Gome! Gome! Gome!
The gong rang out, penetrating the night noises. Neither the humming of the generators grinding out electricity in the back of the compound, nor the Christmas carols Chinonso was playing off the home theatre could drown out that hollow metallic boom.
“Turn down that thing.” Reginald pointed to the speakers.
“Now!” Reginald’s features froze, a sign that he would not brook any argument.
Nonso pushed the mute button on the remote control and the silence descended quick and total.
Kamsiyochukwu, his younger sister, stuck out her tongue at him.
Gome! Gome! Gome! The gong rang out again, this time a shrill voice followed.
“Children of my fathers’ household I salute you. Anyone whose ear is receiving this message, I salute you. From tomorrow for the next two weeks, the spirits of our fathers will be coming to visit us. They will once again walk this land of like they did in olden times. On the next Afor day they will be going to the market. To this end, our Igwe has instructed that our women and children should please stay out of their way; they should remain indoors. Any man who is a man, down to the smallest boy however, should assemble at the market square on that day. Representatives from the different age grades who will act as their guides are to assemble at the usual place on Orie day.” The gong boomed yet again, this time a bit further from the house, and when the crier spoke, his voice too was dying as he put some distance between himself and Reginald’s compound.
Reginald, who had sat up when he first heard the ogene, relaxed. He leaned into the soft cushions of the sofa. He placed his hands, one over the other, on his stomach, the slight paunch a perfect resting place for them.
The news of the town crier excited him, and he felt the blood quicken; he felt young once again. This was why he was here.
The corners of his lips turned up as he remembered a boy from another lifetime. His bushy eyebrows, now grey, gave him a fearsome look, but when he smiled like he did now, the crinkle at the corners of his eyes softened that look and made him less fearful.
“Let the mother chicken cover her brood, the kite is loose on the land.” The masquerade’s handlers sang as they made their way through the winding paths between the houses. Sometimes they went right through someone’s compound.
It was dusk and a silence enveloped the land. It was stretched like skin over a drum, as though waiting for something to happen.
Three children hunched down in their mother’s kitchen; they were making supper. One of them removed some of the wood from the fire.
“Why did you do that?” Another asked in a fierce whisper.
“Do you want them to see the fire and know that we are out here?” The first child fired back, also in a whisper.
“Shhhh…” The third child cautioned.
As if on cue the masquerade stopped where he was, close by. The children huddled closer, each one flashing the others hot looks, but no one making a sound. They stayed that way for what felt like a really long time until, with a grunt from the masquerde, the procession moved on.
“You see what you will cause, ehn Obiageli? Chu chu chu chu chu, your mouth will not stay in one place.” The first child rounded on the second, punctuating each “chu” with a stab of her fingers.
“Ehn ehn o,” Obiageli wagged her fingers. “Nobody should mention my name biko kwa. Were you, Ogbonne, not supposed to have prepared supper since? But instead you went to watch the wrestling tournament, and now we have to stay here with you because you are afraid.”
“Is the akpu ready for pounding?” The boy with them squeaked. This drew laughter from his sisters. His voice was only just breaking, and he spoke in a high pitched squeak. His sisters called him Nkapi – they said he sounded like the foul smelling mouse that slinked about in the shadows. But they never called him that to Nna’s hearing; they had no doubt how their father would take to his only son being called Nkapi.
“It would have been ready if madam here had not reduced the fire,” Obiageli cut her eyes at Ogbonne. She stoked the fire and soon the content of the pot was boiling again. Slightly thickened water ran down the sides of the blackened pot and hissed when it hit the hot coals underneath.
“Ngwa you turn the ikwe upright,” she said nodding in the direction of the wooden mortar in the corner. “Where is the aka-odo?” She cast her eyes about, looking for the pestle.
That night while sharing his supper, the excited boy told his father of their adventure earlier in the day.
