All Grandpa’s grandchildren arrived the day before Christmas to spend the holiday with him. Before we left the city, Mother told us that three days of darkness were coming. She said it was revealed unto a young virgin back in the city that on the thirty-first of December, angels would parade, killing sinners around the world, just like Sodom and Gomorrah, and only holy people would see the New Year. Mother was very religious, and she believed it. Father believed it too.
I was twelve and had never missed a Christmas holiday at Grandpa’s. To get from the city to the village, we drove between two great rivers, and over the bridge that crossed them. At the confluence, we marveled at how the rivers clearly divided themselves with green and brown color. The green was Urashi River, and the brown was Njaba River. The rivers could never mix. Our maid said that if you mixed the two rivers in a bottle, the bottle would shatter. Yes, shatter. I wanted to mix the rivers together, but we never made a stop at the bridge.
The bridge sloped up and down, and whenever our car drove across, it felt as if my spirit was leaving my body. Mother said it was because of the slope, but I don’t believe everything Mother says. Mother wasn’t as wise as Grandpa when it came to knowing about rivers, and spirits, and legends, and the gods, and goddesses. Grandpa said that the river goddess was always thirsty, always in want of souls to serve her eternally, and I believed him. Grandpa was a legend in storytelling. Grandpa told me that the White man that constructed the bridge never went home alive. He died after the bridge was finished, and the river goddess instructed that all his belongings be returned to her. Grandpa said he was there the day the chief priest threw his things into the river.
The river goddess Njaba has always been a violent goddess in need of worshippers. Whenever we drove past the bridge, I believed the river goddess looked into all our souls and saw that we were indigenes of the community. As we were indigenes, she wasn’t permitted to eat us, so she let us drive past.
When we arrived in the village, everything felt unusual. The air smelled of dust, clouds formed in the heaven, but no rain came down. I was afraid that this might be our last Christmas as a family, the last Christmas I would ever spend with Grandpa. There were things I wanted to ask Grandpa. Things I couldn’t understand, like the Biafra war. When our car drove into the compound, Michael and Ifeanyi were standing by the whistling pine, playing. They were my father’s younger brother’s kids, and around my age too. I ran and hugged them, and we all walked inside.
That night, after the sun receded and the moon rose from patches of dark cloud, I sat at the back of Grandpa’s house, playing in the wet sand. I tried to make a sand castle, but failed.
I saw Grandpa walking around the compound in his white underwear pushed to his navel; he had nothing else on. He moved fast towards the mud kitchen, by the barn. He checked on his goats and counted them. Satisfied, he went on to check his chickens, but a few of them had decided to sleep in the garden outside of the barn. He walked into the garden and chased the sleeping chickens inside.
He grabbed a spade from the set of tools that leaned on the barn wall, beside the sculptured gods covered with a basket, and walked into the farm to dig holes for planting yam for the next farming season. No one had ever seen the sculptured gods; no one had ever opened the basket. Grandpa warned us never to open the basket; he said the gods would strike us with an illness if we did.
Since Grandpa became a Christian, he refused to open the basket himself, or look at it. The house boy that lived with Grandpa told me that if the regular rituals were not performed in time, the gods would start killing Papa’s chicken and goats, and eventually a human being. “All they want is blood,” he said. He told me that even though Grandpa was baptized in the church, he still paid someone to worship his gods for him, and also to remold the ofo: a symbol of authority and truth in Igbo. The boy never walked out of the barn facing forward, he always backed away from the door to prevent being harmed by the spirits. He was a strange boy in perpetual awe.
Grandpa continued digging under the moonlight. When he saw me, he called for me to grab him a knife from the kitchen. Grandpa never said anything with calmness. He was a firm man and believed that things should be said firmly. I ran towards the kitchen to find a knife.
I gave Grandpa the knife and walked into the night.
When the moon had risen, and stars twinkled in the heavenly firmaments, Grandpa sat beside the ixora tree in his agbada chair and gathered all his eight grandchildren to tell folklore.
