What the Thunder Said
By Lavie Tidhar, illustration by Robert E. Hobbs, Jr.
2 April 2007
Mr. Nine sat in the shade of the baobab tree, his blanket of warez spread before him on the sand. He watched the mzungu girl walk up from the small cluster of bamboo huts on the beach towards him; she was young and wore mirrorshades under dirty-blonde dreadlocks that reached her shoulders and disappeared behind them. Freckles dusted her nose. It was midday; and Mr. Nine suddenly remembered an old saying about mad dogs and Englishmen, and smiled.
But the girl coming towards him did not smile back, and as she crouched in the sand opposite him, he watched the old man reflected in the mirrorshades stop smiling in sympathetic response, and reach protectively for the talisman hanging over his bare chest, the small gold disc that was as much a part of him as his name.
The girl said, "Madala," and lowered her head as she said, as was customary, "Muli bwanji?"
"Ndili bwino, zikomo," Mr. Nine said. I am fine, thank you. "Kaino, muli bwanji?"
The girl raised her head and said that she, too, was well. Then she said, quickly, as if afraid of more pleasantries to delay her, "Madala, I need your help. My friend is in trouble."
He remembered, later, her grateful expression as he rose without comment and gathered his warez, the small bottles of powders, the strangely shaped roots and the pieces of bark and the little round pills, and made to follow her. He remembered it when it was over, when she lay in the mud of Chambe Peak and the storm screamed above her in the voice of the thunder.
But for now, ignorant of the future, he only gathered the blanket and rose from the sand, no longer a young man, but also not, he liked to think, entirely old. His body was lean and there was a strength in his arms still, and as he moved after the girl he felt a restless energy tightening inside him like a premonition.
"When did you arrive in Cape Maclear?" he asked the girl. He had not seen her before, but then, there were always so many people, African as well as mzungu, who came and went by the shores of the lake; but he thought he would have remembered the girl.
"Yesterday," she said. "We came here from Blantyre." She turned her head, flicked a quick, uncertain glance; he could see the uneasiness even behind the shades. "Well, near there. In here."
They had reached the hut. It was made of cheap adaptoplant bamboo, an open-source release introduced sometime after the Selassie Wars. The bamboo spread like weed; and Mr. Nine, who had a long memory, suddenly recalled the joker that had released into the wild an updated version that produced THC, so that for several years after the event children were selling chilms made of the stuff to the tourists: ganja pipes that smoked themselves. He smiled, but when the girl with the dreadlocks rubbed the shack with the tips of her fingers and murmured to it until it opened a door, the smile was gone.
There was a boy lying on a mattress on the floor. He had short, dark hair and his skin was a faded tan.
"What's wrong with him?" Mr. Nine asked, but, even as he knelt down and felt the boy's skin, unnaturally cold, he knew the answer, and he turned and looked at the girl again and said, mildly, "Where did you say you came from again?"
She said, "We were climbing Mount Mulanje. I think. . . ." She knelt down beside him and took the boy's hand in hers. She looked suddenly ashamed. "We had a fight, and I . . . I left him. It was getting dark—we were climbing Chambe Peak. There was supposed to be an old hut still there, from when . . . when you were still allowed to climb on Mulanje. I found it, and I waited for him there, but he didn't come." She took a deep breath, and Mr. Nine found himself wondering what the relationship between the two was. At first he'd thought they must be lovers; but now he revised the possibility to include siblings. She sounded more like an older sister.
"There was a storm," the girl said, and then, suddenly, "Here." She extended her hand to him. A small gold ring on her index finger. He touched his own medallion and took her hand in his.
Her Other and his, handshaking, and suddenly the memory, her memory, arrived in a stream of packets and filled his mind.
Lightning hit all around the hut. She could smell ozone as she huddled against the great planks of Mulanje cedar; they gave off their own musky scent. Through the mirrorshades (retro-style, a teenage affectation she was beginning to loathe) she thermo-scanned for Jamil. More lightning hit the ground outside, splintering wood. She was afraid—and angry. Where the hell was he?
