When the moon peered its silvery head, Enitan heard the muffled clatter of wood. Having lived in the rainforest all her life, she found it easy to tell which sound was strange and which wasn’t: grasscutters couldn’t make wood or branches clatter; baboons, yes, but there were no baboons around the hut. She stood from her mat, treading softly so she wouldn’t wake Alade, her foster mother, who was sleeping beside her. She looked out the window, golden-brown eyes searching through the bushes wafting in the cool breeze. At 12 years old, Enitan had tribal marks, three horizontal lines inscribed on each cheek. Her thick, black hair was braided in cornrows and the end of each plait curled like a pig’s tail.
When Enitan couldn’t make out the sound, she glanced up. Clustered branches blocked her view of the stars, but she managed a glimpse.
Every night, Enitan wondered what the constellations looked like in an open sky. She’d heard stories from Alade, of the glimmering stars representing the greatest people who ever lived, pure souls who had left a positive mark on the world and earned their place in the heavens. Enitan wished her parents were great people. They weren’t. They committed an atrocity, angered the gods and caused an inexorable famine in the village. After consulting the oracle, the villagers discovered that sacrificing Enitan was the only way to heal their lands. And so, Enitan was one month old when she became a fugitive, adopted by her mother’s slave and taken to a place where no human would think to look.
Whenever Enitan yearned to be among kids her age, her foster mother would remind her that an entire village was after her blood. During times of intense ponderings, Enitan wondered what her parents had done to deserve such treatment but Alade felt she was too little to understand the complexities of their tradition.
The deafening bang of a gunshot snapped Enitan back to reality. Alade jolted awake. She latched onto her daughter, heart thumping as they listened to the rustling of leaves. The sulphuric smell of gunpowder seeped into their nostrils. Someone was edging towards their hut.
The door creaked open and a broad figure emerged. “Who lives here?”
His raucous voice sent chills down Enitan’s spine. In the dim light of an oil lamp, the man was merely a silhouette but the intensity of his voice suggested he was dangerous. He set his gun at the entrance and peered inside the house. Alade rose from her mat, feigning anger, raising her chest like a challenger.
“I live here,” she said, trying to match the audacity in his voice. “Why do you barge into my home in the middle of the night?”
The man’s tone softened. “Forgive me, I was just curious. Few people build their huts in the middle of a rainforest. My name is Ologun Odetunde and I am a hunter from the village of Iwo.”
Enitan shivered. Iwo was her birthplace.
“Iwo is a long way from here,” Alade said. “Why would you come this far to hunt?”
“There are no animals in our village. We haven’t had rain in years. Recently, my grandfather got sick, so I had to set off to find him a decent meal.”
Enitan expected her mother to dismiss him but she pressed on with more questions.
“How long have you been hunting in this forest?”
“About five hours.”
“And what did you catch?”
“A few grasscutters. I planned to stay up all night to catch more so I can have enough for the week.”
Alade thought for a moment.
“A few grasscutters cannot sustain you and your ageing grandfather,” she said, “I have two sacks of bushmeat. I can let you have one. You must be tired after hunting for so long. Why don’t you rest here?”
Ologun’s shoulders dropped, and for a moment, Enitan noticed his shaky limbs and wobbled posture.
“You…you would shelter me for the night?” Ologun asked, eyes widening in surprise.
Alade nodded. “I’ve had to care for a grandmother once. I know what it feels like.”
Ologun prostrated. “Thank you so much!”
Alade let him settle in a corner, and as soon as his head touched the mat, he fell asleep.
Enitan nudged her mother. “Why would you let him spend the night here?”
“I know his family. Fifteen years ago, his grandfather defended me from robbers. It would be my pleasure to pay him back.”
“What if he finds out who I am?”
Alade placed a finger on Enitan’s lips.“He won’t.”
At dawn, to Enitan’s relief, Ologun picked up his gun and game and made his way home.
A gust of wind swept through fallen leaves, lifting them off the ground in a violent swirl. Dark clouds covered the sky and thunder rumbled. Rain lashed down, falling into water pots that Alade had positioned outside the hut. Inhaling the earthy smell of rain, Enitan watched the water plop into a bowl. She thought of Ologun and his grandfather and the rest of the people who couldn’t experience rainfall. No rain meant no water; nothing to drink, bathe or wash with.
