MURDER IN THE CASSAVA PATCH
by Bai T. Moore
From behind the rusty bars of a cell in Monrovia's South Beach Prison facing the Atlantic Ocean, I can now try to piece together all the circumstances leading to the violent storm which nearly tore off the roofs from many houses in the Dewoin country one bright Sunday morning in the year I957.
It rose over the discovery in a cassava patch, of the mutilated body of Tene, the daughter of a well known Dewoin family who live in Bendabli, just a stone's throw from Amina, the former Paramount Chief's town, twenty miles from Monrovia on the Monrovia-Bomi Hills motor road.
Like dry time thunder, Tene's murder shocked every one in the area. The news spread troughout the countryside like wildfire. A few hours following the discovery, hundreds of horrified persons had arrived on the scene to get a glimpse of the corpse. Mothers made it a point to bring along adolescent daughters cautioning them in these terms, "you see eh, when we old people tell you children to listen to your parents, you say this is a new age.“ "The person, who killed this child is a madman... A blood thirsty fiend seeking her vital organs to make sacrificial medicine, perhaps,“ stricken onlookers remarked, as hundreds of them passed by the body of Tene lying under a palm tree in the center of the cassava patch.
The twelve man jury appointed by the local clan chief to examine the body reported that Tene was murdered with a sharp instrument, a razor or a cutlass. Her throat had been slashed, both wrists cut to the bone, and there was a gash above the eyes. From the appearance of the spot, Tene and her murderer must have fought for a good while before she was finally overpowered.
After much palavering on the scene, the elders all agreed that because of the advanced state of decomposition of the body, it should be immediately interred. "According to tradition,“ remarked one elder, "Tene cannot be buried in the town. " The chief ordered a grave hastily dug and Tene was thrown into it.
My name is Gortokai. Kai, the last part of it is the Vai apellation for man. Gorto refers to the brown jugs in which Dutch gin was sold long ago. It is probable that on the day I was born, the village elders were feasting on a case of this delectable spirit, so that they were spared the trouble of inventing a name for me.
I grew up as the son of old man Joma and his wife Sombo Karn, and with Tene and Kema, her older sister. One day, I was left alone with Tene. We were playing Mama and Papa, when suddenly Tene came up to me and asked me to hold her tight in the waist. I shivered and recoiled. "Gortokai, can't you see that we are not brother and sister? It's a secret Mama told me.“
I didn't know then, why this information had been withheld from me. Much later, I learned that my real father was once a slave. He had been one of the men recruited for the Island of Fernando Po as a contract laborer on Spanish coco plantations, and came back home disillusioned but still full of the spirit of adventure, as result of which he associated himself with an itinerant Mandingo cola trader. It seems that at one time this gentleman was unlucky in one of his deals, and found it convenient to bargain my father off as part of the deal to a prosperous farmer in one of the St. Paul River settlements. Shifting from one village to another in later years, he ended up in the Dewoin country were he met my mother and married her. If there is anything I inherited from my father, it was his urge to roam about.
The third harvest following the outbreak of the Hitler War was a momentous year for me. Something every young man in the Dewoin country looks forward to, happened to me. I was initiated into the Zowolo, the highest Poro degree offered by the Dewoin tribe.
My foster parents spent plenty of money for this occasion. There were the initiation fees, new suits of clothing to allow me to change twice a day during the four days of feasting following the initiation and a series of receptions. The cane farm we made that year all went into the destillation of juice for the initiation.
Thirteen harvests after the initiation, I came to the conclusion that I was man enough to have my own fire hearth. This meant building my own house and getting a wife. In looking around, my mind began to settle on Tene, the daughter of old man Joma and his wife Sombo Karn.
Tene had just turned thirteen, handsome as they come. Her coffee color skin and eyes were bewitching. Men fell in love with Tene the moment they saw her. The girls in her circle envied her for this. Because Tene had many admirers, some of my close friends advised me that if I wanted her to be my wife, I would have to resort to strong love medicines to turn her heart towards me.
When the opportunity was offered me, I did not hesitate to impress upon Tene, my intense desire for her. But I had no intimate relative in whom I could confide, and I realized that this was the difficulty. Some one had to intercede for all the details involved in getting a wife. The only person I could rely on was Kema, Tene's own sister, who in fact, had suspected my intensions towards her sister, and for a long time encouraged it.
I trusted Kema so implicitly that I swallowed anything she told me about her sister line, hock and sinker. She reminded me of my importance in the family. Kema felt that because of my economic value in the family, her parents would have no reason to refuse me their daughter. Everyone in Bendabli knew that I was the main source of support for the joma family. My foster parents depended on me for making the annual rice farms, gathering palm nuts to make oil, making traps and crawfish baskets to supply the house with meat and other daily needs for the quarter. Now and then I took small bush cutting contracts to obtain money with which the family bought tobacco, salt and paid the annual hut tax.
The more the Tene matter came to my mind, the more I thought of the dowry the old people would demand of me. On this question Kema and I shared opposite views. She felt that since I was the main source of support for the family, perhaps a token offer should be sufficient. But what this figure should be, she never ventured to tell me. Although I was a member of the family I did not want my foster parents to dash me a wife.
Soon the dowry issue became the talk of the village. Some felt that my desire for Tene was immoral, but they could never convince me on what grounds. Some felt that in order to keep an asset like me in the house, old man joma should make a sacrifice and give me his daughter for little or nothing.
A delicate issue like Tene's dowry, I thought should be discussed in close confidence between Kema and me. One evening while Kema was visiting me in my one room kongo adjacent to the big square house of my foster parents, I seized the opportunity to ask her, "Kema, this one dowry business has been all over the town now for I don't know how many months. What do the old people want for your sister? Be frank and tell me.“
"Gortokai, I thought we had decided this.“ Kema replied.
"On the exact amount?“
"Not exactly.“ Kema reflected. "Gortokai, you have done so much for my old parents, we owe it to you to give you a wife. If I had a husband with money.“ Kema pointed out, knocking her chest, "I would take money and pay dowry for a woman for you myself.“
I believed every word Kema spoke. To make matters short I told her that I had decided to pay the full forty dollars which is required for all virgins. The only thing that mattered was whether Tene loved me. Kema gave every assurance that her sister was in love with me.
Immediately, I decided to make some quick money with which to pay Tene's dowry, and was fortunate to obtain an offer to go to Suehn on the Bopolu Road, to clean out a man's rubber farm for forty dollars. This amount would go a long way towards the dowry and other expenses involved in getting a wife.
I got to Suehn as quikly as possible. Of the first ten dollar advance I received, I sent eight to Kema to buy a lappa, a tin of powder, a jar of sweet smelling pomade and mambo earrings for her sister, as a surprise from me. I don't remember anyone ever giving her such presents. I did this to make Tene feel that I was serious.
I waited one week after the dispatch of the money, but got no word from Bendabli. This silence annoyed me, so much so I got dispondent and careless on the job. I paid dearly for this a few days later. With my own cutlass, I nearly chopped off my right big toe.
For three weeks I was unable to do any work. My employer engaged the services of a local herbalist to treat my injured toe. I thought I would use the toe as an excuse to get the old folks to send Tene to see me.
A week later, Tene and Kema arrived in Suehn. They came on a crowded Monrovia-to-Bopolu passenger truck. I lived in a quarter far removed from the main road, so that they had a hard time finding me.
Luckily, Tene came across a friend who knew where to locate me. When the girls saw me way off, they rushed to the veranda where I was sitting. Kema reached me first. She gave me a big hug. "What is the matter, Gortokai?“ She asked when she looked at my wounded toe.
"I nearly lost it, Kema,“ I said.
"Gortokai, it is God who helped you. We must thank him.“ Tene sympathizes. "Never mind, you hear?“
"I suppose you girls never heard of my misfortune?“
"Gortokai, I swear on the Sande Society, we heard of it in Bendabli only yesterday.“ Kema said. "The person you gave the message to did not rearch our way but went to Monrovia instead. Some people from Bendabli happened to be in Monrovia two days ago selling farina and heard of your misfortune. When they went back to the village they told the old folks. This is how we got it.“
"For true,“ I said, "times are changing. It's hard to depend on people these days.“ Kema admitted however, of receiving the eight dollars I sent, immediately upon my arrival in Suehn.
Tene was generous in bringing me gifts - country bread with peanuts and sugar and plenty of fried chicken, and I loved her for this. We put everything away pending the arrival of my landlady who was expected at any moment from the farm where she was harvesting rice.