"In the morning," the girl said, and Mr. Nine shook off the sliver of memory with a start, that minute shift in perception catching him, as it always did, by surprise, "he was outside the hut. He was lying in the mud, and he was naked. He couldn't remember anything, but he seemed fine, madala! He looked better. Stronger, somehow. More confident. He had changed his mind about the mountains. He was looking forward to Cape Maclear. But when we got here . . ." She moved her hand, a small, somehow lost gesture. Mr. Nine followed her hand to the dormant, cold form of the boy.
The girl said, "I think an inyanga took him."
She had used the old Zulu word, but Mr. Nine understood it well enough; for he, too, was a sangoma, an inyanga, and the word had held many connotations, only a few of them frightening in the way the girl had said the word. She said it like it was a curse, an evil; and he wondered what stories she had been listening to.
Mr. Nine ran his hand down the boy's face, and further down the side of his naked torso. In his other hand he held his gold talisman, the muti inside whispering directly in his mind, providing numbers, probabilities, diagnostics, all amounting to what Mr. Nine instinctively knew, all summed up by his Other succinctly: that the boy was fucked.
He sighed, and said, "What were you doing up on Mulanje?" He felt a little anger stir in him now, adding to the tension he felt growing inside him. "You had no business climbing the mountain."
Looking at the girl, he saw only himself, reflected in the mirrorshades. "It was Jamil," she said tonelessly. "He wanted to see the mountain. He'd heard stories . . . it's what we fought about."
Mr. Nine nodded. "No," he said a moment later, certainty making his voice heavy, his Other whispering all the while in his ear, a warning Mr. Nine fought in vain to ignore, "it was no inyanga who did this to your friend." He sighed and stood up, feeling anger dissipating into a tired acceptance of what he knew must be done, what he must do. "The boy's soul was taken by the storm."
Angela Banda looked at Mr. Nine and at the girl with the blonde dreadlocks, whose name was Sophie, and only then did she look down at the unmoving cold figure of the boy Jamil.
"The poor thing," she said dispassionately. She blew thick, sweet-smelling smoke out of her nostrils. She turned to the girl. "Has it not occurred to you there might be a reason you were not allowed to climb Mulanje?"
Sophie didn't answer. Angela shook her head. "I don't know, Alekelanji," she said to Mr. Nine. He had come to her with the girl and her comatose brother; and as much as she liked Aleke, who she still remembered as the boy he once was, and later as the pretty young man who went to work in the mines of the Malaysian corporations in the asteroid belt, and came back with the honorific Mr. Nine permanently attached; as much as she liked him, what he was asking for was a favour she wasn't sure she wanted to give. She shook her head again, not needing words, and Mr. Nine said again, "Angela, if we don't help the boy he will die."
It was cooler now, the midday heat dissipating over Lake Malawi as the sun travelled lower in the sky. The two islands, Domwe and Mumbo, looked green and peaceful in the distance. Angela's house was on the other side of the beach from the tourist huts, a handsome low-lying bungalow at the heart of Chembe Village. She said, "I will not come with you, Aleke."
Mr. Nine bowed his head. "I would not ask that of you."
"Then you can take the Helios. But you will not be able to fly over Mulanje."
"I know that." He felt his earlier tension leave him, become a tiredness that wrapped itself around his heart. "I'll land the Helios at the foothills. Then we will have to climb."
He followed Angela as she led him and the girl on the narrow, winding path that led from Chembe Village to the hills. A troupe of children lagged behind, carrying the body of the boy on a makeshift stretcher. Turning back, breathing harder now, Mr. Nine looked over the calm blue waters of the lake and wished he could refuse his help to the mzungu girl and her foolish friend; he did not want to go again anywhere near Mulanje, and he feared what would happen if they made it to the peaks.
Mulanje was forbidden, and had been so for a long, long time; and he resented, with a bitterness that surprised him, the girl's demand on him, her plea for help to an old man and a sangoma, who she somehow knew would not turn her away.
