The first thing a River Boy knows is that he does not know until he knows.
You’ve always been attracted to things that have water in them; the river, the muddy puddle in the backyard where your father packs his fishing tools, your mother’s drinking pot behind the stove, pearl-shaped drops of dew studding the ferns that curl around the picket fence, tears and sweat. A liquid, like ink, swells through your veins when you stare at these watery surfaces. Recently, the watery surfaces have started whispering to you, telling you that you belong to the other side.
On Saturdays, when you and your mother go to River Bambu to wash the sisal-woven, sleeping-blankets, you sit on golden-colored sand at the mouth of River Bambu, rubbing shiny pebbles together to produce yellow sparks, and stuffing handfuls of the seashells strewn along River Bambu’s bank into the tiny pockets of your khaki shorts. You run into the river amid loud chortles, startling the flock of weaver birds nesting on the wiry bamboo stems. River Bambu is always filled with the voices of invisible children, laughing, molding the water into tennis balls and hurling the balls at one another. You don’t see the children with your eyes but your heart is chock-full of them. Sometimes, you bury yourself underneath the water and stay there until your mother starts looking for you when it’s time to go home. She will shriek, yank at your ears and threaten to slap your small buttocks if you ever bury yourself underneath the water. Your mother knows you know she knows she will never beat you. What you don’t know is that the reason your mother will not lay a finger on you is because you are a River Boy and River Boys are fragile things.
“People can’t breathe under the water. You could have killed yourself,” your mother chided the last time you buried yourself underneath the river. Her chest rose and fell like ocean tides. Your mother’s voice was a mixed bag of rage and relief. You ruffled your nose and said you could breathe just fine under water. Your mother feigned she didn’t hear you, balanced the basin filled with the sleeping-blankets on her head, and set off home. As you trailed behind her, hoping you could pick up some bits of truth you believe your mother hides in the folds of the Ankara wrapper wound around her waist, you remembered the other things your mother had feigned she did not hear you say—like last week Monday when you asked her why don’t have a bellybutton like your elder brother Somti, or on your third birthday when you wanted to know why the mirror appeared blank when you looked into it.
It rains tonight. The raindrops’ patatapa on rooftop may sound like incoherent ramblings to your mother, who is sitting by your bedside smearing peppermint balm on your ribs, but not to you. The raindrops are telling you not to believe your mother when she says you caught cold because you buried yourself underneath the water. Your mother gives you a set of napkins for you to blow your nose. Somti is standing by the door, a fake smile plastered on his face. He hates that you get all the attention in the house.
“All he needs to do is breathe for Mama and Papa to come running to his bedside,” Somti murmurs, still wearing the plastered smile.
“Somti, you will stay up with me and wait for your father to come back from his fishing trip,” your mother says as she checks the window latches for any leak that will let in the chilly night air.
“Why can’t Bura stay up too?”
I struggle to suppress my laughter behind the curtains where I am hiding. The plastered smile has melted off Somti’s face and now you can see what he really is; a boy of fourteen who just needs a little more attention.
“Because he is sick, and the only time you remember you are the bigger brother is when it’s time to share the roast beef.”
I let out my laughter now. There is no need to hold it back. Somti and your mother can neither see nor hear me. But you do. You see my hooded figure through the tear of the curtain and hear me laughing. Do you think my voice sounds guttural behind the lace curtains of your room? Never mind, we will talk about my voice and other things when your mother and Somti leave the room.
“Nkpelue, you know you should stop sneaking here when Mama and Somti are around. They might see you,” you say as soon as your mother closes the door behind her.
“Pfft!” I scoff. “Only you can see me Bura.”
You sit up to make room for me on the bed. “So, what did you bring this time? Mystic berries, roast caramel, or fortune cookies?”
I love seeing the blitheness on your face, how you leap like a kitten anytime I visit. “I brought ice-cake,” I say and produce a brown-paper package from my pocket.
“What is an ice-cake? I’ve never heard of them before.”
“You’ve never heard of anything I bring here. Ice-cakes are like the chocolate cakes your mother bakes but glazed with ice.”
You peel off the brown-paper, now soggy with cream and cake crumbs, and sink your teeth into the cake. “Yum-yum, but Mama’s cakes still taste better.”
Your naïvety is scalding and admirable.
“So, you prefer your human-mother’s cakes to the ones we your brothers baked at Osimiri’s castle; your real home?”
An awkward silence ensues.
“Are we going to play any fun games tonight?” You ask after some time, your eyes bulging with fervor.
“We are going to River Bambu.” You shrink into the blanket.
Going to River Bambu at night petrifies you because Mr. Hassan, the farmer in the next street, does not lock his gate and allows his bulls to roam.
“Don’t worry child, I will go with you.”
“Stop calling me child, you are not that much taller than I am. See, my palms are even bigger than yours.” You slide your palms into mine. Listen. Feel the blood in our veins whispering the secret code of brotherhood.
“Let’s be going. I have a lot to show you.”
“But Mama says the cold will kill me dead if I leave the house.”
