Maradan

Ngozi John

There is a story of the woman in the mirror. It begins outside the mirror. No one knew how she came to be in the town of Ayetoro; whether she was swept in by the whirlwind that danced in front of the market stalls in the middle of June, or she was poured out by the river. But on one slow afternoon when market women sat idly in their stalls, subdued by the heat, their bare breasts hanging over the folds of their bellies, when the head of the house reclined in his cane chair and swatted the incessant circling of buzzing flies around his head with his ab’eti aja, and children’s cries pierced through the walls into their neighbour’s houses, adding an irritation to the already stinging heat, a woman swaggered past every house, every human, every animal that stood, sat, or lay in the streets of Ayetoro.

When the rumours passed from the restless mouths of wives who did not have their turns attending to their husbands, over the fence, to the itchy ears of the wives in the next compound, huddled over firewood smoke and pots of Asaaro, into the eavesdropping ears of their daughters standing close by in case the porridge needed more salt, this was what was said of the woman: that while everyone was minding their business and waiting for the evening breeze to relieve the sun of its duty, a whistled tune announced the approach of a strange woman. It was not the presence of the visitor in itself that piqued the curiosity of the people, no. Ayetoro had always been an industrious town, welcoming visitors, whether for business or pleasure. Therefore, it was not unusual to see a new face from time to time. If not that the visitor dressed in the ceremonial iro and buba, with matching aso oke wound around her head and waist in the way of new brides – in the way that a business woman in haste to meet the evening fish market had no business dressing – and Kurubete the village dwarf, trailed behind her with a trunk four times his size sitting on his head, one would have mistaken her for an ordinary merchant.

When this story is told, before the men describe the rotundness of her buttocks and how it jiggled with every step she threw forward, before the women fantasise about the shimmering jewellery that graced her neck and wrists, or the cane basket – which they were certain was filled with more jewellery – held up in the crook of her index finger, before young girls suck their cheeks into a pout to imitate how perfectly chiselled her face was, and young boys reminisce lustfully about how her unhurried, tantalising steps forced a stop in the middle of their football game, it is the oddness of the tune which she whistled that is first mentioned; how strangely familiar it was.

*

The next morning, neighbours crossed neighbour’s frontage in the guise of exchanging pleasantries, women sent their daughters to borrow household items that they had no need for. Every eye in town perched on their neighbour’s compound, watching to see from whose house this guest will emerge.

At the far end of Olopomewa Street, before the untarred road branched into Mosafejo, Taiye and Kehinde, Iya eleko’s twin daughters, strutted with two other ladies, each of them balancing wares of ata rodo and tomati, or eja gbigbe, or efo, or ila on wooden trays atop their heads. Each item they sold were supporting ingredients in a pot of soup or stew, therefore, it was strategic to walk together to hasten their sales. They had just covered the dusty length of Olopomewa and were turning into the next street. The morning was still new and the ladies had not yet begun their chattering.

“Did any of you hear about the new woman in town?” Laide, one of the other ladies, asked, in a bid to rid the morning of its sluggishness.

Ha! One had to be deaf to not hear about it. My mother did not stop talking about it last night.” Anike, the spindly one whom they called pankere teacher, retorted.

Kehinde moved to the front of the group and began to swing her hips slowly, “This was how she was walking: Jobolo jobolo jobolo.”

The girls laughed and clapped their hands. They were fully awake now.

“How do you know that was how she was walking, were you there?” Taiye slapped Kehinde on the shoulder playfully.

“Were you?” Kehinde turned and pushed her mouth into Taiye’s face, as far as her tray would allow.

Anike reached over her wares for her breakfast of moin-moin elewe. As she unwrapped each layer of leaves carefully to reveal the yellowish mould, Laide nudged her with an elbow to call her attention to something, causing the food to roll off the leaves onto the ground.

Ahn ahn, Laide! Kilode baayii?” Anike, more concerned about her breakfast lying in the dust, failed to notice early that the girls had stopped moving, and had turned their attention to something more pressing.

