By Milton Davis
The white haze enveloping Shaigu seeped into his nostrils and cleansed his mind. He lounged in Paradise again, surrounded by swaying date trees and grinning servants carrying silver platters filled with foods of every delicious description. Below the dais dancers cavorted; voluptuous women whose dress, movement, and manner hinted the pleasures to come. Above it all sat the Teacher on his gilded stool, his body hidden by layers of elaborate tobes, his smiling countenance overseeing every activity in his walled sanctuary. Shaigu had been blessed to be chosen. He was smiling when Pandare’s firm hand gripped his shoulder and shook him hard.
“That’s enough,” his blood brother said. “We must go.”
Shaigu’s first instinct was to slap Pandare’s hand away but his brother was right. He inhaled one last time then crawled out of the vision tent. Pandare stood over him wrapped in robes to protect him from the desert sun.
“I hope you are renewed,” he said, disapproval heavy in his voice.
Shaigu stood then knocked the dust from his clothes. It was a futile gesture but it came instinctively. He was a man of the forest and was not used to the constant sand of this vast emptiness. The dry air killed the haze effect quickly, leaving Shaigu with only his will and his camel.
Pandare looked into the horizon, his hand shielding his eyes. Green mountains beckoned the end of the desert and the beginning of a more temperate environment.
“Another day’s travel at least, maybe two,” he judged.
Shaigu broke down the tent and folded it neatly. He stuffed it into its canvas case then secured it to his back.
“I hope it’s one,” he said. “We don’t have much food left.”
“It’s your fault,” Pandare chided him. “You eat like we’re still in Paradise. You must discipline yourself. We have to make the right impression when we enter Sala. We must be starving acolytes, not well fed merchants.”
Shaigu said nothing. It was easy for Pandare to make such statements. He was eating just as much if not more. But he was right. This was not a trip to a market or a search for potent herbs. They journeyed to Sala to kill a man, a dangerous man whose very existence threatened not only the school but the life of Teacher.
As always Pandare was correct. The green hills beckoning them took three days to reach, three long hunger filled days. By the time they reached Sala’s gates there was no need to pretend; they were starving. Sala perched on the edge of the desert, her grey walls in contrast to the pale tan sands and the verdant mountains rising behind her. The walls were like nothing he’d ever seen, circular tower-like sections connected by straight walls.
“Clever design,” Pandare commented. Shaigu nodded his head despite his hunger and fatigue. He didn’t know much about Pandare’s life before the Temple but he did know that he had been a warrior of some kind. Some whispered he was a fallen general forced to choose between entering the temple or death. But there were always rumors floating within the Temple. Shaigu’s story was not so glamorous but resembled most of his brothers. He’d lived in the streets of Sala before being captured by men who combed the alleys for those like him, hoping to sell them to anyone willing to pay their price. Those who couldn’t be sold were given to the Teacher for his blessings. Shaigu was one of the gifts. But instead of being sent to the fields he was chosen for Training. The Teacher saw promise in him and Shaigu worked hard not to disappoint him. Despite his hard work he was still the weaker of the two. There was no jealousy however; Pandare was his brother. The only thing that mattered was the will of Teacher.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“See how the turrets are built into the wall?” he asked. “Any army attacking the city would not be able to form a uniform line. Some would be trapped between the turrets and massacred.”
Shaigu had no idea what Pandare was talking about but he nodded his head anyway. He didn’t want to appear stupid.
“Look,” Pandare said.
The city gate squealed open, the sound annoying despite the distance. Pandare frowned.
“The Teacher said they rarely opened the northern gate,” Shaigu said.
“The key word is rarely.” Pandare answered. “Try to look destitute. Maybe whoever is coming won’t kill us.”
“That will be easy. We are destitute.”
Four riders emerged, taking their time approaching the duo. They rode the finest horses Shaigu had ever seen. Colorful robes covered their lean bodies; their heads crowned with turbans. Only their ebony faces were exposed. Sabers hung from finely crafted baldrics draped over their shoulders; a quiver of arrows bounced against their horses rumps beside their bows. Pandare and Shaigu stopped as the riders circled them, inspecting them with their intense brown eyes.
“Who are you?” one of them asked. A gold ingot inscribed with symbols hung from his neck, probably a symbol of rank. He spoke Ngar, to Shaigu’s relief. He had not done well mastering the native tongue of this land.
“We are unfortunate travelers,” Pandare replied. “Our caravan was attacked by raiders and only the two of us survived.”
The man looked at them skeptically. “You are from the North. We never receive caravans from the North for the Kashites do not trade. You’re lying.”
Pandare looked away from the soldier. “Yes, you are right, master. We are not merchants. We have come from the south in hopes that Amadou the Learned will take us on as disciples.”
The rider smirked as his companions laughed. “I thought so. You wouldn’t be the first fools to perish in these sands seeking the conjurer. “
The leader turned to one of his men. “Kai, give them your provision bag.”
Kai guided his horse to them then tossed them a leather bag. Shaigu caught the bag and began to open it. Pandare grabbed his wrist then led him down into a bow.
“We thank you for your generosity,” he said.
“Thank you,” Shaigu repeated.
“You may not be so thankful once you see Amadou. Our business is done. We’ll ride back to the city and inform Amadou of your presence. He may send someone for you but he may not. I would go lightly on the provisions. It’s a long way back across the desert.”
The sentinels rode away. Shaigu scrambled to his feet then quickly opened the provision bag. There was a water gourd, two red round fruit of which he was not familiar and a flat cylindrical object that resembled bread. He forced himself from gorging on the tempting fare. Instead he extended the bag to Pandare. Pandare peered inside the bag and frowned.
“It’s not much,” he commented.
“What are you talking about?” Shaigu argued. “There’s more than enough to get us through the night if need be. We’ve lived off less.”
“The rider said Amadou may not come,” Pandare reminded Shaigu. “If he doesn’t we’ll have to go back. I don’t think they have any intentions of letting us into Sala without him.”
Shaigu shrugged and took one of the red fruit out of the bag. He bit into it and closed his eyes in ecstasy. The sweet flesh culled his hunger and the rich juice seemed made to quench his thirst.
“This is truly food of the Maker!” he exclaimed.
Pandare frowned at him as he gobbled the fruit. “I hoped you’re enjoying it. When the time comes I won’t share mine.”
Pandare’s words were prophetic. For seven days they waited, their food and strength dwindling away. Pandare, despite his warning, shared his fruit with Shaigu after the water gourd was empty. They nibbled on the moist bread on the fifth day, their desperate eyes locked on the city gates. By the morning of the seventh day their food was exhausted as were they.
Shaigu lay on his back beside Pandare, staring into the afternoon sky. The bright sun did not affect him; he was too fatigued to care. They had failed the Teacher. Maybe their bones would be of some help to the next assassins, a sign that their quest would be futile. As he closed his eyes for what he hoped wouldn’t be the last time a shadow intruded on his light.
“Are you alive?” a voice asked.
Shaigu nodded his head.
“You’re tough ones. That could be useful.”
Coarse hands wrapped around his wrists and ankles then lifted him from the hot sand. They carried him for a short distance then placed him gently on a wooden board.
“Is the other one alive?” the voice called out.
“Yes,” someone replied. “He’s talking!”
Moments later Shaigu felt a body touch his.
“Where are you taking us?” he heard Pandare croak.
“To Sala,” the now familiar voice replied.
Shaigu turned his head toward Pandare. His brother looked at him as well, a weak smile on his face.
“See?” Pandare said. “This was a test.”
They lurched then rocked slowly. They were in a wagon of some kind, but the details didn’t matter. They were on their way into Sala. Their mission was still intact. Shaigu managed to sit up. They rode in a two wheeled cart drawn by a donkey. Two tall men walked on either side of the beast, both draped in white shirts that fell to their knees. Flat conical caps covered their heads.
“Here,” a voice said. He turned to his right to see the third man. He was young, probably barely past his initiation rites. Two ritual scars adorned his cheeks, a sign of his successful passage into manhood. He was dressed similar to the other men, the only exception a red beaded belt riding low on his waist. He extended a water gourd to Shaigu.
“I am Kakou,” he said. “Who are you?”
Shaigu took a long drink from the gourd before answering. “I am Shaigu.”
Kakou gestured past Shaigu. He turned to see Pandare frowning at him, his hand extended.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my brother!” He handed the gourd over quickly.
“You are a selfish man, Shaigu,” Kakou said.
“How do you know this?” Shaigu challenged him.
“A man reveals himself in his action, not his words,” Kakou said.
“Wise word from such a young mouth,” Pandare said.
Kakou grinned. “They are not my words. They are Amadou’s.”
“We have travelled far to see him,” Pandare said. “It is our hope that he will take us on as students.”
