Ife-Iyoku (Short story)

Fist published in Selene Quarterly, Volume 2 issue 2 .

Morako stayed quiet. He was a lero – or feeler – and oversaw the hunt. On his signal the rest would move. For now, he lay waiting, careful not to alert the beast lest the intended prey became the hunter. Here, the roles of the prey and the hunter could switch in a flash, leaving the hunter to scurry for survival. But he knew that father Obatala himself had chosen them and imbued them with sacred gifts which, though not making them immune, offered them a measure of protection.

The Nlaagama – an enormous, lizard-like beast – slithered forward. At almost twelve feet tall, it towered over banana trees. Its forked tongue of about eight inches swung pendulously and tasted the air. It bent to rip into the horned antelope which the Umzingeli, hunters had butchered and left as bait. The antelope was like a horse, tall and possessing thick, strong legs and a horn like the mythical creatures of the old world. The Nlaagama ripped into the antelope with the savagery that made Morako swallow.

This was Igbo Igboya, the forest of fears.

With the beast distracted, Morako gave the signal. The Umzingeli, four coal black forms, detached themselves from the trees around. The beast only stirred before resuming its feeding. The Umzingeli merged, activating the power of anjayiyan-okan, the chameleon mind. They became part of what they merged with and assumed their properties to remain hidden and undetectable until they detached themselves. The beast would sense them soon. Morako signalled them again. They ran towards the beast with their wooden spears extended. It stood still, trying to detect them, sensing that something was wrong. 

Morako shot a spike of placidity at the beast. It struggled to cast off the artificial lethargy. The warriors were closing on it. They needed to be close enough to access the gaps between its scales. Without their skill of merging, the beast would detect them before they got close enough to use their weapons. This was not a static merging which shielded them completely from detection. It was a minute merger of their feet with the ground and the leaves and twigs and droplets of water as they ran. It was activated as they stepped, but deactivated when their feet left the ground, so that they had to consciously reactivate with each step. It was more difficult and required a delicate touch and a continuous synchronization with the environment. It was a skill that only the best of the Umzingeli could use. Properly timed, it enabled them to mask their movement as when they used static merger in complete stillness.

These were the four best hunters, the only four who had mastered the art of merging and they had to be put on this hunt because of its importance. Nothing less than the village’s best four hunters could take down this prey. They were almost on the beast. This was the tricky part: attacking while maintaining the chameleon mind, the delicate merger that allowed them to move silently and remain invisible. They were close enough, within striking distance…

One of them lost it. Not totally, for he still managed to remain silent and unseen, but he failed to include his weapon in the merger. From where Morako watched, he saw it. Though he could sense their presence with his own skill as a lero, to his eyes, they were invisible and silent to his ears. He only saw a spear coming out of thin air while the body of the hunter remained unseen. The beast’s long tail swivelled with a snap, almost faster than his eyes could follow. Its tail slapped the spear away and turned to curl around something that became visible in its grasp as the hunter lost hold of the merger. It flung the hunter at another shape that just became visible and both went down on contact.

The beast reared suddenly and howled, shaking its neck violently and throwing something off. The last hunter materialised some yards away and Morako noticed the broken half of the spear protruding from the back of the beast. It was wounded but far from defeated. He stared at it. The hunter pulled out another spear and twirled it, preparing to attack. The beast pawed the earth and roared, belching flames at the hunter. From his vantage position where he watched, Morako saw the hunter roll out of the path of the flames and vanish, re-merging and blending into the environment. The beast howled again as a spear found a way into one of the gaps between its scales. It bathed the clearing with flames, turning to search if the burnt body of a hunter would appear. None did.

The beast screeched at the unseen enemy. Two large wings unfurled from its body. With its enormous wings, the beast fanned the air, spreading the fire outward. Then, in a swift movement, it lifted itself off the ground. Morako sensed the appearance of the Climbers who had been called as reinforcement. As the beast soared upwards, the Climbers dropped a net from the trees and entangled its wings, dropping it to the ground. Flames cackled around, and the climbers, armed with clubs and spears, attacked it. Most of their attacks snapped on the beast’s thick scales as it ripped the net with its claws and fangs. The reinforcements would be in trouble if it managed to free itself. The remaining hunter materialised as from thin air and buried his spear in the neck of the beast, through an opening in its armour. As he pulled it off, hot blood came gushing out, scalding the climbers who scurried away. The hunter backed off to join the other hunters who had been knocked off. The beast belched fire amidst its dying throes. 

