Slowly, to the rhythm of the drumbeat the warriors stretched and stalked, raising the red dust with their soft, even treading. They were dancing the great hunters’ skill into the circle, celebrating the last hunt, building energy and confidence, preparing for tomorrow.
The women watched in admiration, understanding the strategies of patience, discipline, silence, as each in turn served the hunter. The children watched with sleepy awe-struck eyes, dreaming of adventure, dreaming of their turn to hunt, dreaming of the privileges that came from being the provider of hunted game.
Among the dancers was a special guest, a visitor from a neighboring tribe whose skill and cunning had made him a respected dancer long before his years. His dance revealed his balance, poise, alert senses of hearing and of sight. His gestures were delicate and clear. He gave directions to his fellow stalkers with the slightest finger twitch, with the flicking of his eyes. The dancers carefully took note and copied, till messages were bouncing back and forth between them and long complex manoeuvres were performed that the tribe had never previously seen.
The admiration swelled, rising like a sigh among the women, especially in the heart of the most beautiful young woman of the tribe. As was the custom, Ellii had long been promised in marriage to a good and steady provider, a respected member of the tribe and an honorable partner, but as she watched the dancing she longed to go with the young warrior, whose grace and skill leapt from the flame-lit circle.
Long after the dancing stopped Ellii lay awake and thought of the young warrior who would soon return to his own tribe. If only she could go with him, take up her life as his wife, have his children, eat his food, watch him dance, then she would be completely happy and would work and sing with joy on every single day.
Before Ellii fell asleep, she decided to take this matter to the wise old woman who could advise on matters of family and of heart. She could sometimes influence the tribal marriage makers to change their contracts. It was a delicate and complex matter and many issues must be weighed, but there were precedents and there was hope.
In the cool of the next afternoon Ellii gathered food and approached the riverbank, where the wise old crone sat singing while she fished. Ellii offered berries, honey and sweet grains. She lowered herself onto the grass waiting for an invitation to speak.
When the older woman gestured her invitation, Ellii spoke of her great love of the young warrior and her growing concern that she could not commit to her contracted marriage. She feared that this would bring risk to herself and her children and the happiness of the whole tribe. The crone listened thoughtfully, nodding from time to time, emphasising points with a direct glance from deep black eyes, that probed and questioned and demanded absolute honesty. Ellii stayed until the tale was told. She received the lightest touch of understanding on her hand and a gesture to go now and to wait.
Days passed until the time came when the warrior was to return to his own people. Ellii dreaded that her request had been ignored or rejected. She watched the elders of the tribe for any clue that indicated they were considering her predicament. The patterns of their days flowed as before, without meetings or discussions that might reveal a change to tribal life.
On the last night of the warrior’s visit, while Ellii lay awake with her anxiety, she felt a shadow fall across her. She felt the familiar breathing of the crone and knew that now she would receive her answer. She rose and followed the bent, beckoning figure. Just outside the sleeping circle the crone gave her instructions.
‘You must go now and quickly. No one will follow. There will be no vengeance but you must not return for many seasons. You must live with your new people till your first child goes out hunting. You must not attend the gatherings where the tribes might meet. You must learn their tribal ways from the mother of your warrior and you must obey and serve her till she dies. On these conditions you may avoid the marriage contract. Your warrior waits for you behind those rocks – go.’
Ellii hesitated, felt the deep sadness of separation from her people, felt the fear of going to the unknown future, felt the weight of the imposed conditions. She felt too the thrill of the adventure, the excitement of the dancing, she heard the soft birdcall of her warrior. She ran along the path leading away from her home towards the rocks where the warrior waited to take her to his people who would honour her as a trophy bride, a special gift of thanks in return for the skills he had taught.
Ellii was accepted. Her chores were allocated by her husband’s mother, Obi. The procedures were carefully demonstrated. The gathering of food, how much to take, for whom she had to gather. The preparation of the hunted meats, how to ignite the fire, the size of flame and coals, the types of woods to burn, the amount of smoke the fire should make. All these matters that were familiar to her from her own childhood were different here. The land was different, the timbers strange, the foods and water holes required different management. She learnt. She watched until her head spun. She wanted to understand the best techniques. She tried to see the patterns but often her efforts fell short, or worse, she had to ask.
Ellii missed her people, the comfort of familiarity, the knowledge that she was quick and clever with her work had brought joy and a lightness to her step and grace to her movements. These gifts were fading. Now she felt clumsy. She held her head high and, lacking dear old friends to read her mind, kept her troubles to herself.
At night Ellii weighed the burden of the conditions to which she had agreed; obedience to her mother in law until she died. Obedience was becoming more and more difficult. She wanted to cry out in defense of her efforts. She wanted to explain that she’d tried hard, that she had not understood a law, had not meant to be disrespectful, but obligations silenced her.
