PART 20 (II)
Edited by: Darlene Jones
Moments after everyone was seated, Umeh stood up in the midst of the rectangular formation, supporting himself with his walking stick. He jabbed the air. “Ndi Ngwo, kwenu!”
“Yah!” The council unanimously responded to his spirited greeting.
Another jab. “Kwenu!”
Another jab. “Kwezuonu!”
Looking around, it occurred to Umeh that Amaefuna had yet to arrive for the meeting. Was his fellow nobleman and close friend afraid he would raise the issue of Okuoba’s failed abduction before the council? The penalty, if he chose to do so, would certainly leave a deep scar on their friendship; it would either lead to the stoning to death or irrevocable exile of Amaefuna’s son, Ibeabuchi. This, he wasn’t prepared for, especially as the attempt to snatch Okuoba had failed. He wanted to forgive his friend and his young son. He wanted them to move on together.
“Ndi Ngwo, I thank you all for coming. Em,” Umeh cleared his throat, his focus now on the presiding officers for the meeting, “one cannot conceal pregnancy by covering the tummy with a basket. It’s also true that the bird that has learned to fly, cannot fly forever; it must perch at some point.”
The council members nodded in agreement.
“My people,” Umeh continued, scanning the men by his sides, his voice now plaintive, “the greatest fear of a father with an only son is watching his boy pass away, living with the sad reality that his child has left this world before him. My son’s gone. He’s dead. But he didn’t die of a natural cause. Cruel hands took him away from me. Slit his throat like an animal. You all saw his corpse at his funeral. Of course, it’s proper that I should have, during my period of mourning, directly or indirectly brought the matter before this council to show my family’s innocence and to prompt you to assist me while also consulting the gods of our ancestors for assistance. But because I thought that with the help of the gods I could effectively handle the situation, I didn’t call on you, the council. Instead I tried to tackle the situation by calling on my brother and a few close friends. This approach I now regret for it has backfired.” Umeh hung his head. “I … I feel terrible. I should’ve consulted the council before now.”
Murmurs went around. Died when one of the three men co-presiding over the meeting raised his hand. The man, several moons younger than Umeh, was likewise the youngest of three presiding officers at the meeting. He rested his folded arm on his thigh and glared up at Umeh, his visage stern and authoritative like a slaver wielding a whip. “Backfired? What exactly do you mean by that?” he asked.
Umeh went on to explain that he’d sent his brother, Eloka, to the house of a wealthy man from Isiochie, who had in the recent past, wished that Okuoba be given in marriage to his son. Eloka’s task was straightforward: to find out if the man and his people were aware of the slaying of the entourage meant to welcome them to Ngwo village, as suitors. Unfortunately, this inquiry didn’t come through; the man and his people refused to respond to questions regarding the death of this entourage. Annoyed as well as suspicious, Eloka lingered. When chance presented the man’s first son, he beheaded the young boy, and upon returning with the head to Ngwo sought more retaliatory action against the man and his people.
“You mean Eloka beheaded the man’s son just because the man and his family failed to co-operate? He took such a major decision without the approval of Okofia, our juju priest, and of this council?”
All eyes migrated to Umeh. Like a flurry of dry sand, the warning words of Okofia came rushing in: “Your brother is a good hunter and warrior. I respect him for that. But he’s quick-tempered and acts foolishly in the heat of his anger. Will you deny that you aren’t aware of this? Consider this: what if the men from Isiochie fail to welcome your brother in a proper manner? What if they claim they are not aware of your son’s death—which, of course, they are entitled to say?”
“This council still awaits your answer, Ichie Umeh.”
In his heart, Umeh ruefully admitted that he was standing before a council that might not be too pleased with his next response. Nervous and uncertain of how his answer would affect his yet-to-be-spoken plea for the council’s assistance, he flexed his fingers around the head of his walking stick. With a nod, he said, “Yes.”
The affirmation provoked the men. Loud voices rang out here and there; those Umeh managed to make sense of weren’t entirely in his favour. It took several shouts of “quiet” from the presiding officers to get the gathering to calm down again.
The next presiding officer raised a questioning eyebrow. “Do you know the gravity of what you and your clique have just done?”
Umeh gave a slow nod.
