Sunday, March 30, 2014

Short Story - The Fable of the Flawed Kwalari by Tola Abraham

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“It is time to hear a story, we will listen, we will learn.”

The five of us gather round Mama Ibadan, singing the chorus she taught us the last time she visited, urging her to tell us a story. Mama Ibadan is father’s mother; she lives in Ibadan so we call her Mama Ibadan.
She sits up on the stool that is placed against the open kitchen door and she tucks her wrappers firmly between her legs,

 “This is a story my mother told me”, she says and then she begins a story about creation, about waiting, about love.

In the days when Dudu, the tall one, son of Dedua, the Majestic King of the Sky, was Ooni of Ife, there was a fascinating city on the edge of the Volta. It was a prosperous city with common folk and royals, old and young, feeble and sturdy and like most towns in this time, it was a changing city.

There was a peculiar custom in this land, they chose not to bury the dead; no dead went in the ground, neither man nor beast, it was bad for the sea they were taught.  In place of burials, all the dead both great and small were burned with flames, prayers were said and then the ashes were gathered. Some families stored their ashes in urns and placed them on display in special tombs, others had theirs spread in the air or scattered in the fields. Whatever you willed you did with your kin as  long as you revered the sea and the life it held.

The priests, kings and rich merchants however, kept their dead in special urns. These special urns were always unique and expensive; the cheapest could buy a thousand fishes. These urns were called kwalaris.  Only a master potter could make a kwalari, they were made from a gentle blend of differing colours of clay, glazed with salt and afterwards decorated with precious stones.

On a lectern in a young potter's shop, sat an unusual kwalari. This urn was many shades of brown and green; it was as though her colours were painted on by a playful child. She was decorated with sapphire, diamonds and gold. If you had ever seen a kwalari you could tell this one was strange, instead of a single colour or a clear thought out pattern of colours, her colours were all mixed up and she looked burnt.

The master potter had made this urn with so much care, you should have seen his face as he worked on her, the love in his eyes, the joy in his smile, it was apparent that he was putting the best of himself in this urn; his years, his skill and how he learned to play with dyes. He put her in the kiln, shut the door and lay on his work bench to sleep. He slept and slept, the fires in the kiln cackled and burned, soon enough they went out.

  An apprentice potter arrived shortly after the cocks crowed. He was surprised to find his master fast asleep in the potting shed. He tapped gently, then he pushed and heaved, he prodded and tickled but his master lay as still as he could, his arms were stiff, his eyes were closed, his heart was cold. No more would this weary potter bend clay.

The young men of the city came in and carried out the potter and shut the door of the shed. No one noticed the little urn in the kiln.

Many sun downs after his master’s ashes had been spread in the fields of his kin, after his worldly possessions had been split evenly amongst his seven sons, after he had purchased the potting shed from the disinterested new owner; the young potter opened the windows of the shed to a new day.

He found the flawed kwalari sitting in the cold oven.  He could tell it had been too long in the kiln. The colours had mixed up wrongly and it was slightly burnt. He picked it up and began to clean it with a rag, as he did he remembered how often he had heard his master say;

“Every kwalari has two destinies...”
He decided to finish the flawed urn, to clean her and get her ready for her destiny.  She was his master’s last creation, now she would be his first.

For the next five weeks he worked on her. He cleaned her with water from the warm springs then he beautified her with jewels and decorated her rims with gold. When he was done was she was perfect, still unusual but she was ready to be sold. The young potter placed the unusual urn on display on a lectern right outside his stall.

On a pleasant sunny day soon after, there called out carelessly from across the road a shabby crab fisherman. He bid the potter tidings of the day and inquired about the unusual urn.  The potter could smell his breath, his clothes as well as his bucket of bait. He knew this poor fisherman could no way afford to buy this urn. Angered by the audacity, yet speaking kindly, he said to the fisherman.
    "That's a very special kwalari, it was the last urn made by the late master, it will cost a lot of sea shells."
“Well, I seek nothing fancy, just something for my dog's ashes"

 Off they went the fisherman and his bait, any urn would have sufficed yet he chased after a kwalari.

Dreadfully early on another morning soon after the potter had poured libation on the earth to bless the day and whilst he was still setting out his pots, urns and calabashes, a brisk walking portly man clothed in a green babariga inquired about the urn.

 “Is this Kwalari for sale?"
"Yes indeed, it is a memorable one, the very last one made by the late master, it costs a hundred cowries."
" A hundred cowries? Is that not too heavy? Look there mister, this kwalari is even flawed. I could never pay hundred cowries for a weird kwalari"

Away he went this man in the green babariga, too cheap to pay a fair  price for the urn he wanted.

