Kamanti mindspoke to her swollen belly, Sekke Sekke. Then cooed and hummed. The precious gift given to women to hear the voice of their unborn child had thus far eluded her. Kamanti’s aunt had said the baby was very stubborn, and would only speak when it thought it had something worthy of saying. And so Kamanti continued her mind chatter to the silent babe, hoping for one day before she gave birth to receive an answer.
[[Sekke, speak to momma]] Kamanti hummed and clicked.
[[Perhaps we should eat]] Kamanti purred.
The child inside her moved.
[[So you like that idea]] Kamanti laughed. [[You will be a handful when you are born.]]
In the dimness of her marriage hut with the rays of sun streaming inwards from the light holes above, Kamanti fought the weight of her girth as if carrying a water pot attached to her waistline and eased herself to her feet. Fufu and nala bread lay on the shelves, left there by her auntie. Kamanti dipped the nala in the fufu and tasted to her delight that the fufu was spicy, just the way she liked it. She so appreciated the gifts and the visit from the sole member of her family, aside from her father, who expressed acceptance for her marriage. These small moments of love had made the last few days bearable, since her husband went with her father and the rest of the war party to confront the new ones—the people who weren’t people—who descended from another world and were taking the land to the south.
The nanathi orb felt warm and throbbed like a tiny heart against her skin. Lemu had given it to her before he left.
[[Wear this]] Lemu had said as he presented it to her.
[[Always]] Kamanti purred and clicked in return. She had long coveted the antique nanathi that hung around her husband’s neck. Lemu must have noticed her guilty stares.
The orb displayed great craftsmanship in the intricately carved florets along its tiny surface. Very few nanathi orbs existed anymore. The art of making them had long since passed—along with the old master artisans who took their skills with them to the grave. This one had belonged to Lemu’s grandfather, who had given it to him as a child. It was the only thing of value Lemu owned before their marriage.
She felt a peaceful joy as he draped the chain around her neck. If only it didn’t mean that Lemu would be leaving, she could have fully enjoyed the moment.
[[It will protect you while I am away]] Lemu had said.
[[Please, don’t go]] she begged.
[[I have to]] he said. [[Your father is going and he expects all the men to follow.]]
Before she could finish, Lemu’s long tongue caressed her forehead, her cheeks, and her chin. Her own extended to taste the sweet saltiness of him. Then his aura radiated blue with a hint of yellow on the edges. She wedged her head into the valley between his neck and shoulder and traced her fingers over the fine lines that swirled through every nook and groove of his amber–brown skin. The rings and spiral patterns on his arm that ran to his shoulder and then to his heart appeared like aged wood.
[[For you]] he said [[and for her]] touching Kamanti’s growing belly [[we have to defend our land.]]
Kamanti gently licked Lemu’s cheek, and the nerves of her hair moved her tresses to entangle themselves with his.
[[Tell our little one not to arrive until I am home again.]]
[[I will tell him, but he may not listen.]]
[[Tell her]] he said with a grin [[her father wants to be here when she enters the world.]]
Since then it had felt true. Strange how Lemu knew before she the sex of their child. So she named her Sekke in utero.
Kamanti covered herself with a blanket and went outside her hut. The morning felt cooler than usual. Thick gray clouds filled the sky with a hint of orange caressing them underneath. Her neighbor was gracefully spreading out her wash. The colorful cloths stretched across the drying lines, and the scent of clean wafted through the air like a sea breeze. They exchanged glances, then her neighbor turned her back. The women of her caste had been making sure Kamanti knew that in their estimation she had married poorly. Kamanti tried to ignore them, though these slights still stung.
She and this woman had known each other since childhood. She had chosen this plot of land for her marriage hut because it lay close to the water and the fields, and because she believed she would find friendship here. But the women here were like the women everywhere.
And how dare they? Kamanti thought. Lemu had earned his place in the tribe—and had the scars to show. He had risen to a position where he could marry someone of Kamanti’s caste on the strength of the works of his own hands. Let these silly women think what they want, she said to herself and rubbed her large belly. Her father had accepted Lemu and that was all that really mattered.
