Kejebba and Heath were strolling down the small town’s hard-baked dirt road behind a man in a white shirt. Their bare
feet hardly seemed to touch the warm earth as they counted the freeloading flies squatting on the back of that so white
shirt. But there were too many and there appeared no pattern to their settling which might have helped the boys get
past twenty five or thirty around which number the speckled mass became a confusing blur. They decided there must
have been more than a hundred. At least. They drew closer and closer to the man in their determination to get every
one of the flies properly counted.
Kejebba’s grandfather, if required to answer a silly question like ‘how many flies can you see on that white shirt?’ would
have simply said there were “many”. In his world when it came to counting things, in general there was one, quite often
two or three and otherwise, many. Perhaps ‘more than a hundred’ was the latest version of ‘many’.
But for the two boys the question was not so silly. They’d discovered the fascination of counting. The infinity of numbers
stacking unerringly one upon another, building a tower that would surely reach up past the sky. And they were intent on
counting anything that sat still for long enough. Or the number of steps it took to climb the hill overlooking the town or
the number of breaths you had to breathe waiting for the sun to come out from behind a cloud.
There was something comforting about the predictability of numbers and the patterns they made. A way of probing into
the future with a measure of certainty. A way of wrapping up the past with clean, unambiguous shapes. But the real
beauty of counting was that it always took place in the immediate present. Each number counted was a mark of the
moment in which it occurred. The magic of a moment marked, identified with a number, each number making itself one
with its instant before fading into the distance in an orderly queue with those that went willingly before.
Of course the boys had no conscious inkling of such considerations, they just loved counting. It was a skill recently
learned. Like reading. But you didn’t need anything in particular to do it. You didn’t even have to think. So, lost in the
reverie of their counting and now quite close to the man, they were profoundly shocked when he suddenly turned
around, scattering half of the black flies into the evening air and out of sight. He’d stopped and was looking back over
the heads of Kejebba and Heath. They automatically pulled up, vaguely guilty for their intrusion into the privacy of the
man’s personal shirt. They looked first at each other and then back over their shoulders to see what had attracted the
man’s attention. But they could see nothing which might have provoked the intensity of the man’s gaze. By the time
they looked back he’d lowered his eyes and was looking straight at the grubby pair’s bewildered scuffling.
“What you boys doin’?”
Kejebba, the older of the two, shrugged his shoulders and mumbled something inaudible. This seemed to make the
man soften his look and reach into his pocket from where he pulled out a small leather pouch.
He was not a tall man, dark-skinned, neat and cleanly put together, his shaven head shining ebony pink in the fading
light as he reached towards Heath offering him something he’d taken from the pouch. Heath instinctively held out his
hand and received what looked like a quite large marble into his now lightly sweating palm. The object was a dark
cream colour, opaque and heavy, as though made of something other than glass. Perhaps a metal. He glanced
momently sideways at Kejebba to see what his reaction was before looking up. But by then the softness had gone from
the unknown man’s face. Deep in shadow, it seemed to have transformed into an ugly mask. Heath’s stomach lurched
into his throat. He was so busy swallowing hard to keep whatever was in there down where it belonged, he hardly
noticed the stranger turn on his heel and walk away into the west where the sun had just sunk behind the town’s
Between them now shone this mysterious gift. Heath rolled it into Kejebba’s pink palm. He lifted it up to his nose and
drew in a long breath. There, far away, like an echo, the distinct sense of purple. Heavy and rich but so faint Kejebba
thought he’d tasted it.
“What is it?” asked the younger boy.
“It’s a marble.”
“It’s too heavy…”
“Looks like juju – we should show it to Babu. Here.”
Heath put the thing in his pocket with all the other bits and pieces agitating to escape through the thinning pocket lining,
the unlikely weight of the unexpected gift dragging his pants down a bit; he had to shrug them up before they headed
off in the dying twilight for Kejebba’s place to see what his grandfather would say about the marble.
The sudden black African night had already strangled all detail from the world as the boys crossed into the warm cow-
dung glow of the grandfather’s hut.
“You two little frogs should watch out for the Mbongola. They love to play with the innocent – before eating them...”
Kejebba glanced at Heath, a knowing smile tickling the edge of his wide mouth as they both acknowledged the old
fairy-tale they’d been hearing since before they could remember. It was a favourite of the old man who would shiver
with feigned apprehension as he rolled his shiny eyes and recite the warning narrative to keep the children in at night,
away from the ever-present and very real dangers lurking in the predator darkness.
“We met someone on the road Babu.”
