Ko koro koo! The red-colored rooster crowed from the backyard barn.
As it did the third time, the door of the hut Ola shared with her little brother, Ikem, squeaked and opened. Ola came out and dropped on one of the stumpy logs of wood lying by the side of the hut. Dawn was still at its first stroke and neither a thing could be seen. Raucous singing of nocturnal insects still filled the air.
With a mild sigh, she leaned over and buried her face in her lap. The dreams always meant the end of sleep for that night. Though she’d been having them since she was like nine, it was still the one thing she hated to discuss. Only Nne knew—‘their little secret’ as she referred to it, before her death. Ola was probably afraid they’d call her a witch and have her burned too, so she told no one else.
She remained outside till a flock of okri birds perched on the tall tree behind the hut. Their characteristic giggle—kwii-kwu kwi-kwi, indicated full crack of dawn.
“Ola.” Nnaa’s voice startled her. She jerked and sat upright. “Did you sleep outside?”
“No, father,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I came out in the morning.” This time her voice was distorted by a yawn.
“Was it too hot inside?”
Ola’s lips drew apart but words didn’t come out soon enough. She could have said yes, that it was too hot inside because it had not rained in Odu for many months now. The rains have taken to inconsistent patterns since the witches started playing with the moon. But it wasn’t the heat inside that brought Ola-edo outside. It was something else, something else she preferred not to talk about. Though she’d always known she was different, even allowing herself think she was a witch at times, but she’d decided, as Nne always told her, never to see herself as any less a normal maiden of Odu.
“Pleasant morning, Nnaa.” Ikem was stretching and yawning as he plodded out of the hut.
“Ikem, did you sleep well?”
Nnaa left them and walked to the back of the hut.
Ikem dropped to the ground beside his big sister. “Pleasant morning, Ola.”
Ola gave him a big smile. “How was the night, Ikem?”
“Ola, please sing nwaniga for me,” Ikem said, in his usual pestering manner which Ola found the least pleasing. Though she hardly let him notice, not even now the little boy had unknowingly done her a favor. “Ikem, it is still too early.”
“Please,” Ikem said instead. And when Ola did not respond soon enough, he reached for her hand and shook it.
“It’s still too early, biko. I’ll sing after we come back from the stream.”
“No. You will tell me you want to sweep.”
“Then after the sweeping.”
“No, you will start cooking.”
Though Ola-edo does not sing much, she sang well. She had the clear, sonorous voice required to call the moon. Only Ikem, and Nene sometimes, had enjoyed her voice. Once, she finally agreed the join the other girls and go to the palace to sing at the king’s coronation anniversary, after Nene’s aggressive persuasion. The king would reward them well. Each girl may get a full hand of beads and several heads of wrapper, the girl whose voice impressed the king the most would even get more gifts.
Ola had stood in line with the other maidens, sixth from the person in front as they swayed and jiggled into the ceremony ground. But after she turned again and noticed the prince’s eyes were still on her, a wave of awkwardness swamped over her and she crept out. Not many noticed her abrupt exit though, but the handsome prince of Odu wouldn’t let her be since after that day. He had hunted her like game, precious game.
“Ola!” Nene’s voice echoed all around the small compound. “Ola-edo!”
Ola came out of her hut. She had washed her face and changed her breast cloth—a narrow piece of clothing worn around the chest and knotted at the back. A waist cloth—a larger piece of skirt-like clothing was worn at the waist. Sometimes, strings of waist beads were worn with the waist cloth, though only by those who could afford them.
“Ikem, we are leaving,” Ola said. She lifted her water pot and strode toward Nene who was busy in the middle of the compound adjusting her breast cloth. She was plump and some inches below Ola. Because her breasts were full, it sometimes became a burden holding them in place with the narrow strip of breast cloth. Ikem grabbed his own small pot and ran toward them.
Ola plucked a dried leaf from a dying shrub at the side of the narrow road and fingered it.
“Ola, I ask you!” Nene yelled.
Ola looked at her, absently crushing the leaf in her hand. “I really don’t know, Nene. There is nothing special about the festival again. I’ll wear any of my old clothes.”
Nene stared at her. “This coming festival will be different.”
“And how do you know that, Nene?”
