Call of the River Umu

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Hello Everyone,
So like I said last time, I will be putting up a story by Othuke Ominiabohs Author of Odufa and Conspiracy of Ravens. The story is longer than my usual posts but then, its totally worth it.
Do enjoy and Darlings, I’d really love feedback!
Don’t forget to have an Awesome week.
Cheers!!!!

“We have to go further,” Father said, paddling rather furiously against the tide.
Ruz gaped at him, mouth wide open. He stopped rowing and turned to face him,
so the dying light from the day now fading flirted on his bearded, youthful face. “But
father, it’s getting late; besides our fishing baskets are full. Shouldn’t we—?”

“Cast the net and help me row towards the north. I can’t do this alone,” Father
said, cutting him off in mid-speech. He grunted and spat into a small plate he kept
beside his leg. “Adi, get the black bag and unpack one basket of fish into it. That
should give us a place to dump the new catch.” Without taking his eyes off the
throbbing mass of black water, he said to me, “Richard, help your mother.”
I moved to Mother’s side. Her face was drawn, her eyes tired. But she did as her
husband bade, not minding the mosquitoes that bounded around her ears, arms and
legs.

I looked at my elder brother.
Ruz was the only one who dared to challenge Father. He looked away, paddling
with a furiousness that came close to rebellion. If he couldn’t say a word, who was I
to voice my complaint. So I quietly obeyed and began the tedious task of emptying
one basket of fish into the sack.

As if he could read our minds, Father broke the silence.
“I know you all are tired. I know. But we have to take advantage of the crisis
currently in the community. You all have seen how much the soldiers who came in
those huge metal trucks are willing to pay for our wares, especially our fish. I hear
they are leaving Umudhe tomorrow. If you noticed this morning, several of them
were loitering at the river bank awaiting the return of the fishermen. I already have
three lieutenants who want to buy a basket of fish each.” He patted Ruz on the back.
“God willing, you and Richard will have money to go back to school tomorrow.”

Ruz smiled, hiding his face.

“But don’t you think we’ve come far enough?” Mother asked.

“Patience, Adi. I feel the net bulging already.”

“OK,” my mother said, resignedly. “But we shouldn’t keep Asi waiting for too
long, you know how she always worries.”

At the mention of my sister’s name, a huge grin broke out on my face. I could
picture her in the faded blue gown she wore that morning, seated by the small fire at
the river bank, her long, shiny black hair hidden in a fiery red scarf as she waited patiently for our return. Asi, my beautiful sister, the one whose smile and laughter
made me whole, the rainbow in Father’s sky whom he always referred to as his
mother come back to him, the jewel of Mother’s eyes. She would have amassed a crowd of buyers for our fish before we got to land plus the steaming fried fish and
roasted plantain she would have ready for us. I couldn’t wait to run into her arms.
While we worked, the sun finished its trek into the horizon, leaving behind a thin,
fine mist of darkness. Birds soared in flocks, fading into the distance. Other
fishermen, with whom we had set out early that morning, turned and began their
return journey to the village. But not Father: he kept on, willing the fishes into his
net. A half-moon rode slowly into the sky, an Old World lantern revealing wisps of
clouds that slowly became one with the lengthening shadows of the dark.

I slapped my ankle; the mosquitoes had become unbearable, with their sing-song
drone that filled the air like a mournful hymn. Strong winds kissed my face. It felt
refreshing at first but soon whipped up into a windstorm. I snuggled closer to
Mother, who wrapped her arms around my shoulders.

“Are you scared?” she asked, the soft wet sheen in her eyes making them shine in
the dark.
I shook my head. Ruz had told me so much about his fishing expeditions that my
first time held little surprises.
She cradled my head on her knees and then unwound her wrapper, throwing it
around me to keep me from catching a cold. I caught her shivering slightly as the
wind seeped through the thin fabric of her patari into her bones.

“Mother, you are cold.”

“Don’t worry about me, Richard.” She peered at me. “Are you cold?”

