Serrated edges ringed the towering mask like the jaws of a piranha. The mask was round, vaguely mimicking the visage of a wincing black man, and heavy with dense ebony wood. The aquiline contours of the dark face were interrupted with rounded plateau knobs, patterned along the cheekbones and the ridge above the eye sockets. In the center of the forehead sprouted twisted fibers of cornhusks, in one rolled clump, while the upper fringe of the mask erupted with thick threads died in ochre.
A boy not yet eleven gazed awestruck and fearful towards the young man in a mahogany loincloth whose face was entirely covered by the mask as he jumped in place. He jumped higher each time to the rhythm of the surrounding ululating women and a staccato djembe drum, accompanied by a deep dundun, a limpid sangban and throbbing kenkeni. Another young man, without a mask, attempted to approach the dancer, who then began to spin the mask on his head, making a saw out of its serrated edges. The unmasked man ducked low, stepped back, lunged forward, and then withdrew. He could not approach safely.
The wonderstruck boy child meanwhile contemplated and surmised the meaning behind the mask: a harbinger of glorious endings, the completion of the life-cycle of the universe before it collapsed and reawakened into something unknowable and unseen. From what little he could infer from the scant and mysterious lessons given him by his elders, the cutting edge around the mask signified a celestial saw slicing through the horizon itself, dividing that which was being destroyed below from that which was emerging into reality above. The face within the disk of the saw implied the naked reemergence of consciousness into this nascent universe, constant and returning from the old dying one – for a universe perhaps would not be so without a consciousness or sentience to witness, observe and participate in it.
But if this masquerade meant the world was to end, then the boy was all the more terrified. He began to tremble as the first masked dancer was joined by two more, one in a large black wooden basin with beady eyes and a subtle, shrinking mouth, the other wearing a long otherworldly sapphire serpent across his head. Both dancers, also young, barefooted men wearing nothing else but loincloth, proceeded to jump-dance with the first dancer, and then transitioned into a form of mock fighting-dancing. The melee between the serpent, the beady-eyed caricature, and the serrated face became increasingly erratic, rapid, and ferocious, as did the ululations of the women and the tempo of the music. The serpent, its oblong eyes, curled, gnarly, wide snout, and grinning, saber-toothed mouth, almost appeared to gnash its jaw at the baldhead, the blurred movements of the quick dancers creating liquid animations out of stiff wooden carvings. The boy wanted to cry out, but couldn’t as he watched spellbound and arrested in anxiety.
So he fainted. In his slumbering reverie he saw a spotted leopard, a black rhinoceros and a young black woman in a white wrap and headdress, wielding a machete above her head. All the figures were momentarily motionless before the young boy. Then they suddenly began to sprint after each other, the boy running from them as they moved in all directions. The woman with the machete seemed the most lethal and feared of the bunch, as she could keep both the rhino and the leopard on the run. The animals were meanwhile trying to bite or crush each other, not realizing they might collaborate against their common opponent and gain the upper hand by doing so. She had successfully slashed the armored body of the rhino several times around its posterior, and put a deep wound along the neck of the leopard, though not deep enough to seriously debilitate it. The boy meanwhile had ducked under a bush to stay out of the attention of the raging belligerent trio.
Suddenly, the leopard turned straight for the bush, and seemed intent on gulping the boy down in one bite. The rest followed suit and all headed for the boy’s hideout. He began to scream uncontrollably, and tripped over himself in an attempt to flee in panic. But he could not stand erect to fight or escape from the trouble. He was reduced in his fear to crawling as the fierce posse came hurtling at him. And as the ground began to vibrate more powerfully from the approaching hooves and feet, the boy sank into despair and again nearly passed out. As his pursuers landed on him, he felt himself blank out completely.
When he awoke he was once again in his village, although nobody except his mother, one of the ululating women of the earlier masquerade, was around. He was lying in the sand at his mother’s feet. She squatted as he opened his eyes, wincing in the quiet darkness of the evening. He wondered to himself why she wasn’t being kinder to him, merely squatting over him like that. And what had happened to the masquerade which sent him reeling in the first place?
