At that moment of that day Percival Mahtam had been explaining to a friend the scoring system for darts at a small bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There were no women in the bar and it took several minutes for the panic to intrude on the game. He came home to find his three-year-old daughter Chloe scrunched into the comfy corner of the couch, a finger pointing to a word in a story book. A fagged out scholar. His pregnant wife had been napping on their bed, a pillow under her calves rather than her head, as she preferred. An experienced vessel.
In every science-based country hundreds of laboratories and research centres raced to produce an artificial placenta. Enormous resources focused on the use of stem cells to reanimate and regrow preserved specimens, or to build new placental tissue from scratch. They tried a number of different approaches to print organs. There were attempts to genetically modify chimpanzee and gorilla placentas to match the human genome. But there weren’t nearly enough of our male fellow primates on which to perform experimental transplants for all of these biological contrivances, so after only nine months standard ethical protocols became a quaint memory. There was a sudden crush of announcements for the start of human trials using every possible methodology.
Percival was one of the very first full-term volunteers. The moment he learned that his local hospital would be looking for experimental subjects he refreshed the sign-in portal every fifteen seconds, waiting for the link to the online questionnaire to appear. But by the time he finished there were already 270,664 First Tier qualifications ahead of him. The UNC Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology was only minutes away so he simply showed up and said I’m ready. He and 257 other men at Women’s Hospital received various versions of pseudo-placental grafts. 59 died of immune system failures or hemorrhaging within one month. 107 barely survived removal of the grafts. 72 pseudo-placentas had sound blood circulation but unusable morphology. Percival was one of only 19 men whose placentas took root and maintained a desired laminar structure. Over an eight-month period some 200 gastrula implants were attempted on the other 18 men at Women’s Hospital, but Percival was kept aside as a kind of reserve just to see what would happen to an undisturbed graft. Finally, Percival received a single gastrula implant in his mature, healthy, fully integrated pseudo-placenta. At 30 weeks his daughter was delivered, the second live human birth in two years, Girl 2.
When Percival first set eyes on Phoebe’s tiny form inside the incubator he couldn’t stop asking the surgical staff, as if through a crack in the atmosphere, Where’s her mother? No. Are you sure? He couldn’t stop asking because even their most definitive assurances hinted at bewildered uncertainty.
The delivery of this child was also the delivery of a solution. All over the world the Women’s Hospital strategy was replicated and refined. Pseudo-placental pregnancy was industrialized.
After several months of recovery he realized that he would need more than the professional help of a thousand people to tend to this invaluable human. He would also need a friend to tend to the medical travesties of his own wrecked body, now missing two ribs and several feet of small intestine. He would need a housemate. A husband. A wet nurse. He invited his closest friend, Jerry, who now knew how to score darts, to be a second parent to Phoebe. Together they coined the term dad-mate. The term stuck and became nearly universal. The bond between Mother and Dad-mate was legally recognized as a marriage.
Girl 1, Amelia, died at the age of 5 from pulmonary failure. A journalist in search of something to say informed Percival that his Phoebe was the new Girl 1. Percival affably objected to this tasteless comment. But the idiot would not shut up, cleverly asking the mother what the odds might be that Phoebe could end up being Woman #1. Jerry asked Percival if he should break the journalist’s nose. Percival said Please, and Jerry broke the man’s nose.
This event troubled many functionaries in the bureaucracies of reproduction as it violated the very selection precepts which Percival himself had helped refine during his pregnancy. Percival had suggested that the questionnaires should do more than identify mere psychopathy, but should examine simple ethics: IF A MAN VIOLATED YOUR SENSE OF HONOR WOULD YOU ASSAULT HIM? Percival was called a hypocrite. Experts panicked and philosophers worried that the primitive human instinct for honor culture would not be weeded out, after all. His response was simple. I never suggested that the answer to that question must be NO. I now see that we need a second question: IF SOMEONE VIOLATED YOUR SENSE OF HONOR WOULD YOU KILL THAT PERSON? Maybe someday you’ll have the pleasure of understanding the distinction.
Then Phoebe, at age eleven, had her first period.
Percival had been preparing to get some writing done. Jerry was helping him to adjust the angle of his wheelchair and to clamp typing styluses to his forearms when Phoebe trotted in.
Mom, Dad, I think this is it!
She clicked on the desk lamp and held out her underwear, illuminating speckles of blood. They all clutched and held the moment for themselves before releasing this miracle to the world. Percival wrapped his barely functioning fingers around the tiny garment, and he pressed his hand into the cavity on the left side of his abdomen.
