by Paul du Pré
Africa, in an alternate world.
A 9+1-part series.
Shikara’s eerie words reverberate in Bulumko’s ears: ‘I drowned, but I didn’t die’. Insane! he thinks, but holds himself rigid. Not a tremor, not a breath.
“I think I went mad. I ate roots, and raw fish. And drifted down the river. For months. Crocodiles ran from me, and snakes and, when I got lower downstream, sharks too. But the hippopotamuses cared for me: I could sleep safely when they were around – on the bottom of the river, in the mud.
Then the ocean was getting close and I decided to crawl out on the river bank. I was lying there, covered in a kind of weedy mess, all over – my nightgown had rotted away – and drying out, when the farmer found me.”
Shikara slumps further, craning her neck girlishly, straining to meet Bulumko’s eyes, upside-down. Languidly, she lifts an arm: “Look. Can you see anything?”
“My skin – it’s turning green.”
He acknowledges that there might be a greenish tinge.
“It’s because it’s out of water. Eventually it will go soft, like rotting weeds, and start to peel off.” She coils forward, onto her haunches, dips her arm in the marsh water. “But watch – it’s turning black again.”
And so it is, a glossy, toned jet. She resettles herself. And Bulumko prompts, “A farmer found you…”
“Yes. But I don’t like this bit.”
“…Tell me anyway.”
She continues in a hushed, flat tone. “He locked me in an outhouse, on his farm, and he did things to me. Nobody helped me, because they were all afraid of him. I shouted through the window – it was barred, so I couldn’t get out – and I begged them to get the police, but they all ignored me. Pretended I wasn’t there. It went on and on, and then one day I realized it was going to go on till I died – I would never get out. So, that day, while he was doing it to me, I went away, in my mind. I thought of the river bottom and how peaceful it was there in the mud – and safe, with all my hippopotamus sisters guarding me, and when I came back he was drowned. He was lying in a huge puddle on the floor and water was gushing out of his mouth – floods of it – I’ve never seen so much!”
Bulumko doesn’t ask her to clarify what exactly she means by ‘never seen so much’; just wonders, with a chill of apprehension, how many men she’s killed since.
“The door was open so I escaped. When they saw what had happened, everyone ran away. Except the supervisor. He tried to stop me. So, I drowned him too. Then I found some clothes, some shoes, and took some food, and ran. Not everyone is bad – I knew that – and some people helped me to get to Chinde – it’s a little town by the river mouth. That’s where I walked into the ocean. And thought of my uncle in Durban – there wasn’t anyone else I could turn to – and found myself on Durban beach when I woke up. And then, afterwards, I came here. But that’s a different story.”
The silence stretches, but she doesn’t look at Bulumko.
“I’ve been a good communicator, haven’t I?”
“Yes, you have,” he replies.
“You know, I was a virgin when we made love.”
“I don’t count the farmer.”
“Umm…” murmurs Bulumko.
“Was it good? For you?”
“Yes,” he answers softly. “It was very good. Better than anything…”
“Really?” she asks, turning to face him.
“Yes, really. And for you?”
She buries her face in the crook of his neck. “You make me feel safe.”
Bulumko ignores the sleight to his vanity – she could at least have complemented his prowess! “So, why do you have to go?”
She stops nuzzling. “I just have to. It’s better that way. At least the memories will be good.”
“Uh, huh. But…if you’re going to go anyway, why not stick around for a couple of days. Let me make you feel safe some more. Then, if it starts getting…not so good; if the memories… Well, we’ll take the good memories and wrap them safe in tissue paper, and put them in a little box…with a card and a ribbon…”
He’s trying hard, and she smiles.
“…and a little jar with my tears in it. For you to keep…” She laughs out loud and Bulumko presses on: “In the meantime, you can hang with me, and Saleem, maybe help out in the butchery – do you mind handling raw meat?”
“OK, we’ll find something else for you to do.”
“I’ll make you eat it.” she challenges roguishly.
“Your raw meat. And your…nonsense.”
Bulumko laughs, an easy rumble. “OK, but first we’ve got to get back. And tell the police you’re alive.”
“You told the police about me?” It’s like clouds extinguishing the sun.
“Well, Saleem and me, we were both worried about you.”
“What did you tell them?”
“Just…that you’d gone with Easton.”
“No.” A candle, snuffed.
“I didn’t say anything about…your powers – there’s no way they can tell you killed him. And the others.”
“No, no, no…”
“Listen, we were worried about you.”
“That’s what everybody says.”
And with those words she’s up and sprinting, deeper into the marsh. Bulumko follows, but he’s too heavy and she gains on him. Reaching deeper water, she plunges in. When Bulumko gets there, there’s nothing to be seen, just a few ripples lapping and dying. He debates jumping in after her, but the water is brown and turbid – he has no clue where to look. And he reasons, she’ll have to come up for air sometime.
Of course, she doesn’t.
And, after a time, Bulumko flounders his sad way back to shore.
He wonders if his heart has been broken.
Is certain it has been…
Shikara wallows at the bottom of the marsh, in the mud, weeping, the water washing away her tears. There are hippopotami near and she feels safe – safe enough to indulge her grief. Soon enough a huge cow noses up to her. “What are you crying about, girl,” it asks. She takes that as license to redouble her paroxysm. But the cow is having none of it and roughly rolls her with its snout and nips at her shoulder.
“No, Hippo, no,” she cries, and wraps her arms around it’s foreleg. “I’ve been betrayed. He told on me – to the police.”
“Ah…” says Hippo, a certain gratification in its tone. “I could have told you.” Shikara renews her weeping. “Men are no good,” it continues. “The farmer, Easton, the others…”
“But he’s not the same as Easton…or the farmer.”
“What? And didn’t you just say he told the police about you. He’s betrayed you, he has.”
“He said he was worried about me.”
“That’s what they all say, isn’t it?”
“But then…why did you lead me to him?” she accuses. “You did lead me to him, Hippo. You did!”
“So that you could learn your lesson.”
“No,” pleads Shikara.
“Yes. He’s betrayed you. You’ll have to kill him now.”
“No,” she weeps, clinging desperately to Hippo’s leg.
Shikara doesn’t answer – only weeps…
“There, there dear.” Vindicated, Hippo shows concern. “Let me get comfortable.” Silt billows as the huge animal settles its belly in the ooze. Shikara wipes her eyes and face and snuggles in besides. Listens to the measured beating of Hippo’s heart, lets it cocoon and soothe her.
Weeping fades and she dreams – her previous night without sleep catches up with her, fawns on her, solicitously ushers her towards plush dreams – velvet and tender beyond imagining.
She dreams of Bulumko inside her.
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.