Kakou’s smile faded. “That is not possible. Amadou rarely takes students, especially those who are not buSala. His skills are unique and essential to the defense of our city.”
“We are simple folks,” Pandare said. “All we wish is to sit at the feet of your master and learn enough of his wisdom to help our people. It is all we ask.”
“You’re wasting your pretty talk on me,” Kakou replied. “My teacher has arranged lodging and food for you. You can stay until you are fit to go home. “
Kakou moved closer to both men. “Do not take advantage of my teacher’s benevolence. It would not go well for you if you tried.”
Shaigu gave Pandare a worried glance. Pandare shook his head angrily and Shaigu dropped his head in shame. He was giving in too easy. There was still a chance they could see Amadou. At least they were entering the city. It was better than starving to death in the desert.
Sala’s gates opened wide for the small entourage. Shaigu expected the musky odor of a populated city but instead his senses were greeted by an intoxicating blend of herbs and incense. The two men sat up to see the sights of Sala and were taken aback. Shaigu pinched his lips together to keep from uttering words of praise. The city was the closest the two had come to experiencing Paradise since they left its gilded walls. Colorfully painted family compound walls bordered the brick paved streets, each compound separated by narrow alleys where fruit trees and other succulent vegetation flourished. The people traversed the wide avenues on oxen drawn wagons, camels, donkeys and horses while others walked leisurely along the mud packed sidewalks. Their garments were as gaily colors as their buildings, the men covers in large shirts that draped to their knees, the women garbed in dazzling dresses that bunched tight at their waists and emphasized their comely figures. Before them was the first market place, but Kakou guided their wagon onto a narrow road that bypassed the bustling bazaar. The street they followed was quieter but no less colorful, the vegetation a bit more unruly. They travelled a few moments longer before stopping in front of a tall building adorned with the most beautifully carved doors Shaigu had ever seen.
Kakou knocked and the door immediately opened.
“Good blessings to you,” Kakou said.
“And to you, Kakou,” a soft male voice answered. “What does your teacher wish of me today?”
“I have two men from the desert that need lodging until they are fit to go home,” he said.
“I will see to it,” the man replied.
Kakou stepped away and the man emerged from the building. He was a giant, towering over Kakou like an acacia over grass. He strode to the wagon and bent closer, his eyes squinting.
“Welcome to my hostel,” he said gently. “I am Ogbe. I am honored to have you as guest. Come, we will see to your needs.”
Shaigu and Pandare climbed from the wagon. Pandare approached Kakou and bowed.
“Please thank your teacher for us,” he said humbly. “Though we are saddened he will not see us, we wish him well.”
Kakou bowed in returned. “Take care, both of you. Your determination will not go un rewarded.”
Shaigu bowed as well, watching Kakou as he climbed into the wagon and rode away.
Ogbe clamped his huge hands. “Come now. We will get you out of those dusty clothes and get a good meal inside you.”
The duo followed Ogbe into the hostel. The foyer was sparse, a plain wooden bench propped against the right wall, a pedestal with a washbowl to their left. Ogbe gestured towards the bowl and both men washed their faces and hands with the cloth towels handing on pegs nearby. A carpeted hallway extended before them. Ogbe removed his shoes and so did Shaigu and Pandare.
“I will take you to the baths first,” he said. “One must be clean before a meal, don’t you think?”
Shaigu didn’t agree but nodded anyway, following Pandare’s lead. He was starving. He would eat a piece of bread covered with mud from a pig sty if he could. He reluctantly followed Ogbe to a large room at the end of the hallway. A cool breeze escaped from the room, drawing Shaigu toward its source. A clear pool of water shimmered before them held in a bowl of hardened clay. Ogbe reached into a depression along the wall an extracted two gourds.
“Here, this is drinking water. The water in the pool contains special minerals designed to heal and refresh. They are good for the skin but bad for the stomach.”
They indulged on the cool liquid then disrobed and enter the bath. The medicated liquid tingled against Shaigu’s skin and he smiled. He immersed his head completely then shook it as he emerged. Shaigu grinned as he enjoyed the needed respite. Pandare’s expression was the opposite.
“You enjoy yourself too much, brother,” he warned. “Remember the teacher’s words. The Enemy’s seductions are many. It takes only one to corrupt the Spirit.”
Shaigu waded close to his brother. “Why should they wish to seduce us? They don’t know our purpose. We are poor disciples.”
Pandare rolled his eyes. “The temptations exist without direction. It is the way of the Enemy. Society controls the mind by its structure. Amadou is the center, which is why he must be killed.”
Shaigu lowered his eyes in shame. “You are right, brother. The depravations of the desert have weakened me. “
They spent the rest of the bath in silence then quickly donned their clothes. Ogbe waited for them as they exited the room.
“That’s much better!” he said. “Now no one will think you are camels. Come, it’s time to satisfy your stomachs.”
Ogbe led them down the hallway. The aromas of the waiting meal reached Shaigu’s nostrils before they entered the room and his mouth watered. Four long ebonywood tables stretched from one end of the room to the other, flanked on both side by benches. The room was empty save a woman spooning an aromatic stew into two bowls at the end of the table. She looked up and greeted them with a generous smile.
“Come,’ she chirped. “It’s best when it’s hot.”
Shaigu had to restrain himself from running to the table. He followed Pandare’s lead, walking calmly to the table then bowing to the woman before sitting.
“We thank you for your hospitality,” Pandare said. “It is rare to find such courtesy in this world.”
“Courtesy is a sign of either abundance or scarcity,” a male voice commented.
Shaigu turned to the source of the voice. A man entered the room draped in a large white cloak that contrasted starkly with his black skin. An embroidered cap graced his head; he looked at them with a strong and pleasing gaze. His strong chin was graced with a grey speckled beard. He gave their server a slight bow then sat before Shaigu and Pandare, placing his fly whisk on the table.
“You are the men from across the desert,” he said.
“Yes,” Pandare answered. “My brother and I traveled here hoping to become students of the great Adamou. It seems our journey was in vain.”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “How so? Surely he would grant you an audience after such an arduous journey.”
“It seems that will not be so,” Pandare said. “His student Kakou informed us that he is not taking new students under any circumstances.”
“Ah,” the man said with a smile. “Kakou. I should have known. Even the best students have their faults. Kakou is very talented but that does not allay his insecurities. He is always wary of anyone that might threaten his status. It seems I have more work to do with him.”
Shaigu looked at this man with a puzzled gaze. What was he saying? Pandare’s response was entirely different. He jumped to his feet and bowed deeply.
“Amadou!” he exclaimed.
Shaigu dropped his spoon and stood as well. He bowed, his eyes wide in surprise. The great Amadou had come to see them!
“Please, sit. There is no need for praise. I am a man just as you. Be thankful that Kakou’s brothers witnessed his actions and chose to share what they saw.”
Both men sat. Shaigu studied Amadou as he was taught. He was younger than he expected but not a young man by any means. This meant his skills were mature which would make him a formidable target. This would take time; months, maybe even years. He was not sure if he was up to such an assignment. He looked over at Pandare, his brother showed no signs of vigilance, only the enamored gaze of a humble admirer. He could see why the Great Teacher chose him for the task ahead.
Amadou stood. Shaigu and Pandare began to do the same but Amadou waved them down.
“Enjoy your meals and rest. I will send someone for you in the morning. There are still questions to be answered before I make my decision. At least you’ll get the chance. You have come far to seek my instruction. I will not turn you away without at least giving you the opportunity to prove yourselves.
“We thank you, teacher,” Pandare said. “We thank you!”
Amadou left them to their meals. Neither man was hungry.
“That was unexpected,” Shaigu said.
“Very,” Pandare replied. “You did well, brother.”
“I’m only glad he did not speak to me,” Shaigu confessed. “I would have lacked your poise.”
Pandare laughed. “I was shaking in my sandals. I was sure he was through my words. I waited for him to strike us dead at any moment.”
“I can see why the Teacher chose you,” Shaigu ate his stew, enjoying the savory concoction.
“So what do you think of him?” Pandare asked.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Shaigu answered. “Besides, does it matter what I think?”
Pandare nodded then gulped a spoonful of stew. “True. But it is always necessary to understand a person. You must learn their strengths and weaknesses in order to exploit them and gain access to their confidence. “
“It is their weakness that draws our attention, because by applying our strength to their weakness we achieve victory,” Shaigu finished.
Pandare smiled. “The words of the Teacher.”
Ogbe appeared, bringing bread and beverage. “So you have met Amadou.”
“Yes we have, and we are greatly honored,” Pandare answered. Shaigu nodded as he slurped more stew.
“You should be,” Ogbe replied. “Amadou rarely travels beyond his compound. He must be intrigued by you.”
