Ever since he was a child, Dubem had hated to disappoint people; so when he reached a reproductive age and they talked him into starting a courtship, he hoped it would result in something as solid as wedlock.
‘Ebere, the third daughter of Peter the Rock,’ people pointed out, ‘is tall and as sharp as a reserved knife, taken out only to slay the most menacing dragon. You should woo her.’
However, according to tradition, the suitor accompanied by his kindred must signal their intention to the relatives of the woman by bringing them a keg of palm wine, among other gifts.
At 7.30 on a Saturday morning, Dubem and members of his convoy assembled to begin the journey.
Behind the steering wheel of a medium-size minivan, Eddy the driver waited patiently. Dubem sat in front, next to him.
Sitting on the midsection of the middle row of the van was the palm wine handler, a very lean man who had arm muscles the size of mature yam tubers. Under the clutch of his knees was a ceramic keg of palm wine, weighing a ton. Beside the keg was a live chicken with both wings tied over her back.
There were two elderly men, one on each side of the man with large biceps. The one to the left wore a hat which, bent on top, rested over his right ear like a rabbit’s tail. The other old man wore no hat and had a tennis ball-sized bald occiput surrounded by a ring of gray hairs.
‘Did your father forget this event?’ asked the old man who wore a rabbit’s tail hat. Waiting for the father of the suitor had made him tired and cranky.
‘He is awake and getting ready,’ replied the suitor, looking back only halfway as he answered.
Dubem had barely returned his neck to the natural position when Idoh came out of the house into the front yard.
Quickly, he climbed in and sat in the third row of the minivan. With a splinter concealed in his fingers, he picked the bottom part of his teeth for what seemed like eternity. Satisfied at last, he leaned forward, tossed the splinter away and spat a scum across his left shoulder. Then he put two fingers in his mouth to whistle a signal for the driver to begin the trip.
‘What do we have with us?’ Idoh asked after Eddy had finished maneuvering the van past the worst of the potholes and turned right.
‘A keg of palm wine and a white fowl,’ answered the young man with the bulging arm muscles.
Disingenuously, Idoh said, ‘Any yams to go with the chicken? You can’t eat fowl without yams. Yams always go with chicken.’ There was amusement in his face as he asked.
‘The keg of palm wine is the size of a masquerade,’ said the old man with the shiny bald head.
‘Other suitors are coming,’ said the old man who wore a hat, and who had become irritable earlier while waiting on Idoh. ‘Good-sized yams should have been here as well as a big goat to ward off other suitors.’
‘The time for yams, coconuts, soap and goats has not arrived yet,’ rebutted the man with the rim of gray hairs on the back of his head. The other man’s irritation was beginning to smear off onto him.
‘That’s enough,’ said the father of the suitor, separating the two warring elders. Had they looked at his face when he asked the question, they would have seen that he was only trying to crack a joke and not sow a seed of dispute. ‘Isn’t a disagreement among a group often a bad omen?’ he wondered to himself.
Though Dubem maintained silence throughout the trip, his heart was full to the brim. All the arguments his handlers had on his behalf touched and tortured him. They could decide all they wanted whether they had brought enough gifts or not.
Ahead of him lay a task. He had to take a sip of the palm wine, after which he would pass the cup to Ebere. If she drank from the cup and returned it to him, her willingness to continue with the ceremony, a precondition to marriage, was confirmed.
While on the way he had hatched a plan. Once his kindred got him over the palm wine-carrying hurdle, he had to confront the condescending way they had treated him so far, conveniently failing to ask his opinion over basic matters such as the number of chickens, yams, coconuts and so forth.
Dismissing the entire kindred team might be necessary, even if it meant eloping with Ebere. But what if Ebere rebuffed him and refused to drink the palm wine after him?
Still submerged in thought, the suitor did not realize the distance the minivan had covered. ‘We’ve arrived at the old house of Peter the Rock,’ announced the driver.
A barefooted, fast-talking woman who, judging by her immediate understanding of the mission, had been expecting the visitors, let them into a large room with a cement floor and with all its wooden windows standing wide open.
Throwing out her hand, the usher announced, ‘We have seats.’ The suitor and his entourage sat on the wooden chairs with their wide armrests.
The Suitor And His Handlers, Continues.
A message that the suitors had arrived was sent out. Everyone who entered the room glanced at the big keg of palm wine at the center of a low-lying wooden table, with many tumblers stacked up around it. Beside the glass cups was a shallow bowl with seven kola nuts.
‘Wherever there is a keg of palm wine there is an imminent action,’ said a throaty voice from the host party, eliciting from the others a spontaneous loud laugh.
After the breaking of kola nuts, a man with a sparse goatee and who limped on his left leg hobbled to the table and began distributing drinking tumblers to the audience.
Assured by the man with the limp that all in attendance had received a glass cup, the throaty voice of the leader called out, ‘Is Ebere here, the woman for whom we have gathered today?’
Sensing what was to come, the father of the suitor threw a look at the man in charge of the keg of palm wine.
‘Are you ready?’ he asked in a voice which expected a positive answer.
The muscular man nodded twice, stepped up beside the palm wine, and released the rest of its manly smell by unplugging the folded leaves which served as a cap.
The fast-talking woman returned to report that ‘Ebere is eager and waiting to join the ceremony at a moment’s notice.’
Shifting nearer to the edge of the chair, Dubem straightened his shoulders. He imagined what might await him. Life with Ebere seemed like a low reaching cloud, close yet far away. But what in life didn’t start in an unclear fashion, with no shape and no basis, and yet over time comes purpose and shape and form?
By an appendage attached to the neck of the keg, the handler seized the object with his right hand. One foot off the cement floor, he steadied the bottom of the keg with his left palm. The keg was as heavy as expected. He had performed the same skills many times in the past.
Shortly, he would go around the room filling tumblers with palm wine. In unison, men extended their arms to show their glass cups.
All of a sudden voices were heard in the room when nobody spoke, followed by footsteps when nobody walked. Struck by worry, the audience looked quizzically at one another and at the keg of palm wine.
The buzz, which sounded like those heard in church congregations, continued until it was overcome by an unmistakable loud bang on the cement floor.
With fists tightened, the suitor rushed up to the brawny man, who without a doubt was in a trance. A thousand pieces of porcelain lay dispersed under the wooden table and all over the cement floor, some submerged in a puddle of palm wine.
Hands began to lower, glass cups began to disappear, and witnesses began to disperse.