Talk about a long time coming. This story begins 7 years ago at the National Black Arts Festival. I had just released Meji Book One and I was checking out the artwork with my wife, hoping to find a painting or African artifact to purchase.As I was looking about I came across some of the best paintings I’d ever seen in my life. Not only were they amazing, they were Sword and Soul. I’m talking about black people in amazing castles with regal clothing and postures and everything. As I looked with awe the artist approached. His name was Andrea Rushing. I told him how much I loved his worked then told him about my books. The connection was instant; there was no doubt in our minds that we would work together. Andrea was ready to start immediately, but I had already commissioned work for my upcoming projects. And honestly, I couldn’t afford him. As a matter of fact I promised I would write a series of books specifically for his work.
Then life got in the way. I had my head buried in project after project, neglecting my promise. At some point I began working on the background to this story, adding more and more details along the way. Andrea began his own art studio, sharing his amazing talents with others in San Diego. I finally lifted my head long enough to commission Andrea for the cover artwork for Griots: Sisters of the Spear. He showed up and showed out.
Projects came and projects went but still no book. But this year I decided it was time to tie up loose ends and complete all the projects that had been waiting in the wings. So I pulled out all my notes, contacted Andrea and said in so many words, ‘Let’s do this.’
The Damel’s Man tells the story of two men of vastly different backgrounds that become powerful friends and create an empire. It’s a story that explores a unique situation that occurred in many ancient kingdoms, one where some of the lowliest people became the most powerful and held the future of such kingdoms in their hands. For those familiar to my work this series will be on the level of Meji One and Meji Two, but takes place in an entirely different world. The story will not only be told in words, it will be illustrated by Andrea’s skilled hands. As a matter of fact, the story incorporates many of Andrea’s sword and soul images, painting that when seen in sequence tell an exciting story on their own. The story is planned to be told over four books, at least that’s the plan. The background developed over the years might lend itself to more volumes. Not only will Andrea do the cover images, he will also draw interior images. The result will be a series that we hope will take Sword and Soul to another level, an epic fantasy series that will read as good as it looks.
If all works as planned the first novel should be available late 2016/early 2017. This is the collaboration I’ve been looking forward to for quite some time. Stay tuned.
Eleven years ago I set out to become a writer. It was a very personal decision, a decision made to fulfill a lifelong dream and to present science fiction and fantasy characters that look like me. Not too long after I began that journey I encountered groups of creators that had the same vision as I did, all of them pursuing their dreams for personal and professional reasons. As time passed there was a few of us that began to draw attention for various reasons. During this time an incident occurred that in hindsight I’m not very proud of but at the same time made me more focused on what I do and how I approach it. A certain fellow writer was taking every opportunity to attack independent writers, the quality of their work and their relevance to what we were attempting to achieve as black creators. I stepped up to defend independent writers, which that writer took as a personal attack. During the public debate I received a personal e-mail asking me why I was taking this stance personally; that this writer respected my work and that I would be best served by disassociating myself from the other independent writers I supported. I explained to this writer that I would always support independent writers and publishing because that’s what I am and what I do. I also explained that if I had not done what I did, he would not be sharing complements while condemning the process I follow.
As we plan the first State of Black Science Fiction Convention, I think back on that conversation. The Black Creative Renaissance we are experiencing today is fueled mainly by those same independent creators I was urged to disavow years ago. Many of them are now breaking into the ‘mainstream’ fields after proving their skills for years as independents. The black independent creators have created the critical mass of comic books and novels that provide the consistency needed to build a genre and a following. It was last year during DragonCon when I felt the paradigm shift. For the first time since I’d attended cons people were approaching me that were already aware of my work and the work of other independent black creators; some I were familiar with, some not. The acknowledgement came not only from the readers, it also came from black writers and artists that cracked the mainstream glass ceiling. They too had noticed the change, especially the fact that there was now a market where they could write stories that had a special resonance with black people. I also saw the effect on mainstream publishers as well. A number approached me to consider submitting stories to them, while others were reaching out to black writers and releasing book covers with black people prominently displayed on the covers, something that was considered professional taboo only a few years ago. The well of creativity and freedom released by this new focus had been groundbreaking and market changing.
So this is a blog giving praise and recognition to black independent speculative fiction creators. Your hard work and perseverance has benefited us all by growing our audience and telling the type of stories few would ever imagine in our industry just a few years ago. As a writer I’m proud to be part of your ranks, and as a reader I am happy for the stories and artwork you’ve created that show us in a positive and powerful light. Keep doing what you do exactly how you do it and lets continue to create the change we wished to see.
Michael felt warmth radiating from his wood paneled bedroom wall and sprang from his bed. The smell of bacon wafted into his room as he hurried into the jeans and sweat shirt he set out the night before, wrestled on his tennis shoes and trotted through the narrow hallway into the kitchen. Mamma stood before the stove, one hand holding the black iron skillet in place while the other scrambled a pair of eggs in a pool of bacon grease.
