By Anne Dafeta
The wind howled tonight.
It howled on every choosing ceremony night, reminding the pledges of the stories of others who had come before them: Idogani, the chosen. The ones tasked with protecting Igo land from evil spirits.
Under the glare of the full moon, Udeme could see the fear on their faces, worn in silence because pledges did not refuse their calling. Pledges did not protest, even though they knew there could only be one chosen.
Twelve of them stood on the edge of the cliff looking forward, hoping that the wind would carry them the moment they stepped off. It had happened before. In the last generation, twenty five years ago, Unaidike Onnuli had picked the white stone and therefore had been the first to step off. She had walked forward and continued to walk until she looked down to find that her feet had left the cliff behind. These, and other miraculous events like it, were the stories they clung onto.
These were the stories Udeme clung to. She had spent the past nine years praying to live past the age of seventeen. If she survived this day, she would finally be free of the triangle on her palm that marked her as a pledge, free to live without the fear of death. The thought lit a ray of hope in her chest, yet it was dimmed quickly by another: whether she was dead or alive, the mark would disappear from her only to reappear on the palm of another unfortunate soul who would share this same fate twenty or even thirty years from now.
The mark would appear on its new host only after the Idogani from her generation had blown the dreaded Horn of Calling, used to announce that he or she had seen their death, and their time on the earth was drawing to a close. The Horn would be blown ten years from the year the Idogani was to pass. But the mark didn’t always appear immediately. No, it was rarely ever fair that way. Her own mark had come when she turned eight, almost a full year after the sound of the Horn. At least she had gotten nine years to prepare. There were stories of others receiving their marks mere months before.
She hoped that whoever took up her mark would at least receive it on time. She looked at the others around her, feet bare, their white chiffon shorts and shirts billowing ghostlike around them; fitting attire, since many of them would not survive the night. With any luck, whoever was the Idogani would be the one to go first this year, that way and she and everyone else would be spared.
For most of the families, the night was thick with apprehension. A gloomy silence spread over them like a dark blanket. They waited away from the edge of the cliff. For some, sure of ancestral lineages that had borne many of the chosen, there was a tense but certain air of awaited success.
“Nwa ikuku – she is a child of the wind,” Udeme had heard a chief say of his daughter, Ebube, who was standing a few feet away from her. He was not wrong. Throughout the history of their people, whenever the Onnuli family had a pledge, their pledge had always been the chosen.
Her own family history had only Kakichukwu. Kaki who liked to sit on the thinnest weight-bearing branches in the tallest trees. Kaki who could take her swing higher than any of her mates. Kaki who was most joyous when the rain winds were strongest, slapping and slamming doors against their posts; she had actually gone out in the rain once, much to her father’s chagrin, but her mother had soothed him saying, “Can’t you see she is a child of the wind?”
It was Kaki who had chosen the white stone that year. Kaki who had stepped off the cliff, unafraid and sure. Kaki, whose mother never spoke again after her child’s broken body was retrieved and buried.
“Children of the air, step forward.” Elder Nnomi’s voice echoed in the pale night. “If the air does not carry you, go, and if it brings you come back.”
Udeme scanned the crowd for Oke’s towering form but could not find him. If Oke was here, then Grandmamma was here, and if Grandmamma was here, then-
Then what? she thought, fighting back her tears.
“Let me go, let me run away,” she had cried to Grandmamma many times in the days before, but Grandmamma had simply stated, “You cannot go, you are chosen. Chosen do not run.”
“But what if I fall? Surely I will fall.”
To which Grandmamma always replied gently, “What if you fly?”
Oke had tried to make Grandmamma feel guilty by reminding her that if their parents were alive, they would have run away with Udeme the moment the dreaded mark appeared on her palm.
But Grandmamma simply stared, muttering under her breath, “The wind does not embrace its own only to cast it away.”
And so the conversation had always ended. And then the elders had come for her, and now she was standing on the cliff a few minutes away from sure death.
More tears began to fall down her cheeks, through them, Udeme saw Ebube step forward, tentatively, and place her hand in the bag.
The crowd held its collective breath.
Ebube picked a black stone.
A shout of indignation went up. Udeme looked back to find hands in the air and people crying out in grief. Everyone who took a black stone had to follow whoever chose the white stone, in the order of their selection. Since Ebube would now go second, at least one child was doomed.
After Ebube, a smallish boy Udeme didn’t know, who looked like the rushing wind would lift him up and hurl him off the cliff, stepped forward and put his hand in the bag. He picked a black stone as well. Another boy stepped forward and placed his hand in the bag. This one Udeme knew. Jisike was of the Onuoha family. Next to the Onnuli, the Onuoha had produced the second highest number of Idogani.
Udeme silently wished he would pick the white stone.
He picked a black one.
She was the fourth in line. It was her turn to step forward, to choose a stone.
