The Dry Lands

By Simon J. Townley

Action & adventure, Historical fiction, Literary fiction, Hybrid & other, General fiction, Young adult

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382
19 mins

Chapter One
TEMFE

Temfe, a hunter of seventeen years, scoured the savannah searching for prey. The heat of the sun smouldered on his scalp, shorn short of hair. The harsh light glanced off the arid earth and shimmered into mirage and heat mist.
He walked alone, limping as always. The hunters of the tribe could run all day, but the shattered bones in Temfe’s right foot had taught him to remain still, to wait and listen. He had the patience to find prey, but not the speed to close on it. Even working with the others he was too slow, left behind as they followed the fleeing animal.
While hunters chased dust in the distance, Temfe waited and watched. He saw a young eland picking its way through a copse of trees and held his breath, watching intently. The deer was close, the first he’d seen all morning, and the tribe needed this kill. It would keep them alive.
The hunters of the Koriba had caught no meat for five days and the children groaned with hunger. The women complained. The elders grumbled. But the rains didn’t come and the animals were gone.
Temfe gripped his spear. Alone, he’d never get close enough. Surround the beast and strike with stabbing spears, that was the way of the Koriba. The way they had hunted, father and son, back into the days when even the elders were young. And beyond, into unknown time.
Temfe looked for his tribesmen. Almost out of sight the hunters ran as a pack across the grasslands. He waved his spear in the air, urging the others to his side. They stopped. One of them pointed.
Temfe waved again, gestured towards the thicket of thorn bushes, jabbing with his spear.
In the distance, Kofu turned to look, then jutted his chin upwards in scorn. Kofu signalled to the hunters to follow him and set off running towards the escarpment, away from Temfe. Some of the tribesmen paused, knowing Temfe was the chief’s son and they should go to him, by rights, but in the end, they followed Kofu – the hunter, the warrior, the big man.
Only one of the Koriba ignored Kofu. Ngoh trotted to where Temfe stood under the shade of a tree, close to the cover of the bush. Ngoh slowed as he neared and crouched low, staying silent.
Temfe pointed. “Eland. A young one, alone. Go round,” he hissed. He hitched at the deer-skin clothing around his waist, getting ready for action, adjusting the belt made of reed twine.
“Stay there, I’ll go in,” Ngoh whispered.
Temfe kept his eye on the eland, waiting for his friend to be ready. Ngoh readied his spear and ran towards the antelope.
Their short wooden spears were tipped with flint blades, made to stab, not throw, and there was little chance that only two hunters would bring down an eland. But if they could land a blow they might trail the animal until it fell.
Ngoh raised his spear and thrust forward. The eland bounded from cover, heading directly at him, its spiral horns pointed at his chest. He braced himself in the path of the prey. His good foot supported most of his weight, the spear pointed forward at chest height. The antelope was not fully grown, but still heavy enough to charge through Temfe and kill him if he was careless. Temfe would have to stand his ground unwavering to make the beast turn and flee, so he could strike at its flank.
The eland saw Temfe, veered to the right and ran. Temfe lurched forward to strike, but the animal was past him and heading for the open plain.
Ngoh laughed, excited but exhausted. The chance was gone. “Nothing all day,” he said. “Roots and berries again tonight. I’m sick of it.”
Temfe grimaced and hunger squirmed in his stomach. The women never found enough for the whole tribe. Most of the fruit trees were bare, waiting for rains that never came. “Why did they leave?”
“Kofu,” Ngoh said. “It’s how he is.”
“He’s caught nothing for days. Yet they follow him.”
“He’s older.” Ngoh shrugged.
The two friends were the youngest in the hunting party, both in their seventeenth year, but still not treated as equals by the older men. To some of them, Temfe was a nuisance, a cripple who should be left at home.
“They chase dreams,” Temfe said. “I find real prey, but no one listens.”
He heard a shout in the distance. A hunting party, but not from the Koriba. Another tribe was on their lands. He saw them, through the trees. “Tenga,” he said.
