From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

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Fiction

Flight

I

Tonight, Jekwu and Izu are perched on Chapel’s fence. They love this fence. It is the only fence in Selemku that is still coated with fresh algae-spirogyra lichen, warm under their feet, like a rug. Here, the glint of the full moon on Chapel’s stained-glass windows crisscrosses their grey feathers, the same way rainbow beams stretch out across the sky in the mornings. The air from this height is cold and dry. It wriggles its way under their skin, sending spasms down their spine. From time to time, the halogen-bulb atop the belfry comes on and then goes off and then on again. A never-ending cycle. Jekwu and Izu have gotten used to it. The bulb does this same thing every time they come here. Jekwu and Izu do not know if the belfry has had this same bulb for the six months they have been coming to Chapel’s fence to warm their feet on the lichen rug or if the bulb is always replaced with another faulty one. Izu thinks the bulb is this way because it can sense their presence and does not know how to behave, so it jitters when they are around and steadies itself once they leave. He does not tell Jekwu this, of course.

“One. Two. Three.” Jekwu swaggers his wings a bit as the bulb flickers on after his count. He nudges Izu, who seems to be lost, staring into the night.

Jekwu and Izu are hungry. They have been hunting worms and bugs in the city, all day. From Central Refuse Dump where they had to fight beak to beak with the egrets who lay territory over the dump, along the stinking gutters that washed into River Bambu, behind Madam Okey’s fish shop where they were careful not to swallow bits of plastic bag as they dug into the trash, to the abandoned cemetery where they scoured rotting bones, still they could not find any. Chalo, the-one-with-the-broken-wings, had told them a week ago that it was the tremors from Town Planning’s bulldozers that drove the worms and bugs away. But everyone knows it was not just Town Planning’s bulldozers that drove the earthworms and bugs away. To tell you the truth, the worms and bugs were not driven away, they were killed. All of them. The Debug Selemku Project and those things that men wearing shimmery red aprons spray from fancy aluminum cans killed them, shrunk their bodies, dried them out, until they turned to powder. Jekwu and Izu and the rest of the grey parrots know this: that the bugs and earthworms may never come back, but they do not say it out loud. They still rise every morning and fly around the city, hope warming the edges of their wings, in search of the worms and bugs. They also know they could not risk snooping around human houses for leftovers, the few who have dared were never seen again.

“A weed-seed is stuck in your feather,” Jekwu says.

“Where?”

“At the back of your neck.”

“Help me take it out.”

Izu can rotate his neck in a complete revolution and pull out the weed-seed but he lets Jekwu do it. The feel of Jekwu’s beak as he pecks out the weed-seed is ticklish. He smiles, shuts his eyes, and soaks the tickle all in. Love makes one relish jejune things, doesn’t it? Izu remembers the day they first met, almost a year ago, on a sunny afternoon at the old schoolyard. Jekwu was burrowing through the roots of the grass under an ukwa tree, looking for grubs. He was not the only grey parrot in the schoolyard, many of them used to visit the old schoolyard before it was refurbished with synthetic carpet-grass and all earthworms and bugs disappeared. But it was not difficult for Izu to spot Jekwu out. There was a thoroughness about the way he pecked at those roots. Jekwu caught Izu’s stare, flew over to where he perched, and asked what his name was. Izu had frozen a bit before he found his voice and whispered Izu. And then Jekwu had asked him why he has chosen to stare at him instead of scouting for food, to which Izu replied, with his newly found voice, that staring at him was better than looking for some silly grubs.

“Do you remember when the trees were still here?” Jekwu asks pointing towards the rows and rows of bungalows at Shonibara Estate. “Do you sometimes wonder where all the trees went to? How they disappeared, like the worms and bugs?”

Izu does not answer Jekwu’s question. What is the need? The answer will not bring back what used to be their home. His mother, Nneka, used to tell him that before Chapel and all the rows and rows of bungalows that looked so much alike Izu wondered how the occupants could tell their house apart from their neighbors’, Shonibara Estate used to be filled with trees that almost grazed the clouds. It was home to innumerable birds. But one day, shortly after he hatched out of the egg, they woke up to the sound of chainsaws and bulldozers. Izu’s mother said their nest used to be on one of the many branches of a giant oak where Chapel’s parsonage now stands. So, on nights like this, when someone asks Izu if he remembers the trees, he thinks about his mother and all the stories she told him, before she decided to toss caution into the wind and look for food where the humans live. She never came back. Someone must have captured her. But knowing her mother, Izu is certain that Nneka would rather kill herself than let anyone lock her up in a fancy cage.

