Going to the river, to me, was as natural as eating. It was something I couldn’t do without. I needed it as much as I needed food. I loved it as much as I loved my best friend, Ugomma. Yes, I knew it was bad for me to compare my best friend to the river but that was the only comparison that was fit enough right now in my mind. Besides, they were both things I couldn’t do without. I grinned to myself. Ugomma would freak out and venture into one of her long lectures if she ever found out I called her a thing.
It didn’t matter that the white men were now introducing new things to the village of Anannukwu like those things they called boreholes, I still preferred water from the river. My mother always called me an ‘old soul’ because of that.
So here I was, going to the river late in the afternoon with my clay pot tucked under my arm while other people were doing…well, other things.
I dropped my clay pot on the ground close to the river and stepped into the river. The instant my legs touched the water, I smiled in contentment. This was what water did to me. It made me giddy and high. Lowing myself till only my neck could be seen above the river, I closed my eyes and just felt.
I felt the water running through me, in me. I felt the water whispering sweet nothings to me. It was like I was the water and I couldn’t tell where the water ended and I began. I could do anything when I was in the river. I could even break one of those stupid borehole things with my palm. My lips twitched as I imagined the white men faces red with anger while pointing at me and talking in that strange language of theirs. English, they called it.
Anyway, I thought I could do anything when I was in water. Or rather, I felt I could do anything since I really couldn’t do all those things, whether in water or out of it. The river was my sanctuary. Water was my balm.
I didn’t know how long I stayed in the water with my eyes closed. Hours, maybe. Knowing fully well it was time to begin my journey home, I opened my eyes. And gasped.
Someone was in the river with me. A girl who I could only guess was my age mate, eighteen. Her back was to me and her hair was in neat cornrows. She was dressed like everyone else in the village, although hers was of higher quality than most people’s. A white wrapper covered the upper part of her body and another white wrapper covered the part of her waist that was visible in the water. She had red beads around her hair, neck, wrists and waist. She must be from a wealthy family, I concluded. My eyes caught on the sheathed sword across her waist and I began rethinking my theory. Girls from wealthy homes didn’t use swords. In fact, girls in general didn’t own swords in Anannukwu.
Just as I was about to take my eyes away from her, something that startled me caught my eyes. She had a mark just above her waist. A red mark that was in the shape of a half moon. Just like mine.
Then the girl turned with a smile and I lost the ability to breathe. I was staring at myself.
I blinked, and the girl was gone. Once again I was alone in the river.
Spooked, I hurried out of the water. I was used to being weird, as Ugomma would put it, but this was nothing I had ever felt before. I was used to feeling like I was meant to do something else instead of being my everyday self. I was used to feeling like I had done something before, when in reality I had done nothing of that sort. Like the time Ugomma had persuaded me to accompany her to the shop of a man who sold swords. For fun, she had said. When we had gotten there I had picked up a sword and had wielded it like an expert, surprising the shopkeeper, Ugomma and most of all, myself. I hadn’t even touched a sword before that day.
What I wasn’t used to was seeing myself in another body. That was just plain spooky.
With a sigh, I filled my clay pot with water and walked home.
Ugomma was under the udala tree that stood in the middle of her family’s hut and mine, talking to some children. She loved children a lot. If there was one thing she loved more than children, it was telling the story of Ure, the great warrior, and I could bet the little bush meat hidden under my mattress that that was exactly what she was doing.
“Long time ago, during the war between Anannukwu and Ezejiana, what we now call The Great War, there lived a young girl named Ure. Ure was an orphan whose parents died at the tender age of fourteen. The people of Ezejiana had huge giants and skilled warriors which the people of Anannukwu lacked. The few warriors we had were scared and ran away, leaving our village unprotected. The people of Ezejiana attacked us and killed so many of our villagers. That was when Ure, the beautiful orphan said enough, and picked up a sword.”
“But I thought girls don’t fight. Why would Ure pick up a sword?” One of the boys that was listening to her story asked.
“Because, Chidozie, the men were reluctant to fight.” Ugomma answered. “Ure was not happy with the way people were dying in the village. She gathered some girls and they began learning how to fight. When they were good enough, they fought against the people of Ezejiana. At first, because of their small size, they didn’t fight face to face with Ezejiana warriors. They laid ambush for the warriors and eliminated them group after group. The news of Ure spread round the village and soon people, both men and women, old and young, joined Ure in defending the land. And that was how Anannukwu won the war against Ezejiana.”
