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Jul/Aug 2013 Fiction

The Seven-Thousand-Year-Old Spirit

by Iheoma Nwachukwu

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss


Corporal Nwafanim laughed when he heard the complaint: an old spirit which roamed the earth doing good had asked a farmer in the village to offer it nine dimkpa tubers of yam, or eat misfortune.

He stopped laughing when the spectacled man who had limped into the police station mentioned that it was no ordinary spirit but the Great One, Seven-Thousand-Year-Old Afanim, who had come out of a crack in the limestone knoll at Okwuta lake, the revered guardian spirit of Amumara community who passed messages in hieroglyphs, the harsh goddess-man who often appeared in goat form, who shook an iron-belled staff at barren women and brought a comforting weight to fruitless wombs.

Nwafanim fingered the diaper pin that fastened the top of his moisture-blotted uniform where a button was missing. The room was stuffy. It was a hot afternoon.

He leaned forward on the narrow counter, stained dark-brown by the pitiless press of bodies through the years. In the far right corner of the counter, a thumb-sized fly perched on a neat pile of discolored case files.

"Did you say it was Afanim?" he asked, pulling his tree-root shaped nose. He could smell rat piss and shit. The relentless rodents, which ate statements and court orders at the station, were back again after the last poisoned crayfish he strewed in the wall corners.

The spectacled man removed his small, Fanta-colored glasses, smiling, glad at the serious turn of conversation, enjoying his prominence with the police.

"Yes. Afanim," he answered. "In his farm, my friend found Nsibidi ciphers that the spirit had written on the ground. As I speak to you, he has given Afanim four big tubers. He's afraid. He only told me because he got drunk yesterday. At Mama Samaria's. I lived in Lagos city for ten years after Biafra. I saw things. This one, nothing but fraud..."

Nwafanim, suddenly annoyed, even troubled, flashed a menacing palm that stopped the man. What disrespect, he thought. It was this goddess, this just punisher of wrongdoers with instant blindness, who had put him inside his barren mother, though he had told no one this but his wife—long before she deserted him one Sunday while he was at work.

He decided it was time to take a statement from the complainant, or he might hit the man out of irritation. He looked behind him at the junior officers whose job it was to write reports.

The two constables sat asleep on a bench, their sweating heads slanted against the spotted, dirty wall. This morning the men had returned from a trip to Lagos. They had ridden in the front of a trailer truck crammed with cows belonging to the D.P.O.'s girlfriend, providing a shield against the usual horde of bribe-crazed policemen at checkpoints along the way.

The one with marijuana-burned lips held his rifle across his lap. The bald one stood his gun between his thighs. Nwafanim kicked their shins.

"Agile!" they barked, grabbing their weapons. Nwafanim hissed.

"Come and take this man's statement," he commanded. "Lazy. A criminal would have finished you just like chickens."

Through the door, not far away, he could see the sheep-faced village goatherd leading the villagers' livestock in an orderly row along the dusty road.

The goatherd looked back at the animals, raised his narrow stick, and shook it. The column moved past him.

"Muhemuhemuhe," he called sharply to a sheep straying onto someone's farm. The creature stopped. It fell back in line when the man clicked his tongue.

Nwafanim nodded, impressed as always. Every day he saw this procession. There was a grateful look in his eyes, too. This was the good man who had told him, many weeks ago, that he saw Nwafanim's sons in town calling a strange man on a motorcycle "Father."

He took a pen from his pocket, uncapped it, and placed it on the counter for the constables' use. Then he walked out of the room to sit with the boiled-groundnut seller by the painted THE NIGERIA POLICE FORCE, AMUMARA DIVISION signboard outside. It was time to let fresh air caress his face—to think about the motorcycle loan he needed to ask for—and the daily crossing of the animals to nearby Okwuta lake was the hint that told him the sun had dipped and he could settle here without getting baked.

 

That was last week. Nwafanim remained upset all that time, not wanting to continue an investigation that muddied the divinity of a generous goddess he had worshipped with his mother as a child, yet needing to do his job, needing to satisfy his natural curiosity, and needing to perhaps impress his superiors enough to ask for a loan.

One more person in the village (a frightened, grey-haired woman searched out by the man in glasses) had reluctantly come forward to make a similar report. She interspersed her account—in a quivering voice—with fearful pleas of forgiveness to Afanim.

Last year the Seven-Thousand-Year-Old Spirit had asked her to bring six cement bags of cassava to the blessed pyramid of Ala, the ancient, four-step shrine of the earth goddess, a bird's cry from the hilltop Catholic church. It was the same location where the farmer was asked to leave his yams.

