“From the hinterland they came, from Akpabuyo, from the towns beyond Oban, from Okoyong, Uwet and Owi, from towns as far afield as Aro Country, Afikpo, Nsukka, Ugep. Weavers, dyers, bronze-casters, miners, griots, poets, metal-workers; artisans of all kinds, those who held within their tongues the memories of the land. Diviners, sorcerers, dreamers, visionaries and spirit-casters of foreign hinterland towns; thieves; prostitutes; freeborn children of conquered chiefs; bought with children sold in perpetuity as Osu for ancestral crimes.”
Continuing with excerpts from my forthcoming short story collection, And There Was No More Sea, I give you Ayanti. This story was also long listed for the Short Story Day Africa Prize in 2016. It can be found in the SSDA Migrations anthology published by New Internationalist Books.
In the shadow of the stones of Ikot Nta we built a fortress. It was a large construction forged of shells, wood, flotsam, and sandy clay. We wove a roof from the banana leaves scattered near Little Ekirikok Cove, before furnishing the ramshackle tower with an assortment of treasures. We brought washed-up, sea-worn objects, scavenged from the latest wreckage now adrift off Parrot Bay. The boys carefully cleaned the salty, bloated treasure, collected on one of the weekly canoe expeditions they now undertook with other boys of akparawa grade.
Ntiero and Efiom Junior were inseparable. Though born to different mothers, both wore Papa’s face. It was a thing that caused angst amongst strangers, for they were taken to be the living manifestation of the most fearsome of taboos: twins, permitted against all better reason, to live. That they were not at all twins was considered beside the point; and indeed, it was often said of them that they bore the spirit of our founding fathers, twin sons of Okoho, who had not only secretly lived, but had gone on to found the prosperous ward of Ikot Atakpa: our beloved riverside home. It was a place brimming with mysteries, of which it was said that the atmosphere was so rich in old utterances that the faintest of your imaginings instantly took form and walked abroad.
Yet Ikot Atakpa was more commonly known to the hordes of white traders who now frequented the waters of the great Akwa river, as New Town. Though our fathers had settled the country two generations before, establishing our harbour as the principal trading post of the whole nation of Akwa Akpa, we were considered little more than newcomers by the haughty strangers. Yet even they were wary of trespassing upon the property of the family now better known throughout the coastal cities as Duke.
My brothers, the small-small Duke boys, moved as of one accord. Known for wandering off from the rest of their flotilla, they had, on this most recent occasion, discovered a wreckage in the part of the great river that faced Tom Shott’s Point, behind which lay the pungent, fish-scented streets of Salt Town. They would later barter their hoard with Inyene and I for little more than a bowl of freshly prepared ekpankukwo, which I would inform them, with a wry smile, had been especially prepared for them by the chief deity of Vulcan City.
It was an easy trade. I threatened Ntiero with telling his mother of his secret excursions to the bay, for I knew that if she ever caught wind that they had broken the mud-larking taboo, there would be infinitely more trouble for him than there would be for myself. That is how I came to sneak two extra portions of Mma’s delectable winkle-strewn pottage, delivering it in a large, tortoise-shell bowl to the greedy pair under cover of darkness, before finalising our trade the following morning.
The boys were clever, yet also stupid, and were yet to realise that Vulcan City was nothing more than a product of my imagination. Awed by my tales of wandering spirits escaped from their haunted forest boundaries; of creatures part-vulture, part-giant, with human skulls for heads, they would cower as I whispered of the passing of the dreaded Ekpo Nyoho. Their scavenged store they built by visiting the wreckage over the course of several market weeks; but suspecting them of thieving and hoarding, I relayed the news to Inyene, which meant that it was only a short while before we stumbled upon their hiding place.
Inyene could sniff out anything. She was strange like that, but always proved useful. We were not eyeneka, but were bonded through Papa nonetheless. Our mothers, by some happy stroke of Abasi Atai, got along famously. They had known each other since infancy, when they dwelt in neighbouring compounds in their beloved Raffia City. For years they spilled their shared stories of learning the arts of crafting through observation of carvers and weavers; careworn faces animated as they retold childhood memories by their respective evening hearths. As our mothers spoke, Inyene’s eyes would glisten and she would later recount their stories, as though she, too, had wandered the russet roads of Ikot Ekpene; as though she, too, had dwelt for a time in the famed City of the Makers.