When Chapel’s clock strikes midnight, Udoka joins them on the fence. She unfurls her wings and brings out some cherries and a small tin of sweetcorn. Udoka is Reverend Green’s new pet. The three used to be food-hunting mates until Udoka decided that she was tired of sifting through gutter waters and burrowing through sandy roots for food. She had flown over to the parsonage and allowed herself to be captured. As the birds munch on the cherries and sweetcorn, Udoka prattles on and on about her silver cage with a certain kind of newness that would make one think this is the first time she is talking about it, and not every time she joins Jekwu and Izu on the fence, on nights when Reverend Green forgets to lock her cage.

“Do you know it has two pots? Ehen? One for water and one for my poop. Have you ever pooped into a pot before? No, you haven’t. And the interior, the good old Reverend designed it himself. There is a mock tree inside and I can fly around from end to end. Why would anyone want to live in the wild? Why?”

“It’s not the wild, Udoka, it is home,” Jekwu says. “Our home.”

Udoka ignores Jekwu and continues. “Reverend Green washes my food tray after each meal. And they have this little box filled with bright light and little children who sing all day. There was this evening Reverend Green came back from Chapel and…”

“Why are your cheeks pink?” Izu asks, hoping it will stop Udoka’s rambling about her cage.

“You noticed,” Udoka squeals and wags her rear feather. “I knew you’d be the one to notice it. Obianuju, Reverend Green’s daughter, started painting them every morning. On some days it’s green, blue, or yellow. But I like the days she paints them pink. Ah, her brush tingles my…”

Izu fills his lungs with air and whistles softly into the breeze, wondering if it will be rude to tell Udoka that nobody cares about Reverend Green or his bird-cheeks-painting daughter or her stupid cage. Especially, her stupid cage.

“Udoka maybe you should…”

A gunshot rattles the stillness of the night. Udoka falls off the fence and lands limp on the concrete at the other side. Silence swoops down on Jekwu and Izu. Another gunshot cracks the air, jolting the birds back into the present. They do not wait for the next gunshot before hopping off the fence down to the concrete where Udoka is groaning in pain.

“I…I…I…,” Udoka stutters in between coughing out spurts of blood.

“Jekwu, we must help her. We can’t leave her like this…to die.”

“What are we going to do? We’re just two helpless grey parrots. It’s not as if we know what to do to a bullet wound.”

Jekwu slants Udoka’s neck to show where the bullet is lodged. Udoka winces.

“I…I…I…”

“Should we pull out the bullet, Jekwu?”

“All her blood will drain out if we do that.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve seen someone shot, clean, through the chest. When they tried to…”

The remaining words die on Jekwu’s lips as footsteps and human voices draw close to the fence.

“Aye, Reverend Green! Was that your rifle firing?” A croaky voice asks.

“Yes!” The reverend’s voice is frail, barely piercing through the darkness. “Had to shoot at those bastards on the fence before they drop poop and yank at my precious hibiscus.”

“How many of them?”

“Three bloody parrots. Shot one in the head. The other two scurried off. They better tell their friends to be aware of this fence. God’s house don’t want no bird poop or yanked hibiscus littered around.”

“How is that parrot of yours?”

“The damn thing is probably sleeping in its cage. My daughter can’t seem to stop fussing over it.”

“Ah, little girls and their silliness. Give it time.”

Behind the fence, Udoka has stopped writhing. Her breaths are almost silent now.

“We should go before the brutes jump over the fence and finish us off.”

“No, Jekwu. We can’t leave her here to die alone.”

“But she is going to die regardless.”

As if to oblige Jekwu and Izu leaving her, Udoka shuts her eyes.

“Now. Now. We must go now.” Jekwu pulls hard at Izu as the noise on the other side of the fence grows closer.

II

It is exactly six days since the night Jekwu and Izu watched Udoka breathe her last on the concrete behind the Chapel. A lot has changed for and between the two birds since then, the most prominent being that they have ceased going to Chapel’s fence to warm their feet on the lichen rug. Izu still has nightmares about that night. He would wake up intermittently during their sleep, gasping and squeaking in low tones and kicking the air. Jekwu would try as much as possible to calm him, cooing into his ears and fanning him with his wings.

Four days ago, the first time they went out to scout for food after that night, Jekwu and Izu stumbled on a rotting cherry along the sidewalk on Faulks Street. It was evening and they were wandering the street, hoping someone left half-eaten or stale bread on the sidewalk. Izu stopped dead in his tracks on seeing the cherry. Then he began to cackle, his entire body quaking all over.

