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June 17, 2024

The Grandmother Staff

By Alexandra Queen

Olo-Ile was not the only one who remembered the night his grandmother died. She had possessed much influence with the spirits while she lived, and had been a powerful force in the village. She had taken her time preparing to die, and for several days the village had watched flashes of heat lightning in the distance and listened to the dissatisfied rumblings of thunder far off. The night she entered the spirit world, her first act there was to open the gates of the skies and send down the first rains of the season in torrents that brought game from far off but threatened to wash the huts of the village completely away. It had been often said of his grandmother that she did not know her own strength. It was more polite than calling her a show-off.

That had been many years ago, but Olo-Ile still carried with him the small box that contained her eyeteeth, and if he was such a good intercessor with the spirits, everyone knew it was because he had always been his grandmothers favorite. He was the one they consulted to see if the rituals had pleased the ancestors, or persuaded them to action, not because the ancestors only spoke to him, but because if anyone could tell his grandmothers mind, it was Olo-Ile, and disrespectful as it might be to say it, she was the ancestor whose opinions mattered most.

Tonight the market place was alive with fires and singing. The costumes were especially elaborate, the dancers especially energetic tonight. Tonight began the Mother rituals, meant to honor the inherent power of the women, living and ancestral. The mother spirit must be kept content, or a tribe could be torn apart. Two years ago, Olo-Ile and his hunter - the one his grandmother had helped him to make - had been called upon to solve a problem of a tribesmans goats being killed. It had turned out to be the mother spirit of his wife, turning into a night bird and exacting vengeance on his livestock. Olo-Ile had counseled the man to treat his wife with more respect, and not only did the slayings hunter and crowsstop, but their whole household began to prosper. The mother spirit was easy to appease, but not to be trifled with. That's why this season, the Mother rituals were being held with such elaborateness. Foremost on everyones mind were the crows.

"They bring a message from the ancestors," the elders said when the crows first came, and no one could disagree. Ancestors often manifested themselves as birds, or used them as messengers. That a flock of crows should have descended upon the village would surely indicate that the ancestors had something to say. But as the days went by and the crows began to spoil the crops and descend upon the produce in the marketplace, the people grew increasingly anxious. "We are tired of chasing crows away from our food! What are the ancestors trying to tell us?" the people demanded. But no message came to the elders, and Olo-Ile's hunter had remained silent. It was when the crows began chasing food away from the people, following the men as they hunted and making such a noise and nuisance that it spoiled every hunt, that it became evident to everyone that somehow the ancestors were displeased. Who knew which, or why, but the solution was clear - if Olo-Ile's grandmother were well satisfied, it would either solve the problem or persuade her to use her influence on their behalf. And so for days now, Olo-Ile had approved a constant stream of masks and costumes and jewelry and hair styles. Foods, songs and dance steps all were brought to his attention. What were his grandmothers favorite totems? Had she liked this spice or that? Did she find strong limbs or fine features more attractive? Some answers Olo-Ile knew, some he made up because it comforted the villagers. Certainly, they were doing what his grandmother liked most of all - creating a fuss.

ritual mask

Perhaps it was because of all the questions and preparations of the last few days that he found himself so tired tonight. His role as intercessor to the spirit world often had him awake all night in dance and ritual, but this night, the voices of the people, the dance of the flames, the movement of the masks were all blending together. He realized with some chagrin that he was asleep when he saw himself looking down upon the ceremony as if from the sky. He went back to his dozing body and was about to wake himself up when he saw that he was not alone, and that this was an important dream. Next to him had landed an enormous nightbird, as big as a cow. It perched on the log beside him, head cocked, bonfires reflecting in its black eyes.

"What must we do?" Olo-Ile asked the nightbird. The bird did not respond, but hopped sideways several times, its weight shifting the log beneath him. Then it sprang into the sky and Olo-Ile found himself flying wingtip to wingtip beside the great bird. They sailed beyond the fires and the crowd in the market place, beyond the huts and kraals, past the cultivated fields, he, the nightbird, and a hundred tiny crows, shining in the moon light, a flock of spirits in the night sky. They descended with much flapping and cawing into the grove of trees near which the dead were buried. The crows milled about in the trees, noisy and rude as crows were wont to be, but the nightbird hopped nimbly along the ground to come to rest upon his grandmother's grave.

funerary post and crow

Olo-Ile blinked his eyes and found himself awake. The night was quiet but for some rustling of sleepy birds in the trees, and dark but for the moonlight. He was in the cemetery by the grove, alone. With a faint frown, Olo-Ile rose quietly to his feet and looked about. There was no giant nightbird upon his grandmothers grave, or tracks of any giant bird feet. Certainly such a dream journey was not a common event, but if his grandmother were involved then it stood to reason that something so unusual might be expected. Still no wiser than before, he turned back toward the village and began the walk home, listening warily for the lions or jackals that sometimes crept close at night in hopes of easy prey. A small sound gave him pause, and Olo-Ile peered through the darkness cautiously. It came again - a light tapping. Quietly, he followed the sound. There, behind the roots of a baobab tree, was the source. A single crow, hopping back and forth as if pacing, on the top of a funerary post placed there three seasons ago for a child who had been taken by lions and whose body had never been recovered. As Olo-Ile watched, the crow stared directly at him for a moment, then gave several hops and wiped its beak against the post with a quiet clacking sound.

"Very well then, Grandmother," Olo-Ile said into the darkness. "I will make you a funerary post." As he spoke the words, the crow gave a loud, satisfied cry and launched itself into the air, flapping low and noisily over his head as it flew off into the night. It seemed he had guessed the right answer.

To be continued...
Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-04-15
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