Short Story: The Hidden Road

This is based on some of what I have learned in southwest Nigeria. I would like to extend my gratitude for those who have helped me learn more about the Yoruba and their spiritual traditions. While this narrative is an exaggerated account (in some respects), I hope my readers will recognize how rich and deep the practice is.  Enjoy, and don’t forget to “like” it if you do.

Alexander Chirila 2013

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

 

The Hidden Road

 

They say there is no power in magic without blood. Olumide is dead. Tokunbo had prevailed over him; he and the men from Ilé-Iku had killed everyone in the compound. Olumide, his wife, his firstborn, his junior brother—everyone.

Olumide was babalawo of the village; the spirits were strong with him. They did not withhold knowledge of the future from him. When the sick came to him, he healed them. When the troubled came to him for divination, he consulted the Oracle on their behalf. Everyone said that his predictions were accurate. How many had ignored his warnings only to find that Esu had taken their wealth? Even the oba had come to him for his blessing.

I was his apprentice. Clothed in white robes, I listened to him recite the verses. I watched him cast the divining chain. At first, I did not believe the spirits spoke to him. I secretly doubted his reverent silence, eyes closed, immersed in contemplation. When he nodded sagely and extended a wrinkled hand over the tray, his finger trembling above the dust, I credited his performance. When he cut the markings in the dust and interpreted them, I credited his imagination.

I know better now.

The spirits told him that there would be an attack. That death was coming. That only the most extreme sacrifice would suffice to keep death away. When the markings were cut in the sand, his eyes widened and his teeth chattered. ‘Get out!’ he yelled at me, ‘This is not for your eyes to see!’

But I had already seen. I needed to know what the markings meant. I approached another diviner—a taboo of the highest order to Olumide—and showed him the arrangement of figures. At first, he refused to interpret them. Then he wanted to swindle and mislead me. To him I was just another oyinbo with a fetish for African juju. There are serious prohibitions against disclosing the traditions to outsiders. Let them have stories and falsehoods, they won’t be able to tell the difference.

I could, and I made sure he knew that.

At last he told me that the markings meant almost certain death for the diviner who cast them. He said that the only way to prevent the prescribed destiny was to offer the highest order of sacrifice.

‘No snail, no pigeon, no rat, no she-goat,’ he said. ‘Only human.’

 

* * * *

 

‘There are hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says, ‘that have never left this country. Some of the Orisha traveled with our people across the waters. Shango, Ogun, Osun; they have worshipers in Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, the United States. You may not have realized it, oyinbo, but you have met Osun before. You may know the Orisha by different names, but they were the spirits of this place long before Islam came to the north and long before your people brought Jesus to our shores. There are spirits that your people have never seen. Spirits that went deep into the bush when the foreigners came. Spirits that could not be placated and did not suffer themselves to be hidden away.’

Ona-Ode is the lastborn of seven brothers, himself an Ifa apprentice. He wears the white robes, as do I. I serve Orunmila, the Custodian of Destiny and father of divination; a white deity and one of the most powerful and benevolent among the Orisha. Ona-Ode serves Osanyin; he can tell you the medicinal properties of every single tree, root, and herb in the Yoruba nation. He ranges across southwest Nigeria, Benin, and Togo, administering his mixtures and concoctions throughout the local villages. His son runs a shop in Lagos, selling herbs and potions to urban Nigerians and foreign businessmen.

Olumide would often buy medicines from him; that’s how I met him. Ona-Ode is a genius when it comes to traditional medicine. Of his six brothers, only two remain; one is a devout Christian. The other lives way out into the bush and miles away from even the smallest villages. Awo-Iku serves an entirely different sort of spirit.

We had taken the car as far as it would go off-road; the rains had gutted whatever dirt track there was. Ona-Ode and I trek out into the forest, following a vague herding trail that wound into the hills north of Ogbomosho. ‘Black, red, white. The ancient colors. All creation is balanced between these forces. White is good, benevolent, wise, and cool-headed. You can reason with the white deities; only don’t offend them, and observe their taboos. Red is violent, bloodthirsty, always angry and hot-headed. You can work with the red deities, but you must be very careful.’ Ona-Ode grabs a thick vine slung across the trail and cleaves it aside with his machete. ‘In my village, there was a stone they used to worship Shango. No one was supposed to touch it. There are stories in the Corpus that say the old gods went into the ground and became immortal.’ He grins at me. ‘Is it not true that you would call this idolatry? This worship of stones?’