Yet it panted, refusing to die. A figure walked in, dragging a tree trunk. It was Oni, the elephant man. The climbers and hunters made way for him. He hefted the trunk and walloped the dying beast in the head. He didn’t need to do it twice.

***************************************************************************

It was night in the village of Ife-Iyoku. Everywhere was alight and alive with merriment. Children danced and laughed at the pursuit of masquerades. Palm wine and ogogoro flowed freely for the quaffing of Amala and Ewedu. A group of children gathered in front of a wrinkled but firm-looking old woman, Ologbon the Weaver. She enraptured them with the tales she spun for them. They were content to sit and listen while the other children ran around eating and playing games of Ite and Suwe. 

Tonight she spun the history of Ife-Iyoku to her attentive audience.

“This is how the people of Ife-Iyoku came to be. Long before you were born, the world was not like this. It was much bigger and encompassed different countries and cultures. Then there was a war and all was lost. The contenders attempted the destruction of one another and ended up almost destroying us. It was a fight between two elephants in which the ground suffers.”

The gravity of her voice moistened the eyes of the children. “I see you don’t know what an elephant is, as none of you have ever seen one. So much of our culture was lost in the catastrophe, and with them, life itself. But we thank the almighty for sending us some things to replace what we lost.” Her voice, initially grand and majestic, became dry and ordinary as one passing commentary on distant object. The children followed the expressions on her face.

She lifted her hand and the lights dimmed to almost quenching. The illumination was replaced by glowing lines in the air. The Ologbon spun with her hands as she had done with her mouth. The children watched in wonderment. The light took the shape of two elephants. The elephants trumpeted and stamped on the ground, then rushed at each other. They tussled. The children felt the vibration of the earth and clutched each other’s hands tightly. The Olori raised both hands and the images of the two battling elephants dissipated and faded. The ground was muddied up. 

“That,” she said, pointing, “is the ground after two elephants fought.  Oni the brawny is named after them. In any night but this, I would go on weaving you tales of wonder and valour. But tonight is a special night, the night of the Onye Lana Riri festival. Tonight, marks the night many years ago when the war came upon us. You must know your history if you are to seize for yourself a future. All of you are Onye Lana Riri, the ones that survive. I believe there is more in store for you than just existence. I believe that you will thrive. For those of you who do not remember or have not heard this tale, I shall tell it again. It is the story of our death and rebirth to what we are today.”

As she spoke, she raised her hand to weave again. The light from the fire dimmed once more and strands of light rose into various forms in line with the tale she wove. 

“Once we were a vast group of peoples called Afrika, peoples of special and diverse cultures and breeding. They lived in peace and unity before the war of the nations around them. These nations had developed nuclear weapons but entered into a pact not to use them against one another. Why someone would make something they never intended to use I never got. Like the wicked senior wife that obtained poisonous charms claiming never to have intended it for the newest wife’s soup. So, one side broke the pact, as pacts are wont to be broken in wars by the desperate or losing parties.”

As she spoke, the images she conjured intensified and were matched by sound. Factions launched missiles and the children watched them travel towards the raised outlines of other cities.

“Everyone launched their warheads. The pact of mutually assured destruction was broken. But the disaster did not happen now.”

As she spoke, she flicked her hand. The images continued projecting. The missiles hit an invisible dome above the city and were rendered defective. Some of them jerked in the air, spiralling sporadically before ricocheting and returning the way they had come. 

“America, the greatest nation in the war at the time, had prepared for this day. She had missile defence systems in place. She also had systems to seize the missiles in the air and redirect them whence they came.”

She gestured to the returning missiles.

“America had the power to quash the missiles. But instead, she wanted to show her power. She wanted to punish the offenders, the Middle Easterners from a continent called Asia who she felt had bred trouble for countless centuries. That was how the seed of destruction that is fully grown today was sown. Hundreds of nuclear warheads were sent sailing back to the shores of Iraq and Afghanistan and their Moslem brethren. Unbeknownst to the West and its allies, their foes had obtained some of the missile redirecting technology from their allies, the Chinese and the Russians. 

“But having technology is not mastery of it. They could not manage what they were given. Their control of the technology was not strong enough to allow them to send the weapons all the way back. Their range was small and they had friends and allies around them. So, they redirected the weapons to the closest place they could, where their friends would not suffer them and there would be no retribution: Afrika.” 

She whispered this last word with sharp, dramatic emphasis. The missiles in her images of light paused in the air. There was total quietude as she continued her tale.

