by Adrian Simmons
“Alondi?” Kufako asked, leaning out of the rain and into her hut. “How do you feel today, Aunt?”
Alondi rolled off her mattress– a woven grass mat atop a bed of eight small logs. The Mbuit pygmy woman was no more Kufako’s aunt than she was the aunt of any other child in the troupe. But Kufako was no longer a child. He had picked a wife and they had a hut together.
“I feel bad, Kufako,” Alondi said. “I am sick, and it will not be long before my spirits fly to the cave of the dead, the Ituri forest, and a monkey eagle. If there are any monkey eagles left.”
Kufako squatted, barely inside the hut, just on the other side of the small bed of smoldering coals that occupied the center of the chamber. “Aunt, this is the third day we have had poor hunting, and the tenth day it has rained. We must move, and find another place where father Ituri will provide us with game.”
Kufako was a fine hunter, fierce-looking with a porcupine quill through his nose. He wore a bark loincloth that contrasted with his belt of nylon and the titanium knife that hung from it. He reminded her of her husband when he was alive and young, and, in the ways of the memory of old women, of boys and infants she had known. She said nothing, letting the sound of the rains fill the silence.
“Will you be able to travel tomorrow?” he asked.
“Not far,” Alondi said, “not far and not quickly.”
Kufako had brought a handful of mushrooms and a bundle of dry sticks. Alondi watched as he carefully put the sticks on the coals, then leaned over and blew at them. Fire swarmed up the sticks, its light flaring and showing Alondi’s body in all her poor health. Her arms were thin and her breasts sagged, gaunt and unhealthy.
“Safu says that if we do not find more game then we should go to one of the Bantu villages,” Kufako said. “Where we can work for a share of their crops. I do not think we should. There are no animals around the Bantu; we will never find anything to hunt. They have machines now, more than ever before, and there is little work we can do. And then we will be forced to stay, and to work at whatever they can find for us, and to be traded to the other villages.”
Alondi said nothing.
Kufako watched the fire grow, then spoke: “I have argued that we do not go to the Bantu. I have argued that many Mbuti give up the spear and the net and live among the Bantu, like their sheep and chickens. But we must move soon, Aunt. Hungry bellies make foolish minds.”
Alondi held a mushroom in her gnarled hand, sniffed at it and pinched her wrinkled face into a mask of distaste. She considered maintaining her silence and making Kufako speak the ugly and blunt truth of the matter. Perhaps it was that she felt too sick and weak, perhaps it was the drizzling rain that had drooled upon them for days, but she finally felt pity for a young hunter with many great things weighing his mind.
“The band does not have to wait for me to die before moving to another part of the forest,” she said and returned to her mattress.
Kufako nodded quickly and reached into the quiver at his hip. He withdrew an arrow whose tip was wrapped in a leaf. “My uncle sometimes hunts monkeys, and he broke this arrow and it can no longer be used.”
He put the arrow on the ground by the mushrooms before leaving. Alondi could hear him shouting, calling the band together, urging them to prepare and be ready in the morning, rain or no, to leave the camp.
There was a time, Alondi knew, when all the Mbuti in this part of the Ituri hunted with nets and spears, while those further north used bow and arrow. But so much had changed in her lifetime. So many Mbuti had joined the Bantu or the Lese, and the number of taller men increased like drops of the unending rains. There were muzungu as well, pale and greedy, trading machines and hunting eagles. All those tribes grew in number, but not the Mbuti, and not, she had heard, the Ituri itself.
She did not believe, until recently, that the forest could shrink, that it was not the entire world. But the world had shrunk, like her body under the weight of her days. It had shrunk until the net-hunting Mbuti of the south, and the bow-hunting Mbuti of the north were joining, forced together so that Kufako’s uncle hunted monkeys with a bow and arrow. Forced together so that even she, a weak old woman, knew that monkeys were hunted with poison arrows, a poison that paralyzed the arms and legs, and then, if the monkey didn’t fall from the tree, even their lungs.
She looked at the arrow on the ground, a parting gift from Kufako. He was a good boy.
* * *
Two days later, on her third trip into the rain for leaves to repair her hut, she detected the animal. It crashed and thumped through the woods behind her, and by the time she had trained her old eyes on the area it was gone. Whatever it was, it was large, bigger than a dukir. A boar? No. It sounded too tall. An okapi? She ran her tongue over one of the many gaps in her teeth.
