Blessings sometimes travelled in pairs. And when they did, especially during a rainy season, there was a unanimous decision by the Gods to give way to them through the traffic of the living. They floated above the still moist beds of earth where cassava plants slept, bounced off the hard backs of restless tortoises in humid unforgiving nights, joined the march of ants under remnants of partially eaten sweet wild berries and clung to the tiny wings of fireflies that appeared as small bursts of light in the belly of night air.
When they finally deposited themselves on Adesua’s head on the morning of the ceremony at the palace, the only indication that they had arrived was an itch to the right side of her brow. This itch did not stop after the necessary scratch, no. Instead, it spread like fire all over her head and the only thing that cooled its ardour was the kiss of cold water. The blessings laughed because their seeds had been sown. They knew that later in the day when the family set out for the palace, the skies overhead would part and shed tears upon them all.
It did not stop Adesua from sweating while she laboured over the pot of nmebe soup she prepared under Mama’s supervision. Nor did it stop Papa from killing their biggest goat that he said had tried to run when it saw the glint from the newly sharpened blade. It did not stop Adesua from having her thick hair plied into submission by nimble hands, her body oiled till it gleamed and the wrapper material she purchased from the market tied and fitted so perfectly around her tall frame it would have convinced anybody the material was made with only her figure in mind.
All over their village a variation of this occurred. Households in small and large compounds were busy preparing their suitable daughters as though the king had made a personal visit to request for their daughter’s hand. Prayers were said, offerings made. It seemed there was nothing people wouldn’t do to beat the competition, but nobody except Mama Adabra knew what the neighbouring villages were up to. There were whispers in the village that she had travelled as far as Shekoni to visit a medicine man who claimed he could insert himself into scenes of the future then come back to tell you about it. These whispers were soon slapped away by the hands of excitement and expectation.
For days before, the soil was fruitful; yielding cocoyam and plump melons that changed the colour of your tongue momentarily. Blades of grass shot out from hungry, dry patches, plants reached up high off the ground as if attempting to have conversations with the heavens. Purple and yellow petals scattered around like their hopes and dreams clinging to a foundation of dust. Even the air seemed filled with expectation. It touched the villagers or maybe they touched it, and it sighed in appreciation and carried them along in this period of madness and desire.
Adesua had asked about this king many times. But each person gave a different answer each time and she was convinced very few of the villagers had actually seen him.
“I heard he fed one of his wives to hyenas for disobeying him.” Old man Ononkwe had said, “Wise man.”
“You know he changes into a lion at night,” Amassi offered another time.
“The King has dealings with pale men from lands far, far away,”
Obiriame, one of the village elders, had told her, conspiratorially. Of all three, Adesua was convinced Obiriame was the biggest liar. Imagine such a thing, pale men!
Adesua became tired of all the talk and wonder at this king who did not even deign to visit his people and who seemed to have too many wives already by all accounts. She could not wait for the day and the ceremony to be over.”
And so it went on and on, till Adesua became tired of all the talk and wonder at this king who did not even deign to visit his people and who seemed to have too many wives already by all accounts. Adesua could not wait for the day and the ceremony to be over so the village could stop humming with gossip, she could go back to swinging from trees and not worry about cuts on her skin or Papa’s disapproving eyes. She could race some of the young men in the village near the riverbank and when she won join them on their jaunt to a hidden clearing where they said human bones lay in wait. She dreamed of following Papa on one of his hunting trips, watching from a secret place while he stalked and captured his prey.
By early afternoon many of the villagers started out for the palace ceremony. The beautiful young women in their colourful prints and intricately plaited hair, were led enthusiastically by their mothers each desperate to outdo the other while the fathers loitered behind slightly, chewing on sugar cane while they speculated on the day’s events to come.
On they went, past riverbanks with edges like disfigured faces licked by keen waters. Through long, dusty paths that coughed up red dirt as determined feet trampled along their winded chests. Past the gaze of tall trees whose branches shook slightly in greeting. They paused for food and rest on the outskirts of the town of Ego. They marvelled at the hospitality of some of the townsfolk who although welcoming them with curiosity still offered cooked ripe bananas and palm wine.
It was here that the villagers met a man called Igwehi. His hair was completely white and he walked with a stooped back and propped himself up on a stick. Igwehi said that he had worked as a craftsman producing leather for the previous king, Oba Anuje, the father of the current king. He had witnessed many royal ceremonies and even been favoured by the king. He relayed that Oba Anuje ruled with a strong fist and on discovering a coup to overthrow him by one of his closest advisors in the royal court, had ordered his rival’s head to be chopped off using a ritual sword. For ten days the advisor’s head had been left for all to see on a specially made clay mantle within the palace walls. And even when high-ranking members in the palace had pleaded with Oba Anuje to have the head removed, he refused. He let it sit on the mantle till the blood dried into all the creases and crevasses in the clay created by the baking sun and the stench turned the stomachs of nervous courtiers.