I smile; Ona-Ode knows I am a practitioner. His question is both a test and a jibe. ‘We don’t worship stones,’ I say. ‘The stones are only vessels, a place for the spirits to rest when we call them to consult with us.’

Ona-Ode nods. ‘This is so. This stone was in my village since before. One boy, he was the son of the babalawo. He saw the stone when he was initiated by his father. He went and told his mates about it, and they all wanted to see it. This boy, he was stubborn. He took the stone from its place and showed it to them. His father hears of it and goes to consult Shango and make ebo, so that his son would not be killed. Shango now tells him that his son will die; but because of the ebo, he will not kill all the boys that saw the stone. The boy was killed by lightning. Some of the boys who saw the stone went blind, and others went deaf because of the thunder. Now the others in the village, the fathers of the boys who were blinded and made deaf, they now gather against him. “How can you be our babalawo when you allow this to happen?” They are too hot against him; it was Shango, you understand, who caused them to be so hot. They killed him and burned his body.’

I look at him. He grins and says, ‘This place is not like where you come from.’

‘What about the black?’ I ask.

He frowns. ‘The black,’ he begins hesitantly, ‘is dangerous. Unpredictable. Like death. You never know from which direction death will come. Black is like that. They say that the black deities cannot be invoked or summoned. They do not listen to human beings. Others say that they respond to human sacrifice.’

‘Why would anyone want to work with gods that demand human blood?’

‘They are extremely powerful,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘They will do anything for the one who sacrifices to them. They can kill anyone, anywhere in the world. They can bring wealth, children, abundance. But the black deities are somehow. They say that no one who has sacrificed to them has ever lived long enough to enjoy their blessings. They are greedy and deceitful.’

‘But there are those who still sacrifice to them,’ I say.

‘Yes. My senior brother, Awo-Iku. You do not know the kind of man you must become in order to sacrifice to the hidden gods,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘If not for Olumide, I would not be coming here. You say that he was killed by magic. That the Odu foretold his death, and that he refused to offer the prescribed sacrifice.’

‘Of course he did! Can you imagine Olumide offering human sacrifice? Even for his own sake?’

Ona-Ode motions for us to stop. He looks intently ahead; the trail goes on for a few steps and then vanishes. While he scours the terrain, I look around. The sun shines over a dense forest, a lush, green, breathing organism unrolled like a carpet over the stepped hills. In the far distance I can see a radio tower and the rusty corrugated metal roofs of a small town. Someone is burning a tire; a column of thick, choking smoke pillars into the blue sky.

‘No, he wouldn’t do that,’ Ona-Ode says, answering my earlier question. ‘So what are you looking for? Revenge? There is nothing you can do unless you are willing to go further than your teacher.’

I shake my head. ‘It’s not that. Olumide knew Tokunbo. They were rivals long before I came to Nigeria. Olumide didn’t expect that Tokunbo would go so far…the kind of blood that he needed to spill, to do what he did…I don’t want anything to do with that. No, this is about something Olumide said to me before they came for him. “You are my student,” he told me, “initiated into my lineage. A part of my spirit, a part of my ori will always be with you.” You know what that means, don’t you?’

Ona-Ode looks at me. ‘Tokunbo killed everyone he could find,’ I say. ‘He intends to utterly destroy Olumide’s lineage. I am the last living heir to his teachings. Oyinbo or not, I am the only person to whom Olumide entrusted his knowledge. Tokunbo and his people will come after me, now.’

Ona-Ode thinks about this for a second. ‘It is good that we are going see my senior brother, then. If you mean to defend yourself against this kind of magic, Awo-Iku well tell you how to do it.’ He shoulders his pack and sets off further up the slope. I don’t see the trail, but he moves with certainty, the clack of his machete resounding in the moist, heavy air.

‘Awo-Iku was initiated by “Reed Mat Covers Deadfall,” an itinerant diviner from a little village just over these mountains.’ Ona-Ode points in the direction we are going. ‘The village is empty now.’

