Dajan faced east, as he did every morning, greeting the Sun with a toothy smile that split the creases of his face. His spear was planted in the sand beside him, gripped by a fist hard and calloused. The wind tugged at the bright red cloth that hung from it. The sand dunes seemed smooth as elephant bones in the morning, limned in a brilliant gold. Brown and gold—the colors of the desert. Dajan’s colors.

He shaded his eyes as he scanned the horizon. In the distance, he made out the silhouette of a man approaching. This was unexpected. So little was unexpected in the desert. So little changed. The desert was its own kind of prison—parched, loveless, limitless.

Dajan leaned against the shaft of his spear and waited.

“There are no crossroads here, Esu,” Dajan called out. The approaching stranger was naked but for the stretch of cloth about his waist. Today, Esu had the look of an old man. He wore his skin like a threadbare blanket over muscles lean and hard as baked clay. His white hair, tangled in beads and bones, gleamed against the darkness of his shoulders.

“All men are crossroads,” Esu answered with his hyena grin—mouth stretching wide, too wide, to reveal uneven teeth. “You more than most.”

Like the flickering of a flame, Esu shifted faces—ancient wanderer to teasing boy-god. The lanky body was smaller now and rounded with baby fat. The lines in his face smoothed like the wind sweeping away footprints in the sand. Still, the hyena grin was the same.

“All men are crossroads,” Esu repeated with a sly look, “and all women are gateways. It is unfortunate that you are not a woman. Women deserve gifts.”

“Women have gifts of their own,” Dajan answered cautiously.

Esu cackled at this, now turned white-haired and old once more. “As do you, as do you. Have you no questions for me, dead one?”

“No,” Dajan said. Asking questions of Esu—in any of his form—was dangerous. His tongue gave shape to lies. He was a deceiver. He broke the world apart and knitted it together as he pleased. He might grant favors, yes, but there was always a price.

“You’ve learned wisdom, I see,” Esu said as he pressed his face close. Dajan refused to flinch when the wrinkled lips whispered into his ear. “Or the desert has taught it to you. A question for a question then. What was the name of the first woman you loved?”

Dajan paused. In his mind’s eye, he saw her, hips swaying beneath the crimson cloth, mouth slightly parted, eyes full of a thousand secrets.

Silence had its own price. There had been silence for so many years. Years of wandering. Years of waiting.

“Duma,” Dajan whispered, his chest constricting at the thought. Duma. Cheetah.

Esu threw back his head and shrilled like the bird. “Did she mark you with her claws? Or did she simply run faster than you?” There was something hungry in the old man’s eyes that set Dajan on edge. “Wise, you are. Wise as a woman’s eyes. Sly as a woman’s eye. It doesn’t open easily. Did hers?”

“One question, you said.”

“Aye,” Esu crowed. “A question, a question. Would you know how to please her?”

Dajan’s throat was dry. The Sun was higher in the sky than it should have been, scorching him with its rays. The desert was no longer the warm golds and browns of dawn. Instead, it had bleached into the blinding white of midday. Bone light, his people had once called that color. Only Esu’s crooked body darkened the surroundings. “Why are you here?” Dajan asked.

“Wise, of course. Always whys.” Esu grinned again, his wrinkled face broken by the white gleam of his teeth. “I have come, Dajan of the Sands, to open a gateway for you.”

“Tell me a story, hunter,” Esu said as he began to climb towards the top of the dune. His feet made tiny dimples in the sand as he walked. He had taken the face of the child: snub-nosed, heavy-lipped, and dark-eyed. The whites of his eyes seemed to dance like twin Moons.

“I thought you were here to open a gateway,” Dajan replied wryly.

“You are lost in the desert of Zamani. The past. You must see the way you have come before you go further.” He pointed at the footsteps.

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course not! No one ever understands me,” Esu whined. “You are at a crossroads. Speak, and take the first step.”

Dajan knelt down and ran his fingers through the smooth sand as he mulled over the boy-god’s words. He held a handful for a moment. The grains ran in thin streams as he gathered his thoughts.

“Once,” Dajan said, “there was a hunter—very young. He had barely seen the sun of sixteen summers, but he was keen-eyed, long-armed.”

