After what seemed like a month of travel from Dundee, The SS Ethiopia transatlantic passenger vessel Mary was on finally came to Duke town, Akwa-Akpa. At last a dream which she had cherished for years had finally come to fruition, and even so, it seemed as though it were a dream and barely tactile. Her vessel steamed through the river crowded with white cranes and pelicans, post dark crocodiles getting a tan, huge hippopotamus in creeks, monkeys and parrots, forest of palm trees that was to be her new home, home also to its famous pioneers whom she was going to live with until she knew a thing or two about the native land she was now in, about their culture and about her missionary work, which was most important to her.
Everything was magnificent in her eyes, the sunsets and sunshine, the rivers, the exotic birds of the air and the melodious songs they sang, quite a different scenery as compared to Scotland, mud-colored rivers which came out of mysterious lands and had never been seen before by anyone of her race; she was extremely astounded that she wrote poems.
However, after Mary found her feet in the new land she had arrived in, learned its culture and traditions in relation to her work, the beauty and gayness of the foreign land Mary was in seemed to fade away and was replaced with nothing but horror and dark colours. One day, she was taken out to the yards of the natives in town by one of the tribes’ women and the savagery she was met with spun her mind and changed her disposition, the happy-go-lucky side of the people who welcomed her seemed now to be confounded, Mary was beyond astonished and shocked, to say the least. In almost every village there was a chief with his wives and numerous children and the many slaves they owned. There was segregation in the clans, the free-born, and the outcasts who were condemned to be killed to the shrine heads, or flogged or made to work, branded and had their ears cut off. Voodoo tribes who danced manically around the campfire and drank like fishes and wrestled each other for women, they buried their chiefs and kings with pure gold, slave women and men, children. Twins slaughtered whole in scores, the crops tasted like copper tang, blood was all the earth drank.
Immediately, Mary swung into action and started the practice of her work, she was a missionary from Europe sailing through Africa to inspire change, educate and civilize the people, introduce them to the new white god from Nazareth, their personal lord and savior who died on the cross of Calvary for their untold sins and was ready to forgive them if only they gave up their sinful and heathen ways. It was supposed to be that simple.
Some children ran away from Mary, or threw stones at her; the women spat deploring words at her feet. The storytellers and oral traditionalist of the clans told stories about her, they likened her to the children of the Olinka people who were cast out because of the pale color of their skin, it was unheard of for a person to be born white and so it was a taboo, but the men naturally thronged around her, thirsty, perspiring heavily with jungle fever.
Mary had a winsome spirit, womanly ways, tremulous and sympathetic, loving and not acquainted with nervousness or fear. Her patience and tenderness in her relations with the tribesmen were how she entered into their lives as few had been able to. Her winning ways which included learning the Efik language helped in capturing their hearts.
When people saw or heard of her toiling and of all the work she could undertake and accomplish, they were inspired to listen to what she had to say, about her message, about her God, about where she came from in deep contrast to where she now was. With time came acceptance and then they treated her as a human being, it was then she saw the tragedy in their lives, she wept over their trials.
Mary wasn’t a stranger anymore; she was a teacher, doctor, nurse, mother and a form of judge of the people among whom she laboured. The healing and soothing power of her words and actions were amazing. Visitors usually found her nursing a baby in her arms and a swarm of children about her, she was always busy, and always found rejoicing in her good and kind-hearted work. Mary had a wonderful vision of what the power of the word of God could make of the most dishonoured, and she proved more and more as the years went on in Duke. Her humanitarian deeds earned her good names, and almost naturally her fame spread far and wide. Delegations of chief men travelled long distances for dispute settlements, or to seek her hand in marriage, but Mary made them friends and tried to win their hearts over to God.
In love, the most were Edidem, the king in Duke. He was especially taken by the good nature of the foreigner, he had heard all the good works that she went around doing in his kingdom, nursing the sick and providing relief to the poor, teaching and settling minor disputes around, that moved him to invite her to a little party at his court, an invitation which he sent through his personal court servant Asem.
The lass appeared at the party dressed in a wrapper tied around her waist and around her hung breasts gaining the raunchy stares of chief men gulping down palm wine from gouges, and the envious tiger eyes of the women. But graceful and calm was Mary in her outward appearance, unperturbed by the stares she was getting. Edidem on seeing her was amazed, taken aback; he had expected her to appear in one of her English get-ups. He smiled. Edidem was hit with the thunderbolt that very first evening Mary appeared in his court with her two handmaidens whom were sent along with relief materials from Scotland. Edidem became sick. But for the strange color of her skin Mary looked exactly as a woman from any tribe in his kingdom, he loved the dull grey colour of her eyes, he wanted her. Edidem was a fierce-looking man, tough and full of pride as he was king, and so he acknowledged Mary’s presence in his court with a terse nod and a goblet raise, manner-less about standing in presence of a woman, instead he had Asem announce her.
