It was the day of. Everyone was anxious. Everyone was preparing. Kids were running around, their parents were running after them. A few people had gathered in the open space where everything had started. They had huge bundles of cloth in their hands. A man was tying one end of a jet black cloth to the top of a pole, while trying to balance himself on the ladder that he was standing on. Right next to him, an old woman was sitting on the ground. She had multiple beaded necklaces around her neck and her arms were filled with bangles, right up to her elbows. She had a needle in her hand with multi-coloured threads attached to it. She was stitching different patterns onto a deep maroon fabric. There were whorls and wavy lines, there were straight lines intersecting with squares and triangles. But the largest and most prominent were the circles with lines radiating from the center.
The woman sat there for a while, completely engrossed in what she was doing and ignoring all the activity around her. It was not until a little boy almost stepped onto the fabric that she broke out of her reverie. She hissed loudly and made a gesture with her head, scaring the boy. He stumbled over his own feet, in a hurry to get away from there.
“Come off it, he’s just a boy,” the man on the ladder said chidingly.
The woman hissed again, frowning deeply. Her eyebrows met in the center as she expressed her displeasure.
“Yes, I know he almost stepped on your precious cloth but he didn’t know any better. He’s never seen all of this before. Even his father hasn’t this, so how would he know.”
Zeca was waiting in her hut. It was small but it was home. There were no rooms. It was only one large space with different areas for sleeping and cooking. She had moved into this hut only nineteen moons ago and the gods had blessed her with a boy. She had been happy to see the writhing baby when he was born. She had been afraid that it would be a girl, though she knew that Qasene was not the kind of man to differentiate. But she had been terrified. She knew it had been a long time but the birth of a girl was still considered to be an omen. So the birth of her boy brought her more happiness than she had anticipated.
She had cleaned the hut and put some logs to keep the fire going. She had put a pot of water to boil over the fire. She had cleaned the chicken that needed to be cooked for the night. She was done with all her work and now she was waiting. It was a while before Qasene was back with the baby but the ceremony had been long and there had been multiple births in the last month. Zeca took the squealing infant from her husband and held him in her arms. His limbs were sticky because they had been rubbed with fresh tomatoes. Around his stomach lay a tiny pouch that was tied with the help of string. She knew what the pouch contained, different herbs for the safety and growth of her baby. He would have the pouch around his stomach till he was three moons old. Then, he would have a different pouch for another three moons.
Zeca to the baby to the small tub in the corner. She sat down while the baby cried and gently wiped his body with a damp cloth. Once he was clean, she wrapped him in a blanket. He had no use of clothes, at least not tonight. She untucked her shirt from her skirt and fed the baby. Immediately, he stopped crying and was asleep within a few minutes. With the baby fed and asleep, she decided to take a bath and change. There wasn’t much time left and she knew Qasene would want her to be on time. She stepped in to the tub and poured water from the small bucket next to the tub. Satisfied with her bath, she took off her damp clothes and put on the new clothes she had stitched for herself. They were maroon with black floral patterns on them.
It was dusk. It was cloudy. It had gotten dark pretty fast. All of the village was gathered together. The men were one side and the women on the other. The men were sitting, waiting patiently for the ceremony to begin. The women were all dressed in the same colour, a sea of maroon. They were all sitting with their heads down, a sign of respect. The oldest men in the village, the elders, walked out of the nearest hut and the chanting began. They approached the center of the gathering and sat around the pole, all the while chanting in a loud voice.
The wind picked up and the fabric attached to the pole flew in the breeze, the patterns visible to everyone sitting there. The old woman who had sewn the patterns was sitting right beneath the pole, singing loudly, louder than all the chanting elders. She sang about the origin, about the birth of man. She sang about the gods who sent man to this very place. She sang about life and death. She sang about love and duty. She sang about the grace of the gods but above all, she sang most about thanking them.
The atmosphere grew heavy as the time approached. All the people in the clearing were growing more and more excited. They knew that the time was almost here. There was fascination and wonder as most of the people had never attended this ceremony. It had only happened once before in the life of the elders. Ceremonies were a common part of the villagers’ lives. They had marriage ceremonies, birth ceremonies, ceremonies for the harvest, ceremonies for the winter and spring but this particular ceremony had taken place long ago. But it was time for it now.
It was a sign. It was a time for repayment. The gods wanted something in return for all that they had given. And it was one god that came to collect it. The sky grew darker and darker as night approached. As night approached, it drew its heavy blanket onto the sky, the blanket full of stars. They twinkled in the sky, seeming to be sewn into the perfect places. They were perfectly visible, even though it was a cloudy night. It was from behind a particularly dense cluster of clouds that the moon shone through and finally appeared high in the sky.
Down below, the crowd got louder and louder. The anticipation was deadly and they could not wait anymore. It was time. The village elders stopped chanting. It was silent, deafeningly silent. The women looked up for the first time as the elders stood. They all had grave expressions. They looked towards the men and then the children. Finally, they looked at the women. Then one of them stepped forward and said, “It is time.”
The old woman started chanting till the man who spoke raised his hand.
“It is time. The men have purified themselves. The new children have been blessed. The women have presented themselves before the gods. And now it is time to thank them. It is time to show them that we are grateful and that we still believe in them. We need to make the payment. And the gods have chosen.”
He walked over towards the women. He looked right at Zeca and put his hand over her head.
“The gods have chosen!”
Zeca was nervous. Her stomach was in turmoil as she listened to the man speaking about the gods and the payment to be made. Her heart beat faster when he walked towards where she was sitting with the other women. She almost stopped breathing when he put his hand on her head and uttered the four words that she did not want to hear. All she could think about was her baby boy, lying in his basket with all the other children. She wanted to scream and shout but she did not even cry. She did not want to disappoint Qasene. She wanted him to remain proud of her till the last moment.
So she stayed quiet as the rest of the women started chanting and pulled her to her feet. They took her into the nearest hut where the preparations had been done. They took off her clothes and cleaned her, even though she had already taken a shower. They rubbed sweet smells on her body. They put her clothes on her again, the ones she had sewn while crying. They put bangles on her hands and flowers in her hair. They put pomegranate juice on her lips to make them red. They put ochre powder on her eyes.
As she same out of the hut, all eyes were on her. She was a sight to see. She went straight towards the group of children. She gently picked up her boy. He must have sensed her fear because he started whimpering. She nuzzled her face into his neck and breathed in. she had to do this. This was for her baby. This was for Qasene. This was for everyone. She kissed the baby on both his cheeks and handed him to a girl who was almost a woman. Then she walked towards the men. She stood in front of them and waited. The crowd separated as Qasene stepped forward. He took her by the hand and led her towards the center, towards the pole. The maroon fabric on the ground was the same colour as her clothes. He made her lay down on the fabric. He kissed her cheek before stepping back and re-joining the men.
Zeca closed her eyes as the old woman wrapped her in the cloth. Only her eyes were left uncovered. She knew that the time had come. She thought about everything she held dear and then slowly opened her eyes. She was the first one to see the shadow. It was large and it slowly crept towards the moon. She saw as it touched one edge of the moon. He was coming for her, the god who was sent to collect the payment. She saw as he covered the moon, bit by bit, as if giving her a little extra time.
I am ready, she thought. I am the chosen one. I thank the gods for my birth and for my life, for my marriage and for my baby. I thank the gods for my village and I present myself to them. I am ready, she thought, as the moon was blocked out and the old woman plunged the short dagger into Zeca’s heart.