Art by James Esber
It was morning, a thin mist over the valley, and Huzaifa watched as a flock of owls set upon a lamb with their powerful talons and short, curved beaks. The lamb had no chance against the birds that descended upon her in a flurry of grey and brown wings. They went for the eyes and pecked the poor animal blind. The lamb ran this and that way, sightlessly, trying to escape.
Huzaifa left his hut and started to hurry towards the scene. He was going to try to save the lamb, but before he got there the owls were already feasting on the lamb’s protruding eyes. He looked away with disgust. When he overcame his revulsion, he picked up a stone and threw it at them, shooing the owls away. Freed but blinded, the lamb went foundering and bleating down the valley towards the swamps.
Huzaifa turned and started back to the meadow, unsettled by the image. He paused to ponder the life of owls. Owls were a case study of witchcraft and taboo wildlife. He remembered his childhood and the nights, lying snug on his mat, around him the silence absolute, and then an owl broke the peace and quiet with her classic call.
“Away with you, evil bird,” his mother would curse. “Why do you hoot at my window? And why is it that when you hoot at night, a child always dies mysteriously in the neighborhood?”
Smiling, his father would explain the nature of owls. “Owls hoot at night because they are nocturnal birds.” He would go on to say that besides protecting their territory, owls hoot to express other thoughts; what they say depends on the variation in each hoot.
Cattle munched in the grazing field. In the distance Huzaifa’s sons bent over a fallen cow. Something was not right. He walked over, his heart lurching when he saw Bara, his favorite Black Angus, flat on its side.
“What happened to him?” he said in his gruff voice, bending over and stroking the animal.
“He suddenly dropped to his knees,” his first son Musa said, as skinny and thin-faced as his father at sixteen.
Huzaifa took some antibiotic capsules from a grey belt bag. He called for a bowl and mixed the content of the capsules in water. And then he forced the lame ox on her back, asked the boys to hold him while he forced the drink into him. Minutes later, Bara started kicking out in an agony of death.
“Lahilaillallah,” Huzaifa hissed and walked away after the animal stilled.
He lit hemp, sat alone with a mournful look, watching his sons drag Bara down the valley and buried him in the swamps. Married to three wives and the father of eleven children, he reared cattle for a living. His favorite pastime was smoking hemp and watching egrets riding cattle and his most-loved cow was the Black Angus. He was also fond of gazing absently down a stark, swampy valley; his nose quivered at the tip at full pleasure whenever he did that, like when he ate tuwo and miyan kuka after a good hemp smoke.
He reared cattle for the rich Higi merchants. For his wage the merchants gave up one of three new-born calves to him. In this way he nurtured a small livestock trade he was hoping would expand with time. He had a large family to cater for with three wives and eight children not counting three grown-up boys who had left home to almajiranci. The four younger sons were in the herding business with him. His wives traded in maize and millet at the kasuwar gari and his girls hawked fura da nono around the market.
Born the second child in a semi-nomadic family of four, his family migrated up from Lake Chad when he was a child. He spent most of his life as a boy pasturing across the Sahel Savannah. He only started to live a settled life after he married Aisha, his second wife who was of Higi tribe, settled in Kasar Aminci where he had lived over the years. His parents had been dead a long time, shortly before he came to live in Kasar Aminci, and his brothers had continued with their semi-nomadic life, their paths never crossing again. Life here had been peaceful until they attacked and razed down Izghe, the very next community to his.
At dusk, as Huzaifa made his way home in the company of his sons, the scene came back again to haunt him in gruesome images: the owls with their large, broad heads and downward-curving beaks, ripping and tearing at the sheep with their sharp talons. Owls have binocular vision, which means that even with fixed eye sockets they can rotate their necks to see 270 degrees around them. The structures of bone in an owl’s feet are stronger than in other birds.
