The Ariran's Last Life
Maria Eliza Hamilton Abegunde
When the first big boats arrived, I had not yet married. Along with all the girls in my age group, I was learning what I would need to know to go to market, court a mate, and, for me, initiation. For months I had been told to be patient as my parents worked hard selling herbs and woven cloth every four days to traders. Every morning after prayers, they both instructed me in things I should know about the history of our village and our family lineage. Sometimes, they would let me help in the weaving of cloth that would be used in the ceremony. I liked, especially, the white with gold threads at the hem. My mother was a master weaver and sewer, and every lappa, bouba, shokoto, and gele had a small fish on the inside hem to let it be known it was she. There were three of us to enter the egbe right before the festivals started. We were excited, but frightened and curious. We had heard only of what was done but couldn't believe it.
In the village, the wind blew warm air through the tops of our homes. We lived in a compound surrounded by outer walls, which had two doors. Between the walls and our homes was six feet of space where warriors were always on guard. A family lived together in one area with several connecting rooms. If a man had more than one wife, then each wife had her own room and kitchen for herself and her children, but there were common areas where everyone ate and talked during the day. You saw everyone once you stepped outside. It was better that way. When one of us needed something, we asked the person nearest. Not like I see the world has developed where you have to travel miles to reach another family member, or where you suffer in silence because you do not trust the person next door. In the compound, I knew who my aunts and uncles were, which ones would chide me or let me get away with something. We didn't always agree with one another, but we did not go to bed angry.
When the wind blew, the dirt in the compound covered everything. When it rained, we moved our pots to the back room and sat inside to talk. The chickens and goats found shelter where they could. There was not ever the silence of loneliness or fear as there is now.
The girls in my age group all worked together. We were really young obirin then, some of us being taller than our parents. Some of us had already filled out in our bodies, and we had started ase. I seemed to be taller and bigger than everyone and my mother began speaking to me of marriage, but I was not interested. We learned many new things every day. How to cook, sew, make our own containers, and how to care for ourselves. How to weave and bargain a good price for what we sold and bought. We learned how to bead so we could make our own belts and necklaces or do our hair. So many centuries have gone by that I do not remember all. I only remember wanting to learn because I saw what joy it brought my family.
The day the first big boat arrived, I was sitting on a ledge above the water. I had finished my morning duty of straining herbs to be used in medicine. When they were ready, my mother would show me the next step of forming the compound. If I was lucky, she'd let me watch her work and assist as I had on other occasions. I had swept out the front room where my mother, father, and I gathered at night with my aunts and uncles. I had rolled our mats and placed them in a corner of the main room. My father had no other wives, so my tasks were simple but many.
I wanted to be away from everyone. We were between the coast and nearest inland village. It took me half a morning to walk there, and half the afternoon to walk back. I did not always come so far, but that day I had longed for the water. My parents did not like me going to the sea, and whenever I mentioned the water they looked at each other and said nothing. In fact, they seemed to increase the speed of whatever they were doing at that moment.
That day, the first boat came in slowly, just enough so I could see it meant to stop here. The sails were white with red crosses. There were three. From where I sat, they could not see me. After a while, men climbed down ropes thrown over the side. They rowed to shore in the smaller boats. I ran home thinking I had seen ghosts leaving some type of coffin. My feet were hurting from the long sprint and I was out of breath when I reached the front of my house.
"Ago, Baba!" I called to my father.
"Wole!" He answered, and I ran inside quickly.
"Hear what I have seen, Baba." I was talking too fast to get out all the words I was thinking.
"Slow down, Abi," my father said and came to rub my back. He was smaller than my mother but strong. He often made me laugh when he pretended to be unable to carry anything and would begin piling things in my mother's hands or on her head while he bent over and held his back as if in pain. His hands were twice the size of mine and I enjoyed the warmth on my back as he continued to calm me. The inside of his hands were almost the same cocoa color as the outside. "Seen what, Little One?" He smiled when he called me this, like it was our private joke.
"Big boats, Baba. Boats with red marks and oyimbos climbing-"
He had called my mother before I could finish. She ran to meet him from the back bedroom and they both left heading toward the Babalawo's house. I ran after them, dodging women's pots and children's sprawling bodies. They waited outside.
"Ago, ile, Baba."
"Wole." They entered and I followed.
"It is time, Baba. We have a few days," my father said after saluting and embracing the Babalawo. My mother sat quietly. They looked at me without looking at me directly.
"Has everything been done?"
"Beni, Baba," my mother responded softly.
The Babalawo stood up and looked at me very sadly. "Now would be good."
At once, both my mother and father grabbed my hands and pulled me farther into the Babalawo's house. They covered my head in a dark cloth so I could see nothing. They sat me on the ground and told me to wait and to keep my eyes closed. Had these people been other than my parents I would have cried out for help. But, I remembered they always joked me about "being prepared" at any time.
But, I was scared. The boats. The Babalawo. What about the other girls? I heard feet move around me. One pair shuffled. Another set walked hard around me. Then someone came and put down a mat, and asked me to sit on it. The cloth over my head was dark but I could see a little out the edge. I opened my eyes and looked down. There were more people now. I heard them greeting one another and then sitting down.
