The annual festival was drawing near. When the new moon arrived, the town’s chiefs would retreat into a period of preparation and performance of the ceremonial rites. For now, Chief Idusefe was in a celebratory mood. He had just finished his supper and had invited his six wives to spend some time with him that evening. The women fussed over him, each one trying to outdo the other in charm and wit as they competed for his attention.
Sitting aloof from the general merry making, Ifueko watched Oyeme at her husband’s right hand and Edugie at his left. Rubbing her bulging belly, she heaved a sigh. She would have loved to ask her husband to place his hand on her tummy and feel the baby kicking, but there was no getting through the fortress formed around him by his other wives. She watched narrow eyed, as he leaned sideways and whispered something into Oyeme’s ears. The older wife paused with her gourd of palm wine in midair and broke out into exaggerated laughter at whatever it was he said. In a playful gesture, he lifted his gourd to her lips and invited her to drink from it. Delighted, Oyeme obliged and took two delicate sips. Then, she offered him hers.
Ifueko bit her lip and turned away. She felt awkward. But her discomfort was not coming from the emotional torture of being left out. A second sharp spasm made her cry out in pain.
Chief looked up started. ‘Are you not feeling well?’ he called out to her.
Shifting uncomfortably, Ifueko shook her head. ‘Ooohhh!’ she lamented. ‘This child will not finish me today.’
It was at least two months before she was due for delivery, so she wondered why the child in her womb seemed so restless.
‘See to her,’ Idusefe ordered the other wives.
Oyeme did not move. Reluctantly, Edugie shuffled her feet and made a big show of getting up. She moved so slowly, that Mudia got to Ifueko before she did. Placing her hand on the pregnant woman’s tummy, Mudia remained quiet for a while, her face creased in a frown, as Ifueko squirmed uncomfortably beneath her touch. Suddenly, she snapped her fingers and hurried towards the door, calling to the maids.
‘Boil some water and put it in a basin. Get some clean wrappers,’ she shouted. ‘The child is about to come.’
‘But the time is not ripe yet,’ Ifueko protested, placing her hand over her bulging tummy as though to calm the contractions.
‘These children do not speak your language,’ Mudia replied. ‘This one has decided that he is ready now.’
Chief clapped his hands together, looking pleased. ‘He is in time to witness his first festival,’ he commented.
It was a slow and painful birth. Like nothing Ifueko had ever experienced before. When the night-long ordeal was finally over, Ifueko was so worn out, she could hardly keep her eyes open. It felt as though she had just released the weight of the whole world, which she had carried for many months.
She did not hear the child cry. She waited but there was no sound. Gingerly, she cocked her ears and listened again. The only voices in the room were those of the deep sighs of the maids.
‘Spank him again,’ she cried out impatiently. ‘Spank his bottom so he will cry. Perhaps he did not feel it the first time.’
Mudia leaned over her and wiped her sweaty forehead with a cloth. ‘It is no use Ifueko,’ she said. ‘It is a stillbirth.’
Something tightened within Ifueko’s throat and the walls of the room seemed to close in on her. How could that be?
‘Noooo!’ she cried out. ‘I want my baby!’
The first maid exited the room carrying a wrapped, bloodied bundle of cloth, while another began to clean her up. Ifueko began to sob as she watched the young servant girl leaving with the lifeless body of her child.
Idusefe entered the hut as the sun was rising. He had waited expectantly all night for news of the birth, but had received the opposite from Oyeme who confirmed to him that the child’s remains had been taken away to be buried far away from the compound. He stood at the entrance of the delivery hut as the women exited one by one, leaving only Ifueko still lying on the mat with her face to the wall.
‘How do you feel?’ he asked.
Turning to look at him, she let out a loud sniffle. ‘You are disappointed, aren’t you?’
‘I am sad,’ he said, with a shake of his head. Moving closer, he squeezed her shoulder gently. He watched the tears streaming down her face, feeling as though he would cry himself but too manly to show any emotion.
‘I will not go to the festival,’ she declared tearfully. ‘I will stay here and weep for my child.’
‘Calm down Ifueko. Stop torturing yourself. See how stressed you are. Try and get some rest.’
Having offered her his own mite of comfort, he turned around and left, while the distraught woman curled up like a ball and wept.
As soon as she was fully recovered, Ifueko made another visit to her mother-in-law’s home, dashing down the grassy pathway and squeezing underneath the fence.
‘I was almost a mother,’ she lamented as soon as she saw Iyogie. ‘Why has the god of childbirth dealt so ruthlessly with me?’
