itanje-3And so it happened that Attah had only a pen in his hands and in great fear he turned to the wall to write something. He wrote on a hard wall one airy evening, it seemed strange at first, and then something even stranger happened. He got some headway. Who would have called it headway? Itanje, the fiery goddess, appeared somewhere close to the wall where the boy stood. She looked at him sternly, for Itanje knew for sure that he was the only act of kindness that had gone out of her or the works of her hands. A witty smug filled her face as memories of her first son came to mind. But it was not her fault. She always had to do the needful..

Attah stood with the pen still in his hands, shivering like a mouse that had been showered with cold water. He hardly wrote a word anymore for he was sorely afraid. He shut his eyes for he feared to look back. No one ever saw Itanje’s face and lived to tell the story. For though Itanje was loved, her anger was as infamous as her kindness. Even though I may no longer be with you, I just know you would never be alone. His mother’s last words crossed his mind as he felt her hand holding him softly. He could almost hear her voice in the words that resounded in his heart. He knew his mother’s spirit still wished him well, even though she had died two years back. If Itanje meant him harm, his mother’s words would not have saved him he knew, but his mother had once told him that Itanje had once given her a gift when she wanted him to believe she was no fairy tale and he did believe. Had Itanje come to gift him one of those her rare blessings as she had once gifted his mother? He asked himself and hoped in fear.

Why does she have to be the one to go through this pain? Itanje felt a sharp self-dejection. Why have the gods of the land condemned her to wander the earth forever and have refused her a rest with her ancestors? She surged on towards him in a self-inflicted anger that she had let build up in order to overshadow any trace of emotion.

But while Attah’s eyes were yet closed, Itanje left her gift in tears, for this time it wasn’t a blessing. The unknown was about to happen right before her very eyes and she could not curtail her feelings. She hurriedly left the mystery pearl on the floor and expected Attah would find it. It was a precious gift his mother had sent him, he would think. It was much more than that.

……………………………………………………………………………………………

‘Hmmmmm, this story tonight’ Mama Nzube said to her children with a sigh and a cheerful smile as she adjusted her buttocks on a short kitchen stool, that elevated her above the children sitting on the mat such that they extended their tiny necks a little to see her mouth move. She dried her wet hands on her faded wrapper – they had just been washed after a sumptuous dinner, cleared her throat and then began to tell them the story of Isiozu the stubborn girl under the translucence of the moonlight. The kids were elated and were beginning to crawl closer and closer to Mama Nzube’s bosoms, as the scariest part of the story was drawing near, for they had heard this tale a million times but were never tired of listening to it over and over again.

Papa Nzube, on the other hand was smiling with a grin from opposite the tree. He had just finished eating Mama Nzube’s delicacy of pounded yam and egusi soup, and the huge lumps sitting in his belly produced an overwhelming patience as he watched the children behave like children today without disgust. Truly, the way to a man’s heart was his stomach, Mama Nzube said to herself as she observed her husband from the corner of her eyes. She had been with him for years, from their youth to this day. She knew him just as much as he knew her.

‘Isiozu refused to heed to her mother’s warning’ Mama Nzube continued. ‘She went out as soon as her mother entered her room to look at Itanje as she walked past their backyard and a big Python came out from nowhere, wrapped itself around Isiozu and squeeeezed her until she broke into tiny pieces of blood-soaked sand, only her ears were seen on the floor’. The children had reached the peak of their fright and were now descending and wondering why they still got scared after they had heard it over a million times. Maybe it was the shrill way Mama said the squeeeezed her, or was it just because Mama told the story only at night. But like they say, it was only at night one truly enjoyed the beauty of the butterfly wings. When Mama was done with telling them her story, one or two of them will then tell a story too, and then they would all go inside to sleep. Nzube would always argue about whose story was sweetest, most was especially if she told a story that night.

The nights in Ibuza were generally peaceful. They slept like the dead and woke up the next morning with the strength of an elephant and if they planned to work on their farms that day, the grasses wept. Whenever they went to the farm they usually went in groups. It was no coincidence. It was usually well planned out. They worked on one another’s farms in turns. If today was Nkechi’s, the other day would be Adaku’s, and life was sweeter that way. The farming season used to be fun for the children. Each carried something to roast in the farm for lunch. Some carried small yams while others carried corn or even pear. Some others wouldn’t be able to spare either of the two so they carried garri and groundnut with water to soak. The feeling was same irrespective of what they ate. The joy was eating in the farm, in the midst of grasses and shrubs and small tiny creatures perching on your back and even on the masticating mouth. It was not until Mr Romanus was made the Agricultural Science teacher of the Missions Primary and Standard School, Ibuza, and then the children now had two sets of farmlands to cater for that the children began to dread it. Only God knows who told him that the school could utilize the huge plots of land given to it to practice agriculture as if his hand was going to touch dirt. He would simply point at here and there while the children did the main thing. Nzube did not like him, but what did it matter? She still worked on the farms in school and Mr Romanus didn’t even notice.