A mild dusty wind searched the street, but far from bringing relief from the heat, it seemed to grow warmer. Huzaifa unwound his turban to let in the breeze. The shawl he wore over a grey silk garb drew the eyes to his height and lank austere look. His arms were twined around a herding stick. As they passed children practicing with toy bows and arrows, he rebuked them for switching their dinner chore time with play time.
“Run along home and help your mothers with chores.” He shooed them away.
The group broke up and fled to their homes in all directions.
He waved at a group of men sitting outside a shopfront. “Assalamu alaikum,” he called, surprised at his own dismal voice.
“Alaikum salam,” they chorused a reply.
Nagona, Yarima and Maifari were neighbors. A few lanterns were glowing from compounds with a dull phosphorescence as he crossed the clutter of round huts. The smell of a dung fire reached him and, following the smoke, he hailed his closest neighbor, Ahmed, who was milking a cow over a dwarf brick fence by the light of a kerosene lamp. Dinner fires were burning brightly under steel pots outside of huts in neighboring compounds. He arrived home to a lively household preparing dinner, his children moving briskly about the lamp-lit compound attending to dinner chores.
“Sanu Baba,” the children greeted him one by one.
Azhaar, the last born, and Aamaal her stepsister who was older by a year, both carried a stool to him, each insisting he sit on her own stool. Smiling at their rivalry, he took both stools. He sat on one and stretched his legs over the other, leaning back against the mud wall. That seemed to settle the dispute, although only momentarily. They fought over who would take his herding stick into his hut.
“Take the herding stick inside,” he said to Aamaal, “while Azhaar fetches a cup of water for me.”
His decision seemed a balanced one for the girls. Aamaal took the herding stick, while Azhaar fetched him a cup of water.
“You look bothered, mai raina,” his soft-spoken first wife Zainab said in an affectionate voice.
He hissed. After spending the whole day in the fields under the burning sun, the rich brown skin of his skinny face was tinted a lustrous burnt umber, the color of debino. They were close, Huzaifa and this woman who bore him three sons and two daughters, and who understood him more than the other wives.
“Don’t worry about the dead ox. Kuma Allah zaimayar da kowaneirinasara.” Her reassurance that Allah would replenish his loss soothed him.
News of Bara’s death had come home ahead of his arrival from the fields. Aside from the loss he was feeling funny, a sort of tightness in the pit of his stomach, as if he was going to have diarrhea. He knew that this feeling had nothing to do with his loss, nothing to do with the heat that reflected itself from the moist weight of heavy clouds that had hung over the village in the past few days.
“You have been working too hard. You must take some time off. Allah has blessed you with sons who can do the work,” she said.
He appreciated her vicarious concern but he was certain that work was not the reason for his jumpiness. The last time he had had feelings like streaks of lightning in his stomach was when a son of Higi tribe was found dead in the bushes with a slit throat, slaughtered like a cow. The cruelty of it still made him retch. He reached for his transistor radio and tuned it. There was a brief Sangaya tune followed by the musical flow of Hausa as a female voice recapped the bombing of a mosque in the neighboring town of Mubi and the killing of worshippers. The news had been on air for days now; now the broadcaster reported that the killers had declared Mubi a caliphate.
“At dusk, as Huzaifa made his way home in the company of his sons, the scene came back again to haunt him in gruesome images: the owls with their large, broad heads and downward-curving beaks, ripping and tearing at the sheep with their sharp talons. Owls have binocular vision, which means that even with fixed eye sockets they can rotate their necks to see 270 degrees around them. The structures of bone in an owl’s feet are stronger than in other birds...One great thing about owls is that they sit at the top of the food chain and they reduce populations of pests. As far as Huzaifa could tell, owls with their hypnotic, yellow-eyed stare and deep hooting voice, were merely objects of myth and superstition.”
Perhaps, Huzaifa’s mood had to do with his anxiety that one day the peace in Kasar Aminci would be gone, plucked away like a ripe fruit stolen from an orchard. Perhaps, it had to do with the way and manner the owls were gorging themselves on the poor lamb’s eyes. He snorted. In that moment when he found himself alone before dinner, the image snuck back into his mind. One great thing about owls is that they sit at the top of the food chain and they reduce populations of pests. As far as Huzaifa could tell, owls with their hypnotic, yellow-eyed stare and deep hooting voice, were merely objects of myth and superstition.
