Many years later when Akwugo would tell the story, she would always begin by referring to the Stranger’s method of entrance. Like the approach of evening, she would say, that was how he came. Like the transition from twilight to darkness. It just sort of creeps up on you; you never really notice it until it has happened. That was how the Stranger came to live among the people of Ogba-ede village. None of the villagers could say exactly when he arrived; none of them could remember precisely the day they saw him first. No one, that is, except Akwugo.
It was an Nkwo-market day, and the Ogba-ede village square was brimming with people, men and women selling their wares under small raffia stalls. Akwugo’s stall was in an isolated corner, near the end of the market. She didn’t mind, though; people tended to avoid her these days anyway. The sun had just begun its downward descent when she began to park up her wares. It was quite early to be going home – in fact, farmers from the neighboring Itere village, who were the market’s major customers, were just arriving. But Akwugo was going home all the same. She wanted to avoid the late evening’s rush by the market women who would want to get home quickly and prepare supper for their husbands and children. Akwugo didn’t want to meet these women because they would be sure to ridicule and make mockery of her along the way. They always do.
Akwugo was an outcast. Sure, no one would say it to her face because she wasn’t born that way, but they thought it all the same. They didn’t have to say it out; they just acted it – in the way they looked at her, half-sneer, half-pity; in the subtle condescending way they talked to her; in the way they avoided her at the village stream, laughing it off and pretending nothing was wrong. But Akwugo knew better. When her husband and three sons had suddenly died mysteriously two seasons ago, everyone had branded her a witch. It was only after the village oracle had declared her innocent of the deaths that people began to talk to her again.
But things were never the same again. Akwugo became a stranger in her own village. Perhaps that was why she instantly sensed the alien-ness in the tall young man who nodded at her on her way home that fateful Nkwo-day. Slowing to a stop with her load of wares balanced delicately atop her head in a raffia basket, Akwugo stared – brazenly, shamelessly, unabashedly. It was as if some spirit had taken hold of her. Long after he’d passed by and walked beyond her vision, Akwugo was still staring, the young man’s image replying itself on her retina. And as she stood there rooted like a stoned rabbit, Akwugo knew it without being told: that young man was definitely not from these parts. He was a stranger – a real stranger.
Idika had always had his eyes on Akwugo, even before her husband had died two seasons ago. And he had taken his time too – two years was enough time to plan for anything. It was now or never; Akwugo must spend the night in his hut tonight, whether she liked it or not. Most probably, she would not like it. Idika smiled grimly at this thought, his crooked walking-stick striking the ground at regular intervals, while his old wizened frame tried to keep up. Oh yes, Akwugo would most certainly not like it at all; after all, what young woman would like to make love to an old man? But then, consider the flipside: what old man would not like to make love to a young woman, eh? Idika chuckled and his smile widened, exposing an almost toothless mouth.
It was almost dusk now, but Idika didn’t have any problems walking. He knew these paths like the back of his right hand. It would be a real bad omen if he ever stumbled on it. Soon enough, he got to the rendezvous point, a three-path junction under a tall ogbu tree. Idika stopped and looked about him; there was nobody around. Quickly, he veered into the bush behind the ogbu tree. Turumbe was waiting there with two other men with chest sizes even a gorilla would envy. No introductions were needed; Idika just gave each of them a dirty look, and they returned the gesture.
“Have you seen her?” Idika asked.
“Yes,” replied Turumbe.
“Eh-eh?” the old man prodded, casting for more information.
“Do you want her or not?” one of the men asked gruffly.
Idika gazed at him with enough hatred to drown the devil himself. “And what if I do?”
“Then pay up! She is in her hut right now, preparing her supper. Alone.”
Idika slowly swung his gaze back to Turumbe, and the big village ruffian shrugged. “He is right. You pay us, and we’ll get her for you. There are four of us; there is no way she can get away. And she is alone.”
Idika looked on for a while longer, and then nodded his head. But as he was dipping his hand into his bag for the pouch of cowries, he saw someone walk by along the three-path junction. Even though it was now quite dark, Idika still saw the person’s face. Some trick of the night sky, perhaps. It was a man, a young man by his features, tall and fair in complexion. Idika thought he had seen that face before – perhaps during one of his numerous travels. A stranger, no doubt. Probably from one of the neighboring villages, probably… No, this man was from afar. But what was a stranger to Ogba-ede doing in the forest at this time? And who was he?
