneels in complete defeat, submits to the alusi of remorse and shame, and in its submission wounds itself. Once wounded, a man seeks healing through acts of restitution. If he has soiled another’s cloth, he may go to that person with a new cloth and say, there, my brother, take this new cloth in exchange for the one I ruined. If he has broken something, he may seek to mend or replace it. But if he has done that which cannot be undone, or broken that which cannot be mended, then there is nothing he can do but submit to the tranquillising spell of remorse. This is a mystifying thing!
Ezeuwa, when my host sought an answer to something beyond his understanding, I often ventured to supply it. So before he slept that night, I impressed on his mind that he should return to the river in the morning; perhaps he would still be able to find the fowls. But he paid no heed to my counsel. He thought it an idea that originated from within his own mind, for man has no way to distinguish between what has been put into his thoughts by a spirit – even if it is his own chi – and what has been suggested to him by the voice of his head.
I continued to flash the thought in his mind many times that day, but the voice of his head would counter each time and tell him that it was too late, that the chickens must have drowned. To which I responded that he could not know this. Then the voice of his head said, It is gone; there is nothing I can do. So when it was evening, and I could see that he would not go, I did that which you, Oseburuwa, caution guardian spirits to avoid doing except in extraordinary situations. I stepped out of the body of my host while he was conscious. I did this because I knew that my place as his guardian spirit was not only as a guide but also as a helper and witness to the things which may be beyond his reach. This is because I see myself as his representative in the realm of the spirits. I stand within my host and gaze at every movement of his hands, every step of his feet, every motion of his body. To me, the body of my host is a screen on which the entirety of his life is displayed. For while in a host I’m nothing but an empty vessel filled by the life of a man, rendered concrete by that life. It is thus from the place of a witness that I observe him live, and his life becomes my testimony. Yet a chi is constrained while in the body of its host. While there, it becomes nearly impossible to see or hear what is present or spoken in the supernatural realm. But when one exits one’s host, one becomes privy to things beyond the realm of man.
Once out of my host, I was hit by the great clamour of the spirit world, a deafening symphony of sounds that would have frightened even the bravest of men. It was a multitude of voices – cries, howls, shouts, noises, sounds of every kind. It is uncanny that even though the separation between the world of mankind and the spirits is only leaf-thin, one does not hear even a faint whisper of this sound until one leaves the body of one’s host. A freshly created chi on earth for the first time is immediately overwhelmed by this din and may become so frightened that it might run back into the fortress of silence that is its host. This happened to me during my first sojourn on earth as well as to many guardian spirits I have met at the resting caves of Ogbunike, Ngodo, Ezi-o , and even the pyramidal mounds of Abaja. It is especially worse at night-time, the time of the spirits.
Whenever I leave my host while he is in a state of consciousness, I make my visits rapid and brief, so that nothing will happen to him in my absence and he will not do anything I would not be able to account for. But because the road to anywhere in a disembodied form isn’t the same as when one is borne by a human vessel, I had to slowly make my way through the crowded concourse of Benmuo, in which spirits of all kinds writhed like a can of invisible worms. My haste yielded fruit, and I got to the river within a period of seven battings of the eyelids, but I saw nothing there. I returned the following day, and by the third visit, I saw the brown fowl he had thrown over the bridge. It had bloated and now lay on the surface of the river with its legs facing up, taut and dead. The water had added a shade of imperceptible grey to the bird’s barring, and its belly was naked of all plumage, as if something in the water had eaten it. Its neck seemed to have elongated, and its wrinkling was deeper and its body was swollen. A vulture sat on one of the wings of the chicken, which had flattened out over the surface of the water, peering down and about at the bird. I saw no sign of the wool-white rooster.
