02 Mar Downriver With Elombe
“Downriver With Elombe”Written by Nick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 30 minutes
For Elombe, at first, the night began like any other.
Wakefulness came in a flash. He sat upright in his straw mat, fingers clenched tight around his spear. There had been a chui prowling through their village the last few weeks; it had already dragged away one little girl, whose head they had found stuffed up a tree two days after the attack. Elombe had expected to hear the rallying shouts of the other men, the beast’s sinister growl, or even the soft clicking of its claws over the leaf litter.
Save for the crackling of the communal fire, the night was silent and peaceful.
Elombe rubbed the side of his head. His warrior training had pounded in him a pinpoint ability to rise from sleep at the first sign of trouble. Some intrusion had to have woken him up…he could feel it in the air, a sort of unspeakable disruption in his space. His bare toe stroked something at the foot of his mat, and he sprang to a defensive posture, his spear arm poised, ready to strike.
Confusion followed, then swelling joy. At the foot of his mat was a small wooden statue, a carving of a mythical, toothy fish known to them as the mbenga. Elombe dropped his spear and snatched the carving, cradling it with reverence. Its appearance in his tent only meant one thing…one glorious, life-changing thing.
Rising to his feet, Elombe felt as though he was floating out of his tent and across the village square. He could see his fellow villagers peeking out at him from behind their own tents, eyes alight with admiration. Only a few young warriors had ever been bestowed this honor, and Elombe had been a unanimous favorite among them. No shame in savoring some of the adulation.
The warm glow of the communal fire fell behind him as he strode deliberately into the blackened jungle. Making this trek in the dead of night was madness, especially with a man-eating chui stalking about, but Elombe knew it was the only way to get where he needed to go. Besides, passing through the beast’s territory might have been one part of the initiation, a test to prove his courage.
Through the trees in front of him, a new firelight appeared, this one raging and yellow in color. It had been made very recently. For him.
Holding the mbenga out like an offering, he pushed through the growth and emerged into the clearing. Just like he had heard about, five figures stood around a roaring campfire, garbed in feathers, paint, and lavish, colorful fabrics. They radiated power and benevolence, regarding Elombe as if he were already one of their own. He stopped in front of the fire, gazing upon them through the flames.
The center Elder stepped forward. “Elombe,” he decreed. “Brave one. You have been called here on request of the Elders. Your beacon is that of the mbenga, on account of your ferocity in combat and the pursuit of game. Do you embrace the mbenga as your own till your dying breath?”
Elombe raised the beacon above his head, his arms trembling with nerves. “Yes. I embrace it.”
The Elder nodded. “Then let the skies consume your pledge.”
Elombe knelt and placed the beacon in the center of the fire, barely registering the brief scalding on his hands. As he watched, the statue erupted into flames and developed a charred crust, sparkling with orange embers. Elombe sucked in a breath. He knew at this point in the initiation there was no going back. However, that was also the extent of what he had been allowed to know. He stood and looked back up at the Elders, awaiting further command.
Movement behind him triggered his warrior’s reflex, and he snapped around to see five other fully-clad Elders, their twisted faces devilish in the light. The ten of them had encircled him. The mood suddenly took on a menacing air.
“Elombe. Filthy worm! Lower than dirt!” one of them snarled, striking him with a wispy switch. Elombe flinched at the lash, suppressing his urge to hit back. It’s part of the rite, he realized, a red mark searing on his forearm.
“Carrion-eater!” another cursed, whipping his back.
“Pond scum!” a third spat, smacking the back of his calf. His leg buckled, and Elombe fell to his knees once more as the soft, sharp blows rained down upon him.
His skin stung with pain as he cowered lower, covering the back of his neck, his wounds burning from the nearby flames.
“On your feet, maggot,” an Elder rasped. Elombe stood up again, tall and proud despite his agony. “A hundred lashings upon you, and a hundred thousand more if you speak of this to anyone, by our word,” the Elder said. “What happens here stays here, even if you emerge from your trials alive. Tell us you understand!”
“I understand,” Elombe declared, trying to stop his heart from jumping up his throat.
“To become an Elder, you must prove yourself amid endless suffering and torment,” another said. “But physical and spiritual strength is not enough. You must also show initiative. Leadership. And compassion.” She grabbed a burning piece of wood from the fire and held it aloft like a torch, beckoning Elombe to follow.
“If you desire to become a leader of men,” she explained, walking into the forest, “then you must do exactly that.” Elombe trailed her; his enthusiasm flipped over to pure, unbridled anxiety. The full weight of not knowing what the rite of initiation entailed was beginning to hit him.
They emerged into a small clearing among the trees. There was a strong odor of plant oil in the air. The torchlight illuminated five cones woven from grass and twigs, large enough for a person to crouch underneath. Elombe gaped at them. What could be their purpose?
“An hour’s walk from this spot, towards the sunrise, is a river,” the Elder said. “You and your men will navigate down that river until your final destination. It will be perilous. It is possible not all of you will make it. But only by working together and functioning as a tribe will you survive.
“If you and your men complete your journey, you will be judged on whether you deserve ascension to the Elders…or not,” she finished.
“Elder…what do you mean when you say, ‘my men?’” Elombe inquired.
Without a word, the Elder reached down and grabbed a vine from the forest floor, giving it a strong yank. The cones seemed to fly off with it – until Elombe saw that they were merely coverings for triangular wooden structures underneath. He nearly gasped at what he saw. Inside each structure was a young man, stuffed within them like caged animals, leering up at him with hatred and fear. Even in the low light, Elombe recognized the markings around their faces; they were Kushotos, members of a rival tribe whom their own had warred against for generations.
