“It was during the great war when the ndi ichie, from the seven villages of Aro, called a truce, and agreed to relinquish the powers of their respective Alusi. The war had raged on for years, the villages completely ravaged, the land soaked red with the blood of the countless dead, and still, an end to the war eluded the sight of even the greatest seers. One child from each village was then chosen to become Osu, that is, a sacrifice to his village’s alusi, and then all seven children were banished to the …”
Mma Ukwu droned on, her tongue dancing to the rhythm of our origin story, the same one I’d heard every night since I’d been sacrificed to Min-ochi, since I’d become his Osu. The same story that gave no answer to the real question that plagued me: When will I see Mama again?
It was a real community with the other Osu, who too were taken from their homes and forced to become vessels for the deities of Aro. Ada was the next youngest Osu and was about twenty-three years old. She had been Ani’s—the earth deity—Osu for a decade, and now she could create wells deeper than fifty men lengths in the ground by focusing her uche on the spot where she wanted the hole created. I overheard one of the Keepers say that Ani only blessed her with that gift as reward for her long service as his vessel. I wondered when Min-ochi would give me my first gift.
Mma Ukwu teaches that the alusi have different temperaments much like the humans that worship them. Some are slow to anger, and others are perpetually seething with rage, some are slow to reward their Osu, while others seize every opportunity to lavish their Osu with many gifts. She particularly likes to tell the story of how Ikuku, the wind alusi, blessed Anyadike with the gift of floating on thin air just nine moons into his service, and how Anyadike, now an old man in his eighties, was thought to have received all the gifts Ikuku had to give, such that he is considered equal in might to the alusi that dwells inside of him. Thinking of Anyadike, my mind wandered to my mother: Anyadike had not seen his family in over seventy years, not since he became Osu. They could be dead and he wouldn’t know. I would die before I lived that long without seeing Mama.
“Ike! Ike!” Mma Ukwu’s voice snatched me from my thoughts. She had that look she gets right before she scolds me. “I know you haven’t heard anything I have said in the last hour. These stories I tell you are the foundation of your people, from them you learn your history, your obligations, and the privilege you bear as Osu. Do not take them lightly.”
“But I’ve heard them so many times, I even complete your sentences.”
“Knowing the words is not enough, you are yet to understand their real meaning, and until you do, I will hear nothing about you knowing all my stories. Besides, you haven’t heard all of them.” Her expression softened, and a half smile formed on her lips. “You know, most initiates listen to these stories for years before they are deemed to have gleaned their true meaning. You’ve had less than four moons, and all I’ve had from you are complaints and utter disinterest. I wonder if Min-ochi has made a mistake choosing you.” She looked into the thin air, no doubt pondering if mistakes were something the alusi could make, and then she shook her head in an attempt to dislodge the blasphemous thought.
“Anyway,” she continued, “we are done for today. Go to your shrine and commune with Min-ochi.” She shooed me away with two flicks of her wrists, eager to have me gone. I scurried to my feet and made for my shrine, which doubled as my bedroom.
Our rooms were arranged serially, from the oldest down to the youngest Osu, and so Ada’s room was next to mine, which was the last room in the long corridor of rooms. Just before I opened my door, I noticed Ada’s door was slightly ajar, and the smell of freshly cooked ikoko wafted from around the door. My mouth watered and my stomach gurgled. I hadn’t realised I was hungry. I knocked and asked if I could come in.
“Remember to keep your necklace outside,” came Ada’s muffled voice, her mouth no doubt stuffed with hot ikoko.
Osu could temporarily divest themselves of their alusi by taking off the sacred necklace given to us at initiation. But it was risky, as Mma Ukwu had told me; I was not to ever take off the necklace, and I would die within an hour if separated from it. It was also not allowed for one Osu to enter with his alusi still within him into another alusi’s shrine. These and many more were some of the rules of Obodo Osu, as the small village on the outskirts of Aro where the Osu had been banished to had come to be called.
I took off my necklace that had a red cowrie pendant and placed it inside my shoe at the door mat. I opened the door and the pungent smell of delicious ikoko hit me, but I quickly made sure to take note of the time on the wall clock directly over Ada’s bed. My one hour started five seconds ago.
“Nna kedu?” she asked in her usual playful way, smiling as she did.
“I am fine o. Anything for your boy?” I asked, eyeing the steaming bowl balanced on her thighs.
“I knocked on your door earlier to see if you wanted some, but you were not around.”
