An uneasy calm rested upon the land. With each passing day, people left the town in their numbers. Others waited. They waited for vengeance from the gods. They waited for news of their beloved king. But when wind of news finally blew towards them, they did not like the message it brought. The news bearer reported that the monarch had come out of hiding and surrendered to the white men. He was immediately deposed and sent into exile. Most of the elders and chiefs who fled with him were tried and executed. Uwase was among those killed. The few that escaped the sword were also exiled, including Chief Idusefe.
On hearing the news, a lump formed in Ifueko’s throat and she swallowed hard. But she could not cry. There were no more tears left. Falling to her knees, she buried her face in her mother-in-law’s laps.
‘Why mother?’ she whispered, afraid that the wind might carry her voice farther than it needed to be heard. ‘Why has all this calamity befallen us?’
‘I don’t know, child.’ Iyogie replied. ‘I can’t pretend to understand why these things have happened.’
‘We have waited many days for the gods to avenge their people,’ Ifueko continued. ‘But they have been silent. Why do they hide their faces from us when we cry?’
‘Maybe it is because they cannot hear you,’ her mother-in-law said.
Ifueko bit her lip at the audacious statement. ‘Does this mysterious Savior of yours hear us then? Why did He not come to your aid?’ Her heart was filled with pain at so many unanswered questions. With their king and high priest gone, the town was left without a leader of any sort. It was inevitable the kind of chaos that would follow. The elders often said that in the absence of the owner, a house belonged to the rats. Right now, Ifueko did not want to think of the future nor of the past; not even of the present. Mama was gone and Ifueko just wanted to crawl into a ball and let the earth swallow her too.
‘What do we do now, mother?’ she cried.
‘We will wait.’
Ifueko looked at Iyogie in surprise. What could they possibly be waiting for? ‘Our homes have been destroyed and our loved ones, cruelly snatched from us,’ she countered. ‘The whole town is in ruins. There is nothing left for us here anymore. We must move on.’
‘We have to be thankful that we survived this madness,’ Iyogie replied. ‘But this is my home and I want to spend my final days here. You should wait too. My son may yet come home any moment from now. It would not be good if he returns and you are not here.’
‘Chief never sent for me after my son was born dead,’ Ifueko replied with a shake of her head. ‘I will not be missed.’
‘You will. This land will surely miss you.’ She brushed her daughter-in-law’s cheek. ‘Come with me, I want to show you something.’
She took Ifueko to the charred ruins of what had been their home. The compound was a horrendous mass of blackened remnants. Standing in silence, the two women stared, grief stricken, at the ashes. With Ifueko’s heart bleeding for mama, while Iyogie’s heart bled for her son, the two offered teary consolation to one another. The faint smell of smoke still mingled with the morning air. Some items, including a few pedal looms had been salvaged from Iyogie’s home, probably by the apprentices who were in the workshop at the time of the attack. They lay out in the yard in a muddled heap. Everything else had been consumed by the raging fire.
‘Give me your hands,’ her mother-in-law instructed, to which Ifueko promptly obeyed. ‘These hands are gifted and strong; strong enough to build something out of nothing.’ Iyogie paused. ‘I had hoped if no one else waited, you would. You are still so young. Perhaps you will still be able to keep the hope alive in all this mess.’
Almost everyone was leaving, although most were not sure of where the wind would take them. Iyogie however, seemed bent on staying. Ifueko was convinced this was part of her eccentricities. Yet the older woman had taught her so much and with her own mother no more, she could not bring herself to leave her. Maybe Odion had rightly judged that she was eccentric after all. Looking into her mother-in-law’s beseeching eyes, Ifueko gave a concurring nod.
‘Alright mother,’ she promised. ’Then I will stay with you.’
Outside the cream colored bungalow, the sound of a cock crow interrupted their discourse and Stella shuddered.
‘It is all so intense, hearing this from you,’ she said to Edede. ‘That day at the museum when Orobosa told me about the punitive expedition, it sounded like nothing more than a fairy tale.’
