A History Of Celestial Bodies

This short story was first shortlisted for the 2020 Totin Falola Prize and first appeared in the TFP Anthology, In The Sands of Time

My mother was an exceptional storyteller. She claimed it a skill purified through generations of mothers and daughters. But my mother had no daughters of her own, only sons. Some that survived her and others that did not. She had a resolute unsmiling face, her hair always styled in loose cornrows, her face beautiful, even the tiny spots of it that were scarred by fire. The cadence of her voice, its flourishes and ellipses like the sound of water cascading down smooth rocks. Perhaps it was her voice, more than anything else, that brought her stories to life.  That made something beautiful of all those tales of rivers and forests and the celestial bodies that lived in them. Of the gods of the Ijo people and the mysteries of the Egbesu order. Of death and darkness and light and ominous pipes traveling in ships.

The most special to my heart was that of Woyingi, for it was a story of the beginning. She told it on a hot dry night on which the heat kept us all outside on mats. She cradled Seriake in her arms as she told it.

“I will tell you a story,” she said, for that was how she started all her stories. “It is not an easy one. It is long and important, and you must promise to follow to the very end. Do you promise?”

We nodded, Abe and I. I would keep mine, fighting sleep till I’d heard every last of it. Abe would fall asleep.

“I know I’ve never told you boys this story before,” she continued.

In the beginning, back when the earth was young and filled with sunlight and vegetation and animals, Woyingi, the great mother, stood on the edge of the Universe and cast her gaze on the earth. It was an observing gaze that unbraided the clouds so the earth stood bare before her. Through the void that was, she descended on a bolt of lightning. It is said that when lightning strikes a man dead, it is Woyingi’s rage visiting him the cruelty which he has visited her other children. Anyway, there stood a huge Iroko with large buttress-roots, and next to it was a large table, a large chair, and a stonethe creation stone. Woyingi sat on the chair, placed her legs on the creation stone, and molded human bodies, neither male nor female. But they had no life so she embraced them, one by one, filling their bodies with the breath of life. They, being the souls of humanity were still neither men nor women so she asked them, one by one, to choose. This, they all did. Next, she asked them what type of life they would like to have. Some asked for children. Others for wealth. Yet others to be able to wield mystical powers. And so on. All these Woyingi bestowed on them according to their wishes. Then she asked them by what manner of death they wished to return to her and from the illnesses that afflict the earth they chose each, a disease. After they had made their choices, she set them on the streams that would bring them to the land of the living. Some she set on streams that were calm and clear. Others she set on turbulent waters.

On a cold rainy day in 1991, I told you this story, just as I remembered it. You were restless. Sweaty palm, taut skin restless. Outside it was raining, and we lay on the spring bed as I told the story. How old were we? Teenagers still. Angry, hopeless, in need of stories like this. Stories that at least were ours and could never be taken away. We were collectors in search of things to hold. They did not have to be tangible. Tangible things were so easily taken away. Stories were the best. You interrupted me so many times with your questions and unsolicited remarks, as though it was a story I could change.

“Do you know that in so many other places, it is a man who creates the world, like God the father?” You said.

“Yes. I know of such places.”

“Isn’t that so interesting, how everyone has their own version of how things started before Christianity came?”

“Will you let me finish the story?”

The rain made tatatata sounds as it fell on the Aluminum roof. You laughed. “Okay sorry.” You whispered, “Go ahead.”

When the great mother was done with creation, among them were two women. One of them asked for children and the other – Ogboinba – asked for mystic powers unrivaled by any in the world. They were born in the same town and grew up to be close friends. Ogboinba was gifted beyond imagination, having the ability to heal, prophesy, to communicate with animals and even plants. After they took husbands, Ogboinba’s friend began to have children. Ogboinba loved her friend’s children as though they were hers. She played with and protected them with her powers, but she was not satisfied. Her powers had grown, and her reputation spread to every corner of the world. Still, she yearned for children of her own. Eventually, her sadness so overwhelmed her that she decided to journey back to the cradle of creation and ask Woyingi to cure her of her childlessness by recreating her. One by one, she asked her mystic powers if they would accompany her. They were all willing. And so she picked the most powerful ones and set out on her journey. Her friend tried to stop her, for the thought of being separated from Ogboinba for a long time saddened her, but Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. She promised to return, and with that began her journey to Woyingi.