“I never really liked her that much,” Izu said, once he was able to quieten himself. “Okay, I do love Udoka. She was the only friend I had before I met you. But she started being hard to bear when she became Reverend Green’s pet. Ugh. Is it weird that I miss the cherries and sweetcorn she brought more than I miss her? Stop looking at me as if I am crazy, Jekwu. This whole grief thing is because I saw how I may die one of these days that night. Kpai, just like that.” This was when his voice broke and became too throaty for him to continue talking.

Jekwu unstrung whatever weight hung around his neck from that night and threw his whole self into supporting his lover. He succeeded in talking Izu into staying in their nest, under the staircase of what was once a tin factory, while he goes out to find food. Well, Izu stuck to this arrangement until this evening, when he flat out refuses to stay at home and declares that he is going outside to catch the whoosh of the evening air, that he has missed that very part that made him a bird– the freedom of being outside.

“Are you saying I cannot protect myself outside, gbo Jekwu?” Izu’s eyes narrow at Jekwu who is standing in his way. His tail faither stretches upwards, tall.

“That’s not what I am saying. I’m just saying it’s too soon for you to leave the nest by yourself.”

“Why?”

“That night rattled your core, Izu. You still have dreams about it?”

“Didn’t it shake you as well, Jekwu? Were you not with me that night? Didn’t you see all of it happen? But you still leave every morning to find food.”

Jekwu does not respond.

“You think I’m too frail to go outside. Look here, I just turned two when my mother left and never returned. I ran this street, slugged it out with the egrets at Central Dump, tussled beak to beak with parrots older than me. I don’t need you to protect me, Jekwu.”

“Stay safe, Izu. It’s wild out there.”

“I’ll try.”

But Izu is not going outside to catch the whoosh of the evening air. He is well aware of this as he glides through Faulks Street and takes the narrow bend into Simosa Avenue until he hits Bode Way; the wide stretch of cobblestones that leads to Shonibara Estate. The streetlights lining the estate are on. Izu only stops flying when he gets to Chapel’s fence. He swoops down on the concrete behind the fence. Sniff. Sniff. The air is clear with no trace of days-old carcass. Where is it? Izu was sure this was where they had left her six nights ago, buried under a pile of rotting leaves.

“Hmmm, look who we have here. Izu. What are you doing here without your Jekwu on this dark, weary night?” A voice behind Izu asks.

Izu knows the voice and would recognize it even if he is dead asleep.

“Ndidi, will you ever get tired of hiding in the shadows and trying to scare me?”

“It’s very easy to scare you, Izu, I don’t even need to hide in the shadows. I’ve been scaring you since we were fledglings.” The voice emerges into the light cast by one of the streetlights, in the form of a vulture with a pinkish-white head and thick feathers ruffled into a hood around her neck.

“My, you’ve grown…bigger since the last time I saw you,” Izu says to the bird who is one-and-half times his height.

“Can’t say the same for you, Izu. Your feathers are so wobbly around your frame. Oversize?” Ndidi guffaws. “A parrot sure has seen better days.”

Ndidi and Izu have an interesting history. They grew up together, three nests apart. Uzoeyelu, Ndidi’s mother, and her daughter had migrated to Selemku from Achina, a town that grazed the mouth of The Great Orange River. Their colony was burnt by men who hunted them as a part of the rites to be initiated into manhood. No other bird colony in Selemku wanted to take in the vulture and her daughter. Who would? You know how vultures carry their ill-luck everywhere they go nau. Izu’s mother had knocked on every nest and employed every grey parrot to let Uzoeyelu and her daughter stay in their colony. Uzoeyelu and Nneka became bosom friends and, by extension, wanted their children to be best friends. But Ndidi and Izu were like palm oil and water, they could never mix. Always fighting over cherries, walnuts, and twigs. They are kids, they will grow out of this behavior, their mothers had thought. Still, the rivalry deepened. When Nneka left and never came back, Ndidi had taunted Izu that all birds who swore they saw Nneka snooping around human houses were lying, that it was Uzoeyelu who lured Nneka out of the colony and killed her, that she and her mother had Nneka’s carcass for dinner, that Nneka’s bones were too soft, too tender, for a mother parrot, that Uzoeyelu was also planning to kill Izu sometime soon. Izu did not believe Ndidi at first, until she dared him to come to their nest, where she showed him a bunch of feathers that looked just like Nneka’s, tied together with a string. It took the whole colony gathering and the birds that saw Nneka fly into a human’s house to reassure Izu that it was not her mother’s best friend who killed her.