Right there, in front of Ajisafe’s house, stood the strange visitor. If the sun had, the previous day, cast its light against the eyes of the onlookers to conceal some of her features, the morning light revealed them. Her skin had the vibrancy of one who constantly dipped herself in palm oil. Aponbepore, the villagers would soon come to call her. To tell about her face, one would first draw a deep sigh before proceeding to describe the straightness of her nose, the sharpness of her cheekbones and jaw narrowing into the jut of a small chin, how the fullness of her lips gave a soft quality to her features, and her eyes – almost extraordinary if they were carved into a less enchanting face – the colour of the sky.

Iya Eleko’s twin daughters and their friends were not the only ones who had stopped to observe the visitor. Passersby had formed small groups. They folded their hands across their breasts, clapped their hands in amusement, pushed their mouths into one another’s ears. The visitor, paying no mind to them, carried on her task, all the while humming a tune. On a wooden table in front of the house, stood several paintings of women; women like her, with straight noses, high cheekbones, slender necks, endless legs, slim waists, broad hips; women with skin like oil.

*

Strange things have happened in Ayetoro. Like when Akande, a young man who claimed to have come from Ajikobi, turned out to be an akudaya. He had lived in Ayetoro for almost a year and was just about to get married to Adesewa, his new lover. If not that Ogunjimi, Adesewa’s uncle, had invited his friend – who turned out to be Akande’s brother-in-law – to the wedding, no one would have discovered that Akande was a ghost who had wandered into Ayetoro after his tragic death to the hands of highway robbers. He had left a young wife and three children in his former life and had come to Ayetoro, a disgruntled ghost unwilling to forsake the pleasures of this world. Sadly, Ogunjimi’s friend had recognised the groom as his late brother-in-law. And right there, in the eyes of the wedding guests, before anyone could scoop a handful of sand and throw at the ghost, he disappeared into the wind. The next morning, what they found was the body of a distraught lover hanging from a tree.

What followed the arrival of this visitor was something that had never been heard of in the history of Ayetoro. On the day that Iya Eleko’s twin daughters stood in front of Ajisafe’s house, the strange visitor spoke for the first time. While onlookers were engrossed with the images in the paintings, a piercing voice filled the air.

“Fine fine ladies of Ayetoro! My beautiful beautiful women of Ayetoro! I greet you all. You may be wondering, who is this woman? Where has she come from? Well, my name is Maradan but you can call me Aponbepore.” She hooked her thumbs in the waist fold of her wrapper and spun regally. “Today, I bring to you women of Ayetoro good tidings. Are you tall? Short? Fat? Thin? Beautiful? Ugly? Even if you are a dwarf! This good news is for you.”

By now, every ear listening to her voice had perked up. More people had come out of their houses to hear the words of this strange woman.

“Ka a ma f’oro gun, let me cut the long story short. Look at me.” She took three steps forward, paused, half-spun to the right, half-spun to the left.

People scrunched up their noses, hissed, clapped their hands in disgust or excitement, ogled, hooted, catcalled.

Loooook at me. Am I not a sight to feast your eyes upon? Do you want to look as beautiful as I am? Or even more beautiful? I bring you good news. For just a small amount, I will make you however beautiful you wish to be. Look at these women.” She gestured towards the display of paintings. “Look at them. If you want, you can be like any of them. For just a little amount.”

“This woman, what is it you’re selling; skin products? Or is it agbo?” a woman yelled from the crowd.

“Maybe beauty products,” another shouted.

“Or perhaps, charms to make one beautiful, abi?” another suggested.

In response, Maradan feigned a long fit of laughter, slapped her hands on her thighs and shook her head. When she straightened, she patted her chest with her right hand, as though to suppress the laughter. “It is good. It is good. You have all thought well. But I do not sell skin products, neither do I sell beauty concoctions nor charms. What I bring to you today is beauty itself. The one that will make men turn twice when you walk past them. They will rush at you as if you’re honey. As I have told you, for just a small amount. Husbands, send your wives to me. Mothers, bring your daughters. Young girls, come with your friends. Come and be beautiful.”

And with that, Maradan turned away from the crowd, and resumed her task.

By noon, the whole village had heard of this strange woman who could make anyone beautiful. It was rumoured that she was Ajisafe’s new bride. If not, why was she standing in front of Ajisafe’s house? And where was Ajisafe himself? Was it not five months ago that he announced he was going to Ashipa to bring home his new bride? Why had he not returned? Or did he send her ahead of him? And what was this talk about making women beautiful?

