“It was the first Christmas after the war. The war during which we lived away from home and moved houses three times, whenever ‘the enemy’ approached. It was the war that burnt our ‘upstairs- building’. We returned and met the first floor burnt. Daddy’s informants swore our country home was burnt before the enemy entered the village. It was not a war casualty. It was casualty to jealousy, home grown jealousy. Ours was one of the few ‘upstairs’ around the community and had to be cut to size – literally.
“After the war, Daddy was recalled to his job at the Park Lane Hospital and we went back to live at Enugu. Christmas brought the family back to the countryside. We travelled in Dad’s Peugeot 403 which survived the war by being suspended on sandcrete blocks and covered in palm fronds.
“When I woke up on Christmas morning, Christmas clothes were first on my mind. I had only worn them the time l tested for a fit at the tailor’s. After that, they had vanished along with those of my two siblings into Mummy’s portmanteau. I had been concerned about Mummy forgetting them back at Enugu and went to share my concerns with Nnamdi as the family packed for the trip. Nnamdi, my junior by two years, was the voice of Jacob whose duty it became to read The Riot Act. Mummy assured him she would not risk starting another Nigeria-Biafra war by daring to forget such ‘heirlooms’. As Nnamdi turned to leave, she called him back. “‘Tell your brother what I said, you hear?’
“From where I eavesdropped, I bolted before Nnamdi would come straight back at me like a boomerang.
* * *
“After I woke up that morning, Nnamdi who slept beside me was still fast asleep. Daylight had come and I felt cheated out of the day already. The day held high stakes on different fronts and only a sleepyhead like Nnamdi would doze away through half the action.
“There was the big matter of the masquerade group. Our cousin, Donatus, had said their Nwikpo was conjured from ant holes in the ground with the drumming and singing. I insisted it was a human inside the mask. We argued over this and I promised to be around to witness the feat. I had not been initiated into the masquerade cult. Dad didn’t mind my being initiated if only to wean me off the fear. But Mummy resisted it saying that we attended church. The Nwikpo was a dance masquerade for children my age and certainly joining to witness its alleged epiphany would break no cult rules. But Dona still said I could not witness it. It was because he knew it was a lie, I suspect. But he claimed the group was off limits to non-initiates like me, and women. I was still intent on proving his lie.
“Dona was only a year older than me. But he relished and exploited his initiation to the hilt. The source of the Nwikpo was not his only fabulous tale. He also claimed that the harbinger of the masquerades which marked the start of festivities was a tiger. It was called Agu Muo, the Tiger Masquerade, but I argued it couldn’t be a real life tiger. Dona, with the enthusiastic support of his friends, fellow country folk, said it was real tiger. It came out at nights for the four days of the customary week preceding the event. It made windy, velvety sounds that were real spooky. Women and un-initiated boys dared not go out into the night when the Agu Muo was ‘roaring’. Only the men and initiated boys did. One uncle visited Dad after our dinner and I could hear him hailing ‘Agu! Agu Muo!!’ as he passed. The sounds died. Why didn’t the tiger eat him, I argued. I was sure it was one more of Dona’s lies but why the adults seemed to be in tacit conspiracy with him got me confused.
“I went out to the rear courtyard where cooking was in full swing. It was not going on inside the kitchen. It was out in the open on large iron tripods. The pots were industrial size: this was Christmas cooking. Going around the house to where the Christmas goat was tethered, I found only the tether and the half eaten fodder. Beyond the ogilisi tree on which the tether was latched, I saw a clearing by the garden with the stake on which the goat’s skin was roasted. The smoldering stake was surrounded by banana and cocoyam leaves stained with blood. I rued missing the slaughter. Seeing the meat already on fire, the slaughter must have happened before the break of dawn. Nnamdi and I had wanted to witness the slaughter but since he hadn’t woken yet, I was going to get the better of him when he awoke by telling him I had witnessed it. Before I finished urinating on the farm, Mom called.
“‘Yes, Mummy!’ She stood at the centre of the courtyard with two other women one of whom was stoking the fire below the pot.
“'When did you wake up? And who did you greet?’
“'Good morning, Mummy.’
“'Morning.’ Pause. ‘You’ll need a keg of palm wine to greet them, eh?’ she nodded towards the other two.
“'Good morning, auntie. Good morning, ma.’ The second woman was elderly and I didn’t quite know whose mother she was. But the first was Mama Kenneth, Dona’s sidekick and our mutual playmate. I waited to know why Mom called.