Before the girls could finish telling me all the important news from the village, the landlady arrived and I introduced the girls to her. She at once showed admiration for Tene. "I can see why Gotorkai has been killing himself to make enough money to pay your dowry.“
The guest room which adjoined mine, was put in order for the girls. When she got through making up the bed, Juku, the little girl whom my landlady was rearing, said, "Kai, tell your strangers the room ist ready.“
The landlady herself inspected the preparations before ushering the girls into the room. "Tene and Kema, make yourselves at home, while I go and get something to eat. I know you must be hungry, coming all the way from the Dewoin country as you did today.“
Before going to the kitchen, the landlady called me aside and said, "Kai,“ for so she called me, "the palava reach you know. What shall we do for the girls to make you happy?“
I had a dollar bill in my pocket. I pullet it out and handet it to her. "Here, can this help?“
"O no Kai,“ the landlady refused. "Put your money in your pocket. Can't you see that you are my stranger son? Anything my husband and I can do to make the girls happy will be a pleasure to us.“
My landlord, who was also my employer, joined us in the kitchen. He immediately approved of everything the landlady had decided and suggested we leave all the details to her. We proceeded to the veranda where Tene and Kema awaited us.
"Kai,“ said my landlord, "I don't know which one is Tene, but I must congratulate you for your fine taste, the girls are indeed beautiful.“ The girls got up and shook hands with the landlord.
The smell of fried chicken and onions from the back of the house suggested that the landlady was busy preparing a special delicacy for our guests. Every now and then she would come on the veranda to see how we were coming along. When she observed that her husband had not offered the girls anything to drink, she inquired, "Jaa, why have you not given the strangers some cold water?“ My landlord at once asked to be excused. He headed towards the main road through the town where the shops were. When he returned, he was laden with bottles of cane juice, beer, soft drinks and some sweet biscuits. I surmised he had in mind giving a small party for the girls.
I knew that my landlord's generosity also had an ulterior motive. He was trying to entice me to remain in his employment. The few weeks I had been with him had convinced him that I was a hard worker. Someone he could depend on to keep his rubber farm going.
The landlord had several times proposed that I remain with him after my contract was over. Just before the girls had come he offered me the daughter of a distant relative as a wife. The girl in question was already some one else's wife, but my landlord said, that this was no problem. With his influence and position, as head of an extended family, it would be quite easy to refund the man's dowry and turn the young lady over to me. All he wanted me to say was, yes. I did meet the girl on one or two occasions and she indicated her willingness for the match. But because of Tene I never gave the matter any serious consideration.
The party for the girls lasted until late in the evening. It started as a small affair but grew to something lavish afterwards. To judge from the empty bottles under the table, we must have consumed over fifteen dollars worth of rum. Some of it was still on the table when the guests began going home.
Kema invaded my room early the following morning. When she leaned over my bed, the odour of rotten cane juice from her breath got me nauseated. I noticed her face was bloated and her eyes red like a ripe palm nut. "Kai,“ she cried, "the rum got my hed swimming. My legs can hardly bear me up.“ Kema leaned over and nearly fell on my face. Her hair was disheveled and unsightly.
"Where is Tene?“ I inquired. "That sleepy-head one, I can't get her to wake up,“ Kema struggled to right herself beside me, but unfortunately my bed was a bit short for her tall slender body. "Why did you inquire about Tene?“ She asked.
"No, I just thought to ask. Maybe she too is suffering from the same thing.“
"You know Kai, when young girls are just learning to drink,“ Kema declared, "they don't know where to stop.“ To make me feel good, she said, "Tene is your wife, why don't you go to her and play with her.“
"My wife,“ I thought to myself. I got up hurriedly, reached for a large towel hanging over my bed, and tied it around my waist. When I pushed the guest room door ajar, I saw her wrapped up in her dream, and but for a narrow scanty piece of country cloth drawn over her waist, Tene was practicaly naked.
The multicolor fanti headtie had fallen from her head, leaving her hair a bit rumpled, over the peaceful round face. Ideas scurried through my mind as I stood there with my eyes pinned on Tene. If I wanted to, I could do anything to her. She breathed faintly, her voluptuous breast softly moving up and down, quite unaware of my presence in the room. In height Tene did not measure both of my arms joined together. A ring formed by both my thumbs and third fingers could not go around her plump legs, but her ankles and toes were slender like mine.
I crawled on the bed beside her, and my body tingled when her warm coffee color touched mine.
I put my arms gently around Tene's waist. My hands nervously touched the two strands of beads she had around her waist. On one of them hung a small antelope horn which she wore perhaps as a charm to bring her good fortune. When I made an attempt to press her breast against my chest, Tene extended an arm and shot an imploring glance at me. I rubbed her face gently with my nose.
"Who is this, Kai! what are you doing to me? "
I felt guilty and replied, "nothing Tene, I was just trying to play with you, that's all.“ She drew away and turned her back to me.
"Kai, we will play but just let me sleep a little while longer. "
"Tene you mean with all the sleep you had last night you are still sleepy?“
Tene gathered the cover cloth and tugged herself snugly into it, but I moved closer toward her and with infinite care pulled it back, persuading her to turn over and face me.
Then, Kema barged into the half shut door to pull Tene up and escort her to the bath fence behind the cooking shed, where a bucket full of warm water awaited them for their morning bath.
My landlady who was busy in the kitchen told the girls to hurry up and dress so they could join the landlord with a delicious breakfast of fried chicken and new rice.
Tene insisted on coming into my room to dress. When she entered the door, I pulled her towards me and hugged her.
"Gortokai, man leave me. I didn't come here for that“, she protested. "I gave you all the chance in the other room. Now let me go so I can dress.“
I opened the window opposite my bed so Tene could get sufficient light to make use of the only mirror available.
While she was dressing, Tene's inquisitive eyes peeped into every nook and corner of the room. One object seemed to attract her, the small decorated wooden valise on the table at the bottom of my bed.
"You like it? I have something fine in that valise. If you can guess what it is I will give it to you.“
"For true?“ Tene giggled excitedly, exposing her sparkling white teeth. "How many guesses do I have?“
"Men are usually allowed four ...“
"All right,“ Tene cut me off abruptly. "Here is my first guess. It couldn't be clothes, I know.“
"You got two more to go.“
Tene looked up and pondered. "It's something to do with gold?“ She paused. When she observed me unconsciously nodding approval, Tene yelled, "earrings, bracelet, or necklace! o, wait a minute Kai!“ She stopped me before I could open my mouth.
"Now I know what, it is a pair of gold earrings!“
"Tene you are right!“ I exclaimed. I opened the box. On top of the loosely packed clothes lay a pair of glittering clover leaf shaped earrings.
Tene picked them up and dangled them before her eyes. "Kai, you mean these belong to me? I want sister Kema to see them.“ She tried them on. "Mmmm, they match a lappa suit I have at home.“ When I told Tene the earrings were hers, she swung around and put her arms around my waist and said, "Kai, I love you. You are so thoughtful.“ This was one of those rare occasions Tene had said this to me.
Later on that day, the girls informed me that they could not stay longer, as they had to get back to finish harvesting the rice and other crops.
My landlady suggested that they remain a couple of days more. Tene was anxious to go back, but Kema prevailed on her to accept the hospitality of my landlady for two more days.
In the meantime, I persuaded my landlord to advance me more money, so that in the event I decided to send some money ahead on Tene's dowry, it would be available.
On the eve of their departure, I had a long discussion with Kema. Tene had gone with my landlady to some village to visit a friend, leaving us completely undisturbed. Kema wanted to come to a frank discussion. I surprised her with a bottle of St. Paul Lightning, the so-called "cold water,“ a superior brand of cane juice produced in the Suehn area. After a couple of drinks, I opened up the discussion on Tene's dowry by asking, "Kema, your sister is matured now, what are the old folks saying?“
She shifted on the bed.
"Like what for instance?“ She inquired, lowering her eyes.
"You think I have just been eating rice for nothing eh? I am an old kuba, Kema.“
"Gortokai this doesn't tell me anything,“ and she lifted her head.
"All right Kema you want me to be blunt. Your sister's armpits are no longer those of an innocent child.“ I said to Kema. "The hairs under there show sign of maturity, I swear to God.“
She remained silent. The room was getting stuffy. Kema suggested that I open the window. All this time we had not come to any conclusion, as to the amount of dowry I should pay. I therefore told her, "since we cannot agree on any figure, I take it to mean
...“ She laid her head on my arm.
"That what?“ Kema turned up and looked at me.
"To offer the prevailing dowry mat.“
I would pay the full dowry required for a virgin, ten pounds sterling, or forty dollars. The procedure involved the following: twenty-five cents, to find out from the family if there was any other suitor besides me, if no other suitor, twenty-five cents to shut Tene's ears to any further requests from suitors; two dollars to tie the rope on her hand, or engage her, fifty cents to cut the rope or confirm the engagement.
"Hold it there.“ Kema interrupted. The glass slipped from her hand and sent the rum spilling all over me. "How much does this add up to so far?“ I took time and checked these figures on my fingers. The total came to three dollars. This, plus the forty dollars, a lappa suit for the old lady and a robe for the old man would be a fair amount.
