Cocks may crow, and the sun’s rays may tinge the dark skies with the golden morning, but time, the mother of destiny, knows the best moment to wake her sleeping child; neither a twinkling early, nor a twinkling late. Time could neither be coaxed by rituals nor mandated by prophecies and so when the gist of my mother’s declaration swept through the compound like evening breeze, I was as unmoved as the mango tree under whose branches I watched the stars.
That morning, my mother said the head wife was going to die soon. Her abiku had died for the third time and my mother did not expect her to survive another pregnancy. My mother spoke with glow in her eyes, like one would speak in expectation of a bountiful farm harvest on sighting full green leaves, as if death was ever a good thing. But she was my mother and it was wrong to disagree with her so I nodded slowly and voicelessly as I continued plucking maize grains from the pile of cobs.
Unlike the abiku’s previous burials, my father had refused to come out of his hut. He had let us know of his decision yesterday night as a gesture of protest to the spirits, to say that he refused to be affected by their actions. It was pointless. Even little children knew that we were pebbles in spirit hands to be flung in any direction for whatever reason. But he was my father and it was wrong to disagree with him. The elders often said that the feathers of the mature eagle are always spotless. So when I went to clean his hut I did not mention to him that the abiku was being prepared for burial.
My brother was the most senior member of the family in my father’s absence. When I knew him, he was timid – quick footed only when he was offering help – I thought that made him a good person but my mother thought it made him a woman. But ever since he returned from his travels he had changed a lot, so I was not too sure anymore. Before he travelled, he was meant to serve as apprentice under one of my father’s friends, somewhere not too far away, who had become a famous woodcarver but instead had come back with a strange trade called Christianity and a merchandise known as salvation which did not command any market price but was instead given out for free. He now believed in a God foreign to ours who had three forms but yet had never changed over time, even though he could change everything else. I always wished to ask the abiku if any such being existed in the spirit world but my courage never attained that potency. Both my father and mother, his second wife, were very displeased and for once I agreed with them; nobody knew what Christianity was and so there could not be any possible market for it. The head wife was not as hasty to form an opinion, she always chided that a farmer who did not have the patience to tarry from seed time to harvest would always be hungry.
My brother had shunned the Oracle and refused any of the traditional rites being made at the burial. Instead he chanted loudly in a strange tongue that resembled madness amidst the sobs and tears of him and the others, dabbing his forefinger in a shard of oil then smudging the lines of a cross on the abiku’s forehead. It was all too bizarre but nobody could disagree with him because he was senior to us all, so we just stood and watched and when he finished he said blessings to us and brought the burial to an end.
As he turned his back on the fresh grave, the little children of the house broke free of their mothers and collapsed on the mound of earth in a chorus of wails. The abiku was about the same age as they were. I remember doing exactly the same thing at the last burial. I was about the same age the little children were now and he had been two age grades older than I was. And though we were of different mothers we had developed a greater fondness than I shared with my own direct siblings. He had bathed me till I grew old enough to become shy of boys looking at the slight rise on my chest that prepared the way for my impending breasts and had taught me what oils to use on my skin during the middle of the year when the voice of the sun was loudest, its simmering tone being heard by the deepest dweller of the river, and which to use during the harmattan when the dry cold parched the skin. He had shown me the fruits I was allowed to pluck from the trees and those I had to wait for until they fell to the ground, how to escape the compound during the village festivals and wait silently in the bushes to observe the spirit masquerades.
The weeks before he passed away that year, he had been terribly ill. His mother entrusted me with the responsibility of picking leaves from the bushes to prepare his agbo and when he died I cried endlessly believing that if I had had the courage to go further into the bush and pick stronger herbs he would have probably survived the ordeal. My peace was not restored till I saw him return as a baby years later bearing the same v-shaped birthmark on his right shoulder as he had the last time. It was then my mother explained to me the mystery of the abiku.
On this his most recent sojourn, we had interchanged roles. I had bathed him till he was old enough to demand privacy, showing him how to use oils and gather fruits, even though he now did these things with less enthusiasm as if he remembered living these experiences and grown bored, seeking some other thrill before his time elapsed again. Rather, he paid more attention to the simpler things—preferring physical contact with the world instead of the mental exhilarations it offered. His motions were much slower, his words and actions to everyone a little less instinctive and more thought out like a visitor bidding farewells on his final day of welcome. I was beginning to worry this was his last sojourn to our world and he had known it. It was difficult to say goodbye without being able to say the actual words. I grit my teeth on the splintered end of the chewing stick in my mouth to no avail as I watched the little children mourn. Some wood could never be broken, as my questions on the ways of the spirits could never be answered.