“Mma Ukwu was boring me with her dry stories,” I said, and she let out a laugh, reminiscing her time spent under Mma Ukwu’s tutelage.
“Help yourself to some.” She gestured to a pot. “Leave enough for Ani O!” she added. I stifled a laugh, surely she meant I should leave enough for her second round of eating, because the alusi, Ani, as I had seen him was a wooden statue sitting in the shrine just adjacent her bed, and there was no reality where he would grow legs to walk over to the pot or even develop a patent mouth to eat the food if he was served. Still, I scooped only a few spoons onto my plate.
We ate and talked for what felt like thirty minutes, all the while I was aware of Ani’s stare drilling into my face, as if begrudging me for eating part of his food.
“Enhen, sister, why can’t we Osu take over Aro. We …”
“Shh,” Ada shushed me and she inspected every corner of her room with quick turns of her eyeballs for something I could not see. “I see your education with Mma Ukwu proceeds slowly, for you would not blaspheme as you do if it were otherwise. Count it a miracle you still sit alive before me.” I could not understand what part of my suggestion triggered her. It made no sense that we were blessed with the power of the alusi, and yet were the ones banished to live out our lives away from our families, prohibited from ever interacting with other members of Aro who had conveniently come to be called Nwadiala, or real born.
Seeing my confusion at her outburst, she softened her features. “It is prohibited for an Osu to interact in any way with the Nwadiala, and that includes using your gifts against them. It is woven into our initiation rites, and to speak or even think of such is considered blasphemy.” She took my already empty plate and set it on the floor with hers.
“You should listen to Mma Ukwu more. It’s almost an hour since you entered my room, you should wear your necklace.”
“Thank you for the food,” I said, and then took my leave.
It was the feast for Chukwu, the supreme alusi, whom due to his magnificence was deemed to be beyond having an Osu to carry his essence, but was accorded great respect in the form of many feasts held in his name. His was also the only altar built in the centre of Obodo Osu, where all the denizens of the small village worshipped in silent prayer once every four days.
Mma Ukwu presided over the celebration, and I could see her white flowing wrapper and chalk adorned face brimming with mirth as she danced to the drums being played. Osu and keepers mingled freely like one big family. The keepers belonged to a priestly group charged with taking care of the Osu, and this made them the only Nwadiala that could interact with us. Mma Ukwu, who was the head keeper, was charged with performing the initiation rites that transformed one from a free born to an Osu, and always chaired the feasts and celebrations we had.
Tonight, she presided over the feast of children. Chukwu was thought to be the giver of children, and when it was deemed that the cry of a new-born was long in being heard in Aro, the ndi ichie communicated to Mma Ukwu to hold a feast appeasing Chukwu, the giver of children. As the Osu danced and sang to Chukwu, the married of the Nwadiala who sought children were encourage to meet themselves with the certainty that the supreme deity would visit and plant great sons and daughters in the women’s wombs. I, however, didn’t care for the celebrations as my mind was set on only one thing: Escape.
The keepers guarding the perimeter of the village had all been called in to join in the celebration. Indeed, there was really no need to guard the village. All the other Osu I had talked to never hinted at any interest in leaving the village, all of them seemed to have made the village their home. In fact, a lot of them were so old I doubt they could’ve succeeded if they tried to escape. I was the only one I knew who harboured thoughts of escaping, and I would’ve shared my plans with Ada, but since the incident in her room where she chastised me, I had kept my apparently blasphemous thoughts to myself.
I quaffed the last of my palm wine and dropped my wooden cup on the floor, feeling the drink blunt the edges of my senses. The celebration was still as fervent as when it had just begun, the drums rose to a fever, and the Osu, even the aged among us, danced in the clearing in front of Chukwu’s shrine. I spotted Ada amidst the crowd also swaying to the beat that had now taken a transcendental quality. It seemed as though the dancers were praying with the movements of their bodies, and the drums gave carriage of their requests into the high heavens where Chukwu resided. The lure of the drums was undeniable, and I felt myself loosening to their sound.
When I asked Mma Ukwu if I was required to dance, she smiled and said, “if you have to ask, then you are not yet ready.” Hinting at what I suspected to be the case with the others: They were in a trance during these celebrations and their bodies moved without their control. How else could I explain the acrobatic movements exhibited by even the octogenarians? It had to be that the alusi within had taken over and were worshipping Chukwu through them. It made sense because Mma Ukwu had told me that Chukwu is a representation of all the alusi combined. I still hadn’t communed with Min-ochi, and therein lay the source of my resistance to the infectiousness of the drums.
