One night I was in the dream jungle. It was not a dream, but a memory that jump up in my sleep to usurp it. And in the dream memory is a girl. See the girl. The girl who live in the old termite hill. Her brothers three, who live in a big hut, say that the hill look like the rotting heart of a giant turn upside down, but she don’t know what any of that mean. The girl, she is pressing her lips tight in the hill’s hollow belly, the walls a red mud and rough to the touch. No window unless you call a hole a window and, if so, then many windows, popping all over and making light cut across her body up, down, and crossway, making heat sneak in and stay, and making wind snake around the hollow. Termites long ago leave it, this hill. A place nobody would keep a dog, but look how this is where they keep her.
Two legs getting longer but still two sticks, head getting bigger but chest still as flat as earth, she may be right at the age before her body set loose, but nobody bother to count her years. Yet they mark it every summer, mark it with rage and grief. They, her brothers. That is how they mark her birth, oh. At that time of year they feel malcontent come as a cloud upon them, for which she is to blame. So, she is pressing her lips together because that is a firm thing, her lips as tight as the knuckles she squeezing. Resolve set in her face to match her mind. There. Decided. She is going to flee, crawl out of this hole and run and never stop running. And if toe fall off, she will run on heel, and if heel fall off, she will run on knee, and if knee fall off, she will crawl. Like a baby going back to her mother, maybe. Her dead mother who don’t live long enough to name her.
With the small light coming and going through the entry holes, she can count days. With the smell of cow shit, she can tell that one brother is tilling the ground to plant new crops, which can only mean that it is either Arb or Gidada, the ninth or tenth day of the Camsa moon. With one more look around, she see the large leaf on which they dump a slop of porridge last evening, one of only two times every quartermoon that they feed her. When they remember. Most of the time they just let her starve, and if they finally remember, late in the night, they say it’s too late anyway, let some spirit feed her in dreams.
See the girl. Watch the girl as she hear. It is through her brothers yelling about when to plant millet, and when to rest the ground, that she learn season from season. Days of rain and days of dry tell her the rest. Otherwise, they just drag her out of the termite hill by rope bound to the shackle they keep around her neck, tie her to a branch and drag her through the field, yelling at her to plow the cow shit, goat shit, pig shit, and deer shit with her hands. Dig into the dirt with your hands and mix the shit deep so that your own food, which you don’t deserve, can grow. The girl is born with penance on her back. And to her three brothers she will never pay it in full.
Watch the boys. Her brothers, the older two laughing at the youngest one screaming. Boys like they were born, wearing nothing but yellow, red, and blue straw pads on their elbows and shins, and tiny straw shields over their knuckles. The older two both wear helmets that look like straw cages over their heads. Helmets in yellow and green. The girl crawl out of her oven to watch them. Her oldest brother spin a stick as tall as a house. He swirl and twirl and jump like he is dancing. But then he rolls, jumps up, and swing the stick straight for middle brother’s neck. Middle brother scream.
“We from the same mother,” oldest brother say, and laugh. He turn away for a blink but still he is too slow. A stick strike fire on his left shoulder. He swing around, laughing even though the hit draw blood. Now he going do it. He grab his stick with two hands like an ax and run after his brother, raining down chop after chop. Middle brother strike two blows but oldest is too fast. Swing and swing and swing and chop and chop and chop. Slash to the chest, slash to the left arm, slash to the bottom lip, bursting it.
“Is only play, brother,” middle brother say, and spit blood.
Youngest brother try to tighten the big helmet to his little head, but fail. “I can beat the two of you,” he say.
“Look at this little shit. You know why we go to donga, boy?” ask oldest brother.
“I not a fool. You go to win the stick fight. To kill the fool who challenge you.”
Both brother look at the youngest like a stranger just appear in their midst.
“You too young, brother.”
“I want to play!”
Oldest brother turn to face him.
“You don’t know anything about the donga. You know what this stick is for?”
“You deaf? I say to fight, and to kill!”
“No, little shit. This is first stick. When you win, you get to use your second stick. Ask any pretty girl who come to stick fight.”
He grin at middle brother, who grin back. Youngest brother confused.
“But you only use one stick to stick-fight, not two.”
“As I say. Too young.”
Middle brother point at youngest brother’s cock.
“Ha, littlest brother’s stick is but a twig.”
The two brothers laugh long enough for rage to come over youngest brother face, not because he still don’t understand, but because he do. The little girl watch. How he grab the stick, how far he pull back the swing, how hard he strike, right in the middle of middle brother’s back. He yell, older brother spin around, and his stick quick smack youngest brother on the forehead, swing again and clap him behind the knees. Youngest brother fall, and oldest brothers rain down strike all over his body. Youngest screaming, and middle grab oldest by the arm. They walk off, leaving youngest bawling in the dirt. But as soon as he see that nobody is watching him, he stop crying and run after them. The little girl creep farther from the hut and take up a stick they leave behind. Stronger and harder than she did expect, and longer also. Longer than her height three times over. She swing it back, whip the ground, and wake up dust.
We wait for mother to scream four times, that is what we do, say the oldest to her. Day gone but night not yet come, and he yank her chain twice to allow her to come out, though most times he just pull her out without warning, and by the time he reel her in, the girl is choking. Palm wine is spinning his head, which mean he is going to talk things that nobody is around to listen to. He yank the chain like he is pulling a stubborn donkey, yet it is the only time he allow her near the house. And when she do, the girl meet up on a loose memory, that of her father picking her up and smiling but the smile go sour in the quick and his arms go weak and thereÕs one little blink where she float in the air before she fall in the dirt. We wait for mother to scream four times, he says, for four times mean itÕs a boy, and three mean itÕs a girl. But mother didnÕt scream.
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Excerpt from MOON WITCH, SPIDER KING by Marlon James, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2022 by Marlon James.