“Father, Engai shines his light upon you, wake, the cattle await, as does teacher. Wake up! Wake up! We must go.” It was Mutunzi who spoke, his sister Wanana clung shyly to his side. School began today. “Babu, babu, grandfather you wake up too” he called out next. Mutunzi beamed with pride, while Wanana clung to her brother nervously. Their baba was proud too. As was his baba, their babu. The same babu who appeared in the doorway.
Babu Keitan was their babu but was also their Laibon, their diviner, their priest. A great respected elder. He shared the children’s pride, but also nervousness. The trip alone to the school was treacherous. Many have died in the pursuit of education. That wasn’t it. He awoke from the most disturbing dreams. Restless spirits or worse. Something he could not focus on or see it’s form. Unrestful spirit, in both size and shape.
Their father sat up and hugged them. Hugged them tight. “You two watch out for each other. You know the way. You know the way is long, hard and full of dangers. You also know the way is the only way to know more than your father. Make me proud but come home safe” Jamanai grabbed his son’s arm, looked him straight in the eye and said “you be especially careful on the crossing.”
Keitan shivered visibly. “The crossing” he whispered. He had made the crossing at their age alone, but for food, not for schooling. Just the thought of crossing those heights, in what he remembered as a large bucket, hanging from a rope, pulled hand over hand. Across the chasm of the great rift. He heard, since then it was replaced with a board you lie on, on your back so you won’t look down. Looking down was what led to many deaths. That wasn’t why he shivered though. It was in the rift, at the crossing, when he didn’t see the thing he couldn’t see. The thing he knew was there.
The Laibon of the tribe, were the conduits between the living and the Engai, the creators. Enkai Narok the Black God the benevolent, and Enkai Nanyokie Red God who is vengeful, feel in turmoil today. “Jaimani, take Wanana, fetch us some food, leave Matunzi here with me for a moment.”
When he was sure they had left, he sat the child on his fathers bed. “Matunzi, Matunzi, you know the stories. The witches and wizards, the blood seekers. There is more to fear on your journey than lions and desert. I feel the spirits are restless, please wear this for protection. Hide from anything you sense but cannot see. When the sun burned out the eye of the moon, the unseen came to life. Hiding in the shadows. Never let down your guard.” He placed around the boy’s neck the mane of simba. Not any lion. This was the first lion his father had killed. The lion that earned him the title warrior. The lion he killed, unarmed and bare handed. Matunzi beamed with pride! Wearing that mane he had no fear, even forgot about his grandfather’s warning.
Jaimani and Wanana returned, jerked simba for the trip, and enough water to cross the desert. Only thing left was to grab their books, and head off on the 40 kilometer hike to school. First ten had nothing to worry about but lions. The Masai do not fear the lions, the lions fear the Masai. Then there was the rift, and the crossing, beyond the next valley the desert, beyond that was school. Jaimani touched the mane draped over his son’s shoulder. With glee and with pride he lifted his son. “Look at you, only six years old and already ready for the hunt.” Then putting him down continued “but go learn something so you don’t have to.”
No goodbyes, although it would be the first time they wouldn’t be together for weeks. The children headed out as it was already past Engai rising and shining. The lions would be lazy at this early hour. They had to get to the desert long before the heat of the day. Right out the door, they moved quickly, low, hunched down to appear smaller than they were, moving quickly into the trees and away from the village, for the first time alone.
They didn’t encounter simba, except one mother in the distance lazily nursing her cubs. And they came to the crossing sooner than they had thought. By this hour Engai had climbed into the sky shining his brilliance deep into the chasm. The trees dropped off steeply into a great gash in the land. The great rift that was splitting the motherland apart. And there it was. The crossing. What they saw was neither board, nor bucket, but rather a basket made from branches and reeds. The rope was thick, woven from the fibers of the forest. It required rebuilding each year. The rope looked safe enough, the basket, not so safe.
