The day called Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve, celebrated in the United States, Canada, and Europe is a fun occasion when children and adults alike get to dress up as their favorite characters, participate in a wide array of exciting activities, and solicit candy and other treats from friends and strangers alike. This is not the case in Umogidi, a village in the central part of Africa. In Umogidi, it is etched in the roots of their beliefs that on the first of November of each year, when the day of saints is recognized and celebrated, power is distributed among all the saints. It is also believed that mere human beings who spend their life doing good deeds have a permeability suited for the absorption of this power and this, my friends, is where this story begins.
The people of Umogidi, people who do not just survive but thrive, believe their prosperity comes from those who have the attribute akin to that of saints and the permeability to the power that comes with it. Unfortunately, the people themselves do not think that anyone in their town possesses indefatigable goodness, and so they encourage visits to their town through tourism; when people of saintly potential are found, they are encouraged to stay, at least till the festival of the saints.
Chukwudi Chidubem—also known as CC–was a young man who lost his father at an early age due to an attack that happened in the Nzube forest in Umogidi. He had little memory of what happened, but he remembered that this attack had claimed his father’s life instantly and left his body severely dismembered. Shortly after that his mother contracted an illness directly or indirectly related to his father’s death, but the illness was one that prevented her from performing the regular activities of daily living, especially taking care of her four children. CC, being the eldest, took the responsibility of bread winner and caregiver for his family and never had a word of complaint escape his lips. He always had a smile on his face and a kind word for everyone, loved by those who knew him and taken advantage of by those who knew of him. This he knew, but he always saw the goodness in people, and this fashioned him into the kind of man who would give the food from his bowl to another who was hungry, and the shirt off his back to someone whom he thought would make better use of it; and that is exactly what he did. He even gave his empty wallet to someone who had more money than he but no wallet, with the mind frame that the person had a greater need for it than he, CC, did. He was definitely seen as someone who had the permeability of saintly gifts; he was a prime candidate.
On this fateful night, the 31st of October seemed much more peaceful than others. It was a night born of a fairytale as CC walked down the dirt road extending from the town square. Manipulating his feet to hang onto his sandals with broken buckles, he navigated the eroded streets with the dexterity of a skilled acrobat. The telltale characteristics of a laborer singled him out as the only man who had worked that day: feet laced with the yellow dust found on the farms with loamy soil in which grains were planted; and the evidence of hard work on his singlet which had browned with age and which no ammonia or bleach could rescue back to its glory days of whiteness. He walked down the street; he closed his eyes as the cool night air caressed his skin, evaporating the sweat from his neck and chest. He could hear the rustling leaves of the tree overhead and the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, he could detect the fragrance of the ripe mango from a farm nearby and the taste of the coconut he had just devoured, and he smiled to himself and thought how much beauty there was in the world around him. He opened his eyes just as his sixth sense alerted him to fact that he was not alone, and sure enough, there was another present.
A figure stood before him, stagnant and almost unmoving except for a gown-like cloak that fluttered in the light breeze; he could not tell what it was, but he could tell it had eyes, and these were not the kind of eyes you saw in the faces of the market women or in the faces of the men who worked on the farm—but they were the eyes of a human. They had the luminous tint of a predator and they were there, behind a mask that looked like something designed by people of the underworld, designed to harvest fear, and it served its purpose well. It had horns pointed downwards like that of a buffalo, but much longer; the holes for the eyes were just big enough for its wearer to have a view of everything around without exposing much of what was behind it. There was no nose to indicate that it breathed, and it had teeth that were jagged and out of order, and dark liquid dripped from them and discolored the bottom of the mask.
CC had stopped walking; the caution he exercised was laced with extreme fear which surprised him as much as the creature did. He hadn’t any cause to be fearful, but he knew what fear was. He let the machete he had fall to his side in a non-threatening manner, but he gripped it tightly enough to stop the blood flow to his palms. He smiled and said hello, and just as he did, the man-creature tilted its masked head to one side and turned and went into the tall grass leading into the forest on the side of the road.
By this time darkness had started to settle and there were no street lights because it was a rural village. The stars had started to shine and the crickets had begun to sound their mating call. CC, although a humble man with a good heart, was not a coward, and the fear that was once there evaporated at the thought of the family he had left at home; but just as he was about to start moving again, the figure appeared again, this time behind him. The fear CC felt before was nothing compared to what he felt now because the creature had brought a friend that looked exactly like it, and they were closer now than the first had been a moment ago. They didn’t appear to have appendages but they moved swiftly. CC turned and was about to run and he did—right into a third which had somehow appeared while he was momentarily distracted by the sight of the other two. They did have appendages because they took hold of him, and they were swift and way more agile than he was. He was quickly overpowered and dragged into the forest with them.
What had seemed like a perfect day and an appreciation of his five senses had immediately turned so that he did not hear the rustling of the leaves, the braying of the donkey, or smell the pleasant scents that had made him appreciate the gift of life only minutes earlier. Instead he was overwhelmed by the putrid odor of death; his captors, men or not, had bound his wrist so tightly that the rope made out of palm fronds dug so deeply into his skin that a few blood vessels had ruptured and he bled. He was taken deep into the Umunya forest, the forest where twin babies are sacrificed because the people of Umogidi believe that twins are an anomaly sent by spirit demons; so their heads are cut off in this forest to appease the gods.