“Long time no see, Ndidi.”

The vulture scoffs, “Indeed.” She swaggers towards Izu. “What brings you here again, Izu son of Nneka? Didn’t Reverend Green scare you good the last time?”

“What?”

“Oh, I know everything,” Ndidi glares at Izu, her pupils reddening. “Behind this fence is a perfect spot because I know that every night the old reverend or one of his neighbors will shoot one bird off the fence and dinner will be served.”

“I thought you…”

“… don’t eat carcass? Give me a break, Izu. That was when my mother, Ani bless her soul, was still alive. That woman forced me to join you silly birds in eating cherries, corn, and leftover bread. A vulture eats flesh, our talons and beaks are designed for that purpose. Can’t believe my mother tried to take that away from me.”

“Uzoeyelu really did her best to set you right.”

“It’s biology, Izu. You cannot set it right,” Ndidi pauses. “This whole talk is draining all the air, let’s talk about something bright and shiny. Your friend has really tough flesh and rocky bones. What were they feeding her in that parsonage?”

“What friend?” Izu pauses until realization dawns on him. “You ate Udoka?!”

“When you say it like that it’d seem I killed her and then ate her. She was dead, Izu. What are you going to do with the carcass, weep and weep on it until she comes back to life? Okay, she was not dead-dead, but I waited patiently for her to breathe her last before tearing her up. Despite all the nasty things folks like you believe about vultures, we’re not murderers.”

“Did you eat her to spite me?”

“Um, yes but also mostly because I was hungry. I saved some of her carcass if you’d like some.”

“Good night, Ndidi.”

“Good night, Izu. Just know that if you or Jekwu ever get shot, I’m not letting those filthy humans touch you lovebirds. I’ll find you a worthy resting place, right here, in my belly.”

III

Chalo, the one with broken wings, is leading the dirge. Her voice, haunting and clear, rises and falls with every new line. The dirge is always the same:

Swinging swifting wind carry me home,

Far away from here where I no longer belong,

Into the land of our mothers,

Oh, swinging swifting wind carry me home.

And no matter how many times Chalo sang this dirge at a parrot’s funeral, it never fails to leave everybody in tears.

They are gathered around the dying stump of an udala tree, behind the abandoned tin factory. A tiny grave has been dug and Ifenyinwa’s carcass, wrapped with browning plantain leaves, is laid beside it. Ifenyinwa was the oldest bird in the colony, she was born long before any of the other birds’ mothers hatched into this world. She died yesterday. Old bird was drinking water from the pond in front of the tin factory and choked on the bits of plastic that seeped into her gulps.

Chalo pauses her singing for Dike, the self-proclaimed clergy of the colony, to pray and direct the pallbearers on how to lower Ifenyinwa’s carcass into the grave. The dirge peaks again, Chalo’s body is quivering as she belts higher and higher until all the birds gathered fear she will run out of air. And then with a rehearsed automation, she stops.

Jekwu is squatting at the back, head lowered so his beak is almost kissing the ground. He has known Ifenyinwa all his life. Akwugo, his mother, used to leave him at Ifenyinwa’s nest when she went out scouting for food. After Akwugo’s legs got caught in a barbed wire trap and she bled to death, Ifenyinwa had taken Jekwu in as her own. Fended for him, clothed him, taught him how to fly. Her death broke Jekwu, it was like losing a mother for the second time. Izu is standing beside him, his right wing forming a halo around both of them.

“Won’t you go and partake in the dust-to-dust, Jekwu?” Izu asks nudging his lover.

“I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I want to see Ifenyinwa in this state. I want to always remember her alive.”

“Jekwu, this is the least you can do so her soul can journey beyond. See, lemme help you,” he pulls Jekwu up with his wings. “We’ll go together, it will be easier this way.”

The two birds squeeze their way through the crowd until they get to the front. Jekwu lets out a squeak as one of the pallbearers hands him a flattened stick. Izu steadies him and coos softly into his ears as he scoops some red earth and pours it into the grave. When the grave is filled up, Dike tells all the birds to close their eyes and dwell on the many beautiful memories Ifenyinwa’s life brought to them, especially the ones they shared with her. He signals Chalo to begin another song.

Clouds and clouds above

Where my everlasting home crests

Wait for me as I journey this troubled place

As I behold my joy at last

Clouds and clouds abo

Chalo’s singing is cut short by shrill hoots in the sky. The birds look up to see Egwu, swooping down towards them.

“Cover your eyes! It’s the barn owl!” The birds squeal as they scamper around the tree stump.

