Ah! Winter, o cursed harbinger of frost; mother of snow. It was that time of the year when the earth is enveloped in the white thickness of frozen water, like some divine power became of the notion to smear the land as man does with butter on bread. In the distance, the unmistakable jingle of bells nailed atop both entry and egress doors could be discerned, not too loudly though, for the wind that blew by each person muffled that metallic sound with its own whooshing. It was at this moment that the famed spirit of Christmas made a display of itself, boasting a conflagration of people revelling in the snow, and joyfully imitating angellic beings with the vertical oscillating movement of their arms and horizontal movement of legs, giving no heed to the relentless howling wind. Ah! Lest I forget, the shops with jingling bells! In there, you’d find fur coats of all kinds, but in times like these, the thick fur of the ungulate bison was the most sought after, being the thickest in the market. There was a long queue of fathers and mothers struggling to acquire a purchase, while the young ones waited in the vans, or the confinement of their respective homes. Once in a while, you’d spot an intrepid, borderline insanity driven male dash across the snow and ram into an innocent snowman of his own accord. Christmas was everything in this town from miraculous to maddening. Make no mistake, not Christmas day, Christmas Eve. Christmas day was wholly exceptional, everyone except the grinch Mr Paul, would be gathered at the St. Peter’s cathedral dressed in red, white and green outfits, joyfully singing hymns that put to a temporal end the ceaseless kvetching of kids in diapers, if I told you the hummingbirds would come to perch and chirp along with us, you probably wouldn’t believe me, but I guess I just told you. And that is the story of Christmas in my little county. Joy, desperation, miracle, madness, iced creams and french fries.
At this point of reading “Christmas in my County” that my form 5 teacher had ordered us to feast our eyes on for the exam we were to take the next day, I felt a pang in my belly. I hadn’t eaten much of anything for a vast space of time, which would estimately be more than 48 hours if my mathematical reasoning was still functional. But it wasn’t just my belly that hurt, my soul also did. It ached to be on the other side of the world where there were lights, snowflakes, snowmen, sleds, and eternal fun. All I had here was my rusty lantern and books, of course, we had our own version of snow, but surely, it was nothing like the snow I read about. Mine was a dense unending mist of dust and water exuding the uncomfortable smell of smoke. Of course, the cold was ever present, but I had no bison fur or blanket to wrap myself in, all I had was my father’s grandfather’s sweater, which had so many holes, it seemed irreparable, and would take a Christmas miracle to be mended. Where I was at that moment, I mean, my school, was yet to suffer the full effect of the fog called harmattan, but I would be on my way home the next day, and I was delighted, for harmattan rarely came visiting. I put out my lantern flame, and hit the sack.
13:00pm the next day had me hugging my bag close to my chest, and cramped in the midst of unfamiliar people with sweat rolling and strolling down the outline of my skin. The profusion of sweat reached an extent where my skin began to itch, but I couldn’t scratch because my hands were rendered immobile by the tight limits of space. As if that misfortune wasn’t enough for a man to run mad, some unfortunate soul could not help dropping the loudest fart I ever heard, and the deadliest ever smelt. This was nothing short of plain macabre, no! Not even death could measure up to the suffering this putrefaction brought, the irritating smell of sweat and fart wreaked havoc on the air and reigned supreme. On the floor, you could feel a pool of sweat begin to form. About 10 hours later, the rackety, beat up lorry grinded to a halt, and the door was kicked open by a brusque looking thickset male conductor. Right there and then did I understand the overwhelming alleviative feeling one gets when liberated from a most uncomfortable situation, just like how the lamplight feels when dawn breaks, and the pestering moths leave it be, the word would be glorious. I hastened my feet as I walked the path that led to only one destination, home.
Christmas day at home was nothing like the books I read, you see, at school, we had missionaries who preached the Bible to us everyday, now, although I am no Christian, I have always fancied the idea of celebrating Christmas, but to speak of such to my father would be nothing but suicidal. He despised the idea that people of another culture had come to impose their beliefs on us, and we the ignorant fools, as he calls us, have let go of our own beliefs that made us unique. Coincidentally, the Christmas festival occurred around the same time our festival did, it was called “Oniagwu”, which in English would be translated into “Manhood”. Not so long after this thought crossed my mind, the narrow path I was on opened up into an expanse of land that had houses scattered in a disorganized fashion. A crow cawed above as if welcoming my presence, and in response, a chilly breeze blew and whispered into my father’s ear that his son had arrived. Oh! Forgive me, I forgot to mention my father’s uncanny ability to communicate with anything on the village grounds; the modern word would be psychic, something the missionaries condemned and referred to as demonic. Perhaps at this point, you’d love to quiz me about how I came of the knowledge that the wind spoke to him. Well, I know the wind whispered because I, although not as versed in the matter, could hear bits of words being spoken, it sounded like fragmented stutters; purely incoherent. I had entered my father’s house, and was not too surprised to find the whole village gathered together in his prodigious home which was constructed by the missionaries years ago, before the revolt which had them running head over heels like chickens away from dogs.
