The Grymcat Conspiracy is, primarily, an exciting adventure full of humour and awesome plot twists. But it also deals with tricky environmental and social issues that I have been studying for some time as an academic. When I am not working on children's fiction I am a Professor of Development Studies at the University of Sheffield where I co-direct the Sheffield Institute for International Development.
A faint cry of ancient trouble seeped out of the night. Samti’s thumbs paused over her phone. For the ghosts of this land that warning had sounded despair. But they were long dead. Now nobody worried about what, or who, had been taken.
Only . . . had it just been a distress call? Samti pushed open the small wooden shutter that covered her window. Cold air and thin moonlight streamed in. Outside, the forest pressed against freshly weeded fields. She looked out to the ranks of trees looming above her, rising with the mountains and disappearing into the highlands where the snows could fall. What had she heard?
She quietened her breath. Around her the night murmured. Crickets busied themselves making noise, bats chipped hard echoes into the shadows, an owl called. Far in the distance hyenas were yowling. Through earthen walls she could only hear the usual farmstead sounds. Hens stirred in their roost, cattle breathed heavily. The night wind rustled the banana fronds behind her home.
And then the cry sounded again, ringing across the ages. HAYYYOOOORDAT! HAYYYOOOORDAT! The call rolled, yodelling out over the land binding all who heard to come at once to its aid.
Samti tensed. Not her this time, it wouldn’t be fair. It was most likely just some lost drunk frightened of his shadow. She was still at school, she was only fifteen. It was Dawi’s turn surely.
And then she relaxed. She heard her aunt, Mama Leo, beat on the wall of cousin Dawi’s room. He would go, not she. In nearby houses neighbours alerted each other, calling their youth to answer the call. Samti heard Dawi banging grumpily in the darkness, searching for his clothes and stick. His torch was out of battery again, or he had lost it, and he could not find his shoes. Likely Ambrosi, his youngest brother, had hidden them. Finally she heard him stumbling out of the house to join the muster with his neighbours.
Samti leant back onto her hard, thin mattress and curled up against the chill of the night air. Her sleeping blankets were coarse and stiff, they wanted replacing. But she was cosier than her cousin. She knew how cold and tiring it was, trailing through forest in the dark. Dawi was probably walking into the nettles or else treading on the siafu, the army ant trails, and getting bitten.
She listened to the scratching of insects in the thatch. Something hungry, probably a gecko, scuttled after something edible. She could hear Mama Leo asleep again, cuddling her children. Snufflings and deep breathing came from her bedroom.
Samti wondered when Dawi would return. Phone reception was so bad in the forest that they would not get a text from him.
The call came again, quieter, filtered through moon-silvered clouds. Samti’s skin still prickled for what it used to mean. Her Mama had recounted the stories of the old times over and again as she had braided Samti’s hair. Head nestled against thigh. The safest place, for the worst of tales.
There once was a time, Mama would say, when the forest had been dangerous. When journeys into the higher reaches had required escorts of heavily armed men, guarded by charms and prayer. When people missing late in the evening were abandoned. When the cattle enclosures were built of tall timbers and ringed with layers of thorns to keep out the hungry threats that prowled in the darkness.
She would push Samti’s hair to one side, scratching her own itching nose in a brief respite, and then continue. Nimble fingers tugging, weaving, scalp-tingling.
And then, Mama said, they thought it had tamed. People would creep in at the edges, marvelling at the dappled shade, at the rough lowing and red flashes of the lourie birds. But it was not safe. Young ones would be tempted by sweet berries and ventured too far. They only realised when it was too late, with the dusk rushing in, the sky darkening with storm clouds, and shadows deepening, brooding and growing. Then the creatures that the night hid grew bold and came scenting, hunting, relentlessly coursing the thrashing undergrowth as panicked youngsters ran for their lives.
But that, Mama assured her, pulling and tightening, was long ago. Now there were no deadly predators left. The leopards were cautious, keeping to the highlands, preferring goats to people. Hyenas were only dangerous if you slept in the open. And the real problems, the elephants and the buffalo, were gone. It was many years since Bibi Anna had nearly been trodden on by a charging rhino when she was out collecting firewood.
