Within the seclusion of the women’s quarters, the six wives of the chief along with their maids, gathered together. They were all dressed up even though they were not going anywhere. They had to be ready at all times just in case they were summoned. Sometimes they brought praise singers into the courtyard to amuse themselves. The singers would surround them, beating on their beaded gourds and raising their voices in flattery as the women rained cowries on them in appreciation for their songs of adulation.
But today, Chief’s wives had opted for a relaxing evening, playing seeds. At one end of the room, Ifueko sat in a circle on the cold floor with two of her mates, as they gingerly moved the seeds around the holes in the wooden board.
‘It is your turn,’ one of them prompted.
‘I know,’ replied another. ‘Don’t rush me. I must play a good hand.’
As time wore on, Edugie and Oyeme began to argue. No one paid any attention to them, certain that the squabble would die down soon enough. Unfortunately, it grew heated.
‘See how you are playing,’ Oyeme lashed out. ‘I know you. You have always been a cheat.’
The object of her affront sat up straight and wagged her finger menacingly. ‘Who are you calling a cheat?’ Edugie fired back. ‘Be careful.’
‘Be careful yourself,’ Oyeme retorted. ‘I said you are a cheat. Yet, with all the potions you concoct for our husband to drink, you have only borne him one daughter. But it is not your fault. They say that dried fish cannot be coiled.’
‘And what is that supposed to mean?’ Edugie got up. ‘Warn her o! She has started again.’ She shouted to no one in particular.
‘Shut your traps, the two of you!’ Mudia scolded from across the room. ‘Are you the only ones here?’
Their voices grated Ifueko’s nerves. Irritated with their pettiness, as the argument graduated from a simple squabble over a misplaced seed throw into a more personal matter, she threw her seeds on the board.
‘I am tired,’ she said. ‘I give up.’
Oyeme turned to face her, ‘Then I have won!’ she declared triumphantly, suddenly detached from the feud she had just been involved in.
‘If you like.’
‘Aren’t you going to play again?’
‘You see.’ Oyeme turned back to Edugie. ‘You have spoilt the game for everybody.’
Ifueko rose to her feet, wondering how long this would continue. There had to be more to living in Chief’s compound than this. Stepping out of the room, she strolled down the long passageway away from the noise.
‘Hei, who is that?’ a loud voice startled her and she shrunk back in fear. ‘Where are you going and where is your escort?’
She turned to see Amayo, the keeper of the wives staring at her. He was a eunuch and crippled in both feet, but also very shrewd. Under his watch, the women’s quarters was kept under strict surveillance.
‘Hold your peace, Amayo. I am not leaving the quarters. I am only stretching my tired legs.’
He smiled and beckoned for her to come closer. Reluctantly, Ifueko obeyed. ‘Odion has been enquiring after you,’ he whispered. ‘If you want, I can arrange a meeting.’
Eyes twinkling mischievously, he raised one brow as though to emphasize his point. Ifueko’s heart skipped a beat at the mention of the familiar name.
‘Odion?’ She repeated. ‘Where is he?’
‘He is a warrior now. He has joined the monarch’s troops.’ He leaned forward. ‘He told me he did it only because he thought it would afford him the opportunity to get closer to you. Sooner or later, he might be sent on watch duty in our locality.’
Ifueko returned a blank stare as Amayo plucked at his beard. ‘Odion wants to see you,’ he repeated. ‘He has fulfilled his end of the deal. But it will cost you ten cowries.’
An unexpected look of annoyance spread across her face. ‘The two of you met to bargain over me?’ she demanded. ‘Am I a prostitute that you would attempt to place a price on my head?’
The eunuch looked confused. ‘He was so sure you would jump at the opportunity.’
Ifueko’s frown deepened. ‘Reserve your favors for those who need them, Amayo. It is only a careless animal that gets caught in a trap. Even if I had the means to repay you, I would not feed your greed.’
She continued down the corridor, leaving him staring after her.
‘Young, foolish and stubborn,’ he called out as she walked away. ‘What a sad combination. When you are ready, let me know.’
