It was the year of the sun, the year Agu’s body was found in the forest of Amanuke, covered in a mash of red sand and dry blood, the year pythons roamed Akpulu in numbers never before seen, swallowing almost hatched eggs and strangling mother hens until at last, the men of Akpulu trekked the dusty paths of the land in quiet desolation, under the harshness of the midday sun, to Ezemmuo’s nkolo, to ask him to ask their gods what was making them angry.
It was a terrible time, and all who had eyes could tell that a knot had loosened. So, the men of Akpulu carried five kegs of palm wine, twelve fat tubers of yam, three heads of sun-dried stock fish, and because the pythons had strangled a considerable number of mother hens, and swallowed a significant number of almost hatched eggs, they could not afford to lose another dead chicken, male or female, so, they added a pregnant goat instead, and went to Ezemmuo’s nkolo.
Of all the di okpalas in Akpulu, only one man was missing from the trek. This man’s name was Ezuruonye. He had woken up one morning, determined to end the deep, feverish slumber he had fallen into. He had stretched his sleeping bones, looked out of the small, round window of his hut, and saw a python sitting on the stool near the altar his father had built for their family god, Ikenga. It had been two months since he visited his farm, visited anywhere. At the sight of the python, he’d walked back to his bamboo bed, a slow, sad walk, and laid down. He knew that the pythons were a sign that his end was coming. He laid on his bed for a long time, getting up only to urinate and drink water and eat tiny bits from the small bowl of yam pottage or ukwa his neighbor’s wife, Adaugo, brought him every evening.
Far from Ezuruonye’s hut, near the great river of Idemili, the men of Akpulu sat quietly as they waited for Ezemmuo’s figure to emerge from the inside room of the nkolo. They waited apprehensively; they were not eager to hear whatever Ezemmuo was going to tell them.
Ezemmuo finally emerged with his back turned to the men of Akpulu. When he faced them, they rose and said an uncoordinated, “We greet you, eye of the gods,” to which Ezemmuo did not reply. His eyes rested on each person. If he noticed that Ezuruonye was not present, his face did not show it. Ezemmuo told the men to come back in three days, that the gods were busy, that the gods do not sit around waiting to be summoned by mere mortals. And though the men of Akpulu knew this was the way of their gods, as they walked back to their huts, they fixed their eyes on the red earth as though returning from a lost war.
Ezuruonye heard about the visit from Adaugo, when she came to his hut with a bowl of yam pottage and dried fish. It was the day after the men of Akpulu visited Ezemmuo’s nkolo. She’d usually just drop off the food as her husband, Okugo, asked her to do, but that evening, for the first time, she stood for a while and examined the mass of body before her. Ezuruonye knew she was looking at him even though he kept his gaze on the cane chair next to him. Three months ago, before he killed Agu and left his body in the forest of Amanuke, a woman hovering over him, staring at him like he was a sacrifice to the gods, would have made him uncomfortable. Three months ago, his friend, Okugo, would not have sent his new wife into another man’s hut.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Nothing. You are just lying there like a dead man. No matter how much you grieve him, he can’t come back.’
Ezuruonye was taken aback by this; it stung him, the snarling, scolding tone of this woman who, with her freshly oiled hair and smooth face, looked like she knew nothing about grieving.
“Come, woman, leave me. You have done well by bringing me food all this while. But I no longer need it. I am now well enough to get my own food.”
Adaugo arched her eyebrows. “It is not the small portion of yam that bothers me. It is you lying here like the world has ended. It is time for you to carry on. You have mourned him well.”
She walked to the other side of the bed and sat down. “When my grandmother died,” she said, her voice cracking. “My mother refused to eat for days. She laid on her bed like you for days. And then the days turned to weeks, and the weeks turned to months. Finally, she left me. It is why I continue to bring you food, Ezuruonye. Not because my husband asked me to. I know this kind of pain.”
Ezuruonye suddenly felt cold. He remembered his own mother. He remembered the night she had pulled him from his mat and balanced a small load on his head. It was his tenth year on Ani’s blessed earth. He could still see the fireflies that adorned the bush as they fled his father’s village and walked to Akpulu, his mother’s. His father had died of an unnamed illness and his mother was convinced that she could smell him everywhere in the village, taste him even.
“Thank you,” he said. “I will heed your advice.”
