Like a Mask Dancing
The man with the peeled skin told me to stand in one place and stay still as he bent behind his instrument and adjusted his hat to shield his reddening face from the sun. He issued the instruction with the practiced stringency of a hunter who knows his dog will always obey. There was increasing chatter behind the cloth, impatient men eager to do anything but stand and pose. One of them talked about the yams he would have harvested if he was on the farm, instead of humoring a man who wouldn’t stop asking questions. That started a chorus of the strange things they had been asked by the peeled-skin man, the worst of which was when he wanted to know if we had been eating our neighbors because he found a thigh bone while walking into the village.
Last harvest, as young boys prepared for their initiations at the river, diving and swimming and enjoying the last days of boyish abandon, an agu iyi grabbed one of them from underwater. The beast brought the boy’s body to the surface, and his legs kicked as he hung on to life. His father dived into the water as if he could wrestle his son from the jaws of death. It took the strength of five men to avoid a doubling of the tragedy. One of the boy’s legs was found downriver the next morning.
I have spent many moons trying to enact the pain in that man’s eyes when he saw a single limb where a whole son should have been. My wife understood the dance before she heard me tell her the story behind it. “Are you trying to make the children cry or are you the child crying?” she asked when she saw me putting steps together at twilight. Obidiya. She asks questions like that. Other people find her scary. She is the woman who talks like she is having conversations with your chi. But there is delight in knowing your soul needs no translator, that someone you desire can hear your body in all its dialects.
I was a boy when we first met. I was dancing with my peers at a new yam festival that is now surpassed in importance by its aftermath. She came to me after our display and asked if I could teach her to dance. I said I don’t know how women dance. She said that means she would have to show me how it is done. I went to her house in the evening with ngwo for her father, thinking that is what men do. She drank it all and told me she was the only one I needed to please. I still sought her father out in the light of the morning, but that night she taught me dances I will never get tired of reenacting.
Every dance is a tribute. Some are for grieving men wishing to remember their sons without detached limbs. For many moons after I met my Obidiya, my peers would chant her name while I danced. They said I moved differently, like a man whose name has finally been chanted in pleasure. Now the music begins, and she is the one I am thinking of as I turn and lift my feet. When we are done, my friend, father of the child lost to agu iyi, asks if I wasn’t afraid the peeled-skin man would take away my dance with his machine. My friend now sees loss in everything. He thinks beastly things can grab what belongs to you and return them as fragments. I tell him I am not worried. I have seen the eyes of that man, watched him capture faces, and listened to him ask questions. I know he doesn’t care about the dance.