The mama mmiri is the mother of the Ofia River, and she loves her food in pairs. Every month the villagers toss goats and fowl into her water so that in return she will allow them to fish and row and wash in it. She swallows the twins among the sacrifices and spits the rest out on the bank as she did papa.
This was why the evening Baba Tunde lowered my twin brother, Ugo, into a caisson to fetch his fallen cap for him, I ran home with blobs of tears rolling down my cheeks and sweat soaking my dada. And as mama saw me, she abandoned the pounded yam in the mortar, tightened the knot of her wrapper around her chest, and we dashed back to the river with our feet naked.
We found Baba Tunde canoeing away from the uncompleted structures jutting out of the river and toward us with a plump body sprawling behind him in the boat. This made mama throw herself on the muddy ground and lift her face and hands skyward, screaming “why?” to the gods.
I, on the other hand, was too numb to cry anymore. But I felt a gloom building up inside me. If you have ever felt like dropping from an iroko tree, a half of you hoping someone would catch you and assure you everything would be alright and the other half praying for a lethal landing, then you have a hint of my grief.
You see, Baba Tunde was a devious man, a predator always on the prowl, especially around the riverbank at night and, although he worked for the oyibo from England, he was lousy with English words. Often, when he wasn’t spewing out what seemed like insults in Yoruba at one villager or another, he chewed pidgin English with a deep grimace, as though the words tasted like onugbu leaves in his mouth.
I suspected the deficiency in his vocabulary was a facade—a part of his deviousness—because on each of the few occasions he spoke English a corpse was always involved. Phrases like ‘barotraumas of the ears’ and ‘lungs and dysbaric osteonecrosis’ tumbled out of his mouth and he called them sicknesses and blamed them for the corpses.
This time, as he hauled Ugo to the clay bank, he said, “Sinus cavities.”
Mama crawled to the corpse and fell on top of it, hugging it, shaking it, and wailing.
“You!” I jabbed a hesitant finger at him in most children’s way of saying ‘I realize mama said I ought to respect my elders, but I’m most certain you are that exception she failed to mention.’ I swear I could feel intense heat emanating from my rancorous gaze. “You think we don’t know?”
Baba Tunde glared at me. Until that evening, nobody had ever challenged the truth in his strange words, although, with five sets of twins already dead, the villagers had begun conspiring.
“We know the truth,” I yelled. The oyibo gun buckled to his waist and the brown beads around his wrist, which suggested he was into juju, were the only things holding me from crashing myself into him. I, however, doubted those weapons could frighten the aggrieved villagers away from their plots to drive him and the oyibo out. “You sacrificed him.”
Baba Tunde didn’t respond. He simply began to mutter in Yoruba and hurried back into his boat with his head down, as if to hide the three skin-deep tribal lines that marked each of his cheeks. I stood there, bleary-eyed, and, with bitterness, watched him paddle back toward the structures and caissons.
Everybody knew the truth, that the depths of the caissons were altars on which Baba Tunde and the oyibo appeased the mama mmiri with monthly sacrifices to ensure successful construction of their bridge. We knew this because, on his deathbed, papa mumbled that they trapped him in a caisson, and some glowing spirits tormented him with gushing water and visions of his death.
Papa didn’t have a twin; one whose death would have made the sacrifice whole. That was why the river had spat him out.
Ugo, on the other hand, had me, and Baba Tunde knew that.
There is this saying about identical twins, that they are two bodies sharing a soul; one could hardly survive without the other. Appropriate to the saying was the vacuum I felt within me. It seemed that without being cut open I had been hollowed out, I had been drained of my very essence—like a grasscutter gutted alive, you know, or perhaps like an unripe coconut drained of its juice with a syringe.
