Dead Again

by Inegbenoise O. Osagie

Everything was happening again, same births, same deaths, same events, like a rhythm playing for the second time, like walking through a path again. Mama Dayo died last week, and her son would die this week. The worst part was nothing could be done to stop it. If I told papa Dayo not to spend all of his money burying his wife because he would need some for his son’s funeral, he would probably spit on me and load upon me all kinds of curses, and when his son eventually died, his entire family would run to our house and shout out my name, drag me to the village square and beat me like a witch. They would ask questions like how did I know his son would die if I had no hand in it.

Knowing what would happen before it did was nothing but torture—a torture that made me cry before everyone did or made me laugh before everyone else.

“Adesewa,” my mother called from the kitchen. “Have you forgotten you put soup on the fire? If you burn my soup, I will break you into pieces.”

I rose from the bamboo bed and hurried to the backyard. The egusi soup was already filling the air with its aroma, sending its steam far up.

“Have I not warned you never to leave food on the fire and be in the room,” Mama said, as though the kitchen was any different from the room, except the slim wall demarcation.

“Mama, I was not far away.”

She kneaded the pounded yam in the mortar, multiplying the blobs of sweat hung at her forehead, ready to drop into the pounded yam. Papa and I must have tasted more of Mama’s sweat than any other liquid. She scooped some pounded yam into a bowl and wobbled to the pot of soup, her buttocks rolling in her wrapper and pleading to drop off her waist. She scooped out some soup and rummaged for the biggest meat.

“Go to the farm and give this to your father.” She covered the bowl and handed it to me. Its ceramic covering burned my palms.

There was no sight of Papa in the farm, no thuds of him hoeing ridges or uprooting the elephant grasses. He could be in his hut, observing his afternoon rest or his private time with the gods, as he called it. In that small hut, did the gods reveal to him the crops to plant for the next season? They had better warn him of the next season’s aridity that wouldn’t favour the planting of yams. If I told him myself, he would hoot and say things like, what does a young one know about farming. On my way to his hut, I strode over the mounds and ridges, raising my wrapper to prevent its hem from touching the soil.

“Your father left with Elder Babarinsa. He should be back soon,” Abiola’s voice came from behind, a thick bass that didn’t match his slim form. “I saw you while on my plot. I wish I had someone who comes to the farm to serve me hot soup and fufu.” He glanced at the bowl on my hand and an impulse to stretch it to him breezed through me. If he so much wished someone brought him food, I could be that one. But I didn’t stretch the bowl to him. Hard to admit, it seemed rather pleasing to hear Abiola wish for something. The world had so favoured him to be absolute. The only young boy that ate with the elders. Abiola had washed his hands well, Papa would say, and anyone who washed his hands well dined with the elders.

I stood still to let him catch up with me and resumed walking on his closeness. “I should go keep the bowl in the hut.”

He began swirling his digger around him, the same thing he did anytime he saw me in the farm, as if to tell me he was the only farmer in Ijebu village who knew how to swirl a digger, or a hoe, or any farm tool he happened to possess. “How is your mother? I saw her on the last market day. Did she tell you I asked after you?”

Of course she did, with that smile hid between her lips that said I had better chain him before another maiden did.

“Has it been long since my father left with Elder Babarinsa?”

“Yes. About when the sun first came out. Elder Babarinsa stopped by on his way to hunt.”

He quit swirling his digger and hung it on his shoulder. “Your father should be back soon. He hasn’t finished his day’s work. Why are you walking so fast?”

I halted and looked at my legs. There was no way I could be walking fast; my wrapper wouldn’t allow. It didn’t even allow for a full stride over a ridge. I had to climb the ridges to pass over them. “I need to get to the hut and keep my father’s food to prevent it from getting cold.”

“Cold?” He canted his head at me. ”The more time it spends outside the hut, the less cold it becomes. Bless the gods for the sun.”

“The sun itches my skin. I need the shade of the hut.” I waited for his next set of words that would totally counter mine. The way he always found those words, like something prepared in store for the conversation. When no words came, I couldn’t help but look at him, the fluster in his eyes, the face of someone not being able to find those needed words.

“The sun is too much.” I increased my strides as my wrapper could allow. He followed my pace until we got to the hut. He dusted the raffia chair before sitting as though any more dirt could be added to his shorts. He should have instead dusted the dirt off his shorts before sitting. It was the chair who needed saving.