No. Not an okapi, unless it was a stunningly clumsy one. And okapis were not clumsy.
An elephant? No. They were all gone except for their spirits.
She sighed. It was also too big to be a leopard. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t eat her, and she would have to drag her existence out for a few more days.
Alondi continued the work of collecting leaves, and then, sodden and cold and sore, she re-roofed her hut.
She was old, and her mind as she sickened swam in memories and dreams. She had run through the forest alongside her husband Pano, running dukir into nets, and tracking boar and okapi. Those skills from her youth occupied her mind, and she found herself listening for the animal. It took time, intolerable miserable sick time, but her old instincts caught the sounds: a rustle of foliage unrelated to wind; a slight change in the patter of the rain as it hit the creature’s body instead of the floor of the forest; the soft step of its feet as it picked its way around a hut.
Sitting by her small fire, Alondi hugged her sagging breasts to her body and waited. But she was old, and the old and sick have a kind of impatience. She finally stood and, pushing aside a mongongo leaf, peered outside to get a look at the creature.
It was big–the size of a hut–and strangely shaped, and horrid. A tangle of legs, each as long as a tall Bantu, jutted from an oval bug-like body, one end of which rose to a kind of peak with a ghastly insect face decorated with shiny black beads. It had arms, perhaps, the two legs in front seemed to be perhaps arms, and they ended in jittery digits that could have been fingers.
She stared at the creature for long moments, an unsteady mix of horror and fascination dueling with the lightheadedness of her final days. Water found its way over the edge of the leaf she had lifted. A rivulet ran down her hand, then her arm to drip off her elbow. She squinted: the digits were doing something. They were weaving! A basket of bark strips. The creature lifted the basket up to its awful face, inspected it, and then continued to thread bark strips together.
Some old instinct, some old remnant of younger days warned her that the creature had looked through its basket right at her, and was still watching. She watched it watching her and weaving its basket. Her skin puckered at the cold away from the fire, and whatever the animal was outside it seemed occupied and content enough to be in the rain. She moved back to her mattress of logs, put a few more sticks on her fire, waited for her head to stop spinning, and tried to get some rest.
“Grandmother?” A great raspy voice eased in through the mongongo leaves. The creature was standing outside the low doorway of her hut. “Grandmother,” it called again, “can I talk to you? I have many questions I need to ask.”
Up close it smelled kind of like a snake, a musty dry scent of scales. She wasn’t sure if the thing could even see into the hut; it didn’t seem to have a waist, and didn’t appear to be very bendable at all.
The basket, now complete, bobbed into the opening, held by the creature’s strange segmented fingers. “I’ve woven something, and that shows that I’m not an animal.”
Its voice was a giant rasping loud whisper. Like one of the muzungu planes might have. Was it a plane? Is that what they looked like on the ground? Where were the wings? Did they fold in like a beetle? Couldn’t be a plane. Nobody, not the Mbuti, not the Bantu, not even the muzungu ever said that the planes spoke.
Alondi thought for a few moments. “What are you going to put in the basket?”
“I made it for you.”
“What do you think I should put in it?”
“There are edible mushrooms not far away. The trunk of a fallen tree keeps the ground from being too wet. You could put them in the basket, bring them back here and eat them.”
“I could,” she said, taking the basket while looking at the jointed leg that joined the outrageous body. Both leg and body were covered with a slightly shiny material–a raincoat, like the muzungu would wear, or a rich Bantu.
She could also run away, which would have been a more appealing idea had she been younger and not so cold away from the fire. Where was that arrow? Behind her, next to the mattress. Not much good there. What had she been thinking? As she had for the past two days she had thought of stabbing it into her thigh tomorrow, if she could get up the courage.
“These gaps are pretty big for mushrooms,” Alondi said, sticking two fingers through the weave.
“These are big mushrooms,” it said, backing away and bending, as best it could, to look at her with its horrible clusters of eyes. It kept moving away, crunching into the underbrush and disappearing into the rain and the leaves.
