I think this is one of the finest things I ever written. It was way back and I wrote it for a competition. It is my take on the Olurombi folktale I got told by my mother from whom I fittingly got my love of stories.
It is only fair then that this one is for her, my girl, my Alice. In wonderland.
Dusk approaches with a hesitance that mocks my hurried footsteps. The priestess said to be back by midnight. It is almost dark and I am still miles away from my destination. Around me, the humans are hurrying as well; each rushing home before darkness engulfs them.
I walk among them but I am not one of them. They do not know any better and so they treat me as badly as humans have treated themselves since time immemorial. They push past each other without a word of greeting; their uncaring gazes failing to see hearts yearning for hope, their deaf ears unable to hear silent cries for help. They are so beautiful, so fragile, so flawed.
The priestess said to be back by midnight or be forever consigned to this world. Maybe that is not such a bad thing, I think to myself as I breathe in the scent of flowers along the path. Then I remember the weeping of children, the needless wars, the crying of mothers, the evil that men have continually done to each other and shivers run down my spine.
I walk faster but I am incapacitated by my human form. My spirit form requires no legs to show up. A few words and I could appear or disappear at will. But when Olodumare created the world, he set laws to guide humans and spirits alike. The priestess helped me take on human form and break one of those laws tonight. The consequences will be dire; but only if I do not make it back home by midnight. I walk even faster.
Olurombi’s house is deserted upon my arrival except for the hens clucking their way to an evening meal.
“Ago o” I call out in the greeting. A voice responds from the back of the house and that is where I find her, making a fire.
She looks up from her chores. “Do I know you?” She asks as she gets up from the mud stool.
It is all I can do not to strangle her but the priestess made me promise to cause no harm.
“Two wrongs do not make a right” The priestess had whispered to me as she did the necessary rituals to make me human.
“I have come for the child” I tell Olurombi as calmly as I can.
Recognition floods her eyes.
‘Iroko?” she asks
“Yes.” I answer.
She looks at me for a while before sitting back down on the stool with her head bowed.
“You could have asked for a dog, Olurombi and I would have given you one. But you asked me for a child, someone to love, someone to call your own and so I gave you mine. I thought to myself what better gift to give a spirit child than that of humanity. I wanted her to get the chance to taste yellow oranges, to smell flowers, to feel another’s caress, to experience a human mother’s love; all the things spirits envy man for. Instead, you gave her the existence of an animal. You treated my child no better than people treat the goats they sacrifice to me. I watched you steal the light in her eyes and the laughter from her mouth all these years. I watched until my roots began to dry and my leaves began to fall. I watched until my bark began to flake and my branches became feeble. But no more, Olurombi, no more. The child goes home with me tonight.”
I am shaking with anger. My promise to cause no harm is forgotten and all I want is to leave her bruised and broken. All the while I was speaking; Olurombi had gone back to her cooking. Now she looks up and answers me with a calmness that is eerie.
“It is not in your place to accuse me, Iroko. It is true that I asked you for a child but I never asked for your child. Who are you to stand in judgment of me? You who has never known what it feels like to be loved and left by three husbands. You who has never been an object of shame. You who has never known what it is to have wounds that never heal. I asked for a child to take my shame away. You gave me that and I thank you. What you wanted was never a part of the bargain. You wanted me to show her the beauty of human existence when all I have ever known is its ugliness. Even spirits must know that one can only give what one has and hate was all I had to offer any child.”
“You can take her if you can find her. For me, her work is done. No one will ever call me barren again; they will say I had a child and my child died. When they tell the story in years to come, I will be an object of pity and not of shame. I am content with that tale.”
“What do you mean if I can find her?” I ask as my heart races, my anger forgotten.
“I haven’t seen the child since morning. I sent her to the river and she never returned. You are a spirit aren’t you? Don’t you have eyes that see everywhere? Find your child and leave me be. I have an evening meal and a new husband to tend to.”
There is truth in her eyes and I whirl around the compound in confusion. Midnight, the priestess said. I run in the direction of the river, escorted by Olurombi’s evil cackle. I search the bush paths, I look up the trees, I look in hiding places that only spirits know of and I come up empty.
It is almost dawn when I finally head back to the tree. The Priestess is waiting. She opens her arms and I fall into them, weeping. This is how it feels to be human; fragile, powerless and unable to save the ones you love.
“It has all been for nothing.” I tell the Priestess as I pull away from her embrace. “I could not find her.”
“I know.” she answers.
She directs my gaze downwards. At the foot of the tree is a child sleeping peacefully.
“She found you.” The priestess says.
“How?” I start to ask and then I stop.
Midnight passed a while back and with it, my chance to return to the world of spirits. Yet here slept the child I had given it all up for. Olodumare’s ways are unsearchable and things must have happened this way for a reason. I look at the sleeping child. This is how it feels to be human; strong, hopeful, and able to love another. I carry the child on my back and let the priestess lead us home.
Photo Credit: Unicef Photography
Song of the day: Matchbox 20 – Last Beautiful Girl