Stella’s eyes widened. Looking on, as the old woman paused for a while to catch her breath, she fidgeted impatiently. Edede seemed to have drifted off again into her own world, although this time, she remained wide awake. Swaying steadily in her seat, the old woman hummed softly to herself.
‘Well, did you?’ her young visitor urged.
Edede glanced at her. ‘Did I do what?’
‘See Odion again?’
Closing her eyes for a brief moment, the old woman shrugged. Her memory sometimes failed her on hot afternoons like this. But today, she had a vivid recollection of the dramatic turn of events that overtook her chance meeting with Odion that evening. Events that were triggered by the coming of the foreigners and shook; not just her, chief and Odion’s lives, but also the entire town.
Philip took one last look in the mirror and adjusted his sleeveless safari vest, tailored to suit the hot tropical climate. Taking a step back, he let out a loud sigh. He was among a great people; tall with skin so brown, it looked like it had been finely polished. They were a wise people with notable exploits in both trade and warfare. Boasting of great conquests, they had expanded their territory and exercised control over regions, near and far. These were the same people whom he was trying to subdue. It was not surprising that he had encountered so much resistance. He missed his home across the seas and hoped this latest mission would prove successful so he could take a vacation to visit Josephine and the kids.
There was a knock on the door and Jerome walked in. He gave a brief salute and stood at the door, a paper scroll in his hand.
‘Is all set for our trip?’ Philip asked, without turning around.
Jerome nodded. ‘All is set,’ he declared. ‘We should leave immediately. The skies are clear and hopefully they will remain so. We should arrive by sundown tomorrow.’
‘They are a little upset that we are visiting during their famous annual festival and have asked that we postpone it to a more suitable date when events return to normal.’
Jerome grunted scornfully. ‘We cannot delay this trip any longer. We have our orders from the Home Office.’
‘I know what the orders are!’ Philip snapped, irritated by this impudent young officer. He turned to face the younger man who stared back at him impatiently. Finally, he took the scroll from him. ‘Give me a few minutes to review this once more and then we can leave. The sooner we get this over with, the better.’
The party of white men arrived at the crossroads leading into the city. Philip gazed nervously at the rising cloud of dust in the distance and motioned to his men to halt. The festival was about to kick off in their destination town and the road had been closed to all travelers. Before they embarked on this trip, some of his recruits, young men of a different tribe, had repeatedly warned him to beware. They said that the deities usually plied that route to punish anyone who trespassed around this time. He had dismissed the warning as a nonsensical superstitious tale. Now, standing in the middle of the forbidden road, he did not see any vengeful spirits anywhere. The only signs of life were a group of native soldiers coming towards them.
Assuming them to be an entourage sent from the king to meet them halfway and escort them to the palace, Philip ventured forward. It was not until the dust cleared, that he was able to see them clearly. The frowns on their face were not those of a welcoming group. The approaching soldiers reached the party of trespassers and Erhabor, their leader, stepped forward. Without so much as a greeting, he pointed back to the long stretch of untarred road.
‘Turn around,’ he instructed. ‘Return to where you have come from.’
‘We have not come to make any trouble.’ Philip replied. ‘We are here on appointment to speak with your king and present our treaty to him.’
Erhabor stared at him indignantly. ‘You stir up trouble already by disregarding our traditions and hence disrespecting our Oba with whom you claim to seek dialogue. Anyone as impetuous as to venture out here during the festival is nothing but a trouble maker. No one walks through this road at this time. No one!’ He pointed once more towards the dirt road. ‘I said turn back!’
Philip did not turn. Instead, his hand went to the leather strap saddled across his waist. Erhabor turned towards his men.
‘The intoxication of wine is greater than madness,’ he jeered. ‘The man carries weapons under his vest and he says all he wants to do is talk.’
Philip tried to reply but Erhabor’s men shouted him down and insisted that he and his group retreat. The argument grew heated. Enraged that the foreigners obstinately stood their ground, Erhabor struck their leader across the head. Philip slumped. The khaki clad soldiers retaliated and a fight broke out.
News of the massacre reached the palace that same day. The Oba and his council of chiefs were duly informed how all but two of the foreigners had been killed. Groaning loudly, the monarch briefly lost his customary calm restraint and hammered the air with his fists. What he had feared for a while had finally happened. He had warned these headstrong foreigners to wait a few days until he sent for them, but they had turned a deaf ear to his warning and he knew his men would not stand for it. The clash at the crossroads spelt trouble. The council of chiefs met and debated long and hard. They all agreed a war was imminent and ordered the priests to organize sacrifices to entreat the gods and ancestors, and seek their protection. It was expected that the deities would definitely grant them favor once the sacrifices were completed.