I presented Kema with twenty-three dollars to use toward her sister's dowry and we parted with no definite time as to when I would be coming back to Bendabli, because I wanted to extend my contract so as to earn sufficient money to pay the remaining amount.
If you are a professional palm wine drinker, that is, a habitude, or a connoisseur, the most sensible thing to do when you arrive in a strange town is to associate yourself with a palm wine circle. By so doing you get to know all the current gossip of that town.
It was my good fortune, as soon as I had arrived in Suehn, to join one of the conservative groups of early risers because, this is the best time to drink palm wine.
In the circle I joined, I met a very articulate and likable character for whom I soon developed a great admiration. His name was jaa Buu, but everyone called him Buu for short. He had travelled extensively, and told us some exciting stories.
The morning following the departure of the girls, I accompanied Buu to his new palm wine tree, which by the way, was located not far from the rubber farm where I worked daily. In our conversation enroute, I jokingly told my friend how I missed Tene, my future wife.
"Yes, the younger sister,“ my friend recalled, "she is indeed a beautiful thing. I do not hesitate to say how much I envy you for such good a fortune.“ I blushed as Buu paid me such a flattering compliment. "What about the other sister?“ I asked. Here is the shocking reply I got.
"Man, she can out-drink a fish. She is the woman palm wine and cane juice ran away from. The whole time she was here, I supplied her half a gourd from the swamp every morning. She taught me a concoction which you should try; a mixture of palm wine, cane juice, seejohn roots, wild bush peppers and a drop of perfume, to improve the aroma. If that doesn't send fire through you, I suggest you go and see old lady Dii, otherwise you are finished.“
"I get you,“ and we both burst out and laughed. "Buu, this concoction, my first time hearing of it. So it's good for impotence too eh?“
"Kai,“ my friend grinned, "what do you think all these old men follow me here for every morning, with charged root bottles? You see palm wine ferments quickly. When added to cane juice, the two work hand in hand and draw all the strong medicines out of seejohn, peppers and whatever you put in them.“
"I am learning a lot about my future sister-in-law.“
"If you stay around long enough, Kai, you will hear a lot more.“
"About Tene too, I suppose?“ I noticed that my friend refrained from making any comments. He simply said, "just the usual village gossip,“ and stopped.
I suspected that Buu had no doubt seen or heard something unfavourable about Tene, which he did not want me to know. And yet if I prodded him unduly, he might reveal something I myself would not want to know. I merely said, "Buu, I love Tene so much, I don't know what to do. Her people wouldn't come out and tell me how much dowry to pay for her.“ "Kai you are a man like myself. We all like women. As for my part, I don't give them a chance to cross my tracks. My advice to you as a friend is this, don't let this Tene palava become an obsession. In the first place, for you to marry a girl like that, you will have to have a strong man behind you. I don't mean a man with money, but someone with powerful medicines to work magic on that girl.“
I reflected for a bit and said. "Buu, I believe you are quite right. I need someone behind me who can manipulate strong love medicines in order to turn Tene's heart solely towards me.“
By this time we had almost reached our destination. Buu looked up in the palm wine tree and yelled, "o boy! look at my old lady, she's foaming like I don't know what. All new trees are like that.“ We got under the tree. Buu flung his cutlass on the ground and immediately climbed up by aid of a bamboo pole.
I watched him remove the leaves which covered the receptacle containing the wine. He dipped his finger into the liquid and tasted it. "Mmmm, the old lady is strong like bushcow milk,“ and sent down a bamboo quart container full of wine.
By the time I had finished the third quart, we were joined by three newcomers. They gossiped about everything from my landlady's extra love affairs, to the old men who were trying to conceal their impotence. I well laughed at the trio. Some of their jokes centered around themselves.
When our visitors left, Buu and I got back to Tene. I wanted to benefit from his wide experience, particularly in matters pertaining to getting a wife, so I listened attentively.
"Kai,“ my friend commenced, "all this haste in paying dowry for Tene, have you had someone to look into it for you, that is, to divine for you? My advice to you as a friend is, never contemplate such a major undertaking without it being looked into.“
"Frankly I had not thought of this,“ I admitted. "Do you know someone you can recommend?“
I asked. "A very good man you mean?“
"I know of several,“ Buu replied. "Ever heard of Bleng? He can tell you things that will make your hair rise. "
"No,“ I shook my head. "I would very much like to meet him. How far does he live from here?“
"Not so far. I can take you there tonight if you so wish. "
"I suppose, his fees are reasonable?“
"It depends on what you want him to do for you.
He is not only a diviner, but a zowo and master of medicinal leaves. He can do wonders for you if you need him.“
Early that evening, we were in the presence of the celebrated sand reader. Bleng was every bit the description Buu had given me of him; a short, stocky, bowlegged gentleman, with large bulging eyes planted proportionately between two huge curved ears. On one of the lobes hung a tiny brass earing. Around his neck hung a heavy necklace strung with assorted objects, including barracuda teeth, seashells, tiny copper spears and antelope horns. These adornments enhanced the sand reader's appearance.
"What wind blows my friend Buu to my humble abode this time of the evening?“ The doctor man asked, waving us into two low stools in his crowded hut.
"First, I want you to meet Gortokai, a friend of mine. "
"And where do you come from?“ Bleng cast his eyes on me.
"From Bendabli, on the Bomi Hills Road,“ Buu replied.
"It's been a long time since I was last in those parts.
What's happening there?“ He spoke slowly.
I am sure this question was intended for me, so I answered, "nothing of any significance that is, up to the time I left there a few weeks ago.“
"Now, what is your mission gentlemen, may I ask?“
"The palava reach to you.“ Buu pointed to me.
"Go ahead and break word. You brought me here.“ I told my friend.
"All right,“ Buu agreed. "Bleng,“ he began, "my friend comes to you with a strong palava which catches his heart. He got his heart set on a woman and wants to have you look into it for him.“
"Someone he wants to marry, I suppose?“
"Yes.“ Buu nodded.
The old man set for a few minutes looking into space. "What is the name of the girl?“ He inquired.
"Tene,“ said we in unison.
Bleng reached for something under his bed. It was a rolled up mat with a bag inside. He spread the mat before us and pressed the small bag against his forehead. "Gortokai,“ the sand reader called, "touch this three times, and call the name of the girl three times to yourself. Confide anything you wish, to the bag.“
I did so.
Bleng placed the bag on the mat and began to unfasten it. I had my eyes glued on every movement he made. After a few unsuccessful attempts, the sand reader poured the contents of the bag into the mat. They were an assortment of quartz crystals, large yellow beads, smooth pebbles and some strange-looking beans. One of the pebbles rolled under my stool. I tried to reach for it. Bleng stopped me.
"No one is allowed to touch these sacred objects unless I give them permission. God gave them to me in a dream and taught me how to use them to help mankind. He told me not to let anyone touch them, else they would loose their magic power.“
The contents of the bag were collected and tossed into the air and allowed to scatter on the mat again. Bleng viewed the objects with penetrating eyes for a minute or two without uttering a word. He broke the silence, by murmuring the word "Tene“ to himself several times, nodding in between. The old man cleared his throat and offered to tell me what he saw in the crystals. For some reason which I cannot explain, I turned pale and felt nervous. Bleng looked straight into my eyes; "young man,“ he uttered. I felt a sudden thump against my chest. It was my heart, beating like a machine. "Tene's heart is divided.“ The old man revealed.
I felt a sudden jolt. I felt like the whole world had suddenly dropped from under me. I was unable to speak. In such a state of mind, the old man found it useless to continue telling me what he saw in the crystals. For true I was dumbfounded and numb all over. In his long experience as a professional diviner, Bleng had discovered a way of bringing clients like me back to reality.
"I think what you boys need right now is a good shot of St. Paul Lightning on roots.“ A good gulp of the hot liquor sent an exhilarating sensation through me. I felt better all of a sudden. When the old man asked, "how you like my roots?“
I told him, "just fine. It has brought me around.“
"I know it.“ Old man Bleng smiled. "Gortokai, when you have reached my age, you will agree that good rum, delicious food and some money, not too much, to keep you worrying, are to be desired more than a beautiful unfaithful woman.“ Although I had not gone through some of the experiences the old man was referring to, I found myself agreeing with him. "So you mean Tene will not be my wife?“ I asked.
"I wouldn't say that, but ...“ Bleng stopped suddenly and smiled. "You need strong forces behind you to win that woman, my boy. Someone who can make strong love medicines, so she can turn her heart solely towards you.“
"I was just as blank as I could possibly be. "Well,“ I breathed heavily, "this is the reason why I am here old man, I want you to help me.“
"What help can be given must come very fast, because right now the family of the girl have four offers before them besides you.“
Bleng got through telling me all what he saw in the crystals. Besides the urgency of moving fast in the Tene palava, he said, I had a long trip before me. That a tall fair woman close to Tene had so much influence over her, Tene dare not make a move without the approval of this person. About the short brown man who was making strong juju to win Tene, I had an inkling who it might be.
