In the months leading up to this night, a specter hung over Africa’s shining Gold Coast. Griots, who once traveled from village to village, telling fables of enchanted forests and animals that could speak, now brought with them indelicate rumors and tales of rapture.
Some days before this evening’s meeting, Imarhan had heard one of them speaking loudly to a group of people, as if possessed by forces beyond himself. The griot threw his arms in the air and stomped his foot as he spoke about a vision he had. In his vision, this village, and many neighboring ones were left desolate as villagers sought to escape an evil spirit that angrily swallowed anything in its path. As he said that word, “swallow”, he crouched low to the ground, as if imitating an evil spirit hunting for straggling, vulnerable men, women, and children.
The tales were not unprovoked fabrications.
In recent months, rumors had been spreading that men from distant villages on the waters such as Adjarra, were entertaining and trading with strange and foreign men. None of the villagers inland had seen these men, but common knowledge was that they were the color of quiver trees. As their goods began to spread into the markets and villages along West Africa’s Gold Coast, so too did the legend of men the color of quiver trees. No one knew where they were from. Some said that they were from a rich and far off land – they had so much treasure that they didn’t know what to do with it. Others said that they were spirits from the water.
The fire raged mightily.
Around it sat five men, each absorbed in thought. The village was quiet, except for the sound of scurrying chickens in their pens, and the anxious whispers of women who gathered in each other’s homes, waiting for their husbands to come back and give the news.
Adaze was the only one with a staff. It was he who determined that there needed to be a meeting held at once, resulting in the urgent beating of the ceremonial drum, alerting all of the council members.
The last time the council met had been several months earlier to deliberate on a bitter land dispute between three prominent brothers that threatened to tear the small village into tiny squabbling factions. For years, the council discussed inconsequential matters such as these.
Adaze’s father, Amadin had been the village’s nominated leader for several years, overseeing conflict and disputes just as his son now did. He was a noble man who had amassed one of the greatest fortunes the kingdom of Dahomey had seen. His two wives still lived in the vast compound he built, refusing to remarry, for there was no need.
Amadin’s instinct and knowledge had been sacred, passed down through generations of patriarchs of little villages in the kingdom of Dahomey. Although the greater kingdom of Dahomey was beholden to a king, villages like this one sought out the knowledge of local leaders. Their words were translations of notes from the sacred song of the universe. It was Amadin who would lead the village in rituals of rejoicing when the harvests were plentiful. It was he who would lead in the celebration of newborn children and marriages. It was also he who led the village in sacrificing to the ancestors when the rains were meager, and the land dry, cracking beneath their feet.
Of his three sons, Adaze was the only one to stay in the village. As the eldest, it was his duty to assume the position his father had vacated.
The call for a meeting had alarmed everyone in the village. The pounding drum sent hearts racing and minds scattered.
In his left hand, the tribal leader held the staff made of padouk, given to him by his father as he neared his death, preparing to meet the ancestors. “My duty is now yours.” His father said, not long before he closed his eyes for the last time.
Slowly the staff had been worn down by years of men deep in thought, rubbing their fingers against its grainy surface. He shifted the wooden staff to his left hand, and stood up slowly.
“The meaning of my father’s name, Amadin, was a simple one. If you are not brave, you cannot exist in this world.”
He studied each of the men surrounding the fire.
Asemote: a man of peace. Slim, but not small.
Omonuwa: a wealthy but lazy man who “inherited too much from his father.”
Agidigbi: a stout and muscular hunter, cursed with a violent temper that elicited curious whispers from the mouths of the other villagers.
And finally Imarhan, the youngest. Vitality seemingly flowed through his veins – his youth was the object of much envy. It was Imarhan who offered to do small tasks for women whose husbands had long since passed; carrying goods back from the market, repairing a thatched roof in time for the rain.
For one reason or another, whether it was superior wealth, pedigree, or good nature that had surrounded their name, these men made up the council. Each man was the first-born or eldest surviving son of his family, and shared the responsibility of ensuring the village affairs ran smoothly.
Adaze spoke. “Word of something unnatural and evil came from Chief Azagba, of Adjarra last night.”
The men shifted in their seats, each signaling his discomfort at this revelation. Men of Adjarra, a not so distant village, were mainly descendants of the Fon tribe. The Fon were great farmers, and Adjarra’s fertile land, close to the river and ocean blessed them with plentiful harvests. Their knowledge of the land surpassed any other people. It was the Fon who would harvest bushels of corn, and thick yams, then sell them to other peoples at steeper rates, enjoying the profits. But those men were Fon, and these men were Yoruba, and people stuck with their own people.
“That such a great chief should travel three nights to speak with his own mouth and deliver a message personally to me…. speaks to the nature of our problem tonight.”
Agidigbi interrupted, the red and orange flames dancing in the reflection of his black pupils. “Enough ceremony. We are not children.” He shouted. “So do not speak to us as such. Why have you called us here?”