This night Nwafanim and two assigned policemen would lie in wait at the pyramid for the spirit when it came to collect the balance of last week's yams. Everybody at the station agreed that the request had the fittings of a scam. Doubtless, the mastermind had run the scheme over several months, years maybe. The D.P.O. and his deputy had shown an amused, intelligent interest in the case.

A hen squawked, and Nwafanim rose from the scratched wooden armchair in his one-room home. The sellotaped butt of his rifle showed under the chair. Part of the weapon rested against an old boot where he had carefully placed a lidded plastic container filled with the boiled-down ends of soap his wife had bathed the children with in the old days.

He protected this reminder of his family with the power of the rifle.

By the light of the clay lamp on the bare table, he could see the hand-wound clock over the bed, which used folded wrappers for a mattress. A nail next to the clock held up his charcoal-black uniform.

Though everywhere was already dark because of the long shadows cast by the surrounding copse of trees, it was only six p.m. Three hours before the farmer would take the yams to the pyramid.

He went out to the backyard to close the coop now that the last of his fowls had come home—the one whose cackle he had heard, the mischief-maker who flew on top of the house whenever he chased it away from the sprouting vegetables.

Nwafanim lived alone in his zinc-roofed hut. His wife had left him four years ago, taking their three children, all boys. He could not believe she could go when she was the one he had given his virginity, the woman whose plump shape held all his memories of lovemaking.

He understood she had gone to seek the life they shared before the children came, a life that had grown increasingly uncommon and distant, even for his fanciest dreams. His small salary had seemed enough for a family of three (if they ate full meals only twice a day), but then they became five, without him knowing exactly when, and it seemed that he never had a kobo to spare all his life.

He had quit the seminary to join the police, 15 years before—needing the balance of a vocation that preserved the discipline of theology school without its illusions. His old father had cursed him for this betrayal. As a boy, Nwafanim knew that every astute patriarch in the village sent a son into the priesthood—a false sacrifice—a naira-messiah who would bring the family eternal riches from Rome.

Seven Books of Moses had led to the discovery of Isis and Osiris—uncovering multiple bible fabrications. The theft of Psalm 23 from an Egyptian text appealing to Osiris the Good Shepherd had particularly shocked him, and Nwafanim's faith soon lay bare. He knew then he could never be the fortune-Jesus his father craved.

But he remained a church-goer, to moderate his father's misery.

Although he regretted the later hardship of his poor-paying profession, he admired its simple certainty—a bullet was not an ambiguous friend. If you put a fool in jail, a wise man walked his place on the street.

In the kitchen he covered his face with the bottom of his singlet after he blew out the fire. Though firewood smoke lifted, underneath it he could smell the goat dung in the big basket by the grinding stone, the dung he would ferment and sprinkle around his farm to ward off single-minded goats.

Breathing the goat dung, he felt the infinity of Afanim's presence, the goddess-man whom he had never really stopped carrying in his heart, though he was Catholic and attended mass.

Then Nwafanim's mind went to the village goatherd who had given him the dung. He pulled the singlet from his face.

A man like me, he thought, as he came out of the kitchen, stopping his nostrils with two fingers. Like him, the goatherd had also suffered heartbreak. Three marriages, all flying to pieces. Each wife had run away in the first week of union, leaving hasty footprints in the winding path of the adjacent boundary-forest where wild, towering desert-goats drifted.

The brides had hurried off empty handed, not even taking kola nut or gypsum chalk, as token snack, from the house-bowl.

People laughed and said the women fled because the man had a sheep's penis, which was uncharitable since the goatherd helped take his and their livestock where the grass had little juice, and so did not run the animals' belly. (For this service, he received for payment one lamb or kid per household.)

Nwafanim had laughed, though, too, until his wife absconded.

Inside the room he rested his knees on the bed and raised a hand to shake his uniform from the nail beside the clock. In the top buttonhole of the shirt, the diaper pin—which had clipped his last-child's diaper—shined dully. He stood by the table and, holding the clothes in both hands, snapped the fabric to throw out hiding termites. Jerked by the rush of air, light from the clay lamp batted his shadow against the mud wall.

Nwafanim laid out the shirt and trousers thoughtfully on the bed and with a heavy sigh pictured the ambush tonight.

 

Moonlight fell through the trees. The three policemen proceeded over a dead trunk with a large hole in its side shaped like a fabulous ear. Flies and other winged insects scattered in the undergrowth. Nwafanim held up his rifle, and the other two stopped. Now they squatted in the long scant grass outside the bend of the woods. The wind was in their faces. It carried the strong scent of grass seeds.