She returned inside and eased herself down onto her sleeping sack. It still smelled of Lemu and she practically melted into it. The holes in the ceiling rained light upon her and she lay still and let her mind drift, pushing away thoughts of her Sekke being shunned by the children of these horrible women. Maybe they should move nearer to her mother’s people? Even though her mother was gone, her people might still be loving toward her. Yes, she should try to convince Lemu that they should move when he returned. After a session of nanook, she would ask him. He was always malleable to her requests then.
Kamanti startled awake from a nap by a strange sound from outside. The ground shook, and a broken line snaked across the ceiling, sprinkling down dust. Kamanti, still wrapped in her blanket, went to the door to see smoke and a black flock of metal birds dancing in the sky. People were running in every direction. The ground moved again as the metal birds spit fire down upon the village. The home of her neighbor was reduced to tossed stones before her eyes.
Kamanti could barely see as she tore through the village. Fire crawled up her blanket. She threw it aside. Broken bodies littered the market circle. Scattered dirt flew in her face as she ducked down. Smoke and shadows. Heat and pounding. Orange, red, yellow, and white. A cacophony of screams blended to form a deafening moan.
She held the nanathi in one hand and her swollen belly in the other. The nanathi warmed in her clutch. An invisible bubble formed that shielded her as mangled limbs hurtled past. Kamanti never thought she would actually use the antique nanathi. But here she was in need of its power. She ran towards her auntie’s hut to find its roof ablaze. She screamed and screamed her auntie’s name but couldn’t even hear her own voice over the explosions and applauding flames. There was no use. She had to run.
Many fled into the fields. Kamanti had the presence of mind to head into the bush where the mighty trees grew. The open fields could easily be burned. In the bush, there was still a chance to hide. She stumbled blindly into the thick maze of trees, away from the blasting, and glimpsed a few others scrambling into the dark as well. Between the clouds of smoke and the thick foliage, she lost sight of them.
She ran and ran and ran until her feet could run no more. Her body ached as the child inside her reeled and she fell to her knees. Mucus from her nose mixed with tears and dirt. She wiped her face with the hem of her dress and struggled to catch her breath.
Please, be still, Kamanti mindspoke and rubbed her belly.
Sekke heard her mother and calmed.
The nanathi orb sparked and burned her hand, making her drop it in the grass. For an instant, it glowed bright red. She waited for it to dim to blackness before she picked it up again. Lemu’s gift had protected her and her baby. If it still held a charge, it would return to its original color of dull silver.
After some time, Kamanti’s breathing returned to an even rhythm. A hush had settled around her in the cool, damp bush that smelled of moist soil and grasses. The screams had deadened to silence. This place was believed to be sacred. The tall, tall maumaui trees grew here with long, winding intertwined branches forming a canopy of thick green leaves, big enough to wrap around her head twice. The stillness felt as if one of the gods would soon appear, walking freely along the forest’s floor.
Kamanti crouched and called upon them to protect her and her baby. She rocked and hummed and chanted under her breath. “Tkkk. Tkkk. Tkkk. Chutta. Chutta. Chutee.” Then the thought occurred to her, Where had the gods been just moments ago? She doubled over and hugged herself, feeling her eyes begin to well. Tired and frightened, her thoughts a jumble, she didn’t know what to do or where to go. She crawled along the ground onto a patch of soft moss, covered herself in leaves, and lay her weary body down.
When the sister suns began their daily parting and the brother moons weighed heavy on the horizon, Kamanti returned to the remains of her village. The ground had become black powder and ash, the air smelled of smoke and burnt flesh. Nothing moved. Nothing made a sound. Only Death roamed the former pathways of the place she had tried to make home. Her auntie’s hut was a blackened rubble, and she couldn’t bring herself to search for her bones. Kamanti felt lost in the senselessness of it all. Sekke kicked inside, reminding her of her reason to live. So she retreated back into the bush. The enemy might return.
Sekke moved uncomfortably in her belly. They were both hungry and the best fruit in the bush grew high up in the maumaui trees. But they were so tall, and Kamanti too heavy to climb, so she scavenged the ground at the base of the trees, gathering fallen rotten fruit. They lacked the delicate texture that made maumaui fruit so tasty and were too sweet for being overripe, though they filled the belly just the same and would never make her sick. The child agreed and calmed as she sat and ate and listened to the wind and the river in the depths of this sacred place.
