A GROTESQUE STATUE sat regally atop a stone monolith superintending
over the calm waters of the Ampidong Lake in distinguished silence. Its bulging
and lifeless eyes stared at a scraggy old man sweating profusely as he stood,
head tilted backward and arms spread wide in supplication, before the statue.
“Oh, Arkum, the god of kum and the guardian spirit of the first wind of the earth…” he bellowed in a quaking baritone voice that punctuated the otherwise monotonous silence. “As you have appointed unto us, even so have we this day appeared before you; myself, the Jigolo, and all the people of Jigo. We, our wives, our children, our cattle, and all that pertain to our land,” the old man continued. His shrunken cheeks contorted as he danced and sang in an unknown language around a large, round flat-topped stone at the edge of the water.
His black, bald head glittered under the afternoon sun as he wobbled into the clear water. He came to rest at the base of the stone monolith. The old man wrapped his two frail hands around the pillar, his bony chest firmly plastered against the blood-stained stone. This was Golsen, the Chief Priest of Jigo Kingdom. He was conducting the ritual for the Ampidong Festival.
“Oh, Arkum, this is the twenty-first year. Here we are, assembled before you that you may this day choose for yourself a maiden from among our daughters, in keeping with the tradition, whom we gift to you for a wife!” He called out, his cracked lips parting to reveal wide gums that once held four strong white front teeth, but was now a mass of tissue stained by decades of nicotine deposits. When he quieted down, the silence that followed was deafening.
Curious eyes from a sea of black, weather-beaten faces stared at the Chief Priest in silence; some with their mouths agape, some with tongues sticking out, others simply with blank faces.
Some of the villagers perched in the branches of nearby trees, others stood on the rocks along the shores. The majority claimed the narrow sandy bank of the lake, the Jigolo’s entourage among them. Many of the people had been here for the past six hours—since the third watch of the day. The anxiety was evident on their black faces. Their tension was real.
Golsen returned to kum, the round, smooth stone boulder at the edge of the water. It was the first and most important of the four stones which surrounded the stone monolith. Standing twenty-one feet from the base of Arkum’s throne, kum separated the water from the land and occupied the position of the first wind of the Jigo earth. Representing the rainy season, kum was responsible for life, birth, breathing, and creation.
Golsen picked up a calabash of beer and poured a libation on kum. He began another round of incantations as he put the calabash down. Defying the blinding sun, Golsen raised his hollow, fiery eyes to stare at the face of the statue as if to prompt the ancient god.
However, from his elevated throne, Arkum watched Golsen’s pomp in silence; a bland and permanent smile reminiscent of an ancient king basking in the euphoria of a royal victory colored his face and made a mockery of the old man’s efforts.
Certain that the god was not ready to speak, Golsen lowered his eyes towards a smaller stone pillar, called tok. It jutted out of the water and stood directly opposite the first stone, about seven feet from the base of Arkum’s throne. Tok symbolized the third wind of the Jigo earth. Its position marked the cardinal point west. It was responsible for the third season, lunn, as well as for harvest, old age, pain, and death. Two other stone pillars similar to tok stood equidistant from each other at opposite ends, marking the cardinal points of north and south, respectively.
When his eyes recovered from the strong effects of the sun’s rays, Golsen noticed that Arkum’s shadow had made steady progress as it floated upon the surface of the lake. Its tip stood just a few inches from the base of Arkum’s stone monolith. The shadow had started its journey when it rested on tok at the third watch of the day. It marked the beginning of the timing for the Ampidong sacrifice. Everything about the Ampidong sacrifice was timing. Unless the sacrifice was done at the right time, catastrophe loomed.
Golsen checked the shadow again.
It was less than a finger-length away from the base of the stone pillar. He barely had any time to spare. Golsen hurriedly mixed a secret concoction in a small potsherd. Chanting special incantations, he brought out the feather of an owl from his side pouch and dipped it into the earth-red slurry. He sprinkled the slurry onto the statue, his fiery eyes constantly watching the shadow. It had cut the distance by half.