“You wish to be a leader,” the Elder decreed. “Then lead these men. Lead them down the river. You must rule. You must compromise. You must use force if necessary. But in the end, you must protect them. Right now, you are their elder, and they are your subjects.”
The Elder unsheathed an ivory knife and handed it over to Elombe. “They are in your hands. Together…persist. Together…survive.”
Then she dropped the torch and melted into the night.
Immediately the clearing burst into flames. Elombe yelped and jumped away from the fire – the plant oil odor reeked more strongly than before. They planned this! Elombe realized, dumbfounded, the hair on his shins singed off.
The Elder called out from afar. “Do not let the forest burn! What kind of leader lets his forest burn?”
Elombe snapped out of it and fell to the ground, digging up soil and tossing it over the flames. A quarter of the fire was snuffed out after a few moments of uprooting, but it spread beyond his reach, snaking up the trunks of trees. “Dammit!” he cursed, wringing his hands up the bark, desperately trying to smother the flames.
The tribesmen exploded with insults and calls. “Get us out of here!” “Let us free, you jackass!” “No! Let us help!”
Elombe nearly exploded with epiphany. He abandoned the tree and vaulted the flames, swiping his knife across the vines that bound the cages. One by one, the wooden structures collapsed, and the young tribesmen broke out of them. Ignoring him, they rushed over to the fires and stomped, dug up, or flattened themselves over the flames. Elombe darted among them, quelling whatever flames had engulfed the tree trunks.
Slowly, the firelight began to die, until there was nothing left except the smell of smoke and burnt hair. Elombe couldn’t see anyone, but the sounds of their breathing suggested there were no serious injuries.
“Well,” one of them called out, “any last words, you barbarous wretch?”
“No, Kabalu!” another one yelled. “He is armed! He will gut you like a fish!”
“Five against one! We can take him!”
“Stop! If we go with him on his journey, then the rest of us will be freed! That’s what the woman told us!”
“Imani, you impotent mouth-breather,” a third voice spoke up. “He is of the Kusini tribe. What do they know about grace or integrity? The moment we let our guard down, he will butcher us and devour our hearts.”
“Kabunji, you are blinded by hate,” a fourth, calmer voice said. “Whatever these Kusinis have planned for us, the only way we will survive is if we stick together. I’m afraid we don’t have a choice.”
“Kusinis fuck their mothers, he will fuck us too!” Kabalu protested. “We can escape! We can run! Come on, let’s run!” There was the sound of fleeing footsteps, which slowly faltered upon realizing no others had joined him. “Are you kidding me right now?” Kabalu said, exasperated.
“Put it to a vote,” the fourth Kushoto said. “Majority rule. Either we go with him, or we attack and flee. All in favor of going with him?”
“Imani,” said Imani, thumping his bare chest.
“Lomba,” the fourth voice concurred, thumping his own chest. There was a brief silence until Lomba spoke again. “Attack and flee?”
“Kabalu.” “Kabunji.” Two chest thumps, tying the vote. Caught up in his stupor, Elombe realized the fifth Kushoto hadn’t said anything yet.
“Tshibola,” Lomba said. “What is your vote?”
What followed was a throaty, guttural croak, like wet rocks grinding against each other. The fifth man descended into a gunky coughing fit.
“Speak!” Kabalu demanded. “Give us a sign! Anything at all!”
Tshibola prostrated before them, rasping again, unable to articulate. “It has gotten very bad,” Imani commented. “Soon it will reach his brain…”
“What a beautiful picture,” Kabunji commented.
Elombe, transfixed by the spectacle, suddenly realized a potential majority of them wanted to kill him. “If this man cannot speak for himself, then I will break the tie,” he declared. “And I vote that you all come with me, and we will endure this hardship together. As a tribe.”
“Such arrogance!” Kabalu snapped. “Befitting of a mother-fucking Kusini!”
“This ‘mother-fucking Kusini’ also has the knife,” Elombe growled, brandishing it. He was unsure if Kabalu could even see it, but his voice shook with anger. “We will work together and get through this. But right now, if you act up, I will, as your friend put it, gut you like a fish.”
Quiet followed, broken by Tshibola’s incoherent sputtering. His night vision adjusting, Elombe could clearly read the uncertainty on the Kushotos’ faces.
“Fine. But I don’t approve,” Kabalu groaned.
“Nor do I,” Kabunji said darkly.
Tshibola gave another hacking wheeze. Elombe winced, figuring that was his way of voicing disapproval. Thank God I stepped up, he thought.
“Sunrise is in an hour or two,” said Imani. “If we start now, we should reach the riverbank by first light.”
“Stay close,” Elombe commanded as they grouped together and began walking. “A chui has been wandering these parts. It already killed one of our own.”
“No less than they deserved,” Kabalu muttered, pushing past him.
Elombe’s knuckles whitened over the knife’s hilt, but he forced himself to simmer down. The rational man in him knew showing too much force early on might be counterintuitive. At least two were willing to give him a chance…that was an edge he did not want to lose.
Tshibola’s breathing became harsh, but their walk through the forest went uninterrupted. There was no sign of the chui, or any other animal for that matter. We could be a force to be reckoned with, Elombe observed, feeling the first fragments of an inexplicable camaraderie form among them. I pray it comes to fruition.
* * * * * *
The first lazy rays of sun peeked over the treeline by the time the party arrived at the river. The water before them was turgid and brown, with a slight current. Elombe grimaced. It was deeper than he had hoped, but at least it would only require minimal paddling.
He paused. They had nothing to paddle, much less anything to paddle with.
“So, great leader, how are we to traverse this river?” Kabalu said, crossing his arms.
“We could comb the bank,” Elombe responded, not making eye contact with him.
