The old smoke-belching train is jammed with passengers. I sit by the window as the train chugs through, jangling on the rusty rails. I turn to gaze out to the scenery that rolls by. A herd of cattle. Nomadic herders’ tents. Anthills. They all punctuate the grassland, a stunning vastness of greenery sprawling down to the horizon. Like a painter’s oil on canvas. In the weary silence—between me and my co-passengers—I listen to the constant jangling and the intermittent deafening hooting. I listen to the hissing as the train spits coal-black smoke into the sunny sky. The train, I imagine, is like a giant rattlesnake slithering on the long twisting curves of the rails, time-worn rails that begin from Kharton and terminate at Bonangu, the commercial capital of Jhaba.
After a couple of hours, the locomotive gives a lurch. Then it stops at a station by a dusty shanty. Some of us begin to disembark. Men and women and children. I look out through the window. The sun is still blazing, the sky a radiant blue. Ramshackle houses desperately in need of splashes of fresh paint. Rickety shops with corrugated zinc sheets that have been trampled by time. A swarm of disheveled-looking people. Women busy with hair and cooking pots and laundry. Men, amid tobacco and beer, absorbed in draughts under gaunt trees. Burly, spirited teenage boys engaged in makeshift soccer. Hawkers, a jostling crowd, begin to hover around the entire string of coaches. Like bees flitting to their hive. They holler and cackle and whistle at the top of their lungs to draw attention to their wares. They step on one another’s toes, anxious to sell. One leaps and thrusts a bunch of bananas into my arms. I fumble in my handbag and pull out a ten-shilling bill. I slap it into the waiting hand. I cannot resist bananas.
I steer my gaze. Snotty-nosed children frolicking in the sand, in the stifling heat. A couple of boisterous dogs gamboling around the children in delight. The canines wag their tails. They prance. They pant. They kick up puffs of dust here and there, together with the juveniles.
The waiting passengers begin to enter. They push and shove their way in. Not enough seats. Some of them, obviously, do not mind standing. My coach is now over-crowded.
The train, with a loud hoot, rumbles back to life. It gathers speed again. Gradually. The air is nonetheless invigorating. It emanates from the rich foliage flanking the speeding locomotive and douses the fetid smell within. The air current, strong and daring, flutters my generous hair. But I do not care, all thanks to the long curved fruit, its smooth yellow skin and that unmistakable flavor that makes it my favorite. I take a bite and my mouth begins to dance. I relish the taste and the softness of the succulent flesh. I adjust myself. The old wooden bench creaks and groans faintly under my bum—and those of three other passengers with whom I share the bench.
All is kind of still again. Except the jangling of the train and the creaking and groaning of the wobbly seats. And the vociferous hoots that come every now and again. I look around. Many are nodding off to sleep already. It is indeed a long and dreary journey. I whisper a prayer: Lord, lead me safely to the House of Adeoti, the formidable palace of the Oba of Bonangu.
* * *
The Oba’s lounge is large and ornate, a riot of gilt and color. Its French windows are draped with quiet silk.
I place my bag on the gilded mahogany table. In total silence, I begin to saunter about on my clogs, waiting for Aunty Maryam. Soaking up the ambience, I steep myself in the monarch’s newest collection of artifacts. Terracotta figurines. Clusters of ostrich feathers. Imported elk horns. Surreal paintings with bright vivid colors that leap from the canvas. A couple of leopard skins smothered with furs, spread out like mats in the center of the lounge. I gawk at the furs. Mentally, I extol the bravery of the men who perhaps killed the panthers and presented them to the Oba as gift, a royal gift. Maybe during the last New Yam Festival. These valiant men, I think, could be a band of Bonangu warrior-hunters.
Resting on the mantelpiece is an assortment of gold-framed photographs. I stare at them, one by one. The preceding monarchs in the House of Adeoti stare back at me, their imperious eyes boring into mine. A hallowed dynasty, I muse. Then my gaze falls on the swarthy face of the incumbent monarch. Unlike his predecessors, he grins at me. Like a naughty schoolboy. And his eyes glint behind his bifocals. Grinning back, I hear the sound of approaching footsteps.
