Before Beluso went to her late grandfather’s shrine in Ifite Ukpo to kidnap the mighty deity Kisa, she spent a long time in her backyard, washing her hair. She’d filled a basin with the water her son, Ofomalu, had fetched from the stream, and with a bowl, she scooped from it and poured over her body, starting from her head. She had last washed her hair a week ago and the nappy tufts had tangled themselves into unruly kinks. She soaped her scalp and massaged it for a long time, and with her fingers, she separated the kinks, combed out the lush bush, until she no longer felt a single tangle. Then she washed her body. She was done by the time her cockerel had woken and flown to the top of her roof, pushed its chest out, and let out a sharp crow that shook the neighborhood awake.
The village women saw her and screamed. They tried to talk to her. They begged her to put on some clothes before their men and children came outside and found her. In the years to come, they would blame themselves for everything that happened afterward; they would wish they had tried harder, that they had found a way inside her grief, and pulled her out.
What they did not know was that Beluso was gone, lost; that she succumbed to despair after Nwoye accused her son of stealing his goat and the men did what they always did to petty thieves: they took him to the market and sold him to the Aro slave traders. Beluso could not accept all that happened. She trekked distances, searching for her son. She returned home on the third evening and plopped on her stool with a long, weary sigh.
She had known Nwoye since she was small, and had played with him on moonlit nights. She had rejected his playful advances, rejected his marriage proposal because even though she liked him as a person, she knew they would never work: she was too hot-headed and he was too quiet for her liking. She married their other childhood friend, Aniekwe, and they all settled into a fine village life, raising children, working on their farms, harvesting their crops, reaching into each other’s home to borrow condiments when they had run out. Many years passed and her husband Aniekwe died of a mysterious illness that ate him in small bites, and all she was left with was her son. She had thought that Nwoye was still a friend. It was why she offered to replace the goat he accused her son of stealing. He should know what it felt like to lose a husband, to start over again, to seek comfort within a community one had known all their life. He was the only child of a widowed mother. But it was a different Nwoye that she met at her son’s trial, this same Nwoye with his big smile and rumbling laughter, who always brought her son gifts of okpa and akara when her boy was a small child.
Her head was pounding; her migraine was back. She smeared ude aki on her skin, and even though she was awake and the first morning lights poured in from her window, the migraine blurred her vision and drowned out all sounds. It was why she did not hear the women when they came to her door, when they knocked and begged her to come outside for a chat, when they tried to wrestle her grief. What she knew was that she had made up her mind to curse Nwoye and his family with her late grandfather’s alusi, Kisa, and nothing would dissuade her from completing her mission.
Kisa was a ruthless, merciless deity. Beluso’s late grandfather had served as one of his diviners. As a child, she watched him perform the afa divination and had seen the deity strike people dead in the most drastic fashion. One man, who had dispossessed a widow of her husband’s land, claiming he had only leased the plot to his late brother, had woken with a swollen belly two days after swearing before Kisa. Another man woke with a giant penis that was as fat as a thigh and as long as a leg for raping his brother’s wife. Kisa avenged the oppressed, so long as they came to him with clean hands. It was unheard of to steal or kidnap the deity; no one had dared; no one had allowed such a ridiculous thought to cross their minds.
Beluso sat before her mirror, and with a fine-tooth comb, she parted her hair into even sections, dipped her finger into a tub of pomade, and massaged the oil into her scalp. Then she began to weave the sections into neat cornrows. This was how she had prepared her hair on her wine-carrying day, when Aniekwe and his people came to pay her bride price. Her mother was a great hairdresser but Beluso was that good too, and she never trusted anyone to style her the way she’d like. “You are so obsessed with your look,” her mother had told her as a teenager when she used to spend so much time preparing to go to the stream. “Are you doing all this because of that arrogant boy, Aniekwe?” And they argued, with Beluso denying over and over that her beauty routine had nothing to do with anyone. “Is it a crime for a girl to look good?” she asked. Her mother frowned and shook her head. Other mothers would have raised hell or banned their daughters from such frivolities. Not Beluso’s mother, who waited after seven sons to have the one girl she spoiled silly and allowed vanities that raised eyebrows. Like letting the girl wander off on her own to hang out with friends, mostly boys, when her mates were in the kitchen with their mothers, cooking.