Udeme could not tell the exact moment she knew, or how she knew. Only that when she took her hand out of the bag the shiny white marble would be in it.
“We have Nke izizi – the first one,” Elder Nnomi proclaimed. “Udeme Iloka.”
There was a general sigh of relief from most of the crowd; the odds of their children’s survival had gone up at the plummeting of hers. Her breath became short, and a panic seized her as she took in the mournful faces that shaking their heads at her plight. The other eight, now surer of their survival, hurried forward, one after the other to pick their black stones.
When they were all done, Elder Nnomi moved from child to child, chanting over their heads: “If the wind takes you, go, and if the wind brings you back, come.”
He turned away from the pledges and walked to the very edge, and then he screamed, “Nke izizi, step forward.”
Udeme’s limbs were heavy, paralysed from fear. She had heard stories of the first pledge being thrown off the cliff when they refused to go. She did not want to be thrown. She looked back, but her tears blurred the people into a brown mass. Her eyes settled on the figure in a wheelchair at the front of the crowd, with a taller one standing behind it. Grandmamma and Oke!
She wiped her tears so she could see them more clearly. She tried to take them in, Oke’s thin, tall form was still the awkward frame of a boy becoming a man, but to her, he had always been tall Oke, strong Oke.
One day she had come home crying after some bullies had told her she would soon die because of the pledge mark on her palm. Oke had simply said, “Don’t worry, I will protect you. That is what big brothers do.” He had been ten. A few weeks ago, he had tried to make good on that promise and attempted to sneak her out of the village. Apparently, the Idogani knew when a pledge was about to flee. They had not even made it to the village boundary before the flying form swooped down and whipped them till they pleaded to go back. She had gotten a few lashes, but Oke had used himself as a shield to bear the worst of it. His back now bore scars for that action. His bright eyes were sad, though he was smiling, or trying hard to.
Grandmamma, on the other hand, did not smile, not that Udeme had ever seen her do so. Oke had said that she had worn that stoic look since the day the trailer driver had taken her ability to walk, along with their parents’ lives. She gave Udeme a slight nod: Go.
Udeme turned away from them and completed her short journey to Elder Nnomi.
She didn’t want to see the ground coming at her when she died, so she turned her back to the edge, facing the people, and stepped off the cliff.
The day her parents died, they were going to Onitsha for the new yam festival. Oke, who was too restless for such long journeys, chose to stay with a neighbour instead. Grandmamma said Udeme had cried from the moment they got on the road, stopping only when the car stopped her wailing protest resuming each time the car’s engine started again.
“I told them,” Grandmamma said to her once, “I told them you were trying to tell us something, but your father told me you were just a baby, and that the rain was upsetting you. But I knew better. The weather was as angry as you were, only slowing when you stopped your crying, as if it was listening to you.”
In her stories, the rain pelted violently from above, increasing intensity with each new octave of Udeme’s cries. The rain and her cries reached a joint crescendo right before the screech of tires and the impact that sent their car tumbling off the road. In some versions of the story, Grandmamma said she didn’t know how they survived, only that she held Udeme to her breast and closed her eyes, opening them to find herself lying with her several feet away from where the car had exploded in a fiery heap. In other versions, she added that they had been ripped out the back window by the wind as the car rolled forward.
Udeme had believed that she had lived because of luck. But, with the ground rushing up at her, and her body rushing down to greet it in what would be a resplendent display of guts and gore, she offered up the prayer that had been stuck as a ball of tears in her throat: “I don’t want to die. Please hear me if you’ve ever heard me before. I don’t want to die. Please save me.”
But she was still falling, gaining speed with every second, and then she remembered Grandmamma words to her: “The wind does not embrace its own only to cast it away.”
Udeme spoke the words over and over, though she could not hear her voice above the rush.
The ground was getting closer.
She was not stopping.
She stiffened her limbs.
She shut her eyes.
The pull jarred Udeme so violently it knocked the breath out of her, and her scream along with it. Another pull and she cried out, “Whoa!”
She opened her eyes to find herself tossing around like a leaf.
She cried out again as she realised she was facing the ground, mere inches above it. Relief washed over her like a bucket of cold water. She laughed, and continued to laugh for several minutes as she was bounced about. The movements were terrible, but she was alive!
Embrace the wind. She finally heard her thoughts in Grandmama’s voice.
Udeme raised her head and thrust her shoulders forward. As soon as she made the change in her posture, she steadied, and the breeze curled itself around her entire body, wrapping her in a secure shell of air, ready to shift her from a mere thought. Her limbs were no longer their own, but an extension of the wind.
She had cried a thousand times, lamented how she knew would fall, but each time Grandmamma had countered with, “What if you fly?”
No longer afraid of falling, she sped upward, and laughed again. Now she could set out to end the choosing of Idogani this way, but first, she would make sure the next generation had a chance at more than the few miserable years that had been accorded her and her fellow pledges.
She would blow the horn tonight.