by KATHLEEN SANDS
Otabenga stood and spoke with purpose: “I will undergo both trials on the same day.”
Under his prestigious hat of spotted fur, Old Liboyo lowered his forehead. “That would be too much pain at once. Let the first wound heal before you take the second.” He looked harder into the other’s eyes. “Or do you wish to embarrass your age-brothers with some flashy show of courage?”
The sixteen-year-old cast his eyes down, a boy showing respect for his elder.
“Grandfather, I don’t wish to embarrass my age-brothers, but they have no wives or children yet, and their fathers are still here to hunt. My father is dead, so I must feed my widowed mother as well as my pregnant wife. Because I already have a man’s duties, I must have a man’s body.” Otabenga looked up and met Liboyo’s eyes with his, a man showing bravery for his family.
This was a false show, of course. Otabenga felt unready for even one great pain, much less two. But he knew that feeling and showing were different things for a man, not the same thing, as they were for a boy. His mother and his wife became women by spilling their blood. His unborn daughters would do the same in their time. Now was his time to bleed, to prepare for his great hunt.
Old Liboyo watched, listened, said nothing. An elder showing his wisdom.
“Grandfather, I understand that submitting to both trials on the same day will be very painful. That’s why I want to do it. If my greatest pain is behind me, I can meet future pain with a man’s indifference.”
Liboyo looked into the trees, seeing something that Otabenga did not. Then he looked back. “Grandson, you acquired a man’s responsibilities earlier than your age-brothers, so I will do as you wish. But you will be a man only when you bow down before this thought: Pain returns with every rising of the river, and there’s nothing you can do to win against it.”
Otabenga lowered his eyelids, a boy scorning a coward’s thought.
Everyone understood that Liboyo’s long life testified to the wisdom of his words. Eat only red or purple berries, never white or yellow ones. Don’t eat from plants with shiny leaves, with seeds in a pod, with milky sap. Always carry a long stick; always know where the river is. Never sleep on bare ground. And most important of all: Never wander too close to the thinning edge of the rainforest. There lurk the Zappozaps, fierce giants with tattooed faces and eyebrows plucked bare. Innocent rainforest people who stray into the giants’ territory are attacked with iron—battle axes, spears, knives—and captured, their right hands cut off to tally the victory. If the captives resist, the Zaps stockade them and set fire to the enclosures. Other times, they tear apart the captives’ living bodies and eat their flesh raw. If the captives submit, they are sold as slaves to other giants, pink-skinned ghosts with hairy faces. These ghouls hunger voraciously for the inedible red sap that oozes from rubber vines, and they force the enslaved to harvest it until they die starved and spent.
Otabenga had secretly tested a few of old Liboyo’s other cautions—had sickened after eating a few white berries, been stung by ants while sleeping on bare ground—but he would never test the edge of the rainforest. Only inside its heart were the people safe under the protection of Jengi, the forest’s spirit.
Otabenga, the man-to-be, lay on a leafy pallet and chewed a bitter iboga root to dull the coming pain—not too much; he wanted to be present for the trial. He looked up at the dark leaf canopy of the rainforest to catch the glitterings of light and the small movements of chameleons and locusts and parrots. Inside he sang in the language of the rainforest beasts. The spirits of his prey would hear his songs of longing and respect and submit their deaths to him. Hyenas and leopards and warthogs would fall to his poisoned spear-thrust. For generations, animals would sing, “Death at the hand of the great hunter Otabenga is the highest honor of all. We die willingly so his people may eat and live.”
But before all those hyenas and leopards and warthogs, all those generations of animals, there would be the elephant. For the first time, Otabenga would hunt the most dangerous preyin the rainforest. For the first time, he would huntalone.
Attentive to old Liboyo’s instruction, naked on his back and legs spread wide, Otabenga did not hold his breath, clench his fists, or whimper like a dreaming dog. He was no longer a boy, but he was not yet a man. He was in between then and now, there and here, no one and someone. He was a lump of mud waiting for Jengi to mold him into a man’s form through Liboyo’s hands. He relaxed, eyelids closed lightly, breathing deeply and quietly. When he felt the cold iron knife bite into his penis, he forgot to breathe for a long moment, then remembered: in, out; in, out; in, out. Sweat trickled through his hair, tears ran from his eyes, saliva streaked from the corners of his mouth, but he did not flinch or cry out.
