I’m going to ask you to create a picture in your mind. Close your eyes. It might help.
Rocky grey hills stretching up towards the sky with a singular thought – touch the sky. Grassy knolls surviving on ledges where top soil had previously settled, having been brought here by heavy torrential rainfall that is common to this place. Trees growing from the cracks in rocks, their roots delving ever deeper drinking cool drops of water that are still hiding from the world. The trees cling to the side of the rocky mountains growing straight towards the sky, long branches stretched in eternal worship to the sun. The steep green valley plunges down several hundred feet from the top to a rushing river that bounces off big boulders that plummeted down the valley in years gone by, making laughing jovial sounds as it races to its destination. It ends in a shimmering lake whose edge is just visible around one great hill in the distance.
The morning air is cool and heavy with the wetness of the mist that rests on the hills till the sun rises and chases it all away. In the afternoon the sun is so high in the sky, all that is left of your shadow is a small oblong shape under your feet that occasionally sticks out its arms and legs in mock imitation of your own movements. The heat of the day ebbs as the day wanes. People and other creatures alike venture out, usually ending up in the market square squabbling over the prices of fresh colourful food. At night each star a glittering gem on a dark velvet canvas etches its nightly path over the sky, sending messages of peace, love and impending doom to searching sages hidden in their towers.
Here life grows full and lush, as though the land is infused with powerful growth hormones. Birds chirp and build their nests with vigor, stopping only to take a quick splash in the river or some other little pool where they can cool off. Children race up and down the valleys calling to each other in playful voices and competing with each other to defeat the old Ngungu tree that is older than the oldest person’s memory in the valley.
This is the land where my great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, Chumbusho, was born.
West beyond the last mountainous hills of the valley, a great forest that stretched as far as the eye could see, covered the sibling hills. Tales of shapeless terrors that ripped flesh off bone were told to children, a warning that anyone who entered the woods would not leave alive. Not since Fruha’s rebellion had anyone ventured further than a couple of feet inside the forest. Reckless teenagers testing their bravery would dare each other to enter the forest. Diiru’s middle son, Ewuno and a number of his friends had raced home last harvest season with the fire of fear in their eyes. Apparently Ewuno had been challenged to relieve himself on one of the trees that stood just beyond the edge of the forest. While he did, his friends cheered him on and when he was done – according to them – the tree had lifted a large root and tripped him. Ewuno added various details depending on his audience, a dark shadowy spook for little children; a beast that watched him from the branches that stared him down was saved for the ladies.
Chumbusho was Ewuno’s younger brother, and his most faithful servant. Even though he was not allowed to play with the big boys and strictly forbidden from listening to their conversation, Chumbusho could always be found lurking somewhere near his brother. At night he would bring Ewuno’s blanket to him and he would be rewarded with a warm snuggle till he fell asleep. His dreams would be filled with the incredible stories Ewuno whispered to him as bedtime stories. Chumbusho would have happily served Ewuno for the rest of his life.
The harvest after the Great Chief died, Ewuno and his friends ventured towards the forest once again, the memory of their previous scare entirely forgotten. Ewuno’s account of their previous adventure had been stretched to a ridiculous epic that had morphed into a tale that made him a warrior with experience beyond his years and his friends had been written out. Feeling chaffed that his story was being challenged, Ewuno had challenged his friends to do what he had done, asking them to each pick a tree on which to ease themselves.
As usual, Chumbusho was following them, ducking from tree to tree so Ewuno would not see him. The older boys jostled one another as they walked along, teasing Juum who would be married in three months to a girl he had been sweet on for seventeen months. Eventually they arrived at a grassy clearing where some large mango trees grew that were heavy laden with ripe juicy fruit. They flopped beneath the trees in the cool shade and one lanky limbed friend climbed up one of the trees to cut down some mangoes for them to eat. Chumbusho chose a large tree along the footpath, careful to avoid the large red biting ants that raced between the grass blades. He watched their journey away from the base of the tree, carrying larvae on their backs and butting against one another. The soldier ants raced along with the worker ants that carried the larvae, occasionally stopping to check for holes in the protective wall that ran along each side of the path they had chosen.
