Efita's End

Molara Wood

The indignity of it, Efita getting washed up on the riverbank like that. She was bloated beyond recognition, her brown skin gone gray and white in the watery depths. The fish had been unsparing, and a hole gaped out where one of her eyes had been. Eyes once perfectly ringed with kohl, that once fixed on men, put them in a giddy spin while she forgot them the minute she looked away.

Efita was identifiable only by the dress she wore. It had been made from the finest example of the chiffon that reigned the previous year—the finest seen in Lagelu, at least. It was bought for her by Chief Mayokun, who wanted her as his fourth wife, with the promise that she would be elevated to the first position. Only fitting, he thought, seeing as she was the loveliest woman this side of the river, and beyond. She rejected him but accepted the fabric, and the many other gifts. She had the cloth sewn by a specialist tailor from another town, across the river. No tailor in Lagelu would do. It would have been an invitation for copycat designs by the local women anyhow. Better if the tailor was not known.

Chief Mayokun had gone back to his compound, his wives and numerous children. If he could have had Efita he'd have given four nights of the week to her only, the three wives left with one night each. With a woman like Efita, he'd never need a fifth wife. The wives, elated at the chief's broken heart, made his plate of amala even more generous, the stew more inviting. He ate and felt better with each swallowed morsel. What chance did he have anyway, he consoled himself, when he knew she waited for Dewale only?

Children approached the dead body warily, fascinated and repulsed. Then one, Alake, ran to the market to inform her mother. Iya Alake slapped her daughter this way and that, but the youngster, between sobs at the undeserved beating, repeated her grim news to the mother's stubborn, disbelieving ears. Efita, their beloved Sisi Teacher, was dead and washed up by the river, Alake said again and again in a small, insistent voice. Then the child's eyes lit up, seeing her mother's slowly comprehending face. The lot of children, thought the girl pitifully, to be beaten up for the truth. Iya Alake grabbed her gele and tied it round her head as though she'd gone mad. She retied her wrapper round her waist—trunk-like from seven pregnancies and births—as one readying for a fight, and screwed up her face at the nuisance of children's imagination.

"Iya Sikira!" she called to her friend, Chief Mayokun's youngest wife, in the next stall. "Ah beg, watch my wares for me o. I have to go to the river to see what this child of mine has dreamt up this time. It may be that the madness in her father's family has finally entered her head."

Iya Sikira readily accepted the task. "E ma pe o," she called after mother and child, wondering what the sudden departure was about. She was accustomed to Iya Alake's references to an imagined insanity in her husband's lineage, always out of her in-laws' earshot —her explanation for any odd behavior in her children.

Iya Alake had not dared tell anyone her daughter's story, in case the child was wrong. Efita may have been haughty and vain, and may have lived in the cocoon of her beauty, but she was a nymph treading upon shards of light in Lagelu.

"It will not be my mouth that I will use to say she died," Iya Alake muttered to herself. "O ya, walk quickly," she gave her daughter an impatient shove. The little one staggered forward and quickened her pace —mother and daughter rushing to gawp at Efita's end.

Every weekday morning on her way to school Efita passed Iya Alake's section of the market. "E kaaro, Sisi Teacher," invariably, was the women's morning greeting to her.

"E kaaro ma," she would greet the poor, uneducated women back with every courtesy. If she had time to spare she would offer to help Iya Alake or another woman set up her stall for the day ahead.

"Ah, don't worry yourself," they would say with some embarrassment, that a modern woman like Sisi Teacher would demean herself with their lowly goods. Finally, ushered and gently shooed on her way, she would stride with languid steps and eyes far, far away; gazing too far into an unknowable distance to see the Chief Mayokuns of this world.

Whatever haughtiness or vanity the market women ascribed to Efita was due to their own feeling of unworthiness next to an educated woman who'd seen beyond Lagelu. In their hearts, really, they knew she was the humblest of souls. They were also convinced of her oddity.

"That one, she cannot be of this world," Iya Sikira once said. "See how she just appeared in Lagelu like a ghost in a second life."

