I posted a challenge on my twitter a few days ago to those that follow me. The objective was to give me a writing challenge. I didn’t get much in response, but what I did get was intriguing. Bingo. You heard me right. The challenge was none other than the past time of so many seniors out there. I’ve had the idea before, jokingly lampooning the seriousness that gets poured into bingo.
What if it wasn’t a laughing matter at all? What if it was elevated to the level of respect that some cultures do with ritual?
This is my answer. Enjoy!
The air was tense in the room filled with incense smoke. It usually was, but the stakes were higher than ever. This wasn’t just a matter of money; this was a matter of pride. Twenty pairs of eyes scanned over their cado shuffling them one by one, identifying strengths and weaknesses in each of them. “Cado” were thin slips of parchment used for the ancient art. They had to establish the strategy of each one. Some of them had as many as ten. The newer blood, the naïve, had only one or two. They didn’t have the raw talent to play the game as it should be played.
The veterans had come out for this one. Most of them settled on the sides as to not be distracted by their rivals. Some intentionally stayed in the fray to cause trouble for those around them. Kempu was a game of war; the name of the game had nothing to do with not cheating, but rather not getting caught. The master of her craft, Saanu the Baroness of Kempu, sat in an island at the center of the room. She was a broad woman with hair silvered with age that was once raven colored and olive colored skin like most of her kinsmen. Almost every seat immediately next to her was unclaimed. Typically she was daring and managed ten cado but when she produced an extra four, uneasy murmurs filled the room.
It was a gamble no one was willing to take, having more resources exponentially increased the odds to your favor, but the rules were strict. Your victory was null and void if you so much as abandoned one cado. You had to maintain and know them perfectly.
The stuttering snore of the mountain of Kempu, a grotesquely obese man that managed the stones sat with his hands folded across his sizable girth. Everyone in the room knew that when he woke the competition would begin and war would start. Next to him was a spry little girl, a trouble maker and his own blood. She was to aid him in his holy task.
There were several other well know Kempudas there that day. Byini the blade, known for marking her cado with throwing darts and her winning stroke with the long handled dagger she carried at her side; Hoela the quick, her cognitive skill and lightning fast reflexes allowed her to appear as though she never moved the entire session; Joola the orange flash, known for the mashed berry poisonous ink she used; and finally Yuu the crone, a woman that claimed she could memorize the cado of every soul in the room with a mere glance.
There were no rules in Kempu regarding marking your cado, as long as it was clear, decisive and accurate. Most people used Jotilia, long ink brushes to mark their cado. At the front of the hall was a gaping maw that plunged into darkness, a grim reminder for those that forsook the holy ways. Any transgression; inaccurate marking, cheating, lying, deceit, or fabrication would earn a one way trip into the depths below. Hissing could be heard as well as the occasional snap of the jaws of an ancient but deadly crocodile by the name of Anansi. It had been a week since he had eaten last.
The mountain stirred and opened his almond shaped eyes. He smacked his lips and shook gently sending his multiple chins to quivering. “…Kempu. It is an ancient art and practice. “
His granddaughter looked up at him with admiration. Some day she would be amongst the battlefield, she had already shown promise.
The mountain’s voice was firm and fierce despite his soft appearance. “Those that dishonor, die. That is the old way and how it should always be. Those that show honor, discipline and… and…”
He tilted forward and started to fall asleep. He snapped back upright abruptly. “…victory! …shall stand victorious. Granddaughter Pisipi, draw the first stone.”
This was what everyone in the room waited for. The spry little girl reached into the urn that held the stoned and drew one out. She started to offer it to her grandfather but he merely shook his head. Her eyes grew wide as she looked down at it. “Kosi! Fi!”
The sound of Jotilia touching paper was uniform and exercised. The tell-tale ‘thunk’ of Byini’s blades were heard as well. Most of the women in the room re dipped their Jotilla and stood ready, Hoela sat with her hands folded in front of her mouth. Her Jotilla sat lazily between the index and middle finger of her right hand. Despite that, five of her ten cado were marked.
The mountain let out a yawn and gestured with two fingers. His Granddaughter was happy to oblige and blucked two stones. “Eni, Twa,Twa! Uni, Si, Tra!”
The veterans didn’t bat an eye, but many of the rookies hesitated. It was fairly unusual for two marks to be called in tandem. The Baroness smirked as she marked her cado. Blood was going to spell today, she could sense it.
Another stiff gesture came from the mountain, another stone drawn. “Peni, Fi, Twa!”
A few of the new blood squirmed anxiously, only for calls had been made and already tension had mounted. The first signs of hesitation happened to the left of the Baroness. She wore a slimy smile as she calmly marked her cado. “Careful, Anansi sounds hungry today.”
The woman swallowed hard. She was young, and anxious it was her first game of Kempu. She quickly marked her cado when she saw the mountain hold up four fingers. There was a collective gasp in the room. The old man wanted blood apparently.
The little girl grinned and dug her hand into the urn and pulled out the stones and squinted at them. She offered one of them to the mountain who muttered in low tones. The veterans grinned, they knew already what it meant. “Kosi, On! Kosi, On, On! Muu, Fo, Fo! Badi!”
Another gasp filled the room. A Badi stone hadn’t been called for months. There was no warning when one would be added and it usually didn’t happen until much later in the game. The old man knew the stakes were high. The wild card Badi stone was high risk in that it must be used on the cado but if the number was called a second time the cado would be void.
