Copyright © Daniel Nkado 2014
All rights reserved. The reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form now known or hereafter invented is forbidden without the consent of the author.
This is purely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are all a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or real-life situations is entirely coincidental.
The quiet of midnight chilled the air. Above, thousands of stars twinkled in the sky. Yet no moon was seen.
Flapping wings flew across, screeching.
Each owl dropped on a flat stone at the mouth of the cave and in an instant, all four were in their human witch form—hair in long, thread-covered twigs and a black wrapper neatly tied around their body from the chest down.
Around, in the tall grasses and bush, deep-forest insects cackled and droned, and once in a while evil birds shrieked from the high trees.
The good people of Odu feared the cave of Akwalu, the meeting place of the witches of Odu, as much as they did the evil lord himself. Relief to their dismay, the cave stood far in wilderness, beyond any form of human association. King Oduma would have done something otherwise, the tough king of Odu held no mercy for witches, and neither their properties.
The women rose and started toward the gloomy end of the cave. The wavering flames of the fire pots sitting all around the space had only created little light and their half-formed shadows danced eerily on the walls. The smell of dirt and damp and evil hung in the air.
They stood in front of their seats, head lolling down and hands folded at the back, awaiting Ezenwanyi’s arrival.
The two stone benches faced each other, across from the tall seat Ezenwanyi sat on. She was queen, and always arrived later than them.
Ezenwanyi’s black wrapper occupied her bulk well. The long clothing almost swept the ground as she strutted along, in her usual full confidence—head held up straight and eyes steady and daring. With one hand she clutched her black cat to her armpit while the other held her long, shiny staff. The twigs of her hair were longer, fatter, held round with a beaded reddish band.
They bowed as she passed them and climbed onto her seat.
“We greet you, Ezenwanyi!” they chorused.
She adjusted herself into the seat. “Welcome, great wings of the night,” she said, her voice as grating as always.
She flicked her fingers in the air in a gesture for them to sit.
They discussed at length about the coming festival, about their plan. The moon festival, the biggest festival in Odu, celebrated by all of Odu on the first full moon month of each year approached and the witches had started to plan again, like always. Even now that the coming festival was going to be a special one—it had been predicted that the year was going to host an elder moon—a second twin moon in the same year, an event that could only occur four times in a century. This was why the witches would not rest, for they knew what the power of the elder moon could grant them. Their seniors had failed many years ago, but another failure was what they wouldn’t risk this time. The great master must rise. No moon maiden has been named, the moon stone has disappeared; everything now worked to their good.
“Ezenwanyi, but what of the girl,” Didi asked. She was the youngest, and perhaps also the wiliest.
“Yes, Ezenwanyi, the girl,” Ujuaku spoke, “wouldn’t she do anything to thwart our plans this time?”
Ujuaku had the soft and smooth voice required of someone who led the witch song. She was slender with small pitiful eyes.
Ezenwanyi turned to regard her. Then she hummed and began pulling at one of the twigs of her hair. She did that often— pulling and sometimes twisting the long, thread-clad twigs, her reason not very apparent, even to her fellows. But they knew the action indicated anything but happiness.
“The girl knows nothing yet,” Ezenwanyi finally said. She returned her hand back to stroking her cat. “She can’t do anything.”
“But her powers only but grows, Ezenwanyi,” Ujuaku said.
“Then we must drink enough blood before then, Ujuaku. E-n-o-u-g-h!”
They broke into throaty giggles.
“Perhaps the blood of royalty this time,” Ugedu suggested, her voice made hollower by laughter. “It gives unimaginable strength!” Ugedu’s words heightened the amusement and this time their laughter resounded throughout the cave. She was oldest, gangly and giggly, and by far the ugliest—she had jutting front teeth.
“I say we kill the girl before the festival comes,” came the deep, manlike voice of Ajulu. She hardly spoke and sometimes would not even join them in the giggling. She started keeping to herself since the day she lost contest for the title of Ezenwanyi—the leader of the coven who solely held the power to commune with Akwalu, the great master.
“No, Ajulu,” Ezenwanyi said. “Not until we have the stone. Killing the girl would mean our losing the stone forever.”
“Forgive me, Ezenwanyi, but how can we even talk about killing her when our powers are useless against her?” Ujuaku’s voice had gone quieter. She’d always been the jittery one.
Ajulu frowned. “And who said we will be needing our witch powers to kill her, Ujuaku?” Clenching her fingers in demonstration, she said, “We will squeeze life out of her if need be!”
