The JRB presents an excerpt from Dazzling by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ.
Headline Publishing Group
They knew he must have been a slave, the stranger, because he bore proof on his wrists and one ankle, his back red and raw, buzzing with flies. Nobody flogged a grown man unless he was a slave—or a criminal. A runaway, as the manacle around the right ankle testified. Or a violently mad man? The lookout had sounded the alarm and now the village lay hushed, the elderly, the children and the infirm. Runaway slaves had a way of bringing trouble with them.
The town, named ‘Oba-of-the-nine-brothers’ after its founders, hid, her best warriors crouching in dense bushes, watching and waiting. They were lucky, these children of the goddess Idemili, and they knew it. Collectively, they were one of the smallest villages under her dominion. The same goddess who fed them from her river, encircled them with her totem, the giant python, keeping their enemies away. Sometimes, though, they were not so lucky, and the same river allowed their enemies to draw up under the cover of night and try to steal their children away. Hence, the warriors in the bushes, and the silent eyes following every shuffling, weary step of the stranger, to see how far he would go before one of them buried a spear in his back.
Presently, he stopped and sank to his knees, unable to continue. The warriors stepped forth, wearing their leaf-and-raffia camouflage. The stranger fell on his face, speaking softly, his breathing laboured. The boldest of them all, Ejimofo, drew forward, prodding the stranger in the back with his machete.
‘I want to see the elders,’ the stranger said, arms outstretched. He lay prostrate until he was sure nobody was going to take his head from his shoulders, then he finally risked raising his face. ‘I want to see the elders,’ he repeated.
‘And who are you that you should demand anything from us?’ The warriors were tense. This close, they saw that the man’s eyes were clearer than they had imagined, and when he stood, the esoteric markings under his matted chest hair, which they could not see until he drew closer, caused further unease. They fell back as a group.
‘What did you do, then?’ Ejimofo asked, hefting his machete. It spun in the air, landing in his palm with a smack, the raffia-bound hilt crackling. ‘Big man like you, in chains. You killed someone you should not have, is that it? I know your type. Drunk with power. Did you kill a white man?’
The stranger said nothing, but each of the men knew himself to be watched. The spears and machetes raised. The stranger licked his split lips. He stood stock-still so that the flies feasting on his wounds settled like anklets around his feet.
‘We don’t want you here. Go.’ Ejimofo pointed back the way the man had come. The group hesitated. The stranger had asked for succour, after all. He had asked for the elders, as was his right. One did not turn away anyone seeking aid. And had he not come in the day, on his own two feet?
‘Do you know who I am?’ he asked.
Ejimofo’s downturned mouth spoke his disdain. ‘And who are you? We should fear to speak, eh? Because you bear markings we cannot fathom? Your sort do not speak so boldly. You hide and you whisper and plot in the darkness. How are we to know you did not do those to yourself?’
The stranger bristled. He stared at the warriors, and they tensed, waiting for him to spring. Instead, he lowered his head. ‘My sort. You think there are people like me. Here?’
‘We do not know.’ Another warrior spoke up. Ejimofo, eyes flashing, cut short the exchange.
‘We can give you water to drink, but after that, you must go. You smell of problems. We don’t want the kind of misfortune you are bringing with you.’
A gourd was brought forth and, hands shaking, the stranger took it. He drank, little sips at first, but the sweetness of the water overtook him, and he gulped it down, gagging and spluttering. He poured the rest over his head, and it trickled down his muscular body, soaking into his loincloth. He handed back the gourd. Ejimofo motioned again, pointing the way out of the village, but the stranger ignored him, sitting down on the ground. The warriors glanced warily at each other. The end of the day was approaching. Soon, the path would be full of people returning from a day in the market, or children going on errands or playing before night fell. They did not want the stranger’s presence known. They had no wish to cause a panic.
‘Get him up,’ said Ejimofo. With the flat of his machete, he slapped the stranger’s broad, broken back, which rippled threateningly even though the man did not move. The smack set off their hysteria, and, as one, the warriors fell on the man and beat him. When they dragged him off into the forest sometime later, the earth was disturbed, bloody and scattered. They left the youngest warrior in charge of sweeping it over with a branch from a palm tree, and hauled their prisoner into the hut used for manhood initiations and rites. They left him there while spies were dispatched to the surrounding areas, to see if the stranger had come alone or if he had brought company with him. They argued into the night about what to do with him, and took turns guarding him while they decided whether or not they would tell the elders of his arrival.
It was not the done thing to beat a stranger and keep him locked up, but Ejimofo was in charge—and had he not taken the most human heads during wars? Nobody dared defy him.
Until somebody did.
The youngest warrior was on watch that night, away from his new wife’s bed. It was he who, feeling in his heart the wrongness of what they had done, ran on swift feet to call Isi Idemili, the goddess’s priest. Together, they bore the stranger up from the cold mud floor of the hut and spirited him away to the shrine, where he could be treated with herbs and potions, chants and prayers, the priest begging forgiveness from the Mother Idemili for the breaking of the laws of hospitality.
By the time the warriors noticed his absence and traced him to the shrine, the stranger was on his feet, healing impossibly fast, even for what he was. Ejimofo’s eyes burned, but the stranger was now under the priest’s protection. Ejimofo stood at the threshold to the shrine, staring into the dim hut at the man whose wide chest filled and emptied as he breathed life-giving air.
Ejimofo spat. ‘Oru!’ he hissed. An enslaved man. And one with strange, unreadable markings. Who knew to what type of clandestine sect he belonged? Ejimofo could do nothing more than spit. Idemili was their mother, and the stranger, through her priest, had anchored himself to her waters.
‘Do not shoot your saliva in this house before water drowns you where you stand,’ Isi Idemili warned. ‘What is a fly but a spot on the buttocks of an elephant?’
Ejimofo brushed past the young warrior on his way out, murder in his gaze, but the boy was freeborn, from a long line of titled men, already wealthy with land and blessed with yams. He feared only the gods’ displeasure.
‘I will bring you to the elders when you are properly recovered,’ the young warrior told the stranger. ‘I should have said something earlier. There will be a fine for breaking the laws of the land—may Ani forgive us all.’
The stranger stood. ‘I am Nwokereke; many call me Idimogu,’ he said with pride. ‘When it is your turn to fight, I will stand with you.’
In the trees above, a hornbill trilled suddenly and took to the skies, broad wings blotting out the sun.
- Chikodili Emelumadu was born in Worksop, Nottinghamshire and raised in Awka, Nigeria. A product of not one but two Nigerian boarding schools, she went on to attend Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. She was the winner of the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize in 2019, for Dazzling. Her work has also been shortlisted for the Shirley Jackson Awards (2015), a Nommo Award (2020) and the Caine Prize (2017 and 2020).
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