“You are just scared of Mr. Hassan’s bulls.” I snap.
“I’m not afraid of anything.”
We slip out of the house through the keyhole. I taught you this trick last month when the front door’s groans almost woke your mother during my visit. The street’s quiet is evenly interposed by meows and hoots. A rat dashes pass us to the baker’s shop and climbs into a drainpipe. You gasp as your left foot hits an empty soda can. A paraffin stench clings to the air outside. I pat you on the shoulder and tell you that soon the saltiness of the river will tickle your nose.
“Shouldn’t we go back?” Your voice can be barely heard over the heavy chattering of your teeth.
“We have to go. Tonight is special.”
“What is happening tonight?”
“Have you forgotten? Bura, tonight is the Night of the Dancing Sky. All your brothers will be there.”
“But I have just one brother.”
“I don’t mean your pesky human-brother, Somti. I am talking about your brothers; the other River Boys.”
There is no one in sight when we get to River Bambu. We sit and dip our feet in. The water begins to bubble.
The last bubble bursts and we transmogrify into another world.
“Where are we?” you ask as we walk along a copper-plated path, bordered by mistletoes on both sides.
“We are on our way to Osimiri’s Castle for the Night of the Dancing Sky.”
“How did we get here?”
“We transmogrified. Our bodies are seated by the river.”
“But we used to just swim at River Bambu and then come back.”
“Not tonight. Tonight is special.”
“My gut tells me I’ve been here before but I can’t seem to remember the place or time.”
A butterfly with a pair of arched, transparent, Tiffany wings perches on your nose.
“Yes, I’ve brought you here before,” I say.
“A year ago; during the last Night of the Dancing Sky.”
You hide behind my back when you see Matuaku, the large, grey-head salamander that stands at the gate.
“Will he hurt us?”
“Of course not. Matuaku is a harmless darling.” I assure you.
“Nkpelue, hurry up. You are already late for the party.” The salamander says. A tang of seaweed-soup hits our nostrils as we enter the party hall. Boys of your age, pimple-faced and missing teeth, are crammed into every space in the party hall. There is music and dancing and games and laughter. Soon, the other River Boys cluster around you. They playfully pull your hair and tug at your cheeks.
“What’s your human name?” One of them asks you. He has a mole at the back of his left ear.
“Where do you live?” Another inquires. Wiry mucus drips from his nose.
“In a little fishing town called Selemku.”
“My name is Obinna. I live in a trading town called Onitsha.” A boy with a scar on his forehead says.
“I’m Jack. I live in a big city called New York.”
“I’m Santiago. I live in an Opera House in a town called Milan.”
“I’m Yu. I live in the top floor of a skyscraper in Hong Kong.”
Their voices, their faces, and their questions tangle up in your head, like a spool of thread given to a mean fairy.
“Boys, boys, give Bura some space. He needs to breathe.”
Even with my back turned, I know Osimiri has just waddled into the hall, separating fights, reprimanding a child, praising another, and stuffing treats into the boys’ pockets. The boys who cluster around you run over to greet Osimiri. He wraps his arms- all six of them- around the boys. I go over to the food table, grab a plate of seaweed-soup and settle down to eat.
“Look at you, Bura,” Osimiri gasps as he scoops you off the floor. “You look lean. Have you been skipping meals?”
“Has his human-mother been feeding him properly?” I add.
Osimiri chuckles and tells Bura not to mind me. “He’s such a balloon-mouth.”
The party continues. More food. More drinking. More games. Osimiri sways around the room, stamping his love on his many children. I can see you out the corner of my left eye as you look at Osimiri. You are no longer afraid of him. I remember the first time Osimiri and I visited your dreams. You wailed until you almost lost your breath. You only stopped crying and calling us monsters when we stuffed a fortune cookie in your mouth.
“How can monsters make something so sweet?” I had asked you as you crunched on the cookie.
I remember that night so well because it was the same night that Osimiri made me your guardian. You were five then and I still wonder if you understood all the things we told you—that your mother cried to the river-god for another child. That Osimiri granted her wish and washed you ashore. That your entry into this world was based on a twisted bargain; Osimiri will wrench you from your mother’s hands anytime he wants. The next morning, you had told your mother that your mother you saw Osimiri in your dream but, she didn’t believe you.
“You don’t speak of Osimiri in the morning. Do you want the tides to swallow our house?” Your mother hushed you and continued kneading the dough she used for making pancakes.
“But I saw him. He was standing in my bedroom. He even came with someone.” You had insisted.
“Boy, you saw nothing.” Your mother dusted the frying pan with flour. Soon your raspy voice, talking about the dream, was swallowed by the chaing chaing of the pancakes as they browned in the hot groundnut oil.
Seeing you now, twelve years old, slung across Osimiri’s shoulder, laughing and baring your teeth, brings tears to my eyes. Will you still be jolly if I tell you that on this Night of the Dancing Sky, Osimiri has cast his lot and fate has chosen you, among all the River Boys, to come back to the castle? How ready are you to leave the people whom you love; Somti, your parents, Kunle, Sadiq, and the other children you play jara with, to come back to the castle?
