It had rained for seven days. The clouds let loose heavy torrents that drowned the sound of laughter and washed dead animals along bush paths. When the unrelenting downpour finally reduced to a drizzle, the villagers crawled out of their huts and squinted at the daylight.
Mazi Obileke spat out his chewed stick, ‘Idemmili has finished throwing her tantrum.’
It was a slow day. The villagers sharpened their tools and tried to move firewood out of the drizzle. Women went over to their neighbours to borrow salt and forage for news. The men sat in their wrappers, drinking old palmwine.
The kegs were almost empty when Ofoma, the town crier showed up.
‘Ofoma nwoke m,’ Mazi Obileke called out, ‘I hope this is a social call.’
‘Unfortunately, it is not.’ He coughed, ‘I have shouted myself hoarse, but I must make my rounds before the sun is in the middle of the sky.’
‘Why is that? What news is that urgent?’
‘Even I do not know, but Nwaanyi Nweke has demanded that we gather at Idemmili’s shrine before then.’
Mazi Obileke laughed, ‘She should ask Idemmilli to first let us see the sun, then we will know to come when it has reached the peak of the sky.’
‘Maziiii, even a child on its belly can tell the time on a cloudy day. I am sure the goddess knows that.’
‘Indeed, indeed. I best get my sons and head to the shrine. We don’t have much time left.’
The villagers gathered around the shrine. The air rippled with murmurs and subdued conversation.
‘Why are we here?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe the goddess wants to make a demand.’
‘Ahn-ahn. She has locked us in for seven days. What more does she want? Should we all drown ourselves?’
‘Shhh! Mechie onu. The gods have ears.’
Nwaanyi Nweke stepped out of the shrine, backwards, seven steps. Then she swivelled to face the crowd, her beads jangling over her sagged breasts.
‘People of Nnobi! Give me your ears, for this may be your last opportunity to heed my warning.’
The villagers hushed.
‘It has been one moon since you held the meeting where you banned the young men from visiting Idemmili’s river. Yes, we all know that about this period, every year, a young man enters Idemmili’s waters and never rises again. Yes, we mourn. Every year, a mother must lose her child. I commiserate. But it is necessary. I remember telling you, the people of Nnobi, that a family is privileged who Idemmili swallows their son, for their yams sprout and their daughters bloom. The goddess has been generous to us, but Nwaanyi Nweke was called twisted and vile for asking that Idemmili be allowed to claim her yearly sacrifice. We do not question Ikenga who lets your sons die in battle, or Ani who smashes the bodies of your fathers as they climb the palm tree, or rips the life out of your mothers in childbirth. We do not question Owummiri who turn your sisters to ogbanjes and takes them away. We don’t question Amadioha, Ekwensu, Alu. But Idemmili claims hers and the villagers boycott her rivers.’
She spun to face the shrine, seven steps forward, the she spun again. her face contorted with rage, she pointed her staff at the crowd.
‘I am Idemmili, Idemmuo, head of heads, pillar of the oceans in the sky, custodian of the bowl of the living and the dead, I hold the knife, I hold the yam, and I will serve you what you deserve. Mothers of Nnobi, weep no more. Tonight your sons will rise and walk among you. Sons of Nnobi, the ball is in your hands. Idemmili has spoken.’
Nwaanyi Nweke’s shoulders stooped, she leaned on her staff for support and entered her hut.
The first wail was heard at dusk.
Neighbours gathered at Mazi Agusike’s house. His wife sat on the floor, her torn wrapper barely covering her. She rolled her legs in the mud.
‘I saw him.’ She clutched her heart, ‘I saw my Ebube. My son. Nwa eji m eme onu. Idemmili took him, now she has sent him back.’
‘O zugo. It’s alright.’ Her husband put a hand on her shoulders.
‘It is not alright. My son is back but he is not my son anymore. Biko pray to the gods. Idemmili has cursed us.’
The neighbours offered their sympathies and returned to their homes.
‘I feel sad for Mama Ebube.’ Ahunne said as she and Obileke returned home.
‘Yes. She really has not been the same after losing her son to the river. Perhaps Agusike should marry another woman to take care of him.’
‘It is not necessary.’ Ahunne snapped.
It was dark when pandemonium broke. The dead sons of Nnobi filed into village, back to their father’s houses. Naked bodies, vacant eyes. They left trails of water and mouthed words that no one could hear. They trailed after their mothers as everyone ran in search of safety.
‘My heart has broken again.’ A mother wept as her husband pulled her from the house.
Gathered at the village square, everyone chattered wildly.
‘Let us go back to Idemmili’s shrine! Nwaanyi Nweke can make this stop.’
‘She is only a messenger. She has delivered her message.’
‘What do we do? How do we fight what is already dead.’
‘They’re not here to fight. Let us hand them their mothers so that they can go.’
‘Hand over my wife? Are you mad?’
‘Please give me to my son, I want to die.’
‘Tufiakwa! You will not die.’
Even the dogs were agitated, barking louder and louder.
‘They are coming! They are coming for us! Something must be done.’
‘Idemmili wants our sons. Whom shall we give her?’
‘Take Okeke’s third son. He is useless.’
‘Your head is useless! You hear?’
‘Let all the men go to the river so that she will choose.’
‘Who will protect the women?’
More screaming. The walking dead had traced their mothers to the village square. Mama Ebube ran to her son. ‘Ebube nwa m.’
As she touched him, she fell to the floor convulsing, then went still.
The crowd scattered in every direction. Men picked up their daughters and ran. Dogs were trampled. Obileke ran with his family. At a distance, his son Udo pulled back.
‘Papa, Mama, forgive me.’
‘What are you doing?’
‘Our family needs divine blessing more than I’m needed.’
