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The Girl and the Man

By Valentine Ukachukwu Umelo


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Earlier on in the evening, the girl had glimpsed him. He of the saxophone. He of the cleft lip; of the slight stutter. She had quickened her steps in another direction. But the man had seen her. She could feel the earth’s slight tremor from his every step transmit to her from behind. His voice reached her ears.
“Where are you off to now, my beautiful maiden?”
The girl could not bring herself to stop. Or answer. She walked on, resolutely. The man trotted after her, his limp more pronounced than ever. The man wished he were younger. Perhaps if he were, just perhaps…
“You will be at the grand dance tonight, won’t you, my maiden?” the man said.
The girl slowed down.
“Yes,” she said, her voice trembling.
“Surely you will dance for me, then?” the man, slowing down too, continued, panting and spraying her face with spittle. She did not answer, but turned her face away, preferring instead to stare at her feet. She didn’t like the way his thin, rough skin, like parchment, visible through his torn singlet flailed in and out, as if it would suddenly snag on the jutting rib bones and tear and the man would collapse. What would she do then?
The girl still didn’t understand why her heart always beat faster whenever she ran into this man. Maybe it was the fear. But how was it that this same fear dissolved like ice brought near a raging fire when he was playing his saxophone and she was dancing? In those instances, with the villagers yelling at the top of their voices at what she was doing with her feet and waist and chest, she even found herself drawn to him, like iron fillings to a magnet. It was ironic. It always seemed then as if her life depended on the sounds emanating from his rusting musical instrument. They were a pair in these circumstances, she and the man with the split upper lip.
The girl had long noted that the man did not apply himself to his saxophone when he played for the other girls. She could tell that the saxophone sounded differently when he played for her. And the man knew this too. Didn’t his eyes come alive and shine as bright as the stars? Didn’t he lose all semblance of composure, becoming carefree, like a babe in the presence of its mother? Didn’t he follow her every movement- her feet, her hands, her buttocks, all rising and falling in unison as if by magic; as if in a dream?
The girl’s confusion, which prevented her from replying to the man’s question, ‘Surely you will dance for me, then?’ had been clearly evident from her countenance. Her shoulders slumped and sweat beads broke out on her face. She was embarrassed, knowing that she had lingered too long. Afraid that the man, whom she knew missed nothing, would misinterpret everything, she made to shuffle on. But the man chose to play on her confusion.
“I know where you are off to …to the riverside, to await your grandmother’s return from her farm on the other side of the river,” he stuttered, spraying her a generous amount of spittle. “But stay awhile with me, my beautiful maiden. Come. I will milk you some milk from my cows. It will do you good after tonight’s dance.”
“No, thank you,” the girl said, a little too quickly.
“Perhaps next time then?”
This time a mischievous smile played on his dried, weather-beaten lips.
“I-I d-don’t know,” the girl said.
The man, now facing the girl took in her blouse; noted the small tear by the armpit; feasted his eyes on her bosom.
“Tomorrow?” the man said, his eyes glinting; his voice soft.
“I don’t know,” the girl said, her voice raised a little.
The girl moved away without raising her head. She was gone before the man had a chance to begin another round of small talk, or tried to make her follow him by promising something else. The man caressed his gray goatee. With clouded, old, wizened eyes he watched the fleeing girl’s back, ramrod straight. He was at a loss how to handle the young woman now. In his mind’s eye, he saw how she would entrance the crowd only hours ahead with her dazzling smiles and mystifying steps. He would devote the last ounce of what was left of his strength to make her shine. Already, in his mind’s ear, he could hear the crowd roaring as the girl did wonders with her youthful body, dancing in a manner that showed the gods had her in mind when they created dance. In his mind’s eye, he saw her sidestep this way like an antelope, and strut that way like a peacock, dancing as if she owned the copyright to dance. The man’s heartbeat quickened as he pictured again the girl’s breasts -young, round, supple, rising and falling in rhythm; the little nipples hard.
The man knew that in tonight’s contest to chose the representative of the three villages in the regional dance contest coming up soon, the girl would win. He would be there to play for her, to make her shine, to make her the greatest dancer ever. The contest was only a matter of weeks, but it seemed like light years away. He couldn’t wait. Raising his head, he was in time to see the girl, shoulders held high as she disappeared among a cluster of shrubs in the distance. He sighed, thinking, It wasn’t my fault, what happened last time.
It was probably the millionth time the man had told himself this. He had tried to prevent it. But it was beyond his power. He knew the girl’s grandmother was suspicious of his every move now. He would win the old woman’s heart first and then…
I shouldn’t have waited to chat with him, the girl thought as she hurried towards their village square, venue for the night’s dance. He may begin to think that… The girl couldn’t bring herself to say what the man may begin to think. She swallowed hard. It was painful. Apart from the shrill, but reassuring cries of crickets and an occasional chatter of bats overhead, there was no other sound to be heard except the steady beating of her heart, which resonated in her ears, and her light footsteps, which went, ‘tap, tap, tap’ on the dusty path.
The village square was rowdy, and buzzing with activities by the time the girl arrived. The moon was in full bloom. One could easily tell a grain of wheat from that of millet on the cold, sandy soil. As one amateur dancer left the dancing arena, another quickly commandeered it, showing off what she could do with her body, flexible like rubber. It would continue like this until after midnight when the actual contest would begin.
Everywhere, people mixed, freely. They ate roast meat, drank local tea brewed on miniature coal pots, chatted happily, the rigors of the farms and the daily struggle for survival on dug out canoes forgotten. Men and women, the old and the young teased each other. Everyone was lively. And lighthearted.
Every other month, the dance night was like this. The villagers looked forward to it: the men missing it terribly, the women longing for it. There were no restraints. Everyone mixed as he or she wished. Everyone shared freely with the other what he or she held sacrosanct.
