Shadows of the Woods (Part 1)
The protagonist of the story and her brother Moonka, inhabitants of the maasai plains, enter the thick Murkogodo forest, to harvest honey from a honeycomb. But their adventure turns into a terrifying mishap when they are attacked by the bees and Moonka falls off a tree. But they are saved from the wrath of the bees by a strange apparition. Will they find their way back home? Grace Suge weaves a tale of a forest and its inhabitants.
Memories of that serendipitous odyssey come to me as vividly as the Pleiades that set themselves up in the black sky. Papa had dispatched us to the fields to pasture the flocks of our engang or kraal. We headed to the grassland and further afield, heading to the forest as was our norm. Shortly, I, my clumsy brother Moonka and my friend Resian were on an encoshoroi, the greater honeyguide’s trail to forage for honey. We left the cattle under the spirit’s watch as Moonka had suggested. Moonka referred to himself as a man of magic when he wanted to do mischief or play a trick. Instead of stomping petulantly in front of papa, seeing that he had a decided aversion to manual labor, loved to live freely; he would avow himself as oloiboni or prophet/ medicine man who conversed with unseen forces; the ancestors and the spirits. He had his own oracle; an ox-horn and the smooth little stone pebbles of Enkai or God, by means of which he exercised power over the elements. He shook the horn to liberate the magic of the stones of Enkai before letting them tumble freely on the ground. With a bamboo pipe, he blew into a hole on an anthill that a pebble had pointed at, spoke illegible words, in cajoling tones. He applied his ear to its mouth. Sounds came back to him from the red of the earth. Our venerable ancestors’ spirits had replied affirmatively when invoked to help us guide the flocks, he said.
“It bodes us well. The oracle tells us,” he divined, “we are the great people of Maa or Maasai tribe, we wrap ourselves in red. The wind blows against our shuka or wrapper and it flares in this place. But we remain Maasai for as long as a staff is in our hands and a strong urge to migrate elsewhere is in our thinking. We promise to guide your flocks as we had done in far off days, for our future is the same as our past.” A celestial voice, sufficiently strange; sometimes echoing, sometimes crackly, which came from the past replied.
We were impressed, I and Resian; the callow ones. We followed after Moonka who, free of care, was always doodling away from encoshoroi’s path. But we trusted his words or were they the spirits’ words distinctly voiced by him? Whether it be true, or whether it be false, the conjuror; the one who spoke straight, and who was faithful to and loved the ancients, told it and we listened to it.
“Na gerai! Or Oh child! Do you not know how to listen to such stories? Please do not chew the words that were purported to come out of a man whose mouth was not in motion.” Papa tried to dispense sage counsel to my young ears as he pulled his hollowed-out earlobe at me. “But if you must, chew them well to taste whether they be good, for if you bite too hard, you will crack your teeth. This is what I know to tell before you see it on growing up.”
I heard what he had spoken but did not heed his words, because as of that time, my years were eight, barely out of my keraisho or childhood, and Moonka was a legend, an oloiboni of repute. I allied myself with Moonka, regardless of his clumsiness, since he was my elder and only brother with whom we shared the breast. The two of us were orphaned when Yeyo or Mother, eloped with a not so esteemed oltorroboni or a hunter-gatherer who dwelt in forested lands. We are people of the plains, our flocks are seen, says papa.
Moonka chirped and whistled along the way as the bird followed suit, flying from tree to tree, branch to branch. On this particular day, the bird did not keep silent, which would indicate the presence of a beehive in a hollow tree in the near vicinity. We followed it still as it led us to the bowels of the thickly shadowed forest. We waded through a seemingly endless maze of roots and branches. Our skin oozed out sweat at every pore. We were heading towards a Lolkurugi or a crow mountain around which sat a Purkei or a group of hills, whose peaks thrust up to the sky. It was not lost to us that encoshoroi was sometimes villainous; we know it for its manipulative abilities. Oftentimes, it has led its human friend to enemy territory, literally beating a path to their door, human and animal, not to be left alive. When the person was put to an end, it would wait eagerly over the slain and it would feed on the worms from his decomposing corpse the way it did larva from its cell. That fact was quite unsettling. So we paid tribute to the bird:
Encoshoroi, our only greatest friend,
Show us the way to the honey brother,
We hope the white man will come soon,
Then we shall buy beads from him for you,
We shall sew leglets with the beads of color,
And you will become a rainbow across the sky.
