Ehi: by Eyitemi Egwuenu

My name is Aimiuwu.

That was the name my parents gave me at my birth. It was a simple name – as bare and unadorned as a name could be.

It’s meaning?

For my people, names usually reflected the circumstances around a child’s birth.

Aimiuwu means, ‘this one will not die’.

But this was not always my name. In fact, this was the fourth name my parents have given me at my births. Yes, . . . my births.

I have been born four times. And I have died three times.

I was one of those restless children who couldn’t make up their minds whether they wanted to stay in the world of the living, or the world of the spirits. Through numerous cycles of interrupted repeats, we transited between both worlds in alternating deaths and rebirths, relishing the joys that each realm had to offer, but never contented with either.

Erroneously misnamed, the world of the dead, the spirit-world was not an end in itself, or the destination for dead humans, rather, it was the starting place for all life.

The world of the spirit was not a long, silent night. It was a realm, beautiful beyond words, where bliss and lush gardens of variegated light were our reality. We lived forever, unperturbed by the strife and suffering that beset the lives of mortals.

But forever is a very long time.

And when one has lived in a monotonous eternity, seeking a change of scene, even to a harsh, physical world, wasn’t a terrible idea, especially with the knowledge that the stay in the physical world would be temporary.

Mortal humans think living for one hundred years is a long time, but from the perspective of the spirit-world, such a miserly lifespan would not even register. Human life, however long it might seem when one is mortal, was like a faint whistle in a hurricane – a brief interval in the enchantment of forever.

And for spirit-children, their lifespan was even shorter.

You see, when human spirits wanted to take a break from immortality, they volunteered to be born into the world, – as physical beings, – as humans. They declared their intentions to the Creator; they chose how long they would stay on Earth, – chose if they wanted to come as men or women – chose which parents should give birth to them, – chose whether fame, fortune, both, or neither, would be their lot while on Earth. They chose every aspect of their life without interference.

The Creator never dismissed, subverted, or mandated anyone’s choices.

He only affirmed it with the words, “Let it be as you have said”.

Once the spirit had declared its wishes, the Creator bound all of its choices into an entity, an alter-ego, a spirit doppelganger of the would-be human. This entity is called the Ehi, and the Creator embedded the Ehi within the spirit-form of the human, and housed both in a physical body.

While a baby is in its mother’s womb, the foetus and its Ehi still had access to the spirit-world. And for the first few years after birth, the same access remained, but the connection was more tenuous. The day a child uttered its first human words, in any language, the final cord with the spirit-world was broken; consequently, the human no longer had any memory of the spirit-world from which it had come, and it had no recollection of the choices it made when he or she was still a spirit.

But the Ehi, also known as Destiny, always remembered.

Ehi knew the choices, but never revealed it to the person. And while the Ehi remained silent within the human, it guided him or her, inevitably, towards their Destiny, regardless of how ardently they unknowingly tried to change it by their actions.

Some spirits found this ignorance of their fate during a lifespan on Earth disconcerting. So, they chose, before they were born, to die while they were still young, usually between seven and ten years old. They considered this early demise a failsafe that would guarantee their return to the spirit-world in quick time, if their life on Earth became too boring. Dying was their reason for living.

I was of this kind: four times already, I had chosen to come as a male child.

I had chosen to die on my seventh birthday in my first three incarnations.

And on this, my fourth iteration, I chose to die by my thirteenth birthday.

A human’s Ehi was unchangeable. It was an inevitable Destiny.

How was it then, that I would be sixteen years old in three weeks. . .

And I was still alive?

*

When disaster is in the offing,

even an egg will break a stone.

*

Life is a river. And so is death.

This river had carried me in unending cycles, faithfully, steadily, with currents that were strong, and graceful, and beautiful.

My parents did not know I was the same child that had been born four times already. How could they? They received each new birth with a joy weighted by anxiety, and a fear, they themselves were afraid to admit; a fear of the future – a fear of the unknown – a fear of the fate of this bundle of life who was at once their happiness and their sorrow.

