by Nii Parkes
You find my town by following the fifth ray of the sun at the height of its power. For it is the only ray that can break through the trees to reach the standpipe that is found right in the middle of the collage of brown sand, green, yellow and brown tufts of grass, hand-dug gutters, and restless animals that is Oboetown. From the standpipe you could ask the way to anyone's hut from the multitude of persons who frequent this precious source of drinking water. However, it is evening, so you would perhaps not find the village and therefore you would not hear me speaking to my mother...
"Mama, I know why the boy drowned with a smile on his face."
"Shut up my son! You will annoy the spirits - you are evil."
"I am not evil Mama. I know. I saw..."
"Saw what? Saw what? Oko, you will be the death of me. You will bring curses, curses upon this house. I have told you, do not shake a tree after a storm unless you want to get soiled!"
I stop speaking. Watching my mother's wide mouth in graceful motion. Marveling at how the gap in her teeth seems to filter her speech - biding my time. It is always like this in my house. My twin sister Akwele sits silently in the corner of the hut, watching as my mother rants and raves at me and blames me for everything from the late flowering of her okra plants to the death of my father: "How can a man die exactly two moons after his son's entrance into the world? Huh, huh, Tell me!" Apparently, it can't be my sister since she was born six hours before me... before dark.
Nevertheless, I know my mother's wrath never lasts. Before long, she will meticulously peel her daily harvest of yam, or cassava, or plantain onto yesterday's newspaper - making sure that very little pulp disappears, along with the peel, into the cavernous mouths of the goats in the compound. Whilst the staple boils, she will ask me to go and fetch water from the standpipe, and Akwele to help her chop up a selection from her store of ingredients (a well hidden cache of tomatoes, onions, okra, garden eggs, hot peppers, garlic, ginger, kontomire, and several odd looking pulses and seeds). Some of these will go straight into the pot, but the bulkier ingredients will be crushed on a slab of stone by the able hands of my sister. The resulting stew will be simmering by the time I return from the standpipe. Over dinner, across the coal-pot, around which we will sit, she will smile at us and, regardless of what has happened today, we will start afresh. If she's feeling very generous, she will pat t he space beside her on her mat and I will hesitantly rise to join her.
I also know that, behind her smooth brown face with its large white eyes and thick eyebrows, my mother has, in spite of herself, a craving for knowledge fostered over the years by her large family which has always had hundreds of stories to tell. So, I will wait. I will wait. Wait to hear my mother say, "Tell me..."
I do not remember exactly when I first heard my mother's voice. If I did, I would be a gbogbalo - older than my years and free of my body... But, I have since heard it many times in my head. It comes to me when I am alone - like when I wander in the bush - and it is often louder than the sub-foliage cacophony of crickets, and toads, and termites. Yet it is always calming. I also hear it when I am doing something wrong. At these times, it sounds like the grating of dry bits of cardboard. The hairs on my spine stand attentive when I hear it.
Her voice spoke to me that day in the company of my two friends, but I didn't tell them. I ignored it. I knew I wasn't supposed to be where I was. We were headed, barefoot and shaven headed, to a place we were forbidden to go. A place called the moon-prison. Legend had it that even in the middle of the day the moon remained there silver and still. To get there, we had to traipse through miles of bush.
"Are we nearly there?" one of my companions asked. He was one of those kids whose legs were so bowed they made you wonder how he managed to place his feet flat on the ground.
"Shhhh," reprimanded the other. "Tuesday is the spirit's day of rest."
We continued in silence, with the second boy in the lead, ducking and swerving out of the way of protruding branches and suspended cobwebs. I fixed my attention on his short neck and thought about the moon-prison. It was a pond, a few metres from the River Oba, and it had been there for years. But, recently, people had started to say that there was something evil about it. Ever since a boy had drowned in it in the middle of the day. People had put forward all sorts of explanations - some involved a water maiden reaching up from the depths to grab him - but the witch doctor simply said, "If you seek something hard enough you will find it." This cryptic statement had made him less popular in the town. People argued that the boy was a champion swimmer, which made the case suspect, but what made it weirder was...
"We're here," whispered the second boy.
We stood in a little arc of shadow and stared wide-eyed across the pool of water. Instinctively we bent at the waist to peer into its mysterious depths. A twig fell, from one of the neem trees that constituted the lush greenery around us, and made us jump. Our eyes followed the resulting ripples across the shiny surface to the banks of the pond, where our burnt ochre feet were nestled in mud and rotting vegetation. We bent over again and remained frozen in that position until the first boy spoke.
"I can't see any moon!"
"No," agreed the second, "I can't see any moon either."
"Are you sure this is the place?" persisted the first.
"Of course I'm sure. Do you think I'm stupid! Oko, tell him."
I hadn't spoken since we set off on the adventure. Somehow, it hadn't felt right under the circumstances. I knew, though, that I had to speak otherwise my companions would soon be wrestling like a pair of hungry puppies. Also, whilst the second boy usually led us into action, in times of crisis they both looked to me for ideas.
"I think maybe we should look closer," I suggested. I squatted closer to the water's surface.
"What?!" exclaimed the first boy. "Are you crazy? Haven't you heard the stories..."
"Shut up! We will look closer," stated the second boy.
Once again, our upper bodies curved over the iridescent pool of water. Our eyes orbited from bank to bank. Our feet flexed to hold us steady. But still... nothing. Apart from sinister reflections of our own dark faces enlivened by the setting sun, nothing could be seen in the pond. We sighed and stood in silence. There was a kind of unseen force that prevented us from looking at each other. Defeat is not a thing for sharing.
"Maybe we should put our faces in and look at the bottom." It was the only thing I could think of.
Apprehension glowed brighter on the faces of my companions than the fast fading red sun, but they did not oppose the suggestion. It was the defeat thing. Anything, any solution would be better than failure.
"We can't all put our faces in it," said the first boy after a long pause.
"Why? Because you are a woman!" spat the second.
"Being a woman isn't so bad. My mother can beat my father."
"But not my father."
"Ho! She will whip him. Your father looks like a broomstick!"
"Stop," I cut in for when those two started, they could argue for hours. "He is right. If we all put our faces in we could all drown. I'll do it... but, you must hold my arms to pull me out if I start drowning."
I dipped my face in the water and I saw. I saw the miracle of life. The unending cycle of time. I followed the pond and the stream and at the moment of their demise, a river appeared. And at the death of the river, the sea was born. And the sea gradually gave way to land before it died out. The land bore seed. The seed died to yield plant. Plant bore fruit. Fruit died with hunger at the birth celebrations of satisfaction. And as clarity slew confusion, I realised, with a smile, that I had reached the truth: Life is born of...
My companions plucked me from the water's depths so forcefully that I ended up on my back. Mud stained my orange T-shirt as I hurled and sputtered. Above me, the boys were laughing. It was a relieved kind of laughter.
"Fool," choked the second, "were you trying to die?"
The first cackled as if I wasn't there. "Did you... did you see the way he moved his arms. Ha ha ha... and..."
"But he was right. The moon is in the water now."
As it turned out, we had spent so much time trekking towards the pond that night was catching up with us. The sun was seeking its hiding place, and the moon was creeping out to play.
In the middle of the pond, the moon lay silent and motionless like a tranquillised elephant. We had found the moon-prison.
"So tell us. Why was there a smile on the drowned boy's face?"
My moment is here.
"He saw his father."
"He saw his father!"
"I saw my father, and nearly hugged him"
I enjoy bringing surprises home.
Death is the father of life.