Men had lived and sang ballads and told tales, but none knew better than Grandpa. His fingers held the key to the great evil forest, his eyes foretold legends, and his mouth sang better than Siren, Njaba, and Nwaorie put together; all the babes of the sea shrieked at his trembling tenor. Grandpa’s six grandchildren listened intensely while seated on the floor. A gentle wind whistled across the pines. The palm fronds rustled, and the cassava plants swooshed. Then he opened his mouth and said, “Once upon a time…”
Silence followed; men and spirits stood still to listen to Grandpa. Chills ran down my spine; I was young, but I felt it all. We listened as he told the story of a hunter that lost everything he had and was rescued by the benevolence of animals. One day, the hunter fell into a pit while hunting. He stayed there for days. The animals pitied him; they gathered around, and pulled him out. After that day, the hunter swore never to kill any animal again, and protected the forest. Grandpa’s wrinkled face shone gracefully, a few teeth missing, a few brown colored teeth still there, and his white beard combed beautifully. I admired Grandpa a lot. It was through Grandpa that I learned what a story should do: “a story should be a whole,” he said, and he raised his hand up to demonstrate the whole; by drawing a big circle in the air.
We smiled when he decided to tell us another story. This time, the story was about Tortoise. In the land of animals, they decided to all kill their mothers, but Tortoise, being wise, hid his own mother in a tree. When famine came to the animal kingdom, it was Tortoise’s mother that told him how to stop it. Tortoise’s mother told him to cross seven seas and seven kingdoms in search of a magic corn stalk. He found the magic corn and planted it the king’s palace garden. The next morning, matured corn stalks sprouted in the garden, and the animals had plenty to eat. When Tortoise was asked how he gained knowledge to solve the problem, he said his mother helped him. There and then, the king declared that no animal should kill its mother again. In the end, Tortoise’s mother was made the queen.
By the time Grandpa finished the story, I was snoring, but I heard it all. We all walked into our room and lay down. I looked out of the wooden windows––there it was, a full moon, shining.
Morning was filled with the smell of smoke coming from the kitchen, and a cat mewing by my bedpost. Grandma had two cats that barely stayed at home. They wandered around all day and returned only at night when people were fast asleep. The cat with the black stripe was at the foot of the bed drinking milk that Grandma poured for her in a small blue bowl. I walked past her, wiping my eyes with the backs of both palms. I pushed the old metal handle down, opened the door, and walked onto the veranda. I peed just in front of the house. If Grandma had seen me, she would have struck me with whatever she had with her at that time. Grandma was old with arthritis, but that still was no reason for us to misbehave.
The pots were on the fire outside, the burning wood cackling beneath them. Grandma was walking around picking up sticks to make more fire. My mother and my uncle’s wife were smiling and stirring the pot of stew, and conversing. I looked for Grandpa; I wanted to tell him that I saw Tortoise in my dream, and I knew where he hid his mother. I heard Grandpa’s voice at the narrow path towards the small gate––he was digging in his garden. I ran to him and greeted him. He smiled at me. He lifted the digger and struck it into the hard ground, and the hard soil parted. I stared at all the white hair on his body; he smelled of sweat. Grandpa was a strong man even at that age. “Grandpa, what did you do during the Biafra war?” I asked, forgetting that I had wanted to talk about Tortoise. The case of Biafra had been disturbing me for a long time, and I had wanted a time I could be with Grandpa alone to ask him this question. If the world was to end, at least I should know about this.
“My son, we do not speak of the war. A bird that flies off the earth and lands on an anthill is still on the ground. May it never happen again,” he said, and hissed. Grandpa knew how to start a story; he knew that by saying this that I would be hungrier to know what went on during the war.
“Your father was still a young boy then. A young boy with dreams, and I couldn’t do much for him,” he said and sat down quietly on a large plantain leaf. I cleared the shrubs beside him and sat down. I remembered what I had found in Father’s old brown colonial style bag at the foot of his bed when I was cleaning the house two days ago. It was filled with dreams—his dreams of going abroad to study. Something he had never said to us. In the bag was all the information from Harvard, Oxford and other top educational facilities around the world. There were cut out journal articles about Zik of Africa and his days in American college. Zik questioned the colonial master on which god was on his side during the Second World War; if both Germans and Allied boys prayed to the same god. There was a golden pin, a molded soldier, five Biafra pounds, and a dagger smeared with old dried blood. I never asked, but that bag was full of stories. Stories that I would one day ask him to tell me.