I made my way back to my room and picked my already packed sack of clothes. I circled round back, avoiding the centre of the village as I made my way to the gate that guarded Obodo Osu. As expected, I met it unguarded, and gently pushed the right gate forward to create a narrow space large enough to have me slip through it.
A long road, the Uzo Osu, lay in front of me as I looked ahead with Obodo Osu behind me. My lamp flickered, and I caught its reflection on the smooth surface of the compacted clay that was used to fashion the Uzo Osu. From my studies with Mma Ukwu, I knew it led directly to the first village, Ohafia, and after that to the next village, my village, Arochukwu, where Mama and Nneka, my sister, lay awake waiting for my return. It had been six whole moons since I last saw them.
At dawn, I came up on the first few huts that signified I was entering Ohafia. The huts seemed empty, but this was no surprise as most people were already at their farms. Soon, I was passing the centre of the village. As it was a market day, I saw many Ohafians, mostly women, setting up their wooden stalls and arranging their goods in readiness for the midday market. I greeted people as politely as I could while trying not to draw any attention to myself.
By midday Ohafia was well behind me, but Arochukwu was still hours away, and my feet hurt from hours of trekking. I came up on a large tree with thick foliage, and it provided good canopy from the sun that was shining angrily on Aro. I brought out the wrap of ukwa I had stowed for my journey. I ate two mouthfuls and washed it down with saliva, as I hadn’t packed a container of water. A few minutes under the shade and I regained strength in my limbs, ready for the rest of my journey home.
Arochukwu stood exactly as I remembered even in the twilight. I saw women, walking in small groups, with baskets supported on their shoulders as they talked about the day’s events on their way back from the market. Men sat in front of their huts awaiting their wives’ return. The playful sounds of children filled the entire village and I thought to myself that not too long ago my voice could be found amongst theirs. The darkness made it so that nobody recognised me as I made my way through the village headed for my house. At Ozo-Aki, the street on which my family house stood, I felt my heart quicken at the prospect of soon being reunited with my family.
The darkness had deepened and a lamp was burning brightly in front of my family hut. Two figures, who I guessed were Mama and Nneka, were seated around it. I approached them, my pace even, as I struggled not to run into their arms lest they be startled.
“Nne nno,” I greeted my mother when I was within hearing distance of them. Mama and Nneka looked up from the palm kernels they were breaking.
“Nnam, kedu?” Mama asked without a hint of recognition on her lantern illuminated face or in her voice.
“It’s me, Ike. I am back!” I said, confused at their apparent disinterest in my return.
The furrows on their oily foreheads deepened in consternation at what I had just said, and they shared a brief look between themselves.
“Ike who? Are you looking for someone?” Nneka asked. “Only my mother and I live here, so you must have the wrong address because we do not know any person called Ike, except Alika’s new-born baby whom he named Ike just the other day.”
“It is me now. Ike, your son,” I said, and when I noticed Mama and Nneka pull back I realised I was shouting. “It’s me, your brother.” I added, my voice subdued. I hoped they were pulling a prank on me, I hoped it was one big joke, and that Mama was going to jump from her stool and envelope me in her embrace at any moment.
“I don’t have a brother. My brother died from an illness as a baby, and his name was Agu. Please leave. You have the wrong house.” Nneka said, as she and Mama quickly packed their sack of kernels and the lamp and rushed into their hut. As they walked away from me, I heard Mama whisper to Nneka, “Oga bu O bu onye ijiri, he must be a madman,” her voice filled with pity.
Maybe Arinze will remember me, even if my mother and sister do not, I thought, as I made my way to his house, my head swirling at the impossibility that I had ceased to exist to my family. Arinze was my best friend, and I had known him ever since I could remember.
“Nwokem, I don’t know you. Don’t come to this house again.” Arinze slammed the door to his obi shut.
I dragged my feet on the smooth clay of the Ozo Osu, not remembering how I found my way back to the path. I had hoped to have a warm welcome, a bath and a good meal, but I stood in the darkness, utterly confused at how my family and friend could have completely forgotten me in just six moons, and then I thought, Mma Ukwu would have an explanation.
With tears running down my face, I trudged on, taking one step after another, putting Arochukwu behind me. No sooner had I left the outskirts of the village than it started to rain.
I snuck into Obodo Osu under the cover of darkness, for I had arrived past midnight of the following day. As it was on the day I made my escape, there were no keepers stationed at the gate, and I wondered at this. Weary from my long trek, with nothing more than several mouthfuls of ukwa and water drunk from a stream in the last two days, I made it to my room, ensuring I was unseen by any of the Osu. Before long, I was fast asleep.