A small smile gathered in Adaugo’s eyes and her shoulders relaxed. They sat in silence for a while. Then she began to describe what had happened at Ezemmuo’s nkolo the day before. She had heard from Nnedi, her husband’s first wife, who had heard from their husband.
“Nnedi told me that Okugo told her that Ezemmuo’s eyes were bleeding with both anger and blood. The gods are raging.”
Ezuruonye asked her to leave. He was tired, he said. He needed to rest.
“What kind of rest? You have been lying on this bed all day.”
“Leave, woman,” he said, turning his face to the wall.
Three days after their visit, when the gods had made time for the people of Akpulu and had finally spoken to Ezemmuo, a message was sent to the men of Akpulu, and they all gathered at the nkolo. Ezemmuo sat at the center of the nkolo, singing the song of the spirits, with his legs stretched out before him, and his upper body bent towards the earth. He scattered dirt-stained cowries on the ground, opened one of the kegs of palm wine the people of Akpulu had brought with them on their first visit, filled an Iko halfway, and fed it to the gods. He then drank some himself and passed the Iko, and each man drank, swallowing hard to make certain that every drop was sucked into their stomach. It was the proper thing to do when sharing a drink with the gods. Ezemmuo’s nkolo was not the men’s wives’ hut, so they tucked their agility and ego under their tongues and sat with the humility of soon-to-be-wed-virgins. When Ezemmuo’s singing ceased, they stilled their breaths, strained their ears, widened their eyes, tightened their clutches on the knot of their wrappers, and waited for him to say what the gods had told him.
Ezemmuo said nothing. Instead, he stood and danced, circling the cowries scattered on the ground. This time he did not sing; he chanted praises to the gods: “Okaka. The ones who never sleep. The ones who go to war with bare hands. Ekwueme. The ones who see the back and the front at once. Woods impenetrable to termites.” Ezemmuo praised the gods with all his might and soul. His body moved with vigor, his feet rising and falling with a swiftness that assured the men of Akpulu that their gods were close by, present maybe.
When Ezemmuo finally spoke, his voice rattled the horns circling the rafters. The horns clinked and clinked, and the air in the nkolo became stiff, so stiff that if one threw a knife from one end of the nkolo to the other, one would have heard the sound of something slicing in two.
The gods spoke of the worst: a man had died at a time the gods had not assigned for him to die. Even they, the gods, had been taken unawares, and it angered them. Worse still was the manner of the death: the man was killed from behind, so he could not fight for his life. And the killer had, at one point, dined with the dead man, eaten from the same soup bowl. Also, the killing was motivated by jealousy. It was not news that if you wanted what someone else had in Akpulu, if you wanted it badly enough, then all you had to do was challenge them to a wrestling match, and if the gods wanted it for you and you win the match, the thing becomes yours.
It then came as a surprise to the men of Akpulu that a coward and murderer lived amongst them. Of the four men who had recently died in Akpulu, two had been old men who died in their sleep. Surely their deaths could not offend the gods so much so that they unleashed the pythons on the people of Akpulu. Of the other two, one had been sick— they had watched him die of a fever that turned his skin red, ate all the hair on his head, and sucked all the flesh off his bones. This left the death of Agu.
The men clucked their tongues and spat on the red mud of the nkolo. They raised their shoulders to their ears and brought them down swiftly. When Agu died, they knew something was not right. How could a man who had the strength of a lion— they even sometimes called him the lion— die in a forest he knew like his palm? When they found Agu’s dead body, bloodied and plastered with dry grass and twigs, the people of Akpulu did not know what to make of it. It had been fifty years since someone had been murdered in cold blood in Akpulu, so when they saw the animal marks on Agu’s body, they squeezed their noses, shook their heads, and concluded that a wild animal had killed him.
When the men returned to their huts and told their wives what they had heard with their holy ears, the women shook their legs furiously, untied and tied their wrappers, and told their husbands that they knew it, that they felt it under their right breasts, days before the pythons invaded the village, knocking over the clay waterpots of old women, flickering thin tongues at naked, ashy children, curling around the machetes of Akpulu’s greatest warriors. The gods’ anger was no small matter.
Ezuruonye, again, heard the news from Adaugo. She had continued to bring him food every evening. She came in silence and left in silence, but on the third day after their quarrel, she noticed that he was quivering. She pressed her hand to his neck and screamed: “Chim o.”
