By the time Emike found the oboh in the forest, the sun had already swollen four times its daytime size. It dotted the horizon like a great yellow eye, as it lingered at the end of its journey west. On the ground, a coppice had been cleared in the likeness of a brooding face, and there sat the oboh on a decaying tree stump where the nose should have been. Thick lines deftly etched into the earth defined the face’s lips, eyes, and chin, with a pair of budding shrubs for ears.
Emike approached the clearing on slippery heels. The trees in this part of the forest looked odd and stretched up to the skies. She had braved the ruggedness of the forest for roughly an hour: the roars of wild animals, shrubs whose branches whipped her legs with every step, the annoying stings of insects. Now she was here, before the oboh.
His eyes were firmly closed, his thin lips moving slowly as he uttered solemn maledictions against some oboh Ido, his name was, who had recently denounced the Orle. She sank on her knees to the rain-softened earth, right on the lining of the face-clearing’s lower, fuller lip. It was far enough from the oboh for comfort, but close enough to hear him properly, to gawk at his thin white hair, and to marvel at his skin glowing auburn in the broadening sunset.
The oboh parted his eyelids only slightly, watching her with curious intent. He clapped twice, and said, “Woman, what is it you seek?”
Emike had been told that he needed no introductions, that he commanded the action before the word took leave. Her neighbor had told her that the forest animals roared and barked when he wanted, and that every tree in the forest knew his name. But in addition to his disappointingly regular voice, all Emike found was a smallish old man with ribs ominously visible, wearing nothing but a threadbare brown fabric wrapped tightly around his waist. It was torn in multiple unflattering spots. Emike tore her eyes away and fixed them on the trunks of the menacing-looking trees that surrounded her. Then she remembered that he’d asked her a question.
“Baba! Great oboh! I come here from the sanctuary of my husband’s compound for a very serious matter. Baba, I fear for myself and my children, Emoye and Otse.” She cleared her throat, taking a pause for dramatic effect. “I seek your help in getting rid of my husband’s other wife, Oshone.” She closed her eyes and cupped her hands together.
The oboh greeted her complaints with sharp, patronizing laughter, but when Emike dared to look at him, there was hardly a shadow of a smile on his gaunt face. “Aren’t you the wife of Aloaye, that hunter who once caught three antelopes on a single hunt?”
She nodded. “Yes, Baba. Indeed, I am the first wife of my husband. My husband took a new wife shortly after the birth of our daughter, Otse. Oshone has given him two sons now, and with each day that passes her disrespect for me grows stronger. Baba, that woman is a witch. She hates that my husband still kept me. Do you know that when I gave birth to Emoye, who is now seven, Oshone suggested that I must have bought the baby?”
The sky darkened as she laid bare her grievances. A strong breeze rustled tree branches and blew sand in Emike’s face, bringing the rustic smells of healthy grass, damp soil, and rotting fruit. It was during a twilight like this she fell into sudden labour seven years ago. Four neighbours, including a midwife, surrounded her in her home as she lay spread-eagled on the rough straw mat, groaning and writhing. Aloaye had set out hunting immediately after her water broke; he said he didn’t need to hear the cries of yet another baby right before it died. But the women pulled Emoye out of Emike as easily as drawing out a bit of thread from a needle.
The redoubtable midwife, Mama Odion, had dangled the whimpering newborn upside down for a moment, drawing closer to the single oil lamp in the room, before she declared that it was a baby boy. While another neighbour collected the bloodied afterbirth into a large banana leaf and the other two women were helping Emike to go clean up, Oshone’s dubious voice alarmed them from the entrance. She was perched by the door, lighting up the room with the fire from the lantern she held up, forcing it ablaze with the more lethal flame of her malice. She wanted to know if the voice of the crying baby she heard was that of a boy or a girl, or yet another baby doomed for the grave. And when the women reproached her, she asked which of them had procured a boy for Emike.
