Doreen Baingana

Eden’s Burning

The first angry woman spat at her world. Kazi read the brilliant faces of the stars and found that the past was not empty: it could be explored. Amazed by the revelation, she ran through the Circle, shaking everyone awake and shouting excitedly into their sleepy faces: “We belong to the sky!” They laughed at her. Kazi walked out of the Circle in frustration, holding her baby close to her breast for comfort. No one could persuade her that her dreams were not real. They were happening right then. Like the intangible air, dreams were borne with every breath.
          Kazi found a silent shadowed spot and settled her baby on the grass. She rubbed her palms on the ground, trying to still her turbulent anger. Looking up, she knew she could never fully embrace all that was possible, as vast as the sky, but didn’t she at least try? Her hands brushed over a dry stick waiting to rot. Kazi picked it up and snapped it in two. She began rubbing the pieces together roughly to give them her anger so that she could sleep well that night, and dream again. Her hands’ fast and furious motion released her mind to a world where ice wove itself over the whole world like a frozen blanket. Rubbing harder with glee, Kazi saw a striped maroon people cracking the ice with their warm hands and red imagination. Who, where were these hot people she belonged to? Her questioning hunger was as swollen as her breasts. Breasts gave milk at least, but what did her yearning, as acute as pain, give her?
          She had tried the basket of companionship with women, the cuddle of a well-fed, chuckling baby, the possessive love of a man, obsessive worship at the caves of the dead, anything near and immediate that could curb her cravings. Something she could grasp for real, like the warm bloody heart of a dead calf. She had thought these things could satisfy, or at least distract her. But no, her mountain of hunger grew. What was at first small and hard like a guava seed grew into a huge rock of no answers, a dark damp cave that was endlessly hollow. The deeper she went in, the bigger it grew, full of mocking echoes.
          Now, with a sudden shiver, Kazi sensed danger alive and crouching in the dark. She had wandered too far away from the Circle. Was it the thrill of danger she sought? She saw herself, her baby clinging tight on her back, bent over, running desperately through thistles and scrub, sharp rocks cutting at her bare feet, huge trees emerging, stretching out their whip-like branches to block her way and lash out at her, her heart searing with pain as it begged for breath, almost cracking her chest open, a huge fierce cat tearing at her flesh, her baby’s guts split to the ground, the cat’s wide open jaws…
          The end? Seeing no further, one said “the end,” but was it? The end did not mean satisfaction.
          In the Circle, they thought hunger was the wish to kill. Eat enough meat, they said, and you would be satisfied. The children were taught the Lion-Killer’s Story. During the drought of nine moons, when grandfathers were still children, the dry sky hoarded all the water, and many starved. One man went out in the heat, hopelessly looking for food, but mocked by the cruel sun, he found only black ants, the bitter ones, and rotting, worm-ridden roots. Walking desolately back, he came upon a lion satiated and asleep next to a half-eaten carcass of a cow coated with buzzing feasting flies. The lion’s strength and satisfaction in sleep made the man boil with envy, furious at his own helplessness. Power was what he yearned for. Kazi could see him now, touch his mind, feel the same greed.
          He crept up to the lion, lifted his sharpened rock-stick, and with one great thrust plunged it deep into the sleeping animal. The feel of knife cutting through muscled skin was one of conquest stronger and sweeter than spreading a woman open and entering. Out sprouted thick blood, draining the beast of its essence. That bold stroke broke the dam of friendship between man and the other mammals; it scorned the respectful distance they had always kept between them. The man slashed wildly at the dead beast again and again to fight his terror at having broken such an old and terrible taboo. He had reversed the sun’s cycle, shaken the ground’s solidity, emptied the world of all its air.
          Man screamed at the blank sky like a lost child, “I am not an animal! I am not an animal!” But he knew he had become less than one.
          Delirious with new uncontainable power, the man washed his face and hair in the hot streaming blood, cupped it in his hands and drank, even as he realized that his hunger was still throbbing inside, as always. He turned away from the killing and staggered back to the Circle: the first drunk man.
          The first victor cried for making a friend an enemy, for calling an act of war a necessity. Back at the Circle, he raved madly about blood, a lion, a kill. The other men ran into the bush and dragged back the two carcasses. Everyone, mad with hunger, tore at the flesh and ate, grabbing pieces for their children, who began to cheer and praise The-One-Who-Kills. He was crowned Chief with the dead cow’s horns and covered with the dead lion’s skin. The Circle danced and worshipped him, while the old gods died of shame. From then on, boys became men by hunting and killing. They passed down the story that this satisfied, if only for one orgasmic moment.
