Vasant 2019, Short Stories -Ugochukwu Nwankwo


The Empty Tomb

By Ugochukwu Nwankwo


The crowd proceeded, cold anticipation etched on their faces, their feet pelting in mournful unison. Ajala was in the lead, the heavy anklet on her right foot studded with tiny hideous bells, colour of pale earth. They chimed sonorously with the khakkhara on her right hand. Her not-so-white overall swept the floor caressingly, an interplay of sand, filth, and stones. On her cloak were tiny fingerlike projections. A closer look would reveal strands of angry threads, jutting out of the dull garment - the last vestiges of elegant embroidery. Like her companions, her feet were bare, crunching the lifeless pebbles which offered no resistance. Thick, heavy set bosom held a set of dangling emerald chains, the only valuable she possessed which was customary of the high priestess of Amaku village. A compulsive urge to scratch her fat folded belly and the double strands of scraggly hair which kept coming undone from the pile of abrasive filth atop her head, betrayed the confident and focused look her creased Orangutan face desperately tried to adopt.


The crowd which comprised the royal family, a few important elders of the Amaku community, and the hoi-polloi, had converged at the third cock crow, probably five o’clock in the morning. From the town square they were headed to the royal mausoleum where last rites were to be performed for King “Ezeuzu”, who joined his ancestors two nights previously. They had been walking for about thirty minutes, and Ajala felt the trudge of every painful second. Her breathing was laborious and she was panting heavily, like a cow that had run a marathon.
She could guess they were about two hundred feet away from the apocalyptic enclave. Ajala heaved a momentary sigh of relief. The grandeur ahead was breathtaking; regardless, it certainly wasn’t tempting enough to keep her there longer than required. Aged fingers creased tiredly, their sound making a subtle echo, as both hands bucked under the weight of her seventy five years. Below her eyelids telltale signs of exhaustion drifted, reaffirming her disgruntled countenance at being roused at such an odd hour. Frosty chills pricked her spine. That sign always accompanied her to the catacombs.


The crickets suddenly stopped chirping, retreating further into the shadows, the botched niches as if opening up to swallow them. Gentle streaks of daylight appeared, ushering in the melodious blend of the early birds and their piquant notes of urgency.


A mass of flies drooped unsteadily from the misty plants scattered around the colony, like a communist state bedraggled by a fierce insurgency. Towering above in the skies, restless hawks scavenged the area, scanning for some long-lost prize. In twos, in fives, increasing exponentially to form a decagonal array of black silent hunters.


They descended the stairs into the underground chamber. Queen Uyom Ezeuzu, the first in line, carried the greeting calabash containing strong gin sprinkled with scented flowers, as a peace offering to her late spouse and their ancestors far beyond. Closely behind her was Chetanna - King Ezeuzu’s elder brother, Dike - King Ezeuzu's son and successor who was to perform the final rites, Ichie Adichie and Ichie Echezo - Amaku’s foremost elders . The chief messenger of the royal family - Ogbonna, was next in line, carrying the “sacred bond”- a long piece of cloth the color of the moon. On it were parchments wound around two sticks, one shorter than the other, bound and lying horizontal, deep, in what seemed to be a deep hole carved into a rock. Ajala, the last in line, heaved herself into the circular enclosure. She ground her teeth to halt their rattling.


They had stepped into what was a single room, round like a wizard’s orb, with long arcs looming ahead from the roof. Rays of light emanated from tiny bulbs, pierced through the translucent glass stuck into the wall, and converged on a mirror which refracted to six other mirrors, creating an ambience of light that suffused the room, brighter than the noonday. The tombs were lined up at the edge along the walls, each cut into a firm rock. Ajala stood in the middle, to her left were the occupied tombs, and to her right - the wombs of kings undead and yet unborn. Before her was the resting place of king Ezeuzu, his son Dike would be joining him soon as part of the final rites (on the third day after the king had been laid to rest, his successor would spend an entire day in the tomb with the king.) If he survived, there would be a coronation, and if he didn’t, well… Ajala took the calabash from the queen who was dressed in the customary black for mourning. She poured the libations on the ground, and invoked the ancestors to lead the late king to the journey beyond, and to guide the young Dike back to the threshold of the living. (It was believed that the “sacred bond” took both the living and the dead to the underworld, where the royal ancestors would transfer the wisdom of ruling to the king’s successor).


