Isikamdi dropped his gourd instantly, turned and faced her. “How are you?”
“I am fine.” Her lips unfolded into a smile. “Grandfather wants you.”
“Eze Kambite wants me?” He gazed at her. She was gap-toothed, and this stood out from the rest of her features.
“Yes.” She nodded. Her one hand fondled the anti-convulsion talisman around her long neck. Her other hand swung slowly beside her as though controlled by a mind detached from the one answering Isikamdi.
“Where is he?”
“In his obi.”
“Tell him I will be there soon.” He lifted the frothing gourd. Some wine spilled as he hurried away.
“O.” The girl ran out of the large compound through the adjoining small side gate.
Isikamdi had just returned from the morning rounds on his raffia palms, which he tapped for wine evenings and mornings. He hung his climbing ropes on the wall of his hut, went behind the house to wash his arms and mud-stained feet.
Why is Eze Kambite so eager to see me?
Moments earlier, on his way back, he had been informed that Kambite wanted to see him. Hardly had he entered his hut and the little girl rushed in with the same message. Isikamdi hoped that nothing bad had happened. Whatever it was, he reasoned, must be of essence.
Eze Kambite rarely engages in useless matters.
“Your meal is ready.” His wife hurried into the hut carrying his breakfast.
“Keep it for me. I will be back soon. I want to quickly meet with Nna anyi.”
“O.” She lowered the akpara, woven tray, on the bare floor, cast a sly look at the calabash containing the meal and adjusted her wrapper thoughtfully. She sensed worry in her husband’s strides and shrugged. With her index finger, she wiped the tiny beads of sweat that dotted the tip of her nose like morning dew on the skin of calabash.
Ezechukwu's compound sat on a prominent spot in Umuaro. Family lore had it that the founder was the leader of the first set of Aro who settled in Mbaozo. As the progenitor of the clan, he had ensured that everyone lived together. The largest household, Isikamdi’s home, had the family obi. This was the central meeting place for the entire Aro in Mbaozo. Other uncles of his lived in homesteads surrounding his compound. The closest among these households was the home of his father’s only brother, Eze Kambite.
“Dara Igiligi,” Kambite welcomed Isikamdi.
“Ezeakaibeya.” They shook hands. The last time Eze Kambite had invited him with as much urgency as today’s, was six months earlier. It had to do with Isikamdi’s mother. Thinking back to when he was a child, Isikamdi could not recall witnessing both adults quarrel. It was unsettling for them to begin now. His mother had recently made some strong allegations against Kambite. Isikamdi was yet to find the courage to go either to verify them or to ask the old man. He pushed the nagging thought out of his mind and focused on the likely reason for Kambite’s summons. Instinct told him his uncle had something else to discuss with him other than his mother.
Could it be Ijenna’s inability to get pregnant?
This was one of his mother’s most potent missiles against Kambite. She accused the old man of forcing a barren osu on Isikamdi to serve his personal interest and undercut her son’s social status. Isikamdi did not agree with her. His family, and indeed the rest of Aro, did not subscribe to the osu social caste system. He could marry from wherever he wanted except from a family of thieves, epileptics and lepers. Moreover, Kambite did not force him to marry Ijenna. He only asked if Isikamdi would like to be son-in-law to his young friend, Odidika.
“Sit down, my son.”
“Thank you.” Isikamdi sat on the outer end of the mud dais. “How is your wife?”
“She is in her hut, doing one thing or the other.”
Kambite lay face up on his reclining chair. The seat shone like everything else in his personal obi.
“Your servant does a good job on your furniture. How does he make these chairs shine like this?”
Eze Kambite gurgled. He examined the reclining chair as if confirming Isikamdi’s observation. “He is a skilled young man. His father was a carver and had shown him some herbs. Apart from that, I think he is very serious-minded.”
“You are right. The last polish he applied to the stools in the big obi still gleams.”
Kambite called his granddaughter.
“Yes, Grandfather,” she answered from somewhere behind his hut.
“Bring my goatskin bag.” He raised his voice and added, “We are moving over to the large obi.” He signalled to Isikamdi to come along.
As the older man stood up, a sense of foreboding descended on the younger one. Isikamdi detected a distant look in Kambite’s eyes. He was tempted to ask if there was a problem. He did not ask. Why pinch a parcel that would be opened?
His granddaughter met them seated inside the large spacious hall.
“Nna a, here it is.” She handed over the bag to him and was about to leave.
“Come back here,” Kambite barked. “Don’t you know that I may still need your help?” He hissed. “Take.” He gave her a piece of kola nut. “Go and wash it and then bring us water to wash our hands, Nwaokorie Ukato.”
