Ìtàn Ìfé (The Story of Love) written by Adédoyin Àjàyí at Spillwords.com
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Ìtàn Ìfé (The Story of Love)

Ìtàn Ìfé

(The Story of Love)

written by: Adédoyin Àjàyí

@AjayiAdedoyin14

 

The sun was dying. It cast an orange hue over the sky as it gradually made its way home. The crickets would soon start chirping. I sit in front of our hut and stare as far as my eyes can see. There is nothing in the distance but a future I had lost the ability to see. The orange glow of the skies is beautiful. An owl perches on the tree in front of our hut. I see Omótúndé trudging from the stream. She never misses her evening ritual. Even with us so far from Abejide, far from home. Home. Unfortunately, I couldn’t call Abejide my home anymore. Neither could Omótúndé. Home is where we both are. I cast my gaze at her again, and I feel the stirrings of love. She walks in the manner she usually does, gently walking on the balls of her feet. Her calabash is in the crook of her right arm, and with her left, she smoothes her hair. Stray droplets of water roll down her arms, bronzed in the dying sun. A thin strip of cloth houses her breasts, running around her chest and going under both arms, and leaving her midriff bare. She’s not taken off her ileke, despite being so far from her father’s house. They sit proudly on her waist. She takes my breath away. She reaches me and sets her calabash down. Her wrapper slips, and her left thigh comes into view. She smiles at me and goes into our hut.
The rains have stopped. The nights were sweltering. Just like it was that night in Abejide when we fled for our lives, just before it rained. I get up to start our evening meal. Without a word, she plucks the flint from my hands and does it herself, blowing on the glowing coals to stoke them. I feel a twinge of guilt as she does this. She never had to do so in her father’s house. Omótúndé omo Alapinni, the one with hips of wonder, doted on by her mother, the apple of her father’s eye, and desired by every able-bodied man from all parts of Abejide and its surrounding villages. She didn’t complain. Death was her other alternative to burning her fingers with hot coals.
She turns to me, interrupting my thoughts. “Tànímòlá, what would you like to eat?”
“I skinned the rabbits my snares caught three days ago,” I say. “We can have that for dinner.”
She smiles again and nods her head. Rabbits and wild mushrooms. She never had to eat that. She had no choice. Again, death was the other alternative.

