Amugbo was on his front steps when we congregated in the afternoon of the next day. He was listless as we played, running round and round, splashing through the large puddle under his house. He had his hunter's headlamp strapped to his head. I broke my run to see if he would notice me, but Amugbo only scratched his leg. He propped up his chin with one hand and stared into nothing.
'O ti o, he has gone to the doping stream again,' I whispered to Simisola who had come to a halt beside me.
'Since when has he ever stopped going to . . . what did you call it, the doping stream?' Simisola covered her mouth to stifle a giggle. Then she dug a conspiratorial elbow into my side, her voice dropping into a whisper. 'Hey, I think he remembers his father today.'
'Well, maybe we ought to follow his example and remember all our fathers,' I replied sullenly. I was fond of Amugbo, and was angry with myself for inspiring Simisola's mockery.
The men of the gorge had been gone for years. Off to war somewhere in the place below. The mothers spoke of the day when, their men long gone, a hostile army invaded, taking all the boy children with them into the place below. The sons of the gorge would have become child soldiers by now, or worse. Only Amugbo was spared. He was sixteen years old at the time and had passed out in a drugged stupor someplace during the attack. Amugbo was now the only male in a gorge peopled by females. He had puffed his way through the last five years, lost in the haze of his igbo smoke.
'What's with the headlamp?' Simisola wondered.
'Some of the mothers call him Omo-Ode—the Hunter's son,' I replied. 'His father is . . . was a hunter. The night-hunter's headlamp is all he has left of the man.'
'Hunter, eh? Since when did hunters fight wars?'
'Hunters are excellent trackers, you know. His father moved with the spirits of the earth, his feet understood the ground, he conversed with the wind, could hear murmurs in trees. At least that's what the mothers say.'
'There you go again with your wild ideas. You are only a little better than Amugbo himself, I tell you. Just make sure you don't go near his doping stream, you hear?'
'There you go with your mouth, Simisola. Don't annoy me, joo!' I walked off.
Simisola followed. 'And how is it you get to hear all the gossip anyway?'
'It's not gossip.'
True, I knew a lot about the gorge—things the mothers normally kept from us children. Women of the gorge took turns to care for my bedridden mother in our home. When one arrived to relieve another, they spoke for a while on our front porch. My mother would be in the permanent twilight of her condition. All would be quiet. Unknown to the women, their voices drifted into my room. It was at these times that I gained detailed knowledge of what had befallen us in the gorge. I also discovered that my mother's illness was terminal. Nothing could be done. The women tried to keep her comfortable as she slid towards the unknown.
Amugbo's mother was completely silent when she kept watch. Our house only made the subdued even more so. Even Simisola's mother was less voluble when she came over. 'It won't be long now,' she once said of my mother to another woman. They waited for the end. I ate meals in Simisola's place, then crept quietly into our stilt house. I would adjust the bed covers gently over my mother, listen at other times for her whispered call and rush to her side. I did not even know if she still recognised me. I tried to be a good daughter. And I waited for the end.
'But seriously, what is there to hunt in this place, eh?' Simisola persisted in her questioning about Amugbo's father. 'You'd think a fisherman would have a better time than a hunter, abi, Lola? We are all watered through in this gorge, ke? All washed up. Land animals are just fable. I would really like to know what Amugbo's father hunted, wouldn't you?'
'Well, if he and the other men ever return, we'll ask, won't we?'
I had resigned myself to the unlikelihood of the men ever returning. Now when I thought of a father, I found myself looking in Amugbo's direction. If only he could stand up and be a man. If he could do that, he could fill in as my father, young though he was.
Our friends' shouts cut into the conversation. The mothers heard too, because several of them rushed towards the commotion. They were all backing away when we caught up. 'Oni! Oni!' they shouted. An alligator. It curved its advance into the gorge, tail swishing right and left. The women cast furtive glances in Amugbo's direction. But it was his mother that forced her way to the front of the gathering.
'It's a baby one,' she informed. 'It's lost its way and is probably confused by all the noise.' She grabbed a big stick and tapped the earth with it, to drive the alligator away. 'Back! Back the way you came!'
'Why can't we just kill the thing?' someone asked. No one answered, all eyes fixed on Amugbo's mother and the alligator.