“See that tray,’ she pointed, ‘carry it. Send one to Mama Obed, one to Mama Amaka and one to Mama Friday.’ There were three parcels of meat wrapped in banana leaves. The three were mothers of my cousins. Friday had lost his father during the war. Amaka was Dona’s senior sister that caused their mother to be identified through her. I jumped at the opportunity to connect with Dona and know when their Nwikpo would be appearing.
“As I hunkered down to lift the tray, Mom was at it again. ‘Have you washed your face...and hands? It’s like the village takes your manners away.’
“I dropped the tray by the rim and went to wash my hands and face. Then I came back and carried it out. As a parting shot she reminded me to be quick at it and be back soon to prepare for church.
“Dona’s house was my last call and I met the children decked for church. They were Roman Catholics. I delivered Mom’s parcel to Mama Dona and connected with my friend who waited outside for me. With the tray under my armpit, I admired his Christmas wear. He wore brand new sandals with socks like when we are going to school. But his socks were colored ones. The sandals were big with the unoccupied back trailing his heel like an empty double cabin pick-up. His trousers and shirt were made of abada, the local wax print. A plastic watch was strapped to his left wrist and his face was adorned with yellow-rimmed plastic glasses. We met under the mango tree in front of their house.
“'Your Christmas dress is fine,’ l said.
“'My Papa made it for me,’ he replied.
“'My watch moves; does yours move?’
“'Let me see – what time is it?’ I took his left wrist and peeped. The hour hand was at two. “’It’s a lie. Your watch doesn’t move. Now is about 7o’clock and it is showing after two.’
“He slid his hand away in protest and bending his arm to position his wrist, adjusted the knob and poked it back at me: ‘See! See!!’
“I looked again and the hour hand was at 7. ‘Okay. It’s only when you move it that it moves.’
“'That is how all watches work.’
“'No. Okay,’ I conceded getting impatient, ‘When is your masquerade coming out?’
“'When we come back from Mass.’
“'Will you come and call me?’
“'We will visit your house.’
“'No. I mean before the Nwikpo comes out.’
"'You know your church doesn’t end quick.’
“'But if we’ve come back, you’d call me, eh?’
“'I’ll keep some meat for you, you hear?’
“'Okay. Is it the goat meat?’
“'There is also chicken.’
“'It’s the head l like. Eating the paste inside makes one brainy.’
“'Who told you that?’
“'Obi-ora-a-a!’ it was Mummy yelling from across our homestead.
“'Yes, Mummy!’ I answered.
“'Why do you answer by calling your mother back when she calls you?’
“'How do you want me to answer?’
“'Obi – ora-a-a!!’ this came at a higher decibel.
“'Yes Mummy! I’m coming!!’ I answered and beat it.
* * *
"Church was at the St. Peter’s Anglican Church. The church building’s stone masonry survived the war but its appurtenance, the school hall, was not so lucky. It was in the latter that the children’s church was held. Its roof was strafed by an enemy air raid but schooling had been going on inside since the war ended. Fundraising for a new roof was on the bill in the adult service with returnees like Dad as major targets. Nnamdi and l held Ada, our sister, on both sides as we disembarked the car and Mummy led us towards the children’s church. All the way behind Mummy, l was on a high. Daddy had sped past one Citroen on our way and as I turned on the backseat, I saw its pouted visage from the back windscreen. Citroens were the chic belles on the highways and their aerodynamic styling gave them a snobbish air. When Daddy zoomed past one on our way, it was a personal triumph. We didn’t meet any other Opi-achara. The way Daddy was speeding, who knows whether he could have overtaken one if we met it. The Peugeot 404 station wagon was the cheetah of the auto kingdom. It was reputed to kill and lick the blood of its victims in any road accident. When fully loaded, its booth sank while its front jerked up like a warhorse on the charge.
"It was a colorful assemblage inside children’s church. Every child was turned out in their Christmas best. My brother’s shoes and mine came from Bata and their soles felt the earth for the first time that morning. Both of us had crumpled paper stuck inside our shoes so that the shoes can grow with us, according to Mummy. That was also her argument with our fitted trousers. The tailor had to fold mine inwards the length of a ball point pen. When l finally outgrow mine, it will pass down to Nnamdi. But who would be inheriting them from Nnamdi, l had asked Mummy at Enugu. She shouted at me to stop asking ‘useless questions’.