Itanje was in almost every scary story they told at night. Anything that depicted punishment, horror, pain and pride was attributed to Itanje. Even though she was known to be helpful at times and people actually testified of having sought for help at her hands and got it, but that was like two short strokes of white chalk on a big blackboard. The elders and chief priests of Ibuza always said that Itanje was the epitome of perfect love, but it never really added up to the people of Ibuza. How could one that symbolized love in perfection be dreaded for her ruthlessness? Truly, perfect love was something too difficult to grasp even to Itanje. In her quest to find perfect love she had not understood it fully herself and the thought that she would have to find it in mortals, female mortals, was the weight that lay buried in her heart all through her existence. She was a sober spirit.

The elders often said that Itanje never harmed the innocent, that Itanje was more of a purifying spirit and that she prevented the occurrence of alu, abomination, by destroying the errant person even before such would be committed. Truly, the people of Ibuza had never witnessed alu in their land. However, some brutal killings Itanje had launched on so many seemingly innocent people had raised eyebrows even amongst the elders themselves.

Few days back, it was Ezelue’s son, Okolie, that was found dead at their backyard and they heard Itanje’s usual cry of victory as she departed the scene. The massive swell on his cheeks, almost the size of another head and Itanje’s five fingers were boldly stamped. What they didn’t understand was why her cry usually sounded so deep and emotional that it felt like regret. She had killed yet another son of the soil who must be buried in the evil forest.

Nzube grew to be beautiful, light-skinned, tall and different from her peers. She was the yellow ripe orange amongst many green; the one that first began to have a thoracic protrusion while her mates carried flattened chests and so she got the deserved attention for it. She enjoyed it. The eyes that singled her from a line of flat chested others and flushed over her from the senior boys in their local school and the way her elder relatives, mostly the male folks, began to treat her as a woman in the making, made her more self-conscious.

Hinsubeh!’ Little Kanyito called out to her big sister in a loud but tiny voice that announced her tongue was not strong yet and the veins that stood out on her neck proved the name was stressful to pronounce. ‘Hinsubeh she called out again as she rushed to welcome Nzube as she was returning from the farm with some firewood on her head.

‘Don’t call your elder sister by her name just like that’ Mama Nzube rebuked her last born. ‘Call her Sista. Haven’t I warned you before? she dictated strictly and Kanyito’s joy reduced, not that it was extinguished. Nzube had four siblings, three boys and one girl. Kanyito was the only other girl Mama Nzube had given birth to and was the only one that had been mandated to call Nzube Sista because Nzube was older by ten years. The rest called her by her name. She was just as exuberant as Nzube. The rest of the boys were rather quiet or calm people if you just overlooked the word timid. People often said that when a girl came before the boys, it made the boys become like girls. In this case it was true, only for the fact that there was no timidity found in Nzube herself and one should not be able to give what one does not possess, but maybe Nzube’s exuberance had created timidity in the boys or so it appeared.

Nzube soon discovered that growing up wasn’t much as fun. She had always wanted it; she enjoyed seeing other girls with a protrusion at the chest and wished hers would someday decide to inflate. She had gotten what she wished for on time, much earlier than her age mates, but what no one told her was why the blood that used to be comfortable inside her body now began to seek expression outside. This had made her meet Mama and Mama told her she was becoming a woman. Though the discomfort and scare wearied her, but those words she was becoming a woman brought all the comfort she would need. It meant that Mama experienced it too, and so many other women did experience it and so there was something she now shared in common with the women. Mama always reminded her to use some pieces of cloth whenever her blood became restless.

The people of Ibuza were all descendants of one man, Ibuza himself, who strangely married just one wife when his colleagues married in dozens, and therefore their custom forbade intermarriage between Ibuza people. They had to marry from other neighbouring villages. Umuodogwu was the friendliest of other neighbours and they usually married the Umuodogwus. However, Umuodogwus were not restricted from inter-marrying amongst themselves, and so most of Ibuza’s in-laws made jokes about the restriction in Ibuza, most not knowing the reasons why the wise ancestors had placed it, and the Ibuza men cursed the rule every day. They would never get to understand why they had to leave their much more beautiful ladies to other men from other villages to marry their ugly women. Ibuza undisputedly had the fairest of ladies in all Anioma community.