After his circumcised penis was bandaged with cool leaves, Liboyo gave him honey- water to drink and told him to lie still. “Rest a moment, and I will tell you a story about courage.” Otabenga was eager to hear it. Such a story would help him down the road to victory during his elephant hunt. It would help him achieve his manhood.
“Before she became your mother, the girl Anyoto was courted by two men. You know only of Ba’atsi, the man who became your father. The other was Uda-kangay, the biggest, strongest man of all our people and a great hunter. The most poisonous serpent, the longest- leaping leopard, the fiercest bushpig—no beast escaped him. When Uda-kangay returned to camp with his kill, everyone crowded around, singing praise-songs. Over the heads of the admiring people, Uda-kangay would hail Ba’atsi and shout, ‘Well, little man? Are you not happy that I have returned alive and well? With food for everyone, including you?’ He would laugh loudly and slap Ba’atsi too hard on theback.
“Everyone knew that Ba’atsi would never be a great hunter. His legs were not fast, and his hands were not skillful. His power lay in his thinking, so he never responded to Uda-kangay’s taunts. He smiled and calmly met the big man’s eyes with his own and held this gaze until Uda- kangay turned and spat on the ground and walkedaway.
“When Uda-kangay courted Anyoto, he made sure everyone saw them together. He wrestled with other young men in her presence, throwing them to the ground and crowing loudly to draw her attention to his victory. He pushed her up against trees, kissing her face and handling her body against her will, ignoring all but his desire. Uda-kangay caught whatever he hunted, and most people—including Uda-kangay—believed he would catch Anyoto.
“When Uda-kangay heard Anyoto promised to marry Ba’atsi, he picked up a heavy tree limb and struck the smaller man to the ground. Then, fearing the ridicule that would be his punishment, he disappeared into the rainforest. The people’s memory reduced Uda-kangay to an old story, other hunters killed our meat, Anyoto married Ba’atsi, and you wereborn.”
Otabenga, lying on the ground, trying not to think of his pain, was amazed at this story. His mother had never mentioned any such person. He wanted to hear more, but he wasn’t sure how this story would help him on his road to manhood. He already knew not to split people’s heads with branches or to force kisses on girls against their will.
“Later, after your father died, when you were still a small boy, Uda-kangay returned and asked to be accepted once more by our people. I and the other members of the men’s council called a meeting to decide how to answer him. Then I faced Uda-kangay and spoke. ‘You left us after attacking and injuring another man. Why should we take you back?’
“The big man’s eyes, solid black like a wolf-spider’s, locked onto mine. Then Uda- kangay said, ‘You know I was the people’s greatest hunter. I can be so again.’
“‘We have other hunters,’ I said. ‘They are not as skillful as you, but they are good enough to keep us fed. And they don’t attack their own people. They resolve differences with words, as we are doing now with you.’
“Uda-kangay’s eyes didn’t change, but his voice grew louder. ‘Liboyo, you have always been a little man who hides behind words, but words don’t feed people. You need me.’”
Little man. Otabenga remembered that as the name Uda-kangay had called Ba-atsi. That must have been how he thought of everyone else: lesser, smaller. Liboyo continued. “The other council members and I conferred before I spoke. ‘Uda-kangay, we know you need us. But we do not need you.’
“Uda-kangay’s voice shrank to a whine. It whimpered about loneliness, poor health, old age, and so on. It said nothing of regret for what the man had done in his youth or determination never again to do such a thing. When the whining stopped, I said that the council would deliberate and invited the man to sit and rest while the women brought him refreshment. A boy sprinted to take the message to the women at the cooking fire. They looked over at Uda-kangay and talked among themselves. Then Anyoto left the other women and walked toward the council. She carried no food or drink.”
