We Are Memory
The desperation of the horizon curved like a drooping branch on her youthful lips. A youth dying in premature old age. Her belly near bursting, a seed ready to erupt, hampered her every heave and ho. She walked with the gait of an unknown cripple. Swaying gracelessly on her bent knees, her breasts like newborn stars, heavy and beaming, flopping against her rotund protrusion. The men watched her with the verdant eye that befitted the envious cuckold – a cuckold without a wife, but whose un-chained pride is nonetheless wounded by the naivety of self-preservation. Some of them carried walking sticks with ostrich feathers tied close to the handle, others, naked and sweating like a fall, held hand-axes sharpened by genius and inspired by lust. As they walked the men’s heads roved 360 degrees, eager like a mother bird guarding a nest, their shoulders partly drooping, the heat of the midday championing the rivers of their sweat – but their inner anatomy, the landscape within, was flooded with new memories, being birthed and buried in one instant, and they engraved the images delivered by their blink-blink-blinking eyes into the recollections of the future. To survive the now they had to decide the morrow. To remember the morrow they need to memorize the now.
“I do not remember this place.” The old woman of the group spoke with sweat harrowingly falling from the edge of her lips.
The ‘place’ she spoke of was the endless stretch of plains the group found themselves surrounded by. For miles on end, as far as the beleaguered eye could see, there was monotonous terrain, laced with shadowy acacias and hard earth. Overhead a stray vulture flew heavily and wearily, and the horizon was dancing in a misty heat-haze that made the world appear subterranean and un-real.
“We have never been here. And we never will be here.” Komba spoke as he leaned on a long branch whose tip had been sharpened by the teeth of flint. Komba was a young man, a master of laughter, who had been feeling sombre ever since the group left the sanctuary of the riverbank.
“This is a trick! The vultures in the sky are working against us.” A younger male, Jengi, spoke as he looked up at the silhouette of the vulture, his Adam’s apple looking harsh and pointed like a hand-axe.
“It is the other-hyenas that are doing this.” Efe spoke with water in her eyes. It wasn’t the cool water that overwhelmed all her bodies. This was water that only she could bear. The water of a mother bearing the last child. She was the one before last. Her little one, would be the last, to remember. “The hyenas in the kapulahii, they don’t want me to live.”
The others looked solemnly to the ground as she spoke. All of them shared a singular, uniform memory; without even looking at each other, they knew what images flared up in the minds of their comrades.
The silent river in the dead of night, began to howl with the voice of a yelping dog. Its skin begin to wrinkle, as if it were ageing before their very eyes. The trees along the banks began to shiver with the wind released from its voice. And before long, without a single cloud in the sky, water began falling from the sky. All the men, women and children remained asleep on their beds of dry grass. They knew that the spirits of the kapulahii would keep them safe as long as they walked the nocturnal paths of the ancestors. Some of them, as the rains crashed down, were spoken to by their dead parents, warning them of empty days to come. Others saw visions of eland hunting down cats – everything was upside down. Soon the water of the kapulahii became so strong, that it fell on their skin like blades on hide. Still they did not stir. They would be safe. These were not the times for storms. The water would soon stop – the kapulahii knows its hours and its months. But the water did not stop! And soon the river grew angry, as if its unburied dead grew furious at having their slumber disturbed. Some of the men, and Efe herself, were awaken by the river’s thunderous roar, that seemed to thrust a large white spear straight into the kapulahii’s wide belly. They awoke, and saw, the river overflow its banks, releasing a great flood that drowned the slumbering comrades, delivering them straight to the bowels of kapulahii before they even knew what hit them. Those that were awake had enough time to run. To remain, in the true sense, here. And when the morning came, they looked around at the flooded plains that had been their home for the past twelve moons, and realized they were the last of their kind. They could remember a long long way back – but they could no longer remember the days to come.
“Nothing as bad as this has happened to the ones who came before. Otherwise, we would not be here. What have we done wrong?” Efe asked the now-clear, scorching sky as they walked, tirelessly, through the devouring plains.
“But we could no longer stay Home.” The old woman said as she scouted the horizon. “All those lifeless ones… remember what happened when young Musi was eaten by the cats? He was not ready to leave this plane. And so, the day after, young Jengi almost died falling from a cliff he did not see. I was beaten by the now lifeless Khomatiko for no reason. And the sky was without water for months. Remember what would happen if we stayed Home now, with all those lifeless!”