"Ah, Iya Sikira, you have come again," Iya Alake chided her friend gently, sensing the other's jealousy over Mayokun's unconcealed desire for Efita. "Sisi Teacher has lived in Lagos, Ibadan and other places. Even gan-an, they say she has been to London." But try as she might, Iya Alake could not silence the niggling question: why would a woman of the world come to this place where all endeavors end? After all, she thought, we even want our children to leave this place one day and try their luck in the city. The adults of Lagelu just wanted to roll with what life they could eke out quietly until the end. The young, though, were expected to reject this life. So why Sisi Teacher would choose it, as she had done for two years now, baffled Iya Alake's lot to no end.

As mother and daughter approached the riverbank, the children dispersed like flies disturbed from a mound of faeces, further back from the corpse they had not dared get too close to. They were on their school holidays and so had not noticed Efita's disappearance. Iya Alake, seeing Sisi Teacher's dress, did a panicked half-dance, her voice racked by a thousand shivers.

"Ah! You this girl," she wobbled close to her daughter, "you spoke the truth! Ah! You spoke the truth! That is Sisi Teacher's Sunday dress!"

Efita had taken to wearing the dress every Sunday for nearly six months now. The children were the first to notice, since they had an open invitation to their teacher's house every Sunday afternoon. About fifteen to twenty of them would turn up, having finished all their household chores quickly in order to watch television in Efita's house. She was the only one with television and video in the whole of Lagelu, and for the children's visit, she would have the sets put in her backyard where there was enough space for everyone—the long extension cords snaking back to the small living room.

Evita was the children's favorite video, and they'd requested to see it again and again. ‘Efita', they called the film, and their teacher would put out what snacks and drinks she had at home for the children while they watched an actress with only one name play Evita. The lady in the movie sang about looking out of the window and staying out of the sun. And whenever Alake looked up from the screen, the young child would see her teacher in the shade of the doorway, looking expectantly down the street. To Alake and her schoolmates, the teacher with the distant eyes became known as Efita.

The children were inclined to think she wore the Sunday dress especially for them, but could never be sure. Once their three hours were up at the teacher's house, she bade them goodbye, locked up her bungalow and walked down to the riverside. There, she would stroll or sit gazing at the water, and beyond.

Iya Alake hurried back to the market, beating at herself, biting a finger in regret, untying and retying her gele and wrapper in turns. Death, especially the tragically untimely kind, holds much spectacle, and Iya Alake rose to the occasion. At the entrance to the market, it suddenly occurred to her that the news was best broken with loud weeping. So, she let out a ringing cry that made storekeepers stand bolt upright, knocking over their wares.

"Sisi Teacher is dead!"

A running clatter of overturned goods, scattered stalls and the bleating of goats for sale, collided with women's cries and turned the market into a riot of noise. The market was deserted within minutes as the women formed a chorus of laments in the direction of the river. Iya Sikira broke away unnoticed and headed for home, eager to tell her husband of the fate that had befallen his beloved—and her rival. Her two other rivals were on hand to witness Chief Mayokun's reaction.

"Our husband! Our husband!" Iya Sikira called after him as he dashed out, leaving behind wives shocked at the dawning realization that they were jealous still, of a woman lately turned into a ghost.

Kendu watched Mayokun hurry towards the palace, noting that the chief had not walked in that direction for some time. Kendu, so called by the villagers because of his protuberant belly, was the harmless vagrant of Lagelu, generally regarded as sick in the head. He did not mind the misperception of his persona by the villagers in the least. He reasoned that every community needs someone to label as insane, someone to see and look away, grateful that their lot was better than his. He did not consider himself mad, however. He was saner than all of them, he believed, and knew more of what went on in the village than anybody. In his view, he had merely kept the knowledge to himself, maintaining his sense of superiority by allowing the villagers to think him mad.

The only ailment Kendu acknowledged was the mystery of the stomach, which though often hungry, maintained the façade of fullness. Not so much an illness as an inconvenience, he thought, since it meant that food handouts from villagers were few indeed. A vain and pretentious stomach, bent on keeping up appearances. No one seeing it would ever think that it was in need of food. Kendu rubbed the misleading nuisance of a gut and trailed in the chief's wake, as he was wont to do.