At that moment of that day Emily Chiepe had been showing a classmate how to properly use a torque wrench to change the fittings on a hydraulics demonstration rig. She spent only twenty seconds applying CPR before informative screams in the hallway suggested that touching her male classmate might be unwise. Every corner of her little tech college bellowed panic. Women raced between buildings or into town, each to warn a particular man, each to find him dead.
News of the calamity manifested on every platform, channel and feed visible through the tiny window in her hand. Every square kilometre of every continent had been assaulted with identical precision, four billion victims at the hands of four billion assassins in full view of four billion witnesses.
The helplessness of the world swelled within Emily’s temples, grabbed her shoulders and held her down to the floor beside this one dead man, her own particular dead man. More so than the unfairness of this event she disliked the incompleteness of it, the uncertainty of it. As women within earshot begged the dead to rise she demanded proof of the irreversibility and finality of this unending moment. I see. Either they will come back to life or we will die. Her mind moved no further.
Seventeen minutes later the power failed and the hundred invisible hums of civilization ceased. The silence, a dead silence, allowed her thoughts to implode, focus… The moment was over. The calamity was over. The calamity had just begun. Presently she saw the inevitability of everyone else’s pending mistake, she knew exactly how they would respond and move, how they would fail. She began forming a plan to do the exact opposite. She discovered a machinery of survival driven by gears of pride and joy.
She dug through tangles of computer wires to access two universal power sources, plugged in her charger and phone… then apprehended the mammoth stupidity of squandering those precious minutes sitting on the floor: second by second the internet was disappearing. All of its information was disappearing, all of its maps. Emily allowed the stillness of the dead in the room to mock her for a moment, and reassessed. She swept the campus till she found Run-Run. She thanked him for his phone and thanked him again for his lovely Leatherman multi-tool. When she finally located some heavy, high-gloss paper she plugged a printer into the UPS, linked Run-Run’s phone and printed road maps, topographic maps, tourism maps. As it clunked and whirred she wondered how much longer backup generators would maintain life support in all the hospitals.
She found the two teachers who owned Land Rovers and took the keys from their pockets. She took a laundry bag to the chemistry building and loaded spools of ½” and 1” reinforced PVC tubing, alcohol and burners, sparkers and spare flints, batteries, torches. In the parking lot she dragged two corpses out of the way and for an hour learned how to drive a Land Rover with stick shift. She found a janitor, took his keys and got into the Facilities Storage rooms. She took all four shovels, the mattock, two hoes and put them in her Rover. Then she visited each faculty office, spending some time in each, to ask each room, and perhaps its dead man, what she might need. She took pencils, composition books and plastic-wrapped reams of copy paper.
As the sun neared the horizon she drove into the little crossroads city of Palapye to confirm her father was dead.
The next morning it wasn’t hard to convince Tumie it was pointless to join the frantic exodus southward to the larger cities of Gaborone or Pretoria, or to Maputo on the coast. In the house next door the baby in a young woman's belly had stopped exerting and flexing, and now both were as still as stones. All her remaining neighbors were catatonic, either frozen in mute bewilderment or scuttling in a deaf panic. But Tumie’s torpor was loose and malleable, open to the persuasion of certain evidence. Her old father was understandably dead and her boyfriend Run-Run was irrevocably dead. Tumie's father's antique AM radio received only wavering static and Run-Run's new FM radio received only silence. So Emily’s plan was the only plan.
Together they scavenged the necessities from the several gas stations, garages and markets of Palapye, stepping over dead men to pilfer poly fuel containers, bottles of fuel stabilizer, batteries, motor oil, tire sealant and a miraculous fuel transfer hand pump. As others made off with bread, potato chips and liquor Emily and Tumie gathered jugs of laundry bleach, bottles of iodine, bars of soap, rubbing alcohol. With these essentials in hand she was she free to think of a hundred other things.
The next day they returned to Botswana College of Science and Technology, Central District, to print a few photos from their dying phones. As they pilfered pocket knives, glasses and sturdy shoes they kissed with their fingers these unclaimed men.
The two young women queried friends, teachers, anyone. They looked for a flash of recognition, comprehension, agreement: Of course, yes, you have the right idea, I will join your expedition. But they received only bafflement, tears and contempt for being so very wrong. They were ridiculed as they hitched trailers to their Rovers, laded them with bags of clothes, water containers, petrol and boxes of food, secured blue tarps with yellow ropes. The brave newness and finality of the activity blinkered them from the scampering insanities. The exhaustion of their minds and muscles masked the rising smell of death.