She pretended not to hear him as she disappeared round the corner, desperately needing some privacy. It was true that there was never silence in Chief’s household. People moved around busily and anywhere she turned, something seemed to be happening. It was difficult to find a place of solitude in her own home. Pausing at the end of the passage, she stood facing the back door.
Adjoining the back entrance of the main house, separated only by a small fence, was her mother-in-law’s home. Ifueko had never been there before even though Iyogie told her she could visit whenever she wanted. Chief’s mother never came to the wives’ section of the compound and Ifueko often wondered what went on at her own end of the household. The fence was slightly raised above the ground with a small allowance at the bottom. Ifueko realized with interest, that she could wriggle herself through. The path that led to the outer courtyard was quiet and Amayo was nowhere to be found. Putting her gazelle-like limbs to work, she made a dash across the pathway, past the servants’ quarters and down the direction of Iyogie’s private home. Lying down flat on her stomach, she slipped through the fence’s allowance. A few scratches later, she was on the other side. Quickly, she brushed herself clean; a sense of exhilaration flooding through her, over her little adventure.
Chief’s mother, Iyogie as she was called, was kneeling over her earthen bed when Ifueko arrived. A mat was spread underneath her feet and an oil lamp burned dimly in the corner. Her eyes were closed and her hands clasped together. Through the dancing flame, Ifueko observed her carefully. She could see her lips moving, but though the room was quiet, she could not hear any words. She looked around uneasily. It seemed the old woman was intoxicated with too much palm wine and was talking gibberish to herself. Maybe she should leave. As she tried to retreat, Iyogie looked up and called her name.
‘Ifueko. You came to see me?’
Ifueko turned around, disappointed at her foiled attempt to back away unnoticed. ‘They are quarrelling again,’ she said, attempting to explain why she had barged in unannounced.
Iyogie smiled and invited her in, amused at the puzzled expression on her daughter-in-law’s face.
‘Rest assured that I am sober,’ she spoke, as though she had read Ifueko’s thoughts. ‘That is the way I pray.’
It was certainly an odd way to pray. If she wanted to pray why was she not in the shrine, burning a sacrifice to the deities like everyone else did? Come to think of it, Ifueko had never seen her mother-in-law in the household shrine. She was conspicuously absent from every ceremony, even the dedication of the newly completed shrine. Ifueko looked around but did not see images of any of the deities in front of where Iyogie knelt. It was truly very odd.
Her mother-in-law saw the puzzled expression on her face. ‘I have an inkling of a King, who is the Son of the supreme God,’ she explained. ‘News of Him was brought to us some centuries ago and caused a great stir in our town. The message was forgotten with time and the precepts, absorbed into our traditions. But whispers of Him still follow us down from one generation to another.’
‘A King? The Son of the supreme God?’ Ifueko questioned. ‘But the gods of our forefathers are the only deities we have ever known.’ She paused as a slight frown spread across her face. ‘Do you now share a common belief with the white men, who have been eyeing our land? Mother, have you embraced the foreign religion?’
Iyogie replied that this One was sovereign. ‘It has been said that all men were created through Him,’ she explained. ‘He does not belong to any man, tribe or nation but makes Himself available to anyone who calls on His name. No one can claim to own this Deity or His ways. Whoever wills may worship Him, as long as you believe.’
‘He is the foreigners’ god.’ Ifueko insisted. ‘And it is all a borrowed myth.’
She had always been very outspoken. Her sharp tongue had often put her in trouble, even getting her a flogging once when she accused papa’s younger brother of sifting through the soup pot for the largest cuts of offal whenever every one’s head was turned. Mama had told her that one of the greatest virtues of a wife was knowing how to bridle her tongue. But Ifueko was still new here and had not yet learned the ‘wifely’ ways. Right now, her frustrations with Chief’s household ran deep and she was in the mood to vent.
But Iyogie did not rebuke her. She smiled gently as she sat on the mud bed and motioned to Ifueko to sit down beside her.