Ebubedike, in my many cycles of existence, I have come to understand that the things that happen to a man have already occurred long before in some subterranean realm, and that nothing in the universe is without precedent. The world spins on the noiseless wheel of an ancient patience by which all things wait and are made alive by this waiting. The ill luck that has befallen a man has long been waiting for him – in the middle of some road, on a highway, or on some field of battle, biding its time. It is the individual who reaches this point and is struck down who may be fooled into sullen bewilderment, along with all who may sympathise with him, even his chi. But in truth the man had died long ago, the reality of his death merely concealed by a silken veil of time, which would eventually be parted to reveal it. I have seen it many times.
While he slept that night, I stepped out of him, as I often did, so I could watch over him, because the inhabitants of Benmuo often become more active in the earth at night, while mankind sleeps. And from this position, I flashed the image of the chicken and the vulture into his subconscious mind, for the easiest way to communicate such a mysterious event to one’s host is through the dream sphere – a fragile realm a chi must always enter with caution and great care because it is an open theatre accessible to any spirit. A chi must first eject itself from the host before stepping into its host’s dream world. This also prevents the chi from being identified by the foreign spirits as a chi hovering in untenanted space.
Once I’d flashed the images before him, he twitched in his sleep, lifted one hand, and curved it into a weak st. I sighed, relieved, knowing that he now knew what happened to his white rooster.
GAGANAOGWU, his sadness for drowning the fowls had suppressed every thought of the woman at the bridge. But slowly, as his sadness abated, thoughts of her began to line the boundaries of his mind and then gradually crowd in. He started to dwell on thoughts of her, what he had seen of her. All he’d been able to gather from the night vision was that she was mid-sized, not as fleshy as Miss J, the prostitute. She had worn a light blouse and skirt. And he remembered that her car was a blue Toyota Camry, similar to his uncle’s. Then often, like a grasshopper, his thoughts would leap from her appearance to his curiosity about what she did after he left the bridge. He would blame himself for having left the bridge in haste.
In the days following, he tended to his poultry and the garden with light hands, consumed by thoughts of her. And when he drove about the city, he searched for the blue car. As weeks passed, he began to yearn for the prostitute again. Desire swelled like a storm and washed over the parched landscape of his soul. It drove him to the brothel one evening, but Miss J was busy. The other ladies mobbed him, and one of them dragged him into a room. This woman had a lean waist and a scar on her belly. With her he felt himself certain and sure, as if at the place of his last encounter his apprehensions and naïveté had been clobbered to a bloody death. He yielded to her without scruples, and even though I often avoid witnessing my hosts having sex because of its fearful imitation of death, I stayed put because it was to be his first. When he was done, she slapped him on the back, saying how good he was.
Yet, despite this experience, he was still drawn to Miss J, to her body, to the familiar sound of her sigh. It surprised him that even though he had done something more profound with the other woman, he’d found greater pleasure in the hands of Miss J. He returned to the brothel three days later and avoided the other woman, who ran heartily to him. Miss J, this time, was free. She regarded him only with faint recognition and set about undressing him in silence. Before they could begin, she answered her phone and told the caller to come in two hours, and when it seemed the male voice refused the bargain, she settled for an hour and a half.
They had begun when she spoke about the last time and laughed. ‘You don open your eye now after I suck you that time, ba?’
He made love to her with an exuberance that fevered his soul and poured himself into the act. But once he slumped beside her, she pushed away his arm and rose.
‘Miss J,’ he called, almost in tears.
‘Yes, na wetin?’ the woman said. She started to strap her brassiere over her breasts.
‘I love you.’
Egbunu, the woman stopped, clapped her hands and laughed. She turned on the light and crept back into the bed. She scooped his face in her hand, mimicked the calculated sombreness with which he’d uttered the words, and laughed even harder.
‘Oh, boy, you no sabi wetin you dey talk.’ She clapped her hands again. ‘Look at this one, him say him love me. Nothing wey person eye no go see these days oh. Im see nyash wey tripam – na im be say im love me. Say you love your mama.’
