by Paul du Pré
Africa, in an alternate world.
A 9+1-part series.
Bulumko picks his way through deserted streets, putting things together, his sleep-deprived thinking gritty, sluggish. So, making a play for Easton was a strategy… He hopes so. He prods gingerly at his inflamed thoughts; tries to imagine Shikara’s frustration and rage at the spinelessness of the community. At his spinelessness… And feels a blush of shame.
And shies away from the embarrassment of too much self-examination. It better just have been a strategy!
He recognizes he needs to talk with Shikara.
If he can find her.
And realizes that without conscious thought, his feet have carried him to the brink of the marsh. To the place where they sat the night before, aeons ago, feet in the moon-struck water.
The sun is risen now, above the eastern Hottentots-Holland mountains, and is shining in his eyes. He shades them and squints out across the reed-beds. Is distracted by the tang of salt and peat, and buffeted by the eager breeze, but tilting his head, is able to make out a distant, seated figure, its back to him, a nub of artificial colour in the sun’s path, distinct among the marsh’s browns and teals. But leached of tone by the overwhelming glare.
Or rather, the splendour of the morning sunlight seems to gather, refracting and shimmering, around it.
Because the seated figure is Shikara, he is sure, and he can think of no reason why photons should swarm around her.
Bulumko recalls the theoretical gist: light behaves both like particles and like a wave-form. Considered as individual particles, photons carry too little charge to be sentient, but combined in a wave-form they sometimes exhibit photon-swarming – patches of refractive brightness and shifting spectra – a behaviour associated with the heightened atmospheric charges accompanying electrical storms. Or people making sustained and intensive use of their electrical ability.
But he had detected no aptitude for electrical manipulation in Shikara.
Another mystery to the mystery-girl, he thinks.
She is much further in than they were the night before. He pulls off his Nike rip-offs and begins to hop, teetering from tussock to tussock, wading where necessary, ignoring the water soaking into the leggings of his jeans.
She doesn’t look round as he approaches. He fully intends to challenge her, flip some acid accusation, but something about her stillness checks him.
She’s like an abused animal waiting for a beating.
The knife! He remembers the knife in Eeston’s hand.
He finds himself sitting down besides her, carefully settling his weight on the fragile bank of sand and grass she has found. “Hey, Shikara,” he breathes, voice feathered with compassion, “Are you OK?”
Silence. She stares down at the water, wavelets lapping at her naked feet, nibbling at the sandy bank. Hair veils her face.
She whispers, “I was hoping you would come. Before I left.”
“It’s better that way.” She shudders, reviewing some inward and shadowed history.
“Oh, no, no…” He reaches across, and with two fingers under her chin, gently but inexorably turns her face to his. A bruise darkens her left eye; dried blood stains the neckline of her kurti. She glares at him defiantly, as heaving to one knee, he leans across to search the far side of her face and neck. And sees a gash below her ear. No longer bleeding, but raw and puckered, marring her perfect skin. “The bastard…” he hisses, and she shrinks back. As if afraid of him.
Bulumko wants to insist she should see a doctor. But also senses this will only make her flee. Falling back on his butcher’s dispassion, he estimates she has not lost too much blood – her skin doesn’t appear waxy and her eyes are focused. He subsides onto the bank besides her, puts an arm around her shoulders. Squeezes gently.
And after an eternity she leans against him. “Tell me,” he says.
Water laps at their feet. Birds chatter and call.
“Last night,” he presses. “You could have told me what you were doing.”
“No, I couldn’t. You’d never have believed…” She stops short, shocked by a thought, turns to face him: “You were jealous!”
“Yes,” Bulumko admits, grudgingly. “But I…”
“But jealous in a good way,” she interrupts, and snaps her gaze forward, staring at the distant mountains, performing some emotional accounting inscrutable to him.
“I’m sorry, I’m not a good communicator,” she adds after a while, voice touched by hopeless regret.
“Tell me why you’re going,” he asks, voice soft as duck-down.
After a while her body again relaxes against his. “Alright. I’ll try.” And then adds, “It’s not easy…”
“Mmm,” encourages Bulumko, gently stroking her arm.
