Last night I saw her again. But this time she stood sadly before walking into my bedroom like the old friendly ghost that she was. Silently I watched as she passed by my bed and then as if she did not see me walked through the walls. I watched her leave as my walls turned red and the once familiar writings on the old red walls of the cave in the belly of Idah Mountains, deep in the Ojaina forest-the spiritual center of the royal clan and resting place of all dead Attahs appeared on my walls. And for the first time, I heard my name in a whisper.
‘Manale’ I woke up staring at my wall in cold sweat.
I knew what I had to do.
The rains fell insistently for days unending in continuous almost rhythmic sequence producing musicals that only the gods could dance to. The thick black clouds lightening seconds before the loud talking thunder would strike and the shout of the enemy would be heard. Yes, the land was under attack again and the gods were killing the Junkun warriors that had invaded our land. It was so dark one could not tell whether it was the start of a new day or the middle of night. The gods had come down because the land flowed with blood of virgins that had been sacrificed. A dry fast had been proclaimed throughout the land and no one was to leave their dwelling until the last drop of the rains.
This was the god’s commandment.
I obeyed not because I believed in Obochi-the god’s emissary but because I feared the Junkun warriors waiting in the bushes unwearyingly and filled with hatred to wet their spears and cutlasses with human blood. I was gradually losing any sense of fear and consciousness as I had gotten tired of chewing the termite-ridden thatched roof and barks of firewood gathered in my little blackened inherited hut before the death of my grandmother a fortnight ago; this I substituted with red earth when I needed a change in diet and drank from the old clay pot. The stench of the decaying flesh infiltrated the red walls and the water. I inhaled her hot rotting flesh coming from the entrance where I had hurriedly dug the wet earth and unceremoniously deposited her frail remains in her favorite weaved mat as was the directive.
She had been sick for many years. The sickness of the gods Obochi had said. ‘The gods want you. You are to serve them with your body and wait for the last day. Your death will mark the beginning of the destruction of our enemies. Do not bury her with emotions. Do not one weep. Bury her with her head pointing north’ he made these pronunciations three years back and sent us home. According to his words, she had died just before the strong violent wind overtook the land and indeed marked the beginning of the destruction of our enemies.
The putrid stench mixed with my urine and excreta that I had modestly concealed in a clay pot had gotten stronger now and I was suffocating. I had to get air and I stumbled out of the hut against my better judgment. The darkness enveloped me like cocoon and I instantly retched as the cold wet air rushed into my lungs. I gasped for air and waddled to the back of the hut to get some fresh mango leaves for food in the high water that had risen to my thighs. Just as I eased my way back to the hut, a movement caught my eye. Wiping my eyes to see the departing figure, I moved farther away from the hut to see the disappearing figure covered in animal skin.
Another step and wet slippery ground gave way. I lost my footing and I found myself totally immersed in the flood. The last thing I remembered was the sharp pain at the back of my neck before I slipped into oblivion. I woke up to the smell of roasting rat and sound of the gentle sharpening of stone. Eyes squinting, I noticed the hunched figure backing the blazing fire in the same animal skin.
‘Ou ngbo ude?’ I asked with hoarse voice demanding to know where I was. She turned at the sound of my voice, silently turning the cooking rat and feeding the already blazing fire. I tried sitting up and the sharp pain reminded me of the fall. I stilled and watched quietly the figure; glancing sideways and taking cognizance of my surrounding. The roof was of earth and the drawings on the wall faint but visible.
‘Dashi peita’ she said softly telling to rest just a little with kind old eyes.
Instantly, I knew who she was and shot up immediately forgetting the pain. I screamed as the sharp fresh pain struck my back and I gently laid down back; nursing the pain.
It was her.
The dreaded one.
Aja-Nigo! The outcast.
Surely I was cursed and I fearfully broke into incantations that escaped my memory as I fought to remember the words. I was face to face with the old village witch and I was tongue-tied. No one had seen her and lived to tell the tale. If there was, no one would agree to have seen her. Such admissions were met with the strictest of cleansing and sacrifices after which the gods would approve the status of the person and determine absolution or expulsion. I had nothing to sacrifice. I was doomed.
She looked at me kindly before taking the unfortunate rat from the blazing fire and scrapped with the sharpened stone. Here I was calling the rat unfortunate while I watched hungrily with pooled scented spit in my mouth. I swallowed the diluted spit filled with the delicious smell of the thoroughly roasted rat and winched in embarrassment. She heard the growl of my traitor stomach. I cowered in shame.
