Song for Night
Death Is Two Fingers Sliding Across the Throat
Death is always the expectation here and when my throat was cut it was no different. Nobody explained it at first. Nobody had time; nobody cared; after three years of a civil war nothing is strange anymore; choose the reason that best satisfies you. There are many ways to say it, but this is the one I choose: they approached me and said I had been selected for a special mission. I had been selected to be part of an elite team, a team of engineers highly trained in locating and eliminating the threat of clandestine enemy explosives. Even though I had no idea what clandestine enemy explosives were, I was thrilled. Who wouldn’t be after three weeks of training and all the time marching for hours in the hot sun doing drills with a carved wooden gun while waiting for the real thing—either from the French who had promised weapons or from the front, where they had been liberated from the recently dead. That was what determined your graduation date: when a gun could be found for you; ammunition was a luxury, sometimes it came with the gun, sometimes it didn’t, but you had to graduate nonetheless. Armed with our knowledge of marching in formation and with a sometimes loaded weapon, we were sent off to the rapidly shrinking front or to pillage nearby villages for supplies for the front. It didn’t matter which, as long as you were helping the war effort. So when an officer approached me and said I had been chosen to be part of an elite team, I was overjoyed.
I should have been suspicious of the training. I mean I am a smart person; I grew up in a city, not like one of the village fools that hung around us and were baffled by the simplest things like how to open the occasional sardine tins we were lucky to get with the strange-shaped keys—especially as the tins didn’t have keyholes. Stupid village and bush shits, almost as stupid as the northern scum we are fighting. How could I know what the training for diffusion of clandestine enemy explosives consisted of? But the officer was reassuring. Major Essien his name tag said. That he was an officer of considerable influence was reinforced by the fact that he was one of the few who had been in the actual army before the war, and he was one of the few who still wore a clean crisp uniform with gleaming brown boots: cowboy boots. We would later nickname him John Wayne, but I am getting ahead of myself.
This is how we were trained: first our eyes were made keen so we could notice any change in the terrain no matter how subtle: a blade of grass out of place, scuffed turf, a small bump in the ground, the sharp cut of a metal tool into earth—any sign of human disturbance to the ground soon became visible to us. The funny thing though is that as keen as our eyesight grew in the day, we were blinder than most at night. Ijeoma, who was smarter than all of us combined, said it had to do with the fact that we burned our corneas in the intense sunlight straining to see. I didn’t know what a cornea was even though I was in secondary school when the war started; none of us did. So she caught a frog, squeezed its eyes from its head, and showed us.
Having trained our eyes, they began to train our legs, feet, and toes. We learned to balance on one leg for hours at a time, forty-pound packs on our backs in so many odd and different positions that we looked like flamingos on drugs, all the while supervised by John Wayne, who walked among us tapping a folded whip against his thigh. Whenever we faltered, that whip would snake out like it had a mind of its own, its leather biting deep and pulling skin with it.
And all the while he would chant: “This is from the manual, the same manual that they use in West Point, the same one they use in Sandhurst; the military manual for the rules of engagement—the rules of war, for want of a better phase. These are rules even you can understand. Now move out and follow orders!”
Once, Ijeoma asked to see the manual. John Wayne looked at her for a long time.
“You are lucky I was trained in West Point, otherwise I would just blow your brains out for challenging me. But I am a civilized man. You want to see the manual? It is here”— he tapped his forehead—”that way it can never be lost, nor we. We can never be lost as long as we follow the manual. The manual is like the rules of etiquette for war. Follow the protocols I shall show you from it and you will survive. As for seeing it, the only way that can happen is if you split my head open. Do you want to split my head open?”
Ijeoma shook her head.
“Good. If you don’t want me to split your head open, you should follow orders!”
That was that. We followed orders, did what we were told, even when the training seemed at odds with what we thought soldiers should know, like the feet exercises, mostly from ballet. To make our feet sensitive, we were told, which was funny because we weren’t going to be issued boots. The rebel army didn’t have any, but even if we did, we wouldn’t get them because they needed our toes to be exposed all the time. Then we were taught to use our toes almost like our fingers. One exercise which was cruelly ironic was tying our training officer’s shoelaces with our toes.
Having learned to walk across different terrain with my band of fellow elite, feeling for the carefully scattered lumps in the ground, being careful not to step on them as per instruction, clearing the earth around the buried mines with our toes, we learned to bend and insert a knife under the firing mechanism and pull out the valve. We practiced on live mines and we realized the value of the one-legged balancing when we accidentally stepped on one, arming it. We balanced on one foot, reached down, and disabled the mine. We were discouraged from helping each other in these situations—if things went wrong it was better to lose one instead of two the mine diffusers, John Wayne explained, almost kindly.
A week before graduation he took us all into the doctor’s my office. One by one we were led into surgery; It was exciting to think that we were becoming bionic men and women. I thought it odd that there was no anesthetic when I was laid out on a table, my arms and legs tied down with rough hemp. John Wayne was standing by thy head, opposite the doctor. I stared at the peculiar cruel glint of the scalpel while the doctor, with a gentle and swift cut, severed my vocal chords. The next day, as one of us was blown up by a mine, we discovered why they had silenced us: so that we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams. Detecting a mine
with your bare toes and defusing it with a jungle knife requires all your concentration, and screams are a risky distraction.
What they couldn’t know was that in the silence of our heads, the screams of those dying around us were louder than if they still had their voices.
The Soul Has No Sign
I build a fire and slowly roast the fish. I love the smell—the dry crackle of its oil dribbling into the fire, its scent of mud and something else. It reminds me of home, of warm gari soaking in sea-salted water and the damp funk of the Cross River sweating against its banks.