Ezuruonye was burning. Even with his eyes open, Adaugo was a blur. He did not know when she ran out or when she came back, clutching a clay pot of steaming water, with a rag around her neck and a bag of medicine hanging on her shoulder. What he knew was that he woke a few hours later and his fever had broken.
“Adaugo,” he said. “You are still here?” He sat up and rested his back on the wall.
“Rest, Ezuruonye. When I went to gather my mother’s medicine for you, I told Okugo you were sick. I have his permission.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“It is Chukwu that did the work; I only gave you medicine.” She looked over at his father’s altar. He could tell she was shy and pleased.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Umunachi,” she stuttered as though she was not expecting the question.
He knew Okugo had married her as a third wife six months ago, but there were many things he did not remember. Many things he was trying not to remember. He imagined that she was very lonely. It was why she came to him. He knew what it felt like to be uprooted from one’s furnished life and placed in an empty space, where one had to build, piece by piece, another home. His first days in Akpulu had been difficult. His mother, deep in her grief, was no company. He remembered walking a lot, stick in hand, smacking the leaves that shot out to the roads. It was on one of those walks that he first saw Agu, little Agu, with a smile so big and so whole it caused something insidious and sweet to creep into Ezuruonye’s mind. From that second, they became AguandEzuruonye. They spent their afternoons chasing each other around the village, wrestling each other, and playing Ncho. They spent their evenings with the other village boys.
Adaugo sneezed and made to touch his hand. It was a small move, so small that Ezuruonye would have believed it was in his imagination if she had not clenched her fist, as though restraining herself.
“My co-wife, Nnedi, tells me good things about you,” Adaugo said. “Everyone says you are a kind man, and you shouldn’t be suffering.”
When Ezuruonye didn’t reply, she continued: “They say that you loved Agu like a brother. I wish someone would mourn me like this.”
Ezuruonye lay still.
“My mother is dead, and my father has forty children, none of whom are from my mother. This is why I am so bothered that I am yet to carry Okugo’s child. Who will mourn me when I die?”
“Mourning is not the only thing children are good for,” he said.
Adaugo squinted, as though in deep thought. “But is it not important? To have somebody mourn you when you are gone?”
“It is, but it is not the reason to want children. Maybe that is another reason why they have refused to come. They see you planning sorrow for them even before their birth.”
“You make me sound like a bad person, Ezuruonye. I am not planning sorrow for them. I just want—” Then she caught the glint in his eyes. “You are making fun of a barren woman.”
“You are not a barren woman,” he said. “You are just funny.”
Adaugo hit the mud floor three times and threw her head back. A growling laughter left her throat. “Nobody has called me funny before.”
Ezuruonye liked how unwomanly her laughter sounded. Loud, bursting. It was the laughter of a woman who had grown up without a mother constantly in her ears telling her how to behave. He laughed with her. The sound of his laughter startled them both. It was a low sound, like the gentle bubbling of boiling water. But it was laughter, nonetheless. He didn’t know he could still laugh.
Adaugo, radiant, eager to keep the conversation going, narrated the story her husband had told her and her co-wives about what had transpired in Ezemmuo’s nkolo. She told him an animated version, intrigued by the suspense of it all, unaware of the violent twitching of Ezuruonye’s left foot. She asked if Agu had told him about any enemies? Her questions were met with silence and cold eyes.
Who killed Agu? became a game the children of Akpulu played in the village square, in the silvery moonlight. They flexed thin muscles, beat dry chests, raised bony shoulders, and screamed I killed Agu into each other’s faces, because, only a strong man could kill a warrior as fine as Agu. The women shook their heads. What did the children know? Had they not heard that whoever killed Agu took him from behind like a coward? Had they not heard that the killer was a ball-less man who could not look another man in the eyes and wrestle him?
But as the women walked to their farms, while the sky birthed the sun, they could not stop talking about Agu’s death. They guessed and guessed, each woman taking her turn. Ugodiya, the third wife of Uwabunkeonye, the man whose barn had the most yams in all of Akpulu every harvest season, said it must have been Obidike. Did he not, days before Agu was found dead, accuse him of stealing his land? Ochakomaka, the fairest of the women, whose skin shone like the sun was permanently turned towards her, said she was sure it was Ikechukwu. She had caught him giving Agu the evil eye several times. Ezinne, whose brain worked only half of the year—she spent her bad days roaming Akpulu, muttering to herself, chasing children who sang songs of mockery at her, and her good days with hands deep in clay, molding pots—said it must have been Ezenwa. He had always wanted Agu’s chieftaincy title.