“Afrika was a place of culture and learning. We had no implements of war and destruction, or of defence against them. We stayed out of international disputes. Our brothers to the South of Africa developed such armaments, but they disarmed them, wise enough to see that they would do nothing but destroy us and the rest of the world. However, being right didn’t stop us from paying the price of the wrong parties. When wise ones are surrounded by fools, they often end up suffering as the fools. Sometimes they suffer more than the fools.” 

She flicked her hand and the missiles landed all at once. A blinding yellow light rose from where they landed, followed by fire and smoke which billowed out and spread till it covered the whole area. The children gasped. Some were weeping. The Weaver continued her story. 

“Nearly all of Afrika was destroyed by the missiles of the combatants. Nothing would have been left of Afrika but for the fact that we are a special people. Our land, Ife, is a sacred ground where all life originated. We have always been deeply spiritual and in tune with the gods, with heaven and with the earth. We called on Obatala who interceded on our behalf as he had done when his sister Olokun threatened the world with water. He pleaded with Olorun, the sky father, to save us. Olorun urinated in a gourd and told Obatala to sprinkle the water on the affected area and all the destruction and left-over radiation would dissipate.

“The urine was not sufficient to sprinkle in all the affected parts of Afrika. Obatala could only use the urine in the healing of the land of his own people. Despite Obatala’s intercession, Olorun did not care about the rest of the world. The smoke from the bombs covered the sun and temperatures dropped. All life was threatened, not just the lives in Afrika. Obatala in his infinite love and mercy decided to share the cure with rest of the world even though they were responsible for the disaster. With the sacred urine, he was able to wash away the radiation and nuclear waste. However, what was left was insufficient to totally reverse the effect of the bombs in Afrika.

“Obatala cut himself and let some drops of his blood mix with the urine in the gourd to increase its potency. With the mixture he saved Ife. Nothing was left to save the rest of Afrika. Only this small circle around Ife is clean. We are trapped and all around us is the lingering destruction from the folly of man. The first rain that fell after the destruction affected the land and people around Ife. The sacred land rejects and repels the radiation and waste. Our blood and bodies are stronger. We adapted abilities to make up for what we lost and to enable us survive in this new world. We became Ndi Lana Riri, the ones who survived. And what is more, Obatala left us a lasting gift. Each time one of us dies, our blood thickens, and the remaining ones evolve further to make up for the numbers lost with strength. His blood keeps us and strengthens us further to ensure that his people endure. It is said that in the hour of our greatest need, he will return to restore us and Afrika fully.

“The rest of the world learned and moved on from their folly. We were the lesson. They believed that either we had all been wiped out or the corruption around us is so thick they could not reach through. Perhaps, they refused to attempt saving us for fear of contaminating the rest of the world. They created one of their barriers to keep us away, until they discover how to undo their error and cleanse the environment. But that may not be a long time coming because it’s easier to destroy than to rebuild.

 “Some may wonder why he saved the world. It is because despite all that happened, survival is collective. If man would survive, we must do so together, as one. We must think of all and not of individuals.”

“If we don’t die out before that day comes,” a gruff male voice said. 

The Weaver looked up to note the presence of three people who had just joined the campfire. One was an old man who had a wrapper tied around his chest in the manner of Igbo chiefs. The other two, a man and a woman, were much younger. The man was sturdy but lean. He bore the traditional marks of a hunter: crossed slashes on his chest and claw tattoos. The woman followed him closely. She was lean too but not as hard looking. Her softer features followed him in concern before she turned to look at the seated children with a smile. They smiled back. 

The Weaver rose to greet the old Chief. “Welcome, husband.”

“Thank you, wife,” he said affectionately. 

The children all rose to squat and greet him in the traditional manner.

“E Ku irole sir.” 

“Bawo ni eyin omo?” he had on a fatherly smile. 

“Daada ni sir” they all chorused. 

“At least all is not lost. Even if gold and land are lost, our culture and blood which are our greatest assets still endure.”

The Weaver sniffed. He gave her a curt and slightly annoyed look. She responded with an affectionate one. The children returned to their seats.

The Chief said, “The fell beast has been slain. Imade has healed the hunters and drained their bodies of the corruption they contacted in Igbo Igboya. The beast lies ready for the final phase of the ceremony and I came personally to inform you. As Chief Priestess, you must be there to consecrate the sacrifice to Obatala.”

