They are sweating to death. They can’t move any farther. Their breath sputter in quick, heavy puffs. Exhaustion hurt. Their energy is sapped and reduced to nil as the aches and muscle pains scream. A few collapse to the ground and others lean against any tree, boulder or each other. Buzzing mosquitos and flies swoop in like vultures, to snatch the salty taste from their skin. So, they silently pray to themselves for the end, except him.
Rhazel Battle isn’t even winded. Glancing around, he takes a swig from his water bottle and inhales the heat. Incredible! This is a dream! He can’t believe it! He’s standing on a mountain in Africa. This is Africa! The landscape is amazing! So much beauty and history, closing his eyes he imagines soaking up every bit of African Culture, sight, sound and smell through his skin. The cities they visited were magnificent in every way but Rhazel loved the nature, despite growing up in Chicago. The only thing more astounding, is how out of shape his classmates were, considering they’d only been hiking for thirty minutes.
“Ok, let’s keep moving.” Mandle, their African guide said. His words are greeted with a chorus of moans. The young adults didn’t budge. “Its only 6:30am. We have a long distance to go, my friends.” reminds Mandle.
“Are you serious? My legs are killing me!” Thaddeus groans. Thaddeus Wilkins Goldstein, the outgoing and very talkative team member that had become Rhazel's friend at The Horizon Institute. Thaddeus likened himself as a taller Shia LeBouf but with better looks. He wasn’t lacking in self-confidence either.
Rhazel cracked a smile. Thaddeus loved food more than the idea of exercise. “After all of the walking we’ve done; you should be in better shape by now.” Rhazel said.
“Rha. Listen, I can’t wait to get back to the hotel! Oh, I miss it so bad! So luxurious, so wi-fi connected and so air-conditioned!!”
“I feel you but..wait, are you carrying the medal around your neck??”
Thaddeus rubs a medallion hanging from his neck.
“Yeah. So what? We won it didn’t we? This is the first time, I’ve won anything!! Its 1st Place! So yes, I’m puffing my chest! Olympic gold!” Thaddeus was all smiles.
“Thad. You do know that’s not real gold, right?” Rhazel chuckles as he adjusts a manual setting on his DSLR camera. Besides, Mr. McCoy, Rhazel was the only one in their group with a professional digital camera, everyone else used their phones. He took his photography seriously.
Thaddeus’ pauses, “But Kaia, told me…?”
Snapping a few panoramic images of the view, Rhazel shakes his head and smiles. Thaddeus will believe anything she says. Thaddeus has a crush on Kaia, a 20 year old with long dark hair, round eyes and a dancer’s body. Rhazel had seen her around The Horizon Institute but never spoke directly to her; beyond an occasional, non-returned smile. Her pretty features spoke Middle Eastern. She wore clothes that hugged her medium frame body; the envy of girls and the ogling inspiration for most male teenagers and grown men. Today, she wore dark brown khaki pants and a blue blouse top that opened into a V neck shape. Around her neck, she sported a bone necklace; curved and jagged suspended by a black cord. Most of the necklace disappeared into her blouse. You would notice, even if you were not looking; especially when she’d laugh or lean forward. Many were cut by her tongue, if she caught them looking too long. Rhazel waited for his friend to catch up. His shoulders are slumped and he’s biting his lower lip. This told Rhazel everything he needed to know. Thad had it bad!
“Come on.” Patting Thaddeus on the shoulder, “I’m sure you’re not the only person, to think they were gold medals. Don’t worry about it.”
Rhazel and the other graduates of the Horizon Institute had completed a year of leadership training. Thinking back, it was a good decision for him. After graduating high school, he’d accepted several college invitations but didn’t pack his bags and leave. A risky decision on his behalf but he gave himself a year before diving into a university. In the interim, he kept busy by working a few temporary jobs, starting a mobile barber service and volunteering with Chicago nonprofits. He often spent time at Africa West Bookstore in the Garfield Community on Chicago’s Westside. One day, after purchasing Chancellor Williams’ book Destruction Of Black Civilization, he picked up and read a 4x6 color flyer promoting The Horizon Institute.