Things became brighter after a little while. Laughter soon found the hidden faces of the little children in their corners of sorrow. The head of the family became a husband and a father again. The wives had no reason to feign affection for each other and my brother became a big man. And the Christianity business he was into was not as it seemed at first. He now had dealings with the king of the big village near the river where the sun slept; the same everlasting river that was said to bring bright and shinning men in floating houses from the home of the sun. These men were said to have the strangest magic. They had little objects that were painted with certain magical oils that formed the image of anything placed in front of it, solid sticks that brought down grown elephants by simply pointing one end in the direction of the beast and twisting the other end.
News spread quickly, my father had taken it upon himself to make sure the whole village was aware of the new things happening in our family. I thought he was doing all of it because he expected to share in my brother’s new relevance and eventual riches. It was as pitiful as it was hard to blame him. My father had toiled all his life, season after season, with very little to show for it. We did not even have any slaves in our family. But he was my father and it would be disrespectful to say bad things about him so anytime such thoughts crossed my mind I found something tedious to do before naughty spirits had the better of me.
On one of his visits from the big village, my brother announced that he would be taking me along with him on his return, he had convinced someone important to allow me serve in the King’s court. Everyone appeared happy for me and while I was too scared to even sleep, they were all having colorful dreams that I would capture the heart of a prince and get married into nobility or get rewarded for long years of service with bags of cowries, herds of animals and parcels of land even though all these things happened more often in the dreams of the most fantastical children than in reality. I looked to be the only person that understood that I stood higher chances of indulging in an unfortunate event that would lead to my execution. But it was as if everyone had been bitten by the same greed ridden insect that had afflicted my father. Nobody ever asked what I wanted. I would be very ungrateful to turn down one of the best things to happen to my family even if it was one of the worst things that happened to me. I possessed an abstract hope in something indefinite, whatever it might be, to deliver me, but I was atop a palm tree in the desert… awaiting a canoe.
The journey to the big village was longer than other travelers made it out to be. It took us five days and we had to stop at two villages along the way. We had travelled in a group, as long distance travelers often do, but by the time we arrived at the big village our number had trickled down to just a handful. My feet were callused and toughened like tanned leather, the brown raffia cloth I had wrapped around my waist and bound behind my neck to cover all of my privates in one piece had darkened, just like my mood, from days of sweat and discomforts while my brother was still in as high spirits as the day we set forth.
But things changed once we set foot in the big village, my eyes grew larger from trying to contain all of its marvels. Their footpaths were not brown patches of earth rendered barren by frequent treading like the ones in my village, but instead a trimmed line of grass in the bush so the dust did not rise when a lot of people walked at the same time. Also, there were white men on the streets. Not as supernaturally enchanting as travelers to my village portrayed them, but rather white men who walked together with the indigenes and spoke in the same tongue like sibling children who had sucked on sibling breasts. And of course, mention has to be made of the great charmed house adorned with metal and ivory whose highest parts soared into the sky. My brother said it was the temple of Christianity were the people of the big village gathered to commune with its God. Tales tell of it being built overnight by holy spirits of Christianity and a single gaze made it difficult to dispute the influence of the supernatural on it. I would later learn that the only sight more revered by the people was the sacred burial ground where the founding fathers of the families that made up the big village were put to rest.
On my first night in the big village, lying on a goat skin mat at the king’s court, I slept for the first time in a while without fear of the future. I knew beauty seduced because I was already a victim but I was too ignorant to understand that seduction was only an ensnarement to inner chambers where evil perilously lurked.
I was one of many servants of the royal household. All our lives were familiar but our persons were strange to the other. Our smiles were barely cordial, an index of our willingness to serve, to live. It was worse with the masters, maybe because we were made to refer to them by their titles and not their names as other humans normally do to each other or because we lived so close together but existed so distantly. They appeared exorcised of all humaneness and I often remembered my father’s head wife and now understood why she always said that one did not need begin dialogue with a chicken just because they desired to eat meat.