Several days before these dance nights, the women took time off their routines of carrying and fetching, cooking and hoeing, grinding and weeding to preen themselves. They must look their best. Oil dripped from their hair, made into the latest fashion. Long rings adorned their ears. And noses. The soles of their feet and palms were decorated with dyes: red, indigo, yellow and other brilliant colors. Black too. On the actual dance nights, they wore expensive perfumes meant especially for the night. Every corner of the three villages was a garden with flowers in full bloom.
Alcohol made the dance days even more fun. The men folk who usually spent a greater portion of their day relaxing under tree shades, or visiting each other began drinking as soon as breakfast was over. One after the other, kegs and calabashes of palm wine were emptied. By evening, the men were truly soaked and ready for the dance. Just like their sweet smelling women folk.
The village square was big enough to house all the inhabitants of more than five villages for any occasion. As far as living memory could be relied on, the two-monthly dance among the three villages had always been held here. Huge silk-cotton, neem and mango trees, which formed a circle around the square ensured that no sandstorm, no matter how ferocious disturbed any events taking place in it. Wide, corrugated trunks provided enough crevices, deep enough to cheat the moon rays, especially on nights as this when the moon blazed away in glory.
Dinner over, inhabitants of the three villages began flocking to the dance venue. The mingling would then begin. Husbands and wives looked the other way when they saw their spouses engaged in gaily, sometimes hushed discussions with total strangers. As casual as possible, new partnerships were formed. Strolling hand in hand, the new partners found suitable places in and around the village square. There, their chitchats continued.
Every now and then, from somewhere in the dark, laughter rang out. Elsewhere, someone would smile knowingly, caressing the partner in response. Elsewhere still, some other person would giggle in ecstasy. This was how the inhabitants of the three villages, and even strangers from beyond would saturate all nooks and corners, until the climax of the night when the village maidens would cap it all with their tantalizing dances.
After the dance, those who weren’t up to more gallivanting went home, to sleep off the effects of the night. The more adventurous, usually greater in number, found more intimate places to settle down.
Heaving and sweating bodies would litter the surrounding fields. One only needed to cough lightly, or shuffle his feet to disentangle entangled souls. It would be in the wee hours, as the dew began to descend and the temperature dropped before husbands saw wives, and wives husbands. Each would smile affectionately. Each would hug the other endearingly.
By daybreak, only the scintillating performances of the dancers occupied people’s lips. During the coming days and weeks, partners of the dance night would run into each other. They would not acknowledge themselves.
At the end of each dance night, rather than lose herself like everyone else and partake in the night’s fun, the girl was filled with revulsion as she watched admirers, some of whom they hardly know, lead her friends into the bowels of darkness. Especially she felt sour as women flocked around the man, praising him for his expertise on the saxophone; touching him here and touching him there, fondly. Always, the man got lured into the night. The girl would never see him until the next day. Or several days later.
Not that she cared.
For the girl, this aspect of the night spoilt the beauty of her performance. It took away the joy that dancing brought. She was never able to regale at her achievement as the most gifted dancer in all the three villages. She didn’t understand why things were like this.
When she was much younger and just perfecting her dance steps, she had taken the issue up with her grandmother.
“It is our tradition,” her grandmother said. “It is our uniqueness.”
“What,” the girl said, “is our uniqueness?”
“To share,” her grandmother answered. “To share with each other what we have.”
“And that includes our bodies?” the girl said, cringing.
“It was like this during my mother’s days.”
“But grandmother, is it right? Can’t one say no?”
“You are barely thirteen. Stop asking such questions. They will say I did not bring you up properly.”
“But I want to know. Is it right, doing this thing?”
“There is nothing you or anybody can do about it. It is our way of life.”
The girl, greatly repulsed shrank from her grandmother.
“Soon, I tell you my daughter,” the grandmother said, “you will come to look forward to these nights, not because you want to dance but because you want to be free. Free to exercise your powers as a woman. Free to explore. I am old, doubly bent now and cannot partake in, as you call it, this ‘thing’ anymore, but in my days when I was as spry as you are now, possibly a bit older, I salivated for it.”
“My daughter, show me the person who can turn against his tradition, and I will hand the heavens to you as a reward.”
Now sixteen, the girl was still amazed at this way of life, this tradition that gave no one the right to say, ‘no’; this tradition that gave no one the right to cast away what was wrong, what was evil.
What would happen if she continued to think differently? Her friends, already indoctrinated were beginning to rib her. Could she, a mere girl, a mere woman, challenge custom?
As the girl stood there, thinking and surveying the crowd, she mentally sorted her steps. She knew she would win again tonight. It ailed her that she had no serious competitor in the three villages. It is just as well that the dance festival is coming up, she thought. With head held high, back straight, she strode determinedly past several young men. They were in the mood, which the night dictated. They catcalled her. The women called out too. Other girls who had come simply to have a go at what the night held afterwards whispered about her. She caught the envious glints in their painted, brown eyes. Other dancers called out to her. She did not respond. They let her be. She was in that trance-like mood which she fell into before every dance. Over the years, they had come to recognize it.
Her corner in the dressing area was empty. Untying her small bag, and with the help of the little girls who had gathered around her, the girl began to don her costume. She felt sorry for the innocent little girls. They didn’t know yet what life held in store for them. They spoke to her. She answered with her smiles. She moved about as if possessed. Soon, she was lost again in her world of uncertainties. Thoughts about many things she didn’t understand filled her mind. These many things hurt her. Like that time she had been cut. She was eleven years old then.
Slowly and vividly, the girl recalled her circumcision.

