Monday, April 5, 2010
Life is a river. And so is death. A river that laps at its banks, that ferries grains of whitewashed sands – the freights of forgotten hopes. A river, with restless dark currents, that perturb the bleak bowels of the deep, masking the light of day. This river flows in a destined course, its supple ripples looking back longingly, but never to return – these same ripples gurgle over rocks that stand sentinel at a bend, the lollop, a lame lament at a last farewell. This river flows through the months, trickles through the sieve of days, its interminable hours strains my joys and leaves a stony heart; its endless stream meanders through the eternity of a cycle – a full year – eroding my heart but not the pain, dulling the tale but not the memory. It looks innocent enough, especially on the surface – its flow is undisturbed except for occasional frowns when the gentle breeze breaks into a ripple on its brow. But on the whole, its mirror-glossy face is calm, serene, bearing the history of its source to a destined sea.
I watched as evening welled up in the east. Up ahead in the horizon, the yellowing sun emptied its gold in the pockets of the west – daylight was being spent to penury. A gold tainted wishy-washy black hue was etched across the canvas of heaven. There were no stars in sight yet, but soon they will make their appearance when the sinking sun pulls a blanket of darkness over me; the impenetrable pitch that will roof the earth will be dotted with unnumbered sparks – the pulsing luminaries of a celestial sea.
Tall trees swayed in the breath of the waxing shadows, their silhouettes darkening further the mysterious dark waters of the brooding stream. This stream – this river that holds my memory in its clutches – that feeds my mind with embers that burn my soul. This river that holds a life I had – a life lost in a watery grave. This tale will be told but will never be finished because this river flows eternally, never to be dried up, furnished by my unending tears. A bleak sorrow has mastered my heart; the cold hands of the dark reaper had swung its scythe at my cherished blossom. All is lost. It was here by this river that runs its course through my little village that I loved, and lost. It was here, a year ago, that this watery vault gulped my vessel of love – my bride.
This village of Aniocha has had its own fair share of some history but I guess the annals would never be complete if the story of a prince is not told – a prince who loved a lady at the peril of a kingdom. The idea of love is not strange to my people or to any people for that matter, for there are no group of humans in this world, if they have a heart in their chests and eyes in their head that are immured from the touch of that divine spark and for a prince and the heir to the throne my privileges and opportunities were more far reaching. There were a lot of ladies who were willing to offer up their affection if I had but carelessly nodded to them. But who can tell where the lightning will strike or who can say for certain where that spark, small it may be, will start a flame? There is a thread that runs through the affairs of men, and this thread my friend, is blind. This thread snakes through history, winds its course around events, it never pauses, and it never hesitates at the fork in the road.
The sinking sun unreels my thoughts; it pulls it out from the abyss of my memory. The same way, the sun, the lord of the day, is swallowed up by the machinations of the western sky, so the love of my life fell, consumed by a monstrous tradition. I am master over a portion of an earthly kingdom and my subjects are quick to do the bidding of their future king. But a king is only a king and a king is also a man. Love, too is a king and love, also, is a man’s king. I had no choice – I had to obey the voice of the monarch – my feet could only go where my heart pointed – even if that path was against the wind – against an ancient tradition – against the foundation of our cultural existence. My love was great but tradition insisted that it was flawed, for my love, great as it was had alighted on none other than on an Osu and of that, the kingdom would have no part. Tradition says that an Osu is a slave – infact worse than a slave. They were individuals, outcasts who had been dedicated to a god. They are to have no associations with the so-called freeborn even in the most trivial of things such as eating together, buying and selling in the markets. Such and other forms of interactions must be had strictly between their kinds. Marriage was definitely out of the question; a freeborn cannot marry an Osu and it was an abominable proposition if that freeborn happens to be the prince, heir to the throne. But the waves were fervent in feeding the cascade of events. The lodestone that was my heart was spinning with the erratic gusto of a crazed drummer and finally settled, pointing to the hut of an outcast.
The darkness kept its march as night spread its wings over the silent earth. Here, I remain; here, I sit at the threshold of twilight. Vain longings. Heart, forlorn. The bank of this river was a favourite spot of mine even before the eclipse that plunged my heart into eternal darkness. It was a calm and restful place to retire to and contemplate the workings of nature – a haven where one can withdraw to, from the stench and narrowness of human society and commit oneself to the dark recesses of leafy woods and inhale the aroma of the evergreen. I was hanging out with my cousin, Afam and it was here, in this humble surrounding that I first met Ifeoma. She had come to the river in the company of a friend to draw some water. It was in the cool of the evening. We did not see them as they approached the stream but their spirited chatter reached our ears in the silence-subdued coolness of that evening. Does any man forget when he first comes in contact with true beauty? Not the beauty that rouses the senses to brute conquest and acquisition but a beauty that moves you to stand, that stills you to motion, that stirs your heart to such quiet that you forget all that you are and remember this – and this alone – that you are just one man on the face of the earth – no more, no less – one man with a love-throbbing heart. From my perch beneath a canopy of trees I knew they could not see me. I watched as the pair negotiated the slopy terrain down to the river. I watched the pair but had eyes only for one – one who stood in beauty in the sombre light of the evening, illuminating it – a beauty that pealed the bells of wonder. I watched, enchanted, the woods around me fading into nothingness at her approach. She was dark and graceful, her lips seemed set in a perpetual smile. She walked knee-deep into the river. The water, it seemed, glad to be so honoured rippled all about in an epiphany, breaking in diamond radiance upon the pebbled shoreline. Her fetching pail brushed the surface of the water; she tilted her bowl, the water rushed in to fill it. She waded it gently to the river’s edge. They were still talking as they drew the water; her voice was like merry-bells – there was a spontaneous laughter like the tinkling of crystals. This goddess waited at the shore for her friend the priestess to join her. The sun must have halted its fall at the horizon to take one final peep at her – a worthy image that would loll it to sleep. She raised the bowl full of water to her head and turned to begin the climb uphill. Then suddenly, she slipped and fell. I found my voice.