“What you doing up so early, boy?” she asked without looking. Michael sat at the dinette, folding his eager hands under his chin.
“You going to Grandma’s?” he asked.
Mamma scraped the scrambled eggs onto a plate. “I go out there every Saturday morning. You know that.”
Michael played with the napkin holder, rocking his head from side to side. “Can I go?”
Mamma was reaching for the grits but stopped, placing her small hands on her broad hips. “Now why in the world do you want to go with me?”
“Because I want to go hunting.”
Mama rolled her eyes. “You and that gun. I told your daddy not to buy you that thing unless he was ready to go hunting with you. His tired behind ain’t been out with you yet.”
She scooped a spoonful of grits on the plate to join the eggs and bacon. “You know you can’t go by yourself and your daddy ain’t waking up any time soon.”
Michael smothered his grits with pepper. “Uncle Willy will take me.”
“How you know he’s going hunting today? This close to harvest time he’s probably got chores.”
Michael piled his eggs on top of his grits with the pepper and crumbled the bacon in his hands. “I called him last night and he said he was going.”
Mama turned around and looked at him, her eyes wide. “You did what?” She shook her head. “Lord, lord, what I’m gonna do with you?”
She began to make her own plate then stopped. “What about that book report you supposed to be working on? You finished it yet?”
“No? Then how you expect to go with me if you got homework to do?”
“I’ll finish it as soon as I get home mama, I promise.”
Mama turned to look at Michael.
“What you writing about?”
Michael spread apple jelly on his toast.
“I’m supposed to write about my hero. I’m thinking about Frederick Douglass.”
Michael finished his plate before Mama sat down.
“I guess you can go,” she said. “But we ain’t leaving until I’m ready to leave, you hear me?”
“And I want to see that book report after church tomorrow.”
Michael jumped from the table and ran to Mama and daddy’s room to get the .22. He hoarded his lawn cutting money all summer to buy it as a birthday present to himself. It was a Springfield/Savage .22 semi-automatic long rifle, the perfect gun for squirrel and rabbit hunting, so the salesclerk at Sears said. Michael pushed the door open quietly and crept to the closet beside the bed. Daddy was stretched out on top of the covers in his boxer shorts and t-shirt, snoring through his thick moustache. The closet door creaked when Michael slid it aside and Daddy’s hand came up to scratch his sideburns. Michael froze until he stopped scratching then slid the door wide open. The gun was hidden behind Mama’s Sunday dresses. He took it out then went to Daddy’s loose change drawer where he kept the bullets. There was a brand new pack of one hundred shells that felt like money in his hands.
Michael strode into the kitchen, carrying the rifle the way Daddy taught him. Mama looked up from her cup of coffee and grinned despite herself.
“You look like your Uncle Bo when he was your age,” she said. She got up from the table and headed for the room. “Guess I better get ready. The day ain’t getting no longer.”
Michael washed his plate then went to the den. He laid his gun down on the floor and turned on the TV to watch cartoons. He’d almost forgotten about going with Mama when she came into the den.
“Cut that mess off and let’s go,” she said.
Michael scrambled to his feet, grabbing the gun and the bullets.
“Now remember what I said. We don’t leave ‘til I’m ready.”
“And if your Uncle Willy can’t take you hunting, you don’t go.”
“All right then, let’s go.”
Michael trailed Mama out the door into the carport and into the ’67 sky blue Malibu. It moments they were zooming through the neighborhood down the steep hills between the little water oaks the city planted to beautify the landscape. Mama worked her way through the side streets and short cuts with the seriousness of a NASCAR driver, reaching Macon Road, the two lane highway that ran right to Grandma’s farm. The sky was a crisp autumn blue, empty of the gray haze that sagged low during the summer. The morning sun spread its light across the pine infested hills. It felt like hunting season and Michael was excited. He watched the familiar landmarks flash by from his back seat window until he saw the solitary shack that signaled the farm wasn’t far way. Mama finally slowed down as the roadside mailboxes came into view. She steered off the pave highway and onto the dirt road. She was creeping as they approached the railroad crossing. Only the section crossing the road was visible, the rest blocked by a tangle of scrub pines and honeysuckle vines.
Mama turned left after crossing the tracks. She drove through a gauntlet of blackberry vines that made Michael mouth water as he remembered blackberry pie and ice cream. They turned right at the hog pens and the house appeared, flanked by the corn and peas fields. Mama drove down the road to the rear of the house, parking between the house and the shed. Michael jumped out of the car before Mama came to a complete stop, his impatient eyes searching for Uncle Willy. His euphoria was checked by a jerk of his arm that almost lifted him off his feet.
“Boy, don’t you ever jump out that car like that again!” Mama’s face was get-me-a-switch angry.
“Don’t go hitting that boy,” a much older female voice growled. Grandma stood at the screen door of the back patio. Michael blessed her for saving him from what was surely going to be a whupping or at least a pinch on the arm. She eased down the concrete stairs, wiping her hands on her apron.