It was no surprise when Mama Nzube had started to warn her daughter to stay away from Ifeanyi, her childhood friend. They were no longer children and so they must begin to draw boundaries she told her daughter. He was intelligent and handsome, and was a year ahead of Nzube in class. He taught Nzube whatever she did not understand in school and it gave her an edge over her classmates.

‘Will Ifeanyi marry you?’ she fondly asked when Nzube revolted. Nevertheless they had become too close and almost inseparable and it was Mama Nzube’s fault as far as Papa Nzube was concerned.

‘If our daughter commits alu, incest, I would hold you responsible. I had always warned against his frequent coming to the house when they were little but you would not listen. They are children, they are children. I would not hear word. Now look at what they are children is becoming. You don’t put yam close to a goat, no matter how young that goat is, or how new the yam is.’ He had in practical terms once chased Ifeanyi away from his house with a cutlass and that day and for two other days Nzube did not eat, at least not the food that Papa provided.

The day it was announced that Ifeanyi had died, the whole village wept. He was such a good boy. Everyone could attest to that even Papa Nzube. His parents were inconsolable. They fought to accept fate as every parent would at the loss of a promising son like Ifeanyi. Nzube’s problem was not really that Ifeanyi was gone and gone forever; her problem was that Itanje was responsible. Speculations had been that his closeness to Nzube had brought about his death. That Itanje had foreseen they were going to make love some day and commit alu and had taken away one of them to prevent the desecration of the land in the future. Parents began to warn their male children even more sternly to stay away from their sisters, but which warning was greater than the reality that lay bare before their own eyes. Ifeanyi, handsome, gentle and intelligent was gone. The boys naturally began to dread being too close to the girls.

That was everybody’s perspective, not Nzube’s. She and Ifeanyi were never going to make love. Her young and innocent mind couldn’t even imagine it. Why would Itanje claim to know more than they themselves that were involved and did not as much as seek their consent or warn them of her intentions but just went ahead and killed her best friend? Itanje had to explain herself. As far as Ifeanyi’s parents were concerned, Itanje had not killed their son. Nzube was the murderer. Even though they never voiced it out, it was seen in the sterile way they now looked at her. It was difficult to see how things had changed simply because Itanje was believed to know. To know what? To know her more than she knew herself or to know Ifeanyi more than he knew himself? It was all crazy lies. She cursed Itanje every day and at every opportunity, and at every sound of her name she cursed her. They had warned her against it, but what could she possibly fear. At worst Itanje would take her life too and at least she could see Ifeanyi again in the spirit world. Her father had given her a thunderous slap when she had insinuated that nonsense at his cautioning her from cursing and her mother just stared. Normally she would have rushed to hold her husband’s hand and pleaded, but things had changed. In truth, sometimes she blamed herself for Ifeanyi’s death. Her parents had warned severally but she didn’t listen. Maybe if she had, Ifeanyi would still be alive and would have married the woman of his dreams. But now she would keep on living, having deprived Ifeanyi of life. It stung her heart and made it char from burning. Her being alive was tortuous. Indeed Itanje should have killed them both if she was just. At least no one blamed the dead.

That night her father had slapped her, Nzube did not sleep. She woke up at midnight, went to the backyard outside the house, and in the view of the full moon she cursed Itanje with all bitterness. She cursed her till the dawn and even contemplated suicide. Her life had turned upside down, even her loving and protective father could now slap her and worst of all her mother just stared; only stared. In school everyone feared to mingle with her, even her fellow girls. They had been warned from home and they had to listen if they didn’t want to die. Ifeanyi did not listen to his parents and that was why Itanje killed him. So they had to listen to their parents. Itanje hated disobedient children. The only one who did not treat her as alien was the one she had once hated as a child, Mr Romanus. Being from the Church Missions and from a distant community he had no belief in fetish fairy tales, not to mention a fiery goddess that killed her own people, and simply saw Nzube as one unlucky girl that the society had deprived love and affection. At first he had wanted to maintain some space but when Nzube’s performance in school began to drop, he knew her life was going to crumble if no one intervened. In his first test she performed below average for the first time and even the sparkle in her eyes had dimmed.

‘Nzube, how’re you doing?’ Mr Romanus approached her at the end of his Agric science class. It was strange. She just nodded feebly, not knowing whether to feel disappointed or to justify her poor performance. ‘This is not the Nzube I used to know. You failed my test for the first time.’ He paused to observe how she took his words. It seemed she was okay, but she said nothing still, although it looked like she had a million words in her mouth that if forced out would come out accompanied with tears and sobs or possibly an outburst, so she kept silent. ‘Nzube, would you see me in my office during the school break?’ She nodded. He patted her at the back and left.

