by Isdore Guvamombe
Back in the village in the land of milk, honey and dust or Guruve, it was a bright April mid-morning, a few days after closing schools.
Being almost harvest time, I set out to herd cattle, something that grandfather had been solely doing the whole school term except weekends. I drove the cattle towards Dande River, carefully skirting fields of tinder dry maize, fields coloured white by cotton tufts, and thriving sunflower were a variety of birds enjoyed a free for all.
The cattle seemed to enjoy grazing on the sumptuous riverine vegetation, a mixture of grass and tree leaves. They munched, munched and munched ruthlessly as if there was no tomorrow, intermittently spattering the same grass with smelly dung. These idiotic beasts!
Sure that they would not stray into fields, this villager sat on a tree stump, watching ants, working on a nest. It was attractive.
A solitary ant, afield, looking mindless indeed wandered around, darting forwards and backwards, sideways too until it returned to the nest. The lone figure of neurons strung together by fibres could not have a mind, I thought.
From a suitable height, the aggregating clusters of ants in the bright sunlight suddenly swarmed the ground from everywhere. They had assemblages of a society.
The ants vibrated, made iconic movements, interrupted by darting back and forth of individuals to touch antennae and exchange small bits of goods and information, periodically. I watched and watched, periodically, the mass casting out, like a trout-line, a long single file unerringly towards a nest, their home. It was compulsive social behavior. The insects were like perfectly tooled but crazy little machines on four legs.
Three or four ants brought home a grasshopper, then I realised they hunted, launched armies to war, captured slaves, used chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies. The ants engaged in child labour, too! They seemed to exchange information ceaselessly. Working, working and working!
Then there were five or so ants, encircling a dead creature on a path. They fumbled and shoved gradually moving their find to the nest.
Somehow they smelt or noticed my presence, whichever came first, or both. I watched a dense mass of hundreds if not thousands of ants crowding around the nest, blackening the ground, they must have started thinking of war. They vibrated and shifted, thinking and planning. Circulating. Spraying chemicals that smelt. Calculating. I saw their intelligence, they were a kind of a live computer, wired with crawling bits for its software.
No! I was mistaken. They wanted to build something. The leader, whoever it was in the nest, had given them instructions to bring twigs, twigs of a certain size. All the members foraged obsessively for twigs of just that size. Moments later, the size changed, getting bigger and bigger. They must have been given another instruction by their boss. Who cut the correct size out there, I wondered?
I suspected the leader and the construction manager were underground, phoning those afield for different instructions to the critical mass, a quorum.
The nest must, by my imagination, be a palace of beautiful, curving, symmetrical arches and vaulted chambers. I wondered how they communicated, how the chains of termites building one column know when to turn towards a crew on the adjacent column, or how when the time comes, they managed a flawless joining of arches, building constructively instead of shifting things around?
I tapped the ground with my foot and they became alarmed, agitated and excited. They gave out a bad smell. I then lifted my head and the cattle were gone. No trace. I ran around, my heart pounding and almost cracking my rib cage.
I picked the sound of the distant cranking cattle bells and ran that direction. I got there and those were cattle from the other village. Eeeish!
I took the other direction and picked another bell. That must be it. Well I was wrong. Confused, I ran again and found them in the middle of Razaro’s (Lazarus) maize field. The cobs were thriving and big.
The cattle grabbed cobs like mad. It was a battle driving them out. Eventually, I managed and drove them angrily in the opposite direction, far and further away from the crime scene. I whipped them silly, their backs and behinds depicting the lines, the extent of the whipping. My wrath!
Razaro was the wrong person to do that to. Every man, every boy, every child and indeed every woman in the village dreaded crossing his path. It was akin to slapping a lion in the face. Disastrous. Very, very disastrous!
Back home, I locked up the cattle in the kraal without much ado. I then tethered the goats under the silhouette sunset horizon. It was my secret. Grandfather was yet another monster, highly intolerant of those who allow cattle to stray, let alone stray into other people’s fields.
Grandpa would beat me certainly and even if grandmother tried to protect me, she would be beaten silly too. That was him. I ate fast and slept early, typical of a wanted criminal.
By sunrise the following morning, Razaro was outside our house, tearing his long hair and crying loudly with axe in one hand. I cringed.
Grandpa knew Razaro and he quickly locked himself in. Through a crevice left between the door planks I saw Razaro. His tiny stature masked a fiery temper, rare courage and violence. He had niggling little voice, a very contemptuous looking smile on his lips that surely, was reserved for him only.
I felt crazy and a terrible numbness threatened to consume me. There was an implosion and explosion within me. For once I felt like breaking into a million pieces. I wanted to cry but all the pain was locked in me.
Razaro challenged Grandpa to come out, but grandpa even reinforced the lock. Razaro went to the kraal, drove out all the cattle into grandpa’s yard and forced them to graze on the maize, our best maize crop.
For more than an hour he made sure they munched, munched and munched until, one by one they started sleeping. He still wielded his axe. Grandpa and everyone remained in the house. When he Razaro was sure, the cattle had had enough, he left them and went to his house. He had revenged.
Grandpa was too shocked to even beat me up. But I knew he would explode one day- soon rather than later.
The main crop was gone, courtesy of my stupidity. I cringed again. Grandmother comforted me but grandpa avoided looking at me.
Soon the entire village gathered to see the destruction. They condemned me and Razaro alike. But in the public court of justice, Razaro should not have revenged. He had cattle too, though not many. Grandpa gave himself solace by saying the crop in the other fields would suffice. Besides he had three sons who were teachers and one a magistrate. In the worst scenario they would not let us starve.
For moons on end Razaro refused to talk to Granpa, neither did he agree to shake hands with grandpa. He was a person who never let go so easily.
One afternoon, as the cicadas religiously prayed for rains while clinging precariously to tree trunks and leaves, my father got home in a car. He had bought an Austin Cambridge, courtesy of a salary windfall from an out-of- sorts Zimbabwe-Rhodesia Government, fronted by Bishop Abel Tendekai Muzorewa and Ian Douglas Smith. It was the first car in the village and thus attracted a lot of attention and admiration, alike. The car was a small beast of British origin, my father explained.
It was quite a speed monster, he proceeded. As a teacher, who had graduated from the prestigious Kutama College many years earlier he pronounced English words with the right British accent.
While villager admired the beast, grandpa started telling him about Razaro’s issue. As usual grandpa started his story with half a dozen proverbs. My father shook his head in disbelief. As the culprit, I kept my distance but made sure I was in earshot enough to hear essential details.
Village elders with cotton tuft hair gathered around the car, then after passing one or two pleasant comments punctuated by a scullery of proverbs, they joined in the discussion of Razaro’s revenge.
At that moment Razaro’s son Virimai, came running and within gasping and panting, he announced a cobra had spat into his father’s eyes, while working on the hedges that fenced his homestead. He needed to be rushed to hospital.
The village stampeded to Razaro’s home, grandpa included. There he was lying on the ground writhing in agony, his deep-set eyes, high cheek bones and thin straight nose, made him look like a man about to die of pain. He cried with a hard disembodied voice.
Loice, the only village woman suckling a babe, was made to milk Razaro’s eyes straight from the tits. No. He must be rushed to the hospital.
Grandpa talked to his son, my father, with a cool authoritative voice. “Rush him to hospital.”
Soon the British beast took off, slithered and hissed past village yard corners, across the small river, puffing a little some in the process. Minutes later Razaro was in hospital. It was discovered no snake had spat in his eyes but that it was the milky latex from the hedge that had affected his eye. He was treated and discharged after a week. Thereafter Razaro offered to pay for the transport but grandpa vehemently refused. Flat!