Ugedu snorted with laughter. Ezenwanyi eyed her and she turned quiet.
The witches feared the moon maiden. She probably was the only one strong enough to ruin their plan. Since Azuma, the last moon maiden, died many years ago, they had wreaked havoc freely in the land. Even to the extent King Oduma had to go out of his ways to organize a witch raid himself.
“I say we kill the girl and bother about the stone later,” Ajulu went on. “We should be thankful Ajo-udele has revealed her to us now that she is still without her powers. I see no reason to wait.”
“Quiet, Ajulu, I am the queen here and only I will say what and what not to be done.”
“Quiet!” Ezenwanyi yelled. Her cat meowed.
“She must not live beyond this month!” Ajulu said still. “I, Ajulunuzo-ajulunohia, said it!”
Ezenwanyi fixed her with a scowl. “Ajulu, I bade you remain quiet this moment or leave us!” she said. She would not tolerate any form of rebellious attitude from her again.
“E-z-e-n-w-a-n-y-i!” the others chorused, bowing their heads in respect.
But Ajulu has gotten too upset to grovel for forgiveness. She stood, gave Ezenwanyi an ugly scowl and walked out. She got to the mouth of the cave, knelt and stretched both arms in the air. They became wings as the rest of her body took the shape of an owl and she flew off.
Ezenwanyi turned to the others. “Now listen all of you!” They obeyed. “We all crave for Akwalu to rise again, but we must be ready for him too.”
They nodded humbly.
“He must have the moon stone, he must have that which the goddess had used to defeat him else he won’t be any pleased with us. Or who dares to face the wrath of Akwalu?”
They shook their heads.
“Nobody, great queen.”
“But, Ezenwanyi, how can she lead us to the stone when she doesn’t even know who she really is?” Didi asked.
“And she must not know, Ugodidiyamma,” Ezenwanyi said. “She must not!” She turned to Ujuaku. “Ujuaku, did you hear me?”
Ujuaku bowed. “Yes, Ezenwanyi.” She looked thoughtful. “But my queen, what if Efu named her before the festival?”
Ezenwanyi laughed— a long jerky laugh like a series of hiccups strung together. “The fat priestess no longer holds the power to commune with the white goddess,” Ezenwanyi said in between laughter.
Their eyes widened at her utterance.“How do you mean, great queen?” Ujuaku was first to ask.
“Efu desecrated the sacred temple a long time ago and the white goddess had ceased speaking to her.”
They glanced round each other, eyes glittering with surprise.
“And no one knows?” Didi said.
“Not a single soul.” Ezenwanyi continued laughing and they soon joined her.
“Akwalu must rise,” Ezenwanyi said as her laughter died out. “It is his time now.”
She reached to her neck and caressed the piece of bone hanging on a string there. “All the items are ready. With the moon stone in his grip he will hold off the goddess forever.”
“What is the goddess without her vessel even?” Ugedu said, initiating another bout of laughter.
The thought of Akwalu rising again and taking over the high mountains of Odu lightened up the witches’ hearts. With his rising, they would go from being hunted to become mini-gods, respected and feared by all. It was the great master’s promise after all.
Ezenwanyi relaxed back into her seat. “Ujuaku, music!”
Ujuaku cleared her throat and began the witch song. “Oyo yoyo tili jo, kweze, oyo yoyo tili jo…”—the soft melody of Ujuaku’s voice rippled all around the dark cave.
They squirmed round in their seats, hands with nails like talons floating about in the air.
Ezenwanyi wriggled in her seat, swaying her neck to the rhythm of the song and stroking her cat. In the peak of the excitement she opened her mouth in her usual toothy smile, revealing a set of hideous dark-stained teeth.
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.
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 to 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.
“Jagara! Jagara! Jagara!” The bells on Efu’s ankles and the tiny gongs strung to the end of her long wood staff rattled as she swaggered to the palace.
The fading evening sun cast a funny shadow of her on the ground. Still her shadow looked no too amusing than she really looked, than a priestess of Ihe looked. She wore a long red wrapper bedecked with mirror discs and shells and her hair was made into a mass of plaits packed and twisted into a big lump on the top of her head. A line of white chalk ran below her left eye and white dots speckled her cheeks, top of her shoulders, arms and part of her legs.
Her maids— two young maidens clad in similar-patterned breast and waist cloth and also dotted all over in white followed her from behind. One of them carried her raffia bag and the other a calabash containing worship items. Every now and then they’d sing, “Nwanyi ka ibie—greater woman, lead us, guide us, speak for us!”
