THOSE MOMENTS BEFORE DAWN

“My son, the fly who has no adviser follows the corpse into the grave…”, Father was saying in the characteristic manner of elders.
Where I come from, the craft of spicing words with proverbs is a skill highly coveted and sought after, a mark of outstanding oratory. It was believed that only those privileged to have fathers could stand a chance to learn the craft of oratory, for one learned from listening attentively to elders speak and deliberate in the most crafty manner over matters of the utmost or least importance. In this art, Father was among the highly skilled and held in high esteem for his oratorical prowess both within and outside the community where he had on some occasion put his mastery of the craft to employ. Of course there were always many occasions that calls for Father’s attendance; there was always a truce to break between two aggrieved parties, a divorce case to settle, a marriage rite to perform and more often than not, a mission to a far away land in service to the king, for Father was an Nze, a king maker who served on the king’s cabinet and was custodian of traditions and customs. Regrettably, I didn’t and haven’t yet gotten a grip on the use of proverbs in my speech. I am still intrigued at the smooth talk of elders in village gatherings, as they cleverly navigate around sensitive issues with the use of proverbs, conveying volumes with brief words and yet causing less injury. Maybe it was due to the reason that I had left the village at a very early age for school in Aba the large market town and had continued farther away from home in my pursuit for higher studies, but now in my early thirties, I have given up on the hope of ever getting a hold on the craft.
“When the ear refuses instructions, it falls along with the head when the head is chopped off” Father’s voice cut through the stillness of the early morning. That was the much that caught my attention jolting me out of my sleep induced reverie, for I had long lost track of what he was saying; my mind had long been made soggy with drowsiness-I had sat up late last night and must swear that I had slept only a few minutes before Father had awoken me for this torturous mental grill so early this morning. This was one part of home-coming I never looked forward to; having to be awakened by my father at the first light of dawn -on the morning I had scheduled to depart- to an endless talk that reminded one of the long hours of sitting in the morning sun listening to the principal give a topic on moral lesson back in my secondary school days. Most times the session took till the break of daylight, and deprived of sleep, I will have to doze throughout the three-hour bus ride to the city.
The previous night, I had announced to my family during a hearty dinner of Akpu and bitterleaf soup on the verandah that I will be returning to the city by morning. The momentary silence that followed my announcement was electrifying, and to break the silence, I immediately added, “but I will be visiting again by next month. Father had replied, “o di mma, it is well”, and the chatting over mounds of meal had continued, except that I couldn’t fail to notice that Mother had remained silent all through the rest of dinner. Dinner over, we the men- Father, I and my three brothers- had sat reclined to allow the food digest as we chatted, while my sister, Nma assisted Mother in clearing and washing the dishes in our thatched kitchen, and then moments later, Father had suggested I retire early for the night bringing to my attention that I had a journey to undertake the next morning.
At exactly -when I fathomed was –the first light of day, Father, in his characteristic slight stoop walked into my bedroom, a hurricane lantern burning low in one hand and his old mahogany carved low stool in the other (he said the stool was a gift given him by the then Ovarhemi, when he went as an emissary on the king’s errand to the distant kingdom of Benin. The matter, I recall had something to do with one of the daughters of our land, reported to be mistreated in her matrimonial home in far away Benin). He had sat on his stool at one side of the room opposite my bed on which I was sprawled half naked, the burning lantern at his feet, its flame leaping up out of rhythmic like it were some goat reaching up desperately for some juicy foliage from a low hanging branch of a tree. He had called my name in a calm voice that did nothing to belie the authoritative undertone, “Chukwujioke, Chukwujioke, Chukwujioke” like an Afa priest conjuring up some discerning spirit. I must confess I heard him call out my name the second time-which I ignored in a bid to wish it away- but at the third time, I knew the old man was bent on rousing me from my peaceful slumber, so like a reluctant servile ghost, I dragged myself up to a sitting position on the grave of my bed.
