Oyo Empire, Western Africa. 1650
All members of the Supreme Council of the Oyo Mesi and Ogboni fraternity were present. They sat on polished wooden stools that lined the ancient walls of the throne room, and each held his face stiff and unyielding, filling the place with that air of impending doom.
Ayibi sat, relaxed in his throne, appearing unruffled by the grave gathering. His expression was a mask of indifference as he flicked his horse tail and looked each man dead in the eye. He knew what was at hand. In fact, he had known since the moment he rejected the advice of the Oyo Mesi. At the back of his mind, he had always assumed this was how he would go down.
Adewale stiffly rose to his feet and limped forward. His limp was gotten from a hunting injury but the man still managed to pull off an authoritative appearance with the awkward gait. He was the Bashorun, the head of the Oyo Mesi which also happened to be the body of kingmakers.
“Your highness, Oba Ayibi, Alaafin of the great Oyo kingdom.” Adewale stiffly bowed. The action appeared forced, as if the Bashorun couldn’t bear the simple show of respect.
From moment Ayibi came in contact with Adewale, he had developed an instant dislike for the man. The snake had the entire council wrapped around his crooked fingers. At this point, there was no need to try to placate the councils, he was sick to death of their ludicrous checks.
One could not sneeze without the Oyo Mesi raising their brow. Ayibi was certain he would have preferred the life of an ordinary farmer whose only care in the world was to mind his household and tend to the earth.
He had since discovered he was the head but Adewale was the neck- a very stiff cancerous neck. Everywhere the neck turned, the head had to follow; well, until a month ago when Ayibi actually defied the all powerful Bashorun.
“I would go straight to the point.” Adewale clasped his hand at his back and glowered at him. “We have consulted the gods and they have given their response.”
Ayibi still wore his mask of indifference; he would never give the Bashorun the satisfaction of seeing him squirm. He intended to go down unshaken; he would make his ancestors proud of his exit. Adewale turned to his right and signaled one of the members of the Ogboni council to come forward.
Ayibi was quite surprised when he saw Boyega step out with a small calabash in hand. At the sight of the object, his heart sank. The sadness he felt was not connected to the meaning behind the calabash, no, it had more to do with who bore the calabash.
Ayibi struggled to stop himself from laughing bitterly. The spiteful man knew Boyega was his closest friend and confidant; he was certain that was the very reason he chose him to present their “gift”. At the moment, Boyega was looking everywhere but at Ayibi. Coward.
“Present our gift to the Alaafin.” The Bashorun‘s small eyes shone with satisfaction as he waved with flourish.
Boyega stepped forward and handed the covered calabash to Ayibi with unsteady hands. It was only when the calabash rested on his palm that his friend looked him in the eye. Ayibi noticed his gaze were riddled with guilt, pity and a hint of regret.
Ayibi allowed a small smile and accepted the “gift”. Opening the calabash with a steady hand, he wasn’t surprised at its content. The little egg sitting at the base of the calabash sealed his fate.
“Alaafin Ayibi, the gods reject you, the people reject you, the earth rejects you. You have three nights before the Orun festival. Set your house in order and come with the Aremo,” the Bashorun said with cold finality. Turning sharply and swishing his attire aside, he limped out of the palace with the kingmakers and the members of the Ogboni at his tail.
The last to leave was Boyega, he paused at the door and turned to meet his gaze.
“You should have just conceded.” Then he shook his head despondently and walked out.
Ayibi stood at his window, staring at nothing in particular but refused to reply. His first wife was at his feet, he knew she was still clutching the small calabash and looking at him in disbelief. Wura was a woman of few words and deep wisdom but unfortunately, there was nothing her wisdom could do now.
“How did it come to this?” Her voice shook slightly. She was the only one among his five wives he allowed an audience.
“It’s too late to ask that. This is how the gods want it.”
His hands were clenched at his back. Three days to set his house in order? Three days to prepare the Aremo for his sealed fate? Ayibi chuffed. He was ready, even at the moment. If his strong character was so hated, why did the gods select him to be the Alaafin in the first place? He had tried. He had tried to resist the excesses of the Bashorun but his present predicament was an evidence of the impossibility of it all.
He turned and faced Wura. She was seated on a stool, calabash in hand and still staring at the little egg. There was no trace of tears on her face but her sorrow was evident in the way her shoulders drooped and how she slightly rocked from side to side.
“You are too young to die,” she said, voice hushed and solemn.
Ayibi laughed, and to his surprise it was genuine. “Daughter of a huntress, you never cease to amuse me. I have been the Alaafin for twenty years. I think now is a good time to join my ancestors.”
When she chuckled and looked at him, he saw the strain on her face. Her hands shook as she carefully dropped the calabash beside the stool. She stood in a single smooth movement and approached him. Placing a palm on his cheek, she gave him a wobbly smile as she took in the features of his face. It was clear she was trying hard not to cry.
Standing so close to her now, he noticed some strands of gray hair at her temples and a few age line around her eyes.