“Be quiet!” Nama shouted as he dropped down to the ground, his face being obscured by a patch of long, golden grass. Nama was a male, the tallest of the group, the one closest to kapulahii, with ears as long as an elephant’s, listening to the chatter of the others. The others instinctively mimicked his behaviour and dropped down to the ground, belly-down. Even Efe, with her enormous belly.
Nama gestured to the others; he opened the right hand in the shape of a jaw and with his mouth he grinned, canines glaring. Hyenas! He pointed west and when the others looked they saw a pack of ten, maybe twenty large hyenas, stood motionless against the horizon, sniffing the air, studying to the scents the group was creating with every step. Nama pointed to Efe’s belly and held out his palm, fingers together and upright. Then he closed his fingertips-last – they are waiting for the little one to come out. He will make easy prey.
Komba, the strongest in the group, raised his shoulders with a sharp thrust. Then he closed his right hand into a strong fist and smacked it with his left hand, his face frowning with his upper lip parted open. How do we fight them?
Name squinted his eyes bared his canines and wagged his tongue like a dog’s wagging tail. We scare them!
Name, Komba and Jengi stood up, bading the women, especially Efe, stay low. They threw their shoulders back, made themselves grow a few feet, stiffened their muscles, and began running at a medium pace, towards the hyenas. As they ran they sang the song of fear, taught to them by an ancestor from the depths of kapulahii. The song had no words. No gestures. Only noises, the noises of whales; the three males, together, were like an orchestra. Nama used his deep voice to boom out a hollow bass cry. Komba clicked fervently, separating the sounds with exactly three seconds between them. And Jengi wailed in an eerie falsetto. As they got closer to the hyenas they began to smack their chests and their thighs, maintaining the song of fear, until, by the time they were a few feet away from the pack: they roared as loudly as any lion. The hyenas scattered. Scrambled. Laughing their ghostly laugh. Disappearing into the imprisoned horizon. The three men began to laugh; they hugged each other, booed and clicked, touching each other as if reminding each other that they were still whole and not dismembered.
They returned to the group and the females, Efe and the old woman, repeated the same gestures of celebration. But soon, a gaunt quiet descended on the festivities.
“They will return. Remember – they always do.” The old woman professed.
“It is because of me.” Efe said putting her open palm on her naked breasts, firm and dripping. “They want the little one. I remember the cruelty of the hyena.”
“We follow the hyenas.” Name spoke over Efe, his voice stern, his brows frowning as he gazed meticulously at the distant horizon.
“I don’t remember you to be mad.” Jengi said with a chuckle.
“I am not. But remember – hyenas need water, too. We find hyenas we find water.” Name held his ground, still upright, his tall frame reminded the others of a powerful tree. Was Name born from a tree?
“But we also find hyenas. We have only one spear. Remember, there were many more than one hyena. And we are only three fighting men.” Komba said as he squatted, catching his breath from the run, not nearly half the male Name was. Or was Name merely hiding his fatigue better?
“Remember,” Name began to speak, holding out the palm of his hand in the direction of Komba, as if stopping his pictures so he may listen. “To die fighting a hyena is to be prepared. To die of thirst is to have death creeping up on you like a snake.”
“I don’t want to die, remember, I will give birth to the last one.” Efe said, walking closer to the untouchable Name.
“Jengi will stay with you. See my memory, Efe: Komba and I will fight the hyenas.” Name said looking at Efe from the side of his eyes, sweat falling over his thick lips.
“Too many have already become lifeless.” Efe said, putting her hand on Name’s high shoulder.
“It does not matter. So long as you and the last one stays alive, I don’t care for any other memory.”
After sometime resting, sweating, conserving some moisture (all the while the males told the story of their chasing away the hyenas, so the females could remember it and, when the last one arrives, it will remember it too) they carried on, in the direction of the hyenas.
The trek, across miles of arid, fine-leaved savannah, was done in relentless heat, and without any nutrition, save for the occasional ground tubers. To survive such a perilous journey the group, especially ravenous Efe, needed to feast on meat, and all of them walk-dreamed of memories, orphaned from past and future, of succulent flesh roasting over a mad fire, and tasted, in their heads, the black, juicy blood of some spiritual quarry. “The spirits are taunting us.” The old woman spoke, her head overwhelmed with the tantalizing images, derived from the realm of kapulahii itself. But they would not faulter. Name was convinced that the spirits were pointing to the future, and the tastes they were tasting was a memory not yet written. So he encouraged them and they trudged on.