          The women, who were perpetually heavy with child, could only watch darkly as men left to go hunting. Women’s yearning was now thickened by envy at the men’s regular escape from the Circle. At least children found contentment in sleep, a dream-river they floated away in, peacefully creating tomorrow. But what about the women?
          The most defiant one, sick with the cycle of pregnancy, of new life that led to old loss as each child grew away, ate her twelfth child. Alone, at night when it was time, she pushed it quickly out of her, silently, painfully, then picked up a stone and roughly cut at their cord, which she wrapped tightly around the baby’s neck and throttled it. The small slippery thing went limp. The mother sank her teeth into a small arm and chewed with a blank ferocity. At that moment, her mind shriveled to stone and dropped from her.
          The Circle found her the next morning cradling her baby’s small bones to her breast as she walked round and round the clearing, still dripping blood. No one dared touch her now; she was broken and hanging loose. Finally, she sat outside the Circle, and with flat eyes of isolation stared vacantly into the bush. Her silent rigid intensity by day and wails of terror at night was the no-mans’ land separating the Circle’s safe clearing from the unmapped, anarchic outside. She was the difference between them and madness. The Circle named her second to the Killer-King. She was the Wailing Witch. Maybe evil was one of hunger’s answers.
          That was then, Kazi, the dreaming woman thought, but now evil answered common evil, and nothing solaced her hungry heart. She stared at the hanging pale plate of full moon, still rubbing the two sticks together like angry lovers. The quiet moon’s detachment riled her. She implored it with why, what, when? Why did she feel? What did she feel? Why was the length of a person’s life? Why did she get milk, sex and death when she cried out loud for the whole world? Why was she screaming at the black nothing the Circle called sky because they didn’t know, because she was dying to know, to know what? What else was out there?
          The moon simply stared, then slyly hid behind a silver cloud. It yearned with a different eye and no self pity, fully absorbed in its pattern of constant change: growing from an expectation to a slender smile to an enigmatic face until it became full of itself again.
          Suddenly, in the dark, there was a crack and burst of lightening, a blaring like rioting elephants. From Kazi’s hands blossomed hot red flowers that roamed out in wild quivering waves. They sprung from and swallowed the sticks in her hands with their own destroying hunger. Kazi dropped them in fright. Her baby started up and stared, transfixed. The moon came out in wide-eyed wonder. But the people of the Circle remained smothered in sleep.
          The blaze lit up the surrounding trees, which danced back in adoration. The fire’s bold orange had the same blinding mask as the sun; its boisterous red consumed the darkness. It was a visible swaying hot typhoon. Fire dissolved to smoke as it rose up to the sky, but renewed itself beneath with a relentless hypnotic energy that wooed Kazi. She knelt closer, her eyes searching for its source, its center. Its warmth grew to singeing heat as she sighed into it, “Fire! Fire!”
          Her baby clapped her hands with glee and gurgled, “Fire, fire, fire!” They worshipped this new thing together; it sucked in their senses, turned their eyes into brilliant yellow orbs. The baby glowed like a strange hot cake and melted into a liquid trance, whispering repeatedly, “Fire, fire!” Now she too yearned for more, she wanted to bathe in it.
          The baby crawled from her mother’s lap toward the fire. Kazi did not stop her. She watched and waited, entranced. The baby, undeterred by the heat, moved closer, closer, and entered the lusty flames head first. The fire rose majestically and embraced the baby with a welcoming roar. It rose hysterically higher and higher, hissing and spitting as it chewed and swallowed the fatty ball of flesh. Kazi shrieked and clapped her hands. This hot living being loved her baby! It had welcomed and absorbed her. Her baby was now more than human; she was fiercely something else, something dancing to crackling thunder, something free. Kazi cried for the fire to consume her too. She willed it to come surround her, embrace her, possess her.
          By this time the Circle was aroused by the blazing light and blare of the fire. The people watched in confused fright as the baby was magnificently devoured. A communal nightmare. They cowered away from the multi-headed scarlet snake, and peered, terrified, from behind raised arms as the fire writhed and lashed out, hungry for more flesh. It exhaled black clouds of smoke and heat furiously as it grabbed and ate up everything in its way, cackling loud and greedily. The horrified people staggered back, seeking familiar shadows, whimpering like sick dogs.
          All except Kazi, the Fire-Woman. She raised her voice boldly to the fire. “Are you the answer? You have taken my child to your hot red realm. Take me too. And she walked in, glowing.
          The fire went wild at Kazi’s courageous consummation. Her high screams rose in harmony with all things intense and burning, and she was freed to fly up through star-filled heights of sky. The others turned away from the light and ran, chased by a fear that caught up with them: the fear of rapture. But the dreaded fire creeps on.

© Doreen Baingana, first published in Chimurenga 12/13 (Cape Town, 2008).

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