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Circa 1613 West Africa
The twilight tends to play tricks on the mind, shadow maybe mistaken for substance and substance for shadow. There was a man with a white beard picking his way through the maize farms with the strength of a youth. He stepped through the rows and over the animals traps with the ease of a child climbing over his parents' sleeping forms. He had now reached his destination after many evenings, but his journey was by royal edict and so the nature of his movement had to be covert. To avoid meeting other people, he had been travelling through the forests during the day, easing his way past underbrush and low branches, staying away from foot-paths with little time to rest. He did not like to speak without an express need to. A greeting would typically lead to an extended exchange of greetings as is the custom of courtesy. This could cost him more than a few minutes. Then they would ask pleasant questions. Then they would bring him up in casual conversation and he could be made out by men of a certain 'trade', costing him the needed secrecy...and 'it' had eyes among men. But he did not have that problem with beasts.
Leopards hunting from the trees would notice him notice them and offer a brief wave in their directions. It came naturally to him. They always acknowledged his greetings by blinking softly. He would pause by a pride of lions in repose and the patriarch would glance at him, hinting at the younger lions not to treat him either as curiousity or prey. The antelope would make a sudden start until they realised what he was and they would continue grazing as he picked his way past them. They all knew he was not 'man'. At night, he would recognise the hunters checking their traps overnight by their headlamps, and not wanting to alert them of his presence, he would join with the shadows of the trees. He did not sleep. Twice he met slavers trudging along with their cargo to the greater ports in the south and both times he reminded himself to mind his business. The rattling of the chains would have given his conscience a burden to bear, but his mission did not include them and he had sacrificed his conscience on the altar of duty long before any of them had been born. His compromise was to discourage them from taking those paths again. No one would miss a slaver who disappeared without a trace and no one would imagine that it wasn't the forest that took him. In a sense, he was part of the forest.
Going on foot was not his usual style of travelling, but it was his own way of reconnecting with his past...his disjointed and distant past.
So it came to be that it was twilight when he arrived at the farm. It was harvest and as expected the huts for the members of the efako were back in use. Raffia mats were draped as make-shift doors, giving each hut a baleen smile, a joke he'd have shared if whales were as common as hippopotami on the Niger. But how does one explain an elephant to a man whose best reference to size is a horse?
None of the efako were in, but he saw light at the other end of the compound. As he walked closer, he picked up the smell of firewood and the voices of the families that made up the farming group gathered for the harvest. It was the excited chorus of children responding to a call-and-response story. Even after a day at the farm, most children would have the energy for a story. His smile came naturally to him as he stepped forward, but it was the weight of his task that straightened his face.
On rounding the last corner, he saw the families around an average fire, a short distance from a large Baobab tree with a few shapes at its base. The fire was for the women and children, and the tree for the men to drink burukutu and smoke their pipes.
He stopped at a few paces short of the huts, waiting to be noticed by the group. It wasn't long before he was invited to the fire by the matriarch and as expected, the men soon joined him there to ask necessary questions. Being welcome didn't mean being trusted.
"May the day always favor your work, stranger", said Adako, the head of the efako.
In the light of the fire, he looked burly, his bald head and beard gave him a warrior's look, but his countenance betrayed the agrarian culture that dominated his life. He always worked to feed others, and not to take from them without fair exchange. But his almost silent directions to his grown sons were those given by hunters when dangerous prey had been encountered. Violence wasn't beyond him. He did not know it was the same as eggs finding strength numbers when facing stones.
These things did not escape the notice of the stranger. His stance was alert, like a wild animal not quite at ease. This did not escape their notice. He spoke to end the awkward silence.
"May the evening always favor your rest and the peace of your home."
The stranger still stood a little too straight, like a doe that is convinced it may be safe, but to stand alert, just in case.
"You may join us fully, as we intend for you all you may intend for us.", Adako continued, warily.
The stranger had counted 47 pairs of able farm hands, mostly young children and women. But he was there for a pair that could be able for more than farming. This was his mission and it had to be by peaceful means.
"I intend peace towards you and your family. I have travelled far and tiredness eats at the strength in my bones. But I come with a message for you from the Etsu, Adako."
Everyone sat up. Adako was a wealthy farmer who tirelessly did what he could to be at peace with everyone around him as far as the fadama to the great river itself and still stayed so humble that he had to be pointed out to the visitors from the larger world.
A messenger from a king who 'knew' him. But which king? Times were not as stable as before, but there was an order to things. Offence had not been given or taken...yet. Both Adako and the stranger hoped it would stay that way.
"There are a few Etsus, friend. Which do you speak of?", Adako asked calmly...too calmly.