Before I left Bendabli, there was bush-bush talk of a secret love affair between Tene and a Bomi Hills fellow. They said, it was being engineered by Kema, her sister. I swear to God, Bleng is a master zowo. His crystals confirmed all the rumours I had been hearing of this Kema woman. That she was a snake in the grass is obvious, and a poisonous one at that. The whole while she was in Suehn she had been secretly drinking palm wine with Buu and going to be with him. I had heard enough and wanted to get up and go back to Suehn, or walk aimlessly the whole night. My friend Buu, sensing my feelings the whole while, avoided making any comments until we were an our way back home. He tried to console me when he said, "Kai, I have been through the same situation. Many men before us have been through it, and those who will come after us too, will go through it. It's one of those evils God put on earth. You know now what I mean when I say the secrets of a woman are deeper than the bottom of hell.
"Your part is a little better, Kai. The first woman I said I loved, my parents paid all the dowry at one sitting. At that time coffee was money. It was one shilling and six pence a pound. My folks had a sizable plantation and hence commanded a little money. So they thought that by paying the girl's dowry right down, they would make a favourable impression on the parents, and the girl as well. Besides that, I had made rice farms for three years for the girl's family to prove to them that they were getting a hard working son-in-law. When it was time to receive my wife, my parents again went to work and outfitted a round hut for us.
"Now here is the fun. On the day the girl was to be handed over, I invited several friends and entertainers for a big reception feast. Biekpakla was packed with people from every section of the Tee country, to witness my wedding. "For the occasion, I was dressed in a white suit, with helmet to match, brown shoes and eye glasses. I got the nickname, Joa Kanda (a chief's son) that day. As evening approached, the appropriate time to receive a wife, all the people started looking into the direction where my bride was expected to come from. At that moment, a friend of mine arrives in the village and invites me down the road to tell me something urgent. My heart at once begins to beat faster.
"Down the road,“ my friend says to me, "kengeo foe-e! I have just left the village. The young lady swears she does not want you. Her people are in tears.“
"Kai, my friend, I didn't wait to hear the rest of the story. My bowels turned loose right there.“
"God dammed,“ I shivered. "If Tene should disappoint me like that, I will do something to myself.“
"You know Kai,“ Buu suggested, "the moon is shining bright, why don't you and me go by the old lady in the swamp and get some palm wine to charge our roots?“
"And get drunk eh?“
"Yes.“ Buu replied excitedly.
"An excellent idea.“ I agreed.
For three days I was useless to myself. I avoided revealing to my landlord and his wife what old man Bleng told me. Although I did not show it, I also tried to avoid my friend Buu. I was not pleased with the way he had made love to Kema behind my back.
I waited one week and went to the old man. This is what Bleng himself had suggested. To turn Tene's heart solely towards me, he said, was an easy job, but pointed out that it would require patience and a series of sacrifices. Bleng was not at home when I got to the village. He had left word that if anyone wanted to see him they should follow him to his fish-trap. I was directed to the place, a makeshift shed, where the old man spent the night when it was not convenient to return to his village. He was accompanied by his grandson, a child of ten. The little boy was the first to see me. He ran to tell the old man. When Bleng saw me he called, "Kai friend, where is your shadow?“
"Old man, it is not all the time friends must know what you are doing.“
"You are right.“ The old man agreed. "Some people who pretend to be your friends are the very ones who help to spoil your palava.“
After the usual greetings, the old man offered me a seat. He wanted to know how Buu's old lady in the swamp was coming on.
"The old lady had a misfortune for some reason,“ I informed the old man. "I understand that Buu permitted a novice to attend it.“
"What a pity,“ Bleng admitted.
"The fool cut the heart of the tree too far back and she refuses to leak.“
The sand reader grinned. "When I was making palm wine, I never permitted anyone to go up in my trees. Everyone in this country knows this. Some people got bad luck and when they go up in a palm wine tree, they cast an evil spell on it.“
We soon got to the problem which brought me to the old man. The first thing I did was to reach in my bag and hand Bleng a big bottle of cane juice.
"Old man,“ I told him, "my heart is heavy. I love Tene too much. God knows it. I have slaved all my life for her. I can't sit down and see another man get her.“
"Of course not.“ The crystal reader agreed with a deep voice.
"Bleng I beg you, do it for God's sake, make all the strong medicines you know to make Tene's heart turn towards me alone.“
I noticed old man Bleng commenced thinking very seriously. His ears began to move up and down as if they were being pulled by some mechanical device. "Gortokai,“ he raised his head, "for true, the palava don't reach a man's kinja. We got to put fire behind turtle's behind to make things move. I can try to help you, but this will cost you plenty money.“
"Old man, I don't care what the cost is, if I get Tene, I am willing to enslave myself for the rest of my life to pay you.“
"Young man, are you serious about this woman?“
"Yes.“ I assured the old man.
"The things I need to make the love medicines for you are difficult to obtain. For instance, I need right away, a braid of Tene's hair, a piece of her garment, three of her toe nails, a piece of otter skin, particularly from the breast section, some gun powder and other odds and ends. But some of these I believe I can get locally. The immediate needs are the hair, nails and garment. "
"I think I can get you these easily.“
"That's how I like to hear a man talk. I see that you are brave my son, how long you think will take you? "
I pondered over my reply. "In seven days. You see Bleng, I cannot trust anyone with a mission as delicate as this. I must go myself.“
"Weil Kai, my son, as soon as you can bring the items I need for your job, I will fix Tene's heart in such a way she will eat out of your hands.“
I felt relieved for the first time in days. I asked the old man about his fee, and how he wanted it paid. "Kai, I like you as my own son. I understand your Problems. When we get our hands on all the things I have asked for, I will want an advance of sixteen dollars in America money. When the work is finished and you are satisfied, I will demand an additional sixteen dollars and wave the balance. Some people pay me one hundred dollars for jobs like this.“
I thanked the old man for his generosity, handed him fifty cents and bid him goodnight. I reaffirmed my promise that I would see Bleng in seven days. Back in Suehn, I met my landlord, his wife and my friend Buu sitting on the veranda with some of Kema's concoction. I could just imagine what they were talking about - me and Tene of course. I wanted to avoid them and go straight in my room, but this was not feasible. Buu had seen me. He called, "Kai, come here and join us! Your landlord has found something new to add to the Kema concoction.“
"And what is this new invention?“ I asked.
"A big secret,“ my landlord said with a broad smile. I tasted the stuff and found it even superior to Kema's brand. "Come from old man Bleng, I suppose?“ Buu inquired inquisitively.
I wish he had kept his big mouth shut. But since he had opened it, I was left with no other choice but to frame up a quick reply. "I went in that direction to get my cutlasses repaired.“
"So you didn't get to see the old man?“
"No,“ I said, "I learn that he had gone to his fish trap. "
"That is Bleng all right,“ my landlord remarked. "He used to be the best man in this area for leaves. But, his reputation is waning somehow.“
I was taken aback when my landlord said this. Buu who had introduced me to the old man did not put up any defence for him. In fact, he added, "that old man, he drinks too much. St. Paul Lightning these days.“
Nevertheless, I decided to place complete confidence in the doctor man. I figure out, that if the old man manipulated the right leaves, I had no doubt he could bring Tene around.
While my landlord and landlady were about, I thought it an appropriate time to frame up an excuse to run to Bendabli for the parts of Tene I needed. I had to present a convincing lie.
I told them that I had just received an urgent message from home, saying that old man Joma, my foster father was at the point of death, and that whatever I was doing, I should drop it and come to Bendabli at once.
"What a pity,“ the landlord sympathized. "How long has he been ill?“ He inquired seriously.
"The person who brought the message did not say.“
"Kai, I sympathize with you for your sudden misfortune,“ Buu remarked. He offered to accompany me. I told him it was not necessary at the moment. I woke up with the pepperbirds the following morning and started my journey.
My mission was of such a delicate nature, I had to be extremely careful to avoid being seen in villages where people would recognize me. I decided therefore, to take a different route which lead through a high forest. I got to Bendabli earlier than scheduled, hence I had to conceal myself until I could achieve my objective.
Most of the people in the village were engaged on the other side of the town, removed from our quarter. Now and then, children I recognized ran between the banana orchard where I secreted myself and our big square house. When I was certain that no one had detected my presence, I crawled on my belly carefully, until I got within hearing distance of the people in the open kitchen opposite our house.
Tene and Kema were sitting there running their mouths. The other members of the family, the old man and his wife, were sitting on the far side of the kitchen. Tene was telling Kema of her experiences with one Bioma Chachi, a pursuant from Bomi Hills.