“Oh simmer down pretty birds, nobody is going to mix stones in your corn grains because you saw an owl in broad daylight,” Egwu says as he perches on the old tree stump. He flicks off a splinter with one of his talons and ruffles his feathers to shake off dust.

“What are you doing here? Be gone you creature of the night!” Dike stutters from where he is hiding, behind Jekwu and Izu.

“I am only here to bring you not-so-good tidings. And it shall come to pass, they will come with fire and snare and they will smoke you out of the sleazy hiding place you call home. There will be no escape. None. Do whatever you want to with this.” Egwu shoots into the sky, howling as his wings flap against the wind.

At this point, the birds needed no other indication that the burial is over. They retreat to their nests, heads bowed, in silence.

“We have to leave,” Izu says to Jekwu immediately when they get home.

“You’re not suggesting we leave Selemku because of what that bird who feeds on fear said? This is our home, Izu.”

“A home that wants to kill us.”

A lump forms in Izu’s throat. He has been nursing this idea of leaving Selemku since that night he met Ndidi. He wanted Jekwu and him to flee far away to a place where Ndidi will not find their carcasses and gloat as she tears into their flesh. Egwu’s prophecy just intensified that need to leave.

“We’ll be fine, Izu. We’ll be fine. We will go through this together. And what if the place we run to is worse than Selemku?”

“No place can be worse than here.”

IV

The night before the morning they came for the grey parrots who lived in the abandoned tin factory, Jekwu and Izu found worms under a rock behind the building. They munched on them throughout the night and saved the rest in an empty water bottle for the next day. Afterwards, they stayed up late, tracing the stars with their eyes, dreaming that maybe the worms under the rock was a sign that things will get better. But the dreams died in their throats by morning when they were woken up by the scuffle in the tin factory. Trap doors snapping closed, clap traps whooshing in the air, birds writhing inside mist nets, and the air heavy with smoke.

Right now, Jekwu and Izu are crouched in the farthest part back, underneath the staircase. They are looking into each other’s eyes as if to say, “Don’t let out as much as a breath.” A hand slips under the staircase and grabs hold of Jekwu’s legs. He struggles to slip his legs free but the grip is too firm. Jekwu continues to shake, to jerk, to scratch, until something cracks inside his legs and they cannot move anymore. The hand pulls him out from the staircase.

“Hey, this one’s legs snapped.”

“Now, who would want that as a pet?”

“We’ll leave him here.”

Izu shuts his eyes as the voices beside the staircase continue to deliberate on what to do with Jekwu. He knows that any time from now, a hand will slip under the staircase and grab his legs. He knows he will fight and break all the bones in his body before he lets them take him.

But no hand slips under the staircase. The men toss Jekwu on the ground and leave.

The tin factory is a mess of blood and feathers when Izu crawls out from under the staircase. All the birds are gone. A few of them lay on the floor, dead, dying, and half-alive. The fire has licked up more than half of the tin factory and is spreading fast.

Izu rushes to where Jekwu is lying in a pool of his own blood.

“Jekwu. Jekwu. Can you hear me?”

“You must go now. You must leave Selemku. Promise you’ll do this for me,” Jekwu manages to whimper.

“But I can’t leave you here.”

“You have to. We both can’t make it out of here. My legs are gone and I can feel death’s hands on my throat.”

“You can’t die here, Jekwu.”

“Why?”

“Because Ndidi will eat your carcass and gloat about it until she dies.”

“Who cares, Izu? I’ll be dead and won’t know what is happening. The fire will reduce my carcass to ashes before Ndidi can get here. Stop worrying about me and save yourself.”

“I can’t. I don’t know how to save myself anymore, Jekwu.”

“You must learn. Do it for me.”

The men are heading back to the tin factory. Izu can hear their shouting.

“Now, Izu. You must go now.”

Izu sneaks out through the backdoor. He follows the alley, the washed-out tunnels, and the empty gutters, until he gets to the outskirts of Selemku. There, he spreads his wings and flutters upward, until he catches the whoosh of the morning air, and he soars into the blurry sky.

Innocent Chizaram Ilo

Innocent Chizaram Ilo is Igbo. They are the winner of 2020 Commonwealth  Short Story Prize (African Region) and an Otherwise Award Nominee. Their works have appeared on Granta, Lolwe, Isele Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Strange Horizons, Cast of Wonders, Reckoning Press, Overland Magazine,  Al Jazera, The Guardian, and elsewhere. They currently live in Lagos but dream of exciting lives in far-flung places.