The Dance of His Life
The stage was set. The twin drums rumbled like never before. Since the week-long festivity commenced they had never been heard to reverberate so, solo or in unison. There was a certain sense of urgency imbued in their rhythm that even a novice sensed. To cause the avantgarde melody abroad, the hesitant palpitations of the smaller of the duo of drums had to slowly but assuredly sidled up to the rather lukewarm thumps of its bigger colleague-in-dry-skin. Together they meshed with the coordinated staccato of the myriad other percussion instruments arraigned in play to give the unique melody of Hometown’s ageless funeral dance.
Last to join the melange as always was the big grandfather gong. As it joined, it tied a reef knot around the whole beat lending it the tremulous rhythm of the waiting dance. The arrayed dancers stepped in obeisance – one step forward, two steps backwards, one step forward – awaiting the killing dance proper when forwards, backwards, sideways and any-which-ways amounted to same.
The celebrant rooted to his spot beside the elders of the land took these in and waited. Now and then, urged on by the intoxicating bounce of the beat, he would jump to a standing position as though the die is cast only to immediately assume his seat again as if nothing was in the offing. All because action time was around the corner and none would let himself be caught unawares. Forefathers long gone were beckoning and all the living could do was nothing but heed:
“Talk to me,” he replied the flutist who was urging him – nine men in one – to hearken to his cadences. “The stomach assumed the front row on creation day only on account of its intrepidity.”
A group of elders who had climbed that pepper tree long ago walked to him to whisper urges of restraint:
“Don’t be like the antelope that waltzed himself lame before the main dance,” The first counselled.
“Or the tortoise that waited in a murky pit on end only to start complaining as it sighted would-be rescuers,” yet another added.
Resuming his seat, nodding assent to all his advisers, he had just one last retort to the caprices of the flutist:
“Sleep will come aplenty to the eyes in death season,” he muttered under his breath.
The big gong had by now mastered its grip on the beat; tightening and loosening it at will. From having let it flow freely for long, it presently tightened into a tourniquet, stringing the emergent sound tight like a clenched fist. Then as if the music – as the crowd in tow – had a life that would be snuffed out if it held on, the grip loosened with an over-promise of life. Like orgasm at the end of a sexual escapade, the beat as well as the occasion came to a climax of sorts.
All the gathered at once knew what was about to happen. At the end of this otherwise mundane dance for his dead father, the celebrant – his first son and heir – would have taken the first step into becoming an ancestor. After the mere act, he not only inherited the compound that his father left but he is as well bequeathed all his other property, save his wives. However, he also took over they latter like all his other liabilities on earth...
But, though it seemed near enough, it was still as distant as the stars. Now the beat that will call him up would cliff-hang as if the time was nigh, only for the sacred gong whose bidding it was to balk at the immediacy yet again.
A mischievous smile splayed across the lips of the author of the diversion who kept changing his stance with each fresh kite he flew. Like his fellow instrumentalists on whom all attention was riveted as the subsisting respite lasted, he soaked in the tension of the moment with passion. A cursory look at the entirety of them had each appearing as old as his instrument. Save, of course, for the flutist; he was so young that his grip-bleached four-hole local flute appeared like a talisman against the redness of his lips.
Unlike the rest of the squad that had waited for their parents’ indisposition after lives well spent to inherit their instrument, his was trust in his hands at the maternity ward. In fulfillment to an abiding prophecy, the man had breathed his last as soon as the boy’s birth pangs rent the air on a mud bench in his mother's hu-.
The medicine men of the land were not left out of the effort. Clad in especial amulet-adorned robes made for occasion, they paced about the venue in traditional majesty. But not just in the spirit of the music - like the uninformed would adduce. They doubled as security operatives of the seen and unseen worlds; working tooth and nail, as it were, at seeing to the maintenance of that fragile balance between the two that made the seen habitable for mortals.
A slight tilt on either side was known to have marred many an event of such magnitude. Some of them believed to know a little more of the spirit side even had to pass the night at the venue. An added precaution that cost the celebrant some more demijohns of palm wine; the gods here being only approachable with ready doses of the celestial tipple.
As expectation mounted to fever pitch, one of these select cast of medicine men appeared from nowhere. He was well-known throughout the land and even farther for his dark prowess. Indeed, he is the last survivor of the revered batch that engaged the spirits in the celebrated war at the belly of the Okorokoro gorge that had seen the spirits beat a hasty retreat from the village forever. Called Eye That Sees in Darkness, he was priest to the kind of god that would demand the opposite of a penis from a man it had vowed to kill and vice versa. He was, as well, the sole vendor of its pepper-based eye ointment.
While all eyes turned on in trepidation, he executed a deft foxtrot and exuberantly lavished a full calabash of up wine on the hard earth. Chanting incantations in the language of his particular god, he performed some more intricate jigs to the perplexity of the gathered. It soon spread that he was by the ritual officially inviting the deceased who was yet at the boundary between the living and the dead to join the festivity.
As if in reply to the elapsed rite, a gentle gust of air fanned the venue before culminating in a miniature cyclone that rose from the middle of the poured palm wine that the earth was still drinking. At the fullness of time, another medicine man this time of a more benign, godhead broke a kola nut, showed its five lobes around, enclosed it in his fist, circled his head three times with the hand enclosing the nuts and dropped two of the lobes in the middle of the puddle of palm wine. He took the remainder three lobes of kola nut to the elders whom alone could partake in the ambrosia.
At the end of the exercise, the instruments rumbled in solemnity.
