The Vjana Milele
“There! On the left,” our guide, Toby said. He pulled over and turned off the engine. “Through the grass, a paw!”
“Where?!” my little brother scrambled to my side of the jeep, all elbows and binoculars as he fought for a clearer view.
“Fuck, Ryan!” I said, moving my foot just in time to avoid it being crushed under one of his size 11’s. He might be 15, but he was big.
“Language, Christy!” my mother snapped. God I couldn’t wait to get away to school. In two weeks I would move into my dorm and then--freedom! I glanced over, embarrassed, to see if Toby had noticed, but he had his binoculars out and was looking at the paw. I tried not to stare, not to make it obvious that he had been the central figure of my every daydream these past few days. I rolled my eyes as loudly as I could, hoping my mom would see. She didn’t. She and Luca, my step dad, were scanning the fields for any other signs of life before we left the Serengeti for what was sure to be yet another exhilarating cultural excursion.
The trip had been Luca’s idea. Back to the motherland to see where we had come from and to where, presumably, our father had happily returned, leaving Ryan and me behind.
It had never made sense to me. My mom took it in stride, convinced he had been all too eager to get away from middle America. But he had never seemed unhappy. Sure he had spoken of Tanzania, of the open space and living off the land, something long dead in America. But he never said he wanted out. Or that we weren’t enough.
I slouched in my seat; I had seen enough animals to fill every zoo I had ever been to.
“Bored honey?” Luca was looking at me, amused but kind. I shrugged. Snark was wasted on him, his responses never varied from calm understanding. I was happy my mom had found him, another Maasai man - what’re the odds?- He was nice enough, but there was something about him…
“We have one hour to the village,” Toby said, starting the rover, “with lunch and swimming.” On the word ‘swimming’ he looked back at me through the mirror and heat rose up my body, coloring my cheeks. I turned away.
And froze. In the window, looking back at me was my father’s face. Terror filled his eyes, mouth open in a scream.
I jumped back, crashing into my mom.
“But--” I looked back to the window, but he was gone and it was just my own scared face.
“Sorry,” I said, kicking myself for being such a child.
As we neared the Maasai lands, people began to dot the plains in their beautiful robes, long sticks in tow. At dirt intersections women would approach with beaded treasures or honey to sell.
Eventually a village of huts appeared in the distance.
“Is that it?!” Ryan asked, almost jumping onto Toby’s lap with excitement.
“It is,” he said, laughing.
As we approached I saw women and children stop what they were doing to watch us suspiciously.
“Did they know we were coming?” I asked.
Toby didn’t answer and instead drove around a group of goats and over to an area near some trees. It occurred to me that ours was the only vehicle.
People came to the rover and greeted us with smiles that shone brilliantly but didn’t travel to their eyes. Didn’t they like us? Or maybe it was envy. I thought of my straight, permed hair and my short shorts compared to their shaved heads and heavy robes and decided I would be jealous of me, too.
“We don’t get many guests,” Toby told us as they unpacked our things. A couple of women approached, one must have been about my age and could have been my sister. She looked into my eyes as if seeking something. It felt invasive and I turned to the other woman who had approached, older, shorter, rounder, who took Ryan’s hand and started leading him away.
“What?” he asked.
“It is ok. They will get you ready for the welcoming ceremony. Karibu!” And with that Toby left us and we were brought into the village.
By the time we finished the festivities--being dressed, dancing, making fire with sticks and grass--I was exhausted and ready to sleep.
“Get changed,” Luca called, “swim time!” I groaned. “Oh come, you will love it, it is a paradise.”
I went first, making Ryan guard the door of our earthen hut as I changed into my new bikini. My mom had insisted I buy one for the trip and now, thinking of Toby, I was glad I had, and happily traded places with Ryan.
I felt their eyes on me at once, dozens of them burning into my exposed flesh. Though none of them looked at me with obvious contempt, I could feel their judgement. I was flooded with insecurity and used my arms to cover as much as I could on the way to the swimming hole.
Luca was right, it was gorgeous. The turquoise water was surrounded by a dense growth of trees dripping with flowering vines. The air wasn’t just sweet smelling, it tasted like honey.
‘Aiyaiyai Aaaai!!!” Ryan did his best Tarzan as he swung on a rope into the pool. “Christy, come on!” I hesitated, thinking of the ruin that would befall my hair.
A flash. Toby swung next and landed near Ryan. That did it. I was paddling out, careful to keep my head above the water.
“It’s so clear,” Ryan said as I approached, “Look down.” I did and could see straight to the distant bottom where small white pebbles glistened.
“It’s nice.” It was nice. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to relax and let the water take me.
“It is sacred here. Vijana Milele: the place that is always young, where death is a stranger.”
“Deep,” I said.
On the shore I saw someone approaching, it was the younger woman from earlier. Toby waved and she waved back, shyly.
