Oracle

Mary Langhout


In the summer of 1856, Nongqause was 16. Her father was dead and she lived with her uncle, Mhlakaza. He was an important man in the tribe, a prophet and a teacher whose interpretations of dreams and omens had made him both feared and respected. Nongquase was afraid of him.

She was a shy girl with big bones, heavy features, and few friends. But that didn't prevent her from dreaming of a lover. Her desires fastened on Nxele, a young herdsman. From a distance, she kept watch on him. She saw his strength and the bronzed beauty of his body. When he came among the others of her kraal she clung to the outskirts of the gathering. The sound of his voice stirred emotions in her that were difficult to conceal. And concealment was best, for she knew that her chances of attracting his attention were slender.

Always happiest when she was alone, Nongqause spent much of her day staring vacantly into the river, not caring that it snaked its way at last to the big blue water. She liked best the pool known as Ekamangeni and often stood wriggling her toes in the soft mud on its brink.

Nongquase loved the river and had followed the watercourse for many hours in both directions. She liked to wander along its banks. She knew its cascades and the secrets of its still pools. Often she sat watching the reflection of her broad somber face on its dark surface. Sometimes she pretended that her reflection was a river princess from a different tribe whose friendship granted her special powers. From there, living as she did in an atmosphere of dreams revealed and omens explained, it was a short step to trying out her skills.

She devised a method of willing Nxele to feel the touch of her hand on his arm, the back of his neck, or the flesh of his thigh. If, from her position far off, she saw him slap an insect, rub or scratch at the area she was focusing on, she was elated.

One day, prompted by unusual success which had poor Nxele rubbing at his head (where in Nongqause's imagination, her fingers tweaked his hair) and pulling at his ear (where she willed her warm, soft breath to reach him) she felt ready for more advanced magic.

Lured by the pool of Ekamangeni, she dropped to her knees at its side and spent many hours trying by concentration alone to summon Nxele's image to the quiet waters so that she might look upon his beauty secretly. She went there several times in as many days. Sometimes the reflection in the water quivered slightly so that the shape blurred, but only because the breeze had sighed across the surface. Never distressed by her failures, she simply came back time and again, and resumed staring into the water. Later, she added a few words which she sang over and over to herself.

"Come Nxele, come," she chanted, "Nongqause awaits you at the river pool of Ekamangeni. Come, where I am waiting."

It seemed to her that this time the outline in the water wavered and began to change its shape. Nongqause leaned forward, continuing her hypnotic monotone. So engrossed was she that when a hand dropped on her shoulder, she whirled swiftly, crying out loudly, "Nxele, you are here!"

The child standing before her was frightened by her wild eyes and shrank from her. She would have run away, but Nongqause seized her arm and shook her.

"Nonkosi!" Nongqause shouted, anger thickening and darkening her voice. "What are you doing here? Do you not see that I talk with the water-spirits?"

She shook the girl again and added a cuff for good measure. "Go back to your mother and hide in her skirt for if I catch you, I shall surely beat you. And tell no one what you have seen here."

But that was asking too much. Nongqause had been impressive in her rage. Nonkosi was only nine years old. Choking with sobs, she fled. The secret was soon out and the news was carried on the wind throughout the whole village.

Milking time came, and the cattle were being driven home when Nongqause left her tryst. There had been no further hopeful sign. She was tired from the strain of so much concentration. Her eyes were blank and she walked slowly, dragging her feet. She had almost forgotten the child's interruption.

There was a strange stillness in the kraal, and she saw no one until she came at last to her own hut. She bent low to crawl through the entrance and as she straightened up she saw her uncle Mhlakaza waiting for her, crouched on his haunches.

Nongqause shivered. So the beating she had promised Nonkosi was to be hers instead. But Mhlakaza made no move. He seemed to be assessing her. Her broad, flat face was not expressive.

"I hear" said Mhlakaza, after an interval, "that you have been to the Gxara River. Where then is your vessel filled with water?"

Nongqause spoke no word in reply. Her eyes were downcast and her head was bent. Mhlakaza had not raised his voice. He seemed detached but she caught a quiver of suppressed interest in his inquiry. She remained mute and he continued with his questions.