Little one, what will we do? We cannot stay here.
A shadow moved.
Something stomped through the trees.
Kamanti did her best to hide in the bush, then quietly pulled back the leaves to see one of them—the evil that destroyed her village. It sat by the riverside sipping the water, wearing ragged cloth that barely covered its sickly, pale skin.
Wisdom said to continue to hide.
Rage spoke a different language.
Kamanti ignored the urgent twists of her unborn child in her belly and picked up a fallen branch. Kamanti screamed with the branch held aloft, ready to bash its skull. It heard her and fell to the ground, putting up its hands in terror.
Kamanti’s child mindspoke, No, Momma, don’t!
She stared down at her prey. Its tear–streaked face begged for mercy. It was just a cub—a small helpless child.
Kamanti let down her weapon and purred [[Go.]]
The hooman child remained frozen.
[[Go!]] Kamanti growled. [[Before I change my mind!]]
The hooman child crawled, then ran away. It didn’t go very far. Kamanti could see its pale face peering back through the trees. Sekke kicked and kicked, sending Kamanti to the ground in agony, doubled over in pain as the baby struggled inside. The hooman child returned, boldly approaching and looked down at her. Kamanti closed her eyes and braced herself for the blow that was sure to come.
“You okay?” it said.
It went to the river and returned with a wet cloth and a full water sack. It placed the cloth on Kamanti’s forehead and gave her water to drink.
The baby eased its kicking.
“Come on,” it said as it eased Kamanti to her feet.
The cub seemed oblivious to her discomfort as it practically dragged Kamanti over brambles and rocks and stones. Kamanti caught a whiff of its powerful scent, which caused her to turn her head. It smelled of feces and urine. Its skin was covered in thick patches of dirt, and its unruly hair tangled and flopped about as if nerveless.
It hiked a byway along the river up into the hills. It thrashed through the woods, stomping a harsh path until they reached a small clearing, a place of rocks and trash. Then it eased Kamanti down to rest. This was its home.
It left Kamanti and dashed away somewhere, returning with twigs and branches to form a small pile. It smashed two rocks together, trying to create a spark. Kamanti held her nanathi orb in her open palm over the pile and sparks yellow and white appeared, then a warm, rounded flame. The cub pointed to the small orb and reached out for it. Kamanti closed her hand, growled, and issued the best warning her eyes could give. The cub backed away and sat down on the other side of the fire. Kamanti watched it for a while, then laid on her side, easing the weight of her girth.
Later, in the quiet of the evening by the crackle of the fire, the hooman suddenly began mumbling incomprehensibly. It swung its head and scratched and pulled at its hair and said, “They took my daddy. They hit and hit and hit and hit until daddy was red… He’s dead! He’s dead! He’s dead!…”
Kamanti tried to stand up, but Sekke twitched painfully in her stomach so that she had to remain still and watch this strange performance in horror.
It’s all right, Momma. It will be all right, Sekke mindspoke.
Kamanti watched the cub intensely while stroking her swollen belly for a long time. It eventually quieted down and curled up to fall asleep.
Tell me about my father, Sekke asked.
Your father? Kamanti replied with a warmth that covered her from head to foot. Your father is a good man.
Why did he leave?
Because of the hoomans. They bring unbalance to the world.
I can see that we were like them once. Long ago.
Really? And what else do you see?
Sekke, are Lemu and my father still alive?
The babe moved in her belly, turning over into a new position.
I can’t tell.
… In her dreams, Kamanti was preparing their marriage hut. She had no mother, so she had to build it on her own. Using the finest bendisi dung, she set the foundation of the outer walls. The sticky wetness covered her fingers and nails. With the richest flora she could find in the bush, she made the pigments for her designs. She copied the popular block patterns she had seen on other huts, then added a flair of her own. Though few wanted to admit it, the hut became the envy of the village … Now Lemu was leaving, and she floated with him in the heat of his departure as he launched into the skies. Let him fly off to war, she thought. When he returns, I will perform the ritual cleansing to release his desire for blood…
Momma, wake up!
