My father used to tell me if I looked hard enough, I would find two or three of them scattered around in the marketplace. He said they looked different, they usually walked around with brightly coloured umbrellas, carefully avoiding contact with people and water, and they were exceptionally tall and quite composed. He would say they had the footsteps of pregnant snails, slow, steady and calculated, like leaves floating down to the rhythm of a silent breeze. My father had a way with words: he said their beauty reminded him of a freshly peeled khala fruit, brown softness outside that accentuated a cold, hard sweetness at the first bite of a curious teeth.
I had never seen a mermaid before but it was common knowledge that they abounded in multitude in our town Kanzyanaki, a town home to the great Banti River, a river we have come to rever as the home of Merissa, the great river mother, who blessed her fishermen sons with great catches on the days when the tides were ebbing and slow, and on nights when the full moon reflected the face of maiden on the silvery surfaces of the beautiful river. My father was a fisherman, and he claimed to have met about five mermaids in his entire life. He had never spoken to them for they hated to talk; they simply swam to the surface of the river, bathed slowly and meticulously, basked in the glowing moonlight, and on some rare nights, they wandered into the banks, and on some even rarer nights, strode into the boisterous town. These were the adventurous ones who loved the company of humans, and out of curiosity, needed to see how they went about their daily existence.
My father said each time a mermaid came out of the river, she always dropped three things close to the south bank – seven long strands of their hair, their bangles and a ring. These enabled them to get back into the water world when they were done with their worldly explorations. If they for any reason, couldn’t find any of these on their return, they were doomed to remain on earth and would surely die. This explained their desperation any time they lost these possessions, and lucky is the person who finds it, with the spirits ready to grant his every wish just to have their possessions back – from unimaginable riches to good health and long life, and if the man wanted, a few nights of unbridled passion with the water maiden, though this was extremely dangerous; the mermaid kingdom frowned heavily on intercourse with human beings.
My father told me all these things but he never told me the Afikpo festival was the heartbeat of the river world. This festival lasted three nights and was a ceremony in honour of Merissa, the water mother. The nights were usually marked with excessive drinking, dancing and gluttony at the banks of the Banti river, and on those nights, we would have mermaids carefully concealed amongst us. The party ended at midnight and it was strictly forbidden to be around the river once the festival was concluded because by then, the daughters of Merissa would come out to bathe, sing and dance, and if any human was caught spying on them, he would die.
The Afikpo dance festival was a week away and it was on that night my story would begin. It was on that night I would forget my precious flute by the river bank, and father who was already heavily drunk would instruct me to go back and get it.