The Songs of Winding Memory

The mountains veiled themselves in the skirt of morning. That morning, with the sun’s slow return from its immersion in nightly amnesia, the mountains disappeared in a mist of beauty and forgetfulness. All he saw, as he traversed the cliffs carpeted with a million blossoming flowers, was the cheetah’s white-tipped tail leading him on. The early morning cold that wrapped itself around his nose shivered at its own existence – like a virus that makes itself sick. But he ignored it. For the cheetah was his mother.

Khoroe, the young refugee with a memory as long as the Milky Way and an infectious addiction to the grooves, shapes and consistencies of ostrich shells, looked around him and began imprinting the memory of the scenery unto his left hand. The outstretched fingers represented the mountains. The slowly gyrating thumb the cool wind that blew across the carpet of orgasmic flowers, and it’s palm-first thrust into the air was the sound of the sea crashing against the cliffs behind him. As soon as the memory sunk into the grooves and lines of his hand, he clenched his fist and broke into a controlled run, in the direction of the cheetah.

The cheetah saw him approach, a good few metres away, and it began to walk, effortlessly away, it’s pace faster than Khoroe’s run. It descended a steep plataeu and away from the flower-beds and when Khoroe followed it down the same slope, his entire memory disappeared. All that was left in the landscape of his mind was the cheetah’s movement and, whenever he got close enough, the voice of his mother spoke to him in song. It was a voice as melodic as whale-song, and just as unclear. It sounded as though she were muffled underwater and to make out her words Khoroe had to tilt his head to almost 180 degrees. This made running awkward and so it gave the cheetah another break to put some distance between itself and its confused pursuer. Then, when he got close enough again, the voice continued. And always, the voice, his mother, spoke to him with the eternal wisdom of memory.

With a thousand un-devoured deaths

The souls of men constructed the night;

Just as mothers make their child’s beds

So they have laid down the light of plight.

And with the instancy of a butterfly’s metamorphosis, the words altered the landscape and sent Khoroe back to the moment he had heard his mother singing him that song. It was a morning song, sung on the arid plains with a hunger for rain, as he joined her and the other women – he, the only pre-adolescent boy – on a foraging trip. He could see then the dry shrubbery that waved their arms to the sky, praying to their own spirits of particles, praying for merciful winds and he remembered as well the touch of scorched earth on his naked, grooved feet. But he remembered above all, the face of his mother, black and yellow like a shy moon, her hair cropped like the back of a trimmed porcupine, and her protruding chin sharper than a blade’s smile.

“What are we foraging for, out here in this barren nightmare?” One of the women asked her. “A tuber for the belly, and an appetite for hope.” She replied, her pink tongue bright like a diamond on the ocean floor. But the foraging was cut short, Khoroe remembered, when they sighted a tall, muscular man, completely naked, even his waist, watching them from the shade of a purgatorial acacia tree. The women moved closer to him, and they saw a large scar, still bleeding, across his face, over his nose and cheeks. He stood there, watching them watching him, and Khoroe’s mother was the first to notice that the blood, before it fell to the floor, transformed into rain. And the puddle of water created next to his feet, refused to evaporate in the morning heat.

“I have done battle with a wanton spirit as it tried to carry the rain across its back. I told it, you shouldn’t be alive! So I made sure it was lifeless again. But in the scuffle it took a blade of rain and struck me across the eye. The pain was real and my blood is now forever cursed with futile rain.” His voice spoke with a palpable anguish – anguish that grew wings and took to the sky to hunt hyraxes with its pitiful talons. And when he walked by, leaving the women to their foraging, the women also wept rain.

The cheetah sped on once again. Its tail bobbing from side to side, its tip a snake scouting the horizon for mole-rats. Khoroe hurried up his jog, his cheeks full of rain, and he caught up with his cheetah after a few minutes of exhaustive sweating and hoping. His mother’s voice reached him again – his head obligingly tilted.