“I don’t know, I just feel it.”
Ola gave an amused snort. “I wonder why you concern yourself so much.”
Nene shot her an incredulous frown. “Ola, we have been without the rains for over six months now and I have not seen bright moonlight again since I was a child. These days you can hardly make out the cloaked moon in the sky and you think I’m being unnecessarily concerned?” She swallowed. “Ola don’t you remember those times we used to run around under the full moon, the times that night looked like day? The times we—” Emotion caused her to pause.
Ola gave a deep sigh. “They said until the priestess names another moon maiden, things will never change.”
“Change?” Nene cut in, annoyance showing in her voice. Ola wondered if she had said something too wrong. “Can’t you see things are getting worse by the day?” She pushed her water pot out to Ola. Ola held the pot while she adjusted her breast cloth again.
“There’s nothing we can do, Nene,” Ola said, trying to sound comforting. “We are just maidens.”
Nene stared at her and did not say another word. There was a long pause before any of them said anything again.
“But do you think Efu is ready to name anyone yet?” Nene asked. She now sounded calmer, consoled.
“We just have to pray she does, and soon enough too,” Ola said.
“I pray o, otherwise I will just have to run away from this kingdom.”
Ola laughed. “To where if I may ask?”
“Anywhere but Odu.”
Ola shook her head in mock pity. “Such a journey will take days without a horse, and moreover—”
“Ola!” someone called from their back.
It was a voice Ola was familiar with. Even Nene too.
They halted and turned back. “Greetings, Your Highness,” they chorused, kneeling.
They remained on their knees till Prince Onyema got to them. It was the custom, though Onyema hardly ever minded. In that, and in so many other ways, he was different from his father, the king.
“Rise, beautiful maidens of Odu,” the prince said, smiling.
Onyema’s voice easily disclosed what beauty of a man he was. As one of the girls from the group gossiping about him said, “Even a blind girl will feel the shivers on the mere hearing of his voice.”
The maidens of Odu did that often—cluster in small groups to discuss their men. Only the very handsome, and the very ugly, make interesting topics. The former would throw them into several frenzied acts to demonstrate their longing and the other, the creator of gales of sardonic laughter.
“Thank you, my prince,” the girls chorused as they rose.
Nene bowed. “Permit me to leave, Your Highness.”
The prince inclined his head and she took Ikem by the hand and they started down the path. Ola lifted her eyes to Onyema’s face and thrust down face at once. Her hands tightened around the clay pot hugged to her belly. It was her usual way of looking at him—briefly, her eyes darting off as quickly as they landed on his face.
Though she had never allowed her eyes to stay a minute longer on his face, she knew the handsome features of his face well—the dark and thick brows framing his eyes, the two bold eyes flanking a nose so straight and pointed one would be imagining if it was carved by hand. There must be something about those eyes, something scary in them, something that frightened Ola so much she dare not look into them. It probably was their vividness, the clean sparkle they cast in daylight, amid the smooth dark background of his face.
Onyema walked to her front. “How are you today, beautiful one?” he asked.
Ola did not reply fast enough. It was obvious she had started feeling somehow again. It was not their first meeting, yet each had had her wishing the prince never met her, never liked her. Perhaps meeting the prince could pass for the one thing she was now really afraid of. Witnessing Nne’s death had had her hardened.
She’d blamed Nene a few times for talking her into going to the palace that day, into taking herself to the prince. But each time she did, Nene would hiss and say, “Was I the one that asked Ihe to give your skin the color of the sun or were you the only maiden at the ceremony on that day?” Ola would remain quiet.
“Ola-edo, I ask you,” Onyema repeated. “How are you?”
She lifted her eyes and peeped at his face again. “You remembered my name?”
Onyema smiled. “Precious things are not easily forgotten, my dear,” he said, still smiling. He had expected her to say thank you or at least smile —like any normal maiden of Odu would have done, but she said nothing, did nothing. She continued watching her fingers as they purposelessly twined around each other.
As she finally opened her mouth to say something, something interrupted. The warmth of his palm around her wrist. “Ola, why do you behave strange around me?”
Strange? Now what is he saying? She frowned, an all-purpose frown. “How do you mean, my prince?”
