Fiction

Her Horseman’s Word: A Short Story by Bunmi Oyinsan

The day dawned, determined to register its solidarity with the Abiona family. Its tears? The light shower, which pelted the earth silently as though, bent on making her mellow in readiness to welcome the remains of the Abiona matriarch. There was no wind, only a grey cloud which tinged the day in grave hues in spite of all the colours of the rainbow that were represented by the umbrellas which several of the mourners still held open to protect themselves from the dying rain.

I stood a few paces behind the crowd. Only then did I feel sufficiently shielded by a blood red bougainvillea tree. I surrendered my mind to the melody of the choir’s music. The choir had performed only the deceased’s favorite hymns during the funeral service. All the way to the graveside, voices rang gaily as they performed her favorite gospel tunes. I was surprised to find some of these were my all time favorites too.

I felt like a fraud standing there as I watched the grim faces of the slain woman’s children, family, friends as well as the legion of supporters who continued to throng to her graveside to pay their last respect in defiance of the drizzle.

“I feel highly honored by this uncommon duty which fate has thrust on me…”

A familiar voice grated on my mind, then faltered as the speaker wiped his tears with a dazzlingly white handkerchief. ‘What a sharp contrast to the tone of the day.’ I noted annoyed. I moved from under my shelter to get a closer look at the speaker. I needed to see his eyes in order to resist falling prey to the nectar in his voice.

‘Cicero’, this character had been dubbed and it was no accident that he had emerged one of the most powerful political figures in the country.

“Chief Mrs. Abiona!” He exclaimed and paused. “Chief Mrs. Abeni Oloropo Abiona …” He paused again shaking his head gravely as he pointed at the casket.” A thoroughbred lies here today; still, lifeless, but we …” he beat his chest several times before clearing his throat as if to stop himself from choking. “We who are nothing but mere plough horses in comparison to her know that creatures like the good Chief Mrs. Abiona who sojourn but briefly through this terrain called life are really and truly immortal. Adieu thoroughbred! Thoroughbred, I use this word deliberately. For how can a woman of Chief Mrs. Abiona’s colossal stature ever be perceived as anything less? She was like a racehorse, a strong solid thoroughbred. Pure bred from the finest of her stock. A race horse, more noble that its rider. Creatures like her would rather die running than loose the race. For such was the commitment of this magnificent embodiment of all that is prec ious in a woman.”

He paused again, this time scanning the faces that surrounded the grave as if to examine if anyone dared to challenge his pronouncement. As heads nodded emphatically, not necessarily out of comprehension, I hissed, muttering: ‘bastard!’ under my breath. My mind appalled by the speaker’s histrionics shut his voice out of my head.

My mind willed me to flee from this man’s shameless manipulation of the event to his own advantage but my feet refused to move. I felt powerless to make my feet heed my mind’s counsel.

“Thoroughbred indeed'” My head began to reel from the memory of this man’s mocking laughter several years before when I had first gone to volunteer for the People’s Party for Progress. I willed the speaker to choke on his words and fill the hungry grave when I remembered how he had laughed at my naivety when I was forced to confess my reason for volunteering to serve the party.

He was one of the Party’s deputy divisional heads and had full charge of the Youth Wing. It was therefore his duty to screen young volunteers. I had gone to volunteer, determined to follow in the footsteps of my political heroine Mrs. Abiona (as she was then more humbly known). As it turned out, I was the only girl out of the five who responded to Mrs. Abiona’s call for young people to come forward and lend a hand to the political process during a radio interview.

I had never done anything so daring in my life when I roused myself to heed this clarion call. I had never even known either of my parents take the trouble to go out and vote.

When my turn came to be screened, I let myself into Wole Abanishe’s office. He had not then earned the title Cicero but that did not stop me from being in awe of him. I was shaking like a leaf inside. I met him digging his teeth into a cob of roasted corn and studying a paper on his desk. He did not raise his head to acknowledge my entrance even as he asked my name.

“Ayotunde Ojo” I managed to whisper. Only then did his head jerk up as though struck by a rod from under his chin.

“But you’re a girl!” He said through a mouth jam packed with corn.

“Yes Sir” I whispered again, wondering if I had got that part of the interview right.