“Did you see what he did?” Mama said.
“He ain’t hurt. You’ll know better the next time, wont’ you Michael?”
Michael followed Mama and Grandma up the stairs. Since he’d made Mama mad, he sat beside the women on an old folding chair and took his share of butterbeans from the bushel and began shelling. He kept his eyes low and peeled while they talked; waiting for the right moment to ask the question that was burning to get out of his throat.
Mama stopped talking as she grabbed another handful of beans. Michael cleared his throat and looked up at Grandma.
“Grandma, is Uncle Willy here?”
“Shoot boy, Willy went hunting right about sun up. He won’t be back until dark.”
Michael slumped over like he’d been hit by a brick. He looked at Mama with pleading eyes.
“I told you no hunting by yourself with that gun,” she reminded him.
“I’ll take him.” Grandpa shuffled in from the kitchen, his hands deep in his overalls pockets. He smiled at Michael, flashing his gold tooth, and Michael was filled with dread.
“You feel like hunting, daddy?” Mama asked. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” Michael whispered.
“I feel fine,” Grand replied, pulling his right hand out of his pocket. Michael watched the gnarled, scarred appendage rise to the old man’s bald head. It was hideous, like something from the freak show at the fair. When he was small he was always careful to avoid touching or being touched by that hand and its mirror twin. He thought when he was older he’d get over the fear, but it was still clinging to him as real as ever.
“I don’t want to go hunting no more,” he said louder.
“Is it all right?” Mamma asked Grandma.
Grandma concentrated on the peas. “The doctor said he needed to get some exercise.”
“I don’t want to go no more!” Michael shouted.
“Boy, can’t you see grown folks talking?” Mamma nailed him still with her stare then returned to her conversation.
“Well, Papa, I guess it’s all right, but you keep a close eye on him. He can get wild sometimes.”
“What you mean you guess it’s all right?” Grandpa said. “I’ll take this boy anywhere I want to. Come on, boy. Let’s go hunting.”
Michael watched the back of Grandpa’s head and he bounced down the stairs. He looked at mamma in desperation.
“What you waiting on? Go on, now.”
Michael turned and followed Grandpa down the stairs. He could do this; he was twelve going on thirteen with two hairs on his chest and the start of a moustache on his upper lip. His confidence had almost returned until he caught a glimpse of those hands pull out a pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco. He jumped past Grandpa and trotted to the car to get his .22.
“What you gonna kill with that? Time?”
Michael ignored the comment, holding the gun towards the ground like his Daddy taught him and making sure the safety was on.
“Squirrels and rabbits, sir,” he said.
Grandpa laughed like a wet growl. “Can’t kill no squirrels with that thing. Ain’t gonna do nothing but make them mad. I should’ve brought my shotgun.”
Grandpa started walking and Michael followed, afraid to say where he wanted to hunt. They followed a trail branching off the dirt road which cut between the barn and the old mule stables.
“No, can’t kill nothing with that thing,” Grandpa continued. “Can’t kill it right, I mean. You shoot a squirrel with that and it’ll be running around mad, hurting and hiding. A shotgun will put it down just like that.”
Grandpa stopped walking and Michael almost ran into him.
“See this?” he asked, pointing at a dent between his right thumb and finger. “Shot a squirrel one time and thought he was dead. I guess I should of asked him before I went to picking him up. Damn thing took hold to me right here like a beaver trap. Took a half an hour to get it loose, and it was dead half that time.”
Michael looked at the spot and grimaced, imagining how painful that must have felt. Suddenly the scar and the hand were gone, sinking deep into Grandpa’s pocket.
They walked to the second hog pen where the trail ended, the air heavy with the stink of swamp mud and hog droppings. Before them was the turnip green field, the fall planting full and ready for harvest. Grandpa walked into the field and over to the barbed wire fence separating the field from the woods. Michael hadn’t planned on going into those trees. It was a tangle of pines, oaks and muscadine vines that seemed perpetually dark as it repulsed the sun’s attempts to penetrate its core. Blind obedience only went so far.
“Grandpa, are we going in there?”
“You want to shoot squirrels, don’t you?”
Michael reluctantly nodded his head.
“Well this is the best spot for them; at least it was a while back. Come over here and hold this wire down for me.”
Michael sat the gun down on the opposite side of the fence then grabbed the wire carefully, pushing down with his weight. Grandpa stepped over, his hand gripping Michael’s shoulder for support. Michael closed his eyes, keeping his head away from the hand.
“Got to be careful,” Grandpa said as he grunted his way over the fence. Once he and Michael were settled he showed his left hand.
“When I was about your Uncle Willy’s age I worked for a white man named Mr. Elias Burnside in his sawmill. It was hard work back then because a colored man did whatever the boss man said do, even if it wasn’t your job. Well, one day I was putting up a fence like this one on Mr. Burnside farm and before I knew it I was up to my ankles in fire ants. Boy, I got to jumping around and screaming and tore my hand up on that bob wire. Took me a long time to get this hand back straight.”
