Tuesday, 1 September 2009

SNAPSHOT: Tortoise Eggs

Hello everyone... Sorry I haven’t posted anything lately but since coming back from Scotland I seem to have succumbed to a cold/fluey thingy. So I’ve been feeling a bit rundown and out of sorts. Anyway, as I say, things have slowed down for me blogwise but I hope to be back in good form sooner rather than later :) I will keep up with your blogs in the meantime. For now, I’ll leave you with an extract from a short story that I am currently working on (having finally sorted out my short story portfolio for my course). As always, I’d love to receive your hullos and/or comments. ~Catherine~

Extract from Tortoise Eggs

In spite of all this enlightenment from Mr Henson and The Inspired Book, my father agrees for me to go with my grandfather on this excursion. The reason for this trip, from what I can gather, it seems that the gods have forewarned some imminent disaster on the village. To avert it, Papa Ukwu must bring a list of things to his witchdoctor’s pot, which he will use to appease the gods. Yesterday he showed me the list but told me not to ask any questions. He said, ‘A good apprentice learns by observation not by clucking like a housewife.’ The list: ostrich feathers, saffron oil, a live chicken, a fistful of red dirt, a rope, a pot of periwinkle soup, a casket of palm wine, a mixed bag of bones and seashells, and seven tortoise eggs. I dared to ask Papa Ukwu a question, ‘Why do the gods want these specific items?’ My grandfather twitched again and continued brushing his teeth with snuff. After many minutes, removing his smudged index finger from his mouth, he replied, ‘The gods don’t like being interrogated. After all, they are the gods and we are the lesser beings.’ I asked another question, ‘Isn’t it strange that gods of the greater spiritual worlds should request such earthly articles?’ My grandfather looked as if he wasn’t going to respond, but coughed out a globule of spittle and said, ‘By asking for earthbound things, they communicate with us in a way that we can understand. This shows their commitment and concern for us. Now, that’s enough with your questions.’
The journey to Calabar is full of obstacles and hazards. If you survive the pedlar’s den at the bus port situated at the far side of the daily market, behind Madam Ibe’s restaurant, and make it onto a bus, then you have to survive the bus journey itself, a tomb of sorts. It can easily send you to an early grave – what with half its nuts and bolts loosening with every bump on the pockmarked and eroded roads. Travelling in these parts, particularly in a car or by bus, as we will be doing, is always quite a momentous undertaking. In spite of all these real dangers and the fact that I am frightened of many things, I tell myself I am not afraid because I am travelling with one who is protected by a pantheon of gods. It is as if I have my own personal full-proof good-luck charm. Even though, to look at – apart from his smiling face – he is aged and as sluggish as the vehicle we are about to enter. He holds on to my arm until we have negotiated our passage and climb into the bus. Papa Ukwu’s profession quickly secures us a suitable seat. There is a round woman with a bleached face taking up an entire seat. At first, she refuses to get up. Then spotting the amulet round my grandfather’s neck, it is as if she decides that it is better not offend the witchdoctor man. The way she jumps out of the seat when my grandfather wags his walking stick at her you’d think she was about to be turned into a snake. Though, as I see it, it would require a tremendous magic to transform her barrel-bulk into a slithering creature. She moves off, places her large bottom on a crate at the back of the bus. As we settle in our seats, I notice the aisle heaving with people while others hang off the sides of the bus. The clamour and pong filling the bursting bus reminds me of our village clinic.

It is a six hour journey from my village to Calabar; six hours in which the driver has to negotiate the notorious two P’s: the potholes and the police. On board, those who have something valuable on them also have a third P to contend with, the pickpockets. At some point, I fall asleep, allowing my head to rest on my grandfather’s skeletal arm. Numerous times, the movement of my head bopping up and down like a coconut refusing to fall off its hinges causes me to wake up. In the murky shadows of restless sleep, I see my Mama Ukwu. My grandmother died many years ago from a disease that chewed her from inside. It ate her intestines until there was nothing left of her. In this dream address, she is on one side of the river. I am on the other side. She calls my name, ‘Emeka Simeon Nwankwo, bia’ – only my grandmother calls me in this way. ‘Bia, come,’ I hear her say but I do not move. I do not want to go across to meet her. Even in dream, I know it is dangerous to cross the river at a dead person’s beckoning. It is a bad omen when the dead visit the living in sleep. I want to wave to her, but again I am afraid. Instead, I turn away from her – and wake up to p-bang, b-pang, p-bang! Shattering glass? A burst tire? No –

Gun shots!

My grandfather throws his weight over my body as we instinctively fall forward enveloped by shouts and screams. Within seconds, a strangling silence descends inside the bus. Outside, there is a lot of movement and more shouts. I want to raise my head, to peer out of the window, to see what is happening. Under the strength of my grandfather’s chest pinning me down, all I hear are the footsteps of men clamouring up into the bus, followed by more yells at the driver. Their language is foreign to me but it is soon clear what their demands are; they want valuables. A man shouts in broken English, ‘Una – up up! Up!’ We straighten ourselves in our seats and I tighten my grip on Papa Ukwu's hand. The man addressing us from the front is dressed in a khaki outfit with a black bandana on his head. He wipes the sweat pouring down his face with the back of his hand, before gesturing, ‘Una – out out!’ One by one, we stumble off the bus, and form a queue along the road. I see the bleached barrel woman waddle to a position behind us, clutching her handbag into her breasts. Surrounding us are a dozen or so men. They look at us like hounds in heat; agitated, feverish. These are the type of men, my father has often warned me about: ‘They will kill their grandmother or have sex with a child if only to make a kobo’. I press into Papa Ukwu, who seems to be leaning on me for additional support. His haggard expression worries me, and even though Papa Ukwu, my good-luck charm, is standing right there beside me, I am afraid. I am afraid in the same way that I am afraid of the dark, of high places, and of my father’s Hamattan temperament. Under the searing sun, I am afraid of these men; their taunts and their guns. As they begin to search us – snarling, spitting, and slapping – I wonder which god, if any, will save us now. My grandfather’s gods or the god of Mr Henson’s Inspired Book. I glance again at my grandfather, his face reveals nothing though his lips are moving, slow and silent, and I wonder if he might be evoking the protection of his gods. I close my eyes and at this moment, I wish I could call on the white man’s imp-spirit so that I won’t be afraid.

Catherine Mark


Anonymous said...

Ah this is great ... potholes and police. Right!

Hope you get over your flu quickly :)


CathM said...

Jonas, thanks for popping by and leaving a comment :)

Strawberry Girl said...

Cath!! So glad to see you!

This piece moves along really well, it is so intriguing. I love how your mind works girl, this could be a fantastic novel (not just a short story)!!

Excellently done!

JM said...

Glad you're back again! :-)

Ponderer said...

Captivating Cath, :) Cheryl

Cloudia said...

Glad to find you, Catherine!

I blog from Hawaii and invite you to visit our island anytime you wish via:
Comfort Spiral


Lianne said...

Catherine, I agree with Strawberry Girl. It already feels so full and rich that there must be a novel waiting to be born. If you are so inclined I'd love it if you posted more from this.

Lyrically speaking said...

nice blog, you have some great material here