“But … I thought…” He paused to swallow. “How come you applied in a boy’s name?” He frowned at me like I had committed a grievous crime.

“It’s my name.” I said regretting my lot at bearing a name, which could so easily condemn me.

“Why would a young girl like you want to get herself entangled in politics?” He did not offer me a seat and any moron knew in those days that you never, ever made an impudent move like helping yourself to a seat at an interview unless you were given permission first. “I’m 18.” I stammered because I could not immediately brace myself to confess my reason for volunteering. “But why have you volunteered?” He asked setting aside his unfinished cob of corn.

My heart fell and hit the pit of my stomach. I was convinced I would be turned down so my mind went temporarily blank but my ambition quickly rekindled it and it went into a flutter. How could I ever manage to tell this man who appeared to hold the key to my entire future my most passionate, most secretly desired ambition?

“Politics is serious business you know? It’s a really tough business. It’s hard work too, even for volunteers.” He eyes seemed to be admonishing me for wasting his precious time. “Are you a student?” He asked. The question was like throwing me a lifeline because I had an answer to that one. My confidence was momentarily buoyed.

“No Sir, but I’ve applied to study political science at the University.”

“Why?” He asked again.

I hesitated for a few seconds trying to determine if he was earnestly ignorant of the reasons why people studied political science. But his mouth was now shut and I could no longer see the reassuring pieces of cornhusk stuck between his teeth. As a matter of fact, his face was now completely closed; unyielding of any emotion. I decide this had to be a trick question and because I knew he would throw me out if I did not get the answer right, I willed myself to answer: “Because I want to be a politician like Mrs. Abiona.” I blurted this out and was instantly rewarded. His mouth stretched into a slow lazy smile.

“Oh really? So you want to be like her henh?” He thought about this for a while then peered closely at my face still wearing the smile that spurred me on.

“Yes Sir. She is good and beautiful and strong like a horse.”

“A horse? He queried. The smile had vanished.

“No Sir! I don’t mean an ordinary horse. She reminds me of a strong racehorse. A thoroughbred winning all the races. Even when her jockey falls off she is unfazed and continues right through to win all the race.” I corrected myself. Desperate to win back his smile, I hastily elaborated on my vision. Pictures I had carried in my head since childhood without ever needing to paint with words spilled out of my mouth. I had learnt to appreciate horses as some of the noblest of God’s creatures just from looking at their magnificent exteriors. Now I borrowed their quality to dress my desire.

This time, I was rewarded not just with the smile but a loud deafening laughter in between which he paused to repeat: “Not an ordinary horse but a thoroughbred!” This laughter convinced me I had failed the interview. Embarrassment and disillusionment made my feet weak but emboldened me enough to take the weight of my disappointment off my feet. I slipped into the seat in front of him. The gesture was like a switch, which turned off his mirth.

We sat facing each other like contenders at a game of chess waiting for the signal to commence the tournament. I opened the tournament by playing my queen: I steeled myself and managed to hold his gaze by concentrating my mind on what lay behind his now sealed lips: a mouth filled with teeth that had bits of corn wedged in between them.

He was left with no choice but to make the next move. “Alright, since you’re so keen, I’ll take you on.”

I went home and looked up the meaning of thoroughbred. My father worked as a stable hand at the racecourse and I used to stop by there and play on my way home from school as a child. I must have picked up the adjective thoroughbred from hanging around the racecourse.

Rebellion at my humiliation made me continue to think of my heroine as a thoroughbred racehorse even after I discovered that not all racehorses are thoroughbred.

“Whoever believes in me, even though he were dead, yet shall he live.” The voice of one of the officiating Ministers boomed, cutting through to my beclouded mind. “Our sister, mother, friend and leader’s remains may lie here today, a harvest for the unknown assassin who planted the bomb in her car six days ago. But we who are of the Lord know that it is worthier to be in the house of mourning than in the house of merriment. These are not my words for the ultimate arbiter hath designed life to be transient. Therefore why should we grieve? Why mourn and gnash our teeth when we are assured by God’s words that those who trust in him, those who walk with him will never perish. Nay, death is vanquished and sin is…”

I smiled, marveling at how quickly Nigerians had come to accept this new development in our national life, this new system of playing politics with bombs.

