I died two days before the water came.
If it had been one day, I might have had some credit: the eve of the water’s arrival, and all. I might have even got credit for passing three days before: three seeming to be a number of magic, while two seems as innocent and as simple as the children who cannot count beyond it.
I might have had a funeral.
As it was, I was taken away – carried miles with sediment and loose belongings that weren’t deemed worthy enough to be tied to boabs or rested on heads. Many others like me, though mostly they had passed as the water came. We floated from town: the unwanted and unhinged, at will of the water and the filthy companionship it had made with the earth.
I was stuck to the body. It is something you learn, I had been told in life and have now practiced in death – to break from the body as soon as you realise enough strength in your spirit, or at least the right way to do it. For a while I thought I might never cease floating above the buoyant body, both of my existences at will to the tides of this new water.
When it came, my family were caring for their dried meat and the children – both in that persistent excess typical of peasants. They hadn’t noticed me. It was another day before I was to be buried on the hill where the trees don’t grow anymore – only small yellow flowers that children rhyme about and Thembu crushes into a paste so as to capture talent from the passed.
In the tribe I was a storyteller; a man of wisdom, I hoped. Upon the burial of an old storyteller that spoke mostly of crooked old ladies with fat bellies and thin minds, I had the yellow flower paste painted on my forehead and my time as a carpenter had ended.
My family, my son and his wife, have eleven children of which I have only ever liked two. The first, the daft one – Tioro – with blank eyes and a crooked thumb (bent outward-like so that he might not use it for anything except scaring smaller, dafter children), prone to walking and drawing circles in the sand: always circles, forever interconnected until he has drawn them, his chain, right down the road. The second that I like is Garu – one in the middle of the rest of steers that don’t know the dirt from their own shit.
Garu turned 10 on the day the water came. A man. The family liked to speak of Garu as being a new leader, a man who might show the tribe out of trials like the case of the water. He was the only one with resolve: a quiet temper and cutting words, when he required them. As it became obvious that the water was not as trivial as a stolen yam or whimsical husband, they began to speak of Garu as far more than a chief, but as a saviour to the people; perhaps sensing that they might, as Garu’s wise family, find a role more fitted to their ambitions.
As soon as I had worked out these new rules of death, I ceased to drift above the tide and look to my swollen body (whoever had heard of such complacency, anyway? Many, those – I daresay – that had most likely achieved little more in life, seemed to choose that as their second fate and perhaps still float – ha!). I made for home as quickly as I could. There were other men, too, who had worked out these rules and it felt like my first hunting clan with uncle as a child – all of us excited at new freedoms; though aware that something was quite lost forever.
Each told of how God had showed them something before he took their life – a flash of white, a golden tree with golden fruit, the barest patch on a woman’s leg where they had planted a solemn kiss – of which they spoke of as excitedly as when they had first seen a pussy or speared another man. Each thought that he or his family had been chosen in some way; that their small message from God was their way to serve their tribespeople. With this fervid air we made for our town: giggling like children who can finally float and fly and defy other nonsense.
At first I did not remember what I had seen: it was a muddy thought, perhaps waterlogged after the water came? I will soon tell you of how the memory became clear.
To find our way home we followed the feathers.
The witch doctor collected feathers, mostly white though often brown and grey, also. When he came to us he had a white feather in his hair that had guided him to our tribe. It was from a bird that had left here, shamed after Garu’s Uncle (pray, not my son! The brother of my son’s wife, though apparently not family and worthy of my own shame, all the same!) had cast a spell on the swamp.
Spirits had told him that his first-born son would be a holy man. Though now, as a spirit, I know that anything one might say has no greater credibility than the living – in fact, less, when so many have idle time for such fanciful thoughts and premonitions! Once the child was born, the Father, Saru, did not leave his side for most of every day. He was so overbearing that his wife grew fingers and a heart so weak that she was incapable of anything but shivering. She wilted like a flower, becoming pale and soft, her mouth dry.
