Written and illustrated by Jon Coe©
Originally published in "The Basenji", December 1978
Buya quivered in his sleep, his sweating forehead glistening coldly in the pale moonlight. Asi Asi, sensing the boy’s unrest, opened his dark eyes. The little dog was instantly alert to every sound, her ears pricked tensely. Again Buya shook, his knees jerking abruptly as if in the grip of some paralyzing fear. His breathing became shallow and his eyes flicked half open, then shut tightly again.
The pig looked down silently.
“Brother pig, brother pig,” Buya cried out in his dream, “Don’t hurt me.”
The pig stood bristling over him, his bright red hair glowing silver in the moonlight.
“Do not fear me Little Brother,” said the pig at last. “Fear the big Outlanders. Fear the foreigners with their thunder-spears. They come to kill you they come now! But hear me Little Brother, do not harm these ones or you will all die! Now run Little Brother, and warn your people!”
Buya sat up with a start rubbing his eyes with moist palms. His heart beat furiously and his shoulders shook. “I must warn Noba at once,” he told the worried little dog and, rising awkwardly on unsteady legs, left his leaf hut and ran into the clearing.
Noba, the elder, was awake as Buya hurriedly approached. He had heard the boy’s cries and his inner sense prickled with danger.
“What is it Brother’s-son?” he whispered. “Calm yourself boy and speak clearly.”
“They come, Uncle, they come to kill us. They’ll be here at sunrise,” Buya sobbed.
Noba took his nephew by the shoulders and shook him savagely.
“Who comes, boy? Who comes to kill the Forest People?”
By now the entire band had gathered around, looking nervously about into the black voids between the great trees. Asi Asi paced among them, her tail down and her hackles up.
Buya took a deep breath, his courage returning.
“The night spirits awoke me, Uncle; the great river pig came to me in a spirit dream. He told me to hurry to you. The tall Outlanders come to attack us at dawn. They will kill us in our leaf huts.”
“Good,” whispered the elder softly, “let them try. We will ambush them! They come too often to our land and kill our forest brothers. Even the great elephant-folk are killed with their thunder-spears. Now they think to kill us too. But we are the Forest People and the forest will hide us. Our poison arrows will find them first.”
“No, Uncle, wait,” cried Buya. “The river pig said that if we kill even a single one of the Outlanders, they will kill all of us.”
“What is this boy?” Noba leaped up. “Would the night spirits protect our enemies? Are you sure of your vision? Remember well!”
“It is so, just as I’ve told you. The pig said, ‘do not harm those ones or you will all die.’”
“Then we must go at once,” warned the chief and without further word swept up his weapons and few belongings then silently crossed the starlit clearing to the forest edge. Without looking back he vanished. The troop, Buya in their midst, quickly followed with Asi Asi and the other dogs close at heel. From the forest Buya glanced back only once as the first birds began their pre-dawn chorus.
Buya crouched motionlessly behind the buttress-like roots of a giant forest fig. Beside him Noba waited, holding Asi Asi, his hand over her muzzle. His bow and poisoned arrows were waiting beside him. He ran his hand along the small lethal shafts. If only he could send them slashing into his enemies! If only he didn’t have to hide helpless! Yet of all his inner turmoil Noba showed no signs. He didn’t move even when a long line of tall black men came into view on the game trail below. The figures, taller by head and shoulders than the Forest People, moved cautiously in the first light. Their leader moved with careful confidence, every inch the hunter he was, but others looked suspiciously into the forest on all sides. They feared the forest, the great trees and the hidden spirits and especially they feared the Forest People, half spirit themselves.
Near the end of the line Buya noticed a smaller figure. This youth wore the same red-feathered necklace as the war chief and moved with the same quiet confidence as his leader. Though clearly the youngest member of the party, he proudly carried one of the three heavy thunder-spears. The other warriors carried tall spears with long gleaming metal blades.
