Child of the spirits
In the beginning was a voice, soft like dry leaves scurrying across the yard, the sigh of elephant grass bowing to the worrisome wind out in the fields. At times it carried in the babble of water from the stream to the house, teasing her awake, soothing her to sleep. There was repetition, and words formed, words she couldn’t decipher. She was too young to know she was learning secrets to die for, or that death was the price to be paid.
Her parents named her Iyabo, which means mother returns, in homage to the paternal grandmother who died the year she was born. Her father saw a lot of his dead mother in her, though his child was a prettier person.
Those who claimed they could foresee a person’s bearing from birth said she would grow up lithe and slim, with her father’s lean-limbed wiry strength and grace of movement. Her face was harder to predict, it being more a mishmash of genes old and new. She boasted the high cheekbones and rare elongated nose the raiding Muslim warriors had bequeathed to their pagan southern neighbours in the days of The Prophet and the first great Jihad that swept halfway down Nigeria. The nose had skipped her father but the cheekbones stuck. Her lips were her mother’s - full and ever so slightly placed in a permanent pout. Her high, rounded forehead was as clear a sign of her mother’s Egba blood as if she already bore their tribal marks on her cheeks. The source of the child’s eyes was a mystery. Hooded by a persistent scowl, black pupils flecked with brown stared hard, deep, and disapproving into any face that hove into view. Iyabo’s eyes were so sombre her mother wondered whether it was possible for a child to be born angry, and if so, to stay that way forever.
As Iyabo’s face stretched to make her features more pronounced and her limbs grew long and lithe as predicted, it became clear that while she’d never be beautiful she was undoubtedly exotic. A handsome creature then, but physical attraction did not secure a dowry for those deemed unsound of mind. For all that she offered no proof of mental impairment, Iyabo showed signs of being a dullard. She offered moments of tender recognition for her parents, and a smile to melt any heart, but it was as if she hoarded these rare gifts and could only know and love herself.
‘Iyabo! I-ya-bo! Look here!’ Papa exhorted his child, but he was airing his teeth, or as Mama put it, muttering Yoruba idiom under her breath, ‘wasting his time because he might as well ask flies not to land on shit.’
For a long time her parents saw Iyabo as an unfolding burden. Mama, with a woman’s insight into the problem, was especially despairing. Hers was the unspoken task of turning a daughter into a wife and mother. What family could be persuaded to pay a dowry and marry their son to a pretty imbecile?
Mama’s opinion of her child’s prospects was revised in uncertain direction when a stranger, who gave her name only as Tinuke, approached her in the market and offered to buy the child strapped to her back for more money than she and Papa had earned in their lifetime. Mama laughed off the offer with fake merriment and asked what she should tell her husband when she returned home without his child. Tinuke clicked her fingers and a burly man at her shoulder stepped forward, lifting the corner of a large bundle lying in a wheelbarrow.
‘We matched your daughter. See? Tell your husband this is your child. He won’t know. Death changes a child’s face, and grief makes men blind. He won’t want to look. We can give you something to put in his food that will make him...’ Tinuke searched for the right words ‘…less interested.’
Mama beat a hasty retreat and never told Papa, or anyone else, about Tinuke. It struck her much later that she wasn’t afraid he’d be angry she hadn’t reported a dead child to the authorities. In a wheelbarrow in the market was unusual, but dead children were a fact of life. No, she was afraid he’d be angry she hadn’t taken the money.
Time passed. Like a tardy butterfly, Iyabo emerged from her cocoon. Aged three she told Mama the stream and trees sometimes spoke to her. Mama shook her head at such nonsense and carried on with her chores. Iyabo told Papa the same thing, and he laughed too, but his laughter was forced. Papa saw the strangeness in Iyabo, her unworldliness, as clear indicators she was Abiku - a child of the spirits, destined to die young and be reborn in a vicious cycle of joy and pain for her family. He took Iyabo’s words as a sign of her tenuous grip on life, and prayed to Ifa with such fervour beads of sweat ran down his face.
‘Papa, papa, noooo…’ Iyabo cried when tribal marks were cut into her cheeks. Papa
tightened his grip on her wrists and hardened his heart.
