always had a morbid fear of snakes. Even as a child I shied away from the harmless green ones that are abundant in my village, which are actually seen as an assets for they help control the rodent population. They abound all around the village, either basking in the morning sun or coiled like bundle ropes, with scales reflecting light in kaleidoscope of sparkles, generally revered as totems of gods, to be killed at ones peril.
My fear of crawly things is not borne out of any unpleasant experience, at least not any that I know of. I feel it is inborn, a feeling of dread and revulsion that my family legend say must definitely be handed down from my grandfather on the father side, whose reincarnate I am said to be. Please do not ask me how that came about for I know nothing about that life (consciously that is) to convince you of the truth in reincarnation. Just accept the elder’s words like we all do.
As I said before, I hate snakes, and usually go out of my way to avoid them. I will not even touch a dead one not to talk of tasting their meat, which I hear say is the sweetest of meats – if the words of my snake eating cousins are anything to go by. Pampered buggers, my cousins, with two years separating them, born after a succession of twins who were unfortunately thrown into the evil forest and left to die as tradition demands. A break in a circle, you may say, since their mother went ahead to birth another twin set after them and had to go to the evil forest herself. Their father thinks the world of them and gives assent to their barest whimpers, and do they whimper? They eat only the best of things; fresh soup when the choice meat and fish are still in large supply, and even then, only the best part, white yam only, not water yam that lacks flavour, no. Also, do not make them taste goat meat when the succulent deer meat is in the trap. Please take their word on snake meat, because they truly know what they are talking about.
Well, everybody that is anybody in my family knows about my hatred for snakes and respects my views on them. They even try their best to keep the communal green ones from my hut, planting snake repellent plants around it and blocking all holes that stubborn ones may want to force their slithery way through.
It was this respect for my hate, I think, that caused one of my crazy cousins to rush into my hut that hot afternoon.
It was just a few moons past my fourteenth birthday, at the height of the wet season (which I hate too). I lay spread-eagle in the cool hot dozing off the effect of a very hot meal, hoping to put off until the last minute, the inevitable trip to the palm forest to retouch the wine gourds collecting wine on father’s palm trees. A trip that was as important as it was dreadful, taking all the wet dark leafy places my great enemies may lurk into shivery consideration.
Anyway, my cousin, the crazy one, rushed in and affected me with his panic.
“Kadim, Kadim!” he called, using my common pet name. I pretended not to hear, for I knew, as usual, that he was on to another mischief, which I must tell you, still remains his middle name.
“Kadim, you sleepy headed son of Madu, how long are you going to pretend to be asleep? You know that I know that you know that I know you are awake, or do not the eyes of those who sleep deeply twitch? Or are you so unconcerned as to ignore the peril that hangs over your head?” he said, too loudly for the little hut.
That is my cousin Okwu, noisy as ever. We joke in my family that only an adult woodpecker can challenge him in a talking contest, only the woodpecker could never hope to peck wood with the speed at which Okwu pecks words. Knowing he would not go away until I had listened to his news, I opened my eyes and yawned wildly, with all the appearance of one waking from a deep slumber. As expected, Okwu was not fooled. He smiled at me in his sly way and laughed in his high-pitched voice.
“Our grandfather thinks Okwu is still a baby, when Okwu had breathed two moons worth of the earth’s air before he was born, anyway you know that I know that you know that I have news for you, and my, my, are they heavy news? Only wait till I tell you the half of it then…”
“Okwu,” I said, cutting off his breathless tirade that would have continued nonetheless, “Say your say and be gone for I need to rest before heading to the palm forest, father’s wine needs checking.”
“Aha, the palm forest, I don’t think you will be going to the palm forest today grandfather…” he paused uncharacteristically to gauge my reaction as I fought to control an exhilarating emotion that jumped in my chest at his words, ‘no trip to the palm forest? What relief, thought I, but since I know that he only calls me grandfather – a reference to my being an incarnate – when he was up to some mischief, especially when I am the main target, I kept my face unreadable, or almost, for the sly bastard wasn’t fooled
“Oh, I have his attention at last. Tell me was it the palm forest? Never mind, like I said before, you don’t have to bother your head about the palm forest, today that is, for the elders are meeting in Da Okoro’s Obi this very minute, and guess who the main topic of discussion is?” Okwu’s beady eyes shined with mirth and something else, triumph maybe.
