The old man stood on the foothills of Kilimanjaro, looking out across the Serengeti. He could smell it in the air, the yellow. The aka. He saw it as a haze to the north.
And he knew that it was time.
* * *
"And I am saying to you, Old Man, that this is superstitious nonsense. It is like the tales your women tell around the water hole. Laughable except to children."
The old man shook his head, slowly. "Listen to you speak! 'Superstitious nonsense'. 'Your women'. You have been away too long, that the camps of 'reason' would rob you of your sight."
"Perhaps not long enough." Mtumbe sighed. "You will travel a hundred miles of near-starvation, losing tens of lives, because of your fear of the yellow. Why not stay here, with no loss of life or limb, and taste of the fruit as it comes to ripening? Think of the children, at least, man!"
The old man hummed for a moment. "I said something like that to your mother when she sent you to the missionary town with the jesusman. I wish she were here today to see what she has wrought."
"She would be, curse you, if you hadn't dragged her away from the fires of her home on your terrified scamper away from the yellow!" And there were tears of anger in Mtumbe's eyes to match the mask of frustration he wore.
The old man took this without flinching. "Perhaps. But I have led the souls of these people since your father was just a secret conjured in your grandsire's breast. And I know that keeping them away from the yellow is worth the cost of some lives. Even the life of your mother."
Mtumbe walked away, then, too incensed to speak, and the old man watched him go.
* * *
"Your life is your own, since you renounce the tribe. But you have no right to take these. To kill these." The old man gestured to the group of young men and women who stood apart from the rest.
Mtumbe was unsmiling, but there was triumph in his eyes. "Old Man, they stay here of their own will. They do not fear the yellow. They are with me."
"You will not." The reply was sharp, commanding, but the age shone through, to be mistaken as weakness.
"I will." Now the young man was smiling, unabashedly. "What will you do? Stay and drive us off? Or drag us away with you? There's nothing that you can do, even a hundred strong as you are. We stay."
The old man scanned the faces of the young people-- so young! There was fear there, but resolve, too. He was proud of their spirit, though they should die of it. He had been doing this for enough years that tears would not well, but the ache he felt at seeing his flock suborned and needlessly dying was almost too much to bear. It was then that he felt the first pangs of his own mortality, in a way he had not even when the viper's venom had flowed dark in his leg. He would not live five years more, he reckoned, absently. He must accelerate Jaalah's training. Especially now that Pok was staying with this betrayer of souls, this Mtumbe, this traitor to his creed.
"Pok," he implored of the short man, "think of what it is that you do. When you die (I do not say 'if') you will carry down the river with you all of the knowledge I have bestowed upon you. Wasted, wasted... Come with us, boy. Hurry!"
Pok looked as if he might waver, but glanced aside at Bethut, next to him, and he gripped her hand fiercely. "Bethut will stay, and I will stay. And we will show you that there is nothing to fear."
"Then you are a fool, like that one." The old man rose, and grabbed his walking stick and his bag. "Well, we go. May the ancestors watch you and ward you, and may the yellow come not to this place." He laughed, bitterly, a spectre of his youthful self, and walked away from the fire pit. He turned back one more time. "You should have stayed with the jesusmen, 'Tumbe. Now you will die, and take these poor deluded ones with you. Farewell!"
And slowly, turning away, the rest of the tribe followed him, out into the world, away from this danger.
* * *
"Pollen!" Mtumbe said, a laugh in his throat. "The seeds of flowers as yet unborn! The yellow is pollen!"
Three days before, a light, almost smoky golden hue had begun to permeate the air. That was when Fibad and Droussh and Sif had fled, following on the heels of the rest of the tribe, the color too much for them. The color had intensified, bringing with it mild sneezing at first, and a smell which reminded him of the orchids in the missionary greenhouse. Five of the six who remained with him were no longer having problems with the irritation in their lungs. Cham had a worse reaction, and was reduced to coughing fits in one of the huts, but Mtumbe had given the boy some of the antihistamine tablets he'd brought with him, in what he called his "medicine bag". Cham would be all right.
Now, the small village was covered in a light layer of bright yellow dust, and Mtumbe laughed until he choked on the winds which carried it in.
Zefra came to him, now. She was wearing the dress he had brought. She was clumsy in it, unaccustomed to its shape and feel, but the fact that she wore it for him made it beautiful. He stroked her back through the thin material, and looked very frankly into her eyes. She looked back, the same in every way.
He took her before the hut door even closed. Took her like an animal, on the ground, cool dirt on her knees, gripped by her hands. He thrust into her harshly, and she screamed his name as she pushed back.
