The Filth We Carry || Mariam Tijani


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The Filth We Carry

by Mariam Tijani

You cannot exactly remember when you learned about the Ìbálé test. But you recall vividly, the first time you danced along with your relatives, to the home of Eniitan, your stepbrother's new bride, with baskets of gifts, sweet melodies of triumph and a gleeful dancing crowd. Eniitan had excelled in her Ìbálé test. The smile on Mama Ibeji's face on that special day left an indelible mark in your memory; it reeked of so much pride that made you wonder what she would look like if it were her own child. You hoped that one day, you would also make her proud. You were such a child.

Ìbálé Ìyawo is the most exalted stage of marriage ceremonies in Āyedun. After all marriage rites have been fulfilled, and the couple has been pronounced Okō ati Ayā, the couple, who are assumed to be undefiled, will have their first night together. They will sleep on a mat that has an unstained piece of white cloth placed on it. The piece of cloth, which is expected to be blood-soaked afterwards, is the most precious gift for every newlywed's parents. If the bride succeeds in the Ìbálé test, the groom's family will send kegs of fresh palm wine, packs of matchboxes, big tubers of yam, and especially, the soaked piece of cloth. Many times, the Ìbálé turns out to be a day of festivity for couples. Sometimes, it's a show of shame.

Your twin sister, Wura, wedded Tèlà two days ago. And now, you and a couple of well-wishers are at Tèlà's home. It is the day of her Ìbálé. You know your presence at the test is a fool's errand, but you don’t waver. In a short while, Tèlà strides across the room; and with reckless enthusiasm, he waves the soaked cloth in the air. The crowd cheers instantly. Your eyes meet his, and your scornful look startles him. He scurries off. Tèlà's house is soon filled with dancing well-wishers as the drummers sweep their feet with joyful beats. In no time, the crowd will storm your house with praises. Everyone in Āyedun will soon begin to preach modesty in Wura's name. You aren't certain if it is anger or disgust that engulfs you, but you can swear you know the truth. Tela also knows the truth.

On the spur of the moment, you remember Mórōmókē, the daughter of one of the most sophisticated Iyaloja in Ayedun. Her mother was the type that would watch you walk miles away from her and call you back to greet her properly. When Mórōmókē failed her Ìbálé test, her groom's family mocked her by sending empty kegs of palm wine, empty packs of matchboxes, spoiled yams and many gifts that screamed shame. That night, she was found hanging dead in her room. Although you were never close friends with Mórōmókē, her death filled you with a persistent gloom. You pitied her.

You had always suspected the sneaky acts of Tèlà and Wura at night, but you never confronted them. A fortnight to Wura's wedding ceremony, you jestingly asked Baba and Mama Ibeji how they would respond if Tèlà's family stormed your house with an unstained cloth on her Ibale. They both screamed in fury. Mama Ibeji's temper was worse. She cursed and swore of how Wura was chaste and would not put her to shame. She warned you to never think of Wura in such an ungraceful  manner. Mama Ibeji did not fail to remind you of how no man wants to have you as their bride. That day, you cried till your eyes swelled and you hated yourself for it.

You remember the fateful night that answered all your whys. You had overdosed Wura's medication for her constant back pains, and it made her fall into a deep sleep. When Tèlà came whistling at the window, as usual, you got up and sneaked out like Wura often did. Tèlà grabbed your arm and you both walked down a narrow path for a long time. Throughout the walk, Tèlà complained of your unusual silence.

“I’m just tired,” you muttered, hoping the words came out as soft as your sister’s would.

When you finally stopped at their usual spot, right before a building, you almost screamed out of fear. It was the Oniku hut that had sacred ancestral tales. Everyone in Āyedun dreaded it and its environs. You immediately understood that in that hut, they would never be caught.

