Short Fiction

The Knife From Above

It was a fantastic day for Martin Nujoma. As he sat in his white monoplane on his way to meet his brother in Windhoek, Namibia, he glanced down through the glare of the plane at the patched shrubs that accompanied his one-hour flight south. Martin was looking forward to this flight, desperately missing the sensation of fresh air filling his nose and soul, and he needed the wind to refresh his senses! He struggled slightly but managed to roll down the window on his right side, and was met with the sudden rush of air. Now life was swell. With his tinted sunglasses glinting in the sun and a little cubical speaker blasting the radio from within the front pocket of his red t-shirt, Martin felt like an action hero from an American movie he had seen when he was a teenager. With his right hand on the plane’s yoke, he leaned back into his seat and twirled his house keyring around his left index finger. But with one swift gust of wind, the aircraft sharply banked to the right and, unbeknownst to Martin, who was steadying the plane, the keys flew from his finger and fell into the orange depths of the Kaokoland region miles below the plane.

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It was a fantastic day for Uapenga. Along with his nephews, he had dug a well four meters deep into the dry land’s rocky soil. The effort had resulted from three weeks of strenuous work and an unfortunate death. But in the end, there would now be enough water for their village until the death of Uapenga’s grandsons.

It was midday, and after they’d made their hole visible on the surface by stacking some stones and branches, the men made their return to the shade of their homes for a well-deserved meal. As Uapenga made his way home, he heard something above him. It was an awful din, as if a storm was forming that rained pots and pans. Yet the sun was still shining, and the birds flew overhead as if it were any other day of the year. And then the strangest thing happened to Uapenga; a golden object fell from the sky right at his feet. It was a little thing, no smaller than his thumb, and it was practically weightless. It had tiny teeth as sharp as the knives that Uapenga’s wife used. He squinted up at the clouds and noticed that the noise had vanished. Uapenga picked up the metal piece, blew on it to clear the dirt to reveal its shine, and ran home to show his wife and three sons, his bone and leather necklace clinking with each stride he took.

“Look what was dropped from the skies!” he shouted in his native tongue to his family as he pushed his way through his hut’s bead curtain. His only article of clothing, a calfskin skirt as dark as the shades of night, had become even darker after being drenched with sweat. Yet his thin, cocoa-colored, wrinkled arms shook with excitement as he held up the item for his family to see.

“What is it? What is it?” his boys shouted, pushing each other away to look at their father’s find.

“I believe it’s a gift from above! From our ancestors!” he exclaimed, genuinely believing it was a reward for the establishment of the well. He picked up a sliver of goat meat that lay on a wooden slab on the floor and started cutting it with the newfound item. The metal took some time to cut through the flesh, but it worked.

“Well,” his wife, Kovipiriko, got up from the floor where she was cooking porridge in a vessel. “As chief, you should show the others the knife that has been bestowed upon you.”

So, Uapenga walked to the center of his village and called everyone together. After five minutes, he had explained that the item was from above and that it could be used as a knife, among other things. Being the benevolent chief that he was, Uapenga established a system of rotating it through each hut so that everyone could make use of the knife.

Initially, the knife was found to have many purposes, for it was used like a frisbee by the children and even as a toothpick by some. But within a couple of hours, it was clear that rules were not always followed. Fights that lasted a couple of minutes broke out over the knife until temporary ownership was settled. But the final straw that silenced the entire tribe was the injury of two children fighting over the metal object. That night, Uapenga called the tribe together again. Everyone silently huddled together, tired from the constant conflicts that the knife aroused.

“I recall my grandfather talking about a vast expanse of undrinkable water to the west, so tomorrow morning I shall go and throw the demonic item into the oceans so it can never bother us again,” Uapenga announced. His arms, once trembling with wonder, now lay motionless by his side.

And so, once the sun rose in the east, Uapenga set out to the west. He had never traveled farther than where the well was built, and within hours, he found himself in the middle of nowhere. Except for the occasional acacia tree and patch of sunburnt grass, the horizon remained empty. Luckily, Uapenga wore leather sandals, or his feet would have been bruised and cut with the sharp rocks that lay beneath his feet.

After about two hours of walking with no rest, Uapenga came upon a road. It was not like the roads he had seen in his village but instead made of hard, black rock. Following the road west, he came upon huts. These huts were different from the ones in his community too. These weren’t the small, cramped shacks made of cracked, brown earth and puny branches. These were flat, stone castles, each painted with so many bright hues that it could only be fit for the gods. Once he seemed to reach the main path, Uapenga saw something that he wouldn’t forget until the day he died. Noisy metal carts moved up and down the road, with no animal pulling it! Some people who looked exactly like Uapenga walked on the side of the road, moving in and out of the castles. Although he had stumbled upon a city he could have only heard in stories, Uapenga sensed a shroud of black, thick smoke over the castles. It darkened the clouds above him and stained the sides of the buildings.