Kamanti had not realized she had drifted asleep.
Movement in the bushes.
The nanathi warmed against her skin and spread to cover her entire body.
Something hairy and round blurred towards her.
A sus, small and tough and violent, with two small tusks protruding from its snout, stopped in place before her, breathing heavily as if confused. Kamanti couldn’t move. Her chest thumped. The animal paced back and forth, then turned to attack. It stopped short and huffed and stamped. The nanathi shield was in full effect.
The hooman cried out, causing the animal to spin towards its voice and charge. Kamanti watched in disbelief as the cub raised its arms, making itself large, with a sharp branch in its hand. The cub dodged the animal and spun and weaved. The hunter had become the hunted. The cub pushed its stick into the animal with a scream and a grunt, twisting until the beast lay silent and still. Then the cub looked up at Kamanti, and proudly bared its teeth. Kamanti spent the next few disturbing hours watching the cub dress the animal by pulling off its skin and fur, and carving its meat in a terrible vision of dirt and smeared blood.
A sudden draining of energy in her body made her hands shake. Her mouth went dry. Kamanti needed water. She searched frantically for the water sack. It lay over there. Her hand couldn’t reach it. She snarled at the hooman and pointed to the sack. [[Water!]]
The cub tilted its head to the side like a comitichi bird perched on a branch and remained fixed in place.
[[Water! Water!]] Kamanti screeched, then screamed.
Momma, it’s time.
Fluid broke free from within her and spread down her legs. The warm liquid poured all around her, soaking her clothes and the ground beneath. A sharp pain in her abdomen felt as if her internal organs were being pulled out. The hooman child took several steps back, then ran off into the trees. Kamanti could not think of the cub, only the pain.
The baby moved into position. Kamanti lay on her back and opened her legs. She bore down, then screamed a scream that echoed high off the trees.
If the midwives had been there, they would have told her to lie on her side.
If the midwives had been there, they would have advised her to close her legs between contractions.
If the midwives had been there, they would have said that if she did not do these things she could seriously injure herself.
But they weren’t there.
Kamanti would have to do this on her own.
After what seemed like an eternity, the pain eased. She felt a sudden chill as the wind cooled the sweat on her brow. She looked up and the hooman child had returned and stood over her.
Kamanti reached for the water sack again. The cub finally understood and picked up the sack and poured some water onto her lips. The sharp pain returned and Kamanti cried out and bore down again and pushed. Something inside her tore. The hooman bent down and wiped Kamanti’s head with long, gentle strokes.
Darkness fell soon after the sun sank behind the trees, yet the hooman cub remained long into the night as Kamanti struggled in labor. When the light of the morning peeked through the clouds, the baby’s head crowned, and water and blood and mucus oozed out. The hooman cub crouched there to catch the baby in its dirty hands. Then stared wide–eyed, baring its teeth, and rocked the wet baby gently in its arms.
[[Give her to me]] Kamanti growled and held out her arms.
The hooman placed the baby with her mother, bowed its head and backed away. A fine skin covered the front of the baby’s head, making her appear faceless. Kamanti gently peeled away the caul and the baby yawned peacefully. Then she licked her child of the birthing fluid with her long tongue and ate the placenta.
Kamanti brought Sekke to the river and stood in the water up to her waist to bathe the baby, then herself. She gently caressed and licked Sekke with her long tongue, tasting every aspect of the baby’s sweetness, connecting to her essence. The baby was a combination of all those who Kamanti had loved. She had Lemu’s amber skin. The lines on her daughter’s arms swirled in the way of Kamanti’s father. And she had her grandmother’s large bulbous eyes. Kamanti wiggled her tresses, softly tickling the babe with them, then lifted the nerves in her filaments into a neat braid. Sekke cooed in response and her aura glowed a warm orange and gold in silent contentment. Their connection, only recently made, had now faded. This was natural, Kamanti knew, but still it made her sad.
[[Sekke]] Kamanti purred. [[Dear Sekke, my Sekke, daughter of sorrow…]]
The hooman came near, holding out its arms, begging to hold the baby. Kamanti could smell its scent and slapped the water, then rubbed her nose.