A large green eye above him slowly opened and watched.
The sudden quiet startled him and he looked around the tree to see if Enuwo and his friends were still in the clearing. The large eye closed quickly. The older boys sat scattered about the clearing, long limbs bathing in the sun, thirstily absorbing each ray into their dark mahogany skin.
Satisfied for the moment Chumbusho turned back to the red ants.
Slowly the large eye seemed to open in another part of the tree, carefully watching. Hardly a leaf rustled as it watched Chumbusho. Other eyes opened above following his movements as he followed the path of the ants.
The feeling of being watched came slowly over Chumbusho who turned around quickly and asked, “Who is there?”
No reply came. The eyes were all shut.
Slowly Chumbusho turned towards the tree and slowly looked up, afraid of what might be there that had raised his hackles so frightfully. One eye glinted from between the leaves, catching a ray of light. Suddenly a thousand eyes opened in the tree, each one green and curious centered in the middle of the large leaves of the dunfin tree.
Before he could let out a yelp, a long vine fell from the tree and wrapped itself tightly around his ankles, suddenly toppling him over, making his back hit a raised root and knocking the wind out of him. Another vine wrapped itself around his mouth muffling out his terrified screams. Chumbusho’s hands desperately pulled at the vine searching for a weak point to break it, but could find none. Many vines followed, tying him up and making him helpless. They lifted him up into the tree and the thousands of eyes watched as frantic tears streamed down his cheeks.
Soon he heard Ewuno and his friends getting up from the clearing continuing on their journey. The sound of their footsteps rustling the grass and their cheerful conversation eventually faded.
Chumbusho’s tears had dried upon his cheeks. The stress from his capture had exhausted his body and sent him into a shallow sleep. The vines that had previously tightened themselves around him now hung loose against his skin in a relaxed fashion, deceiving the onlooker who did not understand the ways of nature. Their tips were restless fingers, silently drumming out a secret rhythmic message through the branches. Soft tendrils that branched out on the ends ran themselves along the sleeping boy’s body, gently feeling him out. He lay in a fitful sleep on a flattened moss-covered bough in a lower part of the tree. As if the tree pitied him, the branches that were at the top of the tree bowed together to provide shade from the heat of the waning sun. Large green eyes opened and closed in different parts of the tree, taking turns to keep watch over their sleeping ward and a refreshing breeze that was generated by some large leaves kept his body cool.
The afternoon trudged on from stifling sleepy humidity towards dusk, coaxing birds and crawling animals alike out of their refuge into the bustling Savannah for the hunt for dinner to assuage their hunger. Still Chumbusho slept on and the vines and eyes and tendrils transported information back to the source. By and by, a curious creature descended from the branches above Chumbusho toward the bough where he lay. It came to a stop beside his body and two long slender tendrils similar to those that emanated from the vines, emerged from its shapeless form gently touching his forehead. In the shadow of the trees the creature began to weave a tale, drumming with the gentlest touch, creating images with the rhythm of the universe as old as Time himself. Chumbusho’s spirit heard the rhythm and in the subconscious of his mind, he responded and relinquished the struggles of his slumber to a power greater than his own that had laid the foundations of the mountains in which he had played so often.
The dreamless sleep that had overtaken his body was filled with tumultuous feelings that crashed and clanged against one another, refusing to allow passage to the peacefulness that comes with sleep. His mind fluttered against the unyielding wall of dreamlessness like a desperate moth caught in a trap that could see the destruction of light it desired but could not reach. The continual sense that he was hiding from something gave him a feeling of insecurity and emergency. His hands twitched at his side and his brow was furrowed by these troublesome thoughts. A small moan came from his lips and the vines raised themselves up like vipers ready to attack, pointing their slender furry fingers in his direction.
