“I did not know that my despair was so transparent!” Romoke shrieked at the sober gathering. “I did not know o, that my misery was mewling at you like a starved kitten! Ehn? That my sadness was out in the open, kedere! Ah, that my yearning was naked as a newborn! I did not know oooo, you men of Karele! I did not know!”
Romoke had barged in, steaming like fire on a wet night, into a space forbidden to women. It was the sacred grove of the god, Akoni. No woman of Karele had ever been more daring. The consequences of a female entering the shrine were unspeakable, unknowable even, since none of Romoke’s sex had ever so much as walked near. Worse, she had done so during the invocation of Akoni, Karele’s own rite of man, when the god rained the essence of manhood down on the adult males of the town. Only one would emerge out of it as the chosen one.
Anger had banished Romoke’s sense of danger, and the sacrilege she had committed was yet to dawn on her. She lived on a mound that looked down on the rest of the town. But as an indigene of Karele, she knew the situation on the ground below as well as anyone. Yet there she was, yelping at the men about what she didn’t know.
Womanhood defiling Akoni’s temple, like unclean meat in the belly of a pilgrim, was the least of the men’s concerns just then. All they knew was, she was as beautiful as anything, the object of a common desire for whom they had convened an infrequent rite of man, each hoping with Akoni’s grace to be the chosen one. And now there she was. They watched her snarling face slowly begin to take to the logic of the eyes. The proud men of Karele huddled in shame before her. There they were, a parody of females, dressed for Akoni’s rite of man – as women.
The simpleton Rodorodo, the urchin of the grove, was a shadow on the fringes of the men. Romoke’s shaking and shrieking brought back to him memories of being caught in the werepe plant, and the itching, scratching and thrashing about that followed. Werepe or no werepe, a woman at Akoni’s grove was unthinkable. That much he knew. Rodorodo came out of the shadows and spoke the first sense of his life.
“Taboo, Romoke. Agbedo. You have done the undoable.”
“You with only three teeth in your mouth,” she did not spare him. “Did you not look in the mirror first before looking up my hill?”
“But I was not the first to walk up the beaten track to your house,” he replied with uncharacteristic courage.
“Rodorodo, you did not walk up my track o. You rolled up, the same way you rolled down.”
The priest of the shrine, Akonila, puffed up his chest and glowered at his incompetent assistant, the pitiful urchin. “Rodorodo, when men are going to seek the face of women, should you be among them?” he asked with biting cruelty.
Rodorodo’s courage fell away, and he skulked back into the shadows. Akonila, meanwhile, remembered his own compromised dress sense, and his chest sank with his dignity back into his buba blouse. Romoke stumbling on the Akoni invocation, during which the man who would win her hand was to be revealed, was not part of the plan. The priest certainly had no premonition of it. He had premonition of very few things, in fact.
Tall and gawky, Akonila was an only son. He was descended from a long line of formidable babalawos, awesome medicine men and priests who communed more with gods than men. Much was expected of the young Akonila who possessed little of the abilities of his great forebears. He grew up a disappointment to the father who left him the priesthood, ineffectual as he was.
But Akoni the god was patient with his priest. He viewed Akonila as an incompetent assistant with an even more incompetent assistant, overlooked his failings, and filled many of the cracks himself. And so with the complicity of a god, Akonila’s secret was safe. And when the elders of Karele sought spiritual guidance on the problem that Romoke was becoming, it was to Akonila that they came.
The priest took on the air of great divination and fixed his eyes on absent spirits, his lips moving in a conversation that those present could not hear to participate. Akonila peered into the ground to read the sky, then pronounced gravely, “What Romoke needs, is a man.”
Romoke had a man once – almost. Her betrothal to Ijilaiye, son of a wealthy merchant from a faraway city, was once the talk of Karele. It fitted well into the plan of Teniloju, Romoke’s father, who believed his daughter was too good for any man in their hometown. His wife died during childbirth and he brought the girl up by himself in their home on the mound. Romoke’s only mother figure was an unseen one, the goddess Aboni, to whom she was dedicated at birth.
