A THOUSAND TINY DEATHS
By Amanda Kear
Characters: OC (Thiede gets a mention)
Word Count: 4070
Summary: A tribe of East African hara request help to protect their crops from pests.
Author’s Note: This was inspired by a sequence in the documentary series Human Planet, where people in Tanzania deal with flocks of red-billed quelea in a really extraordinary way. That got me thinking about how Wraeththu would do pest control…
Disclaimer: The world of Wraeththu belongs to Storm Constantine.
The morning the messenger arrived, Dhoruba har Dunia har Ajabu was teaching a class of the town’s younger harlings how the patterns of the seasons differed in various parts of the world. He had shown them images of the four seasons that existed in Wraeththu’s continent of origin and was encouraging them to think how those might affect the hara who lived in those climes.
“Our Long-Dry Season is bad for crops, but it would be their long cold – their winter?” said one harling hesitantly. Dhoruba nodded encouragingly and the harling grinned.
“But they have a Long-Dry too,” said another harling in puzzlement. “Isn’t their summer a Long-Dry?”
“Not exactly,” said Dhoruba. “The high latitude summer is more like the shorter of our dry seasons, with rain falling now and then. In fact, sometimes their summers are like our Short-Wet season. A true Long-Dry is unusual for them and can be a disaster for their farmers.”
The harling wrinkled his nose as he tried to grasp the idea that what was normal for their own farmers might be considered a calamity by those half a world away.
“Does the air grow thin in their winter?” asked the youngest harling. “When they have snow and ice on the ground, is it like Mount Kilimanjaro where the air is thin? Does ice make the air grow thin?”
That led to a discussion of altitude and temperature, and then delighted squeals from the harlings as Dhoruba cast a small majhahn to turn the moisture from the humid air of the classroom into falling flakes of snow.
It was into this mini-bizzard that a young har, probably not long past feybraiha, tumbled into the classroom, trailing a flustered Town Councillor in his wake. “Tiahaar Dhoruba! Tiahaar Dhoruba! Our village needs your help!”
The precipitous entrance sparked a fit of giggling amongst Dhoruba’s charges and a scowl from Councillor Kiburiwana. “I’m sorry Tiahaar Dhoruba,” Kiburiwana said apologetically. “We told him to wait, but he just rushed off.”
Dhoruba banished the majhahn that he had been sustaining for the harlings, and the snowflakes settled and began to melt. He nodded to the Councillor. “Thank you Tiahaar Kiburiwana, I quite understand. I’ll handle it from here.”
The Councillor gave the youth a final admonishing look and departed.
The youngster was practically bouncing on the spot with impatience. His hair was braided in cornrows like Dhoruba’s own, but the pattern and colour of the beads woven into it was in the style favoured by the Ajabu villages that lay just east of the Asali Ya Nyuki River. His lower legs were spattered with flecks of dried mud. “Our village needs your help, Tiahaar! You must come with me immediately!”
The shocked gasps of a few of the harlings informed the messenger that this was not how one made requests of their Nahir Nuri. The messenger flushed, dropped his gaze to his sandals and mumbled: “My village council sent me. They told me to hurry.”
Dhoruba suppressed the urge to smile. “Then perhaps you ought to introduce yourself and tell me the name of your village, hmm? That would seem to be a good place to start.”
The youngster took a deep breath. “I am Mwanariadha har Nyuki har Ajabu, Tiahaar. My village is Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River. I bring you greetings from the Village Council and respectfully request your help.” He made a formal bow, and then spoiled the effect by fidgeting from foot to foot when he straightened up.
This time Dhoruba did smile. Mwanariadha – Athlete – was an appropriately hopeful name for the youngster. Doubtless someone hoped that he would harness his nervous energy to good cause. “I, Dhoruba har Dunia har Ajabu, welcome you, Mwanariadha har Nyuki har Ajabu. May the Dehara favour you.” He bowed back to the youngster, and dismissed the notion of instructing all the harlings to make formal greetings too. He suspected the young har would burst with impatience rather than gain any value from the lesson in politeness.
