Ogenyi watched the moon from where he sat on a low wooden stool inside his father’s compound. He felt the beating of his heart quicken with mounting excitement. He was excited because the appearance, in the night sky, of this glowing light from nature’s abundant kindness to humanity was enough indication that the long-awaited moon dance would soon commence. This would give him the opportunity to see Ene, his girlfriend whom he had not been able to see for about four days now.
The moon dance was a traditional rite performed by the youths of Agila to welcome and celebrate the appearance of every new moon. During this period, young boys and girls would gather at the village square to play and dance long into the moonlit nights. Some of the more daring ones amongst them used the occasion to be with their lovers or try to establish new relationships.
Like the other boys in Agila, Ogenyi was always thrilled by the moon dance. He loved to stand back in the crowd and watched as the agile Odabaru dancers, with impressive dance steps and graceful body movements, performed to the admiration of the cheering crowd.
On this particular night, he was barely managing to contain himself as his youthful frame battled the anxiety of waiting for Ene. She had sent word earlier in the afternoon through one of her younger sisters that they meet later tonight under the large Ukpo tree behind the recently renovated Community Secondary School.
Ogenyi could hardly wait for his evening meal before going to seek out Ene who had become something of an obsession for him. A knowing smile played on his young and handsome face as the thought of meeting Ene and taking her with him for the evening’s frolic under the guiding glow of the moon filled every available space in his mind…
“What in the name of the gods has suddenly gone wrong with your ears?” his mother’s voice boomed, interrupting his train of thoughts. Otsanya was a big plump woman with features that made her a true African beauty. She was light complexioned and her upper dentition was made distinct by a gap in the middle. With arms akimbo, she towered above her son. The shimmering edge of a large ladle peeked from within the grip of her right hand. The ladle dripped with evidence that she had just used it to stir some soup in the round, thatched kitchen located close to the big crop barn inside the compound.
Ogenyi was startled by his mother’s voice. He had not seen nor heard her approach. He wondered for how long she must have stood there. But at any rate, he heaved a deep sigh, thankful that it was his mother and not one of those nightly, malevolent apparitions in his late grandmother’s many tales.
“So you’re here and you refused to answer me when I called?” Otsanya queried angrily, “I even thought you’d sneaked back to your friend’s house.”
“I’m sorry, Mama. I swear I didn’t hear when you called.” Ogenyi replied.
“Well you better be,” said the woman, a threatening tone in her otherwise soft voice, “The next time you repeat such I will make sure I pluck off those large ears of yours to teach you a lesson.”
Ogenyi giggled at his mother’s words; he was certain she didn’t mean a word of those threats. It was common knowledge around the village that Otsanya was very fond of her son who, incidentally, was an only child. At sixteen years of age, Ogenyi had already grown into a handsome young adult, a transformation which came to the villagers as no surprise. He had clearly inherited those good features from his beautiful mother who hailed from a clan renowned for its very beautiful maidens.
“Now, come with me so you can take the old men’s food to them. I bet they must be complaining already.” she told him over her shoulders as she headed back for her kitchen.
He jumped to his feet and hurried after her, delighted to hear that the evening meal was ready at last. He could not afford to be late for the moon dance celebration, not on this particular night; not when it was a good chance for him to be with his Ene and let her know how much he’d missed her.
The meal for this evening was the family’s favorite: Pounded yam and Abasii soup, accompanied with generous chunks of dried bush meat and fresh Asu fish brought in by Ibo traders from the eastern part of Nigeria.
Ogenyi’s father, Uzuza was a big and muscular man with biceps as broad as those of the large and rare species of apes seen occasionally around the mouth of the Ewu cave. He was seated on the verandah with his aged father as they patiently waited for the evening meal. Not given to too many words, Uzuza was quicker at using his hands to carry out given tasks than he was at talking. “Action is what gives a real man a good head start over his peers.” he would tell anyone that cared to listen, in his slow and guttural voice. And Uzuza was truly an action man. In fact, it was still being discussed in the village that his farm produced some of the best crops during the last harvest season. The man was also a complete family man, lavishing sufficient attention on his wife and son in no small way.
The evening meal was brought and the happy family settled to it, eating with evident relish.
“You are indeed a great cook.” their grandfather murmured to Otsanya between mouthfuls, chewing ever so carefully, eternally afraid of losing the last few teeth which were now a precarious affairs on his already weak gums.
Otsanya, smiling proudly, acknowledged the flattering remarks from her father-in-law with an indulgent nod of the head. The truth was that she knew how to elicit those praises from the men when it got down to preparing delicious meals. Uzuza once teased her over a steaming bowl of tasty porridge that not even his late mother could have matched her in a cooking contest.
The meal was soon over with and Ogenyi hurriedly returned the empty bowls to his mother’s kitchen. The older men settled back into their reclining cane chairs to continue what remained of the evening’s conversation.
Otsanya excused herself and went to sit on the stool beside her kitchen and to the breaking of the melon seeds meant for sale the following day at the Ukwor market.
Ogenyi dashed out of the compound and stole into the moonlit night outside, his heart thumping in anticipation of what fun lay in wait that night.
“Don’t do anything silly out there, son.” his grandfather shouted after him from where he sat stretched out like an empty bag in his chair.
But Ogenyi had already sped away like a whirlwind, headed in the direction of the Community Secondary School, hopeful that either Ene was on her way or already waiting for him as planned.
