by Iheoma Nwachukwu
When this story returns to me, this is how my memory opens - like a wound. In Enugu, after I told my story to two traders outside Achina village, a powerful Achina herbalist warned villagers to stop fetching water from Otalu stream; and to this day only white men with heavy cameras visit the stream.
It was not the dustiest February. Men did not go about looking like they had brown powder on beards and eyelashes. That day I went to the stream as soon as I arrived to Ubahi. The bicycle ride was a thigh-cramping distance from Akpodim village, where I attended school and lived with my mother’s elder brother. I could no longer attend the school in Ubahi, since I had been finally expelled for breaking a prefect’s head.
Days before I went to Ubahi, my friend Eugene told me that mermaids had invaded the stream in my village. We called him Sir Evil. Eugene and I had stolen cassava from the principal’s farm three times in the last term. We sat on someone’s desk watching football during break.
“Friend, mermaids have crammed your village stream,” he said, giggling. He had projecting front teeth which he tried to hide by shading his lips.“It is so,” I answered, not believing him. I had visited home at Christmas: no such news. I twisted my lips, nodded mockingly and looked away. “GOAAAAALLL!!” somebody shouted. Then the cry burst from a hundred throats.
Students clapped and shook their fists in celebration. Eugene spoke of other things as soon as we could hear each other: Some acid he needed, the virgin we raped in Oputa’s farm, the climbing holes we would make in the school fence. When we ran out of things to say I asked him if he was serious about the mermaids.
“The truth, Ubah!” he swore, biting his index finger and jabbing it at the sky. “My mother told me. Your people have even stopped going to the stream.”
I nodded thoughtfully. Eugene’s mother was a tireless gossip. Once, she informed our principal that someone had seen his daughter’s face in a promiscuous senator’s Mercedes, somewhere in Owerri. The information had been true.
My uncle wagged his grey head when I asked him if the mermaid story was true. He had a clutch of folds halfway between his eyebrows, at the sides of his eyes and under his lower lip. These folds gave his face a permanent scowl so that when he smiled all he did was look evil.
“Who farted that lie?” he said harshly, hooking his neck at me. He looked past me, as if he could see someone behind.
“Parrot.” This was Eugene’s mother’s nickname.
Uncle Aguiyi turned his back, threw a hand over his knobby shoulder and said dismissively: “Don’t give her any attention. I haven’t heard such rubbish.”
When he limped to the door of his room he mumbled, “Mermaids live in river Niger.” Then he picked the radio on a small bench under his window and took it inside.
I did not believe that he had not heard the story. The first time my uncle told how he fought bravely in the Biafran war, his eyes avoided me like that. Later I learned he had become so terrified four days after the war began that he stabbed himself in the thigh. His superiors thought he had been wounded in combat and sent him home just as he had planned.
In December, a gutsy hyena jumped out of the bush near Eke market onto the wide sand-choked footpath, then plodded across into someone’s farm. Many boys, who already imagined roast meat and wanted to lead the chase, pursued the hyena with anything that could pierce or crack a bone. My uncle was in the barn when our neighbour’s son rushed past with a knife and told me what was happening. I picked a stone and followed him. Uncle Aguiyi showed his displeasure first by refusing me breakfast when I returned and later sending someone to tell my mother so she could pile it on my sin-list.
I recalled the hunt, moved by a reason for my uncle’s deception. Likely he did not want me to go on another adventure like I did on the hyena chase. As the trees hurried darkness with broad strokes of their shadows, I felt the edges of an idea.
The next morning I knew it was impossible not to sleep in class. In my head the whole night, plans whirled in a colloid that leaked into my sleep. My eyes opened and closed, opened and closed. At the first cock crow, I had counted the answering crows of distant roosters- eleven.
The springs sighed as I rose off the low bed and wore my slippers. Outside, light seeped through cracks in the sky as if god had cracked the sun and spilt its yolk on the back of the clouds. A small hen pecked at an early insect. I went to the backyard to collect the machete in the kitchen. The goats heard me in the pen attached to the kitchen and stomped their hooves and listened and called, “nmeeehhh!” knowing I would soon bring them food.
I returned from the bush with dewy bamboo and cassava branches spread down my shoulder. The leaves wet the back of my neck. My uncle sat on the bench outside his window, scrubbing his teeth with a thick chewing stick.
I greeted him out of my bundle. “Father, you’ve woken.”
He spat a frothy pulp between his legs and replied, “Yes my son,” then he praised me for the leaves I had brought the goats.
I did nearly all the housework. Uncle Aguiyi lived alone with his goats and a few chickens. He had married early with hopes of having plenty children, but his wife died years ago without giving him a child.
Inside their pen, I dumped the load against the rusty zinc wall and the goats shoved and butted each other to get to the food, stirring the smell of urine and dung. I barred the entrance with plaited palm fronds and entered the kitchen to warm soup for breakfast.
I dozed in class till break time. When school closed I could not find Eugene. I did not see him at break too. I wanted to listen to his story again.
I saw the boy who laughed when the biology teacher called me Ubah Tsetse fly, but I let him run.
