Pathways

First things first — I’ll have you know, I know who I am. I have always known, always understood my persona, what makes me tick. If you ask me who I was eight centuries ago, I would tell you that I was a loner destined to die for my people. Not voluntarily, though, but I understood it had to be done. I was born, first daughter and third child overall, to the third wife of the Diokpara, Olumba ndị Umuokirika — first son and voice of the Okirika clan. Wealthy by conventional standards of measurement, my father had the largest farmlands in the community. He also had a total of eight wives and fifteen children — seven daughters and eight ‘strong’ sons, as his boys were often described because of their stocky build. So aside being his first female child, his Ada, I was of little importance. Nothing about me was irreplaceable.

Father was regarded as something of an immortal: he was daring, constantly challenged by and challenging the spirits in seemingly agreeable ways — never hesitant to take on strange missions, sacrifices and unimaginable tasks invented in moments of crises for the peace of the gods, especially Ala, goddess of the earth and mother of fertile soil, for she was often times the angriest, yet his biggest benefactor. And each time, he emerged stronger, a more fortified being. His last act, where he had emerged from a boiling cauldron unscathed, earned him the revered title, agbara a huru gbuo okuko — the deity for whom birds are sacrificed upon beholding. Repetitive use of this title that had come to replace his premier one of Diokpara became a constant reminder to all, the demigod he was, a title that seemed to motivate him to do more. So it was no surprise, especially not to me, that when Ala, in her usual righteous indignation, demanded my blood be used to cleanse the land, to appeal to her to end the drought that plagued Umuokirika, Father did not hesitate. In as much as my sixth sense had kicked in early enough at eight full moons old, and I knew that I was born to die — not unlike anyone else, but the why was the difference — it was only until the dibia — the clan’s chief priest — came to escort me to Ala’s shrine on the morning of my death, fourteen full moons after my birth, did I finally understand the how.

Terrified I was, as a prey in the tight grip of its predator. But nobody sought to know. To be fair, my mother may have bore her anguish for weeks, having to keep the decision secret until it was time, for she came to me on the morning of the deed, despondent. She looked around my hut — at the basket that stored my wrappers; at the husks of corn strung and hung by the open window at the far left of my hut; at earthenware beholding my untouched meal, ukwa. She looked at my feet, naked before earth’s surface. She stared at the hem of my wrapper, uneven by the knees. She looked everywhere but into my eyes. And I stood there, willing her eyes to meet mine, waiting for her to say something — anything — to pacify me.

Finally, she mustered the nerve to speak. “You should eat.” She gestured in the direction of my food.

“Why me?”

She shrugged. “Ala gives and Ala takes. Earth is our mother, and we must return to her when she beckons.” Her expression continued to bely her verbal nonchalance.

“But must it be me?” My voice broke on the last word, signalling I was near tears. Anger, a feeling I’d been fighting to extinguish since I was informed two nights before burned renewed within me.

She must’ve noticed, because she suddenly looked at me, and her eyes widened a little in comprehension.

“Who would you rather it be?” She gauged.

Father had seven sons, I was of the mind to tell her. One wouldn’t be missed. The village was filled with people, old and young, men and women. Ala could’ve chosen from the lot, especially the elderly. They had lived long enough. Anyone but me.

But I bit down on my tongue.

“My child, you should be proud Ala chose you. It means you’re special. Umuokirika will forever remember and respect you for this.” Somehow, she came closer, touching my shoulder, as if willing her strength of steel to ebb through me by that singular act.

“I’m scared. I don’t want to.” I whimpered.

Clasping tightly at my arms, she gave me a light shake to firm me up, peering into my slumped face as she said, “You must.”

I must. My emotions were nothing in the face of destiny. As my how was now revealed, who was I to protest against the designs of my chi? I must.

Daalu nke oma. Farewell.” the dibia bid me after I drained the gourd of its content. His tone was dispassionate, but his eyes held the respect he accorded me for my gallantry. Me, who for long had stopped being girl, yet was not quite woman. Everything became blank after that. Ala was one thirsty bitch.

My birth name was Apunanwu, given by my mother, for I was fair of skin.

