“It’s not what you call me, but what I answer to that matters the most.” – African Proverb
The nightclub vomited its occupants onto the cobbled streets. Laughing figures tumbled through the cold, some falling to the pavement while others sought to sate themselves on warmth and food, drawn to kebab vans like chimpanzees to weak, wounded prey. Their shrieks filled the night; wild, simian noises that would not sound out of place in the hot darkness of the jungle. She knew those sounds well, and the mindless acts that followed; cannibal-banquets partaken by those same primates, orange eyes staring from beneath low brows as they licked clean the pink bones of their own.
From the narrow alleyway across the street, Oyotunji watched as one girl, dressed in shiny leopard print, fell to her knees in the road. Bent low she began to heave, a cocktail of stomach lining, sangria and hot digestive juices spewing from her lips. The rank aroma carried through the night.
“What?” shouted the girl, when she finally stopped heaving and could speak again. Her glazed, unseeing eyes challenged the world. “Come on, then!” she screamed, struggling to her feet, “have at it! Come on!”
Stepping back from the street, Oyotunji huddled deeper into her fur shawl. It was an intimate, elderly gesture; the last frail twitch of a small sparrow, but then she was an elderly woman. Her lips pinched as tight as the mouth of the alleyway in which she stood.
“I cold,” she said suddenly.
“You not cold. You don’ feel cold now. Not for many year have you felt it touch.”
Wambua stood a little way behind her. In the darkness her twin brother was almost invisible, except for the fur draped over his shoulders; a matching leopard skin that gave him some substance in the shadows. She did not need to see the aged contours of his face to know how he was feeling. His discontent sang in her heart, her blood, in the jelly of her bones.
“I don’ feel cold like dat. I feel cold for dem. I feel cold for bein’ here, in dis grey place.”
A flicker of lightning, vague and indistinct, flashed overhead, illuminating the slumped, misshapen street. Opening her hand, Oyotunji felt for the rain that would inevitably follow. She knew it was the same rain that fell back home, she knew the air around her was the same air, the clouds the same clouds. And yet they were not. These things were different here. Pollution clogged the sky, saturated the earth and the wind. The city was a watering hole, where once her brother and she would have come to slake their thirst, now tainted; corrupted by twenty-first century carrion.
The first fat drops found her palm, and she realised she was not comforted.
“We have slept too long, sister, and missed many things. De British Empire has grown rotten.”
“Dis is de Empire we once feared?” She gesticulated wildly, arms, little more than bones, thrown to the sky. Lightning flickered again, followed by thunderous discontent. “Dat cannot be. What has happened here?”
“De world is spoiled meat, crawling with flies.”
Even as her brother spoke, Oyotunji smelled again the woman’s sick, heard the mad laughter of the inebriated, felt anger rolling like waves through the night-time city. More screams carried on the wind, and she remembered the troupe of chimpanzees feasting on their own. Inspired by those screams she remembered other things too; man as he forced himself into her on the river bank, the raging faces of the white folk as their weapons spat death into the village, Wambua’s body, limp where she clutched him to her wounded chest. As they had lived as twins, so they had died a twinned death, and were reborn together when the rains next fell; brought back by Africa to slake their desert thirst on the lifeblood of those who had despoiled the land, dealt death beneath the burning sun.
“Do not despair, sister. Dis place look grey, you speak truth. But look deeper, look past stone an’ noise an’ misery an’ you got some’ting more. Some’ting you an’ me both know.”
“An’ what be dat, brother of mine?”
“A jungle,” he said, his eyes shining like discs in the darkness. “A man-made jungle, Oyotunji.”
“Hear de roar of de people as dey struggle to make themself heard, each man an’ woman de hog, de antelope, de buffalo –”
“An’ we de cat.”
He nodded, and in the darkness of the alley a mouth of yellowing teeth appeared. She smelled them as much as she saw them, rotten and real; a sharp, pungent smile in this city where everything else was synthetic and stale. Together their mouths knew more life and death than the rest of the city combined.
“Exactly, sister. We de leopard. We will stalk de street like shadow, invisible, an’ in dis grey, decayin’ place we will have our retribution. Dey dug us from our sleep in de earth and brought us here, to dis place where dere is no earth, where de wild is silenced. So we will speak for de wild again. We will roar –”
“An’ it will be bloody,” whispered Oyotunji. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and she cocked her head, eyes closed, savouring the sound as it reverberated in the hollows of her head.
When she opened her eyes again, her brother was standing beside her. He screamed first, and in the flash of answering lightning she saw his face, tortured by the angst of a continent, a land with no outlet for its pain except the voices of the dead things in its soil. Then she joined him, her own voice rising leonine into the night, before brother and sister eschewed their human shapes, wrapping their flesh with real fur, and fled together through the streets in the guise of great cats; Mother Africa awakened, and alive.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.