Teniloju rejected all advice to remarry, stung by suggestions that another wife could bear him a son. Those foolish enough to utter such advice to his face went away with bruising words hurled like stones after them as they hurried down the track. To Teniloju, Romoke was as valuable as any son. To ensure his daughter would never need anyone, he imbued her with a self-belief that set her apart from all those her age.
Teniloju and Romoke were helped by the fact that the hilly patch of earth they lived on was the most fertile stretch in the whole of Karele. Behind the house was a farm that spread wide and lush down the other side of the mound; and since it was fenced, it was shielded from the townspeople’s eyes. There, father and daughter grew the best vegetables, fruits and tubers in the town. The farm supplied their household needs, with plenty more for the market, where they sold produce in bulk to traders all around, making Teniloju a very rich man by Karele’s modest standards.
But he never forgave the townspeople for thinking Romoke less of a child for being a girl, so he swore that his daughter would never marry any of the local men. Besides, anyone lucky enough to win her heart would be marrying very well indeed, since she stood to inherit all her father’s property. When Ijilaiye came to seek Romoke’s hand in marriage therefore, it was clear that the suitor was far too rich to be a gold-digger. Many had come before him from far and wide and left disappointed. But Ijilaiye was the most well off suitor by far – and the most handsome. He would sweep through town, his richly embroidered agbada fluttering in the breeze. And he would flash a dazzling, gap-toothed smile at those encountered on the way as he proceeded up the well-trodden dirt track to see his beloved.
Teniloju made sure the whole of Karele knew of his daughter’s coming nuptials and the impeccable credentials of the suitor. To appease his long held grievance, the people threw themselves into the preparations, intent on making Romoke’s the best wedding the town had ever seen. Nothing was to mar the big day, not even the elements. On a well-paid commission from town elders, Akonila climbed up a hill the night before the wedding to perform a ritual that sealed up the sky – to ensure a rain-free ceremony.
Romoke – painted, regaled and veiled – was waited on in her father’s house on the mound. Chief among those attending to her was Yeye Oja, leader of the market women.
“A man as beautiful as a woman,” she said of Ijilaiye, “you are lucky to find such a man, Romoke.”
“But Romoke herself is no pushover when it comes to looks,” another woman countered, “Ijilaiye is the lucky one.”
On and on they chattered around her, secretly glad that she would soon be married off and no longer be a temptation for the husbands of Karele, who had a great predilection for polygamy. Preening around the soon-to-be-married Romoke, the women believed they were also seeing off a potential rival. They sang to her joy, and theirs.
Oni l’ojo ayo re
Ojo ayo re
Ojo ayo re…
Today is your day of joy
Your day of joy
Your day of joy…
Romoke smiled, unaware of the women’s self-serving motive. She could barely contain her joy, as sounds of celebration grew louder with Ijilaiye’s approach to the town. There were choruses and drumming, and the bride-to-be could imagine feet frenetically tapping the earth in joyous dancing. From the sounds in the distance she guessed, correctly, that Ijilaiye’s party would be at the long bridge leading into Karele. Lapsing into daydreams, she saw her life that moment as a door flapping in the wind. Soon, Ijilaiye would cross the bridge and the door would shut, sealing her happiness.
But Efuufu-lele, demon of the seventh wind, must have flown into Karele to play dice. What other way to explain what happened next?
Akonila later consulted the oracle and absolved Efuufu-lele of all blame. His own father – the powerful babalawo he was – died saving the town from Efuufu-lele’s last rampage, twenty years before. Akonila lived in fear of a recurrence. He was glad to find the demon of the seventh wind innocent of the latest charges therefore, relieved that the dreaded tempest had not returned.
But on Romoke’s wedding day, some malevolent force, some spirit, some anjonnu, saw her dream door flapping, waiting. Then the evil being seized the door from its rusty hinges – and wrenched it free. A terrible storm tore through Karele that instant, and swept the bridge away. Teniloju and the rest of the welcoming band scurried for safety. But the groom’s party was not so lucky, caught in the raging eye of the storm. When they eventually picked their tattered selves from the debris of the river into which they had been blown, they discovered that the only fatality – was Ijilaiye.