We pause on a small outcropping of dark stone overlooking a rushing cascade.  The trees here are ancient, prehistoric monsters that must have witnessed the birth of humankind and the movement of tribes across the Continent. We are mercifully shaded from the baking sun; our ascent had been exposed, and by now my shirt is soaked through with rapidly cooling sweat. From here on out we descend into the small, densely forested valleys of the mountains. There are no roads here, no wide trails; just imperceptible windings.

I have the sense that I am standing between worlds. Behind me is the patchwork reality that is Nigeria, filled with torrents of modernity intermingled with blood and tradition. Ahead is darkness and wisdom and the courts of the old gods.

‘Ready?’ Ona-Ode asks.

Not at all, I think. ‘Let’s go,’ I say. He nods and starts on the descent, picking his way down a tumble of piled boulders. I smile and look out over the hills of northern Oyo State.

 

* * * *

One year ago on the road from Lokoja to Ibadan. The bus was rickety and hot and filthy. Four hours out of Abuja and my head was spinning brokenly around an epicenter of nausea. We were driving behind a truck, its back painted in bright, garish designs—what looked like swans entwined around a collage of Christian symbols. The truck was trembling and sputtering towards a bottleneck in Okene. A single, narrow, broken road squeezed between ramshackle shops and concrete buildings, filled with jalopies, motorcycles, and transports. It was a disastrous, breathing wreak that sucked in lives and machines and coughed exhaust fumes over the cries of hawkers standing precariously between lines of traffic.

Olumide had sent me to meet a man named Norman Westwood, a British expat who worked with an NGO out of Abeokuta. He was doing business in Okene and agreed to meet with whomever Olumide sent. Olumide had performed a service for Mr. Westwood and had chosen not to ask for money. Norman could have paid him a small fortune. He offered 5K in Pounds, a sum that would have gone a long way. Instead, my teacher had asked him for a favor. When I questioned him, Olumide answered, ‘A favor from a powerful man is worth more than his money.’

I called a stop, shouldered my backpack, and stepped down from the bus. Okene was a loud place; loud enough to be uncomfortable. Behind me and down a rocky embankment shadowed by trees, a group of women were washing clothes in the stream. It was the middle of the rainy season, and the small river rushed along between the boulders while the women kneaded and twisted the colorful fabrics. There was a line of dusty shops on the other side of the narrow road; I was supposed to meet Westwood in a small restaurant. I jogged through a standstill of trucks and cars, dodging motorbikes and hawkers.

Westwood was waiting for me by a Baobab tree next to the place. We exchanged greetings and went inside. ‘You know they don’t serve good coffee outside of cities filled with foreigners or businessmen,’ he said. We waited while a woman cleaned off a wooden table for us. We sat down and asked for egusi soup with goat meat and peppered snails; soft pounded yam and two bottles of Star beer. ‘It’s good that you enjoy Nigerian food. I couldn’t handle the peppers when I first came here. I know they say British food tastes bland, but it most certainly does to me now. So,’ he said, looking me over, ‘you’re Olumide’s new apprentice? An oyinbo? Then it’s true what he tells me; that none of his children are interested in learning the tradition.’

‘He has only one son. You know the story; he refuses to teach any of his three daughters. He loves them to death, of course, and dotes on them endlessly…but he won’t teach them. Osunlana is keen on it, and she keeps asking and asking. She’s going to become a priestess of Osun.’ The food came and we started on it, exchanging snippets of conversation as we ate.

‘How did you get into…all this?’

I dip a piece of the pounded yam into the soup. ‘I came to Nigeria as a graduate student. I was working on my dissertation. Some nonsense about development. Don’t ask me about it now. Anyway, I was staying at Obafemi Awolowo University. I met some people who knew about…all this…and it wasn’t long before I started asking the right questions.’ I didn’t want to say anything else about it, at least not to him. I shifted the conversation to the business at hand. ‘What about you? What did Olumide help you with?’

He took a swig of beer, smacked his lips, and shrugged. ‘I was fresh out of Manchester with some work…some nonsense about development,’ he smiled. ‘You know how it is for expats, right? This was my first time out of the country. I didn’t know what I was getting into, and Nigeria is not an easy place. It’s not an easy place at all. I ended up getting into some business I shouldn’t have. Now in England, something like this happens and the local boys come knocking on your door in the middle of the night, drag you outside and give you the beating of your life.’

‘That happens here too,’ I said.

