Jumoke looked back at her sister struggling behind her, a basket of yam balanced on her head and Jumoke’s basket under her arm. If she has the strength to entertain suitors, then she should have the strength to carry my basket, she thought as she continued down the path, swinging her arms.
She dreaded having to help her mother sell the yams. It being a Sunday, she had looked forward to spending the rest of the day lazing around or defending her title as the best in the game of Ayo in her neighbourhood. The market, usually closed on Aiku, was open due to a recent fruitful harvest, and the people flocked to sell their produce.
Walking down the trail wet with fresh mud from the previous day’s rain and brimming with insects of questionable origin, Jumoke wished she had worn her sister’s new sandals. The mud soaked into the soles of her shoes and her toenails. It wasn’t as if her sister would mind anyway; she had more than enough sandals to spare —gifts from her suitors; the third man this month had loitered around their house under the heavy rain, sandals in hand, and only fled when their father came at him, waving a machete over his head.
Titi was indeed beautiful, enough for her presence to make people comment on her smooth, dark skin and full body, but they flung a pitying glance at Jumoke’s pimpled face. Jumoke would grit her teeth and wish they would fall headfirst into cow dung. Then she would pinch Titi to make sure the praise did not go to her head. She made it a duty to remind her sister of her place.
A rustling in the trees caught her attention and she glanced upwards, hoping to catch a glimpse of the bird behind the noise, and saw an Egret. Her mother had said that the great Egret was a sign of good fortune, so Jumoke felt lucky. As a child she would chant with the other children at the bird. ‘Mr. Leke Leke give me one finger’ they would sing, and a symbol of blessings would materialise as white speckles on their fingernails.
Her eyes followed the flight of the white bird and when she returned her gaze downwards, she was faced with the largest pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. She gasped and stepped back, confused because she had not heard the boy approach. She eyed him carefully: his head was too large for his lanky body, and every single feature on his face seemed to bulge as though jostling for space.
“What do you want?” she asked, irritated that her shock had almost sent her tumbling into the mud.
“I am looking for Titilola,” he said without the greeting expected from children, even though she was clearly the older one.
“Why?” She folded her arms. She thought the boy is far too young to be another suitor, but then again, he could be a foolish child with grand dreams.
“The prince of Orí-nikán has chosen her.”
“Everyone says her beauty is indisputable and it is for this reason that the prince has decided to marry her,” he said.
Jumoke felt her blood slowly come to a boil as the thought of her sister becoming nobility settled within her. Poisoning the mind of all the young men in town wasn’t enough, the witch now goes after royalty? As her mind raced with all the implications of her sister becoming a princess, she deduced her sister would make her a slave in revenge for all the years Jumoke made her do all the chores. And she almost spat at the thought.
Jumoke wanted to tell the boy that the people had lied and that in truth, Titiola was the ugliest in the land, or even that she had died weeks before. But an easier solution came to mind.
“I am Titiola,” she said, checking to see that her sister was out of earshot. “Tell the prince I accept his proposal.”
The boy nodded, his body slanting to a bow, before he marched straight into the blend of shrubbery by the side of the trail.
“A strange child,” she remarked to herself before continuing her journey down the path, her lips parting in a smile. Mr. Leke, she thought, had brought her blessings after all.
The news of Titiola’s marriage proposal spread all over Ilesha, and the villagers prepared their finest Aşo-Oké for the wedding. Jumoke found that convincing Titi of her plan was not at all difficult as Titi seemed to be madly in love with a well-to-do travelling merchant she met at the town square.
“What is a merchant to a prince,” Jumoke scoffed as she explained the plan.
She urged Titiola to secretly marry her merchant and move to his town before the ceremony. Jumoke would keep her face covered with an Adirè cloth, and they would tell everyone that her beauty was now for her husband to see alone. She knew it would work; the men in the village seemed to like such meek symbolism.