‘You are still alive and well,’ the older woman comforted. ‘Let us be thankful. It means our sovereign Savior has given you another chance and there will be others.’
Ifueko rolled her eyes. Iyogie had started again. When would she snap out of this her manner of speaking?
‘Our sovereign Savior,’ she repeated in an exasperating tone. ‘You are talking about that mysterious King again, aren’t you?’
Her mother-in-law nodded. There were a lot of things she wanted to talk about; things of which she knew only in part. Though right now, her understanding was blurred, she felt the more she spoke, the more the whispers in her soul would become clearer.
‘I would tell you everything I know about Him, if you are willing to listen,’ she offered.
The young wife stared at her. Iyogie’s tales, though bizarre, admittedly left Ifueko intrigued. Possessing an uncommon eloquence, Iyogie could talk her daughter-in-law out of her misery and Ifueko found herself visiting every other evening, over the next few days. Although the patriarchal structure, mainly confined women to a subordinate role, Iyogie had earned by sheer force of personality, considerable respect and profound influence among young and old. So much so, that she was implicitly acknowledged to be among the few great womenfolk. Her clans-people believed that just before her birth, when she was offered a choice of destinies, her inspired choice was the exemplary model of venerable Queen Idia.
But her uplifting way with words was just one leg of the tripodal support, which Iyogie offered her family members. Proving to be a strong backbone, this matriarch not only rendered spiritual and moral support to the Idusefe household, but was also a spring of resourcefulness. Out in the backyard of her private home, Iyogie had a workshop where she led a guild of weavers in the craft of fabric making. At one end of the workshop, the apprentices applied dye to the yarns. At the other end, another group worked on pedal looms, weaving the dyed yarns into cloth. A wide array of the finished fabric was stacked against the walls, where they were stored in readiness for the Ogbe central market. Every new moon, the Ogbe market offered a wide array of goods to traders coming from near and far. Iyogie’s profits were good.
Ifueko, on her part, was fascinated with the skill with which the artisans in Iyogie’s workshop handled their cloth. However, it was that inkling of the forgotten faith, which her mother-in-law always went on about, that made her decide she could not keep away. Still grieving for her child, she had made it known that she would not attend the upcoming festival. But rather than stay at home and grieve, she decided that her visits to Iyogie’s home would become her new pastime. After the festival, when things were back to normal and Chief Idusefe was, hopefully, more accessible, she would get his permission to leave the quarters on evenings like this to visit with his mother. Till the celebrations were over however, and he summoned her again, there was nothing else to do but to keep sneaking out.
Evening had come and the praise singers were rounding up at Chief’s harem for the day. Returning home after another stolen visit to Iyogie’s place, Ifueko knew she had to hurry if her arrival at the women’s quarters was to be timely. As she made her way up the grassy pathway, she heard someone calling her name.
‘Fifi!’ The voice rang out from the opposite side of the fence.
She halted. From the first day her little adventures began, she had feared that, one day soon, she would be discovered. But she had not expected to be so caught off guard when the person called her by her pet name. There was only one person who ever called her that and her lips curved upwards in an involuntary smile.
‘Odizo,’ she muttered, turning round.
The gate was closed but unlocked, seeing there were still callers within the compound. He drew it open with ease and walked up to her in a few short strides. Their eyes locked for a brief moment. The expression on his face was one she could not immediately decipher.
‘What are you doing here?’ she queried.
He was silent for a while, his eyes still fixated on hers. He appeared to be drinking in the sight of her. She shifted uncomfortably and called again, pronouncing his name fully this time.
Exhaling slowly as though he had suddenly awakened from a trance, Odion let out a smile. ‘I am making my rounds. Finally I have been placed on watch duty in this vicinity.’
‘Oh yes. I hear you are a soldier now and one of the palace guards.’
‘That I am,’ He placed his arms akimbo to display his taut muscles, explaining how he had become well trained in the use of the weapons of warfare.
Ifueko smiled. ‘Mama once said that you were lazy. She said you and your brothers were growing fat from idleness. I am glad you are proving her wrong. If only she could see you now.’
’It is enough that you can see me now and I can make you proud,’ he replied. He looked around, slightly amused and a bit confused.
‘Where on earth are you coming from?’ he questioned.
She hesitated and then pointed in the direction from which she was coming. ‘Not far. Every now and then, I go to visit my mother-in-law.’ Looking pensive, she reduced her voice to a whisper. ‘I find her to be an odd character. She tells me strange things about a mysterious King and the forgotten faith in Him and sometimes her lips move, yet no words come out. I really believe she is eccentric.’