He grunted through the telling, scowling here, smiling there, his thick black eyebrows dancing like ochicha, cockroaches, across his lined brows.
“Didn’t you not know that there was nothing to be afraid?” His father asked him with a smile. “The spirits of our fathers may enter the main house of a living being, but they draw the line at the kitchen.”
The boy frowned and shook his head. “No Nna, I did not know.”
“Well, now you know. And soon, you will know even more after your initiation ceremony next year. The spirits will be visiting the market tomorrow, would you like to go with me?”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “Yes Nna. Can Ogbonne come with us?” He cast his eyes towards his sister who was in the room with them.
“No my son,” his father explained, “women may not even look at the spirits tomorrow. Some women in the past have disobeyed this and bad things happened to them. Any other day would be fine, but not tomorrow.”
“But why Nna?”
“If I stay up answering all your questions tonight, we will most likely sleep through tomorrow’s ceremony.”
Done, his father washed his hands and Ogbonne cleared the plates.
“Good night Nna,” both children chorused and left their father’s room.
The next day the boy went with his father to the village square. On the way there they passed other men going in the same direction. They called out greetings to each person or group that they passed. The greetings were returned.
The village square was a melting pot of slick, sweaty human bodies and colourful dancing masquerades. Men and spirits had converged, and what a spectacle it was.
Everything was one continued blur of colours: swathes of green leaves and fronds and grass, red and black and yellow wool, brightly coloured wooden masks, sea upon sea of brown skin. There was drumming and singing and dancing.
As the sun rose in the sky, dust rose higher, unsettled by all the moving feet. The drum beats and the flutes rose higher still.
People spoke at the top of their voices to be heard.
A masquerade would break free from its handlers and make a dash for a section of the crowd and the people there would rush back screaming, only for the masquerade to stop a few feet from them, whirl round and dash off in the opposite direction.
There were small masquerades, big masquerades; colourful masquerades, and one covered from top to bottom in raffia. Some danced gracefully, and others bobbed about. There was a really tall masquerade, taller than anything the boy had ever seen. It bobbed and weaved and its handlers sang its praise, and then suddenly if came falling to the ground. It flattened itself so that it looked like a really long mat. Then it started to pick itself up in segments until it was fully upright again and it resumed its bobbing and weaving. The crowd cheered.
The boy screamed himself hoarse.
By the time they returned home, he was full from all the he had seen, and giddy too. He could not swallow the tiniest morsel of food; he was full from all he had seen that day.
For the next two weeks masquerades roamed the village, visiting individual homes, or lying in wait for unsuspecting youth or women travelling. They would pounce on the people and chase them. Anyone they caught they flogged soundly, so the people grew wings on their feet.
The next year could not come soon enough for the boy so that he could pass through the rites of initiation and become a man.
Before his next birthday, however, Nna fell ill and died. He went to live with an uncle in town; his uncle was Catholic so he became one too. He got baptised and took the name Reginald.
The years passed and Reginald grew in strength and wisdom. He did well in school and won a scholarship to study abroad. He got a job with the United States government and had not been home ever since. This trip with his children and grandchildren was his first visit home in almost fifty years.
Kamsiyochukwu looked at him with wide eyes, her eyebrows reaching up for an embrace with her hairline.
“Grandpa, are these masquerades like the bogeyman?” She asked.
“No they are not. Some are more fierce than the bogeyman, but then a lot of them are benevolent spirits, really.”
“Grandpa can we go with you tomorrow? That’s if Kamkam isn’t too scaredy-cat.” Chinonso asked.
“I’m not a scaredy-cat.” She whined.
“Chinonso stop teasing your sister so. And yes, I will take you with me. Tomorrow we should be fine.” Reginald said.
“Take them where Papa?” The children’s father asked, coming into the living room.
“To see our ancestral spirit.”
“I heard that too, and I am so excited.”
You and me both, my son. You and me both. Reginald thought as he made his way from the room.
“Children, may the day break.”