If Saru was not with his son, it was to collect fresh grass for the boy’s bed so that he might rest well for what awaited him later. He would walk through town to speak to tribespeople and ask whether they should like to see his son: the son that would soon become the first holy man. Everyone saw the boy, including myself – mostly to entertain the raving Saru and put truth to the rumour of the fading mother.
He was a soft boy, with blonde hair as pale and weak as the rest of him. He seemed quite camp on his huge bed of hay, as though he refused to ever become a young man; rolling on his back like a newborn lamb.
While Saru was finding visitors one night an animal took the boy from his grassy cot and took it to the swamp. It was a dog, or a witch doctor that had become a cat of sorts – everyone has their own thought. One tale, carved on the tree near the swamp, tells the latter story. The boy was never found. In the sand before the swamp were the footprints of the animal and marks where the boy had been dragged, though neither led out from the yellow water.
Saru, and others too, put curses on the swamp and no one drank from it again.
During the dryness that had lasted six moons, a bird flew from miles away and arrived to us worn and darkened with dirt. Tioro told that the bird had said to him: I travel for the boy. Apparently, the circles that the fool drew in the sand were also paths that he had been told of by a dead man named Mr Yorgi the Great who had a crown on the top of his head like a fighting rooster. So, of course, no one ever believed him about the bird, the poor child.
The bird drank from the swamp and then left. Sometime later it found a magic man in the desert and promptly died at his feet. The man, Thembu, was the same that would later become our magic man: a skinny elder who arrived wearing a feather of that very bird. Some believed that he was the bird, while others believed that he was the boy whom had eventually become the town’s first magic man, albeit in a roundabout way.
After that everyone brought him feathers that he hung from a dead boab tree. He told them that they were wise to do so: that anyone should find us by the feathers, and that each that flew away was being called for the birth of a boy.
That’s how the feathers came to be floating and how we found my way home after the water came. The town then was pitiful and swollen. The brown water was as deep as a woman, and most just sat on their rooftops or tree branches.
After the water came Thembu was never worried that his feathers were gone; though the townspeople thought that the feathers couldn’t become children if they were at the bottom of water. Or, if they did, the children would be living underwater, and maybe this was how life would then be lived?
Thembu offered no answers, neither did he seem concerned by their theories of boys living under the earth. He moved little now and resigned to curling his beard above his head and shaping it with mud so that it made shade over his face in the hot sun.
Saru never trusted the magic man and asked people not to give him feathers after the water came; though they still collected them – there was little else to do.
Saru believed that the animal had taken his son so deep into the swamp that the land had directed torrents of water to send him back to his people where he might rightfully become the magic man. He waited for his son’s arrival with even more dedication, pausing only in his dreaming and speeches to suggest – behind his filthy, hairy hand and quivering lip – that Thembu had become a bird again, the kind that eats seeds from the shit of other birds; that was why his head was covered in mud. Such a man was not fit, he said, and his son would show them.
The magic man passed the feathers into the water then because most of the boabs were gone. Some thought that the bellies of the great trees had been holding all the water and that the trees were unhappy being displaced to make canoes, and that each cut boab had let out a little more water (as much as one canoe required to float on) until the boabs had given up and burst.
Yeo told that the boabs had been created to plug the holes in the earth and that they had burst when a child had been digging under one to find God. From the child’s curiosity we would be ruined, he told. Around this time I spent most days thinking about what I had seen upon my death, as well as what would become of the people. Food was little, and most were going mad.
It’s not true that it takes a special person to speak to the dead. Take the fools who stopped drinking water. The family spoke to their dead grandfather who told them that the water was really just a lot of very tiny snakes that wished to be inside all of us and to then take over the town.
Really, the dead can choose to speak to whoever they like, just as I, at first, chose to speak to Garu and absentmindedly bend dead grass into circles with Tioro (as he had taken to once his dirt circles had washed away). Like the feathers, Tioro threw these into the tide with little attachment. We were less and less like the dead, I noticed now – all that we had learnt to find our way home seeming to disappear in the minor distractions of the domestic life, as though we had unlearnt it in our arrogance – we certainly did not float, or anything else like we had at first enjoyed.
