By Isaac Ogezi
The last time she experienced this eerie feeling of doom was almost two decades ago. It was a past she could stake her present life to hinder from being exhumed. Like the spilt gall-bladder of a chicken, which, if not handled with circumspection, could soil the rest of the meat.
The rainstorm had abated with the insurgents’ cannon in the skies, which was gradually receding. The deep darkness that enveloped the earth which had been on the receiving end of the rage of the elements, was intermittently sheared by streaks of lightning to reveal a mother earth drenched in her own tears. This was the auspicious time Olege had been waiting for, to sneak her lifeless child into the night. The bargain had not been right for the endless nausea that came with conception right up to parturition, culminating in this coup de grace.
After two years of eking out an existence with her flesh, her lithe body bearing different weights of drunken Mabuchi-habitués with nothing to show for it, Olege was not averse to her friend Queen’s idea when it was sown, that it was about time she gave thought to supplying goods to morbid customers. What was a few months of nausea to an opportunity that could change her life forever? Besides, the goods would still be in a state of sinlessness, untainted by the world’s iniquities, their end, being pounded in a ritual mortar, could not damn their souls. The important customer Queen introduced her to a fortnight later appeared aloft, uninterested in her skimpily-clad nudity as they haggled over the price. No, his thoughts were unto something more lofty, the hallowed service to his people, whom if, blindfolded, they would re-elect him into office in the next general elections.
“You can do better than that, Honourable,” she’d challenged, after extracting the stick of London cigarette from her lips, then lifting her head slightly to expel a plume of smoke which spiralled above their heads like clouds, dissolving into the hazy air in the rat-hole of a room.
“That’s the highest I can afford to pay,” came a reply that brooked no contradiction. Face creased in deep thought, he clasped and unclasped his hands. “However, should the sex be female, I’ll add fifty thousand naira to it. Is that ok?”
She nodded and the contract was sealed. Verbally sealed. When he left, she rushed to her bank, clutching the polythene bag that contained half of the agreed fee. Crisp banknotes that could keep poverty at bay for a few months. Tonight she’d be unprotected when any of her customers who looked healthy and plump enough came calling.
After a few attempts, dotted with false hope, days coalesced into weeks and weeks into months and before long it was harvest-time, stillbirth-free and miscarriage-proof. The seed begotten to keep the wolf from its mother’s door pealed its arrival from toothless gums, piercing the silent Maternity Ward of the hospital.
“Your goods are ready, Honourable!” she shouted excitedly into her Samsung cell phone. She didn’t know it could be this nerve-racking, these near-death rites of motherhood, the seemingly endless visits to the hospital for pre-natal check-ups, the different body changes and mood swings she had experienced, but finally, it was going to pay off.
“What did we have?” came the anxious voice from the other end. Does it matter? she thought to herself. Hadn’t she fulfilled her part of the bargain?
“A boy?” he asked. She could distil the obvious disappointment in the question. Alas, she now understood why one of her colleagues, Agnes, was gruesomely murdered by a rich customer in a nondescript rendezvous, her body badly mutilated. Breasts slashed off, eyes gouged out and her vagina neatly scooped out.
“Yes, a boy. Come and collect your goods. When you’re coming, please don’t forget to bring my balance.” There was a slight pause on the other end and when the voice came, it was apologetic.
“Erm … things are pretty difficult for me at the moment. So I don’t know if you could accept half of it.”
That was all Olege needed to trigger off her petulance. And she gave it to him in full measure.
“Eh, what are you saying, you wicked man? Was that what you and I agreed?”
“Of course not, Miss Jatau. That’s why I’m apologising to you. That’s how far I can go for now. If only it were a girl. I mean …”
“Nonsense! My God will punish you. I won’t ever forgive you for this, I swear,” she cursed under her breath.
“Once again, I’m sorry. Are you sure I shouldn’t bring what I’m offering and collect the goods? I could make do with it.”