He briefly turned his attention to the class. “Now harlings, because I have this visitor, we shall end our lessons for today. Instead, you should go to the art class and ask – politely – that Tiahaar Mfumaji gives you all paper and paints. Your homework is to paint me pictures showing what a tree would look like in all four of the Megalithican seasons, hmm?”
The harlings departed in excited chatter, and Dhoruba gestured to his visitor outside to sit on the porch of the school and discuss the help that was requested.
“It is locust birds, Tiahaar! The flocks are huge and they eat all our crops! Our village has tried many things to keep them away, but they don’t work or they go wrong. The Village Council asks can you please come to help us.”
Quelea – locust birds – were grain-eaters. Individually each was a small bird, not even as big as your hand. But collectively they formed vast flocks that could number in the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Out on the savannah, they ate grass seeds. However, the concentration of high quality seeds that a field of millet, maize or sorghum offered was an irresistible lure to a hungry quelea. A really big flock could strip a field bare of ripe grain in under an hour.
“The locust birds are there now?” Dhoruba asked.
“The first have arrived,” said Mwanariadha. “They are starting to build their nests.”
Dhoruba nodded in sympathy. “I will come to your village.”
“We aren’t travelling by the otherlanes?” Mwanariadha asked in a disappointed tone. The youngster had arrived here by bicycle, and stood leaning against it, scanning the sky and obviously hoping that a sedu would appear to whisk them home again.
“No, we will travel by road – I need to get a sense of the land around your village. Also—“ Dhoruba gave a wry smile. “—I don’t think a sedu would be very happy with you trying to put a bicycle on its back. They are not beasts of burden, you know.”
Mwanariadha stared at his bicycle as if he had only just noticed how large it was. “Oh.”
“Come. We should get started, hmm?” Dhoruba settled his bag more comfortably on his shoulder and led the way from his house to the main road through the town. Mwanariadha jumped onto his bicycle and followed, quickly catching up and then, to the annoyance of passers-by, adopting a slow weaving path back and forth on the road as he tried to match the steady walking pace of the Nahir Nuri without toppling off his bicycle.
After about fifteen minutes, the inevitable question came.
“Tiahaar Dhoruba, don’t you want to ride my bicycle?” Mwanariadha seemed aghast that Dhoruba intended to walk – barefoot – the whole way to Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River. “I could run and you could ride. I can run very fast, Tiahaar. I wouldn’t have trouble keeping up.”
“Thank you, Tiahaar Mwanariadha, but that will not be necessary. I need to feel the soil and let the land sing to me.” As they had passed from the paved road of the town’s streets to the dirt road of the countryside Dhoruba had already opened himself to the sensations that the soil beneath his feet could pass on. The land thrummed with life, the soil replenished by the rains of the Long Wet.
“Sing to you?” Mwanariadha gave the ground a wary look, as if it was about to burst into voice. “What does it sing about, Tiahaar?”
The red soil sang of a time when it had been liquid rock, deep, deep within the Earth. Vast forces had pushed it upwards towards the surface, yet – while molten – it had never breached it. Instead it spoke of aeons of cooling and crystallising, becoming solid and strong, so when it finally did break through and see the sky for the first time, it was as tough, hard granite. The air, the rain and the heat of the sun – the latter miniscule in comparison to the fires that existed within the Earth – caressed it, shredding it finer and finer until it became soil. Life took root in it for the first time, and the soil switched to a song with a faster rhythm to match the ever-changing seasons that now ruled its existence.
The patterns of human presence within that soil were a mere heartbeat of its total lifespan; those of Wraeththu shorter still. It was a sobering thought that for the billions of years of Gaia’s existence, she had been content to be without the company of intelligent life. Sobering too was the fall of humanity, when they thought themselves masters of the planet. Wraeththu would be wise not to grow too arrogant about their own place in Gaia’s heart.
