Preye Abiye. Urowoli Agbajor. The Kporaro family: Two brothers and their father. They were thirty names in total including mothers and children. I sat in my raffia chair penning down every name in my journal. The ink was ironically red and bleeding because my hands were big. When I’d written the last name, the scribbled words were smudged and seemingly tangled together, almost like they knew they had to leave room for the many other names that would eventually be scratched down.
I rested my palm under my jaw and let myself remember a time when the compounds had no reason to be deserted by this time of the day. The children: eleven from the Ejaife clan and seven from the Akoma’s would have been back from school and out playing games till the early evenings. Now, they couldn’t even go to school. We all were too busy hiding behind the walls of our houses.
We were less than a month into the crises which was birthed because the local government council was moved from Obgeljoh of the Ijaw community to Ogidigben of Itshekiri. The discovery of the large oil reserves and the sudden claims in ownership of oil lands had sowed a seed of contention amongst the people.
I let myself doze off only to be awoken by gun shots and the screams of civilians as they ran in stampedes.
“Oritse o! The riots have started again, everybody run o!” I saw a sturdy looking woman scream. Her wrapper was half loosed from her waist. Her left hand which held it firmly acted as a vice, stopping her from going completely naked. She successfully got to her home, and her screams faded as she locked herself in. With the speed of a cheetah, I got up from my chair and did the same.
“Efetobore, what’s happening?” I turned around to see my cousin, Ejiro, standing with his arms on his head, trying to look out the window.
“The riot. Alert the rest of the family. Tell them to lock all doors and to stay in their rooms.” The air imploded with more gunshot sounds and I instinctively dragged Ejiro into a crouch. Shola Ojobon, the name came rushing back. He’d been among the thirty. He’d been killed by a stray bullet that came through the window. I ought not to let the same fate to befall us.
“If the riot remotely dies down, cousin, we should move through the bushes to safety. Staying here isn’t wise,” Ejiro said in a panicked breath.
My daughter’s sobs and my wife’s helpless shushing, floated from our bedroom door. I had to close my eyes tight, willing my mind to focus on the blackness and not the images of the beheaded woman and child they’d found by the Agbarho river. They had been running away, searching for safety. They were part of the thirty.
Glass shattered. My aunt bellowed: “Fire o!” Flames were licking at the walls of the living room, and my wife’s brother and my cousin were trying to quench it with a bucket of water. But the fire seemed to stretch until it was blanketing our furniture and curtains.
Glass shattered. This time from below. I ran to check, only to discover more flames in the exit area of our quarters. I scurried back upstairs, knees buckling, joints screaming. The smoke and heat had me freezing by the top of the stairs. “Our exit has been blocked, we can’t leave through the door anymore,” I yelled.
“We jump from the balcony then!”
Everyone’s voice seemed to be choking out from no particular place.
“If we can get a rope long enough we could tie it to the railing and get down,” Ejiro coughed as he spoke.
I pushed through the smoke, groping till I felt a knob under my palm. It was hot and I had to use my shoulders to shove into the room. Flames were crumbling the walls now, forcing them to cave in. Footsteps followed and Ejiro materialized. Mechanically, we started to gather whatever clothes we could to make a rope. Much later, I would realize it had been his room. His clothes.
We set our makeshift rope over the railing. I don’t remember how. Don’t remember delving deeper into the smoke to get to the balcony. I do remember my lungs recoiling from within, so much that it burned. Blind spots took over my vision. I wasn’t sure if the flames were towering or I was sinking.
“Is everyone out? The children, the women?” My voice was ragged, effortful.
“They’re all out, cousin. You’re weak but I need you to hold the rope firmly and climb down.”
I opened my mouth to object. He was the younger brother I never had. I’d been in charge of protecting him since his parents had died so many years back. But somehow, it was the other way round now.
“You’re having an asthma attack, Efe. You need to get away from the smoke. Climb down fast.”
