In Africa, in the twilight of the 1st century, a mysterious light shone from a faraway land, carried by the children of God, and, in a shroud of brightness, many countries and kingdoms, villages and ethnic, sons and daughters, submitted themselves to the power of a revolution of the aliens and their God, and black scales fell off their eyes, like Adam and Eve of the Bible. Many sons and daughters abandoned their idols and follow the new path of Christianity. They burned down their shrines and renounced their deities. They embraced the new religion and claimed the righteousness of the saints. The deities didn’t strike because they have been abandoned, for they accepted the fact that Chineke, God of creation, had come to rule the world.
The people of Akpugoeze of Enugu, in southeastern Nigeria, are not the kind of people known to hold their beliefs and culture by the hem. At that time, Akpugoeze was just a village known as Ikeazu; one of those villages that were said, by legend, to have been formed by those people captured during the wars, and had grown big enough, in strength and number, to become a town of their own. When the Igbos were burning away their idols in the fire, they were like ants building anthills in Savannah, making new graven images and dedicating it to the deities of the land. Not a single shrine was burned in the land. No culture or law was abolished, nor did a foreign god add to their shrines.
At the dawn of the 13th century, during the reign of Eze Mmirioma III, after the death of his father, the Akpugoeze people began to lose focus on their vibrant culture. The new king was raised in a foreign land, which is today called Agulu in Anambra, where his mother lived in exile for trying to poison the king, her husband, after a simmering argument over rights and will. Being the only son and heir to the throne, the kingsmen and the elders of the land had gone and brought him home so he could take over his deceased father. He was too young to rule such a town with a culture so indestructible, and was therefore ruling the land under the guide of the high priest.
In 1202 AD, when the people of Akpugoeze were preparing vigorously for the Iriji-Mmanwu festival, it poured with rain as though Noah’s ark was about to float again. No one knew the fate of the day, as everyone was busy cleaning up their costume; smokes pouring out of every roofs and wafts of delicious smells accompanying the chilling wind; mothers barking orders at their young girls; men arranging their various obis to the point visitors will feel like a ship in anchor when they come, and young men had already gathered, before the rain began, to make plans for the masquerade. It was much later, towards noon, when the ceremony should have already begun, that everyone began to notice that the rain that had started in the morning was still pouring out of the still shrouded sky. The magicians of the land could not do anything to the situation. It was beyond their power.
The king sent a message to the high priest by his messenger:
‘What is this that has befallen us today? Is this not an ill omen? What shall Njoku Ji, the goddess of yam, and Ala, the goddess of the earth, mother of fertility and creativity, say of us if we fail to honor them today? You told me that today’s festival is held in honor of the earth goddess and the ancestral spirits of the land, and that they visit with famine any land that fails to celebrate Iriji-Mmanwu or honor the goddess. Speak to us, so our worried soul will find peace. Tell us if the rain will stop or if we are about to be perished.’
The high priest did not reply until the next day, and it was still raining heavily. He made the people to understand that the gods were having a feast and wants the land to be quiet and serene. Though that was strange, everyone stayed in their houses, angered by the waste of their time and food, and putting out every decoration and eating the food in disappointment.
It rained for two more days before the king had to send another message to the high priest. The whole town was turning into a river, and the heavy rain presaged great flood. But in the evening of that day, after the incantations and sacrifices by the high priest to appease the gods, the rain stopped. And the full ring of gold appeared that night, beneath the tranquil blue of the heavens. When the face of the earth was left with just a mass of miniature rivulets, dead animals were seen on every path. The people believed that the gods had killed them for their feast.
Afterwards some Christian priests were passing through Akpugoeze when their bus broke down, and farmers who saw them seized them, knowing they were foreign and priests by the way they dressed, in cassock. The farmers handed the four priests over to the town securities, who took them to the king.
‘What are you doing in our land, priests?’ the king asked, before a gathering of the high priest of Akpugoeze and the kingsmen.
