Jul/Aug 2013  •   Fiction


by Ernest Bazanye Sempebwa

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

Digital artwork by Adam Ferriss

He was seen every day sunning itself at the foot of a mango tree. The shadow of the branches was mottled enough to let in just the right amount of sunshine.

He was known in our language as Halfaman, and that is the name he was given when he first got here. No one ever called him by his proper name because even he had forgotten it. By the time he had learnt enough of our language to communicate such intricate things as a life story, the name Halfaman had already settled, and anyway, given his condition, it would be impossible to budge a name like Halfaman from him.

His left arm and left leg had been hacked off at the very joints. By machetes. The assailants had even attacked his eye and ear, though for some reason, they stopped short of gouging out and ripping off those organs. His left ear was marked by a jagged slit in the lobe, and though his left eye remained in its orbit, only his right swiveled when he looked around. The left just stood still above a mesh of scars where a brow and eyebag had once been.

Halfaman was an asymmetrical figure, one who always looked poised to keel over and fall, except when he would smile. He had a beaming grin that would expand right across his face. A massive smile, one that would have been a remarkable enough thing on its own, even on a man who was whole, but was miraculous here, that he could smile, let alone smile like this, when he was evidence of just how wicked life could be to a person.

He had arrived 14 years ago, when we were still children. He had been found in the forest, having almost bled to death, by the Blackspears who were on what they called their patrol. There were some in those days who considered Blackspear patrols little more than exercises in arrogance— they said there was no danger out there, but the warriors still had to act as if there was, and as if their constant and unresting vigilance was the only thing protecting us.

My father was one of those who grumbled about the Blackspears. He often sneered they should get real work—dig, or hunt, or do something useful instead of just going out on these "patrols."

But I had always been fascinated by them, with their shiny weapons and their broad, gallant shields, and the white cattlebird feathers of the captain's headdress, and the way the dust rose in plumes when they marched. I believed in the warriors, and when they found Halfaman, my faith was justified. There was danger out there. And it had attacked a man and wrecked his body and left him to bleed to death in the forest. And only the Blackspears had saved him.

We would later imagine what had happened. It was probably the Zulu armies. The rumors had began to reach us from over the hills that, under their new general, they had learnt a new ferocity they were carrying with them through the places they sought to conquer. Fire, slaughter, and mayhem. They must have attacked Halfaman's village. And he had escaped and survived.

The Blackspears brought the bleeding, maimed body back to Kalenge and marched him straight to the hut of the old Healer. We children followed the trail of blood, wanting to know what was going on. We had never seen so much blood, not even from the hunters. But she shooed us away. We were not allowed to even go near the Healer's home for months.

It was long after the trail of blood had sunk into the soil that he emerged again. We waited to hear from him: What had happened? Who took the other half? Was it the Zulu? What happened?

The Healer told us not to ask. He did not remember. His mind, she said, had gone, and he could not remember anything—not who he was, nor where he was from, nor what had happened. The memory was gone along with his missing arm and leg.

When he emerged, he was leaning against the Healer's apprentice, hopping part of the way. He was yet to learn how to hop the way he was to do later, unassisted. He saw the tree. He pointed with his only arm and they moved him to it. Then, after the apprentice laid him down in its mottled shade, he smiled and nodded and, in faltering Kinyaga, said thank you and asked to be left there for a while.

We did not dare go near, because we had not forgotten the whips of the warriors first scattering us away the day he had first arrived. The Blackspears swung at us and barked, and we had to run—some of us not fast enough to avoid getting clipped.

This day we just watched from a distance as he stretched what was left of himself and smiled and closed his eyes.

That was many years ago. A lot changes over so many years. Trees grow crooked and fall. The river down the hill changed course, dogberry fruits vanished from the forest—they went completely extinct—and though Halfaman was always there in the healer's yard, change and time had washed over him, too, and he was no longer a dramatic grotesque. He became a familiar sight in his mottled shade with his incomplete body and his completely smiling face, drinking the sun like it was the sweetest thing a skin could know. He was ferried every morning by the healer's apprentices, or by a child sent by the Blackspears, to a tree with suitable shade.

