Trees danced as the wind whooshed by objects in Umuona. Giggles and screams of naked children hung in the air. Mama’s voice hung in the air too. Loud. Brash. Almost swallowing that of the children. Awele’s heart skipped, hearing Mama’s voice. Mama’s voice was a gong of a kind that sliced deep into one’s head. Certainly not the voice for Awele to deal with. Not while battling with the trauma from the stream.
The first spattering of raindrops hit her upper lip and stopped just like it had started. She reached to wipe it off with her tongue, her heart racing. Her life, everything about it was going to take another turn. She didn’t know much of what had happened, but she knew it happened too fast. It was brutal. Inadvertent. Sacrilegious. She wished it were a dream of a sort, a type where one dreamt with one’s eyes wide open. The picture was vivid, glaring back at her each time she peeked. The sweet smell of baked soil wafted in the air, but unlike her, she did not bother to savour it.
Spotting Mama in front of the house, issuing orders to Amala like it was a war, Awele sighed. Mama was not the kind of mother to confide in. Experience had taught her better. She was specially talented in worsening situations, one talent that remained incontestable. Awele resolved to keep her plight to herself until when Papa had returned.
“Oh, you are still counting your steps there?”
Mama barked, catching sight of Awele. Awele started to pace so that her water swooshed from her head and spilled on her akwa ocha tied around her chest and knotted at the back.
“Nne m oo.”
She greeted, walking past Mama to empty her jar of water. Mama’s teeth gritted, her burning eyes trailing Awele into the kitchen and out. She disliked that Awele stayed as long as she considered too long in Ngene stream especially now that she was ripening like the udala fruit.
“Is it not because you don’t know the way back from Ngene that you have refused to come back on time… gbo?”, Mama asked, balancing a tray of egusi on her laps and motioning to Amala to get her something that sunned on the kitchen thatch.
“Yes? Or the stream goddess poked her head out of the stream and asked you to help her with some water spirit chores, eeeh kwa?”
Awele’s throat clogged up. Her eyes darted from the melon in Mama’s tray to a handful in Amala’s and to Metu that wagged his tail near the kitchen door. It was not that Awele had no perfect lie to tell Mama. It was the way Mama released her verbal arsenals that swayed off her balance. Sometimes, they struck like madness in the harmattan. The type that allowed its victim to speak only bogus English. Other times they stung like a scorpion, one laden with eggs so that even the eggs have a share of the stinging treat.
Awele wished Papa was around, but Papa was not around to shield his precious daughter from her insensitive mother this time. He had left for Nzuko with his age grades at the village square where they would point fingers at each other’s face, squabble over a piece of beef that was not shared proportionately and betroth their daughters to sons over a free keg of ngwo, palm wine.
“Awele, I am yet to hear you o!” Mama shouted.
“No, Mama.” Her voice shook. “There were many people in the stream and we fetched in turns… from the mouth only. It is the only clean part of the stream now.” She paused momentarily. “Nne, you do know how Ngene can be in dry seasons.”
Mama stared at her like someone gibbering under the sway of iba fever. She shook her head and chuckled. “Yes, of course I do.” She said, sacarstically. “You see those two tangerines,” she continued, dancing two fingers at Awele’s chest. “I mean the ones up there, I am seeing that they are beginning to spin and toss your head about.” Amala stifled something that would have turned out to be a laughter, sitting beside Mama. “And once you take a bite of that thing it is spinning and tossing you to,” Mama said, resuming with the egusi seeds in her hands, “I will have you auctioned out to the lowest bidder.” Amala burst into laughter, knocking off Mama’s tray.
It was the perfect time for Awele to have a piece of her own fun knowing Amala would be dancing to Mama’s own kind of music soon, but the memory from Ngene smothered her softly. Unlike most mothers in Umuona, Mama did not possess that inner eyes of a mother to make out her daughter’s apprehensive disposition. Hers were only swift to tell whose son and daughter were under the icheku tree last doing ‘touch me, I touch you’. Mama swooped down at Amala, seizing her head. “Ngwa! Start picking up those seeds, quickly. You don’t know anything else except to laugh.” She yanked Amala’s ears with one hand and rained heavy knocks on her head with the other hand. Turning to Awele, she said, “Go and pound those yams in the mortar.”
