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I Swear to You (Novel Excerpt), by Binyerem Ukonu

Insanity, nay, is sanity
Once peace resides within.

I swear to you, I was sane enough to know that the floor was finished with cement screeds, and was cold, and that I sat on it. I knew that we were many of us in the large space that looked like a factory, and that people yelled in a manner that seemed that they needed liberty from bondage. I was sane enough to see, though hazy, the men that stood, with whips in their hands, in front of various groups, according to the groups apportioned to them. I was sane enough to feel that my hands were knotted with twines, and that those twines sucked my blood. My legs were tied too and getting paralyzed. I was only not sane enough to speak meaningful words, to ask where I was, who those yelling people were, and why the hell I was tied with ropes.

All my attempts to see clearly were futile. My vision remained blurred at many things that happened inside the large hall. I only noticed a few, and figured out what was happening. We were either forced into slavery or captured for rituals. I shivered at the possibility of being captured for rituals. The fears took over my entire body, and I wriggled on the floor, kicked my legs, and tried forcing my hands to slip from the ropes. Someone rushed to where I was and whipped me on my back. It tore my back, I thought. I yelled, but my cries were held within me. I swear to you, no one heard my cries. He lashed my back again, and again, and again. The pains ran through my veins and forced blood into my brain. I panted like an athlete, but my cries remained unheard. There are powers above human powers. There are powers that run the universe, powers that control the senses of humans, and powers that tell us what to say, how to say, and when to say them. Only those held under such powers felt them. Only those held by what they could not feel, see, or perceive knew such powers. Evil powers. They held me strong, and enjoyed my hurt.

Ikoro appeared later, with a man. The man was a giant to everyone in the large hall, and everyone that saw him bowed to him. He had no face, yet he had shades on. He had no face because my vision of him was blurred. His face was hidden in the ceiling, and the ceiling was far from where I lay. My vision had gotten worse after my group’s commandant lashed my back. But I saw Ikoro and knew he was the one beside the man whose face I could not behold.

“Here is the new boy I told you about,” Ikoro said to the man. Both men stood before me. “I found him in the market in Portharcourt, and he slept off on our way to the sanctuary. Ikoro’s blessings work more than any of the other agents’.”

“How old is the boy?” the man asked. His voice was cracked, as if he had rocks stock in his throat.

“Sixteen, I guess,” Ikoro replied him. “I didn’t ask him. But he’s a teenager. He’s good to go.”
“Have you anointed him?”

“Yes, Master. I planted the oil in my air conditioner. The boy is now a mess, no past, no present, and no future. Anything we order him is what he must do. But we must sanctify him.”

“Oh yes, we must sanctify him,” the man said. “This night, at the stream, we must.”

Blood stopped flowing in me. At that moment, my life paused. What the hell are these men talking about? Who were they? What the fuck is sanctification? Oh my Jesus! Oh my Gosh!

“Master!” someone called out from the other end of the factory. The man that Ikoro called Master turned to where the call came.
“This one here is dead,” he continued. “He’s cold and gone. He’s refused to eat since yesterday, and now he doesn’t move even when I whip him on his back.”

“He must be dead then,” the man replied. “Call Tugo to come and help you get rid of him. We do not need dead men here. Dead men have bad spirits.”

Ikoro laughed at the man’s words. Everyone in the factory laughed. Only the men that were not in bondage laughed. The man never laughed. He only turned and walked away.

“Prepare the young boy for sanctification tonight!”

My hairs were shaved at night, at the shores of a river. I do not know why. My toenails and fingernails were clipped and thrown into the water, and they sailed with the current. I do not know why. I swear to you, I do not know who the priest called upon to join our gathering. They waited for him to appear from the water. I tried to see, but it appeared I was the only one who could not see him. I only know that I knew I was in a strange place at a strange time. I was made to kneel in the mud, raise my hands, shut my eyes, and wait for what ever would be the first thing I would feel on my hide. I threw my thoughts to what this new life could behold. I knew I had never met the people I saw at the factory except Ikoro. I knew I had met Ikoro, but I could not be exact at where we met. I knew I was from a place from the past, but I could not remember where I came from, who I knew, and if I had always been a slave. I must have been a dead slave. Maybe, I realized I must have been dead the moment Ikoro anointed me with oil. I did not see Ikoro anoint me. I did not know how he did it. I only heard Ikoro tell Master, at the factory, that he had already initiated me with oil.

There was stillness.

“Ikoro bring his hairs to the other side,” the priest said. He wore a white wrapper around his loins, and cowries on his ankles. As he walked, the sound I heard reminded me of the great masquerade, Agaba. Agaba walked with grace, sauntering into peoples’ stores, purloining whatsoever pleased him. From oranges to udara, he sent fears into the hearts of traders as they ran for their lives. He would pick one item from one shop, after the other, and slump into the roots that held the big trunk of the biggest tree we had in Ugiri. I swear to you, I remembered my hometown. Ugiri was my hometown. I was sure it was. But, where is Ugiri?

Finally, as my hairs sailed into the deep, I knew I had a new life. I felt a new life rise from my belly. I saw a light flash into my eyes like a disco light. I saw it run on my entire body. Dotted spots mottled on my bare skin and disappeared in seconds. Then, the priest danced, and danced, and danced. I did not see what Ikoro and his master did. They stood behind their game. I was their game.
“This one is not troublesome,” the priest continued. “He’ll be loyal to your orders and your empire. Nwa oma! This is a good catch.”

“I knew it immediately I saw him,” I heard Ikoro whisper from behind. “Enwere m anya eji ahu oka kara aka.”

“Yes, Ikoro,” the priest said. “But it doesn’t end there. He’s to lead a group of battalion in the empire. He’s to stand before the masses and fulfill your demands. I behold favour written upon his forehead.”

“How do you mean, Ogbaka?” I heard another voice from behind. It must have been Ikoro’s master.

“Hahahahaha…..” the priest laughed. “You’ll know when it is time.”

I had a bath inside the river, at the shallow end, where the water was clean. I was purged of my sins; the sins I never committed, or I did, but did not know. I was not the only one sanctified at the river shore that night. Two boys who looked my age were made holy too. One of the boys was insane. He smiled at everything the priest did. When the priest danced, he nodded his head and barked like a dog. He repeated every word the priest yelled when he beckoned on the evil gods to be present. He made even the priest smile. Ikoro and his master laughed behind me. Then, Ikoro called the man to order. Arinze was what Ikoro called him. He said the lad was stubborn and had too much anointing oil which made him a mad boy. He said they had to cuff Arinze with chains, because he had become too aggressive for the boys. Ikoro told his master all these.

“He’ll be fine after the sanctification,” Ikoro’s master uwhispered to Ikoro. They were still standing behind me.

We were let loose by the priest and his servant. He told us to turn and follow the men behind us. He told us not to utter any word, unless we were told to talk by the men that stood behind us. We were warned never to argue or say anything that could go against their decrees. The priest was the first lovable man we had encountered since strange things began happening in our lives. He sat us down and told us about loyalty. Then, he talked in Igbo Language, but his words had no direct meaning. Onye fe Eze, eze eru ya aka! That was his last adage. I smiled because I knew it was somehow a lie. That one worships the king does not mean he would be king someday. Does he who worships the gods transform into a god?

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