For three days Aké had seen nothing but a sea of dunes, featureless and seemingly endless under the searing sun. He was becoming weary and very low on water, but, on this morning something had caught his attention. He was standing atop a high crest and through eyes half closed against the light and distance was watching an area of turbulence on the horizon, far off to the north and east. He was seeing something moving, rippling in and out of vision. Around it the desert was a blur, the boundary between sky and land become smudged and flattened into a single darkening tone. But, as curious as it appeared to him, Aké felt this mystery to be the least of his troubles. Having no choice but to find the oasis that he and his mentor Pemba had set out for, his initiation had thrown him into a struggle for survival.
He had taken to walking between first and last light for only as long as he dared, stopping to rest and sheltering as best he could at the height of the day. He knew to use the sun and stars to navigate, and he knew how to move silently and quickly at night, Pemba had instructed him in these things, but, to Aké it was impossible to tell if he was nearer his goal or not. He might as well have been going round in circles. In fact Aké had come face to face with the true nature of his challenge – only through fully opening up and using the connection between his personal medicine and the beings of the otherworlds would he survive. This is how it was with initiation, and with good reason.
Just how close Aké was to his goal only the hawk hovering far above him could see. But, the desert can be full of deceptions and, at any moment, even an experienced traveller can be led astray by the forces at large in that vast wilderness……
……Pemba heared soft footsteps approaching. Pulling his mind’s eye from the burning sky he looked up in time to see Tuq stepping into the shade of the ancient palms. He squatted beside Pemba, an expectant look on his travel worn face.
“Ahhh, I knew you would not disappoint Pemba….you never do…”, said Tuq turning to survey the oasis with a satisfied smile.
It was not enough to fool Pemba – he could sense the tension in the tall northerner. “You make me sound like a horse trader Tuq”, he said, needling his old friend.
Tuq made a sour face and gestured over his shoulder. “Did he see you?”
Pemba considered a moment.
“My shadow crossed his path, briefly, but….”
“……ahahhh! So, you are losing your touch old man!”, said Tuq slapping the sand with a laugh.
“Then again, he might be exceptional…”, Pemba continued. The laughter fell from from Tuq’s face and he gave Pemba a sharp look. His piercing blue eyes cut like a laser, but, Pemba smiled and placed his hand on Tuq’s shoulder.
“I promise, he is….”, he added.
Tuq unconsciously stroked the long straggley hair of his sunbleached beard.
“Then we had better make ready for the young master…..he’ll have to be exceptional if he’s going to fulfill your promise”, he said, fixing Pemba with his stare again, “we are all relying on it”. He was right to be nervous. Much would be determined with Aké’s arrival and the moment he and Tuq finally confronted each other. But, the north-man smiled ruefully and with a shrug rose to his feet, seemingly putting his concerns to one side.
“Come on, old man, you’ll ferment under this sun if you sit here much longer”, and, offering him his hand, he pulled Pemba to his feet.
For all his abrupt manners and hidden thinking Pemba liked Tuq. It was true, he could be as hard to read as the sea of mysterious symbols that covered his body. As they walked back towards the circle of tents Pemba remembered how they had met. It had been further north, up by the Plateau of the Painted Rocks, the people’s old meeting place. Arune the Far-Seer, Pemba’s own teacher, had brought him there to learn of their deep past……on their arrival they had found Tuq, tending mint tea over a fire, as if he had been waiting for them. Arune saw it as a sign that the spirits were intervening, but, to what ends neither the old seer nor his ward were able to foretell. However, in the course of time Tuq’s appearance had taken on a deeper significance.
Having come into our midst out of nowhere, so many seasons ago, the mystery surrounding old Tuq was more than skin deep. He was both familiar and alien, recognised now as one of the far-seers, but, one whose skills and gifts were rooted in a very different soil. And, in the course of time, it was this crucial fact that helped us understand how lucky we were to have such a shrewd ally amongst us, for Tuq brought one factor into our midst that mattered above all others now – he knew the ways of the People of the Dead.
Now, the future and the past were pulling together on all our paths and this place, the hidden oasis, was the crossroads at which they would finally converge. It would be Aké’s task to remember not only his own path to the oasis, but, that of Tuq as well, for their fates had long been tied unto each other.
Aké felt the soft sand beneath him shift as he came to the crest of yet another dune. Beads of sweat dripped from his brow and stung his eyes. The horizon shimmered with seductive visions rippling at the edge of sight. He strained to see through the illusion, unsure of what was real. The eastern horizon looked for all the world as if it were moving towards him. And, were those trees, or some whim of the light and heat, a trick of the Djinn?
He had heard the elders talk of those powerful spirit beings who inhabited the wild places. In their knowledge the Djinn were older than the Earth and had come to this place with the Ancients, the life-bringers and first colonisers of this planet. But, the Djinn were also known as demanding teachers, impartial to the ways of humans, giving favour according to laws known only to themselves. The elders had sung of such things.
As he gazed into the distance a memory arose in Aké’s mind of a song he had once heard his mother singing, an origins song. It was through the gift of the Djinn, the song related, that the people learned to travel beyond the known. Since the beginning it had been the challenge of initiates to follow the ghost paths laid by the Djinn through the mirages that haunted this endlessly shifting and trackless land. As the words of the song came back to him they also reminded Aké of their darker side, of how the Djinn spoke in riddles and that, in this place, the sun’s fingers would try to find their way into the traveller’s mind and ply it away from the body and its senses. He began to understand why this song was associated with initiation – it was itself a riddle, filled with riddles.
However, as Aké remembered the voice of his mother he began to feel as though the memory held an important message, a vital piece of information, a key. He wondered if it was something that would help him find his way to the oasis.
In that moment Aké was rocked by a sharp jolt beneath his feet, followed by another and another, and a sound, so deep it was more felt than heard. It felt like a movement in the belly of the great earth spirit. A violent kick took Aké’s feet from beneath him and he fell, tumbling down the face of the dune.
He slid slowly to a halt and lay clutching at the fragile stillness, waiting…..and then he tasted it, a faint vibration at back of his throat. It was an unmistakable earthy taste that seemed to register in his very bones as its subtle musky scent played with his senses. Water.
