Of Mud I Built It

by Sylvia Hiven

The tree wasn't a very glamorous hiding place for a pair of Ashe twins. The tree had sprouted just south of a sickly watering hole, and the stench of cadavers rotting in the sun always blew in our direction. But it stood at the very edge of the tree line towards the savannah, far away from the village huts. You couldn't even see the straw roofs from beneath its vulgarly bent branches.

At the time, I knew it as a sanctuary for me and my brother—an escape from our destiny. In retrospect, I realized that it was the opposite: a place where I built us both a much crueler fate.

“We are not like the rest, Kamau,” I said. “You and I are special. You know that, don't you?”

“I know,” Kamau replied with eagerness. “Because of the power in our blood. Our Ashe.”

He lay sprawled next to me on the brittle grass, the sun-rays teasing their way through the leaves above and painting bronzed streaks across his dark skin. He looked like a jewel, burnished and smooth, with an expectant look in his eyes.

I saw my own face in his, twins as we were, yet my brother managed to be soft in all the places where I was rough, and round where I was square. Across his gentle face there flowed a constant innocence: one that would be vanquished the day Kamau found out about his true destiny. I loved him too much to allow that to come to pass. So I lied, stacking untruth upon untruth like mud bricks, until even I lost sight of what lay on the other side of that wall of pretense.

This day was no different.

“No, it is not just that we are chosen,” I said. “That only makes us different from the other children. I mean that we are different from all the other Ashe twins. They are just identical on the outside. But you and I were created in the same mold, born from the same womb, sharing the same Ashe—and the same God.”

Kamau hesitated. I was, after all, contradicting a truth that had guided our tribe since the dawn of our people. “But that's not possible, Zet,” he said. “One of us carries Shango in our blood, and the other Asase. Our destinies are meant to split; our Ashe is not the same.”

As we lay there beneath that tree, I made my face as stern as possible. “You must stop saying that.” I reached out for his hand, squeezing it into mine. “We are both born of the warrior. Don't you feel the power of our blood?”

He squeezed my hand in turn. “Yes,” he said. “I feel it.”

“When we are old enough for our blood to be tasted, the blood witness will feel that power, too,” I promised. “Neither you nor I are weaklings meant to follow Asase. We are leaders, and Shango runs in our veins. You will see.”

Another day, another brick—and like that, my wall of lies grew higher.

The first time we saw our blood witness was at the village well. She was surrounded by her five sisters, and in their midst she stood out like a panther amongst warthogs.

The other girls were honey-brown landscapes of budding womanhood: soft hills and gentle valleys rose and fell beneath their dresses. But Femi had a body of crags and canyons, of sharp elbows and bony knees, with hard eyes to match. There was a bizarre, poisonous beauty about her.

“That's Femi.” Kamau nudged me with his water jug. “Our witness.”

“Don't stare at her, Kamau,” I hissed.

My warning came too late, for Femi saw us looking at her. She smiled and it was neither shyly nor timidly, but with a wicked delight dancing around her mouth. I caught a flicker of the witness teeth, filed to fangs in the upper row of her teeth. They flashed, shredding the sunlight, and the sight of it made my heart thump like a drum.

The legends spoke that the witness was part human, part animal, given senses so sharp she would grow up to smell, taste and feel the truth of others from the blood in their veins. The notion of this girl biting into my flesh, tasting my blood and knowing my very soul, sent rivulets of excitement rushing along my spine.

“I will speak to her,” I said, making a move towards the group of girls.

“Zet, you mustn't,” Kamau said with concern, putting his hand on my arm in protest.

“Why mustn't I?”

I gave him my most flinty glare. Usually that gaze would cut Kamau into submission, but this time he did not yield.

“Not until the ceremony: it is forbidden. It will cloud her taste.” He reined his voice in to a whisper. “If we are going to break the divine laws and both claim that Shango runs in our veins, we must obey all the other rules or people will say we became corrupted somehow. Or that we corrupted our witness. We cannot be near her until the blood witnessing.”

It was a remarkably passionate speech to come from him. My lies had seduced him well. But now, seeing the slow burn of hope in his eyes flare up to a determined bonfire of want, I felt regret over my deception.