She was in his office by break time. She came just as soon as the school’s time keeper had hit the metallic gong at the centre of the school that resonated through every class and got some children jumping out from the windows even while some very zealous teachers yet taught. He hadn’t expected her that early.

‘Nzube, you came too quickly’ He tried to make it sound as jovial as possible so that it at least produced a half smile instead of smirk and eliminated that air that made it seem like she was the one that needed someone so desperately.

‘Yes, sah. Our Bayology teacher did not come sah.’

He drew a seat and asked her to sit. He began by letting her know that she was not looking good and that the sparkle in her eyes had dimmed. She was brightened by his observation. She had never been told she had a sparkle in her eyes even though countless men and boys had told her she was beautiful and whenever they said such, she knew what they wanted and disappeared. Her mother had taught her well. But never did anyone say something as rhetoric as a sparkle in her eyes. She went on to explain how she was no longer happy with herself and everybody and how she wished Itanje never came into her life. She didn’t hide the fact that she missed Ifeanyi so dearly and how it hurt her that some people blamed her for it and even deserted her. Mr Romanus had become the first person she had opened up to concerning the deep hurt she felt and even when she left his office at the sound of the gong, she didn’t believe she had said so much to him in so short a time.

The next farm activity Nzube was told that she could remain while others left to do the farm work. She was not yet fit for such tedious activities. The farming she did at home was enough stress for such an emotionally troubled lady. She needed some time to recuperate really, and she was under his watch. She now frequented his office during break time, and they discussed school, religion and family basically. He had started introducing her to the Christian faith and the disbelief in Itanje was the key to her deliverance, but how could she? Itanje was the only thing that made sense to her. She had taken her life away. She saw it happen. Mr Romanus may have become a soothing new friend, but what does he know about the fiery goddess? She nodded and said yes when he spoke. He had to be correct, just as he was always correct when he taught them Agric, but when he was done, she would do away with all his religion nonsense, worst of all, that Itanje was a mere fairy tale. Aside from his religious pervasions, he was a nice man. Nzube sometimes went over to his place to help his wife with the chores, and whenever she did, she joined in their evening prayers by 6pm before she left for home. Her parents didn’t like that she went there, but they didn’t mind either. Their daughter was beginning to come alive again, and as long as she did not swallow all their religious nonsense hook, line and sinker, they were fine. They had swallowed some of them too, they didn’t do evil to their neighbours, they went to the community church occasionally, they weren’t hostile to the missionaries; they had tried.

‘Nzube please come to my house after school today. Come and help me sweep the backyard. You know that orji, kolanut, tree at my backyard, it was as if they rang bell for all the leaves to fall down at once this morning.’ He told Nzube after class, searching her face to see if she enjoyed his sense of humour. She did. She blushed, genuflected and said yes sir.

Immediately after school she made haste to his place. She was supposed to join her friends to work at Nkechi mother’s cassava farm that evening, so she hurried to his place to quickly finish up and join them. She met him with his shirt slung over his shoulder soaking garri and coconut under the hot sun. The water was very chill, his udu, clay pot, at his backyard under the shed of the orji tree always had chilled water. His wife had just left for the market with their only baby girl and he wasn’t expecting Nzube this soon either, but he didn’t want to bother her to ask. He wasn’t in that mood right now. As she approached him, he cut some more coconut and offered her. She genuflected, stretched both hands and said ‘Uncle thank you’. She was on a faded brown wrapper and a blue flowery t shirt and her hair was plaited into three large cornrows. He smiled as he observed that sparkle in her eyes. She was beginning to return to herself again. She knew where everything in his house was kept, so she went straight to work while he decided to keep her company. She was sweeping the large backyard in so much hurry he was sure she had other engagements. Her wrapper loosened quite often and she tightened it and continued. A cunning agama lizard took her by surprise, running over her feet as she swept and she jumped and screamed throwing her broom into the hair and letting loose of her wrapper. The sight of her rounded fleshy light-complexioned buttocks covered only little by her white undies had stuck in his brain. Shame grew over her like goose pimple as she quickly tied the wrapper and Mr Romanus made it lighter by leaving the scene to his room, but the image of those perfect shaped buttocks didn’t leave his head.

‘Uncle, I have finished’ She hurriedly told him as soon as she got into his room, but his hands got hold of hers, his lips kissed her neck and she melted before him. It was very quick and in few minutes she was out of his bed and on her way home before his wife returned. His face was damp in half regret half pleasure. It seemed as though the pleasure was the one fading away and as soon as she left it would be all regret. Something inside of her expected her to be guilty but she couldn’t come up to it. She had done him a favour and that was it. Should she have refused him? Or screamed at him? Or done what exactly? He is a man and it happens with all men. She just hoped it was something his wife would never get to find out. That day at the farm she was very silent and worked without much of her consciousness. It wasn’t anything too different for her colleagues to worry over anyway.

