WRITTEN BY NZEH UCHE
Nneka walked like she was controlled by something. Her thoughts had left the shores of her present; she let herself drown in her own memories. Izunna, the teenage boy who walked beside her as they trekked back home from school was concerned because Nneka was there but not really there. He knew what her problem was, but wouldn’t say. He stared at her, continuing his gist.
The two lads grew up together, for their homes were a stroll apart and their parents were both farmers and traders. Over the years, Nneka and Izunna became very close friends, but Izunna’s feelings for Nneka surpassed just being friends, he wanted more—but the feeling wasn’t mutual.
The events of the last two months were special, they had revamped Nneka’s ideas—she was in love; in love with the enemy, but she didn’t care at first because she wanted to make the most of her life.
Nneka was proud of many things in her life, like being a senior in high school, being the best in her class, but the thought of letting anyone, not even Izunna her closest friend know what she had been into lately, was not an option—she made secrecy her very friend and guided her lips from blurting the truth.
Nneka before now tried forgetting him by shutting her eyes and keeping them that way for as long as she could, but every attempt was to no avail; the more she shut her eyes, the more she saw him.
It’s said that the heart is no respecter of tribe or religion, nor does it choose the handsome over the ugly or the rich over the poor, but the criterion Nneka’s heart used to choose, was what she was eager to find out.
She had met Salisu one day at the forest front behind her father’s compound when she was burning their refuse in the garbage pile. Salisu and his cattle startled her, and in her attempt to run, she fell; hinged by little rocks. Salisu laughed at her, making her slightly embarrassed.
The teenage boy then went over to where Nneka was and assisted her up. The help-up gave their faces a parallel stand—they gawked. Salisu was handsome and tall, and Nneka’s facial dimple always worked her magic. They explored each other; pupil into pupil and connected at once. Nneka felt it, so did Salisu. A ‘moo’ sound of a cow broke their deep gaze.
Salisu went his way with his cattle as Nneka stood still staring. She was amazed by what she felt. It must be how Izunna felt about her—the way he had been staring at her since his sixteenth birthday. She had always noticed Izunna’s feelings, but since she didn’t share them, she ignored.
Nneka wondered what the young herdsman had that Izunna was devoid of. His eyes told a story she was curious to know.
Nneka was somewhat ordinary about her type of man. She always fantasized marrying a farmer, not because her father was one, but she loved the idea of being natural and having a connection to earth; animals, soil, plant—her growing environment had imprinted on her. So, as she watched the animals obeyed the herdsman, she knew he was her type of man. She stood staring until they were no more on sight.
From that day onward, Nneka seized every opportunity to burn their home refuse no matter how little they were—always having in mind she would be startled again by the young herdsman and his animals. In fact! She took every excuse she had to run into him, but all was futile.
Salisu also, sneaked at nights from his people in the forest to watch Nneka sit outside gazing at the moon. He was curious. He wanted to know what made her tick—he felt something for her.
On a day Nneka thought her luck had run up, Salisu showed up. He came with his animals, but this time she was not shocked because she was still expectant of him. She saw him separate the huge elephant grasses with his long stick. She wanted to say something to him first, but it seemed unladylike. She was a bit nervous seeing him. He stood and watched Nneka flush, she glanced at him with what looked like a half-smile that threatened to break out.
Salisu then greeted her in his dialect, gesturing with a wave. She responded in his dialect too—because she had always spent her holidays with her Aunty in the north. He was amazed, not so many of the girls he saw could speak what he understood; they always confused him with their grammar. She spoke some more, asking him how his day was. It was strange to him, as he responded. He had never seen an Igbo girl fluently speaking his language—Salisu was happy to meet one.
A conversation started, holding them bound. They got to know each other better and talked for a while. The sun gradually set and the two said their goodbyes and left for their homes.
Nneka was restless, she was eager for the next day to come—they had scheduled another time to meet. She wanted to spend more time with Salisu.
Also in the forest, Salisu’s thoughts were filled with Nneka and her cute little dimple. He liked the fact that he could converse with her in his language, this made him able to express himself to the fullest, plus she was beautiful and had a body to match.
For a month, their relationship grew stronger. After school Nneka would enter the forest, to a huge tree—they made it their spot. Under the tree was breezy, they stayed close, there was some lovely kind of little magic which they felt.