As if reading his mind, she told him aloud, “You’re too afraid. How can you just faint like that when you see nothing but a bunch of young men in masks jumping around to a drum beat in jest? Have more courage than that – there will surely be much more trying things ahead in your journey, and you won’t be able to just faint your way through them.”
“But isn’t this the end of the world? Isn’t that what the masquerade was all about?” asked the boy to his mother.
“Son, it doesn’t make a difference whether the world is ending now or not. You still need to overcome your fears of such mundane things. Fear will keep you from realizing and understanding anything. It will keep you from intuiting what the real nature of things is, and get you stuck in a stagnant and unchanging place in life. And if you are too fearful to change or seek understanding, you are as if dead already, whether the world ends or remains. Figure it out.”
The boy was still hesitant as he began to rise from the floor and follow his mother into their hut, which in the deep nocturnal darkness seemed unusually isolated and alone, compared to when he last remembered it. His mother seemed like a giant to him, all the more so since there was absolutely no one else around that night and only she produced any other noise from a living being.
He went to bed that night trying to dream about moving beyond his fears. He again saw the black rhino, the spotted leopard, and the machete-wielding woman, still in her pristine white wraps. But the rhino was now kneeling before her in surrender, next to a slain leopard lying palsied on its back. Blood ran down the machete that the woman pointed at the rhino, though none of the life-giving liquid stained her garments. Her face was tight with delighted rage and wicked triumph, and she seemed to wonder in her eyes if she would permit the big rhino to surrender, or kill it where it knelt.
Licking her chops about to savor another execution, she suddenly became aware of the boy. She lowered her machete and slowly marched toward where he stood several paces away. As she approached the almost diminutive form of the boy, she felt a bit disarmed by his innocent appearance and humorously feigned bravery. He puffed his chest out, yet flinched at every move the woman made.
At once she ran at him and he scurried away yelping, crouching behind an anthill. “Do you think those ants will protect you?” she asked the boy. He issued no response, but to slowly reemerge from the anthill with shoulders elevated and lips pursed, after several minutes of standoff.
The rhino took the chance to quietly scurry away, after paying momentary respect to the limp corpse of the leopard. Still fearing one adversary, it had gained the capacity to respect the other following its demise. The woman fully noticed the rhino’s exit, but chose to ignore it, now captivated by the foolish valor of the young boy. She stared at him for a few minutes before turning her white wraps black by sleight of hand.
The boy would have run and ducked again at the instance of her spell, but willed himself to remain, since as far as he knew it he was at the end of the world and would have nothing to lose if further trouble visited him. He was still terrified from within but decided not to show it. The woman was impressed at this, and she grew a bit taller to further intimidate him. Finally, she lifted her now massive machete and proceeded to swing it down on the boy’s head.
He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, but she stopped before the blow landed. When he opened his eyes he found himself in his bed, in his mother’s modest home, as the first rays of dawn shone into his eyes. But the light from outside seemed more intense than usual. After collecting his senses, he stood up and wandered outside. There all he saw was a vast desert, a sandy wasteland, dunes, tumbleweeds, and all. Even when he called after his mother, there was no response. He was completely alone to animate the stark desolation of the world he now inhabited.
So the world did end. He gazed across the horizon, into the mantle of the sun, and then dashed forward. When he turned around, the hut he had slept in the night before was gone as well. All he had was his own mind and body, and the sands beneath and in between his naked toes. Why did it have to be me? He scarcely would have suspected the truth about the premonitions of the elders, that not only would the world actually end, but that a select someone would remain to greet and guide the new world.
The boy pinched himself. Yet the winds of the desert knocked him down, aided by the instability of the sand. As he lay on his face, he tried to go to sleep again, but to no avail. The sand was in his eyes, ears, throat, and nostrils. They irritated him tremendously, but he had no choice but to move forward and without overt fear. At the very least he knew that if he didn’t strive in the new world’s first hours, it might remain a lifeless dust pile.
So ahead he plodded, his futile trepidations in check for the moment.