by Claude Lalumière
“Njàbò” first appeared in On Spec, vol. 15, no. 3 (Fall 2003) and was republished in Kenoma, December 2004.
Njàbò, my only child, my daughter, walks with me. She is as old as the forest, while I was born but three and a half decades ago. Our ears prick up at the sound of drums. We scan the sky and spot a column of smoke to the northwest. We run toward it. The ground trembles under our feet.
The settlement is ringed by rotting carcasses. Their faces are mutilated, but the meat is left uneaten. These are the bodies of our people.
I weep, but Njàbò is past tears. She sheds her calf body. Njàbò the great, the wise, the ancient thunders with anger; her flapping ears rouse the wind.
Njàbò charges the human settlement, trumpeting her fury. Everywhere there is ivory, carved into jewellery and other trinkets, evidence of the mutilation of our people. She squeezes the life out of the humans and pounds them on the ground. The humans and their houses are crushed beneath the powerful feet of the giant Njàbò. She kicks down the fireplaces and tramples the ashes. She screams her triumph.
Njàbò’s shouts go on for hours. Our scattered tribe gathers from around the world to the site of Njàbò’s victory.
Throughout all of this I have been weeping, from pride and awe at Njàbò’s beauty, from horror at the deaths of both elephants and humans, from relief, from grief, from sadness and loneliness at my child’s independence. And, like too many nights of the past eight years, I wake, quietly weeping, from this dream that is always the same.
Waters is sitting on Cleo’s chest, nuzzling her nose, purring. Cleo’s cheeks are crusty from dried tears. She guesses that she’s been awake for two hours or so. She’s been lying on her back — motionless, eyes wide open — trying to forget the dream and the emotions it brings. The skylight above the bed reveals that dawn is breaking. She should get up, get started.
She stretches. It sends Waters leaping from her chest and out through the beaded curtain in the doorway. Cleo slides out of bed, two king-size futons laid side-by-side on the floor. She looks at her lovers in the diffused early-morning light: a domestic ritual that marks the beginning of her day.
Tall, graceful, long-legged Tamara, with her baby-pink skin, rosebud breasts, and long hair dyed in strands of different colours, has kicked off the sheet, lying on her back.
The hard curve of West’s shoulder peeks out from under the sheet he holds firmly under his armpit.
Assaad is sleeping on his stomach, his face buried in his pillow, his arm now stretched out over Cleo’s pillow, his perfectly manicured feet sticking out from the bed, as always.
And Patrice — gorgeous, broad-shouldered Patrice — isn’t back from work yet.
Patrice comes home from the night shift at The Small Easy to find Cleo yawning over the kitchen table, the night’s tears not yet washed away. He crouches and hugs her from behind.
“You look so tired, baby.” Cleo can hear the smile in his quiet voice, the smile she’s always found so irresistible.
She turns and rubs her face against his chest. “I didn’t sleep well last night.”
Patrice kisses her on the forehead. “Then go back to bed. Let me make breakfast.” Again, that smile. She feels herself melting, almost going to sleep in his arms.
“But,” she says, yawning, “you’ve been cooking all night at the café. You should rest.”
He laughs and pats her butt. “I’ll be alright, Cleo. Allow me the pleasure of taking care of you, okay?”
She thinks, Can you make my dream go away? But she says nothing. She squeezes his hand, forces a smile, and leaves the kitchen.
For a few seconds, Cleo is confused, does not know where she is. Has she been sleeping? And then she remembers. This is the girls’ bedroom, the girls’ bed. The curtains are drawn, the door is ajar. What time is it?
She’d quietly snuck into the girls’ room after Patrice had come home, careful not to wake them up. She’d crawled in between them and was calmed by their sweet, eight-year-old smells. She had only meant to lie down until Patrice called breakfast. Where were the girls now?
Shouldn’t Cleo be smelling tea, pancakes, eggs, toast? Hearing the chaotic banter of the breakfast table?