They told each other virtually everything. He taught her things about the herdsmen and also took her to see the other herdsmen. They all became acquainted.
Sitting under the tree later turned holding hands: This then became merging lips and a rare intimacy. They made love out in the open—the trees and grasses around sure enjoyed every part of it. Not even the gods from both tribes would interfere, for the love was visible and real. Nneka glowed in school and at home, there was something different about her, Izunna had noticed.
Izunna noticed her daily disappearance and one day followed Nneka’s trial through to the forest. He stayed in hiding as he saw the two lovers kiss and make love. He looked around and saw nobody. They had picked a good spot, only Salisu’s cattle were in sight—they stayed where their shepherd commanded them to.
Izunna went home, pondering why a herdsman would get what he was supposed to get. He was angered within him. He remembered how Salisu held Nneka: How she found comfort in his arms: How their lips locked and her body giggling with every of his touch. It hurt him more and more; he wished he never even followed her tracks to see intimacy which mimicked those seen on screens.
He devised a plan—one that would stop his heartbreak and render their love impossible to continue.
It was on a Friday. Salisu waited for Nneka with his mat in hand. She passed the forest path to their spot with two wrappers; as usual. They laid wrappers on the mat and cuddled.
As they did, Izunna, went behind and chased Salisu’s animals through to the fields close to the forest. He flogged them angrily. They became beasts out of control.
The fields housed farmlands of the villagers—crops due for harvest.
The cows and sheep ran, destroying everything the villagers planted for the season; the site was awful. Izunna hid.
An alarm sounded—Izunna went and told the farmers of what the herdsmen had done again. It meant trouble. Nneka rose quickly, she knew that sound. Some eight years ago, as I child she heard that alarm. Cows came destroying crops and the villagers warned the herdsmen and told them that, it was the last time, another incident would bring death.
She asked Salisu of his animals. He looked and they were no more there. Salisu ran, following their trails, and in full view of the farmland, his heart shook. It pounded so fast. His father once told him of its implication. His animals would never do this on their own accord. But this was no time to create or apportion blames.
He quickly drove them to the forest mumbling some sort of sound. They obeyed.
The angry villagers in their numbers approached their farmlands; some wailed from afar, some others were speechless. Their season’s harvests were gone; their families’ food; their children’s’ tuition fees; their borrowed capitals. It was devastating.
The youths, could not contain these, as they set in to get whoever was responsible for it. They chorused a song on top of their voices. As they got to the forest front, they saw Salisu crying, kneeling with his hands lifted to the sky.
He told them to go no further, gesturing every possible meaning to stop them from hurting his animals; he preferred his death to theirs—he was an epitome of a good shepherd.
The angry farmers and village youths ignored Salisu, with shouting that would make eardrums ring like church bells. They were out for blood, and he’s was very little. They wanted to touch the herdsmen the same place it hurt them—killing their cattle was the only remedy.
Some youths seized Salisu, tying his hands.
Meanwhile, Nneka had gone far in the forest narrating the events of the day to the other herdsmen. The herdsmen quickly moved. They told her they would be back and contact her.
She then hid somewhere and watched the villagers feel disappointed as they got to where the herdsmen usually resided with no one there—they had fled.
They headed home, knowing they would make Salisu their prisoner to draw out the rest.
Nneka’s father was bitter—he was a chief and head of the farmers and traders. He was a man of peace, but the damage had to be paid for. He also had no clue that the captive was his daughter’s paramour. Salisu was tied, hands behind his back to a tree opposite the forest—their strategy to lure the herdsmen out—Salisu as bait.
Nneka was still battling with the events of last two months as she and Izunna trekked home. She was glued to her memories which were on a loop. Reminisces brought her no relief, along with a nagging question: what next?
The answer for her was to think harder and out of the ordinary.
She now realized that love didn’t necessarily have to avail itself conveniently. Her man was captured and tied to a tree the previous night.
She had to do something, but she was clueless on what to do or how to go about the hundreds of ideas that flooded her mind.
This was a path she chose, curiosity made her take the first step, and as she did, she knew she needed to see it to its end.
Izunna, continued to gist her till they got close home, when he called out her name severally, bringing her back to reality. He knew what was bordering her but telling her that he was the one that caused the whole thing because of his jealousy would definitely terminate their friendship—and he was not ready to lose her.
