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An Orchestra of Minorities

By Chigozie Obioma​
Welcome to The Summer Library: selected extracts from the best new books this summer

The Woman on the Bridge

Chukwu if one is a guardian spirit sent for the first time to inhabit a host who will come into the world in Umuahia, a town in the land of the great fathers, the first thing that strikes the spirit would be the immensity of the land. As the guardian spirit descends with the reincarnating body of the new host towards the land, what reveals itself to the eye astonishes. Suddenly, as if some primordial curtain has been peeled off, one is exposed to an interminable stretch of leaf-green vegetation. As one draws closer to Umuahia, one is enticed by the elements around the land of the fathers: the hills, the thick, great forest of Ogbuti-ukwu, a forest as old as the first man who hunted in it. The early fathers had been told that signs of the cosmic explosion that birthed the world could be seen here and that from the beginning, when the world was partitioned into sky, water, forest and land, the Ogbuti forest had become a country, a country more expansive than any poem about it. The leaves of the trees bear in them a provincial history of the universe. But beyond the exaltation of the great forest, one becomes even more fascinated with the many water bodies, the biggest of which is the Imo River and its numerous tributaries.

That river weaves itself around the forest in a complex circuit comparable only to that of human veins. One finds it in one part of the city spouting like a deep gash. One travels on the same road for a short distance and it appears – as if out of nowhere – behind a hill or an enormous gorge. Then there, between the thighs of the valleys, it is flowing again. Even if we miss it at first, one only needs to tread past Bende towards Umuahia, through the Ngwa villages, before a small, silent tributary reveals its seductive face. The river has a distinct place in the mythologies of the people because in their universe, water is supreme. They know that all rivers are maternal and therefore are capable of birthing things. This river birthed the city of Imo. Through its neighbouring city runs the Niger, a greater river which was itself the stuff of legend. Long ago, the Niger overran its boundaries in its relentless journey and met another, the Benue, in an encounter that forever changed the history of the people and the civilisations around both rivers.

Egbunu, the testimony for which I have come to your luminous court this night began at the Imo River nearly seven years ago. My host had travelled to Enugu that morning to replenish his stock, as he often did. It had rained in Enugu the previous night, and water was everywhere – trickling down from the roofs of buildings, in potholes on the roads, on the leaves of trees, dripping from orbs of spiderwebs – and a slight drizzle was on the faces and clothes of people. He went about the market in high spirit, his trousers rolled up over his ankles so as not to stain the hems with dirty water as he walked from shed to shed, stall to stall. The market seethed with people, as it always was even in the time of the great fathers when the market was the centre of everything. It was here that goods were exchanged, festivals were held and negotiations between villages were conducted. Throughout the land of the fathers, the shrine of Ala, the great mother, was often located close to the market. In the imagination of the fathers, the market was also the one human gathering that attracted the most vagrant spirits – akaliogolis, amosu, tricksters and various vagabond discarnate beings. For in the earth, a spirit without a host is nothing. One must inhabit a physical body to have any effect on the things of the world. And so these spirits are in constant search for vessels to occupy, and insatiable in their pursuit of corporeality. They must be avoided at all costs. I once saw such a being inhabit the body of a dead dog in desperation. And it managed, by some alchemical means, to stir this carrion to life and make it amble a few steps before leaving the dog to lie dead again in the grass. It was a fearful sight. This is why it is considered ill advised for a chi to leave the body of its host in such a place or to step far away from a host who is asleep or in an unconscious state. Some of these discarnate beings, especially the evil spirits, even sometimes try to overpower a present chi, or ones who have gone out on a consultation on behalf of their hosts. This is why you, Chukwu, warn us against such journeys, especially at night! For when a foreign spirit embodies a person, it is difficult to get it out! This is why we have the mentally ill, the epileptic, men with abominable passions, murderers of their own parents and others! Many of them have become possessed by strange spirits and their chi are rendered homeless and reduced to following the host about, pleading or trying to negotiate – often fruitlessly – with the intruder. I have seen it many times.

