“Father said I’m going home tomorrow.”
Nwoye would never forget that evening. The day everything changed.
He lay on the bed, hot and exhausted, staring at the wall in the darkness. The woman sighed and curled up beside him, apparently satisfied.
Earlier she had tossed and turned in that way that signified her need. Haunted by the voice of his father, Okonkwo, and the urge to prove his manliness, he had reached for her.
Yet the face from a different time and place occupied his mind, suffusing him with a yearning so intense.
Ghostlike memories haunted him.
Only one person evoked this bittersweet feeling.
A smile curled Nwoye’s lips.
Before Ikemefuna arrived at his childhood home, Nwoye had been made miserable by the constant nagging from his father, Okonkwo.
Ikemefuna had been like a bright ray of sunshine bursting through the grey clouds. Nwoye became enthralled with him. He was strong and intelligent and full of charming stories. He became a mentor, teaching Nwoye the names of birds and rodents, how to make flutes from bamboo shoots and even which trees made the best bows.
The two of them were inseparable and went everywhere together.
Until that evening.
Ikemefuna had just finished telling one of his folk tales. It was one Nwoye had heard before, but like his stories, he always put a fresh take on it.
When Nwoye was a child, he would hang in his mother’s hut and listening to her telling folk tales. Of course, his father frowned on such activities. He preferred that Nwoye stayed with him, listening to stories of masculine adventures.
Ikemefuna made up for it. He would talk about faraway and magical places and ignite Nwoye’s imagination.
They had hiked through the forest of iroko trees, over a spongy and stony path to arrive at their favorite spot. They liked to whisper while walking, so they didn’t disturb the majesty of the towering and ancient trees.
“I love this place. Out here there is no past or future only the present. Only good energy.” Ikemefuna’s mellow and pleasant voice drifted and reached somewhere deep inside Nwoye.
And as was customary, he did nothing about it, even though he wanted to.
He took a deep breath, holding it, jaw clenched tight.
Ikem was right there, within reach. Yet not his to touch.
Nwoye wouldn’t dare.
Ikemefuna climbed onto a fallen tree trunk, which they sometimes sat on. Eyes closed, he balanced on the log and stretched out his cupped palms towards the heavens as if offering a sacrifice to the gods.
For a moment, it seemed the air stilled, the creatures quietened. The river shimmered in the distance below.
The trees dappled shade on Ikem’s skin. He seemed attuned with nature. Mature. Strong. Ethereal.
A godsend, a guardian spirit, if not a god himself.
Something to be adored from afar, even when he was close.
He enchanted Nwoye.
Had him enthralled from the moment he arrived in their home three years ago.
Two years older, Ikemefuna was everything Nwoye aspired to be. Confident and carefree, he smelled exotic and alluring, his skin a lustrous ebony shade, and his shoulders, arms and chest with the toned musculature of a healthy young man.
“Don’t you think so?” He opened his eyes and smiled. His eyes were a luminous shade, like a liquid flame, the beauty of which taunted Nwoye.
Nwoye lost his breath, eyes locked on Ikemefuna, unable to look away. He would agree with whatever the older boy said anyway. He swallowed to unclog his throat. “Yes.”
Satisfied, Ikemefuna turned and danced on the log, flipping and tossing his legs and body as if an unseen orchestra played the flutes and ogene for him.
Transfixed, Nwoye watched him dance.
Ikem was fluid, and he shimmered, caught in the shaft of golden sunlight. Just like he always seemed to glow in other moments, the ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.
He eventually hopped off and sat on the log, admiring the moss and mushrooms growing in a damp, shaded spot. Then he turned his attention to a plant with red flowers.
His face was distance, and he seemed suddenly quiet, gazing off to the side with a sigh.
Nwoye sat beside him. He could have reached out and touched Ikem if he were brave enough.
Ikem’s good looks inspired a yearning Nwoye had never been able to articulate. Was this what his father meant when he referred to him as acting like a woman?
How could he explain this longing for Ikem? It was more than the love for an older brother. After three years, he had figured that out.
Nwoye wanted to touch him and to tell him how much he felt for him.
And now, there was the likelihood that Ikemefuna was going away. How was he going to bear not seeing him again?
Adrenaline spiked through his body. He needed to act, to do something before all was lost forever. His hands trembled, and he rubbed sweating palms on his lap repeatedly.
“Nwoye, what is it?”
Ikemefuna’s voice jarred him out of his thoughts.
“I was saying that a fate worse than death must be not living while alive,” Ikemefuna said.
There was something in his tone. Melancholy? Challenge? Nwoye was unsure.
Then his face widened in a grin, and he leaned close to Nwoye. “Sometimes I think of going somewhere far away, just you and me. We would travel to different kingdoms, see the wonders of the world. Do you ever imagine it?”
He was so close, So enchanting. So charming. His mouth barely moved as he spoke, his words quiet.
“Yes. Sometimes.” Right now. Nwoye’s hands shook.
He sagged onto a tree trunk and cleared his throat. He had imagined similar things often. Was it possible that Ikemefuna felt this attraction?
Ikemefuna leaned close, his lips brushed Nwoye’s ear, the touch light, feathery.
He smiled, trailing his long finger down Nwoye’s arm, making tingles skitter along his body, setting a fire under his skin.
He leaned in, and this time their lips met. Wrapped in an embrace, their mouths fused, tasting, exploring. Tongue. Lips. Teeth. The sensation he had craved for so long. Tongues dancing, exhilarated. The expression was forceful, yet tender, alien and natural.
“I wish I had done this a long time ago,” Ikemefuna’s words tumbled when they separated.
Nwoye was dazed, breath coming out in pants. “I wish it was the same too.”
That evening they lay on the grass, in their favorite secluded spot, under the blanket of a sky bright with colors of the setting sun. Their water pots rested in the grass. In the valley, the villagers fetched water from the shimmering river.
On the horizon, darkness loomed.