The Horizon Institute's mission is to teach Leadership, Communication and Civic Engagement throughout Chicago. Rhazel enrolled and learned techniques on organizing, public speaking and more. The participants used these these new skills to co-develop projects to bridge the gap between the opportunities of social programs and community residents; especially at risk youth. Some of the initiatives were The Voter Registration Drives, Stop The Violence & Start The Healing Campaigns and more. The Institute’s training program culminated into a public ceremony attended by the Mayor and other notable citizens. As a reward, The Institute sponsored this Africa Trip for the graduates. Rhazel smiles remembering the youth he’d mentored in The Build Today, Lead Tomorrow program. He promised he’d take hundreds of images to show them when he came back to Chicago. That reminded him, he also promised to send a few pictures to his Aunt, as well to his parents. They were somewhere on assignment.
“Less talking and more walking! We’ve got about 2 miles to go before we get to the village. At this pace, it will be late at night. Come on! I’m going on 66, and I’m in better shape than some of you.” Mr. McCoy declared. And with that Mr. McCoy, 60 yrs old and member of the pot belly, breezes pass Thaddeus. A small race begins and the two jostle for space on the path as everyone laughs.
They continue hiking over rocky, uneven terrain and semi paved roads. The sight and sounds of Africa are beautiful and exquisite. The mountain peaks soar, rising in the distance with vast flat plains that gave way to dense jungle. A few hours and several rest stops later, they arrive just outside a large village and are among two other tour groups.
“Finally! I am so tired!…and hungry. How about —?” Thaddeus turns to Rhazel who is busy turning and rotating a map of the area. “Dude. What’s wrong?”
“This map doesn’t…have this village on it.”
“So? Maybe its an old map.”
“Yeah, but its not on any of the other maps that Dr. McCoy has either, and you know he did his research.” Rhazel says.
“I’m sure Mandle knows where we are, after all, he brought us here.”
Rhazel nods and sees Mandle who is speaking to young African Woman. He walks over to him, “Excuse me, I’ve been looking at the map and this village is nowhere —“
“There are many places not on any maps. What’s more important, is where you are, is where you’re suppose to be? So you’re here now and there’s so much see.”
They are welcomed into the village with excitement and cheers of a large crowd. Mr. McCoy and Mrs. Stuttly make an announcement that they will stay the night and that supplies are already on the way. Everyone, guests and hosts cheer even more. ,
“We are apart of this village, at least for today. When you can, journal what you learn and take pictures. That way, we'll have some content for our blog. So that’s it! Go and explore. Have fun.” Instructed Mrs. Stuttley
One of the first things they each did is spend time with an Elder. One Elder male, ______ , with a strong grip seized Rhazel’s wrist. His strength equaled the opposite pull of Rhazel who couldn’t move.
Peering his auburn eyes into Rhazel’s, “Your destiny is a dangerous one. Fear and strange things will come to you. Your road will have many branches, only your Belief will carry you. Fight to Know Yourself.”
His grip vanishes and Rhazel staggers backward. The Elder closes his eyes and leans back into a rest. Unnerved, Rhazel thanks him and quickly exits. He didn’t believe in superstition or psychic magic but the Elder’s words whipped chills across his back, even in the heat. Rhazel’s thoughts are interrupted by cheering. Next, he hears a powerful voice speak; turning he sees an old man standing on on old tree trunk.. He asks _________ about the speaker and learns he is the Griot. As he is elevated above the crowd, his voice carries folktales and soon the crowd grows larger. A woman dressed in white carried a small bowl of food. As she passes by older men and women, she offers them a chance to take from the bowl. Several children triy but a kind but a stern look, sends them in another direction. Several joyful dancers, young and old, keep rhythm with the drummers’ beats and music. Rhazel laughed when he saw Mr. McCoy and Mrs. Stuttly dancing or at least attempting to master the movements. His friend, Thaddeus was having a good time. He’d borrowed Rhazel’s camera and kept busy firing off clicks, trying to capture story of the dance session, the crowd and the Griot.
During the second tale of Anansi the Spider, out of the corner of his eye, Rhazel sees an older woman. Short and stocky, she’s wearing a Buba (a long African fabric blouse) that stretches to her waist. A matching Gele (head wrap) is wrapped around her head and an iro (a skirt wrap) draped her waist. She’s carrying a canvas bag with the words, Save Nature, printed on the side. She turns in his direction and catches his eye in the crowd. He blinks and she's gone? Then a few yards away, he sees that she is now leaning against a tree.
“What the?” he thinks just as someone walks up briefly, blocking his view and when they pass, she's gone, again! His scans the crowd and spots her several yards away. “Impossible!?” he thinks. Rhazel is compelled to follow her. When he catches up to her, she is sitting under a large tree, facing away from him. She snaps a twig from a ground level branch and begins to chew on it.
“Are you hungry, Brother?"
