Dahomey, Africa 1842
The first one appeared in the village; stuck dead center in the communal fire pit, looking frightened and lonely.
Staring down at the ground through droopy eyes, it looked as if it was afraid of falling over.
The villagers approached it with caution.
No one recognized the head-on-a-stick.
And no one knew where it came from or how it got there.
Showing up uninvited and unwelcome, the holy man approached the head-on-a-stick cautiously and waved his bent staff in the air.
The same one he used to channel information down from the unseen and unheard to the frequently-not-listening.
But as the self-anointed representative of the invisible, mute and ineffective, it was his job to interpret things such as this; and he quickly pronounced it a sign of dire spiritual consequence.
In his bailiwick most things had to be; otherwise he wouldn’t have anything to do.
He hopped around the head-on-the-stick on one leg.
First forwards then backwards.
He poked the thing in each of its eyes with his holy staff, tugged at its ears and smacked it on the top of its head a few times.
After a moment’s consideration he loudly proclaimed the head-on-the-stick to be a warning that something very bad was about to happen.
His exhortations to leave the village were met with eye rolls and condescending chuckles.
The chief had been watching and listening from the back of the crowd.
He liked the old guy, but knew him to be a bit off the log.
He’d told him time and again that vagueness was the key.
And to always leave himself an “out” when making spiritual predictions.
The holy man hadn’t listened, and continued on with unerring inaccuracy.
His credibility had been used up long ago.
The only ritual the villagers participated in nowadays was the Saturday night dance when they got to dress up in dead animal parts and sashay around the fire pit.
That was just good fun.
“If they want us to leave so badly why don’t they just write SCRAM in the dirt and leave it at that?”
The question shouted from the crowd deflated the holy man.
His shoulders stooped, and his magic stick dropped to his side.
He began to scratch out sad little doodles in the dirt.
Unanswerable questions used to be the holy man’s bread and butter.
It was the one thing that kept him from having to work out in the hot sun all day; or risk his neck in the bush, sneaking up on dinner.
The chief, feeling he needed to move things along, asked the group, “Well if we don’t really know for sure, why take the chance?”
He was a believer in the separation of church and state, but helping out the other side now and again wouldn’t do much harm.
The response was lukewarm at best.
Since his job was the well being of the tribe, he ordered the villagers to vamoose.
He tried to soften the directive by assuring them it would only be for a little while.
The evacuation was halfhearted and disorderly, with lots of grumbling and head shaking.
They were disappointed the chief took the holy man’s side in all of this silliness, but dutifully grabbed whatever they could carry and meandered off…
Unsure of where they were going to go, while awaiting the all clear.
After a week or so nothing bad happened and everybody straggled back happy to be home again.
The chief sent his wife on a hard day’s hike to take the head-on-the stick as far away as possible and bury it.
She tugged the thing off its perch by the hair and slowly trudged off dragging the head in the dirt behind her.
She gave her husband a dirty look as she shuffled by, but he looked the other way pretending he hadn’t noticed.
He learned long ago it was impossible to keep her happy.
When the second head-on-a-stick showed up a few days later, it didn’t have the same jounce as the first one.
The holy man tried to whip up the same disquietude he’d enjoyed with the first head-on-a-stick.
Everyone went about their business and ignored his pleas.
But this time things really did go bad, and the holy man didn’t bother to hide his delight.