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A fable about mangrove - excerpted from 'The Poisoner's Drum'

Big and round, like a golden calabash, the cool moon rose early, and smooth as that, everyone forgot how blistering hot the hard day had been. Just the occasion for storytelling, decided some elders, and they gathered comfortable in the nooked and risen buttress roots of the great baobab. Within short minutes word had passed around and, ready with sitting stools and nibblings, several families abandoned their after-dinner routines to make eager audience.

His face wrinkled as rough water, ancient Bembe Oswali would be the story-teller. Grandfather to mature men, the elder sat in a cranny's shadow nodding his scarred bald head to a private rhythm, sucking on his pipe's stem. Perhaps he chose his story because he saw his audience as homesick settlers from a port city. Perhaps it was to pleasure the quiet breathless children who sat in dutiful anticipation. Or perhaps it was simply for his joy of telling.

"Yes! Exclusively," Bembe Oswali began in vibrant voice, "we are here inside the head of the aged man with the beard. That vagrant man with the wonderful scraggly beard. Exclusively where did he come from? We hear that he came from nowhere and that no one knew him. He set up harmlessly beneath the public tree bothering nobody. A tree maybe like this exclusively wise baobab that blesses us right now. The oldest tree in the village under which all had passed or played.

"Now this vagrant, he laid himself down and stray animals, the dog, the goat, rooster and hen, they gathered near him and laid themselves down, too. Then soon the youngsters joined them. Then some women came for their children, and they, too, joined the exclusive peacefulness under the tree. Same way for fathers who came for their wives. Soon everyone of the community was crowded around that big old tree whose exclusive shadows had blessed them all their lives.

"All at once a hush fell. An exclusive quiet, mysterious, and everyone looked at each other with big wondering eyes. Then, softly as a breeze just born, the old vagrant spoke. A sigh from a spirit more than sound, and everyone, in his or her heart, deeply felt the cool message of this gentle whisper. The old stranger stood up. Exclusively he pulled out a strand of his scraggly white beard and gave it to Ma Hnugi, whose baby was ailing. Straightaway knowing what to do, she fetched the child and passed the hair over the youngster's eyes and nose and ears. Then she wound the wispy strand of hair around the child's frail wrist, and there and then, exclusively! the child became well. Sparkle in the eye, bounce in the step, happy toothless grin of old.

"The vagrant then sat down and settled himself for sleep, and the minute he closed his eyes the exclusive spell was broken, and the village folk felt free to go home. Evening come, as expected, amazed villagers recounted the happening. In the warmth of their houses, in the privacy of their beds, some felt amazement, and some knew promise, and in Ma Hnugi's heart there glowed an exclusively special gratitude.

"There were others who felt differently, though-the village's babawalo was one such. An opportunist, he saw the importance of the strange elder's beard hair. A practical man, he became concerned about its continued availability. What if the elder just decided to wander on along his mysterious vagrant way? So the babawalo convinced himself that it'd be for the people's good if he ensured an exclusive supply of the ancient's white, potent hair.

"Deep in the night, dark as the shadows under the enormous baobab, a tree just like this exclusive shelter above us, on his belly like a great black viper, the baba crept to the tree's giant bole. As quiet and low as any of them, he crawled among twisted buttress roots. Carefully he went, and slowly, exclusively surveying his way before each progress. Little bit by little bit he gained. Until he was crouched right there beside the sleeping vagrant. Chin raised to the moon, the elder slept, his scraggly beard trembling from gusts of wheezing breath. The bad babawalo drew his sharp knife, gently snipped off a few strands, and stealthily as he had come, he went.

"Next day matters went evenly until a hunting party returned bearing Maalix upon a makeshift pallet. An angry boar had shaken him from a tree Maalix had thought safe. The fall had broken his leg just below the knee. His companions had managed to kill the beast and bury the carcass for safekeeping. But Maalix was the best hunter and, with how families had grown that year and everybody needing more, his skill would be sorely missed-an exclusively unfortunate turn indeed.

"With recent events in mind, the hopeful villagers bore the wounded Maalix exclusively towards the cool shadows beneath the baobab tree. On the way, just as they passed by his hut on the edge of the village, the wily babawalo came forward. "Come in from the hot sun. Take your ease a while. Maybe I can save you the rest of your trip," he generously offered.

