Dr. Douglas Hurst, a short and fully rounded middle-aged white man who wore an explorer’s metal hat that looked like a reversed aluminum cooking pot, brought out his Spartus Foldex V camera and set it on a tripod near his tent. Taking the tripod had been a last minute decision. His boss, back in America, had wondered if he couldn’t get good and interesting photographs that could be sold to National Geographic magazine. His real mission in this tropical hellhole was seeking out new plant and animal species. For most of the summer of 1930, he prowled the length and breadth of the Niger basin and had already filled two of his four notebooks. Thus he reached the shores of Ozigono village, which informers had told him contained people who wore nothing.
In no time, the villagers along the banks of Ozigono River stopped to peer at his strange device. This pleased Dr. Hurst immensely since he had something that interested the villagers. Letting him take pictures would be an easy bargain. In between swatting sand flies and akhunkhun insects, he clicked away at villagers in the nude, especially the young women that made him turgid. His native help, Ahwinahwi, shooed away the more heady youths who came too close to the camera. Ahwinahwi did not mind rough handling some of the giddy village kids.
It was not until a few weeks after he started camping out at the riverbank, having exhausted several rolls of film, that Dr. Hurst, while making notes in his almost exhausted notebooks, saw a strange procession of villagers. Their faces were painted in white chalk and ochre hues, symmetrical lines ran across their black faces and bodies. The parade progressed towards the farthest side of the riverbank where a sturdy man was beating a large drum. The drumming, to Dr. Hurst’s ear, quickly grew intense. He picked out some of the young girls he had previously photographed dancing. Slender black arms flailed here and there, wide waists wiggled unstoppably. Then, before his very eyes, they jumped and hovered in the air, like butterflies. Blinking and breathing furiously, Dr. Hurst toweled his face, grabbed his camera and ran. Almost tripping on a fallen tree branch, he yelled at Ahwinahwi to follow.
Within a few yards from the procession, he slowed down to watch the villagers some more. He scanned every movement of their ritual dance, and yes the girls were hovering in the air, like butterflies. He cocked his ears to take in every syllable of their chanting. Again he wiped his sweltering face with the back of his hand. As the villagers fanned out, he unfolded the ring-neck lens of his camera. He noticed the leader of the group by the river was a boy of about twelve. His head was shaven and he held a large green iguana on his shoulder. After a while, the boy with the iguana started throwing eggs into the river, and at the same time he started levitating off the ground up to an impossible seven feet, with his legs held together! Each egg thrown elicited a loud and thunderous chorus from the villagers. Seven times the boy with the green iguana threw eggs into the river. Dr. Hurst adjusted his viewfinder and while tampering with the aperture to capture the iguana boy’s face, his lens tilted and landed on the boy’s uncovered loins just as he was levitating yet again. Initially, Dr. Hurst did not believe what he saw. He nervously wiped his aging right eye and refocused. Fear crept into his mind, for he knew that one sign of impending malaria in the tropics was delirium. But his vision was quite clear. The Iguana boy leading the procession had three testicles.
Dr. Hurst did a sign of the cross, though he had not attended church in years. He took out a pill bottle from his khaki shorts and emptied two mustard-colored tablets on his pink tongue and swallowed them without water. He gestured Ahwinahwi to come look through the viewfinder. Ahwinahwi looked and saw it too.
– Oghene siomen!
Dr. Hurst shoved Ahwinahwi away from the camera and kept taking pictures until the villagers rested their drum and jumped into the river for a bath an hour later. He too retired back to his tent to send an immediate message.
“I have seen an iguana boy with three testicles, who also levitates effortlessly. Any interest?
He gave the note to Ahwinahwi and sent him off to Vwhari, the nearest port town, which was two days swift canoe rowing away. The message was to his boss at the American Anthropological Museum. Throughout the days his assistant was gone, he hardly slept. Many things ran through his head as he came out every day to seek the Iguana boy amongst the other playing children.