The men scratched their machetes on the ground, raised them to the sky, and swore to their gods that justice would be served, that whoever killed Agu like he was an ant would use his eyes to see the back of his head.
They knew what had to be done even before Ezemmuo told them. It had been done fifty years ago when Achebe the albino was found dead with a knife stuck in his neck and the peanut brown of his eyes rolled into his head. Then they did not need the gods to come down from the sky to tell them they were looking at the body of a man who had been murdered. Then, it was Ezemmuo’s father who was the mouthpiece of the gods. When the news reached his ears, it was a matter of hours before the whole of Akpulu knew who the killer was.
Ezuruonye heard about the invocation this time from the town crier who went around the village beating his gong. The fever that Adaugo had banished was coming back. Adaugo had come and gone. He was relieved she had gone before the town crier’s message. He worried she would pester him with questions about what Agu did and didn’t tell him before his death. He would not go for the invocation, he told himself as he reached for his bowl of food. He would wait for them in his hut. But wouldn’t his absence emphasize his cowardice? Wasn’t attending the invocation the right thing to do? Then again, there was no right thing to do. Everything was wrong, he thought, everything. The air he was breathing was wrong. He cursed the day he had first let Agu touch him. There were many things he had forgotten, but he could not forget that day at Agu’s father’s farm, when, as they rested under the shade of an orange tree, after hours of uprooting yam, Ezuruonye had turned his head to find Agu watching him with intense want. It was clear; it was unmistakable. They were both sweating. And then Agu had kissed him. It was wet and brief and strange. He did not know he could feel the way he felt, the liquidity and smoothness of this pleasure, the perfection of it. It had turned to a raw roughness when Agu wrapped his palm around him and stroked. Afterwards, as they sat a few inches away from each other, grateful that no one had walked into them, Agu had told Ezuruonye he loved him. It was their thirteenth year on Ani’s blessed earth, and it was then that everything gradually changed. What he felt for Agu became darker and sweeter. It was a raging and wild thing that had swept into his world that was mostly calm; that mostly revolved around the muteness of his mother. He dropped the bowl of half-eaten yam pottage. He would go for the invocation. He would look Agu in the eye one last time.
At the crack of dawn on the day Ezemmuo set for the invocation, the people of Akpulu woke up to the sound of flutes preparing the land for the presence of a spirit as powerful as Agu’s. A man was as powerful in the spirit land as he was on earth, and Agu’s strength was something to marvel at, so they blew their flutes hard, blew it until the veins in their necks threatened to burst.
A frantic, giddy feeling possessed the people of Akpulu. Half of them had not been born when Ezemmuo’s father called forth the spirit of Achebe from the land of the dead. They did not see the madness in the nkolo when Achebe’s spirit caused a riotous breeze to swirl the light weighted things on the ground of the nkolo. Those who had been there could not explain what it felt like to be in the presence of a tortured spirit. So, it was only normal for the people of Akpulu to have flutters in their stomachs at this coming invocation.
As though the god of the sky was frowning on that day, the sun refused to shine. It peeked from behind tall trees as the people of Akpulu took tense steps towards Ezemmuo’s nkolo with pythons slithering behind, beside and in front of them.
At a corner of the nkolo, opposite the staff of Amadioha, sat Agu’s four wives: Oriaku, Nnedinma, Adaeze, and Obianujunwa, who now looked like sisters after years of looking into each other’s faces. Beside the wives were Agu’s sons and daughters, and beside them were Agu’s kinsmen. And next to them stood Ezuruonye. They stood nearest to the staff since Agu’s spirit would probably possess the body of the person he trusted the most, and that body must not be too far from the staff where the spirit is invoked. The spirit must not be bodyless for longer than necessary.
Ezemmuo fixed his eyes on the half-formed sun, waiting for it to dip into the shrubs that circled the hills of Akpulu. It was the sun that would tell him when the link between the land of the living and that of the dead was at its weakest. When the moment came, he began calling Agu by his praise names. He gyrated, and dust rose from his feet. He twirled and twirled, giving his body to his father, and his father’s father. The people of Akpulu would, for many years to come, be unable to say what they saw when the staff of Ani split in two and birthed a surge of wind that disappeared into Oriaku, Agu’s first wife. Oriaku swelled in an instant: her gait became Agu’s, her eyes became Agu’s, her arms became Agu’s, and when she spoke, her voice became Agu’s, a roar that left a tingling in the ears of all who heard it.
