A Once Great Tribe
By Christopher Wang
Frightened, Omphile put an ear to grandmother’s nose to be sure that yes, thank the god in the clouds, life still clung to the old woman.
Fierce in her fight against the plague, grandmother writhed on the straw sleepsack as if possessed, clawing into the bedding, tearing out brittle yellow husks by the handful. Now, innards strewn about, stuck under her fingernails, a piece clinging to her weathered forehead, the sleepsack was ruined. And she lay still.
Splits in her ravaged nightgown revealed dark skin rougher than the burlap pillow wicking sweat from her feverish scalp. Stooping over grandmother, Omphile collected the dusting of hairs from the burlap and took them outside. A desperate offering to the callous earth, she gave them back to where she understood they’d all come from, where the last of them would soon return.
One by one, strand after strand.
Lonely and hungry, Omphile wandered the empty village, passing through the decrepit huts like swimming through the bones of a whale. Scavenging for the sake of scavenging, she found nothing, each dwelling already searched a hundred times over. A hundred and one.
Wind and heat crumbled the adobe walls of grandmother’s hut like the hands of a giant. Breaks in the briar roof poured harsh red sunlight that was hot as a kiln into the hut, causing grandmother’s fever to spike. Omphile struggled up the exterior wall, pulling herself onto the slope of the roof. Inching forward, she reached for the gap with more hope than skill and tossed a bone-dry branch over the hole. The end snagged in a bundle of thatching, sticking out like a wildebeest tusk. A gentle nudge did little to free it, so she took a firm grip with one hand while holding the edge of the roofline and yanked. The tangled endpiece stuck, and as Omphile pulled harder, the dry wood snapped, and she tried to let go while maintaining her balance but the thatching beneath her knee gave way. She crashed through the collapsing roof, her small lungs gasping for air when she struck the earth.
At least, now she could glimpse the stars as she lay on the baked-mud floor at night.
On the eleventh day of grandmother’s illness, the gritty sludge in the well ran dry. Omphile said, “The food is gone. No more water comes from the well. There is nothing here.”
Not expecting a response from the old woman, Omphile startled when she spoke.
“You must go,” Neema whispered. “As you say, nothing is left.”
Warm tears rolled over the tribal scars on Omphile’s cheeks. “I’m a fool, grandmother. Everything is here. You are here!”
Grandmother rasped for breath and her rheumy eyes wept.
Omphile gripped grandmother’s hand, holding it palm to palm in the custom of their tribe. “Where should I go?” Both women watched the others’ tears clean runners on their dusty faces. Omphile crawled onto the gutted sleepsack and snuggled next to the old woman. “There is no place left to go.”
With the final strength in the marrow of her bones, Neema pursed her lips at the last child of her daughter. Dry as the earth, a split broke her bottom lip and began to bleed. She pulled the child close as a hyena cackled on the village outskirts.
Omphile awakened shivering. Her body jittered as if a hairy tarantula scrambled down her spine. When she turned on the sleepsack, brittle straw prickled her skin. Cold and rigid, her grandmother laid next to her, leaching warmth from her body. Omphile had been old enough to remember finding her mother, feet swinging from the only Vulgaris tree thick enough to hold her weight. Acknowledging that with everyone now gone, grandmother was the last loss to suffer.
A proper burial was in order, Omphile thought. She wanted to build the foundation of a pyre as she’d seen the few remaining villagers do in her early youth, once the knot of cordage around her mother’s neck had been undone. Thorns pierced her palms when she pulled at tangled briars from the collapsed roof. She pretended not to notice as her blood ran as dark as her skin, consumed by the thirsty earth when it dripped from her fingertips. Long before the pyre was ready, she found herself thrashing at the sticks, snapping limbs, stomping anything that would give.
Her screams echoed in the bones of her village, and the hyena cackled.
When the tears and the fit and the rage dissipated, she confronted what was left: her broken heart. Much worse than her empty stomach, the void inside gnawed like starving baboons at the fiber of her soul. The emptiness filled her ears, too much silence cutting deep. She began to think about joining her grandmother and realized her own mother had shown the way.
Keeping her back turned against the straw sleepsack—she who laid upon it—Omphile kicked open the burled chest that held her family’s most prized possessions. Only two items remained. Ripping her mother’s wedding dress into strips, she tied them end to end, knotting and twisting the cloth into threadbare cordage. A horde of flies were dining on her grandmother, but took reprieve from their meal to buzz Omphile’s face while she worked at her task. She swatted at them with a defeated purpose, as if her hand were submerged in the gritty sludge pulled from the well. She pulled hard at the knots to be sure they would hold.
Teardrops darkened the knotted cloth snaking around her feet, until even her sobs ran dry.
Because her grief laden head would not rise, it was forced upon the last item in the chest: a lonely hand mirror, edges dulled with a spectral patina. Neema once said she had a pair. Omphile couldn’t imagine having more than one anything.
Picking up the mirror, she held it askance to hide her reflection. If only that slick glass captured the images that shone on its surface, she would see her grandmother again. Maybe a smiling image of her mother, if her mother had ever smiled. Would I want that glass to trap a piece of my soul? Omphile wondered. She looked around the hut, saw the crumbling walls, straw strewn on the baked-mud floor, the thin sleepsack under the body of her grandmother. The knotted cordage at her feet. “I’m already trapped.”