It was a long story, made longer by your constant interruptions. But it calmed you, this story. I felt your legs relax against mine as the rain abated. When I was done telling it, you quieted for a while before saying, “Such an upsetting story. Your mother told you this story as a child?”

“I think it was supposed to teach caution and humility.”

“Or maybe it’s just a story,” you said and pushed yourself up so that you rested on your elbow. It was too dark to make out the features of a face, but I could still make out the outline of yours. Your thick brows, your hair, your nose—all in shadows. So many nights have I gone to bed thinking of that face. You leaned in slowly, shakily, as though it was all you thought of throughout the story, but had still not made up your mind. When you kissed me, I lay there unmoving, a little afraid and a bit intoxicated by the warmth of our lips in congress. When you pulled back, your face remained there inches from mine, our breaths heavy. Outside, the rain was thinning to a drizzle.

“I just always wanted to do that,” you said. “But I was afraid.”

“Of what?” I asked, “Of me?”

“Afraid that you wouldn’t want me like this.”

You kissed me again, this time dragging your kisses from my lips to my ear and my neck. You sat up and began to remove your shirt and I stood from the bed and locked the door. Isn’t it so lucky that we weren’t caught? That we stayed exploring each other’s most intimate folds in the dark, feeling with our hands and our lips and our entire bodies, what our eyes were forbidden to see?

Ogboinba held her powers and medicines in a bag that she wore over her shoulders. She walked till she reached the mangrove forest where Isembi was king. He asked her, “Are you not the Ogboinba I’ve heard so much about?” To this, she replied, “There is only one Ogboinba in the world, and you’re looking at her.” Isembi invited her to his house where she feasted with him. When he asked her where she was going, she told him of her quest. “You cannot behold Woyingi while you are yet alive,” he told her, urging her to turn back. But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. She bid Isembi and his wife goodbye and left. She had only gone a little distance when she decided to turn back and challenge Isembi to a test of powers. Isembi initially refused to fight her for she was a woman, but Ogboinba insisted. Isembi felt insulted. He went into his medicine room to ready himself but met all his powers unwilling to go up against Ogboinba. Ignoring their warnings, he went out to meet her. She asked him to use his most potent powers on her and he did, eager to crush her. His spell scattered Ogboinba’s powers and left her bag empty but she did not die. She recited her own incantations, and as she did, her powers returned. She asked Isembi to cast something stronger, but he had nothing more powerful. Ogboinba began to make incantations, and as she did, all of Isembi’s powers transferred to her bag and he died. As she made to leave, Isembi’s wife broke into tears and begged Ogboinba to raise her husband. Ogboinba took pity on her grief. She went back and raised Isembi from death. Isembi’s wife requested, too, that her husband’s powers be returned, but this Ogboinba refused and continued on her way.

My mother died from many things. Abe used to say she was murdered. Murdered by Shell, and that is one way to put it. My mother’s cough started shortly after Seriake died. She would cough and cough until she retched and spat. Sometimes she wheezed till spurts of blood painted the phlegm blood-red. The doctor gave her a bottle of bitter green liquid.

“This will dissolve your cough, God willing,” he told her. But it did not cure her cough, nor did it bring her strength back. She continued to fade, like the moon did as dawn broke. It naturally fell on me to make the oil for her, and as for wheeling it to market, I already did that myself. Her illness was such a strange thing, a type of cough no one had seen before. It was you who held me as I vented, wafting between a tiredness of everything her illness placed on me and a strange fear that she would never recover, that she would fade and fade till she was gone.