“Inyene the dreamer” we named her, for she often dreamt awake. Yet we took her dreaming seriously, for it had led us time and again to otherwise unknowable discoveries. Now it led us to the haul from the wrecked winged-canoe one quiet noon.
It was Akwa Ederi, the first day of the week, when Inyene entered my room as the cocks crowed.
“I saw the dry bones of a tree with a cavernous mouth,” she said, eyes wide in semi-shock. “It stood by a clearing in which were left stones from the People of the Sky.”
“I know the place. It is half a day’s march away, near the Kwa river-road which leads to Oban, down by Little Ekirikok Cove.”
“But that is next to the Forest of Ekpo. Mma told us never to enter the place, that it is in the bad part of the bush.”
I rubbed the sleep from my eyes but said nothing, for I felt the same dread that flickered for an instant across Inyene’s grass-tinted irises. I said nothing as we walked to the stream and bathed. Said nothing as we returned, dressed in bell-skirts and beads before breaking our fast upon hot, savoury akara and peppery snails. I said nothing as we walked to the shrines for morning prayers. It was only after we had received our tasks for the day, which involved ensuring the slave girls properly tended the cassava, that as I chewed on my chewing stick, I hatched a plan for escape. It was mid-morning and the heat was just about tolerable when I found Inyene with her youngest brother beneath the fronds of Iban Isong. Pulling her from the doorway of the lodge, I made my intentions known.
“We must leave before anyone misses us.”
I handed the baby a ball of greasy akara which he chewed as we slipped away. Once we cleared the back of the building, we exited our sprawling compound, making our way south towards the waterway that led to Efut Country. We ran the distance of the road that led to the river, but as we approached the sound of flowing waters, we slowed.
“If we walk, we won’t reach Little Ekirikok before noon. We must pay a ferryman,” I said. Inyene’s face wore the look of someone who knew she was about to transgress, but was resigned to her fate, for she had already transgressed a step too far. The ferryman turned out to be a ferry boy, one of the slippery-haired creoles now populating this part of Creek Country. He introduced himself as Joe Cobham, so I knew him to be one of our family’s rivals from a neighbouring ward. There was little to do but sit back and enjoy the bright white lights generated as the sprites of Abasi Usen danced upon the crystal clear waters.
Before long we dismounted from the small fishing-canoe and clambered up the bank. The forest loomed ahead of us.
“If Mma discovers this, there will be moons of affliction to pay,” said Inyene. I laughed, for I could well picture her wrath. Linking arms with my half-sister, we walked, two earthen-coloured tinkling things, strolling up the creolised coast, arm-in-arm.
A line of ants cut across our path. Blood red, their backs shone like the bright poisoned berries that were ground into a paste for the purpose of divining obubit ifot – sorcery of the harmful type. They marched as if to the sound of invisible drums. I stared at Inyene as her eyes glazed over.
“What did you see?”
“People. Many people. Bound strangers marched from town to town.”
“You must speak with my mother,” I said as the ants passed.
Soon, Inyene began to pick out landmarks from her dream. She led us past long-deserted houses, past many intricately carved stones. We clambered over broken shards and large boulders that blocked the path through the empty town. It was evident the place had once been inhabited by masons, makers who had crafted in stone. Their legacy stretched firmly into the present day, with strange markings whose meanings had long been forgotten, everywhere decorating the mysterious landscape.
It was said that the masons were descendants of the Sky People, for it was in the skies of distant Abasi Ubong Obot, the mount said to be the mouthpiece of the Great God, that they had learnt their craft. So the place we sought was known colloquially as the Circle of Sky Stone. The story goes that Abasi Enyong, the Mother of Heaven herself, planted the stones in a circle as a gateway through which she could pass between realms. The fable cast a shadow of awe upon the hearts of all creek dwellers.
We happened upon the place quite suddenly. The heart of the bad part of the bush. The place rumoured to be the location of a once-prosperous town, picked up and swept away by nearby ocean waves: entire town, complete with the secrets of ekpe, deposited together in a faraway place, on a large, fertile island, across the veil. Said to be the work of Kwarafan and Portuguese traders, the loss was lamented up and down the coast, for the Obong was a secret keeper and his wives famed oracles; and they took with them a portion of the memory of the country, which was feared would never be returned.
