Didi picked the small pot of lip paint from her beauty basket lying next to her feet and removed the lid. She dipped into the pot and ran the black-stained finger along her lips. She picked the curved hand mirror on her lap and looked into it. A big smile of satisfaction appeared on her face.
In her human form, Didi was beautiful, too beautiful to be a witch. Her features were perfect—a straight nose standing between well-rounded cheeks which had accepted the uli patterns drawn on them with grace, and radiant eyes framed by slim, dark brows that needed little penciling. The dark coils she’d drawn on her cheeks with uli dye and the black paint on her lips flattered her fair complexion even more.
Didi looked into the mirror one more time before she packed up and entered her hut. She came out shortly now with her travelling basket hugged to her side. She locked her door, looked round her small compound and walked off. No man who set eyes on her face would recognize she wasn’t so tall.
Beauty could have been what she asked for anyway. They all had their gains; long life, possessions, power to take revenge on those who had caused them pain—the reason most people would want to become witches. But some of them never chose to, they might have been born witches from birth or initiated by their mother, grandmother or just an old aunt. For every witch must provide a successor, it kept the chain going. Out of several daughters she must choose one, the one to replace her when she’s gone. But since the witches rarely gave birth to too many children, distant nieces and even unborn granddaughters were adequate substitutes.
The reason many witches could not boast of many children being that most of them find it easier to pledge their unborn babies for the renewal of their dues, instead of having to hunt for a family member’s soul every five years. It was riskier for them.
Even now, the witches were already a dwindling race, hence their dogged effort to see that Akwalu rose again. Though many innocent women were killed in the raid, Ola’s mother inclusive, the witches lost many true sisters too. The wise king of Odu had taken them by surprise. Even the few those that managed to escape would hardly ever think of returning because the families they come from were known and a nosy neighbor would always be kind enough to inform the king of their return.
Didi had seen many people that evening carrying their offering items to the temple of Ihe as she trod the road leading to Oji village, where Ola lived. Yam heads popped out from the baskets the women were carrying. Stubborn goats bleated and pulled backward as their owners dragged them along, as though they knew what fate awaited them at the temple. Even the trussed up chickens clutched under the arms of those who could not afford goats and sheep did not look too easy too.
Didi entered Nnaa’s compound after a considerable walk from her village. She dropped the basket she was carrying to the ground and adjusted the knot of her wrapper. Kpa! Kpa! Kpa!—she clapped. “Who is home?!” Her strong and cheerful tone of voice indicated familiarity, like someone walking into a home she was well known in.
Ikem ran out from the back of the hut. He’d been inside the barn with Ola, helping Nnaa pull out tendrils from the many yam tubers stacked up on the wood racks. According to Nnaa, the longer the tendrils grew, the more the tubers shrunk. And no one knew yet when the rains were coming.
Ikem stood in front of the hut staring at the strange woman standing in the middle of their compound.
“Little boy, don’t you know how to greet?” Didi said. The look on her face has asked that question before her mouth even said the words.
“Who are you?” Ikem asked her instead, his face and tone of voice not the slightest welcoming. Didi’s face had not fully taken on an expression of surprise when Ikem barked again, “And what have you come to find here?”
Anger boiled within her as she scowled at the little boy. She had only but snap a finger at him and he goes dumb at the instant. But the little boy was not of concern, at least not for now. She swallowed hard and willed herself to smile. “Little boy, where is your father?”
Ikem did not respond or neither did anything to change the cold look on his face. Luckily for them both, Ola and Nnaa came out shortly “Greetings, good household,” Didi said.
Nnaa squinted. The dying evening sun had cast an obscuring shadow across Didi’s face. “Greetings accepted, strange woman, who are you?” Nnaa’s eyes lingered on Didi’s face as he tried hard to be fully sure he hadn’t met this woman somewhere before. He was sure he hasn’t.
“My name is Didi. I have come all the way from Uda to look for my good friend, Nneoma.”
Hearts thudded and footsteps drew stiffly forward.
“You knew my wife?” Nnaa asked.
“Yes, we were very close friends. We used to stay under the same shed at the market before I travelled. Please where is she? My eyes itch to see her.”
There was a long pause before anyone spoke. Ola’s face had taken on a blank look, her eyes steadily growing misty with liquid.
“Woman, when last did you see your friend?” Nnaa asked.
“Like I’ve said, I had been at my mother’s town for many years now, I only came back just yesterday evening and decided to come and see her today. I even brought her favorite just as she had requested it that day while she saw me off to the border.”
She bent over and scrabbled around in her basket. She brought out something wrapped round with cocoyam leaves. She untied it and held out the wrapped nuts in one hand. “Ukpa, she kept saying I shouldn’t forget to bring them.”