‘Marks are not enough,’ said Mama, recalling Tinuke in the marketplace, and hiding
her own thoughts when Papa told her of his Abiku fear.
‘I made offerings to Ifa. What more can I do?’
‘What about Shonubi? He speaks to the spirits. Can’t you ask him?’
Papa shivered. A nodding acquaintance with a practitioner of juju was one thing, a
business visit quite another.
‘How would we pay him? We have no money!’
‘We shall save. The spirits won’t take her yet; she is strong.’
Papa considered the deterrent effect of tribal marks and knew Mama was right. They
ran through a list of children believed to have been Abiku. Tinubu’s son? Mama reckoned he’d been born thrice. Papa deemed one birth inconclusive, as he had been a she, but conceded the point. There was no debating Oyenusi’s daughter, both agreed she’d been born twice. When Mama pointed out that Adeniran’s daughter with the cleft lip had been born twice, and howled ‘How much more marked can a child be than that?’ Papa turned away disconsolately. Iyabo was more beautiful and desirable than any of these children. How many times would the spirits play the game of Joy, Death, and Despair, with her?
Papa worked harder than ever on the farm to raise Shonubi’s fee. Now do not let the
word farm conjure up an image of lush, green, bountiful land. This was a farm to dash such dainty imaginings from the mind – a bastard patch of unyielding, unforgiving, leached, red earth that broke the hoe, blunted the machete, and gave birth to despondent saplings. Papa’s daily toil in the blazing heat was akin to self-induced slavery.
From a meagre surplus, they scrimped and saved. The fattest yams were sold, not
eaten, to pay for the services of Shonubi, the Babalawo, who knew the ways of the spirits. Papa had always been skinny but Mama, who had boasted a bottom worth sitting on and melon shaped breasts, now looked gaunt. Her thin legs wobbled under the weight of the pail on her head, no longer did surplus flesh wobble on her arms, and her breasts began to resemble cucumbers as they hung off her thinning frame.
The plan was for Papa to ask Shonubi to intercede with his ancestors for their help.
Over the years Papa had diligently offered libation at every ceremony to his drunken forebears. Even Great Uncle Oladipo, who brought ill repute to the family when he was accused of fornicating with his neighbour’s goat, was on the libation list. It was time the idle dead paid for their drink; they’d done precious little for him his whole life.
Eventually the fee for a consultation was raised. Papa bought kola nuts, palm wine,
palm oil, and at vast expense, a goat. He sat naked at midnight under a full moon with Shonubi, who communed with the ancestral spirits on his behalf. Smothered from head to toe in goat blood, Shonubi sipped the palm wine, ate the kola nuts, and listened to Papa’s fears.
In the end, it was three bloody vertebrae, tossed like dice on the floor, which
conveyed the message from the spirits. The bones said Papa must bind and bury his daughter alive lest her witchcraft spread like a virus and infect them all. Shonubi expressed his willingness, eagerness even, to help in the venture, at no extra cost. Papa said no, and wished then that he’d eaten his yams. To tell Shonubi about Iyabo, but refuse to accept the judgement he pronounced, was to store a mountain of trouble for another day.
Iyabo was four when she woke one morning to find she had not one, but two brothers. They were named Kehinde and Taiwo, as are all Yoruba twins. Kehinde, even though he was second from his mother’s womb, was declared the elder, because tradition said he had sent his younger brother, Taiwo, to spy out the world.
If Taiwo had done his job properly he should have climbed back into the womb and said not ready brother. Two more mouths to feed was a big burden on the family and being hungry was going to be the norm. Mama and Papa tried to look on the bright side. The new arrivals would surely have a positive effect on their dozy sister.
‘Maybe now she has brothers to compete with, she’ll be more quick witted,’ Mama said, preferring to attribute Iyabo’s distant nature to a lack of intelligence rather than malevolent mysticism she couldn’t comprehend.
‘I’m sure of it,’ said Papa, but his words lacked conviction.
When the twins were three years old Iyabo made a discovery that changed their lives. She and her brothers could share daydreams. For as far back as she could remember Iyabo had seen auras develop around people. She found when she was lost in thought that she developed a similar aura, but hers was brighter. If she considered other people’s auras while hers shone, the dull light from them would bend towards hers, and if their auras touched they would see what she saw, and she would know what they thought of it. The whisper in her mind told her to beware this gift and to guard it jealously.
