Short Story: A story for the gods

Some full moons ago, when I headed for the forest and I had not returned after three days, I made up my mind that whatever I eventually killed, even if it was a whole elephant, was going to be for myself and my family alone. Whatever we couldn’t eat, I would sell on the next market day.

I knew what was probably going on back in the village, the ‘mourning-together’ that was our tradition, and so my mind was made up. All I had killed in three days was one bush rat. A very big one, but still a bush rat. It was as though my visit to the forest had been foretold to the animals and only the bush rat had ignored the warning. For a typical hunter, a big bush rat would have been good enough. But I am not your typical hunter; I am Odebiyi, son of Odewale, the fiercest of all the hunters in Kajola. A leopard’s cub can only resemble a leopard. If I didn’t kill game to my heart’s content, I would not return home. I am not simply as good as they come. I am better. By miles. I am the one whose footsteps the lion hears and takes cover. I am the one whose arrow travels faster than any living creature.

When I was born, some thirty rains ago now, there was joy and celebration and premonition. It was no ordinary birth. It was birth heralded by the gods. It was foretold that there would come one, strong and mighty, who would be known for his hunting prowess, one who would be born into the family of the brave but whose bravery would be like none ever known before him.

I was named Odebiyi, because my father, Odewale – a hunter – had given birth to me. Ode in our language means ‘hunter’. Bi’yi means ‘gave birth to this one’. As I was told, the entire village knew the name I would bear even before I was born, before the priest raised his huge totem in front of the palace and declared my name in the presence of the King and his chiefs. Being Odewale’s first son had earned me this great privilege. What they didn’t know, however, was that all that my celebrated father had achieved in his over twenty-something rains of hunting, would pale in comparison to what I was going to achieve in the first fifteen rains of mine.

Kajola, the name of my village, means “let’s prosper together”. What this implies, is that we do things together. If one mourns, we all mourn. That is easy. But when one prospers, we are all also expected to prosper with the one who prospers. That one is difficult, impossible even. The entire village believes that it is the only way the one who prospers will enjoy the prosperity and ensure it lasts; otherwise it would vanish as quickly as it came. This, to them, would be the sign that the gods of Kajola were never pleased with selfishness.

There were stories handed down from our fathers and their fathers before them, of a fisherman who had a great catch but decided in his heart that he would not share with anyone and even before he got to the market to sell and make himself a fortune, the fishes began to rot and smell. Of a farmer, who the gods blessed with a great harvest but decided not to share his crops with the rest of the village and before he shut the door of the barn where he had staked up his crops, termites, locusts and strange insects emerged from nowhere to feast on his crops. And of course, there were those tales of hunters, even before the time of my father, who returned from the forest with animals too big for their families alone but chose to keep them for their households. But even before they would begin to cut the meat into bits and prepare to cook, they would discover maggots and a repulsive odour emerging from the animal. Some, we were told, even managed to cook or roast the meat successfully, and just when they would settle down to feast with their families, they would discover maggots coming out of freshly cooked meat.

I never believed any of these stories. I was not going to be part of this “prospering together”. I have never believed in it. After all, when Laluko – the high chief – witnessed a tremendous harvest from two of his farms at the river bank, surpassing the harvest of all the other farmers put together that year, I did not prosper with him. He claimed to have sent one of his servants to my house to give me my own tuber just as he sent to every other household in the village, but I did not get the said tuber. When I went to his house to confront him, he called out his servant, Lukudi, whom he claimed to have sent, and as if they both knew what they were doing, the deceitful, indolent servant said he had met me on my way to the forest and I had instructed him to take the yam to my house and place it in front of my hut. He even had the guts to claim that I, Odebiyi, told him to thank Laluko when he got back home and he had done just that. They both made me look foolish because of one tuber of yam. And that was when this prospering together ended for me.

 

When I finally returned, early in the morning of the fourth day, I returned triumphantly. Kajola was already in mourning for me. They must have assumed a wild animal had devoured me.

Not me. I am the bravest. A lion does not need to tell you who the king of the jungle is; all you have to do is cross its path. I had to be true to myself, and so I returned with something the village had never seen before. Even I had never seen such game before, but I did not tell anyone that. I do not know what that animal is called, but it was big; bigger than a young elephant, except that it didn’t weigh as much. It was as if the gods had heard my heart’s cry and had sent it my way. I staggered and swayed under its weight as I returned home, dragging my reward, wrapped with big banana leaves, tied with a rope. I was hungry and worn-out, but I was determined to get home with it, so I kept going.

