Edited by: Darlene Jones
It was unlike Okofia to remain silent. Umeh shifted in his wooden seat, his gaze still fixed on the juju priest. Had all divine consultations proved abortive? Or had the gods finally disclosed the identities of Nnanna’s killers? The latter possibility, if affirmed, would allow him to exact a gratifying revenge. He desperately longed for the time when those evil men would meet their end.
Okofia cleared his throat. He held out his heavily-beaded staff at angle from his side. “If a young man starts too early—before he’s fully grown—to inquire about what happened to his father, the same may happen to him.” He turned around and looked Umeh in the eye. “Where is your brother?”
Okofia’s face was serious, vulpine, and purposeful. His strong tone carried an accusatory undercurrent. And the question itself was perplexing.
“On a journey. I—I sent him to Isiochie.”
“So he can find some answers relating to my son’s death. Is something wrong?”
“You went ahead without the consent of the gods?”
The consent of the gods? Umeh was certain he understood the reason for the questions now and this made his blood boil. He tried to keep his voice at respectful tone, though. “My son’s killers are out there—perhaps, plotting another evil. How much longer will I’ve to wait on the gods?”
“A thick red cloud gathered over your home and from it human blood fell like raindrops. Bodies of men and women—splayed at compromising positions—were scattered here and there.” Okofia slowly stepped forward. “I wouldn’t be here, if I had not seen this. I wouldn’t be here, if I did not care.”
“I’m lost without a good understanding of what you mean.”
“Your brother’s urge to avenge the murder of your son is strong. It’s so strong I can feel it from here. Anger has taken the place of patience and wisdom in him and it won’t guarantee success in this quest for answers. You need to send men now. Let them travel as fast as they can before your brother gets to Isiochie. When they meet your brother, he must return with them. If not, I fear something worse will happen.”
“Worse?” Umeh got up with the aid of his walking stick and walked over to a side of the dwarf mud barrier that enclosed his obi. The warning sounded like a very bad joke. “Lately I barely sleep or eat. I’ve even forgotten the pleasure of a good laugh. An answer—just a simple answer from Isiochie—is all I ask and you want to deny me that as well?”
Okofia’s lips moved as if he were about to say more on the issue, but instead he sighed. “Just do as I said. Send men now.”
As he turned to leave, Umeh blurted, “Care…you call this care? In truth, all you’ve done is add more confusion. Okofia, you give me reasons to believe that the gods are indeed sleeping or have abandoned you!”
Okofia spun around, his face taut with anger. “What folly has roused you to blasphemy?”
Umeh’s eyelids fluttered, his head sank. Fate had not pushed him to edge until now where he had to question the gods. Man, as he was made to understand, was supposed to pay allegiance to the gods in return for favours. But no one talked about turning away from them if they failed to love and protect their worshippers. The clack of dry bones and fangs of carnivores dangling from a leather cord around the waist of the juju priest made Umeh raise his head.
Closing the gap between them again, Okofia placed a hand on Umeh’s shoulder. “Events of life are lessons we should learn from.” He pressed his lips hard, then exhaled. “I was a boy servant in the forest shrine of Amadioha when I heard of the massacre of the inhibitants of Obokolo — a village far from here.”
Umeh coughed, apologized for the abrupt discharge of phlegm.
“It was caused by one man’s daughter.”
The young woman, Okofia further explained, had a secret lover from Isiochie. Refusing the tradition and marriage rites of her people, she eloped with this young man. Story had it that they settled in Isiochie where she swore to serve his gods and bear many children for him. When her family heard of this, they immediately set out for Isiochie. They asked for their daughter at the gathering of its ruling elders.
“Did that happen?”
“No. The elders denied ever seeing such a woman in their village. In anger, Obokolo abducted two young girls from Isiochie and forced marriage upon them. Five market days after that, blood was spilled. Isiochie warriors—feared for their towering height and extra-ordinary strength—moved into Obokolo under the cover of night. I doubt a soul was left alive in the attack.
“Your brother is a good hunter and warrior. I respect him for that. But he’s quick-tempered and sometimes acts foolishly in the heat of his anger. Or will you deny that you aren’t aware of his weakness? Consider this: what if the men from Isiochie don’t welcome your brother in a proper manner? What if they claim they are not even aware of your son’s death—which, of course, they are entitled to say?”
Umeh flexed his fingers around the head of his walking stick. There was an element of truth in what the juju priest what saying.
“Your intuition isn’t always right. If you care enough for your family, for Ngwo people, send men now to ask your brother to return.”
Umeh looked briefly at the unsmiling face of the juju priest before setting his eyes east, to the place where he and his son used to play oro. “So this vision—dream of yours…you say it’s about me and my family?”
“Yes. Don’t say you have not been warned.”
Okofia turned to leave. This time Umeh didn’t utter a word; neither did he try to stop him.
Was it still right to trust a juju priest? Umeh sat down again, folded his arms across his chest and looked up to the thatched ceiling of his obi as if the answer was docking somewhere in the interstices. With prayers left unanswered how could Okofia come up with a vision about his family being in danger just because his brother, Eloka, was going to Isiochie to find answers? And though Eloka was short-tempered, what was the greatest wrong he could possibly commit in a foreign land?
Umeh called out to Maduako, who came running to meet him. “Ready some dried food for your journey. I want you to head for Isiochie. ”
The tall servant nodded and disappeared from his presence.
But there was no harm trying to get an answer, Umeh thought. Even if the men from Isiochie didn’t respond favourably, he wanted to trust that his brother wouldn’t go as far as doing anything foolish in another man’s land.
“Nnaanyi, I’m ready.” Maduako tied banana leaves around slices of dried cassava, then fastened them around his waist.
“Go back.” Umeh waved dismissively. “I changed my mind.”
Part Five||Part Six
Oro — A game played with pebbles, beads, or large seeds on a regularly patterned playing area or board consisting of a number of pits arranged in two or four rows. Apart from the board, this playing area may actually be holes scooped into sand or even carved into solid rock.