Iyabo reconciled herself to a lonely life before her brothers’ auras turned up. One day the boys had no aura at all, the next they glowed with beautiful gold luminosity. Her brothers’ auras were like hers, bright and clean, and now she discovered the extent to which auras were magnetic. If they let their minds wander, their auras leapt across space and connected.
Iyabo and her brothers constructed great adventures of the mind, but these games were risky. If they were caught, Papa would interrupt them harshly, sometimes with a slap.
‘Stop that dozy nonsense, staring into the distance when I’m talking to you. If you carry on like that, Shonubi will take you away and give you to the gbomogbomo people.’
Gbomogbomo! It was a word to strike fear into young hearts, for the gbomogbomo are evil, psychotic worshippers of dark deities, who believe that powerful juju requires the ritual sacrifice of an innocent child. The villagers had seen with their own eyes the body of a girl with her head sewn on back to front. Everybody said she was the gbomogbomo’s handiwork and her body so cursed that anyone who touched it would die right there and then. For days it lay in the bushes, and when one morning it was gone, wary voices whispered that Shonubi had taken it for reasons beyond the wit of man. It was no stretch of the imagination to believe that if anyone could deliver foolish, daydreaming children to the gbomogbomo, Shonubi could.
The threat was scary, but daydreaming is natural, and children cannot help themselves. To keep safe they learned to keep their eyes open when their minds had no need of eyes to see. They developed phenomenal memories and could remember every detail of life with every sense, and recreate it in their daydreams. If an ordinary person’s aura accidentally merged with theirs, they would quickly project from memory a picture of the real world, so the intruder might never know of his or her momentary absorption into another’s mind.
Yet even the most cautious child, lost in fantasy, makes mistakes. Sometimes the intruder would snap back into reality and wonder how they’d gone from daydreaming about the everyday, to flying, or crossing an alien landscape, or any of the wondrous things that unfettered, youthful minds can invent. The children would wince from the suspicious stare that followed, and know they’d exposed themselves to danger.
For the most part Iyabo and the twins lived happy, carefree lives, but their parents grew increasingly grumpy. Angry words and punishment came more frequently, and for lesser offences than before.
Iyabo, now eleven years old, noticed signs the boys didn’t. Mama would wake in the morning, begin her chores, and then be too sick to finish them. When Mama retired to her bed Iyabo donned the mantle of full-time nanny to her brothers, and took on the role of ‘finisher of undone chores’. This was the end of the children’s dalliance with the white man’s education. Iyabo had no time to shepherd her wayward brothers to missionary school and if she couldn’t go, they couldn’t go.
This was the way of things. A girl became a woman before her blood came; a boy’s education ended before he knew his letters, and he became a man the day his schooling ended. It wasn’t something to talk about, or a change worthy of rebellion. Missionary school didn’t teach a boy to be a better farmer, or a girl to be a better wife. All it taught was Jesu Christie incantations and how to kneel and pray; pointless piety, since they’d go home, make offerings to Ifa, and hope their vengeful deity hadn’t spotted the religious infidelity while they’d been away.
Mama screamed long and loud, and Iyabo thought she had another brother. Later, when she was summoned to help with the cooking, she could see from Mama’s red eyes that something was wrong. When Papa emerged with a bundle in rags and carried it to the bushes, his face was like stone.
Not a word was said about the dead brother who had no name. Iyabo wished she knew where he’d been buried so she could pray by his grave. This was the first time she’d encountered death and it had a strange effect on her. It had been a long time since she heard the strange whisper that once echoed in her. Now it returned.
One night, she dreamt her dead brother came to her, only he wasn’t a baby, he was a boy. He looked like a smaller version of the twins. Not knowing him, she asked his name. He thought about it, so she would later conclude he chose his name himself.
‘I am Kunle.’
Iyabo woke in a cold sweat. Kunle spoke the language of the whisper. She not only heard it, it now visited her in person through him, and for the first time ever she understood it not as vague sentiment but as precise words.
In the morning Iyabo sought to discover if her brothers heard the whisper too. She felt sure they must.