His wife didn’t get to find out. She noticed the way she greeted her when she came to her school to see her husband five days later. It was normal. She was the one that had a finding out. A finding out she must have to tell Mr Romanus about. Her mother had told her that when her blood did not get restless when it was supposed to, then she would know that she was pregnant for another child and they had laughed and smiled about it then, but now that she discovered her blood was calm when it was time for it to get restless, and waited another week and nothing happened, then she knew that it was about what Mama had told her and it did not draw laughter. Even when she had struggled not to believe it, her strange and unusual vomiting had confirmed it. She had to tell Mr Romanus that she was pregnant or at least describe to him the signs that she felt. He was an Agric teacher and Agric and Biology were not too distant subjects. He even explained some Biology concepts to her some time ago. He would understand if she told him just the signs and not blatantly tell him that she was pregnant.

That was what she did and she saw the scare on his face that he tried to play down.

‘It is not something too serious… I… I…think…i-i-it is just ehh erm malaria.’ Then he foolishly began to diagnose her as if he was a doctor and asked her if her temperature was high, feeling her neck, the same neck he had kissed and melted her to his bed, with the back of his palm. ‘You don’t have fever like that’.

Nzube was surprised he couldn’t figure out that she was pregnant on one thought and was hopeful it wasn’t really pregnancy on the other thought. But if he said it was malaria then it had to be and she better stopped killing herself over it. He promised to get her pills to take for the malaria the next day; he did, and Nzube received them thankfully.

That same night, after she had taken the pills, she slept off only to wake up at midnight and began to scream ‘my stomach, my stomach’. Her mother did all the asking about what she ate or took but she only said the normal things that were obvious everybody in the house had eaten or taken. She was given water upon water, palm oil upon palm oil and her father dipped his hands deep into her mouth to force her to vomit, but she only vomited water and palm oil. The culprit had long dissolved and walked through her body system. Whether Romanus gave her lethal poison or pills to terminate the pregnancy or malaria medicine, she did not know and couldn’t say, but she would not blame him for it. She would not let her miserable life ruin another man’s. Her life was miserable and cursed from birth. Death was her only escape and it had been a long wait already. She embraced its cold hands and slipped away. Itanje was there.

Itanje had waited long for that feel of betrayal, for that thirst for vengeance, for that desire for justice, but Nzube had exhibited none. That was all she needed to slay Mr Romanus before Nzube was buried. It was the kind of death one accepted wholeheartedly as a sacrifice one had to pay for another to live. There was no better definition to her death than sacrifice. Itanje might have despised Nzube for all the cursing, but she knew she had a good heart. All her years of seeking for perfect love would come to an end today. What else was perfect love? That one would willfully lay down one’s life for another. She had seen perfect love in Nzube and she could finally go to rest with her ancestors.

Itanje’s presence was not something that could be hidden, only that one could tell if it was a peaceful one or if it spelt wrath. Nzube was dying of what no man could decipher, yet Itanje’s presence was peaceful. Itanje was not responsible definitely. Nzube would not want anybody to know the cause of her death and therefore Itanje blinded every person with midwifery wisdom and knowledge of poisoning, so that no one would discover she was ever pregnant or that she took lethal poison to cure malaria. Only the dibia, medicine man, with the eyes of the spirit could see and decipher but was forbidden to speak. She did not want them to think lowly of her successor. Her death had to be mysterious. They could think of it as suicide if they wanted, that was fair enough. Suicide usually came with a touch of mystery and pride. But they must never know that a cowardly wretch had impregnated and killed her.

‘She would not be buried at home. The gods forbade it. She must be buried by the shrine of the fiery goddess Itanje. That was why she had remained all through her death and still remains peacefully with us till now.’

No one could challenge the dibia’s authority. Anyanmuo, the great dibia, had spoken and so shall it be. Tears and wails followed the dibia as he carried Nzube in his hands and walked to the shrine. It was a long walk but the old man did not get weary of the load of the corpse. Her parents and siblings followed from a distance of about five metres. Kanyito cried loudest, her metallic voice ran like the ogene, metal hand bell, round the whole Ibuza to announce her deeply felt sorrow. All wailers stopped at the entrance to the shrine and only the dibia and his attendants could proceed to dig her grave and bury her, but they all had to wait until it was over. As soon as she had been covered completely, Itanje loosened the mystery pearl that hung around her waist and descended into her grave and another Itanje ascended, decorated with the same mystery pearl around her waist, wielding two sons in her hands, then the dibia understood that Nzube had been pregnant with twin sons and has now began her journey as Itanje. She would be able to bless barren women with at least two sons. He shook his head and headed out to disperse the mourners. The things his eyes saw and his mouth dared never to speak only increased with his age.

