‘Father, please tell me a story.’
Joshua smiles. ‘And what story would you like to hear, my son?’ His voice is warm, redolent of nutmeg and coffee.
Isaiah is balancing on the thick white water pipe running along the village end of the maize field. He clenches his arms awkwardly at his sides, fighting his urge to stretch them out. The pipe is knee-high from the ground, suspended on a cradle spiking it to the neatly turned red earth. Every few metres, thinner pipes, like ribs on a snake, protrude out of control boxes and connect to the capillary mesh irrigating the field.
‘Show me your hands, please,’ he says, leaning forward slightly. Even raised, he is still only shoulder height to his father.
Joshua laughs and holds them out for inspection. The boy, his face intense with the concentration children bring to bear on such matters, takes first the left.
Joshua’s hands are his journal. Scars trace patterns across an ebony-brown surface thick with veins and bunched muscles. Each subtle script recording a memory.
This notch, in the web of his thumb, marks where he was burned grasping at flaming brushwood as a child. Isaiah has no wish for a lesson on the hazards of not listening to parental authority.
He shakes his head, sucking on his bottom lip, and takes his father’s right.
A short, jagged line on its outer edge recalls Joshua’s frantic struggle to rescue his sister, Abishai, from floods that swept past the village twenty years ago.
In the distance, over the ridge leading down to the river, Isaiah can hear the muted sounds of children laughing and splashing in the water. After lessons and chores, many of the village children regularly gather there to play. In his father’s childhood as well.
He trembles slightly, squeezing the held hand.
‘The flood, Father. Tell me the story of the flood,’ Isaiah bouncing on his toes, his eyes wide, and almost losing his balance on the pipe in his excitement.
‘But you have heard that one so many times,’ says Joshua with feigned despair.
‘Please, Father, please? My favourite part is where the tree falls on you and you have to sink to the bottom before you can push it away.’
Joshua sighs as if he is taking on a heavy burden. ‘Very well, my son,’ grinning as he begins the tale.
Isaiah’s eyes widen with fear as the danger mounts. The children jumping off the jetty much as children do now. The wall of water unexpectedly coming down the Akwayafe, flinging trees before it, crashing through the turbine and tearing the village fish farms apart. Children running in panic up the banks as Joshua races down. Abishai, a young girl, slipping and tumbling. Joshua leaping in and grabbing frantically, flinging her backwards even as he stumbles and is seized by the maelstrom. And then, the tree trunk, both his peril and saviour, holding him to the bottom as the worst of the flood wall passes.
Joshua is no longer sure as to how much has been embroidered. His people love stories, and it is a brave narrator who fails to embellish any simple event into a moral saga of redemption and triumph.
Cicadas shriek in undulating waves of sound washing against the afternoon humidity. The air is still. Red-orange light from the lowering sun pours across the maize field. Dark-green fronds falling away down the slope and rising again to the jungle. Monkeys foraging and whooping through the branches, their crashes and calls filtering through the trees.
Closer to the north gate, along Ikot Road, traders and travellers move about their business. Some stop, holding hands as they smile and greet each other, forming small communions.
Joshua sits down on the pipe alongside his son, the boy leaning on him, his dark eyes bright with pride and affection. He rests his arm over Isaiah’s shoulders, holding him close. The story ends, as it should, with victory over terrible odds.
‘Isaiah,’ he says, gripping softly and smiling down at him.
‘Father,’ and Isaiah grins, curling back into his shoulder. ‘Thank you.’
The day’s heat and humidity are easing. Soon it will be time to return home for the evening meal. For now they sit on the pipe beneath the deepening shade of a young obeche tree.
This side of Ewuru faces towards distant cliffs rising from the jungle and the cities to the centre of Nigeria. Joshua walks here every afternoon, sometimes around the periphery of the village walls, and sometimes along the path of the white dome-topped sentinel posts forming a cordon of sensors along the jungle border.
In the last year, as he has grown, Isaiah likes to join him.
Joshua notices Abishai and Daniel hurrying from the village gate.
A small group emerges from the trees, dragging themselves from the grip of their journey. Their clothes are torn and filthy. They are hauling a cart upon which are piled bags and what looks to be an elderly man. Children and adults lean on the cart as they walk. A young woman carries a baby. It does not move as she sags against the cart wheel. All look haunted and starved. Refugees from the water wars in the north.
Abishai is already greeting them, welcoming them and offering them the shelter of Ewuru. They will probably not stay. The quiet pace of the village is not for everyone, and most choose to move on towards Calabar.
Joshua stares at them, studying the distance and hardship of their journey told in the mud and pain stretched across their skin.
Isaiah, though, is distracted.
‘Father, what is that?’ pointing up into the sky where a white trail arcs down towards a black shape. Joshua looks up and shakes his head, shielding his eyes as he strains to make it out.
The shape is falling gently. They watch, transfixed by its peculiar slow-motion curve towards them.
Closer now and Joshua can see that its outer part is a blur around a small core. It looks like one of those winged seeds he remembers playing with as a child: flinging them up, watching them propeller down.
It is generating a wide funnel-shaped trail of condensation pointing directly along its path and visible for hundreds of kilometres.
They can hear it faintly: a range of notes from a roar to a whine, like a turbine.