Asi Asi growled quietly beneath Noba’s firm grasp. She could feel the electric tension that penetrated the morning. This was like the mood of the hunt, yet they hadn’t tied on her hunting bell and hadn’t strung their nets. No, this morning it felt different. It felt like war.
Suddenly piercing screams broke from the Outlanders. They’d reached the camp, scattering the leaf huts before their long-bladed knives. A thunder-stick exploded the morning in a great sulfurous cloud. Then, almost at once the tones of their yells changed. They’d discovered the camp was empty. Furiously they hacked down the huts, slashing any remaining camp gear they found. A triumphant shout broke from their chief as he held up a parcel of pelts a very valuable prize! Noba saw this without moving and without expression, but inside his hate seethed. This bundle was to be his daughter’s wedding dowry and he thought it well hidden, but an overturning hut must have partially uncovered it! They would avenge this attack! Somehow, despite the river pig’s warning, he would get back that bundle.
Buya watched his uncle’s tense body. He felt a fear beyond their immediate danger, a vague fear, a fearful future. He watched the Outlander youth standing impassively in the ruins of their camp and he waited.
Together the band waited until the Outlanders left, watched, as shadows watch, as the giant figures filed back down the trail with many a backward glance.
Asi Asi stood frozen on point. Her rich coat glowed a flaming orange in a brilliant dash of tropical sunlight. Overhead tiered layers of deep green vegetation filtered out the sky. The air was heavy with heat and dripping wet, and the buzzing of the cicadas dominated the landscape. Nothing moved. Nothing was seen but green on green walls receding into dark shadows among the huge fortress-like bases of the great trees.
A small neon-winged dragonfly darted past to alight on a large Afromonia leaf. Asi Asi ignored it, still stiffly holding her point. Her tense body seemed braced against the lazy conspiracy of drowsy heat.
Buya too was tense. He had not moved a finger since the family’s fine hunting basenji had stopped frozen on the trail just ahead. Footprints of duiker were everywhere and the boy could sense the presence of several tiny antelope. How proud he would be to carry one of them home for his family! Hunting had been poor for the last year. The Outlander’s hunting parties now came often into his people’s forest with their thunder-spears killing or frightening away the game.
The boy’s cramped legs began to ache, yet still he did not move. There was something else in the shadows and Asi Asi’s hackles were now plainly bristling. Buya too felt the knot of fear and the tightness in his chest. What was it? Instinct told him there was danger. Leopard? Or perhaps the great forest buffalo? He remembered his experience of fear during the bush pig vision. Yes, it was just like this.
Something moved. A figure materialized among the trees. Outlander hunter! The black giant was stalking something, his heavy thunder-spear raised to his shoulder. Thunder echoed through the forest like a cutting sword, flattening the boy and sending the dog streaking for safety. From the wet ground Buya saw the tall young figure spring towards something large thrashing about in the thicket. Suddenly a great red shape charged out of the shadows directly towards the Outlander. Bush pig boar! Too late he leapt high to dodge the four hundred pounds of enraged fury. The boar caught him with a long curved tusk and, with a toss of his head, threw the hunter over his shoulder and into the shadows. The youth did not rise.
Instantly fitting a poison arrow to his short bow, the pygmy boy dashed towards the victim, yelling for his dog to follow. If he could only get into bowshot before the pig made his second charge.
The boar had turned and was sniffing the air, trying to relocate his enemy. Then, lowering his head again, he renewed his charge.
“Wait pig-brother,” screamed Buya. “Wait for my arrow.”
The pig paid no notice. It was almost upon the helpless figure again when a flash of red fury intervened. Asi Asi knew better then to match strength with the powerful beast, instead her razor teeth locked into the boar’s ear, diverting his charge. The pig shook his head savagely, throwing the little dog about like a rag, but still she held her grip, miraculously avoiding the murderous tusks.