They headed west on A14 with perfect confidence. No one else was heading west, inland. In their mirrors a hundred wisps of gasoline smoke rose from the neighborhoods.
A few kilometres from town Tumie stopped her vehicle, stumbled into the sandy scrubland and clutched the trunk of a sweet thorn tree. Emily stopped and persuaded Tumie to release the tree. For an hour they clutched and cried away their accumulated stores of pity.
There was a steady, opposing stream of traffic from Serowe, drivers and passengers gesturing go back and yelling you are going the wrong way as they passed. They kept their speed down to 60 because of their ungainly trailers and stopped for the night a few kilometres short of Orapa. They parked side-by-side squarely facing the road and slept.
Three women – who had been, perhaps, a radio dispatcher, a payroll clerk, an executive’s wife – held up rifles to block the entry gate to the Debswana Orapa Diamond Mine. Emily and Tumie wore hats taken from the office of a professor of electrical engineering, some sort of French Foreign Legion officer’s cap and a beret with metal insignia. These artifacts of authority, and a story about emergency security measures ordered by the Debswana corporate office, were enough to bullshit their way through. Just down the road into the property a woman lay dead, shot in the back.
It was a fairly vast complex of administrative buildings, physical plants and ore processing structures. Parking lots and walkways were littered with bloated corpses. One had to be dragged out of the way. Efficient signage directed them to the Corporate Offices Building, fronted with luxury cars. A mere bump of Emily’s Rover smashed the glass façade into the executive reception area. As soon as they got out of their vehicles the smells of decomposition made them vomit. Within an hour they had located a dozen hunting rifles and countless rounds of ammunition in several executive suites. They carefully hid these treasures beneath the tarps of the trailers. The employee markets, mess halls and hospital had not been ransacked so they were free to gather a few more necessities.
After siphoning cars to top off their fuel tanks Emily insisted that they go to the edge of the open pit mine. Tumie agreed only because this took them west of the complex, into the breeze skimming over the scrubland. As the pit came into view it took their breath away, a kilometer-wide crater scooped out by the forks and spoons of giants. For a moment the death-sickness in their stomachs was overruled by a vertiginous delight.
An engineer lay neatly beside his truck, his path to the ground visible as an arcing smear on the dusty fender. Emily asked May I? and took the binoculars from around his neck. She scanned each of those absurdly huge dump trucks and excavators, briefly wondering if men had perhaps survived below ground level. They had not. One truck had tumbled down the absurdly huge earthen steps like a giant child’s abused toy.
Just think, she said to Tumie, the whole world comes out of holes like this. Came out of holes like this. All the iron and copper and beryllium. Or tunnels in the ground for coal. And salt. You see. Those derricks on the oceans that poke holes and suck up oil and gas. Electricity came out of holes in the ground. All the computers came out of holes in the ground, and our lipstick. Wind turbines and solar panels, renewable energy, it was all earth. The Land Rovers and airplanes came out of these holes. Men died in this particular hole, you know, for diamonds. I wonder how many died or got crippled, right down there, for those diamonds.
Tumie ran her thumb over the tiny diamond on her finger and said, Just fancy rocks out of a hole, for men to give to women and say ‘Let me fuck your hole. And make a baby. That will come out of your hole.'
At the gate a dozen more armed women had materialized. They formed a clumsy close order formation beneath the canopy, pointing rifles. One woman yelled officiously, demanding to know what they had been up to for so long on the private property of Debswana Corporation. Emily stepped out of her Rover and barked right back through a bullhorn, giving assurances that All supplies of diamonds have been secured in the underground vaults. She slowly rolled forward and demanded to know who was in charge. The woman who had yelled did not volunteer to be the person in charge. The group stepped aside to let them pass.
As Emily began to accelerate away Tumie stopped her Rover and addressed the group. We have activated the security cameras, so your weapons will no longer be necessary, she proclaimed. We have more technical work to do but we will be back in a few days. The women of Orapa can now have free access to the Debswana facility. Allow them to find their husbands and sons. Don’t shoot any more people. Use your rifles to hunt for food. Everyone now has permission to come in and find their men and remove them or bury them or just say goodbye. You see. Is that understood?
The two Land Rovers drove north into one of the last and finest sanctums of the African continent, the Africa of the world’s imagination. Here was the green paradise north of the Kalahari savannah where cool rivers flowed into shallow basins and spread out to form inland deltas and marshes, an area the size of Pennsylvania stretching across northern Botswana and western Zimbabwe, a patchwork of national parks and regulated game reserves which had been almost entirely free of poachers and agriculture. It was, however, a wilderness speckled with civilization, small towns along the Chobe and Zambezi rivers which supported the people that supported the tourists who came to buy something besides precious minerals dug from holes in the ground. The tourists came here to buy a moment of Africa.