Michael climbed over the fence. The woods towered before them in black silence, its stillness a final warning to all intruders. Michael eyes went to Grandpa, waiting for him to lead the way. Instead Grandpa reached into his pocket, pulled out a bag of Red Man chewing tobacco and leaned against the fence post.
“We stay here and wait,” Grandpa said. “They’ll come to us.”
Michael never dreamed a more terrible fate. In front of him were the scariest woods on the farm and beside him was Grandpa. He sat with the rifle across his lap as he watched Grandpa massage his hands. They must hurt all the time, he thought. Maybe he was used to it; the pain was there but had become a part of Grandpa’s life like receding gray hair on his head.
“Why you rubbing your hands, Grandpa?” he asked.
“They get to itching sometimes,” he answered.
“You got arthritis?”
Grandpa tilted his head up and stared at Michael. “What? Shoot boy ain’t nothing wrong with me but old age. These hands are fine.”
He moved close to Michael and turned his right hand up, pointing at thick yellow circles on his palms below each finger.
“This comes from hard work, boy. I got these trophies swinging an axe longer than you been alive.”
He turned his hand over and placed his finger on a faint line near his pinky finger.
“This line here? I got this when your mamma was born. We didn’t have no hospital for colored folks back then, so the midwife comes over from Midland to help deliver her. Your grandma was going through an awful time, so I slipped in the room and told her to bite on my hand till she felt better. Lord Almighty that woman can bite!”
Grandpa chuckled. Michael stared at Grandpa’s hands, trying to make up a story about every indention, line, scar and curve. They began a game of show and tell, Michael asking and Grandpa telling as the sun passed over them between cotton clouds.
“Where did those come from?” Michael pointed to the twin scars ringing Grandpa’s wrists. The glow that had been building in the old man’s face fled; he straightened and walked away along the fence.
“Grandpa, wait!” Michael jumped to his feet and grabbed his rifle, running until he caught up. Grandpa hummed, his eyes focused somewhere up ahead. Michael grabbed his arm.
“Come on, Grandpa. Let’s go back to the house.”
Grandpa jerked his arm away. “You want to know how I got them scars, don’t you?”
Michael dropped his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Come on with me then,” Grandpa said. They walked in silence past the peas to the watermelons. Grandpa picked a small melon then walked over to a wide tree stumped and eased himself down. He pulled out his pocket knife and began slicing. Michael sat beside him and Grandpa handed him a glistening red wedge.
“Remember when I told you I worked at Mr. Burnside’s mill? Well, I was looking to buy me some land for a farm and old Burnside heard about it. One day he calls me into his office and offers me this land you’re sitting on for five hundred dollars. At first I thought he was playing with me, but old Burnside had a habit of doing things for people he liked, white or colored. So I jumped for the deal like a frog to water, giving him a hundred straight out and working out a deal for the other four.”
Michael listened as he munched on his melon slice. He imagined Grandpa as a young man, tall and strong like Uncle Willy, pulling logs and plowing fields while fussing at Mama for doing something she wasn’t supposed to do. The distance between them melted away; the old man with the crippled hands became a real person, father of Mama and Uncle Willy, husband and provider for Grandma.
“Well,” Grandpa continued, “I took to clearing that land every evening after work, sometimes with my brothers but most the time by myself. One evening I was alone chopping wood when I see a truck rolling up. By the time I figured out what’s going on it was too late to run. Three white men got out of that truck and the biggest one had a shotgun.”
“What the hell you doing on this land, boy?” he says.
“This here’s my land,” I says.
“You lying,” the little one says. “We sold this land to Tom Burnside, so unless you’re out here waiting on him, you best be getting on, nigger.”
“Now I was so mad I couldn’t think straight. ‘Mr. Burnside sold me this land,’ I yelled.” “I paid for it fair and square.”
“The big man turned red as fire.”
“That son-of-a-bitch!” he says. He turned to the short one and says, I told you not to sell it to that old fool! Everybody knows Tom is crazy.”
‘The short man got this evil grin on his face. ‘Ain’t no problem,’ he said. ‘This boy’s gonna our land back to us, ain’t you, boy?”
Grandpa bit into his melon, taking his time to chew. “Now if I hadn’t spent so much time clearing and chopping I would have gave it back. But my sweat was in the ground. It belonged to me.
“This is my land and I’m keeping it,’ I says.”
“The big man starts grinning like the devil’s son. ‘You’ll give it back sooner or later, ‘he said. I tried to run but they wrestled my down and knocked me out. When I woke up I was hanging by my wrists from a big old oak tree. The big man had a long piece of rope wrapped around his hands and as soon as he saw I was awake he started tearing into me. I wanted to holler so loud the angels would come down to get me, but when I opened my mouth Amazing Grace came out. I sang that song louder than I ever had in church and I meant it more, too. I tell you boy, the Lord must have heard Grandpa because by the time I stopped singing that song them white men was gone. They left me hanging there, swinging back and forth like a broke branch until about dark. That’s when my brother showed up looking for me and cut me down.”
