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African Shadows

a short story

by Nick Wood

The man who'd lost his soul was cold to the touch, even in that wet heat. I tried squeezing some life into him, through my old and aching fingers. But he lay, slackly propped against the thorn tree, eyes staring at nothing that I could see. So I turned again to the old sangoma standing nearby.

"Xolile, please, can't you help him?"

He opened his pale palms to me. They were empty.

Desperately, I asked: "Haven't you got special equipment for this sort of thing?"

He smiled more wrinkles: "You mean the masks and bones and all the other witchdoctor stuff you've no doubt seen on your magic TV boxes?"

"There's no need to be facile."

"And there's no reason to be angry! Patience, Ruth ... my paraphernalia won't impress John Jones. He doesn't know me--with or without my masks"

I didn't really know the old man either. He hadn't asked me much about why I was there. Quiet he'd been, from the airport to his house. From his house to this tree. He'd given only commands and demands, and all I wanted to say, was bottled like stale wine.

I swigged some warm water from a flask, and looked back at his house. It was a handsome house: cool and clean, with Western décor, shimmering vaguely amongst the dense African thornveld. Square and stolid, with vined veranda and a steep slate roof, pitched sharply against pending sub-tropical storms (a far cry from the mud hut covered in skins that I'd half expected).

I wanted to go back to it.

"Come, let's go on," he said, "Before the sun gets too high ... The healing is in the journey."

I wiped some flies from John's slack lips, and trickled some water into his mouth. He dribbled like a paralysed baby. The pulse at his flaccid wrist kept a slow and primitive beat. I levered his arm around me, and, with a helping hand from Xolile, managed to get John standing. A tall and fit young man he was ... yet he seemed twice as old as us, a vacant husk ...

A star man, astronaut, back from deep space ... yet somehow emptier now than the vacuum from which we'd dragged him. 'We are the hollow men ... ?'

Xolile hoisted his haversack onto his biltong back and smiled at me. "Come."

The sun's heat swallowed my breath, as I led John along a dusty red track. The path faded quickly into arse-high yellow grass. Angry grass that sliced at our legs. Grass that stretched into a white heat and pale sky--and there were no safely square buildings to trap my gaze. Behind me, the house was long gone. There was just grass and trees and hidden things that could sting and bite.

I fixed my stare on the wiry shape, moving ahead with certainty and vigour. Quo vadis? I don't know whether I spoke, but he never answered me.

My shirt was a soaking skin, my eyes aching from the glare. Only the next step became real. My thoughts congealed in that heat, sinking to my feet. They pushed puffs of dust along the narrow track that opened up ahead. Dust which dropped redly onto my boots, with no sense of helping or healing spirits to lift us.

Onwards we kept moving, through the grass and between the trees.

Trees? Strangely squashed trees (crowding in thorny clusters), dangling webs that clung and teased. The sun was hanging heavily through the lower branches, swollen with red age. And the air was cooler, stirring life above my legs.

The old man stopped to sniff the air like a dog. My nose was numb with sweat, yet something tickled my skin and tingled my hairs.

The grass and bushes were greener here, the trees denser. The old man nodded a sense of arrival, and stopped John's mechanical gait with a firm hand to shoulder. I dropped onto relieved haunches, rolling back onto my rucksack. My shaking legs splayed in front of me. My constricted chest would not let me speak.

"Well," said the old man, "Here we are."

I looked around. He pointed at a thick screen of bushes, just beyond the loose gathering of trees behind us. Still too tired to talk, I threw him a questioning look.

"There's water hole behind there ... But don't worry, it's more accessible to animals from the other side. We shouldn't disturb them here."

I could gasp some words then. "What about them disturbing us?"

He laughed: "Nah, I think it's more likely rebel troops might accidentally find and shoot us first."

"And that's supposed to be funny?"

"Ruth ... " he pulled John (still almost sweatless) into a sitting position, and sat down beside me. "Ruth, how can you heal, if you can't laugh?"

"I can't heal," I said tightly, "that's why I'm here."

"So tell me." His gentle hand on my arm unlocked my words ... at first a strained trickle, then a tired torrent. My reticence dissolved by his touch, exhaustion and emptiness babbling forth.

"I was his- his personal therapist on the mission, Xolile. Interstellar space experiments--you know, Deep Space Mission Five? Do you remember all that biological stuff to study plants and life, far away from the effects of solar radiation, in case someday we needed to leave this planet? Any- anyway, it was expensive, budget cuts, and all that, so we could only take one crew member. To do the stuff the robots and computers couldn't. We looked around and chose a loner, comfortable in his solitude. John. And I -- I ... "

"Were you supposed to look after him?"

"Yeah ... 'Therapeutic radio contact,' I was entrusted with his mental state. And I tried, only ... "

Always encouraging others to cry, I was ashamed of my own tears. I fought to lock them inside, but the old man held me, releasing them. The damp air seemed to suck my words into the open. I struggled not to hide my failure.

