Ra ta ta, my window shutter rattles.
I’m not sure it’s a knock. People don’t knock on windows (especially not on backyard windows) but in the unlikely event that they do, it’s never at midnight. Even so, I jump out of my raffia bed, tiptoe to the shutter, and listen to the unnerving silence that ensues.
Then I mumble, “Who is it?”
“It’s Nneamaka,” answers a feminine voice, mellifluous and tremulous, a voice redolent of the child-like cries of bush babies in the famous moonlight tale, cries issued to beguile sympathetic prey.
I jerk backwards, my heart thumping. As I do, I trip over the clay stool in the middle of my cluttered hut and my body hits the dirt floor, my skin fluttering as though one of those myriapods with ‘pede’ in their names crawls over it.
Ra ta ta, the shutter rattles again.
I consider escaping through my rickety front door before whatever it is grows a sense of civility and circles around to knock on that too. Since they say that on the face of a ghost resides instant death, and I have absolutely no intention to lie there on the floor and wait for whatever or whoever owns the voice by my window to welcome herself in and show me her face.
But where can I run when an expanse of savannah bush girdles me, when the nearest village, the one from which I was banished, lies seven miles to the south? With the way my legs tremble, I dread that trying to rise from my fall would reveal that my predicament has paralyzed me. My heart drums like the footfalls of a giant trying to escape a crashing cavern—but faster.
Ra ta ta, comes the rattle once again.
This time, I scramble to my bare feet, my eyes wandering in the darkness when what I need to do is close them. “What do you want?” My words are barely audible. Still, I rue their utterance and pray that the ghost missed them.
I rue more my one-moon-old decision to not seek refuge in Zaka Village in the northern mountains. Now that I’m compelled to reconcile with the tales of the village forcing strangers to marry their daughters whose breasts are hairier than their scalps and whose arms have more muscles than Ikedimkpa the wrestler, a ghost stands between me and that mountain dwelling.
I clear my throat with a tentative cough and ask again with what I imagine is a stronger voice, “What do you want?”
“Did Nnanna pass here?”
Her words make me shudder like a puppy introduced to an unfamiliar environment. When I recover, I don’t answer. Instead, I scuttle to the nook between the head of my bed and the mud wall opposite the window and ransack the wicker cupboard there for my incense, muttering to myself, “Amadioha the great god, there’s two of them. Nnanna’s ghost too?”
I think she heard me, because she speaks again. “Did you see my body?”
“Your body...?” I wince. I can’t help but suspect that someone is playing a sick prank, even though Nneamaka’s voice is like a perpetual melody on my memory and the one by my shutter is uncannily a match. Still, the sheer possibility that a ghost is by my shutter makes my head feel lighter and bigger, and I dread that if I don’t gather my nerves and calm my trembling fingers and quaking legs, I’m going to fall again.
“Yes. Did you see my body?”
My hand feels the dry ogilisi leaves cradling the incense, and I unfurl them on the floor and grope again in the cupboard for my flint and knife. “If you are truly Princess Nneamaka, then you should know it’s in the palace’s graveyard.”
“Can you dig it up for me?”
“What?” I grab my knife, but the flint seems elusive. Either that or my trembling fingers have sworn to betray me. “That’s desecration.” If caught, the king wouldn’t hesitate to have his guard bury me alive, especially since the grave in question is that of the late princess and I am the one blamed and banished to the wilderness for her death—hers and that of the Zaka prince Nnanna. They plummeted to their demise on my watch while singing a love song on top of an ukpaka tree.
“Can you bring it here when you dig it up?”
“Didn’t you hear anything I just said?” My fingers finally feel the cold stone and I grab it. And while I begin to strike it against the blade, my courage begins to return, in trickles. “I’m not doing any digging.”
“Have you forgotten the myth? Everybody remembers.”
With her remarks, my attempt to light the incense falters, and I gingerly pull back and sit on my bed, the flint and knife in my hands, my hands on my head, and my head flanked by my arms.
“Don’t you want to be with me?” she coos. “You can’t let Nnanna beat you to my body. You don’t want him to burn it, do you?”
“Ghosts can’t burn things,” I mumble.
“You don’t think he’s bonded with someone alive the way I’ve bonded with you?”