My eyes and mind drifted from the monotony of this eulogy and followed a large bird as it made to perch on a young pawpaw tree a few grave stones away from the gaping mouth of the earth around which the mourners crowded. I decided the bird must be a vulture and I was intrigued by the capacity of these birds of prey to latch on to the smell of death. I wondered for the umpteenth time why I felt compelled to attend this funeral at which, like the carrion bird, I was not a welcomed guest. Was it guilt that captured and dragged me there? I wondered. I had not spoken a word to the dead woman in well over ten years. That was not even the worst of the matter. As I stood there by her graveside, I remembered distinctly how much pleasure I had derived from deciding that it would be an insult even to plough horses to liken my former heroine to them. This reversal of affection came after working for her and getting to know her. Now I shifted restlessly, standing a few metres from her corpse a nd my own words taunted me.

I decided I must be tired; exhausted by a restlessness, which surprisingly had beset me, since I heard the news of her gruesome assassination. As secretary of the New Era Party, the new major opposition to the P.P.P, it was my direct responsibility to hound, hunt and expose every tiny bit of evidence there was to discredit every move or speech that Chief Mrs. Abiona made. This was especially so due to the fact that general elections were at hand.

* * * *

“Chief Mrs. Abiona was thrust into politics at a time when other women remained safely within the confines of their homes. It was convenient for them to believe that governance was a male preserve.” The speaker again cut through to my wandering mind. “She did not choose politics. Politics chose her when her sainted husband met a fate tragically similar to the one, which has now cut her vibrant life short. We all know how her husband met his death during one of the infamous *operation weti e during the first republic. Chief Mrs. Abiona went into politics with her eyes open. This humble school teacher who had been nothing more than the faithful consort of a powerful husband all the nineteen years of her married life simply braced herself and stepped into her husband’s shoes. She did not bury herself in mourning. Nay, she opened her arms to the farmers, the laborers, artisans, the down trodden masses, whose cause had been her husband’s life struggle. For twenty -seven years she served this nation. Thus paving the way for other women to enter into politics.”

I winced and shut my eyes. “Christ! Must her lie, the charade of her existence continue to echo and taunt the living?” I screamed silently at the speaker. He was a rotund man with a pleasant enough baby face and surprisingly small hands for man his size. As he waved his miniature hands about, to emphasis his words, they seemed to posses the power to free the reign with which I had fastened my memory of the time I spent under Mrs. Abiona’s tutelage.

I had worked two months during every long vacation for five years with the P.P.P, I saw mama (as all the volunteers called her) progress from her post as one of four National Assistant Secretaries to one of the two Assistant Deputy Chairmen of the party. By the time I graduated from the university, the Party was in power and Mama was appointed Under Secretary of State for Education. It was a landmark achievement. When I got posted to serve as her Personal Assistant, I decided my life was at last set on track. It was while serving as her P.A that I mooted the idea of strengthening the Women’s Wing, which until then had functioned only as a cosmetic appendage.

The women’s Wing was used only during elections and for state ceremonials. The women were simply summoned, dusted up and provided uniforms with the party slogans emblazoned on them bearing (of course) large photos of the party chairman who was also the Prime Minister. The women were quite happy with the transport fare they were given to take them to and from whatever venue they were needed to do their act. Drums and loud speakers were hired for them so they could sing the party anthem, dance and enjoin other women to come out and vote for PPP: “… because they care about us women oh! After all they are the first party to appoint a woman under secretary of state!” This last remark never failed to elicit excited hurrahs! Such performances were usually then rounded off with the Women Wing’s leader’s boisterous hip! hip! Hips!

Those first few years as a full-fledged member and worker for the P.P.P were halcyon days for me. Armed with a head reeling with political theories, I proposed to mama that rather than continue to use the women on such ad hoc basis, they be made permanent fixtures within the party, with their own monetary vote and elected officials. Mama was so enthused by the suggestion; she threw herself into the project full force. Nothing or no one within the party could stop the whirlwind that her enthusiasm for the idea turned her into. She fought tooth and nail against the initial opposition to the idea and forged ahead leaving casualties strewn left, right and center along the wayside.

