Ndakala trekked, cautious and momentarily alone, into the vast morel declivity. He sought insight, but movement into the marsh merely compounded his confusion. “Helmesi—surely a clone, but living or animated?” he murmured, perplexed as to whether its demise ought to be mourned. His former guide, Khethiwe, seemed unperturbed. The mystery remained just as unraveled as his journey’s ungrasped purpose. Even the environs, loud and variegated, colluded against comprehension he felt as he brushed a beetle off his brow, grunted, and trudged onward.
While lovely, the way was cumbersome. Every apprehensive footfall depressed another magenta cobble of his so-called path unevenly into a nigh-liquid bed of teal-striped clubmoss. The longer he followed it alongside the stream, the shallows of which were inundated with argent slivers of bioluminescent kelp, the more unsettled his equilibrium became. Humidity clung to his ebony skin like sap. Sweat-drenched and languished, he rolled up his sleeves and unbuttoned his khaki safari shirt, but the act assuaged none of the relentless heat or humidity.
Soaked to the shins from errant steps, he paused and inhaled the spore-rife atmosphere. How far was he from his destination? What even was his destination, this Kicahka Siri? Unsure, he peered through the milieu. Milky dandelion spores haphazardly waltzed alongside technicolor fireflies. Cicadas noisily and indefatigably chirped from hallows unknown. Beyond the din, a distant fall gushed from a fissure in the cavernous firmament. The pristine column cascaded violently onto a celadon spire, diverted to sundry pools and streams, then surged onward and sustained the subterranean refuge. Yet it was the crisp and mountainous stalagmite, a formation that vibrated supernaturally throughout his marrow, that captured his attention.
“That,” Ndakala panted, hands on his knees as he struggled to breathe, “must be the Kicahka Siri.”
Shirt abandoned and shoes and socks siphoned off by the viscous terrain, he collapsed. Shaded by an enormous shiitake’s cap, he heaved himself up and noticed his reflection in the stream. There a tired old fool of a pygmy scowled back, face as dark and wrinkled as a hippo’s ass, naked pate encircled by a terse piebald bramble, and eyes that longed for something he couldn’t articulate. Either a tear or bead of sweat dispelled the vision. In its stead manifested a wild kaleidescope of color. It reminded him of light twisted to a sheen by spilled oil.
Distraught, he tried to focus on something—anything. He failed. Even mundane meditation seemed, in this place, impossible.
He was thirsty, Ndakala thought, as he suddenly remembered the man in the water.
No, that isn’t right, realized Ndakala, I am thirsty.
Dehydrated, he cupped his hands, dipped them into the flow, and splashed his face and chest. Exhilarated by the shock and relief of the frigid moisture as it struck his flesh, he abandoned decorum and plunged his face like a wild animal into the tie-dyed slick of vitality. It was the purest water he ever drank, yet he remained parched—an addict for whom the fix never sufficed. Again he drank, even as his tongue swelled up to unbelievable proportions and his mouth became drier than a eucalyptus-stuffed husk. His head felt cloudy, insects buzzed hypnotically in swarms around him, and life pulsed tumescent to the beat of earthen drums. It was euphoric. Below, the soil undulated and rolled him around like a prismatic orb on a neon-striped concourse. Suddenly light-headed, he collapsed into the fetal position, eyes wide and pupils dilated. Above him, the shiitake loomed, its outline crisp. Black. Brushed over with sumi-e strokes. Suddenly its structure transformed to an enormous azobé tree. The thick and indomitable trunk challenged the clouds—the very sun above the canopy. There, near its apex, it stretched out its innumerable limbs, from which Ndakala saw, impossibly, the huts of his ancestors.
“Baba,” he crooned, fingers outstretched toward the silhouette of his grandfather.
From their tenuous vertiginous hovels asway on striated vines, his people celebrated life as they sang, clacked beads, gyrated shekeres, and blew into algaitas. They danced in a procession from hut to hut on bridges of braided xylem.
They were happy and at peace.
Then his symbolic grandfather, chieftain Gyele, caretaker of the tribe, looked down at him from his heights of glory, frowned, and chided, “Where are my descendants? What offspring offer you that brings life to the Tribe?”
Fire danced on Ndakala’s cheeks even as prurient images reeled through his mind fierce as a rhino charges—as Digbo, a naked juggernaut whose powerful stampede cratered mountains. He was shaken to his core—tossed about by the violent upheaval of earth.
Fire darkened their delight. It brought with it shadows. He no longer saw his ancestors. His cheeks burned. The rhino was gone. He refused to contemplate what else was absent. Now flames spiraled up the azobé trunk, as if it were assaulted by a furious nest of crimson pythons. Hulking hirsute forms, black as nightmares, swung from the limbs, juxtaposed against the livid glare. Their shrieks and howls terrified Ndakala, but his hands—he couldn’t find his hands to cover his ears and his eyelids were likewise absent. Unable to refuse the vision, he averted his gaze toward the tree’s mighty canopy, but instead of leaves and light he beheld Mount Diaba aglow with lethal radiation. Atop the mountain stood a man, a stranger whose body was haloed by green energy.
The man pulsed and coruscated like a toxic star.
Then all went dark.
A lifetime later, Ndakala felt the ground swell again beneath him, this time gently as it urged him onward. His cheek plopped on a soft bed of moss. His muscles ached. He rubbed his eyes, which seemed sealed shut ages ago by a mineral plaster.
“Wake, scion of Gyele. Shake loose the burden of the zijonge, sit, and listen,” spoke a woman’s voice in a tone that soothed yet yielded nothing. It was firm—solid as the vitreous formations that erupted from the walls around him. Ndakala blinked. No longer was his vision obfuscated by a monstrous shiitake, gargantuan azobé, or Mount Diaba’s awful profile. Instead, he was in a cave, just at the entrance. Within, small pools of water reflected the world perfectly back, and deeper he saw the woman. She, too, sat in a pool. The entire chamber resonated to a barely audible melody.
He knew he was at Kicahka Siri, but this woman—she he did not know.
“Who are you?” Ndakala pensively inquired.