She snapped her fingers as she burst again into renewed mirth. And for days, her laughter echoed through his being in many hollow places, as if it were the world itself that had laughed at him, a small, lonely man whose only sin had been that he was hungry for companionship. It was here that he first felt that befuddling emotion of romantic love, a kind of crossroad that was distinct from what he felt for his birds and for his family. It was a painful feeling, for jealousy is the spirit that stands at the threshold of love and madness. He wanted her to belong to him and begrudged all the other men who would have her after him. But he did not know that nothing truly belongs to anyone. Naked he was born, naked he will return. A man may own something for as long as it remains with him. Once he leaves it, he may lose it. He did not know at the time that a man may give up all he has for the sake of the woman he loves, and when he returns, she may no longer desire him. I had seen it many times.
So, broken by the things he did not yet know, he left the place and resolved never to return.
IJANGO-IJANGO, over many sojourns in the human world, I have heard the venerable fathers, in their kaleidoscopic profundity, say that no matter the weight of grief, nothing can compel the eyes to shed tears of blood. No matter how long a person weeps, only tears continue to fall. A man may remain in the state of grief for a long time, but he will eventually grow out of it. In time, a man’s mind will acquire strong limbs, strike down the wall, and be redeemed. For no matter how dark the night, it soon passes, and Kamanu, the sun god, erects his grandiose emblem the following day. I have seen it many times.
By the fourth month after the encounter with the woman on the bridge, my host almost ceased grieving. It was not that he was happy now, for even the hems of the garments of his brightest days were fringed with threads of sorrowful darkness. It was that he was alive again, open to the possibilities of happiness. He turned to his friend Elochukwu, who began visiting regularly and persuaded him to join MASSOB, the group that was sweeping young Igbo men with an old broom into a pile of dust. Elochukwu, who had been his friend and confidant in secondary school and who was always slender, had become brawny with biceps he displayed at every turn by wearing armless shirts or singlets. ‘Nigeria has failed,’ he would tell my host in the White Man’s language, and then trail into the language of the fathers with which he mostly conversed with my host. ‘Ihe eme bi go. Anyi choro nzoputa!’ At Elochukwu’s insistence, my host joined him. In the evenings, at the big shop of a car dealer, they gathered wearing black berets and red shirts, surrounded by flags of a half-drawn sun, maps, and images of soldiers who had fought for Biafra. My host would amble about with this group, shouting slogans at the top of his lungs. He would yell ‘Biafra must rise again’ with them, stamp his feet on the unfinished floor, and chant ‘MASSOB! MASSOB!’ He’d sit among these men and listen to the dealer and the head of the movement, Ralph Uwazuruike. Here my host spoke, he made merry again, and many noted his broad smile and his quickness to laugh. These men, without knowing where he had been or where he was coming from, glimpsed the first marks of his healing.
Chukwu, because I had been present in a host during the Biafran War, I feared his dalliance with this group would lead him to harm. I put thoughts in his head that there may be violence in these engagements. But the voice of his head replied with certainty that he was not afraid. And indeed, for a long time he went with this group, moved only by an anger he could not define. For he had not himself experienced the grievances the men articulated. He did not know anyone who had been killed by people from northern Nigeria. Although many of the dark sayings of this group felt true to him – he could see, for instance, that indeed no Igbo had been president of Nigeria and perhaps none would ever be – none of it affected him personally. He did not know anything about the war except that his father had fought and had told him many stories about it. And while these men spoke, the vivid accounts of the war his father had given him would thrash about in the mud of his remembrance like wounded insects.
But he attended the meetings mostly because Elochukwu was the only friend he had. A neighbour’s hand in the death of his gosling had shut his heart to friendships. After the incident, he had hovered over the grey field of humanity and determined that the world of man was too violent for his liking. He found solace instead among feathery creatures. He also went because it gave him something to do besides tending to the poultry and the small farm and because he’d hoped that while going from one point to another in the city, advocating for the actualisation of the sovereign state of Biafra, he might come across the woman he’d met at the bridge. Akataka, it was this last reason that was principal in his mind, the main reason why, even as the marches became increasingly dangerous, he persisted. But after a month of protests, clashes with police, riots and violence, and my intense persuasion through endless ashes of thoughts in his mind that he desist, he broke o from the group like a wheel unhooked from a fast-moving car and rolled into the void.