Igwehi told this tale with relish, chewing over the words like the flesh of a tenderly cooked cow and rubbing his left thigh with one hand while gently banging his stick on the ground with the other. Then, he accidentally revealed that he having lost favour with the king had also been thrown out of the royal court. The revelation slipped from his mouth the way a breast spills out from a loosely tied wrapper. He attempted to contain it by covering his mouth as it had not been meant for the ears of strangers. When Adesua asked him why the king had banished him, his eyes began to roll in their sockets as though running to take cover in the far corners of his mind.
Benin was a city that had flourished over time under the rule of the different obas, and for the most part sat in quiet, satisfied contentment. You could see it in the number of undamaged gates there were throughout, many of them reaching eight or nine feet in height, with doors made from single pieces of ancient wood hinged on pegs, behind which smart and sometimes opulent homes had been built. You could see it in the Queens’ court which stretched for over six miles and was protected by a wall ten feet tall, fashioned from enormous trees tied to one another by cross beams and in-filled with red clay. Even along the streets the houses sat in neat rows.
The palace of Benin was divided into several quarters, apartments for courtiers and houses in sprawling, endless dust-shrouded grounds. Beautiful square galleries kissed by the breath of the gods rested on wooden pillars covered in the finest cast copper. In the afternoon, the sun shone on the ornate copper engravings depicting war exploits; images of soldiers rushing into battle wielding finely crafted spears and carrying sunrays in their mouths. Each roof had a small turret with copper casted birds harbouring the sounds of battle, waiting to carry them into angles of light swirling in the blue sky.
When Adesua and her family finally arrived outside the king’s court to be greeted by four appointed armed guards, they were ushered through a spotless square shaped courtyard, passing members of the palace dotted around in groups who turned to watch the new arrivals with a mixture of amusement and trepidation.
Adesua drank in the harried servants carrying bundles of wood and rushing into a side entrance where more shouting could be heard. A man ran out blowing through a copper instrument that alerted the palace a gathering before the king was occurring. Then came a procession of dancing men and women with their faces painted white wearing tight costumes made of luminous green cloth.
Eventually Adesua and her family were shown into the biggest room they had ever seen. On the walls were plaques carved from the finest brass commemorating more battles. The space was so wide and lengthy she was sure the inhabitants of six villages could fit into it. It was spilling over with people who tumbled around each other adept in the way they managed to avoid colliding. There was a specially allocated section for the royal advisors who talked among themselves, whispering behind cunning fingers and releasing eager laughs. To the right of them sat the king’s wives, a brood of decorated hens, clucking niceties to each other while brimming with resentment. They cast roving eyes over the proceedings their faces drawn with sour expressions and intermittently adjusted their childbearing hips as though the servants had placed insects there. They ignored the performing acrobats who somersaulted to a sweaty drummer’s beat for their pleasure. For centuries it was custom that some of the king’s army and courtiers sat behind the wives of the palace. From them the acrobatic spectacle drew gasps and applause as well as from the happy crowd who had travelled from all corners of the Edo kingdom to be assailed with wonders they could never have imagined seeing.
In the gap running through the crowd, a long line of women stood on offer, one behind the other like sacrifices to a God. The king himself sat in an exquisitely crafted chair made from ancient teak wood, flanked by his royal priest on one side and a member of the court council on the other. You could not tell how old the Oba was from looking at him but his black skin shone and his head seemed too big for his body. The wrapper he wore was heavily embroidered with a frill overlaid by a waistband sash with tassels. He had royal iwu tattoos on both arms that Adesua was too far away to see in detail.
As the family tentatively moved to the front, the procession of dancers began to navigate through the room. People clapped along as they wiggled and shook body parts, drawing admirable glances and whoops of encouragement. By the time they had worked their way to the back, the councilman beside the king stood up and held his hand out for silence.
“You!” he said pointing to Adesua, “come forward and introduce yourself to the king.”
Adesua walked towards them “I am Adesua sir.”
“And where have you come from?” the councilman asked. “Ishan.”
“Tell us what you have brought as a gift for the king and why you would make a good wife.”
“I brought a pot of nmebe soup and I would make a fine wife because one day I’m going to be the best hunter in all of Edo.”
The crowd burst into laughter and the other wives giggled. Adesua turned to see that Papa had his hands on his head and Mama was trying not to smile. After the laughter died, the councilman looked to the king. He was sitting forward in his chair and studying Adesua as if she were a rainbow piercing through the heart of the sky.
From Butterfly Fish.
Irenosen Okojie is a writer, curator and arts project manager. She has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Southbank Centre, and the Caine Prize. Her writing has been featured in the Guardian and the Observer. Her short stories have been published internationally, including the Kwani 07 and Phatitude. She lives in east London. Butterfly Fish, her first novel, about family secrets weaving through present-day London and 18th-century Benin, is published by Jacaranda. Read more.