“Your mother is a strong woman, Inango,” you would say. “Nothing will happen to her. No type of cough can take her.”

Generous words, but ones I enjoyed hearing. Each evening, we would walk to the grove of Palm trees near the river and sit there talking about my dying mother and her strange cough, about my reluctance to be anywhere near her, and the way this crippled me with guilt. And of her stories about these trees. Of a time when one did not have to walk for a while to get to the forest. A time when it sprawled all over, and chimpanzees of all kinds roamed the mangrove in large troops.

“So much has been lost, Inango. Their ships wolfed down our trees like a beast that hadn’t ever tasted food. And now, their wells are doing the same thing.”

At the time, there were already two Shell oil wells in Odi. Do you remember how the pipelines would get faulty and leak everywhere? And how sometimes the well-heads would catch fire and burn for days till all we could breathe was soot? She lived a lot of that. When she was young, she saw one explode. She saw the fire engulf people. They used to say she was lucky she survived, but she lived a life of fear. Too attentive to fire, to the scent of the air, to any change in the taste of water. Too worried, always, about the crawling pipelines.

“They are putting those things everywhere. Soon we would have no safe place to live,” she would say each time she returned from the market. “A safe place. Safe for living, Inango. We cannot live in the mouth of oil wells and pipes.”

In her last days, she was haunted by dreams of the explosion. Some nights she would scream in her sleep as she fought the fire. Other nights she slept peacefully so far into the morning that I would be fearful that she had journeyed back to Woyingi. She died in ‘88. Or maybe she was killed. Abe was very serious about the distinction.

“Killed. Murdered. She did not just die. Shell poisoned her. And they’re slowly poisoning all of us.”

The night she died, I dreamt of her death. I saw her body crushed into the metal, coated thick with oil and fire. When I woke up, I turned up my lantern and hurried to her room. The night was silent, even the crickets that normally creaked loudly in the rainy seasons were quiet. Her skin was cold. Have you ever known what it feels like to be disemboweled? I imagine that must have been what it felt like. To see grief creep all the way to your doorstep and still lose all the air in your chest when it arrived. I called to her, shook her, but her limp body only moved to the shakings of my hands. I sat there next to her, unthinking, unable to fully process what I had just discovered. Hours would go by before I gathered myself enough to go get Abe. It was he who raised the alarm. His cry broke the night. I don’t think he ever seriously considered the possibility that our mother would die.

“Malee.” He screamed. “Malee it’s me, it’s Abe, please. Aberemangigha. Me.”

But death is cruel, in that it is such an irreversible thing.

Ogboinba reached the town by the seashore where Egbe was king. When he saw her, he said, “Are you not the Ogboinba I’ve heard so much about?” To this, she replied, “There is only one Ogboinba in the world, and you’re looking at her.” He told her how her fame had preceded her and invited her to his house where they feasted. When he asked her why she was about, she told him, “For long I’ve been married, but I have no child. I’m on my way to meet Woyingi and recreate myself.” Egbe was astonished. “No living person sees Woyingi,” he said. But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. When she asked Egbe if he would try his powers against hers, he was outraged. “You are a woman,” he said. But knowing Egbe never refused challenges, Ogboinba insisted. Egbe armed himself with his most powerful medicines and asked Ogboinba to take the first blow. When she declined, he immediately began to recite long incantations. This disarmed Ogboinba, scattering her powers in all directions. Ogboinba recited her counteracting incantation until her powers returned. She asked Egbe to try her once more, but he had nothing more powerful. So Ogboinba chanted her incantations. Before she was even half-way through it, all of Egbe’s powers entered her bag, and he died. She slung her bag on her shoulder and continued her journey. But she had only made it a few yards when she heard the weeping of Egbe’s wife. Ogboinba took pity on her and raised Egbe to life. Egbe’s wife requested, too, that her husband’s powers be returned. This Ogboinba refused, for she would need it at the cradle of creation.