I did not hate my parents. I was not unaware of their grief the three times they had lost me to death. I knew my repeated coming and going was a harrowing experience for them. But, from my point of view – from the perspective of the spirit-world, – the grief they experienced only seemed an unnoticeable wrinkle in the vast tapestry that was the cycle of life and death. Of course, one saw things differently after one was born into the physical world, but after birth, it was too late to change fate, and from the age of three years, you remembered nothing of your choices before birth.

Once you were born, you were only a wheel, locked in the inevitable spin of Destiny.

*

On the day that one will go astray,

One does not need to travel far.

*

It all changed for me when I met Amenze.

It was three months to my thirteenth birthday; I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I had only ninety days more to live.

The village stream was one of my favourite places. I loved to recline on a branch within the trees and watch the day and nature pass by in tranquil quiet. It was here by this river, on a fateful evening, that I had first met Amenze. She had come to fetch some water with her friend, Osayi. Obscured by the trees, I did not see them as they approached the stream, but I could hear their cheerful banter. Eventually, the happy voices revealed the faces of their owners.

Does any man forget when he comes in contact with true beauty? Not the beauty that roused the senses to brute conquest and acquisition, but a beauty that moved you to stand, that stilled you in motion, that stirred your heart to such quiet that you forget all that you are, forget all but the fact that you are just one man, – one man, with a love-throbbing heart.

I knew they could not see me on my perch in the trees. I watched as the two ladies negotiated the sloping terrain down to the river’s edge. I watched both, but I had eyes only for one; one who walked in the sombre light of the evening and illuminated it.

I was enchanted. The sun’s rays ran their fingers through the locks of the evening breeze. It seemed the trees around me faded from view at her approach. She was the sylph of these magical woods – dark and graceful, with lips, set in a perpetual smile.

She walked knee-deep into the river. The water, as if glad to be so honoured, rippled all around her, extending outwards until they broke in a shimmer of evening light upon the shoreline. Her bowl brushed the surface of the river, she tilted it and water rushed in to fill it. She waded the bowl gently to the river’s edge, talking to her friend, Osayi, as she did. Her voice was like merry bells. She laughed. It was like the tinkling of crystals.

I remained silent. Hidden from view.

She waited at the riverbank for Osayi.

I could have sworn the sun paused in its fall across the sky to take one more look, – to capture one more image of her before it slipped from sight beneath the horizon.

She raised the bowl of water with both hands and carefully balanced it on her head. She turned around to begin the climb uphill. She had taken three steps, when she slipped. And fell.

I found my voice.

I barely heard myself speak. I came down quickly from the tree and ran towards her, slowing to a walk as I got close. I reached out with a hand and pulled her up to her feet. The spilled water carved out rivulets in the sand to join the river. She looked stunned, but she began to laugh as her friend teased her. I mumbled my sympathy.

“The ground here is slippery.” I said.

“Certainly. I have found that out first hand today.” She replied. The remnant of a smile lingered.

“So, we start again?” I asked, picked up her empty bowl and headed towards the river. I returned with it full.

“I will take this uphill for you before I place it on your head.” I said.

“No, no, you don’t have to,” she protested, as her hands found the edge of the bowl and gently tugged it from me.

“Please, I insist,” I pressed. “just up the hill, and I will give it back to you.”

I didn’t wait for her consent. I picked my way through the gullies and craters that lined the gentle incline. They followed me. Her friend already had her own bowl on her head. We reached the hilltop.

“My name is Aimiuwu.”

“Amenze” she replied, her eyes intentionally avoided mine.

“Ah! … Amenze. Perfect!” I said, “Your name means, ‘water of the river’.”

She was silent.

“Is it possible to see you again?” I asked.

“That will depend on why and where?”

“Just to make sure you are okay. You took a hard fall.”

“I will be fine.”

“Whose daughter are you?”

“My father is Osahon. I must go. It will be dark before I reach home.”

“Take care. I will see you again.”