“We only hope he is intrigued enough to allow us to study under him,” Shaigu said. “His reputation spans the desert and reaches into our mountain home.”
Ogbe’s eyes widened and he smiled. “The quiet one speaks! You must be impressed!”
“I have a habit of saying the wrong things,” Shaigu said. “So I stay silent until I am sure of my words.”
“That is a good practice,” Ogbe answered. “If only more of us were more prudent.”
Ogbe placed the bread and drink at their table. “Here is the rest of your meal. If you slow down you’ll see that they complement the stew very well.”
“We thank you again,” Pandare said. “The people of this city are more generous than most.”
“I could not say,” Ogbe answered. “I have never been beyond the gates. Most of us haven’t. “
Shaigu was surprised. “Not even into the countryside?”
Ogbe shook his head. “I am not a farmer nor do I own herds. And as you say, we are a generous folk. I can imagine that there are places just as pleasant, but I can’t imagine any place better.”
You have never seen the Teacher’s garden , Shaigu thought . And you never will .
The duo finished their delicious meals then was lead to their sleeping quarters. They were given separate rooms; business was slow during harvest season so the space was available. Shaigu’s cot was narrow but comfortable. As he laid his head on the cotton padded headrest he wished he had the luxury of the vision tent. This mission was nothing like he expected. He had imagined Sala a harsh place filled with crazed and depraved people; instead he and Pandare had been treated with respect and kindness by also everyone, the exceptions being the Salan guards and the suspicious Kakou. He had to be diligent, however. He more than anyone else knew that behind a veil of kindness could be a cruel truth. Was he not here to kill a man?
Sleep came easily to him and the morning arrived too soon. Someone shook him awake; he opened his eyes to Pandare’s stern face.
“Wake up, my brother. Amadou has sent someone to bring us to his compound.”
Shaigu groaned as he sat up then rubbed his eyes.
“So early?” he complained.
Pandare chuckled. “It is well into the day. I overslept myself. Ogbe must have put a sedative in the food we ate.”
“I doubt it,” Shaigu said as he stood and stretched. “If there is one thing I can do it is detect elixirs. We were tired, nothing more.”
“Hurry,” Pandare urged. “Our new master waits.”
Shaigu followed Pandare through the hostel. Waiting at the entrance was Ogbe and his ever present smile.
“I hope your stay here was to your satisfaction?” he asked.
“Very much so,” Pandare replied.
“Yes, it was,” Shaigu said.
Shaigu did not think it was possible for the innkeepers smile to be any brighter but quickly discovered he was wrong.
“Excellent! Be sure to share your feelings with Amadou. “
Both men bowed.
“We will,” Pandare said.
They stepped through the door into the daylight and were greeted by a familiar face.
“Greetings to you,” Kakou said.
Amadou’s student forced a smile to his face. Pandare nodded respectfully while Shaigu looked away to hide his smug grin.
“Amadou wishes me to bring you to his compound. Come.”
He turned away abruptly and walked rapidly away. Pandare and Shaigu scampered to catch up with him.
“Thank you for your help,” Pandare said.
“Do not thank me,” Kakou replied. “I still believe you both should be on your way back to wherever you came from.”
“But Amadou disagrees,” Shaigu said.
Both Pandare and Kakou turned to glare at him. Shaigu lowered his head and cursed himself silently.
“Amadou is my teacher,” Kakou said. “But we do not always agree. He is a great man but he is not always right. Even he is not perfect.”
They walked in silence afterwards, exiting the narrow street to the broad avenue that led to the city center. The homes along the street became grander as they progressed, large stone structures surrounded by high walls and well-kept vegetation. They passed through a crowded market where they almost lost their reluctant guide, but managed to find him on the other side of the crowded venue.
They finally reached Amadou’s compound. Shaigu was not surprised at what he saw; it was modest and non-descript, a reflection of the teacher’s façade. What did surprise him was the openness of the place. There was a constant flow of people in and out of the gates. The men and women were not unusual, but it was the presence of children that caught his eye. Boys and girls from infants to adolescents were everywhere, laughing, crying, working and playing among the adults.
“Does Amadou teach children as well?” Pandare asked.
“Of course not,” Kakou replied. “These are his children, nieces and nephews.”
“He allows him in the school?” Shaigu asked.
Kakou spun to confront the two, an annoyed look on his face.
“Amadou has no school. When you are selected as a student, you are chosen to be a part of his family. This is his family compound.”
Kakou turned about and led them into the compound. A few curious eyes followed them as they entered. Their plain white garb made them stand out among the bright and varied colors of Salan dress. There were a number of building within the walls, each belonging to a separate family. Kakou led them to the largest, a rectangular structure that contrasted with the cylindrical homes. Amadou sat before the entrance surrounded by children, their wide eyes locked on his smiling face.
“I thought you said he didn’t teach children,” Shaigu observed.
“He does not teach them what you seek,” Kakou snapped.
They stood behind the children.
“Stay here,” Kakou said. “Amadou will talk to you when he is done with the children. I must tend to my duties.”
He marched away, sharing a parting glare at them before joining a group of men at the compound gate. Together they left the compound.
Shaigu and Pandare turned to Amadou. He spoke to the children in the language of the city, his tone gentle and engaging. They repeated some words and sang others, each child never taking their eyes off their teacher. Finally Amadou stood and the children did as well. He raised his arms and they scattered like gazelle, giggling and screaming as they ran to their homes.
Amadou greeted them with a wide smile.
“Welcome to my home,” he said. “I see Kakou brought you all the way this time.”
Both men bowed. “He was most attentive,” Pandare said.
Amadou laughed. “There is no need to lie to me, Pandare. Kakou shouted loud enough to wake the ancestors when I asked him to bring you here. Do not expect to have his help. You will have to win him over.”
“I don’t think we can,” Shaigu said.
“Anything is possible,” Amadou replied. “All it takes is perseverance and persistence. But you are not here to know whether or not I will allow you into my family. I’m curious to know if I will, too.”
Amadou gestured for them to follow him. They entered the rectangular building. The building was empty except for a collection of carved masks that hung from the walls. There were no chairs or stools, no pedestals or dais. They followed Amadou to the center of the room. They stood together, Amadou smiling.
“Teacher, what are we to do?” Pandare asked.
“We are waiting for someone,” he answered.
“Who?” Shaigu asked.
“We are waiting for my wife, Timneet,” Amadou answered. “No one enters the family without her approval.
“I am here,” a woman’s voice announced.
Shaigu looked to the entrance. Timneet sauntered into the building, a smile on her youthful face. The green head wrap hiding her hair contrasted with her smooth black skin and complemented the green patterned dress hugging her slim but shapely frame. Her numerous bracelets jangled with her steps as she approached them. It had been a long time since Shaigu had seen a woman so lovely.
“Sorry for the delay, husband,” she said. “Your young students can be quite mischievous.”
Amadou laughed. “I told them a mischievous tale.”
Timneet stood before Pandare and Shaigu. Shaigu stared into her caramel eyes, transfixed by her smile.
“Pandare, Shaigu, welcome to our compound.” Shaigu jumped when she grabbed his hands and her smile widened.
“Don’t fear, Shaigu,” she said. “This will only take a moment.”
Her grip firmed and she looked into his eyes. Shaigu could not look away, nor could he blink. After a brief moment she let go of his hands and turned her attention to Pandare. Pandare placed his hands in hers and received the same scrutiny. Once she was done she stood beside Amadou.
“Welcome to our family,” she announced.
Pandare bowed to the couple. Shaigu bowed as well, joyous that he’d passed Timneet’s mysterious inspection.
“Pandare, you will come with me,” Amadou said. “Shaigu, please go with Timneet.”
The two men looked at each other with puzzled expressions. Shaigu fought to hide his apprehension.
“This is our way,” Amadou assured them. “Shaigu, please follow Timneet.”
Shaigu glanced and Pandare and Pandare nodded. Timneet walked toward the entrance, Shaigu following. He caught up with her as they emerged into the sunlight.
“Mistress, where are we going?” Shaigu asked.
“I will give you a tour of our compound then we will assign you duties,” Timneet replied. “We have a big compound and a bigger family. Everyone has a duty.”
“Is this part of my teaching?” he asked.
Timneet’s face became serious. “You are not ready for teaching yet, Shaigu.”
Shaigu’s eyes widen. Had he betrayed their intentions?
“There is fear in you, and doubt,” Timneet continued. “I am sensitive to these things. Amadou feels it would be better for you to get used to our way before taking you on as a student.”
She smiled again and Shaigu felt the tension inside him fading.
“Don’t worry. This is normal. Your friend seems to be in a better place so Amadou will begin his instruction immediately. He will be given duties as well.”