The last time I saw my father, I must have only been a child because I have no concrete memories of it. I remember only the idea of him; I can not even fully picture his face. He left for the city and never came back. We heard he was trading at Asaba. Then we heard that he was in Port Harcourt. Then it was Lagos. Back when we were little, everyone stressed how much Abe took after our father.

“He is his father’s incarnate. He too has a restless spirit.”

It made me pity him. I thought, surely, that was a narrow life to live, being incarnate of someone else. We would argue about it, him and I, whether being incarnate was better or worse. We were close like that. As close as any two brothers could be. Cain and Abel, if Cain wasn’t the type to spill his brother’s blood. I imagine Abel pitied his brother too, condemned as he was to scratching a dying earth for crops that failed as surely as the sun rose in the sky. When we were taught the story in Sunday school, it made little sense to me that God would curse the earth and then deem an offering from it unacceptable. Nor did it make sense to compare crops with livestock. It seemed so much like a coordinated plan to pit one brother against another. In those days, we chased lizards in our father’s farm and dreamt of all the gifts our father would bring us. We held each other’s secrets and shared each other’s dreams. After school, we swam with the other children, and then we would return home to help our mother prepare her palm oil. I found serenity in sitting on the low stool watching the kernels boil until their skins began to crack, the poor kernels, bloating in the heat until their very own skins couldn’t contain them. I enjoyed the slow methodical process of pounding it and encountered peace watching the Palm oil rise to the top during the final cooking. It made me think cooking palm oil, like my mother and her mothers before her, could be something I had chosen on the day Woyingi fashioned me from mud. But Abe hated the smoke and the smell of kernels. The first thing he told me he wanted to be was an officer. A military officer. Like Major-General Buhari. Or Obasanjo before him. When he said this to our mother she slapped him. “You can not be a soldier. Not a child I bore in my womb for 9 months. God forbid.”

“Why?” He asked. I wanted to know too. We had agreed, in the way children rushed to agree, that we would join the military together.

“Soldiers are puppets,” our mother said. “It is the only thing they can be in a country like Nigeria.”

We were boys who came to age in an era of military regimes. To us, the idea that soldiers were puppets was incredulous.

“But is Buhari a puppet?” I asked, for Buhari was then the Military President. This was back in ’84.

“All of them,” my mother said. “There is something very rotten at the core of this country. Its very existence has always been for taking. Taking and taking and taking. From Ijo. From Ogoni. From Itsekiri. From Ilaje. From Urhobo. From Isoko and Edo and Ibibio and Ekpeye and Ikwerre. From all the peoples of this country. Whatever it is you have, they will take. Look at these pipes here, you think we wanted them? You think the men of Odi would have just let Shell tear up the soil and destroy it? Of course not. That is the job of military men and the police. It is their machine guns and batons that Shell uses to crush us. It is not something any child should hope to be.”

After that, Ogboinba arrived at the shores of the great sea, with its turbulent waves thundering as it broke on the shore. “I am the mighty sea that no one crosses,” it roared. But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. “I am Ogboinba and I must cross.” As she stepped her foot in the water, the waves took hold of her and began to submerge her. The water rose to her ankles, then her knees, then waist. Ogboinba couldn’t move. She raised her bag above her head, but the water leaped after it, continuing till it reached her chin. In panic, she muttered her incantations, and as she did, the water receded till it was beneath her feet, and it continued till the entire seabed lay exposed, leaving the gods and spirits of the sea visible. Ogboinba picked her way through, and when she made it to the other side, commanded the sea back to its place.

Where is a good place to start, the story of how we found each other? Perhaps in the onyx of loneliness, feeling our way to each other like blind hands reaching through walls to a place of safety. The day we first met, you were with Abe. Do you remember? You could not look me in the eye. Such a shy thing. So, slowly, we went through the steps to the journey of voicing something which should never be said. When you said you were afraid after you kissed me, it broke me a little because for so long I had nursed my own fear.

