Edited by: Darlene Jones
Dubem awoke to the smell of smoke and voices clamouring in the huts of his mother and siblings and of fire sweeping up the hills of Obokolo—the village where he was born. It was darkest part of the night, when the moon was down and the stars were going out; but there was the smell of torches. Snatching up his top—a short sleeveless piece made of goatskin that hung to the navel— he ran out into the compound.
Far below in the cultivated lands he could see torches, presumably carried by human hands, making their way up the hill.
All he could think was: It has come. He cried out, and then he heard the loud shouts of his father’s men, the sound of the great gong. It called out to his father’s wives and children to take refuge in the pit below the surface and for the men to turn out with their swords and spears. He stood watching the lights move into the compound, and women and children running up and down, hearing the clash of weapons seized, and at last a loud female voice ordering the warriors to behead every member of his family.
When a hand came up to his shoulder, Dubem woke with a start. In self-defence, he grabbed the neck of the one who had bent over and touched him.
“Please, it’s me—it’s me.”
Maduako began to soothe the tender spot around his neck with his hand. Wincing, he said, “Bad dream?”
Dubem tried to steady his heartbeat. “No.”
“No? You’ve been thrashing around in your mat a while ago like you were fighting for survival.”
Dubem rolled out of his raffia mat on the floor and slowly got to his feet. He observed that the other two servants who shared the same hut with him were not present. They must’ve been working at one of the farms. He blinked a few times, sniffed, then pulled tight his loincloth. He wondered how long his body had tossed about while he slept.
“You’ve not been yourself after the death of our master’s son.”
“I’m all right.”
“No, you’re not. I believe there is something strong; something deep—perhaps, something about his death that really bothers you.”
Dubem looked over his shoulder at his fellow servant. He was amazed by Maduako’s observation—which wasn’t entirely out of place—considering Nnanna’s death had caused his childhood nightmares to return. Genuine concern of a friend, he thought. Then he felt grateful for the growing friendship between them since his arrival many full moons ago as a boy.
Placing his hands against the uneven wall, Dubem splayed his fingers as if straining to push it down. He’d made a habit of recalling the faces of his family members each day. But as seasons came and went with no reminders in his possession, memories of their faces mostly became a blur. The one clear image, however, was that of his mother—he could still picture her radiant smile.
“My family…” Dubem turned, feeling the pain of loss. “It’s about them. They’ve appeared several times in my dreams lately.”
Maduako’s lanky tall frame unfolded from where he had been sitting on the mat. He moved closer to his friend. “Do you feel they are in danger?”
“No—they were killed when I was little.” Sensing a follow-up question was about to arise, Dubem raised a hand. “Please, spare me from telling the whole story today. Perhaps, some other time.”
Maduako regarded him for a while as if he wasn’t satisfied with the decision. Then he tapped his shoulder. “Okay, but don’t hold back for so long. Remember, pain is a slow killer.” Then his face suddenly lit up. He tugged at Dubem’s arm. “Come, come!”
“What is it?”
“I forgot to say that I was on an errand for Nnannyi—he wants to see you!”
Outside, both servants walked side by side toward the small shrine of Amadioha situated behind the obi. Two servant girls were just returning from the stream with pots sitting on their heads. Another two on the far right were busy beautifying Okuoba who sat on a low stool; one behind her, plaiting her rich black hair with masterly hands; the other using uri and edo to draw thin black and yellow rings on her arms. Dubem realized he was stuck admiring his master’s daughter, but faced straight ahead just in time before she looked his way. Without doubt, this woman’s beauty could cause a god to leave his dwelling and live amongst men.
When they were out of Okuoba’s earshot, Maduako chuckled. “A woman’s body is her temple.” Dubem didn’t respond, so he gave him a playful nudge on the shoulder. Then in a whispered tone: “She’s every man’s dream for a wife—so lovely, so sweet. Nwoke m, imagine if she’s yours…”
Dubem gave him a cautionary look: A servant should know his place—below the one whom he served.
“Imagine if she’s yours, my friend,” Maduako drooled on, “she’ll be your pride and men will envy you because of her. She’ll be your happiness, your—”
“Your children will suckle from her full breasts. And they will grow up like the beautiful palms on our plains, like the children of the gods who once walked—”
“Be quiet, I say!” Dubem stopped; he was fearfully aware of the consequence of their conversation. He turned around and when he saw that no one was eavesdropping, he said, “Your words mean nothing as long as we both are servants. Rather, they will get us into trouble. I, for one, don’t intend be banished from this village, or worse, beheaded because of a woman’s charm.”
At the shrine, they both waited behind Umeh who had been sitting in silence before the dwarf wooden statue of his chi. Shortly afterwards, Umeh stood up, sprayed ground gypsum on the floor and backed out of his shrine.
As he approached, Maduako excused himself.
“You sent for me, Nnaanyi?” Dubem bowed.
“Yes. Walk with me,” Umeh said.
The field ahead had lost some of its green. The grasses had assumed a drooping position and the shrubs, brown with tints of yellow, could use a few rain showers to look fresh again. The descent from Umeh’s backyard posed no big problem to the old man, but Dubem was nonetheless cautious, walking closely beside him, ensuring that he didn’t slip or strike his feet against the brown rocks scattered on the footpath.
They had walked a while in silence before Umeh said, “My son, Nnanna…Tell me how he died.”
Dubem was taken aback. Of all the things he thought his master could ask of him, this was the least. He regarded his master for a while, wondering if telling him about the way his son was killed would do him any good. He wasn’t even sure if Umeh was in good health any longer because the old man had coughed hard more than four times already. Umeh looked worn, his eyes were flecked with the red of weariness; his lips a dry brown, gave the impression that he had eaten more sorrow than food lately.
Dubem said, “He was brave even onto death, Nnaanyi.”
“I didn’t ask for a summary. I need to know if he did fight. I need to know how those cuts on his body came about.”
It was horror for Dubem to recall the attack. Nnanna had suggested that they help an old woman with her load when they were attacked. He didn’t really stand a fighting chance after he had knocked his first attackers down. When they overpowered him they swore to make his death a slow painful one.
Dubem was about to tell the story when a male servant came running towards them.
“Nnannyi.” The young servant went down on a knee, panting. “You’ve a visitor.”
Umeh coughed. “Who is it?”
“It’s Okofia, the juju priest. He says he has news for you.”
Part Four||Part Five
Uri/Uli: Black dye used by Igbo women in the past to draw ornamental patterns on each other’s body
Edo: Yellow dye used for the same purpose as Uri
Nwoke m: My fellow man
Chi: Personal god