It was a terrible experience. One that she would never forget. Her cutting and that of a few other girls had been particularly traumatizing. By the time it got to their turn, the only knife being employed for the cutting had lost its sharpness, its cutting edge having been dulled by the congealed blood from the other girls, which lay thick on its rusted surface. Sharpening the knife on the piece of rock nearby only made the pain worse as the knife, now serrated, cut unevenly.
After the cutting, she had bled profusely. The palm oil and other concoctions derived from fluids expressed from various wild plants and fruits did nothing to alleviate her pain. If anything, the herbal applications worsened her condition. For days after, she was like the living dead. It was still a wonder that she had survived the severe bleeding and high fever, which accompanied the skin infection she had subsequently contracted. At the end of the day, though her damaged skin healed, it left behind a terrible scar, an ugly streak of pink.
The girl knew she would never get over this scar.
Once in a while she still experienced terrible pains from this scar, especially when she danced so hard or walked long distances or did any hard work on the farm.
“It was the same with me and with your mother and all other women of our tribe,” her grandmother had consoled. “We all went through these same rites of passage. That is what makes a woman a woman. The pain will come and go but eventually you will outgrow it. It is the pain of womanhood. It is what prepares you for the uncertainties of time.”
For the girl, over time, this ‘Pain of Womanhood’, has changed its nature, assuming newer dimensions. It was now a psychological torture; a ‘Pain of Shame’. She felt humiliated and cheated by the act. She felt violated, debased. It was her body. Was it not rightly her place to say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to whatever anyone wanted to do to it? What if she had died from the infection she contracted? What if she had caught this new disease people got by sharing knives and needles? Now that they had severed her sensitive parts, what if she never enjoyed sex? Who would shoulder the blame if it turned out that she never got pregnant? Who would shoulder the blame when due to lack of a child she became a pariah in society?