To serve this stranger daily was a strain. This was not a beloved aunt, nor a gentle companion of her childhood. This was not a crone whose wisdom had brought the tribe much peace. This was a strange and intrusive woman who demanded much attention from her son, who allowed the young couple the briefest time of privacy and laughter. This mother-in-law would live a long, long time and Ellii’s servitude would not be relieved until she died. Until she died …
The phrase echoed in Ellii’s head. She began to imagine her life after Obi’s death, free from obedience and servitude. She would achieve a certain status in the ranks of married women; respect, perhaps friendship, perhaps even warmth. All this would come to her in time as a result of Obi’s death.
Ellii was impatient with the slowly passing months. By now her first child was born. She watched him grow and knew that one day he would hunt. Ellii reasoned that if she were happier the time would pass more quickly and she longed for the re-union with her people.
These thoughts stuck in her mind like prickly burrs prompting Ellii to visit the witchdoctor to ask for his advice. She would ask him for a potion to make the time pass quickly. While walking the long miles to his solitary cave, she rehearsed her request so that her need would be quite clear.
The witchdoctor was deaf and tall and thin. He bent over nearly double to hear Ellii’s request. In his long life he had heard many strange requests and he was past being surprised at any human need. For every need he had a potion and his fame spread wide among the people of the area.
‘I have made a grave mistake in my marriage which has locked me into a most unhappy contract to obey and serve my mother-in-law. The burden is destroying me. I do not smile or dance as I once did.’
‘I live in grief and loneliness. For relief of this condition I desire a potion to put my mother-in-law to sleep. May she sleep very deeply. May she never wake.’
The witchdoctor retreated to the gloomy depth of his cave and selected the ingredients he had collected for his potions. He read the recipe carved into the ancient stone. He measured and mixed the potion carefully. The potion contained many sacred elements: powdered bird’s brains to bring the vision of the skies, to see things in place and in proportion; turtle oil to incorporate the solution of patience and longevity and awareness of the changing tides of human conditions; herbs, dried and fresh, so that the potion gave balanced recognition to the value of both age and youth.
The potion was mixed with a strong green stick to give it the character of flexibility and finally was placed inside a suitable container. The witchdoctor searched his storeroom for the right container. He searched his highest shelves. There he found a heavy, grey, stone jar, covered in dust. He ladled the potion into this, scraped the sides of the mixing bowl and wiped the spoon to be sure that not a drop was wasted. He fitted the stone stopper into its groove to seal the dangerous potion in. Then, using both of his gnarled hands, he carried the stone jar out of the shadows and into the sunlit entrance to his cave. He handed the jar to Ellii and in a monotone whisper issued the instructions:
‘You must massage your mother in law with this sacred balm each day for forty days. At the end of that time your purpose will be achieved.’
Ellii took the jar which was heavier than she had expected. She walked with care, not wanting to trip and drop her burden, not wanting to spill it. She walked solemnly with downcast eyes back to her home where she hid the potion deep in a hole which she dug underneath the sleeping mats.
The next day Ellii fretted trying to think of ways to approach Obi so that she would submit to rubbing with the potion. She planned and cancelled plans all day until the day was almost over. At last she approached Obi asking about her aching joints. Obi was touched at such unusual consideration and said ‘The old joints ache but it is nothing to concern you child.’
As she spoke she smiled at Ellii, a new smile, soft with caring.
Ellii said; ‘The ache might go away if I were to rub you with a potion’.
Obi replied; ‘It is late. You like to go to the river to swim with the children in the afternoon. Do not trouble yourself with rubbing me today’.
Ellii realised the thoughtfulness Obi had shown her but was frustrated that she had not fulfilled the instructions of the witchdoctor and dared not make another approach.
The next day, in mid morning, Ellii again approached Obi. She asked after her aching joints. She said ‘Now we have time. The sun is warm. We could sit in this sheltered spot and I could rub you with a potion.’
Obi asked ‘Is there a potion? I know of none.’
Ellii was obliged to say ‘I have a potion. I have visited the witchdoctor. He gave me a scented rubbing lotion to remove the pain from all your joints’.
Obi was deeply touched that Ellii should have walked so far in secrecy to procure a lotion for her pain. She happily submitted to the rubbing firstly on her swollen fingers, then her aching knees, then her throbbing feet. Ellii rubbed diligently, gently pressing the swellings with her warm soft hands.
The next day the process was repeated and with the help of the warm sun and the privacy away from the busy group, the women talked of things other than chores and instructions.
On the third day it did seem that the pain was easing. Obi admitted for the first time how difficult it had been to fulfill her tasks with her aching body. Ellii rubbed in thoughtful silence.
On the fourth day both women looked forward to the rubbing and Ellii whispered her homesickness for her own mother and her concern that she could not be there to ease her painful joints and to help her with her tasks.