Buya drew his bow, the dog was in deadly peril, but he must not hurry his shot. He must not miss. And he must not hit the dog! His senses calmed to incredible clarity. The opening came. He almost watched himself shoot the arrow, watched it fly in slow motion, saw it bury itself in the hollow of the boar’s flank where the skin was soft and his poison could penetrate.
With a sharp squeal the pig flung off his tiny attacker and turned to his new enemy. The poison would take several minutes to have effect and Buya was now in the boar’s path!
The boy turned instantly, heading for the only refuge in sight, a towering termite hill. Dodging between the great trees Buya played a deadly game of ‘catch me if you can.’ The pig’s poor eyes gave the agile pygmy his only advantage. If he could get off another arrow! But he pig’s relentless charges showed no sign of tiring and Buya was not close enough to sprint for the termite tower.
Then again the small red dog attacked. Snapping and grabbing at the huge boar’s heel, she tried to rip the tendon. But whenever she got a good hold, the boar spun around savagely and she had to flee. Yet her desperate attacks kept him at bay. Buya lost no time in fitting a second arrow. Again he awaited an opening, forgetting his own safety. Again the arrow flew true and dove deep. Again the boar screamed in rage and charged the boy. But Asi Asi would not leave his heels, snapping and being dragged along.
Now the boar was clearly slowing. He seemed to stagger and sway, then charge on. The dog was forgotten, the boy forgotten. The beast charged at random and, loosing balance fell heavily against a tree. Sensing the end of her enemy, Asi Asi disengaged, crouching alertly out of the beast’s way. Buya too stood clear, ready to flee or attack as needed, all senses alert.
When he saw the boar would not rise. Buya walked quickly to the place the Outlander had fallen. The youth was conscious but had not moved. He had seen the fight but could neither run nor attack. His right leg was ripped badly from knee to thigh and was already becoming stiff and swollen.
Buya and Asi Asi looked down at the youth. Recognition lit in the boy’s mind. This was the youth that had been in the party that had attacked his camp! See there was the red necklace! But see too the ugly open gash. This youth would die if Buya didn’t help. But what if his people’s enemy died? Shouldn’t he celebrate their defeat?
Clearly again he saw his vision. The youth must not die. With words and gestures he helped the hunter up and, staggering under his tall body, helped him down to the stream below the trail. Asi Asi followed suspiciously, aware of her own considerable aches and bruises.
At the stream the pygmy thoroughly cleaned the wound, ignoring the hunter’s stoic pain. Then form his hunting bag he pulled a small bundle of finely ground herbs which he sprinkled over the wound before binding it up. Asi Asi lay down in the stream, slackening her thirst and feeling the coolness of the water as she licked her wounds. Buya then examined the dog, praising her fervently, pleased to see how slight her injuries were. Then he too sat in the stream and waited.
Buya knew that his family would soon find them, the little forest people had ways of knowing things that other men had lost or never knew. When any member of the family was in danger the others immediately knew, even if they were miles away. They would come.
The hours passed languidly despite the strident buzzing of the cicadas. Buya became aware of something tugging for his attention. Yes, his family was approaching. Asi Asi knew also, and got up to greet her masters. Noba, the elder, was the first to arrive followed closely by Buya’s father, Basiki.
“Greetings Brother’s-son,” cried Noba. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, Father’s-brother, we killed the bush pig!” Buya shouted proudly, pointing up the bank beyond the trail.
“Ah! What a mighty son I have,” Basiki said loudly to Noba. “Two arrows perfectly placed.”
Noba did not reply. He was looking at the Outland youth lying beside the stream. Raising his spear threateningly he advanced on the wounded youth.
“Why have you given aid to our enemies?” he challenged.
“The pig wounded him,” answered the youth seriously. Then he reminded his uncle of the vision’s instructions not to let any Outlander die, and went on to describe the battle with the boar. As the boy told his story the elder relaxed a little, enjoying the boy’s courage. Upon hearing Asi Asi’s part in the fight he praised her and stroked her smooth short coat firmly and generously.