Alondi went back to her small fire. Waited for a long time and still didn’t die. Eventually she got hungry enough to go out into the drizzle and the cold. Making her way around to every fallen tree that leaned against another, she finally found one that had a cluster of mushrooms growing under it. She picked them, piled them into her odd basket, and then made her way back to the hut, where she found the creature had returned and had piled new sticks and mongongo leaves around it. The creature stood away a bit, watching her.
She could see it had also set up a small metal pot–precariously balanced on a triad of stones–on the fire in her hut. Water boiled in it, and some other things, some kind of meat–dukir, she thought. She had no idea how it had gotten into her hut, but those things were there now, and she was glad enough of it, the fire at least.
She eased past the ends of the creature’s feet and into her hut, and arranged herself next to the fire. Tossing the mushrooms into the pot, Alondi settled and let them cook. The creature moved back and tilted its body so it could watch her.
She cooked her food and ate as much as she could stomach, with the creature watching her the whole time.
“Are you Tore?” she asked finally.
“I’m uncertain who Tore is.”
Muzungu then, a big one. “He is lord of the dead. He lives in a cave that is guarded by a great fierce snake. The cave is always a few days’ walk for the dying. But I doubt if you are Tore, the dead go to him–not the other way around.”
“I hope you are not going to die, Grandmother,” it said. “I need your help.”
“You’ve come too late, my big buggy, muzungu,” she said. “It is only a matter of time.”
“I hope not. I need you to help me convince the Mbuti to leave the forest.”
She sighed through her sickness and her age. One of those. Death drew missionaries like carrion drew flies. She threw the pot out into the rain. “The forest is our father. More than Gawd, or Allhah, or Huubard.”
The creature backed away a bit then crept back forward again. “I don’t know what you are referring to. Outside of knowing that the Mbuti believe that what separates human from monkeys is the ability to weave and build fire, I have had very little time to study many cultural aspects.”
Alondi didn’t die that night, and was awakened the next morning by a horrible hunger. The rain still came down, slow and steady, and there was a mist about, too.
The ants had gotten most of the food she threw away the day before. She thought about just staying in her newly re-leafed hut and dying, but the hunger got the better of her; and, she supposed as she searched out a few grubs in the rain, the giant bug muzungu.
It was a long trek to the woods, but she found some snails and some leaves to eat and, after loading them into the muzungu’s odd basket, she trudged back. It was slow going in the mist, but she picked her way from tree to tree and even got a lucky throw with a stone and added a mongoose to her basket.
Back at the ruins of the camp, she rebuilt her fire and cooked and ate. The mists turned cold and the rain kept up and she wrapped the driest grass mat she could find around herself and watched the skin on her arms tighten and felt her strength and health return, and even, yes, even watch as her vision grew less blurry. Her hearing got better, too. She heard the muzungu moving through the woods–the leaves and branches easing over its legs, pulling on its odd raincoat, and the harder patter of the rain against it as it stepped into the clearing.
“Grandmother,” it called. “Are you feeling better?”
She eased out of her hut into the rain and drew her rotting cape about herself. “Better. Yes.”
It stood there in the rain at the edge of the camp, its horrid head looking at her.
“You put some medicine in the water, then?” she asked.
“Why? This is as good a place as any to die. Now I’m alone and don’t even have a troupe.”
“I need you to convince the other Mbuti to leave the forest,” the muzungu said again.
She knew a little of this. Many people, the Bantu, and the muzungu, and many, many foolish people had been trying to get the Mbuti to leave the forest. Leave to work in fields, leave to work in factories, leave a world where Father Ituri gave you everything you needed for a world where another man gave you what he thought you needed. And, since most of the Bantu and the muzungu didn’t think much of the Mbuti, they gave them very little indeed.
“The forest loves us and wants us to be happy,” she said. “Only the very stupid leave it.”
“It is not going to stop raining,” the muzungu said. “Not for a long time. Too long for the forest to survive as you know it.”
Had she been a girl, Alondi would have laughed at such a thing, such a ridiculous idea. The forest was eternal and everlasting. But she was not a girl. She was an old woman, and had seen the edge of the Ituri, where the Bantu and the muzungu grew crops and grazed cattle. She had seen those edges grow greater and deeper, and the forest grow smaller.
She chuckled, putting on a brave face. “It takes more than a little rain to bother the Ituri.”
“The rain will grow colder,” the creature said. “Did you know that when water gets cold enough it stiffens and becomes hard?”
