The country was wide and empty. The occasional sound of the wild echoed through the low hills. You could hear the river gurgling, strangling its watery way through the savage rocks. You could, if you want, strain your ears against the drumming of the thousand drops of rain on cold mornings. You could hear the howls of the felines, the voices of the birds, the breath of vegetation, the echo of the hollow sky. You could hear the swooshing of the winds, unruly, untamed. If you listened carefully, you would hear the sound of trees too. The trees were many-voiced—an orchestra of dreadlocked green heads stretching interminable across the plain. A line of them which stood beyond the hills howled. But the ones—a group of five oji trees—closer to the homestead whistled. The whistling of the five oji trees fascinated Melu and he felt a kinship with the fluty music of their branches dancing in the wild sway of winds. Approaching the homestead in the last light of the sinking sun, after the day’s hunting with the band, having tread all day through the secret places of the forest chasing after game, he felt the swaying of the five trees, their branches thrown this way and that, the same way he felt the ululation of welcome from the women and children. With dusk noises full and robust, he and the band of men would sit outside in a circle around a crackling stone fire and wait for the women to get the roast meat ready. As they waited, they would talk about the day, their shadows long and corrugated against the flickering fire.
“Agi, you were a coward,” Ogbo said.
“Stop,” Agi growled.
“Your spear could do nothing to the leopard!”
The others burst into laughter, wrinkling their large noses.
“He fails, always,” Nnia said.
“Is it time to put Agi to the test?”
“Leave him for now, for the sake of his woman and child,” Elder Odina said, his speech cracked, rolling like a lisp, mouth almost covered by a halo of white hair.
As the night shadows deepened, the howl of the forest continued to be heard in the distance and the whistle of the trees heralded the descent of cold. Some of the children brought them animal skins to cover themselves. The food came later and the entire homestead gathered around the fire. They ate in silence, with an elder or two occasionally growling at unruly children.
Deep into the night, Melu woke up and saw blazing yellow eyes near the cluster of five oji trees, boring down on the sleeping figures of the homestead. He reached for his spear, held it quietly near him and waited. He could hear the tom-tom of his heart, the inordinate loudness almost distracting him from watching the yellow eyes. The darkness around moved. The snoring of some of his kinsmen seemed too loud, low rumbles, like the sky speaking. He felt it in his bones, shivering. Voices echoed far inside the forest and the silence in-between seemed like the quiet scheming of things unknown. Melu waited, his hand still tight on the wooden handle of his stone spear.
He must have lain that way for hours. He soon realized that the sky was getting lighter and the yellow pair of eyes was no longer there. He sat up stretched and adjusted his animal-skin waist strap. Some of the men were already up in the early morning light. He ignored them and took the path behind the rough thatches of the homestead and started for the stream. The calm dew touched his body with grace. He felt strong but he also felt powerless, as if there were things greater than his being and the existence of his kind. The only way to defeat this insurgent fear was to kill the thing that shone its yellow eyes nightly upon the supine bodies, its burning hate singing through the gaping holes of the wood poles that demarcated the homestead from the forest. Were the others aware of the stealthy night visits? He splashed the warm waters of the stream on his face and washed his hands and feet.
The others were ready and waiting for him when he came back.
“Where have you been?” Elder Odina asked.
“We have to set out early. Don’t disregard the others.”
Melu looked at the small band of men holding their long spears by their side, hairy chests and faces staring back at him.
“There’s a beast that comes here every night,” Melu said.
“I saw it too,” Elder Odina said, “and I have just been telling the men about it. We must find it and kill it.”
“But where do we start?” Agi asked.
“There he goes again with his cowardly questions,” Ogbo said.
There was silence. The men stood still and rigid, deferring to the white hairs of Elder Odina.
“We must protect this ora, or else we will be wiped out.” The old man touched his palm on his lips and touched it on their foreheads.
The men set off into the thick forest in the bright light of day. As they marched, they felt the pulse of new possibilities in the quick beat of their hearts. They threaded nimbly through the narrow undefined paths; sometimes the sound of breaking twigs seemed too loud and startling in the abundance of green leaves, bird noises, the scurrying feet of rodents, and in the chilling quietness that immersed everything. Dry leaves littered the forest floor, falling from their proud perch on the top canopy of the trees. When an occasional howl echoed from somewhere deep in the belly of the forest, they would stop, their eyes darting quickly, their ears pricked awake, twitching, their spears poised in the air. They spread out in twos and threes to cover more area.
The sun was high and brilliant in the sky when they came to a clearing. They had covered a large swath of the eastern parts of the forest without much success. They sat down, got some stones and dry twigs together for a fire and began to roast the civet they killed that morning.
“How do we move now?” Agi asked. “There is no sign of it anywhere.”
