Woman, you see. The sensi. It’s a funny thing.
Niara inhaled just the right amount of the mystic herb and her brain went straight to mush. It sent her whooshing and spinning down some deep, dark dimensional hole. She saw things. Things that weren’t there. Things that happened. Things that hadn’t happened yet. Things that might have happened centuries before she was born. Hordes of okapi running circles around her. The slow procession of villagers ushering her into the priesthood. The rush of white water carrying her across a wild river. Falling from a place far beyond the sky.
Amid the whirlwind, she remembered. She was a hunter. She was hunting. So, she fought to focus, to tune the madness out. She heard a rumble. Indistinct at first but it grew louder and louder until she was floundering amid the thundering hooves of an okapi herd. Their black bellies glistened and their white-banded thighs blazed in the firelight. Her nostrils flared, filled with their furtive, animal scent. The frantic okapi ran circles around her like mad children on a merry-go-round. The herd shifted. The spectral beasts scattered, scampering one by one, west-south-west and into the dark. Her arm went up, pointed in the direction of the invisible animal trail.
“There,” she heard herself say. “That way.”
But the sensi, you see. It was a funny thing. It wasn’t done with her.
Niara squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, vertigo swooped down. She lost her balance and landed on her ass beside the fire. There was no wind but the edges of her tunic began to flap and flutter. The crocodile-teeth of her bangles clicked and clattered. The fabric of her leggings crawled across her thighs like centipede legs. It felt as if she’d grown eyes all over her skin. She tilted her head sideways but no matter what, the trees wouldn’t go right side up. The curved bowl of the earth undulated. Her belly churned and sensi flavored bile tickled the back of her throat.
Hunters came running. At first, Niara mistook them for her companions. She heard their footsteps drum-drum-drumming in her head. The hunters they came running, pale skins and dark skins covered in the red mud of the wilderness so that they were all one skin. They prostrated themselves before her. First, they offered up a bloody armband, then a freshly de-fleshed finger bone.
“Your mother,” the tallest and oldest hunter said, “was eaten by a lion.”
Before Niara could grieve again, before she could wallow, the memory was swept away. The trees were where the night sky was supposed to be, so she twisted her body to look backwards. The sky was spinning, spinning and she could hear it, the universe singing. It sang the same song as the cicadas and the breath of night. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She began to hum in tune with the strange night song.
Silence fell so abruptly Niara’s breath caught in her throat.
Baba Gen, the village’s elder priestess, appeared before the young priestess, her face lit up like the broken-toothed full moon. She was no longer the wrinkled old woman Niara knew. She was young and she was beautiful. Her dark skin glistened in the moonlight. Her dark eyes shimmered with unshed tears. Adorned like a blushing bride on her honeymoon night, Baba Gen wore a white, gold-lined veil. Niara watched the rising and falling of Baba Gen’s breath, the subtle shuddering of her heart in her chest. Baba Gen nodded solemnly.
Though she looked young, she sounded old when she spoke.
“I am dead, my daughter.”
Lying flat on her back, baking on the flat rock still hot from the afternoon sun, Niara stared up at the trees until her eyes filled up with tears. The tears. They kept coming in a stream, then a deluge, pooling into a river around her. The salty river swallowed her up and she was drowning. Drowning.
“What is it, Niara?”
A guttural male voice yanked the young priestess back to present, to the place and time where the stars looked down from above and the world was right side up. Chest heaving, she sat upright. Across from her, faces lit up by the firelight were the other members of her hunting party. They were waiting, she realized. They were patiently waiting for her to rattle the bag and tell them what the bones had to say.
Baba Gen’s voice bounced around in the young priestess’s head.
I am dead, my daughter.
Niara clutched the cloth bag tied to her waist and dutifully listened to the way the bones shook. Like her fellow hunters’ blind belief, she could still feel her necklace of wood and stone coiling around her neck, constricting like a hungry snake. She drew in a deep, shuddering breath before murmuring softly to the huntsmen and women.
“Kill the hunt. We need to go back to the village.”
“Why?” Hati, her foster sister, leaned forward, long, twisty ponytail swinging dangerously close to the fire.
“It’s Baba Gen,” Niara whispered into the swollen night air. “She’s dead.”