BY ISRAEL USULOR
Ikenna left his bamboo bed at the alarm of the first rooster. He inspected his traps at Welechi before he proceeded to Eli where he embarked on what was to be the last inspection of his yam farm just to be sure things were in order before he would leave the village for Zaka City the following day. His traps at Welechi caught no game, not even a rat! He angrily abandoned them, having instructed Uchendu, his friend to retrieve whatever game it caught and deliver to his mother when he finally travelled out of Agu-Ukpaka Kingdom. As he approached his farm, he was not sure what type of animal he saw, but was double sure of what evil it was doing — the animal was helping itself with the young yam tendrils that were just sprouting. A better look from a closer distance revealed the creature to be a cow, a very regular sight in Agu-Ukpaka Kingdom. The animal, white in colour, merrily wagged its ponytail as it chewed away, obviously oblivious of Ikenna’s rueful eyes. Occasionally, it mooed loud, and Ikenna thought it was notifying its herder who obviously may have left it behind.
Ikenna has heard several stories of herders who grazed cattle on peoples’ farmlands but had yet to witness one. Like every other farmer in Agu-Ukpaka, he disliked those herders who destroy farmlands and considered them a threat to human existence. Not that he hated all herders. No! For he even had a friend in one of them named Namandi. From time to time, Namandi visited Ikenna and presented him with a big calabash of fresh cow milk and Ikenna replicated the gesture with a few tubers of yam. Namandi would always take the yam back to the forest where he and other herders used for habitation.
Yet, there were herders who did really bad things to people’s farms. The year before, herders invaded a farmland in Alikeme, a neighbouring clan, and killed Otunkwo while he was tending and staking his yam tendrils. Otunkwo was a peaceful old man who was respected in his clan due to his wisdom and farming prowess. Due to his old age, he couldn’t run when the merciless herders bayed for blood. Ahamefule, his grandson who was at the farm with him was lucky to have escaped the herders’ sword and came home with the story told to angry ears.
‘They matched cattle into our farm and the animals grazed on our yam tendrils,’ narrated Ahamefula, amidst loud sobs. ‘Nna Ochie pleaded with them to move the cattle out of the farm, but instead, they approached him and cut him into pieces. I ran and hid in the bush,’ the boy lamented and stood up and blew his running nose.
That day, sympathisers gathered at Otunkwo’s compound to condole with his household. A search party was hastily put together and dispatched with instructions to bring back his body for proper burial. They found nothing!
A sea of goose pimples enveloped Ikenna’s body anytime he remembers that sad tale and often wondered if the herders had also fed Otunkwo’s body to their cows.
‘Whoever kills a man and denies him the benefit of a proper burial must be a beast,’ he had said after Uchendu told him the story. Since then, Ikenna vowed to kill anything, herder or cow that as much as strayed into his own farm. He always went to his farm well prepared, wielding a well-sharpened cutlass and a dagger in his waist. Yet, within him, he knew he wasn’t a killer. Though he wasn’t afraid of fights but hardly picked one. He hated the sight of blood and despised anything that could lead to the loss of human life. Maybe he could summon the courage to kill a cow but was not sure if he could kill a man. He was happy Agu-Ukpaka Kingdom had never gone to war with any clan.
Yet, Ikenna was convinced he would never allow any cow to graze on his crop and leave with its head still stuck on its neck. ‘I will detach its head,’ he often boasted.
That’s exactly what he was going to do that day. ‘Today is my chance,’ he muttered as he drew his cutlass and edged closer towards the lone cow which still was oblivious of Ikenna’s presence. It continued to wag its ponytail, a sign it was enjoying Ikenna’s yam tendrils. Greenish dung ceaselessly dropped from its anus, forcing Ikenna to cover his nostrils with his cupped palm as he tip-toed and approached from behind. It was a bull and Ikenna could sight its two mango-shaped testicles as they dangled between its legs. ‘Beast!’, he coursed, raising his razor-sharp cutlass above his head, prepared to strike. ‘I suppose you should wag your tail like never before and shit all the shit you want to shit because it’s your last day,’ he mocked. He made sure he was in an excellent position from which he could strike a sufficiently deadly cut on the cow such that it would be less stressful finishing it off with a lesser effort.