Michael’s hands twisted the stock of his rifle, the veins showing in his forearms. “What did you do to those white men, Grandpa?”
Grandpa looked at Michael with a melancholy smile.
“Nothing. Couldn’t do a thing. See, back then the law kept a colored man from being strong on the outside, so you had to be strong in here.” He patted Michael’s chest with his hand and Michael didn’t mind.
“No, I didn’t do nothing to them, but I cut that damn oak tree down!” Grandpa looked as his wrists, turning his hands back and forth.
“That’s how I got these here scars, and that’s how this fine sitting stump came to be.”
Grandpa struggled to his feet. “Come on, boy. It’s about time we be getting back. Them squirrels looking at us and laughing.”
“Okay, Grandpa,” Michael said. He grasped Grandpa’s hand and pulled himself up. They stood for a moment, his young smooth hand in Grandpa’s leathery scarred grip, then they let go and headed for the house.
Mama was putting a bunch of collars into the car trunk when Michael and Grandpa walked up.
“So where are all the squirrels?” she asked.
“In the woods,” Grandpa replied. “That’s all right, though. We’ll get them next time, right Michael?”
“Yes, sir, we sure will.”
“Get in the car, baby,” Mama said.
Michael emptied the .22 and placed it in the trunk beside the collards. He sat on the passenger side as Mama hugged Grandpa’s neck.
“Bye, Daddy. I love you.”
Grandpa grunted and walked towards the house. Mama climbed in car with a smile.
“That man is something else,” she said.
Mama started the car and they drove away down the road. Michael turned to see Grandpa waving goodbye. He smiled and waved back until Grandpa disappeared in distance and dust.
“Mama, I ain’t writing about Frederick Douglass,” Michael said.
“Who you writing about?” she asked.
“I’m writing about Grandpa,” Michael replied.
Mama turned to look at Michael, her eyes glistening as she smiled at him.
“Lord have mercy,” she said. “Lord have mercy.”
When you sit down to write a story, novel or create an anthology the experience begins as a personal project. As it develops you begin to contemplate the broader applications and influences, especially in the case of the anthology. The anthology is a group effort, a project that takes on an identity created by the editor’s selection of the stories written. The City: A Cyberfunk Anthology began the same way. As most of you know who follow me or have read the anthology the tome began as a simple statement that blossomed into a jazz-like interpretation of the concept by the writers who participated. Writers shared vignettes and images which evolved into full length stories supported by commissioned images.
Then something happened that was totally unexpected. Otis Galloway, a freelance DJ currently living in Scotland, stumbled upon the vignettes as posted on the State of Black Science Fiction. Inspired by what he read, Otis surprised me and the other writers with a mixtape representing the mood of The City. As a former DJ myself I understood where he was coming from. Many of my stories are inspired by a song or an image. The contributing authors were likewise inspired by his tapes, many of them listen to the mix-tapes as they wrote their stories.
Once the anthology was complete Otis quickly obtained a copy. His inspiration took him to the next level; Otis began creating full length mix-tapes for each story, attempting to capture the mood of each with amazing success. The stories, music and images made The City a multi-sensory experience, something rarely seen in the industry. Otis gave his musical concept a name, Neon Ghost Radio, then wrote an excellent story that incorporates the music into the overall experiences of The City.
But it’s the final part of this tale that surprises. Otis, sparked by the concept, developed an idea of a multi-media platform where people could acquire a concept like The City in all its forms for any of their devices. Here is what transpired in his own words:
The content will go where they go, and can be watched and resumed wherever, whenever.
Naturally, something like this will not happen overnight, but will be implemented systematically over a five year period, thanks in large part to the investment monies committed to the venture.’
Like most writers I usually develop a detailed background about my characters before I embark on writing my novels. I’m not an outline type of person, so I usually put such information in vignettes and short passages that I scribble in my journal or carry around in my head. Although the character development of my main character or characters are pretty detailed, those of my secondary or supporting characters are usually sparse. I tend to fill in the details as the story progresses.
That being said, I initially had no intentions of writing a Changa’s Safari prequel. However, as more and more people read and enjoyed the stories I received many questions about the lives of Panya, The Tuareg, Amir Zakee and Mikaili before they became members of Changa’s crew. That’s when the stories began. Firs there was Oya’s Daughter, then El Sirocco. The Shange stories, Mwanamke Tembo and Walaji Damu, were inspired by artwork by Kristopher Mosby, which have also resulted in a graphic novel based on Walaji Damu entitled The Blood Seekers
It was then that I began considering the anthology. I had two Changa stories I’d written for anthologies that never materialized, good stories that were gathering dust. These were stories of adventures that had taken place between Changa fleeing his homeland and arriving in Mombasa. And what about that fateful moment Changa was forced to leave his home, those moments that began his journey? That was surely a story that needed to be told.