“We will move west and north,” Melu said, using his hands to show the direction. He looked at the men as they tore at the roast meat with violence, teeth flashing. “The sun will soon start its journey home. We should be more careful out there.”
“Are you suggesting that the beast comes out in the evening?” Ogbo asked.
“I wouldn’t know that.”
“We should get going so we can get home on time. My young woman is waiting for me,” Nnia said.
Melu hit Nnia, loud and playful, on the back and they all laughed.
Once they got into the forest, they dispersed into twos and threes again, heading northwest. The path grew thicker with foliage, brambles, thickets and long, entangled forest cords hanging from the very tall trees. Melu went with Agi. They did not talk for a while amidst the noises of birds and small forest animals until Agi told Melu that his woman was expecting.
“She wants it more now,” he said. “I enjoy it but, you know, sometimes I want to be left alone.”
“That is not what a normal man says.”
“It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but sometimes . . . there are times I just want to see things another way. How do I tell you? I want to eh . . .”
“What are you saying, Agi?”
Melu suddenly stopped and wiped his left hand quickly in the air and Agi stopped too. They nodded at each other and stooped low, waiting, their bodies camouflaged by the large green leaves of flowering shrubs near the enormous trunk of an ebenebe tree. They waited for several minutes in silence and, on hearing nothing further, moved forward quietly, still maintaining their stoop.
“I like to draw figures of us on the trees and on the walls of the stream cave,” Agi whispered.
“Figures of us? Why?”
And at that moment the beast leapt out before them, the black-and-white patterns on its large body, smooth, resplendent like water ripples. In that same quick instant, Melu turned quickly and threw his spear. The beast disappeared and his spear stuck to the trunk of a tree, a pinpoint target, jarring with the strong impact, like a game of arrows. Agi stood, unable to move, his mouth open, eyes wide. Melu slapped him on the back.
“Come now, Agi. The fight is before us.”
They began to go forward again now, this time they moved fast, sniffing, allowing their nose to determine the path they followed. They jumped over fallen logs and twigs to avoid making a noise, yet their arms grazed trees and thorny shrubs, bruising their skin. They came to another part of the forest where the undergrowth disappeared completely, as if the forest floor had been weeded and swept.
“Stop!” Melu whispered. “I heard something.”
The beast leapt out again, suspended in the air for a second or two, a huge physical presence, a flash of striated patterns, ivory teeth bared like hostile armed sentries, and then, in an instant, it disappeared. Agi shook his head and told Melu that he was going home.
“I can’t deal with this. I feel something. I need to go to my woman.”
“Why do you always act so cowardly? It’s just a beast and we must kill it.”
“So that’s what you want?”
They stood staring at each other.
“Let’s just stay around here for a little more time. If we don’t kill it before the sun is down here, then you know we can go.”
After about an hour searching and waiting for the reappearance of the beast, Melu motioned to Agi and they turned back. Melu let out a shrill whistle to alert the other groups that they’d had no success and needed to regroup. Only a single whistle came back, telling him that something was happening. Seeing that the whistle had come from the east, they started quickly in that direction. The sun was coming down and the forest was darkening. Slats of orange light cut through the foliage. The bird noises were many—the lonely music of tiny invisible songbirds occupied the quiet interstices rising above the patter of their running feet. Sudden gusts of air invaded the forest and the trees howled with the impact. They heard the evening ditties of the songbirds again and perhaps were too distracted to notice the other sound close to them—the hair-raising movement of a morbid monster.
Melu perceived the flagrant scent of hate in the air; he felt the touch of a shadow behind him. As he turned, the fangs grazed his back but alighted on Agi’s shoulder. Agi screamed, the animal’s mouth still glued to his shoulder, and drove his spear into the beast. Melu put one foot forward and threw his spear into the upper back of the beast and, as the animal loosened its grip on Agi’s bloody shoulder in the free-fall of death, its left claw scratched Agi’s back on the way down and left three deep bloody welts.
Melu rushed forward and caught Agi, who was about to fall too. Agi’s pupils were dilating, sinking beneath the whites. He was groaning faintly. Melu growled with anger. He semi-carried and semi-dragged Agi’s body away from the dead hulk of the fallen beast, Agi’s arms flailing listlessly. Melu ululated the whistle of the band but no whistle came in response. He shook his head and lifted Agi on his shoulders and started straining in the direction of the homestead.
When they got to the row of five oji trees that shielded the homestead from the forest, it was already dark and a big fire had already been lit in the center of the clearing. Bring me down here, Agi whispered in his ear, his breathing faint and raspy. “We are already at the homestead, just two steps more.” No, here, bring down. Melu lowered the wounded man slowly and propped his bloody body up against the nearest of the trees. Agi smiled: Do you know, he whispered, I scratched us all into these oji? “Where?” Melu asked. And he got no reply.