“So we will stay?”
Timneet smiled again. “Yes you will. Now come let me introduce you to our family.”
Timneet led him through the compound, pointing out every man, woman and child and giving their names. Shaigu was overwhelmed; there was no way he would remember so many names and faces in one day. He could not concentrate on her words for he was still engrossed with Timneet.
“We are similar to your folks,” she said. “Yet many of our ways are different. We have no king; we are ruled by a council of elders in which each caste and clan has a voice. Decisions are made by consensus. If there is a stalemate the eldest of the elders makes the final decision.”
“I see,” Shaigu said absently.
Timneet stopped and turned toward Shaigu. He almost ran into her.
“I am so sorry, mistress,” he said.
“Make sure you are paying attention to the proper things,” she said. A knowing smile came to her face and Shaigu eyes widened like a child caught in mischief.
“I…I am so embarrassed! Forgive me for my disrespect.”
Timneet chuckled. “You are a man. Come, I’ll show you the rest of the compound.”
Their tour took the remainder of the day. By nightfall they returned to the building where they first met. Pandare and Amadou waited for them.
“That was quite a tour,” Amadou said. “I didn’t realize our compound was so interesting.”
“Our new brother had many questions,” Timneet replied. “And how was your day?”
“Productive,” Amadou said. “Pandare is a promising student. He will be placed with the seconds.”
Timneet looked skeptical. “Are you sure?”
Amadou frowned. “Yes I am.”
Timneet smiled again. “I will leave you with my husband,” she said to Shaigu. “Tomorrow we will decide how you’ll be helpful.”
Timneet sauntered out of the room. Shaigu took his place beside Pandare before Amadou.
“You will share a room for now,” he said. “Once you have become comfortable here you will be separated. Unlike the others you must learn our ways before you can begin to reach your potential. Rest well, sons. The day will begin early.”
Amadou left the building, following Timneet to their home. Kakou entered the room soon afterwards and waved for them to follow him. They followed the student to a long reed walled building situated along Sala’s western road. It was a dormitory, the home of the Teacher’s students and assistants. They entered the building then Kakou led them to a room at the end of the hall.
“You will sleep here,” Kakou said. “I will wake you in the morning.”
The acolyte turned to walk away and then stopped.
“This is a great honor my Teacher bestows upon you. Do not disappoint him…or me.”
Kakou stalked away then entered a room near the compound entrance.
“He does not trust us,” Shaigu said.
“He is of no concern,” Pandare. “One swift thrust and he is a memory. What have you learned?”
Shaigu squatted over the floor and took a short stick out of his shirt. The ground was hard packed but he was still able to scratch out thin lines without breaking his makeshift writing tool. Shaigu knew his spiritual skills paled in comparison to Pandare, but he had other skills that were useful, such as his uncanny memory of physical details. He quickly drew out a complete map of Sala.
Pandare studied the diagram while rubbing his chin. “It is a good design, strong and easily defended. The road allow of easy traffic flow within the city but limits entrance. These Salans are no strangers to sieges.”
“What have you learned, brother?” Shaigu asked.
“Nothing, though I am not surprised. Today was mostly a briefing of our duties and what this Teacher expects of us. I had hoped to glimpse a reason of why Teacher wishes this man dead, but he is shrewd with his talents.”
“I must apologize to you and Teacher,” Shaigu said. He bowed briefly after saying Teacher’s title. “I should be with you as a student. Instead I have been made servant to his wife.”
“There is no need to dwell on such misfortune, brother.” Pandare patted Shaigu’s shoulder. “We know our purpose here. At least he didn’t reject you completely. He sees potential. Besides, we don’t need to become completely close to either of them. We just need to get close enough to fulfill our task. Then we will see Paradise again.”
Pandare’s mention of Paradise made Shaigu think of the tent. When he looked at his brother there was a frown on his face.
“You must be strong, Shaigu,” he admonished. “There may be a time we may need Teacher’s reinforcement, but not now. Now sleep. Who knows what this man has in store for us.”
Kakou woke them early as he promised, seeming to take pleasure in their discomfort. They ate a quick breakfast of ground corn then separated, Pandare following Kakou to the teacher’s home while Shaigu waited for Timneet. She appeared with the rising sun, sauntering to him with a basket balanced perfectly on her head.
“Good morning, Shaigu,” she sang. “Come. The day is late and we have much to do.”
“Late?” Shaigu rubbed his chin. “But the sun is still rising!”
“You are not a farmer, are you?”
Shaigu shook his head.
Timneet gave him a sad smile. “Then today will be a very long day for you.”
Timneet led him to the sorghum fields beyond the city walls. The people harvesting the grain seemed to have been at work for hours. Stacks of grains stalks lined the field edges, tied together with stalks and waiting to be loaded on nearby two wheeled donkey drawn wagons.
“You will load today,” Timneet said.
Shaigu nodded and went to his task. The first few wagons were easy for the grain bundles were bulky yet light. As they day went on and the temperature rose the work became more laborious. By the time the first break came he was hungry, sore and exhausted.
Shaigu devoured the bowl of sorghum porridge given to him. The water was warm but refreshing after such hard labor. He looked into the sky at the sun directly above him and cursed. He had a half a day of work ahead.
“I see you are still alive.”
Shaigu stood over him, smiling down with the sunlight. Her mood seemed infectious and he felt less tired in her presence.
“You are right,” he said. “This will be a long day.”
“You will sleep well,” she replied. Timneet reached into her dress and retrieved a bundle of cloth. She opened the cloth to reveal a large nut-like object. She handed it to him.
“It’s a kola nut,” Timneet explained. “It’s bitter, but it will give you energy.”
“Thank you,” he said. Shaigu place the seed in his mouth then chewed. It was bitter, but not disgustingly so, and as Timneet said he felt a rush of energy. He smiled and Timneet clapped.
“You should be good for the rest of the day,” she said.
She rejoined the others and continued harvesting. Shaigu finished his meal and continued gathering the sorghum bundles. Timneet sang and the others joined in. It was a song Shaigu was not familiar with sang in a language he did not know, but the sound soothed him and eased his burdens. Suddenly there were no more bundles to load. The sun was settling into the western dunes and the workers trudged to the city, their work done for the day. Timneet met Shaigu as he loaded the last sorghum bundle on the wagon.
“Not bad for your first time,” she commented.
“Thank you,” he said. Timneet’s compliment made him proud. He always strived to do well, but his body or mind always seemed to fail him. At least he was good at collecting sorghum.
“You will tell Teacher, won’t you?”
Timneet laughed. “Of course I will. But this was only one day.”
A shrill voice interrupted them.
A small girl ran to them, her hands cupped before them. Timneet face bunched with concern.
“What is it, Almaz?”
The girl ran up to Timneet and extended her hands.
“I didn’t mean it!” she squealed.
Shaigu peered at the girl’s hands. A dead bird lay on them.
“I was throwing clay balls at it to keep it away from the sorghum,” she sobbed. “I didn’t mean to kill it!”
Timneet knelt down and cupped Almaz’s hands in hers.
“Close your eyes,” she whispered.
Timneet leaned until her forehead touched Almaz’s.
“When we take life, we must give life,” Timneet whispered.
“We must give life,” Almaz repeated.
Timneet blew on the bird. It twitched and then its wings fluttered. Timneet drew her head away just as the bird flew from Almaz’s hands.
Shaigu was stunned. He’d seen Teacher do many things, but never had he seen him restore life. If Timneet possessed such powers, what was Amadou capable of?”
“Thank you, mama!” Almaz jumped at Timneet and Timneet caught her in an embrace.
“You be careful with those clay balls,” Timneet said.
“I will, mama.”
Timneet put Almaz down and she skipped away. Timneet looked at Shaigu and pressed a finger to her lips.
“Not a word,” she said.
The two of them walked back to the city and to the lodge. Timneet said goodbye and Shaigu went inside, still marveling at what he had witnessed. Pandare was there fast asleep. Apparently his day had been just as strenuous. Shaigu was relieved. He wouldn’t have to lie to his brother about what he witnessed. He had no intentions of tell him. Timneet was innocent; they were here for Amadou. It would remain so.
And so the next days, weeks and months passed. Shaigu and Pandare barely spoke, each exhausted by the work given to them. Shaigu found himself so engrossed in his work that there were times he was unsure why he had come to Sala.
A respite finally came when the rainy season arrived. Shaigu awoke early as always, ready for another day of hard work. Pandare woke as well and began to dress. They prepared in silence, like two strangers occupying the same cramped space. Two hours passed before they began to realize that no one was coming for them. Pandare looked at Shaigu awkwardly before speaking.
“This is not what I expected,” he finally said.
Shaigu nodded in agreement. “I thought I would hate them.”