Earlier you had asked me, “But why didn’t the sea want Ogboinba to pass?”

I too had asked that question. And so I told you exactly what my mother had told me. That because people craved the safety of stability, of things being and remaining a certain way, fear became such an easy choice. “Even the sea is afraid of things it does not know.”

“But it tried to kill her.” You said.

“Well, I don’t know again.”

But it seemed to me that violence always simmered in the cervixes of people’s stubborn ways. It was after all why we always went to the groove. Because we had not overcome the violence with which we regarded ourselves. Our bodies, enemies to itself; our minds, waging a war against themselves. The groove was a cover. A place where we could stop judging ourselves for finding comfort in each other as we watched the sun descending slowly behind the trees, listening to the water roll off the rocks weathered through the ages. We had no idea what it was we were feeling or what it was supposed to mean, only that a boy found comfort in the intricacies of another boy. Sitting there, it felt like waiting. Waiting for something to happen although, for what, I was not sure. And when you kissed me, I knew. I did not tell you I thought of my mother’s ghost as we lay there, our sweat forming a haze around us. I did not tell you I cried that night because there was the keenness of pain to the type of love we had, a type that made us judge ourselves with the same eyes we knew the world would judge us. And when you told me that you were afraid, it made me think again of the sea. Why didn’t it let Ogboinba pass? What about her feet reviled it so much that it would rather crush her body? Because for so long I was thinking that this thing I felt for you was something I should keep buried forever. I too was afraid, because what if I told you what I felt and you regarded me with shame?

The next kingdom she came to was that of the tortoise. He lived with his parents, and his wife Opoin. He invited her to his house, for he too had heard of her. She ate and drank to her fill. Then Tortoise said to her, “What brings you to this side of the sea? There are no humans on this side.” Ogboinba sighed and explained her quest to him. “You must turn back here,” he said to her. “Immediately. Beyond me live the great gods. Ada and Yasi the great and powerful who possesses creating stones.” But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. She continued on her journey, but after going a little way decided to challenge the tortoise. He thought she was joking, but when he realized she was serious asked her, “Have you not heard about me?” He armed himself with his strongest charms. As always, Ogboinba dared him to attack her first. The tortoise refused, pointing out that Ogboinba was a woman. However, Ogboinba insisted. He used his strongest medicines on her and she counteracted them with her own. And when she hit him with her powers, all his medicines and powers entered her medicine bag and he died. But as she made to leave, she heard Opoin’s weeping voice begging for her husband’s life. Ogboinba took pity on her and raised Tortoise, and then she continued on her journey.

The day you told me you were leaving, you did not tell me you would join the Force. For years, we had found a sort of easy happiness in each other’s arms. I let myself love you. I did not think. And then suddenly, on that Tuesday when you asked me to come to Lagos with you, where no one knew us, a place that could offer us more comfort, more space for breathing, it occurred to me, all at once, how you could never belong to me, how we could only love and hold one another in the shadow of concrete walls.

“But what would we do in Lagos?” I asked. “And how long before the eyes of the world finds us again?”

“It’s such a big city. No one would even know us. You know, people stay for years without knowing anything about their neighbours.”

“But what will we be doing there?” I asked. I did not even know anyone in Lagos. And so used were my hands to making Palm oil. So accustomed were they to the theatre of boiling, of cooking and sieving.

“Inango,” you sighed. “There’s nothing here for us. Don’t you want to leave this place?”

And it occurred to me only then that you were, in fact, informing me of your departure, and that I could either come with you or lose you. I had never imagined myself anywhere else but here. My mother used to say to me, “When we leave everything, when the land is all destroyed and there’s nothing to do but leave, are we still a people? Have you tried to uproot a plant with deep deep roots? The roots refuse to come out. The stem only breaks away.”