Okwara finished his night meal and called his eldest son to bring him the keg of palm wine which he kept just inside his hut. It had rained almost the whole day and even though he knew it was dangerous, he’d climbed the shortest of his palm trees, moving slowly up the dank trunk with his tappers’ cord, and tapped some palm wine that evening, which he wanted to sell the next day at the ezi square where people now gathered to exchange goods. It was not a full-blown market yet. People who wanted something more substantial must go as far as Owerre. But the journey was long and torturous and the road these days stretched out, undulating with many uncertainties and dangers, especially the slave raiders who waited in the bushes to pounce on unsuspecting adults.
The day’s rain had bestowed the night with a terrible cold. The stars and the moon were absent from the deep purple-black sky. As Okwara drank his palm wine, telling draughts of cold air assaulted his ribs, he felt a tightness in his chest that warned him to go inside. He gulped down the last contents of his drinking horn and carried the still half-full keg back to his hut. In the darkness, he placed it near the door, amongst other kegs of palmwine, and threw the drinking horn into his raffia bag, which hung from the bamboo rafters. He snuck out of the hut again and headed for his second wife’s hut. After two short knocks, she opened. He stooped through the low doorway and entered inside. As always she had an mkpanaka burning lowly in a corner and in spite of his objection to that practice, he was glad that it made the hut warm. After closing the door, she came and lay beside him on the hard mud bed, which was covered with a comfortable raffia mat. He untied her wrapper and climbed on top of her, grunting. She kept her hands by her sides and made no noise.
Okwara was inside taking stock of the sales he’d made for the day and the value of the day’s exchanges when he heard the great sound of the Ikolo echoing through the land. The Ikolo spoke of the great founder of the land and his epic journey from the land of high hills to this place of low hills and the great green river. The Ikolo spoke of the orgy of ancient wars that were won by the fierce warriors of old; it spoke of the flamboyance of the glory of the first men who set up the land, their toils and grit through the alleyways of time; it spoke of a beast of old that tormented the first people and how it was killed by a fearless warrior; finally it called all the men of this great land to an emergency meeting and hinted at an impending danger on Akah people.
Okwara got his raffia bag and hurried towards the ezi square. When he got to the square, many men were already seated under the cluster of the huge oji trees where the villagers gathered for their exchanges. The men murmured amongst themselves and a low hubbub like the buzz of a thousand bees rose above the gathering. Finally, the oldest man in the village, Ogbuehi Onyema, stood up, cleared his throat and began to talk.
“Men of Akah, we have just received important news.” He paused and gauged his audience’s response. “Yes. I said we have just received important news. Duru informed me that on his way back from Owerre just yesterday, a stranger told him that Aro slave raiders would pass through these parts again.”
There was a lot of noise from the men.
“Quiet. Quiet. I am talking. Let me finish. Don’t bury me before I die. You all know what that means. We will lose our able-bodied men, our women, our children. The worst thing is that they have no pattern. No one knows particularly when they would come and they seem to have great medicine backing them. That is why we live a haphazard life like this. But enough is enough. This information has given us the upper hand. The tortoise once said that the reason he was quiet was not that he didn’t know what to do, but that he was waiting for the right time.”
A round of laughter went through the gathering. “Otu a. It is so,” many of the men said.
“Now what did we, the elders of Akah, do? The first men, the egede, said that only a tree learnt that it would be killed and stood still. Yes. We did not stand still. Ani, our great mother, will not allow it. We put heads together—elders of Akah, is it not so?—and we immediately sent men out to consult in Nri Igbo.” Ogbuehi Onyema’s right hand rose and pointed towards the west, compelling the eyes of the crowd towards that direction. “We are here to say that whatever news our emissaries bring back, it will help us prepare well for the Aro.”
After he sat down, two other men stood up and spoke at length about how timely and crucial Duru’s information was and how the entire Akah was brimming with readiness. Under the huge dark shadow of the oji trees, the men continued talking until finally they dispersed deep into the night, agreeing to gather again when the emissaries to Nri return.
And here was Okwara again drinking in his obi, passing the evening in silence, his thoughts soaring free over his day on the wings of his growing drunkenness. From the vantage point of his hut he could see the top branches of the great oji trees towering over the rest of the village. He contemplated the dense green foliage of the tree-tops that wiped in the high wind—the music of the whoosh-whoosh sound almost like a great masquerade dancing in the square in the season of Akah Festival.
“Nna m, why are you smiling to yourself?”
He turned and it was Ozioma Mgbafor, his fourteen year-old daughter.
“Nne, come, come.”
She came and sat beside him, decorously putting her legs to one side of her. Okwara nodded approvingly and cleared his throat.
