The Other Side of The Hill
The bare red earth was all that was behind us. If we were being factual though; I would say there was a house behind us. The log cabin Father and Elim had built from scratch, right after the villagers chased us to this side of the community. In this situation, the bare red earth, and the patchy dry grass of the savannah were all that could be seen for miles.
In front of us, the Ogudu hill separated us from the rest of the village. The hill, with all its might shielded and acted as the boundary between plenty and scarcity. On its other side, there were streams rich with fishes, orchards of robust fruits, green grasses for their cattle to graze on, and big trees for their little ones to use as shade.
We used to be a part of this though. Until I was born; mother would complain. I think she secretly regrets having me, and losing all that was good. It was the colour of my eyes; they said. How could a child with loamy dark skin, possess such striking blue eyes?
“She’s probably an Omela.” They would say. Omela is mermaid in our native dialect. Such a child would bring bad luck to the village. So, they asked us to move to the other side of the hill, before that could happen. We have been surviving there, ever since.
I scratched my chin absentmindedly, while the scorching sun beat me without mercy. My throat was parched, and the baking sand stung my small feet.
“Elima!” Mother’s shrill voice broke through my trance. I turned my neck to look at her. “Go inside and get me a small bowl of water.”
She was squatting near the outhouse, baby Elimi strapped to her back, while Elimu squatted beside her, all naked, safe for the pile of shit on the ground behind his black buttocks.
“Elima!” Mother shouted again.
I jolted and hurried my tired feet into the house. I could hear Elim’s rich chuckling sound behind me. He was telling Mother to be kinder with me, while mother told him I was too problematic. Their voices faded away behind me, as I approached the small opening that led to the basement.
To keep our things cool, father had built a small enclosure under the soil, within the cabin. A trap door was all that separated it from the main house. I heaved as I lifted the heavy wooden square. It fell to its side with a loud clang, making me wince, and secretly hoping mother didn’t hear the loud noise.
I crawled down the rickety stairs, while my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the little room. I made my way to the water pot. The water was almost finished. Father and Elim would soon have to prepare for another secret nightly trip to one of the streams on the other side of the hill. I thought it was stealing, but Mother had made me kneel for hours for voicing out that particular opinion. I had to learn to keep such to myself, ever since then.
I quickly scooped water with my palms and took a quick sip. I was exceeding my ration for that day, but my parched throat was singing a different tune. What mother didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.
I used a different bowl to scoop water from the pot, and returned the pot’s cover. The trip up the stair was tricky, but it was one I had made a few times in the past, so I was used to it. I lifted my head out of the hole, and dropped the bowl on the wooden floor of the cabin.
I was about to crawl out when I heard it. It was sharp scream, piercing the still afternoon, followed by multiple successive screams and gut-wrenching wails. We were the only ones on this side of the hill, so the noise must have been from the village.
My curiosity skyrocketed immediately.
I rushed out of the hole, picked up the water bowl, while I left the trap door open. I had to know what was happening. When I stepped outside, father was making his way around the other side of the house, while Elim looked alert. Mother was no longer squatting beside Elimu, but she had not moved from her position near the outhouse. I rushed towards her with the bowl of water, and she took it without paying attention to its half-full content, and the trail of water that followed me from the house.
Father faced Elim. “Stay here with your mother and siblings. Let me see what’s going on. I’ll be back soon.”
Elim nodded, without uttering a word. Speaking was not his favourite thing to do. Mother dropped the now empty bowl of water, while Elimu stood up, his buttocks now devoid of traces of faeces.
“You’re not going anywhere, husband of mine.”
Father picked up his spear. It was resting on the wall of the log cabin. “But they’re my Okazi. I need to respond to them in this time of need.”
“So, they’re your brethren, but they chased you out of their village when they saw your blue-eyed child?” Mother sneered.
Father shook his head and sighed. “I’ll be back soon.” Was all he said before he trotted off in the direction of the hill.
We all stood and watched him labour up the hills, but we saw him no more when he began his descent on the other side. The screams would stop for a few minutes, and all would be quiet again. We could not even hear birds during the silent periods. The screams would resume again after a while.
All through this, Elm was pacing to and fro in front of the cabin. His sturdy feet made a trail on the red earth. He stopped suddenly, and picked up his own spear. Sensing his intent, Mother stood up from her stool, and dropped baby Elimi on the dry grass. She untied her wrapper and retied it, as she rushed towards him.
“NO!” She shrlled. “Not you too.”
Elim held her by the arms, trying to hold her in place, but she was stronger than her willowy frame. “Mother, I’ll be back soon. I promise you.”
“Your father said the same thing, but it’s been an hour.”
Elim cracked a smile. “You know how he is mother. I am different. I meant it when I said I’ll be back soon.”
The fight seemed to suddenly drop from Mother’s body. Her eyes became blank as she nodded and stepped away from Elim. There were traces of tears in her eyes, but they were not falling. They only made her doe-like eyes look glassy.
“Go well my son.” She sniffed.
Elim gave her one last pat, gave me a stiff nod, and jogged towards the hill. It didn’t take long for his head to disappear against the other side.
The rest of us resumed our waiting in silence. Even baby Elimi could not cry. She had probably sensed the tensed air, and realized her cry would only make things worse. Elimu toddled towards me, with silent tears tricking down his bronze cheeks. I held out an arm, and he collapsed against me. My eight year old body was barely taller than his three year old frame.
“I’m hungry. He whispered.
I did not know what to say. Talking to Mother was out of the question, neither could I scrunch up food for him. All I could do was nod and commiserate with him.
“Elima.” Mother called out to me. There was no shrillness in her voice anymore.
I stood up with haste and walked towards her. She was standing and staring at the hill in silence. She looked so peaceful, I could have sworn she didn’t open her mouth to call my name.
“Elima.” She called again.
“Take your brother and your sister down to the basement.” Her voice sounded so far away.
She turned to look at me. “Take them down to the basement, and don’t come out until I come for you.” I looked on. “Do you understand me?”
I nodded. “Yes mother.”
“Good.” She smiled a bit. “Go now my child.”
I grabbed the crawling baby, despite her protests, and I directed Elimu towards the house. Mother was standing there, looking at us, unmoving and silent. Her sad smile was the last thing I saw, before the wooden door shut behind us. I was thankful, when I saw the trap door open. I wouldn’t have to drop the baby first.
I made Elimu go down first, while I made a careful descent behind him. Elimi grabbed my hair, but I held on tight to her, refusing to let her go. When we got to the basement, I dropped the baby in Elimu’s small arms.
“Stay with her, I’m coming.”
His small hands grabbed my hands immediately. “Where are you going?”
“I want to go and bolt the cabin door, and I’ll have to bolt the trap door when I’m returning.” I gently eased my hand out of his soft one. “Look after her.”
His eyes, wide with fear, pleaded with me to stay back, but he nodded his assent nonetheless. I made my way out of the basement and into the cabin. The door was wide open, and the screams were now closer. The whooshing sounds of an impending sand storm could be heard, and the red sky was now darker. I approached the open door, scared of what I might see coming from the other side of the hill.
They weren’t on the hill though; they were right outside our cabin. There were six of them, all translucent and shimmering, as they gazed at me with sad eyes. They were standing, but their colourless feet weren’t on the floor. They appeared to be floating. The only odd things were their striking blue eyes. They were just like mine.
Unconsciously, I took a step out of the door, and stepped closer to them. Simultaneously, they raised an arm to beckon at me, while their mouths opened and the wails from before came out of them. I could make out one word though, as I covered my ears and waited for the screeching to stop.
Oluwaseun Beatrice Wende © 2020