They knew at once this woman really knew Nne. When she was alive, Nne could munch on the boiled nuts all day, even without any other food.
Didi bent to drop the wrapped nuts back in her basket. But as she wanted to rise again, her waist bone clicked. She whimpered, clutching her knees.
“Chair!” Nnaa said.
Ola lifted one of the logs and darted toward her.
“You may sit, woman.”
“Thank you.” She flopped down on the wood. “I’ve been walking for a long time. Please give me some water.”
Ola returned shortly and she grabbed the cup of water from her. She lapped it up and let out a deep sigh. “Please call me my friend now; I really can’t wait to see her.”
Her voice got the whole family startled again. Nnaa glanced at Ola. “Well, woman, your friend had passed. Over four years now.”
Shock blew Didi’s mouth wide open. She dropped to the ground and started to wail. Nnaa grabbed her. “Still yourself woman, if tears could bring her back you would have met her here today.”
But nothing could stop Didi from rolling on the ground, covering herself with dust, making herself look convincing. “She was my sister! My only sister!” she cried.
Ola pressed down her eyelids to release the liquid clouding her eyes. She hadn’t intended for the tears to come. She had always tried to choke them back. But she’d discovered sometimes it just becomes too difficult to do.
She pressed her lips tight, inhaled deeply and blinked away the tears. She wiped at her eyes and flopped down on one of the logs, clutching Ikem to herself.
“How did it happen?” Didi asked.
She now sat beside Nnaa in front of his hut. Anyone who saw her dust-speckled body and hair might think her a mad woman, one at the early stage though, because her wrapper was still fairly neat and properly knotted. Unlike the young girls in Odu, older women covered their belly. They tied a longer piece of wrapper that covered their chest down.
Nnaa hunched over and folded his hands between his crossed legs. “She was killed in the raid.”
Didi tapped his shoulder, mouth agape. “Don’t say!”
Nnaa gave an absent nod. “They said she was one. Ayuka called her out that day.”
“Never!” Didi rose furiously from her seat. She put both hands on her waist and turned to the air above. “My sister is not a witch. I would have been the first to know.”
Ola heard her and got up from her seat and ran into her hut. She dropped at the edge of the bed and buried her face in her hands.
“Men are wicked,” Didi said as she lowered herself back to her seat. “Men are really wicked!” Nnaa joggled his legs and continued staring ahead. “A man without a wife,” Didi began to mutter. “Children without their mother—” She shook her head. “Men are really wicked.” She spat.
“We’ve grown over it,” Nnaa said, aware he’d just lied. Nne’s death had ever remained his despair.
“How have you been coping, my good man?”
“The goddess lives.”
Didi nodded. “Oh yes, she really does.” She turned away. “Strength to the weak and comfort to the mourning she had ever remained, our great goddess be praised!”
Nnaa nodded in agreement.
“I will stay and help if you wouldn’t say no,” she said as she turned back to him.
“No, good woman, you have done enough already. Your family needs you too.”
She slowly withdrew her face from him, sighing. “I no longer have any. Like you I’ve also grieved.”
Nnaa looked at her and swayed his head, in the way people do to show pity. “Accept my sympathy.”
Didi nodded. She reached across her cheek to wipe a trickle of tear. From the corner of her eye she peeped at him. She had expected him to say more, ask more, at least of course ask her who she had mourned. But Nnaa said nothing more. He folded his arms on his belly and leaned back into the wall, the dismal look still on his face. He was dark and lean. Ola got her fairness from Nne. A short graying beard hung on his chin and the skin around his eyes had begun to crease. But his youthful handsomeness hadn’t entirely disappeared; he had finely cut lips.
Didi stood and took hold of her basket. “I must begin to leave now, my good man.”
“Oh, it is dusk already, are you sure can still find your way?”
“Yes. My only problem is the darkness. It scares me a lot. If I could just get a torch—”
“Perhaps you’d want to sleep and continue your journey in the morning,” Nnaa offered. Didi gave a surreptitious smile before turning back to him. “You are indeed a nice man. My friend said so and I’ve seen for myself indeed.”
“I think you a nice woman too,” Nnaa said.
“Follow me. I will show you to your hut.”
A woman without a family in a home without a mother, no trick would have worked better. But for now Didi only got one night, far still from her actual intention.
Ola leaned from the log, drawing meaninglessly on the soft ground.
“Did you sleep well, my daughter?” Didi’s whispering voice startled her. She’d noticed when the door of Ola’s hut creaked open because she too hadn’t been doing much sleeping.
