CLOSE to Ama-Mgb’ojikwe, lived Okagbuo’s family. Like other families in Umuelo, they had done their chores early and locked themselves inside their huts.
Some families who lived close to the square had gone to stay with friends and relatives elsewhere, but Okagbuo did not see the need for that. Besides, he wanted to watch this great battle with the fearsome beast from the perceived safety of his obi.
Okagbuo had two wives and seven children, the last of which was Nneka, a wilful girl of eight seasons of age. The early lock-in meant that Nneka could not pick her own share of mangoes that morning. She was a late sleeper, and her mother had let her sleep her fill. Waking her would have wasted precious time. Moreover, how much work could she do, anyway? When she eventually woke up, there was just enough time to bathe and feed her before the lock-in.
Since she did not pick mangoes that morning, Nneka had groused that no one had bothered to wake her up. Her siblings’ offers did not pacify her. She wanted her own! They gave her a few miserly mangoes. Nothing compared to what she could pick and share with her friends who did not have such a sweet variety of the fruit growing next to their compound.
She had tried to sneak out earlier, but her mother had caught her and given her a good smack on her bottom. She had cried dramatically, then shut up and slept when no one showed interest in consoling and petting her.
Now she woke up and found everyone sound asleep. Her eldest sister was even snoring softly. With stealth beyond her age, she let herself out of the hut, opening the door slightly and squeezing her small body through.
Outside, she went around her mother’s hut, avoiding their compound’s main entrance. Her father might be awake in his obi, and would surely give her ear a good pull if he saw her. The compound had no fence, so she could go out through any side she chose.
As she marched towards the mango trees, her mind filled with thoughts of the oppression she had suffered in her family. Everyone felt at liberty to order her about because she was the last child. Besides her parents, her older siblings would smack her sometimes for no serious offence. The only people who were nice to her here were her mother’s co-wife and her grandmother. She often wished that she were the first instead of the last child.
Never mind, I’ll show them when I grow up, she consoled herself for the umpteenth time.
A surprised cry of pleasure escaped her as she reached the mango trees. There were so many of the sweet and succulent fruits littered all over the ground. Quickly, she began to gather them at a spot, ruing the fact that she did not bring a basket.
How can I carry all this? she wondered. For a moment, she thought of going to get a basket, but quickly changed her mind. It was too risky – they would find out how lucky she was, and take away some of her mangoes. She picked as many as her small hands could carry, then went and dropped them at the back of her mother’s hut.
She worked as fast as she could, her small feet making little sound as she moved.
How fortunate I’m today, she thought as she moved quickly back and forth. My friends and I would really enjoy ourselves. Imagine all I would have missed because some… some animal was coming. What was it coming here to do? The animal was supposed to be huge, and could eat people. So what? They just wanted to scare her and stop her from picking her own mangoes, when they had picked theirs without calling her. They would surely regret their sleep when they wake up and see all the mangoes she had picked.
She giggled happily, as she thought of how much they would envy her.
She had just bent down to gather another set of mangoes when she heard what sounded like the growl of a dog, and looked up. She stood stock-still, the mangoes falling from her suddenly lifeless arms. She was staring at a massive-looking beast with terrifying eyes, and the hugest, hairy head she had ever seen!
The animal shook his great head, lowered it and growled again. Then she screamed. It was a sound of such terror that its pitch startled the beast, as it reverberated in the still, hot afternoon air.
The lion stared at her, perplexed that such a small creature could make such a loud sound. He shook his great head and growled louder. The girl screamed louder, too, and took two steps backwards.
A dog barked, a goat bleated, and a mad cacophony of fear-induced sounds filled the noon atmosphere.
If’adikanwa was deep in sleep when she heard her daughter scream. Despite the depth of her sleep, she jumped up at once. A quick glance around the hut confirmed what she already knew. The cursed child had left the safety of the hut! Today of all days!
She was dashing towards the door of the hut when she heard Nneka scream again. She rushed out of her hut, calling out to her husband. A third cry told her where the child was and she dashed off in that direction. As she rounded the bend, beyond her husband’s obi, she stopped suddenly at a sight that chilled her blood…
Under the shade of trees, induced by the heavy meals they had eaten, and the cool breeze blowing across the square, the men waiting for the lion had fallen into a doze.
The girl’s terrified cries, the frightened sounds of the domestic animals, and the anxious calls of her family confused the disoriented men. Fortunately, a few of them, including Chidebem, were alert quickly, and swung into action at once. They jumped down from the trees and moved across the square, in the direction of the cries. The sight they beheld, however, stopped them in their tracks in shock and fear.
There was the small girl standing, clutching herself across the middle in terror, screaming now and again as she took halting steps backwards. She was too terrified to turn around and run, which was probably what kept her alive until that moment. Several paces away from her, to their left, stood the magnificent beast they were waiting for. Even in the distance separating them, the sight of him, with his huge head and heavy mane, was fear inspiring.