Now this region was no longer Botswana or Zimbabwe. The small airport at Kasane was no longer an airport and the electric safari vehicles would no longer drive Koreans and Americans and Swedes and Israelis out to see elephants and zebras and antelopes and rhinos. Now it was just a stateless swathe of earth and life, its only function to be itself.
As Emily and Tumie approached the region thousands of cars and trucks continued to flow south, towards the doom of coastal cities. Which was just as well. These modern people, she thought, tourists and Botswanans alike, will die more quickly in the swarming concrete and asphalt deserts. Up here, with perpetual fresh water, they would have died more slowly.
Emily had already decided exactly where she would like to spend the rest of her life: the Chobe Game Lodge on the south bank of the Chobe River. This was the most prestigious deluxe resort on the river, sturdy buildings with sturdy roofs and better beds than she has ever slept in. It was thirty kilometres west of Kasane and it was doubtful that the citizens and guests in Kasane would flee westward, further into the wilderness. More likely, any women and girls who could not squeeze into a car would walk eastward toward the much larger cities of Victoria Falls and Livingston. There are nicer supermarkets in bigger cities, and nicer supermarkets always have food.
As they crept through Kasane, down the road that skirted the river they assessed the resources left behind, the occasional forgotten stacks of lumber and cinder blocks. The occasional resident barely registered their presence, perhaps annoyed that the sudden appearance of vehicles had disturbed their acclimation to a world without vehicles. Only three people stepped toward the road, as though expecting them. It was an odd two-story red brick structure which looked like a small hive of condominiums misplaced from some American beach but was in fact Kasane's hospital. The eldest of the three said You're too late. Two of them are dead already. All of the doctors and nurses had accompanied the masses east and south, leaving behind eleven pregnant women who were no longer pregnant. Emily insisted that neither she nor Tumie knew how to allay the moans filling the hallways but the eldest woman, who had been a clinical assistant, stared at Emily and followed as though her close readiness would elicit a plan of action. Emily was simultaneously annoyed and pleased to see that all medical supplies had been emptied neatly and completely, with no signs of disorderly panic. A few vials and needles remained to comfort the no longer pregnant women, but none of it seemed to have been used. Emily instructed the assistant to demonstrate her ability to administer whatever was in the vials, starting with a woman whose mattress was puddled with blood. The clinical assistant handled the hypodermic expertly and the breathing of labor became the breathing of surrender. Keep doing this. This is for you to do, not us. You see. Help them die. That's your job now.
There were dozens of lodges and motels along the Chobe river. Emily and Tumie methodically searched every promising source of ammunition and rope. They gathered every bow and arrow and toothbrush. They lashed two aluminium boats and oars atop the laden trailers. They soon had such a mass that it threatened the stability of their vehicles, so they hid the dense boxes and crates of ammo in places where no one would look. They kept a rotary drum pump, essential for sucking fuel from underground tanks at the petrol stations on their return raids to Kasane. Before ransacking the larger towns to the east it would be best to give the remaining people there a chance to die, perhaps four months. The soap and hatchets would still be there.
Aside from its isolation from the cities Chobe Lodge had one other choice characteristic. It was staffed with competent women, certified safari guides who were renowned for their knowledge of flora and fauna and their facility with automobiles and boats.
Five of the Chobe guides remained. They had buried their own dead first, then helped other employees to bury their dead: men who had been cooks, mechanics, bartenders, medics. Some of the guests were proud to transport their own to a proper spot and wield a shovel. But many of the dead had been foolishly buried with their glasses, false teeth, shoes, belts.
A few guests were still indignantly waiting for an employee to move their bloating husbands and sons from their four-star rooms. These spoiled women immediately assumed that Emily had arrived to take charge of the situation and get the staff moving. So Emily allowed the idiots to believe in her authority. Emily and Tumie wrapped the dead in bed sheets after surreptitiously plundering the men and boys of their glasses and pocket treasures, although they often could not remove shoes from swollen feet. They lugged them to the river and pushed the sprawling bodies into the current, unfurling and saving the sheets in the process. They cited regulations to justify these shocking improvisations. Then Emily gave the spoiled women a few provisions and an old vehicle with just enough petrol in the tank to drive eastwards to the Kasane airport where they would be rescued in three days.