The eland charged back towards them, fleeing the new hunters. Temfe and Ngoh exchanged no words, but acted together, instinctively taking up positions that would block and confuse the animal. By making it stop, turn, and stop again the beast lost its advantage of speed. It ran back towards the Tenga hunters who charged through the trees. Temfe struck out, his spear landing a blow on its flank. The animal stuttered but kept running. It panicked, and headed straight into three Tenga, who brought it down.
The hunters shouted in triumph.
“It’s a good thing, after all, that Kofu isn’t here,” Ngoh said.
The leader of the Tenga waved to Temfe, gesturing him forward. “Share the kill,” he said. “You struck the first blow.”
Temfe bowed his head in recognition of the kindness. The Tenga had brought the animal down, and there were many more of them. If they had taken all the food, there would have been little he and Ngoh could do.
“It’s Koriba land,” Ngoh said. “It’s our prey.”
“It belongs to both. We share,” Temfe said.
His father had welcomed the other tribes onto the lands of the Koriba. “We can’t leave them hungry,” Beru had said. “They are our brothers, our friends.”
That angered Kofu, and the hunters spoke of it bitterly. Let the others starve, save the Koriba, Kofu said, and many listened.
Temfe knelt beside the eland, put his hand on its flank, thanking the antelope for its life, for the food that would sustain his people. The leader of the Tenga joined him in the ritual, stroking the eland’s head to calm the animal in its last moments.
Once the antelope’s spirit had left the body, The Tenga hunters worked with their flint blades, cutting off its hide. “Take a hind leg,” their leader said. “That’s fair.”
Not enough for so many hungry mouths back at camp, but Temfe knew they could ask no more. The Tenga suffered worse than the Koriba. Their lands had turned to desert, their waterholes dry, their prey gone.
As they worked to cut apart the eland, the sun rose towards its highest point, long after the time to be home and out of the heat. They were nearly done when the sound of running feet grew louder. Temfe stood and stared into the distance. The cloud of dust heading their way must be the hunting party of the Koriba, on their way back to camp.
“Hurry,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” The leader of the Tenga handed a hind leg to Temfe. “They’re your people.”
Temfe wanted to warn the Tenga. But his father had told him never to speak against his own tribe. He would hold his tongue.
The Koriba slowed as they neared the fallen eland. Kofu strode up to Temfe, towering over him. He took hold of the eland leg, yanked it from Temfe’s grip, and handed it to one of his men.
“Why are Tenga on our land?” Kofu said.
“The land is for all,” the Tenga leader said.
“We hunt here. You steal our food, make our children hungry.” Kofu made a stabbing motion with his spear towards the man’s heart, stopping the flint blade a hair’s breadth from breaking the skin. The Tenga warrior didn’t flinch, but behind him his tribesmen readied their spears, ready to fight if they must.
Kofu longed for war, he spoke of it often, desiring to drive the other tribes away. There were too many people, Kofu said, too many others.
“The Tenga are friends.” Temfe held up a hand to the Koriba hunters, gesturing for them to stay back.
The men of the Koriba wavered, but Kofu glared spears of hate at Temfe, his shoulders tensed as if about to strike. But he walked past, too close, forcing Temfe to stand aside. Kofu approached the Tenga, but they stood firm, protecting their prey.
“If you hunt on our land, you Tenga will die.” Kofu shouted the words, as if a war cry. “If you take our water, if you take our prey. Be warned.” He shook his spear and the tribesmen of the Koriba chanted his name. “Kofu,” they cried, “Kofu, Kofu.”
The man himself turned and walked off, but he muttered at Temfe as he passed. “You’ll never lead us.” His mouth snarled with scorn. Kofu kept walking.
Temfe stood his ground, but his legs shook. He was not afraid, not of anything, not even Kofu. It was anger that boiled inside him, knowing he was helpless against the bigger man.
Kofu strode off, leaving the eland and the Tenga, never looking back, his spear held high.
The leader of the Tenga leant close to Temfe. “Bad for you,” he said, “bad for all, if this one leads the Koriba.” He shouted to his men, who took up the carcass of the eland and carried it off back into the woods, heading towards their homeland.
Temfe watched Kofu and his warriors lope across the hunting grounds. Was Kofu ready for war? He had held his hand, this time, but not for much longer. Hunger would make the men fight, soon enough. Kofu would start his war when it suited him, and these parched lands starved of rain would be watered with the blood of the Tenga and the Koriba.