But even more so. All my life I’d known the comfort of Odi. I did not know if I could just leave for somewhere else. In the days after you left, I did not know how to live without you, how to stuff the emptiness that immediately took hold in the aftermath of your departure. I thought of following you, all the way to Lagos, but for what? What then? After you voiced that weariness, that sinking premonition that followed us everywhere, I realized how quixotic what we had was. What would ever amount to it? I kept wondering to myself. It was so heartbreaking, to know that no matter how much I loved you, it was just something that could never be. You know, all through Ogboinba’s story, I held my breath wishing she would achieve recreation, reshape her body to seize her happiness. Sometimes I imagine a world where I possessed immense power to aid me in overcoming insurmountable obstacles till I stood before Woyingi to request recreation. And then, finally, back in the orbit of reality, I would ponder with dread at how empty our future seemed. Try as I may, I could not imagine something for us. We were hamstrung. We could not even dream. And then I got the news, that you traveled instead to Port Harcourt and joined the Police Force. Perhaps I did not know you. All our lives, we’ve cowered under their violence; we’ve watched our lives shrink and shrink. Ours was a history of celestial bodies dying, of rivers and forests and traditions crumbling under the weight of wells, under the shadow of pipes propped up by batons and boots. I have hated you since, with as much vigor as I loved you. Every night I dreamt of your boots on strange lands, in the face of bewildered people. And every day, I prayed for your return.

After walking for days without rest, Ogboinba reached the kingdom of Ada. He too had heard of her fame and wanted to host her. He served her so many palatable dishes fit for a king. After the feast, he asked her why she came to his kingdom, for no human had ever set foot there. When she told him, he was alarmed. “Even I have never seen Woyingi.” But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. She asked Ada if he would test his powers against hers. He was surprised, for she was a human. He went into his hut, but all the contents in his medicine pots had turned to blood. He refused to heed the warning. He came out and asked her to attack. She declined, asking him to go first. Ada, consumed by rage, used his strongest powers on her. She fell to the ground. Ada thought she had died but she was only unconscious. She regained consciousness and began her own incantations. As she recited them, all Ada’s powers left him and entered her bag and Ada died. Ogboinba had defeated a god. She continued, walking till she reached the Kingdom of Yasi the great and powerful. And just like with everywhere else she had been, Yasi having heard so much about her invited her to a feast. He entertained her with rare dishes and wine, and she ate to her fill. But when she told him where she was going, he too told her to turn back. “No living human ever sees Woyingi,” he said. But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. She slung her bag on her shoulder and continued on her journey. She had only gone a little way when she decided to go back and ask Yasi to test his powers with hers. “Go your way, human,” Yasi said but Ogboinba insisted. Yasi was furious. When he went into his medicine hut, the contents of his medicine pots had all turned to blood but he was not discouraged, because she was only a human. Taking hold of his two creating stones, he directed his powers at her. It severed her head and sent it skywards while her body stood rooted. But then it came back and merged with her body. “Is that the strongest you can do?” she asked and with that she began to recite her incantations, dancing round in a circle. It severed Yasi’s head and sent it skywards while his body remained standing. Ogboinba pushed it to the ground, and when Yasi’s head came back down, it fell to the ground and smashed to pieces. Ogboinba has defeated another god. She took his creation stones with her.

Did you feel grief too? Did it feel heavy on your soldiers like it did on mine? Did you feel so alone? My brother and his friends would sit outside at the bar near the old Creek juncture and drink into the evening, talking about what life in the city must be like, and about how perhaps they too would leave. Sometimes, when I sold all my oil early and had some strength left, I would sit with them and they would jest.