Even though Grandpa had become a Christian, it seemed as if he lacked trust in the Christian God. I could tell by the way he looked at the basket of sculptured gods whenever he walked past them in the barn. I could tell that a part of him still belonged to his ancestors. A part of him wanted to call on those idols and adore them. Sometimes he would cheer them, or mutter incantations. Other times he chanted words like, “Our father’s kola is here,” in admiration of his ancestors. Sometimes, he just smiled at them. Grandpa said that the Christian God was nowhere to be found when the soldiers marched through Biafra. Sometimes, I felt like Grandpa was disappointed in himself for becoming a Christian. Yet, he just kept on being one, hoping that at least when he died, a priest would bury him. Maybe his soul would find heaven. Going to heaven was better than dining with his ancestors beyond Njaba River. Heaven was a land paved of golds and marbles. Grandpa wanted to dine in heaven.
He never burned his gods, even though the priest called all good Christians to do so during Sunday Mass. He asked them to move away from the worship of deities and false gods. He asked them to burn their gods. Grandpa said that most men that burned their gods never had peace—they died strange and painful deaths. Maybe that was why he paid someone to worship them, so he could be at peace with the Christian God and his ancestors.
“I lost my eldest son to the war, Nnamdi,” Grandpa sighed, all the memories flooding his face.
I heard my father talk about Nnamdi before. Everyone spoke of him as a fine man, tall and well respected in the community. My uncle said that he was with him when he was shot, and that Nnamdi bravely put back all his intestine and killed six men before he fell down. He said that he refused to die even when death waved his sickle across his face. He stayed alive for two weeks without medical attention, and later died from pain and hemorrhage. His body was never brought home because of the war. His grave was unmarked and shallow because the soldiers hurriedly buried him when their medical facility was attacked by the Nigerian soldiers. But Grandpa said that all Igbo men must be buried in their homes. I never asked him why he didn’t go looking for his body himself. That would seem rude to ask, I know, but I wanted to know.
“The Hausas came from all directions. Took over Enugu, and moved their artilleries through Port Harcourt. By the sea, air, and land, Biafra was surrounded and bombarded. The only access way out and into Biafra was at Uli airstrip.” He sighed. Father had talked about Uli airstrip a million times because he worked there himself. He said he was there when Ojukwu gave his last salute to the country. He said he tried to get to the airstrip to give his own last salute to Biafra, but was prevented from deserting four times by the troops. The last time he was caught, the soldier gave him a dirty slap and all he could see was stars. Father wanted to run away, go to France, and never talk of war. A lot of flights came into Biafra from France. To my father, Biafra was a lost cause from the beginning. He always lamented that Nigeria had not effectively learnt the lessons of the war; war would take everything from you, and when you pushed people too far, they would fight back. “My son, there was no food. We ate anything: cassava leaves, grasshoppers, relief that your father brought home from the Uli airstrip. That was how we survived. Children died from malnutrition. Kwashiorkor!” Grandfather screamed. “Kwashiorkor!” he screamed again.
My young body jittered in fear and apprehension of these facts. I had seen kwashiorkor in television shows, and on documentaries narrating the Biafra story— children with dried skins and bloated stomachs.
“But Pa, why did we lose?” I asked. Chinedu, my friend at school, said that we lost because we couldn’t get good guns and shoot properly.
Grandpa looked at me, and shook his head. He didn’t say a word about the war again. Rather, he said, “Come, let’s go.”
Grandpa’s sorrow prevented him from discussing the war further. It took his son, it took his friends and relatives. It took even a part of his own sanity. I stopped asking, and I followed him.
On Boxing Day, Grandpa took us hunting. The three of us: Michael, Ifeanyi and me. We were older and could keep up with Grandpa as he slashed the trees and shrubs away from his path. We all had our catapults hanging on our necks, along with pockets full of fine stones in the event of an attack. Grandpa taught us how to use them many times. I once shot a bird with mine: Asha. The bird’s color was yellow. I kept it in our backyard until he healed and was able to fly away. He was a precious bird, and I didn’t want him to die like other birds I had caught.
Ifeanyi, my elder cousin, was telling me about birds and the meaning of the sounds they make when Grandpa hushed him. “You don’t talk in the forest, you will wake up the spirits.” I was old enough to know that he just wanted us to keep quiet. Silence took us over, and we marched. The only sound was that of our feet crushing dried leaves, sometimes the sound of a cricket, or birds chirping. We climbed several hills and disappeared into the horizon. We arrived in the orchard filled with Udara trees, and Grandpa climbed to pluck them. I climbed too, and the others helped pick the fruits from the ground.