***

The elders told us Abejide was born of rain. We were children of the rain. Our people, hunters, the legend told us, had wandered from place to place in search of a home, in search of a place of their own, and then the rains came. They were heavy, unrelenting needles of water stabbing exposed flesh; angry showers from Olódùmarè on the earth he created. After four days, the survivors found their way to a land filled with rivers. They would no longer hunt. They swapped their guns for nets, and machetes for paddles. Fishing thrived in Abejide. The Ogunpa River and the many streams that branched out of her depths like wayward children had an endless supply of fish and crabs for Abejide. The few men who hunted quickly met mysterious ends. Their swollen bodies were found floating in the Arikuyeri River, the waters of vengeance and wrath; the black waters on the outskirts of Abejide. River Osun was the longest. It snaked round Abejide as if surrounding it with the loving arms of its mother, Osun.
I liked it when it rained. No one else did. Storms told us the gods were angry with us. It rained more in Abejide than in other villages. The lightning flashes in the skies were the anger of Olódùmarè, his booming voice casting flashes across the skies. They said I killed my mother when I was a baby. I was born with eyes the colour of clouds. My stepmothers told me that in my eyes, my mother saw the reflection of lightning, Olódùmarè’s wrath, and her heart turned to stone. I once asked Baba about her death. He only sighed and told me that the ways of the gods were beyond our understanding. By the time I was thirteen, Baba came to my father’s house and told him he was taking me away. I remember that evening. We had eaten amala and ila topped with goat meat. It was my father’s favourite meal. His wives had taken up spots to gossip in front of the house, while my siblings chased chicken and goats around the compound.
“Baba, what do you mean?” My father was as surprised as he was angry.
Baba settled on the mat that Aduke, my father’s youngest wife had spread for him. He took his time before answering. “Look at your son; he is a child of the gods.”
The evening air was still. It was a black, hot, and moonless night. Nevertheless, upon hearing his words, I felt a chill come over me that had nothing to do with the weather. The candles in the hut cast an eerie glow over the faces of the two men.
Outside, an owl hooted. A cricket chirped in reply. Faint beating of drums could be heard in the distance. As Baba moved, his soro rustled on the mat.
“You know this, omo Ìbíyemí,” Baba continued. “You have always known, since Awéléwà clutched her breast and fell upon seeing him,” he finished, pointing a crooked finger at me. His eyes bored into mine as if he could look past the milky clouds that hid my eyes from the world.
At the mention of my mother’s name, my father clenched his jaw. “Don’t mention her name!” he thundered. It was an open secret that my mother was my father’s favourite. It was told that he swam through Arikuyeri River, the one with the wrath of the gods, to court her. Till this day, he walked with a limp, from a wound that nearly killed him as he swam through. I was Awéléwà’s only child, and in my eyes, he saw the murderer of his wife, sent from the gods.
Baba’s jeering laughter rang out. “You have three wives. They are more than enough to keep a man company.”
The lines of grief stood out like ghosts on my father’s face. He never told me, nor gave any indication that he blamed me for my mother’s death. Yet, there were passing glances that were a mix of fear and amazement from him and everyone who looked at me. The child with clouds in his eyes. The one whose descent from the feet of Olódùmarè plucked life from his mother’s body. I was reviled. My stepmothers didn’t allow my siblings play with me much. I grew up a loner, a child with little contact with his world. Children were scared of me. Adults kept me at arm’s length. Stares, whispers, hushed conversations followed me daily in Abejide.
“Do not insult Awéléwà’s memory with your words,” my father said angrily.
Baba stiffened. “Have you gone mad?” He pointed his finger in my father’s direction. “Omo Ìbíyemí, you dare to raise your voice at me?” he raved, the cowries tied in a knot on his wrist rattling.
The countenance in the room was as black as the night. I sat still, afraid to move a muscle. Both men glared at one another. Only few men in Abejide had the will to stand up to Baba, and my father was one of them.
“You say you have come for Tànímòlá,” my father said, having regained some of his composure. “To what end?”
Baba shook his head in disgust. “With the company of three women, it is little wonder you have no wisdom,” he spat. “Omugo, the gods reside in your house! Are you so blind you can’t see it? Your father was a wise man. How did you turn out with your eyes staring at your heels?”
My grandfather was considered to be one of the wisest men to have lived in Abejide. He and Baba grew up together till his igbà gave way atop a palm tree, sending him falling down to an inevitable death.
At that, both men turned to look at me. The gods reside in your house. If I hadn’t known fear when I saw shadows crawling in the dark when I clutched my wrapper around me, in the harsh reprimands of my father, in Baba’s imposing, mystical look, I knew it now. Its heavy hand clutched me in its grip and I struggled to breathe. I let out a sound that sounded like the squeak of a rat caught in a trap.
“He is no ordinary boy. He kneels at the feet of Òrúnmìlá and sees things no one else can, things no one else does,” Baba said. Òrúnmìlá, the spirit of foresight, wisdom, and destiny. The orisa whose wisdom blazed a trail across the sky, like milk spurting from the breasts of a nursing mother. Òrúnmìlá, igbakeji Olódùmarè.
My father whispered, “Òrúnmìlá?” His voice wavered. He cast his eyes from Baba to me and back to Baba. “Òrúnmìlá?” he repeated.
Baba nodded. “He is gifted.”
I shivered. Òrúnmìlá. Gifted. In later years, I would come to realise that being gifted was just another way of being cursed.
“How do you know this?” my father asked.
“The gods tell no lies,” Baba replied.
I knew he told no lies. I never told anyone of the owls that perched on my father’s hut at night and how I looked into their eyes till I saw the message they foretold. No one knew of the headaches that mysteriously plagued me in my many wanderings into the forest that bordered Abejide from neighbouring villages. I told no one of the dreams in which I saw a wizened, stooped old man, his white, flowing beard reaching to his waist, telling me of age-old gods that once walked Abejide.
I looked up to find two sets of eyes on me. Two, set in wrinkled sockets, gazed at me with reverence and wariness I had become familiar with, while the other two wore a mask of fear and bewilderment. From that night on, I ceased being a son again to my father. Tànímòlá omo Ìbíyemí, was dead, Tànímòlá, ajeri eleri ipin, the one with the clouds in his eyes, now lived.