They did encounter a small herd of buffalo halfway through the day. But not a single one of them had the strength, nor indeed the means to hunt down such a mighty, respected animal. The buffalo, along with its comrades the zebra and the gazelle, were the most populous inhabitants of kapulahii and, as such, they held a great amount of power in the realms of the lifeless. The group knew not to anger the trinity of animals without heed. And every kill of buffalo, zebra or gazelle required great many apologies, gifts, and songs, to allay the anger of the lifeless animal. Only then could the stars at night be silent and kind.
Name began pointing towards a set of paw-prints left behind by a dog-like animal. He turned to the others and thrust his index finger into his palm, made the sign for hyena, then, with his right hand shaped in the form of a crocodile’s snout and his face snarling, he signed hunting dog. They were the prints of either hyena or hunting dog. Either way, Name signed, there will be food. He did not need to say any more: the others simultaneously shared a memory in their heads. They all remembered that hyenas and hunting dogs were excellent hunters and scavengers. They were animals that were half-living half-lifeless. They could travel in and out of kapulahii sniffing out where a dying animal lay, and reaching it before it fell into the plane of stars.
Now Name and Komba became silent and incommunicable. They were crouching over the prints, running their hands along the grooves in the earth. They held their hands straight and pointed, moved them this way and that as if swimming, their eyes heavy, their lips pouting, their black skin shining like a poetry in the midday haze. The others watched and waited in the sweating silence. Efe sat down to relieve herself from the burden the little one was exerting on her back – but was no less attentive to the male’s studious interpreting.
West! Name and Komba pointed simultaneously. Sensing something of import the males, Jengi included, began to jog across the landscape, past the grazing buffalo, leaving the old woman and Efe to follow in their own time. Within a few minutes the men were out of sight. The females carefully made their way through the herds, taking the time to prostrate themselves, momentarily, before the large male buffalo. Then, as they overtook a solitary acacia, whose barren branches provided little shade, they saw the males, squatting again, looking attentively west.
Efe was beginning to tire she could not take much more travelling without food or water. Within sight of the males she squatted down, catching her breath, and looked at a colony of ants that marched along her feet, coursing around her like a river changing its path to accommodate a new obstacle. She looked at the ochre ants, the thousands of them walking, seemingly aimlessly in the unflinching heat, and she remembered, without wanting to, the day she discovered an ant colony when she was foraging with her mother. This was close to the time when Efe had her second birth – close, that is, to her first memory.
“Thump the nest with the stick, child. See what happens. Look, look at them scuttle. Do you know what they are doing? Those are the soldiers rushing out to protect the nest; soon, when we are gone, they will begin to rebuild it.”
“How can you know that, mother, when ants cannot speak?”
“I know because I remember. Have I ever told you the story of the vulture and the ant?”
“Let me tell you. The story, like all stories, is a memory, and once you hear it, it shall become a part of your spirit.”
A loud, shrill whistle reached the ears of Efe. She looked up, feeling the old woman putting her arm around her, and saw Name calling them over. They went over to the squatting, silent men, like leopards on the prowl, and found them staring intently, with a look of nervousness on their chiselled, lithe faces. They were staring, as Name’s finger soon made clear to Efe, at a pack of hyenas spread out across the near horizon, near a patch of verdant grass, the heads of the large females lowered, watching a small herd of wildebeest grazing. Name drew Efe’s attention. He held up for fingers with his right hand and with his left hand he made a jaw which he hid behind the grass-like hand. The hyenas were hunting.
Komba knew what Name was thinking before Name had even thought of it. They would watch the hyena hunt then, as soon as the kill was made, they would steal it. Jengi protested, he didn’t want to be left out. But Komba put his hand on Jengi’s chest, pointed towards the females then hugged himself whilst closing his eyes as if in sleep. Jengi had to stay behind: if something happened to Komba and Name he would have to protect the females. Especially Efe. And when the little one arrived he would have to be his father.