She had longed for death in the hope that in death she would find rest, but it had not been so. She has roamed the earth for eleven years now in search of the perfect love that would give her rest and have slain twelve souls – Six men, three women, one boy and two children, of which one was her own son, her first son. She was familiar with everything in Ibuza, but she knew no one. Not even little Kanyito or her dear Mr Romanus, but Mr Romanus didn’t stay long in Ibuza after Nzube’s death. He could still feel her presence in the village very strongly, but he would say no such to anyone lest they suspect he had a hand in her mysterious death. Whenever Itanje walked by his house he felt Nzube’s spirit, not like it haunted him or sought revenge, but he couldn’t endure the feel of her innocent spirit. It brought back all the guilt afresh with images of her brushing through his mind. Two years later the school approved his much sought-after transfer. The head of the missions had become worn out by his incessant requests to be posted to his own community – his parents were aging and needed him around. Another man was called in. He was much younger and insisted they called him Brother James and not Mr James. His name had quickly changed to just Bro James. It sounded even less formal and he loved it. His appearance did not change much about the structures Romanus had set up in his long years of service to Ibuza Mission School, but it changed the way he did it. Children didn’t mind going to both family and school farms. Both were fun. Bro James would join them to the farm and work along with them, making them sing as they worked and telling them stories. Sometimes he was seen working on the farm alone. He visited his students often and in just six months of his stay he had known almost every of his student’s house and parents. The people of Ibuza loved him and accepted him as their own son. Some began to think he was a new priest at the Missions. He always let them know that he was just the new Agricultural science teacher that replaced Mr Romanus. He was fast becoming a household name; even men and women that did not know him, when they saw a young handsome gentleman walking with children and smiling effervescently, they knew it was Bro James. He taught both Standard and Primary classes, just like Romanus, but he loved the primary school students more, or that was what it seemed like. They responded more to his love so it was only normal that it seemed as though he loved them more. Love was usually sweetest when reciprocated.

He picked special interest in Attah. He was a naughty stubborn boy that had the tendency to be very good. Only Bro James had spotted that tendency in Ifeoma’s only son. Ifeoma was the first wife of Nwaeze, an average farmer in Ibuza, but had not been able to give him a child. Nwaeze had indeed tried as a man and waited eleven years before his kinsmen had brought Obiageli to his house and he took her in. Obiageli had quickly given him five children in steady successions and if there was any love left for Ifeoma to enjoy it was pity. Nwaeze never failed to recount how he had wasted eleven years of his life laboring on dead wood at any slightest revolt to the demeaning way Obiageli treated her. Sorrow and anguish had driven her to Anyanmuo, the great dibia, and he had told her that only Chukwu, the Almighty God, gave children. But he was willing to help. He had seen Itanje ascend from her grave that day with two sons in her hands and he knew she was willing to give them out.

‘Go to the shrine of the fiery goddess and weep for a child’ he blandly told her.

Chimo! My god!’ Her eyes widened. ‘Anyanmuo, is it Itanje you’re talking about?’ She had to be sure it was the fiery goddess Itanje she knew that he was talking about. Who approached Itanje with a need for anything? They always heard; it was always told that Itanje sometimes gave gifts. But who dreaded to ask?

If Itanje was going to slay her, she had died long ago in her own house. It would make no difference if Itanje just claimed responsibility. She would rather die the real death than continue to be the living corpse that she was, deserving of all the pity in the whole world. She had taken her chance with the fiery goddess and how easy it had been had amazed her. She had named him Ezenwa. He’d be a king in his father’s house though he was least among them she thought, but he died at the infant age of two and his death had gnawed at the nearly worn out strings of life that still held Ifeoma’s soul to Mother Earth. Not just because he was long sought-for and had died early, but she felt deep betrayal. None like she had ever felt before. Could Itanje be this ruthless? How could she have given her a child to raise, nuture and love for two good years, only to come back to collect the child by herself? Ezenwa was buried in the evil forest as every other Itanje’s victim, but that night Ifeoma wept all alone at the shrine of Itanje and pleaded in all sincerity that Itanje took her life too. The chirps of the crickets did not frighten her; neither did the croaks of frogs nor the hisses of snakes. The only thing that frightened her was a single moment of being alive.