"While you were idling at the waterside, daughter of my brother, did you hear unusual sounds or see anything strange?"

"I heard the cattle lowing," she muttered reluctantly, "I saw my image in the pool."

"If all is as you say, why did you drive Nonkosi away with shouts and blows?"

Nongqause hesitated, but could think of no way out.

"My spirit would speak with the spirit of Nxele. I tried to summon his. And the image was already beginning to reshape itself into another form ..."

Mhlakaza grunted and interrupted: "Nonkosi spoke the truth. You are meddling in affairs where ignorance would serve you better. Be warned: danger broods where secrets lie hidden. Attend to your womanly duties and curb this arrogance of yours lest you anger the spirits and release forces beyond your control."

Nongqause raised her head, secure in the knowledge of her abilities.

"Mhlakaza, you are a great man, skilled in understanding these things and much else besides. The blood that flows in me is that of my ancestors and the blood that flows in you springs from the same source. Would you deny to the child of your brother the power that begins to unfurl itself in me?"

The significance of her words was clear to Mhlakaza.

"But Nxele ..." he said, betraying his disapproval, "Nxele, the lynx, is only a minor prophet of no great substance. Why did you call forth his shade?"

With a leap of her heart Nongqause saw that the core of her secret was safe. Her uncle had overlooked Nxele, the herdsman, in favor of Nxele, the diviner, long dead and in the company of his forefathers. While the confusion held, she would not be beaten and, more important, the delicate flower of her maiden-love for Nxele would not be made to shrink and wither amid jeers and laughter. Voicelessly she paid homage to the spirits of her ancestors for their assistance in clouding the details of her escapade.

When Mhlakaza saw that she struggled to answer and could not, he returned to his own abode to think over what he had seen and heard.

Many times that night Nongqause startled out of her sleep but in the morning no memory remained with her of the paths her spirit had walked. So it was that, driven merely by habit, she sat listlessly gazing into the pool without any real purpose. She was relieved to have avoided the consequences of her folly and was not in any mood to pursue it further. She was grateful to her dead father for standing as a shield between her and her uncle's wrath, but her over-riding emotion was one of emptiness.

How long she stared unseeing she did not know but she discovered with some surprise that the reflection in the pool had changed. It had become bolder and the chin area had shadowed as though lightly bearded. Who it was she did not know. [*] The bone structure was not so different from her own, but it looked much older and stronger. The hard countenance must be that of her father whose efforts to reach her in broken dreams had not succeeded. She reached out a hand, shattering the image in her eagerness to touch him.

She went at once and sought out Mhlakaza, but he was attending the court of Chief Sarili. She kept apart from the other villagers and, eating nothing, waited three days for Mhlakaza's return. When he came she pressed forward to greet him, and looking into her eyes, Mhlakaza drew her apart from the rest.

"What happened?" he asked.

"My father came," Nongqause replied. "He reached forth a hand to pull himself from the pool, but those who were behind him held him fast and would not allow him to leave."

"And he spoke?"

"No word."

"Did he look kindly upon you?"

"His face was stern and he stayed not long."

"He comes as a warning. It is a sign of his great displeasure."

Remembering her unmaidenly attempts to secure Nxele's love by means of amateur witchcraft, Nongqause was ashamed.

"Be not cast down, daughter of my house. It is not of thy doing. I have spoken with Chief Sarili. He is of one voice with me. The heroes of the past are restless. They see the sorrow and ruin brought among our people. They have witnessed the oppression of the amaXhosa. We believe you have been chosen to hear their message to deliver it to the Xhosa brotherhood."

Then Mhlakaza withdrew to his hut and began the purification rites. Later he slew an ox and offered it in sacrifice. When this was done, he went with Nongqause to the pool and he, too, saw reflected in its waters many great men, long dead, who were disturbed by the wrongs and insults suffered by their people. The might of past glories was massing and the throng was ready to burst through the barrier of time. Mhlakaza was jubilant. With their legendary heroes to lead them, what mortal man would oppose them? Any who did would be dust before the rising wind. The enemies of the Xhosa nation would tremble before them.