I turn around. Aunty Maryam glides towards me, her maids—three of them—sprinkling pink rose petals on the floor. As she tramples on the petals, a big smile hovers on her lips. Glossed with burgundy lipstick, those fat lips, they look quite succulent. She is embellished with beads and gaudy jewels. Her earrings dance as if they, too, are delighted to see me. Her pristine damask gown reminds me of those debutante dresses commonplace in the Western world, in the distant past. Her hair, together with the extensions, is parted in the middle. The curls are long and shiny. A beaded coronet, spangled with aquamarine gemstones, sits rather precariously on her crown. Her eyes are heavily lined with antimony. They glow with the fervor of a young woman who has just won a pageant.Around each of her ankles is a golden band. But Aunty Maryam is without a footgear—as always.
She opens her arms and gives me the friendliest of hugs. Like I am a long-lost friend. I catch a strong whiff of her trademark jasmine. Brimful of zest, she showers me with niceties. Then she motions me to an inviting couch, a very nice thick leather one, garnished with fluffy throw-pillows.
She gives each of her maids a knowing look. They bow their heads. Submissively. Before I know it, they dart out of sight. Like startled mice retreating to the safety of their gaping holes.
“When was the last time you visited your papa?” Aunty Maryam says. Her sweet oily voice enthralls me, caressing my eardrums.
I lower my gaze and grab one of the throws closest to me. I begin to finger its tassels as gloom settles on my face. I sigh and look up. My ashen eyes meet hers. “Some two months ago,” I say.
(The thought of Papa in jail always sends a thrill of alarm through my spine. It causes my head to kind of spin. And my stomach will ache and ache and ache for hours on end. Papa has been in jail since I was nineteen. I am twenty-one now. He was mercilessly thrown into that hellhole shortly after erecting our family house in Kharton. According to the judge, he will live in jail for the rest of his life. Yes, life. That is the sentence. Even the ensuing appeal could not save him. He lost the appellate case. And he lost big time.)
Aunty Maryam sighs and looks away. The silence is now edgy. She is overwhelmed with despair. Obviously. She is also grief-stricken. Palpably. “He is my big brother, you know,” she says.
She blinks twice. Like she wants to stem the tears. “We have always been fond of each other.”
I give her a tearful look.
“How is your mama?”
“She’s fine. She sends her greetings.”
She holds my hands and gives me a pump. So fondly, so reassuringly, it soothes the rough edges of my nerves.
“It’s okay, Yelwa,” she says. “You really are worn out.”
I nod again.
“Go take a shower. When the fatigue wears off, we’ll steal a quiet moment and talk about everything.”
Pursing my lips, I try to kill the tears but fail. They rush to my eyes and begin to roll down my cheeks. Like rivulets. Then I give a couple of slow nods, wondering if everything includes the controversial Oba’s sixth-wife-to-be, whom I have not met at all.
* * *
The wedding banquet has begun. The Oba’s garden, lush and expansive, is filled with the aroma of barbecued fillet steaks and the savor of a lavish buffet and the fragrance of fine wines. They tease my nostrils as I listen to the sensual rhythms of a live band, to the strong, awesome vocal ability of the young man crooning against the backdrop.
Pressmen mill around, amid a hail of popping flashbulbs. Balloons, in many shimmering colors, lunge skyward. The sky is light blue, and the flimsy scudding clouds drift lazily. The surrounding trees rustle in the light breeze. I study the jollity around me and feel as though I am attending a state dinner. As though I am in a magical new world. The music drowns the clinking of the finest china and silverware and wineglasses. It also drowns the chuckles and the giggles and the cackles that emanate from the cheery guests, a glittering bunch of bigwigs. (The Oba’s parties, I know, are usually a regular fusion of royalty and aristocracy. No mistaking that.)
