Six months after Iyogie passed on; the Oba joined his ancestors while in exile. The news spread like wildfire and a seven day mourning period was declared for him in all the regions over which he had exercised influence. But the dark clouds that followed the king’s passing came with a ray of sunshine. Those who had been banished were returning home. Following a failed attempt by the colonial government to install one of the chiefs as king, Oba’s first son; the crown prince was to be reinstated to the throne.
Edede would never forget the day the monarch’s household returned, along with all those who had gone into exile with them. It was an eventful homecoming, filled with tears of joy. The scanty town suddenly took on a new fervor as those who had remained behind received the royal family, the nobles and their attendants with great jubilation. The week that followed was marked by feasting and merrymaking.
Chief Idusefe, however, did not return. His first son brought back word that he had not survived the unfamiliar environment in which he was placed. Uyi described how; homesick in a distant town, the Chief had pined for his homeland and eventually gone on to the land that was not a taboo to anyone. Now, Uyi was to inherit the mantle of leadership over the Idusefe clan. But while preparations were being made for the chieftaincy title to be bestowed on him, he had an important message to deliver.
Edede recalled the afternoon he came to see her. She remembered feeling saddened at how much the young man had changed. Although the room was dimly lit, she could tell from his lean face and sunken eyes that he had not fared too well. His former robust countenance as a result of his pampered upbringing in his father’s compound, had been replaced with the tell tale signs of an arduous life.
‘My father had some last words for you,’ Uyi said to her.
‘He said; tell Ifueko that I believe her,’ he paused and smiled. ‘Word reached him how you served my grandmother well.’
Ifueko shook her head. ‘It was Iyogie who showed me much kindness. The one who plucks the chicken’s feathers in the wet season is the one who has been good to it in the dry season.’
He smiled at her words. ‘He jokingly called you the wife who would not sit still. But he went on to say that he chose you well.’ Lifting up the painting he had been holding, he handed it to her. ‘He asked me to give you this as a token of his appreciation. It was painted by one of our finest craftsmen, who had also learnt the foreign arts in the land of our exile.’
Ifueko turned it over and over again. She was amazed at how beautifully painted her face was, but wondered at the inscriptions at the back.
‘The writing is an excerpt from my father’s faith book,’ Uyi declared. He explained that before he died, Chief Idusefe, along with many others in exile, had embraced the Christian faith.
Ifueko’s eyes lit up when she heard. ‘You mean he embraced the message of the mysterious King; the Son of God whom Iyogie searched for, even though she did not understand? ’ she asked. ‘This is the forgotten faith of which she spoke. She always said it would come back to find us.’
Uyi nodded. ‘You will get to understand Him better now; no longer in fading whispers but in a plainly written message. My father has asked one of those who returned, to teach you how to read the excerpt at the back of the painting.’
As she admired her new gift, Uyi stepped away. When he reached the door, he suddenly turned around again as though he remembered something. ‘My father made one more request. He asked that you take care of the women who remain in his household, as you did Iyogie.’
It was a tall order and Ifueko wondered why her late husband would entrust her, the youngest of them all, with such a task. Still, she could not help but smile. There were many who had expected her to wane into oblivion when she was expelled from Chief’s household. It took many years, but her vindication had finally come. Oyeme was killed during the invasion while Edugie had since left the town and remarried. But there were the others who still remained and she gathered them together.
Led by Ifueko, the band of wives reunited with the women of the royal household, who had returned home. The latter group had learnt to read the Holy Bible while in exile. Ebo promised, on Chief Idusefe’s special instruction, to teach Ifueko how to study the scriptures as well; so she could read the writing on the painting he had sent to her. Ifueko in turn, began teaching the band of wives the cloth weaving trade, so they could make a livelihood. She advised that they join the reading group too.
‘The shopper returns from the market with a lighter purse and a heavier basket.’ Edede told Stella. ‘The band of women proved to be better for all that learning. The monthly Ogbe market that attracted both local and foreign merchants, was as good an avenue as ever, to continue Iyogie’s trade. Equipped with our new found literacy and resourcefulness, most of us found some measure of relief from our plight and began gradually, to rise from the prostration in which circumstances had kept us.’