We emerged into a clearing that once stood as town square. The boys had buried their treasure in the mouth of a derelict tree, a thing which in its prime would have been without doubt a wonder, for even its carcass was impressive, its ruinous roots bedded deep within the earth. The ancient stump was located just off a circular clearing, in which stood, dead centre, an arrangement of stones that were undoubtedly more ancient than the stump itself. The monolithic stones rose like giants from the rust-hued earth casting imposing shadows upon the clearing. That we stood within a sacred place was evident to us, and the shadows seemed lower as the sun slotted into its noonday place. But as the searing sun banished all traces of cloud, we forgot our fears as we excavated the haul.
It was Inyene’s idea to construct the watchtower, from which we would plan new ways to protect our newly claimed territory from the gaze of the towering, phallic boulders, with their stern, yet jovial faces. The gigantic images both comforted us, yet made the fine hairs on our necks stand to attention.
All of that occurred the week before last. Since that time we had returned daily to Ikot Nta, ferried by the silken-haired Cobham boy; and little by little, we had constructed our fortress. We built directly atop the flattened stump of the dead tree, erecting rough walls around the base that served as a platform of sorts. On the fourth day of the week, Ekpiri Offiong, Ntiero and Efiom chanced upon us and begged to assist us, which Inyene and I permitted after moments of careful deliberation.
Inside the tall, crooked room, we placed a small chest, two brass candelabra, and a broken chintz-patterned chamber pot, which Efiom turned upside down before placing atop it the damaged antelope skull he had found at the fizzing brook. Beside that we placed an ivory tusk and the badly rusted blunderbuss rescued from Ekirikok Cove. In noonday light, skull, perch, ivory and gun fused into one, casting an eerie shadow which rose, streaked, into the air. The strange shrine called to mind a holy fire arising from the crown of an unknown, unseen deity, so we stood, the four of us, transfixed for a moment. It was the call of inuen ekpo breaking the silence that brought us back to our senses.
“We should say a prayer,” said Inyene, “we need to consecrate the space.”
“Why? What did you see?” asked Efiom, who had retrieved two large, once-sodden rugs –Persian pieces from across the veil that we dried in the sun to serve as sleeping mats.
“I saw nothing,” said Inyene, looking fearful, “but we ought to pray anyway.”
“You should pray,” I said.
“Because I am perpetually dragging you from Mma and the other diviners. ’Tis doubtful any of us can pray as well as you. Besides, this watchtower was your idea. You must set the words for the watch.”
So we closed our eyes and Inyene began. She started with a song well known by all our mothers, all one hundred and forty-four of them; a song which invoked the names of the High Gods, discarded in this part of the country before our family resettled Atakpa Creek. Inyene said our mothers had returned the names to their rightful places, which is why Ikot Atakpa now prospered. As we joined the staccato melody, she spoke.
“On Akwa Offiong, this sixth market day, I, Inyene eyen Okoho, invoke the Gods of my forbears.” Her back straightened as her small voice filled the room. “I, daughter of priests, of diviners, of seers and dream-catchers, I who tread between worlds in my sleep, I hereby call upon the Abasi Udung Oyong, the Great Ones, stewards and protectors of our people, who bless each morning with the breaking of the yolk that brings light to the creatures of day. Hear me now, o ye illustrious guardians whose hearts even the most illumined human minds cannot read. May you guide us in times of trouble, may you turn the pellets of our enemies astray, may you be our stronghold and watchtower, turn our feet from peril and keep Ekpo Nyoho at bay.”
As my sister spoke we trembled, her voice reaching like fingers into the clearing beyond our fortress.
“May we have the protection of Ekpe and Asabo, may the young Leopard and the Python scatter all before our feet. May you girdle us beneath your great shadows.” Inyene rounded off her prayer and Efiom left the tower, killed a small bird and sprinkled its blood on the stones.
“Why did you do that?” she asked, angrily. He laughed and threw the carcass into a nearby bush.
“To consecrate the place.”
“Yet you yourself are not consecrated,” she scolded him.
At that moment thunder clapped, and we froze. We had arrived at noon, but now the day had lengthened. I felt a creeping fear, not for the first time.