“Now you sound like a Bantu witch-hunter,” she said, giving a genuine laugh at such a stupid idea.
“Bantu are hunting in the forest,” it said. “Not far from here. Very hungry Bantu. The rain has ruined their crops and they’ve eaten all their animals.”
She said nothing, and the creature walked back into the forest.
Alondi left her hut and made her way to the edge of the camp. In the cold and mist a stupid Bantu could perhaps confuse a Mbuti for a monkey; it had been known to happen. And, perhaps, a hungry Bantu might shoot a Mbuti on purpose.
They came into the camp, six men–three under ragged camouflaged ponchos, three bare-chested. Four of them carried rifles, but all six had machetes. Alondi made herself very small and pressed into a fern-covered gap between two fallen and rotting trees.
The men froze at the edge of the camp and spread out, carefully checking each hut–all of which had shed their mongongo leaves save hers. They formed a rough ring around her hut, and they eased up to it. At a nod from one of the men with a rifle and poncho, four machetes slashed into the walls of her hut, tearing it apart in a matter of seconds. The gunmen stood, rifles ready.
As her hut disintegrated under the rain of blows, the Bantu began yelling–loud, high cries of anger and rage. One of the hunters leaned over the remnants of her fire, extending a hand over the sad remnants of the coal bed. He yelled out a warning and the others fell silent. The Bantu drifted from the ruins of her hut, out to the edge of the camp and into the woods themselves. A bare-chested young man came so close to her hiding place that she could recognize him.
It had been a long time; he had not been so tall last she had seen him. Sometimes her band would go to the village of Jongundo and trade meat caught in the Ituri for vegetables grown in the village. He had been there, happy and willing to trade what his family had grown for what the Mbuti had captured–and sometimes he would cast a longing eye on one of the young Mbuti woman and make an offer for her as well.
That boy from her memory was a stranger compared to the man who loomed so near now. He was thin–gaunt almost–hard-edged and mean. He blinked rain out of his eyes and circled her hiding place, for a moment looking right at the ferns concealing her. Then he disappeared where she could not see him.
The rain drifted down and the cold of the ground worked up through her knees and shins where she knelt in the mud. Water flitted through her grass cape, soaking her shoulders and breasts. She waited, still as a dukir and far too smart to run until she knew they were gone. How long she waited she couldn’t say. Night was growing and she couldn’t hear anything of the Bantu over the slow patter of rain.
Her fire was out, and she had no way of making another. The weight of her long life redoubled on her and she wished that the strange muzungu hadn’t given her its accursed medicine–better to have been dead in her hut and become a meal for the starving Bantu than to struggle through the cold night and the last few days of her life. In the trampled leaves and sticks of her destroyed hut she found Kufako’s arrow, still wrapped in its protective layer of leaves.
She held it, thought about stabbing it into her thigh, even unwrapped the twine with trembling fingers, but the now familiar thum-thum-thum to thup-thup-thup of rain on the hide of the muzungu came to her ears. It came from its accustomed place and walked on its long-stick legs to her.
“They broke your basket,” she said, nodding to the tangled mess of the muzungu’s handiwork.
“It was not made very well,” the muzungu said. “I have been practicing. I’ve built a hut.”
Her teeth were starting to chatter. “Do you need any m-m-m-ongo-ngo leaves-s-s? Some of th-th-th-ese are still g-g-g-ood.”
In the darkness the creature moved away, back toward the ragged dripping edge of the overgrowth. Alondi followed, a bunch of mongongo leaves in one hand and her arrow in the other. She pushed through the limbs and leaves, following the sounds of the muzungu. It crunched and slid through the brush toward the impossible light of a small fire. There was no room in the pressing limbs and leaves for huts or a fire, but ahead, around the spidery-legged bulk of the muzungu she could see an open area, not cut from the forest, but more of a window into another forest.
The muzungu walked through the window; a dry wind full of unfamiliar smells poured out of it. Alondi could see a clearing, and a fire, and a very badly built hut. But the trees of the Ituri forest around her were not there, even the trunks of the great canopy above them were absent through the window.
She hesitated in the oddly warm wind, looking into a forest that wasn’t the Ituri, at a hut covered with leaves–but definitely not mongongo leaves. Then she thought of the hungry Bantu and the unending cold rain, and stepped through.