It had been a fortnight since Ugo’s burial, and the vacuum grew ever larger. I jumped out of bed most nights with screams that made mama down two cupfuls of Mazi Ike’s supposedly heart-mellowing concoction every day, and I couldn’t continue huddling under the avocado tree beside Ugo’s grave every other night weeping. I longed for someone with whom I could engage in our papaya pipe-gun battles in the surrounding forests.
I missed our pranks.
I remember the day mama had warned that plucking a mango from the tree in the backyard would incur twelve lashes. So Ugo and I decided to eat the fruits without detaching them and leave the seeds dangling from their pedicels, just like bats do, except that, unlike bats, we did the eating all too neatly. And when mama returned from the market and questioned us, we simply explained that we hadn’t actually done any plucking. It had been fun, but only because Ugo had shared in the experience.
The dirt road was moonlit and desolate, papers and dead leaves scampering here and there in the Harmattan wind as if to announce the impending appearance of a ghost. This reminded me of the whispered rumors that the spirits of those sacrificed to the mama mmiri roamed the river and its banks at night and that souls that ventured there during dark hours rarely returned.
But that was, of course, the reason I had stolen out of the secret meeting at the village hall and bounded downhill toward the river. Seeing as Ugo was taken by the water spirit, I couldn’t help but entertain the prospect of seeing him again and fight the dread that his spirit might harm me.
Besides, if the dead had the heart to hurt the living, the ones rumored to have been glimpsed wandering the village especially at night would have killed those who had seen them, instead of vanishing on discovery. And Ngozi, our neighbors’ daughter, who had unsuspectingly resided in the next village with Mazi Okonkwo’s dead son for a year, wouldn’t have survived.
Still, as I fearfully ventured into the bamboo bush preceding the river, I focused my senses and readied my limbs for the improbable appearance of a ghost, or rather because something about bamboos made my skin flutter; that occasional rustle of dry leaves and the chill within the shadows—shadows where Baba Tunde or the oyibo could be lurking.
There was another saying, this time from the oyibo. ‘Speak of the devil...’ I had never really understood the need for the utterance of such a stunted phrase. Well, until, I sighted Baba Tunde strolling, not in the bamboos but between them and the bank, toward a path in the northern end of the bush.
My heart responded with a lurch that forced me down on my knees, and there I waited, until he disappeared into the path. All the while I tried to calm my nerves with mama’s advice that if Baba Tunde or the oyibo ever tried to grab me I should kick them in the loins and run home with my slippers in my hands.
I scooted down the bank and buried myself neck-deep in the water and waited and prayed for a good hour that Ugo come and join me. My skin was already feeling like that of agege bread dipped in hot tea, yet no spirit appeared. It was all a rumor, I realized, although I did consider taking a boat past the crab-like dredgers moored to the bank and to the pillars and from there pick my way scaffold by scaffold, over the protruding lacing of rods, to the caissons just to make sure.
I had barely dismissed the thought when the water lit up with a clean blue glow, as though its bed resided a million feet deep in the earth. I staggered back, the chill of the night and of the water making my skin and lips tremble. Deep inside, I felt my vacuum contract and expand as if deciding whether to let itself be filled by the glow or not.
Unfortunately, instead of my brother’s spirit, or even a beautiful maiden with a fish tail in place of human legs as rumored across the village, a translucent woman sprang out of the river and hung in the air with agility that should have left her drooped shoulders falling apart and her wrinkled black skin sagging into the water. The now-billowing wind didn’t shake her, and for someone who had risen from the river, she wasn’t dripping. She was the ugliest creature I had ever set my eyes upon—yes, I doubted a fish tail or tentacles would have made her any uglier.
My bones were quaking even as I swam backward, slowly so I didn’t alarm her, all the while gaping at her fallen rumpled breasts.
“Let me spare you the trouble of asking, my dear.” Her voice was a high-pitched tone that suited neither her age nor her fatness. “The stories are true, although somewhat embellished.”
“The stories?” I quit swimming, the muscles in my face twitching curiously.