“Bad idea,” Imani countered. “The trees are too thick, and the rocks are too steep. It’s not worth the risk.”
“We need a vessel, then,” said Elombe. “Even something like a raft could hold the six of us. We just need manpower and time.”
“Do you know how to build a raft?” Kabunji inquired. “Or how to guide it downriver? Are you aware of the perils involved? No? I thought not. Kusinis are jungle-dwellers and dirt-grubbers. We Kushotos know the river…we five can traverse these waters with our eyes closed. Let’s put it up to another vote. All in favor of Kushotos overseeing the construction of the raft?”
The five tribesmen’s hands wavered, about to thump their chests. Elombe felt a sudden flash of authority. “We are not putting this to a vote,” he said. “I will not allow anyone – least of all, the likes of you – to oversee the raft. I will designate our duties.”“ He regarded the five tribesmen before him. Despite at least two of them signaling nonaggressive intent, he couldn’t discount the possibility of them choosing to commandeer the raft and leave him behind. Once more, force had to be necessary…and cunning.
Elombe reached down and picked a twig off the ground. “There is complete silence among us now. Only those who hold this stick will be granted permission to speak.” He then brandished the knife. “Anyone who violates the silence will be cut down, by my word.”
Their mutinous expressions said more than words ever could, but they remained tight-lipped.
Elombe then handed the stick to Tshibola, who was swaying on the spot nearest to him. The other four tribesmen were aghast. “You will be my emissary,” said Elombe. “Help me lead these men in building our raft.”
Tshibola gave another wordless rasp, his unfocused eyes blazing with indignation. But he turned to the others and made wild gestures, and they reluctantly set about gathering materials for their raft.
As Elombe had hoped, the work was completely silent, thus denying them the ability to conspire among themselves. While Imani and Kabalu dragged logs and timber from the jungle, Lomba and Kabunji took to gathering vines and lashing the wood together. The morning sun rose higher, bringing a stifling heat and a haze of mosquitos, and soon the air was loaded with the smells of sweat and irritation.
Tshibola ambled among the workers, lending a hand whenever he could. He would sporadically give bizarre spasms and descend into more coughing fits. Now fully in the daylight, Elombe could see his body was peppered with fresh, oozing sores. When Lomba drew close, Elombe took the stick from Tshibola and passed it on to him.
“Tell me what’s wrong with him,” Elombe whispered.
Lomba continued his knotwork but whispered back. “Tshibola has been invaded by unclean creatures. Funza, we call them. It is too late for him. He is…far gone.”
Tshibola doubled over and hacked some congealed substance onto the muddy bank. He glared back up at them, giving a gurgling hiss. Elombe willed himself to glare back. The other three, however, were showing signs of weakness themselves; after an hour their work had become clumsy and slow.
“Leader,” Lomba continued, “we have not eaten in days. I know there are fruitful grounds downriver. We must embark now and find food, or else we will be too weak to continue.”
Elombe scrutinized him, but looked around and saw that the others had stopped to stare pathetically at him. Even Tshibola, despite his affliction, seemed as though in that moment hunger were the greater threat to his health.
“GAH!” There was a snap and a sudden impact; Imani had pulled too hard on a vine, which had broken and sent his arm careening into a tree. When he retreated, his forearm was trickling with blood. Imani staggered away from it, dizzy and faint.
Elombe cringed at the display. “Sit it out, Imani. No need to expend your energy further.” Imani sank to the ground, cradling his arm and breathing sharply through his teeth. Elombe observed the raft, which, despite its misshapen beams, appeared sturdy and navigable. “This will do,” he declared. He took the stick from Lomba and handed it back to Tshibola. “Do you agree?”
Tshibola squeezed the stick as if attempting to snap it in his grasp, but he averted his gaze and nodded. The six of them lifted the raft and waded into the river, hoisting it onto the water’s surface, where it miraculously stayed afloat.
“Everybody on,” Elombe commanded. The six men clambered onto the raft; it was scarcely wide enough to accommodate them all in sitting positions, and it wobbled dangerously, but after they had settled, it righted itself and the current dragged it away from the shoreline.
They looked back at the muddy bank, which slowly disappeared as the raft drifted downriver, replaced by a tangle of trees and slippery rocks. There was no going back now. Only the waters would determine their fate.
* * * * * *
After two hours, the sun had reached a baking point, and the current had slowed to something less than a crawl. Elombe’s back and legs ached from his awkward position. Imani and Kabunji, sitting by the front edge, had resorted to paddling with their hands, but it was inefficient and wasteful work, accomplishing little more than spinning the raft around.
Water seeped up through the cracks in the raft, stroking their bottoms and the back of their thighs. It didn’t take long for the first signs of blisters to form there. It wasn’t even noon their first day, but it felt as though they had been castaways for weeks. There was a rancid stench smothering them; Elombe realized it was Tshibola’s wounds putrefying in the tropical heat. The smell combined with that of sweat and bad breath had only served to weaken them further.
“I’m so hungry,” Kabalu moaned.
“We have to find food soon…we haven’t eaten since your people captured us,” said Imani.
“A few more bends in the river, and we’ll arrive at a grove of embe trees,” Lomba informed. “But at this rate…even if we get there, I doubt we’ll have the strength…”
“Fine,” Elombe said, “everyone start paddling now. We will arrive at the grove, and we’ll get ourselves fed.”
Elombe stroked his palm flat through the water, but the rest were slow to respond, and after only a minute it became clear it wouldn’t be enough.
“He’s killing us,” Kabunji hissed. “We will paddle this cursed vessel until we’re skeletons.”
“This raft is not adequate!” Imani protested. “Even with proper paddles, it would not even cross a cattle pond.”
