SHORT STORY: Seeking the jewel of the land

Friday March 18 2022

Then, a small movement from within the brown group drew everyone’s attention, as another tall and well-built albeit much older man, Akila, walked forward, a long sturdy spear held loosely in his left hand. ILLLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGA


The tension was palpable. You could feel it in the tentative way the wind blew, soft then hard, then dissipating as if it wasn’t sure of itself. It was in the way birds circled overhead, swooping in circles, cutting each other off in erratic patterns. It was in the way the sun broke over the horizon, peeping first, then showing a sliver of its magnificent orange body, before disappearing behind a band of dull grey clouds and peeking out, intermittently, to illuminate the earth in bursts of golden light.

On an endless plain with knee high grass and clumps of trees, two groups of people stood facing each other, straight backed, stiff lipped, eyes narrowed as each studied the other.

One group wore a green so similar to the clustered trees they seemed to have woven their clothes from the shiny silky leaves; the other was dressed in a rich deep muddy brown, the colour of the fertile soil they stood on.

Aside from the bird calls, the scene was noiseless. For a while, it remained that way. Then as if prompted by the sudden gush of sunlight that poured from the sky, Robin stepped forward from amongst the green group. He was a well-built young man with regal features and attractive slightly downward slanted eyes that held a look that could be mistaken for haughty were it not widely known that he was not proud -- just a man who took pride in himself.

He took a few steps then stopped in a patch of sunlit grass, letting the light enhance and highlight his features. He was tall, a head above everyone, with wide shoulders that tapered into a toned body.

He didn’t mean to show off; it was just customary to take only three steps forward, no more.


Robin stood still, serenely, as if unaffected by the fact that every narrowed eye was on him.

Then, a small movement from within the brown group drew everyone’s attention, as another tall and well-built albeit much older man, Akila, walked forward, a long sturdy spear held loosely in his left hand.

He too, walked forward only three steps before he stopped, planting the spear firmly at his feet and yelling so that his voice carried across the plain, echoing into the hazy distance.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

Song contest

Robin drew himself up to his full height and broke suddenly into song, his voice resonant, like the rumble of big rocks tumbling together.

“We are the dwellers of the forest,

Known to be brave, strong and honest,

We come seeking the jewel of the plain

For it is worth the risk in order to gain.”

A brief silence ensued. Akila, his brown garments in contrast to his fair skin, raised his spear and replied, in song too, his voice hoarse, haunting.

“Then stand your ground,

Many cowards we have found,

The man who moves not an inch,

Shall have the jewel of the plain as his.”

Suddenly, Akila vaulted his spear into the sky, his aim perfect as the weapon begun to descend to where Robin stood. It landed with a dull thud, piercing the ground inches from him, vibrating violently in the clump of grass by Robin's feet.

There was a collective gasp, loudest from Robin’s tribesmen standing tensely behind him.

Robin hadn’t even looked up. How brave the man was! Only he could taste the blood in his mouth from biting his tongue in fear.

Plucking the spear from the ground, he sang back:

“Concede, I have won,

My heart is true and strong,

I have proved my will

Now I prove my skill.”

Once again without warning, the sturdy spear found itself sailing through the air, this time launched by Robin, to where Akila now stood huddled amongst his kin.

The goal of Robin's throw, however, was different. Whereas Akila wanted to test Robin’s bravery and determination, Robin’s was a show of his strength and skill. He had to throw the spear high enough and far enough that it completely sailed over the group in brown, striking no one.

Some in the brown group shifted uneasily as the spear flew towards them. They’d attended enough of these ceremonies every time a challenger came seeking their jewel. Last year, a second cousin had been speared, and the rainy season before, it had been a nosy aunt who’d got it in the fleshy part of her behind.

The men weren’t supposed to move once the spear was in the air, but a few, shuffling, took miniscule steps away from where they feared it would land.

But Robin’s throw was perfection. The spear made a wide arc over their heads, landing several feet behind them, embedded firmly in a tree.

An expectant silence settled over the plains. No one had ever won the contest before. Then, like a wave cresting, the two groups begun to ululate and shout with unabashed joy. They rushed at each other, hugging and dancing, as Akila led a stunningly beautiful young woman to where Robin stood with a half-moon smile plastered on his face.