Ogu knelt down in his canoe, letting the waves fill his ears. Today, he would prove himself worthy to be lead machi.
Rubbing his hands together, he said a silent prayer. If all went well, one of the elders would be calling his name for all to hear his glory; with such an esteemed position, the family name could be something other than shame. With such an esteemed position, he could cause a bit of change.
And he deserved it. Not that Elder Bosi had been keeping track, but if he had, then the man wouldn’t even debate that he was the best leader among all the others in his set. His firing skills were some of the highest ever in machi history. County affairs weren’t his strongest suit—that title went to Imbala—but he was sure his name was in the conversation.
They had to be talking about him. Considering him. Recognizing his potential.
Last month, Uncle Ibida came to stay. His uncle brought all his things in fat cases, covering his face as he explained to Ogu’s mother his situation. Ogu had a better mind to listen in, the fear of his mother as a legitimate threat, but voices rose and lowered each minute, like someone was trying to shout and the other was stilling the storm.
His uncle hosted a betting site for matador games and masquerade fights, so the man was bound to run into trouble. But why did his mother agree to let him stay? Men like Ibida only carried shame with them.
Frankly speaking, it was an insult to Ogu and his efforts to break the cycle of embarrassment. He’d kept excelling in his machi training to make the county people forget his father’s story. The man did not raise any crops for harvest, or catch any fish, then slipped to death by way of dancing drunk on freshly mopped floorboards one night in a bar.
There were chuckles at the funeral.
Worse for his grandfather, who almost burnt the county down and was arrested by the sheriff.
And the useless man that came before that.
His ancestors didn’t try to have any sort of legacy, but that wasn’t the point. The less said about them, the better.
His family was like a big cosmic joke, constantly being punished for everyone’s amusement. It had to stop.
So when Uncle Ibida came, Ogu’s first thought was: “How long will you be staying?”
Ogu would have said it out loud, but his mother slapped his arm before the words could be blurted out in irritation. He’d been to his uncle’s betting ring: a good-for-nothin’ place only held together by the rotten, water soaked wood that termites were slowly chipping away at. Beer wasn’t good either; his mother had always allowed him to have a sip, preparation for when he became man of the house.
If his uncle’s establishment had been any better, he might have kept his mouth shut out of courtesy. He didn’t have any reason to show the man respect though, even if his mother wouldn’t allow him to ask his questions, so Ogu slammed into him on his way out the door, almost knocking the fool to the floor.
He wasn’t sorry about that.
A couple of weeks ago, while Imbala was perfecting her fight stance and Ogu was fishing, smiling as he caught mackerels with ease while Elder Bosi napped, Otomi brought his prize, the gift to show the elders why he should be leader of the machis.
It was a pistol. Ogu looked at it, raised an eyebrow, then proceeded to go back to the ocean. He was still thinking of what to bring in order to dazzle them. From what he’d seen, he could probably find something better than everyone’s prizes combined.
Then Otomi shot it. Stupid boy. The sharp sound made everyone fall to the ground, woke Elder Bosi up, and left Ogu on the floor, trying to get the blasted ringing sound out of his ears.
The pistol had range. Otomi stood with confidence, like firing it already justified his position, placing two hands on his hips as smoke came out of it. Otomi flashed a smile at Ogu, taunting him.
Elder Bosi took one look at the gun and screamed in his high-pitched voice, running up to Otomi and grabbing the pistol, rubbing it tenderly with his fingers.
“Damn it boy, not sure even the sheriff has something this good.” The words came out fast, like he wanted to end the compliment quickly and get back to gazing at the device. Ogu rolled his eyes each time Otomi smirked at him, and he saw the other machi members gather around the boy.
It was a big deal. Otomi had changed the game. His heart jumped and moved faster with each look at the sleek pistol, just threatening to take away all he had worked for.
Taking deep breaths, each cloudier and shallower than the last, Ogu sped back to the sea. He’d caught ten mackerels and two catfishes. That had to be at least twice as worth as a stupid gun.
What could he bring? He put his hand on his chin, feeling the bit of stubble that was growing on his dark, angular chin. His eyes scanned the ocean from his canoe, looking at the never-ending waves, and the sun drowning inside the waters, quitting for the day.
His eyes caught something he’d never seen before. A sparkling tail and bright scales that twinkled with the light—a fat fish leapt up in the air went back into the depths.
Like the world that had always been laughing at him was finally giving him a chance.
A few days before, Ogu went out of the county, not too far, for research.
It was also a welcome distraction from the house, where he could only make fists as his uncle moved closer to his mother, giving her longing stares; rubbing her arm when she set down food for him and calling her my wife.
The shameless man was her brother. But anything to make sure the stay was permanent, right? Ogu hissed.
His mother’s mother lived closer to the seas on a house built on stilts; each day going to catch fish.
Ogu loved the place and the serenity. Except for the mosquitoes. Those were evil. He didn’t mind the accusations of the place being haunted. If spirits moved, they were free to cross in and out of him, to move as they pleased; a gift for the place being so still, honestly.
In another life, he would have built a home there and followed his grandmother’s lifestyle, but he had to be sheriff. It was the final stage of his plan to have some family dignity in the town. When Ogu donned that hat, all voices would silence and they would look up, knowing who to place love and affection towards. Gifts, perhaps?
His grandmother, with her straight white hair that stuck out like needles, eyes more dead than soul, knew most of the fishes by name.
“I don’t know this one,” she hollered after he described it to her, and Ogu’s words caught in his throat.