With a reluctant nod, I obliged. I got to the ground on wobbling limbs and had my back turned to receive hugs and kisses from my wife and daughter. I only felt the explosion of the heat. I never saw the clasp of smoke they said snatched Ejiro, took both flesh and bone, left nothing to bury.
Four days later, my older brother and I came back to the rumbles that was once our home, in search of whatever that was bold enough to survive the fire. The charred remains of our house stood in the pale morning light like a skeleton. My hands were caked in charcoal and my nostrils were filled with ash as we scavenged. I let myself take gulps of the heavy air, hoping to breathe in whatever was left of Ejiro. Whatever that wasn’t already on my palms and in my fingers, dusted across my clothes.
I’d been the one to suggest we come back to check. I wasn’t expecting to find anything. Deep down, I just wanted to here alone, picking at nothing in particular, hoping Ejiro miraculously pulled up unscathed. In a way he did, in that moment, smiling so hard his eyes seemed to disappear behind creased lids. He had his arms flung over the shoulders of two other men. The picture was not larger than the palm of my hand.
The next morning, I headed to see my grandfather. I had merely decided to start my questioning from oldest to youngest till I got the answers I needed.
“Migwo,” I greeted him with a bow.
“Do oghene.” He nodded with a smile and a scratch at his gray chin.
“Pa,” I handed him the photo, “Would you happen to know these people. The middle man looks just like Ejiro.”
His index finger hit at the picture, like a stab, at the chest of Ejiro’s look alike. A part of me expected the picture to react, his bright smile to falter at the gesture. “This isn’t Ejiro, this is my brother. He died when I was still young. We were in the military together, fighting hard for Nigeria’s independence.
“But why does he look exactly Ejiro?” I asked.
He paused for a little while, then continued, “my brother sacrificed his life for mine, taking the enemy’s bullet that was meant for me. His spirit is believed to be one with that of our ancestors reliving their lives solely as our family’s protector, saving us from various fatal harm by sacrificing his or her life instead. They are noted by the semblance between each other and also a green coloured birthmark by the back of their necks. I didn’t believe all those at first, until he did what he did for me. I didn’t notice the resemblance between he and your cousin, but now that you said it, I can see now,” He had a hard time speaking to me, as his old age made him very weak, but I managed to understand the message he was passing. Ejiro did have a large green birthmark at the back of his neck.
“Do you think Ejiro, is a reincarnate of your brother?” I leaned closely, eager to hear his answer
“I’m afraid so, my son. I noticed the birthmark, the first time I laid eyes on him. I always hoped such fate wouldn’t befall him, but I’ve seen now that it can’t be avoided.” He closed his eyes, trying in futility to stop tears from flowing freely, but they dropped anyway.
“But pa, is there a way this can be stopped? Or the chain can be broken?” I asked.
“You can’t stop destiny my child,” My grandfather replied, his hand still pressed at his supposed brother’s chest. I forced on a smile and pulled out the picture from under his finger. I gave his hand a squeeze and told him I had to go. He nodded with a smile and a scratch at his gray chin.
I folded up the picture and took a walk to the river bank. When I was a child, I’d throw stones into the water to release frustration. Some habits never die.
“You’re much too close to the edge of the bank, cousin. Aren’t you afraid you’d fall over?”
My arm hung in mid-swing and my fingers uncurled to drop the stone in my hand, but I couldn’t bring myself to turn around. I could hear the squash of earth beneath his feet as he walked up to my side. “I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye,” he said. His longs arms enveloped my broad back.
“Where are you going? Come home,” I said. My own arms were by my side unable to hug him back. “I don’t know what’s happening here but please just come home.”
“Tell everyone I’ll miss them. Tell them I’m on to another life. The gods are calling me home now.” He drew back then, bent over to pick a stone and hurl it across the river. It skipped three times across the murky surfaces before sinking down. When I pulled my attention away from the rippling water, he was gone.
Three generations later, he would appear again.