Ihumbi ran. Her chest burned with each breath she gulped down. Her calves ached each time her feet hit the ground. Her gut felt like it was being ripped from the inside out.
Still, she pushed on. The sound of the asan thrashing about behind her was enough motivation. Its shrill cries and grunts gave her the strength to keep running.
She ran and ran. But her body began to slowdown with each step until she could only flounder about, tired and disoriented.
As she glanced over her shoulder to catch a glimpse of the raging beast, her foot caught against a root. She tumbled forward, headlong into a ditch. Her face was deep in the dark soil before she could even gasp.
As she tried to scramble out of the ditch, coughing and spitting the bitter dirt out of her mouth, she caught sight of the warm green glow which only meant the asan was above her. So she quickly scrambled backwards, going deeper into the ditch until she could go no further.
She held her knees tightly to her chest and shut her eyes. Sweat and tears were running freely down her face. Her body shivered uncontrollably even though she tried to stay still. All she could do was sit and listen to the terrifying sounds of the asan thrashing about, slamming into trees and slashing at their trunks.
A scuttling sound beside her made her jump. She looked but saw nothing but shrubs and grass. The scuttling grew louder and closer, shaking the shrubs as it did. Ihumbi held her breath, her eyes wide with growing fear, and her limbs tense and ready to spring in the opposite direction at the first sign of danger.
A boy’s face suddenly appeared from behind the bush and Ihumbi’s mouth opened to let out the pent up scream.
“Quiet! Scream and it will find you,” he whispered, clamping a hand over her mouth. After a short while, he added, “You won’t scream if I remove my hand, will you?”
Ihumbi nodded and the boy dropped his hand. He put a finger across his lips and gestured at her to follow him before turning around and disappearing back into the bush. She hesitated, but only for a moment. She hurried after him, away from the asan‘s rampage. They crawled through the bush for what seemed like a very long time—her legs aching and knees sore—before finally emerging at a clearing. It was no less darker than the rest of the forest, but it seemed oddly safer.
The boy jumped to his feet and, putting his fists to his side, gave her wide toothy smile. She couldn’t help noticing how white his teeth were—white enough to almost give off its own light.
“Ha, that was dangerously exciting, wasn’t it?”
Ihumbi shook her head vigorously, still trying to catch her breath. There was nothing exciting about what she had just encountered. She watched the boy as he pranced about, smiling as if he had won a prize. He seemed no more than nine or ten seasons even though he did not have the lean muscles many of the boys in her village developed after hauling countless pails of water from the stream. His body had the softness of a newborn. He must be from a wealthy household, she thought.
But what puzzled her most about the boy was not his smile or strange excitement. It was the drawings on his skin. White dotted circles of different sizes formed patterns over his face, arms, chest and legs— in stark contrasts to his darker skin. It reminded her of the plumage of strange birds, and she found them strangely beautiful.
She caught herself. The last time she had admired something beautiful in this place, she had ended up running for her life.
“Who are you?” She finally caught her breath enough to ask.
“Who am I?” The boy spun around and hopped from one foot to the other, smiling. “I am the young handsome hero who just rescued you of course.”
Ihumbi found herself wondering if he was mad.
“Thank you for saving me,” she said, “but who are you? What are you doing in Iyanibi?”
“What am I doing here?” he chuckled and waved an arm about. “This is my home. I should ask you what you are doing here instead.”
“I’m looking for my sis_” she paused. “This is your home? You mean Iyanibi? How can this be your home?”
“I came here sometime ago.” His smile faded, and he looked through her as though focusing his eyes on some distant memory.
“There was a war in my village that season, I and a few children ran away when the killings went past the battle lines and came to our doorsteps. As a child, the forest seemed less dangerous than blades and spears, but I’m sure you already know that things are still just as dangerous here too.”
“Where are the other children now?”
“Some were not so lucky.” He looked away. “There are many graves in Iyanibi.”
“Don’t be. I’m very happy with my brothers and sisters.”
“Brothers and sisters? How many of you survived.”
“I wasn’t talking about the ones that I fled my village with. We were not the only ones who came seeking refuge in Iyanibi’s dark bosom. There are others here, some I don’t even know about.”
Of course, there would be others here. Many people were foolish or desperate enough to go into Iyanibi. Her sister was a perfect example.
“I’m looking for my sister. Have you seen anyone else today?”
“I haven’t seen any new faces today,” he grinned with what Ihumbi thought was excitement. “Just yours. Besides, Iyanibi is a huge forest, she could be anywhere.”
Ihumbi let herself sit on the ground. Her muscles ached, her mind was still shaken from the horror she had just escaped. But the pain she felt the most was the fear in her heart for her sister. She could be anywhere in Iyanibi encountering dangers like the asan or worse, Ihumbi thought. Maybe she was lying somewhere injured or lost and alone in the darkest parts of Iyanibi. She shook her head. She wasn’t going to allow herself consider the thought that her sister might have been killed.
“Hey, don’t look so sad.” He walked over and squatted before her. “We could ask my brothers and sisters. One of them might know.”
Ihumbi’s eyes lit up with hope. “Yes, that’s true. One of them might have seen her or helped her as you did for me. Where are they?”
“We live in a safe part of the forest, that way,” he pointed behind him. “Don’t worry it’s not too far from here so you won’t have to walk too long.”
“Okay,” she pushed herself to her feet. She had to find Ahu even if it meant walking to the other end of the forest. “Let’s go.”
The boy beamed, his smile as bright as the circles on his skin. “This way.”
They walked deeper into Iyanibi, the boy leading the way and Ihumbi trying her best to keep up.
“My name is Ihumbi,” she said, realising she had forgotten to introduce herself and ask for his name in turn. “What’s your name?”
