One evening in February a few men were congregated around a fire set burning upon a tyre, wood and several other debris. They belonged to a small division of the Biafran army and were awaiting commands to trudge forward. Their gray uniforms were worn old beyond the point of redemption. One of the men was heating something in an old peak milk tin over the embers. Three were lying at complete length a little distance away, while a fourth was trying to decipher a letter and had grown close to the flames. He had unbuttoned his shirt and even his brown underwear was flying loose.
“Wetin be that, wey you wear for neck, Ifeanyi?” Asked one of the men lying in the murkiness. Ifeanyi quickly buttoned his shirt and did not say a word. He continued reading his letter. “Na your darling picture, abi?” “No be woman picture be that O” disclosed the man at the fire. He had removed the tin can from the heat and was now engaged in stirring it’s grubby contents with a very small stick. “That thing na juju, e be like wetin him papa give am to protect am. I know them type wey their family shrine be like bunker. That is why him dey get promotion anyhow, and no even one scratch dey him body. O boy! No be true I talk?” Ifeanyi fixed up his gaze absently from his letter.
“Na wetin dey worry ona?” He asked. “That thing wey you wear for neck, no be jass?” “Na him! Eze” returned Ifeanyi with a weak smile. “I no know how I for take survive all this plenty months, like say e no dey with me before”.
The very letter he had written had made Ifeanyi’s heart weak and homesick. He stretched himself on his back and stared into the black blanket of the night. But his mind was not on stars or the emptiness of space but a cold weary morning in June when the forest was alive with green, and a girl was saying goodbye to him. He could see her as she unfastened the necklace from her neck and put it around his own. It was a very old gold necklace fashioned in the form of a Catholic rosary. It was her most precious earthly possession.
Ifeanyi could see her sweet face once again, the bray of her gentle blouse as she wrapped her arms around him. The enticing scents of her neck, her magnetic face, horrified by the anguish of farewell, and once again she appeared before him as memorable as the first fruit of a tree. He turned over this time, burying his face into the earth.
The emptiness, the vague beauty of the night along with its silence and eerie peace settled over the camp and he faded into a dream. He dreamed that the beautiful Ginika had brought him a most delicious meal. He had no sweet stories to tell her and was embarrassed at his garments. He was ashamed of the bare ground he had to lie down with her.
He dreamt of an earthquake, where the sky fell upon him and all the animals ran out of the forest seeking a safe haven, and he ran too, but was unable to get to safety as all around him broke into pandemonium.
“Oya! Oya! get up you! Juju man! Eze was bellowing in his face. There was what appeared to be a commotion and a sudden rush. The whole forest was alive with shatter and motion, with upspringing lights among the trees. In the east, the dawn was unfolding out of the darkness. It’s scintillation was yet dim in the world below.
“What is this all about?” Wondered a big black bird perched atop the tallest tree. He was a very old sequestered wise fellow, still he was not intelligent enough to guess what was happening. So all through the night, all day long, he had kept observing and dreaming.
The uproar descended far out over the whole environment and across the bridge and awoke the little things that were sleeping in their nests and dens. The man made gloom climbed up over the sun and shadowed the trees, that the foolish animals thought it was going to rain, but the wise bird knew better. “They are men, trying to paint the earth with smoke and lightning” thought he. “I shall know more about this if I keep watch long enough”. At the approach of the second night they had all vanished with all their tintinnabulation and dust. Then the old feathered creature unraveled his wings. At last he had gained understanding, with a flap of his huge, black feathers he shot downward circling the place.
Two days later, an old man was prizing his way through the area, he was dressed in the garb of an Igbo native. He administered the consolations of religion to any of the procumbent figures in whom there might yet tarry a flicker of life. His eighteen year old son accompanied him, bearing a native bag and a flask of a wine of some sort. “There are no wounded here, they have been braved far away” he said to his boy. The battle had been quick and messy and only the vultures and flies would have to look to the dead.
There was a soldier, a mere boy lying with his face to the sky next to an Iroko tree. His hands were clutching the pasture and his fingernails were stuffed with earth and bits of dew that he had gathered in his disconsolate grasp upon existence. His rifle was gone, he was puffy and his face and clothes were defiled. In his left breast pocket laid a letter, and around his neck hung a gold necklace. He had grown used to the abominations of war but after reading the contents of the letter, somehow tears found a way to the old man’s blurry eyes.
The joy and beauty of a warm summer day had descended upon the earth like a sanctification. Along the forest path of the village, led a long journey to the Umbe river. The trees swayed in movements slow, not withstanding the constant tugging of the wind at the top of their leaves. Ginika wore a plain brown gown, severe in it’s simplicity, reaching down to her knees. Beneath the folds of cloth laid the old gold necklace, she never showed it nowadays. It had returned to her holy, sanctified by the most sorrowful moment of her whole existence.
A thousand times she had read the letter with which the necklace came back with, no later than that morning she had brooded over it again. As the songs of birds and the humming of insects filled the air, she remembered the Nigerian civil war was over and she was still young and the world was still a beautiful place, there came over her a sense of determination when she recalled all what the old man told her.
With the gold and the red fading out of the west and the night gathering shadows to cover the faces of the dead once again, she decided to give happiness another trial “for the both of us” she said as she threw the necklace and the letter into the river where they met. With visage uplifted to the gray sky in a deep agony of supplication, she wiped the tears that were in her eyes and went her way into the night.
© Funkekeme Akposeye.