“You know I can’t do that, I wasn’t there, and don’t tell me you’ve been snooping around the business of the elders?”
“Yes I have.” he said pointedly “or how do you think I would have gotten the information I came to give you? Now, about that information, if you keep interrupting me I doubt if I can get to the telling of it before this day closes. You always find ways to take the sting out the telling Kadim.”
“Ok,” said I “I won’t interrupt again.” by now my interest had risen though was yet to soar to its peak.
“Well,” he said, “I overheard the elders talking about totems, they said that a large sacred python has blocked off the Iyi stream and so prevents water from flowing down for the village use.”
“What!” I screamed, mad that he had used up my time as well as tried my patience only to tell such tall a tale, I lunged for him in anger, not that I had ever been able to defeat him in wrestling for my cousin is a rather stout fellow who made up with brawn what he lacked in brains. He cowered from me, not necessary out of freight, but as a token of truce. I stepped back from him as he motioned for me to wait.
“I swear it is true, Chi went to the stream earlier today and returned without any water, people now go as far as Ota stream to get water.”
“To Ota, But that is ten shadow lengths away?” I said incredulous
“Yes ten shadow lengths through the hills; for no one is allowed to pass through the shorter cut which you know is through the Iyi route.” Okwu said
“Ok, let’s say you are telling the truth, how come I didn’t know about it, I was at Chi’s mother’s hut just before the sun climbed overhead and now it is not three arms past the middle?” I asked, seriously wondering how something of that significance would have occurred without my notice.
“That is easily answered” he replied, “no one wants to mention snakes around you, especially large pythons” a sly light was shining in his eyes.
I must not forget to tell you that my cousin does not know fear – not my kind of fear anyway. He particularly likes catching snakes with his bare hands, and was the culprit of several hateful pranks played on me when we were much younger, most of which involved his hiding the sacred green snake somewhere and conning me to reach out and touch the hidden horror. All these pranks had petered out as we grew older and he found other people outside the family on which to practice his now more advanced pranks, without fear of being scolded by our mothers.
As for the pythons, they have always been here, protected, like many others, by the patronage of one god or the other, at whose shrines large numbers of them could be seen at any given time. In some clans, it is the crazy rhesus monkeys that reign supreme, while in others, the pygmy tortoise gets the highest patronage. However, in my village it is the giant python that reign supreme. At times, they are seen lumbering down one village path or the other looking for cool places to hide from the sun’s heat. As you would have guessed, I keep well away from them, unlike some of the younger children who, waiting until the pythons have swallowed their fortnight meal of goat or chicken – depending on the particular python’s capacity – take rides on their broad backs. That, to say the least, is not for me.
Okwu would have told me more had we not been interrupted by my father who came into the hut unannounced to stare at him with angry eyes.
“Okwu, what are you doing here?” he asked suspiciously “I hope you have not being sneaking around where you are not wanted?”
Okwu tried his best to look innocent, a thing he could not quite manage, being out of character. He managed to mumble something before slinking out of the room after he suddenly remembered something he was supposed to do for his mother. His attitude, quite comical I tell you, caused my father and I to laugh aloud.
Though I had not forgotten about the issue of the python, it did not cross my mind to ask father about it, probably to protect my nosey cousin or because I felt, I was not involved. How wrong I was as future events would prove.
I followed my father at his request to visit his elder brother, who I had always been drawn to and felt closer to than anyone else, well, apart from my mother. As we made our way towards his house, situated at the outskirts of the village, I noticed the peculiar way people were looking at my father and me. Some would shout out his praise name or call out my grandfather’s name, to which he would insist I respond to. This I did by raising my hand in silent salute, a large smile on my face, for I rather liked the title of Ogbuagu (the lion killer).
