Heavy footsteps hit the ground with thumps. Chickens scurried away in fear. They’d been scavenging for worms in the soil and couldn’t risk being crushed to death because of food. Birds nestling in the mango trees took to the air, their loud chirping a sign of protest. The evening, it seemed, was not going to be a peaceful one. A loud voice bellowed in the wake of all the flurry of activities.
Inside her hut, Unoaku trembled. Emenike appeared to be in a foul mood. What could have prompted this? She jack-knifed from her sitting position on the mat and rushed out of the hut, nearly bumping her head on the low door beam.
‘Welcome home, Ikem,’ she greeted, genuflecting as she did.
‘Follow me to my obi immediately,’ he barked, not acknowledging her greeting.
Like a lamb to the slaughter, Unoaku locked her palms together in front of her and followed Emenike to his obi. He angrily swept aside the raffia mat that covered the entrance and flung himself down on the wooden rocking chair. He silently rocked back and forth. Unoaku folded her arms beneath her breasts and stood, equally silently. There were signs that a hurricane was in the offing so she waited for the storm to get into full swing.
‘I have never been so insulted in my life like I was this afternoon.’ Finally, he spoke.
Unoaku remained mute. What was the point of speaking? Whatever peeved Emenike would eventually be revealed. She had a feeling in her gut, however, that something bad was about to happen. Strong palpitations took over.
‘I can’t wait anymore, Unoaku. Tomorrow, I start building a hut for another wife. I’m only informing you out of courtesy.’
She exhaled. So, this is what all the huffing and puffing was all about. Not a new topic but, there was something different tonight. She chose to plead, hoping whatever prompted this outburst would melt away. She moved closer and, kneeling before him, placed her palms on his knees, caressing them gently as she spoke.
‘Ikem, I know it’s been two years and I understand your frustration, but remember, it is the gods that give children. Perhaps now is not our time.’
Her words, unfortunately, had the opposite effect. He brushed her hands off his knees, nearly toppling her with the force of his movement.
‘Woman, my mind is made up. There’s no point discussing this issue any further. Is there any food to eat, or are you incapable of producing that as well?’
Quick change of topic! A sharp pain went through Unoaku’s heart and her eyes smarted with hot, unshed tears at his words. ‘Emenike, has it got to the point where you too, taunt me? What has a meal got to do with being childless?’ she cried.
‘You’re still here asking stupid questions? Maybe you’ll get answers when my new wife comes in,’ Emenike replied. ‘Men of my age grade made jest of me this afternoon during the meeting all because of you,’ he continued bitterly.
‘The gods will bless our union, Ikem, just give it some time,’ she pleaded.
‘Iyiawo Imilike, himself, has sanctioned my intent to take another wife.’
Unoaku had nothing to say in response to that. Words failed her. She turned to exit the obi and Emenike called her back.
‘Where do you think you’re going, woman?’
‘To bring your food, Ikem, or, aren’t you hungry anymore?’ she retorted.
Emenike sent her on her way with a wave of his right hand. The tears were threatening to escape and she didn’t want him to see them so she left hastily. Once outside, she lifted the edge of her wrapper and wiped her eyes. A song of sorrow started in her head and she gave voice to it. She sang and cried as she dished freshly prepared bitter leaf soup and foo-foo. She eventually dried her tears but continued singing as she made her way back to the obi. Emenike had his right hand on his jaw with the elbow resting on the armrest. No words were exchanged. The only sound was Unoaku’s singing. She waited for Emenike to wash his hands before retrieving the calabash to go get fresh water. Upon her return, she placed the water beside him on the table and sat on the floor watching him eat.
A shiver ran through her as the thought of an impending co-wife filled her mind. She knew the implication, and dreaded the day. What to do now? She’d taken all manner of herbs gathered under a full moon as recommended by Agbala, the village midwife, all to no avail. She’d made sacrifices to the gods, but they remained deaf when it came to her supplications. The day she was given to Emenike in marriage seemed so far away. It had been a very happy and memorable day. Nothing prepared her for the day Emenike would push her aside and go for another.
