The dawn was still hours away. It was the time to start for the farm. He did not particularly like the practice of waking up this early. It always gave him goose bumps because he was always afraid of meeting the spirits of the Iroko tree who he was told would just be going home into the big Iroko tree by the particular time. He would wonder about what he would do if he was to come across one. Tope never seemed to have any problem as he looked very much like an Iroko spirit anyway. He left the bed reluctantly and still half asleep groped for his basket, and cutlass.
Tope was up slapping away at his face. It was odd, Tope always slapped himself as he wakes every morning. Babatunde had been curious enough to ask him why he did that and Tope had replied that he wanted to confirm that he was still alive. Crazy fellow was his quiet dismissal of that habit. Tope also had the irritating habit of suddenly wiping his face with imaginary cloth while he talked to you. Ige his younger brother told him that Tope was by all accounts a strange fellow. “I mean he could decide to head for the farm all alone himself”. Ige had said with a shrug.
So this morning Babatunde watched as they all moved towards the front door. His mother called a good morning from her bedroom and he grunted his reply. She asked if he would check on her pepper farm, he sighed and wondered if he had the time to go to her pepper farm. They were going to the cocoa farm and it was a ten kilometer walk. He was not keen on taking a detour to the pepper farm. Tope answered for him saying if they finished in time they just might call at the farm adding that she would have to promise that there would be hot pounded yam waiting on their arrival.
His mother laughed a reply back saying he was a poor provider as a husband and bantered with him as she came to the door of her bedroom to bid them goodbye. She always called him her husband as he was the eldest son and her step son. In the culture of his tribe, she was not allowed to call Tope by his given name. Babatunde had refused to call Tope ‘brother’ as they were only six months apart. He didn’t feel six months qualified Tope to be his senior, tradition or no tradition. But Tope didn’t seem to mind, just seemed comfortable with being himself. Short , almost squat, Tope had also not seemed to mind his mental inability to continue with academics.
He just shrugged, slapped his face and said he did not like sitting in a closed place when he could be laying traps or chasing a girl round the farm. He would say that with a wicked grin in the direction of Babatunde. They were opposites in that, Babatunde rarely spoke to girls.
In the evening the brothers, Tope, Babatunde and Ige will tell stories and Tope seemed to prefer stories of the Iroko spirits, which tended to make Babatunde uncomfortable. He did not like the stories though as it tended to give him the creepy feeling that someone was going to get caught one day by these spirits. Each evening as they came home from farm work, Tope will regale them with the exploits of his favorite spirit. Since they usually heard the tales in the dark while they waited for the hunters’ bells to announce the village curfew Babatunde always had problem sleeping.
Most nights, while Tope snored he would be awake going over the fantastic tales of the exploits of these spirits. His world was of spirits, good ones, awful ones and some really rascally ones. He just didn’t like Tope’s penchant for telling them, or his penchant for talking about the spirits of the Iroko tree.
In the dark they made their way to the farm, sometimes in single file when the road got too narrow to the farm. They had to leave this early as they had a long way to walk and you needed your strength and the early dawn ensured you were not going to arrive sweating from the heat of the day. It was a familiar path with farms of families and neighbors along the road. Each time they got to a farm belonging to someone they know they will make farm calls. That is you cupped your hands over your mouth and you gave a long whistle like call. You were not allowed to use normal human language in case any of the spirits happen to be still around. You never called out names nor speak normally as these spirits could copy your voice and use it to your disadvantage or take it to a witch. So you made long whistle like calls and carried out a conversation that way, if the farmer you called was on the farm, he would reply you in the same way.
When Babatunde was younger he had had fun doing the same things as Tope but now older and home on holidays from his boarding school in the city, he had suddenly become self conscious about such ‘pagan’ stuff. He was suddenly embarrassed to use such language. It did not make sense to him and he also did not want to endanger his brothers by using proper language so he kept quiet.
It was family requirement bordering on law that he had to join his brothers to the farm each time he came home on holidays. The family had a large cocoa farm and the only labour required were, the boys and during harvest all members of the family. The wives, children and close relatives. Babatunde knew if he did not join in the cocoa harvesting there would be no money to pay his school fees and any other expenses.