Time was running out. Golsen thrust the calabash at his acolyte, a tall hefty black man of muscular build, and then picked up a chalice of incense. With his face twitching and bony chest convulsing, Golsen grunted like a pig as he waved the chalice of incense across the nose of Arkum. At the same time, he danced hysterically as he tried one more time to invoke the ancient god to break his silence.
The shadow had begun to rest on the base of the pillar.
And Arkum was still silent.
Several thoughts crossed Golsen’s mind at the same time. What would happen now? What would be the fate of Jigo? Who or what had kept Arkum silent? Had someone offended the god and I, the Chief Priest, am not aware? Was there iniquity among the people? Or had we misinterpreted the symbols? Could this be the end for all of us?
In spite of the scorching tropical sun overhead, cold shivers coursed through Golsen as he watched in horror as the shadow began to rest on the stone monolith. It was midday.
Everything seemed to stop. Even the small ripples that had ridged the surface of the lake had flattened out. Should the shadow of the stone monolith completely disappear on the pillar without the girl being sacrificed, everything else would not matter anymore. Golsen dropped the chalice and threw both hands up in despair.
The silence was now complete.
It was a silence that seeped into everything, immobilizing everybody. It spoke fear and terror into the hearts of Arkum’s mortal subjects.
Not far from Golsen, a group of maidens stood in a single line, each armed with a long strand of fresh palm leaf in her left hand. There were thirty-eight of them. They were all virgins—‘virgins of two-sevens’; that is, fourteen years, the age that all of them had turned this month. They were also watching, spellbound. Each of them had looked forward to the festival and its sacrifice. The day had come; the moment was now. They were waiting, their hearts filled with fear, apprehension, and anxiety. Today, one of them would not return home to her family. She would become Arkum’s choice, the sacrifice for the Ampidong Festival.
The Ampidong Festival, a ritual of purification and rededication, was celebrated once every seven years by the people of Jigoland. However, this year the Ampidong Festival also coincided with the ending of one of the seven time circles in the Jigo calendar.
In the calendar, four days made up a week and seven weeks made up a month. Thirteen months made up one year. A time circle was seven generations of seventy years spent in each wind of the earth. This was the sixth circle. For the people of Jigo, a kingdom of fierce-looking, heavily built Chadic speakers living in five towns and thirty-five smaller villages scattered over an expanse of land stretching over two hundred square kilometers, the festival was not just a period of joy and excitement, it was a time that defined their existence.
At this year’s festival, no one knew which of these maidens would be taken. Each had a different expression on her face. Some had a glassy, distant look in their eyes as they observed the proceedings, peering into the empty space ahead of them, seeing nothing; others appeared to be calmer, except for their facial muscles which twitched intermittently to betray their fears. Their hearts throbbed nervously. The tension was electrifying.
One of them would be Arkum’s choice, the sacrifice that would mark the end of the sixth time circle and usher in the seventh and last time circle for the Kingdom of Jigo. And so they waited, each maiden hoping she would be the one, yet rejecting the very thought of not seeing her people again.
The mother of each maiden stood behind her daughter, also afraid. None of them knew whose heart would be pieced by the cruelty of death, yet each of them secretly hoped that her daughter would be chosen. They were told that it was an honor if the gods picked one’s daughter. But death was death, and its pain would not be lessened at any time. And so, they too waited, hoping and praying silently. They were waiting for Arkum’s announcement.
Golsen owned the only pair of ears that could hear the ancient god. He was the only one who understood the language of Arkum, and could make what Arkum said audible to their human ears. Which Golsen did when the god spoke. He signified it by a raucous noise, chanting incantations and convulsing violently. As abruptly as he started, Golsen stopped. He had a name to announce.
The name was lost in the Chief Priest’s incantation, heard only by one man. His acolyte amplified the name in a baritone that thundered above the silence, magnifying the tension. “Nankyer! The daughter of Bishmang, from the Kenentu clan of Jigo village. She is chosen as sacrifice for this year!”