“I want to be like Ure,” a young girl of about six said.
“That is good of you, Ola. Maybe you would also marry the prince as Ure had done.” Ugomma complimented and the girl beamed. “The story didn’t end there, children. The goddess of our land saw what Ure was doing and was very pleased. She decided to bless Ure. She called Ure a girl after her own heart and gave her authority over the waters, the streams, the rivers, all over Anannukwu.”
“Why did the goddess give Ure authority over all the waters?” Someone asked.
“Because water is the home of our goddess. She trusted only Ure to take good care of her home.”
“Wow,” the children chorused.
“Since Ure was a girl and she fought bravely in the war, why do they not let girls learn how to fight now?”
Ugomma opened and closed her mouth twice, not knowing what answer to give the girl child. “I don’t know, Ola. You’ll have to ask the King that question.”
“I heard my father saying that war is coming again. Is Ure going to fight again?” A child asked.
“Ure is long dead, Obinna.” The children frowned and some were on the verge of crying. Ugomma quickly added. “But I’m sure the goddess will send another Ure for us.”
The children shouted with joy and scattered themselves, obviously going to tell their parents the good news that another Ure was coming. I couldn’t help but laugh at the alarmed look on my best friend’s face.
Ugomma saw me then and sprinted over.
“Went to the river again, huh?” She reprimanded.
I smiled sheepishly. “You know me.”
“We’re late, you know, because of you and your river obsession.”
I let my mind wander, trying to recall where we were meant to be but came up blank. “Late to where?”
Ugomma scowled. “Late to the gathering at the village square, Zimuzo.”
Oh. My. World.
Ugomma didn’t have to repeat herself because I dashed into my hut quickly and dropped my pot of water on the floor, changed my wet wrappers to another, and dashed back out of the hut. We hurriedly walked to the village square.
The king had ordered everyone, sixteen and above, to be at the village square today evening so that he would discuss what would be done about the upcoming war. Because that kid had been right, there was a war coming. The people of Ezejiana wanted another war.
Everyone was already gathered in the square when we arrived. The king, a young man of twenty three who had taken over the throne when his father had died two years ago was seated at the beginning of the village square and his mother was seated beside him. Close to them but sitting on the floor, was Ejike, the mouthpiece of the goddess.
“What’s going on? What did we miss?” Ugomma asked the girl that was standing close to her.
“Nothing much,” she replied. “The King produced a portrait of Ure which he claimed he only recently found. He also said everybody above sixteen and below sixty are to be trained on how to fight from tomorrow.”
“Both girls?” My best friend asked. “I thought he didn’t see us good enough for fighting.”
“It was his father, the previous King, not him.” She glanced at Ugomma with a frightened look. “I don’t even want to fight. I’m afraid I’ll cut my hand just trying to learn with a sword.”
“It won’t be that bad.” I tried to reassure her.
When she opened her mouth to respond and turned her gaze on me, she froze. She just stiffened with her mouth wide open, gaping at me like a fish. She pointed at me. “You…you’re…you’re her.”
“What?” I glanced around, maybe she was talking to someone at my back. But nope, there was nobody at my back. “Her who?”
My best friend made a strange noise with her throat and I looked at her. She was looking at something with a shocked expression. “How is that possible?”
Feeling left out of whatever was going on, I traced Ugomma’s gaze to a painting of someone. Someone that looked exactly like me. Pushing people out of my way, I moved closer to the painting. I wanted to know what a painting of me was doing here.
Without me knowing it, I was standing in front of the picture, which was also in front of the King. Soon I was taking deep, short breaths. Because the painting wasn’t of me. It was of the girl I had seen in the river earlier today. The girl with the white wrappers, half moon mark and sword. The girl that was another me. A me that wasn’t me.
Written boldly across the painting were the words ‘Ure, the great warrior’.
The King stood up from his seat, looking from me to the painting, and back again. “Another Ure,” he whispered like a prayer.
“The goddess has heard our cries. The rebirth of Ure,” Ejike shouted and the people rejoiced, singing and clapping. They looked at me like I was their saviour.
They didn’t know I was no saviour material. I was just a weird girl who lived with her widowed mother and enjoyed the company of her best friend.
But for them, I would try. I’d become somebody, someone who would lead them to victory.