“Dad! Dad, dad, dad, dad, da-“
Yes. Hi. Hello. I hear you. What? Eoin motioned his made-up signs for the two boys to stop clamouring for his attention. He blew out a puff of air, sweaty strands lifting in the humidity. His field lay partially fallow, the summer rains having flattened the leftover grain stalks from the harvest. The note in his sons’ voices, though, edged on panic, drawing him from his questions of if he’d ever get the field set for growing a batch of root vegetables.
Callum grabbed Eoin’s hand before he set his hoeing stick down. The boy’s internal communication was faster than depending on his father to understand the village’s language. “Water. Help!”
Broken images of a tree, a rock, a waterfall skipped through Eoin’s mind. Small bugs, footprints, and frogs popped in through the unstrung information. Brightly patterned clothing flapped and whacked against the edge of the river. A crocodile sunning on an opposite bank held much of the young boy’s focus for the memories he shared.
A shot of cold dread dripped from Eoin’s fingers. Albin, always the more anxious of the two, grabbed his brother’s hand and tugged for him to hurry.
Eoin dropped the stick, using a simple whistle words he had learned to make through his handicap. “Where?”
Albin let go of his brother and took his father’s other hand. This was not the time to be wasting on village words. “Pools. Buhle and Cebisa. Clothes. Played with Khethiwe and Lindelwa. Lindelwa’s left.” Images of his two playmates building mud huts with sticks and helping their mothers clean small clothes tumbled from the boy in snaps and disorganized inversions.
“Is anyone else there?” Eoin scooped up Albin and let Callum dash ahead.
“Aunt Amina find help.” Albin clung to his father. Not more than a few years from toddling, the boy replayed images of women’s skirts and Lindelwa’s name being screamed, almost blinding Eoin to the world.
“We’ll find Lindelwa, Albin. We will make everything right. We’ll have the whole village out looking for her.” Eoin tripped over a tree root when another image from his son caught him off balance – a crocodile lunging up from the murky river. Albin clung tighter, shoving a thumb into his mouth. Eoin leaned his head against Albin’s, the little boy tucking into his father’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, we’ll find Lindelwa.”
“Help?” Albin’s forest-green eyes threatened tears.
“We’ll find her.” Eoin shielded his fears from the boy. Too many predators crept through the forest and sat beneath the water surface. He didn’t need to be feeding those thoughts into his son’s mind. The boys showed early signs of their inheritance, communicating through memory and image. Contributing fears and assumptions would not help their tangled concept of the world at the moment.
The pathway dragged at his bare feet. Mud from the first downpour of the season lay fresh that morning. Puddles filled with water flies and frogs created sticky hazards to be avoided. Fleeting clouds of tiny biting bugs swarmed them in the shadows and evaporated in the dappled sun. Eoin chased Callum, almost out of sight, scurrying along the riverbank path.
Panicked chatter rustled in the approaching deep vegetal undergrowth. Callum disappeared around a clump of shrubbery. Eoin skirted a tree to find several handfuls of the village already gathered. Tau motioned for Eoin to join him at the river edge. Buhle, her hair and skirts sopping wet, legs muddy up to the knees, held out her hands for Callum and Albin. They ran to her, exchanging worried greetings.
“Tau?” Eoin struggled with the Chief’s name.
The large man, busy scanning the water’s edge, held a hand out to Eoin. Furrowing his brow, the white-haired man set a hand in the leader’s.
“Cebisa says she’s seen crocodiles in the river recently. Said with the rain today, she had hopes they would have gone farther down river to the banks where better food lies.” Tau used Eoin’s means of communication rather than taking the time to hope the man would understand his village’s words. “We have sent runners to summon help in the village.”
Eoin swallowed, the levity of the situation sinking in. “When was she last seen? Where?”
Tau waved over the small woman, her hands wringing nervously in a damp kente. A short series of words passed between the two, leaving Eoin waiting, a rising prickle climbing up his shoulders.
Cebisa turned from Tau to Eoin, looking to Tau for a reassuring nod before offering a damp-wrinkled hand. Eoin kept his touch light. “Lindelwa?” He pulled a memory from his mind of the little girl, not more than a handful of years older than his boys.
Lindelwa’s mother pulled her hand away, startled at the contact. Amina emerged from the crowd and put a reassuring arm around Cebisa, whispering a few words in her ear. The woman buckled, wailing against the tribe leader’s wife.
A splash startled everyone at the edge of the river. A small, shrill cry bounced off the trees, sending monkeys scurrying through the canopy. Birds took to the air to escape the fleeing troops.
Eoin and Tau exchanged a terrified look. Slipping in the mud with several other men at the riverside, they dashed for the noise. Low lying limbs and leaves held back their speed. Around him, the men cried, “Run! Run! Watch out!” The river twisted, dumping them out of the forest and against a shallow bank leading to a broad series of sandbars.
Amid these sticky sandbars sat a pile of driftwood and upturned stumps. A cry echoed from the stack, but no one saw where it came from.
It was the sunning crocodile, almost three times the length of a man from snout to tail tip, that pointed them to Lindelwa. A small, khaki grey lump clung to the hook in a stump, curled up with her feet tucked under her. Big eyes begged for rescue.
An elderly man, known as Baba in the village, caught up with the group. He slammed his staff against a rock, the gourds strapped to the top rattling and rocking. Eoin watched, confused, as the man shouted at the sky and the river, at the earth. Soon though, the rest of the group bowed.