***

Omótúndé liked bathing in the many rivers that ran through Abejide. Her childhood fascination with the rivers was a source of mystery for her parents. They didn’t know what to expect from her; who they expected her to be. They didn’t expect to have a daughter who liked the waters, who would be courted by men from all over Abejide. Omótúndé, Omótúndé of the quiet nature and wide eyes, Omótúndé of the cocoa skin and doted on by Alapinni, her father.
Her parents treated her to as many comforts as Abejide could provide. She was only fourteen when her mother’s bebe idi adorned her waist, drawing both envious and leering eyes to her waist. Omótúndé, born into a world she had no control over, into circumstances she hadn’t asked for, was revered for her beauty as she was scorned for it. Her brother, ĺgbókòyí, died of convulsions when he was six. Before ĺgbókòyí walked the earth, Dúróoríkèé lived before him. She was spared none of her mother’s love. But she couldn’t wait. Her playmates called for her in the dark, where no man could see, and even fewer walked. She died, ripping her parents’ heart out with grief. Omótúndé came after ĺgbókòyí. She was a merciful child. She had few of the mysterious illnesses that her elder siblings tormented her parents with. Neither the endless love of their parents nor the spilled blood of butchered hens and goats in numerous sacrifices could make Dúróoríkèé and ĺgbókòyí stay. They longed for a return where they came from, a place meant for them alone, where they could play till their hearts’ fill and then some. They were àbìkú, children born to die. Omótúndé would sometimes hear them calling on those nights she was tormented with nightmares. They longed for their sibling. Awon aro meta. She resisted their calls. But she couldn’t escape Abejide’s wrath. She was treated the way one carried a snake, with the tender fragility of an egg lest it stung you, yet at a distance, with deliberate wariness of an unfamiliar, wild beast. Even her parents’ affection for her was borne of a fear of her exit to another world and a steeper plummet of their status in Abejide.
She was a familiar sight in Abejide, with her long, slim limbs and her graceful gait. Alapinni dressed her in his mother’s aso-òkè. Her slender frame was blessed with a slim waist, and breasts that jiggled like two firm pieces of èko beneath her aso-òkè when she walked. She was a masterpiece of Osun, sprung from her loins. The richest fishermen in Abejide, the wealthiest goldsmiths, and most prosperous farmers in surrounding villages came for her hand in marriage. An àbìkú favoured by Osun. An àbìkú with a neck so graceful it defied belief. An àbìkú with skin so smooth it was burnished by Osun’s hands. Jealousy, like black venom, burned in the breasts of the village. It flowed like Arikuyeri, filled with wrath of the people, not the gods.