When my host returned to his van, he recorded in his big foolscap notebook that he’d bought eight adult fowls – two roosters and six hens – a bag of millet, a half bag of broiler feed and a nylon bag full of fried termites. He’d paid twice the usual price of chickens for one, a wool-white rooster with a long tapering comb and plush of feathers. When the seller handed him the fowl, tears clouded his eyes. For a moment, the seller and even the bird in his hands appeared as a shimmering illusion. The seller watched him in what seemed to be astonishment, perhaps wondering why my host had been so moved by the sight of the chicken. The man did not know that my host was a man of instinct and passion. And that he had bought this one bird for the price of two because the bird bore an uncanny resemblance to the gosling he had owned as a child, which he’d loved many years ago, a bird that changed his life.

Ebubedike, after he bought the prized white rooster, he embarked on the journey back to Umuahia with delight. Even when it struck him that he’d spent a longer time in Enugu than he’d intended and had not fed the rest of his flock for much of that day, it did not dampen his spirit. Not even the thought of them engaging in a mutiny of angry cackles and crows, as they often did when hungry, the kind of noise that even distant neighbours complained about, troubled him. On this day, in contrast to most other days, any time he encountered a police checkpoint, he paid the officers handily. He did not argue that he had no money, as he often did. Instead, before he came to their stations, where they had laid down logs studded with protruding nails to force the traffic to stop, he stretched his hand through the window clutching a wad of notes.


Gaganaogwu, for a long time my host raced through rural roads that tracked through villages, between tumuli and mounds of the ancient fathers, through roads flanked by rich farmlands and deep bushes as the sky slowly darkened. Insects dashed against the windshield and burst like miniature fruits until the glass was covered with small mucks of liquefied insects. Twice he had to stop and wipe the mess off with a rag. But soon after he began again, the insects would rage against the pane with renewed force. By the time he arrived at the boundary of Umuahia the day had aged, and the lettering on the rusting pole with the WELCOME TO ABIA, GOD’S OWN STATE sign was barely visible. His stomach had become taut from having gone a whole day without eating. He stopped a short distance from the bridge that ran over the Amatu River – a branch of the great Imo River – and pulled up behind a semi whose back was covered with a tarp.

Once he stopped the engine, he heard a clatter of feet in the van bed. He climbed down and stepped over the drainage ditch that encircled the city. He walked over to the clearing where streetside sellers sat on stools under small fabric awnings on the other side of the drainage, their tables lit with lanterns and candles.

The eastern darkness had fallen, and the road ahead and behind was blanketed in a quilt of gloom, when he returned to the van with a bunch of bananas, a pawpaw and a polythene bag full of tangerines. He put on his headlights and drove back on to the highway, his new flock squawking in the back of the van. He was eating the bananas when he arrived at the bridge over the Amatu River. He’d heard only the previous week that – in this most fecund of rainy seasons – the river had overflowed and drowned a woman and her child. He didn’t usually put stock in the rumours of mishaps that passed around the city like a weighted coin, but this story had stayed in his mind for some reason which even I, his chi, could not understand. He was barely at the middle of the bridge thinking of this mother and child when he saw a car parked by the railings, one of its doors flung wide open. At first all he saw was the car, its dark interior and a speck of light reflected on the window of the driver’s side. But as he shifted his gaze, he caught the terrifying vision of a woman attempting to jump over the bridge.

Agujiegbe, how uncanny that my host had been thinking for days about a woman who’d drowned, and suddenly he found himself before another who had climbed one ledge up the rails, her body bent over as she attempted to throw herself into the river. And once he saw her, he was stirred within. He pulled the van to a halt, jumped out, and ran forward into the darkness, shouting, ‘No, no, don’t. Please, don’t! Don’t do that. Biko, eme na!

It seemed at once that this unexpected intervention startled the woman. She turned in swift steps, her body swaying lightly as she fell backwards to the ground in obvious terror. He rushed forward to help her up. ‘No, Mommy, no, please!’ he said as he bent over.

‘Leave me!’ the woman cried at his approach. ‘Leave me. Go away.’

Egbunu, rejected, he drew back in frantic steps, his hands raised in the strange way the children of the old fathers use to signify surrender or defeat, and said, ‘I stop, I stop.’ He turned his back to her, but he could not bring himself to leave. He feared what she would do if he left, for he – himself a man of much sorrow – knew that despair was the disease of the soul, able to destroy an already battered life. So he faced her again, his hands lower, stretched before him like staffs. ‘Don’t, Mommy. Nothing is enough for somebody to die like that. Nothing, Mommy.’