Uapenga made his way across the path towards a castle where many people were sitting and talking. The wall of the castle had a gaping hole to enter through, allowing Uapenga to see tables, chairs, and little flames hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps they could tell him where the ocean was. Halfway across the path, one of the carts rolled up to Uapenga and roared at him. The person inside the cart poked his head out and told Uapenga to move aside, but Uapenga had no clue what the man was saying and just stood and stared.

A man came out of the castle that Uapenga was heading to and pulled him aside. Uapenga turned his attention from the strange noise-making cart to the strange white man who held him tightly by the arm and took him into the castle. Uapenga had never seen a rather large man with golden hair and blue eyes, although he wore the same khaki uniform and a leather belt that Uapenga had seen on a man who had walked through the village a decade ago. Thinking that he was a god, Uapenga attempted to hand him the keys, but the man didn’t notice.

The man and Uapenga sat down on chairs at a circular table and were handed colorless drinks. They smelled like medicine to Uapenga, but he drank it to appease these demigods. The room in which they sat was extensive, having the same area as ten of Uapenga’s huts. Everyone in the room was also drinking the colorless liquid and staring at Uapenga’s native garbs. Although they looked like Uapenga, they were stout and dressed like the white man, so Uapenga assumed they must be divine too. Some erupted in laughter and were pointing at Uapenga, making him feel very hot and uncomfortable in a way he had never felt before.

Another khaki-wearing man came up from behind where Uapenga was seated. “He’s a little underdressed, don’t you think, Glen?” he sneered, pointing at Uapenga.

The white man chuckled and nodded, but then turned his attention back at Uapenga. “Look at you! Do you speak English? Bantu?” the white man asked him. Uapenga just kept staring at the man’s hair. “Right, let’s get you fixed up with some clothing, or everyone’s going to think you’re straight from the desert. Unless you are, aren’t you? Well, welcome to the town of Opuwo.”

The man reached into his knapsack that was at his feet and handed Uapenga clothes that were the same as the one the man was wearing. As he put them on right in front of the man, he noticed that the clothes were so voluminous that he could fly if he really tried. Uapenga, confused as ever, expressed gratitude in his native tongue and handed the knife to the man as a payment.

“Where’d you get these keys from, eh?” the man chuckled, as he slapped Uapenga on the back and snatched the keys. He then ordered a bottle of the colorless liquid and handed it to Uapenga. “For your people back home. Don’t drink it all right now!”

Uapenga grasped it cautiously and got up from his chair. He bowed to the man and walked out of the castle, leaving the man both confused and amused. Uapenga ran back the way he entered the city without watching for those predatory carts. The unwanted attention and mockery that he had received from the men had put him on the verge of tears.

After he had run about a mile away from the village, Uapenga felt like smashing the bottle in rage. His vision had become blurry and his head hurt. What did the gods want from him? Those gods mocking him on their high thrones weren’t gods – why, they weren’t even men! They were animals! Devilish creatures who only could humiliate and who wanted Uapenga to suffer for his looks and actions! His fingers became sweaty as he struggled to open the bottle the man had given him. Putting his mouth to the opening, he nearly chugged the entire bottle and immediately felt better. Then, he ran home and never looked back, tightly gripping the empty bottle by its neck. Those creatures will suffer for their actions, he assured himself. Perhaps their families would fall apart now that the knife had been handed to them.

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Uapenga reached his village just as the sun began setting. He stumbled into his hut and almost collapsed on the floor. His boys picked him up and propped him up against a wall.

“Did you do it? Is it gone?” they asked. Uapenga just nodded, his head and stomach spinning like the porridge that his wife had cooked.

“Go. Call the village together. I must tell them the good news,” Uapenga weakly told his sons, who immediately ran out of the hut and gathered the other villagers outside Uapenga’s hut. Uapenga slowly got up and walked into the forming crowd. “I have done it. It is gone. And if you would believe what I have seen, you wou–”

Uapenga then burst into laughter. He laughed, and he laughed, and he laughed until he collapsed from fatigue. The crowd that he had called together immediately thought their leader had gone crazy. They then noticed the bottle and Uapenga’s outfit and started shouting, for they felt the gods had replaced Uapenga with the strangely clothed man that stood before them. An elder in the crowd saw the bottle and knew what it was, as he had met a white man who had come to the village when he was a young boy with the same bottle and recalled that the white man had laughed himself to death after consuming the entire bottle. After the elder warned the crowd what he thought would happen to Uapenga, the group demanded that Uapenga be thrown out of the tribe for his devious dealings with the white men. They started kicking his sagging body as they further blamed Uapenga for bringing the knife and conflict to the village in the first place.

Uapenga’s boys dragged their bruised father back into their hut with shame radiating off their faces. It would be the last time that anyone from the village saw or bothered to see Uapenga’s family.

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