The silent proctors walked beside Ukeme into the examination village, checked him for iron and palm leaves and concealed cloth-patterns, and brought him to a hut.
He stood at the threshold for a moment, looking down at the floor just inside. There should be dust, he thought; it had been three years since the last examinations, three years since another candidate had entered this hut in the hope of exchanging their villager’s hoe for an official’s ink-brush. But there was no dust. Maybe the proctors had swept it away; maybe the cleaning was part of the ritual they used to ensure that no trace of the prior candidates’ memories remained. If so, they didn’t say.
The proctors, still silent, signaled Ukeme to raise his eyes and led him inside. They showed him the iroko-wood writing table; the inkpot, brushes and reed-paper laid across it; the hearth and copper pots for cooking and brewing; the harp and talking-drum at one corner of the back wall and the earthen chamber-pot at the other. And last of all, they showed him the tapestry.
“This one is yours,” the chief proctor said, speaking for the first time. “You have three days.”
Ukeme didn’t look at the tapestry, not at first. He avoided it until he had made the hut a home; he carefully looked away as he unrolled his raffia mat and laid out jars of fufu and yams. Even then, he knelt before the table for long minutes before he cast his eyes up at where the examination-cloth hung.
It was woven raffia-cloth like the mat, but it was covered with long rows of nsibidi characters, some of them pictures as in ancient times and others in the angular and abstract forms they had taken over the centuries. Ukeme smiled as he saw familiar patterns: the twined lines that stood for unity, the character for government that retained some of the semblance of a drum and table. But each set of them was a question that he would have to answer perfectly. The wives of the egun-men in Ikeja, the capital, had woven them in the three years since the last examination; each tapestry would test one candidate, and no two were the same.
Slowly, Ukeme read the first row of characters: a knotty point of customary law. The second called for an essay on the Osun Republic’s conquest of Benin two centuries before. The third...
It began with the mark for speech; a song, and not merely an essay, was demanded. Then it posed the question: is the ancestors’ wisdom greater or less than that of living people? Ukeme knew what he would have to do: compose a poem that answered the question in one of the styles the griots favored, allude to the classics of Osun and Benin and the old Aro Confederacy, and set it to music to play for the proctors. And when he finished, there was a fourth question and a fifth and a sixth, all as fiendishly difficult as the wise egun-wives could make them.
He knelt again at the table, took brush in hand, and paused above the first sheet of reed-paper. He wondered why he felt such hesitation. Words woven in cloth could protect bodies and hold spells; words on paper were merely words. But words on this paper could make him a scholar.
If he passed the examination, he might be posted as a teacher or clerk to a town council, or as a minor official in the west or north. Even that would be more than the villager he was now. But three years later he could sit for the provincial exams, and three years after that the one in Ikeja. If he passed that, he and his children would be enrolled among the kingmakers, the senators who elected the Osun Republic’s oba and made many of its laws. His family would be noble. He might become a high minister or even serve a term as oba himself. He could interpret the messages the egun-men brought from the ancestors, confront the false egun-men who invented prophecies for their own gain...
But first, he would have to pass this test, and if his answers were flawed by so much as one character, he would fail. Of the hundred who now sat in the examination huts, two or three might earn a diploma.
The words swam before him—is the ancestors’ wisdom greater or less than that of living people?—and he struggled for an answer. He wrote a character and then another, and he faltered.
He stood, walked to the tapestry and stared at it again, hoping that this might help him find meaning. “Tell me your story,” he said – and he paused, because he knew that cloth could tell stories.
Ukeme wasn’t supposed to know the weaver’s art—weaving was a woman’s learning, not a man’s—but he’d helped with his mother’s loom after his sister died, and he’d heard her say the spells that bound nsibidi characters to the cloth she’d made. He remembered his mother’s hands on his as he set the threads; he remembered his surprise as they formed into letters; he remembered how the letters had glowed as his mother spoke the words that set them in place. “They are spells now, not merely words,” she had said, “and those who read and speak of them can tell no lies about them.”
He felt those spells in the examination-cloth, but his mother had told him something else as well: that the binding worked both ways, and to those who knew the secret, a tapestry could reveal its maker’s thoughts as well as its readers’. As he stood before the tapestry, Ukeme heard his mother’s voice whispering the words of unlocking, and before he had time for conscious thought, he too was speaking them out loud.
A wave of thought flooded over him suddenly, and his mind fought for clarity as a drowning man might gasp for air. He felt the presence of the egun-wife who’d woven the cloth, and he felt her memories merge with his. He knew the precedents she had used to frame her question on customary law; he knew the classics that had crossed her mind as she pondered whether the ancestors were wise; he knew the poems that had inspired her. He felt her smile as she wove a particularly intricate question into her cloth... and as he did, he realized with horror what he had done.
This was cheating, as surely as wearing palm-leaves for endurance or concealing passages from the classics in the seams of his clothing. Worse, it was cheating that would gain him nothing. If the egun-wife who graded his exam were the same one who wove the tapestry, she would know that he had answered with stolen thoughts. Even if it were another, she would know; the egun-wives were said to be as close to the gods as their husbands were to the ancestors, and they would know words that came from their own.
