SHORT STORY: Caught between life and death

Tuesday November 30 2021

Pepo looked into the smoldering eyes of the tall man seated across from her. Something in his voice had changed and it set her on edge... ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


The tent Pepo found herself in was damp, dimly lit and spacious. Tens of candles cast flickering lights that weakly illuminated it, enough that she could see. A low wooden pallet piled with skins and hides took up the entire right side of the low hanging structure, and on the left, there was an assortment of bundles, some utensils, crude weapons in various stages of assembly and books?

“You read?” her surprise was so great, the words spilled out of her as they formed in her mind.

A tall man who’d been standing unmoving at the entrance to the tent now moved forward, coming to stand in front of her. Jora, chief of the tribe, Pepo had just stumbled upon, was taken aback at being spoken to, and in so casual a manner. Shoving her down onto the wooden pallet, he scowled and sat down opposite her, near the unfinished weapons.

“Who are you? What are you doing here?” he growled.

“I’m Pepo,” In her seating position, with her back straight, her head held high and her nose in the air, she looked directly into his dark eyes and refused to blink, “I was banished by my tribe. I have travelled a long way to get here.''

“Oh,” his snort was derisive, harsh in its dismissal of her truth. She was obviously a spy, sent to inspect the riches he was amassing, “You must think I'm a fool. Years of riding these plains all the way down to the sea in the Far East, and I’ve never come across a lone, female traveler. What, do you have a death wish?”


“Well, what is there to wish for?”

Something flickered across her face so quickly he thought he’d imagined it, except when she spoke again her voice was hollow, lacking the biting edge of pride and courage that had previously peppered it.

“Funny,” her pretty mouth twisted into a sneer, “the best part of this suffering, is knowing it’ll definitely end. It’s become that the best part of this life…is death.”

Her words cut through him. Through his suspicion, allowing his eyes to be opened to the skinny woman with the sad eyes sitting before him.

“Pepo, that’s an unusual name…” he found himself saying.

She looked at him confused for a moment by his change of tone, then tilted her head and looked down at her hands.

“Yes, my mother loved the sound and feel of the wind. She used to say, ‘…you can’t stop it flowing, it goes where it goes, how it goes…” her voice faltered, “but that was a long time ago,” she blinked to clear her misty eyes.

She’d been far away by a smoky fire with red glowing embers that crackled, an accompaniment to the shrill crickets setting off a night symphony that lulled the senses into a comfortable, sleepy state; with her mum’s warm feet next to hers as they sat side by side, watching the flames dancing, the shadows their partners, moving this way and that…

“Why were you banished?” his low voice cut into her painful reverie and she was glad for the intrusion. The past held nothing but memories, and memories held nothing but hurt.

She looked at him intently, her eyes flaming as she answered, “There was a famine…a bad one,” she paused, biting her tongue as she remembered, “I spoke out against the elders, after my mother died,” her eyes fell to her feet, “I was angry,” she added as if to defend herself, then suddenly, her head snapped back and she locked eyes with him as she finished defiantly, “They sold our fertile land to people who wanted to extract the yellow rocks,” she paused as he nodded, understanding her, “They called it ‘gold’, and they destroyed our land for it…”

“And…” he prompted her.

“When I spoke up,” she turned her head bitterly, “They said I was inciting the people against them…” she sighed, drifting off again.

Jora let the silence sit this time. He was already putting two and two together, and he didn’t like what they were adding up to. He studied the diminutive figure before him. Crouched on the low pallet, shaking from the effort not to cry, Pepo didn’t look threatening at all. But he’d not take any chances.

“So you came here to…” he prodded.

Pepo looked into the smoldering eyes of the tall man seated across from her. Something in his voice had changed and it set her on edge.

“To,” she measured her words, “To warn the other tribes of what is coming if…if they do the same.”

“Hmm,” Jora crossed his arms and sat back, weighing his options. She was naïve, so he could deal with her easily. But her stumbling into his camp had caused quite a scene, he would still have questions from his people to field.

“You will do no such thing,” Jora said quietly, getting to his feet in one smooth move.

Pepo didn’t have a chance. She sputtered in shock as she found her arms bound and her mouth tightly gagged in seconds.

“My people are getting rich,” Jora said under his breath as he tied her up, “They are happy,” he was breathing hard as Pepo begun to struggle, “You will cause problems for all of us,” he stepped back and looked down at her, “You have a choice, leave or die.”

Read Part II: When forewarned be forearmed