I STAND upon a cloud, detached and unnoticed, and look down at the gentle green hillocks of Isuochi, those last scattered foothills of the Udi hillrange in south-eastern Nigeria. On one of the most secluded and hidden hinter knolls is a hut. No, a cave. Masterfully blended into the mounded cocoon of the hummock with that subtle touch of which only nature is capable, it bears on its rough back an assembly of wild-haired ụdara trees huddled as though in conference about the destiny of the old man in the cave beneath their roots, one who has for decades made this removed grotto his home. Around the cave, all is still. Nothing stirs; nobody in sight. But I know he is there, in the cave, silent, communing with himself, the old man in the hills. I know it well, feel it deep, for once upon a time, I was he.
But that was long ago, before love seized his heart and ground it to bits, scattering the gold-dust of his longings into the gathering arms of the wind who collected them greedily only to scatter then again with childish abandon, hoping he would never again find them. He blew them to the ends of the earth… where they simply re-gathered, recollected, his love and pain, his yearning heart, glued together by remorse; like phoenix, arising anew. Slowly, with time, they found their way back to him, their origin, as though pulled by a memory magnet. Like a guardian they float above his cave in the harmattan sunset of his life now, steering him… even though he does not know that I do so. Yes, once upon a time we were one.
But now he is much wiser. The substance of his life and the love that purified him, purified his inmost soul in excrutiating pain, had been so powerful that when it was over he had been freed of passion and pain, desire and death, reduced in the crucible of experiencing into a wise man. While I, his passion and pain, the living form of his invisible regret, watch now over him from above his head, yearning for release and dissolution even as much as I yearn for him, the lonely old man. No, not lonely, only alone. The wise man in the hills. A long story of love and pain brought him to this place and this state of being, a long story that cleansed his heart and then poured runes of recognition from the vials of Solomon into the emptied coffers.
As I stand upon the cloud today I feel more heavily than ever the pain of all the experiences we went through, the ache of glaring clarity. Oh, could this agony but ease off a little… a moment of teaching mediated to another wanderer at the crossroads where we too once stood. What is the essence of love? When it has conquered you, you understand.
Dusk approaches, the sun sets, the beautiful sun. I watch him silently depart into the graveyard of night. Always, he keeps his thoughts to himself. The sun has just disappeared… night has fallen. Riding atop my cloud, I descend lower, closer to the cool night earth. The warmth of the buried sun’s radiance still permeates my being like the memory of a delicious meal. I sense that tonight there’ll be a difference. I sense movement within the cave. The old man stirs, awakens, seeking fulfilment.
And then he appears. Tall, firm. Strong, erect. He holds his head up like the noon sun, but cocked slightly to one side. He walks slowly, with easy deliberation, like a king, away from the trees, into the open. His eyes look into the distance, filled with a searching look that arose out of his vast heart. When a man has sinned and in the process set a wrong precedence, maybe through his children or grandchildren an opportunity will one day present itself through which he may atone. Like tonight. I see it coming and I wait. Years have passed since he made the grave mistake that gave birth to me, his love and pain juxtaposed. Will I finally dissolve again tonight? I wait.
And then I see from far away a figure, a shadow of light, approaching, ascending the gradient.
It is Kulie, walking slowly, but resolutely. It takes him almost an hour. But finally, he arrives the tor. He looks up at me, but he sees only the cloud. Me he sees not. I am higher than eyes can see.
I study Kulie as he stoically traces the tracks of the lonesome wise man in the foothills. I observe Kulie. A handsome, young man. Spitting image of his great-grand-father, the mad man in the foothills.
A moment of silence… then Kulie comes upon the wise man, my wise man, standing iroko-erect, backing the world.
Kulie stands still. He speaks not. All his life he has heard of the madman in the foothills, his great-grandfather, unseen by human eyes now for almost two decades, fuelling speculation that he had finally died. But Kulie’s inner voice had told him that he lived yet. And now he saw him here standing before him. Why have I come?, Kulie thinks to himself. He cannot answer himself. Yet he knows that he acted right.
Slowly the wise man turns. His eyes, burning like the red hot coal in the bowels of these ancient hill-range, pierce Kulie’s soul. Kulie yields not, stares back. Before him he sees a tall, thin, very dark complexioned and very old man. His shirtless torso hangs thinly on his proud skeleton above half-trousers that reach down to just below his knees. His feet are bare. His cheek bones stick out like hard balls upon an impassive face. Only the eyes burn.
“Kulie…” begins the wise man, “Gwam! Tell me. Why have you risked your life and reputation by coming here?” Kulie is at first taken aback by the old man’s directness which leaves no room for a proper traditional greeting. And how come the man knows his name?? All this shoots through his mind as he takes in this voice which seems to spread out, as though trying to permeate the world. “You want people to castigate you for communing with an outcasted, mad, man?” His igbo is refined, royal.
Kulie bows his head for a second. Still he shifts not. Promptly he raises his eyes again.
“Nna anyị… our father,” says Kulie in a strong voice, “I am confused.”
“And what confuses you?” asks the wise man softly.
“Love, sir…” replies Kulie, “Only love. Ịhụnanya.”
Calm, like the closing of an umbrella when the rain is done, descends anew upon the wise man. Yes, now he is sure. Kulie is the promised one.
“Speak your heart, son,” says the wise man, “Simply your heart.”
Kulie decides to say it simply, the best way to say some things.