“Let’s race to the bottom!” Ryan said. I shook my head.
“Oh, come on.”
“No one cares how you look.” I glared at him with all of the hate I could muster. “We could ask her to swim!” he said, gesturing towards the girl on the shore.
“No,” Toby said, “they will not come in. They are scared of the water.” I scoffed. Scared of the water? How--
Splash! I felt water soaking my skull and turned to see Ryan, giggling.
"Asshole! You--" but before I could finish he dove down. I chased after, kicking as hard as I could, eager to catch him, to hold him under. It was deeper than it looked, and as I got closer to the bottom the water changed suddenly, becoming so cold my muscles cramped and threatened to spasm. I was about to give up when I reached the bottom. I used my feet to push powerfully up towards safety but the surface seemed to get further away the harder I swam. I could feel my lungs starting to seize, burning for new air.
All of a sudden I heard a whisper. Christy, it echoed through my skull like a cave. Let me in! I felt the water pushing against my skin, as if trying to enter me, and with it the promise of a bliss like I had never known. My muscles began to relax.
Below me Ryan approached and I remembered what I was doing. Energy shot through my limbs and I kicked and pulled against the water as hard as I could, finally breaking through, gratefully sucking in air.
“Made it!” Ryan gasped a second later, holding up some white pebbles.
Something brushed against my foot. I looked down and saw a small trickle of blood and around it, small fish were swarming.
“Oh my god!” I yelped and we took off for the shore, scrambling over the slippery vines and mud on the bank to safety.
It wasn’t until I lay there, panting, that I realized Toby had beaten us.
“We were attacked!” I said. He laughed and pointed to where the fish had been. There was still a small swarm, but from where I sat now I could see they were no larger than minnows. I wanted to sink into the muddy bank and disappear.
“Your foot,” Ryan said. I looked down to see the source of blood: a white pebble was stuck in my heel like a sliver, blood oozing out around it. I had never even felt it slide in. I pulled it out and examined it. It was oddly shaped, and as I looked at it more closely I realized it wasn’t a pebble. It was a human tooth, its root chipped and sharp and covered in my blood.
I looked up at Ryan--he was having the same realization. He looked down at his palm, still clenched around his stones, and opened it for us both to see.
He yelped and dropped them, wiping his hand off on his trunks as if they had coated him in something evil.
“What is wrong?” Toby asked, coming closer.
“There are teeth in the water!” Ryan said.
“Yes, when the children’s teeth come out they throw them in to feed the pool.” I looked at the teeth on the ground, they were too large for baby teeth. Ryan looked as uncertain as I felt.
“Also our dentistry here is not so good as yours,” he explained with a shrug. I thought back to the perfect, white smiles that had greeted us.
“Everything ok?” It was Luca, approaching with our rather tipsy mom on his arm.
“Fine,” I lied.
“Your new suit looks great, honey,” my mom said, obviously oblivious to the locals’ reaction.
“It is very nice,” Toby said. I actually swooned.
“Why don’t you two run back and get ready for dinner? I’m going to put this one to bed.” Luca gestured to our mom.
“Sure,” I said, slipping on my sandals. Ryan followed; we waited to speak again until we were out of earshot.
“Do you believe him?” Ryan asked.
“What, the teeth?” He nodded. I shrugged. “I mean, we have a fairy that breaks and enters for our teeth. Feeding a pool seems equally creepy.”
“You know, if dad grew up here his teeth might be down there!” I said, trying to lighten the mood.
“That’s just...” he shook his head and we trudged back in silence.
Back in our hut I put on my favorite dress, imagining Toby’s expression when he saw me.
I stepped out as Mary was passing and smiled at her. She nodded gravely as she looked at my dress with...what? Disdain? Judgement?
I suddenly wanted to cry. I had thought that I would find something here. A sense of belonging. A tie to my dad. Something. But I felt...apart from, just like I always had. I kicked the hut viciously, regretting it before my foot even made contact. But when it did, I couldn’t feel it. My foot was completely numb.
“You ready?” I jumped. It was Toby, come to collect us for dinner. He stopped and stared at me. “Wow, you look--”
“Ready!” Ryan bounded out of our hut. “I’m starving.”
I bit back my annoyance and we followed Toby to a large fire where people had gathered in small groups, eating and talking. Though they didn’t turn, I could feel their eyes follow us as we passed, but after Toby’s reaction I didn’t care what they thought of me. “You will try the wine?” Toby asked us.
“Our mom wouldn’t let--” Ryan started.
“We’d love to,” I said. Our parents weren’t here. Toby gave us each a glass.
“Asante,” I looked at him flirtatiously over the rim as I took a large sip. The liquor burned but I did my best to pretend I didn’t notice. Ryan, on the other hand, started coughing uncontrollably.
