WATERLOO

Njideka is my name. I hate it. It is better to hold, is what it means. It was not a secret that my parents were expecting a son when I was born. My name was a constant reminder that they had to settle for me. They didn’t have any choice either; it wasn’t like they could return me from whence I came and get the son they initially intended. I couldn’t be given away like that; I wasn’t ogiri from the nkwo market by the village square. I sometimes wondered what they would do if they were given the choice; would they, true to my fears, return me and get a son? The thought haunted me; I guess it was the reason I tried so hard to prove that I was much better than any son they could ever have. I made it a point of duty to excel in “boy sports”, so much so that I often forgot that I was a girl. I climbed trees, I won races, I started dog fights, I went hunting; I even tried to join the masquerade cult. The more I tried, the more irritated my parents got. I couldn’t see the embarrassment I was bringing to my family. The villagers called me “Ome ka nwoke”:  She who acts like a man. It was meant to be an insult but I prided in it. My mother, on the other hand, was not much of a fan. She would murmur that the gods refused to give her a son and they wouldn’t allow her enjoy her daughter either. She always screamed at the top of her voice for me to stop acting like the boy that I was not and would never be. If anything it strengthened my resolve.  

I got better and better at anything that the boys in the village would engage in. At least, anything that wouldn’t warrant my being stripped and beaten at the village square. Soon I mastered everything; everything except swimming. This was funny being that swimming was a “girl’s sport” too and it was my biggest challenge.  I could swim but I was really bad at it; and the worst part, I would never admit it. If the boys knew that I couldn’t swim, they would insist on a swimming match every time we wanted to ration the udala, ube or oloma we co-operated in plucking or the anu nchi we hunted together. I would never be their equal, ever again. Especially not now, when I was getting them to call me Jide instead of Njideka. So I guarded my secret with my life. I knew I was a little paranoid but I didn’t care. I couldn’t afford to lose all the years of hard work I put into gaining their respect. At least that was what I would tell myself. I knew deep down that I was too arrogant to admit that I could be found wanting in any sport at all, talk less of one girls also participated in. So I let my pride get in the way.

The fall that cometh after pride can be of many kinds. Some experience it in slow motion, gradually leading them to self-destruct. For others it is as drastic as it is lethal; creeping up on them suddenly without warning. Running through the forest in pursuit of a wounded squirrel that escaped our trap, I was oblivious as to what kind of fall mine would be. We had been running for quite a while now and although I would never admit I was tired I was beginning to shiver from the cold. The chill breeze that swayed the trees in the forest was beginning to have its sway on me too. The cold forest soil beneath my feet was not helping matters either. It seemed I underestimated the effect the cold had on me; as I landed face first on the ground in my attempt to jump over a log. A log I would have no problem leaping over on a normal day. The smell of rotting wood, moist sand and animal droppings helped me find my way up as quickly as I fell. Soon I heard Obinwa’s voice echo in the distance; he had caught the rodent. I hurried towards the direction of the ecstatic voice and I was soon in the company of my fellow hunters.

“Hold it still, hold it still”, everyone was shouting.

Obinwa, one of the smallest members of our crew with his equally small hands, was having a hard time doing their bidding. I snatched the rodent from him and snapped its neck. Anyone who has pounded as much yams as mama had forced me to pound would undoubtedly develop a strong grip. The other boys looked at me wide-eyed and open-mouthed and I could feel the familiar swelling in my head; it threatened to rip my hair free of the owu thread that held them bound. I pretended not to notice and proceeded to ask how we were going to share our prize. An argument soon ensued. Ikenna was blamed for setting a lousy trap that caused the squirrel to escape. Afam was bullied for his short legs that made him utterly useless in hunt races. Iheme, the oldest boy in the group always claimed the legs of the squirrel but no one agreed to it this time. Obinwa wanted the majority share to which I argued that the animal would have escaped again if I had not intervened. The argument went on for quite some time and the longer it spanned the colder I got. The breeze in this part of the forest seemed to be colder and I could not tell why.

“Ozugo! It’s enough!” I screamed and the whole company quieted down. “Let’s find a way to share this thing and get out of here, I have work to do”. I tried as best as I could to hide my shivers. I could only hope they didn’t notice. Iheme agreed. “Jide is right. We must look for a way to share it and get moving. Truth be told we were all both equally useful and equally useless in the hunt, pursuit and capture of the squirrel so we have to find an alternative way to share it. I propose a race”. The whole crew erupted again. We could not possibly embark on another race; the pursuit of the squirrel was race enough. Every other sport that Iheme brought up fell on deaf ears; either we had tried that before, it was impartial or we did not have the wherewithal to carry it out.