After all, Femi was not only the judge of our Ashe. She was also the future bride of Shango's chosen hero. The warrior would fight with the clan in the wars against the Sesen tribe, join the chief council—and wed this marvelous creature. And while the first two honors always appealed to the adventurous boy in me, the latter now tempted the man I was becoming.

Femi. Her jagged eyes, her skin smooth and slick like the black mud hills after a hard rain. I had only seen her for less than twenty heartbeats, but her sharp face had already etched itself into my mind—and into my heart. I wanted her.

Kamau was spellbound next to me, staring at the group of girls as well. His eyes sparkled. He had seen the same thing—a promise of a consort, otherworldlier than any other. Jealousy stung me like a scorpion.

My wall, so solidly stacked and mortared, trembled for the first time that day.

Kamau and I rarely interacted with the villagers. Others of our age regarded us with reservation, for only one of us would be a hero: a man worth knowing. The other would become nothing more than a goat herder, living in isolation on the plains; a pitiful man, performing petty rituals in the wet mud. I had to admit that the other younglings were wise to reserve their judgment until the tasting when they would know which one of us would be worthy of their respect, and which one could be kicked and laughed at.

Before now, I had not much cared that we were so isolated. I would rather sit in peace beneath that tree of ours. Other days, when Kamau was nowhere to be found, I would go wandering about the hills to the south of the village, dreaming of the day when I would cross the river beyond in battle garb. The Sesen tribe, equal to ours in numbers but far too ambitious for their own good, had made several attempts at conquering our lands. Each time they tried, our ancestors had fought them back; always, Shango's chosen had helped achieve victory. I knew that when that day came I would need the other, lesser warriors of our clan to help me. But until then, I sought no friendship.

Except now, there was someone whom I wished to know. One most wicked and alluring, with eyes like black onyx.

Kamau sensed this change in me.

“Do you ever feel alone, Zet?” he asked one day as we sat beneath the tree, watching the sun set the hills on fire. “Do you not wish you had somebody except your fool of a brother to keep you company?”

I ached at his question. How could I admit that I had finally seen the value in the prize I was going to enjoy—the prize that Kamau would never know? While I would marry the finest woman, learn the art of war and fight alongside the bravest of men, he would be fortunate to find a girl willing to even consider him. A life in a lonesome hut was not a fate many women sought, no matter the gentle ways of the man with whom she dwelled there.

“You are not a fool,” I said in a harsh tone. “And I don't need anybody else.”

I hoped my tone would end the conversation, but Kamau was too concerned with what he was trying to say to see that I did not want to hear it. “Well, there is someone I would like to know,” he said in a low voice. “Someone very special.”

He looked at me with shy triumph, awaiting my questions. After all, a loving brother ought to pounce at this revelation: he would tear at it like a tiger clawing a gazelle. I should demand to know more.

But I couldn't bring myself to ask him anything. Cold resentment slithered up my spine and curled around my heart like a snake. Was he speaking of Femi? Had my lies been so convincing, that he now had realized what she could become to him? This was one time when I did not want to see myself or my thoughts mirrored in him.

“Were you not the one who told me that those thoughts are useless until after the tasting?” I asked moodily. “Speak not of such things.”

My words stripped away the eagerness on his face, and it was replaced with injured bewilderment.

“Yes, I suppose you are right,” he mumbled, lowering his head.

Heartbeats passed. When he spoke again, he did so cheerfully.

“The ceremony is only a few moons away, Zet,” he said. “Then we can speak of it.”

He fell silent after that, but his words bounced in my head in painful echoes. I doubted there would be much to say after Femi had made her judgment. In fact, I suspected that when the tasting was over, and Kamau saw what I had been hiding from him all these years, he would feel too betrayed to ever speak to me again.

From what we had been told, the blood witnessing was usually proceeded by much activity. There should have been the distressed baahing from goats taken to slaughter. Hens should have fluttered about the huts, seeking hiding places from hands eager to pluck them. The dirt ground at the village square should have been swept clean to prepare for the stomping feet of ceremonial dance. And speculation about the tasting judgment ought to have buzzed around the village like excited swarms of bees.

But instead, a veil of silent expectation lay over the village. The preparations went on, but somberly so, overshadowed by the threat of the Sesen tribe. A few Sesen scouts had been seen over the southern hills: five men on horseback. Our father told us that they had been painted in their clan's colors, and their spears adorned with lion teeth and eagle feathers. It was a sure sign of aggression.