“A farmer learns to become friends with the sun,” he said, after a long quiet, with the pride of every successful farmer. Their final weapon when other methods of attack failed. “Forgive me for forgetting a maiden needs to maintain the tone of her skin.”

He was very good at that, at seeking forgiveness for everything or nothing at all. I wished I could tell him he wasn’t forgiven unless he helped me tell the entire farmers not to plant yams for the next season because the skies would close up. The farmers would listen to him.

Sweat began seeping out from his singlet strap down to his arms, bringing out that stench of thick sweat mixed with sands. The same stench Papa gave out anytime he was busy with the soil and the same stench Mama released when fanning the fire. Too common was the stench to keep me a distance from him.

“Will you plant yams for the next season?” I shifted nearer to him.

“My seed yams are already in a corner of my barn, waiting to be sowed.”

If anyone would believe my predictions, it was Abiola; he must have learned never to doubt me. The mad goat disease I predicted got to his three goats. The wrestling match I told him to warn his brother against led to his brother’s fall. If only he had listened to me. Now he should be wise enough to believe me.

“Any yam planted for the next season won’t grow. There will be no rain to hit them.” There were better ways to have said that. I should have attributed the prediction to the gods; they spoke to me in a dream or in a deep trance. Except that Papa had always warned not to lie with the name of the gods, lest, one fell into their wrath. The last village priest was found dead in the square and everyone said the gods killed him for lying with their name.

“Where did you hear this from?”Abiola asked, with that voice that came from the thickest folds of his throat.

“The gods told me.” I didn’t know how that came out, but I wasn’t taking it back. Papa could be wrong. Maybe the gods didn’t punish those who lied with their name. Or maybe it was actually they who told me, since it was they who made me walk the same path again. It was they who made me an Abiku. “The gods told me, just the way they told me about the mad goat disease.”

Abiola was looking at me, eyes dug into their sockets. “But every farmer plans to sow yams for the next season, even your father.”

“My father wouldn’t believe me. No one would believe I hear from the gods. I need you to tell my father and the other farmers or else the village could experience drought.”

“And who would I say told me this?”

“Your inward sense. You’re a famous farmer. They’d trust you.”

Abiola pressed his hands together and sighed. “I should return to my farm. I was on something before I saw you coming.” He hung his digger on his shoulder and rose.

After a long wait for Papa, I rose to join Abiola in his plot. He was swinging a machete against a cassava stem, chopping off the hardwood. He threw a machete to me and asked I help him cut off those in the next ridge while I waited. I untied and retied my wrapper and chopped the cassava stems to stumps.

That evening, when Papa and Mama were eating under the coconut tree front of the house, they laughed a lot, and from the room I could hear Papa saying a boy was still a boy even though he had the long hands to eat with the elders. Abiola had told him about it, and he, Papa, didn’t believe. I knew Abiola would believe me, only I never guessed it would be so fast. Poor Abiola, he would have no backup. He wouldn’t be brave enough to lie with the name of the gods, and wouldn’t be stupid enough to attribute the prediction to me. How could one who didn’t even own a farm know if yams would grow the next season or not?

The last rains met me and Papa in the farm. We were picking the ripe okra and discarding the soft and bruised ones when it began and we ran inside the hut. The rains, they swept off the leaves and tendrils without pity, leaving only the stems standing. It was a survival of fittest between stems and leaves, tendrils and stakes, and the hut’s thatched roof and its walls.

Papa and I squeezed ourselves in a corner of the hut, under the remainder of the roof, our legs dug in the stream of muddy water. We watched the downpour wane into droplets, dripping on the leaves and rolling to the grounds. With every drip to the ground, they bided farewell, telling me it was the last I would ever see in this life, the last droplets trickling down banana leaves.

There was a smile in Papa’s lips even with half of the thatched roof gone, the kind of smile that thanked the gods for blessing a planting season. To every farmer, the rain must be a clear sign from the gods that the coming season would be blessed with water. Little did they know the gods only poured down in one day the entire rains meant for the season.