There was a mighty uproar among the people—the shout of joy. Finally, their village would be saved. They hugged each other, congratulated one another, and then gradually quieted down to allow the rest of the proceedings to be completed.
Nankyer took her eyes off the acolyte and turned slightly to her left to stare into the crowd. She had seen him standing there earlier, somewhere among the group of men watching from the sandy bank. She scanned their faces until she found his. Yes. He was still there—the man for whom she was beginning to develop feelings. He had made the approach, not directly, but a hunter would not give a maiden three does for nothing. Not in Jigo culture. It was a statement of intent, and it was well understood. However, she would wait for him to show his hand. She would wait until after the festival when, she knew, he would show his hand. She was certain about that. At the moment, she was content to watch him. Luckily, he looked at her and their eyes locked.
Even from that distance, she felt the electrifying effects of those brown eyes of his. She allowed her eyes to be held captive for a few more moments, amassing as many memories to carry with her as she could. Then he smiled, adding to her precious collection. It was what she wanted to see. She wanted to be certain that he was happy for her.
She had secretly hoped to be chosen. She had longed for it. And finally it had come. The gods had answered her prayer. She was the choice for the Maiden Sacrifice—an integral part of the Ampidong Festival. In turn, her mother would be crowned as the Nhiin Kham, the Eternal Grandmother.
She would watch the coronation from her exalted position in the world of the dead as the newest wife of Arkum, the god of water and rain and the guardian spirit of the first wind of the earth. Each raindrop that reached the earth was a gift from one of his innumerable wives. Nankyer determined that the first rain drop that would touch her mother this year would come from her. She smiled at the thought.
Then her mind drifted back to the present. To the man who was beginning to occupy her mind. She looked again at him; at his tall lanky frame, but his eyes were looking somewhere else. Nankyer turned her eyes to her friend, Mani. She had been standing somewhere among the other maidens. Yes. She was also still there, partly concealed by elderly people. She will miss me, Nankyer thought. Then she was aware of the ring of maidens forming around her.
At the same time, the other mothers automatically formed another ring around Nankyer’s mother who watched with both joy and horror as the maidens laid down their palm leaves in front of her daughter. The choice was irreversible. These were the witnesses. Mama Nankyer raised her eyes to her daughter’s face. Instinctively, Nankyer chose that moment to look across at her mother. Their eyes locked and, for a brief second Nankyer thought she saw something in her mother’s eyes. What was that look? She had never seen it before. Was it joy? But her mother had both of her hands cupped around her chin as she looked back at her daughter. Nankyer tried to ponder it. Then she realized what it was, just as a muscular tribesman approached the circle.
It was fear.
Why is mother afraid? Shouldn’t she be happy for me? All of the maidens and their mothers had longed for this to happen, but she did not have much time to brood over it. The tribesman grabbed her by the arm and literally dragged her out of the circle. Nankyer followed the warrior, half-conscious of the tribesman’s rough grasp. He led her to Golsen, who held a colorfully painted calabash, especially made for this ritual. It had not been used since the last generation.
Golsen put down the calabash and took Nankyer’s hand. He mumbled something to his acolyte and then raised his other hand, asking the people to be quiet. He raised his eyes towards the head of the statue, catching a movement somewhere beyond the god.
High above in the clear bright afternoon sky, a large vulture hovered lazily over Ampidong Lake, its head lowered and it eyes hungrily scanning the activities below as though it was ensuring that no protocol was skipped. Despite the brightness of the sun in his eyes, Golsen could make out the color of the bird.
His heart skipped a bit. What could be the matter? he silently asked himself as he followed the bird with his eyes, watching it flap its wings, taking note of the direction it was headed. Golsen was temporarily paralyzed. What could this mean?
Golsen was not the only man who was shaken. The Jigolo and his queen also saw the bird at the same time.
“What could be wrong?” the queen asked as her eyes searched her husband’s face. He looked briefly at her and smiled, then returned to gaze at the bird as it headed west. His face was expressionless, his gaze steady, betraying nothing. Elder Dadet, who sat next to the queen, did not miss the exchange. He caught the movement with a corner of one eye and looked up in time to see the bird. Instantly, he knew something was wrong. “Apu,” he said to himself and nudged Gujor, the Medicine Man, who sat to his left.