The old woman laughed dryly. ‘I know. Our people say that what happens to another person is as though it happened to a tree.’
‘I do not think waiting behind was a wise thing to do though,’ Stella remarked. ‘I mean, the land was desolate. There was nothing left to wait for.’
Edede shrugged. ‘You know me,’ she declared. ‘I do not like to be contained. Normally, I would have been among the first to leave the town. But there is a time to be restless and a time to refrain. My mother-in-law did not want to leave and someone had to take care of her. She needed someone, to help her deal with the absence of her son like I needed someone to help me deal with the loss of mama. To be honest, I was not sure who needed the other more.’ She leaned forward. ’But it was not just that. There was a deeper reason why I clung to her. Iyogie said something that day that struck me.
“Ifueko,” she said. “Things will always fester if left unattended. The tenets and practices of the forgotten faith were lost among our people because no one paid close enough attention to it. God forbid that we should, in the same way, abandon our homeland and allow it go into total decay. We must attend to what is dear to us.”’
Edede paused. ‘Water does not flow from the mouth of a river upstream, it flows downstream. On one hand, I was angry. I wanted to lash out at Iyogie for going on and on about the whispers of this Son of God; introduced centuries ago by the same white men who had attacked us this way. On the other hand, I was intrigued. For the few years I stayed in my husband’s compound, I had observed her carefully. There was a calmness about her which was a sharp contrast to the turbulence in my soul. When the storms hit; I saw something within her that held together. I told myself that if it was because of that inkling, then I wanted to experience it too. I was growing increasingly curious of this Son of the supreme God; the mysterious Deity of whom she persistently spoke. So, in the midst of all the confusion, I gave myself to her service. I figured that one of two things would happen. I would either break away when I had had enough of her ramblings about the forgotten faith, or I would be drawn by that same personal conviction.’
The steady flowing river, through the small village of Ughoton provided an access way for travelers and traders going to and fro into the main town. Many early mornings found Ifueko at its jetty from where she boarded a canoe to neighboring villages to get food and various items they needed to survive. The wooden boats were usually so overcrowded that she always feared it would capsize. Her hand woven baskets and mats, which Iyogie taught her to make, were what she sold at the markets in order to be able to make her purchases.
There was always a strong temptation not to go back home but rather, to keep moving in search of greener pastures. Still, her mother-in-law’s words always drew her back. The bond between the two of them grew with the passing years; a bond which Ifueko believed had become unbreakable. Until one day, something about Iyogie started to change. The symptoms of old age, along with all the added stress, were taking their toll on her. Her strength began failing rapidly and before long she had become bedridden. One evening, she called her daughter-in-law to her bedside, her demeanor suddenly very serious.
‘Ifueko,’ she said. ‘You have been like a daughter to me. I know you are still as vexed in your spirit as ever and I have not stopped praying that you will receive beauty for your ashes. You have taken good care of me as you promised and see how skilled you have become in our craft. One day, what had seemed so elusive to me, will become known to you.’ Slipping her hand over Ifueko’s, she continued. ‘When you search persistently for something, you will find it. Sometime soon, I know you will come to know true peace.’ She paused. ‘Until then, all this labor is nothing but burdensome drudgery.’
She waited for a response, but the younger woman was too perturbed to react to what was being said. Sensing that Iyogie was slowly slipping away, Ifueko was trying her best to make her comfortable.
‘What can I get you, mother?’ she asked sadly.
Lying back as though she wanted to sleep, Iyogie let out a deep breath. ‘Prepare something for me to eat,’ she instructed, ‘while I take a nap.’
Esohe stepped into the kitchen and watched Ifueko as she stirred the simmering soup, sweating profusely from the heat emanating from the red hot coals.
‘Why don’t you rest?’ she suggested. ‘You have been on your feet all day.’
