Ife decided the next morning she needed to see Yeye. She had known of the silent vigil that Yeye had maintained at her bedside during that strange experience she went through. She wanted to know if there were ways to fight witches red and black. She wanted to ask about witchcraft, drinking poison to prove your innocence. Ife had kept her distance from Grandmother Olaoye and it still annoyed her father.
Yeye gave her a smile as she approached the house and brought out two traditional wooden stools. Ife sat on one of them and then forgot why she came because she also met a couple of very young girls adorning their bodies and ankles with the clear liquid of a fruit. She could not pronounce the name but knew that, by morning the girls’ bodies will be all types of designs darkened by the liquid of the fruit. They were practicing songs as the Aeregbe festival was due again. Ife remembered the first time she had known about it and how she had joked with Tinu then. She gave the girls a critical look and listened in amusement to Yeye giving the girls instructions.
“I think you might also give the girls some hints on herbal practice or cookery lesson after all they are in training to be wives right”? Ife joked.
“No, Ife, being a woman does not end at being a wife and or mother, I am teaching them how to be pure in their thoughts and ward evil that way.”
Ife replied instinctively, “People can’t be pure even in thoughts Yeye, they can be chaste and have good intentions, you know like running stream, you feed and are fed.”
Yeye was struck by that statement and gave Ife a smile,” That is kind of profound the way you said it Ife.”
Ife shrugged,”I said it without thinking you know but it feels right don’t you think?”
“You are right, purity belongs to Olodumare, there is no man that walks that does not have an unsteady head.”
“Now that is really interesting, I am going to look at heads from now on.”
They both laughed at that.
Ife regarded Yeye and looked at the girls, “You know you are right, it is not just being a virgin is it”?
“No, it is not just being physically a virgin, it is about being beautiful from within”
“Yes, but Tinu says girls who are not virgins cannot get up that festival hill, is it really true”?
“Well since it has always happened each time, I think the sense of shame and guilt of the girls has proved enough weight to make climbing the hill an impossible thing for them”.
“Plus the fear of the scolding, disgrace and not being able to get a husband”, Ife added.
“Every village maid is expected to attend Aeregbe before they marry.”
Ife grimaced, “you know I think it encourages indecency as all those boys come round and ogle the girls, is there a virgin dance for the boys”?
“Actually the boys have their own initiation rites to follow.”
Ife laughed, “I hope that includes doing a test of strength and they must know how to manage a house too or a farm”
“Definitely Ife”, Yeye said smiling as she arranged the girls and asked them to start with the songs she had taught them a few days ago. The girls were in various ages ranging from twelve to fourteen, with beads as the only item of clothing.
Ife slept late the next morning and was brought rudely awake by screams and running feet. She rushed out to see people running towards a house along the street. Puzzled she looked round for her mother but saw no one except Yeye Agba who stared out.
“Yeye Agba, what is going on”?
Yeye Agba shrugged, “the hunters caught a witch returning late and she is being taken to the palace. She did not have time to change her shape.”
Ife gaped, Great Lights, what shape was she?
Yeye Agba smiled thinly, obviously some cat shape. “The hunter almost killed her thinking she was a cat and she cried out so is stuck in a grotesque shape.”
Ife turned around to give her grandmother a puzzled look, “You have seen her?”
Not this one, but I have been called to help someone like that pass and I don’t like the experience, it is like walking through muck”
Ife stared and forgot her curiosity to go see for herself, she sat down beside her grandmother, tell me more Yeye Agba, “Is there really a witch”?
“Of course Ife, the power that Olodumare gives you is neutral and you decide what you do with it. You use your power anytime and anyhow but there is a god we call Esan”
“Yes, we say all ailments can be healed but not the one Esan inflicts because Olodumare gave him that power, but we also say before the earth avenges wickedness of evil, lots of good things may have been destroyed. That is why we do not support witches that kill. The white man is a witch but I think it is a good witch.”
“This is interesting Yeye Agba, so what will happen to this witch now, they will stone her”?
“Not necessarily Ife, sometimes the king could just render her harmless and she is helped to return to her normal shape, her coven won’t have her back and neither would her family so she will be allowed to live out her days in the palace”
Ife wrinkled her nose in disgust, “but she can still be harmful”?
“It depends on what the king wants, now that she has been taken to the palace”
Ife’s mother who was returning from her night vigil heard the last part and shook her head. She said the woman was not so lucky as she had started speaking, confessing to being a witch and of course her relatives could not get to her in time so she was dead by the time the king’s messenger got there, stoned to a pulp by the angry mob.
There was silence thereafter, Ife stunned and shaken by such summary dismissal of something that could not be authenticated.