There were reminders of humanity’s time along their route. When mankind had been the dominant species, towns and villages had been packed more closely together. Wraeththu spread itself thinly over the land, their population a fraction of the tens of millions had once lived here. Dhoruba and Mwanariadha’s path took them past many ruins of that earlier time – a crumbling concrete bridge over parallel streaks of rust that had been railway tracks; the eroded surface of a motorway; the occasional stand of scraggly fruit trees amongst the acacias that marked where an orchard had once been tended; former buildings reduced to a jumble of fallen breeze blocks that now only provided shelter for lizards and rodents; a cheetah perched sentinel-like on the rusting hulk of one of the humans’ war machines.
Towards the end of the day they neared Mwanariadha’s village and the character of the land’s song changed. Now the soil spoke of a past when it had been rock laid down on the floodplain of a great river. The ash from volcanoes had mingled with sand and mud from distant mountain ranges. Over time the river had vanished and the sediments had become rock. Entombed within the bedrock deep beneath Dhoruba’s feet, the bones of long extinct animals whispered of their forgotten lives. Heat, water and time were slowly turning the rock back into soil, and it rejoiced that new life burrowed within it and walked upon it.
Dhoruba rejoiced with it.
They heard the locust birds before they saw them. A twittering and chittering, more akin to distant insects than birds, drifted across the savannah towards them as they made the final descent to the river-crossing. Then the advance parties of the flock arrived – a handful of birds here and there, settling in trees at the water’s edge. The flock itself, when it arrived, was huge. They blackened the evening sky as they flew by, and the noise of their calls was deafening. Tree branches bent under the weight of the thousands of tiny birds. They swirled to and from the water’s edge, each bird darting out to grab a mouthful of water before seeking the safety of the foliage again.
Hawks stooped into the throng and emerged with a victim clutched in their talons, but could not hope to put a dent into the sheer volume of the locust birds.
“Oh Tiahaar!” exclaimed Mwanariadha. “That is many, many more birds than were here yesterday. We must hurry!”
“You have tried majhahns of your own, of course?” Dhoruba sat under the stars with the Village Council and discussed their locust bird problem. Mwanariadha and the other villagers lurked nearby, listening in. “They didn’t work? Or didn’t work well enough?”
Tiahaar Korongo, the Council Leader, waved his hands around in distress. “Oh they worked, Tiahaar Dhoruba – they worked too well. Our majhahn to keep away the locust birds drove away all the birds.”
“It was a disaster,” put in Councillor Mifupa, who was as scrawny as his name – Skeleton – might suggest. “The chickens fled, the wild birds vanished. There were no birds to eat the grasshoppers and caterpillars that threatened our crops, no vultures to get rid of carrion, no swifts to consume the biting insects, no oxpeckers to pick ticks off our cattle.” He gave a dejected sigh.
“But what survived the insects did give us very good grain harvest that year,” commented Councillor Kisu, with a twinkle in his eye. The other Councillors looked at him in exasperation.
“I just don’t understand what went wrong,” Korango continued. “Our rituals to make peace with the elephants worked so well. They no longer trample our crops.”
“I told you – elephants are smarter than locust birds,” said Mifupa. “They know how to honour a bargain. The birds don’t, so we had to switch to the old human method of controlling them. Locust birds are… well… bird-brained.” That started what was obviously a long-running debate over what had and hadn’t worked with various animals that had the potential to wreak havoc in the crop fields.
Dhoruba listened politely to this for a while, and then asked another question. “Human method?”
The Councillors all looked rather shame-faced.
“I remembered it from my youth,” Mifupa said. “My human parents carried out the process every time a colony of locust birds set up on their lands. But some of our harlings…” He looked at Dhoruba with anguished eyes. “They feel the birds die, Tiahaar Dhoruba. A thousand tiny deaths every time we set it off…”
Dhoruba surveyed the blackened ruins of the trees that were all that remained of the last time the villagers had destroyed a locust bird colony. Mifupa had outlined the procedure for him, and shared some of his memories of it via mind touch:
The villagers dig a hole below the tree where the birds have woven their nests, place explosives in the hole, and put tubs and barrels filled flammable liquid on top. For that the humans had used petrol mixed with diesel. The villagers use kerosene and cooking oil, but the effect is similar. They wait until evening, when the birds return to the colony to roost, and they give them time to settle and fall asleep. Then the explosives are set off and the shockwave of force and flame instantly kills all the birds in the surrounding trees. The flames are doused before they can spread, and the thousands of tiny corpses – chicks, adults and embryos flung from smashed eggs – are collected and fed to the village pigs and dogs.
