And the rain will come from the mountain
by Innocent Chizaram Ilo
For my father and all the stories he told me.
This is how Papa paints.
In the evenings, when air collects at people’s feet in chilly, invisible spools, he gathers his painting things to the balcony and sits in front of a rotting canvas. The numb fingers of his right hand grip the paintbrush, and the aluminium paint tray sways on his quivering left palm. Papa starts by making a whorl at the top left edge of the canvas. He twirls and twirls the paintbrush, concocting a riotous mesh of colours. It does not make sense. It does not make sense at all. Mama has always warned me never to disturb Papa when he is painting but I still linger, hiding behind the torn brocade curtain in the parlour.
They call Papa ‘Agozie’ – ‘the Finder’. Many years ago, before I was even born, people used to flock to our house and beg him to draw maps for them. Nobody comes to our compound anymore, unless you count Mama Odera, who comes to buy Mama’s vegetables, and the fishmonger who haggles all evening with Mama until he decides to part with some fish for the paltry sum Mama can offer.
It was two weeks ago when Mama finally agreed to tell me about Papa’s painting. ‘We’d just got married then and those people came in and out of this house as if they owned it.’ Mama had laughed and cocked her head sideways when she said this. ‘“Please draw me a map” they’d say. “I want to find my wife’s box of jewels”, “my grandfather’s favorite sheep wandered off last night”, “my husband needs to find a perfect seed-shop in the market, the planting season is at the corner” got lost in the woods”. Ahhhhh.’
‘How does the map work?’
‘You have to let the map guide you, see its destination with your heart and not your mind. Something like that.’
‘What?’ I was confused.
‘That’s what your father used to say before gifting someone a map. I don’t understand the man I married.’
‘Why did they stop coming?’
Mama paused and cleared her throat. ‘It was Mama Alo. She asked for a map to find her son who went missing on the night of the Great Whirlwind. When the map couldn’t find Alo, something inside your father died. He packed up his things and stopped painting, even though people begged him to continue, that one failed map wasn’t enough to blot out all the good work he had done. But when you came, he started painting again in the evenings. He would sweat on a work for a whole week and then scrub the canvas clean when he’d finished.’
Today, the painting is almost done. From my hiding place behind the brocade curtain, it is clear now that Papa is painting a mountain. He has perfected the blue of the mountain’s peak and what looked like spilt milk yesterday are now snowcaps. He is darkening the brown-brown skin of the elephants and buffalos grazing at the foot of the mountain.
‘Papa, come inside and eat,’ I say.
‘Who are you?’ he asks, baring the remains of his chequered teeth.
‘I live here,’ I tell him because I don’t have the muscle to remind Papa that I am his son.
‘So we are like neighbours.’ Papa sets down the paint-tray on the floor. ‘You remind me of my son, Zim. He’s thirteen. Do you know him?’
‘Yes. We’re good friends.’
‘My boy has started making friends. They grow up so quick, you know.’
‘What are you drawing?’
‘The same one as in the bedtime stories mothers used to tell little children?’
‘Yes. There is a wispy line between bedtime stories and reality.’
‘So it’s real. Where is it?’
‘Not just where, when.’ Papa gestures me to come closer to the painting. ‘There was a time when the entire town used to go there when the rains failed to come. The rains have never failed to come in centuries so everyone has forgotten about it. Deep inside these peaks, an endless stream of water flows.’ He runs his right middle finger along the painting, carefully skipping the portions where the paint is yet to dry. ‘Come, touch it.’
‘Do you feel the water strumming beneath your finger?’
I do not feel anything but I nod my head.
‘Let me tell you something.’ Papa’s voice dims to a whisper. ‘The rains are going to flee from the clouds and they are going to take the waters away from you. When they do, this map will guide you to the Mmili Mountain.’ He pauses to scratch off the paint flakes in his hair. ‘You have to let the map guide you …’
‘…see its destination with your heart and not your mind.’
‘Such a smart boy. No wonder you’re friends with Zim.’
Papa grips my hand and pulls me closer to him. His pupils look like a swirling, blue sea has been trapped in them.