If at times I came away from those meetings that were summoned to negotiate the modalities for operating the women’s wings alarmed at her manner of fighting and the large number of casualties left on her trail, I reminded myself that this was how politics was played. We won. We got our women’s wing and Mama was rewarded by being unanimously elected its first national president. As registration of members in the wing burgeoned, so did Mama’s influence within the party. When the Secretary of state for Education died – a surprisingly natural death – Mama had no opposition to stepping into his shoes.

By this time she had been conferred with so many chieftaincy titles, even she had lost count in spite of how expensive the ceremonies to mark such conferment were.

Perhaps it was this harvest of chieftancy titles that served as catalyst to an accident waiting to happen. Mama was by no means unique in this harvest of tittles by politicians. Suddenly my ambition to be like her refused to keep still one moment longer. If anything, I aimed and knew I deserved to achieve Mama’s kind of success at nothing short of twice the speed at which she had achieved her own feat since she had paved the way. She was my after all my pathfinder.

I set about running for the post of national general secretary. I did not expect the battle to be an easy one. Cicero who as a result of a combination of factors: my association with Mama, my maturity and elevation within the party had lost his power to overwhelm was still nothing short of a shooting star. He was my major opponent.

I was familiar enough with Mama’s temperament to bide my time. I watched her disposition like a hawk waiting for the right moment to bring such an important matter to her notice. I was therefore stunned when she summoned me one morning to discuss my intention to run.

“I’m surprised at you.” She started. “Haven’t you learnt anything from me?” She berated me. Feeling acutely disloyal, I apologized and explained about waiting for the right moment.

“The time is not right for you yet, besides, I still need you here. Who would write my fiery speeches. How can you even think of abandoning me now with all the work to be done here?” She tried to flatter me out of my resolve but I refused to smile in response to her teasing tone. “You can’t win.” She said more gravely, after a significantly uneasy pause. I caught on to the threat behind her words. I shrugged, hoping I had packed a resolute non-chalant into the gesture and got up to leave.

“I won’t back you.” She pronounced what was already quite obvious to both of us. The anger her betrayal stirred up inside me made me bold enough to overcome my reverence for her.

“Why not?” I had never argued with her before and my tone gathered her patronizing assessment of me and hurled it in to her face.

“Sit down.” She ordered. I maintained my stand by refusing the temporary comfort of the seat she offered in place of a shield, a permanent refuge. I was not deaf, I had simply fought against believing all the rumors that had been making the rounds about her: that she was self centered and mean. That forget her near perfect exterior, she was some kind of witch. That she was never to be trusted except at your own peril. The rumors said she cared about no one else but her own sorry neck and had sold her very soul to the devil in order to keep afloat. Worst of all, I had been warned by the likes of Cicero to be especially mindful of her as there was not enough room at the top of P.P.P for two women like us who were two sides of the same coin.

“Why not? Why won’t you back me?” I asked again.

“Because you must learn to follow the proper course of events in life. Politics is complicated. It’s a man’s world and you have to learn to play by their rules and beat them at it.” Her voice was softer, almost appealing.

I shook my head ridding myself of the allure of the sentiment she was trying to evoke inside me. “We have the women’s wing. If you support me I’ll have their vote. Will you support me?” I asked, desperate for her backing.

“Child, you’re too impatient. That’s the trouble with your generation. You get a degree after only five years in the university and you think it’s a magician’s wand with which you can run the world. To win and win squarely you must never rely only on one block of votes. The women are your base, I agree, but you cannot confine yourself to being just a woman politician. You must never ever allow yourself to be so cornered. It’s a cheap and weak…”

“What is wrong with running on the women’s vote? The men have always used them?” I asked.

“Precisely…” She answered, thus accusing me of the very crime for which everyone knew she was guilty. Without the women’s wing she would still be an assistant something or the other. Yet her eyes flared indignantly at me.

To those eyes, I said: “At least we both know I’d do something for them. I won’t just use them to get my way then abandon them…”

“I won’t support you.” She sounded tired, weak and old like a battle worn war horse as she cut me short.

* * * * *

“… because I know that a person who struggled all her life fighting, fighting and fighting all the time. Fighting, first to find a space on which to stand. Then having to fight hard again to keep that space for so long deserves to rest.”

