‘Ogbuefi’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
When Papa returns home in the evening, I am curled up on the lemongrass carpet by the TV, watching cartoons. Red-tailed mice shuffle in widening circles, their arms interlocked, and Papa says, over their lilting chorus, ‘Chibuike, it is time. This weekend you will become an Ogbuefi.’
That night, I barely sleep. Through the large windows of my darkened room, I watch the wind rattle the frangipani tree in our backyard, its long and skinny limbs peeking beneath clusters of white and green leaves. Two weeks ago, lightning flashed and thunder growled as if the skies were prying loose a great beast. I scurried into Mama and Papa’s room. Between their bodies was a three-foot span of space warmed by deep breathing. Mama snored like an overhead airplane, and I fell asleep to the sound in my ears. Before dawn, Papa shook me awake and pulled me aside. He said seven was too old to be scared of the mind. A boy became a man by trying.
Friday mornings are bright and quiet. The sun wakes me up to the smell of toasted bread and honeyed tea. I like two cubes of sugar in mine and a spoonful of powdered milk; the heat amplifies the sweetness, and I savor each sip carefully—the way Papa does on long evenings when he gets home and fills his glass halfway. He does not drink tea, he never has, but I see the way he samples his cup of dark-brown whiskey. Slow and measured, the long-blink gaps taking him somewhere far away—somewhere beautiful.
I do not drink my tea now, even at Mama’s prodding. She sighs and flips my cup upside down in the sink. With her back turned, I step outside into a hot and windless day. Sweat sticks to my skin, tapering down the length of my face.
A large, tar-furred goat is tied to the frangipani tree. In past weeks, I have been content to spy on it from the safety of my window—this lazy thing that scratches its pointy ears and naps in the shade. Now we stand so close that its stench steals the air. It sits on a bed of wilted petals, shaken loose by winds and passing birds. Branches sag low enough that the goat can eat with hardly any motion. There is no joy in its face when it chews, nothing like my bliss when Mama buys suya meat from the mallam two streets away—red, juicy meat flavored with the kind of pepper that stings my tongue twice over and brings tears to my eyes.
The goat munches slowly until it is full. Then it turns toward me, eyes pale-yellow, its creased, scaly horns curled in two loopy twists. A strange need to graze its head with my hand arises, but I fear that the sudden movement will provoke anger. I pick up a small twig instead and twirl it in the air so that the goat’s eyes follow the arc of my hand. The animal soon tires of my charade and turns to survey a portion of bark where red ants cluster. If I burst into song and dance like the mice on TV, perhaps it will watch me again.
The thought makes me flinch. I will not dance for a goat.
Today is Friday. Tomorrow, I become an Ogbuefi, like my older brother Toby and his older brother Nonso. They are in boarding school where life somehow moves on without Mama or Papa. I wonder what they smell on sunrise mornings, or if they even have sunrise mornings. I wonder if, on the day before they became Ogbuefis, their hearts pulsed in their throats.
Mama yells my name, but I do not move. She finds me outside, watching the goat looking at nothing, our united silence a sort of covenant.
‘Come inside,’ she says. ‘Get ready for school.’
Before the bus arrives, she calls me to her room, a nail clipper in one hand, and I place my feet on her lap. She says my toes look like the claws of a hawk; they need to be short and smooth for Saturday. It has been years since she cut my nails, crescent clippings gathering around her feet like baby moons. She once belonged to me, her tender hands soaping and brushing my dandruff hair, her stories about Amadioha and the river goddess guiding me to sleep, but she mostly belongs to the house now. The windows and countertops gleam every afternoon, the smoke-drenched stockpots filled with diced vegetables and achicha.
When the last claw is conquered, she glances at her watch.
‘The bus is almost here,’ she says. ‘Put on your socks and go.’
My legs are back on the ground, my bag is on my back, I am ready, but I do not move.
‘Mama,’ I say. ‘I’m afraid.’
She takes my hands in hers. If Papa were here, I wonder if she would have done so.
‘Ten seconds, nwa mu,’ she says. ‘No. Five seconds. You hold on for five seconds, and it is over. You can do it.’
‘What if I can’t?’
Her eyes scan mine, and it feels as though she is peeking beneath my face, past the layers of my skin. Finally, she says, ‘You will.’
I come home from school to find Toby and Nonso in the living room. Mama is upstairs, napping, and they are watching a movie. A man is clutching at his half-open throat, blood seeping through his fingers. Before I can turn away, Toby grabs me, his fingers on my sides, and lifts me into the air. He twirls me until I think I might vomit.
‘Ogbuefi!’ Toby sings, while Nonso cackles.
Over dinner, as we dig into jollof rice and stewed beef, Nonso tells us about boarding school. An older student, Victor, tried to make Nonso wash his clothes. Now, Victor has a black eye. Papa laughs—the deep-belly kind. He has not laughed in weeks. His thumps on the table rattle my almost full bowl. Mama is silent.
