Tailor Timothy’s heartbeat accelerated and his heart pounded as he spied the rooftops of Ukana some distance away. He stumbled as his foot hit a stump on the bush path. The pain raced like bushfire up his leg and embedded itself in a part of his brain he hadn’t even known existed. He dropped on all fours on the hard, dusty ground. Some soldier ants that were bustling back and forth a few inches from his face stopped for a moment, then scattered in all directions, as if terrified by the huge dark face looming above them with its bared teeth.
Timothy threw his head back and grimaced as the pain continued to slither around in his brain. More than anything else, it seemed to signify the hopelessness of the task ahead of him.
Timothy tottered back upright on his feet. The nail of the big toe hung loose like a partly opened can of sardine. Blood oozed from underneath it and puddled on the ground.
‘Great! Now I am arriving with the smell of blood already in the air,’ he muttered. He looked ahead and saw smoke billowing from the roofs of some of the houses. The grey, foamy matter spiraled upward and disappeared into the increasingly dark sky.
Stubbing my toe probably won’t be the worst thing that will happen to me tonight, he thought, before hobbling forward.
His village, Ikot Esin, had received an Ayei from the Paramount Ruler of Ukana. The Paramount Ruler’s heir was missing and the village of Ukana believed that someone in Timothy’s village knew something about it. This is because a piece of the boy’s clothing had been found in Ikot Esin. When he found out why the Ayei had been sent, Timothy had reacted with something approaching panic. Ayei was a declaration of war.
He remembered how badly his hands had shook as he tried to concentrate on his work. The kaftan he was sewing had slipped from his hands and landed in a heap on the floor. His wife of twenty-four years reached down, picked it up and shook frap, frap, frap to get rid of the dust on the cuffs.
‘I know we should all be concerned but you are taking this news particularly hard, husband.’
If she only knew, Timothy thought.
Besides his personal stake in the matter, their village could not afford any enmity with their neighbor. They were a peace-loving people, and besides, they numbered only three thousand people compared to the ten thousand in Ukana. Timothy remembered a far-off dispute with Ukana that had led to the death of his father, his eldest brother, and many able-bodied men in their village when he was just a toddler; the horrors of that conflict were still whispered about in some circles. It wasn’t for nothing that the village of Ikot Esin had worked hard to co-exist in peace with the Ukanas, despite the latter’s tendency toward trouble making.
Peace was on the brink of disappearing now.
‘A piece of the boy’s clothing found near our village does not automatically mean our village is responsible for his disappearance. Surely, they can’t be that unreasonable,’ his wife had leaned forward and touched his hand.
‘You’re forgetting something. The boy is Paramount Ruler Ibiere’s son. They will dig up every available earth in this village, look under the smallest rock, and peel apart every leaf.’
‘And so what? Let them dig out the revered remains of our forefathers if they want. What can they find if there’s nothing to find?’
Timothy looked at his wife. It was okay for her to argue thus…she did not know what Timothy knew.
Despite her attempt at reassurance, Timothy’s mind pictured the image his own words had painted.
That was what scared him the most, the thoroughness of the search about to come. Whatever was in their village would have remained a secret but Ukana would leave no stone unturned.
Had his daughter been right? Had she been telling the truth, after all?
‘Papa, I just saw a strange man kill and bury a young boy of about fifteen in the dense undergrowth by the river,’ she had declared three weeks before.
‘Really, Nene-Eyen ! A murder no less?’ Timothy had replied in the indulgent tone he had come to adopt when he heard his only child’s myriad stories.
‘I saw it, Papa! With my own two korokoro eyes, I did!’
‘You did? And the murderer of this poor young man allowed such a juicy witness to his heinous crime escape? Mmmm, not much of a murderer now, was he? What could he have been thinking of?’ Timothy tapped on his nose with one finger.
‘He didn’t see me, Papa. I hid. He didn’t see me.’
‘Mmmmm,’ Timothy muttered. ‘By the way, what of the friends who went with you to the river, did they also witness this horrific crime?’
‘I was on my own. Martha and Susanna didn’t want to come.’
‘You went to the river by yourself? How many times have your mother and I told you not to do that? You see what disobedience does? Had my beloved daughter listened to us she would not have been confronted with such a horrific scene.’ Despite his mock attempt at seriousness, Timothy’s voice cracked, and he couldn’t hold back his laughter.
