Plain Bird

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Before the first Wodaabe man painted his face
and brightened his teeth and danced in place,
before the first Himba woman wore butterfat and ocher
and collared herself in beads and a copper choker,
before the first Maasai man tamed cattle for his own good
and the first Maasai girl was cut along her womanhood,
before the first Dinka child was inscribed on his head
with the scars of maturity, silent as he bled,
before the Mursi and the Suri extended their lips
with plates to ward off slavers and their slave ships
there was a young girl, Amina, whom her tribe named
“Plain Bird” since she was so plain, and, so, ashamed
since her older sister was both beautiful and envied
attracting a man that was handsome and of a rare breed;
a man not a man, a carnal creature of two appetites,
a kishi, a hyena-man, a man who loves with bites.

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Amina’s older sister.

Amina saw his true face beneath the mask he wore,
yet no one believed her; not even her parents, anymore.
So she left her tribe, trying to follow her sister abroad,
traveling far from her home, and her tribal god.
But she became lost, losing sight of the hyena-man
as he sprinted on all fours, losing her behindhand.

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A kishi in his true form.

In the jungle she found herself, alone and weeping,
sitting down in the heart of the trees, tired then sleeping
and dreaming of a horrible creature that was huge and green
and towered above her, its body pudgy and obscene.
The creature was the Jungle, known as the Fanged Womb,
the Many-Mouthed Mother, the Birthing Tomb,
and the Jungle told Amina the means of her reckoning
that awaited her in the mountains, thereafter beckoning
her to wake up and to venture forth to find her Fate
in the Sky Lands, where even Death must wait.

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The Fanged Womb, The Many-Mouthed Mother, The Jungle

Feeling hopeless, Amina traveled across the African plains,
and was joined by a man who seemed addled in his brains.
He was tall and slender and had hair split in two—
one side red, one side black; his name, he said, was Eshu,
and he spoke to Amina as he would have a long lost friend,
teasing her with secrets about the world, and its End.
“I am a god of words,” he said, “of quarrels, and of Crossroads.
I am a messenger for the gods, of myriad names and many molds.”

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Eshu, the messenger god; god of words, quarrels, and Crossroads

He escorted her to the gigantic mountain’s base
while above them little pygmy cherubim flew, keeping apace.
No animals bothered, or even seemed to see them, as they went;
neither lion or hyena or cheetah or rhino or elephant.
When they reached the mountain, Eshu bowed very low,
his strangely long sleeves swishing to and fro.
“I will see you again, my love,” he said with a mischievous smile,
then danced away as the wind—across the savanna, mile to mile.
Turning to the mountain, Amina climbed for days to the summit,
all the while trying not to think of how she might fall and plummet.
At length, she found an old woman sitting by a little fire—
she was bald, long-limbed, like Amina, and judging by her
scars and tattoos she was a witch of immense power.
She said, “What brings you here, my little savanna flower?”
“I want revenge,” Amina said, “against the kishi creatures
that come to beautiful women while wearing the features
of handsome men, seducing and devouring innocence.”
The witch laughed. “But whose fault is it if women lack the sense
to know a bloody trick being played upon them, my dear?
Do you blame the lion because gazelles do not heed fear?”
Amina became angry and blew out the woman’s flame,
and the witch grinned like the Jungle, baring fangs just the same;
only her skin was not green, but was instead darkly browned—
brown like the rocks of the mountain, strewn all around.
She grew tall, and vast, as big as a mountain peak
and she looked down upon Amina, and thus did she speak:
“You are bold,” she said, “but you will need to be bolder still
if you wish to kill the kishi in their faraway hill.
But I will teach you, dearest, since you have a great destiny,
though I fear it will be bloody—very bloody— and not bless many.”

