Dengana felt uneasy.
He had not been happy to start with. It was a tiring walk to the farmhouse they called the Place of Two Old Frogs. Also, he had not wanted to leave both herds in the care of his younger brother. Now, this … wrongness …
Still, the order to go and find out why none of the villagers’ family members employed by the Old Frogs had been seen for days had come from the headman himself. It would have been unwise not to obey promptly. The boy was in enough trouble with him already, after the accusation that he had been responsible for the sudden invasion of land crabs into the headman’s hut.
‘Most unfair, the way I get the blame for everything,’ he muttered to himself.
It had been great fun, though.
The tar surface was uncomfortably hot against the soles of his bare feet, toughened though they were, as he padded up the long driveway. The slapping of his footfalls seemed loud in his ears, and he suddenly wondered why. Then it struck him that he could hear no other sounds.
The sense of unease deepened. He could not even hear bird calls or insect noises. No barking dogs were rushing out. None of the usual horses were visible in the paddocks to left or right. He glanced over his shoulder to the far side of the valley where the twin peaks of The Rhino were etched starkly and, it seemed now, threateningly. In front of him, high on the mountain slopes above the farm, the hunched rock figures of The Sad Ones loomed as if glaring down at him.
Despite the blazing sunlight, the atmosphere seemed increasingly oppressive as he drew nearer the old verandah home. The front part showed no signs of life, and he made his way round to the back door. Still nobody was in sight or answered his calls. The door was open, though, and he poked his head in, shouted once more, and entered.
Seconds later Dengana ran out again, screaming. He was still sobbing hysterically when he got back to the village.
The headman of the Ndhlovu village was in a bad mood, and it was steadily becoming worse. ‘Gogo,’ he stormed at the old grandmother, ‘if the women leave their other chores and spend all day at the river, why should it be my concern? Go and fetch them.’
She looked at him reproachfully. ‘You know it that my old bones are no longer strong enough to carry me there; you know it well. I say to you, there is something wrong. They should all be back with the water and the clean clothes long before the middle of the day, and now look where the sun sits.’
He gave a half-hearted kick at a scrawny chicken pecking too near his foot, and looked about him. His eyes fell on a man squatting outside a hut nearby, wearing a doleful expression to go with very little else. ‘Fundani,’ he called. ‘Go to the river and tell the women to come back.’
‘Inkozi, my head hurts,’ Fundani complained.
‘That is because you drank too much beer last night,’ the headman snapped. ’Now, go!’
As Dengana reached the outskirts of the village he was noticed by Mpilo, a brother of the headman, who had come across from the adjoining farm in the 4x4 All Terrain Vehicle. The farm had come to be owned by the headman, but he preferred living the traditional village life and letting some brothers (as cousins are also known in the African culture) stay there and run it for him.
Mpilo drew up next to him, and blinked round at the village. Not even the old grandmother was in evidence. ‘Where has everyone gone?’ he asked the boy, and then noticed the state he was in. ‘What is the matter?’
It took him some time to make any sense out of what Dengana gabbled out to him between sobs, but then, after shouting in vain for somebody to join him, he decided to see for himself. Dengana utterly refused to go with him, but he forced him into the back of the ATV, locked the tailgate, and drove off at speed.
From what the boy had said, it could only be leopard. How was that possible? None had been seen in the valley since before The Two Old Frogs, as young ‘frogs’, had hunted them out.
The leopard, which was stretched lazily out on a branch from which he could keep watch on the farmhouse, froze into immobility as the vehicle approached. The humans who got out when it stopped actually stared straight at him for an instant as they looked about them nervously. Then the grown one pulled the cub towards the back door. They had seen nothing.
Actually, there were quite a few big cats in Rhino Valley, though normally each would keep to his or her own territory. They had learnt certain rules, and as long as they followed them they had been safe.
Rule number one was never to touch any one of the animals the humans looked after, or be seen or even smelt by one of these or by one of the humans’ dog companions. There were plenty of baboons and buck and hyrax as prey.
The second rule was important because of the fact that he and his kind were mainly nocturnal. Never be near enough to a human with a light, or to one of their moving hollow rocks, to be caught in the beams from those big shining eyes. If a light ever did come in one’s direction, turn the head away and keep motionless.
