The whole village had a deserted air about it which was not surprising. On harvest days, the only people to be found in the village were the old, the infirm, heavily pregnant women, new mothers and their newborn babies and of course, the town drunkards who were still sleeping off their drunkenness; they were a shame to their families! That day, my grandmother, mother and I were numbered amongst those still in the village although I wasn’t sure in which we group we belonged.
We went in the opposite direction of the river. Not the side that led into the thick forest which the beautiful woman who was the cause of this early morning sojourn had gone the day before but the other side which led out of the village into the hills surrounding the west side of our little town
After more than an hour’s trek we came to the foot of the hills and as my grandmother led us sure footedly up a twisting path, I realized where we were going – OROKE AGBA. I had heard of that particular hill and it had been pointed out to me on more than one occasion but I had never been there. Oroke Agba was the name of the caves high up in the hills where the village wise men lived. They were old men who were said to live in the physical world but could cross into the spiritual world as easily as if they were stepping from one room to another in their huts. They could speak to the dead, conjure up spirits, appease offended ancestral gods, get witches and wizards to leave one be, purge out demons from the possessed and other such things beyond the ability of the natural man.
The spiritual was their forte and thus were only consulted for spiritual matters.
That was the first inkling I had that the woman I met at the river the day before might not have been a human being. If not, why would we be here? My heart started pounding. Partly at that realization and partly in fearful anticipation of seeing the famed wise men.
The steep climb almost drained me of the fear and anticipation. By the time we reached the caves, I was panting from exhaustion and my arms, legs and back ached from climbing and balancing the basket of chickens on my head at the same time. Thinking of that reminded me of the chickens I carried and it suddenly occurred to me that their loud protestations had died out from the time we got to the hills. I jiggled the basket a bit to get them cackling again but they were silent. Fearing they might be dead, I reached a hand inside and touched one, it moved under my hand. I touched each of the five and they all responded to my touch but still not a sound from them. That settled my exhaustion immediately and got my heart pounding again. Slowly I became aware of the deafening silence in the hills around us. I inched closer to my mother.
Just then we turned a corner and found the hills open before us. We were standing in front of what seemed to be a gaping hole in front of us. It was a cave; that much I could tell but beyond that I could see nothing else. It was as if we were standing right at the entrance of hell without the fire. That was how dark it seemed.
We entered the cave and were immediately enveloped in darkness. My mother was by then clutching me as hard as I was holding on to her. Her other hand, like mine, clinging to the baskets on our heads. We stumbled many times as we felt our way tentatively in the darkness, following my grandmother who from the sound of her footsteps did not miss a pace. She moved with easy familiarity into the winding caves.
I was about getting used to the darkness when we turned for what seemed like the hundredth time and came to a bright large room-like enclosure. There was no opening in the walls, no cracks, no fire lit but the room was as bright as if we were outside under a sunny midday sky. Arranged in a semicircle were seven rocks. They stood looking eerily majestic in their lonesome grandeur.
My grandmother helped us put down the two baskets and started unpacking them. From my mother’s basket, she removed a length of white cloth and laid it at the centre of the cave-room. On top of it, she placed a roll of another white cloth; twenty one white cowries; the smoothest, whitest aso-oke I had ever seen with long fringes and from my basket, the five white cockerels. Finally, she untied the edge of her wrapper and removed the burlap bag from where she had hidden it. She poured out the beads onto the white cloth.
The beauty of the beads took on an ethereal glow displayed against the stark whiteness of the cloth. I stared at them in silent awe and I could feel my mother beside me held in the same almost supernatural grip. Those beads were compelling! Only my grandmother seemed immune to their spell. She stood off a little to my left and folded her arms as if waiting for something or someone. I wanted to turn to her and ask what next but I could not take my eyes off the beads. They seemed to be getting bigger and bigger as I watched.
I took a step nearer to them, drawn by a strong compelling force within me. I moved closer and closer and the beads grew larger and brighter till they were all I could see. Everything else faded out. Suddenly, I felt myself falling. I made to throw out my arms to regain my balance but I could not raise my arms. Helplessly, I spiraled down into the dizzying white light.
