Ubaka was away. He had left to meet the old man, Neche, after having been indicted in Chilaka, Azi and Ọnyà’s story about what had been going on. ‘Stormed out’ was best a word to describe how he had walked off the house. Just at the backyard, and under the cold shades of two palm trees, Inene sat on a small stool right next to Ọla whose face was squeezed into anger, anger from being lied to, a lie which had nearly cost them their lives.
The three boys were on their knees, hands raised and eyes closed. It had been ten minutes since they returned from the bush right next to a road side where they had been found by Ubaka and Ọla.
The girl stranger stood by the side, fifteen yards away —under order— confused as to why the three boys were kneeling, particular Chilaka. This confusion stood apparent in her face as she watched him keenly. And it was because of this disturbing glance at her son, that Ọla ordered the boys to close their eyes, and the girl to stand till her husband returned, an order which was obeyed, albeit reluctantly.
Shortly after Ọla had taken to her feet and excused herself to go fetch something she wouldn’t disclose, Chilaka turned to Ọnyà, observing he had been quiet all along, even during the yelling and scolding from both their parents.
“If anything terrifies me, it’s the fact that your father would likely return here with my father.” Azi moaned in discomfort. He still was unsure how to begin explaining himself to his father when even Chilaka who was the center of the whole weird phenomenon had failed to explain himself convincingly to his own parents —even when they had themselves seen half of the whole thing from far away.
“You’ll live,” Chilaka dismissed. He shifted closer to Ọnyà. “Are you okay now?”
Onya looked drained, and though kneeling like them all, was too weak to as much raise his hands up, something their parents had observed and chose to permit. He propped his body with his arms rested on the floor, and nodded, saying nothing.
“He is exhausted from being possessed by The Horde. I can help him if you just let me.” The girl from just outside the hut pushed her head in, eyes still on Chilaka.
Chilaka blinked and avoided her stare. “Stop looking at me like that,” he mumbled. “I do not believe anything you said to my father and mother. Who really are you?”
“I—” she opened her mouth to speak, only to be cut off by Azi.
“‘Consider me a friend’ she said. Can you believe that? Consider someone who got spat out by a smoke looking bubble as a friend,” he scoffed dismissively.
She sighed and rolled her eyes, “I wasn’t spat out by the—”
“If the smokey thing threw you out of it, how’s that not a sign that you’re bad news?” Azi cut in again. “It’s written all over you.”
“Azi,” Chilaka sighed. He actually wanted to hear the girl speak, but Azi was beginning to rant more like Ọnyà.
Azi raised his shoulder. “What? I’m just saying it. I don’t like nor trust her. Why do you?”
“I don’t.” He shook his head. “I just asked her a question. Maybe hearing her answer can—”
“I get the fact that you were all magical and blueish back there, but know your lanes and boundaries with me. Don’t talk tough because a girl is here.” Azi scowled through his whining channelled at Chilaka.
“What is your problem?” Chilaka was confused.
“How about the fact that you are telling me to keep quiet?”
Chilaka looked at Ọnyà, then back to Azi, confused beyond belief. “I didn’t do or said that.”
“You definitely implied it.”
“I didn’t,” Chilaka insisted, tone still as low.
Ọnyà exhaled and looked up to Chilaka, shrugged, “You did.”
Chilaka sighed in defeat.
The stranger girl had muddiness in her eyes, and distaste in her sullen face. Eyes still on Azi, she threw a question at Chilaka. “Does he always talk this much?”
Chilaka nodded, then said, “When he is full.”
Azi’s face furrowed into shock. He turned to Chilaka. “What?”
“You do,” Ọnyà sighed and mumbled where he lay.
Azi bit against his lips.
The girl reached for her cloth and from within it pulled out a small piece of wood. It looked like a piece of wood at first until she rose to her feet and walked towards Ọnyà, clipping it open. Chilaka let his hands drop down. He charged to his feet, face furrowed as he made for Ọnyà too.
Seeing him lurch forward she dressed away from Ọnyà and gestured him to stop, fright in her eyes, which vanished as Chilaka halted his advance in return.
“I don’t want to do anything. These are Nchakala seeds. It’s gotten from a tree grown at my place. It has medical properties…” she went on.
Chilaka looked her in the eyes, then the container in her hand. He eased as she pulled a tiny, neon-coloured seedling out of it, threw it in her mouth and gulped. She handed him another seedling, and reluctantly he took it from her.
Onya felt his body relax shortly as after Chilaka made him chew on the bitter seed from the stranger. It was the most bitter thing he had tasted. The manner to which he had coughed as he chewed it, Chilaka thought something bad had happened. However, the girl had said she was surprised as boys that they found the seeds bitter. According to her, where she came from, just children way younger than Ọnyà twisted their faces in disgust once exposed to it. Regardless, a strange cooling effect, like being beat by an early morning rain and then exposed to a strong wind from another impending rainstorm. It felt nice, and even more strangely, Ọnyà felt the pain and discomfort within him slightly eased off. When Chilaka asked him why he was quiet and cuddled himself on the floor like a fowl which had missed the way to its home and thus beat by the rain, he said he felt nice and cold.