Efu would sway and waggle her shoulders before moving on. But it was wrong for the priestess to have maids, for she was only a servant, her duties devoted only to the service of the moon maiden and the good people of Odu.
The guards at the palace gate like the other people she passed on her way bowed as she approached them. “Greetings, wise one,” they greeted.
As usual, she responded with only a clank of the gongs on her staff and walked past.
She was called wise one, a title given to the one that communed with the gods. For in the incomparable wisdom of the gods she spoke.
Inside the palace, Efu and her maids stood in front of the palace hall—a rectangular space walled round with artistic weaving of canes and bamboo, and waited. The roof of the hall was of classy fine thatch and made into steps.
The king was not on his throne when they entered the compound and one of the guards had gone to his chambers to call him. If it had been someone else, someone more common, they must have to leave to come back later. But the visit of the priestess of Ihe was real treasure, especially in these times.
“Greetings, good king of my land,” Efu said as the king approached.
Three of his personal guards walked behind him. They were clothed in a slightly different outfit than the rest of the guards and the two in front carried huge knives.
Efu only bowed slightly when she greeted the king. Her mother, Erulu, knelt to greet the king; only a moon maiden was not required to. Many things had changed since Efu became priestess.
“Greetings accepted, wise one,” King Oduma said.
Efu, though plump was quite taller than him. She would have looked more beautiful if not for the facial markings, roomy dress and funny hairdo.
The king entered the palace hall and she followed. Her two maids stayed back at the mouth of the hall.
King Oduma pulled up his long robe which swept the ground as he walked (all his royal garments did) and climbed onto his throne. The many stories of King Oduma’s deeds did not match his size at all. As one group of gossiping maidens once deduced, Onyema’s handsome face might be from him, but the prince sure got his height from his mother.
King Oduma truly had the strong handsome features of his son, only he was darker—probably it was age and his lips weren’t as full—maybe that too, Onyema had inherited from his late mother, queen Asamma. He had bushy sideburns which had started to turn grey just like the short beard on his chin.
The king settled down and one of the three guards following him picked the long fan propped against the side of the throne and began to fan him. The tall throne stood at the far end of the hall facing a narrow central way flanked at each side by an array of armchairs constructed from shiny wood. Plane wood carvings of a lion head above two crossed huge knives and a large image of breastfeeding woman hung on the wall atop the throne. The other two guards with huge knives and very mean faces walked behind the throne and stood at each side of it.
Efu stood at the middle of hall, vibrating.
“Efu, mouth of the great goddess, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?” The king’s voice was calm and calculated, as always.
Efu stopped vibrating and hummed. “Good king of our land, I come with a complaint.”
Efu eyed the king guardedly. “The festival of the moon approaches and I’m yet to see the people at the temple with their sacrifices.”
After the disappointment last year when no moon maiden was named, King Oduma had ordered his people to stop taking sacrifices to the temple. According to him, it was high time they showed the goddess how they really feel about her continued silence.
King Oduma tilted his head back and looked at Efu in a way that came across as withering. “Is there going to be any festival this year?” He made an expressive wave. “I mean what’s the point when the goddess had remained silent still?”
Efu’s brows bunched together in a sudden frown. She was clearly unhappy with the king’s comment. But then, what could she do? He was king after all. Her hand clenched round the orb of her staff as she took a step forward. “The gods are wise, my king.”
King Oduma nodded. “Oh yes, they are, my dear,” he said, not minding if the irony in his voice came out too obvious. “Always.”
Efu ignored it. “Even I cannot explain the way of the gods, Your Majesty,” she continued. “I’m only but their voice. I speak only when they tell me to.”
King Oduma nodded again, but this time it was difficult to tell if there was any association of irony.
Efu plunked her staff on the floor so that the tiny gongs hanging around it jiggled and rattled. “Well, my king, with a glad heart, I tell you I bring good news this time.”
Interest popped out of King Oduma’s face as he pulled out of the chair. “Let me hear of it.”
Efu’s lips quivered in a small smile. “I’m glad to inform you, Your Majesty, that our goddess has finally spoken.”
For a moment, King Oduma only stared blankly at her. Then he swallowed hard and said, “This is good news.”
Efu grinned. “Yes, my king, the great goddess has finally chosen her next maiden. She will be named on the night of the festival and all shall become well again.”
“This is indeed great news!” King Oduma said again, his face giving way for a large smile. “The gong man will spread the message this evening and the sacrifices shall begin at once.”