I heard her say, "sister Kema, you should see his house. It has four large sleeping rooms, a big hall, kitchen and wash house. And, o!“ Tene continued. "Water is no problem, for right in front of the house is a pump which supplies water to all the other quarters in the area.“
Kema sat attentively listening to her sister. "Ain't I told you so? Chachi is the man for you. Only thing, his wives. How many has he got?“
"Plenty o!“ Tene explained. "The head wife, she is an ugly thing. I don't know what he's doing with her.“
"Old thing like that, she's just there to take care of his children by his other wives, what do you expect?“
"That's what you think, Kema, the old hag dogs the poor boy around like you do a child.“
"With all that Tene, wouldn't you like to be one of his women?“
Tene hesitated for a moment, then said, "sister Kema, my eyes are just opening. You and the old folks have tried your best to bend me, to make me decide on a man. But, the more I look around, the more I feel that I should be left alone to make my own choice.“
"This is the difference between the young people of your age and those of my generation, at your age.“
My foster mother spoke up. "When I had matured, my parents came to me and said that a man wanted me to be his wife. I had nothing to do with the proposal. One morning, while taking my bath, my mother summoned me and told me that the man who wanted to marry me had come to our quarter. Everyone told me to say that the proposal met my approval, and that was all there was to it.“
"Mother, that was in your days. From here to Gbarnga took weeks, when you were a girl; places like Tapeta, Saniquellie, Juarzon, sounded like names in fairy tales. Today, one can visit these far off places and meet new friends with ease. I feel that a girl should be given a chance to look around before she decides on one man.“ Tene told her mother. With what had heard and seen with my own eyes, I must admit now that I have the greatest admiration for Bleng's crystal reading. Something else I noticed, Tene carried a little air of sophistication about her. She was not the same beautiful little girl I had been knowing all my life. Bomi Hills had done something to her. The more she spoke, the more I was determined to get her by any means, foul or good.
I waited until the attention of the family was concentrated on the evening meal, to undertake my delicate mission. Unnoticed, I slipped from the banana orchard and made straight for the window of the room in which Kema and Tene slept. Fortunately there were no utensils under the window sill for me to step over, to attract attention. I had been in this very room so many times that everything was familiar to me. The wooden chests and beds were occupying the same spot where I left them. I wondered whether the contents of my trunk were still intact.
I managed to ease myself under Tene's bed in a comfortable position where I could remain unnoticed. I made sure that the new razor and scissors I brought along were sharp enough to achieve my objective as quickly as possible.
While I was reflecting on how best to get the parts of Tene I needed, I heard footsteps at the front door. A gush of blood rushed to my head, rendering me nearly blind. I immediately reached in my pocket for a vial containing a syrupy concoction Bleng gave me to lick to quiet my nerves.
From the sound of the footsteps, I could tell it was Kema, who came into the room. I heard her ask, "Tene! where is the lantern! I want to light it!“ Tene told her it was sitting by the head of the bed where I was secreted. "Bring a torch, its too dark for me to see!“ Kema demanded. I didn't know exactly how this would effect my safety. A bright light, and ill luck, could expose me and turn my mission into a complete fiasco.
Tene came in with the torch. But it turned out that the lantern had no wick. Kema remembered throwing a piece of felt hat under her sister's bed which they had been using whenever the wick was finished. "Reach under your bed and fetch the piece of felt hat! " The older sister ordered.
When I saw the light coming under the bed, I became very tense, in fact rigid. What if the girls should discover me and alarm everybody in the village? What, if all the men in the village overpowered me? Yes, what excuse would I have for being under the bed. These and other questions passed through my mind so hurriedly, there was hardly time to figure out any quick solutions.
When Tene put her hand under the bed, her palm swept my face. She felt the movement of my eyelids and yelled, "Kema! there's a rat under the bed! I felt its tail.“
"That's nothing unusual, Tene. This house is full of them. I thought you knew this. One thing I miss old Kai for, when he was here, he killed them in his rat traps. "
"Don't know it Kema. Many days rats were all we could find for making domboy soup.“
"Tene, the kind of men we will be associating with from now on look down on women who eat rats.“
"Who would eat those dirty things if they can get cow meat and fresh fish all the time? That's one thing I enjoyed when I was in Bomi Hills. Our dryer was forever full of fresh meat or fish.“
My body remained rigid while this dialogue was going on. I did not dare move a muscle. The girls lit the lantern and never bothered to look under the bed.
Kema and Tene were fast asleep by midnight. Bendabli was enveloped in total darkness and silence. Now was the time to execute my delicate mission.
The first thing I reached for was the lantern at the foot of Tene's bed. I turned it off, to render the room completely dark so that if the girls did detect my presence, they would not be able to make me out. I had figured out minutely how to go about getting the things the crystal reader needed.
The first thing that came to my mind was, how to obtain Tene's toe nails. I resorted to the technique of the rat. When he wants to eat off your toe nails, he bites and blows. So with the aid of the scissors and plenty of gently blowing I managed to clip off three of Tene's toe nails. Then, my luck turned.
Maneuvering to reach the head of the bed to cut off a braid of Tene's hair, I clumsily knocked against a pan, causing Kema to scream, "Tene! Tene! Is that you? "
"What is it sister?“
"Someone is in the room! The window is wide open! "
The alarm plunged Bendabli into one helluva holler holler. All able bodied men were ordered to converge on old man Joma's quarter with whatever defensive weapons they could get hold of.
When I heard the creaking of doors and rapid footsteps close by our house, I felt the impending danger facing me. It was during this state of confusion, that Tene jumped right into my arms and cried, "Sister Kema! sister Kema! The person's got me. 0 God help me. "
Already, I could hear men banging at the door with mortar pestles and sticks to force it open. Two men with raised cutlasses had taken positions at the window.
In the tossle, I hurriedly slashed off a braid of Tene's hair with my razor, then managed to fight my way out through the window.
How I succeeded in concealing my identity is a miracle. I must thank whatever gods that smiled on me. Dawn found me half way between Suehn and Bendabli. In order to stick to my alibi, I delayed my arrival in Suehn by a couple of days.
News travel so rapidly in these days of motor cars, I had no doubt that my landlord had heard about the incident in Bendabli. This is the first thing he and the landlady asked me on my arrival.
I conveniently forgot that my foster father was supposed to have been at the point of death and said that in the middle of the journey my toe had started giving me trouble again, so I decided to come back.
Both my landlord and my friend Buu had some misgivings about the story, to judge from the expression on their faces. From the gossip I picked up from the palm wine circles, my landlord actually suspected that I had been in Bendabli on the night of the incident. My father's health was not mentioned again, but the atmosphere around me became unbearable. I yearned to escape.
After a few days, I plucked up enough courage to tell my landlord, I was feeling weak and unable to do the job. I said, I wanted to go home. I still owed him a few dollars worth of work, but graciously he waved it. Old man Bleng got through with all my works and told me to meet him so he could deliver them to me.
Two nights after my departure from Suehn, the old man and I met in a small room in a village not far from Bendabli. When Bleng poured out the contents of the carryall raffia bag unto the small table between us, I noticed that every item was neatly wrapped.
"Now Kai, let me explain to you how to use each item,“ the old man paused. "You have here three packets containing gunpowder.
When you get home, get a torch or box of matches and ignite each packet, calling Tene's name each time. The rolled up otter skin contains her hair and nails. This you keep on your person, at all times. In the antelope horn,“ Bleng went on, "you will find strong love powders. Try to put some in food for Tene to eat. Her heart will jump after you, whenever you desire her.“
I hurriedly repeated everything the old man told me, to be sure I would not make any mistake. Before departing, I handed Bleng ten silver dollars and told him he would hear from me.
I arrived in Bendabli shortly after parting with the old crystal reader. Everyone had gone to bed. I moved straight to our big house and knocked on the door. "Who is that?“ A heavy voice asked hoarsely. It was a male voice. The person cleared his throat and repeated his inquiry. It was not until I heard the loading of a shot gun inside, that I identified myself.
"Gortokai, that's who!“
In a flash, I heard the creaking of the door, followed by a blinding glare which rendered me helpless immediately. "Gortokai, and what are you doing here this time of night?“ The person inquired, holding a flashlight directly in my face.
"My old folks and my sisters, they live here.“
"Any?“ The person inquired. "They have told me about you. But, arn't you suppose to be in Suehn cleaning out a rubber farm?“
"Yes,“ I answered. The person switched off the light and suggested that we go and sit under the kitchen. It took a little while for me to regain my vision. The interrogator was a total stranger to me. I asked his name.
"Siafa Bombo, from Firestone,“ the stranger explained. "This is my second time coming here. Just before my first visit, a heart man broke into the girls' room to harm them. Since then, they have been sleeping with the old folks.“ When Tene, Kema and later the old folks recognized my voice, they came out to greet me. It was indeed not an enthusiastic reception.
The following morning someone informed me that the stranger was Kema's new man. She had changed them so often, it was nothing strange to me.