Papa returned shortly from his meeting with a piece of meat wrapped in Unele leaves and a keg of palm wine. He asked his daughters to pour themselves and their mother some cups of wine before returning the keg under his bed. “Ezenwanyi,” he said, handing the piece of meat to Mama, “Smoke this meat so that you can prepare me something with it. Ora soup would be okay… Udekwe and his wife, Arunna will be visiting tomorrow.”
“Isi? What did you say? Mama asked. She had not been listening to Papa from the outset. She had not bought her own ‘mkpuru oka‘ and ‘kpili kpili azu‘ and it bothered her more than anything, any conversation. They were the only two wrappers permitted for the Saint John’s Catholic Women August meeting that year. She did not own any of the two, but had vowed never to let herself be disgraced by her fellow women. Especially Nwamgboye, her sister-in-law. She also needed two white lace blouses and ornaments. A new bag too. Her own would not be different. Every husband in Umuona cared about how their wife appeared in Saint John’s August women’s meeting except hers. She was not going to take further excuses from the weakling. ”
Ikem,” She started, blinking her eyes repeatedly. “When are you giving me the money?” She adjusted her wrapper knotted at one side of her waist.
“Which money again?” Papa asked, vaguely.
“Hian!” Her face tightened to a grimace. “The one for my August meeting na!” Papa stood up. He wasn’t going to let Mama seep out the remaining energy in him. He had told her to wait for the next two Eke market days. Ulo, his loyal wine customer had given his words. He was certain about making sales in a fortnight.
“Ezenwanyi, I thought we have discussed this?” He made to leave the sitting room. Mama ran to the doorway. She blocked his way with her fleshy arms that quivered. The type of arm the youths of Umuona called ‘aka krisian moda’, Christian mother’s hand. Papa collapsed into a nearby chair. He was not cut out for Ezenwayi’s rascality. Not when his daughters were at home. Not that he enjoyed it when they were away in school either. Awele’s coldness also bothered him. She did not welcome him in her usual way. He hoped to spare his energy to find out what the ado was rather than dissipate it on Ezenwayi.
Awele sat in her room crying while Mama hurled abuses at Papa. Mama’s voice swallowed her loud sobs that even Amala whose ears had developed to become a veritable antenna did not hear. Although, her home had really not been a happy one and lacked most qualities of the home she had longed to have, Awele cried that there will not be home any more. Good or bad. Home was gone. Things have started to fall apart and no one seemed to be aware except her.
She peered through the horizontal openings of her wooden window, her mind flooded with thoughts of a wriggling snake. She thought that the rustling trees wriggled like the snake too. Tree branches. Leaves. They all scurried up against each other like snakes. She imagined them slithering into her room and cringed. She yearned to tell Papa what had happened although, she would need series of rehearsals to tell him the right way. He had proven to be a master planner, perhaps he could devise a means to flee Umuona before dusk, she thought. Only that Mama was not really helping her to find the right moment to tell.
Awele doubted that even the white man’s God would save she and her family from their ordeal. Christian or Traditionalist, it was a sacrilege to kill any of those shiny, beautifully patterned creatures. Harmless, sacred snakes.
Snakes that liked to slither into people’s houses in Umuona like they were ‘family’. Snakes that reflected the presence of gods in homes. Awele had grown to understand these things. Papa had taken the time to educate his daughters and Mama savoured drilling those sacred snake do’s and dont’s into their heads just like a baby savouring the taste of it’s mother’s breast milk. Her face glowed during those periods and Awele wondered why Mama deceived the White Reverend Father with red lips about surrendering all to Jesus. She practically served snake rules for breakfast and dinner. Most times, they were compelled to show gratitude for it. She knew them so well she could recant them in her sleep. But the man from the city had struck the sacred animal at the stream.
