The Beginning of Eve's Story
When I was born, the rain stopped falling from the sky. Back then people hardly noticed, except for Auntie Wae, Mama’s petite sister. “See that child.” She pointed her finger. “See how she has grown. That’s how long since it rained!” When I grew enough to understand what she said, I cried, and Mama asked Auntie to stop pointing. She did, but by that time most of our extended family pointed at me. Too little to grasp how they worried about the jungle dying around us, I put it together this way: no rain was an evil curse that had to do with my growing. Well then, I decided to stop growing. It didn’t work. Such a little child, and I tried so hard to stop my growing, stop the evil, bring back the rain.
We lived in a good place under the shady trees of Eden, still green beside Long Lake. The grandpas of our grandpas dug our fire pit between the lake and the mountains where the sun woke every morning. An old story said the waking sun touched Eden. In the shadow of the mountains with shady trees above us, we said it was the evening sun, red at the edge of the world beyond Long Lake, that touched Eden. The lake gave us as much as we wanted to drink, and we ate fishes that moved below the surface. But people worried. When hunters put on loincloths, took spears and skins of water, and left to train boys becoming men, they traveled away from the lake through a jungle of leafless trees, rattling in the wind. Beyond, in the yellow, brittle grassland they killed a white antelope so skinny that, with the head and curving horns cut off, a couple of men could carry it on their shoulders. Even Long Lake shriveled like a fig left in the sun.
When I was little, I watched Mama kneel beside the lake where gray dirt turned to black mud, pushing her red-brown stone digging tool into the ground. The earthy smell teased me. As she loosened pungent soil on this side of a leafy plant, I reached for a root.
“No, Little Eve. If you grab the roots too soon, some break off and hide from us under the ground. Wait until the land releases them.” She kept digging around that plant.
I looked beyond her at some big boys and girls digging, but they chopped at dirt and broke digging tools where no plants grew. “What are they doing over there?”
Mama pulled a few roots free from the land and glanced at the children. “They say they are digging a hole. A long hole.”
“To bring water from the lake closer to the place where we sleep.” She rinsed a root and its greens, broke it, and gave me the piece with the greens.
I crunched a bite of root. “Why do they dig? We could just make a sleeping place closer to the lake.”
Mama nodded as she dug around another plant. “We could. But nobody wants to dig a new fire pit here. Our place is still close enough to the lake.”
“But why did the grandpas dig the fire pit up there? Why didn’t they dig it down here?”
“Beasts prowl around the lake at night. Besides, when the grandpas of our grandpas dug it, the lake was bigger. The water came all the way up to those doum palms.”
“Why?” I looked from the cluster of branching palms to the children, still digging with broken tools at the edge of the lake. “Why was the lake bigger?”
Mama laughed, her eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun, shining on her black face. “No doubt about you being a Fast-Talker child!”
“Why?” I chewed some bitter-sharp greens with the crunchy root.
“Because Slow-Talkers like your Papa hardly ever say ‘why.’ That’s why.”
Mama stood and turned toward a cluster of straight palms and tamarisk trees beyond the rushes on the northeast bank. Blinking in the bright sunlight, Uncle Roang stepped out of the shade and walked straight to us with the heavy steps of a powerful man. Smiling at Mama, he said, “Good evening, Mumbi. Are you finding roots today?” His voice sounded so smooth and sweet, I could have followed this uncle anywhere.
“Yes, Brother. Roots still grow beside the lake.” Mama didn’t smile, and her face turned toward the greenery at the edge of the water like she didn’t have anything more to say to him.
Moving on, he called, “Lillith!” His child, mud smeared on her arms and face, dropped her digging tool and ran to him. Taking his hand, she walked into the jungle of tamarisk trees, telling him about digging a long hole from the lake.
I watched them disappear into the shadows of the trees. “I’m going to grow into a big girl just like Lillith.” Mama nodded. “I like Lillith’s papa. He’s nice.”
“No, Little Eve. He’s not nice.”
“But Mama. He sounds nice when he talks.”
“He learned to smile nice to people. He makes his Fast-Talker words sound like something special. But when I look in his eyes, I see nothing nice, just a greedy boy who took food away from babies. He is my brother, but something is wrong with him.”
“You like Auntie Wae better.” I picked up a pebble. Auntie’s child, Su, and I had made marks in the mud and decorated them with pebbles. I put pebbles back on the dried marks where feet walking by had messed up the decorations.
After rinsing dirt off the roots and greens, Mama gave them to me to carry. She filled a water skin. A pair of eyes broke the surface of the water. I grabbed Mama’s arm and pointed. The water skin fell on the ground as she picked me up. Running up the slope, she yelled. “Children! Move! Reptile in the lake! Go!” Dropping their tools, the children ran past Mama and me up the slope to the doum palms.
We stood together, watching the tough-skinned reptile crawl on stubby legs and pull its shoulders onto the bank under a tamarisk tree. The monster jaws opened wide, white teeth gleaming in the sunlight. With a powerful leap up into the air it snatched a shrieking cat from a branch. Reptile and cat sank down into deep water.
Mook, a Slow-Talker child said, “Cat dead.”
Fast-Talker children said more. “That little cat thought it was safe in the tree.”
“Well, it wasn’t. Not safe in a tree.”
“Not safe in the lake.”
“Not safe walking on the ground.”
“Did you see how high up he leaped!”
A couple of my cousins, Adam and Su’s big brother Serug, argued. They tried to sound important, but they just looked like boys covered in mud from that hole they were digging. Adam said, “Why did reptiles come to the lake? They didn’t used to be here. When we were little, we used to play and splash in the shallow water.”
Serug, the tallest boy, turned on him in a know-it-all voice. “You played in the water. I never did. That’s stupid! Too dangerous!”
Not ready to give up, Adam shouted, “Yes, you did! You used to dunk my head under!”