I don’t respond. I just sit there gaping unseeing at the shutter in confusion and a profusion of sweat.
Her voice softens further, and I imagine ghostly tears rolling down her cheeks as she speaks. “The barrier opened and let me through for a reason. My longing for you must have weakened it. I think that’s why Nnanna is jealous. You can’t let him take me back with him. I can’t go back. Or do you want me to go back?”
“They will kill me if they catch me in the village, let alone on your grave.”
“My face will kill you if I come in there.” Her words restore my jitters, and for a moment I once again consider lighting my incense. However, when her subsequent remarks come, they still emanate from the window, and that calms me. “Can’t you tell them you are trying to save me? I think they will understand, won’t they? Everybody knows the myth.”
For a while, I sit there ruminating. I have a big decision to make. Light my incense and poof—she and her threat of venturing into my hut to show me her face will go. Or seize the opportunity presented by helping her fetch her corpse.
It doesn’t take long and my mind becomes suffused with thoughts of the latter, thoughts that override the doom-laden feeling in my bosom and awake in my forlorn heart the hope of escaping my banishment. Therefore, I gather the pieces of incense without the ogilisi leaves, put them (along with my flint and blade) into my old fox-skin pouch, grab the spade propped against the wall by the foot of my mat-over-hay of a bed, and take off into the night and towards Umunani, the village from which I was banished.
“I will fetch your corpse for you!” I find myself screaming as I run.
When I was a boy, Odudu the great storyteller charmed my friends and me with a tale about a ghost named Chinwe who, unable to break her bond with her living servant, Okey, couldn’t transit to the spirit land. Odudu sang that when Okey nurtured that bond, Chinwe transcended death and woke as human again, and they both remained forever attached and her fortune became his fortune.
A true story, Odudu called the tale, even when the other elders considered it a myth. He often built small huts inside a basket of wet sand whenever the story progressed to his recounting of the great earthquake, which he assured us had been what destroyed every shred of truth in Okey and Chinwe’s story and had left the villagers with only a moonlight tale that was a myth at best.
“The tremor,” he said, shaking the basket and letting his beautiful sand huts crumble as wet sand escaped through the many holes in the basket’s body. “It juddered through the village a fortnight after Okey woke Chinwe, leaving in its wake sunken broken hovels and corpses half-buried under mud boulders. Many hoped and prayed that their loved ones would return like Chinwe had done, but their hopes and prayers fell out from their hearts and lips empty. And they began to wonder if their memories of the two lovers, who were nowhere to be found, were not delusions from the shock of the earthquake.”
As I bound through the wilderness, through the dust billowing in the midnight bluster and through the silhouettes of giant cacti under the dull moon and towards the palace with my rusty spade, I can’t help but wonder if I am not acting on a mere delusion, one filtered through this tale and that tale. Even so, I keep asking ‘why me?’. Of all the strong men that populate our village, why did Nneamaka’s ghost choose me?
She must have been smitten with me all those days she and Prince Nnanna were dancing from thicket to thicket like foolish childhood lovers. That far-fetched possibility is the motivation I cling to. That and the fact that if I manage to bring Nneamaka back to life, there is no way her father won’t lift my banishment. And in keeping with the story of Chinwe and Okey, I might even marry her and become a prince.
In the midst of my hopeful thoughts, however, lurks the dread that I may stumble upon Nnanna’s ghost on the way. I feel that dread coaxing sweat (more sweat) onto my skin in the chilly night and pushing my already drumming heart towards an unmanageable tempo. And I fear that if I don’t quit running, my heart is going to tear out of my chest and abandon me in the wilderness.
This doesn’t deter me, as I have absolutely no plan to return to my hut without Nneamaka’s body. I don’t want to anger her ghost into showing me her face. Neither do I want to ruin this opportunity to escape my banishment. I run and run and run, until flanks of dark mud hovels begin to breeze past me, ushering me uphill, along a pebbled street, and towards the centre of the village. All the while, my right hand clutches the fox-skin pouch strapped tightly to my waist, my mind engrossed in a prayer to Amadioha that I don’t bump into Nnanna’s ghost.