‘For me, it has become much more than that,’ Iyogie explained. ‘Even I do not fully understand it, so I call it the forgotten faith. But since it was told to me as a little girl, my enquiring mind has never stopped wondering about it. And for as long as I can remember, I have worshipped Him.’
Ifueko frowned and pondered for a while. ‘If these things are true, why was the message forgotten?’
‘Because when the first set of people who had been entrusted by this King to bring the message to us, got here, it became a different matter. They saw our ivory, our able bodied men and women, and all the wealth of our land. Their yearnings grew deep, so they left the real thing and began to chase after shadows. In the end, the message they brought was swallowed up.’ She squinted and gazed out into the open space. ‘That thing that is left unattended will begin to fester.’
Her visitor was still confused. ‘But if you have chosen to worship this Deity, why aren’t you in the shrine offering sacrifices to Him?’ she asked. ‘I have never seen you there. And where are His images; which we can see and touch?’
‘This One is invisible,’ Iyogie explained. ‘He is the potter and we are His handiwork, not the other way around.’ She paused. ‘He cannot be represented with images nor does He live in places made by human hands. You have to believe He exists without seeing Him.’
‘Ei,’ Ifueko replied. It was enough of this strange talk. She was convinced that this invisible Deity which her mother-in-law spoke about had to be a myth handed down over the years, just like the story of the clan’s daughter, who was taken away by the smitten deity. But she did not want to toe that line right now. Her mind was bothered with other deep, personal issues. Sensing her disquiet, Iyogie reached out and squeezed her hand.
‘Are you happy here?’ the older woman asked. ‘Tell me the truth. The chicken also sweats, but its feathers prevent the drops from being seen.’
The last time someone sensed Ifueko’s unhappiness, it had only resulted in subtle mockery.
‘I would have suggested that you return to your parent’s house,’ Oyeme had snickered. ‘But I doubt if your mother can afford to refund the dowry.’
But Iyogie was not Oyeme and the kindness in her voice brought a rush of emotions to the younger woman. Ifueko’s eyes filled with tears.
‘Mother, when will Chief send for me again?’ she asked.
Iyogie thought for a while. ‘When the time is right, my son will send for you.’
‘And when will that be?’ Ifueko persisted. ‘How am I supposed to bear any children if I hardly ever get to see him?’
Her mother-in-law did not reply and Ifueko let out a sigh. Mama had advised her to focus on building her home and raising noble children. But it had been thirty days since her husband had summoned her. She was bored and tired of the seclusion of the women’s quarters. She had not imagined life in Chief’s household would be so exasperating.
‘Mama told me I would learn to be happy here. I must have been a fool to believe her,’ she cried. ‘There are too many contenders.’
‘No Ifueko,’ her mother-in-law cautioned. ‘You must not say such things. This is no time for regrets. It was Idusefe who chose to marry you, remember? And you are no fool. Every woman’s desire is for her husband.’ She paused and looked towards the door. ‘Listen. A while ago, I left someone sitting out in my compound. He is at the end of the passage towards the left gate. His mind is burdened with many issues and his thoughts run deep. I think he might need a bit of company right now.’
‘Who is it, mother? To whom do you refer?’
‘I did not mention any names. You will have to find out for yourself. But hurry up or he might withdraw himself for the night.’
Ifueko let out a sniffle and got up.
Hurrying to a corner, Iyogie pulled out some leaves in which she had wrapped a mixture of Shea butter and native scents. Ifueko hastily massaged a light coat of the scented butter over her arms, legs and back to make them supple; at the same time, her skin releasing a delicate aroma like a ripe fruit.
‘Go to him,’ her mother-in-law said softly.
‘Thank you, mother. I will hurry before I am missed.’
She left Iyogie’s home and did not turn back in the direction of the women’s quarters, opting rather for the opposite route which her mother-in-law had described. She hurried down the grassy pathway until she got to the left compound entrance. The gate was slightly ajar and through the slight opening, she spotted the broad silhouette of a man sitting very still, with his back turned towards her. Ifueko pushed the gate open a little wider and edged forward as she tried to get a better look.