“Good evening” I said. I barely head myself. I cleared my throat as I clambered down from my perch. “Good evening” I said again. I moved towards her – half running, half walking. I reached out a hand and pulled her up to her feet. The spilled water carved out paths in rivulets to rejoin the stream. She looked stunned at first but started chuckling at the prodding of her companion. I mumbled my sympathy.
“The grounds here are treacherous” I said.
“Certainly, they are. I have found out first hand today: she replied, the remnant of a smile still playing on her lips.
“So I guess we start again?” I asked, picking up her bowl and made for the river. I drew some water and returned with it. “I will take this uphill for you before I place it on your head” I said
“No, no, you don’t have to” she protested, her hands holding on to the edge of the bowl tugging it away from me. “I insist please” I pressed on “just up the hill and then I will gladly give it back to you, I continued teasingly. Without waiting for her to respond I started up on my journey, picking my way through the gullies that lined the steep incline. They came up behind me. Once or twice I caught her companion making faces at her and I enjoyed the look of embarrassed helplessness on her face, I guess at the thought of having a strange man deferring to her so openly. We got to the top of the hill eventually.
“My name is Dike, what is yours?” I asked
“Ifeoma” she said her eyes looking away from me, a shy smile twitching her lips.
“Is it possible to see you again?’ I asked
“That depends on what for and where” she responded
“Just to make sure you are alright, that was a nasty fall you had”
“I will be okay”
“Whose daughter are you?” I pressed on
“My father is Okaka. I must go now; it would be very dark before I get home.
“Okay” I said, sad to see her go “Take care of yourself”
I walked back to my perch under the tree. My cousin, Afam, was chewing on the tip of a blade of grass and staring at me with a look of disapproval.
“What a beauty it has been my good fortune to meet today” I said with undisguised excitement. “Was that a human I just met or was that a goddess in mortal robes who had descended to these parts to test my kindness?”
Afam continued his nibbling on the blade of grass, the disapproval on his face changing to a slight amusement. I did not wait to hear his response. “It is strange how strange I feel,” I continued. “I feel full and yet I feel empty at the same time. She left her presence behind and took a part of me with her.”
“Forget it Dike. She is an Osu” Afam blurted out with unmistakable disdain in his voice. He sounded as if he detested even saying the word “Osu” lest he defied his lips by merely uttering it.
“That is an abominable title for a queen” I said. “It is a morbid trick by life to tarnish nature’s perfection. How can such a heritage breed such peerless constitution? Is this another of life’s cruel jokes?”
“I thought you knew” Afam said, his eyes scanning my face.
“I did not” I said, “but now that I do, I am still unmoved. My memory still stands before her and calls her “goddess”. I wish I knew the antidote for this cruel poison, the varnish for such a brand or had the power to undo this mistake, I would make impotent, whitewash and title her anew”
Afam chuckled and punched me playfully on the shoulders. “There you go again Dike, with your dreams” he said, “you know tradition’s tilt on this matter as well as I do” We both clambered down from the tree and continued with our conversation as we headed towards the village. We parted ways at the village square
That was the turning point in my life. The wings of love were fluttering in my heart. My poor beating heart was on the verge of bursting with rapture. Where was the freshness before now – this fresh air that swells my lungs to plumpness? Were the trees ever this radiant? – these branches of green, which like fingers caressed the last rays of the sun in a dance of light. Did this heart – my heart, ever beat? I doubt it. Did I ever truly live till this moment? What is this feeling of cold warmth that now ripples my bowels. I hummed a tune beneath my breath as I made my way home.
It was full evening now. Darkness ruled. But not for long; behind solitary clouds on the elbow of the east was a flush of silver, - the harbinger of the mellow splendour of a rising moon. The tall trees faithfully kept watch with me, their trunks leaning on the night, swaying lazily, their branches, whistling a dirge in the wind. It was on a moonlit night that I saw Ifeoma again. I met her at the village square; I was with Afam and she, was running an errand for her father. We saw her walking across the grassless sands at the centre of the square. The huge Ube tree cast a long shadow across the sands but I could still make out the features of the one that has been in my thoughts these last two weeks.
“There she is, Afam,” I said quite needlessly.
“I would keep my thoughts to myself if I were you.” Afam said.
“And be singed by the heat of such thoughts.” I countered, smiling.
“It is better to be singed than to be utterly burnt up” Afam retorted, “ I see you courting a fiery fury.”
“Nwanyi oma, beautiful lady, I said dreamily “ see how her body drinks the silver tide of the moonlight.”
“My dear cousin, I see peril on this path that you are about to take. Embrace caution as you take the bend before the final descent.”
“You worry too much Afam. Wait here for me please. I must ascend to meet her.”