“We should leave,” I said. Inyene agreed.
“Wait!” said Ntiero, who came running over with a brass plaque, engraved with foreign characters.
“What do you have there?” asked Efiom.
“The name of our fortress,” he replied. The structure was tall enough to enclose a tattered rope ladder, which we used as a stairway to lead to the battered crow’s nest, the only intact part of the enormous oceanic structure not to have been swallowed by cruel spirit waves. Our tower was a sight to behold. At the entrance we placed a chintz sheet, which served as a door of sorts, and Efiom placed his sign beside it, before reading out loud.
“The Scouse Stranger.”
“What manner of name is that for a watchtower?” asked Efiom.
“The type that will keep Scouse strangers at bay,” he replied.
We laughed. Standing back, we beamed with pride.
Our fortress sat beneath the eaves of the sacred forest where the wandering spirits of the newly departed were said to roam. Inyene’s mother had warned us repeatedly, particularly the boys, from straying too close to those parts of the bush where the dead things walk, identifiable by the invisible border which haunts all freeborn children of the creeks. But boys being boys, they ignored her warnings and made a beeline for the profane wood, while Inyene and I waded in the shallows, searching for more treasures with which to furnish our ramshackle creation.
That happened yestereve, when Inyene found a golden key, turned almost blue-green, like the swollen leg of the sailor Uncle Edidem had carried into Mma’s work parlour one bright afternoon. It had turned out to be one of the rare occasions when my mother was unable to save the unfortunate creature, whose entire leg she had been forced to remove with a sharp cutlass. His rotting skin had smelled so bad that we had later been forced to smoke out the room with a mixture of pungent herbs, before rubbing all the surfaces down with salt and throwing the burnt herbs, leftover salt and butchered body into the bad part of the bush.
While the boys roamed the wood, we continued to splash in the shallows. Our bell skirts chiming like the call of swallows. I happened upon a dense patch of weed, like a mound of tangled thread, as a fish sent a jolt through my calf. I investigated further, and glimpsed a case.
“Inyene. Come and see.”
We dragged the water-laden box, which was surprisingly light and small, onto the bank, gently clearing the weeds from its body.
“Don’t open it,” she said. I stepped back in fear: her voice was shrill.
“Why not? It might have anything in it.”
“Precisely because it might have anything in it.”
“Eka Kufre said the trunk she purchased on her last trip to Ikot Ekpene was filled with a wicked spirit-pox.”
Shrugging, I examined our latest find. It was empty but for two folios. Leather-bound things containing dried white leaves, cut into perfect rectangles.
“Beautiful,” I said, remembering that Ntiero had promised to teach me the letters of the pale-faced foreigners. But Ntiero being Ntiero, he was always distracted by his multiple pursuits, so I had resigned myself to the fact that I would have to find another to teach me.
At the sight of my half-brother producing the brass plaque, I remembered the folios. I had placed them the day before in the chasm below the entrance to our fortress for safekeeping. Now I retrieved the oracles of bound leaves.
“What do they say?” I asked Ntiero, handing over the folios.
“I can’t make it out. The ink has run. Wait. It looks like a journal.”
Studying the pages carefully, he began to read.
“The nineteenth day of June, this year of our Lord, seventeen fifty eight and a half.”
“What does that even mean?” asked Inyene.
“”Tis the name of a year. ’Tis the name of this year,” he said.
“What a ridiculous notion. Who would think to name a year for a number?” she scoffed.
“The traders from across the veil,” said Efiom.
“Well, what does it say?” I asked. “Does it give the engraver’s name?”
“No.” he said, “but it lists other names.”
“Names of whom?” asked Inyene.
“Of places. Of people. It looks like a ledger of sorts.”
“Well, tell us what it says.” I was growing impatient.
“From the Fante coast.” he read. “I cannot make out many of the names. They are in a dialect that is strange to me. Nevertheless, I shall try. Gold: the engraver writes of several ounces of gold. He mentions grain. And people. One Kruman, one Frimpong, twelve Gurunsi, three named Agyeman.”
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, continuing. “From Bonny,” his face became stern. “One hundred pieces of ivory, four hundred yams, thirty persons. It lists their names. Ten Ebele, seven Ododo, three Oyi, nine Adesuwa, one Ivie.”