I watched as both of them walked away from me towards the village. I went back to the tree to collect my machete. It was strange; I felt full and empty at the same time. It was as if Amenze left her presence with me and took a part of me with her. Evening was falling fast, but my excitement rose faster. My heart yearned for this lady who I only just met. Her image played on my mind for days; the bright friendly eyes, the beautiful smile, and the unforced majesty of a slight, regal form – all these were hers.

As the days progressed, so did my conviction that I could see a future with us together.

I made plans about how to see Amenze again. I resolved that I would woo her, and hopefully, see my affections returned.

Unknown to me, my current plans were against the Destiny I had chosen for myself, – in a place before here, and at a time before now.

My Ehi was silent.

Ehi never speaks. It only acts.

Silent but resolute, Ehi guides the willing and compels the unwilling.

While I planned for a life on Earth, Ehi plotted my return to the land of the spirits.

Human life was a shadow, – an echo of a forgotten dream, – a fleeting impression with the lifespan of a dewdrop.

Death was certain. It was the precise hour that was uncertain.

Death may come slowly, it may come limping, but when it arrives, it pounces!

Against the optimism of a growing love, Ehi was devising a plan to beat me back again to the dust from which I came.

*

It is at the end of life

that we know what destiny had awaited us.

*

In the weeks that followed, I sought out Amenze several times.

But, it was on a moonlit night that my association with her took a decisive turn.

I was in the village square. The moon was up in full bloom. Pine trees kept watch with the stars, – their elegant trunks leaned on the night, and swayed lazily, – their branches whistled a tune in the breeze. On such nights, everyone who was young, or young at heart, came out to play or went out for a stroll.

Not far from where I stood, I could hear an audience chanting in response to the song of a storyteller.

In the silver sheen that bathed the evening, I saw her. She was sitting on a boulder with her friend, Osayi.

I greeted. They responded.

I took some encouragement from the fact that Osayi left soon after. She had whispered something in Amenze’s ear, they had both giggled, then she ran off to join another group in the square. Suddenly, I was alone with Amenze, and I didn’t know what to say to her. I sat beside her.

As I searched for words, I looked up at the moon.

“She will throw her washing water in your eyes,” Amenze said.

“What? I don’t understand,” I said, smiling, relieved that the awkwardness was broken.

“You see those dark markings on the moon?” she asked, pointing to the silver-white orb in the sky. “They seem to form a woman bending over and washing pots. If you keep staring at her, she will throw the dirty water into your eyes.”

“Where did you hear that?” I asked, amused.

“From here and there,” she said, trying in vain to keep a straight face.

I laughed. “I always thought it was a man, and what he threw in people’s eyes was a coin. That was the version I heard as a child.”

“Well, stories change. It’s a woman, – you can just make out her head gear,” she insisted, as her right index finger traced the pattern in the air with the moon in the background.

“I believe you,” I replied. “People change too. I know I have changed since I met you.”

I placed my hand on hers lightly. She did not withdraw from my touch. She fixed her gaze downwards briefly, then turned her face to meet mine.

Her eyes were like twin moons, and in their light I saw it all; her affection for me was graced by better deeds than words.

What words could have done that?

What words could convey her intent better than her eyes had done? Maybe she spoke afterall, – a speech of no words, – inaudible words winged with light that illuminated my heart, – words that my thirsty soul drank hungrily like the dry, parched earth receiving its first rains. My love had been returned in kind. I was richer with her heart in my keeping. I reached out and pulled her to me. She sidled slightly on the boulder towards me. The warmth of her skin was like an aura on mine.

I was the victim of an enchantment.

And I was glad to have it so.

*

A man is happy a new day has dawned;

he doesn’t realise it’s the end of life that’s slowly approaching.

*

There was no greater war that raged in the human heart than the war of love; the conflict that arose from the simultaneous joy and sadness of parting, – that exquisite satisfaction of love that only created more longing.

I met with Amenze mostly in the evenings, in the village square. Or, I would wait for her on the road to the farm, or the river.

