I bless the very day my mother, the Olori, suggested I study abroad: the womb that begat me hath not forsaken me. When I sleep, I hear faraway screams in my dreams — dreams redolent of days I wished for death. My grandmother, Olori Agba would have been so disappointed in me; she always told me before her death to stand up, to speak things into being and to never forget that I was more than just royal blood — I was heir to the throne! I did stand up but only outside the palace. I dared not stand up or speak up in front of the Kabiyesi, my father. He was indeed a man without fear or regard for life; with no respect for elders and no listening ear to lend anyone, not even the gods.
I remember how Father murdered the Ifa priest that prophesied the end of his reign. No one knows exactly what the prophesy was. I watched Father strangle the priest to no avail. The man retained his quiet nobility in spite of my Father’s exertions. No beads of perspiration broke out on his face, no realizations of inevitable death flashed in his eyes, no recalcitrant vein stood out from his neck to betray the calmness he exuded. Kabiyesi was furious. Here was a man who wordlessly questioned his strength. He went in and brought the ‘ida oba’, one of only seven of its kind on earth. Into this particular one, our ancestors had invoked seven restless spirits and one pure spirit, a virgin who willingly surrendered herself, that spiritual balance may remain. When this sword penetrates a man’s body, the seven spirits drink of his blood and the virgin takes whatever peace he has to fortify her spirit, the better to keep the balance. This delicate balance of spiritual energy is only visible to someone that possesses ‘oju inu’ and so is privy to the veiled half of this world. The ida Oba can only be used by the reigning Kabiyesi on whomever he chooses; no man survives it except the Kabiyesi wills it, and such a man spends the rest of his days devoid of peace, forever restless, cursed to scour the dirt of the earth in search of succour. The priest died in Kabiyesi’s hands on that day and no one dared talk about it. Kabiyesi saw himself as a god and woe to anyone that treated him otherwise.
Even with Mother, Father was never gentle. He would chase her around the palace using koboko to flog her. The worst was when he ordered the guards to tie her down and then he raped her in their presence. When he saw her sobbing, he dragged her to the part of the palace where the king’s offenders were punished, and with a knife to my neck, he handed me a whip with which to flog her. Mother begged me to do it. He swore he would have killed me if I refused. I was his first son, he deigned to admit, but not his only one. Did loins not abound in his court to receive his seed?
Whenever people came to the palace and hailed “Kabiyesi o! Ki ade pe lori, ki bata pe lese…”, my heart would lurch and I would wonder in disgust: “how can they even salute him?” When I told Mother about it, she replied: “Few amongst men are ever ready for death, Rogba”. Mother had stopped getting enough sleep. Whenever she closed her eyes, she awakened from the otherworld with screams. I could hear her even from my room and I would weep within me. What words of comfort could my infant soul mutter? I lay in my shame and willed her what little peace my spirit still held on to. Aderoju, my elder sister and first born of the family, was born with a heart of stone. Never did she shed a single tear despite all she had seen.
I once ran away from the palace to stay with Ajala, my best friend, but Father’s guards beat him mercilessly when I was found. I fled after Father cut the belly of a pregnant woman open and removed her baby; he made sure the baby was alive and handed it over to its father where it died a gradual death He said he had shown mercy. “Eni to se ni owo iya ba”, he said almost nobly with a gentle voice. The pregnant woman had only spat when he passed. Was it not a part of pregnancy? And was he quick to forget the tales of old? When drought racked the land and only the saliva of the pregnant Olori Awelewa soothed the earth? Father thought only of himself. He saw resistance where others saw subjugation. He saw rebellion where submission was clear and the heads of his chiefs nodded in agreement.
One fateful day the screams of Aderoju awakened me at dawn. The skies still carried night in its colours and the sun was nowhere in sight on the horizon. I found Father forcing himself on her in her chambers. Three guards manned the door and fought me off easily so that I was unable to go in. Watching from this distance, stripped of whatever pride I had in my manliness, death that I wished upon Kabiyesi only in corners of my heart became words that parted my lips. Father had delegated Mother to represent him at the coronation of the King of a neighbouring kingdom because he considered it below his station. Being Kabiyesi entitled him to any woman he coveted. Still, he chose his own daughter, his very own blood. He had her tied down like a goat. There was only defiance in her eyes as he thrusted forcefully in her. I think she screamed for the benefit of others rather than for herself. She knew that no one could save her from this fate. Her eyes were as dry as sun-beaten clothes. I think she screamed to quicken the four winds of the land that whispered to listening ears in the evenings, telling gory stories of the sins of our tyrant Father. I found my courage in the audacity of her ululation. I wanted to be the one to kill him. When he was done with her, her eyes caught mine and she smiled faintly. Her lips moved but she made no sound. Do not worry for me, brother. His days are numbered.
