Temfe and Yamba sat alone on rocks near to the stream that ran through the middle of the camp. The rest of the tribe were busy, preparing food for the evening meal, or were getting ready for the ritual of leaving, and then the journey across the dry lands.
He watched Yamba’s eyes sparkling with rage.
“Why now?” she wailed, “it isn’t fair. We’ve waited so long and now the time is right.”
The bonding would be delayed, for another month at least. Until the next full moon, if the signs were right.
Temfe took his hand from her arm. “It’s your father’s fault. He keeps saying the stars are wrong. Or the moon. Or the rains. There’s always something.”
Yamba slapped the palm of her hand on his chest. “The omens have to be right, or the ancestors will be angry.”
Temfe shrugged his shoulders. “The right moon will come again. We won’t have to wait long.”
“Why can’t the others go? They shouldn’t send you.”
“Why not?” He knew there was anger in his voice, and she would hear it.
She looked down. “Your foot. How can you? Stay here, look after the camp, the tribe. Who’ll defend us when all the men are gone?”
Temfe stepped away from her, staring into the darkness of the night. “Kofu says the same. He calls me cripple. You think the same as him?”
“Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.” Her voice was hard, harsh with anger, and she held her fist at his face. “You hear? You don’t say that. Not that.”
What angered her? Kofu’s name, or the insults the man hurled at Temfe? He turned again to face her. The sun setting behind her ringed Yamba’s hair with light. “I can walk as far as any man,” he said. “I can’t run, is all. But I can walk. I won’t be left at home with the old ones and the children.”
“And the women,” she said. “All the weak ones.” She turned away from him. He put his hand on her shoulder but she pulled away.
“I don’t want you to go. I have a bad feeling.”
“It’s just a feeling.”
“Something’s wrong,” she said.
He ran his hand down her arm, enjoying the feel of her skin, as smooth as river stones. He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing, and he realised there were tears in her eyes.
“I’ll be home soon,” he said. “It’ll take five, six days, that’s all.
“There’s no food, no water. It’s too far. How can you cross?”
“We’ll find a way.”
She pulled away from him. “You won’t come back. I can feel it. You’ll never come back.”
“We’ll find a way.”
“You won’t come back.”
Temfe knew better than to argue. She was the shaman’s daughter. She could see more of the world than the rest of them. He understood her anger, but what could he do? Go to his father, tell him that Yamba was distressed? That she was worried and wanted him not to go?
He pictured the anger on his father’s face, the glares of recrimination. “She decided this,” Beru would say. “Think again. If only Mbife was here, he would not do this to me.”
“They won’t listen to me. They never do,” Temfe would say, but if held out too long, then his father would relent, and allow him to stay behind. Then Beru himself would go himself, despite all his years, to guide the hunters and lead the tribe. And Temfe would be shamed.
Temfe stood, put his hand on Yamba’s head and stroked her thick black hair. “At the next moon, or the one after, we’ll be bonded, whatever the stars say. I must do this. I have to go.”
She looked at him with blame in here eyes. He turned from her and walked away.
“You want to go,” she called at him. “You want to leave, you won’t come back.” She hurled the words at him, as if hoping her pain would change his mind.
Temfe didn’t pause or turn or look back but kept walking away from her anger, as fast as his broken foot would carry him.
Temfe heard a shout behind him. He stopped and turned. Mathale leaned on the strong stick she used to support her weight, the knuckle of wood at the end rubbed smooth over many years. She waved the stick, telling him to wait. He stood to one side, off the path, so she could pass.
“Walk with me,” she said, and jabbed with the cane in the direction of the river bed.
“Don’t worry about Yamba,” she said. “She won’t be angry long.” She bashed his leg with her stick. “A young girl’s fears is all. A month is a long time to wait, when you’re young. She wants the ceremony. It’s a fine thing, the whole tribe looking at you, all day long. She’ll get over it.”
The old woman chuckled to herself, and prodded the ground thoughtfully. “You lead the hunters?”
“Will they follow you?”
He paused. “No.”
She looked him in the eye, then turned away. “They want to, most of them,” she said. “That Kofu though, you can’t trust him. He’s a mad elephant. He’ll turn back. The others will follow him. But you must go on, alone if you must. Come.” She pointed down the path, indicating they should walk. “There’s no future here. You must find a way.” She prodded him in the chest with her stick. “You have a plan? You lead them, you need a plan.”
What kind of plan? Temfe had no idea. “We walk, until we can go no further.”
“Sounds a good way to die,” she said and cackled. “You remember the lake? The old lake?”
He remembered it from his childhood. His mother was buried there. He could picture the place in his mind.
“It used to be our home, for half the year,” she said. “Dry now, ten years or more. But you know the woods, the home of the ancestors?”
He knew the elders returned there to speak to the old ones, to tell them of the tribe. The woods at the far end of the lake, where it was forbidden to set foot.
“You know what lies beyond the woods?”
Temfe thought, trying to remember the landscape from his childhood.
“The trees are turning to dust,” she said. “The green leaves are gone and the land is dry. But the ancestors are still there. Do you think they would harm you?”
“What do you mean?”
