Tales by moonlight are the archives from which our history is passed down through generations. One story after another, the old and frail gather their young and feed their minds with events that they too will pass on to their children when the cycle of life has greyed their hairs and hunched their backs.
The star of any of these tales could be Ìjàpá, the tortoise; or perhaps Ajá, the dog. Sometimes it’s a brave ọdẹ, hunting down straying spirits in the underworld; a greedy dragon quenching its own breathed fire by salivating on food it is yet to taste; or a wicked witch who holds the rains, causes a famine and then herself dies of starvation.
No matter whose it is, the telling of the story is usually fair. It is only when it is of Àjàlá that it is never told right. That is not surprising since nobody knows the whole truth. Yet, night after night as the sky is brightened by shiny sprinkles of stars and the glowing bow of the moon, each tells a different version that becomes even more different every time it is retold.
I am Ìyá Èwe of Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́, mother to you motherless children, right? So also was I mother to Àjàlá. Who should know him better then, when it was I who took his delivery into this world like I did the rest of you? Do any of these tale-tellers know why his real mother had to pay with her life to bring him forth, like the rest of your mothers?
What do they know about the agonizing seconds building up into hours, or the torturous screams that came with every push she made in that time? Do you think they might know something about this sacrifice that was destined to be of one life for another? Believe me, they know only what their eyes see and what their ears are told. Most times these things are never as they seem, so to me, they know nothing.
That is good for them because the truth can sometimes be a burden or a ghost that refuses to be confined to your nightmares alone. Lately, when I sleep, it shows itself as a huge rock tied to my neck, drowning fast in a black sea and pulling me down with it. When I’m awake I can’t see it, but my height bows to its weight, and at forty seasons old, it has already coloured most of my hair into grey.
I’m sick of feeling this way, so tonight as all seven of you huddle around this fire with me, I’m going to tell everything to you, so that you may tell your children the truth, and they can tell theirs too. I’ll tell it so that when I die, my spirit can travel light without it having to drag along this weary burden.
Àjàlá wasn’t exactly an interesting person even when he was at his liveliest. Why then should his sleep mean anything to anyone? I didn’t know for a long time that the restless spirit of his real mother had found a home in his dreams. I didn’t know that his sleep meant everything. To me then, he was not any different from any of you nine boys who lived in my barn; ordinary kids.
He soaked his mat with urine by most mornings when he was an infant. He chewed on his nails a lot when he got older, and then his fingers wouldn’t stay out of his nostrils. He wasn’t particularly handsome but something about him reminded me of a sweet side to his father. I was going to count the seasons till he was old enough, but one day when my demons needed to feed and my lover was away learning how to read the oracle, Ifá, I called him into my room and told him to strip down his sòkòtò. He was seven.
Don’t be too quick to judge me or get angry, else you might not hear the worst of this story. Tolerate me till I’ve vomited it all, then you can spit on me, your mother, and call me a witch; maybe even kill me.
I do a lot for my children as you all know. As Ìyá Èwe, that is what is expected of me. I am the roof over all your heads and the reason you have a future to look forward to. I know that behind my back, you all complain that I only feed you till you’re four seasons old, but at least I do. It’s no secret that to taste anyone else’s food in this village, even as a child younger than four seasons old, you’ll have to steal it.
Well, my things go missing all the time. It’s because you’re petty thieves and Àjàlá was no different. He bore my wares on his head like the rest of you, sometimes singing ewí to attract buyers; sometimes holding out his palms to beg for alms; sometimes going into the evil forest to sit at the foot of a tree and eat up the goods I gave him to sell. He learned this last bit from my other lover, Tàlàbí, who was three seasons older. Tàlàbí was already wise to the fact that a woman wouldn’t dare beat up a boy who holds her pleasure in his loins.
They got along fine, Àjàlá and Tàlàbí; their bond made stronger by their shared little secret. When Àjàlá was tall enough and his hand could reach over his head and touch his ear on the other side, it was time for him to learn a trade. Against my will, he chose to become an apprentice of Bàbá Fádùmílà, the Ifá priest, just like Tàlàbí.
Ifá divination is the top job; the only one that helps boys like you become immune to the unpredictable wrath of a king or his bratty princes.