“Old man, you are wasting time!” the other man interrupted gruffly again. “Are you paying us or what?”
Idika turned and threw the pouch of cowries at him. “Make sure you bring her to my hut tonight!” Then he turned and wadded out of the bush and into the path as quickly as he could, intent upon catching up with the stranger. The fair-skinned man was already getting away. Huffing and panting, Idika chased as fast as he could, his walking-stick making clip-clop noises. He didn’t know what he would say to the stranger when he caught with him, but that could wait. First he had to catch the man –
Suddenly, Idika tripped on an exposed rock and went sprawling on the dusty footpath. His walking-stick clattered away to one corner, while his bag emptied itself on the ground. It was quite an undignified fall, quite undignified indeed. Shocked to his core and very hurt – both inside and out – Idika slowly rose to his hands and knees, and looked ahead. What he saw made his heart miss a beat. The Stranger was standing less than a stone-throw’s distance away – standing straight and dead-still like a tree – and gazing steadily at him. Like a reptile. Like a snake. The Stranger’s gaze speared through him like venom-tipped sunlight. It was not natural at all.
Idika felt goose-pimples popping out on his skin. No man should look at another like that. No man should dare look at another like that. Suddenly, Idika felt a wave of fury flood through him, and his temper flared.
“What are you looking at?” Idika demanded loudly, his voice echoing through the forest. “Eh? And who are you anyway? I said, who are you?!”
But the Stranger didn’t bother to rely. He just turned and walked away into the night.
Idika felt a shiver run down his spine. With his hands shaking horribly, he picked up his stick and bag as fast as he could, and hurried home. As much as he wanted to deny it, Idika knew deep down that the rock he’d tripped on had not been there before. It had never been there before.
Make no mistake about it; Turumbe and his friends knew their business.
Akwugo was outside her hut, putting out the cooking-place fire when they arrived. She was completely taken unawares. The only thing she heard was the sound of fast approaching footsteps. Her instincts jumping to attention, Akwugo whirled around. There was a blur of movement in the periphery of her vision just before the stick connected with her skull, and then she was seeing stars revolving round her head. Someone punched her in the stomach, and Akwugo gasped. Then she slumped over and threw up her supper.
“Stop hitting her, you idiot!” Turumbe cursed, emerging from the darkness behind the hut. “If you keep doing that, what good would she be in bed?”
The man sniggered. Dropping the stout stick in his hand, he produced a rope from under his garment. Then silently, he and another man who’d also emerged from behind the hut, bent over Akwugo and began to tie her up while Turumbe kept watch.
Akwugo moaned painfully, her mind slowly clogging up with darkness.
It was Turumbe that saw the Stranger first, and the sight gave him a bad shock. The other men looked up too and were struck dumb by the sight of the fair-skinned man standing motionless in the cluster of shrubs a stone-throw’s distance away, staring steadily at them. But they didn’t remain dumb for long. Slowly, they stood up and beckoned at the Stranger to come closer.
Unblinking and motionless, the Stranger continued to stare.
“I don’t like the way he is looking at us,” one of the men said.
Narrowing his eyes, Turumbe hissed. “Let’s kill him; he might tell tales.”
Moving with a frightening singleness of purpose, Akwugo’s assailants encircled the Stranger. Soon, there were sounds of fighting and struggling – men grunting and pushing each other, punches flying. Suddenly, there was a high-pitched scream, and then another. Sounds of trashing around followed as someone tried to get away, but was caught. A last blood-curdling scream echoed, and then all was quiet.
Akwugo had passed out in the middle of it all. When she came to, she was inside her hut and on her bamboo bed. Her bruises had been cleaned. Slowly, she sat up and looked around in mild confusion. Standing in front of her was the fair-skinned stranger. Akwugo felt alarm course through her, but the Stranger made soothing gestures and she slowly calmed down. Then memory flooded back, and Akwugo jumped up again, her eyes wide with fear. With deliberate slowness, the Stranger shook his head from side to side, and she immediately understood. He had taken care of them.