A girl approached and she jerked her hand from his grip. With the brimmed pot weighing down on her head, the maiden managed to kneel. “Greetings, good prince of my land,” the girl said, her face devoid of any sign of strain.
Onyema nodded and waved her away.
“Permit me to leave now, my prince,” Ola said. She could not stand more people seeing her standing alone with the prince of Odu on a lonely bush track used by the not-so-classy people of Oji village.
“Why?” Onyema asked. “Where are you going?”
She stole another peep at his face. Spoilt brat. He doesn’t even know what a water pot was used for. “I should be heading down to the stream now, my prince.”
From the corner of her eye, she noticed he was staring at her in a way she thought was funny and she walked off quietly down the path.
“Wait! Not so fast,” Onyema said.
She halted, she had to. He was the prince of Odu after all. Not just an ordinary wooer, like Ibe, the boy she’d slapped few days ago, after several times of warning him to “leave her alone.” The round boy had stopped her again that evening as she was returning from their farm, burdened with a bunch of firewood. Before Ibe could finish his usual story of how he had dreamt about them again, a hot slap landed on his left cheek.
But Ola knew the prince was different, that he was one wooer a slap wouldn’t chase away. There might be something this particular wooer was doing right too, because a thought of slapping him had never crossed her mind.
Onyema took a few steps to meet her. “I have something for you,” he said. She watched him reach into the front leather pocket of his shorts and bring out a gold bangle. It was ona, shiny, royal and expensive.
She stared at the piece of jewelry in his hand. Now the prince had lost it. How could he have expected she’d accept that? “No, thank you, Your Highness.” She kept her tone humble enough, grateful enough.
“Don’t call me that,” Onyema said.
She remembered he had told her that before, the first day they talked, and it still surprised her why a prince would not want to be addressed properly. Perhaps the privileges of being a prince had become too numerous it had turned burdening too. “I appreciate your gift, my prince, but I’m sorry I will not accept it.”
Her forehead had creased. Had the prince been observant enough, he would have realized she was no longer comfortable. She’s had enough of him.
He reached to touch her at the cheek instead and she drew back. “Please, you must permit me to leave now, my prince,” Ola said. She hugged her clay pot firmly to her side and strode off.
Prince Onyema stood there, gazing at her, her wiggling hips.
He finally looked down on the bangle in his hand when she had gotten too far off sight. He enclosed it in his palm and put it back into his pocket.
He looked at her again, her shape had grown indistinct. He turned to walk home.
He had wondered why she was different. Why she, of all, seemed to be the only one not interested. Others had always acted differently. Some had even gone as far as faking errands from their parents just to have him talk with them.
Truly, Ola-edo thought of the prince differently. She had never for once allowed the thoughts of finally becoming the prince’s maiden linger in her mind. He was already betrothed, to someone more beautiful, more suitable— Ngala, a chief’s daughter whom no one in Odu would think twice before addressing as the true incarnation of beauty. And even if the prince hadn’t been betrothed, the possibility of King Oduma, the mean king of Odu, allowing his only son to marry a farmer’s daughter was virtually non-existent. Again too, that was only if the prince’s motives had been genuine. She had also reasoned it might not be. After all what is a Crown prince supposed to be looking for in an ordinary girl from Oji?
At the stream, Nene sat with Ikem on the big trunk of a fallen palm tree lying at a corner of the bank, waiting for Ola. Their filled pots lay on the ground beside their feet.
Ola saw them and her pace mechanically slowed. The thought of having to face Nene’s intrusive questions again that morning frightened her. Each time Nene was aware she had met the prince, she must always ask the questions.
Nene did not wait for her to come close enough. She stood and walked to meet her. “How did it go?” she asked, and as usual sent eager eyes piercing through her. The kind of look that has had Ola wondering, once, if her best friend had been in league with the prince.
Nene wanted to say something else, but Ola nodded toward her back. She turned and saw Ikem bending over from the palm trunk, plucking tiny mushrooms growing on it. Nene got the message and they both moved slightly away.
Her voice was lowered when she spoke again. “Ola, the prince really likes you,” she said, deliberately letting a bit of envy show in her voice.
Ola cared less about it. “How do you mean?” she asked with an expression of incomprehension, even though she’d understood Nene perfectly.