She giggled as she sprinted out of the large obi.
“Children.” Isikamdi smiled. “Always in a hurry.”
“Her own case is a disease,” said Kambite. “This one forgets that she is a woman and that grace is the condiment of a good wife. How can she be behaving like Nwaokorie Ukato, the tanner, who rushes things like he would die the next minute?”
They both walked out of the obi. Isikamdi carried the chalk platter along with his left hand. He placed it before Kambite who began and he joined him in drawing white lines outside.
By the time they returned to the obi, the young girl was waiting.
“How are you?” Isikamdi rubbed her hair, affectionately, with his unstained left hand.
She handed him the washing bowl. “I am fine.” She lifted the platter containing the kola nut and followed him.
Both men washed their hands.
While still carrying the plate of kola, the girl went down on both knees as she handed it to her grandfather.
“It gladdens my heart whenever you take your time to do these little things.” Kambite smiled.
“Oh, it makes me dream of hundreds of bags of cowries.”
The girl smiled shyly, tilted her head to one side and ran out of the obi.
The adults laughed. The sun brightened as if enlivened by the rush of the wind.
“I would have broken this kola in my compound but the issue for which I have called you is an obi matter.” He picked the red stone-coloured nut and looked at Isikamdi. He was more than Kambite’s nephew. He was, in fact, his son.
“You go ahead and break it, Father.” It embarrassed him whenever Kambite made it clear to guests that the large obi belonged to Isikamdi. It also did today as the old man repeated it even though it was just the two of them.
“So be it,” Kambite said, clearing his throat. As he raised the nut, his ever-watery eyes faced the empty sky. “Ibinukpabi, Ani Mbaozo, and Ogwugwu Mbaozo N’Abanta.” He cleared his throat and continued. “Ezechukwu, Nweke and other ancestors draw closer. Yesterday was yours, today is ours and tomorrow will be yours and ours. We have broken into a new day, as the chick cracks through the eggshell. As we live, give us enough to sustain us.”
“Ise,” Isikamdi chorused.
“If mother hen ceases to kwom-kwom can her chicks discern her voice?”
“It is not possible.”
“So provide us with what to eat but protect us from what will eat us.”
“May Ezechukwu continue to prosper.”
“As we increase, may we not be as populous as the ukpaka leaves that run in millions but cannot wrap even a grain of corn. Instead, may we be like the plantain leaves. They are few but each is large enough to shelter a man from rain.”
“Guard us, guide us for we know nothing. We are like the little girl who only washes her stomach when asked to bath herself.”
“That is true.”
“May we live to see several Eke, Orie, Af? and Nkwo market days.”
“In unity with your love and trust, we will be cheery and we will be merry. I say this with ofo and ohi.”
The kola nut was broken.
“Ezeakaibeya,” Isikamdi cheered his uncle’s adroitness.
“Igiligiegbuenyi.” Eze Kambite dipped his hand into the goatskin bag by his side. He fished out a cob of alligator pepper, tore the fibrous leaves off and began to dispense the seeds into the kola nut plate. With a lobe of the nut in his hand, the old man stood up and stepped outside. He broke it slowly into little pieces and sprinkled them on the earlier drawn lines as he muttered some prayers.
When he returned, they ate their shares with alligator pepper and drank palm wine. Isikamdi could not recall the last time Kambite conducted such an elaborate ceremony in the obi.
“My son, the toad does not jump about in the wild sun for nothing,” he began. “I called you for a reason.” Kambite carefully avoided Isikamdi’s searching gaze. “There is nothing amiss and yet, there is something amiss. However, there is nothing the eyes see and shed blood instead of tears. If the stomach were not properly fitted, it cannot be ahead of the rest of the body.”
Isikamdi listened weighing every phrase, every word.
“Would you do anything for the honour and growth of this family, Isikamdi?”
“Father, you have been speaking in parables. You very well know I would, but a man does not say yes to a proposition he has not yet heard.”
Eze Kambite’s gaze was expressionless. He reclined on the chair and then sat upright again. He would choose his words carefully. If properly handled, Isikamdi would say yes to his plan. If he failed, the family’s fate would hang precariously in midair. “Isikamdi.”
“You remember the death of Ugobi?”
“You must have been told about the deaths of my other wives. And you know about the deaths of my two daughters, Ifenna and Adaeze. Adaeze died on the day of her marriage.”
“Yes, my mother said so.” Isikamdi’s voice was barely a whisper.