“No.”

“Then I’m not cold.” She pulled at my cheeks.
I smiled.

My eyes travelled to the darkening plains, searching for the patterned copse that
signalled the countless estuaries that ushered the muddy water of the creeks into the
black river. My village lay beyond the copses, surrounded by creeks, stretching
languidly on the river bank like a big foot stamped angrily against a sand dune.

Umudhe was a small fishing village nestled between two rivers that never met.
Weeks ago, the village on the opposite side of the River Umu suddenly began
claiming ownership of the two rivers, forbidding natives from Umudhe to fish from
either river. A fight had ensued, resulting in the death of so many fishermen from
both communities. That was when the government brought in a battalion of soldiers
to restore communal peace. Days earlier, I overhead Father telling Ruz that the
government had oil reserves in our land, hence the president had mobilized soldiers
to keep guard over the nation’s investments before the communal clash got out of
hand and the pipelines leading to the oil wells got vandalized.

Pipelines, oil wells, oil reserves . . . these were strange words, and, though Father’s
explanation didn’t make much sense at the time, it was enough to make me admire
the armed men who gallantly guarded my country’s investments. Maybe I could be
like them someday, I thought.
My heart leapt for joy when Ruz and Father heaved yet another worthy catch into
the small boat.

“Time to go home,” Father said triumphantly.
Turning around, we headed back the way we had come. Mother struck a match,
its bright, egg-yolk yellow flame suddenly piercing the dark night, ensconcing us in
a halo-like glow. She lit up the kerosene lamp and the paraffin lamp we carried to
guide us on the treacherous river, although I felt certain Father knew every inch of
the swirling, vast blackness. I gazed at his face, marvelling at the way he hung his
head, listening to the music of the river. He slapped his knee. Bending, he cupped a
handful of water from the river and drank thirstily.

Most natives of Umudhe thought Mr. Titus an odd man; he walked over two
kilometres every Saturday to St. Joseph’s Catholic School just to wash Reverend
Father Richard’s car, clean his house and cut the outlying bushes; chores he had
taken upon himself after his baptism by the white man. The title ‘odd’ further stuck
when Father had wholesomely accepted and changed his last name to ‘Titus’, his
baptismal name and when he also named me after the revered priest. Though the
villagers thought him odd and a little insane, Father was my god. And as I watched
him wipe his hands on his trousers and throw his head back into the wind, I tried to
imitate him. I failed. My head was always coming up inches too short and my
shoulders were not as broad and square as his were. I gave up, hoping to one day try
again and be like him in every way.
A sudden lurch made me start, and I sat up at once, wide-eyed. So preoccupied
was I with my thoughts whilst enjoying the comfort of Mother’s knees that I must
have dozed off. There was wind all about, deafening with an eerie wail that roused
goose bumps all over my skin. I felt the boat lurch again and I looked around me,
anxious. Dark clouds slid across the moon as if in a mad rush to meet a deadline,
further steeping the night in dense shadows. Not even the burning flame boxed in
the spherical glove of the lantern was safe from the wind; it danced wildly to the
burst of breeze like a savage at a festival of blood.

I beheld Father’s stony face. He hurled one basket of fish into the river, reaching
for the next one when Mother stopped him. She pointed to the shore. We could see
the fires burning brightly, dancing wraiths in the whirlwind now raging perilously. Thunder clapped, shaking the clouds till I thought they would fall. Lightning
streaked across the sky, brightening the night in surreal light. Mother held me close.
Father looked helplessly at the tiny crack that had appeared at the bottom of the
boat.

Immediately, Ruz snatched the paraffin lamp. He raised it and began waving it
frantically in the air.
Mother’s eyes grew so big and her hands, even as she held me, began to tremble.
The heavens opened and down came rain, furiously lashing the restlessly heaving
bosom of the river and drenching us with wildly sweeping spray and splashing
water. The paraffin lamp went out and shortly after, the kerosene lamp too, leaving
darkly about but what poor little light the night had shed.
We were soaked.

