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May 20, 2024

The Grandmother Staff

By Alexandra Queen

The crows were gone. The mood of the entire village had improved. Everyone was quite self-satisfied and congratulatory of how well the Mother rituals had gone to have appeased the spirits so thoroughly. Obviously, the villagers could throw a most excellent party.

For his part, Olo-Ile was not resting quite so easy. The eldest wood carver was almost done with the funerary post for his grandmother's spirit, but Olo-Ile's dreams were still haunted by crows. There was more to this then there seemed.

"Do not worry," Chief Nsato's smooth skin reflected the flames back as if he were made of fire himself as the elders of the village gathered this night. "It is not unusual for a spirit to tire of its resting place and wish to go someplace different. Place the new post by the river where she might watch the comings and goings of the animals."

"The blasted tree out on the plain, where lightning struck and shattered it is a place of great power," mother Umbowe suggested. "A door was opened between the world of the spirits and the world of the living there. It would be an excellent place for your grandmother's funerary post."

"Then we should put it in the market place," Ifnena said firmly. Like Olo-Ile, she was young compared to the rest of the Elders, but the likes of her weaving had not been seen in the memories of anyone still living in the village, and her successes in the market place had only increased her status. She was as powerful a person as the chief, in her own way. Still, her suggestion was not well received and she had to raise her voice to speak over the objections that greeted her now. "I know it is not customary to bring a spirit to a place for the living, but isn't the market place also a place where the spirit world meets our own? Is that not why we hold our rituals there? Mother Oju-Inu was not an ordinary woman - why would her spirit be satisfied with an ordinary resting place? Mark my words, you put that funerary post by some watering hole or tree and we'll be sifting crow droppings out of our manioc flour every time we take a step again."

"Well, it will be up to Olo-Ile to figure out where his grandmother wants her funerary post, won't it? If anyone can tell her mind, it's him," Chief Nsato declared, and that ended the matter. At least as far as the elders were concerned. For days after, however, and in fact throughout the long months ahead, Ifnena's words would repeat themselves in Olo-Ile's head. No ordinary woman indeed.

Grandmother's Funerary Post?

Despite this warning, he was still shocked when the wood carver came to deliver the funerary post to him several days later. "What is this? You have made it wrong!" the words slipped out of Olo-Ile's mouth before he could catch them.

The wood carver was understandably offended. He had been making sacred art for the village since Olo-Ile's mother was a child. Now he drew himself up tall and thrust the post at Olo-Ile with a look of contempt. "Tell the ancestors they are wrong yourself, then," the wood carver huffed. "They are the ones who told me how to make it."

"What do you mean they told you how to make it?" Olo-Ile was only making matters worse the more he spoke, but his mouth seemed to be tending to its own affairs while his eyes went over the post again and again. It was so slender! Why, except for the head at the top, one mightn't even realize it to be a funerary post. It looked more like a walking stick.

"I mean that they told me in a dream! How else do the ancestors speak to the living?" The wood carver was quite upset. "No wonder they didn't bother telling you. You'd have probably told them they didn't know how to be dead properly. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go take a dump. And I don't need your advice on that, either!"

Olo-Ile barely saw him go, so absorbed was he in the strange looking funerary post. No ordinary woman. No ordinary funerary post. What kind of resting place would satisfy his grandmother?

"Ku notubwe kwas? Where is the graveyard, the graveyard?" a voice called out from behind him, causing Olo-Ile to turn with a start. His flesh crawled to see a hornbill bird on the roof of his hut. It hopped about and made its cry again, "Ku notubwe kwas?" before flapping away. Shaken, Olo-Ile entered his hut and rested the post against the wall, then went and crouched in front of a little wooden figure that held a place of honor near Olo-Ile's shaman supplies.

Olo-Ile and the hunter

"If you weren't such a sorry excuse for a hunter, I'd ask you to help me figure out what this might mean&" Olo-Ile picked up the figure. From under a hide bristling with little bits of metal, sticking out stiff like the hackles of a hyena, the hunter stared back at him. "&but you wouldn't understand the growl of a jaguar until after you picked through its droppings to find your own remains. It's up to you and me to figure out what Grandmother wants, which means it may as well be just up to me." Olo-Ile opened a small door in the belly of the hunter and very carefully took one of his grandmother's teeth from their special box and placed it in the hollow of the hunter figure's belly. Then he picked up a thin sliver of metal, a precious commodity brought by traders, and began to hammer it into the carving's torso in a free spot. "If only I had had the skill to make a better hunter. One that wasn't as dumb as a dried dropping. Couldn't possibly have made an uglier hunter. I guess I'll find out what Grandmother wants on my own, because you won't be of any help." This was the way one spoke to hunters. They did their best work when they were angry. This was not, Olo-Ile reminded himself, the way one spoke to wood carvers. As he struck the final blow to set the nail, he heard the far off call of the hornbill and felt a chill again.

That afternoon, as the sun was sinking fat and low against the horizon, Olo-Ile took a bundle of firewood, a sack with some medicine, his hunter and the funerary post and set out walking into the grassland. This was not a good time of day to walk through the tall grass. It was a time for things that saw better in the twilight than a man, for things that hunted through the grass like the carving he carried hunted through the spirit world. But times and places were death comes so close to life were the best places to see into the spirit world, and so Olo-Ile continued walking until all the land was dark and the night sounds of the insects whirred around him. Then he made his fire out of the wood and some of the medicines, and there in front of the hunter and the funerary post, he began to dance.

How long does the dance take? No shaman can answer that question. Olo-Ile danced until his arms burned and his legs burned and his lungs burned, until the flames of the fire coursed through his body and dazzled his eyes. He danced until the world of the living grew dim and the spirit world grew bright. He danced until there in front of the fire with him, he saw the powerful limbs and war mask of his hunter's spirit self. But this time, there was no swelling of the chest or strutting chest - instead the hunter sat meekly on a log beside a tiny, withered old woman with sparkling eyes

Grandmother and the Hunter

"Grandmother!" Olo-Ile exclaimed in surprise and stopped dancing.

"You should have packed more sensibly," the frail woman scolded him. "You have no more sense than this pitiful excuse for a hunter we made together." Shaking her head at the masked hunter spirit, she sighed. "Perhaps I should have given you to the little girls of the village as a doll to play with. Now hurry up, both of you!" Olo-Ile had just time to see the mask of the hunter turn toward him as if in a silent plea for support before the vision ended and he found himself standing alone, sweating and shaking before the embers of the fire. The hunter carving and the funerary post lay mute and red in the glow of the coals.

A rustling sound in the grass broke the moment. Olo-Ile lifted his head warily to see what might be approaching. "Ku notubwe kwas? Where is the graveyard, the graveyard?" A rustling of wings, and a hornbill flew out of the grass and swooped through the air off into the darkness. Olo-Ile looked back over his shoulder toward where the village slumbered peacefully. Ahead, in the blackness, the hornbill gave an angry squawk, then made its plaintive cry once more. "Where is the graveyard?"

Apprehension set into his heart, heavy as a dead carcass, as Olo-Ile gathered up his bag of medicine and the hunter. Ahead unseen, the hornbill rustled impatiently as Olo-Ile took up the funerary post as well. Why did it have to look so much like a walking stick? The hornbill flew on ahead as Olo-Ile followed it out into the moonless grasslands, the words of Ifnena ringing in his ears. No ordinary woman, no ordinary resting place indeed.

To be continued.
Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-04-22
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