The kitchen is deserted and wiped clean. Indefatigable Patrice, again. No-one leaves a kitchen as spotless as he does. She looks at the clock: it’s nearly half past noon. She can’t remember the last time she slept in. Last night, the dream was more vivid than usual; it drained her.
Her mouth feels dry. She gets orange juice from the fridge and gulps it down. She wanders from room to room. She stops in the bathroom to splash her face.
The quiet is strange. She usually spends the morning and early afternoon tutoring the girls. West must be at the university, Assaad at The Smoke Shop. Patrice, she notices, is sleeping. Waters is curled up on the pillow next to his head. Where are the girls? And then she remembers: Tamara is back. She must have taken them out somewhere.
Tamara has just two days ago returned from a six-month trip to Antarctica. She brought back photographs she’d taken of strange vegetation, species that paleobiologists claim have not grown for millions of years.
Cleo ends her tour of the house with Tamara’s office and is startled to see her sitting at her computer, fiddling with the photos from her trip. “Tam?”
“Clee, love, come.” Tamara, naked as she almost always is around the house, waves her over. Cleo is enchanted by her beauty, more so all the time. Cleo missed her while she was away.
Cleo settles in Tamara’s lap. Tamara is so tall that Cleo’s head only reaches up to her neck. Tamara’s poised nudity makes Cleo feel frumpy and unattractive, especially now that she notices the rumpled state of her own clothes, slept-in all morning. The feeling evaporates as Tamara squeezes her, digging her nose into Cleo’s neck, breathing her in. “I haven’t been back long enough to stop missing you, Clee. There were no other women on the expedition.” Tamara pulls off Cleo’s T-shirt, cups her sagging breasts. As always, Cleo is fascinated by the chiaroscuro of the soft pink of Tamara’s skin against her own dark brown. “They were like little boys, nervous at having their clubhouse invaded by a female, at having their secret handshakes revealed, protective of their toys.”
“Tam … Where are the girls?” How could Cleo have thought that Tamara had taken the girls out? Of all of them, Tamara was the least interested in the girls. She let them crawl all over her when they felt like it and was unfalteringly affectionate with them, but she never set aside time for them. She was vaguely uneasy with the idea of children.
“West took them to school. At breakfast, he talked about his lecture, to warm up. His class today is about the symbolic use of animals in politics. One of his case studies is about African elephants. You should have seen Njàbò! She got very excited and asked him tons of questions. She wanted to go hear West at school, and he thought it would be a treat for both of them. Especially seeing as how you seemed to need the sleep.”
“I can’t believe Sonya would be interested in that…”
Tamara runs her fingers through Cleo’s hair and says, “Doesn’t Sonya always do what Njàbò wants? Sometimes I think all of us are always doing what Njàbò wants. She’ll grow into a leader, that one. She’ll trample anyone in her path.”
Cleo is momentarily reminded of her dream, but she makes an effort to push it away. She jokes, “Wanna play hooky and go out for lunch? At The Small Easy?”
Eight years ago, Cleo gave birth to Njàbò. Most people thought that the girl looked like Patrice, especially because of her dark skin — like Patrice’s, darker than Cleo’s — but she could just as easily have been fathered by West or Assaad. The five of them had agreed not to do any tests to find out.
Assaad was Sonya’s biological father and her legal guardian. She’d been the daughter of their friends Karin and Pauline. Both women had died in a car accident the day after Njàbò was born. Sonya was three months older than Njàbò.
A few days later, a grey-brown cat jumped through the kitchen window while Patrice was preparing breakfast. The cat drank water from a dirty bowl in the sink, and then refused to leave. The family adopted him and called him Waters.
At The Small Easy, while waiting for their order, Tamara goes to the washroom. A few seconds after she gets up, a man wearing a denim jacket materializes in her seat. One moment the seat is empty; the next, the man is there. Cleo is seized with a paralyzing fear. The man is short, almost like a child, but his face is that of an old man. His wrinkled skin is a washed-out greyish brown. He grabs both her hands in his. She feels his fingers, like vises, almost crushing the bones of her hands. “Do not fear your dreams. Do not fear Njàbò. You, too, are one of us, daughter. Believe in Njàbò. Follow her.” He vanishes as inexplicably as he appeared. Still numb with fear, all Cleo can focus on is how the old man hadn’t spoken in English, but in what she assumes must have been an African language. How had she understood him?