“Now I didn’t say I haven’t seen it,” she smiled, revealing her gap teeth. “I don’t know it because I haven’t ever tried to catch it. I try to stay away from the carnivores when I’m fishing.”
“True. Maybe I’ll cut up one of the other fishes and use it as bait.” Ogu licked his teeth, lost in thought, before clasping his hands together. “I appreciate this. You’re gonna see me as machi leader before you die.”
Grandmother waved her hand like she was buzzing away flies, then put it behind her neck, scraping whatever was left of her sore and mottled skin there. “That doesn’t matter, boy. I’m proud of you no matter what.”
Ogu nodded, leaving the room. She would be more proud of him when she saw him in his new position.
Yesterday morning at dawn, Ogu caught his uncle stealing money from his mother’s room.
He was working in the family farm near the house while Mama was out, trying to clear the land, when he went inside to get his hoe.
It wasn’t even a surprise, but at least he finally knew how long his uncle was staying.
They both looked at each other until Ogu carried his machete like a sword, blocking the way.
“You will not disgrace this family by stealing. I won’t allow it.”
“You know what’s disgraceful?” Uncle Ibida’s face twisted to knots as he clutched the sack he was putting money into. “Having to pack up and move to your sister’s house. Being the laughing stock of your county. Taxmen publicly shaming you in the town square for being long overdue on your payments. You are not a man yet. Get out of my way.”
Ogu’s breaths got heavier as he held the machete. “This is all we have.”
Uncle moved closer to him, Ogu feeling the man’s hot breath on his skin. “Get. Out. Of. My—”
Ogu stabbed the machete into his uncle’s stomach, his hands perfectly still; the benefit of machi training. He twisted the machete further in, making sure he could see the blood stain his hands before he pulled it out.
“This is all we have,” Ogu whispered again, tears running down from his eyes. Tears that stung and came out awkwardly, stopping and starting the flow each time.
His uncle fell to the floor, eyes widened, blood flowing. Ogu’s breaths got faster, sight got hazier each minute, as he waited for the man to die. With every noise he heard outside, he jumped, looking back. His mother could not see this. What would happen if she reported him to the sheriff?
There was nothing more shameful than killing a family member. This could not be washed away by hard work and determination. People would not forget this.
Mother would be out for a while, so he sat there, watching the body twitch till it fell still. Then he rose up and fetched water from the nearest well, not talking to anyone he saw on the way.
If he said a word, everything would unravel. He would confess, and his legacy would be done.
Life was trying to laugh at him again. He wouldn’t let that happen.
Dropping the buckets on the floor, he washed his hands of all the blood, took his uncle’s cases to his closet and locked it with his key.
Raising his machete, he hit his uncle’s neck, partially chopping of the head and bits of bone. Ogu tried to hold himself, but ended up throwing up. He cleaned it up quick and went back to work.
He sliced the body into uniform bits and pieces. The machete sucked up blood like it was a rag, and it grew to a pattern; more fun than being at one of those fancy parties where they made you use the fork and knife to cut. He was chopping. He stuffed everything messily inside the sack, then found another bag to place over that one.
Still, the bottom turned red. It was fine. He could tell anyone who asked he was carrying pieces of fish as bait. Or rather nothing at all. They would do well to mind their business.
He was the one with the weapon.
You are not a man yet, Ogu heard his uncle’s words, fresh as a bullet wound. Yet, he told himself, I killed you.
Calming himself, he scrubbed the floor with rags, washing the blood away till it looked normal. To be safe, he placed his raffia mat over the spot.
When his mother came back, he would tell her a story of how his uncle left. Ogu would change the words, say that his uncle was disgraced at the thought of staying in her house and went to find honest work.
He looked for mourning, the sense of pain that came after losing Father, but he couldn’t find it.
That morning, he paddled his canoe farther away from anyone’s view before stringing up bits of intestine.
It wasn’t the usual wait. The fishes came in multitudes, rushing towards him. He caught one by the mouth, stretching and tearing out the hook from the damned thing’s mouth before throwing it up on board his canoe. Then another. Then another.
Repeat the process, like you’re chopping him up.
Repeat the process, like you’re chopping him up.
He emptied the rest of the body for them to chow on. Soon sharks would come and topple over his boat. He paddled away fast, moving to the shore, where he examined his catch.
The scales glinted, like the thing was bathed in the stars. Was that specks of gold he saw?
Grinning, he stuffed it back in his sack.
It was probably worth way more than a pistol.
Two months later, Ogu sat down at the initiation ceremony, uncomfortably moving around in his scratchy uniform on the hard, rough benches. The council of elders sat far away, doing their best to look wise and unclear in their decision. They looked constipated instead.
Ogu’s heart slammed against his chest with each moment of suspense, and he closed his eyes, letting all his worries fall away.
Elder Bosi cleared his throat and stood in front of the town square with his pale white clothing, addressing the crowd. Ogu disregarded the words he said, waiting for the final moment.
Would it be his?
“And of course, our new machi leader position . . . ”
He crossed his fingers. He stared straight into the man’s eyes.
“ . . . Imbala Mbesi.”
His heart stopped. The world stopped.
Ogu was the first to get up and leave. He wouldn’t stay for this. Sniffing, he took a deep breath and found himself walking to the waters, trying his best to find a sense of calm. Spirits whispered in his ears, leading him there, holding his hands.
Repeat the process, like you’re chopping him up
The water awaited him.
Repeat the process, like you’re chopping him up, then he’s bled then he’s dead then world comes to an—
This time, it was not to fish.