Licking his lips, Rhazel, ”Um..uh yes, I"m starving. We haven't had lunch yet."
"Well, why not? All the food you need, is all around you. You must know where to look. Open your eyes, Brother." Before he could reply, she pats a place next to her. "Come sit."
He kneels instead across from her, under the shade of the tree. She reaches to her side and finds her pouch. She sings a short tune and he pauses to consider her speech.
“What language is that?”
She stands, ”I speak a lot of languages, many of which, none know. My name is as old, as the trees you see here."
She laughs. His eyes dart to his group and back to the old woman. "O-kay." he thinks. “What’s your name?” he asks.
She tilts her, "Are you hungry?" She reaches into the Save Nature bag and pulls out a root, that looks like a piece of ginger.
He turns it over in his hands, inspecting it. She eyes him.
"It is a piece of root from one of the oldest trees, Paut Neteru. Eat it. I guarantee you will not be hungry for some time."
She laughs, “Yes, now eat.”
Rhazel looks at the crowd and the storyteller. Listening to the laughter and claps, the noise grows louder . The old woman smiles. He takes a bite of the root and its delicious! It tastes like an apple but it’s juicy like the sweetest plum. Watching the crowd, he sees bright specks of yellow light, shimmer into view. The specks appear all around the crowd and begin to grow losing their brilliance while taking shape. Rhazel blinks. Dozens of African People appear, all are finely dressed and smiling, enjoying the Griot. However, each of them had an outline of yellow light around their almost translucent bodies. He shakes his head. This couldn't be right but yet it is? A few turn in his direction and he swallows the last bite. The images of the glowing Africans slowly fade.
“What was -?”
“Did you see –?”
“Yes. Good food is good for the Soul. This root will give you the strength you need to help your spirit grow into your new Self.”
“But? I..I..I don't understand..”
The old woman rises and walks to another tree. She takes a drinking flask from her neck. Her moves are slow and deliberate. Rhazel searches the crowd for the glowing people that are no longer there.
Rhazel follows her, “May I ask, who are you?"
"Me?" pointing to herself, “I’m one Spirit of Trees."
She laughs again and her voice soars and gently & dives like the wind. Then she becomes serious.
"You will have troubling days and troubling nights. You will need plenty of energy and sometimes rest will not be yours to have."
"What do you mean?" He looks at the crowd disbursing. He sees Thaddeus speaking to Kaia.
"That is for another to tell you."
He tries to catch up to the Old Woman. She walks around another tree.
"You must be thirsty, be sure to drink water."
Rhazel goes around the tree. She’s not there but on the ground, is her flask. “What the..she’s gone?” Looking right to left. “She's not here. I must be losing my mind?”
Licking his lips, he picks up the flask. Despite his apprehension, he’s thirsty so he drinks from it. The liquid is cool and it makes him light headed but yet his focus seems clearer. The branches and leaves rustle as if from the wind. But there is none. A whisper comes,
"The World is not what is seems to be."
He sits up. There’s a hand on his shoulder.
“Wake up, Sleepy. It’s time to eat lunch. You must have been exhausted."
Rhazel looks pass Mr. McCoy. He didn’t see any signs of the old woman, claiming to be the Spirit of Trees.
Looking at Rhazel’s confused look, “Did you lose something?” Mr. McCoy asks.
“Uh..no..I don’t think so.”
The two men through the village until they see under large canopies and tents; large table spreads of food. Everyone was hungry, eager for the main dishes to be served.
"This is some good stuff, right Rha?” Thaddeus had a tongue and stomach for any type of food. Taste testing new flavors was his favorite hobby, outside of studying robotics.
"Yeah, I admit some of it is tasty. But right now, I don't have much of an appetite, so I'll pass."
"Ok, you don't know what you're missing. Hey, can you..uh are you going to eat that?"
"I'm good. Enjoy yourself. Let me borrow my camera, I think I'll snap a few pics."
A young African boy, about 6 years old with round clear eyes and a bright smile pulls at Rhazel's arm.
"Looks like you have a new friend.” Thaddeus said between delicious bites.
"I see. Hey, little brother." Rhazel smiles at the young boy.
The boy pulls more, urging Rhazel to follow him. “Come.”
“Ok, ok..what are you trying to show me.”
