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Ours was a peaceful village. Unlike the neighboring villages, we hardly went to war. It was always one festival or the other. Life was easy, everyone was everyone’s eye and no one would betray another. We were devoid of evil, in thoughts and in deeds.
Earlier on that fateful Eke day, while I strolled behind my mother and Nda Angelina with a basket of tamarind on my head heading to the Atta market, my eyes caught sight of a beautiful snail on a fresh cocoyam leaf. This was the day everything changed in my family.
We ate snails at home. It was in fact one of our favorite native foods. Yet why had seeing one caused me such unease? I shut my eyes so I could try to sleep. Next thing I know is a snail slithers into my hut and unto my bamboo bed! Before I could wake up from this strangeness, a young girl my age was sitting on my bed, in the very place the snail had been! I made to scream but my tongue suddenly felt as heavy as a ton of lead. Without warning, it began to rain heavily and lightning flashed across the window of my tiny hut, casting a glow on the face of my uninvited guest. With her bright, piercing eyes and skin that was much lighter than mine, she looked ethereal. I was certain I was in the grip of a dream. However, when I heard my brother, Onyema’s voice outside, I knew I was no longer asleep. This was real. I had a guest. By now I was shaking. I could feel my bed creak under me and for the first time, she spoke. “You will be my friend and will never speak a word of me to anyone. Call me Nnedi” She said. I nodded in fear as she moved closer to where I laid and touched my face. Her hands were warm and tender. Strangely, I was tempted to hold them there on my face but instead I shuddered and moved away. Suddenly she was gone.
The cry of Orie’s mother brought me back to consciousness. I raced out of my hut to see what was wrong. I stood glued in front of the thatch hut Orie shared with her mother as I watched my brother, Onyema carry out the lifeless body of my half sister, my only sister. Someone tapped me. I knew that touch. I knew that warm hand. And there she was, wearing Orie’s clothes. “You won’t be lonely, Nwaka” she promised “I’ll be near always”
It has been two market days since Orie died and her mother has not stopped crying. An unusual silence, like the shame of a caught adulterer, covers my father’s compound. It has been like this since the last group of women came to clear the outer-yard after the funeral. I tried in my little ways to console Nne Orie. I cooked and cleaned just like Orie used to do for her. “Nne o ga adicha mma” (it would be alright) I would say to her each time our eyes meet, my little yet futile way of consoling her.
My time away from her are filled with questions though. Who was Nnedi and why had she killed my sister? Who would be next? I needed answers as I thought aloud sitting by myself under the ‘ube’ (pear) tree. As if she heard my silent questions, she appeared at my side and took her place next to me. She looked harmless and had around her the air of an angel, her voice ever soothing each time she spoke. “Nwaka, did you not feel neglected when your father refused Dimgba your hand in marriage but instead proposed to give him Orie?” She questioned “Will you not be with Dimgpa now that Orie is gone? Had your father not praised her when it was you who prepared the onugbu soup?“ Not waiting for an answer, She continued “Seeing how much hurt you endured, I fought your fight, Nwaka, to give you a place in your father’s heart” With these words she vanished. Shocked by what I had just heard, I could not deny the truth of her observations. It was true my father loved Orie more than he loved me. I had tried everything to make him happy and fill Orie’s place even now after her death but he didn’t seem to notice. I was hurting, and it was deep. This was too much for me. I desperately wanted to tell someone. Was I wrong to have admired a snail I passed on the foot-path? Was it wrong to look upon the beauty of the works of the gods? Who would believe that I shared my bed with an evil snail night after night? Nnedi said I was to tell no one. Would she kill me if I did? I only had to tell to know.
Again, the entire village is gathered in our compound. An evil thing has happened. Again. I sit beside my father’s corpse, his blood still fresh on my hands. How long will I alone bear the truth to the deaths in my father’s house? Why was she fighting for me? I had suffered rejection, yes but I endured. I glanced at mother as she lay lifeless beside my father. She too had neglected me many times but I never complained.
Now I must tell. I must tell of Nnedi, the snail before anyone finds out the truth.
I fight back tears as I come to the end of narrating the last few months to Nda Angelina, my mother’s best friend. I only hope she believes. I hope she does. No one must know that it was I who killed my half sister Orie and now my parents. No one must know that the little tale of Nnedi the snail was my lie to cover what I had done.
Truly rejection only has one end which is death. So I believe.
