Edited by: Darlene Jones
A long oblique shadow accompanied him as he stepped out from under the shade. As he ascended the gentle slope a dusty whirlwind swept across, leaving in its wake light brown speckles—some of which then settled on his head, arms, and chest—and a nasty trail on the parched earth.
He sneezed. Sniffed.
How he hated the weather during harmattan! His dark brown skin had become a plain of dryness and his lips were chapped as a result of the heat earlier in the day.
Five more steps and a flock of small black birds, chirping freely, darted westwards only to gather among the trees nearby. Their gregarious meeting with a few more already nestling in the trees was soon accentuated by the dancing of tender branches. But despite their merry movements and singing, he remained in tune with his own bitter feelings; the output was a loud sigh as he swatted a nagging fly. As for him, his days would be blissful when his dream became a reality: when Okuoba would finally be in his arms and together they would watch their children play, black and white jigida tied round their tender waists and ankles.
He threw a casual glance at the hut which he had single-handedly built before setting his eyes on his visitors. Seven men in all; he had hired the company to ambush and kill Okuoba’s brother and the servants who would accompany him. Now, just as they had agreed, he would have to pay the second instalment.
But what about Dubem? His escape means that the assignment wasn’t properly executed. He let the thought linger for another reason.
Perhaps it was divine providence that kept the servant from being killed as well. Had it not been for Dubem’s intervention, Okuoba would have been abducted. Such gallantry he quickly dismissed with envy; it would have pleased him a great deal if he had saved Okuoba himself. And maybe soon afterwards, basked in the elation of being recognised by her family for such bravery. What a boost that would have been to his plan.
With no niceties and greetings observed, he signalled the seven to follow him to the hut.
Inside was low-ceilinged, of raffia, and spare except for a wooden table on which a dagger sat, three clay pots, with a folded raffia mat and broom leaning against the wall. A generous window let in the evening light, which wavered at brief intervals. Walking over to one of the pots, he dipped his hand and retrieved some cowries wrapped with dried banana leaves. He walked slowly toward the table and laid down the wrap next to his dagger and then observed the men, one after the other. Self-assurance in his superiority over them was as vital to him as the task he had assigned to them.
The seven began whispering to one another, their eyes brimming with curiosity as they looked at the items on the table.
To Ngwongwo, whom he’d appointed as leader of the seven, he said, “Come forward.”
The bald-headed man rubbed his hands in delightful anticipation, flashed mossy yellow teeth, and with a gait that easily drew attention to his skinny freckled legs did as requested.
After a moment dedicated to counting the cowries: “Forty-two shells. All this for us?”
“Yes. That means some cowries more, right?”
Ngwongwo and the rest happily chorused in the affirmative. Quickly they gathered like hyenas about to feast on a leftover kill, their cacophonous laughter punctuating the growing excitement in their voices.
“But there is a problem—” he said to the seven, a taint of disappointment in his voice.
The excitement vanished.
“One of those servants survived the attack. How is it possible?”
He began playing with the dagger, slowly turning it around an axis.
The men shot each other knowing looks before prompting their leader to talk. “We…” Ngwongwo began, but then scratched the back of his head. He handed the wrap to the others before returning to the table. “He started to run and we took off in pursuit. Just when we thought we had him quite close to the river, he disappeared. We searched the entire area. No sign of him. So … so we concluded that he must have drowned himself rather than die in our hands.”
He frowned, hunched over the table and said to the leader of the seven, “Your story … doesn’t it sound foolish to you?”
Ngwongwo looked on stupefied. He then shrugged, his lips contorted out of shape.
Though the assignment delegated to the seven had its loose end, he thought he still had need for the company. He straightened up and took up the dagger in his hand. While he weighed the options of sending them to kill Ibeabuchi or to complete the pending task regarding Dubem, he ran his fingertips over the meticulously carved blade. He could track down Ibeabuchi in the forest and kill the lone hunter on his own. Of course, that would give him a stronger sweeter release gutting his rival all for the sake of the one he loved. Dubem, on the other hand should be an easier kill. All he needed to do was send the seven again; this time, hope they got it right.
He rapped the point of the dagger impatiently on the table. “Fighting for my love, Okuoba, is taking a whole new dimension. Story has it that that fool of a servant rescued her from being abducted.”
Ngwongwo’s brow furrowed. He bent, flattening both hands against the table. “You look disturbed and unsure. Does your gut tell you that there could be something between them? I mean, there is a chance that this very beautiful Okuoba may eventually fall in love with him?”
With sudden force, the dagger rose mid-air and upon descending, tore into the flesh of Ngwongwo’s hand. He shrieked on top of his lungs, threadlike veins appearing around his neck and face.
Wide-eyed, mouths agape with shock, the rest of the men in the room backed away. None of them attempted to protest the incident.
“Pu-le-zee! I—I didn’t mean to…”
Still feeling very much in control, he permitted himself a grim smile. He inclined his head to Ngwongwo and said, “I refuse to entertain the idea that I will remain in this state forever. Okuoba and I have a future together. No man will change it by thinking he can fall in love with her.”
Ngwongwo tried to pull out the dagger. But his hirer knocked his hand away, twisting the dagger for a deeper more excruciating effect.
Ngwongwo gnashed his teeth as tears streaked down the sides of his rough facial features.
Pulling out the dagger abruptly incurred more shouts that tapered off to fretful whimpers—almost like that of a whipped dog. Taking in a deep satisfactory breath, he wiped the sides of blade on Ngwongwo’s trembling hand.
“The servant’s name is Dubem,” he raised the dagger and inspected it for awhile, “I believe you all know what to do now.”
Part Twelve||Part Thirteen