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Ezeulu, the Chief Priest of the god Ulu, searches the signs of the new moon for the third night in a row. He knows today is the day, but he always looks early just in case.
His hut (called an obi) is built differently than other men's huts; in addition to the usual long entrance in front, there's a shorter one in back where he can watch the sky for the moon.
He watches and considers the fact that his eyesight is getting bad. He doesn't like the thought that he might have to find somebody to watch for him someday like they did for his grandfather.
He watches the thin moon with fear. When he is in his role as Chief Priest, he feels mostly joy instead of the fear.
He begins to beat a large metal bell (the ogene).
The senior wife Matefi asks the moon for good luck. The young wife Ugoye says she can't see the moon and wonders if she's blind. Matefi points out where it is, and Ugoye echoes Matefi in asking the moon for good luck. But she says she doesn't like the way it looks, like it's evil. Matefi answers that an evil moon is obvious.
Obiageli, one of Ezeulu's daughters, asks if the moon kills people. Her brother Nwafo tells her that it kills little girls. To get back at him, she begins to chant that the moon kills little boys.
Ezeulu goes to his barn and takes down one of the sacred yams – number eight out of twelve. He roasts it over a fire and thinks about his duties as Chief Priest. The next day, he would ask his assistants to announce the day of the festival of the Pumpkin Leaves.
He considers how much power he has as Chief Priest. Is he just the watchman, or does he control that day? If he fails to announce the feast of the Pumpkin Leaves and the New Yam, would the people plant or reap their crops? But he would not dare refuse to announce the day.
Then he grows angry. Wouldn't he dare? He just might.
Then he considers: What was the point of having such power if he never uses it?
Ezeulu's youngest son Nwafo comes into the obi and sits down. It seems obvious he's going to be the next Chief Priest, even though he's just a young kid.
Edogo, Ezeulu's oldest son, comes in to the tent, greets his father, and then passes through to his sister Akueke's temporary hut. Ezeulu tells Nwafo to call him back and the two return.
Ezeulu asks Edogo whether it's true that he's been carving the image of gods. Edogo says that the person who told him this lie must be blind, and must not be able to see the difference between a deity and a Mask.
Obiageli enters, sits, and begins to quarrel with Nwafo. Ezeulu tells them to be quiet and rolls the now cooked yam out of the fire. He cuts the yam into a wooden bowl.
Obiageli sings as he eats. She wants some of the yam, but her father always eats the entire sacred yam and never shares. It doesn't stop her from hoping.
Ezeulu eats and drinks in silence. Then he gets up and looks at the household shrine, a carving with faceless okposi of the ancestors. Nwafo has a special okposi just for him, which had helped heal him from convulsions.
Ezeulu begins to pray to Ulu, thanking him for another new moon, asking for health and prosperity for his household and the six villages of Umuaro.
He feels bitter as he prays, remembering the way that Umuaro treated him over the affair of the white man, Wintabota, when he spoke the truth. But how could he tell a lie? Nevertheless, as a result, division had come to the villages.
Ezeulu hears women's voices returning from the stream. They greet him and he asks if these weren't the women going to the stream during the day. Nwafo reminds him that they had to go all the way to Nwangene because the stream they usually used had been declared dangerous by the oracle due to a boulder resting on two rocks at its source.
Ezeulu decides that even though his wives would have to travel far for water, it is no excuse for his dinner to be so late.
They hear Obika whistle as he returns.
The narrative flashbacks to a time three years earlier when Obika flung himself into the obi, terrified, because he had seen a man in lightning near the ugili tree between their village and another.
Ezeulu questioned his son and discovered that Obika had seen a light-skinned man, dressed like a wealthy man with an eagle's feather in his red cap, carrying an elephant tusk. Ezeulu announced he had seen the god of wealth, Eru.
The narrative returns to the present.
Ojiugo, Matefi's daughter, brings in food for Ezeulu. She tells Nwafo to go to his mother's hut. She resents the fact that he is a favorite. Ezeulu tells her to leave Nwafo alone; instead, he tells her to call her mother.
Matefi arrives and Ezeulu chides her for bringing in his supper so late. Must he eat later than any other man in the village? But of course, he adds, anything he says to her has no effect.
She tries to protest that she had to fetch water all the way in Nwangene but he won't listen to her excuses.
Ojiugo comes to get the bowls. Nwafo is finishing off the soup and she (Ojiugo) gets angry. Her mother Matefi says they can't blame him, since his mother is a poor cook, saving her money to buy herself jewelry instead of making good food.
She looks toward the hut of Ezeulu's first wife, who was now long dead. His daughter Akueke lives there now, separated from her husband, who beat her badly.
Obika comes home singing, asking Matefi for food. He criticizes the food but Matefi ignores him since it's obvious he's drunk. Obika is handsome and wild, but always drunk.
Still, Ezeulu prefers him to his other elder son Edogo, who was quiet and careful, even though he (Ezeulu) always advised Obika to be more like Edogo.
Recently, Obika had almost murdered a man. When Akueke returned home with her face swollen from a beating her husband had given her, he set up and went to the village of his brother-in-law. There, he not only beat her husband, Ibe, until he almost killed him, but he brought Ibe home tied to his bed. Obika set Ibe under a tree and told everybody not to touch him.
There Ibe laid for some days until some of his kinsmen came to get an explanation.
Ezeulu called his daughter Akueke to stand before them, to show off some of her scars. He wants to know why they allowed Ibe to treat her that way. They admit that Ibe was wrong and they don't blame him much, but they still don't think it as right to carry him off away from his home, away from the protection of his relatives.
Ezeulu tried hard to make peace, but it doesn't seem likely that they will ever return to reclaim Akueke.
Obika joins the others in Ezeulu's hut. Edogo asks what work Ezeulu has for them in the morning. He suggests that they all go help Obika finish his homestead so he can bring his new wife home.
Ezeulu's son, Oduche, speaks up and says that he has been chosen to help move the new teacher to the village.
Ezeulu says that though he has sent Oduche to school to learn the ways of the white man, he is not relieved of his duty to his father. He must tell them no, that tomorrow is the day for Ezeulu's sons, wives, and sons' wives to work for him.