He had his bath, then Rekiya, his youngest wife, served a dinner of tuwo shinkafa with miyan kuka. It was her turn to cook for the family. His family ate together, outdoors. He really had no appetite, but with the two favorite ladies sitting on a stool across from him and asking endless questions, he was forced to eat a few morsels.
“Baba,” Azhaar said, her large eyes fixed on him. “You are eating as if you don’t like the food.”
“I like the food,” he said.
“I know it is because you prefer to eat tuwo shinkafa with miyan tause but my stepmother will like it with miyan kuku,” Aamaal said.
“It is not that,” he said. Sometimes he could not help but wonder at their level of reasoning at the ages of five and six. “As a matter of fact, I have started to like miyan kuku. I am not really hungry on this occasion.”
“I am sorry about Bara, Baba,” Azhaar said. “But you have to eat so that you will have the strength for tomorrow’s work.”
He ate to please her, this girl of his who had inherited his golden-brown skin and her mother’s long-lashed eyes.
After the meal, the girls cleared the dishes and returned with a bowl of nono each from their mothers for him. They set the bowls down before him and watched him as he drank from each in turn to please them.
“Do you like the nono?” Azhaar said.
“Yes, I like it,” he replied.
“Is it sweet?” Aamaal said.
“It is very sweet,” he returned.
Face hidden in the calabash vessel as he sipped from a bowl, he did not notice the furtive movement in the surrounding darkness.
“My mother says she will teach me how to milk a cow,” Azhaar said.From across the compound came Zainab’s fruity laughter. His women were enjoying a post dinner chat as usual. They managed to live in peace. “My mother will teach me too,” Aamaal mimicked Azhaar. “That is very good,” he said tonelessly.
Suddenly a figure loomed in the doorway out of the void of darkness. Huzaifa caught a moment’s glimpse of the intruder before a furious jackbooted leg kicked out at the lantern standing a few yards from where he sat. In that brief moment when the light of the lantern flickered and went dead, plunging the compound into darkness, Huzaifa saw a colossus of a gun with a belt of bullets slung sash-style over a great shoulder. And then the full beam of a powerful torchlight fell on his face and blinded him.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Huzaifa barked into the light.
“Jama’atu Ahlis-Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad,” a rough voice said gruffly.
The name did to Huzaifa’s limbs what oil does to rusted wheels; it sets them in motion. He swept up Azhaar and Aamaal to shield them from danger with his body as the light swung and threw them out of focus in one split second when the attacker reached for the gun. He stayed out of focus for not longer than a heartbeat but it was enough time to make a dash for safety. The gunshots came, rhythmic and staccato, like raindrops drumming on the roof at the sudden start of a storm. Screams rent the air. Suddenly Huzaifa felt his right arm sag with a dead weight, sticky liquid streaking down the arm.
“Mutum banza!” he cried and let go of his daughters. He lunged at the attacker.
The dark skies turned orange; the sounds of their evening meal were drowned in a terrible din. In charging blindly at the attacker, Huzaifa provided a lifeline for his wives and children to flee into the void of darkness as the gunman turned his gun loose on his family. His left shoulder exploded in pain, slowing his suicidal bounce and causing him to pitch forward and crash at the feet of the killer.
Kasar Aminci was a smoking rubble in the morning. A skinny black dog moved about sniffing at blood among the carnage of dead bodies. Vultures loitered, surveying the landscape. In a short time when the bodies began to decompose the vultures would descend from their perches and help themselves. But then officers of the State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit arrived and started to pluck the bodies out of the rubble. The police and the military also arrived in truckloads and sirens. Survivors crouched around remnants of their huts like shepherd-less herds, still too traumatized and reluctant to speak to anxious news hunters. Soldiers moved about eavesdropping and scowling at the newsmen.