The Weaver nodded. He turned to the children to dismiss the campfire session but she raised a finger to forestall him. He cut off with a slight frown.

She said, “The night’s session is not done. The Chiefs’ Council may be your domain, but this is mine. Obatala entrusted this sacred task on me and my successor. My time is nigh and I must do as much of my duty as I can before it comes.”

Morako who accompanied the Chief stood in rigid observance of the exchange between the Chief and his wife. But Imade caught his eye with a sly smirk on her face. 

Ologbon the wise, weaver of tales said, “We shall give the Nlaagama in sacrifice to Obatala in this festival. Every day before this festival, our best warriors must go to hunt these creatures which have been twisted by the corruption filtering from the outside. They are for sacrifices to Obatala. We do this to show that we are strong enough to play our part in guarding and preserving the sacred life he gave us with his blood.” 

Morako thumped his chest and said, “We are strong and must remain so till Obatala returns again to lead us to our destiny.”

The Chief squatted to address the gathering. His wife shifted uncomfortably but he ignored her. “I speak in my authority as Ooni, head Chief. Obatala may return, or he may not. Whether Obatala comes or not, we will be strong and lead ourselves to our own destinies. Ife thins every day. The corruption keeps creeping in and the creatures in Igbo Igboya grow more twisted. We have been given the sacred gifts already. We carry the power of our salvation in our blood. In our moment of near destruction, we were mutated and thus acquired resistance to things that would have killed us. Perhaps it was Obatala who had done this for us; perhaps it was not him. Whatever the cause or reason, we have become stronger than we were before. We have acquired the ability to heal and manipulate the elements. Every time one of us dies, our powers wax stronger. Let us use these gifts to counteract our possible extinction. Our powers were less when we were more. With the reduction in our population, our gifts are strengthened. The gifts call on us to use them. We must take our destiny in our own hand, whether Obatala returns or not.”

The Weaver clicked her tongue and asked: “Is this another exhortation for migration? You know, beloved, that we have tried that before and many were lost. There is no way through the corruption surrounding Ife. The outside world does not even know we exist. This issue has been raised before the council and voted down.”

The Chief raised a placatory hand. “This isn’t the council indeed, peace woman. I merely informed them of what they must face someday.”

He turned to the children. “Tomorrow is your first day in the house of learning. You will be tested. All who are old enough will begin training on how to use the sacred gifts you are imbued with and how to take on your sacred duty of survival so that someday you may face and take on your destiny. You are no longer children. You will be great men and woman of Ife-Iyoku.” He thumped his chest and all the people did the same. 

He continued. “With the permission of the Weaver of tales and teacher of the sacred lore of Obatala, we go to offer the beast as sacrifice to Obatala in honour of our sacred charge to survive.” 

The Weaver pulled out a clay cup and one of the children came forward. He took the cup from her, took in his breath and dragged with his fingers as if pulling something, his focus on the cup. There was a rushing sound. He handed the cup to the weaver and resumed his seat. She put the cup to her mouth and took a pull. Water leaked out and ran down her mouth. The Chief looked at the child and nodded in approval. The child beamed with pleasure.

The Weaver set the cup down and explained. “This is our ritual. Talking is thirsty work and Ake here keeps me hydrated. He is a puller and can pull the elements. He helps me with water after our sessions.”

“That is very good but we will need more than a cup of water to survive,” the Chief muttered. 

“I heard that,” the Weaver said. 

“Well, the festival awaits.” 

“One more thing,” the Weaver said as she manipulated her light weaving gifts in complex patterns. A trail of light followed her fingers. The light glowed brighter until it became a full ball of light. She released it and it shot into the night. It exploded in a brilliant rainbow of colours and illuminated everywhere. The hitherto solemn children jumped up squealing and screaming in joy and wonder, running, laughing and clutching each other. The Chief shook his head in amusement as the four adults went walking after them towards the festival grounds.

The Chief asked, “The substance manipulation that Ake pulled off couldn’t have conjured up palm wine, could it?”

The Weaver sniffed, “You know very well that at his age, the wonder is that he could do anything at all. Besides, from what palm trees could he have pulled the moisture? He could only pull water from the moisture in the environment. It was even a bit salty, and I think there must have been some sweat mixed in it.”

 “What a shame,” the Chief said. “If he could conjure palm wine, that would have been something.”