Mayokun, even if he were not so agitated, would not have noticed the figure dogging his troubled footsteps. Kendu was an expert at following the unsuspecting. He long ago concluded that an awareness of his presence did not necessarily lead to the giving of food. Very few in Lagelu cared to feed the poor Kendu. Few, except the comely Sisi Teacher who, seeing the stomach that hungered for beauty, took pity.

In the two years since she arrived in the village, Kendu rarely went hungry. Rarely did his skulking presence go unnoticed by her. She and she alone acknowledged his existence, spoke to him, fed him from what she had, and saw in him infinitely more than a vagrant belly.

He might have thought that she loved him even, but he was definitely not so mad as to think that. He knew better, in fact, thanks to one night some six months before.

It was the one occasion when he succeeded in lurking unseen in her fragrant shadow. Or perhaps she was incapable of seeing on this night—such were the clouds gathering in the firmament of her heart. They clumped ominously together, bursting through the brown veneer of her face, spreading their shadows there. She was heading in the direction of a wedding celebration in a far corner of town. It was most unusual for her to walk the streets at such a late hour, Kendu knew this much. Besides, the best of the event was over now, and most of the guests had long returned to their homes; the bride and groom already embarked on their new life. Only those cleaning up would remain. Still, Sisi Teacher walked on, and the vagrant followed. He had never known so much sadness. It dripped from her onto the ground he walked on and turned his skin moist, misted his eyes. Yet he followed.

By the time she arrived at the party ground the shadows had settled deeply into her face. The flames from the fire, where goats had been roasted for the feast earlier, sparked once more. They flickered up and danced their dying passions on Efita's tortured face.

Sitting by the fire was a visitor from another town. A woman with sight over hills and rivers, she rose onto her feet. She saw flames crashing through clouds on Efita's face, felt the fire clashing with the dark in her heart and spoke with the wisdom of the waters. Her words fell like drizzle onto Efita's combustible soul.

"By the water at dusk on a lazy day, as the sky gathers the last folds of light from the river, your lover will return to you."

The woman was gone from Lagelu by the next morning, but Sisi Teacher held on to the words. The fires and shadows were gone from her face, and in their place the serene melancholy had returned. This was the face the villagers were used to, though it filled them with an inexplicable guilt. Kendu knew one more thing many villagers didn't know: the reason for Efita's sadness. He held on to words that fell like dew, for her; and when she took to going down to the river on Sundays in her chiffon dress, he knew why.

She had become such a regular presence by the river that the boat that sometimes came bearing news, letters and sundry items usually met her there. The boatman, rather than journeying on foot into town to make dispatches at the house of the Head Chief, had developed the habit of leaving them with Efita instead. She in turn conveyed the news and correspondence to the Head Chief's residence, from where they would be passed on to the intended recipients. But mostly, Efita's riverside hours passed without incident, she just seemed to wait. And as she waited upon the waters, Kendu would be a moving shadow among the trees, waiting with her.

The vagrant rubbed his stomach again, observing the hostile reception of Mayokun at the king's palace. Kendu had followed the chief in the slim hope of getting some food, or some clue as to Efita's disappearance. He had walked the whole town in search of her for several days now, since he left her by the river in her Sunday dress.

"Kabiyesi o," the chief greeted his majesty, removing his cap and prostrating flat on the floor, as protocol demanded.

"Ehn en?" The king was having none of it. "You mean you have the nerve to enter here again, after your refusal to attend council meetings with me and the other chiefs, for how many months now?"

"Quite a few months, Kabiyesi," the chief replied, getting up and dusting his hands free of dust from the floor. Too flustered to put his cap back on his head, he tucked it away in the crook of one arm. "I have been travelling on my businesses…"

"You avoided the palace because of business, or because of your shameless pursuit of my future daughter-in-law?"