They climbed in regardless. As Matunzi reached to release the basket from the rickety platform, Wanana stopped him, “I want to do it” without any arguments, she sent them sliding towards the center point, from which it would be hand over hand pulling to the other side. That was when he appeared. On the other side. A boy with malice in his eyes. He grabbed the rope, shaking it, tossing them to, and fro. Laughing and tormenting yelling don’t fall, don’t fall, or you’ll be dead. “Stop it, Stop it, leave us be!” Wanana screamed again and again. Matunzi however sprung to action, pulling them fast as he could back towards the platform they came from. Soon Wannana joined him, furiously pulling hard as they could towards safety. They never looked down, they never looked back, they reached the platform. They ran all the way home without even being mindful of lions, nor did they see any at all. They saw nothing, even the vultures were missing from the sky. It was as if all the wildlife was as terrified as they were. Matunzi’s pride turned to shame when his bravery turned to fear. The moment of fight or flight he chose flight. They survived, but he was ashamed.
When they made it home, out of breath, babu was nowhere to be found, father however would be with the herd. When they had found him he was very surprised to see them. At first he looked angry that they were not halfway to school. Then he saw their fear, their sweat, they were out of breath and had been running a long time. Instinctively he grabbed his shield and spear, expecting a lion to bolt into the village hungry for flesh. When no immediate danger was found he rushed to them.
Wanana spoke first, tearfully, “baba there was someone, someone dark, someone mean I think it was a witch. His eyes glowed. He shook us, he shook us and laughed.” Jaimani knew all about the witches and evil ones who used magic to control dark forces, though like most people ever saw evidence of one. But he also knew bullies. Tormentors who enjoy scaring kids. Some even say there’s one they call the bully of the bridge, who’s been a myth all up and down the rift.
“Tomorrow, would you feel better if I walked you to school?” Matunzi weakly nodded in agreement, while Wanana vigorously shook her head no. Jaimani held her still shaking hand. “Come little one, this will make you feel better, come into the herd, look, Engai still favors us, as soon as you left we birthed a new calf.” Wanana sat with the calf’s head in her lap and calmed herself. It was going to be ok.
The next day began like the day before, minus babu who hadn’t returned. “Baba baba wake up” and so on. The same gathering of provisions and of books, this time with the addition of spear and shield. The same offer of the lion’s mane, this time declined in shame. And off they went. Although they exercised caution, there was no need to. From home to the rift it was quiet except for the breeze. The only thing alive was the wind. Then they reached the crossing.
The kids had scrambled out of the basket on the run, and never secured it, it now dangled off in the distance over the center of the rift. There was nobody on the other side. There was nobody, even though dozens of people made the crossing every hour typically, mostly children trying to reach the school. Jaimani knew the basket wouldn’t hold the three of them. So he told them he would send them across one by one then come across himself. To everyone’s surprise, maybe even her own, shy little Wanna said she would go first.
The rift was full of mist rising off the forest below. The mist added to the silence quieting even the wind, which swirled it as if it was alive. Wanana peered over the back of the basket watching her father and brother as she began her traverse. Sometimes peering over looking down intensely into the thickening fog. It sure did look alive. She stared deeper. There was a heartbeat within the swirling shifting mists. The rain fell then. A drizzle that mixed with the mist, engulfing her in moisture. The mist was rising she heard a rhythmic thumping. Coming from below, coming from behind where her father let her descent slow. Then the rhythm had a voice. Babu’s voice. The voice of the Laibon chanting spirits away and banging his drum.
“Tokoloshe Tokoloshe Tokoloshe jua jina lako” he repeated again and again. When she next looked down she saw clearly, what could only be seen when it wanted to be seen. Babu was commanding this beast to know its name and its nature. The tormentor, know your name. Tokoloshe the heart eater. Tokoloshe the shapeshifting vampire. Tokoloshe who takes pleasure in the torture. From mist formed form. Form formed fear. The rain and mist and mountain, even the rope and the basket, came to life, becoming his body. Head of the fanged serpent, tail of the scorpion, body of the bear, now towering above the mountain. It took form around Wanana. Trapping her within its evil heart.
