i. The Sky Kingdom
My people call our home the Sky Kingdom. When I drive the herd between the mountains, I feel as though I am walking next to God. Sometimes, He speaks to me. Other times, He shows me things.
Today, I have angered Him.
ii. ‘Little Fish’
My name is Tuma, and I am a herd boy. That’s Tuma, although my grandfather calls me ‘little fish’. Papa says I am too slippery for Death’s hands, which must be true because I have cheated him three times.
The first was when my mother gave me life. She pulled me out by my feet, uncoiled the cord wrapped around my throat, and breathed life into me. Death took her in my place.
The second was when my father beat me for spilling the water he collected from the river half a mile away from our home, but again Death spared me and clenched his fist around my father’s heart instead.
Today was the third time, when the moon fell from the sky.
I talk to God and tell him I am sorry for killing my parents.
Perhaps that is why he is so angry.
iii. The Corn Blanket
I do not know much, but everything I do know Papa taught me. Papa, the mountains, and the kleinvee—now three hundred sheep and one goat.
That was my school. That was my life.
When I awoke, it was just another day, exactly like the one before, as though my dreams turned the world backwards. At sunrise, I boiled some water and took a bath. The water turned to smoke and mixed with my breath.
I dressed, pulled on my boots, and wrapped a blanket around my shoulders. My sisters, Lebone and Mantso, gave me this blanket when I last returned home—almost a year ago now. Thick black wool with silver corn stalks sewn around the hem.
It was a magnificent gift.
iv. No More Mirrors
Most nights, it is the scream of the jackals that wakes me. When the moon fell, it was the herd. I grabbed my blanket and my staff and ripped through the sheet covering the doorway to my hut. My bare feet crunched through the snow, but I did not feel the cold. Instead, I felt fire.
A shadow moved through the night towards me. Its eyes glowed like mirrors, like two silver coins. I leapt and brought my staff down hard. I heard a crack, a howl, and silence. I looked up. Mirrors surrounded me.
I stood my ground. I have spent my entire life with the herd. Over nine years I have named them all. They are my family. I would die for them.
I raised my staff as a gust of wind caught my blanket. A ball of fire lit up the sky and crashed into the beasts. The earth shook. I fell, and all went black. When I awoke, the pen was on fire and the sheep scattered. Some ran through the flames and caught fire.
There were no more mirrors.
v. Falling like Fireflies
I called to the herd as they squealed and bolted and crashed into one another. Even then, I knew I had failed.
I chased them up the mountain’s snow-covered peak and watched them tumble over the edge. I dived. My fingers brushed Benya’s soft wool before she tipped away. They fell like fireflies in the distance, but through the flames I saw only the faces of my sisters and grandfather. They wept, and screamed my name.
I have never felt so ashamed.
I stood and looked out across the world, six thousand feet beyond man or time. It looked like Hell. The scorched sky was thick with smoke and everything burned. The mountains, the villages. The people.
At that moment my life changed.
I was a herd boy. Now, I am something else.
vi. The Miracle of Palesa
I turned and made my way back to the hut. The roof was ablaze. Tongues of fire licked a flurry of snowflakes that tumbled from the sky like ash.
I collected my belongings and strapped them to my back. When I stepped out of the hut, Palesa was waiting for me. Three hundred sheep dead and one goat survived.
I think it has been a full month, but now it is hard to tell. All that matters is that, at last, we are home.
vii. Another Yesterday
My home used to stand here. Now it has turned to dust. Shining stones stick out of the earth at every angle and pop-pop like broken bones. I stand in the frame of the doorway but dare not enter. I give Palesa a tap. She moves away to the remains of the vegetable garden.
I look at the sky. It is strange without the moon. Instead, a line of glittering rock drifts overhead and shines like shattered ice through the smoke.
Perhaps if I go to sleep here, God will turn the world backwards. I will be in the mountains. The sheep will be in their pens. The moon will be in full circle, looking down upon the Sky Kingdom.
I unwrap my blanket and fold it into a pillow. I lie in front of my home and curl my arms around my heart. Palesa purrs beside me.
I close my eyes, although this does not stop the tears.
Some nights, it is impossible to sleep in the mountains. Papa taught me how. Feel the sunshine on your face, he would say. See the herd graze in the field. Count them, little fish. Every single one. I promise that, before the end, you will be at peace.
I try to count the sheep, but they fall across my eyelids in flames. All I see is fire. All I hear are screams.
Perhaps tomorrow will bring another yesterday.
I can dream.
Christopher M Drew is a writer of flash fiction. His work appears in the Bath Flash Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. He won Second Prize in the Bath Flash Fiction Award for his piece The Perfect Fall, which was also nominated for Best Small Fictions 2017.
Image: Davide Ragusa