The first person who saw me was the wrong person. Jaiye, the palm-wine tapper.

Odebiyi!” he screamed from the top of the Ilara palm tree, the tallest in the village. I didn’t answer him, I could not look up, but I could recognise Jaiye‘s voice even if I was drunk on his fresh palm-wine.

Odebiyi! Is it you or your ghost? Odebiyi, you must answer me; if I fall from this tree in a haste to see you, my blood will be on your head.”

He probably perceived the smell of moss and animal blood that trailed me, because I’m sure he couldn’t have seen me from way up on his favourite palm tree. But we all knew Jaiye to be a very wise man, despite being a drunk. It is true that a load carrier who eats bread does not know that he is eating the scalp of his head, but Jaiye had been tapping wine for over a dozen rains and had not gone out of business. He never joked with his business, even though he was always drunk on his own palm-wine, as if to prove its efficacy.

I still didn’t answer him; I could not find the strength to. But somehow I found the strength to walk and drag the animal along faster because I did not want Jaiye to come down from the tree before I was out of sight. He kept shouting my name, trying to make his way down as fast as he could, but I kept moving faster till I was sure he had given up and I was out of sight.

No one else saw me until I got to my hut. It was as though a curfew was in place. I dragged the game to the back of my hut and spread it under the sunlight that was beginning to emerge through the space between the pawpaw tree and the mango tree. I went back to the front of the hut and just as I was about to call out to my household to celebrate my return, there he was. Jaiye was standing in front of my hut, with a big calabash of fresh palm wine.

Odebiyi! Son of Odewale! The greatest hunter of our time. The fiercest of all the hunters in Kajola! The…”

“What is it Jaiye? You will wake up my household.”

“Your household? Has your three days sojourn in the land of the spirits made you forget our tradition so quickly?”

“What is it you speak of, Jaiye?”

“Members of your household are in the king’s palace. They have been the king’s guests since the day you were declared dead. The entire village is also in mourning for you. Or did you see a rat on your way home?”

Orunmila o! Dead? Me? Not me…”

“Before you begin your boasts, and before you begin to head to the palace, I would like to ask something of you.”

“What is it? I have to get to the palace at once!”

“I know, I know. Please ehn, that thing I saw you carrying…the meat, please ehn…”

Jaiye, forget it! There is no meat.”

“You mean my nostrils deceived me with the smell of fresh animal blood I perceived as you passed me? No Odebiyi, I may be aging from climbing trees, but my nostrils still function better than that of a hunter’s dog.”

“Please Jaiye, I have to go. A man whose house is on fire does not sit by the road side in idle chatter.”

“I brought you fresh palm wine, Odebiyi. I just want to be the first to partake this time, for once.”

“One who eats what he is not supposed to eat, will die a death meant for another. You hear me Jaiye?”

My threat worked, because Jaiye‘s countenance suddenly fell and then he turned around and left my house leaving behind his calabash of palm-wine.

Jaiye! Come back and carry your palm-wine o. I did not ask you for palm-wine o. One who gives birth to a problem child backs the child o,” I yelled, but he did not return.

Good riddance. After all, it is one who looks at the wife’s face that knows she is angry.

***

I did not meet Jaiye‘s palm-wine in my yard when I returned from the palace with my household but I thought nothing of it until I went to the back of my hut and found nothing. I couldn’t believe my eyes. How was it possible that it was gone? Jaiye. This had to be his handiwork. After all, a lanky man walked into the hut and a lanky masquerade emerged, who does not know that the man is the one inside the masquerade? Jaiye was the only person who had seen me come home with the animal. I decided he had to pay for this. I would go to his house and let him know that no one steps on the cobra’s tail without experiencing the cobra’s venom.

But how could Jaiye, with his small aging body, have dragged out an animal that even I struggled with all the way home, yet leaving no trace or marks on the ground different from the ones I had left.

Still it had to be him. No one else knew a thing about this but him. To make matters even worse, I could not report the matter to the king because I had already told everyone at the palace that I caught nothing, that I only managed to come back with my life from the forest. Besides, they would begin their dubious tales of how this was the work of the gods, taking what belonged to them and punishing me for deciding not to share my conquest with the entire village.

 


‘Seun Salami is the author of the short story collection, ‘The Sex Life of a Lagos Mad Woman’. He tweets via @SeunWrites

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