She’d slept in the old hut at the back of Nnaa’s. There were three of them in the compound; the one Ola shared with Ikem faced the front entrance of the compound, top opposite to Nnaa’s. Nnaa’s hut was biggest; it was the one he shared with Nne while she was alive. The other hut at the back, the one Didi slept in, was the oldest. It was Nnaa’s molting hut, the one he built when he first left his parent’s house. It had since turned into a spare hut, for visitors like Didi who would like to sleep over. Ola had dusted the bed for her that night.
“The night was good, my mother’s friend.”
Didi pulled a log close and sat beside her. “You must be missing her a lot?”
“She was a good mother.”
“I know, my child. I know.” Didi looked at her with the kind of smile that shows on people’s face when they remember something pleasing. “Hardly will the market close without her mentioning of you.”
Ola looked at her and pressed her lips together. She did that often, the purpose not too clear. Probably a way of subduing the stark thoughts. “They said she was one of them,” she finally started to say. “They burned her.”
Didi sighed, hissed and shook her head.
Ola took a deep breath and swallowed before she could continue. She had to; otherwise the tears might start to come again. “But she is not. They lied. They killed an innocent woman.”
Didi took hold of her hand and fingered it. “I know her too well, my dear. Your mother was not a witch.”
Ola stared at her. Something told her she could feel safe with this woman. She knew Nne well, and even had her kind of skin.
“Do you ever wish to see her again?” Didi asked.
“If ever it was possible.”
“It is, my child.” She squeezed her shoulder gently.
Ola stared at her, the sadness in her eyes now replaced by curiosity. “How? She couldn’t have survived the pit. No one could.”
“No, my dear, there’s a place.”
Didi nodded. “Yes.”
“A place where you can call her and she will appear from the other world and speak to you.”
Ola frowned, puzzled. “I’ve never heard of such a place.”
Didi gave a wan smile. “Same thing I said when a friend told me.”
“You’ve gone yourself?”
“Who did you summon?”
There was long pause before anyone of them spoke again.
Ola watched Didi turn quietly away. She understood how she might be feeling. Only she didn’t know how to offer helpful consolation. Consolation only made people sadder, experience had taught her.
Didi finally gave an amused snort and wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “I’m sorry, my child, I shouldn’t have bothered you with such—”
“No. I’d like to go too.”
“Yes. I want to see Nne again.”
Didi regarded her for a moment. “You would hear her voice too.”
“Could I touch her too?” Ola has started to dream.
“No, my child. You can’t. She is no longer of our world.”
“You have questions you’d like to ask her?”
She nodded. “Yes. A lot”
Didi made an understanding expression of the face and nodded. “I can imagine,” she said, turning away again.
“I’m sorry about your child,” Ola said.
“It’s ok, my daughter.”
“Where do you come from?” Ola asked, in hope to create diversion.
“Uda, two villages away from midtown.”
“Yes, I hear of them, the women are excellent craftswomen.”
Didi managed a tiny smile. “You speak right, my child.”
“Wait, you gave Nne that woven pot, didn’t you?” Ola said, excitement brightening her face.
Didi grinned and nodded. How could Ola have known she had no idea of the item she was talking about? “I see you liked it?”
“Yes, never seen where raffia was used to weave a pot before. It was so beautiful.”
Didi chuckled. “It was the same thing your mother said when she saw it.”
Ola continued smiling.
“Do you know she had to threaten me with a knife before I gave it to her?”
Ola threw out a laugh. “You know Nnaa tried making something like that but couldn’t.”
Didi made an amusing face of pity. “Aw! Poor man. Perhaps you would like to come someday?”
“Yes, I will like to.”
The smile lingered on Ola’s face as though she was keeping it. The stories about Nne brought so much cheer. “Do you have any more children?” she finally asked.
Didi recoiled at the question again and Ola felt sorry. “I’m sorry to have asked.”
“You needn’t be, child. It was just her, all in all.”
Didi managed to nod. A wretched look came onto her face. “She was only ten.”
“How did it happen?”
“A terrible illness. I had to take her to my mother’s village for healing—” She turned away to blow her nose. It was a common saying in Odu that the saddest of tears come from the nose. She drew in ragged breath and continued. “The medicine man said it was already late when I brought her. Too late for anything. I watched her die.”
Ola swayed her head. For a long period neither of them spoke. Okri birds now sang from the tree behind the hut. “When do we go?” Ola was first to speak.
“To the place you mean?”
“In a week’s time. I’ll tell you where to meet me up.”
“Remember it’ll be our little secret.”
The phrase hit Ola like an invisible blow. It was what Nne used to refer to her dreams. “You have my word,” she finally said, nodding. “But why a whole week?”
“I have my reasons. You may not understand now.”