Dr. Hurst’s boss, as he expected, telegrammed back—ordered him to do everything humanly possible to bring the boy with three testicles to America.
Dr. Hurst knew there were many obstacles to accomplishing the order. Perhaps he should have kept his enthusiasm to himself and just shown photographs to his boss upon getting to America? He had not spoken to the villagers since he came to their area three and half months before. How would he now communicate to them that he wanted to take their son to America? Not even Ahwinahwi, who was from another village, spoke the language. Every quarter of a mile here was another culture and another language. Anyways, Dr. Hurst resolved to use sign language with the villagers and if that failed, he would use force.
Taking Ahwinahwi with him, the anthropologist left his tarpaulin tent and walked towards the homes of the villagers one late afternoon. As he approached the family of five, he stopped and laughed warmly but nervously. His neck burned with trepidation, insects mounted and dismounted his bare, hairy arms. He pointed to himself and the iguana boy and made a motion towards the mouth of the river. After several attempts, aided by Ahwinahwi’s broken interpretations, the villagers understood what the anthropologist was alluding to. But they could not communicate to Dr. Hurst that the boy must not leave the village, no matter the circumstance. They tried explaining to Ahwinahwi to interpret to Dr. Hurst that their son was the Ozigono River high priest, chosen by the river goddess, Olokun, through the oracle. Without the boy around to perform the annual ritual of feeding crocodile eggs to the river, the river would dry up. Or the river could refuse to give them fish. The river could even revolt and overflow its banks. All ways, they would perish. But Ahwinahwi kept forcing the anthropologist’s wish on them, ignoring their stories told in hand gestures and body language. All the villagers could do was shake their heads in refusal. After forever, when the sun started going, Dr. Hurst threw up his hands and left for his tent, swearing under his breath. If only these naked idiots had some form of Christianity, he could persuade them that there was no nonsense river goddess, he thought. Ahwinahwi trailed behind him.
As he scribbled in his notebooks, a certain anger overwhelmed him. How many times in my life time will I find a levitating boy with extra…, his thoughts trailed off. Thinking himself a failure, Dr. Hurst got up abruptly and left the tent to pace outside looking at the shimmering Ozigono River that seemed to his eyes like a silk scarf in a mild wind.
Ahwinahwi soon joined him and as usual just watched the white man without saying much.
“It’s time to leave this place, but not without the boy,” said Dr. Hurst almost to himself.
Ahwinahwi nodded and started dismantling the tent and things in the humid twilight.
The two men, shadows in the dark, blended with the night the better to do their deed. As planned with Dr. Hurst, Ahwinahwi eased open the bamboo door and found the boy lying on a straw mat with the large iguana by his side. Ahwinahwi, with his strong muscular arms, grabbed him, placed a heavy palm across his mouth and dragged the protesting boy out. Ahwinahwi clouted the boy over the head and he promptly stopped struggling. Dr. Hurst stumbled behind them.
The iguana walked out of the house too, but it did not follow the two kidnappers. Instead, it slowly made its way towards the dark river.
Dr. Hurst was seasick throughout the journey to America, he had many fainting spells. Whenever he slept, he dreamt about Ozigono village and the wild procession. Once, he dreamt he was making love to a lanky native girl. During orgasmic screams, the girl became a black mamba and he woke up screaming “Ahwinahwi! Ahwinahwi!” Other times, he found himself at the bottom of the Ozigono River, groping a faceless, slippery woman with a head covered in tiny silvery salamanders.
The sea was tumultuous for the anthropologist, but each time he thought of the iguana boy’s three testicles and the fame it will bring him once he got home, Dr. Hurst would nod his head in satisfaction. No pain, no gain. Sometimes he’d fall into deep thoughts of earlier traders of slaves and anthropologists who had found ancient masks in other parts of Africa. He had found a “living mask”, not a dead wooden or leathery one. His fame would have no end to it.
The three-month journey seemed like a day for the Iguana boy as he had become one with the sea. It had not been until they entered the big vessel that he realized the river goddess, Olokun, was traveling with him. So, having a companion, he chatted with her all through their journey. And it was this chatting with an invisible conversant that disturbed his kidnapper the most.