He was panting and could feel his heart-throb. He targeted the neck, jumped up, and brought down the shiny metal with both hands, burying its sharp edges in the fleshy neck of the cow. The animal let out a loud moo, its voice echoing back and forth for several seconds. It galloped away with the cutlass in its neck, leaving a trail of blood behind it. Ikenna was not surprised he could not yank off the cow’s head with a single swing of the cutlass. More than once, he had witnessed, at the Nkwo Market Abattoir, what stress the butchers there went through when they slaughtered cows for sale. Yet he reckoned this one wouldn’t go far. He knew the wound he inflicted was fatal enough to kill the cow or at least render it incapacitated.
‘Run as far as you can, the trail of your blood is all I need to locate your body. As you ate my yam, so will I eat your flesh’, said Ikenna satisfactorily. He sat under an udala tree to catch his breath before he went home to alert Icheku Oku, Uchendu and Ngama, for he knew it would be impossible for him to butcher and carry a whole cow alone.
Like excited groom’s men, Icheku Oku, Uchendu and Ngama matched behind Ikenna who also walked like a young man who was going to take a wife in a distant clan. Excitement ran hay-wire as the thought of steady meat for several months rang home. Happy as a lark, Ikenna led the men as they trailed the wounded cow from his farm. All men wielded cutlasses; each had a rectangular basket called abo with neatly folded oforbuike bags inside them. And so they moved with their eyes focused on the zig-zag cow blood like a dog trailing a grass cutter or nchi.
‘Wait!’ Ikenna shouted, suddenly halting his movement as if he sighted a ghost. The men behind him saw nothing yet.
‘What is it?’ asked Icheku Oku who stood next to him.
‘Have we lost the trail?’ Uchendu wanted to know.
‘We must move faster before others get there before us,’ said Ngama.
‘Look under that tree by the left,’ Ikenna said, using his cutlass to point his co-travelers to what he saw.
‘That’s the cow, but it seems the herder has located it and he’s tending to its wound,’ Ikenna said in a muffled tone. They became alert and edged closer with sharpened eyes and ears raised like those of a frightened rabbit. The herder had neatly cleared the ground, laid the cow on a bunch of leaves and was veterinarily dressing the wound inflicted on its neck by Ikenna’s cutlass.
‘Let’s kill him!’ Icheku Oku suggested. The word ‘kill’ dropped so effortlessly from his mouth such that Ikenna wondered how he said it so easily.
‘What?’ Ikenna was shocked. ‘I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. Come on, he is human not a cow!’ he said.
‘That’s what you think. Herders don’t think like you. The herder regards his cow to be worth more than human life. If killing him is not right, what is? Is this not the same people that killed Otunkwo in Alikeme? Ikenna, this is our chance to retaliate,’ Ngama said in a resolute tone.
‘I agree,’ Uchendu said. He had said very little since the commencement of the journey. ‘These herders have desecrated our soil. They keep killing our people and destroying our farms. They have to pay! Let’s kill him and share the cow among ourselves,’ he added. ‘Ikenna are you with us?’ asked Ickeku Oku, drawing his shiny, sharp cutlass.
All this while, the herder continued to tend to his cow as if he didn’t notice the danger lurking around. Ikenna wondered if herders were normal. ‘How could the man remain unperturbed?’ he wondered.
A gale of guilt rushed from Ikenna’s crown to his toe. He didn’t want the man’s blood to be on his head. He thought it was his fault and he blamed himself for attacking the cow and calling a search party that initially thirsted for meat, but who were now thirsting for human blood. Ikenna had always believed nothing was worth more than human life, not even his farm. A damaged crop could re-grow or be re-planted, but life, once destroyed, never comes back. Besides, Lebechi, his mother once told him that he who killed by the sword, died by the sword.
“I’m not with you,” Ikenna said, as he quietly withdrew from the trio and walked home. From a distance, he heard the shrilled cries of the herder. The cries gradually died down. He shook his head knowing that one day the chickens would come home to roost. The next day, Ikenna left Agu-Ukpaka for Zaka City.
Read part one HERE
Israel Usulor is a journalist and short story writer. You can reach him via @JonalistIsrael and [email protected]
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