I never understood how deep the forest was until I began marching through it with my brothers and some of the other children from the tribe. We had left the morning after my father’s retelling.
If only I knew that was the last time things were going to be normal. I would never have left. The prize was not worth the effort or the process it took to attain it. The Raga are monsters.
In front of us, leading the fifty children of Ogun, was the Elder’s second wife. She was the acting shaman of our tribe, the priestess by which we prayed to our god, Ogun. She, along with her husband, told us what our god required from us each year and we would do our best to meet it.
It was a surprise when she began the journey as our leader but soon enough, the surprise waned. Tearful goodbyes and last hugs with our parents were the only things in our minds as we navigated deeper into the forest. Soon enough, all we saw were trees and visions of trees.
Over us, the sun went down and a full moon replaced it in the sky. The forest was bathed in the blue light of the moon and the shaman, Okoye, lit torches for the eldest of the children to carry.
On my belt, I wore the knife my father had given me for my seventh name-day. It wasn’t the best-looking knife but the handle was covered with the fur of a bear father had killed and the blade had been carved from a black rock that fell from the sky, according to his account.
The wooden handle was cut from the mahogany tree at the center of the village, an act that was only permitted by the shaman and no one else.
“The tree is the gods and the gods keep it,” mother had explained.
The knife was in my hand now as we walked deeper into the forest. All around me, my brothers and friends had their weapons in hand. Some were carrying bows and short knives, while others had machetes and warrior blades. Those were our elders. They were the ones who weren’t quite warriors yet but had begun their training. And Sogo was one of them.
He locked eyes with me, his dark brown eyes catching the light of the torch in his hand and he smiled at me assuringly like he always did. He sheathed the blade back on his belt and ruffled my curled hair with his free hand.
“Don’t worry, Jide. I will keep you all safe from whatever comes our way,” he whispered to me before gently pushing me on.
His words settled my restlessness and I nodded and pushed forward with the rest of the children. We had no idea where we were going, except that we were to keep walking until the shaman determined that we had walked far enough.
Still, we kept walking. Around us in the dark, animal noises filled the air and increased the tension in the group but the shaman didn’t stop. If I remember correctly, she even sped up as if trying to get to the destination in time.
At a point, our slow creep through the forest had turned into a run and by the time she told us to slow down, we were panting for air and begging for water. We didn’t get any, save from the already emptying waterskins the eldest children carried. And yet, the shaman didn’t stop. And along the way, we lost ten from our group to exhaustion and thirst.
We were lucky in this regard, my brothers and I because father had taken it upon himself to train us to go on for hours without rest or water. I still don’t believe it was because he expected this to happen but I was glad that the training kept us alive. Largely.
Sometimes, Elder Okoye would allow us to rest, but only for a few hours before the journey started again.
Day turned to night, which turned to day. And then the cycle continued. Hunger gnawed at us and thirst clawed at our throats but the shaman didn’t stop. She just kept moving like she was unaffected by what we were feeling. Perhaps she was. That is something I will never find out.
Regardless, Deji, my five-year-old brother, didn’t make it past the fourth day before he collapsed on the floor for good.
It was on the seventh day that we finally got the chance to stop.
By this time, blisters had formed underneath our feet and it was increasingly difficult to focus on moving. The shaman didn’t stop but she slowed down a bit and we took some rest from it. The sun had risen for the day and it bathed us with its warmth which felt oppressive in our thirsty state.
And yet, there was something about it. Something strange. As thirsty, tired, and hungry as I was, I couldn’t help but feel like there was something wrong with the day. I wasn’t sure if it was the sun, or the way I felt, or how far the shaman appeared to be from the group.
I mentioned it to Sogo and he frowned before hobbling forward faster to catch up to her and as if on cue, the shaman began to run. The rest of us tried to catch up with her, struggling as we increased our speed but by the time we went through the group of trees that she passed, we had lost her.
And gained something different.
As we passed through the trees, we burst out of the forest into a large clearing that seemed to stretch from end to end with no more trees in sight. The ground was different, hardened and yet, smooth and cool to the touch. Cautiously, we all exited the forest and stepped on the strange ground.
Ahead of us, was a structure, unlike anything we had seen before. It stood taller than most of the trees we had walked past in the forest but the more I stared at it, the more it reminded me of the mahogany tree back home.
Looking at it filled me with an intense sense of dread that increased with each second. The entrance to the place was open but even in the light of the sun, it just looked like a black cloth had been placed across it. Like a shadow veil that we will have to cross. I blinked as I noticed a ripple in the shadow veil.
Like someone else was present in our vicinity. I took a step forward without meaning to and tried to be sure that I saw someone beyond the door.
A shout of celebration broke my gaze with the veil and I looked down to see a river bank separating the strange, smooth road from the building.
At once, all the children rushed forward and I found myself running along, my mind suddenly filled with the thought of water on my lips and down my throat. Kunle and Seun had jumped in already and were swimming in it. Sogo was just behind me, along with a few other children as we raced towards the water.
I was a step away from the water, already filled with playing children when I froze and looked up once more.
Across the river, standing at the other side, was the shaman. We all stopped, even those in the water. The shaman looked down at them and shook her head in disappointment. Before we could do anything, all the children in the river disappeared under and they didn’t resurface.
Slowly, to our horror and immediate understanding, the river changed from the bright blue it was, to a deepening red. In that instant, I had lost both of my brothers.