“No, don’t bother,” she said curtly. “I know what I’ll do,” she added with an air of finality and disconnected him. Her mind was made up. It was by far better she did what she thought of doing, than to collect that pittance after her travails.
In her dim lantern-lit stuffy, low-ceilinged room, Olege tried to rationalise her decision. The child lying on the bed could not be said to be unplanned, but how would she take care of it all alone? Living the life of a single mother was completely out of the question. What about giving it to an orphanage? She killed the idea as quickly as it had reared its ugly head. No. She couldn’t imagine a part of her growing up among little strangers with similar unfortunate past who’d crouch before a pot-bellied philanthropist to sing the beggarly chorus of appreciation. What was worse, he wouldn’t amount to anything in life, what with a puritanical society that would always remind him of his place like the rootless child who drove a keen sword into his mother’s soft belly for failing to show him his biological father. No, she couldn’t bring up her nemesis who would kill her later in life. She had to do something to save him from this harsh world that flowered luxuriantly in its sanctimoniousness.
The cherubic smile on the child’s face couldn’t thaw her resolute heart. She had to save it from itself. She quickly reached for the pillow under her head and thrust it on its head with some mild violence. A krrr sound announced the success of the smother.
A peal of thunder rumbled over her head, tailed by a flash of lightning which momentarily brightened the rubbish dump she’d come to with the little bundle in a transparent polythene bag. Face hooded in a head-gear, she had on a jacket with her two feet shod in wellington boots. These measures notwithstanding, the weather was still bitingly cold. With all her strength, she flung the bundle to the extreme end of the dump and came away to the warmth of her airless room. In the distance, the skies were still raging, rent by peals of thunder and lightning.
Since her husband, Agole, had returned home from the elders’ meeting at the palace of the Osakyo, this uncanny feeling reminiscent of that fateful night at Mabuchi had persisted like the sediment on a sea-bed. She prayed silently that this night might not witness the radical diversion of the course of her life’s river. She mumbled a prayer to Azhili, the god of her people, to guard her against this night laced with the auguries of evil. And for Azhili to wade into and end this unending bloodbath between her husband’s people and her people. All that she knew about the genesis of the internecine strife were scraps of rumours pieced together from men and women of her ethnic extraction in Kosassia market where she had a stall.
It had all begun with the creation of the new state where her people constituted the single most populated ethnic group, in fact, more than one-third of the over forty other nationalities in the fledgling state combined. Unfortunately, this numerical advantage did not have a corresponding reflection of the number of her people at the helm of affairs in the state. As if this was not enough, the most coveted, number-one elective post of the Governor had always eluded them, no thanks to the massive rigging of the general elections by the ethnic minorities. Then came the now defunct redeployment, “back-to-your-land” policy where the government, in conspiracy with their detractors, clamped down on them, de-indigenized many of their people from the land of their forebears. Hounded out of the land of their ancestors, marginalized and balkanised in the scheme of things in the state, they had to arise with one voice to categorically say no to it, enough was enough; for the time had come to take their rightful place, to resist this pogrom against their people. Their enemies might say, pushed to the wall of their extremity they had turned diabolical, but does it matter? Azhili had been with them right from the beginning of time, with their primal ancestor. Ombatse! Indeed it is time. Ombalamo!
In a world steeped in political imbroglios, ethnic militancy and palpable insecurity, Olege at this stage of her life, wondered if she had made the right choice of not marrying someone from among her people. Had she been blessed with children, her male ones would now be ousted from taking the rites of ri’ashim which forbade the lust of the flesh, witchcraft, cultism, alcoholism, stealing and all other kindred vices that were at variance with Azhili, the intercessor of her people. Azhili disapproved any man not sired by a male member of her people from being a member of the Ombatse prayer group. As the would-be initiates lined up, the chief priest of Azhili deity, the one-eyed, hoary-haired Baba Yokala stood at the head of it, solemnly administering the oath of ri’ashim. A short, benign-faced, wiry and unassuming old man, Baba Yokala had a low whispering voice which carried so much power, not because of its sinister nature but owing to the myths spun about his person which could only be rivalled by the fearsome deity, Azhili. Stories had it that he carried the manifest essence of the deity in his slight build. Always with a small hand-woven raffia bag hung over his left shoulder, a bag reputed to contain the secret of his disappearing acts anytime he perceived imminent danger to his life or when in a hostile territory.