“What is this?” I asked.
“From the Agbishere towns, ten pounds of salt, twenty of palm fruit and fifteen persons. Three Affiong, five Udo, seven Inemesit.”
“Stop. Please. Let us leave. I begin to feel afraid,” said I.
But my half-brother would not stop reading. He called out so many names, scores of them, many familiar, yet many more foreign names, and at the sound, my heart flinched in inexplicable pain.
Evidently, Efiom and Inyene felt the same, and as I began walking to the waterway, they followed. We left Ntiero’s deepening voice trailing behind us. But as we approached the spot where the Cobham boy had dropped us off, he and his small fishing canoe were nowhere to be seen. Only his paddle remained. We assumed he had returned, somehow, paddle-less, back up the creek. As night fell, the realisation that we were stranded dawned upon us, so we made our way fearfully back to the centre of the deserted town. As we approached the clearing, we heard the call of inuen ekpo. That the ghost-gull cried at night was an omen of encroaching death. Ntiero had lit a small fire, but was now nowhere to be seen.
“Where is he?” asked Inyene. “Nsunam iwot!” she added as an afterthought, cursing the sense missing from his head. We had no food, but Efiom felt brave enough to pick a few wild guavas and pineapples. After apportioning the sweet flesh, he said, “I am going to find Ntiero. You should wait here. It’s not safe for him out there alone.”
Inyene began to cry. Her soul was sensitive and she was fretful for our brother. We entered our fortress and replaced the flimsy door, hugging each other to alleviate our fears about the beyond. Efiom could be heard calling “Ntiero!” into the night. I was afraid.
Soon my sister began to shake violently. I had glimpsed such a thing just once before, when we were but infants. Inyene had gone into a shaking frenzy in the yard of Iban Isong. Luckily for her, my mother was present and was well equipped in dealing with nkposop, the dreaded spirit sickness. My heart lodged in my mouth as Inyene starting spitting foam from hers. She spoke, muttering: “Ekpo Nyoho, Ekpo Nyoho,” over and over and over again. Her eyes rolled back in her head as a chill descended upon me. A long shadow loomed in front of the dying flames as Ntiero entered the fortress.
“Where is Efiom?”
“He went searching for you,” I said, as a mask of fear settled upon my brother’s face.
“Go and fetch some water,” he said.
I grabbed a gourd and ran into the night, tears streaming down my face as I thought of our predicament. My mothers would hold me accountable should any ill befall my siblings, and rightfully so, for the entire escapade was my idea. We were in a part of Creek Country in which our rivals, the Cobhams and Robin Johns, were known to roam. It was safe for no one.
As I ran blindly, I muttered Inyene’s invocation for protection until I thought I would have no words left. Soon I heard the familiar tinkle of running water and filled my calabash at the fizzing brook. Balancing the calabash on my crown, I moved slowly to our newly constructed refuge. The light from the fire illumined my steps, and I managed to approach the looming stones without spilling a drop of water.
It was as I approached the fortress that I heard it. A song chorded in minor that summoned me by name.
“Ayanti, Ayanti,” it sang, “eyen Ikwo, will you remember me?”
The voice grew into a faint chorus of an unseen choir. Voices at once solitary and that of a multitude.
“As the dusk turns my footprints to shadows,
And the gulls lament the passing of my name,
Will you recognise my laughter in the morning?
Forget the sparkle of my eyes; to numb your pain?
Ayanti, Ayanti, eyen Ikwo, will you remember me?”
I wondered who it was that called my name and strung out its meaning, as the question will you remember me draped about my neck. Wondered who it was that called out the name of my mother. Wondered where the bodies, from whence came the sound.
A movement drew my gaze. It was a creature with a human skull for a head and long black feathers at its nape. Ekpo Nyoho, rising from the darkness, part-vulture, part-giant, part-deceased human. The creature stood before me, chief deity of Vulcan City itself, no mere figment of my imagination, but a real city in the realm of the unfortunate dead. The home of those who had died, not as aged, illustrious personages; but of a bad death. Those who, like the bluish-green bloated sailor, had been tossed into the bad part of the bush.
