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WILD MAGIC

‘I can’t see,’ Chief Tom muttered, ‘what are they doing?’

‘What, grandfather?’

‘You’ll have to go closer, boy. Can you get closer? I need to see through your eyes.’

The boy didn’t reply. He was ashamed to admit he was scared.

‘Go on, go back there, boy. Climb a tree. I want to see.’

Silently Joshua assented, climbed uncertainly to his feet and crept back into the undergrowth, slipping out of sight to all but the animals as he moved stealthily through the leaves. There was barely a ripple as he edged past vines and the multiple trunks of trees, scarcely breathing, hardly touching the ground. Even the combined senses of all five men in the clearing were not enough to know of Joshua’s presence, so full was the cloak of stealth he had put around him. He could hear the dull chatter of voices in the distance, laughter, a cough mixed with all those familiar evening noises, the yelps and growls of the jungle, the hiss and smack of the night.

Closer to the clearing now and a dog began barking, joined by another, then a third. Joshua froze, let out a tiny soft whistle and they were silent, ran whimpering back to the fire. He clambered noiselessly over a fallen log covered in dark green moss, sank into the soft decaying mound of earth on the other side and clutched at a branch. There was a rattle of leaves and a bird flew screeching out into the air but this was just one more jungle sound, there was no reaction from the people on the far side of the clearing. The fire reflected off their bodies, casting violent dark shadows, gouging their eyes, hollowing their black cheeks. Joshua started to climb.

High in his perch he could see it all, watched as Christopher stood up and walked uncertainly with Steven guiding him towards the rest of the tribe.

‘Can you see him, grandfather? Can you see him now?’

But the old man was silent. There were other things on his mind.

*

Steven led him gently over to join the throng, quietly parading the honored guest, the thin white man in the namba. Dogster had become almost used to this peculiar dangling broom where his trousers used to be, feeling the freedom of nakedness, enjoying the warmth of this extended family, forgetting the ferocity of the morning, the strangeness of the night. He didn’t need to talk. The looks between Steven and the others said it all.

They sat there around the fire, five of them, the Chief, his three sons and Dogster. Youths delivered fresh shellfulls of kava with silent gravitas. The rest of the family, for this village was all related, sat in an outer circle and talked amongst themselves. There was a pleasing masculinity about the situation, a tactile, locker-room coziness about the night as one by one the kava-drinkers slid to the earth, stared vacantly into space and muttered ancient wisdom or idiocy to their personal spirits of the night. Then a lurch, a crunch of undergrowth and they were gone, back to huddle with invisible women in darkened huts, dreaming the same dreams as their ancestors.

Soon there was just the inner circle left. Steven sat behind Dogster with Feathers on one side and Beads on the other. Facing the blasted white man across the fire was the chief. There was a long silence, punctuated by the occasional crack of the fire, then from behind Dogster right ear, as if from a distant tunnel, Steven started to speak. His words were a soothing whoosh of warm breath on Dogster’s neck, his phrasing slow and deliberate. He talked to the others in a language Dogster could not understand, but somehow he knew that Steven was telling them of what had happened before.

“He has the power now,” Steven was saying. “He has the three strands of power. He will be safe with us for a while.”

Feather’s eyes widened. He looked swiftly from Steven to Dogster, then back to see his brother’s reaction. The chief’s other son fingered his beads for a moment, then pulled a stupid face. The chief burst into wild laughter suddenly and clapped his hands.

“Good!” he exclaimed, then vibrated his hands very rapidly. Dogster looked across the fire at this strange old man and tensed with confusion when the chief let out a yelp and then began to make a deep gurgling sound. The chief pointed to his groin and, with twinkling eyes, began to breathe very deeply, swallowing the breaths in a gulp and forcing them into his abdomen. First Dogster, then the three handsome sons, looked down to the old man’s naked belly. There, just above the scraggly line of his pubic hair, his flesh was bubbling. It heaved in a bizarre approximation of last night’s guria curling round the bay, rolls of gristle seemed to undulate, heading slowly upwards to his navel. Feather’s looked rapidly at Dogster’s face with glee. I caught his eye for an instant but was drawn back to the turmoil in the chief’s stomach. Here the heaving and sucking in of flesh was more apparent. The two youngest sons were both tugging at his arms, each pointing with the other, making sure that I saw every moment of these extraordinary contractions. The gurgles turned to grunts, the expression on the chief’s face would have been comical but for the strangeness of the situation. It was almost theatrical, his bulbous eyes and stupid pantomime smile growing as I watched, the strange mystic belly dancing becoming even more pronounced.

The undulations continued up his chest. The chief stuck out his rib-cage and Dogster could see the activity continue up and through the centre of his body, kneading that gut, shaking those shoulders until whatever was inside the chief had clearly reached the back of his mouth. His eyes widened, his jaw dropped and those thin cheeks filled out as clearly something very large was climbing up his throat, over the back of his tongue and emerging inside his mouth. He kept his lips closed with increasing difficulty as his face changed shape to accommodate the intruder, then with a growl and a spit he went to release the alien spirit and opened his mouth with a sudden shout of glee.