My shimmering gown is exquisite. So are the abundant pearls around my neck. So are those that dangle from my earlobes. My long hair is dressed high. And two dangling curls frame my face. Standing on a pair of platforms, I clutch at my cute purse. Wow! I am dazzled by the clusters of pearls and diamonds and gold and silver jewels on the necks and fingers and wrists and ears of all the other women present. Nonetheless, I know, I am the cynosure of all eyes. Like a movie goddess.
From a distance, I steer my gaze a little to the right. Oh, my dear Aunty Maryam. She and the other wives. They are seated under a royal parasol. The oloris, I muse. Studded with burnished gold and beads, they are resplendent in elaborate aso-oke. Their affinity for luxury in royal dress and lifestyle is glaring today. More than ever. Unlike Aunty Maryam, the senior wives are rather large. They have a far-away look in their eyes. And they have grown-up children, the omobas, save Aunty Maryam.
Maintaining my distance, I peer at the Oba. He and his bride are seated beside each other. In purple-and-silver sedan chairs. Under a more sophisticated royal parasol. The monarch is decked out in royal regalia. Short, portly, and dark-skinned, with a craggy face, he has a blustery personality. His bead-embroidered crown conceals his bald head and reveals a touch of grey at both sides. A broad smile spreads across his features as he grabs his goblet. He takes a healthy swig, and then winks at me through his bifocals, that expensive pair of glasses that always slides down his large, bumpy nose. It is like he is asking me to come hobnob with him. I giggle, and my shoulders kind of lift in a shrug. Just to conceal my mortification at his having caught me peering at him. He gives me another wink, a brazen one. I giggle again. And, for Aunty Maryam’s sake anyway, I pray those winks have no strings attached.
Draped with a flamboyant combination of lace and batik and aso-oke, his bride drips in beads. Just beads. Exotic beads. She is truly young and bold and beautiful. Her dark hair floats around a flawlessly made up face, a face that reminds me of the shape of an egg.
I hold both of them under my scrutiny. They pan their merry eyes along the many rows of faces. Mmh… Those faces. Hearty faces that belong to the many high-powered guests of the Oba’s. The bride holds her willowy neck up high. She fans herself with peacock feathers. Her luscious lips are as round as the world itself, a ripe reddish-peach. Aunty Maryam is the fifth wife. This one is going to be—well, she now is—the sixth.
Still beholding her, I realize to my consternation that she looks like an old close friend of mine. (Funto Dickson and I wrote our A’ Levels together. Some three years ago.) Could this young lady be Funto, after all? Upon this puzzling realization, I refuse to tear away my gaze from her. I hope my eyes, and even the slightest movement of my entire body, will betray nothing.
(Yes, some three years ago . . . Funto and I, I recall with chilling clarity, were eighteen then. We lived, and also studied, together in St. John’s School, a co-educational boarding facility in the heart of Kharton. We shared a lot of things and played in the school’s handball team. But ever since the day we wrote our last paper, our paths never crossed again. A couple of years, of course, must have brought about a lot of difference in our looks. We are women, after all. Mother Nature has just released us from the cocoon of juvenile innocence, amid the many bugging questions of early puberty. Now we are in a world of lipsticks and pancakes and nail vanishes, a sophisticated world, battling with being fastidious about our looks.)
The more I peer at this young woman, the more confused I seem to get. But I must make sure it is not Funto. Funto does not have a fair skin. Certainly. But this young lady does. Anyway, I reason, it is not impossible that Funto, over the years, has bleached her skin.
Worsening my confusion is the fluttering faux lashes. They frame her almond eyes in a kind of funny way. They give her the look of a Barbie doll. (But the Funto I know, faux lashes or no faux lashes, has never gotten any close to looking like a doll. I have always known her to be dowdy, faintly withdrawn, and somewhat rotund.) But this very young lady is svelte and lithe. Like those super-models in the Bonangu couture who make their hip-jutting way up and down the runways. She appears to be lewd, seemingly exuding a great deal of guile, flashing as much skin as possible. Oh my Gosh! Her skin is, without a doubt, bleached!