This matter filled the mouths of the people for days. It was the chatter of young girls on the road to the stream. Men occupied themselves with it while they waited for their bottles of dry gin before proceeding into serious deliberations. The buyer in the market, whose aim was to convince the seller to part with her goods at a lower price, employed it as a tool to win her over. But in all of these, no one spoke about the contemplation of their minds; how they have stood a minute longer in front of the mirror every day since then.

Maradan was unperturbed about the seeming disinterest of the people of Ayetoro. She was used to the initial scepticism and gossip. Every morning, she brought out her table, wiped down her paintings, and hung them from the low roof of the house. She knew that with every day that passed, the villagers would be drawn in by these paintings. This was why she was not surprised when five days after her exhibition, a mother held her daughter by the hand and stopped in front of her table.

“You,” The woman looked Maradan from up to down, down to up, “they say you can make someone beautiful. This one” – she pushed her daughter forward by the head – “she does not resemble me. She looks like her father’s people. Look at her head like a bicycle seat. Her father is a cunning one. If I had seen that horror of a head when he was asking for my hand in marriage, would I not have married Ajala instead? But he wore a cap every time he visited.”

*

The next morning, the front of Maradan’s house was lined with women and young girls. Ladies stood with their hands on their hips and sized up other ladies. Mothers hooked their daughters’ hands under their armpits.

“Ha. Iya Anike, you are here.”

Ehn. Iya Laide, you are here too.”

Of course, this was not mere greeting. Many unspoken things lay between this pretence of an acknowledgement. If one listened closely, one might have heard one woman say under her breath to the other, Oh. Have you finally realised that you have a monkey for a daughter?

When Maradan emerged from the house, all the women hassled to take the front position. Maradan rested her interlocked fingers on her breasts and leaned back with a satisfied smile on her face.

“My fellow women, there is no need to rush. All of you will be attended to. I assure you l’agbara eledua, I will attend to you all. Now, I will pick two people every two days. One for the present day, the other for the next. As soon as the sun begins to go down, I have closed for the day. Now, you at the back there,” She pointed above the heads of the women to a mother, Iya Lekan, “You will come back with your daughter tomorrow. For today” – her eyes roamed among the women. Some of them squeezed through the crowd and landed at the front. She ignored them – “you, follow me. The rest of you, come back in two days’ time.”

The rest of the women, clearly dissatisfied, dragged their feet to their respective houses.

Iya eleko’s twin daughters and their friends sat under the shade of a shop, waiting for a heavy downpour to subside. The rain had lingered all day and disrupted their business.

“My mother says we are going to Aponbepore’s house tomorrow.” Laide stretched her legs under the streak of rain pouring down the edge of the roof.

“Me too. I haven’t been able to sleep since yesterday.” Anike unfurled her osuka and began to roll it up again.

“Me, I can’t wait for it to be my turn. God knows that this whole town will not rest. Have you not seen how beautiful Ololade is becoming by the day?” Kehinde was giddy with excitement.

“I heard she warns them to never look into the mirror again.”

“Never again?”

“Never again.”

“So, how am I supposed to admire my new look?”

Ha! Kehinde! You are so concerned with being beautiful.” Taiye, who had busied herself with rearranging her wares, expressed her irritation.

Ehen? N’igba yen n ko? What is more important than beauty in this world? Or how will one get a fine young man to walk up to her and say, “Hello, Omoge, what are you selling?”

The other girls giggled.

O da, me I’m not interested.”

“In beauty or men?”

“Both.”

“So, you prefer to stay ugly while every girl in town is beautiful?”

“Who says I’m ugly? Besides, I won’t be in this town.”

Ehen?” Kehinde gave her a sidelong look, “Where are we going o?”

“Have you forgotten that Aunty Teacher is coming to take me to a school in Ibadan?”

Ehen?” Kehinde scrunched up her nose.

“Yes.”

Sio! No wonder you and Aunty Teacher look alike.”