“Finally, you are growing old.” He smiled and touched her temple.
“At last you noticed.” Ayibi had never seen a smile as sad as the one his wife wore at the moment.
“Whatever the reason they served you the parrot’s egg, I want you to know that I support you. I know you care about the well-being of your people. You are a good man and a wise ruler. You are my pride.” At this point, a single tear escaped. She quickly shut her eyes, breathing deep.
Ayibi’s heart swelled at her words. He was used to adulation, subjects praising him because he was the Alaafin and nothing more. In his heart, he knew if he was an ordinary man with no title, Wura would still say those words. He patted her shoulder affectionately as he swept a thumb over her cheek, wiping her tears.
“I’m certain if I did not marry you soon enough, you would have become one of those huntresses that virtually live in the jungle,” Ayibi said, attempting to use humour to change the topic. Her words had really affected him.
She stepped out of his embrace and shook her head. Amusement made her eyes shine and crinkle at the corners. “I still wish I did that. At least, whoever I’d have married would not have four more wives or risk being served an egg of death.”
Ayibi laughed. By the gods, the woman knew how to lift his spirit.
“How many times do I have to tell you that that’s what is expected of a man in my position? You know I have no affection for the rest. Remember I married you when I wasn’t the Alaafin.”
She looked away. “Those words have never soothed my jealous heart. I’ll never get used to sharing you, but I don’t want you to die. I never thought I would see the day I’d be thankful for not giving you your first son. I would have died if I was faced with losing you and a son.”
Drawing a breath, Wura sunk to her knees. Clasping his feet, her voice was muffled as she spoke. “Alaafin Ayibi. Ekeji Orisa, may you find rest among your ancestors. May they welcome you with the wealth of Oranmiyan. May your name never die…” Her voice shook and trailed off as her tears hit his feet.
He bent and lifted her to her feet by the arms. Her beads clattered as she struggled to stand with his support.
“Don’t cry for me.”
She rose a shaky hand to her mouth in a weak attempt to stifle her sobs. He touched his forehead to hers as she tried in vain to stop weeping.
“I have accepted my fate since the very point I defied the Oyo Mesi. I want you to accept it too. You are a strong Woman, Wura… “
It was as if his words made her weep even more. Her shoulders shook with the force of her tears.
“I-I am not strong… I’m not strong for this.”
“Yes, you are.” Ayibi countered fiercely.
Ayibi’s heart broke as she looked away and wiped her tears. He knew she was strong enough. His selfish heart was somewhat relieved that the situation was not the other way round. He could not imagine the torture his soul would go through if she was to die before him.
Three days later…
Leaning on the doorway to her hut, Wura watched the drummers beat the rhythm of death on battered drums. She clutched her white ase oke wrapper and she gritted her teeth, forcing herself not to cry, wrestling down her tears with all her might. The other wives and a number of women were seated on the floor at the middle of the compound. Some rolled in the dust as they wailed their sorrow.
She watched it all as though she was outside her body. She felt sorrow for Bunmi, the second wife. Her son was the Aremo, the first son of the king, he would have to commit suicide along with Ayibi.
Wura sucked in a breath as the Bashorun and the members of the councils entered the palace compound. Her anger rose and raged like a storm as she stared at them. She wanted Sango, the god of thunder, to strike the conniving snake dead, to end Adewale’s cruel existence. She wanted to march up to him and slit his throat, to end the life of the monster that was responsible for taking away her joy. But she could not; she could do nothing to stop the nightmare unravelling before her.
Almost as if Ayibi sensed their presence, he stepped out of the palace in his full royal regalia. Wura didn’t trust herself not to hurl her body at her husband so she hugged the door post tighter, fingers digging into the mud wall. As if he could sense her inner turmoil, he turned in her direction. His beaded crown concealed his face but Wura knew he was looking at her.
An agony of the harshest kind attacked her chest as she was faced with the reality of his impending death. Without giving a thought to reason, she ran forward, fell to her knees and grabbed his feet, holding on as if her touch would make it all okay. Two Ilari officials rushed to her side and began to pull her away with strong hands. She refused to let go, she was hoping they would strike her dead. Surely, that would be better than experiencing the pain that was ripping her heart to shreds.
At the feel of a gentle hand on her head, Wura looked up. Blinking away her tears, she tried hard to concentrate on his face and smile. From her angle, she could see Ayibi’s eyes, there was no fear in their depth only acceptance and calm resolve. Smiling sadly down at her, he nodded slowly as if to tell her to let go.
Wura let her hands drop to her side. She refused to lift her eyes as she listened to the drummers play on and on and on. They marched away, leaving heavy clouds of grief and sorrow in their wake. Still kneeling, she allowed her sobs wrench her soul, her cries rose deep within her belly as she cursed that day. Raising trembling fingers to her chest, she looked down, half expecting her palm to be covered with the blood of her broken heart. Her light was gone.
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Image used is not mine. Source: Pinterest.