“I thought so as well,” Pandare agreed. “Amadou is a wise man. He had taught me things I never knew.”
“His wife is helpful as well,” Shaigu said. “I do not understand why we must kill him.”
Shaigu’s words seemed to spark something in Pandare. His face went firm, his eyes focused.
“Secure the door,” he ordered.
Shaigu pushed his cot against the door. Pandare opened his bag and extracted the tent. The room was cramped but there was just enough room. They made a small fire and placed the incense pot directly on the fire. Soon the tent filled with the thick fumes of illusion. Shaigu shut his eyes and opened his mind to the effect, eager to be in Paradise. Instead he found himself standing in a sorghum field surrounded by recently harvested grain. He heard a familiar laugh behind him and he turned to gaze into the face of Timneet. She stood before him; her arms opened wide, her smile sensual and inviting. He stumbled to her like a drunken man, wrapping his arm around her narrow waist as she lay arms on his shoulders and cradled his head. She smelled of sweet sorghum and jasmine and he inhaled her like air.
“Tell me your secrets,” she whispered. “Share your life with me.”
This was not the dream he was supposed to have. He tried to take control of the image as he had been taught, working his mind to create some familiar totem that would bring him back to Paradise. But every path was filled with Timneet.
Shaigu was thankful when the incense was spent. He kept his head low, afraid to look at his blood brother because of what his expression would reveal. When he finally looked up, he was surprised to see in Pandare’s face what he was sure displayed by his.
“We must strike soon, brother,” Pandare said with a quivering voice. “Sala has wounded our faith. We can only restore it by fulfilling our duty. Paradise will be closed to us until then.”
Shaigu only nodded.
“Good night, brother,” Pandare said. “Remember, we must strike soon.”
Sleep did not bring Shaigu any respite. He dreamed of Timneet, her arms wrapped around him, her body wrapped about him like a comfortable blanket. In his dreams he told her everything and she listened. When he woke the next morning he was less sure of himself than when he laid down to rest. The incense failed him.
When he woke the next day Pandare loomed over him.
“Today is the day. I will go to meet with Amadou. You will go to Timneet and bring her to the house as well. When we have them both together we will kill them.”
Shaigu fought hard to hide his shock.
“Both of them? We were sent to kill Amadou. Why must we kill Timneet?”
“Because she is his wife. Whatever secrets he possesses she knows. It serves no purpose to kill Amadou if the knowledge he has remains.”
Shaigu wanted to argue with Pandare, but to do so would reveal his feelings. He chose this journey to enter Paradise, but now his mind told him that Paradise was in Sala with Timneet. If Amadou was dead, he would have his chance. But Timneet must live. She would live.
“I will bring her,” Shaigu said.
They dressed in silence. Shaigu moved slowly with eyes closed, trying his best to summon the visions and feeling that led him to this point. The Teacher had done so much for him; he rescued him from a destitute street life, delivering him to a world of knowledge and abundance. A world of much more awaited him if he could only accomplish a simple task. So much had changed since then.
He pulled a heavy blanket over his shoulders to protect from the rain. When he finally looked up Pandare stared in his eyes. He seemed so poised, so sure. Shaigu looked at his brother’s hand and stifled the shiver that threatened to take over his body. Pandare held the blade in his hand, the hilt extended toward Shaigu. He took the knife and hid it within his clothes.
“Bring her to the main house,” Pandare said. “Amadou and I will be waiting.”
Shaigu left the dormitory, stepping into the pouring rain. He trudged through the muddy streets, the compound walls blurred by the downpour. He didn’t need to see; he knew the way by heart. He’d walked it so many times accompanied by the woman that he was about to kill. He found the compound with the gate opened as it always was, always welcoming anyone who wished to enter. He crossed the wide courtyard to the carved door then knocked. The door opened, revealing Timneet’s concerned face.
“Shaigu, what are you doing in such weather? Come inside.”
“No, Timneet. Master Amadou sent me for you. He said it is urgent.”
It upset him how easy the lie came from his lips and how easy he controlled his emotions.
“Now?” Timneet looked skeptical. “What could be so important?”
“I don’t know,” Shaigu replied with a shrug.
Timneet sighed and left from the door. She returned with a cloak and umbrella. Shaigu took the umbrella then escorted her to the main house. He stood before the door and looked into her questioning eyes.
“Shaigu, I’m getting wet.”
He opened the door. Timneet walked in then stopped.
“Amadou, why is so important that you sent for me in the rain?”
Amadou looked back with questioning eyes. “Sent for you? Pandare said you sent for me.”
Shaigu moved behind Timneet, blocking the door. Pandare looked at him and nodded.
“For Paradise!” he shouted.
Shaigu pulled the knife from his shirt. He stepped toward Timneet as Pandare plunged his knife into Amadou’s chest. Amadou did not look at Pandare. Instead he turned and looked into Shaigu’s eyes.
“Timneet,’ he gasped.
Timneet turned toward Shaigu. She looked at him with amber eyes that transformed from confusion, to shock, disappointment and finally rage. Shaigu froze, unable to move his hand. At first he thought it was because he didn’t want to, but then he realized it was because he couldn’t. He tried to pull his hand back but it refused to move. Then it was swallowed by searing pain. He cried out as his bones shattered, the knife tumbling from his crushed hand. He fell to his knees, gripping his wrist. He looked up to Timneet but her attention was no longer on him. She looked at Pandare now, who hovered over Amadou. She extended her right hand and Pandare’s downward knife stroke stopped. His face strained as he tried to push through the invisible force. Timneet closed her hand and Pandare dropped his knife. His hands went to his throat. She lifted her arm and Pandare rose from the floor, his hands digging to stop the pressure crushing his throat. Then Timneet swung her arm as if swatting a fly. Pandare sailed across the room and collided with the wall. There was a hollow cracking sound and blood splattered the wall behind his head. His arms fell to his side and his head tilted awkwardly. Timneet dropped her arm and Pandare’s lifeless body fell to the floor.
The door burst open and Amadou’s acolytes and family poured in. They saw Amadou’s body and the room filled with cries of pain and rage. Some ran to their fallen master but others hovered over Shaigu, their intent clear. Timneet raised her hand before they could kill him. She knelt beside him.
“Who are you? Why did you do this?” Her voice trembled.
Shaigu cleared his throat. “We were sent by out Teacher, to rid this city of that which would drag it down to evil.”
Timneet closed her eyes and shook her head. “That old fool. He never forgave us, I see.”
She stood over him. “He has failed. Amadou will live. I will see to that. You would have done better to strike me first. It is I the Teacher wishes dead.”
Shaigu looked up at her in shame. She stared back then her eyes widened.
“You couldn’t do it, could you? Even if I had not stopped you.”
Shaigu nodded his head.
“Then I was right. There is some goodness in you. Goodness…and love.”
She extended her hand. “For that reason only you will not die, at least not today.”
Timneet closed her hand and Shaigu blacked out. When he opened his eyes again bright sunlight stabbed them, forcing them closed. His back burned; he sat up quickly and opened his eyes again. He was surrounded by sand and dunes, the sun high overhead. He looked at his hand; it was still broken. He searched for some sign on how he arrived in such a desolate place but there was no sign. Then he saw the vision tent. He struggled to it, setting it up as fast as he could with his crippled appendage. His incense was in its bag but there was no food or water.
Shaigu set up the incense pot. There was one spark stick; he used it to light the incense. The smoke rose about him and he inhaled. The pain in his hand subsided then dissipated. Timneet said he would not die today, which meant his love for her meant something. He inhaled again and drifted into a vision. He dreamed of Paradise. He dreamed of Timneet.
“A necessidade faz o sapo pular,” Manoel thought as he heard the shipping captain call the work day to an end. He huffed a bit to himself, momentarily amused at the thought of a frog moving a huge bushel of sugarcane on its small green back. Few things were truer than that. The only difference was where frogs hopped, men worked. He stood up from the shaded cove of crates he had hauled off the ship by hand. Arranging them on the back of a wagon and had decided to take the last part of the day to take it easy. He popped his back and stretched his sore muscles walking to the edge of the wagon and jumping off the end effortlessly as a panther leaping from a tree branch, making but a whisper of a sound as his feet contacted with the ground.
A week ago Manoel had scored a job on a boat loading and unloading various materials and crates at different ports along the coast of Bahia, reaching the port in Salvador just that morning. Unloading the cargo for this final trip had taken the majority of the day and though he was as large and strong as they come, working 14 hours took its toll on the man. He wasn’t afraid of hard work though and he didn’t mind the aches one bit. He had resolved to sleep-in the next day. He had family here in Salvador he intended to find quickly, having no intention of sleeping one more day in that damned cramped cabin with the other workers like himself. Sure the other sailors were great company and he shared quite a few laughs and stories with them along the route, but he much preferred the company of a woman over another sweaty marinheiro. This was his stop and after he collected his pay, he was hitting the road with a pocket full of dinhiero and a destination.