"Here it is," Angela said, and Mr. Nine, turning, heard the fondness in her voice as she spoke of the antique plane that rested in the low grass like a delicate, sleeping creature, almost alive as it fed of the sun. He was never sure where Angela had found the old thing. It was nothing but a giant wing, curved upwards to better absorb light, and he didn't trust it; compared to the compact mining ships of the asteroids it was a fragile thing, like a bug that one could step on if one wasn't careful.
Sophie was looking at the Helios plane. Mr. Nine could not see her eyes, but the curve of her mouth suggested she was less than impressed at the sight. He shrugged inwardly. He was less than happy about using the old antique himself, but that could not be helped. And he had travelled farther on worse.
The children helped load Jamil onto the plane, then dispersed in a cloud of giggles. Mr. Nine then helped Sophie strap in beside her friend—her brother? he was still unsure—and turned to Angela.
She looked at him with cool brown eyes and puffed a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke in his direction. "Go well, Aleke," she said, and her voice was soft. "Make sure you come back."
"I will try, my sister," he said, and she nodded, and turned away without further words for the journey back to the village. Mr. Nine strapped himself into the belly of the plane. He looked aside at the boy. He hoped he could save him.
From above, Mr. Nine saw the landscape shifting. The lake's low hills and its mixture of yellow and green, of sand and trees, were replaced by a thicker greenery as the Helios climbed higher and the air turned cold about him and his passengers. Mr. Nine left his Other to control the flight, while he napped in between looking down.
He had been away, as many of his people had. Mr. Nine came of a long line of miners, gone away young to the mines, returned home old men. Those who still came back. He looked at his home below, the vast and beautiful land of his forefathers, the land of the Chewa and Yao and Tumbuka, a land full of the myriad shades of green and gold and azure; and it was only when they passed over the Zomba plateau, its once-beautiful face scarred by the Cetewayo Curse, that Mr. Nine sighed and turned away. They were coming closer to Mulanje, and the old wounds were fresher here, the horrors of war still alive like maggots in the scars of the land.
The Helios swooped, riding low on the winds that carried it towards the mountains, and into night.
He landed the plane at the foothills of Mulanje. The mountains, dark and awesome, stood like a barrier against a sickle-shaped moon.
Mr. Nine helped Sophie out of the harness and together they laid Jamil's body down on the ground. Mr. Nine felt the earth between his fingers, noticing the moisture. The air, too, was humid and heavy, as if a storm were brewing just beyond the mountains, hiding for the moment out of sight, in the folds of night. He touched the tips of his fingers to his medallion and let his Other take partial control of his senses; starlight was enhanced and the dark valley was bathed in the hazy light of enchantment. The tension he had felt earlier was back now, as he saw Mulanje and thought of what waited at its peaks. His Other whispered inside him, overlaying routes on his view of the mountain, suggesting times, distances, warnings.
He knelt down beside the boy and brought out of his pocket some of his warez, packed for this trip. A grey-white powder moved as if alive inside a glass vial, and he unstoppered the bottle carefully and let the fine particles inside swirl out and settle on the unmoving body of the boy Jamil.
The body jerked.
A leg kicked out. The boy's eyes opened, the pupils narrowed down to pinpricks of light, and he opened his mouth, as if to speak, but nothing came but a gurgle and a trickle of blood that stained his lips.
"Jamil!" Sophie crouched down and reached to touch the boy but Mr. Nine held her away. He said, "Wait."
The boy's body shuddered and his eyes blinked rapidly. His other leg kicked out now, as if some invisible doctor were tapping on his knees experimentally. Then, with slow uncertain movements, the body stood up.
"Jamil!" Sophie said again, and the boy's head snapped in her direction, his eyes opening wide like two gleaming moons; and his mouth opened in a dead man's grin, the blood trickling down both sides of his mouth, so that he looked almost like he was feeding on it.
"Don't touch him," Mr. Nine said sharply. "He is revenant, not alive."
He could read the pain in the girl's expression. She said, "What have you done to him?" Her voice was little above a whisper.