*

Every two days, more women lined the front of Maradan’s house. And each day, she picked one lady from the crowd. Inside the house, on an easel, stood a canvas, several bottles of paint, and all sizes and shapes of brushes. Maradan was a happy bird when she painted, flitting and humming or whistling her favourite tune with a grin on her face.

“Are you comfortable, my sister?” she would say to the ladies. “Straighten your back. Raise your chin. Aha! See how fine you are looking already. No, don’t look yet.”

The images that Maradan created in the paintings had no resemblance to the ladies who sat on the stool in front of her. If she felt that one’s nose took up too much space on her face, she carved a small nose that stood straight in the middle of her face. She raised their drooping cheeks and highlighted their cheekbones. She contoured their wide foreheads and filled their receding hairlines with paint strokes. She created images with fuller lips, wider hips, slenderer necks, tinier waists, longer limbs. When she handed the paintings over to them, their initial reaction was disapproval. But as they continued to examine it, the frown on their faces eased into a smile. Maradan, now satisfied with the end result, proceeded to give them instructions.

“Now, be aware that this is just the first step in this journey. The next thing that you will do is this: when you get home, gather every mirror in your house, big or small; broken or whole, and go and hide it under your bed or in the farthest corners of your house. Better still, go and throw them into the river. Whether by mistake or deliberately, never linger in front of a mirror.”

“Never again?”

“Never again. Instead, every morning when you wake up, take this painting and look into it.”

And with every day that they looked into their paintings, the women of Ayetoro transformed into the images in them. Day by day, their wide noses decreased, their legs became longer, their buttocks rounder, their breasts fuller. Word spread to the neighbouring towns of the extraordinary beauty of the women of Ayetoro. Men trooped into the town to ask for their hands in marriage, so that one lady had over five suitors to herself. The women of Ayetoro were having the time of their lives. They swayed their hips teasingly in front of the men, ignored their praise songs, stopped in the middle of a stroll to bend down for nothing other than flaunt their voluptuous buttocks, turned down their suitors for reasons as flimsy as the colour of their shoes. However, what no one foresaw was this: day after day, as the women of Ayetoro changed into those images, they began to look more and more like each other. Women began to confuse their daughters for others. A woman would have given a child a thunderous abara on the back before realising that the cry did not quite sound like that of her child. A man would grab a woman’s waist from behind and be called to order by a stinging slap across his face. One man was even rumoured to have lifted the wrapper of his wife’s visitor who had fallen asleep in the sitting room while his wife had gone to check the food on the fire.

“But even if he did not know that it was not his wife lying there, he should have known when he entered. Or shouldn’t one know his own property?”

Howu! He said he did not enter.”

The men of Ayetoro decided, one morning, that it may not be an easy matter to settle if any of them knew another’s wife the way only her husband should. They rallied to Maradan’s house to appeal to her.

“This woman, we beg you, reverse whatever spell you cast on our women. The whole town is in disarray. We cannot even recognise our wives. Imagine a man like me being slapped by a girl half my age because I don’t know my wife’s waist anymore.” Jinadu, the leader of the group, implored.

Maradan stood with her hands on her waist and turned her face away from them. “Humans and ingratitude.” Then she faced them, hands on her waist, she stood on her toes and pushed her body towards them, “N gbo. Tell me, did any of your wives complain about their appearance? Or are you not happy that you have extra flesh to hold at night?”

“That is not the only problem, Iya.” A young man in the crowd strained his neck above the sea of heads. “Our ladies do not even give us so much as a glance anymore. They prefer chiefs and princes from other towns.”

Maradan untied her wrapper, flapped both ends, and began to tie it again. “Tell me again, was it I who cursed your lineage with wretchedness?”

*

There is a story that is told in Ayetoro about a child who killed her mother. Omolade – born with the most beautiful eyes that ever were in the whole of Ayetoro. Her mother, Asabi olohun iyo, the wife of Ishola, was the most enchanting woman and the best singer in all of the town and beyond. Asabi’s father, Ajileye, bent on giving her to an honourable man, had chosen Ishola – a man from a humble background – among all her wealthy suitors. Asabi olohun iyo – one with a voice like honey and skin like silk. Who knew what evil had crossed her path when she was with child. The child that she bore for Ishola was a strange one: eyes the colour of the sea, face like a closed fist. Day and night, Asabi held Omolade in her laps and sang to her:

the leaf does not fall far from the tree
the lion does not bear a goat
as the rain washes away the old earth
as the night gives way for the day
let this child become new