Agole could feel his wife’s unsettling gaze stripping him naked after he turned his back on her. She seemed obviously dissatisfied with his explanation as to what the elders had deliberated on at the Osakyo’s palace. More was in the offing, undivulged, she suspected. He bent sharply in time to avoid ramming his face into the low brittle reed eaves of his hut. For the first time since she came into his life, he was self-conscious in her presence.
Could love, unrequited, birth this smouldering fire of hatred? Agole wondered, racking his brains in order to fathom this poser that would perhaps unlock the window to the inscrutable heart of man. Or how could a man wait for almost two decades before he exacted his revenge on a woman whom he couldn’t win in the heyday of puppy love?
Inarigu was not a man given to impassioned and skilful speeches but not on this day that his hatred nudged him to his feet to deploy hitherto unknown tricks of a demagogue. In retrospect, Agole couldn’t believe how he was able to restrain himself from asking him to shut up if he had nothing to say; there was more to it than met the eye. Inarigu just couldn’t stomach the fact that he, Agole, had triumphed over him in the game of love. Were furtive glances still not cast towards his house at any mention of Olege’s barrenness because many suspected his hands were not clean? Cowardly men were known to turn to witchcraft to extract their pound of flesh from women who turned them down.
“They’re the saboteurs, these sisters of Ombatse militants pretending to be our wives. Or how can one explain that before we attacked them in a reprisal, it was always leaked to them?” he asked rhetorically. “Until this crisis started, little did we know that we had been sleeping with our enemies!” He went on to move the hearts of his audience on the need to leave behind any of their wives that was of the same ethnic extraction as the Ombatse militants in the planned midnight evacuation. When he took his seat, there was a tense silence, akin to that of a graveyard in the Osakyo’s inner chambers where the top security meeting was being held.
A couple of glances were cast in Agole’s direction, for not a few of them were ignorant of the no-love-lost relationship that subsisted between him and Inarigu like co-wives. He had to stand up for his wife before it was too late.
“If we leave them behind,” he’d begun after saluting the gathering in the order of their titles, “these women who’d left the whole world to marry us, despite the fact that they saw equally young men among their people, yet settled for us, of what benefit would that be?’ He paused to let that sink in first before continuing. “I don’t know what some people like Inarigu who have not married across the ethnic divide believe, but as for me, when a woman is married, her loyalty is to her new home – to her husband and children,” he said, visibly pleased with himself for the frontal stab at his rival.
“As if we don’t know that some of them are just eating our food since it has ceased to be with them in the manner of women!” retorted Inarigu rather bluntly. The innuendo struck most of the men as being too banal. The Osakyo had to quickly intervene to forestall the meeting from degenerating into pandemonium and pleaded with Agole to carry on with his speech. The unanimity of reprimand of Inarigu’s snide remark somewhat appeased Agole and he continued.
“To whom shall we leave these women behind for? To their Ombatse brothers who may have seen them as traitors by marrying us? I want to please beg that we tread carefully on this issue before we do the unspeakable. I’m not ignorant of the holocaust this Ombatse militia has wrought on our land, what with the mindless carnage and blood-chilling horror they have unleashed in broad daylight. But should we allow this grief push us precipitately to commit an unheard-of taboo? Will history acquit us of such despicable action? I say no further, Your Eminence.”
Inarigu may have his way, but I have the last laugh, Agole thought, his face breaking into ripples, as he beamed a smile of victory. He gloated about his conquest over his adversary, years after he had married Olege. He remembered with nostalgia how Olege had rebuffed the overtures of Inarigu and all other men from among her people and agreed to marry him. He was thus impervious to the elders’ resolution at the Osakyo’s palace.