We reached home by dusk, our entire neighbourhood suspended in silence, except the buzzing of the Esunsun flies invited by the rain. They roamed freely, perching on my hands and head, happy that the children were not out to catch them. Nights like this, children preferred listening to folk stories indoors to the catching of Esunsun flies. After serving Papa dinner, I went to the veranda and curled up in a corner, enveloped in my wrapper, waiting for Mama to come out and send me inside. When her footsteps approached, I rose to go inside, but remained standing on her appearance with two stools, her face the kind mothers carried when about to have that talk with their daughters. She placed the stools by the wall and sat on one. I sat on the other and folded my hands, waiting for her to begin, to suggest a suitor.

“The New Yam Festival is in five market days,” she said in that low cadence meant for only me. “His Majesty is expected to take his wife from the dancers.”

Every mother would want her daughter to be the Ayaba, the wife of the Oba. Mama had severally told me of her youth days, how everyone thought the late Oba would take her as his wife because of her shining beauty and the manner in which she danced at festivals, how the whole women envied her mother because everyone thought she would be the next Queen Mother. Mama said he did not take her as his wife, not because she wasn’t the most beautiful, but because the Oba was secretly involved with one of the maidens and already had his mind fixed on her. Anytime Mama told me that story, I wanted to ask her if she preferred the Oba to Papa, but I never did because of fear for her answer. None of her answers would be satisfying. A nod from her might lead to me despising her, and doubt might surface if she said otherwise.

“Am I to join the dancers?” I asked, as it was the only thing I could think to say.

“Adesewa, are you not tired of following your father to the farm every day? Are you not tired of sharing the little space in the kitchen with me? Every other youth in the village will dance at the festival. You only walk from the house to the farm and back to the house. Most of the village men don’t even know I have a daughter. If it means me dragging you to the floor that day, I will.” She placed a hand behind her ear. “You hear me? I will do it.”

“I will dance, Mama. I will dance.” I rose. “I am going inside. The night is cold.”

The inevitable always happened, whatever path it took. People said time for the Abiku was a round river that travelled on without stop. There were several junctions in that river, and though its waters might trail a different course, it always arrived at the ordained junction. I didn’t remember to have danced in the New Yam Festival in my former life, but I did remember to be in the Oba’s Palace, sitting at his side. That was the junction; the festival was only a course.

Every farmer planted yams for the next season, even Abiola. The gods had promised a blissful season was the song of the village. The song lasted for days until the grounds began cracking of dryness, and the soil began whitening, and streams began kissing their bottoms.

The day the farmers held a meeting in our courtyard, I served the kola nuts and palm wine. Serving Abiola, he whispered to see me after the meeting. Questions settled at the bottom of his eyes like the dregs in the palm wine.

“How did you know this drought would happen?” The first thing he said to me.

“Why didn’t you believe me? I thought you were wise enough.”

“You saw the last rains. It was impossible to accept that would be the last.”

“You should have. Several times, I have warned you of coming events. You act as though you would listen but you do not.”

“Forgive me. Forgive me for not believing you. Is it in truth you hear from the gods?”

Some persons believed the Abiku was a curse to the village, while few believed they were normal children who merely happened to pass through the world repeatedly. I wished I knew the group Abiola belonged to.

“I’m an Abiku,” I told him, and waited for his brow to cluster, or a loud laugh to be followed by a stern face that demanded the true explanation.

He said nothing. The vein of his neck kept pulsing as if his next words would burst from there. He glued his fist to his chin. “An Abiku does not grow into youth. It is said they die at twelve.”

“Maybe I am favoured with more years.”

“So when will you return to your world?” He looked away from me and fixed at the fowl cage that harboured cackling hens.

“I should go inside. My mother needs me.” I paused for my next words to sink deep into him. “Nobody knows I’m an Abiku. If word spreads out, you will follow me out of this world.” I walked away, leaving him to stare at his feet.

Mama threaded my hair in preparation for the festival and rubbed my skin every morning with cocoa oil and camwood. There was no more fanning of fire or fetching water under the sun. The only sun allowed to touch my skin was the early rays Mama said added to the glistening of the skin. Watching Mama fan the cooking fire all by herself made me realize how much she wanted her only child to be the Oba’s wife. Anytime she rubbed my skin with cocoa oil, she looked at me with pleading eyes that begged me to win the Oba’s heart. And those were the only times I thanked the gods for giving me his heart.

During the festival, I danced to the drumbeats and flutes the best I could, glancing at Mama for any sign of approval, and Mama kept glancing at the Oba. The spectators watched with ill faces, surely because the voice of the gods wasn’t in their favour, as seen in the divination rite: the divided pair of new yams the priest threw to the ground both fell facedown, an omen of the next season crops’ failure.