My uncle was waiting for us when we got to his compound, a cluster of huts arranged in a semicircle behind his massive Obi. Impressive, as befits the first son of a great chief.
“My father,” he usually greeted me this way “you have come.”
He turned to my father and cocked his head. To which my father shook his head negatively in respond and my uncle nodded; apparently, in agreement with whatever it was they referred. It was then that I knew that my father had met with his brother earlier, the significance of which did not hit me until later when we had settled down in front of the Obi eating fried breadfruit and Nsude palm nuts – the best combination if there ever was any.
“My father,” my uncle had begun, “I want you to do something for me; it is something you may not like. No, it is something you will not like, but something that must be done. A thing that only you can do, but something you must be willing to do in order to succeed.” he paused and looked towards my father who nodded his head in affirmation.
“Yes, a grave thing indeed for the clan and disastrous for our family.” he added, a solemn look shadowing his face
At about this time I must confess that my mind was doing some additions and heading towards a conclusion that I did not like one bit, so it did not come as much of a surprise when the issue of the python was brought to light.
To cut a long story short, my uncle spelt it out to me that the python blocking the stream was my totem and tradition demanded that I, I alone, go to the stream and plead with it to move away from the stream. According to my uncle, the totem was annoyed at my snobbery all these years. Was I surprised? I seriously was.
Yes, I thought my uncle’s speech had something to do with the python but I did not know I was that involved, as such, you could imagine my horror and helplessness.
As my uncle said, I have to do it not for myself alone but for our family, which would be held responsible for any negative outcome of the python’s anger. I did not say a word, but the way my head was shaking from side to side must have said more than any word I could have uttered. No! Me, face a snake, a large one, alone. No!
Having been reminded of my history and the antecedents of the man whose name I bore and tutored by the python groove chief priest who I never liked anyway, I set out for to the stream with my uncle, who promised to stay as near as he could when I confront the python.
Locating the python was not hard because it was a big one and the forest was not that dense near the stream, on account of the tall trees that obscured the sunlight which would have given strength to the smaller plants. As such, apart from the occasional shrubbery, the forest floor was as clear as a well-kept garden, it looked very much like a place one would gladly spend a lazy afternoon if not for the danger posed by cobras and other fang and stinger crawlies that abound in the wet season.
The smell of rotting vegetation and countless fungal growths nauseated me, but the song of birds that fluttered above in apparent enjoyment, ignorant, it seemed, of my fear and loathing, gave me some form of comfort.
I came upon the great snake suddenly, much closer than I had imagined it would be. I had known it would be a big one from the account of the elders and the priest, and the traces of its passage where last night’s rain could not reach to wash off traces, but the sheer size of it assaulted my mind. To have called it big was an understatement, what came to my mind was ‘gigantic’ for it was larger than three huddled men in the smaller neck region and could comfortably swallow an ox – not the fabled ox of the plains herdsmen, but our indigenous black ox that stand half the height of an adult man.
It was coiled across the stream, successfully damming it with a double fold of its middle. Only a trickle of water escaped to seep into the muddy riverbed where tadpoles and few catfish young flip-flopped, with some unfortunate ones becoming food for birds brave enough to hunt where the python ruled. That its size and apparent intellect awed me would be another understatement, I was terrified and rooted to the very spot, while I wondered at how the snake seemed to have thought its actions through – it was directing the excess water towards another channel with its tail, an intelligent move that sent shivers down my spine.
I stood on the slight incline, within a patch of forest floor where the python’s passage had flattened grasses and shrubs, unable to move, until it appeared to sense my presence and lifting its head, looked towards my direction.
All my previous fears returned then in a flood that washed over me in unending torrents. Soon, when it continued to stare at me with bead like eyes, courage returned, no, not to stay. I turned and would have beat it out of there in a great haste had my uncle not called out to me from his hiding place further back.
“Ogbuagu,” he called out. “Does the lion killer fear the harmless python? Go to him my father and appease he whom you have wronged.”