He was not a particularly friendly etsu in the least, or so went the tales of his aggressive expansion. It seemed he was determined to use force-of-war to become sit on a throne above every community. Some whispered the word 'empire' by those who understood what that meant. That was mostly by pilgrims and travellers who journeyed along the Niger. They had seen 'empires' and the stories of their births were not that different. The beginning of every great empire starts with a foundation of blood, bones and subjugation.
"Step into the light, emissary, that I may see you more clearly.", Adako spoke evenly...too evenly.
"Before I do, it is important that you hear what I have to say and decide whether to risk my murder is greater than to risk an even greater problem that you are yet to see. You have no quarrel with it...and yet it truly intends you no peace, unlike me."
Adako's sons had formed a half-circle behind the stranger. The air was suddenly too thin even for calm lungs.
The stranger turned to face all 16 of his would-be attackers and asked,"Do you know my name? Do you know what my name means?"
A young boy had been watching all this unravelling while in his mother's arms. He stepped away from her, stood up and answered,"Your name is 'Wodo'. It means 'obey'. I can see that you're not a man and I can tell that you're here for me, aren't you?"
Wodo smiled at the 5-year old and said,"I apologise for what I'm about to do to your brothers, but it will discourage them from their course of action. But they will never again claim that you speak of things you don't understand."
The young men stepped forward as one, and their shadows disobeyed the laws of light and overtook them...literally swallowing them whole. They all suddenly found themselves shivering in the darker parts of the forest. Only their ears explained what was going on nearby. A pride of lions were finishing off a kill and the boys didn't want to do anything to draw attention to themselves...not for anything. Breathing was presently a luxury...at least until they could get away from the pride, find their bearings and head home.
Adako's last wife got up to grab her son and take him away before he spoke any more with the stranger, but in mid-stride, she suddenly sank into the shadows on the ground and was set neck-deep in the earth. The rest of the women and children scattered into the night and then gathered into the huts, reducing their involvement to intermittent peeks through the raffia doors.
Adako stood alone, looked confused and scared, but would not abandon his wife and child. Fear had its place, but he was not its slave or its kingdom.
"Like I said, I'm here for peace. Your son has been visited by the Ndas of the council of the half-moon chamber. He has a gift that separates men from those who will be more than men."
"But he...he is just a child."
"I know...in your eyes. But the sooner he starts to learn what Tsosidi has asked me to pass on to him, the better. What is your name, child?"
"Waniko, when you see me, what do you see?"
Since he was 2 years old, Waniko recognised the dead who walk among the living. When he was 3, he mentioned this to his brothers. Their mockery put the spirits at ease and they had made peace with the fact that a child's imagination is involved makes it a great place to hide the truth and continue a lie. But he had a wisdom beyond his age and never revealed the full details of what he saw. Until now, Waniko kept his observations to himself. But he had to ask. Wodo's true nature was very obvious to him and he wasn't a spirit that he had to be wary of.
"Why are you carrying so much light and darkness on you? You don't look comfortable."
Wodo turned to look at Adako and continues his conversation with Waniko. "...But it has nothing to do with what I carry. It is a pleasure to carry them. What makes me uncomfortable is forcing you, by command of the king, to become what I am. Or at least a shade of it."
"Is it that bad?"
"No. It is better and it is worse. Depending on where the desires of your heart lie. Where do your desires rest, child?"
He turned to Waniko, but the child had moved from where he had been standing.
Waniko had walked to his mother and knelt by her head.
"To protect my family. They don't know how I've interceded on their behalf and I don't think they'd understand the way that you do. The Ndas spoke of what is to come and what is needed of me. I don't think it will be worse than what I've had to do since I learned to speak."
Wodo stared at Adako patiently wondering how this man married an antelope and didn't realise their child would not be unaware of the true nature of the world.
Adako tried to speak, but the back of his throat was dry, hot, and threatened to release a wail, so he breathed through his mouth and kept words from his tongue.
"Adako, I cannot take him without your permission. He will come to no harm so long as I am with him. As he has said, he has been protecting all of you since he could speak."
Tsosidi's name gave Adako little comfort, so Wodo took Waniko in his 'own' name.
Soon Adako's sons were tumbling out of the shadows of the huts and Waniko's mother dropped straight through the earth and suddenly appeared in her hut.
Adako's family staged an impromtu farewell dinner for Waniko while his mother stared angrily at Wodo who had a large appetite.
The embers were dying, dawn was near and as Wodo polished off his chicken, he whispered to her,"Your life was spared not too long ago because you chose to walk among men. Did you think there would be no price, antelope?"
Her face then relaxed. She stood up and went to rear of the last hut, dropped down to all fours and bounded into the night in her true form.
Waniko kept eating as he said to Wodo,"I've always known. So am I man or beast?"
Wodo put a hand on Waniko's head and replied with great wisdom,"What man is not a beast? I am neither, so you're all the same to me."
It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well -- Rene Descartes