“K…Kempu!” A young woman called out from the side of the room, it was one of the new contenders. This one only had two cards and it was her first time. All eyes in the room turned to her save the crone. She calmly folded her hands.
The woman stood. “I have Kempu!”
The mountain stirred slowly and started to stand. He was old and fat, but not immobile. “Come to me, young one.”
“It is unfortunate,” The crone said calmly behind her hands, “To die so young.”
The woman froze and eyed her cado. “What do you…?”
“The rules of Kempu are sacred, and should be studied thoroughly,” the crone said, “Badi cannot be played on the same line as one called in a multiple call. Your Kempu is false.”
The woman paled in realization. “B…but I…”
“Come to me. Young one,” the mountain said again, more sternly.
“Y…yes,” the woman said in a drained tone. She walked to the mountain with her cado clutched between her pale fingers. She offered the cado with two hands in a formal manner.
“Muu… Tre… Ni…?” He said raising the cado to his wide face.
The woman nodded quietly.
“It is as Yuu says. This is not permitted,” he said.
“I’m s…sorry… I…”
“Sorry?” The mountain furrowed his brow. “I know child. Mistakes happen.”
With a surprisingly quick motion, the old man drove his sandaled foot into her stomach forcing her into a backwards stumble. She screamed as she fell into open air and plunged into the darkness below. The fall was long enough to allow her scream to crescendo into a silencing crunch.
The old man snorted and sat. “…this is the way of Kempu. Proceed.”
Anansi and the snakes rustled below as they fed. The room was silent enough to hear the snapping of bones.
The mountain’s granddaughter stood stoic, she was no older than her tenth year but she knew the rules better than any. She took another stone calmly. “Uni, Sevi, Oni.”
The death of a player always set people on edge and placed a mantle of doubt on the shoulders of the survivors. This was no exception. The woman that died had been a mother of three and was likely seeking the prize to provide for her children. Now, she had nothing, and her children were now without a mother.
Joola laughed outright her chuckling broke the silence of the hall. There were no rules against outbursts of talking or laughter as long as the calls went unhindered. The Jotilla in the hall moved, Byini’s daggers prickled but no other noises besides the remnants of the laugh.
The mountain nodded again. The girl pulled a stone.
“That stone,” A woman near the front said, “…will give me Kempu.”
All eyes fell on the new comer this time even Hoela.
“That is a bold claim.” The mountain leaned back and chewed idly. “…but the rules allow it.”
The veterans watched the newcomer carefully. Was she clairvoyant? Was she a fool?
“It would have to be ‘Muu tre twa’ for your life to be spared… and for you to achieve victory. “ Yuu said carefully.
“You’d be wrong,” the woman said with a smirk. She held up the Cado on her table and turned it back and forth. “This is the one you are speaking of…? Correct?”
Yuu narrowed her eyes. “I am never wrong. …and yes.”
“You only need to glance at the Cado a moment to memorize it… what if you never get that moment?” She smiled sweetly. The stranger wasn’t a particularly young woman, nor was she old. She had flecks of grey hair in her long black hair. She paused to pull back her hair from her shoulders.
With a gesture the cado split into a shower of paper, dozens of them fell from her hand until she twisted her wrist to snare a lone piece. “This one, make your call girl.”
Everyone in the room shift their gaze to the girl. The mountain’s granddaughter swallowed and said “Muu Tre Twa.”
Yuu smirked. “As I said… I’m going to enjoy—”
“Kempu,” the woman said in a dull tone.
“I don’t… understand… you…” The Baroness pointed at her accusingly.
“…said I would need that call to achieve victory? Well that would be wrong. Any of the remaining numbers in the vase would secure my victory. Have you forgotten? Kempu is a game of reflex as well as luck. I simply need a series of cards that allow me victory in ten stones regardless of the draws. The rest is simple accuracy.”
“Then you…” Hoela considered, “You were marking all of those cado?”
“Yes.” The woman smiled broadly. “I am Valeen the Void-touched. Winning this game is nothing.”
Baroness Saanu protested. “But the cado need to be verified by the—”
“They were,“ the mountain said, “Mistress Valeen was so kind as to register her sixty eight cards far in advance.”
“S…sixty eight?” The baroness paled.
“Is that that odd? Yuu memorizes more than that. It’s simply a matter of her inability to mark so many cards.” Hoela said rubbing her chin. “But how do you mark so many?”
Valeen gestured with her hand, an inky mass of shadow danced in front of her and another appeared in front of Hoela. She panicked and backed out of her chair to a stand. “Gods…”
“Now you see.” Valeen grinned and brought her hand into a fist.
“It still doesn’t explain how you knew the correct card.”
“Oh that…” Valeen smiled. “Why don’t you ask Yuu why she insists on taking that spot?”
The crone grimaced. “The vase is shiny.”
“Very well,” the mountain said clearing his throat. “We shall take a small recess while I verify the cards of our supposed victor, then we will determine whether she has earned congratulations, or death.”
Valeen looked unconcerned and placed the winning cado on the top of her stack. She calmly hefted them and approached the mountain. The little girl marveled at her as she passed her, the clear and definitive victor.
For those interested: The calls were K(B)5 – E(I)22 – U(O) 63 – P(G) 52 – K(B)1 – K(B)11 – M(N) 44 – Badi(wild) – U(O) 71 – M(G) 32