Later in the evening she sat and listened to her grandmother Yeye Agba tell stories about the origin of Aeregbe in her village and why she is the chief priestess. Ife was beginning to understand quite a lot of things. She also listened to her mother as she counseled a young woman who was wondering how to manage her senior mate.
Ife was beginning to understand the complications from polygamy on the women. For instance; as she got older the easy friendliness that had existed between her and her half brother had steadily cooled, because her step mother regarded her with suspicion and jealousy. Ife who had been in the habit of coming for the holidays and wandering into her step mother’s room found the door now shut against her.
The first time it had happened she had been shocked and hurt. The lady had explained that they were personal things in the room. Ife had replied, “you are not implying I am stealing your things are you?”. The lady had shrugged but kept her door shut, then her mother had asked her not to readily accept food from the wives too because she was going to have her star (destiny) clouded. Mystified Ife had asked when she had been allocated a star, but her mother had clamped her lips together and insisted.
Her father had married another young girl just barely older than herself and Ife had sighed, “Papa is there going to be a time when you will stop marrying, there doesn’t seem to be much money around you know”
He laughed then and gave her a mischievous look, “I am not marrying them they are the ones who marry me”
Ife had laughed but she thought about it. So as she remembered now she asked Yeye Agba about it. Yeye Agba smiled and looked at her, “it is the lot of women to have mates Ife or else they will see you as jealous”
“Are we not supposed to be jealous Yeye Agba”
“It will serve no purpose my dear. A man is expected to show his progress in life by the increase of his wives. Only a poor man or a stupid man stays married to one woman”
“Jealousy is unnecessary pain Ife , pining over what was never yours. True love serves hand and foot unquestioning but with a clear gaze. You know we have a saying, the eye that will last you till your old age should not start showing pus early. A love that will serve you through to your age is earned with patience.”
Ife gave her grandmother a considering look and then grinned, “You know Yeye Agba I never asked you, have you ever fallen in love”?
“And you feel like fishing today right”?
Yeye Agba said with a faraway look in her eyes, “I have loved someone I have never met in the physical, but we have gone through things together. I have shared my fondest longings and be assured of his protection all the time. I have felt his longing and slept in the happy conviction that he came into the world same time as I did but we would experience together at great distances”.
Ife stared struck at such longing in Yeye Agba’s voice. Her voice was soft when she placed her hand on Yeye’s knees. “Did he have a name?”
Yeye Agba sighed and stood up, she gave Ife a keen look then smiled with resignation. “Love is expensive and rare Ife. The woman is never asked if she ever loved the male wretch she is allocated to, she works on his farm, lies on his mat and must bring him good fortune or else she gets a mate or several mates.”
Ife shook her head firmly, “I do not have the slightest intention to get married.”
Yeye Agba laughed, “you will do as you are told if you are the Numen we have been expecting.”
Ife stood still as she stared at her grandmother, I am the what?
Yeye kept a steady gaze on Ife as she spoke, “It is time your parents told you that they have been negotiating for you to be allowed to finish school because Numen demands that you must lead the virgin dance before further contamination becomes permanent.”
Ife felt like someone just took her breath and she stared at her grandmother wondering why the air was suddenly so thin and her heart was beating so hard, she looked round her wildly and her mouth was dry. Yeye Agba stared at her and there was gentle compassion in her eyes that Ife could feel from a great distance. She felt she was running through great distances and needed to hold still, there were bells in her head and she wanted to alight.
When she opened her mouth to speak, she felt she was speaking from great distances, “Yeye Agba what are you talking about? Who is Numen and why do you say this”?
Yeye Agba sighed, “I am going to tell you this, there is nothing to the story that you are emere. Your mother and father for that matter know who you really are, at least they know they were expecting someone special through the processes that took place before you came.One of the demands of Numen before you came was that you should lead the virgin dance and help the women. You were supposed to have done that when you entered into your puberty, it was to mark that, but you were in school and your father did not want you distracted so an appeal was made to let you finish school, your mother begged that you be allowed to finish secondary school and now Numen demands that you should perform that before you go to University. You father and for that matter your mother too, have been dithering and time is no longer on our side. I have no intention of courting Numen’s anger further. Meanwhile the witches are determined to stop you, hence your confrontation over Tinu’s son. Yeye came to me because she says you sense something and she does not want you angry with her later. The power is pulsing strongly more into you and it is time.”
There was silence as Ife’s heartbeat gradually slowed but she was still tense. She stared at her grandmother, Ife felt very strange and she felt goose bumps all over her skin. Her mother returned from church and immediately knew something was wrong. Ife turned steady eyes on her mother, “Mama why did you insist I was emere when you knew all along that I was not and you spent all these years making me frightened and worried. Mama Why?”
Her mother stared in total surprise and looked at Yeye Agba who stared back. Ife holding down tears simply walked away without saying a word.