“They approached some of the herders, accusing them of trespassing on Sesen lands,” our father said.

“One man was speared down. It is just a matter of time before the clan chief will be forced to act. Soon, the warriors will be dispatched.”

He told us this on the eve before the blood witnessing. The three of us were gathered in our hut, which was cooling down from the oppressing afternoon heat. Our father sat on the small bench he used to share with our mother. She had passed on many years ago but her sewing basket still sat on the edge of the bench, her needles threaded as if she was to return any moment. Father used to look at them with a melancholy expression, but tonight, he was much too distressed to see it.

“There will be a battle?” Kamau asked. “How soon?”

“Shango's chosen will begin his training immediately after the witnessing,” father said. “He may not have much time to learn the skills before he will need to use them. Whoever is judged to carry Shango's Ashe must be ready for his calling.”

As he spoke, his eyes darted around the room restlessly. He refused to look at me. It was as if my face was fire, and his gaze a hyena that would not get close. I knew he was scared for me.

Until that moment, I had been jittery with anticipation for several moons. I had dreamed almost every night; feverish dreams of the ceremony, of stepping up to Femi and offering her my flesh. Excited, yearning dreams of her lips upon my hand during the tasting, and on all my other parts afterward. But now, as I lay on my bedroll, listening to Kamau's soft breaths in the dark, I thought on what would come after.

I would train with the warriors. I would learn how to use the bow, the club and the spear. I would learn how to take a man's life, and protect the lives of those I loved. I would become a hero.

And with Shango in my veins, whispering his strength into my limbs, I would be perfect.

When we arrived at the central square the next evening, it was a place transformed.

It was no longer a spot commonplacedly sunny, where lazy chickens laid eggs in the afternoon sun and children's laughter bounced through the dust. It was a place of adulthood--of destiny. Fire pits were lit, and from them raging flames rose like glowing spirits from the underworld. The dancers, clad in only loincloths and bead necklaces, stomped the ground so hard, it trembled beneath our bare feet.

I looked at Kamau, expecting to see trepidation in his face. Yet his features were possessed by some other emotion—desire and hope. His brown eyes looked amber in the light of the fire, and they scanned the crowd.

I knew all too well for whom he was looking.

She stood in the center of the square. Her white kaftan was adorned with sweet water pearls from the river and feathers so darkly dyed they looked black in the light from the fire.

She stepped up to Kamau first. My heart twisted with jealousy as she took his hand in hers. I watched her with a thumping heart as she turned his palm upwards, and then crushed her mouth upon his hand as if it was a soft grapefruit. Kamau winced. A thin trail of blood emerged from her lips. The crowd around us hushed.

Femi kept her eyes closed for some heartbeats. She released Kamau's hand and took a step back, her face betraying no reaction. Whatever Kamau's blood had whispered to her, she was not revealing.

When she came towards me, I didn't wait for her to take my hand—I offered it to her. An amused flicker flashed in her eyes. She sank her teeth into me. I sighed and closed my eyes, enjoying the pain of her harsh kiss.

She released me and a frown folded across her obsidian forehead. She opened her mouth to speak, and her words struck me like a cobra.

“Dirty,” she hissed. “Dirty blood. You are of Asase, Zet.”

I was sleeping when Kamau returned to the hut.

I turned over, squinting at my brother in the dawn light. He stopped, looking at me with guilty eyes, hastily shoving his bow and spear into a dark corner of the hut.

“I am sorry, I did not mean to wake you,” he said.

I sat up, rubbing my eyes. “The training lasted all night?”

“Yes.” He said it apologetically, his eyes downcast toward the ground. “Go back to sleep, Zet.”

I watched him as he prepared his bedroll for a few hours of rest before he would be called up again to return to the fields for more combat practice. I clenched my fists where I lay. My mind could not help but return to the eve of the witnessing.

Everything about that night had been wrong: everything from the contempt in Femi's eyes as she called me out as Asase's chosen, to my father's bewildered expression, to the feeling of the ground disappearing beneath my feet. There had been a muffled cry of despair from the onlookers, its source a pudgy face belonging to a girl I did not know. She had fought her way out of the crowd, and Kamau's gaze had followed her, but before he could pursue her, the cheering villagers had swept him up in their excitement, hailing him for his Shango blood.