"During the service, we sang lots of nativity songs in lgbo. I got to know the lgbo name of ‘gold’ when we sang of the Magi’s gift to the baby Jesus: “.... ola-edo, na frankincense na maa ...” l made a mental note to ask Daddy the lgbo names of frankincense and myrrh. There were some of us who were city returnee children. You could tell that from their clothes. They were the ones who wore shoes and the girls wore white stockings and had colorful ribbons in their hair. But it was the ones from Gabon who spoke French that were the cynosure of all eyes at the church. They had been orphaned by the war and flown to the central African country under the care of Caritas. After the war, they returned and traced their village where they re-united with their extended family. The biggest one who looked older than me spoke a smattering of lgbo. The two juniors spoke only French. We gawked them as one would Yuri Gagarin. Before the service ended, they shared biscuits with the shape of alphabets, toffee sweets and balloons. Then the conductor sang, ‘We wish you a merry Christmas...’, to close the service. Only few voices joined him. We had sung that at our school’s end-of-year concert so Nnamdi and l joined him to '... and a happy new year!’
"Outside, the adult church was still in session. I checked the car park to confirm that Daddy and Mummy were still around. There were some Volkswagen Beetles there and two Peugeot 403s. One of the 403s had a carrier. Our roof was bare. I also saw two 404s, one Austin and one Morris Minor. One of the 404s had a Lagos number, ‘LK’. The other was Enugu like us, ‘ECE’. I tried to match the cars with the returnees as the other children milled round the cars feeling their chassis and checking out their speedometers. Our 403 had a maximum of 100mph on the metre. But the 404 bettered it. Its speedometer was in kilometres and peaked at 160. Soon l didn’t need to guess whom the ‘LK’ 404 belonged to. One of the boys from Lagos came around to swat away the locals from the car as you would flies from open mango. We spread around the vast churchyard playing and waiting for the end of adult church. I couldn’t help wondering whether we would be home early enough to witness Nwikpo’s epiphany.
"When the adult church finally dismissed, color poured outdoors. Our parents were exchanging greetings with other members of the congregation. While Mummy and Daddy kept up with “Merry Christmas”, the locals were wont to wish them “Happy Krisimasi”. Even those of them who didn’t ‘break the slate or chalk’ somehow managed to cobble the words together. It would not be the first time genteel English language got mixed up in unlettered native tongues. During the war and immediately thereafter, it had been the misfortune of words like ‘saboteur’, ‘camouflage’, ‘air raid’, ‘relief’, ‘conscription’ and ‘refugee’ to suffer the same fate. Old men and women with hiatuses in their dentitions struggled to exercise their cognitive faculties with those words. Before long, words like ‘refugee’ found apt lgbo transliterations as ‘lefulu ji’ – those who sold off their yams at give away prices. ‘Saboteur’ became ‘sabo’ and was found among petty thieves who raided farmlands leaving corn stalks standing but without their ears; saboteurs of the nascent Green Revolution. They also had a perfect onomatopoeia for the sound of shelling from enemy guns. ‘Kwapu – kwapu, unu dum!’ ‘Pack out – pack out, all of you!’
* * *
"Back home from Christmas service, l made a dash for Dona’s homestead. His big sister whom l met preening before the mirror in their parlour told me dismissively that he had gone out on festive sightseeing.
"'Is their Nwikpo out?’ l asked.
"She did not respond or didn’t hear me. I left disappointed and incredulous as to how silly one can get preening and neglecting the weightier matters of the day. Back in the house, it was Mom who noticed l had been away. ‘So you won’t allow the blessings of the service enter the house with you before satisfying your itchy feet,’ she complained.
"Dad intervened asking whether she didn’t know it was a festive day.
"‘... and that entitles a boy to grow rascally,’ fired Mom never one to be left without the last word.
"I slipped away to the children’s room glad to escape a twist of the ear lobe. All around us, the festive air was palpable. On our way from church, we had run into three masquerades and one dance troupe. Those were not children’s masquerades. They didn’t dance or wear comely masks. They wielded canes and their followers were grown ups with hands full of canes. They stood in the way of any car and hailed the driver until he parted with some money. Dad parted with a Shilling for each of them. The dance troupe got Sisi. Their canes were the height of adults. They had thick bases which tapered to the ends with some splitting into two or three forked tongues. They came from premium species in the bushes and were plucked in advance of each festive period. Then they were dressed and seasoned in the sun or on the kitchen’s uko. Heat and smoke from the hearth ascending up the rafters of the kitchen roof seasoned the cane and made them lithe and malleable. When you slash them through the air and get a sharp, sibilant sound like that of the mosquito, you know they are ready for the kill. I had seen uncle Charles caress his canes and wag them in the air watching the supple ends nod rhythmically when he tried to select which will be the skipper in his quiver. He was the last born of Daddy’s siblings and took me under his wings so long as l didn’t join Daddy in calling his lgbo name, Nwankwo.
