Age: 16, Grade: 11
School Name: Abraham Joshua Heschel High School, New York, NY
Educator: Austin Davis
Category: Short Story
A dead wildebeest lay in the dirt path leading to the village of Umuofia. As Ezinma carried her sleeping son on the path, she encountered the lifeless mass with a gaze similar to how one might look upon a broken dish in their home. She saw dead animals quite frequently, and she decided that she would pay no mind to this one as she had more important matters to attend to.
But as she walked around the corpse, she noticed a bird, with burning red eyes, land upon the fallen beast. The bird was ready for a feast, and it helped itself to the corpse’s right eye. This act of gore caught Ezinma’s attention. She watched as a jet of blood left the wildebeest’s eye socket, and landed on the dirt path beside her. The pale, dead eye of the corpse briefly sitting in the beak of this monstrous animal; its ruffled feathers covered in blood.
Ezinma inhaled sharply, and she felt the hairs on her arms stand up. Her son, Oluyemi, was woken by the fear that overtook her.
“What’s wrong mother?” he asked her. Ezinma instinctively moved her arm from her son’s back to his head, and pulled him toward her chest.
“It’s nothing.” she said, but too late. He saw. And for a moment neither of them spoke.
“What happened to it?” Oluyemi finally asked.
“ I don’t know,” said Ezinma. “Maybe he got separated from his group.”
“Did he starve?” asked Oluyemi.
“I think so. It’s difficult to survive when you are without your group.” This seemed to affect Oluyemi. He stared at the dead animal for a moment, with a sad, compassionate gaze.
“The birds will take you if you are without your group.” he finally said.
“Yes,” said Ezinma. “They will. But I will always be here for you, I will always keep you safe.”
“You and father?” said Oluyemi. Ezinma sighed at the mention of his “father”.
“Yes. Yes of course. Your father will protect you.” And with that, they started back toward their home.
When they arrived at their Obi, it was empty, with the exception of a small Warbler bird that was floating around the roof of the hut.
“Away!’ shouted Ezinma, as she set down the pot of water she had brought inside. The bird shot toward the doorway, and out into the burning sunlight. There were only a few yams for Ezinma to prepare, which sat on a cloth in the meal area. Still, she wanted to occupy herself somehow, so she set to skinning the yams, her son sitting and watching her.
“Can I help?” he asked.
“Yes, fill that wooden bowl with the water we brought from the water pool.” She gestured toward the pot near the doorway. Oluyemi did as she asked, and poured water into the bowl, his small ankles wobbling as he did so.
“Mother?” he called out. “There isn’t enough water to fill this bowl.” Ezinma looked over at the bowl, it was only half full.
“That can’t be,” she said, frustrated. “We took all the clean water from the pool, how is there so little?” Ezinma had been ignoring the fact that the weather had been getting hotter and drier than it had ever been before. But now, with the lack of water, and the lack of yams, she had to admit that the weather was starting to affect their livelihoods.
“It doesn’t matter.” she chuckled. “The yams will just be dryer.”
“Wekesa always has moist yams when he wants them.” complained Oluyemi, who was referring to a friend of his, whose parents were converts to the Christian church.
“Wekesa and his parents have betrayed their own gods, by becoming white men.” Ezinma firmly stated. She has been harboring a dislike of white men, who forced her father, Okonkwo, to end his own life, taking him away from her. But she has observed that many members of Umuofia have been converted by the hands of the Christian church, and have since been living in levels of great wealth. She found herself puzzled by this success. Why would a group of people, hated by her gods, prove so fruitful, while those who stayed faithful should suffer? She pushed the thought out of her mind, and continued preparing the yams to be soaked.
A few moments later, Oluyemi’s father, Ezinma’s husband, Tau, entered the hut, holding three shriveled yams.
“Damn the evil spirits!” he yelled. “These are the only yams I can spare for tonight!” And with guests coming tonight, all the worse!”
Ezinma, irritated by Tau’s distracting entrance, was immediately captivated by the idea of guests coming to their home. They had not entertained in quite a while, and Ezinma enjoyed company.
“Who are we entertaining tonight?” asked Ezinma.
“Obierika. I want to give off a good impression to him, so that he will consider sharing his wealth with us when he passes.” Ezinma was disgusted by this statement. Obierika was a good friend of her father, and was always kind to her, and the thought of taking advantage of him was automatically terrible to her.
“Tau, that is an unkind thing to do. Obierika is a friend of ours, we should not think of him like that.” she stated.
“He’s a friend of yours,” Tau chuckled. “But to me, he’s an opportunity.” With that, he plopped the yams on the table where Ezinma was working, and began to leave the room. As he turned around, Oluyemi ran into the hut.