“Kazeagbo, my son, come from the den of lions”, my father announced proudly. There’s a certain way goats stare at an interloper, you just can’t tell if it’s a look of approval or disapproval, eitherways, they raised their clay cups cheering, some in envy, some in admiration, and others were of no particular reason. My father walked past me, and beckoned to me to follow him outside.
The moon hung immobile in the starry sky while individual wisps of cloud rode furiously across its face, a visual portray of the direction the chilly breeze flailing our clothes took, its frigidity and force were beyond merciless as the black woolen fabric we were wrapped in couldn’t do much to keep it out. We were headed for the top of a mountain whose path we had been trudging for almost thirty minutes, it was not an entertaining journey, maybe owing to the fact that my father’s mouth was sealed all through the journey. Eventually, as was meant to, we arrived at the summit in one piece. I for one, was out of breath, but my father didn’t seem the least out of breath, and looked like he could keep going if there were another one to mount. The view from the top was pleasant, although each now and then, I would hear some indistinct voice calling to me to jump, but awareness of reality tends to be a better teacher than any feeling or voice. My father gave me a loaf of bread that he had kept in his cloth, and smiled at me
“I am sure it’s been a while you ate anything, son”
“Yes papa, two or three days ago, I’ve lost count.” I replied with a hunger stare, hoping Papa would clamp up and let me eat in peace
“Good, you must remember that a leader is never addicted to anything, not food, not water, nothing!” He stared at the sky dreamily
“Yes Papa, but it is not easy”
“Run from easy, dear son. Easy makes you average, but hard! Hard brings you reputation and glory” He paused, looked at me, then continued “No great deed is ever easy, best get used to doing the hard now.”
Two hours later, I found myself between grunting and snoring, it had been a demanding day. A twig snapped, and jolted my semiconscious mind awake. Before my half opened eyes were my father and a being certainly not human. It seemed to be some celestial being, for it had a translucent humanoid appearance which shimmered dimly in the moon, and it was female,most certainly. I could overhear them, and the eavesdropping began.
“That son of yours will surpass you”
“As is meant to be for any son”, was my father’s defiant reply
“You do not understand, Keabali. The things to come will not sit well with you”
“Shed some light, apparition”
“That son of yours will frolic with the white man, eat the crumbs of his table like a dog, and impose his culture on your people”
“Not the son that I trained from birth, perhaps your clairvoyance has failed you”
“Keabali, most feared in all realms, I need not speak any further. Your son is soft, make your decision”.
With these words, the sprite vanished into thin air. My father stood rooted to the spot with his head hanging, he was evidently perplexed and deep in thought, and his next actions didn’t leave me a modicum of comfort. The closer he approached me, the more I let my eyelids press against each other, what he would do to me if he, by chance knew I was aware of what transpired was oblivious to me, he would probably nothing, yet, I spared him the discomfort of knowing his son was audient to the conversation. I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, and after an estimate of 10 minutes, which was the time it took us to descend the mountain, I was in my chamber, brooding over the warnings the strange visitor had given my father, and what his ultimate reaction would be.
The next morning was peaceful, unexpectedly peaceful. I had foreseen a meeting of the elders in the village, which would inevitably ignite rumours among the people about my renouncement of the village norms in the nearest future. It would spread like a wildfire, till some folks who regarded themselves as my friends would rush into my room and preach to the choir. You can now imagine the extent to which I was taken by surprise when my eyes opened at dawn to nothing but the cheerful tweeting of birds, which was meant to lighten my mood, but inexplicably only ended up doing the opposite, I couldn’t help but feel it was the calm before the storm, an impending doom. The day passed on, and as earlier mentioned, unexpectedly not unpleasant, yet uneventful, the majority of my time was spent gazing at the mountain, and absorbing the transient pleasure the sight of a misty ring at its zenith brought me. Hours later, a wail issued from the depths of the forest that was behind the mountain. I doubt I have mentioned this forest at any point in my writing, but now, I shall. Regarded as a sacred existence by my people, it was called the home of spirits, and had protected the village for a very long time, albeit that came at a price. Each year, any who was found guilty, four or more, of any heinous crime would be sent into the forest to be judged. No one came out alive. Atimes when fear conquered instinct, and there was no perpetrator to be judged, it was considered a honourable feat to lay one’s life for the continuity of the village’s prosperity. Considering the annual turnouts, one could assume whatever habituated the forest had made a feast of three hundred souls in a century, and there was a rumour that we weren’t the only suppliers of souls. Perhaps the most bloodcurdling feature of this forest was the feminine, ear piercing screams it made when a reputable member of the village bit the dust, that was the scream I heard that sent shivers down my spine, and left me confounded. My heart at that moment plunged into a wild frenzy, and raced faster than my feet, which was headed for Keabali’s chamber.