Pemba stopped midstep, a look of puzzlement on his face.
“What is it old man, spirits got your back again….” Tuq teased his friend, giving Pemba a knowing smile.
But, Tuq quickly put his joking aside when he saw that Pemba’s face was a study of concentration.
“Did you feel it” Pemba said meeting Tuq’s eyes. He turned again to survey the sky beyond the palms. “I could have sworn…..”
Tuq’s eyes narrowed as he followed Pemba’s gaze. At that moment Demuz, the chief seer of the Blue Desert Tribe came out of the low entrance to her tent and called Pemba’s name. She strode purposefully towards them, her long indigo robe swirling behind her. She was quickly followed by a much younger woman, Demuz’ protégé Sapha. She joined her mentor just in time to hear the old woman begin speaking to the two men.
“Well, it appears your apprentice has company Pemba”, the old woman said, raising an eyebrow. Pemba looked from Demuz to Tuq and turned once again to look beyond the palm trees.
“Earth spirit….by the feel of it” he said under his breath.
“Mmmm…perhaps”, said Demuz, giving her apprentice a conspiratorial smile, “and then again….”
Pemba dropped his gaze. “Strange, the sky shows no signs and the trees remain still” he said, voicing his thoughts.
“Sapha, show our brothers what you saw in your dreaming just now”, the old woman said, giving her protégé a nod of encouragement.
Tuq and Pemba turned to look at the young woman. Sapha returned their gaze and then, squatting to smooth out an area of sand, drew a series of signs with her finger, finishing it off by enclosing the design within a circle. She looked up briefly and then began adding a second set of heiroglyphs, this time enclosing the pattern in a tent shape. Dividing the two designs she drew a deep line. She paused and, satisfied with her work, raised her eyes to look at Tuq…..by his expression he obviously knew what some of the signs meant.
Slowly squatting down to examine the patterns more closely, Tuq glanced at Sapha then pulled back his sleeve to reveal his right arm. One of the signs in the circle was identical to marks tattooed just below his elbow. Sapha nodded and pointed with her chin to the marks on his arm and then to the desert beyond the palm trees.
The young mute seer suddenly swept her hand across the design enclosed by the circle, scooped up a handful of the sand and threw it skywards with a look of alarm. Tuq’s face became grave with concern.
“We must send him warning”, he said, “he’s walking into a trap”.
“But, we cannot interfere Tuq”, Pemba said as he dropped to one knee, looking intently at the remaining design. “The spirits will either help Aké, or…..”
“…or our fate will be decided for us,” broke in the old woman, her face inscrutible and stern, “along with his!”
She had spoken the truth, and the two men knew it. Pemba, however, touched one of the designs in the tent shape and looked to Sapha.
“This is the sign of the water spirit, is it not, according to the language of the Blue tribes, and this….” he pointed at the design next to it, “….what is this?”
“It is the sign of the unkown Pemba…that which can neither be seen nor be foreseen. Your ward has company….but, we cannot tell if it is benevolent or not. It seems to be leading him both to the safety of the oasis and directly into the heart of danger. An unexpected challenge has been set for him…..” Demuz said, driving home the point.
Pemba stood and took a few steps towards the palms. His eyes half closed he scanned the sky and reached out with his mind. Far off beyond the trees the plaintive cry of a hawk was barely audible, but, it was enough for Pemba to relax his shoulders slightly and let out a sigh. Silently he returned the call to his spirit ally and waited.
Aké was sure that he was being watched. He looked around, quickly surveying the valley and the crests of the dunes above. There was no-one in sight, but, the feeling would not go away. He rose from his haunches and, dusting himself off from the fall, suddenly felt the bulge of the water gourd beneath Pembas blanket. A strange thought entered his mind and he quickly took out the gourd. It did not make any sense, as he would be literally pouring away the precious liquid, but, he had the strongest urge to make an offering of water to the spirit in this place. He took the stopper from the gourd and hesitated, searching for words to accompany the offering.
He poured a little water from the gourd into his cupped hand and, with eyes closed, spoke his thoughts into the clear cool liquid. Then, after offering the water his breath, he let it trickle between his fingers. A nebula of small craters appeared at Aké’s feet as the water seeped quickly into the soft sand. Gazing at the pattern as he returned the stopper to the gourd he began to realise – there was something in that pattern.
He reached behind his back for the divining bag and unwound the thong that bound its neck. Reaching in, Aké’s fingers touched upon something hard and spherical. He carefully eased it out of the bag. It was a seed pod, of the kind used by the dancers in his village as a rattle. With a swift flick of his wrist it released a crisp sigh. The sound brought an indistinct image briefly into Aké’s mind. He gave the pod another shake, and another, and as he listened each shake of the rattle began to merge into one flowing sound. In his mind he saw a dancing ribbon of dark energy, sparkling like water as it moved, but, through it he could see the pattern made by the water he had offered. The sound of the rattle swirled about him and the image began to shimmer, just like the mirages at the desert’s far edge. Aké increased the rhythm and within the vision a turquoise pool emerged, surrounded by swaying trees. He could see low dark tents and something indistinct that was moving towards him very quickly. Before he knew it a strange looking face thrust itself before him in the vision. He fell backwards, dropping the rattle and divining bag, and lay on his back gasping.
The face had not just startled him, there was something about it that was unusual, alien, but more than that…..he felt he knew it. No, that was not it – it knew him. A knot of fear pulled at his stomach and, with it, the feeling of being watched returned. He knew that he was not alone.
A shout rang out from the far edge of the oasis quickly followed by a gust of warm wind that set the palms swaying. Another gust sent them dancing, their long leaves hissing, as if shaken by an invisible hand.
“Habūb!” came the cry again.
“By the spirits”, said Tuq under his breath. He glanced at Pemba, but, the old diviner was still and silent, looking to the west in the direction of Aké.
“Your ward will have his mettle tested”, said Demuz, coming to his side.
But, Pemba said nothing, his gaze focused on something far above the horizon.
After a moment he turned to Demuz, a resigned look cast upon his face. He breathed in, his lips pursed, and gave a slow nod. He knew full well what this would mean for Aké.