The grandfather knew no more than me, except that he had seen snakes upon his death.
Their family quickly became smaller and smaller, except for the grandmother who had never believed her husband anyway on account of his watching other women by the river while living – she had called him a snake herself once, of that I was sure.
She was wild and forgetful, though crafty enough to only drink the water when her family were not watching. In fact, she drank more water than anyone in town: as though she saw it her responsibility to dry the lands with her own insatiable, vicious tongue. Some said that she had really just forgotten that the water might be snakes, or how much she had drunk, because she was daft and her spirit was swollen from the water in her belly. The family became dark and stuff like cured meat, while the old lady only grew softer and spongy like she would burst from the water. None of them moved from the roof of their home.
One day the family were so dry that they simply blew into the water at a gust and floated away. The old lady, the grandmother, cackled that they were dry like old branches and someone should light a fire with them: what would have been one of the first fires since the water. It was debated, but we did not.
People were living on food that they had stored for the winter: grains and leaves, and meat as dry and tough as the family that had washed away. Trees quickly grew taller, to suit the water, in their own responsible way, and shrubs eventually grew above the water line, so that there were fruit and flowers to pick. Still, real food was low, and most began to shrink into smaller beings, even their eyes appearing to narrow like scared, hungry dogs.
Garu asked whether the plants would stay tall when the water left and would there be light? Seeing as the trees were growing so tall, revelling in the water, would they be so tall as to block the sun? I wasn’t sure, but told him that it was possible. He began telling people that we were closer to the Gods now because we were as high as the trees, and that he heard them speak to him of their salvation.
Other shrubs, those that had grown on the ground like grass, began to float up in clumps and grow like moss – eventually sticking together as floating patches of turf.
Yeo said that, eventually, this would become the new ground, and that we would forget that there was water underneath, and then there wouldn’t be anymore. It gave some promise – to think that they might just live five foot above where they had before, just with a more colourful grass and taller trees. One older spirit said that this had happened before in his parents’ time; that his Father had told him it was one step in the dance between the water and the soil, from which the soil always rises and the water concedes. But what could this man’s own Father know of the water, if this was the first time the water had come, said Garu? What could this man himself know of the water, when he was long dead and did not suffer of its presence?
Thembu did not object or take part but told me quietly that there would be nothing new, as there had never been anything old. He threw a dried leaf into the air and asked me to watch its shadow as it fell and turned under the sun – its shape on the water thinning and filling out as it spun down. There would only be what was, he said, and we would continue to turn it around in different ways, though its shape would never change.
I saw less of Garu in these days. My son and his wife became obsessed with him becoming the leader. Not for his potential, I think they realised at some point, but the potential for a leader – any leader. Garu’s family cared for him like Saru did for the gay grass child that was to become the magic man – anticipating his presence and thoughts in the town with rallies of God speak and salvation – of dryness and of fairness. Garu became spoilt and lazy, each day losing further reason as he tried to explain the water to the people and what he would do about it. His parents took his 10-year-old imagination as the work of a genius. Thankfully, Tioro was saved in the Garu Campaign for his softness of mind, while Thembu resigned further and gave them no attention.
Yeo had five daughters who were all very large (no less large after the water came) so he made the nimble Tioro walk on the moss. He wanted to prove that it was the new ground, and many believed him – Garu, also, who quickly claimed it as his own thought.
I was proud of Tioro and his light feet. He would prance around the five fat daughters, each of them clapping with their little hoof hands and short arms. The girls pointed to flowers and grass that he would return for them to place in his hair or tuck into his clothes. The way they adored him and his frolicking; did they want to play with his silly little penis or mother him?