Enitan stared at the water drops as if gazing into oblivion. A world without food sounded like a nightmare. But what grave offence had her parents committed? What form of treachery would cost an entire village their peace? Enitan was so immersed in her thoughts that she didn’t hear her mother come in with a bucket of clothes. She didn’t hear when Alade complained about the fluctuating weather or the rats that nearly ruined her garden.
It was not until her mother came close and tapped her that Enitan snapped out of her thoughts. “What’s wrong, Enitan? You’ve been quiet since I came in. Is something on your mind?” Alade asked, angling her face. “Are you hungry or cold? If you’re cold, I could make you pepper soup.”
“No, it’s not that,” Enitan said, almost in a whisper. Worry and confusion had left an imprint on her face.
As much as Enitan tried to conceal it, Alade perceived there was something amiss. She sat beside her daughter, pulling her so close that their bodies touched. “Are you thinking of your birthday? I already promised, you’ll start to hunt when you’re 13. I am not going back on my word.”
“It’s not that either.”
“What is it then?”
For years, she’d asked her mother this exact question, only to be told she was too young to comprehend. This time, Enitan was resolute. She straightened herself. “What did my parents do to attract the gods’ wrath?”
Alade tossed her head aside, her patewo braids grazing Enitan’s cheeks. It was her way of dismissing the conversation before it even began. Still, Enitan pressed, her voice laced with desperation.
“Please, Mother, I want to know.”
“You’ll find out when you’re older, but for now, I cannot tell you.”
Enitan followed her mother’s gaze. “How much older do I have to be? I’ll be a teenager in two days. Isn’t that old enough?”
Alade’s face lacked expression. Her dark lips formed a thin, hard line. “That is my decision to make, Enitan.”
She attempted to stand but Enitan held her wrist, gripping it as firmly as she possibly could. Alade fixed a threatening gaze on her daughter, a clear warning to take her hand off or be punished for it. Enitan loosened her grip. She sank to her knees and pressed her hands together.
“Please, Mother. Iwo is suffering for something my parents did. I deserve to know the truth.”
Alade’s features softened, and she let out a sigh of defeat.
“I guess I cannot keep this from you forever. When you’re 13, after the little feast I’ll be preparing for you, we will talk about it.”
Enitan felt a heavy burden lift from her chest. Her face shone with a smile. “Thank you, mother.”
Enitan was home alone when someone knocked on the door.
“It’s Ologun,” said the voice from the other end. Enitan froze.
“My mother is not home!” she said, “I do not allow people into our home without my mother’s permission.”
“But I have something for her, a gift. Open the door, let me drop it, and I’ll be on my way.”
Summoning courage, Enitan approached the door, opening it slightly, so a ray of sun fell on her bulbous nose. She gazed at Ologun, assessing the first male she had seen. Ologun was a rugged, stubble-bearded young man, clad in a dirt-brown Dashiki, a shade darker than the colour of his skin. Around his chest was a belt connected to his wooden gun.
Ologun handed Enitan a bundle of Ankara fabrics. “My grandfather sends his regards.”
Enitan stepped outside and collected the clothes from Ologun. Each fabric bore a spectrum of vibrant colours and scalloped patterns, an ideal match for her and Alade’s skin tone.
Enitan soon realised Ologun was scrutinising her. His eyes rolled over the tribal marks on her caramel cheeks. Feeling uncomfortable under his curious gaze, Enitan avoided eye contact.
“What is your name?” Ologun asked, and she told him. “E-ni-tan,” he mumbled, his deep voice making her quiver. “How old are you?”
Enitan tried in vain to steady her breathing, to hide the drops of sweat forming on her temples.
Ologun narrowed his eyes in curiosity. “Are you alright?”
“Yes,” Enitan said. “I need to go inside and finish my chores.” She lowered her face and turned towards the hut.
Ologun grabbed Enitan’s arm, forcing her to gaze at him. One of the fabrics fell from her hands and landed in the dirt.