My duties were simple. I accompanied the king’s wives when they went out into the town and, when they were engaged in less demanding vanities, I cooked and cleaned and ran domestic errands and catered for their children. Occasionally I served the men too. They would order for me in the dead of the night, into their private quarters, and I would wait on the evil spirits that possessed them. On the first night such a thing happened, I pondered for the first time the possibilities of realizing the dreams my family had for me, dreams that I feared but at the same time secretly desired. My father’s head wife would call such dreams an abomination; my brother would call them a sin. I did not have a word for it myself because I was forbidden from speaking of it. And soon enough I did not have much reason to. I realized I was more than a slave to my family’s dreams; I was a sex slave to these men’s lust ridden fantasies and was never going to enchant any of them as my father had hoped. The dreams my family had that I would enchant a master only humored me nowadays. None of them ever even said I was beautiful and I had neither thick hips nor full breasts. Whenever I thought of these truths I laughed because I remembered my father’s head wife also used to say that real men always preferred meat, and not bones, in their soup.
In honesty, nothing brought home closer to me like thoughts of the head wife did. When my brother came back with report that my father’s head wife had died in childbirth I was distraught and mourned without food for three days. And even though I was not there, it was like a part of me had been buried with her. A part of me that made me believe I could be different, a beacon of wisdom among disparate dialects of folly, maybe a hope to someone else as she was to me. Sometimes I thought about the abiku. He must have given his mother a befitting welcome into the spirit world. If he had never died the first time he would be slightly older than my brother, maybe as important too. I wondered if he remembered me as often as I thought of him because the head wife always said spirits are said to be fond of particular humans.
It became a lot more difficult to smile. The master’s children said I spoke less and stared a lot more, always hesitating for a few seconds before responding to my name. So I put myself harder to work and busied myself with their lives for succor. If anyone bothered to observe things as closely enough as I did, it would have been obvious that though the masters broke cassava and wine with the white men, the white men treated them just the way they treated us. I could not hear the language they shared but I could often hear the demand laced underneath their tone as the masters laughed in cowardly submission to make light of the matter. I think they were trying too hard to please their guests and were too marveled by the different wonders to notice themselves fall from dignity.
There was a wicked irony in it all as I remembered men from the big village coming into my village as a child – they were welcomed as guests but very soon turned around to bite the hands that fed them, positioning soldiers on our land and demanding we pay them annual tributes that we still paid to this very day – or just as my mother harbored secret contempt for, despite being welcomed by, the head wife. I wondered if the people of the big village would one day suffer the same fate in the hands of the white men. We just never seemed able to recognize our enemies early enough.
A lot of things were happening that I could not understand as my brother kept on returning with strange news every time he returned from his travels home. Many years had passed since my father’s head wife had died, many more since I arrived at the king’s court. I had somehow expected life to become more predictable and soothing as time passed but that was childish foolishness I had smuggled into adulthood. My father no longer made sacrifices to the spirit deities, their shrines in the compound had been cast to flames; he now served my brother’s God of Christianity. My brother, on the other hand, claimed his wealth came from that God but I knew for certain that the king of the big village paid him with bags of cowries, ivory and raffia cloths. So either the king of the big village was the God of Christianity or there was more to all of this than what met the eye.
And as for the white men, my brother was always muttering one complaint about them or another. They had broken their arranged deal with the king, trading with the smaller factions on the other side of the river who sold ivory and cocoa at a cheaper price. Complaints had also been made from other tribes in inner lands that young men and women were being kidnapped and enslaved by the white men who were only meant to buy slaves legally from the king of the big village. Their recklessness went unbridled and when the king realized he could not beat them, he joined them and shared their profits. People who committed offences that should have earned lighter sentences were enslaved and sold to the white men, prisoners of war and even travellers in strange lands were not spared. My brother was very concerned about the safety of our family back in our village. Even though my father, mother and the other wife were too old to be enslaved and my other sisters had been married off to other families who protected them, the two youngest children of the house were reaching the prime of their youth which made them very vulnerable. So my brother arranged for them to come and live with him in his quarters at the king’s court. The older of the two was the last daughter of the third wife. She was an exact image of my father especially since she had had not grown out fully into womanhood. The other child was a boy just growing out of his childhood. I recognized a certain familiarity from the first moment I saw him. I suspected something but could not be too sure until the day I asked him to turn around and unwrap the cloth bound behind his neck, allowing me see the v-shaped birthmark on his right shoulder; the birthmark of the abiku.