The mature safari guides admired this lie. They had always despised those tourists who made no attempt to emulate the strength of the land. They were relieved that someone else had swiftly culled the community of the weak and incapable. And the Chobe safari guides understood that this young person who had purposefully chosen the interior as her place of refuge would be, in some sense, their leader.
Emily understood that she needed to do something notable to cement this perception. Nearly two hundred women remained and their respect for the Chobe guides was diffuse and apolitical. The guides’ first big meeting was to inform the community of all the food stores available and to guesstimate how long it would last. Emily interrupted the doleful Q & A session to demand that she be taken out immediately to shoot game. Now. Let’s go. She quickly learned how to be unafraid of a rifle’s recoil. She killed two birds, a bustard and a spurfowl, and, to the astonishment of her two guides, a hyena. That’s not a game animal! Nobody eats hyena!
I’m going to eat it. You show me how to butcher it.
Now that she had everyone’s undivided attention Emily’s priority was to convince all the people of this new tribe – one hundred ninety-seven women and girls, none younger than twelve – that everything manmade was finite. This is all the disinfectant in the world. Every ounce of bleach and alcohol is precious. This is all we will have forever. If you cut your finger you cannot flood it with a flow of alcohol spilled onto the floor… These clothes are your last clothes until we learn how to make more from animal skins… The batteries in the electric Rovers will not be recharged, so we should drive them out as far as possible to serve as refuge from lions or from lightning when we are out hunting… The petrol we brought and the petrol in Kasane is the last petrol in all the world, and it’s impossible to know how long the fuel stabilizers will keep it from going bad, and some day the electric generator will produce no more electricity. How much longer will we have artificial light at night? Months? Years? Not forever.
Some of the women refused to fully accept this new truth, that as of the present moment they were hunter-gatherers living in caves shaped like buildings.
Tourists – American, Japanese, German, Scot – would not stop discussing the possibility of an airlift. The respected Chobe guides, despite their practical rationality and overall level-headedness, kept alive hope that rescue was possible. Emily lost all patience explaining the simplicity of their new reality. Airplanes aren’t coming here. No airplanes are leaving unless you can fuel a plane and fly it. Are you a pilot? If a rescue helicopter landed right here and offered me a seat I would not get in. You see. If you want to escape go to Victoria Falls, it’s nearby. You can walk there in three days. You can look at the lovely view and then jump in. That’s what you can do.
At least the Chobe guides understood that ammunition must never be used for target practice. You practice by aiming at an animal.
You must learn to handle a knife. You must learn to cut up an animal… You must learn how to start and tend a fire… And for fuck sake you have to dig a toilet where I tell you to dig a toilet…
Stop burning candles and kerosene at night. Don’t even touch the batteries… Jesus, are you mental, don’t use paper to start a fire… Don’t burn anything inside a building, because if you burn down a building, from just a moment of inattention, it will not be rebuilt. Ever.
Stop using the aluminium foil to cook meat, we could use it for something else. I have no idea what, but there might be some unique thing that we need it for some day, can’t you see that… The only things that should be thrown away are food scraps… Stop using soap when you bathe in the river. No soap for dishes. This is all there is. Learn how to make soap and you can use all the soap you like. I am fucking serious, learn how to make soap…
And then Tumie was pregnant. When she last had sex with Run-Run early on the morning of the calamity they had recklessly forgone a condom. After missing two periods she was sure. But Tumie remained oblivious to the enormous implications of this potentially miraculous timing until Emily explained. There was a small chance that her egg had been fertilized that very morning, before the calamity, in which case the child in her was certainly a girl; all the prenatal boys had died, thus an egg with XY chromosomes presumably would have died. But it was far more likely that Tumie’s egg had been fertilized after the calamity. It takes time for a sperm to travel up a fallopian tube to meet an egg, and for those few hours Run-Run's sperm was neither boy nor girl, it merely carried either an X or Y chromosome. Maybe the curse on males was instantaneous, fleeting, passing. Maybe at the moment of fertilization, hours beyond the deaths of Run-Run and all the men and boys of the world, that egg was able to become male and remain alive, and divide, and divide... Maybe Tumie carried a boy.
If this was true perhaps there was another such miracle of reproductive timing nearby. It made Emily’s heart sink to imagine that a woman carrying a boy may have passed her on the roads, heading south to certain death. If there was another boy in another womb somewhere nearby, in the towns along the rivers, perhaps she could find him. The future of the human species – in this region of this continent – depended on the birth and nurturing of at least one boy.
If Tumie produced a boy then that boy would need girls. Emily and her tribe had to find every girl in the region and take them in. Every pregnant woman had to be taken in.