The small black ball in the centre, which Joshua cannot help thinking of as a seed, appears stationary as the wing spins around it. It no longer looks black. The leading edge of the wing is grey-white and the ball, where it points at the ground, is similarly coloured. He sees occasional blue jets of flame from the pod, as it adjusts its position in the sky.
Others within the village and near the fields are looking up and shouting. A white arc, like a spear, aimed almost exactly at Ewuru.
Joshua lifts Isaiah on to his shoulders and runs down the path. ‘Abishai, Daniel,’ he shouts. From across the maize field, on Ikot Road, he hears answering calls. As he runs, he can see that the falling seed will pass over the village, but it will not land far away.
As he nears the north gate, a woman runs out to meet him. ‘Esther, take him. Prepare beaters, there might be fires.’ Isaiah drops to the ground and clings to his mother’s arm. She nods, leading him, running back, calling out.
The brief pause has been sufficient time for two people to catch up.
‘It is going to be seen,’ says Abishai, younger but almost identical to her brother.
Joshua nods. ‘We track it, then see how we can disguise whatever it is.’
Daniel is heavier, shorter, than the siblings. ‘It depends where it lands. What do you think it is? Debris?’
Joshua shrugs, his face worried. It does not look like debris. He glances up, estimates the path of the seed and starts running. The others follow. In the village, Esther is organizing volunteers. Fire cannot be allowed unchecked anywhere near the fields.
They follow the path as far as they can then turn directly into the jungle. The arc is easy to follow through gaps in the tree canopy.
A change of pitch and a sound of splintering wood tearing a way open through the jungle indicate that the seed has, at least, stopped getting further away. They quicken their pace.
Almost an hour later they reach the crash site.
Their first impression is of the unexpected light coming through the leaf canopy ahead of them. Clouds of insects have rushed into the empty space, agitated and hungry.
Joshua and the others can hear falling branches and smell fresh sap, but it is all much more contained than they expected. They slow.
‘That did not fall like debris,’ says Daniel.
‘No,’ says Joshua. ‘It almost looked as if it was being steered.’
They move carefully towards the edge of the clearing. There they stare, mystified.
An irregular circle has been punched into the canopy. The trunks of the trees are shattered and splintered, their upper branches wrenched off with great savagery. The space itself indicates that, for all the violence of its arrival, the seed has touched the ground with scarcely a bump. The black and grey pod lies in the centre of the clearing, silent and perfectly spherical.
From the pod a wing curves out about six metres, its outer edge cambered to the ground. Branches have fallen on to the seed, but there are no flames. There does not seem to be much heat at all. Behind them, in the forest, they can hear calls from villagers arriving.
Joshua shakes his head, balling his hands into fists as he tries to make sense of what he is seeing. ‘Abishai, keep the children away. You can send the beaters back, but keep a few spades and people to help. Daniel, shall we have a look?’
Abishai turns and runs into the trees. They can hear her shouting out the names of children as she sends them home. ‘Later, later. It is dangerous now.’
‘At least it is small. We should be able to hide this,’ says Daniel.
Joshua shakes his head. ‘It left too much of a trail. We will have to find something else as a distraction.’
He eases his way towards the outer edge of the wing. It is a smooth and shaped single piece of metal, like an aircraft wing. The leading edges are coated in hard translucent tiles. The entirety, for all its strangeness, appears to have been machined. He can see this being made in a workshop. Some military craft that wandered off course?
‘Careful’ – from Daniel, as Joshua crouches and hesitantly stretches out his arm towards the edge of the wing. He can see people appearing through the trees, also staring much as he must have done a few moments earlier.
He can feel only very slight warmth from the tiles. He touches one and, delicately, rests his hand on its surface.
‘It is not hot,’ he says loudly enough for the men all around the clearing to hear. ‘It is slippery. Like soap.’
The tiles look like blocks of smoke, indistinct where they end and fade into the air. Only where he touches them can he see the line along the wing. The tile has an unpleasant feeling, as if all the water is being drained out of his skin, and he quickly removes his hand.
Daniel edges into the clearing, keeping watch. Joshua walks cautiously towards the seed pod, along the curve of the wing and keeping a wary distance. This close it is slightly taller than the height of a man. On the top and bottom of the wing are a series of narrow cylindrical holes, each about the width of a fist, pointing in opposite directions. The metal around the edges is scorched blue.
Joshua clenches his jaw and places his hand firmly on the wall of the pod.
Everyone is silent.
Joshua smiles and half-turns towards Daniel. He shrugs and shakes his head. Nothing.
And then, just on the edge of the wing, on top of the sphere, a hatchway pops open. A man shouts, and everyone jumps.
A coppery smell like blood, or wet metal, floods out of the hatch. It is fresh and oddly clean against the vegetative miasma of the jungle.
The voice comes from inside the pod, metallic in the silence.
Daniel reacts faster than Joshua. The wing is easier to reach from where he stands, and he flings himself up, running to the opening. Joshua joins him and motions to Abishai, who he can see returning through the trees, to stay back.
The last light from the setting sun shafts into the cabin. Inside, caged between a series of metal rings, his limbs contorted and broken into a tangle that makes Daniel and Joshua instantly nauseous, is a man.