When it is cooked, I eat slowly, the flesh exploding in fluffy pink clouds that taste wistfully of smoke. Every time I eat fish, I remember Grandfather’s story of the lake in the middle of the world and the fish that live there. I can hear his voice in my head now. I can see clearly the night he told me.
There is a lake in the middle of the world.
This is the oldest truth of our people. This is the oldest lie.
A lake of fire and water. This lake is a legend of the Igbo.
It is invisible, hidden in a fold in time, but there.
That day we were fishing on the Cross: a breathtaking river over two miles wide, in many places etched out of the horizon only by the line of palm trees on the opposite bank. It was dotted with sandbanks—many of them a good acre big. These glistening white mounds humped the river every dry season and lasted months, developing a whole ecosystem of water hyacinths, bull rushes, fluorescent white egrets, basking hippos or crocodiles, and fishermen camps.
There are many tales about how the Cross got its name. There are always many tales here, Grandfather said. Don’t trust any of them, he always cautioned. Trust all of them, he warned. Some say it got its name because the Igbos are Hebrews who wandered down to West Africa from Judea and some of them brought fragments of Christ’s Cross with them. Some say it is because in the past the Igbo used to crucify thieves and murderers on its bank. Some say it was named after the frustrated British engineer who worked for the Colonial Service Works Department. Not that he was named Cross. Just that he refused to make sacrifices to placate the water spirits, so the mother of them, the mami-wata, pushed down every bridge the man tried to build across it to link the first colonial capital of Calabar with the hinterlands. This was long before the capital was moved to Lagos, which I guess had friendlier spirits.
Eight bridges this unnamed British engineer tried to build, until in frustration he threw down his T-slide and retired to Sussex muttering about “bloody nigger river can’t be crossed, I won’t let it become my cross.” But it did. He carried it around Sussex until mami-wata came for him on his deathbed, or so I imagine. Still, the Cross flowed: a magnificent river.
Canoes; some no bigger than single-person kayaks, others bordering on small schooners and ships, glided up and down the river, skating like dragonflies, propelled by the powerful pull of oars or poles exerted by knotted biceps.
That was a special night: the gentle slap of the water on wood, the rustle of drying salt, the calls of river birds, the strange hippo barks, and the ticklish smell of the herbs burning gently to drive away mosquitoes wove magic around my senses.
I trailed my fingers in the water, sifting as if for a morsel of archaic wisdom carried by the river’s memory. Grandfather said this river was older than Job.
“In the Bible?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, smiling.
He said when the earth was young and this land still a dream, the river cut its path through a mountain, a tear of sweat racing down a giant’s face.
“How do you know?”
“Because it speaks to me. Hush, listen.”
I couldn’t hear anything.
Neither of us paid much attention as we drifted down the delta to the mouth of the sea. I must have fallen asleep, fingers still trawling the water for wisdom, because I woke to the dry rasp of a tongue on my fingers. Startled and unsure what creature it was, I drew my fingers back with a yelp. A dolphin clicked at me in laughter, dousing me with salty water as though in benediction, and vanished in a white spray for the ocean.
“Lucky boy. What a blessing,” Grandfather said. “That dolphin has just taken your soul for safekeeping—always.”
“My soul? Does that mean I will never die?”
That was when he told me about the sacred lake with the pillar, half-water, half-fire, all woman.
“We believe we were the first sentient beings in the universe. Our father, Amadioha, sent a bolt of lightning down to strike a silk cotton tree and the tree split open revealing man and woman. But after Amadioha made men, they ran wild with the lust of power in their noses. Who knows why? Maybe Amadioha wasn’t skilled in making people, all his manifestations seem as though made by a mid-tier elemental. So, God, not Arnadioha, sent down its essence. It descended as a pillar: half-fire, half-water. It descended to and arose from the surface of a dark lake in the center of the earth. This new deity we call Idemilli. To control our excess and ensure our evolution, Idemilli took all the power from men. Now, to enter into the confines of power we have to be deemed worthy enough by the guardian.”
“And what does this guardian look like?”
“She is a woman all fire and water and more brilliant than a thousand suns; at least those who have been lucky to see her say so.”
“Why is she a woman?”
“Because she has to be.”
“Tell me more about the lake. Does it still exist?”
“Some say it always has, in some dimensional warp.”
“Have you ever seen it?”
“Even if I had, you wouldn’t believe me and I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Does everyone know about the lake?” I asked.
“Is it sacred?”
“Very. It is the repository of human souls who are yet to gain access into the world: a source of great power for any dibia who enters there. Legend says that the fish in the lake guard the souls, swallowed deep in their bellies.”
“Why the fish?”
“Because the ancestors are concerned with the living, angels with the running of the universe, and neither elementals nor men can be trusted.”
“And this lake is real?”
“But it sounds like a tall tale.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Nobody does. Everybody does. It is real because it is a tall tale. This lake is the heart of our people. This lake is love. If you find it, and find the pillar, you can climb it into the very heart of God,” he said.
“Where is this lake, Grandfather?”
He tapped me on the breastbone.
“Here. It is at the center of you, because you are the world.”
“How will I find it?”
He taught me a song. We sang it over and over, together, for the rest of the night until I couldn’t tell where his voice ended and mine began, and where mine ended and the river began and where the river ended and my blood began.
But I have forgotten that song. I wish I hadn’t because I think it would bring me much comfort to sing it. Oh well, I think, eating the last of the fish, wondering whose soul I can taste smoking down to my stomach and if anyone has eaten mine yet.