Who could have understood Itanje and her system of justice? Who could have understood that the seeds of Romanus had the tendency to commit murder? Who could have understood that Ezenwa would turn out a murderer of his own mother, just as his father had done to his mother? That would be alu, a grave one at that, and Itanje would not spare even her own son. It was in great sorrow and with eyes closed that she struck him dead, for she knew he was her son. The first she had given out. But was that not the reason justice always wielded a sword and a weighing scale and then took on a black cloth and blindfolded herself?  Though Itanje wouldn’t want to inflict a second spell of hurt on Ifeoma, she felt it was only fair that she gave her her second son. Ifeoma may choose to die from mourning when she comes to withdraw him if she pleased. For she knew his fate was just as his brother’s even though she planned to let him live a decade longer. At the age of twelve he’d still be too innocent to commit an abomination.

Attah came at the time Ifeoma needed him to find meaning to life. She hadn’t asked him from the hands of Itanje, but her weeping that night was enough asking and she knew it. She felt pacified that Itanje could be pushed to the wall after all. If she didn’t slay her that night for all the things she had said, then she was somewhat an affectionate goddess and had considered her pain and blessed her with the one that would live.

Attah lacked nothing – nothing that Ifeoma would not go round the world to provide. His father began to love him as he grew up. He had lived after all. He was the handsomest of his children and was strong, stronger than his peers. He struggled to do what his teenage elder brothers did even from the tender age of six and his mother loved him for it. His consistent fumbling did not dispirit her. People had said she was spoiling the boy, but what did it matter? He was the only thing that she had in this world.

Attah was already independent in opinion from age 4. He did only what he wanted. So when he began going to church regularly with Bro James in his primary school days nobody could question him, not even Nwaeze his father. They didn’t hate that he went to church, but that he was taking the new religion too seriously. Ibuza had welcomed the missionaries after a long resistance, but that was so many years ago. Now they even went to church to greet the priests and even give them food from their farmlands. They accepted their prayers that were made in the name of Jesus and they even prayed in the name of Jesus occasionally. But their traditions have maintained an edge over Christianity and it has remained so. The strong edge was loosening with the maturing of the younger generations, but it still remained significant such that the ceremonies, deities, sacrifices were not things anyone joked with. The consequences remained grave and evidently at that.

‘Was it not just three months ago that Adaku was struck with kitikpa, chicken pox, just because she and her family had failed to offer sacrifices to their ancestors? The priests all came to their house and prayed and prayed. Did she not die after the fourteenth market day as the dibia had said?’ Ifeoma begged her son. ‘Please the dibia has spoken. Stop following Bro James to the missions like that. Stop reading that book that he always carries when he comes to visit. Is it bayibulu or what that he calls it eh? Biko please. I don’t want to lose you my son. You are all that I have in this world and you know that.’ Adaku’s rhetoric had simply entered the right ear and left through the left, although Attah would always say a yes ma. Once Bro James showed up, all that she had said was just beautiful rhetoric.

Attah began to grow in the faith and nothing happened to him as the dibia had threatened, but the words of wise men couldn’t be taken as mere words. Attah at ten was a changed boy. His stubbornness only manifested when he was met with opposition from his mother or father concerning his faith. He had stopped following them to rituals and no longer ate of their ceremonial dishes. His God forbade him to eat of them he fondly said. He was too blunt and aggressive with his profession, so much that someone had to be held responsible for his delusion. It was not him of course. He was a small boy being hypnotized. Was it everybody’s children that Bro James converted to this degree? Aham, Echezona’s son and Attah’s classmate, still followed the new faith but it did not get to the level of abandoning his family and disobeying his parents. Did that their holy book not teach them to obey their parents? The next time Bro James appeared in Nwaeze’s house, Nwaeze had appeared with an angry machete that had sworn to taste Bro James’ blood had he not vanished at its sight. Bro James did not set his foot in Attah’s house again but they saw at school and that was enough until when Attah’s mum was killed by a snake bite in the farm.

The village had blamed it on Attah. He was the cause. He was with her in the farm and his cutlass had mistakenly cut a snake by its tail as they weeded their farm of the unwanted plants that had sworn to strangulate their cassava should they have remained three more market days. His mother had rushed and grabbed him as he screamed at the sight of a half-cut snake and the snake stuck its fangs in her heel releasing every venom it had before it sneaked away to die as many believed. But Ifeoma did not survive the poisoning. If she had been like other women that went in groups, someone might have helped her up and maybe they would have found help, but she usually went alone with her son. He had left her in the farm to find help and before he was back she was gone. It was his fault. His mother had failed in stopping him from the new religion and the gods had vented their anger on her. She had told him she would always remain with him even in death and that he would never be alone. She also implored that he should continue in his faith even more strongly before he ran out crying and searching for help. She knew those were her last words and she made every word count.