The woman struggled up to her feet slowly, first kneeling, then raising her upper body, all the while with her eyes fixed on him and saying, ‘Leave me. Leave me.’

He glimpsed her face now in the pupillary light of his van. It was full of fear. Her eyes seemed somewhat swollen from what must have been long hours of crying. He knew at once that this was a deeply wounded woman. For every man who has himself suffered hardship or witnessed it in others can recognise its marks on the face of another from a distance. As the woman stood trembling in the light, he wondered whom she may have lost. Perhaps one of her parents? Her husband? Her child?

‘I will leave you alone now,’ he said, lifting his hands up again. ‘I go leave you alone. I swear to God who made me.’

He turned towards his van, but because of the gravity of the sorrow he’d seen in her, even the momentary shuffling of his feet away from her seemed like a grievous act of unkindness. He stopped, conscious of the rushed sinking in the pit of his stomach and the audible anxiety of his heart. He faced her again.

‘But Mommy,’ he said. ‘Don’t jump it, you hear?’

In haste, he unlocked the back of the van and then unlatched one of the cages, and with his eyes looking through the window, whispering to himself that she should not go, he took two chickens by their wings, one in each hand, and hurried down.

He found the woman standing where he’d left her, looking in the direction of his vehicle, seemingly transfixed. Although a guardian spirit cannot see the future and thus cannot fully know what its hosts will do – Chukwu, you alone and the great deities possess the spirit of foresight and may bequeath certain dibias this gift – I could sense it. But because you caution us, guardian spirits, not to interfere in every affair of our hosts, to allow man to execute his will and be man, I sought not to stop him. Instead, I simply put the thought in his mind that he was a lover of birds, one whose life has been transformed by his relationship with winged things. I flashed a stirring image of the gosling he once owned into his mind that instant. But it was of little effect, for in moments like this, when a man becomes overcome by emotion, he becomes Egbenchi, the stubborn kite which does not listen or even understand whatever is spoken to it. It moves on to wherever it wishes and does whatever it desires.

‘Nothing, nothing should make someone fall inside the river and die. Nothing.’ He raised the chickens above his head. ‘This is what will happen if somebody fall inside there. The person will die, and no one can see them again.’

He lunged towards the rails, his hands heavy with the birds, which cackled in high-pitched tones and stirred with agitation in his grip. ‘Even these fowls,’ he said again, and flung them over the bridge into the gloom.

For a moment, he watched the birds struggle against the thermal, whipping their wings violently against the wind as they battled desperately for their lives but failed. A feather landed on the skin of his hand, but he beat it off with such haste and violence that he felt a quick pain. Then he heard the sucking sound of the chickens’ contact with the waters, followed by vain plonks and splashes of sound. It seemed the woman listened, too, and in listening, he felt an indescribable bond – as if they had both become lone witnesses to some inestimable secret crime. He stood there until he heard the woman’s gasps. He looked up at her, then back at the waters hidden from his sight by the darkness, and back at her again.

‘You see,’ he said, pointing at the river as the wind groaned on like a cough caught in the dry throat of the night. ‘That is what will happen if somebody fall inside there.’

The first car to approach the bridge since his own arrived with cautious speed. It stopped a few paces from them and honked, then the driver said something he could not hear but which had been spoken in the White Man’s language and which I, his chi, had heard: ‘I hope you are not hoodlums oh!’ Then the car drove away, gathering speed.

‘You see,’ he repeated.

Once the words had left his mouth, he resolved into a calm, as it often happens at such times when a man, having done something out of the ordinary, retreats into himself. All he could think of was to leave the place, and this thought came upon him with an overwhelming passion. And I, his chi, flashed the thought in his mind that he’d done enough, and that it was best he left. So he rushed back to his van and started it amidst the mutiny of voices from the back. In the side mirror, the vision of the woman on the bridge flashed like an invoked spirit into the field of light, but he did not stop, and he did not look back.

 

This extract is from An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma (Abacus; $32.99).

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