It was easy for Mary to blend, she engaged the men and argued politely with them to the admiration of the women who weren’t liberated and had been taught from birth to still their tongues in presence of men. She offered solutions to problems and they seemed to find reason in her words. She mingled with all but with Edidem who sat watching and sipping wine from his goblet, his oiled skin glistened in the light of the torch fasted to a post beside his throne. As the sun took its farewell position in the sky Mary was about to take her leave, she went and bowed in front of the king.
“Thank you, Edidem, for inviting me to your beautiful palace, I’m sorry I have to take my leave now before the sun settles at the horizon, the forest can be very dangerous at night.”
Edidem nodded at her when he spoke his voice was hoarse and thick. “I would order two of my men to accompany you and your slaves back to your hut.”
“They’re not my slaves, they are my sisters.”
Edidem seemed pleased with the way Mary spoke the Effik language, she had only been around for two years and her tongue flicked about with the skill of an indigene, a true-born, he rubbed his beard, the flames casting shadows on his wild eyes “Very well then, my guards would accompany you and your… sisters back to your hut.”
After that night Edidem sent a message to Mary through Asem, she was to appear in court alone, without her other sisters or anyone. When Mary arrived they sat at the garden annexe to his throne room. There they ate fresh fruits from a basket and drank wine. They talked about everything, Scotland, her passenger ship and her experiences sailing, mineral resources in the earth, measures to cure sicknesses, her work, her God, her people and her culture. Edidem was an intellectual king, although archaic in some ways and a voodooist, still he was a pleasurable company. He took her on a tour of his palace, the art he had collected over the years in the battle with foreign tribes, diabolic paintings of great value, shrine figureheads and bronze works, weavings, crafts, masquerade masks and other things that fascinated Mary. Behind was Asem standing guard.
The afternoon meetings went on for a while until finally, Edidem made a move. He couldn’t wait to have her.
Edidem granted Mary some of her wishes, something to help make her mark in his territory, something to hold on to before she left. He invited Mary to his court to serve him as a teacher, special adviser and his court physician. Edidem begged Mary to move into his palace but she refused, they always argued
“My presence at the shelter is calm to the chaos in your kingdom, the people need me, especially the women and the children, my maidens’ need me for instructions and moral support, my absence would cause disruption to the work I do here.”
“You and your sister maidens can move to court.”
“Then who would watch over the condemned children and their mothers? At your request, I would swiftly move them all to your huge palace huts, myself too of course.”
“It is almost impossible to achieve what you are here to prove, I say almost because of the few battles you have won, this message of love you speak of, some of the traditions that hold this kingdom were crafted by ancient sages and wise men, it was molded to stand the test of time, so, bringing the slaves to my palace would only cause an outrage, not just for you but for me and my household, that is impossible.”
“They’re not slaves. It is almost impossible that I move to your court, Edidem, I say almost because I still come around to spend afternoons with you in disguise of what you call a teaching session, it would have to stop. I also cannot linger around after court is dismissed.”
The bravado and brio of the lass turned Edidem on and fanned the flames in his heart; he wiped the bead of sweat on his forehead and looked at the sun.
Edidem made his intentions of love known through the gifts he lavished on Mary. Asem carried loads of relief in the dead of the night to the doorstep of the small hut the villagers built by the corner of the village for Mary. Edidem wrote poems and love letters in Nsibidi which were transcribed by Asem whom Mary had taught how to write and read.
Mary too had come to find the native men gorgeous. Their oiled unclad bodies adorned with delicate silks, damasks rimmed with gold and silver, their muscled legs cuffed with bead works and fine brass, feathers and brooches. The higher men had crowns on their heads and masks of animals. The king was the supreme leader, heavily built and adorned in gold. He was of imposing height and strength and had a very fierce but aristocratic face. It enticed Mary, she crossed herself many times carnality came to her mind but, she got tired. In no time she fell heels over head for Edidem.
Mary was taken and fond of his careful arrogance, his corny jokes, how he sneaked out of his palace with Asem just to give her the gift of his presence in her hut, the good conversations that ranged from voodoo to Christianity to how everything in religions boiled down to the same back story. They would argue endlessly defending their religion. She was also in love with how Edidem came to her hut nights after nights to cure his case of jungle fever, lay on her bamboo bed and listened to her read him exotic stories from the good book, how she stroked his beards as they lay in comfortable silence, unperturbed by the shrieks of the Egbo warriors. Even though she knew there were many complications to the newly formed dalliance.