“See that?” he asked, tilting his bearded chin skyward.
“What?” Gujor asked without looking at Dadet. He was watching a spectacle unfolding at the edge of the water. A few seconds earlier, a shrill, frightening sound that had echoed from somewhere among the group of women had attracted the Medicine Man.
It was the cry of agony.
A mother was losing her daughter.
Mama Nankyer had broken loose from the group of women who surrounded her and was rushing towards her daughter, screaming. But her effort was being frustrated by four tribesmen who easily cordoned off her approach and took her into their custody.
“Woman, the ritual rites are not finished,” Gujor mumbled to himself. “And they are not to be obstructed.”
“Not that,” Dadet told Gujor who looked up at him. Dadet nodded slightly to the sky to the west. Gujor followed his movement. He saw the bird, several hundred feet above, almost a dot in the vast sky and instantly recognized it from its wingspan and the angle of its head as it flew. Even from that distance, Gujor recognized it.
“This is bad omen,” he said, looking at Dadet. “Apu, the black vulture!” he mumbled beneath his breath.
“Hmm,” Dadet mumbled as well. “But let’s concentrate,” he added. Gujor returned his attention to the edge of the water. The tribesmen had calmed Mama Nankyer down. He turned to look at the lucky Maiden.
A chill ran up Nankyer’s spine the moment she realized why Golsen suddenly became quiet. She followed his gaze and saw the bird flying above them. Instantly, her heart skipped a beat.
Why had the vulture appeared at this time? Was it because of my mother’s conduct or was something terrible going to happen? Were the gods not happy with the sacrifice? Perhaps that was why it took them a long time to announce their choice. Or could the gods be quarrelling over the choice of the maiden? A choice that fell upon her. Is something wrong with me? She shivered from the thought.
“Don’t be thinking this kind of silly thoughts!” she cautioned herself. Nervously, she lowered her eyes but they were magnetized on the bird’s shadow. She watched the tiny black spot racing on the rippling surface of the water, away from the stone monolith, away from them, taking its ominous message away—whatever it was.
Nankyer looked to the spot where her man had been standing. But instead of one face, she found herself staring at a sea of grim black faces excited in the wake of the day, but now defeated by the sudden appearance of a bird. Their skins were soaked in sweat from the heat as well as from their apprehension of the impending doom the bird had announced. They had defied the hot tropical sun to wait for this moment. And unless this ceremony was concluded, certain death would be the end of many.
Nankyer forced herself to isolate that one face. The smile had gone. In its place a grim expression betrayed his despair. What will happen now? she thought. But there was no answer. Only silence and fear that seeped through every heart, making the people fret. But, secretly, no one was willing to let his neighbor discern the fear that had suddenly taken over their hearts. It was fear that manifested itself in the grim silence that pervaded the place of sacrifice, weighing heavily on both man and nature, quieting the trees, taming the water, a silence broken only by Golsen’s guttural voice as he resumed his supplication.
“May the new era, as never before, usher in peace.”
“Aiyee!” the people chorused weakly.
Absent-mindedly, Nankyer felt the coarse touch of Golsen’s palm as he again wrapped his weather-beaten hand around her arm. With his free hand, the Chief Priest collected the palm leaf from her and inspected it. Even after three days, it was still erect and fresh. He mumbled an incantation testifying to her virginity and then raised his voice, “No man has ever known her whom we offer to you, O, Arkum. Accept her and, in return, bless our land this season.”
“And never in our land may we be slaves to others…”
“May the ears of mothers be filled with the cries of babies…”
“Aiyee!” the people responded as Golsen continued.