Aloaye returned with a great doe later in the night. The next day, he slaughtered six goats, threw a feast, and announced to all neighbours that he had become a proud father of three strong boys. Emike reveled in her new status as the Mother of a Boy, mainly because it equipped her to rival her husband’s wife. Four pregnancies—one stillborn baby girl and three miscarriages—had come and gone before her precious Emoye was born. The village women told her to learn from Oshone, who knew how to position herself under her husband and could carry a child to term without losing it. Yet as Emike’s son grew strong and healthy, soundly defeating the other boys in throwing obodo across the yard, the same village women took to calling her Mama Emoye.
“Baba,” entreated Emike, sinking completely to the soft earth, “I want to make sure that no harm ever comes to my children or me by that witch. I know that she will harm me. Give me something that will destroy her!” She lowered her gaze to the oboh’s feet, to his chaffed, curling toenails.
The oboh caught a deep breath and said, “The antelope does not suddenly sprout wings and fly away when the hunter announces that he is hunting. What and what are you willing to do to get rid of your mate? This woman you say is a witch?”
Emike was convinced that she wasn’t blinded by hatred or envy when she maintained that Oshone was a witch. And it deeply distressed her that no one ever took her side even when she was clearly wronged. Her neighbours shook their heads in sympathy whenever she narrated the cause of her latest row with the witch. They said robor gban’eke, and rubbed the heels of their wrists against her shoulder bone while she spoke. Emike hated that expression, she hated how appeals to be patient, to not get angry, were conveyed by merely saying wrap your stomach with your hand. Her husband preferred to console her with the phrase robor gban’udu, as if wrapping her chest instead, would make her feel better. He never interfered in their strife, since it was expected of co-wives. Aloaye would instead entreat her to forgive and overlook as the senior wife, as the mother of the house. Oshone was supposed to be a younger sister to her, he would say from the corner of his mouth, and the family would be better for it if both women learnt to settle their differences.
But the differences were too grievous to be forgiven, and Emike could not overlook them even if she tried. She refrained as much as she could from being the aggressor, but refused to back down whenever Oshone struck. And the witch struck far too much.
Oshone never failed to demonstrate how deeply she despised Emike. She had been vicious with her treatment of Emike since she first stepped foot into the compound as Aloaye’s new bride. She hissed and taunted, declaring that a younger and more beautiful woman had come to take Emike’s place. And after Emike lost child after child after child, she pressed and badgered Aloaye, rather openly, to do away with her.
Sometimes, she managed to claim Aloaye’s time on nights that belonged to Emike. She would deliberately make his favorite night snack—roasted yam—so that when he was about to put out the oil lamp in Emike’s house and retire for the night, she came bearing a covered plate at the door, saying that she wondered if her husband would taste what she had made. He would let her in just to taste, while she put on an artifice of innocence and kindness. When in company of their husband, Oshone blushed like a new bride, spoke in the meekest of voices, and feigned shock when her loosely tied wrapper slipped away from her chest.
Oshone had once stolen Aloaye’s wooden catapult from the slab where it hung in Emike’s house out of jealousy that their husband still kept his hunting weapon with his wife who had only given him a daughter. The slingshot went missing for a whole week, and when the soups began to taste empty and sour because bits of bonga fish couldn’t augment meat, the witch immediately found it dangling among the branches of the large mango tree that stood in the center of the compound.
Oshone’s insolence shocked the entire neighborhood in the days after she’d delivered a second boy. The witch made loud, proud complaints about how caring for two little boys drained her. When her infant Aliakhwe grew his first teeth, she tired everyone with how he had bitten her breast while she nursed him in the night, not even a moment’s breath after she changed her wrappers from the urine-soiled mess that her toddler Oshoke had made.
Oshone made it a point of duty to pluck all the mangoes from the tree during the season, so that deep wicker baskets full of the ripe fruit were kept at a conspicuous corner of the compound for everyone to see, and more importantly, so that Emike would be at her mercy, forced to make do with whatever Oshone handed her for the children.