“You lying mendes! You all testified to its integrity!” Elombe scolded.
“We didn’t,” Kabunji reminded, pointing at Tshibola. “He did. For some reason, you let that walking corpse dictate the finer details of our raft.”
Tshibola sneered in response. Elombe groaned, placing his face in his hands. His decision had been made to try and prevent an uprising…some form of tactful distrust. But it seemed neither option would have paid off. He gripped the hilt of his knife again, ruing his misfortune.
Something bumped the raft. The men jumped to high alert, staring into the water, but visibility was still poor. They looked at each other and Elombe knew they were thinking the same thing: a mamba, the armored scaly creatures that basked on the shores with open mouths.
Then a red fin broke the surface. Elombe’s fear changed to unknowing, but the rest of them gasped with a new kind of dread.
“Ngewsh,” Lomba stammered. “They smelled blood…”
Imani gripped his wounded forearm, shaking his head and whispering frantically to himself. Elombe stared wildly at them. “What is ngwesh?!”
“They are like mbenga, but smaller, and hunting in packs,” said Lomba. “They’ll rip us apart like wild dogs…” One of the ngwesh stuck its head out of the water, scoping the raft. Its stout face bristled with conical teeth too big for its jaws. A dozen more red fins broke the surface, flanking the raft like pallbearers.
“Looks like we’ll become skeletons sooner than we thought,” said Kabunji.
“Those devils will tear right through the raft!” Kabalu yelled.
“Jump ship, Imani!” Kabunji urged. “It’s your blood that drew them here!”
“Quiet, you!” Elombe yelled, pointing his knife. “You do not give orders on my raft!”
“They have been driven mad by his blood!” Kabunji retorted.
Elombe stood and the raft wobbled again. “If anyone lays a hand on him it won’t just be his blood in the water!” He kneeled back down. “Everybody paddle! We need to get this raft to shore!”
“No!” Lomba cried. “Stick our hands in the water and we lose them!”
Elombe nearly threw his knife away in frustration. The ngwesh were pushing their snouts against the beams, nipping at the vines holding them together. The water around the raft boiled with the sweeping of excited tails. He looked around for anything…a rock, an overhanging branch to grab onto…
The click of a pair of jaws, and a log below them began to sink…the men panicked, huddling close and away from the edges…
Then Elombe gazed ahead and saw it – a single fisherman in a longboat, propped between two protruding rocks, bringing in his lines for the day. The current was carrying them towards him. The ngwesh surged forth and buffeted the raft, snapping at the bare human toes mere inches away…
The fisherman turned and saw the raft accelerating towards him, plus the six wild-eyed warriors aboard. He reached for a spear in the bottom of his boat.
“Give us your boat!” Elombe shouted. “Please!”
The fisherman spat gibberish and shook his head, aiming the spear. A log detached entirely from the raft, which was now a jump’s length away from the canoe…
Time froze for Elombe. The fisherman’s garbled threats…his men’s panicked yells…the roiling water below…
Another decision to make. Cold, clear-cut, brutal. And quick.
Elombe leaped off the raft and into the fisherman’s canoe, driving his knife into the man’s shin.
He screamed and stabbed downward with his spear, but Elombe rolled over and capsized the boat. Both men tumbled into the water, and Elombe’s vision clouded with striped, red-finned fish that swarmed past him in favor of fresh blood. The fisherman’s shrieks were muffled as he took on water and dozens of mouths cleaned away his flesh.
Resurfacing, grabbing onto a rock, Elombe watched with horror as the fisherman, still screaming and thrashing, was carried downriver, surrounded by ravening fish and frothing blood. The collapsing remains of their raft were not far behind.
Elombe slowly turned his head…and nearly cried out with joy. All five of his men had survived, clinging onto the rocks. And best of all, they had saved the fisherman’s canoe.
As they climbed aboard to break in their new space, Elombe’s adrenaline seeped away and was replaced with guilt. It was the first time he had killed outside a battlefield. His victim was only trying to defend himself and his work…
Elombe wondered how his men would report the murder to the Elders, if he could even get them all alive at the end. Or what if he was a setup from the Elders, he supposed. They might be judging me already, from the trees…
“Leader,” Lomba urged. “We must go on.”
“I feel such shame knowing I brought those devils in,” muttered Imani, lowering his head. “I hope you can forgive me.”
“Such ruthlessness,” Kabunji sneered, splayed at the bottom of the boat. “The mark of a beast.” Tshibola agreed with an oily growl and a glare.
Elombe shook his head as he entered the boat himself. Can’t please everyone, he thought.
* * * * * *
The canoe proved much more navigable than the raft; there even was a proper paddle that Elombe took to help steer them through. The current had also quickened; they were cruising downriver at a moderate pace. Paddling soon became an excess rather than a necessity.
But the overhead sun continued to beat down. Tshibola had taken to picking at his sores, which sent splinters of fumes through the air as each one burst. And the five Kushotos each appeared hair’s lengths from death. Along with paddling, Elombe scanned the shores for the fruiting trees Lomba had mentioned. There were long coils of lines and hooks in the boat as well. Fishing would be too costly, but if they came across one of the fisherman’s lines on their journey…
He wouldn’t object…not now at least, Elombe thought with a shiver.
Ahead, the river widened and the shoreline flattened out. The trees there were thick and rounded, and as they approached, Elombe saw succulent green orbs clustered within their branches.
“Stay here. You all are too weak to head out,” Elombe ordered. He piloted the boat left until it ran aground on the smooth mud, then drew his knife and trudged among the trees. The embe were low-hanging; it took no effort to climb the trunks and cut great bundles down to the ground. When he had amassed a bounty fit for a small village, Elombe distributed them among the men, who peeled them and took longing bites from their yellow flesh.