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The Hag Of the Mountain

And so the Hag of the Mountain taught Amina spells
and, more importantly, told her many of the Creation Tales,
and, unlike her tribe, Amina did not adorn herself in any way,
for that attracted the Hyena Men, the kishi, to their prey.
Amina learned to dance along the scales of a crocodile’s back
and to run on all fours, barking, among a wild dog pack,
and to sneak, unseen, amidst a flock of flighty flamingo birds
and to run headlong against stampeding wildebeest herds.
She learned blood magic, too, and how to listen to the wind,
and how to make fetishes so death would not be the end,
for she died many times in her trials and during each test
and the clay figures died in her stead so she could continue her quest.
And then there came a day when she went out upon the plains
and dressed herself up, ringing her neck with copper chains
and painting her face and looping the lobe of each ear
and dancing in the moonlight, shaking her hips with a leer.
A kishi came, as expected, and Amina invited him to dance
then wounded him with her spear, taking that lucky chance
to follow him as he fled back to his clan’s den,
running too swiftly now to ever lose her way again.
She came to the hill where women were enslaved
and killed all of the kishi, so that the women were saved,
but her sister was not among them; having died in childbirth
to give rise to another kishi to defile the earth.
In her rage, Amina also killed many a kishi son,
mercilessly erasing each and every generation.

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But the blood fury had gotten hold of her that day
and with it the notion that gods, themselves, had to pay.
For, she thought, who allowed the cruel kishi to continue?
The gods deserved to answer for their irresponsibility, too.
Thus, Amina dedicated herself to slaying the Powers That Be
and taking their fetish masks to transform herself freely
between gazelle and lion and croc and various birds,
whereupon she was visited by Eshu, the god of words
and of Crossroads, for she had lost sense of direction and place
now that she had lost herself, and her own human face.
He frowned at her and he said, in a tone as if numb,
“You hate the gods, my love, but what have you become?
You are now a god against gods, the goddess of Death.”
Amina staggered as if struck, unable to catch her breath,
for she realized it was true: she had become a primordial beast
and had offered to the Fanged Womb a glorious feast;

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The Jungle is pleased by Amina’s feast.

a feast of the gods, cloyed on the creatures of Order
now slain, destroyed, their realms in unrest, border to border,
whereas Eshu, being a god of Chaos and of Change
looked upon the devastation and gauged its range
and he said, “It is fine. You have done no better or worse
than any other creature born to Life’s blood curse.”
He took her away, then, to let her rest and recover
and, in time, she loved him deeply, though she took no lover.

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The above is an outline for a graphic novel I wish I had the time and money to pursue (albeit an outline in rhyming verse, probably because I am a masochist). Anyway, it is based on various African myths and the artwork consists of a bunch of concept designs I have been playing with throughout the years. Will it ever be made into an actual graphic novel— or, at least, an illustrated novel? I dunno. It is just another dream on the backburner right now.

Dream Awake

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It came with the fog, rolling off the creeks and lakes and the river and assembling from the mists in the dark hours, disappearing at the touch of morning light, like a terrible dream. It prowled the farm, always seeking the cattle in the pen, feasting until it was glutted, roaring and then circling the cabin while the boy and his mother trembled in each other’s arms, clutching dreamcatchers to their hearts. At dawn they would leave the cabin and count the heads of the remaining cattle, calming them and attempting to milk them as their eyes lolled in their sockets. Even after the mother and son had cleaned up the gore that splattered the ground, the cows trembled and lowed in fright. They all awaited nightfall to once again endure the dark hours and their bloody horrors.

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The boy’s father had tried to stop it once, and had been buried the next morning. He had been a tall, silver-blonde Swede with an easy smile and big hands. He had been a good shot, too, and was certain he could slay the beast with his rifle. He had faced what he thought to be worse beasts on his travels Westward: the fickle ocean, the duplicitous crew, the thousandfold mendacities of those awaiting him on the American shore, the selfish wagoners with whom he ventured Westward, and the wilderness itself. He had, against the odds, forged a trail and met his wife among the welcoming Cheyenne. Together, they had settled in this valley between the mountains. Now the Swede was buried here, far from his home and his old gods, and his wife and son remained.The day after the Swede had been killed, a man appeared. He strode casually across the field, naked, his face smeared with crimson wetness and his eyes white-rimmed, his teeth set in a bloody grin. His black hair was long and full of twigs and briars and sticktights. Upon his breast he wore a leather-strung necklace. A single, large bear claw hung from it, curved like a crescent moon over his heart.