“Any more bowls of water for me to carry?” I asked as I came up to her side. She turned to face me, a little startled by my voice. She recovered quickly with a smile on her face
“None. Thank you again for helping me the other day at the stream.” she said “the only burden I bear now is this Utaba, ground tobacco, that I just bought for my father”
“That does not sound like much of a load but anyhow, my heart is already more burdened than you know,” I said. She smiled, with her eyebrows raised in a quizzical expression. “That does not sound like much of a load either” she said teasingly “you could ease your heart by contemplating the night and the mystery of the starry vault above us.” I caught the playful note in her voice and responded in the same token.
“Yes, I could do that. The moon, the goddess of the night is up, and full in her queenly robes and you, her priestess, have come out to worship her.”
“You flatter me Dike. I am hardly all of the lovely things that you say that I am and if only you knew me well, you would not say such things.”
“I think you underestimate yourself Ifeoma. Infact, I should ask you, while I am “contemplating”, if I should direct my worship more earthwards than to the heavens – for my knees would more readily bend and my head more eagerly bow to the priestess than to the queen”
She chuckled, and then burst into a convulsive laughter. There was nothing mocking or malicious in her mirth. The spontaneity of that gesture only made her more appealing. “You hallow me Dike, and you place me in the line of fire of a presently jealous and wrathful queen. Look, I point you again to her and who alone you must worship.” She was pointing upwards with a playful but mischievous grin on her face.
“I will worship the priestess only, Ifeoma.” I said calmly.
“But the priestess is here today and gone the next and what is left of her bequeathed to the memory of forgetful humanity, but, as long as men shall walk the earth and search the night sky, the goddess will remain.” She placed her palm on her chest and said, “Please forget this perishing bubble and reach up to touch the divine.”
“I have always wondered what being in love would make of me. Now I know.” I said.
“You do? How is that?”
“Ifeoma, I love the priestess.”
“More than the goddess?” she asked.
“More than the goddess.” I said.
In a dramatic gesture, she stretched both hands in front of her as if addressing someone and said “Apostasy, you have entered my heart. Priestess, I am, no more, for today, I have found divinity at the hands of a mortal.”
“And I would be your priest” I added in the same dramatic gesture “to worship at your shrine, the rest of my life” In a curious way, I was actually enjoying the serious silliness of our conversation. She was a good-natured soul and I guessed she liked my company.
“Love is a divine gift Dike, a noble passion that should evoke in every heart gratitude to the Creator. But, the love you profess for me cannot be real because I am an Osu.”
“And I love you still.” The playfulness was gone from my voice.
“My kind has fallen from the rung of free and normal men. A freeborn can not marry me, let alone the prince of the land.”
“I have not known you for very long but in these matters, I guess that time is as short or as long as the heart perceives it. I do not know of eternity but within the confines of time, there are no absolutes; though it seems I have known you for only a short period of time, it is very long for me because I have waited for this my entire life.” I was blabbing and hating myself for it. Just tell her how you feel and get on with it I screamed in myself but I was still searching for the right combination of words, the right turn of phrase so I persisted with my circumlocution.
She said nothing. She just stared at me.
“Ifeoma, how do I say this? I can love you and I do love you. Will I have your love too?” I had played this moment several times over in my mind, but my declaration sounded very flat – it was not as lofty as I had imagined it.
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no” she said.
“And what does that mean? I asked.
“Simply that you would have to wait for my reply.”
“Waiting is a virtue that is difficult to have right now but it is a lesson I guess I would have to learn.”
“I have to think about it,” she continued, “to see how it shapes up eventually.”
“ I pray the shape would fit my favour” I said managing a smile.
“Perhaps yes. Perhaps no. It would go through its many cycles of changes and impression as my mind chews upon it” she said, a teasing smile on her lips. She was having a playful mockery at my expense I thought. I played along.
“Such constancy of change my blight my hopes” I replied.
“Or do the converse” she responded.
“That too” I concurred. “So when will it be?”
“About this time next week. I will be running the same errand for my father, and talking about errands I must go now, he must be wondering what is holding me up. “Kachifo, good night,” she greeted me in parting.
“Kachifo” I greeted back.
Generally, I guess most people pray not to see war but I tell you, there is a war constantly raging within everyone – the conflicts of emotions – of love and parting, joy and sadness, and the satisfaction that only creates more longing. Good night my love, I thought, and until I see you again and hear what your response would be, real peace in my heart will be a privilege that I can only imagine.
It is needless to say that Afam did not approve of my association with Ifeoma. He had waited for me rather impatiently while I chatted with her. Nonetheless, I always felt that he would come around. He was my cousin and a good friend – the best friend I had, actually. We met again some days later after my escapade with Ifeoma.
“You look happy.” he said, when he came into my room within the king’s palace. “Why is your heart brimming with such happy bubbles?
“The same reason that also drains it to its dregs.” I said in an attempt to be cryptic.
“That is interesting” Afam said “a pleasant pain? I don’t know anyone who has that.”
“That is true” I replied, “but how well do you really know anyone? People are rarely what they seem. I do bear a heavy heart in spite of my cheerful disposition.”
“Then you should be properly adorned” Afam teased, “wear a heavy heart on your face.”
“And strip my troubles naked?” I quickly retorted. Afam smiled. He was impressed by my quick verbal comeback. We both had a tendency to duel with words. “No, providence leads me along the right path of study” I continued.