In one instant, a thousand tiny deaths.
To be effective, they had to target all the colonies in the area: a death toll in the hundreds of thousands. No wonder that harlings sensitive to such things were traumatised. Dhoruba had spoken to some of the youngsters in question and heard tales of being awoken not by the roar of the distant explosion, but by the mental scream of the birds as they died. The harlings were plagued by nightmares for weeks afterwards. The parents begged him to find a solution that saved their crops without sending their sons insane with grief and guilt.
To start with, he advised the Councillors to get the higher caste villagers to use magic to make the fields hidden from the flocks as they flew by; the same way that you could make yourself hidden from a hungry lion or from a bad-tempered buffalo when you were out in the bush. That method was successful but was only a short-term solution. It was simply too draining to expect someone to hide an entire field for day after day.
Meanwhile, he walked in the fields and through the countryside around the cultivated land, letting the feel of the place seep into his soul. Mwanariadha was a constant shadow; not close enough to disturb Dhoruba’s meditations, yet not far enough away to be out of earshot if the Nahir Nuri called on him to run an errand or pass on a message. If the young har had employment beyond dogging Dhoruba’s tracks, it was unclear what that might be.
The land here had a distinctively Wraeththu feel to it, as if conversations between the Dehara and their worshippers had soaked into the very soil and were still continuing deep underground. The fields that had not yet been stripped by the birds were lush and verdant, the plants thriving and heavy with ripening grain. Dhoruba weighed the heavy seed heads of a sorghum plant in the palm of his hand. The yield was astounding.
“Mwanariadha!” he called. The young har came bounding across. “Tell me, Tiahaar Mwanariadha – why is your village called Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River?”
Every Ajabu town or village had a tale about how Kiume-Kike, the founder of the Ajabu Tribe, had visited their lands in the early days of Wraeththu, when he had fled with a small band of followers from the Tanzanian city of his birth, hunted by humans and hara alike. Some were undoubtedly true. Others ascribed to Kiume-Kike any and all actions done by numerous nameless hara, now lost to those initial decades of chaos and strife. Many years ago, when he was undergoing his caste-training in the Ajabu capital, Dhoruba had met Kiume-Kike. The tribal leader had wryly remarked that if he had done all that was ascribed to him during those early years, he would never have had time to eat or sleep.
Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River had a tale, not of the usual sort with Kiume-Kike outwitting his enemies, or fighting a battle, but of him meeting Thiede of the Gelaming to debate the future of Wraeththu. The village claimed that this, despite what the official tribal chronology said, was the point in time that Kiume-Kike’s followers had stopped calling themselves Unneah and taken the name Ajabu. A few, said the local tale, had instead chosen to take the name Gelaming and go back with Thiede to Almagabra.
But they left something of themselves behind to bless their homeland; calling on the Aghama to make soil poisoned by human folly fertile once more, and infusing the region with arunic energies. Mwanariadha reported that the local Turning of the Year had rituals to both tap into and replenish these energies. Dhoruba began to conceive just how the Councillors had accidentally managed to banish all the birds from their lands…
Councillor Mifupa was the only har old enough to throw more light on the story, having been a recent inceptee at the time of Kiume-Kike’s visit. He seemed surprised that Dhoruba did not already know the tale. “I thought Kiume-Kike would boast of having once held Grissecon with Thiede of the Gelaming – politics being what it is.”
“Grissecon with Thiede?” Dhoruba said in surprise.
“Yes. It took all of us, Ajabu and Gelaming alike, to cleanse the river. The humans had sabotaged their own nuclear power station and poison had been spewing out for months…” Mifupa shook his head in remembrance. “Thiede and Kiume-Kike called something to remove the power station from our realm. Some say it was a Dehara, some that it was the Aghama himself. The rest of us poured every ounce of energy we could summon into making the land whole again.”
Dhoruba was amazed that the full account was not part of the tribe’s official history.