A story from the classics came unbidden to his mind, the one where Turtle said his name was “Everyone” and claimed the feast that had been laid for the whole village. It hadn’t ended well for Turtle, and now Ukeme had done the same thing, taking the words the egun-wives shared. A feast of memory, all in his own bowl now...
Ukeme stumbled back in panic, nearly upsetting the table. Could he go to the proctors and say he hadn’t intended to cheat? Surely, for his honesty, they would let him finish the exam in another hut with a different tapestry.
But no, he realized, they wouldn’t. The rule against cheating was inexorable. Intentions didn’t matter; he would be sent home in disgrace, barred from taking this examination or any other. He would stay in his village for life.
He would have to put the stolen thoughts out of his mind and finish the test. But that would take time: an evening of meditation at least, perhaps a day. He would have to eat and sleep, replenish himself. He would lose the first day of the testing, but there was nothing else for it, so he hung a pot above the hearth and began preparing a meal.
He tried all evening to banish the egun-wife’s thoughts, and he was still trying when he descended into troubled dreams. In the morning, the thoughts were still there. Ukeme sat cross-legged and lifted his brush to address the point of law, but the paper seemed to dissolve; it seemed that he was in an egun-wife’s eyrie in the capital, looking with an old woman’s eyes down the Boulevard of Five Cowries to the Badagry Lagoon and the ships in Ikeja harbor. “When a man leaves no will, and where his junior wife’s son is older than his senior wife’s,” he wrote, trying again to answer the customary-law question, but a scratchy voice whispered, “in the precedent of Olowe of Efon...”
There was a spell, he remembered, a spell that could clear his mind. But he would need iron for that—iron was how men made their magic—and iron was forbidden here. Maybe he could contrive to sneak out and find some, and return with no one the wiser, but that would be cheating too. He couldn’t wipe away a wrong with another wrong.
He tried again to answer, and his brush shaped another character, but he saw through the egun-wife’s eyes again, this time the hardwood sculptures that lined the Boulevard of Five Cowries. The ancestors had made them; was their wisdom greater or less than that of the living? Surely, thought Ukeme, it was greater than his. Ancestors had cheated and done evil, but had any done so by accident?
Maybe he should surrender; maybe he should write the examination in the egun-wife’s words. Maybe she would be flattered, not outraged. Surely, at least, she would be wise; of all living people, few were closer to the sources of wisdom. In a way, he would be returning her thoughts to her, sharing them with the only person he could tell...
Yes, Ukeme thought suddenly, the only person he could tell. He couldn’t report his cheating to the proctors, but maybe he could report it to the gods, through the people who were closest to them. And they, through the egun-wives, could decide whether to reward or punish him.
He placed another sheet of reed-paper on the table and began to write. There was another Turtle story; they didn’t tell it in Ikeja because it spoke of how Ukeme’s homeland of Nri had fought off Osun’s armies a generation before it was conquered, but Ukeme knew it. Turtle had tricked the egun-men at Osun into calling on an ancestor as their general, and he’d fought the battle as if ancient weapons were all his soldiers had. But the story didn’t end there; Osun’s soldiers still outnumbered Nri’s and its captains were brave, so Turtle had to use all his own skill and bravery to drive the invaders out.
Did this mean that ancestors were no wiser than living men? Ukeme wasn’t sure, but maybe a battle that had begun by cheating could still be won with effort and merit.
Slowly, then faster, Ukeme took the story and shaped it into a poem. It might not be one of the classics, but he’d woven it on his mother’s loom, and its characters flowed onto the page like the egun-wife’s had flowed out of the tapestry.
At sunset it was finished, but there was still a final step: the story had been made into a poem, but now the poem had to become a song.
That should be easy, he knew. The griots’ ways of music were as formal as their ways of poetry, and Ukeme had practiced each of them on the harp and talking-drum until they accompanied his dreams. There were three such forms that fit his poem’s meter, and each had endless variations. But none of them seemed right.
At dawn, he stood before the tapestry again. He reached out, almost touching its weave, the words of unlocking once again just below his consciousness. Did the egun-wife have a favorite tune? Might she know one of the secret melodies her husband used to invoke the ancestors? But calling to the ancestors would no more be her learning than...
Than a weaver’s learning is mine.
He took a step back, and the unlocking-charm remained unsaid. Something else filled his mind instead: a weaver’s song that his mother had chanted over her loom, a song she knew from her mother and grandmother. Like the story of the Battle of Nri, it was little-remembered in Ikeja, but there was something in it that recalled the march of history, the hands of craftswomen weaving a story through time...
The ancestors’ wisdom. It wasn’t greater than that of living men, and it wasn’t less. It was memory: memory of stories, memory of songs, memory shared. What began with cheating might still be won by courage and merit... and by refusing to forget.
Words found melody, and Ukeme wove again. At evening he was finished. He could hear the proctors’ footsteps outside the hut, and he prepared to face the gods with what he had done. His song was a spell, and he could tell no lies.