(Aunty Maryam and I, in fact, did discuss everything last night. But, in spite of all my prodding, she didn’t go anywhere close to the subject of this lassie, a subject that has, at the moment, provoked a raging curiosity in my inquisitive soul.)
Suddenly, the band stops. It begins another stirring highlife number, jarring my thought. Riveted to the spot, I am in an utterly somber silence. I refuse to eat or drink anything. Dour-faced, I am partly overwhelmed by the thought of Papa in jail. Yet I cannot particularly stem the insatiable curiosity whirling inside me. It refuses to settle in the pit of my snooping soul as I continue to look furtively at the Oba’s bride, working hard to decipher the person behind this rather strange face.
* * *
The sharp rap of knuckles on the mahogany door jolts me awake.
Gently, I rub my bleary eyes. My room, to my surprise, is bathed in sunlight already. Birds twitter merrily amid the distant drone of traffic. With a thrill of anticipation, I peel off my quilt and stretch my frame with a long yawn. Leaping out of the comfortably draped bed, I loathe myself for oversleeping. Primly, I adjust my hair and nightgown into place and trot to the door.
It is Aunty Maryam.
She gives her subservient maids a peremptory look. And they scurry away—as usual.
“Good morning, Yelwa,” she says.
A hint of glee, I can see, lurks in the depths of her sparkling eyes. I return her greeting and ask her to come on in.
She politely declines; she has an urgent meeting with a large number of Bonangu widows. They have converged somewhere near the royal mausoleum, she says, to wait for her, Her Royal Highness. Still standing at the hallway, she pats me at the shoulder with characteristic gusto.
“Ain’t you the luckiest woman in the world, Yelwa?”
I give her a puzzled look.
“The Oba has granted your request to have a heart-to-heart with his newest wife,” she says.
“Yes . . . She’ll be with you in a moment.”
My eyes are as round as a pair of saucers. (Truly, I battled all night with the gnawing thought that the Oba would reject the tall order. He might deride it as downright lese-majesty, I did conclude. Decisively. But, in fairness to the monarch, it is indeed a tall order, brazenly audacious, sourly unprecedented.)
Excited, I thank my aunty. For taking such a big risk, all for me.
I shut the door, fully expectant. I listen to her echoing footsteps fading into the distance and retreat into the solitude of the guest room.
I begin to pace up and down, waiting. Anxiously. The knock that will usher in the Oba’s bride is worth waiting for, after all. I long to see her. I really do.
Who am I, I wonder, to send for a queen consort, an olori?
* * *
She raises her right hand to dismiss her own maids. Imperiously. The maids, three of them, take a bow and then flee. They clutch at their baskets of pink rose petals. Like they have this eerie feeling that some bandit waiting in ambush will otherwise snatch them away.
Her exquisite satin nightgown is lavished with lace. It shimmers in the sunlit room. And it sweeps the ceramic floor tiles as she steps in. Her ruffled curls frame her surreal face. Those synthetic lashes that frame her eyes are still intact. Her aura is rather conceited. Not to my surprise, it provides a sharp contrast with Aunty Maryam’s. And it splashes on me a sudden realization that royal power certainly has its own whims and caprices.
I shut the door, determined not to let my voice quaver, never to give her a chance at intimidation.
Slowly, she turns to face me. I can clearly see a matter-of-fact look in her eyes. “What do you want from me, Yelwa?”
Then I recognize her voice. A soft, incredulous gasp escapes me. I am shocked that she has, all of a sudden, taken on the exalted air of royalty with such smugness. (The singular fact that Funto Dickson, my friend of six years at St. John’s College, has changed so dramatically, so unexpectedly, really gags me.)
“Funto?” I say in a whisper, bunching my eyebrows.
“Don’t you dare call my name,” she says. She obviously gives not a hoot for snapping at me.
I roll my eyeball in bewilderment.
“For your information, Yelwa, the Oba did not grant your request.”
“It can’t be possible. I—”
“I pleaded with him to let me come.”
“I saw the way you were staring at me at the banquet, Yelwa.”