No response. Unoaku was buried so deep in her thoughts that she failed to hear Emenike speak.
‘Woman, I said I’m done!’ he shouted.
His words snapped her out of her reverie and she instantly and apologetically got to her feet. She would not shed a single tear over this issue any more. If Emenike wanted ten wives, he was welcome to them. No longer would she lift a finger to stop him. With the firm determination of one who’d decided on the next course of action, Unoaku cleared the dishes and left the obi. She dumped them on the kitchen floor with a clatter, disturbing the rodents and roaches that were having a field day with the foodstuff strewn all over the kitchen. She turned up her nose in disgust at a lone roach licking the soup from her soup spoon. The chaos called her kitchen was way down her priority right now. There were more important things to take care of.
Without so much as a word to Emenike, Unoaku stormed out of the compound. At that precise moment, Emenike chose to stretch his legs after the heavy meal. He wiped his face to ensure it was his wife’s retreating back that was before him.
‘Unoaku!’ he shouted, but she kept walking. There was no stopping her tonight. Emenike strode back into his obi, retrieved his walking stick and, out of curiosity, went after his wife. ‘This woman has suddenly grown wings,’ he muttered under his breath. ‘Another female here will help curb her excesses.’
The sun had set long ago and dusk was fast gathering. Emenike could see Unoaku’s swaying figure not too far ahead, but refrained from calling out to her again. A woman returning from the market with her unsold wares, raised her brows when, after passing and greeting Unoaku, she bumped into Emenike too.
‘Good evening, Nna anyi Emenike. Hope all is well?’
‘Everything is under control,’ he answered. ‘Give my regards to your husband.’ Emenike knew he’d just provided a bit of gossip for Ogbuefi Nnamdi’s wife, and probably the rest of the village if care was not taken.
Unoaku trudged on, oblivious of the fact that she had company. Tonight was the night. She demanded answers from the gods and Iyiawo Imilike must answer her, or else she will remain at his shrine. How could she be waist deep in a river and soap will enter her eyes? Only a fool let that happen.
Taking in deep breaths of fresh evening air and apparently enjoying his stroll, Emenike soon realised where his wife was headed. Satisfied, he did a U-turn and took slower strides on the homebound journey. The crickets had already begun their night orchestra by the time he got back home. In her hurry, Unoaku had failed to prepare his bathwater. It was either he did it himself or go to bed unwashed. He chose the former, but one look at the kitchen sent him back to his hut. Tonight, he’ll sleep without having a bath.
‘Akirika! Akirika I greet you ooo!’
‘Who goes there?’ a wizened voice grunted from within the hut.
‘It is I, Unoaku.’
‘Be gone with you, woman, and do not disturb the peace of the night.’
‘I can’t, Akirika,’ Unoaku replied, undeterred by the gruffness of the voice. ‘Why has Iyiawo Imilike chosen to pay deaf ears to my cries? What have I done to deserve this punishment?’
Akirika emerged from the hut, groggy and worn out. There goes his early night. At times like this, he queried the merits of being a faithful servant to Iyiawo Imilike. The role of chief priest to the gods had been handed down from one clan to the other and from one generation to the other. The mantle had fallen on him and he’d picked the baton without complaint. The job had its perks though – some young virgins now and then; endless supply of food, birds, livestock and bush meat. He couldn’t really complain.
‘Woman, why do you persist in bothering me so? We’ve gone through this several times.’
‘Forgive me, Akirika, and please take no offence at my words. Perhaps you’re not asking Iyiawo Imilike the right questions. My position is greatly at stake. Emenike has threatened, no, not threatened; he has decided to marry a second wife. I need answers from Iyiawo Imilike.’
‘I’ve told you before, Unoaku, and I repeat my words. Go home. Let Emenike marry again. You are not barren. Your baby is on the way.’
‘When, Akirika?’ Unoaku cried. ‘When I’ve been driven away from Emenike’s house or when I’ve grown too old to bear a child? Ask one more time, I beg of you. Put me out of my misery, please Akirika.’
