On the other side of the road, behind the rowed outlays of mud fences, farther in the farmlands of Ezeowere, the town’s boys were abroad scouting earth-holes to catch slumbering rabbits in their surprised lair. My brother Emman and my cousins Anyïam, Cletus, Edison, Goddy, Isaac, Isaiah, Japheth, Jonah, Jonathan, Josiah, Nwachukwu, Chukwumaobi, Obi, Princewill, and Sunday were the trapsters of the Agbarama kindred. I discovered that humans learned architectural art from rabbit holes.
“Rabbit holes are not like a lion’s den,” Isaiah was saying, “with one entry and no exit. Where every animal that enters must kill all others to show its strength.”
“Nigeria was a lion’s den,” Isaiah joked to the half-hearted laughter of everyone.
“Every rabbit hole has an exit ten to twenty feet from the entry point,” Goddy continued, obviously addressing younger ones like me. “More ambitious rabbits have their exits much further. You must first comb out the exit route before you assault the entry point. Now, mass out!”
Quickly, we stuffed dry leaves and small sticks into a small round clay pot with a round opening rigged at the base. Then we put in flaming coals from a bonfire which we had made for the occasion. More dry leaves and sticks were pushed into the pot that smoldered amidst thick smokes that escaped from both the nozzle and the bottom opening. Goddy stooped on his knees to examine the entry point again.
“It is in there alright,” he said of the encircled rabbit. “The footprints are fresh.”
All the big boys fanned out in a circle. The diggers, who used a hoe, and the smoke-pot blowers crouched at the entry and took turns at their tasks. Others held machetes, cutlasses, and heavy sticks at the ready, including those who kept guard at the exit route. Smaller boys like me stayed out of the line of attack and kept watch at both the identified exit and the surrounding bushes. The rabbit was a trickster, and often misled its hunters with false exits while keeping another exit shrouded in a stupefying overgrowth. A determined rabbit inhaled a large volume of smoke and then blew it back into the smoke-pot and unto the surprised face of the blower who was left choking, coughing, and staggering in confusion. If others were not watchful the rabbit used that instant to stage its escape through the exit. Some daring rabbits had been known to push through the smoke-pot stuck fast in the entry point.
“Stop!” Goddy called on the diggers.
They had broken through some tiny pebbles and half-eaten bits of wood that dammed up the inner chamber of the hole as a protective wall against invaders like us.
“The digging has gone deep enough,” said Goddy. “See freshly cracked kernel shells. See the hard and smooth floor of the hole. Here is the living room.”
Goddy paused to study the rabbit stool in his palm.
“The round pellets are too uneven. It seems we have more than one rabbit here. Let’s smoke them out!”
The smoke blowers went to work, thrusting the hub of the smoke-pot into the hole and blowing air through the round opening at the bottom. The result was instantaneous.
“It is here!” screamed the watchers at the other end.
Some of us ran over to see the sharp tugging at the exit which had been plugged with wood. Before we knew it the plugs were pushing out of the exit-hole and two giant rabbits were scrambling between our feet into the disturbed bushes. There was a pandemonium as we jumped and screamed in a tumultuous din. But before the big boys could regroup to wield their arsenal the unthinkable happened. The fleeing rabbits ran right back into their hole again. It was mystifying because none of us had ever seen anything like that. An animal in flight stayed in forward motion, not running backward to the same hole from which it had just escaped annihilation. All of us stood aghast watching the gaping hole. The bedlam had just as quickly died down and one could almost hear the sound of falling cotton buds in the afternoon breeze.
“Wait a minute.”
It was the conspiratorial voice of Goddy breaking into our astonishment. He was the oldest of the hunters and always seemed to fathom the behavioral mysteries of wild animals.
“They have bunnies in there,” he said almost with a soundless whisper.
His perception made immediate sense to everyone. Why else would the two rabbits risk their hard-earned freedom to run back to the imminence of a brutal death in a smoking confinement?
“Let’s plug back the hole,” Goddy shouted. “And this time we should make it impossible to push out. Let’s overwhelm them with raging fire. Blow the smoke with all your strength!”
The smokes were pumping out of the exit route and every pore underfoot. We heard numerous sharp squeals which grew faint with each passing second. Then there was dead silence.
“Blow harder!” Goddy commanded.
The blowers changed guards and intensified their smoke pumping into the hole.
All of us gathered very close to the entry point and the exit. There was no sign of either movement or squealing from the rabbits. Goddy waved at us to move back. He resumed the digging himself. Then he pulled out a buck. It was dead. A few inches further he pulled a dead doe. Suddenly we were confronted with litters everywhere. All over the hole dead baby bunnies lined the full length of the floor. We dug and pulled until we dug all the way to the exit. We counted eight smoke-charred bunnies.
The spectacle was grisly, and the scene wasn’t exactly what some of us had in mind when the war turned us into premature rabbiters burrowing through ancient farmlands to smoke fledgling innocents to untimely death. Goddy was already cutting up and sharing the quarry among the hunters.
“Divide the dead bunnies among the kids,” he commanded.
I had had enough for the day. I started walking home, Paul at my heels. He wanted to know why I couldn’t wait to take my share of the bunnies, and my response came from somewhere beyond my comprehension.
“I don’t know,” I stammered with sudden exhaustion. “Father said that was how the Igbo were burned alive inside churches and trains before the war.”
I never went rabbit hunting again.
But in a shooting war of bombs and bullets our town’s children did nothing else but hunt. When the days were bright and wildlife was in a playful mood we turned to slinging missiles of stones and okpomkpo woods at perched birds and tree-jumping squirrels. A few of us owned catapults. My playmates Alex, Anayö, Chïma, Christian, Herbert, Japheth, Livingstone, Matthew, Patrick, Paul, Samuel, Stephen, and Thankgod became specialist-hunters of crickets, praying-mantis, and other edible insects. We discovered the rare war delicacy of rats, lizards, and larvae. Paul and I sometimes wandered away from everyone else to pick tasty year-old kernels from round the bases of inner farm palm trees. Our pockets bulged with the haul of kernels, as well as the balls of igneous stones which were inevitable for cracking the hard shells.
“A palm tree would soon grow out of your stomach!” mother warned against what she described as my excessive eating of palm kernels.
My stool did, indeed, become stone-hardened most times from daylong consumption of palm kernels. I feared that mother’s prophecy might come true. At such times I found myself digging down on residual energies to push out my shï acï. Mother was often sent into fits of excitation for my sake.
“How could a child survive Nigerian war bombs only to die from stupid kernels?” she would fret with dramatic gestures.
With the sun slouching behind Bernard’s apü tree, all the boys formed informal gangs to stake out spawned pear and mango trees around the neighborhood. Little ones like me hung out at bush corners in reconnaissance while the older ones climbed up to pluck the fruits with the agility of hunted games.
Girls like my sisters Rosa and Cathy and my cousins Berna, Bertha, Chïka, Chinedu, Christiana, Comfort, Dorothy, Edith, Ekwutösï, Florence, Happiness, Ifeyinwa, Ihuezi, Lois, Lovette, Ngözï, Patience, Peace, and our aunt in-law, Bernadette scouted out wild fruits, like üdara and uruöca. On occasions they brought home mushrooms and some strange vegetables which war emergency had made eatable, sometimes with disastrous consequences. A particular haul of theirs which I relished beyond description, so much so that it left a lasting warm taste on my tongue, was variously called nkwa, cïcïba, and öbanceleke. It was scrumptious alright, but I always hoped to one day understand why such a bitsy dessert could have so many big names.
But that would be when the haunting wings of the war have swum with the rainbow beyond the great sea.