Jengi: he pointed to himself, drew a finger across his neck, then smacked his right fist into his left hand. The other males knew what this meant. Jengi pointed to each of them in turn and smacked his hands again. His meaning brought sadness to Name and Komba, it reminded them of an old feud that had only been temporarily silenced by the necessity of calamity. But the fact remained: Jengi was not the little one’s father. The father was one of them, Name and Komba, but neither could know which. And it would not matter anymore. Now the little one was the child of the entire group. He was the only memory left of their once proud, extensive family. He was sired by the past to conserve the future. And he must be protected at all costs.
Without him, all memory would fade away into the mires of oblivion. And with no one left to remember, it would be as though they never existed.
The old woman handed the pointed walking-stick to Komba, and Name weighed up the heavy, cumbersome, blunted hand-axe and contemplated whether or not it would be of any use. He searched his memory but could not see any such hand-axe being used in a fight against hyenas. He threw it away and preferred to trust in his stature, remembering as he did a story told, beside the smoke, of a man having defeated a hyena simply by staring at it for long enough. Before the two males departed they began to perform the hunting dance. Both of them had their roles; Name was the hunter, Komba the quarry. Name threw, with exaggerated movements and dramatic articulation, a spear at Komba who fell down, holding his neck, writhing on the ground, his eyes full of acted pain and genuine anxiety. Finally Name, with a series of claps, jumped on Komba and began devouring his victim, all the while remembering the night sky, with the ancestor-stars blinking overhead. The dance done, the males headed off, without even acknowledging the three compatriots they left behind. No man feared being lifeless – for, if they are prepared for death, then death shall not claim them. The three left-behind watched closely.
Name and Komba took up a position atop a protruding rock, the type sabre-cats liked to use for their midday slumber. They crouched down atop it, watching the moving hyena pack. All the while they signed and gestured to each other, pointing towards the herd, mapping out the hyena’s strategy, anticipating their own plans. They tried to tap into the collective memory of their group’s existence, and called to their minds a hyena hunt. And, suddenly, in silent unison, they knew what they had to do.
They began to walk through the idle, relaxed herd of wildebeest; following the individual hyenas that prowled the same patches, though keeping a respectful distance. As they walked, Name and Komba watched the hyenas. The wildebeest remained un-concerned by the presence of the hyenas. They knew that the canid was a pack hunter: a single hyena was no threat. But the hyenas were clever animals who were full of the wisdom of kapulahii. It was remembered too, by both Name and Komba, that when bitter ancestors wanted to carry out a revenge-killing on the living, they would suicide their already dead soul by possessing a hyena and use it to kill the man who had wronged them in life. So they knew, the two weary males, to fear their symbiotic adversary.
The wildebeest were scattered along the dry grassland. Some of them were lying down, resting, their restless tails swatting flies off their warm backs. And these relaxed, unguarded individuals were what the hyenas were studying. The males knew this. And they waited within viewing distance of a napping wildebeest and, before long, their good memory was rewarded. A large female hyena approached the unsuspecting bull, her penis almost dragging along the ground. Slowly, without hiding her square, angular body, she approached the wildebeest from the back, careful not to stray out of its blind spot. It moved closer and closer, the wildebees slept on, and from their vantage point on the outskirts of the herd, Name and Komba looked at each other and silently worshipped the queen of their enemy.
She stopped. Raised her front paw, letting it float in mid-air for a few seconds, then made a dash for her quarry. By the time she was seven steps away the wildebeest awoke with a start, got to its feet, and with its bearded lips still trailing long stalactites of drool, tried to get away from the impending attack. It took three awkward, desperate steps, before the queen’s jaws were latched on to its right shoulder blade. The bull was a mighty brute, but the queen’s jaws were stronger than a man’s arms. She held it back, pulling on its grey skin. The wildebeest was overwhelmed by the dictates of its memory and began kicking its hind legs in desperation. But the queen was safely out of their reach, and as she pulled the bull down harder to the ground, one of its flailing, brittle hind legs was broken. Name and Komba remembered what this meant: the chase was over. But for them, the real work was just about to begin.