I stay awake through the night again, thinking of the warm space between Mama and Papa. I wish I could crawl into their bed and freeze all of time. Rain pellets would hang halfway between treetop and ground. A streak of lightning would burn the sky forever white. My eyes scan for shooting stars, darting beyond the velvet atmosphere. None streak past.
In the morning, I walk up to my window, and although its glass is still water-streaked, I can see the frayed brown rope, one end of it looped around the tree, the noose empty, as if ghosts in the dark have quietly whisked the goat away. Staring at the space it once inhabited, I decide on a name.
‘Solomon,’ I whisper. It seems fitting for a creature with a king’s size and silent, palpable authority.
The name takes on a cadence in my head and loops and loops and loops, like the songs on the staticky radio that accompany us to our village.
The road shimmers, its smooth gray surface broken up by pools of water. Toby and Nonso flank me. They argue over which anime character is strongest. Papa whistles alongside the radio’s odes to African queens and eternal love. His body bounces. His fingers tap on the steering wheel. It matters little that he is out of sync; an inner music hums within him. Mama’s fingers are pinched on the shifting beads of a rosary.
I know we are getting close when the car starts to rock and crest, as though bobbing on ocean waves. The road is now a brown snake. When we arrive, a scorching heat beats down on us. Distant music is playing. Papa parks under the shadowy frame of a giant iroko tree, its leaves smelling of sickly mint.
We approach the swelling sounds in the center of the village square. Plastic chairs sit beneath the rainbow-colored sprawl of tall canopies, populated by men in lion-patterned shirts and women in periwinkle wrappers. Their faces are just vaguely familiar, if at all. The air buzzes with their conversation, and around them, children clap and sing and play all manner of instruments: tambourines, beaded rattles and drums.
It takes a moment for Papa’s presence to be noticed. A silence descends. Papa leads me to the square’s center, where twenty-one men—seven sons, seven fathers, seven grandfathers—stand shirtless in a loosely-formed triangle. Their backs are straight, their faces painted a stark and chalky white. They part to let us into their center, and just as smoothly, they close the gap.
Papa crouches before me. When he smiled, his eyes often were on some other thing: scantily clad wrestlers tousling on the big screen, Mama’s approaching plate of eba and leafy ogbono soup, Toby and Nonso. But now they hold mine; his hands grip my shoulders, and he beams. Like magic, my legs grow solid beneath me.
‘Chibuike,’ Papa says, gently. ‘A village raises a child, so that a child can raise a village. Today, you show our people that you can provide for them. Today, you become a man. Do you understand?’
I nod, and relief fills his face.
He walks away and joins Mama, Toby and Nonso in one of the front row seats reserved for us. The music resumes—ululating voices and strummed guitars. The men around me start to move, their steps sharp and precise. They preserve the triangle even while in motion.
The village chief, Ichie Okolie, approaches the edge of their dance. He is a wiry man with milky eyes, his face like the shapeless dough that Mama kneads. He dons a gold-threaded isiagu shirt that swallows him whole; he lifts a feather-covered walking staff to the cawing birds above. He intones loudly, his voice soaring with the orchestra and melding with the dance. I face him, because I know now that I must. My eyes are steel, my teeth are clenched, my fingers curled into tight fists.
Ichie Okolie calls on the wide-eyed spirits of our ancestors who commune in the unseeable heavens. Each year, they bless the chosen Ogbuefi, and through him, our verdant lands, our fertile soil, the undulating hills that encircle us, cross-stitched atop our holy grounds. We are one: heaven and earth, here and now, elevated afterlife, afternoon sun, the gold-tailed fireflies of night.
When Ichie Okolie finishes, air gathers in my stomach like stones. The universe is again free of sound, but for the approaching footsteps behind me. I turn around. The triangle has parted once more to let two men in. They resemble Nonso, although their chests are bigger, their stomachs lined with muscle, their skeletons straining to break free of flesh. The man in front holds a blue bucket in one hand and a long, waxy rope in the other, tied around a goat’s neck. The man in the back holds a machete. He scrapes it along the ground as he moves.
Solomon stands between them, but this takes me a moment to realize. He has always moved so little, unless while eating; but now, his mammoth black head swings left and right, his eyes dart between the men, the sky, the silent and watchful crowd. Upon seeing me, he lurches forward and is pulled back sharply by the man in front.
All my trapped air escapes me in one breath. The man lets go of the rope. He sets the bucket beneath Solomon’s twisting form. He accepts the machete from the man behind him, and my knees quiver. I cling to Papa’s face, his lessons, his smile, seeking strength in memory. But in my mind, every image of him blends into static.
A single flute warbles, its sorrowful notes pricking my skin. All of me focused on Solomon. His gaze finds mine again. Yellowish eyes dilate.
One of the men lifts Solomon by his hind legs, turning him upside down. The man in front takes my right hand, curls my finger on the machete’s handle. Our hands are fused.
