The Man, the Sounds, the Eyes
The sun was gradually setting. It was time for farmers to go home after the day’s work. Nduka could hear the voices of farmers calling on their children from nearby farms. He heard a child’s cry and then another child’s laughter. He was the only one on his farm so he gathered his tools by himself.
“Well done, Nduka.”
Nduka turned to see the intruder. It was Ada, the pregnant wife of Amaechi, and her young maid. She wore colourful wrappers, even to the farm. Her recently plaited hair glistened even under the setting sun. In her hand was a bunch of plantains.
“What are you doing in the farm in your condition?” Nduka asked.
She smiled. She was one of the most beautiful women he had met.
“I’m pregnant, not sick. By the way, I didn’t go to the farm. I just came to give you these plantains I promised your mother some days ago.”
“Mama is always at home,” he reminded her.”My betrothed too. You could have stopped by, instead of worrying yourself.”
“True, but that would be taking me farther away from my destination. I have to hurry to my father’s village. I’ll be back after the birth of my baby.”
“Alright then, safe delivery and journey.”
He stared out after her. If Ada was single again and he was allowed to marry another woman after marrying his fiancee, he would choose her. Even in her state, she stood out. He shook off the fanciful thoughts in his head and gathering his tools and the plantains, he started out towards home.
He had only taken a few steps when he heard the sound.
At first, it sounded like Ada in pain. Could she be having her baby already, Nduka thought. Perhaps.
Perhaps his dream was coming true. He’d been having the same dream for two weeks now, of a woman in labour bleeding to death, and her carcass hung on an udala branch, and vultures coming to feed on it.
His betrothed said it was just a dream. Mama too. But now, it was becoming true. In their folklore, before someone dies, they show themselves to at least one person. Perhaps that was what Ada had just done. For why would she come all the way to his farm just to gift him a bunch of plantains, claiming his farm was closer than his house?
He was wasting time, and he knew it. He had to save her. As quickly as he could. But as he made to step into the bushpath, he heard the sound again. And this time, what he heard made him stop in his tracks.
It was now the cry of an animal in pain, an antelope perhaps. No longer something like Ada’s voice. An antelope. Someone’s trap must have caught it.
Nduka waited and listened. It was getting darker and more quiet. He thought of his blind mother who would be alone at home because his betrothed must have gone back home. He was about leaving, turning the other way, when he heard the sound again. An antelope’s cry. It didn’t sound so far this time.
Series of thoughts ran through his mind as the cry came a third and fourth time. Whoever it was that had set the trap must have gone home already else he’d have carried the animal away. If Nduka took the animal home, Mama would have a good meal which comes once in a while. She would ask where he got the meat from and he’d definitely tell her he bought it from one of the village hunters.
With his mind resolved, he dropped his tools and the plantains. Then he started out towards the cry. It was dark already, so he brought out his old torch which he always took with him just in case he didn’t make it home before dark. It was so quiet that the only sounds he could hear, apart from the injured animal’s cry, were those made by night birds and certain bush animals. He didn’t stop for once to wonder what had happened to Ada’s voice. Or perhaps, he thought he’d been hallucinating.
Contrary to what he had thought, the animal wasn’t so close. The more he advanced towards it, the more distant the cry sounded. It seemed to be shifting further into the forest. He feared that Mama would be worry sick by now. He hoped his fiancee, Ndidi, stayed with her, waiting for his arrival before she could go home. Perhaps she’d left earlier, hoping, as usual, that he should be home by now? Well, Mama would be fine, he reasoned. He moved on, determined.
It had drizzled earlier that day so the leaves under his feet were wet. The weather was getting cold too. He couldn’t tell what time it was or how long it was since he started out in search of the animal. There was no moon or stars in the sky. The empty sky seemed to just stare back at him expressionlessly.
Nduka noticed he had left people’s farms and had now entered a thick forest. All around him were big trees and thick bush. He felt a thousand eyes feasting on him, though he could see none. He was engulfed in thick darkness. The cry came again, startling him almost to the point of screaming. Hand on his mouth, he could feel his heart racing.