On his first day, Àjàlá wore white òfì around his waist like the rest of the new apprentices and together they sat on the floor to take in the lessons. The whole time, he was glad he did not pick my options of palm-wine tapping, hunting or mortar carving over his new venture.
All these he told me late at night when it was just me and him in the earthen enclosure of my room; ornamented with exotic raffia and an elevated bamboo bed.
He raved about all the famous people who visited for divination—Akilapa, the wrestling champion was there to ask Ifá which of the village damsels would make the best wife for him; Ewagbemi, the king’s youngest bride was there seeking the fruit of the womb; Lagata, the great hunter had killed a deer that had no tail and wanted to confirm this was not a bad omen for his household.
‘Since Ifá knows so much, shouldn’t I ask it about my real mother?’ he said; his expression unsure.
‘Your real mother?’ I asked him. ‘What about her?’
‘Every time I see her in my dreams, she’s trying to tell me what caused her to die, but before she’s able to, I always wake up. Maybe Ifá will know.’
My heart ran into a misstep and a cold shiver fluttered around my spine. Could he be the one? I didn’t only know what caused his real mother to die; I had also been warned of the one who will come bearing dreams, for he would be my nemesis.
‘Don’t do it that way, Àjàlá. The other apprentices will laugh at you,’ I managed to say. ‘We can do it together. I’ll help you.’
His eyes lit up and the lobes of his ears stiffened. I told you he was into petty thieving, just like you; it wasn’t too hard to plant the thoughts that would help me destroy him in his head.
The next night, just after supper, I heard the sound of the king’s gong in the distance, and soon the gong-bearer and several guards arrived in front of the house. Nobody dares refuse a search ordered by the king, so I allowed them in. One of the guards went straight to Àjàlá’s mat, ignoring the other eight that laid side by side with it. He lifted an edge of the woven raffia and was met with a chorus of gasps; beneath the mat were the sacred ọ̀pẹ̀lẹ̀ beads of the Ifá.
Àjàlá was paraded around the village amidst chants of ‘olè, olè…’ Many recounted tales of how they too had caught him stealing this or that. The rest of you boys joined the procession of olè chanters, didn’t you?
Tàlàbí didn’t. He was too heartbroken that his favorite brother had brought him such disrepute at his job. We both agreed to disown the thief.
Stealing from the gods is a taboo. I expected nothing less than a beheading. However, Àjàlá was merely banished from the village to live in the evil forest. This sounds like it is worse than death right? No, it isn’t. Tàlàbí showed him that the only thing evil about that forest was the name Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́ tagged on it, remember?
I imagined the first couple of nights were tough on him. I imagined he had insects for food and morning dew for water. I imagined he thought to make a bed from dry leaves and stems as the days rolled by, and learned to make fire by striking one piece of rock against another. He perhaps learned to hunt with his bare hands, sticks, and rocks, and somehow discovered the little stream we all know is in there somewhere. Or perhaps he did none of these things because if Àjàlá was as dull as I remembered him to be, he was sure to fret, curl up and die in just a matter of days.
Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́ never forgets, so this story got told a thousand times over, each time the teller added a little more imagined detail to make for a good twilight tale. Children quavered at the mention of his name, and elders snapped their fingers and waved them over their heads, wishing his bad luck away. Someone’s version said he became possessed by an ẹbọra; another said a python swallowed him and spat him back out.
With tales like these, even if he managed to survive, I knew I didn’t have to worry about him ever returning, and soon I had no more thoughts to spare him. I, with the other elders in the village, had a new problem on my hands. A strange masquerade was on a rampage, beating people till they bled. No one was sure which of the gods was punishing us and for what offense.
Some masquerades are men who have become gods themselves; others are the children of different other gods. They dance down the pathways in their scary costumes and with their long whips, chasing down and beating whomever they pleased. Does anyone ever query them? Only he who does not fear to get cursed would dare to question the gods.
This new masquerade was covered from its head to the ground with a thousand dried twigs, all woven over each like they were in constant crawly motion. I hadn’t seen it at this time but it was on everyone’s lips. Kids particularly liked it because it was of their kind of heights, so they danced with it down the pathways and beat with it whoever was unlucky to get picked on.