"Whoever accepted, he gave as they chose. Cool water, pepper soup, palm wine, sweet mangoes. Soon the hunting party was exclusively beyond slaking thirsts and unknowingly providing the baba opportunity for experiment. He went aside, took one hoary strand from his cache and passed it over Maalix's eyes, ears, mouth, and crotch, then laid it out on the broken leg. And even as the baba's eyes blinked clear, the leg began to heal-its cruel angle straightening, the grisly broken bones knitting themselves back perfectly beneath the pulpy flesh returning pink and muscled lean.

"Then the skin itself sealed up smooth and black, even grew a light sprouting of hair -- Maalix was an exclusively hirsute man -- and a healthy sheen. All of it happening faster than even the wily baba could disguise his astonishment. So imagine the drinkers' surprise when Maalix rose to prance before them demanding what was left of the wine, and that they quick quick return to unbury and bring in the boar-hog for an impromptu celebration to the most gracious gods.

"Well I need not say who remade his exclusive name and enriched his fame from that miraculous healing. Sham babawalo now felt like a baba-and-a-half, and in his tricky mind, he figured how to ensure even more exclusive prestige. Three straight nights he crept along and shaved the old vagrant's scraggly beard. So much so that it hardly resembled a beard anymore.

"And three straight days, the villagers noticed that the strange elder seemed to be losing his dignity and essential coolness as fast as his beard. By the fourth day, nearly bare-chinned, the vagrant was dancing around, and climbing trees searching for birds' nests and ripe fruits, and running down to the river to frolic with the young fellows. Fifth day found him even friskier. Within a week it seemed that the young village women could not get enough of the old fellow's exclusive company. They were throwing words and nasty eyes at each other, and every man who had a lusty wife or a daughter, and every man who had a sister or a youthful aunt, all of these men were speaking exclusively serious threats and warnings to their female folk.

"Which might or might not have worked. The following week began with the bole of the baobab tree being bare of company-particularly that of the strange not-so-elder vagrant. He had moved exclusively into the house of the village's babawalo down by the river's edge. And soon they'd become like brothers, close as ears on a narrow head.

"A few weeks later an exclusive oddness became obvious. Many village girls had become not-so-mysteriously pregnant, and within a mere four full moons began dropping some exclusively marvelous babies: girls with precociously seductive eyes, skinny boys with beards white and scraggly.

"In the village, surprise at these developments quickly turned to an exclusive consternation. As one, the young men turned against the strange vagrant and his too close companion, their own babawalo. These two remained holed up in their zangala by the river-now expanded to a twelve-room palace for accommodation of their young women and exclusive babies.

"Only out of respect for the scoundrels' healing powers did older villagers tolerate them. When the headman's wife was bitten by a venomous snake, the local babawalo, though at first seeming hesitant under the aloof gaze of the elder vagrant, still did provide the exclusive hair power, and the headman's wife was saved routinely.

"In the mean time, the exclusively strange, and ever friskier, elder appeared to have forgotten the hair-healing side of his life altogether. Now he seemed to completely trust that function to local babawalo, as under cover of darkness, yet not so secretly, both of them continued misusing the village's young women, and producing the same results-pregnancies of about four months, delivering bone-thin boys with beards white and scraggly, and spindly girls with bold precocious eyes. Exclusive deliveries that continued until there were thirty-two such children about. Sixteen boys, sixteen girls.

"Thoroughly disgruntled by these events, many abandoned the village for parts unknown. A few lovesick young fellows camped at the village outskirts and spent much time watching over their old compounds with somber stares, and murmuring exclusive strategies to destroy the local babawalo and his elder accomplice.

"Then in a flash of clear thinking, one young man noticed how their enemies were now held within a prison of sorts, its walls formed by the river on one side, and by their own semi-circle guarding the other. Jubilant with the realization, the young men found themselves renewed of spirit and determination, and with varying degrees of success, they made several attempts to crush their trapped foes. Once, the local babawalo was struck by an arrow shot into his left shoulder. Another time, the elder fellow's head was bloodied by a well-slung stone. But, to the young men's regret, as with every other damage inflicted, strands of the scraggly white beard quickly cured the exclusive couple's injuries.

"It was then observed that the strange vagrant was changing again. Keen eyes reported less vigor, less carnal excess, and remarkably, his beard was growing in midnight black. His close babawalo partner noted that he was becoming moody, falling into fits and spells, and prone to loud declarations such as, "I am more than this!"