Ifueko did not pause. Discomfited by her mother-in-law’s declining well-being, she was doing everything she could to nurse her back to health. ‘I must prepare Iyogie’s food on time,’ she insisted, without turning around. ‘I must feed her quickly so she will regain her strength. ’
Stepping forward, Esohe took the wooden ladle from her. ‘Iyogie will not need the food anymore,’ she announced. ‘She has gone on to the great beyond.’
Ifueko stopped and stood up straight as Esohe fetched a bowl and began to splash some water on the coal stove in an attempt to quench the fire. They had been expecting this for a while. Iyogie was quite old and had been bedridden for a few days.
‘There was not much pain,’ Esohe continued. ‘She just dozed off.’
The tears welled up in Ifueko’s eyes. Her losses over the last few seasons had been enormous. She could not believe that the woman, whom she had grown to love; almost like she loved mama, was gone. She felt truly orphaned. Esohe put the bowl of water down and embraced her comfortingly. ‘Iyogie never allowed anyone to mourn around her,’ she said. ‘And we certainly will not mourn her now that she is gone. We will celebrate her life.’
‘What will I do without her?’ Ifueko wondered aloud.
Esohe was pensive. ‘No one can deny the bond and devotion you had towards each other. But now, you must take on the mantle she handed down to you.’ She reached out and brushed away the tear that slid down Ifueko’s cheek. ‘We must make adequate preparations at once. I have sent someone to take the news to the square.’
‘Iyogie left me when I was most vulnerable.’ Edede declared with a hint of sadness in her voice. ‘I knew I would never forget her.’
The atmosphere in the library was somber. Stella sensed that, despite all the years that had passed, Edede still felt the loss. More than she cared to admit, Stella was also smarting from the emotional pangs brought on by a broken bond; though hers was a more recent experience. Letting out a sigh, she clasped her hands in her laps.
‘I know how you feel grandmother. Edwin did the same thing to me.’
‘Edwin?’ Edede exclaimed, with a shocked look. ‘Did he die too?’
The younger woman shook her head. Something had died, but it was not Edwin. On the contrary, he was alive and well. But he was no longer a part of her world; nor she, a part of his. All that remained between them now, were the bittersweet memories.
‘No, he did not die. Not technically,’ she replied. ‘But our love did...’
Edwin peeped out of the window for the umpteenth time and sighed. It was almost 9p.m and his wife had not come home. He made his way to the kitchen and began to warm the leftover soup from the previous day. As the water in the kettle boiled, he tried Stella’s number but it rang without a reply. If it had been a first time occurrence, he would have been worried, but it was not. The trend had gone on for some weeks. He had just placed the meal on the table, when she walked through the door.
‘You are late again!’ He challenged her. ‘What is your excuse this time?’
Stella inhaled deeply. It had been a long day and she was not in the mood for another argument. She could not tell him that she had spent the better part of the evening with her new patron, if one could call Orobosa that. Nor did she mention the generous gift he had given her. Actually, she had stopped by her studio on her way home to drop the painting off, not knowing how Edwin would react if she brought it home.
‘If you must know, I spent the entire week working at the bureau,’ she said. ‘Our upcoming advocacy project is coming together nicely and will be ready for launch soon. Orobosa has suggested we go on a tour to raise awareness about our recovery operation.’
He looked at her in surprise. ‘Recovery operation? What on earth does that mean? You are going on a tour with Orobosa?’
Stella shook her head. He made it sound like she was stealing away on an illicit trip. ‘No,’ she clarified. ‘I am going on a tour with delegates from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism. We are launching a campaign to recover some of the looted treasures of this city which are currently being displayed in museums overseas. The British ambassador has agreed to meet with us at the Federal capital to discuss the way forward. Orobosa selected me to go because he believes I have a unique eye for beauty.’
’No, I think it is because he has a unique eye for beauty.’ Edwin replied. ‘May I remind you that you are no longer that young, naive beauty queen of yesterday, so you need to think twice before jumping with him from one place to the other without a second thought?’
‘I am still a queen,’ she retorted. ‘Once a queen, always a queen. That is what Orobosa said.’