But each day, as the child grew, she became uglier. Her mother would say to her, “Oh! If a thousand of these eyes could make you beautiful!” What did Asabi not do to get rid of her daughter? One time, she took the child to the centre of Oja Oba in Ibadan on its busiest day, left her there and turned back on the way home. How the eight-year-old appeared by Asabi’s side when she got to the T-junction that branched to her house was a mystery. Another time, she tried to drown the child in the river. The woman who had witnessed it said she was not sure whether Asabi was trying to drown the child or merely giving it a bath, but how dirty could a child be that it was held under water for that long. On the night which marked her 10th year, Ishola found their daughter, Omolade, standing over Asabi. But the girl who stood over her mother’s gaping gut with her hands and mouth covered in blood was not Omolade. She was the most angelic creature that he had ever laid his eyes upon.

*

A week after the men assembled at Maradan’s house, another strange visitor came into Ayetoro. There was nothing curious about her – for she was plain as eko – except that she did what no one in Ayetoro had done in a long while: she looked into a mirror. She paraded the streets, bag in one hand, mirror in the other, calling herself a strange name. If the women happened upon her, they hid their faces before they could catch their reflection in her mirror, or turned quickly and went in the opposite direction. The whole town was thrown into a panic. Who was this woman? Why had she come into Ayetoro with a mirror? And what was this name that she called herself? By the next day, word had reached Maradan about this woman with a mirror. She sat on a low stool in front of her house, her hands lodged between restless legs.

“Who is the unfortunate fellow whose generation will never know any good that has said she is the one who has two heads? Who has the guts to challenge me? Tell me, people of Ayetoro.” Maradan stood up and now paced the street. “When I came into your town, was it not a good thing that I brought?”

By now, a small crowd had gathered in front of the house.

“Now, tell me why you have let evil roam your streets.”

“They say there is something that she sees in the eyes,” someone in the crowd offered.

Maradan stopped suddenly. She moved as in a trance towards the voice. “Which one of you just spoke?” A young, fair woman shuffled to the front. Maradan moved closer to her and gripped her upper arms. “What did she say she finds in the eyes?’

“I don’t know, Iya.”

“And she calls herself a strange thing,” another woman interjected.

“A strange thing? What is this thing she calls herself?” Maradan probed.

“Oko Maradan.”

“Oko Maradan? That is what she calls herself? My husband?”

Errm… Your nemesis.”

A look of dread washed over Maradan’s face. Her hands fell to her sides. She stood transfixed for a moment, then turned abruptly and stormed into the house.

“But what is in the eyes, Iya?” A voice called after her.

Inside the house, Maradan threw her trunk open. She rummaged through it until her belongings lay in a heap beside it. At the bottom of the trunk sat an object wrapped in a length of Adire. Cautiously, Maradan lifted the shrouded object from the bottom of the trunk and peeled back the wrapper. What she cradled in her palms illuminated the room with a thousand lights and her eyes shone a translucent blue.

*

A group of four hawkers returning from the day’s enterprise trekked the streets of Babalegba. It was hard to distinguish one lady from the other. Only the remainder of their wares told Taiye apart from Kehinde, or Laide, or Anike. The day had been good to them and only small portions of the items lay on the tray. As soon as they saw the woman with the mirror approaching from a distance, they hastened their steps.

“Omoge. You there selling pepper, how do you sell it?” She stopped in front of Taiye. The rest of the girls hurried on. Taiye began to lower her tray.

“Taiye, is there something wrong with your head?” Kehinde called from a safe distance.

Taiye ignored the girls. She looked the woman in the face guardedly.

The woman, occupied with making the best selection out of the remaining portions of pepper, took no notice of her.

“Tell me what you see in the eyes.” Taiye’s voice was almost a whisper.

The conspiratorial tone of the words caught her by surprise. She raised her eyes to meet Taiye’s. A smile danced in her eyes. “You should see for yourself.” She made to raise the mirror to Taiye’s face.

Taiye drew back sharply and raised her tray onto her head, “I am not selling anymore.”