With a sweep of an arm, it uprooted every tree around Jaimani, Keitan, and Matunzi. The rope had come to life in his hands, like an umbilical connection father to daughter, even with trees falling all around he tried to hold on. He aimed at the creature’s eye and let loose his spear, but the massive monstrosity was replaced in an instant, by a tiny teddy bear looking bearded gnome-like creature that tumbled towards the ground. Just as it dropped out of sight a brilliantly blindingly beautiful winged creature appeared and flew towards the south.
Wanana was gone. The creature was gone. Matunzi had tackled his grandfather to the ground. He had his eyes closed the whole time. His only vision of the creature remained behind closed eyes. In vision. It was in vision he was seeking the solution. Engai was divided. A God of duality, malevolent and vengeance. A God sometimes at war within himself. Engai wasn’t giving answers, only reasons. Fortunately babu knew all he needed to know. His name. He knew how to stop it.
The Liabon of the tribe was the high priest, healer, keeper of knowledge, and speaker to the creators. Skills no schools could teach. At his direction the others gathered berries, mushrooms, seeds, and insects, a variety of frogs and spiders, newts, flowers and roots. Baba and babu would gather the final needed component together. The Egyptian cobra. The collecting process took hours. When done, the preparation began.
“This potions for killing, this ones for seeing, don’t mix the two up.” Babu’s words worried Matunzi, because several ingredients went into both. When it came time for the cobra, the process was complex. The serpent’s venom was collected pressing its fangs into a large green fruit, which was mashed with a mushroom, and precisely 3 beetle horns and 2 tarantula fangs. When he put a measured portion in both potions, Matunzi protested once again. To which grandfather winked and thumbed his nose and stated,”it’s all a matter of the right proportions, and, of course, remembering which one was which.”
Babu stood. Pulled the mane from a sack, and placed it once more around the neck of his grandson. “We are Masai, we are the greatest warriors the world has ever owned. We will not back down from any foe. That beast was a heart eater. It took your sister. Only your love of your daughter and your sister will guide the two of you to defeat the beast. You can only do it if you do it together.” He handed one vessel of thick liquid to the father, another much thinner to the son. “I give you death, I give you sight. Matunzi, your potion, a drop near, but not in the eye will let you see your sister’s heart. Jaimani, dip your spears in your vessel. If you can puncture it’s skin, it will freeze it in its natural form, and slowly bring its death.” He faltered for a moment. Closing his eyes again consulting vision. Finally he admitted, “well, at least I think it should. Nobody has ever hunted Tokoloshe. But if you torment the tormentor, there might be a chance. Remember. The shape shifter does not like you seeing it’s true shape, it definitely does not like you knowing it’s name. Use that!”
“Now, my child, we hunt.” For people who hunt lions bare handed and with spears, the hunt was a spiritual dance in the space between life and death. Whether it was hours, days, weeks, months or years before they faced the beast, every minute of every day would be a lesson in battle. They feared neither the fanged beasts, nor the weapons of armies. They faced all foes just the same. Fearlessly.
They had descended into the rift, following it south. They made a shield and spear for Matunzi. They had three spears each. They put a tiny drop of the death potion on the tip of the ones they carried, it was only three days later when they faced a leopard. Baba Jaimani the seasoned hunter saw it first. He crouched in the weeds pointing up into the branches. “I’ll watch you, go get him,” he told his son. Matunzi looked into his fathers trusting eyes, and advanced stealthily but steadily through the weeds. The cat saw him of course and leapt lightly from the tree. They stalked each other, sizing up their prey. The circle narrowed, the distance closed. Everytime the cat’s haunches tightened preparing to pounce, Matunzi banged his spear loudly against his shield as if daring him, making the cat recoil. Matunzi would decide the moment to strike, not the cat. He jabbed his spear into the cat’s face which was quickly batted away with a swing of its claws. Matunzi, double jabbed too quickly for the cat’s reflexes to react and made contact with its face. He did not think he punctured the skin, it certainly wasn’t an injuring blow. But the leopard let out an agonizing yowl, curled up in a convulsing ball, and tried to claw off it’s own face. The potion worked. But he hardly proved his hunting skills. Given the agonizing manner of death, they did not trust the meat safe to eat, sad for the life so pointlessly wasted, they moved on.