Huzaifa sat outside his hut, the same accustomed position where he had had dinner with little Azhaar and Aamaal on the night of the attack. He wore a bandage around his left shoulder from bullet injury. The bullet had left a badly torn tissue.
“His bones are not affected,” a radiologic technologist at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital had explained after a CT scan. “Scan shows that both the scapula and the clavicle are not affected.”
Azhaar was sitting on her little stool across from him, her large, sympathetic eyes fixed on his injured shoulder.
“Yi hakuri Baba,” she said again soothingly.
He took her hand in his and pressed it softly. “Where have you been?” he said.
“I went to play at filin wasa,” she said. “But I am here now. Are you hungry?”
“No,” he said.
“But you have to eat so that your injury will heal faster. Mother made nono. I will get you some to drink.” She rose and went towards her mother’s hut, his affectionate gaze following her until she fizzled out into nothingness.
“Haba mai gida,” Aisha said. “You are talking to yourself again.”
She had been standing next to him with hands on her hips unnoticed. Her voice nudged him back to reality, causing his sight to travel to the garden beyond the courtyard and rest on the rectangular mounds, one large and the other small, both fresh. Huzaifa had preferred that his wife and daughter be buried in the garden facing his hut so that their graves were the first things he saw when he woke up every morning and came to the door.
Aisha said, “It’s time to let go. Sitting here talking to yourself and staring at their graves will not bring back Zainab and Azhaar from the land of the dead.”
He let out a deep groan. The gunman’s bullet had caught Azhaar at point blank range, causing Huzaifa to act on impulse and lunge at the gunman. Despite his efforts, he could not save Zainab. She was also caught in the hail of the attacker’s bullets. Although he had lost a wife and a daughter, he had not lost everything. His closest neighbor, Ahmed, had died with his entire family. Huzaifa shut his eyes and saw Ahmed milking a cow behind his dwarf fence.
The death of the two people he cherished most in his life came close to upsetting Huzaifa’s mental balance. Whenever he sat in that accustomed position outside his hut he heard the voice of his little girl, Azhaar, and responded to her many questions.
A curfew was imposed. Soldiers patrolled around in the village. However, the fear that the killers might return sat tight at the doorstep of every heart despite a state of emergency rule and the presence of soldiers. Tension was spreading through the district: human beings slaughtered, mosques and churches and villages razed to the ground, army bases and police stations bombed. Nothing but mayhem and massacre when you listened to the radio or turned the pages of the newspaper.
Huzaifa knew little about guns–he used bows and arrows when hunting or performing his Neighborhood Watch duties–but the guns he saw the soldiers carrying were toys compared to the machine his attacker had carried.
“I have never seen a gun like that,” he groaned.
“They are cowards using guns like that on a helpless man and his family,” Aisha said.
“I wasn’t able to save my wife and daughter,” he lamented again.
“You fought like a tiger.” She sat close to him. “You stopped them from finishing off the entire family.”
He hissed. “I have a bad feeling about the future,” he said quietly.
“The soldiers are already here to protect us,” she said.
“I doubt if the soldiers can do much to help us. If you send a man to catch a shrew, you should also provide him with water and soap to wash off the bad smell from his hands.”
“Where are we fleeing to?”
He was considering travelling inland away from the belt of rolling highlands along the Cameroon borders towards the coastal plains of the southeast where there seemed to be relative peace.
“Are you not worried about moving to unfamiliar territories? Don’t you think we should resettle in Zaria or Suleja?”
“The violence is spreading its tentacles throughout the northern region. That’s why I want us to go south. I am only worried about grazing routes. I hope we find them there in the south.”
“I have a bad feeling about this decision of yours.”