As Oriaku opened her mouth, the nkolo fell silent. Even babies balanced on the hips of their mothers were transfixed; they watched with big eyes and drooling mouths, fat fingers entwined around the sweaty thumbs of their mothers’. A chill settled upon the nkolo, and as was normal in the presence of a spirit, the people of Akpulu felt the hair on their bodies kink, and a heaviness engulf their heads.
Agu’s eyes darted around the nkolo, taking everything and everyone in as if to assert his presence, as if to say: I see you. His eyes finally rested on Ezemmuo, who, already, was no longer himself. His skin had become a pale shade of white, and a subtle glow flickered in the blackness of his eyes. Agu walked up and down the nkolo and then stopped in front of Ujunwa, the fifth wife of Ikedieze the palm wine tapper. His eyes rested on her flat belly adorned with colored waist beads and asked her if she knew she was pregnant. Ujunwa nodded no and smiled, and did a little dance of thanksgiving to the gods. Agu stopped beside Mbaka, a man whose yam seedling had refused, year after year, to produce yam good enough to sell at the market square. Agu told him he was farming on land that wasn’t his to farm. The story of how Mbaka’s father had snatched the land from his late brother’s wife would later be told, but at that moment, the people stared at one another in confusion. The air grew compact. To have a spirit see what everyone wanted to hide made the people anxious. Whose secrets was he going to tell? Whose wrongdoings was he going to air? Everyone knew they had something to hide.
At last, Agu stopped in front of Ezuruonye.
“Why?” he asked. He was a spirit who knew everything, but he still asked, not to know, but to understand, because, indeed, there was a difference between knowing and understanding.
“Why?” he asked again. Ezuruonye did not speak.
Agu looked at Ezemmuo, pointed to Ezuruonye, and said: “He killed me. He took a knife to my heart from the back, a person I call my person.” He turned his head to face his family and smiled, and then he disappeared.
Oriaku’s body lay on the ground, empty. Her co-wives bent over her, praying that her spirit found its way back to her body. Ezuruonye still could not speak or move. The people of Akpulu wanted to ask him the same question Agu had asked: Why? Why kill a man you call brother? Ezemmuo, now himself, did not know what to make of the new information. Of course, a man who killed another had to pay with his life, but the men were best friends. Oriaku sneezed, and her co-wives breathed in relief. Now Ezemmuo could concentrate on the problem in front of him. He moved towards Ezuruonye, who towered over him by a good foot. He looked him straight in the eyes and then spat on the ground. “As you have killed so shall you be killed,” he said, and the whole village chorused, “So shall he be killed.”
That night, after the invocation, as Ezuruonye lay on his bed, he wondered why he had never thought to build a bigger hut. He had the means. His barn was not the biggest, but his farm produced good yams. The hut had become too small for him a long time ago; or, rather, he had become too big for the hut. He remembered building the hut, smoothening the roughness of the wall with red soil. He had spent days drawing shapes and patterns with white chalk on the wall inside and outside. He would look out of his window occasionally and catch the admiration in the eyes of people as they walked past. It used to please him. He stood up from his bed and walked to his water pot. The hut was aglow with light from the firewood Adaugo had brought him. He stared into the pot. He kicked it and the impact sent a sharp pain to his head. It was Agu’s pot. Agu had given it to him as a gift after his mother died. He had continued to stay in this small hut because it used to make him feel closer to Agu. They had spent many nights in this hut making love, making promises. He shouldn’t have gone to the invocation, he thought. He should have waited for them, in his hut, as he had planned. He was not thirsty. What did he come to get? He walked back to his bamboo bed and sat down. He thought of quenching the fire and lying in the darkness. He thought of Adaugo. She wouldn’t bring him food now that she knew what he was. He wasn’t even hungry anyway. He adjusted his loin cloth. He had thought seeing Agu again would thrust him deeper into the black hole he had made his home the past months, but, strangely, he felt awake, as if he had been moving in the world half asleep and now, suddenly, he could feel everything. He swatted a mosquito that perched on his shoulder. He knew they would kill him. He missed the mosquito; it was now buzzing in his ears. He laid down and closed his eyes. Agu’s face glided in the darkness behind his lids. He wasn’t shocked at Agu’s reaction at the invocation. ‘Why? Why?’ He had said, as though he did not know. It was just like him to act ignorant. To do as he liked and expect no consequences.