For a long while, they stood like that: Akwugo staring at the Stranger, and he staring back with a deadpan expression. At last, Akwugo grew curios.
“Who are you?” she asked gently.
If the Stranger understood the question, he didn’t bother to show it.
“Who are you?” Akwugo repeated after a while, and got the same stony silence.
Maybe he doesn’t understand our language, Akwugo thought, and tried a different tactic. She pointed at herself and said “Akwugo”; then she pointed at the Stranger and gave him a questioning look.
The Stranger just kept staring.
Akwugo fleetingly wondered if he was a deaf-dumb, but decided against it. He didn’t look it. She tried again. Me, Akwugo; you, what?
Suddenly, like the breaking out of sunlight after a fierce thunderstorm, the Stranger smiled – and Akwugo felt the smile envelope her in a sea of warmth. She smiled back, uneasily at first, but slowly her nervousness dispelled and left in its wake a soft, fluffy feeling that was at the same time soothing and mesmerizing. All the pains, insults and rejections people had meted out to her seemed to pale away under the Stranger’s hypnotic gaze and dazzling smile, leaving her feeling sluiced. Akwugo tried in vain to shut out the image of the eyes; they seemed to doing things to her insides. A flash of intense yearning suddenly coursed through her body, and Akwugo gasped. Leaning on the wall of her hut for dear support, Akwugo stood powerlessly while the Stranger worked his magic on her.
At last the Stranger blinked and broke the connection. Then slowly shaking his head again from side to side, he turned around and walked away in the night.
For a long time, Akwugo stood there in her hut, catching her breath and staring at the doorway through which the Stranger had walked out. A single tear welled out from her left eye and coursed down her cheek. Slowly, she wiped it away and went to bed.
The Stranger lived in Ogba-ede village for exactly seven months, and then he vanished. During that whole time, he never uttered a single word. There was something unnatural about him that seemed to distance him away from ordinary people.
No one knew exactly when the Stranger left. As he didn’t have a hut of his own, each person assumed that he was probably staying indoors in someone else’s house. Then after a while, everyone began to notice that it had been a while since they had seen him last. Finally, it dawned on them that he had left for good.
Some of the villagers were happy to see the last of the Stranger. Of these people, none was as happy, and as relieved, as Idika when he learnt that his nemesis had finally left the village. The old man had never gotten over the effects of his encounter with the fair-skinned young man over seven moons ago. Ever since that fateful evening, Idika never left his compound again after sundown.
Fleetingly, Idika wondered if he should try and get Akwugo again, now that the Stranger was gone. But a quick flashback of what had happened to Turumbe and his friends caused him to dump the idea. There are some things in this world that are meant to be left alone.
Akwugo walked around morosely liked someone in grief. Somehow, over the months, she had come to take the Stranger’s presence for granted – like the way one expected the sun to rise every morning. Now, all of a sudden, the sun had failed to rise; it wasn’t even there anymore. The Stranger was gone, and Akwugo felt like he had taken away her life with him.
People no longer shied away from her like they used to before – she even had a few friends now among the market women – but that was not enough to overcome the devastation she was feeling. It seemed as if the wind of good things the Stranger had carried with him into her life had blown away with him again.
Then one hot afternoon, many days after the Stranger had left, a man walked up to her stall at the Nkwo-day market. Listlessly, Akwugo looked up at him – and her lethargy instantly evaporated. There was such pain in the man’s eyes that she wanted to reach out and hug him. But instead, she stood rock-still and stared at him, her mind going blank.
Entranced, the man stared back.
For how long they stood like that, Akwugo couldn’t tell, but she suddenly felt very tired, and blinked. Her mind went back to the night the Stranger had “stared” her pains away, and she briefly wondered if he had done something else to her that night – if he had perhaps left a little bit of himself inside her.
Slowly, Akwugo looked up at the man again. He was still staring at her, but some of the pain had left his eyes. A smile slowly spread across his face as he stepped closer to her and touched her left shoulder.
“Please, what is your name?” he said.
Heat rushed to Akwugo’s face, and she quickly looked down. Somehow, she knew her life would never be the same again.
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