I: An Old Man’s Memories
Forty years ago, a hermit from the North lived here. You see that clump of treetops over there, to the east, just by the last bend to the river? He lived there when I was still a child running about in bante. And yes, indeed, I was there the night he disappeared. But until you arrived here asking questions, I have never told anyone what I saw. Even now, I am filled with wonder and a sadness biting at my heart like tiny ants. Just over the treetops there, just by the last bend to the waterside, something mysterious happened half a lifetime ago. I was not there through the entire story I am relating, I am not a spirit as he has become, but I can tell you the whole story, even the things I was not there to know.
Jesse is as it has always been; a sleepy town of people making their livelihood from the U-shaped river Ethiope. My great-grandfather, Oghene, met accustomed riverine folk here by the river when he took their land away by trickery, by giving them a new god he had himself created. Jesse lies at the crook of the Ethiope, secure, commanding taxes to add to the wealth of food from our rich red alluvial lands. There’s a story of a farmer who left some yam shoots behind his house. Returning after a two-year journey, he found only the ruins of his homestead, ruined by enormous tubers.
In Jesse, the wayfarer was always welcome. We only took offense when strangers insisted on remaining strange, when they held out too long in becoming just like us. That was how the hermit, Mustrema, came into our little town, bringing with him the stimulant of the amazing things that were to happen—the slim ivory flute from which he was never parted. Sebliye, my widowed step-grandmother, accepted him into Jesse as her guest.
Mustrema was a very quiet person and apart from me, he had only one other close friend. He was of a darker complexion than the rest of us whose complexions so confused Richard Lander that he thought us Ethiopian and renamed our river mistakenly on the maps that mattered. Mustrema was a slim, tall man and the most striking things about him were his eyes, which were full of understanding, and his teeth, which when he smiled were shiny and milky white. He had thin eyebrows, a flat nose and no facial hair at all; he had a little black mole over his left eye. Five years after his arrival, my step-grandmother died, but Mustrema decided to stay on in Jesse. He moved to a secluded dwelling along the path leading to the riverside. He would fish with the men; he wasn’t particularly good but he made enough to eat and sell to the fishwives. He never spoke of where he came from and we, in turn, approved of his contentment living amongst us.
My people are sober in all ways except in our music and our famous river dance. Our music comes from five drums which together are called icholo; icholo is differentiated in pitch as left, younger left, middle, younger right and right. Between the five drums and the three drummers it took to beat them, dead leaves could be made to shiver to life. I can still hear the rhythm of the drums in my ear even today when no one plays them well anymore.
One night, during the week of the full moon dedicated to dances, during the interlude of drums and just before writhing torsos could be brought under control, we heard the first, plaintive, divine notes of Mustrema’s ivory flute and in that sound, a seal was put on his tragedy. Can you imagine, dear young man, what it is like to hear a flute for the first time? Try to imagine, then, what makes a child cry when he takes his first breath of air. On that night when Mustrema first played his ivory flute, the drummers and dancers quickly lost their tiredness and the drummer of right and younger right felt his fingers rise; then left and younger left; then center and then, above it all was heard the notes of the flute, its song winding and riffling through the heavy notes like a crest riding ripples at the riverfront. And there, at the center of it all, was Mustrema, his eyes closed, giving a strange, enchanted life to our drums.
The women of Jesse and their daughters started to fall in love with him as inevitably as a tide drawing a canoe farther and farther out. And while this desire must have pierced his retiring nature, he did not reciprocate their love. A true hermit, he looked after himself and went out very rarely, and thus we let him be. Apart from me, the only person Mustrema could not keep away from his person and dwellings was Kenu.
I was still a child, barely fifteen, when these things happened.