Today was a special occasion and Beluso wanted to look presentable before Kisa. If the deity was going to smite her for daring to kidnap him, then it made sense to die looking her best. She stepped outside into the sun and heard the men laughing in the next compound. They always gathered in the morning to gossip about the latest village news. She used to tease Aniekwe about this and liked how frustrated he would become. He would scrunch up his face like a child, his lips squeezed in a full pout. It was the pout of a man who grew up believing that men were incapable of the same vanities they accused women. She liked his pout, the wide flare of his nose, the tender eyes that grew wet with longing when she touched his lips, when she stroked his cheeks. She liked the low sounds he made when she reached into his waistcloth and wrapped her fingers around him. Then death came and stole him from her clasp, and Nwoye followed in the wake to finish her off by accusing her son of stealing his goat.
The women saw her emerge from her hut later that morning, her finely-woven Akwete cloth wrapped around her chest and thought she was the most beautiful. They were glad to see her looking like her old self again. They liked that she had painted her face with camwood and lined her eye with otanjele. They like that she wore her finest rows of beads, that she even affixed some jewelry in her hair. What they did not understand was where she was going that early in the morning, dressed in such a manner at such a time, because even a newborn child knew that any ceremony, no matter how important, never began that early. First, the host would prepare the food, then set up the venue, then welcome the guests, before dressing up for the event proper, which usually started late in the afternoon. Some of the women sensed that she, perhaps, was losing her mind or had already lost it. They tried again to talk to her, but she ignored their greetings and walked past them on the narrow street.
The men saw her, too. But they did not talk to her because they were the ones who sentenced her son to slavery, and so what else did they have in their mouth to tell her? It did not make sense to speak comfortably with the same tongues that condemned her only child. Many years later, they would still shiver at the memories of all that happened that day; they would wish they had at least tried to speak to her and had asked where she was going to that early in the morning, dressed like a new bride. They never thought that she was capable of kidnapping the most ruthless deity in the whole of the region.
No one believed she could do it, especially, Onyefolu, one of the diviners, who was returning from collecting the gifts some worshippers had left at the door of the shrine the night before—a bunch of bananas, a head of ugu, a keg of palm wine (the diviners and the Chief Priest shared the gifts equally among themselves). Onyefolu was on his way home when he saw Beluso coming toward him. All he thought when he saw her, dressed in her finest, this woman he had last seen when she was a girl tagging behind her grandfather, was “there comes the most beautiful.” He told the Chief Priest that the thought that anyone would dare to steal Kisa had never crossed his mind, which was why he didn’t question Beluso’s motive when he saw her walking toward the shrine. “She even stopped to greet me and ask about my children. She told me to greet my wife, Iruka. They used to be friends.”
Beluso had panicked when she saw Onyefolu. The man had always made her uncomfortable. When she was barely nine years old, he would comment on her body, how she had already begun to bud breasts, that she should hurry with her first blood so he could come and pay her bride price. When she complained to her grandfather, he only laughed and said Onyefolu was merely joking. “Don’t worry about him,” her grandfather had said. “He won’t try nonsense with my grandchild.” Still, there was something about Onyefolu that creeped her out; she ran in the opposite direction whenever she saw him coming because she had always sensed he was the kind of man she should never meet on a lonely path at night. And so when she saw him walking toward her, carrying the keg of palm wine in one hand and the bunch of bananas in the other, the ugu sitting on his head, she hitched up her wrapper, ready to shred him to pieces if he dared to leap at her. But he only said, “Beluso, imakazi! You are so fine,” to which she responded: “Thank you o! Greet Iruka and your children for me.” She didn’t stop walking, didn’t look back to see if he had stopped to continue the conversation, and she exhaled when she heard his retreating footfalls.