The chandelier glints on your white teeth. It was just last week when you lost your front tooth. You moaned about how it would never grow back because you couldn’t find it and stash it in a silk purse for the tooth fairy. I laughed and told you we could bribe the tooth fairy with cheese.
“Settle down everybody,” Osimiri says and lifts you off his shoulder. The chattering and murmurs die. “Tonight is a special night for Bura because he is finally coming home.”
Your smile dries up. Your eyelids sag. Your arms slacken. Osimiri’s words are dancing Ajikolo on top of your head. You can’t hear a word he says. I know this because I also could not twenty years ago when the gods picked me to come back to the castle. Don’t worry child, I will tell you all Osimiri said on our way to your house.
“You see, no matter how your human-family loves you, we love you more.” Osimiri continues.
I make a mental note not to tell you the who loves you more part. It’s best for you to choose who loves you more. My guardian didn’t give me the luxury, he just rammed the promises of candy towers and mystic berries down my throat. Truth is, I’ve grown to realize I loved my human-mother’s apple pie more than anything in the world; even if it was filled with large chunks of the charcoal we used to heat the mud oven. I don’t blame Rambui, my guardian, because River Boys don’t choose. Our fates are encrypted on the whorls of Osimiri’s palms.
The party fizzles out just before dawn. Osimiri instructs me and the other guardians to make sure we take our River Boys home safely. I spend close to twenty minutes trying to untangle from the mesh of the River Boys who are gushing all over you and wishing they were the ones who were picked to come back to the castle.
“Light on your feet, we’ve got to get going before your people wake up,” I say as we leave the castle.
“But I’m not sure I want to go back to the castle. I love visiting, but I kinda love it here with Mama, Papa and Somti,” you say.
I keep mute and the street also keeps mute, as if to sell me out. We walk past Pa Jamiu’s cobbler shed. Your house is just a stretch of leg away.
“Will you come with me to the river?” you ask.
“You’ll go alone.”
You start to hyperventilate. “But you know I’m scared of passing Mr Hassan’s house because of his bull.”
“Big boys aren’t scared of anything; plus the river will also guide you.”
“But what if I don’t want to go? What if my mother says I’m not going? She didn’t allow me to follow Uncle Huwa to the mountains, remember?”
My mother never wanted me to go either. She called the medicine man who tied strings of eggshells on our door knobs, sprinkled our window sills with salt, and told her to get rid of all the water in the house. When Osimiri did not see me by the river at midnight, he came for me himself.
“You must go,” I say.
You hop on my back and climb into your room through the window. I wait for you to pull the blanket over your head before I let the tears flow. Call me selfish, but I don’t want our friendship to end. Once you get to the castle, Osimiri will make you a guardian to a River Boy. I will be pushed into the kitchen as a steward and I will never get to see the world of humans again. You know sometimes, before I visit you at nights, I go over to my mother’s place. She doesn’t see me as she fans the charcoal to heat the mud oven. I nudge her when she is about to doze off so that the apple pies won’t burn. I wanted to repair her leaking roof but the thatch always slips through my fingers so I stay up late with her on rainy nights, making sure the rain does not fall on her bed.
The door squeaks and your father enters the room. He pats your head and pulls your right thumb from your mouth. I can read the taut lines on his face; they don’t just say the fishing trip leeched strength from his bones, they also say he misses those days you accompanied him on his fishing trip. He stopped taking you because you were always throwing the fishes back into the river. Your mother runs into the room and slams the door shut. “It’s today. They are taking Bura away today. Osimiri visited my dream.”
Your father sighs. He feels powerless.
“I’m not going to let them take him.” Your mother makes for the bed. “I’m going to run away with him.”
Your father stops her. “We are pawns in the hands of the gods. You know that. Let the boy sleep. He has a long journey to make.”
Everybody treats you like a glass-egg today. Even Somti does not want you to go. At midnight, a puddle of water collects at your feet. It’s Osimiri’s sign. You step out of the house you’ve always known as home and begin your journey to the river. The neighbors- Mama Abumi, Papa Jamui, Olokoro; the woman who moved in newly, and Fem, hold your mom so she won’t chase after you.
At the river, you sit and plunge your feet into the warm water. You close your eyes and feel the water turn cold. Tiny roots begin to sprout out from your feet. Don’t worry, breathe, count to three, it will soon be over. Your mother breaks free from the neighbors. She trips over a pile of garbage. Her knee is bruised, her ankle is sprained, and her sight is blurry. She continues running, never pausing to catch her breath until she reaches the river.
But it’s too late. You are already in the castle with Osimiri.
Your mother calls out your name, but you can’t hear her. Her tears, hot like magma, sizzle as they drop into the river. But not even your mother’s tears can melt the heart of the great river-god. Soon, you dissolve into the water, without trace, leaving nothing behind but the memory that you were once here. At the other side of the river, away from your mother’s tears, a woman is cradling a new born baby in her arms and thanking Osimiri.
My work here is done. The river has taken back what belongs to it.