After the festival, Mama cuddled me and told me she had already seen it in her dreams, me sitting beside His Majesty. She continued rubbing my skin with cocoa oil as though sure the Oba would knock at our door.

He knocked. That night, I was in the room, before the lamp, matting the dry fronds I had picked from the palm tree beside Papa’s hut. Mama entered with hushed footsteps and curled a hand over my neck, whispered that His Majesty was about coming in. Before she finished whispering, a shadow loomed into the room. The Oba stepped in, backed by two guards whose shadows masked the entire room. Leaving the guards at the door, he advanced towards me and wrapped his shawl over my shoulders. He knotted it at my chest and kissed my temples. Then I smiled short and brief. He pressed his hands to my face. It was the first time I saw him without a crown, the youth in his face, and the soft of his hands, like one that knew no machete.

“May His Majesty live long.” It was Papa. He was at the door, bowed between the two guards. The Oba patted Papa’s back with his sceptre.

“May His Majesty live long,” I remembered to say and gave him my back. I felt his hand rest on it and his other at my chest, guiding me up.

Nine days from the night, we would be joined. Till then, I remained indoors, even refused to walk Papa to the farm.

I had many visitors. Very few did Mama allow to see me, and many of those few had to come with gifts like yam tubers or a pound of meat. Abiola visited with two tubers. He skipped the little pleasantries Mama tried to offer, perhaps, because of their stark fakery: her smile didn’t stretch across her lips like they used to; her flattering now came with stutters; she no more called him my in law, but my son, with a purposeful voice of a mother talking to a son. Before he could make it to his seat, Mama had begun dusting the chair adjacent to mine. She no more let him make his choice of seat.

He sat on Mama’s arranged chair and managed a smile at me, one I tried to return, but found it difficult because somehow, I had forgotten how to smile, only the practiced ones Mama had taught me, the Queen kind of smile, the one that never revealed the teeth.

“The news has travelled that you are His Majesty’s bride.” He unhung his goatskin bag from his shoulder and placed it on a stool. “You danced very well at the festival.”

“You, too, danced very well.” I tried remembering the few times my eyes hit him during the dance, the way he threw his legs, the manner in which he swirled thrice in the air like the village masquerades. Had he been aged enough, he would have been chosen as one of the men to be apparelled as masquerades on festivals.

Mama left us in the sitting room. The moment she walked past the door, Abiola drew nearer to me and shrunk his voice. “Last we met, I asked you for the day of your return to your world. You didn’t give me an answer.”

His lips remained still, but his words came out fluently. Soft but heavy words that trailed only to my ears. “Abiola, it’s my place to worry about when I am to leave this world.”

“Tell me. Something can be done. You know that as much as I do. I wish you could join me in the search of a way to block your exit. But now that you are the Oba’s bride, your feet are knotted. I have to help you alone.” He leaned closer to me. “You’re an Abiku. You’re blessed. Time for everyone is a circular river, and everyone swims through continuously, but only an Abiku is blessed with the gift of remembering events from the previous swim, only an Abiku can block his exit out of this world because he knows it.”

Even the priests never called the Abiku blessed, no one did. They were either cursed or normal children, not blessed. Their parents called them normal children, the villagers called them cursed. Hearing him call me blessed stirred up something that made it hard to look away from him. “It’s a curse. Knowing when you’d leave this world is a curse.”

“When is your day of return?” He looked straight at me.

I looked away. “My end is at the palace. I’ve seen my last rains. I’ve seen my last New Yam Festival.” I turned back to him, to his goatskin that lay on the stool. “My last place in this world is at the Oba’s side. I die at the king’s side.”

He slowly retreated towards the chair’s backrest like one carefully pulled by a rope and stilled himself before he could meet the backrest.

“Then why did you join the dance? Do you not know the Oba was in search for a wife? Do you not know he was most likely to grow an interest for one of the maiden dancers? Do you not hear our fathers when they say one who does not want to serve as the Oba’s guard should not parade himself in a wrestling bout?”

“I know. We don’t control our lives. What we want doesn’t always happen. No one could have prevented this dearth the village now experiences, because the gods had ordained it. They made you doubt my prediction. Nothing can be done to stop some things. Running away from my deathbed will only bring it closer to me. And accepting it may win me more years in latter lives. I am favoured with more years in this life because of my obedience in the past.”

