Ancient Words By Jane Bauling

Photo Credit: Mariloup


“What is story?” the child asks.

She is attempting to walk in the prints the man’s bare feet have left in the rough damp sand. His stride is long, so she must stretch her legs to match it. Occasionally, she will venture a jump from one indentation to the next. If she misjudges, the edges of the sunken foot-shape crumble over her small feet. She likes the sensation of the sand scouring her skin.

Their way lies just above the reach of the outgoing tide’s chuckling, foam-frilled waves and the curving line of seaweed, broken shells and cuttlefish that they leave behind.

The man is the child’s father and her hero. She pays careful attention when he speaks, and adds his words to her store of knowledge about her world and those who people it, where she might dismiss information offered by others. She is disappointed when he cannot give an answer to a question.

This is a time of recovery, he has explained to her. The fish have returned to the sea, and with them much of the ocean’s other life from Before.

“Where did they go, all the fish and things? What happened to them? How could they come back?”

“No one knows. It is good that they could come back. We should be grateful.”

He is leading the way home. Both are content. With home-crafted hook, rod and line, plus a little bait, they have caught their supper, fishing from wave-dashed rocks with the salt spray stinging their skin. There will even be something left for breakfast tomorrow if they don’t feel like getting up early, but if they do, then they will use the spare for bait.

Of the planet’s devastated continents, this one, alone, and the oceans that wash it can sustain life, her father has told her.

“Its name was once Africa.”He whispers it, imparting a secret.

“And now? What is it called?”

“It has no name. We have no name. We are all Earthers now. You know that.”

Africa. Whispered, yet with something like pride wrapped around the word, tying it up in importance. Surely, she must be mistaken, for isn’t pride one of the Great Abominations? Africa. A name heard only once, yet she has fallen in love with the sound of it. It has become one of the words she hoards in her head, words that lift her out of this place, out of her small existence, words that ring and sing through her being, making her feel bigger than she is.

“First there was the terror and then the desolate years,” he said, the same day he told her that name. “But then the fish began to reappear in the oceans, and life returned to the land, and humans started having children again, only just in time, because even the young were growing old. After the long hunger, it looked like there would be enough for everyone, enough food, if we were wise with it. So, the New Authority ordered that all Earthers provide solely for the family unit. We are to grow, breed or catch only what we need, no more. You understand what I am saying? And when you turn fourteen, you will need to stop depending on your mother and me, and fend for yourself or starve. This is why I am teaching you to fish. You will not be able to feed yourself any other way. You know the law. There is to be no exchange of goods, or payment in kind. No one is to profit from food. Anyone attempting to develop a currency will be Removed.”

He has explained this more than once, so she knows it is important, and she understands nearly all of it. She knows that trade is the Second Great Abomination, with a sub-clause outlawing charity. Those who cannot provide for themselves are to be pitied but left unaided. The incompetent seek able mates with whom to create a family unit, futilely in most cases, as the able mostly cleave to the similarly able.

The only thing she doesn’t understand is what it means to be Removed. The way her father said it, she knows it cannot be good. She has learned not to ask about the things he mentions in that quick manner, hasty words carried on a single breath. That is when she senses his dread.

So, she only asked: “Why are the food laws so strict?”

“You remember how I told you it was food prices that led to the war that nearly put out the sun – food prices, and the Great Lies of the Evil Ones.”

She shuddered, hearing the famous phrase, wondering what they were like, the Evil Ones whose names it had originally been forbidden to utter that future generations might not know them, thus doing them deserved dishonour. Now, no one alive remembers their names. She thinks they must have been terrible to see and hear, those false leaders who kept Earthers calling themselves by different names, according to where they lived on the planet, or what they believed, or how they looked, so dividing them.

“Once, if I have understood, people like us called ourselves Zulu,” the man has murmured on another fishing afternoon. “We were the people of the sky. But that was Before. Now we are all Earthers.”

She recalls how he first looked all around, as if to make sure that only she and the sea-scented wind and the sighing waves were the recipients of such strange words.

Zulu was the strangest. Strange and lovely, because of the way her father said it, making the word a caress and a blow, both at once. Now the child holds it inside herself where it and other secret words seem to sing of something she knows with the feeling part of her, yet neither knows nor understands in her mind.

But, what if the wind had carried the words to other ears? It is one of those thoughts that sometimes come swirling through all the other things going on inside her head and which she finds even stranger than her father’s words.

She knows that other fathers and mothers say equally strange things to their children, perhaps when they too are fishing or harvesting their vegetables. Her friend, Zodwa, once whispered of nations and tribes, cultures and peoples, and a time when whole families shared the same second name, tacked on to their calling names.

“To make themselves into a group different from everyone else, everyone did it.”

“But that was Being Other!”Her second friend, Ruth’s eyes had been round with shock, and the child was sure hers looked the same.

Being Other is one of the Great Abominations; the child cannot remember which exactly, possibly the Fifth.

“It was Before,” Zodwa said.