Tamara returns. Cleo says nothing about the old man.
When Cleo and Tamara come back from lunch, the girls are still out with West. There’s a message on the voicemail. He’s taking them out downtown; there’s a new Brazilian restaurant he’s curious about, and then they’ll go the Museum of Civilizations. He says he’ll pose in front of the paintings and sculptures and have the girls try to figure out his ancestry. His favourite joke.
When asked about his roots, West never gives the same answer. A mix of Cree and Russian? Hawaiian and Korean? Tibetan and Lebanese? He looks vaguely Asian, but his features don’t conform to any specific group. He loves to confuse people, to meddle with their expectations. His odd wit has always charmed Cleo.
Thinking of his easy silliness helps take the edge off her strange encounter at The Small Easy. Cleo takes this opportunity to give herself the day off from mothering and housekeeping.
She goes down to her sanctum. In the basement of their house, she’s set up a studio. There’s a small window high up on the wall, but she keeps it covered, lets no natural light in. She burns scented candles and incense. She’s comfortable painting only in the dim, flickering light, breathing in a rich blend of odours. Full, harsh light makes her feel exposed. The dim candlelight, the smoke, and the smells all contribute to a sense of being enveloped, of being in a cocoon, a womb, in a world where only she and her imagination exist. Sometimes, like today, she smokes a pipeful of hash, not only to relax but also to enrich the room’s aroma. Today, she needs to relax.
Had she hallucinated that man in the restaurant? She can still remember the feel of his rough hands against her smooth skin. His smell: like damp soil. How could he know about her secret dream?
She holds the smoke in her lungs as long as she can before blowing it out. She wants the hash to wash out her fears and anxieties. She wants to paint.
The hash is strong. She feels its effects within a few seconds, a soothing combination of numbness, purpose, and timelessness. She loses herself in the canvas.
She emerges from her drugged creative trance. Hours later? Minutes? It is darker: only a handful of candles are still burning.
She goes to the sink and splashes her face with water. She forms a cup with her hands and drinks from it.
She lights a few fresh candles and returns to the canvas. She finds that she has painted a scene from her dream, one of the most violent moments. She had never before let herself depict such brutality. The giant elephant, who, in her dreams, is somehow her daughter Njàbò, is trampling humans beneath her enormous feet. She is throwing a mangled man in the air with her trunk. Cleo notices that she has painted words in the background, including “NJÀBÒ” — but also other strange words that she has never heard of before, such as “MÒKÌLÀ” and “MOKIDWA.”
“Why are you afraid of the dream?” Cleo is startled by this intrusion.
Cleo turns, but her daughter doesn’t wait to hear the answer. Cleo hears her rush up the stairs and shut the door. Does she know that Cleo has no answer? Cleo isn’t surprised that Njàbò knows about her recurring dream. She’s scared, and what scares her most, somehow, is that lack of surprise.
It was Patrice who had known what “Njàbò” meant, but Cleo who named the baby. How had it come to her?
After the midwife had left, the whole family had slipped into bed with Cleo and the new baby. Cleo had immediately fallen asleep, exhausted from the long labour. She had slept deeply, had not remembered any dreams, but had woken knowing the baby’s name. “I think I want to call her Njàbò,” it was an odd-sounding word that meant nothing to her, “but I don’t know why.”
Patrice, who had been devastated by the elephant tragedy and had read many books to assuage his grief, recognized it. The last elephant, a female African forest elephant on a reserve in the Congo, had died nearly a year before Njàbò’s birth. Poaching, loss of habitat due to increasing human encroachment, spiteful slaughters in backlash against conservationists, and disease had finally taken their toll. All efforts at cloning had failed and were still failing.