While the town’s council made preparations towards the retaliation from the foreigners, speculations about Ifueko’s cyclic absenteeism from the women’s quarters sprang up within the walls of Chief Idusefe’s compound. How she managed to dodge Amayo’s watchful eyes and disappear for long periods of time was becoming a mystery. But the other wives did not confront her directly. They chose rather to call Amayo to question.
Presuming that he had been sidelined by the love-struck soldier, the eunuch was eager for payback. He still nursed the deep psychological wound inflicted on him by Ifueko’s rebuff when he offered to set her up in a meeting with Odion. Having served for thirty years in Chief’s household, Amayo’s mouth was full, but today he would speak only to save his skin. Vocal as ever, he explained Odion’s long standing attachment to Ifueko and why the young man had chosen to pass the job of farming his father’s vast lands down to his siblings and train instead with the town troops. Chief’s wives picked every word that was spoken. Casting pensive looks at each other, they pursed their lips and raised their eyebrows in a look which only they understood.
‘I did hear that the young man was a little too eager to offer his services here,’ one observed.
‘Of course he was eager,’ Amayo confirmed. ‘He is infatuated with Ifueko. That was the only way he could be close to her.’
‘They have been meeting together these past few days without anyone’s knowledge,’ someone else chipped in.
‘Ah now I understand why she had a stillbirth,’ another concurred. ‘It was a punishment from the gods.’
Rumors spread rapidly. Like the restless waves of the sea, they tossed to and fro, until within moments, the compound was abuzz with stories of a torrid love affair between Chief’s youngest wife and a certain soldier. Infuriated that forbidden acts of passion might be taking place right under his nose, Idusefe ordered Odion’s immediate arrest and summoned the offending wife.
At first, Ifueko was relieved when she received Chief’s message to come and see him immediately. It was the first time he would be sending for her since her unfortunate stillbirth. The call was quite sudden and she was glad that her co-wife had plaited her hair the previous evening so she looked quite appealing. Hurrying to the backyard to fetch some water, she took a quick bath and applied a bit of the scented Shea butter which Iyogie had given her. Arriving at her husband’s chambers, she was surprised to see him rigorously applying himself to a plate of pounded yam and ogbono soup, sweating as he wolfed down morsel after morsel. When he saw her, he paused; the palm oil flavored soup dripping from his fingers.
‘You sent for me, my lord.’ She spoke softly.
He nodded in reply and continued his meal. The atmosphere was tense and she looked around unsurely.
‘Is something wrong?’
‘You tell me, Ifueko’ he answered.
She shook her head. ‘I do not understand you.’
Images of Oyeme barging in, out of nowhere to aggravate the situation, still filled Edede’s mind. It was the older wife who had fed the fodder of rumors to the Chief in the first place and now, she had come to see that it was being well digested.
‘Do not play the innocent fool,’ the hostile co-wife fired at Ifueko. ‘You think we have not heard?’
If Chief Idusefe was upset by the rumors, Oyeme appeared to be twice as much, as though it was she who was alleged to have been cheated on. In a theatrical display of annoyance, she called her younger co-wife an adulteress and a shameless whore.
‘That is not true,’ the accused protested, half in shock. ‘What is this name calling about, Oyeme? Why are you trying to make me a stench in our husband’s nose?’
A slap to her face silenced her as Oyeme shut her up. Chief quickly stepped in between the two women. But still on the warpath, Oyeme was not giving room for rational thinking.
‘Will you allow her to make a mockery of you like this?’ she queried her husband, who looked from one wife to the other, still trying to understand how the matter had suddenly turned into Oyeme’s personal problem. In a fit, he ordered her to clear both his meal and herself from his presence. Then he too exited the room, leaving Ifueko standing there alone and confused. Stunned by the invectives and the slap which her co-wife had thrown at her, she began to cry. Idusefe was gone for what seemed like eternity. When he returned, he appeared a bit calmer.
Reclining into his stool, he cupped his chin in his hands and closed his eyes. ‘Are these things true, Ifueko?’ he asked. ‘Have you been defiling yourself with that soldier?’
‘The gods forbid, my lord.’
‘But you have been disappearing from your quarters?’
She bit her lip and lowered her head. ‘I cannot sit in the harem all day long, doing nothing,’ she confessed. ‘I would expire from boredom. I have been sneaking out to visit with Iyogie.’
His eyes shot open and he glared at her. ‘Leave my mother out of this,’ he warned.
‘It is true,’ Ifueko insisted. ‘You may ask her. Odion can also confirm that nothing has ever happened between us.’
‘He will not be able to confirm anything anymore,’ Chief replied with a slight shake of his head.
A strange sense of dread swept over her, like the moss which grew on the Iroko trees down by the streams. His words hit her like a blow. Trembling violently, she stepped away from him. ‘You have killed him, haven’t you?’ she asked, her voice cracked.
Chief refuted her allegation. It was all a terrible mistake, he explained. Odion had tried to get away as the men took him away. A blood-thirsty soldier took matters in his hands and ran him through with a sword.