The boy leads Rhazel some yards away to a large tree hut. The sight is impressive inside. Before they arrived, Mandle had told them that the men and women of this village are renowned for their garment work. Inside the hut were hundreds of dashikis, kufis and sandals and more. The little boy is busy in the back of the tent; rummaging through several stacks of fabrics and clothing. He pulls out a dashiki suit with a unique pattern and color of royal blue, bright burnt sienna with white accents and gold oval buttons. He gives the two piece to Rhazel. He urges Rhazel to take off his shirt and put it on. Rhazel does and even slips the pants over his shorts. He turns.
"How do I?"
He stops. Seven elderly, African women, holding African carved canes were suddenly inside the tent. They were staring at him.
"Uh..hello? Is there..something...wrong?"
They respond with smiles and murmurs among themselves. They circle him and Rhazel feels rabbit small in their presence. He just stands still with his mouth open. He didn’t know what to say. A thick, sweet aromatic scent of strong burning incense invades his nostrils. As he watches the swirling smoke flow around the inside of the tent, his head begins to spin. His heart begins to race as he feels the heavy vibrations of a drumming sound. It sounds far away but he couldn't tell if the rhythms came from outside or if it was his heartbeat. He squints through the incense haze at the older women. Their eyes are closed and their mouths are tight lipped.
They begin humming in unison. More drumming and more humming. He’s getting dizzier while his body feels heavier. He really did feel small among these Elders! Of course, its because the old women were now towering 20ft above him! They were giants holding each others hands. Harmonies flow from their mouths. Rhazel quickly looks for the little boy but his view is blocked by the legs and fabric of these towering old, African women. The more they sung, sweet words he didn’t know, the more the world around them changed. Flashes of soft colors, from invisible Paparazzi were everywhere. Rhazel spun around, or was it the room or the ring of giant women or both? Points of light began appearing like fireworks, in the background. Thin lines appeared gradually, from all directions intersecting with the next and branching off to create new paths. Webs of light, pulsing and flickering like stars at night stretched around what should have been the inside of the tent; which now seems as large as a gymnasium. The eyes of the elderly giants open, all of them! Each had four sets of eyes, some of which glowed through their head wraps. They gazed down at him!
Rhazel staggers backward from the sight but some force prevents him from falling. The Elderly Giants’ massive clasped hands glows with a rainbow of hues. Suddenly, they unclasp and their palms snap open, palms up and streams of colors leapt from their fingertips. Just like the webs of light above and around them, the beams of color intersected with the others of their neighbors. Each time they touched, it created a new pathway that zigzagged and crossed the distance between the giants. Overlapping and layering colors, threading and braiding tightly creating a kaleidoscope display like a spider’s web slowly filling in towards the middle..where Rhazel stood.
The ends of a multitude of color streams flow towards the center, wrapping a colorful display, a light show around Rhazel! He screams but he could have been mute. His voice is lost under the rumbling drumming and rising humming of the giant old women. The swirls of vibrant color, speed around his torso, legs and arms. His skin tingles from the cool breeze created by the rainbow bands of color. The webs of light pass over and through his skin. He feels weightless as the lights lift him up. They tightened around his body and just before constricting; begin to expand outward taking shape. Now he can faintly see the outline of clothes? He no longer feels the cool flow of colors but instead the weight of fabric; washed in currents of now translucent light, changing from different hues to one of sunlight. The majestic seamstresses sang melodies, reverberating in syncopation with the ambient, thunderous drumming. Their hands and fingers tensing and releasing like puppeteers conducting an orchestra of weaving. Tailoring of this nature had never been seen before in this realm. Rhazel is amazed to see a rich and lush African dashiki and pants..on his body!!?
It’s too much. Too much incense! Too many colors and sounds. Too dizzy; Rhazel closes his eyes expecting to pass out. He opens them one last time. The drumming and singing is faint in the background and now the dizziness slowly sinks away. On his knees, Rhazel watches as the old women, walk single file out of the hut. He checks himself. He’s back to his normal size! No colors, no webs..spiders? Tiny spiders, thousands of them scattering in all directions away from him and into cracks of the ground and hut.
"Wha- What’s with these old people in this village?”
The little boy runs outside. Rhazel had forgotten about him. Left alone, he didn't know what was going on, but he had enough. He looks at his clothes. Where are the African clothes he was wearing? “Was I dreaming? Did I pass out?” he thought.
Wobbly, he walks outside; rubbing his eyes, “I must be getting ill or something? That didn’t happen..?”
The crowd had grown larger and more boisterous. Singers and musicians entertained and educated with their words and creative energy. One spectator looks around and smiles at Rhazel. It was the little boy and then he turns; running into the crowd. For the second time that day, Rhazel sees another person disappear before his eyes.