“Ah,” Esu whispered as he beckoned Dajan with his hands.

“Women thought well of him, and many had laid necklaces at his tent in hopes of a fond welcome. He decorated himself with their gifts for he was as vain as Nyani, the baboon, but he never touched the women who offered them.”

“Foolish as Nyani,” the boy-god replied with a giggle.

“Of course,” Dajan replied, “but he was keen-eyed, long-armed, so he wore each of their hearts around his neck as a trinket.

“One morning, during the Season of the Spear, he set out among the heartlands in search of antelope. Keen-eyed as he was, it was late in the day before he found a herd. As the spear left his hand, the herd scattered as if forewarned of his attack. Long-armed as he was, his throw went astray. That was when he saw her. She was... beautiful,” Dajan murmured. “Golden as the Sun and graceful as the wind through the grass. She was like him: a hunter. She was aduma.” Esu’s eyes flickered at this. “He crept towards her, careful lest she catch his scent.”

“It is dangerous for a duma to catch a man’s scent,” Esu said softly.

Dajan paused for a moment, glancing towards the Sun. Then he turned towards Esu with a sly look. “The day grows hot and I am thirsty. Now is not the time for stories.”

“Bah!” Esu’s young voice took on the plaintive tones of a grandfather. He shook his skinny arm at Dajan. “It is always the time for stories.” With that, he took a cowrie shell from his pouch and threw it towards the heavens. It gleamed for a moment, and then it was no longer a shell but the bright face of the Moon come to chase down the Sun. The Sun fled towards the hills, fearing today the hunter might catch her. In a moment, there was darkness. “Finish the story!”

“Soon,” Dajan replied, secretly pleased at the tantrum. “First, you must answer my question. Why am I a crossroads?”

Esu chewed the bottom of his lip sullenly. Dajan waited. When no answer was forthcoming, he turned away from the dark child and began to walk.

“Where are you going?” Esu asked, but before he had even finished speaking his eyes widened at his mistake. He let out an animal sound of frustration—a howl as loud and long as a hyena’s. The noise meant a brief victory.

Dajan turned.

“You would ask me a question, little god?” His tone was insolent. Foolishly so. But pride had ever been his weakness. “I go towards the tribe of my brother. I would know if all you say is true.”

“I do not lie,” Esu spat. “You have passed from Sasa into Zamani—history, the past. You are beyond their memory. You can’t go back unless....”

“Yes?” Dajan asked, pretending nonchalance.

“Ah!” Esu’s frown transformed into a smirk. “One question. You are a crossroads because Sasa and Zamani meet within you.”

“I thought I was within Zamani,” Dajan said. He shifted his weight onto his spear.

“Sasa lies ahead. If you can open the door,” Esu replied, leaping in the air. “But come, come! We must walk. And it is the time for stories.”

Dajan nodded, then trudged after Esu who had set off in a new direction. It was always this way with the gods. Nothing held fast. Nothing held still. They were the wind and he was the grain of sand blown heedless in their wake. He licked his lips. It tasted of salt, but he smiled anyway. He had tricked this boy-god once. There was more to be gained from him.

“Very well,” Dajan said. He closed his eyes. Reached for the rhythm of the story.

“The hunter was close now. With his keen eyes, he could see the pattern of her soul upon her skin. He knew her by it and knew he would never mistake her for another. The skin of a duma is like the fingerprint of a man. With his long arms, he could almost reach her. But the necklaces, the necklaces he had worn to please his pride, clattered as he moved. She heard, and knew the scent of heartbreak and pride, for she was a woman as well as a hunter. So she turned on him. He was weaponless and in love, so he did not fear her claws.

“She carved the pattern of his soul onto his skin. It was one of pride and heart’s blood. When she left him, he was keen-eyed, and long-armed, and broken on the sand.”

There was silence for a time as, in the dark desert of the sky, the Scorpion wheeled overhead.

“A good story,” Esu said, charmed out of his usual impishness. Perhaps it was the blood, Dajan thought. For a moment, he could catch the gleam from Esu’s hair in the moonlight before it returned to its boyish darkness. “Another story then.”

“I am empty of others.”

