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I didn't wait until eight o' clock the next morning to hurry out. If it hadn't been for father's protest yesterday, I'd have gone out right after I had my bags inside the house.
"It's not proper," he'd said. "Some people may still come and see you; you must stay to receive them."
Moreover, they kept coming, mostly the elderly men, until I went to sleep at eleven. It was wise of me to have brought some bottles of wine and Aromatic Schnapps, after some gulps of which, they testified that I was working very hard at Kaduna.
This morning I put on washed-out jeans trousers and a round-neck polo shirt that I thought accentuated my build, and then I slid my feet into a pair of trainers. I didn't forget to don my beret, even though it all made me look like a college guy.
Mother rushed out as she heard me turn the ignition on. "Won't you have your bowl of pap first?"
"I'll be fine," I said with a smile. "I'll just see an old friend in the next village and then hurry back," I lied.
Even though the wheels and the side-rails were muddy, I decided to ignore them since I might still run through some mud on the way. That was why when Chukwudi, my kid brother, asked if he should clean up the car before my leave, I asked him not to bother. Since last night, when I said I'd take him to Kaduna if he wished, he had worn a wide grin, always ready for whatever errand without grudges. I knew all along he was dying to come and stay with me in the city, but I wanted him to ask for it.
I took a bottle of Swan Water with me in the car. After some time meandering through bad country lanes, I turned into a bypass, along which I drove for about fifteen minutes, before switching to the left, into a windy lane. Although it's now over seventeen years since I last used it, I still remembered the road as if it was only yesterday. I took the car through small muddy ponds and parked at a point, ensuring that the doors were securely locked, to continue the journey on foot. I had to use the edge of the road to avoid the potholes in the middle, not minding the wet weed soiling the turn-ups of my trousers. Soon I found the track I was looking for, which we used in those days. Now I couldn't say whether it's really a short cut as we thought, or whether our high spirits made it one. It's now a tiny path, zigzagging through yam and cassava farms. Rather than rush into it, I couldn't say why, I stood and regarded it for a while, and all along, Robert Frost's The Road Not Taken ran in my mind.
After some time walking, I climbed a hillock that we used to call a mountain. It was the final barrier to my destination. As I climbed to its top, the sight of the crown of the woods sent a shock through my spine so that out of impatience, I began to run for it. However, I had just covered a little distance when I stopped abruptly, having seen things that baffled me. A dwarf wall now ran across the front of the woods; beside it was a signpost, the sight of which took away the remaining spirit left in me. "THIS PROPERTY BELONGS TO MR NWOKOMA KINGSLEY. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED."
I was disconcerted so much that I only stood and gazed on like a statue for some time. The Paradise I used to know was all natural. You wouldn't spot any manmade feature hundreds of meters around it. Now at about fifty yards from its west end, I could see the roof of a large building, which looked like a factory. Also, in front of the dwarf wall there was a battered wagon.
"Paradise lost," I muttered finally, and then I turned to walk back to the car.
Down the hillock, in a small clearing, a heap of rubbish smouldered, sending out a thick foul smoke. I hadn't noticed it earlier on, out of my impatience. Now I had to cover my nose with a handkerchief as a gentle breeze blew it to my face. A flock of pigeons took a crescent flight above me, the sound of their flapping wings diminishing as they flew farther. I felt tired and hungry, and the various leaves that had rubbed my bare arms and neck made them itchy.
Who'd think that this was the same place where I used to feel nature's motherly arms clasp around me? Truly, it was once a sanctuary to me; I held it as dear as a devout pilgrim holds the holy land. Perhaps what drew me to the woods was more than belief. Perhaps it was the ancient practice coming all over again into this new age. My visits could be in answer to the call for a communion and intercourse with the spirits of the woods.
My first visit was during one of my juvenile adventures with three other friends; after that, I must have gone there over a hundred times or so before I left for the city. I was often lonely as a child, and I soon realized that looking around the woods, or lying on the grass for sunbeams to illuminate my face through the canopy of leaves, gave me such pleasure that words couldn't paint. I'd imagine the birds that flew around me to be angels, and their whistles to be some heavenly song. I regarded the trees as my colleagues in isolation, and felt that we drew strength from each other. When I addressed any of them, I would convince myself that I heard its reply. It soon turned out that whenever I felt very blue, I'd find my way to Paradise, not minding the distance I would have to cover on foot. Therefore, I considered it normal to visit the place again after these many years.