The tension in Mr. Nine's muscles coiled and flexed. He thought of the Cetewayo Curse and, beyond that, of the thing that was waiting up on Mulanje, and he felt anger at the girl. He could say muti to her, but it wasn't muti exactly; the boy's spirit had been taken from him up on the mountain, and now only his body remained, and it could not move on its own. The powder Mr. Nine had used assumed a different form when it touched the boy's body, and tiny engines worked themselves into the boy's bloodstream and into his head, where they took temporary control of his motor functions. He could walk, now, this close to the thunder; but the person inside was missing, hidden in that endless storm that was the curse of Mulanje.
High on the mountains, the first echoes of thunder sounded, making Sophie jump.
"Climb," Mr. Nine said. He jerked his thumb at the slopes of Mulanje. "We have a long way to go."
As they climbed the steep dirt road that led through the forests of Mulanje cedar, Sophie walking ahead with Jamil ambling behind her, Mr. Nine taking up the rear and breathing hard as he went, the humidity in the air intensified and the air itself felt charged and raw against the skin. Clouds were massing overhead, above the peaks, and lightning flashed, followed by the growling of thunder.
The trail led them up Mulanje. Mr. Nine's feet sank into mud. They passed a cluster of low buildings, burnt and open to the rain: the remains of an ancient logging camp. Mr. Nine thought he saw dark, tiny figures dart in between the ruined buildings, but when he looked closer there was nothing there, just the rain hammering against the ruined wood. Jamil's body shuddered and shook as he walked, and the lightning flashed faster as if responding to his movements.
When they at last made Chambe Peak, Mr. Nine was breathing with some difficulty, and he realised, suddenly and with the clarity that comes with such emotions, that he was afraid. He had been up here once before, and he had lost something then. And now, with every breath of that electrified air, he felt the power of the storm grow around him—and worse, he felt now the attention of the storm turn to him, and as he did he heard, like the echo of a remembered dream, voices whispering on the wind. Some called his name.
"Stop," Mr. Nine said, but whether it was to his companions or to the voices of the storm even he didn't know. Sophie turned at the sound of his voice and in her mirrored eyes he could see the lightning reflected and multiplied until it resembled a scarred face, and he knew that, at last, they had arrived, and he hoped that it was not too late.
Lightning cracked like a whip, and hot, thick drops of rain hit his skin like tears. His Other screamed inside his mind as the rain disintegrated into its minute components and tried to leach into his head, to steal his mind as it had done to the boy.
But he was an inyanga, both healer and healed, damaged and repaired; and besides, there was already a part of him in that raging storm—a small part perhaps, and one that belonged to a younger him, but he could speak with the thunder; he could plead with the storm.
He saw the rain crawl over Sophie's body: she screamed as the rain tore at her shades and digested the mirrored surfaces, and for the first time Mr. Nine saw her eyes; they were large and brown and scared.
Lightning hit the ground in concentrated bursts. Mr. Nine reached for his warez, extracted another fine powder, the curious shape of a piece of bark, a dried root. He threw them in the air, and where the rain hit them it hissed, as the inyanga's muti fought with the storm's.
The storm called his name.
He turned and watched Jamil: the boy lay on the ground as the rain ate his clothes into nothing. His naked body was a slice of darkness buffeted by rain, crawling and slithering on his body like a hungry predator. The boy's eyes were open but unseeing, and sounds came out of his throat, part scream, part moan, part laughter.
"Help him!" Sophie shouted, turning to Mr. Nine with an expression of naked, vulnerable anger on her face. He reached for her, grasped her hand and spoke to her through his Other.
The chant that rose from the old inyanga was in an ancient tongue, not Chewa nor binary, but somewhere in between; and his Other ran defensive permutations as it interfaced with Sophie's, and tried to speak in the language of thunder.
Mr. Nine pulled Sophie down with him onto the ground, and they knelt beside the shuddering body of Jamil, still holding hands.
The voice, unexpected, unwanted, jolted him away from the building chant. There was a note of surprise in the voice. "You are old."
The storm had taken on the voice of his father.