‘And we have not stopped,’ Stella replied proudly. The paradigm shift had begun subtly and then suddenly like an avalanche it was upon them. ‘This town has been birthing a long line of enterprising women ever since. Everywhere you turn, our women are breaking new grounds. And like a true daughter of the soil, I am also taking my place.’
Pausing for a brief moment, Edede let out a soft smile. ‘Times are changing rapidly and change can be good. But it is still the owner of the clay pot that determines the pot’s destiny. As the young chiefs who took over from their fathers prepared to settle into their heritage and begin the great quest of restoring this town, the band of women realized that so much lay ahead of us, as a new era dawned.’ She looked intently into Stella’s eyes. ‘Now, after so many years, it has become clear to me that even at the helm of our endeavors, we would never rise so high in the society that it would become impossible to stoop down and lay its foundation bricks back at our homes.’
‘Quite a mountainous task,’ Stella acknowledged, forcing Edede to smile.
‘Ahh, yes, but when carried out successfully, it will not go unrewarded.’ She leaned forward and whispered to Stella. ‘Should I tell you a secret?’
Stella raised a questioning eyebrow as Edede continued. ‘Your reign as a queen was short-lived,’ she said. ‘I am at the end of my road but there is an imperishable crown waiting for me; a crown which no one can take away. That’s what makes it all worth it and you must go after that crown too.’
‘I will,’ Stella said. ‘I promise; a queen’s honor.’
Edede smiled, ‘But I must warn you, if you sell your soul in the pursuit of this crown, you might lose it.’
The two women paused from their discussion as the nurse called them in to lunch. The younger lady declined. She was not hungry, only pensive. So Edede ate alone. Unusually quiet, Stella could not help thinking how Ifueko’s first marriage had been an imposed one; a practice which, thankfully, was fast becoming a thing of the past. Yet, a pinch of the girl’s allegiance to Chief Idusefe would have made a successful recipe to keep her own first marriage, which was by mutual consent, together. In hindsight, she realized that Orobosa did not try too hard to win her. It was easy to give in to his advances because he had everything she wanted especially a fat bank account which he seemed willing, at the time, to share with her. He rented a flat for her to stay while her divorce proceedings were being concluded. During that period, Stella did not lack anything. Orobosa took good care of her while they both waited impatiently to start a new life together.
After her divorce was finalized and a low key wedding was conducted shortly after, she settled in well as the Minister’s wife. Playing the perfect spouse, she hung on his arm at every special event and joined him in soliciting the support of the people, as he promised what would be the dawn of a new era in the Culture and Tourism industry. When the fanfare finally died away, she settled into her new home. Reminding Orobosa of his promise, she wanted to know when he would hand over to her, the day to day running of the museum.
But Stella’s first shocker came when Orobosa not only reneged on his promise, but also relieved her of her role as spokeswoman for his bureau.
‘I can’t have you working with me anymore,’ he asserted. ‘You know that, don’t you?’
‘What do you mean?’ she asked.
‘Tongues will wag,’ he replied. ‘People will want to know why we have turned State affairs into a family enterprise.’
‘But we had an agreement!’ she spat the words out venomously.
‘I can’t do it, Stella. It will make me look bad. Besides, I want you to focus on keeping the home right now. I will be the breadwinner around here.’
Stella was furious. ‘You lied to me,’ she accused him. ‘You promised to make me a star.’
In a surprising display of fury, Orobosa pounded his fist on the table. He came at her and grabbed her roughly, twisting her arm.
‘Don’t you dare call me a liar,’ he growled. ‘I give orders to your betters at the office and they obey. I will not be insulted by a little gnat like you.’
Stella winced. ‘Orobosa, stop! You are hurting me.’
She tried to wriggle out of his grip but could not break free until he chose to let her go. Shrinking back, she looked in fear at his clenched fists.
‘I..., I did not mean it that way,’ she stammered apologetically, her voice timid and shaky.