“There’s something about you that’s not quite right,” Ologun said.
Enitan broke free from his grasp and turned away from him when he said, “Those marks on your face are similar to the ones of the Adebiyi clan, the ones who disrupted the peace of the village.”
Enitan’s feet felt like lead. Her tummy recoiled with a visceral fear. “I…do not know what you are talking about. I have to go. I have work to do.”
Enitan slipped into the hut and threw the fabrics aside so she could lock herself in. Ologun appeared behind her, shoving the door open. Enitan didn’t let the door swing too wide. She pushed her weight against it. Ologun pushed back, ramming so hard that Enitan sprawled backwards. He towered over her, raising his brows in realisation.
“You’re the girl aren’t you? The only child of the Adebiyis, the key to our salvation.”
Enitan’s chin trembled. The heap of clothing had cushioned her fall but her muscles were slack with exhaustion. “Go away!” she said.
“Listen to me, girl. The village is dying. Innocent people are paying for the sins of your family. There is no food, no water, only suffering. If there is any level of humanity in you, then come with me and surrender yourself to them.”
“No, I don’t want to die!” Enitan blubbered.
“You won’t die, I promise. All you need to do is come with me and I assure you, you’ll be safe. The villagers only need to see that you are remorseful for the sins your parents have committed.”
Ologun crouched to Enitan’s level, his eyes glistening in a frantic attempt to persuade her. “I swear on my parents’ grave, I’m telling you the truth. Come with me, and I will bring you back as soon as it is over.”
“And if I don’t go with you?”
“Then you won’t mind going with a mob of angry villagers because there is no way I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
“My mother will not let you take me.”
“Your mother is not here.”
Ologun squeezed Enitan’s arm. “I’m done going back and forth. It’s either you come gently or I’ll take you by force. Let’s go.”
Enitan took one last look at the living room, then at Ologun, whose eyes showed no hint of mercy. She feared he would unsheath his gun and shoot her so she cooperated.
“And don’t you think of trying to escape.” Ologun warned.
He led her out of the hut and onto a path carpeted with fallen leaves. In a short while, Enitan’s home faded into the distance, and she was left to gape at the lush greenery, an assembly of trees as high as citadels. Birdsongs filled the air, entrancing her with their fascinating melodies. The sight of a viper made her gasp. She edged away from it and considered a pangolin digging for ants. She had wanted to touch the animals, to explore the wondrous landscapes of the forest but Ologun was insistent she stay on the path. His presence reminded her of her burdensome plight. She recalled his words. The villagers just need to see that you are remorseful. Enitan didn’t believe it was that easy. She feared the worst would happen, but in that instant, there was nothing she could do but wait.
An hour into their journey, a strident scream echoed throughout the forest, sending a flock of frightened pigeons askew. Ologun looked back, one hand clutching his weapon. Enitan recognised the voice. It wasn’t an animal, but the cry of a human – Alade’s cry. With Ologun distracted, Enitan bolted away from the path, running as fast as she could. It broke her heart to hear her mother wail. Everywhere she turned she saw trees, bushes, and a smattering of carefree animals. There was nothing familiar, nothing to direct her home. In the meantime, all she could do was hide. She found a giant log and skidded behind it.
Ologun appeared, throwing his face from side to side, searching for the child that was now beginning to annoy him. He clenched his fists. “Enitan! Come out now or I am going to start shooting like a madman. I know you’re somewhere close. There is no rule that says I cannot bring you half alive,” he said. He took out his gun and shot at the sky.
“I’m going to count to three. That’s how much longer I can hold my patience. One…two…”
Enitan barrelled away from her hiding spot. Tears of frustration broke from her eyes as she ran, but with a misstep, she slipped on animal waste and sprained her ankle. A howl escaped her lips and Ologun caught up with her. He raised his hand in readiness to strike her. Enitan cowered. At barely five feet tall, she was no match for a full-grown hunter. She braced herself for the blows, but Ologun hesitated. Perhaps it was a tinge of empathy or maybe a feeling of guilt for having kidnapped the child of the woman who had once helped him. Whatever it was made his anger dissolve. Enitan wouldn’t get far with a sprained ankle.