Through the forest he was carried until they reached a clearing, and he let out a gasp at the sight of the rest of his family, bound and under the watchful eyes of more creatures akin to his captors. Beside them was a large pot, a cauldron filled with oil at its boiling point, ropes that resembled his binds, a hunting dagger, and an axe. A rage of such ferocity that it distorted his vision overtook him and he tried to break free of his bonds and captors, but his efforts were futile; one of the creatures handed him the machete that it had taken from him at the time of his capture, as if daring him to take action. He accepted the challenge, took the machete, and was about to strike the creature when he spotted movement at the corner of his eye: he saw one of the creatures hold his mother’s throat as if to crush her windpipe, and just as quickly, he dropped the machete. The creature that had handed him the machete seemed to be their leader because it looked at the other holding his dear mother’s windpipe and it let go of her.
And then he-it spoke. It sounded like a man, because it was. They were all men and this CC inferred because they all understood what was said and acted accordingly. The leader told the rest to bring CC’s family closer; his voice was clear, precise, calm, but authoritative. He spoke like he was slow to anger, and his voice sounded both like a kind grandfather and like someone who had been desensitized to the worst kind of wrongdoing imaginable. He explained to CC that he and his family were there to serve a great purpose, that he was sent to the people of Umogidi to be a blessing to their land. He further explained that the people of Umogidi believed that the chosen saint was to be a vessel through which power would be filtered to the land. He told CC that his heart had to be broken, and this could only be done when CC picked one of his family members to be killed and was witness to the event. Only then, when the soul is broken, does the power reverberate through the person and settle in their gonads, which would then be separated, after which the candidate would be set free.
Reality no longer seemed real, everything was spinning, and this could not be a dream because dreams never had a bad quality in CC’s world. The stars were out, and in this part of the world the sky was cloudless and the stars were so numerous that they outshone the moon; but beauty like this had adopted another meaning. The stars were spectators to the chain of events; they had a front row seat and were antsy at the anticipation of the bloodshed about to take place like the ancient Romans at gladiator matches. The moon mocked CC for being weak and not being able to protect his family. Even the trees seemed to disperse themselves from this disgrace of a man who let harm like this befall his family, but the worst was yet to come.
The leader of the creatures asked CC to pick the one out of his family would be sacrificed so that the rest may live, and at once, CC volunteered himself as his mother, his brother, and twin sisters watched, terrified. The leader watched CC unmoving, and as if he did not hear him, the leader explained again that CC had to pick one of his family members so the others could live. And with that he asked CC whom to sacrifice, and once again, CC picked himself. At this the leader shook his head and moved one of his hands, a slight movement almost completely masked by his cloak, and this CC realized was a signal because, at that point, one of his sisters was thrown into the pot of oil. The collective screams of everyone in the family was enough to scare little creatures into their holes and startle the predatory creatures that had come out to hunt. They all sat there silently mourning their sister and daughter, silently because the leader had commanded silence.
The leader again asked CC which of his family members he would like to sacrifice so that the others would live. CC made an oath to avenge his sister’s death and rained curses on the families of his captors, but the leader simply asked again whom he would like to sacrifice, and then his mother volunteered herself to be sacrificed. Just as she did, an axe that came seemingly out of nowhere sliced through his mother’s neck, decapitating her. Blood splattered the face of his other sister who seemed to be in a torpid state; she had retreated into her mind and had psychologically walled off the horrific events that unfolded right in front of them. His brother was trying unsuccessfully to appear brave as evidenced by the bodily fluids that soiled his shorts. But he put on a stern face, willing to fight if given the opportunity; he was indeed brave.
The leader asked again which family member was to be sacrificed in order for the others to be free; CC screamed and beat his chest, and he told the leader through gut-wrenching sorrow that his mother had just volunteered her life. The leader nodded, but he said that in order for them to attain freedom, the decision had to be made by CC. At this he wailed and mourned the futile deaths of his mother and sister and asked his father to forgive him. His heart was heavy with sadness as he had to come to terms with the fact that the life and death of his family were with him. And with all the composure he could muster—which was none at all—he picked his dear remaining sister. Almost instantly the hunting dagger wielded by one of the creatures was thrust between the lower ribs on her left side into the apex of her heart, and she died instantly. CC was reduced to an invertebrate, his head hung weakly as he fell to his knees. He had killed his entire family and there were no proper adjectives to express his feelings. The only life left was one that gave him just the tiniest atom of hope when he heard the leader give orders for his brother to be released. The leader ordered the boy to run and not look back. CC could not even bring himself to look at his brother, much less say goodbye.
As his brother ran, he tripped on a branch and fell and did not get up. One of the creatures went over to the boy and rolled him over and CC saw that his brother, his only brother and remaining family, had fallen on the machete that CC had dropped earlier. At the sight of this he dug his fingers into his eyes and let out an inhuman sound so unearthly and blood curdling that it was the predators’ turn to take flight. He cried blood, he kept bellowing until the strength was gone from him and his body felt faint. His heart was broken. The leader of the creatures stood staring at CC and said simply that the loss of his brother was not supposed to happen. The goal had been reached, but CC was no longer a prime candidate because, according to their beliefs, the candidate was supposed to have a beacon of hope and that beacon in the form of his brother had just been destroyed. And so CC was useless, his permeability to the power of the saints had been snuffed. And with that, they just left, leaving behind the sister still boiling in the pot, the mother decapitated, the other sister lifeless with a hunting dagger through her heart, and the brother with a machete through his skull.
I live in the United States now, and every Halloween as you go out to get your candy and treats, I mourn Ngozi, my mother, Adaora and Adaobi my sisters, and Kuyinu my brother. And I go visit a person with the permeability for the power of sainthood and their family and leave their house a scene comparable to that in the forest with my family on that fateful night in the village of Umogidi in central Africa.
Archives: Fall 2010.