The creature towered above me but I looked it in the eye and remained in my place, taking a small step to the side to allow it to pass. I still consider it to be a thing of wonder that no harm befell me, but Mma would later inform me that women should have no fear of the wandering spirit; that because I spilled no water from my gourd, I could now call the spirit to my aide.
As for Efiom, his strange fortune had been otherwise decreed. We would never again lay eyes on our brother, never again hear the sound of his mischievous, raucous laughter. We would never learn of his capture by the spectral horde that passed through the sacred clearing that night. We would only see footprints the following morning, the earth pounded as though by a great multitude.
From the hinterland they came, from Akpabuyo, from the towns beyond Oban, from Okoyong, Uwet and Owi, from towns as far afield as Aro Country, Afikpo, Nsukka, Ugep. Weavers, dyers, bronze-casters, miners, griots, poets, metal-workers; artisans of all kinds, those who held within their tongues the memories of the land. Diviners, sorcerers, dreamers, visionaries and spirit-casters of foreign hinterland towns; thieves; prostitutes; freeborn children of conquered chiefs; bought with children sold in perpetuity as Osu for ancestral crimes.
We would never see them marching in their tens upon tens of thousands, dead things walking, fallen children of Abasi Ibom Isong, from slave town to slave town, through bountiful forest, beyond sparkling rivers, in a bid to reach our coastal wards. That once in Obio Oko, Afaha Obutong and Ikot Atakpa, towns of the Bight that would come to be known as Biafra, they were destined to be crudely ferried to ports named Jamestown and Georgetown and New Town.
That they would be drawn upon great winged vessels built on docks in cities with names as confusing as Liverpool, as Bristol, as London; freeborn and generational ritual-slave alike, shackled by metals wrought in Birmingham, shipped alongside ivories cut down like their owners: gentle forest guardians, who roamed the sacred hinterland woods not knowing that the protection afforded them by Abasi Akai, their living Mother, was fast approaching decline.
That the greatest crime would be perpetrated upon our very soil; and that we, children of the creolised harbour towns and coastal creek coves, apportioned the spoils, which in time we would cease to acknowledge.
Yet, the knowledge would haunt us regardless, for the greater part of their number were destined to fall and rot where they trod. Driven to premature deaths by hunger, by thirst, by the fists of their wily Kwarafan capturers, pushed beyond the brink by cruel whips belonging to Jukun mounted on tall, neighing steeds.
We would never learn their names, which would be whispered thereafter only by pockets of memory that floated in the wind; would never learn of their varied, torturous migrations, never realise that their remains lay scattered beneath our feet, that our homes had been constructed on the bones of their carcasses, nor that it was their rising, wandering spirits which roamed the expanding forests of Ekpo Nyoho.
We would never learn of the fate of our brother, who, though not eyeneka, was our brother nonetheless; never learn of how he had stumbled into the centre of the stones and was seized by a group of shrouded, mounted horsemen, to a town named Ikot Ekpo, where he was marked to be sold. We would never know that for seven days he would work for his masters, but that on the night of the eighth day of the week, he would remember the prayer uttered by his half-sister, the dreamer, and being roused as he slept: would escape, feet led as though drawn by some unseen whisper, silently, past rival raiders, who would spray his masters with bullets from blunderbusses bought from across the veil.
We would never know that he would be led past creek, bight and cove, unseen, as though girdled by a benevolent shadow, back towards the Circle of Sky Stone; that he would discover the plaque that read The Scouse Stranger, was now a sign by a brand-new road.
We would never learn that he would discover, upon enquiring of an oddly dressed stranger, where he could find: “The home of Ntiero the scribe, Inyene the dreamer and Ayanti the weaver, children of the principal family of Duke,” for the new road was confusing and “had not been there but eight market days before.”
We would never discover that our brother would learn: “The wealthy, literate, part-creole slaver and Obong of New Town, Anterra Duke, and his famed oracle sisters, were long dead and buried,” that the year was now named “nineteen fifty eight,” and in the passing of eight market days in a spectral town named Ikot Ekpo, two hundred of our years had in fact passed.
Instead we would leave the ramshackle fortress to be reclaimed by the stone ruins, and return, weeping, to our compound; to be met by the sound of wailing and wretched lamentation, by a voice refusing consolation, a voice belonging to Eka Efiom: for now, all of her children were deemed no more.