"I had removed my shirt and shoes in readiness to eat. Nnamdi wouldn’t remove his for anything in the world and Ada followed his example. Soon Mom entered with a tray load of our rice and stew in two big bowls. She left the tray on the floor and tried to coax Ada to change her dress. When she began to cry in protest, Mom had a wrapper brought as a pinafore to cover her. Nnamdi was still acting up but Mom warned that if he stained his shirt, there would be no outing for him. He immediately complied.
"Mummy dished the rice into our separate plates. Then she scooped the red stew atop each mound of rice like an active volcano. A piece of chicken came in as the icing on the cake. I had started eating when the unmistakable sound of ogene metal gong floated into our room with singing:
Nw’ikolobia anyi abata na obi gi-o-o
K’ibia k’inulu egwu nmo-o-o
"It was standard processional song for the Nwikpo clan. I could bet it was Dona’s group. Leaving my half-eaten meal on the floor, I ran out to check. They had made their way into our forecourt and neighbors were pouring into our compound on the trail of their ogene sound. I saw the Nwikpo, an inscrutable, wan and glum expression frozen on its mask. Tufts of raffia hung from its neck and waist flailing as it danced. Then I looked among its followers. There was Dona in his Christmas wear beating the ekwe. That was the moment: Dona beating the Nwikpo’s wooden gong! Instantly, he ceased to be Dona of the ringworm-mapped skull. He became Bigtime Dona; bigger than uncle Charles; than Mr Udemezue, my class teacher; than Mummy. With Daddy, I wasn’t so sure. He was Dona of the gods. I signalled him but he was in his element and didn’t make eye contact.
"The soloist had raised a song and the musicians joined in. The Nwikpo cavorted to the song raising dust with its frenetic dance steps. Its feet were shod in stockings but its left toe peeped from a hole in the stockings. I took a good look at the peeping toe whenever its owner stood still. It was human toe. I had got one more evidence against Dona. After they had performed about four ditties, there was an interlude. Daddy sent One Shilling to give them from inside the house where he entertained guests. On its way, Eliza, one of the adolescent girls among the spectators intercepted it. Holding it out to the masquerade, she invited it to come and receive the coin. The crowd was horrified.“Eliza, a girl shouldn’t approach a masquerade.” "...She wants to commit sacrilege.” “ …that male girl.” "...She doesn’t fear.” The comments and rebukes flew left and right. While elderly women relished the stand-off, Eliza was a tomboy and resented the glorified esotericism of the smaller masquerades. The Nwikpo watched in embarrassment as its gift Shilling was held hostage by a girl. Its followers plucked canes but Eliza knew them individually and dared anyone to beat her. The female spectators cheered and roared. It was one big boy among the spectators that saved the day by grabbing Eliza and wrenching the coin from her grips. The treasurer of the group stepped forward and received it.
"'Diije – dalu!’ Greeted the Nwikpo in their guttural falsetto. The crowd roared.
"Mummy came and called Dona. When he returned, it was with a bowl of rice and stew. The group descended on the meal on the terrace while their masquerade played cat and pigeons with the bevy of adolescent girls who were teasing it. In mirth and irritation, its glum, inscrutable expression remained the same. I did not dare approach the pantheon of the Nwikpo’s musicians while they ate.
"I rushed back to my own unfinished meal. Ada and Nnamdi were done and out of the room. I met my plate of food where I left it on the floor but the appetite was gone. I made for my shirt on the bed and put it on. Sitting on the bed, I wore my socks and shoes. Then I stood and tucked in the shirt and buttoned its sleeves. I was ready to go when l noticed my un-eaten chicken wing. I grabbed it and broke it off at the joint. I ate the shorter tip and clutching the forearm, ran out back at the arena where the group was enacting its valedictory act. This time, Dona was able to make eye contact and I beckoned on him. He gave his ekwe to another member and came to see me. Both of us left the crowd to the side of the building.
"'You didn’t invite me again,’ l blurted out as soon as we were beyond the interference from the singing.
"'But you hadn’t come back when we left,’ he responded.
"'Okay, l brought meat for you,’ l told him opening my right palm. He took the truncated wing.
"'Thank you. Your Papa gave us One Shilling.’
"'Yes. I am coming with you people. Your friends won’t drive me away, eh?’