Some distance ahead, right on the shoulder of the gently sloping mound of a hill, looms the marbled palace and its coconut fence. The palace huddles like a gigantic tortoise who grew weary of climbing a seemingly impossible mountain and thus decided to set up camp on its shoulders, not knowing that the crest was a stride away.
I hesitate, pulling to the roadside and weaving through the baby coconut trees that populate it. Getting into the palace’s graveyard, I’m certain, will be easy, seeing as I was once a palace guard and know that although there are guards stationed at the bamboo gate and ten coconut trees apart around the marbled royal structure, the graveyard, which resides in the western section, is usually unguarded. Who breaks into a graveyard?
I step completely off the roadside and into the sloped thicket beyond, and from that distance skirt the palace and approach the graveyard head-on.
To enter, I cleave with my spade through the thorny tangles of plants lacing around the coconut trees. Once inside, finding Nneamaka’s grave in the moonlit penumbra is easy. I simply look out for the most decorated grave. It sprawls in the centre of the graveyard girdled by other graves as if being worshipped, and it has for a crown a giant mud tiara and for a blanket a host of dead and fresh flowers.
I scuttle to it, use my spade to scrape the flowers away, and begin to dig. The soil is still loose, despite that it’s been over a month since the grave was covered. My spade eats into it almost soundlessly, as if it realises the secrecy of my undertaking, and I am grateful for it.
Still, someone finds me out even before I have spaded away my tenth scoop. The person must have been lurking somewhere in the graveyard, waiting for me.
“What are you doing?”
My heart lurches and I freeze in my position as if to become for the graveyard the statue it doesn’t have. I know Nnanna’s voice. He was, after all, my mistress’s betrothed. The spade escapes my grip and clanks against the moulded tiara. I keep my gaze down, in spite of the gnawing impulse to look, then rake through my pouch and anxiously deposit some incense onto a spot on the grave. With my hands trembling and sweating, I grab my flint and knife, and to my relief, my first strike births sparks that send the incense smoking.
When the voice speaks again, I swear it has pulled a bit closer. “You really believe that will work?” It’s garnished with a grating tinge that gives it a soft harshness. “On the wrong type of ghost? Seems like a waste of time and incense.”
I quickly shut my eyes, if only to avoid indulging my dread that the voice has actually pulled closer. And in the ominous darkness that consequently envelopes my mind, I can’t help but wonder what other types of ghost there are. The thought, the fear that Nnanna’s ghost could currently be hovering right before my face, and the confusion brought by my incense having no effect on the ghost push my pores wide open and leave sweat sluicing down my whole body in streaks that give me numerous goosebumps.
“You know she’s only here to kill you, right?” I find a smidgen of solace in the realisation that Nnanna’s voice still emanates metres away from me.
“I know your plan. She told me.” I only wonder at the shrewdness in those remarks after I have mumbled them out.
“Yes.” His voice rises like that of a child who just realised his trap has snared bushmeat. “Burn it. Those are a flint and a knife in your hands. Can you burn it for me? Use the incense. We can’t let her sway another into digging it up again.”
If there is a proper way to respond to his request, I haven’t the slightest idea what it is. So, I don’t respond. Instead, I imagine that jealousy must be so natural a feeling that even ghosts aren’t above it. Still, I can’t help but wonder why Nnanna doesn’t sound angry, seeing as I was a servant to his betrothed. That thought unnerves me more than his presence. I strain my eye muscles to tighten my eyelids against my eyeballs. Then I pull in air, imbibing the sweet smoke of the incense burning under me as if it were life itself, as if satiating my lungs with it were my only means of surviving my horrifying predicament.
“How long can you have your eyes closed?” His voice is touched with something akin to amusement, or perhaps it’s just a ploy to get me to open my eyes. “Can you dig with your eyes closed?”
I find myself shivering more, and the profusion of sweat crawling down my whole body isn’t helping.
“I know what you are thinking,” he continues. “To not look up. You don’t have to look up to dig. But you forget that I can place myself on the grave itself. That way, when you open your eyes, my face will be the first thing you see. Trust me. That myth is very true.”
Even though I was thinking of no such thing, his mention of it and his confirmation of the trueness of the myth leave my heartbeat panicky. I don’t want to die tonight. I break down, and for the first time in my life, I cry with actual tears dribbling down my cheeks. “P—please.”