“Yes. You are not going to escape the river tonight.” Her baggy lips spread in a smile that made the heavily crinkled skin around her mouth shift in a most perturbing way, much like the skin of a moving old snail. You could even have made a bag as big as a cement sack from the swinging meat around her stomach.
“Please,” I said. “I just want to see my brother. I need to know what really happened.” The words came out as tentative puffs of cold air.
“As if the oyibo’s saying, ‘curiosity killed the cat’, isn’t common enough. Now listen to me, my dear. We can stay here all night arguing it, but you are mine, and it will all be on you. I can see everything. Even the depth of your soul. And right now you are not saying what is really in your heart.”
Her words reinforced my anger and hatred toward Baba Tunde and assailed my mind with the sight of the man lowering Ugo into the caisson. “Okay,” I said, “I will get you a sacrifice and in return you give me back my brother.”
“Haven’t you been listening to anything I just said?”
“So you want me to let you run off on me, eh? As if anyone really could.”
I couldn’t say I hadn’t considered running, but the hideously disturbing smile on the woman’s face suggested that running from her would be like running from death. It didn’t matter that she looked like a grandmother whose only work was to eat akpu and snore and I was just plump and a little over fifteen. For Christ’s sake, as the oyibo usually swore, she could fly. Hence, I resigned to saying please.
“If you can really see everything,” I continued, “then you would know I meant what I said. I will get you a sacrifice. Baba Tunde.”
“Oh, I see it. I see him. And I want him. The river swallows everyone eventually, I told him once. But can you manage that feat?”
“Please. I will return.” I found myself paddling as quickly as I could toward the bank (she didn’t stop me) and running off into the bamboo bush along the path Baba Tunde had taken, my oversized singlet whose hue Ugo had once dubbed ‘it was white’ dripping so much that I left a trail of footprints fettered together with chain-like droplets.
Under the bush, the moon sketched shadows with ridged limbs and forked claws, shadows that threatened that if I so much as glanced up, giant ghostly birds would swoop on me. I was about heaving a sigh, seeing as the margin of the bamboo bush was a few jumps away, when I discerned the lamplight ahead.
The discovery yanked at my heart, and the pain of it all brought me to a ducking position behind some inconvenient undergrowth—inconvenient because beside me hunched a lump of feces too massive to have been dumped by just one man. It appeared that a dozen little rascals had taken turns to unburden themselves on the spot, and the stench was so stomach-wrenching that I had to alternate between monitoring the lamplight and gagging at the feces; between putting a hand over my nose and watering the grasses around me with spittle; between wondering who bore the light and realizing what a foolhardy quest ‘sacrificing Baba Tunde’ was, then that the feces had started me on the thought.
I realized Baba Tunde had to be dealt with but, thinking about it at that moment, I reckoned I must have been so frightened for my life that I had had to make a false promise to the mama mmiri in order to get away. It didn’t matter that at the time the hunger to sacrifice him had been genuine.
Two other lamplights appeared in the distance. But then I noticed a rustle behind me. I understood that snakes cling to bamboos the way bamboos cling to riverbanks, but I was certain the rustle sounded too heavy to be just the slithering of a snake. Even so, I felt my skin moving as if whatever it was had already crept between it and my wet clothes. Before I could scream or turn around, a sharp pain visited my nape and that was that.
My eyes were heavy, and that stomach-turning odor of decaying feces assaulted my nose without the slightest hint of restraint. So I reckoned, as I pushed my eyes open, that it was either I had been bitten by a snake and was dying beside the feces, or whatever had hit me had made sure I had fallen face down in the lump.
The latter, it turned out, was the case, as my mouth tasted like a pit full of carrion. I, however, was no longer within the bamboos but found myself surrounded by jutting rods and the heavy song of flowing water. My neck blazed with pain, and the two shadows cast on the concrete structure on which I sprawled showed that two manly figures stood behind me.