Soon Obinwa screamed “I have an idea!” For someone so small, he had an awfully loud voice. We all kept our cool to hear what this idea worth bursting our ear drums was about. “Let us try swimming”, he said “Iyi-ofue is just a few paces ahead. We have never tried it before and this way we would be sure it would be impartial”. I was expecting shouts of disagreement to rise again but everyone was surprisingly quiet. I froze. Slowly, they all began to agree and I was panicking. I had to do something, fast!

“But I’m a girl!” was what I managed to come up with. I felt an overwhelming stupidity wash over me the moment the words came out. Ikenna was the first to speak, “When has that ever stopped you from doing anything?” The other boys burst into laughter. I couldn’t believe my ears. They were laughing at… me? Jide? Have they forgotten that I could snap their necks in one swoop as I did the squirrel? However, I was too embarrassed to make threats. I was too embarrassed to even say anything else. The dreaded day of reckoning was upon me.

“She is right”, came Obinwa’s voice. Thank God, he was always the thoughtful one. “We have to take off our clothes to swim remember” Yes! Yes! Listen to him! The joy I was experiencing was unspeakable; if Obinwa was not shorter than I was, perhaps I would have fallen in love with him that instant.

The boys began to murmur and they reached a conclusion. Iheme would give me his clothes to wear and they would look away as I changed attires. I was finished; the bubble had been burst.

“But why iyi-ofue”, I said again, this time with a trembling voice that I could do nothing to hide. “Iyi-ofue is a river and it could be dangerous. Why don’t we retrace our steps and go to the Ikekete stream instead?”

“Is Ome ka nwoke scared?” came Ikenna’s voice again. I would kill that boy. Strangle him in his sleep, I tell you. I could not possibly let on that I was scared, so I swallowed my voice and trudged behind them. All roads led to Iyi-ofue.

We were soon at the river; it was not too far like Obinwa said. Either that or it was shorter than I had prayed fervently for in my heart. I could now tell where the chilled breeze was coming from; the river’s current seemed to fan the breeze throughout the forest.  It was the scariest thing I had ever seen. We were to swim to the middle of the river, tap a rock and swim back in record time while the others counted. The meat would be shared according to hierarchy; from the swimmer with the shortest possible time. I was the third person to go and my legs felt like they weighed a ton. Afam and Ikenna swam fairly well; Afam had the shorter time of the two. It was my turn and they threatened to push me into the water themselves before I agreed to enter.

I dipped my feet in the water and it was surprisingly warmer than I expected. Picturing my bamboo mat and my mother’s ofe ogbono waiting for me, I convinced myself that at the end of all this foolishness I was going straight home. I plunged into the water and began to swim. More like flailing my arms and legs, really. Did I mention I was really bad at this? As I swam ten paces forward, the river’s current brought me five paces backward. It was tiring. After what seemed like an eternity of arm-flailing and leg-flapping, my fingers made contact with the rock and I held on to it for dear life. The boys were on the other end of the river beckoning for me to come back but the river’s current was telling me otherwise. I saw Obinwa run off and from the panicked look on their faces; I could tell he was sent to get help. They were shouting for me to come back before the river’s current got worse. I was cold and tired and my trembling fingers were beginning to slide off the rock. I could feel the rush of the water decrease around me and I decided to make a swim for it. I plunged back into the water, swimming towards the river bank and Iheme’s outstretched hands. I, once again, underestimated how tired my arms and legs were from all the flailing and flapping. My limbs became stiff, smack in the middle of the river. I could feel tension rising towards me and all I remember was water filling all the crevices of my body. The more I tried to scream, the more the water grabbed the opportunity to fill me up. Before long, I became too frightened and tired to scream anymore and my limbs were too stiff to help my predicament. I managed to open my eyes and the figures of my friends were watery, blurry, without definition. So I gave in. I let the water fill me up and bully the air out of my lungs.

 Njideka was my name. I miss it. Now I am called Nne iyi; the sentry that stands guard over Iyi-ofue’s lethal fluidity. The voice that whispers in the ears of foolhardy youths, blinded by the fog of adventure. Calling out: Don’t jump in! Don’t do it! Iyi-ofue only lusts for your blood! To drink it all up like she did mine.

Author’s note: Thank you all for reading! I hope you enjoyed it. Please don not forget to like and leave me your thoughts on the comment section. Also, One week to go till ST’ART!!! I am excited to share my art anthology with you all and I pray earnestly that you all will love itbecause I’ll be pouiring my heart into it. Please don’t forget to follow TIAR so you wont miss the upcoming ST’ART series. I can’t thank you all enough for the love and support so far. See you next week!

Love, Rosie (xoxo)

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