It was just as she described.
They got to the junction of three roads and followed left.
Oye-Nta market, as usual, boomed with women. It was a market for women, after all. You see majorly wares like cocoyam, wrapper heads, beads, peppers and silver dust.
Men of Nta go to Nkwo-Nta with their yams, gourds of palm wine and iron castings.
Ngeli told them the things to buy. They were things they already know they needed to buy; mmimi, uziza, ehuru, uda, and other things hot and peppery.
These things the desertlings crave and cannot resist. They bought them first before buying some loaves made from yam flour and dried meat and fish for themselves.
They were leaving the market when Ngeli halted. ‘We need salt too,’ she said.
The men’s eyes ran to her. ‘We cannot enter Uforo with salt, you know that,’ Ebubedike said to her. ‘It is deadly to the desert creatures.’
Ngeli smiled. ‘For what I will eat, I will give you what I want. But for fear of death, I will give you all I own,’ she said.
Ebubedike and Anene were silent.
And they remained so till Ngeli returned with two big lumps of salt and said, ‘Shall we go now?’
She handed Anene the basket that contained all the items they bought and this time, Anene took it from her without a single word of protest.
At Iyi-Ogba, they filled their water gourds. They were leaving the lake when Anene asked them to wait.
Ngeli and Ebubedike turned back to him.
Anene dropped the basket he was carrying on an old stump on the bank of the lake and ran back down to the water.
Ngeli and Ebubedike watched him, thinking he had dropped something.
Anene screamed and threw himself into the water. ‘A quick bath before I visit the land of dust!’
Ngeli and Ebubedike turned their front and started off.
Anene rose from the water, held his wet cloth and ran after them.
It is early evening now, that time of the day you can finally say the sun is defeated and is retreating back to its abode.
‘So much for the mad woman’s shorter route,’ Anene muttered, face crumpled. His feet hurt from steady walking.
‘Still your tongue, weakling!’ Ngeli said. She did not look at him.
‘Mad outcast!’ Anene mumbled.
Ngeli swung to Anene and thrust her palm to his cheek.
Ebubedike who was far ahead turned back at the sound of the slap.
Anene appeared lost, as if he couldn’t understand what just happened, why he was holding his cheek and why it has turned warm.
Ngeli put one hand on her waist and cast vicious eyes at him.
Anene’s lips parted to say something, but he finally couldn’t. He sucked in his lower lip, his eyes hooded in fury. He dropped the basket to Ngeli’s feet. ‘I will not touch that again!’
He turned his front and ran after Ebubedike.
‘Hey, come back and carry the basket!’
Anene showed her five fingers through the back of his neck. ‘Chili ise!’
‘Ebube, do you see what this wretch has—’
‘Carry the basket, woman!’ Ebubedike’s voice resonated with authority.
‘But I am holding my bow and cannot carry anything else.’
‘Carry the basket!’
Ngeli had no other choice than to lift the basket, muttering to herself.
It is the late hours of evening now. The sun has since retired and the moon is late.
The bush path they were on has gone thinner and the grasses surrounding them taller.
Night-loving insects buzzed and droned from the thick bushes around. Bird sounds came from the high trees ahead. The good birds sang gentle melodies, the bad ones emit harsh, ominous screeches.
Ngeli halted. ‘We are entering Agu-ogba now,’ she announced, her voice hushed. ‘We must tread quietly. Disturb nothing and nothing will disturb you.’
‘Are you saying we will walk this forest in darkness?’ Anene sounded more scared than angry.
‘Yes,’ Ngeli said. ‘But you can choose to sleep here and continue in the morning, but we won’t wait for you.’
Anene turned to Ebubedike. ‘Agu Nnaa, I advised at the beginning that we never listened to this strange woman. Who knows if she is the daughter of Agbala-ohia, the dreaded goddess of the forest, and has been sent to lure us to her?’
‘No petty goddess is powerful enough to thwart my journey to Uforo,’ Ebubedike said.
Just then a rumbling noise came from the sky above.
‘Be careful what you say, warrior,’ Ngeli said, looking up. ‘No human must call a god petty.’ She brought down her face and turned to Anene. ‘Anenechi, if I am indeed servant of Agbala-ohia, do you think I will need to bring you this far to consume you?’