“It is the Cause, father, the one that was first started by you. It has awakened in my heart too. It has landed on the table of my destiny and I don’t know what to do. A great love for the people has seized my heart. It has become my cause, like it once was yours. I am ready to work just for the people, to live and die for them. I have proven this to them many times. They know my love, and they have loved me back.
“But… hurtful has been their love, father. They have often turned away at decisive crossroads; often reciprocated my sacrifices, now with gratitude, now with scorn; often chosen empty promisers of illusion over me, until their hopes were dashed, and then come running back to me… until the next liar showed up again. This has been the cycle for years now, such that now… now… I do not know any longer whether or not this Cause and I really belong together. Maybe I am not the right one for it, nor it the right one for me. And yet I cannot abandon it. I just cannot stop trying to get the people to wholeheartedly follow the path of development and growth. They say yes to me with their lips, sometimes with their eyes too… yet the harder I pull, the more lukewarm they seem to become. From afar they cheer me on. But none wants to walk the path with me. I doubt that they really appreciate the effort, yet my love is so great, I keep on accommodating their lukewarmness.
“And I ask myself: This thing that sits so uneasy in my hand, is it really mine, or am I just forcing the whole issue, pushed by selfish ambition? It obsesses me, but I can’t seem to make any headway. Do you understand? I want it, but does it want me?”
A moon appears from behind a cloud and brightly illuminates the wise man’s face… briefly. The sharp, burning, deepset eyes… the flared, angry nose… the rugged lines of fate running down his forehead, knifing their way into the bridge of his nose… the rocky cheek bones… his glowing countenance was an ebonine wood-carving hung on eternity’s canvas.
And his voice says something very simple. Something he once read but did not understand when he needed it the most, something he has always wanted to plant, like a seed, into the heart of someone who stands too at the crossroad but, unlike he, will understand:
“Kulie… when you love something, set it free,” his voice rises, trembles, his eyes look up, “If it comes back to you, son, then it is yours. But if it does not, then it never was.”
For long, long moments, as silence whistles through his heart, Kulie stands looking at a man who has turned round again, backing the earth afresh. In Kulie’s heart he understands. But it’s so painful, too difficult… letting go. He opens his mouth to complain, to quest further –
But the voice of the wise man suddenly rips through the hilltop anew.
“Ngwa, Kulie! Go… and be a man! Free yourself.”
And as though the words were a presence by themselves, a force propels Kulie away. He hurries down the incline, his heart burning for his cause.
When you love something, set it free!
Higher climbs the moon, full. Midnight approaches. Maybe Kulie will do the right things. The words were sparse, but the wise man knows that they are exactly what Kulie needs, that he will understand the message at the heart of them. The wise man is free of half of his burden.
Now the other approaches. He bounces up and down the foothills, slowly mounting up the gradient. I look into his face – I see selfishness and inconsideration. I feel a pang of pain stab through me. I seek for the gentleness and love of Kulie in his soul, find them not. Finally, he arrives the hummock.
Again, like Kulie, his eyes first seek the cloud upon which I stand, detached and unnoticed. His name is Jideofor. I know him well, the absolute reflection of that which I used to be. If Kulie is the wise man, then Jideofor is me.
He charges straight for the wise man who faces the moon. I notice an air of reluctance hanging around him.
“Yes?” Tersely. “Ọ gịnị?” Without turning around.
“I knew that I had to come here. So I did.”
Now the wise man turns, looks. Yes, it is he.
“And what is your problem?”
Jideofor grimaces. “It is the people, your people! I love them but I am tired of it all. Why do they complain all the time? Why do they demand all the time. I give and give all I can, yet they never stop demanding, like a bunch of greedy, ungrateful children. They are always irritable. I have outwitted all their enemies, all our enemies, and brought development to the community, and yet they keep demanding, demanding. In other places, people would worship me if I gave them just half of what I have given this people, our people, your people! Fighting your lost cause. But they remain unsatisfied. Truly, I have come to the end of this road!”
The wise man’s voice is cold as ice:
“Jideofor! Gee ntị. Listen very carefully, I will say this only once. When you love something, cherish it. Keep it close to your heart. Cherish it. Do not even slightly ease up your hold on it… or it will fly away and never come back back!
“Do you understand?”
Like a thunderclap his voice slams into Jideofor’s soul, sending him careening down the hill like a dislodged boulder, seeking his fate.
When you love something, hold it tight!
The wise man sighs. His life is over. He has atoned. The two faces of love have been voiced and released into two hearts and into the ether, never to die again. He walks back to his cave. The fire in his eyes, it has died. His body lets out its last breath. His spirit flies away. Home. His remains will have his hill for a grave, his cave for a gravestone. The wild arms of his beloved ụdara trees wave him goodbye in the harmattan wind.
In the sky above the ghostly silhouette of trees on the knoll there glows a lovely fullbloomed moon; riding beneath it on his cloud, slowly dispersing at last, is my pacified self; the shadow of the wise man’s heart; his regret; his remorse; his longing to atone; his burning desire to make good, thawing at last. Reflecting these two so different explanations to love, seemingly contradictory – to let go, or to hold on.
Two views, two songs, two sides.
And the people, trapped in the cause, understand not as Kulie and Jideofor relate and act out the differing messages they each claimed to have received from their great-grandfather in the same night. It seems like a contradiction to the people, another evidence of that old outcast’s state of mind. The different voices of this one simple truth told by the wise man elicit divergent responses from various souls.
Some call it insanity. A few dub it amnesia. Others call it agony, pain.
But I, I call it the Understanding.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.