Ola knelt beside the three stones that held the cooking pot in place, blowing into the stubborn fire. The sweltering afternoon sun flowed into the thatched shed they used as kitchen through the open side.
“Patience with the fire, my child.” Ujuaku’s voice startled her. She had come through the backyard as usual.
Ola turned, concealing the annoyance on her face, she said, “Welcome.”
Ola knew Ujuaku as the poor, childless widow living a few compounds away, the woman that once helped her out with a tune of a song she didn’t know well. Nnaa had gone to the farm and she was home alone with Ikem that afternoon when Ujuaku knocked. Ola had asked her what she wanted and she said she had come to buy basket from Nnaa. In his free time, Nnaa wove baskets from ekwere—thin strips of fiber gotten from palm fronds.
Ujuaku finally offered to teach her the correct tune of the song she’d heard them singing as she was coming in. Ola agreed and was captivated by Ujuaku’s sweet voice. But ever since that day Ujuaku came, she kept seeking to spend more time with Ola. According to her, she was lonely and needed a friend. But Ola did not know how to start being friends with a woman older than her own mother. “What would we be discussing?” she had said to Nene that evening as she told her the story. Nene had laughed out loud and told her to ask Ujuaku if she could still play the game of oga well too.
Ola turned and blew at the fire again. She caught smoke in her throat and started to cough.
“I told you to be gentle with the fire,” Ujuaku said. “It will obey you if you show it some respect first.”
Ola managed a perfunctory smile and turned back to what she was doing. How daft Ujuaku might have sounded. How could one show fire respect?
Ujuaku dropped her small basket and walked close to her. “Let me.”
Ola shifted and she moved in place before the fire. She pulled out one of the long sticks arranged under the pot and tossed it round as if to create space. Then she lowered her neck, puffed up her cheeks and gave the fire one long blow. Lively yellow flames popped out of the sticks.
Ola smiled her gratitude and wiped the smoke tears that had clouded her eyes.
“Can I sit?”
“Sure.” She carried her tray of vegetables from the short bench for Ujuaku to sit. She moved and sat on the upturned mortar.
Ujuaku sensed she didn’t want to sit with her on the bench as there was still enough space. “I saw your father on his way to the farm and decided to come and see you,” Ujuaku said.
“Ok,” Ola said, and when she realized the word had seemed too brief, she added, “hope there is no problem?”
“Oh no, not at all, my dear,” Ujuaku said. “I just came around to check on you that’s all.”
Ola nodded and forced another smile, pretending to be happy she bothered.
There was a long pause before any of them spoke again. Ola seemed too occupied with her vegetables now, as though plucking vegetables now required a certain kind of severe precision.
“Hope the night treated well?” Ujuaku finally asked.
“Yes. And you?”
“The night was good, my child.”
They lapsed into another silence.
Ola-edo was right. There wasn’t much she could discuss with this woman. The thought of them becoming friends was just as unfathomable as the expression on her face right now.
“I brought you a little something,” Ujuaku spoke. She lifted her basket onto her lap and brought out something wrapped round with plantain leaves.
Ola watched as she untied it, the spicy aroma of peppered meat getting to her nose before Ujuaku was done. Ujuaku smiled, showcasing the well-fried lumps of meat to Ola. “Anu usu.”
Ola smiled truly for the first time since Ujuaku came, but then there was obviously too much pepper. She could already see the red chips of ose-ntolo that speckled the lumps of meat.
“Here. Take,” Ujuaku said.
When Ola shook her head, something seemed to move off Ujuaku’s eyes. “You won’t take?”
“It seems there is too much pepper.”
“No, the pepper is not much. Try it, you’ll see.”
Another shake of head.
Ujuaku looked at the meat and wished she had powers to make all the red pepper signs disappear. She had prepared it the way maidens like anu usu—hot and spicy. But then she remembered this particular maiden was different, completely different.
With regret, she slowly tied back the meat. Then she remembered something. “What if I wash off the pepper for you?”
Ola gave her a quick surprised look and she wished she had remained quiet. Ezenwanyi should better give another person this task. Or just go ahead and consider Didi’s proposal. It looks achievable enough. Ujuaku was frustrated.
Ola put down the tray. “I must finish cooking now,” she said, rising. “Nnaa will soon return.” She moved to her pot and opened it. The boiling soup puffed, chanting putu! putu! putu! Ujuaku understood it was now time to go. She stood. “If you can come to my place this evening, I’ll give you some beads.”
“Ok. Gratitude, Ujuaku.”
Ujuaku left that afternoon, her face marred by disappointment. The disappointment that later turned to anger when Ola did not come that evening. How could she have resisted the thought of getting beads too? Why won’t witches just hate moon maidens?
Ajulu stood in front of her hut, pacing. From time to time, she would look up at the many stars twinkling in the sky and grunt.
The witches of Odu won’t be meeting tonight—it was an oye, one of the three days in a week they rested at night. Unless of course they had personal assignments. But Ajulu was not resting. She had stayed up all night thinking. She considered Ezenwanyi soft, too soft to lead the coven.
She thought about something and her nose wrinkled up in another grunt. The thought of Akwalu not rising this moon festival worried her more than her mates. It would be her only chance to converse with the great master and let him know how better qualified she was to be the Ezenwanyi.
But then even if they finally succeeded and raised the evil lord, she knew they would still face a problem. The great master as a god would hardly give easy ear to verbal conviction. She must present strong proof if ever Akwalu was to listen to her. But what could she do?
She hugged herself tight and continued pacing. Then she went motionless and stared straight ahead. Recovering, she spread her arms in the air and knelt.
She stretched out the wings, flapped them and disappeared into the darkness.
She landed on the roof of a hut very close the palace of Odu and screeched out in distress. She knew well of another route to the throne of Ezenwanyi— royal blood! A good dose of it could ensure any witch of Odu unimaginable strength. With enough of it, she would swiftly kill Ezenwanyi and take her title. It was not like she had any other strong contender. But then again, no plan of Ajulu was without impediment. Not a single witch of Odu was not aware of the circumstances surrounding the royal palace and a witch’s entry. Azuma had cast a witch-repelling magic around the entire palace before her death. Any witch that dared to fly into the palace or even across it would get pinned in the air, so was the story. Others said the witch’s wings would stiffen and she would plunge down to her death. Whichever was true, Azuma’s spell had ever worked its purpose—protecting all of royal blood.
Only Ichere, the former Ezenwanyi had dared to enter the palace since Azuma put her spell. She’d had herself fortified by Akwalu himself days before the quest. That night she turned into a black cat and when she got to the palace gate, evoked her power of invisibility. She succeeded anyway, killing the queen and the little baby princess. But the quest took its toll on her. For several weeks she remained sick and later died.
Ajulu flapped her wings and flew off from the roof. She perched on a lofty tree even nearer the palace. The guards at the entrance of the palace never sleep. They turned to look up at the tree when they heard her hooting. But they were not her worry. She remained on the tree and hooted a while longer before she flapped her wings again and flew back home in frustration.