The rains had just finished for the year, and the waterholes had not yet dried up. It was a time of prosperity on the grasslands. This was fortunate, because for many days, Olo-Ile found himself wandering in the general direction of the rising sun, always following the hornbill and its elusive cry, "Ku notubwe kwas? Where are the graves, the graves?" He traveled without suffering from serious want, gradually leaving behind the familiar hunting grounds and landmarks and journeying deeper into the grasslands.
After some days he had passed beyond where the hunters roamed and into lands that people had not traveled to since the famine in his grandfather's time, when drought had dried the river and driven the men far in search of game. Walls of fire had swept across the grasslands then, and although everyone knew such fires could happen in dry times, the old men still liked to sit under the stars and embellish tales of how they braved lands of living flame to find food for the village. There were people this way, but never in any of the stories from times past had they had any interest in anything Olo-Ile's village could offer them.
No one left alive had ever seen these people across the grasslands, but Olo-Ile could remember one of the grandfathers telling the story of how he had met them during the famine. Things had been going little better for them, and they had sent him on his way without assistance. Little was known about these distant neighbors, but it was widely held that they were not very gracious hosts at best. Darker suspicions were whispered about them, but if those had any base in truth, the reasons had long since followed the last wisps of smoke from some long ago storyteller's fire, lost to everyone but the ancestors.
For his part, Olo-Ile harbored no worries. In his role in the village, he heard the fears and suspicions of many people as they came to him to seek his help. Time and time again he sent his hunter into the spirit world to find the truth of such matters. His village traded with people across the river, down the river, and sometimes up the river, and it was easy to start to fear the man you did not hunt with every day, or whose customs and stories were slightly different. Rarely, very rarely, did his hunter come back with evidence of malicious or evil intent, and no more so in people from other tribes than in people of his own.
So it was that when a darker spot on the horizon gradually resolved itself into a house, Olo-Ile felt little apprehension, but instead a sense of relief that he might find some people with whom he could possibly trade some service for travel or hunting supplies. A water skin would be a nice improvement over the little gourds he had collected along the way. Perhaps some dried meat. A spear with a decent tip and a well made shaft to replace the hastily crafted one he had devised in the past days. Maybe someone would ask his wives to prepare Olo-Ile a fine meal in exchange for news from the west. Surely they could afford to treat a traveler with some hospitality, for it was a fine, big house on the horizon, larger than any in Olo-Ile's village.
"Ku notubwe kwas?" The hornbill swooped past him, drawing a faint glare from Olo-Ile. He had, for a moment, forgotten about his task of finding a suitable new resting place for his grandmother's spirit. It wasn't at all that he resented taking care of the ancestors - dealing with the spirits was his calling in life. It was a source of pride and pleasure to deal with the powers and wisdoms of the old ones. No, it was more his grandmother's particular way of doing things. One never, ever knew what one was getting into when one agreed to help Grandmother do something. It was always more than one bargained for.
"Where are the graves?" cried the bird once more and then disappeared into the tall grass. Refusing to take the effort to search for the bird, Olo-Ile looked stonily past where it had vanished and toward the house. "Where are the graves, indeed," he murmured darkly to himself and then, as his gaze sharpened, Olo-Ile felt a pang of the foreboding he always seemed to feel when his grandmother suggested something. Where were the graves? But more importantly, where were the kraals for the livestock? The gardens? Such a fine big house, but there was nothing around it to indicate anyone lived there.
His steps lost their eagerness once more as he peered ahead. He was close enough now to see that there were some figures standing on the porch. Perhaps they were watching him approach. Their stillness did nothing to ease his feeling of apprehension. Still, to turn away now would be both rude and foolish. As a stranger on their lands, it would be a suspicious act indeed not to come introduce himself now that he had been seen. But something about this was not right...
With a jolt, Olo-Ile suddenly stopped, fingers tightening around his grandmother's funerary pole. The figures on the porch were more clearly visible now, but they were not human. He had seen figures like that before - elongated bodies and heads that towered tall and slender above the shoulders, almost as long as their torsos. The head was the home of the soul, the seat of power. He had seen beings like the ones standing watching him before, but only when he had traveled deep within the spirit world, to the places where the ancestors spoke with the gods. What kind of sacred place must this be if such beings walked here under the sun in the world of the living?
The hornbill reappeared to give a derisive squawk, but Olo-Ile had already gathered himself to move on. He deliberately ignored the bird as he passed it. Was he or was he not one who spoke to spirits? He would go and pay the proper respects, and if they were angry, then he would appease them. It is what he did.
The sun was low behind him, illuminating the figures on the porch as he drew near. They had stood motionless the entire time; mildly perplexing, but who was he to say how spirits should act in the world of the living? As he drew close enough to stop and make a gesture of respect, however, he realized that he had been mistaken. Shaking his head in wonder, he cautiously approached the house and circled the porch, looking. The spirit figures, like the house itself, were made of clay.
"Not a word!" Olo-Ile said sharply without looking. Somewhere behind him in the grass, the hornbill was hopping about, no doubt mocking him with glittering eyes. At the sound of his voice, however, movement stirred within the shadows of the house. Olo-Ile looked to the door to see what manner of being might emerge and found himself staring at an equally surprised looking young man, looking journey-worn much like himself.
"Good day," the young man greeted him, staring.
"And to you," Olo-Ile stared back.
"You are not of the Ayoto."
"No, I've traveled from the west."
"You speak Szwehi." Again, less a question than a statement.
Olo-Ile blinked once. He had assumed the young man spoke the language of his own village and the river tribes. "So it seems. You are not of the Ayoto either?" he hazarded a guess.
"No." The young man seemed to have decided that Olo-Ile was a brother traveler and ambled his way across the porch in a friendly manner. "I have come to study the mbari house, here. It was made for the Ayoto by a master from a village near mine. When I have learned more, I may be allowed to join him as an apprentice. Have you come to see the house also?"
"Perhaps." Olo-Ile could not be certain - an embarrassing thing to admit. "I was guided here to see something. Perhaps this is it. Certainly it is worth seeing," he added to be polite.
The youth beamed. "Have you been inside yet?" When Olo-Ile shook his head to indicate he had not, the boy insisted on taking him into the house to show him about. It was a magnificent house indeed, populated with large numbers of the clay figures. The spirits, it would seem, led lives similar to anyone else's, for among the more somber pieces, there were any number of them performing common tasks - mothers and infants, men wrestling, even a small gathering of what were obviously women spirits fixing each other's hair. Olo-Ile bit back his smile quickly, but the young man seemed delighted by his amusement and laughed out loud himself.
"People are the same everywhere," Olo-Ile smiled.
The young man laughed and agreed. "That they are. Now come see the mistress of the house."
"Who is she?" Olo-Ile looked up at a tall model of a female spirit, stiff and watchful above her playful house guests. They were not exactly like the spirits he had seen in his journeys after all. There was too much neck in the sculptures and not enough head. Still, there was no doubt what they were supposed to represent.
"You do not know?" The youth seemed surprised, but not offended. "She is the earth goddess. The house is built for her to earn her favor." Lowering his voice, the boy leaned in a bit. "I hear that the Ayoto are quite at a loss as to how to appease the spirits. Their crops have been blighted and their water foul for three years now, and the game has moved on. They came to my people because they heard that the earth goddess is well pleased by mbari houses, but the priest who selected the crew to build this house said that he did not feel this would make amends. Apparently they have offended the gods somehow."
Well. Olo-Ile had an idea of what service he might provide to get that water skin. "Are you staying in their village?"
"Yes, though they are not very hospitable."
"If you don't mind, I will accompany you back there when you go."To be continued...