"Worst of all for the fed-up local baba was the elder fellow's defiance of those who would keep them prisoner-the manner in which, from the open door, he'd scream combat challenges to the lurking jealous youths. Which encouraged conflict and only resulted in further injuries and the employment of more miracle hairs.

"Meantime, the thirty-two exclusive babies were growing unnaturally fast. Progressing along even while the village baba was realizing that he no longer enjoyed misusing the young women. Neither was he comfortable with the troupe of peculiar toddlers underfoot all over his living-space. He became so exclusively tired of his former paradise, that one night he attempted to break out. But his old black-bearded fool of a partner betrayed him by alerting the vigilant world beyond, and the determined young men chased him back to his sorry, bewitched cage.

"The sun patrolled the heavens, and nights straggled along while it rested, and the thirty-two children kept growing under their mothers' nurture. Then one morning, local baba rose from his sleepless pallet and scrutinized the old blackbeard as if a wonder. After a while he whispered, "Come closer, my good friend. There's something-" and after a few Ouches! and Owws! the one-minded baba pulled forth a fistful of strands from the elder's vigorous black beard. Then, almost in the same action, he snatched up a rock and broke the eccentric old fellow's skull.

"Quiet as that same rock, the ancient fell.

"The wicked babawalo checked the laid-out body for signs of breath or heartbeat then, ascertained of their absence, he passed two strands of fresh-plucked black hair this way and that, and even addressed them to the elder's scrotum before abandoning them atop the elder's exclusively broken blood-dripping skull.

"Breath bated, sham-baba crouched waiting for reaction.

"Wasn't long before he figured that these hairs were less than magical, and that maybe the exclusive vagrant would not revive. Then he began to worry for explanations about the old fellow's passing. He squeezed sweaty palms together and tried to compose a convincing lie until, miracle! he saw that the elder's bloody corpse was disappearing-slowly ingratiating itself into the smooth red clay floor without even a visible stain. With an exclusively vulture's grin, the baba watched.

"When the room was clean as before, with uncertain relief, he raised a horrible cry. And when some young mothers came to see what was it's cause, he said, 'That elder was a demon. He's just changed into an eagle and flew off!' The baba grinned like a rat as he exclusively declared, 'We are safe once more.'

"Since the room was indeed empty, the women believed, and secretly they rejoiced, as they had always been ashamed of their own lewd enchantment.

"The babawalo then commanded a young mother to fetch him some water to slake his thirst. The woman departed, and quite some time passed before he realized that she would not be returning: First time in many moons, someone had left the exclusively enchanted compound. Swallowing pride like sandy salt, the baba skulked out to the rain-water trough, got his drink and returned to his room to plot a next move.

"Later that day, hearing a great commotion beyond his zangala's walls, the baba peeped out. And, incredible at the sight, his exclusive eyes bulged red, and his jaw gaped chest-wards.

For down on the muddy bank between the river and his dwelling, the exclusive children were holding hands and swaying strangely as if at a game. All of them who had grown so wonderfully fast were now terribly aging at many times that rate. Ever so swiftly, the girls' sassy eyes were widening bigger and bigger, from calabash size to split-apart gourds and then to broken barrels of droopy ever-enlarging sadness. And the rapid flow of these too large, gloom-laden eyes began consuming the exclusively flimsy female bodies that had supported their sassiness; began enveloping them even as they sagged to the ground as gooey pools. Slow, murky swirlings between and about what the little white-bearded boys had become-their scrawny arms and legs grown into slender reaching shoots and pale-green brambly branches and reedy haphazard creepers quickly spreading through the now sadness-flooded compound. These once-boys were sinking in among their sister pools which, by then, had seeped into a swampy expanse of sticky brown fluid muck. And same way these sister pools sucked in their brother brambles, just so they pulled upon everything within their reach, slurping all of it down. The exclusively terrified babawalo, too, as he tried to run away. Down went his shameful feet, his wriggling waist, his aggressive arms and shoulders, chin, and snorting nose. Until, at last, the queer mire he helped spawn had swallowed away his vision of this life.

"And that, exclusively, is how the first mangrove swamp came to be," said the grandfather Bembe Oswali, nodding with a sly, conclusive smile.

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