I have returned and departed many times since then, but two centuries ago, in preceding existence to now, my clairvoyance would tell me, almost as soon as I was capable of processing right, wrong and the varying shades on the morality spectrum, that my purpose in that life was to love and to betray, even though I continue to argue centuries after that betrayal might not be quite the term for what transpired. Life played a game of cards, and I was one wicked ace against an unsuspecting group. This life, I remember in snippets, and I can only tell the story as I recall it. I remember sitting on a wooden stool, chopping something – perhaps pumpkin leaves, or some other leafy vegetable for soup – with a blunt knife that required pressure. The background keeps failing to come to me. I could have been home, in front of my hut, among immediate family and kin. It could have been the home of my maternal grandparents, who I often visited. I truly do not recall. But there must have been a pond or a stream close to it because I remember running through the relatively short distance to it to dip my bleeding index finger I’d sliced open while cutting the leaves, wash off the blood. It stung, and I hissed at the pain, examining my finger under the cloud of red emanating from it, floating into greenish water. If I told you I recall exactly how the moment that would determine my actions in the immediate future played out, I would be telling a lie. What I can affirm, based on my gut, was that it was in that moment that I first met Nebolisa. I have a few memories of our secret meetings. I was enthralled by the man –why wouldn’t I be? He was tall, lithe, his skin was black hakik to the common shiny yellow gold of my kinsmen. I don’t recall ever asking where he came from, but somehow I knew – perhaps I did and he told me or I didn’t but he told me anyway – that he was from a place called Oyi, far up north from my people. I have no idea how many questions I asked or what I asked, but I remember so strongly how I loved our time together, how I loved him. The force of my passion was most likely fuelled by the monotony of my life as one more woman in the Umuehi clan, eager for an escape — mental, emotional, physical, any kind sufficed — but it did not matter then. It certainly does not matter now, two centuries of life, death and life after. My love was an unrivalled fierceness, blinding and true. And so, should I be blamed for failing to detect his sinisterness before it befell me, for failing to see that all I told my lover would be used against me and mine? I had sharpened the curve of the spear Nebolisa thrust into the body of my clan. Even in this lifetime, my mind continues to fight against total recollection of what happened then. Solid walls I constructed the day I watched a group of men, same black hakik as my lover, same tongue, an alien Igbo I would not have understood if his flexibility with both dialects did not permit him to teach me, invaded my clan, kidnapped all the able-bodied men, women and children. The piercing screams, the commotion, the haze of red dust in the air and the maroon liquid haphazardly painting the earth in ugly dark strokes confounded me, blocked me from feeling much, consolidated into one giant mental roadblock that could neither be confronted nor circumvented, guarded my mind against a thorough processing of the evil I had witnessed for many lifetimes to come. What it couldn’t do, however, was erase the memory of Nebolisa leading that invasion.

Until my dying hour, I never saw my people after that day. Those taken were sold off. Nebolisa kept me for himself. Not as his wife, no. He already had two of those. I was no slave either; I lived with his clan, bore him seven sons and two daughters and was treated with more deference over the course of time, than respect by virtue of my human existence. I need not go into the state of our relationship in the aftermath. It was non-existent. And please do not ask me how I lived with myself in the subsequent years for even I cannot explain it. Perhaps I died the day Umuehi was destroyed, because nothing – not even the birth of my children or their innocent love for me – could spark up emotion within.

Now, do you believe me when I tell you I have always had a defined purpose? These two examples were given to solidify my point – I digress. This story focuses on the present, my sixth life and purpose on earth. Of course I know what it is now, but it wasn’t always the case. Not until I was twelve, when my aunt bore false witness against me did I realize my ultimate purpose in this lifetime. I had come to be judge and jury – an enforcer of ethics, to right the wrong I had committed in that existence with Nebolisa, when I unwittingly and unconsciously set my people up for doom. To serve back the energy given to me and my loved ones. To punish and reward. Support and ignore. Love and hate. To promote justice and condemn unfairness. To be a karmic energy, a nemesis to all I crossed paths with. This was my life’s purpose. And this time, I welcomed the purpose, not for a second bothering with whether or not it put me in the right or wrong in this moralistic world. As far as I was concerned, my purpose was set beyond the confining lines good and evil. My chi intoxicated me; I was one with the gods. I was a god. I’d long handled my aunt. Chinnaya, my best friend twelve years and counting, now had my total devotion. In the last three years of our friendship, I had been laying the foundation for the house that would collapse upon her. I found myself most excited to commence my attack on her. I had work to do.