The ship eventually berthed in Baltimore Harbour and Dr. Hurst made his way to Washington, D.C.
Seasoned anthropologists, archeologists, curators and journalists were invited to view the latest discovery from the continent of Africa. Dr. Hurst’s boss had already calculated how much the museum would realize from the live exhibition, not counting the funding he would receive from the government. He had thought of killing the boy and putting him in a specially constructed jar full of formaldehyde, but Dr. Hurst, who still had some strands of humanity left in him, rejected the morbid proposal. Although Dr. Hurst had his own grand plans and screaming headlines running riot in his head, he kept them from his boss. He would definitely publish papers written from his spiral-bound notebooks in the American Anthropological Review. He dreamt of National Geographic magazine accepting the photographs he’d taken of the procession, then he could retire early. He might even go back to Africa and try his hands on coffee farming, like Dr. Wilberforce, his British friend in Kenya.
When everybody was settled in the brightly lit conference room of the museum, Dr. Hurst mounted the iguana boy on a rotating wooden pedestal.
Dr. Hurst started his narrative, of how he was the first to discover the iguana boy’s village of naked natives and how his keen anthropological eyes found the “strange things an ordinary eye couldn’t see.” He did not credit his camera’s viewfinder for his most important discovery. Nor did he mention the name of Ahwinahwi without whom he would have been unable to kidnap his discovery. Ahwinahwi, who, after receiving useless gifts of mirrors and beads, had failed to stop death claiming him, his canoe and his wealth within days of leaving Dr. Hurst at Vwhari, who had perished on his way home.
“These ancient eyes have seen many wonders in my journey through that dark continent. Trees, animals with multiple eyes, plant that can kill instantly – you name it, carnivorous carnivals of cannibals,” he boasted on and on.
Dr. Hurst ignored the impatient murmurs from the audience.
The iguana boy was absorbed by the pointer the mendacious anthropologist used in demonstrating his speech. The crowd started getting restless; the introduction was getting too long. At last, Dr. Hurst used the short end of his pointer to remove the towel from the boy’s waist. As the towel dropped soundlessly to the wooden base of the pedestal, all eyes converged on the boy’s loins. A collective gasp went round the room. The place where Dr. Hurst had seen the iguana boy’s three testicles was as smooth as the small mirror he had offered the iguana boy’s parents.
For the first time since he reached America, the iguana boy spoke—an unfamiliar argot known to neither Dr. Hurst nor his bemused audience. Dr. Hurst heard the sounds of large dirge drums, as if from the ceiling.
“Who steals from a god? Only a mad man steals from a god,” the iguana boy was now saying in English. Then he started gyrating, as if caught in a tornado on the wooden pedestal.
“Who eats a fish without removing the bones? Only a foolish man eats fish with the bones!”
The iguana boy levitated with his head soon touching the high museum ceiling.
“You can use water to rinse your mouth but can you use fire to scratch your itching anus?”
Dr. Hurst opened his mouth as he listened to the suddenly mature voice of the iguana boy and the English pouring out of his mouth. He watched as the boy’s eyes became piecing blinding lights and at that point, the anthropologist’s senses started departing his mind. Or was it vice versa? Had he ever seen three testicles or had it been an apparition? Was he here or was he not? He wiped a trail of sweat from his brows as he started to back away from the chanting discovery.
In a blur, he watched as his audience filed out from the conference room.
Dr. Hurst heard voices that he couldn’t distinguish. Many of the voices sounded like those of the iguana boy’s parents, the villagers of Ozigono, Ahwinahwi, his boss, or maybe of the invited specialists. Then the great anthropologist with the new discovery from the distant continent of Africa fell headlong to the hard concrete floor of the museum.
Victor Ehikhamenor is a writer and artist based in Lagos, Nigeria. He believes the power of history, memory and story is strong enough to build a bridge to the future.