Out popped an enormous bright green cane toad. It landed sticky on the earth in front of the fire and froze. Only the toad’s head moved as it surveyed the circle of men. Finally those unblinking black eyes landed on Dogster.

*

There was silence, a frozen moment of massed concentration as all five men stared at the frog staring at me. Then it crouched down for a moment, pulling its weight back and jumped about three feet in the air, trailing a delicate arc over the flames towards the visitor. At the highest point of its leap, when it was directly over the centre of the blaze, the green of the cane toad stood in exact opposition to the deep amber of the coals. The toad flashed in a vibration of color, heat and speed and then, in a slow motion burst of smoke and powder, exploded. Dogster gasped and as he sucked that air into his lungs the chief and his two sons lunged forward and blew hot breath directly at him. They seemed to propel the powdered remains of the animal into Dogster’s face, he sucked that ex-toad into his being and, with a gasp and languid sigh, fell back into Steven’s comforting arms.

The air turned black around him, the others disappeared. Only the touch of Steven’s body kept him anchored to the ground. All around were tiny shafts of color, as if a prism had been broken into a thousand whirling pieces, each one reflecting all shades of the spectrum in a crystal ballet of a million parts. Dog was lost, laid back in warm comfort, watching the show. He gave no thought to meaning, abandoned himself completely in the swirling complexity of it all. This whirling eddy of shimmering light was truly one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen and the expression on his face must have said it all. He was aware of delighted applause and male sighs of pleasure, a whoop of excitement from Beads, a laugh and shout from his brother.

The old man’s face came back into view. He was smiling broadly, that toothless mouth beaming with pleasure. The shower of the spectrum ebbed away and one infinite blackness was replaced by another, this one full of grinning faces and heaving chests of mirth.

I had no option but to join in the laughter. They were showing off for me, I realized, performing their party tricks, giving me a glimpse of their world. It was quite some guided tour.

Next it was Feather’s turn to strut his stuff. He took a deep breath and clamped his mouth firmly shut. There was the faintest click as his back teeth locked together then his eyes turned upwards and his eyelids closed. He held out both arms rigid in front of him, pointing his index fingers at the fire. Dog watched intently as, from the very top of the flames a tiny flickering presence jumped on to each of the young man’s outstretched fingers and danced there for an instant before traveling up those bare arms to his shoulders, leaving a thin burning line, like a snail’s trail, as they went.

The dancing fire hovered for a moment on his shoulders, then dived anew for the back of his neck. There was a moment when his arms, neck and shoulders formed a near circle of flame, then he flung his arms out wide and the burning trail disappeared. His eyes were suddenly open, and as Dogster looked into them he could see the conflagration inside the young man’s head. With a sudden expulsion of breath the chief’s son poured out a burst of flame from his mouth. It was exactly as if he was a fire-eater in the circus, but this flame was from his gut. It was a bellow of heat, a flame-thrower howl of fury that flew over Dogster’s head and lit up the clearing like an oil fire.

Abruptly it was all over and there was renewed applause. Dogster recoiled into Steven’s arms instinctively at the fire but recovered from the shock and joined in enthusiastically. He was starting to enjoy the show now that he had realized it was for his entertainment. He looked eagerly at Beads on the other side of the fire. Beads smiled mischievously back at him, those great brown eyes reflecting fire and smoke and the surprised face of a delighted white man back at him.

“Bravo,” muttered Dogster. “Incredible.”

The old man seemed particularly happy with Bead’s party trick, Feathers less so. Dog guessed correctly at sibling rivalry and favorite sons then realized it was Steven’s turn. His new friend left his position behind me and walked slowly over to the chief’s side. He seemed deep in thought. Squatting down next to the old man he whispered something in his ear. The old man nodded and moved sideways, leaving Dogster facing Steven over the fire.

Steven sat on one foot, with one knee poking towards the flames, the other resting up in front of him. He placed both hands on the bare earth beside him and concentrated, his head hanging down on his chest. He turned his face away, bending his torso over to one side so that the flat planes of his back came into view. Dog was looking at the back of Steven’s head, admiring that lavish backbone stretching in a delicate spiral down to the ground. His torso seemed to lengthen; his skin grew darker, softer. The fire cast a satin sheen over that muscled back as his head dipped forward and out of Dogster’s sight. The bones in his back seemed then to grow larger, his curved arms changed in shape, that knee in front of his body grew thinner and the upper leg fell away.

From the base of his spine a tuft of black hair revealed a tubular tail curled round his black haunches, a tail that suddenly unraveled and flicked hungrily over the diminishing fire. Dogster gasped as Steven’s head came back into view in the supple pit between both shoulder-blades, lifted up on a long, languid neck by powerful muscles that rippled under the smooth black coat of fine hair that now coated his body. The black ears on top of his head twitched and turned slightly to face him, the flattened forehead and baleful yellow eyes came into view, the whiskers, the snarling jaws. Dogster saw the edges of those lips curl to reveal two large white fangs in the corner of his mouth and the unmistakable shape of a large black panther sat there purring in the dirt.

*

Obviously, somewhere between the flame-thrower and the frog, I’d taken some serious drugs. Bear with me. I can only report this very strange dream…

*

THE PANTHER

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