Manoel climbed up the ramp to the boat deck where a short line was formed near the captain’s quarters where the other workers waited for their weekly payout. He knew some of the men who worked this job regularly and would head back when the ship was stocked and ready to set sail back south along the coast. He spotted one of these men, the friend who had gotten him this job and means of quick passage. He was a short and Barrel chested man, with large arms and a bald head. His nickname was Balde, both for his features and his ability to shamelessly put away copious amounts of food at any party or celebration where there was food available. “Only a bucket could hold that much food at once”, they would laugh.
Manoel approached and clapped his hand on the Balde’s shoulder. “Ready to turn in for the night already?” he joked as the shorter man gazed at the head of the line before turning to see his friend.
“Ha. Damn right” he said. “While you were napping, I was still moving cargo around.”
“Hey, I finished my work. Long legs, shorter trips, comrade” Balde elbowed him sharply for the short joke and they both laughed.
“What’s the hold up? Line moving a bit slow ain’t it?”
“Looks like captains pulling pay for rations, again.” Balde replied sounding disappointed yet reserved.
“Rations? No, we worked all that out before we set off. Rations were already taken out of the wages. I don’t know what y’all were eating, but I didn’t get any churrasco with my meals.”
“Look, don’t make a big deal about it. Sometimes Captain Toni will…short the checks a bit. “Balde’s face was grim. “We still get paid and we get a job on the next go around. It’s best leave it alone for now.”
Manoel decided to drop the topic and they chatted about the day and plans for the night. Balde knew Salvador and had some ideas where to get a few cervejas and a good dinner. Something about the night life in a new city like Salvador seemed to make his tiredness from the full day of physical labor slide off his shoulders like a heavy coat on a summer day.
It wasn’t long before Manoel approached Captain Toni for his pay for the week of work. And as Balde predicted he saw he was shorted about a quarter of what he had agreed to work for. He glared at the captain, a shaggy-haired pale man, as he took his money. Then he smiled and much to the captain’s surprise said. “Obirgado for the job, my captain. A good job is hard to find, and debt is ever the trap of a man.” With that Manoel went below deck to fetch the few items he had all packed in a small duffle bag. Leaving the ship he was soon walking with Balde up the cobblestone street away from the dock and into the bustling living night of Salvador Bahia.
It wasn’t long before Manoel and Balde had found a lively little cafe Balde had apparently frequented on his previous stay in the city. They were both drinking beer and were eating a meal of Vatapa, Acarajé and sweet cocadas. They laughed as they ate, talking about incidents that had happened on the ship. Balde cursed as he laughed so hard beer came out of his nose when Manoel told him of a shipmate named Isaac and his painful run in with a crab on the beach while hiding in the sand to take a nap by the docks in Sao Paulo.
“You tell great stories!” Balde said between ruckus snorts, of laughter. He pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“A good story tells itself.”
“Yeah, so says any good story teller. But why don’t you tell me the story of how people got to calling you by that nickname of yours. You’re a popular guy at home, but most people don’t know your real name. Hell, I wonder if I’d ever have found out if we didn’t work together.”
“Ha ha, well you have been a great help to me Balde. Come to think of it, I only recently came to know your real name. The story of why they call me after the Beetle is probably not much more interesting than anyone else’s nickname.”
“I somehow doubt that’s true. I guess that’s up to the person hearing the story. The difference is you’re talked about all over the town in Santo Amaro. The word is you’re fast. Very fast… They also say that you can fly.” Balde added hesitantly. Balde looked at the man known in Santa Amaro as Besouro over the rim of his beer mug, gauging the man’s reaction to his implication of flight. Noticing his friend’s sudden seriousness, Manoel burst out laughing so hard that he knocked his knife and fork to the floor in the sudden uproar. Balde frowned and looked away, pretending to be distracted by something outside the cafe until Manoel calmed down a bit.
“Don’t believe everything you hear, comrade,” he choked out trying to contain another outburst. “No man can fly. People will say anything, to make an exciting story. But hey if they want Besouro to fly, let them believe what they want. There could always be worse things said about a man behind his back.”
At that Balde laughed and then they both laughed together at the hilarity of the idea of a black man flying in Brazil.
After another round of cervejas, the two men parted ways in good spirits, with both good alcohol and good company to blame. Balde made his way to an inn he knew of and Manoel, looking at the moon high overhead, headed his way to the place he would meet his cousins just after midnight. Not really knowing the city he asked a few local inebriated vagabundos wandering the streets like him, where he could find a place called the Casa Branca de Deus. One old man knew the place he was speaking of as the others shrugged of the question and asked him for money. Following the directions he received as best as he could for about an hour he found himself at an intersection in an unusually quiet part of the city. Uncertain of what to do and nobody to ask he decided to take a short rest and sat down with his back against a brick building. He pulled out his patua amulet, which he always wore around his neck. The amulet was given to him by his teacher back home, Tio Alipio. It was a shiny Piece of carved Ivory said to have come from his teacher’s home in Africa he had kept hidden. The precious piece was inscribed with very old symbols even his teacher couldn’t read. Manoel had always believed it smelled of a different world. His teacher had told him it had special powers and would guide him wherever he needed to go. He smiled at the thought of his old teacher, a tall stout dark African man, with tight curly white hair and an undeniable presence. Tio Alipio was different from many other ex-slave men. He was known as a trickster, a story teller, a spiritual guide and a finder of lost items. Tio Alipio was a teacher of life and to his precious student he was always kind, even when he was being punished. He made a quick prayer to Yemaya that his old teacher was doing well and safe while he was gone.
It was in the middle of this calming reflection that Manoel felt eyes watching him and looked up to see a white bird with what seemed like an orange crown atop its head. At that same moment of seeing this bird,( he believed was called a cockatoo) he heard the deep thumping rhythm of drums in the distance. He stood up, placing the patua back inside his shirt.
He momentarily looked in the direction he heard the sound of the drums, and back to the bird. He was not at all surprised to see it had gone. It had delivered the message and likely had other things to attend to. Lifting his small duffle he stretched momentarily and started his decent down the dark street. Not long after he heard the Dum Dat Dum- Dum Dat Dum of a distant drum and it caused his steps and shoulders to sway in time. But hearing wasn’t the full truth of it. He felt the ritmo of the drums. The rhythm got louder with each step and before long, he had found his destination. From the outside it looked like a small white plaster coated brick house, situated at the end of the long shaded street, but the house itself seemed to glow in the moon light. He smiled and sauntered up to the door and knocked in time to the drum beat he heard. The door opened and he was immediately pulled into the room by faceless brown hands.
He saw no faces only hearing call and response singing of many voices and felt many hands push and pull him though the room. At one moment he thought saw the Cockatoo fly overhead. The next moment he was kneeling before a large brown man holding a long heavy berimbau and singing a beautifully ballad of the sea. Manoel looked to his left and saw a woman kneeling in the same position he was before the …singing man. Besouro felt his body and arms swaying to the rhythm of the drum and berimbau playing together. Just then the man changed the song.
“Ê me leva na Bahia
Ê leva na Bahia”
The other people standing in the surrounding circle sang back
“Ê me leva na Bahia
Ê leva na Bahia”
An almost imperceptible gesture from the man singing is what initiated the following exchange. In a second Besouro and the woman were in flight. This is the place where his wings grew from his body and he was truly himself. He was Besouro above all other things when in the game. He kicked and fought then he danced and dodged. The two of them flowed around each other with kicks and broke through each other with expert movements. He had matched against very few women in his life when in these circles of violent dance known as capoeira. He found this woman particularly adept in her style and Besouro made no hesitation in sweeping her to the ground as soon as the opportunity presented itself. The sweep was clean she was down for but a split second and quickly had re-initiated their exchange, and in his surprise he nearly found himself swept to the floor if not for his agility. The beautiful exchange of kicks and doges went on for a few more moments and soon another had broken between them for his turns, buying out the other player and focusing on Besuoro. This man was slightly slower in his movements around the roda. His extremely fast kicks blazed about the circle as he played a much more direct angle of attack against Besouro.
He was tall with long arm and legs and moved around surprisingly easy in the confined circular area for someone of his size. When he kicked they were extremely fast and seemed to cover the entire ring making closing space between them difficult for Besouro at first. In short time he had a strategy to get in close and the next time the long man kicked Besouro feinted an incorrect dodge and baited the long man, at the last moment rotating under the kick and flowing into another step where he was in proper range to break Long man’s balance with a hip throw, sending the man but first to the floor. Like the woman he quickly recovered and again they were engaged in flashing combat, but only momentarily.