Tioro soon went further and further, giddy with attention and brave for lack of intelligence. He would come back hours after leaving off – showing with his hands how he had skipped and skipped across the water, or waded when there was nothing on which to skip. Always he would bring flowers or grass. The fat girls giggled and stroked him and he set off again, jumping the mounds in the direction the water flowed so that he could find his way back from our grass circles and the feathers.
He came to me once to tie grass and he had a small flower in his hair that was rough, quilt-like: the texture shared from the petals right down the stem, like it wasn’t a flower at all but a delicate carving of a flower. It was grey and blue, the colour of the sky in a passing storm.
I hadn’t seen a flower like this before. Garu had more and more followers now, so I told no one about it, lest he come across it and ruin its mystery with a fanciful tale. The fat sisters might have seen it, but they were too engrossed now in their adventures through Tioro’s quick loins to notice anything else. I asked Tioro to bring me more.
Since the small yellow flowers washed away and could only be found in soggy handfuls floating on the brown water, Thembu abandoned the practice of passing talent from the dead to the young. In its place, the town called the dead forth to teach the young themselves. I became a storyteller, again.
Garu, who by now had become a raving, unofficial tribe leader, forbade that anyone should speak to the young of the water, at least until he had decided on its origin. Neither should be speak of the time before the water, so most were confused of exactly what to tell the children.
With no certainty in the past, there was no reasoning in the future and we confused ourselves trying to teach what we did not know, because we did not fully understand what we did know.
Garu’s beliefs changed daily, mostly fed from the rumours he tried to suppress, yet eagerly waited on. He would announce the finding of a new God almost daily – if a butterfly did a backflip in the air, there was a God to be found, if there was an aura on the water as the sun rose, the Sun God would have another daughter.
Later when many of the small shrubs began to grow again as floating gardens, the yellow flowers included, Thembu thought that it would confuse everyone to change back and Garu decided, publically, something of the same effect. It was a good time to be dead, really, having purpose and talent. In fact, I found it difficult to now pick those who were dead and those living – the living having become so lazy, and the dead so capable.
I still found time to sneak away and listen to Tioro’s adventures. He went further and further now, sometimes returning with a flower or leaf I had not seen before, sometimes not. It is hard to understand the boy, mostly, so I waited for his gifts. One day he returned with a mark on his head – two lines of mud crossed between his brow, raised at the edges where a finger had run. They all had one, Tioro told me.
The grub! The boy had seen someone and not told me. I would go with him now; I had to. He could tell me little else about them; perhaps he had done it himself? Was it beyond him?
Tioro thought that they were the same as him, he said, he thought he had gone so far that he was back where he started, but from a different point of view, so he hadn’t thought to mention it. He spun a dry flower in his fingers as he said this, and I remembered Thembu and the falling leaf.
I was to go with him. The lumps of dirt were more raised now; more sturdy and a spirit had nothing to fear, anyway.
Then, it all changed again.
The night before I was set to follow Tioro there was a creaking noise like if the earth had given up this water, it was taking it back. The huts seemed to shake from the very core of each branch, just as those inside were rattled inside with fear. Tioro, next to me, had fever dreams and scratched me in his sleep. In the morning the water, to our surprise, was still there.
It was flowing the other way.
Thembu, usually complacent, had an argument with Garu as to our position now. The people were concerned that the water would come back over us again – that we were now at the bottom, when we had been at the top of the stream.
Garu, with some sense I had at first thought, argued that we were still at the top of the stream, just now downstream was left, not right.
Thembu roared to the shocked Garu that we were at once both upstream and downstream and could be neither, individually, without a reference from which to mark ourselves.
Garu, in his youth, said there was nothing else; there had never been, so it should not matter which we thought ourselves – upstream, downstream, both, or neither at all, just that we should decide so that it can be known and remembered.
It was the ugly argument of those who are becoming too smart for themselves, I thought, particularly for its lack of application. I wondered if this was how it would be now?
Amongst all of this, Tioro hopped off against the tide in the direction he had done before. No one but the fat sisters shared my concern that he wouldn’t find his way back – the grass circles and feathers now being carried away in the opposite direction.
