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Effia nodded. She turned to leave, but a question was burning hot coals in the pit of her stomach. “Why?” she finally asked.

Baaba reached into Effia’s mouth and pulled out her tongue, pinching the tip with her sharp fingernails. “Who are you that you think you can question me, enh? If you do not do as I say, I will make sure you never speak again.” She released Effia’s tongue, and for the rest of the night, Effia tasted her own blood.

The next week, the old chief died. The funeral announcements went out to all of the surrounding villages. The proceedings would last a month and end with Abeeku’s chief ceremony. The women of the village prepared food from sunrise to sunset; drums were made out of the finest wood, and the best singers were called upon to raise their voices. The funeral attendants began dancing on the fourth day of the rainy season, and they did not rest their feet until the ground had completely dried.

At the end of the first dry night Abeeku was crowned Omanhin, chief of the Fante village. He was dressed in rich fabrics, his two wives on either side of him. Effia and Baaba stood next to each other as they watched, and Cobbe paced the crowd. Every so often, Effia could hear him muttering that she, his daughter, the most beautiful woman in the village, should be up there too.

As the new chief, Abeeku wanted to do something big, something that would bring attention to their village and make them a force to be reckoned with. After only three days in office, he gathered all of the men of the village to his compound. He fed them for two days straight, got them drunk on palm wine until their boisterous laughing and impassioned shouting could be heard from every hut.

“What will they do?” Effia asked.

“That does not concern you,” Baaba said.

In the two months since Effia had begun to bleed, Baaba had stopped beating her. Payment for her silence. Some days, when they were preparing meals for the men, or when Effia would bring back the water she had fetched and watch Baaba dip in with cupped hands, she would think they were finally behaving as mothers and daughters were supposed to behave. But then, other days, the long scowl would return to Baaba’s face, and Effia would see that her mother’s new quiet was only temporary, her rage a wild beast that had been tamed for the moment.

Cobbe came back from the meeting with a long machete. The handle was gold with carvings of letters that no one understood. He was so drunk that all of his wives and children stood around him in a circle, at a distance of two feet, while he shuffled about, jabbing the sharp instrument this way and that. “We will make the village rich with blood!” he screamed. He lunged at Fiifi, who had wandered into the circle, and the boy, leaner and quicker than he had been in his days as a fat baby, swiveled his hips, missing the tip of the machete by only a few inches.

Fiifi had been the youngest one at the meeting. Everyone knew he would make a fine warrior. They could see it in the way he climbed the palm trees. In the way he wore his silence like a golden crown.

After her father left and Effia was certain that their mother had gone to sleep, she crawled over to Fiifi.

“Wake up,” she hissed, and he pushed her away. Even in half sleep he was stronger than she was. She fell backward but, with the grace of a cat, flipped back onto her feet. “Wake up,” she said again.

Fiifi’s eyes flashed open. “Don’t worry me, big sister,” he said.

“What will happen?” she asked.

“It’s the business of men,” Fiifi said.

“You are not yet a man,” Effia said.

“And you are not yet a woman,” Fiifi snapped back. “Otherwise you would have been there with Abeeku this very evening as his wife.”

Effia’s lips began to quiver. She turned to go back to her side of the hut, but Fiifi caught her arm. “We are helping the British and the Asantes with their trade.”

“Oh,” Effia said. It was the same story she had heard from her father and Abeeku just a few months before. “You mean we will give Asante gold and fabric to the white men?”

Fiifi clutched her tighter. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Abeeku has made an alliance with one of the most powerful Asante villages. We will help them sell their slaves to the British.”

And so, the white man came to their village. Fat and skinny, red and tanned. They came in uniform, with swords at their sides, their eyes looking sideways, always and ever cautious. They came to approve of the goods Abeeku had promised them.

In the days following the chief ceremony, Cobbe had grown nervous about the broken promise of Effia’s womanhood, nervous that Abeeku would forget her in favor of one of the other women in the village. He had always said that he wanted his daughter to be the first, most important wife, but now even third seemed like a distant hope.

Every day he would ask Baaba what was happening with Effia, and every day Baaba would reply that she was not yet ready. In desperation, he decided to allow his daughter to go over to Abeeku’s compound with Baaba once a week, so that the man could see her and remember how much he had once loved her face and figure.

Arekua the Wise, the first of Abeeku’s wives, greeted them as they came in one evening. “Please, Mama,” she said to Baaba. “We weren’t expecting you tonight. The white men are here.”

“We can go,” Effia said, but Baaba clutched her arm.

“If you don’t mind, we would like to stay,” Baaba said. Arekua gave her a strange look. “My husband will be angry if we come back too early,” Baaba said, as if that were enough of an explanation. Effia knew that she was lying. Cobbe had not sent them there that night. It was Baaba who had heard that the white men would be there and insisted that they go pay respects. Arekua took pity and left to ask Abeeku if the two of them might stay.

“You will eat with the women, and if the men come in, you will not speak,” she said once she had returned. She led them deeper into the compound. Effia watched hut after hut pass by until they entered the one where the wives had gathered to eat. She sat next to Millicent, whose pregnant belly had begun to show, no bigger than a coconut, slung low. Arekua had prepared fish in palm oil stew, and they dug in until their fingers were stained orange.

Soon, a maidservant Effia had not noticed before came into the room. She was a tiny girl, only a child, whose eyes never lifted from the ground.

“Please, Mama,” she said to Arekua. “The white men would like to tour the compound. Chief Abeeku says you are to make sure you are presentable for them.”

“Go and fetch us water, quick,” Millicent said, and when the servant came back with a bucket full of water, they all washed their hands and lips. Effia tidied her hair, licking her palms and rubbing her fingers along the tight baby curls that lined her edges. When she finished, Baaba had her stand between Millicent and Arekua, in front of the other women, and Effia tried her best to seem smaller so as not to draw attention to herself.

Before long the men came in. Abeeku looked as a chief should look, Effia thought, strong and powerful, like he could lift ten women above his head and toward the sun. Two white men came in behind him. There was one who Effia thought must be the chief of the white men because of the way the other glanced at him before he moved or spoke. This white chief wore the same clothes as the rest of them wore, but there were more shiny golden buttons running along his coat and on the flaps above his shoulders. He seemed older than Abeeku, his dark brown hair flecked with gray, but he stood up straight, as a leader should stand.

“These are the women. My wives and children, the mothers and daughters,” Abeeku said. The smaller, more timid white man watched him carefully as he said this and then turned to the white chief and spoke their strange tongue. The white chief nodded and smiled at all of them, looking carefully at each woman and saying hello in his poor Fante.

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