"It is not so, Kabiyesi…"

"It is exactly so, Mayokun. I made you a chief of Lagelu and you paid me back by lusting after my future daughter-in-law."

"Only Olodumare, the Most High God, knows the husband of a wife-to-be, Kabiyesi…"

"Meaning what, Mayokun?"

"Besides, she never gave me face, Kabiyesi. And it is because of her that I have come to you now. I came as soon as I heard. After all, Yorubas say: we may fight, but never in the event of a death—if I may be so bold as to speak in proverbs."

"So, you compound the insult by coming because of her! And what has death got to do with it?"

"Your daughter-in-law, Kabiyesi. They found her dead by the river. I came as soon as I heard."

The king flopped onto his throne at the news. His only child Dewale, the future king of Lagelu, had failed to return from England after completing his studies, as was the plan. Dewale's letters were filled with stories of his faraway life, even the woman he had met there and hoped to marry. The father also read between the lines, that the prince's embrace of the wide open world beyond, hinted at a rejection of the closed life in Lagelu. Kabiyesi sensed his son's resistance to the very thought of returning to the place where endeavors end. The youth of Lagelu could seek escape, but not its future king in whom rested much hope for the future of his people and village.

And so letters went back and forth, reminding Dewale of his duty, his responsibility, the very purpose for which he was born. Dewale who, true to his name, must return home. The king and indeed the whole of Lagelu, had an unexpected ally in the prince's fiancée, who also felt he must return to the land of his ancestors, and expressed the readiness to go there with him. Dewale seized on the lifeline, and sent her ahead of himself to Lagelu, to prepare the ground and to reassure the king of his eventual return.

The promised three months stretched on to two years. Dewale never wrote his fiancée to explain his non-appearance, her letters went unreplied. In rejecting Lagelu, the prince rejected all in it, including his one-time love. She embraced her new life as a teacher to Lagelu's young and settled into the bungalow given her by the king, but grew increasingly sad. She became a woman of unspoken guilt felt by the ageing king and the whole village. Now she lay dead with her broken heart and dashed hopes, by the river.

Half the village had congregated by the riverside as the king approached with his chiefs and attendants. Kendu had arrived ahead of them and now, they were compelled to acknowledge his existence as he wailed all around Efita's corpse. He had been the last to see her alive. She was pacing by the water's edge in her usual manner when the boat arrived. The vagrant observed from the trees as the delivery man alighted, handed a note to her and took the boat out again. She read the note and waded into the river, as though calling to the departing boat. When the water reached up to her knees, Kendu thought she must be going for a swim, decided to respect this private moment, and walked off into the town—away from the river.

Now he was inconsolable. "By the water at dusk on a lazy day!" he wailed.

"As the sky gathers the last folds of light from the river! Your lover will return to you!"

"Maddened with grief," Iya Alake thought, shaking her head.

The king got to where Efita lay and stood by the dead body, shaking his head slowly, his cap in his hand. Then he looked towards the river, his attention drawn to the noise of an approaching boat. The man who alighted did not seem surprised to see so many awaiting his arrival. He prostrated in solemn deference to the king, conveying his condolence at the prince's death. He it was, that brought news of the death some days before, he said. He left a note with a woman usually found by the river, informing her that the prince's body would be returned on this day. Just then he recognized the dress on the young lady, dead on the ground, as the king caught sight of Dewale's coffin being lifted off the boat.

Kabiyesi took off his agbada and with it, covered Efita's corpse. Long strands of royal beads hung from his neck and bled many hues of red in the fading light. His eyes went from Dewale's coffin nearby to the boatman making his hasty exit. Now the madness of grief howled through the crowd, echoing in the village. But the Kabiyesi was all stillness. Stripped of his kingly robes, he stood naked to the waist and watched as the boat gurgled its mournful way up the river, and melted into the darkening gloom.

Molara Wood

Molara Wood is a Nigerian journalist, poet and fiction writer now living in London (the one in England, not Ontario or Ohio...). Please read Molara's fine essay "On Efita's End and Writing in a Second Language" in this issue of In Posse Review.