‘Now you must listen and tell Zim all I am going to say now. The rains will retreat from the clouds in Selemku when the one who keeps it safe goes to the mountains for eternal rest. It is Zim’s duty to seek for the rains at Mmili Mountain and convince them that he is worthy to protect them like I did.’
Midnight. Papa calls Mama and me to come and see his finished painting. He never shows anyone his painting when he’s done, we normally wake up in the morning to find out that he has scrubbed the canvas clean.
Papa’s face has a ghostly glow as he talks about dying and how, by morning, he will crawl into the painting and return to the mountain. Mama and I stand beside him, chewing our tears.
‘We all came from the mountain and must go back there someday,’ Papa mutters before he grows cold.
The drought sets in a week after Papa’s funeral. By the end of the month, the horizon casts a dry purple hue on Selemku as all the rains evaporate from the clouds. Wells start to run dry, the River Bambu becomes a pool of ash mingled with cow dung, and Tutukele Spring reeks of scorching death.
Neighbours whisper to each other behind closed doors, ‘It’s Town Council that is taking all the water away from us, they did something to the clouds. That’s why they hiked the taxes for the new reservoir.’ Only people who can afford the one thousand buzas per day get daily water rations from Town Council.
Mama and I leave our water cans on the rooftop at night to collect morning dew. But we always meet them drier than before. We give up. Mama puts an extra lock on Papa’s cellar where we hide our water tank. People have started burgling and ravaging other people’s houses in search of water, so we can never be too safe.
‘Always have a ready excuse for why your lips aren’t chapped, say you always smear them with groundnut oil ,’ Mama’s voice resounds in my ear. ‘And hiccup from time to time when you’re in the midst of people. Once they know we have water, they’ll come here and steal it.’
The dreams that come at night, just before the barn owls retreat into their nests, is the only thing I look forward to these days. The first dream was on the night after Papa’s funeral. It began with soft music prodding me and tickling my feet until I see myself many miles away from Selemku and at the foot of Mmili Mountain where Papa is riding on the back of an elephant. The path to the mountain is so warped, I do not even remember them when I wake up.
‘It’s time for you to accept your quest and bring back water to Selemku,’ Papa would say in the dream.
‘Papa, you know it’s only heroes that go on quests,’ I would reply. Look at my hands and legs – very feeble, like twigs. Boys like me are not heroes.’
Papa would laugh, that same laughter filled with grainy warmth. ‘You don’t have to be a hero, Zim. The map has chosen you.’
It is Mama Odera who raps on our door early in the morning to remind Mama and me about the meeting at Town Council Hall. Mama double-checks the locks on the front door and the cellar before we leave the house. Townsfolk have been talking about the meeting for days now.
The hall is already jam-packed by the time Mama and I arrive. We have to squeeze and push our way through sweaty bodies to secure a seat. Mama and I struggle to hear ourselves over the din. Everybody is talking at once, demanding that the members of the Town Council come speak to us. We wait and wait and wait some more. Mama fans herself with the loose end of her lappah and tells me not to let anyone push me to the ground should a stampede ensue.
You don’t have to be a hero, Zim. The map has chosen you, Papa’s words begin to echo at the back of my head, increasing its tempo with every new echo. ‘I know how to bring water back to Selemku!’ A voice thunders across the hall. The din dies off and everyone turns to where the voice is coming from – me! I can swear I do not know how the words flew out of my mouth. Yes, I can remember thinking it, imagining myself saying it, but never did I think would actually have said it. The voice is deep, like a thousand rushing mountain winds, something that is alien to my thirteen-year-old tongue.
‘It’s a boy. A silly, little boy. What does he know?’ A man in the crowd bawls.
‘Let him speak, unless you know how to solve this problem,’ the woman sitting next to Mama snaps back at the man.
‘Tell us, boy. Tell us.’ The crowd begins to chant.
‘My name is Zim, the son of Agozie, the Finder.’ Again, the strange voice possesses my tongue. ‘Before my father died, he told me about Mmili Mountain.’