‘Sir, we are…’ one of the priests, the one that looks like the oldest and senior, began to say when the kings guard snapped at him.
‘Will you address the king as Your Highness?’
‘Your Highness,’ he continued, ‘We are missionaries passing through your land to Achi when our bus broke down just south of Akpugoeze, around the border.’
‘Don’t you know that Christian priests are forbidden to enter our town?’ one of the kingsmen asked, chewing on a twig in his mouth which he was using to clean his teeth.
‘We have heard of that before, and our mission is not in this town like we said,’ the shortest priest, with paunch above rather thin legs, said. ‘We are just passing through. Nothing much.’
‘Hearing what they have said, what shall we do to them, elders of the land?’ the king asked. ‘According to the law of our town no Christian is allowed into the land, and anyone found will be killed by hanging.’
‘Please, Your Highness, we have no bad intention of passing through the town,’ another priest, dark and handsome, said apologetically. ‘It’s just that it is the closest way to Achi. Do not hurt us and have mercy on us, please.’
The high priest cleared his throat, and said, ‘It is true that the law forbids Christians from entering the town, but another law protects strangers, which says that strangers are to be welcomed and given a place to stay.’
‘Don’t give us a place to stay. Just allow us to go and we will never return again,’ the handsome priest said, his eyes now misting up with tears.
‘I can’t be a party to what you’re insinuating, the eye of the gods,’ another kingsman, a law-abiding man, said candidly.
‘Neither will I be a party to any killing or violence,’ the high priest blurted.
‘Who’s talking about killing and violence? All I’m saying is that we should do the right thing, or rather, allow the king to make a decision. Stop telling him what to do like a dog. He’s a man, and that’s why we allowed him to sit on the throne.’
‘Chief Ikedi, please shut up if you lack words to say here!’ the high priest roared angrily.
‘Are you telling me, Chief Ikedi, the voice of Egbe-Agu, to shut up?’
‘Yes, shut up. Shut up!’
‘Will the two of you stop showing your madness to these strangers before Ala swallow you both up?’ another kingsman yelled.
‘All right,’ the overzealous kingsman said and stood up. ‘My King, I will be leaving now. I can see the sky gathering black clouds; the rain must not fall on me.’ He then walked away.
‘Come back, Chief Ikedi,’ the king called. ‘It has not gotten to that extent.’
‘Leave him to go,’ the high priest said, waving goodbye at the man who didn’t turn back.
‘So, what are you saying that we should do to these men here, the eye of the gods?’ the king said with a hoarse voice, frowning slightly at the high priest.’
‘We should allow them to stay in our land while they take time and fix their bus. They’re strangers, and remember, we were once strangers here.’
The crowd murmured its deep disapproval of allowing them to stay.
‘Shouldn’twe follow the path of our fathers which is to treat strangers with kindness?’ he continued.
‘Um, we all know that he is the eye of the gods, and the gods only communicates to us through him. So, we shall do as he has said, but if anything evil should arise from what he has asked us to do, he shall bear the punishment alone.’
‘Yes!’ everyone chorused, nodding at each other.
The four Christian priests were given a place to stay and they were provided with food and water. Freely they moved around, but they didn’t spread the gospel. Neither did they pray loudly to anyone’s hearing. Young men who were assigned to repair their bus finished the work in three days, but the priests still stayed, and no one complained or asked when they were to leave the town.
It happened that men who got married during this period were complaining that their wives had been deflowered before their marriage. And it was an abomination in the town for a woman to have sex with a man before marriage. In those days the town was famous for their chaste women, and suitors who come from outside the town to marry their daughters are asked to pay greater dowry for their virgin brides.
An investigation was made into the claims and it was proved true, and most of these women who were defiled were those selected to provide the Christian priests with food, water, and domestic services. The king was enraged by this act of indecency which no one had believed a Christian priest would do. He sent a message immediately to the high priest to alert him of the sin he has caused, and swore that he alone shall be held guilty of it.
