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Image by Sebastian Unrau

Shadows of the Woods (Part II )

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.

We turned in to sleep on an animal hide that was laid out on the shingly floor. We peered at the darkness through the entrance, the wheezing, and creaking of the branches acute in our ears. Shortly after, the man fell asleep. We looked at him in fear, but he was stretched on his back, facing the heavens. He started to snore.

We heard the distinct roar of a lion nearby. My mind was caught in dark thoughts; he-of-the-roar picking us out from the cave when the night was equal. I sidled up to Moonka and we stowed ourselves in a corner, near a huge crevice. The recumbent caveman, knees bent, snored. Then there were a great many wildebeests stomping past. The noise from their hoofs, as they thundered past, hurt our eardrums. The caveman turned sideways and snored on. An elephant bellowed loudly, striking terror in our heart. But the bellows seemed to be ethereal melodies to the man’s ear; he slept deeply even as the bellows resounded in the confines of the cave. The giant’s footfalls clove the ground and the earth threatened to burst asunder at the heels of his feet; we shuddered in this cavernous gloom. Sleeping lay the caveman. The foxes howled. Howls which said 'let us frighten him in his lair'. But the caveman snored away unruffled, and us, we crept deeper into the crevice. It seemed the grey-coated one’s howls had become the oscine bird throat song, a lullaby song meant to deepen his oblivion. Wild dogs barked. I and my brother bunched together in terror.

The caveman began chewing air amidst his snores.Rodents burrowed chambers in the cave, bats chased through the air, the harsh-voiced birds croaked and the formidable prospect of the cave crumbling from the babel of sounds and activity terrified us. The wind blew the torch off, plunging the cave in darkness.

We marveled at how the man courted oblivion amidst this horror that we were trapped in and it was with great relief that we, at last, saw a gleam of light setting the cave aglow as it became day. The atmosphere below the red sky was rife with the news of comers, for, when I emerged at the opening of this cave, rubbing sleep from my eyes; I stared at what seemed to be clusters of mushrooms in the near vicinity. The land was gathered behind them, caves nestled against each other, soring upward to gargantuan heights. I leaned forward. It was not until they came into full view that I became aware of a throng of spectators, their eyes riveted upon me. I pulled back a little. 

The assembled crowd was sere as grass; all besmeared by enduroto or white chalk. Most of these people wore globular mushroom hats, seeming like short-statured mushrooms that were craning their necks in the direction of light. We assumed that the people of this cavernous settlement revered the moon. They plucked the hugest bulbaceous mushrooms and stuck them upon their heads to act as calcified capes and as charms for protection. Back in our village, we referred to such mushrooms as inkik e lapa or feces of the moon. How one would stick that which was useless upon the head and feel sufficiently fortified with such feces as crowns, produced no small consternation in our minds. Such action would be received with a mixture of fascination and revulsion by our people. We, unlike nanya nkik or feces eaters, including the hooded vultures, did not make use of such plants, either as food or as charms. It was in fact suggested that, just like the vultures, those who ate mushrooms, would easily eat corpses too. Ushoo!

Our rescuer had meanwhile reached his sleep's end and was hovering nearby. He was cloaked in his radiant auras; head encased with fresh mushroom; skin matted with enduroto. We then heard the distinct voice of a power saw machine and trees falling on the ground with a loud bang. Terror had entered his heart. I saw it on his distorted visage. Each time a tree fell, these people’s eyes were turned towards it, a chill of fear on their faces, body quaking. They turned all the way around because trees were falling in each direction. Hurriedly the man grasped our hands, led us through the narrow defiles of the Purkei, and from his tone and gesture we could deduce that he wanted us to walk the length of the river yonder for as far as we could go before we joined the big path homeward. We were to remain close to each other and be careful not to stray from the path because it would portend death. Then he waved us on, his palms urging haste in our departure.

“But who is Moonka?” I asked myself.

“Moonka is a person who never listens,” I answered.

“Because of why?” I asked again.

“Because he is a genius of fools," I answered myself.

Moonka said he knew of a shorter path which rose to meet the mouth of the forest and I followed him. Shortly he started seeking out encoshoroi and that was how we went, until found ourselves deep in the thick forest. Encoshoroi was all the while giving encouragement until we were curled up into a cell and had started to die of hunger and exhaustion. I could feel the encoshoroi watching us keenly, perched somewhere in a black-fronted tree.

