We were aware that she was a certified witch with a fine degree from the prestigious Ezenwanyị Mmiri Coven where she enjoyed the full benefits of their alumni association. This wasn’t a fact she went about bearing on her lips—like the wine tapper’s son did about his education at Ekwensu’s shrine—for everybody to hear. It was obvious in her everyday life as her witchery simply spoke without words.
When our husband first brought her to our house, and she garnered all of his attention with so little effort, we knew even then. It was her beauty—a graceful softness, characteristic of members of her coven—with a little dose of love potion that drew our husband to her like a drone to its queen. On her first day in the house, we heard our husband tell his best friend that had he married her first, he wouldn’t have married any of the five of us. This didn’t endear her to us.
At first, we refused to associate with her, even so much as speak to her. We forbade our children from talking to her too. We told them she was a witch, that she used children’s bones to make the ornaments she wore, to keep their curious feet from dragging them to her. But before the end of her third day in our house, our children began catching her smiles and throwing back wider ones at her. They flocked to her room to catch more smiles from her lips, receive stories from her mouth, and sneak pats from her hands.
We decided that she had bewitched them, transmitted her witchcraft to them in food she sneaked them when our backs were turned. But if she had, she must have bewitched us too, because within days of her arrival, we piled at her door, hair extensions and money in hand waiting for our turns for her to braid our tufts.
In awed whispers, we decided that her hands were probably the most talented in her coven, definitely Ezenwanyị Mmiri given. She made the best styles in record time in the whole village. We believed that she had help from her sisters. So, whenever she plaited our hair, we looked in the mirror occasionally to see whether there were more than one pair of hands twisting our hair. When we saw nothing, we told ourselves that they hid whenever we were about to bring the mirrors to our faces. We won’t go back, we swore each time, but we’d always go back to sit between her thighs and shift our heads to accommodate her fast fingers. After, when we admired our hair in our mirrors, we consoled ourselves, telling each other that it wasn’t personal, that she had bewitched all of us.
Five years, and her body hadn’t ever once swelled with child, even though we saw our husband visit her room every night, we understood her rank in her coven was elevated. She had reached up her vagina, ripped her womb from its place and offered it on a platter to her coven for a feast.
As we observed her visiting prayer houses, bathing with water and salt, and hosting parties for children, we let her see the pity we felt for us. We concluded that nothing she did would help her conceive. She shouldn’t have bargained with her womb if she hadn’t been sure whether she wanted children or not.
But soon after we reached our conclusion, her stomach began rounding. We were in awe. Perhaps her coven hadn’t devoured her womb like we’d first suspected but preserved it in a bottle. When the child came, it was a boy. We pitied her more than before when she didn’t have a child. Of course, the child was a gift from her coven and had come as all gifts from the devil did, with a catch. A son, behind six others, our own sons; what use was he to her. A girl would have been better. Grown, she would marry and take her mother in her old age to live with her in her rich husband’s house.
She didn’t mind. She adored him, called him obi m, my heart, like our husband did her. Why would she not, her son was a delight. Happy and beautiful like the sight of the mountains in the morning after it had just rained. His beauty and cheerfulness would go as the months passed by, we deduced, and with its passing would come her son’s true nature. He would turn to what he really was, a being released through hell’s gates.
But unlike all things from the devil, her son didn’t change, he grew like the tendrils of a yam plant, remaining beautiful and sweet. She raised him singlehandedly, never asking for a thing, unlike us who stood in our husband’s bedroom asking and fighting for money we knew was not forthcoming.
She sent him to school even when we snickered that school was no place for a boy, especially a boy from her son’s background. We advised her to send him to Ogbete to learn to trade like all our sons were doing and, in a few years, when he was settled, he would begin sending money to her. She merely laughed and gave no reply. We worried about her sanity.
When her son finished secondary school, she bought him forms to various tertiary institutions. We wondered how she would sponsor him, pay his way, definitely not from her hairstyling business which she did out of her single room. We knew of no family member she could ask for money.