One day, Tàlàbí ran into the masquerade and some kids along a pathway. He was ready to flee and the kids were ready to chase, but the masquerade called his name, shocking everyone because none had ever heard it speak. The masquerade sent the kids away and sat with Tàlàbí by a large ìrókò tree, away from the path where prying eyes could see them. There they talked for hours.
When Tàlàbí returned, he said to me, ‘do you think all these stories people tell to their kids of Àjàlá are real?’
‘I do not know, but what do I care?’ I shrugged, ‘if he isn’t dead by now, I’m sure he’s been possessed by an ẹbọra.’
‘I was wondering if people ever get second chances.’ He seemed sad.
‘Even if he got such a chance, an ẹbọra could never do a good deed.’
I did not know about his meeting with the masquerade then, but I could tell that Tàlàbí wasn’t convinced. He was eighteen seasons old now and had grown into a wise, calm and fine young man. Learning the Ifá does things like this to you. No one is as wise as the gods, but Ifá priests come the closest.
Ìlákọ̀ṣẹ festival came upon us and Tàlàbí asked me not to attend. I laughed. Who did he think he was to tell me what not to do? I put on a bright and colourful òfì and tied its long and thick wrapper around my waist. Blood-red ceramic beads adorned my neck and limbs, and they dangled from the bottoms of my ears. On my head sat a carefully crafted gèlè befitting of my status as Ìyá Èwe.
Everyone could hear the festival drums as their sound seized the atmosphere across the village. Pestles hit hard at mortars the whole morning, pounding yams and competing with the drums to be heard. I left the house and made sure to walk the main path that connected the many others crisscrossing through the village. This was a sure way to get everyone talking about my outfit after the festival.
At the end of the main path was a much slimmer one that led to the festival ground in one direction and to River Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́ in the other. I still hadn’t ever seen this masquerade that had become a problem for several seasons in the village. Just a little distance from the slimmer path, it appeared out of nowhere and I could immediately tell it was the one. I stopped and stared at it for a moment. I couldn’t see its eyes but it stared back, puffing, tensed. Before I could step out of the way for it, its whip flew violently into the air and crashed into my face. Dazed, I fell to the ground, spilling my gèlè.
A crowd quickly formed but no one stopped it. I rolled around from soil to grass and back, my screams drowning out the drums, and the mortars and pestles. I tried to get away from the lashes but the whip kept crashing down, hitting and cutting into my skin. By the time I noticed someone brush through the crowd and leap at the frenzied masquerade, throwing it off balance, my òfì wrapper was a long distance from my body, leaving me naked from the waist down.
There are days in your life that you will never forget. That day is one for me. The beating I got is not what haunts me the most. To everyone else’s shock and my utmost bewilderment, when Tàlàbí pulled my assailant out from under the cover of the twigs, it was Àjàlá. A much different version of him, but it was him alright.
His hair had grown into a mass of tangled locks atop his head. His teeth were rotting in their gum and each looked like it could fall off. His face was as though a grim mask of scarred, blackened and dried skin was worn over it. His bones were conspicuous from beneath his malnourished and much taller frame. He looked like a mad man just off picking dirt from the dump.
The king ordered that he be killed at once, but the Ifá priests wanted to keep him for a while to learn as much as they could. I spent close to one moon lying on my back, with a hundred cuts and bruises scattered across my body, and my head plastered with huge swellings that inflated my lips and dimmed my eyes.
You boys were the ones who helped me recover, cleaning me up whenever I answered the call of nature right where I laid, weren’t you? One of you asked about the constant gloom on my face. You see, the sadness that etched itself in there since that beating has nothing to do with the helplessness of laying on my back while you cleaned me up, but the priestess’ voice ringing like the birds’ chirps in my head: beware of the one who comes bearing dreams!
When I was eighteen, I met a man and was smitten with love. For this man, I told lies at home, just so I could be free to spend time laying on the rich grass carpeting the ground around the bank of River Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́ with him. I let him feel between my legs and beneath the setting sun, he made me a woman. Then when my visitor did not come for three moons and I told him, he said he wasn’t ready to be a father. I found a way to kill the baby and this was not a problem until he started to see someone else when my bleeding wouldn’t stop a few moons after.