Nene frowned. “What do you mean by how, Ola? Isn’t it obvious the prince likes you?”
“It’s a waste of time, Nene.”
Nene looked at her and caught the sadness underneath. Concern replaced her annoyance. “Ola, why would you say that?”
Ola turned her face away without a word.
“Ola, we have seen fifteen moon festivals already and after this coming festival, we’d follow in the next maiden dance after which we would become ready for marriage.”
Ola turned to her with an amused face.
Surprise and puzzlement warred on Nene’s face. “Why do you smile like that?”
“You talk of marriage, Nene, have you forgotten the prince is betrothed already?”
“Ngala?” Nene’s tone was dismissive.
“Yes, her.” Ola’s reply was affirmative.
“Isn’t it obvious the prince does not fancy her?”
“Does it matter, Nene? It’s the king’s decision to make and no king will allow his only son to marry ordinary girls like us.”
The casualness of her voice did not fully mask the underlying bitterness, a wish that she hadn’t been ordinary. “Let me fill my pot so we leave before Ihuoma and her friends arrive.” She walked down the stream.
Nene crossed her belly and gazed emptily at her. The word ‘ordinary girls’ rang repeatedly in her mind. Never for once had she dreamt of marrying a prince before, but now it had been struck to her face that it would never happen, she couldn’t help but ask why? What is really so bad about being ordinary?
She was still asking these questions when Ola climbed to the bank with her filled pot.“You can’t be so sure, Ola,” she threw out. “You just can’t be so sure.”
Ola looked at her with surprise. She didn’t know she’d been mulling over her comment.
Nene moved and carried her pot. “Ikem, let’s go.”
But as she turned, what, or whom, she saw showed clearly on her face she would never have wished the sight. “Ola, look,” she whispered.
Ola turned and instantly felt a pound in her chest. But she quickly straightened out her features and ridded herself of any visible sign of fear. She waited, coolly, till the three maidens approached.
The one in front was Ihuoma, Ola’s childhood friend and grown-up enemy. She walked just as dauntless as her eyes were. As she came closer, she set the big round eyes to Ola’s face and made sure the scorn in them infiltrated her well before walking past. Ola inhaled deeply, dousing off her fury.
But just when she thought it was all over and had turned to walk home, she heard the word as Ihuoma turned to one of her companions and whispered something. She had said, “The yellow-skinned one did not come to fetch her water in the night as usual”, but Ola had only heard “yellow skin.” And she knew she must reply. With a small purposeful smile she lowered her water pot to a corner, gracefully clapped her hands clean and dropped them on her waist. “Only the chicken puts her mouth in a pot to address the eagle.”
As intended, the chicken heard it. And she reacted. Ihuoma turned and made her way back to her, both her face and steps devoid of any features of a chicken.
Ola steeled herself and waited. Nene lowered her pot and got ready too. Even little Ikem. As Ihuoma mounted herself in Ola’s front, her companions took their positions behind her. As if in a match, Nene and Ikem quickly moved to Ola’s side.
Ihuoma craned her neck so that her face nearly bumped into Ola’s. “Now the chicken looks the eagle in the eye. Won’t she break a neck or at least pluck out an eye? Or has—”
“The noble bird only but corrects, my dear. I see the chicken has already learnt her lesson not to repeat her previous utterance.” Ola let her smile spread out a bit. She had seen it in a mirror once and knew she looked good with it.
Fury surged through Ihuoma and it threw her out of control. “Yellow skin! Yellow skin! I call you yellow skin, now do your worst!”
As if in obedience, Ola’s palm covered herself with tremendous force.
And the fight began. Hands and fingers twined all around each other, tousling hair and twitching ears. It could have been three to one, but Nene was fast enough to pick one over to herself. But two was still too much for one and in a moment Ola-edo was on the ground Then Ikem came in with his only weapon—teeth! It didn’t take him much time to cause one of the girls to scream out loud. She abandoned the fight and ran after the little boy. But when he proved harder to catch than she obviously had anticipated, she halted and was returning to the main fight when, abruptly, everything ended.
With Ola looking dirtiest, the five girls stood with bowed heads as the two elderly women that arrived the stream lashed out at them.