Before Olege had appeared on the scene of his life, Inarigu was no more than a mere acquaintance whom he had known since childhood in Kosassia. The usual youth meetings at the major town hall, communal labour and countless festivals had inexorably brought them together. And in all these encounters, it was not more than an exchange of cordialities. Unfortunately, all this was to come to an end when Inarigu tried to bully Olege into succumbing to his burning lust.
He was not more than a boy when he got to know Olege. Her widowed mother’s land was bounded by their family’s land towards the south-eastern end and he could recall the number of times her mother her came to meet his father for some words of advice on farming activities. As usual, as if choreographed, the daughter would be in the mother’s tow like a chick after its mother in forage for food. He bided his time until luck came his way during the planting season when he saw the daughter alone, planting grains of maize. One thing led to another and, not long after their passion, set ablaze the tinder-box of emotions. Only the banana plantation bore witness to the tremulous cries of their first mating.
It was a tug of war between him and her mother when she got wind of the budding affair. As the only child of her mother, the latter would not hear of any relationship with an outsider other than someone from their ethnic group. The stem that was broken mid-life must bud again, albeit through its youngling. She was the only hope of her deceased father and hers was the heavy burden to continue with his lineage within the ethnic tree. Beset with this conundrum, Agole didn’t also find it easy to stave off Inarigu’s amorous advances to Olege. How could a man in love stop other men from making passes at a woman he had not married? Confront them in a duel? This was the dilemma Agole often found himself in anytime Olege cried to him.
“I know what you’re passing through, Olege,” Agole had begun uncertainly. ‘But there’s nothing we can do about it. You’ve got to keep avoiding him. It’s the place of the woman to handle with tact overtures from the opposite sex. Or would you rather I challenged him to a fight in the public or set upon him in the night unawares with a sharp machete?”
“No, Agole. It has not come to that.”
“All right, I know what I’ll do then if it is the shedding of blood that you’re afraid of. I’ll make his death appear like an accident. A little tampering with the brakes of his father’s Suzuki motorcycle which he likes riding, and he’ll meet with his death or be maimed for life!” he offered.
“I can see that you’re making light of my feelings, Agole,” she said crossly. ‘Otherwise, you wouldn’t have ignored my advice.”
“That we should elope and get married, right?”
“Yes. I cannot see any other way out. I’m sick and tired of always facing my mother’s endless bickering and the threats that she’ll give me out as a gift to her maternal uncle’s son Ovey to marry. Can you imagine?” she paused briefly to allow Agole absorb the shock. “I can deal with Inarigu’s animal lust but what about my mother’s threats?’ she cried, her helplessness etched on her young, beautiful face.
Perhaps if there was one single regret in Agole’s life, it was not heeding Olege’s advice, for when the next day broke, she was nowhere to be found. He felt like a coward who couldn’t take sides with his love against an unfeeling world that thrived on hatred and violence. Years later he heard that she was seen in the capital city living as an independent woman and never cared a hoot to know how her mother was faring until the poor woman passed on. It was during the funeral ceremony that their paths crossed again when she came home, a much-changed woman. But who would have believed that the cold ashes in the hearth could still ignite a smouldering conflagration?
Agole turned the logs in the tripod-stand fire as his mind reminisced about the past. He told her that in her absence, he’d married a woman from among his people, and asked if she would come in as the second wife of which she consented. Now this union which had gone through the crucible of trials over time was at the brink of collapsing. Could he afford another parting from her? Of course, recent events in the state had worsened, pitching her people against his people, with both sides clamouring for the last, definitive fight. The state was yet to recover from the shock of the over seventy security operatives who died in one fell swoop on the night of May 7, which is as apocalyptic to the chequered history of the young state as September 11 to the US. The manner of their annihilation in Yokala still remains a great mystery to the world till date.