“If you went into the woods? Do you think the ancestors would hurt you?”
“I’m not afraid,” he said. “But it’s forbidden.”
“The woods grow where there are cliffs behind,” she said. “Cliffs on either side. You don’t know what’s beyond them, because you can’t get around them. Not there. Not without a walk of days. But that cleft, it leads up to a high plain. There’s a path that way.”
Mathale prodded Temfe with her stick. “If there’s no other way, then that’s a way.”
“To enter the wood of the ancestors?”
She prodded him again. “You got a heart? No? Remember it,” she said, and stalked away from him, muttering to herself, and scraping at the ground as though scolding it for remaining so parched, baked hard and dry.
The tribe sat around the fire, the evening meal finished, listening to the talk of the elders. Everyone spoke of the dry lands how to cross and what lay beyond.
Temfe watched Yamba’s face in the flickering firelight, wondering about Mathale’s words and the path through the forbidden woods. There had to be a better way.
Mathale waved the fire-stick, pointing at the crowd of faces. “I have a story,” she said. “I have a tale to tell. I tell of the world long ago when even I was young.” She laughed, her eyes glinting in the firelight as she looked from face to face. “Yes, that far back, long, long ago. The land was different. The bush went on forever. You could walk for days, always find water.
“The men went on journeys, of many days. My father talked of lands far away, of a great lake, an endless river. He told me of new tribes, with strange ways. How did he get there?” She shook her head and cackled in the night air, the sound carrying across the camp. The whole tribe was silent, listening. “I don’t know,” she said, and jabbed the stick at faces in the firelight. “But this I know. There used to be a way across. Remember that, and don’t give up.”
She paused, looking at Beru, as though asking whether she had said enough. He held up a hand, thanking her, reaching for the fire-stick, but a voice came from the outer circle, from among the standing men.
“Tell us, old lady,” Kofu said. “Why has no one else heard of this lake, this river, this way across the dry lands? It’s another tale you tell around the fire, empty words as strong as smoke.”
Mathale held the fire-stick in the air, grasping it in both hands. “The world changed,” she said. “There are more people, less food. The rains have fled. I know these things, seen them with my own eyes.”
She stopped and many in the tribe nodded their heads, acknowledging her wisdom.
“What if the rains are gone everywhere?” Kofu’s voice boomed over the heads of the other hunters. “What if the animals are dead? What if there’s nothing to find?”
“Then come home and tell us.” Beru’s face was etched with anger in the firelight. “But not before you’ve gone to look. Don’t come back until you find a way. Or we’ll all starve in time.”
The elders, sitting around the fire, murmured their agreement.
Kofu pushed his way through the tribe from the outer circle, until he stood almost in the fire itself, his feet on the hot stones. “Our bones will be picked clean by vultures and lie out on the sands where we died, looking for some land from an old woman’s dreams.”
Beru got to his feet angrily, as chattering burst out among the tribe. He raised his hands for quiet, but Kofu’s voice rang out loud above the din, shouting all others into silence. “We should fight for the land we have. Who defends the tribe, while we’re gone? Who hunts for you?”
Kofu turned, and walked away from the fire without another word. Many of the hunters trailed away after him into the dark of the night.
Temfe counted the young men as they followed Kofu. Twelve or more. These men would turn back from Beru’s journey, they would not cross the dry lands. They would go out for a few days, then turn for home and say it couldn’t be done.
Beru called for silence. “Come,” he said. “Enough of this talk. A story.” He picked up the fire-stick from the ground by his feet, and waited until they fell silent. Beru’s head turned, and his eyes met Temfe’s.
It was the custom of the tribe. Whoever held the fire-stick would tell a tale, one of the stories of the ancestors, of the gods and mythical animals, or the people and its ways.
Which direction would the stick pass? Not me, Temfe thought. Go left tonight, not towards me.
Beru prodded at the fire, arranging the burning logs. He passed the stick to Ladji, on his right.
Ladji had spoken two nights ago, and would pass it on. It would go to Mathale, who had already spoken, and then to Temfe. All eyes would turn to him. They would expect him tell a tale, at least to try.
Already the stick was with Mathale. Temfe tried desperately to think of something, to remember one of the stories he had heard before. There was the story of Djembe the lion man, who captured the sun. But that had been told a few nights back. Or there was the tale of the leopard who went looking for the moon. How did it end? How did the others remember the tales, the strange events, the creatures, all those names?
Mathale passed the fire-stick to him and he held out his hand. He heard the others around the fire go quiet, even their breathing seemed to stop as they waited for him to speak. He glanced up and saw Yamba looking at him expectantly. She nodded, encouraging him. His mind whirled, he had no idea what to say, or where to start. Quickly, he handed the stick to Ngoh on his right.
He heard a sigh, as though the others were cast down. He looked at Yamba again, but she looked into the fire, not at him. His chance had come again, and still he failed to take it.
Ngoh held the stick and prodded at the fire, just as Beru had done. He wiped his face with his hand, cleared his throat. “I have a story,” Ngoh said, “Of the tortoise and the elephant.” A murmur of appreciation rippled around the listeners. “I have a story,” Ngoh said, “I have a tale to tell.”
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