Eventide rose and fell as did the chill of the night into the bonfire at the centre of the village square. Chisom pulled me to side and tugged at my wrapper.
“Listen Emeka. You must do it. You don’t have a choice”
The drums were loud, too loud that I could barely hear what he was saying. I only understood what he said by the deep furrows on his face that formed a scowl and how his lips moved as they did in the early afternoon on our way from the farm.
I stared at him deep in the face. “I’m scared. I don’t know yet. Brother I really don’t know”
I was revered by all the young men in the community probably because I was taller than all of them or my big belly and wide shoulders intimidated most of them. No one dared challenge me to duel. The old women will plead with me to pluck some oil palm fruits, for which our village was known whenever I passed by their compound. They would tease me and call me the husband to their unborn children even though they knew my Omalicha, my beautiful one. The King had promised my father that once I became of age and proven myself as a man, I would become the next in command to his chief guard; the second highest position in the Igwe’s palace. My father had long prayed for this day.
“Make me proud my son” He said as he looked into my tear-filled eyes.
I wept for my father had suffered much. He made misery his bed and sorrow his meal ever since he lost his wife to the palms of death.
“Remember papa’s condition”. Chisom’s voice cut through my thoughts.
His eyes were now wearing the hues of the azure moon. He had a slightly diminutive stature but he was my elder brother; the firstborn of the family. I didn’t respect him enough to advise me about how my life should be run. After all, he showed back into our lives few months ago after his two-year marriage with Ify fell apart. He narrated how she had packed her belongings and followed an oyinbo man, for whom she worked as a nanny, to Lagos. If he was man enough, he would have fought to keep her. If he wasn’t a lazy man, he would have known that money exerted more power than muscles.
I joined my peers in the revelry of the night. I could feel the ground move under my feet. Maybe the earth was inebriated by the ogogoro spills from the benevolent fiesta. Maybe it was the joyful stampede of the young men who danced vigorously in anticipation of their individual moments that sent tremors. Maybe it was my fears that were pushing hard on my chest and asking for a wrestling contest.
The pace of the drumbeats changed. My turn had come. Nnenna and I had asked for the Atilogu drumbeat. Time had sped past like a man under lustful chase by a naked madman. Nnenna’s dark eyes glistened red in the blaze of the fire. Her shoulders dropped as she let out a deep breath. I could feel her veins pulsate faster as I led her by hand to the slaughter house.
The slaughter house was dreaded by most of the girls in the community but what could they do? It was a ritual which took place every two years. Men from our village, Taazi were forbidden from marrying from Komocha and other neighboring towns because the women must have been slaughtered and had their blood poured on a white handkerchief and placed before the shrine of Ugbugbu before the next sunset. All unmarried young men looked forward to this night because this was the only way you could prove your manliness.
We slowly arrived at the tent. It was dark and warm and musty. It smelt of blood, urine and tears and of death and victory at the same time. The full moon’s shimmer through the open windows led us to the “slab” upon which our mothers and their mothers were slain. I watched sadly as Nne pulled her blouse slowly. I had nothing on except the Ankara wrapper which was wrapped round my body and knotted over my shoulder. Nnenna had undressed and I could see her full, curved breast in the twilight glow. Her shoulders moved up and down quietly in a manner that showed she was sobbing.
“I’m sorry Nne”. I could barely find the words.
“Just do it” She yelled.
I saw the flush in her face as her tear sparkled in the reflection of the night. She lay on the damp mat. It smelled of sweat, good sweat and bad sweat. I lay beside her. I held her hands the same way I had done on the night that I swore by my life before the river goddess that I would not deflower her in the insane, cruel way that other women had lost their virginity in the slaughter house. It was terrifying for her because her mother died during her own childbirth. Maybe it was connected to the ritual, maybe that’s why my mother died mid-age too but only the gods knew. She had been betrothed to me since we were young and I had grown up to love her so much like I loved my mother. We ran by the riverbanks together and hurled banana skins after each other. We would hide behind Iroko trees and watch how some of the young girls who also came out for the Virgin dance tonight made love secretly under raffia tents. We would giggle and run away before we were discovered, into the forest to fetch the firewood we had cut before dusk fell.
“I’m sorry. I can’t” I said as I fastened my wrapper around my neck.
Her face looked more relaxed like someone who wanted to smile but was trying hard to retain its glower.
“But you have to”
Before she finished, I was at the door.
“No erection” I told the local priest who stood by the door to collect the bloodied handkerchiefs and ascertain the authenticity of the act. He blew his flute. It signaled trouble.
My brother rushed towards the tent. He knew that I had kept to my words against his advice. I sniveled as I saw my father weep while I was being led away by the guards. He knew that might be the last that would be heard from me. My heart was heavy but I wanted to be out from all the sorrow and pain and setbacks in this village. The penalty for failing to deflorate one’s fiancé in the traditional slaughterhouse was tantamount to twenty years banishment from the village and eternal ridicule. I closed my eyes and quietly prayed that the river goddess would bless me with the love that I had fought for.
Nnenna’s soft voice quietly whispered into my ears as she pressed our sacred tokens into my palms.
“I’ll meet you on the other side at dawn”
(c) 11/11/2011, Olusegun Adekoye