“Then I shall teach you.” The hyena grin, once more. “Once, there was a mound of skin and bones dyed red with the blood of a hunter.”

Dajan looked up sharply, but Esu continued in his singsong voice, his hands carving a space in the darkness between them. “And a duma came, a huntress blooded once by a man. Her claws were red in the light of the setting Sun, and she touched him. Touched him again. Where her claws met his skin, it was re-joined, stitched together once more until she lay atop him and he was whole.”

Dajan felt a flicker of fear within him. For a moment, he could see the shape of trees in the distance beyond the edges of the desert. Jagged as teeth against the stars.

But trees did not last. They could not last. The desert was too strong.

“She left him, of course, as is the way of mothers and lovers, and his necklace clattered as he tried to touch the fur of her coat. She was gone. The hunter rose from the sand and the blood and collected his spear, never looking back, for he had forgotten her, as is the way of sons and lovers. Still, for all his pride, each night he placed a necklace by the door of his tent and each night a woman reclaimed her heart until his throat was bare and he was simply a boy again.”

“If only it were so easy to change the past,” Dajan muttered.

“Perhaps it could be. With help. You live within Zamani, hunter.”

“This is not Zamani,” Dajan snapped. “I know it. My brother’s children, they still offer milk and honey to my memory. I have not been forgotten.”

“Once, they did,” Esu said. He became again the ancient traveler, his body flensed of its youth and promise. “But you have passed from Sasa. The now. Your brother’s children are gone. As are their children.”

Esu’s eyes were milky and half-blind, skin folded into thick creases when he squinted. Body bent and burdened. Dajan could read the passage of time in that transformation. Could see the years he himself had spent in the desert. When had he last tasted the gifts of the living? When had he last drunk in their memory of him? How long had he wandered the desert while his brother’s line fell to the sands?

“Why are you telling me this?” Dajan demanded. His hands clenched into fists. He did not want to think about such things.

“To open your eyes!” He paused. Spat again. “Fweh. You are careless with your questions.” He waved a hand in disgust. “For that answer, you must tell me another story.”

It was midday once more. The Moon had let the Sun chase her from the sky, dancing ahead, vanishing beneath the line of the horizon.

Dajan and Esu continued to walk the dunes, leaving a trail of footprints like the spots on Ghana’s long neck. Dajan knew these hills. Had travelled them ceaselessly as the Sun hunted the Moon. But could he be sure they were the same hills? Did his footprints show the path he had come or the path he still must tread?

The past mattered. It meant something. But the bowls had been empty for so long. The children’s bones licked clean by sand. Baked to dust by the sun. He could not remember the faces of his brother’s sons and daughters. None remembered his face. Perhaps none of it mattered anymore.

Yet a story was owed. The old laws still meant something. He would give the boy-god his due.

“Once, there was a beautiful woman named Mayasa,” Dajan began. “Her arms were dark as the coals of a fire burnt out, long and slender. Her hair was plaited and wrapped in a band of crimson cloth beaded with cowrie shells. When she walked, her movements were swift and sure. She was a princess of her tribe.”

They crested the top of a dune, and Dajan paused for a moment to survey the land. It stretched towards the horizon in an arc of mottled gold and brown. Empty. With a sigh, he took another step and led the way down the mound.

“Her mother,” Dajan continued, “broached the topic of marriage one evening as she knelt at the loom. Mayasa smiled obligingly and said: ‘There is a little while yet before I must find a husband.’ And her mother was satisfied and went away.

“The seasons passed, and Mayasa’s mother returned to her to speak. Again, Mayasa smiled and put aside the question, for she loved her freedom more than any man.

“Finally, during the season of the Sun, when the old men complain of water and the young ones lay quiet in the shade of the trees, her mother returned. This time, Mayasa could not put her off. ‘I shall marry he who catches Ubora, the King of the Antelopes,’ she said, and her mother was pleased. Such was a task fit a prince.”

Esu chuckled to himself as they walked over the sand. “Only a princess would bind her eye in gold.”

“Perhaps. But is the right of a woman to name her own price.”

“As you say.”

Dajan resumed his tale. “So each of the hunters came to ask Mayasa for her blessing, and she paused before each as she judged him. She said to them in turn: ‘Go forth and bring me Ubora.’ None ever returned with the King of the Antelopes.