Any attempt to explain why I decided to destroy Chinnaya would result in a conundrum. Perhaps I best summarize my reason. Having known her many, many years, I could list out her behavioural flaws. But then, that would be unfair, because what exactly is that saying in the Holy Books about taking out logs and specks from the eyes? I wasn’t perfect either. So I would say this: it was not because she didn’t have a single loyal bone in her body – which she didn’t, she had betrayed me time and time again; it wasn’t a grudge from centuries past – or so I believed, because I don’t recall ever having met her energy in previous lifetimes; it was not because she was selfish and thoughtless of anything or anyone that was not her – which she was, but in her defence, a little selfishness was the way to go; it was not because I was sick of bridling my tongue, of constantly biting down until I tasted blood to maintain the peace in our relationship – which I was but clamped down anyway; and it definitely was not because she was in the habit of putting down any idea, business or otherwise, I pitched to her – and then executing them behind me and making money from them, which she did, but I fault myself for falling for it, such openness was unhealthy. After all, she’d been clear one too many times on her motto.

“Whoever said life was fair, Omimi? To get ahead, you have to be as sharp as a razor and as sly as a fox, damn all consequences.”

She had proven she could and would throw me under the bus with speed and ease to get what she wanted, friendship and sisterhood be damned. And I, fool that I was, had seen her point, had understood well enough.

My double edged sword was unsheathed for an unexpected reason: roughly two years back, at a last minute scheduled brunch meeting on a lazy, sweltering Saturday, I’d looked at her – distracted from the conversation by my thoughts – as, amidst two other friends, she ranted on about her discourteous neighbour and his terrible German shepherd, hoarding attention and loving every minute of it – and realised, there and then, that I had truly come to despise her. I took one final sip of the herbal tea in my cup, and decided in a breeze of nonchalance that the time had come for me to give her what she deserved.

The plan was a simple one. For the best result attainable in this scheme against the fox, I had to become a bigger, better skilled animal – a mountain lion, or an all-seeing king of the sky, a giant eagle – setting the traps before lurking in the shadows.

I imagined my most essential tool easiest to get at the local markets, after all, the traders would have the most use for it. I had first seen it with our trash collector at our previous flat. Being the curious child I was, about ten or eleven, I don’t remember, I’d watched with rapt attention as he emptied our bin in his cart, then doused it with some liquid from a bottle he hung by the side of the cart.

“What’s that?” I took a step forward the railing demarcating us, pressing my face against its bars.

“It’s tusa tusa. To keep flies away. And if pests and rodents eat anything from the trash, they’ll die, too.” He communicated effectively in pidgin.

“It looks like water.”

“Seems so. Up close, it has a certain colour.” He uncovered the bottle, bringing it close to my face between the bars. “See?”

It had the turquoise colour of sea water. I noticed it had no smell as well. “Can I drink it?” I reached for it, also curious to know how it tasted.

Taaa!” He pulled back suddenly, upset by my request. Wiping the back of his hand where it splashed on his shorts, he scolded me. “Do you want to die? It’s poisonous.”

Now, years after, I had a desperate need for it, but no one seemed to know what it was. The women at the market I’d asked had never heard of it before. The northern men who sold dry fish who I was certain would know what it was did not. One of them, the one who placed me under a long, piercing stare before speaking directed me to a stall he swore had whatever I was looking for. I figured he knew me, I patronised his tomato-selling neighbour. Or we’d met before, somewhere else. The stall owner nodded when I asked, rushing in to get it. I sighed in relief, but my ire was immediately roused when he re-emerged with something else.

“What is this? Is this what tusa tusa looks like where you come from?” My pidgin was shaky, but he comprehended my anger.

“Next time, just saw you don’t have it instead of wasting someone’s time!” I hissed, threw the product back at him and walked away.

Arduous as my search was, I would be rewarded in the seventh week, while ducking away from the usual highway traffic. The alternate route took me through smaller roads in residential areas. It was in one of those I saw it just as I’d seen it years ago, tied to the side of an unattended trash cart, an act of Providence.

“How much?” I asked the trash collector when he resurfaced, pointing to the bottle. It was unimaginable that local trash collectors were still in business, but given the neighbourhood, it was no surprise.