Resian had found her way to an emanyata or a warrior’s camp at the edge of the forest the previous evening and told them that we were kidnapped by an oloirirua. Our village’s ilmuran had come out of the emanyata in great numbers, and were coming to seek us out. They found me and Moonka where we had lain, waiting to enter the red of the earth. We three; myself, Moonka, and Resian, and they, the ilmuran, went together on a less adventurous march back to the village; this time, a forward group of ilmuran leading the way, not encoshoroi, and a rear-guard behind, sandwiching the ilmuran in the middle who bore us on their backs.

I recounted our surreal encounter in the forest. He smiled, our father, a small smile. He went further to dismiss it as a story from wayward children who let loose a large percentage of his flock in the lands of the iltorrobo or hunter-gatherers, the people who stole his possessions; his wife.

“Ayiee ayiee ayiee! All my remaining flock is now ngeleshi or lopsided; growing horns that head in divergent directions like your feet.” Papa, face pale with anger, was screaming at the injured Moonka. “There is not one perfect single-colored cow I should use as bride price for another wife to replace your mother or to buy you a wife!”

Papa then set upon Moonka and mercilessly belabored Moonka’s behind with his cane. When papa turned to me, I thought he would beat me alongside Moonka. My legs began to tremble. My mouth started to apologize profusely.

“Oi engerai or oh my child! Let the tremors in your knees leave you. The blame is not yours to hold. I blame it on your brother. I have tried to set him right but I have failed.”  Papa reassured me “He coats himself over with enduroto to make himself invisible to the eyes. I would mistake him for a terrifying oloirirua too.” He put his palm up as someone swearing.

“Papa, Moonka can show you the pebbles he got from….”I tried to interject.

“Moonka’s head is not correct; he breathes imbecility from his nose and mouth. I bet he is the only one who can dare dress splendidly in a loincloth and wear inkik e lapa on his head to look like a living olmenengani. He doesn’t lack appetite too and I will not be surprised if he is going to be a nanya nkik like those scavenging birds soon to completely shock us. Oiya-kake! Or woe is me! He is the oloirirua who provoked your dreams engerai.”

“But I saw the man of the cave. His mouth was not in motion but he snored audibly papa. He chewed air the way you do.”

“I am just olmoruo torono or a wicked old man; my eating habits are sloppy but I chew that which I am able to.”

“Hear me patiently papa…”

“ I may ask, what did the oloirirua talk of when his mouth was in motion?”

“He spoke, but we did not understand a word of his.”

“It seems you listened with your eyes and saw with your ears engerai.”

“It was not precisely that…”

“Moonka’s speech is artful and you have bitten them too hard; you will crack your teeth if you addict yourself to this nonsense.”

“Ok Papa," I answered with a resigned air.

“What does the day say?”

“It has ended well.”

“Let us close our mouths, our eyes, our ears and go to sleep then.”

Having been told that he was the one who conjured up the oloirirua of the forest, Moonka forgot the beatings he had been bestowed and proudly pushed forward his chest, strutting on pendulum foot, and showed his ox-horn cast and the soft emerald green pebbles he had brought home from the cave. Once in a while, the horrifying encounter at the cave was brought up when I and my brother fought. It had been many moons ago already and his wizardry wasn’t making any impression on me. I had broadened my wisdom already. But he threatened to tell papa that it was true we saw the cave people in the Mukogodo forest, and that I was the one who went to seek out Yeyo from amongst them. To take this pressure off my young shoulders, I was forced to listen to long-winded stories about his shamanic exploits, his great marvels; most of which were just heroic fantasies. But I listened squint-eyed, sighing, and with a laugh that came through the nose. I and my brother would never agree. Apart from my losing faith in his wizardry, I was undone by his treachery. My heart did not like that he did not back my story.

“Say what I am called,” Moonka commanded with the confidence of a genius.

“You are an Oloiboni,” I replied and rolled my eyes.

“An Oloiboni of what? Say it with the lungs!”

“An Oloiboni of famous repute," I shouted,

“Never forget what I am called engerai.”