So here we are. Before the Safari is collection of previously published and new stories that fill in the gaps of Changa’s life and those of his crews. It’s not a comprehensive anthology; there are many more stories that could be told and probably many more that should be told, but a brother has other things to do. Here’s a brief rundown:
The Promise: Changa witnesses the death of his father Mfumu and is taken away to be trained by his uncle to one day regain the Stool.
Oya’s Daughter – Panya discovers she has been pledged to a rival oba in a marriage alliance. However Panya and Oya have other plans.
Hekalu ya Mwangaza (The Temple of Light) – Changa volunteers to go on a quest with a mysterious wizard and his warrior to clear Belay’s debt.
El Sirocco – El Sirocco, the Desert Wind, rules his land with cruelty and ruthlessness. A moment of weakness forces him to seek a new witch to insure his strength.
Mrembo Aliyenaswa (Captured Beauty) – Changa and Belay sail to Zanzibar to find a woman whose life in put in danger by Belay’s son Naragisi.
The Sea Priest – A young Mikaili sets out on an adventure on the sea. What he discovers changes his life forever.
Mwanamke Tembo (The Elephant Woman) – Belay sends Changa to discover why the ivory supply from the interior has ceased. Changa finds himself in the middle of a battle between powerful spirits.
Mbogo Returns – Belay has died and given his business to Changa. Changa is forced to go to Mogadishu and finds himself fighting in the pits again, but this time to save the life of a man known as ‘The Tuareg.’
Walaji Damu (The Blood Eaters) – Shange and Mijogo are sent to a village to save its people from mysterious creatures that are taking villagers and feasting on their blood.
The Gate – Down on his luck and about to lose Belay’s business, Changa sails to Kilwa Milikya in hopes to find wealth. What he finds is beyond his imagining.
The Devil’s Lair – Amir Zakee, his father and his brothers lead warriors to support his grandfather in a battle against a heretic priest and his worshipers.
I hope you take the time to check out this anthology. It’s a good introduction for those who have yet to take part in the Safari and a good background for those who have. I’m thinking about a second anthology that would include stories about characters less prominent but just as intriguing, such as Tula the serpent woman and Kintu the demi-god. I hope you enjoy the read!
You can find Before the Safari and my other books here: MVmedia
When I began writing black speculative fiction ten years ago one of the main reasons I did so was to represent myself in fantastic fiction. I wanted to see black men and women as heroes in fantastic settings, slaying creatures, fighting epic battles and saving the day. I envisioned us beyond the stereotype of sidekicks, poorly developed secondary characters and first to die tropes. Ten years later multiculturalism has become popular. Mainstream publishers are seeking stories with diverse characters and even agents are getting involved. And while I’m encouraged to see such a change, I’m still disturbed by what I’m not seeing; the heroic black man.
There still seems to be some resistance to portraying black men as heroic characters in mainstream speculative fiction. Independent publishing is better, but not as prominent as one would expect. This lack of representation seems to plague novels more that comic books and graphic novels: independent comic books do the best job at displaying diversity, especially when it comes to black men.
If you were to ask an agent or publisher and no one else was in the room they would most likely give you a pragmatic answer. There is no market for books portraying black men as heroes, they would say. They would tell you the same old line, that black men/boys don’t read. They can’t say that about black women; recent polls revealed that the most prolific readers are black college educated women. The abundance of black women reading clubs is also a confirmation of this reality. But black men? That’s a different story.
It’s my contention that the reason black men/boys don’t read is because there’s not much out there for them to read that represents them beyond non-fiction books. There are a few fiction series available that feature black men, most notably the Easy Rawlins series by Walter Mosely. But when it comes to speculative fiction those choices are very few and far between. There’s Imaro by Charles R. Saunders, but until recently Charles never had the opportunity to complete his series. Steven Barnes Lion’s Blood and Zulu Heart books were at the top of my reading list and I eagerly await the completion of the series. But the landscape is sparse when it comes to books about heroic black men.
But let me get back on track here. Most businesses are interested in supplying a demand, not creating one. They will quickly jump on a trend that probably originated from someone else’s hard work than invest time and money creating the market themselves. There have been many times that I’ve talked to black men who have no interest in reading speculative fiction until seeing my books. For many this was the first time they encountered such books with characters that look like them doing extraordinary things as heroes. And in most cases they bought the books immediately. I’m of the opinion that if all you’ve ever had is hamburger, and you don’t know steak exists, then how will you know to order steak? If you don’t see something out there, most people assume it doesn’t exist.
Another victim of the status quo is speculative fiction stories that include romantic/loving relationships between black men and black women. A recent poll revealed that white audiences on the whole are not interested in viewing romantic relationships with black couples, hence the lack of such shows on mainstream television. Again, entertainment content is created by corporations making decision based on the bottom line and catering to the ‘majority demographic.’ What does that mean for creators? It means either your idea will not be accepted because it doesn’t meet the criteria or you will begin to write stories in a certain way in order to meet the established criteria. Once again representation falls victim to the bottom line.
