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Serialization of a novel, The Crocodile Girl by Sam Omatseye (4)

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Tim rose to his feet and shook hands with the chiefs. If he were from the village, the chiefs noted in their minds, Tim should have bowed. He was evidently a younger man, although they did not know how to read the age of white people by simply looking.

From the bounce around his face and the zip of his gestures, they knew he was a young man. Chief Tietie was around fifty years of age, but he himself did not know. At the time he was born, births were not registered but stored in memories by their association with momentous events such as the visit of a prominent king, or a local disaster like a wind-storm or the birth of another royal child.

Tim’s face did not show much emotion. He was not familiar with any of these chiefs. He used to deal with them through Itse who was now near oblivion.

My name be Chief Tietie. I please to meet you,” was Chief Tietie’s first string of words. He drew confidence from this sentence and reckoned he could pull this mission through, encouraged by the smile that clothed the American’s face. He did not understand the smile. From Tim it was a gesture of courtesy, the kind his people gave off as an imperative of the friendly. Tietie and his men construed it as a mark of deference.

Look at this stupid man, Alero thought in her mind. Who taught him English? Why is he disgracing himself? Why did they not speak in Itsekiri and ask her to do the translation. She knew the answer, she told herself. Maybe they did not trust she would be faithful in translation.

There were only three sofas in the room and the delegation of ten cramped into them. They were cushions made from cloth wide enough to sit two people. But people hardly sat on them.

So, they looked moist. This might have come from the effect of vagrant rain showers that strayed in through the door or window. So, they gave off a smell that both Alero and Tim recognised as odd. They could do nothing about it. The chiefs did not have this luxury at home, so they did not recognise the hygienic shortcomings of where they lay their buttocks. Rather their buttocks thrilled quietly to the luxury, even if only one side of their buttocks enjoyed that privilege.

Alero also observed that the men brought a smell with them, as they walked into the room. It was a familiar smell, flavoured by camphor and the moistness of the bottom of their fashion boxes, where they kept their best clothes. Alero, once a celebrated beauty in the world outside, hid her contempt for them. They were bush men who saw themselves as the avatars of wisdom.

Itse had brought the furniture from the city. The floor had a rug carpet, another luxury. The chiefs felt an easy comfort walking on the softness. When he had laid the red rug the children had spread the word that Itse had deployed a lion’s mane for his personal comfort. He had brought it from America, so went the rumour. Itse did little to stem the lie.

The wall was still adobe but he employed some of the builders to polish it, so it lacked the unhygienic cragginess of most homes in the place. Of course, Chief Japka’s eye for material distinction did not miss this. So, he promptly replicated the splendour. Jakpa was not in the Tietie crowd of visitors. A radio sat on a ledge near the door. It was powered with battery. No one had played it for many months now. A few pictures lit up the wall. Of particular importance was an old one with cracked frame and covering. It bore Itse’s father. It sat on the wall perpendicular to the visitors. Another picture was new, and it was Itse with some of his friends during their hiking trip in Colorado.

Tim sat but Alero was forbidden to share a seat with anyone. She did not want to, she said to herself. The peculiar smell of these dirty old men would suffocate her. Rather, she stood beside the American, her face drooped and famished of cheer.

The room was dim with melancholy. The windows were shut and the people relied only on the timid light that limped in through the door curtain. Alero thought of opening the windows. But she knew better. If anything went wrong, they would say it was part of her diabolical design to usher in her kindred spirits of darkness to doom their day.

Chief Tietie soon sat forward and bore the carriage of the royal emissary. He cleared his throat, as most chiefs did before they spoke on special occasions. He also moved his buttocks around the sofa as though looking for the right posture for the words he was about to say. It did not matter that he made his other fellows uneasy. He was the king’s chief messenger and he had earned the right to displease others.

We tank God dat tiy alife today and bad ting not happen in forest. It only God do dat.”

Silence followed his statement. But, from the chiefs’ point of view, the American’s face betrayed no feelings. Alero bent over so she could whisper to the man. Moments later, Tim’s face lit up and looked in the direction of the chiefs.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s great to be alive but the downside is that my buddy is in bad shape. I cannot claim to feel well until he recovers.”

Some of the chiefs confused the word buddy for body, and could not quite make out what the man said. They did not want to embarrass themselves, so they kept quiet. Chief Tietie however understood. Alero’s translation confirmed what he thought.

It was clear, too, that the American could not pick up the accent and they would have to rely on the witch.

“Yah,” replied Chief Tietie, “God will do him work.” The chief turned quiet momentarily, poised to deliver the royal word. The silence made Alero aware of the shrunken space in the room.

Our king send me here to say since the forest bring bad ting so we ready to help you anytime you ready to go back to your country.

The expression in the white man’s face puzzled them. But this time they knew he understood what Chief Tietie said. Tim did not say a word. Rather he turned his head towards Alero and said, “Please explain to them.”

Everyone turned their heads to the witch, wondering what the matter was that the man could not say himself. They also saw that the girl seemed as nervous as an ambushed squirrel.

Alero bowed her head as if she was talking to the floor and said: “the oyibo said he would not go yet.” She tried not to sound petulant, but she was not sure her caution had not resulted in a rude and biting translation.

“Why?” chorused everyone in the room. The question was not only borne out of simple curiosity. It bristled with hostility.

Alero’s face hardened into a ripple of furrows.

“He has forgotten his past. He does not even remember why he came here or the person whom he came to look for, or why.”

There was a deep-forest silence. Chief Tietie twitched his nose, sat back and forward. Another chief tapped his thigh, another folded his arms and, quite often, a nervous eye looked into another nervous eye.

“If he has forgotten,” asked Nikoro, one of the chiefs, “then let him go back to his country and meet his family and they will remind him.” There was a ‘yes’ chorus to that.

“He insists,” interrupted the witch, “that if that is why he came, he probably will need to go back to the forest to regain his memory. Again, he said he did not feel it right to his conscience to leave if Itse was sick. He says he owes it to him.”

The leader of the delegation suddenly felt a huge burden drop on his shoulders. He could see a plague coming in the form of this ghost of an oyibo and, if persuasion did not work, he knew force was futile.

“Excuse me,” he said to Tim Forester, “as for Itse we can take care of him, but it good you go back for home and meet your family and so dey help you remember. Pity your family.” Neither Tim nor Alero was amused by the man’s peculiar grammar.

“I’ve thought this through,” Tim said, raising his voice with a subtle rumble of defiance. “If I can’t remember anything here, I can’t leave here. I don’t even know my way home.”

Go your embassy and dem go help.” It seemed to them Tim would not even consider that advice from Chief Tietie. Convinced that this American was not willing to yield to superior wisdom, the chief turned to the girl and issued a warning.

“We know what you have done to him. Is that the way you want to destroy this village. You have no shame stealing the brain of the poor boy for selfish reason,” said Chief Tietie who stole a glance at the white man whose face was puzzled again at what the chief had said in the Itsekiri language.

“It’s all in your hands. If this man does not leave, our wrath and the wrath of the gods will come upon you.”

He rose to his feet and they all left in silence.

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