The two thousandth full moon marked the last the great and defiant Keabali witnessed, he was always ready to fend off any external opposition for the sake of protecting his culture from being blown to bits by the cannons of colonization, it was indeed a life well lived, one of honour and pride. A tear or two fell from my eyes as I watched the blazing firewood on which my father’s body was laid roar and engulf him in flames, and there he was, his soul on a journey through path of the smoke into the stars, where our ancestors laid and watched over us. Silence hovered in the atmosphere, as respects were paid to the soul of the deceased, bits by bits, the crowd thinned out and resorted to the comfort of their homes. I was left alone by myself to listen to the dying embers of the fire crackle as the wood crumbled to ash, while reminiscing on the stare I had received from onlookers, which felt like my skin was being peeled off. Exhausted, I fell onto the ground, and into a deep sleep.
There was the enveloping presence of darkness, but I could make out my father’s voice shouting my name
The voice was louder this time, and closer than the last time, much closer. Then, a hand out of the darkness grabbed me and yanked me awake. My eyes could make out the features of my father waking me up
“Father?”, I asked
“No, wake up! It’s me, Leedar! The villagers are on their way here!”
Brushing my arm across my eyes, I saw clearly who I mistook for my father, it was actually Leedar, my cousin
“Why? What are they after”
“The elders had a meeting, and came to an agreement that you killed your father and should be punished, afterall, the knife was found in your hands”
“But I only picked it up for examination!”, I protested
“Well… You were the first there, and there was no mark on it, which means it didn’t belong to the villagers, all things being considered, you are the only one who is present that hasn’t been in the village long enough to get a marked knife.”
I, at once, realized the horridness of the situation. They were going to make an immolation of me to appease the spirit of my father and the forest. One day before, and I wouldn’t have guessed this turn of events.
“I can’t run”, I stood defiant
“Your funeral”, he said, and ran off.
Perhaps it was indeed to be my funeral, for what I saw approaching me was knee shaking, my heart almost failed. Villagers armed with weapons on horses all come to take my head off or so I thought. Stopping in front of me, silence fell upon the group, and the leader, Hakid, threw a lasso on me, tightened it and dragged me along the green dewy grass. It hurt like a branding iron would when pressed against the skin, down the hill we went, with me tied to a horse being dragged, and him riding furiously with no concern whatsoever what my fate would be, it seemed he had a preference for my death and any longer his wish might be a truth. These were the thoughts I could muster before a huge stone jagged from the ground kissed my head and consciousness goodnight.
By the time I came to, no longer was there a rope dragging me down miles of grassland, but there was a rope binding my feet and the other end, my hands. I winced in pain as intense pain streaked through my head when the light from the sun found its way into my eye. Opening my eyes as narrowly as I could, I saw a myriad of people before me, and heard the voices of lots more.
“Kazeagboi, son of Keabili, the elders have deemed you guilty in the death of your father. What have you to say on this matter?” The towncrier boomed
“I know nothing of the matter”, I croaked with difficulty
“Lies! Lies!”, The crowd chanted
An elder put up his left hand, and silence reigned once more. The towncrier resumed
“The murder tool belongs to no one but you, Kazeagboi. All the knives in the village are marked, and no one has set foot outside the village, except you. Your defensive claims bear no substance. You are a disgrace to the village and your father, your thirst for power and premeditated ascent to it have been betrayed by your lack of intelligence.” He paused, as if thinking on the matter, then went on “Confess, and you will be forgiven, but in seven days, you must take your life, otherwise, we will leave it to the spirits of the forest to judge you”
My heart panged with fear as panic seized it, under my breath, I cursed my father for dying and leaving me dead too. Eitherways, whichever option I chose, death awaited me on both ends. A lot could certainly happen in seven days, I could confess and make a run for it at the slightest chance that came my way, yes, that was what I was going to do. My eyes caught sight of a stone with a sharp pointed end, and discreetly, I rolled as if in pain and scooped up the horizontally lain stone into the cove of my palm.
