“Is she bothering you?” Ihumbi jumped at Basi’s voice. She had not noticed him walking up behind her. “Don’t let her get to you, Nnase is as mischievous as she is tiny.”
Ihumbi managed a smile but could not seem to shake off the feeling of unease she felt.
“Go and play with your sisters, Nnase. Ihumbi is my guest.”
Nnase frowned up at Basi with a pout and then she stuck out her tongue and ran for the trees.
“So?” Ihumbi asked, hope apparent in her voice. “Have they seen my sister?”
“No,” he said, and Ihumbi inhaled sharply, her heart sinking with dread.
“But Mother has.” Basi’s smile was far from reassuring.
“Yes, come with me.”
“To see Mother, she’ll tell you where your sister is in person.”
Something held her back from following Basi. But she had no choice, especially since it looked like this “Mother” of theirs was the only hope she had to find her sister.
Basi stopped and pointed ahead. “Go through there.”
A curtain of vines and leaves was flanked by the trunks of two huge trees. The smaller trees and tall grasses formed some sort of wall on either side.
“Through there?” Ihumbi’s courage faltered. What had she gotten into? She glanced over her shoulder considering the thought of running away as fast as her legs would carry her.
But she abandoned the thought when she saw that a crowd of children had gathered a short distance behind them. Their eyes watched her, each of them smiling drunkenly and holding on to their blue fruits. Some greedily bit into them, juice dribbling down their chins, all the while never taking their eyes off her. Somehow, she knew she had no choice but to go see “Mother.”
Ihumbi swallowed and stepped into Mother’s grove. It was walled by the trunks of an ancient trees. The trunks were covered in beautiful creepers and flowers glowing softly with their own light. The floor was a neat carpet of lush green grass that beckoned Ihumbi’s tired muscles to lie down.
In the middle of the grove was the most beautiful tree she had ever seen.
The lone tree stood at the centre like a freshly bloomed flower. Its bark was the color of honey and just as smooth. Its branches reached up like graceful limbs into a full head of green leaves that glowed softly. When she saw blue fruits hanging between the leaves, her fascination disappeared. In that moment, she knew—as strange as it sounds—that she was looking at Mother. That was when the tree spoke.
Ihumbi barely stopped herself from screaming. She glanced about hoping her suspicion was wrong, but there was no one else around. The tree had indeed spoken.
“Come closer, child,” the tree—it had to be the three—said, sounding soft and gentle, motherly. “Do not be afraid.”
The tree’s voice filled Ihumbi’s being as though it came from within her, and without realizing it, she stepped towards the tree.
“Yes,” it crooned, its branches swaying gently. “Come closer, child.”
As she drew closer to the tree, she began to notice its form. The elegant curves shaped like the hips of a dancer, the smooth mounds at full bosoms and the way the hips flowed downwards to disperse into roots like a lady’s shrouded feet. Ihumbi was amazed and terrified; still she approached it, her feet moving her closer and closer almost with a mind of their own.
“What is your name, child?” The tree asked.
“Ihumbi,” she replied, now standing a few steps from the tree. “Who are you? Can you really speak?”
The tree laughed. Her laughter sounded like a whispery rustle of leaves. “Yes, I truly do speak to you, Ihumbi. I am Urunma.”
Ihumbi’s eyes widened, her heart paused for a moment. “Urunma?”
“Indeed.” The tree moved, preening and gracefully twisting as it enjoyed the girl’s feelings of fear and awe.
“No.” A gasp escaped Ihumbi’s lips. She tried to step away, but her legs would not move. Her feet felt stiffly rooted to the ground. Urunma was not real, she told herself. It was just a song that mothers sang to scare their children into being wary of strangers.
Cover your ears
But open your eyes and seal your lips
Urunma’s children have come to play
With their sweet voices that draw you away
Urunma’s children have come again
To sing and dance under the rain
And when the day begins to fade
When Iya goes home into Mba
Then they will offer you fruits from their mother
Fruits that hang from Urunma’s hair
Soft and tender, sweet like laughter
But one bite, one bite, only one bite
Will take you forever
Forever away from your mother and father
Ihumbi tried to turn around and run, but her body ignored her wishes.