After being guided to the road of awakening, not by encoshoroi, not by the ilmuran, but by the white man’s books, I sit in a library in the city. Atop an arboreal shelf in front of me, stands a wood carved, mute encoshoroi. I am deeply besotted by; its realness, its pink bill, its black beard, its yellow shoulder patches, its multicolored beaded leglets. It brings back memories. With my mind lost in memories, I pull a splinter of wood on the old desk that I am sitting on; it pricks my skin, and I am yanked away from my sylvan reverie, back to the book in front of me. I am researching the history of the people who lived in the Maasai plains in the early 19th century. I read a story about the Yaaku, people of the rocks. They were said to have spoken the rumbly Yaakunte language, were a hunter-gatherer tribe who lived in caves within the Mukogodo forest. And my mind goes back to that odyssey in the same forest. My heart implodes at the prospect of my having discovered the remnants of cave people, a forest indigene, and a language rendered extinct by the Kenyan government.

Resian phone calls me from the Maasai plains. She is now my sister-in-law having been married to Moonka. She did not get the chance to look at books and move to the city where encoshoroi sat mute on shelves. So she sat herself down at home, where she remained quiet, waiting on Moonka to mend his ways. She told me of my brother’s usual monotony of his life; uttering grandiose puerilities and following undulating encoshoroi to cavities of baobabs, an ox-horn, and the stones of enkai inside the leather bag by his flank.

“Moonka says that eating honey is essential to life, as good as being with a woman.” Resian once told me, “That is why he haunts the forest like an oltorroboni. I wish I could live in the city where encoshoroi was mute.”

“Beware Resian, when encoshoroi is mute, a tree has been felled and it has left a slice of light in the shadows of the forest. It would expose a people unseen, unheard and who do not want to be discovered.” I replied.

“But his find is here and there, how are we to survive like this? The encoshoroi does not have anywhere to perch since the trees are not growing high anymore. Their heights have dwindled.”

“Their heights or the number of trees have dwindled?” I asked.

“heeee?” Resian asked back.

“Forget it Resian.”

I then call my father, trying to inform him about the research I have done on the Yaaku ancients. I hear loud breathing like those of an ancient who has resigned to his growing infirmities.

“Naito or oh girl! Why do you speak so much foolishness?” Papa bellows. “If you still believe those puerile illusions of your brother in your titoisho or girlhood, with all the books you have swallowed, then Moonka is a legend. I said Moonka is who?”

“But papa….”

“I said Moonka is an Oloiboni of famous repute even though, I, his father, do not hail from the lineage of iloibonok or prophets/ medicine men. How does that happen? Isn’t that role inherited? You are growing old too quickly Naito, what is the hurry for?

“No, papa…”

“Then you are growing so young, your mother just bore you. I think I should get you married off soon. Marriage would actually keep you occupied with much more important things like raising the children of your husband. Yes, I should hurry before you are taken away by an oltorroboni like your mother. Oiya-kake!”  

I heard Papa let go of the cellphone, put both of his hands above his head, and discuss me with the ancestors.  

“If she runs off with the scavenging people of no cattle, those who have never attempted to rear a small number of cows that they can use as ingishu oo nkiro or black cows paid out as compensation for murder, if we didn’t want them for bride price, what will I tell the elders? That I exchanged her for free? Olmoruo torono, son of my mother, of dying, will die.”

What an eventuality! I find his grief to be exaggerated, even though it is borne along by emotion at losing his beloved wife and shame at losing her to a hunter-gatherer. He has a throng of black-colored cows; enough to pay the forty and nine head of ingishu oo nkiro twice over; for two martyred marriage aspirants, if he wished to. Papa’s ears loll, papa’s tongue lolls. No words of mine will still them. To escape a curse, I steady my gaze at the mute encoshoroi, and I purse my pink lips too.

Shadows of the Woods (Part II): Welcome
Grace Suge photo.jpg

Grace Suge is a Kenyan writer with works appearing in several international publications.  Her short story, ‘Laibon’s prophesy’ was awarded the second prize in IHRAF’s Creators of Justice Awards 2020 and ‘The Moon’s kraal’ was awarded an honorable mention in 2021. She is a recipient of the 2022 IHRAF international Fellowship.

Shadows of the Woods (Part II): Text
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