Sitting beside the chicken pen, Chinma ran the tip of her finger along the sharp edge of the knife. Granny had instructed her to slaughter a chicken for soup, and it was going to be her first time. At home in the city, she was used to frozen meat; yet, she couldn’t refuse. She was the oldest among the girls who visited for Christmas. Chinma looked inside the pen to choose one. A big white hen walked towards her.
“Are you willingly presenting yourself for granny’s soup?” She grinned as the hen continued to pick the feeds. “I hate what I am about to do, but Christmas won’t be complete without you in the stew or soup.”
Standing up she unbolted the door and swiftly grabbed the hen. It took some struggling, but she finally had a firm grip on the bird’s wings. She closed the door with a kick of her heel and raised the hen to an eye level.
“You are beautiful, and I know the cocks fight over you. I’m not as lucky as you are. Unlike you, I’m skinny and unattractive. I don’t even have a boyfriend.” She sighed and dropped the chicken on the ground trapping her legs between the ground and the sole of her right foot.
Just as she bent to hold the head, the bird flapped her wings throwing dust into Chinma’s eyes and causing her to slacken her grip. In no time, the bird was up and running. At first Chinma thought she could just reach for her, but the hen had already ran towards the driveway. She chased after her tripping over a wooden stool. She winced and continued to run in a zigzag pattern with the hen, which beat her to the gate and disappeared into a cassava farm in front of their compound. At that very moment, Chinma screamed as she collided with another human figure. With hands flailing wildly in the air, she fell on her back while the young man fell on his side. She opened her eyes to find him peering down at her with a frown on his face.
“Are you hurt?”
“Don’t you ever watch were you are going?” she hissed getting up abruptly to the surprise of the young man who quickly stepped away from her. She dusted her wrapper, grateful that it was still firmly secured to her waist. She looked round her for any sign of the hen.
“The hen is gone.” she cried
Without another word he walked away.
“You can’t even apologize. Uncultured village man!” she shouted at his retreating figure. Grunting, she stomped back into the compound banging the gate behind her.
After dinner, granny had the girls gather around her in the patio where she told them tales from her youth. At 26 she felt old for such stories, so she sat away from them.
“Just as I was about to be enveloped by a blissful darkness, I saw a light more like a star with slender legs. It danced and gleamed like it was giving me hope, a reason to live again. I felt it smiling at me. Just as I reached for it, someone pulled me out of the river and when I regained consciousness I found myself staring into the handsome face of your grandpa.” granny ended dreamily.
Chinma got up and leaned against one of the pillars, her interest piqued. She suddenly wanted to hear more.
“Unbelievable! Do they still exit? “One of the girls quizzed.
“Yes they dwell behind the curtains of Nuru waterfall. The waterfall princesses are drawn by pure hearts that seek true love. They plant love in broken hearts.”
That night she couldn’t sleep. She had come to the village to get over heartbreaks. She had never had luck with relationships, and her younger sisters were all married. What if a visit to the waterfall could change her fate? With her mind made up, she snuggled down into her bed and lapsed into a dreamless sleep. She got up before cockcrow full of excitement and vigor. It was Christmas day, and everyone was preparing for church service. She sang while she mopped the tiles doing a quick dance at the same time.
“Someone seems happy after killing two of my chickens yesterday with one apparently missing in the soup.”
“Oh granny you startled me.”
“I have been standing here. My child, have you found love?”
Chinma shook her head not knowing what to say.
“Then something must have triggered such excitement in you.” Her Granny came closer. “I have seen the loneliness and longing in your eyes even when you pretend to be happy. Listen, this is a season of happiness and celebration. Put your worries aside and have fun. Build memories that will cheer you up after now ok.”
“Hurry up. Service begins soon. You can explain the missing chicken later.”
She went to church to please her grandparents. While choir sang, she impatiently stamped her feet and kept darting her eyes at the big clock at the altar. She imagined herself at the waterfall. She remembered a visit to the waterfall during a festive season two years ago. The bush path leading to the stream was rugged and narrow with thick bushes on both sides. She remembered the sounds made by the flowing water, the singing birds, the cool breeze and all. She couldn’t believe that the place holds such magic. She prayed the princesses still existed. She memorized what she was going to ask for. “A handsome man for a husband.” Chinma smoldered a smile. And seizing the moment when the congregation rose to give offerings, she left.
She quickly changed into a red T-shirt and a knee length denim overall. Securing her hair into a ponytail with a band, she took her sling bag. Her phone rang. It was granny.
“Chinma, fry those meats for me ok.” She threw her phone on the bed.
When she left it was already 2 pm, and she wished she knew a shorter path to the river. She heard sounds of drums and gongs as she approached the village square. It was the annual masquerade dance. Determined not to be distracted by the beautiful songs, she moved on. But the cheers and screams were too tempting to be ignored, so she turned in the direction of the music to have a glimpse of the masquerades. The crowd of spectators formed a big circle around the masquerades that danced and ran from one end to the other with their team of instrumentalists, vocalists and advisers. The dusty air was tainted with a mixture of carbide and gun powder. She quickly found a spot where she could see everything. People ran each time a masquerade approached them with or without a cane. But that was actually the fun of it!
She turned around just in time to notice a tall masquerade emerging gracefully from a different direction. The crowd erupted with shouts of “Odogwu nwa nma.” Covered in blue, red, green and white bamboo rafters, with a mask that was both beautiful and intimidating, his dance steps were different. Mesmerized by its beauty, she inched forward to hear the lyrics of its rhythm. Lost in her imaginations of what the face behind the mask looked like she didn’t realize others had fled. On noticing her, he approached in a frightening manner that turned her legs into jelly. She couldn’t run. When he closed the gap between them she screamed and fell down shielding her eyes with her arms. He bent over her like a predator checking his kill.