She had gone to the stream in the company of Udo that afternoon. Although she reluctantly agreed, she enjoyed for the first time, the tingles that came with talking to a fine man from the city. She was sure Mama would even be proud that she did. Awele had allowed him enter the stream with her pot, relishing the feeling of a princess when a fat snake fell off a tree branch and hit her on her bare head. Udo rushed to grab the snake by the head. Unfrightened and bold. He siezed it from Awele’s body where she danced acrobatics on the white sand, throwing it to the ground fiercely. Scanning the stream for a weapon, he spotted a fat stick, about the same size with the snake. He had struck the defenceless creature repeatedly that it shuddered. Without saying a word of either appreciation to Udo for his gallantry or rebuke for the sacrilege, Awele carried her half filled pot and ran as fast as her feet could carry her. She was not going to witness whatever that followed the shuddering.
Another set of hot blobby tears had started to tumbled down her cheeks when Amala came into the room. She hadn’t seen her sister cry in years no matter how hard Mama tried. She reached to Awele’s cheek, plucking a tear with her finger and examining it like a specimen in her Agric class. “Nwanne m,” She said, searching her sister’s eyes, “Don’t tell me it’s because of Mama’s attitude towards Papa?” You know how she can be.” Awele sniffed. She wished it was easy to tell Amala. Killing a sacred snake was one sacrilege, doing it because of her was another sacrilege. Eke nsukwu, the goddess does not spare. She was an accessory as long as Eke nsukwu was concerned. There had been stories of people who did not literally kill these snakes yet got a share of the misery just because they had something to do with the killing.
“Or is there something that you’re not telling me because you have been acting strangely since you returned from that Ngene.” Amala added and shrugged.
“We killed it.” Awele blurted.
“Hewuuu! Chi m!”
Mama shrieked by the door where she had been eavesdropping. Her hands flew to her head as she ran to the backyard, throwing herself to the ground.
Papa rushed out to meet her. “Ezenwanyi, kedu ife oo? “What is it?” “Ikem, your daughter has killed me oo.” Mama cried. “Which of my daughters?” Papa asked, vacuously.
Voices started to filter from the front yard to the backyard. The chief priestess, Udo and his wailing relatives, in the company of few able-bodied men of Umuona stood in front of the house. The godesss had communed with the priestess about the heinous act and she was bent on executing justice on the goddess’ behalf.
Udo’s face painted with white chalk, simmered from the beatings he had received. Tied around his waist were snail shells, omu palm fronds and red and white clothes. The men dashed to the backyard, grabbing Awele by the arm. Mama and Amala made to stop them from dragging her, but the boys overpowered them. Papa ran into his room almost with the speed of a lightning. He wouldn’t have himself live with the emotional anguish.
“But, we are Christians.” Mama said defiantly from behind. “These rules do not apply to us anymore.”
“I see?” The priestess replied sharply, bursting into billows of raucous laughter that she nearly choked. “Tell those to the gods. You run to the white man’s church and expect to commit sacrilegious acts against our land? You must be joking.” She signalled to some boys who emptied several bowls of nzu powder round the house for cleansing, tying omu fronds to trees in the compound.
“I do not need to educate you on staying away from this house until eighty-two market days before which other rites will be performed… Eke Nsukwu will decide whether you will still have it back or not.” She warned. She started to hum a sad note in the procession to the evil forest where Awele and Udo will be sacrificed. Eke Nsukwu can only be appeased with human blood – the blood of the culprits.
Mama flung herself to the floor, this time as light as a feather. How would she cope without the first seed of her womb? How? She cried, rolling on the floor. Other women ran to seize her from the ground, muttering things to her for succour. Amala staggered out from the backyard, almost immediately with a knife bathed in blood.
“Pa,” she breathed, pointing lazily at the house. “Papa is dead.” Amala collapsed.