When Mistress Manyara shook me from sleep, dawn's rays already slanted through the chinks in the orphanage's block walls.
"Rugare, you must help old Moses today."
"I don't want to go," I said. I rolled over on my mat, glimpsing in the gloom rows of sleeping forms, those I was supposed to call my brothers and sisters. "Pick someone else."
"Who would?" she said, her mouth pinched with disapproval. Her tone, though, was kindly. "Here, you will need this." She pressed into my hand a length of hardwood carved in imitation of a machete. A poor man's tool, yet more than a motherless one such as myself could normally expect to wield.
By the time I dressed and went outside, the sun had banded the earth's edge with pink. The village cut an uneven line against the sky. Sharp-coned shapes of straw-and-mud dwellings split the gentle slopes of the old stone buildings. In the waxing light, the odd lines and curves worked into the scrap-scavenged roof of the orphanage's dormitory almost appeared to glow. Some in the village claimed they could descry meanings in them. Mistress Manyara called them letters and tried teaching me their meanings, but I never fully learned to command them myself.
Three people waited for us at the village's periphery, two boys my age and a man. Around them lay supplies. An iron pot. A large water skin. A sack of ground maize. Three metal-tipped spears.
"A fine choice, Manyara," Moses said when he saw me. "He has a strong back."
He was tall and bald with yellow, rheumy eyes. His arms ended just below the elbow's bend, the skin a mass of crusted scar, worn nubs of bone protruding. He leaned in close to me, and a sharp, sour smell came off him. Then I saw what he clutched to his chest, a glass bottle cloudy with a patina of scratches and half-full of liquid. Mampoer.
"You must help," Moses said. "Everyone's life depends on it."
The creases around mistress Manyara's mouth deepened.
The boys' called themselves Munetsi and Itai, and they seemed no happier than I to share Moses' company. Itai was slim as a stalk of straw and had a quick, haughty sneer, while Munetsi was fat as the full moon and wore cords about his wrists and neck strung with charms that survived The Breaking. He called them plahs-tek. I'd seen bent and broken scraps of the odd material before, but none so strangely shaped or colored in brilliant yellows and garish reds, milky whites and midnight blacks. One even caught the light and threw it in my eyes. He seemed immensely proud of them.
"These spears are yours," Moses told us. "Never set them aside. Doing so may cost more than you are willing to pay."
We divided up the supplies and, taking Moses' lead, trudged south. Munetsi took the iron and flint and tinder, as well as a bright-edged knife. Itai carried the maize meal and a chipped machete, one of metal rather than wood. I ended up with the cooking pot and water skin. The spear made the load even more unwieldy and threatened to trip me. Moses cradled the bottle in the crook of his arm.
Before we got far, Munetsi broke into chattering.
"My father, he travels everywhere," he said, "buying here and selling there, and he told me that men are coming back to Francistown and Bulawayo and Harare, too."
Itai snorted. "Why then does no one come up from the south? I've never seen it. Does your father trade beyond the veld? Of course not. How then would he know?"
"Men have always murmured half-truths," Moses said, as if to himself.
As we continued on, the gentle hills flattened and the grasses rose. The sun soared higher, and the heat mounted.
"It's hot," Munetsi panted. "Let us have a rest."
"I never tire of heat," Moses said, not pausing.
Munetsi wiped his forehead with a pudgy hand. "My father once met a man from Kabwe who says that beyond the sea is a place all ice and cold. I would like to be there now."
"Surely a lie," Itai said, "Who could cross the sea to discover the truth? It's poisoned and dead. Everyone knows that."
Moses grit his teeth, shook his head and took a pull on the bottle.
Loam became bare earth, dry and fissured. A brown line appeared in the distance, and as we drew closer, we made out an endless tangle of bushes. Spindly and denuded of growth, they reached just over our heads. They looked blasted, barren -- dead.
Moses called a halt, and we let our loads down.
"These," he said, motioning to the bushes with the stump not holding the bottle, "are krim." The single syllable came harsh off his tongue. "Your grandsires did not know them, nor any of their kin before them. You're to dig them up and put them on the fire. You must dig carefully. Leave none of the root behind."
"Why?" Itai asked.
"If you don't, the village will burn," Moses said. "Fire will sweep through them, devouring as it goes. Everything will burn."
"That's no answer," Itai said. "These krim, as you call them, are far from the village. Were they to catch fire, it would only foul the air."
"They will not remain so." Moses grimaced suddenly, as if in pain. He pinched the bottle between his stumps and brought it to his lips.
Itai barked a laugh, but said nothing more.
"It's too much work for us," Munetsi said, sweating freely.
Moses nodded. "It is. I once commanded every male in the village. Few remember that now. Still, we must try. Rugare, come and kindle the fire."
While we moved off, I heard Munetsi mutter, "My father says this is foolishness, a waste of time," and Itai reply, "As though such dead things could grow." I glanced at Moses and could see from the look on his face that he heard as well.
At midday, we boiled the maize meal into sadza and ate in silence. Moses did not join us.