Anene said nothing. He appeared frightened by this statement.
‘Follow me closely, men of Aban. Agu-ogba is a peaceful forest.’ Ngeli walked to the front to lead the way. She walked with such great confidence than would have been expected of a lady.
‘The good forest is not as terrifying as the stories carry,’ she was explaining to them. ‘Hasn’t it always supplied wives with their cooking wood, and husbands, big fat game? Don’t our children used to come here to pluck tasty berries?’
Ebubedike followed Ngeli.
Anene looked ahead, then to his back. An owl hooted from a tall tree nearby and he quickly followed them.
But Ngeli was wrong.
Agu-ogba has not remained the peaceful forest it used to be. The stories indeed hold some truth.
There was a reason the people of Nta and other neighbouring villages suddenly stopped visiting the forest.
No one would agree easily to walk Agu-ogba in bright daylight, least of all in darkness.
The dreaded Eke-ogba python that could swallow a person whole came out to hunt in the night!
The creature was a master of stealth. Its long fat body blended perfectly with the browning leaves and dried twigs on the ground, very easy to be mistaken for only a fallen log of wood on the forest ground.
The last woman it swallowed had mistaken it as wood too. She’d dropped the small bunch of slender and petty sticks she was carrying to check the big fat log that had fallen to the forest floor, obviously recently as no one had come for it yet.
And it looked dry already too. Gods of Nta be praised!
It was late evening, but she would still run back home and call her husband, or older son, Ajanedu, to come with an axe.
But blessing quickly turned into tragedy as the middle-aged woman bent over and touched the supposed log.
It felt soft and slippery to her palm, nothing like wood at all. And just then her eyes flew wide in horror.
It was it!
The dread of the night!
She swung back to run, but it was already late. The massive creature twirled round with force, seizing her in a whorl of strong muscles.
And it pressed in and in, and in, till the last drop of air escaped from her. And it released her and positioned itself for the big swallow.
It stayed with her all night; it wasn’t until early morning that it was finally able to get the last of her down its lengthy stomach.
And it stayed there, concealed in the bush, immobile for days till it was finally able to move again.
This has happened over six months ago.
And now the king of the forest has become hungry again. And since it swallowed the first boy when it was only just a baby, it had developed a strong appetite for men.
Unaware of the danger that lurked in the dense bushes, the trio walked on.
Ebubedike was now in front, Ngeli in the middle and Anene last.
And last was not good!
A disturbance came from a nearby shrub. Anene, startled, scurried to the front, to Ebubedike.
Ngeli turned to the direction of the noise. It had only been a harmless rodent.
‘You need to embrace yourself, musician,’ Ebubedike said to Anene. ‘Uforo is tougher than our soil.’
Anene recovered on a slow deep breath. ‘Worry not for me, master. The desert creatures do not scare me.’
Ngeli scoffed. ‘I see,’ she said, ‘but a little harmless rodent does!’
‘I refuse to grace madness with my response,’ Anene replied her with, bothering not to look at her.
Ngeli spat. ‘You are a man of little honour, Anenechi.’
Anene stopped and turned to Ngeli. ‘You deranged brain, you stepped on luck and found favour with the bow and suddenly thinks yourself a man. But I tell you now, mad woman of Nta, a woman you were born, a woman you shall remain!’ His eyes dimmed with scorn. ‘A woman that must bend down to urinate.’
Ngeli grabbed Anene’s neck. ‘What does it matter to bend down to urinate, when only I do it on your face, fool?’
‘Take your hands off me!’ Anene struggled to free himself, but Ngeli’s grip appeared to be set in rock.
‘Leave yourselves, fools!’ Ebubedike’s heavy voice echoed round the dark forest, momentarily drowning out the chatter of insects and tree monkeys. ‘Separate at once!’
Ngeli slowly released Anene.
Ebubedike walked back to them. He stood in their front, his cautionary eyes fixed on them.
The two foes remained quiet, guilt-bound.
‘You two must drop aside your differences and embrace peace for the purpose of this journey,’ Ebubedike said to them. ‘Did that pass your ears or had they as your brain been blocked by folly too?’
‘Forgive me, warrior,’ Ngeli muttered.
Ebubedike steadied his eyes on Anene.
Anene gave an apologetic bow. ‘I plead your forgiveness, great man.’