Then the reptile seemed to heed. It turned and moved slowly away. Amugbo's mother followed some paces behind, still holding the stick, still the encouraging noises, until the alligator disappeared into the thicket. We heard the plop as it dropped into water, out of view. Amugbo's mother ignored expressions of gratitude and went to her son's front steps. She let the stick drop with a heavy thud. Amugbo screwed his mouth to one side and raised his head. He squinted at his mother from some hazy passage in his mind. She glared at him for a long minute, then sucked through her teeth, letting out a hissing sound. Long and sharp, like the drawing of a blade. She turned and stomped to her stilt-house.
Amugbo buried his head back in his lap. Out of deference, the gorge women never called him 'Amugbo' or referred to his weed habit in his mother's presence. 'Ah, Amugbo, you really are an empty space,' one woman said, once the mother's door slammed shut. 'You are not worth a thing.' Another piped up, 'Who will believe it, that we have a man here and he cannot defend us? From a baby alligator, for that matter!'
The women's voices dissolved into murmurs as they headed back to their houses, children trailing behind them. Soon it was just me and Amugbo. I took in the sights, sounds and smells of our waterlogged lives. The gorge was painted in ambient hues of green. The reddish brown soil had never known dryness. Water seeped everywhere, from under the roots of trees, from the smallest depression in the ground. Leaves were heavy with droplets. It was as if the land and trees themselves wept, inconsolable. Unlike the people, who were always dry-eyed. They had seen beyond tears.
'Is that you, Ibilola?' Amugbo's voice broke into the stillness. 'Keeping me company, are you?'
I smiled. I couldn't tell him I stayed because I would have done the same for my father.
'You are good to me, aren't you?' His apathy seemed to be lifting. 'Do you know why I say your name in full, Ibilola? Because I like it, what it means—"it's great to be born". It reminds me of something I am in danger of forgetting.' He stretched and let out a lazy yawn. 'Yes, Ibilola, it's great to be born, unless you are me, that is.'
He fell back into silence.
'Do you think you could stop the igbo, Bros?' I asked after some minutes. We called him 'Bros' when he was sober, as a mark of respect. At twenty-two, he was ten years my senior.
'What, drinking it or smoking it?' he teased, smiling. His eyes, wider than the narrow slits of earlier, would have shone if they were not so red. His skin was ashy, his lips nearly black, darker than the rest of his face.
'Well, you know . . . ' I shrugged.
'I don't know, Ibilola. I am beyond help.' He looked at the green canopy above, shook his head and repeated, 'Beyond help.'
Amugbo's younger sister emerged from the house opposite with his lunch. He and his mother hardly ever spoke, but she sent him food three times daily. Amugbo asked if I'd share the meal with him, once the sister left. We could go and sit on the porch, he suggested.
'No thanks.' I stood up. 'I have to go and check on my mother.'
'All right, Ibilola. Just promise me one thing . . . '
'That you'll never end up like me, wretched as I am in this place.'
I lowered my eyes to the seeping earth as I walked away.
The gorge was alive with activity days later, when the good portents came. Simisola's mother rushed past me with a basketful of live crabs she had caught. She constantly shook the basket to dislodge the crabs' feet, thwarting their attempts to claw out.
Simisola's father died in his sleep a year before the war, which probably explained his widow's lively nature. An ordinary widow was a step above a war widow in the gorge. She at least knew the site of her husband's grave. Other men were just missing-in-action, presumed dead. The other women went about their daily activities morosely, speaking in hushed voices. The gorge was heavy with their melancholy.
Simisola stepped out as her mother disappeared inside the house and we set off for our play area. We found our friends looking at a spot in the northern end of the gorge. One girl shushed, pointing. 'Movement in that corner, and noise. Listen!' We inched nearer, wide-eyed and apprehensive. Amugbo's door slammed. He took long strides towards us, an inquisitive look on his face. I was relieved to see he looked sober. His mother, on her front porch, was also looking our way.
A rush of small stones poured noisily down the spot we were observing and soon after, a foot. And another. Dainty feet crowned by red toenails. The rest of her followed. She wore a knee-length red dress adorned with yellow flowers. So much colour in our green world. The short-sleeved dress was belted in the middle, pinching in a small waist. Four buttons ran from an opening on the chest up to her neck; the top two were undone. We formed a wobbly crescent around her. Amugbo picked out a small twig from his knotted hair and flicked it away. It must have unlocked something in his brain, because he circled slowly around the new arrival, mouth agape. His red eyes mirrored the visitor's dress.
She dangled a pair of strappy black shoes in one hand. Simisola relieved her of the shoes, lifting them up to eye level for a closer look.
'The climb down was very steep,' the woman explained. 'Shoes were no good, so off they came.' She smiled breathlessly. Her teeth gleamed. Her lips were stained crimson. In her other hand, she held a straw hat. It had two silk flowers to one side. One red, one yellow.
