The Animals Among Us by Blaze Bernstein

This is a re-run of Blaze Bernstein’s short story which appeared in May 2015 issue of The Bangalore Review. He was only seventeen then, and showed great promise as a young writer. However, in January 2018, Blaze Bernstein’s life came to a tragic end. This story was one of his few published works. #DoGoodForBlaze

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I. Aves

When the little boy double crossed the shetani¸ Great Heron assumed her true spirit form and cursed him, placing her hands upon the boy and draining all of the color from his body. His skin turned white as sand and baked under the heat of the sun. The black siphoned from his hair, the red from his lips, the brown from his irises. The boy ran as fast as his legs could carry him away from the spirit, away from the village, out of fear, shame. The shetani ran after the boy calling out vengeance. But before long, Great Heron was out of breath. Her endurance was no match for that of youth.

And so, she flew to the Maasai elders, and enlisted their help in searching every mountain and every molehill of the Savannah in a search for the boy.

Nyoka hissed to the men of the tribe: “The boy spends his nights dancing with lions. He writhes and roars in the moonlight. He uses his fingertips to tease his own wicked mane.”

And Buibui spun webs about the children: “The boy bathes with crocodiles. He lies on his back in the watering hole, rinsing dirt from his hide. When stampedes of wildebeest come to drink, they take one look at him, and turn around to go and find solace elsewhere.”

And Ng’e stung the women: “The boy sleeps in a starless night sky. He rests in trees with pitch-coated malevolent cats, dreaming of scorpions and caracals. He nestles with cubs who sing songs of youth and naivety, and corrupts their virtue. Fruit bats scream their calls to prayer from the deepest trenches of the plains to the tip of Mount Kilimanjaro, warning all those on the Savannah to beware.”

And so, a witch hunt was indited in the books of time.

#

II. Amphibia

The first time Nairobi sees the boy she is washing clothes in a basket made of blue reeds and gold grass down by the Mto. He sits behind brush, cowering.

“What are you doing?” Nairobi keeps washing clothes. “Do you want something?”

“What’s your name?” he asks.

“I am Nairobi. What’s yours?”

He says nothing.

“You do have a name?” Nairobi turns back to the basket of laundry and picks up her mother’s skirt. She must scrub, dig her fingernails into the cloth in order to wash away the purple-red stains of Camiphora berries.

“No.”

“Okay. Come here then.” Nairobi sees a clawed toad thrashing about in the water. She admires the frog’s slender body, how he kicks up waves as he darts around the stream.

Nairobi hears the boy rustling in the underbrush. Her body twists up when she sees him. He steps out from behind the brush in a moment of panic, paralyzed with fear. Not one inch of his skin shows. His petrographic body is caked with dirt and mud and grass.

“Boy, come here.” Nairobi stands up and starts to walk towards him.

He stares.

“You are dirty. Go wash up. Get in the water.”

He leaps into the Mto with a splash. He stands there, waist deep, still as a purple heron. “Your name’s Nairobi?”

“Yes. Nairobi. Now scrub off all of that muck.” She fishes into the basket in the river, looking to find an old garment of hers. She finds a robe of sorts that has turned brown with age. He is too old to be walking around in the nude. She pulls it out and water droplets fly like honeybees as she wrings out river water. “Get your hair wet. Wash off all the mud.”

He dives in the current. As the last of the scum washes away, she stares in awe. He gets out of the pool and shakes all of the water from his body, white as the mid-day sun. Nairobi hands him the cloth and he wraps it around his waist before running off into the Savannah, and he is gone just as quickly as he appeared.

Nairobi turns back to the basket of laundry in disbelief and terror, and reaches in to continue scrubbing away at the clothes, but she finds that after all the work she has done, there are fresh purple-red stains on her mother’s skirt. She lifts it out of the water and holds it up to the sun, and into her hands falls the tepid, bleeding carcass of a clawed toad. An omen.

#

III. Reptilia

Nairobi brings the lifeless frog to the tribe laiboni who lives in a large thatch hut on the kopje out in the plains. She gives him the frog and promises to share her secrets with him, of which she claims to have many.

“Oh, what is on your mind, my dear Nairobi?”

She lies on a thatch mat in the center of the room.

He brushes his hand across the side of her face and as he does so he paints long streaks of red and blue. “Don’t worry dear. I won’t tell.”

Nairobi blushes red as a baboon’s hide. “I saw something disturbing.”

“Oh. What are we dealing with? A murderer? A monster? A maniac?” He laughs and takes out a brush made of zebra hair and begins to baste her skin with charred marrow.

“No. Just a boy. But he’s special.” She traces the lines on her brow with her ring finger.

He begins going through clay pots and golden baskets looking for more pastes and scrubs to cover Nairobi’s skin. “How?”

“I’ve just never met anyone like him.” Whatever he is rubbing on her body now causes her fingertips to tingle and goosebumps to raise up across her arms.

“Could you be a bit more descriptive?” He continues rubbing on the poultice. He lathers her arms, and begins to pour it on her stomach.

