Once upon a time, there were two villages separated by woods. On one side of the woods, the village grew corn, and on the other, the village ran the the mill to grind it. The villagers could not live without each other, and so they built a path through the dark woods.
One night, while all the villagers slept, and the corn grew, and the horses dreamed, the Devil crept into the woods and built his house inside the trunk of a dead tree. He covered the door with colored mushrooms. And there he hid.
The next morning, one of the strongest boys of the village took his sack of corn and walked the path into the woods to the mill. All day the village waited for him to come with the corn so they could grind it on the mill. He never came.
On the other side of the woods, his family waited for him to return. He did not.
Days passed, and both villages, quite concerned, sent the boy’s friends into the woods to find him.
They did not return, either.
Now the parents began to wring their hands, and the mothers cried, and the husbands found their axes and heavy sticks and plunged into the woods, torches burning. They sang as they entered the shadowy path, but soon their song was gone, and so were they.
On either side of the wood, the women did what was the only sane thing to do. They gathered around a fire and danced. In time, a vision appeared to the women of the corn village, and across the woods, another vision–that looked exactly like this one–appeared in the fire of the mill village. “We have come to save you,” said the spirits, and the women recognized them at once. It was the Ibeji, the Divine Twins. “The Devil has built his house in your woods, and he has eaten all your men. But you can not say that you have seen us.”
The women nodded. Morning came, turning the twins into human men. One hid behind a stone, and the other stood at the edge of the woods. “Devil!” he shouted. “I know you are in there. If you are as powerful as you say you are, then you must be a very good dancer. But I bet you aren’t as good as I.”
The Devil, everyone knew, thought himself a splendid dancer, and if there was one thing that could draw him out of hiding, it was the temptation to prove he was the best dancer on earth. It worked. The women heard a rustling of the branches and the clomp of his hoof on the dirt, and there he stood, black as soot with burning golden eyes and a tongue of fire that flapped and licked from his mouth. “No one,” he said, “is as good as me.”
“We shall see!” said the first Ibeji. “Whoever collapses first must give the winner anything he wants.”
“Done!” the Devil cried, snapping his fingers so the women fetched their drums and began to play. The Devil and the first Ibeji squared off, shoulder to shoulder, and turned slowly. The drums picked up speed until the two were spinning and leaping, clapping, and churning up a tempest of dust beneath their feet. When the dirt cloud grew thick enough, the first Ibeji slipped from the contest and behind the stone. His sister jumped in the whirlwind danced against the Devil with all her might. When she tired, and when the Devil’s back was turned, the first Ibeji slipped back into the dance. For three days the Ibeji battled the Devil, and on the fourth day, he fell.
“So,” said the first Ibeji. “Even the Devil has to keep his word.”
The Devil, his golden eyes rolling in his head, agreed. “What do you want?”
“Leave here,” said the Ibeji. “And return the men to the village. Never come back.” The Devil, humiliated by his loss, crawled into the woods and released the men who had been trapped inside the tree.
Then, like Devils do, he vanished. And the Twins returned to themselves, and the villages returned to one, and never did the Devil get between them again.
Now, I didn’t entirely make up this story, as you probably figured out. It’s a combination of two stories of the Ibeji of Africa, and then I added some flair. I didn’t make up the part about the dance-off, although I wish I had. All the dialogue is original, thank you, and quite stunning.
For those of you who have been following along, you know that I wrote my last blog from Brazil about the cowrie reading with the African priestess, in which I was visited by the spirits of the Ibeji. You all know I have a twin brother, so in African beliefs, we ARE the Ibeji–which, Mom and Dad and Ben–means that we bless our family and have special powers.
Okay, I’m not 100% sure about the special powers part, but I know our materialization bodes favorably for the Moore clan. The Yoruba believe twins share one soul, with one being the spiritual half and the other being the mortal half although which is which remains a mystery all of their days. The second twin, according to tale, sends the first to scope out the world and report back as to whether or not it is good. This second twin, Kendihe (“the last to come”) then hears the report, which is communicated spiritually, and determines whether or not to be born. The first born, this re-con scout for the pair, is called Tayewo, “the first to taste the world.”