And I was happy again. Seeing the abiku everyday made me feel like I was reliving my childhood, the happier days of my life. I remembered the grass was green, darker on the leaves hidden under thick canopies of trees that hardly bore fruits and much lighter on the leaves near the footpaths, because he would hide in the green bushes behind the king’s court when dusk drew near and he knew I would be calling him for his evening bath and I would have to squint terribly to pick out his dark black skin among the grove. And early in the morning when the sun, as well as the masters, was still resting he would insist that I meander the streets of the big village with him because I would never have the time to do so during the day. My tongue knew once again the taste of fruits fresh off the stalk, not those soaked in salted water like the ones at the king’s court.
I also remember the last day I saw the abiku. It was also the day we had strayed from our regular thoroughfare, a little further away from the town into the bushes, and we saw the woman from our village. I did not know who she was. She had settled in our village after I had left and it was the abiku that recognized her, even as she lay bloodied, naked and bound to a tree. For the longest time I just stared and when I tried to cover the abiku’s eyes he shrugged me away. I offered to untie her halfheartedly and when she refused I was relieved.
She said the white men had done this too her. They had bought her from an illegal slave market not too far away, from the men who had kidnapped her from her village some days ago. That they were moving them overnight to the coast of the unending river where their floating houses where, but she was frail and convulsing from days of illness. When they finally got fed up with their bad investment they decided to make an example of her to the others. Flies had gathered around her already, singing her eulogy as they festered on her sours. The first vulture was perched on a branch not too far above our heads and a second was joining the wait.
We had not begun sympathizing with her when we heard dogs barking in the distance and then a loud noise, almost like a single roar of thunder, was heard. The woman tried saying something but her strength was failing her. We started hearing footsteps, fast paced, drawing nearer and louder and then a young boy not much younger than the abiku emerged into the clearing and then ran right past us. Before we knew another boy, much fatter and slower than the first, emerged and hurtled past us. Nobody needed implore us to run. I remembered the head wife’s words, shy of any proverbial enshrouding and in its most realistic form – the antelope does not run in the morning unless something is chasing it. We heard another loud thunder and the dog barks continued, much louder, and when I glanced behind I saw the dogs come into view, fast and furious. I faced the road ahead and tried to move faster. And I did, past the abiku. Or at least that is what it looked like.
But then I realized he was slowing down and in a few seconds the barking stopped, replaced by violent growls. And when I heard the abiku scream I stopped, turned around and searched for him from behind a tree. He was on the floor and two dogs were on him, one biting on his arm and the other on his leg. A few white men now walked into the clearing, with big iron sticks in their hand. Tears began streaming down my eyes as the blood began streaming down his limbs and I muffled a wail. I could not decide on whether to keep running or do something else bordering on the heroic. They let their dogs continue for a while as they talked within themselves before calling off the beasts. Then one of them bent above my brother and placed both his legs and arms in chains, just like the chains I had seen on the slaves that were sometimes transported through town. One of the white men said something and the others burst into laughter. And then the funny one dragged him away out of sight.
I remained behind the tree for a while, letting out my stifled tears, and all life seemed to stop around me as I mourned the abiku, his capture, my death. After all, it was only life that existed in rhythms; from just breathing, to the sway and dances of the trees in the wind and the tempo of the abiku’s running feet slapping the bare ground. But death was still, unadulterated by any form of consistent pattern, like the monotone of the little children’s cry at the abiku’s last burial, like the floating houses of the river where he, like all other captured slaves would be taken.
Then I remembered that he had slowed down to his capture when he could have ran faster, I realized that he had allowed himself get captured in my place, and I smiled. My smile grew into a chuckle and then I started laughing out loud and fell to the ground without caution of who might still be around to hear me. I knew he was an abiku, a spirit; he could never be a slave to a human. He was going to die and never return because the head wife, his vessel of passage, was gone also. Still I was happy, he did not deserve the cruelty that had seeped in through the crevices and charmed the human heart. I knew he would find some other way to come to me because the head wife was always right, spirits are fond of particular humans.
Nnamdi Ehirim (@MinoEhirim) is a frequent reader and occasional writer. His lofty achievements are still buffering, watch this space.
Related country: Nigeria