“His skin is white.”

“How white?” The laiboni has removed his hands from her body and washes them in a clay jar filled with clear water. Whatever serum was on his hands discolors the water and he dumps it out the window and refills it again from a large pot.

“Just white.” Nairobi sits up. “Why do you ask?”

The laiboni fills the empty jar with Eucalyptus leaves tied in bundles using sinew twine. He lights them on fire and inhales the frowsty smoke. He looks Nairobi in her eyes, but her eyes do not look back at him.

“His skin may be white, but he looks like a Maasai.” Nairobi turns on her side and traces the lines that have been painted on her cheekbones.

“Then there is one explanation: a shetani has come to you, a malevolent spirit. He will devour you and all of the village if we do not do something about it. Bring the boy to me and the village elders on the night of the next full moon tomorrow and we will take care of it.” The laiboni takes out a talisman made of Acacia incense and grasses from the plains.

She stands and takes the talisman from him. “Do not hurt him. You must promise me you will not hurt him. He has done nothing wrong.”

“But he will. He who does not lie with lions, eats with the hyenas. Nevertheless, I will not hurt him. You have my word.” The laiboni washes his hands again. “Now go bathe in the Ziwa with the talisman. When you are done, light it ablaze, and all your sins and worries will burn away with it. Then, with my blessing, go and find me the boy.”

Nairobi nods.

As she walks out of the land of mysticism and back into the Serengeti the laiboni shouts, “Think of the village!”

Nairobi draws one last breath of superstition before she returns to the world she knows.

#

IV. Mammalia

The next day, when the sun beats down on the plains like tribesmen on their drums, Man and Woman meet at last. Nairobi walks to the Tree Where Man was Born, and there he stands in oblivion. The fruit of the giant fig tree are bursting with vitality and ripeness, and as the days pass, they turn black and rot to the core. The boy waits in the shade of the tree, eating the forbidden fruit.

“Hello,” she mumbles.

“Hi,” he responds.

The boy takes another bite of the fig and lets the juice and the seeds drip down his chin and onto the floor, staining the barren earth.

“Enjoying yourself?” Nairobi puts her fingers to her lips.

Lioness and her prey, Nairobi steps forward, encroaching upon the boy. Her apothecary eyes shift between the red earth and the cloudy sky and the illusive figure before her, as her mane twists in knots and joins the current of the burning breeze. Step by step, she approaches the mirage.

“I wasn’t hungry anyways.” The bite marks in the fig fill with dirt and sand as it rolls across the floor and stops right at the tip of Nairobi’s bare feet.

“What kind of game are you playing with me, boy?”

“I like games.”

Nairobi does not respond, but rather clutches the remains of the talisman in her right palm, which have shriveled down to ashes and sin, so hard that her knuckles glow white and pure. And then she takes a shot in the dark and goes in for the kill with a thrash of her words.

“Have you played The Hunter and the Paa?” Nairobi coaxes with her serpent tongue and her venom lips.

“No.”

Letting the ashes sift through her fingers and drift to the floor, Nairobi rips off two long strips of fabric from the bottom of her skirt, just large enough to shield their eyes from the blazing daylight. “Put on the kaniki and stand on the other side of the tree.”

The boy wraps his head in the scarf, twirling, turning, twisting, the fabric over his sight. Nairobi stands on the other side of the tree and puts the other kaniki over her eyes, assumes her position, crouching in predator. “I am the hunter, and you are the paa. Run, and I’ll try to catch you. Every time I say paa clap your hooves, and kick up dust in the wind.”

The two creatures begin to dance around the tree of life, with their arms in the air and their tails on the ground, and Nairobi tells the story of creation.

“Once long ago, our Great Father Enkai descended from the heavens and came to this very tree that you ate the fruit of.”

And then a gasping paa rolls off her tongue and makes its way to the boy’s hands, which clap together and shake like thunder. And Nairobi comes closer to the boy.

“Benevolent Enkai looked upon this tree, and from its beauty soaked branches he tore three boughs off to create the three tribes of people that now walk this land.”

And paa welds to iron air and the boy’s palms meet like crashing tectonic plates, Juan de Fuca and Pacific, Scotia and Antarctica, Nazca and Cocos, all deep under terra firma. And Nairobi comes closer to the boy.

“From the first two boughs he fashioned the Dorobo, the hunters and gatherers who picked the weeds and slaughtered the beasts, and the Kikuyu, the cultivators of grain who harvested the crops and the cereal.”

One more blistering paa. The boy claps and it echoes through the plains bouncing from mountain peak to mountain peak and slipping through crocodiles’ teeth. And Nairobi comes closer to the boy.

He can feel her breathing down his neck, her soft, shallow breaths.

“And from the third bough, the strongest of all, he created us, the Maasai, the people of the cattle, and now we walk this earth.”