She had felt a twinge of worry at the prospect of marrying a strange man from a village she had never heard of but, all those worries were blown away by the prince’s arrival on the day of the wedding. If Titiola was considered a beauty, then the prince would have been considered the god of beauty himself. Jumoke was sure she had never seen a face so attractive, and he walked with a confident gait that caused everyone to strain for a better view of him.
Prince Adetunji of Orí-nikán arrived with drummers and dancers, each draped with the most beautiful beads. The prince brought with him dowry gifts of cows, kolanuts, yams, and barrels of palm wine. The wedding pulled such a crowd that people stood on each other to get a better look of him and the ceremony.
Jumoke was happy that her wedding would be the talk of the town, and that her plan had gone well. The façade had even gone unnoticed by their father who had drunken himself to a stupor. He beamed with pride, satisfied by the display of wealth. Her mother had no qualms with the matter; both her daughters would be married and lead comfortable lives, so what mother wouldn’t be happy with this?
After the wedding, Jumoke and the prince journeyed back to his village. He insisted they travel at dusk, which perplexed Jumoke a bit as they were more susceptible to an attack from a band of thieves that plagued her village. But she said nothing. She did not want to upset him with questions, for fear that he would return her to her father. She saved her complaints for when they arrived at his village.
They had been on the road for about an hour when their carriage creaked to a stop. She peeped through the blinds to see that they were now on the outskirts of a large forest, with trees so high they seemed to grow from the sky. In all twenty years of living in Ilesha, she had never seen or heard of this forest. The sun was setting, and she wondered if the shadows it cast made the forest seem larger than usual.
“Why have we stopped?” she asked.
“This is the path to my village; we must continue the rest of our journey on foot now as the spirits of this forest dislike carriages,” he answered.
Jumoke nodded and stepped out of the carriage. She was not surprised by his response—after all, the people of her village were taught to respect land spirits and to honour their traditions. It was why Ilesha lived in harmony with the spirits and had fruitful harvests.
His entourage lit some lanterns and they continued their journey through the forest, the drummers and dancers lighting their way. She had never been to a forest at night and the silence unsettled her. She wondered if all forests were this quiet at night, with tall shadows closing them in. She strained for the familiar sounds of crickets or frogs, but all she heard was the rustling of leaves and the crunch of grass beneath her feet. They had walked for about thirty minutes when he stopped again.
“Why did we stop this time?” she asked, eager to leave the eery forest.
“The dancers and drummers need to return to their homes,” the prince answered.
“Are the dancers and drummers not a part of your village as well?”
“No, they live in this forest and give life to it. They are the spirits of the animals that live here.”
She whirled around, stunned, as the drummers and dancers shifted into creatures of different kinds: frogs, insects, deer, monkeys, and owls; the forest was suddenly bursting with sounds, the wind carrying their cries far into the night. The drummer that had been closest to the prince morphed into a cricket; it chirped a goodbye before hopping into a bush.
Adetunji picked up the lanterns and beads they left behind.
Jumoke stood frozen, like wood. She had heard many tales about people who tamed spirits and performed miracles but had never seen any at work. Her parents had warned her to avoid those that made contracts with spirits. She had even heard of a man who had turned into a yam tuber for angering a juju user. Now she was married to one.
She tried to speak calmly, to ask him questions without upsetting him, for fear that he would turn her into a root vegetable. “Do the people in your village use juju as well?”
“That wasn’t juju.” He chuckled. “The spirits of this land are our friends.”
“You have spirit friends?”
“Yes, all the people in my village are good friends with them.”
She turned, looked at the direction they had come, and considered running back home. She would sprint back to her father’s house. But then, what would she tell them? And wasn’t being friends with spirits more desirable than the enemies she was sure she would make when her people learned the truth of her deception? If she became their princess, then she should also be able to command spirits to do as she wanted. Affirmed by her conviction, she turned to the prince and offered him her best smile. “Alright, let’s go.” The possibility of having otherworldly connections gave her legs the strength to move forward.