‘Sure does,’ Westwood agreed. ‘but something else happens here too. Sometimes they decide they’re not going to risk getting into trouble for coming after a white man the old fashioned way. They decide they’re going to resort to juju.’

I frowned at the word. ‘Witchcraft?’

He nodded. ‘The worst kind. I had a fondness for palm wine, and there was a little shanty I would go to. There was a woman who sold freshly tapped palm wine there, and she ran a popular little business. Late afternoon, towards evening, you could find a few people enjoying a cup of palm wine and exchanging gossip. One night I drove out there and the shanty was empty. I don’t know why, but I got out of the car and approached the place. There was a little path that ran through a field and into the jungle. I was standing there waiting for the woman to appear when I saw a man walk out of the jungle and towards the shanty. He was wearing a cap, black on one side and red on the other.

‘When he came near he stopped and went over to the barrel. He opened it and took a cup from the table nearby. He looked at me and motioned for me to sit down on one of the wooden benches, saying nothing all the while. I must have been aware that it was all quite strange, but it was like a dream; I couldn’t do anything about it. I sat down and watched this man lower the cup into the barrel. When he handed it to me I saw that the liquid was red. I knew that the woman served only clear palm wine. I drank it anyway,’ Westwood whispered over the table. He shook his head and frowned at the peppered snail in his bowl. I had already finished mine. I wondered whether he wanted his own.

‘I don’t really know what happened next,’ he continued. ‘I can drink quite a few cups of palm wine, but that wasn’t like any palm wine I’d tasted before. It wasn’t like anything I’d tasted before. I slipped in and out of consciousness, as if I were nodding off right there on the bench. Every time I opened my eyes I saw something different. I saw that man, only he kept changing. At one point he seemed to have a face divided between black and albino; then he seemed older, far older, stooped over a cane. Then I heard him laughing at me, standing over me, and his laughter became a ruckus of cawing as the sky was suddenly filled with crows—so many it seemed that night had fallen.’ He finished his beer and gestured for another, handing back the empty bottle.

‘When I woke up I was sick and my car was gone. I had to walk, hoping someone would pick me up and take me back. I must have passed out a half-dozen times on the side of the road. Given the way they drive here, it’s a bloody miracle I didn’t get run over. No one would have noticed. When someone finally rescued me they took me to the local hospital. I had a raging fever and the doctors diagnosed me with malaria. They gave me medicine but it didn’t work. It just kept getting worse. I kept going back to the hospital and each time they would tell me something different and prescribe different medicine. Nothing. Finally someone told me I should see a babalawo. They pointed me in the direction of your teacher, Olumide. You know what happened next.’

‘Olumide told you that you had been cursed,’ I said, ‘that you had to offer sacrifice and make restitution.’ I cleansed my hands in a large metal bowl and passed it over to Westwood. ‘Olumide gathered the materials, performed the sacrifice, and sucked the curse out of you. What you don’t know is that I saw him struggling with whatever he took from you.’ Norman stopped what he was doing and stared at me. ‘That’s right; he suffered for a week after that, caught in the grips of an intense spiritual battle. He would lie sweating on the reed mat in the temple, his head moving back and forth; sometimes he would get up and thrash around. At one point I thought he would die. Wracked with pain, he fought with whatever had been sent after you; in his dreams, in his waking life, it went on. At last he won over it, and it was finished. He was exhausted as hell, but he was healthy.’ I looked at him. ‘That was some nasty business.’

Norman nodded. ‘Yes, it was. You know what I offered to pay him. More than I needed to pay off those buggers I fell in with. I tell you—after all that—the world became a different place. This work in Abeokuta is lucrative, but I can’t wait to get out of here. Once you get past the sheen of the cities, the bush is hard, ancient and unforgiving.’ He paid the bill and we left the restaurant. We stood by the tree and he lit a Dunhill cigarette. ‘So,’ he said, ‘what is it your teacher wants from me?’

‘The man who put the curse on you, his name is Tokunbo. Olumide knows him. It took him a while to figure it out, but it seems that each of the traditions, each of the lineages, works in a different way. To an outsider, these differences may seem slight—in one tradition, Olorun or Oludumare is the supreme deity; in another, it is Orishala. But it’s more than just mythology. Each of the lineages invokes different aspects of the deities; the Orishas have many faces, many dimensions. Some are so bipolar that you would think them entirely different spirits…’ I scanned his face to make sure he was still following me. ‘Each of the lineages leaves a specific mark on the magic.’ Westwood nodded and took a drag of the cigarette. ‘Olumide was able to trace the curse back to its caster. But there’s a problem. This Tokunbo is from a rival lineage, and he knows that it was Olumide who turned back his spirit. We believe that he wants to start a war. A spiritual war.’