As they stood rooted to the ground, staring, the lion took two casual steps towards the girl. She screamed again, calling on her mother and father, as she took a few more steps backwards, the tears streaming down her face. To his right, several paces behind the girl, Chidebem heard someone cry out, beckoning on them to come and help save her daughter. Several family members were moving forward, gesticulating wildly, calling out in turn to the girl, then to the immobile men. In the lead among them was her mother, then her grandmother.
The desperate cries of those two women, plus their incredible courage, galvanized Chidebem into action. He took off at a run, lifting his gun to shoot. Halfway across the square, he realized the futility of using the gun: he would more likely hit the girl than the lion.
Nevertheless, he had to do something!
He stopped and looked around wildly, scooped up some stones, and moved forward again. He saw the beast take a few leisurely steps towards the terrified girl, and she screamed and took a few steps backwards.
He hurled a stone towards the beast. It missed the target, but landed close enough to distract the animal for a moment before he turned his attention back to the girl.
The child’s mother and grandmother were still moving forward and calling out when Chidebem let fly with two more stones in quick succession. The first one missed completely, but the second stone hit one of the lion’s hind legs. It turned baleful eyes towards Chidebem and growled – a deep, rumbling and fearsome sound.
The small girl fell on her derriere in terror and failed to get up, despite the frantic calls of her family from behind her.
In spite of the beast’s warning growl, Chidebem stepped forward and hurled more stones at him, driven by the desperate need to distract him. His anxiety made his aim poor.
Meanwhile, the beast was drawing closer, as the terrified child now crawled backwards on her buttocks. In desperation, Chidebem ran forward again to get a better aim. It worked, as his next thrown stone landed square on the lion’s head!
Enraged, the beast threw back his huge head and let out a blood-curdling roar. Nneka jerked convulsively, let out a choked scream, defecated, and lay still on the ground. The awesome sound halted even her brave mother and grandmother in their quest to save their offspring! Birds and small animals scurried for safety, and the dogs’ barking seized for a while. Everything was still.
The king of the jungle had roared his rage!
All around that village and far beyond, the sound reverberated, leaving no one in doubt that an earthshaking event was taking place. Women hugged their children tightly in their huts, and even the bravest men felt fear.
At the square, the effect was worse. The men who were advancing behind Chidebem halted their advance. Those climbing down from trees stopped their descent. Some even began to climb back up the trees as far as they could!
Standing many paces away from the lion, Chidebem felt his legs tremble. For a wild moment, a strong urge to turn around and bolt seized him, but he fought it. He shook with the effort to fight his fear, but somehow, he found the courage to stand and face the beast.
Why should he run away and leave that poor girl at the mercy of the animal? They had gathered here to kill the lion, after all. They had not planned it this way, yet…
In a moment, fear for his safety changed to concern for the girl, as the lion turned his attention back to her. His leisurely steps towards her galvanized the women into action again. Chidebem was horrified to see that Nneka was lying back on the ground, unmoving.
The poor child had fainted from fear because of the lion’s roar! He had to act fast, or his presence here had no value. He would not stand here like a fool and let the wild beast devour that child!
The calls and cries of the women were like distant and indistinct sounds as he moved forward again. A strange mist seemed to cover his eyes, and a new strength and power vibrated through him.
What right does this shaggy-haired brute have to come here and kill people when it had all the animals in the bush to hunt? he fumed.
Must we run away from our fathers’ land because of him? NO WAY!
He lunged forward and let fly with a big stone. He watched it sail through the air and hit the lion on his back, while in mid-stride.
Like something from a nightmare, the beast drew back his great head, growled fiercely, and surged forward towards Chidebem. As he leapt past the unconscious girl, If’adikanwa rushed forward, scooped up her daughter in her arms, and ran back towards her hut.
For a moment, Chidebem stood, scarce believing that the lion was coming at him. Then he hastily pulled his gun from his left shoulder, took aim, and shot at the onrushing beast. It was a poor shot. His hands shook so badly that the shot went widely off target, but the sound of gunfire halted the forward rush of the lion for a moment. Then realizing that the loud sound came from the creature standing there challenging him, he moved forward again.
“Chidebem, take this one!” someone shouted behind him.
He turned and saw a gun flying through the air towards him. He had hardly grabbed the gun when he heard other calls, in frightened and desperate tones, “Chidebem, look out!”
He spun around and glimpsed a massive, tawny blur hurtling through the air towards him.
The lion! Quick as a flash, he dropped to the ground, the gun falling from his grasp as he rolled away furiously. The lion saw the sudden movement, and like the cat he was, twisted in the air and made for him, his right forearm extended.
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