"Things were- were okay at first, but then John got increasingly moody and withdrawn, more and more hostile. It was when space began to drag our words into long delays ... 'Squeezing their juice out,' he once told me ... Once he shouted 'You're not listening to me anymore. Just to the past. Oh my God, why aren't you here?' And then he became silent, mute."

"And that was it?"

"Just about--I knew somehow the loneliness of space had gotten to him ... It's not easy maintaining an effective phenomenological approach across millions of miles of an ever-increasing distance, you know ... "

"I have no reproaches, Ruth, but you say there was something else?"

"Just one phrase, at the farthest point of his mission. 'Where's the sun?' he asked. He'd gone past Saturn by that time ... And then he stopped working, became catatonic, so they brought him back. I'd tried to get him back earlier, but they wouldn't listen to me, what with all that money and everything, and him still working ... But then he stopped. Like he was dead, so we kept him alive with computerized drips. And he came back ... But in a way, not really. Four months he was gone. Just four months, and his life seemed to have leaked out of him."

"So why come to me Ruth?"

I shook my head slowly. "Dunno ... I'm getting older, weaker, Xolile, my words aren't working anymore. John's not the first one recently. I'm fifty now, and it feels like my powers have generally decayed. And no-one else's words seemed to help either. Even fiddling with drugs and his neuro-transmitters achieved bugger all! It's like he's died inside his body ... So I looked around ... "

"I'm flattered," he laughed, "I never knew you could see me from America."

I had to smile, a small twist of my lips. "Not you personally at first, Xolile, that only came later ... I just felt the faint stirring of the new millennial breeze; the awakenings of old ways of re-birthing, healing ... and the 'new' ways seem so weary now, so sterile. There were a lot of rumours floating out of Africa."

The old man stood slowly, stiffly taking his haversack off. For this first time, I realised he was really old. He seemed not to have heard my last words. He was darkly etched against the bloody grey sky and hovering branches.

"Where's the sun?" he muttered, "Where indeed?"

We built a quick fire against the gathering dusk. The astronaut sat like a robot, gazing dumbly at the struggling flames. A hope tremor shook me, was he responding to environmental cue? But the hope rolled rocklike into my stomach, as his eyes began to flicker randomly again. My eyes darted too--over encroaching trees and fireside shadows. A short dusk here. We sat in silence, while the darkness dropped heavily onto our backs.

Somewhere in the distance, a strident trumpet bellowed, hung, and then dissolved in the crackle of flames. The chill shock mounted my spine, thrusting me to my feet. With my back to the heat, I stared outwards at blackness.

The old man paused while feeding the flames: "Relax, Ruth, that's one of the last tuskless elephants. It's far away."

But I couldn't relax. I could feel senses stirring around us, waking from the day's heat. Not seen nor heard, yet blinking and bleating on the edge of ear and eye.

"What is this place?" I asked the old sangoma. He'd taken a pot off the fire, and poured some soup into recycled cups. "A water-hole," he said, "Come, let's eat."

The soup was good. I wasn't sure if it was meat or vegetable. It didn't seem to matter so much here. I watched John gulp greedily. Old mind pictures of mentally disabled people eating between dank yellow walls flitted through my head. But John was not like that. We--I--didn't know what was wrong with him ... Or was Xolile right? Was there really a ghost in the machine?

He licked his empty plate and belched.

Xolile had finished too, wiping his mouth clean with a fist. Darkness dropped from the branches, trying to suffocate the fire. A broken moon wandered behind the trees, leaving us alone with the cold night. Cold? In Africa?

I drew closer to the struggling fire: "How did he lose his -- uh-soul, Xolile?"

The old man smiled, as if sensing my doubt.

"He flew too far from the sun's light. Lost a sense of centre, of home. The soul was torn out by the dark and empty spirits in the space between the suns."

Were soul and psyche cultural labels for the same thing? I was tired with thinking. I just wanted John back. "How do we find his soul down here, then?"

The sangoma had gathered a pile of ash at his feet, crouching cross-legged before the fire. My question faded into darkness as I watched. Spooning hot ash in his fingers, he smeared his face and body. Firelight highlighted the grey streaks, a sinewy skeleton emerging from blackness, etched in gold. A smiling skeleton, he'd stripped off his clothes. He gave a little bow.

"Witchdoctor Radebe at you service." His voice was different. I struggled to grasp why. Somehow flat, more distant, more someone else ... ?

No, stay calm, it's not possible, he'd merely changed inflection ... All around, sounds scattered from the night. A croak. Rustling. Low whistles, a hoot ... Things were there. No! Primitive fears, unfounded!

The skeleton laughed. Wings fluttered through the branches. Something shrieked. My God, I had no control here ...