‘Wait, isn’t that the same man who couldn’t help Mama Alo find her son?’ The first man who spoke snickers.
‘Mmili Mountain only exists in the bedtime stories women tell children,’ another person says. ‘Apparently, someone took it too seriously. How will you get there?’
‘The map has chosen me,’ I say, without thinking.
At this, Mama grabs my hand and begins to drag me out of the hall.
‘Let the boy speak!’ Someone yells from the front.
‘What does he think he’s talking about?’ The first man retorts.
Mama shoves and pushes people aside to make way until we are out of the room.
‘We are going home,’ Mama says as we get to the bottom of the staircase. ‘Stop giving people false hope with the things your father told you. Ah, I warned you not to bother him when he painted in the evenings. You don’t ever listen.’
‘Mmili Mountain is real. I’ve visited it so many times in my dreams. Papa is there.’
A line of tears breaks out of Mama’s right eye. She wipes them away and forces out a smile. ‘Just like Agozie, you don’t know where fantasy stops and when reality begins. I don’t want to hear of this nonsense again.’
People have started trooping out of the hall. It is way into the afternoon and they are tired of waiting for Town Council members to come and talk to them. They point at me and make snide comments as they walk past.
Our front door is unlocked when Mama and I get back home. She dashes into the house, towards Papa’s cellar. By the time I catch up with her, she is sprawled on the cellar’s wooden floor, beside our now empty water tank.
‘Who could have done this to us?’ Mama asks no one in particular. ‘Where will I get one thousand buzas for Town Council’s water rations?’
Wails are also emanating from other compounds. The reason is the same; their homes have been broken into and their water reserve has been stolen. Mama pulls herself together and reties her lappah. She storms out of the house and joins a crowd gathering at the end of the street. I follow her. Someone from Town Council is addressing the crowd. He is holding a megaphone above his head so that the woman in front will not snatch it away from him.
‘We have exhausted the water in the new reservoir. Town Council decided to collect water from people who are hoarding it, in order to refill the new reservoir. The real enemies of the people are those who are hoarding water while the rest of us die of thirst.’
‘Hear! Hear!’ Someone yells at the back.
‘And we must round them up. Now. Now.’
No sooner had the man from Town Council finished talking than men in forest-green uniforms circled the crowd and started making arrests. One of them grabs Mama’s arms and twists them backwards.
‘Run!’ A voice says before pulling me away from the crowd.
I am running without looking back, without pausing to breathe, teardrops dripping on to my dusty feet. Images of the men in forest-green uniforms snatching Mama up flash across my eyes. Where will they take her to? What will become of Mama? Mama… We turn left at the end of Onwuhafor Street and hide inside an abandoned warehouse.
Mama Alo sinks down on an empty wooden crate. ‘What you said at Town Council Hall today, is it true?’ she asks. ‘Did your father really draw you a map to Mmili Mountain?’
‘Y-yes …’ I manage to stutter.
‘Then you must follow the map and save us all.’
‘You … you believe me, how? I thought Papa’s map failed to lead you to your son.’
‘Your father’s map took me to Ana Mmuo, the Land of the Spirits, where I found my son. I came back to Selemku too heartbroken to say Alo is dead, and I told everyone that your father’s map couldn’t help me find my son.’
Tears well up behind my eyes. ‘Why?’
‘I thought I could trick my mind into thinking he is still alive. You’re too young to understand, Zim.’
‘But you broke Papa. You made him a laughing stock. He stopped believing in himsel—’
Mama Alo lurches forward and clasps my mouth. She pulls me down and, with her free hand, gestures towards the crack in the wall. One of the men in forest-green uniform is patrolling beside the warehouse. She releases her hand over my mouth when the man takes the left bend to the next street.
‘It doesn’t matter any more. I did a terrible thing many years ago. Zim, and I am sorry for that, but please … You can save us all.’
‘I’ll go if you tell the whole town you lied about Papa’s map.’
Mama Alo stands up and walks towards the door. She sighs. ‘We have a deal.’
‘Let’s make a pact.’