Westwood threw down the cigarette. ‘What in the bloody hell do you think I can do?’

‘Olumide isn’t asking for something he knows you can’t do,’ I said.

‘That would be a first in this country,’ Westwood muttered.

‘My teacher knows what you did,’ I said, cutting to the heart of it. He inhaled sharply and looked at me. ‘He knows what kind of business you got into. African artifacts. You thought you could fetch a pretty penny by selling genuine West African antiques back in the UK.’ He stared at me, mechanically lighting another cigarette. ‘When you didn’t find anyone willing to deal wholesale, you decided to ask around; seems the local area boys were willing to get their hands dirty for a few stacks. They said they could find what you were looking for, and you didn’t ask any questions. Does that sound about right? You stole the wrong artifacts from the wrong people, Mr. Westwood. When you made restitution, you gave most of it back, didn’t you?’ He nodded. ‘But not all of it. You paid for a few items in cash and claimed that you had already sold them. You still have them.’

Westwood said nothing, looking out over the busy street to where the women were still washing clothing in the stream. Taking his silence as confirmation, I continued, ‘Olumide needs something you took from Tokunbo; a piece of fulgurite, shaped in the likeness of a man holding a pouch and carrying a fly-whisk. Do you still have it?’

Westwood gritted his teeth and nodded reluctantly. ‘A favor is a favor, Mr. Westwood. That stone is very important to my teacher, and fitting repayment for your life. It also has more value as a ritual instrument than it does as an art object.’ I wanted to add a threat, but I guessed that it wasn’t necessary. We arranged to meet again a week after that; I had a few more errands to run for Olumide in Lagos.

When I returned to Okene, a week to the day, there were no women washing clothes in the river. There were no trucks rumbling down the narrow street; no motorbikes, no hawkers. There were a few pedestrians hurrying up and down the road, a few people half-glimpsed in dark windows. A car drove up a quiet junction street.

Westwood wasn’t there. Instead, there was an old woman waiting by the tree at the entrance to the restaurant. A wind started to blow; it looked like a storm was coming in from the southeast. Lightning flashed near the horizon. I crossed the empty street and walked up to her.

‘You are far from the gods of your homeland, oyinbo,’ she said.

It was a riddle; fortunately, my teacher had prepared me with a proper answer. ‘Tí a bá wí fún ni, tí a bá gbó, ayé a má a ye ni.’ It was part of an Odu verse, a snippet of divinatory prediction passed down from practitioner to practitioner. Roughly translated, it meant: life is easy and comfortable for the one who listens to and accepts a warning. ‘I hear what you say. What do you have to tell me?’

‘There was a taboo on the man you came to see. He broke it. The cost of breaking this taboo was death. Didn’t your teacher warn you? There is always a condition. Go back to Olumide and tell him that the stone has been reclaimed. Tell him that he should consult Ifa. He will not like what the Odu tell him.’

‘You would leave Olumide defenseless against Tokunbo?’

The woman smiled. ‘Olumide cannot be defenseless. What has begun will find its end far from here.’

 

* * * *

We pass through a curtain of reeds into a clearing. The small house in the center of the clearing is surrounded by shrines. A collection of artifacts and trinkets favored by the orishas decorates each shrine; here an iron railroad spike consecrated to Ogun, there a laterite half-buried in the ground, doused in red palm oil. Streaks of blood discolor the stone. The heat is oppressive, magnified by an almost visible humidity. The trees seem pressed in conference over the house; brightly colored birds flit musically across the gap in the canopy.

I remember Olumide’s response when I returned from my trip to Lagos and Okene. ‘Reclaimed!’ he had bitterly cursed. ‘Those foolish witches! Would they rather Tokunbo surpass me in power? He is wicked!’ That piece of lightning-carved fulgarite would have made all the difference in the upcoming battle. It would have given my teacher access to spirits of such blinding whiteness that Tokunbo and his people would have run wailing back to their jungle hovels. Instead, Olumide became despondent; the Odu seemed to have abandoned him. There was no ebo  he could perform that would stay death’s march towards his door.