“Finally, the youngest hunter came to her, saying, ‘I would have your blessing in my hunt, princess.’ She paused before this one longer than before the others, for he was handsomer than most, keen-eyed and long-armed. But she knew his heart, as is a woman’s way, and she knew that he did not love her.

“The King of the Antelopes was clever and fleet, but Mayasa was afraid. Even a King could stumble. This hunter would make an ill-fitting husband for her. He was too proud. Too full of disdain. There was no room in his heart for love. But what was there to do? She nodded once to the hunter and said: ‘Go forth and bring me Ubora.’

“She turned to leave, but the hunter spoke again. ‘I will, princess. But I would ask a gift of you.’ Mayasa was startled, for none of the others had dared to approach her thus, but she was a princess above all else, and she knew her duty. ‘What would you have of me?’ The hunter paused for a moment and Mayasa almost blushed at the way he stared at her. ‘The cloth from your hair.’

“Softly, Mayasa cursed, but she unwound the red scarf and let her hair fall in a dark cascade down her back. When the hunter left, Mayasa knew that she had been right to fear him. That night, she followed him from the city. Her unbound hair was a cloak of shadows that hid her from his eyes. He, in turn, tied the cloth around the head of his spear.

“After several days, he found the herd that followed Ubora. Approaching through the tall grass, he drew nearer. The King of the Antelopes scented the hunter, but when he searched the grasslands, all he could see was the head of the spear bound in the red scarf. He mistook it for the princess herself and was unafraid.

“Mayasa, seeing the danger her gift presented, slipped out of her skin in the way that all of her mother’s line could. When she was free of the rags of human flesh, she was a duma, sleek and deadly.

This scent Ubora knew, for it was the scent of wild death on the plains, and he ran. The spear that the hunter had thrown missed its mark, but the hunter did not care. He had seen Mayasa in the form of the duma, and he knew that she was the true prize.

“Weaponless, he approached her, thinking that he could tame her with his bare hands. But the love of a duma is reckless and wild and cuts deeper than a knife. She knew that, clever and handsome though he was, she would never run free if he caught her. So she caught him with her claws and her teeth, and she left him for dead on the plains.”

“Ah,” Esu whistled through his teeth. “That was well-told.”

“It will be well paid-for,” Dajan said.

“Double-tongued, as I am double-faced. I like you, hunter,” cackled Esu, throwing his hands into the air. “Perhaps I shall give you a gift. You speak like a woman.”

Dajan caught his arm and held him for a moment. His fingers dug into Esu’s sinewy flesh. “Tell me how I can return to Sasa.”

Shaking away the hunter’s grasp as if it were nothing, Esu replied, “Surely you know stories. It is not yet time.”

“Then what gift?”

“A story, of course. Words are the currency in Zamani, hunter. Which shall you hear? How the hen scratched away the continents of the world? How Tembo gained his mighty tusks?”

“I know those stories,” Dajan replied with an irritable wave of his hand. “Tell me a story about you.”

Esu preened for a moment at the request. “Of course, of course. Walk with me, hunter, and I shall tell you.”

The Moon still hung in the sky, casting a silvery light over the sands until they gleamed like the hair of a newlywed bride. There was not a hill here that Dajan had not climbed, not a grain that had not tickled his skin as he walked. Still, Esu seemed satisfied to simply wander as he talked, so Dajan shrugged and kept pace. He had the patience of a hunter, and he knew his prize was near.

“Once, there was a man as handsome as Ghana is tall and as wily as Ubora, King of the Antelopes,” Esu began, his hyena grin dividing his head like two halves of a split calabash fruit.

“Better to say as proud as Tembo the elephant,” Dajan snorted.

“Quiet, hunter.” Esu commanded, aiming a swat at Dajan’s head. “This man knew the secrets of the world and was a trickster at heart. During the Season of the Sweet Grain, he met a hunter in the desert.”

“I believe I know this story,” Dajan muttered.