Beluso was glad when she saw that the shrine was empty that morning. One hour ago, she had wondered how she would pull off the kidnapping, how long she would have to wait for the diviners to be done with their mediations before she would scoop the powerful deity. She was ready to wait, to sit in the bush and wait. But she found Kisa was sitting in a small house, whose walls were decorated with scripts and art drawn in white chalk, the roof draped with raffia and palms. Two sculptures flanked the entrance, and the floor inside was littered with fresh fallen leaves blown in by the winds. She bent and crept inside; the ceiling was built so low so that humans would remember to bow at the entrance, to humble themselves before the mighty deity. She spread herself on the ground, and for a long time, she stayed that way, breathing in the dusty air, feeling the fine texture of the soil against her skin. And she remembered one of the first sweet things her late husband Aniekwe said to her many years ago, on their wedding night, after she had stroked him and he held her face in his hands and rubbed her cheek with his thumbs: “you feel like the earth after the first rains had soaked and softened it.” She remembered those words whenever she made love to him, whenever she massaged the fire between her legs to satisfy herself after she had finished pleasing him. When the men in the community dug his grave and put him in the ground, the heavens opened its mouth and poured in torrents. And after the rains had soaked into the earth and toes dug deep prints in the soil, she pressed her face on the mound that was his grave and tried to feel the softness, to remember his tenderness. But the earth was too soggy and stank of mold and chlorophyll, churning her stomach. Kisa’s floor was soft, and she imagined that this was what Aniekwe felt when he touched her, when he pressed his body against hers in pleasure, when he clung to her like a raft in orgasm. Her eyes burned with tears; her back felt pressed down with a weight too heavy for her body to lift. “They took him away from me,” she told Kisa. “Then they took my remaining eye. They took everything and left me naked.” The sobs came in gusts, shaking her body, rumbling in the cramped space of the ancient shrine. She told the deity of the madness that had eaten into her mind, and the sense of peace she was sure would return to her chest if he would be merciful and permit her to take him to her village; if he would avenge her son for her.
She heard the crunch of footsteps from nearby and quickly stood, untied the second wrapper she had wound around her waist, snatched Kisa—whose carved face snarled at her, his eyes lined with black ink, the irises smeared a brazen white. His canines were as long and thick as her forefinger. She wrapped the cloth around him and crawled out of the shrine. Outside, now standing in her full towering height, she lifted him on her head, the cloth shielding him from curious gazes. Then she began the long walk back home to Abagana.
Nwoye’s third wife, Somnazu, was spreading a bushel of peeled cassava on a raffia mat when Beluso walked into their compound, lowered the strange thing she was carrying, and unwrapped it. Somnazu had a secret admiration for Beluso. The other wives, like some of the women in the village, had always talked about Beluso with derision and Somnazu never understood the dislike until she spent her first week in Nwoye’s house. He talked about her all the time, complained about her outfit, said she was too loud. But his eyes lit up whenever Beluso stopped by to greet them, and he smiled with his full teeth when she teased him. Somnazu did not understand his hatred, and so she set out to learn the woman’s ways, to see what it was about her that got him riled that easily. She struck up a friendship with Beluso, often stopping by to drop food at her doorstep, to ask for soup ingredients, to borrow her three-legged pot. “She had this unbridled air about her,” Somnazu told her sister later, “and talked as though she did not care what anyone thought of her words or the scandal they could stir.” When Somnazu gave birth to her first son, Dibiamaka, and suffered depressive episodes and Nwoye wanted to resume having sex with her again, she told Beluso that she did not feel like sleeping with her husband yet, or sleeping with him ever again. “Then, don’t,” Beluso told her, and Somnazu flinched. “But you know I can’t tell him no. It is a taboo,” she told the woman and Beluso thought that mentality was ridiculous and said her husband Aniekwe would never dare to demand sex when she didn’t feel like it. “The woman has guts,” Somnazu told her sister. “She encouraged me to touch myself, to put my fingers between my legs and find ways to please myself. She even told me to fuck myself with a finger of a plantain, to relearn my body after childbirth, so that I would—what did she even call it? Reset my mind?—before sleeping with Nwoye again. That woman is unbelievable.” And her sister said, “That’s probably why your husband is so obsessed with her. She is not ordinary.”
And it was this remove from ordinariness that Somnazu saw that day, when Beluso walked into their compound, unwrapped her akwete, and dumped Kisa at Nwoye’s front door. Somnazu’s screams pulled everyone out from their huts. Everyone was at home when the sacrilege happened. The first wife, Nwudo, and her two daughters Adaobi and Obiajulu, came out first. Then the second wife, Onyekwulu, and her sons. Onyekwulu did not recognize Kisa at first. She had never heard of the deity until that day. In those days, people worshipped as many alusi as they wanted, mud and raffia altars dotting each family’s front yard like fat thumbs. And this did not include the altars each village erected for the deities they collectively chose to honor, or the small shrines some villagers kept for themselves in the privacy of their rooms for their personal chi na eke, when they felt they needed extra protection. Onyekwulu had her shrine, had never heard of Kisa or his power; she was from Neni, and had never fully acculturated into the community she married into, until Kisa showed up at their front door, until Somnazu screamed.