In the days that followed Ellii rubbed more and more of Obi’s body, her shoulders, her back, her lumpy swollen feet. The swelling was subsiding and the women told each other stories of their other lives before the time when Ellii had come to join the group.
Long before the 40 days had passed Ellii knew that she must return to the witchdoctor. She must change the potion.
She no longer wanted Obi to die. She began to fear each rubbing session in case it brought death closer.
At last she found an opportunity, so taking up the stone jar with the dangerous potion, she set out once again on the long path to the witchdoctor.
The witchdoctor sat immobile at the front of his cave. He did not seem at all surprised to see Ellii approach. He nodded his greeting and waited to hear of the new problem.
Ellii was embarrassed to have returned so soon. She had given a great deal of thought to her decisions but she could see how the witchdoctor might think her frivolous. It seemed she changed with every breeze. She started with an apology, admitting that she’d made a grave mistake, confessing that she no longer wanted Obi to die. She asked to change the potion.
This time Ellii asked for a potion that would not kill Obi but one that would change her so that she was not quite so strict, a potion to make Obi smile a little, and perhaps appreciate how hard Ellii was trying to fulfill her role.
Again the witchdoctor went to the back of his cave, and again he reached for his ingredients, and again he followed the same sacred recipe reading from the carvings in the stone. He mixed and stirred and chanted till the cream was smooth and searched among his treasures for a suitable container. At last he found a shell, the smooth curled home of a sea creature brought up from the ocean depth by the swirling currents and the tide’s eternal obedience to the moon. The witchdoctor believed that issues of home and depth, currents and obedience may be appropriate to this potion to bring change.
Again he whispered his instructions; daily rubbing for forty days to bring about the desired result.
Ellii was light hearted when she approached Obi with the new lotion. She had felt the weight of the heavy cold stone jar containing the death potion. Each day it had been more difficult to carry it out into the sunshine for the rubbing. The shell had no such weight, its smooth curves fitted into her hands and the slight salt smell was trapped within the grooves. Obi was surprised to see the shell. She asked where it had come from and was deeply touched when Ellii admitted she had made another trip to the witchdoctor to change the potion to one more suitable to bring about relief.
Obi thanked Ellii many times and when the busy women passed by Obi stopped them saying ‘Am I not blessed to have this daughter-in-law who is not only beautiful but who takes time to care for me with tenderness? No one is better served than I by a daughter-in-law.’
The busy workers heard them laugh together and sometimes called across in greeting, and some smiled now at Ellii, touched by her thoughtfulness.
In the evenings when the warrior son returned he found his wife beaming with pleasure and his mother saying, ’Blessed is the day you visited Ellii’s people. You may have taught new skills but you brought home a daughter of great worth and we have been amply paid.’
The son, happy in this new situation, smiled down at Ellii and said, ‘Indeed she is a treasure’. When he walked outside he stood a little taller than before, his steps were lighter on the ground and his old dancing mood beckoned.
Soon the men were lighting up the fires again. Soon they were teaching the children their new steps. Soon there was twirling, dust and laughter and the steady chant and clap of women as they admired their warriors.
Ellii was surprised that the new potion was so strong. It was working quickly now and Obi was changing a great deal. Now she joined in the dancing and the chanting. She encouraged Ellii and the children to take part. She forgave small variations in the household routine which she had previously so savagely defended. Her joints hardly ever ached and she very often smiled.
Ellii caught herself thinking of her great good fortune in having a mother-in-law who showed her such appreciation, allowed her such freedom, cared for the children with such passion. At times she still felt homesick for her former life and her own people but now she spoke of this with the women as they worked. The stories of her people entertained them. In turn they honoured her new ways of doing things. After the telling the homesickness was less and sometimes it turned into happy anticipation of the reunion which was getting closer.
When the shell was empty Ellii return to seek another potion. She did this happily knowing with certainty what new mixture she required. She bowed low to the witchdoctor in greeting, tendered the empty shell and thanked him for the potent mixture which had worked so well. Then, asking for another, she said, ‘I have been in error. This time, if you could make a slight adjustment, I would prefer a potion which will change me to ensure that I remember the blessings that I have. A lotion to remind me of my husband’s strength and grace, the wise protection of my mother in law, my long and joyous childhood and the happy future which beckons me each day. Could I have a potion to heal my forgetfulness?’
The witchdoctor obliged, then looking for the right container he chose a polished bean pod, a pod that had contained seeds of new growth. A pod that was tough and resilient but not heavy, a pod that was smooth but not fragile, a pod that had been created to protect new life.
Ellii took the bean pod home and stored it in the hollow under the sleeping mats.
Each day the two women sat in the warm sun, dipping their fingers into the pod, extracting the sacred potion, and with tender familiarity they rubbed the pain out of each other’s lives.