Akirika disappeared into his hut and remained there. Unoaku waited patiently. She was on a mission and wasn’t about to leave empty handed. About five minutes later, Akirika re-emerged. This time adorned in his all white regalia. His left eye was circled in white chalk and he had a white feather stuck to the right side of his red cap. He held his iron staff in his right hand and had amulets around both arms and ankles. He was ready for business. He took two steps forward and hit his staff deep into the soil. The bells on the staff jingled loudly and Unoaku retreated, a bit scared. Standing before her was not the same man she’d yelled at a few minutes ago. He stood taller, back straighter, and there was this strange aura about him. Akirika appeared to be in a trance. The transformation was impressive. He took firm strides towards Iyiawo Imilike’s shrine and Unoaku followed at a safe distance, all her swagger suddenly deserting her.
It wasn’t long before the duo made it to the shrine. The forest around the enclosure was densely populated, eerie and still. Nothing moved. Not even the wind. Unoaku’s skin crawled with gooseflesh and she rubbed her arms. She’d come this far and there was no turning back. There was a huge urn on the ground, inside which a fire burned. That puzzled her, because they’d only just arrived and she wondered who’d been tending the fire. Even more baffling was the fact that there seemed to be neither firewood nor charcoal in sight to sustain the fire. How could it then have been burning perpetually? Beside the urn on the ground were some other artefacts that represented lesser gods than Iyiawo Imilike, believed to be the custodians of the urn. Balanced on a rock above the urn was Iyiawo Imilike’s image – a scary wooden sculpture with holes where the eyes, nose and mouth were meant to be. Behind the massive rock were lengths of red fabric tied and supported from one end to the other with long bamboo poles dug deep into the earth.
Unoaku knelt on the ground about twenty metres away from the shrine and watched Akirika do his job. She could hear undiscernible incantations and that was about all. After what seemed like ages but was, in fact, barely five minutes, Unoaku called out to Akirika and was instantly hushed.
‘Quiet, woman, and show some respect to the gods!’
Unoaku, thus chastised, swallowed her words. She’d only wanted to remind Akirika to ask the right questions this time around. A loud scream escaped her mouth when, suddenly, Iyiawo Imilike’s image came alive. That was how best she could describe the phenomenon that took place. The hollow sockets on the sculpture glowed bright red like embers of fire. The flame in the urn burned brighter. A chilly breeze took over the enclosure and Unoaku shivered uncontrollably. She had made sacrifices to the gods in the past but only through Akirika. This would be her first encounter with Iyiawo Imilike upfront and it was petrifying.
Akirika knelt before Iyiawo Imilike, placed his forehead on the ground and said, ‘speak, master. I hear you.’
Unoaku’s ears pricked at his words. She wanted to hear what the gods had to say, but, that was foolhardy. If everyone could hear the gods speak then there would be no need for chief priests like Akirika. The sockets on the sculpture glowed more fiercely and suddenly went out. The chilly breeze disappeared as quickly as it had arrived and the fire in the urn returned to its normal strength. Akirika remained in his position on the ground. Unoaku waited. Finally, he stood, took three steps backwards and turned to face Unoaku.
‘Iyiawo Imilike has spoken. He says to tell you that he is not as deaf as you believe. He has heard your supplications, but, your time is yet to come. That’s the message,’ he concluded.
‘But, but, but, that’s the same thing you said the last time,’ Unoaku stammered in confusion. She was highly disappointed with the message.
‘Go home, woman, and wait for the time appointed by the gods.’ So saying, Akirika picked up his staff and headed out of the forest.
Unoaku quickly got to her feet, brushing the sand off her knees as she run-walked after him. She had no desire to be alone with the gods in the forest. No further words were exchanged. She parted ways with Akirika at his hut and continued her journey home.
The compound was deathly quiet when she got back. She wondered whether Emenike had noticed her absence, and even if he did, whether he cared. Her heart was numb within her tonight, and she couldn’t give the monkeys about Emenike’s feelings. She remembered the dirty dishes in the kitchen but ignored them. Let the night creatures have a party tonight. She also couldn’t be bothered with warming the remaining soup. If it goes sour in the morning then so be it. Emenike should bring home his new woman to take care of such things. She headed straight for her hut and retired for the night.