The next morning, they set out at sunrise following the north-south pathway like migratory birds. They trekked during the day and rested at night, making large fires to drive away dangerous predators--buffalos, hyenas and large prowling cats. Sometimes they stopped to rest and graze their cattle for a few days wherever they found lush pasture. And then they moved on again pushing eastwards away from the Sahel, coming upon towns and villages. Sometimes they crossed a large city and spent a few days on the periphery to experience a feel of urban life.
The sandy wastes of the Sahara and the great rolling plains started to give way to chains of hills and mountains rising majestically over expansive river valleys. The journey went with its troubles. They lost a few cattle to disease, snakebites, and lightning strikes. But there were newborns too. They were completely cut out from the rest of the world. The signals in Huzaifa’s transistor radio were epileptic, the waves going in and out again.
On the radio, they heard news of a second attack on Kasar Aminci.
“Our departure was timely,” Aisha said.
Rekiya flung her a reproachful eye. “I am surprised to hear you talk like that, and to think you tried to talk our husband into not leaving.”
“Is finding fault not all that you are good at?” Aisha returned the look with the same intensity.
“What I don’t understand is why they picked on Kasar Aminci,” Huzaifa said quickly to avert the hostility fermenting between the women. “Allahu Akbar.”
He felt thankful for the wisdom and timeliness of their flight. Better to brave the elements and the predators than to sit with arms folded and allow oneself to be slain.
Days turned into weeks and weeks rolled into months.
They were now moving into the wooded savannas and floodplains of the north central region. After a few days, they arrived in a steppe. Here the landscape dropped to a belt of level park-like country that made Huzaifa whistle with amazement. He sensed they were somewhere in the Middle Belt region southeast of the Mambilla Plateau. As a boy, he had traversed the Bamenda Highlands with his semi-nomadic family, but now his sense of location was lost to the passage of time.
“Behold the Eden we have been searching for,” he sighed.
“Nature is benevolent,” Rekiya cried.
They cleared a space and raised grass huts.
He took a walk around with his radio and a big mold of hemp after working on the huts. The radio was more than for his relaxation a bearer of the ugly news of the massacres still going on in the north. An announcer reported, “The killers have infiltrated Gwoza Mountains and Sambisa Forest from where they ambush the communities.”
He pondered the dregs of his turbulent life over the past few months. The steppe seemed to offer peace and lush pastures. It was too good a gift to be real. He noticed that part of the land bore evidence of neglect in areas of crusted farm ridges as if the farmland had been hastily abandoned.
“I feel nervous,” his first daughter, Rukaitu, said over lunch one afternoon. “Not a soul has been glimpsed around here since we came.”
“If you don’t like it here you can beat it,” her sister, Maimuna, snapped at her. “After all your grandfather was of a semi-nomadic tribe.”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Rukaitu threw back, pursing her lips with defiance.
They argued hotly.
“Haba. Must you two turn every little conversation into a heated argument,” Aisha said.
Huzaifa said, “I hate to admit it but I am a bit uncomfortable too about this place. It is too good to be true.”
Rukaitu gave Maimuna a withering, self-vindicated look. “You heard what Baba said didn’t you?”
She replied with a raspberry.
The steppe was only five miles to the nearest town of Wukari. Some of the cows were getting quite old and no longer active in reproductive performance, so Huzaifa sold them off to traders in Wukari cattle market since they were now only liabilities.
Wajdan said in Hausa, “We used to take delivery of lorry loads of cattle.” He was one of the cattle traders, a large middle-aged man wearing a pair of slippers hacked out of cowhide leather. The slippers appeared to be custom made for his extra-large feet, his crooked toes protruding out of the rugged footwear. “We have been running a serious shortage lately due to the violence up north.”
They talked briefly about violence in the north while others traded in the market square with a few cattle loitering about, their listless eyes staring from human heads framed in the wide arc of their horns.
“I am lucky to have escaped with my family although I lost a wife and a daughter to the violence.”
“I am sorry about your wife and daughter.” Wajdan looked thoughtful. “The government seems helpless. I have wondered what exactly the killers’ agenda is.”
A brown cow raised her head and gave them a languid look.