Looking all around him, he could see nothing. He wondered how that was possible. He had had a torch with him. Where had it fallen and when? How was it he hadn’t noticed it till now?
Nduka knew he wouldn’t survive it if he stayed longer in the forest. If wild animals didn’t kill him, the cold weather would. He turned and started his walk back the road he came from.
After a long walk, he still hadn’t left the forest. It was as though he was only moving in it and not out of it. The only sound he could hear now was that of his heart beating. He worried that Mama was out in the open still waiting for his return. No amount of plea from Ndidi would make Mama go into the house or sleep when she hadn’t heard her only son’s voice. That was if Ndidi stayed. If she didn’t, Mama would…
Mama suffered before she could have him. Her husband’s family were freaking out, especially her mother-in-law who then returned her greeting with shrugs. The village women at the river sang mocking songs at her and clapped and hooted. Barren woman, they sang. And after ten good years, Mama’s sorrow was sealed by the arrival of a baby boy. But before the boy came, Papa fell from the palm tree and broke his neck and died. Later in life, Nduka would gather whispers about the men in his father’s family not lasting long enough to meet their own children. They always died before their first children were born, the rumours said. Nduka asked Mama and she said something strange, something he still thought of once in awhile, something he’d begun to think of now that he was rigmaroling in the forest.
There was a flash of lightening, and Nduka caught glimpses of the animal a few feet away from him. Excitedly, he rushed to it as fast as he could. He felt a sharp pain in his leg and knew he was injured but that did not stop him.
The lightening came intermittently and each time, the animal was the same distance away from him. After several minutes of running after the animal, he stopped to catch his breath. He walked in total darkness again, only guided by the plants around.
Nduka stopped in his tracks, exhausted from having to walk such a long distance, especially with no rest after a hard day’s farm work. It was so quiet that the only sound he could hear was his own breathing. It should be about nine p.m but there appeared to be no animal in the forest. He couldn’t see any because of the darkness neither could he hear any.
He had given up moving about in the forest and had just sat on the ground to rest when the cry again came, louder than ever. This time he could not stop himself from screaming. His entire body shook, so did the ground under him. He wondered where his so-called manliness was hiding.
Nduka wanted to stand, walk or run; anything but just sit helplessly on the ground. But his legs were numb. He felt his head swell and his lips quiver in the cold.
The cry came again, this time directly in front of him. It came again and again. Then a strong wind blew around him. It started small but grew bigger by each passing minute until it got so big that it uprooted big trees. They all flew around him in the darkness, falling in deep thuds. But somehow, he wasn’t moved by the wind, neither could he move himself. He just sat there, seeing nothing but feeling the touch of the leaves and falling trees.
The wind blew for some more minutes and then stopped. The trees were planted back like they were never separated from the ground. The former calmness of the forest returned. Then, in the place where the moon should be, an eye appeared. Nduka quickly recognised it as the eye of his late grandmother. When Nduka came to Mama with the rumours, it was his grandmother’s name Mama called. “What have you done to me?” she cried. Long before she sat Nduka down to narrate the story of his birth, she paced the room, breathing hard and cursing at his dead grandmother.
Mama Nnukwu, as his grandmother was called, died when Nduka was twelve. In her lifetime, she used to be a very powerful priestess; so powerful that people trooped into the village to consult her.
She never married, and never had a biological child. Mama was just a child whom she had saved from evil people who had kidnapped her and was going to sacrifice her to get evil powers. Since she couldn’t find the child’s parents, she adopted her and loved her as own. Grandma’s love for Mama was so strong that no one could have guessed they weren’t really related. Infact, only few people knew. He too didn’t know until after Grandma’s death.
As a child, Nduka did not really like Mama Nnukwu. Although she wasn’t a bad woman, he did not like that she was a priestess. He feared her and couldn’t hide his relief when her illness killed her. The gods seemed to have answered his prayer by making her unable to cure herself. But much later, when he brought the rumours to Mama, he’d wished he’d made friends with her, got close enough to understand his place in this world.
The eye blinked now. For the first time since he went in search of the wounded animal, he spoke, “Mama Nnukwu?”
The eye turned sinister. It became the eye of an antelope and seemed to be aflame. The eye started speaking, “You are such an easy target, Nduka. Your greed gradually led you to your pitfall.”
