Iya Beji dropped the ilarun when we heard the news. She grabbed me in her firm arms, and told me to be strong. She held me against her chest, and said the gods would not forsake me. She said I should be patient.
This was the fourth attack. My son hadn’t come home.
I stuttered out of my quarters, loosely holding my iro between my fingers, and dragging my feet across the clay floor. Iya Beji called me to cover my hair. I breathed in. She told me to compose myself. I breathed out. It was a taboo for women—especially for the queen—to be seen with their hair undone. I dragged myself across my palace.
My heartbeat tore through my body in violent tremors.
I walked to the passageway facing the front courtyard, and pressed my right cheek against a thick pillar. My hands crept around the rigid mud rod, clawing through its cracks until I had completely collapsed onto it.
I couldn’t leave the palace to look for him. It wasn’t safe.
The wind sat on the courtyard in front of me. It was a cold wind. Came from the river in the west through the central village houses where I’d sent my son. And then it arrogantly trampled into my home, arms crossed over its hanging stomach, middle teeth missing from its mocking smile. And through its painful silence, I heard it roar the prophecies of my child’s capture.
I heard someone running towards me from behind. I sat on the floor beside my pillar, keeping my gaze on the pathway across the courtyard. The footsteps grew louder. My heart anchored my entire body onto the clay floor, as my arms slid down the pillar. The footsteps stopped behind me.
It was my friend, Adeyinka. She stood beside me, staring intently at the pathway across the courtyard. I asked her if she’d heard of the attack. You’d never see them from the palace. You’d just hear of them. She nodded. I asked who’d told her. She said she heard when my maid told me. I shrieked.
“My boy,” I stuttered, tightening my grip on my pillar, “my boy left the palace this morning.”
She nodded, and leaned against a wall. Neither of us had experienced the attacks before. But we’d heard of them. We’d watched my husband’s relatives crawl onto the courtyard, to wait for their loved ones to return. We’d watched children run into their mothers’ arms, wives run into their husbands’ arms. We’d watched people stand and wait for loved ones who never returned.
I scratched my head of half-braided cornrows. I should have gone back inside. People shouldn’t have seen me like that.
I looked at Adeyinka, and then looked back at the passageway across the courtyard. There was something blocking the light from the other end. It was small, but it was moving. I asked Adeyinka if she’d seen it, and she said there was nothing there. She sighed and sat beside me. She asked me if she should send the hairdresser back home. The woman came from Offa. It would be unfair to keep her in Ife till dark.
I looked closer at the passageway, and pressed my feet against the ground. I pushed my arms up the pillar and drew myself up.
A small, brown foot landed on the clay floor across the courtyard. I jerked back in disbelief. My skinny boy ran towards me, his eyes shut with determination. He ran with his fists clenched and his bald head shining in the sunlight. He’d never wanted to shave his head; he thought shaved heads made people look like lanterns, but his father had insisted. My little lantern steadily charged towards me.
I pushed myself off the pillar. One foot after the other, iro in hand, I mechanically walked towards him. He embraced me with a resounding thud. I held him for a split second before he started speaking. He didn’t stop talking. I took his head out of my stomach and looked straight at his face. He was pale. His hands were shaking. His head moved with the viciousness of his words:
“Spirits, mama. There were spirits. The gods have come to punish us. They have forsaken us”