You see, Kenu, a short and particular figure in the village, was one of the finest palm wine tappers in our part of the Niger delta. I remember him, smartly dressed in city clothes, rolling his bicycle into the forest where he would change into more regular clothes only just to climb the trees. Such behavior was in his nature. But that such a character would be drawn to another so different from him as Mustrema perhaps indicates something missing in these two strangers of Jesse. I was close to Mustrema because old Sebliye was my step-grandmother, but I was not close to his friend. And all three of us were together, each unknown to the other, I unknown to both, when we found out why Mustrema could not return the affections of the womenfolk of Jesse.
It makes sense now, to think of it, that a hermit should be possessed by mystery.
II: The Tapster’s Sister
Mystery has an aura like a woman that marks out a man, on first sight, as her very own. And so, like women, there is always a type of jealousy entwined with mystery. I do not know the night mystery first came to Mustrema but I know that he was held in its grip the last time anyone saw him. I imagine it was a dark night and most of the villagers were asleep already; only the owls and other creatures of night kept company in the warm breeze blowing from the surface of the river. Mustrema would have been stripped to his waist, maybe whistling along with the sounds of a quiet night, these concealing the lightness of her step. A single kerosene lantern would be burning as he maybe bent over to stir a pot of porridge, unaware of her approach until the very last moment.
Kenu, the wine tapper, was considered slightly crazy, for we believed that while palm wine was a gift of the gods, to consistently have the best palm wine could only mean having tapped something beyond human understanding. We believe that the world was made from a single drop of palm wine. If the gods chose to place their finger on Kenu’s forehead, well, so be it. We would drink the fruit of that intervention down to the dregs. So, Kenu wore his best clothes, his funny clothes, no clothes even, as his spirits moved him and all Jesse took these with a shrug. For whenever Kenu was around, it did not take long before his wine and wit brought laughter and cheer. Yet, it was this same bizarre quality that had seen him on occasion demand his wine back from a buyer, and similar behavior, “on principle” as he said it. It was impossible to change Kenu’s mind once it was fixated on anything and when these moods came upon him, he stammered, and all Jesse kept their distance.
In the time of Kenu’s friendship with Mustrema, the popularity of the hermit as a player of the flute during the monthly dances continued to rise, yet, in the same period, it seemed that Mustrema’s quietude and seclusion from them had further tightened its noose around him, made him inviolable. It was in this period that Mariye, Kenu’s younger sister, threatened to kill herself if Mustrema did not marry her, causing a scandal. The matter ended when Mustrema, in the company of Kenu and I, played his flute to her for an hour. I remember what he told her—
“Mariye, marrying you will be my death, but I will die if you kill yourself. Please keep me alive, and let me play for you anytime you want. But, don’t want to marry me, please.”
She became one of the most envied girls in Jesse. In accepting this compromise, she did not know how much she had annoyed her brother, who but wanted his best friend to marry his only sister. In that idea in the tapster’s head is found the kernel of the hermit’s disappearance from Jesse.
III: The Hermit and the Mermaid
People like Mustrema live their lives in contemplation of some personal ideal or the other. Sometimes that ideal has a name but, many times, it does not. The difference between Mustrema and the rest of us was his solitude. Mustrema sought his own perfection in the harmony of sound. He had glimpsed it on occasion in little snatches before it slipped away from him. Perfect melody was a snake, a dragon, perfect melody was half fish and half woman—something difficult to possess, fantastic, yet impossible to forget. Then, at a point in his story, he had held that harmony in his hands and had known that his ideal was real, that perfection was not some haunting will-o-the-wisp. And that was how he became doomed.
That night, he must have looked up and seen her barely three yards away. He had been drinking Kenu’s wine, he would have shook his head and seen she was still there, standing alone and near naked and not saying a word. His head would have hurt as he erased the few steps that denied them the power of touch. And his fingers tugged at the jigida beads on her waist even as his lips found hers.
Later, he sat looking at her for a long time, wondering what spell he could say to break the flowing lines of perfect silence, to leave his mark and grant authenticity to the moment.
“What is your name?”
“Sebliye. I am called that,” she said.