Nwoye came out last. He was wearing his flowing white gown, a gift from a trader at Onicha, who said it was similar to the one worn only by the Obi of Onicha. He wore it every day because it made him feel important, unlike his peers who mostly wore short wrappers around their waists. He felt dignified in the flowing dress. But today, when he came outside and found Beluso and the deity, he withered, plopped on the low chair by his door, his face going white.
The neighbors soon gathered. They had varying memories of the incident, depending on who you talked to. If you asked the women, they would tell you that when Nwoye came outside and found Kisa and Beluso, he let out a screeching cry and collapsed in shock; that Beluso stripped her clothes, removed all of her jewelry, stood towering and naked, and chanted curses on Nwoye’s front yard, calling on Kisa to decimate his lineage. The men would tell you that Beluso looked at the sun as she chanted curses, that the sky clouded over in the middle of a hot afternoon and the winds billowed, whipping up spirals that circled Kisa, sweeping leaves and debris into the air. They said she cursed Nwoye down to his hundredth generation, that she would hunt him from this life to the next, that no one born in his lineage would escape her rage. Finally, after she had finished laying the curses, she turned around and bared her arsehole and vagina at Nwoye and his family. It was the worst of all curses.
The Chief Priest, Meludu, and the diviners arrived that evening, humming battle songs, their teeth clenching onto omu stalks. And trailing behind them were curious villagers, who were too nosy to worry about their safety. Everyone wanted to get a clear picture of the drama that was about to happen. The men wondered if the Chief Priest would order Beluso’s execution. The women crept into the neighboring compounds to get a clear view of the cleansing ritual; so many people clustered in tight spaces, the ogilisi fences heaving from the pressure of sweaty bodies.
Meludu sat on the floor and sang chants of forgiveness to Kisa, his diviners circling him and the deity in a frenetic dance. Meludu offered the deity some food and wine. He begged the deity to temper the situation with mercy, especially on them, the diviners, who had come to bring him home. He told the deity the story of the old, how he had kept them safe, protected them from their enemies, blessed them, and in turn, they served him with unquestionable loyalty. The ritual carried late into the evening, the diviners still humming, the stalks still clamped in their mouths, until Meludu announced that Kisa had agreed to be taken home. Then the men lifted him and danced out.
Meludu barred Beluso from leaving her hut or communicating with anyone. He declared her compound a polluted site and barred it with a row of omu stalks. Kisa had yet to declare the appropriate punishment of what to do with her, and the Chief Priest waited for the judgment. This was not a matter for mere mortals; as children, the villagers were taught the various rules they must never breach, lest they pollute the land and offend ani—like walking over the legs of osu, or ritual slaves; murdering a clansperson; suicide by hanging; disrupting a holy or solemn day; killing a python; and many other rules they must never break. The villagers also had their rules. Some men avoided certain foods because they believed that they were their ancestors come back to life. Some women avoided certain herbs because their chi na eke had said so. Every deity had its list of prohibitions, but no one had ever kidnapped a deity, and so they did not know how to handle such a desecration. However, afube bu alu; what the eyes had never seen or the mind never comprehended, and all forms of abnormalities and unnatural activities, were considered taboos. What Beluso had done was a taboo, and since the mighty Kisa, who did not need humans to fight his battles, hadn’t previously stated the consequences of kidnapping him, Meludu decided to wait until he had heard back from the deity, so they would finally know how to deal with Beluso.
Beluso did not see the outrage outside her compound and she did not care to. The villagers crept around, footsteps rustling in the backyard. She saw the long shadows streaking in from her window, perhaps to catch a glimpse, to confirm if Kisa had struck her dead yet. She lay on her bed, wearing the makeup from that morning. The otanjele had streaked her cheeks black; she had lined her eyes too heavily and they had bled black when she wept before Kisa. She was still not hungry; her belly had forgotten the importance of food and her mouth no longer remembered the taste of her delicious soups. She had been stripped of the glue holding her together and her world had fallen apart.