That night I cried. My only hope was that he might have been right about the people being the same people but from the other side, and that maybe he might walk straight through the downstream-upstream and come back up the upstream-downstream following the grass and feathers.
He had not returned when I woke in the morning. I knew there was no way to follow him now that I could not find my way back, so I sat with the fat girls and remembered him, sweet dumb Tioro.
I had begun to sleep, nestled amongst all that bosom and young, swollen thighs like people here hadn’t seen much of for years. One of the sisters, I do not remember which now, woke me when she stood and began screaming, shaking the hut with her jumps.
Coming into town with the tide were grass circles – hundreds of them, some floating individually and others clumped together with mud or vines, like Tioro and I had never done. Bouncing off the mounds of grass and mud, spinning in circles.
Soon enough everyone was on the roof of their huts screaming and confused. Garu was quiet, trying to comprehend how this might affect his downstream argument, perhaps.
The grass circles continued.
I’m not sure how long it was until they came; it’s hard to say. They came slowly. Tioro was first – I saw him from miles away – his long arms hanging, swaying awkwardly with his big steps and his hands filled with grass circles.
He had a boy with him, much the same height and size, maybe a little bigger on the bones. The child pushed ahead sometimes to catch a clump of feathers and grass, running back to handing it to Tioro.
More came after Tioro and the boy: many families, some carrying small children or baskets on their shoulders. Rumours began, passed and argued in circles – everyone offering an opinion. Garu quickly announced that they weren’t to be trusted, that they had turned the flow, perhaps even brought the water itself, and now they were here to take even more from them. He was quietened and pushed aside, falling back into the crowd confused and hurt.
Were they the feathers that had finally turned into people, as Thembu had promised? Had the grass clumps become the new earth, and were these the people from under the water? They did seem paler and younger, some noted.
Or had the water finally left? How could they not have noticed? They looked down at it now, unsure of how deep it had ever been, asking around the circle: did anyone remember?
Dead men like myself suddenly spoke up for the first time since the water came – announcing that they had seen this upon their deaths, that this was their vision. Those that had previously announced golden fruit and other such fancies scratched their heads to work out what it meant; how this was linked.
Tioro seemed to be able to communicate with them. They were from upstream, they told him, they had collected the grass circles – but saw no feathers – and had put them back in the water when the stream changed. Tioro had then led them behind the grass circles back to our town.
The last man to come was tall and strong with a cross on his brow and a bark hat fashioned upright on his head like a rooster’s proud crown. This was Mr Yorgi, said Tioro.
The man went immediately for Thembu and both of them stood opposite each other a while – Thembu’s hair shade almost touching Mr Yorgi’s bark crown. They nodded at each other and embraced.
Mr Yorgi, obviously the leader, waved to his people to come forward. They walked closer now and joined people on the top of their huts, looking and pulling at each other’s clothes and grass bracelets, all curiously familiar, yet so completely different at the same time.
Saru was wading between huts, certain that his boy was among them – the boy that was to become the holy man – but he wasn’t.
The fat sisters grabbed Tioro and pulled him into the pillowy laps, the boy closing his eyes tight as they started rubbing his wet, soggy feet.
Slowly the commotion eased. Days passed and no one spoke of the water. Maybe the water dropped a bit, I wasn’t sure – most were concerned with each other. The other people became not new or old, but there – part of it – and soon found a role for themselves.
The fat sisters grew bored of Tioro, their jaws firming and hair growing on the backs of their hands. The boy and I laid on the floor of the hut most days, counting the thickets in the roof or day dreaming as the sun broke through the gaps in sheets.
It was there that I remembered one afternoon the vision I had seen when I died.
It was a grass circle. A single piece of dried grass rolled and woven into a hoop, fraying so that you can’t see the ends, like there is no beginning or end, like it is not a piece of grass in circle, but a circle of grass.
I told Tioro and he nodded.