Huzaifa said, “I have wondered about it myself. The man who shot my wife and daughter said something about the purification of Islam.” He was about to offer more explanation when Wajdan cut in angrily.
“With so much blood of the innocent?” Wajdan said. “Is that how it is? Does the Koran condone violence and killing? Is it all about the total destruction of humans?”
“The Koran tells us Muslims, Fight those who believe not in Allah. But the widespread violence and killings, I am sure they are not acts of purifying Islam.”
“I am Christian. We have similar passages in the scripture about non-believers. We are told in Psalm 137, Blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks, and such terrible verses which are recited on daily basis yet we have found peace amongst ourselves.”
They were having their meal one afternoon when some vicious looking youths wielding sticks and machetes materialized in the steppe and descended on their cattle. Huzaifa and his sons fought them off with bows and arrows. They succeeded in driving the youths back but not before six of the cattle had fallen to machetes.
“Were they rustlers?” Rekiya wondered.
“They didn’t look like rustlers,” Aisha said. “I have had a terrible premonition about this place.”
“I said it but some people thought I was being a tramp.” Rukaitu’s voice was laced with sarcasm.
Maimuna flung her a long, withering look.
“What if they come back?” Rekiya’s tremulous voice cut into the rivalry that was brewing between the sisters. “What if they surprise us when we are asleep in the dead of night and kill us all?”
A pulsating silence trailed Rekiya’s foreboding.
Huzaifa rose to his feet. “I will be back,” he said, pinched by Rekiya’s words. “I am going to see Wajdan about this.”
“The land has been in dispute between the Tiv and Jukun tribesmen,” Wajdan said.
Huzaifa stared at him. “Dispute?” he asked in an undertone.
“Yes. It’s actually a tribal war. So many lives have been lost. It is not safe out there so I suggest you leave before the attackers regroup. You don’t want to be caught in their crossfire.”
“Where do we go from here?” Huzaifa said rhetorically. “Is there anywhere in the world where it is safe?”
“It’s really not safe anywhere.” Wajdan shrugged. “North is a battlefield. South is a combat zone between herdsmen and crop farmers.”
Huzaifa did not return to the hut. Needing time to think and make a decision, he took a stroll around the steppe. The land rose gently towards a rugged skyline. He lit hemp and took a few pensive draws, eyes fixed on the silhouettes of palm trees leaning against the horizon. If north was a battlefield and south a combat zone, then he would wear his armor plate and take up his bow and arrow.
He walked back to the hut. Behind him a thin orange wash had formed in the distant sky; it spread and became fused with gray. Once back among his family, he told them what Wajdan had said.
“So, what are we going to do now?” Aisha asked.
He did not answer her.
From a nearby sycamore tree came a hypothetical reply: a short, deep, repeated “hoo” followed by a long “hooooooooo” that travelled for miles across the quiet steppe. A moment later, an owl alighted from the tree and fluttered away in a slow, silent, cruise flight. Owls have wings that alter air turbulence; soft velvety feathers that mop up high frequency sounds and make them silent predators of the night.
Uchenna Awoke lives and writes in Nsukka, Nigeria. His short stories have appeared in Transition, Elsewhere Lit, Trestle Ties, Oyster River Pages and other places. He has received fellowships from MacDowell and the Vermont Studio Center in 2017 and 2019 respectively. He is working on his first novel The Liquid Eye of a Moon, a coming-of-age story and a contemporary tale of human tabooing.
James Esber uses a variety of media to disassemble and distort emotionally charged and often clichéd images of Americana. A 25-year survey of his work was held at the Clifford Gallery, Colgate University in 2014, and a solo exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, CT (2011). He has had multiple one-person shows at PPOW (NY), Bernard Tolle (Boston), and Pierogi (New York; Leipzig), and his work has been featured at the Tang Museum, the Laguna Art Museum, and SITE Santa Fe. He lives in Brooklyn, NY and is represented by Pierogi Gallery.