Attah’s fate was abandoned in the hands of Obiageli who constantly nagged on Nwaeze to send him out so he could live with the missionaries since it was what he wanted. How many more people were going to die because of his delusion and stubbornness? Not her or any of her children at least. Nwaeze’s love for Attah had endured Obiageli’s incessant nagging, but Attah was at the brink of it. He had become an orphan in his father’s house. Whenever his father was not around life was hell. Bro James had suggested that the church asked that he comes to live with them but when they did, Nwaeze would have none of that. Attah spent most of his time outside the house with Bro James and he had become his best friend and confidant. If Obiageli had hurt him Bro James heard it, and Attah was okay that he just heard it and then comforted him through words of wisdom and scripture. He didn’t expect anything further.

Two years had gone by and Attah would be crossing over to Standard school. That day he wept bitterly. His friends had all played and danced and rejoiced at the completion of their last Primary school examinations, but Attah went to the back of the school building and wept. His mother should have seen him graduate to Standard school. She was the only one who truly loved and understood him. Not that Bro James and the Missions did not love him enough, but there was this feeling of acceptance and belongingness they couldn’t provide. He didn’t blame them for it. If they could they would have. But it was that he couldn’t receive such an acceptance from them even if they offered it. It had to do with the blood that ran in his veins. He wondered how his life was going to move on from this point. He wondered why God allowed mama to die. He wondered if he actually was responsible for his mother’s death. He wondered why his mother was always afraid for him. He wondered and wondered until the strength of the wind around him had tripled in momentum and a bright light had appeared from nowhere and snapped him out of his wondering. They say the gods choose to strike a man dead on the day his life was sweetest. Itanje had chosen this momentous day to take his life, but his life wasn’t necessarily at its sweetest. He had heard stories about Itanje, but he had done nothing wrong, offended no one, killed no one… just there his self-justification stopped. Had he not killed his own mother? That was alu. Itanje, if it was true who they said she was, would surely not let such go unpunished. His hands grew sore, his nerves numbed, goose pimples coloured his skin. He reached for his pen, pressed it upon the wall and began to write the only words that came to his mind. Not that he expected his pen would write on hard wall, but he would engrave those words with the metallic end of his blue Bic pen. At least that would distract him from the fear of the fiery goddess.  He shut his eyes. No one ever saw Itanje’s face and lived to tell the story. That was what they said, not that he believed it, but shutting his eyes helped distract his consciousness a little. Think only of good things his heart resounded. That was what the book of Philippians said. His mother had told him Itanje had once given her a gift when she wanted him to believe she was no fairy tale and he did believe. Had Itanje come to gift him one of those her rare blessings as she had once gifted his mother? He asked himself and hoped in fear. Why does she have to be the one to go through this pain? Why have the gods of the land condemned her to wander the earth forever and have refused her a rest with her ancestors? She surged on towards him in a self-inflicted anger that she had let build up in order to overshadow any trace of emotions.

But while Attah’s eyes were yet closed, Itanje left her gift in tears, for this time it wasn’t a blessing. The unknown was about to happen right before her very eyes and she could not curtail her feelings. It was not a gift from his mother as Attah had sharply thought, and he would never discover what sort of gift it was. It was her mystery pearl that held her soul bound to Mother Earth. She had seen perfect love, but it was not found in a successor. It was found in the blood of a man that stood beside him. The blood was all over Attah and the man had shown her the proof of his sacrifice. There were holes in his both hands and same in his feet. He had appeared just as she had, and had shown perfect love but could not be her successor. He seemed too powerful and great to succeed her, and moreover, he was a man and not a woman. She would be the last Itanje in the history of Ibuza. After her, there shall never be anyone trapped in a pursuit of perfect love. There was now one, even in Ibuza, that had perfect love or rather was himself the perfect love. Let him preside over justice in Ibuza. She smiled as she vanished and became a free soul again. Free to rest with her ancestors.

The wind had stopped whirling and that light he felt around him had disappeared and he felt peace in his heart. Itanje was gone. He looked around and none but him was there. Nothing had changed, save for the pearl that twinkled before him. Of a truth Itanje had left him a gift. He smiled, picked it up and no one was going to see it before Bro James. It looked like what Bro James had described to him as diamond. He had said that a tiny piece was worth so much. He looked at the wall he had engraved and saw what a poor artist he was. He hadn’t even written it halfway. His eyes were closed he pacified himself, but the words that had shielded his heart he would never forget. Over and over Bro James had made him recite it. Hebrews 7:25 …he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come to God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.

THE END

Special Acknowledgement goes to my secondary school mates – SFCSS 2008 set. We started this story together.

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