“Leader,” Imani said, sitting up. “Again, I am so sorry for bringing the ngwesh in…”
“That’s in the past,” said Elombe, sitting at the bow of the boat and peeling a fruit for himself. “Besides, if not for them, I might not have made the decision to take this boat…”
“That fisherman didn’t have to die,” Kabunji responded through a mouthful of fruit. “Diplomacy was an option.”
“There was no time, Kabunji,” said Lomba.
“I commend our leader for what he did,” Imani admitted. “I doubt I would have displayed such initiative myself…”
Kabalu and Tshibola were silent. Elombe was elated…morale was the highest among them he had seen since their first night. Common sense told him it might not last…yet he couldn’t help but cherish it.
“Are my eyes failing me,” said Kabalu after a few minutes, “or is that what I think it is?”
The men turned and looked down the shoreline. A dead stump was protruding from the mud. Something long and thin was tied to it, gleaming in the sunlight and running into the water. Elombe could scarcely believe their luck…apparently, the fisherman had at least one more line to attend. If they could nab some fresh meat…
“Come, let’s go see,” said Elombe. The Kushotos followed him to the stump. Elombe ran his finger along the taut line. He gave it a brief tug and felt a jolt in his stomach. Something was on the other end.
“Help me pull this in!” he commanded. Kabalu and Imani grabbed ahold of the line and reeled it in with Elombe. As they drew more of its length, he noticed a multitude of hooks hanging from it, one every six inches. It was a long-line, with upwards of a hundred hooks to increase a fisherman’s chances of snagging a fish. “Careful, men,” Elombe warned. Their pulling became cautious and slow.
The thing at the end gave a powerful jerk, and the three men were yanked forward, their feet sliding through the mud. “Steady!” Elombe called, regaining his stance. Their collective strength granted them a few paces inland…but the fish simply dragged them back to the river again. Up front, the water was at Imani’s shins…
“Pull! Pull, men!” Elombe shouted. “Kabunji, Lomba, Tshibola, lend a hand!” The other three brought up the rear and managed to impede the fish. Their combined efforts gradually brought in more line…something swirled at the water’s surface, a fish big enough to last them days…
Behind them, Tshibola gave a rasp, then suddenly seized up and spasmed, falling forward. He collided with Elombe’s back, who in turn fell into Kabalu and Imani. Their grips failed, and the line rocketed forward once again.
This time, half a dozen hooks buried themselves into Imani and Kabalu’s arms. Before they even had time to scream, the fish had dragged them off their feet and into the water.
“NO!” Elombe shouted, letting go and diving in the river. In their frenzy, the water had become muddied and turbulent again; he couldn’t even see his hands directly in front of his face. He meandered to the side, taking care not to get hooked himself…breath-holding was a staple in his warrior training, but the raw panic in his heart threatened to squeeze the air out of his lungs as he crawled along the river bottom, further down into the cold…
The cloud of silt subsided, and Elombe could see ahead clearly. Before him was a ghastly scene. The line trailed into the watery gloom, with two human bodies struggling silently against their painful bindings. And hooked at the end was a massive vundu, a black serpentine fish with a face full of barbels, inching backwards, dragging Kabalu and Imani to their graves…
Bubbles exploded from Elombe’s mouth and he drew his knife, breaststroking down to the nearest body, Kabalu’s. The line had twisted around him, hooking his ribs and legs, immobilizing him. Yet his eyes rolled crazily in his head, and the last of his breath streamed from his lips…
Elombe stroked past him and severed the line above his arm. Robbed of forward motion, Kabalu began to sink. Elombe reached down and grabbed his other arm, kicking for the surface…but realization struck him, and he looked down to glimpse Imani, still attached to the long-line, staring up with pleading eyes as he disappeared into the depths.
Elombe and Kabalu’s heads broke the surface, and they gasped with deep breaths. Kabunji and Lomba watched with horror; Tshibola was still writhing in the mud. Elombe kicked for shore, towing Kabalu’s twisted form behind him. When they hit dry land, Elombe rolled Kabalu onto his back, and Kabunji and Lomba immediately set upon him, untangling the line and pulling out hooks as Kabalu groaned and squirmed below them.
“You brain-dead fuckwit!” Kabunji roared at Tshibola. “Look what your plague has brought upon us! And shame on you!” he shouted, turning on Elombe. “Shame on you for letting Imani drown!”
“Shut your mouth!” Elombe bellowed. “You will not speak to me that way!”
Kabunji scoffed. “I would have cut the line at Imani’s end and saved them both! You were weak! Weak and stupid! Unfit to lead these men!”
Elombe stuttered foolishly, a crawling unease overtaking him. Tshibola was still in his manic state. Below him, Kabalu’s eyes were piercing daggers. Even Lomba seemed upset and defiant.
“I take full responsibility for Imani’s death,” said Elombe, his voice trembling. “But I will not let myself be dictated by tragedy. I am your leader. I’m in charge.”
“Right, okay,” Kabunji laughed, “then take charge and do away with that rotten creature!” He pointed to Tshibola. “He’s the one who brought about Imani’s death!”
“We are not killing anyone over freak accidents!” Elombe asserted.
“He is decaying from the inside! I can smell it in the air!” Kabunji fired back. “If we keep him with us, we will certainly not survive!”
“If he dies it will not be from mine or anyone’s hand,” said Elombe. “My job is to lead these men, and I will do just that, no matter what state they are in!”