Ene got to the Ukpo tree a few minutes earlier than Ogenyi and had to therefore wait patiently for his arrival. She was not afraid of the night because the shining moon had made everywhere so bright that she could even see as far as the old fence of the Community School. Moreover, in one of the compounds across the path which went round the school fence she could hear the occupants chatting and it gave her a sense of security.
Her hair was newly plaited, and the soft light from the glowing moon accentuated her striking profile. Like a ripe fruit awaiting harvest, she held an instant attraction for anybody that cared to look in her direction.
At fourteen years and a few months of age, she was already a young female in full bloom, embodying the charm and sensuality of a maiden.
Ene had become friends with Ogenyi at the Okpa’Aluko, the main stream where the village youths usually went to fetch water when the dry season was in its most severe stage. On that fateful day, the young Ogenyi had fought off some bullies who had tried to molest Ene and her younger sisters at the stream for no reason other than she would not oblige to their advances. Ogenyi fought gallantly against the rampaging boys, sustaining mild scratches on his face and limbs.
Ene and her sisters were quite impressed with their strong and fearless defender, and were quick to show their appreciation after the last ruffian had fled, like his accomplices, in the direction of the village. She had thanked Ogenyi profusely.
Later that day, she had stumbled upon Ogenyi again at the evening market where she’d gone on an errand to buy some vegetable leaves for Aladi, her mother, for their evening meal. A friendship thus began as the two grew fond of each other in no time.
Before long, they had become a subject of village gossip with a suggestion that they fitted each other like roasted corn and coconut…
Now as Ene sat on the protruding root of the large Ukpo tree to await the arrival of her boyfriend, thoughts of all that had been going on in her house in the past few days flooded her mind, creating a very worried frown on her face. She wondered why her father’s behavior continued to make her family unhappy all the time. Why was he so different from other fathers? Or could he be truly under a curse as her mother had insinuated on the occasions when he had made her sad and angry? The poor girl just hoped something would happen to change the situation for good.
Ogenyi tapped her gently on the shoulder and Ene almost jumped up in fright. She was so engrossed in her thoughts that she had not seen him as he strolled up to where she was seated on the exposed root.
“You almost scared the very life out of me.” she laughed as she got to her feet and allowed herself to be swept into his outstretched arms.
“I thought I would never see you again, Ene.” Ogenyi whispered softly into her ears, pressing her tighter against his chest.
“I longed to see you all this while, Ogenyi. But my father forbade me from leaving the house.” Ene replied with a pitiful sigh.
“Why? I mean, why did he do that?” Ogenyi wanted to know.
“My father said he did not want to hear that I was seen with you again.”
“What have I done wrong, Ene? Why would your father say that? Please tell me.” The young man could not understand.
“You’ve done nothing wrong, Ogenyi,” Ene said reassuringly. She stared longingly into his eyes under the light the moon provided, “It is just that he has betrothed me to Pa Idoko and…”
Those words that Ene just spoke hit Ogenyi like the stings of a thousand wasps. His breathing seemed to be caught somewhere in his throat and for a moment he thought he was going to faint.
“Please, tell me you were only joking, Ene,” he pleaded unashamedly when he was able to get his voice back, “Please, tell me your father never said any such thing.” He squeezed her gently and returned her stared with a beseeching gaze.
But, of course, the girl was not joking. How could she possibly joke over an issue that was threatening to destroy the very essence of her happiness and, who knows, bring to a tragic end all her dreams? She had imagined her relationship with Ogenyi would ultimately free her from the clutches of a father whom she longed to go as far away from as she could.
“You should know that I won’t joke over an issue like this, Ogenyi.” she whispered to him, already on the verge of sobbing.
The young man could simply not believe what he was hearing. “But how could your father ever do such a thing to you, Ene? How could he even think of giving you out in marriage to a man as old as Pa Idoko?”
“I swear I will rather die than go anywhere near Pa Idoko’s house as his wife!” Ene swore vehemently and shivered in his arms.
“Is your mother in support of this plan too?” Ogenyi requested to know in a shaky voice.
“My mother will never support such an evil plan!”
Ogenyi was unprepared for this. He suddenly went weak in the knees and found himself dropping involuntarily to the grassy ground at the foot of the large tree. As far as he could remember, the last time he wept openly was during the burial of his late paternal grandmother, about two years ago; he had a strong emotional attachment to the old woman while she lived. And when, on returning from the bush where he’d gone to check his traps that fateful evening, his father called him aside and broke the news of the old woman’s sudden demise, Ogenyi had started to weep immediately. He had wept like he never did before despite the fact that his father had warned him to always have a grip on himself and act like a mature man.
And so it was that on this fateful night, when his peers were having the time of their lives at the village square, Ogenyi found tears beginning to roll down his face again; only that this time it was not tears for the departure of a beloved grandmother. It was tears for a love he had nurtured ever so conscientiously and hoped it would blossom beyond the fantasy that it now seemed; tears made painful by the acts of an unthinking father who would choose to give out his daughter to a depraved old man like Pa Idoko for whatever financial gains.
The boy broke down and wept.
Ene, also teary-eyed, pressed his head against the soft molds of her tender and budding breasts as she tried in her shaky voice to reassure him. Ogenyi only shook with the sob in his chest.
Suddenly, from the direction of the square, the throbbing sound of drums accompanied by wild cheers from excited youths pervaded the night air to announce the commencement of the long-awaited festival.
But these distraught lovebirds, caught in the light of the distant moon, were too engrossed in their present predicament to care about the revelry at the village square; they just wept into each other’s arms.