They quickly prepared for an expedition into Kasane and beyond but now with one treasure added to the list. Emily and seven other women put on Chobe Lodge executive staff uniforms and headed east in four Rovers, two of them pulling empty trailers.
Along the way the other safari lodges, less glamorous than the Chobe, were haunted by impatient stragglers who had done virtually nothing to improve their situation. They now begged and demanded a seat in a vehicle. The expedition gathered nylon rope, sledge hammers and entrenching spades but none of those hapless people.
Most of the employees of the hunting lodges had returned to their homes in Kasane, then had headed south. For hours the expedition crept through the pitiful streets scraped out of the dirt in the weedy brush, calling out to every cinder block house. They called out for pregnant women but found only starving women, old women, stubborn women. At the small clinic near the Kasane airport they found only injured and sick women. Every single child, it seemed, had been evacuated south on the A33.
At the airport they found one adolescent girl, Canah, living by herself, less perturbed by the calamity than anyone else. She had been homeless and alone before, and she was homeless and alone after. Emily insisted she join them, assuring the girl that soon there would be no more food in Kasane to pilfer. Canah helped them find every box of menstrual hygiene product at the airport, schools and chemists.
Along the way they found goats in two abandoned homesteads. They selected four to take back to Chobe on this trip, and made sure a dozen others had a few days’ worth of food and water.
They went further east into Zimbabwe and in one hour had reached the veritable metropolis of Victoria Falls. For two days they searched, crossing the Zambezi into Zambia to explore Livingstone as well. In all they found four women – two Tswana, one Bemba, and one Argentinean who spoke no English – at various weeks of pregnancy.
Rumors directed them to the Falls proper where women had been jumping to their deaths, sometimes with children, into that precipitous marvel of geology. A Tswana woman with two infants had traveled for days to get there. No one could dissuade her, but maybe she hadn’t jumped yet. Emily and her group explored the paths which might lead to a prominence of scenic solitude. As they crept along the edges of the stupendous, thunderous chasm the young Tswana woman allowed herself to be discovered on the other side of a dangerous divide and waited for them to approach. She stood naked at the chasm’s edge for a moment then jumped clumsily, slipping on the wet rocks. A baby girl lay on a pile of the woman’s clothing, soothed by the mists of the relentless falls. The girl's twin brother was nestled in another pile, indifferent to the mists of the relentless falls.
On the way back to Chobe the girl Canah casually and proudly revealed that she might be pregnant. She would only reveal that she had lost her virginity to her boyfriend, perhaps a couple of weeks before the calamity.
Over several months the Chobe community learned how to organize and sustain itself. The pregnant women who had been taken in gave birth to healthy girls.
And the orphan teenager Canah gave birth to a boy. The shock of the miracle finally compelled her to tell the truth. She had been impregnated by a baggage handler at the Kasane Airport one day before the calamity. He was very old, maybe forty, and sometimes stole airport food for her, an empanada or a Dove bar. He sometimes found things in luggage that he could sell, and he was the lookout while another guy broke into cars. Canah bragged of his efficient criminality until his rape was no longer rape. The Chobe women persuaded her to call the boy Modiri, claiming that he looked just like some famous athlete.
Three weeks later Tumie gave birth to a boy. She named him Dekker. As a boy Run-Run had given himself his own nickname because the name Run Run was in the credits of his favorite move, Blade Runner. Run-Run and Tumie had watched the movie together three times. The central theme of the film, they decided, was the dilemma of not having any idea how long you will live. That’s really all that the movie was about and that’s why it was not very popular at first. Most people don’t care to think about how short life might be. Her Dekker would fight to live.
. . .
Twelve years later there were women who wore clothing of animal hides and those who wore tatters of cotton and polyester. Seven women had died: one stroke, one suicide, two infections after simple accidents with deep cuts, one broken ankle, one bad rifle injury. One simply died, perhaps of parasites.
In this tribe of 195 women it was always the same twenty-or-so who did all of the real co-operative repair work, showed all of the curiosity for tools and proper methods. It was these twenty-or-so who learned how to hunt as a group, how to kill with firearms, bow and spear. They learned to repair and maintain technology. It was always these few who willingly climbed to the roofs of the buildings to clear the verminous foliage litter, or rigged fishing lines, or found clay along the riverbanks, or pulled copper wiring from the walls. The twenty-or-so held steady as the lions approached, and shot them.