At his words, my will returned and I began to make my way gingerly towards the python. After a few shaky steps I stopped, still some meters away, turned back to look at my uncle who waved me on. Turning back to face the python whose massive body was directly in front of me, I reached into the oversized goat skin bag strapped on my back and pulled out the wrap of fourteen eggs that was supposed to represent my earthly seasons and placed it, unwrapped, before him while whispering the incantations the Chief Priest forced me to memorize. The priest told me to look into the python’s eye as I did this, and after I over came my initial queasiness, I found it easier than I had expected it to be for the eyes were kind, though without the sort of intelligent spark you would find in an adult. It was more akin to the eyes of a child.
I do not really know how long I stood there or when the first coils entwined me, I only recall being lifted off my feet with the sort of violence only one of with such strength could manage. I think too, that at that point, I think, my uncle screamed my name, but I am not sure for everything was wheeling crazily then.
There I was face to face with my greatest nightmare. The musky smell of the snake choked me and I felt the power in its muscles. I would have screamed had I the breath to as the python was then squeezing me, tighter and tighter until I felt my heart quickening.
I knew I was going to lose consciousness even before everything blacked out.
I woke up in a dark place, I knew I was still me but I knew also that I had a different name. There was no light but I could see quite well. There were others there, some who had been longer than I and others who came after and I could feel, but not really see others arriving. A great multitude, some leave immediately they came, others appear not to be in any great hurry to do same. I wait; I do not know what for, but I feel the need to wait awhile. I do not know how long I waited in that all seeing darkness but just as I knew I had to wait, I suddenly knew I had to leave and quickly too. Not knowing why, I headed toward the direction through which those that were leaving went. I pass a door. It was dark outside too, but not the dark of inside. Beyond the door was a river, I walk towards it overtaking others who left before me in my haste, some murmured their displeasure, I ignored them. By the river a boat stood. As I came up, the last passenger entered and the boat started to pull out. I ran but it was moving fast. I noticed that the river was black, dark enough to stand out in the gloom. My haste overtook me and I tottered, my flaring hands encountering only icy water as I fell into the river, which unfortunately was too powerful for my untrained body. I was been swept away by strong currents. From the boat came movement. Longish body, serpentine, dived in, coming swiftly, towards me. My strength failed, I was going under, I felt a great tug, I was been pulled against the current towards the boat, the boat was there, suddenly. I reached out a weak hand, was pulled up, turned to help my benefactor up, only the serpentine head was already heading towards the shore I stood a few moments before, powerful strokes churning black splays behind it. I turned to the boatman, “why?” I asked, “The boat was already full. He is giving you his turn and asks only that you remember when you get home,” he said. I looked at my arm, there were teeth marks on it but I felt no pain, I lifted my head toward the fast receding shore and beheld the multitude there “I will!” I yelled at the top of my lungs and the echo was relayed a hundred times, louder than I could have managed. As we stepped off the boat, I turned to the boatman and said, “Tell him I will remember.”He nodded his hooded head and said, “He will have to wait another year and even then one can’t be too sure of what one would get, I will tell him your promise.” With that He turned and rowed back to the distant shore and I stepped through the shimmery light ahead of me as others before me had done.
I came to amongst the python’s coils to find my uncle standing a little way off, while the chief priest massaged herbs unto my heaving chest. I looked around in panic to find that the python was still much around and alive, it was then looking at me with that strange glint in its beady eyes and I could swear that it felt concern for me. I raised my left arm and beheld the ten teeth-like birthmarks that had been there always and understood.
“Ogbuagu,” the chief priest said, “I think your debt is paid, only never ignore your totem again, even in your later comings.”
“Yes,” I heard myself say in a voice that was strange to my ears, “it is paid.”
“And the stream,” I asked looking towards the bone of contention which as if in answer was churning loudly as it rushed to fill the gap between it and communal water hole.
“I doubt it will hold any grudge.” He replied, laughter in his voice.
We left the python there, where it lay feasting on the eggs I had brought.
I must confess that I am still nervous around snakes, especially the poisonous variety. Who would not be?