This is why I write what I write. Change always comes from the outside. Most ideas you see materialize in the mainstream began as a small idea from an independent writer or small press publisher. Dig deep enough and you’ll see. The world of entertainment is changing, and it’s a good thing. But now is not the time to drop your guard. Now is the time to push harder to make sure the content continues to push the barriers and that black men, black women and everyone that have not been properly represented have their platform. We see the problem; now let’s provide the solution. It’s not up to anyone else. It’s up to us.
Generally speaking, there are two major types of fantasy fiction: heroic and epic. Heroic fantasy – also known as “sword and sorcery” – focuses on the exploits of a single, larger-than-life character. The literary archetype for heroic fantasy is Conan the Barbarian, created back in the 1930s by the late Robert E. Howard. Epic – also referred to as “high” (but not on drugs) fantasy – paints on a broader canvas, with numerous characters interacting in multiple storylines. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the ur-text of modern epic fantasy, and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga is its present-day exemplar.
When I began writing my stories in the early 1970s about Imaro, a black warrior whose adventures take place in an alternate-world Africa I call Nyumbani, I was enthusiastically following in the footsteps of Howard. His fiction captivated me when I was a young man, and I consciously wrote the Imaro tales in the tradition he established. Lord of the Rings was another influence, but it took a while for me to develop a set of storylines that would fit into a broader fictional scope. Indeed, more than 20 years would pass between the creation of the “Howardian” Imaro and the conception of a subsequent, “Tolkeinian” series.
At that time, another alternate vision of Africa sprang from the depths of my imagination. The name for this new other-Africa was Abengoni. And instead of the travails and triumphs of one central character, as in Imaro, the Abengoni saga would involve a broad spectrum of contact between two cultures – one black, one white. First Calling is the initial volume of that saga.
It’s not just the content of these two creations that is different, however. Imaro was born not solely from my enjoyment of heroic-fantasy fiction, but also from dissatisfaction. My love of the genre was tempered by discomfort with the racist depictions of black people and Africa that were found far too often in its stories. I wanted to promote positive portrayals of blacks, and present mythic and folkloric visions of Africa that would counter the “jungle stories” stereotypes. I wanted to show that African mythology, culture and history were as valid as the Celtic and other European traditions on which much of modern fantasy is based. To the extent that whites were depicted at all in Imaro’s milieu of Nyumbani, they were foes, not friends.
For Abengoni, a different creative drumbeat thrummed in my mind. What if there were another Earth in which people from parallel versions of Europe and Africa encountered each other on an equal basis, rather than fictionally reprising the racism and colonialism that have for centuries wracked the so-called “Dark Continent” of the world we know? What if European and African folkloric traditions could be integrated within the context of an epic fantasy saga, rather than remain at racial loggerheads?
The Abengoni series is my answer to those questions. It was conceived and written in a spirit of amity rather than anger. Yes, the people of different races within the pages of First Calling are aware of their surface differences, such as skin tone and nose width. They are not color-blind. But they do not attach the suite of negative stereotypes to those differences that have led to the bigotry, discrimination, segregation and apartheid that have plagued our world for far too long. The distorting lens of racism does not exist in Abengoni.
Wow, what a concept …
As I mentioned earlier, Howard and Tolkein were my primary literary influences. But there have been non-literary influences in my work that have been just as strong.
When I was writing Imaro, I often felt as though I were channeling the spirit of Malcolm X – the spirit of rebellion.
When I was writing Abengoni, I felt as though I were channeling the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the spirit of reconciliation.
Both spirits are vital components of my creativity today. My spirit of rebellion has been on display in my work for 40 years, in the Imaro stories and the tales of Dossouye, my black Amazon warrior. In First Calling, the time for reconciliation is here.
— Charles R. Saunders
You can purchase Abegoni: First calling here:
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.
Changa met his crews on the dock the next morning. The mabaharia went about their normal maintenance duties, with Yusef yelling at them every step of the way.
“Yusef!” Changa called out. “Gather the men.”
Yusef waved then hurried about as fast as his large bulk would allow. Moments later the men stood before Changa, curious looks gracing their faces.
“I don’t have to tell you that my business has not been well,” Changa said. “Many of Belay’s friends have chosen not to do business with me. Because of this I must forge new relationships. But that does not help us now. The dhows must be maintained and we all must eat.”
“What must we do, Kibwana?” Yusef said. “We will starve before we leave you.”
The looks on the others faces told Changa that they did not agree with his bulky friend.
“There is a place that may hold the answer to our dilemma,” Changa said. “Kilwa Malikiya.”
One of the baharia stepped forward, a short man as broad as he was tall.
“What’s on your mind, Niko?” Changa asked.
“Every man here has heard of Kilwa Malikiya, bwana,” he said. “It is not real. It is a myth.”
Changa reached into his bag then took out Belay’s map.