The woman yanks a tuft of hair from her afro and ties it with one of the silver strings wrapped around her wrists. ‘Take,’ she says, throwing the tuft of hair on the floor. I pick it up and stash it in my back pocket.
‘You have my word.’
‘Gotcha!’ It is the guard.
‘Run … Run! I’ll keep him here as long as I can,’ Mama Alo says as she hurls the wooden crate at the man.
I escape through the back door.
In all the stories Mama has told me about people saving a town, they were always special and chosen at birth by a prophecy. A prophecy that sometimes dated back to long before they were born. Boys, girls, men, women, all dubbed the chosen one, set off on their quest fully prepared, their backs turned on a bunch of hopeful townsfolk they are about to save, a bag of food and a water flask slung across their shoulder, their palms gripping a sword or a magic wand. These people are certainly not a barefoot thirteen-year-old boy wearing a khaki shirt and shorts, with nothing in his pocket save for a tuft of hair and a painted map.
I am outside the town’s rusty gate now; this is the first time I have gone through it. Mama used to point it out, the few times she took me uptown. My legs hurt from all the running. My feet burn on the blazing ground. I wish I had worn my sandals when I left the house to join the crowd with Mama. I want to stop to find food or water but my feet keep on walking like they have a mind of their own. They stop walking when I get to an oak tree where a figure-like-a-human is hunched over some dried leaves.
‘Ah, it’s you, Zim,’ the figure says, even before I can greet.
‘How do you know my name?’
The figure turns to face me. An orange scar runs along the length of its chipped nose. ‘He’s inquisitive. I like this one.’ It giggles and the leaves on the oak rustle back. ‘It’s been a long time Agozie sent someone our way. Why did he take so long? Did the people of Selemku forget the old ways? After we led Mama Alo to her son, we waited and waited for another person to come.’
‘Who are you?’
‘We’re Nduga. We will guide you to wherever the map is taking you.’
‘I’m going to Mmili Mountain.’
The figure frowns. ‘That’s not a place for a young boy. Agozie couldn’t find someone bigger?’
‘I know he is dead. You think we wouldn’t know? You’re too naïve – how will you be able to pass the Trail of Voices without looking back? How will you know which of the roads to take when you confront Anansi at the Great Crossroads?’ The Nduga shook its head. ‘But the map has chosen you, so who am I to disagree? Come here, Zim, sit. We have a lot to talk about.’
Nduga makes a small fire and cooks mushroom soup over it.
‘Eat up. Eat up,’ it says, setting the soup down.
The soup bowl is small but refills itself after each scoop until I am filled up. We sit and talk.
By nightfall, Nduga and the oak have disappeared. A calm I have never felt before nestles beside me. It is so soothing I do not remember when I fall asleep.
Noon. I can see the Trail of Voices before me. It is a winding path that seems to go on forever.
‘Walk through it, don’t stop, don’t take a step backwards, and don’t look back, no matter who you think is calling you.’ Nduga’s words replay in my head.
I brace myself before taking a step forward.
‘Zim,’ a voice behind me calls. ‘It’s Papa.’ A warm hand rests on my shoulder. ‘Come, let me show you something I painted.’
I hasten my pace. The voice becomes insistent, gnawing at the insides of my ear. It is crying now and howling.
‘Don’t you want to see my painting? Nobody wants to see my painting, Zim.’ The voice sniffles. ‘Just a look. It’s right behind you. Do it for Papa.’
The distraction causes me to miss the tree stump in front of me. I slam my right foot against it and let out a scream.
‘Is that you, Zim? It’s Mama.’
Mama? It can’t be … I feel a sharp pang of longing in my chest, then remember where I am.
I hear someone breathing heavily and running towards me. I have to force myself to not turn back to look.
‘Look, you’re bleeding. Let me tend to it. Just stop for a minute, Zim and listen to your poor mother.’
‘I wonder where he gets this stubbornness from?’ the first voice asks.
‘We may never know,’the second voice – not Mama – replies.
I ignore them and continue walking.