I shivered.

“Help me!” Father called to Ruz. Together they threw out two more baskets of
fish, an act which at once betrayed the futility of Father’s daring and opportunistic
fishing expedition, and the frightening and desperate necessity of the moment.

“Grab the oars. Now!”
Father and son rowed, paddling feverishly.
In the distance not afar behind us, we heard the dim roaring of water, and glanced
over our shoulders to see, rushing towards us, as if in deadly sinister pursuit, like a
looming shadowy masquerade that rose ominously from the depths, a powerful
tempest that swirled frightfully, casting a dull, dense, waving curtain of storm-rains
between the heavens and the earth. The tempest whipped up and incensed the
waves, building up like a dreadfully pursuing hell-legion behind us, a colossal
approaching grey-black wall of water.
Ruz stopped rowing and stood stiffly beside Father, who stared at the advancing
waves with a mixture of awe and terror. I saw powerful torch lights seeking us from
the shore. Above the wailing of the winds, I heard the powerful engines of a speed
boat stutter to life. My feet were soaked. I looked down only to see the black ripples
of water pooling into the boat. Mother knelt down and began bailing the water.

We were sinking. And we were still too far away from the river bank to swim to
shore.
Father could have, maybe Ruz too, but not me, not Mother.
When I looked up, I beheld the awfully impending river-wall, lashed up meters
high, reared right behind and about us… It crashed in furiously, sweeping,
engulfing, and overturning everything beneath the turbulent waves. “Mother!” I screamed just before going under. Quickly, father was beside me. He
held me up and made to right the boat when Mother’s hysterical flails caught his
attention.

“Ruz, come hold your brother!” I heard Father say as my head bobbed out of the
rain-dotted surging surface of the river.
Ruz swam expertly to Father’s side. He held me in his arms and watched Father
disappear into the water.

It was the last time I saw Father.

And mother too.
Ruz could not carry my weight for long. Against the waves, we were tossed like
dry leaves in the harmattan. He battled to keep me from drowning, holding my head
above water, while he swam against the jostling tide towards the river bank.
But my wild thrashing didn’t help his progress. Instead it weakened him,
confusing his strokes, pushing him farther away from the shore.
The rain pelted my face with drops that felt like tiny stones, blinding me. My little
feet kicked against the waves and soon I found I was gulping water like a bucket
thrown into a well. I felt myself go under, wildly thrashing my small arms and legs.
Swiftly, sounds blurred into a dim and indistinct dreary soundlessness. I tried to call
to Ruz but every time I managed to get my mouth open, water rushed in faster than
my words came out. I barely heard myself. If I did, it was a terror-distorted muddle,
a gagged and choking gurgling.
I felt life slowly ebbing out of my limbs.

My vision darkened and then, for an unearthly fleeting second, that seemed to
clutch at the white-feathered edge of eternity’s wings, I saw appearing in the
dimming light of my semi-consciousness, Asi’s beautiful face, calling out to me.

“You can’t leave me,” she kept saying as she slowly faded like a tenuous wisp.
Then I felt strong arms pull me out into the rain.
And everything went dark.

“You are tired,” Asi said, rousing me from my anathema – the undying memory of
that night. “You should sleep now.”
She walked wearily to the cloth-bed spread out gracelessly on the cold floor and
lay on it, patting the broken mat beside her and signalling for me to join her. She
must have been so tired, for she dozed right off, her snores punching holes into the coat of silence worn by the young night.

I wondered briefly why she always asked me to bed when she knew that I never
slept, that I couldn’t sleep; why she still served me food when I never ate. I couldn’t,
not since Father died.
Filled with the familiar angst of my unquenchable sorrow, I stepped out of Asi’s
dwelling place and headed out. Umudhe was quiet as I walked through her broken
roads and broken dreams. It wasn’t anything close to the ‘Small London’ Father had
predicted at the discovery of oil in the community. It looked as stark and derelict as
ever, with hunger-stricken homes and mud-filled roads. The oil had been drained
away by corporations through distant-travelling subterranean pipelines, leaving
behind a grimly pathetic wasteland. The moon, hiding behind a bed of amorphous
clouds, peeped down with a silver eye. A soft wind accompanied me, humming a
fairy’s tune. The houses I walked past were mostly in darkness with the faint hint of
a shrouded lamp in the slightly surreal glow that fell upon the curtained windows. I
laughed sadly.