Chapter Two
YAMBA

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 broken 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?”
“Not yet.”
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.”

Chapter Three
HUNGER

Temfe rested in the shade of a clump of trees near the riverbed, on the edge of the Koriba camp. Miles of walking across the plains had left him weary, his spirits low. Since returning from the morning hunt there had been no sign of his father, no chance to tell him of Kofu and the encounter with the Tenga. Beru would be angry. He would order Temfe to take charge. But how should he do it, when no one listened?
He lay on his back, the blue sky and green leaves above him, lost in his tune, played on the flute carved by his grandfather out of buffalo bone. He began, as always, with a tune for his dead brother, Mbife. Then one for his grandfather, and one for the mother he had never known.
He didn’t hear the footsteps. A shadow passed across the sun, a shout, and water hit his face. He shook it from his eyes and saw Ngoh standing, laughing, holding an ostrich shell. Ngoh dipped the shell back into the trickle of water in the river bed and emptied it over his own head. He laughed, shaking the drops from his hair.
“You’re too lazy,” Ngoh said. “You’d better come, your father wants you, all of us. It sounds serious.”
“What’s happening?”
“He’s getting the men together, by the big tree. Come on, we’ll be late. The old ones have been there all morning, talking. They’re planning something, you’ll see.”
Temfe leapt to his feet but struggled to keep up with Ngoh. “What’s going on?”
“You’re the chief’s son, but the last to know,” Ngoh called back over his shoulder.
Temfe scowled. His friend teased him, but there was truth at the heart of it. His father never consulted him and the hunters didn’t see him as the leader one day. It would pass to someone else. It should have been Mbife, but all that was gone.
Ngoh stopped and waited. Temfe waved his spear at his friend. “Where were you earlier? I couldn’t find you?”
Ngoh gave a crocodile grin. “I was with Aal,” he said.
“Oh.” Temfe felt foolish, but Ngoh started to whistle. “How is she?”
Ngoh roared with laughter,.
“Did you see Yamba?”
“No.” Ngoh stopped, turned, and looked Temfe in the eye. “She wasn’t there. She was probably looking for you.” He roared with laughter again, and strode off.
Temfe scurried to keep up, but they were the last of the men to arrive at the clearing under the big tree.
The tribal elders sat on the old tree trunk. Beru gestured to Temfe to join the throng of hunters, then stood up, and waved his arms for silence.
“Men of the Koriba,” Beru said, “we have talked.” He laid his arms by his side, indicating the other elders. The old men of the tribe had made a decision. It came from all of them, not only Beru. There was no disputing it.
“Our children are hungry,” Beru said. “Our women are thin. We grow weak from lack of meat.”
A mumbling of agreement rippled across the group of tribesmen gathered under the shade of the great tree.
“The rains are late, the prey too few, the river is dry. The old ones have lived long years,” Beru said, gesturing again to the elders, “but never known times so bad. Where are the animals? Where are the rains?”
A shuffling among the men, then a voice from the front of the throng. “The other tribes come onto our lands. They take our prey, take our water.”
Only Kofu would dare speak out of turn.
Beru held up a hand for silence. “Why are the Tenga here? The Walide and the Katolon? Because their own lands are empty. Dry. Their lands have turned to sand and the world has shrunk. When we were young, the rains would come, the lake was full. The world is shrinking, and soon there’ll be nowhere left.”
“Then we fight them,” Kofu said, and a murmur of agreement rumbled among the men behind him.
“The other tribes are our friends,” Beru said. “We’re one people. The world is smaller, because the dry lands come on us from every side. The water holes are dry. The animals are gone. We’ve eaten well, and given no thought to the future.” Beru paused, looking across the faces in front of him. “If we do nothing, we die.”