Her ears popped and she walked into a forest where it wasn’t raining. High above through a canopy of too-round leaves, she could see a dusting of stars far above.
There was a small pile of wood next to the small fire, and across from it was a log with fist-wide spirals of growth coming out of it.
“These,” the muzungu said, running a snaky hand over the coiled growth, “are as close to edible mushrooms as you’ll find in the Akkilla forest. You can eat it if you like.”
She sat by the fire, laid out her grass mat to dry, and plucked at the sort-of-mushroom. It broke off in her hand; it had a woody outer casing, and mushroom-like flesh inside.
“They won’t like the sun,” she said.
“They are cunning, and will figure out a way.”
She shaded her eyes and squinted up–the sun was tiny but brighter than it should have been.
“The days are too long,” she said. She had a hammer made of a thick piece of wood (wood that was too shiny along its cross-section) and with it she hammered a square of too-soft bark into a loin cloth; she had been in the new forest for three days and her old one would not last much longer.
Unnlowwun–the muzungu–said nothing. She had asked its name on the second day in this strange place, as it had laid out vines and explained how they were similar to the vines in the Ituri.
“The nights are too long, too,” she added, with a few more good thumps to the bark.
“To be expected,” Unnlowwun said. “The Mbuti are cunning and will adapt. Long days for hunting and napping. Long nights for sleeping and sex.”
“The banja is terrible,” she said, putting down her hammer and taking a long puff of the stuff. It grew low to the ground around the muddier creeks.
Not all Unnlowwun’s eyes were solid black, Alondi noticed. There were two, on the top of its pointed head, that were rimmed in a dull orange. These moved at her banja comment, crossing and then uncrossing. It was, she guessed, the equivalent of a shrug of impatience.
“There are many psychotropic and stimulating substances in the Akkilla forest. Long days can be filled finding new things to smoke, ingest, or inhale.”
She hammered a few more times. Her wrist didn’t hurt, her elbow didn’t hurt. But they should have, as they had before, for so long a time.
“Why have you made me young again?”
Again the crossing of the eyes–Alondi had asked this question several times. “The Mbuti respect wisdom and age, but you needed time to learn the ways of the Akkilla.” Unnlowwun made a different motion, a turning of its ghastly head away for a moment. “Your health will not last long.”
She hammered the bark a few more times. “You told me that already.”
Flexing the material, she found it to her liking and tore a strip from the softer section she had been hammering on. Standing, she slipped out of her loincloth, threw it into the woods, and then slid the new one up over her hips. She tied it on the side and swiveled her hips. Not as scratchy as she had thought. In a day or so she would hardly notice it.
“You have not told me why the Mbuti must come here,” she said, tying the new net she had made that morning across her chest. She secured her broken poison arrow through her belt with a bit of twine–like she had seen the male hunters do. The Akkilla forest was full of animals, and many of them were dangerous. According to Unnlowwun, at least.
“The rain will not stop, not for a long time. Too long for the Ituri forest. Not enough light. Too cold.”
“And why do the Mbuti have such bad luck that the rains won’t stop?”
“All the world has bad luck. It won’t stop raining on the Ituri, yet it won’t rain at all in some of the lands of the muzungu. It will be too hot in others, too cold in some. More people than the leaves of all the trees you see have already died. There will be fighting and killing, and the weather will continue to be unsuitable for as long a time as from the time of a boy’s birth to the time he names his grandson.”
That was a long time–almost her own lifetime.
“And why the Mbuti?”
“The gate, the doorway between this world and yours is very expensive to open. Even more so from my own world. The elders of the Nests have debated and argued long about this. Many feel that the problems of muzungu, Bantu and Mbuti are not worth bothering with. Others elders argue that there are humans who will bring little and live in a place where they need little.”
“Why the Mbuti? Why not the muzungu?”
Unnlowwun opened his hideous mouth, and the worse mouth inside it, and spat. “The muzungu got themselves into the woods–let them find their own way out.”
“They suffer the same as we do from the bad weather.”
“They have made the bad weather. Even after realizing they were doing it. Even after we told them they were doing it. They have built too big a fire for their hut and are choking from the smoke.”