“Oh child,” Urunma’s whispery voice drifted her way, unhurriedly and amused. “Why do you try to leave? Do you not find me beautiful? Would you leave before you have found your sister?”
Ihumbi’s eyes widened. “Where is she? Where is my sister?”
“Right there.” Urunma’s limb leaned away, directing her gaze to the corner of the grove.
There, Ahu sat holding in one hand Urunma’s fruit, half-eaten. Clenched loosely in her other hand was a wad of herbs. Their father’s rusty machete lay carelessly beside her. Ihumbi’s eyes filled with tears. Foolish Ahu. She had gone seeking the herb.
“Ahu!” She screamed. She was replied with a faraway look. There was barely any sign of recognition in her sister’s eyes as she offered her the half-eaten fruit.
“Why?” Ihumbi shouted, her tears now flowing freely. “Why did you do this to my sister?”
Urunma’s laughter prickled Ihumbi’s skin.
“Why?” The tree asked scornfully. “Look around you, child. This is Iyanibi where even Iya shuns to look upon. Even the staunchest trees need his light to live. Why do you think they struggle to grow so tall. All just to get a drop of Iya’s light. Now, look at me.” She flexed her slender branches. “I never stood a chance, not until a little child wandered here, lost and alone, seeking rest and comfort. This little child slept leaning on my dying trunk, beautiful and peaceful, young and full of life. I wanted that life. I hungered for it, craved it, and as my desire grew, my body softened, pulling in the sleeping child like a baby into my womb. The poor child slept and became a part of me. Then my leaves sprouted, my flowers blossomed, and I bore my first fruit.”
Ihumbi stood speechless. She looked closer at Urunma’s body and thought she could see faint bulges of what used to be children, a palm, a face now barely a nose and lips, children taken by her.
“What about Basi and his brothers and sisters? Did you spare them?”
“Spare them?” Urunma laughed again. “No, child. They have tasted my fruit. They will never leave me. And when I need them they will offer themselves to their beautiful Mother.”
“You are… you are evil!” Ihumbi screamed, trying to run towards her sister; still her body betrayed her.
“I’m evil?” Urunma asked in mock offence. “Why, because I chose to survive? Is that what makes me evil?”
“You are killing children!” Ihumbi’s fear and rage caused her to tremble.
“No, child, I give them the honor of tasting my fruit and becoming a part of me.”
Ihumbi cried silently, watching her sister stare blankly at the half-eaten fruit.
“Do not cry now beautiful child, everything will be fine. Why don’t you have a fruit?”
As she watched, a blue fruit gracefully blossomed on one of Urunma’s branches. Ihumbi hated the sight of the fruit. Seeing the children gorge on theirs with the juices running down their faces made her hate it even more; yet she found herself reaching for it.
“Yes, child, take it.” Urunma’s soft voice crooned encouragingly. “It’s sweeter than anything you’ve ever had.”
Tears streamed down her face. How could she have no control over her body? She felt digusted and loathed her weakness.
“I don’t want it.” She struggled to say even as her finger wrapped around the fruit. It felt unexpectedly warm, like it was alive. Ihumbi sobbed as she pulled it off Urunma. In the corner, a soft sigh escaped Ahu’s lips and a vacant smile spread across her face.
“That’s it, child.” Urunma’s leaves fluttered with pleasure. “Now taste Mother’s fruit.”
Ihumbi brought the fruit to her lips, her tongue slid out of its own accord to lick its skin. Then she opened her mouth, ready to take a bite when a shriek tore through the grove.
Ihumbi was startled out of Urunma’s trance for a moment, giving her just enough time to see Jaja leap from a tree and knock the fruit from her grasp.
In that moment, Ihumbi was suddenly aware of all that was happening. She caught sight of the machete and ran for it. Before Urunma could grasp what was going on, Ihumbi snatched the machete off the ground.