“Don’t go to the palace. Follow me, I can arrange to take you out of the village. The stories say what you remember is what happens. You remember dying at His Majesty’s side, so there lies your deathbed. If you leave the village now, then you’ve escaped your death. Or if you decide to marry His Majesty, I can sneak my way into the palace and get you out under the knowledge of no one. You and the Oba can’t live together. We know where your deathbed is and we have to get rid of it.”

“I’m not going anywhere, and don’t ever again think of sneaking into the palace unless you no more cherish your head. Don’t wrestle with one whose back you can’t join to the ground.”

He rubbed his face with his palms and picked up his goatskin, called out to Mama that he was leaving, and headed to the door. Before he walked past the door, he turned to me. “How did you die?”

I shook my head, grateful to the gods for not putting that in my memory. When his footsteps faded, Mama entered the sitting room in a slow gait, her hands on her waist.

“Mama, Abiola is used to long visits,” I said before she could say anything. I rose and walked away.

The Palace was filled for the traditional rites. The crown of the queen was placed upon me, and everyone ate as though the village no more suffered dearth. The dearth in the land didn’t extend to the Oba’s palace. Yams filled the barns that the servants could afford to eat pounded yam. Mama had told me I would have my own big hut, but I didn’t. I stayed with the Oba in his, slept in the same room with him and ate on the same table with him.

There were servants for everything: one to cook the food, one to serve, and one to tidy the floor. One just stood and waited to be sent on an errand. They made the palace less empty, made me less lost in the vast space. But they never talked, either to me, to the Oba, or to one another, except when to tell me it was time to dine or to deliver a message from the Oba. Whenever the maids joined me in matting palm fronds, we did it in a quiet that even the birds obeyed. They did not coo or squeak.

Some nights, the Oba didn’t sleep in the same room with me. He slept in a separate room he called his emí ile. The gods spoke to him there, he told me, and he was not to make love while in there. Nights came when he requested for my presence. I slept at his side but never did we touch each other. The room was as small as the one in Papa’s house that I could smell the walls and roof, feel the direct wind streaming from outside.

At the Oba’s side, there in his emí ile, was where something harder than a rock cut through my chest. My chest tore open. The escape of blood drove off the remainder of my sleep and replaced it with a numbness that made it impossible for me to move an inch. The Oba screamed, pressed his hands to my chest but my blood seeped through his palms, and slowly, I walked out from my body.

Soon his emí ile was surrounded with the palace chiefs. The village medicine man entered and carried my body out. He looked at the Oba and shook his head. The queen had gone to be with the ancestors. The Oba closed his eyes and refused to come out.

Death was noisy as ever. The thoughts of everyone breezed past me I could reach to touch them, thoughts they dare not voice out, thoughts like His Majesty must have arranged my killing to silence our abomination of making love in the emí ile. Others carried a blank mind filled with fear, the fear of thinking the same thing everyone thought. Anyone who thought wrongly of the Oba invited upon himself the ire of the gods. Some others, like the Oba, thought of nothing but how to discover the shooter and bring his head to the scaffold. The village priest entered the emí ile and asked the Oba if anyone knew he shared the emí ile with the Ayaba and the Oba shook his head.

The priest blew at his palms and touched the Oba’s chest. Here, Your Majesty, was the proposed house of the pellet.

The news spread that the Ayaba had left the earth. Mama cried down to the palace and sprawled on the floor of its gate as no one, including Papa, was allowed to tread through. Papa’s eyes were soaked with unshed tears. At his side stood Abiola. He stared blankly at the palace gate.

Our people said: the soup does not move round in the elder’s belly. Maybe the gods wouldn’t have taken me this day if I had kept my mouth closed and never spoke of where my deathbed lay. Maybe if I had known I would be the first to die in the emí ile, everybody wouldn’t be saying in their mouths today that the Ayaba had left us. And maybe there would have been less noise if the people knew the gods killed me and would do it again.

Notes …

Inegbenoise Osagie is a chemical engineering student of University of Benin. His short fiction has appeared in Juked. He currently lives in Nigeria.

Inegbenoise Osagie writes, “[I do] not write fantasy. ‘Dead Again’ is not fantasy but truth. You just got to accept it; some people die and come again.”

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