Asemote sat up abruptly, surprised by the behavior of his fellow countryman. No one else dared speak. Adaze spoke again, after sometime.
“Azagba spoke of the men the color of quiver trees… they carried chains with them. He spoke of many boats the size of small mountains, sitting in the water. He spoke of his own brethren, herded like cattle and tied like goats, then taken to the boats.”
Adaze stopped and stared at the men, as if he couldn’t believe what he was telling the men.
Each man was quiet. Omonuwa rung his hands, and wiped his face.
Asemote spoke softly. “This is our price.”
The twigs in the fire crackled. Cicadas and crickets sang loudly in the surrounding bush.
The men were quiet. Asemote inhaled and continued.
“Yes, this is our price. We have forgotten our ancestors, but have they forgotten us? Now, they are showing us the cost.”
Omonuwa spoke suddenly, as if he had conjured a solution. “Surely, if they are taking men like cattle, then they will look favorably upon a payment?”
The fire hissed. The rest of the men sat around it, considering Omonuwa’s naïve idea.
Agidigbi grumbled, “When will you learn that money is not a solution to everything? Your father clearly didn’t teach you that. It is not because of men like you, that our people have stood strong like the baobab tree.”
He looked at the men around the fire with him, and then spat on the ground.
“I’ll die before I am herded like a cow.”
Asemote looked toward Agidigbi and spoke, “The tears of your wife have not shown you the backwardness of your ways. Force is no answer. This is simply a message from the ancestors themselves. We must speak to the men and ask them what the ancestors want. That way, we can win their favor once again.”
Of all the men, it was Imarhan, the youngest, who remained silent.
Though Imarhan had never met one of these strange men himself, he had seen the things they brought, and the unnerve they caused. Months before, he’d been walking through the market to buy pounded corn, when a familiar vendor stopped him and proudly told him of “red gold” which he had recently obtained. He touted the “new” and “far superior metal” which he had recently exchanged for ivory. The price made him shake his head and continue on.
Not everyone was so cautious. There were men in his village and nearby ones that would buy the expensive, exotic goods from the market. Imarhan’s aunt spoke of a wealthy woman she met that made her servants prepare her food with dishes and pans made of this new red gold, and how this had yielded enormous health benefits.
One day, he saw a woman proudly showing off a necklace that her husband had obtained from a trader. The tiny beads attached to the thread were clear and seemed to trap the light, then throw it in different directions as she held it to the sun. Some of the women who stopped to look simply sucked their teeth in disgust. Others looked with jealousy that showed brightly in their eyes. Imarhan observed from a distance with great unease.
Many villagers disregarded the gossip and avoided the goods, which to them possessed evil qualities. Why should they seek things from far off lands when the earth, which they worked with their own hands, provided all that they needed? Anything else was simply greed.
After the markets closed for the day, many women would eagerly gather in each other’s homes to share the latest gossip they heard. Among themselves, they agreed that these mystical goods had a secret – there was more to them. Why should strange men appear out of nowhere, simply to bring their treasures to other people?
It wasn’t until Azagba, a chief of noble blood, worn down by years of mediating tribal conflict traveled for days under the sun and moon beneath a vast sky that the men began to realize that yes, something indeed was wrong.
According to Azagba, the mighty chief of Adjarra, whole villages who had lived for generations directly in the path of commerce on the coastal region were hastily packing up as a result of his alarm, gathering the things they would need long enough to survive inland and avoid impending conflict with the men with chains.
Adaze tapped his staff to the ground and adjusted the cloth that went from his shoulder to his knees. In the light of the fire, the profound bags under his eyes looked graver. “My name means ‘a noble man’. I’m not afraid to look to you all, when I don’t have an answer. Humility and nobility, are they not brothers?”
“Look at this old Ode”, mumbled Agidigbi. “A magnificent leader you are.”
Asemote spoke quickly, “We must pray, and fast. Only then will we be able to understand the messages of the ancestors more clearly.”
Adaze nodded his head slowly, almost with apprehension. “Let us begin to fast with our families and meet in the evening tomorrow.”
The men all got up to leave, each heading home to tell his family. By sun rise, the whole village would know of the boats the size of mountains, the men the color of quiver trees, and the chains they carried. But, what could they do? The council had failed to decide a course of action between them.
That night, restful sleep eluded Imarhan.
But he dreamed vividly.
In his dream, he watched their noble chief, Adaze as he knelt in front of the well, slowly pulling up a bucket of water, one hand going under the other. Finally, when he leaned forward to grab the bucket, he fell in, as if the well had inhaled him from a deep underbelly.
Imarhan ran to the well, and when he got there, he heard the wailing of what sounded like a thousand men. He peered into the well and only saw blackness, but the voices of these men echoed in the night.
The voices of the men sounded almost like a flock of lost birds, singing into an open sky.