When all these had happened in Akpugoeze, the cries of aborted children came disturbing the supreme world, asking for vengeance, and their blood crawled wretchedly at the feet of the gods. The gods were moved to wrath, and moved with compassion on them. They gathered together to discuss about the sins of the Christian priests.
‘The children of Chukwu, God most immortal, have committed abominations in Akpugoeze, the only land that has refused to cast us out, as men who had died,’ Ala, the goddess of the earth, said. ‘I wonder if Chukwu knows about the evil his children have done. Or is that what he sent them to do? We shall not hesitate to avenge the blood of these innocent children desirous of revenge, who has been refused the blessing to live on earth.’
‘Is this not also the opportunity to attack the children of Chukwu for turning the mind of the people to forsake us and our ways?’ Idemmili, the goddess of the ocean and the sea, said.
‘Who shall go for us, and make these priests to feast on pain and drink tears of anguish?’ Ala asked.
‘Amadioha is mighty enough to overcome the power of the children of Chukwu. He will go for us,’ Anyanwu, the goddess of the sun, said.
‘What do you want? Is it to wipe the whole town into oblivion and leave it in the past where it will only be remembered in once-upon-a-time stories, like Sodom and Gomorrah, or to kill only the priests?’ Amadioha, the god of thunder and lightning, said.
‘How can we wipe out the only town that has us among them?’ Igwekala asked, afraid of being forgotten by humans, as he enjoyed their respect, the periods when he did appear on earth, mostly once in four Decembers.
‘Then I must not go. I am good at fighting wars, like Ikenga,’ he pointed at Ikenga, the god of strength and war. ‘The sins of the priests anger me so much that I may destroy the town if I visit it.’
‘Here I am, mother. Send me,’ Ogbunabali, the god of death, offered.
‘Ogbunabali has bad sight and cannot do it,’ Agwu Nsi, the god of health and divination, warned.
‘I’m the son of night, and darkness is my world. I will only visit them with death at night.’
‘He can do it,’ Ala conceded. ‘You will be on earth this evening. Remember, you must not touch innocent souls.’
‘I pledge to kill only the people who are involved in the evil act. I must leave now for my mission needs time,’ he said.
‘Son!’ Anyanwu called as he was leaving.
‘Don’t kill the callow king, please. He’s only ruling according to the direction of the high priest.’
‘What about the women?’
‘Leave them for me,’ Njoku Ji, the goddess of yam, said. ‘I will make them as barren as a desert.’
‘That’s my job you’re stealing,’ Ala said, and they laughed.
Ogbunabali walked away, his body of metal sparking, like when two swords clashes. What anger!
That evening, when the high priest was cutting herbs in the bush, Ogbunabali appeared. On his shoulder stood a bald, white-feathered vulture.
‘Who are you dark angel?’ the high priest asked, startled.
‘I can’t believe a high priest cannot recognize his master. Or have your sins covered your eyes that you can’t see things of the spirit again?’
‘Ogbunabali, author of death, prince of the night, your servant is humble.’ He dropped his machete and the leaves he was holding and fell flat on his face, worshipping.
‘Do you hear what I’m hearing? Wails of anguish. Children wailing because they couldn’t live, their mothers getting rid of them when they were just embryos, so that they can freely get married.’
‘Ogbunabali, I warned the king to send the strangers away, but he was stubborn to listen. You’re a god of justice, killing only the sinners; depart from me, I pray thee, and visit the sinners.’
‘I must chase the fox away first; after that I might return to warn the hen against wandering into the bush,’ he said in proverb, and vanished instantly, soundlessly.
The high priest picked up some leaves and waved them round over his head to send away the spirit of the god, and, uttering an incantation, he blew into the air.
In the bathroom, an outside bathroom made of bamboos and sheet of aluminium, the oldest Christian priest was bathing when smoke began to gather in front of him, and Ogbunabali appeared in it. The priest let out a shriek of terror and fell on the metal bucket he was bathing with, which crashed with a pathetic jangle.
