On that last evening when Felmat‘s house was finished, when the clan gathered for the feast in the phul, and the music and smell of roasting duiker had drawn every last clansmen up to the yard of the newest house in Boromio, a grey stranger came also. He appeared suddenly at the gate, complete as a coin, and although it was clear that the aroma of the roast had brought him, he stood there swaying slightly, and cried: ‘I have need of a wife!’
Now, Boromio was as good a place as any to go crazy in, and although they laughed, those villagers that heard that cry, they also knew that the desert fever commanded many a passing insanity that could be cured by food, so they put a horn of wine and a dripping hunk of duiker in his hand. He took a sip of the wine and no more, but the meat he ate until it was gone, drinking also as many horns of precious water as were put into his hand.
There was only one Boromio, a forty-year-old village founded by a Kapla clan that tired of travelling. For the first thirty years it was shirked by nomadic Kaplans who considered them outcasts. But in the last few years of the drought, three Kaplan caravans had pitched in Boromio, breaking camp one week afterwards for the long trek north, leaving, now and again, a new family to ‘stay awhile’, who could live for some weeks in their tent before joining up with another caravan.
Felmat was one such. His wife had lost all of her three previous children in the nomadic weeks after childbirth. She had been pregnant again, and he had left the last Kaplan caravan to ‘stay awhile’. He lived in his tent, on the outskirts of a village built of burnt brick. The baby had arrived, a lusty girl child whose breakfast pangs still woke nearby villagers three months on. Then he had brought a goat to the central phul to ask the clansmen’s help in building a house.
They had told him it would take seven days but it had been done in five – they had reckoned without the excitement of the villagers, for this was the first time a travelling Kaplan would decamp to their sedentary cousins. And it was well-finished too, the central room was as big as any in Boromio, a second room adjoined the first, and the low wall of the phul ran round the two, wide enough to hold the gathered clan.
With the completion of his house, Felmat was expansive and generous, carrying around a platter of meat and a gourd of wine, forcing helpings on his guests, with judicious emphasis on those who had worked the hardest.
The music faded early: the best drummers had been laying bricks all day and within an hour their arms had nothing more to offer. Done cooking, the women gathered around the duiker fire, clapping pre-pubescent girls into a frenzy of competitive dance. Done eating, the grey man rose. He was startlingly lean, and his voluminous robe could not hide the hollows behind his clavicles. ‘I have need for a wife – and son,’ he said, to no one in particular. Although clearly sighted, he spoke in the vague direction of people, the way blind folk did. The dancers melted into the circle of still clappers. The silence that greeted this second declaration was more hostile than before. This was a madness that survived the slaking of thirst, the feeding of the ovens of the gut.
‘Is it not rather late in the day to seek a bride,’ asked Paralo with gentle sarcasm .
‘Even the market for chickens has closed,’ grumbled Mareke, Chasa’s wife, ‘and he‘s looking for a wife!’ She had the most violent hands in the village and only Chasa would know what else they could get up to – when they were not plucking and decapitating chickens in her market stall.
‘She must be a widow with a grown son,’ explained the grey man carefully, as though they had not spoken. ‘He must want a trade. We must be married according to your custom. We must set forth tomorrow.’
The clansmen stirred uneasily.
Felmat had the most to lose from the souring of the evening and he stepped up between stranger and villagers with his platter of venison. He knew there was another form of insanity that came from a horn, which could only be slaked by sleep. The stranger had only taken a sip of wine, but perhaps he had arrived drunk. ‘There’s a village not too far from here with such a widow,’ he lied, turning a conspiratorial wink to the villagers behind him. ‘Rest now, tomorrow I will point it out to you.’
Felmat indicated a row of teens who were fast asleep, overcome by their day of work and their night of feasting. The grey man looked at them longingly. Then he shook his head. ‘Higher ground;’ he said, ‘this is no good, it will rain tonight.’
When he left, even the most reticent laughed. Rain indeed! There was not a wisp of cloud in the skies and it had not rained in Boromio for twenty months. The Boro Stream was a parched bed of mud; all the water in the village had travelled an hour on donkey-vats all the way from the spring at Tonton.
It began to rain on the stroke of midnight. They knew the minute it started, for the villagers slept on roofs and in the open courtyards to escape the heat. Startled cries went up across the village. Within minutes it was clear that this was no errant patch of pregnant cloud. Soon it was sheeting down. They worked like soldier ants, turning up every available vessel to catch the rain. Within twenty minutes every empty pot and drum and jar in Boromio was full and the mothers had no reason to keep the children from stripping naked and cavorting in the streets.
By dawn, even the children were cowed. Most of the mortar from Felmat’s new walls had been washed away and one wall had failed, causing the roof to list dangerously. He and his young family had taken cover in Minakro’s house across the street. The celebration in the village turned to dismay as they watched chicken coops float away and runnels from overflowing vats join the concourse of the streets flowing into the Boro Stream.
‘The stranger!’ cried Felmat, snapping his fingers. He jumped up without another word and broke out of the house. Minakro hesitated and joined him. They ran west up the dirt track, now a furious streamlet, that led up the Rumpama range. The outcrop of hills were just outside Boromio and by four pm on the average day Boromio was usually in the shadow of the hills. They were panting by the time they made the shelter of the caves.
They saw his fire as soon as they entered. He had retreated deep into the belly of the hill and a reedy snore rattled from his bony chest. He had wrapped himself in gray sackcloth and his travelling clothes were neatly folded into a pillow for his head. He lay on the narrow bed of his travelling bundle. The only property that was not secured by his sleeping body was the fire. It burned steadily, three feet from him, a curious, smokeless flame that rose from half-a-dozen thin, bamboo-like sticks. Felmat and Minakro exchanged knowing glances. Felmat sank to his haunches and touched the sleeper’s foot respectfully. He slept on, so Felmat slapped it firmly.
The stranger came awake immediately. He looked around him, taking in the two clansmen and the pools of water at their feet. With an oath he rolled to his knees. He was naked but for a loincloth. He drew up his bundle to the fire and pulled a raffia pouch from it. He sprinkled a powder over the fire with a perfunctory mutter and rose, padding slowly to the entrance of the cave. Felmat and Minakro watched the fire splutter angrily and go out in a cloud of acrid smoke. They turned to the entrance of the cave. There was a distant rumble then and a crack of lightning momentarily framed the stranger’s gaunt body against the lighted entrance.
They felt the fury of the rains ebb almost instantaneously. By the time the stranger padded back to his makeshift bed, the backdrop of buffeting rain was now a polite patter.
‘It was the meat,’ said the stranger, rubbing his belly ruefully, ‘I do oversleep when I overeat.’ Still muttering, he took his bamboo sticks, which did not look like they had been burning all night, and stowed them in his bundle. He looked towards the men, but not at them, and in that split-second the assurance of a man that ordered the heavenlies shifted and they saw inflected a certain desperation, the votive passion of a seer who, nearing his end, sees no heir to a lifetime of wisdom. Then he drew the sackcloth back over his head.
He also overindulged his sleep. By the time he came down that day, it was evening. There was very little resentment in the flooded village for the man that repaid the gift of a drink of water with a brimming stream, instead they watched him from a distance as he walked down the street, surrounded by children, until he finally got to the gate of Felmat’s house where a small clump of men were busy restoring the failed wall. They stopped working as a man and turned to the stranger.
‘I have need for a wife,’ he said earnestly, ‘she must be a widow with a grown son, and he must need a trade.’
Nobody laughed; indeed at that moment – in that thirsty country – there was not a man that did not wish his mother a widow.