He did not know Adaugo was there until she cleared her throat.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. It was not the question he meant to ask.
“What I have been doing here for the past months is what I am doing here today. Bringing you food.”
“Thank you, Adaugo. I was not expecting you.”
She set the bowl on the floor and walked to the door. She stood for a few seconds and then turned back and sat beside his bed. “I feel great pity for you, Ezuruonye,” she said, “I have never seen a person as sad as you.”
Ezuruonye had not noticed, until then, how beautiful she was. She was a short woman with the features of a tall person. Her hands and legs were long and slender. She had full pointy lips that reddened at the middle, where the upper lip met the lower lip. He imagined he could cup the whole of her face in his palms.
“I am sad, Adaugo. As you now know, I have committed an abomination.”
“Why is my heart telling me that you did not do it?” Her eyes grew small.
“It is because you have a good heart.”
“But you don’t look like a person who can kill another, especially his best friend.”
Anger rose in him. “He was not my best friend.”
“But everyone says you were inseparable from childhood.”
“Please leave. I am tired.” He rolled to the other edge of the bed, away from her.
“I do not believe that you are a bad person. I know that the gods are angry and want you to pay for what you have done, but if you say why you did what you did, we can appease the gods.”
He turned to her. “Did you not hear what I said, woman? Leave. What is wrong with you? Is this how the women in your village behave?”
“Between the both of us, who is acting like something is wrong with them? Am I the one who killed my friend? Am I the one who has been lying on the bed for months like a lazy fool? Am I the one who did not even move his body when his friend pointed at him and called him a murderer? Am I the one?” She was now standing, her head thrust forward, her hands on her hips, as though really expecting answers to her questions. “Open your mouth and talk.”
The room grew dimmer, the firewood was burning out.
“Go home,” he said. “Please, just go.”
“No, I will not. I will only go if you tell me what happened.”
Ezuruonye closed his eyes. He would ignore her until she got tired and left.
“I know that good people do bad things. I have not known you for long. I am a newcomer to this village, but I have only heard good things about you. Mama Nkechi told me how you brought tubers of yam to her house every three moons after her husband died. She said everyone forgot about her except you.” Her voice was calm, pleading.
“I didn’t give him the chance to fight for his life,” Ezuruonye said. “I just took him from the back.”
The biting sound of nightlife had gone quiet. The mosquito no longer buzzed. He felt as though his heart was forcing itself up his throat.
“Please go, Adaugo. Please just go.”
The next day, the people gathered to decide on how Ezuruonye would go. They sat underneath the Udala tree at the center of the market square, where, when the sun had retreated and given way for the moon, children danced to songs about the greed of the tortoise and the poise of the lion; where women dipped their hands into the rebellious curls of each other’s hair and tamed them into fat braids and gossiped in measured tones about the latest happenings in the village; where men sat with legs ajar, and kegs of palm wine an inch away from their big toes, and bragged about their new achievements. This time, the men did not sit ajar; there was no palm wine or laughter. They sat stiffly, with heads turned up to the sky as if questioning the gods. Their minds flashed back to their peculiar and identical experiences of Ezuruonye. They thought of his gaze that lingered on their faces so steadily yet so daintily, as though he was in no hurry, as though he could sit with them all day, listening to everything that made their hearts heavy. They thought about his calming quietness, how he spoke only to comfort, to soothe. They thought about how he noiselessly made space for everyone without shrinking himself. And though he had killed Agu, whom they envied for his strength, who did not look them in the eyes, whose agility discomforted them, who chipped at the stony hardness of their egos and flamed their insecurities, they felt killing Ezuruonye was like crushing a blooming flower.
It was Dimkpa, the hunter, who suggested they summon Ezuruonye to ask him why he killed Agu. If they could hear the wickedness in his voice, they would steel themselves.
Four men marched to Ezuruonye’s hut to summon him. They found him standing beside the coconut tree that shaded his hut. He stood akimbo, his eyes turned up to where tiny coconuts clustered under the canopy of the dull green leaves. He seemed in deep, sorrowful thought.