The queen wrestled the wildebeest to the ground, its yelping, quivering lips like flies buzzing around death, its eyes nearly falling out of their sockets. Once down, the wildebeest was not able to get up again – Name and Komba knew this. That was their cue. They ran towards the queen and her still-living kill, shouting the song of fear, Name holding aloft his makeshift spear; at their approach, the queen did indeed move a few cautious steps away from her quarry. Name and Komba surrounded the bull, held him down, whilst maintaining an energetic, virile rendition of the song of fear. The queen watched them from an arrogant distance, still, panting, searching her memory for the sounds of the ancient song. Komba swore, as he thrust the bull’s head down to the ground, that he saw the hyena looking up, ears pricked, as if she were receiving instructions from kapulahii. A great river of fear flowed over Komba – and the song of fear had been turned inward. And when a man is afraid, he is admitting defeat. Komba remembered this – and his memory of things that had not yet been, was suddenly blank.
The bull was on its side, bleeding from its shoulder, unable to move or stand, breathing breaths which it could only hope would be it last. But still it breathed on, yelping, desperate to weep. The queen circled her kill and the thieves, and for awhile, Name looked into her yellow eyes, his shoulders arched, defying it’s deathly encirclement. But his defiance soon turned into a slivering shudder when, from across the horizon, he spotted the rest of the clan trotting towards them. The hyenas, males and females alike, were remarkably silent. They were not cackling, not communicating with the tricksters of kapulahii – they had nothing more to say, Name knew and feared, they had their instructions. The clan knew what it was doing. Now Name was afraid, too. He would never have been, not the old, strong Name. But the Name of now was no longer protected. He had lost his family. Lost his entire past. And to lose one’s past is to severe one’s future. All he had to fight for was the last one and, for a lightning-quick moment, he doubted whether even the last one had any future. In that moment of trepidation, he could not remember it’s future.
The hyena clan began circling the mise-en-scene, and Name and Komba, still crouching over the undead bull, looked at each other and knew, without words or gestures, what the other was saying: I’ve seen this before. Name, taking in a deep breath of life, stood up gingerly, the spear clutched tightly in his sweating right hand, his chest visibly palpitating. He looked around him, studied, remembered, which hyena would make the first move. Komba imitated Name and stood up, huffing as he did so, and stood back to back with the taller Name. Komba was unarmed, but his memory told his hands to assume the stance of jaws, clenched and aggressive, remembering the story told long ago of how animals feared a man’s hands.
The entire landscape had become hyena. Not only due to the sheer number of them, but because Name and Komba had begun erasing all other features of their surroundings. The acacias, the grass, the bull, even the three compatriots they left behind: they all disappeared. Their senses were focused exclusively on their enemies. And it wasn’t long before the landscape of hyenas came to them.
Name speared the first one in its bulging neck as it attacked from the side. He pinned it down to the ground so he could feel the spear hitting the ground, having passed through that mountain of muscle and protein. At this murder, the two heard the yelps of the dying canid, which they knew to be the laughter of the tricksters of kapulahii. Name felt invigorated. He knew what was behind all this and now that the veil had been lifted, he was taking this battle personally. He looked to Komba:
He put his index and middle finger together, pointed to his chest then to Komba’s, then placed the tip of the spear to his neck, then thrust it over the ether that hovered around the dead hyena. Komba nodded, grinning his teeth in newfound bravery. If we die, we will kill the tricksters. The two of them nodded and slammed their backs against each other, and began, simultaneously, their minds bridged together by the scent of kapulahii, to sing the song of fear. The whale songs became heavier, more rhythmic, and the song borrowed some booming notes from the roar of the lion, which they knew to be the hyena’s enemy. And for awhile, they did seem to be moving back. The hyenas responded with their own song, the cackling. Name tapped Komba with his elbow. Komba looked and saw Name pointing to the bull. Komba remembered what he was saying. Komba moved to the bull’s head, grabbed it by the horns, and began to drag it away. Name followed, walking half-bent, not for one moment halting the song.
They dragged the booming bull a few feet before they saw the queen coming towards them, baring her daggers, which memory told them were sharper even than an elephant’s tusks. Hastily, they dropped the bull and stood shoulder to shoulder facing the queen, spear and hands thrust forward threateningly. So focused were they on the bilious queen that they could only hear the peripheral growl too late. By the time Komba turned to face the side he had a hyena wrapped around his leg, producing a stabbing pain so immense that it made him cry out. A flock of silhouetted birds took flight from the branches of the nearby acacia. And the loud sound created a terrible silence straight after. All that could be heard was the trickster’s cackling through their hosts salivating mouths.