King Oduma might be strict, but he took no delight in the suffering of his people. The many unfortunate happenings in his kingdom had left him very upset over the years.
“You will live long, my king.” Efu bowed and left.
The gong man walked that night. All were happy to hear the good news from the priestess. The thought of seeing the full moon again, the rains coming as early as they should, and the eventual end to all suffering, flooded each heart with joy. Now the people would bring the largest of their tubers and their fattest goats and cocks to the temple, all in hope of a greater harvest next season.
At the cave that night, each owl landed on a rock before taking their witch form.
“Ajulu, kneel.” Ezenwanyi’s voice resonated with anger.
Ajulu stepped forward and knelt before the witch queen.
“We shall have your apology now or you face fitting punishment.”
Ajulu held out her two palms in the air and lifted her eyes to Ezenwanyi’s face. “Forgive me, oh great queen.”
Ezenwanyi gave her a long, piercing stare before nodding. “You may rise.”
Ajulu rose and turned to her mates. “Apologies, fellow wings of night.”
Didi and Ujuaku nodded their acceptance.
“This is becoming more of a habit,” Ugedu grunted.
Ajulu shot her a frown before joining her in the seat.
“It is now roughly three months before the festival,” Ezenwanyi began.
They exchanged glances, nodding.
“I can’t say for any of you but I know that is not so much time for us.”
They nodded their agreement again. “Ezenwanyi, we heard news that Efu claims the goddess has finally spoken to her,” Didi said.
“Yes, Ezenwanyi, she said the next moon maiden will be named come this festival,” Ujuaku added.
“I heard that upsetting announcement too,” Ugedu joined.
“Never!” Ezenwanyi shrieked. She pulled at one of the twigs of her hair. “Lies! All lies! The white goddess dare not speak to Efu again.”
Ugedu coughed. “My queen, maybe the goddess has finally decided to forgive her. After all she has more pressing issues at hand now.”
“Never! Efu’s offense was a deplorable one. Abominable!”
“E-z-e-n-w-a-n-y-i!” they chorused, their heads dropped down in a bow.
Ezenwanyi turned to Ujuaku, her face taking on an expression of complete disappointment. “Ujuaku, you have failed us.”
Ujuaku dropped to her knees at once—an act Ajulu would have considered unnecessary. “Forgive me, Ezenwanyi.”
Ezenwanyi ignored her. “Didi, you must go to the girl now. Find out what she knows. As you said, let her lead you straight to the stone.”
“Yes, my queen.”
The faint smile that lingered on Didi’s face showed how much she had longed for Ezenwanyi to finally consider her proposal. For her it was a way to finally prove her worth to Ezenwanyi and the entire coven. Because she was youngest, she sometimes saw the others as neglectful of her true worth.
Ujuaku hung her head as the stench of her incompetence drifted all around the space.
Ngala was the maiden betrothed to Prince Onyema for marriage. Her mother, Odochi, had been Queen Asamma’s best friend while she was alive. The prince was only nine when their betrothal ceremony was performed.
Ngala’s beauty had become apparent even while she was a child. When she turned five, the king finally agreed to engage them, after his wife’s persistent persuasion. King Oduma had been very fond of his late wife. Even in death he never really got over her.
Though he had remarried—a crowned king of Odu was not supposed to be without a wife—none of his two new wives had gotten close to replacing his love for Queen Asamma, Onyema’s mother. Even the palace maids were aware their king did not like his new wives that much, some of them said it was because neither of them could compare to Asamma in beauty, others believed it was because they were yet to give him a male child.
Prince Onyema as a child had been quick to grow fond of his five-year-old wife-to-be. He took good care of her and made sure she lacked nothing, even though little Ngala was not very easy to please. But as he got older and developed his mature eyes, he discovered Ngala held little appeal for him in such matters.
But in Odu, breaking a betrothal oath was no cinch, if ever possible at all.
“Greetings, good household!”
Ola rose and positioned her ear to outside. The voice she heard had sounded familiar, but she knew she was in no place that voice should be expected. She was at home, at the back of her hut, removing narrow strips from the palm fronds piled up in front of her. Nnaa would use the strips to weave a new basket when he returned. He hardly allowed Ola go to the farm with them. When Nne was alive, he called them apunanwu—the ones that never enter the sun, and made sure they never did.
Ola waited till the voice came again, louder this time and its huskiness pronounced.
“Who is at home?” Prince Onyema called out again.