“I was given this map by Bwana Belay before he died. It is a map that shows the location to Kilwa Malikiya. I plotted a route to the island last night.”
The men gathered around him, staring at the map. Niko shook his his head.
“Many maps are wrong, bwana,” he said. “Just because this map shows the island does not mean it exists.”
Changa nodded as he rolled up the map. “I’m not asking anyone to come with me. I plan to set sail this afternoon. I would love to have my crew around me, but I will not ask you to risk your lives on a safari that may not bear fruit. Each man makes his own decision.”
“They say other things about Kilwa Mlikiya as well, bwana,” Niko said.
“If you believe the city is a myth, why would believe anything else said about it?” Changa asked.
“I am with you kibwana!” Yusef announced.
Changa grinned. “Thank you, Yusef.”
One by one the baharia joined Changa and Yusef. Soon only Niko stood opposite them.
“I can’t,” he said. “I will not follow a myth.”
Changa approached Niko then placed a friendly hand on his shoulder.
“I understand, Niko. Go be with your family. There will be a place for you with my crew when we return.”
“I hope that you do,” Niko said.
Niko walked away, peering back at the others until he merged into the Mombasa crowds.
“Yusef, you will come with me to the market. We must gather supplies for the journey,” Changa said.
“The rest of you prepare the dhow. We set sail as soon as Yusef and I return.”
Changa visited his counting room before they visited the market. He opened his chest then frowned. There was enough for supplies to take them to and from the island. If there was no treasure on Kilwa Malikiya he would be ruined.
Yusef entered the room.
“Kibwana, are you ready?” he said.
Changa closed the chest then lifted it.
“Yes, Yusef. I’m ready.”
The two spent the remainder of the day procuring supplied from the market. When they returned they loaded supplies on the dhows then shared a meal with the men on the docks. Changa didn’t return to his counting room that night; instead he slept on deck with his crews, savoring the open air and the clear skies. There was a time in his life long ago when his view was that of a stone room to a small cell. His days were filled with training; when he wasn’t training he was fighting for his life. Since the day he fled his homeland twenty years ago his life had been one struggle after another. To lay on his back and gaze at the stars was truly a gift, a blessing he owed to Belay.
Niko’s doubts intruded on his musing. The baharia was always a contrary one, but for some reason his doubts seemed to linger on Changa’s mind. Changa had seen many strange and wonderful things in his life and he knew that nothing was beyond possibility. Kilwa Milikya may be a myth, but he had to try. He had no choice.
Mombasa slumbered under a sliver of a moon, the eastern monsoons blowing a warm wind across the waters. The beaches were empty save the dhows, the baharia that sailed them daily either gone to their homes in the stone town or country town. The stone warehouses bordering the beach landings were empty as well, all save one small warehouse near the water’s edge. In a cramped room on the second floor a wax candle sat lit on a writing table, illuminating the area with its wavering light. A heavy set man sat at the table, reading numbers scribbled on the yellowed pages of his journey. He turned the pages with one hand while scratching his bearded chin with the other.
Changa closed the journal then leaned back, raising his chair onto the back legs.
“Belay, you taught me many things, but not everything,” he whispered.
The day Changa learned his mentor Belay had bequeath his shipping business to the young Bakonga was a joyous day. Never before had a Swahili merchant done such a thing. It was well known among the other merchants that Belay favored Changa and treated him as a son. But to deny his own sons the business for a non-Swahili was unheard of.
Changa’s joy soon became worry. Many of Belay’s old business partners were not happy with his choice and refused to do business with Changa. He still retained the ivory trade, but other business disappeared. He could barely pay his men and his bills, let alone afford the basic necessities for himself. Belay’s true sons circled him like scavengers, ready to pounce in and take the business if he failed. Changa was determined not to do so.
Still, he could not continue as he was doing. He needed to find new customers and he needed to find a new source of revenue. Creditors were out of the question.
Changa pulled open the desk drawer then removed a map, spreading it on the table. It was a map of the coast with each Swahili state marked. His eyes rested on one particular island to the south, close to the mainland city of Sofala and the Kilwa Sultanates.
“Kilwa Malikiya,” Changa said. “Could you be the answer to my troubles?”
Belay had talked often of the island. The legend said it was one of the few Swahili cities ruled by a woman, her name lost in the annals of time. It was said that she was the first to trade with the Benematapa, gathering a vast treasure of gold and ivory. After the mysterious queen died her son gained control of the island. His reign lasted only ten years. The people of Kilwa Malikiya abruptly abandoned their island, founding the cities that now made up the Kilwa Sultanate. No one knew why they left, but the rumor was that they left all their possessions behind.
Changa took out his instruments, confirming the route to the island. Belay’s map was the only made that revealed the location of the island. It was an heirloom passed down through his family and the last item the old merchant gave to Changa before his death.
Changa yawned. The night was finally getting to him. He would sleep, his mind finally made up. In the morning they would sail for Kilwa Malikiya.