She was not surprised to discover it was Chief sitting there. Stepping out into the yard, she observed him for a while, as he stared into the starry skies, lost in thought. Slowly, she walked towards him, pausing a slight distance away and hoping she would not arouse his anger by barging in on him and disturbing his solitude.
‘Good evening, my lord.’ She uttered the characteristic greeting, as her shadow fell across his path.
Startled by her unexpected presence, he turned and stared into her face.
‘What are you doing here?’ he demanded.
‘Looking for you, my lord’ she replied, rather boldly. Seated by himself in this corner without his usual adornments and only a wrapper tied around his waist, he did not seem as intimidating as he usually was. ‘May I keep your company?’ she asked.
He narrowed his eyes and frowned. He ought to scold her for wandering out of her quarters without permission, but right now he was too preoccupied with his own thoughts.
He turned back to face the wall and she sat close beside him, her shoulder touching his very slightly; just enough to feel his warmth. He looked tired and there was a despondent look in eyes.
‘Something is bothering you,’ she said finally, her voice soft. ‘What is it?’
He did not reply immediately. He was moody and preoccupied with the dark clouds that hovered over, not just his clan, but the entire town. But his immense problems were nothing for the young woman to concern herself with. The words his mother had spoken to him just before he married his first wife, rang through his ears.
‘Son,’ she had said. ‘There are times when the listening ear and tender words of a good woman are worth more than the counsel of a thousand advisers.’
But he disagreed. In his opinion, women ought to concern themselves with domestic affairs and leave the men to handle the issues of the white men. The elders believed that it was not wise to divulge secret matters to women. They talked too much and one had to be cautious to ensure that whatever news you gave them did not come back as double talk.
‘Nothing is wrong, woman’ he said finally.
Ifueko was not deterred by his rebuff. She pushed further. ‘I have heard that the town is restive,’ she replied. ‘That we and the foreigners are at odds.’
Chief Idusefe capitulated. Ifueko seemed to read him like a book. ‘Indeed the town is restive. There is a crisis brewing. The white merchants are seeking to reopen trade with us. Every one of their attempts to lift the current trade embargo has stalled and now they want to sign a treaty with the monarch.’
She laughed. ‘They are salivating for our thick flowing palm oil and red hot peppers.’
‘Yes, our produce has always drawn the attention of the foreigners, hasn’t it? But we must guard what is ours jealously.’
‘I know that our king is wise and has a good council to help him,’ Ifueko said. ‘You and the other chiefs have seen us through many dark days and always know what to do.’
‘Ei. But something tells me that our darkest days still lie ahead.’
‘Then we can only hope that the gods will continue to be merciful to us.’
He rubbed his hands together and smiled. ‘Ahh, that is true. I know the gods will smile down on us for having a new shrine built in their honor. They will be twice as thrilled when we offer our sacrifices to them in the new shrine.’
Ifueko bit her lip. Iyogie would not agree with him about that, given that strange faith of hers. ‘When will the sacrifices be offered?’ she asked.
Chief’s smile faded. He had already told her more than he planned. ‘Why are you so inquisitive, woman?’
She fell silent. The buzzing sound of flying night insects crept through the still air and Idusefe lifted his hand and swiped at his ear.
‘The mosquitoes are out in full force tonight,’ Ifueko observed. ‘And my lord is not well covered. We should go inside.’
He watched her through the starry light as she got up and adjusted her wrapper which was tied firmly under her armpits. ‘Yes, we will go inside,’ he declared. ‘And you will come and keep me company tonight.’
Despite Edede’s constant admonitions to allow the story to unfold at its pace, Stella could not help cutting in.
‘Well you certainly took matters into your own hands, didn’t you?’ she said with a laugh.
Edede nodded. ‘You could say I had to woo my husband. Funny, isn’t it? But I guess it was a wise move because not too long afterwards I discovered that I was with child.’
‘Wow. The chief must have been proud.’
‘As proud as any expectant father would be,’ Edede replied with a shrug. ‘But you really must let me go on.’
‘Of course,’ Stella said apologetically. She leaned back and listened.