‘Then why do you go to see her?’ he asked.
She shrugged. ‘Because I like to listen to her.’
‘Then you must be eccentric too,’ Odion declared with a laugh.
Ifueko frowned. ‘I am not,’ she snapped, turning abruptly as though to walk away.
Odion immediately bit his lip. ‘Have I offended you?’
‘I am not offended.’
‘Then you should stay and talk with me a while.’
It did not sound like a good idea. The last thing she wanted was anyone to come out and find them standing there.
‘What has happened to us, Fifi?’ he asked, his voice suddenly becoming serious. He stepped in front of her and stretched out his hand as if to hug her, but she stepped back.
‘Odion, have you not found yourself a wife yet?’
He shook his head. ‘I am still searching for that woman who holds my heart.’
‘And I hope you did not become a soldier in the name of searching for me?’
‘There was no other way.’ In a bold move, he took hold of her hand. ‘I cannot accept that we will never be together and that I may never set eyes on you again. I have found myself coming here on several occasions and roaming around Chief’s compound, trying to catch a glimpse of you. I even asked after you from Amayo.’
‘He delivered your message,’ Ifueko replied.
‘Yes, and he said you refused to see me.’
‘How could I? I belong to another now and I am not to be had at the amorous whims of a love-struck and passion-hungry man.’ She pulled back and dropped her hand to her side.
‘No, Ifueko,’ he replied. ‘You misunderstand me. I am not hungry for one night of you but many more hereafter. I want to marry you. I want you to come away with me. We will escape to another town. No one will know where we are.’
Her mouth dropped open in surprise at his proposal. For a moment, she stared at him confused. ‘As a soldier, you are on the monarch’s mission and not your own. Would you dare speak so frivolously with another man’s wife?’
‘The elation I feel at seeing you again would dare me to do anything,’ he replied. Stepping closer, he placed a hand on her shoulder. ‘Love will make a man do crazy things,’ he declared. ‘We loved each other deeply once. I know that it was not your choice to marry Chief Idusefe, and that is why my love has refused to die. Now that we can see each other again, will you reaffirm your love for me?’
Ifueko frowned and stepped away, while his gaze remained fixed on her.
‘Odion, you have gone mad,’ she replied.
Yet the intensity of his emotions shook her to her core. When he moved close to her, she trembled. Chief had not sent for her since her stillbirth. Having been neglected for so long, a fire of desire sparked within her as she stood face to face with her first love. She could feel her blood grow hot as her passions stirred.
‘They will catch and kill us before we get to the next village,’ she warned him.
He snickered. ‘You think I fear Chief Idusefe’s sword? Ever since he took away the one thing that mattered to me, I am ready to give up my life just to get it back.’ Taking her hand again, he placed her soft palm against his cheek. ‘I should have married you when I had the chance,’ he declared, his voice husky and laden with emotion. ‘But someone more powerful took you away from me. This time I will not let you go.’
Feeling intoxicated by Odion’s passionate declarations, Ifueko’s mind travelled to the day she told her mother that her love for him would never die. Now it was time to eat her words.
Her marriage to the Chief was void of emotional intimacy; a relationship to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Chief’s household was a battlefield with her co-wives as formidable forces, vying with her for their husband’s scarce attention. With her need for affection gone unrequited for so long, Ifueko was slowly crumbling into a rigid state of resigned acceptance. A life with Odion would not be so complicated. Many years ago, she had to give him up when, under Chief Idusefe’s orders, Uwase placed his seal of authority on her. Now, here was another chance with him and the thought of their absconding together was quite tempting.
The intensity in his eyes told her that he meant every word. Ifueko took two steps backwards and peered up the pathway that led back to the harem. If Odion had come to her in the first few moons of her arrival here, she might have given herself to him. But things were different now - she was different. Her instincts rang out like a bell, warning her against such an abomination. Now that fate had thrown her into Chief’s household, she deserved to have legitimate sons and daughters who would carry on the mantle of nobility. If Odion truly loved her, he ought to be able to let her have that, rather than put her in a position to face Chief’s wrath.
‘No Odion,’ she said finally. ‘We must not do this. You have to go before someone finds you here. Meanwhile, do not tell anyone you saw me.’
He only smiled as she turned and hurried away. ‘You are always running somewhere,’ he teased after her. ‘It is either the soup you left on the fire is getting burnt or mama is calling you.’
She did not reply and this time, he did not try to stop her. ‘Goodnight Fifi,’ he said, pronouncing her name softly. ‘I am sure we will see again soon.’