“Every one of them died in mysterious circumstances. My father died when I could hardly tell if he was dark or fair-skinned. As if he knew that he would not live after my birth he named me Kambite, ‘let me live long,’ but did he live long?”
Isikamdi shook his head. He could tell that Kambite was heading towards a family puzzle.
“It took Nweke, your father, almost a lifetime to have you. He lost so many children. Not long after you came, he died. He left you to grow up, just like I did, without knowing your father.”
Isikamdi’s eyes were now glassy. The conversation was searing his heart in two. He hoped that Kambite would just get to the core of the matter.
He did not.
A lizard scurried to the white ritual lines and began to feast on the ants that had congregated on the libation wine.
“For several years, I have searched for a male child – the one to inherit my barn of yams, sit in my obi and answer my name when my bones would have been gathered to my ancestors – but I did not succeed. I consulted several diviners and medicine-men but none had the solution. I sacrificed to different oracles but none opened the door to a male child. My son, when it became obvious to me that I was challenging my chi to a fight, I gave up the search. I gave up the search for a male child, but I did not give up the search for why I failed to have one.” He looked directly into Isikamdi’s eyes and said, “If a man does not fight, the road that passes through his compound will forever be used by strangers. Also, if a man does not know the exact spot where the rain started beating him, he may never know where and when it stops.”
“That’s true,” Isikamdi whispered.
“By asking that we discuss this inside the ancestral obi is to let you know that you are not insulated from the problem. It is what is harping in the home of the rat that is harping in the home of the hare.”
Isikamdi felt a weight on his shoulders. He had always feared, even when he was growing up, that there was something wrong with his family. Something no one would discuss but each carried in his mind.
“Can you, my son, bear the weight of the secret of what I have discovered? Why Ijenna your wife has not missed her monthly flow of blood? And can you pay the price to save our family from extinction?” Kambite shot the last question with so much force that his nephew knew he did not want no for an answer.
Isikamdi was face down. He waited, thoughtfully, before asking, “Father, what is this all about?” Kambite had spoken for long and yet had said nothing. “Is there any problem?”
“Yes. There are problems.” Kambite’s brows furrowed.
“What are they, Father?”
“If I tell you the revelations, you will die just like I already know that I will die.”
“What will happen?”
“You will die and I shall follow suit. But your wife would be pregnant and your child would live.” His voice echoed a renewed vigour. “Your name shall be and your honour shall transcend the boundaries of Umuaro. Should you accomplish successfully what is expected of you, then Ezechukwu would attain a different position in Mbaozo. But, above all things, you have a choice to either refuse to know and let things be the way they are or hear me out and participate fully in its change.”
A hawk on a palm tree outside the compound flappped its wings.
“What is this all about, Eze Kambite?” Isikamdi was uncomfortable. He could not place what his uncle meant.
“Isikamdi, you have one week to think it over. If you want to receive the secret then come back. Don’t discuss this with any living person. It is the beginning of the search for who you are; you must do it alone.” His voice pitched on a final note. He bent over and picked another lobe of kola nut with some seeds of alligator pepper and threw them all at once into his mouth. Some alligator pepper seeds escaped and one bounced on his knee and fell on the floor. It rolled mechanically, as if choosing its paths, until the tip of Isikamdi’s foot wedged it. He did not notice it for his mind was far.
A light wind shook the ogirisi tree in front of the obi and a dead flower fluttered down. It landed on the altar stone outside.
Isikamdi had smiled believing Kambite was broaching a problem that had secretly bothered him all his life. At the end, the old man wanted him dead. All his life he had believed that Kambite would do anything for him to live. Kambite had indeed saved him in the past. What went wrong today? Did it have anything to do with his mother? Isikamdi searched the older man to know if he really said what he just heard. The old man was the same – his eyes watery, his look distant. Isikamdi trembled inside. Not from fear. Not from anger. More of uncertainty.
What if Kambite were correct?
A gustier wind shook the ogirisi again and one of the purple flowers landed on the ritual lines. Isikamdi’s eyes followed it this time. A large green snake had captured the lizard on the ritual lines and was patiently swallowing it. The lizard’s head went first. The forelimbs followed, then the reptile’s trunk. Maybe moments later, the hind limbs and the long tail would go. Isikamdi felt like the lizard. “I have heard you.”
He left the obi more miserable than he had ever been all his life. From that moment onwards, Isikamdi could hardly think of anything else but the ominous subject raised by Eze Kambite.
The Pride of the Spider Clan written by Odili Ujubuonu was published by Jalaa Writers' Collective, April 2011
First Published on StoryTime. Happy New month Bookaholics!