Kamau had started his training the very next day, with great urgency, for the Sesen tribe still advanced.

And I... I had been forgotten.

There I sat in our hut, waiting for spring when the weather would clear up so that I could move out on the savannah. Asase's chosen was meant to dwell there, casting bones into the dirt, conjuring rain when needed and praying for the crops to be rich and for the hunts to be successful. The idea disgusted me.

And all the while, my brother—meek, gentle Kamau—was expected to take charge of the warriors. He, whose voice barely could make itself heard over the cicadas, was supposed to be a hero.

I had kept my thoughts to myself for almost a full moon. But now, seeing that spear and bow in the corner—weapons that should belong to me—I could no longer contain my curiosity.

“Kamau,” I said, turning over on my bedroll and looking at my brother. “Are you doing well, learning the skills of the warrior?”

“I am not sure yet.” He held out his arms. I could see they were riddled with dark bruises. “The Bwana is not showing me any mercy just because I am the newest.”

“He shouldn't, should he? You ought to be learning faster than anybody. Shango is supposed to be giving you strength and stamina beyond any other man.”

“Yes. But Zet...” Kamau looked miserable. “I don't think he is. The others keep beating me in every exercise. They laugh at me behind my back. I have not even hit the edge of the targets with my arrows. I know what you've been trying to tell me all these years, but I am no fool. Only one Ashe twin can be born of Shango. And it's not me. I am no fighter.” His eyes looked pained. “I know the life of Asase's chosen isn't glamorous. It's simple and poor and lonesome. But I think that life is meant for me. And Themba is not opposed to it.”


“I tried to tell you moons ago,” he sighed. “Do you remember that day at the well?”

“When we saw Femi?”

He shrugged. “You may have seen Femi, but all I saw was Themba. Her sister.”

I remembered that round face in the crowd during the witnessing ceremony: the one that had scrunched up in grief as Femi had spoken our fates. And I remember Kamau's inconsolable expression. Then, I had thought that his disappointment had been over me being left behind, the future I wanted unattainable and lost. Now I realized it had been because he had lost what he had wanted most, too.

“How sad is it, brother, that neither of us will have what we want,” Kamau said. “You want Femi, and you want the glory of Shango. I want a plain girl, and a plain life. Destiny is chasing us into different directions, and we cannot escape it.”

The idea blazed into me like a lightning bolt. I fastened my gaze upon my brother. “True,” I spoke.

“But perhaps we can switch the bait.”

Putting on the charade that Kamau was me and I was him was as simple an idea as it was brilliant.

We were unknown to most of the people around us, and nobody knew us well enough to tell us apart. The only person we had to worry about was our father. We would not be able to fool him, we both knew, and hence we decided that we would not trade places until the day of the warrior's wedding to the witness. That day also coincided with the official arrival of spring when Asase's chosen was to move to his remote hut on the savannah. On that day, I would become Kamau and he would become Zet.

The one hurdle in our plan was the battle training. The Sesen tribe made advances every day. Our scouts had reported several dozen men on the southern edge of the plains just below the river. It would not be long before they were at our doorstep, and all warriors needed to be ready.

I was desperate to learn the skills of a fighter. I knew I had to be there on the front lines when we were attacked, protecting our lands and driving the enemy away. So Kamau continued his training and brought back what he had learned. Hidden away from everyone else beneath that tree of ours, he relayed his lessons to me late into the nights.

He was not skilled in how to exercise his knowledge, but I did not need much instruction before I excelled in the art of battle. Every exercise that Kamau was taught and then struggled to execute, I learned in an instant and mastered within a few days. The spear lay comfortably in my hand, and the arrows released from my bow flew where I willed them. No matter what my blood had spoken to Femi, I knew the truth: I was Shango's chosen, and nobody was a better warrior than I.

When the evening came when the warrior was to wed his witness, I felt no guilt over donning the groom's garb in Kamau's place.

I hadn't thought it possible that I would have forgotten how Femi affected me, but as she stepped into the small temple hut, my heart leaped with elation. Before that night, I remembered her face as something a storyteller would take hours upon hours to praise, but now that I saw her again no words existed that could do her justice. Just one look from her onyx eyes was enough to make parts of me twist in painful delight.