I had ransacked the basket of the gods and found their most precious gem. How was it possible for another person to ignite this flame of love in my heart? When I held Amenze in my arms, our hearts burned like incense; with her sweet breath on my face, she usually said little, but her touch, her smile, and the dance of light in her eyes filled the silence.

I was contented.

The eloquence of silence was enough.

I often wondered at her eyes – clear, sparkling, and the powers within them that could arouse such passion in a man.

The wings of love fluttered in our hearts.

I prayed to heaven that it finds the strength to fly.

*

The bush cannot run away from a bushfire.

*

Ehi moved against me.

The huge Iroko tree by the side of my father’s house fell. Its massive branches destroyed the side of the house where my room was located. It was night, and we were all asleep. I heard the crashing sound. I woke up.

I heard people screaming outside.

A splintered branch was buried deep in my left side, just beneath my ribs. I could not move. Warm blood pooled against my skin.

I felt no pain.

It was my thirteenth birthday.

And this was the moment I knew I would die.

At the threshold of death, a certain clarity fills the mind.

As my spirit made ready to fly back to the world of beginnings, I saw what destiny had awaited me; I remembered completely, the choices I had made before my birth.

When a damaged body could no longer hold life, Ehi vacated it, and the human spirit was supposed to follow.

As expected, Ehi left my body. But my spirit hesitated.

All I could think about was Amenze. Our love bound me to her world.

And in that frozen moment between life and death, stubbornly, I chose to stay.

Ehi could plot and guide, but it could not force an obdurate spirit out of its body. Suddenly, a terrible pain churned in my chest. I felt myself slipping away as my Ehi insisted I vacated my body. I hung on to a vision of Amenze; this kept me anchored to life. It was a battle of wills. And I was determined to win it.

While I struggled with my Destiny, my parents, with the help of neighbours had cleared a path through the rubble and found us. My brother, Osaze, was unhurt. I heard screaming and wailing as I was carried away.

Darkness engulfed me.

I was told later that I was unconscious for two days; that they had given up all hope that I would survive; that they were surprised I was still breathing, – still alive, despite my massive injuries, and that when I opened my eyes eventually, I had called out, “Amenze”.

I could not recall where I was exactly for the period I was unconscious. All I could remember was a constant vision of the lady I loved. And when I revived, my waking thoughts were centred on her only.

I lived.

I lived!

But My Ehi had left for the spirit-world, and I had not followed in tow.

I had created an oddity in Nature: I had no Ehi.

What is a man without an Ehi?

What is a man without a Destiny?

*

Whoever strikes a knife’s cutting edge with his bare knuckles,

must expect to pay with his blood.

*

I recovered from my wounds in two months.

I was now a human on Earth who had no Destiny.

And the spirit-world was determined to correct this anomaly in Nature.

Twice, I was bitten by snakes. Once, I fell into a trap with bamboo spikes designed for wild boars, narrowly missing being impaled. Once, I was grazed by an arrow shot by my brother when we went hunting.

I knew my Ehi was after me.

I took every precaution to protect myself. If the pursuer does not stop, the pursued dare not stop. The battle of wills went on for three years. I was approaching my sixteenth birthday.

But Ehi was cunning.

It could not get me directly, so it resorted to trickery.

Among my people, we believed that the dead could interact with the living, but the dead kept their activities hidden. The dead were subtle. There were some interactions that were particularly dangerous; for instance, if you accepted any food or drink from the dead, your days on Earth were invariably over.

I had just returned from the farm. Osaze, my brother, met me at the entrance of our house. He had two cherries in his hand. He offered me one. I reached out to accept it. I paused when I felt a chill trill through me. It felt like a premonition. Scared, I looked around for any signs of danger. None.

I looked at Osaze. He struck me as odd; he was four years younger, and at least three inches shorter than I was, but the person in front of me was exactly my height. I felt the chill ripple through me again. I looked at Osaze’s feet. His soles were not touching the ground. I stepped back from him; my heart pounded against my ribs as the sense of danger around me increased.

