Edited by: Darlene Jones
A human head? Umeh stared at his wife with unblinking eyes.
The unexpectedness of the news left him as stunned as he was on the day when one of his servants came running to alert him of Nnanna’s murder.
Hastily, Oluchi adjusted the wrapper tied round her chest, the loosely knotted ends fitting under her armpit. She drew close to Umeh’s side, her face visibly twitching. “Nnaanyi, please what is going on?” Lowering her voice, which was almost breaking, “Eloka has refused to tell me whose head is that.”
“Where is he?” Umeh asked, thudding the ground with the dull point of his walking stick.
“Just by your hut. Given that you already have visitors, he asked to—”
Umeh immediately departed from his wife and his fellow nobleman, Amaefuna. Heading north toward his hut, unmindful of the guests who were still waiting for him at his obi, he couldn’t help but reflect on the words of the juju priest. Had his decision to send Eloka to Isiochie, despite the priest’s warning, now backfired? Or was he about to come to terms with the possibility that Eloka may have encountered his son’s killer?
He walked past three female servants preparing lunch for his guests; the one pounding freshly cooked yam pieces in a mortar was covered with sweat, her bare breasts flapping against her body, dried grass patterns strung round her waist; the others, squatting, sweaty and bare-breasted too, were pressing oil from ripe palm fruits. Behind them, the slow and steady ascension of thick white smoke from the sides of kitchen hut signalled that cooking was still in progress. When they saw him, they were quick to curtsey.
Eloka and his men were standing by the entrance of Umeh’s large hut when he arrived. After a brief exchange of greetings, the two brothers walked into the hut.
“What news do you bring home?” Umeh asked, taking his position by the rectangular window that framed a once pleasantly green landscape now dried by the harmattan.
“That our enemy now lies in Isiochie.”
Umeh wasn’t sure if he should be excited by the news. He looked over his shoulder. “What proof have you?”
Eloka called out to one his men who came in with bag a made of goat skin. The terrible stench emanating from it assaulted Umeh’s nostrils. Turning, a hand placed over his nose, he blurted, “What is that smell?”
“The beginning of revenge!” Eloka, undeterred by the rottenness, dug both hands into the bag and slowly retrieved the head of an adolescent male. Oval shaped. Eyes shut. Lips crusted with blood. Top side of the head, though smashed, still showed signs of a decently shaved pattern. “This is the head of your enemy’s first son.”
Umeh was aghast. He lifted a hand as if he was about to make a supplication. “Gods of our ancestors! How certain are you—you should have…”
Eloka chuckled, a self-gratifying smile omnipresent on his face. He gave orders for the head to be taken away. “The moment we told Ichie Ugonna and his household the reason behind our visit, they took back the plate of kola nuts and gourds of palm wine they had earlier offered us; these items, by tradition, were not meant to withdrawn once presented. They said I was no different from a child deprived of sufficient breast milk. Me—Eloka, Onye dike cheta obi efepu!” he beat his chest proudly. “And because of this undernourishment, my reasoning was low. I was negligent of following due protocol. Their village protocol. Tell me, if they were really innocent, what was there to hide? Why insist on some senseless protocol?”
Silence ghosted through the hut.
“We persisted,” Eloka continued, “they asked us to leave.” He paused and knitted his brows as if he was trying to recall. “Aha! One of the men present at the meeting made mention of the various forms of death and their different meanings.”
“Yes,” the other man, who had earlier carried out Eloka’s orders, added, “Judging by way your son left this world, they were of the view that his case was a divine warning handed down to them by the gods. Their gods. We were destined to reveal to this truth to them.”
“And you know the worst part?” Eloka said. “They were bold enough to say that we were already cursed! That this was just the beginning of the end of our bloodline. And they wouldn’t be sucked into such myriad of calamities by allowing their son to marry your daughter, Okuoba.”
Umeh stepped closer. Shame, dreadful confusion, and disappointment came crashing down on him. Despite all this, he willed himself to be resolute. For the last time he had to be sure of what he had just heard. “So that is the head of Ichie Ugonna’s son?”
With a nod, Eloka replied, “We ambushed, killed, and beheaded the young man, dropping off his headless body in fro—”
Umeh slapped his young brother hard across the face. Then stabbed a finger at him. “How could you? You do not replace a child sleeping on a mat with another.”
A totally stunned Eloka put a hand to the tender spot on his cheek.
“Just an inquiry. Nothing more. But look at what you have done…” Umeh could feel his body trembling. He tried to walk it off, but that didn’t work. So he sat on his bamboo bed.
“So you feel that my men and I did the wrong thing?” Eloka asked, hands opened wide.
“Leave—my—house!” Umeh barked.
Dusk came over Ngwo with a rare quietness. For the conservative villagers, they would wonder if something bad had just happened or was yet to unfold. For him, such a moment was perfect. Eloka’s blustering had amused him. He could listen to such foolish talk all day and not get bored of it. Indeed it was to his advantage that Umeh’s family had been looking in the wrong direction for the one who masterminded Nnanna’s death.
He could make things easier for himself by assassinating the troubled Umeh when next they met. Then kidnap Okuoba. Of course, everyone would suspect the Isiochie people. On a second thought, he chose not to. People must be aware that the noble old man freely gave his daughter to him. By doing so, he would be able to claim a considerable part of the man’s wealth too.
Umeh knew he couldn’t wait for the next market day when the village council would meet. By then, it may be too late to discuss the matter at hand, to seek help or the best solution to his family’s terrible situation.
He called out to Maduako, the servant he normally saddled with important responsibilities.
“Go into my hut, take ten cowries, and head for the house of the village crier. Once you arrive, let him have the cowries as a reward for spreading the message that I, Ichie Umeh Azugo, would like my fellow noblemen to gather at the village square tomorrow evening for an urgent discussion.”
Part 14||Part 15
Onye dike cheta obi efepu — He who the strong man remembers but with dread