I was up and crouching to face looming trees closing in on the fire. Shadows blurred with the trees, mixing and reforming. Taking other forms, gaining solidity...They were large black women, tilling the earth, babies blanket strapped to their backs. I watched, my arms folded under sagging, un-suckled breasts ... I watched, and found my face wet. Salty wet.

The smell of damp earth and sweat clogged my nostrils. I moved forward to touch one woman, but my hand slipped through her. She seemed to sprout from the ground, large and bent, furrowing soil rhythmically with a large hoe, oblivious to my presence, as if I was the phantom. Her baby was snuggled and asleep, content. I longed to hold her or him. But couldn't. The more I tried, the more he or she faded, along with their mother.

The other women had gone too, leaving deserted shadows blank and empty. Numb and alone, I stood. What did it mean? A vision? Hallucinogens in my soup? Psychosis?

No. What ever the trigger, it was real. Real for me, and the land around me. I wiped my hands and turned to the fire.

The sangoma, smeared and vague, cradled the astronaut's head on his lap. Crooned over him in Zulu. I sat next to him, enjoying the lullaby lilt of tone, unsure of word meaning. No matter, I just listened. Voices dwindled into the night.

"What is this place?" I asked again.

"A place of tracks. Presences. Spirits. A crossroads, where animals and people come to quench thirst. A meeting place."

"Why did you bring us here?"

"To call his soul back."

"But we've tried that, in a way. It didn't work. With his family, people who've known him his entire life. We even brought in his dog. Zit. Nothing. How can we call him, who hardly knew him?"

"Not just us ... the earth around us. His living family have known him only thirty years. He needs an older, stronger call ... call of the ancestors, the animals and the earth."

"The elephant ... ?"

"Was just one voice. Many surround us now."

The night was strangely quiet. Brooding and pregnant, withdrawn. Even the fire shadows had shrunk, as flames subsided into hot coals. I had a fear of hope, with the dwindling light and dark stillness. Why could I hear nothing anymore?

"Will it work Xolile?"

The old man shrugged, "The earth groans under a sea of concrete and plastic ... animals are fewer, cries fading ... but old voices are strong here. Let him have your hope. It is another voice. And it's not as weak as you feel it to be."

The sudden staccato wail of a baby's cry shrilled the air. I peered into the thick shadows that engulfed us now ... On the cusp of absolute blackness, a mother stood, cradling her baby. My dry womb ached, and they were gone ... But I was here. And so were John and the old man.

It was time to sleep. I said goodnight to Xolile. We laid our sleeping bags out near the dying warmth. We placed John (with a struggle) inside his. Xolile sprinkled ashes around our bags.

"Animal owners of live voices don't like the ash," he said.

Hardly reassured, I was surprised to fall asleep.

Something had changed.

I groped for a torch near my bag, panicking blind. Silence screamed in my ears and my eyeballs were sore from the pressing dark. My torch flicked on, splashing light around the campsite. There were dead coals and a discarded sleeping bag. John was gone. The old man sprawled alone, snoring.

My thought hurried from a sleepy stupor.

Was this another stage in the illness, nocturnal wandering?

Where to? My torchlight was pale, and stars prickled through locked branches above me. Dense bushes clawed at me, holding me back. I wrestled free and sensed space, dropping down a small slope to a splash of water ... Water freckled with moonlight. The moon was low over the trees, plunging earthwards.

A man stood nearby, leaning against a tree on the slope. He was watching the water. I approached, light bobbing timidly in my hand. The man turned to me, his face young and alive in the wan light.

"Who's that?" he asked.

I stopped. "It's me, John, Ruth ... "

I dropped my torch as we hugged. He held me fiercely, shaking in my arms. My neck was wet ... his tears.

"Doc ... it was so- so damned empty up there."

"It's okay now John, everything's all right."

For a moment I wondered how reassuring I sounded ... but stuff therapeutic efficacy. I was very, very happy. I could tell John was too.

And he was warm to hold. Nothing else mattered.

His shakes subsided. I released him to step back and look. His face smiled through a damp shine. Quirky and responsive. Nearby, a frog croaked, startling us. John laughed, throaty and deep.

I felt lighter, as if a dead psychic baby on my back now stood before me; strong, mature and alive. Somehow, like a child I've never had. Yet not a child--a man, with his own family, his own life. And good feelings- some for me. I could sense them ... and it's enough.

I felt the tingling of renewal in my bones.

"Have you watched the water, Ruth?" he asked, "It's bloody beautiful."

We turned to watch it together. Burning with the vanishing moon's light, the pool seemed alive too. No animals drinking yet, but we hoped and waited.

© Nick Wood 2003.
This story was first published in Scheherezade #18.
Nick Wood's first novel, The Stone Chameleon, is published in South Africa by Maskew-Miller Longman (April 2004).

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