Finally, I saw Eugene the day before I left Akpodim. He had gonorrhea. I told him how my uncle lied and what I had decided. The African Nations cup was in its quarter finals and Nigeria was playing against Cameroun the next day -a big match! I would tell uncle Aguiyi that I wanted to watch the match at Adline in the next village. Adline was a restaurant and bar with a reliable generator. The eight villages in our community did not yet have electricity. Darkness came eagerly at six p.m.
The plan looked good. My uncle played centre back for Enugu Rangers in the 70”s and followed the league like a lunatic on his silver transistor radio. That man would tear out his testicles for football.
“I.Q!” Eugene cried, pecking the side of his head with a forefinger. “OOh! You have too much brain Ubah.” He pinched his penis through his trouser, winced and added, “Be careful. I hear those creatures eat people.”
“Let them eat all the members of their family not Ubah!” I said carelessly, slapping my chest, “tell them I’m the mystery thing that cooks and cooks but is never done!”
The harmattan was poor. Not like last year’s when every few minutes, I rubbed petroleum jelly on my cracked lips from a coin- sized container in my pocket. I could have worn a singlet but did not because Ubahi was far. People along the way might mistake me for somebody going to tap palm wine. The wind blew patterns in my face as I rode near the market. My palms were sweaty on the bicycle handlebars.
When I told my uncle about the match, he closed his eyes and whistled a tune from a Sir Warrior song. Abruptly he asked if all the jerry cans at the back of the kitchen were filled with water- they were.
“What about the emergency jerry can? The one beside…”
“That one too…that one.”
He had advised me to get a front seat. He also told me to go after church. I felt so happy that I feared if I moved, I would float like a ghost.
Nobody went to the market on Sundays. The place was empty as I passed to a leafy trail on the right that pulled my bicycle down a relentless slope. I let the pedals hang and for a moment was flying. The wind sucked at my ears and puffed my shirt. I saw the shrubs along the way become a green flood, parting, so that I felt like a juvenile Moses.
The mermaid stories I had heard goaded me. How could I refuse the chance to prove one? I was nine or ten when my grandmother told me the story of river Niger’s mermaid-queen and Julius Berger. The mermaid took Julius Berger’s life as payment for allowing the German to build a bridge that trespassed on her river kingdom- now where did one go with a tale like that?
I slowed the bicycle when I entered Ubahi. Sweat swayed on my bristly chin. My thighs throbbed.
I heard a woodpecker as I rode past the priest’s house. The new zinc roof shined in the sun. Outside the house Father Iheanacho looked up when he heard my bicycle bell. I grinned and babbled a curse in greeting.
“Did you fuck a cow sir?”
“Yes my son. Go in peace.” He waved the radio in his hand.
I bent my head and laughed. He thought he heard- “Hope you’re fine sir.” It was a favourite trick.
The huge cherry tree at the boundary of Ubahi and Otulu villages had been chopped to a stump when I reached the boundary junction. I turned left and climbed the dusty rising path. At its steepest point the path was whelmed to a bold forehead by erosion. I could see part of the pink walls of Dede Azun’s house, the familiar red bars that surmounted the walls. Pulled weed rotted under long cassava stems in the farms that ran along the path. A dog barked once, twice then gave a sharp yelp.
I climbed off and rolled the bicycle to the sickly guava tree in front of our house. Through the open black gate, I could see the twins heaped round a radio on father’s bench beside the window with the missing louvre. I wondered who else was at home.
“Elder brother!” they cried when they saw me, “did something happen?”
“No,” I panted, crossing grandfather’s grave to stand briefly in front of them. “Where’s father, mother?”
“Church,” Chibunna the younger, taller twin answered. I closed my eyes, sighed and put away the lie I had prepared for my parents.
Chibuike looked expectantly at me so I told them I brought a message for father. On the radio pastor Kumuyi said holy people knew how to avoid trouble but wicked fools saw trouble coming and walked into it. I put myself in the group that knew how to avoid trouble.
“That’s why you came? Father’s gone since morning,” the twins said and turned back to the sermon with a sigh. They looked disappointed. I knew it was because I did not bring exciting news like the birth of a child or the death of some old man. They passed me gossip as I pulled off my shoes and hurried to the backyard to look for slippers. Father and everybody else were attending mass in the next village because Father Iheanacho fondled a choir girl in the sacristy. I drank water from a large aluminum cup and did not rest for long. When I could not find any slippers, I went to my grandmother’s hut.
The dim room smelled of smoke since she cooked in it too. Grandmother liked to collect slippers from every room in the house for reasons that always made us laugh. Under her bed, they lined up in a long procession that stopped beside the little custard bucket she used for bathing. The edge of the mattress was hollowed in the middle where she had sat for years. A very small cupboard perched from an unseen nail on the wall as if suspended by magic. The narrow window was shut but a useful triangle cut high up in the mud wall allowed fresh air and strips of sunlight. Grandmother snored gently on the bed. I took what I wanted and closed the door quietly.