I was awoken at dawn by hunger pangs, and I hurriedly made for the kitchen where the keepers had begun preparing breakfast. If the kitchen staff were surprised to see me, they didn’t show it as I casually walked from one station to another availing myself of a loaf of bread, some fish stew and a gourd of fresh palm wine.
My stomach fully distended with the meal, I set out for Mma Ukwu’s living quarters.
“I see you finally communed with Min-ochi,” came Mma Ukwu’s voice from behind her door. “Come in, don’t just stand there. The door is open.” I didn’t ponder how she’d known it was me.
“Welcome back. I would ask if your journey to awakening was pleasant, but it rarely ever is. But, at least, something good came of it.” I looked at her, confused at what she went on about. Journey to awakening? I thought to myself. And what good did she mean?
As if reading my mind, she answered, “The rain of course. Aro received its first rain since the passing of your predecessor.” Still sensing that I hadn’t understood what she meant she continued. “The first rains signify—”
“They didn’t know who I was,” I cut her off. “My mother called me a mad man.” My eyes welled up with tears as I spoke. “What did you do to me?” A loud thunder sounded, and it started to rain heavily. It wasn’t cloudy, and the morning sun still shone brightly, and yet it was also raining, heavily.
I returned my attention, stolen by the sudden downpour and thunder, to see Mma Ukwu smiling, white teeth showing between thin lips. “Bless you child, Min-ochi has also seen it fit to bestow the gift of thunder upon you. I have never seen it happen this early.” She gestured to a stool. “Come, sit. I will explain it all to you.”
“When an Osu makes first contact with his alusi, it is called an awakening, and it’s often preceded by some sort of trauma. For you, it was finding out the truth of becoming Osu. When one undergoes the initiation rites to becoming an Osu, every memory of that person is erased or rewritten in the minds of the people that once knew him.” She paused, and considered me through her knowing eyes.
“You are not the first to have set out from Obodo Osu in search of his family. In fact, you took long in doing so. Ada made her journey after just one moon, and had her awakening on the journey back from her village. Isialangwa, Ada’s village, being the furthest village from Obodo Osu, and her alusi, Ani, being a rather talkative deity, she had a long conversation with him on the way back. When eventually she made it back to our gates, she understood what it truly meant to be Osu. To be Osu is to be forgotten by the ones you love.”
She added, “As Min-ochi is the deity of rain and thunder, I was particularly concerned about your awakening because Aro had been without rain for long. I feared a repeat of the great drought of six decades ago when Min-ochi would not awaken in the mind of his Osu. Alas, that is not to be the case with you.”
“As you may have noticed, the rains come with your tears, and the thunder, I think, with your temper.” She reached over and ran her hands through my hair like I was a child, like I was her child. “Best to guard that temper of yours, eh?”
“Come now,” she walked to the threshold. “We have much to do in preparation for the feast of your awakening.”
It has been seven decades since my awakening. My room is now the first among the row of rooms. I have watched many Osu pass to the afterlife. I remember my good friend, Ada, who erected, with the powers bestowed upon her by Ani, the great earthen halls that bear the statue of every Osu there has ever been, right before she passed on to the afterlife. I remember nights spent telling her successor how great she was.
I remember pondering Mma Ukwu’s … ah, yes, Mma Ukwu, that ageless woman who lives on, having not aged a single day since I first set eyes on her. I remember thinking long on her words about what it meant to be Osu. She had said to be Osu is to be forgotten by the ones you love, but I disagree. To be Osu is to lay down your life for the ones you love. The Osu are a living sacrifice to the alusi, ever appeasing them so their wrath does not ravage the land as it used to in the past in the form of war, drought, and pestilence. For peace and much more, the Osu give up everything.
I have since learned to cause rain without shedding a tear, and now even my laughter brings thunder. Min-ochi has been a kind alusi.
“There is this child I have seen in my visions. She is grandchild to my sister Nneka. She will carry you well,” I say with my inside voice to Min-ochi, as I sense the hour of my death upon me.
“Hmm,” he clears his throat, and it sounds like a light drizzle. “You have served me well; I have no doubt she will be a good choice as she carries your blood.”
I feel the life trickle from me, and I use what strength that remains in my limbs to remove the sacred necklace that binds me to Min-ochi.
“Jee nke oma, have a good journey.” He whispers as our tether breaks, his voice this time rumbling like subdued thunder.