“Then, do away with the sadness in your heart if you have elected to put on a happy face. Life is quite tragic enough without having to call for it” he said, still smiling as he poured himself a cup of palm wine.
“A man is tempered by his experiences. I will be patient.” I said.
“Ewo! Dike, you should not have been born in this world. You have notions that are totally unrealistic. You make yourself a wimp for the whipping of a wiser world.”
“It may seem so” I began to say “but beyond my present pain, there is a pearl and a peace that my heart pants after.”
“You mean your unmanly doting over Ifeoma? “ he chided, “the constant worship of your royal head at her peasant feet?”
“Why do you resent my protestation of love to her so vehemently?” I asked.
“Because she is an Osu and beyond that, I resent the way you go about it. You are too much in earnest for your own good.”
“Should it not be so? For love?” I asked.
“There you go again Dike. There, right there, is the problem: there is no such thing as love – it is a song, sung by fools, the clever coinage of an idle mind. It is a sword forged in the hearth of deception. It is a vision, an apparition seen only by its blind disciples. Do you want me to go on?” his voice was pulsing with passion and sarcasm. I was now irritated by his attitude but I controlled myself.
“But I love Ifeoma. Does that not mean anything to you?
“It is not love you feel, Dike.” he said simply.
“What is it then?”
“It is lust and vanity that boils in your blood my friend”
I was shocked by the conviction in his voice as he threw that statement at me.
“There are times Afam, when you make me wonder”
“At the nature of your mind and why you have chosen to remain in the insane clutches of these unwholesome thoughts”
“And are you not worse bound?” he sneered, “tethered to your life-perishing dreams?”
“Yes, I agree I am bound to my dreams but not to these malignant notions that master you. I choose to be servile, captive at the wings of my ideals.”
“Well, I hope those wings are strong enough to bear you up” he said, as he took one more gulp of palm wine from his cup, then announced that he had to leave. I shook my head disapprovingly, a mirthless smile on my lips, realizing that I would never succeed in making him see reason with me. I saw him off to the palace gates.
“Kachifo, May the day break.” he said
“Kachifo.” I replied, giving him a gentle slap on his back.
The night continued its march. The sky above me was laced with unnumbered sparks – the friendly fires of the stars. The moon’s gleam on the ripples was like a ghost as it crept across the dark waters, wafting my memory again to the past:
I had waited a very long time to get Ifeoma’s response. I would go several times to the same spot where I had first told her about my affection for her on the chance that she would come by. There was a felled tree trunk on the outskirts of the village square where I usually sit and from there I could see most of the square. Perhaps I scared her away I thought, as I sat there one evening as my worry-worn heart wondered at her silence. Perhaps she has decided to ignore me altogether.
“She would throw her washing water into your eyes” I heard a voice say. I turned around to see who spoke. It was Ifeoma. “What?” I asked.
“The woman in the moon. She would throw her washing water into your eye,” she repeated.
“I don’t understand” I replied.
“You see those dark markings on the moon?” She asked and without waiting for my answer continued. “They seem to form a woman bending over and washing dishes and if you keep staring at her the way you have been doing, she would throw the dirty water into you eyes”.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked, amused.
“From here and there” she said chuckling.
“Around and about probably?” I added, playfully.
“From above and below also” she said.
“From varied places it seems” I continued, “like the wondering heart of a man in love.”
“Or the unsteady steps of a lady that is about to say “yes”” she added placing her palm on the back of my hand. The import of her gesture did not register in my mind immediately. Then it did. I felt like singing. I felt like crying. I felt like jumping. I felt like running. I felt like proclaiming it from the mountaintop. She loved me. Yes, she loved me. She had made it known better than words would have done. The truth about her affection had been graced by better deeds other than words. What words could do that? What words could convey her message any more convincingly than her touch had done. Maybe she spoke, after all – a speech of no words; spoke, not audible words meant for the natural ear but silent words that were winged with light – illuminating the darkness in my heart; words that my thirsty soul drank hungrily like the dry parched earth receiving its first rains. That my protestation of love had yielded the same filled me joy that coursed through my veins in a riot. It was my good fortune that I had her hand. I was richer with her heart in my keeping. How often I had looked into those clear, still eyes of hers and be lost in their beauty. How often I had watched the love in her heart curve her lips in a smile to ravish my soul. I stood helpless before the aura of her enchantment – a prisoner – glad to be caught in her embrace. We spent the rest of the evening in each others company muttering what lovers have spoken to each other I guess, since the dawn of time.
I visited Ifeoma at her house. Well, not quite. I really did not walk up to the front door to ask for her. I could have but she asked me to give it time, so she could broach the issue with her parents first. But all the same, I walked to within a few feet of her house by the huge Udala tree and usually, I would throw stones into the air that would land on the zinc roof of her house. I did this thrice as a signal to her that I was around and shortly after she would come out to me. On this evening, I had picked up a stone to commence my signalling when I halted in my tracks. I heard voices – two distinct voices, coming from across a window of her house. I recognised Ifeoma’s voice – the other voice must be Chinye’s, Ifeoma’s sister. I walked towards the open window to listen in to their conversation. It was night and though the moon was full and bright, I had the shadow of the surrounding trees to hide me.
“Why are you breaking melon seeds on a night like this?” Chinye said.