The others performed crucial work for the community but only those jobs which were either redundant or solitary: gathering firewood, butchering, cooking, milking the goats. They learned how to plant and harvest yams and onions. They shared knowledge, they shared their prides and disappointments. But the majority had no affinity for complex group work, never learned to work together like a machine, each person a different component, evolving flexibly. Something as simple as repairing a wooden walkway became a noisy confusion until each appointed herself boss and sat in the shade. It was the twenty-or-so who figured out how to drive new pilings and improvise triangulated bracings.
And most of the woman never truly understood the horror of certain mistakes. Breaking a whetstone is not funny. Breaking a whetstone is not a whoops. You stupid cunt. Your stupidity will kill us.
Tumie taught her son Dekker how to use a shovel and how important it was to avoid straining the shaft. Canah taught her son Modiri he was so valuable that he never had to work.
Emily felt a natural kinship with Tumie's boy Dekker. For all these years he has called her his aunt, mmangwane. She has tried to spend equal time with Modiri but he sometimes pretended to not remember her name. Some of the women thought it was funny when he did this. When Dekker witnessed this rudeness he would find a moment to address her as Mmangwane Emily.
As the boys approached manhood Emily had plenty of time to think about the future of the human race in this region of this continent.
. . .
In the thirteenth year is was suddenly possible for Modiri to impregnate a woman. Even before his first nocturnal emission it was agreed that the five girls who were twelve or thirteen years old should be kept away from him for a few more years since an early pregnancy could prove fatal. A prickly debate convulsed the community regarding who should be impregnated first, the older women who might be nearing the end of their reproductive potential or the women in their twenties whom the boy would find more attractive and copulate with repeatedly until success had been achieved. A goatherd pointed out that one twelve-year-old boy will have sex with 142 fertile women essentially simultaneously.
A few women were fully prepared for romantic competition but the majority insisted that it could be permanently damaging to make overt sexual advances on Modiri. They must beware of giving him a warped view of such an essential duty. They agreed that flirtations should go just far enough to engender signs of natural desire. Anticipation and gossip permeated every daily chore, and every day Tumie was badgered with inquiries regarding Dekker’s status.
For a year Emily had fretted over the inevitable transfer of power from herself to one of these boys. She did not regret losing power because she never really had any. Her leadership had always been indefinite and soft. There had never been a formal election and most of the tribe gravitated towards the older women who had been licensed safari guides. No one ever committed a crime so serious that it couldn’t be addressed with a few days of shunning followed by a tearful apology. Or else a petty crime would simply be forgotten. It was a government of cliques and gossip circles.
One day Modiri ineptly lunged at a young woman bathing in the river. He did little more than grasp and flail, squirting his semen into the water as the woman shrieked. Two older women ran toward the commotion. Modiri immediately berated them for interfering and embarrassing him, and his wild gestures stopped the older women from reaching the young woman. All three apologized vaguely but emphatically. Modiri threw wet sand at them and stormed away.
When she heard of this horrible event Tumie confided to Emily that her boy Dekker had, in fact, had his first emission some weeks ago. She wanted to keep the secret forever. Emily could see that Tumie’s trepidation went far beyond the eternal trepidation of motherhood, the sadness of losing a son to another woman. She was about to lose her son to something unprecedented.
I don’t know if my boy can do this.
Of course he can. He doesn’t have a choice. This is what men do. This is what women do.
Men compete and women choose, that’s what they do. And my Dekker – our Dekker – is not going to make as many babies as Modiri, that obnoxious little shit Modiri. You know that, don’t you? The future is already spoilt. All this effort was for nothing. Worse than nothing.
For the rest of the afternoon Emily sat by the river. Once again the helplessness of the world swelled within Emily’s temples, grabbed her shoulders and held her down to the ground. As the sun set the amalgam of quietude in the world around her became a simple message. And she decided what to do.
The next morning Emily had a meeting with Tumie, Canah, and the twenty-or-so women. She explained that boys have always had initiation ceremonies and traditions to make them men. There were no men here to make that happen so they would have to invent something. She proposed that she take the boys across the river with their mothers. Then Tumie and Canah would return to the lodge. Emily would guide the boys to a large, suitable animal, perhaps buffalo or zebra. Together they would kill two animals, and this would cement their dependence on one another. No one else had a better idea.
Emily paddled her own canoe across the Chobe and each boy rowed his own small boat carrying his mother. Each boy had a good rifle and belt of ammunition. Emily had two spears.
On the far shore Tumie got out with her son, hugged him and tried not to cry. Canah stood up without leaving the boat and briefly hugged her son as though the whole business was kind of silly.
Come out, Canah. I need you and Tumie to do something before you leave.
