BY YINKA ELUJOBA
Nothing had changed really. The road was still a confused mound of dust, dancing around viciously like it had made a pact with the Creator never to bind its components together. One knew better than to wear a white shirt while travelling on this road. One knew better still to wear a face cap, and to keep a handkerchief over one’s nose and another hidden in a back pocket so one could use it to wipe himself clean of the dust after the ride. I had forgotten these details after 12 long years in the city. I had forgotten also that there were no fancy buses in these parts. The only vehicles that traversed the road were worn-out lorries, used for moving goods and the people that traded them to and from the city. But the road was not something of an enigma because of how a trip on it would never be easily forgotten. The road was not an enigma just because it left you red and teary-eyed after hours of lorry smoke and constant chatter of market women and the incessant clanging of their wares. No, the road was not an enigma because of these. The road was an enigma simply because of where it led. It led to the most unusual of places that a dusty road would lead to. It led to the River of Night Women. Yes, the dusty road would trick you. Towards its end, it would begin to thin slowly and then the lorry would begin to beat against the leaves and stems of trees and weeds growing into the road. The road was an enigma because it was a trickster. But it is when you get down from the lorry that the treachery of the journey fully hits you. You realise how suddenly the red earth stops to kiss a smooth black river. You realise too, how the river would lay there almost invisible until the redness of the earth suddenly dives into its blackness. That is when you realise that the trickery of the road could never have been possible without the connivance of the River of Night Women.
The next part of the journey was no less treacherous. The only succour was the absence of dust, chattering of numerous market women and the non-stop hissing and barking of the worn-out lorry engine. I found my way into a little canoe, one of the dozens of canoes that served to transport people to the houses in the creeks. It was getting darker now and one could hardly differentiate the water from the sky. Nothing had changed about the River of Night Women too. It was still a quiet black flowing body lying bare upon the earth like a python asleep. Little dots of light from lanterns could be seen in the distance from canoes way ahead. The other parts of such canoes—including their passengers—were hidden perfectly in the fog that had come down. The reason they called it the River of Night Women continued to amuse me. Pa had told it to me when I was just six. Three tourists—all white women—had come all the way from Scotland to see the river. The river used to be notorious for its currents and crocodiles. It was also said that the river used to be white and clear, and that one could peep into it and see into its depths. One could see the crabs and prawns hunting and getting hunted at the bottom of the river, they said. The three white women had insisted on crossing the river at night. They would return as conquerors of one of Africa’s most notorious rivers. They would conquer it under the most impossible of conditions. They would cross the river on a night in the rainy season, when the river would be at its fiercest. Pa said he would never understand what in the world could have put such crazy ideas in the heads of the women. White people are silly, Pa had said. On a rainy night, about 80 years ago, three white women crossed the river. Or so it would seem. For no one ever saw them again after that night. One story had it that the river got furious and swallowed them up. Another story argued that the women were not swallowed up by the river but by the crocodiles in it. But both stories agreed on one thing: the river became calm after that night. The river’s colour also changed. It lost its purity and became a slithery black patch. Everyone agreed that it was only fair for the river to become black. For them, it was a triumph of negritude over the silliness of over-adventurous whiteness. But the white women had triumphed in one thing; the notorious river was named after them. In death they had conquered.
Everything had changed really. Pa’s hair had become a thick pile of white and he now used a walking stick. The house now creaked angrily as one walked its wooden floors. I asked Pa if he didn’t fear to sleep in such a house. I asked him if he didn’t fear that the floors would give way and he would find himself waking up in the swamp beneath. He laughed and laughed. Age has indeed set in, Pa said. It was hard to say if he was referring to himself or to the house. The house began to creak again and I looked round to see who it was. It was a woman. A black sweaty woman with heavy breasts. Her breasts heaved and clapped against themselves as she paced around the house. You remarried? I whispered to Pa. He laughed again. This laugh too was something new. Let us go outside, he said holding my hand and then he led me outside the house to a bench. Pa bent a bit and began searching under the bench. Aha! He said a few seconds later, his hands revealing a keg of palm wine and two gourds.
The moon is full tonight, Pa said pouring himself some of the palm wine. He poured some more into the second gourd and offered it to me.
I don’t drink this stuff anymore, I said.
I could immediately feel his eyes rolling under the moonlight. The city has done evil things to you, he sighed. The city is a terrible place. When young men like you go there, you go there to become weaklings. You spend all your lives holed up in offices making money you will never enjoy. Look at you! You don’t even know how to drink like a man anymore.
Pa—I started to say.
Is this one of the things the city taught you? How to interrupt men with white hair while they are talking? He frowned.
I am sorry, I said studying the moon’s battle against the silvery clouds. Pa lifted the gourd to his lips and gulped from it continuously. His throat kept on cycling and making swallow sounds under his jaw for so long I feared it would give way. But it didn’t. I used to be able to do this too before I left for the city. The gourd left his lips momentarily and he continued.
Where is your wife? He asked fixing his eyes on the gourd. This thing is almost empty, he said and then he poured more palm wine from the keg.
I don’t have a wife yet, I replied soberly. His face didn’t change as I would have expected it to. Instead he simply looked at me and smiled.
Son, he said putting a hand on my shoulder. At your age, I had married your mother. At your age I was already the proud owner of the biggest fishing nets in these creeks. Had she not delayed in having children I would have seventeen of you by now. It is a pity she died after she had you, he said. Look at me. I am 69. By the next Fishing Festival, I will be 70. The woman you see inside there, I just married her. At my age I am still virile. If you are having problems with your thing, Pa said grabbing his crotch, I know a man. He makes potent concoctions. All you need is three spoons from it daily and you will be a man.
I laughed. But Pa had not finished. I had just six of you. It hurts me that I had to put up with such a small family. I was hoping you’d come to the creeks with your children, 16 of them, prancing around under this beautiful moonlight, chasing grasshoppers and toads, crowding around my feet, begging to be told a tale or two. But look at you. You’re here bare-handed. Not even a wife. He sipped again from the gourd. And did I tell you you’ll be having a new brother soon? Yes. The woman you saw. She’s pregnant. And you trust me. It has to be a boy, strong and sturdy, with arms thicker than ten plantains tied together, so that he can swim and catch the fastest of fishes.
I laughed again. There were so many things I wanted to tell Pa. Things like how I had spent the first six years working as a houseboy in the city so I could go to secondary school. Things like how I had slaved in the city, working as a taxi driver, learning all the routes, knowing which ones thieves robbed on the evenings of certain days of the week, and which ones had policemen that collected less bribes. I wanted to tell Pa these things. But instead, I began to search beneath the bench for the keg of palm wine. Pa had already gone off, telling me the tale of how he met his new wife, how he had heard her breasts clapping in her father’s house when he went to share a keg of palm wine or two during the early yams, and how she had been shy the first night in this creaking house. I laughed and then I lifted the gourd first to the moon and then to my lips. The taste of palm wine stung me. Pa must have seen my face under the moonlight for he began to laugh, and then he said that there was only one taste in the world that could make one frown so pleasantly. Pa said it was the taste of home.