The wedding was quick: a few mumbled words by the priest, the crushing of some savannah lilies followed by our spoken consent, and it was all over. When we emerged from the hut, she was mine.

Outside, we were met with a grim sight.

The village warriors were marching towards the south. The Bwana, a tall imposing man with shoulders as broad as an ox and somberness clinging to his features, walked in the front of the group. When they walked by us on the dirt path, their spears clinking and war paint drying in patches on their faces, he locked his gaze onto me.

“Sesen warriors are approaching the river,” he said. “We are moving to meet them, Kamau.”

My heart, which had fluttered like a caged bird in my chest at the prospect of my wedding night, now turned to rock. I was to leave my new bride before I even had a chance to truly make her mine?

Femi tugged at my arm, apparently as disappointed as I. “Kamau, no,” she said. “You must give me this one night with you before you leave me for the glory of the battlefield, please.”

Before I could answer, the Bwana took pity on us. “We will not fight until dawn,” he said. “We will leave you a horse, but I expect you to join us by the hills toward the river by sunrise.” He glanced at Femi. “Enjoy your groom tonight, girl, for tomorrow you may very well be a widow.”

Perhaps his words resonated with my new bride, for as soon as we stepped into our wedding hut, I felt the air become thick with Femi's abandon.

“Kamau,” she said, stepping close to me. “I have something to confess.”

She put her hands on my bare chest, and the sensation of her skin against mine overwhelmed me. I could not answer her, but merely nodded for her to speak.

“I never wanted to be a witness,” she continued, sliding her hand along my skin. “I thought it was a curse. Each day that my mother filed my teeth I wept, cursing my misfortune. But ever since I tasted your blood—that sweet, strong blood, like red gold flowing into my mouth—I have been waiting for this night. You lit a fire in me, Kamau. I can't wait to taste more of it—to taste all of you.”

She dipped her hands beneath my loincloth. My reaction to her touch was immediate. Impishly she smirked and squirmed out of her dress. She let me caress her nakedness with lusty eyes for a few heartbeats before taking my hands and pulling me on top of her on the bedroll.

She was a predatory lover, that was clear: she wrapped her arms and legs around me like black snakes and demanded deep kisses with her hard mouth. But despite her eagerness, she would not let me have her until I made her a promise.

”You will come back after the battle, won't you, Kamau?” she breathed into my ear. “Promise me?”

“Yes, I promise,” I grunted with frustration, trying to navigate her sprawling limbs.

“Good.” She relaxed, and that allowed me to take what I wanted.

Jagged and hard on the outside, she was, but that just made her hidden softness more intoxicating. I was not aware of much, only the darkness and the pleasure, and it was over all too fast. When I collapsed upon her, I felt Femi tense beneath me.

Then came her scream.

She punched, kicked and scratched me like an animal fighting for its life. “Filthy!” she howled, clawing her way out from beneath me.

“Femi, what is wrong?”

“You are not Kamau! You are Zet!”

She backed away from me, grasping her discarded dress and covering herself with it. “You have soiled my insides with your filthy seed, and it is as dirty as your blood!”

Her words hurt more than any kicks or punches. It immediately sobered me out of the haze of our clumsy lovemaking. I shot out of the bed, grabbing her by the wrist and pushed her against the wall of the hut.

“You are wrong,” I said with gritted teeth. “My blood is pure, for Shango runs through it.”

She struggled against my grip. When she could not escape me, she instead bit down upon my hand, shredding through my skin and flesh. When she had her fill, she released me and spat my own blood into my face.

“Still filthy,” she repeated triumphantly.

“That is not true. I am a greater warrior than anybody!”

“I am going to tell the chiefs,” Femi declared, fury spewing from her eyes like lava from a volcano. “Go cry over your pitiful destiny on the dirty plains where you belong, Zet.”

“I will go,” I said defiantly, tears burning my eyes as I wiped the blood and saliva off my face. “And when I come back victorious, Femi, you will beg me for forgiveness.”

It was raining, and the dirty ground was turning to sloppy mud, but I did not care to be cautious. I drove the horse furiously across the plains towards the southern hills where I knew the other fighters lay in wait for the enemy tribe. Like an earthquake, Femi's words had shattered every remaining brick in my wall, and now I was desperately trying to put the crumbing pieces back together.

