THE OLD BOOK

old book

I SOUGHT MY daughter whom I had not seen for hours now. It was already at the start of that unfailing daily event called Sunset. I sat down outside the little bungalow; well, I call it a bungalow, I’m sure there are some who’ll call it a hut. I was happy, but a certain restlessness stirred in my soul. Maybe she was playing in the woods downhill; I could imagine her admiring and memorizing the shapes and colours of all the wild flowers and little insects in the bushes, her enduring passion. She would soon be back.

The sun, setting, was beautiful. I saw him playing with the clouds lazily travelling by. The wind tickled the whispering grasses, and I was alone.

I liked this new bungalow of mine, perched on this hilltop, giving me a true view of the entire countryside, the village, and those ancient forbidden caves in the distance of which all kinds of impossible tales are still told even until today; yes, this hilltop and this bungalow up here had a strong hold on me, unlike the old hut further down in the valley where I had been born, where I had grown up.

I missed my wife and longed for her return. She had travelled a hundred kilometers away to care for her sick mother for a few days, leaving our daughter and me alone until she would return.

My mind slipped to my childhood back in the old hut. To my brothers and sisters, my parents and old friends. Everybody was gone now. The old ones had died. The young ones had grown up and moved away. Only I had remained here on these hilly south-eastern plains. Now I lived with my wife and daughter in a new bungalow, well to be honest, a big hut really, on a hill, not far from the old one, the last keeper of our culture. For some reason, my heart just could not detach from these environs. Born freely to farm my village lands, I did just that everyday, walking down into the village, then beyond it, to our ancestral farmlands. This week had been a quiet week, though, as I stayed at home with my daughter and waited for my wife to return from her mother.

It started to grow dark. My thoughts came back to the present. I began to worry. Where was my daughter?

Then she was there…

I saw dimly her fragile lithe form slowly mounting the gentle slope, a small basket clutched to her side. Normally she ran, hopped and skipped. I hoped she was not feeling ill.

I let her come to me. I heard her footsteps. Then I saw her face – drawn… her eyes wide, starring… – something was wrong.

“Neanya!” I gasped, springing up.

She walked on straight towards me, her widened eyes never leaving mine, as though searching for answers, a hold, something. What? And then suddenly, a few paces away from me, she abruptly stopped. I walked quickly up to her, bent down, held her; just eight years old; she stood stiffly; her eyes were white.

“Neanya,” I whispered, “What’s wrong? Did something happen? What happened? Tell me!”

She took a deep breath, swallowed. Still these questioning eyes gripping mine. An uneasy apprehension began to grow within me. With a quick glance I briefly scanned the declining grassland behind her; saw nothing, nobody.

“Neanya…” I began again. Her lips parted.

She spoke. A whisper:

“I saw… a… strange man – ”

“Who? Where?

“Down the hill, near the old hut, behind the forest… on that other path that leads to the farmlands…”

“What were you looking for there? I thought you were on the edge of the forest.”

“After playing with the flowers in the forest, I went to the other side, to the giant ụdara tree, I was hoping to pick some ripe and fallen ụdara berries… for you.”

I looked into her basket, expecting it to be empty. It was full of ụdara. I stretched out my hands, one reaching for the basket, the other her shoulder. She veered away, but remained standing where she was, her basket of wild berries still pressed against her body.

Silence.

“And what happened?

“He was very sad, father. He was crying.”

“A strange man? Crying? Where?”

“By the woods, downhill, near the old hut… he was not an old man… he was crying…”

Her answers came in phrases. Her eyes still gripped mine. Something had happened. But what?

“So I held his hand – ”

“You what? Neanya! Who was he? What did he do to you?”
But she simply continued as though I had not interrupted her.

“ – and asked him why he was crying. He looked at me, father, and he was sad. And then… he smiled a little. He said… he said…”

“What did he say?”

“He said that I looked familiar – ”

“And have you seen him before?”

For the first time the starry look in Neanya’s eyes dispersed somewhat. I could see she was thinking. Eight years old; what was she thinking about?

“I don’t know, father… but he looked very familiar too – ”

All at once I felt very uncomfortable, psychically and physically, as if I was subject to a strange, invisible pressure. My throat went dry. I swallowed, took a deep breath and said slowly to my daughter:

“Now Neanya, just tell me everything! What happened? What did this stranger tell you?”

Standing as though rooted to the spot, my daughter looked at me for a few seconds with that thoughtful, questioning glow in her eyes again, and then, after what seemed like a moment of consideration, nodded and slowly began to speak.

“He said he was trapped there, that he could not move on… that’s what he said… because, he said, he said that he had been torn by guilt, he had…” She paused a while, breathe deeply once, then continued. “He had… killed himself when he was on earth, that’s what he said, that he rejected the gift of earthlife God gave him…” She paused, took another deep breath, quietly exhaled. She seemed to be thinking, yet for a second I almost had the impression… that she was listening.

Then, with a sigh, and a slight nod, she continued:

“And… and he said that amongst other things he did not stay to take care of his only child… and that now he is torn by even greater guilt… that’s exactly what he said, father… – he said he wants me to go to his child today, right away, Father, to tell his child that… that…,” she choked, stopped.

What?” I whispered. Was this a dream? Had the imaginative powers of her mind gone too far?

“He told me to go to his child – ”

I shook my head and held Neanya’s shoulders.

“Ssssh. Sssshh. Ssssshhh. You’ve had a bad day-dream, that’s – ”

“He even told me his child’s name, father, and where I could go to find him this evening,” Neanya whispered, interrupting me gently and raising her eyes to the sky. Her eyes were suddenly old. The sky was a deep dark blue and, all around us, the night crickets were chirping.

“What is his child’s name?”

“Norondu – “

My heart stopped beating.

“Is that not your name, Father?” whispered Neanya, her eyes coming back down from distant skies and reclaiming mine. “Is that not what Mummy calls you?”

My heart had still not started beating.

… My biological father had died when I was a baby. I had grown up with my mother and stepfather and their children, my half-brothers and -sisters. I had never known what my original father died of. I only knew he had been some kind of restless adventurer travelling through the lands. I always assumed he died by some kind of accident. People did not like speaking much about him…

“What did the man want you to tell Norondu?” I whispered to Neanya.

“That the old Book of Knowledge which his grandfather had given to his father, and his father had given to him, … is buried exactly beneath the spot on which I am now standing… – ”

– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.

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