Name lunged at the attacker with his spear, and thrust the tip into its eye, blinding it, forcing it to retreat and guaranteeing a premature death. But the minute he pulled the spear out of the ghoul’s eye-socket, he had another hyena clenching down on his thigh. The power of the jaws was so strong that it forced him down to the ground, his face falling into the heavy chest of the suffocating bull. Komba – his pain briefly overcome by a flush of memories – kicked the hyena as hard as he could, and soon, all-too-willingly, it let go and scuttled back into the circle. Komba tried to help Name off the ground, but the pain had not yet left him. Nor indeed, had it left Komba.
And as Komba had his arms around Name, they experienced an experience that brought either transcendence or lifelessness. Some of their spirit was beginning to leave their body, and as it left, they could see fragments of their own essence, one last time, before the memory escaped them forever. Name saw himself swimming in a river, trying to catch fish with an aquatic spear, while his father shouted instructions from the dry bank. Komba saw himself dancing the dance of stars by the hearth, on a warm night, his eyes fixed on Tilihi, who he had long craved, his father playing a dook-dook, a musical instrument made from kudu horn. And both of them saw themselves asleep on a carpet of hide, on the terrace of their summer overhang, overlooking the great, wide ocean. And as their memory left them, they knew it had left them for good. Both wanted to weep. But to weep was to be unprepared. To be unprepared was to condemn your soul to evil.
The two men put their arms around each other and tried to lift themselves off the ground. Their wounds were bleeding profusely, and they knew, that without the wisdom of Hetasi, the medicine woman, they would not heal. But that is a matter for a time not yet passed. Now, the hyenas, the queen leading them, was their main concern. Komba tried to carry the bull once more, to try to at least take it to Efe, so she could feed the last one. Name stopped him. Shook his head. Pointed towards the wall of fangs blocking his way. He pointed to himself, then clutched the spear with both hands as he moved it 360 degrees around him. Komba, sorrowfully, understood. His memory served him well, even as it seeped out of him. Name was going to hold off the clan while Komba delivered the bull to Efe and the others. They were the priority now. Their own lives were secondary. What mattered most was the survival of their child – no matter whose it was.
Komba grew silvery eyes. He looked at Name and saw more of his soul escaping his lifelong friend. He saw the both of them sat around the hearth, telling jokes, mock-fighting while Efe and Tilihi studied their muscles and expressions, and saw them, as well, weeping the loss of the eldest woman, both of them holding to their chest the fetish she had left them so that she may always be beside them. Then Komba’s eyes grew too watery. He could no longer see Name’s soul. And never again would Name be Name; this much Komba knew. He put his hand on Name’s arm and pointed to the necklace Name wore around his neck. It was a pendant with a solitary shellfish, an item which, despite its simplicity, Name had held most dearly. Name understood Komba’s memory. He took off the necklace, for the first time since he was a little one, and handed it to Komba. Komba took it in both his hands and closed his firsts around it. He then put it on and pointed to the sky, his eyes as wet as the flood. Name knew what he was saying: I will see you dancing among the stars. Name nodded, smiling, and Komba went on his way, Name preparing his assault.
When Efe, the old woman and Jengi heard the earth-shattering cry, they stood up, gasped and ran away from the scene. To the west was a swarm of hyenas that now held either Name or Komba – or both – imprisoned within their ribs. To the east was the freedom of drought and desperation. All three ran, as pictureless memory dictated, as fast and as hard as they could. Even harder than that. They ran as fast as a cheetah. As brazenly as lightning. When they stopped, the landscape barely changed, the hyenas were well out of sight. And now, all three of them began to weep, kneeling, their hands beating against their chest, as if trying to force into their hearts the soul of Name and Komba.
They began to chant the song of transition; a song that made the sounds of yelping hyenas, chirping frogs, and howling jackals. These were the sounds of night. And it was at night that the kapulahii could be seen high above the plains; the hearths, rivers and mountains of the inverted spiritual plane shining brightly beside Dongo-ka, the half-woman half-elephant that travelled, in her ivory sheen, across the endless plains of kapulahii every night. With these noises the three survivors were praying to the animals of night to help hasten the journey of Name and Komba’s spirit to the highest plains of kapulahii. So that, when night next fell, they could be up above, watching them. And by their death, the night sky could become a fragment more majestic.
The chanting and weeping was so intense, that neither Jengi nor the old woman noticed Efe’s sudden scream.
“Efe, what is the matter?” The old woman said, reeling in sudden horror.
