I woke up at the first cockcrow and sat in the darkness listening to the beat of my heart and the talk of the spirits of our land. I did not want to believe in spirits but my father taught me to believe.
“What one does not know cannot kill him.” He would say.
And so I began to believe. When the frogs and the crickets tried to out sing one another, I attributed it to the spirits of the land. When Opi the bird of death whistled its three-step epitaph, I turned my back away from it to let it pass. Even during the occasional short lived minutes of absolute quiet in our class, I held my breath to let the spirits sweep through. So on the day of Ibiugwu, I listened keenly to their voices. The rites of passage were discussed excitedly everywhere here but the excitement was absent in me. During the festivals last year, Obioma came out of the cutting hut waddling like a duck. She suffered bouts of fever, the brown of her skin became the colour of rusty roofing sheets; uneven, dull and sickly. She died. And I was glad I did not partake in the rites. My mother had wanted me to but the old woman refused.
“She is yet to bleed her womanhood,” she said.
My mother was disappointed but my father consoled me saying:
“When one wakes up is his morning.”
She began to plan it. She bought cowries to grace my hair and thick white abada to wrap my body and to show off the blood stains when my maidenhead is chopped off.
The spirits spoke even more loudly as I took the can and began to descend the steep hill to the stream, people chattering loudly and excitedly passed me. I thought about the full lips that I glimpsed when I stopped to free myself behind the Udala bushes. I thought about the old gnarled fingers of the old women who will take my lips away. I thought about the rusty blunt knives that seared through Obioma’s core and turned her into a duck. The Opi sang it’s epitaph in my ear, I looked up and saw it swoop low. I walked faster. But the red earth was not pleased with my haste. The mud was smooth and wet under my feet and my feet flew out from under me; sending the can and I flying in different directions. When I was a child and used to steal the beef from my mother’s soup pot, my father would catch me with my mouth full of meat.
“Nobody tells a deaf man that war has broken out, he sees it for himself.” He would tell me. Then he would tell my mother. She would beat me with a stick plucked from the mango tree in our backyard.
When the earth sent me flying, I sent Ezinne flying too. She stood up before me, undoing the aju cloth which she had folded into several places to cushion the pot she carried. Wordlessly, she began to smack me with it. I stood up and used my fingers to protect my face. Slowly a crowd gathered but no one tried to separate us, I used my nails to scratch her face, she yelled in pain, and sank her teeth into the soft flesh of my arm. Ezinne was an ogbanje. Everybody knew that, everybody feared her. They said she would partake in the festival this year, they said she had finally bled. All her younger sisters bled before her. Yelling in pain, I pushed her face away and began to run towards the stream; I knew I was a better swimmer. But she did not follow. She walked home with an empty can. Fetching mine quickly, I lifted the pot to my head ignoring the wriggly tadpoles that gathered in the can and the circle of sharp teeth marks throbbing on my right hand.
In my father’s compound, smoke rose from the kitchen, gathering at the helm of the palm trees like fog on a harmattan morning. Mother began with my hair, folding it into little ridges and threading the cowries through it, I could feel the excitement in her fingers as she tied swiftly. She asked me to lie on the mat with my legs apart; caressing my full lips, she began to rub a mixture into it.
“The potash is for the pain, and the bitter leaf will make it come off quickly. Today you will be a woman, ready and beautiful in the tribe.”
But I did not hear her. Arrows of guilty pleasure shot through me; quick stabs of what I had never felt before. My mother’s fingers felt hot, there was searing heat in my core as she rubbed in her mixture gently. Biting my lip, I willed her not to end it. But she did not hear. Who knows what goes through the mind of a dumb man?
We stood in line, the feverish drummers hugged the drums, hitting them rhythmically. It made me sway, I stopped wondering what Opi was trying to tell me in the morning, I forgot to listen to the spirits speaking through the talking drums. I only watched and danced. The drummers were in frenzy; their bodies shimmered in feverish heat as the dust, the spit, the sweat and the sway joined to become one with the sound. Suddenly, it all stopped. The old women walked into the clearing, their bags full of knives held under their arms, someone held an old can full of fresh bitter leaf; foaming and shredded and I began to tingle; again. We began to walk to the clearing shielded from prying eyes with palm fronds. The first three girls went in. There was silence. Then a piercing sound shattered the silence, the girls began to wail in unison. Someone signaled the drummers and they began to beat the drums in tune with their pain. It sounded like a badly arranged music event, like the one I watched when I visited my uncle in Aba; only worse. Some of the girls began to sob softly. The first girl emerged, walking slowly, a child learning to toddle. Her abada was spattered with blood; those attendants led her to the edge of the clearing where cries arose from the crowd in the square upon seeing her. I stared at her, trying to see what she felt in her eyes, to prepare myself to feel the same.
Then it happened. Someone pushed me and squatted. She sobbed quietly and I laid an encouraging hand on her shoulder, my hand shook from the convulsive movement of her shoulder. I squatted too and held her hand. Suddenly she snatched it away. I stared at her in surprise. Ezinne; Ogbanje, Abiku, child of reincarnation.
“My sister died last season, I know I will die too.” She sobbed.
“You are not Obioma, the skies are not ready for you,” I whispered.
“Do you want to do?” She asked
I did not want to. If they would rub my maidenhead with bitter leaf and potash and then leave it alone, then that would be much better, I wanted to say. What did I know? The spirits spoke last night, what did they say? My mother went through this, so did her mother and her mother’s mother. Was I any different? I did not like the pain. But I only shook my head. Untying a knot she made in her abada, she showed me some money. She would give them she said, the policeman that stays in the Igwe’s compound had given her. They would leave her if she gave it to them.
“Let’s go in together,” I pleaded.
The hut was hot and smoky. The fire was dying and the smoke got in my eyes but I refused to kneel down and feed it wind. I watched Ezinne as she lay down and whispered to the old woman with the missing fingers. I wondered if someone had bitten them off. Her mouth worked constantly. When Ezinne showed her the knot, she held her thumb and forefinger together, made a circular motion round her head and snapped her fingers in Ezinne’s direction. My heart sank. But when the knot in Ezinne’s abada was worked free and she took the bundle out. The old woman called the others, spoke to them for a while and took the money.
“When the gods want to help you, you must make their job easy,” she told us.
So we began to wail. I screamed with every meal in me. They took a bowl full of blood in the corner and began to sprinkle our abada. I closed my eyes in horror and thought only of the pleasure in my full lips.