The end of the trail is so near now, I can almost touch the arched udala tree at its exit.
‘I won’t tell the townsfolk that I lied about your father’s map,’ a third voice says.
I stop frozen in my tracks.
‘And when you bring back the rains to Selemku, nobody will ever believe that you did it.’
I try to take a step forward but my legs are as heavy as lead.
‘You think I’m bluffing because I sealed our deal with my hair? Where is the hair, Zim?’
I rummage through my pocket. The tuft of Mama Alo’s hair is gone.
‘Give it back,’ I say, without turning round.
‘I dropped it behind you.’
My head becomes a sea of voices.
Don’t stop, don’t take a step backwards, and don’t look back.
Listen to your Mama.
It’s right behind you, Zim. Just turn and pick it up. Don’t you want the townsfolk to know I lied about your father?
The voice of the Nduga drowns out the others and I cross beneath the arched udala tree. I feel in my pockets again and bring out the tuft of hair and hug it close to my chest. The bleeding from my feet has ceased. I sit on the ground and burst into tears. When I have emptied out all the tears inside me, I dust myself off and continue my journey.
Evening. The clouds are darkening and a distant rumble of thunder looms above. I need to find shelter before it starts raining. Quickly, I begin to scour the area for a suitable place to rest. The rain is already pouring down from the sky. I can barely see but I continue running until I slip and fall, muddling up myself in the dirt. I am too tired to stand so I lie there, hoping the rain will stop.
But the rain does not stop. Its watery strumming lures me to sleep.
‘Not many people have come this far. Welcome to the Great Crossroads, Zim. The rain has led you here.’
I blink twice to make sure the voice is not a dream. A man is standing beside me. He has jet-black skin and is wearing a shiny black suit, so it is hard to tell where the suit stops and his skin begins. His teeth glisten in the warm morning light. The nails of his fingers are so long they are grazing the ground. I know who he is.
‘I am Anansi, the Trickster. Nobles would pay a fortune to have me riddle their guests in their castles but I’ve chosen to guard the Great Crossroads.’
He offers his hand. I grab it and pull myself up, carefully avoiding the fingernails. We are standing at the intersection of two roads. One leads to Mmili Mountain, he tells me, the other leads one back home. Anansi knows which road is which. But he cannot be trusted. Nobody knows when he is lying or telling the truth but everyone knows he tells the truth and lies alternately.
‘Zim, son of Agozie, the Finder, you may proceed to Mmili Mountain, but only by facing the sharp wit of Anansi. For only I know the way.’
‘You may want to think deeply before you ask any question, for Anansi can only grant one answer to each traveller he meets at the Great Crossroads.’
Nduga had not told me what to ask at the Great Crossroads. It had only told me not to be quick to ask Anansi the obvious.
‘Zim,’ Nduga had said that night, ‘think and think and think until your head hurts, before you pose a question to Anansi.’
Anansi chuckles. ‘Take your time.’
I thought long and hard. I remembered the riddle games I would play with my friends. I shouldn’t ask the obvious. I shouldn’t ask the …
‘I want to know which road you pointed at for the last traveller going to Mmili Mountain.’
Anansi points right.
‘Thank you,’ I say and start walking towards the left road.
‘Wait, where are you going?’ The Trickster looks confused.
‘To Mmili Mountain.’
‘How sure are you that’s the right way?’
‘Anansi,’ I say, ‘if you lied to the last traveller and you are telling me the truth now, that means the left way is the way to Mmili Mountain. If you’re lying to me now but spoke the truth to the last traveller, that means the left road is also the way to Mmili Mountain.’
‘That’s not possible … How did you …? How could you …? Someone has rivaled Anansi. I thought I was the wisest. Go away little boy, I underestimated you.’ He breaks down and starts sobbing.
I wave him goodbye and disappear up the left road.
I am at Mmili Mountain. It is as magnificent as Papa painted it. The mountain’s peaks are almost nudging the clouds. I do not know what I am supposed to do now. Neither the map nor Nduga gave me the slightest clue to this.