“The little one… he comes!” Efe said, mouth agape, clutching her large belly.
“It is Name and Komba’s spirit!” The old woman gawked her face covered in both awe and fear. “They will not ascend until the little one is born. They are willing this! May they be praised.”
“The pain – it is great!” Efe screeched a hoarse scream that enveloped the entire world. Her eyes were red, her weeping now of a very different nature than before.
“Stand, Efe, you must stand.” The old woman put her arm around Efe’s shoulder and helped her up into a squatting position.
“No, not now. Not yet. Not yet.” The old woman gently helped her back down to the ground. She knew not to question her intuition. In this moment, the old woman thought, Efe is a gateway for the spirits, her body is being invaded, empowered, by the spirits of kapulahii – she is a sorceress, now.
“Efe, how long before the last one arrives?” Jengi asked, squatting so his face could be close to hers. She hardly saw him. Her eyes were shut firmly, her mouth wrenched in agony.
“Do not rush her, Jengi! Show some respect, the last one will come when it is ready.”
“I show much respect, old woman. But, on the horizon, I can remember… the hyenas that made Name and Komba lifeless.” The old woman got up and looked around with the agility of youth and saw Jengi’s memory trotting across the distance, moving towards them.
“The last one, they come for him!” The old woman’s face wrinkled itself into horror, her eyes hollowed, her frizzy grey hair hanging stubbornly on her stiff shoulders.
“Have they not had enough!” Jengi shouted, punching the air in front of him with a clenched fist. “I will not let them harm the arriving one. Old woman, stay with Efe.”
“What will you do? You have no weapons?”
“Name and Komba will protect me. They are still here, not yet among the stars. They will not let me fall.”
As they spoke the hyenas grew closer, attracted by Efe’s shouts of pain. Efe was in a world of her own, her senses no longer physical, but transcendent. She did not hear a word the old woman and Jengi said, and it was just as well. To worry her now would be to endanger the arriving one.
“Do not leave her here, find safety.” Jengi commanded with the assertive dominance, his rogueish past suddenly wiped out. Indeed, both the old woman and Jengi himself found it hard to recall any of his jokes and pranks – so it seemed as if his soul had been revamped, and he was now a new man; a stronger, braver man. The old woman didn’t know where to take Efe, but she knew not to question Jengi’s command. She would take Efe and await the arriving one’s delivery in safety. No questions asked.
“Stay alive, or die well.” The old woman told Jengi the old farewell verse as she put Efe’s arm around her shoulder and began limping away, towards a distant woodland. She knew then she was the only one Efe had left.
The future of all memory, of all souls, lay in her hands. Efe could hardly walk, but the old woman whispered stories in her ear, trying to keep her mind off the pain. She told her stories not yet passed, about her life with the last one, how theirs would be the strongest bond ever known, and how they would feel a love for each other that was brighter than lightning and warmer than the summer swelter. Efe only seemed to half-listen to the story, but they sufficed to keep her moving, fighting. And, after a while, they reached a wooded area, surrounded by tall bushes and shaded by fine-leaved acacias. They reclined in the shade, hidden behind the bushes. The old woman knew this would not deter the hyenas – the scent of the new one and Efe’s screams would give them away. But there was no safety for miles on end – this was the best the old woman could muster.
“Now, Efe, you have to release him. Now is the time. Come, stand.” Efe assumed a squatting position and pushed down as hard as she could trying to eject the last one from her inner cavern. The old woman held her around the arm, keeping her upright, using all her wilting strength and towering wisdom to help Efe remain strong and deliver well.
“Come, Efe, once more. You must do this. For Name, for Komba, for Jengi. For all of us. Just as they have become lifeless, so you can create life anew.”
“Jengi? What… has… happened to… Jengi?” She asked, huffing, her face silver with perspiration, her eyes red and ivory.
“Not now, Efe. Do what you must do!”
“Jeeenngiii!” As Efe shouted, the last one splashed onto the ground, falling on the soft grass, his umbilical cord still coiled gently around him, refusing to severe itself from Efe’s dark, safe paradise.
“He is here, Efe, he is here!” The old woman rushed to pick up the little one, cut off a handful of grass to clean the blood off its face as she held him – him! – in her arms. Efe sat down, exhausted. And as she heaved and puffed, her eyes were half-open, looking beyond the bushes, towards the near distance.
