( A Short-Story in Solidarity with the Victims of incessant Herdsmen Attacks in Benue State, North-central Nigeria.)
I heard feet stamped the ground in an endless parade, some feet stamped the ground rapidly in haste and confusion. I heard strange feet trooped through our yard as though the village masquerades were let loose and were whipping people out of their sleep with their long twiggy sticks. I heard sharp cries that pinched my ears, I heard people beg like children who do not want to be flogged by their father. I heard babies wail and mothers moan in utter helplessness. I felt gunshot freeze the atmosphere for seconds, causing my spirit to run out of my body when I refused to run. I heard evil and death sing their lullabies to those who were not behind the latrine like me and my sisters or somewhere more concealed.
A fiery fire has been released from the kitchen’s mud-made fireplace that was meant to tame it. It raved the community. I watched as dots of perspiration formed and trickled down my sisters’ chins. Horror was written on their faces like the undiscernible inscriptions on the cave behind our house; it was a replica of me. Their eyes echo mute stories of chaos and unexplainable evil.
I had boiling urine in my bladder, but I could not afford to untie my raffia-knotted, oil-soiled crazy short, though we were stooping behind our pit latrine. My muscles were too frozen to move. The harmattan breeze tore through my bone marrow. My quivering right hand clipped my little sister’s mouth, their sobbing were pricking the sinister silence of the moon-haunted night.
Father had woken us up earlier that night and dragged us to the back of our pit latrine, the same way he would when we lag behind, reluctantly, on the way to the farm. The fear on his face was lit by the full moon, I sensed he had seen a ghost; mama’s ghost perhaps.
“Onoja, stay here with your sisters. Do not move, don’t leave this place. Do you understand me?” Papa had said in an audible whisper. “Don’t Cry, I will come back for you.” He spoke to my youngest sister petting her with a gentle pat on her back when she wanted to crack into tears. I thought we were being punished for causing massive erosion in our mother’s room with our urine. He left before I could tell him it was my sisters’ doing, not mine. We stooped behind the urine snared toilet. I wished dad has waited a little while before he woke me up. I was about to persuade a mother to come back to us when his coarse voice rocked me into consciousness, he would always use his large rough palm to beat me out of sleep; he had always said that I sleep like the shell of a tortoise.
The twilight spoke of the atrocities the firmament is witnessing. She lingered longer than usual to pay her last respect to those who would no longer experience the freshness of the new dawn. The ashes emanating from the fire raging on different mud-made, cone houses floated gently back on earth as though the clouds were shedding its soft skin. I could hear the fire consume the palm font roof of houses around like a famished hunter eating pounded yam and Okoho soup with both hands. The hut of my best friend, Aroche’s mother was not spared. I could see fire dancing on her rooftop from where we stoop. Flames climb up to heaven: the entire village is being consumed by the fire of the invaders.
I could also sense the acrid smell of roasted flesh. I knew the ground had consumed more than enough blood, more than Alekwu, our deity had in decades. The night seemed endless, like infinity. The dawn was too shy to take its position. The night has ferociously aided the monstrosity of these demons in human flesh and gave them space to open up the horrific calabash of death. The night was guilty of giving this evil a veil to lurk behind.
“Don’t cry, you heard what papa said, you have to be as silent as possible” I whispered into the ears of my sisters when they were warming up with their sob.
I and my sisters had barely winked a second of sleep, but my sisters were as numb as snapped buds. Gunshot ransacked the serenity of the night. The sound of these heavy and continuous booms, boom, boom caused my sisters to melt in their skin. The booms banged my eardrums, just has my heart banged against my chest. Wailing had started early that night, never to stop, even the mourning of our High Chief come to an end at a point, by this seemed not to stop. I could still hear weary feet carry distraught bodies. while men dialecting and shouting in a strange language chased after them. My step-mother tiny voice came to me; I remember how that voice cries out my name every day when it was time to fetch water from the stream. She was pleading with the evil we knew but couldn’t call out. After a sharp loud whimper, her voice subsided into a sob and then became as still as the night.
We heard struggles too; our uncles were trying to defend their own. But, who usually wins the struggle between armed aggressors and agitated defenders? I feared that the morning would tell. I saw our house; the only corrugated mud-made building in the clan goes down in flames through the slit on the wooden latrine wall. The red flames defied the dawning morning like a bonfire. I didn’t notice when tears streamed down my chin.
The pain coated cry of grandma filled the air like the arches from the flames, but we could only listen and pity but do nothing. We could not save mama, her cry now had died. I wondered why we could not save Mama from the burning house. This invader had indeed lunched on their own stony heart, how could they burn down a house with an old woman in it? Father’s words had tied not just our bodies but also our voices down. We feared our father’s word more than we feared his whip, doing contrary to his word was like swimming contrary to the wave of the sea.
The sky had brightened up the earth. The sun sluggishly mounted up the sky from behind us. He was too timid to shine after witnessing all the evil the night had concealed. My sisters eyes narrated the tales I also witnessed throughout the night, those eyes told me even more tales than I had bargained for. Those innocent eyes were the constant obituary of our mother, they reminded me of two years earlier – while we were on our way to the river to wash our clothes – how men with weapons attacked us. How she stared at us while we were being held down by some of these men, while they did all manner of evil to her. They raped her even though she was pregnant, stabbed her and slit her throat. Her eyes were like crystal flint while she laid dying. Even after death, they opened her up and brought out her fetus.
“Just keep quiet they would not hurt you” was the last thing our mother said to us. That experience had taught us to watch while evil flourished because there is nothing we could do about it.
Silence haunted the neighborhood that cold Saturday morning, it was unusual not to hear pestles battling it out with mortals – the women would either be pounding cocoyam or crushing freshly harvested palm kernels. It is unusual for children not to curse and shout when footballing Ogbono fruit every Saturday morning, or for Baba not to warm up his Suzuki motorcycle for the journey to the farm. Strangely, the silence was the only music the morning was humming. I could only hear high pitched wailings from afar, the rhythm of the wailings spoke of death in its unconcealed form.
“Let Go,” I said, now that I am confident that the men dressed in the dimness of the night had done their worst and gone.
“Baba said we should not leave here,” one of my sisters said, her face pale, thick gray mucus stuck-out of her nose, she sucked the slick substance back in with a sharp breath, and innocently licked the remnant with the tip of her tongue.
“I said let go” I insisted.
We stepped out almost tiptoeing from our hiding place; behind the latrine, the stench emanating from the pit didn’t win a pinch of our attention. The land had wined on the endless blood that flowed and could not consume all. My pregnant stepmother lied lifeless, her fetus was not spared just as my mother’s was not. My uncles slept on the earth like drunks, intoxicated with their own blood. Bodied like logs littered our compound, and I wonder how I and my sisters would be able to clean this mess up in a day. The wall of our father’s house was as dark as the inner part of the kitchen’s clay molded fireplace. Threads of flames from different houses could still be seen lining up the atmosphere towards the sky like the last prayers of people who became ancestors during the night.
At the entrance of our premises, we saw our father’s bony chest, with a fountain of blood on his throat. His cutlass still in his grip. Two of the invaders laid on each of his sides, like the bible story of the two thieves Mama-Pastor told us about during last week Sunday school. Then, I remembered Baba’s hate-filled declaration the day after my mother was buried; “I will kill two of those Herdsmen before they take my life or touch any member of my family” I took the cutlass from my dad, Baba had done his words. “I will kill all the herdsmen,” I said, in a public declaration that was brewed in renewed anger and revenge.