Otabenga’s drooping eyelids flew open at the mention of his mother’s name, and he raised his head to see Liboyo’s face.
Without pausing his story, the old man put his hand on Otabenga’s head and gently pressed it back down. “When Uda-kangay saw Anyoto, his wolf-spider eyes grew bigger and blacker, but he said nothing. Nor did we, the council members, say anything. All of us were watching a woman walk straight into the men’s meeting. She did not pause respectfully and wait to be acknowledged. She did not greet us, the council members, the leaders of her people. She did not greet Uda-kangay, the suitor of her youth. She walked right up to the big man and stood, locking her eyes on his.”
Otabenga kept his head lying back on the ground and his eyes closed, but his breath came shallow and quick. His mother was small and contained, and this Uda-kangay had been big and violent. “How did you men of the council prevent him from hurting her?”
“We did nothing. We watched Uda-kangay’s wolf-spider eyes change to the surprised eyes of a bushbaby when Anyoto stood before him. She bent her neck to look up at him and said in the voice of a rock, ‘You are a stupid man—stupid enough to believe that your crime is dead because the man you hurt is dead. Not only are you stupid, you are a criminal. If the council allows you to stay, I will watch you every moment. I will watch you eat. I will watch you sleep. I know poisons and tripwires. I know how to set a snare and dig a pit- trap. I always carry a sharp bamboo blade. Our people do not kill each other, but you are not one of us. You are an evil serpent, and I have killed many a snake in my time.’
“Uda-kangay recoiled, amazed. We men of the council sat, amazed. The air between the small woman and the large man filled thickly with her words. Anyoto continued to speak: ‘Leave us now. After you go, the people will make songs of derision about you and sing them so loudly you will hear them anywhere you flee. This derision will ring in your ears forever, even after your death. Your wandering spirit will hear, again and again, how alone you are and how much you are scorned by everyone who ever knew you.’
“The forest went silent. The playing of the children, the chattering of the women, the rushing of the river, the buzzing of the insects, the singing of the birds—all sound died. All but Anyoto’s rock-voice as she spoke her final words to Uda-kangay: ‘Now get out of our rainforest. And this time, stay away. Forever.’
“After her voice finished, Anyoto stared at Uda-kangay until he dropped his gaze and disappeared into the forest. Then she turned and walked back to the cooking fire, back to her life. At first, the people did make songs of derision, as your mother said. After some time, though, the songs wore out, and people forgot about him. No one today knows or cares whether he is dead or alive.”
Otabenga lay on the ground, eyes closed. Up to that moment, his mother was part of him, like his arms or legs. This story made him understand that she was no part of him, that she was a person all by herself, and that she carried within her many important things he would never know. This new knowledge made him feel lonely, not brave.
“Now sit up, grandson,” said old Liboyo. “You must eat something before we continue.”
Otabenga feared he would vomit if he ate, but he couldn’t say that. “I will wait to eat until the second trial is over.”
“No, you will not wait.” The old man’s voice hardened. “The pain in your mouth will soon prevent you from eating.” His hand under Otabenga’s back, he raised the boy to sit and handed him a gourd of honey-water and a piece of dried meat.
Otabenga bowed his head, dipped the meat in the honey-water, and chewed. He’d been so worried about his penis that he hadn’t thought about his teeth at all. Only now did he realize that this would be last time he would chew in a carefree way. After his teeth were chipped to crocodile points, he would no longer bite and tear his food as he had always done, easily and without thought. His new teeth would be beautiful, yes, and fierce-looking. But they would also be fragile, easily damaged. For the rest of his life, he would have to eat his food daintily, slowly, with attention, taking care not to break off the sharp points. He’d always known this was so for others—the teeth of his friend Matu had been sharpened not long ago, and two had already broken off to ugly stumps—but somehow Otabenga hadn’t understood that this would also be true for him. Now he chewed his meat grandly, luxuriously, feeling his natural teeth grind against each other, sad that the ease of this thing he had done all his life was coming to anend.