“If you say so.”
“Yes, my child. I would leave you now, the day has already begun.”
Didi stood and Ola watched till she disappeared behind the hut. She turned to her front and dropped her chin on one hand, eyes gazing steadily ahead.
She had never thought it was possible she would see Nne again. It would be a treasure. They’d talk about so many things, about the pear tree she had planted at the farm which Nnaa watered regularly and said will soon start to bear fruits, about their new beautiful kitchen which have come to replace the old one she always complained of the leaky roof, and then about Ikem—the stories of his numerous mischief will keep her laughing on and on.
But before she goes, she must ask her of one thing, something very important—to grant her the power to finally avenge her, bringing pain to all those that had caused her pain. The dead held unimaginable strength which they can easily transfer to anyone they like—that Ola has heard before and believed.
But she did not let her mind think of who her revenge should fall on at that moment, who was well deserving of it. King Oduma perhaps, His Royal Majesty, the crowned king of Odu, Onyema’s father; after all he was the one who organized the raid in the first place.
But then, it could be the man that she believed convicted Nne wrongly. That witch teller man, the old man with bald head and wrinkled face that pointed Nne out from the gathering that day. He’d walked past her in his usual tortoise-like gait, muttering and spitting like an insane child, but he’d turned and waddled back to her again. His eyes alternated between the faces of mother and child till they finally rested on Ola’s. But it was Nne that Ayuka finally pointed out that day. Only he knew how he distinguished the witches among the many rows of women and young girls, what method he used. Some said he could smell the witches’ blood which reeked only of evil. Perhaps that was the reason his nose always remained wrinkled each time he was pointing out a witch. The young girls he pointed out were few, fewer than the older women. According to Ayuka, those he had called out were only those he was sure had taken the blood oath and had started using their witch powers. Those whose powers were still dormant he could not smell and point out. And they were the ones that still had the chance to be redeemed by the light of Ihe.
The moon maiden has the power to cast out the witch spirit from such children. Even a priestess can exorcize evil from the girls too, only her method is prolonged, and can be quite agonizing too. The girls will have to remain at the temple for up to seven days drinking potions upon potions, each tasting worse than the other, till they have barfed all that is evil in them.
But Efu lost her power of exorcism too when she defiled the sacred temple of Ihe. The king wouldn’t have needed a witch teller even, if she had been in any way up to her duties.
Ola may still even decide to extend some of her revenge scheme to the big-chested men that dragged Nne out from the gathering that evening as the other accused women to throw them into the pit of fire. They had heeded the king’s instruction well and utterly neglected all the convicts’ pleas and protests. They’d roughed most of them up, especially the ones aggressive with their remonstration. But Nne didn’t struggle with them that much. She had followed the men almost willingly, only turning round on and on to look at her wailing daughter who one of the guards had grabbed. The guard held Ola tight till she was finally thrown into the pit. But Nne’s mild protest only caused the many crowd that had gathered to sneer at her the more.
“Greetings, good man,” Didi said, bowing.
Nnaa removed the long chewing stick sticking out from his mouth and spat. The back chair squeaked at the joints as he turned to look at Didi. “Greetings accepted, woman of Uda, how did you see the night in my home?”
“The night had treated me well, my friend’s husband,” Didi said. She hugged her basket firmly to her side. “I shall be on my way now.”
“I pray you reach home safely, good woman. It was nice having—”
“Father,” Ola called, in such a familiar tone Nnaa knew at once what she was about to do.
She took a few steps forward to stand beside Didi. “Perhaps she could stay some more,” she finished.
“Ola?” Nnaa stood and took her by the hand and they moved slightly away. “She cannot stay, we hardly know her.
“But she was mother’s friend and she seems a nice woman.”
“Seems, you said.”
“Father, she would only stay a week.”
Nnaa stared at her and then hung his head.
Ola pasted a babyish look on her face. “Father, p-l-e-a-s-e.”
“And what made you think she’d even like to stay?”
She gave a small shrug. “We could ask her?”
Nnaa hummed and hung his head again.
Unlike daughters her mate, she hardly demanded favors; new wrappers, jewelries, parties, none— so each time she finally did, Nnaa would think twice before denying her.
Nnaa finally shrugged—a shrug of surrender that induced a smile on Ola’s face.
They walked back to Didi.
“Well, woman, my daughter asked if you’d be kind enough to stay a week more with us. We’ll be most grateful to have you.”
“Gratitude, nice man, I shall gladly stay,” Didi said. “At least let it be my little tribute to my old friend.” She turned to Ola and they shared a small, conspiring smile.
A week seemed time enough. But Didi knew she must take her scheme slow if she ever hoped any of her plans to succeed.