Five hundred kilometers to Oshogbo and back in 24 hours. On my way back somewhere before Gbangan I wasn’t sure which turning to take at a fork in the road. The section of road was very quiet but fortunately, a couple of people stood by the roadside just before the fork. I pulled up, greeted them politely and asked about the turning.
After answering my question, her younger male companion asked if the older woman could join me. Turns out she was going to Ikire which is after Gbongan on the way to Ibadan. I am not much of a talker so after some fairly mundane exchange, we settled into a comfortable silence with some news program on the radio providing the background sound.
She had a relatively small basket with some bundles of what appeared to be spinach in it. I assumed it was for sale and it struck me I could buy a couple. I already bought some African snails and a well made vegetable soup with peppered snails suddenly sounded very appealing.
“Mama. Is the vegetable for sale?” I asked, glancing briefly at her.
“Yes my son. They are special though.”
“Oh. In what way?” Playing along thinking it’s a psychological move to increase the amount she’s going to ask for each bunch.
“Ah! They are not for everybody” she says.
“So who are they for then?”
“Special people?” I asked.
“Very special people.” she said.
“Am I special enough?” I asked joking.
“Yes o!” She said.
I had to smile at her colloquial answer.
“I should think I am special enough.” I said smiling.
“Oh. Big man like you. You are definitely special. But not for this kind of vegetable. At least I hope not!”
“Ok ma. But I am a little confused. Isn’t it just spinach?”
“Yes and no.” she said with a smile.
Her cryptic answers were starting to get a little old. I was considering dropping the whole thing when she went on.
“There’s evil in the world my son.” Something in her tone made me glance sideways at her. She was looking straight through the windscreen. The expression on her face a cross between sadness, loneliness and something I couldn’t quite fathom. I didn’t say anything.
After a minute or so, she went on.
“Are you a good man my son?” This time she was looking at me in earnest.
“I like to think so ma. But like everyone I have my issues.”
She nodded. That seems to pacify her a little as the expression on her face softened somewhat.
“Are you married?” She asked.
“No I am not.”
“Long story. Personal issues. Then there’s a girl. She’s far away yet I can’t or won’t consider anyone else”. I trailed off.
“Is she that special?”
“Yes. Everyone else pales into insignificance before her.”
“Very very beautiful.” I smiled a little uncomfortably. The conversation was getting into painful territory.
“And I bet light skinned as well.”
I glanced sideways at her. Was she perhaps a mind reader?
“Oh. No need for that look. Isn’t it what all you men are looking for?” She laughed. She went on before I could say anything. Not that I had a good response other than to agree.
“Is she as light as I am?”
“Lighter ke? Is she albino or something? Very few people are naturally lighter than me o.”
“No. She’s not albino. But she’s still lighter than you.” I had to smile at her evaluation of herself.
“Of course I am much darker now. It’s the sun. In my days ….”
She seemed to be lost in thought. The strange expression was back on her face and she was looking through the screen again at nothing specific. She just appeared to be gazing into the distance.
I kept quiet.
“When you get married never raise your hand against your wife.”
I nodded my head.
I could sense she was going to go on. And I like a good story.
“My husband was an evil man. He destroyed my life and the lives of his children. You won’t think it to look at me. I am not well read. I only finished primary school. I started trading after that. But like my mum I was industrious. I was quite comfortable by the time I got married to my husband. He was very charming when he was wooing me. But he became an animal after we got married. The beatings started. I even had a car and a driver at one point for my business as I was traveling a lot. He was stealing my profit and spending it on his girlfriends. Of course it took me some time to find out about the women. It affected me seriously. I couldn’t cope. And I think it was the day I confronted him that the beatings started. I tried reporting him to his family. But they took sides with him. My own family only cautioned patience. That I should keep my home together. I should overlook his womanizing. I should rest content in the fact that I am the woman at home. All the ones “outside” are transients.
I was too independent and strong willed for that. It got so bad he would beat me not only with his fists and feet, but with anything he could lay his hands on. Slowly between his emotional and physical torture, stealing my money and my own inability to concentrate on the business, I started losing customers and made some irrational decisions as well. The long and short of it was that the business went down. It was gradual but before I knew it I had sold everything including the car just to survive.”
“The beatings only stopped briefly when I was pregnant. But started again not too long after I gave birth.
Even the baby in my hands couldn’t save me from his anger. Once or twice he hit the baby as well. I think that was when my feelings for him turned from indifference to hate.