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“Cheyenne whore,” he said. “Send the blue-eyed child to me. Let me feast on his misbegotten flesh. He is an abomination in these lands. His presence is blasphemy. I will feed on him and turn him into filth, as I did his father. And where his filth falls the land will celebrate with flowers, for his life is a slight against the Spirits.”
The boy’s mother kept her son behind herself as the man spoke.
“Give him to me now,” he said, “and I will give him a quick death.”
“Never,” the mother said.

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The man’s grin only widened. “Then I will come dreaming,” he said, “and I will devour the womb from which he sprang.”
When the man left—sprinting across the fields and up into the mountains— the mother took her son inside the cabin and told him to stay hidden while she worked outside. She was a small woman, but strong and determined and wise. She cleaned and oiled her husband’s bear trap. That day she slaughtered a calf and put its meat upon the trap, setting the trap near the cabin, its chain nailed to the porch’s thickest post. She then went inside and comforted and reassured her son until nightfall.
That night the man came dreaming once again, and so the beast returned with the fog. He ignored the cattle and went instead to the cabin, circling it and snarling and growling and laughing. His laughter was suddenly cut short by the sharp clang of the bear trap; of steel teeth on bone, and a terrible scream. The mother told her son to stay silent and then she ran outside with her husband’s rifle raised.

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But haste was her master, and haste was an incautious master, as was desperation and, too, hope. The beast was no ordinary bear, and so the bear trap was not crafty enough to ensnare him. He had lived for centuries learning the wiles of Man. Rather, he snared the mother with her own trap, having fed it a branch as thick as a bone and then having feigned a yowl of pain. The mother realized the ruse too late. She fired once, and struck true, but he was no ordinary beast, and so the bullet pierced without wounding. He stripped her of her gun, pressed her down to the earth, and breathed charnel mist into her face.
“Before I kill you,” he said with a grinding growl not unlike thunder. “Know that I will feed upon your son at next nightfall. I will eat him slowly, and shall relish his blood and meat.”
He then silenced her anguish with his large maw.
The boy cried all night, trembling in the lonely dark. When morning came, still he cried, and he heard the man calling from beyond the cabin.
“Half-breed,” he said. “Count the hours. Mark the moon. I will come for you at midnight, and then my land will be cleaned of your filth once and for all.”
The man left, and the boy emerged from the cabin. He buried the remains of his mother and went into further mourning. He drank little and ate nothing. At length, he was exhausted and fell asleep beneath the shade of the porch. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was a spiderweb gilded with the rays of the sun.

The boy dreamt of his parents beneath a starry sky. They waved to him, then ascended to the stars. He cried in his dream and an old woman came before him, her wizened face smiling. She had black eyes that gleamed, but they did not frighten him. Her smile comforted him. She took his hands in hers, and put her hands on his shoulders, and on his cheeks. She had many hands; many arms. She was Grandmother Spider.

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“What is wrong, child?” she asked.
“My parents are gone,” he said, “and soon I will be killed by the beast, too.”
“Must you?” she asked. “Must it be so?”
“What else can I do?” he said. “Father’s rifle did nothing. Mother’s trap did nothing. He will kill me! Why does he hate me?”
“Because of both sides of your blood, child,” the old woman said. “Because he fears what you could be.”
“I don’t understand,” the boy said.
There came the caw of a raven up above, flying overhead, and he tried to watch it go, but the old woman kept his head firmly forward; her eyes peering into his own.

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“Embrace both sides of your blood, child,” she said. “Reconcile your heart or perish. Dream awake, child, as the beast cannot. Dream awake, for it is the only way to save yourself.”
She let go of him, then, and he began to drift away from that stelliferous, eternal night.
“I wonder,” the old woman said, her voice fading. “Will you dream of blood? Or will you dream of something more…?”