At the front of the crowd, Kofu stamped his foot with impatience. “Defend our land.” He was taller than any of the men by half a hand, his bearing defiant.
Temfe watched his father’s face, saw anger flicker across it. Kofu was defying the tribe’s leaders, speaking when he should listen. He had never heard anyone give such a challenge to the chief and elders.
“It will do no good,” Beru said. “We might kill every man, woman and child from the other tribes, even our own daughters and sisters who have bonded with their hunters, but still we would starve. The dry lands come closer every year. The rains are later every year, the animals more scarce. Only the hungry mouths increase.”
Beru stepped onto the fallen trunk. It raised him higher than any of them, even Kofu. He looked out across their faces. Temfe felt his father’s eyes look directly into his own.
“We need a new home,” Beru said. He raised a hand to silence the crowd. “We can’t stay.”
Murmuring grew to a babble of voices across the clan.
Ngoh nudged Temfe with his elbow. “We can’t cross the dry lands,” Ngoh whispered.
“We go,” Beru said, his hands held high, his voice raised. “We find a way across the desert or we die. We do this now. The rains don’t come, not this year.”
“There’s no way,” Ngoh hissed down’s Temfe’s ear.
“The young men will go,” Beru said. “They will find a way for the tribe to cross.”
As he finished, a roar of chatter broke out among the tribesmen.
Kofu jabbed his spear into the air. “While we’re gone, who defends our land? Who protects our women, our children? Who keeps the other tribes off our hunting ground?”
“You fear for no reason,” Beru said. “The other tribes have never attacked us.”
Kofu waved his arms to silence the throng. “What of the ancestors? Do we leave them behind? We must stay and defend our home.”
Temfe felt the energy of the tribe moving towards Kofu.
“The ancestors will forgive us,” Beru said. “They don’t want us to stay and die.”
“They want us to defend our land,” Kofu shouted, nodding rapidly as he looked from face to face, demanding agreement.
Beru held up a hand, admonishing Kofu. “You don’t speak for the ancestors,” he said. “When the rains return, we’ll come back. The ancestors will wait.”
The men were uneasy, Temfe could feel it. Ngoh shuffled from foot to foot, staring down at the ground. They were worried. This plan would change their lives, change everything.
Beru gestured to the elders beside him. “We’ve decided. That’s the end of it.”
The hunters fell silent.
“How many will die, trying to find a way across?” Kofu’s voice had grown calmer, but Temfe still heard defiance in it. He knew his father would hear it too.
“Stay behind, if you wish,” Beru said, “with us old men, while the hunters go in bravery. If your heart fails you, we’ll understand.”
Who would refuse to go now and be thought a coward? Kofu’s face contorted in rage.
“When the sun rises tomorrow,” Beru said, “the young men leave. Tonight, the ritual.”
Temfe’s thoughts raced to Yamba. The feast of the full moon, the time of the bonding. They were to be joined. All was set, but now it must wait. What would she say?
Ngoh snorted down his nose. “Aal will be angry.”
“Yamba too,” Temfe said, “but we can blame the elders.” His thoughts had turned to the dry lands and what lay beyond them. He grabbed his friend by the arm. “We’ll find the way across, you and me.”
“It can’t be done,” Ngoh said.
Temfe watched the old men scattering, heard the complaints of the hunters. The tribe would not want to go. The hunters would not try, not hard enough. They would give up too soon.
Temfe felt his father’s hand on his shoulder. Beru leant close to his son’s ear. “They will follow you,” he whispered. “You must find the way.”

Chapter Four
THE FIRESTICK

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?”
“Yes.”
“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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