From that day on they hunted together, without the potion tainted spear. After eating each evening Jaimani would sit by the fire, drawing tears from his eyes with the potion of vision, peering into the void, looking for his daughter. Tonight, the sky cried tears too. To the south the stars fell out of the sky tracing streaks giving direction to their quandary. That night as his father drifted from vision to sleep, Matunzi would apply the potion to his own eye.
When baba drifted from vision to dream, Matunzi dipped a tapered leaf’s tip into the potion, and applied a drop to each corner of his eyes. “A matter of proportion and remembering which was which,” he whispered. He opened his eyes and peered off into the darkness. The forest swirled into life, glowing with life’s essences. “Wanana!” A whisper amplified by will to a shout into the distance, his heart missing her clinging to his arm. The forest shifted in focus revealing the red glow through the trees. It bathed the tree line from above like a blood red star nearby.
To those trees he scrambled, climbing high into the canopy. Overlooking the widening valley, was a bridge. A bridge of rope you could walk on, in the center of the bridge he saw the light. The light of Wanana. Wrapped within the beast that consumed her. The heart eater. Tokoloshe, Matunzi saw his dual nature. The same human form that shook the rope at the crossing, and the small bearded bear-like troll that fell from the sky when his fathers spear nearly pierced the eye of his towering mountain dwarfing form. The heart of both was in the same place. That was why he fell from the sky. The true form of Tokoloshe hung suspended within the taunting boy. Suspended within the heart of them both was the glow. Wanana.
“Baba! Baba! Open your eyes! Open your eyes!” He screamed from the top of the trees. “You need to open your eyes to see! Wait, I’m coming down on the bridge, I see him. I’ll show you.” Jaimani was shocked to see his son screaming from the treetops. The wildlife was screaming back, chaos spread through the forest awoken in alarm. Matunzi scrambled down nimbly. Jaimani was so proud he did not know his son could climb so well.
As soon as Matunzi reached the ground, and turned running towards his father, hew the glistening tears of the vision potion, and understood before Matunzi had a chance to speak. Jaimani spoke first. “Of course! Eyes open to see, even before your first days in school you are smarter than me. Let’s go get him!”
They dipped all six spears in the deadly potion. They followed Matunzi’s method of dipping the tip of the leaf to apply a drop to each corner of each eye. Given direction they headed on their way. They were on the hunt. They darted from tree to tree keeping low and hidden between quick sudden stealthy movements. Though he estimated they had kilometers to go, they moved as if their prey may lie beyond any blade of grass, or clinging to the limbs of any tree. They coordinated silently with only head and eye movements to draw attention to intention. They move as a pack of predators move when they are on the prowl.
The potion only gave them vision for a period of time that varied. Sometimes only for minutes, never close to an hour. Fortunately the light grew closer and brighter quickly. The prey was moving, but with no sign of urgency. Jaimani grunted, Matunzi took notice and stopped. They rendezvoused at the roots of a massive tree, Jaimani whispered, “I think it’s coming back this way.” They waited minutes. The light ahead indeed was brightening, drawing nearer. With just a breath and a nod they scattered, to flank from either side.
The light broke through the trees. The trees broke as the light approached. The valley ahead was filled with a terrifying beast. Legs of the lion, with a stance as wide as the valley floor. Body of a dragon scales as thick as their home’s thick walls. Tail of the serpent coiled around trees and dragging them behind as it moved. The head was the menacing crocodile, one tooth able to rip a man in two. It moved lazily, as if bored by the destruction that leveling a forest causes.
