“We must get home” Komakech Richard said, looking up at the sun that was sinking slowly toward the mountains. Over the years he’d become an expert at gauging time – time it took to walk the distance back to his new-become-old home; time it took to shower at the communal facility just too far away from the relative protection of the group; time it took to prepare the millet wine that got him from one day to the next. Time was something he knew all too well. Today – he’d lost track of time. He’d gone out to his fields to plant corn, the rainy seasons were upon them, and he’d become lost in some old memories. It was only when his daughter, Rachel, pulled at his faded and muddied t-shirt – with an image of a soft-drink on it – that he realized he’d made the perilous mistake.
“Why can’t we just stay here?” Rachel asked again pointing at the round mud building with no roof. It was a question that always made Richard angry.
“You know full well. We can’t make ourselves invisible, like they can.”
He gathered his possessions; a hoe, a green plastic bowl, a machete – and he put on his flip-flops. As he straightened up he felt a tight stab just above his stomach, realizing that the shadow of the mountain had touched the far end of the green-tinged lake in the distance. He knew this place well; it was his ancestral home. He knew the path of the shadows before the fall of dusk, the strangely logical pattern of the dry creek-beds, and the shades of the lake when it was about to rain. He dreamed about it every night and yearned for it during the long days of the dry season when he could only sit and wait – the endless hours in the doorway of his mud hut broken only by the lines; lines for food handouts; lines for the latrine; lines for the cash handout; lines for the medical tent when his inflamed stomach rejected the pungent vinegar banana-wine that gave him the patience for the waiting and the lines. He had always known this place; his land, the bodies of his ancestors buried just over the hill, the patch of open earth where he would play with an old soccer ball when he was a child, the tree he would climb; all of course before they came.
They came from the mountains. He did not know the mountains. It was said that the mountains were where they lived; and that when night grew neigh they would drift down the mountains and over the lake like a mist.
“Come on” and he grabbed Rachel’s tiny hand, propelling her forward as she tried to match his long strides with the pattering of her little footsteps. They followed the narrow winding footpath worn by goats through the shoulder high elephant grass, stepping occasionally over a muddy rut or avoiding the telltale signs of a snake burrow. They powered down the path for a time, emerging at last on a marram road that straightened the distance between the mountain and the big town – the town that Richard would go to someday, when he had enough money. Putting the mountain squarely to their backs, they fled its ever-approaching shadow as it began turning the waters of the lake to emerald.
“Quickly now my dear, they will be here soon.”
“Who are they, daddy? Why won’t you ever say?”
“You are too young.”
“I’m older than you were, when you say that they came.” This was true; the first time Richard had heard the screaming he’d been a young boy. Since then, every day had been the same; walking quickly to and from the farm when there was a lull. He never thought anymore about the beginning and he never wondered anymore about the end. He assumed, like everybody he talked to, that this was forever.
“You’re right. How bout if I tell you a story?” he asked, and was met with the wide grin of his Rachel.
They settled in to the long walk, their feet finding the rhythm of the road punctuated by Richard’s sing-song voice – the story taking on a lyrical quality.
“At the beginning of time, there was a man. He was a happy man, contented to work his family farm out beyond the river” and Richard extended his arm pointing left over his back. “He was middle aged, his teeth had not yet turned yellow from chewing the cane and the sun had only begun to wear a smooth patch at the top of his head. He was sinewy and strong and loved the work and the land.”
“Did he have a little girl?”
“Yes, Rachel, he had one little girl and one little boy and they played together in the sun and swam the river together hunting the little crawdads.” Rachel giggled.
“Now this man was wise, on Sundays he would go to the village to help solve problems other families had. Maybe he was an elder. Maybe that’s why the trouble started. One morning, after a long day at the village and a walk home at night under the stars…”
“He could walk under the stars?” Rachel sucked in her little breath – they were coming in short bursts now as she tried to keep up.
“Yes, little one, people were not afraid back then. He woke up the next morning – he’d drunk too much and his vision was a little blurry, when he saw that the vegetable garden in front of his house had been dug up. Gone were the tomatoes, the potatoes, the beans and the corn – and just before harvesting season. He cursed his luck, harvesting what was left or what was not damaged to have his wife sell at the market. He still had the millet and he would be fine – but it irked him and he sat out at night for a while trying to catch the culprit but nothing happened. After a time he gave up.”
“He never found him?”
“Hold on,” Richard said, “listen to the story.”
“OK.” Rachel was biting her lip.
“A year went by and another planting season came, and the man had forgotten all about the events of the previous year. Again, the night before the harvest he spent out with his friends, but the next morning he awoke to find that not only his vegetable field had been ravaged, but also part of his millet crop. ‘O woe is me’ he said, ‘last year I hardly broke even. This year I will become poorer.’ And the man wept.”