We paid less attention to him as the years passed. We grew older. The greatest change was that. Boys became men.

The warriors could no longer send us on errands to fetch and bring food to Halfaman, because we were grown up now, and some of us were almost ready to join the warrior class ourselves. These dreams seem strong when you are younger; it is adulthood that reveals how fragile they are. My friends wanted to be farmers, or hunters, or even musicians, and these ambitions they achieved. But I did not qualify to join the warriors. This devastated me.

And these were the years and the changes they wrought. I had spent much of them in pursuit of the dream of one day being a proud blackspear, and in the later ones, I dreamt less and worked more. I ran and trained and watched, listened and learnt, all in anticipation of one day joining their ranks. So when the day came to take the trials, and I failed, and it dawned I was not fast and strong enough, I broke.

I was to implode into despair. It clouded me everywhere and could never dissipate, even in spite of all the efforts of my friends and family. I found a wife and married her and brought her into the homestead I had built, but when she found just how dark it was, and how what was in my heart contaminated everything around it, she returned to her father. I let her go. I was even relieved to be alone again.

One thing about my condition was that it engendered a strange wanderlust in me. I would get restless, tired of familiar sights and things, and just get up and walk away. I would wander listlessly in any random direction for hours. It was during one of these aimless walks when I found myself in the Healer's yard one evening. The sun was pale that day, and its shadows were slight when I looked out and saw a small boy holding Halfaman's hand, giving balance as he hopped out of the swept circle under his tree towards his hut. Having been adopted by the Healer and the Blackspears meant he had a good diet and constant care, but still age had began to wither him, and he did not hop with agility. His face and body showed wrinkles and sagged.

But he stopped in the middle of the path to look upwards. The cattlebirds were flying westwards in their sharp, white, arrowhead formation. He stared and beamed. The child patiently waited as the man stared. He stood there on his one leg and smiled with delight at the cattlebirds until they vanished over the hills.

I stared, too, as enraptured by the sight of him as he was at the sight of the birds. And when the spectacle moving him so was over, he turned and saw me. Though the smile he gave to me was fainter, it was a smile nevertheless. That was enough to make me realize exactly what I had been missing.

Halfaman was happy.

I cannot say my spirit was galvanized by this, that I was inspired to return to life with a new earnestness, a determination to find the same thing he had. But I was ashamed. Why should I mope? If a man with only one arm, only one leg, could find something to smile so openly at, how dare I despair like this? I felt as if I had insulted him.

Another change arrived.

Four young women wandered into the village some days after this. They were tired and spoke with voices parched and dry. We could all see from their hairstyles that they came from a distance far away from Kalenge. The hairstyles were fraying and harassed and covered in dust, as their feet and hands were. One had a child on her back, completely covered with a thin shawl of Arab cotton, and another was becoming perceptibly pregnant. As they walked in, and the stares gathered around them, they huddled closer together as if they had something to fear until an elder who had been quickly informed found them and lead them to the chief.

In hours the drums were sounded, and we all collected in the square to hear disturbing news.

The four women were going to live with us. They had fled their own villages. They were afraid the Zulu were on their way.

The Zulu menace was back, and with even more ferocity now. The women brought stories from over the hills of the manic evil they wrought, and now, the women told us, villages were emptied just from the threat of their approach. It would not help to surrender to their armies, because that would yield the same death and dismemberment you would suffer if you fought them and lost, and so people would just leave before they arrived.

And sure enough, in the following days more and more women and children and men arrived. The chief told them to pitch camps around the edges of the village—they were too many to live within—but his greatest concern was not being overwhelmed by their numbers.

The advisors said we were safe. The Zulu was moving inland. He would not come over the hills. But it would be foolhardy to not put some sort of precaution in place.

