Thabo’s Tongue

Thabo’s Tongue


Once, a few days ago, time gave birth to a mighty King. It is reported that the sun turned amber as the cleft to infinite continuance closed in the ultimate moments of his birth and he was cast, finally, entirely, into this world.
The people had waited several generations for this endorsement, signaling the start of the new time. Those witnessing the birth passed the bloody infant from one to another, marveling at the swollen Emperor’s mark, so clearly visible on the body of the new child.

As he grew the King came to treasure the plains around his powerful home. He adored the mountains, the rugged edges of land dipping into grey-blue seas. He was raised among people who worshipped the land. He committed to his land and his people, in full. He governed well and wisely. And raindrops, fat with promise, rolled from the leaves in his life, splashing into the rich clay of the blessed earth. His people cherished him.

Then time delivered tales of terrible magnitude, spreading North, East, West, South. Like a hardy desert weed the tales blossomed, tentacles of uncertainty and discomfort stretching, on and on just below the soil’s surface.
The King noticed his people stalling, weakened by fear. Soon potently poisonous tiny flower buds were visible as it started popping from the soil, here…there. The entire land became infected with the substance in the weeds’ veins as the tiny sprouts stole from the busy plazas the chime of happy living. The people spoke among themselves, feeding off one another, sharing their tears.

He could hardly ignore this state of affairs. He was frightened and anxious to stop the worrying rumors. The tales were of a beast so violent, an animal so vigorous that no one was safe.

People from far and wide were brought before the King and bore tortured testimony to their interactions with the Beast. Some were ordered in front of the royal entourage, the deep scars inflicted by the beast visible in the display of their naked bodies.

In the final instance the King and his Council agreed that everything should be done to beat the Beast. So the King and his advisors worked day and night to educate the people. He travelled, performed, trained and argued… and his message became a familiar tune, heard above the songs of sadness and grief that had gripped the land.

He taught them not to fear – as no animal, no beast could exist who had more power than the King himself. And whenever there were rumors of another death, another horrifying attack, he hushed his people and said: Be quiet, there is no such thing. We have important matters. No more talk of this. No one can be stronger than the King. The power lies with me.

Sufferers and mourners became shy. Stories about deaths at the hands of the Beast were kept quiet. Many cried silently for their land, dead children, lost parents and each prayed to their God to end the suffering.
Grief, regrets and memories became a quiet room. Pain became private. And eventually, they forgave themselves their soul-denial by rejecting everything related to the rumored Beast. And the plazas lit up, lived again, as people loved, fornicated and invested in the future.

The collective denial boiled … slowly, bubbly, like a potent witch’s brew with all the quiet promise of a moist seedling. As their bodies were carried to the holy places to be buried, the fury grew; firm and strong like eager trees.

And the broth of the people’s pain frothed over the side and dripped into the hot fire, a strong brew of revenge and deep injury. Their collective consciousness hungered for justice in return for their deprived pain.
Then one morning the King felt a tingling at the back of his throat, making speech somewhat difficult. As the day progressed his taste buds felt enlarged and his tongue seemed heavy, hanging to the left of his mouth.

Slowly, surely, as the days passed, he became weak as he could not eat anything. He was mumbling like a fool. Until all had to admit the horrible truth, the King’s tongue was rotting in his mouth.

And in his last ever interaction, before, well, before the end finally came, the news gatherers recorded the King sitting in a pathetic position, tears in his widened eyes, wringing his shivering hands.

He was later left mostly on his own as the smell became intolerable. Behind his desk the skew head almost touched his tense shoulders and this big pink swollen, stinking tongue hanging from his mouth. One particular morning, as the sun lit the African sky, in desperation and panic, the King ran, alone, into the dense thicket around his fortress.

News of his disappearance sent the people into turmoil. The wise consulted and preached. Others searched, but to no avail. And as they sent the King’s entire army into the forest to look for him, the castle saw the entire Council kneel in prayer.

One morning a few men found the body of the King in the sand and bushes where he had had fought for his life the previous night. The Beast had taken particular pride in proving to the King that he was real, punishing him for denying his superior power and strength.

It was a terrible sight. The once powerful man must have endured enormous pain. His body was ravished and his hands extended into the air in a fearful sight.

But the worst was his tongue. It had swollen to the size of his arm, green and slimy. It forced his head back in a macabre position, making it impossible for him to even see the Beast coming as it perpetually attacked.
And not a hundred steps from the place where he had died, just behind the lush bushes that surrounded him as life was painfully pulled from his body, lay the troops of the King. Eager to serve, awaiting a sign to defend their King and their people.

Later, it was rumoured that in the final moments of his long fight, the King overcame his fear of the Beast.
And in that moment from his belly came an enormous cry – so loud that it shook his frame as it burst from his lungs.
It is whispered that the King screamed for hours in acknowledgement of the Beast. Admitting. But the soldiers waiting close-by heard nothing, for his swollen tongue – thick and fat – unused for days, plugged his cries.
It is said that after finding him they raced away from the horrible place. They set the bush alight in their flight, burning the land. They scorched the earth for a long way in the hope that the orange flames would burn away the images of what they had seen.

They decided that a new leader would come from among them. They hurried away, agreeing that it would be better to tell no one what they had seen.

From: Nobody every said AIDS. Stories and poems from Southern Africa (Kwela Books, 2004). Thabo’s Tongue was the winner in a creative writing competition run by the editors of the book to generate new writing responding to HIV/AIDS.