The little boy’s screech tore into the early evening peace as he took off at a run, ignoring the jeers of his peers.
Unusually big for his age, his feet kicked up the dust of the path when he zig-zagged between the cluster of huts to reach the object of his desire. The village women, almost all of whom were related to him in one convoluted way or the other – this was his father’s ancestral iga, after all – just shook their heads and smiled their indulgence. Watching Abeke reunite with her son on the one day in a moon cycle when she returned late from the far-flung market was a regular amusing occurrence in the compound by now.
On four out of five days without fail, except on Jimo, Abibatu Abeke would be out of the village just as the lemamu and the few men who prayed the dawn prayer with him were finishing their supplications. The sounds of his recitation often served as accompanying music to her on the two or three trips it took to transport her wares for the day from her house, on the edge of the iga, to the closest spot of the motor road, on the edge of the village. Laden with large baskets of her precious kolanuts – sometimes aided by the workers on her plantation – she would walk the familiar distance in a silence and darkness pierced only by the voices of the worshipers from the mosalasi and the glow of the fires coming from the huts of women with very small children.
On the fifth days, Lusada days, she rested.
Then a few years before, about the time she was pregnant with this same little boy, Abibatu added a far-flung market – no one in the village was quite sure where it was – to her retinue. At first, she would be gone overnight, leaving early on one day as was her practice, and returning late the next day. These days, though, she somehow made the trip in one long day, arriving just before the sunset, and her son was always on hand to welcome her home.
Eyitoye – the one who survived – was Abibatu Abeke’s eleventh son. And unlike his brothers (or his previous self, as the village populace was convinced) he had lived. When he’d survived his third rains, despite a fierce battle with a raging iba that lasted almost ten days, his mother had been seized by a hopefulness that was as vigilant as it was potentially lethal. With her typical practicality, Abibatu Abeke had been equally as ruthless in reigning it in – she could not survive another dashing of her hopes. She refused to tow the line many women in her circumstances would have – of coddling and overprotectiveness as a mother – choosing to make her son’s eventual name a reminder to herself not to get too attached.
So far, it was working. Somewhat.
She allowed herself a moment of weakness, momentarily closing her eyes as she placed her right hand on the bowed head of the boy who had run up to her, prostrating his entire small frame before her.
‘Maami. E kaabo.’
He is such a good boy.
Muttering her customary, carefully nonchalant greeting, she watches him get up then settles her burdens on his head. It is light – just about half a dozen baskets of varying sizes piled inside each other – and as such easy for him to told on to save the occasional wobbling of his short arms. Abeke keeps her eye on the boy and his oversized load as mother and child begin the short trip to their home.
‘Did you eat?’ She asks him, rather unnecessarily. The women of the iga took great joy feeding the boy and he was – like most of the other village boys his age – munching on some fruit or snack obtained off the trees or heaths of the women. Feeding them was a rite even she was guilty of fostering.
‘Yes. Mama agba* made iyan koko*.’
Mama agba, so named for being the oldest woman in the compound, must be well into her seventh decade – not that she let that stop her. Spiry and cheerful, her hut – where she lived alone – was a favourite for the growing boys, no doubt due to the edible token that always seem to be awaiting them there.
Abeke greeted the women they passed along the way, exchanging pleasantries and tidbits of their days without anyone actually stopping or particularly slowing down their tasks. It had been a long, busy day and she wanted to find the comfort of her home as much as they needed to get their evening chore done. In addition, she had yet to start dinner, a task that should ideally be completed soon – before the sun retired totally, and twilight ushered the mosquitoes in.
At home, she helped Eyi put away the baskets in the cooking hut, noticing absently that his fingers were nearly touching the ear on the opposing side. They would have to visit the school master soon. Surely, he would not turn the boy away again. He had grown so much since the last rains.
As though aware of the direction of her thoughts, the boy leaned against the clay wall of the hut. ‘Maami, when will Egbon mi come home again?’
“Ileya,” was the distracted response he got. His mother had busied herself with dinner preparation.
Raufu was now in Eko* – too far away to make the trip home except for the annual festivals. He was training to become a teacher himself, a nearly grown man that bore only a faint resemblance to the toddler she bore on her back for most of that momentous journey. Abeke nursed the hope that he would come back to Jilete to settle down someday, but she also knew that was an unlikely reality to manifest. Like Lasisi’s little brother, education and the lure of bigger towns probably meant that he would only ever be an occasional visitor in this village of his rearing.
The unexpressed melancholy brought on by the thought of losing yet another child – this one to school and the opportunities of distant lands – stayed with her as she went about the rest of her chores for the day and shared a mean with her son.
Soon, it was dark out, silent except for the calls of the crickets and the croaks of the frogs. The rain that was never far away in this season promptly began to fall, a slow but steady drip-drip of reluctant downpour. Abeke was about giving up and going to sleep when she heard the door creak.
She listened to the footsteps as he checked the front room, where she customarily waited for him to pay her his nightly visits. It was where they would sit in the soft glow of the palm-oil lamp and share the details of their day, their plans for the next. Once she had barred him the physical mask of intimacy, after Eyitayo was born, their relationship had inexplicably grown into a kinship of souls. And in the years since, despite his rise in wealth and prestige in the village and the two other wives he had acquired, Lasisi came to her every night.
Not finding her, she heard his steps quicken as he hurried down the short corridor, halting momentarily to peek into the room where their son was no doubt senseless in his slumber. Finally, the steps brought him to the doorway of her room.
She watched him carefully as he lifted the mat that partitioned her room from the rest of the house. She saw when his growing concern morphed into quiet puzzlement and then dawn into a final realization.
No words were needed as he crossed the room in a few purposeful strides, efficiently dousing the flames of the lamp and reached for her, ready to stoke a much more elemental fire.
Mama agba – Lit elderly woman/mother
Iyan koko – pounded cocoyam
Eko – Lagos