We used to sing this song to spur on encoshoroi until the light began to fail and it became night. We promised ourselves that a particular harvest would be our last before we retraced our steps back to the flock, but Moonka’s stomach would come first. He always remained adamant on staying on course even as the sun went to the west, each time taking a few minute-respites to partake of the delightful repast. Moonka’s portion was swallowed away with impunity, with a rapacious appetite; picking defenseless larvae from their cells first as he satiated his need for delayed gratification. If we were to be reincarnated according to our acts and devotion, I am sure Moonka would come back as a gourmand of famous repute. We would seldom leave larvae for encoshoroi and we had never attempted to sew leglets that would fit his thin legs.
This time the encoshoroi rested on a lofty baobab tree and darted out of sight. We were puffing heavily for this place was a great way off from our village and on raising our tonsils towards the bird; a huge hive that was thronged with bees near the canopy rewarded our sight. This tree, to which encoshoroi had led us, sprang up unbranched for as long as our tonsils could be raised without bulging at the skin, just to spread out into colossal boughs near the clouds, glancing out rudely from thick shrubbery.
“This cloud-piercing tree has grown so big it has become arrogant!” angrily retorted Moonka. He smacked his lips in anger.
“Hai!.......Why am I startled?...... The trial before us is our due from encoshoroi. Were we not the ones who left nothing for him?” I muttered admonishingly, with as much ennui as I could. “Its wax they eat! Its hatchlings they eat! Why do they treat themselves with such weak habits? Has their appetite been satisfied now? Who does that to a bird?”
With larval eyes, Moonka bestowed me a black look.
“They have not done him good. Pardon them. They just wanted to eat their yawn.” He retorted in a voice as thin as mine, to silence my words. And he grinned sardonically.
“Pupate my brother! Pupate!” I scorned him, sotto voce. I would not stand against him in argument; he knew all the arts of speech. I held it that Moonka needed to grow so that we may not find ourselves standing on roots of a tree that grew too high and never finishes growing, looming over us as if it held evil powers, like this particular one.
Honey was dripping away slowly, making long lines along the trunk, some coming short of our heights, and those within our reach hardened against the bark. Not having the expertise to glean this repast of honey, we started to lap and bite at it from the bark until our tongues were shredded. Peeking through interstices at the canopies, we saw that the sun was upside-down and the Pleiades had risen. Bunched clouds were tumbling across the sky when Moonka, being none-the-wiser, proposed to shin up the arrogant tree until he reached the hive. This was an absurdly dangerous endeavor, but he had tasted the honey from that hive, and it had whetted his appetite. So, he clambered up, hugging the huge trunk with his limbs like a simian. Luckily, he reached the hive without mishap, and with the aid of a smoldering torch in a leather bag by his flank, he smoked away the bees to lessen their aggressiveness. With a delicate balancing act, he was busy prising combs wedged deep inside the hive and tossing them down to us, when, from the corner of my eyes, I saw the silhouette of a man flashing by; so sudden, so fleeting, leaping across a footpath to land behind a huge boulder. Then he abruptly stood up, the shadowy man, a pointed arrow in his bow. Our eyes flew open in terror; not at the prospect of being struck by the arrow, but we were completely struck by his strange features. Not only did he have very pale skin, as pale as sere grass, but he was streaking free, with a small piece of bark girding his loins. He squinted at us from under the brim of a hat that appeared to have been molded from a white plaster cast. Resian gasped out loudly and cringed at the sight of a human species she had never met before.
“Oloirirua! Or a spirit….ui ui ui olmenengani! Or a corpse!” Resian fervently screamed, hand pointing at the man.
The man strode towards us. We momentarily tossed aside the bag of honeycombs, spun around, ran, and recoiled in terror under a bush. Meanwhile, Resian’s scream had startled Moonka. He let go of the torch, the comb and his precarious balancing act. The torch bounced off the trunk as it fell and each time it hit a surface, fireworks lit the air and illuminated the specter-like man at the bottom of the tree. We saw protrusions of light about him, flickering in and out in turns. Moonka followed the torch’s trajectory, to land near the man’s feet with a loud thud. We thought he had died, for what comes after a slip and slide from a tree with a black front, is black darkness inside the red of the earth. But he squirmed. We exhaled. Then he was silent.
Then an angry horde of bees surged on him, their buzz and stings reviving him from the peaceful repose, sending him hurtling into a painful apian experience. He made to stand up, tumbled, dizzily staggered, and then swayed as he awaited his summons to the eternal silence. Just when we thought the oloirirua would disappear the way he had appeared, or be frightened away by the bees, he quickly came up to where Moonka lay. He laid the bow and arrow upon the ground, bent over him, and held out his hands. Lurking in the bush, we saw Moonka slowly come to himself and reach out to the hand of death, with a solemn face. The bees on his body rose in a cloud and landed on his head. A chill of dread shot through me and I instinctively broke cover to run up to Moonka. I screamed at the oloirirua and he withdrew his hands. He was backing away whilst Moonka was still trying to reach out to him. It seemed to me my brother had scattered his faculties when he fell.