“Wrong...tube…” he choked. I laughed. The wine felt good! I took another sip, finally feeling a sense of ease. Finally feeling…
I came to in a dark hut. My hands were bound behind my back and my whole body ached. I blinked, trying to make sense of my surroundings. Someone was lying next to me--Ryan!--his breath heavy with sleep.
“Ryan!” I hissed, kicking him. The numbness in my foot had spread up my shin. “Ryan!” I said louder.
“Shhh!” A sharp command from behind me and I turned, startled. There, sitting with his back to the wall, was Toby, his torso covered in cuts. His hands were bound in front of him. Two long ropes ran from his waist, one to my neck, one to Ryan’s. “They’ll hear you!”
“What’s happening?” I asked, trying to keep calm.
“They are angry I have brought outsiders,” he said. “They feel it is insulting.” Ryan started to stir. “We need to leave.” I nodded. I didn’t know what they intended to do but I wasn’t willing to find out.
“We must go to the closest village. They will help us get them.”
“Christy?” Ryan’s voice was thick.
“What’s happening? My hands--”
“It’s okay.” I turned my attention back to Toby. “Can you untie me?” I backed up to him and he fumbled with the knots, but everything he did seemed to make them worse. He groaned in frustration.
“I am sorry,” he said, “it is not helping.”
Voices approached from outside.
“What do we do?” I hissed, heart racing.
“Pretend to sleep,” Toby said.
I laid back down as torch light filled the hut and I squeezed my eyes shut. You’re asleep! I repeated to myself, a mantra and a plea.
A voice said something menacing and Toby spat in response. I heard a growl from a second person and an angry retort. There was a tense moment of silence. And then the first voice said something and they left.
Once I was sure they were out of ear shot I exhaled a huge sob and realized that tears were streaming from my eyes. I didn’t want to die.
“Get up,” Toby said, “we must go now!” We struggled to our feet, made the more difficult by our bound hands.
Toby led us out into the night. “Stay close,” he said. We crouched and followed him, working our way around the huts towards our rover as silently as we could. The numbness in my foot continued to worsen, and the lack of feeling caused me to step oddly, limping.
We reached the final hut and Toby pointed, across the clearing was our SUV and safety, but a few meters away a small group of villagers stood, talking and laughing. We had to get past them somehow. To distract them.
A noise behind us and we turned. It was Luca. I almost cried out with joy.
“You escaped!” I said.
“In my pocket,” Toby said, “the keys!” Luca reached in and grabbed them.
“Thank you,” he said. Then turned towards the group. “Here!” He shouted.
“Run!” Toby yelled. We took off, following him past our car and to the path into the woods, towards the swimming hole. I dragged my leg, lopsided, trying not to slow us down. It was painfully dark under the trees.
My foot hit a rock and I went down, jerking Toby back. Behind us I heard footsteps getting closer. Toby grabbed my arm and yanked me up. We kept running until we reached
The swimming hole.
The sky sunk directly into it, the stars emitting light from its depths.
There was no path and, with the thick growth surrounding it, no way to get past. We were trapped.
Toby started wading into the water.
“What are you doing?!” Ryan asked.
“They are scared of the pool,” Toby said. “We must use it.” I hesitated a moment, but the voices were getting louder.
We followed. The moment the water touched my wounded foot a jolt of pleasure went through my leg. I looked down, the whole sky looked back.
And there--my dad’s face. He was crying. I blinked hard. No, it was my face crying.
I felt a tug from the rope around my neck as Toby trudged forward and started swimming. We followed him, struggling to keep our heads above water.
Behind us I could hear them reach the shore.
We neared the center and the pleasure I felt was overwhelming. I wanted to stop, just for a moment, to succumb.
We reached the middle and Toby turned back. I looked at the shore and saw dozens of torches, watching us, Luca and my mom with them. I didn’t care. I was drunk with pleasure. I looked down in awe to see my legs still kicking.
“What’s the matter with you,” Ryan screamed, but his words came out deep and slow and I giggled, intoxicated.
I looked over at Toby, beautiful Toby, who smiled back. Then he turned to the people on the shore.
“Vjana Milele!” he yelled.
“Vjana Milele!” they responded in unison.
“The best thing we can do is give a sacrifice in its prime,” he said to us. I watched with curiosity as he pulled a long, silver knife from his waistband. In a motion that seemed to me to last a lifetime, he thrust the blade between his rib, puncturing his left lung, then into his right. He dropped below the water and took a deep breath, letting it seep into his lungs.
I vaguely heard Ryan screaming “No!” next to me, but I was mesmerized by Toby’s body pulling us under by the ropes around our necks. Down, down, after him, despite Ryan’s feverish kicks, and I smiled happily as we were surrounded by little fish.
About the author
Cara Loften is a Minnesota born, Los Angeles based creator. She writes in multiple formats, including short stories, stageplays, and screenplays. She resides with her husband and their dog, Silkworth. Thanks so much! =]