Oshone had even cheated Emike of her right to be a mother to Otse. When her thirteen-year-old daughter bled for the first time, a few days earlier, Emike had gone with Aloaye to pay a visit to one of his friends whose wife had just given birth to twin boys. Not knowing what to do, Otse approached Oshone and told her what was happening. The witch took Otse in, showed her how to wrap the cotton loincloth to prevent staining, and told her everything that Emike had dreamed of teaching her first daughter about puberty. When Emike returned and noticed the peculiar padding around her daughter’s waist, she knew exactly what had happened. She charged to Oshone’s house to inquire why it didn’t occur to her to defer to the girl’s mother. Oshone had smirked, shrugged her shoulders in nonchalance, and said nothing. Let this be said about the witch: she was daring. It particularly burned Emike because even if she wanted to return the gesture, Oshone had no daughters.
That rainy night, as Emike wept angry tears into her sleeves, her face burned with the humiliating realization that she let this little witch push her into a sob. She resolved to make that the last time she would suffer Oshone’s irreverence. The very next morning, she knocked on Mama Odion’s decaying bamboo door and inquired on where to find a reputable oboh.
Emike spat on the ground and drew a small circle around the spot with her forefinger. “Anything, Baba,” she replied. “I will do anything to remove Oshone from my life.”
The oboh inhaled again, closing his eyes so tight that the convolutions of his eyelids and brows appeared purulent. “The spirits make faces on wherever they will, at whomever they will, however they will. I ask you again, woman, are you sure you want this Oshone—”
She nodded impatiently, interrupting him. “Yes, Baba. Instruct me and I shall obey.”
His bodily expressions convinced Emike that he saw better with his eyes closed. He was looking straight at her, straight through her with closed eyes, when he said, “What if I tell you that you have to obtain fresh feces from your family’s latrine and stir it into your pot of groundnut soup? What if I tell you that’s the only way to achieve your desires?”
She shuddered in disgust. The thought of bringing such an abomination close to her face turned her stomach and raised bumps on her arms. Yet she pursed her drying lips and said, “Then, Baba, I shall slice in a lot of scent leaves, drink the soup and keep my chewing stick close.”
He made a barely audible sound from his throat. Emike couldn’t tell if it was one of admiration at her resolve or a condemnation of her desperation. His voice was deeper when he spoke again. “And what if I require you to prepare and drink a concoction, as the spirits of the River Orle are wont to demand, from a single feather of the ekpekpughu, seven eggs from the singing bird that nests its young up in the clouds, a white bat roasted and crushed to an airy smoothness, three strands of hair from the torso of the bushbaby, and a drop of your co-wife’s monthly blood? Would that be too daunting for you?”
Emike felt a rasping guffaw growing in her mouth at the mention of these ingredients, half of which would require an arm and a leg to obtain. But she knew that the oboh made no jests, so she straightened her face and remarked on the one she deemed most impossible. “It would be difficult, Baba, very difficult. But if that is all it takes, I will grow a pair of wings, fly to the nearest cloud, and retrieve as many eggs as required.”
“And if you have to lose a leg for your co-wife to disappear from your family?”
Slowly, slowly, Emike’s composure evaporated. The oboh was stretching her patience thin. Her exhale sounded like a rude sigh, so she said very slowly, “Baba, I will do anything. My brother-in-law in Jattu carves good walking sticks for a living.”
“You have a leopard’s heart, woman,” the oboh remarked, with a prolonged nod. “Now, listen to these instructions: go straight home from here. Do not look back. Do not stop for any reason whatsoever. Walk by taking two steps on one foot at a time the way the cats do. As soon as you can see the walls of your house, break into a run till you cross the threshold. Go straight to your bed and sleep. Do not talk to or respond to your co-wife, no matter the emergency. You will wake up tomorrow morning to find her dead. If you say as much as a word to her, your having come here would be in vain. Though the Orle has decreed that you shall not be afflicted with any tragedy, you will never be able to get rid of your co-wife. She will forever remain married to your husband. Do you understand me?”
“Good,” said the oboh. “The moth may be kin to the butterfly, but the moth does not receive the admiration given to the butterfly. The leopard is the real king of the jungle. Even the lion secretly acknowledges this after its every roar.”
With eyes still closed, he dismissed her with a nod and a singular wave of the hand. Emike rushed to her feet, her thighs numb from kneeling. “Thank you, Baba,” she said, aware now that he could see her perfectly.
The oboh resumed chanting curses against Ido. Emike dusted off the rough sand that stuck to her knees and rushed out of the clearing. It chilled her bones to see that not a line on the mouth etched into the ground had smudged.