Ola ran out. With a glum face she knelt, at the front of the hut—leagues away from the prince who stood in the middle of the compound.
“Good day, my prince,” she said.
“Come, pretty one,” Onyema said.
She stood, but did not make any attempt to go close to him. Her face did not show any bit of comfort with him around. The roadside blocking she would have managed but coming to her house, way off what she could bear. He hadn’t come alone even. His two men stood behind him. He probably wasn’t able to dodge them this time.
Although in his early twenties, the prince travelled with men in their thirties or so as his men. Like him they wore knee-length shorts, only theirs were pale yellow—the color of the uniform of all palace servants— and lacked the shiny leather pockets at the front and the other royal embroideries. And instead of the heavily patterned green shirt he wore, the men wore short brown leathery shirts. Long sheathed knives dangled from their waists. Unlike the ordinary young men of Odu, the prince showed pronounced variety in dressing. He wore waist wrappers at times too, but with matching neck cloth—his clothes always matched.
He waited for her, but when it became obvious she was not coming to meet him, he started toward her. Ola observed his strides from the corner of her eyes. There was something charming about the way he moves. She inhaled deeply and brushed the feelings aside. He is not for you, a voice reminded her from inside. You don’t belong to his class. She gave a terse nod as if in obedience.
Onyema reached to her front and set appraising eyes to her face. Ola found his eyes stabbing. She wondered why they were so white. Oh, why wouldn’t they be?—she quickly thought up, when they hadn’t ever been touched by smoke.
She continued to watch the ground, her fingers wriggling and twining around each other behind her back.
“You look tense,” Onyema said.
Shouldn’t I? Ola’s brow furrowed even further. She slipped her face upward in a short glance at his face. “I’m sorry, my prince, but I’m going to ask you to leave,” she said.
“What?” Onyema could not comprehend. The benign expression he saw on her face did not match her words.
His men stepped forward, but he waved them to stay back. Their job was to keep him safe and they would not hesitate to give up their own lives to do it, but they wouldn’t have anyone be rude to him too. Ola was aware of that too. And she hadn’t intended to be rude to the prince. She wouldn’t dare. Though she had not always felt so comfortable each time the prince was around her, insulting him was the last thing she thought of. And it wasn’t just because of the consequences of such an act—she knew the prince may not report her even. It was something else, something else that added to making the prince different, frightening.
It had always been strange to her, why his presence of all things had continued to scare her. Scare would hardly even serve the term because the prince obviously did not scare her in the same way Muo-abali, the dreadful spirit of the night, scared the people who dared to toddle into his path in the night. No. The prince scared Ola in a different way, in a way she couldn’t yet comprehend.
And even now he was standing in front of her, in her father’s compound, the dread he carry had seemed all worsened.
“Ola, you say I should leave?” Onyema asked again, silently praying she did not repeat herself. His heart hadn’t taken it so well the first time.
But Ola did not utter another word, or raise her face from the ground.
“Ola.” He stepped closer to her and she smelt the sweet fragrance of the expensive skin oil he’d used, which again reminded her that he was royalty. Not her class. “Ola, I really like you,” he said.
The words stilled her briefly. She’d heard him say that before—he’d said it to her the first time they met. Though she wouldn’t deny the words did actually have sounded pleasing, but she later brushed it aside, concluding it was worthless. And now, with some effort, she’d done it again. It made no difference if he said it a thousand times, if he actually meant it. Ngala was there, the king, the whole of Odu were watching!
He reached to touch one of the plaits of her scalp-hugging cornrows and she drew back, respectfully. His hand closed up into a fist in the air and he pulled it down.
He looked on the ground, probably to see if he could discover what’s holding her attention in the sand. He saw nothing, only that her toe-nails were neat and matched the fair skin of her feet.
He stepped back from her. “Why don’t you like me, Ola?”
He finally asked that question, a question that has given him sleepless nights for weeks. It had remained very confusing to him why this girl, of all, would be so different.
Ola glanced at him and thrust her face down again. He stared at her intently. But she wasn’t going to answer the question, she did not even know how to. Although Ola could easily pass for a self-assured young woman, her reaction toward the prince had always depicted inadequacy. And probably that was what made her afraid of him. She hated to be reminded where she came from.
“Ola, answer me.” There was a commanding note to his voice this time.
Ola’s lips drew apart but no word came out. Her lips were full and as expected of someone with her kind of skin, pinkish, like the inside of an udara fruit. She compressed them into a thin line. “But you are married,” she said finally.