Nongqause visited the pool daily. Kneeling, sitting, or standing, she stared into the waters and spoke with the shades. The people crowded along to watch. At first they did not see her visions, but those who came often enough had their eyes opened and they, too, realized that their ancestors were waiting barely out of sight, impatient to cross the thin line between life and death, ready to resume the flesh of men and lead them to victory. Xhosa chiefs, together with herds of sleek cattle fattened on the plains of the land of resurrection, were all struggling to rise to the surface of the pool. Believers felt the vibration of subterranean hooves, heard the beasts bellowing and the sudden sharp clash of horn against horn.

All was as Nongqause had described it. Rumors flew. Distance was nothing. Some had seen their dead heroes mounted for battle, ready to emerge from the sea. Others had heard the thunder of horses' hooves as they plunged across the sky. The ghostly hordes were jostling to assume their leadership.

Amid the excitement, Nongqause heard the first notes of the song of destruction and death. "In order to be triumphant, sacrifices are to be offered," promised the whispers. "The earth must first become barren. New life will spring up, and it will bloom in abundance and great beauty."

"First, all grain is to be burned," shouted harsher voices. "No seed is to be set in the earth. We, the returning dead, will drive before us huge herds of healthy cattle. Your own are afflicted with lung disease. Kill them. Spare only horses and dogs. You will have need of them. Burn! For the grain pits will soon be filled and overflowing."

Nongqause's message sped throughout the territory of the Xhosa people: Kill! Burn! Destroy! After winter will come spring.

The nation roused itself, and when the killing began, brother stirred against brother and household against household and the nation split in two. Believers and unbelievers burst apart the links of brotherhood and the break was irrevocable.

Nongqause threatened those who did not heed her with a terrible whirlwind that would sweep them away into space. Mhlakaza set a date. Sarili, the chief, ordered his subjects to heed Mhlakaza. All cattle and corn were to be destroyed. At the rising of the full moon in mid-July, the prophecies would be fulfilled. But Mhlakaza was forced to postpone the date because too many animals remained alive.

The frenzy of killing began again. Even the dogs were sated. Mhlakaza set another deadline. He warned that in eight days, the blackest thunderstorm ever seen would strike and the mighty wind that accompanied it would whirl away all unbelievers to be lost forever.

During those eight days the believers worked with terrible energy, destroying, but also cleaning out and enlarging their corn pits for the promised bounty, and strengthening their huts against the forces of the coming winds. But on the eighth day the sun did not deviate from its appointed course, as Nongqause had foretold, and neither did the moon.

Even then believers did not dare accept that all ...all had been delusion. Every day people searched the heavens for a sign and inspected the empty grain pits for the miracle.

Day followed day. The Xhosa started to die. They died slowly and painfully. They died by hundreds, by thousands, and by tens of thousands and their corpses rotted among the bones of the slaughtered animals ...

Some years later in the hush of a silvery evening, a blanketed woman trudged a dusty road on a farm south of Grahamstown. Her bare feet carried her to the back door where she spoke to the farmer's wife. She asked about work and a place to sleep.

"My name," she said, "is Victoria Regina, but once I was known as Nongqause of the Xhosa tribe."

"You sinful creature!" interrupted the farmer, who had joined his wife at the door. "Get off my land or I'll set the dogs on you."

"Shameless baggage!" echoed his wife, drawing her skirts about her with a firm hand, but though she did not intend to do so, she lingered and did not swing the door shut.

"How so?" asked Nongqause. "When I crept from my kraal amid the cries of the dying, my heart was sick and I knew great sorrow. Throughout the land of my people I saw the destruction my words had brought upon them. And as I journeyed it came to me that power without the bridle of knowledge is a dangerous horse to ride. Mhlakaza was dead and could not teach me, so I sat at the feet of the interpreters of the word of the church. I listened when they read from the book of wisdom. I learned that to seek favor a man should shrug aside all his possessions and trust that they will be returned to him in abundant measure."

"That's true," nodded the farmer's wife, releasing her hold on her skirt and smiling.

"And that when a trumpet note sounds the graves will burst apart and the earth will crack open. The dead will be alive again. Where then lies my sin?"


© Mary Langhout

Mary Langhout lives and writes in Cape Town, South Africa. Her short stories have appeared in South African magazines, and in two anthologies published in Newfoundland, Canada.


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