“Ọlọrun, iwọ n gbọ ti wa?”
“Ọlọrun, iwọ n gbọ ti wa?!”
“God, do you hear us?” The voices grew louder and louder, each wail drowned out the other, until the well became a chorus of one thousand men, pleading for the mercy of God.
Imarhan awoke with a fright, drenched in sweat.
His heart pounded. His palms were filled with sweat. “God, what is happening?” He whispered into the dark.
He pulled a dashiki over his frame, and walked under the open sky, relishing the crisp night air. The cool air of summer had a way of bringing him to his senses. Slowly, he exited the hut he shared with his mother and brother, and walked, letting one leg follow the other. He knew not where he was going. After some time, he arrived at the hut of Edosa, the witch doctor.
Edosa sat sharpening his blade and muttering to himself. When Imarhan was within his periphery, he stopped, a grin slowly coming across his face.
“Can you bottle the ocean?” He asked.
Imarhan stood, as alert as prey.
“Are you deaf? Edosa said.
Imarhan uttered – “No, I’m not deaf. I awoke from a nightmare.”
“Ah yes, a nightmare.” Edosa muttered. “A nightmare is but a dream. Aren’t dreams the language of God?”
Imarhan took a step back. “So, do tell me your dream” Edosa said, and took a step closer.
“I’ll tell you in the morning; now, I’m too tired. I should be leaving.”
“Ah, I see…” he croaked. “What makes you so sure of tomorrow?”
Paralyzed with fear, Imarhan watched as Edosa sharpened his blade, sparks illuminating his face in the darkness.
Imarhan began to turn and leave, ready to let his two feet guide him home, when he heard Edosa ask, “Can you chain a man with no arms?”
Stunned by this, Imarhan gazed at the witch doctor. The witch doctor got up and went into his hut. Imarhan followed behind him. “What did you ask me?” He demanded.
A woman who had been inside grabbed Imarhan by the arm with both of her hands.
The doctor muttered to himself, “You can’t chain a man…with no arms.” The doctor wiped his blade, careful not to cut his fingers as he pulled the dirty cloth to its tip. “You cannot chain a man with no arms,” he said again. The tone in his voice was that of a child who had solved a riddle, awaiting a reward. Imarhan could see, the doctor’s dimly lit face turned to a grimace, and he looked to the ground. “Ọlọrun, iwọ n gbọ ti wa?”
The woman’s grip on Imarhan’s arm tightened. He could feel it go cold, his fingertips turning white. The doctor turned to Imarhan, and the woman lifted Imarhan’s arm so that it was parallel to the ground.
Half laughing, half growling, Edosa lifted the sharpened blade high above his head, then sliced brutally into the dark.
Imarhan woke up with a dull pain in his right arm. It radiated from his shoulder to his fingertips, but when he tried to rub the arm, he felt nothing. He shot up from a mat on the ground, leaning on his left arm. Hesitantly, he let his eyes wander to where his right arm had once been.
The sun had risen, and it was daytime now.
Imarhan’s heart was beating forcefully, ready to leap out of his chest. He stood up, looking for the witch doctor, but saw no one as his eyes shot around the empty hut. Imarhan’s body pulsated with pain and disbelief, and he screamed, only to realize that he couldn’t hear himself over the shouts of men outside. He followed his feet outside, his eyes now upon the disorder.
Walking in chains out of the edge of the village into the dense forest were nearly twenty men. He knew them all. He recognized Asemote as he dragged his feet, chains restricting his legs, giving him just enough slack to shuffle them strenuously. Asemote whispered to himself, his eyes wide and unblinking, unbelieving. Agidigbi was not far behind, his two sons chained directly after him.
The sound of clattering chains was a requiem as the men marched. Where? They knew not. Why? They knew not.
Men the color of quiver trees sat tall among strong horses, angrily and eagerly shouting, viciously whipping men that Imarhan knew, like cattle.
Omonuwa followed too, tears dancing down his face, sweat across his brow. His back was bleeding, his gait slow and laborious as if he were in great pain.
A strange man walking alongside the men in chains hastily approached Imarhan. He took off his hat and looked grimly at the spot where his arm used to be. The man observed Imarhan with eyes blue like the sky, a color he had never seen on someone’s face before. The stranger’s hair was the color of grass that had long since died, bleached of color by the sun. The dead grass like hair covered the man’s jaw and mouth.
“Maybe this is God.” Imarhan thought to himself, his mind in a foggy daze “Or maybe this is Evil.”
The man grabbed the stub, which had once been connected to Imarhan’s arm and squeezed it. Imarhan fell to the ground, letting out a sharp scream as the pain raced through his body. Disgusted, the man mumbled something and then was gone.
Before long, most of the men were gone, too.
Olustories © 2019 All Rights Reserved
 Ode translates to “fool” in Yoruba