As the creature stroked his forehead, the disturbing course of his dreams changed. The impenetrable wall that had blocked his mind from creating the dreams he delighted in was lifted and familiar images and pictures began to materialize behind his now calm eyes. The cool stream that fed the well at the bottom of his father’s homestead gurgled by laughing at some great joke that had been told at its source. It captured his thoughts and turned him away from whatever terror chased him. The blurry mist that had covered the images continued to fade as peacefulness edged its way into his mind. He listened to the call of Tintu who warned his sons and daughters to hide and felt the rush of wind on his face as they raced back to their homes. Throngs of gagaru raced around on the ground in a frenzy, sent on a mad errand by their queen. As was his custom he plopped down on a grassy patch between the roots of the great ahanga tree that had been planted by one of his ancestors. He had just closed his eyes to rest when he felt the eyes of someone on him. On the other side of the stream stood a strange girl he’d never seen before. Her face bore the signs of good health, but her body was emaciated and covered by dirty rags that had not been cleaned in a very long time. She was saying something to him but he could barely hear her words. He moved closer and asked her to repeat what she was saying. She opened her mouth and said something again. He told her he couldn’t hear her and she gestured to him, urging him to move a little closer. He heard a faint splash and the cold wetness of the stream informed him that he had stepped into it. He looked at his feet to confirm what his brain was telling him. Suddenly (giving him quite the scare) a soft hand appeared, interrupting his downward gaze, offering to help him out of the stream. When he looked up he saw the girl had come to him.
Her large eyes filled most of her face and captured his attention immediately. As he looked at them they seemed to be changing colour right before his very eyes. It was as though the world around and about was reflected in her gaze. Realizing he had been staring, he softened his gaze and asked her what it was she required of him.
‘You’re still standing in the stream Chumbusho, let me lead you out.’
Had she moved her lips? He couldn’t tell but he let her lead him out.
As he raised one foot to walk out of the stream to her his body shook him from sleep and he sat suddenly upright on the branch in the tree.
Like the rush of a fast moving river, the memory of his recent bout with the tree and its ensnaring vines quickly returned to him and he clutched at the vines that lay loosely about him ready to grapple with them and obtain his freedom. The vines seemed to be laying quietly about him, but were hopelessly tangled about his limbs. One had found its way through the little hole in his tunic and was tickling the side of his ribs.
Suddenly Chumbusho stopped fiddling with the vines and the hair on the back of his neck slowly rose up, alerting him to some unknown thing that was sitting beside him. He turned around slowly expecting some wild creature to spring on him and continue his terrifying adventure, but instead his eyes met two wide green eyes that blinked innocently at him from beneath light bright lids. Chumbusho’s eyes slowly slid over the creatures face taking in its alien features. Its wide eyes swam around on its face like they could not decide where to sit and fascination carried his gaze wherever the eyes went. A body rippling with colour whose contours were as amorphous as the millet meal his mother plopped on his plate for dinner supported the eyes. There was no mouth or nose to speak of and two long slender tendrils waved in the soft breeze.
The shock of this creature that sat beside him should have filled him with enough fear to make him flee his current position and race home, but the confusion of emotions in his mind battled fiercely. While his conscious mind desperately sought to resolve the confusion his subconscious mind took over and almost like a foreign force had taken over his body, a curious hand reached out to touch the creature.
Colours raced over his arm which he withdrew in terror and his body went rigid. The eyes of the tree opened to watch the unfolding events. A smooth wooden shelf that was borne on vines descended to the bough where Chumbusho lay frightened out of his mind. The vines that had lain limp about him gently lifted him onto the shelf which was borne to the upper branches of the tree where a blinding light scorched the retinas of his eyes. The branches below converged under the shelf as he was lifted up.
The lower branches shook themselves free of the remaining vines, shedding any evidence that someone had lain trapped there. The vines burrowed into the ground like earthworms escaping the heat of noon or hungry birds looking for lunch and disappeared. All was silent once again.