He reached into the top drawer of the desk and pulled out an old picture. It was a picture of an ancient woman looking suspiciously into the camera, obviously restraining herself from snatching the camera. Beside her, smiling very broadly, was a boy. He must have been seven or eight years old at the time. In the background was green shrubbery and a mud hut. He remembered that ancient place, and it seemed like a lifetime away. He could not help but remember the wonderful times he had and the stories Nana told him.
Timothy tiptoed out of the house. The air was so refreshing that he could almost taste it. It was an early rainy season, and it rained just a couple of hours before. The sweet mud-dust mixture scent that heralds the first rain hung heavy in the night air ushering in the planting season. In the distance, he could make out the flickering oil lamps held by other kids who were heading out on a hunting trip. He longed to join them, but Nana Bima, his grandmother, would hear nothing of it and would have him flayed if he dared disobey her to join the crowd in their quest for the fresh snails in the forests.
He tiptoed back to see if she was fast asleep, but her bed was empty. As he turned around, there she was standing with her legs apart, staring down at him.
"Timothy Onyema Okoye! Are you trying to sneak out?" He shrunk physically. Her voice nearly made him jump out of his skin. She was supposed to be asleep. Does she ever sleep? He wondered.
"Are you deaf, young man?"
"No Nana. I only stepped out to urinate." The lie came quickly, and that was his first time of lying to the grandmother.
"Oh, I thought you were stupid enough to go on that useless snail hunting trip. I have enough fish in the iron basket over the fire in the kitchen. Your mother sends me things. And I know you hate snails so, why do you want to go and gather snails no one is going to use?"
"Nana, Emeka and..."
"Shhhhhhh, I do not want to hear that name again. He is a bad influence. Now go on to sleep before I change my mind. You have school tomorrow."
"Yes Nana," he shuffled inside, his head down with shoulders slumped as he moved into the hut and curled up on the mat. He blew out the hurricane lamp in one corner of the room and lay sleepless in the dark. His eight-year-old mind filled with rage. He could picture the fun that Emeka and others were having at that moment. His last thought as he drifted off to sleep was of himself running in the bush with the others while picking loads of snails. Or perhaps that was his last dream because the sound of the snails as they hit his plastic bucket soon turned out to be the sound of the famous Ikoro. He jumped to his feet.
The noise outside grew. The last time he heard Ikoro was when the King died. No one would beat the mysterious slit drum unless something important or urgent happened.
He made to go out of the room and felt himself forcefully yanked back inside the room.
"Where do you think you are going, young man? Are you out of your mind? Did you not hear the Ikoro being beaten? Are you now a man? When did they start summoning you with the Ikoro? Sit down there, let us wait for more information."
His thoughts appeared to be slow, and the barrage of questions from his grandmother did not help it either. He needed to go outside to urinate.
"Go into the second room; you will see that empty tomato tin. You can pee in it."
He stared at her with disbelief. Most times he had often wondered if the grandmother read minds, or was simply crazy (as Emeka suggested). He thought she might be both. He rubbed his eyes as he went looking for the tomato tin. He was hard pressed. He knew that Ikoro was used to summon only young adult men, warriors, and old men. No women or children ever come out when the Ikoro is beaten. The matter involved was usually of a serious nature or an emergency.
Two hours later it was daylight. People left behind, mainly some old men, old women, young children and girls all started congregating in groups. The grandmother took Timothy to one of the rendezvous spots. She moved away to converse with other elderly women. That was how Timothy got to know the reason for the sound of Ikoro. Three boys that went snail hunting did not return. There were fears that the head-hunters took them. Emeka was one of them.
Timothy's young mind filled with questions, and he could not wait until they returned home to get more answers from his grandmother. Immediately they stepped inside he asked, "Why did the head-hunters take the boys?"
"Timothy. Timothy! How many times did I call you?"
"Three, Ma" he replied with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"Three? Your curiosity will not kill you. I heard the King of Naha is resting, but that's just another word for dead. They just don't say he is dead because a king is supposed to live forever. Anyway, that was why I forbade you going off at night for any reason."
"But Nana, what has the King of Naha being dead got to do with Emeka or me or even the head-hunters?"
"You are the brilliant one, and that's how I know that you are a reincarnation of my late husband, Okoye the great warrior."
