Iheme maintained a straight face as he ascended the hill that scurried up from the bank of the stream. The somewhat steep slope on which he walked was punctuated by slabs of rocks that ran down the hill to form a flight of stairs. These rocks formed platforms for seeking friction as one ascended the muddy hill to avoid slipping. It was in the legends of Osikwu village that thousands of indigenes and visitors have lost their water pots and gallons to lack of concentration when climbing the Ugwu Nwanshi. In order not to add to the number, Iheme was very careful as he took his steps one after the other. He could not believe that after fourteen years of this water fetching ritual, he still had to pick his steps every time he climbs the ancient hill with natural stairs. Since he was the last person to leave the stream, there was no need for him to hurry in order to avoid causing a long queue behind him, who would often shout impatiently for the first person to drag his logs of feet faster, that they hadn't come to sleep at Nwanshi. Some would even add that the pots of soup they left at home were already burning, as if it were anybody's business. Iheme often wondered why these women should be proud in admitting to their stupidity, publicly.
Since it was almost sundown, he also didn't have to swing from left to right to avoid colliding with on-rushing teenagers, who always threw caution to the wind and scampered down the hill in a race. The winner of such races normally had his or her gallon of water lifted to the top of the hill by the last person. Therefore, the children dreaded coming last in the race, and wouldn't mind pushing down any human obstruction to avoid coming last if they can't come first. Slim Chetachi always came first and enjoyed a painless walk up the hill while thick Chiugo had to carry two gallons of water up the hill. So it became a cliché among teenagers that if you cannot overtake Chetachi, don't allow Chiugo to overtake you.
Iheme was the last to leave the stream because he had helped lift the water pots of everybody he met at the stream onto their heads before he started on his own way. This was a duty he assigned to himself, to the delight and relief of many of those that made trips to the stream, but unfortunately, to the annoyance of Nzubechi, his closest friend. Since Iheme maintained such a large heart, Nzube stopped going to the stream with him because he would only waste his precious time waiting for Iheme, who saw everything right in helping others, and would stop at nothing, not even his mother's complaints about his habitual late returns from the stream. He always made sure that those he left behind were capable of lifting their gallons of water with ease, which most times, was not the case. So, he stayed to help. Nzube had to find other 'sane' companions or at worse, went as a lone wolf.
“Good evening Papa”, Iheme greeted his father as he walked past him, seated under the ube tree in the middle of the vast compound.
“You have returned, nnoo, welcome”, he replied driving his local recliner back and forth, hands behind his head. It was Maazi Iheaka's ritual every evening, to sit under the tree and allow the cool gentle breeze brush away the day's stress. If he had no visitor to share a bottle of palm wine with, he would rock the recliner and whistle tunelessly until his daughter, Mmasinachi announced dinner.
Iheme took the gallon of water to his mother who has started preparing dinner.
“Good evening Mama”, he greeted as he poured the water into the larger container that stood at a corner in the kitchen. Mmasinachi who was washing vegetables near the entrance of the kitchen let out an inaudible giggle. Iheme already expected that his mother would have complained all evening as usual. He didn't wait for her response.
After supper, as others retired to their rooms, Maazi Iheaka, Iheme's father called him out to the softly lit sitting room.
“I got a word that Ike, my brother and your uncle, will be coming back next week for the New Yam Festival. I would like you to follow him back to Onitsha. You will complete your senior secondary school there”.
His father was not a man of many words, and Iheme knew. His mother always told him that he took after his father's taciturn nature, the solemn caginess that expects others to understand a sentence out of a word, and a page out of a sentence. He kept quiet, and clearly, Iheme understood the silence that trailed.
As young as Iheme was, he already had his own opinions about life. What he did, where he went, who he stayed with were all informed by these opinions of his. Call it extremism or fanaticism, he cared less, and held onto the principle of what is worth doing is worth doing well. That was why he would help everyone in the stream lift their water pots, take some sticks of firewood from his mother's kitchen to a neighbour, and be the first to stand up for any volunteer work in school. It was just like his father, who was good to a fault. He often told Iheme how he used the money he would have used to build a good house to send his younger brother, Ike, to the university against many counsels. It was in those times fathers and elder brothers sent away their sons and younger brothers away to wealthy businessmen to learn trade and bring back fortunes to the family. Formal education was weird and only those who were rejected or sent away by their masters that were sent to schools as punishment.
“Do you know?” Maazi Iheaka would always ask Iheme at the end of such stories. “I bought canes and took to your Uncle's school, that they may train him well. He was poor in Mathematics, but he later passed his Certificate Examination with a distinction. I made him richer than I am”. Just like his son has turned out to be, he was happy with his achievement, not minding that he attracted love and hatred alike, praises and mockery, friends and foes.
In his second year in secondary school, he once skipped school while trying to help out a man and his car. It was August and the typical August rain had flooded the muddy streets of Awgbu. It was particularly quite an unfortunate day for a driver whose car got stuck in the mud; the more he tried to free it, the more agonizingly the tyres sank into the mud. He stood out there in the rain, staring blankly at the car. People walked by briskly, apparently oblivious of the situation around them, or in a bid to get to their work places before the rain drenched their clothes. As the two friends approached the scene, Nzubechi, knowing that his friend Iheme will play the Good Samaritan, simply said, “I will see you in school Iheme”, and walked along to school. Of course, Iheme stayed back and by the time they freed the car around noon, his school uniform was in a sorry state. He turned back and walked home.
Life in Uncle Ike's house was very different from what Iheme was used to. This was largely because it was a shift from a rural settlement to an urban settlement. Here, he stopped going to the stream, rather, turned the taps in the house and water rushed out. He stopped fetching firewood from the forest beyond the stream, instead, he turned a knob on the cooker and blue fire burned admirably. The mats in his room and Mmasinachi's room and even the flat mattresses in their parents' room changed to a more comfortable bed in a room he had to himself, for the first time in his life. Yet, it was only his material surroundings that changed.
Iheme remained a stubborn good doer, much to the perplexity of his new family. Uncle Ike was in no way like his elder brother. In place of the short Iheaka, he stood tall, hefty and broad. In place of an inflexible goodness, he was human in every sense of the word. He had a wife and three children who were Iheme's juniors. His wife, Auntie Chi was a science teacher in the secondary school in which Iheme was to complete his education. Uncle Ike believed so much that life is all about making oneself happy, always. The earth rotates; therefore everything in it should rotate at one point or the other to conform and be comfortable. He believed that being rigid about anything only culminates to regrets and losses whereas one who can bend through life can manipulate his own life into joy and success.