The air was hot and still.
Not a surprise considering the time of year, but by the Serengeti’s standards this weather exceeded even her hottest, by a wide margin. This year her grasses were tall and luxurious despite the terrible heat, hiding her animals from the common eye and the trained one alike. At a casual glance, nothing appeared to move save the heat ripples across the horizon. Even her most fearsome insects, bloodthirsty and ever-hungering seem to be conserving their energy for the cooler part of the day.
This was a day like millions that came before it, embodying the nature of life and death on this plain, a dance older than any recorded history. The Serengeti was a place where these two realms met. This mistress of two realms noticed as the grass became still, the lions paused their attack on helpless prey, as zebras sensed something more frightening than the lions who stood mere yards from them. A presence more formidable than anything that has come before it. Something so terrible swept through her that everything froze, hid and waited for it to pass. Mighty herds grew silent and the coughs of the lions faded into the distance.
The slow-moving air carried the stench of death and decay, not the natural scent common to this area, not the blissful scent of carrion attracting their share of lazy scavengers, nor of a death by natural causes, that musty death of a creature that slowed and eventually stopped moving, or the most terrible of all, if you are an antelope or gazelle, savaged, smothered or battered to death by the ghosts of the Serengeti, her big cats. This smelled of none of those good deaths.
Death at this scale was not common and everything here knew that, even if they could not determine the cause or the source, avoidance was the best choice. The death wind blew through the city of Dodoma. The Serengeti did not like Dodoma. It was crowded, the creatures there did not move, they did not migrate, movement was life, everything knew that except for these creatures. The Serengeti did not like the waste, the noise, the fire-less smoke that always emanated from it. The stones-that-moved-and-roamed were tolerated because they often wandered amongst her people, her herds and in the beginning there was balance.
The longer the creatures lived there, the less balance there was. The Serengeti had taken to sending the ghosts to Dodoma. For a time, the creatures hid in fear, as they should, but eventually they returned in greater numbers. The Serengeti, infinite in its patience and long in it lifespan would simply wait for the creatures to drown in their filth.
There was certainly enough of it. They would eventually go away. Badly behaved creatures always did. But today, they did not go away. They did not migrate, they did not gather their food, their young, their water, they did not leave a trail of waste to nourish all life on the Serengeti.
They simply ceased to be.
The Serengeti was not displeased. But all of its people, its herds, its hunters, its scavengers and its ghosts did tremble and wonder what was different. Dodoma was now filled with one million dead and no sign of what caused the Death that Walks.
A group of elephants, sisters all, roamed the Serengeti as they had for thousands of years. At first glance, there would be little to tell you different about this group than about thousands of elephants who had come before. But look a little longer and you can tell this group is different. Grey and dusty, these desert titans shepherd a tiny group of non-elephants with them.
Tired, dirty and quietly clustered together, with rags for clothing, hair matted and reeking of sweat from too many days in the plains sun without bathing. The elephants find this smell quite distasteful but continue their duties, with a clear sense of obligation.
The Serengeti guides them toward water with its well worn breezes, flapping the tall grass, bringing the scent of water, leapers and ghosts. Leapers were always plentiful this time of year and the Sisters always found their antics amusing. The young ones, ever inquisitive, always wondered why they could not leap. The answer was always the same, we are not leapers. We are the Walkers. We do not run. We do not leap. We Walk. The Serengeti is our mother and our guide. We fear nothing and harm no one. The answer only seemed to last until the next time they saw leapers.
One larger female, her body older, worn and leathery, her eyes bright with intelligence and her pace filled with the wisdom of many Walks, moved away from the group and she pauses to sniff the air. At first, nothing, then the slight tingle of black-burn from the rocks-that-roam, human sweat, rank with the overtones of meat and fire smoke. Tiny Walkers, the ones who act like ghosts, hunting and killing but they are not our Walkers, she remembers the words, our humans. These are the Ghost Humans. They kill everything they see.
She closes her eyes and opens herself up to the horizon. The Serengeti reveals them to her; they are behind them, about two thousand steps. She calls to her sisters, who immediately surround their young and their tiny walkers. In her mind, she sees the Ghost Humans moving as fasts as the Ghosts they emulate, streaking through the tall grass, bouncing in their rock-that-roams with their terrible fire-sticks. Like the Ghosts, their fangs flash with their excitement of the hunt.
Aniel said to call them guns. Aniel always knew the words to things. Aniel was gone, taken by Ghost Walkers, not these but others. Others that we will find. We will find Aniel. In the meantime, we will do what she asked. Orienting herself to them, she gathers the strength of her sisters.
The aged female sees in her mind, the skins of the Serengeti’s ghosts across the back of the rock-that-roams and though she has no love of the Serengeti ghosts, no person should ever be treated as such. The Ghost Humans continue to approach and it is clear they are following the Sisters. It is as it should be. It is said that all things meet in the Serengeti eventually. The Sisters wait and the young grow restless, as is their wont. The tiny walkers say nothing, and after a while sit, slack jawed and boneless upon the grass. Without Aniel, they say nothing, they only follow the Sisters.
The Eldest opens her eyes as the rock comes into view, trailing a terrible cloud of smoke and dust, its roaring increasing as the Sisters come into sight. The Sisters stir but do not move, only their ears and tails continue their ceaseless twitching. The Eldest begins a deep sonorous moan and her sisters also follow, in concert. A rippling occurs through the air and gathers in front of the Eldest. The Sisters’ dirge grows louder and the tiny ones cover their ears. The young ones fall to the ground as if dead.
The Eldest stops to read the wind and the approaching Ghost Humans, whose intent of blood and murder is written on the afternoon breeze mingling with the scent of other dead Sisters and skinned Ghosts; all of these hunter’s earlier kills, collected as vile and disgusting trophies. The Sisters stop their singing as the Ghost Humans raise their fire-sticks, guns, and the energy that the Eldest was holding was released.
In that moment, the Serengeti breathed, a single collective breath, something that moved through all the nearby living things. The Ghost Humans breathed in that collective breath and when they exhaled they fell over dead; no marks, no scars, nothing to indicate their passing. Their collective breath returned to the Serengeti, their mother and their home. The Eldest turned away, horrified at all the waste. The loss of life.
She returns to her Sisters who touch her and console her while she weeps. They waken the young ones and the tiny walkers and they continue toward the waterhole they can smell just a thousand steps in front of them.
Sisters © Thaddeus Howze 2010, All Rights Reserved
Thaddeus Howze is a writer, essayist, author and professional storyteller for mysterious beings who exist in non-Euclidean realms beyond our understanding. Since they insist on constant entertainment and can’t subscribe to cable, Thaddeus writes a variety of forms of speculative fiction to appease their hunger for new entertainment.
Thaddeus’ speculative fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies:Awesome Allshorts: Last Days and Lost Ways (Australia, 2014), The Future is Short(2014), Visions of Leaving Earth (2014), Mothership: Tales of Afrofuturism and Beyond (2014), Genesis Science Fiction (2013), Scraps (UK, 2012), and Possibilities (2012).