Edited by: Darlene Jones
With a knobbed walking stick in hand, Umeh headed for his obi, his steps slow but steady. What greater joy, he thought, could a father have than to see his only son grow?
Now, all he had were the memories.
He remembered the days when Nnanna was still a little boy. Filled with childish innocence, his dear little one ran around his compound naked with a string of milky white beads tied around his waist. He remembered holding him on his lap and telling him of the great heritage waiting for him. And when Nnanna got older with muscles in the right places, he entrusted him with the task of ensuring that his livestock and farmlands were properly taken care of. A true son; Nnanna was ready to impress. And he had felt so blessed because of this—only for a cruel hand to bring about his death.
If this unidentified enemy could take the life of his son without warning, wasn’t there every possibility of a greater strike ahead? This time, perhaps, an intended strike on other members of his family? Umeh paused. He hunched his shoulders and spat down against such horrible fate. It was a bad omen for a child to go into the world beyond before his father; a curse, if a man should watch his entire family go down before him.
A gust of wind stirred Umeh’s wrapper. It moved west, tossing up dead brown leaves and empty clay bowls on its tail. It darted about the huts of his daughters, and then his wife’s before leaving through the dark spaces between them. A fortnight ago, while Umeh was still a happy man, he would’ve wondered if the coldness in the passing air was an early sign of the much awaited rainy season—the first few showers would ready the soil for planting. But none of that mattered now. Life barely made sense without the light of his life.
As Umeh resumed walking, he considered, then rejected the impulse to look at the hut of his son which was the nearest to his obi. Of what good would that be to him?
As he approached his obi, his visitors stood up from their seat made of a large trunk of wood. The three men were fully dressed; their wrappers passed under their right armpits and tied over their left shoulders. Beside them were their goatskin bags that contained their drinking horns and snuff boxes.
Eloka, Umeh’s younger brother, was the first to greet him with an embrace. “Kedu?” he asked, concernedly. He tilted his hawk-like head, his eyes narrowing for inspection.
Umeh nodded “I’m fine” in response. But he gave his brother no chance to scrutinize him by immediately turning his attention to his other two visitors.
“Where is the man born of a woman who dares the sun?” Amadi began to hail. “May my tongue decay in my throat if I should speak ill of you. Ichie Umeh Azugo, I salute you!”
“Ichi zu lu echi zu. Amadi, you’re very welcome.”
To Amaefuna, Umeh said: “It’s good to see you, ichie ibe m.”
Aside from his brother, Umeh considered his two friends present as close allies. Although they were much younger than him, they had continued to show a greater sense of maturity than some of the other members in the council of elders.
Umeh asked that they all be seated again before calling out to his servants who were responsible for serving his guests. Two dark-skinned girls with bare breasts and thick black lines drawn immediately above their wrapper-covered bottoms came into the obi with kegs of palm wine. They stooped and placed the kegs in front of the men. Soon afterwards a male servant stepped in, bowed, and then went down on a knee beside Umeh who then sent him to his hut to fetch his own goatskin bag. Once he had left, Dubem stepped in with a plate of kola nut, placed it beside the kegs and took his position beside his master on his knees. The servant on errand soon returned and was asked to present the plate of kola to Eloka for the blessing rites.
After the breaking of kola and serving of fresh palm wine, Eloka sat up straight. From the sides, he gathered his wrapper above his knees and then began his speech with a proverb: “Our people say that ‘it is the need of the stomach that allows the walking feet no rest.’”
The noblemen along with Umeh, nodded in what was a common understanding of the proverb’s significance.
“What touches an eye indirectly touches the other. My fellow clansmen, you’d agree with me that the attack that led to the death of Nnanna was planned and carried out by the enemy. Our enemy. We must find this enemy before night comes upon us again!”
After a brief but weighty silence, Amaefuna said, “Ichie Azugo, we have to consult the oracle.”
Umeh took a bite of his kola. He rested his hands on his thighs and with very little hope, said, “I’ve done that already.”
The three men shot him a questioning look.
“No answer. The gods have been frustratingly silent.”
Another moment passed without a word spoken.
Eloka brought the tip of his drinking horn to his lips, sipped some of his wine, then positioned his body to face Umeh. “Brother, before Nnanna’s death, you told me that you were sending him and some of your servants as a delegation to welcome a group of men from Isiochie to your house, right?”
“And on their way, they were attacked?”
Umeh looked at Dubem who reconfirmed the incident with a nod.
“Can you think of anyone or group in this village who could’ve possibly masterminded this evil?”
“Since the attack, have those men from Isiochie sent a messenger to you, inquiring what possibly might have gone wrong—why you didn’t send a delegation to formally welcome them as required by the custom that binds both villages?”
Amaefuna cut in. “What are you driving at—I hope you’re not trying to accuse those men of murder?”
Eloka turned to his co-visitor. “Are they free from suspicion? Or can’t you sense the foul play already?”
“That has always been your problem—you’re quick to jump to conclusions.”
Eloka frowned. “It seems you left your brain at home.”
Amadi chimed in. “Amaefuna, such assertion may seem inappropriate considering the circumstance. But let’s not rule out the possibility. Those men could be Nnanna’s killers!”
Umeh watched as his visitors entered into a heated argument which subsequently led to an exchange of words and pointing of fingers. With the dull bottom of his walking stick, he thudded the hard red-brown floor three times. One by one, his visitors became quiet, each man fixing his eyes angrily on some place of less importance.
Umeh was faced with a rather difficult choice of what to say next. One of those men from Isiochie wanted Okuoba to be a wife to his son and their proposed visit was only to make this formal. Though such intentions were honourable, how would Amaefuna take it, considering that he had earlier asked the same on behalf of his son?
Umeh glanced at his visitors and then refocused on the floor.
No. There was no point saying so, he concluded. This could throw Amaefuna’s commitment into question, hence complicating the whole situation.
Burdened by this as well as the fear of an alternative outcome, Umeh remarked, “It would cause me an even greater deal of sorrow if those men from Isiochie really carried out the attack.”
“Stop your lament and weeping,” Eloka said. “Now is the time to act!”
Amadi added, “This issue will be brought before the council. But in the meantime, find someone to go on your behalf to Isiochie. We need to ask them questions.”
Turning to his brother, Umeh said, “I need you to go to Isiochie. Take some men with you to the house of Ichie Ugonna. I was supposed to welcome his delegation.”
Part Three||Part Four
Kedu: How are you
Ichie: a title for an elder in an Igbo community
Ichi zu lu echi zu: you deserve your title
Ichie ibe m: my fellow titled man
obi: a small place for relaxation