The magical sound of a saxophone suddenly floated over to the girl, rousing her from her deep thoughts. She was surprised to note that she had completed dressing. Judging from the time it usually took under normal circumstances, it meant that her mind had been roaming the past for upwards of half an hour. She sighed regrettably as the memories receded from her brain. She knew they would come back to haunt her before the night was over.
Looking up, she saw that the other dancers were bent double in the dancing arena, rocking steadily to the soothing melody of the saxophone which rose and fell, rose and fell as if coming from a far, far distance on the back of a gentle wind. She did not have to strain herself to see who was playing. The quality of the sound was all too familiar. In a moment she sprang to her feet like an agitated tigress. The crowd roared as they discovered who had come to tease them.
Gingerly, she approached the man, as a lioness would stalk an antelope it was sure to have for dinner. She beckoned him with her hands, teased and dazzled him with her smiles. She rolled her tongue at him and her full waist rocked left and right; up and down. The sound of the vibrating metallic bangles on her ankles and wrists blended perfectly with the drums and flutes, now accompanying the saxophone.
The girl was soon lost in her art. As she wove this way and that, the frenzied crowd went crazy, lending their clapping to the sounds of the musical instruments. The night came alive, pulsating like an angry monster as the ground shook with the stamping of thousands of excited feet. Everything else blurred into oblivion for the girl. Two other dancers, now joining in tried to divert attention from the girl, but it was impossible to tear one’s eyes from the girl once she was dancing, hypnotized by the magical sounds of the man’s saxophone.
The girl’s eyes locked with the man’s eyes briefly as she raised her head to beckon to the gods of music and dance, far away and watching in the bright starry sky. And the man saw her smile, saw her flirt with him… just fleetingly and his cleft lip parted in a gentle smile and the loneliness which resided in his heart skipped away, albeit temporarily and he knew instant happiness; knew instant bliss. With his mind’s arms, he clutched her smile firmly, burying it in the recess of his being. These nights… these dancing nights, when the girl danced for him, he thought. How he longed for them.
Shaking his head wildly, as if delirious, the frail, old man threw himself into his saxophone, prepared to play out his soul. Cradling his saxophone to his chest, he limped about like a monkey, unconscious of the giggles his acrobatics drew. The dancing was approaching its crescendo when suddenly the girl halted in mid action, lost steam and went limp.
She would save her best for last.
The crowd sighed. Hungrily. The girl had strung them so tight and had released them without warning. Stepping back and wiping the sweat off their foreheads, they exhaled deeply. They couldn’t wait for the real thing later.
Just as she had entered, the girl exited the arena. Children crowded her, chants in her praise filling the dusty night air.

Hobbling away, the man retired under an old neem tree to wipe perspiration off his brow and get back his breath. He collapsed on the dry wood of one of several buttress roots, which had since lost their fleshy coverings due to over usage by both humans and beasts. Taking out a piece of cloth from his shirt pocket, he painstakingly wiped the mouthparts of his saxophone, after first wiping the sides of his own mouth which was crusted with saliva. All the while, he thought about the girl. One moment she was all tensed up, and wouldn’t utter a single word to him. The next she was as willing as a wily cat. She confused him. In fact, he still blamed her for everything. His hands shook and a ripple went through him as he recalled their shame.

Slowly the night progressed. Midnight came and went. When the dance finally ended hours later and the man, alone and lonely, and unable to stop himself, tried to lure the girl away into the blackness, the moon having gone to bed, all he got was a face loaded with questions. Questions he had no answers to. He didn’t press her, thinking, Soon, out of her own volition she will come around. She has no choice in the matter. The man knew that like all other women of the three villages, the girl was trapped. She was trapped in the ways prescribed by custom and tradition. Only she didn’t know it.

The man felt sorry for the girl. And for himself too.

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