I rolled over and sat up, stopping short of spitting into the river, seeing as there was a third person, one that didn’t have a shadow—the mama mmiri.
“Ha, boy, how very considerate of you to save us the trouble of visiting your mama’s hut.” The oyibo, in his long-sleeved shirt tucked into hairy three-quarter-length trousers and with his pale-skinned face which the ruthless tropical sun had turned into a big triangular ember, had his hands around his waist and stood tall and proud like one of those statues the white missionaries had erected at the church front.
“Mr. Edward, the villagers... Them they up to something,” Baba Tunde murmured in pidgin English. If he had that grimace on I couldn’t tell, as his face was silhouetted against the moon and my eyes were occupied with the mama mmiri, who was hovering over a caisson smiling her hideous smile.
“You see, my dear?” she said to me. “The river swallows everyone eventually.” Then to the oyibo she said, “A new month begins tomorrow. I am sure you won’t keep me waiting again.”
Mr. Edward shook that head of his that was so big I dreaded it would snap from his neck and bounce off the scaffolds and into the river. And that wavy hair that made every woman in the village fuss, that flute of a nose from where his melodious intonation seemed to emanate, and those eyes whose hue made the sky envious would all be wasted, carried downriver along with the head and buried in the place all waters go.
“The candidates have already been selected,” he said, and then turned to Baba Tunde, tipping his head toward a caisson. “Say the incantation and throw him in.”
“Them they plan something, I tell you.” Baba Tunde was shuddering like a boy about to wet his loincloth and wouldn’t stop glancing toward the bamboo bush. “I been see them gather for the village hall. Them they plan something, I tell you.”
The oyibo regarded the mama mmiri, who bounced jovially in the air as if the situation was a moonlight drama and she was merely a cast playing her own part. “Well...? Is that true? You see everything, don’t you?”
“That is not my problem, is it now, dear?” she said. “Oya, the sacrifice. Sharp, sharp!”
“Ha!” The oyibo smacked Baba Tunde on the shoulder. “You heard the miss. Chop, chop! Say the incantation, will you.”
“I tell you. Them they vex. Them go come.” Baba Tunde scratched the raffia cap on his head, his eyes still wandering to the bamboos and gleaming in the moon like those of a child about to receive some lashes for stealing bush meat from his mama’s pepper-soup pot. “We suppose wait make them finish mourning and forget.”
At least Baba Tunde had the common sense that those shotguns slung on his and the oyibo’s shoulders wouldn’t save them from the villagers’ wrath.
“Goddammit, Baba Tunde,” the oyibo barked, “will you quit complaining and say the incantation!”
Baba Tunde stepped toward me. I recoiled, but stopped on realizing I was sliding toward the mama mmiri and the caissons. The sudden squawking of birds in the far bamboo bush stopped him, and he spun around toward the sound, lifting his shotgun and moving his left hand back and forth on it. It clicked.
With my hand over my unsettled chest, I contemplated clambering forward to push him into the river, but that thought was cut short by the sprouting of many lamplights from the bamboos. And as the men muttered things like, “What the hell!” and, “I been tell you. Them done come,” I remembered that I had promised the mama mmiri Baba Tunde and that he was there with me. It didn’t matter who had brought whom.
Still sitting, I turned to her. “I promised you Baba Tunde, yes?”
“You did, dear.”
“Can I sacrifice the oyibo too?”
“It doesn’t work that way, my dear. I only accept twins.”
“Baba Tunde has a twin?” I regarded the two men who were scurrying back and forth on the concrete, inspecting the multiplying lights in the bush. If I was going to die before the lamplights reached the river, it was only fair to take Ugo’s killer with me. “Take him!” I told her. “Take Baba Tunde.”
She shook her head, still smiling. “It doesn’t work that way either. Sacrificing him means saying the right incantation and immersing him in the river so that, when he drowns, his spirit can become one with the water.”