When Golsen finally finished offering his prayers, he took Nankyer by the hand and turned her around, like a buyer inspecting a she-goat in the market. He motioned to his acolyte to bring the ritual relics. The acolyte approached with a straw tray on which were small vials, the wan kyen necklace, two leather arm and ankle bangles, and a chord of charms. Golsen selected one of the containers and poured out a small quantity of oil into his palm. He rubbed it over Nankyer’s body, allowing his callused hands to brush over her. Nankyer remained docile, immune to the rough feel of his skin.
Next, he picked up the wan kyen necklace and hung it around her neck. Then he tied the arm bangle around her left arm, the chord of charms around her waist, and the ankle bangle around her right ankle. Then he fetched a small portion of a greasy ointment and smeared it across her forehead. Finally, he gave her a bowl of gruel.
“Drink this, my daughter. It will keep you from being thirsty,” he informed her. “It will not taste nice, but you will need it.”
Nankyer took the bowl and put it to her mouth. A strong stench hit her nostrils as her lips made contact with the drink. It tasted like a mixture of sour and sweet. She felt like throwing up, but she willed herself to finish it. She returned the empty bowl to the Chief Priest.
“Go in peace, my daughter,” Golsen pronounced and motioned for the tribesmen to finish preparing her.
Four of them approached her. Each one took a limb and laid her on a make-shift bamboo raft the size of a stretcher. They strapped her legs and hands to the wooden raft and carried her shoulder high. Before they waded into the water, Golsen performed one last ritual. He fanned her three times with the palm leaf he took from her and ranted an unintelligible incantation. He suddenly stopped, turned his fiery eyes towards the sky, and handed the palm leaf to his acolyte.
The man grasped the leaf and took it to the Jigolo who was watching from his royal litter. The throne, strapped to two long poles, was carried by four Royal guards, one at each end. The monarch took the palm leaf and raised it three times toward the first wind of the earth.
“We call upon the ancestors and the first wind to bear witness,” he said in a rich baritone voice. He paused. “She whom we offer is clean, healthy, and undefiled.” He gave the palm leaf back to Golsen’s acolyte. It was the sign of the Jigolo’s approval. Golsen bowed slightly.
“Go now,” he ordered the tribesmen carrying Nankyer. Without hesitation, the four warriors waded into the water. For a second time, Nankyer’s mother broke free from the grip of the tribesmen holding her and rushed into the water. She grabbed the raft on which her daughter was tied. Two of the tribesmen lost their balance and began to fall, but they recovered quickly before the raft toppled. The tribesmen from whom Nankyer’s mother broke loose arrived at the same instant and roughly snatched her back.
“You’re causing embarrassment, woman!” one of them shouted as they lifted her off her feet and headed out of the water.
“Bring her here,” Golsen said. The tribesmen took Mama Nankyer to the Chief Priest.
“My daughter, you have to be strong,” he said to her, his eyes searching her face. “This is the highest honor the gods can give to you.” He selected another ointment from his collection and smeared it over her body. He then tied three charms on her, one on her arm, another around her waist, and the last one on her ankle.
“You will be taken to the Shrine of Lapai where you will be prepared further for your Coronation,” he told her and then said a brief prayer for her.
When he finished praying, he nodded slightly to the head of the tribesmen carrying Nankyer. With another slight nod from the leader, the tribesmen resumed their journey into the water. The currents were strong, but not strong enough to deter them from carrying out their duty. They slipped further and further into the water until it was up to their chests. They stopped at the stone monolith, waiting for Golsen’s final instructions.
“Lower her!” Golsen bellowed. At a signal from their leader, they raised the makeshift raft four times in a bouncing motion and then, on the fifth bounce, lowered it gently to the surface of the water. A thunderous uproar erupted from the onlookers as the water snatched the raft from the hands of the tribesmen. From where she was held captive, Mama Nankyer let out a heinous scream as she struggled to free herself from the grip of the tribesmen who carried her over their shoulders.
It was the scream of a mother in agony.
However, her screams were swallowed by the staccato of drumbeats that suddenly erupted from the dancers who had watched the proceedings with anticipation and undisguised impatience.
Golsen, the Chief Priest, smiled.
Another sacrifice had been successfully carried out.