In return, the child shared “Zulu” with the other two little girls. Zodwa was unimpressed.

“Please, I know all about it. When we were Zulu, we had our own ways, my mother says. We had special things that no one else had, dances even … our own dances! The men had a hunting dance, and there were special words for the things they did when they were dancing. I’ve learned them, you know – umBhekuzo, umChwayo, umGhebulo.”

Jealous, the child tried to say them too, but her tongue tripped over their strangeness. Zodwa must have practised, getting her mother to say the words over and over, a dangerous thing to do.

The child and Ruth agree that Zodwa was a show-off, but still the words Zodwa said chant and stamp in the child’s head; they whisper and swirl, but she has never tried saying them aloud again. That is because one morning there was a commotion, with people in the uniforms of the New Authority everywhere in the village, and when they left, they took Zodwa’s fierce mother with them.

Because of the things she had taught and told, Zodwa has hinted, with her own fierceness only slightly subdued and already starting to revive.

The village is a scattering of identical plain houses, with a few paths leading down to the beach through a dense strip of hardy coastal bush. There is a world beyond the village, places similar to this, a long or a short walk away, but few of the villagers venture there. With no trade permitted, there is no need, and travel for its own sake is not in keeping with the simplicity urged by the New Authority. Those old enough to leave their family units are encouraged to break all ties and busy themselves with forging their own next-generation units.

The little girls mostly meet outdoors, away from the Kindly Eye installed by the New Authority in every home. They sense their parents’ tension whenever harsh weather dictates that they gather in one of their homes. Then they try to be silent, busying themselves with practical tasks.

Every new thing the child learns about Before births a fresh question for the fishing afternoons, although her father rarely gives her full answers.

“People only remember scraps of things from that time, never anything whole, and it is best not to talk of them,” he has told her.

“Zodwa’s mother—”

“Zodwa’s mother was a reckless woman.”

“Was? Is that what Removal means, that a person is past?”

Her father is not reckless. He is a cautious man, a careful man. Her mother is the same. That way they keep her feeling safe. It is just that sometimes she wonders about things.

“There were words,” she ventured once, still in thrall to the things Zodwa whispered to her and Ruth. “Different languages…”

“Many different languages! But you know Earthers must all speak the same language now. The others are lost, all gone except for words here and there.”

“But the language we speak?”

“It existed Before, but those who still know the name it had then are forbidden to utter it, because that would be to name a place, to name a people … a nation.” Saying the last few words, his voice fell but firmed again to remind her. “Earthish is what we speak. You know that.”

But, on another afternoon, his mood was less cautious. Perhaps the wildness of the ocean made him bold that day. Foam flew from waves hurling themselves against the rocks from which they were fishing, their crash and boom forcing them to raise their voices. Their faces were wet, their clothing growing damp, and the child’s mouth filled with the sea’s brine taste when she licked its flung wetness from her lips.

“Tell me words,” she had called to him. “Tell me words from when we were Zulu.”

Out here she dared to ask, with no wall bearing the Kindly Eye that so often silences her parents. It looks like an eye, encased in some indestructible material and irremovable from the wall of every family’s living area, but she knows it is also a Listening Ear. Sometimes, she sees her parents turn their backs to it and mouth words to each other. She will hold her breath then, knowing that they are doing wrong, concealment being one of the Great Abominations. She doesn’t know whether they murmur and whisper secretly to each other in the room where they sleep or if the Kindly Eye’s reach inhibits them. She guesses that it must, from the way they hush her when she cries in the night and tries to tell them about the things that have happened to her during sleep, the strange and frightening things that have held her caught and struggling to escape, heart-hammering waking the only way out.

“No one remembers very well,” he said that wave-dashed afternoon, making a frustrated movement, jerky with dissatisfaction, so different from the slow caution with which he fishes and does most other things. “I don’t even know if the few words I’ve got are really isiZulu, and if they’re the right words, or whole words, or just parts of words. One might be ulwandle. That.” He gestured, showing her the ocean.

“The sea?” She was enthralled.

“Yes. And inhlanzi. I think that is fish, such as we catch, though perhaps I have it wrong. I have heard whispers that it was cattle more than fish that were important to our people, when they were … Before. Long, long Before. There were many words, they say, but only a few have been passed down and who is to say if they are the right words … inkomazi, inkunzi, inkonyane, inkomo … when every record of non-Earthish words has been destroyed?”

The child understood only part of what he was saying, but she liked the words she heard, the sea and fish words best of all, as she did not know cattle. She memorised them to add to her store.

She lay in her bed that night, letting them slide and spin in and out of the day’s last tangle of thinking that waited to pull her down into sleep. The ocean had calmed, but she could hear its suck and swell in the dark, and in her drifting mind she gave it the new name, which was an old name and filled it with succulent fish in isiZulu.

This afternoon, the afternoon of walking in her father’s footprints, she wants to know the meaning of a word that has come not from Zodwa, but from Ruth. It is not like the many words Zodwa chanted last time they played together.