A lizard scuttled past the four men as they spoke. Ezuruonye nodded a stiff yes. His eyes did not linger on their faces or meet their eyes. He entered his hut and came out with a straw hat on his head.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The men wondered at how he could have an axe dangling over his head and still walk with lightness in his feet. While they walked to fetch Ezuruonye, they had talked about his mysteriousness, this man that had neither wife nor children. It was, perhaps, for the best. Now that he was going to die such a shameful death, he would leave no one behind to mourn him, or to carry the shame which he would leave after his death. But as they walked to the market square with feet browned by dust and cracked by many treks to farmlands and villages far from Akpulu, the men said nothing.
Ezuruonye stood at the center of the half-moon shape the men of Akpulu had formed. He folded his hands just below his breast, his body slightly slanted backward. There was something soft about the way he did not glare at the men, or lean towards them, something that could have seemed like remorse if his eyes did not hold a kind of certitude; he deserved to stand where he was standing, deserved to breathe the air he was breathing, deserved to fold his hands how he was folding them.
The men told him why they had summoned him: to know why he killed Agu. Ezuruonye told the men of Akpulu he had no answer for them, that he had accepted his death and he was ready to die on the date they set for him, and if all they called him here for was to ask about his reason for killing Agu, they had better let him return to his hut and spend his remaining hours on earth asking the gods to cleanse his spirit.
The men looked at each other, then at Ezuruonye, then at each other. There was no contempt in Ezuruonye’s voice, his tone was soft and smooth, devoid of stuttering and cracks. They had summoned him so he could harden their hearts against him, but here he was, ready to give what he had taken. He did not beg or ask for lighter punishment. He did not make up a fabulous, pitiful story about a wrong meted on him by the late Agu who could not defend himself. They let him go.
However much they guessed, the people of Akpulu could not agree on why Ezuruonye killed Agu. They became tired of guessing, of thinking about death and talking about it, of pythons circling things that should not be circled, so they set a date for Ezuruonye’s execution.
“I will tell you what happened,” Ezuruonye said to Adaugo as she walked into his hut. He did not understand why she continued bringing him food. He did not understand why Okugo let her.
Adaugo tried to hide her excitement but failed. “You will tell me? Me, a barren, ordinary woman. You will tell me what you have refused to tell important people?”
She said she had heard how he latched on to silence at the village square earlier that day.
“But you will tell no one,” Ezuruonye said.
She nodded. “I swear on my mother’s grave. May Amadioha strike me dead if I ever say a word about this to anyone.”
Ezuruonye breathed deeply. “I don’t know where to start.”
Adaugo sat stiffly, unmoving, breathing softly, as though trying to become invisible. “Start from the beginning.”
The moon was not out that night. A startling blackness covered Akpulu’s sky. Ezuruonye could hear the piercing sound of a baby’s cry from a close-by hut, and then the soft, oil-like voice of a woman singing: ‘Onye tiri nwa n’eba kwa...’
“I don’t know where the beginning is,” he said.
“Start from when the pain began, when it started to hurt.”
It was an odd, precise response, and for a moment he wondered about Adaugo, about her life before now, and he wished he had a chance to know her well.
When it started to hurt? In their seventeenth year on Ani’s blessed earth, when he saw Agu and Oriaku, arm in arm, laughing, touching, gazing. It slashed into him. When Agu visited his hut later that night, he’d said nothing. He’d let Agu touch him, but each touch felt like a thousand pins. It was then clear that his mother’s muteness was now his. He’d said nothing as Agu went from Oriaku to Nnedinma, and then to two other wives and six other concubines. He said nothing as Agu visited his hut whenever he liked, with a mouth that held an equal amount of lies and promises. For some people desire burned out, flickered and died off under such pressure; Ezuruonye’s raged on and on, from boyhood to manhood, till all he was left with was hardness, like a fruit sucked of all its flesh and juice and sweetness. But he didn’t tell Adaugo this, he told her about a certain kind of clarity that eludes a person in torture, only to reveal itself afterwards. And it was that clarity that came upon him on their twenty-fifth year on Ani’s blessed earth, when Agu stopped coming to his hut entirely. He saw that he had shaped his life around the unsteady curve of Agu’s. He had bottled up himself. Lived his life in a daze. Until, one night, while walking to the village square to sit with Okugo and his other kinsmen, he saw Agu entering the bush. He followed him, walking carefully on the dried leaves. It was there he saw Agu’s hands wrapped around the waist of a boy, a stranger. As though mocking him, the moon, which had been hidden the last three nights, was full and blinding. It painted Agu’s dark skin a glittering silver.
