Relief to most people in the village meant that the oyibo called Tim Forester would thank his God, pack his belongings and leave. That was all they asked of the white man. The villagers reasoned that, if he wanted to seek his kind in the forest, the spirit of his ancestor in the tomb was not excited enough to return the favour.
If the ancestor had been enthused, he would have restrained the gods from unleashing the pigs at him and Itse. Everyone expected him to know how foolish it was to pursue the project. What was it with these white people and adventure anyway!
Again the chances of Itse’s survival were far-fetched. The villages would have wanted to apply local wisdom, but this man had imbibed the oyibo man’s belief. He would not bow to their gods or allow the local medicine man to fish out the cowries and decide what the young man did wrong. If he did not do that, how could he divine the right herbs and concoction for his healing? And the oyibo man had to rely on him.
The oyibo man had to leave, concluded the villagers. He had to go back to his people so the villagers could return to their adobe peace with bamboos and banga soup. If they lost Itse, they could at least lick their own wounds.
Alero was the issue. She was the only person most of the elders believed could make the white man go. She spoke his language and was close to him. Dede, a wrinkly old man with a disruptive stutter, doubted Alero’s power with the white man’s language. He said his son, Efe, who was just ten, had as much mastery as the woman. The villagers dismissed his claim. He had a child in his hoary years, and he was always happy for the chance to show off, to remind everyone that he was not going to die in the solitude of a childless old age.
A week after the good news of the Oyibo man’s recovery broke, the elders led by Chief Tietie went to see Tim Forester. They had been bracing for that moment forever. The gods, they maintained, had done a good thing. These were the last days of agony. Tietie led the delegation because he was the only chief who spoke a smattering of English.
Chief Tietie was not the most modest person around the village. He was a short man who derided short people even when they were taller than he.
“Short man devil,” he called Boyo, one of the meekest people in Orogun. “He always smells the earth.” At another time, he described him as “a brief man.”
His smile often had the quality of a smirk, a satirical sneer emphasising his place above all mortals. His laughter was a mystery to many. People preferred to hear him rather than see him laugh. His big, bold eyes shrank. His face looked like a baby’s and his voice sounded like cymbals of joy.
That morning presented no evil portent. The wind held back its pangs for a mid-June weather and so the sun touched the village with good humour. Women headed to the farms, with implements in their hands and pails on their heads and a spring in their feet. Children frisked about in their wake. The men set out to hunt or fish. The Itsekiri language draped the air as mother called to daughter and father to son and neighbour to neighbour.
Those who woke up late were enveloped by an earlier ritual of cleaning the house, cooking breakfast and feeding the hens and goats whose familiar clucks and bleats battled with the Itsekiri language for the village ear. Jakpa’s household was notorious. He was the first to go to bed and the last to rise. As Tietie and his men passed by his house to meet the white visitor, languid wisps of smoke rose above the fragile palm fronds of his kitchen. No one knew what he was cooking, but everyone knew that, to him, every meal was a feast.
He belonged to the high order of the village. His home was a one-floor house like the others, but bigger than most. A big yam barn fat with the farm’s late yields propped-up his private paradise. He wore his prosperity on his feather that sat like a lone finger of cockiness on one side of his commodious hat.
In spite of the giddy activities of the morning, everyone glanced at the royal emissaries with hearts tender with prayers. They knew the story enough to understand that a negative outcome could extinguish the routine glories of their lives. Itse brought this to them. They would not blame their son. They had to accept what happened. Even the gods could not hold back the sun from yielding to the moon in its time. But they had the wisdom to heal the past by saving the future.
As they hunted for antelopes, planted cassava or harvested corn, their ears itched feverishly for only one thing, and Tietie knew that his pride was at stake because they expected him to succeed.
As they stepped on the stoop of Itse’s house where both the white man and comatose Itse lived, Chief Tietie knew that he did not know enough English to negotiate with this white man. Only the witch possessed that weapon and, for once in their lives, they needed the resources of the evil woman to extricate their souls from the monster to come.
Chief Tietie wore a colourful white damask cloth embroidered with a turkey preening its feathers. He wielded a new fly-whisk. He looked every inch a royal façade, smiling loftily and his eyes rolling with an exaggerated hauteur. Yet his gait was chastened as he opened the door and entered the front room where Tim Forester and Alero sat waiting for the visitors.
Alero stood first, bowed and descended to her knees in respect. It was the tradition. As a woman, she was not even supposed to sit where elders held court and deliberated on matters of exigency. Even her shadow was forbidden. It was ironic that she, a virtual outcast, was needed to rescue the village from an embarrassment. The irony did not impress the chiefs or Alero, who thought the band of elders were cowardly old men. They were frazzled by the harmless presence of a white man. If she could tell them the truth, they would yell at her. She was lucky; no one had accosted her since she returned from the lofty anti-climax of her escapade in the city. No one had poured local vials on her hair or thrust a surly knife through her back. In her quiet moments, she had sometimes wished it. If she was like her mother, she could have induced retribution by her acts of overt defiance, of open-lipped accusations of the chiefs draped in hypocrisy.