Of course she was not in mammy water features then, if not I would have run screaming from the river like Salewa, my little sister the time she was attacked by bees.
What I saw was a tall slim woman with skin the color of warm sand gleaming like the polished ivory in the king’s palace. Her black hair was braided in the interlocking weave that cost so much to make because of the expertise and time it took. And it was also interspaced with beads!
The ends of her hair hung down her shoulders and back with more beads twisted into the tips. She tied a colorful wrapper from above her breast in the manner of married women as opposed to the way unmarried girls tied theirs round the waist leaving their breasts bare. The wrapper reached down to her knees. There were beads round her neck, ankles and wrists and from the slight budge under her wrapper around her hips; I knew she also had on waist beads. And what beads!
They seemed more like pearls than beads. It was as if they had moonlight trapped inside. They glowed with a kind of rare luminosity that made it seem as if the secret of the stars had been discovered and used to irradiate them from inside. They were in different shapes and sizes. Some were big and round, some so tiny, you could almost miss them, others were oval, square, tube-like, triangular, varying shapes! Both smooth and jagged. Yet all glowed with that secret inner light that I had never before seen on any kind of beads! Not even the royal beads worn by the Oba and his Oloris. And they had the best collection of beads! But those beads were not the only things that held me enthralled. The wearer was herself unique.
She was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. Her features were perfect! From her high smooth forehead to her dark wide spaced eyes with thick long lashes, down to her straight oyibo nose, rounded cheeks and full lips, she was an epitome of beauty. And there was something so regal and superior in her bearing that without knowing it, I found myself going down on my knees to greet her, my calabash still balanced delicately on my head.
She nodded in response to my greeting then spoke “Can you help me place my calabash on my head”. Her voice was like her, perfect. Low, slightly husky and melodious, it echoed in my head with power and something otherworldly. I had to shake my head to clear it of the lingering echo of that voice and that was when I became aware once more of my calabash on my own head. I hastily put it down and getting back on my feet, hurried over to where she stood with a filled calabash at her feet. I bent to carry it and she also bent her knees to enable me place it on her head. I would have offered to carry it for her if not that there was no way I could carry two full calabashes.
She straightened with the calabash balanced perfectly on her head without ‘osuka’, the rolled rag we put on our heads to help carry the weight of the calabash. She smiled her thanks and turned to go, then hesitated and turned to face me again. In her hand was a small burlap sack-like bag which she held out to me, “Take”, she said. I raised both hands to demure. It was not done to accept anything in return for helping. But she didn’t give me a chance to even voice my protestations. She thrust the package into my hands, then turned and walked swiftly into the bushes, following the thorny path that led deeper into the forest lining the edge of the river. She moved fast and gracefully without any of the careful steps to indicate she was carrying anything on her head.
I stared after her in fascination till she disappeared round a bend. That was when I came back to awareness of the little sack in my hand and the fact that she had just gone in the opposite direction from the village. I made to follow but the darkness which had by now descended dissuaded me. The village I know very well but the forest I was wary of. I stood where I was and called out “Oya”, the term we use for unrelated married women (‘Mama’ being for women our mothers’ age who are not relatives and also for direct grandmothers who are relatives. ‘Iye’ is for the old women who we are not related to) I called a few more times but when I got no response, I replaced my calabash on my head and headed towards home, constantly looking back for the beautiful woman.
After I had gone a few paces, I looked down at the sack in my hands and decided to open it and see what was inside. They were beads! Same as the ones on the woman’s body! The same Iyun made of those same peculiarly glowing beads, the same type I’d just seen and drooled over! I was sure they cost more than any the villagers wore. Yes! Even more than the king’s royal beads! Now I held such valuable beads in my hands and to all intents, they were mine!
Reverently, I brought out a wrist chain. It also had beads of different shapes like hers. And like hers, it was the luminous glow of the beads that made them so exquisite and priceless. I repeat: I’d never seen beads like those before. Not then and not now, even after all the years I’ve lived and in all the places I’ve been.
I slipped on the wrist chain. It was as if it was made for my hand. I stretched out my hand and admired the way the beads shone against my skin. I kept turning it round and round in fascination. So preoccupied with my new treasure was I that I didn’t realize I had reached my father’s compound till I heard my mother’s voice. I quickly yanked off the wrist chain and stuffed it back into the sack.
I hurried to the barrel and poured the water on my head inside. In the time I had been at the river, the water in there had reduced substantially and my new addition didn’t fill it to the brim anymore. But there was nothing to be done about that, it was too late to go to the river again. I replaced the calabash on the rooftop then dashed to where my mother was seated, beside my grandmother (her own mother) eyeing me with barely repressed censure in her eyes. I was eager to distract her from the scolding I knew was coming and I had the perfect method – my new beads!
