The Fire Cave
Ladji grinned and his teeth gleamed in the firelight. He held half an ostrich shell in each hand, a lion-skin draped over his shoulders. The hunters stood in the centre of the circle, the tribe all around them, chanting. There would be no comfortable bed tonight, no rest to be ready for the journey. Once the stories around the fire had finished, the shaman arrived, and the ceremony had begun. The rite of purification would prepare them for their journey.
Temfe feared the ceremony more than the dry lands, the hunger, the thirst, or the big cats that lurked in the bush. Ladji’s medicine was an enemy he had fought before, and lost.
The shaman chanted in a throaty croak, leaping from foot to foot, his hands raised, keeping the ostrich shells balanced so none of the precious liquid would spill.
“The same potion?” Ngoh whispered, as though a lion stalked them.
“It must be,” Temfe said.
“Three days I was sick, the last time,” said Ngoh, his voice weary but resigned.
Beru stepped forward, gestured for the men in the centre of the circle to kneel on the ground.
Ladji filled a small shell with a dose of the ritual potion and offered it to Temfe. As the chief’s son, he had to go first. The tribe stared, the women chanted and the children stamped their feet. Temfe took the shell, knowing all eyes were on him. If he tried to spill the liquid, they would know, even in the darkness. He put the shell to his lips and drank.
It tasted foul, bitter and earthy, a flavour of bark, leaves and fungus. He felt his stomach about to retch, but he fought it back. There was no escape. Ladji’s medicine would have him in its grip. He’d drunk this foul potion once before, in his twelfth year, during the initiation, the rite of passing from a boy to a man. He had been alone then, shut in the cave high up in the escarpment, his mind out of control, visions swirling.
As the last of the hunters drank the medicine, Beru stood to address them. Temfe tried to listen, but the men around him chattered and shuffled. Beru shouted above the tumult about the young men, about their bravery, how they were going to save the tribe.
As he finished, Ladji took over, in his sing-song voice, intoning a chant about the ancestors and purification. He held a handful of ostrich feathers and went up and down the line of young men, hitting them in the face. The crowd of women and children laughed and cheered. The circle joined hands and they danced around the hunters.
Temfe caught sight of Yamba’s smiling face as she flashed past. She held hands with Aal and the two of them shouted something, but Temfe couldn’t hear.
He glanced at Ngoh, his head bent, his hands on his stomach, as though in pain. Temfe’s head felt light and dizzy, his thoughts jumbled. He hated the loss of control, not being able to stop it, to turn it off and go back to being himself. His throat was tight and dry. He gulped, but couldn’t swallow. Then the taste of the foul drink came back at him, mixed with the juices of his stomach and he coughed violently, doubling over.
Mathale rubbed her hands in his hair. “Keep it in,” she said. “You must be the bravest.”
Kofu and his friends had linked arms and sang along with Ladji. The tribe around them had picked up hollow sticks and banged them in time with the shaman’s chanting.
The colours of the world in the firelight seemed sharper. The sound of the banging sticks hooked Temfe’s attention and held it. He concentrated on that, entranced by the pulse of sound. The voices of the tribe blended with the sound of the sticks as though all was one.
Ladji in his lion skin roared. Pretending to be Djembe, the lion man, he would send them on their journey full of courage. The shaman circled the group of men, lurching forward at each of them in turn, roaring in their faces. Ladji cast off the lion skin and took up two sticks as tusks, bellowed as a bull elephant and charged the hunters. The men pretended to fight him off with imaginary spears, and the rogue elephant retreated into the lines of the tribe.
Temfe found himself staring at the flames of the fire. The sound of the tribe was distant, but the intensity of the firelight grew deeper the more he stared.
A shout, a scream, his arm was pulled, and his mind dragged him back to the world. In front of him stood the buffalo, the one that had trampled him and broken his foot, shattering the bones that had never healed straight or true. The buffalo that had killed Mbife, broken his brother’s body and left it shattered on the ground. Somehow it was here, and it charged him again. Temfe yelled, flung out his arms to protect himself and screamed as the buffalo stampeded over him.
Temfe opened his eyes to see Ngoh peering down. Ladji poked him with a stick, a buffalo pelt around his shoulder, the skull and horns perched on his head.