Ologun lifted the child onto his back.
Nighttime fell in a meadow and Ologun lowered Enitan onto the grass. He dropped beside her, exhausted, and Enitan saw another chance to escape. Ologun’s hesitation earlier had shown her that he wasn’t completely a monster. The gun could just be for show, and he might never use it on her.
“If you try to run away,” Ologun muttered, “you will get mauled by a wild animal.” He took out a charm from his pocket. “Didn’t you wonder why we were safe throughout the journey? It’s because of this. I’m certain your mother has one too. That’s why the wild animals don’t come for you. My advice, stay put so you won’t get eaten alive.”
Enitan let out a disappointed sigh. Behind her was a forest of woodland trees that nearly kissed the sky. Even if she ran away, she would get lost in the forest. Enitan gazed at the sky for the first time without it being shrouded by tall trees. She could finally behold it, a serenade of blue-black, home to hundreds of glimmering dots. There were lots of them, deceased souls that burned as constellations.
“They’re beautiful,” Enitan mused. “I’ll surely be up there when I die.”
Ologun scoffed. He rubbed his chiselled chin. “I don’t think so. There are benevolent people in this world, people who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of others. And then there’s your parents – selfish, disobedient, wired to destroy everything beautiful in the world. Your parents and you do not deserve a place on earth, not to speak of heaven.”
Ologun’s words were like arrows, piercing through Enitan’s heart, ripping through her innocence. His words carried so much hate she felt like a vermin. A frigid heaviness weighed on her shoulders, making her knees wobbly, forcing her to lie down. She curled herself on the grass, lips quivering as she let out heart-rending sobs.
Soon, they continued their journey. Because of Enitan’s limp, she lagged a few steps behind. Just as the sun rose and the village was in sight, Enitan collapsed. Ologun rushed to see what was wrong. He found her shivering and clutching her stomach. Hours of trekking without food and water had affected her.
Enitan couldn’t respond. She squeezed her eyes shut, temples creasing in agony. Ologun let out a frustrated sigh, lifted her, and continued to trek.
Although Enitan’s eyes were shut, she couldn’t help but overhear the conversation.
“What is wrong with her, Grandfather?” Ologun asked, towering over Enitan. His grandfather’s mud house was a riveting display of colours and patterns. On one side of the room were bundles of fabrics, and on another side was a wall full of embroidery.
“It could be a fever,” Mobalaji said.
Ologun’s grandfather, Mobalaji, was a shrivelled, bent man whose wrinkles ran deep into his skin. He smelled of coal and was dressed in oversized trousers and a threadbare singlet.
“How bad is it?”
“It could be worse but thank the gods you found her on time. Where did you find this child?”
Ologun narrated his ordeal from the night he went hunting to the present day.
Mobalaji lowered himself onto a chair, dazed by what he had just heard. “You should not have brought her here,” he said, his eyes pacing unceasingly around the room.
“But, Grandfather, the village is dying. We’ve been awaiting her arrival for years. She is the cure to our diseased lands and this drought that we have had for so long.”
“Ologun, she’s only a little girl. She doesn’t have to pay for the mistakes of her parents. Or do I need to remind you what they will do to her?”
“I know, Grandfather, but it has to be done.”
“If anything happens to that girl, her blood will be on your hands!”
Enitan woke up feeling a little better. There were no contractions in her stomach but her head still panged. She scrutinised the room she was in. Shafts of sunlight filtered in through the window, falling on the beaded curtains and cane sofas. Every corner was covered in tie and dye, and the strong stench almost made her wretch. Enitan heard the high-pitched chorus of children and was drawn to it. She heaved herself up, stumbling out of the room and out through the kitchen door. The swelling on her ankle had reduced, so she could walk without limping.
The voices emanated from a nearby compound. There, a huddle of kids about her age gathered to play. Majority of them wore nothing but underwear, exposing their scrawny arms and legs to the scorching heat of the afternoon sun.
Enitan sat on a stone and watched them play boju boju. Back at the forest, she played that game with Alade but was often disappointed when her mother got tired and resigned. By the intensity of the children’s voices, she could tell they could go hours without complaining. An albino child, about 11 years old, noticed Enitan and walked up to her.