Ahunne crumpled to the floor, ‘My son, don’t do this.’
‘Papa, I am the least of your sons and you know it.’ He stared Obileke in the eyes.
Obileke nodded, ‘End this madness.’ He picked his wife and the family kept running.
It was still at the bank of Idemmili’s river- except for the occasional undead rising out of the water. Udo had passed a number of them on his way, but they didn’t even see him. They were off to find their mothers.
‘Idemmili! I am not a priest and I do not know the right things to say. I’m probably not the strongest or the most worthy in the land, but I am here now, and that makes me the bravest. Please accept me as a sacrifice. Let there be peace in the village. Let my family prosper. Let my mother find solace-‘
The water rose and engulfed him.
‘I’m surprised. It’s always the little guys that have the most to say.’
Udo’s lids were heavy. He struggled to open his eyes. ‘Huh?’
‘You’re definitely not the one I would have chosen, but you made a point with the braveness. Plus men are not in the habit of offering themselves to me.’
Udo opened his eyes. He was in a huge room. Gold dust sparkled on the clay walls. Cowrie-lined windows displayed sea creatures swimming back and forth. Stars twinkled through the ceiling. The bed on which Udo lay was soft as morning dew on grass. Idemmili stood over him.
Idemmili, she was gorgeous. Her skin was the colour of clear honey, her teeth sparkled like fresh palmwine, her eyes twinkled with mischief. She was naked, except for the beads that adorned her. Cowries in her curly black hair, corals around her neck, between the supple mounds of her breasts, circling her small waist, they draped over her full hips and encircled her ankles. She had gold markings on her skin, intricate designs from her shoulders to her feet.
‘Don’t worry. You’re quite safe. I can’t kill what is already dead.’
‘I’m- I’m dead?’
‘Not entirely.’ She grinned.
Udo knelt before her, ‘Idemmili, please spare my family, spare the village.’
‘I heard you the first time.’ She waved a hand.
‘Your people are fine. I just gave them cool stories to tell their grandchildren.’
‘What of Mama Ebube?’
‘Casualty. Her fault, not mine.’ She inspected her nails.
‘So Ma, what happens now?’
‘Enough of that ‘Ma’ business. Do I look old?’
She looked about nineteen. ‘No Ma. Sorry- you’re beautiful.’
Idemmili sat beside Udo and put an arm around his shoulder. She smelled like roasted palm fruit on a harmattan morning. Udo inhaled.
‘Why did you offer yourself to me?’
‘I- I wanted, it was the right thing to do.’
‘You humans surprise me. An entire village and the only one who offered…’ she shook her head,
‘I’m slightly amused, slightly insulted, but most of all I’m curious. When did you know?’
Udo shrugged, ‘I don’t know. I’ve just always felt that way. Papa knows too but he’ll never admit it to himself or to anyone. Mama, she doesn’t know, but she’s probably the only person that will still love me anyway.’
‘Interesting.’ She stood.
‘I’m also surprised, Ma.’
‘You’re not a mermaid.’
‘No I’m not. But I get wet more times than they do.’ She laughed.
‘Why humans… Ma?’
Idemmili rolled her eyes. ‘I have known the gods forever, literarily. They bore me. And the males are scared of a woman with a python bigger than theirs.’
‘Eke.’ A snake crawled to Idemmili and wrapped itself around her.
‘He’s my messenger, my pet.’
‘Of course. Everybody knows Eke, Mr. Popular.’ She stroked his head.
‘Also, there is something about the human spirit, when it is stripped from that pathetic mortal body. They become like no god I’ve seen before, but they don’t know it. Their inexperience outside mortality makes them easy to handle. When you have had a human spirit, there is no going back.’ She bit her lip.
‘Why do you need a new one every year?’
‘I told you, I get bored.’ She picked the python and danced around the room with it. Soft music wafted around with her.
‘Udo, I’m bored now.’ She dropped the snake and it slithered over to Udo, raised its head as if poised to strike.
He was uneasy, ‘You can’t kill what is already dead, ma.’
‘No, but you aren’t dead.’
‘Your act of courage has earned you your life and the safety of your people, but I am insulted that you even thought to offer yourself to me. What did you expect?’ She faced Udo. Her eyes sparked.
‘I don’t know.’
‘You didn’t even rise when you opened your eyes and saw me. Limp as an ugu stalk.’ She spat. ‘No one has ever resisted me. For you, it wasn’t even a struggle. I practically saw a man when I gazed into the mirror of your desires.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could make you happy, make my father proud. It would be an abomination for me to even seek happiness for myself, the village would kill me.’ Tears ran down Udo’s face. Idemmili wiped them with her thumb.
‘Don’t cry, Udo. Tonight you showed more courage than anyone in Nnobi. Your father is already proud of you. As for making me happy… pfft. I’m a goddess. I always get what I want, one way or another. Nnobi ought to know this.’
Udo sniffed and nodded.
She cocked her head at him, ‘Let it not be said that you shed tears in Idemmili’s chambers and they hit the ground in vain. Go back to parents as they would rather have you be.’
The villagers gathered at the stream, searching and praying.
‘It is of no use. The goddess has claimed him.’
Ahunne placed mud from the river bank on her head, ‘Idemmili bring back my child, bikozienu.’
The river rose and ejected a human, naked but for the python coiled around its body. Eke unfurled itself and slithered away.
‘Udo!’ Ahunne rushed to the body. It was female. She undid her wrapper and covered the girl.
‘Who is that? Whose daughter is that?’ Others closed in to gaze at the girl.
The girl coughed, opened her eyes. She lit up when she saw Ahunne, ‘Mama! I’m back?’
‘Yes you are, my child. Thank the goddess.”