Emenike kept true to his words and started work on a second hut not too far from the other side of his the next day. He knew well enough to keep his womenfolk far apart from each other. His new wife graced the compound with her presence almost immediately after the completion of the building. He was in that much of a hurry. Where Unoaku was chocolate brown, Uzochi was very light skinned, and pretty too! She also had youth as an advantage over Unoaku. To compound issues, Uzochi had very strong child-bearing hips. Unoaku realised her fate was sealed. Friends and family consoled her, but, consolation wasn’t what she yearned for.
Uzochi conceived almost immediately, putting more pressure on Unoaku. She bore Emenike a daughter barely a year after joining the household. Another daughter followed soon after and in the third year, a son was born. That year, Emenike slaughtered the fattest goat and brought out the best tubers of yam from the barn. Finally, he could raise his head during the men’s’ gathering and address them as one.
As the years rolled by and the gods kept toying with her despite several more trips to Iyiawo Imilike’s shrine, Unoaku resigned herself to her fate. She bravely endured jeers from Uzochi and other womenfolk in the clan even though her heart was in a thousand pieces. The unthinkable, however, happened three months after the birth of Emenike’s son. Unoaku’s flow took a leave of absence. At first, she didn’t think much of it, but, when another month passed without a flow, hope rose. Uzochi had taunted her when news of Unoaku’s pregnancy reached her ears, believing Unoaku’s pregnancy was fake, but proof came when Unoaku blossomed. Her cheeks filled out and her body became more rounded. Pregnancy agreed with her and she had more dazzling smiles light up her face every now and then. Ugochinyere, her gift from the gods, arrived months later.
There was not as much pomp and pageantry during her daughter’s naming ceremony as was in the case of Oyirinnaya, but Unoaku wasn’t perturbed. The gods had finally wiped away her tears and she was a complete woman. That was all that mattered. She presented Ugochinyere to Iyiawo Imilike after the naming and brought more thanks offerings to him. Now she was at peace.
The new dawn brought with it something ominous in the air. The sky was overcast and even the birds were dead quiet today. Ugochinyere wondered, as she swept the massive compound with dry palm fronds, what the day would bring. Unoaku stooped low to emerge from the mud hut that comprised their sleeping quarters. Arms across her chest in the doorway, she admired her daughter.
‘Ugo, I think you should leave the sweeping and go fetch clean water from the stream. The clay pot is empty and I want to make an early start on breakfast before leaving for Orie market.’
‘Good morning, mother,’ Ugo greeted.
Packing the debris she’d swept up so far into a heap to be disposed of later, she was quite certain Adaeze would not yet be ready for their early morning stream run. But her mother needed water, so, ready or not, to the stream she had to go. As Unoaku watched her daughter at work, she couldn’t help marvelling at the turn of events. Her womb had sealed up again after Ugochinyere’s birth but gratitude was Unoaku’s new name, that notwithstanding. The gods had been merciful to her. She left Ugochinyere and went to the back of the hut to harvest pumpkin leaves, pepper and okro with which to prepare soup. Ugochinyere went indoors to retrieve the clay pot and an extra piece of cloth with which to balance the pot on her head when full.
‘I’m off, mother,’ she called out to Unoaku.
‘Okay dear. You’re going to call on Adaeze to accompany you, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, mother. I’m heading over there now.’
As she trudged along the bush path that led to Adaeze’s compound, she passed a wine tapper on his way to collect the sweet nectar from the palm trees. Ugochinyere greeted him and continued walking. A farmer with his hoe slung across one shoulder walked by and she greeted him too. The rest of the journey was without incident. As she’d envisaged, Adaeze was as yet unprepared for a trip to the stream by the time she got to her house. She waited, and, before long, a bleary eyed Adaeze appeared. Balancing their pots on their hips, both girls trotted off towards the stream.