For a while, he says nothing, as if to accentuate the sinister drama of the night’s wind in the midst of coconut fronds and the drumming of my heart in the midst of everything. All I want to do now that I have realised the foolishness and danger in this undertaking of mine is abandon everything here and run to Zaka village without looking back. I no longer want Nneamaka. And I no longer care about escaping my banishment. Not when caring and doing something about it can leave me dying halfway through the undertaking. I would rather marry a hairy-chested Zaka maiden.
“Can you burn it for me?” Nnanna says, and I find a little solace in the calmness and sincerity swathing his stentorian voice. “Should I leave so you can open your eyes and burn it?”
In his remark, I also find a means of surviving my plight. All I have to do is give up my quest to get my banishment lifted and burn Nneamaka’s corpse. “I will do it,” I whimper, but Nnanna doesn’t speak again. I don’t know if he’s gone, but I don’t open my eyes—not even a bit.
“What are you doing... on my daughter’s grave?”
I open my eyes immediately. That’s not Nnanna’s voice. It is the Igwe’s. I know that because that was the voice that banished me. This should console me, seeing as I am no longer threatened by the face of Nnanna’s ghost. My gaze wanders in the gloom just to be certain that he is gone—an action I immediately deem foolish, seeing as it could have killed me. All I see, however, is the Igwe, robed in lion fur, and two puff-chested guards wearing only furry loincloths and sleeveless torso armours. One pushes a wheelbarrow inside which spreads a mass of fresh palm fronds, and the other holds two spades in his hands. And that, I reckon, does not improve my situation in any way. They have come to bury me alive.
But then the Igwe and his guards don’t yell out the word ‘desecration’ as they approach. In fact, their manner suggests that they too want tonight to be a secret.
“She sent you, didn’t she?” The Igwe’s voice is weak, like his bag-riddled old face, but filled with much excitement. “You have seen Nneamaka. She bonded with you.”
“Eh, yes,” I say, stepping off the grave, as if that will make the Igwe unsee my standing on top of his daughter’s memorial. “She asked me to bring her body to her.”
“Good. The great god Amadioha has done it again,” he says. Then he waves a feeble hand towards me. “Give him a hand.”
The guards set their barrow and palm fronds on the ground, and with the spades, begin to excavate Nneamaka’s grave. I just stand there, stupefied.
The Igwe comes to me, placing a hand, whose heaviness feels like the weight of the whole world, on my shoulder. “My son. You do this for Nneamaka and you will surely get all the fortune you desire. You know what they say about ghosts bonding with the living, don’t you?”
I nod, and he begins to tell me how simply taking Nneamaka’s corpse to her won’t wake her and about the ritual I must perform to resurrect her.
By the time I arrive home (that’s if a rickety mud hut nestling in the middle of nowhere can be called a home), the faint grey light of dawn is already flickering behind the eastern hills. With my eyes shut, I gingerly wheel the Igwe’s barrow, inside which rest Nneamaka’s damp, termite-infested coffin and the fresh palm fronds the Igwe gave me, towards my backyard, my stomach churning as though my intestines are being mangled by some cold beastly hands.
To find my bearing, I allow the wheelbarrow to graze my hut’s mud wall, and to ascertain that the upset in my stomach isn’t uncalled for, I occasionally whimper, “Nneamaka? Are you there?” as I move. No one answers, by the way. And since I need my sight in order to carry out the king’s instructions, I say a desperate prayer to Amadioha and swing my eyes open. I, however, desist from looking up lest I should see Nneamaka’s ghost.
First, I spread the palm fronds on the ground, right between my window and the cacti thriving in my backyard. Then I lower the coffin onto the bright green leaves, making sure, as the Igwe instructed, that no part of it touches the ground. I don’t bother to veil my nose, seeing as the reek that emanates from the coffin is now no more repulsive than the one emanating from my grubby jute shirt. In fact, I too smell like something dead. So, I resort to wincing and spitting, just as I did through my trudge from the palace to my hut.
Next, I pull out the knife in my pouch, slit my left palm open, and spill a disquieting amount of my blood on the cover of the coffin. It’s not a complicated ritual, as there’s no need for me to recite a spell.