The gods have mercy on me I thought. I was the unfortunate rat and I was hungry.
She rose slowly and grabbed her curved stick like her spine and she hunched over to me before giving me with the gutted rat.
‘Gba’ she offered and I collected it. I was going to be an outcast anyway. What did it matter if I ate from her? I had no one in the village and my life was no different from that of an outcast. No farm land, no family, no respect.
I ate the rat slowly at first before pushing the rest into my mouth. I chewed with gusto; the weak bones crushing under my heavy jaws.
She smiled and returned to sit by the fire.
‘Naya ku tacki omi ki lokpa’ she started slowly predicting that she was going to die before the rains stopped. With the crushed rat and renewed strength, I crawled to the fire without much pain. I looked at her suspiciously.
‘Ojo duwe weymi’ she continued as she told me that the gods had brought me here to hear what she had to say.
‘Eiun sho duwe?’ she asked of my name.
‘Manale’ I said firmly.
‘Manale’ she whispered before clearing her throat.
She told of decades. Of lost love. Of fear. I listened and these were her words.
In the year 1516.
“My name is Aja-Nigo.
An old maiden.
In the bowls of this old Mountain I have dug my resting place but I breathe to confess before I joined the gods. I die an outcast. ‘Ochu’ they call me with scorn and fear. The mention of the old forest witch terrifies the young villagers into obedience. Yes, I know what you call me. I was one of you.
I will tell of times you have heard about and I will tell you of the things I have done. It is the god’s commandment and their ways I must follow.
Oh my fair princess Inikpi! What beauty. What Grace. Her heart pure. Her love for all.
But her heart was for one named Onu-Eje. The fairest man that the existed to torture every maiden’s dream. The sweet love songs spilling from her lips all day long; for they met on her way to Azaina-where Attahs interred.
His name brought shivers to all the maidens. His smile gave every maiden sweet dreams but he lived only for my Princess. He had found the reason for his existence. Their love knew no bound and surely the gods envied them. There was no love such as theirs in all the land.
But there was one whose heart was broken.
Ojamaliya. Onu-Eje’s betrothed.
She lived for him but he had found his mate in my Princess. She mourned her loss in quietness in her walks and the look of dejection. The maidens mocked her for she could not keep her a man and was regarded as a failed woman. Scorned and maltreated.
Alas! The gods watched and they decided to intervene.
Soon after, our land was attacked by Beni warriors. Our bravest warriors killed, our kingdom was in disarray. Ayegba Oma-Idoko our great King was in need of the gods’ intervention and Ameh-Oboni the fearless priest he called. The gods demanded a human sacrifice. Princess Inikpi.
The King was distraught. The days of gloom that followed. Princess Inikpi gave herself willing after she dug out the message of the gods from her father on the 7th day. It was decided that nine slaves and ten volunteers were to escort her on her journey and I was to be buried alive with her. I wept for my soul and I ran to the River Niger that night; to pray to the gods to spare my life for I was but a teenager with great responsibility and I feared death greatly. The gods must have heard my prayer and opened my ears to her the songs of one who prayed for death.
‘Whose shall I be now? What do I live for? I will go with the one I was made for. My god, I come to you. Show me how’ these were Ojamaliya’s words and it would seem that her song had reached the gods before my prayers. I realize this now.
The morning came and the shy clouds opened to witness the great sacrifice. From afar I watched as Ojamaliya disguised in my clothing knelt with the slaves and escorts at the foot of my Princess who sat staring ahead into the world beyond. Onu-Eje stood with her hands in his and where I was to be was Ojamaliya. The earth was covered and the tears of the villagers soon mixed with the rains that poured from the sky.
That same day, the gods sent down an illusion of fire and the multitude of warriors went back saying that our land was under attack and that we perished.
Oh yes! I had traded my life for hers and betrayed my Princess. I was soon discovered and escaped into the thick forest. Ojaina became my home. And an outcast I had become”
The fire was now in ashes as she finished her story. The rains had stopped too. ‘Lo’ she commanded and I ran out never looking back. I ran for hours and wandered through the forest until I saw my hut almost submerged in the flood.
It was over.
The days that followed were full of celebrations and amidst it I snuck to the old Mountains to give her of the new yams I had collected from the Palace.
I found no one.
The cave was empty and I returned to my hut. Sad that I had ran away. Worried about what her end was and most ashamed for hiding the fact that the Old Witch saved my life and I could not tell anyone for the fear of becoming an outcast.
I was indeed an outcast.
I was Aja-Nigo’s son.