“”What else can I do?” Ifeoma said
“Look around you Ifeoma, the moon is up and she hauls her beam to all in sight urging people below to rejoice with her. Come with me my sister – on a night like this, it is a shame to remain indoors.”
Ifeoma sighed and it hurt me to hear the pathos in her voice as she spoke “My hands would have found a better engagement than the company of these flattened seeds and my ears a sweeter song than the hollow crack of their brown shells” She paused briefly as if overcome by some strong emotion. “I would have hoped for a joy-filled heart right now, purchased by the silver of this blessed night – to stay in a warm embrace out in the open, roofless, unscreened from heaven’s gaze.”
“Your voice is sad Ifeoma. Something weighs on your heart?” Chinye asked.
“More like someone” Ifeoma replied.
“Someone? Who?” Chinye queried.
“Someone, whose name is like this moonlight in the glassy night sky but thoughts of our future together, like clouds aim to douse its light.”
“Who is he?” Chinye asked again.
Ifeoma sighed. “His name is heavy on my lips but he lightens my spirit with joy. The pronouncement will sting you but do not be afraid my sister for his name carries no venom and the sting is not really his but that of a malicious snake that tradition has foolishly reared.”
“You test my patience Ifeoma. Who is he? Call his name – my comportment is an armour against its fangs.”
“Dike Agu” Ifeoma said.
“The gods forbid!” Chinye exclaimed, suddenly rising to her feet.
“Forbid?” Ifeoma said, “So soon, sister and you are hit? You stare at me wide-eyed like the owl, your jaw hangs down with unvoiced thoughts; you recoil from me in fear and surprise and between us I see a wall rising that was not there before.” Ifeoma shook her head from side to side as if in pity for her situation. It hurt me to see the tragic figure she cut.
“Once more the venom has done its work” Ifeoma continued, “your blood is embittered, your reasoning banished – you disbelieve the power, you doubt the force, that works at the loom so dexterously to weave this cloth of the bound and the free.”
“Ifeoma, we are Osu. We are bound!” Chinye said in a highly agitated voice.
“Yes, I am bound to Dike, my destiny to his, my love to his heart, my desire to his passion” Ifeoma replied.
“This is nonsense talk Ifeoma. Dike is a freeborn and a prince.”
“Yes, Dike is free to have my love, free to win my heart as his trophy, free to have my hand as his wife”
“Do you want me to smack you across the face to drive some sense into your head?” Chinye screamed, “This is utter nonsense – his family, the elders, the entire village will never countenance this.”
“Our belief, our hope and our love are all the favour we need. We cannot do otherwise.” Ifeoma said in a resolute voice.
“This is not love, Ifeoma. Oil and water cannot mix; a slave cannot marry royalty. Have you lost your mind? Love is supposed to be harmonious – there is no melody in what you are telling me right now.”
“My sister” Ifeoma began, “the melody is lost to you because you listen with a diseased ear – infected to numbness, so that all you hear are distant buzzes from so called ancestors, who play god and croak from their graves.”
“Aaalu!!!, abomination! How dare you say that? Chinye yelled and slapped Ifeoma across the face.
“Keep your hands to yourself or I will have them cut off by sunrise” I thundered putting my head through the open window. Chinye shrieked, shocked at this sudden intrusion. “My lord, I am sorry.” She pleaded as soon as she recognised who I was.
“You did not have to hit her. You could have said your mind and left it at that” I said still fuming.
“Forgive me, my lord” Chinye repeated, her eyes reverted to the floor. “Pardon her Dike” Ifeoma said, coming to my side and placing her hand on my shoulder.
“You must promise not to tell anyone else what she has told you,” I said addressing Chinye “not even your parents. We will tell them when we are ready.”
“I promise” Chinye said. I reached through the window and lifted Ifeoma, carrying her away into the shadows of the Udala tree and then into the moonlight, the sound of her suppressed laughter was music to my ears.
There was a time I would have thought that this was impossible – that another human could engender this pleasant flame that now burns in my heart and that the vessel of a man’s heart could know such peaceful waters in the harsh tempest of life. My sails were billowing in the winds of fortune and this brave vessel bears me on into the unknown with a prayer for fair weather on my lips. I had rifled the basket of the gods and taken their most treasured gem – a lady, beautiful in form and bearing – a pair of eyes that held the stars, dark tresses that cascaded like a waterfall to frame a lovely face – a gait that flowed with the liquid grace of a sylph – an outward form that was a true reflection of an equally beautiful soul. I prayed that heaven bid us good speed to our harbour’s rest.
I heard my father ask “Is Dike back yet?”
“No my lord” my mother replied. “I have sent for him, he will be here soon.” I was in the courtyard and I could hear them both.
“The sky above my head can bear witness that I never brought reproach to my father’s house,” my father said. He laughed suddenly without any mirth in it. “Hmh, Dike is dancing to the rhythm of a strange drum.”
“But my lord, we only have Afam’s word for it” my mother said, “There must be a mistake somewhere.”
“Ooh Agu! Your eyes have seen your ears; except he is no son of mine, except his mother has played me false. My mother, Nkechi looked at the king with a pained expression on her face. “Do not speak like that my lord” she said almost pleadingly, “do not let your anger consume you in this way to utter such things. Dike is a full-blooded Agu.” As if he did not hear her, my father continued with his rant.