A gibbous moon sagged over the stepped-pyramid. The pointed clay structure was at least the height of a man at its base.

"See the spirit's yams," one of the constables said in a high, fawning voice, gesturing with his chin.

The other coughed loudly into his palm and shifted his weight.

Nwafanim took a hard look at these men. They were from remote communities. The one with marijuana-burned lips held his rifle across his lap. The bald one stood his gun between his thighs.

Loathing burned in Nwafanim's throat.

Misfit combatants without spirit, he decided, not sure exactly what he meant. He knew then they would never make Corporal.

He wore his gun slanted by his side as the commander from New Zealand had taught in training school. Nwafanim squinted unhappily at the dark line of yams beside the pyramid, and went over the case again.

Those people said Afanim asked them to bring sacrifice to this ancient shrine, holier than Nsude pyramids. Afanim said, "Tie a long rope to each offering with a loop at the other end. Bring all on the fourth market day." The goddess carved Nsibidi signs into a cleared piece of farmland.

It sounded like something they made up.

He had scoffed at the shaded triangle—Ala pyramid—when the farmer showed him the signs. Seven-Thousand-Year-Old Afanim must know that, alone, the triangle stands for leopard skin. It becomes "Ala pyramid" only when the stick symbol, crossed at head and bottom, together with the tall narrow mirror-mark, precedes the triangle.

But despite his best hopes, the Nsibidi message proved bona fide. A very old, one-armed medicine man, whose father had been a clerk of Ezeagbogu Court, inspected the large goat-horn emblem of Afanim shaped into the soil and said he would strangle anyone who called this a fake. He had never met a human yet who rendered the backward-horn with the perfect sweep of Afanim's hand. Human wrists were not like Afanim's, which wheeled in a precise circle. The D.P.O. had looked at his watch in suppressed laughter.

Crouched in the grass here, now, with the cool air blowing across his throat, Nwafanim felt like he was at the bottom of a mystic drum. He was here to defile Afanim, raise a spear against his late mother. With a jolt, he realized that he was here, too, to sully himself, since he had come down from the goddess into his mother's womb, and because of this provenance, was named Child of Afanim.

Part of what had brought him here, what kept him in this loose but solid pose, was wired to his children, he knew. They were why he wanted the motorcycle loan badly, like he sometimes wanted their mother. So he could buy a motorcycle and ride it to town, and take them, his sons, his blood, from the strange man they called Father, the strange man who already owned a motorcycle, whom his unfaithful wife opened her legs for, to show his wife that he owned a motorcycle, too.

A sad weight came to rest inside his stomach, and he dropped his head. A beetle was ascending his dusty boot. He watched it fasten to the hem of his trouser leg and let it climb up.

Not that he never thought of liberating his sons, like society expected any purebred Igbo man to do, but poverty had starved his paternal instincts, emboldened his shame. In turn the goatherd's revelation had doused him with healing light. The word Father had made him cry.

He raised his eyes. If he caught a fraudster this night, that was strong permission to ask for the loan. Not even the Inspector General of police would refuse a hero.

A whispered prayer left his lips: Please, Mother Afanim, send an impostor tonight. Please.

As though in answer, candlelight stained the matchbox-like windows of the faraway Catholic church that looked down at the pyramid from a distance.

"Late night mass starts," observed the bald constable, pointing with his chin again.

The other tilted his head to see better.

Nwafanim heard a sound at that moment—a low whine—and a firefly crossed the base of the pyramid.

Three enormous goats moved through the grass, then, and stopped in front of the yams.

"Ha! Goat!" cried the other constable, spooked. He threw down his gun, put his hands to his head, and escaped.

The bald one held his rifle against his thigh, his entire body shaking from fear and disbelief. He and his colleague had expected men, not hoofed creatures.

Nwafanim rose slowly, his mouth open, realizing what he was seeing. The goddess had appeared in goat-form.

A sacred triad.

Like Isis-Osiris-Horus. Holy Spirit-Jesus-God.

Was this Afanim-Ala-Eri?

As he watched the goats silently lower their jaws, one after the other, to loops at the end of the ropes, and then start to drag the yams away, he felt a dwarfing shame, like a favorite child caught peeping at his parents' door by neighbors.

"Are th-th-those g-goats?" the constable asked stupidly, now on his knees. His rifle lay in the grass.

Nwafanim stared after the goats, not answering. Something else had struck him.

The way the goats went in a single file. Orderly.

They reminded him of... No. But that's what they reminded him of. That was it!

"Oh God," he moaned now, alarmed. The constable looked up at him as though Nwafanim had grown horns on his head.