She could ask her coven for help but she hadn’t been on good terms with them in a long time now. It was obvious to us that her coven had withdrawn her certificate and the privileges it afforded her. We presumed they deserted her because she went against their wishes and had a child. They had taken away everything from her. Her look had withered to a sunken face and a scrawny body, and her fingers were ridden by arthritis. We whispered that she would soon become so destitute that begging us and our husband would no longer be beneath her.
But she never came to us to ask for a thing. Instead, she marketed all her hollandaise. In its place, she bought abada, the inferior types we called hausa-ne-ebu-n’isi, which we didn’t even permit our least attractive daughters to wear. She sold all her jewelry and chose to leave her ears and neck and wrists bare.
We whispered that she had gone mad, but we let her hide her money under our pillows so our husband wouldn’t steal it from under hers. When her son graduated, top of his medical class, we went to her room to clash cups of palm wine with her and talk well into the night. We danced with her because “our son” had arrived. We began calling her Nne Doctor and Mama Doc.
Money would soon come pouring in, we envied. We hinted to her that we hoped she dashed us a few things when her son started sending things. When, after five years and only a few peanuts trickled in, we wondered what kind of doctor he was. Had the coven she had betrayed made her son useless so that he couldn’t earn good money as a doctor. We were aware of the kind of money doctors raked in. When we confronted her, she boasted that her son was furthering his education to specialize in paediatrics. It was a big word we didn’t understand but it felt important coming from her mouth so we nodded. Now, he was working and paying his school fees, she told us, and sending her as much as he could. Soon, he would finish and begin sending her more money.
News that her son had secured a job at the University Teaching Hospital brought tears to her eyes, a wide smile to her lips and a lilt to her step. This meant more money, we mused. But she didn’t care for this. She was most proud of what her son had achieved. She told us that none of our grandchildren would have to go to the hospital again to get injections for malaria. We shook our heads and wondered what good that would do us and yet we told everyone who had ears that our son was a medical doctor.
On the day her son told her that he would be visiting and bringing her a small surprise, she planned a small feast to surprise him too. She asked that we help her make a meal of one of his favourite foods—abacha.
We crowded into the tiny outer shelter she used as a kitchen and we impeded rather than helped, as we moved our bodies to the discordant music of our lips. We infused our joy in our lyrics and cared very little that our song didn’t harmonize with the movements of our hips. She crowned our joy and that was all that mattered. She positively glowed, and for the first time in a long, long time, we glimpsed her beauty and were reminded again of one of the reasons we considered her a witch. We were glad.
Her son sauntered in, earlier than we had expected. We acknowledged that he came empty-handed. He didn’t even bother to buy one loaf of bread for her. Was this how he would give her money? Yet, when they hugged, we hailed her “Nne Doctor” and him “Nwa anyi”. He avoided smiling directly at us. We watched him, wondering why his eyes looked frightened, like a person who had seen something bigger than them. She did not seem to notice.
He took her aside and they spoke in whispers. Then she smiled, went to her barn, and returned with the only tuber of yam in it which she proceeded to roast. She told us he said he preferred roast yam—another favourite—to abacha. We nodded like agama lizards, wondered if we should finish preparing the abacha but we said nothing, and did nothing.
We watched her son invite her to dip yam in oil with him. When there were only two slabs of yam remaining on their plate, her son stood and went to look out the gates. He hurried back to her, gripped her arms and lifted her from her stool. He bid her goodbye, told her that he would be right back. Confused, she followed him as he hurried towards the backyard. Our eyes followed them.
We watched him scale the dwarf backyard fence and disappear. She turned to look at us, and we shrugged, telling her with our eyes that we were as confused as she was. Just then, our husband entered through the gates and we scattered, pretending to be hard at work. She smiled and went to him. His eyes were red, but not from drinking. We knew because we always smelt him from afar. Today, we caught not a whiff.
Our husband told her to pull herself together because a terrible thing had happened. He told her that her son was dead. He’d had an accident with his new motorcycle on his way back home.