No doubt the action of the government was well-intentioned. This scourge of Ombatse was getting out of hand. In fact, it was fingered for all acts of violence and atrocity in the state. To stamp out this menace, this infamy on the face of the earth, the order was clear and unambiguous: go get Baba Yokala, the chief priest of the Azhili deity and leader of Ombatse cult, cleanly sever his head from the neck and serve it on a platter like John the Baptist’s at the behest of Herodias’ daughter, and give it to the ruler of the land. With yelping police search-dogs and all the paraphernalia of war, the over seventy security operatives set out in nine Toyota Hilux vehicles to kill the lynchpin of the proscribed militia at the most likely hour he could be found resting his feet at home, shrouded away from prying eyes by the gathering darkness.
However, the unspeakable happened just a few minutes to the outskirts of Yokala village. The first sign of foreboding was triggered off by the search-dogs, which, as if on cue, began to bark at the forbidding darkness, straining violently against their leashes. Sandwiched on both sides by thick forests, there was an eerie silence save for the frantic barking of the dogs, as if the team was entering a deserted village. Could it be the grotesque forms of trees flitting past as the vehicles sped along the dirt road that played some pranks on them or some prognosis of doom or apparitions which only their sixth animal sense could pick? They didn’t have to wait for so long before the object of the dogs’ barking manifested itself to them. It first appeared like a shooting star in the skies but as it made its descent to the earth, it morphed into a red ball of raging fire hovering above their heads, accompanied with the almost inaudible droning sound of an aircraft. Crashes of thunder from the sterile skies followed with a flash of lightning which momentarily revealed an old, hoary-haired man flying on wings. In the infinitesimal brilliance of the lightning, the old, feathered man’s features looked like their quarry whom they’d come to decapitate, however endowed with wings.
“Welcome to the land of no return,” said the old man, airborne, his wings outstretched to their full elasticity like bats’.
“Fire!” barked the leader of the team after shaking off his stupefaction at the unbelieving sight before them. Sounds of guns being hurriedly cocked and then the impotent kra-kra-kra of non-fire. By this time the terrified dogs with tails tucked behind their forelegs, bereft of the power of their vocal cavities, snuggled behind their masters for protection.
“Ha! ha! ha!” came the mocking laughter of the old man with wings, reverberating into the night. The laughter stopped as suddenly as it had begun. “Azhili, manifest your power to these upstarts!”
Instantaneously there came the rain of orange-like objects from the skies, pelting the world-under. They fell on the men’s heads, shoulders, and legs and ran into the available spaces in the vehicles. Oranges or hand-grenades? The men wondered and before they could switch on their torches to find out, it was too late. There was an ear-splitting roar and the nine vehicles exploded into flames, leaving the charred remains of the entire team.
“I noticed since you returned from the elders’ meeting at the palace of the Osakyo, you’ve been avoiding me like a plague. Or have I done anything wrong that my lord cannot tell me or could it have to do with my people, the Ombatse group?’ she asked.
“Well, not exactly,” he replied evasively. He was really in great pain. How was he to explain to her the resolution of the elders at the Osakyo’s palace? Somehow he could now see reason why her mother had insisted her daughter take a husband from their ethnic stock. Recent outbreak of violence in the state had vindicated her, for in a world so ethnically dichotomized, marrying beyond the divide was truly foolhardy, if not suicidal.
“Go to bed, Olege. I’ll soon join you,” he assured her dismissively.
Without a word, she walked away, her footfalls gradually dying away. He waited for her to get to her room before dousing the fire with water, got to his feet and stretched to his full height to get rid of cramps that had developed as a result of sitting for so long in one place and made for her room. In the half-dark room, he didn’t bother to turn up the wick of the lantern but felt his way to the bed. His mildly cold fingers came in contact with her warm, supple flesh which yielded in its own accord.
“Have you come, my lord?” asked she in a drowsy voice.