“I know!” Patrice had said. “Njàbò … Njàbò is a mythical creature from Africa: the mother of all elephants. A giant with enormous tusks who appears whenever the elephants need a strong leader. All elephants gather around her when she calls. It’s a beautiful name. A strong name for our strong girl. I like it.” Everyone had agreed. Cleo had pushed aside the question of how the name had come to her. It was one of those unsolvable riddles best left alone.
Now, looking at the name on the canvas, she is more convinced than ever that she had never heard or seen the name before it mysteriously came to her eight years ago.
The dream now plagues Cleo nightly. She is always tired, never getting enough sleep, never fully rested.
She avoids Njàbò. She has begged off mothering. Tamara, Patrice, West, and Assaad now share the task. Cleo, after all, has taken on the bulk of that work for the past eight years, devoted her time and life to raising Njàbò and Sonya, to taking care of the house while the four of them pursued their careers. There had been that book with Tamara, five years ago, when the girls were three years old. The paintings, the shows, the tours. Of course, they say to Cleo, she should explore that aspect of her life again, let someone else take care of the house, the girls.
Tonight, the house is quiet. The whole family has gone for a walk in the park. It rained all day, and finally the cloud cover broke to give way to a warm evening. Cleo had agreed to go, but begged off at the last minute. Assaad, especially, insisted that she come along, to spend time with the family. But in the end she’d stayed alone in the house. Well, not quite alone.
Waters follows her as she walks into the living room. She takes down a big art book from a shelf built into the wall. Cleo sits on the floor; Waters sits in front of her, purring and rubbing his head on her knee. She opens the book at random and remembers.
The book, The Absence of Elephants, was a worldwide success. Trying to exorcize her dream, which she never talked about, Cleo had created a series of elephant paintings. Some were scenes from her dreams, but not all. She had used no photographic references. The results ranged from photorealism to evocative abstractions. She painted in the evenings when the girls were asleep in bed. The whole family was extremely excited about her paintings. Patrice and Njàbò, especially, spent hours looking at them, but it was Tamara who had been inspired by them.
Tamara had sold her publisher on the idea: an art book combining Cleo’s paintings with photos of forests and plains where elephants used to thrive, of human constructions that now stood in areas that were once habitats for elephants. There would be no words: the pictures, especially in the wake of the global desolation over the extinction of the elephants, would speak in all languages, allowing the book to be marketed worldwide without the cost of translation. Tamara would go to Africa, India, and anywhere else where any elephants — even woolly mammoths — had once lived, hunting with her camera the ghosts of the dead creatures.
The Absence of Elephants led to gallery bookings. Cleo’s paintings, along with Tamara’s photographs, were hung in cities all over the world, from Buenos Aires and Montreal to Glasgow and Sydney … but not in India, where the book was too hot politically. The two women had gone on tour with their work — wine, food, and five-star hotels all expensed. It had been a glamourous, exciting experience for Cleo — and it had forged a complicit bond between the two women. Before then, Cleo had often been intimidated by the beautiful Tamara’s fashionable elegance.
The book, the sales of paintings and signed, numbered prints of Tamara’s photos, the DVD-ROM, the web rights, and the CGI Imax film had made the family not quite wealthy, but certainly at ease.
West took a sabbatical from the university and looked after the house and the children. After nearly a year of book tours, art galleries, and media appearances, Cleo missed Njàbò and Sonya, yearned to return to domestic life. She came back home, to the girls. For the next few years, she rarely painted. But the dream continued to haunt her.
Cleo now spends entire days in her studio, has even taken to locking herself in. Sometimes she stands silently behind the door, listening to the others talk about her. They assume that she has been overtaken by a new creative storm, is painting a new series, and needs time alone to focus her creative energies.
In truth, Cleo’s days disappear in a cloud of hash. She hides from her fears: of Njàbò, of what she would paint if she were to take up the brush, of being in public, vulnerable to the appearance of the wrinkled old man.