When the boy awoke he saw that the sun had nearly set. Dusk flared across the mountains, red as blood and furious as fire. He sat up with a start. He had slept near to nightfall! He leapt up, ready to run inside the cabin. But he paused, his eyes alighting upon something in the spiderweb. It was a raven’s feather: black as midnight, but shimmering like starlight. He took it from the lithe strands, with a gentle hand, and went inside. The old woman’s words echoed in his head, crisscrossing like spiderwebs until their spool wove an idea in his mind.
Going to his father’s escritoire, the boy sat down and took a sheet of parchment from among the small stack that his father had kept for writing lists, mail, and journal entries. There were books along the wall, too. Included among them were Almanacs, old Nordic Epics, vocabulary words translated by his mother from Cheyenne into English and Swedish. The boy had been taught all three languages by his mother, and she had taught him how to write. Using his father’s whittling knife, he sharpened the feather’s quill. He then dipped the tip into his father’s inkwell, blackening it with ink as the shadows stretched from the mountains to blacken the valley. He wrote for a few minutes, as the valley darkened, and then lit a candle.

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Feverishly, he continued to write. He wrote the same story in every language he had been taught. It was a simple story, direct and to the point; practical and economic because he needed it to survive. With each iteration of the story he envisioned the story more clearly. He wrote until he could at last dream awake. Thus, he dreamt of a small raven, the quill in his hand scribbling to swirl the mists of the creeks and lakes and the river together, wherewith was manifested the bird. The raven was sharp of eye, and sharper of beak, and swift and light and small, and so it formed from the valley’s mists quickly. With a flourish of his quill he sent it over the valley, toward the mountains, even as the dreaming man dreamt his bear from the same waters.

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The raven saw a cave with its keen eye. Swiftly, it entered the cave on silent wings. Within the cave was a flat slab of rock, and laying upon this slab was the dreaming man. The raven alighted upon the dreaming man’s chest. He did not stir, for he was dreaming deeply, his soul roaming in the form of the bear. The raven therefore snipped the leather necklace, untethering his soul from his body, and flew away with it, flying out of the cave and into the open air once again.
The misty beast below saw the raven, and his necklace, and so he roared and paid chase. The raven led the bear far afield, as was written, coming to the center of the mountains. There was a tarn at the center of the mountains, for it was the navel of the world, and this tarn was where the raven dropped the necklace: on an island in the center of the reed-rimmed tarn.

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The beast roared, racing upon all fours even as he was left behind by the raven, and yet knowing where the connection to its human body resided. The beast ran all night, but when he finally arrived at the tarn and parted the reeds, the sun was climbing the mountains. The beast clasped the necklace in his bloody maw and fled across the tarn’s crystal-blue waters.

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But the sun surmounted the crest of the mountain, illuminating the navel of the world. The light struck the beast and that terrible dream faded in the burning glare of dawn, as did its terrible soul so that beast and man both dissolved forever, never ascending to the stars as the boy’s parents had done.

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The necklace fell from the dissolving beast and sank into the waters. The waters were fed with countless eons of bloodshed, darkening to a fetid crimson. To this day the tarn resides in those mountains, red with all of the bestial hungers of its cursed treasure.
There had been temptation in the beastly claw when the raven held it. The boy had sensed its bloody power and its beckoning guile. He could have taken it for himself and lived forever, as the dreaming man had done, feasting on the flesh of whatever, and whoever, he desired. But he did not write that story. His story, he decided, would not be written in blood.
The boy grew up, on his own, as both a hunter and a farmer, caring for the farm and the wilderness, and writing into being the things that needed to be. And, though the loss of his mother and father was great, their blood wrote on with his own, living on in his words and deeds and the narrative of his life. He learned the power of dreams, and of the written word, for what is reading and writing but dreaming while one is awake?

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