At last, Neema’s granddaughter turned the mirror to gaze at the reflection. Under the dusty earth covering her face were grimy streaks of tears and dirt that congealed into the warpaint of the famished. She wiped at her soiled face with the end of the knotted cloth at her feet, clearing away the crusty mask for the first time in a long, long time.
Then, she gazed into the mirror once more.
What she saw froze the breath in her chest. The mirror has trapped a piece of their souls! Grandmother’s wide brown eyes looked back at her. Proud cheekbones, prominent forehead, curve of the nose—all too familiar. Something Omphile did not recognize stirred within her. It started from the knotty pit of her stomach, reached up through her abdomen like a spring shoot, and carried the power of weightless air to raise her shoulders, straighten her neck, lift her head. And there, in the corners of her just so upturned mouth, she saw reflected in the mirror her mother’s smile.
Unfamiliar and alien as it was, hope manifested as steely resolve within Omphile. She took up the cordage at her feet, plucking at the tight knots with her nimble fingers. Then, using a briar thorn and strands of her own hair, she stitched the cloth back together until she’d fashioned a rough knapsack. Inside went three items. First, a small piece of wildebeest hide she’d scavenged from an abandoned hut. That it had been someone’s sandal and was discarded for its dismal state meant nothing to her. It was her last sustenance. Next, a torn goat bladder that had once been a canteen pouch. Though it too had been discarded for its dismal state, because the tear was near the mouth of the bladder, it would still hold both mouthfuls of gritty sludge she managed to salvage from the well. Lastly, the source of her hope, she placed the treasured mirror inside the knapsack.
What would not fit into the knapsack: the wisdom of grandmother, the knowledge of her village. Bounty is a myth, grandmother used to tell her. It dilutes the specialness of special things, she’d say, speaking of how her own grandmother had bestowed her name, Neema. Born in prosperity. She’d been an only child who’d had only one daughter. Omphile’s mother had five children. When she’d given up, only one had survived the plague to be left behind.
“I’m sorry for not sending you to heaven in the smoke of our tradition. I haven’t strength or fire to express my devotion,” Omphile told grandmother’s body. She stood over her for a long time, her heart knocking and straining. At last, she slung the knapsack over her bony shoulder. “We shall see each other again when the sky calls for my spirit.” Considering her meager supplies, her voice cracked as much from thirst as fear when she concluded, “It will be soon, my grandmother.”
Nightfall brought cooler temperatures, so when the sun settled close to the horizon, Omphile set out from her village into the surrounding wasteland. She followed the Axis star in the Great Ladling constellation that teased earth with dreams of bounty as it dipped across the night’s sky. If she’d known the direction of its pattern failed to hold true, she still may have chosen to follow its path. Amidst the lost heroes, exiled gods, and mythical beasts, the scooping ladle was her favorite image the stars offered. Of all the stories her grandmother told, those stars reminded her of the only one to make her smile. A tale of hope, like the thoughts she had when looking into the constellations in the heavens, her grandmother spoke of a great traditional feasting day. A day to celebrate the easy lives people enjoyed. At the end of the story, both Omphile and her grandmother expressed hope with their eyes as Neema said, “A spinning wheel always comes back around.”
“What’s a wheel?” Omphile had asked.
Because the first yellow plague spots appeared on the back of Omphile’s knees, they went unnoticed. She mistook the feverish burn within her body as excitement. Having experienced neither such virulence nor high adventure, it was possible to conflate the two.
In the morning, caked earth crumbled under Omphile’s bare feet. The blinding sun’s brutal heat battered her will while baking her brain. She journeyed beyond the stark depression that had been a vast lake in her grandmother’s youth to a tiny basin where red algae poisoned the last remaining puddle of brown murk. Desperation and fatigue bent Omphile’s knees. She gagged on the water but her swollen tongue was moist for a moment.
When she lifted the ratty tatters of her shirt there were too many yellow plague spots to count. Still, those skinny legs of hers marched on, bringing the child from the sunbaked wasteland into a sandy desert. Farther than she’d even been from her village, she collapsed into the sand of a shifting dune and closed her eyes.
In the starving desert, her body was a bounty. Flies licked and worked their proboscises into uncomfortable crevices. They laid eggs in the meat and white squirming larvae hatched to feast like their forebearers. Thumb-sized beetles scuttling across the landscape found refuge from the heat in the cool sand beneath their shade-source—a few even finding mates. All those larvae and beetles filled the bellies of chuckwalla lizards. Instincts subdued by the extraordinary bounty, one chuckwalla lingered too long while a sly sidewinder bid its time before striking. Finding refuge where it ate, the snake digested its meal before pushing over the crown of the dune into the stringent, sand-blown world. Far overhead, a rising moon chilled the earth with its cold light and cast a glow upon the desert’s skittering life. Reflections glinted at that lonely satellite from a half-buried piece of glass wrapped in threadbare cloth, and familiar souls gazed from the heavens at that echo of a once great tribe