“Join us,” he said, extending an arm.
“I can’t,” Enitan replied, taking precaution that, like Ologun, someone might recognise her.
The boy’s shoulders fell and he exhaled. “My brother Dayo is sick too. He hasn’t come out to play in a long time. My mother fears he might not make it till the end of the month.”
“That’s sad to hear. I’m so sorry.”
The boy smiled. “It’s not your fault. A lot of children have been dying lately. My mother says that we are paying for the sins a couple committed several years ago.”
Enitan went rigid with anxiety. She wondered what the boy would do if he found out the truth. His empathy, that warm smile, would melt away instantly. “Did your mother tell you what they did?” Enitan asked.
The boy shook his head. “But I’m certain they are wicked people. Only wicked people can make children suffer such torment.” The boy wiped his face with his hand.
The boy’s brother was dying and Enitan felt responsible for it. She wished she could put an end to the hardship.
“I have to go now. Get well soon,” the boy said, returning to the huddle.
By the time Enitan returned to the mud house, Mobalaji had come back. The sight of Enitan walking in brought him great relief.
“Oh, my dear, you gave me a scare. I thought something bad happened to you.”
“I’m sorry. I just wanted to watch the children play.”
“I understand, Enitan, but you have to tell me before you leave. If anyone finds out who you are, they’ll offer you to the Ifa priest. I’ll take you back to your mother when you’re much better. Just stay safe and hidden.”
As Enitan walked to the room where she had been sleeping earlier, she thought of Dayo and the huddle of malnourished children, and of Ologun’s grandfather who could barely move without a walking stick. A mixture of emotions bubbled in her chest. She was afraid of getting caught. A mob of famished villagers could go as far as beating her to death if they knew who she was. And then there was a heaviness in her chest, a feeling of intense guilt and sadness over the affliction of her people.
Mobalaji had promised to take her back to her mother, but at that age, he could die on the way. Ologun had been out for hours. He could be spreading the news of Enitan’s arrival, getting the villagers ready to take her. Enitan braced herself for what was to come, and deep down, within the shroud of doubt, was a spark of faith that perhaps one day, everything would be alright.
Enitan stared at the ceiling, deep in thought. The night was young and the pale crescent moon positioned itself in the cloudless sky. A cool zephyr blew through every opening in the house, making her cling to her wrapper. The front door screeched open, and Enitan edged towards the sound. She peered from the passageway and saw Ologun and his grandfather.
“Where have you been?” Mobalaji asked.
“I went hunting in a nearby village,” he huffed, slamming three dead lemurs onto the floor. “How long do we have to live like this, Grandfather? How many more years do we have to endure this famine?”
“As long as the gods say so.”
Ologun tightened his fists. “The girl could’ve been our salvation, Grandfather, but you wouldn’t let me take her to the priest.”
“Are you listening to yourself, Ologun? You know the kind of mess her parents made before they passed on. Do you know what they’ll do to her?”
“Wouldn’t one life be worth it compared to the hundreds that are suffering?”
“No one made you a judge, Ologun. You don’t get to decide who lives and who doesn’t.”
“You are saying we should pick her life over hundreds of others? Need I remind you, Grandfather, that Enitan is a product of two siblings? Incest, according to our custom is a forbidden act, punishable by death. She should have never been born; she should have been dead a long time ago because a child like that is a disgrace to humanity, a dent to her generation. She cannot live while others die. Take a look at me, Grandfather. I haven’t slept in days. I have been toiling all night with very little reward. Many others are like me. We are paying for the sins of siblings who are a disgrace to the gods of the land.”
“That is enough, not another word. Nothing happens to that girl, and that is final!”
Enitan choked back sobs and staggered back to her room. One more insult from Ologun and she would wretch. She collapsed on the mat, trying to minimise the bellow that escaped her lips. Tears and mucus ran down her face as she pondered their conversation. The truth stung like poison, and for the first time in her life, Enitan was completely mystified. Now, she understood why Alade hid the truth from her. It was hard to describe to a child a romantic affair between brother and sister. Her culture possessed deeply rooted ideologies, customs, and laws that dared not be tampered with. There was no way the people would let her live. Enitan shivered. Ologun’s words invaded her mind. He’d always been harsh with his speech, always found a way to break her spirit.