I was going to show her. I was going to strike down the Sesen tribe and lead our men into victory. Perhaps I would even take them further south, to the Sesen villages and burn them in her name, proving my worth. She would not be able to deny me then.

But when I arrived at the crest of the southern hills, the battle had started without me.

The rain drizzled down upon hundreds of fighters in the valley below. From the hill, I could hear the distant sounds of battle: the clacking of spear against spear and club against club, pierced occasionally by pained cries as someone was struck down and angered bellows as his comrades rallied in retaliation.

The Bwana stood alone on the hill, watching. I rode my horse to his side, and he looked up at me with relief.

“Sesen came before dawn, Kamau,” he said. “I had to send in our men to meet them or they would have overrun the village. But we are losing. You must conjure your Ashe and Shango will aid us.”

I hesitated, looking down into the rain-battered valley. “What must I do?” I asked.

“What sort of question is that?” The Bwana asked angrily. “This is your fight, and your destiny! Ride!”

He smacked my horse hard on its rear, and it exploded towards the battle. I clenched my spear tightly, trying to remember all the maneuvers that my brother had taught me.

When I approached, warriors swirled around each other on the ground like furious dancers. As I got closer, my horse galloped over droves of fallen men, their flesh pierced by arrows and spears or their limbs crushed by clubs. The war paint upon their faces was smudged into distorted death masks by blood and rain.

Some fallen were Sesen warriors. But many were Walta. And the remaining members of my tribe were growing tired and afraid.

The Bwana was right. We were losing.

It was time, I knew, for me to conjure Shango and become what I was meant to be. I had the skills to be a hero, and I was ready. All I needed now was the courage. I turned my face to the weeping sky and waited for Shango to show me a sign, to fill me with his divine strength and surge my body into motion.

But nothing happened. My blood did not turn to red gold. I remained only a wet, angry boy in the rain.

For many heartbeats I sat so upon my horse and waited for my divine gifts, until finally a familiar voice cut through my exasperation.


Kamau was there next to me on a frothing, exhausted horse.

“Kamau,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

“Femi,” he said simply. “She told the clan chiefs. They told me that I had to ride here and lead the fight. They said our tribe's future depends on me.”

“And you came?” I asked in disbelief.

He looked toward the battle. More of our comrades were falling. “I had to, Zet,” he spoke. “I do not know what the Gods intended for us, but even if I am just meant to be a goat herder, I will not stand by while my kin is slaughtered.” He looked at the spear in my hand. “You have the skills to be a great fighter, no matter what is in your blood. You can help them too, Zet. Will you fight with me?”

I swallowed. I looked at the battlefield again, then I shook my head and handed him the spear.

“I am sorry. I can't. Shango is cross with me, and he refuses to help me. Without him, I am useless; perhaps even as useless as you.”

Kamau looked at me without trying to conceal his disappointment. He took the spear out of my hand, and picked up his reins, readying his horse. “I may be useless, but I am not a coward,” he said. “If you will not come, I shall ride alone.”

“Brother, no,” My throat was thick with fear. “Do not go into a battle you know you cannot win, it is madness!”

Kamau did not answer. Instead he thrust his heels into the sides of his horse, and charged off towards the battle, his spear raised into the air.

All I could do was watch.

Had Kamau not arrived to help, the clash would have been over much sooner. Despite his clumsy hands and uneven skills, he managed to cut down many Sesen warriors before they could hurt his brothers, evening out the numbers considerably. By the time that the drizzle had turned to an angry downpour, at least a dozen Sesen fighters had met their end at the courtesy of my brother's spear.

There was a loud whistling noise from the south. It was the sound of retreat. Sesen was giving up. It seemed Shango had arrived to aid our tribe, after all.

The handful of Walta fighters that were still alive rose their weapons into the air, shouting out their victory. My brother joined in their song, he too shaking his spear towards the sky.

Then one last Sesen arrow zinged through the rain.

I don't remember riding into the hushed battlefield, or how long I cradled Kamau's body in my arms in the wet dirt. All I remember was my sweet brother's face, and how it stilled as his life flowed from him in bright rivulets from his wound. I did not need to taste that blood to know that it was the blood of Shango.

The wall I had built hadn't been for Kamau. The one hiding from the truth was I.

And what was I but a dirty creature, crying over my pitiful destiny in the mud.