“Ijilaiye – life is stormy – a portentous name for a blown away suitor, surely?” noted Yeye Oja’s husband, Babaloja, on a visit to Akonila, days later.
“Of all the names in the world, he had to have that one.” The priest nodded knowingly.
“Truly, as they say, there is much in a name,” Babaloja added, between gulps of palm wine.
“Well, Teniloju will have to reconsider and marry his daughter off to a Karele man now.”
“Yes, he will have to tap his palm-wine with the humble gourd; Romoke can no longer have her pick of men.”
When Teniloju died two months after the storm, Romoke had him buried in front of their house, then shut herself away. She was now sitting on the biggest fortune in Karele. And her farm must have been as fertile as ever, because once every fortnight, she came out for Karele’s big market day, and hired alaarus to carry her produce to the trading ground where she sold wholesale to all comers from near and far.
“You are the true child of your father,” Yeye Oja said, approaching Romoke at the end of one market day. “You are just as shrewd in matters of money, worse even.”
“Why do you say that, ma?” Romoke asked, paying the alaarus for their services before turning to face Yeye Oja. “I merely ask for what my goods are worth, as you know.”
“You should sell to Karele traders at discounted prices,” the older woman urged, fiddling with a top edge of her batik wrapper as she spoke. She tied the day’s takings into the tip of the cloth, forming a knot, then she tucked the ball of money into the folds of fabric around her waist. “We cannot compete with traders from other towns for your produce,” she continued, “you should sell to us at cheaper rates. After all, we are one in this town.”
“We may be one as you say, but business is business.”
“Even for your townspeople?”
“Even for my townspeople. They should pay the asking price for my quality produce; if they will not, there are others who will.”
Acting on behalf of the market women, Yeye Oja took the matter to the elders.
“Something has to be done about that child o,” she reported with great agitation, “all the women are complaining. Romoke is too money conscious. What will she do with all that money anyway, a woman with no husband and no children?”
The elders went to Akonila who prescribed the cure – a man. But since Romoke had shown no interest in any Karele man whatsoever, getting her married off would be difficult. Besides, no man was bold enough to bring himself to her presence for such a matter, since she was believed to be as cantankerous as her father. She would need some persuasive enchantment and so Akonila convened the first rite of man held in the town for decades.
“I will perform rituals for seven days over a bottled potion placed at Akoni’s altar,” he explained to the men. They listened raptly, seeing at last a chance to tame Romoke and acquire a beautiful wife into the bargain. “On the seventh day, those men who desire to marry Romoke will congregate here in the grove, and then the invocation will begin.”
“Those of us who are married nko, what shall we tell our wives?” Babaloja asked.
“That is between you and your wives. But if you come to the invocation, your secret will be safe. No woman is allowed anywhere near the grove of Akoni, as you know, and men can be trusted to keep their mouths in check,“ the priest replied.
“A convenient taboo,” Babaloja observed, pleased with himself. “I only need to keep the invocation secret until I know the outcome o,” he added quickly, to save face among the men. “If I am chosen to be Romoke’s husband, I will gladly tell my wife then. Who cares what she does after that?”
Many men nodded in agreement with this reasoning, indicating that they too would be at the invocation, wife or no wife.
Akonila gave more details of the proceedings. “We will all be dressed in women’s clothing. It is the essence of manhood showered on the chosen one during the ritual that will proclaim him the man for Romoke. He will then discard his buba and iro, and put on manly attire. With Akoni’s blessing, the man shall take the magic bottle and go up the mound the next morning to seek Romoke’s face. She, seeing the chosen one, will fall in love with him.”
As well as conducting the ceremony, would Akonila himself be a candidate for Romoke’s heart? someone wanted to know.
“Naturally,” came the reply, “the Akoni priesthood is no bar to such ambition. About time I found myself a wife anyway.” Akonila went into a hidden place in the shrine and emerged minutes later with a bottle in his hand. Incanting softly, he walked to the altar and placed the bottle on a bed of palm fronds. With a stern face, the priest turned to face the men, raising a finger in warning. “Remember, the bottle of potion is manhood contained,” he cautioned. “Romoke must not lay eyes on the bottle. It is to be handled with great care and responsibility.”