Nneka from afar saw a group of people of some sort seated in front of their compound after she had said her goodbyes to Izunna.
As she got closer, she noticed it was farmers and youths. They met to discuss the fate of their captive. They concluded that if the other herdsmen don’t surrender to capture, that Salisu would pay one way or the other. They put the best village youth to mount guard over Salisu in a hut where he was moved to.
Nneka now had to think fast, she knew Salisu had less than twenty-four hours.
Suddenly, she digested a plan; she mapped it in her head. It was one she might regret, but she knew it was a necessary evil to save her man. She needed to communicate with the other herdsmen, but they had told her they were the ones to call for her. So she waited.
At sunset, Nneka heard an animal sound. She was sure that was how it sounded when Salisu showed her. She knew the forest was now out-of-bound for villagers, so she quickly took some piece of paper and headed straight to the forest like she was going to take a dump.
The youth who mounted as the guard saw her and had no clue her true intentions. He stared at her hips as she walked. He had a thing for her, but the stories of how Nneka turned down the village youths, discouraged him from airing his feelings for her.
He watched her as she finally entered between the tall grasses. She met with Salisu’s people. They told her, they were coming for war. She disagreed and gave them a better option. Nneka told them of her plans.
She got back to their compound. She took a cup of water and headed to the hut were Salisu was held.
“Where do you think you’re going with the water?” The guard asked with a harsh voice.
“He does not deserve even a drop of water.”
“Having a prisoner does not mean you kill him. Since he has not eaten, at least let him have water; and moreover, I want to set my eyes on the man that has destroyed all our harvests and would make us all go hungry.
Nneka sure drove a hard bargain. The youth accepted. She went in. She saw Salisu, it was like they’ve been apart for ages. His heart lit as he saw her—they needed to see each other’s faces again, even if for the last time.
Nneka bent to help him with the cup of water. She leaned towards his ear and in Salisu’s language she said, “You would be free tonight, please be ready. I love you with all my heart.”
She briefly kissed him, got up and left.
Nneka then prepared a native soup and brought for the guard. He ate and the two talked. They flirted. They laughed. They even talked dirty at some point and when he was done eating, she took the plates and left for the house. The guard enjoyed his meal plus a swell time with the very beautiful Nneka.
The cover of the night, allowed the herdsmen as they approached the entrance of the forest from its deep. They made the sound which Nneka knew. She heard it while she was meandering in the room, trying to wrap her mind around how crucial her next move was. She was waiting for the cue, to execute her plans. A plan she was scared to indulge in, but the life of her one true love was at stake.
Nneka approached the guard with another meal, but this time she went in a see-through night wear.
The young man saw her and could not help but lust after her. She presented the meal on the tray she was carrying, but the guard preferred the meal carrying the tray. It was obvious to him that she was on heat—at least, that’s what they were taught in high school and it was the only logical explanation he’d got.
Firstly, the delicious meal she brought before then, and then the dirty-talks, now a sexy outfit. He didn’t need any soothsayer to declare that fact to him.
She dropped the meal and attempted to leave when he drew her back and kissed her. To his surprise she didn’t resent—it was really his lucky day.
“This is not a good place, we might get caught here,” Nneka said with a low tone.
“Where then should we go? I really want to have you now.” The guard replied hastily.
Nneka led him far away from where Salisu was kept, and he bent her over and they went intimate.
With every penetration into her, she saw Salisu’s freedom—her body was a small price to pay. She had to hold onto the memories she and Salisu created together. It was obvious, allowing herself fall in love came with a risk of a painful price.
The act gifted the herdsmen the opportunity to free Salisu. They got into the forest and made another animal sound which signaled Nneka of their success.
Nneka left the young guard, as a satisfied person; satisfied by Salisu’s freedom and by the intimacy—the guard wasn’t bad after all. She never had the time to say goodbye to Salisu or even kiss his lips one last time.
In the morning, the young guard claimed he was charmed by the herdsmen and after few months, the story faded.
Nneka longed for a reunion with Salisu, as she hurriedly packed her luggage. She had gotten admission into a university in the far north. She had waited for two years. Nneka’s father always wondered why she wanted to school in the north, but it seemed she always loved her Aunty and her family.
She didn’t know where to find Salisu, or whom to ask when she got there, but she was positive she’d see him. She was eager to pick up where she left off.