He realized he was crying when Adaugo wrapped her arms around him. “Ozugo,” she said, “It is okay.” She gathered the edge of her wrapper and wiped the tears on his face.
“I don’t need to hear the rest,” she said.
He did not want to tell the rest. He did not want to tell that what truly broke him open was that Agu had stayed behind when the boy left. It was what he and Agu used to do when they still made love in the bush. He would leave first; Agu would leave a few minutes later. It was a dance they had danced so many times, a performance that was completely theirs, and Agu had so easily given the boy Ezuruonye’s part.
“Ozugo,” Adaugo said. “What has happened has happened. Let it be.”
He wondered what would have happened if he hadn’t packed a knife in his bag, alongside oranges which he planned to peel and lick at the village square. Would his rage had dwindled the next day? Would Agu still be alive?
She placed his head on her lap and stroked his hair. Ezuruonye knew then what he must do.
The day of Ezuruonye’s execution, everything appeared to be happening slowly. The day would not break. The people of Akpulu stirred on their bamboo beds and raffia mats, dozing in and out of sleep, peering into the dark night and wondering when the sun would rise. When it finally did, the women made breakfast of boiled yam and salted palm oil, swallow with the ofe oha of the day before, ukwa with dried fish and roasted bushmeat. The children knew that an important event was to take place and they behaved properly. They did not let their mothers ask them twice to go to the Kalawa river to fetch water. They did not play as they walked to and from the river, did not whistle, did not run, did not say anything provocative to each other. The men dragged their feet and spent more time than usual pouring libation to the gods, praying that they watch the backs of their humble servants.
That afternoon, the sun was at its awful best. It beat the people so mercilessly they had to fan themselves. When it was time, they gathered at the home of Ike, the executioner, a position most of the children of Akpulu did not know existed. Ezuruonye was going to die exactly how he killed Agu, with a knife to his back. But unlike Agu, he had wide-eyed spectators, people whom he had dined with, laughed with, sang with, danced with. Old women who he had lifted heavy loads for; young girls who had given him the eye that meant he could have them however he wanted; full chested boys at the peak of their youth, whom he had taught to wrestle, to let their feet be one with the ground, because a wrestler’s strength is in that balance, the balance of the feet on the ground.
Everyone had arrived, even the little children who could not be left at home because no one was willing to miss out on the execution. Everyone except Ezuruonye. They knew he was a murderer, that he had killed someone who trusted him. They knew he was the reason the gods had unleashed pythons on them, but knowing that wasn’t enough to erase their memory of the goodness he had shown them, or the sunniness in his eyes, so they did not hound him, did not think he might try to escape the punishment he had wholeheartedly accepted.
But when their legs became restless from waiting, and they saw pythons everywhere, on tops of trees, on the thatches of huts, on the benches left outside huts for evening catch-ups, and laying on small carpets of grass, as though, in the few last minutes, they had suddenly multiplied, fear rose inside them, and they sent another group of four men to fetch Ezuruonye.
This group of four men found Ezuruonye beneath the same tree where the other group had met him. The coconut tree, speckled with the green hue of algae, with leaves that shivered in the soft evening breeze, held Ezuruonye’s body dangling from a thick brown rope. His feet were neat, a scrubbed-clean neatness. The men imagined him, hours before his death, scrubbing the thick, dried calluses off his heels, the rope around his neck and his death plan laid out before him. The men shuddered, shook their heads like they could shake away the reality in front of them. Two men stayed behind, and the other two sprinted to the executioner’s hut to say what their eyes had seen. Soon, the people gathered. Women and children wailed, and men tried but failed to hold the tears that welled behind their tightly shut lids. But no one cried harder than Adaugo. She rolled on the ground and cursed the gods in a language that was understood by her alone. Though the people of Akpulu knew that the pythons would disappear, and the gods would no longer be angry, they were not relieved. The gods were always right, always right, but they couldn’t stop thinking that, hanging there, dead in the worst possible way, was a good man.
Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Feature image: Martina Bulkova (Pixabay)