'And who are you?' Amugbo asked. 'Where have you come from?'
His voice had a deep, throbbing timbre. It was like I had never heard it before. The woman pointed behind her, to the spot she had just dropped from. Her doe eyes stayed glued to his.
'From up there,' she said.
We looked up and saw only thick vegetation.
'From the town, up above,' she added, unsure of herself in the face of our incredulity. She shook her head slightly. 'I'm not entirely sure how I got here. I just came. I suppose it's my love of adventure that led me. I didn't know what I'd find, but I didn't expect to see . . . people . . . ' She looked from us children to Amugbo. 'My name, is Angelina.'
'Angelina . . . ' Amugbo almost whispered the name. 'Well, you are welcome. Forgive our manners; we are not used to strangers, you see. My name is Omo-Ode.' He touched his chest and bowed. One hand curved a vague arch over our heads. 'These little louts call me Amugbo behind my back, and sometimes to my face!'
Angelina laughed. A tinkling laugh, like the chiming of tiny bells. Like the sound of shells driven in water to the roots of coconut trees in the hush of the gorge. Birds twittered in the overhead foliage as Amugbo led Angelina to the large tree by his house.
'Water everywhere,' Angelina marvelled, looking all around. I felt for her hat.
'Oh, you can try it on.' She placed the hat on my head. 'There.' She stood back to admire me in the hat. I held my head just so, chin raised.
'Suits you,' she said, 'not that you'd have much use for a hat in this shaded place.' Angelina looked from one face to another. 'You're all so pale . . . '
She was almost the same colour as a bark beetle, and just as shiny. Amugbo dashed off to get something for her to sit on.
'It's not shaded up above?' I asked Angelina.
'No, not so shaded. Much brighter up there, lots of sunshine, this time of day.'
'And no war up there?'
'War? Why, no. Peaceful up there, mostly.'
Amugbo returned with a low stool and Angelina lowered herself into it, stretching out long legs. She had sustained a bruise on her left foot during the descent into the gorge. Amugbo inspected it, and sent his sister to fetch some medicinal balm. But I had to go and check on my mother. I gave Angelina her hat back and left as Amugbo's sister returned with the tub of balm. Their mother followed right behind, bearing a gourd of palm wine for the visitor. A rare smile lit up her features. She was almost pretty.
The women of the gorge competed with Simisola's mother for liveliness, all excited over Angelina's arrival. Some had witnessed her departure, and later gossiped that Amugbo sought to do the manly thing, to see Angelina off safely to the place above but couldn't, fearful of stepping beyond his known world in the gorge. Long abandoned extrovert natures resurfaced; and women giggled about how Angelina told Amugbo not to bother following, promising that she would be back.
The house of the smoking bamboo tired of its old magic, and Amugbo cleaned up his act. He washed daily, took care to look nice. His eyes slowly lost their redness, his lips were less chapped. And he introduced his hair to a comb.
Angelina visited again three days after. Then two days after that. And the day after, until she came with a small portmanteau one day, and stayed. She set up home with Amugbo. We the children called her Aunty Angelina. Amugbo's mother rediscovered her voice, telling us that this time of Angelina's arrival was nearly as happy as before the men left. Mother and son went in and out of each other's houses. She patched up his old clothes for him, made him new ones. He showed unexpected skills with carpentry, and by the time he finished several days of work on his mother's house, it looked like new. Then he worked on other houses in the gorge as the women sought his free services. He added new features, replaced doors, reset steps, painted on bamboo with dyes his mother made, a skill she was talking of passing to her daughter and Angelina.
We mostly called Amugbo 'Bros' by now. We could not dream of calling him Amugbo, upright as he had become. In the evenings, he left Angelina for about an hour while he walked around the gorge, to ensure that all was well in his realm of women. His father's headlamp would be strapped to his forehead.
From our porch one night, I observed Amugbo's light beaming through the darkness of the gorge. I corked my head to one side to listen for my mother's breathing. I could feel her slipping away on the bed. If the end did come, I hoped the hunter's son and Angelina would look after me, be like my parents.
Angelina spent much of her time locked up with Amugbo in the house of the smoking bamboo. Whenever we felt we could get away with it, we children would hitch up our dresses and go between the stilts under the house, water reaching up to our knees. There, we would marvel at the creaking of the bamboo under the lovers' bodies. One time something clawed at Simisola's leg and she screamed, causing us to splash about in a wild panic. Activity overhead came to an abrupt end and Amugbo rushed down his steps, a piece of cloth held with one hand round his waist. His torso was soft from his days of indolence, but the legs were long, firm and lean.