“Unless they’re dead in the water,” Kabalu muttered. He stood up, the hooks still in his forearm, glaring at Elombe. “Your judgment failed, Kusini, and now one of our own is gone. It is time we start making more communal choices if we are to survive this river.”
“I have to agree,” said Lomba. Elombe wheeled around to him, but Lomba was dead set. “I’m not saying we should kill Tshibola…but now, all of our voices must be heard. There is no more excuse.”
A gravid silence followed his decree. “…A vote, then,” Kabunji finally said. “All in favor of dispatching Tshibola?”
He thumped his chest. Kabalu thumped his chest. Elombe shook his head.
Lomba gently placed his hand over his heart. “Abstain.”
Elombe’s eyes widened at him. But Kabunji held out his hand. “Two against one. Give me the knife…time to put this thing to rest.”
“I abstained,” Lomba interjected, “but I’m proposing an alternative. We’ll tie him up, stow him in the boat like cargo. And if he acts up or threatens us…we’ll kill him.” He looked to Elombe. “I have stood with you, Kusini. I want us to succeed. But if you do not stand with me…then I will let them take the blade by force. By my word.”
Elombe was aghast. He had expected Kabalu or Kabunji to try and gain leverage over him, but Lomba had been the one to ultimately twist his arm. There was a scuffling noise at his feet, and Elombe peered down to see Tshibola, frothing at the mouth and crawling on all fours, trying and failing to push himself upright. His ebony skin was streaked with crusty yellow pus.
Elombe sighed, trying to block out the display below him. “I stand with Lomba. Tie vote…and I’m breaking it. You two, bind him up and let’s get back on the river.”
“Lomba, you have brought about our destruction,” Kabunji hissed. But the two gathered vines from the forest and proceeded to wrap up Tshibola tight like a piece of meat. He fought against them, but their combined strength was too much. Soon Tshibola was bound and floundering on the riverbank like a decapitated snake.
As Kabalu and Lomba loaded him into the boat, Elombe approached Kabunji, the point of his knife touching below his ribs. “Listen to me, you,” he whispered. “I know you didn’t ask to participate in this rite. But by my word, I will not have you sabotage it for the sake of clout.”
Kabunji didn’t even flinch as he stared back. “By my word, Kusini…the river cares not, one way or the other.”
* * * * * *
For the rest of the day, the boat drifted downriver without incident. Gorging on embe fruits did well to keep the men energized and alert. Their collective efforts were enough to remove all the hooks from Kabalu’s body, save for the ones embedded deep in his forearm. Movement in that limb was hindered, and he became reserved, slinking to the bottom of the boat in silence. Elombe didn’t care on a baseline level; he could have done without his crudeness. But with Imani gone, the balance of power was irrevocably shifted. Lomba was sensible and a gifted speaker, but Elombe doubted he could hold his own if Kabalu and Kabunji decided to attack.
At the stern of the boat, periodic thumping told them Tshibola was still alive. He was utterly unresponsive, from his own name to physical prods. Lomba had even splashed water over his face, and he didn’t so much as blink. Elombe was glad it seemed he wouldn’t have to kill him, although his surviving until the end was becoming exceedingly unlikely.
The sun was setting, and the inland was already darkened with shadow. The trees and muddy banks had given way to dense meadows of reeds. Elombe knew nighttime in this environment was prime hunting conditions for mambas. They had to find a place to land for the night…but the prospect of shutting his eyes next to Kabunji and Kabalu was downright lunacy. Perhaps if Imani had still been alive…
It’s all a test, he reminded himself as he steered the boat into a secluded patch of grass. My resolve…my nerve…my dedication…
“It is too late to travel further,” Elombe declared. “We’re overtired and still weak. We will set off again when the sun rises.”
“It’s a trick,” Kabalu declared. “The moment we lay to sleep he will have his way with us. Guard your assholes, brothers!”
Elombe was too exhausted to issue a comeback. “I will keep watch. Every one of you, get some sleep. We’re going to need everyone’s energy for tomorrow.”
“What about you, Kusini?” Lomba asked. “Perhaps we could schedule shifts?”
Elombe sighed. “I’ll be fine. This is my trial; I’m the one who must issue personal sacrifices. Keeping you all alive despite everything is my mission, and because of that, you must sleep.”
Lomba appeared uncertain, but he reluctantly reclined to the bottom of the boat. Kabalu and Kabunji followed suit. At the stern, Tshibola was still breathing, labored and grating. Elombe doubted he would survive the night.
When everyone had settled, Elombe sat at the bow, his legs curled up to his chest, gripping the knife tight. Heat lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the deep blue sky a pale, violent purple. Crickets sounded off. The boat bobbed on the surface of the water, which was like black glass. Elombe glanced down, wondering if right below them a massive vundu was cruising through, dragging Imani’s soggy corpse behind it…
The first hour dragged on. Elombe was painfully aware of every minute and second that passed. Then time entered a stagnant void. For all Elombe could gather, everything he had ever known was this one horrible night. The day’s hardships and sufferings could have been the beginning of all things…an unknowable, primordial expanse of senselessness and chaos.
Sleep tugged at his eyelids. It purred to him, seduced him, coaxed him to just give in for a few moments…
His grip on the knife tightened. “Not a chance,” he murmured. “The Elders await.”
The bobbing of the boat was peaceful. A warm breeze tickled his senses. The grass smelled crisp and sweet…
* * * * * *
The sky suddenly became the gray of morning. Elombe jerked his head up with alarm – he had let himself fall asleep! Quickly he looked around the boat…and sighed with relief when he saw all four men were accounted for. Three of them were stirring. Tshibola was completely motionless. Two down, he thought with grave finality.
“It is time, everyone,” Elombe called out, watching the three sit up and rub their eyes. “We have to set out.” He reached for the paddle, grasping it with both hands.