I take a deep breath, struggling with the embarrassment engulfing me. But I must lie to shake it off. “Yes, I know you did see me.”
“I knew you were trying very hard to identify me.”
“And I did. That’s why I requested for this meeting.”
The ensuing silence between us is so thick one can slice it with a knife.
But, scowling like an irate cat, she breaks it: “Your placing such an impractical request, Yelwa, is not only borne out of sheer selfishness. It is also a brazen disrespect to the entire monarchy.”
I wince at such conceit. My eyes flicker again and again.
Her eyes boring menacingly into mine, she says: “Tell me what you want from me—after you have succeeded in taking Fela away from me.”
(Fela Cole was our senior at St. John’s who never ceased to dote on Funto as a lover.)
I suppress the exasperation threatening to take the better of me. I wonder when Funto will finally stop clawing at my throat. With a tremulous but strong voice, without averting my eyes from hers, I say: “For the last time, Funto, I didn’t take Fela away from you. He was all over me.”
“For real?” Her smile is scathing.
“Yes . . . I didn’t want to have anything to do with him—for your sake.”
I draw a long breath. “He finally backed off and never came back. Of course, I knew how crazy you were about him.”
I can see, from the way she squirms, that she now believes me.
“Is that why you never bothered to return my calls—or reply all my emails?” I say. Calmly.
“Partly,” she says. A sigh escapes her.
I can perceive some kind of a quiet guilt as she turns to face me again. It is that kind of guilt that, for some reason, you would not want to admit.
She looks away. “Time changes everything, Yelwa.”
“Yes, Funto, time changes everything.”
Her voice has given her away. I take a closer look at her startlingly fair skin. (In fact, her complexion used to be dark, with dollops of fat underneath.)
“What did you do to your body?”
Her brow furrows with mild vexation. And she brushes me off like a buzzing fly. “Shouldn’t grown-up girls shed their baby-fat, naturally? Whatever I’ve done to my body is none of your business, anyway.”
I agree, I say. Then, in a derisive tone, I thank her for the pleasant surprise she gave me yesterday.
She scowls. “What surprise?”
“You’ve succeeded in stabbing me in the back by choosing to share a middle-aged man with my aunty—and with four other women who are old enough to be your mama.”
Another silence descends.
Then I stress that I came all the way from Kharton to attend the wedding of my aunty’s husband, without the slightest knowledge that the bride is not just someone I know, but a very close friend of mine. “Why must you keep your wedding a secret from me, Funto?”
“We’re no longer friends. We used to be.”
“Nothing happened to our friendship, Funto. Save time and silence and perhaps distance. Anyway, whether or not we’re no longer friends is of no consequence at the moment.”
Suddenly, Funto begins to shake with raw, pulsating emotion. Profuse tears begin to surge down her face. Her veneer has finally cracked and then crumbled. “I gave up everything for this royal marriage,” she splutters. “It was a hard decision, the hardest I have ever made.”
“Please, don’t cry. But I don’t know what you’re talking about.” (One thing I know is that the Funto Dickson I knew at St. John’s wanted to become a practicing lawyer, get happily married to Fela, and then live a picture-perfect life with him and their pet and children—just a boy and a girl.)
She begins to whimper. “It’s as if the gods of this land caused me to give up everything for this marriage, all my aspirations, and a future I’ve always held dear.”
“But you had a choice, Funto.”
“No, I did not,” she snaps.
“Then tell me why you must marry a man as old as the Oba.”
She stops weeping and wipes her tears with the hem of her nightgown. Sniffling like a snotty child dreading to have a cold bath on a harmattan morning, she sighs and raises her gaze. Our eyes meet again. She sits at the edge of the bed.
“I have a confession to make, Yelwa.”
I smother the thrill of anticipation tickling my ears and wait patiently. But then, I wonder, has our lost-but-found friendship been under a shroud of secrecy all these years?
She sighs again. Perhaps with ambivalence.
My eyes flicker as I urge her to go on.
“The Oba has been dating me secretly—right from when I was twelve,” she blurts, clasping and unclasping her hands.