He ate as slowly as he could, but finally the meat was finished and he had to lie back down. Old Liboyo held his big iron knife and hand axe above Otabenga’s face. Otabenga took a deep breath, widened his eyes to watch the pain coming, and opened his mouth to gulp it down.
Liboyo placed the knife’s point carefully on the boy’s front tooth and hit the butt of the knife’s handle with the hand axe.
Otabenga’s head split open, his eyelids slammed shut, his tongue tasted blood. He couldn’t tell whether the wetness on his face was sweat or tears. His mind tried to cocoon his mouth with truths—the worst is over, the first time is the worst—but his mouth didn’t believe. Never had he dreamed there was this much pain in the world; he’d sooner undergo a hundred circumcisions.
After this first blow, Liboyo paused to look at Otabenga’s face: Shall we continue?
His neck rigid as iron, Otabenga couldn’t move his head. His mouth full of blood, he couldn’t speak. One of his hands lifted to touch the knife, then his lips. Old Liboyo nodded and prepared for the next blow.
Eyes closed, Otabenga endured the second blow, the third, the fourth. He lost count. The blows split his head open and spilled his mind, which fled his suffering body to think of Eseli, his pregnant wife.
He’d first noticed her when he’d been a child among children, all up in the banana trees, race-climbing, banana-fighting, girls against boys. A round-faced girl threw a soft banana— whap!—at the side of his head. When he lunged to smear the mush into her hair, she’d laughed and disappeared into the trees, leaving him to grumble to the other boys about how stupid girls were.
Always after that, whenever he climbed after bananas, he looked for her. He spotted her a few times, but never again did she throw anything at him. Instead, she slitted her eyes and looked back until he had to turn away. He watched her face grow less round, her body more round.
Old Liboyo hammered again and again, blow after blow, pain after pain, blood after blood, tooth after tooth after tooth after tooth. Otabenga forced himself to watch the image of Eseli’s round body flickering under his clamped eyelids.
After some time, Eseli had quit climbing trees and stayed on the ground with the women. Matu saw Otabenga looking for her and said, “Her bleeding has begun. Soon she will summon someone.” Matu said no more, and Otabenga didn’t ask. High up in the trees, the two of them picked bananas in silence and dropped them down for the women to gather.
Later, walking homeward—Zing! Zing! Ping! Otabenga jumped, stung and stung again. Matu took off running while Otabenga covered his face with his hands to keep the banana-skin pellets from hitting his eyes. He had no shield, so he crouched to make himself a small target, protecting his head with his arms. Shot from tautly strung bows at close range, the pellets bit and snapped his skin. High girl-voices crowed and cackled, galling him.
That pellet-pain had stung hard, but it was nothing compared to the pain that Liboyo was hammering into his head now. Otabenga sucked air deep into his body through both nose and mouth—sucked as long as he could, as slowly as he could, until his lungs could hold no more. He held that breath until the old man’s fingers pushed impatiently on his chest, then streamed it out as slowly as possible, forcing himself to recall how he’d reacted to the mocking girls.
He’d exploded from his crouch, roaring and huge, arms up and out to seize. The cackles became shrieks as he took off after the three girls. They all sped through the rainforest, toward the hunting camp, and into the mouth of the gauntlet. The three girls breezed through, but Otabenga was trapped by the women and girls who made up the gauntlet. They shouted taunts at him and brandished tree limbs between their legs, pretending to be rutting men. He felt himself shoved and pulled through the bruising branches, the pushing and slapping hands, the kicking and tripping feet, and then he was inside the leaf-hut.
The three girls stood and stared at him. Two of them held branch-penises like those in the gauntlet, thrusting and jeering. Eseli’s hands were empty, open to him. Quiet, not laughing, she met his eyes with hers. She had dropped her loincloth and stood naked, neither flaunting nor hiding.
Eseli, naked and welcoming. Despite the mouth-pounding, Otabenga’s freshly circumcised penis tried to stiffen, and the pain caused him to groan. Liboyo stopped pounding long enough to pick up the gourd and pour a little cool honey-water over the penis’s blood-seeping head. Then he held still and watched. Otabenga was too relieved to be embarrassed. His blurred eyes saw the old man waiting. He inhaled deeply, nodded, closed his eyes, and continued remembering.