The first thing Cleo thinks is: Patrice and Assaad look so uncomfortable sleeping on that small ugly couch. Patrice is lying on top of Assaad, resting his head on Assaad’s shoulder. Assaad’s arms are wrapped around Patrice, one hand on the small of his back, the other on his shoulder blade. “Patty? Assaad?” The two men snap awake. And then Cleo peers around the room, touching the mattress beneath her. She thinks: Is this a hospital bed?
Cleo notices that Patrice looks worried, but she can’t read Assaad, whose face is even more inscrutable than usual. Getting up, the men stand on either side of Cleo, each wrapping one of her hands in their own. Cleo takes her hands back before they can say anything. “Enough. This is too much. Go sit down. What am I doing here?”
They go back to the couch. Assaad squeezes Patrice’s hand, nodding at him to speak. “No, love, you tell her.” Patrice says. “You found her.”
Assaad looks straight into Cleo’s eyes, willing her to keep her eyes locked on his. His voice is dry ice, fuming with wisps of cold mist. “None of us had seen you for more than a day. For weeks, you’ve been distant, aloof, oblivious to the girls, oblivious to all of us.”
Cleo’s muscles tighten up, in a reflex effort to protect herself. She’s never heard Assaad speak in such a cold, hard voice before.
“We thought you were working on a new series. You let us believe that.”
Assaad pauses, his eyes still locked on Cleo’s. Is he waiting for an explanation? Or a reaction? Cleo wants to look away, but can’t.
“As I said, we hadn’t seen you for more than a day. You hadn’t come to bed the night before. You’d locked yourself in your studio. The girls and I were ready to have lunch. I knocked on your door, calling you, inviting you to eat with us. You didn’t answer. I knocked harder. Yelled out your name. Still, you didn’t answer. I had to take the door out. I found you unconscious. The air was foul. You’d pissed yourself. Vomited.”
Again, a pause. Cleo feels the cold mist of Assaad’s anger go down her throat, into her stomach. Cleo has never seen Assaad like this. Of all of them, he is the most patient, the most understanding, the one who resolves conflicts, soothes hurts and pains. How could she have let it come to this?
“There was but one new painting. Later, Njàbò told us you’d painted that one weeks ago, the day West brought them to his class. I called the ambulance. I couldn’t rouse you.”
Another pause. Patrice fills the tense silence. “The doctor told us you were suffering from dehydration and malnutrition. Why haven’t you been eating? What have you been doing? Are you angry with us? Speak to us, Clee, we all love you. Maybe we should have been more attentive. You were looking weak, tired. We should have paid attention. We were all too preoccupied, with work and with the girls. Why are you hiding from us? What are you hiding from us?” Patrice’s voice gets louder and increasingly reproachful. “Why did you let this happen?”
Assaad looks away from Cleo, puts his hand on Patrice’s shoulder, calms him, and, in the process, calms himself. Patrice frowns, “I’m sorry, Clee, I– I’m just worried about you.”
“Patty, I…” She avoids their faces. She feels ashamed. Why has she kept the dream a secret all these years? The dream is a chasm into which intimacy is falling ever further from her grasp. Can it reemerge from those depths after so many years of secrecy? “How … How are the girls?”
“They’re fine, Clee. Assaad quit his job at The Smoke Shop. He’s a great mother.” Patrice’s grin fills his whole face. He ruffles Assaad’s hair, kissing him on the cheek. Assaad fights a losing battle against the grin spreading on his face. “We didn’t really need the money. It’s a stimulating change to be at home with the girls. It’s a challenge to teach them, and to learn from them.”
“Who’s taking ca–”
Assaad answers, “They’re with West today. He took them to see the new Katgirl & Canary movie that they’ve both been so excited about.”
“How long have I been here?”
Patrice glances at Assaad, then gets up and sits next to her on the bed, stroking her face. “You’ve been out for four days. It’s Sunday.”
