It fell from the sky like soft kisses, unto the battered soil of the war-torn battlefield, bursting into splashes of cool moisture upon the earth. Arẹwà raised her hands high and let the cold drops run down her stretched fingers. She lifted her head and let it fall on her face, felt it trickle past her lips to quench a thirst she had almost forgotten.
The loose knot of the wrapper about her chest was tugged off by the impatient winds. It flapped like a sail, tugged off her bosom to soar the horizon. Seeing without seeing, Arẹwà knew that it now hung off the tip of a broken spear, a makeshift flag symbolizing freedom known to none in the land.
Even amidst the deafening peals of thunder she could hear it flap violently in the distance, a melodic rhythm calling unsettled souls to her side. It was an interruption to their usual silence, not just because of the sound but also because the runes it bore had been drawn with her own blood.
Arẹwà brought down her hands and began to dance. Without the wrapper, the rain beat her everywhere, dropping like pebbles, hot on the exposed skin of her breasts. It was always an experience mixed with pain and pleasure.
Giving up oneself to the gods had never been an easy task, and yet she had been doing so since she was five. She had seen numerous battlefields, heard countless cries from the souls that still roamed the earth; they were rarely at peace—they almost never were.
Her bare feet sank into the soil as she twirled and jumped in the growing storm. The bells on her ankles chimed and the beads tied round her waist clicked and clacked with each step she took. She trusted the gods not to lead her astray, not to make her next step be into a sword or over a cliff.
Her blind eyes could not help her anymore, and in a sense, they never could. Whoever the gods wanted, they would take. That had been the tradition long before she had been born, and it had been the way her predecessors had lived till they died.
In all of her village’s history, she was the oldest. Not old in terms of age, but in terms of being with the gods. From the age of five till now, she had spent two decades dancing for the gods and interpreting their messages. Most thought that her time was near but she continued to prove them wrong.
Even when her eyes had gone out, the light in them snuffed by her passionate worship by the time she had seen eighteen yam festivals, she had continued on dancing. The gods had not rejected her, they had wanted to see if she was true to them.
Arẹwà stopped dancing and fell prostrate on her knees, bowing in the direction she knew was right. It was only when she lost herself in the gods that she could regain her sight.
Slowly, she pried apart her eyelids with her fingers. They had been sealed by the crust that formed from sweat and dirt and disuse—the rumors went that their rot had spread to her brain.
She opened her eyes and looked up to the sky for the first time in six months, just in time to see a streak of purple lightning flash past.
The wind howled mournfully.
“Won’t you accept these souls, Great One?” she asked.
She could feel them all around her, the old ones and the young ones, her enemies and her friends. As an oracle—even one in training—she held no bias. They were all children of the fields, lost as they were, and they were all created from the soil that had lapped up the blood from their wounds. They deserved peace and their families deserved reconciliation.
Arẹwà lowered her head to the soil in reverence and waited for an answer. Sometimes she got one in minutes yet other times it took hours. She imagined that the gods were deliberating on her request. For such powerful beings, they were sometimes fickle. The patron she served, especially so.
The god of thunder and lightning, there were many tales of how he came to be and just as many about how he lived but there were facts. For one, he was a warrior and a king with three wives that ascended with him into godhood and became Òrìṣà. It was also common knowledge that he killed himself, why he did so was what differed. Some fables told of him being tyrannical and forced to abdicate, and instead of living his life in the hands of his enemies he chose to end it with his own hands. Others said that he was fond of charms and had found a particularly powerful one rumored to attract lightning, he tested its power on his own palace and the resulting storm razed the building along with everyone in it—including his family. Lost in grief, he decided to retire. His courtiers had been split into two factions, one that was for him and one that was against him. He killed them all then fled in the company of friends. When in the end he was abandoned by the ones closest to him, he felt he had nothing to live for and hung himself on a tree.
Ṣàngó was the third Alaafin, the strongest and most feared Òrìṣà, yet Arẹwà could only chuckle when she recalled his story. He was the reason she was content to live in such a backwater village in such a large and prosperous empire. Royal life was messy and history belonged to the victors. To be anything greater than what she was would mean encountering danger greater than what she could bear. Before her mother died, she had said to all who would listen, “Arẹwà is destined for greatness. She has the blood of an Oba running through her veins.”
She said it as though I was next in line for the throne, as though no one in the village knew that her mind was dying from sickness. As though no one in the village knew that her mind was dying from sickness.
Which throne it was exactly, Arẹwà didn’t know. And if it was so great, why had her mother run away to this little corner of Oyo to live out the rest of her life while singlehandedly raising a daughter? Her father might be great but she was nothing. She knew nothing of him and was content to live that way till the gods took her.
Arẹwà knelt until she found herself waking up. She had not remembered succumbing to slumber; she had not received an answer.
She got up, unsteady on her feet and shook the mud off her skirts. She walked a few steps before turning to a broken spear half stuck into the wet soil. She pulled her wrapper off it, soaked as it was, and shivered.
It was not everyday the gods let her keep her sight past a ritual. It was not everyday the gods did not accept the souls that had been sacrificed in battle. Clasping her hands together, she offered a prayer for the lost. It barely lasted a minute; there was little she could do in the way of intervention now. She could only try again another day and hope the deities were feeling generous that hour.