“Then what do you want the council to do at this point? Help you to solve the matter after you went about it your way? Clearly your actions show you no longer have regard for this council. Perhaps all you see now is your wealth—your big farmlands and many animals. Do you think this wealth of yours will get you everything? Tell us, was your brother’s action inspired by the gods or by his pride?”
The comment hit Umeh’s core like an axe against soft wood. He could sense the mockery and indifference in the man’s tone, accentuated by his half-hearted smile. If he allowed himself to respond angrily to the man’s remark, there was a big chance that the council would be discussing the consequences and due punishment for his negligence rather than offering him much needed help.
All the same, anger still seeped in, causing Umeh’s temperature to rise. “My son’s spirit wanders,” he could feel his voice waver, “and every day after his passing, I feel I’m farther away from learning who his killers are. This doesn’t mean I stand here to justify my decision or my brother’s action. All I know is that I did what any father would do—any desperate father who won’t get the chance to have a son of his own again.”
Murmurs came alive, but fizzled out soon afterwards.
Azuuzu, the third presiding officer and an old acquaintance of Umeh, spoke up, “My fellow noblemen,” he pointed at him, “let’s not be quick to dismiss the fact that our brother here is still mourning his son. His only son. The matter he’s brought before this council is beyond him. I say so because we, too, are likely to be affected if we fold our arms and do nothing.”
A man beside Umeh harshly spoke up, “Tufiakwa! What’s that supposed to mean? He’s brought trouble on himself and not us!”
“Listen to yourself.” Amadi gesticulated. “Do you think that if we refuse to help Ichie Umeh, such decision will do us any good? Friendship aside, this situation reeks of great danger! I can feel it!”
Bell jingles from the east drew the attention of the noblemen. Approaching the meeting ground was the juju priest, Okofia, barefooted, with patches of antelope skin wrapped around his waist and upper body. He was more bones than flesh, like a man who hadn’t tasted food for more than a full moon. Yet he walked with vigour, his heavily beaded staff stabbing the ground with each step. On his hands were thin white markings with no distinct pattern while the bold shiny black and red rings drawn around his keen dark eyes were enough to evoke fear.
As he stepped into the centre of the meeting, the noblemen rose to their feet; each man bowing his head in greeting.
He sniffed the air. Grimaced. Retrieving some ground gypsum from a leather bag slung from his shoulder, he blew away the fine white dust from his palm in bits—all aimed at the four corners of the gathering. When he balled his hand into a fist and smelled it, he shivered, his eyes all white for a moment as if his body had, at last, come under a convulsive attack. Then, all of a sudden, he regained control of himself.
“An adult doesn’t stay at home and let a she-goat go through labour tethered.” He turned to Umeh, disappointment written all over his face. Through clenched teeth, he asked, “I warned you, didn’t I?”
Umeh lowered his head, remorseful.
The juju priest began to pace around, inspecting the faces of the noblemen as if he was looking for the oddball in their midst. “I can tell there is division among you; some of you for some reason are afraid to speak their minds.” He turned to the presiding officers. “How deep is this trouble?”
“Very deep, I believe.” Azuuzu began to re-narrate what Umeh had just said.
The juju priest walked up to Umeh, his eyes fiercely wider than what they were upon his arrival. “I personally paid you a visit, to warn you before things got out of control. But no, you were recklessly determined on finding answers!” he knocked his staff on the ground. “You’ve just put this village at the risk of war!”
Silence. With it came a sense of great unease; it hung in the air like a terrible stench.
Okofia looked away. “And if we should go to this war, I fear there will be no survivors.”
A concerned voice came from behind, “But you can consult the gods on our behalf. They’ll grant us victory.”
“It’s rumoured that Isiochie has giants who fight beside their fearless warriors. In any case, the gods of our ancestors for reasons best known to them have refused to reveal themselves to me ever since Ichie Umeh lost his son. As it stands, we are on our own.”
“There should another way out. A remedy?” Umeh couldn’t hold back from speaking quickly.
“Y-yes. I’ve bulls, goats, cocks, tubers of yam and cassava. I’m willing to offer as much as—”
“Atone by forfeiting a member of your family! That’s your best option, if you care about your family’s future and that of your people.”
Umeh’s mouth gaped wide, his eye filled with dreadful shock.
Part 20 (I) || Part 20 (II)