“He is here… old woman… Jengi is here.”
“Jengi? But…” Still holding the little one, the old woman stood up, so her head was taller than the bushes, and saw the silhouette of Jengi rushing towards them. Her memory told her to feel delighted, but her eyes held back her elation. For they could see his limping gait, his hand clutching his sides, and his bloodied face. What we remember is not always compliant with what we see. And very soon, all the old woman could remember of Jengi, was the painful end. Even as he breathed, his entire essence had been erased. Wiped out. Even so, Efe was happier to see him than she was the little one.
“Jengi! You have life still, oh Jengi!” As he arrived, drawn by Efe’s birth-call, she began to weep as she saw his sorry state. He was bleeding profusely from his ribs. His thighs were scratched, his face red like a shaman performing the night dance, and his upper arm hang limp and lifeless.
“Is he herethelastone?” Jengi spoke in a breathless haste, his words almost incomprehensible.
“He is here. He is… look.” The old woman showed him to Jengi. And overwhelmed with delight and fatigue, he let himself fall, unmoving, into Efe’s embrace. When she was meant to be holding her newborn child, she was now holding her dying comrade.
“Efe… he is… beautiful… like… you.” His head was leaning on Efe’s lap, his eyes trying to focus on her still-young, but tired face. Efe’s hands ran through his hair, staining themselves red as they did so. Jengi let go of his wound, and now Efe could see it in its full horror… she could almost see through to the bone. She stifled her tears on the top of his head, tasting the metallic blood that escaped everywhere, even from his soft, curly hair. As she tasted his essence, she remembered the taste of stale river water, and remembered what Jengi was now meant to become. He is but a maudlin river, already, that is all that is left of him.
“No, no Jengi he is beautiful… like you.” Efe said, weeping, putting her lips on his forehead. He made the effort to hold his neck high, to look her straight in the eye. His own tears made her image blurred and unreal.
“Why did you never tell the others?”
“I could… not… protect you. Name. Komba. Stronger. Better… than I.”
“But Jengi, this is your son. No one could protect him better than you!”
“I was no… father. I was… a… boy.”
“And now you are a man, Jengi. You are strong. You fought the hyena and… lived! You protected me, at such a cost.”
“I live… not for long.”
“No, Jengi. Do not sleep. Never sleep! We need you.”
“I sleep, yes… but I stay. Stay… with you. I won’t go… to kapulahii… I shall live… in the heart… of a lion.”
“The lion… the only animal that can kill hyenas.” Efe smiled without wanting to.
“Yes. I… protect you and… little one. Look for me. With the lion… I … live.” With those words Jengi fell to sleep. Efe’s secret memories, her innermost soul, bade her weep. She wept heartfully, agonizingly, over the lifeless body of her secret love. His soul was escaping him, and she could remember, the love they shared by the riverbank, his soft touch, his firm arms, his loving hands… she could hear his voice calling her name in the moment of Delight, and see his secret glance over the hearth, tantalizing her heart. But then his soul had departed entirely. And there was nothing left, not even memory. And she cried as hard as she could.
But her crying was interrupted, by the sight of the little one looking at her, swaying in the old woman’s arms, a few inches away from her face.
“He needs you. Take him. This is the only memory we have left.”
She handed the little one over to his mother. She took him, even as Jengi still rested his head on her lap, and, following the dictates of memory unseen, she put the little one to her breast. She knew she had to make him strong. He was to be a lion like his father. He would protect them as his father had done. And would remain to do, somewhere, from his maned vantage point.
“He shall be… a lion… like his father.” Efe wept smiling, feeling the little one’s lips around her nipple and Jengi’s hair on her thighs.
“What a beautiful family.” The old woman smiled, her eyes welling up with illicit tears.
“We are the last family, aren’t we? Once we become lifeless, all memory will fade, and no one will remember us. Not the wildebeest. Not the hyenas. Not the flamingos. Old woman… can there be a kapulahii, a heaven, if there is no one to remember it?”
“As long as there is life on the plains, there will be memory. We might not be here to remember, but the wildebeest will remember our strength, the hyenas our bravery, and the flamingos our songs. And if the masters of kapulahii willed our end with such determination – if the skies, the rivers and the hyenas were all against us – then we have nothing to fear of lifelessness. While all the living perish, life itself is eternal.”