You see my sweetness? Deftly her Mama had squeezed her braids into bright bands. There is nothing really dangerous. Not any more.
Samti lay still in the peace of the night, trying again to feel her Mama’s touch in her hair. Her braids were loose. Despite all Mama Leo’s enfolding protection she still did not have the skill, or the patience, to get Samti’s hair right. Samti’s long fingers did most of the braiding in their family now. She turned to the wall, trying to blot out the memories. Would that all the wild dangers returned, baying outside the compound, if that could bring her mother back.
* * *
It was too quiet when Samti woke. She lay puzzled by the stillness. Then she realised: no Ambrosi. Normally he would be jumping and shrieking in Dawi’s room, goading the brother he idolised into another raucous chase. The noise of his squeals woke her each day.
So, no Dawi yet either. Still this happened from time to time. Sometimes the alarm meant a real problem, probably another suicide in the forest. Samti mentally sifted through their neighbours. None were in trouble with the money lenders. It might be a stranger; they were hard to identify.
Her aunt roused her, calling from the cooking hut. “Samti, my sweetness, I need water please.”
Samti groaned. Now she had to do Dawi’s chores. “But . . .”
Mama Leo ignored her protest. “And firewood. My parents will arrive soon. It’s sinful not to welcome them properly.”
The grandparents – of course – Babu was taking the youngest grandchildren to his hives in the forest, and Samti was to help him. She would eat honeycomb today. She had thought to press on with her studies. But this was the first honey-trip. Even her mother would have agreed studies were less important than that.
Babu was soon holding court over his morning tea, his hat on his knee, perched on a low stool in the kitchen hut. A graceful halo of white hair rimmed his bald head.
“They are probably going to die in there, I shouldn’t take them,” he said, trying to frown at his younger grandchildren. “They’re too young, they’ll get left behind. What if the beast eating the search party right now wants some pudding?”
Pretending it was dangerous was part of the ritual of the trip. But it was all pretence. Indeed the forest now had to be protected from the people. Squat concrete blocks guarded the corners of a reserve that kept the valuable trees, the duku and mininga, from the timber barons. An imaginary line, unfenced, ran between them marking the forest’s territory on one side, and the village lands on the other.
There was even a sort of peaceful dependency between forest and people. The people needed the forest. It may be a reserve, but they were still allowed to gather from it. Because of the forest there was wood to cook with and forage for the herds. Children made swings from forest vines.
And the wildlife used the farms. Monkeys stole melons. Pigs, deer and porcupines slipped across the fenceless boundaries to eat maize. Birds gorged themselves in the wheat fields, despite the rocks that the child guards threw. And occasionally, when it rained in the night and the noise of the storms hid them, hyenas might break through the walls of the livestock enclosures to take sheep or goats.
But Ambrosi and his cousins were still scared and excited. They crowded on a short bench near the cooking fire, rustling uncertainly. Samti could see them so timidly determined, desperate to go, but half-hoping they would not have to. She could remember that feeling herself.
Mama Leo sighed exaggeratedly at Babu. Her squat form was leant over the fire as she fried mandazi for their trip. Her hands and kanga were dusted with flour, her forehead beading sweat. Then she looked up and rolled her eyes behind her father’s back, making the children giggle.
“I know that Babu of yours,” she said shortly, scratching at her hair beneath her headress. “He just wants that delicious honey for himself. But I, my beautifuls, I want you to eat more than he does. So you all run along now. And look out for Dawi while you’re up there. He’s probably waiting for you by the honey tree. But don’t let him have any.”
When they set off, Babu started deliberately quickly, his patch-worked trousers and worn jacket flitting through the shade of the trees. The children jostled behind their grandfather, treading on each other for their fear of being left behind. Samti smiled at the tumble of bodies bumping in front of her. She would have to carry the smallest of them. They would tire themselves out.