Ladji slapped Temfe, the hunters roared with laughter, and the shaman danced away into the crowd. Ngoh held out a hand to pull Temfe to his feet.
“Are you all right? You screamed.”
Temfe staggered to his feet, his eyes on the ground. He felt a fool, he had acted as a coward. The shaman’s potion had made his mind groggy, seeing pictures and thinking they were real.
Ladji reappeared, this time with a bundle of reeds tucked under his arms. Temfe knew what it meant. They were heading for the cave. The men followed the shaman, twenty-four hunters snaking their way up the escarpment along the narrow path, past the cave where the women made the ostrich shell beads. Kofu was in front, leading the men, with Temfe hobbling along at the back.
The path wound on, getting narrower and steeper the higher they went, until they came to a narrow cave invisible from the valley floor. Temfe crouched down to squeeze through the entrance, crawling on all fours into the darkness, his fingers clutching at the clammy rock that pressed in on all sides. His skin scraped on the rock as he inched forward along the tunnel, until he saw light, and groped for the stone ledge, pulling himself through to the cavern.
The reeds had been dipped in animal fat, so they burnt slowly and the flames cast flickers of light onto the rock face.
The men had gathered around Ladji, and the shaman spoke in a whisper. He told them to keep quiet, to listen to the rock, to look for images, to wait for guides to come to them, guides that would help them to cross the dry lands. Then the shaman was gone, wriggling back into the tunnel, heading towards the fresh night air.
Temfe felt Ngoh pulling on his arm. “I found a place, when I came here,” Ngoh said. “Over here.” He led Temfe to a ledge, where they could sit and look down on the reeds that glowed as embers of a dying fire.
Temfe stared at the flickering shadows and the dancing light on the cave wall, sure he could see something moving across the rock. Something alive in the stone. He saw animals and dancing figures, hunters with their spears, running after prey. His eyes made patterns, finding images of the real world from light skipping across stone. Animals ran through the rock, spears flew, and whole herds of eland appeared in the distance. A big cat loomed out of the darkness. An elephant’s head dissolved into a buffalo, a snake, an ostrich, a tortoise.
As the flames died and the embers became the ghost of light, Temfe rested his back against the rock, found a place to rest his head and closed his eyes, hoping sleep would come. All around him, behind his eyes for hour after hour, figures of light danced, shapes in constant movement until his mind started to slow, and finally he lost consciousness.
In the darkness of the cave, Temfe had kept the medicine down, even though his stomach churned and ached. Once outside, in the first light of the new day, his stomach rebelled, and he retched at last. The brightness hurt his eyes and his head pounded with pain as though someone banged on his skull with stones.
The men stumbled their way down the escarpment in silence. Temfe’s feet dragged along the rock and dust. The sun was already warm on his skin, and the birds sang in the trees beside the river, the sound drifting up to them on the soft morning breeze.
His head pounded and he shielded his eyes from the brightness of the sun. He trudged with the others, longing to lie down and sleep.
“Look.” Ngoh pointed towards the camp, his arm shaking.
The tribe had gathered at the bottom of the path, lining both sides of it, the old men holding spears for the hunters. The women had gathered food and ostrich shells of water for the men. There would be no chance to rest, no sleep. This was the ceremony of leaving. Their journey across the dry lands was about to begin.
As the hunters reached the bottom of the dusty path and passed between the two lines of their kin, the women and children chanted a song of bravery. The old men clapped the hunters on the back and shouted encouragement.
Yamba smiled at Temfe as he passed, but he saw redness in her eyes, and fear on her face.
Temfe took a spear from his father’s hand, met his eyes, returned his smile. There was no time for words, no chance of being heard above the din of the tribe.
From Mathale’s outstretched hands he took three ostrich shells held in a rough basket woven from reeds . But how would he carry them without spilling the precious water?
Once the hunters had passed through, the orderly lines broke and children ran alongside the men shouting in excitement. The hunters quickened their pace, heading out of the camp at a run.
Temfe was left at the back, the straggler who was supposed to lead the hunters. The children were called back by their mothers, and soon the tribe was left far behind. Temfe stopped before rounding the rocks on the outskirts of the camp, and looked back. Beru was still there, with Yamba at his side. He raised a hand in farewell, turned and grimaced, as he realised he had already lost sight of the other hunters, who had disappeared without him into the bush.
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