'Eyin omo ale,' he barked at us, then thought better of it. 'Oh, what's the point? We are all bastards anyway, all fatherless . . . ' He struggled to look stern, wagging a finger. 'Look, just don't let me see you under my house again.'
We nodded mutely, shamefaced. But at the very next opportunity we were back under the house as passions heated up. I feared the house would collapse on our heads. The grunting and moaning filled our ears. Angelina groaned with fevered urgency, her voice rising higher.
'Ah, Omo-Ode, iwo ni n maa bi gbogbo omo inu mi fun!'
'What did she say?' I asked Simisola, disbelieving my own ears.
'You heard her: "It is for you that I will bear all the babies in my belly!"'
If babies from the sky were impossible then the house of the smoking bamboo was our only chance. I hoped any babies would be boys.
Angelina sometimes sat with us under the tree. She also told stories, mostly about the place above, from where she came. One afternoon, I asked if she would take us up there.
'One of these days,' she promised. 'I bet you'll glow darker than me when the sun has worked on you.' She smiled, then sighed. 'One of these days . . . '
Angelina was still beautiful but her skin had dulled a little. I wanted her to stay in the gorge forever, but I couldn't bear for her to lose her glow. She was also my only hope of ever seeing the place above.
Amugbo came walking by, whistling his favourite lover's tune as his eyes danced flirtatiously over her.
'Angelina, Angelina, o ti loo wa ju!'
'Angelina, Angelina, you are way too much!'
She laughed. A tinkling laugh.
Angelina had been in the gorge three months when another person dropped into our world. The rush of stones was bigger this time. More a rumble. Women and children, led by Amugbo's mother, crowded around the spot. A man fell in like a rude joke, then gathered himself to stand, dazed, on his feet. The first man many of us children would remember seeing, apart from Amugbo.
'Who are you, and what do you want?' Amugbo's mother sounded like she knew the new arrival bode no good.
'Why ask me?' the man found his voice to wail. He began to weep, tears rushing down his cheeks as he stepped forward. We backed away.
'I want my love back,' he cried. 'I want my light, my sunlight back. Don't blame me if you are trapped in this sunless place, this ravine. Trapped by your history. Trapped by your failings; by those who let you down. Trapped by your fears. Don't take it out on me. Don't blame me. Not my doing.'
We looked in bewilderment at one another's faces. Angelina and Amugbo emerged from the house of the smoking bamboo, roused from their bed by the noise.
'Something in this place lured my only love away from me. My Angelina!'
Amugbo's mother grasped her head with both hands at the revelation. Her son was frozen at his bottom step. But Angelina approached slowly, a wild look on her face. The man continued to weep. He held a hand out to her, but addressed us.
'I want her back. I want my life back. Can't you see? She is sunlight itself. You will only quench her fire. You would put her out as water does the flame, in this place where everything seeks to dampen, to douse, to swallow heat. Look at her! Her beauty fades. Her glow dims. If you love her, you will let her go!'
Angelina reached where he stood, and he crumbled onto his knees and held onto her legs. He let out a great howl, his face to a sky we could not see. Angelina shook her legs free, turned and walked back towards the house. Amugbo waited for her there, leaning on a baluster. I walked alongside Angelina, though she did not seem to notice me. I wanted to say so many things to her, but no words came out. I could tell she was moved by the intruder's weeping, torn between a love and a greater love. Only I didn't know which love was which.
'I love you,' she whispered, pausing beside Amugbo. 'But how realistic is it, really, me staying here? I was not made for this place. I see it, now that he has found me. And I cannot ask you to come to my world with me. The gorge needs you.' Then she went up into the house, reappearing minutes later with her portmanteau. Amugbo called her name as she walked past. She turned and gave him a long, despairing look. He spoke her name again, softly. She in turn touched him on the shoulder. A gesture so public and yet so intimate, conveying all the secrets they shared, the confidences unspoken. Her look sought to reassure him that this was not a betrayal, not a desertion. Though ultimately, it was. She walked with the same despairing face to the one whose tide of tears she sought to stem. She placed her hand in his and together, they set off, the rest of us dragging slowly behind like stunned ghosts.
Amugbo slumped on his steps. No one dared go to him. He sat there till nightfall. We found his door locked from inside the next morning. Not a sound from there for two days. Food brought by his sister sat waiting in covered dishes on the front porch. On the third morning he must have woken before everyone and gone to his secret doping stream. The house exhaled smoke through the bamboo again. Lost to the haunting stream.