The sky was a reluctant dark blue, bright enough for Emike to squint and navigate her way back the way she had come. The forest was alive with chirps and caws and the barks of animals. Wild insects hummed and zazzed around her ears. As she had already walked the path before, she knew where to tread carefully and where to leap. Her footfalls were light and soft.
No one, especially Aloaye, could know where she had gone. Her husband had forbidden either of his wives, and even the children, from visiting soothsayers and diviners. He insisted that they weren’t to be trusted, called them ‘mootsayers’, and said that their speeches were boundless graves of falsehoods with traces of fortuitous truths. Emike knew that he was still bitter because an envious oboh in his youth had spread rumours about him being impotent in order to dissuade families from marrying their daughters to him. Even though Aloaye had married two women who gave him big, strong, healthy sons, and a beautiful daughter, the mention of obohs around him could bring an unpleasant reaction.
But Emike knew better than to disobey the words of diviners. Growing up, her mother regaled her with thrilling stories about the consequences of defying obohs, and the fortune of those who had been blessed by them. Her childhood had been beset with stories and rumours brought right to her family house by her mother’s circle of gossipy women from varying phases of life, none of whom seemed to mind when she, then a child, perched by the room’s entrance.
She tried to walk as the oboh had instructed, right, right, then left, left. It felt uncomfortable, slowed her down tremendously, and affected her balance. And it brought to mind a common story her mother had told her as a young girl.
A man had been caught in bed with the village oboh’s wife. His boldness took the villagers by surprise. They hung their heads in apprehension, imagining what curse the oboh might inflict on the man. When five whole years passed and nothing happened, people praised the oboh for his forgiving spirit. Then one day the man woke up in the morning screaming for help. A swollen mass had taken root in his loin overnight. It was filled with so much stinky liquid that the man started to walk in a stagger. People pleaded with the oboh to let go of his revenge and cure the condition he’d inflicted on the man. But the oboh denied doing anything and insisted that he had no knowledge on how to handle the condition. All appeals to the oboh were ignored and the man with the stretched skin falling down to his ankles was left to live that way for the rest of his life. The villagers avoided him and called him the three-legged man after he died.
Emike nearly stopped to giggle at the imagery, especially as it occurred to her that she might be waddling the exact same way. But she continued, hoping to get home before her children began to worry. Aloaye might not notice her disappearance since it was Oshone’s night with him.
As Emike reached closer to home, squinting her eyes to register what tree or wall stood before her, she found herself imagining what calamity would befall Oshone. Would the witch fall from her ceiling-high bed and crack her head on the hard stone floor? Would the cooking fire for the evening meal suddenly flare up and burn her to a crisp? Or would she break a leg after a fall from the top branches of the mango tree she so loved to climb? Emike reveled in the possibilities and decided not to expend the slightest guilt on Oshone for what was to come. But she would not rejoice out loud or act in a way that could trace the death back to her. She would instead wear a forlorn look and console Oshone’s sons. She would feign grief and refuse to eat, she would wail the loudest, tear her clothes when the sympathisers paid condolence visits. And once the witch had been buried, she would loosely drape her wrapper and climb into her husband’s bed, as she was always meant to.
The compound glowed bright and busy amidst the darkness that enveloped the neighborhood. It sounded like there was a party going on. As she ran toward the fence, glad to be free of her ludicrous stagger, she could make out women’s shrill voices ululating piloli, men beating drums and singing victory songs, and the aroma of ugba rice steamed with dry fish and palm oil in the air. She ran till she had crossed the bamboo gates, then stopped to catch her breath before she could go further and find out what exactly was happening.
Oshone came rushing up to Emike, holding a lantern over her head. She was dressed in two floral wrappers and a colourful red blouse. Though her head was wrapped in a golden gele, Emike could see that the witch had newly made her hair. Her forehead shone from the tightness of obviously Mama Omo’s braiding.
“Ekelio’mhe,” Oshone called in a soft, unfamiliar tone, drawing closer to Emike. “Where have you been all evening?”