“A son I gave birth to in my youth and strength – the first fruit from my loins – the strength of my right hand. He cannot drag my greying hairs to an early grave of shame. “Tufia!” he spat into the air, “the stone one sees approaching cannot blind one.”
I left the courtyard, and made for the chamber where my parents were seated.
“Onye eje, who is that? Is that you Dike? My mother asked.
“Yes mother” I replied,
“Come over here my son. Your father wants to see you.
“Igwe, Papa, Ogbuefi mama” I greeted them both. They both grunted an answer. My father launched into the issue without much ceremony.
“What is this I hear?” he asked.
“That you have been seen on several occasions with Okaka’s daughter in a manner that suggests that you are lovers.”
“I don’t know what to answer father. I…” he interrupted me.
“Do you or do you not know Ifeoma Okaka?”
“I do. I know her.” I said.
“And within what premise would you define your knowledge of her?”
“We are close.”
“You are lovers then?”
I sighed heavily. “We intend getting married father, with your permission.” I have never heard my father speak in a voice like that all my life; it was loud and ferocious. “My permission, you dare to ask for my permission; you bring your homestead under utter scorn of the whole kingdom and you ask for my permission? Should I tell you what you already know? Should I tell you that Okaka is an Osu?”
“I am getting married to Ifeoma and not Okaka, papa”
“Tufia! my son, do not utter it”, my mother interjected vehemently.
“No, Nkechi let him be. Let him show to the world the shameless dog that he is. You are not a baby Dike and I do not intend to take up the responsibility of re-educating you about the traditions of our people. Does a goat give birth to a puppy? Does a lion give birth to a heifer? Like begets like – an Osu can only give birth to an Osu.”
“This is bondage and I cannot accept it. This is a terrible tradition.” I said in a passionate voice.
“It is not for us to question the traditions of our fathers. Where you there when the seven sons of Ozidi founded this village? I have borne the torch well in my time, will the torch fall to the ground in your generation?” he said.
“My son” my mother called in much gentler voice, “there are many beautiful girls from responsible families who would gladly have you for a husband. Consider our age my son – would you have your father’s lineage tainted with such an abomination? Any family that marries an Osu, becomes one with them.”
“Does no one consider how I feel also?” I said.
“Ifeoma is a beautiful girl, but there are girls more beautiful than her that you can marry. Ogwu’s daughter for instance would make a very worthy bride.”
“Mama, it is not my intention to change an age-long tradition but what I feel right now makes change inevitable. I love Ifeoma.”
“My son” my mother pleaded, “we may be getting old but are no strangers to these youthful feelings. Chichi, Ogwu’s daughter, is as beautiful as Ifeoma and would be worthy of any man’s love.”
“Mother, you have been kind. Please, pardon me once more to intrude upon that kindness. No one can explain love, least of all I; maybe there are sensibilities of heart and behaviour – things that we can neither grant sight or heed or feelings that endears one heart forever to another. That is how I feel about Ifeoma.”
“Then, you are not my son” my father thundered. My mother was sobbing now and her tears tore at my heart but what could I do.
“Dike, what sort of spell has she cast over you?” my mother asked amidst her tears. “My womb was your nest for nine months, my laps gave you warmth and the strength that you have in you now, came from these breasts. Why would another woman’s voice displace mine from your heart?”
“The matter is simple enough,” my father said. He was on his feet and looking menacing, “either you choose your family or you take your lot with those outcasts. Any river that refuses to flow into the sea will eventually become a lake.”
“I do not care whatever you call them – outcasts, untouchables, abominable. My resolve is unbendable and my destination is set.” I said and with that I left the chamber with my mother still crying and calling out to me.
Traditions are made by men, why then, can men not unmake them? I still could not understand why a certain group of people exactly like us in every detail have to be treated like scum at our whim.
Who is an Osu? How are they any different from so called freeborns? Does the same warm red blood not course through their veins? Is the beat of their heart any less appealing to the ears of the Creator when compared to ours? Why must men draw a line of separation where the Almighty has not? The Creator is all seeing, all wise, with depths of knowledge beyond fathom but we are in no wise pawns in his hands. Options are laid before us and we are supposed to choose. No man can say that he has no right to choose for in every man, lies the makings of something that exceeds mere earthly brute. Yet, men choose to spite their neighbours because they were born under different circumstances and I am told to turn my back on my love because of an accident of birth.
They are lowborn?
What does that mean?
Did they like us not come into the world from between a woman’s parted legs? Did they too not ride the cry of labour pains?
And what is it to be a freeborn?
What does that mean?
Like them, are four limbs and a head not our lot, we who prance about, who scorn them and who never dare to see them as equals, though death and deity proclaim us so? I am a prince and he is a slave! I am rich and he is poor! We are freeborns and they are Osu! One man cries one thing, another man cries the other, but in essence what are we all but exalted dust. Some are not as privileged in life as others but that is no reason to make their already difficult lives impossible. We flatter ourselves with titles and appellations; we bloat our egos deriding our less endowed colleagues. We forget in our vanity that the day comes when we will be beaten back to the dust from which we came.
I met with Ifeoma on several occasions – secretly of course. We had many secret rendezvous at different places in the woods. We met again at one of our favourite places.
“Let us sit on that boulder – the trees will shield us from the heat of the setting sun. Here, I will watch the moon leave its hiding, I will watch as night time falls, I will watch your heart and read therein, the beauty of them all.”