“We shall see”, was all he said, “we shall see…”
The shadows began to soften and melt into the sand as Aké picked himself up and quickly gathered the diviner’s bag and rattle. The air began to shift, a fine veil of dust washing over the water marks at his feet. But, Aké’s attention was now fixed on the eastern horizon. Beyond the dunes the air was becoming dull and heavy, an opaque blanket obscuring the skies. He had never seen its like, but, it told him enough – he must find shelter. A strong gust of wind stung his face as the desert around him began to shift and scurry.
Then he saw it. A great wall of billowing sand was rushing towards him, rising up into the sky beyond the dunes. He turned to run, searching for a place to hide. Just as he came to a bend in the dunes he heard the roar of the wind at his back. Aké’s instincts took over and he sprinted as he had never done before. Then something snagged his foot and he went flying, tumbling over a hard and unforgiving shape buried in the sand. He had dropped the diviner’s bag and, turning to look over his shoulder, a sharp pain shot through his ribs. The wall of sand was nearly upon him, but, it was then that he saw what had tripped him up. A thin sinuous tendril covered in barbs snaked up out of the sand, like one of the forest vines on which the seed pod rattles grew, and beneath it was an unatural shadow. The divining bag sat at its edge. He scrambled back towards it and, just as his hands reached the bag, he felt the sand beneath him give way. The sky disappeared and a chaotic maelstrom of howling wind and dust swallowed the desert and Aké whole.
Demuz’ tent had become a dark cave, its eastern walls bulging inwards with the force of the wind. The sound was deafening and no-one spoke. Pemba sat with his eyes closed close to the entrance as Demuz and Sapha checked the tent’s inner supports. Tuq had gone to check on the animals and other tents. Pemba was waiting to secure the entrance flap when he returned.
Time stretched out in a seemingly endless moment and in the chaos beyond the walls of the tent everything lost its form. Within, the diviners waited for Tuq, but, he did not come.
Pemba looked to the two women and had to shout to make himself heard. “I am going to look for him”.
“Tuq will be safe, in another tent….” Demuz reassured Pemba, ” he is no stranger to the desert”.
But, Pemba was uncertain. A gut feeling told him that all was not well. Tuq should have returned long before now. He knew that what Sapha had shown them had revealed more to Tuq than he had had time to say. He closed his eyes again and reached out with his mind to his spirit ally.
The desert below the hawk had become a churning mass of clouds, engulfing the oasis and the dunes beyond. Pemba bid the hawk look to the west but his vision revealed no break in the turmoil. Amidst the desert storm there was nothing to be done but to sit it out. But, there was something strange at work here. Within the roar of the wind Pemba thought he could hear voices. The old diviner listened intently, trying to make out what was being said. After a moment he opened his eyes and moved from the entrance to sit with the two women. He leaned in close to Demuz to make his voice heard.
“This is no ordinary storm”, he said, “there is something in its midst, I can hear it”.
Demuz closed her eyes and concentrated her mind on the sounds that surrounded the tent.
“It is how it is sometimes Pemba”, she said, her eyes still closed, “you are right though, I feel it too.” She opened her eyes and looked to her apprentice. “Sapha, was this what you saw in your dreaming?”
Sapha put her hand to her ear and nodded in confirmation. She leant over to retrieve her divining bag and drew a small tablet of stone from it. Reaching into her robe she produced small pouch and pulling a finger of charcoal from it drew two symbols on the stone. They were identical to the symbols that Tuq had recognised, one of which he had tattooed on his arm. This one was shaped like a thin triangular pinnacle with a wavey line emerging vertically from its point, a second horizontal one snaking across the middle of the symbol. She looked intently at the two old diviners.
Both Demuz and Pemba knew what this symbol signified, but, the other was unknown to Pemba. He pointed at it with his chin, an enquiring look on his face.
“That is a symbol that belongs to the People of the Dead, Pemba”, Demuz said with a grave look. “It is old, but not of the age of our own language which we have carried from the beginning. We know that its origins are tied up with the desert, but, its meaning is elusive….save the fact that it has destruction at its heart. There are few that can say more”. The symbol took the form of a central disc with three wide rays radiating from it.
Aké had pulled Pemba’s blanket around him and lay curled up beneath it in a shallow hollow, the storm raging over him. The wind swirled violently around him tugging at the blanket. He was breathing hard, the air above him thick with dust and noise, and the pain in his ribs was beginning to gnaw at his mind. For a brief moment he thought that he could hear someone calling through the storm, but, he reassured himself that it must be another of the desert’s illusions.
For a young boy on his way to becoming a man, being brought up in the savannah and forests, there were no memories to draw upon that would tell him what to do in this situation. It was entirely alien to him. He tried to think but the chaos that surrounded him made it impossible – he could only wait it out and hope. But, as he lay there holding on to the blanket with all his might, another sense within him began to emerge. His mind began to still and a curious calmness enfolded him. Aké listened more deeply and this time he was certain of it – from the heart of the wind a voice was calling him.
He heard his name, as if coming from a great distance, and then it was swallowed up in a multitude of voices that spoke in a tongue he did not recognise. The voices rose and fell, coming in waves, increasing with each pulse until a continuous chant seemed to almost drown out the wind itself. The strange face he had seen in his vision of the oasis appeared briefly in his mind again and immediately the chanting ceased. He could not tell if it was his mind playing a trick but a powerful deep voice suddenly said a single word. “Moqsula!”
And then, as if the word had cast a spell upon the storm the wind began to calm. Within a few minutes all was deathly still and silent.
Aké lay there, motionless, not knowing if he had fallen into a vision or not. He felt Pemba’s blanket resting on his body and slowly released his grip on it. Lifting a corner her peered tentatively from beneath it, his eyes widening at what he saw. Where there had been nothing but soft sand he now saw red earthy ground dappled with patches of gravel and rock streaked with dust. He listened carefully before throwing off the blanket and looking around. The valley was unrecognisable. The dunes around him had now closed off the valley forming an ampitheatre in the shape of a teardrop but at its centre was a flat area of open ground. Then he looked again at what had tripped him up.