When Mother returned, I did not step out of my room. Soon, I heard Mother’s scream and her bitter curses. I thought Adedigba, my little brother, had told her about what happened; then I recalled Adedigba was fast asleep at the time. Curiosity made me step out of my room in search of Mother. She was in Aderoju’s chambers. Aderoju was just as Kabiyesi left her — weak, bloodied but with head unbowed.
“Kini Aderemi ma so, ti ko ba bami nile, Iya Mi?”
Aderemi is the prince of the largest kingdom. They had been courting since they were young ones and even the diviners agreed that their love was ordained by their creator. For all intents and purposes, people considered them married. So who would have thought that despite the long years in each other’s arms, Aderoju remained a virgin? Tainted now, would he still consider her fit to be his queen? Suddenly, Deroju wouldn’t stop rambling. She began to speak of dreams laid to waste and years that would count for nothing in the face of this betrayal.
She held her stained bedspread and showed Mother. I have never seen my sister cry but that day the river of her tears rivalled odo Asada, the largest river in our kingdom. Adedigba walked in and the four of us cried, united by a grief neither of us could bear alone. Through the tears, Mother spoke words that roused confusion: In time you will understand, I promise you. But you must never show contempt for Kabiyesi.
The next day, Father called me and told me he had something to show me. I dressed up without asking any questions and followed him. That day, we went out without any guard. Whenever that happened, Father often took the ida oba but this time, we went unarmed. He took me to odo Asada; its water was colourless and odourless but Father banished people from going there without giving reason. He had guards patrol the river path and trespassers paid through their noses for disobedience. I never thought Father would go there, let alone bring me along. Rumours had it that a pregnant woman who had drowned as she was trying to cross the Asada River was sighted again around the time I was born. She had been banished around the time Father was crowned Kabiyesi. It was all hearsay and no one was sure what to believe. He dismissed the guards then whistled three times. Then he sang a strange song and whistled three more times. Suddenly, the river became turbulent and the water started to rise, first without form but finally, into a female-like structure. When the water descended, I saw a fair-skin woman of divine beauty. She had a very large fishtail but as she came out of the water, her scales fell off and her lower body transformed into human legs. I was astonished by her beauty.
“This is my son, aya mi”, Father said as she walked out of the river. Nothing felt normal at that moment. As she walked past me, I felt anger well up within me. He laid down when she was beside him but as she laid with him, I saw spirits moving from her body to his. Then she looked up to me and asked, “what do you see?” I shook my head quickly and turned away. They spoke to each other in a language I could not comprehend. I only heard when she spoke directly to me: “You are no ordinary boy; come next time and I will give you my daughter”
The walk back home was a silent one, I did not speak a word. Frankly, I could not. But the scene replayed endlessly in my head, and they still do. I did not speak to anyone for days. An unease that I could not dispel was birthed within me; rage was burning inside of me and I had a great urge to kill. Perhaps that was what Father always went through. Was this what Mother meant when she said we would someday understand? I went to her and explained everything. By the time I was done, Mother was already on her feet pacing round the room. She told me to stay right where I was. She barged into Father’s chambers. “Adeyemi! Adeyemi!! Adeyemi!!! You must have lost your mind taking my son to that devil, pa mi to bama pa mi o!” She was battle ready, with her gele firmly tied on her waist. I have never seen Mother stand up to Kabiyesi before that day. She was willing to die to put an end to everything.
Father’s laughter was a roar from inside his chamber.
“He is my son, the heir to my throne. He has to know my ways and fully understand my powers….”
Mother cut him short immediately.
“What powers? You have lost it, every single bit of it. Her evil spirits are the ones in control. Adeyemi, hear my words. You have lost it; you are not like your father. He had total control of all the things every spi…”
A thunderous slap cut her short midsentence.