***

The night belongs to the animals that lurk in darkness – rodents burrowing their way home, snakes slithering on palm trees, the hooting of the owls, and the crickets that call out to one another in shrill chirps. I watch the fire blaze merrily, firewood crackling, the fire hissing like a hurt viper in response. The air is still. It stares at me like it did on the night Baba came to my father’s house. The gods reside in your house. I never forgot those words.
Akosejaiye e ni,” Baba told me. It is your destiny. One of the first things Baba told me was that I could not change my destiny. “The day a monkey will die, the trees will be slippery,” he said. I was to accept my destiny, not wrestle against it. A destiny I never asked for. A destiny I never cared for. Born with eyes the colour of the clouds, despised by my father, looked upon as an aberration, and chosen of the gods. Ajeri eleri ipin. I foretold of great and terrible things that would happen to Abejide. The opele, cowries, and opon Ifa were as natural to me as my own breath. The shrill hoot of an owl pierces the still air. The night is still, as if time stopped, and all of life exists no more, save for Omótúndé and I.
I walked that mystical place where no feet of man traversed, where the height of human knowledge failed to reach. Baba taught me how to cast the strings of opele and foretell the future. I could read the akosejaiye of babies, foretelling who would extol his family’s name; of who would drown in it the cursed waters of Arikuyeri. I was the diviner to the gods, gifted with powerful foresight and cursed to roam Abejide as an outcast. Being gifted and being cursed were simply bedfellows on opposite sides of a mat. With my veneration came condemnation. I was the child whose eyes, eyes the colour of the clouds, silenced the beating of his mother’s heart. The outcast chosen to wear the mantle of the gods and drink at the feet of Òrúnmìlá. The one who heard the beating of the gods’ hearts as the thumping of drums. I saw the spirits as they swayed joyfully on market days, and the harvest that would follow. Abejide wept for losses that I foretold – poor harvests, heavy showers from Olódùmarè that drowned toddlers in Arikuyeri, and the death of Oba Adekitan. Since none dared oppose Olódùmarè’s will, neither could they know the infinite depth of Òrúnmìlá’s wisdom, I was the cursed messenger who received the fury of Abejide’s indignation. Those who questioned the Òrúnmìlá, the one who spun threads of destiny like woven cloth in the sky, littered the bottom of Arikuyeri River with their bones. So I, the unfortunate bringer of his intents, bore the fury. It is your destiny. My destiny was like the wind that blew. I was unable to predict its origin, and powerless to change its course.
I, the son of destiny, had no control over my destiny.

