TO GATHER AND TO CAST AWAY

I couldn’t help but marvel at the magnificent architecture, portraits of members of European Royal houses and rare-looking African artifacts that made up the interior décor of the palace room as I sipped from my glass of the freshly tapped white palm wine poured by a courteous and sturdy lad I assumed was an attendant.
My father had brought along a keg of palm-wine, he had undergone pains to see that Nwichi, the tapper didn’t renege on his promise and just as he had wanted it, the wine wasn’t diluted with water. He had insisted that one doesn’t go before the king of a strange land with empty hands. We were seated on a long leopard skin settee, one of two sets at opposite ends to the other; my father to my right, my father’s younger brother Ndubuisi to my left and one of my father’s cousins from his mother’s side – of whose existence I had earlier known nothing about until he showed up very early that morning in our house, fully girded in his traditional attire complete with a string of huge red beads dangling from around his neck and around his wrists- on the settee opposite.
I had met Angela some three months earlier. Things have ever since been so rosy afterwards and then three weeks ago, we had thrown a little engagement party with only close friends in attendance. Things had to follow the normal course since I wanted us legally married before her three weeks pregnancy developed further, so I had come home and broken the news to my parents that I had found a wife. As is the custom among us Igbos, before we married, we enquired if the potential mate’s bloodline was pure; if the person is an illegitimate child, whether they had unacceptable traits that ran in their bloodline, if they had a mad relative, or one given to stealing, or suicide. The others may be overlooked, but what couldn’t be overlooked was if the potential mate’s family was ‘osu’; an outcast.
In the very distant past when slaves were given as living sacrifices to deities, they and their generations forevermore became ‘osu’. They lived in isolated settlements away from the free society, never to intermarry with the free-born nor attain to any respectable position in the society. They were properties of the deity to which they were sacrificed, never to be touched nor harmed by any man, else the offender was met with the wrath of the deity. Overtime, free-born criminals in a bid to escape heavy punishments for their crimes, voluntarily surrendered to a deity, to remain osu; they and generations yet unborn, till the end of time. The name osu is so abhorrent in the Igbo culture that it was only mentioned in hushed tones like the smallpox was and like every other title, one was eligible to be osu by birth or marriage.
On an elevated platform at the head of the palace hall, sat a throne borne by two fierce-looking male lions carved in wood. On the throne was ensconced a middle-aged man, the king of the widely-known Alaeze clan. He was clad in a plain white long sleeved shirt rolled up to the elbow, a silver spectacle case sticking out of the single breast pocket, he had on a faded brown chinos trousers. He looked odd, in sharp contrast to the royal appearance of the palace.
On our arrival, the king had insisted amiably yet authoritatively that we first be refreshed before the business of the day was conducted. A medium sized ivory tray bearing kolanut, bitter kola, garden egg, alligator pepper and a peppery peanut paste in a small hollow saucer was presented before us. Fortunately, I wasn’t asked to break the kola nor say the prayers, for I couldn’t pray in Igbo, the only language of the kolanut.
When everybody had began regarding the half empty jar of palm wine with such countenance that signified satiety, the attendant began clearing the side stools placed before each man on which our glasses of drinks were meant to be placed.
“A frog doesn’t jump around in the day in vain, it is either after something or something is after it. I know you came all the way from your houses to this palace. You have my ears now” the king said, his voice ringing out in a clear echo about the hall.
My father’s kinsman, being the eldest, cleared his throat, and in a voice made shaky with age, he replied reverently, “Eze, may your reign be long”
“Iseeee” every one chorused
“We come in peace. It is said that wherever a child is pointing towards while crying, it is either his father or mother is in that direction”
Everybody nodded their agreement
“This here is our son” my father said patting my shoulder, “in his journeys as a man, he has met a damsel, a native of this land you preside over. You are a custodian of the culture, you know that it won’t be right we abandon ‘omenaala’ for ‘omena-elu’, so we have come to enquire of her pedigree, to know if this road is one we are really willing to take or not, for our fathers say if a road is good, it will be taken many times than once. Our people also say that a traveler who enquires of directions from those he meets on the road doesn’t get lost.”
“o bu ezi okwu; that is true” everybody muttered in agreement
“Eze anyi, I have made known our mission. I salute you”
The king remained silent for a moment, apparently allowing the effect of my kinsman’s speech to elapse, then he spoke, “I greet you my friends”
“Eze, may you live long” we chorused our reply
“The sheep said that he doesn’t know any dancing steps as such he doesn’t dance in the public square, but if the drummers happen to be play in his father’s compound, he will at most jump to the beat”
We all laughed in amusement.
“Before you my father” he addressed my aged kinsman, “I’m but a child, but you have come to me and have come well. Be rest assured that you will receive the best of my hospitality and assistance. Welcome once again”
We genuflected.
“Young man,” the king said to me, “whose daughter is this girl your fathers talk about?”
“Mazi Okeneagwu’s daughter.” I answered fighting down the sudden tension that rose to my throat, daring to make my voice quiver. I noticed too that my palms had become moist and involuntarily, I wiped at my upper lip.