“Coward, that’s what you are!”, she shouted when she recovered from her daze. “Won’t you go fetch the koboko you whip me with?” She held on to his buba. “Shebi that’s all she has put in your heart, cruelty!”
Father completely lost it. He pushed Mother to the floor and she hit her head on the oaken stool. She started bleeding immediately.
Father’s movement was no longer that of a man, his steps were that of a possessed woman dancing to a spirit song. Father entered his inner chamber and took the ida oba. My eyes immediately went wide open. Father was not in control anymore; it was that devil. It became clear to me that the spirits that came from her into him were beginning to consume him.
“Go ahead and kill me, you coward!” Mother dared him. And he obliged. He dropped the sword and grabbed Mother by the neck. Mother locked eyes with me and then looked to the sword. The look unmistakeably said: Pick it up!
I must admit that my courage failed me and I became hesitant. “No way!” I thought to myself. I could die by handling the sword when the gods had not yet ended his reign. But when Mother started gasping for breath, I no longer thought of the danger. I shut my eyes tight as I picked the sword, half expecting immediate death. It was like the spirits were communing with me. The delicate balance of energy tethered on the edge of rupture. The virgin spirit could no longer hold at bay the restless ones. And suddenly I felt a surge of power as if the mandate of seven men rested within me.
Before my eyes opened, I heard Mother tell Father in what seemed like her last words, “Adeyemi, your reign is over”. He dropped her immediately and faced me. “Run! Son, please run!” Mother screamed. I ran out of the palace with the ida oba in my hands. My speed surprised even myself. I met Aderoju and Adedigba outside waiting.
“Mother said we should wait a minute after you come out, if she does come not out we should begin our journey”
The said minute went by so fast and Mother was not out. I pleaded with Aderoju to allow us wait a while longer but she refused. I do not blame her for she was only sticking to instruction. As we ran, many footsteps thudded behind us. Fear quickened our limbs. The thought of capture brought with it a sense of urgency. When we were far enough from the palace that we dared to stop to catch our breath, we began to hear the steps of a single person headed towards us. We crouched at the foot of a tree of wide girth and our heart hung delicately between jittering teeth.
“Look! It’s Mother!” Adedigba shouted suddenly. He was the only one with the courage to look back. Our hearts felt full as we embraced and again tears were shed to mark the beginning of our exile.
We travelled for months until we reached our destination. It was a far away kingdom with different culture, language and tradition from ours. Some parts of it were similar. They had their own ida oba, a replica of ours but without the spirits. It was Mother’s homeland, a kingdom far bigger than ours. Mother told us the story of herself and Father. I was taught the art of herbal healing and their ancient art of hand wrestling. Two years later, when I clocked 18, Mother called me and my siblings and told us “you are all ready” and then she said, after taking a deep breath, “I am ready too”. And again we began our journey, each step bringing us closer to lands we fled for our dear lives.
It was already dark when we arrived at our kingdom. When morning came, we set out for the palace. I thought I was going for a fight so I carried the ida oba in my hands. I was much bigger and stronger; I was a different person from two years ago. I was a man finally ready to face a fight from which I had fled.
“Kabiyesi o” the crowd chorused as we entered the palace. My surprise was evident. I still held the sword at the ready. And I only began to ease up when I was led into the throne room where Chiefs waited on an absent king. I learnt my father was killed by his ‘aya mi’ the night we fled. She ruled the kingdom through him but without the ida oba in his hands, her indirect rule had come to an end. Father had sought the help of Ifa priests. They told him that they would never save him but they will save the land by Olodumare’s grace.
It was a day of mixed feelings. Two out of seven Ifa priests, alongside Father, lost their lives in the battle that saw Aya leave odo Asada with her daughter for good. But I, the rightful king, had also fled the kingdom.
My return had been prophesied and before me lay my Chiefs, chosen accordingly from the right descents. The cabinet, alongside the Ifa priests, assembled there every morning patiently awaiting my arrival. My coronation took place immediately but I never entered the king’s chambers after that day. I had terrible memories of the palace, and I still do. Mother, who was the only woman who could see beneath my skin, suggested that I leave the palace to study abroad. How quickly these years have gone by. Tomorrow I return to a palace newly built for King Aderogba, grandson of King Adeniji; I can never and will never associate myself with King Adeyemi, a man I once called Father.