Engeraloi Mwanyika

 

Somewhere on the continent of Man's origin, under a solitary acacia, sits a woman, her skin exposed and withered, engraved like a woodcut.

 

Once there were sounds only. And the sounds were a great mystery. Even to the beings who made them. Sounds breeding sounds breeding sounds breeding sounds. Created, repeated, and remembered. Who is to say in what languages? All and none, depending upon Time. But once the naming of things began, and people could speak without pointing, a great power lent its wings to those who could not fly.

 

Her only garment is a weathered loincloth, its leather indistinguishable from the flesh it veils.

 

I am from then; before. Whereas you are from forever after. Yet, as echoes are the ghosts of sounds that roam beyond their source, words of mine endure for those who would but hearken.

 

Scars decorate her midriff in a radiating pattern overlapped by flaccid sacks that describe her breasts. Few teeth remain, though her mouth is still full-lipped, the chin below it sturdy.

 

Will you listen? True, my voice is but a relic, coarse and cracked, impaired and dry, useless as a teat deprived of giving suck. Still, I can rasp, if you will favor me with patience. I am old; a lengthy number tolls my footsteps.

 

Flies alight; the woman's scalp appears bejeweled as by a crown of blue-black sequins over crazed red-ochre daubing. Coiled around either arm, above the elbows, are beaded sinews. From her neck hangs a kidskin pouch, its contents likely prized.

 

My sight is weak, though eyes grown dim are often blessed with keener vision. As a recompense for aging. As a balm to soothe the childless.

Wah! Forgive me; I have pain in fits. My womb has lost its seed. It is of this I wish to tell you, you whose epoch, not mine own, will close its jaws upon the tail of Mother Earth's beginnings.

 

Rising, supported by a walking stick planted underneath her feet, the woman sniffs a sun-scorched, chalk-dry atmosphere. On guard against what danger? None exists, within the reach of her (enervated?) senses. Still, she heeds. An intuition guides her staff, as she inscribes a shallow oval—adjacent the acacia, in whose sparing shade she keeps. The groove she scrawls will serve as a moat of demarcation.

 

Women bleed. It has been so since we were formed beside our men from lumps of clay. It is our birthright. Our distinction. It is we who bring forth young. Ask not your men to bare their busts lest mewling infants wail.

 

She squats. Resettles. Casts another wary glance to left and right, inhales the breeze. Allows, then, quietude to reclaim her antique features.

 

I was barren. Like a fig tree out of season, I bore fruit before its time and watched the sun rob every precious yield of vigor. How I grieved! I had a husband who had chosen me expressly for my lushness. Those who know the damage age inflicts on beauty will perceive that these, my shriveled shapes, were not as they are now when youth engorged them. I was succulent. Full to overflowing. With juice. Then milk. Then tears, as one by one my babies blossomed prematurely, ruptured, died, and left my vacant womb a worse than worthless cavity, a mockery with its crimson moon-tugged tides.

Bereft, I prayed.

If life is harsh without a reason, should we not cry out for help; if life has crippled us, would the Gods deny us splints?

Ah-yee! They answered.

When my husband came onto me next, I dreamed a fateful omen. Huge with child, I was surrounded. Not by kinsmen; these were jinn, whose ashen faces were a wondrous sight, eyes blue as cloudless heavens—casting stares upon my bloated belly. Piercing. Probing deep. As if to verify a secret they kept close among themselves. I was not told, nor did I care; my child had quickened.

 

Out of nowhere, one, now two hyenas scurry from the bush, their scraggly manes and stunted hind parts vaguely menacing. Muzzles raised, they gather data from the body odors wafting round their prey. Yet she whose life's blood is their focus does not stir. Instead, she sleeps. Or gives its semblance: eyes stay closed, her breathing calm, her heartbeat steady—though the danger posed is one of which her senses seem aware, aware acutely, if the fits and starts of the predators are indicative. They look skittish, overly cautious, strangely hesitant to attack; at last the pair turns tail and flees, repelled by an unseen force.

 

When I am ready! I have much to say before I dole my bones out to the beasts. And much to do by way of making preparations. He will come. He must. He cannot disappoint me; I have waited all these seasons. Made no sacrifice, true. No blood was shed for blood; I scorn such practices. But my prayers have been as many as an outcast's unsung woes, my heart as tried and true as any heart once broken.

And my powers? Was it chance that made those spotted devils leave me to my musing, they whose bite could snap my spine like a brittle twig? You may well wonder. Age, perhaps, distributes gifts among its deprivations.

Wah—the pain! It comes more frequently now. Like labor. I have had it since that day; that day so very long ago when I was happy. Oh, yes; happy. I had brought forth. Who was I to doubt the goodness of my bounty? Was my baby not born perfect? Was he not well-formed and hale? And yet they drew back; they, the midwives. When my birthing spasms eased, I saw the malice that lay coiled beneath their fear. They would not touch him. He lay helpless: cord untied, his tiny lungs all choked with mucous. It was I who had to suck his nose and mouth to free his breath. And it was I who gnawed the link between us, cinched it with my hair, a hank I pulled out in my wild-eyed desperation.

They just watched me! Not a hand was lent to mop my brow or cleanse me of the gore. They hurried out, their tongues impatient to waggle and condemn.

While I, with him—my little man, my little marvel—was left alone. His eyes shone brightly... Do you think that I imagined it?... eyes whose brilliance made it seem as if he noticed his surroundings. He was conscious, was my little marvel; my little man could think. Within the murmurs of our bonding, I expected him to speak, for his was surely an extraordinary knowingness.

Oh, what grief! To have one's blossom plucked before its tender petals fully opened. To have nursed a few short moments... First the father came—enraged—and hollered, "Shame on thee! How dare ye drop another's whey-faced issue!" As if every child must be its father's twin; I knew no other. As if pigmentation mattered; true, our child had paler skin. But what of that, when all predicted we would be forever fruitless, when my womb had swelled and thinned and swelled and thinned and swelled and thinned and still no offshoot had survived a day past delivery? Ours was not a normal newborn, but a blessing sent by jinn. It was to them our precious child owed his resemblance. "Liar! Cheat! Ye hath disgraced the name Mwanyika!" He was certain of my guilt. A mind, once closed to truth, can rarely brook reopening.

Elders came.

If heads turned white from gaining wisdom err in times of trial and crisis, how convince unruly youth to seek sage counsel? They misread. Or so I thought, in my delirium. They were thieves, to steal my child. And then, soon after his abduction, they proved worse—while 'sparing' me, as if a mother does not bear her infant's fate a thousand fold, as if each day apart were not each nightmare's prelude.

Their pronouncement? Since the child bore likeness to neither parent nor to anyone of our tribe—nobody in the past had ever been so fair—he must be from some future world, sent back to us mistakenly. It was ruled my son, with haste, must be returned.

I could not face it! I was weak, unfit for protest, yet I fought them, found a way. Once I have rested, you will learn what next transpired.

 

Her phrases cease... as do her movements: from the squint that scores deep crow's-feet near her eyes to lips turned stone-like in hiatus. Breath and sight appear transfixed, as in suspended animation. Pulse stands still. Perception hides. The scene itself is oddly static, like a painting, or a photograph—in which Engeraloi, the aged woman, alters phase by phase... becoming fainter... then translucent... now invisible...

 

Time, in years, assigns millennia to the gap between this prehistoric setting and its replica as a calendar tacked to a spinster's kitchen wall. The thorn-clad tree, albeit countless incarnations from its forebear, maintains watch, an only sentinel on a semi-arid plain, entitled:
 

"OriginsEastern AfricaThe Great Rift Valley."

 

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