“You won’t believe me…”
He goes on stroking, hand light as a dove’s wing.
“My father died saving me from a charging hippopotamus…” (Bulumko’s brows arch, but he doesn’t interrupt.) “Maybe I should start from the beginning. My mother didn’t care about me. She’s a stinking-rich Indian heiress, from a noble family – nabobs or something – and I don’t think she cares about anyone, except herself. But, nineteen, no, twenty years ago she had an affair with this African chief – the King of the Makololo. But I told you that.” (In spite of Shikara’s pose of off-handedness, Bulumko can hear that her father’s tittle is important to her.) “Anyhow, I didn’t meet my father until I was seventeen. Instead, my mother sent me to all these posh British boarding-schools, but… They were all bastards! Hypocrites!” She spits the words out with venom. “I ran away so often – gate-crashing clubs in London, shop-lifting. But every time, they caught me, and my mother sent me to another school. And they talked at me, talked at me, TALKED AT ME… Talked, as if it would make any difference.” Shikara’s shoulders have hunched: Bulumko strokes her arm, soothing her.
“When I was seventeen, doing my A-levels, it got bad – I was really out of hand, I suppose – and they put me on a steamer and shipped me out to Africa, to be with my father. His royal city was on the banks of the Zambezi River… Just some huts, really. I suppose you might think that was pretty wild.” She twists, looks at Bulumko. “‘Out of Africa’, and all that. But it was awful. There wasn’t anywhere to go. Not in the village, and the river was out of bounds – and I had a chaperone all the time.
My father said he cared about me, told me I was his daughter, a Makololo Princess – but… Seventeen years! Seventeen years late… I thought he was unsophisticated – the ‘barbarian bumpkin’ is what I called him – a complete stranger with stupid, stupid ideas about what I should do with my life.
I ran away there too. Gave my chaperone the slip and walked up-river. Adventuring, I told myself! I don’t remember it being any fun – there were creepy beetles and flies and it was really hot – but I had to do something, had to show them I couldn’t be kept in a hutch like some fluffy… Except, there was a reason for the river being out of bounds. Crocodiles, snakes, maybe lions coming down to drink. But mostly hippopotamus. Did you know that the hippopotamus kills more people than any other animal in Africa?”
“Uh, huh,” acknowledges Bulumko.
“Yes. My father heard I was gone and…and he came looking for me. He found me just as a bull was about to charge me – they’re the most dangerous.” Shikara’s breathing has become shallow, her voice unsteady; she turns away. “…And he saved my life. He and his warriors attacked it with spears.”
Shikara’s shoulders quiver. Bulumko hears a quiet sob. “Oh no,” he breathes squeezing gently.
“He was killed!” she bursts out.
After a while Bulumko ventures, “He must have loved you.”
“Yes,” she sobs. “I think, maybe, he’s the only one who ever loved me!”
After a poignant moment’s remembrance she continues. “I stayed there, on the river, where he died. They couldn’t make me leave. Didn’t really try. I suppose they thought mourning for him was the right thing to do – respected it. So, they built me a little hut, brought me food. I stayed there for – it must have been three months.
Then one moonlit night this huge hippopotamus cow came up to my hut – I was asleep – and pushed it over. I thought I was going to die, but she herded me down to the river bank, began pushing me into the water. That’s when I took a stand – thought if I was going to die anyway, I might as well fight back. But she opened her mouth – it was huge, full of gleaming tusks and teeth, like blades – and she bellowed. It was so loud! I put my hands over my ears but it didn’t help. She went on bellowing, on and on and on. And then…”
Incongruously, Shikara is now relaxed, her body slack against Bulumko’s. “Yes, and then?” he prompts.
“I was underwater,” she says, dreamily. “I drowned, but I didn’t die.”
Woman underwater – Free-Photos on Pixabay
Disclaimer, Copyright and Permissions
Shikara is a work of fiction by Paul du Preez, writing as Paul du Pré. Names, characters, places, events, and incidents are the product of Paul du Preez’ imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights are reserved, including without limitation, the right to reproduce Shikara and the original art or music associated with it, or any portion thereof in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of Paul du Preez. Copyrighted 2020 by Paul du Preez.