Ona-Ode and I stand in front of the temple house. I can feel the power pulsating from it, like a giant heart half-buried in the forest, pumping raw power into the air and through the ground. The trees shake and I look up; white-throated monkeys swing into sight from hidden perches and chatter at one another. A storm is coming in; thunder rumbles in the southwest. An image flashes across my mind—of a man, clad in a warrior’s dress and wielding a vicious club, striding across miles of forest. Shango, spirit of thunder and lightning.

When I look down again I see the same woman who was in Okene. I should be surprised but I’m not. Ona-Ode greets the woman in Yoruba. She returns his greeting and looks at me. ‘I am sorry for Olumide,’ she offers. ‘Sometimes, this is what happens. You are the heir of his lineage; Tokunbo will not agree to let you live. The matter must be settled.’

‘I don’t even know how their rivalry started!’ Now that I’ve heard the words Tokunbo will not agree to let you live, the reality of this long sojourn sinks in with all the terrible finality of a dial tone after a desperate phone call to a jilted lover in the middle of the night. I’m not handling it well. I am conscious of Ona-Ode looking at me, but I just go on. ‘He never told me this was happening! Why does this have anything to do with me? This isn’t fair!’ The old woman stares at me the way a grandmother would stare at a petulant child throwing a tantrum, waiting until I exhaust my supply of protests. I cut them short, snapping my mouth shut.

I get it. This was always part of the bargain, always part of the sacrifice. The consequences of the choice I had made come rushing through my brain like a comet trailing a tidal wave of emotion. My stomach turns, my head pounds with pressure. So this is what it means to learn Ifa. ‘Ok,’ I hear myself saying, ‘ok.’

I look up, composing myself. ‘We’re here to see Awo-Iku,’ I say.

The woman nods and grins at me. ‘He is inside.’

We take off our shoes and enter in through an anteroom. The entrance to the inner chamber is covered by a beaded curtain. In the dark recesses of this room I can see someone else sitting there. A chill runs up my spine. I look at Ona-Ode and he is frozen in awe, staring at the man.

He is dressed in white, bent over a mortar, grinding herbs into fine powder. Behind him is an iron crossbow and three arrows set against a small mirror. A stag’s horn lies on the reed mat beside him. He reaches over without looking up and gathers another bunch of herbs into his palm; he throws them into the mortar and grinds them up with the others. When he is finished he produces a small glass decanter of liquid and pours it into the mortar. He sets to grinding again until he is left with a paste. He takes one arrow after another and daubs their pointed tips into the paste.

I look at the mirror behind him again. In the mirror, he is dressed in red.

The old woman steps in front of me and ushers us into the inner chamber. Awo-Iku is reclined against the far wall. There are shrines and statues all around us, shrouded in shadow and colored cloth, adorned in the blood of sacrifices and palm oil. My vision trembles. They seem to be moving; now growing larger and rising from their places, now turning to one another, slowly and ponderously, as if to utter some terrible word that would send the universe careening from its foundations.

Ona-Ode’s brother is dressed in black; he is holding some kind of curved bone in his right hand. His eyes look suspended in the recesses of his face, long and smoothed in conformity to the shape of the skull beneath. His dark skin is etched rather than wrinkled, as if an artist went to work with a scalpel and a delicate hand, just grazing the surface, laying down an intricate cartography of lines.

Êgbön Ôkùnrin,’ Ona-Ode says. ‘It is good to see you.’

Awo-Iku smiles, and he seems for all the world like a normal man; but something else dances behind his skin, smiling in mimicry. The brothers exchange words in Yoruba, catching up as if we just happened to be passing through and dropped in.

Then Awo-Iku turns to me and says, ‘Oyinbo, I have thought of a name to give you: A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. The Odu have spoken well of you, but there is still something you must do.’ He turns to Ona-Ode. ‘Go and have words with your friend outside. There is something I would say to A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.’