Baba pulled a handful of sticky mud from the bank, shoved his thumb into the ball, and wiped a line of it on each man’s brow who came up to him. Eoin stood back, toes in the water, wondering when they would cross the channel, if they would cross it, and rescue the little girl.
A warm hand on his shoulder startled Eoin. “We will distract it. Three men will go back up the river to the shallow crossing and come around the bank on the other side. We need a volunteer to get out in front of it, turn the beast’s attention. We have the group that will go up against it on this side and another that will come up behind it.” Tau, eyes focused on the creature circling the wood detritus, chewed on the inside of his cheek.
“Do you need me to be the volunteer?” Eoin asked, flashbacks of his family’s death tumbling out uninvited on his tether with Tau. Fear for his children having no father and witnessing his gruesome death sat uppermost in his mind.
“If you do not wish to be the volunteer, we can see if someone else will do it. If so, which position would you take?” Tau’s fingers tightened as the beast opened its maw and settled in to watch the girl.
“Honest, I have children of my own to see to. I would not leave them now. I would rather join the group in back. If it is something you need me to do, though, and no one else can, then don’t let Albin and Callum see this.” Eoin pulled his hair up and knotted it out of the way.
“Let me see what everyone else says.” Tau dropped their connection and returned to the group of men on the bank, light brown mud across brows creating a cohesive partnership. Conversation flittered around the men as they split into groups. The village chief waved for Eoin’s attention. “Go with Sifso and Nkosi.”
Eoin returned the hand motion and joined with two short, stocky men at the water’s edge beneath a massive upturned tree root. All three pulled off their khanga to hang on the branching snarls above their heads. Sifso and Nkosi tightened the twist in their xai to keep the protective garment from coming off. One look at the crocodile forced Eoin to consider the need to obtain a similar undergarment if he survived this incident intact.
The two men’s speech was too fast for Eoin to keep up. He watched their gestures and eye movement to develop an idea of their plan. When Nkosi stopped for a breath to listen to Tau’s next set of directions, Eoin motioned for Sifso to mime out what was happening once more.
Baba’s gourds rattled again, drawing everyone’s attention. Eoin took his cue and followed Nkosi and Sifso back up the bank to a sandbar. They descended through the middle of the channel through little islands and shallow streams breaking up the river. The sun beat down on Eoin’s group while the far bank men scrambled to find a way up the deep side. Another rattle, muffled beneath the breeze, the stream, the scream of birds, sent Eoin’s heart pounding.
The far bank and near bank men had their position. Tau swam out to the front. A pit dropped in Eoin’s gut. He had not expected the chief to act as bait for the sunning beast. Regret twisted in his chest.
Tau called out to the little girl in the debris, reassuring her as he slowly crept into the monstrous creature’s sights. Throat running dry, Eoin swallowed. Nkosi, Sifso, and he paced themselves with the other group’s advance until they surrounded the crocodile. The creature lay as long as four men from snout to tail.
The village chief splashed in front of the creature, turning it from the girl in the driftwood. It whipped around, following the man’s dissonant noises. The other men joined in with cajoling the creature. Eoin, unable to screech and bellow at the creature, desperately tried to keep from getting his feet swiped out from underneath him. The girl descended. Chaos erupted. Too many bodies meshed together in a blend of limbs and voices. Tau shouted.
Hands pushed and pulled Eoin this way and that as men dodged a smashing tail and fought to avoid being impaled on driftwood. He found himself near the creature’s forelimb as it span to snap at prey. Lindelwa floundered in the mud near the baffled man.
Tau had four men pushing against him, escape uppermost in their minds. He shouted at Eoin, pointing to the child. Eoin ducked the press of bodies. Grabbing the girl up under her arms, he dragged her from the sticky mud. Men scattered as the creature thrashed, sending up murk and brown water.
Teeth took over his vision. Cold dread pumped through his fingers. He shoved Lindelwa into someone’s fleeing arms. Hands up, he clamped onto the beast’s lower jaw to divert it from taking his face. The cold drip in his fingertips flooded his senses. His heart squeezed tight. All he wanted was to return safely. The creature grunted before flopping onto its side, a twitch in its limbs.
Eoin stared at the crocodile. Men in the water shouted, at first terror, then confusion. The bank quieted. A bird twirtled in the branches along the bank. Tau trudged his way through deep mud to Eoin’s side. He asked a question. Sitting knee-deep in the waller the creature had made, Eoin looked up at the village leader.
Tau rested a hand on his shoulder. “Did you kill that?” He pointed to the dead creature.
“It scared me?” Eoin’s memory diverted to his aunt and Cathal. This terror. It had to be the same as what had killed Grannd Daleroch’s brother. Horror prickled his palms in sweat. He turned to eye the men watching him. Witches’ fires burned through his mind.
“You really are a godling, then.” Tau let go of Eoin and raised his hands up in the air, shouting proud words. The other men cheered, confusion still spread on some faces. Tau shouted once more, this time the call and response taking.
Men pushed Eoin across the river. Tau returned Lindelwa to her distraught mother. Baba interrupted Eoin’s furtive break from the group of excited men, staff blocking his path.
A wide smile broke through deep crags and crevices in the ancient man’s face. He took up a glob of mud from the bank and held it up to the trees and the sky, sing-crying a blessing over it before swiping a line across Eoin’s brows.
“Godling? I am Sibabalwe.” The man found Eoin’s void.
Chapel Orahamm (C) 2022-2023. All Rights Reserved.
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