You've wasted fuel and time to come here. (You pass for one of such people, who consider every minute too precious to be wasted). Won't you justify the pains you've taken to come here? At least get close to the woods, which used to be a haven to you, and have a last look! To discourage these thoughts, I whistled Yanni's Nightingale, but it couldn't hold for long; finally I decided to compromise, for old time's sake at least.
A little way inside, the trees were less clustered and sunbeams cut in through a cloud of mist to the ground. It looked like a picture in my book of Bible stories that I used to own as a child, of God talking to Moses in a similar beam. Colorful birds flew about noisily from tree branches to the ground, ascending and descending like the angels in Jacob's dream. I leaped over the dwarf wall and ran into the woods.
The air was still, but fresh. The trees were quiet and looked unfriendly, as if they were aware of an unlawful intrusion. I felt panicky to think that they were watching me. I also feared that one of them, out of spite, might hit me with a branch. Nevertheless, I put up a bold front and walked on to the heart of the woods.
Most of the trees here were stumps or leafless. I stood, arms akimbo, and tried to look friendly, even though I felt their hot eyes scan my body, spirit and soul. Perhaps the silence they put up was an assessment; a search for a mark of friendship between us. I closed my eyes and tried to hook up with their general pulse. I'd hear rustles around now and then, but when I opened my eyes and looked around, I wouldn't see what caused it. I got used to it and stopped letting it bother me.
A gentle breeze blew dry leaves about and swayed branches. With my arms spread like wings and the breeze washing over me, it felt like dropping off a cliff; like skydiving; like floating on water, the way water-skaters do.
The breeze became a storm, and whirled branches violently. Instead of barks, I now saw gaunt, smiling faces; the swaying branches became nodding heads; the rustles became deep moans, like those made by weak old people while asleep. My pulse rose and I felt like I was floating. First it was as if I was evaporating into space, and then I felt as if the ash of my cremated body was poured into a stream, to flow into rivers, and then into oceans and seas, to dance with the warm and cold currents.
I was ignorant of time, place and logical reasoning. If a lion appeared just then, perhaps I'd crease its mane and search its paws for ticks, the same way I would do to Silver, my Alsatian. Nothing seemed impossible. The world could fizzle away. I could fly. I was flying.
The sun raced backwards, turning bright and dark successively, as if someone was playing with its switch. I heard roars filter gradually to echoes, and then distant voices and laughter of children. These things would have frightened me any other time, but not now.
Presently, the storm seized and a boy of nine appeared. He was my infant Self. I could see Samuel too, in his usual ragged sweatshirt. Friday followed behind, speaking with a lisp like in the olden days. There was Victor too, with his large eyes and spiky hair. Finally, I saw Rambo, the ill-bred dog Samuel's father bought for him when he came first in his class
When we'd tired ourselves with fruits, Friday suggested we identify ourselves.
"I'm Tarzan," he said, and then he gave out a long, fluctuating cry thereafter.
"I'm Adam," Victor said. It was him who first called this place Paradise. He actually meant Eden.
"I'm Mowgli the prince of the jungle," Samuel said. "And this," he pointed at Rambo, who was now running after an imaginary hare, "is my guardian, Mother Wolf."
"I'm SolohMan," the young me said. "Here is the club with which I hunt," he added, raising the cane stick he was holding...
Something dropped on my head and I opened my eyes to see the small mango bouncing on the ground a little way from where I stood. All was calm and stark, just like it had been the time I first walked in. The tree barks and other things, which were significant a little while ago, were now impassive. This drastic change stunned me. I felt forlorn and dazed, my vision getting blurred with tears. I'd only managed to find a flicker in the place of the old fire, and yet it couldn't stay long. Time was to blame, I thought. It had built a wall between the place and I, so that they felt no more at ease to let me into their secrets. I looked around again, but the hostility in their eyes troubled me a great deal; I thought it best if I ran out of the wood. It should be twelve o' clock or thereabout, judging by the sun's intensity.
As I drove along the bypass, about to turn into the country lane that would lead me home, it dawned on me that this trip wasn't a total failure after all. The lesson I'd just learnt would last me my whole lifetime. The winds, the music, and all those other experiences, had come from my inside. They were products of my imagination. It's useless to take long trips from the city to home before I can be in Paradise. It can always reach me anywhere. I just set the mood. Paradise is everywhere. Paradise is in me.
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