They heard shrieks of laughter as they drew close to the stream. It meant there were already other young maidens at the stream. It was reassuring to know they weren’t alone. Whilst some were fetching clean water from the mouth of the stream, others took liberty to either have a bath or do laundry further down the stream. It made perfect sense, rather than lugging pots and pots of water to the house only to empty them for use. Both girls were among the former group and soon, had their pots full and balanced on their heads for the homebound journey. Laundry and a bath would have to wait till their next trip. Both girls had been walking abreast when Ugochinyere suddenly took the lead and decided to show off by walking without supporting the pot on her head and swaying her hips.
‘Why do you do that all the time?’ Adaeze asked, trying to keep up with her.
She laughed, and, turning to face Adaeze, replied, ‘It’s to make you envious enough to want to do the same. Try it, it’s very easy.’ She turned and swayed her hips the more.
‘I know how many pots I’ve broken in the bid to imitate you. My mother won’t forgive me if that happens again, so, no, thanks,’ Adaeze replied with a laugh and asked her to wait up.
Ugochinyere ignored her but rather increased her pace. From nowhere, three able-bodied men jumped out and grabbed Ugochinyere. It all happened suddenly and Adaeze had no time to warn her. The pot fell to the ground and shattered into many fragments as soon as they took Ugochinyere kicking and screaming. Adaeze quickly put her pot down and ran after them shouting as well, but a nasty glare from one of the men made her stop. Of what use would she be to Ugochinyere if she too was captured? She stood watching and, when the men diverted towards a different path and disappeared into the bushes, she took off as fast as her legs would carry her towards Ugochinyere’s compound.
Unoaku was busy plucking pumpkin leaves in the kitchen when the faint shouts reached her ears. She simply wondered who had gone mad this early in the morning and continued with the task at hand. The shouts grew louder and nearer, and, when an out-of-breath Adaeze burst into the compound shouting for help, Unoaku hastily sat up, upending the tray of pumpkin leaves that had been on her laps. She rushed out towards Adaeze and demanded to know what had happened.
‘They took her,’ she muttered under her breath.
Unoaku didn’t need a soothsayer to know whom Adaeze referred to. ‘Who took her, and where did they take her to?’ she asked the poor girl, holding her by both shoulders and shaking her as if to rattle the answer out of her.
‘Three men accosted us on our way back from the stream and took her away.’
Unoaku clutched her breasts and let out a loud wail. ‘Ikem ooo! Ikem, they’ve taken our daughter!’
Emenike wasn’t too chuffed to be woken up before he was well and ready. The commotion outside pleased him none, but, sensing the urgency in Unoaku’s voice, he picked his loincloth, covered his nakedness, and, retrieving his walking stick from beside the bed, calmly went outside.
‘What’s all this noise about, woman?’ he asked grumpily.
‘They’ve kidnapped Ugochinyere,’ she cried.
‘What rubbish are you talking this morning, woman? There are no kidnappers in Ihuowere and besides, we’re not at war with any of the neighbouring villages so who would want to take Ugochinyere?’
‘Tell him, child. We need to make haste and go after them,’ Unoaku insisted.
Emenike turned to Adaeze and she repeated what she’d said to Unoaku barely five minutes ago.
‘Which way did they go?’ Emenike asked.
‘Come with me and I’ll show you,’ Adaeze replied, leading the way.
All this while, Uzochi never emerged from her hut even though she’d heard Ugochinyere was missing. The rivalry between both women was still very strong even after so many years. One would have thought that she’d show some empathy since a child was involved.
Adaeze all but ran as she led them in search of her friend. Unoaku was in hot pursuit and Emenike brought up the rear, his bad leg and walking stick slowing him down. They soon got to the intersection where the men disappeared and Emenike took over the lead. His experienced eyes could see signs of struggle in the bushes and he followed the tracks. Whomever took his daughter had deliberately gone round in circles to throw people off their scent but didn’t quite succeed. Before long, the party got to the spot where Ugochinyere was being held. The sight before them was incredibly unbelievable.
‘Akirika, you…’ Unoaku was speechless.
‘What is the meaning of this, Akirika?’ Emenike asked.
‘Iyiawo Imilike demanded and he must receive,’ was the response he got.
