Night falls slowly, gently, like a curtain over the day. Perhaps some would call it beautiful, but we are too used to the sunset to notice the dying sun's reflection on the compound floor, enriching the deep red clay. The voices of people settling in for the evening waft in on the wind–Mama Alagbo, the medicine woman, scolding her apprentices; Iya Ayo's children squabbling over whose turn it is to wash the dishes; young men excitedly discussing a game of ludo. In our own compound, Iya Agba, our grandmother, settles into her rocking chair.
“Derounke, tell your brother to ‘on’ the generator,” she commands, fanning herself in the stifling heat. We the children start to grumble. “Iya Agba, we don't want the generator. Please tell us a story instead.” She ignores us, rocking back and forth to a rhythm only she can hear. “Iya Agba please.” She frowns at us in mock annoyance, asking why her command has not been obeyed. It's all part of a game we've played for the past few years–begging for a story every night of our annual two-week vacation at Grandmother's village house. She asks if we wouldn't rather listen to the radio or watch a soap opera on TV. “Iya Agba, you know your stories are better than radio or TV,” we wheedle. Her lips curve in a conceited smile as she capitulates. “Oya tell Bolanle to spread the mats.” Our cheer is part of the tradition, even though we knew from the start that Iya Agba couldn't resist the chance to tell us one of the stories she learnt as a child from her own grandmother.
We finally settle in, finding comfortable places on the mats after lots of pinching and squirming. Derounke distributes groundnuts in bowls. Crickets chirp in the background as the reflection from a tardy neighbour's cooking fire illuminates Iya Agba's silhouette, giving her an eerie look.
“Story, story o,” she begins in the traditional pre-story chant. “Story!” we shout. “Once upon a time...” “Time, time.” “Once upon a time, there was an animal named Tortoise...”. Bolanle interrupts her and we hush him, holding a collective breath. Grandmother has been known to stop telling a story at the most interesting point because she was interrupted. She surveys the group, probably trying to determine how bad we want to hear her tale. Our eagerness seemingly wins out and she continues. “Once upon a time, in a time long forgotten by mankind, when animals walked on two feet and spoke human language, there lived a creature called Tortoise. You see, Tortoise was the craftiest animal in his community, known by everyone for his tall tales. If Tortoise said ‘good morning’ to you, you had to confirm by looking outside because he might have tampered with your watch. On one occasion the mischievous Tortoise pretended to be a masquerade, terrorising the market women and looting their stalls. Another time he was accused of spreading rumours and sowing discord between Mr Cat and Miss Mouse, effectively ending their courtship.”
Iya Agba pauses, sending me to get her a cup of cold water. Storytelling is thirsty work. The darkness deepens, and some bullfrogs join the cricket chorus.
“The last straw that broke the camel's back literally broke Tortoise's back too. It was the time of the annual feast of the birds. This event was the stuff of legend, featuring the rarest delicacies, the best music from leading nightingales and display of the latest fashions by the peacocks. To top it all, the feast was exclusive to the birds alone, in a location far up in the sky. All the other animals knew about these feasts were rumours from the forest grapevine. On this particular year, Tortoise decided to attend for himself and see what all the fuss was about. Besides, this was to be a special edition, lasting seven whole days, after which the Princess would select a suitor. Tortoise imagined himself becoming the Princess's husband, securing lifetime access to future feasts, having a retinue of servants to see to his every need and generally living like royalty.
He put his devious mind to work and after some weeks, came up with a plan. First of all, he went round visiting the different bird families, offering housekeeping services while using the opportunity to steal feathers. Next, he took the feathers to his cousin Yannibo, a dressmaker, to help make a coat for him. On the day before the program, he snuck into the palace and hid among the luggage to be transported. It was hot and stuffy staying inside one of the bags, his tummy rumbled in hunger, he had to keep perfectly still to avoid being discovered and cross his fingers that he would not be discovered. After a few hours of travel, the luggage was unloaded and Tortoise was able to sneak out. He donned his coat of feathers and joined the crowd of partygoers, trying to look like he belonged.
Like a bee to honey, Tortoise found his way to the Princess's side after bribing some of her maids. He introduced himself as Akangbo, a merchant bird from a far nation. He said he had heard of her beauty and wanted to make her his wife. He promised to build her a house of marble and cloth even her slaves with silk and jewels.
The king was concerned and his suspicion aroused. Who was this strange bird with the bizarre plumage called Akangbo, and why was he refusing to participate in the flying games? How come he didn't have a beak? And to crown it all, why had no one ever heard of him? Akangbo, thinking that the party would be long over before anyone could travel to his village to make enquiries and get back had foolishly disclosed he was from Jogbo. The king summoned Hummingbird, the official dispatch rider, to go to Jogbo and find out more about this Akangbo. And quickly, for the princess was seemingly enraptured with the sweet-talking, colourfully plumed stranger.
On the final day of the feast, Hummingbird returned with the news–Akangbo wasn't really a bird. In fact, he was none other than Tortoise, the liar and trickster! The king was furious. He ordered the intruder stripped of his stolen feathers. The other birds jeered and pelted Tortoise with rotten fruits and stones, pushing him to the landing. “Throw him down!” yelled the king. Tortoise was kicked down, down, down from the sky. It was quite fortunate that his hard shell was the first to hit the ground, as it would have gone ill with him had he landed on his head or his soft abdomen. His beautifully patterned shell was however broken into many pieces, requiring him to spend months and months at the healer's place, but try as she might, Tortoise's beautiful shell was never the same, remaining rough despite her best efforts. It is believed that those long months enabled Tortoise to reflect on his wrong ways and repent, for he was never heard from again. And so ends the tale of Mr Tortoise”, Iya Agba concludes.
We blink and the spell is broken, the sounds of the night intruding once again in our cozy gathering. As we pick up the mats to retire for the night, one thing was clear to me–I would dream of Mr Tortoise, wooing the Princess with sweet words and stolen feathers.