If I were to live this life again

I would die in not one but manifold ways

So I may gleam the labyrinthean den

Of the stars’ neverending days.

That song, that song changed the very sky into night. Khoroe could see the fire around the hearth, in the plains of summer, the sky bathed in the bright lights of the spiritual cosmos. His mother was singing that song accompanied by the other women. They sang louder than any hungry vulture, their dancing beat the earth the way lightning beats its hammer on the parted soil. But the earthquake they created was not enough to drown out the sound of gargling coming from within the circle of crouching men.

The flames danced their own dance, crackling with love that could never be consummated, the burning branches dismayed with their sibling’s ultimate betrayal at still-living, at not burning. And all the way the choking, frothing noise grew more and more poignant. Khoroe remembered feeling in the know. He knew what the noises were. But overwhelming curiosity dictated his adolescent feet to get up and draw closer to the deathly noise. And he remembered his soul standing up, leaving the women’s choir behind, to approach the warm flames emanating from the warm backs of the huddled men. And within the circle, he saw.

His mother’s grandfather, a once wrinkled, pale-grey man, was turning younger and younger as he took his last breaths. The men were all chanting something indecipherable under their breaths, tapping their feet on the hard, harsh ground. And the old man’s eyes turned brighter and brighter, his complexion darker, his body more muscular, leaner, fitter and even his nose and ears grew smaller. Yet the old man never looked content at the benevolent transformation. He resumed his pained coughing, his choking on his body’s un-needed water, his eyes wide open yet closed to all who looked into them. And it wasn’t until he reached age eighteen, a few years older than Khoroe at the time, that he finally succumbed and surrendered his soul, releasing it from his disgustingly beautiful body, to the pure night sky. As he took his last breath the women stopped singing. The men stood up after laying his body down on the ground that would soon devour him, turned solemnly to Khoroe’s mother, and declared: “Your grandfather was cursed when he was a boy not much older than your Khoroe. Protect your child, woman, as such curses have a habit of skipping generations.”

The cheetah stopped for a minute. It panted heavily, its pink tongue moist and breathing through its canine lungs, moving inside and out of the mouth as if it were a frog pouncing in and out of existence. Khoroe stopped too, to watch the cheetah, to gaze at its spots that had been put there as it escaped the night sky, in the confusion of Creation, as it escaped the invisible night in a crowded confusion, a great swarm of bees shepherding it away, pushing into the arena of newborn reality. They were pretty and invisible against the horizon. And its eyes, dark and unreadable, moved with sudden sharp movements, the retina itself a dying bee trying to stay alive within its micro-lake of white gelatin. The canines had patches of yellow on them, confirming Khoroe’s suspicions that the teeth were actually stalactites, and the mouth the entrance-way to a deep, purgatorial cavern – inside of which, somewhere in deep dark depths, lay his mother. Replenished, the cheetah moved on, slowly, so it didn’t take long for Khoroe to catch up to her again.

The hunter that talks with tongue

As he derides the cat’s doubling fear

Will become lifeless prematurely young

While the cat preens its coat proud like a seer.

Khoroe remembered that song the morning before his first and last hunt. His mother sang it to him as he awoke, dancing, acting out its words, laughing ominously with the refrain, to pass down to him the hunting wisdom of all that came before him. And it did, in fact, ease his nerves. So, when he was out on the open plains, looking for the tracks of some kudu or eland, or even a dainty porcupine, he was not alarmed. Even as the other men sweated profusely – not through heat, but through anxiety. “There is nothing here.” One of the elders exclaimed, almost weeping. “This is not right.” Another rejoined. “Are we the last ones?” The last one said as he fell to his knees. “Not even a vulture in sight.” Khoroe added to the defeatist cacophany. Ready to give up, the men sat down in a circle, their arms around each other, the stench of their sweat almost arousing them in their hour of hunger. They began to tell a story, one by one, a story that had never been spoken before. Nor heard. And each one, taking their turn to embellish and elaborate, found themselves going further and further back in time. Until, when the last speaker had his turn, he found himself at the beginning of the universe. When they came back from the primordial ether, they decided to title the story: “I was there with at the First Stampede”.