“Yes, but I have to return some items first.”
A tall figure moved towards them. It appeared to be made of dried leaves, twigs, and shredded pieces of cloth held together by a raffia mat that swept the earth as it moved. It had no legs. It glided forward, as though lifted by a gust of air. Its face peeked out from the middle of the leaves, revealing a clay mask painted the colour of charcoal, white eyes, blood-red lips.
And Jumoke fled.
She dashed back towards her village but had only taken the first few steps before her body stiffened, her feet glued to the ground. She tugged them. She screamed for help. The soil rose from under her, rotated her in a half a circle, until she was facing the creature once again.
“Help! Please,” she began but was stunned to silence as the prince carefully detached his legs and handed them to the creature. The creature took the limbs and disappeared into the bush.
“Let us continue to Orí-nikán” said Adetunji, who was now a torso.
“Wait!” she said. “I’m the wrong girl, I’m not actually Titiola. Please let me go home!”
“It no longer matters. You are my wife now and must be with my people.”
Jumoke tugged at her legs once more and the soil released its grip but controlled her movement. It glided her forward. She fought against this force; she grabbed at trees and branches to slow her pace, but the soil was stronger. It carried her forward with so much ease.
The prince also moved with the soil; he levitated a few inches above the ground, in the same mysterious way as the masquerade that took his feet. They encountered other mysterious figures on their way, who Adetunji gave other parts of his body: Arms. Neck. Chest. Until only his head remained. The creature that took his neck was especially curious about Jumoke, its long limbs extending from beneath its raffia mat torso, its arms and legs covered with roving eyes. Some of the eyes looked at her for the entirety of the exchange and to her horror, it bargained with the prince on the price of her eyes.
“Sorry, she is new so I can’t sell parts yet,” Adetunji replied. “Maybe in 40 years? She should be dead by then and you can bid for her eyes at the auction.”
Jumoke wanted to inquire about this auction. She wanted to ask many things, until the creature asked if it could have her voice instead. She wanted to scream, but she was too overwhelmed with fear. Too numb to think straight. So she remained quiet for the rest of the journey.
By the time they arrived at the village, her hands and face were covered in scratches—injuries from the branches and the trees.
“What are you going to do with me?” she asked, finally finding her voice. But he said nothing.
His people came out to greet them: a village of floating heads, some of which rolled, bounced, and levitated, but none other than the prince could speak. They hummed and tipped their heads at each other—their way of communicating with each other.
They kept her in a dark hole in the middle of the village, the soil binding her feet to the ground. She wondered what Titi would have done if she were subjected to this fate, but she knew her sister would never have gone through with the marriage anyway; she was too idealistic, always chasing after vague things like love and compassion, never wealth or nobility.
Occasionally the attendants would hum from the top of the hole and send food and water tumbling down to her. Days passed before she heard voices from within the darkness.
“The girl he brought this time isn’t even as pretty as the last,” one voice said.
“I saw her as well,” a second voice remarked. “I wonder why he chose her.”
The voices drew closer, and it was then she saw them: two bullfrogs with tiny jars of fireflies around their necks. It was the first light Jumoke would see, and although they were tiny, she found herself staring at the jars for a full minute before she noticed the frogs.
“This is her, isn’t it disappointing?” the first one said. “You should have seen the previous girl. I heard she was an actual princess.”
“I see what you mean. It seems royalty is the best for these types of things after—”
“Please help me!” She interrupted their conversation.
“It still speaks!” they exclaimed.
“Please help me!” She repeated, her voice was hoarse and felt like a fire had started in her throat. Hearing their voices had rubbed fresh salt into her plight and she openly sobbed at the confused amphibians.
They watched her, unsure of how to proceed. And for a while, only her cries filled the cave, before one of the frogs stepped forward, adjusting his fireflies.
“Young lady,” it said, “I am not sure what you are asking us for.”