Meludu and his diviners came the following morning to a chaotic neighborhood, dragging a young calf. The neighbors did not sleep well. Everyone was curious to know Kisa’s verdict. “They are going to kill her today,” the men whispered.
“They are going to kill her and throw her body into the bad bush!” the women leaned into each other’s ears so that the winds would not carry their gossip far.
Nwoye had refused to eat or drink, his face now shrunken to a gaunt mien. He did not go outside to sit on his low stool as he usually did every morning, and his peers did not come over to share kola with him, to drink from his keg of palm wine. He remained inside his hut until he heard Meludu and the young calf. He came outside, bristling with new energy, happy to see that the Chief Priest had come to cleanse his compound.
But Meludu walked past Nwoye’s compound and headed straight for Beluso’s. She was coming out from the raffia-gated toilet when she saw them, and stood tall, her back straight. She did not flinch when Meludu asked her to kneel in the middle of her compound. She did as she was told, watching Meludu levelly, bearing her crime in the most dignified fashion, which surprised the Chief Priest because he had expected her to show some sort of remorse.
Beluso knew she would do it again, in this life and the next, for her son and her husband. She would steal Kisa over and over. She would lay curses on Nwoye even in the land of the dead. She was ready to accept whatever punishment the deity decided to mete out on her now, in the land of the living.
Meludu did not ask why she did it. In truth, he did not know the actual questions to ask. All of last night he had consulted the deity. He offered sacrifices. He prayed, waited for a response, but received nothing. It was strange, this silence from the deity whose bloodthirstiness was legendary in the region. No matter, she was stained, for she had committed an alu and polluted the land and he must drag the alu out of the community, a precautionary measure they must take while they waited for Kisa’s judgment, so that ani would bless their crops and the women would continue to bear healthy children.
In the two hours he spent performing the purification rites—pouring libation, chanting prayers, his face turned to the direction of the sun—Beluso still did not show any sign of remorse. And this weighed him down; the burden of this sacrilege, the unkindly suspense it dragged in with it. He paused to look at Beluso; a contrite spirit and the proper rites were necessary to rid the land of the consequences of an abomination. But Beluso was not contrite.
Meludu spoke to the calf in a sputter of fevered prayer, and declared the young animal the “sin-bearer, the one who had fallen.” He continued to pray, his voice tightened with sorrow. “Beluso has committed an abomination. You will carry her sin and we will rid the land of your presence.” He split a kolanut into two and threw it on the ground. Then he tied a rope to the calf’s leg, said, “I am removing the pollution from the land,” before he tugged the rope hard and the calf tumbled, bleating. He dragged the wailing animal out of Beluso’s yard, chanting the prayer, his diviners following behind him. “I am removing the pollution from the land,” he prayed. “I am removing the pollution from the land.”
Outside, the villagers had already gathered, waiting. They all understood this part of communal cleansing. They knew why they must participate in it. Meludu dragged the calf into Nwoye’s compound and out, into the neighbors’ and out, chanting that he was removing the pollution from each person’s home. The calf kept bleating, its cries carrying with the winds.
The villagers chanted in chorus: “Alu! Alu!”
The parade moved from one street to the next, from clans to the market, and the village square, even past the playing ground where children brawled each other or kicked away at a limp ball, everyone following behind the now-injured calf, with its broken skin and split face, its tongue lolling from a slackened jaw, blood trailing the path and bumpy routes until Meludu reached the mouth of the bad bush, and the parade stopped.
He entered and dumped the calf in a nest of dead leaves and branches, and walked out, the cleansing rite now complete. And then he returned to the shrine to wait for Kisa’s voice, for the deity to finally decide what they must do with Beluso.
He continued to wait, even after Beluso shook off her grief and returned to her farmland, after the sun came out in full, spitting fire; when yam tendrils began to wither and cassava shoots began to rot; when onugbu leaves dried to crisps and ora turned an unhealthy yellow, dying even before the leaves had matured; when Nwoye suffered a first stroke, and an ant hill appeared in his ban and bored holes into his precious crop; when the land succumbed to the pressure of a raging drought, and men passed out in exhaustion after a few hours in the sun. The worst season the villagers had ever witnessed. Meludu waited and waited.
He waited for a long time.
About the Authors:
Nonso Okoye writes poems, essays and short stories.
Ada Nonyelum is working on a book about Buchi Emecheta.