“Let him alone! Be lost oloirirua!” I swore with a voice so big in the lungs. But the man stood still, his expression frozen. I gave Moonka a fair shake to sanity and tried to pull him to his feet, but he was groaning with great vigor, unable to get up.
“My leg!” he wailed, having now regained the use of his scattered faculties; including a fragment of his cowardly fear of pain.
I looked down and saw his knee joint was twisted at an awkward angle. I winced. The bees swarmed down in multitudes upon us, stinging my skin with such rage that I burned hot, with the numerous stings. Then we started to scream as we swatted the bees. We were blinded by the cloud of bees when the man, with a single bound, scooped up Moonka and took hold of the neck of my arm, drawing me along as we made our escape from the apian attack.
Finally, with the man leading us, the bees charging us, we had wings like those of a female virgin martyr who was fleeing from a marriage aspirant. We flew along the brow of the Lolkurugi, to land in a cavern settlement nestled in the deep embrace of the Purkei. The bees did not succeed to get through the narrow defiles of the untouched Purkei. We settled in a cave and the man, using firesticks, lit a wooden torch and stuck it in the middle of the cave. That was when we were able to pause and with uncomprehending eyes, take a closer look at this frightful apparition exposed by the glimmer of the flames. At first, we thought he was a white man, like Sir George Peterson, the olojuju or the hairy one, who was a settler in the Maasai plains. But this stranger had a great nose, unlike Sir Peterson’s thin pointed one. His lips too were not thin and he had long ears with the lobes pierced and stretched over the shoulders.
The torch’s flame flickered on the gloomy interior walls to reveal a myriad of chipped art forms of a particular manner we had not yet seen. Our eyes were captivated by archaic murals and epigraphs on the emerald green foliated rocks, most of which were mottled with different hues. There was red, there was blue, there was orange. We ogled at the arrow, the bow, the spear, and the animal engravings on the dome-shaped cave. On the ground below the cinders lay lots of smooth pebbles which seemed to have been molded by molten fire.
Before we could break the silent spell, the Pleiades descended in torrents; a rain of stones and the thin icy projectiles hit the floor at the mouth of the cave and bounced off our heads. There was no door to keep out the weather. If the rain were to inundate the cave, what would become of us? We worried. Amidst this downpour, the man rushed outside and came back holding a huge rat. With a baritone voice, he rumbled in short spurts. We heard his trumpet-sounding words but we understood naught of it. The language sounded strange, sort of ancient. We noted the rhythm of his speech was slurred and we did not need to be told that his days were nearly full; he was decidedly ancient. His body was soaked wet, a liquid white matter drained from his skin. It was as if the frigid rain had chipped away at his racial ambiguity not only to reveal him as not being olojuju. Even the rumble of thunder was similar to his tonal sounds. A strange, soggy, slimy, white stuff flowed slowly from his head and settled at the tip of his nose, the skin of his eyes, and some on his neck. His head was left bare, exposing his baldness. He wiped off the excrement with the back of his hand and I felt deeply nauseated. His rawness also disconcerted us. We avoided his eyes but were deeply captivated by his face; the skin of which was largely stylized by thick weals. He merged well with the carvings on the wall.
The rain had subsided a little and the strange man, covering himself with a Colobus monkey skin, went outside to come back with a bunch of green pulpy leaves. He crushed them between stones and applied the concomitant salve all over our swollen and sore bee-stung skin, the cuts and scrapes. I, unused to such a rapid flight from bees, had scraped my legs during the flight from the bees. He used another decoction of herbs to apply on Moonka’s leg, twisting the knee back to its rightful position and tying it with a ligature amidst Moonka’s mighty groans.
The man next fetched a bunch of firewood from a small chamber within the cave and kindled a huge fire. The rat was inserted in a piece of bamboo stem and laid atop the fire. Unfortunately, we could not accept the meat as he handed it out to us because we did not make use of such animals back at home. Seemingly hurt by our refusal of his hospitality, he moved and sat near the entrance of the cave. He made sure we knew he was close at hand by sloppily munching away at a flank of rat meat with the tongue; chewing noisily, unhurried, as if he were chewing cud. But as much as the intimacy of his big-hearted actions; our rescue from bees, his tender nursing of our wounds, thawed our hearts we remained apprehensive. Papa, had he been here, would have regaled us with fables, retelling stories which had for centuries been retold, geared to reduce our apprehension, rather than chewing thoughtfully at food, as this man was doing. Papa said that guarding the village was left to the young ilmuran or warriors and those with days that were nearly full as his, would not be able to do so comfortably, for no physical position would be comfortable. He also said that he had to tell us the fables before his memory waned.