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 a 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 as much as the boys could imagine. The old man came from a place before the clock. The ubiquitous time-counter is now become a kind of victim to man's insatiable appetite for the count as it finally incorporates not only an hour and a minute hand but even a third, ironically called the second hand. Digitally, the humble second has now to suffer further fragmentation into tenths, hundredths, thousandths. Into infinity. Where the numbers are finally exhausted and the imagination must lie down and rest. But for the two boys the question of how many flies on that white shirt was not so silly as the fine old gentleman might think. 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 counting 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 passed 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, like a book. You didn’t even have to think. So, lost in the reverie of their counting and now drawn 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 back at the stranger. But by then the softness had gone from unknown man’s face. Deep in shadow, it seemed to have transformed into an ugly mask. Heath’s stomach lurched up into his throat at the sudden transformation. He was so busy swallowing hard to keep whatever was in there down where it belonged, he hardly noticed the man turn on his heel and walk away into the west where the sun had just sunk behind the town’s sentinel hill. *** Now between them shone this mysterious gift. Kejebba put out his hand and Heath rolled the thing into his 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 have to say about the marble thing. *** 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 images in his mind hustling with one another for his fading attention. 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. Heath 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. “Sorry Babu.” “Don’t be sorry. Eat.” The background sounds of hunting gekkos, a near-by curlew calling for its mate, the Doppler whine of mosquitoes, the gratified breathing, chewing and swallowing of three human beings, pushed aside all thinking. When the meal was finished and the long human 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?” “ 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 anyway. 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.” “He didn't frighten me really, 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 an Ngede, they come from across the border. Looking for people who are a little bit... empty. 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 empty’. That didn’t sound too good. He remembered his time in boarding 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 geography teacher had told the class some African cultures had existed for more than one 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 that before. He always thought time went in a straight line. Linear history. Like counting. But a seed for dreaming a straight path through spiralling time? It was all a little bit much for the boy. So it wasn’t long before he forgot about the quietly shining marble. He hadn’t even found a container for it. It lay buried in the dark of one of his drawers snugly sheltered by ripped t shirts and ragged shorts that were all too small for him, forgotten things, mementos in a world where forgetting made way for new impersonations.
Chapter One
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