Ona-Ode nods and steps into the antechamber. His senior brother bids me sit down and I do. He gathers his black robes and makes himself comfortable opposite me. I see something in his left hand. It looks like a divining chain, but like none I’ve ever seen before. Instead of the dried halves of kola nuts, the beads are strung together through tiny skulls. He taps the curved bone against the ground between us, whispering under his breath. He does this three times before reaching for a bottle of schnapps. He pours a shot-glass, offers an oblation and recites a prayer. ‘Asé’ he says after every phrase. He takes the shot, pours another, and hands it to me. I do the same.

‘You have inherited an enemy from your teacher,’ Awo-Iku says. ‘I have consulted Ifa on your behalf, and I will now tell you the ese that the Odu revealed to me.’ I nod—the ese Ifa are the stories that form the bulk of the mythological Corpus of the tradition. To an outsider, they are just stories; narratives involving gods, humans, and anthropomorphized creatures of all kinds. Some stories have the expected moral lesson, while others are more…opaque. To a practitioner, however, the ese are far more than just stories: they are encoded with a wealth of information, secrets to harm or heal, to kill or bless.

Awo-Iku begins the narrative, changing his tone in way that I’ve heard Olumide do countless times before. It is a tone that brooks no interruption and commands complete attention. ‘A Long Journey Does Not End With Death divined for King Efòn.

‘King Efòn inherited a calabash from his father, sealed with a lid.

‘He wanted to see what was inside, but he could not open the lid. He called his warriors and they could not do it.

‘He then said, “let me consult a diviner.” They called for A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. He said, “is this one a diviner?” His advisors said, “yes, he is a diviner.”

‘A Long Journey Does End With Death came and inquired into the matter of the sealed calabash. He now returned with an answer and said to King Efòn:

‘“you must gather 28,000 cowries, a giant rat, a black cloth, and a woven net. Make a sacrifice of these items. Then you will be able to open the calabash; only be warned, as there is one taboo you must observe: when the calabash is opened, you must be ready to trap whatever is inside when it comes out. You must wrap it in the black cloth, and you must never unravel it. It should remain wrapped in the black cloth.”

‘King Efòn gathered the materials and performed the sacrifice. He opened the calabash with his left hand, holding the woven net in his right hand; with the lid removed there now came a snake from the calabash. King Efòn cast the net over the snake and seized it. He then wrapped it in the black cloth, wondering all the while why his father would have kept a snake hidden away in a sealed calabash.

‘The snake now said to him, “Let me go and I will help you. The people of your father’s kingdom are plotting against you. Let me go and I will tell you who they are and how to deal with them.” King Efòn said to himself, “what? If I let this one go, I may never know who is plotting against me!” So he unwrapped the snake and set him free.

‘The snake now went and bit King Efòn’s wife and firstborn son; the snake went and bit them. Desperate to save them, the King summoned A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, who said to him, “I told you not to unwrap whatever came out of the calabash! Now see what has happened to you. If you would overturn your misfortune, you must allow the snake to bite you. When it bites you, strike its head and kill it. When the snake is dead, make a sacrifice of it by mixing your envenomed blood with that of the snake.”

‘“Won’t I die?” asked King Efòn. A Long Journey Does Not End With Death, divined for King Efòn. Do you understand?’ Awo-Iku stares at me.

‘Do I understand what? The story has no ending!’

Awo-Iku smiles enigmatically. ‘No,’ he says, ‘not yet. The story is here, now. The story ends with a question that you must answer. Now go outside—the snake is waiting for you.’

‘What?’ I stand up and rush out of the temple, through the empty antechamber and out into the clearing. Ona-Ode is already outside, but he looks—different somehow. He is dressed in white robes, holding the bow and poison-tipped arrows. Where is the other man?

Tokunbo is here.

He looks past Ona-Ode and meets my eyes. ‘Oyinbo!’ he calls out. ‘You have come far into the bush! The gods here do not recognize you!’

I assess him; he is younger than I, dressed in red robes. His eyes are wide and feverish. He radiates power without presence. Why did Olumide fear him so? ‘Why do you hide behind Ochosi?’ he calls out.

Ochosi? What is he talking about?

Ona-Ode starts forward, and I see that it is not just Ona-Ode but Ochosi also, Orisha of hunters and of medicine. Ona-Ode notches an arrow, raises the bow, and lets the arrow fly. Tokunbo just stands there, watching him—I hold my breath—

I would have thought it impossible for a man to move so quickly. He darts underneath the arrow and charges forward. Ona-Ode notches another arrow, but he is too late. Tokunbo roars and the sound is like a shockwave. The black sheets flutter wildly on their lines; the trees bend and sigh above us. Ona-Ode tries to discard the bow and raise an arrow to defend himself, but Tokunbo is on him—he strikes with a blow that is like lightning splitting a tree down the middle. Ona-Ode falls to the ground and rolls away, his hands covering his face.