During the next few days I observed that Tene had changed completely. I could not get her committed to anything I proposed to her. This would be taken care of, when Bleng's medicines began to take effect, of course.
To satisfy my curiosity, I took Kema to task one day by asking her bluntly, "now tell me frankly, does your sister still love me? Don't hide anything from me. They say, teeth and tongue fall out, what about mortal man?“
"I swear on the Sande Society,“ I was told. "Eh ya, if only you could open the poor child's heart and see for yourself.“
I could see the hypocrisy in Kema's face. But I knew that Bleng's leaves would solve all my problems.
But while I refused to worry about the family's baffling behavior, and their two tongue approach regarding the Tene palava, the short brown fellow from Bomi Hills decoyed Tene and one day took her secretly away.
When that afternoon I came from the bush, Tene had moved off bag and baggage. Anger shot up and swelled in me like a furious sea, and I was going to take my revenge, by setting Bendabli on fire. However, I only burned the medicines old man Bleng gave me, but still I don't know whether that was the right thing to do or not, they were certainly taking long to take effect.
To add more fuel to my flaming anger, I learned that Tene had left with a two-month old belly. Kema and her people followed two days later. They did not dare ask me to accompany them. I did however tell Kema before they left that whatever I had advanced in the dowry the family could have.
"No Kai, you cannot lose your money like that.
Whoever tied cloth on my sister, or took her virginity and made her pregnant shall pay a hundred dollars damage to the family. That is what the law says.“
Kema probably forgot the law which says if family people play katakata in a woman palava, the devil catches them. Sensing my anger, Kema hesitated to press the issue any further. I felt that nobody meant to restitute my money to me.
What happened, what didn't happen in Bomi Hills, I turned my back on it all and moved to Monrovia. Knocking about from one place to another I found my way to Gbarnga where my father came from. There I learned that he had eventually returned home. He died but left a well-to-do brother as head of the house.
My uncle and wives, who had never seen me gave a tremendous welcome when they saw me. The change helped me a lot. I was kept busy visiting relatives who were anxious to see me.
The first thing my uncle did was to offer me a wife. He did this to prevent me from returning where I came from. Uncle Pewulo was probably right in making such a generous offer, but I just had enough of one woman. To be involved with another so soon, I felt was premature. I told him I would consider his proposition at a later date.
After two month, I drifted to Tapeta. Here, I was enticed by a friend to accompany him to Bokonjede where he had a prosperous gold creek. He claimed he had so many beautiful girls at his operations that one had a difficult time selecting the one to sleep with.
I never realized how rewarding travelling can be, until one morning, while sitting on a log by the roadside thinking of where to go next, a pickup drove up.
"Where to?“ The driver asked.
To be candid I had no special destination in mind. But since the impatient driver insisted, I told him, "anywhere.“ - "0. K., jump in!“
"Good friend, you got any loads?“ The carboy shouted with beaming eyes. He found a seat for me in the over-crowded duazet, a one and a half ton late forty model Ford. Soon we were heading for Saniquellie. The dilapidated vehicle managed to negotiate the long and rain-washed road without falling apart. Just as we got in sight of the town of Saniquellie, the gas gave out. The irritated passengers threatened to headload their belongings the rest of the way. The carboy was dispatched to the nearest gas station and saved the situation when he came back with a few gallons of gas. "I swear to God I will never trade this duazet for a new pickup,“ the driver boasted proudly to his carboy. "Boss, God bless we for true. I knew a three quarter tank wouldn't reach us here; but I wanted to try something so we can save on gas.“
"Go way from here, you dam fool. Why didn't you tell me so we could fill the tank in Ganta? Look at your head and mouth, like a hungry time porcupine,“ the driver scoled and kicked at the carboy jovially.
At the Saniquellie truck depot many persons were waiting for friends and relatives. Waiting there, but not for me was an old acquaintance from my youth.
"Compin!“ Karmo yelled when he saw me. He dashed towards the pickup and embraced me excitedly. "And what wind blows you to these parts?“ It had been almost three years when last I saw Karmo. From boyhood we had known each other simply as Compin, a corruption of the word company.
In the rush and confusion to collect the fares, both driver and carboy overlooked me. I turned around to Karmo and said, "Compin, but how, this truck brings me all the way from Tapeta and ...“
"Hush you mouth. Say thanks to God and let's get the hell out of here.“ Karmo advised.
My friend piloted me through a maize of twist and turns, until we finally came to an imposing house facing the chief's compound. "I don't know what your mission is yet, Compin, but this is your home.“ Karmo offered and ushered me into the first room at the beginning of a long hall. A charming young lady greeted us at the door.
"Compin, this is Gbiti, my wife.“ Gbiti and I snapped fingers in traditional greetings.
"Here is a seat,“ she offered and took my mbeke, the carryall raffia bag which I used for light travelling.
"Gbiti, here is the stranger. A personal friend from way back. What do you think we should do for him?“ Karmo inquired.
"I don't know, you are the man. Anything you say, the food will soon be ready.“
"Man, we not talking about chop yet. Got to wet our throats first.“
In the room opposite ours was a rum shop maintained by a Mandingo woman. Karmo suggested we go in for a drink. The shelves were filled with an assortment of bottles. "Let me see,“ my host remarked, when we entered the shop. "I am having a small bottle of Power Rum, and you?“
"The same thing,“ I accepted. We had hardly finished our second round of drinks when Gbiti called us in to eat. This invitation came at an opportune time, for I was starving by now.
"We coming back just now,“ Karmo told the shop keeper.
"Aloi Karmo, you goo man. You de pay my money all time, I no fear you.“
I did not wait, I dived right into the hot bowl of rice. It reminded me of Tene's cooking when things were all right. "Compin, this chop is surely delicious.“
My host accepted the compliments by petting Gbiti on the buttock. "You see, when a woman does good, she gets praises from every corner.“ Gbiti smiled and left for the kitchen for additional sauce.
"Compin, I am not kidding, tell me, how did you manage to get such a charming woman?“
Karmo chuckled. "You like her eh? If the old man up yonder made them any better, he kept them in heaven for himself. I have nothing to complain about. It's a long story. When I became a man, my dear old mother, may God bless her wherever she is in the other world. She worked hard to save enough money to pay dowry for this girl. Unfortunately, Gbiti developed a peculiar illness. A terrible water spirit, a genie, would come to her in a dream to make love to her and try to make her his wife. When she refused he threw her in a fit like a crazy person. The old lady tried all the doctor men she could find, but none seemed to be able to help, until one day mother was advised to try old man Boima Bleng. "
I shivered when I heard the name. "You mean Bleng of Bieben?“
"That's right.“ Karmo replied. "Bleng took six months to drive the evil genie away. Now here is the sad part of the story. My mother did not have the money to pay Bleng's fee and she passed away.“
"One Mandingo diamond dealer came to Gbiti's people and offered to pay the required amount provided they gave him the girl. My hopeless uncles were helpless. All of them put together could not raise a pound, so they gave in.
One day in tears, I watched Gbiti being taken away to Saniquellie by the diamond dealer. What did you tell me that morning, Gbiti?“
"I too was crying, I told you that in the long run, right would triumph over wrong, and that somewhere we would meet again.“
"I swear by God, Compin,“ I reflected.
"Two months after they got to Saniquellie,“ Karmo continued, "the man abandoned Gbiti and moved off to diamond mines with another woman.“
At this point, Gbiti dashed across the hall and brought two more bottles of Power Rum. My eyes were turning slightly by now. I definitely was approaching the point of intoxication. While pouring the liquor, I clumsily let go the glass and it came crashing on the floor. "Look at what I have done,“ I admitted guiltily.
"No Compin,“ Karmo joined in, "that's good luck.“
He raised his hand and said, "here, take my glass. Finish what's in the glass so I can continue my story.“
Karmo insisted. "As soon as I got through with the old lady's burial, I went to the chief in Suehn and gave him the details of what happened. "Not long thereafter, he gave me a letter to the District Commissioner here, explaining the whole palava from start to finish. After looking into the matter, the kind old D. C. ruled that the woman was mine, provided she still loved me.“ My friend looked up at his wife and smiled. "Tell Compin what you told the court that day, Gbiti.“
Blushfully, Gbiti, looked at her husband and said, "that I was yours, and will always be.“
"What a story, Compin, I suggest we drink on it.“ I told Karmo how my woman palava had been an unfortunate affair. "No Compin,“ Karmo drew his face. "You mean all you did for that Tene girl, that is how they treated you? I can't believe it. You see now when some of these people be dying they catch hell, and they pretend someone witched them.“ "For instance, right now Tene is in Bomi Hills. If I am not mistaken, she has had her child.“
"Don't give up Compin,“ Karmo advised. "Women are like a dry leaf floating up stream. Eventually, it belongs to a fish trap down stream. One day Tene will come back to you.“ My friend predicted. "It's only her foolish sister Kema, who made that match for her, but I am sure everyone in Bendabli is for you.“
Many persons had made similar predictions before. I certainly did not want to be disappointed again. If Tene wanted me, she was the one who would have to approach me. On this point, my mind was definitely made up so help me God. Karmo kept prodding me; "Compin, Tene belongs to you. Don't let her remain in Bomi Hills. " He was so happy with Gbiti and wanted me to be the same way. The more I thought of it, the more it appeared that a reconciliation with Tene was possible, if only her sister would play the fool one day and drown herself in the St. Paul River.