Sinking to the floor, Ifueko let out a long gasp. She felt numb as though the blood was draining from her brain. Unable to comprehend that Odion was gone, her loud sobs permeated through the room.
‘I only ordered the young man’s arrest,’ Chief repeated. ‘I did not order his death. There has been enough bloodshed in this land in recent days.’
The room was tense. With her heart heavy, Ifueko narrowed her eyes. ‘What about me? What is going to happen to me?’
Chief frowned. If he decided that the rumors were true, she would be at his mercy. Adultery was a capital offence. Unless he chose to forgive her and allow her to undertake a cleansing from this deemed pollution, the consequences could be tragic.
‘I cannot make any decisions now,’ he said. ‘The festival is taking place soon and I have my rites to perform.’ He paused and exhaled. ‘You must stay away from my compound for a few days. Go back to your mother’s place and remain there till I sort things out and give my verdict.’
Deeply shaken, she stood up and walked to the doorway. Pulling aside the strips of raffia fronds that formed a drape over the door, Ifueko paused and turned to look at him. ‘I never defiled myself, my lord,’ she declared. ‘Not before I married you and certainly not after. My blood speaks in my defence; the blood which you drew from my body the first day I came to you.’
The festival came and went. Weeks wore on with the sun dutifully running its course. Yet Idusefe did not ask Ifueko to return. She remained in her parent’s hut, too embarrassed to step out. The market place was full of peering eyes and wagging tongues. She heard that people were calling her the rejected wife. Ifueko looked forward to the day when the horrible accusations would be put to rest. Chief would have to give his final verdict concerning her ‘careless wanderings’ soon. Iyogie also tried her best to convince her son of his error, arguing that men of noble blood did not just abandon their wives that way. But Idusefe insisted that his youngest wife would remain estranged until he was fully convinced about the matter. Ifueko was still waiting for her vindication when the retaliation occurred.
The afternoon seemed quite tranquil on that day. The serene sounds of light breeze sweeping through the palm trees were suddenly drowned by heart wrenching cries that grew louder with each passing moment. Angry shouts erupted in the distance as soldiers appeared and moved, like a mob, through the town. Ahead of them, a handful of farmers had arrived, their faces pale with fear. They had been working on their farms when they sighted the hostile outsiders approaching. Clutching their hoes with clumps of fresh humus soil still sticking to them, they hurried back home. Down the dusty pathways, they ran into the town’s square, announcing that war had broken out and the white men’s army was about to lay siege on the town.
‘Large troops are coming! They are heavily armed and are killing everyone in their path.’
A wave of fear swept over all who heard them. They knew it was coming yet had hoped it would not. The dark, heavy clouds that had hung loosely over them for a while were now emptying themselves in a torrential downpour. There was pandemonium everywhere as series of ear splitting gunshots rang out incessantly. Realizing they were no match for the approaching army, guards and eunuchs scattered in various directions. They took to their heels only to fall in their numbers as they were cut down by the khaki clad soldiers.
The invaders broke into Chief Idusefe’s compound, guns and flaming torches in their hands. Their leader barked out orders and they moved around in purposeful strides, carting away every sculpture and carving that beautified the huts’ interiors. Terrified, the women fled outside and into the bushes in an attempt to hide from the invasion. The soldiers ransacked the compound and stripped it bare. Then, without warning, they torched the dried raffia fronds that covered the windows, setting them ablaze. Within minutes, the fire had engulfed the huts.
The invaders killed, plundered and looted the whole town. Houses, markets, shrines and even the monarch’s magnificent palace were completely razed. Paralyzed with fear, the townsmen and women could only cower under shrubs and watch helplessly from the distance, as their homes erupted into flames.
The city burned for many days and the massacre was brutal. It was not until the eighth day that the attackers withdrew, leaving behind a land reeking of death and destruction. The bodies of the slain lay in the streets, where they had been murdered in cold blood, their stench filling the air. The invaders left a heap of corpses at the boundary of the town as a warning to anyone who tried to oppose them. Even women and children were not spared. Those that survived were shaken to the core. Sinking into the dust, the women rocked back and forth as they beat their breasts and lamented. Their heart wrenching wails filled the air. The men wandered around with their heads bowed, looking for loved ones among the dead.
The intruders also burned down Ifueko’s home. Narrowly escaping the raging flames, she too was forced to flee for refuge. Mama was not so lucky. She was felled by the khaki clad soldiers’ bullets. Ifueko ran in the direction of Chief’s compound only to find the mud houses on fire. Through her tears, she found her mother-in-law, screaming to her that all was lost. Surely now, Iyogie would curse the foreigners and forsake their God. But when the older woman remained motionless, Ifueko stiffened and her eyes grew icy.
‘The gods and our ancestors will avenge us,’ she declared stonily. ‘Surely they will.’