“Ah, aunty, it’s not for sale.” He gave a small smile to hide his confusion. The rot of his teeth caused his breath to stink. I resisted the urge to gag as it hit me. I recognised him in that instant: this gross man was the dibia who killed me centuries ago. Here he was, unrecognisable, probably even to who he used to be, of a different tribe now, and definitely unaware of who I was. Recognition was triggered by his teeth, awfully aligned, chipped, and that awful smell it emitted, the smell of an unknown brew in a gourd. It seemed he did not have the gift of recognition – I expected a mutual dawning. So much for the divine powers he possessed back then.

“I know, but I’ve been looking for it everywhere. I’ll give you ten thousand naira.” A ridiculously expensive price for such a locally produced, unrecognised product, but to me it was worth the amount.

“I don’t want to sell, but if you really want it, then pay fifteen.” He was now out to take advantage of my need for it.

“Twelve thousand. Take it or leave it.” At least he had bid me farewell kindly. My death had been painless on that day. I owed him a fair bargain.

I returned to my car a moment later, driving off with a sense of satisfaction. Fate had let me know I was on the right track to fulfilling my destiny.

With precision, I lined my lips with my soaked lip pencil as I prepared for our scheduled girls’ night out. It didn’t burn skin immediately like acid did, but one could not be too careful with a thing so deadly. In no way did the plan involve me dropping dead. Open pores absorbed it with ease.

Each time I did, I’d make a fuss. “Hey, girl!” A big kiss on the cheek – not the air version girls did to avoid smudging their make-up – with my lips firmly planted on targeted cheek.

Some gifts here and there – Chinnaya had never been known to resist an expensive vanity kit.

“Happy birthday to the best friend a girl could ever ask for. You’ve been such a blessing to me! So many years as my rock, I could call you sister.” Near tears, my overwrought self wished her. Now and then, I would get a sense of my own falseness while at it, my own hypocrisy. I shrugged it off always, never letting it dwell long enough to confuse me. A purpose as just as this is to be relished, irrespective of what one has to become to accomplish it.

“How sweet!” Her face crumpled as she blinked rapidly, exaggerating the sappiness. “Thanks, babe. Love you too. Now, where’s my gift?” she stretched out her palm in request.

“Here you go. Happy birthday, again.” I handed her destruction with a smile.

Then there was the business to ruin, contracts to terminate. Within the space of six months, few strings pulled and some favours called in, it was done. When it came to bankrupting her, I had Ola for that. He came highly recommended, a tech wizard who’d amassed a small fortune from online setups, theft, site hacks and data altering, and he emerged from my plan a hundred and eighty million naira richer – some of mine and all of hers.

As the effect of tusa tusa eventually reached its final phase, I was right there to hold her hand, a loyal friend, supportive to her dying day. A constant presence by her bedside at the hospital, reading to her, catering to tiny needs, waiting, biding my time, until the last minutes of her life to tell her, to milk her reaction.

“I did this. It’s been me all along.” Her lashes fluttered, sunken eyes opened, first in confusion. They widened as she comprehended, her ghostly pallor and skinny frame rendering her a manic appearance as she searched my haggard, satisfied face for reasons. My brow was cocked, challenging her, daring her to lie to me – to herself as well – that she had no idea, not even an inkling as to why I did it.

I’d imagined it was that final blow that sent her careening into the afterlife. Her lips parted – to ask me a question, I suppose – but nothing emerged but a croak. She began to gasp for air, and I pressed the clicker with maddening frequency, yelling for a nurse or a doctor. She was gone before anyone rushed in.

Upon the pronouncement of her time of death, I was overcome by fulfilment, like a wave washing through me. I knew how much she loved life, how she loved to live, and I had done that which she feared the most, taken it away from her, but not before I made sure she experienced misery.

Still, someone, somewhere, once said to dig two graves when seeking revenge. My case was a literal situation. No, I didn’t intend to die alongside her, but the cost of my action was my life. Tusa tusa no doubt came at a high price. And I didn’t mind it, not at all. I’d evened scores.

If I’m asked now, here in the afterlife as I prepare to return to the human world – this time hoping to experience human life as another gender – if I would do this again, conscious of the end result being the same, I’d nod without hesitation. Not to say one is gifted with the opportunity to choose their destiny, but pride and purpose often walked hand in hand.

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