Bemused, she opened her eyes to find herself staring into a pair of accusing brown eyes. Without a second thought she sprang to her feet and ran all the way home.
That night, she dreamt of a brown eyed Santa with a cane. She woke up with a desire to know the masquerade that spared her, the face behind the mask.
On her way to the waterfall the next day, she recognized a bush path. With a pang of excitement she turned towards it. The shrine teemed with many young men. Some danced while some played their instruments. They were rehearsing for the New Year ceremony, which draws people from other villages. She climbed onto a tree from where she hoped to seek him out. Her heart fluttered when she saw him step out of the thatched shrine without his mask. She bent to see his face, but it was too late. He had already put on the mask. She turned in the direction of a hissing sound to behold a green snake. She yelled and lost her balance. Luckily, she was fast enough to hold on to a branch. But it was too late. All the men stared at her dangling from the tree. He came closer and stood below her.
She shut her eyes wishing they would all disappear. Knowing she was not going to hang onto the tree all day, she let go. He caught her as though she were as light as a feather, and she nestled unto his shoulder trying to hide her face from the prying eyes of the others. Other masquerades brought out their canes to punish her, but he stopped them with a wave of his hand. She quickly took in his height and the span of his chest. Through the bamboo straw attire draping his body, she perceived masculine cologne. When he turned back to her the brown eyes were filled with so much rage that she trembled with fear. He set her down on her feet.
“Why are you here?”
“I w-a-s just… I, it is not,” she stuttered
“Leave this place. Now!” he roared
“Obika are you letting her go?” asked another masquerade
Turning around, she briskly walked away while they all stared at her in disbelief.
On her way home she chided herself for being so foolish. She knew the incident would be discussed amongst the boys because she didn’t hide her face. She couldn’t fathom what it was about the brown-eyed masquerade that beguiled her. If only she had seen his face she could live with the embarrassment.
“Obika,” she smiled, enjoying the sound of his name. Getting to know his name was her only consolation. With a sense of failure, she trudged home at snail pace. It was when her house came into view that she remembered why she had left the house in the first place. She hit her head with the heel of her palm. She was tired and worn out from her previous ordeal. But she couldn’t decide between going back and going into the house as dusk was almost upon her. She wondered if there would ever be a better moment to see the princesses except when it was dark. At the same time, she was scared of what danger she might encounter on her way. Thieves and rapists could be hiding in the bush. But then she figured she could simply walk fast. Besides, nothing good comes easy. With that resolve, she turned around and began walking back into the bush path. Each time she heard footsteps, she would pause and run to hide behind trees. The sounds of crickets made her heartbeat quicken as it reminded her that it was already late. But her desire to find the princess outweighed the fear that tried to consume her. She quickened her pace.
The chilly air signaled that she had reached the river, which meandered towards the skyline as though both were anxious to meet. The trees moved with the wind while birds did their last songs for the night. Except for the widening of the river, all was still the same, just like she remembered it. She turned towards the roaring sound of water which cascaded over high and jagged bedrock before emptying into the river at high speed. She was rubbing her arms, wondering how to get close to the waterfall, when she spotted a narrow footpath along the slope. Bracing herself, she started ascending the slope. She carefully placed each foot in front of the other, bending forward to secure her balance. She was almost close to the plateau when she saw a flash of light. She paused, wondering if she had imagined it. The light appeared again but this time followed by footsteps.
“Who is there?” She shouted, afraid she would alert some kind of evil to her presence. Whoever it was kept moving towards her. Panic-stricken, she tried to run back downhill. But she had spun around a bit too quickly, so she tripped over a stone and fell flat on her face. She held on to a small boulder to stop herself from tumbling down. She listened for sounds, but everywhere became quite. The trees danced to a silent song while the winds whispered in excitement. From the curtain emerged a circle of light like stars. They hovered over the water and paused as if they felt another presence. One broke away from the circle and moved in her direction. She saw slender legs, then an arm, which waved like a magicians wand. Then it rejoined others, and they all vanished.
“So the legend is true,” a voice came directly above her. She screamed, let go of the stone, and tumbled all the way to the base of the slope.
The next day, she woke up in her room. She tried to sit up but winced as pain zapped through her body. The sight of bandages and bruises reminded her of the previous day. Last night in her dream, she danced with the waterfall princesses, and they gave her rose petals before they vanished. The petals formed a pile and started transforming into a human clad in blue, green, red and white…
“Young lady you have a visitor,” Granny announced from the door. She moved aside to let a young man in. Her eyes widened in surprise as he approached her bed.
“Good morning Chinma. How do you feel?” he took the seat beside her bed.
She looked at her grandmother for an explanation
“He found you at the river and brought you home.” She smiled and excused herself.
“Are you not…”
“The uncultured village man. Tell me, why do you chase after chickens, masquerades, magical creatures…”
“…masquerades? You were not there.” She starred at his eyes and gasped.
He reached for her hands and held them.
“Last night when I saw you, I knew that our paths crossed for a reason. It is either destiny or something. I don’t really know, but I am willing to find out.”
She swallowed in disbelief.
“I can’t help liking you.”
“You are Obika” she whispered
“Do you prefer the masquerade to me?”
“He is more cultured than you.”
He laughed revealing perfect dentition.
They chatted for some time before he left, promising to return in the evening
She couldn’t believe she finally found love in a strange way. Her eyes stung with unshed tears. She heard a cackling sound of a chicken.
“Oh beautiful hen hope you lived.”