This was the part she dreaded; Ajala opened king Ezeuzu’s tomb, behold! It was empty.


“The king is gone”, Ajala screamed!


“The gods of my fathers, it’s true,” Ichie Adichie exclaimed, peering into the vacant tomb.


“He is gone, vanished into the night, my Lion is gone.” Queen Uyom shook her head despairingly.


“What nonsense are you saying?”


“See for yourself,” Ichie Adichie made way for Chetanna, who almost buried his face into the empty tomb.


“Seed of my fathers, but where has he gone?” Dike echoed, shifting uneasily on the ground to hide behind his mother.


“Not where has he gone, but who has stolen his body? The king is dead, I watched him die, and stiff as a rock he was. The dead are incapable of locomotion.”


Chetanna turned to the queen, “Who had the keys to the tomb after he was buried?”


“What, my lord! I had them with me all along. It never left my side,” she carefully extracted a blue feather bag from her side.


“The king gave me this beautiful pouch,” her eyes displayed a dreamy look that almost appeared cloying.


“It has been with me ever since I had Dike.” She clutched the bag to her breast.


“Oh! What a beauty indeed,” Ajala involuntarily stretched her arm to touch the pouch, but stopped herself.


“My Lion, the gods keep his spirit, gave me this pouch on that sunny day when I gave him his heir.” She touched Dike’s head, who cooed softly behind her.


“Nine dreadful hours the earth held back Amaku’s heir. I struggled, I cursed, I cried, and bled, and he never left my side. He is always with me, Ezeuzu my Lion. I feel him strongly even now.”


“Return to your senses, Woman. So you never dropped this pouch even while bathing.”


“No, I carry it always with me. After the journey of the king, Ogbonna returned the key to me, and it has been with me ever since.”


“The journey of the king,” Ichie Adichie muttered, then he nodded, “The journey of the king. Oh!” And his eyes lit up, like he had suddenly made an epic discovery.


“It is the journey of the dead,” Ajala echoed.


“Oh, yes! Why didn’t I remember?” Chetanna said, striking his temple.


“It’s the final journey of the king’s corpse round the village. He sets his eyes on the mountains and the valleys, the hills and the forests, the seas and all creatures. He bids them farewell before he is laid to rest.” Ajala explained to no one in particular.


“What if the king wasn’t ready to go?” The queen blurted, then she cast her face furtively downwards, like she had exposed some hidden secret she had kept within her.


“What if the earth was holding him back from journeying to the underworld?” Ajala’s eyes beamed.


“Or his love for his wife,” the queen moaned, her voice suddenly taking on some added steel.


“A sudden death indeed. Tragic for such a young man, barely fifty revolutions had passed since his birth,” Ajala mused.


“The king is risen!” Ajala said.


“My Lion, he has risen.”


“He’s risen?” Ichie Adichie solely muttered in confusion.


“Poof, into the clouds,” Ichie Echezo confirmed.


“Seed of my fathers, does this mean I won’t be king mother?”


“Pooh! What sort of melodramatic piffle is this? I am trapped in a tomb with a bunch of puerile necromancers.”


“The king is dead, we all saw him. Ogbonna! Who lead the journey of the king?”


“Four groups made up of two men each, my Lord. We wanted the king to see his entire kingdom before his repose. He was handed over from one group to the next, my Lord.”


“Who took him on the first journey?”


“Jide, and Kosara, my Lord.”


“What! You brought together a verbose storyteller, and a boy who is practically dumb? Great!” Chetanna exploded sarcastically. “Fetch them.”


Outside, the frenetic crowd was getting restive. Their agitation grew in proportion to the sun’s intensity. At some distance, the clear sky revealed a growing inferno of flies. Their noise rose, like the crescendo of the ocean in a tumultuous tempest. The gathering mass of flies covered the forest floor, making an oval imprint on it. Their hum was like a router, drawing the vectors throughout the poles.


The hunters waited patiently, circling above, waiting for their prey to come nibble on the growing mass on the floor below.


