We walk as three to the neighbouring village. Every three months. Me. Mama. Papa. In that order.
Papa always takes the rear, walking at a little distance behind us, as if he does not want to be associated with mama and me. Or as if he was on his way to someplace in his mind.
I walk in front, and as to everything I do, I put a rhythm to my walk. One, two, three…pam. One, two, three…pam. Like that.
I have no idea why I count in threes. I have no idea how many threes I end up counting. I have no idea why I do the counting. I have no idea about many things.
For instance, I do not know why I feel older than twelve. I feel as if I have been here before. Mama and papa, they look familiar.
I often cock my head to the good side and look at them, especially mama.
I feel as if I have seen her before, in another place and in another time. There were no deeply etched furrows of worry on her forehead then, and her ebony skin gleamed in the sun.
She sold uli at the market. The cosmetics she made from the leaves were the best amongst all others. It did not wash from the skin by chance. Everyone who passed by stopped to see. For the women, I could understand. But it is a difficult thing, telling what the men wanted. Men do not wear uli.
That is where papa’s familiar-ness comes in.
Of all the men that hovered around mama, he stood out. Young, strong, and ethereally handsome, he bestrode the heart of many women like a colossus.
The tales of his conquests were sweet on every one’s lips, like casks of fresh palm wine. From village to village, women flocked after him. Yet he would hurry on to the market, and head for mama’s cosmetic stand, snubbing the other sellers who had no equal wares.
Aggrieved and jealous, they would hiss and pass snide comments, that he has come again. That they do not know which he wants to buy, the piper or the tune.
And mama, not one whose mouth had been taken to the washerman would quickly respond aloud, that both were for sale, the piper and the tune.
Rain fell the day they were joined. Heavy, stinging pellets from the bright skies. The sun watched from a haughty distance, with a bland old smile that said its hands were tied. And they say that that is a bad omen, when the rain fell and the sun smiled as if its hands were tied on ones wedding day.
They say that that was the first sign of me.
That I came in the small pools of water that gathered in the compound, and refused to leave when my mates flowed away.
The ceremony had been a colourful one. Drummers and flutists rented the air with their stock in trade. Food was plentiful and so was drink. Mama looked most beautiful on her day.
Her skin was decorated with the dark residue from crushed uli leaves, her own handiwork. Her long hair was sheathed in a crown of red iyun beads. Her wrists and ankles and waist were bedecked with white beads.
As she danced, the men watched the sensual gyration of her supple body with minds inebriated with liqor and eyes filled with longing. They looked at preening papa, with sheer admiration and naked envy.
Eeryone cheered when papa accepted the small palmwine gourd from his bride, and drank every little bit of the white juice. Green, intrepid jealousy, from the myriads who had competed with mama for papa’s attention. And lost.
And mama spared none of them. She simply revelled in her day.
They say my ilk come in a myriad of ways. Sometimes the iroko hands us out. At other times, we take advantage when a pregnant woman is out at midday in the hot blazing sun. We scare the baby in her womb away, and take its place if she ventured out at midnight. Some of us are gifts from the river goddess.
They say I am one of these- a gift from the river goddess, for nine months after their day, mama had a pink little daughter- the first me.
They say I cried and cried and cried. It was a wonder I survived six days. On the seventh day, I packed my load, and went back to the river goddess.
I returned twelve moons later.
This time, I did not cry at all. They said I was the mutest baby they ever saw. That my mouth was like a slit in my face, and I had a wicked glint in my eye. That when they named me Ajojo – replacement – I let out a yelp. I suffered the name for a few minutes, then my body began to grow hot. It grew so hot I scalded mama’s palms. The swelling with water within it is still there till tomorrow.
They bathed me with all the herbs they could find. I only broke out in severe rashes with pus at their tips. My eyes turned yellow, and my tongue was deathly white.
They said I laid limp, watching their antics to keep me alive through the deathly glint in my eye. And that was how I grew up, a sickly child, with sparse, kinky hair. I had thin spindly limbs, and I creaked when I walked.
I didn’t play with the other children. Not as if they wanted my company. While they cooked with the sand, and screamed in delight, I sit under the frangipani trees, and speak with the wind.
I walk through the warm motherly forests, and inhale the tangy scents of the neem trees. I loved to get lost in the wilds. It was fun searching for and finding myself afterwards, among the sharp, towering elephant grasses.
The plants were my only friends, and I sang with the birds. They said I was a wicked child. That I had silted up mama’s womb with sawdust, so that after me, she could not have another.
My illnesses got worse the older I grew. I got out of bed perhaps, once in three days. And afterward, I paid dearly.
My wrists would ache and ache and ache. My ankles get so heavy I felt like cuting them off. My head would throb till I felt there was a mortar in it. It felt like someone was pounding in it.
Someone was always grinding pepper in my chest too. Alujonu was preparing for a festival in my body. The preparations go on for far too long. They scream and quarrell and dance too much.
My parents began to change then.
Dark shadows of mama’s beauty remained etched on her face. She no longer went to sell uli as much as she once did. She no longer walked with the spritely gait of the village beauty. Her pompous breasts had begun to sag and her raging hips begun to flag. Her voice gained a hoarse quality, one that grated in the ear, like Wana’s rogue motorcycle.
She no longer responded to the side talk and snide remarks. She said nothing when they gossiped, telling her her solace was in papa’s ethereal goodlooks and in his barns with stacks of yam, tied to bamboo poles in columns, erect like a crowd of tall, huge men.