She had met a few muzungu in her life. Some were nice, some were not. Building a fire so big it choked the world seemed like just the kind of thing they would do. And the Bantu would either fetch the wood or be powerless to stop them.
Alondi considered her people’s way of life. The Mbuti kept few things, for the forest gave them everything, and everything it gave them did not last very long. Her mother had told her that trading with the muzungu was easy, because having almost nothing, there were few trades where the Mbuti did not gain.
In her trading with Unnlowwun she had gained several meals, some very bad banja, a new bark cloth, and a new world. It had been a good day.
It wasn’t raining when Alondi stepped back through the gate. It was hailing. That water could get so cold that it became hard like a stone was a fact more remarkable to her than stepping from world to world. It was almost as remarkable as the fact that the trees were leaning at insane angles, and above the clatter of the ice came the crackling boom BOOM of trees falling to the soft ground.
She covered her head with her hands to protect from the stinging blows of the hail, and ran hard through the underbrush into a clearing where a dozen huts were beaten to ruin and her old band of Mbuti huddled in their scant protection.
Skidding to a halt by the flooded central fire, she called out. “Come with me! Follow quickly!”
The faces, wet and cold, looked at her with a myriad of expressions of shock and disbelief.
“Alondi! You are not sick?”
“Alondi! What is that you wear?”
“Alondi! You are young!”
“Alondi! You are still alive!”
“I will answer all your questions soon enough. Come! Follow!” She grabbed a hand–Mukeyina’s–and started to pull the younger woman back toward the gate.
“Where?” Mukeyina demanded. “Where will you take us?”
Alondi hesitated a moment and Mukeyina pulled away from her. The all drew back from her, and she covered her head with her arms as the ice fell from the sky. What would she say? What would she have believed if Unnlowwun had appeared and tried to explain?
“I can take you,” she shouted, “to a part of the forest where it is not raining. A very big part of the forest where we can hunt with bows or nets or whatever we wish and don’t have to work for Bantu or muzungu.”
“Where is this place?” Kufako asked. He still had the quill through his nose, but days of wet and hunger and “ice” had taken much out of his hunter’s eyes.
“That way.” Alondi pointed back the way she came. “Not far at all. Easy to go and see–”
“We are going to go to one of the Bantu villages!” Safu said, pushing his way in front of her.
He wore a shirt, and shorts–gifts and payment for work done before he came to be part of their band. Whatever picture the shirt had was lost beneath layers and layers and layers of stains; it clung to his body like a web.
“No!” she shouted above the hail, “there is no work to be had in the villages! Men from Jongundo village came looking for us at our last camp. They came with guns.”
“If some Bantu have guns,” Safu countered, “then we must seek out other Bantu to protect us.”
“We must leave the Bantu and the muzungu and return to the forest, where we never go hungry for long or have to beg–”
Safu shoved her, pressing his hard palms into her sternum and knocking her back into the muddy ash of the dead firepit. “The forest is dying,” he screamed. “There is not enough room for all of us anymore!”
Another tree, older than all of them put together, began to topple, sending deafening pops and sucking cracks over the screams of the Mbuti and the hammering of the hail.
“There is another forest!” Alondi shouted all the louder, struggling to stand as the hail redoubled and beat down upon her. “A brother to the Ituri. The Akkilla forest. Uncle Akkilla has built a hut for us and–”
“Shut up!” Safu yelled, jumping on her and hammering at her face and neck with his fists. “There is only this forest! You endanger us all with your foolish talk! You should be banished!”
She struggled under him, her body no longer feeling so young. Around them, nobody did anything. She struggled against Safu, losing by inches and by blows.
“Go!” he screamed, “go and leave us! Go to the forest and die!”
Her hair had grown long over the last handful of days, and Safu grabbed a handful of it and hauled her to her feet. He dragged her out of the clearing and into the teetering woods. His face was mad, twisted in fear and hunger and desperation.
The face of muzungu as they killed each other, she felt sure.
She struggled in his grip as he pushed her into the forest. He redoubled his efforts to hold her, screaming his threats, sometimes just screaming. He was doing what he thought best for the band, she knew it with a heaviness of heart.
She made one more small struggle, and while he fought to hold her hair, she pulled her broken arrow free of her belt and stabbed backward so hard that the tip punched through its protective leaves and Safu’s shirt and skin and deep into his belly.