Care and responsibility. Rodorodo watched over the bottle of potion with such care and responsibility over the next few days, he felt it calling to him. Calling him, to take his chance for a woman. Romoke, no less.
“Faka-fiki faka-fiki,” he huffed feverishly, imagining himself as Romoke’s husband, the lord of her household, the mound and the fertile, secret garden behind it. Romoke’s man, walking up her track, mounting that mound daily like a train up a hill – or into a tunnel.
“Faka-fiki faka-fiki,” and next thing the urchin knew, he was huffing up the track to her house. The potion bottle, snatched from its sacred place in the shrine, was in his hand. He knew from gossip in town that only the upper part of Romoke’s one-storey house was lived in, the ground floor area used for storing produce and farm implements. He smiled, imagining himself liberated from grove duties, living on the upper floor atop that mound. Finally reaching Romoke’s front door, he called for her to come down, the magic bottle held aloft as he shouted.
“Romoke! Romoke! Get yourself down here!” Not quite what he meant to say, so he tried again. “Romoke,” he called. “I demand to see your face!”
Not much better, but before he could find new words, he saw her leaning out of the top floor window. She was enraged to see Rodorodo standing right over Teniloju’s grave.
“Ehn, disturbing my father’s rest?”
Rodorodo lost his footing with his nerve and ran off, the bottle forgotten and dropped on the ground. Stumbling, the urchin rolled like a human ball all the way down the mound.
Later that evening, Romoke found the bottle lying in the sand outside her house and marched down into town in search of Rodorodo’s master, Akonila. He was not home and so she proceeded to the only place he would be – the grove. There, at the most sacred moments of the ritual, with men chanting her name in lustful worship, she stormed in. Men togged up as women saw Romoke and shame overwhelmed all their desire for her. Only the severest punishment of the transgressive female would assuage the degradation they felt.
“A terrible fate awaits you, Romoke,” Babaloja said. “You have dared to do too many things in this town. And now, you have dared your last dare.”
“Baba, you too are talking! I ask you, have you seen how ridiculous you look?” she mocked.
Babaloja stiffened. “I am sorry for you Romoke,” he said coldly. “To allow your anger to get the better of you like this… the code of Akoni regarding females was not unknown to you. Well, you have broken a sacred taboo and there is only one thing for it. I call on Akonila to conduct a different ritual, one never carried out before, to cleanse our land of the sacrilege of a woman in this grove.” Babaloja spat on the ground when he was finished speaking, as though the very sight of Romoke turned his stomach.
“Anyone that does what no one has done before, will see things no eyes have seen before,” another man concurred.
No one had given thought to whether the priest even knew the ritual for this unprecedented situation – or indeed what the punishment would be. No one that is, except Akoni himself.
The god, roused from his hallowed place by the crisis, rose unseen on a gust of wind that ruffled the trees and tickled Akonila’s nose hairs. The priest, feeling something but not quite knowing what, began mouthing incantations to ward off the demon of the seventh wind.
The god materialised at the secret grove of the most high Aboni, the goddess with whom he was once romantically entangled. That was until she, incensed at his dalliance with a minor river deity, packed up and left. Now he had come to deliberate upon the fate of her earthly daughter. She, naturally, was not too pleased to see him.
“Aboni, good to see you,” he greeted her, not noticing the plants bending away to clear a path for his advance.
“How long has it been now, a hundred years?” The bending vegetation rested at Aboni’s feet.
“I have held you dear to me as though we last saw yesterday. The goats in my grove bleat your name. The cockerel there crows still, for you.”
“Take your deified charm somewhere else,” she rebuffed him and turned to walk back into her grove. “I’m not interested.”
“Ah Aboni, quit your ancient jealousy. For how long will a goddess be aggrieved?”
“Interesting isn’t it, how Romoke is not allowed to enter your grove, yet you come strutting uninvited into mine?”
