Story postcard – Simi and the story (6)

Tonderai, both hands still cupped together, turns slowly to face each corner of the room. When he speaks each word is gusted loud then soft by the wind.

“Uncle tells the Children about this animal that he has carved, this creature whose shape Knowledge does not recognise. ‘This is Pangolin. On the outside Pangolin’s skin is tough as rock. Not like Crocodile’s, but smoother, like many bottle tops, placed each beside the other.’

The Children listen with big eyes.

‘This skin, Pangolin’s skin,’ says Uncle, ‘is so tough that even Lion cannot crack it with its teeth. And Pangolin has one other trick. What is that? What do you do if you are small, and being chased by something that is big and strong?’

‘Run,’ says Knowledge, jumping on his toes.”

“‘No,’ says Uncle. ‘No. There you are mistaken Knowledge, for Pangolin is not a fast runner. Not like you perhaps. So what must Pangolin do?’

‘I know,’ says Hope shyly. ‘Pangolin must hide in its special skin.’

‘Yes,’ says Uncle. ‘You are right Hope. That is it. Pangolin must stay very, very still until the danger passes, and then, only then, may Pangolin proceed.’

‘Oho,’ say the Children wisely.

‘And,’ says Uncle, ‘there is one other thing. It is not what Pangolin can do, but what others can do for Pangolin. What is that?’

‘Help it,’ says Hope.

‘Of course!’ says Uncle. ‘That is what friends are for, and we can all be friends of Pangolin.’

‘Have you seen Pangolin Uncle?’ asks Knowledge.

‘Yes,’ says Uncle. ‘Once, when I was with my father we saw one, and he told me that to see one in the wild is the greatest gift. And that Pangolin should not be touched, for Pangolin is like a miracle. You see, Pangolin was in Africa before you, before me, before our fathers’ fathers. Too far back to even count. And Pangolin is tougher than Crocodile, and so quiet that you may not hear it coming.’

‘I would hear Pangolin,’ says Knowledge. ‘I would.’

‘Hmm,’ says Uncle.

‘Once I think I heard Pangolin but I did not look because I did not want to frighten it.’

‘Ah so,’ says Uncle, and he winks at Knowledge, the orphan child.

Now all the Children nod their heads. They too remember that they might have heard Pangolin. And the more they think about it, the more they are sure that they did, and that even today they might see Pangolin again. So off they tiptoe, eyes wide, ears sharp – listening, listening – to see if today they too might be fortunate. If they too might be friends to Pangolin.”

Tonderai, with a hand now cupped to each ear, begins to tiptoe his gumboots around the firepit, looking this way, and then that. Simi laughs, and hears Marybelle laugh too. Then Tonderai stops his creeping, and stands tall and still, waiting for the laughter to end, before he carries on with his tale.

“Girl laughs. She sees that she is not the only storyteller in the family. And she is happy, for now she knows that Uncle will not be lonely while he does his dangerous work – work so dangerous that if Snake finds out, it will be very bad for Uncle. Girl shivers, and leaves him to his carving.”

Tonderai looks around the room. “This is how the change begins – slowly, slowly, and noticed only by two. One is Uncle, who some do not even see is there, and the other is Girl, who many think is worth nothing for she is only a girl. But this is their mistake … not ours.”

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023

Story postcard – Simi and the story (5)

Simi looks around the room, wondering if everyone is still awake, or if they are sleeping on the rise and fall of the story. Jacobus’ head is bowed, and does not lift as Tonderai continues.

“Up at the Table all the Favourites are happy for there is quiet below. Even Snake has ceased his whispering, for now he sleeps in the day to be ready for Girl’s stories in the night.

Grandpa too is pleased, for there is peace beneath his Table. There is quiet at his feet and there are crowds at his window. The watchers make him very happy. They have come to see me, Grandpa thinks. Always they come. I am great. I am greater even than great.” Tonderai thumps his chest. “Grandpa grows veeery proud. Soon his head is so big, that the window has to be opened even wider, but Girl does not mind for the fresh air is good for them, and besides, she has a hope. Girl hopes that some of those at the window who look in, will see that all is not well, that Grandpa’s feast leaves nothing for those beneath.