Khoroe could not remember anymore. His memory, after that failed virginal hunt, was sketchy and unreliable. He only had one memory left – and it was a memory he did not wish to recall. Memory is the river of the soul – we are its banks. And to recall a memory that pains your heart and cripples your knees, is to risk poisoning your soul. Khoroe had seen it happen before. Men who had lost their women, crying so hard at the sight of the evil memory, that they began to go mad, their soul being infested by the poisonous memory. Those men would all end the same way, drowned in the Old Man’s river, lifeless at the hands of a spell they themselves had cast. But Khoroe was catching up with the cheetah once again, and he knew now what was coming. He held his breath, trying to force the tears back inside, he puffed out his chest to intimidate the evil spirit that would soon well up, and closed his eyes so as to control what his soul would show him. But still, he heard her last song.

The White-Mouth kills the child who cries

Stealthy stealthy he comes to the sound

Creeping on the night sky as if the ground

So the White-Mouth kills the child who cries.

No matter how hard he fought… Khoroe could not help but see. His mother, laid out before him, on his lap, pale with starvation, her eyes enormous and hollow, her mouth frothing, her body limp and static. She sang to him the song that her mother had sung to her, with the voice of thirst and the gestures of hunger. Khoroe was surrounded by some of the other women and the remaining men; they watched the scene with a selfish sorrow. They wept not for the loss of one of their own – but with fear of remembering the morrow: they were having a vision of their own demise. And they would not be wrong. Yet all Khoroe cared for was the whimpering body of the woman who bore him, the woman who had never left his side, the mother who would never be with him again.

Khoroe was then old enough to understand what it meant to be lifeless. He knew what the old stories told about the souls of the lifeless remaining on earth so long as they could live in the souls, in the memories, of those they left behind. So he knew that his mother was not dying: she was merely entering the womb of his soul, where he would carry her, as she had carried him, until the day he died. But somehow, all that knowledge failed to hold back his tears, to get him off his knees as she exhaled her last breath, eyes still wide open. He remained there, wailing like an owl in the night, running his face along her cheeks, holding her hands, feeling the softness of her pinky and exclaiming “I love you I love you!” into her tall, hardened neck.

She was already changing colour…

Wake up, Khoroe! Wake up. Khoroe looked up, back from the precipice of memory, and saw the cheetah vanished. He was driven to weep for his companion, to weep as if his mother had died a second death, but his eyes were rivoted by wanton excitement as they gazed on a verdant green valley that stretched out before them. And, what’s more, Khoroe felt hope at the sight of a distinct pillar of smoke rising from the sheltered forest. There were men inside that forest. Men still living, still prospering. He had hope. Not that he cared for it. If it were up to him he would have made himself lifeless and joined his mother’s ethereal wandering, to be with her for eternity. But he knew that if he had done that, pregnant as he was with her memory, he would have killed her spirit. He would wait for death to come to him, ready to forget himself; and thus, as all others before him, he would die oblivious of death.

Khoroe’s excitement was interrupted by the yelping call of the mother-cheetah. Khoroe looked behind him and saw it standing, a parade of pattern in the monotone horizon. Khoroe gazed at the landscape he had left behind. An arid desert festooned with the remains of men and animals alike, the ground cracking, the trees bare and lifeless. It was the landscape that had claimed his mother and his entire family. He could see the curse that caused the famine swirling in the heat-haze. The cheetah took one last look at him, and walked away, into the very curse it had lead him away from. Khoroe smiled as wide as a vulture’s talons, mouthed a joyous thank you, and began his descent down into the fertile, living valley. His mother was indeed still with him – and her will to live was manifestly strong. So, Khoroe went to meet his new family, content in the knowledge that he would never have to remember a future without his mother. She was, in the truest sense, still there.

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