“Should we wait until they are washed?” I asked Grandpa as we walked deeper into the forest. Grandpa twisted his cutlass, took one from the bag, and began to eat. He said nothing. I did the same, and it tasted very sugary, and juicy. I spit out the seeds. He knew quite well that my mother wouldn’t approve of eating fruits without washing them. “In the olden days, beyond that point,” he pointed towards the north, with its denser trees, “that was the evil forest,” Grandpa said.
“But why was it called evil forest?” Michael asked.
“The Christian God has destroyed all those things, my son. But, in the past, it was where all agreed to let evil thrive, and also anything considered evil was sent towards that path. If someone’s death was evil, then his body must never be buried at home. A long time ago, along this path, you would hear flutes and sounds of the dead. They love to sing,” he smiled.
Grandpa found a hole burrowed in the soil.
“Rabbit hole,” he said, and began to cut the grass around it.
We happily watched him dig the hole. We gathered around. With his hands, Grandpa weeded the entrance of the hole, which the rabbit had covered with shrubs to disguise it. Grandpa took his cutlass and poked it inside. He examined the hole like a doctor examining a wound. Suddenly, his countenance, the smile on his wrinkled face, drowned and died.
“What is in this hole is bigger than a rabbit,” Grandpa said. As though the simplest form of words couldn’t define it, he proceeded to say, “What is bigger than the termite has visited the termite.” Grandpa had never said anything serious in his life without garnishing it with a proverb. Proverb, to him, was the language of the wise. “Climb up the trees!” Grandpa shouted at all of us. Apprehended by fear, we all climbed the trees and held tight to the branches.
Grandpa ran around and gathered sticks and dried leaves and placed them at the mouth of the hole. He took matches from his left pocket, which he used to light his cigarette, then threw it on the dried leaves. He placed more dry leaves on top and the smoke rose higher. He smiled, stood up, and started searching for something. He opened another hole hidden slightly by the shrubs a few meters away from the first one. We watched.
A black python raised it head from the hole, its length slowly becoming visible. Grandpa knelt and watched closely without moving. On seeing Grandpa, the snake poised in striking position, and spit. “Puarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” Grandpa spit back, and the snake went back into the hole in bewilderment.
A few seconds later, it rose again in the same striking position and spit. Grandpa, still kneeling, spit back at the snake, “puarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.” The snake went back into the hole, again.
Grandpa stood up and grabbed a big stick before the snake could raise its head for the third time, his cutlass still in the scabbard. The third time the snake raised its head, he hit it hard with the stick. The snake slithered out of the hole in pain, its big body sweeping the ground clean as it struggled for life. Grandpa had dealt a big blow already, and he now grabbed his cutlass and cut the head off. The snake coiled and coiled and straightened and coiled until it couldn’t move again. The snake was so big that Grandpa had to go get another adult to help him carry it home. Grandpa said he would make leather out of it.
That night, I sat on my bed looking at the ceiling, and all I could see was the snake. At last, I lay down, closed my eyes and slept.
It was the last day before we went back to the city and before the world would end. I was in our room riding a broken bicycle. Everywhere smelled of python fat and local palm pomade. Beside the bedpost was a packet of biscuits Mum had blessed at the Catholic Church in preparation for the apocalyptic three days of darkness. The night would bring terror—angels would wipe out all the sinners. Hell was coming on earth to consume sinners. I was afraid. To prepare, we hung a crucifix on the front of our door and blessed food that would sustain us.
On the night of the thirty-first of December, we prayed until midnight. When everyone went to bed, Mother sat up praying. Her body was shivering. Her fingers moved the rosary, from bead to bead, and she muttered prayers to God. I watched her for a while and soon fell asleep. I dreamed about the gods, the barn, and the animals Grandpa kept. In my dream, all Grandpa’s animals returned to the barn. I saw Grandpa in the barn too. He had the sculptured gods in his hands. He gently lifted the gods to the sun. The light’s intensity blinded me. I put my hands across my face to shield my eyes. His face lifted up in radiance and glory. When I rose up in the morning, I saw Mother smiling. The sun was up, its rays shone upon me, and it was beautiful. We were alive and happy. There was no hint of darkness. I walked to the window, and looked at the barn. Grandfather was there, pulling dead animals away. Three of his goats and five chickens died mysteriously the night before. Grandpa looked sad. I watched him bury them. The house boy was helping Grandpa, with a handkerchief tied across his mouth. There was a deep worry on his face. I thought about what had happened to the animals at night. Maybe the gods ate them. Maybe God actually walked the night and somehow decided to spare us all. I couldn’t tell. But we were alive, we had survived. That mattered most.