“And the hunter was rude, but the trickster, who was patient as the wind, spoke with him a while. You see the hunter was no ordinary hunter. Of course not. The trickster never talked with ordinary men. The hunter was a spirit. He had been foolish and had lost his life for it. His brother’s sons offered honey and milk to his memory, but as is the way of mortals, they grew old, and their sons grew old, and their sons grew old until the honey became rare and milk was needed for the babes of the family. None remembered the foolish hunter. As is the way of such spirits, he passed into the desert. Into Zamani.”

“Stop!” Dajan ordered. “Do not mock me.”

Esu rolled his eyes. “Are you deaf? I do not lie. Besides, this is a story.”

With regal dignity, Esu began to speak once more. “So the trickster found the hunter in the desert and was well-pleased with his tales. Still, the hunter did not understand why the trickster had come to the desert. ‘Why are you here?’ he cried with all the impatience of a child. And the trickster answered, for he was kind as the honeybird who always aids mankind, ‘I am here for a trade.’ ‘I have nothing,’ the hunter replied, but the trickster was wily as Ubora, and he knew this was not true. ‘You have many gifts, hunter. I but require one—a red strip of cloth so I might bind up my hair.’”

“Be quiet!” Dajan pleaded. “I do not want to hear your story anymore!” And he clutched the spear closer to his side. Esu only clicked his tongue and grinned a wide grin, his ancient teeth gaping.

“Of course, the hunter was loath to part with the gift, for it had been dyed with his heart’s blood and would look foolish in the hair of an old man. ‘What would I gain in return for such a prize?’

“‘Why, I shall tell you the end of a story,’ the trickster replied. ‘All the tales I know end sadly,’ the hunter told him, and his face was dark because he could not see. ‘Bah!’ cried the trickster. ‘There is no sadness in Death. Death is a Woman, and sometimes taking is less sweet than being taken.’”

“That is no story,” Dajan grunted. “It is not true. Death is not a Woman. I know this!”

“You know nothing, hunter!”

And before Dajan could stop him, Esu pulled the scarf free from Dajan’s spear. He danced out of reach and tied it into his own hair.

“No!” Dajan cried. Something was breaking apart inside him. A pain lanced at his heart. The pain of claws and sharp teeth. He had not felt pain such as this for many years.

He advanced wildly on Esu. His eyes, a hunter’s eyes. They saw, keenly, as the hunter sees. His limbs were long and tireless. And the god? The god was skinny and old, his body bent like a grandfather. For a moment, only, Dajan was allowed to forget that this was no grandfather. This was no old man.

“Be quiet,” Esu commanded. His voice was sharp. Dangerous. Free of the sidling whispers and mocking grins. “It was won fairly.”

And in that moment of forgetting—that moment of bitter reprimand—Dajan felt himself begin to come undone. It was as if that scarf had bound him together for these long years. Set his shape in place.

“Please,” Dajan cried. “It is all I have of her! It is all the hold I have upon this world. There is no milk, no honey, to keep me in this place! Only her.”

“Foolish boy!” Esu’s voice rang out across the desert. His mouth was impossibly wide. He could have plucked the Moon from the heavens like a calabash fruit and ground it between his teeth. “Have you learned nothing? Listen! It is the knot that holds you fast. Would you stay?” He smacked Dajan on the side of the head. “Look!”

Dajan turned with a snarl to see.

And froze.

He knew the desert. He knew the feel of the sun baking on his back as he climbed the dunes. He knew the taste of dust on his tongue. He had counted every grain of sand. He had memorized the curve of the hills.

But, in the distance, he saw something he did not recognize: the rippling waves of the grasslands.

Esu clicked his tongue. “Ah,” he whispered with a satisfied sigh, “the savannah.”

“What?” Dajan asked. Heat could drive a man mad. He knew this. And there was a kind of madness in that image. The beautiful, shimmering waves of grass: soft as a woman’s hair.

But this was not madness. This was Sasa.

“Now the time is right, hunter. The crossroads. What will you choose?”

“What do you mean?”

“You would have another gift from me? You truly are a woman,” Esu said, his hyena grin wide as the arc of a spear. “You are the border between Sasa and Zamani. You carry the desert within you.”