Ọla returned, screaming at Chilaka and Azi for having their hands not as raised as had been ordered. She yelled at Ọnyà for just kneeling and went on and on about how she didn’t care about his fake pretence of pain and weakness. And when the stranger girl tried to make a statement, she turned her aggression towards the young girl, accusing her of dragging her children into whatever mess they were into. Then she made to scold her for staring strangely at her son, Chilaka.
Chilaka felt odd when his mother pointed it out. And at the same time he felt annoyed as Azi already had that taunting look on his face. However some of his memories were returning, though vaguely, and just one incomprehensible phrase —albeit seeming incomplete— lingered in his mind, just underneath his lungs like a poorly swallowed chicken meat cooked with lots of salt and a completely unnecessary amount of green pepper.
The words felt like they were being muttered, but so subtly it wasn’t even there. It sounded a lot like some stranger seated somewhere at the back of his mind, taunting him. Also, somehow, something about Ọnyà got his inside feeling way at ease that it made him worried. Whenever his eyes fell on Ọnyà’s shoulder, on the mark on him, an alien memory of a beast flashed through his mind. A beast large, dark and leaping straight at him with a snarl and flame burning black like thickened smoke, burning right behind it. It looked nothing like Ọnyà, yet Ọnyà remained on his mind each time he saw it. Each time it snarled at him. And if he blinked, his frightening reverie vanished and reality forced itself back on him; he was kneeling down with both hands raised, Azi was doing same, and just next to him, his little brother knelt too, his colour coming back. And just by the wall, the strange looking girl stood just staring at him in a way which felt like she knew exactly what troubled him. Yet, even as frightful as his thoughts of Ọnyà was, each time the creature leaped at him, he felt at ease, like he was safe through its lurch.
A reverent lull knocked through his mind as his father walked into the house with Neche. Even Ọla’s verbal assault ceased as he marched in, displeasure written all over his face. The old man had a warm look on him, a staff in his hand to aid his movements, and almost immediately, Ubaka ordered Chilaka to go bring a chair for Neche. Chilaka returned with it and went back to his kneeling position.
Ubaka began as he sat himself, Inene running into his arms for carriage. “You said Dee Neche met you today. Well, he came to hear of this madness himself. And believe me I am going to flog—”
“Ubaka, my son, calm down. Let us hear them out from the beginning. For one, they were right. They did come to meet me this morning,” Neche said, his voice as old as it was that morning.
His wrinkled face was a lot oilier from sweat and riding under the warm weather, a weather everyone had thought would usher in a downpour. His eyes moved from the boys to the girl. He observed her attire. It was different, designed in a way not likened to anything he had seen anyone wear in his lifetime. He could take notice of the insibidi symbols weaved, some painted in tiny sizes on the cloth. She had an uli on her forehead, tiny, marked black, and rather than a usual dot, took a spiral shape. Her eyes were darkened further by something he felt was a typical ori, and her lips as dark by the same too. He observed how her woolly hair was weaved. She definitely wasn’t from around any village or community within the tribe, yet she had the spirit of identity in her he could not place his hand on. Indeed, he thought, she was a peculiar one, as peculiar as his new objects of fascination: the three boys.
After a few moments of discomforting silence, he cleared his throat and turned his gaze to a quiet but irritated Ubaka. “My son, they have knelt down for far too long. Let them stand.”
“No, let them stay there. Imagine what madness this boy dragged his little brother into. My only children! My eyes saw my ears today, and they still are unable to tell me anything sensible about what I saw! If these boys don’t talk, by heavens I will machete their bodies!” Ubaka barked, his voice loud and instilling more fear thanwas absorbable by the boys. Even Inene felt bad for her brothers.
Ola nodded in support, muttering angry words as she did.
Neche laughed. “Which one annoys you more, that they lied about those things on their bodies, got entangled with something apparitional or that they nearly got killed?”
“Just look— look at the nonsense on their bodies! I will kill this boy!” He pointed at Chilaka. “Can you imagine, they brought a girl back to my—” he glared at the three, “Which of you rascals brought this girl here?” He pointed a thumb at the girl without a glance her way.
Immediately, Chilaka pointed at Azi, then realised Azi was pointing at him too. Ọnyà just knelt there, biting against his nail, fear in his eyes. He looked a lot lively compared to moments ago, all to his mother’s disavowed relief. That was the only thing that had agitated Ọla from the inception, the fact that her last son looked like someone about to die earlier.
“Can I speak?” the girl said.
Ọla flared at her. “Only if you want to get a beating your parents have never given you.”
The girl’s countenance dropped, her eyelids too, and in place of her initial puzzled look, a furrowed twist crossed her face. “They are dead. And you really can’t win me in a fight.”
First was the silence.
Then was the mother’s fury as she sprang to her feet. Ubaka held her back with an order, and her flame was immediately bottled back up. Ubaka took it upon himself to caution the girl to watch her tongue regardless of how apparent her unfamiliarity to the culture regarding elders was. Still with her demeanour, the girl apologised and stayed quiet.