* * * * * *
The first time I met the old woman, it was completely by chance as I had lost my way while looking for a particular vegetable that was difficult to get when it was not in season. For some reason I had this unholy craving for it. The woman later told me nothing happens by chance. I don’t completely believe that. Nevertheless the sequence of events that followed shook my believe in ones ability to completely control ones destiny.
“Morning my daughter.” Her greeting shook me out of my reverie.
“Good morning, ma.”
“How are you doing today.”
“Ah mama. Life is good. All thanks to God.” But I wasn’t feeling good. We had been at it half the night and as usual I had borne the brunt of it. I was aching all over and it was all I could do to maintain a polite facade.
“I understand my daughter. There’s I am alright and then there’s I am alright.” she looked at me with a cross of pity and concern in her eyes. I ended up spending the whole day with her. In between attending to her customers, I told her my whole story. She listened without a comment. It felt good to be able to talk to someone.
She sent me away with some medicine for my pains and to let me sleep. Another round of beating was waiting for me at home of course, but I didn’t really care. Afterwards I took the drugs and woke up feeling better than I had in months.
If anything my new found happiness just made the quarrels and beatings worse. But I took solace in my trips to the marketplace. Or to be correct, my trips to see “mama” in her stall. I became her unofficial student and assistant rolled into one.
Before long, she started to leave me there on my own sometimes. I was to tell anyone who’s issue I couldn’t handle to return later. And those situations started to happen less and less frequently.
There wasn’t a lot of money to be made in the trade. I guess she could have charged more, but she saw it as a sort of service to the community. Appreciative customers will from time to time go above and beyond of course.
Things didn’t improve much at home. But I had become more patient and over time the beatings became less frequent. But didn’t stop entirely. By that time he had added drunkenness to his list of vices.
I landed in the hospital the last time he laid hands on me. I was in a coma for a week. When I got out, I had a limp that became permanent.
I went to the market when I was strong enough to make the journey.
Mama was of course very happy to see me. She noticed everything and was quick to see the limp and healing scars.
After fusing over me and listening to the whole story. She went silent then suddenly said “it is time.”
“Time for what mama?”
“Time for the sinner to get his just recompense and for the captive to be set free.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Now listen to me my daughter. You are not the first nor will you be the last woman to have violence perpetuated against her by the one person that should protect her from all harm. And once a man has raised his hands against you, it is the beginning of the end. Once, or even twice may be excused even though there’s no reason strong enough to justify violence against ones spouse. But usually in order not to hastily dissolve the union or in consideration of the children if there are any, the woman may be counseled to hold on. But more than twice is the end. It never stops. It may develop into cycles but it never stops. It usually ends with the woman either dead or irreversibly maimed in some way.”
“It is a man’s world out there. A woman has to look out for herself, and when she can’t do it alone, other women should help. I believe that’s why God made women develop emotionally faster than men. While young boys are still running around trying to break their necks (and sometimes succeeding) with dangerous pranks, young girls have already started behaving like young matured adults.”
She told me the plan in such a way that it sounded hypothetical. She allowed it to grow on me for several weeks before coming out to say it’s mine to carry out. It didn’t help or it helped depending on how you look at it, that my husband continued to beat me black and blue during this period.
By the time she finally laid it on me in full, I was all for it with little to no hesitation.
In order to allay suspicion, I was to go through a period of at least two months when I must move heaven and earth to ensure we don’t fight and put it out there that all is now right with the world. That is easier said than done of course. Because I rarely go two weeks without a beating.
There were a few close calls but I did make it. He didn’t change. I just did the impossible and I tell you, it was stressful. You see the two months is to divert suspicion from myself. Humans have notoriously short memories when it comes to certain things. Like disagreements between couples. Once it stops, the talk is then about how devoted the couples are to each other. They quickly forget that a few months ago they were at each other’s throats.
Then one sunny afternoon, she sat me down and told me what I had to do. The vegetable is potent when eaten within the first couple of hours. By the following day, the poison would have broken down completely. So even if you are forced to eat the same stew, nothing happens to you.
I bought all the condiments, assorted fishes and meat and went home and prepared it just as instructed. I then feigned being tired. By the time he returned home, all I did was serve his dinner and return to bed.
I should say I still had a little reservation about what I was doing even as I laid on the bed listening to him smack his lips and crack the chicken bones. He was even humming a tune under his breath. I guess it was the assurance mama gave that it was a painless death that made me see it through.
By the time he came to lie down I was fast asleep. Which was strange but I guess I was too tired. I had thought I wouldn’t sleep a wink that night.