Drained and feeble, I had to go on an exhausting journey to seek help from a priestess in a distant land. She too was an Ìyá Èwe. She said my womb was too damaged to ever hold a baby again. She said a similar situation happened to her and she could show me how she got her revenge. There was nothing bigger to lose than what I lost already. So I stayed with her for a few moons shy of four seasons and learned both the trick and the trade.
‘When a child is born and both parents are dead, an Ìyá Èwe gets to keep it,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry, you will have plenty of children.’
She taught me how to snuff life out of a man who sleeps with a different woman after he’s slept with me without as much as a touch. She taught me how to make labour a dead end for a woman whose child I wanted for myself.
‘Tàlàbí ò!’ Three times I called the name of the man who hurt me into the stillness of the night. Each time I held out a white cloth stained with my blood. The next morning, bitter cries rang out from his home. He was gone.
He was buried before my return.
I did everything to make sure his pregnant wife was my first labour as Ìyá Èwe—my first sacrifice of one life for another. Nobody knew I was once lovers with the man she was wearing all-black to mourn, so no one suspected anything. I named the child after the bastard.
The rest of you are children of men whose name you bear; men who promised me love only to plant babies in the wombs of other women. The only ones who got to save their mothers were the girls. The fathers were way beyond redemption; their lies pushed them there.
I decided to stop after the ninth sacrifice, but it would mean that I had to stick to men who couldn’t sleep with other women. Tàlàbí was old enough. Like him, some among you bear the sweet sides of your fathers and I made those my focus. The rest of you are mere spoils of war; boosts to my economy.
Tàlàbí was here this afternoon; his first time since the festival. He came to break up with me. He was my only chance of silencing Àjàlá for good, so I tugged at his bùbá and begged him to please kill his brother as one last favour. The cold and lengthy stare he gave me awakened a new fear and showed me all the possibilities I had been too scared to imagine. Now the priestess’ words are all I hear in every sound my ears can pick.
Tàlàbí had been secretly meeting with Àjàlá since the first time by the ìrókò tree. He knew I was going to be attacked and he tried to warn me. He was the one who got the priests to save Àjàlá when the king ordered him dead.
By now Àjàlá has told them everything, and Tàlàbí will add what I said to him this afternoon to corroborate it all. Ifá will show them the rest of my filth. His coming here was just another warning—the last favour I didn’t ask for.
I know Ayégbajẹ́jẹ́ will hear this story and tell it in many different versions. At least now they can tell Àjàlá’s story the right way. My main reason for telling it to you, however, is so that mine is also told fairly and not made to seem any worse than it is. Also, I hope you boys will now unleash your anger at what you’ve just heard and put me out of my misery. I can feel the early signs of a gruesome doom, impending, and you are my best chance of it meeting me already dead.
Ajá – a dog, used metaphorically in Yorùbá folklore to depict a stubborn person
Bàbá – an appellation for an elderly man
Bùbá – a native blouse
Ewí – a poem
Ẹbọra – a mischievous evil spirit that mostly lives in the forest and is capable of possessing a human’s body
Gèlè – a ceremonial head gear for women
Ifá – an all-knowing oracle
Ìjàpá – a tortoise, used metaphorically in Yorùbá folklore to depict a wise and cunning person
Ìlákọ̀ṣẹ – makes reference to the shell of a snail
Ìrókò – a huge tree from the genus Milicia family of Moraceae, botanically known as Milicia excelsa
Ìyá Èwe – title for a woman who takes care of children, and sometimes serves as a midwife
Ọdẹ – a hunter
Òfì – an exotic fabric used mainly for celebrations and other significant rites
Olè – a thief
Ọ̀pẹ̀lẹ̀ – the mystical beads through which the message of the Ifá is read
Sòkòtò – a pair of trousers
Ibrahim started reading at an early age, influenced by his grandmother’s storytelling of African folklore. He sees himself as a seeker and truth-sayer. His works explore a wide range of topics, all from an African perspective. Ibrahim writes from Ilorin, Nigeria. He can be found on @heemthewriter across social media.