“Maami”, I greeted. Going down on my knees, I turned the small sack upside down and emptied the contents on her lap. “See what someone gave me”, I announced proudly.
She was dumbstruck! In all my decidedly not so long years on earth then, I’d never seen my mother lost for words but the sight of the priceless beads did it. I settled back on my heels to enjoy this rarity.
As I rocked back, my eyes drifted to my grandmother beside my mother. What I saw on her face was the last thing I expected. She was staring at the beads displayed on my mother’s laps in horror. She sat as immobile as a statue and seemed frozen with the horror. She was hardly breathing, the wrinkles on her face stuck in still motion as if carved. This was another sight I’d also never seen before and unlike my mother’s, there was nothing about this to make me gleeful.
Time seemed to move slowly, till my mother reached out a hand to touch the beads on her lap and suddenly my grandmother’s hand shot out like a striking snake and grabbed my mother’s arm in a biting hold. My mother raised startled eyes to her but Mama was not even looking at her. Mama’s eyes were locked hotly on mine. They seemed to bore holes in mine with their feverish intensity. “Who gave you these?” she demanded in a hoarse voice.
“A . . . . . . A wo . . . woman”, I stammered. By now I was feeling decidedly uncomfortable.
“What woman?” my grandmother demanded, “Describe her!”
“Ah, she is er, tall, slim . . . . . . . . . .” I started when Mama jumped in and interrupted me.
“Tall, slim, beautiful, smooth skin colored like that of building clay, long plaited hair with beads, beads round her neck and wrists and ankles, beautiful bright wrapper?” she fired rapidly at me.
I could only nod my head up and down like agama lizard to each of her staccato descriptions. At each of my nod, Mama seemed to shrink in front me of till she seemed wilted like a faded flower. She suddenly looked every day of her age. Her head drooped down over her neck like one bowed down under an unbearably heavy load. I wondered what I had done wrong. My discomfort was fast becoming fear.
Maami kept on looking back and forth from Mama to me. Her hand seemed to have been forgotten in Mama’s grasp. Now she asked her mother hesitantly, “Maami, is something wrong? Do you know the woman?”
Mama’s head shot up and she shook off Maami’s queries impatiently. Her eyes locked on mine again and she barked out, “Tell me exactly what happened between you and the woman”
So I did. Recounting everything carefully up till the time she went into the forest and I started back home after calling out for her and getting no response. Nobody interrupted me. Maami listening as intently as Mama, trying to understand what had so upset her mother.
All around us, the other wives and children went about their duties, it was the youngest wife’s turn to cook for the family and she was hard at work with the children, hers and others’ assisting her. Every child helped and impending nuptials was no excuse for anyone not to. In fact, that was more reason for you to help since you were expected to sharpen and hone your household skills so as not to bring shame on your family when you get to your husband’s home. That meant, soon to be married or not, I was expected, no, required to be around the cooking fires, actively participating. But I guess the intensity on Maami and Mama’s faces as they listened to me clearly indicated that I was not going to be part of today’s evening meal preparations, so apart from curious glances our way, we were left undisturbed.
When I finished my tale, Mama started with her cross questioning. She queried and obsessed over every single detail. I answered as best as I could, repeating my story over and over again. By then exasperation, fatigue and hunger had taken over any fear or curiosity I had. The smell and sound of my brothers and sisters enjoying the evening meal was making my stomach growl. The questioning would have gone on if my mother who by now was probably even more exasperated than I was couldn’t stand it anymore and turned to Mama. “Maami! What is it?” she demanded in her no nonsense voice.
Mama shook her head sadly and answered my mother “Eyin-Oju” She called my mother’s name which was a rare thing, “I will tell you. But let us go inside first”. Maami made to gather the beads which were still in her lap but once again Mama stopped her. “Don’t touch them!” she almost yelled, and then turned to me, “Go and bring another wrapper for your mother”.
Mystified, I hurried to do her bidding. When I returned with the wrapper, the one my mother had been tying was looped round the beads and used to gather them up carefully. Mama making sure none of us touched it. Maami tied the one I brought round her body. The two of them stood up and Mama carried the wrapped beads in one hand and held Maami with the other. “Go and eat your food. When you finish, come and meet us in your mother’s room” she ordered. I needed no urging on that and immediately turned to go to Maami Kekere’s (as the youngest wife was called) kitchen.
As I turned, I saw the little burlap bag that had held the beads laying on the ground where it had fallen when I got up to go into the room for my mother’s wrapper. I picked it up and thrust it into the side of my wrapper round my waist then hurried on to where the delicious smell of asaro oduku was wafting from.