I suddenly came awake in the morning at the first crow of some neighboring cockerel. It took me a while to remember what I was about but then I turned and looked at him. He looked as if he was in a deep peaceful sleep. But he was cold to the touch.
I double checked to be sure but there was no sign of life.
I laid back down and for some reason slept off again.
The second time I came awake to the chatter of people passing by on the street. It was full daylight.
That was when I raised the alarm the typical way. Screaming and yelling for help. The house was full of people in a few minutes. After the initial commotion we managed to get him into a danfo bus and drove to the nearest hospital. He was declared dead on arrival. I joined the family in asking for an autopsy. The result of the autopsy was given as natural causes enervated by chronic alcoholism.
I wondered around the house for days and observed my period of mourning after the burial which came up in less than a month after he died. I was too emotionally drained to feel anything.
There wasn’t too much trouble from his family as there was really no property or other valuables. We were as broke as they were.
I started trading a little again but my heart wasn’t in it. It’s strange how my newly found freedom at the time left me feeling aimless and morose. I guess I wasn’t used to being alone.
I think she knew from the beginning what would happen. That I would end up moving in with her. I learnt the trade. Including cures for many other ailments.
When it was getting close to her time, she sat me down and in her usual direct and no nonsense way, she told me so. Then she divulged the formulas of even more special potions, and told me many secrets and even more cures.
She said the work was important.
I asked her what I should do when my own time comes.
“Don’t worry my daughter. Your replacement will come well before that time. It is the natural order of things. Evil matches on without pause so the gods make provisions for good without ceasing.”
“I had many customers over the years before and after you. But they were just customers. But the moment I laid eyes on you some thirty three years after I first setup shop with the skills handed down to me just as I am handing it down to you today, I knew you were the one that would stay. When it’s time you will know in turn.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“My son. It’s a bad thing to take a life. Even today, I still get pangs of regret regularly when I think back to what I did. He gave me no choice. Because he had told me that if I ever leave, he would hunt me down and kill me. And I knew he meant it.
The act may be easy, but living with it is difficult. I have made my peace with God. Whatever is left, I will answer for it when the time comes. In the meantime, the work continues.”
I asked her how long she has been in the same trade.
“Too long. My bones are starting to complain. I have a feeling that soon I will come face to face with my replacement. I intend to hand down the skills as they were handed down to me. I have modernized some of the cures. Made improvements to many formulas and potions by research and investigations. There are potions for almost anything that ails human beings. For even illnesses the Oyinbos think have no cures. There are potions that promote accord for example. What do the oyinbos have that does that without harm? Alcohol? Hard Drugs, sedatives? They appear to treat the symptoms but worsen the condition. All those things are all killers in the long run.”
“Is there a love potion ma?” I tried to sound nonchalant but the question came out of an encounter in my past when someone thought I might have tainted some “edibles” with it. I had laughed it off at the time because I didn’t believe there was anything of the sort.
“My son. Don’t let anyone deceive you. There’s nothing like a love potion. What you are doing is controlling the person’s mind via powerful forces. It is not love. The problem is that the mind is the person. It’s the seat of our soul. It’s central to a person’s personality. It’s not meant to be controlled by force. It’s meant to be controlled by persuasion. You see, when you hold a person’s essence bound by force in this way, even though they may appear docile or even happy, deep down a battle is raging. The subject is unwittingly permanently damaged. The end is always unpleasant. Some day the subject will break free. Depending on how emotionally stable the person is, you may get a person with intense hatred, or for people of weaker constitution, a mentally disturbed person emerges at the end.”
“You sound like it was your fault.” She said.
“Life’s never how we want it. Yet we rise each new dawn – hopefully with renewed hope in our hearts.” She said.
“Time truly does not heal all wounds. But it can reduce the pain to a dull ache that’s bearable.”
She laid a hand on my shoulder. I took a quick glance at her face.
“The damage is done. But you should continue to do the right thing.” She said.
But what is the right thing? Silence? Distance? Distant silence?
The milk has been spilled and the jar has been shattered. The milk can no longer be gathered up nor the glass jar pieced together again.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
We were at Ikire.
“Goodbye son. I don’t think we will meet again in this lifetime. But sometimes once is enough.”
“Goodbye mama” I said. As an afterthought I asked her for her number. She didn’t have a phone, but she said, “If you really really require my services, you know my name and where to find me.”
Even though I couldn’t see my own face, I was sure the smile that was on hers was reflected on mine.