“Good morning”, Father had greeted. This was one of those rare moments when he offered a greeting to any of his sons or his wife.
I muttered an incoherent reply in a way that did little to hide my feeling of indignation at being roused up at such an hour of deep respite. Pretending not to notice my discomfort, he launched into a tirade of admonitions that ran into, “our people have a saying that a poor man’s cock is his fattened cow………..”
For the deep respect I had for father, I would have succumbed to the mounting urge to collapse onto the alluring comfort of the mattress that sunk slightly under my weight, but then I fought to keep my eyelids open and look alert at least. Mother had parted the threadbare curtain and silently sneaked into the room and without ceremony other than muttering a ‘good morning ‘nna anyi ‘, audible enough to be acknowledged but not enough as to interrupt, she sat on the bed beside me, supporting her chin on her clenched fist piously listening . She never so much as stirred in her sedentary position but sat as though she was cut in alabaster.
Minutes passed and the feeling of sleepiness had left me, but my mind had been lost to the old man’s voice. Maybe my disinterest showed on my face, for he said, “… seeing and not sounding the warning is the death of the elder, but hearing the warning and not heeding is the death of the youth”.
I am a son of the soil, a true son of my father, I know the implication of a parable explained to a listener; that the bride price paid on the listener’s mother’s head was a total waste, for she to had given birth to an empty skull void of an ounce of brain matter. This was one of the mortal insults an adult son of the soil can’t afford to bear upon his person. I knew that Father, in his usual diplomatic manner had sensed my disinterest and had employed his oratorical skills in putting my side-tracked mind in check. His skill had its intended result for I sat straight in full attention, the shroud of sleep having been pulled away by my remorse at spiting my father.
“No matter how small an idol is, it is still borne with reverence on both palms. I am your father, the things I see seated on this stool, you can see them from atop a palm tree…..” he paused then continued, “There is something I hear about your recent frolicking with Odogwu’s daughter…..”
I sifted uncomfortably where i sat wondering how news flew back home like fart in a hot room,
“I’m not going to ask you to tell me if it is true or not, but all I’m going to tell you is that you should remove the monkey’s hand from the pot of soup before it transforms to a human hand, what is applied in the ear is not applied in the eyes. We are forbidden from marrying Ikwuano because our ancestors are bonded by close blood ties, Ikwuano and Mbanabo were brothers from the same mother and as such their children and generations yet unborn are forbidden from marrying, forever. Our people say, seeing and not talking is the death of the elder, but hearing and not heeding is the death of the young. I have thrown the bone to the dog, the fight is between it and the spirits.
“I will have to tend to my raffia palms now and won’t meet you on my return, but please remember to take the tubers of yams I packed for you at the barn. They say man shouldn’t oppress the spirits and the spirits shouldn’t oppress man. Seek after no man’s hurt and may anybody who seeks to hurt you break his neck instead.”
“Iseee” Mother, who had remained mute all the while answered, stamping her right foot on the ground in emphasis
“May Chukwu okike protect you.”
“Isee”
“May nightfall never descend upon your path”
“Iseee”
“May the path pave way before you”
“Iseee”
“I will always offer libations on your behalf just make sure you keep your hands clean. Avoid evil company, take no man’s bread from his hand and never withhold another man’s bread from him”
I nodded
“The gods of your fathers will watch over you, this is a father’s wish for his son. Go in peace” he said, standing from his stool with considerable effort. He carried his stool in one hand and the now flickering hurricane lamp in the other as he walked with steady cautious steps out of the room slightly hunched. Age was quite catching up with Father, I couldn’t help but notice while watching his retreating form as he disappeared behind the parted threadbare but clean curtain.
“You heard all what your father said” Mother said, breaking the silence that Father had left behind.