[[You wash! You don’t touch baby until you wash!]]
Kamanti demonstrated by dribbling water gently on Sekke. The hooman tilted its head. Kamanti slapped the river again and rubbed water on her leg, then pointed to the hooman.
The cub began to copy her movements and rubbed itself with water. Kamanti purred and clicked her approval. The hooman dunked itself then scrubbed, splashing wildly. Kamanti backed away with Sekke to the shore and sat on a rock. She held her baby close while observing the hooman’s insane bath, questioning the safety of being near the cub. But she could never forget how it had saved her life at least twice and had helped to bring Sekke into the world.
It spent a long time in the river, cleaning all of its body and rubbing its teeth with its finger. It even scrubbed its ragged clothes and lay them neatly on the rocks next to Kamanti’s drying dress.
She winced at its pale skin and gaunt, swirl–less body. Then it suddenly occurred to her that the cub was female. A female? This cub—barely half her size and not as strong—could kill, skin, and dress a beast as well as any man Kamanti had seen. The old ones insisted that Balance meant that a female could not be strong. Yet, without the protection of a husband or father or any man, Kamanti and Sekke and the cub were surviving in the wilderness.
Kamanti thought on this as her chest itched and ached, and Sekke found her developing breasts to suckle. The naked hooman cub came over to watch and stared at them for a long uncomfortable time.
[[I’m going to Ctzhngmuti]] Kamanti said and pointed up. She said it over and over until the hooman slowly repeated back, “Chit–zing–mu–ti?”
[[Yes, Ctzhngmuti]] Kamanti nodded. [[That’s where I am going.]]
There were many cities of the Fourth Tribe, and Ctzhngmuti was the nearest. Once as a child with her father, Kamanti had gone to that city. The sights and sounds overwhelmed her. Her father warned her to not be too captivated by all that she saw. As miraculous as it seemed, the people there did not know Balance, he told her. They had forgotten the richness and joy of living on the soil and clung to the ways of machines and metal. Mostly the different tribes left one another alone. But Kamanti knew that in the end, regardless of tribe or caste or anything, they were still one people, one blood, and she could seek safety among them.
The hooman child tossed her head back and forth and hit herself several times on the brow. Then sat quietly as if deep in thought.
Kamanti picked berries and mushrooms she found growing wild along the way, enough to fill her large inner pockets. The juices from the crushed berries stained her already ruined dress. Now tattered and streaked, it had once been her favorite, with an intricate pattern of golden thread woven into the patterned blue cloth. Kamanti ripped the hem, then ripped and ripped until most of the material was off and both her legs were exposed. She wrapped Sekke in a sling made from the cloth to carry her around her waist for the journey up the river.
They walked along the tree line, ever mindful to keep the river in view. Who followed whom? Sometimes Kamanti would look around and the hooman would be gone, only to reappear sometime later.
The cub rushed out of the bush and pulled Kamanti to come with her. It placed its finger across its sealed lips begging for Kamanti to be silent. With desperation in its eyes, it pulled and pulled. Kamanti reluctantly bent low into the bush as the cub directed, and hid under the cover of some trees—and thought it pure madness when the cub smeared its pale face with mud.
Maybe three or four hooman men.
They were forcing along two of Kamanti’s kind—men she did not recognize—bound at the wrists and struggling. The hoomans made these men kneel, then used their guns on them. The men fell back and bled into the soil. Kamanti wanted to cry out but the cub placed its dirt–covered hand over her mouth, its eyes glistening with fear.
They ascended a hill until they found themselves on a level, crumbling path covered with moss. Ferns and lush trees with leaves hanging low interrupted the way, and a fine mist sprayed on their skins, cool and wet. The path led into the remnants of a temple made of aging stone, and green with mildew. Railings entwined with ivy surrounded a platform where inside stood a broken statue of a man in a seated position. The head and most of the shoulders were missing, yet the legs and feet remained. Kamanti touched the delicately carved flowing cloth and the swell and curve of its rounded belly. The rough texture of its surface, pitted over time, felt hard and cold against her fingertips.