She led them to slight rise where they could look northward over this part of the land which Tumie and Canah had never stood on.
Dekker, you go over there with your mother and tell her what animal you plan to kill and how you want to do it. Modiri, you go over there and look at the land and tell your mother your plans for this hunt.
The boys faced in different directions, to the east and west. With exasperated indifference Canah asked her boy what he would kill and Modiri shrugged his indifference. After some thought Dekker began to talk in earnest about his intentions for the day. Tumie put her arms around him and held him as tightly as she had held the sweet thorn tree when she left her home in Palapye.
A peculiar grunt made Dekker and Tumie wheel around. Modiri slumped to the ground with a spear in his back. Emily was already in motion with her other spear, which struck Canah deeply in the side. Emily yanked the spear from Canah’s body, flipped her face up and drove the tip into her heart. She quickly did the same to Modiri.
Dekker shielded his screaming mother and ushered her towards the boat.
Stop, Dekker! Tumie, I’m not going to hurt you… Of course not.
She held up her hands, free of spears, and the boy and mother stood trembling. Emily, too, found herself trembling, and took some time to control her breath before she spoke.
I want to explain to you why I killed Modiri, but…
He was an asshole.
Emily and Tumie were both taken aback by the concise fullness of Dekker’s assessment. But Emily expanded, nonetheless, as she had planned.
Dekker, we have to assume that you are the first man of the rest of the human race. You see. I want the future to be full of good people instead of bad people. Your mother is a decent, intelligent person, and so was your father, Run-Run. Modiri’s father was a criminal and his mother was a weak person who made excuses for his evil. So he was an asshole. I couldn’t let his kind of mind populate the earth. I want your type of mind to do that.
Dekker and Tumie both nodded in agreement.
Dekker, someday you will have to travel to Lusaka, when your children are teenagers. Your children will need other people that are not sisters and brothers. You will have to trade people, you see. Lusaka is two weeks to the northeast and there are many towns along the way. I have maps. Your father’s maps. Maybe you’ll find a community like ours, where they got lucky and had a boy. Maybe not. Maybe this right here is the luckiest place on Earth. But if you find another clan with children you’ll have no idea how they will greet you. They might want to kill you and your sons and take your daughters. So you have to be ready to fight like an army. But maybe the man that you meet will be civilized like you, so you have to be ready to be democratic. You see.
Tumie asked, Why did you kill Canah?
It was a simple question, without accusation.
Emily looked past Tumie and began to speak with abject reluctance. I guess maybe… Then she crossed her arms, stared at the ground for a moment, and bore her eyes into the young man. Dekker, tell your mother why I killed Canah.
He looked at Emily and began to speak, so she sternly pointed to Tumie. Dekker faced his mother and said, She killed Canah because it’s hard for a mother to see her son die. On the day I was created a tree of mothers saw their sons die, and it was terrible. Modiri was a bad cut, but Canah loved him. So killing Canah was a cool rain for Canah.
Tumie took both of Emily’s hands and enclosed them, and Tumie said, I’ll make sure your decision doesn’t get changed. It keeps going.
I can see you doing everything that needs to be done, forever, Nkuku Tumie… You need to leave now. The lions are here today.
Dekker guided his grieving mother to the boat, quickly tied the second boat in tow, and began the crossing back to Chobe Lodge. From the roof of the lodge two women with binoculars were barely able to discern these baffling and horrifying events half a kilometre away. They saw Emily running off, northwards. Further to the north they believed they saw several lions, crouching.
The lions, one male with a wondrous mane and two females, rose to their feet. As she jogged, a spear in each hand, Emily could feel her youthful athleticism waning, the burden of a woman’s hips. She was not the same woman who began running towards these lions thirteen years ago.
The male was confused by the hard stare of this animal running in the wrong direction. At thirty metres away Emily stopped and clacked her spears together.
Come on, don’t disappointment me.
The lion finally made up his mind. He crouched and stalked a few metres, paused to look back at the females as though to ask permission. Then he burst forth at attack speed. A spear struck his chest and he tumbled. As he raised his shoulders to relocate his prey a second spear sank in, a hand’s breadth from the first.
Emily stood on the man and held up the spears for the women to see.
This one is a javelin. I threw it in track and field competitions at university. This one is an authentic reproduction of a traditional assegai. It used to be mounted on the wall in a professor’s office. He taught civil engineering. Aren’t they something? You see. Come and look.
She tossed her spears to the ground and the women crept forward.
It’s astonishing, isn’t it, what men do? What women do. What men do.