“Please, help. I want to leave.”
“Leave this village? Why? Did you not agree to marry the prince?”
“I did but—”
“This is why I hate humans,” the second frog interjected, “always acting like they are not responsible for their own actions.” It spat at her feet.
Jumoke saw the disdain, sensed that there was little possibility of getting it to help her, so she turned her attention to the first frog. “I’ll give anything you want.”
“What could I possibly want from a mere human.” It scoffed, visibly offended. “A little child like you would never in a million years be of use to me.”
“We are not the ones keeping you hostage, tell that to what is holding you.”
She knelt before them, bowed, her forehead touching the ground. She had never bowed to any living creature; it was well known that to do so was to cast one’s family’s name into the mud. But desperation had taken precedent over pride, and she pressed her forehead into the hard surface. “I already begged the heads,” she said. “I begged and begged but all they did was hum at me.”
She raised her head to look at the frogs again but saw that they were already hopping away, the light from the fireflies dimming. “Please!” she yelled, her cries chasing after the light.
“Ask the one who holds you,” the first one said before they disappeared into the dark.
She sat in the darkness. She gave one more tug at her feet which were still firmly rooted to the spot as though married to the ground. If there was anything that ‘held’ her it, indeed, was the ground, but she did not know how to speak its language. She placed her palms on the soil. If she was to die in this prison, she might as well consider speaking her language to it. “Ground spirit?” she said.
She was met with silence.
“Ground spirit please release me. I’ll give anything you want.”
The world around remained silent.
She continued with the pleas. She offered it everything she could think of—food, money, even herself as a servant, but the spirit still held onto her feet. She had gotten to her tenth offer, when the ground belched and hissed.
“That’s enough,” it said, and the cave trembled with the echo of its frustration. “You’re so annoying.”
“Ground spirit, please.”
“Of what use would I, the spirit of the earth itself, have for the things you offered? You must not be very smart.” Its voice rang with disappointment.
She hung her head in defeat. “I have nothing else to give.”
“You know what I want from you humans? For you to stop making such a ruckus at night. Can you do that?”
Jumoke bobbed her head enthusiastically. “Yes! I’ll do it I’ll make sure of it!”
“You are all so loud at night with your cleaning, and I just want to sleep in peace.”
“I promise to end it.”
“The scratch of the broom is the worse. Imagine being scratched all over when you want to sleep. Can you do that for me? Make all the noise stop?”
She doubted if this promise was even feasible, if the spirit had any trust in her. Still, it was a thread of hope and she grabbed onto it with her fingers. “Yes, I will make sure of it, please just let me go.”
The voice ceased and for a terrifying moment, she sat in the silence that followed, waiting for the ground to release its grip on her feet.
“If you fail me—”
“I won’t fail.”
“If you fail, I will return you to this same cave. Your descendants are also bound to this contract.”
The earth above her suddenly opened and the soil below her feet swelled into a mound, pushing her upward, and she soon found herself in the middle of Orí-nikán. She ran into the forest, dazed, and the ground was with her. She trusted that wherever her legs moved would deliver her to hometown.
She found herself in the town square. It was a market day, and heads of all shapes and sizes thundered behind her as she ran. The forest chanted eerily as she ran: ‘Ori ori o,Olajumoke n lo!’ Loud enough to drown her own thoughts, but even the fear they riled would not stop her from running.
She stepped into Ilesha and collapsed.
Farmers carried her home. News that their daughter had deceived the village and succumbed to madness summoned the town’s busybodies, who loitered outside her father’s compound. She was grateful for the audience. It was an opportunity to tell her story, for her people to make a pact with the ground spirit, before she set off on her ministry around the world.
About the Author:
Gbemisola Akinola-Alli lives a life split between her two greatest loves: literature and engineering. She is a writer of short stories and a software programmer. Her stories involve combining supernatural and spiritual elements with the world we exist in.
Feature image by PaulToma / Pixabay