“Hi” Okpon said.
“Hello” Okpon said this time, his voice a pitch higher.
Silence brewed between them for a while and soon it was time to serve breakfast. The cabin crew rolled their service cart down the aisle. Passengers brought out their tray tables and ate in a ravishing mode and went straight to sleep.
By the time the service cart rolled to a stop at the emergency exit seat, Okpon was ready for his meal since yesterday.
Antigha would not let go of her possession. Yet she wanted to eat. The lady tried to coax her into handing over the possession for a moment, so that she could get her food, she wouldn’t. Finally, she dropped it on the floor.
“No madam, you can’t drop it on the floor. This is emergency exit. It must be clear at all times.”
She picked her possession up and clutched it again.
Okpon stood up and opened the overhead bin, rearranged the items to create some storage space and went ahead to retrieve the belongings from Antigha to help her store it.
Antigha snatched her belonging from him and clutched to it. “No I am not taking it away from you. I am just putting it away so you can eat. Come and see. I have created space for you” he nudged her. Circumspectly, she stood up, still clutching her belonging. She must have been about five ten. Almost six feet tall with a large body frame. Okpon moved out of the way and pointed at the space. She peered into the overhead bin. “Put it there. Go ahead.” Okpon urged her.
She looked at Okpon for a while as if studying him.
“Keep it there. It is safe. No one will touch your stuff. Trust me. I will also keep an eye on it for you.”
She lifted her belonging and placed it on the overhead bin and sat down. Okpon helped her to bring out the tray table and she got served her meal. She ate in an unhurried manner. It was almost like a ritual. When she took her natural fork and lifted the egg into her mouth, she took time to masticate the egg and savour every moment of the chew. She sniffed the bread roll, tore it open with her bare hand and smeared the butter on the roll with her fingers. She took a big bite off the roll and repeated the ritual. She took the fruit salad container and tore it open, poured the whole content into her mouth straight and devoured it in a moment. She drank juice, water, and soda.
“You can ask for some more” Okpon suggested.
She stared at him for a moment, smiled and nodded her head. Okpon beckoned on the air hostess.
“Can we please have some extra portion please?”
“I shall have a look and be right back.”
Okpon remembered the night of his initiation into the cult of the brave ones, when his dad held his hand and took him, to the masquerade den and the big masquerade was unmasked before Okpon. The delight on his face and confidence that, his dad was holding his hands and walking right next to him can only be described in the words of Frank Sinatra as unforgettable. The big masquerade only came out on big occasions. When it comes out, other masquerades shut up and go into hiding. The big masquerade is not for the non-initiates. For you to stand and look at it, meant you were an initiate. For you to follow it back to the den, meant you had undergone all the initiation rites. For you to have a conversation with it, meant, you had dined with it, in the shrine. Tears were streaming down Okpon’s face as he recollected with such nostalgia, some of the epic moments with his late father. He remembered during his first test, when the ideogram was presented to him and he had forgotten the code. As a new initiate, if you forget the code, you have to be punished for it. What that meant was two strong men will hold you and suspend you. One will hold your two hands and one will hold your two legs and you will be lying laterally mid air while the lashes come down on your bare back and after that experience, you will learn to remember the ideogram. When the countdown was on for him to tell what the ideogram signified, he remembered what his daddy had told him. “Son if you ever forget the ideogram, just remember A- Z, read it backwards, at the 13th letter, look for the corresponding numeric and then the image will flash to you.”
“3, 2, and” the Chief Whip announced.
Okpon announced “mkpepem”* and just on time. The drums announced his victory. Chants rented the air. Howling noises were made and Ibatim, the chief drummer drummed in the spirit of the gods. Okpon was elated. He was elevated. He was tossed in the air and caught. He had done what many of his mates could not do. He was given the most difficult test, the ideogram of the big masquerade itself. He had passed. What that meant was that, if the big masquerade was on the street prowling and some women (like elderly or pregnant) needed to get by, he was one of the privileged few, who could escort the women past where the big masquerade would hide. He was one of the few who could signal to the big masquerade in the masquerade language that there were women folk, he needed to get across and the big masquerade would understand that. He got saved from the horrible lashing. That code his dad gave him saved him. Once more he was reckoned in the circle of men and that was courtesy of his father. His father made him a hero amongst his peers. He remembered how his friend Ibanga was flogged mercilessly and how he howled and cried like a baby. After the flogging, he opted out of the initiation process. He never was reckoned in the circle of men and no girl ever showed a public admiration towards him.
“Why do you take such trouble to look after a stranger?” Antigha spoke finally.
Okpon lifted his face more in shock than his wanting to answer the question. She saw the tears in Okpon’s face. She pulled herself near to Okpon and asked “are you okay?”
Okpon shook his head and went back to continue his trip down memory lane.
She brought out a piece of paper from her skirt pocket, unfolded the paper and began to sing. It was like a lullaby. She sang herself to sleep in a strange language. Okpon tried to decipher what language that was, but he was clueless. She went to sleep and snored. Her snoring was in tune with the song she had sang.
“Ladies and gentleman, we have started our final descent into Dubai international airport. The local time at Dubai is 6pm. The temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and humidity is 90%. Thank you for choosing emirates airlines…”
*mkpekpem – bat (the corresponding image that the ideogram signified)