What he did should have been a dream come true for me, but I had never wanted it to happen like this. The blackspears visited me and other men who had failed the test, and we were conscripted into the warrior class. We were all given spears and shields and would meet in the fields to train each evening. I was not a real blackspear, and I knew within me I did not want to have to war with the Zulu. It was only then I realized how much of my childhood dream had been based on superficial things. The glamor and the prestige were what I had wanted. I was not afraid to fight. I would fight to defend my people. But I knew what a battle would mean. A battle with these people would mean somebody would have limbs amputated. Somebody would crawl into the forest to bleed away from the wounds where his legs and arms had been, and there would be nobody to find and save him this time.

Because even though we were ready to fight, we were just one village. We were not ready to win.

The chief told the villagers we would be safe. He repeated his advisors' words. The Zulu were moving inland. They would not come over the hill. But if anybody noticed the blackspear numbers were growing, they would not feel assured.

It was as sudden as lightning when they arrived.

It was as if every Zulu warrior from everyone's nightmares descended upon us. As if every bush and shadow and stone this day became a Zulu warsman. They seemed to just rise from the earth, every mound of dust transformed into one of them. Nobody saw them coming; they were just suddenly everywhere.

We fought as hard as we could, but we were no match for them. There were too many of them. They were too many, and they were too fierce. We had never fought a war before. They had fought many. It seemed as if only seconds between the flurry of falling shadows and the blaze of burning roofs. The wails of anguish and screams drowned out the captain's orders. We were in disarray. The most we could do was just run towards whichever Zulu we could find and try to kill him, but no one ever saw just one Zulu. They seemed to multiply before our eyes into dozens.

The ground was covered in blood, and it was ours.

There was an old woman screaming behind me. It was the most pain I had ever heard. I turned and ran towards her, but I got there too late. A wall had fallen onto her chest, and she had been crushed. She was dying, and she screamed as if she thought she could stop it if she screamed hard enough.

I stood above her not knowing what to do. My spear fell by my side. Around me was the thunder and the fury of the battle, but all I could hear was her screaming as her body leaked and her organs spilled out of her broken sides.

"My son!" she wailed. And that was her last breath.

I turned back to the battle, my spear firm in my hand. That was when I saw what no one else had seen. One single Zulu warrior alone from the ranks. I broke into a chase.

When he saw me, he tried to run back to the battle, but I was cutting him off. He could only flee.

I ran after him, and we sped one after the other farther from the fray, through the village, the sweat running into my eyes until I caught him. I tackled him to the ground. I caught the look in his eyes as I plunged my spear deep into his chest. Again and again and again.

So blind was the fury of my stabbing, I didn't hear the warrior come up behind me. He had been chasing us, too.

He bellowed. I spun round to see him raise a machete and swing it. I shut my eyes and fell—long, far, and fast—into an abyss of pain.

He picked up his compatriot and marched off, shouting in his language, leaving me there, cut wide open. I saw them go, dissolving into a blur. I tried to grip something, but all I could find was dirt. I twisted myself to reach for any support I could use to drag myself upright. I could see a tree a few feet away. I could reach it if I dragged myself hand over hand.

A lifetime is so short. I had been on this ground before. I could see where I was. The Healer's yard. Her hut was smoldering, having fallen already to flame. I could see it. And the tree. It was Halfaman's tree.

And there he was. Lying underneath it.

So I redoubled my efforts to get to him.

He was dead. Lying on his back. His face and hair were covered in soot. Had they attacked him again? I wanted to lean over him to see if there were any fresh wounds, but I could not move any more. All my energy was spent. All I could do now was die next to him.

I had crawled onto the side with his arm. So I held it and lay on my back. And as the sounds of the battle raged on, raging farther and farther away, I could only see the sky above us. Dusk was falling. The cattlebirds, in their arrowhead, crossed the sky.