Tèlà wasted no time. He immediately started to undo his khaki pants. When you took too long to respond, he impatiently pulled you and started to undress you. You were reminded again of how you and your sister were identical, yet opposites. You felt disgusted in her body. No one would dare put their hands on you like that. You yanked at Tèlà. He looked shocked. You launched at him, throwing your hands, scratching his face, grabbing his neck. You had frail, soft hands, just like your sister, but your spirit made you into something wild. Something hateful and dangerous.

You hated his guts. You had new questions. Why on earth would Wura let him tear her clothes off her body? Did she not feel this repulsion to his cracked lips, his loud storm of breath?

Of all of Tèlà’s fears that night, the most threatening, you would find, was the secret you now had in your hands. He trailed behind you, pleading in tears. Vulnerable. It wasn’t him who had everything to lose if the news got out; it was Wura, your family. His helplessness could not have been for any other reason except that he loved her and would hate to see her put to shame. You hated him still, how pathetic love had made him. Tela, who always stood tall, had been reduced to a whistle by the window, a scuffle in the bush, a man in tears, at the mercy of a lady. You swore never to mention this to anyone, especially Wura.

Wura was all the things that you weren’t. On many occasions, you had seen her portray perfectionism that you had to endure. If Wura slipped and broke one of Mama Ibeji's pots, you made sure that she was fine. You made sure that no one saw. And if any of you was asked, the answer would be the same: you broke the pot. When you were both five and would not cease to cause unbearable mischief with your identicality, Baba Ibeji was forced to put a scar on your chin in order to tell you both apart. Till today, nobody knows how many scars you’ve had to take for Wura to remain unmarked.

As expected, Tèlà's relatives storm your house merrily. You are lost in the crowd. Mama Ibeji looks excited. She welcomes the visitors and the merriment continues. You’re glad that no one in the crowd can see the anger written all over you, but a woman shouts a prayer:

“Èlédùmárē tose ti Wura yōse ti Jigi na o." God who answered Wura's prayers will also answer Jigi's.

It is followed by scornful laughter and a few Asè, but you are mute. And it’s not just anger anymore; you are lost in your body. They take glances at you and mutter. You are still the spectacle of this show. Suddenly, you will storm out of the house and head to Tela's home. Your breath will burn and you will know that your spirit has taken over. Dangerous. Destructive.

“Where is that fraud of a sister? Come out and let the world see the filth you carry," you will scream.

No one will understand the drama. You will dash into the living room, spilling everything you know about Tela, about your sister. You will leave it all, the absolute truth, hanging in the air like a foul smell. You will paint it in colours they would not forget, how you had lain there, staring at the ceiling, a stretch of cement bags and batons, while Tela hovered above you, grunting, sweating, to produce the blood-stained cloth that was now passed around as a testament of Wura’s chastity. 

You will watch their jaws drop in disbelief, and Mama Ibeji’s eyes rekindle with a burning detestation. For the first time, you will not pretend to care. With a wicked smirk, you will pour gasoline into the flames. Wura will crumble without her pillars of false perfection. She has had a different life, not like yours. Their judgment will rip her open. Her spirit will fold. She will run into the room and lock herself up. You will walk away, fulfilled. Consumed in the peace that can only come with chaos, with having destroyed something blameless. Later that night, you will hear of Wura's shameful demise. There will be no details to it, and you will wonder if she had taken a blade to her wrist, if she had learned of the denting clinginess of scars. 

“Ani, Èlédùmárē tose ti Wura yōse ti Jigi na o," 

the praying woman repeats, tapping your back, and waking you from your daydream. She had noticed your silence and said the prayer again, but louder. Mama Ibeji stares right in your face. You curse under your breath. You hate this prayer. You know the truth, but you will not be setting fires today. You take long breaths to pacify your spirit, and you whisper, Asè.

Mariam Tijani is a storyteller based in Lagos, Nigeria. She is an art enthusiast who constantly dream of creating, curating and impacting lives through Art. She is currently an undergraduate of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She tweets @mariamtijanii

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