‘Don’t harm me! Don’t… I did nothing,’ he bagged wretchedly.
‘Aw, I did not know that Christian priests beg,’ Ogbunabali said with a grimace. He pulled the bucket from under him and stood it upside down and sat on it. ‘Why do you fear that I may hurt you?’
‘My brothers made me do it. I didn’t mean to do it, I swear. They cajoled me into joining their dark fraternity of defiling young girls. I can take you to them, please… don’t hurt me!’ he blabbered, his whole body shaking like someone who was convulsing.
‘Oh, you’re the good man among them.’
‘All right, good priest. I wanted to hurt you before, but since you asked me not to hurt you I will kill you instead.’
‘No, no… please!’ he cried.
Ogbunabali clenched his fist and the priest’s body began to burn from inside. He screamed and screamed until he became silent, when he has charred like paper, and a gentle breeze blew and took his ashes away. The vulture on Ogbunabali’s shoulder made a low guttural hiss.
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re here. You missed that dinner, right? We still have few more killings to do, don’t worry.’
He walked out of the stinking bathroom and headed towards the building few yards away, where other Christian priests were. The priests were deep in conversation when Ogbunabali walked in. Startled and shocked, they scurried down to the corners of the room. One of the priests picked up a rosary and burst forth with prayers, his hands trembling with horror. Another, the paunchy priest, reached out and picked the Bible on the bed; he too began to pray.
‘Who are you? Why are you here?’ the handsome priest asked, hiding behind the other priest with rosary, who was just speaking in noisy tongues, as though the Holy Ghost had come upon him.
‘I am Ogbunabali, the god of death, the son of night, the one that kills at night, who once upon a time reigned on earth. I am here to give you rest; to send you into the sleep of the dead.’
‘We have done nothing wrong–we are priests. Please have mercy, I beg of you!’
‘Why do you beg for mercy when you have done nothing wrong? And why should I have mercy on you when you didn’t respect the gods when you defiled the virgins of the land? And now, the children who should be living, but have been aborted and sent back to abyss, are crying and asking for vengeance. You never had mercy on them.’
He made a sabre to appear in his hand and he slew the three priests. The vulture settled and feasted on them while Ogbunabali vanished to the high priest’s house, a hut with its half-end designed as shrine.
‘Why have you returned solitary traveller of the night?’ the high priest asked.
‘When did the eye of the gods start being uncomfortable with a god’s presence?’ Ogbunabali asked wittily.
‘The toad does not run in the afternoon for no good reason,’ he replied, bemused.
‘I have come in peace. I have wiped the children of Chukwu out of the earth, but I will leave here carrying away your heart; for I am the god of death, and I kill only those who have sinned against the gods.’
‘Don’t kill me, the son of Anyanwu, goddess of the sun. I have served the gods from my childhood–I deserve your mercy.’ He knelt down and begged.
‘Oh, that’s so touching. I will be a wicked god if I kill you. You have my mercy now.’
‘Thank you, Ogbunabali.’
‘Don’t rejoice yet, for laughter does not show friendship. I will give you two options to choose one: A and B.’
‘Option B,’ the high priest said, his voice quivering with fear. ‘I chose option B.’
Ogbunabali immediately plunged his hand deep into his chest and pulled out his heart. ‘You should have chosen option A. Perhaps you didn’t want my advice; as if I have any to give a rebel like you. Remember I kept my promise. I only took the heart I said I will take, nothing more.’
He walked away with the heart in his hand, dripping down blood. And the vulture flew to him and perched on his shoulder; and he vanished pouncingly.
About The Author: Blessing C. Onyekachi is a Nigerian novelist, poet and short-story writer. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Bird Magazine, Nnoko, Writenow Magazine, Nantygreens, The Daily Drunk Magazine, The Kalahari Review, and a few others. He is on Twitter: @BlessingCOnyek1 and Instagram: blessingc.onyekachi.