All this while, all one of the instruments remained untouched. A big tom-tom cut out of the hollowed branch of the sacred tree, it lay at a corner awaiting deployment. All the foregone proceedings might as well pass for precursors of its imminent announcement. As time passed, all eyes turned to where the man on whose shoulders hung the onus for its introduction. Throughout the entire town only he could touch the sticks with which it was struck. He was still seated, chewing his own share of the shared kola nuts as if oblivious of the imminent.
But he could not have been. At a certain bend in the waiting dance that still rumbled from the corner, he stood up calling forth a train of gibberish that ended on a hanging expletive:
“The time is nigh to sex tortoises!”
The crowd roared with renewed vigor, more in anticipation than appreciation. As if in direct response, he jumped into the arena rather too athletically for his mounting years. A crop of medicine men circled him in protection, their ring around him irradiating a penumbra of consecration. He must have been on this job for thirty years on and could not have started it till he was well past forty. It was common knowledge all over Hometown that what was left was for him to die and become a masquerade to be awoken from ant holes after interminable inundation.
This appeared to cross the old man’s mind as he surveyed the scene. Sensing it, the flutist in a chromatic cadence that redefined music appealed for caution anew:
Even the good old testicle, it implored, does reach menopause; you pugilist with iron fists, behold a head of palm fruits; you father of all philanderers, here comes your mother.
The old man took these in and reassessed his options. Looking hither and thither, he shook his head up and down and stood akimbo. In his hey days he might as well have been atop a palm tree by now. Presently though, he just stood where he was rooted and with the big toe of his right leg wrote out an equation Euclid would have been proud of on the fever-scorched earth he stood on.
Again, the crowd roared their appreciation. This time around, the tumult subsided; conveying a potpourri of wonderment and understanding. He was not there yet, they subsumed, but he would sure make a one when the hour dawns. Perhaps needing just a little water and just a pinch of alligator pepper to resurrect.
Dancing to his mother of all instruments, he stretched the meaning of the act to all its metaphorical possibilities. All could feel the weight of the responsibility heaped on him by society as he twisted, turned, jumped and feinted to the music. There and then it appeared as if it was the job and not his years that aged so. He made the short distance to his destination, dug out the sticks to beat the tom-tom with from its hollowed inside and made the instrument speak its time-worn guttural.
Immediately, Eye That Sees stepped out to cleanse the space of any recalcitrant elves in preparation for the celebrant of the passage rite. Dressed in made-for-occasion raffia skirts adorned with multiple talismans, the medicine man to a malignant god held a length of fresh tender palm fronds across his mouth in place with his teeth. This meant he cannot utter even a broken phoneme as the ceremony lasted, whatever the circumstance. He completed the circle made by the surging crowd in an enigmatic dance step. In a dramatic finale, he barred his unclothed anus at the seven skies above.
By now all the instruments were in a double frenzy to avoid the eclipse of the latest arrival. Its little counterpart made from a bamboo stem provided the base rhythm in a persistent repartee that wished all present a combination of leprosy and elephantiasis of the scrotum in the local lingo. In turn, the bass thuds of the ornamented pot that is played by striking its pouted mouth with a padded hand fan thumped at the base of every heart in the arena. And even beyond. It was well known, for instance, that on occasion like this even neighbors from as distant as Obodoani where music was anathema could not resist the beat that often wafted to them in fleeting drafts on a windy day.
Well, the twin instruments as tonally apart as heaven to hell, yet sitting side by side in the group, told the musical story of the moment. Whichever divide of the maximum you were coming from, you are met at a melodic tangent that had you either stamping your feet or nodding your head.
The celebrant was engaged in both. He was poised like a warrior at war. Just the ricochet of the stentorian peals of the tom-tom and he would be beckoned upon to step into the shoes of his forebears. He thoroughly understood the import of what lay afoot.
As the long-awaited sound dropped, the stage was immediately cleared. Even the medicine men to the gods of kind intent were not left. No one dared harbor evil intent on a householder-to-be, or whatever you had in mind inundated yours in repercussion.
The celebrant came out dancing. He dug into the groove from the rudiments of his upbringing. No one ever mastered those steps in late life. You chewed it in with the sand of the town at teething time, drank it in from the waters of her streams and inhaled it as you breathed in its soporific air. In the process, he would stand upright, eyes angled heavenward, arms askew and then go down, squatting to the command of the music in the duck walk dance of yore.
Though it appeared so, it was no dance-for-dance’s-sake session. There was much more in the offing than mere spectator pleasing. According to the age-old routine - set when the world was young - he danced to the feet of the representative of his ancestors here on earth. The old man watched him, a knowing smile playing across his wizened visage. As he went to his knees, the old man handed him his staff of office. A horsewhip-shaped object, it was gotten from the tender pith of the town’s totem tree raised in a nursery in the sacred, ancestral grove of the gods. About two feet long, half of it was beaten into a mash and dried under the midday sun for days to create tassels.
Ordinarily used to rouse lousy insects that disturbed many an evening rest outdoors, it only appeared a nondescript fly swatter to the ordinary eye. With it in hand, it is believed that no mortal can remove its legitimate holder from the territory it bequeathed him. A mere wave of it at the face of a malevolent intruder could result in anything from a triple somersault to outright death – depending on the whim of the householder at the time.
The old man delayed the handover for some time. As either of them still held on to the diadem, he then offered the young man some words of exhortation, reminding him of the heroism of their past and the wonderful might of the clean of hand.
His instrument of his office in his palms, the latest householder in Hometown ended the celebration with the dance of his life.