In the days when Tsheko and his San tribe still wore animal skins and walked barefoot, they saw their world in the Kalahari Desert as a free and wholesome place. Throughout summer and winter, they would roam the red dunes, arid water pans, and promising grasslands. By day, the men hunted antelope with bows and arrows while the women searched for water, roots, nuts, and fruit. If the land was slow to yield food, they would cut off a stem of the xhoba plant and nibble it to help them forget their hunger and thirst, often for weeks on end.
In the evenings, it was the family’s habit to gather outside their makeshift grass shelters around the campfire to eat and talk, before the adults started singing and dancing. Those blessed with the medicine power would enter into a trance to connect with the spirits of the plants, animals, and weather, asking them to feed the hungry, heal the sick, keep the children from harm, dissolve tribal tension, or make rain. Tsheko and his people believed these gods lived in the north, east, south, and west, as well as in the upper and lower worlds. And they trusted in the dead, who always returned to the supreme god in the sky, to provide guidance to the living.
One night, as Tsheko sat with his family under the luminous stars clumped together in their mystifying galaxies, he reflected on the steady pattern of their lives. The men were puffing on their pipes and boasting about the day’s hunt. The women were laughing at their stories while licking the fat of their eland meal from their fingers. A short distance away, the children were feeding maroela berries to meerkats foraging for food.
When a lonesome cry rolled across the dunes, everyone fell silent. Tsheko brushed his hand over his hair and brought it to rest on his cheek. Tilting his head slightly to tune his good ear into the darkness, he nodded at the heh-heh-heh cackles that followed—a pack of hyenas answering the call of one that had strayed. That set off the grown-ups exchanging animal stories, filling the air with joy and the popping sounds of their language. The theatrics drew the children close, some listening open-mouthed, others giggling with glee.
Tsheko observed the excitement around him with the pride befitting his role of village elder. He draped an arm around his best-loved granddaughter, Kifelwe, a quiet little girl with dreamy eyes who liked to talk to herself rather than play with the others—the way he used to be as a child. The hour’s gaiety slipped into his heart. Warmed his body. The spirits had been in a good mood lately. The family had eaten well the last few weeks, and there had been no deaths for months. His gratitude stirred up memories, loosening his tongue.
Tsheko waved his arms to gather the other children, “Come, come; let me tell you the story about Hyena and Lion.” A number of boys immediately went down on all fours, sniffed at the ground a few times, and threw their heads back to imitate the silly cackles of the hyena and the fearless roar of the lion. One lost his balance and knocked over the others, at which point the girls all burst out laughing.
Waiting for the children to settle down, Tsheko cleared his throat to mimic the voices of his story characters: “One day, the animal kingdom was gathering at a giant waterhole to celebrate their good life, just like we’re doing tonight. When Hyena joined the festivity, some of the animals turned their backs on him and went tee-hee-hee into their paws. But when Lion arrived, they all formed a circle around him to admire his yellow mane glowing like the sun, before presenting him with gifts. It made Hyena angry that Lion, for no reason other than being able to roar like thunder, had become the most popular and richest animal in the kingdom. So, Hyena stepped forward and said, ‘Lion, we know you’re stronger than Cheetah, but Cheetah is faster than you.’ His honey-coated words made Cheetah purr happily, but Lion shook his head and said, ‘That’s not true.’”
Stopping to take a breath, Tsheko thumped his chest to imitate Lion’s indignation, before continuing his story; “‘Then you’ll have to show us,’ Hyena said, ‘because we don’t believe you. Let’s see you race against each other.’ All the other animals stamped their paws in agreement. So, Lion and Cheetah agreed, and as soon as they set off across the great salt pan to a faraway baobab tree to see who’d get there first, Hyena slipped away and crept into Lion’s den.”
The children gasped, and Tsheko paused with his lips slightly parted and his eyes wide to increase the tension of his storytelling: “Hyena was delighted to find Lion’s mate and their youngest cub in the hideout. Acting very quickly, he killed the lioness and ate her cub, before stuffing their food and possessions into a bag.”
At this moment, Tsheko chomped wildly into the air, and the little ones shrieked, causing the older ones to laugh; “When Hyena heard the animals applauding, he knew the race was over, so he ran away with his treasure to hide behind a nearby shrub. From there, he watched Lion snarl and hiss and growl and swish his tail, clawing at the ground when he realized he’d been cheated. All the other animals cowered in fear, but the spectacle just made Hyena go heh-heh-heh into his paw.”
Tsheko scanned his big-eyed audience, licking his lips, “So, that was how the hyena got to laugh in such a mean way, and why the lion became so jealous of his pride.” When Tsheko threw his arms into the air to signal the end of his story, Kifelwe clapped her hands and jumped up to give him a hug. He acknowledged her love with a softness that sprang from deep inside his chest and pulled at the dry crevices of his face.
As the moon grew larger, the steady beat of a drum filled the air. The children started yawning and huddled together. The women began to sing, while the men danced in a circle, seed-filled rattles tied to their ankles. Too old for dancing, Tsheko rocked on his haunches with his head resting in the palm of his hand. As the rhythm of his body increased, he felt a lightness come over him and his anticipation grew. He’d thrown the bones earlier that day, asking the spirits about the black, spear-carrying tribes with war-scarred faces who’d been invading the Bushmen’s grassland with their fat cattle.
There had also been stories from other San tribes of white people wearing strange clothes, who were setting up stakes in areas where they could mine for diamonds deep under the ground. So, Tsheko’s question was: “If the Bushmen were expected to share their land with these new people whose beliefs and desires seemed to burn like a fever, shouldn’t they be sharing their cattle and diamonds with the Bushmen?” A snake spirit from the underground had shown up to assure Tsheko that guidance would be provided from above to help him understand the changing world. It was with that promise in mind that Tsheko now gazed deep into the fire, the flaming faces of the ancestors beckoning him. Eager for the spirits to work through him, he kept rocking, awaiting the trance. The tempo of the drums sped up and he rocked faster and faster, until his body started vibrating. When his feet left the ground, he flew through the air into a space brighter than daylight.
This time, his father’s spirit was waiting on the other side, welcoming him with a wave. You did well by telling the story of the hyena and the lion, he said. The people must know that no good can come of greed and jealousy. Now you have one more duty—to transfer wisdom to a young one destined for great bravery and compassion.
“Who’s the chosen one?” Tsheko asked.
Kifelwe, his father said.
“No! A girl? And my little Kifelwe? She’s only walked the earth for eight summers.”
Don’t wait, his father said. Do it tonight. Soon, it will be the end of the old ways.
Tsheko felt the connection break and his spirit falling back through the stars into his body. When he came to, strong arms were holding him down, his body wracked with spasms. He sat up, his eyes searching for his granddaughter. From across the fire, leaning against her mother, half-asleep, Kifelwe smiled gently when their eyes connected. Shakily, Tsheko got to his feet, went to stand behind the little one, bent down and blew the power of the ancestors into the back of her head. Kifelwe’s body went limp. Her mother gasped. Becoming aware of a hushed silence, Tsheko noticed that all eyes were on him. He nodded to reassure his people, even though he felt as parched as the desert, like all the blood had gone from his body.
Slowly, the group dispersed. But Tsheko remained until the fire had fizzled out, watching the stars vanish one by one, waiting for the supreme god in the sky to change night to day.
Belinda Nicoll holds an MFA degree from Queens University of Charlotte. Her writings can be found in My Gutsy Story Anthology, Eclectic Flash, IHRAF, Mystery Tribune, Tupelo Press, Reader’s Digest, and Friday Flash Fiction, as well as upcoming editions of Levitate and Mystery Tribune.