Then the vultures appeared wings flapping, a pretentious noise of delight, skulls glistening in the rising sun.


“My Lord, you sent for me.” Jide greeted Chetanna. Beside him, Kosara cowered in the background. Chetanna beckoned to Kosara, “What happened to my brother, the King?” Kosara mumbled an incoherent reply, still bowing. Any more, and his head would graze the floor.


“Speak up, young man,” an angry scowl was spreading across Chetanna’s face.




“You empty caricature of a man!” Chetanna exploded. “Go and suck your mother’s befuddling breasts.”


He turned around, “Jide, can you concisely describe your journey with the king’s remains?”


“Yes, my lord. Kosara and I arrived at the palace no sooner than Ajala left. We took His Majesty from the palace gardens. The lilies were in bloom, and the air was pleasant and rich.” Cheta grimaced. “Just get on with it.”


“Yes, down the stream road we took him, it was an Eke day and the market was bustling. Everyone wanted a last look at the king. His beautiful garland got stuck in a thicket beside Ogene’s house – the herbalist.”


“You went to take a leak,” Kosara leaped to his feet, and Jide was cowering on the floor barely a second later.


Jide eyed him. “Yes, you see my lord, I had drank a lot of water that morning, my father always said to drink lots of water before making a trip. I took a leak, and I’m sorry my lord, I couldn’t free the garland, it would’ve been ruined my lord. We met a group of dancers, beautiful my lord they were. They said their farewell to His Majesty, and we…”


“I’ve had enough Jide, just tell me to whom you handed the body.”


“At the outskirts of the village, right of the border to Elu village Dede and Akadike took over.”


“Ogbonna, go fetch them now. You are dismissed.”


“My Lion, last night I saw him in my dreams. It was like he was standing right next to me. Only it wasn’t a dream. He was there, he is risen.”


“Those unpleasant portions you take at night must be giving you some fervent hallucinations. Stop fantasizing.”


“Tell him, Ajala. Tell Cheta that my lion is risen. We have to look for him, not intimidate the guards with unimportant questions.”


“Let us consult the gods; they could tell us where he is,” Ichie Echezo suggested.


“Fallacy. Your mother must have dropped you as an infant, Ichie Echezo, for you are utterly clueless,” Chetanna exploded.


“Elders, royalties, let’s be calm and reasonable. The people are restless. Today is a market day, we have to come up with an explanation.”


“Wait!” Everyone turned to look at Ajala.


“The Chronicles of Kings.”


“What rubbish, those rumblings of a deranged woman!”


“Do not speak ill of the dead, Chetanna. My great grandmother, the gods bless her spirit, was a seer. She saw the past and foretold the future.”


“All her predictions came true,” Ichie Echezo quipped.


“Prince Opi who died in his father’s tomb,” Ichie Adichie equivocated.


Dike’s hands suddenly began to palpitate.


“Ofor the king who ran mad five days after his coronation”, Ichie Echezo rattled.


“King Ebube my father who had no heir”, Queen Uyom added.


“Your father was a mad king, and a tyrant. The gods saved the village by denying him a son.” Cheta replied.


Ajala brandished a long aged scroll, which she had removed from the tomb of the first king.


“Remember the prophecy, a new king will arise.”


“A new stump,” Ichie Echezo nodded as he spoke.


“A new shoot,” Ichie Adichie nodded.


“The tears of the past will be forgotten, but his breath will suddenly be cut off, a sacrifice to the gods,” Ajala blinked.


“But he will rise again,” Ichie Echezo read out aloud.


“On the third day,” Adichie nodded.


“The king with a heart of gold will rise,” Uyom bleated.


“And he will rule forever,” Ajala beamed.


“Seed of my fathers, my sire is a legend.”


Chetanna made a derisive glance at them. “Don’t tell me, Adichie, that you have sided with these fanatics.”


“But the prophecy…”


“Prophecy is damned. Flee, you fellow. You are as capricious as the devil himself.”


“We soared through the evergreen forests of Amaku. We inhaled the fine essence of the lilies, through the waterfalls of Amaku that borders the Lilliputian hills of Egede town. We criss-crossed the forest of the dead and plunged deep into the satiating abyss of Elumelu . The sun bid us farewell as we headed to the vines of Nri. Amazingly, the radiance of the king never lifted, a picturesque canvass of serenity.”