But then I feel warmth coursing all the way from my panicky heart, along my trembling arm, and down to my bleeding hand. It’s as though a good fraction of my life is seeping away from the cut, weakening me in my mind, sinews, and bones.
I clamp my other hand over the cut (having done everything the Igwe said I should do) and I scurry into my hut, bar the squeaky door, light the oil lamp hanging from a rafter, and wait.
Nothing happens. Not until the next hour when it begins to rain. It’s the middle of the dry season, yet it pours as though the sky mourns a loss and has succumbed to unending grief. Dawn fails to come, and the wind tears at my raffia roof, bangs at my door and shutter, and howls like a giant, lonely wolf.
When I peer through a slit on my door, I see daylight and clear skies in the distance, perhaps half a mile away. It is as if a massive celestial army hovers overhead, casting its ominous shadow over my surroundings and pelting my hut with jets of their urine.
In the midst of this unbidden spur of weather, my heart thumps against my chest as if with the sole intention to inflict pain, my legs tremble with much vigour that makes sitting while waiting impossible, and the stench of death transcends the cleansing power of the rain and the wind and fills my hut, making me want to throw up.
Thus, it occurs to me to light the remaining incense in my pouch so that its mythic fragrance can counter the reek in the air. I pour the mixture of resin and tree bark into an iron plate and light it. It’s more or less useless to me now that Nnanna’s ghost has established that incense is harmless.
Koi koi koi, my door shakes, and the rain and wind abruptly abate as if startled by the knock. The darkness persists. And though my heart thumps harder as I stagger to my feet, I take solace in the fact that the knock was not on my window.
“Who is it?” I whimper.
“It’s Nneamaka,” comes a quivering voice in reply.
I hesitate. “Nneamaka’s ghost?”
“No. Open the door for me. It’s me.”
As I inch to the door, I can feel the hair on my skin rising, and I can sense my fright creeping underneath. I close my eyes, lift the bar, and quickly recoil from the entrance, shuddering so much that my legs can barely support me.
“It really is me, Ebuka.” The shaky voice approaches me. “You don’t have to be afraid.”
I feel her cold bony fingers on my arm. I don’t jump away (this takes every vestige of courage in me), but I feel a few squirts of my urine wet my jute trousers. It’s her, I assure myself, seeing as a ghost wouldn’t have been able to touch me. So, I open my eyes, one at a time, as if that would somehow spare me the inevitability that comes with seeing a ghost’s face.
To my relief, the face before me is that of a living Princess Nneamaka (not an apparition), although it’s pitiful, filthy, and scrawny, just like the rest of her naked black body, which assaults my nose with a smell much worse than the one for which I lit my incense a moment ago. I fetch my finest sisal fabric (the one that serves as my pillow) for her, and after cleaning her wet body with it, she comes to me and embraces me as if some ghostly hands were trying to snatch her back into the spirit land and clinging to me was the only thing that could repel them.
This makes me feel like a rodent caught in a snare. “Is this it?” I whimper, shuddering in her grip. “You are alive.”
“Yes,” she says. “Don’t let go. Hold me.”
I put my hands around her. Warily.
“You need to go inside the coffin,” she coos. “You need to go inside so I can carry you home. My grave is missing a body and the spirit land a soul.”
“What?” I start, but my attempt to wriggle out of her grip fails. Her hold is unhumanly strong—ironclad. And once again I become aware of my juddering heartbeat and the goosebumps that slither on my skin.
“I will always keep you close, safe, until we are able to raise you too,” she continues. “Nobody will burn you.”
I struggle harder, alternating between striking her shoulders and driving my fists into her flanks. My efforts birth no effect. Her grip remains unflinching. I now find it difficult to breathe, but still manage to gasp out, “Please.”
“It has to happen. If not, the darkness outside will follow me around, wreaking havoc, until it kills me again,” she says. “I will keep you safe.”
My vision soon begins to fail, the dimly lit hut and the gaping door reeling before me. And I rue ignoring Nnanna’s warning.
Nneamaka’s grip around my neck, I notice, loosens. “What did you do?” Her voice betrays her panic. “What’s that smell?”
Smell? I resume my struggle with a sudden rush of vigour.
Her hands flop and she crashes to the floor, squirming and crying, “You are wicked. Why?”