“Alright,” the chief said at last, “what is so, is so. We will help the Outlander until he is healed. It will be the boy’s responsibility. The women will soon arrive. We make camp here. Let us begin preparing the pig!”
Benga, the young Bantu hunter, was amazed at the speed with which his body recovered under the skilled care of the Forest People He was leaning on a rough crutch above the little stream examining the nearly closed wound he had suffered when the bush pig attacked. Beside him was the strange little dog that had saved him. Asi Asi had been suspicious at first, but had grown to be quite fond of the youth.
He had never seen such a dog. Her keen interest and wrinkled, worried look had immediately set him at ease. She was his companion with Buya, the Pygmy boy, unless the two were off hunting. Over the weeks the three had learned to communicate somewhat and Benga had learned something of the Pygmy’s strange language. He saw them as happy satisfied people. If the hunters returned empty handed, Asi Asi’s wooden bell stuffed with silencing leaves, no one was blamed. “What is so, is,” said the people.
More than anything else the big Outland youth noticed how the little people loved their forest. They spoke respectfully to the trees and gave thanks to the spirits of the game the hunters brought in.
Benga had been raised in the open farmland of his people. To them the forest was something to be cut and burned for gardens, and a placed to be feared especially at night. Yet the little people came and went as they wished, sleeping comfortably in the darkest groves. With a simple net or snare the boy and his silent dog could bring in game that would elude him and his rifle for days!
Five days ago the family group headed by Noba had been joined by several other such groups. Together they had met and discussed the stranger’s fate far into the night. Buya had taken part in much of the discussion and Benga was amazed that the tribal elders listened to and respected the boy’s words.
And Benga smiled as he remembered all of the little dogs greeting each other with gleeful yodels and stiff proud stances, as befit their rank. They were so proud and graceful, yet prankish, like their masters. One older bitch had three puppies following awkwardly and these were of great interest to Asi Asi, who cleaned each from head to foot and even regurgitated her food for them. Most of the adult took turns playing with the puppies, as did the Pygmies themselves.
At the conclusion of the council Benga was informed that in five days Buya would escort him to the edge of the forest and that he would be free to return to his people. But, the elders warned, any of his tribe that entered the forest again would be killed on sight.
And now, standing above the camp only a few steps from where the boar had attacked him, Benga took a last look around. Buya, carrying his weapons and pouch, was approaching with Noba and Basiki.
“Now you shall go,” stated Noba without emotion, “and tell the chief, your father, that to enter the forest of the people is to die. My Brother’s-son,” and here he nodded to Buya, “has asked that you tell the chief, your father, that he alone, with you and his elders, may come if he wishes peace. All other will die. Now go!”
At the mention of his father, Benga felt proud and would not show fear at the Pygmy chief’s threat. He answered gravely, “You saved my life. This I will tell my father, the chief, and I will not forget.” Then, turning suddenly, he hobbled off down the trail with the boy. Asi Asi followed, her bell quietly sounding their leaving.
Asi Asi shivered. The days had turned cool and soon the rains would begin. She didn’t like rain! Seeing her discomfort Buya reached over and picked her up, placing her in his lap.
Even though the sky was invisible above the dense leafy canopy, Buya knew that it was overcast. He could smell rain in the air and feel it on his skin. Also, no brilliant flicks of sunlight patterned the forest floor. Everything was grey-green with a bluish tinge. And the insects were quiet.
A slight movement by Noba caught his attention. Yes, they were coming. Asi Asi also felt their presence. Her nose quivered and her hackles began to rise. Then they came into sight the silent procession of tall black figures dressed in scarlet robes and carrying long spears and batons of rank there were no thunder-spears. They moved slowly for some were elderly, but at their head Buya instantly recognized the limping Bena and his father. They must have known they were being watched, yet none looked right or left. All kept their heads proudly erect facing the path ahead.