“As always, you flatter me again, Dike” she said, “It is very peaceful here”
“Why would it not be peaceful when nature itself takes a pause from its constant activity to look upon your beauty and to gaze into the fathomless glory of your eyes.”
“I can’t get you to stop, can I?” she said, making funny faces at me, “you say the nicest things but what chances have I? I can only pray that our love does not go down like the sunset – life has no joy without you, Dike.”
“Do not fret, Ifeoma. The gentle hands of fate brought us together to sail this sea of love forever; the turbulent sea may rock our boat, but the dream of a happy union will not come to a halt.”
“Sometimes, I think we are chasing shadows, merely looking for the end of the rainbow” she said in a sad voice. I took her in my arms and stroked the back of her neck.
“Does our heart not sing a common song and dwell in a world to which we both belong?” I asked.
“Yes, it does” she responded “but the rhythm of the song has changed, it now rings out like a man in chains.”
“The horizon may be misty with no sign of land in sight but it is always too soon to give up the fight” I admonished.
“But I worry for you my love, your parents; how can I live with the fact that my insistence on our being together puts you all in danger of being ostracized? My heart compels me to yield; my heart is tempted to say “enough!” ”
“No, don’t cry Ifeoma” I said wiping away the tears from her cheeks with my thumb. “The earth may tremble, but my love for you will not waver, it will not abate – it has taken time to grow and mature and now it is in full blossom.”
“I am scared Dike. We have no one but fate to blame for this. Why was I accursed to be an Osu? Fate frowned at the birth of our love and providence seeks to take our joy.
“We will not blame destiny, Ifeoma. We will not complain about fate. Instead, we will affirm our identity as gods that walk the earth. In everyman there is a seed that strives for greatness; if that seed will sprout to life and journey heavenwards, or if it will waste and die, forever buried in the mud, rests entirely in his hands – not fate, not oracles or stars.” Ifeoma put her arms around my neck and pulled me close to her in a tight embrace. “And if things don’t go the way we want in the end? she asked.
“Then, so be it. “ I said, “No price is too much to pay for the happiness that I have known with you.”
“Do we elope? We will never be accepted here,” she said.
“I have heard of a place beyond the Niger river, that ought to provide some excellent abode for a new beginning. Our love will grant us strength and our hope, as we walk towards it, like the sun, will cast the shadow of our burden behind us” ”And how soon can we leave?” she asked.
“It has to be soon since these woods have ears and have lent us audience and soon the trees will grow tongues to tell the details of our flight if we delay.” For the first time that evening, I saw her smile, a warm smile that rippled through her cheeks to light up her eyes.
“My love, what a sad song life would have been had we parted company” she said.
“If I ever lose my way in the labyrinth of life” I said, “your eyes, those twin lighthouses, burning like the stars will guide my weary soul to the harbour of peace and rest.”
“Mmmh, I love the sound of that – tell me more – my ear has drunk its full of such melodious notes, but the fullness, only awakens in me, a deeper hunger.”
It was a painful decision to make, to leave the land of our birth but there was no other option – parting was not a consideration – it would be unbearable. We could not stay and be continuously harangued by the displeasure of ancestors past, the reproach of those living and the scorn of posterity. There are some who said we should part for “peace sake”, but “peace” is not necessarily won by shrinking from battle – such a peace would not be peace, but a deceptive calm – the kind that precedes a thunderstorm. Ours was only one of several chains that had been forged and more would follow. And what should the others do? Withdraw for “peace sake?” That would not do – we must stand on what we believe because it is right. We must not bind ourselves when heaven had proclaimed us free, we must wedge our resolve firmly in our hearts. Perhaps, the tide may turn and perhaps it wouldn’t but we would not be guilty of remaining silent in our chains – such a “peace” cannot be so sweet as to be purchased at the price of bondage. And, if the land of our birth cannot afford us the right of being free to unite our love in wedlock, then we must find our home and our fortune elsewhere. Let heaven and our ancestors bear witness that we do this in good earnest. We cannot do otherwise.
We agreed to meet where it all first began – by the riverside. We would be there at the very first stirring of daylight and from there we would make our journey across the river by boat. The trip downstream would bring us to a neighbouring town called Ukueze and from there we would continue our journey by road. The option of taking the trip by road from our own town would not be a good one because you are bound to run into a townsman who would betray your intentions. I had arrived at the riverside as planned. The magnitude of my decision to elope with Ifeoma was slowly dawning on me; I was slightly nervous but there was no doubt in my mind about the choice I had made. I looked up to the sky; sunrise was just at the horizon. I turned to east and with my hands raised, I implored my ancestors:
“Hear me, eastern sky that is already pregnant with the day, give birth to your gold-coloured orb; let it crest the treetops and its golden streamers, filtered by their branches, bathe this nuptial nest. Arise, morning sun and give light to this slippery path I am about to trudge. I do not pray for light to see the ultimate end, though happy it would be, but light just sufficient to see my very next step. But, if, bright sun, you refuse to herald this treacherous path I intend to dare, if you would not be my lamp because I steer away from traditions’ way; if indeed, no man can win judgment against his people and you would not be party to this unpardonable sin, then, away with you! for I bear a torch that belittles the intensity of your light. The flames of love that burns strongly within my heart will guide my unsteady feet.”
