The River’s Toll II

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The masquerades sweep through the streets in a frenzied dance, swaying movements for mystifying purposes . Raffia-covered feet stamping to the increased thumping of drums. This is no longer a ceremony of entertainment. This is supplication. A ritual.

In the old days this part of the performance would invite serious adulations as the spirits of the land would descend from high trees where they dwelt and from the watery depths all to watch the ceremony. The spirits still do. But the fervent adulations have been abandoned. Humans always forget that they are not alone.

The performers keep to their frenzied, possessed dance through the rugged streets and even now, onlookers jeer and leer derisively. Still they do so silently and with caution.

”person no see work do, na masquerade work e go carry,” sneers a bald squat man reclining on a bench under the shade of an uncompleted building.

” like say concrete no dey to carry,” supported a second man with a hint of disgust in his voice.

“o boy na two trips remain for me, hope say that big man go bring moni on time. Today, groove dey for Riverside,” the first man drawled through upturned lips that seemed to mock his situation.

By now the masquerades with the entourage of sweating drummers and dancing followers, pass by the open yard of the uncompleted building strewn with bamboo sticks and moulded stones. The vibrant procession takes no notice of the watchers within. Everyone seems to give them a wide berth at last. Even the teasing children have been chased home by wary adults.

Mixing and carrying concrete on head pans of steel all day not being the most entertaining of jobs, the bare-chested labourers watch in quiet fascination at the movements of the masquerades. Their gyrations raising clouds of wind-filled dust and continuously meeting every increased tempo of the drums, never slowing. The clouds of dust swirl like a small tornado around the feet of the dancers behind the masquerades, gathers into a straight arrow of spinning debris and white sand, shot from the bowels of the earth and sweeps up the street, almost unseen.

The watching labourers now have pensive looks in their eyes and begin to fidget nervously.

“o boy, make we leave this place go find we money,” the first man arose, picked his head pan and headed behind the building where half a dozen men were hauling buckets of sand and concrete up the building.

“guy man you wait na, make dem count we two trips,” the second man replies, just coming out of his trance, and hurries with his head pan after his companion.
***

Warm sunlight rays  streamed through the large glass windows of the eatery. A small haven, it could be noticed, customers who took tables beside the windows were grateful for – a reprieve from the freezing onslaught of the large AC units placed around with “SIZZLER’S RESTAURANT” painted on them. It was typical of the restaurant to be very busy on such an evening.
Christmas lights adorned the interior of the building and the place buzzed with all kinds of activities. Loud chatter, children darting about playfully, clanking of food utensils as well as attendants noisily tearing receipts..

‘you know something?’
through a busy mouth the boy mumbled a sound to indicate he didn’t know any thing. The girl continued
‘okay so the other Christmas day when I woke in the morning to check the gifts placed under my Christmas tree, guess whose name I didn’t see?

The boy spread two hands inquisitively, the left hand latched on to a burger as a desperate man would a cliff’s edge. 
‘Who? ‘

‘Tega.’

‘eh? Me? ‘The boy asked in mock disbelief.

‘no-o, me.’ Ehi retorted.

Tega’s demeanour turned serious. ‘Ehi, If your house had a chimney I really would have-‘

“motherfucker,” she laughed, “why am I even laughing with you, where’s my gift?”

‘hehehe’ Tega chortled. His burger was nearly finished.
“there’s no gift to give you right now, Ehi..” The yellow face twisted in a frown. “..wait now, there’s still time to get you something before you return to Benin,” He wiped his fingers with a tissue. “This evening I want us to do something really fun. Starting from the large bonfire party going on by the riverside right now. Are you ready? ”

The yellow face lit up. ’always’

                         ***

The young couple moved away from the open field of vibrant dancers and loudspeakers. They were both tired of dancing; well if it could have been called that. A long, decrepit boat had been abandoned and upturned luckily placed a few metres from the bonfire . Perched on it, Ehi placed her vast behind on her boyfriend’s laps and wiggled like a belly dancer until he begged profusely for a break.

