“What happened to you, DNA?”

He started walking again, his back stiff, his gait holding that steady pace. In another hour of walking, the gravelly sand would submit to shifting sand dunes, the only voices on the wind the occasional mutter of one of his steer. And I’d be completely alone with this man . . . and him with me. I sighed. My left arm twitched, and the ache of it reached the flesh of my shoulder. “Hey,” I said more firmly, stopping. “What happened to you? Why is there dried blood on your shirt?”

He kept going, hunched and practically stumbling forward.

“Look at you. You’re not even walking properly, now.”

He stopped and turned to me and the sight of his face took my breath away. His face was wet with tears, his eyes squinted with a pain so sharp I could have sworn I could hear it in my ears. “What happened?” I asked yet again. DNA dropped his herdsman’s stick. And it seemed like DNA died right there on his feet.

My father once told me about how his grandfather had died standing. He’d gotten up that morning, kissed my grandmother, fed their dog Bingo, picked up his mobile phone, and checked his email. He’d gone to the porch and looked out across the city of New Calabar, and at some point he just died. And that was how my grandmother found him. Standing and looking at the city. However, my great grandpa died happy. In this moment, DNA looked like the most broken man on earth.

“Ah-ah, are you going to faint?” I asked, tapping him on the chest. He roused from wherever he’d gone. He leaned toward me and narrowed his eyes all the way to slits. I leaned back. “What?”

“Are you a spirit?” he asked. “You must be because only a spirit would stay around me when I am feeling like this.”

“I’m not a—”

“Look at you,” he said. “You’re more machine than human. It’s because you are a spirit that you can animate cold metal.”

“No. It’s because of science,” I said flatly. “And I’m actually mostly human.”

He kissed his teeth. “Science is mostly witchcraft,” he said. “See what it has done to humanity, and the more science there is, the more there is to see. You are a spirit.”

“Whatever,” I sighed. “But tell me, what happened to you?” We’d started walking again, my legs taking me ever forward with this man with blood on his ankles and shirt, toward a disaster, leaving my life behind. Maybe I was becoming a spirit; that would explain a lot. I held my left shoulder and worked my arm. As the dry hot wind rushed past bringing up tumbling grains of sand, I could have sworn it felt better. A little. Maybe.

“Fine,” he finally said. One of his steer mooed loudly. We trudged along for another minute, then he started talking. The tale DNA told was grim. And it all happened yesterday, too. As I listened I thought two things. 1. Nothing is a coincidence 2. When you decide to leave all things behind, you begin a new chapter.


    His Story

You can’t understand unless you comprehend what it is to be a true Fulani herdsman. Our creator Geno first crafted stone, then stone crafted iron, then iron crafted fire, then fire crafted water, then water crafted air. When the chain reaction was complete and the Great Experiment had cooled, Geno descended again. This time, the creator took the five elements and crafted the cow, then woman, then man. From a drop of milk, Geno extracted the universe, and, now, even in the desert, the rivers of milk flow. That is our most ancient cosmogony. It’s mostly forgotten, but I bring it back, I remember it and I will teach it to my future daughters and sons and they will remember it, too.

Before the Red Eye, we were almost gone. Most of us left the lifestyle or were killed off. First the desert swallowed the lands we’d roamed for centuries. What used to offer our steer plenty of food, became barren packed dirt, stone, and sand. We moved south and many of us, disenchanted and enraged by loss, began to violently clash with farming communities. Most of us even let our steer go and took up arms and fought and took from the farmers. They killed us, we killed them. The government tried to force us to settle, but nomads will always be nomads and thieves will always thieve. Plus, farmers will never share land. That is not their nature. So the killing started again. The farmers won, nearly wiping us out.

Then the Red Eye came. You have to understand, AO. The disaster saved us. Years ago, when the Red Eye was born and began to spin, the farming communities who lived on the border fled their villages and towns. These were thriving communities of just about every ethnic group in the country. Their farms had irrigation systems. Capture stations cemented into the ground provided all the water the farm needed. These people were terrified by the Red Eye. It is understandable if you have seen it. The sight of it, looming. Yes, it is understandable. They left, but they could not bring their cemented irrigation systems, so those stayed. And continued watering the abandoned farmland.

Over the years, those lands continued growing, spreading, grasses joined the crops that kept coming back. And herdsmen had places to graze their cattle away from people. When I set out with my steer, I was only fifteen and those lands were their buffet. Still are. There are more of us but still so few of us. The beef we provide is the finest.

The cattle of the Fulani herdsman represents and holds the heart of the community, even those who have forsaken the traditional life. They are our relatives, my brothers and sisters. We name them, we care for them, we respect them, we love them. You can’t understand it because you are not one of us, we are few now, only a few hundred live my culture, but you must understand these things to understand what I am about to tell you. To . . . to understand me.

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