Neche cleared his throat again, turned to Chilaka, smiled, then to Ọnyà. “Tell us everything from the beginning, Ọnyà.”
Ọnyà was nervous, and his shaky voice was evidence of that. A lot of things made him worried. He didn’t know which to say and which Chilaka wouldn’t want him to say. Regardless, even more obvious was the fact that if he lied he would be punished, and if he didn’t lie, they’d all be punished.
He gulped. “yesterday we went into that weeded farmland belonging to that man you said died before I was born—”
Ubaka made to speak, squeezing his grip around a broomstick lying just by his foot. Neche calmed him down. Ọnyà gulped when Neche gestured him to continue.
He quaffed and continued. “we heard a noise, I said we should run, but Chilaka went down—”
Azi cut in almost immediately, “I also suggested we leave—”
“Shut your drainage of a mouth!” Ubaka shouted. Azi kept mute and Ọnyà was told to continue.
“We found an injured old man dressed somehow like her with blood everywhere,” he pointed at the girl. “Chi said we could not leave him there to die, so he told us to get herbs but then we heard a noise. I ran to Chi and suddenly, the injured man opened his eyes and said some strange words. There was a bright light and when I woke up, we were in the house,” he finished.
The old man turned to Chilaka and Azi. “Is that what happened?”
Reluctantly, both nodded affirmatively.
“Take your clothes off,” Neche said.
“Eh?” the boys chorused.
“You heard him,” Ubaka scowled. And the look in his eyes made them strongly concede to the idea that this exercise was aimed at flogging them naked.
All three rose to their feet. Azi tried to point out that he had none of the marks on him, but was told to take them off anyway. Chilaka felt uncomfortable in the manner the girl watched his body as he took his shirt off. And for the first time, he felt more ashamed than afraid over the symbols drawn across half of his chest. Neche was intrigued by what he beheld. He rose to his feet and walked up to Chilaka, touching the symbols. They were smooth, almost like they weren’t there.
Ubaka cleared his throat, a lot calmer, almost like he had reconciled within himself that his sons might be in trouble and needed as much help as possible. His voice came off as concerned when he spoke Neche back from his sense of deep awe. “What do you know about this?”
“Just guesses and stories. But,” he turned his gaze to the girl, a faint smug on his face, “If she is here, then one of the stories might be more real than a story. All she needs to do is talk.”
All eyes went to the girl, Chilaka inclusively.
She said nothing, but her eyes still were on Chilaka’s body.
Ubaka picked up the broomstick. “Is she talking or am I making her?”
Her gaze remained on Chilaka, and nothing in her countenance implied she was going to do so, willingly. She inhaled, “Am I now permitted to talk, Chilaka?”
Chilaka felt tensed. Azi gasped, nearly the same time both parents did. Ọnyà didn’t know much of what any of anything meant but was certain the outcome was supposed to be terrible. Neche kept his gaze on her, with the same intrigue he’d had on Chilaka and Ọnyà.
Ubaka had meant to react to such audacious insult to himself, his wife and the elder with them, but Neche had rather gestured him to calm down, and Chilaka to respond to the girl. He had his suspicions, and so far, it was proving to be the case.
Chilaka nodded, embarrassed, avoiding her gaze.
Her eyes still were on him when she began, “My name is Ọgọuhie, I am from Îimo-Ani, and that thing on your body is no symbol. It’s called the Akabiịku, the greatest Nighter borne from the inception of the world’s creation, a child of nature itself, and source of the wind which sustains my people.” Everyone looked at everyone, and everyone was as confused as everyone else. Her face however, became laced with more seriousness than had been evident earlier. “You were in the wrong place at the right time. I am desperate, and I need your help.”
She went on her knees and had her head bowed to Chilaka. He rose to his feet and dressed back, shocked. Just like everyone else. Ọla shouted at her, asking what she thought she was doing, ignoring even Neche’s caution that she let the girl be.
“Who really are you?” Chilaka found himself mutter. His face had gone from shocked to curious. Something stirred within him, like a burden, like he was drowning. And even as he stared at the girl, something about her, the look in her eyes, struck a sense of familiarity to his chest. Yet somehow, behind that familiarity, was anger and pain. One he could not explain.
She looked up to him, and her face for the first time looked frail, naked and broken. For the first time she looked nothing in semblance to tough or arrogant. She looked real and hurt. “I’m just a desperate orphan seeking to save the only family I have left, my sister. She and my people need the Akabiịku to save us from the Igaada.”
Chilaka watched her. He could see the sincerity in her rickety voice. He could see the water gather around her eyes, and almost immediately he felt something inside him speaking, making his body quiver. As his fist clenched for all reasons unknown, he felt a burning sensation on his chest.
“Chilaka,” Azi called out to him, his eyes on the symbols on his body. They were glowing, albeit faint. All to the shock of everyone else.
Chilaka heaved in deep, eyes not moving from Ọgọuhie’s.
“Tell me everything,” he said. His voice deep and heavy.
She nodded, “I will, and would end it all with saying you’d need to find a staff.”