* * *
Mtumbe thought it was odd that Pok and Bethut had not returned, yet; they had gone to the stream a day ago, and were not yet back. Perhaps they, too, had fled. The old man had filled Pok's head with irrationality for many years, he acknowledged, perhaps more than could be washed away with common sense and the love of a good woman. The wild dogs cried out in the night, plaintively, and he wondered if they'd fed on the young couple.
Cham was not doing well. His coughing had returned, and the drugs were gone. The youth lay in his hut, mumbling nonsense syllables, in between gagging and retching. "She is coming," he had screamed once, and it had sent chills down his spine in a way that had used to happen when the jesusmen talked of The Devil. Something akin, there.
Bah! The jesusmen were just as superstitious and irrational a lot as they claimed his fellow tribesmen were. Mtumbe was above all that. He had read much more of the white man's books than just his Bible.
His instincts told him to gather all the remaining tribesmen to him, in his hut, but he defied them and instead sent Ota to look for Pok and his young bride.
Zefra was here, now, gleaming with perspiration, and lightly coated in the yellow. She looked like a goddess.
This time, they didn't even wait to get back to the hut.
* * *
Cham was dead, and it made him sad. Mtumbe felt guilt for not letting him go with the rest of the tribe-- or might have if he hadn't convinced himself that the weakness in those lungs would have killed him anyway had he journeyed with the old man. Cham was burned in the fire pit, and his remains disposed in the nearby boneyard. His burial was unceremonious, with only Zefra present. Ota was still gone, and Pok and Bethut had not returned. He wept at the loss of life, but that did not stop him from gripping Zefra's shoulders from behind and wrapping her legs around his waist until she cried out. When they were through, when she crawled away, wiggling her behind at him in temptation, he finished the burial, but the eulogy would not come.
That was when he first heard the drums.
* * *
Hallucination, he told himself, for hallucination it must be. The drums were close, and getting closer every night, and for the sake of all gods, fake and real, Zefra could not hear them-- only whispers, like conversation, she claimed.
She came to him, now in the day as well as at night, and she took him inside her. Over and over and over again, until he ached and seemed unable to perform for her again. But relentless she was, her skin golden in the sun, and shining in the starlight.
He loved her, and would please her as long as she wanted him. And every breath of the heady yellow air made him sink deeper into her thrall. He was frightened of this man, this thing he had become. But as she arched over him, her arms like wings, her eyes filled with a yellow spirit, he sank into her for the... eighth? ninth? twelfth time tonight?
* * *
The Goddess spoke to him of his folly.
In days of old, She came in Her season, fertile, to take from the men what they would give Her. More, all that they could give Her. And She would take them for days, weeks, from their wives, the hunting neglected, the fires dying, the women left in the drudgery that came of survival without their men. Weeks, and then She would leave, as quickly as She had come, leaving the men ill, weak, and sometimes dead. Too, the girl She'd chosen as Vessel would be stoned to death, or in kinder times merely circumcised.
But in the days of Mtumbe's grandsire's grandsire's grandsires, the wise men of the tribes had fled the Golden One, the Yellow One, and run far and wide to avoid Her snares. Leaving the Goddess unhappy, filled with a longing which pierced Her to the core. A longing which She had not fully sated in two centuries.
Now, She'd tasted of Ota, and Pok, and even poor Cham, but Mtumbe was the strongest, was the one whose lusts She would feed on. To make up for the long drought, She would devour the entire river of his life.
And Mtumbe, god-of-the-jesusmen help him, looked up at Her and smiled in rapture as She took him again and again and again.
The Goddess spoke to him of his folly.
* * *
The rains came to the land, scrubbing the air of the detritus of summer's bloom. The yellow dust was carried into the streams, the rivers, and it would color the waters for weeks. But in the end, it would disappear, not to return for fives or tens of years.
The old man saw this from his vantage near the top of Kilimanjaro. His knees ached from the climb, but he sank to them and blessed the rains.
It was time to lead his people back.
* * *
The corpses they found near the village had been devoured by predators, but jewelry and clothing identified them as Ota and Bethut, locked in an embrace in their death pose. Many wept when, a day later, they found Pok-- Jaalah most of all. They were brethren, though they were not kin. Cham, they knew, was dead, as his bracelets adorned his burial site.
Zefra they did not find, nor would they.
But Mtumbe, rationalist, they discovered barricaded into the largest hut, in the pile of leaves which served as his bed. His form emaciated, starved to death, but still positioned in a way that suggested both striving and supplication. His face was mostly intact, the insects having miraculously ignored it. It was drawn in a look of awe, and of fear, and of the terrible inability to stop. His eyes wide.
The old man closed those eyes, singing a song of peace and slumber. He forgave his grandson. What else was there to do?
Now, before the rest of the tribe came, before they could see him, he shook his head and wept.