“What are you doing here, Mama?”
The eye continued, as though it hadn’t heard him, “You wanted to eat from a trap you did not set; uproot from a land you never tilled.
“I am the eye of the forest.” It laughed. “The eye of the entire land, you can say, because the village was once a thick forest before your ancestors came, separated land from forest and settled there. Then it seemed like I was relegated to the forest. But I still see all.”
Nduka was breathing hard. Underneath his fear was anger. Even in death, Mama Nnukwu was this powerful. He slipped to the ground and sat on a tree root and held his hand above his head.
“Now you know the story, don’t you? You know why I have brought you here. Ndidi is now carrying your seed. It is time, Nduka. It is time for you to come back home, for the mortal earth is a marketplace and all of its inhabitants traders.”
“No,” Nduka said.
“You are a stubborn one, Nduka. I know you don’t like me, but you’re my favourite. We made you when the moon was bloodred in the sky.”
“You did not make me, Mama Nnukwu! Mama carried me in her belly for nine months and she was delivered of me the traditional way!”
The eye laughed again. “The traditional way indeed. Like I said, I know you’re stubborn. But you’re not the only one. Can we make this quick and easy? I don’t want to hurt you, Nduka, but believe me, there are many ways to kill a rat. Ada is tired of waiting.”
Nduka stopped breathing for a moment at the mention of Ada’s name. Was she involved in all of this? Was she part of them too? No wonder she was all nice to Nduka. No wonder Mama, who should have worried that Ndidi would get hurt with all of Ada’s niceness, didn’t bat an eyelid.
But could it be true? Mama said it was an idle claim, right?
After Mama was done cursing Mama Nnukwu, she sat Nduka down and told him the story of his life:
At the ninth year of her barrenness, she finally agreed to Mama Nnukwu’s proposal: to make her a child from the woods. It was that simple then. Nduka’s father died as soon as Mama got pregnant. Mama Nnukwu knew why, but she didn’t explain it to Mama. Mama had Nduka and heard the rumour three years later. Mama Nnukwu had been helping barren women get wooden babies who died as soon as they were about to welcome their first children. She waved it off because the people couldn’t answer what happened when the so-called wooden children decided not to have babies.
But it unsettled her, so she visited Mama Nnukwu. And long after the old priestess confirmed it, Mama still believed Nduka was special. This she told him when he came to her with the rumours. He too believed he was special. Nothing would happen to him.
Nduka fell on his knees as Ada appeared from a gash in a tree. “Your mother will be fine,” she said. “She already knew your time was near. Remember how she’d been reluctant lately about your going out?”
The eye laughed again. “As if she doesn’t know we can get any of us anywhere…”
“I’m not of you!” Nduka shouted.
Ada turned. “Follow me. We’re running out of time. The entire forest is waiting to celebrate you.”
Nduka picked himself up from the ground and dashed past them. He didn’t stop to catch his breath. He didn’t even pause to make out the way, to contemplate which path led where. He just ran. After what seemed like an eternity, he got to a familiar junction. Here, just outside his farm, was where he first heard the sound. He stood between the paths for a couple of seconds, pondering.
He felt a surge of strength and picked up himself and started to move faster. It might have been a nightmare, he thought.
Finally, among a thick bush, he saw the animal. It was slightly bigger than an average antelope. When he lifted it on one shoulder, it was even heavier and made his movement difficult and slow. Still, he forged on. The further he moved, the heavier the animal became. To make things worse, his legs started to weaken him.
He got so weak that the weight of the animal pushed and pinned him to the ground as soon as he entered the village. He struggled to breathe, to keep his eyes open. He tried raising his hand to take the animal off him but was too weak to raise a finger. He tried to scream, but his voice wasn’t coming. He heard the eye laughing again, then Ada asking where he’d kept the plantains she gave him, and the animal crying again. He let go of the antelope the same time he let go of his breath.
OLUCHI EGBUSIM recently graduated from the University of Nigeria, where she studied English and Literary Studies/Education. She is a short story writer, novelist and poet. She currently lives in Lagos and teaches in a college.