“Ah, we were young and arrogant in those days,” said Mifupa, with a shrug. “We didn’t like to admit that we’d needed help from the northern tribes. Though I’m surprised that no-one talked of it later. Perhaps they decided that knowledge of a ritual to remove a chunk of land from existence was too dangerous to become common parlance, eh? Just think what the Varrs or the Damubaadaye would have done with that!”
“How far had the poisons spread?” Dhoruba asked.
Mifupa sketched him a map in the dust, showing where – to the best of his recall – the power station had been and where radioactive particles had been carried from there by the wind and the river. The swathe of countryside was vast in comparison to the area of the cultivated lands of Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River.
Dhoruba considered the energies involved in such an undertaking… and how the villagers might keep the locust birds at bay. “How fast can Mwanariadha run?”
They made a procession of it, the villagers walking a few miles out onto the savannah; passing the stand of acacia trees where the locust birds were industriously weaving their nests. Arriving at the selected location, harlings stood ready with jars of grain, watching as the adults danced a large circle, marking out the area that was to be their gift to the birds.
The chosen pairs stopped at the points on the circle that marked the four cardinal directions. Dhoruba was partnered with Mifupa, their bodies painted with symbols of fertility and renewal. Dhoruba was to be soume, Mifupa ouana. As they began the Grissecon, the harlings ran about within the circle, throwing small handfuls of millet, sorghum and maize.
As he and Mifupa moved in synchrony, Dhoruba let the energies of the land flow into him, feeling the decades old majhahns that had been created to restore fertility to what humans had rendered sterile. He coaxed the energies to the surface, into the roots, into the stems, into the newly sown seeds. Plant spirits awoke, responded. Hara around the circle sang them songs of praise and gratitude.
Wild grasses burst into seed. Cultivated grains thrust up stems into the sunlight. Weeks of growth condensed into one frantic surge of aruna-powered life.
And across the savannah ran Mwanariadha the Athlete, waving the magical lure of feathers and wild grasses that Dhoruba had created earlier that day. Behind him came a storm of wings.
**They will catch him before he reaches the circle**, Mifupa sent anxiously.
Dhoruba could feel the approach of his lure and the thousands of hungry birds that raced after it. **No, he will make it. You named him well.**
Birds blackened the sky. The sound of beating wings and twittering birds was a roar in their ears. Mwanariadha hurled himself through the line of dancers, throwing his lure as far into the circle as he could manage.
The lure struck the ground and Dhoruba poured the final energies into the huge swathe of ripe grasses and grains. **This is yours! This is the gift of Ajabu to quelea, for now and forever!**
As they settled to feed, a hundred thousand tiny throats shrieked assent.
Tired but elated hara returned to Aghama’s-Blessing-On-The-River, talking of the ritual and how they could incorporate a lesser version of it into their Turning of the Year ceremonies. Mwanariadha had a crowd of admirers, happily listening as he told and retold the story of his run, and what it felt like to be chased by such a horde of birds who were all under the illusion that he was a source of food. Harlings ran in circles, pretending to be locust birds and chasing each other.
“So, Tiahaar Dhoruba, we made a bargain that not even the bird-brains can misunderstand, eh?” Mifupa was grinning from ear to ear.
“Ay, Mifupa,” Councillor Kisu called. “Now we will have such a good harvest that even you will put some flesh on those scrawny bones of yours!”
Mifupa tried to look indignant, but could not keep it up for more than a moment. He and Dhoruba smiled at all around them, the pair of them still thrumming with the energies of renewal. “I think one day that I would like to visit Almagabra, to thank the Gelaming for what they helped create here,” he said.
Dhoruba nodded. “Or perhaps we could invite them here, to show them how we have adapted their agmara to our needs? I don’t know if locust birds live in Almagabra, but they must have pest species of their own. I would like to show them how we dealt with ours.”
Mifupa’s reply was lost in a gasped call from a sweating and breathless har, with hair in the dreadlocked style of the southern Ajuba.
“Tiahaar Dhoruba! Tiahaar Dhoruba! Our village needs your help with baboons!”