A Short Story Edentu D. Oroso
Perekebina Ebiotu steadied his hand gun, suddenly aware of a fast slithering object in a thicket of the rain forest. Telltale marks, where the vague outline of the object had been, left a furrow of trampled grass eastward in the forest’s undergrowth. Ebiotu’s grip on the gun’s trigger tightened due to the object’s shifting shape.
With the mind of a trained hunter, Ebiotu stared fixedly at the easternmost spot of the undergrowth where the moving object had made its last appearance. Then he saw the small circle of clear space, devoid of undergrowth, but hedged on both sides by huge raffia palm trees.
“Dare come out of the wood now, stupid animal. No tricks of yours can deceive me,” Ebiotu cursed as he aimed his gun and awaited the object’s appearance.
A canopy of leaves in the tangle of tall trees shielded the flare of the now rising sun. This made Ebiotu’s spot by the raffia tree a blanket of darkness broken only by a thin shaft of light from a porous section of the overhead spruce leaves. The atmosphere was dense for no wind seemed to pierce the thick veil of trees. His rain boots soaked up the grime from decaying mound of leaves made rather pungent by the mixture of filtering underground water and spilled crude oil that found its way almost to his knees. Ebiotu’s breath seemed to prick the silence with an upward resonance in that stillness due to the stench around him. His trained eyes sought the slightest flicker of movement above or in the undergrowth. Embedded in a corner of his mind was a shred of fear, spelt out by the vagueness of the object which he sought, or which stalked him.
Ebiotu felt at that moment like a prey rather than the hunter he was; held hostage by the inexplicable nature of the object that drew his attention under the canopy of trees in the near blanket darkness of early morning. How many times had he as a hunter felt so cagey? It invoked his instinct for survival.
In his mind’s eye, Ebiotu remembered the moment, four years ago, when he narrowly escaped the claws of a leopard while hunting in the forest across the river, and almost incurred a broken spine. It seemed at the time a pinhole view of the realm of death. Images of the leopard’s fierce charge as he fired his last shot loomed back at him with foreboding quality. Then the deafening howl and crash of the leopard as it grazed past his prostrate form on the shrub, reeled back in his mind. The compulsion to live that had staggered him few paces backwards seconds before the leopard leapt at him and his final shot were sights of wanton terror and despair only imagined in films than felt. That was the moment he had known, as a seasoned hunter, the meaning of fear and death. The same cagey feeling returned now, pumping his adrenalin faster as he held on firmly to the trigger of his gun – his only assurance that he wouldn’t just go down so easily.
Ebiotu noticed a movement in the slight distance once more. An apparition that looked like a tall animal enwrapped in a whirlwind from where he hid, not more than thirty metres away, took up the open space between the water clogged area and the trees. It would not be difficult to get a clear shot and be rid of this bastard, he thought bravely. He may lose his life from a reprisal attack from the apparition. But a fight in defence of his life was better than none at all. As he pulled the trigger of his gun for the kill, a voice from the centre of the clearing jerked him back to reality.
“You don’t have to shoot,” the voice pleaded. “As you can see, I can’t die a second time.” A skeleton in the centre of the clearing stood watching Ebiotu where the whirlwind once stirred. This became Ebiotu’s major source of fright.
His impulse of thought was to flee the scene. Never in his fifteen years of hunting had he thought it would come to this. A confrontation with a spirit disguised as a human skeleton in the middle of the forest where the loudest echo seemed an ineffectual resonance. Ebiotu became aware of the pine grass that clutched at his feet, the tree branches that barricaded his path of escape from nowhere, the humming of birds, and a thousand and more howling voices from the depths of the forest that jeered at him. His head swelled, and his heart became laden with the fear of palpable death.
“There’s absolutely no need to panic,” the apparition or skeleton said. “Make a wish if you don’t mind. I’m obliged to make it come true?”
“Yes, a wish?”
“Who are you?” Ebiotu stuttered, steadying his gun, ignoring the wish the apparition requested.
“That’s irrelevant my friend,” replied the skeleton. “Of utmost importance to you is why I’m what I am.”
“Why are you the way you are?” demanded Ebiotu courageously.
“Your tongue? I don’t get it,” said Ebiotu.
“My tongue led to my death. Go now. Become whatever you choose to be. Don’t forget though, my tongue was responsible for my downfall. Meet me here whenever you need me.”
In the illusory manner of fleeting wind, the apparition varnished, yet his words appeared to ricochet around the dense forest like a thousand cymbals in Ebiotu’s head.
Ebiotu’s memory of his return to his home in the village nestled between a river and stream was fragmented into three phases – one which he remembered his fainting after the apparition’s disappearance; another in which strong hands lifted his listless, muddy and smelling body off the water logged turf of the forest and placed him on equally strong shoulders; and lastly, his memory of his awakening after two hours or thereabout in the midst of family members and curious villagers. But this time he had had a change of clothe.
When Perekebina Ebiotu narrated his encounter with the apparition with great theatrics before the rapt audience, self-evident was their doubt about the veracity of his claim. The more he magnified and re-echoed his encounter, the more glaring their disbelief.
“If you think I made all this up, feel free to accompany me to the forest. I know where to find the skeleton. He told me he would be there whenever I need him.”
The villagers pondered over this for a while. A select group of young men were finally drafted to return to the forest with Ebiotu to verify his claim. For hours, they walked through the forest, first crossing the not too deep stream that wound round the village, and then the brief stretch of land across it that led to the forest. The walk through watery clay blended with dead leaves and oozing oil that preceded the clear space where Ebiotu said he saw the apparition was daunting, but they made it all the same in good time meandering through large trees and thick undergrowths here and there.
Once there, the team hid behind the raffia palm trees that hedged the open space in the forest and waited patiently for the apparition to appear. After an hour of waiting, the young men began to agitate whether to continue with the watch or to return since the apparition had not made an appearance as Ebiotu had promised. Exasperated after another two hours, the young men dragged a disappointed Ebiotu back to the village square swearing obscenities at him for wasting their time and energy. They pronounced him guilty of deception before the council of elders, for in the village a man’s words were his bond.
Not until the young men‘s stones began to hurtle at him with an unbearable force did Ebiotu remembered the apparition’s words; “Don’t forget though, my tongue was responsible for my downfall.” But then it was a shade too late, and the cries of loved ones rent the silence of the village.