‘You don’t believe me? I did, too! I saw! I saw!’ his daughter stamped her feet, causing the water she was carrying to slush over the sides of the pail and splatter on the ground.
‘Go, put the water down and have something to eat, Nene . Your mother made your dinner before leaving for the market. It’s in the blue enamel bowl in the kitchen.’
His daughter opened her mouth to argue then thought better of it. Instead, the thirteen-year-old marched toward the courtyard, a large scowl of disapproval on her cherubic face.
Timothy had stared at the disappearing back, shook his head in amusement before continuing with what he was doing. He’d thought that was the end of it. But the next day she was at it again. But he hadn’t believed her. And for good reason.
His daughter was a liar and a gossip; the most incurable anyone in the village had ever known. Her loose mouth had caused him and his wife no end of trouble. It had, in fact, got to a point where most felt rather sorry for them.
Her weakness for story-telling did not make them love her any less. But as she grew, they had become increasingly ashamed of her propensity for trouble-making. Timothy often secretly wished he could lock her away. Love her, yes, he and his wife always would, but for her own good, Timothy knew he would willingly incarcerate his daughter…even for a short time. Such admission, even though never spoken out, made his heart bleed, for if his wife adored their daughter, Timothy positively worshipped her. His daughter knew that. His were therefore the first ears into which she invariably poured her stories.
Timothy could not help the heart-wrenching love he felt for her. She had come to him after more than seventeen years of childlessness – seventeen years of pitying looks, of insinuations that perhaps he, Timothy, wasn’t so fertile, after all. His first wife had left in frustration after seven years without a hint of pregnancy. The humiliation had been great; a child, after all, was a man’s way of proving his manhood, of letting the world know that he was indeed a man. He had met his second wife after another three years of self-questioning. She wasn’t a great beauty, but Timothy hadn’t minded. Having a woman who was ready to stay with him despite the very high possibility that he would never be able to give her children was prize enough. His joy was therefore stupendous when she became pregnant after eleven years. The daughter that was born was the most beautiful anyone had ever seen…everyone for miles agreed without exception.
In their region a name was not something one gave to a child in a hula-hoppy fashion. It had to mean something. It had to be a prayer. It had to be a wish for the kind of future the family wanted for the child. But most especially, it had to express the heart of the parents. And so Timothy thought, what better name to give his daughter than…
His wife agreed.
As Good-Tidings grew, so too did her beauty.
‘The most saintly face we’ve ever seen on any but angels,’ even the most cynical readily agreed.
‘Those big round eyes!’
‘Those pouty-red lips’
‘The full head of inky-black hair on one so young!’
And then Good-Tidings turned three; and Timothy and his wife noticed something unusual in their little girl.
‘Jonah pinched me on the hand and so much blood poured out.’
The parents panicked, checked her arm. No blood. Checked everywhere else, no discernible blood or fluid of any kind.
‘Ini stole my pack of crayons.’
‘The cat climbed on the desk and knocked Papa’s radio onto the ground, it is broken into many pieces!’
‘Theresa says Mama is a wicked woman. She says she hates Mama.’ Theresa was his wife’s younger sister who lived with them. Her closeness to his wife was unquestionable.
At first his daughter’s many fibs were regarded as comic relief, the cause of many evenings of indulgent-head shaking and giggles.
But as she grew they gathered momentum.
The most damning gossip Good-Tidings ever uttered was when she was seven. She calmly told everyone she had seen the young wife of their Chief enter the private rooms of a young, unmarried man in the village known for his philandering ways.
‘Saw with my own korokoro eyes. She came out with only a piece of wrapper across her breast. She looked this way, that way, and then took the secret path behind Uko’s place to return home.’
‘This is a serious matter Nene-Eyen. Are you absolutely sure?’ her father asked, looking into the angelic eyes of his daughter for any sign of hesitation.
His daughter stuck out her tongue, touched the tip with her index finger and raised the finger to the sky.
‘By the moon and the stars do I swear!’ she said.
The Chief was not amused. The young man was hounded out of the village. The Chief’s young wife was sent away in disgrace, despite her protestation of innocence. Three months later, when it became obvious the young woman was pregnant, the matter took another turn, with the Chief threatening to butcher the young man if he should ever set foot again in the village again.