In the crowds around the festival fire  the young potter sat  on another  night,  his kith and kin were dancing and drinking, but his soul could not the merriment share, his clan was prospering but his art was failing;
"I hope I meet you in health Alli,”  Musa, the crossed eyed, the one who had been his partner in the kite races, greeted the potter  as he  sat  on the ground next to him.
 “You do Musa, May the gods be pleased with us. Alli the potter replied

Musa told him his mother had gone to be with the ancestors and he hoped he could buy an urn for her ashes.  Musa had learnt of the late master’s kwalari and offered  to buy it for twenty cowries. He beseeched Alli   with the earnestness of a sibling, he spoke of his love for his mother and his desire to have her in a kwalari. Musa knew just like everyone in the city that  Alli’s urn was flawed.  He told a proverb or two to support his request, a cracked egg, he said, was not sold for the same price as one that wasn’t so lined.

The young potter thought for a while, he was visibly troubled, no one had offered him that much for this urn and he had no way of knowing if he would ever get a better offer. He shut his eyes and pictured his urn sitting outside on the lectern glowing brightly under the noon day sun.

In his mind’s eye he could so clearly see that even as it sat on the lectern, it was without doubt a star. Sometimes folk would stop at his stall just to admire her.

 “I am sure your mother would have loved this urn but she is a kwalari, she belongs in a palace. She was crafted as the final resting place of dignitaries you see, that's her destiny. I could sell her to you but she will be out of place.
    Sunken, sullen and dejected, Musa walked away. He had hoped with all his heart for that urn. She was his only chance.

 As the months of hoping rolled into years of resignation, the flawed urn sat on a shelf inside the stall. Newer urns glowed on display on the lectern in front of the store, many had been sold for profit while she stayed waiting almost forgotten. The young potter was also beginning to regret his decision; he should have accepted Musa’s twenty cowries for the flawed urn. It could have bought at least dozen pots and a warm coat for his dotting wife.

Then, one day, in a cloud of dust, arrived a middle aged king with a smile like the sun.

 “Good day your Highness, what are you looking to buy? Said the young potter to the smiling king.

I am looking to buy a kwalari, young man" said the king.
 "I am looking for something special" he continued,” a kwalari with character, with sunshine, like me."

 The young potter said immediately without thinking.
"I have just the one for you"

 He made his way gently to the lectern and reached for the flawed dinari. Oh, how his hands shook with reverence, he could feel it in his heart, this kwalari's time had definitely come. The smiling king looked stunned for a minute as he looked at this urn, he had never seen anything like her, she seemed to have a thousand colours, she looked like she was born of lights and nights.

  It was a wonderful moment when the searching king found his kwalari.
"How much is she worth?"
"A hundred cowries" the young potter replied, standing still, stuck by awe.

  The king beckoned to his aide, a wobbly man with airs about him, more royal than the king he seemed.  A royal purse jiggled in his hands as he started to count; ten, twenty, thirty...

 "My King' said the potter as fast as he could
“I have to point out to you that this urn, is slightly flawed. She was too long in the fire; her colours are all mixed up".

The besotted king looked up and answered
"Flawed? Who says she's flawed? A thing is only a flaw to whom it serves no purpose.”
 He told Alli a little about his kingdom, he spoke of war, of treatises and changes. He spoke of a land that was old and new, free and enslaved.
“When I am no more”, he said, “I will be in a kwalari exactly describing my life, bright and dark, sunny and moody. What you call flawed, I can without hairs falling, call perfect. Perfect for me”
The young potter nodded with tears in his eyes, as he took his money and waved goodbye to the king. As he sat by the kiln with  a smile on his face; he recalled how many days he had sat in this  exact position watching his master watch the kiln, he could almost hear his late master's voice.

“Every dinari has two destinies, the first is to sit on the lectern on display for the world to see, and the next is to live in a palace holding the heart of a king. The first is just as great as the next.
Anything else is a tragedy"
“What you think the story means children,” Mama asked after drinking the water one of us had placed beside as she told her story.
“Me, me, me”, we all screamed as we put up our hands asking to be called to say what the story meant.

We buried Mama two weeks ago; she never got to meet my king.

Tola Abraham (@TolaWrites) is a Nigerian lawyer, poet and fiction writer. Born in Lagos, into a cacophonous blend of Egun and Yoruba culture; she graduated from the prestigious Law program of the University of Lagos in 2008 and presently resides in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.


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