“No!” I whimpered, staring at the guns slung on the men’s shoulders. Even if I could rip one away from them before they blew me into the river, shooting them with it wouldn’t be as simple as pulling the pine stick trigger of a papaya pipe-gun.
“This is your fate,” she said, “and it is not such a bad thing.” Her voice was reminiscent of mama telling me how going to the new Catholic Church would fill the hole my twin’s death had dug in my soul. “You become immortal here with me. Everyone is still here with me. They work for me, protect the river, and sometimes even take physical forms again when on worldly errands for me.”
I perked up. “My brother?”
“He is here.”
The idea of playing with my twin again appealed to me more than anything, possibly even more than staying alive, at the moment. There was nothing left for me in our hut except a mother whose heart could fail anytime. And when that happened, I would be alone, all alone. “Can we go see mama once in a while?”
The question must have jarred her, for she stopped smiling and bobbing in the air. I realized that with the moon’s help the night only managed to swathe itself in grey, but I swear her eyes, which were locked deep in the sockets of her skull, seemed to water.
“Oh.” Her gaze fell behind me. “Here they come.”
The words were followed by the oyibo saying, “Quickly. The incantation!” and Baba Tunde chanting in Yoruba and scrabbling toward me.
I tried to scream but couldn’t find my breath; my lungs were busy trying to calm my juddering heart so it didn’t burst and take them with it. This all left my eyes dripping like the eaves of our hut on a rainy night.
Baba Tunde completed the incantation and grabbed me by the arm. I cried as loud as the meager breath I could muster allowed me, pushing my right knee into his loins the way mama had advised. He groaned and, as he fell backward, I tore his gun off his shoulder and, with a little experience from my use of papaya guns, pointed it at him.
He scrambled to his feet, cowering toward the oyibo.
Mr. Edward smiled at my arms which flopped under the weight of the gun, his thick brows arcing up. “Do you even know how to use that?” he said, his right hand casually falling on the gun dangling between his arm and his stomach. “Put it down, boy.”
I didn’t comply. I just shook my body and head.
“No?” He raised his gun at me. “Put it down, boy!”
The snap in his voice left my body shivering with fright and I gripped the trigger. A loud crack escaped my gun and sent Baba Tunde tumbling into the river with a scream and me reeling backward, and I too tumbled off the structure and down and down and down... until I felt thrusts of pain racking my whole body and saw the rods jutting out from my torso and water splashing up from the river and drenching my body.
For a moment, I heard the mama mmiri hooting, “The River swallows everyone eventually.” And before my sight failed, I saw him—Ugo—hovering over me with a smile that was both sad and reassuring.
My eyes shut.
When they opened again, I found myself rolling with the river, in the company of Ugo and dozens of other twins. Our minds mingled like waves from a hundred seas crashing into one another, but instead of chaos, we birthed oneness. We swayed around the mama mmiri, the aura emanating from our wavy forms making her glow. We chatted and laughed, our voices heavy gurgles and a perpetual whirr. And through one eye, an expanse that reflected the moon, we watched the oyibo hurry off the concrete structure, down the scaffolds, and onto Baba Tunde’s boat.
The villagers flowed toward him in their boats and soon surrounded him. They threw their lamps at him and he fired his gun at them. It wasn’t long before his canoe went ablaze. Screaming, his body afire, he leapt into the river, and our fluid hands tugged at his feet and hair and clothes. We tugged and tugged until he yielded to our suffocating grip. Then we spat his ballooned corpse out—his and that of Baba Tunde, who had fallen without any incantation said.
The following month, we waited, merely as a rule, for the oyibo and Baba Tunde’s next sacrifice, and when it didn’t come, just as we had expected, we all sprang out of the river and dipped our hands in the water and made a wave that sent the pillars and scaffolds and caissons crashing, some to the riverbed and the others downriver to the place all waters go.
Then we turned to the mama mmiri and said, “Can we go and see our mama now?”