For one it was an abomination and a huge sacrilege on the heads of the ancestors of the ancient land, a crowned Edidem who had been taken through the deadly voyage of coronation to be communing with a foreign god, with a foreign woman, sharing her bed with her. Even Edidem knew, tradition was tradition. A tradition who snuffed out the love of a mother from her twin babies was no mere joke, he couldn’t put years of transcendence aside for desires of his own flesh, he could not put aside his other many wives and concubines, he could not become an outcast, if word got out loosely they could have their heads.
One night as they lay spent on the regal hand weaved mat on the floor, Mary got up from Edidem to wipe off his man seed dripping down her legs after he came as she straddled and rode him. After she wiped herself and was dressed, she searched for her first aid box and took a pill, and then she walked over to the bamboo bed and patted the space beside her. The lemon and salt smell of Mary’s hair filled Edidem’s nose as he sat and then laid his head on her soft thighs.
“Ma, why do you drink that white medicine any time we are done making love,” Edidem asked
“So I don’t get pregnant for you, I can’t get pregnant for you.”
Edidem frowns but says nothing.
“Edi, I find it appalling that you would not put a stop the heathenism that goes on in your kingdom, every day I hear the cries of women and babies, the wailing of men and the killings, every time a woman is brought to me, bleeding, and twin children at hand. Edi…” Mary heaves and without sighing she continues, her words oscillating between little English and fluent Efik “it is too much, I cannot bare it anymore, and I can barely sleep.” she sighed
“Do I look like the head of the midwives? Or the owner of all the slaves bore? How many times do I have to tell you that I did not make these rules? It had been here before my mother missed her moonblood, got pregnant and gave birth to me.”
“You are the king; you can put a stop to anything.”
“I’m more of a slave too if you looked at my way, a slave to the people who made me king, my hands are tied tightly at the back, tradition is…”
“Edidem, how do you sleep at night?”
“On a bed softer than this one,” Edidem scoffed. He said nothing for a while and let the sound of crickets and night insects fester. The moon was full and a soft wind howled outside where Asem stood guard. “Maybe you should move to the palace if you are scared and can barely sleep.”
Mary pushed Edidem’s head of her thighs and his whole body followed to the ground. He laughed richly.
“Quiet it you scoundrel, I don’t want spies of your numerous wives and concubines to hear your voice here and come for my head.”
“Concubines do not tell on concubines so only worry about my wives, but they would never know or hear, Asem hid me well and took me through his secret path, and I trust him.” he paused as if in thought, then continued. “Have you run out of supplies? I can always send Asem to you.”
“I’m fine, for now, but I need blankets for the little children, some of them catch a cold.”
“That’s why they are an abo-I would get you the blankets you need.”
The room was silent for a while again; neither Mary nor Edidem said a thing, only the sound of their eyes twitching in the semi-darkness. Mary spoke first.
“Tell me what future you see in this for us, I can never be a wife to you, not with the color of my skin, not how many you already have littered all over Duke, the raunchy concubines, it disgusts me to even see myself as one too, I could never compete or survive a day without being eaten alive.”
“Rumours of cannibalism in my kingdom are untrue, although I meant it as a joke. We could never be together, this is all we can be, and it is an abomination. Forgive me saying that but, it is what it is, I can only make a wife from a woman of the soil, my people would part me seven ways and bury me with nothing if I contradict, not even a single slave to wipe my black nyash when I shit in the afterlife, no gold, no women to fuck, I would be condemned for life, my whole family would be labeled as outcast, my heritage and pride stripped away forever, it is no way for a man to live in this world, or the next, nothing is worth it, even your people…” he laughed.
“Ugh, Abasi, Edi you speak of it with so many glorification! It’s disgusting and mind-bending, when would this generation long barbarism end, the killings, the floggings, Edi! Where is your voice of reason, haven’t you learnt anything about love, about peace from the bible stories I read to you, or is it just the sex for you.”
“It is so much more than that and you know it, Ma, you give me good advice in court, you treat my illness well with your special white medicine, better than the witch doctors, the court, the women love you and the men listen to you sometimes, it is much more than that, although I won’t deny how good you’re in bed.”
“It is futile having conversations with you, you’re cunning and stuck to your old ways, arrogant, proud and adamant, that is why you dance around my questions like your ugly ugly looking masquerades and shrine figureheads.”
Edidem went quiet, his eyes were shut and his appearance suggested he was in a reflective mood; the lass noticed his features and quieted down. Afterwards, Edidem stood up from the floor, adjusted his penis in his loin cloth and stepped out of the hut in the dead of the night without saying a word back to her, he whistled and Asem jumped out of the bush where he hid and together they left back to the palace using the apian way.