Sister? Who’s your sister, witch? Emike would’ve said if she hadn’t been thinking of Oshone and the oboh’s instructions with every breath she took on her way back. Instead, she bit her tongue, straightened her face, and kept on her way inside.
Oshone trudged forward, blocking her way. “Why don’t you speak? Do you know what Aloaye has done? He took a new wife this afternoon.”
Emike looked her husband’s younger wife in the eye, searching for a hint of yet another gimmick. Instead, Oshone’s eyes narrowed, framed by the air of urgency with which she spoke. Emike’s mind reeled, her eyebrows stitched together. Just one evening she was away and Aloaye had married a third wife?
“What is wrong with you?” Oshone said, bringing the lantern closer to Emike’s face. “Say something! I had to do your duty as the senior wife and welcome the new wife into the house. Mama Emoye, we have to join hands against this new young woman that our husband has married. Of all women in Afenmai land, he picked Itofa. That girl that is so rude to her elders!”
Emike knew about Itofa all too well. Itofa’s mother, the Madam, in her day, had been the most sought after adegbe in the whole village, and had been rather good friends with Emike’s mother, despite what people said. Emike’s mother told her stories of how all the women in the brothel protested being out of jobs when droves of philandering men, married and single alike, from far villages and near, would wrestle each other with impunity for who would spend the night with the Madam.
The Madam had left her profession when she became pregnant with Itofa. She couldn’t tell who the father of her child was. It might have been the palm oil merchant who frequented the brothel despite being married to six wives, or the fat oboh who always had kolanut in his mouth, or even one of the countless princes from Igala who prided themselves with being able to afford the Madam for whole weeks at a time. Whoever the father was, he and the Madam had passed on their best physical features to Itofa, and the girl was all too aware of her striking beauty; with each passing day, Itofa’s pride soared higher as if it would puncture the clouds.
Though Itofa was no adegbe compared to her mother, she had never refused a married man, saying that men with families were more experienced in caring for women than single men. She gloated in her coquetry, especially as it made her an open enemy to nearly every wife in the village, each of whom possessed less faith in her husband’s fidelity than the last. From various incidents of public scuffles and encounters with married women, it became common knowledge that Itofa had a sharp, butchering tongue, and that she wasn’t afraid to thrust it at anyone.
A lopsided grin crept to Emike’s lips as she watched Oshone express her great discomfort with their husband’s new bride, noticing how the witch had suddenly taken to calling her sister. Oshone droned on about how Itofa had insulted her several times at the market. She was now suggesting friendship and sisterhood because she felt threatened, as if calling Emike her sister would suddenly wipe away years of malice, arrogance, and sheer wickedness. Emike laughed softly and clutched her stomach as Oshone, on the verge of tears, asked her what she found funny, in a pitiful articulation through her nose, and whether she liked the awful choice that Aloaye had made.
When Emike cleared her throat to speak, she did not mind that she was flouting the oboh’s rules; she did not mind that she would never get rid of Oshone; she did not mind that she might now be seeing her husband once in three nights instead of two, and she certainly did not mind that Aloaye had most probably been seeing Itofa for a long time prior. Though it was not the kind of retribution she had intended, the prospect of Oshone getting harassed daily from a younger, more beautiful replacement, satisfied Emike much more than a quick death ever would. She trusted Itofa to deal with Oshone in ways that she couldn’t, assured with the knowledge that Itofa would be on her side, for the sake of the eccentric friendship that their mothers had once shared.
Oshone was now a sniffly, teary mess; she switched the smoky lantern from her right hand to her left so she could wipe her nose and eyes. Even in the dark, Emike made sure that her smirk was hard to miss. She grabbed Oshone’s free hand to pull her to the wedding feast and its din, saying, “I know Itofa and she’s a very kind and respectful girl. Let’s go inside, ekelio’mhe, and welcome our new mate.”
About the Author:
Fadilah Ali is a writer from Edo State, Nigeria. A Best of the Net nominee, her work has appeared in Alternate Route, Briefly Write Magazine and Overtly Lit. Find her on Twitter at @/bythealmondtree where she’s either tweeting old corny jokes or sharing her Strong Food Opinions.”
*Featured art by Walt Ward