I saw Ifeoma approaching. I watched her descending the slopy terrain – the same way she had done some two months ago. She was beautiful, I thought as I watched her coming towards me as if borne by the fresh, cold breath of the morning. We boarded the boat and pulled away from land. The vessel launched forwards as I engaged the oars, our hopes its only sails. We were only a few feets away from the shoreline when I heard the unmistakable sound of running feet. The bushes along the shore began to stir actively. Eight men came out of the shadows of the woods and ran towards the river. They shouted instructions intermittently to us to stop. I recognised them. They were my father’s guards – palace guards! How were we found out? Who told them about our bid? Those were questions I knew would not be answered in a hurry. We must get away from them. If we are taken back to the palace, I could not bear to imagine what would happen. It was not for myself I feared – I was still a prince, but for Ifeoma – who knows what they would do to her – her life would not matter a bit to them. I would never see her again. Desperation strengthened me. I paddled with all the energy I could muster. They were a significant distance behind me in pursuit in another boat and for a while I gained the advantage but soon the distance between us began to decrease. Eight palace guards paddling behind me like demons – it was just a matter of time. Their boat nudged mine as they came abreast. I swung my paddle, catching one of them on the temple – he tumbled into the water. One of them clutched at my paddle and yanked it away from me. Another held on to Ifeoma who was fighting him off without much success. And suddenly, her head came down and she sank her teeth into the guard’s arm. He screamed in pain and struck out at her in anger with the back of his hand. She fell into the river. A cry of anguish rose from my throat. “Ifeoma cannot swim,” I thought, in horror. I renewed my struggle but more powerful hands pinned me down. I called out to the other guards to save her but they ignored me. I yelled, I threatened, I pleaded, but my appeals were to a stone wall. I heard her splashing about trying to remain afloat. What agony filled my heart in that moment; every splash was a dagger that ran my heart through. The splashes became more and more feeble and then, finally stopped.
A shiver ripples through me at this recollection. It is night now and I am still here. The moon is brilliant and bright and it filters its ghostly light through the woods. Night’s creatures broke the silence with a creek, a croak and a chirrup and I am still here.
I was captured and Ifeoma was dead. Why has death chosen to play this prank on me? Once again fate has played me false. Why has cloud instead of sun hung over our cherished plans? Death had reaped an unripe fruit and creased my face with pain forever. The countryside had rung with our laughter, our eyes had sparkled, intoxicated by wine that ran from our hearts. Between each kiss, we tasted honey and our breath was the smell of scented flowers. Was ours a love too perfect to last? Our love was so free, so fair, and so rich; on such love my soul still ponders. To whom have you left me Ifeoma? Who will calm my angry sea? Who will still the raging storm? Who will shield my eyes from the blast of this bitter wind? How do I wade through this stream of broken melodies?
Thereafter, for many days I prayed for death but the dark one would not heed. I was locked up in an empty room to keep me from “harming myself” as my father put it. I went without food or a drink for days though I was amply provided with both. My heart had eaten to its full, how could my bowels know hunger. My sanity was on its brink and for a while I thought I would lose my mind – insanity would have been a welcome relief from this torture of my soul that could not forget. Sleep must have washed over me at the height of exhaustion; I woke from a troubled sleep and my head was aching. I dreamt that I died. To dream that one dies is not a dream that would not come true some day. I wished it would be sooner than later. So, the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months and now a whole year had rolled by but the events are still as pungent as ever in my mind. After a while I was allowed my freedom but I knew I was a changed man. I was still alive but I knew that for me living was gone forever.
When I look down the rungs of the past one year, down the short vista of twelve vanished months, it has become clear to me that man in all his pride, his hunger for titles and appellations, in all the certainty which he assumes to possess concerning the workings of life and living is almost always afraid. Fear is the common thread that runs through the seams of human affairs. We are not too busy and we are not too big. We are not too knowledgeable or too sure of ourselves – we are only afraid. Everyman has a great capacity for love – to love his neighbours. He also has a great capacity to share that love – but fear will not let him for fear breeds suspicion and doubt – suspicion and doubt that makes a man unsure of himself and his neighbours. Caught between these two foes, he attempts to gain control over his predicament by boxing himself in with a set of instructions as terms upon which to live his life. These instructions, after prolonged use become entrenched as traditions. So, perhaps, many, many, many years ago there was a crisis in the land (maybe a famine, because it did not rain) and men in their fear were looking for answers and the answer was not forthcoming. Their crops were dying and their own lives were in danger also. In their fear they sought for answers desperately. The gods must be angry they concluded and the oracle man confirms their fears – of course. "Atonement must be made", the oracle man proclaims and everyone concurs. They would need victims – human victims but they cannot shed the blood of a clansman (because tradition says that Ani, the Earth, forbids it) so they decided to dedicate the victims to the gods to appease them. Over time, in order to preserve the originality of the victims that were dedicated, they came up with a rule that none should marry them except amongst themselves. But they were aware that marriage was more likely to arise if other associations were maintained, so they made the rules more stringent – do not marry them, do not eat with them, do not trade with them. They became outcasts - they became Osu, and all because it did not rain. And many years later I am to suffer the consequence of my ancestors’ fears.
I recall this bitter memory in the silence of these dark woods; beside the river that holds a jewel I loved but could not save. The night races on and soon the light of dawn will pierce this turbid darkness – day will be reborn. In the light of day nothing is hidden; for light is love. And there is no fear in love.