‘I can’t take it any longer.’
‘why? ‘
‘never mind why,   come with me I want to show you something. There’s a great view of the river up ahead’                       

“wo be!… wo be!…….. Bobo!.. Bobo!..” the partyers chanted in unison as a new tune blared through the speakers. Ehi joined in with glee. Along with the crowd, they jerked head, shoulders, hands and feet to the music. Soon after Tega led her towards the river, away from the cigarette and weed smoke and heavens knows what else burned in the fires  that drifted thick in the night air. They made their way through a narrow weed path leading into a thicket of low bushes and tall trees. A stooped figure approached, heading in the opposite direction. Clad in a faded, tattered, blue robe, it stopped on the path and seemed to stagger for a moment. Tega and Ehi made to walk past when it spoke. It was an old man’s voice. Raspy and dry; obviously killed by a drink too many.

‘are you children going to the river?’

They made no move to answer him. The old man coughed harshly, briefly polluting the air with the odour of gin.

‘you must not go there… you see? It is not safe..’ his tone weary and tired.
But they were already behind him, walking away. Ehi being led along the path , glanced back a couple of times.

‘Don’t bother about him babe. He’s the town’s drunk. Usually wandering around here drunken to stupor. Alani or whatever they call him..’ his words and legs taking them deeper down the path and farther away from civilization .

Rays of moonlight filtered though the thick leaves of forest trees and vaguely illuminated the path ahead. On the pathway ahead, snaked the long, gnarled roots of a huge tree. Ehi stepped on one of these and sidled up to the wide trunk.                                           

‘Thanks for tonight my love. I’ve had so  much fun, who would have believed Warri people could turn up like this-’

A light hearted laugh punctuated her sentence
‘did you think we would  carry last?’ He joked, joining her atop the twisted roots.

‘I finally have you alone to myself’ he whispered into her ear as he pressed his body to hers. She nestled closer to his chest.

“alone with me to do what?” She purred as her arms wrapped around his neck. “ehn? This boy.. The old drunkard got your tongue? What did you want me for, hmm?” as she pulls  him closer for a kiss.

“wait, wait,” he mouths through the kiss, “there’s a perfect place to end our night, hope you aren’t scared of water,” he added teasingly.

“what? A mermaid like me?” She retorted. Chuckling, Tega led her down the robust, gnarled roots to the path once again. His steps sure and steady like the forest belonged to him.

A short distance ahead, the river looked to be at low tide, barely flowing save for a few genteel waves, broken apart by the long canoes moored on its murky bank. Tega hitched up his trousers and guided the already excited Ehi to the end of the weed path where it opened onto a grassy bank and the water reflected the wanton blessings of the moon. A couple of small boats sat by the tall, elephant grasses, unoccupied. Underneath the boat, the river flowed silently by, blue-hued and at peace. Even the loud music from the bonfire party a little distance away had faded into nothing more than a murmur. Helping his girlfriend onto one of the empty boats, Tega pushed it into the river. He had barely climbed in when she pounced on him and they made out under the moonshine till they sprawled beside each other, breathless. The boat beneath them swayed now and then as if it was impatient to be let out for a swim.

“the moon is so bright,” Ehi was gazing at it with almond-shaped eyes, her breasts heaving slowly under the dark, blue gown.

“it usually is in this place,” Tega put in, his wide chest heaving. “my best friends who first showed me this spot, Onos & TJ, you met them-”
   ‘yeah I did’
‘they told me it was the river. Whenever the moon comes out at night, this place lights up so much you could even see an ant in its own little tree boat paddling by.  I noticed too. Times like this when there are boats here, we enter and row across to that other side’
her eyes followed the direction of his arm. The tall trees there seemed to grow right out of the water. There was no shore she could see  just a waterway surrounded by trees.                                         
   ‘then you guys row back? That’s all?’                                    
   He picked up a paddle and with a twinkle in his eyes asked
‘you want to find out?’