“We will come to Romoke’s matter yet,” he promised, following her into the inner sanctum. They sat down on rocks, facing each other. Mist hung around them like a silent witness. “But you mustn’t remain this angry with me, Aboni. The river goddess that made you leave me back then has long run dry.”
“Well, you were bound to end up high and dry with that one anyhow,” she sniggered.
But they got talking about Romoke soon enough. The goddess was adamant that nothing should happen to her and the god was inclined to agree. Still, a female may not enter into the presence of Akoni and, now that Romoke had broken that taboo, how could some natural order be restored in Karele?
“How to restore the pride of the men, you mean?” Aboni queried, getting up.
“Well, you have to admit that this has been quite traumatic for them,” said the god, with some feeling. “Not only have they had to suffer the indignity of being seen in women’s clothes, Romoke is in possession of the magic bottle. I, as an orisa, a god to whom they are devoted, cannot but be moved. She has their manhood in her hand!”
“Oh, I see,” said the goddess gleefully. “This is about clawing some face saving arrangement for the men, abi?”
“Well, she’s got them by the balls, Aboni,” the god said pleadingly, looking up at her.
“The perfect place to get hold of some men, if you ask me. Your men brought this upon themselves. If they had let Romoke be, none of this would have happened. It was not her intention to break your code; anger made her forget, and for this I blame the people of Karele, especially the men. Nothing must be done to the child.”
“I have spoken,” said Aboni.
Getting up to leave, Akoni asked what would become of himself and the goddess, now that they had met up again.
“See to it that Romoke is safe first, then we’ll see.” Aboni watched the god dissolve in mist as he departed. “A god in heat,” she chuckled to herself. “Some things never change.”
Akoni descended back into his grove to find Romoke still raging. Raging like an incandescent spirit, raining abuse on the men. Unfazed by talk of a taboo and some terrible fate awaiting her, she waved the bottle in the men’s faces, walking up and down as she washed them down with her rampant mouth.
“Eyin okunrin pangolo!”
“You Tin Men!” Rodorodo echoed her words, as though the men were hard of hearing.
“Eyin oko inu igo!”
“Husbands Bottled Up!”
Akonila could bear Rodorodo’s chorusing no more. “Shut up!’ he commanded his assistant with a wave of the hand. Romoke’s words were wounding enough heard once, not to mention twice. “Romoke, you will not get away with breaking the sacred code of this shrine,” the priest vowed. “You shall pay for it. Akoni the god will see to it. You will begin to see the repercussions of your foolishness, three days hence.”
“Three days my foot! I go my own way, work on my farm and sell for a decent asking price, and you are all hot and bothered. You think I cannot be trusted with my own affairs unless I’m coupled with one of you sorry people? Heaven forbid!”
“If we say you should have a husband, we are only concerned for your welfare. Why are you so haughty? Your time is running out, you know,” Akonila said.
“True,” Babaloja cut in. “A woman’s day darkens quickly.”
“My day is bright enough for me, thank you!” Romoke spat. “I am warning all of you. If I see your feet on the path to my house, I will cut them off!’
“Did you hear what Rodorodo called the path to your house?” Babaloja hissed. “A beaten track – leading to the house of a beaten woman.”
Romoke’s eyes bulged in anger as she threw her hands up. Without warning, she smashed the magic bottle hard on the grove floor. The thick potion inside spilled its unfulfilled secret onto sacred ground.
“Let me see any of you up my track and we will see then, who is the beaten one.” She stalked back to her house.
“That Romoke, she is truly her father’s daughter,” Akonila said, failing to hear the grudging admiration that had crept into his own voice. “Stubborn as a goat.”
Akoni the god watched bemused as Akonila – under pressure from men seeking restitution – performed ritual upon ritual in the grove for the wrath that failed to find Romoke. Then after seven days, the priest gave up and went back to his house.
It would be a long, long while before another man picked up the courage to walk up the beaten track to seek Romoke’s face. And he was a man indeed.
“The Beaten Track” was originally published in Farafina vol. 7, Oct 2006