Nda had risen high up in the sky by the time Yayabe reached the dwelling from where he had first taken the child, already tufts of darkened clouds drifted across Nda’s whiteness. It watched from behind a tree, its form no longer so small that it could conceal itself behind the bushes. Before going back to the n’ja, it had returned the child but not without taking a drop of its blood to coat the bundle of animal flesh it had prepared as a trap for the n’ja. The child was safe now. From its hiding place, it saw a cacophony of men going in and out of the dwelling. Above the cacophony of shuffles and movement was the unmistakable wail of both mother and child, and overlapping voices trying to prevail over each other.
“Tomorrow,” a voice said with conviction. “We will perform the cleansing.”
“Yes,” another said. “This child has been marked by an nsojida. It will bring misfortune to the lands if we do not perform a cleansing ceremony.”
“You want to kill my child!” The woman screamed, struggling against the arms that held her away from the child’s cot. “Please, I beg you, don’t do this to my child.”
“Woman, can you not see the mark upon this child?” a firmer, calmer voice asked. “That is the mark of an nsojida, see how it spreads from that single spot like the web of a spider? I tell you, your child has been cursed.”
Yayabe watched in confusion. All it had done was draw blood from a spot on the child’s arm. It’s suru must have stained the child’s skin with the cracks they saw. A suru stain cannot be undone by mere washing. Foolish humans. It stepped out from behind the tree, deciding the unfolding events were none of its business. As if sensing the nsojida‘s presence, the child went silent. Yayabe glanced back at the dwelling and locked eyes with the child’s mother, staring in open-mouthed shock, eyes still flowing with tears. Swiftly Yayabe veiled itself with the darkness of its form and slid further away into the shadow of the bushes.
It was well into Iya’s golden rise the next day when the nsojida, resting in its cave and marvelling at its newly aquired powers, was disturbed by the sound of someone approaching. It stilled its form and waited. The tired feet of the disturber shuffled through the dirt and stopped before the mouth of its cave.
“Nsojida!” A woman screamed. Yayabe had no doubt who it was. The child’s mother had come for it. Foolish woman, it would rip her to bits. “Nsojida, my child will die by Iya’s fall. Why take away my child and return it only to have it die. If you gave back my child then I know you do not wish it dead. Please, nso, help me. Save my child!
Yayabe stayed in its cave listening to the child’s mother lament. Her fervent cries began to unsettle it and soon its form began to curdle with annoyance. It lifted itself from its perch and moved to the mouth of the cave. It flinched at Iya’s brightness, the golden rays almost proving more than its eyes could bear. It filled the threshold of the cave; a yawning darkness with two red slits on top of it.
*You dare approach my dwelling, woman?* Yayabe hissed, doing its best to sound menacing.
The woman jumped and screamed, stumbling unto the ground. She had been so overwhelmed by her grief, she had failed to notice the nsojida before her. She opened her mouth to speak but her words had long since deserted her.
*Speak woman,* Yayabe commanded, clearly enjoying her fear. It felt good to be feared for once. *How did you find me?*
“I_I followed you.”
*Bravery or stupidity, we shall decide which it is. Why did you follow me, woman?*
“My child!” She wailed again, breaking into uncontrollable sobs that sent irritation rippling through Yayabe’s form.
*What about your child? Cease your weeping or I shall give you something to truly weep about.*
“They say he is tainted, that he has been marked by an nso, that he would become a black hearted person who will bring death to our village. They want to sacrifice my child!”
*What you people do to your kind is none of my business, woman.*
“But it is your fault!” The woman shouted in a sudden fit of rage, shocking even the nsojida itself. “You took my child and marked it. It is your mark that is going to kill my child! But you returned my child. Why would you kill me by taking him and kill me again by returning him marked. You are cruel nsojida!”
*It is my nature.* Yayabe replied, not entirely sure it believed its own words. *Why have you come to me?*
“Take my child again.” Her voice was firm, her resolve apparent even on her tear soaked face.
*Has Odajida struck you with madness?*
“Please, nso, I beg of you,” she fell on her knees clasping her hands to her chest. “Take my child again. If you don’t they will kill him. I can not bear to loose my child like that. Please, nso, save my child.”
*I do not save, woman. I destroy.*
“You lie!” Once again the woman’s audacity shocked Yayabe. “If indeed you destroyed you would have killed my child when you first took him. There is some good in you, nso. Please, help me.”