With hope in my heart, and an undescribable expression on my face, I screamed “I killed him! I killed my father!”, then forced crocodile tears down my cheeks. Silence! Much to my surprise, I got silence, instead of an uproar. They had compassion on me, my performance had touched them, what in tarnation could make a son kill his father; he must have been bewitched, the tears he shed, they had thought him to be a lunatic, to have run mad, but here he was, wallowing with tears in the dirt. This is sorcery, nothing else. Perhaps the people might have sought out the suspected enchanter and my fate might have taken a new turn, but for the voice of the towncrier that rang loud and clear “Seven days shall you dwell in the pit, and on the seventh night, you will impale your heart”. Dismay fell on me, of all places, the pit! There was no escaping the pit!
“No!” I screamed repetitively while squirming and jerking violently. Three heavily built villagers approached me, lifted me up and moving to the pit, tossed my helpless body into it.
3 days later…
There was no strength in me, and hope was only a faint glimmer, I struggled desperately to climb the cylindrical interior of the pit to the top but all to no avail. The stench of my sweat worked in cahoots with the excrement of the villagers to tear my brain and rid my nose of its potency. There are three ways to know if you’re helpless. Firstly, there is the realization of the misfortune surrounding you and its impasse, the second mental event is you begin simulating what would have been if you had a solution which you then realize again in the third phase that you don’t. The only way out of the pit was the same way I got in, but unfortunately, it had no wedge of any sort for me to climb on. If I had a rope and outside help, the story might have turned out differently, but there was none, and then I realized I had no hope of liberation. Contrary to the feeling I had settled for, the story took a different turn, when as if in answer to my prayers, a rope was let down. At first sight, I thought it to be a reptile come to feast on me for it was dark, I tell you this, the moon is quite the illuminious illusion inducing phenomenon, my heart almost made it out of my mouth, but upon subsequent examination, I noticed it was lifeless and too thin to be a reptilian, it was a rope. Without making an effort to discover who my helper was, i clambered up the rope and reached the clearing called “home of the pit”. It was as it were paradise, I tell you this too, after a day or two in hell, you’d realize the beauty of the world we live in. I inhaled the scent of trees that a steady flow of breeze brought to my senses, I had thought my nose dead forever. Then it hit my delirious soul that for help to exist, there must be a helper, in haste, I looked around aiming to identify who my benefactor was, and much to my confoundedness, I was staring straight into the eyes of the town crier. Why would the man who put me where I was come to my aid? It certainly did not make any sense. The towncrier was considered to be what you would call the deputy commander, the commander in this scenario was my deceased father. He stood to gain from my father’s death, but only of course, if I somehow vanished out of the picture. And now, there stood the scoundrel, a benighted fellow thinking he would kill me before anything went wrong with his carefully orchestrated plan. No! I wouldn’t go down without a fight. A metallic object glistened in his hand, and dove through the air straight at the in-between of my fingers, the towncrier was famed for his target accuracy.
“I will not be the cause for the eradication of a powerful lineage, protect yourself and don’t ever return.”
Something about him made me condemn myself for ever thinking a man as caring and reasonable would execute such a horrendous act. Bowing graciously, I sped along with what little strength I had left away from the common exit path which would be crawling with guards by then, into the forest.
As much as I’d love to narrate my bloodcurdling ordeal in the forest, for the sake of my ink and your imagination being raped by terror, I will venture a proposal that the gory details be skipped. Of course, you agree, don’t doubt it, you agree with me.
Two years later, by the count of your temporal estimations, all bloodied up with the parchest of throats, from the mouth of the forest emerged an unseemly humanoid with the visage of an animal of some sort, covered in dirt and mud. His cheekbones were like body hugs to his skeletal frame. A scientist would think it to be some alien of some nature, a priest would seem this enigma a demon, and sprinkle some water, a gamer would consider it a zombie. There I stood, a bony body feeling wrenched on the inside, like its organs were misaligned, trudging along the path that led to the home I was banished from. The sun struck my eyes, but only one, for the other was no longer united with its socket. Dependent on my ears and one eyeball, I tracked the noise emanating from the settlement until I reached the village square which was filled with people dancing and celebrating. I honestly was not sure I saw people rocking their bodies or trees rocking branches, but there were two things that transpired of which I was sure. The first was that these trees or people, as they may have been, caught sight of me and dove into a frenzied state, you could say chaos began. And now, for the second. A man approached me, he, like everyone else, looked like a tree, but something was so familiar about him, his posture and swagger were unmistakable. His beards glimmered as he stood before me for what must have been a little over five minutes. Stooping, he whispered