“Yes mama” I answered
“Please discontinue your affair with the Ikwuano girl. You will find another good girl to marry”
“Yes mama” was all I could answer
“Or you could permit me to scout around for better girls who know how to cook good meals, clean the house, split firewood and fetch water for you better than all these fragile township girls that were hastily given birth to on the road to a search for greener pastures with nothing picked along the way except easy virtues”
“Haa! Mama” I gasped in feigned astonishment. She had switched to her vile tongue which she only employed whenever she was engaged in a verbal duel with anyone of her fellow women folk. They have learnt to give her venomous tongue a wide berth whenever she was in her element.
“I was only joking” she said rubbing my bare shoulder with her coarse palms. They were palms made rough with tilling the earth, picking vegetables, pounding cooked palm fruits with long wooden pestles and all other activities that gave essence to life in the village.
“Any girl you bring home to us will be my own daughter. I will take my time to teach her how to prepare the ripe plantain porridge that I had always used to blackmail you into doing all those chores you never liked as a child”.
I laughed my first laughter for the day, a very hearty one. I remembered those years, for many years ago, when I was still a boy, I hated being the one to go into the bush to fetch the bunch of palm fruits that the hired man felled for us (Father had a large expanse of farmland he had inherited from his late father, him being the only surviving son and he had used the land for a small palm plantation). The thorns always had a way of piercing my palm no matter how careful I had been as I tried to heft the thorny bunch onto the pad of rolled rag place atop my head. Mother on knowing the scheduled day for the dreaded harvest, would buy some overripe plantains and dried fish from the market, and with the aroma of the cooking food whetting my appetite, she would send me on the errand with the promise of a lion’s share. I would race to Haruna’s house- Haruna was the son of the local principal from the North and my closest friend- and if we were lucky to get Enyinna his neighbor in the staff’s quarters of the Federal College, the job would be over in a matter of time, and then with a savage appetite, the trio of us would preside over the fate of a generous servings of overripe plantain and dried fish.
“I will go to make the fire so you will have some warm water to bath with. Hope you will have some pap and akara”
“You shouldn’t be putting yourself to such trouble” I protested, “isn’t Nma there?”
“Don’t worry, this is one occasion when I allow her such liberties. It is not every day I get to fuss over my first son” she dismissed as she got up from the bed after three failed attempts and suppressing a wince all the while. I made a mental note to save up some money so that in no time she visits the general hospital at Enugu where competent doctors would see to the pain in the ankle she frequently complains about.
When she had left the room, my mind returned to the subject matter of my Father’s lengthy proverbial instruction.
We had met some four weeks back, I and Lizzy, a beautiful and nice girl, a midwife working with the State Hospital Boar. She struck me as hardworking, easy-going, and sanguine. We hadn’t started anything serious, just a few visits she returned and an occasional outdoor meeting together, but from the momentum of things we were having a shine to each other. The foreseeable future portended something long-lasting; she was single just as I still am. Our fore-fathers had been siblings, and so what? Why do men have to set boundaries to freedom, not only to themselves, but to their seeds still in their loins? Does the fact they are dead give them the right to dictate for the living? These and many more questions nudged at my heart until I heard Mother call, “Chukwujioke, your bath water is getting cold” , then I realized I hadn’t moved from my sedentary position all the while.
I got up, threw my towel across my left shoulder and headed towards the low hanging doorway of my room that would lead me into the open yard and towards the bathroom. I was sure the common caustic soap the household uses would be waiting patiently on its perch among the rafters, waiting to slightly corrode my skin again, for since the past two days I had used it, I have noticed my skin peeling off in places. Mother argued that apart from the fact that it didn’t smell as nice as the one sold in stores, it did a good deal of better washing. I wasn’t to argue today for I had forgotten to bring along a bar of toilet soap.
As I secured the door of the bathroom, and splashed the warm water over my head, my mind wandered. I thought of the discussion I just had with my parents, I thought of the future, I thought of loyalty to parents and customs, I thought of so many things but I thought of Lizzy the most.

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