*

If Taiye had not stopped for the woman with the mirror, or slipped a piece of mirror under her wares the next day, maybe the events that unfolded thereafter would not have occurred. After she left the woman to join the rest of the girls, Taiye’s mood took on an unusual pensiveness on the journey home. The next day, while the girls rested under a tree from the scalding sun, she drew a piece of mirror out from under her wares, moved a distance away from the group, and brought it up to her face. What she saw when she looked into the mirror, when she looked into her eyes, was the most enchanting thing she had ever seen in all of her life. She called out to Kehinde, and soon, the rest of the girls had gathered around her.

“Taiye, we were told not to look into the mirror.” Kehinde was on the verge of tears.

Taiye pulled Kehinde’s head closer to the mirror. “Look closely, Kehinde. Look into your eyes.”

“I don’t see anything. I’m ugly, you’ve made me ugly.” Kehinde cried.

“Oh, stop acting like a child, Kehinde. Anike, Laide, can you girls see it?”

One by one, the girls looked into the mirror and were entranced by what they saw. By evening, the word had spread like wildfire among the women of Ayetoro. They searched under their beds and in the furthest corners of their houses for their long-forgotten mirrors. When they held them up beside their paintings, they realised that Maradan had fooled them; they were nothing like the images in the paintings. They had instead uncovered a secret. While some of them were delighted at this new revelation, others were furious. They stormed to Maradan’s house, painting in one hand, mirror in the other.

In front of Maradan’s house, a woman knocked loudly on the door.

“Iya Maradan, open the door.”

Maradan answered from within, “Who is it that wants to break down my door?”

“Iya, open the door,” the woman called.

“Speak, I’m listening to you.” Maradan had started to become impatient.

“The women of Ayetoro have gone mad. In fact, as I speak to you, they are on their way here.”

“What do they say is their problem?”

“They have looked into the mirror, all of them.”

“All of them?”

“Every one of them.”

A shrill cry could be heard from inside the house.

“Iya! Iya!”

*

On the night the child killed her mother, an Owiwi stood on the tallest branch of the Apa tree and sang a tune. This song sat on the wind and filled the ears and mouths of every person in Ayetoro. It travelled deep into earth, into the heights of the heavens, and the mystery of the universe. It borrowed from the earth, its dust. And from the river, water. From the heavens, thunder. The tree, its limbs. And from the universe, its breath. What was conjured was a retribution. A nemesis. A being, plain as eko, the doom of another, set in motion by a curse. No one knew the whereabouts of Omolade after that night; whether she had disappeared into the moon or whether she had been swallowed up by the song of the owl.

*

That night, Maradan sat in front of a mirror. She traced her fingers along the wrinkles of her face. The face that stared back at her was Omolade’s, the face which tormented her every night since her mother’s death. Now, she sat there, two trembling hands tracing the flatness of her nose, the thinness of her lips, the droopiness of her cheeks, the wideness of her forehead. Her hands spread over her face until only her eyes peeked between her fingers.

“Oh, if a thousand of these eyes could make one beautiful.” She sobbed into her hands. Then she did what she had never done before. She uncovered a glass jar filled with thousands of balls of light the shape of eyes. The lights had dimmed since the last time she’d held them. The strange visitor had managed to create a little havoc, but Maradan would not be deterred. She had journeyed from one village to the next, painting their women into perfection. What these women did not realise was that with every day that they looked into these paintings, they lost a bit of their eyes’ light, until all of it filtered into Maradan’s precious jar. Over the years, she had collected an impressive number, and Ayetoro was her final stop. She would have procured a few more if not for the strange visitor. However, she decided that it would be best to proceed before more damage was done. Maradan poured several colours of paint into the jar and stirred it until a luminous rainbow was formed. Then she dipped her brush in it. Her hand trembled as she painted, holding the brush daintily, and deftly carving the most immaculate of faces. When she was done, she rose, a triumphant smile lined her face, her fists clenched in anticipation. Perhaps it was her imagination, but as she stood staring into the image before her, she became transfixed by its lights. They seemed to absorb her, carry her on the wings of a bird, into a moonlit night filled with her mother’s mellifluous voice singing a lullaby, into the mustiness of a dark room echoing with the cry of a baby, and outside the house, on the veranda, the faint static of a transistor radio and the ragged snore of a man – her father – asleep in a reclining chair. The lullaby rang loud, above the cries of the child, and the whistling of the wind, and the rumbling of the trees, soaring higher and higher into the night, lifting Omolade into the boundless sky. Maradan’s eyes burned with tears, and the image, as though it were pouring her back into reality, began to drip its colours. The colours ran into each other, creating a mosaic, the lights slobbering to the ground. Maradan seethed with fury. She began to claw at the painting, starting with the eyes which appeared to be crying paint. Her cries were tortured, like years of pain pushing past her throat. Tears and snot ran down her face as she gripped the table, seized it by the edges and began to shake it, her eyes fixated on the mirror, her reflection mad and fierce. When the mirror had crashed to the floor, and all the bottles had shattered, and the paint therein had sputtered, and she had exhausted her craze, Maradan stumbled into a stool.