When Amugbo finally emerged he was worse than before Angelina came. His eyes were a red vengeance. His hair was jagged and twigs and bits of leaves were straying back into the kinks. We rose from our place under the tree as he staggered down his steps. I said nothing; sadness choked up my throat.
Angelina must have forgotten her rouge, because Amugbo's lips were blood red.
'Ah-ah, lip stain?' Simisola's mouth stayed open after she blurted the question.
'Very observant!' Amugbo cackled. 'It's to prevent my lips darkening from the weed.'
'Ah, Amugbo, what has become of you?' another girl asked. 'You are back crazier than before. Now you're a proper crazehead again.'
'Yes, that's me. The original craze.' Amugbo started to dance to a beat heard only in his head. He put a fat roll of igbo between puckered lips, closed his eyes and took a long drag. The lit end glowed like a fiery third eye. He stared crazily, oblivious to the women now gathering to watch the display. Amugbo's mother walked past with a pail, headed towards a gushing waterhole beyond her son's house. She too seemed to have reverted back to her old self. Amugbo left the igbo dangling from his lips; face turned upwards with eyes closed, he raised his hands as his legs quickened in the stagger-dance. Women and children fell about laughing.
The pail emptied in a sudden torrent over Amugbo, bringing all to a halt.
'Worse than a hundred dirty slaps!' Simisola chimed in my ear.
Amugbo's mother stood before her drenched son, panting. The pail fell from her hand and clanged its way to the ground. She had the same look as when she confronted him over the alligator incident. The igbo lay soaked on the ground. It unfurled slowly, pathetically, pulsing like the gills of a doomed fish. Amugbo opened one eye, then the other. He wiped his face and shook water off his hands. He looked, open-mouthed, at his sodden clothes. Then he began to weep. A cry that startled itself at first and snagged in his throat. When it finally forced its way out, it was the most horrible sound I had ever heard.
'I am not a man! I have never been a man! And now I shall go where all the men have gone! Better to die than to live, a mere weed in your watery beds!'
Then he was the most purposeful I had ever seen. He went into the house of the smoking bamboo, got his hunter's headlamp and strapped it to his forehead. He tapped the ground with the stick his mother once used, and marched towards the place below. His mother watched, hands clutching at her breasts. Women and children huddled around Amugbo, begging him to stay. The man I had hoped would be my father seemed deaf to pleas.
I stepped on fallen, yellowing leaves as my feet led me away. Picking my way gingerly on the moss patterned planks of Amugbo's steps, I pushed his door open and went inside. The pine bed was to the left, and a cupboard hung open on the right with clothes dangling from hooks inside. A wide window opened to the forest beyond. From here, Amugbo could have plucked coconuts from dwarf species whose crowns nestled just outside. Evidence of his weed habit lay strewn on the window ledge.
I walked around the bed. And there on the small bedside table her hat sat, lovely as the day she came. The two silk flowers were just as bright. I put the hat on my head and walked out into the dappled light. Women and children were clustered around the mouth of the gulf that led to the place below. They peered inside and talked anxiously about Amugbo's leaving, half hoping he would reappear, bringing with him their lost tribe of men. Amugbo's mother was like one struck down on the ground. Her wrapper had fallen open. One woman tried to gather her back up and another was trying to secure the wrapper round her waist.
I surveyed the scene. Only my mother was missing. Mother, for whom the end would soon come. After which I had to find what to do with myself, now that Amugbo and Angelina were gone.
I walked to the northern end, seeking the rocky path. I could not see it but I knew it was there. It led to the place above, to the light, the sunlight, from where Angelina came with song, skin the shade of bark, and from where she brought weeping. I thought of the man who came into the gorge to find her, whose love won her back. How he loved her. And how she loved him, to leave another love broken in pieces here. What a life they must have up there. What a life could be had up there, with laughter, song, and tears. Where you could let out your pain without the earth needing to weep your tears for you. Where you could see the fear that seeks to close you in.
I thought of all these things as I craned my neck up and imagined the sun on my face. Then I promised myself that as soon as I was able, I would leave the gorge. I would ascend to the place above, wearing Angelina's hat.
Story Copyright © 2008 by Molara Wood. All rights reserved.
About the author
Molara Wood was born in Nigeria and currently lives in London. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in publications including: Sable Litmag, Humanitas, Chimurenga, Farafina and Per Contra. She maintains a blog on African arts and writing, 'Wordsbody'