And with that no breathy paa leaves her lips, for she has caught her prey. Nairobi’s hands wrap around the boy’s neck, and she wrings the life from his white body as if she were wringing towels in the river. His body collapses to the floor and Nairobi removes her kaniki. For just a second, she swears she sees his soul cutting through solid air, chasing itself around the tree like hunter and gazelle, before jumping back into its living, breathing coffer. And then all that is left before her is a timeless tree and a body whose stomach still lifts up and down like shaking mountains, but carries a weightlessness like nothing she has ever seen before.

She ties his limbs in place with the two kanikis. Then, she drags the boy all the way through the Serengeti as the sun makes its way across the sky. She drops him at the door of the labioni’s shack, just as the horizon begins to blow kisses of pink blue light and wave a warm welcome to the face of the moon.

Nairobi bangs on the door to the hut with both of her fists, and the door rattles and shakes with laughter.

The laiboni rips open the door, and a flood of vicissitude washes over Nairobi as he yells out, “What do you want?”

Then he sees the boy with his creamy, silky, smooth skin.

“Where should I put him?”

“I’ll take care of him.” He grabs the boy by the wrist, checking for a pulse, before dragging the boy’s body inside the home. “Come in, come in.”

Nairobi nods and walks back into the hut, and although she was just there days before, something about the house feels different, feels off.

“Take a seat,” the laiboni cajoles and wheedles, handing her a small bowl of golden yellow potion to drink from.

And all after her hard work, Nairobi sits down on a wooden chair, in the arms of the sunset, and sips the ambrosia, in its honey nectar sweetness. The soothing liquid, and the falling sky, wrap their arms around Nairobi and squeeze her like a boa constrictor, causing sleep to wash over her body. She begins to drift off, to doze into darkness into darkness. She resolves to rest, but only for a minute. Surely, the laiboni will wake her at midnight, and then she, they, can save the village, once and for all. And everyone will be happy.

#

V. Synapsida

Nairobi awakes suddenly, in a cold sweat, lying on the Savannah floor, as the acacia trees fluster in the breeze. She looks around the plains, and although she’s lived on this land her entire life, tonight she feels as though she’s entered a whole new universe with billions of brand new shining stars, red giants and white dwarfs, intertwined with the familiar nebulas of grass and sand.

The moon has risen to high noon, but drowsy, confused Nairobi can see nothing but the shadows of the kopje under the dim glow of the sky. She stands and stumbles, struggling to catch her balance, and as she totters around, she can just barely make out the faint blaze of golden red flames cavorting on the horizon; they call her like a lighthouse, like a beacon, like a shining star.

As Nairobi treks through the sand, she brushes against bushes and weeds. Her body drifts through the little light on the plains like a pale, lifeless ghost. She glides over the earth, letting nothing stand in her path. She rages over anthills and cobras’ caves. But, when she finally reaches the horizon so that she can feel the heat of the flames singeing her fingertips, Nairobi stares at the world, the universe before her, and realizes the grave error she has made. What she thought was a star, is really a black hole. And in the center of the flames, nailed to a wooden stake, is the boy’s burning white body.

Nairobi stumbles for shelter, tumbling through weeds and dust, her corpse landing behind a tall fig tree. Tears begin to drip from her eyes as she watches the boy burn, his skin blistering and bubbling and the hair on his head singeing and turning black as the night sky. But in her sadness, she fails to notice the myriad figures standing around the flames and rejoicing in the sacrifice. Only when one speaks up, does she begin to take in her intergalactic surroundings.

“Now,” the laiboni whispers, thrusting a machete through the neck of a sacred bull in a single swipe, blood and entrails spilling into the air.

And as Buibui begins to rub the bull’s blood over his face, hands dripping with red, his skin begins to peel away, chunks of cinnamon and cocoa falling into the fire. As the flames lick the chunks of skin, the fire turns aquamarine as the sea and the smoke turns purple as twilight. As he sheds his casket of flesh like a cocoon, Buibui reveals his mandibles and spinnerets, and from the epidermis coffin emerges the phantasmal spirit of a spider.

Ng’e follows suit, basking in the blood of the bull, his skin lathered with the liquid. And as his body peels away like the outside of a juicy fig, a stinger that thrashes around like kelp in the sea materializes from thin air. Then, Ng’e rips off the remaining fat and muscle and sinew, and the ethereal being of a scorpion appears.

Nyoka picks up the bleeding head of the bull, and basks in the agonizing glory of the blood bath. Like the other Elders, Nyoka’s skin drizzles into the flames, like raindrops, and the spectra of a snake rises into view.

Nairobi stares in shock as the sarcophagus of skin drops into the flames with a whirlwind of glowing embers and pallid smoke.

And when all that Nairobi thinks could be seen, has been seen, one more surprise awaits her eyes. Like spoiled milk in the mid-day sun, the priest, the laiboni exuviates his epidermis coffer, the sacrilegious burial box falling to the floor like he is merely stripping down to take a bath in the Mto and wash away ordinary dirt from his skin. But the laiboni had traded skin for feathers long ago.

As Great Heron opens his wings up and shakes the last bit of his human torso from the tips of his wings, into the fire, he looks at the Tree Where Man was Born and teases, “Don’t be scared Nairobi. It’s your turn now.”