He returned to his normal life, rising at daybreak to the beautiful but mystifying music of the poultry – a symphony of crows, cackles and tweets that often melded into what his father had once described as a coordinated song. He harvested eggs, recorded the birth of new chicks in his foolscap record book, fed the flock, watched them graze about in the yard with his catapult at the ready to protect them, and tended to the ill and feeble ones. One day in that month, one of the days he worked the most without distractions, he planted tomatoes on the shorn part of the land. He had not tended to this part of the land in a long time, and the change he saw on it shocked him.
While weeding the area, he had found that red ants had not just encroached but also completely infested the land. They lay deep in the nerve of the soil, nestled in every clump. It seemed they’d fed on an old dead cassava head which, perhaps owing to their attack, had been unable to grow. He boiled hot water in a kettle and poured it on the loam, killing all the ants. Then he swept the mass of dead ants away and planted the seeds.
He returned to the yard afterwards and washed the tomato seeds that clung to his fingernails and blackened his thumbs. He then scooped bowlfuls of millet from a silo stacked in an unused room in the house and spread the grains on a mat. He unlatched the two large coops in which a dozen chickens grazed about, and they flocked out towards the mats of feed. Within the coops were two cages each of hens with their chicks and one of three large broilers surrounded by their eggs. He felt each one of the birds to try to see if they were all in sound health. There were about forty of the brown ones and about a dozen of the white ones. After he’d fed them, he stood in the yard watching to see which of them had shat so he could poke their excreta with sticks in search of worms. He was searching a grey glob of faeces dropped by the well by one of the broilers when he heard the voice of a woman hawking groundnuts.
Egbunu, I must say that it wasn’t that he responded this way to every woman’s voice, but her voice sounded strangely familiar to him. Although he did not know it, I knew that it reminded him of his mother. At once he saw a plump, swarthy woman who looked his age. She was sweating in the hot sun, and the sweat shimmered along her legs. She carried a tray filled with groundnuts on her head. She was one of the poor – the class of people who had been created by the new civilisation. In the time of the old fathers only the lazy, indolent, in rm or accursed lacked, but now most people did. Go into the streets, into the heart of any market in Alaigbo, and you’ll find toiling men, men whose hands are as hard as stones and whose clothes are drenched in sweat, living in abject poverty. When the White Man came, he brought good things. When they saw the car, the children of the fathers cried out in amusement. The bridges? ‘Oh, how wonderful!’ they said. ‘Isn’t this one of the wonders of the world?’ they said of the radio. Instead of simply neglecting the civilisation of their blessed fathers, they destroyed it. They rushed to the cities – Lagos, Port Harcourt, Enugu, Kano – only to find that the good things were in short supply. ‘Where are the cars for us?’ they asked at the gates of these cities. ‘Only a few have them!’ ‘What about the good jobs, the ones whose workers sit under air conditioners and wear long ties?’ ‘Ah, they are only for those who have studied for years in a university, and even then, you’d still have to compete with the multitude of others with the same qualifications.’ So, dejected, the children of the fathers turned back and returned. But to where? To the ruins of the structure they had destroyed. So they live on the bare minimum, and this is why you see people like this woman who walk the length and breadth of the city hawking groundnuts.
He shouted for her to come up.
The woman turned in his direction and lifted a hand to hold the tray on her head in place. She pointed to herself and said something he could not hear.
‘I want to buy groundnut,’ he called to her.
The woman began walking down the curved dirt path, marked in many places by the tyres of his van and, recently, the four wheels of his uncle’s car. The previous day’s rain had moulded the red earth into small mud balls that clung to the tyres. And now, in the clearer day, the reddish earth still gave off an ancient smell and worms were strewn all over it, burrowing and leaving trails on the path. As a child he’d taken pleasure in crushing worms under his feet after bouts of rainfall, and sometimes he and his friends, especially the gosling-stealing Ejike, would store the worms in transparent polythene bags and watch them writhe in the airless, enclosed space.