Nwafanim began to run forward in the grass, toward the pyramid. He held the rifle in his left hand as he had been taught, the strap dancing under the sellotaped stock.

Now he was a few feet from the black, big-bellied goats, all of imposing height. They looked strangely blue in the moonlight, drawing their bundles (two yams per goat) behind them.

He could smell their offensive musk. He-goats, he thought.

Nwafanim stopped running, put a hand on his knee, and coughed to catch his breath.

He saw that the goats were even taller than he had believed: nearly the same height as the grass, which reached his wrists.

He placed a hand on his chest, and cried, "Muhemuhemuhe!"

Wind rushed in his mouth.

The goats ambled on, their sturdy horns resolute on fairly large heads.

"Muhemuhemuhe!" he tried again, this time with greater effort, arching his neck.

The goats kept on. Then the middle goat stopped and looked back.

The other goats stopped, too, and looked back.

Nwafanim's heart drummed so much he thought it would tear. He raised a hand.

Tut, tut, tut, his tongue clicked.

The middle goat opened its mouth and let the rope drop. Then it came toward Nwafanim.

The others cast off their ropes, too, and followed.

Nwafanim smiled. Clever, he thought. Very clever. So the sheep-faced goatherd was a bright rogue, a Bad Shepherd. The animals would pull the yams all the way to his house, where he was no doubt now waiting. Was this the side of him each wife had discovered and run from? Did each goat represent a lost wife?

Was he executing forced-atonement, each goat-wife carrying back an offering for wasted dowries, for the human consolations they withdrew?

The goat neared him, and Nwafanim swerved the stock of his rifle in a quick movement. He brought the stock down hard on the creature's back to slow it, knowing goats were notoriously difficult to manage.

"Nmeeeeeeh," cried the beast, surprised. It stiffened its legs and shot out urine.

The others turned smartly in the dark, warned, and scattered home.

Nwafanim grabbed the goat's horns before it skipped away, whispering, "Sorry."

He saw now that this tall goat and its brothers had come from the band of savage desert-goats that roamed the boundary-forest along the goatherd's house. The animals descended from Longlegs abandoned by escaping Hausa families when the war over Biafra began decades before.

The elusive goats were also known for their brutal resistance to domestication, biting villagers in the past who had tried to lure them.

Marveling, Nwafanim shook his head. How had the goatherd charmed the brutes? It must have taken him endless months.

He took one of the ropes and made a noose around the animal's neck, keeping his hand away from its mouth. He untied the other end of the line from the yam-pile and gripped it.

The animal hobbled in pain. Nwafanim turned to regard it, rolling ideas.

He led the goat to the place where the constable waited. But there was no constable.

He smiled, not surprised. Two rifles lay in the grass. He hung his gun on one shoulder, then collected the rifles on the other. If the constables had any sense, they would not show up for work tomorrow. What kind of policeman abandoned his gun?

"Bloody civilians," he snarled.

The goat bleated once and bent a blade of grass in its mouth.

Nwafanim felt the straps of the abandoned rifles bite into his exhausted shoulder.

He stood for a moment and judged his decision. He would not expose the goatherd to the police, or even accuse him privately, because of the news the man had brought him.

He would tell the D.P.O. that when he ran after the goats, suspecting someone was waiting nearby for them, pistol shots had come out of the dark in his direction. He had taken cover behind the pyramid. The shots had continued for a while. When they finally stopped, and he had come out of hiding, the goats were gone together with whoever had been shooting. They had left the yams, scared. He would be commended by his superiors. He would go ahead and ask for the loan.

But he would squeeze the goatherd if at the end of the customary two months his cash request was denied. The man would give him six big goats, like the goats this night, or he, Nwafanim, would tell. He knew a fellow in Ezeagbogu who was ready to sell his motorcycle, which had a small shock-absorber problem, for six well-fed goats.

This goat with him was no longer police evidence. He planned to sneak it home, tie it to the guava tree at the back of the pit toilet. When he returned from the station after making his report, he would kill the goat and roast it. That would save him meat-money for at least two months.

Nwafanim smiled. It was an excellent plan. He was sorry to set the goatherd up as collateral, but so sad that the man was a criminal. He himself was on the side of law and order when you looked things through with a clear eye. He touched the diaper pin in the buttonhole, but the shirt had parted: the pin had fallen off sometime during the excitement. Propitiation, he thought: the Goddess had obtained the pin that attached him to the destinies of his absent children, in exchange for the success granted now.

He walked into the trees, guiding the goat, his lips moving in devotion: "Thank you Afanim. Now I can go and bring my boys with a loud shout. And bring my wife, too. If she'll come with me."

 

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