Tokunbo stands, and it seems as if his entire body is vibrating in place. His attention slowly focuses on me. If I don’t figure out a way to defend myself, he will strike me down as easily as he did Ona-Ode. My mind goes frantically after an answer. I remember what Awo-Iku said: the snake is waiting for you.

I remember something Olumide told me on the day he first cast the diving chain for me: ‘When you come to a far place, you will know it for your home.’ I know what I need to do. I am A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road.

I stare at Tokunbo and whisper under my breath, calling out a name I couldn’t possibly know, a name that was never taught to me, a name that rips out of my throat like a barbed arrowhead from a wounded animal.

It is the name of a hidden god.

I move toward Tokunbo and he falters. I can see doubt in his eyes; he did not expect that I would stand against him. The trees whisper to one another in hushed tones and the tall grasses surrounding the clearing bend and wave. Tokunbo steps backward. I chant at him, calling out the names of diviners and spirits in a thunderous litany. All the verses taught to me by Olumide come pouring out distorted, as if I were somehow retelling them from another, darker perspective. I weave narratives of terrible magic around my enemy, strangling him with a power that creeps out of the black earth like some writhing vine. He shouts at me but I hear nothing.

Ona-Ode tries to tell me something, but it is too late. I have it: the end of Awo-Iku’s story, left incomplete so that I could use it as a weapon. ‘“You will not die.” A Long Journey Does Not End With Death. Divined for King Efòn. King Efòn let the snake bite him; the snake bit him. He struck it down—’ I raise my hand. Tokunbo wavers and cowers before me.

‘The snake died at his hands; the power of the snake belonged to him. He was dancing,’ I snap forward and strike Tokunbo down; he falls to his knees. ‘He was rejoicing—’ I strike him again and he falls onto his back. ‘He praised his diviner, A Long Journey Does Not End With Death!’

I roar down at him and the shadows that have been crawling along the edges of my vision lunge forward, focused to a point aimed directly into the center of Tokunbo’s forehead. He tries to rise and resist, but at the moment of my exclamation his head snaps back and strikes the ground. I can almost see something leave him, some red spirit of wrath and rage and bloodthirst; and then it is gone, snaking away through the tall grasses.

Ona-Ode inches closer to me. ‘You shouldn’t have invoked that Odu,’ he whispers. ‘Look at what you’ve done…’ Tokunbo lies dead at my feet. I stare down at my hands. I shouldn’t have been able to do that. I am bleeding from an unknown wound in my belly; I am holding an unfamiliar knife in my left hand. A memory flashes across my mind—of Awo-Iku handing me the knife during his recitation of the ese. I was holding the knife when I ran outside.

I used it to make a sacrifice of myself. Human blood. I used human blood.

I stare at Tokunbo’s body. There is no discernible wound on him. His eyes are rolled back in his head, his mouth gaping open. How did I kill him? What terrible power could fell a man without physically wounding him?

Awo-Iku appears outside the temple. He comes forward and smiles at me. ‘Long have I pitted Olumide and Tokunbo against one another; the white against the red. Long have I cultivated this moment. Now you are mine, A Stranger Who Travels Home by the Hidden Road. You have invoked a spirit known only to my lineage. You have stained your white robes black. You are bound to a different destiny, now.’

‘No…’

Oyinbo! You are mine-o!’ he cackles at his junior brother. ‘You have brought me a fine gift, Ona-Ode; an apprentice of uncommon power to reinvigorate the tradition. Olumide thought himself the highest among us, and Tokunbo thought himself a worthy successor to a throne of ancient power. Now both are slain and what was hidden shall be honored again.’

‘I am sorry,’ Ona-Ode says to me.

And just like that, I know. I will not leave here. It is as Tokunbo said; I have come far into the bush. But he was wrong—the gods here do recognize me.

I am at home among them.

 

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One thought on “Short Story: The Hidden Road

  1. Pingback: Maferefun Obata… | Valerie Romande

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