Girl hopes too that the fresh air will be good for Uncle, for she knows he works too hard. He is very thin now. She sees this, but the others do not for they barely see Uncle at all. It is only she and the Children who go to him, and they go for he is gentle. He does not talk of soldiers. He does not talk of war. And he does not beat them. Instead he makes them toys from old pieces of wood. And sometimes he will play the mbira for them. Some days Girl goes with the Children when they visit Uncle, for she wants to be sure that they do not bother him too much, and that they do not see or talk about his work. When she goes, Girl sees that the Children play, that they notice nothing, and she begins to relax. And then one day she hears this.”

Tonderai pauses, then, with his voice now full of the cheerful curiosity of a child, he begins again.

“‘Uncle, what is the work you do on the Table?’

Girl gasps, but Uncle is calm. He has thought of this question.

‘Ah …’ he says with a wink to Knowledge the orphan child, whose head is full of questions. ‘Come, come with me, and see what I do.’

Uncle takes Knowledge by the hand, and Girl and all the Children follow him to the Table, and there they see that one of the legs of the Table is very beautiful, for it has animals carved into it. Giraffe, lion, monkey, elephant, and even the little duiker are there.

‘What is this animal?’ asks Knowledge as he traces one finger around a shape he has not seen before.

‘That is Pangolin,’ says Uncle. ‘This animal, Knowledge, is the most ancient of them all. If you find one it will roll into a ball. It will look like this.’”

Tonderai stands silent, his hands cupped together. Simi watches as he looks down, as though searching for something curled in the darkness between his fingers.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023

Story postcard – Simi and the story (4)

Tonderai speaks, drumming his words into the dark.

“These days Grandpa wears bright shirts. Shirts with his picture on them, many, many times, so that the People may see him from wherever they stand. Or fall. Of course, all the Favourites at the Table wear the selfie-shirts too. Now all anyone can see is Grandpa.”

Then Tonderai lowers his chin, and the drum beat softens.

“So that is how it goes. Every day, high at the Table, Grandpa sits and fills the window. Every day he is in his shirts that are full of his crocodile eyes. And every day, down below, Girl writes more stories. Every day she flies them up and out into the world, up so high that even she cannot see where they travel.

But these stories are only writing.

Now Girl does something different.”

The story pauses and Tonderai begins to pace, hands behind his back. When he speaks again his tone is quieter.

“Now Girl tells new stories, and these are not written down. These are stories that Girl tells in a loud voice to entertain the People. The stories are of brave adventures against horrible monsters. They are thrilling stories that nobody wants to miss. Not even Snake … for that is how Girl has planned it.

On the first day only one or two come to listen, but soon the news spreads. The People hear that Girl’s stories are of such excitement that all should be present.

On day three, Snake sends his Wife to see if this is true, to tell him if these tales are as excellent as the Women say.

On day four, Girl sees Snake’s Wife at the back of the crowd and she calls out to her. ‘Come closer Wife of Snake. You are an important lady and should be near the front.’

Girl sees Wife of Snake smirk. She sees her push past the Women and the Workers, to come closer. No one is happy, for it is Wife of Snake who scolds them when they cannot find cooking oil. It is Wife of Snake who chases them when they wail too loud if their children die. The Women do not like Wife of Snake one bit. Nor do they like Snake.

Girl hears the Women and the Workers grumble, but she does not mind, for she knows that this must be done if her plan is to work.

So every night Girl tells stories of magic and danger, and after each night every listener knows that they must come again to hear who wins or loses. They must be there to learn who will be champion. Who will live to fight on. And so they come, again and again, and Snake too comes every night when the moon rises. He too listens, and while he listens Uncle quietly, quietly does his work. Uncle, who nobody notices, is getting things done.

So that is what happens.”

Now Tonderai walks his gumboot walk into the far corner of the billiard room. All Simi can see of him is his dark height. But she can hear him clearly for his voice is loud, and the wind has vanished.

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2023