She did not respond to all the talk, because she said that I, Ajojo, I had given her mouth to the washer-man to wash.
Papa was no different. He no longer came away to the house.
He went from the farm to the gin parlour, where he drank gin dispensed in unclean little glass tubules, and played a game with the other men. I never could understand the game: grown men sitting on a bench, facing each other and distributing seeds into spherical holes dug in the centre of a wooden cylinder that laid on both players knees.
In their drunken states, they laughed at everything. They even said someone had won, and another had lost.
“How can anyone fail in putting seeds into a hole?’ I had asked papa one night mama had sent me to the gin parlour to tell him that his food was getting cold.
He had repeated my question to the men and the resultant laughter had carried far into the starry night. I returned home and when mama asked where the papa she asked me to fetch was, I had slapped the back of one palm into the other in turns.
A little of the feisty mother I once knew had resurfaced that night. Papa could not believe his eyes when he saw mama, with me trailing behind, marching towards the gin parlour with trays of eba, onugbu and washing hands water.
Amidst jeers and taunts and laughter, he quietly got up, and returned with us.
You see, my parents love each other.
I was the one key that spoilt the teeth of the dog. I listen on my mat as papa and mama argue and raise their voices. I begin to count in threes. I never had to count for long. She, mama, was a crier. She would blame her chi for all her misfortune. Papa would belch and curse his luck.
It was on one of those nights that mama’s beauty walked away from her face, leaving behind only its shadow.
Eventually, I was seven.
It was my time to go. I went to the frangipani trees to say goodbye. I sat under them and spoke with the wind. I followed his course to the warm motherly forests. I said good bye to the neem trees I had come to love. I lost myself in the wilds, and found myself among the elephant grasses I had come to love so much.
I laughed and I cried. The birds also came and sang me a lonely dirge. My friends all wished me safe journey back home. I went back to the house, singing the bird’s songs on top of my voice. Strangers packed themselves to one side of the road to give this mad little girl room. I was as blind as a bat to their consternation. I felt as free as the birds in my emancipation. The road was my own and death was in my pocket.
“Ajojo, you are full of life today…” the villagers commented.
The sun was shining in my eyes and there was sweat in my brownish, kinky hair. The air wrapped itself around me in a smug knowing hug. I had a good taste in my belly, like someone who had just swallowed alali.
Rain fell that evening and I bathed in it. Even the other children did not run away from me. We ran together and I ran faster than some of them with my spindly legs. I didn’t creak as I ran. I laughed and I cried in the rain but they could not see my tears.They were children, too naive, too little to understand.
To ease the cold, mama wrapped me in a woollen blanket that night. She sat with me as I shivered by the fire. She fed me hot peppery soup, so that I could find some warmth, and my eyes watered. I felt as if my tongue was on fire. Papa played his flute in front of his hut.
“Why did you do it Ajojo?” mama asked.
“I don’t know mama…”
“Answer me Ajojo.”
“I want to be like the other children…”
“What are the other children like?” she asked. She turned her head away from me, to stoke the fire, and to hide the tears. But I had already seen them on her cheeks. The orange fire lit up her face.
“They play together. They bathe in the rain.”
“Ajojo, you are not as strong as… Wait until you can…”
“Why am I different?”
“It is the will of your chi, my daughter. And till your grip on the machete is firm, do not ask who raped your mother.”
We had stayed huddle like that beside the fire, mother and daughter, in utter silence. She wrapped her arms around me. The only sounds were the cackles of the fire, the chirps of the insects and papa’s flute.
There was a lot to say, but we stayed silent for many different reasons. I knew my questions will not be answered. Mama just wanted some peace and quiet.
So, I did not wake up the following morning.
This is my third coming.
And they had been prepared for me. They said when I left, I had removed the saw dust I had used to silt mama’s womb. So when mama got pregnant again, the medicine man had called papa aside. He had told papa that as some were skilled in the silent passing of gas, so others were skilled in the hearing of every sound. He said he had perceived a foul smell from miles away. That I was coming again.
“Abiku! Abiku!!” he raged. He said that he knew what to do when I arrived.
I was born, a most beautiful child. My hair was dense and dark and woolly. And unlike the one before me, I cried.
There was no colourful celebration of my arrival. Papa said that the traveler who arrives from a journey and does not acknowledge those he meets at home, also loses the warmth of welcoming greetings. He said that he had lost faith in my arrivals.
I sucked mama’s breast in copious quantities, like it was the hunger that chased me down from heaven. They named me ‘this one shall stay’ – Durotimi.
I grew up, as beautiful as my mother. I loved my parents very much and watched them crawl out of their shell, reluctantly, slowly, cautiously, opening themselves up to me like the wary, fascinating, plant that opened up itself to the sun, and closed itself up promptly at the slightest touch.
They are scared that I will go at anytime. Especially when I have the crisis at my wrists and at my ankles.
My head throbs atimes and my chest still aches. So papa takes me and mama, and we walk, three of us, to the neighbouring village. Every three months. The medicine man makes propitiations, and gives me concoctions to drink. And he says I will be fine, till the next treatment.
I feel they are tying up my soul to this world.
I still sit underneath the frangipani trees. I still speak to the wind. I still go to the warm motherly forests and sing with the birds. I still love the neem trees, and I inhale their tangy scents.
I still lose myself in the wilds, knowing each time I find myself, this coming is for keeps.