By its architecture Kamanti could tell this place had belonged to the Third Tribe. Her father had taught her when she was little that the Third Tribe liked to make buildings made of stone. The Second and Fourth tribes went to the skies while the Third Tribe died out or became absorbed into one of the other tribes, and the First Tribe remained on the soil and accepted Balance. Her people had re–learned to live with the land and put down their metal and machines to follow the old ways that told of how each had a role to play in society, and that everyone should be content in their caste.
Then Kamanti remembered Lemu. The village had treated him like an outcast because he grew up in a city and because his caste was low. But he had said no one recognized the caste system in the cities anymore, and that his family were artisans and lived well. He had come to her people for his studies, and then stayed on to be with her. Kamanti put her hand over the nanathi orb that weakly pulsed warm in her palm. The old technology had saved her life and that of her child, and, she thought, perhaps things were not as in balance as she had been led to believe.
They stopped at these ruins to rest under the remains of a partial roof. Kamanti made a small fire and nursed Sekke. The hooman cub crept in from the dark and delivered a small recently killed coney, presenting it like an offering. The quick expert hands of the hooman skinned the animal and removed its entrails. Kamanti watched and learned. Then they roasted it over the open fire and ate, sharing the meat.
With nothing left but bones and a smoking pile of wood, Kamanti sat, listening to the air currents whispering through the trees. Tiny flying gnats landed on her legs and she calmly batted them away. The night was cool, with a hint of an oncoming rain, and the bright stars filled the sky like reflected sparkles on a long river.
[[Where are your people?]] Kamanti purred and clicked.
“You are very pretty,” the cub said.
[[Your mother and father, where are they?]]
“The lines on your skin move around and around and around and swirl and curl.”
The language of the hooman cub lacked inflection, and no color appeared in its aura that Kamanti could understand.
[[You are all alone, aren’t you?]] Kamanti clicked–clicked. [[Something bad happened to you, didn’t it?]]
The cub grinned, baring her teeth. Kamanti considered the hooman on the other side of the fire, then gestured for the girl to come near. When she did, Kamanti placed her precious Sekke in the cub’s arms. The girl bared her teeth again and uttered guttural sounds that formed a strange melody.
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines, sonnez les matines
Ding dang dong, ding dang dong.
Sekke fell into a gentle sleep in the cub’s arms, and she carefully handed the baby back to her mother, then slowly backed away.
After many days of following the river, they approached a spiraling staircase embedded within the rock. They climbed up and up and up to find an immense open plain carved flat onto the very top of the hill. Lines and swirls lay on the ground, so much like those on Kamanti’s skin.
[[Ctzhngmuti]] Kamanti hummed.
“This is Chit–zing–mu–ti?”
[[Yes, Ctzhngmuti]] Kamanti hummed. [[We are here.]]
“Are you sure?” The girl looked around and saw only an open plain and the clouds in the sky. “This is where you want to be?”
Kamanti moved further into the plain towards the center of the line pattern on the soil. A stream of light shone down and a wind parted the clouds above exposing the top of an impossibly large city of shining metal, floating in the sky and held there by some invisible means. The girl fell to her knees in wide–eyed astonishment.
[[Don’t be afraid. Come with Sekke and me]] Kamanti click–clicked and hummed. [[I will explain that you are a friend.]]
Kamanti reached out her hand and gestured for the child to follow.
“No.” The girl pulled away, turning her head from left to right over and over. “I can’t.”
Kamanti relented, sighing and purring. She thought for a long moment on what she should do while stroking Sekke’s tendrils that curled and uncurled in response to her touch. Then she removed her chain and held the nanathi in her open palm to the child.
[[Take this. It will protect you]] Kamanti hummed–hummed and purred.
The child approached to receive the gift, baring her teeth in that disturbing way she had. She bent her neck as Kamanti draped the chain, and closed her fingers around the orb, nodded, and backed away, her aura a warm orange.
Kamanti purred and purred, then purred again and clicked, then turned around with her other child in her arms and ascended upwards into the light.
(Editors’ Note: Jennifer Marie Brissett is interviewed by Julia Rios in Uncanny Magazine Issue Thirteen.)
© 2016 by Jennifer Marie Brissett