He yowled and flung her away. He looked from the arrow protruding out of him, then to her and back again. Grabbing the shaft with both hands he pulled it out. A lifetime of hunting and butchering animals and of accidents did not prepare her for the shock of the sight of his side weeping red and horrid.
Safu yelled something at her that was lost in the hail, and then he turned back to camp. She leapt, grabbing him first by his shirt and then his neck and pulled him backward. He resisted for a moment, but his shaking legs gave way and he fell back to crash hard against the ground like a tree. His legs trembled and his arms trembled as he tried to pick himself up. That was the last sight she had of him as she turned and ran back into the camp.
Bursting from the underbrush she ran toward the huts, heedless of the hail and the mud. She slid to a stop in the stirred-up mess of the firepit.
People shouted, asking where Safu was, asking how she had escaped, asking about Uncle Akkilla.
Her whole life she had not believed a word a missionary ever said.
“Uncle Akkilla asked Torre, the guardian of the dead, to send me to you with his invitation.” Every eye was upon her, every mouth silent. “Torre sent the great serpent that guards the cave of the dead to kill Safu. Safu is now in Torre’s village. You will either be in his village, or with Uncle Akkilla! Decide!”
Alondi turned on her muddy heels and walked away, back toward the gate. She marched through the clearing and into the beaten and broken underbrush. Some followed, though she could barely hear them shouting to her and to each other. When she arrived at the gate she did not look back; she stepped through into the too-bright day. At her lone hut with its dying fire she turned and settled onto her mat of nameless leaves.
Kufako came leading twenty-six others.
“You should stay, Grandmother,” Unnlowwun said.
She paused in her trek and looked at him. “Your magic is weakening,” she said. “My age is returning. Joints hurt, and the bruises that Safu gave me will not go down.”
She adjusted her forehead strap and the light load that hung from it down her back, and began walking again.
“The more reason to stay with the people,” he said, following close behind her.
“I thought it was “expensive” for you to come here.”
“It is. But this project must go very well. It must have a good start. You have much to impart to them about the Akkilla forest.”
“They are clever. They will learn; you said so yourself.”
A hill loomed up in front of her. Putting a hand out she leaned against a tree and took long breaths before beginning to ascend.
“They need your help. One, Alondi. I can have contact with only one Mbuti–that is the nature of the agreement the Nests have reached.”
She walked up, picking her way through stones and feathery ground vines. The work took her strength with each step and she sat on a flat rock to rest. Unnlowwun skittered up beside her.
“I killed Safu with a poison arrow,” she said. “I lied, lied like a drunken Bantu logger, to men and women I’ve known my whole life. “
“You saved them all,” he said. “Brought them to a new life of plenty.”
She had hoped that Unnlowwun, not being either Bantu or muzungu, might have understood, but he did not.
“I know of my crimes,” she said. “And the Akkilla knows, as well. You are right that we must make a strong beginning here. And to ensure that, I have done the proper thing and confessed my crimes to Kufako and the other elders. They have said, like you, that it should be overlooked. But it is proper that I should be banished, even if I have to do it myself.”
“I have heard, in my studies, that sometimes a banishment can mean going only an arrow-shot away. Why go so far?”
“Unlce Akkilla is big,” she said. “No Bantu or muzungu cut it down. I have only seen that one small clearing in all the time I have been here. Nobody, not even Kufako has been beyond this hill. I would like to be the first.”
“I cannot stay long, not even long enough to help you build a new hut,” Unnlowwun said.
She sighed and got back to her feet. “I can build my own hut. I can find enough food. I suspect that death will come more quickly this time.”
Continuing her labor up the hill, she said, “You do not have to follow. You should go back.”
“The Nests knew there could be additional expenses, that was in the agreement,” Unnlowwun said while walking beside her. His strange tentacled fingers took her sack of belongings. “There is much I would like to know about the Mbuti, before I go. And in all my visits here I have yet to look over the other side of this hill, either.”
Adrian Simmons is an Oklahoma based writer and editor. His fiction has appeared in the Black Dragon/White Dragon anthology, and the James Gunn’s Ad Astra. His genre-related essays, interviews, and articles published at Strange Horizons, Internet Review of Science Fiction, and Revolution SF. He is a driving force behind Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.