He hesitated. Something wasn’t right.
He dropped the paddle, the alarm rising again. “My knife!” Elombe yelled. “Where is my knife?”
The three Kushotos immediately looked around the boat. There were only the discarded skins of embe fruits. “Which of you took my knife?” Elombe bellowed. “Kabunji! Where is it?”
“I didn’t take it!” he protested.
“Perhaps you dropped it in the water when you fell asleep,” Kabalu snidely suggested.
“You knew I fell asleep?! So you know what became of it!” Elombe roared, standing up and causing the canoe to sway. “Give it back to me, right now! I’ll kill you even without it! Lomba! Lomba, back me up!”
But Lomba’s gaze was fixed somewhere behind Elombe. His eyes wide with shock, he slowly lifted a finger to his lips and pointed with his other hand. Elombe turned and looked.
His heart plummeted. At the other side of the river was a herd of kibokos entering the water for the day: great, rubbery behemoths the color of dead meat and with mouths wide enough to sit in, strong enough to crush stone. They were the most feared beasts in the lands.
“…everyone,” Elombe whispered. “Get down. Hide yourselves. We need to escape this place.”
The men ducked under the rim of the canoe, and Elombe flattened himself likewise, slowly bringing the paddle to the bow and pushing themselves out of the grass. The canoe dislodged and drifted out into the current, hugging their side, as Elombe prodded their way down the river.
The kibokos were submerged up to their faces, but they swiveled around to watch. Their tiny ears flicked, steam rose from their nostrils. There was a low rumble in the water that caused their canoe to vibrate. Kibokos were so feared due to their unpredictable, unrestrained tempers. They were herbivores, but their bony, wicked teeth rivaled those of typical predators. They would gore a man just as easily as they would uproot aquatic plants.
The herd spilled down the opposite bank, at least a hundred strong. Elombe cursed to himself, continuing to push them along. It might take all morning to sneak past them…
Something moved at the back of the boat. Elombe chanced a glance back and nearly pissed himself.
Tshibola had sat up, his head drooping listlessly. He gave a wet heaving sound as he tried spreading his limbs. The vines strained against him, but he continued to push, so hard that his putrid flesh gave way underneath the bindings. Blood and pus ran down his body as he dipped his face to the sky and gave an unearthly gargling cry.
“Shut him up!” Elombe hissed, and Lomba crawled over to Tshibola, trying to pull him down. The kibokos grunted in response, a few creeping across the river towards their canoe.
There was a snap like a gunshot. Tshibola had broken through the vines and stood up. His flesh was perforated with slashes, courtesy of the vines, and along with bodily fluids, small white grubs were falling from his wounds. The smell that surged forth nearly knocked Elombe out; Lomba scurried backwards in disgust.
“Ditch him!” Kabunji yelled, his hand over his mouth and nose. “Push him overboard!”
Lomba hesitated an instant too long. Tshibola gave a kick that struck him in the face, then with one final shriek, curled his fingers into claws and tore at his abdomen.
His stomach cavity opened like a purse. Along with the decayed remnants of his organs, veritable bucketfuls of maggots poured from his body, cascading to the bottom of the boat, spreading out like water. The men cried out and thrust themselves away from him – the momentum sent the boat to the center of the river – and Elombe, panicking along with them, turned to see an enraged kiboko surging towards them.
The beast’s force capsized the canoe. All five men went into the water, swirling with maggots and silt and blood.
Elombe, in a blind frenzy, struggled to right himself, spiraling downriver with the current. He saw the overturned boat above him, drifting just out of reach. He resurfaced and wheeled around. Tshibola’s mangled corpse was set upon by kibokos. Kabunji and Lomba popped out of the water, swimming towards him.
Beyond them, Kabalu’s good arm had snagged on a protruding log. His lame arm lacked the strength to push himself free. And a kiboko was approaching him with murderous calm.
“NO!” Elombe shouted, tearing through water and kicking himself against the current towards him. He pushed and surged, thinking of nothing more than reaching Kabalu, to set him loose, to defy the infuriated beast to his left…
Elombe reached the log. He wrapped his arms around it and gave an almighty heave.
The kiboko opened its mouth and pounced.
Kabalu and the log dislodged into the current just as the kiboko’s jaws slammed shut. Water and splintered wood rained down in an explosion. With Kabalu freed, Elombe grabbed him and sent him downriver away from the beast. He swam for his life, distancing himself from the kiboko, which had turned to pursue him…
Elombe streaked past another body…his momentum carried him too far, and he pivoted to see Lomba, dazed, trying to keep himself afloat…and the kiboko’s cavernous jaws opening wide behind him.
For a brief moment, Lomba looked as though he was sitting in a bizarre, toothy throne. Then the beast closed its mouth, and Lomba caved in.
Bones snapped and cracked. Blood burst from its maw like an engorged tick. The beast shook its head, scattering scraps of meat and entrails across the river.
Riddled with shock and despair, Elombe’s animal instincts took over and he swam off once more, not caring about the other men, the Elders, the rite of passage. All he knew was survival, plain and simple.
The boat was just ahead, right-side up and stuck in grasses again. Elombe glanced over his shoulder. The herd of kibokos was far behind, the water around them stained crimson. Tears finally broke through, and he sobbed as he performed blubbering half-strokes towards the canoe. He had lost everyone…his rite of passage had failed. His only mission now was getting out alive.
He arrived at the canoe and hoisted himself aboard, pushing it off back to the current. It took a minute for him to lift his head and realize that at least one of his men had made it.
“Welcome back, ‛leader,’” said Kabunji, sitting at the bow of the boat. He set his chin on his fist and gazed in mock contemplation at Elombe. “Tell me…where is Lomba?”