While I was contemplating on getting back to Monrovia, Karmo told me that he had obtained a few weeks from his employer, one Mr. Chibli, a Lebanese trader, to take Gbiti home to visit her people near Suehn.
We all joined the same Monrovia bound truck. Karmo would take Gbiti to Suehn, leave her there and proceed to Bomi Hills to see Tene.
When we got to the Truck depot in Monrovia that afternoon, I met someone from Bendabli who told me that Tene was in town selling gari or farina.
Karmo got excited when I told him the news. "Compin!“ he shouted. "Let us go man, what are we standing here for, we got to find the woman.“
We hurriedly carried Gbiti and all our plunders to a watchman friend behind P. Z. Store, on the Water Front. During our search we stopped at a stall to buy some cola nuts. While waiting for the change, I saw Karmo dashing across the street. "There she is, Tene!“ He shouted.
In a year's time, Tene had changed. She had become a bit darker. Her lappa, buba and headtie, all looked like cast off clothes that someone had handed down to her. Under her arm, she carried the five gallon tin in which she measured her farina. All we could do was, to look at each other. "Come on, you two, say something,“ Karmo prompted. "You just stand and stare at one another like bobos.“
Tene raised her head and looked into my face. "Came down this morning to sell farina. Someone credited one tin and asked me to collect the money this evening, or soon in the morning.“ She explained nervously.
"How are the old folks?“ I inquired.
"You know, Kai, old age is telling on the old folks, they are making out as can be expected.“
At the watchman's place, we hurried through a meal of boiled cassava and fresh bonnie soup which Gbiti had prepared. Our host we learned had gone over to Vai Town for a family conference, but his wife told us to make ourselves at home.
"Compin, we got to wash our meal down with something. What will it be?“ Karmo inquired.
Gbiti who was accustomed to teasing her husband on occasions like this replied, "I have a bottle of something hot to drink. If you men want to credit it, I have no objection.“
"That's what I like you for, Gbiti, you got a solution for all my problems. Bring the bottle. I will pay you double interest for it.“
"I know it's the truth. If you pay me all the interest you owe me, I will be rich.“ Gbiti pointed out.
Tene reached in her bossom and pulled out a handkerchief with a knot at one end. She opened it and took out a dollar bill. "Gbiti,“ she called, "here is the cold water for the men.“ I pitied her for the gesture, but nevertheless accepted it.
The watchman's wife had some cane juice and beer under her bed to sell, so we did not have far to go. This illicit selling of rum helped to augment the watchman's meager income.
Our host, a jovial little stooped shoulder fellow soon joined us. The first joke he cracked was, "I see the liquor palava's coming on all right, but where do I pen you two billy goats for the night?“
He asked us to excuse ourselves and follow him. "I know it is the sleeping place palava you have called us here to hang head.“ Karmo observed. "Old man we don't want to embarrass you. When we are finished with our drinks, we will go to Cooper Farm to ask some friends to put us up for the night.“
"You boys sound like two asses. You know I wouldn't agree to such a preposterous idea.“ The old man pointed out. After a further search of the warehouse facilities, the old man came up with a new suggestion. "You boys follow me,“ he invited. "The boatboys are not here. They left a big tent capable of accommodating ten couples.“
We went over and examined it. "There's nothing wrong with it,“ Karmo remarked. I didn't know how well Tene would accept the idea of sleeping with me, having just left her husband and returned to her parents in Bendabli. When the old watchman observed my indicisiveness, he asked, "what, you not sure of your woman?“ "Well, she's got a young baby,“ I replied.
Karmo interferred, "man move from here, with your baby business. You will be a big fool if you don't begin cashing in for all your lost labor.“
That night under our tent room, Tene did not resist my approaches. We played until very late in the night. Early the following morning we all scattered in different directions; Karmo and Gbiti headed for Suehn, Tene for Bendabli and I to Cooper Farm to stay with some friends. Before leaving for Suehn, my friend offered to come to a family council in Bendabli, if I thought it is useful.
Three weeks after the encounter with Tene I paid a visit to Bendabli. I noticed that our quarter, particularly, the big house was in a very dilapidated condition. The rains had washed away a considerable portion of the outer walls. The old folks found it convenient to move into my kongo, the annex I built in the back of the house. Tene and her baby shared a room with Kema in a neighbor's hut.
Old man Joma asked friends to beg me to come back and settle down in the village. He and the old lady promised that, under no circumstances would they allow Tene to put her foot out of the village. To further convince me, one morning old lady Karn invited me into the kongo to tell me that from now on she would not permit Tene to be dominated by her sister. I pitied the old lady very much. The wrinkles in her face had become deeper, and her ribs, jaws and shoulder bones protruded sharply.
Old man Joma still preferred sitting in his tattered hammock, wearing a weather-beaten, short grey country cloth gown and smoking a clay pipe which he boasted was older than Kema.
I felt unable to turn my back on the old folks. With the little money I brought, I begged and dashed friends to help me collect building materials to repair the house and put the back yard gardens back into production.
When the girls were moving back into their room in the big house, Tene cried pitifully, "Gortokai, your God is catching me, I swear.“
I don't know, rumors soon started spreading that Tene would be given me as a wife. This made me happy, as well as the news that Kema would be moving to her man in Firestone.
Tene soon got the little child attached to me. I took Bubu as my own child. Every time I returned from the field, she expected fruits from me. In fact she knew me simply as Papa or father.
By the time I settled back in Bendabli, the farming season was too far gone to make a cassava farm. To support the family I did odd jobs here and there. With plenty free time on my hand I devoted more time to repairing the big house and kitchen. I enlarged the vegetable garden and built a new bath fence to keep the old folks from using those of our neighbors.
Four months passed. Kema had not been heard from. After my meal one evening, I felt like drinking a little cane juice. I visited Meine, my littler hunchback friend who operated the shop in Amina. Mene told me something which gave me the creaps.
He told me confidentially, that he had heard from a reliable source that Kema was considering moving the old folks and Tene to Firestone.
"Meine, for true you mean what you are telling me?“
"Kai, I am not telling you any fairy tales.“
"Dammit, Meine, this is a helluva world isn't it. I had planned just taking me a schnapps bottle, but give me a Tallah instead. News like this is enough to make a man feel like getting drunk. "
I gulped the hot liquor hurriedly and left the shop. Meine warned me not to expose him under any circumstances. Not especially since he was planted in an advantageous position to be of further assistance to me.
Where there is smoke, there must be fire. I soon began to detect a secret line of communication between Kema and her sister, which caused me to believe what Meine told me. Tene was receiving expensive gifts from her sister which she kept with a friend in Amina. Whether the old folks were aware of this or not I do not know.
To satisfy my curiosity, I approached them one evening after meal. Tene was not around. I began with the old lady. "Ma,“ I addressed her, "what is this I hear, that Kema intends moving the whole family to Firestone.“
The old lady turned pale at once. The old man who was hard of hearing pulled his stool closer to listen to the conversation.
"Kai,“ old man Joma called, "what is that you are asking?“
"No Joma!“ The old lady interrupted. "Kai said he heard that Kema is sending for all of us to live with her in Firestone!“
"What,“ the old man frowned. "She must be going out of her mind. If the Kaiser and Hitler wars did not move me from Bendabli, I don't see what else will. Tene too, if that is what she is up to, the government down in Monrovia will have to tell me, whether or not if you born a child you control her, or she controls you. I just dare Tene to make a move to leave this village. It will be over my dead body, I swear on my mother's breast milk.“ Old man Joma was so furious, he commenced trembling.
"Never mind Joma, keep quiet, before you go into one of your fits.“ The old lady pleaded.
"Who Kema thinks I am! He-e! He-e! Tell me!“
The old man continued with a raised fist.
"Joma! you just leave her. Kema will soon come to the end of her rope. Ain't I born her? When I get through swearing her, she will forever remember a mother's curse. "
"I am sorry I brought up this question, Ma Karn, but I have to get certain things clear in my mind, before I contemplate on making farms for the coming season. For, what is the point starting to cut bush for a rice farm, when the girls particularly Tene, will not be here to see about it?“
I did not take me long to discover the secret line of communication between the sisters and learn about the expensive gifts Tene was receiving from a man in Firestone whom Kema wanted her to marry.
These gifts were being kept in the home of a friend, where Tene had secretly moved her large trunk and the brown valise she got from the Bomi Hills man.