Cleo closes her eyes. She wishes she knew why she’s been so apprehensive, why she’s been hiding a part of herself from her lovers. She remembers falling in love with Patrice when she was still waiting on tables at The Small Easy. She remembers him introducing her to his family — Assaad, Tamara, West; her family, now. She takes a blind leap. “I’ve been having this dream…”
The Baka — the few hundred who remain — live in the forest, in a territory that covers part of Cameroon and the Congo. They believe — or believed, Cleo isn’t sure — that the Mòkìlà were a tribe of shapeshifters, both elephant and human. The Mòkìlà would raid Baka villages and initiate the captives into their secret society. Their sorcerers, the mokidwa, would transform their captives into shapeshifters. The captives became Mòkìlà and were never again seen by their families.
The mokidwa could take on the form of any animal. They also knew the secret of invisibility.
Njàbò is the ancestor of all elephants, sometimes male, sometimes female. Stories abound of avatars of Njàbò, giant cows or bulls, leading herds of elephants against Baka warriors or villages. Njàbò’s tusks are so enormous, they contain ten other tusks within them. Njàbò is often flanked by a retinue of guards.
Cleo has been trying to demystify her experiences. She searched the web for those strange words on her painting and found them. She asked West to get books from the university library. She’s been reading on the Baka and the myth of Njàbò. She’s never cared before about her ancestry and now finds herself wondering if perhaps there are Baka or Mòkìlà among her ancestors. The Mòkìlà are a myth, she reminds herself.
She’s been painting again. The new canvasses are violent, raw. When she painted her first series years ago, she hadn’t felt this uninhibited. Now, every session leaves her exhausted, yet exhilarated. Having shared her dream with her family, she has nothing to hide. She feels free.
She is still dreaming every night, but the dream is changing. Now the whole family walks with Njàbò. And the dream is getting longer. There is more violence, more bloodshed. Njàbò leads the tribe around the world. They crush all human constructions. They kill all the humans. Theirs is an unstoppable stampede. Cleo has painted much of this. Now, the dream continues beyond the violence. The tribe walks the Earth in peace. The tribe grows and Njàbò reigns. Today, for the first time, Cleo’s painting is inspired by that part of the dream.
The others tell her that they, too, have started dreaming of Njàbò, the elephant.
She leaves her door open; sometimes the others come down and watch her work, quietly, discreetly. At first, she knew, they were keeping an eye on her, worried that she would withdraw once again. After a few weeks, that changed. Now they come down because they find it exciting to be in the room while Cleo is painting. The candlelight, the thick odours, and her absolute devotion to the canvas all combine to create a mesmerizing ambience. Even Waters has been spending hours curled up under her stool.
Every day, Njàbò comes, silently, to see her paint. Cleo is still nervous around her daughter, still avoids talking with her. Cleo can feel that Njàbò is in the room now. The painting is finished. It depicts Njàbò, the elephant, towering over her herd, young elephants running around her, playing, celebrating. Around the elephants, the forest is lush.
Njàbò, the eight-year-old girl, walks up to her mother, in silence. She gazes at the painting. Cleo sees the tears running down her daughter’s cheeks. Cleo gathers Njàbò in her lap. The girl buries her head in her mother’s breasts. They both cry. Cleo can’t remember crying with such abandon, feeling so cleansed by the act. She hugs her daughter, firmly, proudly.
I am awakened by a light kiss on the mouth. Njàbò has crawled into bed, is holding my hand. Sonya is behind her, quiet, submissive. Njàbò whispers, “I am the dream.”
Njàbò rouses the entire family, kissing them one by one: Patrice, West, Assaad, and, finally, Tamara. She whispers lovingly to each of them, her lips brushing their ears.
She leads the family outside. The street is deserted in the middle of the night. Njàbò turns to face us all together. We are all naked.
Looking straight into my eyes, Waters rubs himself against Njàbò’s leg. Behind my daughter, a group of old men materializes. The mokidwa have shed their invisibility.
Njàbò smiles. Soon, the ground will tremble.