We began with an attempt to tell a story of a lifetime.
Since then we have become a story of lifetimes.
But I don’t think I ever told the story of us authored by the ancestors.
Our story begins long before you tapped me on the shoulder a year ago.
It started when you returned from Jamaica to Oyo land with your mother and three bearded men.
The king who was said to be Sango returned, had decreed that white missionaries be given land to build their churches.
Most minor chiefs responded by giving hard earth to the visitors.
The first set of missionaries typically died of malaria or other fevers within months and did not attract a single worshiper in the village.
One missionary, however, survived for several years, even after an attempt on his life by his child bride who had been given as a gift by the far away king.
The girl had mixed a poison root into his porridge the morning after their wedding night.
After he fell sick, she ran away and was never seen again. No one searched for her. The missionary was taken by his people soon thereafter but promised to return once he recovered.
It was sometime later, years in fact, that he did return.
The village had fallen into disgrace and was under a 7-year penance by order of the king because of the treatment of the missionary.
When the missionary returned, he came with three black men, a black woman and you, a child.
The men and woman were dark and familiar in cheek and bone but wore the clothes of the white missionary and spoke an old dialect of Yoruba with a strange voice.
Despite their beards, they were considered bald-faced like children because they carried no identifying markings on their faces.
The men were regarded with qualified distance for they wore their hair in the manner of Sango, the King, in his human form. This was sacrilege for they spoke not of the deity with which they patterned their appearance but of another man-god with hair like lamb’s wool. They spoke of fire and brimstone akin to the audacity of Sango’s thunder and hammer, yet encouraged us to abandon our savage idolatry and be born again.
They spoke at the river about being the blood children of an old family from another clan that we warred with long ago. The clan had lost, the men killed, the women taken as consorts and children sold to white slavers at the port.
The old women of the village clicked their tongues and looked away in shame.
They told of the land they had been raised in, which we call Jamaica and how the missionaries of their land shared the good word with them.
They had learned to read and write, other ways of the white men.
They wanted to share with us the good word.
Never before had the missionary been able to command our attention as these proto-Jamaicans…
I first saw you walking beside the throne box that carried your mother and the missionary to the door front of my grandfather, the Oni but presently disgraced.
Your eyes were a strange color, your skin fair but unlike that of the missionary.
That you walked beside the throne box rather than were carried struck me.
It was quite profane for the missionary to assume a privilege reserved for the king.
The other children hissed and called you akata eyes, alluding to your eyes of a jungle cat.
The Missionary had come to entreat the Oni with a warning that there were to be no tricks this time. He had shared a similar warning with the King, whom he suspected of sending the Girl to poison him.
While the elders drank palm wine and suffered the interpretations by your mother of our own war threats to the Missionary, I invited you to join us in play.
You refused and sat confidently in the presence of the adults quietly…
I was surprised when no one admonished you and I came to rest at your side but faced away from the elders, so as not to be punished later.
You shared before I could begin that you were to teach me and the other children about Christ the Savior.
I did not interrupt but eventually asked why you walked rather than allowed yourself to be carried.
You said simply that you thought it was wrong for the men of my village to be burdened with the weight of strangers….
I immediately liked you.
Sometime later I was instructed by my father that the Oni had decided I was to attend your Missionary’s school.
I was to watch you all and report back on your activities.
I eventually came to learn you had a devious side.
You enjoyed playing the part per the expectations of the missionary but subverted your own lessons with stories of Anansi and a trickster papa-god.
I told you our own stories.
I told you about that which was known but not discussed.
The clan your kinsmen claimed, had been ordered destroyed by Sango, the King.
They had taken to war as a way of life, raiding the interior of the Oyo various peoples and selling their captives to the White men who brought the missionaries on ships along the coast.
The King had not publicly declared such acts as unlawful but thought to use your clan as a cautionary tale, or in the language of today, a harm reduction approach to the trade.
He ordered them to the fate they had doomed many others…
When I told you this, you cursed Sango and called me a liar…
You did not speak to me as a friend for an entire season…
I did note a change in your stories to the other children…
You spoke less of your deity and more of your home and longing for it, in spite of what seemed to me, a horrible existence.
The boat you spoke of traveling upon the great sea and witnessing of black dead bodies thrown overboard.
The taking of women with no regard for their betrothal to other men.
I thought of the yam fields or easy work of making palm wine as incomparable to what you described as the work of men, women and children in cane fields.
I did not understand your connection to your place of birth besides your longing for what you called your people.
I implored my father to corrupt the missionary’s house through you.
My ulterior motive was to make you less lonely. I thought I could make amends for what had been done before my time. I obviously did not speak to the Oni or my father about this.
My sisters were ordered to teach you how to make palm wine and waist beads.
It was understood that you would never be given a husband and thus you needed a way to feed yourself.
The Oni was not aware that he had consented to you being brought into the order of women, however.
He was not aware that in teaching you of the beads, they were teaching you of your powers and certain meanings for which only women had understanding…
Through you, the elder women came to care for your mother, as she had been cursed by the men for daring to speak for them to the Missionary and thus was singularly tied to the Missionary with no friends.
The high priestess once entered the compound of the Missionary while he was home and brought her a piece of meat for her solely to eat without properly greeting the Missionary.
I cannot know what the consequences were for your mother. But I know you began speaking to me again.
Over time it was becoming clear that the Missionary was here to stay and the village was open if not eager to enjoy the gifts of his church.
The bearded men had taken one wife each, which were all with children.
The wives quickly converted and shared what they called the protections of patriarchy.
They did not have to contend with other wives for attention.
They traveled to other villages with their husbands and were treated as royalty.
The God they spoke of seemed much like all of our deities in avarice and power but promised punishment even in death for disobedience. They would often challenge us with a simple riddle, is it better to believe and be wrong with no penalty or disbelieve and be wrong and punished with fire for an eternity.
The Mission had grown in size greater than the chiefs seven room compound.
The bearded men would often speak of brotherhood and lambaste the village for murdering their forebearers and mothers forgetting their lost children in the New World.
This combination of brotherhood and shame gospel elevated the men and their followers in stature.
In some respects, they were equal to the Oni himself.
There was great appeal to many this idea of equality and egalitarian rule brought by the Missionary and his enslaved Jamaicans.
After some years you asked the women of my village to initiate you.
You were cut under your arm and given the house protection symbol of Olokun.
As a gift I gave you bark from my family tree.
You later would make love to me under that tree and have me drink pepper stew soiled with your menstrual blood.
You told me to forsake other women for you, as you were now my wife.
I agreed but demanded that you be my wife in reality.
You reminded me that neither the Missionary nor the Oni would allow it.
We thought long and hard on this.
Later, on the day of what you called sabbath, when people of your faith took sacrament and drank wine which was the blood of Christ, you made sure to mix poison root into the drink.
Many that took sacrament died with the exception of the Missionary and bearded men who did not drink from the common bag.
The Oni was angered and sent us to destroy the Mission.
I was able to warn you and you convinced your mother to flee. You did not know she would implore the Missionary to do the same.
I was sad when I had discovered your church, empty and you gone, back to the New World we learned from the bearded men before we killed them.
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay (modified)
This story is very complex but I enjoyed the many layers it revealed as I continued to read.
This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and well written short story. I can imagine the feelings and thoughts this author describes, and with so little words, I can see through the eyes of the Oyo boy.