***

Perhaps it was also destiny that bound Omótúndé and I.
Omótúndé never danced with the girls in Abejide. The girls who danced in the village square in Abejide were the darlings of the entire village. Their presence lifted tired bodies and wearied minds in the evenings. Red dust rose around their feet while young, bare-chested young men beat drums with relish. The girls danced with sensuousness and the pride of their youth. My mother used to be one of them before she married my father. Their skin glistened with life, and their eyes were merry. In bright colours of aso-òkè that clung to their bodies, the young men in Abejide jostled for their hands in marriage. They never paid me any attention. One look at my eyes filled with clouds reminded them not of Olódùmarè and his heavenly abode, but of something rotten, better off buried or cast in Arikuyeri. I spent my evenings roaming the forest or swimming in Osun. On occasion, there were errant teenagers who frolicked in the water, or tired fishermen who sat on the banks to mend their nets.
Far away from the wild stamping of happy feet, I walked to the water and saw a sight no man in Abejide ever saw, and that most desired to gaze on. It was Omótúndé bathing in the water. I had heard stories of her famed splendor, and I had seen her on a few occasions, when she sat in front of her father’s house in the evenings, her dark eyes staring into the fire. Her mythical-level beauty was from Osun herself. She was a child of rain, a daughter of Osun. In Osun’s waters, she carried the essence of the orisa. Drops of water sat like jewels on her dark skin. Her hair ran free, its tips clinging to her shoulders. A matted thatch of wet black hair sat between her thighs like a bird’s nest. In my eighteen years, I had never seen a woman’s nakedness, neither had I seen a comfort that called to me, radiating from the depths of her eyes. I moved closer to her. She didn’t shy away from me. Her eyes had a life I had never seen before through my clouded eyes. It was the first time in my life someone looked at me as a human, not a murderer, an outcast, or a harbinger of woe. With our hands on one another, and bodies straining for release, our souls merged. I felt life flow from her into me. She, an àbìkú, one who tottered on the abyss of death, whose siblings called her forth from the afterlife, had more life in her than all the nubile girls who danced in the village square. She inflamed in me a passion I had never felt before. In me, she saw a haunted spirit, one who desired love. In our arms, we found love. Pure, untouched by the circumstances of her birth; and true, undecided by the visions I saw.
Baba told me I lost my powers. He said I was unfocused, and the clouds in my eyes were a little brighter. Omótúndé made them brighter. Osun witnessed our intimacy every time every time we met on the banks on River Osun. How could I tell him that I found my destiny, a path I chose, not one mapped out for me by the gods? Or was it destiny that led me to Omótúndé?
The fishermen caught us on the third market day. It was a day for Abejide was supposed to be quiet. It was a day for the spirits to gaze upon the harvests, dance upon the rivers, and purify the land. Elderly women offered sacrifices, while the men butchered she-goats. Wrapped around each other, we were in a world of our own. How could I have heard them, when I was watching the water drip from her smooth skin? How could I have remembered it was the third market day when we were consumed with desire for one another? I couldn’t control what I saw. I was but a tool in the hands of Òrúnmìlá, my mind and body a cauldron for his doings. I was hated for being on a path I was forced to travel, a life I didn’t want. I chose a life I wanted – I chose love – yet I was hated even more. We were hated for loving. Omótúndé and I carried burdens heaved upon us by hands we couldn’t control. We wore yokes thrust on our necks that dictated our lives. We found comfort in extending the confining boundaries of our destinies and choosing what we wanted. Together, we were who we wanted to be – broken souls assuaged by love’s comforts. Finding what we lacked our whole lives, what we never found in its purest form, was our ruin. A tempest swept through Abejide violent enough to match Sàngó’s fury. It was a storm and we were at the eye of it.
“You have desecrated the land of our fathers!” Baba’s voice cut through the still night like a razor. Murmurs of assent and the shuffling of feet came from the villagers. They all came to see my shame, my undoing. Our undoing. They were all there. My father was there, his gaze blank. I saw my stepmothers huddled together. Omótúndé’s parents wore stricken looks. In the vile stares of the young men, I saw envy. A light wind blew and the trees groaned in response.
Ewo!” Baba screamed. Abomination. “The mouthpiece of the gods who dares to defile them.”
The whistling of the wind in my ears condemned me. The moon was full. It was a bright night. Our captives had separated us. I looked at Omótúndé but her head was bowed, her shoulders slumped, like a worn palm tree. The wind was blowing harder now. It carried the unmistakable smell of rain.
“Tànímòlá, you have insulted the gods,” Baba shouted, stabbing the ground with his opon Ifa in his anger. Turning to Omótúndé, he continued, “You insulted them with an àbìkú. The worst child born of a woman.” He spat at her.
I struggled against my captives. Omótúndé’s shoulders shook as she wept.
Awon agba ko e!” A thunderclap underlined Baba’s proclamation. The gods reject you. And it began raining. It was my damnation. Piercing tendrils of water that threatened to bore holes in the skin.
We were exiled from Abejide that night. Abejide of the many rivers and dark, still nights. We no longer called Abejide home. But we never forgot Abejide. Abejide never forgot us either. The villagers told stories about us. They say we now reside at the bottom of Arikuyeri River, its cold waters dousing our bones, like all the other unfortunate people who dared offend the gods. Some say we now walk the skies, two stars dotting Olódùmarè’s heavens. But most of all, they speak of our love. The boy with clouds in his eyes and the àbìkú who dared to love him. The boy sent of the gods and the àbìkú who chose Olódùmarè’s land of the living to be with him. Àbìkú to ko ìkú. The one born to die who rejected death. The messenger of the gods who held enough love to stave off the attractiveness of death for an àbìkú. They liken our love to Sàngó and Òyà’s. The type of love that tamed Sàngó, and made him sit between Òyà’s thighs when she braided his hair.
“Tànímòlá,” Omótúndé calls me, the reflection of the fire dancing merrily in her eyes as she smiles at me. I turn to her, and then turn to stare into the large eyes of the owl. It hoots and flies away.
I turn back to Omótúndé and return her smile.
“I’m coming,” I say to her.

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