She came wearing open-toed slippers, whose plastic straps as well as her feet were caked with dust. A small purse dangled over her bosom, held around her neck by a fabric lace. As she walked up, her feet stamping the dirt, he wiped his hand on the wall by his door. He stepped back into the house and looked around in haste. He noticed for the first time the big yarn of cobwebs that stretched across the ceiling of the sitting room, reminding him that so much time had passed since his father, who had maintained a high level of cleanliness, died.
‘Good afternoon, sir,’ the woman said, genuflecting slightly.
‘Good afternoon, my sister.’
The woman set down the groundnut tray, reached for a side pocket on her skirt, and brought out a handkerchief that was soaked through and spotted with shades of brown dirt. With it she wiped her forehead.
‘How much, how much is—’
My host thought he caught a slight tremble in the woman’s voice – the way people influenced by the bias of their own minds misjudge the actions of others. I listened as he did, but I did not hear any tremor in her voice. She sounded absolutely composed to me.
‘Yes, groundnut,’ he said, nodding. Fluid rushed up his throat, leaving a peppery taste in his mouth. His discomposure came from the strange familiarity of her voice, which, although he could not ascertain the source of the familiarity, drew him to her.
The woman pointed to a small canned-tomato tin in which groundnuts were stacked and said, ‘Five naira for one small cup. The big one is ten naira.’
‘The ten-naira one.’
The woman shook her head. ‘So, Oga, you bring me here so you fit buy only ordinary ten-naira groundnut? Ah, abeg add some more na.’ Then she laughed.
He felt the sensation in his throat yet again. He first felt it during the period of his mourning. He did not know that it was a kind of sickness related to indigestion which ares in the pit of the stomach of a person who is bereaved or in a state of extreme anxiety. I had seen it many times, most recently in the body of my former host Ejinkeonye Isigadi, while he was fighting in the Biafran War nearly forty years before.
‘Okay, give me two of the big ones,’ he said.
‘Er-he, thank you, Oga.’
The woman bent to scoop groundnuts into the larger tin, and then emptied it into a small colourless polythene bag. She was pouring the second scoop into the same bag when he said, ‘I no want only groundnut.’
‘Er?’ She dropped her head.
She did not immediately look at him, but he fixed his eyes on her. He let his eyes linger over her face, which was rough and covered with signs of privation. Some encrusted layers of dirt covered her face like patches of extra flesh, somewhat redefining it. Yet beneath these layers, he could see that she possessed striking good looks. When she laughed, her dimples deepened and her mouth formed into a pout. There was a mole above her mouth, but he did not look much at it or at her cracked lips, which she continually licked to give them a glossy texture. Down on her chest, though, was where his eyes rested: on the ponderous breasts that appeared separated by ample space. They were round and full and pushed against her clothes, even though he could see the signs of restraint – her brassiere straps – sticking out on both sides of her shoulders.
‘Ina anu kwa Igbo?’ he said, and when she nodded, he turned fully to the language of the eloquent fathers. ‘I want you to come stay with me a little. I am feeling lonely.’
‘So you don’t want groundnut?’
He shook his head. ‘No, not only groundnut. I want to talk to you, too.’
He helped her straighten up, and as she rose, he locked his mouth with hers. Agbatta-Alumalu, although he feared that she would resist him, his urge had been so strong that it had overcome his inner voice of reason. He drew back and saw her stunned and unresisting. He even saw a glint of joy in her eyes, and he pressed harder. He drew closer to her and said, ‘I want you to come inside with me.’
‘Isi gi ni?’ she said, laughing even more. ‘You are a strange man.’
She’d used a word for ‘strange’ that was not commonly used in the language of the old fathers as spoken in Umuahia but which he often heard used in the big market in Enugu.
‘Are you from Enugu?’
‘Yes! How did you know?’
‘Where in Enugu?’
He shook his head.
She turned from him briskly, and folded her hands together. ‘You really are strange,’ she said. ‘Do you even know if I have a boyfriend?’