My consciousness was in a limbo. I was aware on a subliminal level of my surroundings and it was as if I had somehow stepped into the white cloth. I could hear voices but could not make out their words. The tone of the whispers sounded like incantations but they were unlike any I’d ever heard before. I strained to hear better but it was for nothing. It seemed my unseen speakers were intonating in a strange language. I felt hands reach out to touch and grasp me but could see no bodies; just disembodied arms.
Then I felt a sharp prick on my palm. I flinched, or rather I tried to but I could not move any part of my body. The prick became pain as something sharp tore into my flesh. I wanted to scream but my mouth felt swollen and sluggish. The pain bore down on me relentlessly as the sharp object was drawn over my palms again and again. I could feel tears leak out of my eyes and run down my cheeks. Suddenly the pain flared and became a burning. The kind of burning you would feel if you were on fire. I screamed but it was only in my head. Not a sound issued out of my mouth. All through this the whispered incantations continued in a flat monotone around me. The dazzling whiteness grew even whiter.
A warm hand, different from the previous ones touched my painful palms and spread wide to flatten over them. Instantly, the pain and burning ceased. The soothing warmth of those hands shot like quicksilver through my hands and moved all through my body. The heaviness in my limbs disappeared. I could move again. I opened my eyes and saw my mother bent over me; her eyes peering anxiously down on me. “Abeke! Abeke! Are you alright? Answer me. Ori mi gba mi o! (My ancestors save me) Abeke! Answer me!” Despite the urgency in her voice, she was whispering.
“Leave the girl alone”, my grandmother growled impatiently from somewhere behind her, also whispering. “She is fine.”
I blinked owlishly at my mother, “Maami, I’m fine”, I said and immediately understood why they were whispering. My voice rang out loudly and my words were tossed back at me in ghostly echoes.
“Edumare, e se o! Ori mi e se o!” (Thank you, God. Thank you, my ancestors) my mother breathed in relief and drew me up. That was when I realized I had been lying on the ground. Maami checked me over and when she had satisfied herself that I was okay, she turned to face Mama. I followed her gaze and saw Mama sitting on the ground in front of one of the seven rocks, watching us both.
Mama turned to face me and standing up, slowly walked towards me, her eyes boring into mine as if searching for something within them. She took hold of my hands and turned my palms upwards. I saw my palms and gasped in shock and fear. Deep incision-like marks were carved into both palms. They followed a spiral pattern in a peculiar marking down to my wrists. But what shocked me most was that the marks were not fresh. They looked old; like already healed wounds.
I suddenly remembered my recent dreamlike experience of hands and incantations and sharp objects and pain. I realized it wasn’t a dream after all. It had really happened. My eda (spirit) had travelled somewhere and brought back reminders on my physical body. Fear thrummed through me.
My grandmother ran her fingers over the healed welts. My mother gasped as she saw them and her hands flew up to clasp her bosom. Whatever she was about to say was forestalled by my grandmother. “It’s done!” she declared peremptorily and dropped my hands. “Pick up the beads and let us go”
I turned to do her bidding and got another shock. The white clothes and cockerels and cowries were gone. Only the beads were still on the ground piled on top of the small sack with the wrist chain I had worn displayed prominently on top, it seemed to me, or maybe that was just my guilty conscience. I snuck a look at my grandmother to see if she had noticed but she had already turned to the exit. My mother was standing indecisively between the two of us, torn between coming to wail over my poor damaged palms or follow her own mother out of the cave. I made the choice for her. I grabbed the beads and stuffed them into the sack and hurried after Mama. Maami followed my lead and hurried after me.
Going out was easier than coming in and we soon emerged into the sunlight. To mine and my mother’s shock, we realized the sun was about setting. Apparently we had been in the cave almost the whole day. Going downhill was also easier than uphill so it wasn’t long before we reentered the village. The journey back was made in total silence. Each of us lost in our separate thoughts. Needless to say, I was quite disappointed at not seeing the much talked about wise men. Either physically or spiritually. I might have experienced them during my trance but it just wasn’t the same as seeing.