In this scenario, I’m Tayewo, destined forever to perform Spence’s errands, and Spence is Kendihe. And I suppose he liked my assessment enough because he did decide to be born, and there are moments when I wonder if perhaps he didn’t hear my womb report correctly, as I have my doubts about this place from time to time, and I can only imagine how shocked I was at first glance. Or perhaps, since I was eyeballing this joint with my spiritual sight, I saw the truth, and maybe frogs and butterflies and bluegrass music, and told him we were going to have an alright time, after all.
The point is that I was ordered in Brazil to, on September 27th, pass out candy to impoverished children as a demonstration to the Ibeji that I’m legit, that I honor their guiding energy in my life, and that I’m willing to do stuff to step up my spiritual game even when I know I’d better be selective in whom I tell about what I’m doing.
In Brazil, if you remember, I was pumped up about getting to pass out candy to children because of the extreme African nature of some of the other offerings that transpired, but a month goes by, and I find myself yesterday morning in the Halloween aisle at Target looking at the 3 1/2 lb bag of mixed chocolates, and I’m thinking “…so I’m just supposed to walk up to strange children and start passing out this candy?” No. We get arrested for that kind of stuff here in America and end up on Nancy Grace.
Forget it, I think. This is dumb. I don’t have to do it. Nobody will know that I didn’t do it. How would I even…? “Here kids, have some free candy?” “…so I just happen to have this unopened bag of individually wrapped pieces, do you want some?” “I know this sounds weird, but I’m supposed to give this to you children because…have you ever heard of the Ibeji?” Throw it out the window?
I found myself in quite a logistical conundrum. Call it a cross-cultural wrinkle. So, I thought, turning away from the crinkly rows of industrial-sized bags heaped on each other like a cattle feed, I just won’t do it. The Ibeji won’t care, and the priestess Dona Ichenia has certainly forgotten I ever existed.
But I will tell you this: I cared. I was about to let my Ibeji down. My Kendihe. All the people in the world who believe there’s no such thing as a stranger showing up with perfectly good candy for you to eat for no other reason than there is an energy in the universe that believes in free candy for children, especially children who don’t get a lot of candy. And all I had been asked to do was somehow get this candy to those children today.
Okay, then. Yeah. Yeah, I can do that. So I bought that 3 1/2 lb bag of individually wrapped chocolates from Target, and I went to go find some children.
Now in Brazil, they do it up. On the Ibeji feast day, you laugh and gorge yourself on sweets and play games until your sugar rush feels like something you earned out of a rolled-up dollar bill in 1985. Grown ups, kids, teens, everybody is giving sweets to everyone, and nobody has passed out flyers about razor blade threats and cyanide scares. You just go full Ibeji and pay for it later. That’s what’s up. But no one was doing that in Harlem Heights when I pulled into the daycare center with my bag of candy that weighed more than a Chihuahua.
It’s worth noting that Harlem Heights, the poor, minority neighborhood that occupies the ecotone between the rich beach neighborhoods and the upper middle class retirement villages of mid town was once the slave auction crossroads for South Florida. I did not put that together when I parked at the Sunshine Days Child Development Center, but I find it interesting that I remember it now, haunted as my footsteps have been in this Brazilian encounter with the ghosts of slavery.
I opened the office door trying not to come across as pedophiley. I am not a pedophile, so this shouldn’t have been hard, but I wanted them to feel extra okay about the fact that I was, childless and random, dropping off a big bag of candy for their preschoolers. “Hi, yes. I have this bag of candy for your kids if you take donations like this?” I am smiling like the Riddler, so intent am I on being perceived as well-intentioned.
“I don’t make the decisions,” the secretary says, and she exits to a toddler class to retrieve the school director, a Latino woman in her late 50s who is the teacher in the room. She smiles at me as if she is delighted I have thought to be so kind. I am relieved.
“Wow! Of course we take donations,” she says. “We like to trick or treat, too. They will love it.”
“Okay,” I say. And then, for some reason, I say, “thank you.” And leave. It’s almost like I could hear the Ibeji laughing, telling me they told me so, that the world has a side to it where candy is exchanged freely, without strings, with joy. Without fanfare.
See? I could hear them saying to me. The whole transaction, from Target to walking back out the office door empty handed, took about forty minutes. Wasn’t it worth it?
Yes, I tell them. And in my mind I see them dancing, off, away from me, their business with me finished. For now. Not much, but just a little bit, I feel like dancing.
I feel like things have been returned to me.
night, night beloveds.