Urunma’s branches shook with anger. Just then Ihumbi felt the sluggishness crawling back into her limbs, creeping like millipedes up her legs.
“No!” Ihumbi screamed, hauling the machete at the tree, praying it was the blade that made contact. It did. Urunma screamed. A shriek that tore through the grove, piercing the denseness of Iyanibi.
“What’s happening?” It was Ahu’s voice. Urunma’s hold on her must have wavered.
“Ahu, come!” Ihumbi shouted, beckoning her sister. Ahu looked around confused, a little recognition in her eyes as they fell on Ihumbi. “Ahu, come with me quickly!”
Ahu ran to her sister who grabbed her hand as they both ran towards the entrance of the grove where Jaja was hopping about in frenzy.
She took one last look at Urunma screeching and trashing about, bleeding from where the machete had stuck.
“Jaja, you know the way?”
“Jaja know, Jaja know way home.” The ija-ja chirped excitedly. “Jaja show you.”
Ihumbi pushed Ahu ahead of herself, urging her to run as fast she could. “Run, Ahu. Please run.”
They stumbled out into the clearing to see the other children holding their heads and wailing or crawling on the ground, confused and frightened. Without Urunma’s hold on them, they were useless. All the fruits they had eaten made sure of that. The two sisters ran past them into the deeper darkness of Iyanibi.
The ija-ja led the way, and they ran and ran, Ihumbi glancing about each time she heard a rustle, expecting to see an asan charging at them.
“Ihumbi!” A voice thundered behind them. She recognised Basi’s voice even with its unusual loudness, and she could feel the terrible anger behind it. “You will pay for what you did to Mother!”
Her heart pounded as she ran on. She knew that if he caught up with them, they would not survive his rage.
“See,” The ija-ja chirped happily, waiting from them to catch up with it where it hopped about at the edge of Iyanibi. “Jaja show you way.”
Ihumbi urged the gasping Ahu onwards, Basi’s approach getting louder as he drew closer. She looked back just as they tore through the wall of shrubs that marked Iyanibi’s boundary, and she saw Basi’s face. It was contorted with rage and hate. With her last bit of strength, she shoved Ahu out of the forest and threw herself after her. Somehow, she was certain that Urunma’s power could not go past Iyanibi’s boundary.
“Ihumbi!” Basi raged behind them, stopping just short of the tree line. “You will pay, I promise you. I’ll find a way!”
“You…you led me to Urunma,” She gasped, struggling to catch her breath. “I thought you were my friend.”
Basi laughed and pointed at her. “You would have been the perfect gift for Mother. Two sisters in one day. She would have been proud of me! She would have favored me above the others!”
“You cannot harm us here, Basi, go back to your evil mother and siblings!”
“I can’t touch you outside the forest, but I’ll be waiting when she comes.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll see.” This time he smiled mockingly. “Everyone who tastes Urunma’s fruit always returns to Mother. I’ll be waiting when she returns.”
Ihumbi glanced at her sister who sat clutching herself and trembling as she looked at Ihumbi with teary eyes. Seeing how her sister held herself, restraining herself from running over to Basi’s side, Ihumbi knew his words were true. She had been too late. She had already lost a part of her sister to Urunma. Ihumbi moved over to her sister’s side and held her close.
“You should pray to the Orabe that she doesn’t,” she looked Basi in the eyes, trembling with determination and anger. “Because if she does, I swear on the graves of our parents, I will be the one to chop down Urunma.”
Basi’s smile fell, his face once again a mask of anger. For a moment, he was afraid of her words.
“We will see, Ihumbi.” He said, turning around and walking back into Iyanibi. “We will see.”
Ihumbi took her sisters hand and led her towards the village. She could feel Ahu’s shivers disappearing the further away they went from the forest’s edge.
Maybe there was hope after all.
New to the series? Click HERE.
Read Part I Click HERE.
Read Part II 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.