“You see, there were other people, like the Zulu people, but different,” Zodwa had explained, now grown as fierce and proud as her Removed mother. “So they weren’t called Zulu.”

And she had uttered their names in a singing voice, wonderful and ancient-sounding words like Xhosa, Swazi, Ndebele. Now, those words dance for the child still, making music in harmony with the Zulu word of her father’s saying that was the first to sing so beautifully within her.

This word of Ruth’s is smaller, yet somehow huge.

The salt wind has whipped her words away and the man hasn’t heard her, so the child repeats her question. “What is story?”

This time he hears.

He stops walking – so suddenly, it’s as if he has slammed into an invisible barrier, the child thinks, one of those whimsical thoughts that often come accompanied by mind-pictures, and which she has learnt not to share because they seem to upset the adults.

She too stands still, forgetting to aim for the next foot-shaped dent in the sand. They stand like that, the only two human figures in all that sweep of beach, in silence that is not silence, full of the wind’s roar and the sighing of the ocean swaying and heaving in retreat.

So slowly, so awfully, does he turn that she has time to prepare for what she will see. Even so, she falls back a step before his fear and anger.

“Where did you hear that word?” His voice is sharp but with a flutter in it.

She is frightened because he is.

“I … Ruth said it.” She feels bad telling him, but she has to; she cannot protect her friend, because lying is forbidden, the very First of the Great Abominations. “Is it … is it something bad?”

Aware of her fright, the man makes an effort to soften his voice, but he cannot smile as he sometimes does when explaining things to her, even dangerous things.“Very bad! The worst thing of all, ever! We are lucky we were not at home with the Kindly Eye when you said that word.”

The child is startled, alarmed, because surely nothing can be worse than lying.

“I don’t understand.”

“Listen to me, daughter. I will tell you out here where there are none to hear or watch my lips, but then you must never speak or think of it again.” Showing more white than usual, his eyes dart all around, even more anxiously than they did when he spoke the wonderful Zulu word. “Story is when you make something up.”

Fright takes hold of her, stilling her heart a moment, as she understands what he has said.

“Lying?” Terror lifts her voice and her heart’s beat resumes, with panic speeding it.

“Quiet. Yes, it is lying, but done for many different reasons, or even for no reason at all. You see, we Earthers carry this evil in us that makes us pretend things that aren’t true. It is called imagination, and the New Authority has called on us to suppress it at all and any cost to ourselves or others. We must never forget what the Evil Ones’ Great Lies caused; we must be on our guard against all forms of lying. That includes story.”

“But how does it work?” Curiosity imparts courage. “The imagine-thing?”

“It is also known as being fanciful. You think of something that isn’t true, or even of people and creatures that aren’t real.” The man frowns, sifting through what he knows. “In the … Before, people would tell these untrue things to others, just to entertain them, and it would take them away from reality. They even wrote whole books of … make-believe, it was called, for others to read. Or they would act out a make-up. It became a matter for trade. People would pay to hear or read or watch these Abominations. They were held to be creative works.”

“Is it … is it like the things that happen at night when I sleep?” The child is fearful again. “The not-real things?”

“Never speak of that!” The command is harsh. “And never let Ruth speak of this … this story, ever again. She will bring trouble to us all, worse trouble than Zodwa’s mother brought to herself. You must put it out of your head. Come, your mother will be waiting with the big pumpkin. She says it is ready for cooking. It will be good with the fish.”

He turns and resumes walking. She follows, no longer stretching her legs or leaping to try and land in his footprints.

She doesn’t dare.

That thing she has been doing, playing he was someone from far away among the planets, a being who could perform great wonders, and playing too that she was a child stolen at birth whom he would restore to her home made all of shining clouds and softest feathers if she would only faithfully mark his footsteps …

That thing is Abomination. As are all the other make-ups – stories – that she has allowed to grow out of her store of secret words, playing with them in her head, weaving them wonderfully, manipulating them.

Playing. Pretending. Making up.

And all the other things that they do when they are together away from their homes, she and Zodwa and Ruth, the games that begin with –

“Let’s be …”

“What if …”

“I wonder what …”

“Suppose …”

Abomination! All Abomination!

Terror claws at her. After a time, she understands that this isn’t because of what she has done, but because she will go on doing it. She will go on making up these things called stories, and filling them with the words she has learned and people who speak them and strange sights and great adventures. She has to. That is all she understands.

She balances on her left leg and stretches out her right, trying to match her father’s stride.


JAYNE BAULING’s novels for young adults have won a number of literary awards, including the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa, and two Sanlam Awards for Youth Literature (gold and silver). One of her books, Dreaming of Light, was chosen for the 2014 IBBY Honour List. Her short stories for adults and youth have been published in various anthologies, and have twice been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. A former Johannesburger, shenow lives in White River in Mpumalanga Province, South Africa.

Twitter: @JayneBauling

Click here to read a conversation with Jayne Bauling on her story Ancient Words or go to our Summons page.