Further up the river, away from the young teenage couple, a white form shimmered over the water, crouched and mute. Ghostly hands attached to flat shoulders, covered what looked like a head and buried it between raised knees. It could sense the intruding human beings wallowing ignorantly on the watery form of its goddess. The spirit groped blindly as if tormented by unseen assailants, then raised its head. It had no eyes, ears, nose or mouth, but a small hole sat in the middle of the blank face. The hole opened up and widened until the hole became the face, and from the hole, the spirit let out a bloodcurdling scream.

‘paddling is easy’
Ehi said, glancing back at her boyfriend.
‘we’re basically doing nothing. Like the boat knows where we’re going already.’                                                 The young man  laughed at this.
‘This river is special, that’s why I wanted you to see it. There are no strong currents, it just flows calmly and oh so gentle. Occasionally there are small ripples in the water but it makes the river look even more… Oh look! Some small waves over there, exactly like I was just telling you. Can you see them, Ehi?’
He pointed to their left where the water rippled gracefully, approaching the boat.
‘Beautiful’
her voice was barely above a whisper as she stared, entranced. They both failed to notice the ripples increasing all around them, rapidly flowing towards their lone boat. They watched the simmering waves speed up and crash against  the hull, sending over splashes of water. Wave after wave followed, each bigger than the last, spraying water on the excited occupants of the boat.

The squat, translucent figure sensed the convergence and screamed once more. The cry pierced the air and the churning waters rose even higher, rocking the boat.

Ehi squealed in delight and flung wet arms around Tega who was just moving to steady the wobbling craft. Perhaps it was this sudden movement that upset the balance of the boat, or it was the spirits who, driven mad by the screams, had been flung over and into the boat, causing it to turn over immediately. However, no time was given the boy and girl to realise what had happened. In a moment they were under the boat, pressed down into the water and it pulled them down into the darkness, drowning  out their final screams, choking their cries.
And in their last moments, they saw faces; many faces, with dark, eyeless sockets and hollow mouths, rushing and screaming into every cavity they possessed, dissolving at the very last moment into pallid bubbles which in turn gave way under the pressing weight of the capsized boat. Headless arms pulled the now bloating bodies down, towards a watery grave.

                           ***

“Sound it!…Receive It!…” boomed the large, mounted speakers and the crowd sang aloud and danced along. Young men in open, beach shirts, some without shirts on, pressed bodies together with buxom young ladies, wriggling in short gowns and skirts. Once or twice, the DJ’s scratching went off tune and caused mild irritation to the partyers. When the DJ moved to carefully observe the source of the interruptions, the heavy rain arrived. A low murmur at first, then it grew into a loud buzz and with it, came large, sudden drops of water. Immediately, the party scattered and everyone ran home. Silence once again descended on the river. But it was not a detached silence. It was a silence that seemed to merge with the song of the river as the raindrops pelted against it. A song that was deathly in sound and resonated with the cries of hopeless souls.

                          ***

An old, withered, silhouette with a bottle of gin in tow sat on the highest point of the river’s naked bank. On this platform, sacrifices as old as the man himself had been witnessed. He takes a swig out of the bottle and shakes his head to ease the passage of the bitter liquid.

‘the old seldom mourn the dead, for their ancient eyes carry no more tears… Old friend, I hope you are finally satisfied? If not, curse you and the water that sustains you.

The toll will always be paid but you need it no longer. Misery only loves company and I hope this addition satisfies you awhile.’

He takes another gulp to wet his throat and defy the tears. Cracked lips quivering as he soliloquised.

“60 years today, I have been your priest. The old ways are gone but it seems you care not. The souls of the young ones lay trapped beneath your hands but that is what you have always wanted. Lost souls. Doomed forever in your watery bosom.

I shall do my best to warn in the future. Or not. Nobody listens to a drunk, old man anymore.”

Taking one more gulp of gin, he tosses the half-empty bottle into the river.

“Have a drink to go with your meal.” He spits, rising to his feet. Tottering for a long moment, he finally gets his bearings and shuffles away from the river. The last image in his memory is of a capsized canoe and paddle  floating back towards the river bank.

                           ***

It was the last month of the year, the month dedicated to Efuru, goddess of the river -in the times when lizards walked the earth in pairs. The river, had taken its toll. But would anyone ever know?

By Temisan and Tony

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