Yayabe’s mind swirled in turmoil. It hated the uncomfortable emotions the woman was stirring within it and hated even more the fact that it could feel a semblance of compassion towards her. Was it pity or guilt? Each one as bad as the other.
*Leave me be, woman, or you shall pave the way for your child’s death.* Yayabe’s eyes deepened with a reddish glow frightening the woman.
Terrified as she was, she fell on her knees and crawled to the mouth of the cave, her face wet, and her eyes bloodshot and swollen from crying. She wept at the nsojida’s feet, pleading until her voice was no more than a whisper.
“I beg of you, nso, please save my child.”
*I have nothing to gain by saving your child, woman. My kind does not save lives, we take it.*
“Then a life for a life.” She looked up with that unusual resolve that made Yayabe shudder. “Take mine and save my child.”
Yayabe stared in wonderment at the woman before it. It was beyond its understanding how someone or anything would give themselves in place of another. In Wajida, if you were unfortunate to be at the wrong place at the wrong time whatever was meted out to you was yours and yours alone to suffer. Where it came from you were thrown into the fire by others if it meant saving themselves. Yayabe thought deeply.
*When will they do it?*
“At Iya’s fall!”
*Hmmm, your people are hungry for blood. What will you have me do with your child?*
“Just take it away. I would run with him if I could but I am mother to two others. I cannot abandon them.”
*I shall consider.* Yayabe said after a moment’s thought.
The woman looked up beseechingly. “You will save my child?”
*I said, I shall consider, woman, now leave me be.*
The woman sensed the finality in the nsojida’s words and gathered herself from the ground, brushing off the leaves and dirt from her garment.
“Thank you, nso.” She said, crying, but this time not in despair but hope. “Thank you.” Then she turned and fled back down the path she had come.
Yayabe withdrew into its cave and puzzled over its new dilemma. It thought and thought well past when Iya passed its peak. Then its eyes fell on one of the fruits it had gathered earlier. It picked it up, pierced the skin and watched the milky juice flow out of it. Curious, it tasted the juice and cringed as its sweetness stung its tongue. Yayabe smiled.
* * *
The child’s scream echoed through the dusk as it lay on the mat set out in the middle of the compound. Denied his mother’s touch and nourishment, its cry was piercing and shrill. The mother cried silently where she sat, having given up trying to run past the men guarding the entrance of her dwelling. The child’s father stood to the side, his jaw clenched with acceptance. The Orabé have willed it so, he had told his wife, what is done is done, accept it.
A silent hush descended upon the gathering as the eji, the village priest, walked into the compound. He walked slowly towards the child, his cowry-laden staff rattling with each deliberate step and his face set in grim resolve for the task at hand. He reached the child and laid his staff upon the mat as he knelt down. It was to be a silent act, no words needed to be uttered. He reached for the blade tucked into his goatskin belt and pulled it from its sheath; the blade gleaming orange against Iya’s setting.
“Please,” the child’s mother cried from the dwelling, her voice a little more than a croak. “Don’t kill my baby!”
The eji raised the knife with both hands above his head, closed his eyes and began mumbling his prayers.
“Save my child,” the mother prayed, but to a different being than that of the eji. “You said you would save my child. Save my child, save my child I beg you.”
The eji’s eyes opened, he inhaled sharply and brought down the blade.
“No!” The mother screamed, throwing herself past the guards, desperate to throw herself between the blade and her child.
In the moment between the blade’s decent and the mother’s outcry a black wind erupted from the ground. It swirled with furious force, whipping the blade out of the eji’s hands and sending both him and everyone else in the compound sprawling on their backsides. The child’s mother stared at the black wind as it whipped around her child, the corners of her lips twitching into a smile as she realised the nso had heard her prayers.
“Thank you.” She whispered.
Yayabe had bided its time beneath Mba, observing the proceedings and listening to the mother’s cry. Even then, it had still been a little undecided about saving the child’s life. When it saw the blade begin to descend upon the harmless, nameless child, it burst forth from the earth, throwing its form about like an angry wind. It scooped the child into its arms as the eji hurled incantations at it, wide eyed with fear. In the midst of the commotion, Yayabe caught the eyes of the mother and heard her thanks. The last words it heard as it gathered itself and swirled off into the forest were the mother’s last gift to the child.
“Call him, Asanji.” She whispered. “Call him survivor.”