Every time I thought of the whole affair, my mind ran to Buu's adage, that the secrets of a woman are deeper than the bottom of hell. As God would have it, the person who kept Tene's belongings was an old lover of mine. She hated the Joma girls for the way they were treating me. It was she who gave me complete access to Tene's hidden stores. One evening while carrying my bath water to the fence, Tene put her arms around my waist and whispered, "Kai, it's you I am sleeping with tonight. How do you like that?“ But I noticed that Tene looked serious, and that she was doing this just to appease my growing bitterness. You see, she could not stand up against pressure from anyone, because her heart was domineered by her sister. She was helpless and unable not to obey her, even thought this meant unhappiness for herself. But by the same token my ardent and possessive love haunted and terrified her even more, and sensing my slowly mounting desperation and repressed anger, she tried to cojole me throught the occasional gift of her body into sweet forgetfulness. While playing with the baby that night, I asked her, "Tene, why do you try to fool me. Every time I ask you about your new lappas, you tell me you got them by selling farina. Many girls round here sell more farina than you do. Why is it they don't have nice clothes?“
"Kai,“ Tene shrugged her shoulders, "maybe they don't care for nice clothes.“
"That's a helluva answer isn't it?“
Tene did not think that I was in the know of everything that was going on between her and her sister - the sending and receiving of gifts from the new suitor Kema had found for her, an overseer in Dolo Camp near Harbel.
Somehow, my fear of losing Tene the second time stopped me from challenging her openly, but bitterness gnawed at my entrails and frustration piled up in my heart and my brain was forever racing on to find other ways out.
That very afternoon, I again managed to intercept the last parcel containing three lappa suits, a pair of easywear shoes, some panties and brassieres, together with a few nicknacks for the baby. I had them in my raffia bag right under the bed. If Tene had been curious she would have seen them.
In the morning before she left the room, I asked her about the gold earrings and necklace I had given her in Suehn. "Why do you ask me this, Kai?“
"O no particular reason. Just want to know if you still have something to remember me by.“
"Of course I do, and will always until I die.“
"Well, Tene, if you could bring them to me, I will duplicate them for the baby, so when she also grows up, she will cherish the memory of Baba.“
Tene had no idea that the earrings and necklace were in my possession. I actually stole them myself in the hope to see her mourn their loss. But she only came back crying, "I can't find them. Maybe I have loaned them to a friend who forgot to return them. I will ask around and will bring them as soon as possible.“
Tene was nervous as she departed. I noted that she looked bewildered. But I was strangely happy. I was finally punishing Tene.
"Yes“, for all her wriggling and ducking, she's going to be roasted in hell while I kindle the fire, and I was all the more elated as she was quite unaware of my power to mastermind her misery.
That evening when she brought me my cover cloth in the bath fence, I reminded her about the jewellery. "Arrangements have been made for a goldsmith to come here and do the job.“
This was on Thursday evening. While eating my evening meal in the kongo, Tene came and sat opposite me at the table. She looked worried and nervous. I asked her why.
"Kai, for the past few days I have felt light in the head. I can't concentrate on anything. For what reason I don't know. "
"Tene, many people get like that sometimes. Especially if they have something on their mind.“
After the meal, Tene collected the dishes and disappeared into the darkness. I closed the door behind her and pulled my bag from under the bed. I poured its contents on the table. There were the earrings, the necklace and wearing apparels I had intercepted.
I dashed everything on the floor, in a rage I rumpled them under my feet, and to defile them further, I spat on them. . In the midst of my desperation, I heard a distant yell, "a ke-e ma o!“
A few minutes later, I heard rapid footsteps in front of the kongo. "Kai! Kai!“ Tene yelled excitedly. "Get up, sister Kema is here!“
I hurriedly kicked everything under the bed, jumped into my pants, and by the time I could get to the door, Kema was pushing it open. She gave me a hug and nearly pushed me over.
"Kai, how, you didn't know I had come?“
I noticed Kema wore a very loud perfume. She had on a shiny light blue tie-dye lappa suit with headtie and shoes to match. She also had her eyebrows extended by artificial means, and crowned a front tooth with gold to enhance her appearance. She laughed on purpose to enable people to see the gold in her mouth.
Kema flopped on the bed and kicked off her shoes. "Kai, I am thirsty for something to drink, what do you have here?“
"Kema, unless I run to Anima and see. They have something good there to drink.“
"Like what, Kai?“
"Cane juice and imported schnapps. I will see what I can pick up.“
I really hesitated leaving Kema in my kongo. She might be too inquisitive and discover the things I had intercepted. When I got back from Amina, I detected subdued voices in my room. My mind told me to press my ear against the window so I could hear what was being said inside.
At one point I observed Kema stretching her hand out. "You mean the last parcel I sent day before yesterday was intercepted?
Gosh!“ Kema expressed excitedly. "Whom do you suspect, Tene?“
"Sister, only God knows. I do not have the slightest idea.“ Tene's tone was blank. "Since I got wind of it, Kema I have not been myself. I'm very nervous. My head is light and have not had any appetite.“
Kema looked puzzled. "This deformed-nose Kai of ours, what do you think of him? I don't trust him. He is like a wounded bushcow, ready to jump for a kill any moment. Tene, I don't know if the old people ever told you. Kai's father was a shiftless fellow and liked to roam about. His in-laws, that is Kai's maternal grandfather and mother got into some big trouble once. Rather than suffer humiliation, they sold the poor fellow across the Lofa River and he has not been heard from since. This is a deep secret. Keep it under the roof of your tongue.“
"Kema, there is a lot to learn in this world isn't there?“
"Perhaps, if you have time.“ The older sister expressed gravely. "Are you still making Kai feel that you will mary him? Tene look here, there is no need to sit down in Bendabli and put up pious face, talking about marrying that boy or man, I don't know what you call him. You put your hand in that, and you will remain here to rot like the old people. You see, sister, they have had their day and are tied to a past which has long since gone. When you started out you made a mistake. Of course, you have been fortunate to get a child out of the deal. Why sit down here now and waste your youthful days behind Kai, when you can come to Firestone and get you a good man, who is making plenty money every month and who can buy plenty of good clothes and make you presentable.“
"This man who has been sending presents, how is he?“
"Tene, my sister, you know me, I don't go in for cheap men.“ The older sister boasted. "Besides that, there is no problem finding good men in Firestone.“ Kema ended.
After all I had heard, I did not wish to face the girls. To get drunk was the obvious thing which came to my mind. I walked halfway to Royesville and drank cane juice promiscuously. I don't know why, I could not get enough of the stuff to put me to sleep. The conversation between the girls kept echoing in my ear like a dream.
The roosters caught me pondering, their crowing reminding me that it was dawn. When I finally came home, the girls had gone out. I pulled out Tene's things I had hidden under the bed and chopped them up in pieces with the cutlass. I slipped out of my room and scattered the cut-up brassiers and panties along the path between Bendabli and Amina. A man from Amina, going to his palm wine tree, was the first to notice the strange trail. He ran back in a hurry to inform his friends. Soon the palm wine man's discovery stirred up commotion in both villages. Curiosity also drew out Kema and Tene.
I tried to position myself so as to observe what effect this discovery would have on the girls. Kema was shocked, because she knew these were the very pieces she had surreptitiously sent to Tene. I heard Kema say, "sister, we better get someone to look into this palava before it is too late. Look at Kai, standing against the rubber tree, holding his waist. I bet it's nobody but him.“
"What do we do, Kema?“ Tene inquired nervously. "I don't know“, Kema expressed dejectedly. "What ever it is, we must do it quickly.“ Kema suggested a crystal reader.
"Sister, many of the crystal readers now-a-days are such big liars, you don't know who to rely on.“
This was Thursday, the day before the Muslim prayer day, Aijuma. I informed the old folks that I was not feeling well.
When the girls got back from the diviner, they found me in bed. As soon as Tene got the news she came over to the kongo and asked, "Kai, what ails you?“
"My stomach, it's not so good.“
I observed Tene did not care to talk much. I said, "I think I'll take some medicine tomorrow morning,“ and asked if she would mind making me a small piece of domboy with dry meat soup.
"Kai, people never plan that kind of domboy the day previous.“
"That is the difference between us, Tene. I like to plan everything I do ahead of time.“
Friday morning, I gave Tene some dry meat I bought in Amina for the soup. She went around the village and collected all the ingredients, but discovered that no one had cassava to lend her. Our own cassava patch was just ten minutes away from the village. So Tene told me she would run there and dig up a hill or two.
Tene reached a tall palm tree and put down the rattan basket she had balanced on her head. Sitting in a thicket near the palm tree, my forehead crashed on a stupid twig. Tene heard the frightening sound and looked around. Her eyes caught mine. Softly she said, "Kai, that's you? Kai ...“ She screamed.