We drew towards them to better assimilate the terrible news our husband had brought. She whirled to look at us but instead beheld a half dozen men carrying a body. Our husband went to the men to help them lay the body in the middle of our compound. It was the body of her son, our son. He was stretched out, his face to the sun as if he was sleeping. He bore no wound except for the grotesque one that ran from his hairline to under his eye.
We turned as one, to her, to shield her from the sight, and found her just staring. We moved to hold her and drag her to sit before she would break out in wails and hurl herself about. But she didn’t weep.
Stoic, she asked us whether we saw her son share a meal with her less than five minutes ago. We nodded and she replied “okay oo.” We decided her heart was strong, that she remained stoic because she knew her son would die. Perhaps, she was aware her coven would take him from her as punishment for her betrayal. Or perhaps she had known her son was an ogbanje and had vowed when he buried his iyi-iwa not to see his thirtieth birthday. We weren’t sure anymore.
On the eve of her son’s burial, our husband killed a fat cow. We watched him from the corner of our eyes as he instructed the butcher on the size to cut the meat. We deliberated on his extravagance. He never spent kobo on the boy’s head while he was alive. We added that “our husband had used him for money ritual” to our speculations. If anyone asked us how he died, we would wish to tell them to go and ask our husband. We took mental notes to warn our children not to take food or money from their father, especially tomorrow.
We warned her too, but she didn’t say a word. She had refused to say anything since the day after her son’s corpse was brought home. She had also refused to cry.
On the day of the burial, at the church during the requiem, she refused to cry. As she watched her son’s coffin being lowered into the belly of Ala, she refused to cry. We urged her to let the tears come, that it wasn’t healthy to hold it all inside, but she still refused to cry. When the last of the earth was dropped on her son’s grave, she shuffled to her room and locked the door.
We let her be but we assigned our helps to watch her closely to ensure that she didn’t hang herself on the great Oji tree or jump into Mmiri Oti like members of her coven were wont to do when misfortune befell them.
A week after his funeral, a young girl showed up in the middle of dreary day claiming that she was six weeks gone with her son’s child. Had he been alive, we would have questioned the paternity of the child, and then scolded him for being unable to control the thing between his legs, and the young girl for opening her legs.
But her son was dead so we welcomed the young girl with tears in our eyes and smiles on our lips. The news dragged her out of the pit she had being wallowing in. A new light came into her eyes. She told our husband and our family took wine to the young girl’s people and paid her bride price. She came to live in our home, with her in her single room.
The day the child came, the sun had barely risen when its scream pierced the early morning quietude and woke us from our slumber. We summoned our grandchildren whose parents had sent to us for the holidays and asked what gender the child was. They told us it was a boy. We rejoiced.
She had agreed with the young girl’s family that if the child came out a baby girl, she would send them both—mother and child—back to them. She even went to a dibịa to collect a charm which the young girl wore around her waist to ensure the baby turned out to be a boy.
We gathered our weary bones like we did our worn wrappers and left the warmth of our rooms to go and welcome the new life. But when the child swaddled in a new wrapper and settled on the crook of her arm was presented to us, our joy at the new baby dimmed. Her son was truly an ogbanje and he had repeated. We refused to hold him when she offered him to us. We stood and returned to our rooms without words.
As he grew older in our home, old enough for us to notice him no matter how much we tried to avoid him, we refused to look at him. But our eyes always betrayed us and strayed to his face, to stare at the scar that ran from his forehead to just under his left eye. Each time, we wondered why her son had decided to punish her so by repeating in her grandson. Couldn’t he let her be and find another victim. Silently, we damned him, almost did it out loud. But when we saw the joy that beheld her face whenever she held her grandson, we bit our tongue. And shared her smile.
About the Author:
Marycynthia Chinwe Okafor is Igbo. She has work published in African Writers Magazine, SprinNG and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @_MCOkafor.
*Featured image by Jean-Pierre Bourdet from Pixabay