Osaze offered me the cherry once more. I declined.

This was not Osaze, I reasoned.

It was not unheard of for spirits to take on the aspect of humans, even family members. What betrayed their disguise was their inability to walk on the ground itself lest they are trapped on Earth. So, they usually walked in the air, just slightly above the ground. You wouldn’t notice it if you were not paying attention.

I ran into the house and shouted my brother’s name, wondering if I was wrong. My mother came out of her room.

“Osaze is having his bath”

“Where?” I queried.

“Where else? Behind the house”

I went through to the backyard and saw Osaze behind a fence of dry, palm leaves having his bath. I heaved a sigh of relief. I went back to the front of the house.

His impersonator was gone.

*

If the shell-clad tortoise succumbs to fire,

what chance has the chicken dressed in flimsy feathers?

*

I dreamt that I died.

I was strapped to a huge stone slab. I strained to break free. The wind whistled a dirge in the night air, my fevered brow throbbed, and icy fingers tightened in my chest. A skull hovered above me; it descended slowly; sockets that should hold eyes glared at me, – empty, deep, and dark. Beneath the twin-voids, rows of teeth mocked my struggle with a sinister smile.

Death always smiled.

And to dream that one died is not a dream that will not come true someday.

The teeth parted, as the skull made a dash for my neck.

I screamed. My vision went black.

I awoke!

Slowly, I got my bearings back. It was the same dream, at the same time, repeated every night for the last three years. I felt the cold, damp, cement floor against my skin, through the raffia mat on which I laid.

I sat up.

The air in the room was warm, and was filled with the musty odour of stale sweat. I could hear the gentle breathing from my younger brother, who was still fast asleep beside me. I could just make out his silhouette, a huddled mass, in the semi-darkness of the room. Directly opposite me, an open window connected the room to the vast mystery of the night. The house was quiet, but outside, night’s creatures broke the silence with their songs.

Four points of light drifted through the window into the room.

Fireflies.

They did a brief zig-zag dance and immediately glided back out into the night. My sleepless eyes followed their movements until they disappeared in the distance and the dark.

Brooding clouds staked a claim to the sky in a pool of ink, – black and friendless. A few winks of starlight forced their way through the gaps in the clouds – faint flickers in a moody sky – more light than there was in my heart right now.

Exhausted from endless, nightly cycles of shattered sleep, all I had were my memories and the Destiny that hung over me.

My thoughts, trapped in a labyrinth, looked for a way, despite the odds, to change the decree of Fate.

For three long years I had cheated death, – led it down false paths, nudged it into blind alleys, wondering how to strike that final blow that would shake off the Dark One.

But Death was adamant. It demanded that I fulfilled the vow I had made, and paid in full, the debt I owed.

Three long years of wrestling with Fate, had left me frayed in body and in mind.

And what was my offence?

I loved.

And for love, this flame in me called life must be snuffed out.

The stars were now gone completely from the sky. Angry storm clouds were emphatic in their reign across the heavens. The room was pitch black as well. The fist of night ruled both realms, and its authority was absolute.

The night mirrored my despair. Dark emotions haunted me. My vision blurred; sorrow yielded two wet trails which travelled down my cheeks. I tasted salt in the corners of my mouth.

I could not tell me parents about my challenges. What would I say? I didn’t want to ruin their joy. How could I tell them that the unhappiness they had experienced all these years, mourning the loss of three children was the consequence of the choices I had made.

No, it was better if they did not know.

The fireflies flew back into the room. This time, they stayed. Like a friendly presence, they kept me company.

The night grew cooler, – a welcome relief from the hot, stifling, mustiness.

The fireflies danced.

No stars, no moon. Just the endless, cheerless spectacle of darkness.

The fireflies still danced.

It was just as well the room was dark.

In the cover of night, the fireflies could not see me cry.

*

We all end up exactly according to the dictates of our destiny.

*

The machinations of Ehi towards me for three years stopped as quickly as they had started. For about six months, the strange events I experienced ceased.