He nods at me. ‘Together,’ he says.
We move slowly at first, then I am taken by surprise when he dives forward, my grip with his, and drives the blade deep into Solomon’s neck. I feel the slight resistance of muscle, sinew and tissue. Solomon’s throat opens. The rain is red and warm, the air reeks of silver kobo coins and my stomach is unrolling. The man is moving, but I don’t want to anymore; I want Mama, I want Mama, her tired face and her arms and her hug and her smell of nutmeg, maggi cubes and freshly laundered pillowcases. I want the snug bedsheets warmed by her breathing. I want there forever, I want home, I want the long night’s thunder, I want anywhere but here.
I seek her. I hear gasps and feverish mutterings; I hear the flute’s notes die out; I hear a man yell for me to come back; I hear the final whimpering gasps of Solomon. But I don’t see, because my feet thud fast, faster than they ever have, and my head roars and my hands swing so that blood sprays the air. I see Mama, still perched on the chair, and Papa is next to her. He is rising, but I only want Mama.
She is close enough now, and I wrap my body around hers, the tears breaking free. She does not touch me. When I look up at her, she looks away, as if I am a lost wanderer from the dirty streets. Papa yanks me by the shoulder and forces me into an empty chair beside him. His face is blank, and I think he’s broken a bone because pain splits my body and the tears spill harder.
‘Shut up,’ Papa whispers, leaning close to my ear. ‘Shut up now, you stupid boy, or I will give you something to cry about.’
My stomach heaves but the storm does not end. I pinch my lips, Solomon’s bitter blood catching on my tongue, and my voice falters. Even then, I can’t stop shaking.
I focus on a spot of dirt before my feet. An indented circle hollows the ground here, perhaps from an idle finger or a chair’s shifted leg. I focus on this and imagine that the world depends on it, that any worms squirming beneath the surface promise relief. Around me, whispers rise, words churn and Ichie Okolie urges the people to relax. He says that the goat’s body will be cast into Nshe forest at midnight, that skinned and smoked cows await our hungry bellies. He calls out to unseen men with a clap. Music resumes, subdued.
Calabash bowls stuffed with fresh meat are passed around like handshakes, their flecks of suya pepper tingling my downturned nose. The stench is overpowering. Papa is offered a plate and declines; he says his family cannot eat today. I dig myself deeper into the chair. I do not look up, not until the guitar’s last note trails off, and the afternoon light washes away and Papa speaks to me again.
All five of us march wordlessly to the car, and it is a silent ride home too. Toby and Nonso grant me my favorite spot in the backseat, the left-window side where I often press my forehead against cool glass and watch the trees race past. I close my eyes. In the dark, I see Solomon’s thrashing body, his hind legs caught in two grips, his front legs slashing the air, his eyes on anything but me.
At home, we are barely past the front door before Papa explodes. His words are garbled, and although my eyes are on marble tiles, I know that his are red and wet, that a Y-shaped vein bulges on the side of his neck, that his mouth sprays spittle between the tempo of ‘shame’ and the ceiling-scratching high of ‘coward.’
‘You wanted three kids,’ he tells Mama at the very end. ‘Talk to your son.’
He storms up the stairs, and a door slams shut.
Toby rubs his fingers through my dry hair. Nonso punches my shoulder lightly. They disappear to their beds. Mama watches by the front door, her arms crossed, and when she starts to move, I bound up the stairs and into my room.
Its walls are baked by a blue-dark heat. I scuttle under my blanket, a room within a room, and I crave yet another opening, another hole to crawl into, until I am small and compact—folded like a beetle.
The door creaks open, the smell of honeyed tea trailing the sound.
‘My son,’ Mama whispers. ‘Come out. Talk to me.’
When I do not, she kisses the fabric above my head. She whispers that everything will be okay. The door moans a second time, a dying echo.
Everything will be okay.
Mama has always moved as if that is true. The skies never scream, and the storm is only a graze, a mother’s graze, offered like a sin. A strange anger takes me over, a demon’s euphoric possession. The tears are a tight ball in my chest, on the thinnest edge of release.
I shake off the blanket and spot a green mug on my desk. Freshly made tea cools beneath a steam cloud. I lift the cup with both hands and raise it above my head. With a shuddering grunt, I let loose. The window shatters, jagged pieces of glass sparkling. A hot trail of liquid trickles from the floor to the ledge, past which I see ceramic shards circled around the frangipani tree.
In the next room, Papa curses. His footsteps pound the hallway. I look around, my fingers digging underneath my bed, rummaging within neatly arranged drawers, shaking loose the innards of nearby boxes. I search for another cup, a glass bottle—anything that can shatter. My body trembles. The fire inside me grows hot-white and all-consuming. I want it to explode out of me until its heat melts my skin, prises charred flesh from bone. I want it to swallow this house, to devour Mama and Papa and Toby and Nonso and me.
I want it to burn with all the power of an Ogbuefi.
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