"I come to bargain for the life of the boy," Mr. Nine said. He said it stiffly, with a ritualistic cadence that took effort for him; his father's voice, not unexpected, was nevertheless painful for him when it came.
"And would you bargain for the life of the girl, too?" It was a different voice now, old and reedy, the voice of Great-Grandfather Banda, who had been a miner and a smuggler and a pilot before returning home, to Earth and Africa and to Malawi, that most beautiful of lands, where he died when Mr. Nine was little more than a boy. "They are mzungu, boy, and need not be your concern."
"The girl is under my protection," Mr. Nine said with a bravery he no longer possessed. The voice laughed, knowing it, and thunder cracked across the skies. "Have you come here for life, little Aleke, or for death?"
The wind rose, lashing against the crouching figures. "Join us!" it cried in a multitude of voices, some known, some old beyond his knowing. "Be a part of us, Aleke!"
Mr. Nine lifted his face and tasted the rain on his tongue. A haze of enchantment was visible now above his head, the shimmering dome of his muti covering him and the girl, protecting them both from the intrusion of the storm, but already it was beginning to falter and dim, the tiny engines weakening as they battled the machinery of the storm.
More than the Cetewayo Curse, more than the Shona Heresy which had destroyed large parts of the Basutu mountains, the storm of Mulanje was the last desperate weapon of the Selassie Wars: an obayifo bomb.
The rain crawled down Mr. Nine's throat. Probing, attacking, it felt as if fingers were rooting in the inside of his brain, blind and angry, and the mountain faded from his view as a vision took him over. He stood on Chambe Peak and it was day. The air felt cool and soothing against his skin and there was a sheen of moisture on the ground, and the flowers were in bloom. He stood with a group of his friends, and they were young and tall and handsome as only the young can be. The sun rose in the sky, bringing with it warmth, suffusing the mountain with light.
At first, neither he nor his friends understood what it was they saw, this bomb that was not a bomb, that fell like snow from the clear sky and swirled in the air above their heads. It thickened as it ebbed and flowed, and where it touched them, where it touched him . . . it was an obayifo.
Vampiric, it consumed. He saw his friends writhe and struggle on the grass and, as they did, the dark snow in the air intensified, became clouds, and as the minds of his friends were taken the clouds merged and became the promise of a storm, emerging, growing as he himself fought and writhed and was taken by the storm, became a part of the cloud, merged as one with his friends, his family, his lover, bodies left like monuments to litter the ground, alive but mindless, while the storm raged on and he, alone, fought it. . . .
"No," Mr. Nine said.
The storm froze. The clouds dissipated in shards of black and white, an ancient film-reel reaching an unexpected end. Mr. Nine blinked, was back in the now. He looked across Jamil's body and found Sophie's eyes, and knew she had shared the vision with him, and knew that she was scared.
Well, so was he.
"No." He shouted the word against the storm, denying it, just as he had the day his father took him to the peak as a young man, really only a boy, so he could be initiated as a sangoma; for what was a sangoma if not a man who spoke to the ancestors, who heard them and acted as a go-between?
"Let the boy be," he said to the storm. "Give him back his life."
"No," said the voice of the storm, echoing him, mocking him. He felt Sophie's hand tighten on his and turned to see her naked eyes raised into the rain. "Jamil . . . ," she whispered.
"Let me be," the storm said; it had the voice of the boy. "Sophie . . . I'm sorry."
Sentient rain lashed at Sophie's face and electricity flashed and fizzled through her dreadlocks, giving her the look of a wild Medusa. "You bastard," she said, and she was shouting, shouting against the wind and the rain and the storm, and she began to cry, words giving way to a mute fury.
She attacked the boy's body on the ground. She hit him, over and over, as the body gurgled and shivered and jerked.
And Mr. Nine, a hollowness filling him like a last-ever kiss, like a nameless regret, closed his hand about his Other, the medallion's edges pressing into his palm, harder and harder, puncturing skin, drawing blood. His palm was a red crescent moon turned up, his hand raised high to the storm; and electricity fizzled and danced in the meeting of blood and rain, and the voices screamed, and the thunder spoke.