“Mother! Look at the beautiful feather I found!” He then registered his father’s presence, and the too common tension in the room.
“Hello father,” he bowed his head. “Is your day well?”
“Today is not going very well,” he responded. “Your mother is unhappy with my compassion towards the elderly in our village.” He flashed his teeth with a mirthless smile, which discomforted Oluyemi.
“Lies.” muttered Ezinma, quiet enough that nothing but a murmur could be heard. But still, a murmur was all that Tau needed to hear from her.
“I didn’t marry you for your mouth, wench!” he shouted across the hut, and rapidly approached Ezinma. He grabbed her forearm, and she prepared herself for the shock of his hand on her face. But she felt nothing. Then he pulled her close to him, her ear a thumbs length away from his mouth.
“I need your face looking nice tonight. Consider yourself lucky.” he declared. He let Ezinma go, and exited the hut. Ezinma stood deathly still for a moment, only moving to breathe. She then turned to face Oluyemi, who has witnessed the entire incident. He wiped a tear from his brown eye. Ezinma knew she had to comfort him somehow, but she didn’t know what to say.
“He…he loves you very much.” she stammered, not believing the words herself. Oluyemi walked towards her, and tears in her eyes, she embraced him, picking him up in her arms. She was holding her entire word in her hands, her son was all she had ever needed.
Obierika arrived at sundown, and was greeted by Tau at the doorway.
“Greetings Obierika,” he said. “Please come in.” Tau flashed his mirthless smile, exerting himself to make it seem genuine.
“Greetings Tau. “Lion”. Thank you for having me tonight. Where is your family?”
“They are on their way,” said Tau. “Please break the kola nut, while we wait.”
“Thank you.” said Obierika. His aged fingers struggled for a moment to break the kola nut, but success came with his patience. And then Ezinma entered the room, Oluyemi following close behind her.
“Hello, my dear.” Obierika hugged her. “You look beautiful as ever.”
“Thank you Obierika.” she replied. “It is so good to see you again. You remember our son don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” he grinned, and lifted the boy up, with some trouble. “Oluyemi. “Fulfillment from God.” Of course I remember you.” Oluyemi smiled at the old man. He had a very playful quality about him.
“Enough standing!” Obierika laughed. “Lets eat!” In silent agreement, they all headed for the dining area.
The meal mostly consisted of Tau pestering Obierika with business propositions, and compliments on Obierika’s achievements throughout the years. Obierika looked uninterested throughout Tau’s speech. He spent time looking at Ezinma, noticing the concealed sadness upon her face.
“Ezinma,” he interrupted Tau. “I just wanted to take a moment to say that I am so sorry for the loss of your mother. I wasn’t able to tell you at the burial, and I wanted you to know. Ekwefi was a wonderful woman, and she loved you very dearly.”
“Thank you Obierika,” said Ezinma. “That is very kind of you.”
“Yes very kind,” interrupted Tau, but Obierika silenced him with his hand.
“Did you know that when you were ill as a child, and the priestess had to carry you across the land, Ekwefi followed her the entire way there, never wanting to lose sight of you? She walked until she couldn’t feel her legs, and she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face, just to make sure she wouldn’t lose you. And she did it without her husband. Yes, Okonkwo caught up with her eventually, but she made the journey on her own, because she couldn’t bear the thought of a world without you. And here you are.” Obierika smiled at Ezinma. Tears were in her eyes.
“I did not know that story.” she said. “Thank you.”
“It is my pleasure,” said Obierika.
At night, Tau sat inside the Obi, fuming with anger at his “wasted opportunity.” Oluyemi sat playing with a bit of clay he was using to draw on the floor. As Obierika was walking away from the Obi, Ezinma caught up to him, and reached for him.
“What do I do?” she asked him. “We can’t stay here. Tau hurts us, torments us with his words and his fists. “We can’t stay in Umuofia, because he will torment us for leaving him! And we can’t even go to the church, because they are worshipping a lie! I want to be like my mother, I want to protect my son, but I don’t know where I can go!” Ezinma stopped herself, and stared at him. He responded quietly.
“Ezinma, this boy is your world. He is all you care for. And no matter which god, he is god’s gift to you. You must protect him, you watch him, as your mother watched you all those years ago. You must keep him safe, fed, and sheltered, regardless of how.” He turned, and walked away from the Obi, into the darkness.
When Tau was asleep, Ezinma snuck over to Oluyemi, curled up tight, and gently woke him.
“I will keep you safe,” she said. “Regardless of how.” The boy nodded. And they rose together, and headed into the darkness.