‘Zim, you made it.’ The voice is Papa’s. I can see him now, sitting among the elephant and buffalo at the foot of the mountain. ‘Now you must go back and bring the rains to Selemku.’
‘You came here, walked through the Trail of Voices, beat Anansi at his own game. Zim, you are the rain. Now go.’
Anansi is still sobbing when I get back to the Great Crossroads. I pay him no heed and follow the right road, leading me straight to the town’s gate. The town is quiet as I walk through it.
‘Where is everybody?’ I ask the little girl sitting at the feet of an old woman in front of an unpainted bungalow.
‘They are at Town Council Hall, the water in the new reservoir has run out,’ the girl says. ‘Mama says I’m too small to go with them, that I have to look after Grandma.’
‘Who are you? Wait, I know … You’re the boy Mama Alo says will bring back the rain. She has been telling everybody, but no one believes her. You’re back. Have you brought the rain?’
‘I need to get to Town Council Hall, and fast.’ I run off before the little girl can ask me more questions.
Town Council Hall’s entrance is besieged by a sea of bodies. The concrete stairs tremble under their feet. They bang their balled fists against the hall’s closed iron doors.
‘Give us water from the reservoir we paid taxes for!’ The townsfolk shriek, with voices packed full of gravel.
I manage to wriggle my way to the front.
‘Stop,’ I say in the voice of a thousand rushing mountain winds.
A hush falls on the crowd.
‘That’s him, that’s the boy Mama Alo says will bring back the rain to our town,’ they murmur under their breath.
‘I have journeyed to the ends of the earth where no one has been,’ I continue, stretching my hands out to the sky. The voice comes from deep within me; it is not my own. ‘I have fought and overcome the trepidation in the Trail of Voices. I have unraveled the mystery of the Great Crossroads, a mystery Anansi the Trickster has guarded for centuries. I am Zim, the son of Agozie, the Finder. I am the rain!’
A bustle of murmurs rises from the great crowd like a tide.
The clouds darken and the sky begins to rumble. Within a moment rain pours down in quantities no one has seen since the beginning of time. It rains and rains and rains, softening the parched ground, filling the waterholes, the River Bambu, and Tutukele Spring. It rains so much Town Council put up notices on our doors saying they are willing to pay people to use the water at the new reservoir. It rains so much the months of drought wash away from our memory. And I smile each time I look to the sky because I know Papa is somewhere behind the blue horizon, smiling back at me.
This is how I paint.
In the evenings, when air collects at people’s feet in chilly, invisible spools, I gather my painting things to the balcony and sit in front of the rotting canvas. The fingers of my right hand grip the paintbrush and the aluminium paint tray sits in my left palm. I start by making a whorl at the top left edge of the canvas. I twirl and twirl the paintbrush on the canvas, concocting a riotous mesh of colours. It does not make sense. It does not make sense at all. No one can tell what I am painting until I am done. Mama peeps out from behind the brocade curtain in the parlour, although she never admits it.
‘You have to let the map guide you, see its destination with your heart and not your mind,’ I say, as I show the map to whom it has chosen in the morning.
About the Author
In between receiving tonnes of rejections from cat adoption agencies, Innocent finds time to read, write, tweet, and nurse his fragile ego. His works have been published or are forthcoming in Fireside, Reckoning 2, A Beautiful Resistance, Brittle Paper, SSDA, and elsewhere. He lives in Nigeria.
About the Narrator
Somto Ihezue is a Nigerian–Igbo writer/editor. He lives in Lagos with his sister, their dog; River, and their cats; Ify and Salem. He is a big movie geek, a runner, and a wildlife enthusiast. He likes white-soled shoes and heavy rainfall. Somto was awarded the 2021 African Youth Network Movement Fiction Prize. A Nommo Award-nominee and finalist for the 2022 Afritondo Prize, his works have appeared in Tordotcom, Fireside Magazine, POETRY Magazine, Cossmass Infinities, Flash Fiction Online, Flame Tree Press, OnSpec Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @somto_Ihezue where he tweets about his bi-monthly quarter-life crisis, among other things.