My jaw drops.
“He broke my virginity at that age.”
My blood turns cold. I cringe. My eyes fastened on hers, my jaw drops further.
She blows her nose again. “We had several furtive sexual encounters all the while you and I were in school, especially during the holidays.”
“No, it can’t be . . . It just cannot be.”
She takes a deep breath. “This is no libel. I am not exaggerating, either.”
“See, Yelwa, I dredged up enough will to tell you this. You’re the only person in the whole world to hear this.”
I regain my composure, take a couple of steps, and sit by her side. Then I bring my hand up to cover my tripping heart, afraid it may thump right out of my chest. “Funto?” I say softly, searching her eyes. “Are you sure of—?”
An avalanche of fresh tears floods her cheeks again. And she begins to convulse.
“It’s all right, my dear.”
“Several times, I carried his child,” she says, looking away.
I gasp as another silence descends.
“But since he was fine with keeping the affair secret, he provided me with a constant supply of contraceptives.”
I gasp again. “Fela once told me in the middle of your relationship with him that you wrongly accused him of a certain pregnancy. He was very sure, because, according to him, his relationship with you was platonic.”
She nods. “That’s why he started avoiding me. He investigated deeply, and found out about the Oba and I. Then he ditched me . . . Forgive me, Yelwa, for heaping the blame on you.”
“I forgive you, Funto. But did you ever love Fela?”
“Of course, I did.”
“Yes . . . But the distraction from the Oba was too much for me. Yet whenever I saw you and Fela together, I felt bad. I hated myself. I hated you. I hated him. I hated everyone, everything around me . . . I’m sorry, Yelwa.”
I take her hand in mine and give it a reassuring squeeze. “It is all right, Funto. We’re friends and always will be . . . How did you get to know each other? I mean, you and the Oba?”
“The Oba’s equerry is my mama’s second cousin. That is the connection.”
I purse my lips, listening intently.
When Funto was twelve, she explains, she and her parents were invited to the Oba’s forty-fifth birthday party, bless the monarch’s magnanimous soul. Then and there, the Oba saw Funto and, immediately, became interested in her.
“But you were just a kid then, Funto.”
She nods and bends over to whisper in my ear that the Oba has about three houses on the outskirts of Bonangu. Sometimes, she says, he retreats from his palace to relax in the privacy of one of those houses with his under-aged fillies.
I am dumfounded.
“They’re usually brought to him by his most trusted chauffeur.”
“Forgive me, Yelwa, for hiding so much from you.”
I am appalled at this staggering information. Nevertheless, I reassure Funto that she has been forgiven. Then I suddenly chuckle as a wave of nostalgia washes through me.
“I remember how you showered me with expensive gifts, and how you made our corner of the dormitory a haven. Mmh . . . the supply of goodies was so constant.”
I chuckle again as another silence falls.
“You never lacked a thing, Funto. And I envied you, simply because you are from a rich home, an only child.”
Slowly, Funto takes her hand away from mine, looking away. “I am not from a rich home, Yelwa.”
I look at her askance. “But you told me—”
“I lied to you.” Pause. “See, the Oba would send money through his equerry to my mama’s bank account for my tuition and everything else.”
In consternation, I tilt my head diagonally. “Your mama was aware of the affair?”
“Never. She died about six months ago without ever knowing. She died believing the equerry’s lie that all the money was coming directly from him.”
“I really am sorry, Funto . . . What caused her death?”
“Heartache, Yelwa. Heartache.”
“She could not come to terms with the circumstances surrounding my papa’s death.”
“My papa was murdered.”
“Oh dear. So sorry. It must have been a nightmare for your mama.”
“Yes, it really was. After her funeral the Oba got me pregnant again. I told him I would not terminate it this time.”
I shake my head. “The world is full of surprises . . . You’re pregnant?”
“And, for sure, that’s why he married you.”
I look away and inhale softly, shaking my head slowly. Then I turn back to look at her. “Why was your papa murdered, anyway?”
