PART TWENTY-ONE (I)
Edited by: Darlene Jones
The voice was loud and gruff.
Coming to the realization that his name had been called, Umeh wrenched his gaze from the figure of the juju priest thinning away in the distance and refocused on the presiding officers—the direction where the voice had come from. The three men looked at each other with raised brows, then at him.
“Sorry, I di …” he raised a hand apologetically, unsure if it was sensible to finish what he wanted to say.
On impulse, he scanned the rest of his fellow council members—the men had taken their seats after the exit of the priest. But much to his chagrin, they were also looking back at him, chiefly with expressions that suggested they thought he was confused. And he knew he was.
Atone by forfeiting a member of your family. Like a boat tossed by huge waves, the words of the priest bobbed inside Umeh’s head. Unpleasant as it seemed, handing over one of his family members to the Isiochie people might well be his best opportunity to keep his family and village from being attacked. The snag however remained that this, also, was no guarantee. Could he trust that the two villages would co-exist peacefully after the transfer? Furthermore, could he trust that this member of his family would be kept alive after the transfer, that Isiochie would treat this member of his family humanely?
Tell the council you cannot do as the juju priest had asked. Or better, run. Escape with your family now that you have the chance. You can’t afford to lose another of your loved ones under these terrible circumstances. Sweat broke over Umeh’s brow. He moved his hand to the back of his head, scratching the base as if this would get his brain to focus differently. But there was nothing a mere sensation could do to turn his mind away from worry.
Escape? What if Oluchi and the girls refuse to leave? What if the plan turns out bad? Hopeless, his hand dropped to his side. His stomach wrenched. He could feel the sharp rise of his pulse; his heart knocked hard against his chest.
The youngest of the presiding officers leaned forward and gave him a hard stare. “Are you still with us?”
“Y-yes. Yes.” Thrusting the walking stick an inch forward allowed Umeh to move his legs a bit, hence, balance the blood flow through them.
“It’s a good thing that Okofia was here. Now we all know that he earlier advised you against making such a rash move.”
The three officers held a brief whispered conversation. After that, the one in the middle spoke up, “This council deserves to know the truth. Considering your one-sided decision, the actions that were taken as a result, this council deserves to know if you really desire to see your people progress, if you really care about their existence or not. Of course, there is one quick way to find out. Now, in the name of Amadioha, swear that you will adhere to the words of his priest. That you will give up one of your own to in order to prevent this imminent war.”
No man, not even a fool, would want to incur wrath to himself and possibly his lineage by lying in the name of the thunder god. Umeh knew this from childhood. He had seen lightening set people ablaze for lying under oath. However, the complexity surrounding his son’s death now left him with a difficult choice to make: in the name of a god who was either asleep or had turned a deaf ear to his pleas, he had to choose between giving away one of his own and escaping with his loved ones.
An answer; one that backed neither option should be fair enough, he thought. Time to weigh his options was what he needed the most and not a public show of his allegiance to the god. To any supernatural being, in fact. “May Amadioha strike me dead if I fail to do what ought to be done.”
“What ought to be done?” the officer in the middle cocked a brow, unsatisfied. “And what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Uh,” Azuuzu tapped his co-officer on the wrist, “Let’s not stew over such small detail. At his age, I believe he’s fully aware of the consequences of failing.” He rose to his feet. Waving his hand across, he repeatedly hailed the council. “Before this meeting is over, there is one more issue … I believe it’s as important as what Ichie Umeh has brought before this council. The issue I’m about to speak of needs to be resolved. Right here. Right now.” His gaze fell on Umeh. “Recently, someone tried to abduct one of the daughters of this village without cause. I’m talking specifically of Ichie Umeh’s first daughter.”
A gasp of surprise swept across the gathering. Umeh was caught off-guard. Even though he’d considered the action of his friend’s son morally repugnant, he had kept it to himself because he intended to forgive, to grant the young man another chance to live uprightly among Ngwo people. Unfortunately the story of Okuoba’s failed abduction had now been made public. There was no way he could shy away from the issue—he didn’t intend to look any more foolish before the council than he already was, neither did he want to give his fellow noblemen the impression that he would condone evil.
“I wonder if he,” Azuuzu pointed at Umeh, “intends to keep the matter a secret or wants to disclose it at a later date.”
“I … I was hoping … Look, it’s a delicate issue. I pray it doesn’t repeat itself again.”
“Gini? We all have wives! Daughters! What chance does any one of them have if she should come face to face with this assailer?”
“Tell us, who attacked your daughter?” spat the man on Umeh’s right. Then, from all corners, there were loud angry calls for the culprit’s identity to be revealed.
Umeh motioned for calm. But he wasn’t rewarded with complete silence. It wasn’t hard to tell why some of the members rather began conversing quietly, sheer disgust on their faces.
“His name is Ibeabuchi, son of Ichie Amaefuna,” Umeh managed to say.
“Ifugo nu? Do you see it? A potential rapist in this village?” Still appalled, Azuuzu gesticulated with open arms. “That boy is not an outsider! Who knows? Is Ichie Amaefuna absent from this meeting because he’s ashamed of his son’s sinful act? People of Ngwo, should we close our eyes to such evil?”
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