Elombe shook his head, too ashamed to look him in the face.
Kabunji, by contrast, nodded. “…And Kabalu?”
“I don’t know.” Elombe could barely speak. “I didn’t see. He could have survived…”
“Doubtful,” Kabunji snapped. “I told you, Kusini. I said to dispatch Tshibola the day before. We could have easily snuck past the kiboko. I have done it countless times myself. But…once again…you were weak and stupid. You let Lomba get the better of your judgment. And now, your time is up.” He placed his hand over his heart. “I’m the leader now.”
“No,” Elombe muttered. “No matter what happens…you will never be the leader.”
“No?” Kabunji replied. “What if I stab you in the guts?”
He reached behind his back and pulled out a horribly familiar knife. “…Will I be the leader then, Kusini?”
Then he jumped forward and buried the blade in Elombe’s stomach.
The pain spiked the rage of war through Elombe’s body and he lashed out, striking Kabunji in the face, blinding him in one eye – Elombe kicked him off and sprang to his knees…he could feel the blade scraping against his innards…Kabunji scrambled to his feet, his left eye shut and bruised. Screaming with fury he charged at Elombe, who caught him by his wrists and tried throwing him overboard…but Kabunji kicked and connected with Elombe’s jaw, knocking teeth down his throat…
The boat began to spin, and Kabunji fell to the bottom. The current picked up. The river almost seemed to slope downward. Amid a high-pitched whine in Elombe’s ears, he heard a new, lower sound…that of rushing, falling water…
Kabunji’s hand grabbed for the blade’s hilt in Elombe’s stomach, who punched him in the face. Kabunji fell back again, and the boat descended into a dizzying spiral…Elombe could feel blood pooling behind the blade, it was sapping from his limbs, gathering in a backlog…Kabunji was crawling for him again, his maniacal breathing drowned out by the waterfall…
Elombe kicked out again and hit Kabunji in the ribs. It knocked the wind out of him, but not enough to immobilize. Recovered, his face contorted demonically, Kabunji reached down, his thumbs aimed at Elombe’s eyes…
In a flash, Elombe unsheathed the knife from his guts and stabbed Kabunji between the ribs.
Kabunji’s last breath was not a scream, but a choke, as blood filled his throat and leaked from his mouth. As the boat spun again, sucked forward by the waterfall, he staggered briefly and fell to his knees, his eyes locked onto Elombe’s, rage and regret burning inside them.
Then the fire went out, and he keeled over in a puddle of red.
The canoe took a nosedive. Elombe’s world was flipped ninety degrees; he was sitting up and looking ahead, and somehow he could see the sky above.
The air filled with vapor and mist as they plummeted. His vision became moisture and color and sharp winds. His body left the canoe. A geyser of blood shot up from his stab wound, for a moment mixing with the waterfall, a streak of red among frothy white…
A deafening explosion. A slamming force on his head and back. A suction that launched him through the water, sliding past rocks and tumbling like a stone rolling downhill.
His brain was a scrambled mush in his skull. His lungs had shriveled and detached. His stomach was a blazing furnace underwater. Yet, he was still alive, something only slightly more than a ghost. The river carried him away from the falls into clear, calm waters. He could see the late morning sun glittering through the surface like a solar crystal.
Rough, warm hands dragged him from the water onto a sandy beach.
Elombe’s vision was dimming, yet he could make out their faces, more from memory than sight. The village Elders…he had scarcely been gone two days, but they felt like aliens to him.
“Elombe,” a voice said. “Brave one.”
“You have been through much,” another said. “Though I fear you will not live to see the afternoon.”
“You have been a brave, fierce leader,” a third proclaimed. “But it appears none of your men have survived…”
“You made mistakes,” the second Elder said. “You were responsible and repentant for them. But mistakes were made indeed.”
“Should we induct him?” the first Elder inquired. “Has a posthumous admittance been done before?”
“I’m not sure,” the third responded. “But he will receive a warrior’s funeral…if not an Elder’s…”
As his life slowly left his body, Elombe gave a weak groan. If only they had truly known all that had happened…yet they were deliberating his worthiness over his dying shell, leaning towards a firm yet reluctant “no”…
Then, the Elders’ chatter ceased. They all stared at something back towards the waterfall. Elombe could hear sloshing and panting. Someone was emerging from the river.
Summoning the last of his strength, he turned his head to look.
Standing at the water’s edge was Kabalu. He was battered and bruised, dragging his leg, his lame arm beaten to the bone. He limped up the shore, his gaze fixed on Elombe. The Elders bristled, as if expecting the Kushoto to deliver a last-ditch effort to finally kill him.
But Kabalu stopped. He raised his good arm and pointed at him.
“This man,” he croaked. “This…brave, brave man…risked all he had to save me…and try to save my brothers…”
Kabalu’s knees threatened to buckle. He took one more breath and willed himself to stay upright. “Honor him. From one…dying man, to another…honor him. Know him, as…brave. A just and true leader. …By my word.”
Then he collapsed into the sand.
The sounds of the waterfall became muffled and hazy. Elombe’s vision faded away entirely. But the last things he saw were the Elders’ hands hovering over his face, and the last thing he heard was their simultaneous decree.
“Elombe…brave one…we induct you into the council of Elders. Go forth with wisdom and strength. And, just as he brought you in, let the mbenga guide you into the worlds beyond.”
No amount of darkness had ever seemed so peaceful to Elombe as he drifted off, ready to reap the wilds of the afterlife, as the Kusini tribe’s newest Elder.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableNick Carlson Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Nick CarlsonPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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An awesome story.