Dede ended his soliloquy with a bow. The queen sniffed, her eyes were red, “He was a beauty, my Lion.”


“So what happened to the body, Akadike?”


“I, ah, ah, ah, I, haan…handed him to…to, to…to Eji.. ii…, Eji, iii, Ejike aa… and Mbachu", he stammered incoherently.


“Go fetch them, Ogbonna and take these clowns away from my sight. Men indeed! One is a fool, and his partner becomes a bigger fool with each syllable.”


“Suddenly, a tiger appeared,” Ejike beat his chest.


“Aye, a strong one,” Mbachu echoed.


“I ran after the predator,” Ejike beat his chest.


“Aye, we ran with the speed of lightening,” Mbachu echoed.


“I caught the foe, and tore it with my bare hands,” Ejike beat his chest.


“Aye, ripped it assunder we did.”


“And…” “And…”


“It died,” Ejike quipped.


“As still as death,” Mbachu echoed.


“Surely, you must consider your servant brave, my lord.” Ejike quipped, pushing out his tight chest.


“And to whom did you jesters hand his body over?”


“Ekene, and Ikenna my lord. They made the last trip.”


“You handed him over to a coward, and a drunk!” Chetanna raised his hands helplessly. “What has happened to my brother?”


The looming vultures descended like snowflakes, their squeaky glee betraying their anxiety. The floor was a parade – hawks, vultures, and fauna. Their obtrusive wings dissipated the ball of flies from the hunk of putrefying filth on the floor – the oval imprint. Soon, the flies were gathering again, their lipophilic bonds stretched out in silent support. The flies hummed, the hawks loomed, the vultures cried out, their wings flapping in unison. Everywhere was a reverberation of biotic activity.


“Calm down Chetanna. This is a sibylline waiting to be uncovered” Ichie Adichie said.


“I will be calm when I find out what has happened to my brother.”


Ogbonna dragged a young man forward. The young man slumped at Chetanna’s feet. His speech was slurred, and his hair unkempt.


“Ikenna. At your service, my lord.”


“This drunk is of no use to me.”


“You. Ekene,” Chetanna pointed to his right, “you were his partner that night?”


“Yes my lord, we took His Majesty around the oak trees belonging to his ancestors, and the village square where the wrestlers bid him farewell.”


“And was Ikenna with you that whole time?”


“Yes, my Lord.”




“I will be damned if this drunkard lifted a finger to help carry the king.”


“He did at first my lord, but he left before we could get to the tomb. He carried a bottle with him, and by the time we were close, the bottle was empty.”




“He was inebriated, my lord.”


“And what happened to the body?”


“I took him to the tomb myself and laid him to rest, my lord.” Now he was sweating profusely.


“You cockeyed sook, you have no guts to enter the catacombs at night.”


“I swear on my mother’s grave, my lord.”


“Your mother was a whore, and her demented lovers burnt her at the stake. Tell me the truth, Ekene.”


“My lord, I…I laid him to rest, my lord.” Any faster, and his chest would explode.


“He is risen,” Ajala beamed.


“My Lion is risen,” Queen Uyom echoed.


“Disappeared into the clouds,” Ichie Echezo nodded.


“Risen,” Ichie Adichie nodded, as if to confirm it.


“Risen? No!” Chetanna stamped his feet.


“Seed of my father’s, we are doomed,” Dike cowered behind his mother.


A few yards away from the tomb, the air was humid and heavy. The scavengers had disappeared with their spoil. The bald saprophytes were converging in leagues; their young stood a distance away waiting for some scattered debris, too afraid to join the fray.


The flies itched, and washed and settled. They danced about, flew off at a tangent, and returned to the humus that was the dead king.



Ugochukwu Evans Nwankwo is a writer, evangelist, and scientist from Southeast Nigeria. He was nominated for the 2016 Rusty Scythe International award and the 2017 Writivism Koffi Addo prize for creative nonfiction. He's been featured in, Black water magazines and Authors Without Boundaries.


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