Throughout the storm, Good-Tidings maintained her stance.
‘I saw her with my own two korokoro eyes,’ she insisted. Bringing her index and middle finger together, she waved them back and forth some inches from her eyes to make her point.
Because she was so young many believed her.
‘Such a young child could never tell a lie of such proportion. She must have seen what she says she saw,’ an elderly uncle of the Chief said.
And then the Chief’s young wife gave birth.
‘Like the Chief himself peeled off his skin and attached it on the baby. Never saw such stark resemblance in all my life,’ many said.
The Chief took the child but none could convince him to take back his young wife.
The Chief’s was not the only havoc-wreaking incidence his daughter’s weakness caused over the years.
‘Mmmm,’ Timothy had exhaled as he remembered.
‘No one in this village is foolish enough to mess with Ukana. Whatever happened to the boy must have taken place far, far away from here.’ His wife’s voice came to him as if from a distance. Her tone did not mirror the same level of panic in his voice.
Yes, but what if their blood-thirsty neighbour believed someone in Ikot Esin had witnessed the murder of their ruler’s son and then kept silent? Timothy thought.
And then there was the one law for which Ukana was well known. Their unshakable belief in ‘an eye for an eye.’
If ten of theirs were killed in any entanglement, the Ukanas would only agree to a settlement or a negotiation of any kind after ten people from the other side were killed. Theirs was An Absolute Law.
Timothy had shivered afresh at the full implication of the Ayei.
There was no doubt which side would come out the victor in a war with between Ukana and Ikot Esin. How was he to break the news to the Chief that his daughter had most probably witnessed the killing of the missing boy? Timothy no longer doubted that his daughter had witnessed a murder. He had been to the spot that she told of. Even with the dry leaves scattered over it, he had noticed a mound of fresh earth underneath the leaves. The mound was covering the missing boy. The question was how to convince their neighbor that Ikot Esin had no hand in it, or that they had not deliberately concealed the murder of one of Ukana’s heirs apparent.
If none in your village is guilty why did you not inform us when you first received this information? The Paramount Ruler of Ukana was sure to ask their Chief. Witnessing a murder is, after all, not something one makes light of.
Many in his community would understand why Timothy hadn’t believed his daughter. But when it came to sending a sacrificial lamb, would they consider the fact that his refusal to believe her was valid? Moreover, his daughter had caused so much pain to so many with her loose tongue, who would not want her gone?
That was what scared Timothy the most. His daughter’s life was at stake. The one thing in life that validates his existence was about to be snatched away from him.
His fears were given credence when he visited the Chief of his own village two days before.
‘You mean you heard something like this and you didn’t think to inform us, even knowing the character of the people involved? Chief Usoro’s face had darkened in anger.
‘Obong mi You know my daughter. And knowing that… how could I?’
‘Mmmm. Go home, tailor! I’ll call a meeting of the Council of Chiefs. We’ll inform you of the outcome.’
Timothy had indeed returned home. But home had ceased to be home. Every time he looked at his daughter his heart contracted. It did not help matters when the young girl began to boast.
‘Told you, Papa! Told you I saw a young boy being murdered and then buried!’
‘Sssshhh,’ his wife rushed forward and covered their daughter’s mouth with the opened palm of one hand.
‘What’s she talking about?’ she turned to Timothy, her voice cracking.
‘Oh, nothing…don’t give a thought to that, you know how she is,’ Timothy replied with a flippant toss of his hand. His wife looked at him deeply for a moment before turning to ‘shush’ their daughter once more.
That was four days ago. During that time he had paced back and forth, sleepless through the nights, wondering what to do. And then he had arrived at a solution. Not the greatest, but the best there was under the circumstances.
‘You’re going to Ntipo…in the state that you are in? Can’t you go another time?’ His wife’s eyebrow squirreled up to her hairline.
‘This needs to be done now,’ Timothy turned his back on his wife. He could not bear looking into her trusting eyes. He had told her that he was visiting his only sister to settle a quarrel between her and her husband. In truth, he was heading for Ukana.
Perhaps Paramount Ruler Ibiere would have mercy if he stepped forward before his son’s body was found under the mound by the river? Timothy could only hope.