He could feel its pull, its attraction, its suffocating charm. Found himself drowning in it, in that mesh of interlinked minds, nirvana-cloud, ghost-catcher, dream-catcher. He had opened within himself; he had offered himself to the storm.
He drifted amidst the multitude of ghosts; here, in the heart of the storm, there was no noise, no flashes of lightning, no rolls of thunder cracking like a whip. His essence, his mind, embedded in the tiny engines that swarmed in the air, that fed and formed and were the storm . . . it was seduced. Drawn like a mosquito to an electric blue light.
A hiss, and he turned non-eyes outwards and followed the path of younger ghosts, bleeding into his faraway body. His body, shuddering and mumbling and jerking in the rain, crying and laughing and screaming without words, and the girl, Sophie, staring at him with terrified eyes. Ghosts seeking flesh, eschewing transcendence. Joyriders.
He plunged deeper into the storm, following temptation even as he tried to fight it.
Seeking the boy.
It was quiet in the heart of the storm. The voice of the thunder was mute. It smelled, strangely, of bwemba, that sweet and sour-flavoured burgundy-coloured fruit that was also called tamarind.
He called the boy's name as he swirled through the clouds. The obayifo bomb had taken the lives of the people of Mulanje, sucked them away like the vampiric creature after which it was named. And now, all those long years later, when no one could even remember the wars . . . he, too, was a victim.
A peal of laughter, boyish and high, and he felt a presence slip beside him, lighter than water, lighter than air.
He fought to preserve himself, his identity. Fought the lure of transcendence, beckoning beyond the maelstrom of sentient water and light. And he remembered being here before, and leaving a part of himself behind.
That part came to him now, a young Aleke, fresh from his first stint in the mines, a sangoma-in-training. It came laughing through the cloud of spirits, guiding him.
The boy. . . . He reached, took hold of him. Began to drag him, away from the maelstrom of souls, away from the joy. Away from transcendence. He—they—dove through the storm.
He had done it. He had saved the boy.
The other part of him . . . departed.
And he was back in his own body.
He spat out rain and stumbled in the mud, and watched in the illumination provided by lightning as the boy, Jamil, sat up and coughed and looked about him with an uncomprehending air.
Mr. Nine took a deep breath, and felt dizzy, and sat down in the mud. It was warm, and he felt the moist earth, the earth that was Africa, brown and rich and alive, and thought, I did what I could.
But he could hear no speech, no greeting, none of the sounds he would have expected, and so he turned his head, and looked. Jamil was crouching in the mud, and in his hands, startled brown eyes staring into the storm, unseeing, and wet dreadlocks like a wreath, was Sophie.
Mr. Nine crawled towards the two. He reached for Sophie, and his hand recoiled. Her flesh was cold. It seemed to him for a moment that it had the coldness of space. He felt a crazy need to laugh. He had saved one, and lost the other.
He raised his eyes from Sophie's face, and saw Jamil's.
There was no anger in the eyes, no sadness, but a great incomprehension, a sense of infinite loss. The eyes looked into Mr. Nine's and he shivered. What remained of the boy . . . he didn't know what looked at him behind those eyes.
He looked further up, and saw the sky was clearing. The storm was moving away, leaving the air fresh and cool. An ant climbed between his mud-caked fingers and he flicked it away, mechanically careful to ensure it landed safely.
He sat back beside Sophie's body and watched, feeling a numbness tighten about his neck and shoulders, as Jamil rose and took two stumbling steps in the direction of Sapitwa Peak; the direction of the storm.
"Why?" he said to the skies, and he took step after step, building speed—"Why? Why not take me? Why take her?"
Mr. Nine watched him as he started running, chasing the storm. There was a note of such regret in his voice, such need, that Mr. Nine almost hoped that he would get what he was chasing.
But he knew they were both lost.
He sat in the mud beside Sophie throughout the long night.
It seemed to him that it would not be long, now, before he, too, joined his ancestors; and that like Jamil, he might welcome it when it came.