The man singing had stopped and summoned the two to the front and called another set of players two young men to the front to replace them. Exiting the circle he spotted, among the many brown faces in the crowd watching the exchange of the next two, an old tan skinned woman with curly grey hair and wearing an all-white and gold gown that looked considerably out of place in this place of brown loose clothing and loud sweating bodies. She waved him over with a smile and he saw she was holding his duffle that he had completely forgotten about in the rush. She handed it to him….
"Bem-vindo a Salvador, Besouro! Welcome my son!" Her smile was bright and true. It made her almost look young again.
“Obrigado Mae. You are the Mae de Santo of this house. Did you send the cockatoo bird to guide me?”
“Exu governs the crossroads, Besouro. I know you from your Teacher Tio Alipio. We spoke recently. You move with no less malandragem than that old man says. I would’ve thought he was exaggerating.”
“You know Tio Alipio? How? ”
“This world is much older than you’d ever imagine boy.” The old woman patted his cheek. “I’ve met Tio more times and place than i can count. And I believe I’ve met you before as well at one point in time or another.”
Before Besouro could ask what she meant she interrupted him. “A story for another time, Besouro. It’s apparent you are itching to re-enter the roda. When you quiche your flaming axe and are looking to retire you may accompany Gafanhoto and Perigosa to their home. They will provide you good shelter for your stay.”
She indicated the man and woman whom he had contested against just moments before in the circle. They were standing in the crowd of people singing and clapping with the energetic bataeria. Seemingly sensing her name being spoken the woman looked up and nodded at him with a smile before she returned her attention to the game at hand.
“Tomorrow we will talk about why your teacher felt you should come visit me in Salvador.” with that she clapped him on the shoulder and walked out of a side door to another room he had not seen there previously.
Besouro placed his duffle bag in a place he could easily find and re-joined the roda. He played and fought all night. Game after game, he entered with burning axe. Sweeping and tossing other players and getting swept and tossed also. He could not remember the last time he had contested such a variety of capoeira fighters in Santa Amaro. The event went on all night and ended just before day break.
After the festivities had ended and acquaintances had been made Besouro joined Gafanhoto and Perigosa on the walk to their home. They chatted heartily about the roda and life in Salvador. He learned they were newly married and their names were Joao and Liza De Carvalho and both learned capoeira from the man playing the berimbau and singing. His name is Macaco, an ex-slave of a plantation in the south, they told him. By the time they had reached the small apartment shared with other members of their family, it had been nearly an hour and the sun was beginning to gain some height in the cool morning sky. They ate a light breakfast of some eggs and biscuits and Perigosa gave him a mat and a spot in the corner to lay and rest before they left saying they had errands to run in the market.
As he lay, he thought about what the old Mae De Santo wanted to speak to him about. The fact that she knew he would be there when he had spoken to no one of his intention of attending the underground capoeira event since his teacher told him where and when it would be was proof that she was the “family” he was to meet up with. He decided that as soon as he awoke he would head directly there. With that thought he slipped into exhausted sleep.
During the day, the streets he had wandered the night before in the dark looked and completely different. The places before where before he saw boding darkness and deep alleys now he saw homes and children playing in the streets. The after-midnight silence he had experienced was now replaced with laughing and bargaining. Maybe this surprised him because Santo Amaro rarely experienced such extremes in the same small local areal. The difference of night and day here was large enough he had nearly gotten himself lost on the way. Guiding himself by memory in such a variant environment was a challenge, but ultimately he enjoyed the experience and he had purchased a cold drink as he walked and spend a lot of his trip people-watching.
After about an hour and a half he spotted Casa Branca de Deus and saw the Mae-de-santo sitting outside under a large lovely jacaranda tree. He was again shocked that he had not noticed something as huge and lovely as a Jacaranda tree with its lavender flower petals scattered upon the ground in front of the bright white house. As he approached he noticed that the Mae was looking at him from afar, and assumed she probably spotted him before he spotted her, and not necessarily by sight.
When he got closer he took one hand out of his pocket and waved nonchalantly, as he often did. His face wore a welcoming grin.
“Ola’, Mae.” Besouro said grinning. “I was overcome with love when is saw you from the street corner. You look quite lovely sitting under this Jacaranda”
“Oh hush boy.” The Mae de Santo said swatting him with the thin fan she held. “I’m old but not that old I need to have my pride stroked with silly complements.”
They both laughed and he offered his hand to help her up. She took it rising slowly form the makeshift wooden bench she sat upon.
“Venha, lingua de prata. Let’s go inside. We have some things to discuss.” She said, leading the way towards the white house.
Upon his second entry he noticed the atmosphere was almost completely the same as it was the night before. Somehow the building seemed to hold all of Axe energy from the roda the night before and keep it fresh. The only time he had noticed that before was many years old Tio Alipio’s house when local the Capoeistas would come and have a roda in his home once a month. No other locations, neither outside on the beach or grass nor inside a building or home retained the same energy after a roda. Besouro never thought much about it but once his teacher asked him if he could feel a difference of atmosphere in a room after a roda. Besouro told him that he could tell Tio Alipio’s house kept the same atmosphere after a roda as if an event was happening in that moment. Old Tio clapped him on the shoulder and told him to remember that feeling. He remembered all of that an instant and it occurred to him that this was perhaps what he was here about. The room was rearranged and situated with chairs, shrines, drums and cowrie beads and many decorations along the walls. It was very beautiful, and the energy from the previous roda made him feel a little buzzed.
The Mae de Santo guided him to a seat at a table with a round straw beautifully endowed mat covered with African decorations. Next she pulled out a small Knit bag of cowries she had in her sleeve. Saying a prayer she began the process of casting the cowries onto the straw knit mat and reading them.
Besouro watched her work silently, wondering but not really daring to interrupt her. Finally she looked up at him with an amused look in her time withered eyes.
“You are a favorite of the Orisha. I can determine nothing definite about your path though these 16 cowrie shells.” she said bemused. “The Orisha …dispute over your…path…”
Besouro sat silently in response. Better to be assumed dumb than open your mouth and remove prove it he had been told.
“Fair enough. I suppose now is a good time to tell you why your teacher requested you come see me all the way across Bahia.” Again, Besouro sat silently yet attentive.
“Alipio is my brother and we were born free in a quilombo in Tocantins. It was destroyed and many of our family killed. We were spared along with others who surrendered to the Os homens brancos. We were slaves again and it was tough but that is a story for another time. My brother Alipio was told in a dream by Exu himself, that a child would come to learn to be a hero from him. Many years later Tio Alipio believes that student is you. “She looked at him trying to gauge his reaction to this news. There was little.
“Ah so that’s why Tio Alipio always tells me stories of the Orixa. He told me once he was the Pai-de-Santo of a house at one point. I’ll be honest; this is not too surprising to me. I often feel as if Exu has guided me to and through many…experiences in my life. This patua, was given to me by Tio Alipio.” He took the pendant out of his shirt to show the priestess. “Whenever I touch it I’m never lost or confused.”
The Mae de Santo burst into laughter. “Very well then Besouro. You seem to have more sense than you’re old teacher. He sent you here because he wanted me to confirm what it seems you already knew.”
“Well, that the thing. I don’t know about being a hero. My father said, heroes are mostly dead men people talk well about after the funeral. Not a bad thing, but I’m not planning on dying. I’ve got too much capoeira to play.” He replied, smiling but stern.
“Between the beginning and the end there is always the middle, eh? You have a bit of wisdom for a youngster. I believe you will do quite well. The best heroes are the ones that live by their instincts and without thoughts of heroism. ”
The two of them rose and she embraced him tightly, as a mother would embrace her son after a long distance had been closed between them. He hugged her back and only then realized how frail and fragile the old woman really was.
“Go back home and tell your old funky teacher i said everything will be well. And then tell him to come visit his old funky sister.”
Besouro laughed then with a pause he asked. “Mae de Santo. I never asked you’re name. You knew me from the beginning but I don’t know what to call you other than by your title of Mae.
“Mae De Santo is good enough. But for you my nephew in spirit, I’ll tell you name is Maria. But my nickname is only for the smallest of capoeira rodas though. The police may still want payback from so long ago, should they catch wind of it so near.
Manoel walked the streets of Salvador, lost in thought. Questions whirled in his head. The Mae De Santo Senhora Maria had just told him he was destined to be a hero. A hero of what? A hero to who? What was use was a hero to a negro man in Brazil in 1919? The word hero meant nothing to him or anyone he knew. Being a hero for a negro in this time meant to have a death wish. He was going to have to talk to Tio Alipio about this whole thing. He had never heard his teacher speak of such absurd ideas of heroism.