Noba watched them pass, than he and the boy withdrew quickly and silently, heading by other paths to await the peace party at the meeting place.
The three soon arrived to join the tribe. The Pygmy elders, together with Noba and the boy stood casually in the small clearing, while the women hid and the warriors concealed themselves in the dark surrounding forest.
Once more they waited, but there was no impatience. The Pygmies care nothing about tomorrow and little about yesterday. One moment is as good as the next. At last Buya noticed a prickling feeling at the base of his neck and knew they were near. He noticed Asi Asi. Her hackles were also up.
The strangers approached slowly but without hesitation, stopping ten paces away. Twenty Pygmy hunters stepped from the forest, their bows drawn. Ten more remained concealed. The Outlanders seemed not to notice.
Noba stepped forward, “Did you come to die?” he challenged.
“We come to live!” said the headman. “”We come to make peace with the Forest People and we bring gifts. I, Bendono, chief of the Bapende, I have my son again! He as lost and is found! He was dead and is alive! To the Forest People do I owe his life. To the Forest People will I bring peace and not war. To the Forest People will I bring life and not death. I, Bendono, have spoken!”
“And I, Noba, do not welcome you!” said the little warrior. “Your thunder-spears have killed and driven off my forest brothers and you have attacked and destroyed our huts and stolen that which was ours. This must be made right!”
“I will make this right,” offered Bendono, bowing ever so slightly toward the little forest Pygmy. And reaching under his robe he brought forth Noba’s bundle of precious furs. Benga, his son, did likewise and produced a bundle of equal value.
“You see, Forest chief, I return that which is yours twofold and yet more!”
A quick motion brought a porter hurrying up from the end of the line. From his load Bendono produced five metal knives and two lengths of bright cloth treasures beyond compare to the Forest People.
“These I give you in return for my son’s life. More you shall have if you bring us pelts and medicines for barter.”
“And we will hunt no more in the lands of the Forest People, save only with their permission,” concluded the tall chief.
Noba bent down and carefully examined the gifts, were they enough he wondered to himself? They were, he decided, if they allowed his people peace.
“I, Noba, am satisfied,” he announced at last. “We the Forest People, are poor,” he said almost proudly, “yet we too have a gift for peace.”
At this announcement a Pygmy warrior approached carrying the cured hide of the bush pit that had almost killed Benga. Buya’s mind raced back to the awful dream/vision and the bush pig’s words. So this is what he meant “Make peace or all will die.”
The Outlander chief and his son were clearly pleased by this trophy gift, but what they saw next was the greatest surprise of all! In the center of the rolled hide something moved then out tumbled a bright red basenji puppy!
Finding himself the center of attention, the little fellow crouched uncertainly, but then, seeing Asi Asi, he charged over to greet her as only a puppy can. The Pygmy hunters lowered their bows and laughed. Even the somber Outland elders chuckled. But Benga did not want to laugh he felt more like crying, for he alone among the tall blacks realized the value of this gift.
Slowly Benga hobbled forward then, bracing out his stiff leg, lowered himself to one knee. Asi Asi immediately lead the puppy over to him, as if she herself were presenting this gift beyond price. The puppy sniffed carefully at the tall youth, who made no further move towards it. Then, satisfied, the puppy took two rolling steps back, tilted is round head up and yodeled a greeting to his new master.
“The little dog has spoken,” said Noba solemnly. “I can say no more. There will be peace.”
Asi Asi trotted lightly ahead of Buya, her wooden bell clanking quietly as she lead the Outlanders towards the edge of the forest. Behind Buya hobbled his friend Benga with whom he was going to stay for a few weeks in the Outlander’s village. Benga himself was no longer conscious of the pain in his leg nor the rain that now fell. He only noticed the warm puppy dozing in the crook of his arm and thought of the great hunts he and his basenji would have in the future.