Yamba sat on the packed earth near the mouth of the cave. Her delicate fingers used a bone needle to make holes in the beads. It was slow work, needing close attention. All the same, the shell beads often broke. A pile of shattered pieces lay by her side.
Further into the cave, where the light was dimmer, younger girls broke up the ostrich shells to make the beads. Other women thinned the egg-shells with bone scrapers and flints, before carefully snapping them into shapes the size of a finger-nail. The oldest women sat closest to the sunlight, crafting the beads into necklaces and bracelets by threading them onto twine made from tree bark. Everyone had their task, the women of the tribe working as one, making the ornaments they would give as gifts, or wear during dances and ceremonies, or use to trade with the other clans.
From the mouth of the cave, half way up the escarpment, the women could look down onto the camp of the Koriba: onto the caves where the tribe slept , onto the trickle of water that used to be a river, and the meeting tree where the elders had gathered to talk.
Yamba’s grandmother stretched her legs and stood up, gazing down into the valley. Mathale pointed towards the crowd of old men as they sauntered away from the gathering, still deep in discussion. “They’re finished,” she said. “At last.” The old woman coughed from deep in her chest and spat on the dry rock.
“What are they talking about?” Yamba asked.
“We’ll find out soon enough, girl.”
“You know, Mathale, you always do.” Aal sat close to Yamba, so the two friends could whisper when the work became boring, or they wanted to gossip, or make plans for the bonding.
“Tell us grandmother,” Yamba said. “You know, don’t you?”
Mathale chuckled to herself. “Make your shells.” The old woman sat down and went back to her work.
“Are you ready for the ceremony?” Yamba whispered to Aal.
“I don’t know,” Aal said. “What’s there to do?”
“There’s supposed to be a feast. Do you think they’ll find enough food?”
Aal’s shoulders slumped. “It’s not good to bond if there’s no feast. It’s bad luck. It will make a bad bonding. No children.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“It’s true, ask anyone,” Aal said.
“I’m not putting it off,” Yamba said. “Not for anything. You’ll see. Not for anything.”
She was in her sixteenth year, eager to bond with Temfe, so that they were joined for life. Whenever the full moon approached she asked her father, Ladji, shaman of the tribe, if the time was auspicious. But again and again, always he said the stars were wrong or the winds were bad or blamed the trees or the birds or something he saw in the bottom of an ostrich shell. This full moon, though, everything was right, and the ceremony was set. Only four more days to wait.
“They’re coming,” Aal cried out, pointing into the distance. Yamba could make out a cloud of dust, caused by the running of the hunters, heading home.
How far behind would Temfe be? He was always the last, always alone, limping home with his spear over his shoulder. He never gave up though, never complained, and she knew he was smarter than most, knew the ways of the animals. He watched and waited, he thought about how to catch them. Like a cat, like a leopard. She respected that. Sometimes he had brought meat home when the whole mob of hunters, men bigger and older and stronger than him, came back with nothing.
“Come on,” Aal shouted.
Yamba looked at her grandmother for permission. “Go on then,” Mathale said, and chuckled to herself.
Yamba and Aal leapt up and ran down the narrow, dusty path towards the camp. They ran past the trickle of water in the riverbed, past the caves and the campfire, past the tree where the elders would sit and talk the days away, and out the other side, to the rock on the edge of the camp. They scrambled on top to see the hunters in the distance.
“There,” Aal pointed, arm outstretched, bouncing up and down in excitement.
Yamba peered across the plains, and saw a line of men appearing out of the bush in single file. There was no mistaking the man at the front. Kofu, the tallest in the tribe. The man she hated above all.
The two young women shielded their eyes with their hands so they could see better against the harsh sun.
“There he is,” Aal cried, “there’s Ngoh.”
“Can you see Temfe?”
He was always at the back, always the slowest, if he came with the rest of the men at all. The other hunters never waited for him, least of all Kofu, who hated Temfe, and only Yamba knew the truth of that.
The line of men grew closer, until she could make out frowns on their faces. Another bad day. They were all bad days. The men appeared tired, their heads bowed, scowls of desperation on their faces. All except for Kofu: his head twitched with tension, eyes darting, hands restless on the hilt of his spear. He looked ready to snap someone’s neck with his bare hands.
As Kofu neared their rock, Yamba looked away, gazing into the distance, refusing to meet his stare.
Kofu stopped. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him standing aside, waving the other men through, as if he were the chief bringing home his men, thanking them for their loyalty, the last to enter the camp once he has seen them all return safely. But they weren’t all here and Kofu knew it. Temfe was still out there, but Kofu didn’t care.
Ngoh bounded up the rock and threw his arms around Aal. The two of them embraced, Aal shouted a farewell, and the pair rushed off hand in hand.
Kofu lingered. Yamba gazed into the distance, hoping he would leave, her heart pounding with dread. She heard him clambering up the rock, and a jolt of fear slithered through her body. He stood behind her, his breath on her neck. She couldn’t move, memories of that time coiling around her mind, the time when she was only a girl, a child who strayed outside the camp, out of sight, seen only by the young hunter.
“Forget that one,” Kofu said, his voice low and deep, taunting her. “He’s no good. You need a real man.”
She felt his hands on her hips and she pulled away before he could close his grip on her.
She turned and spat at him, then leapt from the rock and ran.
“Run,” he shouted, laughing. “I can catch you, but he never will.”
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