“Nne, I want to tell you this. As your father, I have always tried to show all of you that you have a choice in life. This may not be the norm, but this is what I want you, my children, to know, especially in the matter I want to bring to you now. My friend, Anoruo, officially informed me three market days ago that he wants your hand in marriage for his son. You know Chikadibia, his second son?”
“Eeeh, nna m.”
“I should think so, for the young man is a good sort. He took after his father, you know, who has been a strong farmer since his younger days. Do you want to marry him? I mean Chikadibia.”
“Nna m, if it is good for you, then it is good for me too.”
“No, my daughter. I want you to tell me with your own mouth. If your heart does not accept it, we will not go through with it. This is what I want you to know.”
“Nna m, I know him and his ways are pleasing to me.”
“Nne, you can go now. Your mother will tell you when our in-laws are coming for the first iku aka.”
As he watched the slight sway of his daughter’s small hips on her way out, Okwara thought how children mature so easily these days. Was it not yesterday that Mgbokwo sent Nwaabu to tell him that his wife had delivered a beautiful girl? And was it not yesterday that he married her mother? And how long ago was he himself even a child? Was it not yesterday that he accompanied his father and carried his stool to the meetings of elders and titled men? The world moved so quickly, one had to agree. Now that the elders of this present age had instituted a deity at the ezi among the five great oji trees, and the Nkwo market now fully-fledged within the square, he would take a good white cock to the grove of the deity and pray for marital blessings upon his daughter’s impending marriage.
It pleased Okwara to know that everything had turned out well this past year. The Ezinkwo deity—which was instituted a few weeks after the men’s meeting in the square—had been as efficacious as promised. The swiftness with which the deity solved the Aro problem surprised Okwara, for he had expected a long line of sacrifices to follow that would help to activate its potency. When the Aro enslavers came close to the village, a great noisy wind swayed the five trees violently from side to side, so that the whole village ran out to the ezi. There was confused outcry and panic in the faces of the people at first, for in their minds, they felt that there was a new-fangled strangeness in the vagaries of the weather. The new chief priest of the deity came out of the trees’ grove at that moment and told them that the deity was using the trees to warn them about the closeness of the Aro. A troop of young warriors was hastily assembled to ambush the invaders along the road to Umuorie. Akah warriors massacred Aro slavers and thus, for months, there had been no sign of Aro intruders in these parts, nor will there ever be, according to what the Ezinkwo chief priest divined afterwards. In the folk song that the women sang afterwards, the story was told in epic proportions, with appropriate exaggerations in the right places, and sometimes Okwara wondered if it was the same events he’d witnessed.
In the blazing afternoon sun, the group dug among the great gnarled oji trees. The two white men wore khaki boonie hats, but they were sweating heavily—their grey cotton shirts entertained dark wet patches around the arms and necklines—and their complexion was red and greasy. The labourers were dirty and shirtless, their muscled sweaty bodies half-hidden in the hole they’d made in the ground since they started digging that morning.
“What do you think, Jude? Is it possible to find these things here?”
“The trees, look at them, they are over a thousand years old. It’s a good sign.”
“How so, if you please?”
“A primitive civilization flourished here. I came upon an old stone dagger here two years ago in 1937, remember? What we need is time.”
“Well! These outbacks in Africa can be fascinating. Imagine black Africa! Who would have thought about this a century ago?”
“Well, a few did.”
“Not the majority.”
“I am worried now though. I am worried there might not be enough time to complete these excavations, Will. You see what is happening now back home. We are mobilising against Hitler. I fear my work here is rather puny in the larger scheme of things. I have to go back to Exeter soon and see what to do.”
“Your work here is important work nonetheless,” Will said, taking out a cigarette from his breast pocket. “We can dig for the rest of the week. I will inform Douglas at the DC office. The archeological team in the north of the colony can continue. Our circumstances are different.”
Jude touched his reddish moustache and lit his own cigarette. He drew in deeply and exhaled grey combustion into the air. He moved close to the hole and peered in, watching the zombie-like movements of the glistening dark bodies scooping small heaps of dirt out of the ground with their spades.
“What is that?” Jude pointed to a black object. “What is that?” he asked again and threw away the barely finished cigarette. “Bring it up quickly. Quickly! I want to see it.”
In October of the year 2000 the great ancient oji trees in Akah were hacked down by a group of Christian zealots. According to reports, during a crowded Christian revival service at Dan Anyiam Stadium in Owerri, a renowned minister prophesied to a group of young men who attended the service from Akah that the origin of their financial problems and business failures was in the evil aura of the trees and the village deity that dwelt in their ancient groove.
Thus, one morning, Akah woke up to the caterwauling of ten chainsaws screaming as if in anger, cutting deeper and deeper into the huge trunks of the trees. The trees fell that day and in the wide bare space that opened up where they used to stand, the nakedness of Akah shone with the shame of the future.