“You are quiet this morning,” Tope remarked looking at him keenly. He returned the look with a shrug and said he just did not feel like yakking so early in the morning “besides I need to conserve my strength” he added.
“This city adventure of yours is making you soft” Tope replied spitting chewing stick saliva to the roadside.
That was another thing he didn’t like. Chewing stick, especially the one made from the branch of bitter leaf. It was always very bitter and he would complain to his mum asking her to get the ‘Ijebu” type but she would insist that the bitter leaf one was good for his health as it had anti-malarial properties.
Suddenly Ige who was in front, froze and stood still. They bumped into him and he signaled furiously for them to be still. In the distance, they saw a moving light. Babatunde’s heart jumped and raced. Ige whispered from an almost strangled throat if they should run. They all three were petrified. It could only be that an Iroko tree spirit was going home and if it met them on the path it would do them harm.
Babatunde’s hands went clammy and he suddenly felt like peeing, his saliva thinned and he shivered. Ige was simply rooted to the spot. Should they pray? To who? He was not sure the Almighty had ever heard of these tree spirits! At least his Bible knowledge teacher never ever mentioned them. The light moved closer and he suddenly became aware that the whole forest path was eerily silent. He had heard tales of Iroko taking its prisoners into the Iroko tree and making them work endlessly. He wanted to be a surgeon. Finish school and get his mother to leave the village. Now he was going to be a slave to an Iroko spirit. He shivered, as the light moved closer. Tope started a chant and he hissed in his ears to shut the hell up so they can make good their escape before the spirit got to them. Ige asked if a cutlass could be effective on a spirit. Nobody answered. Babatunde closed his eyes and suddenly prayed, but to no particular deity.
That was the problem, which deity was he going to ask to protect him from an alien spirit? Someone touched him and he shivered, opened his eyes straight into the face of an old man holding a lantern up and peering at him. He swallowed and stared back at the old man.
He gave a respectful greeting in a thin voice and the man simply nodded giving him a very thorough once over. That unnerved him. The old man said nothing just simply stared. Ige had been standing rigidly straight, staring ahead, eyes almost popping out of their sockets. They all remained like that for a full minute after the old man had passed and then Tope started shivering, his teeth chattered, Babatunde stared at him alarmed.
“What is wrong with you?” He demanded
“You mean you don’t know who we just saw?” Tope asked in an almost strangled voice holding himself and shaking uncontrollably.
“An old man returning from the farm”, Babatunde answered, his own voice thin and shaky
“No, That is the Iroko tree spirit. They say he can change to look like an old man or even a beautiful girl”
He knew he was frightened but he was expected to be the educated one and besides that really was an old man not some damned spirit. After all as the story goes these spirits generally tend to have one eye in the middle of their forehead and would be very short with a certain evil look and smell. So he looked at his brothers and sighed trying to sound sophisticated. In a lazy voice he gave Tope and Ige a smile, “you bush boys want a spirit by any means right? that was an old man”
Tope was angry, “so where is he coming from?”
“I do not live with him” he shrugged and looked round. He wished Tope will just crack any of the outlandish jokes so they could move on as they seemed rooted to the spot. His head felt light, and he goose bumps riding all over his skin. He held himself rigid with an effort. Ige was making no pretence about his fright and asked plaintively if they should return home.
Babatunde was brusque asking why they should return home.
Tope looked round and shook his head saying he should have listened to the dream he had and refused to rise that early/ besides there had been the strange calls of the owls all night. All that talk only served to make him nervous and he started walking. That decision galvanized all of them just before Ige looked down and gave a jump high into the air.
They turned round to stare at him, but Ige was pointing at the ground. Tope peered down and jumped into the bush. He missed stepping on a snake. As they whirled they bumped into the old man staring at them, Babatunde could not suppressed a frightened yelp of real terror
There was no need for further arguments as they all turned and ran all the way back to the house. As they got to the front of the house, they saw their dad sitting out calmly sharpening his cutlass. He gave them a startled look and raised his eyebrows.