I did not need to raise my head in order to recognize the next speaker. She spoke in Yoruba. I knew Alhaja Ralia Atawose well enough from my days at P.P.P.; she was the spiritual leader of the women’s wing. She was a natural behind the microphone. She was Mama’s contemporary and although they were as different as night and day, most people were surprised at how well they got on. Mama’s only quarrel with her was that she never knew when to stop once she got behind the microphone. Mama used to tease Cicero, whenever he got too pig headed about his oratorical fame by saying he only got famous because the likes of Alhaja did not have the benefit of a western education.

“I’m not saying Abeni deserved to die Oh! God forbid. After all we all owe death the same debt and there’s no telling whose credit he’ll be calling up next. But when I look at Abeni’s life, I know she gave as good as she got. To fight the men, she had to learn to fight like them. She was a good learner and she won like a man.”

“As for me oh! You can say I’m talking rubbish because I have no book knowledge but when I look at Abeni’s children standing here today, I know that yes! This indeed was a woman who succeeded beyond most of us who were not as busy as this woman with politics. By their fruits they shall be judged … is that not what you Christians claim? The fruits of Abeni the tree are here today, glowing testimonies to the type of tree that she was. And I don’t mean only the fruits that came out of her womb. Oh no! Fruits of Abeni’s womb!” She shouted looking at Chief Mrs. Abiona’s children. “I greet you. May death not strike you down in your prime. May you continue to thrive. As for the rest of you, fruits of Abeni’s tree …”

I cringed, and turned my face down hoping she had not noticed me standing there. The last time I had run into Alhaja, she had said by way of complementing me how much I reminded her of Chief Mrs. Abiona as a young politician.

“… Whatever mistakes Abeni made which made her such an easy prey for the faceless cowards who murdered her, you young women who are coming out to play politics, hear me now. You must not just condemn her oh! Those of you, to whom we look to fill Abeni’s shoes, fill them with your own feet. If she made mistakes, acknowledge them but don’t you dare condemn her unless you are willing to rectify her mistakes. You owe her that responsibility. No matter how little her achievements seem, you must acknowledge the good she did. Achievement is like a seed, tend it and it will grow huge and strong like the Iroko. Denigrate it, and it will shrivel and die. And who knows, your own chance at immortality might surely rot away with it, for very few things stand as befitting memorials to humble deeds like a tree which for several hundreds of years, … undisturbed…

“She’s rambling now.” I decided “Why don’t they stop her?” I turned and started to leave when as if reading my mind Mama’s eldest daughter reached for the microphone and thanked Alhaja for the kind words said about her mother.

“My mother was not perfect.” Morenikeji started from where Alhaja left off. “There were times when in trying to be both mother and father to us she became overbearing. What this taught me – and I think I speak for my brother and sisters as well – was to learn to earn the right to be ourselves. We all had to learn to free ourselves of the phenomenon that was our mother. If she had political progenies too…”

I quickened my steps. Morenikeji’s voice was quavering and to my surprise my face was wet even though it had stopped drizzling. I wiped the taste of salt from my lips with the back of my right hand and picked my way through the graveyard. The sun, still shy after its tardiness was beginning to make slow but steady progress.

* * * * * *

Unsurprisingly, I lost in my bid for general secretary of P.P.P. to Cicero even though he was the very source of most of the rumors that helped to complete my disillusionment regarding Mama. He had actually cornered me a few days before my fall out with her saying: “You can never win you know? So long as she’s alive. You will remain nothing but a workhorse.” He stopped, then laughed that his mocking laughter. “Actually I mean plough horse. The most wretched type. She’ll never let up. People like the old battle horse never let up. They die in action and take the secret of their success with them in fulfillment of their pact with the devil, who is the source of their success anyway.”

I lost to him and joined a new party made up of young politicians like myself. We called ourselves the New Era Party and with time we have become the strongest opposition against the P.P.P. government.

“My mother was not perfect…”

I have had to fight too, within this new Era Party. To win I have sometimes had to employ some of the techniques I learnt from Mama and the P.P.P, For borrowing and relying on her style; I have always been hard on myself. Sometimes I am so remorseful, I loathe myself.

That day, as I emerged from the cemetery, I smiled feeling Mama’s words that last day when we fell out, stretching like the arms of a benevolent ghost across the years since our interaction. Her words wrapped themselves around me and lifted my drooping shoulders.

*Political assassination through burning after the victim is generously doused with petrol.

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