When a beast is so terrifying it struck fear in even apex predators, it lived without concern of pending attack. This allowed Jaimani to get very close unnoticed, he was close enough to take aim at the beast’s front leg when he was spotted. The massive leg lifted with all the quickness you’d expect from a limb that must have weighed a ton. Although it rose above the trees with suspenseful sluggishness, it crashed down with tremendous speed and power. Jaimani rolled into a crack between boulders, planting his spear in the opening as he wedged himself in as deep as he could. Tokoloshe slammed his paw on the boulders which cracked but did not crumble. The spear however broke. Delivering its venom into the pads of the paw near the massive claw that could have plucked Jaimani from the crack as easily as Jaimani could brush away a mosquito. That fate had been spared by Tokoloshe’s reaction. Recoiling in horror. Shapeshifting to shed the quickly decaying limb which rained down on Jaimani as ash. Shapeshifting to the brilliantly glowing winged creature that escaped down the valley after the fall. This time it descended gracefully, mesmerizing. Jaimani emerged from his safety, spellbound by its allure.
For Jaimani, the potion had stopped working. He no longer saw the troll within. He no longer saw Wanana’s light. He only saw the vampire as a majestic creature of beauty and charm. Charmed he was, under its spell. Drawn out of hiding, unarmed and unshielded he walked towards Tokoloshe as his wings spread wide as if to engulf him in their embrace. “Baba, catch!” Matunzi threw his spear straight through his wing from behind. Tokoloshe screeched and twisted into a five headed serpent, head of the vulture, head of the jackal, head of the boar, head of the matis, and head of the monkey. Jaimani was awoken from his entrancement, just in time to snatch the spear out of its flight as it passed his ear.
The many headed serpent Tokoloshe swung its many heads in all directions, expecting an army to emerge from the remaining trees. He saw nothing. They both had disappeared. Tokoloshe coiled and prepared to strike in any direction. He saw nothing. However he did hear, “Tokoloshe,” “Tokoloshe,” “Tokoloshe,” “jua jina lako” one from behind, one from ahead. When Jaimani jumped out of hiding, spears and shield recovered. He screamed “Jua jina lako, know your, name know your name, Tokoloshe!” And banging his spear against his shield. He screamed “Tokoloshe!” As he lunged forward, the spear raised high rushing forward like a madman. Tokoloshe released his striking force, all five heads lunging forward, only to be cut short by Matunzi’s pinning thrust. The boy had leapt from the nearby weeds using all his weight to drive his spear through the serpentine coil. The surprise and distraction left Jaimani with an opening to throw his spear into the boar’s head. The air swirled and condensed into matter once again. The boy from the bridge. The taunter. The tormentor. The one who looked most like them, except the glowing eyes.
“You think you can beat me? I do the beating, I do the killing, I am the nightmare you have always been warned about. I am the sum of your fears. I can already taste your still beating heart.” It was Matunzi who stood tall and responded. “Tokoloshe, you are nothing but a bully. They call you the tormentor, you take pleasure in fear and death. A bully is nothing. We are Masai, we are warriors, we hunt the hunters. We fear no one. Wanana was good, Wanana was kind, Wanana was the opposite of you, that is why you took her. You never take the sister of a warrior.”
In unison father and son let loose their spears aimed at the heart of Tokoloshe. Only the son could still see the troll within, and his sister’s light. A light exploding in brilliant release before being extinguished in the raining of ash which fell with a thud. In that thud, something remained solid. As the wind brushed away the ash, two lumps remained. They both raised spears ready to thrust, and were surprised by what was revealed next. It was Wanana, Wanana and Tokoloshe’s true form. The small bear-like bearded troll. Wanana held its convulsing, dying body. She had been inside the tormentor’s heart, and now showed pity.
Jaimani took his daughter in his arms, and carried her away, leaving Matunzi to deal with Tokoloshe. The boy of six years old, took out his knife, and removed the beard from the troll’s face. When he would catch up to his father at the forest edge, he would give him back shimba’s mane, and declare, “now I am a warrior, baba, no teacher could teach me to be smarter than you.” He would one day let his son wear the beard on his first hunt. No son of his would make the dangerous crossing to learn the meaning of scribble in a book.