Later that night, Morako and Imade lay cuddled up on a mat listening to the drumming and singing from the festival and watching the stars. The corrupted beast had been given in fires to Obatala. Kolanut and palm wine flowed freely, but only amongst the chiefs. Kolanut was the food of the gods and only meant for elders and those closest to the gods. The rest enjoyed the general merriment. Children danced and played and ran from masquerades.

But Morako and Imade lay watching the stars, enjoying the festival in their own corner. She ran a teasing finger up his arm, her breath warm against his cheek. He trembled at her touch.

She whispered in his ear, “Why does a warrior of your calibre quake so?”

“Ah,” he said, “my skill as a feeler makes me more susceptible to your wiles. With it I feel this… overwhelming, enveloping warmth seeping from you, yet each time I ask you to be joined to me as a full-grown woman who has passed all the rites of womanhood, you refuse. Why do you refuse me so?”

“Not so, my strong one. I am only not sure of joining with you and bringing a child into this uncertain world.”

“But it’s our sacred duty to survive and that involves…”

She looked at him reproachfully. “Sacred duty, is it? You’re all about duty, my dear brave hunter and feeler.”

He chuckled. “I do confess my desire to be more than just for fulfilment of duty.”

She nibbled on his ear lobe and clutched him tightly. “I, too, my brave hunter. Maybe someday when something changes we will get our desire. I assure you that my refusal is not about you but about other things. I find you quite sufficient and can desire nothing more for a mate, my brave hunter.” She snuggled tighter by his side.

“That enveloping, overwhelming warmth is a fire now,” he said. “I am quite assured of your affections. But let us try not to burn down Ife-Iyoku.”

“As a healer, I do have ways of sensing and affecting you as well. Healing is control and manipulation. When I nudge the body in certain ways, I can dampen pain receptors, and enhance and inflame other parts like your immune system. Supposing I do this…”

She ran a finger down his belly and drew on her gift, sending a line of energy into him. His eyes widened.

“Do not wake the beast,” he said, “unless you are ready to do battle.”

“The beast was already awake. I was merely teasing it a bit. And who said I am not ready for battle?”

She drew his mouth to hers and kissed him thoroughly. They pulled the covers over their head and let the sounds of merriment pass over them as they created theirs. 

In the town hall the next morning, the Head Chief stood in front of the children of eligible age, ready to begin their training. He carried a supple cane which he slapped against his palm. The children were seated cross-legged on mats before him. As he was about to begin speaking, one of the tattooed hunters came in and whispered something to him. The Chief walked out with him. A little while later, another messenger came to inform the children that the lesson for that day had been cancelled and they were to return home. The children ran home in glee to have their day of fun and play. They did not know that only a dire occurrence could have led to the cancellation of the lessons. 

Later that night, Morako met Imade in their usual spot under the mango tree. He pulled her close and said, “I have bad news for you.” 

“I know,” she said, putting a finger to his lips. 

“You heard?”

“No. But I felt it. The weaver and I were connected. I felt her passing this morning. Besides, she foresaw her passing. She always said that her time was drawing near while preparing me for the role of priestess of Obatala to take over from her. She knew that this festival would be her last. I didn’t expect it to be so soon, but I felt something change in my gift when she passed away. I think it is the mechanism that kicks in when one of us dies to activate our evolution and amplify our abilities.”

“Isn’t that a random occurrence?”

“Usually it is. But this one was keyed to me personally. It is perhaps because of how close we were. Or because she has groomed me to be her successor. It might even be random.” She looked at Morako’s inquisitive gaze and sighed.

“Let me show you.”

She picked a mango leaf from the ground. It was withered and brown, having fallen for a while. He watched as she closed her eyes to activate her power. The withered leaf uncurled and changed in colour. It stretched out and attained a soft and vibrant texture. A lush green permeated it and she handed it to him. He took it tentatively, bewildered. 

“I could heal before but I can do more now. I can restore life. There’s hope for change. Someday we can chart a course through the corrupt wilderness to a new world. Or perhaps I could restore Ife-Iyoku and all Afrika to what it was before. In any case, the hope is clearer now than before. I hold the hope in me.”

He stared at her in wonderment. She took the leaf from him and let it fall. 

“I know it’s a little thing. But we can bring back paradise even if one leaf at a time.” She smiled coyly. “We can now be joined and raise children. Perhaps before they grow to walk we shall have found a path for the…” 

He interrupted her with his mouth on hers, kissing her passionately. 

In the gentle breeze that blew, fresh green leaves dropped on them, like the hope they presaged. The breeze which had dropped old leaves and overripe fruit carried new seeds to fresh soil.

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