Onyema gave a tiny, hollow laugh—a snort actually. “Ola.” He took hold of her hand and could feel the shivering in it. “I’m not married. Not yet. Ngala is betrothed to me, yes, but I’m not ready to marry her.”
The look on Ola’s face did not change any bit. She took back her hand. “Does it matter?” she blurted out, as someone would talk to a person that had just told a big lie.
Onyema looked slightly puzzled. “How do you mean?”
“Whenever you are ready, she is still the one you’re going to marry.”
Ola felt surprised at her own words.
He reached to her chin and held her head up. Her eyes slammed shut before they could fall on his face.
“Ola, look at me,” he said. Never in his life would he have imagined he’d one day beg someone, a local girl born to a farmer, to look at him. Ola managed another peep at his face and freed herself from him.
“Ola, if you like me—” He was saying this when he broke off, as if something had run to his mind. “Ola, I will stop bothering you only on one condition,” he finished instead.
A mechanical gulp ran down Ola’s throat. It was difficult to tell if the reaction had resulted from the face-to-face encounter or her anxiety to hear the only one condition that could rid her of future ones. He did not wait for her to respond. “Just say you don’t like me and that is it.” He moved his hand expressively. “I’d never come close to you again.”
A chill went down her. It wasn’t what she had expected to hear; she had no expectation at all even. Her senses had seemed all jumbled at the time, like a pot of soup filled with several spices each fighting for dominion of scent. All she wanted to do now is run into her hut and wrap herself under the raffia mat on her bed. She would remain like that till her head settled.
“Ola, I am waiting.” Onyema voice held a note of threat this time. It startled her. He drew back and crossed both arms on his chest. Had she dared another peep at him, she would have seen the perfect bulge of his biceps, or even further, behind each arm, the well-carved contours of his chest.
But the uneasy feeling had gotten amplified now. Her limbs now felt stiff, woodlike.
“I’m sorry, my prince, I do not like you,” she uttered and ran inside.
Onyema ignored the trembling in her voice and believed every word of it. He had to—his question, his condition, all was clear.
She doesn’t like me, he muttered under his breath. He winced at the sound of the creaky door of the hut as it slammed shut. His eyes went dull with sorrow and for a miserable moment he thought he was going to cry. Then he collected himself, exhaled deeply and turned to walk home. But his steps were now heavy, devoid of their usual confidence. His men can only feel sorry for their young master; they had not the slightest idea of how to help him.
Ola remained indoors all through the afternoon, till Nnaa returned and Ikem had to rap on her door a few times before she came out. Even seven-year old Ikem could see the sadness in his big sister’s eyes as she plodded out of the hut.
But to Ola’s sadness was a hint of relief too, one offered by the thought of freedom. Freedom from all his disturbances. To her, she had done the right thing. Better done now than later, she concluded.
But she was surprised when she discovered sleep turned harder that night. She had not always been a smooth sleeper, but her dreams did not come till toward morning and never carried so much sadness along. That night she kept tossing around on the bed. Her heart raced, an overwhelming sense of loss engulfed her whole. The feelings came with an unfamiliar form of bleakness, a different kind of sadness she had not known before.
Onyema did not find the situation any less tormenting. He remained sunk in gloom for days. He would not eat and now spent his nights as day.
Even when he decided to channel more of his time into his training and even saw some improvement on his shots, he still found little relief for himself. His torture proved scariest at night, and he at one time, found himself praying a silly prayer to Ihe, asking the good goddess to take the nights away or at least make them shorter.
But the king must not find out about his condition. So he always faked the smiles and did his best to appear normal whenever he was in his father’s presence. And he doesn’t trust that cook so much too, in an attempt to gain the king’s favour—it appeared all the servants in the palace compete for it— she may whisper to the king’s ears that she’d always returned to see the prince’s food untouched. So each time the food tray was dropped on the table standing on the patio behind his big hut, Onyema would open the bowl containing the soup and pick all the lumps of meat and fish, before sneaking out with the plate of fufu to the other side of the palace compound, where the animal house was located. Pouring in a quantity of the wash water into the soup bowl also made it look used.
He continued on like this for days till he finally decided to confide in someone, someone he guessed could be of help. His best friend, Chuka. Though he had cousins he could have easily talked to, one thing made him believe Chuka was just the right person for this one. For one, he wasn’t of royalty, like Ola. Perhaps he is the only one that could make him understand what could have prompted an ordinary girl into rejecting a prince.
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