“How many are they, your brothers and sisters?”
“Plenty,” he spread his hands apart. “We are many.”
“Is the war in your village not over? Why do you still choose to remain in Iyanibi? It’s a terrible place. Dark, cold, dangerous and smells of damp earth. How can you live here?”
“You’re such a pampered child, Ihumbi,” he threw his head back in laughter. “And what makes you think all of Iyanibi is ugly?”
Right about that moment, she saw it.
Ihumbi stared open mouthed.
It was as if she’d stepped from Iyanibi forest into the most beautiful garden. The ground was carpeted with lush greenery that gently rose and fell. Tall trees were spread across the grove, slender and smooth with graceful roots and branches, like dancers carved from fine wood. Butterflies fluttered about in colours she had never seen, and when she listened carefully, she could hear the gentle whistle of fluttering leaves. What amazed her more was the strange brightness of the place. The greenery seemed to give off its own light and while it wasn’t as bright as day, she could mistake it for a night under Nda’s full brightness.
“Wh_where are we?”
“See, I told you not all of Iyanibi was ugly.” Basi beamed beside her.
“Let me introduce you to my brothers and sister.” he waved a hand ahead of him but all Ihumbi saw were beautiful trees and flowers. She wondered if Basi was as mad as she suspected.
“There’s nothing out there.”
“They can be shy sometimes,” he said and then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Come out, stop playing around. Come welcome our guest.”
Faces peeked out from behind the trees, out of their foliage, from the pretty bushes around, many young faces peered at her.
“Come on,” Basi said with mock anger. “First you’re all shy and now you’re all staring like monkeys. Mother taught us better manners than that. Say hello to Ihumbi.”
“Hello, Ihumbi.”Their voices chorused pleasantly.
“Ihumbi, meet my brothers and sister.”
“H_hello,” she whispered shyly. “Can you ask if they’ve seen my sister?”
“I will. Stay here and don’t let them trouble you. They can get playful.”
Basi walked off, leaving her glancing from peering faces to his receding back. Too tired to remain standing, she sat on the soft grass, praying desperately that one of them had seen her sister. She reached for the itosi on her neck and remembered, with sadness, that it was lost. Ihumbi felt something poke her and shot to her feet. She turned around to see a little girl smiling up at her. Her hair was a large tuft of shiny curls with different colours of flowers and a few little leaves sticking out in places.
“Where did you come from?” the girl asked. Like Basi, she had a strange beauty— rich, supple skin, bright eyes and teeth, smooth and rounded limbs like a happy, well fed child. It wouldn’t be hard to believe she was Basi’s sibling by blood if he had said so.
“Where are you from?” she asked again, edging closer, head cocked and hands behind her.
“From Iduma,” Ihumbi pointed. “On the other side of Iyanibi.”
“The other side, eh?” she circled Ihumbi, all the while keeping her back from view. “What are you doing here? Did you get lost?”
“No, I didn’t get lost.” Ihumbi found herself getting impatient with the little girl’s questions and attitude. “I came looking for my sister. Have you seen any girl who came from outside Iyanibi today?”
She shook her head.
“What are you holding in your hands?” Ihumbi asked, her curiosity growing as the little girl moved around her.
She stopped and smiled then brought her hands forward from behind her back. She held a strange bluish fruit Ihumbi had never seen before. It was round as most fruits were and looked soft and rich with juice. The skin was a melding of different shades of blue flowing into each other, dancing like colors on a jewel held against light. Its pores seemed to glitter when it moved in the child’s hands. Ihumbi’s stomach growled. Just looking at it made her want to bite into it.
“What is that?” Ihumbi asked.
“It’s beautiful, eh?” The little girl smiled knowingly, cradling the fruit. “Beautiful and very sweet.”
Ihumbi was mesmerized by the fruit. She could feel her mouth flood with saliva. “What is the name of the fruit?”
“No name, Mother gives it to us. Would you like some?”
Ihumbi’s hand reached for the beautiful blue fruit even before she agreed.
Mother? Ihumbi caught herself as a thought occurred to her. Now she vaguely recalled Basi mentioning mother when he had spoken to his siblings. The little girl stepped forward, bringing the fruit closer, but Ihumbi took a step back.
“Are you not hungry?” She smiled again. “Try it, I promise it’s the sweetest fruit in the forest.”
“No, thank you. I’m not really hungry.”
Ihumbi glanced about, looking for Basi. The other children had come out from hiding in the trees. Now they watched with interest as she rejected the fruit being offered. Ihumbi suddenly realized that each child was holding one of the same fruit. She could feel the weight of their eyes on her, as if daring her not to take it.
“Where is Basi?”
“With Mother,” she replied matter-of-factly. “Mother knows everything happening in the forest.”
“Mother?” Ihumbi looked at the faces still watching her. She began to realize that none of them seemed older than thirteen seasons. “You are not all really brothers and sisters, are you?”
“Yes, we are,” she smiled at Ihumbi. “We are all Mother’s children. Don’t worry, you’ll soon meet her.”
An unsettling feeling was growing inside Ihumbi. Everything about this place seemed wrong. The constant reference to Mother was disturbing.
Part 3 posted on February 9. Save the date!
Still haven’t read Part I? Click HERE.
New to the series? Click HERE.
The image in post is the work of Mexican illustrator Reez Ruiz. It was commissioned specially for this series.
About the Author:
Eugene Odogwu writes a blog called indiGENEous. His current list of favourite authors include Kiini Ibura Salaam, Nalo Hopkinson, Nnedi Okorafor, Octavia E. Butler, Charles R. Saunders. In addition to writing, he designs book covers for local publishing houses like SEVHAGE and WriteHouse. Check out his portfolio HERE.