20 April 2011

The Butterfly Heart by Paula Leyden (Book Excerpt)

We made sure to walk home slowly this afternoon so we would be at the gate when Ifwafwa arrived. He never breaks his promises and he never lies. Which if you think about it is an unusual thing to be able to say about someone. I know there is a difference between small, necessary lies to make other people happy, and really large lies that are, well, just big and not very good. But Ifwafwa doesn’t even tell the small ones. Or if he does I don’t notice.

It was Fred’s great granny who first told us about him. Fred says that she is a very famous witch and that even Alice Lenshina was scared of her. That is something to brag about. Alice Lenshina started this kind of a church called Lumpa, which means ‘better than all the others’ in Bemba, which is one of the languages I speak. (I say Bemba, although I am supposed to say chiBemba because that is the proper name, but dad says it’s OK to use the shortened word.) So, Alice Lenshina’s mission in life was to get rid of sorcery and witchcraft in Zambia and if she, with her army of something like 100,000 followers, was scared of Fred’s great granny, then Fred is right. She must be famous. And very scary. Alice is long dead now, but Fred’s great granny is still alive. She is the oldest person I have ever seen, you cannot see her eyes any more because of the wrinkles.

She told us that if we ever had problems with snakes we should look out for a kind man on a big black bicycle. We would know him by the sound he makes as he rides around, she said, because he has tied little bits of orange plastic onto each spoke of his wheels so you can hear him coming. You wouldn’t think you could see that someone was kind just by looking at them on their bicycle, but with Ifwafwa she was right. We did find him and since that day he has been our friend.

When we got home today, Ifwafwa was there already, sitting on the grass. He had his bag next to him and we could see from the bumps that there were already snakes in it. Madillo is always excited if he has snakes with him because he lets her stroke some of them. I have only tried that once. They do feel soft and dry but I still don’t like the feeling of their muscles moving under their skin. I told Ifwafwa that that’s what people call him, the puff adder, but he didn’t mind. For him it’s not an insult to be called a snake name, because he loves them.

We sat down next to him, me the furthest away from the snake bag, and he started.

‘This is the story of the Bangwelu swamps, the place where the water and the sky meet one another and become one. The place where the lechwe live, the red deer with the legs which can leap in the water. It is not near my home, it is in the place of the Kaonde people.’

When the Snake Man tells us a story he tells it in a very quiet voice so it is hard for us to hear him. He is clever like that. He makes us listen. Sister Leonisa does the opposite, shouting and waving her arms around, sometimes even jumping up and down. With her we have no option but to listen but with Iwafwa we want to.

‘A long time ago a small child, only a little bigger than you,’ he said, nodding his head towards me, ‘was playing down by the river. She was with her mother who was drawing water. A black shadow came across them and her mother looked up into the sky as they had been waiting for the rains for many months. Then she heard her small daughter scream and turned around.

The Kongamato, the one they all dreaded meeting, was swooping down out of the sky towards the little girl. Its long beak was wide open and the mother could see its teeth. His huge wings blocked the sun. He was almost upon them when the mother reached up and grabbed hold of his tail. She held on tight; she did not want her little girl taken from her, but the Kongamato was too strong for her and he grabbed hold of the child and flew up into the sky. The mother held on and he flew away silently carrying them both as if they weighed no more that a flake of ash.’

The Snake Man looked at Madillo and me, ‘Do you know of the Kongamato? The overwhelmer of boats?’

We shook our heads, hardly daring to breathe.

‘It is a bird without feathers. A lizard with wings. A creature like no other, with a beak and teeth. It flies slowly and has lived on this earth since time began. Its skin is like a snake’s, soft and smooth. No one knows where it goes to rest but it always flies round the Benguela swamp. It causes floods by stopping the river and there is no boat in this world that can resist it. No person either; to look into its eyes is death. The Kaonde people make a potion to protect themselves against it and this poor mother and her child had forgotten to use it. No one ever saw them again. The Kongamato returned alone.’

Ifwafwa sat back on the grass in silence. Then he opened the top of his sack slightly to check that his snakes were still well. He smiled, then closed it again. That’s the downside of him not telling lies, he doesn’t have many stories with happy endings.

‘Is it real?’ Madillo said.

He looked at her, ‘Do you think it is my dear? People have seen it many times. They all speak of the same thing, of the wings that are wider than I am tall. Of the beak that is longer than the tail. It is real when you have seen it, yes. I hope you never will.’

Madillo shivered but she did not look worried. She likes getting scared. These kind of things fly out of her head, but they stay in mine. I will have to try and think very hard about something else otherwise the Kongamato will visit me tonight in my dreams.

The Butterfly Heart was written by Paula Leyden and is an excerpt from the book of the same name.
(Walker Books UK, March 2011)

Copyright © Paula Leyden 2011.

Paula was born in Nyeri, Kenya and when she was five she moved to Lusaka, Zambia where she lived with her family until the age of fifteen. They then moved to South Africa where she completed schooling. She studied English and History at the University of Natal, and Education at the University of Cape Town.

Paula taught at secondary schools in Cape Town and Jo’burg for a number of years and then moved into the human rights field, working for a variety of human rights projects on issues such political prisoners, the death penalty, unlawful detention etc. She was also involved in preparing submissions on the death penalty for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as well as working on applications for amnesty for MK combatants.

In 2003 she moved with her partner and children to a farm in Kilkenny, Ireland where they both now breed horses and write. Paula started writing fiction when she moved to Ireland, and her first book The Butterfly Heart was published by Walker books in March 2011, and endorsed by Amnesty International. The follow on book to this will be out in 2012.


Paula Leyden said...

Thanks Ruth - I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment! Paula

StoryTime: Weekly Fiction by African Writers.
All works published in StoryTime are
Copyrighted ©.
All rights reserved.