“I may leave, then?” Dajan murmured in wonder. His eyes searched the landscape like a lover’s hands in the darkness. Long swells of tall grass rippled with the passage of the wind. Beyond the savannah he could make out the dark smudge of the jungle on the horizon. Sasa.

“Are you ready to walk through this gateway, hunter?” Esu asked, shaking his cowrie shell as if it were a child’s rattle.

“All gateways are women, are they not? What is her name?” Dajan answered.

The old man clicked his tongue again. Dajan didn’t think he would answer, but after a moment, Esu said: “Duma.”

Dajan clenched his spear in surprise. Surprise and something else. Desire. As the cowrie shell shook, he saw her on the plains—beautiful as the Sun at the edge of night.

“Go!” Esu hooted. “Make me a story!”

Dajan was running. He left his spear on the dunes, knowing that he must do this on his own. If he were to tame her, it would be with his hands. He let out a whoop of joy as his feet landed on the cool grass of the savannah. Then, as he disappeared into the sweet embrace of the grassland, he was silent once more. His body made no more than a whisper as moved, the stalks sliding around him like water around the prow of a coracle. It was infinitely sweet, the tickle of grass in his nostrils, the moonlight on his back, the breeze teasing the tips of his braids.

It was life.

It was home.

It was the hunt.

He was close now. The silver light lit up her coat in a soft copper sheen. He knew the mottled spots on her skin, knew them as he had known his own footprints in the desert. It was a part of him. Taking a breath, Dajan held his hands out before her, not to touch her this time—he was wiser than that now—but in a gesture of supplication. He saw the duma’s muscles tense.

There was a smile touching his lips as she pounced.

He was keen-eyed and long-armed, yes, as he had told the boy-god. That had not left him over the years. But in this place he was armed only with the wisdom of the desert. There was nothing between him and her claws.

She was a duma, a huntress in her own right. She was prey for no man.

And she tore through him easily.

Dajan cried out, stumbling in blood beneath the weight of her body.

Esu, watching from the distance, furrowed his brows. He mumbled words beneath his breath and continued to shake the cowrie shell.

“All men are crossroads,” he whispered in a singsong voice, “and all women are gateways.”

Out on the plains, Dajan died. The claws of the duma flayed the skin from his body. But there was a smile on his face.

He was wise.

The duma stood over him, claws and teeth red from the kill. She made a noise deep in her throat and began to nose through the still-warm remains of the hunter. Her claws swept through the rags of skin, searching, always searching. She saw a movement among the bloody strips and nudged the refuse away. Beneath, she saw the first glimmer of gold. Then an eye dark as desire. Gold and brown.

With a low growl she swiped away the last pieces like the hen scratching away at the earth to form the continents of the world. From the space she had cleared crawled the lean form of a cat. The duma knew the pattern of his skin, knew it from long ago. There was no pride this time. He smelt of the desert, the sharp scent of sand and the lonely wind.

The second duma rose and shook free of the remnants of his former life. He could feel a change within him, another path, another story.

Warily, he took a step towards her. She snarled and batted at his head with her paw. He hesitated, but the gesture was playful—coy.

He tilted his head slightly, keeping it low to the ground, and made an inquisitive noise.

“Shall we hunt?” he asked in the language of the duma.

“Our prey?” she growled in a voice as soft as the feather of a guinea fowl.

With a soft huff of breath he said, “Ubora, King of the Antelopes.”

Atop the hill Esu watched with a half-mocking grin as the two of them raced through the tall grass, little more than a blur of gold and brown. Absent-mindedly, he scratched at his crotch.

“Sly,” he mumbled, “sly as a woman’s eye.” He ran his hand through his stubbly black hair and carefully bound it up within the stretch of red cloth.

With that, his arms stretched out into the wings of a heron. In a moment, he was nothing more than another flash of silver in the night sky, an arrow shot from the bow of the Moon towards the fleeing light of his prey.

Read Comments on this Story (2 Comments)

Helen Marshall is an award-winning author, editor, and book historian. Her debut collection of short stories, Hair Side, Flesh Side, won the Sydney J. Bounds Award from the British Fantasy Society, and her second collection, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection and was shortlisted for the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award, the Aurora Award, and the Bram Stoker Award. She lives in Oxford, England.

Return to Issue #151