‘Why on earth are you speaking in riddles this morning, Akirika? What has my daughter got to do with Iyiawo Imilike’s demands? Release her at once,’ Emenike requested angrily.
Akirika gave a very short and dry laugh, and asked the young men to unhand Ugochinyere. They did, and she ran to her mother’s embrace. Unoaku was relieved that her daughter was alive and their ordeal over. Akirika’s next words proved that she was misguided in that belief.
‘Woman, long before Ugochinyere was conceived, Iyiawo Imilike had already marked her as his bride. His repeated assurance to you about the birth of the child was not without foundation. I have released the child but remember that he who dares the gods must dance to their tune. Take her home at your own peril.’
‘Hush, old man, swallow those words please,’ Unoaku was quick to respond. ‘There are so many other young maidens in Ihuowere, why would Iyiawo Imilike be interested in the only eye that owes blindness a debt?’
‘He who must be obeyed has spoken. I shall say no more. Be prepared to face Iyiawo Imilike’s wrath if you go against his wishes.’
Throughout all this exchange, Emenike uttered not a word. He was accustomed to the norms of Ihuowere and knew there was no arguing about this. He took it on the chin like a man. What else could he do? Walking toward his family, he pried Ugochinyere’s arms away from around her mother’s waist.
‘Ikem, what are you doing?’ a confused Unoaku shouted.
‘The gods must be obeyed.’
Ugochinyere screamed and shouted as her father handed her over to Akirika and his men. Her screams tugged at the heart but the law was the law. Unoaku’s legs wobbled and she fell to the ground tearing at her hair and screaming in anguish.
‘I’m finished! I’m completely finished! Night has come in daytime ooo!’
Emenike, unable to stand the screams and tears any longer, bent to help his wife up from the ground. It was a difficult task with his walking stick and, finally, he had to enlist the help of one of the young lads to lead her home. Adaeze was in shock at what just transpired. How could Ugochinyere’s parents just leave her behind? She kept looking back to catch a last glimpse of her friend.
‘Mother! Father! Please don’t leave me here,’ Ugochinyere shouted after their retreating backs to no avail. Her parents went farther and farther till she could see them no more. She couldn’t understand why her parents would abandon her to the gods.
The young lads led her still crying and kicking further into the thick forest where, to her surprise, she saw two young girls about her age in an enclosure. Their eyes were red from crying and they looked worn out. Ugochinyere dried her eyes upon realising she had company. She had heard tales about such practices but always believed they were fabricated stories that her grandmother told her under the moonlight.
Every ten years in Ihuowere, three maidens were handpicked for the gods. The villagers asked no questions because they believed such sacrifices to the gods’ ensured peace in the land, bountiful harvests and fruitfulness to replace generations. Whatever chief priest that was in charge took the maidens as wives. In the event that a chief priest goes to join the ancestors, his successor inherits all the women and continues the tradition of recruiting fresh blood. All children born within the enclosure remained there, with the exception of the males who were sent away once they reached puberty. There was to be no competition with the chief priest over the affection of the females. The women, though tagged wives to the gods, were neither caged nor chained in any manner. They were free to come and go at will to the market, stream and forest to fetch firewood. The only difference was that they were treated as outcasts and untouchable by the rest of the village, including members of their own family. With such liberty the women could have easily left the service of the gods but stories from the past about those that attempted escape deterred them.
Iyiawo Imilike’s shrine was enclosed by a dense forest, part of which was designated as burial ground for any of the wives that passed on. Deserters were tracked, killed and thrown into the forest rather than given a proper burial. Their skulls and bones were strewn all over that part of the forest as a constant reminder. That was precisely the first place that Akirika and his men took the newly captured girls to. No words were necessary as the girls screamed in terror and averted their eyes from the gruesome scene before them. That was all Akirika needed to subdue them and obtain their co-operation and loyalty, if one could call it that. And so, knowing that their fates were sealed, Ugochinyere and her mates resigned themselves to a life of servitude to Iyiawo Imilike and as sex slaves to Akirika and his men.
Image: Dan Culleton and Pixabay remixed