Sweating from his run and his fight through the gauntlet, trembling from something he couldn’t name, Otabenga had stepped toward Eseli, the other two girls nudging him along. Eseli had put her arms around his neck, pulled him down onto the mattress of fresh leaves on the ground, and pressed her face against his. He didn’t notice when the other two girls left the leaf- hut to join the hooting women and girls outside. That rude female noise faded to a meaningless background hum, like bees swarming above his head while he put their dripping honeycombs into his mouth, tasting the sweetness throughout his whole body. He was with Eseli alone, but at the same time he was with all the people who had ever done this thing.
This was what Otabenga thought about while old Liboyo transformed his teeth into crocodile points. When the transformation was complete, he lay for a long time, quivering, before he could get up.
After Otabenga’s penis and mouth healed, it was time for the elephant hunt. The people gathered in the rainforest to make a prayer-song for the sacred killing, and waited for Jengi, their guardian spirit, to begin the music. They kept silent as they listened for his voice to sound in the river rushing, purling, and lapping; in the insects buzzing, chirping, and whistling; in the birds calling, cooing, and screeching. Then they joined in. The high voices of the women and children sounded a light, mocking Eh-oh-oh! Eh-oh-oh! The low voices of the men grunted a serious, deadly Mu-RUH! Mu-RUH! The voices sang low-high, in-out, first one, then another, then all.
They sang without breath, no stopping, always weaving, up and down, up and down. The voice of Otabenga’s friend Matu pierced through the others, flying high. Everyone else sang softly underneath, voices stepping right and left, right and left, walking, walking, walking. The voices joined, not the same sounds at the same times, but netted together like hairs on a head, like
leaves on a tree. The people’s prayer-song had no words, only the sounds of the elephant eating and fighting and dying, of the hunter stalking and killing, of the hungry people feasting and rejoicing—a prayer that began and ended with eating. Like life. Like death. Elephants kill trees to eat and live; people kill elephants to eat and live.
Inside the ring of singers, Matu danced as the elephant, waving one arm up and down, his strong trunk like a snake, full of muscle and breath and rage. He held the other arm out in front, barely curved up, his hand stiff and pointed like a tusk. Otabenga danced nearby as the hunter, taking slow, careful steps—toe to heel, toe to heel—imaginary spear held low, ready to thrust upward. His wife Eseli sat in the circle of singers, her arms hugging her pregnant belly, rocking, watching, nodding to the rhythm. His mother Anyoto sat next to Eseli, whispering and laughing.
Matu-the-elephant lumbered, bent over, arms wide, walking big, swaying. His arm-trunk stabbed high and raked low, stripping tree bark, his huge body swaying right to left, left to right. His eyes were busy with his dinner and saw nothing else. Otabenga-the-hunter leaped and stabbed, thrusting the poison deep into the elephant’s belly, and dived away.
Matu-the-elephant exploded, roaring and trumpeting, swinging and thrashing. The circling voices sang up and up, louder and higher. Otabenga-the-hunter crouched and watched as the elephant slowed, stopped, swayed . . . stood . . . stood . . . stood . . . stood . . . crashed! Old Liboyo stepped forward and shouted Bwah! Otabenga jumped up with everyone else to shout Bwah!
That was the end of the dance, but Matu-the-elephant didn’t get up. When Otabenga prodded his friend with his foot, Matu rolled onto his back, grinning, grabbed Otabenga’s leg, and wrestled him to the ground, both laughing. A few children ran to them, giggling, and threw their child-bodies onto the man-pile. Everyone else crowded close, laughing and joking, waving and shouting. Otabenga lay on the bottom of the pile, full and peaceful, warm inside his people’s hearts.
In that moment of effusive prayer, the people made as much noise as they could.
They stamped, clapped, sang, yodeled, hooted, and roared. They were not many separate beings, each one crying to the void; they were one huge voice roaring out and up so that Jengi would hear them. He would surely bless the hunt with success and Otabenga with manhood.