But he did not speak. He put her tray on the dining table, on the edge of which was dried chicken shit. As he put his hands around her and gently pulled her close to him, she whispered, ‘So this is what you really want?’ When he said it was, she struck his hand lightly and laughed as he undid her blouse.
Chukwu, I had by this time known my host for many years. But I could not recognise him that day. He acted like one possessed, unrecognisable even to himself. Where had he, a hermit who yielded little to the world outside his own, found the courage to ask a woman to lie with him? Where did he – who until his uncle suggested he get a woman had thought little of women – find the courage to undress a woman he just met? I did not know. What I knew was that with this uncharacteristic bravado, he stripped the woman’s gown off her.
She held his hand with a hard grip for a long time and covered her mouth with her other hand, silently laughing to herself. They came into his room, and as he closed the door behind them, his heart pounding more quickly, she said, ‘Look, I am dirty.’ But he barely acknowledged those words. He focused on his own slightly quivering hands as they pulled down her underpants. When he was done, he said, ‘It doesn’t matter, Mommy.’ Then he pulled her into the bed in which his father had died, consumed by a kind of passion that bore close affinity with rage. That passion etched itself in the curious changes that appeared in the woman’s facial expressions: one time of delight; one time of anguish, in which she gnashed her teeth; one time of exhilaration that culminated in a small laugh; one time in a shock that held her mouth in a perplexing O shape; one time of a restless peace in which the eyes are closed as if in a pleasant, exhausted sleep. These passed across her visage in succession until the very last moment, when he began to suddenly wither. He barely heard her saying, ‘Pull out, abeg,’ before falling beside her, his expiration complete.
The act itself is hard to describe. They spoke no words but mourned, gasped, sighed, gnashed their teeth. The things in the room spoke in their stead: the bed uttered a mournful cry, and the sheets seemed to engage in a slow, considered speech like a child singing a rhyme. It all happened with the grace of a festival – so quickly, so suddenly, so vigorously, yet so tenderly. And in the end, of all the expressions that had passed over her face, only joy remained. He lay beside her, touched her lips, and rubbed her head until she laughed. The terrors that had lurked in his heart were gone in this moment. He sat up, a drop of sweat falling slowly down his back, unable to grasp the full expression of what he was feeling. He could see in her a certain kind of gratitude, for now she took his hand and held it firmly, so hard that he squirmed silently. Then she began to speak. She spoke about him with an unusual depth of mind, as if she’d known him for a long time. She said that although he acted strange, something in her spirit assured her that he was a ‘good’ man. A good man, she emphasised again and again. ‘There aren’t many like that in this world any more,’ she said, and even though he was now drained and exhausted and half asleep, he could feel the resignation in her voice. Then it seemed that she raised her head and looked down at his penis and saw that long after it had emptied itself on the bedsheet it was still hard. She gasped. ‘You are still erect? Anwuo nu mu o!’
He tried to speak, but he only mustered a babble.
‘Ehen, I see you are falling asleep so quickly,’ she said.
He nodded, embarrassed by his sudden, unexpected exhaustion.
‘I will go so you can sleep.’ She picked up her brassiere and started to put it over her breasts, something the venerable mothers would not have used, for they either covered their breasts with clothes knotted at the back or left them bare, or, sometimes, merely covered them with uli.
‘Okay, but please come tomorrow,’ he said.
She turned to him. ‘Why? You don’t even know, or ask, if I have a boyfriend.’
His mind awakened to the thought, but his eyes remained heavy. He mumbled incoherently words she could not hear but which I heard to be the ba ing statement: ‘If you come, so do come again.’
‘You see, you can’t even talk anymore. I will go. But what is your name, at least?’
‘Chinonso,’ he said.
‘Chi-non-so. Good name. I am Motu, you hear?’ She clapped her hands. ‘I am your new girlfriend. I will return tomorrow, around this time. Good night.’
He heard, in his slouched awakening, the sound of the door closing as she left the house. Then she was gone, carrying with her her distinct smell, a fragment of which had stuck on his hands and in his head.