And then Babu stopped abruptly. “What was that? Did you hear it?”
Ambrosi crowded close to his grandfather, staring around with fright at the quiet trees basking in morning sunshine. But Babu was not trying to scare his grandchildren. He was teaching them the forest lore he knew.
“Listen again,” he commanded. “It’s a friendly sound that one.” A rough cough sounded, the bark of a deer. “That deer has spotted us, and it’s warning its friends. That means that there is nothing more dangerous than us around.”
Now they moved more slowly as Babu pointed out the plants and how to use them, naming the birds. He showed them the high ridges far in the distance where the duku groves grew with their precious timber.
What with the explanations, and questions, the detours for berry-picking, arriving at the hives was almost a surprise. They were lodged high up in the branches of a vast flowering tree, thick with pink flowers and buzzing insects. This was the biggest treat.
Babu carefully climbed up his ancient ladders to smoke out the bees. The children waited impatiently, necks craning, mouths watering. When he finally came down, Justini, the youngest of them, ate so much honey that he was sick. Babu made him stick his head in the cold mountain stream until he was clean.
Afterwards they rested, satiated in the shade. Far above them vultures circled peacefully on invisible thermals. Samti watched over them, cuddling a sleepy Justini. When she was an mkubwa, she resolved, when she had passed school as she had promised her Mama, when she had got a proper job and a big brick house in town, then her children would make this trip. Dawi would take them.
The lazy afternoon minutes ticked by. Just as she decided to rouse them, Ambrosi awoke and sat up drowsily; then he spotted his dozing grandfather. Quietly and deliberately, Ambrosi crept up to the sleeping elder and growled fiercely in his ear.
Babu’s reaction saved Samti the trouble of waking the other children. She assembled their belongings as Babu chased a squealing Ambrosi over the rocks.
“Come on,” he instructed the drowsy youngsters, “we must get back. You’ve just eaten honey and made yourselves tastier. And even I wouldn’t want Ambrosi to be eaten by a monster. It would be unhealthy for the poor creature.”
The return journey was down hill. But they went at a gentle pace, easing tired young legs back home. Samti, as usual, picked up the rear of the party. So she heard it first. A murmur that she had not known in the forest before. She called ahead to her grandfather.
“Babu, what’s that noise?”
They both paused, heads cocked at the sound chasing down from the slopes above them. A running. A panting. Something was coming. Something was out of place.
Babu’s manner changed in a moment. He dropped his precious honey buckets. He looked at his grandchildren clustered around him, his face losing all its smile. Then he swept up Justini, and with a horribly quiet whisper commanded: “RUN!”
And suddenly the running and panting was around them. Dawi’s search party was back, silent, crouching, scratched, sweating, exhausted and afraid. They had dropped their weapons. Some had lost their shoes. But they ran headlong down the hill. The foremost picked up any child they overtook, hoisting them squirming onto shoulders as they went by.
Down they fled. Bushes clung at them; rocks barked their shins. Vines and brambles snapped at their ankles. The path invented new turns and detours. The forest did not want them to leave.
They fought on, ripping themselves free from the forest’s entanglement, pushing for the safety of the invisible boundary. Samti half-dragged, half-carried Ambrosi as she ran. But ever she looked back at the shadows growing on the mountain slopes. Dawi was missing.
And then, suddenly, he was there, surging after his companions, calling for them to run faster, hurdling the bushes, throwing himself down the mountain. But when he caught up Samti smelt the smoke and soot on him. His face was burnt. Blood and ash mingled with the sweat and dust on his skin.
Even as he reached them he lifted Ambrosi scrabbling from the ground. Together they pulled each other out to the forest edge. Only when they were safely near the boundary did Babu sound the alarm, breathless, desperate. “HAYYOOORDAT! HAAAYYOOOOORDAT! Ni’ii i hi’iitiya.”* And then their friends and neighbours were running towards them, pulling them into their houses, dragging the thorn bushes in front of compound gates and barricading doors. Locking themselves away from the coming night.
*The children are returning.