*

The women of Ayetoro were filled with rage. They stood in front of Maradan’s house and banged on her door.

“You…this fraud of a woman, come out of this house right now!”

“You think you can fool us. Your secret is out. Come out of this house and answer us. We know you are not deaf.”

“Why are you people just standing there, begging her to come out? Can’t one of you break down the door?”

“I am sure you are not paralyzed in both hands. Why don’t you come to the front and break it?”

“She is right. Break the door.”

“Yes, break it down!” The women roared.

At the same time that the women of Ayetoro broke down the door into Maradan’s house, a crashing sound was heard inside the house. When the women entered, they found Maradan crouched over shards of glass. But the face they beheld was not Maradan’s, definitely not the face that they saw during the day. Maradan looked up at the dazed faces of the women and laughed bitterly. Then she rose from the pieces of broken glass. Her hands were covered in blood, and more of it spread through her cloth from a gash in her belly.

“You ingrates!” She pointed a blood-stained finger at them. “What did you come here for? You came to send me away from your town? From my town?” She staggered towards them. “Did I not make you beautiful? Did I not? Tell me, which mother abandons her own child? Which mother turns her back on the fruit of her womb? Asabi olohun iyo, wife of Ishola, daughter of Ajileye. Is the grave bed soft enough for you? Did your sweet voice open the gates for you on the road to heaven? When the gatekeeper asked for your name, did you open your palms to trace the history of your mothers?” She clasped her hands over her belly and laughed a raucous laugh. “You fools! You ungrateful fools!” She yanked a mirror off a woman’s hands and as she made to smash it, she caught her reflection in the mirror. In that moment, Maradan froze. And for the first time, she saw what Taiye had seen in the mirror that day: ribbons and ribbons of colours swirling and twirling in the air like the dance of spirits, cascading into the vastness of a sea; a rainbow sea ascending like a prayer into the sky; the sky, an endless sheet of colours erupting into thousands of broken stars; the stars, sprinkling like confetti on the tongues of happy children.

Maradan’s eyes clouded with tears. “Is this…?” She trailed her fingers along the reflection of her eyes in the mirror. Then she began to laugh. A guttural laugh that shook her shoulders. Then a roaring laughter that shook the walls of the room and echoed in the ears of the women. When the laughter had faded into a wheeze, Maradan wrapped her hands around her body and slowly lowered herself at the feet of the women.

The women of Ayetoro stood there numb, watching as Maradan’s blood seeped under their feet. As she took her last breath, a familiar tune filled the air. The mouths of the women moved with the song, and everyone in Ayetoro; man or woman, young or old, awake or sleep, sang the song of the Owiwi:

the child who snatches sleep
from its mother’s eyes
has appointed itself
a watchman for the night
a blood-stained hand
smears the whole body
the trees take the appearance of humans in the day
but the night reveals all secrets

When this story is told to young girls, the words of this song are left out. And until this day, if one lingered for long in front of the mirror, one might see the eyes of a woman, the colour of the sea, staring back at them.

Ngozi John is a storyteller. Her short stories have appeared in Transition Magazine, and McSweeneys Quarterly Issue 56. She is an alumnus of the Purple Hibiscus Trust Creative Writing Workshop 2018 hosted by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She writes from Calabar.