Manoel found himself in a familiar area, near the docks. Looking at the darkening sky saw that the sun has descended low to the skyline in distance and saw clouds painted fiery yellow and red just over the horizon. He walked to the cafe where Balde and he had feasted the other day. He hoped to see him there again and was half-surprised to see Balde most-way though his second beer when he arrived.
“Hey there Old Sailor.” he said as he approached. He sat across and signaled the garconete to bring him a beer.
“Ah I was wondering what happened to you. Looks like you know your way around Salvador already” Balde quibbled jokingly.
“Not the whole city, but I’ve found a few interesting places here and there.”
He began to tell the story of his previous day’s adventure with tenacity yet vague in certain particular details leaving out locations meant to be secret and a certain prophecy. He told him of the orange crowned bird, and of the capoeira event and the friends he is staying with and the friendly Mae De Santo who is antiquated with Tio Alipio. When they exited the cafe the moon was high overhead peaking though a partially cloudy sky. They both had a few beers between the two but Balde was considerably more since his Inn was closer than the home Manoel was staying. They parted ways, agreeing to meet again before the shit departed on its shipments towards Santo Amaro. He watched Balde stumble a bit as he walked away before heading off in his own direction again. The laughs and conversation with his friend had lightened his mood. It was usually at times like this he felt antsy. As luck would have it, he found some entertainment
The laughs and conversation with his friend had lightened his mood a bit. The night air was cool and he was feeling a buzzed from the beers he had drunk. Had Manoel been in Santo Amaro with his friends, Paulo or Canario on a night like this they would’ve been playing music, singing and dancing with the locals and flirting with the pretty girls. Salvador was far from dead at night, but the atmosphere was different and he didn’t seem to find much activity outside of the taverns. He figured the heavier presence of the white Brazilian police may something to do that that, though he didn’t see much of them in the more negro areas he had frequented in the last day.
In this moot speculative daydreaming as he walked he reached up to scratch his chest absentmindedly. It was then he felt the patua he wore slip from his neck, the rope somehow broken and fall towards the ground. Reflexively he took a couple of swipes at it trying to catch it in its decent only to end up batting it down a shaded alley between two buildings that had closed for the night. Immediately he dived after it into the darkness again his just missing catching it yet closes enough that his fingertips launched it again deeper into the alley. Besouro, used to moving quickly low to the ground caught himself easily on his hands never taking his eye of his patua’s unique glint, and saw it land softly on a oddly discarded blue and yellow scarf on the ground. He walked over and knelt beside it. It didn’t look like it had been there long he noted before picking is patua off it and looking at where the string had come apart. It look like it had been cleanly cut right off of his neck. He retired the two ends and looped the magic piece back around his neck.
He picked up the scarf and smelled a flowery scent of a woman’s perfume. This had not been here long at all. Besouro leapt to his feet as he heard a brief shriek of a woman further in the dark. The sound was immediately followed by meaty thud that is the sound of a fist hitting flesh. He then heard muffled stiffing of sobbing and cursing whispering of men. He quietly crept to the end of the alley and peered around a corner where he saw three men and a woman nearly fifty feet away down the cobblestoned dead end. Two of the men had the woman pinned on the ground trying to strip her and one was standing looking out into the alley. They all wore black handkerchiefs hiding most of their face yet Besouro could tell they were all homens de pele branca and their clothing gave them away as sailors.
Besouro could hear the two men hitting and holding the woman down. Their intention was clear and Besouro felt intense rage climb up his throat from deep within him, and seemed to set his entire head on fire from the inside. He tied the blue and yellow scarf over his face and stepped into the alley.
He began chanting over and over again under his breath as he approached. “Ochosi Ode mata obá akofá ayé o unsó iré o wa mi Ochosi omode aché”
With every step he grew angrier. With every vocalization of the chant he felt less like himself and more like a deity. The sailor on lookout had not seen Besouro approach although he walked directly up to him through the dark chanting aloud. Not until Besouro was within an arm’s length before him that the lookout sailor seemed to register his presence. Lookout sailor gasped and raised a machete he carried in reflex to strike the ghostly negro apparition. The strike was far too late as Besouro closed the slight gap between them. With one low powerful kick he swept both the sailors legs out from under his body, hearing a loud pop as the sailors popped out of the socket and he slammed head first to the street with a loud thwack, like the low end of a seesaw.
The other two sailors looked up and saw the lookout flat and still on the ground. They did not see Besouro who had moved into another part of the shadows closer yet more concealed than the lookout had been standing.
“The hell’s is wrong with you Batista?” One sailor said pulling out a large knife and pointing it at the woman implying she stop struggling, before he stops her once and for all. Besouro’s rage flared and in a flash he was beside the knifed sailor his foot crashing into the man’s chest before the sailor was entirely certain he was there. Knife sailor’s blade clacked to the stoned street just as his back found the wall stopping the momentum of the forceful body kick with unforgiving bricks.
The woman shrieked at the suddenness of the attack and in another flash Besouro laying into the man with kick knees and punches until the sailor was clearly unconscious. He slumped to the ground on jellied legs and fell over, blood dripping from his broken nose and teeth. Besouro looked to the woman with sad eyes she could see clearly though his face was masked with her own blue and yellow scarf.
Besouro cut his eyes back to the third masked sailor. He was old and short with white shaggy hair that covered most of his face. Again, Besouro’s rage was powerfully re-ignited and approached the old sailor. Seeing what the blue and white scarfed negro demon did to his partners, the old man turned on his heels and ran bow-legged down the alley and out into the street from which Besouro had been walking just moments before the encounter. He looked to the woman and in a word told her to go home. After a momentary lingering gaze, she obliged an ran out of the alley in another direction, the impact of what had happened all at once breaking her spell of shock allowing her cries of pain and fear to come unhindered.
As the bowlegged old sailor ran away he pulled off his mask hollering that he was being chased by a demon. Besouro followed at a distance, still not done with this man, still not released from his contract of retribution. Also he realized that he recognized the old bowlegged curly haired sailor. When the old sailor encountered three policiais patrolling the area, he ran right at them panicked and sweating, screaming about some strange violent ghost. As they tried to calm the bowlegged sailor down, Besouro watched and then walked out in plain sight of the four of them. The man squealed in terror pointing as Besouro stood at a corner just in the shadow of a passing cloud. Startled by the scream and ready to shoot the police turned to see what the man was pointing and screaming about. But the sailor was the only one who could see Besouro, a silhouette standing just outside of the moonlight.
The sailor took off running again leaving to police even more confused. Besouro pursued and soon he had him cornered at the pier as the bowlegged man tried to run to his ship, but Besouro cut him off before he could get close. The two stood facing each other on the pier in the intermittent moonlight, Besouro still masked in the Yellow and blue scarf, standing between the sailor and his ship. The sailor was exhausted, scared and desperate and finally pulled out a large fishing knife from his boot. He attached with large slashing movements, which were easily enough evaded. Before the man could attack anymore Besouro kicked and put heel squarely in the man’s stubbly chin, knocking him backwards off of his feet. The man wailed in pain and spit out a bloody broken tooth onto the wooden planks.
“Puh-Please leave me alone!” the man sobbed. “I won’t do nothin’ like that ever again! It was a big mistake.”
Besoruo said nothing, his eyes seeming to glow dully above the bright colored mask. He struck the sailor with another hard kick to the gut this time doubling him over retching alcohol and bile onto the dock.
“H-here! Take this” The man pulled a money clip of bills and threw it at Besouro, who caught it unexpectedly. Besouro smiled under the scarf satisfied. He pocketed the money clip and walked past the doubled over sailor. Of course, just as he anticipated the sailor noisily rushed him from behind just as soon as Besouro has turned his back. With a pivot Besouro sidestepped the tackle and began beating the man all over again.
“Thanks for the wages my Captain. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.” Besouro said before spinning a hard kick into the cheating captain’s side shooting him off the edge of the pier into the water below. He walked away from the docks leaving the cursing beaten man to make his way back to land.
The rest of the night was wholly uneventful and Besouro made his way back to the home of the De Carvalho’s stopping only to replace the Blue and yellow scarf where he had found it. He placed it neatly wrapping a portion of the money with in it. He split the “donation” in half and kept one part for himself. He felt if the woman somehow found this scarf then she could at least get some compensation for what he had gone though. But ultimately the he would let the Orisha decide. When he got back the house, he greeted the family and lay atop his mat. Just as he was falling asleep, he decided that his reason for coming to Salvador was more than a fortune reading by the Mae de Santo for his teacher. He was here to experience life. Knowing he would spend a few more days there in this city, he found himself anxious for what other towns, cities and experiências were awaiting him once he left.