Ikem beamed whenever his father drew close to him and told him stories and gratified his curiosity while his stepmother burned with something he understood well.
His father brought her because his mother could not have a child. She got Ikem when his half brother was already four. But she passed the next day when he was yet to see her face. Now Ikem was eight years and happy his father was always there for him.
With his father by his side, he had no fear.
But from the day Ikem heard screams at midnight and the hushed voices that followed, he knew something terrible had happened. Afterwards, he searched for his father to ask what happened; he found him sleeping on his bed. There was something strange about the way he slept on his back with his hands stretched by his sides. He was so still.
‘Come out. Go to your room.’ Someone had said.
In the morning, lots of people gathered around a long brown box and his stepmother wailed like she had gone nuts. He didn’t see his father in his room and never saw him again.
A few months later, when he got hungry and wanted to eat, his stepmother said, ‘ Tell your father to give you food to eat.’ When he asked where he was, she dragged him by the collar of his shirt to a mound of red dirt and let him slump on it. ‘There he is. Ask him for food.’ He had laid there for a while and wondered if his father was down there.
The days that followed were terrible. His major problem lay because his stepmother, whom he called mother, had a son. He was his half brother, but evil, more brutal than his mother. He mocked him, called him an orphan and beat him and sent him on difficult errands. Ikem allowed him to do all the evil things to him, until one day, the unimaginable happened.
As soon as his mother gave him his bowl of rice with a drop of stew on top, his brother followed him and hit the food off his hands.
What made Ikem’s heart char with excess anger was not that his food had scattered on the sandy ground but the roar of his mocking laughter and the hands he kept on his hips as if daring him to a fight. Ikem picked something which felt heavy in his hand. And by the time his stepmother screamed and neighbours gathered, he was looking at his brother, who lay still on the ground. He was panic-stricken.
The brick in his hand seemed to be glued to it as he ran through the gate and into the bush. No one chased him. They were all by the side of his brother, calling his name and pouring water on him.
Ikem crouched on the ground and peeped through the long grasses behind their mud hut. His wide eyes depicted horror.
He heard them say, ‘Where is he? Where is he? Where is the evil child? He did this to his brother. He must face due punishment.’ The sudden screams of women and the wailing of his stepmother slashed his heart in two. Those noises sounded like the end of his life.
Night came and mosquitoes attacked his legs, arms, and face. They cried in his ears and seemed to mimic their voices. ‘Where is the evil child?’
His stomach gnawed as he looked for where to sleep. He walked far away to a lonely house in farmland and slept on the veranda of a small house.
When the sun flooded into his eyes in the morning, a voice so soft asked, ‘Who are you, my child?’ He sprung to his feet.
‘Please don’t take me home. They’ll kill me.’
‘Who will kill you?’
‘My stepmother and everyone.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I hit my brother, and he fell.’
‘I don’t know.’ The old woman picked him up, gave him water to take his bath, and gave him a satisfying meal.
‘It’s time to return home.’ She said when evening came. ‘I’ll please for forgiveness on your behalf. I’ll make sure they don’t touch you.’ The horror returned to Ikem’s face.
‘No. I can’t go home.’
‘You can’t stay here. If they find you here, they’ll say I kept you because I don’t have a child of my own.’
So he left.
But he did not return home. He walked a long distance, day and night, in an unknown direction, until he collapsed in front of something that looked like a house.
‘My child, who are you? Where are you from?’ A woman said when he opened his eyes. She wore the most beautiful gown and a crown, and her smile gave him little hope.
‘I’m lost.’ he said as his eyes scanned his surroundings. It’s the kind he had not set eyes on, beautiful, rich and clean.
‘Where are you from?
I don’t know.’
‘You remember nothing?’
‘No,’ he said this because he knew that if she found where he came from, she would take him back.
‘Ok. We’ll keep you here until we find your family.’ Ikem knew that day would never come. Nobody would look for him.
The woman took care of him, sent him to school.
Ikem grew into a handsome young man with a dominant personality. But when the King gave him preference over his two sons, who were a lot older than him, the queen’s attitude towards him changed.
He was twenty-five when the queen sent him away with lots of money.
He returned home at twenty-five. The mud house was still the same and his stepmother was no more. His half-brother lived alone. When he told him who he was, he broke down and sobbed.
‘She said she regretted having me as a son and spoke well of you till death. But I’m not bad anymore.’ Ikem wrapped his arms around him.
He was the only family he had.