‘I will not repeat myself.’ Ebubedike was turning to his front when suddenly the creature struck.
It was fast and swift. In the speed of a flash, it had twirled its huge length round Anene and pulled him into the bush.
Birds on the high trees flew away, screeching on top of their voices. The monkeys too.
Ngeli quickly pulled out an arrow from the pouch hanging on her back and shot at it. But the thin arrow was not enough to cause any notice. It lay ignored on the serpent’s muscular flesh as it continued to pull away.
Ebubedike flew towards it and grabbed the last of its huge tail. He pulled it back. The fat, tapered body landed to the ground with a heavy thump.
Ebube grabbed it again, now a better part of it. Heaving the bulk of leathery skin over, he managed to free Anene from the muscular twist.
The lanky flutist fell off to the road, coughing and spitting.
Ebubedike now struggled with the creature. Having deprived it of its catch, it was now bent on seizing him, substituting him for its earlier catch.
But Ebubedike proved no easy meat for the giant snake. He battled on with the rolls and rolls of fat and muscle, unwinding them as quickly as they tried to encircle him.
As if in anger now, the creature’s head appeared, suddenly out of the bush. It opened its wide mouth, revealing a set of terrifyingly jagged teeth.
It made a furious growl and thrust forward, to Ebubedike’s shoulder and left him with a big gash.
Dark-brown blood sputtered out. The warrior groaned.
Anene rose from the ground and was rushing in to help when Ngeli grabbed him. ‘Stay, man. Stay!’
Anene struggled to free from her. Ngeli pushed him away and ran to Ebubedike and the snake instead.
The creature’s head was coming again, but this time, Ebube grabbed it with two hands.
It twirled round Ebubedike, turning him in the air in a whorl of twisting muscles.
Ngeli pulled an arrow and shot at it. It landed on a bad spot again, not anywhere it could cause substantial injury.
Her aim had been the creature’s neck, where its skin appeared softer and its breathing pipe was housed.
Ebube did not let go. He turned the creature’s head to his left now, revealing its neck to the warrior lady. ‘Now!’ he screamed.
Ngeli pulled another arrow and aimed.
Anene watched, still and nervous. A minor miscalculation and the arrow will be buried into Ebubedike’s hand instead.
‘Now!’ Ebubedike screamed again, holding the creature still and slant.
Ngeli sent the arrow through the huge creature’s neck in one smooth shot.
Anene exhaled deeply.
The creature growled, but still fought on. Ngeli sent in another arrow.
And then another.
Slowly, the creature’s struggle subsided and it finally lowered to the grass, still in death.
Ngeli quickly reached to a nearby abalidiegwu plant and plucked off some of its green leaves. She crushed them between her palms and applied the juice to Ebubedike’s wound.
Ebube gave a small groan at the sting of the plant’s juice.
‘What creature?’ Anene asked, coming close. He raised his foot, but appeared afraid to kick the dead serpent. He finally kicked gently at the side of its fat body.
‘It is a great python,’ Ngeli said, her attention on Ebubedike’s wound. She was now bandaging it with a piece she’d torn out from her wrapper. ‘There had been stories of a giant serpent in the forest that could swallow a person whole, but no one was certain it actually existed.’
‘So you knew about it and still took us through this path?’ Anene’s face was twisted in anger.
‘There is no other way. This is the shortest route to the sun road.’
Now Ngeli left Ebubedike and turned to Anene. ‘Hey, watch your mouth, weakling! Do you imply I mean harm on you?’
‘Still your mouth both of you,’ Ebubedike said. That would be the lowest his voice had ever come out. ‘We must embrace strength now. This is nothing to match the unpredictability of the bare lands.’
That night, as they continued with their journey, Ebubedike broke off a branch from a big shrub by the side of the road and with the short knife Anene gave to him, whittled himself a spear.
They were at the sun road by early dawn. They stood in the grassland, watching the tall hill that thrust steeply into the sky.
A narrow track snaked up it, as if a road to heaven.
In noon time, the sun appeared to be standing just at the tip of the hill and its light would flow down the hillside in gentle blinding gold. Quite a magnificent sight to behold.
The three travellers braced up and started toiling up the track.
…Adapted from Ebubedike and the Desertlings of Uforo by Daniel Nkado.