Destiny, it appeared, had grown tired of chasing me, had given up on me, and allowed me to live out my days in peace.

I squeezed every drop of joy from every day.

I planned to take Amenze across the river to show her a new private spot of our own.

It was one week to my sixteenth birthday.

We rowed across on a small canoe. She sat, facing me, with her back to the shore. It was a hot day, and people washed and bathed in the river.

Halfway through, I saw a man beckoning to us from the riverbank.

“I wonder what he wants,” I said.

“Who?” Amenze asked.

“That man waving at us.”

“What man? I don’t see any one.”

I felt the chill.

“You can’t see him?” I asked, hoping my instincts were wrong.

“No”

She turned her head in the direction of my pointing finger to get a better view. The canoe rocked sideways. She lost her balance and fell into the river. She splashed about in panic.

“Stay calm!” I extended a hand.

Our hands met briefly and parted. The canoe drifted forward. She was beyond my reach.

I saw her go under.

I dove into the river. I swam towards the spot where I last saw her. She drifted with the current below the surface. I chased her down, swimming frantically.

As hard as I tried, I could not reach her. The current was too fast.

I saw her flailing arms, and the stark terror in her eyes as she struggled to hold her breath under water.

Then I saw something that chilled me to the bones: the ghostly apparition of the man at the riverbank appeared in the river itself. His arms were around Amenze. He was pulling her away – faster still.

I swam with all the strength I could muster. I could not reach her.

I saw her arms fall limply by her side. Her eyes closed slowly. And bubbles escaped from her nostrils.

I felt arms hold onto me. They pulled me out of the river. I struggled to break free from the grip of my rescuers, but powerful hands pinned me down.

“She cannot swim! Help her!” I screamed in anguish.

“She cannot swi–” my voice broke from the paralysis of my helplessness.

My rescuers said two of their colleagues were trying to save her.

Minutes seemed like hours.

Eventually, two young men came out of the river without her.

Their faces said it all.

Amenze was gone.

*

The world is bad, heaven is not good,

but we have no third choice.

*

Fate had played me false. Death had reaped an unripe fruit.

The men who pulled me out of the river, took me home. Some of the village youths stayed behind to continue the search for Amenze’s body. There was a crowd of sympathisers outside my house. My mother was crying as I was led to my room. Everything was a blur in my mind. Sorrow filled my heart. Agony chained my senses. I did not care anymore whether I lived or died.

They placed me on a mat and left the room.

My mother came into the room with a towel to wipe me dry. She offered me a cup of water. I took it from her. I drank.

She left the room.

I laid there, numb to all sensations, staring into space. My only reason for hanging on to life had been taken from me.

My mother came back into the room, with a towel and a cup of water.

“Has someone cleaned you dry already?” she asked, surprised I was no longer in my wet clothes.

Equally surprised at her question, I turned to her.

“Didn’t you come in earlier?” I mumbled.

“No” she replied, a puzzled look on her face.

Immediately, it dawned on me what had happened. I had accepted a drink of water from a spirit.

It was over.

When mortal life is dogged by pain, despair, and loss, does it not make sense for death to exist, – to soothe the pain, end the despair, erase the loss, and give life a fresh start?

Death is madness. But is death not the madness that makes life sane?

I smiled. I had no more desire to live. Let sleep, – eternal and peaceful, – make this ache inside me cease.

A bright light appeared above me.

Ehi emerged from within the light with two other spirit beings.

I felt myself rising like vapour in the wind.

The last earthly sound I heard was my mother screaming my name.

I could see my lifeless form on the mat as my spirit hovered above.

I sensed three presences gathering around me.

Ehi smiled. His companions smiled.

Death always smiled.

They had come for me.

 


Eyitemi Egwuenu is an Australian novelist and poet. He trained as a Medical Doctor and has a PhD in cardiovascular neuroscience.

Related country: Nigeria

All rights to this story remain with the author. Please do not repost or reproduce this material without permission.