“He must be with Abacha now, or is that only for the military? So tell us, is he now Dauda Komo’s right-hand man?” someone would say and they’d laugh. “He’s your padi padi, so you should know.” I would laugh along with them and we would drink until the shadows began to hide faces. Each time I heard Dauda Komo’s voice on the radio, I thought of you. The loss—it was a tangible thing that burdened my heart. And even without admitting it, I held onto the hope that you would return, have a change of heart, stay here, with me. When the Ogoni nine were executed, I thought surely that would bring you to your senses. I waited for you, but you did not return. It would be 1996 before I saw you again. Just after Abacha carved out Brass and Yenegoa and Sagbama and made a state. Bayelsa, they called it, after the three local governments. You sauntered back, smiling, and changed. I hardly recognized you. Your hair was gone and so was your beard. And even this felt like a betrayal, cutting your hair without me knowing. We sat outside and I listened to you talk of Port Harcourt with enchantment as the sun retreated behind the hills. When you took my hand in yours, it felt different, not the comforting hands of the man I had known since he was a boy. These hands I did not know. I let you come inside because for so long I had mourned what it felt like to have our bodies entangled in bliss, naked, the warmth of two skins finding comfort in each other. And in those moments, I wondered if you did this out of spite. If you did it to hurt me because I chose Odi over you. Later I would ask you this, my voice laden with accusation.

“There is nothing else here for me,” you said. “There is so much out there, so much beyond this dying town where you cannot even predict the next spill or the next fire.”

I did not know what to say in reply. I had always imagined that if you returned, you would come repentant.

“Won’t you say something?” You said.

“What do you want me to say?”

“That you wish me well? That you thought about me? That you missed me as much as I missed you?”

I began to laugh. There were the beginnings of tears in my eyes when I said, “Well I don’t wish you well. Luke, I don’t wish you well. I wish you would come to your senses and come home.”

You stood up and began to put on your clothes.

“Look around you. Whose side are you on?” I asked.

“I’m not on anyone’s side. It’s a good thing to be part of something, to not be useless.”

“And this is being useful? Being Abacha’s puppet, being a damn hitman?”

“I don’t do that. I would never do that.”

Again I laughed. “You would never do what?”

“I would never kill people.”

“Oh, so what do you do? Tell me. Arrest people for writing in Dailies? Write reports for those who do? You think that’s better? You want to feel good about yourself?”

“I just wanted to see you. For God’s sake, Inango,” you said.

“Maybe you should go,” I said. “Just leave. Get out.”

And you did, closing the door gently behind you and walking slowly into the darkness.

She continued on her journey till she got to the kingdom of the cock. He too had heard of her and wanted the honor of hosting her. He gave her food and wine and entertained her in his house. After she was fed and rested, he asked her the purpose of her quest. She told him. “You must end your quest,” he said. “Mine is the last kingdom of things that die.” But Ogboinba would not be dissuaded. When she asked him to try his powers against hers, he began to brag. He flew to the roof of his hut and crowed to summon his powers. She declined when he asked her to begin, so he went first, hitting her with all the might he had. She immediately lost all her powers. He started bragging thinking he had won. But Ogboinba recited her incantations till her powers returned to her. She asked him if he had anything stronger to throw at her and he said no. So she began to recite her own incantations, and as she did, Cock’s entire kingdom caught aflame and burned down to ashes. She took his powers too, and wielding all the power she had accumulated, she journeyed into the cradle of creation. She hid behind the buttress-roots of the great Iroko and lay in wait for Woyingi.