And now, alone, Otabenga walks, the sun barely penetrating the canopy of the rainforest. Foliage absorbs and deflects nearly all the light, scattering only a few flecks of gold downward.
These flecks dance in Otabenga’s dim, greenish gaze, occasionally dazzling his dark-adjusted eyes. Sight is not the most significant tool for the hunt, however. Neither is his only weapon, a sharpened, fire-hardened spear tipped with frog-poison. Far more important are his feet, nose, ears, skin, and brain. These help him navigate through the darkness and the static, humid air and the constantly drizzling mist. Through the muffled noise of the insects, birds, and monkeys high above him. Over the perilous dark ground with its roots, ruts, and snakes.
The equatorial rain forest has days and nights but no seasons, and therefore no years and no time. Otabenga hunts, he has always hunted, he will always hunt in this rainforest. His vanished ancestors and unborn descendants exist elsewhere in the same rainforest, hunting invisibly alongside him. His people are small and lithe and quick: expert tree-climbers, clever hiders, talented imitators of forest sounds, skillful engineers of secret pathways through dense foliage. They have hunted in the Congo Basin for more than fifty thousand years, a number Otabenga doesn’t know and doesn’t need to know since it means the same as always.
He finds signs of animals ordinarily worth hunting: A leaf-stripped twig near a termite mound used by a chimpanzee to fish inside; a patch of brown ooze on a tree trunk where an okapi rubbed the scent glands of its neck; an anthill ripped open by the long claws of a giant pangolin. All good eating, but today’s hunt is not merely for food. Today Otabenga hunts for the crown of his manhood: the killing of an elephant all by himself. He walks soundlessly, rustling no leaves, cracking no sticks, dislodging no stones. This hunt is not like the noisy, joyful, companionable dance. This hunt is lonely, quiet, frightening.
He walks. He begins to see the elephant’s trail: crushed saplings, scraps of bark tusk- ripped and trunk-stripped. The beast is up ahead, shaking trees, searching for bananas and palm fruits. This is a bad sign; a hungry elephant is more awake and fierce than a full one. Otabenga waits a moment before silently continuing his walk. When he finds the fresh golden-brown dung, each lump bigger than his foot, he rubs it all over his body to mask his scent. The dung scratches his skin because it is only dry plant stalks. It smells light and mild, like straw, not heavy and stinky like human dung.
His first sight of the elephant stops his breath: the biggest bull he’s ever seen. Three times his height, fifteen times his weight—this bull eats more in one day than Otabenga eats in a year. His legs are ancient trees, his trunk a whipping python, his tusks iron blades.
Otabenga waits a long time, watching, breathing in, breathing out, feeling the muscles of his arms and legs, mind tense inside his breath. The elephant strips bark and eats, strips bark and eats. Chances come, chances go. Otabenga waits and waits. He must be sure. Jengi protects him, yes, but Jengi is also testing his courage and skill. If Otabenga dies alone in the rainforest, his wife and mother and the others will wait for his return—hungry, worried—but then they will have to stop waiting. They will sing mourning songs—no praise-songs—and move away forever to set up a new hunting camp somewhere else in the forest. His child will be born fatherless. His wife will marry another man. The people will forget his name, the name of the boy who failed his man’s hunt. If he dies now, his birth was pointless.
Otabenga waits and watches for his chance, needing to be sure. On an in-breath, he knows he will never be sure. He will have to take the next chance unsure. Out-breath. In-breath. Out-breath. Breath caught and held. No; breathe. In-breath. Out-breath. Spear ready, arm ready, legs ready.
He springs! Runs at the bull—stabs the spearpoint inside—jabs to sink the poison deep— dives away fastfastfast—swarms halfway up a giant kapok tree. His breath and muscles soften as he clings to a branch.