This statement never got old for Timothy no matter how many times she said it. Plus it was an indication that she was in a good mood.
"Ok, I will tell you. When a King dies, the tradition requires that he would be buried with seven heads. We can't leave the king without servants in the afterlife now, can we? Naha and our community had always been on bad terms. Most of the palm trees at Okino were once in dispute. We won after killing a lot of their warriors. Since then they were not on good terms with us. Which makes an easy target when they are looking for the heads to use for their King's burial."
Timothy could never tell when the old woman was serious or yanking his chains. He considered what she had said with furrowed brows. This image made his grandmother laugh. Timothy concluded that the grandmother was genuinely crazy but in a good way.
"But they would be dead if their heads were taken?" Timothy said.
"Yes, that's the general idea. They cannot be alive while serving a dead king, now can they?"
"So, does it mean that Emeka is dead?"
"Timothy, you ask a lot of questions. The Ikoro summoned those men to find out what happened to the missing boys. They've sent some spies to Naha to check if their heads are there."
The thought of Emeka's head at Naha frightened Timothy. Even though Emeka bullied him every chance he got, he sincerely wished that his head was on his neck.
"Now, go and prepare for school," Nana barked, bringing him back to reality.
The local community school only had four teachers and the headmaster who taught all the classes, and that meant combining two classes and teaching them as one sometimes. That day, the teachers seemed to be having an endless meeting in the Staff Room. The Staff Room was not a room; instead, it was an open space at the back of the only classroom they have where the teachers met.
Pupils were huddled together, discussing the missing boys.
An hour later, the teachers came and announced that there would be no school for the day. The announcement was greeted with glee and scramble for the door as the pupils happily started the trek back home. Every off school day was a fun day.
Three days later, the men had searched all the bushes and came up empty. The spies sent to Naha returned with a similar unsuccessful story; they were no boys or heads found at Naha. Where did the boys go? People do not just vanish into thin air. The King of Naha was dead; his burial was said to be in the next two months. That gave them enough time and place to get the seven unfortunate fellow's head that would grace his grave. Legend had it that failure to provide the heads, seven important people from the community would die within one day after the funeral.
The fear could be felt in the way life in the community had changed. Parents warned their children about any movement after dusk. No more going to the bush alone to fetch firewood or water from the nearby river. There were reports of the boys being seen now and again, but it always turned out to be a false alarm.
Five weeks after the incident, a hunter that was tracking a deer deep inside the bush came across an unusual sight. He saw what appeared to be dirty clothes packed in a corner deep inside the forest. He readied his gun and approached with caution. The cloth moved as he was some twenty feet away from it. He nearly fired, but waited. He looked deeper and could make out the rag was a human in a fetal position. He slowed down the more, adrenaline pumping. He approached. He was now ten feet away when he saw it was a boy.
He coughed, and the boy woke but was too weak to do any other thing but point to something in the bush by his right. He followed his finger and saw the other two boys. They were starved and too weak to walk. He carried one and made the arduous eight-hour journey back to the village. There was wild jubilation, and young men volunteered and followed the hunter back to the bush for the other two.
The others were brought back home too. It took two days before they could talk sensibly. Everyone was curious as to how they got to be so far away from the village and in the forest for so long.
When they were strong enough to talk, they could not answer the question. They could only remember the night of the snail hunt. Then the endless walking around the forest looking for their way home. They were surprised when they heard how many days they've been missing. No one knew what happened to them that made them lose their sense of direction.
But Nana Bima said she knew what happened. And she told only Timothy. According to her, the children were unfortunate enough to come into contact with a mysterious plant in the bush. The plant was used by the elders in the ancient days to safeguard the children of the village from invasion. Anyone it touched, lost the sense of direction and time.
Timothy tried to find out if she was joking or serious, but her deadpan expression made it difficult to decide which it was. He also remembered a story she once told her about an insect that was most feared by hunters because of the insect to change a man into a woman with a single bite. Timothy was smiling, thinking about these things.
"Sir, you have a visitor in the waiting room," the young intern informed the man sitting behind the big desk.
Timothy nodded as he walked towards the waiting room to receive the visitor sent from the village to update him on the preparation of his grandmother's ten-year memorial service.
In his hand was the only portrait of the woman that raised him like a son amidst scarce resources even though his parents were wealthy. He looked at it again and smiled. He still missed Nana, crazy or not.
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