Suddenly, I was picked up and moved to another room. My head was uncovered but I was told once again not to open my eyes. My lappa was torn from the bottom up. My head was shaved quickly and closely. What happened next knocked the breath out of me but someone kept telling me to breathe. I was then moved to another room and redressed. The cloth against my skin was soft, but unhemmed. It was not something my mother would have made or given me to wear.
I remember standing for a long time, not knowing if I was being watched or whether I was alone. I was afraid to open my eyes in case someone was there. I tried to focus on where I was standing.
"Why are you here?" It was the voice of the Babalawo.
I did not know. Someone leaned over my shoulder. My mother's voice whispered in my ear. All night, I was tested on things I had been learning. The hardest things to remember were the sacred stories. When I stumbled, someone helped me. I recognized the voice of my father, other priests from the compound, and my aunts and uncles. There were voices I did not recognize, but they were kind and encouraging.
Finally, after what seemed like hours of standing, I was moved again to another room. On the way there, I smelled chicken roasting. I had not eaten since before seeing the boats. Someone guided me toward the floor and I was told to open my eyes.
"So you will remember who you are and never forget us, even in the face of iku, even as egun." The Babalawo leaned over me and finished the last part of the ritual. I was then brought out to my elders, who did not applaud. They stood quietly around me; some were crying. Others did not look at me.
One of the women I did not know led me to the back room. "Sleep the best you can," she said, pointing to my body. "It may be difficult, but the marks will heal in time."
I settled on the mat, careful how I placed myself. There was silence. Everyone seemed to have disappeared more suddenly than they had arrived. I turned to face the wall, still afraid and wondering if the other girls would join me soon.
I am standing on the beach by myself. The moon is high and the reflection casts a long path from the water straight to me. I move to dance in the light, not caring if anyone sees me.
Then, I am not sure how I have gotten here. I am in a small boat being held down by men who are speaking things I do not understand. My eyes are covered tightly with cloth. I cannot breathe. The edge of the cloth presses down hard on my nose.
They are tying my feet, and with all my kicking, I cannot stop them from tying my feet with rope and then sitting on top of me. We are moving slowly on the water. Some of it comes through the bottom of the boat and I am certain I am going to drown because the more they sit on me, the more the boat sinks. I begin screaming because they have not covered my mouth. I cannot stop screaming.
"Abi, Abi," my mother and father yelled. "Get up. You are dreaming."
I did not move from the mat. My body felt heavy and I began to struggle again. My mother stepped back from holding me. "You were only dreaming," she said and walked away.
"Baba, there were men tying my feet and carrying me away."
"Don't worry, Abi, everything will be OK." He walked to my mother, held her hand, and then gently squeezed it.
I shook my head and tried to get up, but my body hurt very badly. My mother rushed to help me up.
I do not remember all that happened the rest of that day. I ate well. My mother fixed all my favorite foods and let me sleep during the day. I did not have to complete chores. But no one came to visit. For a period of time after initiation, you were kept quiet. I had been told this gave the young initiate plenty of time to think about what had happened and how your life was now different or would be different. From the beginning when I was called, I had made up my mind that I would do as asked, and began learning from my parents immediately. I realized early that there was a lesson in everything, and never wasted a moment playing when I could accompany my mother to market or a patient, or sit at my father's feet as he recounted the pataki or remembered things he had seen as a boy.
At the end of the day, the Babalawo came to the door. "Ago!" He shouted this in a rather harsh way as if demanding entry instead of asking permission out of respect.
"Wole, Baba." My father's response was slow and tired.
I approached the entrance of the room. The Babalawo stepped in, and then behind him, two oyimbos. "Baba," I whispered, "what are these oyimbos doing here?"
Instead of answering, my father gently pushed me away and walked to the oyimbos and began talking. I turned to run to the back of the house, but my mother put out her hand and stopped me. It was then I looked down at my feet and remembered the dream. I did not move. I turned to face my father and the Babalawo. I had no idea they could speak the language of the oyimbo. My father turned and put his hand out for me to come toward him. I looked up at my mother, who gestured with her chin that I should go.
It was only now that I became more frightened than the night before and more frightened than I had been in the dream. There was an odd silence in the compound. It was midday and yet there was no noise outside as if everyone had vanished. There was no wind, yet dust was everywhere as if the strangers themselves churned the air. As I looked at the window, another oyimbo appeared but this time with a gun.
"Iya! Do not let them take me!" I fell on the ground and began pulling her lappa. I knew what was to happen. I had heard stories of villages disappearing or families losing a member to strangers who took them away. Sometimes there was an attack. Or worse, yet, sometimes the chief or family sold a prisoner or someone who was too much trouble, or because the village was starving. Usually, the ones sold or disappeared were not family, but someone who had been bought or captured from another village during war. We always seemed to have enough to eat. We were not at war. We did not live inland.
Had I been too much trouble? I began screaming and running around the room, trying to find an exit, but there was someone at every doorway. "Baba, please, do not let them take me. The dream, Baba! They will take me away!" I fell at my father's feet and held on.
"Forgive us, Little One." My father reached down to pick me up. Our faces were together and I could see where he had lost the back teeth on the right side of his mouth. His breath smelled like the mint root he chewed every day after eating. "But you are the one who must go. You will be the only one who will live to tell the story. It is the only way to save what will be left."From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Best African American Fiction 2010 by Gerald Early, series editor; Nikki Giovanni, guest editor. Copyright © 2009 by Gerald Early. Excerpted by permission of One World/Ballantine, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.