The elephant’s dying is as huge as his living. He spins wildly, crashing into trees and brush, spurting blood, deafening the rainforest with his screams. Bloody death, like bloody birth, is sacred. Otabenga bows his head, respecting the moment. Death for the elephant is life for the people. After eternity, the elephant’s great legs fold, first the front knees, then the back. On his knees he sways, gasps, tries to bellow. His trunk falls, his head falls. He slowly crumples sideways, breathing big—breathing small—not breathing.
Above the death, fused to the tree, Otabenga lays his head down on the branch to watch.
His mind hears the people clapping and shouting Bwah! but he does not shout. The elephant looks smaller in death than in life, but Otabenga knows that he weighs more. Carrying him back would be impossible; the people will have to come here. It will be worth moving the hunting camp for all this meat. No one will need to hunt again for a long time.
Otabenga climbs down and pulls the spear from the great belly, unplugging a rush of blood and air. He takes the bamboo blade from his vine-belt, cuts around the wound, and tosses the chunk of poisoned flesh into the brush. He cuts a scrap of skin from the vast ear, enough to clutch in his fist. Spear in right hand, ear-skin trophy in left, he runs.
His feet beat the rhythm of a new praise-song, a song of himself, soon to be celebrated as a full man and a great hunter. He has earned the people’s highest tribute. The song he makes in his mind is not as good as the one that Matu will make for him when he returns, but it will serve until then.
You, golden caracal,
You, bursting runner, Stealth and speed, Ululant in victory,
Your people’s hands rise,
Their tongues sing like larks’!
He runs, the voices in his head singing his praise. You, golden caracal. He runs and runs—fresh, rejuvenated, eager. You, tassel-eared cat. This will be the first song his new son will hear. Otabenga will sing it to him while he nests inside Eseli’s body. And as he emerges from the womb. And while he nurses. By the time he unlatches himself from the nipple, that son will know all the notes and words, and that song will be the first music from his mouth. Before that son can walk, he will ride on Otabenga’s back to learn the rainforest, to learn prey and weapons, to learn stealth and waiting. When his time comes to walk, he will learn to do it as a hunter, toe to heel, light and quiet, ready to move instantly in any direction. He will learn to climb like a mamba, hide like a crocodile, run like a cheetah, attack like a mongoose. Even on his first hunt, he will refuse to return empty-handed, even if all he kills is a small sunbird. Together Otabenga and his son will become a perfect team of hunters, their ability to provide food unsurpassed by any other, including his mother’s old enemy Uda-kangay. You, bursting runner . . . stealth and speed . . . ululant in victory . . . He runs, dreaming of the son who will care for him when he is old, who will keep his name alive in the rainforest after death renders him silent andinvisible.
But what if Eseli bears a daughter? Otabenga almost stumbles in his run. Thoughts of the son make him strong; thoughts of the daughter, weak. Why should that be? Girls and women hunt—not elephants, of course—but they net birds and bats and rodents. Eseli’s throwing arm is more accurate than Otabenga’s. His rocks fly farther, but they often miss. Hers hardly ever do. That civet they’d treed together—his four rocks did nothing but move the beast along the branch. Eseli knocked it off with her first throw. So Otabenga’s feeling of vulnerability at the thought of fathering a daughter comes from some other place.
He runs, pondering. Son, daughter. Son, daughter. As he approaches the hunting camp, he makes the cry of the white-faced owl so everyone will know he is returning: Prrp! Prrp! Prrp- prrp!
No response. Where is everyone?
He runs. His feet are too loud, the forest too quiet. No thrumming, no grating, no rasping of insects. No whistling, no piping, no chuckling of birds. No rustling of people, no crackling of fire, no rhythm of feet. The forest is holding its breath.
He runs faster. The spear and skin-scrap fall from his hands. He runs faster but the forest passes too slowly. The landmarks—the pink-purple rock that overlooks the small pond, the hollow log that holds the nest of biting white ants, the hanging vine coiled like a green mamba— these should have been flying by but are barely moving.
So slow! He is running under water, under mud, under earth. The smell is foul. An inside- out smell, like a gutted, rotting beast, hot and bloody and greasy, the smell of ruin.
He fills his throat with his tongue to keep from gagging and runs. Please. Please. His legs keep going—his mind closes—his legs keep going home.