Simply being invisible was the third rule. This was made easy by natural camouflage, as long as one kept in shadowy places and didn’t move. Recently it had been easier still, by learning the art of Not Being There. All this needed was to think to the other creatures - so that they thought they were thinking it for themselves - that all they could see was plants and earth.
The leopard prepared to jump down. Perhaps it was time to kill again. Now, he would do it alone.
The group returning from the river were keening and wailing and in deadly fear. After a frantic Fundani had run back to relate what he had found, the headman had snatched up one of his concessions to the modern world - a powerful rifle - and hastened to see for himself. Everyone in the village, and scores more of the villagers who had suddenly returned from their normal tasks as if by magic, had followed him; even the old grandmother had kept up somehow. All the men were armed with their own guns or sticks or spears.
‘As many big ones as that – it is not possible,’ Fundani repeated yet again as they re-entered the village.
‘All the signs were there to be read,’ the headman responded dully.
Fundani shook his head. ‘Signs only; and how could so many hide in water so shallow? Or drag all our missing women under to hide them there?’
‘No crocodiles in this place for half my lifetime, and now there must be many, many, many,’ Dengana’s mother stopped her wailing for long enough to sob out. She would normally have been with the others at the river, but had been with a group visiting friends at the Field of Bees.
Someone cried out that it must have something to do with tokoloshe or devils, and this was taken up by several voices. The headman stopped in his tracks. ’We must speak to the sangoma; now!’ he said with sudden resolution. ‘Why is the sangoma not here with us?’
The sangoma combined natural healing with her role of foretelling by speaking with the ancestors. She also officiated at many initiation rituals, and when misfortunes struck she would say what had annoyed the ancestors and what needed to be done to stop them being annoyed. She had a small house rather than a hut, set a bit higher up against the mountain of the Sad Ones.
A track hardly wider than a path led there from the village, and it was with difficulty that Mpilo drove the ATV along it to catch up with the procession he had glimpsed from the village. As he came to a halt in a cloud of dust, Dengana leapt out and rushed to his father, who had returned in time to join the crowd. He clung onto him and simply howled.
Mpilo hardly paused to give traditional greetings before blurting out, ‘Leopards have killed all people at Place of Two Old Frogs – everyone!’
Even after seeing the evidence that many crocodiles had been at the river, this did not appear likely. ‘There aren’t any ...’ the headman began, and then thought again. ‘You mean a mad leopard has come here from somewhere?’ he asked.
‘Many tracks; many leopards,’ Mpilo responded. ‘Some people dead in house, some in shed, and some in field. All killed the way only leopard does it. Not lion or dogs or hyena. Leopard. And boy says he saw tokoloshe while we were there. He says tokoloshe sent away a leopard which was coming to kill us also. I believe him. There was something I felt there that was ... terrible.’
The headman turned to Dengana, but it was clear that no sense would come from him for quite some time.
Such great shock and horror had already been felt by everyone that it hardly seemed as if the new tragedy had sunk in. They stared dumbly at the headman, who collected his wits with a great effort. ‘Sangoma!’ he said, and the little crowd continued on their way with redoubled urgency.
It was yet another shock to find that the sangoma was not wearing her traditional beads and trappings, but was dressed in modern clothing. She was trying to select the best of her herbs and amulets from shelves all round the walls of her living room to cram into suitcases, but left the task as they approached. Ignoring the ‘Sawubona’ (‘we see you’, even in cases where it should be an ‘I see you’), as the beginnings of the exchange of proper greetings, she broke in with, ‘I have been expecting you to come and tell me that devils are among us.’
The headman nodded.
‘We must all go away,’ she said simply. ‘These devils want the valley for themselves, now, and if we stay we die. They are very strong and have many tokoloshe helpers; and they will bring all creatures against us ...’
‘We cannot leave,’ burst out the headman. ‘The spirits of our ancestors are all here, and ...’
It was her turn to interrupt. She shook her head. ‘No, the spirits of our ancestors have gone. They have been chased away. Before they went they told me we must all leave, too. I must help them to come to us when we can find a new place for us to live.’
The dreadfulness of it was so great that all wails and lamentations stopped and there was a hush.
Then the headman said, ‘We will go; there is no choice,’ in a broken voice, before squatting down on his heels with his head in his hands and sobbing.