She had never seen this volatile side of him before. Plus, of all the sweet names she expected him to call her when they got married; ‘gnat’ was certainly not one of them. Falling silent, she stood aside meekly as he flung the door open in anger and walked out of the house. She felt crushed.
But while Stella waited for Orobosa to change his mind about the demotion, she received her next shocker. Her husband suddenly clamped down on her spending. She had thought she would have his wealth at her disposal as she had done when he was courting her, but he made it clear he would not tolerate any kind of profligacy. It did not take Stella long to realize how tightfisted her new husband was. He never gave away something for nothing. When they first met, he had doled out money to curry her favor. But now that she was his wife and had nothing to offer that he could not take by right, his generosity towards her stalled. Even Edwin, despite his seemingly modest status, had been much more openhanded.
With her illusions shattered, Stella was left to concentrate on the job at hand: setting up house. She began cleaning and getting rid of everything that brought memories of Orobosa’s former marriage. She found the décor of her new lodge distasteful and wondered at the strange taste of Orobosa’s first wife. Worse still, the woman had taken some of the ancient figurines and arranged them around the house as some sort of decorative measure. The new wife thought they looked hideous. There were strange looking statuettes, made of terra cotta and brass, laying everywhere. The bizarre objects made the living room look more like a shrine than a home.
Stella shuddered. She decided that that woman must have been a total heathen. She, on her part, did not want those idols anywhere around her.
‘I will have to give this place a total makeover,’ she declared to her husband. ‘Everything in this living room disagrees with me.’
Orobosa shook his head. ‘I do not want those items tampered with.’
‘But they make me uncomfortable,’ she insisted. ‘Take them to the Bronze museum or anywhere else. I do not want them in my living room.’
She prevailed upon him this time. At her constant urgings, he agreed to move the offensive items into the inner storage room beside the pantry, where she would not have to look at them. In their place, Stella brought in more aesthetically pleasing home ornaments, including her prized painting which she hung in the living room. She had hidden the painting in her studio, away from Edwin since the day Orobosa gave it to her, but now, she could display it proudly. With the income she had saved away, she ensured that every aspect of her new home spoke of her taste for the finer things of life. Her artistic flair was reflected in the way she carefully decorated each room.
But despite her grand home make-over, Stella still felt dissatisfied, as her mind kept wandering back to those relics, which she believed still defiled the house. She reasoned that if she were part of the early Christians, she would have wasted no time in setting those graven images ablaze. She voiced her thoughts to Arese.
‘I have decided to have a bonfire,’ she declared. ‘I am going to cleanse this house of those ridiculous sculptures, once and for all.’
Arese looked doubtful. ‘That may not be such a good idea,’ her friend replied. ‘I mean it seems such a waste to burn them up seeing they are authentic historical artworks. Didn’t your husband mention to you that they were worth a lot of money?’
Stella paused for a moment and thought. ‘Yeah?’
Arese sighed. ‘Must I spell everything out for you? This is your best bet at getting around his stinginess. It should not be difficult to find someone who would be willing to exchange the statuettes for some cool cash.’
Stella’s face lit up as Arese explained how they could have the artifacts sent to historians in some foreign land. Many antique collectors would be enthralled to lay their hands on these vestiges and would reward her handsomely.
With mounting impatience, she waited for Orobosa’s next trip out of town before executing her plan. She did not have to wait long because her husband always seemed to be on the move. Even when he was at home, his mind was far away. All he talked about were those precious treasures of his, the museum and his plans for culture and tourism. He went on and on to the point that the ideas which Stella had thought were so ingenious before, now seemed totally repugnant. He even once remarked that he did not know which was more beautiful, she or the bronze sculptures. She cringed as she lifted one of the figurines out of the store and fingered it carefully. How could he compare her to such a cold, lifeless object?
Placing a few of the artifacts in a little brown bag, she took them to the car. A few minutes later, she came back for more, not stopping until every single item was in the trunk of her car, the storage room was completely cleared out and she herself was left physically and emotionally drained.