“Are you referring to Maazi Okeneagwu of Ngeneukwu kindred that worked with the State Treasury?” he asked
“Yes your highness” I answered, nodding and bowing slightly. I couldn’t seem to stand the royal glory this simple-looking man seemed to exude
The king remained silent for a minute, and then he beckoned the attendant who had stood sentry all the while at the exit door.
“Call me Omenka, he is at the backyard. Tell him to make haste” he instructed the attendant who had scurried up to his side bowed. The attendant hastened away, while we waited tensed.
It was five minutes but seemed like an age when a lanky old man sporting a dirty grey beard breezed into the palace room, stopping a foot away from the royal throne. I noticed a spring in his step, surprising for his age.
“Eze nwata, young king” he addressed the king, genuflecting, “I am at your service”
“this is one of the elders of the land, a very noble fellow on whose endless supply of wisdom I rely, that justice may be discharged in fairness from this throne.” he introduced the old man to us
“Unu abiala; you are welcome” he greeted with a timid wave of his hand as his leathery chin wrinkled backwards in a smile
“Ehe” we chorused in response
“Omenka” the king addressed the man, whose face had returned to a more serious look as he focused all his attention to what demands his king might place to his wisdom, “this young man seated here’ he gestured towards my direction as the old man’s eyes followed the followed, settling at me only for a moment before diverting to his speaking king, “came in the company of his kinsmen to enquire of the purity of the bloodline of this land. Young man, please whose house did you mention again?”, he directed at me again
“Mazi okengwu” I answered a bit too quickly
Omenka bowed his head resignedly at the mention of the name. the king remained silent too. I caught my father exchanging knowing glances with my uncle and his cousin. It appeared as though a coded message was being transmitted to all present through the silent media. At last, the king broke the silence.
“You are the father of this young man right?” he asked my father
“Yes” my father replied
“Did any word part my lips?” the king asked looking my father straight in the eye
“No” was my father’s reply after a moment’s contemplative silence.
“Did you get what you sought for in my palace?”
“Yes your highness” my father replied again
“Did I speak ill of anybody?” he asked again
“No Ezenwata”
“You are the true son of your father” the king stated. He turned to Omenka opening the palms of his outstretched hands before him in a gesture of innocence “ You are my witness just as well as the omnipresent gods are”
“May you live long your highness, and may your seed inherit the good land” my father saluted
“Isee’ the king replied
“ Your hospitalilty was remarkable but we must be on our way now, the journey back home is a long one”
“May your journey be like that of Awele”
“Isee” we all answered. We bowed in appreciation before the king who as a sign of acknowledgement patted our backs with his palm, then we and filed out from before the royal presence. Omenka remained bowed all the while, he had started shaking his head sideways in that characteristic manner that showed regretful resignation.
My father did explain to me later, Angela was osu. Notable indigenes of Alaeze in a bid to stem the stigma attached to being osu had colloborated with the federal government to enact a bill into law, forbidding any form of discrimination against osus. In the recent past, violators had stood trial for defamation of character. It hadn’t stopped there; the women body of Alaeze had been overwhelmed by the growing population of spinsters that they had staged a public oath-taking ceremony, incurring the wrath of the gods on anyone who disclosed the abhorrent ancestry of anyone of their osu daughters.
Angela visited my flat days after. We ate some Danish cookies and drank some papaya juice then lay sprawled on my bed, playing a half-hearted game of scrabble. I told her that I had visited Alaeze with my family. She looked me straight in the eyes, her face taking some mystic form like she could see through my eyes and into my soul, I didn’t say a thing for I couldn’t, not that I knew what to say. Maybe she had some mystic powers after all, maybe my eyes betrayed me, maybe my countenance told her all she had wanted to know, maybe I possessed some telepathic capabilities unknown to me, but she just walked out through the door and I never saw her again, ever.
Yesterday, just yesterday, Nduka my son in the university made a casual statement that he shares a striking resemblance with their Student Union Government President. He said his friends comment that they could have been identical twins were it not for the difference in ages and a slight difference in height (Angela was tall and slender in her youth). Angela must have borne our child, our son and kept him away from me all these years. Did she keep the pregnancy out of spite for my free-born blood? Why did she wait this long, did she ever get married, did she tell the boy who his father was or did she fabricate a story about a father that died mysteriously soon after he was born, these were the many questions that have assailed my mind since yesterday. I will have to put the matter straight, and it has to be sooner than later.
When a man is past his youth and grows closer to the grave with every dawn of the day, very few things matter to him anymore. Those are times of gathering and casting away, times when he gathers to himself the real essences of life and casts away the many bonds that holds life bondage. He sees the vanity of validation that encumbers the youth, he sighs with regret at the many choices he had shied away from because of fear, the fear of being different, the fear of unacceptance. Providence had given him a chance, the boy was his, ‘osu’ or no; he will be the one to tell him that. Angela will be for another day.

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