Free from her pinioning grip, I stumble backwards, inhaling with much force as if gasping for the last whiff of air in the world. And that’s when it also hits me—the mystic scent of the incense I lit prior to her knocking on my door. It takes only a thought to figure out what Nnanna meant when he said I was wasting my time and incense on the wrong type of ghost. That thought is accompanied by my memory of Nnanna asking me to burn Nneamaka’s body using my incense and by the realisation that I had the myth all wrong. Incense isn’t harmful to actual ghosts but, I hope, is to one with a body.
So, I quickly grab the plate of smoking incense behind me and empty it on Nneamaka, who has now stopped squirming and is just sprawling there on my floor, muttering unintelligible words. She begins to cry again, but weakly, as the pieces of hot incense sear her flesh. Then I spill a bowl of castor oil on her, pull my oil lamp from the roof where it hangs, and go to her.
Just then, three figures, who I immediately identify as the Igwe and his guards, emerge in the darkness outside, a few metres from my open door. They must have followed me from the palace.
“What are you doing to my daughter?” The Igwe stumbles forward but stops dead as I lower my lamp a bit.
“She tried to kill me,” I bawl. My mind seethes, running furiously through various ugly scenarios of what could have become of me this morning.
“She chose you for this. Of all the men in the village, we chose you.” He extends one pleading hand while the other hand motions for his guards, whose eyes gleam in the gloom and whose stances suggest they are ready to charge me on command. “That should be something of an honour. My son, you need to finish what you started please.”
“You knew?” A drop of tear rolls down my cheek. “You planned this? You sent her to my window.”
He doesn’t reply to my question. Instead, he says, “Put the flame away, son,” as he and his guards are pulling closer inch by inch.
“Please. You let my daughter die. The least you can do is make this sacrifice for her.”
“You made promises.”
“Yes. And I will honour them. But you have to die first to replace the life you stole from the spirit land. If not...” He shakes that head of his, whose shape reminds me of an agama, as if already mourning me. “You see the darkness?” He points heavenward. “That’s a catastrophe brewing. A catastrophe the like of the earthquake that followed Okey waking Chinwe. It will kill you and her, and while at it also condemn the village to massive destruction. You don’t want that. We don’t. Trust me, son. We will find someone else to raise you.”
If there is reason in his words, I don’t see it. Neither do I see any reason to trust him. They manipulated me right from the onset. There is a choice here, and it’s simple. Between Nneamaka’s life and mine, I choose mine. If I send her back to the spirit land, there will be no catastrophe.
“No,” I say and drop the lamp on Nneamaka.
She catches fire and begins to scream the way witches are said to do in moonlight tales. The Igwe and his guards dart forward to smother the flames with their bare hands, it seems —I shrink backwards. But the fire eats at Nneamaka’s flesh and bones rapidly, as if she’s made of only fat. And before the Igwe and his guards can even touch her, she becomes a map of ash on my floor. Immediately, the darkness outside fades away, revealing a bright morning with the sun climbing towards its highest point in the sky.
The Igwe falls to the ash, slaps the ground with his hands, and cups up some ash as if scooping up a baby, his tears dripping into everything. His guards, standing awkwardly beside him, seem confused and helpless. Whether it’s the sudden daylight or the fact that they couldn’t save Nneamaka that has left them that way, I am too busy contemplating the implication of what I have done to care.
The Igwe shoots me a glare, dark and icy, and I realise that I haven’t necessarily succeeded at preventing my death. They will bury me alive. I back further away, until my back meets the shutter behind me.
The Igwe wails, “Alu! Desecration! You desecrated my daughter’s grave and stole her corpse. Seize him!” He jabs a finger as stubby as his body towards me.
The guards leap forward.
Ra ta ta, my shutter rattles.
I don’t know who or what makes the sound, and I really don’t care whether or not it’s a ghost. I only know that I will meet a certain death if I should linger in my hut a moment longer. Therefore, I push the shutter open and throw myself outside before the guards can get hold of me. I crash on the coffin there, feeling a sharp pain in my waist.
Still, I spring up immediately and bound northward, not looking back to check if the guards are in my wake. They ought to be. As I cross the border into Zaka territory, I know I will never return.