“He was a factory worker in Kharton, not a rich man as I made you to believe.”
“Never mind. Just go on.”
“There was this VIP whose evil deeds he wanted to expose. Rumor had it that the VIP has a brother-in-law who also worked in the factory up to the day of the murder.”
My heart skips a beat. That must be Papa. “What’s the name of the factory?”
“Gumbo & Both, they produce tomato-paste.”
My heart skips another beat. That must be Papa. He was working in Gumbo & Both Ltd, the owners of the only tomato-paste factory in Kharton, when he was arrested and charged for cold-blood murder.
“What’s the murderer’s name?”
“I don’t know. I heard the VIP paid him to kill my papa. The stupid murderer is pining away in prison now. Life sentence . . . I also heard he used the money he received in settlement to build a house for his family in Kharton.”
A couple of questions ricochet in my clouded mind as I work hard to conceal my growing alarm. Yet the world around me seems to be spinning. Slowly and slowly. And then fast and fast, so much so I almost let out a horrified scream. But I decide to be brave and strong. Could Papa have killed the father of Olufunto Dickson? And could this VIP be the Oba himself?
“Were you at the trial?” I manage to ask.
“No, I wasn’t. The Oba and I were somewhere far away from the palace.”
“Somewhere far away?”
“We were in Dubai, precisely . . . Look, I was not summoned to the court. My mama was not, either. We were not interested in the proceedings.”
“Why? A case involving the murder of your papa?”
“We did not prosecute. The state did. Well, a dead man is a dead man. Whatever decision a judge reaches over a dead man cannot bring the dead man back to life.”
She gives a rather derisive chuckle. “We were told the defense lost, and all the lobbying from the VIP, that bastard, to get the murderer vindicated failed woefully.”
“This so-called VIP does not have a name?”
Funto gives a shrug. “I don’t know his name; neither do I know that of the man he paid to kill my papa.”
“The world is full of surprises.”
“Well, all I am happy about is that the scapegoat is serving a life term . . . It’s not a most satisfying reprisal, I know—but, at least, it’s fair.”
I feel a lump in my throat and swallow hard. “Well, you’re right, Funto. But permit me to ask: when was your papa murdered?”
“Some two years ago—while on duty in the factory. He was bent on exposing the VIP, the man behind the mask.”
I feel another lump in my throat. A much bigger one. And I struggle to swallow harder this time. I dare not tell Funto that I know very well what she is talking about.
“But what was the evil your papa wanted to expose?”
“I don’t know. My mama said it was like Papa caught this man in some serious crime.”
“Was he summoned by the court?” I hope the tremor in my voice will betray nothing.
“Yelwa, whether the mysterious man was summoned or not, I don’t know. I just told you I was not in the country then.”
“Was it in the news?”
“Not at all. My father was not a public figure, neither was his murderer.”
“That means the so-called VIP must have completely taken himself out of the picture.”
“Most certainly. Like the Godfather of the mafia. It’s a damn corrupt country, you know.”
“It is indeed—”
We hear the steps of someone thumping in the hallway. And then a faint knock at the door.
Immediately, I open it.
The Oba’s equerry greets us with a smile and then settles his gaze on me. The Oba, he says, has waited long enough for his consort and I to get to know each other. “All the same, he appreciates your eagerness to foster a friendship with her,” he says and departs as curtly as he arrived.
Funto strides to the door. She signals me to keep my mouth shut.
I give a couple of wan nods.
Now left alone, I think of Papa. Despairing tears begin to roll down my cheeks. The salty water causes my zest for life to plummet. It douses the hope that is hitherto flickering in my heart. A heart that is now like shards of pottery.
I will not wait for Aunty Maryam to come back. I will leave without telling a soul. I yearn, though, to reach out for her. For Funto. For my unfortunate mama back home in Kharton. How and when will this dreadful truth unknot itself? Will it ever do so?
I bury my face in the pillow. And I cry and cry and cry. Then I shower and get dressed, not wanting to waste more time.
Image: © Robert Major via Flickr