‘What time should we expect you back?’
‘You know how these things go. It will probably take all night. So, I won’t be back until tomorrow.’
He was going to plead his case. And if, after hearing what he had to say, the people of Ukana decided to exact their revenge at least it would be his life, and not the life of his only child.
He rounded the last corner and the lights and lanterns of the village of Ukana twinkled before him.
Two hours later he was manacled and locked up in a dark, empty mud hut.
The next day, while the sounds of women visiting the streams could be heard through all the surrounding villages, Timothy was brought out and led in a procession towards the burial spot by the river. The Paramount Ruler and the Chiefs encircling him were dressed in their war regalia: wrappers made of cow-hide, eagle feathers around their waists and elaborate feathered necklaces. Their traditional caps were also festooned with feathers. Around his waist each man wore a long cutlass sheathed in brown leather cowhide. The face, chest and stomach of each warrior were decorated with white clay and red ochre. Much of the decoration depicted skulls and birds of prey. The entire assembly was a fearful sight to behold. Timothy’s stomach was turning over.
That he was not summarily executed was a miracle, but Timothy could not count on staying alive for long. Already the Chief of his village and his council of elders had been sent for.
News of what he had done had reached his village. The sound of his wife and daughter’s wails reached him even before Timothy and the Paramount Ruler Ibiere, along with his own council of Chiefs arrived at the site of the suspicious mound. The road along the river thronged with people from all the surrounding villages, not only Ukana and Ikot Esin.
His wife and daughter were held firmly by three men from his village. Timothy’s stomach did another flip at the sight of his daughter. God of my dead ancestors, let her not make the situation worse. For once, please let her keep her mouth shut.
His wife tore from the men’s grip, rushed forward and threw herself at the feet of the feather-bedecked figure of Paramount Ruler Ibiere.
‘Please, Your Highness…Please! Please! Please don’t kill him.’
The Paramount Ruler looked at her coldly and shooed her away with his foot. Then he turned to four hefty young men with shovels behind him.
‘Dig!’ he commanded.
He didn’t even acknowledge Chief Usoro, or any of the elders standing around him.
The thud, plod, thud, plod lasted less than five minutes before the smell hit them.
The Paramount Ruler reeled. The diggers stopped in reverence to the obvious pain on the face of their Ruler. One of the elders in his council stepped forward to lay a protective hand on him.
The Paramount Ruler brushed the hand aside roughly. Instead, he turned a face of voracious hatred on the manacled Timothy.
‘Dig!’ he commanded again without taking his eyes off his captive.
The four men dug for a couple more minutes, then they reached down and pulled out the body.
It was covered in a green plastic, the kind used to cover goods on the back of a motorcycle.
The four men pulled the covering aside solemnly. The Paramount Ruler and his Chiefs stepped forward and looked down at the body.
A big sigh cut through the men. Timothy looked down, expecting his life to end any moment as the axe, cutlass, or whatever was going to be used, fell.
‘This is not my son,’ he heard the utterance as if from a long way. His wife’s wailing stopped, like a tap had been turned off. The quiet was deafening.
‘This is not my son,’ Timothy heard the Paramount Ruler again. At the same time he felt the manacles on his arms loosen. He looked up to see the Paramount Ruler of Ukana step forward and offer his hand to Timothy’s Chief.
‘It is apparent that something terrible has come into our region. Will you join hands with me to rout out the person responsible?’
Timothy saw Chief Usoro nod many times.
The Paramount Ruler then turned to Timothy.
‘My people and I apologize for the indignity we’ve put you through. Now, can your daughter help us catch this killer? Will she remember enough to describe him to us.’
Timothy got slowly to his feet and took the hand of friendship the Paramount Ruler of Ukana was offering. Even though he ought to be troubled afresh at the realization that someone out there was kidnapping and murdering children, his heart bubbled with happiness. The Paramount Ruler was on their side. And Timothy was in no doubt, whoever had kidnapped the voracious clan head’s son had picked the wrong victim.
‘Yes, Your Highness, I believe she will,’ he said. Then turning, he beckoned to his daughter. A few seconds later, Timothy took his little girl’s hand proudly.
‘Your Royal Highness may I, please, present my lovely daughter, Good-Tidings,’ he said.
Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work