“Yes,” he answered laconically. She shifted for him and he joined her on the bed after shedding himself of excess garments.
The few hours’ sleep before midnight proved more futile than Agole had thought possible. It was not until he lay supine on the bed that the full impact of the elders’ resolution at the palace of the Osakyo dawned on him like a splash of cold water on a sleep-bleary face. Could he bear to betray her again? A tip-off had gotten to them from a reliable source that the Ombatse militants would be storming their little town of Kosassia in the wee hours of the morning, which precipitated the emergency meeting at the place of the Osakyo. If betraying her had only meant deserting her, it wouldn’t have been so guilt-ridden as leaving her at the mercy of those beasts. What would be her fate in the hands of the Ombatse warlords? Would they be magnanimous enough to spare one of their own who had unwittingly found herself in the camp of the enemy? Lately eye-witness’ reports of their bestiality had not conferred on them that quality of mercy. No, he shuddered at the horrifying images his mind’s eye threw before him. The Ombatse militia was rather gaining notoriety for its ruthless and horrendous violence like the Islamic extremist sect, Boko Haram, who revelled in the gruesomeness of their wanton butchery. Was it not enough to kill a heavily pregnant woman by driving a rod into her birth-canal, why, in the name of all that was decent, would they dissect her in order to bring out the blood-covered dead child in her womb? The dead were not allowed to rest on the bosom of nothingness, no, their remains on this side of paradise must be roundly humiliated by these ravenous ticks hell-bent to bore into the bowels of humanity.
Again and again, he shook his head vigorously. No. If he must be a party to this midnight flight without his wife Olege, his mind must be absolved that he had entrusted her in safer hands, beyond the reach of those blood-revelling morons. Man has irredeemably debased himself to the level of a carnivorous animal who now revels at butchering his fellow man without a stab of conscience, and has consequently ceased to occupy his self-proclaimed place of being a higher primate. No, he wouldn’t trust these Ombatse baying bloodhounds to spare his wife even though she was of their ethnic extraction. They’d rather kill her as a traitor like the gothic execution of an Islamic apostate who dared to marry an infidel, stoned to death with her disembowelled entrails left for birds of prey to peck at with venom.
“Are you still awake, dear?” she asked sleepily. Oh God, what had he done to wake her up again and perhaps bungle his resolution? He thought guiltily.
“Go to sleep, Olege,” he said cooingly as a mother would to a child she was serenading to sleep.
“Is it still about the elders’ meeting at the palace of the Osakyo that is making you not sleep?” she probed.
“No,” he replied in a voice harsher than it was necessary. What a woman! She always had a way of reading his mind perfectly like a book.
“I’m sorry,” she said placatingly. Presently, they heard loud strokes of metal against an iron gong from the distant market-place. They kept count of the strokes – eleven. It was an hour to midnight and there he was still entangled in the vortex of indecision.
“Go to sleep, Olege,” he said rather impatiently.
“Good night, dear,” she answered and turned her back to him. Not long after he could hear her slight snore.
And yet these oppressive, nightmarish images would not leave him alone but they came crowding his mind like the restless dead, doomed to walk the night. Not on his life, he vowed. Ombatse would not find his wife a ready sacrificial prey to put to a gory end. He’d have to save her first from such a hideous death in the hands of those subhuman savages thereby sparing himself of the nagging self-guilt of another betrayal. Overcome by waves of uncontrollable love, he took the pillow under him with his left hand and with the right hand, he reached for her. She yielded readily to his caressing touch as he turned her to lie face up, as he was wont anytime he was hard and trembling to go into her. The last, split-second thing she remembered was the little, albeit momentary shock when she felt the weight of the pillow on her face, stifling her of breath. With gritted teeth, he exerted his strength on the pillow against the mild resistance of her struggling hands, with her legs thrashing about on the bed. Gradually, he could feel the cessation of life, ebbing out of her simultaneously with the subsiding of her twitching legs.
“Good night, Olege,” he muttered. The night looked on, impassive.