She should have never been born…a child like her is a disgrace to humanity, a dent to her generation.
The words rang in her head for hours like a catchy tune. It would’ve been better, she thought, if she hadn’t been born. In the past two days, she had learnt more about life than in 13 years of her existence. By the time the sun rose, she’d be 13 years old. She had always looked forward to her birthday, always a hopeful child, but that night, there was nothing that offered her happiness or courage, only darkness and a bleak future. Her heart ached. There was no more hope for her, but at least there would be hope for other children. Enitan heaved herself up. The house was silent except for the snores of Ologun and Mobalaji. Slowly, she opened the door and went out.
When the cock crowed, Ologun went into Enitan’s room but there was no one in. He checked the backyard, the kitchen, the latrine, but there was no sign of her. He approached his grandfather.
“Enitan is gone.”
“What do you mean she’s gone?”
“She’s not in the room, not in the kitchen.”
Ologun stood akimbo, brows knit in thought. “I have to find her.”
He hurried into his Buba and Sokoto and scurried out of the house. He looked for Enitan at the market square and saw a gaggle of women rejoicing.
“Our lands have been healed,” one of them said.
“It’s a miracle!” said another woman.
Stunned, Ologun asked what had happened.
“We woke up this morning and noticed that our crops have started sprouting. Look at the clouds in the sky; it will soon rain. We haven’t had rain in years.”
Ologun looked up, the dark clouds were truly assembling. He stood transfixed. His thoughts were soon interrupted by the sight of Alade, speaking to a lady by a food stand.
Ologun snuck away and hid at a safe distance. That was when it struck him. With the lands healed and rain about to fall, it could only mean that… No, he shook his head. It couldn’t be that. He sprinted towards the path that led to Ogunmoroti’s shrine. Thunder crackled and the wind blew dust into his eyes, but he did not stray from the path.
When he reached the shrine, he called out the priest’s name. Ogunmoroti was a stout man with a belly the size of a cauldron. He smiled at Ologun, revealing his crooked teeth. “How can I help you, boy?”
Ologun walked past him and into the shrine. He went white with shock when he saw Enitan’s body, a shrivelled, grey form, covered in flies. A line of blood trailed from her lips to the rest of her body, tainting the air with a metallic scent. Ologun looked away, unable to bear the guilt. He crumbled to his knees, trembling, unshed tears clouding his vision.
“She brought herself to me,” Ogunmoroti said. “She was upset. She said no one loved her except her mother and begged me to find Alade and let her know what happened.”
Tears streamed down Ologun’s cheeks. This was what he always wanted, for the lands to be restored, yet his heart panged with agony. He hadn’t expected her to sacrifice herself.
“She believed that she could become one of the stars in the sky,” Ogunmoroti said. “The biggest one.”
Rain fell in torrents and the cold wind swept into the shrine. At last, after 13 years, the rivers would flow, the crops would flourish, and perhaps they would never have to suffer another famine again.
Ologun searched the sky for Enitan’s star. The biggest one, she had said. He wanted her to shine brightest. She deserved to. Alade had found him a few days ago. She spat on him, punched him hard, held him by his collar and only let him go when she painfully realised that those things wouldn’t bring Enitan back. In the end, she returned to the rainforest, where she proposed to bury what was left of Enitan.
Mobalaji had disowned Ologun and torn his clothes when he heard the news. Now, there was nothing left for him – no home, no family. Everywhere he went, the burden of guilt followed. Ologun caught a glimpse of a bright star, twinkling. He could tell it was hers. The wind blew softly, calming him. He felt her, felt her presence, and although he had lost everything, it brought him peace that Enitan was where she belonged, among the stars in the sky.
Naomi Eselojor enjoys writing fast-paced, gripping tales in the science fiction and fantasy genre. She has been published at Omenana, 365tomorrows, and Tree and Stone magazine. Her works are forthcoming at Improbable press and Hexagon Magazine. Naomi is a student of the University of Lagos and resides in Lagos, Nigeria with her family.