Richard continued, “The years went by, the smooth patch on top of the man’s head was expanding, his teeth were turning slowly the color of the setting sun and his chest was starting to tighten and sag. And each year it was the same. He did what he could to find what was happening. He stopped visiting the town; losing the place he loved so much as an elder. People no longer sought his advice – he was not a lucky man. His daughter and son became older and as they grew up, they grew ashamed of their father. He began to sell what he had and he sent one of his wives back to live with her brother. Each year more and more of his fields were destroyed.”
“But what was happening?”
They were walking faster now; Richard was throwing anxious looks across his shoulder at the advancing shadow from the mountain. Over the mountain a low wall of clouds like a wave was beginning to crest. He heard in the distance a popping. The mountain appeared to shimmer. He did not want to worry Rachel – and hoping the story was taking her mind off the race he went on.
“He tried, and tried,” Richard ignored the question, “he set up bonfires at night during harvest time, he had his family surround the fields, he brought warriors from the village. Each time it was the same, morning came and the mayhem of his broken fields met his eyes filled with despair. Finally, one night he covered himself in a thick layer of pond slime and slipped into the water. That night – he dug a root into his side to make sure he did not sleep and he watched. Finally, there it was. A lizard, the size of a man, crawled out of the water down a ways to begin ravaging his field. The man waited until the beast was in full fury and then he leaped out of the water, laying hold of the creature. They wrestled and they fought – Richard first on top, then beneath, then on top again until the light of the dawn laid bare the savagery of their contest, the beast leaped for the water – with the man seizing at the last moment its tail. The tail came off and the beast fled – never to be seen again.”
“What did he do with the tail?” Rachel asked.
“Patience” Richard said, although his demeanor was tense. It was dusk now, the lake was immersed in the darkness of the night and the mountain was invisible behind a sheet of violent rain. Thunder chased the lightning around the sky; the pounding as the electric swords sparred with each other over the African plain. Richard picked up Rachel, placing her on his shoulders and began to run.
“The man, who had become old” Richard’s words escaped between even breaths that held tempo with the pounding of his feet on the marram road, “took the tail over to his house. His family was all gone and he was ashamed. He put the tail in a basket and lit a bonfire with the remains of his field. That night the fire raged and he drank as he cursed the heavens and his life. The next morning when he awoke from his blackout he was shocked to find a baby quiet and sleeping in the basket.”
“Yes, my Rachel, a tiny baby.”
“Did he keep it?”
“There was nothing he could do” Richard said through even breaths. “He began to raise the child. But the child had a darkness to him. He was cruel to animals; he did not help with the work and he refused to study or to listen.”
Richard could at last see with relief some lights flickering by the side of the marram road. The community was made up of 100 round, single-room mud huts leaned up against the worn brick buildings of a trading post. Behind the community were latrines, far enough that the smell did not overpower but close enough to use at night for the adventurous who did not squat in the ditch beside the road. Out on the other side of the settlement was a poor military camp – scrawny boy-soldiers carrying nearly-empty rusted rifles, huddled around an old tank that had long ago surrendered to fate. They dared not brave the perilous night either.
“What happened then?”
“The bitter old man did not know what to do,” Richard breathed. “When the child turned thirteen,” he breathed. “He sat him down,” two deep breaths.
“He told him he was saddened, but that he would have to leave. That he himself would be going to live in the village – there at least he could beg for his food. The child’s eyes lit with an unusual fire, and he stood, saying nothing, turned and walked away.” Richard, almost spent, looked behind quickly, terror in his eyes, only to power forward as quickly as he could, “He went and as he reached the end of the man’s vision the old fellow swore to everybody who asked him that the boy descended to all fours and a long, spiny tail extended out.”
“Was that the end?” Rachel was being jostled back and forth now as Richard sprinted toward the relative safety of the enclosure. Behind the rains had finally reached him, a dark and blanketing rain that left the road sticky and Richard and his precious Rachel soaked. Behind a strange howling followed the popping sounds – with the occasional scream that came out of nowhere to pierce through them – hovering for a time in the pregnant air between thunderclaps.
“No” Richard panted, “It… was… said…”
“It was said” he said in one exhale, “that the boy went to live in the mountains. That… he… had… children…” He was losing his breath, “and… that… each… night… they…” and all of a sudden Richard plummeted to the ground, rolling somersaults forward until he came to lay flat in the muck and the mire. He heard Rachel issue a squeal that was quickly silenced. A silence that would extend forever.
MAGIC REALISM BLOGHOP 2014
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the link below to find out about the other posts and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.