I had lied to myself many years that it was nothing I could not handle but occasionally I would create my space away from the rest of the family and question the gods, spit at their choice of a destiny for me. I loved my family dearly and would do anything for them including sending them to an early grave at least to shorten the pains of what my burning hatred would bring them. Each day I sit at the large compound that now belonged to my step mother Nne Orie and I, I would fix my eyes on the heaps of sand that resembled well laid out ridges and smile amidst tears. Those were the graves of my parents and only sister Orie. I shut my eyes as I stood above Orie’s grave; I remember vividly how I got to where I am today.
Ndukwe was the most handsome man in the entire village; every mother wanted him for a son in-law. He was as kind as his face was, ever willing to lend alms to those needing it. Why he was not married baffled everyone. I would see Ndukwe most mornings on my way to the stream. In his usual manner he smiled and asked of my family’s well being. My admiration for him grew deeper with each passing day. And even on mornings when there was abundance of water at home, I would pick up my clay pot and head out of the compound, only this time I was out to fetch my heartbeat Ndukwe.
One day, as I got ready to head out to stream, I heard voices under the Ube tree right in my father’s compound. They were familiar voices. I peeped from the hut and saw my Ndukwe chatting away happily with Orie my sister. Before I could tie a string of jigida to my waist, they had become an item in the village. They blossomed for eight market days until Orie in her usual manner decided it was time to taste yet another ripe fruit. Following the end of their selfish and loveless relationship, Ndukwe disappeared from the village. It was rumored he could not bear the shame of having being dumped by a mere maiden where many others had coveted him.
In no time I found my true love, my very own. He was not as handsome as Ndukwe was, but his bright eyes and beautiful lips made up for everything else he did not possess. Dimgba was my dream come true. He was the reason I woke up every morning with a smile on my face, and he brought brightness into my heart. Even my mother noticed as I sang and went about my chores happily. “Nwaka you have been glowing and glowing these days.Is it something you want to tell your mother?” she said smiling with her hands on her waist. I looked up from the dirty dishes I was doing and smiled “you shall soon find out,Mama”.
Dimgba and I grew deeper and deeper together until the day he came to do the formal introductions. I had informed my parents as was our custom, and he was to bring his people for the first formal visit to my father to ask for my hand in marriage. It was a morning I will not forget in a hurry. Our compound was alive and bubbling with activities as the women prepared delicacies and the men helped out with chopping firewood. My sister, Orie would tease me at every opportunity she got and pinch my cheeks “Bride to be! Take care not to soil your beautiful skin for our in-laws” she would say. Finally they arrived, my Dimgba and his people looked very regal and elegant in their traditional attires. I hid behind the Ube tree to steal glances at him until my mother whisked me into the hut from the back door “Do you not know it is an abomination for the groom-to-be to see the bride before the wedding starts” she chided. “I know mama but today is not our wedding day; it is just formal introductions’’ I retorted. She cast a side glance at me and beckoned on me to sit on the bamboo bed as she began to style my hair.
Outside the hut my brother, Onyema was entertaining the guests, pouring freshly tapped palmwine into their elephant tusks which served as drinking cups. I could hear my father’s loud voice as he talked excitedly about his experiences in battles. Stories he loved to tell over and over again with so much pride. It was finally time to discuss the purpose for which they came. Dimgba’s oldest uncle spoke first and then his father. By this time they had had their fill of the special dishes my stepmother, Nne Orie served them. When they were done talking, I got up from the bamboo bed where I was seated, in readiness to come out and greet my husband’s people. What was to follow literarily drained the very life out of me. My father called my sister Orie and asked her to stand aside as he cleared his throat and began to speak. “I welcome you again to my home.It is a great honour to know that I have something that has caught the attention of great and noble men like you. I am indeed humbled. However, it has always been my wish that my children marry in the order that they were born. It is a tradition I have set in my heart for my family which I must now bring to be.” He paused and dragged Orie forward “Orie here and Nwaka are of the same age grade but Orie is older by two market days” he clears his throat and looks directly at Dimgba, “it is my wish that Orie marries before Nwaka, however, seeing that she has not brought any suitor to me, I am willing to give her to you in Nwaka’s place” My jaws dropped and my mouth hung loose on my face. What did my father just say? Was I dreaming? No, Orie will not hurt me to this point, even if she did and accepted to marry Dimgba, I know my Dimgba, and he will not play a part in this sheer wickedness of a tradition; my father’s self-made tradition. My curiosity grew and I moved closer to the small window and continued to peep and eavesdrop. Anger raged inside me as I saw Orie’s face beam with a smile and she went on her knees before Dimgba and greeted “Welcome, my husband” he smiled back at her, patted her back and responded “My wife” followed by choruses from his people “Our wife”