A long post was bent over towards him, almost touching the ground. It terminated in a curious flat triangular form, looking for all the world like a totem with a tent shaped head. He could not tell what the post and its head piece were made of, but, it was smooth and shiny at its edges. He noticed that the corners of the head were twisted reminding Aké of a tent flap caught by the wind, as if frozen in time. Around the pole a length of the barbed vine snaked in a loose spiral and reached up over the triangle ending in the snag that had caught his foot. The post was embedded in a hard edged lump of smooth rock, only it was unlike any rock Aké had ever seen before. Whatever it was it had given him crucial protection and where he had huddled the sand still lay. It formed a nest in the shape of his body stretched into a long thin rippling dune by the wind.
He gingerly rose to his feet and found that his ribs had stopped aching, not even a twinge. If that was not curious enough, when Aké saw the other side of the triangle he caught his breath. A very peculiar symbol covered its surface and the sight of it made him feel suddenly anxious…..a central disc in black, three wide rays fanning out from it amidst a bright yellow field, with a black border following the edge of the triangle.
Pemba and Demuz were staring at each other, unsure of what they were hearing. The storm had subsided, but, with a suddenness that defied their senses. Sapha was already rising to open the tent flap before either of the elders spoke. It had become unnaturally quiet.
“Take care now Sapha”, said Demuz slowly rising to her feet, “whatever that was it was not like any habūb I have ever known….”
“I must find Tuq” said Pemba as he came to the tent flap. Sapha lifted it for him and he stepped slowly out. He was greeted by a brilliant light under clear deep blue skies, and the oasis was surprisingly unchanged to his eyes. People were emerging from their tents, the animals were shaking off the dust, and going from tent to tent Pemba asked if Tuq had been with them during the storm. No-one had seen him. Pemba strode to the western edge of the oasis and surveyed the desert, but, there was no sign of Tuq.
Aké ran his hand over the surface of the pole and found it smooth, hard and surpisingly cool under his fingers – and, it shone in the sunlight. He gently touched one of the barbs on the vine, but, this was like no living plant, or, he felt, ever had been living. It was as hard as the pole and wickedly sharp.
At that moment a noise behind him made Aké jump and he spun on his heal to see a tall man dressed in the dark robe of a desert dweller standing at the crest of the dune. The stranger raised his hand and called out.
Aké felt a wave of relief course through him at the sound of his name, but, when the stranger began descending the face of the dune he quickly gathered up his belongings and turned to put the post between himself and the stranger. When he turned back the man was no longer in sight.
Aké blinked and shook his head, but, the valley was deserted.
“I must be dreaming”, he muttered to himself and waited a moment, half expecting the stranger to suddenly rematerialise. But, he was alone again, and, checking to see that he had all his belongings, he began to climb the dune towards the place he had seen the stranger. When he reached the crest his confusion deepened as he could find no tracks in the sand. He glanced around and then looked briefly back at the curious totem. There was no-one to be seen, but, it was then that he saw something that made his heart leap. A green line rippled just beyond the dunes in the middle distance. “Those are treetops….” he exclaimed with sudden surprise. He rubbed his eyes, but, it was no illusion. “The oasis!”
The young initiate now had no doubt about his direction and broke into an urgent stride in the direction of the green streak amidst the dunes. As he walked he began to notice how everything seemed unusually clear, as if radiating with its own light. He stopped momentarily to look down at his feet and saw the sand sliding away, looking for all the world like gold dust. He knelt down and ran his fingers over its surface. It felt like sand, but, he could see every particle with astonishing clarity and for a moment became mesmerised by its beauty.
Something had happened to him and he realised that he was not only seeing things differently but was hearing and feeling all around him in an unusually sensitive way. He could hear the golden grains of sand as he shifted his feet, whispering softly as it fell away. Everything had become so immediate, as if it were all a part of him, intimately connected with him through his feelings. But, when he connected with his feelings they too began to shift, like the golden sand, reforming themselves into a sense of fullness and solidity he had never experienced before. He felt bigger, much bigger than before, as though he had grown beyond his skin and was being touched by all that surrounded him. He almost had a sense of seeing through someone elses eyes….or something elses.
As he moved the world moved with him and flooded his senses with an ecstatic feeling of belonging. Whatever it was that had happened to Aké he found a great joy accompanying each new sensation. Then it occured to him – this joy was not his alone. He felt held, supported by a great energy field that surged through his body and, at the heart of that energy an even stronger sense was beginning to emerge. The sense of belonging was deepening into a sense of knowing. It was almost as if he understood the sand, the clear radiant sky, the rippling shapes within the desert – the world was speaking to him.
Aké picked up his pace and felt a rush of elation as he crested the next dune and saw once again the green ripple of treetops, much closer now. He felt weightless as he rushed down the dune and effortlessly crested the next, and the next. He was sure he must be very close now, that this must be the last ridge of sand before the oasis revealed itself, but, as he was nearing the top he heard a voice, coming from far above….the cry of a hawk.
Aké looked up in time to see a small speck high above the desert moving swiftly away beyond the crest. He scrambled up the steep slope, but, was stopped in his tracks when someone called out. Standing on the crest a short way off to his left was the stranger.
‘Chenge and the Spider’ & ‘Riddles Within Riddles’ © Rob Purday 2013-16
“……..I leave no trace…..shadowless, I see all…..I am the eye in the Sun……”
It was the silence that awoke him. There had been voices, rising and falling, reverberating as one sound, but, far off and indistinct, like a crowded market place heard as if from a hill top high above. The sound breathed, rising like a flock of birds on waves of warm air, before sinking back into the earth like rain on parched ground. Then, suddenly, there was silence.
The first thing Ake felt was soft fine sand between his fingers. He opened his eyes and blinked rapidly in the scorching white light. Then he saw it. Resting on the back of his hand, an iridescent blue dragonfly. It was larger than any he had seen before and was so shockingly beautiful that, in that moment, Ake wondered if he was still dreaming….until, the wondrous insect bobbed slightly and, quickly hovering away over his head, was lost to sight.
He turned, craning his neck, trying to follow the dragonfly’s flight, but, it had disappeared over the crest of the dune……then, all at once, it hit Ake. He was surrounded by sand, nestled in a hollow near the top of a sweeping crescent. He leapt to his feet, confused and more than a little frightened.
‘Where am I……..!?’ he spoke out loud. There was no answer……
‘How did I get here?! Where is Pemba…..?’
But, he was alone. And this place, it was so hot……he felt the sun on his back, beginning to burn. His eyes began to smart with salt tears and Ake felt his toes curl as a wave of fear rose up through his body. But, the feeling of something against the side of his foot made him gasp.
He jumped involuntarily and, looking down, saw that his head had been resting on the diviners bag, Pemba’s red woollen blanket folded neatly underneath it. He was momentarily reassured and, shaking his head with a sigh, he bent down to touch the precious talismans. But, the sound from Ake’s dream was still fresh in his mind and, with it, he remembered the dragonfly. It had been there on his hand when he had opened his eyes, he was sure of it, but, for a brief moment he wondered if a part of his dream had leaked into the daylight. The sudden compulsion to follow the insect’s flight pulled him out of his thoughts and he crawled on all fours towards the crest of the dune. When he reached the top the sight that met his young eyes was unlike any Ake had ever seen before.
An ocean of sand stretched as far as he could see, majestic and terrifying. Ake had a sense that it was not too long after sunrise, but, even though the sun was not high in the sky, the light and heat was intense. He’d never before left the savanah and the land surrounding him was completely alien to Ake. He turned slowly, surveying the parched horizon. Rippling away as far as he could see seemingly endless shimmering golden dunes were cut with deep shadows. Off to what he guessed was the north the pattern of the dunes was interrupted by a wider valley, but, Ake could see no trees or shrubs anywhere that might give him shade. There was not a living thing to be seen.
But, the dragonfly……there must be water nearby, and……he struggled with a half forgotten memory that wanted to emerge…..he was sure that he had heard someone talking about dragonflies only a few days ago. Ake shook his head and, confronted with the silence of the vastness surrounding him, suddenly felt the need to call out.
The sound of his voice in the midst of the vast desert only made him feel smaller and more alone. A tear ran down his cheek and he absent mindedly caught it with the tip of his tongue. Suddenly very thirsty, he retraced his steps, knelt by the divining bag and carefully felt beneath the blanket. The sand below was deliciously cool and soon his fingers felt the stone like smoothness of the drinking gourd. ‘Just a sip now, brother Ake…’ he heard Pemba’s voice in his mind.
‘Pemba’, he said softly as he put the stopper back in the gourd and tied it securely.
It may have been the taste of the clear spring water that triggered his memory, or perhaps it was the thought of Pemba’s advice, but, Ake suddenly remembered where he had heard about the dragonflies. It was Pemba himself who had told him. He had been recounting his own journey to the oasis as a young man. This had been a part of Pemba’s own initiation, but, initiation was far from Ake’s mind in that moment – the oasis was the meeting place Pemba had said they must travel to and medicine people from all directions would be gathering there.
The thought of the meeting was curiously re-assuring to Ake. It almost made sense of his being here, surrounded by desert. But, he had no recollection of the journey that had brought him! And, where was he? Was he close to the oasis – he must at least try and find out.
Gathering up the diviner’s bag, shaking out and refolding the blanket, he returned to the top of the dune and tried to decide on the best direction to go in. He looked back at where he had been sleeping. There were no footprints, save his own, but, he could not see a trail telling which direction he might have come from either.
It was instinct that said he must move, and, since it did not look as though Pemba had been there, he felt there was no choice. Ake looked down the face of the dune below. This was the direction he had last seen the dragonfly heading towards, and so, he carefully began to descend into its shadow. The sand was quite cool out of the sunlight, and he relished the feeling of it around his feet as it seemed to freshen his mind. Just as he came to the bottom of the slope he had another realisation. They had been in the Spider Mother’s cave when Pemba had begun talking about the meeting and had told Ake about the magical beauty of the oasis. He stopped in his tracks and thought hard……
….slowly the memory came back to him and, with it, a strong feeling that he should head north.
Just at that moment a movement to his left caught his attention. At first he put it off as a trick of the light, a passing shadow, but, there it was again. Some ten feet away, and running straight towards him, was a beetle. No bigger than his thumb and very dark against the sand, the beetle came to within two feet of Ake and stopped. He leant towards it and, quite naturally, said ‘hello, little one’. A shimmer of dark green iridescence glanced off the beetle’s shell. ‘Do you know where the dragonfly went’ he thought, half to himself, half asking the little creature.
The beetle waved its antennae, seemingly in response, and, after a moment, began digging a hole in the sand. That was it! Images quickly flashed across his mind as Ake felt a wave of recognition and the memory of the day Pemba had talked about the oasis came flooding back…..
……before he knew it, his minds-eye opened wide, Ake was back in the Grandmother Spider’s cave. They had gone to her shrine.
With the spider’s help the night before, Ake had found the secret cave that housed her shrine. It had been the second evening of his grandfather’s funeral and he had been given his true name, as a part of his heritage. The other part of that precious gift was his grandfather’s divining bag. He could not resist opening it, and that was when it had all begun. But, he was sure that it was his grandfather’s doing that he was now on the path of initiation, following the Spider Mother’s path. She had led him to her shrine safely, but, the night had also revealed the great danger now threatening his people. Pemba had revealed the strange object to him that he and his grandfather had found on the edge of the desert and he recalled with a wince Pemba’s description of its owners, the People of the Dead. But, with his mentor close by, high up in the escarpment where the ancestors are buried, he had felt safe and protected from the storm that had raged over the land that night.
Sleep had taken him quickly and, at first light, he had awoken to find the Spider’s Cave still and calm. The storm had passed, erased with the dawning day, but, Pemba was nowhere to be seen. He had left a small pile of freshly picked fruit next to the fire’s simmering ashes. After splashing cool water from the gourd upon his face and hands, he had picked a couple of small green fruit from the pile and made his way to the cave entrance to greet the day.
A subtle mist was rising from the plains as the world emerged from its night journey. Above, in the growing light a pair of cranes flew out of the south and, high above the caves, sent a plaintive cry to the world below. An orange white shaft of light spilled over the horizon, the treetops below Ake’s perch at the cave entrance suddenly becoming adorned with a golden brilliance.
In those first few moments he had sat in awe of the beauty that flooded his senses, oblivious to the events of the previous night. This was the world he knew, comforting in its familiarity. As he heard the calling cranes and watched them fly overhead the thought crossed Ake’s mind that he too would soon be travelling north. Pemba had told him that a meeting of the medicine people had been called at a hidden oasis, deep in the desert, and they were bound to go. The path of Ake’s initiation was inextricably interwoven with the journey. He felt his heart flutter briefly as the memories returned of his grandfather, the dreams that had called him to this place, and the unfathomably strange object that Pemba and Grandfather Ake had found….the day suddenly took on a different dimension, became an horizonless field of uncertainty and questions. The People of the Dead! Who were they, what were they, how had this all come to be – Ake struggled to confront the reality that was now challenging his world. The world he knew was itself being called into question……
“I can see that you are beginning to wake up…..”
The voice came from behind Ake, but, the familiar tones of his guardian and mentor quickly washed away the uneasy feeling that had begun to gnaw at his belly…..and Pemba’s words seemed to be asking for a response. But, Ake could find none, save a smile and outstretched arms as he turned to meet his old friend. A hug when troubled with doubts is always good medicine, but, Pemba could tell that his protege was also beginning to feel the veils of innocence fall away. It was always like this. Initiation was a never ending affair in this world.
Pemba sat beside his young ward and nodded in recognition of the task ahead……
“I took the path into the desert once, when I was, well, not much older than yourself, younger brother…..it was a journey that your grandfather and I had to make, as a part of our own initiation.” He looked off towards the glowing horizon. “There is a place in the heart of that vastness that is filled with birdsong….tall palms line a pool of fresh clear tourquoise water, so sweet and refreshing to taste, and dragonflies hover and dart like mischevious spirits at its heart. Who would believe such beauty could be found in the midst of the desert heat. Being there is like being under a delicious spell within a dream……”
Pemba’s words cast their own magic in Ake’s imagination and seemed to cleanse his heart of its burdens. He began to relax as the world below returned to his sight and added its own beauty to the vision Pemba was spinning.
“We must prepare before we set off to find that place……I’ve made an offering at the Spider’s shrine to open our path, but, you must do the same before we leave. Come….this too is a special place…..”, and Pemba smiled impishly as he rose, offering a hand to Ake…..that smile was infectious and, jumping to his feet, Ake followed his mentor towards the back of the cave and the crack in the rock.
He watched as Pemba picked up a half burned stub of cut wood from the fire-pit, and, briefly stirring the embers with its charcoaled end, let it rest a moment in the glowing ash, then, lifting it close to his mouth, he blew on it. The branch radiated a warm red and orange light and, with a second breath, a small dancing flame emerged from its tip. Pemba tilted the little torch and encouraged the flame to grow slightly. Satisfied with the result, the old diviner turned with a nod to follow and, holding the torch before him, eased into the fissure in the rock…..
“…..this will serve to light the short way to the other side Ake…..its quite easy, c’mon…”, Pemba’s voice echoed uncannily from within the rock.
Ake could see Pemba ahead of him in dark silhouette as he entered the crack. The rock was smooth at his sides, as if an age of watery hands had sculpted it, and the narrow floor of the fissure was softened with a sediment of silt and small stones…..
After following Pemba for a few seconds, his breath held and his heart beating in anticipation, Ake saw his mentors outline merge with the rock off to the right….yet he could still see the soft glow of the torch ahead. Hurrying to catch up he came to the point where the crack in the rock turned a sharp corner and then continued straight for a few steps. He saw Pemba disappear once more as the passage-way turned again, this time to the left. A cool breath of wind brushed Ake’s cheeks as he turned the second corner. The floor of the passage tilted sharply downwards and levelled out about ten steps ahead.
As he approached the bottom of the incline the back of Pemba’s legs became visible ahead, but, Ake had not anticipated what was to meet his eyes once he arrived at his mentor’s side! A ledge that ran off to the left and right formed the lip of an immense chasm echoing with his footfall as Ake came to its edge. A diffuse light radiated down from an invisible source in the roof of the vast chamber giving a soft luminescence to the rocks below. It took Ake’s breath away as he took in the sight. Every few moments a small droplet of water fell from the ceiling of the cave, each a luminous pearl free-falling in space. Ake then became aware of a gentle sussurus in the background. Somewhere, far beneath them, off in an unseen part of the mountain, an underground river was in full speight……
” …..the shrine is down there Ake….” Pemba whispered, taking a step closer to the edge of the ledge, gesturing with his chin for Ake to take a look. Ake tentatively peered into the chasms depths……but, before he could decide what exactly he was supposed to be seeing, by way of a shrine, Pemba turned to face him and, bringing his face closer, looked over Ake’s shoulder and quietly said, “the way down is behind you, along the ledge….let me go first”.
The rock-wall arched overhead and small stones tumbled off the ledge as they picked their way along, gradually descending – Ake caught sight of the twisted shapes of roots hanging from the ceiling of the cave, as if emerging from dark clouds…..then he realised! The whole ceiling was covered in spider’ s webs, waving in diaphanous films, like smoke hanging in night air. The atmosphere closed in and, all around them, Ake felt the presence of a thousand unseen eyes, watching their every move.
“You must be careful here…” Pemba said in hushed tones, turning to face Ake. He had his hand resting on one of the two cut ends of a massive forked branch that rested on the rim of the ledge and disappeared below. It was a ladder, like those that led to the drying and curing platforms in the village, each step a wedge deeply cut into the wood. Pemba let the torch rest on the ground and reached downwards with a foot, facing the rock-wall – he did not look at Ake, or pick up the torch, as his head slowly disappeared below the rim.
The branch held firm against the rock with its own weight and Ake tried to imagine that he was simply climbing down from a drying platform, returning to the ground below – but, he had not expected the ladder to be so long, and to begin flaring out as he descended. He wanted to look around, but, dare not stop……and then his feet touched solid rock.
Still holding the ladder with one hand he turned to find Pemba staring at him with hawk like eyes in the gathering darkness. Without a word or gesture, Pemba turned again and, following an invisible trail, confidently walked away, slowly descending into the half light. They had arrived at a shallow concave plateau that Ake quickly realised was the top of a massive boulder…..hurrying after Pemba he found that there was a path that wound its way amongst a jumble of monolithic slabs of rock, some looking for all the world like the silhouettes of giant sleeping animals. As they descended deeper into the pit of the cave the rocks became smoother, more like river stones…..and Ake became aware of the sound of the underground torrent, rising like the voices and cries of an uncountable host – the memory of his grandfathers dream message, its vision of the ocean of souls flashed across his mind. He felt himself being drawn towards its shores…….
Two strong hands grasped Ake’s shoulders and the obsidian light of two shining eyes peered with a penetrating intensity into his own. Pemba raised a finger to his lips, making a firm sign to remain absolutely quiet, slowly letting his finger fall away – the sight momentarily pulled Ake out of his vision. Pemba nodded briefly and, stepping to one side, gestured to Ake to go first.
Ahead, the pathway levelled out and then seemed to come to a halt against a wall of pitch darkness. This signalled another fissure, a cave entrance within the cave. He heard Pemba following as he slowly entered the subterranean night, his eyes scanning the darkness before him.
The hard rock beneath Ake’s feet gave way to soft fine sand and, stretching out his hands in front of him, he edged slowly forward. He began to make out very feint filaments of colour in the air ahead, but, was it a trick of the dark, a play of some inner vision that he could not put a shape or form to? He paused and strained with all his senses to find some clue as to how to go forward. A fast moving streak of green light cut across his field of vision and he suppressed a gasp as the memory flashed across his mind of the spider’s luminous thread from the previous night. Then all was still.
It was at that moment that Ake realised that he was not only standing in the midst of impenetrable darkness, but, it had become totally silent. The seering doubt of his confusion span him instinctively on his heels, and then he did gasp. He did not see the way back to the chasm as he had expected he would, instead, there was no light, anywhere. For a moment it was as if every external sense of the world, save the feeling of sand beneath his feet, had become extinguished and Ake, his head spinning with disorientation, slumped onto to the soft sand in a faint.
In the moment that he came round, Ake wondered if he was indeed awake. He blinked but there was no change to the darkness. He reached out with his hand to prop himself up, but, instead of finding sand beneath his palm he briefly layed his hand on something soft….his hand recoiled. Then he recognised the feeling that his fingers had registered…it was the divining bag. He had forgotten all about it…..but, how had it gotten here. Pemba. It must have been put there earlier by Pemba…..
He reached for the bag and, sitting up, drew it to his chest and let the comforting feeling of its familiarity fold around his heart.
The voice came like a finely settling rain of dust upon his ears…….
“See…..my little one……”
The rush of doubt that Ake felt on hearing the voice slowly gave way to a rising fire of recognition in his belly…….he knew that voice.
“It has been so long, beautiful child…..my Chenge…..see……”
Ake suddenly felt his throat constrict and he sucked in a breath, holding it as the memory rose upon a tide of emotion…….
A soft shuffling, just a few feet away to his side, pulled his head around……but he could see nothing.
“Mama….is that you….I cant see you…..”
“I am safe little one…….”
Ake hardly dared move, but, this time the voice was infront of him, and closer. The green luminous thread re-emerged before his eyes and began turning about itself, making circles and spirals that left vapour trails of cold mist in the pitch darkness. Slowly they wove a shape in the air and became an oval of softly shimmering light.
Eyes appeared, a nose and mouth, rounded cheeks, forming a face…..and then Ake knew. He was gazing in total disbelief at the face of his mother!
“I have a message for you, my little one……”
Ake was transfixed. He would so have loved to run into his mothers arms, but, there was…..only her face before him.
“Mama…….mama, what has happened…..is it really you?!”
“Listen to the Spider Mother, Chenge…..she is helping you…….I am far away, but…..we will meet again…..follow her thread, little one……”
“We will meet again, Mama? But, when….where are you……what has happened to you?”
“Look for the tall one, the white one, he bears a sign……follow the thread, little one…..”
At the mention of the ‘white one’ Ake’s heart recoiled and a feeling he had never felt before welled up in his belly. It asked him to do something, anything, to bring his mother back.
“The white one mama? Surely you don’t mean one of the people of the dead…..!”
“He bears a sign…..you will know it……follow, little one…..my Chenge….”
And with this the face began to dissolve before Ake’s eyes.
Ake heard his voice echo softly as the face slipped away into darkness. He began to weep and clutched the diviner’s bag as if it were the last memory of a world he had once known. Another soft shuffling sound broke across his grief and, suddenly realising that he could once more hear the sound of the rushing river, he jumped to his feet. But, the darkness remained.
The flash of green light cut swiftly across his eyes and left a single thread of mist suspended in the air. A thin crack of brilliant white emerged from the mist and grew into a vertical fissure in the pitch darkness that surrounded him. The crack widened and Ake could see a movement in its midst…..a figure was walking towards him. He recognised the shoulders and face of his mentor, Pemba.
“This place is the Spider’s shrine, younger brother……Ake?”
Ake was unsure of what he was seeing, he did not know whether to trust his senses.
“Ake?….what have you seen.”
The concern in Pemba’s voice was strangely reassuring and Ake felt his shoulders relax a little, the weight of the diviners bag now helping the world to solidify about him.
Pemba stopped a few steps away and cocked his head, staring at the bag……
“Well……” he seemed lost for words as he stepped closer, raising his hand to point at the diviner’s bag clutched to Ake’s chest.
“The day is full of surprises……this is most unusual….but, a good sign…..heh”
Pemba looked at Ake’s face with a soft concern. Laying his hands on Ake’s shoulders he said, “Come, tell me what happened…..we have an offering to make, but, you look as though…..”
“It was Mama, Pemba….she was here, I saw her and….she spoke to me”
“Spoke to you?!” The surprise in Pembas voice could not be disguised. The old diviner considered a moment and then, reaching behind his back for the drinking gourd he was carrying, he led Ake by the arm to the side of the cave. Ake realised that he could see the interior of the subterranean chamber quite clearly now. They were in a small oval cavity that reminded Ake of the adobe huts in which the families of his village lived. The walls were smooth and appeared to have a coating of fine clay. The back of the chamber was feintly illuminated from its entrance, but, surprisingly, Ake could see that the underground room was entirely empty.
As they rested their backs against the wall, Pemba caught the look of confusion on Ake’s face.
“I will explain…..all in good time, but….what did your mother tell you, younger brother, tell me what you want to”
Ake related everything that had happened from the moment that he had set foot into the darkness and, as his mentor listened, Pemba gave a nod at everything he heard. When Ake had come to the end of his account they sat in silence for a moment and then, offering the gourd to his young ward, Pemba let out a sigh…..
“It seems the Spider Mother has given to you a gift, brother Ake, and a gift of no small importance – I will tell you just why I am saying this after we have made the offering, if you can wait…..” and, at this Pemba rose to his feet.
A tender smile greeted Ake’s eyes as he looked up.
“….and, we must make it a special gift in return for her kindness, eh?”
Ake was surpised in the next moment to see Pemba scooping handfulls of sand to the side from the floor of the subterranian room – he was close to its center and the sand was dry, sliding slowly back in on itself. But, soon, Pemba’s hand scraped against a solid surface. He brushed the sand aside to reveal a large round circle of stone with a wedge shaped notch cut out of its edge. Pemba carefully placed his hand into the gap and with a strong pull lifted the stone away, flipping it onto its back, revealing a smaller perfectly round hole beneath……
“Bring the divining bag over Ake” he said, as he brushed the sand clean from the edge of the hole. “Now…..see what comes out” he said gesturing with his chin towards the bag…..
“…..go on, don’t be afraid…..theres something in there we need”.
Ake unwound the strap from the neck of the bag and cautiously put his hand inside. The feeling of soft fur met Ake’s fingers and, feeling his way down the sides, he found several smaller leather bags nestled together. He looked to Pemba……
Gripping the neck of one of the small bags he slowly eased it out…..it was no bigger than his fist and dyed a very dark blue that reminded Ake of the night sky.
“Ahhh…..now open it”, said Pemba, obviously intrigued at the choice.
The binding was old, but, once Ake had eased it away, a sharp odour emerged instantly from the bag, making Ake’s nose twitch.
“Take one pinch” Pemba instructed, watching carefully as his protege reached in with his thumb and fore-fingers. He pulled out a small quantity of pitch black powder, just like charcoal dust, but, very slightly oily to the touch.
“This is ‘black snuff’, though amongst the Spider people it is known as ‘night medicine’. It is one of the most valuable healing preparations we make, amongst the diviners, that is. It is for use only by those who have knowledge of its effects. Without that knowledge it is simply charcoal, to the unknowing. It seems I’ll be teaching you how to make it very soon,” Pemba said with an approving nod. Ake tried to look more closely, without dropping any of the powder.
“Is this what I am to give to the Spider mother, Pemba?”
“Well, it looks like you are being called upon to make this medicine a sign of gratitude to her, yes, but…..it needs a special song to accompany it……”
Ake looked questioningly at his mentor…….but, Pemba simply raised his eyebrows, smiling with a little nod…..
“But, which song should I sing…..?”
“Think of where we are going….and what has just happened here….then let it come out, sing it……and, remember, say thank-you to the Grandmother Spider”
Ake liked to sing, it came naturally to him, especially when he was busy with something that took time….but, he had never tried to make a song out of things that had not happened yet, or feelings as strong and deep as those that the memory of his mother had brought up in him. Then, without warning, as he was pondering these things, a single syllable of sound escaped his lips…..and before he knew it a melody was springing up in him. It seemed to accompany the images that drifted through his mind.
“Sing it into the ‘night medicine’ Ake, then give the medicine to the hole….but, keep singing until the song has run its course.”
The melody arose with a slow dignity from Ake and into the ‘night medicine’. He felt its power gently flowing through him at first, then he began swaying his body from side to side. For a moment it was as if he was sitting in the middle of a small boat on a rolling expanse of water. Stars appeared above him following the motion of the boat. He closed his eyes and let the melody pour into the night medicine. He felt his hand release the black powder into the darkness at his feet…..the song grew stronger.
A gust of wind swept strands of hair around his cheek and he opened his eyes……the stars above remained, swirling around a tall stout pole that extended above him. There was a triangular sheet of ochre skins attached to its top and bottom and Ake quickly realised he was speeding over the water in a hide covered boat, like the ones he had seen in the Lake People’s village.
“You must listen to the stars, let them give their stories to you, brother Ake,” a powerful voice sounded behind him.
Ake spun round to find his grandfather sitting at the stern, his strong old hands holding the end of a steering paddle, his eyes staring towards the heavens….for a moment Ake was speechless.
“….they will take you beyond the horizon and return you safely home.”
“Look!” And the old man pointed over Ake’s shoulder, his eyes widening.
Ake glanced involuntarily in the direction his grandfather had pointed. In that instant a single star suddenly expanded and sent out a blinding flash that stunned Ake. For a moment he could see nothing but white light. Then shapes slowly began to emerge, blurred and vague at first, and there was a tickling feeling on his cheek.
Ake shook his head and caught site of the small green iridescent beetle just as it disappeared beneath the sand. There was a sound like many voices speaking very fast, as if heard from a long way off……then the dragonfly darted over his head and stopped in mid-air just an arms length in front of Ake.
He had been lying on the cool sand, but, for how long! Where the beetle had been there was now a small conical mound of sand. It must have been only an eyeblink, yet, he felt as though it were an eternity. The dragonfly turned on its centre and a second later sped off down the valley between the dunes.
“I’m not loosing sight of you this time,” Ake said under his breath and, jumping to his feet, he slung Pemba’s blanket and the diviner’s bag over his shoulder and set off after the iridescent blue being………he did not see the swift shadow that darted away across the sand ahead of him……..
Chenge and the Spider © copyright Rob Purday 2013
The Beetle and the Dragonfly © copyright Rob Purday 2013
Look out for the continuing story of Chenge and the Spider at a new dedicated website launching soon!