‘Yeah. A drama queen; that is what you are, throwing yourself all over that Minister as though he has bewitched you. You need to be careful. He has a reputation with women you know, and I am not comfortable with you trailing him all over the place.’
Stella frowned, wondering why Edwin was so afraid to let her live her dream. Such a display of insecurity on his part filled her with resentment. ‘It is too late for objections now, Edwin. Arrangements have already been put in place. Like Orobosa said, it is a brutal world out there and we need to do everything possible to stay on top of it.’
‘Don’t you get it?’ she continued, trying to make him see reason. ‘With my recent connections at the Ministry, I am set to go places. Come next week, I will be dining with a foreign ambassador at the Federal Capital. Before we got married, you told me to follow my dreams. Well, here now is a dream come true, so why are you so upset?’
‘Because I feel neglected Stella,’ he complained. ‘I want us to build a family but I wonder how we intend to do that, seeing that every time you come home you are so worn out that you are hardly any use.’
‘Well, I feel neglected too.’ She heaved in exasperation. ‘I am trying to build my career and you do not support me anymore.’
He let out a laugh. ‘And whose fault is that?’
Stella knew what his problem was. These new opportunities were putting her several steps ahead of him in the fashion industry in which they were both players. Edwin was not doing as well as she was and he was beginning to feel threatened. Now, he was trying to fault her methods. Why could he not understand that she only had their best interest at heart? Things were picking up for them financially. Surely he could not fault her for that.
As they argued, Stella felt that twinge of resentment again. Right now, her husband looked so small compared to the caliber of people with whom she was becoming acquainted. She wondered why he could not be a bigger man.
‘You know, maybe if you pulled your weight a bit more, you could enjoy some success of your own,’ she told him. ‘I have come to terms with the fact that things were not working out with my old way of doing things and I decided to reinvent myself. Maybe you should follow my cue.’
He nodded. ‘Thanks for the advice. I will remember that you gave it.’
She yawned tiredly. ‘I am worn out. I think I will skip dinner and just go to bed.’
She turned and walked to the bedroom. A few minutes passed before he followed her, opening the door quietly. The lights were switched off and she had gone to bed. Silently, he climbed into his own side of the bed and lay awake for a while, listening to her light snores until he too eventually drifted off to sleep.
The house was tense the following morning. Edwin was up first, whistling to himself as he prepared his breakfast. A few minutes later, Stella stepped into the kitchen where he was buttering some slices of toast.
‘Edwin,’ she called out softly. He stopped whistling but did not look at her or say a word.
‘I have given some serious thought to what you said about my jumping all over the place.’ She paused for a while and went on. ‘This tour is a great opportunity and I still intend to go. But I will make you a deal.’
He took a sip of his hot beverage. ‘Do not do me any favors,’ he replied nonchalantly.
‘Are you going to hear me out or not?’
He shook his head. ‘No, I am not. Your mind is made up about what you want to do and you have made that clear, so we have nothing to talk about.’
She shrugged. ‘As you wish.’ She turned to go and then paused. ‘We leave the day after tomorrow.’
This time, Edwin looked up. ‘The day after tomorrow? Why so soon?’
‘I was pushing to have the trip postponed,’ she replied with a shrug. ‘But everyone else is ready and I do not want to be the one holding things up. Orobosa said if we do not go immediately, we might disrupt his plans.’
Edwin exploded. ‘Orobosa said this, Orobosa said that! Don’t be silly Stella. You are acting irresponsibly. What is with you and this Orobosa fellow anyway?’
Stella shifted uneasily, feeling discomfited that Edwin harbored suspicions about the true nature of her relationship with Orobosa. Was she being overly ambitious, she wondered, or was it Edwin who was being unreasonable and insecure? Well, they would have to sort that out later. Not only was the trip an opportunity of a lifetime which she was not going to let pass her by, but it would also give her and her husband a break from each other. With the way they got on each other’s nerves these days, they certainly needed some time apart. Without another word, she left the house, leaving Edwin staring after her.