Asi had told me all about it. The villagers were scared of me. They said I died that
night. That none of us had survived the storm. I was a ghost who now haunted them
at the fall of dusk. I had become invisible and my presence, only felt they said, in
nights of the mournful wind, in sudden gusts of ice cold breeze and most nights, in a fierce storm that tore through the river, leaving dead and bloated fishes in its wake.
“I had to tell them it’s your handiwork. Because they don’t believe me when I tell
them you are alive, that you live with me,” Asi had told me once, her aging eyes
bright with conviction, her lips nervously twitching, her wrinkled hands folded
stiffly in a fist.
I broke into a run at the sight of the River Umu. This façade of calm, tranquil and
innocence lay spread before the luminescence of the moon like a bejewelled cloth shimmering beneath the stars. I fell on my knees just at the water’s edge and began
to shed tears of blood. I raised my face to the heavens and began to howl as one in
pain.

“Take me!” I wept. “Please take me!”

But the night stood still, unmoved, while I rocked myself within the black cradle
of my despair. I was a cursed creature, hovering between the river and the earth,
stranded upon the bridge between these two elements, roaming the village of my
birth, and always coming back to this spot as if fettered by invisible chains that
bound me to this magnanimous river that had taken everything from me.

I lay there, bemoaning my fate until, passive and solemn came dawn, walking her
brief round, and leaving again, like a silent and comfortless messenger. I looked up
to find Asi standing beside me, scratching her matted grey hair rather vigorously. Traces of her once velvety, honey-coloured skin peeped from her sun-darkened, dirt-
stained face and wrinkled hands. Her dress, a long gown that blew wildly about in
the morning breeze looked a pale shade of black. Her feet were bare and caked in
mud.

“You left me again last night,” she said, exposing browned and blackened teeth.

Tears pooled around my eyes as I stared at my once beautiful sister. Why did I
have to stay behind to witness this? What black magic kept me bound to this place?
Why couldn’t I move on? Why didn’t I stay dead?

“Father said I must look after you, so don’t leave me like that again,” Asi said, her
frown slowly giving way to a smile. And just for that moment, she looked beautiful
again.

A handful of teenage girls emerged just as I made to stand up. They came every
morning with empty buckets to fetch water from the river. Upon beholding Asi, they
burst into laughter, picked up pebbles and threw them at her.

“Asi . . . Asi oh orue! Asi . . . Asi oh orue!” they chanted, dancing and shaking their
waists in merriment.
“Did your brother not come today?” One of the girls asked, a jeering laugh on her
pimpled face.

“Stop coming to the river, Asi. Your brother is dead!” said another. “He died in
this very river, even before we were born.”

Asi turned around in fury and raced towards the girls who scattered like
chickens. “You fools,” she cried, “my brother is not dead. He lives with me.” She
stopped chasing them and turned to face me.

“Tell them, Richard. Tell them.” She fell
on her knees and began to pound the earth. “Wicked! Wicked! You are wicked!”

I was still crying when I blundered into the river. I heard Asi screaming my name,
coming after me. But I dove deeper still, till I was completely swallowed by the
water. I opened my mouth to let in the cold, tasteless gulps that soon made me begin
to flail. I struggled as unconsciousness approached and my vision began to blur. In the dark obscurity of the River Umu, I once more beheld Asi’s face, calling out to me.

I shut my eyes tight and hoped for the end to come. But deep down, I knew that in a
few seconds, that powerful arm would lift me out again and I would still be trapped in a world that was no longer mine.

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