“À dé o. Ọ̀dọ́ Ìjàyè, adé”
The akéwì’s voice sliced through the hot evening air. Immediately, the drummers sprang into action and what followed was the most melodious sound Banke had heard all year.
Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, beneath the dust and grime, a similar tune played with a younger Banke leading the procession. A tall and lean Banke. Lighter. Unburdened.
Both tunes merged into one as she surrendered to the ancestral sound of the àgèrè drum, her slender shoulders rising and falling in cadence with the beat. Her narrow waist swung every way, sending her bony arse left, right, up and down. Then she remembered and stopped dancing.
She watched the birds fly across the empty square into the fading sun behind the mountains and wished she was one of them, flying up and away. Where to? The question was still lingering on her mind when her feet found the rhythm again. This time, she allowed the drums to take hold of her, and by the time the procession had rounded the corner, she was at the centre of the village square, dancing like Ashita, the goddess of the drums, was propelling her. The dancers joined her, the drummers camped around them, and, together, they danced and made merry, fuelled by the spirit of their ancestors and several bottles of gin.
Then right on cue, all sound stopped, and a deep, guttural hum gripped the atmosphere. Out of nowhere, Agitipa, the tall one, concessor spirit of the youth, appeared in their midst in his signature white dress and white cap.
Banke shrank slowly into the crowd as Agitipa’s gaze burned through her. She could feel him hovering over her, watching. Then he was gone. Before she could make sense of it, he turned away in a haze of white and proceeded to perform his ancestral duties. The only reminder of their encounter was the peace that threatened to buckle her knees.
The drums started again, this time a slow dirge while Agitipa floated above them, pronouncing blessings from the other world, and warding off evil with his black whip while they muttered, “Àṣẹ.”
Slowly, the drums picked up pace and Agitipa found his way back to the center where Ẹdẹ̀, the short one, mischievous spirit of the youths, joined him. Together, they ran around in a circle, dancing themselves into a frenzy until Agitipa burst into flames, sending them both back into the otherworld, with nothing but the wonder in people’s eyes as evidence of their visit.
The singing and drumming continued while people drifted into makeshift bars at the other end of the square. The ancestors had just declared the youth carnival open, and it was time for reunion and celebration.
Friends embraced and exchanged greetings. Little children came out from under their mother’s wrappers where they had shivered in fear of the ancestors. The women brought out their wares of àkàrà, fried fish, dùndún and other edibles. Men gathered around gourds of palm wine, drinking and telling stories of the harvest, stories which eventually devolved into gossip about recent events in the village.
Everyone had somewhere to be, someone to gossip with. Everyone except Banke.
She hurried away from the village square blinking back the tears from her eyes. This is what she had missed the most about Ìjàyè, the way everyone fit in somewhere. And in moments like this, in the space between sundown and darkness when everything was soft and warm and girls her age rendezvoused with boys, it became even more obvious that she had to leave.
She froze her in her tracks. She’d recognize that voice even in her sleep. She turned around.
“So you have finally decided to come home. Why?”
“Nothing… I just decided to… come.”
“No, I mean why did you not come home since?”
A loud silence filled the space between them as Banke struggled to find the words. How do you explain the dreadful finality of your home rejecting you?
“It’s school,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself.
“They don’t allow you to leave school?”
“No, it’s just… no time.”
“I know, between studying medicine and other things…” Àdùní’s voice trailed off laden with the weight of assumptions, and unspoken questions.
Banke squeezed back the tears as the memories unleashed themselves. This was the Àdùní she had dreamt about. That quick-witted friend who drove her to the edge and enthralled her all at once.
“It’s not like that.”
“I’m sure it isn’t. We are at ìyá Dani’s shop. Are you coming?”
“Adéwálé is there.”
“And so?” Banke asked, a slight irritation creeping into her voice.
“I thought you would want to see him… never mind, it’s not my business.” And with that, she turned and started back for the village square.
“Wait! I’ll come. I’ve missed everyone.”
“Of course.” Àdùní muttered.
“It’s true; I’ve missed everybody, especially you.” She took Àdùní’s hand in hers as she said the last bit. “I missed you the most.” Àdùní let her hand stay in Banke’s until they got to the edge of the village square.
Surrounded by friends, drinking beer, eating pepper soup and reminiscing, Banke and Àdùní found themselves together yet apart. With so many eyes around them, they could only sneak looks at each other. And, occasionally, their eyes would meet across the table and both of them would look away hurriedly. One, buckling under the weight of the memories. The other, brimming with anger.
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Olakitan is a writer who works as a software developer/data analyst by day and writes at odd hours. His works have appeared in Prairie Schooner, Watershed Review, Memento, Kalahari review, Agbowó Art and others. Olakitan recently won The Lawrence Foundation Award for best story in Prairie Schooner in 2019.