‘Kehinde, do you ever think you hear the stream talking? Or the trees?’ she asked.
‘Stream? Talking? What are you talking about?’
‘The stream behind the house. Or the trees around the farm. Do you ever think they are talking to you?’
‘Shush!’ he said, his eyes bulging wide to signal danger. ‘Don’t let Papa hear you talk like that. Taiwo told him something he couldn’t see spoke to him and Papa gave him a dirty slap. He told him he’d better not say such rubbish again.’
Iyabo’s investigation ended right there, before it properly began. A dirty slap was rare, but when it arrived you knew about it, and would recall it for weeks, months even. It could run straight down the face, or resemble an uppercut. Sometimes it was a backhand lifter, sometimes a forehand to sit you down. It could come from a foot away, or arrive like a missile launched from afar. Put simply, the activity that resulted in a dirty slap was taboo. If Kehinde or Taiwo heard, understood, or spoke to any inanimate thing, it would remain their secret. No insight was worth the risk of a dirty slap.
Iyabo stared at the piece of paper with a date and her father’s name on it, and read with difficulty to her illiterate mother. Her lips moved to form the phonetic sound of the letters before she proceeded to say them. She turned to her mother.
‘Five Sep-tem-ber, nine-teen fif-ty se-ven. Death Cer-ti-fi-cate. Mama, was Papa’s name Adedeji Fashola?’
Nobody ever used her father’s full name, and it never before occurred to Iyabo to ask what it was. He had always been Ade to his wife, Papa to his children, and Baba Iyabo to his neighbours, in accordance with the custom of referring to a parent by reference to the name of his or her first-born child. Mama didn’t reply; she clutched her fist tighter and wept into it. Iyabo nodded to herself and put an arm around her mother’s shoulders. Papa’s name had been Adedeji Fashola.
‘He offered Ifa his life for yours.’ Mama said, taking Iyabo by surprise.
‘He offered Ifa his life, and I know why. Iyabo, the thing that you and Kehinde and Taiwo do, you must not do it anymore.’
‘Stop! Don’t Mama me.’ Mama’s eyes glistened with angry tears. ‘The thing you do when you are awake but you are not awake. I know you do it. I can see it in your eyes, all of you. I can see when you’re not here, and you have gone somewhere in your heads, all of you! You must stop it. Do you hear me? Your father gave his life working on that farm so you would be saved. It killed him. Do you know what the last thing he said to me was?’
‘No Mama.’ Iyabo could hardly speak for her own tears.
‘These are the things worth dying for. That was what he said. These are the things worth dying for. I don’t know what he meant, but I do know it was to do with you and your brothers, and how you are. Please. I beg you. Stop. I don’t care about me, but if you don’t stop you will kill your brothers. Promise me Iyabo, promise me you will take care of your brothers.’
Iyabo burned with shame at the suggestion she had betrayed her father. She was horrified by the suggestion she might somehow kill her brothers. She didn’t understand, but she resolved never again to dream with the twins and told them they were all responsible for Papa’s death. If they didn’t want to kill Mama too they had to stop dreaming together. It was agreed, but the agreement lasted less than an hour between Kehinde and Taiwo. Iyabo shunned their auras and refused to dream with them.
Days became weeks, weeks morphed into months, and Iyabo forgot she’d made a promise. Such was the lure of her brothers’ laughter she resumed their daydreaming ways.
Papa’s death left little time for grief. Mama spent a few weeks in a daze but it became clear very quickly that women became farmers when they could no longer be wives. It also became clear to the family that if women take on this role they cannot be mothers too. So Iyabo became a mother to them all. It was an unremarkable transition. She was sixteen now, and considered by many to be ready to make a family of her own.
Iyabo’s new role didn’t raise her status at home, where Mama remained the chief matriarch, but outside the household she started to be noticed. She was considered beautiful, desirable. The admiring glances and shameful, daring, leering of men of all ages, confirmed this. She learnt to smile at her admirers in the cool, coy manner she saw older girls use, and she was happy, if a little frustrated with the pace of life. Among those who admired the blooming Iyabo was a man with the strangest fetish. When he looked upon this child-woman he couldn’t help but wonder what she’d look like with her head on back to front.