"'I’ll talk to them. Just follow us at a distance.’
"It was more than l could ask for to witness Nwikpo’s denouement at the end of the day. From the nearby garden, he caught hold of an Oko-ome twig. Taking his hand to the base, he zapped the twig upwards coming out with a palm full of leaves. He cleaned both hands on the leaves and threw them away as he retreated. I went to the backyard and washed my hands. Re-entering the arena, l met the group on their way out trailed by the spectators. I got myself embedded in the trail and stiffened my shoulders like Lot escaping Sodom and Gomorrah. As the trail flowed out of our gate, l heard my name. It was Mummy. I quickened my pace. She called again. One big girl near me looked back, was assured that l was the subject of the call and caught me on the shoulder. ‘Your mother is calling you’. I turned. She was standing on the terrace. I walked back to her seething.
"'Where are you going?’ she barked as l approached. I didn’t respond.
"'Where are you going?’ she repeated as l got nearer. That attracted Daddy’s attention from inside the parlour.
"'Leave him alone,’ l heard Daddy counter from inside.
"'Leave him alone’ to follow village boys and roam about like sheep without shepherd?’ she retorted. This time the guests in our home added their voices to Daddy’s side. Delight welled up in me. The fruit had been plucked but yet hangs on some branch on its way down.
"'Come here,’ she commanded.
"'I went up the terrace to her. She asked me to hold both ears. I did. ‘If I hear you ate food in any house, you’re finished, do you hear me?’ she spoke in a low, almost hushed, tone.
"'Do you hear me?’
"'And do not ask anybody to do Christmas for you. Do you hear me?’
"She turned and retreated. The hung fruit had fallen. I turned and ran.
* * *
"At dusk, the group drew the curtains on their performances. They sat under an udala tree to count the day’s takings – One Pound, Six Shillings and Two Pence. They decided to go to The Place to escort the Nwikpo home. One boy, the lead singer, eyed me and asked whether I should follow them to The Place. Dona came to my rescue saying l would wait outside since both of us were going home together. The group rose and walked groggily back to our village and to a grove shaded by creeping plants and brush. I waited by the footpath. I heard them muttering inside as they shared their earnings. Soon they sauntered out without the Nwikpo. Dona met me and handed me some coins courtesy of the group. They decided l deserved something consolatory for sticking by them and singing along. I counted the coins in the faintness of dusk – one Sisi, two Toro and two pennies – One Shilling, Two Pence! I thanked them as the boys dispersed to their homes. Dona and l made our way through the bush path home in silence. It was when we got out to the road and began to see the lights of Alladin and Tilley lamps in houses that l spoke.
"'Dona, eight of you went in to escort the Nwikpo home but nine came out. Who is that other boy?’
"'He pretended he didn’t hear me.
"'Did you hear me?’ l persisted.
"'Stop asking me,’ he started. ‘Whenever we go to bring out the Nwikpo, we pawn him to the spirit world before they could release Nwikpo. Now that we returned Nwikpo, they released him.’
“I gazed up and over us, the moon was coming out in a crescent.
* * *
"This is the end of my story," l told my listening party when l finished.
It was lfeyinwa, my daughter, who spoke first: "Was grandpa’s Peugeot like our 406, Daddy?"
Before l could tell her that her grandpa’s car was not air conditioned, had no stereo and FM radio and had the gear lever on the steering, my wife took over. "Yes, they’re all the same. It’s the French’s game of numbers: 204, 403, 404, 504..."
"604, 704, 804, 904, 10-0-4,"continued Junior building a refrain as if he was in his nursery class.
Around us at the garden park, the lights were coming on. It was time to go. We packed and folded our mats.
"Are we going home?" asked Junior.
"Yes," we all chorused.
He paused before he spoke again. "Daddy, the moonlight then, was it like the moon now?"
"Yes. The Lord says that the throne of David shall be established forever – like the moon." As the party rose, over us, the coy maiden was showing its sickle-like face.
Mike Ekunno is a writer who has also worked as senior speechwriter to Nigeria’s last Information and Communications Minister. His short stories, essays and poems have been published in Nigeria Monthly, BRICKrhetoric, Cigale Literary Magazine, The Muse, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, Miracle e-zine, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, Bullet Pen and Storymoja, the last two publications coming as winning entries to continent-wide contests. The African Roar Anthology is billed to publish his fiction later this year. He has been a columnist with The Guardian on Sunday and contributes regularly to major Nigerian dailies and network radio commentary. He currently works in film classification and freelances as a book editor and proof reader.