Dry, spiky shrubs grazed Utazi’s bare feet as he walked behind the two men. The men, naked save for knitted palm fronds tied loosely around their waists, were covered in black dye that made their bodies shimmer like the black pot on Utazi’s shaved head.
A push from behind increased Utazi’s pace, causing the content of the pot to spill on his lanky frame. “Walk fast,” Ogbuefi, his father, called, his voice throaty and intimidating. “That female spirit inhabiting your body will leave you today.”
Utazi could picture the frown lines on Ogbuefi’s face even though he was not allowed to look back. Some meters away, Utazi spotted a towering tree. The almighty Ngwurangwu altar? he wondered. The pounding in his chest picked up, in tandem with the trembling of his feet and chattering of his teeth. Utazi wondered again how today’s rituals would make him act manly, and keep him away from the open fires in his mother’s kitchen.
When the ritual was done, the two men carried on their heads a flat plank of wood with the weak body of the boy sprawled on it. Utazi’s left hand hung down, dangling. His other hand covered the bleeding wound on his stomach. The rustling sound of the dry leaves as the men trampled on them reminded Utazi of the crackling noise of the open fire in his mother’s kitchen.
Utazi loved the feel of sitting close to an open fire while picking beans or pounding pepper in a mortar or using the big spoon to stir the boiling stew. But he knew better than to speak this in front of Ogbuefi.
Ogbuefi had caught him once, before the rituals at Ngwulangwu shrine. It was a sweltering afternoon and his father had made him kneel outside the house.
“You should know your place boy,” he roared, his voice angry, like the red-hot charcoal under Utazi’s knees.
Flies had danced around his burned and bleeding knees. The bitterness of sorrow filled his mouth and he pressed his eyes closed, fighting tears.
He didn’t understand why his father frowned at him every time he caught him in the kitchen cutting onions, or stoking the fire, but would always turn a blind eye when Ada, Utazi’s sister, chopped or fetched firewood.
Utazi always played nchọrọkọ with Ada in their mother’s room during their leisure times.
“No, you cheated,” Ada would say through narrowed eyes each time Utazi won.
“Have I cheated before, Ada?” It was the afternoon following the manhood ritual at Ngwulangwu. His voice was soft, no different than before.
“Admit it, I’m smarter than you, even though I’m younger,” he said, a grin creeping over his face, accentuating the two deep-seated dimples.
“You lie!” Ada cried, her voice deep and throaty like Ogbuefi’s. “This game is best suited for women not men, so you must have cheated.”
“Ada!” Ekema, their mother, called from the kitchen. Utazi ran to her in a moment, panting softly and holding his wound.
Ada pushed the nchọrọkọ to a corner, rushed to the bed closed her eyes tightly.
“I called your sister, not you,” Ekeme’s look was fearful, as though wishing he would retrace his steps.
“She’s napping,” he said, averting his gaze to hide the lie. “But I’m here. I can help you with anything.”
His mother looked at him again and Utazi knew at once that, in her silence, she was only considering the risk in what he was asking for.
Moments later, she shrugged, handed him a tray of bitter leaf and asked him to pick the leaves.
Utazi found himself a seat close to the fire and began to pick the leaves. From time to time he raised his face to the door. His father wouldn’t return until dusk, he knew that. But he needed to stay alert to avoid getting caught.
“Nne, I’m tired of Papa’s tyranny,” the words escaped his lips before he could stop them. Through the knitted frown lines on his face, he saw Ekema’s dropped jaw. Her spoon slipped from her hand and fell into the boiling soup. Utazi’s foot caught the splash. He flinched but knew better not to rub.
“How could you say such a thing?” she asked, standing arms akimbo. She dropped down on her seat. Utazi watched the merry crinkle of her eyes turn into something he couldn’t recognize. Could it be a frown? Or pity? “Your father only wants you to know your place as a man. That’s all,” she continued, the softness in her voice returned.
“Why do I get punished anytime I touch a pot, but not an axe? When I stoke the fire, but not when I make mounds out of the soil? Does liking kitchen work make me less of a man? Why am I punished for a trait that feels natural to me?”
Ekema’s lips twitched and her mouth flopped open. Utazi noticed the unspoken words bubbling within her that could not make their way out. He retrieved a knife from the bag that hung from the black, soot-covered walls.
“See eeh, your fa—”
“Amadiọha eeeh!” Ogbuefi thundered! Ekema and Utazi jolted. She staggered backwards, her husband’s anger making her stumble. Utazi flung his tray aside but his fingers gripped firmly onto the knife.
Ogbuefi lunged at his son. His eyes flashed red with rage. The clunking and clattering of falling implements filled the room and he kicked them away, advancing on Utazi with his hard fists swinging.
Utazi raised his hands to protect his head from the incoming blows before he squatted. An unseen rope on the floor caught Obuefi’s feet, making his next movement difficult. He toppled over, the knife in Utazi’s hand sinking to the hilt into his stomach.