The tree stump had holes that seemed to stare as I walked past the boundary junction to the market. I wondered at the ugly, jagged trunk with the varicose roots twisting bitterly into the ground. Many childhood mornings were spent whopping short, stout sticks into the cherry’s high branches to catch fat fruits; sometimes we got up as early as five a.m. It was strange to see the vast blue sky where the giant body used to be. I felt like a part of my history had been hacked off, as if with the disappearance of the tree my childhood memories disappeared with it or had never happened at all.
From the market two paths approached the stream. I met the girl on the shorter path. First I passed a bespectacled man holding a newspaper whose front page read, “Eagles Dare Cameroun in Q-final Clash.” He tapped the caption and grinned at me.
She waited inside the path, hidden by the tall bushes. I would have walked into her if she had not said-
“Please you know…way to the stream?”
I drew back at the sudden voice, shocked. Her family came from Lagos last week, she explained, not apologising for startling me. She could not tell the way though she had fetched water once. Her eyes shone like beach sand. She held a pail and turned her head as though she could hear my pumping heart.
“Is that why…why didn’t you…” I began angrily, then deciding to punish her for not apologising when she startled me, I grinned and said, “Come.”
She followed behind, carrying her bucket on her arm like a handbag. I planned to trick her into the water first: when the mermaids dragged her in I would escape as the lucky guide.
Everywhere graceful bamboos nodded over the path, baffling songs from competing crickets. Old palms waved silent ferns under ripped fronds specked with bird shit. We reached a narrower path that went through a thick bush. Beyond it birdsong announced the stream.
I pointed and she smiled but did not thank me as I allowed her to pass. The moment reeled in. My palms fisted below the pounding chest. Her back disappeared and I stiffened with the anticipation of what she would see.
Nothing happened for many seconds. I whistled an impatient tune. She must have watched me coming through the trees and laughed to herself.
I hoped the girl would scream before I got to her. But even when I cut the thong off a slipper and waited to listen, nothing happened for a long time. She slapped at a sand fly as I reached her.
“My slipper cut,” I lied, “this one,” and I tapped one foot on the grass. She nodded and said in her dulcet voice:
“Our lives flow backwards into the stream. What we cannot know we can never know.”
“Yes, it is the…” I stopped, relieved that she did not challenge my lie but chose to say proverbs.
Where are you mermaids? I thought. Where are you overgrown fishes?
The girl sat forward on her bucket, like a child hypnotised by the television. She looked at the stream. The surrounding trees, the stream, gave the feeling of being watched by something old and wise: similar to what one feels inside the walls of a big cathedral.
Birds threw songs at one another in the top branches. Two palms standing on either side of the narrow stream pointed a single branch at each other. Every time the wind moved the palms greeted like chiefs, tapping their branches gently. Nku akwu and bamboo trees pulled cooling shadows from their leafy, umbrella shaped heads. The bamboo leaves, splayed like a child’s rude fingers shivered on the wind. Ferns ran off raffia palms into the water. The water was clear as glass at the sandy bank but further out it snatched sunlight to turn the gold of Lipton tea. A decaying brown log slanted over the stream on the raised roots of a palm on one side and the scarred trunk of a tree on the other, marked where the water got deep. In the distance, fenced in by broken raffia leaves, mud, twigs and decayed trunks the stream looked like the sacred nest of a god-bird.
Before she went to stand quietly in the water, I turned to find the girl’s poking gaze. Light-headed from self praise, I had staggered under the shade of palm branches on her right to stare into the trees. Alone, I had exposed the ruse; there were no mermaids! A mounting happiness spilled inside me. Homecoming scenes passed in prediction through my mind: my friends threw me into the air in jubilation; Eugene carried me round the school on his shoulders. I wondered if Mungo Park had possibly felt more joy when he discovered the river Niger.
Just the eyes moved in the shell of her face. I touched the embarrassing meat-bubble that grew on my ear like a crude lid, but she was not appraising me. She looked at my eyes only, separately- as if I were two people; as if asking two separate, hard questions.
Her skin was the tender yellow of early corn. She had defied the harmattan to tie a brown wrapper round her chest, on which fishes froze in a swirling motif.
“The… stream,” I pointed not knowing what else to say.
She removed her slippers and walked off quickly. I brought the bucket she had forgotten. The water reached to her waist. I went in because I did not want to throw the bucket.
She smiled and said in an old, frail voice, “Thank you my child.”
Your what!? I dropped the bucket alarmed at the words, the voice.
The bucket floated away.
Swiftly, she snatched my hand, pulled it under her arm and chanted as she lowered herself, “Mammiwata’s wayward child-mammiwata’s wayward child…”
She was the mermaid - this girl! She deceived me!
Mad screams ripped from my throat. The water thrashed as I bent back and pumped my arm savagely against her metal grip. At once I was pulled below the surface like a doll. The water stung my nostrils and forced me to swallow.
Her hands multiplied underwater or maybe it was her sister that grabbed me around the waist. When disbelievingly, I twisted free under the brown log and ran wet and gasping from the stream to blunder homeward in a half crouch, I knew they had freed me. Perhaps it was a lesson for people like me; perhaps a sign to seekers that, the things which rightfully belong on the other side will always defend their boundaries.