The old gentleman continued to stir the pot, squinting his eyes away from the stinging spiral of smoke curling slowly
towards the chimney. Heath sat down on the floor next to Babu and peered into the mass of hubbly bubbly spotting the
occasional recognisable bit of vegetable. A chunk of goat – he decided it must have been goat from the sweet aroma
seeping into the small room - otherwise one bit of flesh chopped up and cooking looked pretty much like another. The
goat though had a very distinctive smell, gamey, unmistakeable. The evening meal was nearly ready and he could feel
his mouth filling up with anticipatory saliva. As his tired mind relaxed back into the security of Babu’s place he began
drifting into a half sleep, the numbers and patterns of flies he’d been trying to count that afternoon played across his
imagination as the sounds of the night insects animated the images in his mind hustling with one another for
ascendancy. The marble appeared and seemed to push all the counting aside. It was huge. As big as a world.
Everything else vanished and there weren’t enough numbers to measure the size of the giant orb pulsing in the half
light of an incompletely imagined object floating somewhere in space. It had one great eye. The eye looked familiar.
Suddenly it was a goat’s eye. Its tail flicked, it lowered its head and butted him with its hard horny eyeball. He opened
his eyes to see Babu shaking him awake.
“You want to eat or dream?”
Heath sheepishly wiped the cooled line of overflowed saliva from the side of his chin and accepted with a small nod the
bowl being offered by Kejebba’s grandfather.
“Don’t be sorry. Eat.”
The background sounds of hunting gekkos, a near-by curlew calling for its mate, the Doppler whine of mosquitoes all
mixed with the gratified breathing, chewing and swallowing of three human beings filled all available thought space.
When the meal was finished and the long silence finally collapsed with a few appreciative murmurs, Heath reached into
his pocket and fished out the marble. In the soft light it seemed not only to reflect the yellowish flame from Babu’s
single lamp but also to generate an uncanny faint blue iridescence. Together the combined sensation was of a
greenish, slightly sinister ambiance. The old man reached out and took the shiny thing from Heath’s hand.
“Where did you get this?”
“The man we met.”
“Did he say who he was?”
“No...do you know what it is Babu? We didn’t have a chance to ask him before he just…walked off.”
“Why do you think he gave it to you?”
“Don’t know. We were following him, counting. The flies on his shirt…”
“What? Counting flies? Why?”
Kejebba decided to join the conversation.
“He just suddenly turned on us as though someone had called him. He’s not from around here. I’d never seem him
before. He took it from a leather pouch. I think there were more in there.”
“It’s a seed.”
“A what? A seed? For planting?”
“No. Not for planting. For dreaming. A special kind of dreaming. But it’s powerful magic. There’s a price to pay. Did he
give it you Heath? Or Kejebba…”
“He gave it to Heath. Frightened him too.”
“No he didn’t, but he looked like he was going to whip me for taking it. Why would he want to give it to me?”
“I don’t think he wanted to frighten you. Or whip you. The man who gave it to you is Ngede, they come from across the
border. Looking for people who are … a little bit vacant. Perhaps unfettered. Ripe. The seed is not always a good gift.
Not always bad. Depends on… I don’t know…many things. Maybe your counting drew his attention.”
“What should I do with it Babu?”
“Nothing. There’s nothing you can do with it. It’ll do with you - more than you can imagine. If you keep it. The old stories
tell it as a plumb line to draw a straight path through spiralling time. An ancient story often told, rarely heard. Be
mindful of its unconcern for you.”
Now Heath was getting nervous. A ‘little bit vacant’. That didn’t sound too good. He remembered his time in
school and the priest’s sermons about idle minds being the devil’s playground. But this ’seed’ came from a different
tradition, a much older culture. Babu said from a ‘very long time ago’. Heath’s anthropology teacher had told of
some African cultures that had existed for more than a hundred thousand years. Trying to match or compare them
was confusing. Very confusing. He put the now charged thing back in his pocket and resolved to find some
container for it. Maybe a small metal box. Then to try and forget about it. And Babu’s explanations. Spiralling time?
He’d not heard this idea before. He’d always imagined time went in a straight line. Like an arrow from a bow. Linear
history. Like counting. But a seed for dreaming a path through spiralling time? It was a a little too much for the
young boy. So it wasn’t long before he forgot about the quietly shining marble. He hadn’t even managed to find a
container for it. It lay buried in the dark of one of his drawers, sheltered by ripped t shirts and holy shorts that were
all too small for him, forgotten things, mementos in a world where forgetting made way for new impersonations.