He looks for only a few seconds—a few seconds that last too long, for his whole life, for always. He does not want to count, but his eyes do it anyway: Eighteen of his people lie unmoving on the ground. His eyelids slam shut—too late, too late.
His fearless mother, Anyoto. Motionless, her arms and legs broken like kindling, ripped and bloody between her legs, eyes open and dark, a hole in her throat open and dark and liquid, right hand missing.
Old Liboyo. Face down in a dark, spreading pool, his thin old-man’s buttocks flabby and sad, a bloody gash in his back, right hand missing.
Otabenga does not see Matu or any of the other young men or women. Maybe they’ve been taken as slaves and marched away, lost to the rainforest forever. Maybe, if they fought back, they were killed. Maybe their bodies lie at his feet, hidden in the shadows. Maybe his eyes, already full of corpses, refuse to see any more.
No. Now they do see more: those too young to be enslaved, the littlest children. Here they are, miniature right hands missing. He closes his eyes again, but the sight has already poisoned his mind forever.
He opens them to look for Eseli but cannot see her. Confused, he wonders if his eyes are still closed. He blinks to make sure. No. As much as he wishes they were closed, they are open. Where is his pregnant wife? Is her body behind a tree? Has she been marched away? He doesn’t know whether to hope for death or slavery as her fate. Death would have been an eternity of pain and fear before she could escape to join the invisible ancestors in the distant part of the rainforest. Slavery would have been an eternity of hard labor, beatings, and forced breeding.
Which would be a more terrible fate? For her, for him? His mind goes back and forth. Which grief worse?
Avoiding the body of his mother, Otabenga looks pointedly at that of Liboyo. You were wrong, old man. The Zaps didn’t stay outside the rainforest. They marched right in to attack us with their iron weapons, and you did nothing to stop them. Your god, Jengi, did nothing to stop them.
The old man says nothing, does nothing—just lies face down in his own blood, silent. His prestigious hat of spotted fur lies next to him, muddy and trampled. Otabenga, mouth tight, turns his back on his old teacher and closes his eyes again.
He wishes Eseli could have seen his face at the end. Selfish. He wants her last thought to have been of him. But why should that be? Why should her last thought not have been of the child in her belly? Or of her food cooking over the fire, or of whether she needed to attach new leaves to the roof of their hut? That is what he deserves: for her final thought not to have been of him. If she had thought of him, she would have hated him for being gone when her killers came.
The child in her belly. The one Otabenga had imagined emerging from her body singing that ridiculous praise-song. Golden caracal. Bursting runner. Otabenga covers his face with his hands, spits into them, and savagely rubs his face with his own spit. That child, son or daughter, will never emerge from the womb, never walk, never hunt, never keep Otabenga’s name alive in the rainforest. Oblivion—he deserves it.
He opens his eyes, forces himself to look at the dead. His mother. His old teacher. The smallest children. All the others. He stares at them and waits but nothing happens. He wants to vomit but nothing happens. He wants to fall to his knees, to his face, but he can’t control his body. He closes his eyes and stands, waiting to act, to understand, to believe. Jengi has failed to protect the people. The rainforest’s guardian spirit is dead along with the people.
He stands, feeling the death of his god
He stands, feeling the deaths of all the people who have ever known his name. He stands, feeling the deaths of his unborn children.
He stands, feeling the river rising around him.
In memory of the ten million people killed in the Belgian Congo genocide of 1885-1905.
Kathleen R. Sands, Ph.D., has taught literature, writing, and other humanities courses at universities and colleges in Arizona, Scotland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. She has also worked as a zookeeper, animal laboratory technician, and state government policy analyst for criminal justice and environmental agencies. Her history books, An Elizabethan Lawyer’s Possession by the Devil and Demon Possession in Elizabethan England, are cited in many scholarly texts. Her collection of short fiction, Boy of Bone, received an honorable mention in the 2012 New York Book Festival. Her unpublished novel, In Between People, was a finalist for the 2017 Brighthorse Prize.