I tried to move away from the window but my legs failed me. I was frozen at the spot. It was the voice of Nne Orie that brought me back to myself. She called out my name from the back entrance of the hut and ran inside quickly, grabbed me into her bosom and began to cry. “Nwaka nne, I am not in support of this and will never be. While I will not ask you to rebel against your father, I ask that you please forgive your sister and Dimgba, please my daughter” she continued to cry and I did not utter a word to her. Many times I had wished she was the one who gave birth to me and not my mother. On the many nights when my father would call us all in his large hut, I secretly wished it was to tell me Nne Orie was my mother and not the weak woman I called mother. Our silence was broken with my mother’s entrance followed by Orie. I stared hard at Orie and made to leave the hut when my mother pulled me back, “Nwaka, your father’s tradition must be upheld. Let Orie marry Dimgba as she is your older sister” I shook my head as my salty tears filled my mouth, “What about my heart? What about the way I feel mother? The feelings Dimgba and I share are not of this world, mother, but who cares? Who cares that I’m hurt” “ I do my daughter”, Nne Orie said and pulled me to her again, crying and patting my head against her full bosom, she repeated “ I care”. Orie looked away. My mother walked towards the window, peeped as the guests prepared to take their leave, wiped her sweaty face with the edge of her wrapper and turned towards Nne Orie and I “ Nwaka my daughter, love is not a necessary ingredient for marriage, your husband will come, this one (pointing towards the window) is your sister Orie’s husband.” She left the room and Orie followed her.
It was the longest night ever, sleep was far from me and I resented it as much. Before the first crowing of the cock, I staggered out of my room, stood for a few seconds in the centre of my father’s compound before making my way out. The road to Dimgba’s house seemed farther with each step I took. Thoughts had their play day in my head as I tried to concentrate. I was done crying; now all I wanted was to know who Dimgba really was. What kind of man will do what he did? Did he have other plans? Had he just agreed to my father’s ‘tradition’ to save his family the shame of going back without accomplishing their mission? Or did he mean it when he called my sister his wife? I could not wait to get my answers. I nearly tripped as my left leg hit a big stone at the entrance to Dimgba’s compound. I knocked on his door gently and gave him a warm smile when he opened the door. “Nwaka! Why are you here so early? Come in, you are shivering” I am shivering? I did not even notice. “And what is that blood on your feet?” he said pointing towards my left feet. “The stone at the entrance of your compound” I answered unconcerned. “Nwaka this is not your first time here, you know that stone has always been there” It was becoming obvious he lacked what to say or how to begin, “Dim I did not leave my house this early morning to come here and talk about stones” his head dropped “I shall get you some local ointment to put on your feet” he muttered getting up from his chair. Furiously I stood in his way and yelled “What happened yesterday, Dimgba? Who was that weakling who could not stand up for what belonged to him? Who was that Dimgba? The man who called my half sister his wife, who was he?“ At this point he sat down and pulled me to sit. The deafening silence between us tore at me as the seconds passed. “Nwaka” he finally spoke, “It is you my heart really longs for, it is you I want to call my wife but there is nothing I can do now until I have fully performed the marriage rites of your sister” I shook my head, smiled and picked up my scarf and made to exit the hut when his voice thundered behind me “Orie is your father’s first daughter, which gives me an entitlement to some of his yam barns and farmlands. I shall come back and marry you when I have been given the full benefits of being your father’s first son in-law. I am sure your sister will not mind.You two can be co-wives.” Now this is the height of the madness that had begun yesterday in my father’s compound! I will not be rejected again; I must put a stop to this, forever. I dry the tears flowing from my eyes as I cast one last glance at Dimgba and stormed out of his hut, out of his compound. I could hear him shouting behind me “Nwaka, it is you I want. Please understand”
The sound of a baby thunder awaken me from my long drive down memory lane as I cast one long look at the sky which had now begun to shed its multiple tears on me. The taste of a raindrop in my mouth confirm that indeed nature is in tune with me, for the skies are weeping for me already, mourning my demise. This is how much I love my dear family. Enough to join them where I had sent them with the hope that my father will now relish my well made onugbu soup and give me my well deserved praises, with the hope that he will let me marry my dream man and not give him Orie. I take one last look at the graves and head towards the hut, to join them.