The hermit closed his eyes awhile and tried to remember. Her skin was a distinct, finely pored brown. Her hair was like those times when he felt a perfect refrain flow through him; her hair was the color of the finest sound he had ever created, the cry on the day of his birth. It framed the blossom that was her face, a flower long imagined and never seen. Even with his eyes closed, he still traced along her stomach finding the place where her breasts parted and then moving left and over a mound, the very feel of which aroused him again. And everything, his body, hers, his thoughts, became sinuous, like water, like song. And just as suddenly, the hermit knew everything.
“Who are you,” he asked, near tears, “who are you? Where are you from? Why, why, why, why this?”
“From there,” she said, pointing towards the river. “I am a mermaid. You know why I am here, Mustrema, and you know everything you must give me. You know.”
That was how their affair started.
In the meantime, Kenu’s sister, Mariye, had refused to marry. Mustrema and his riverine muse met frequently while the townspeople slept under her spell. Yet he still played his flute to Kenu’s sister. The mermaid, Sebliye, resented these affections. Mustrema in turn demanded her not to harm Mariye. Kenu, on his part, increasingly took offense at his friends’ refusal to marry Mariye. They carried on this cobweb of motives and emotions for all of five years. It was all bound to come to a head. And it did.
IV: An Old Man’s Memories
Sebliye had forgotten to cast her ivory spell and by that unfortunate error, all Jesse was asleep save one person who even then was headed for Mustrema’s hut. That one person and I, of course, for I am telling this story. The pair had just finished making love and were facing the riverside when the back door of the little hut swung open and there, with the full moon behind him and a lantern reflecting his features clearly, stood Kenu.
Mustrema’s head lay cradled on Sebliye’s lap when she saw the brother of her rival, seeing the shock and comprehension that crossed his face a full second before her lover did. As Kenu turned to flee from this revelation, a scream already on his lips, Sebliye raised her arms, words already forming on her lips. Mustrema sank to his knees with tears in his eyes and he held her waist, one hand clasping her hand.
She looked at him. Did he understand what he was asking? It would mean her victory, if he understood.
“Please, don’t kill him,” Mustrema said again, softly this time.
The mermaid brought down her arm and stroked the side of his face with the tips of her fingers. There were tears in her eyes also. I could see them clearly from the thicket where I was concealed, where the terrified Kenu had just run past. The tears in her eyes and the pain in his eyes were the last I saw of them together as, hand in hand, Mustrema stooping to pick up his ivory flute, they walked into the river Ethiope, her home, never to be seen by mortal eyes again. Forty years ago.
Today the river Ethiope still runs calmly and the people of Jesse are still warmhearted and vain, considering our village the very center of the universe and home to the wayfarer. Kenu lived on to a good old age with his unblemished sister, tapped wine until the year he died. He never said a word about what he had seen that night. But it was noticed that he had become more sober after the disappearance of his true friend, the hermit Mustrema. The people of Jesse, like the river Ethiope, flowed on and on, welcoming the wayfarer and dancing at full moon as we always have. We accepted the disappearance of Mustrema in the same way they had accepted his arrival.
Yet to this day, in Jesse, during the late rainy season, at about midnight, some have said they have heard the music of an ivory flute playing, it seemed to their ears, from within the Ethiope itself. Whenever these tales become current, the old men of Jesse remember Mustrema, Sebliye’s hermit from the north, who had played the flute so well in their childhood years and around whom the myth of the Ethiope had been woven.
Richard Ali (@richardalijos) is a Nigerian novelist, poet and lawyer. He has participated in various writing workshops across the continent and in 2012, he co-founded Parresia Publishers Ltd, which went on to publish great African voices including Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Helon Habila. He was former Editor of Sardauna Magazine and of the Sentinel Nigeria Magazine. He currently serves on the EXCO of the Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) and on the Board of the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation. He is a member of the Jalada Writers Collective.
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher