*This story was first published online in TheFictionalCafe. All copyright has since reverted to the author, Katinka Smit.
Kamaria is leaving. Her eyes are open and the sky is sliding across them. Her spirit shimmies up a tree to catch the sun, the sun that is falling behind the trees. From the sun she will catch the moon. She will leap up into the moon, where she will shine forever. Kamaria will shine forever, smiling like the moon.
Pounding feet. I am fast but they have dogs. Pushing the jungle through me, pushing me. I head to where I think I can be free. I leap into the roaring water. My body is sucked down into its crashing weight and I am falling, pounded into the deep below.
When I surface, they are waiting for me.
It is not all.
They return me to my village, to my shame. Kamaria’s face is wrecked. It’s smashed sideways, like her arms, which they hold, while they pound her and laugh at me. Her eyes are as big as small moons. Bodies lay in the doorways of the huts. There are, still standing from my village, six men, three boys, and two ‘pretty things’. None of them will look at me. My spirit does not yet desert me, as I have deserted them.
My death is only just beginning.
I am blind in the light.
It is the first sun we have seen in weeks. The wind is very still, and the air tastes salty. I am very thirsty.
Sing, says the man with the whip, in his strange tongue. More of these men stand around us, men the colour of bones. They hide their bodies in thick clothing.
Dance, he demands.
His whip stings me.
Sing, he commands. Sing for the sky that you will never again see.
With their whips and screams these skeleton men who have tethered us to Death force us to dance and drum, as though we have our freedom. My feet refuse. I cannot. I have nothing left to dance for.
They drag me to the side and the whip tears my back. The drums pound the leather into my skin. When the drums cease and the dancing stops, we are thrown back down into the beast’s belly, where all that comes from within us swills and slops around our feet.
This great wooden beast by which we swim pushes against great waves. The beast moans and creaks, speaking its journey to me. Its shudders are mine; my body is tied high, my arms wide, strapped to the wood. I have refused to dance too many times. And like the sickness that fouls this beast’s belly, my refusal has spread to others. Now when they dance, they must dance eyes up, looking at me.
There is much water, farther than my eye can see. Birds greater than I fly by. My arms are stretched wide, way long, but their feathers span whole hands wider than me. One lands on my wrist. Fist and talon curl as one and swoosh, he is off, feathered, flying. I look like a great bird up here while they punish me, but I cannot fly. I hang here still, limp as a torn-up bush. Too late I have fought them. I am not free.
My spirit has left my body. It leapt out on the track before the trees too, stopped. My body fell down. My spirit hissed at me, Too far! Too high! It slithered to the base of a hollow tree and slid into its darkness.
It is very cold here where I am, very high and very cold.
A devil lives here, in the belly of this mountain. Tio, they call him. He guards the shining metal jealously. Many die under his clawing hands as he cleaves the mountain back in, filling the holes of those who try to rob him. His face gleams in the light of the torches; the flickering catches his teeth, which he smiles–oh, but there is a lie behind those smiles. There is a lie.
I cut him some skin, every day. I cut him a piece of skin to feed that lie, that I might be saved, but Tio and I both know I will never again see the sky.
Here, Tio, I have made you hands. Can you feel? Take this offering–my blood, my skin. Here, Tio, for you. I gave you eyes so that you could see for me–see the way for me in this darkness. Can you see, Tio?
Potoq. I rise, only to take this hammer and slam it down again. To scrape, to shovel, to scrape, to heap–searching for the rock that gleams.
If I could but breathe air. If I could but see the sky. Light.
Here, for your open mouth Tio, take my skin. Have mercy. Make soft this ground for me.
Cough. I do not know how long it has been since they took me from my lands, since my body was traded for the metal moons. How long I have been down here, digging through this mountain, sleeping in its belly, how many suns and moons I have missed. I do not know. How long I toil I do know: I toil until I fall. When at last they take me briefly up, the light is staggering. I am the worm who spasms at the sight of day.
Her body is warm. Our tongues squeeze together; airtight, her eyes open. Her eyes are open and our bodies are warm. The night presses us together. I am Mosi of Mwinyi, first born of the head of our clan. Soon my father will step aside; it is time I took a wife. I can choose any woman I want. I chose her, Kamaria, she who is like the moon. Her smile is warm. It is warm like the yellow moon that rises into the night, and it shines itself upon me. Her eyes are open and she is shining herself upon me.
I stand among the trees, watching, hidden by the night. The men are loud, deaf to the night around them. The fire lights their faces: they are lean, angular, shaven, a deep purple, the colour of the mountains seen from across the plains. Our skin is the colour of the jungle, our faces rounder. Their hands are long, their arms thin. Their bodies are stretched where mine is thick and muscular.
They are playing a game by the firelight, a game of drink and dance. They pass small moons between them. The fire sets the moons briefly alight; they dance with the light of the moon. The moons sing like night frogs and the men dance in the light of the moon.
I step forward, in from the night.
Tio – you are smiling.
As wide as Kamaria’s smallest finger is long, the exact length, this small moon. This round, flat, shining thing. It is smooth and heavy, a strange pattern on its surface.
I accept the gift. I will give it to Kamaria, my smiling one, my soon-to-be wife who shines like the moon.
I do not ask in what they trade. It is not our way. It is our way to honour a gift. I bring them with their shining pieces, their gleaming faces. I bring them to our village.
I show them the way.
I show them the waterfall, where our Gods live behind its shelter. I show them the track to the bottom, where the water throws its might at the ground, where it pounds a deep hole with no bottom. I show them where our devil lives.
The moon passes through three circuits. Kamaria’s face has become the shape of the moon. Her belly too is swelling, like the moon as it once more comes around. She has made herself an ornament; she wears the little moon about her throat. Her throat that holds no food down, that gives back all to the ground.
The moon once more comes around. And it is when this swollen moon is just passing that they return.
I am in the jungle; I have brought down a tailed one. Its chatter is stilled, but the others scream at me. They scream up in the trees, shaking branches. Even when the one is down, when its voice is stilled, when stillness tells them to swing off –there is no more life – even then they scream and shake and shake and scream. The jungle is awake with screams and most birds have gone quiet.
Something is wrong.
Tio, stop smiling.
I heft my kill and run, run as fast as I can under the screaming forest. Pounding through the jungle, pushing it through me, pushing through into the clearing where –
Tio – stop laughing – stop –
I see her smile sideways on the ground, in the blood. The small moon has been ripped from her neck. She is so still. I think she is – I swing off – and I am running, feet pounding –
Tio, have mercy.
Others have been slain by you – crushed – take me. Take me. I cannot call on my gods. They have forsaken me. But you, Tio, merciful devil, you can crush my bones into this mountain.
Then when they take the shining rock into the light my body will finally be free. It will be powdered into the dust that we here breathe. My body will cling to the cold air, and drift aloft. It will soar on the lightest of breeze.
My spirit will see the dust. It will crawl out of its hiding place on the mountain where it left me and shimmy up a tree. It will leap into the sky. It will ride on the wind, carried by the dust of my body. Up, up.
My spirit will meet her in this sky that we share, and she will forgive me.
She will forgive me.