Abe had a restless spirit. He drifted with the currents, whatever those were. Sometimes he spent his days clearing the bushes for farmers in expectation of the planting season. Other times he was a hand on the Oil sites. Sometimes the work was offshore, and he spent weeks out on the seas. They paid good money and by the day, but work wasn’t always work. There were times he would disappear for weeks and when he returned, for he always did, I would not ask him where he went. All around, there was a revolt brewing. There were always stories of young men breaking down the pipes, taking Shell workers, and demanding money for their safety. And he would come back after that with money in his pockets. In ’98, he asked me to come with him to the Kaiama conference. It wasn’t that I didn’t support what he was doing. I only worried that there was so much raw anger in his heart, the kind of thing that could swallow any man. It became even worse after the transition. He travelled to Yenegoa during the campaign period to find work, and after the elections, he came back even more defeated, and more angry. I thought it very foolish that he had expected some change. The constitution and the celebrations, they were all meaningless. They did not free us. Did not give us our land or water or the renewal of spirit that could rejuvenate. We were all forgetting what was before the pipes came, so that we were nostalgic, but didn’t know what it was we were nostalgic for. And life was horrible to doubly suffer the tragedy of forgetting what it felt like to feel free, to not feel this loss of self and the helplessness that came with it. So many young men returned to Odi after the elections determined to bring their trouble here, to agitate, to refuse to fade off into the background. The Amananaowei, Thunder Efeke II, wrote to Governor Alamieyeseigha in Yenegoa begging for his help. Everyone was wondering about these boys from outside communities who were causing trouble and refusing to leave. They’re not our boys, the elders would say, but no one knew what to do about it. The Ijaw Youth Council sent a delegation down to try to defuse the situation. It was a very tumultuous time, the months after the transition. In the first week of November that year, only days after Thunder Efeke II had written to Yenegoa and gotten silence as an answer, five policemen disappeared in Odi. Such a thing was unheard of. Only days later, seven more policemen disappeared. It shook the entire town. We knew how quickly Nigeria was to bring down violence. For days I dreamt that when more officers came with guns, you would be among them. There was so much chaos in those short weeks. We discussed what we heard on the radio, the letter from Obasanjo to Alamieyeseigha where he misspelt his name and gave him 14 days to arrest the culprits. And people began to leave, temporarily, only until everything blew over. Governor Alamieyeseigha after all said that nothing would happen. They did not take all their things. Abe decided then that it was time for him to leave, for good.

“I will take the little I have saved, and I will go to Port Harcourt and find my way. I am tired, Inango. I am tired.”

Eventually, the sky darkened and a table, a chair, and a large creating stone descended. Woyingi came down from above, sat on the chair, rested her legs on the stone, and began her usual process of creation. When she was done, she ordered the table, the chair, and the stone up. It was then that Ogboinba ran out of her hiding place and did the unthinkable. She challenged Woyingi herself to a contest of powers. “How dare you?” Woyingi asked. “I knew you were there in hiding. I saw you leave your village and journey here, overcoming both gods and men with the powers I gave you, powers which were your heart’s desire. Now you have had a change of heart and you have come to challenge me, the source of your power?” With the snap of her finger, Woyingi commanded the powers of Isembi, Egbe, the sea, the Tortoise, the godsAda and Yasi—, and Cock, to return to them, and they immediately did. Ogboinba, consumed by fear, fled Woyingi’s presence and did not stop running until she found a hiding place in the eyes of a pregnant woman she met on the way. Woyingi had a rule, that humankind was never to harm pregnant women, and she would not break it just to punish Ogboinba. And so it was, that Ogboinba is trapped till today, in the eyes of pregnant women and all their children, men and women, looking out in fear.

On the day the soldiers came, no one was expecting them. Obasanjo’s 14 days ultimatum had not even elapsed. One minute I was in the hearth making Palm oil and the next I was running as fast as my legs could carry me into the bushes. There were the beginnings of pain in my stomach and weariness in my legs. Streams of gunshots rent the air in the distance. It sounded like a thousand machine guns mixing with the screams of terrified people and the crackling of fire eating dry things. My mind had been seized with such panic since someone ran past the compound screaming, “Tanks. Tanks. They’re coming with armoured tanks. Soldier men.” I had not even had time to think. I was lucky, if people who survive such things can ever count themselves lucky. They blocked the paths out of Odi. They shot as many young men as they could find; they burnt everything to the ground, everything. Sometimes people along with it. So that when the scattered people of Odi returned, they first had to check to see if the bodies of their missing relatives were under the debris.

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU

ANI KAYODE SOMTOCHUKWU