There were no girls in our group of cattle herders. It was just us, the boys. When we went down to the river to bathe, there were no awkward moments of trying to hide our little private parts. On the rare occasion that some village women came to the river whilst we bathed, we simply stayed in the water until they left.
We were comfortable in our nakedness, way too comfortable in fact. The bigger boys like Apollo had pubic hair already, and they seemed to take particular pleasure in having it examined by all the other boys. Especially the young boys who oohed and aahed in envious appreciation of their curly pubes, dangling balls and penises that seemed to be three or four times bigger than the average boy’s size.
Apollo did everything better. He was older so he swam better, played football better, fished better, and was really good in finding those cattle that went astray as we swam or were looking for fruit in the forest. It was difficult to not look up to him. That he was a little slow in class counted for nothing out here in the grazing fields, especially during school holidays. Whatever Apollo decided we were doing that day, we didn’t question.
We did a lot of different activities out in the fields depending on the season. We sculpted whatever our imaginations allowed when the early summer rains prepared the clay for us. Cars, puppies, sometimes we even brought to life what we remembered from our rare excursions to be cities, using the clay. We went hunting in late summer when the high shrubbery confused the hares, thinking they’re still well within the protection of the forest when they were in fact only meters away from the vicious teeth of our hunting dogs. Apollo’s dogs always brought something back. Always.
Apollo loved swimming. He always suggested it to end our day. Those who were not good swimmers amongst us would grumble, but still went. Apollo would strip down first, then wait for the mandatory envious appreciation of his manhood. I found it odd that his already huge penis showed signs of waking up each time he insisted that one of the younger boys touch him. I once laughed at him and blurted out “your Willy thinks it’s morning!” This was because mine only did that when I woke up on certain mornings – it didn’t have to be touched even. The look Apollo gave me that day ensured I kept my distance whenever he let the others touch it.
He was an overall nice guy. No one messed with us at school or in the grazing fields because Apollo would deal with them, and since he was good at everything, no one touched Apollo’s boys. No one. Like the one time that we went to the neighbouring village for a soccer match without Apollo and we won the game. Our prize of a loaf of white bread and two packets of Niknaks was confiscated by an older boy from that village. Apollo dealt with him when he heard. The next time we saw the boy he was minus his front teeth, and the story went that Apollo had made him swallow them. That was our Apollo.
His body always did things that our little bodies couldn’t. This one time he called us and we stood around him in a circle. He took off his shirt and touched his nipples. They were a little raised from his chest, like there was something tender growing under them. I looked at mine and was so disappointed that they were nothing like his. Mine just seemed like little brown stones, completely covered in mud. I almost wanted to hide them in shame. Apollo asked one of the other kids to touch his nipple.
“You can squeeze, don’t be afraid of hurting me,” he said expectantly.
When none of us squeezed he did so himself. There were little white things that appeared around the nipples. When one of the little boys eventually decided to squeeze, Apollo closed his eyes and I could see through his shorts that his willy thought it was morning. He seemed upset when he caught me staring at his shorts and not his nipples. Later that day at home, I squeezed my own little nipples and except for the bruises I inflicted on them, nothing tale worthy happened.
None of us ever feared anything out in the bush when Apollo was around. He saved my life once, and it was a big deal in the village. Even the Chief invited him and his family for a feast for saving my life.
We were out looking for wild fruit when it happened. I was on a very high branch of a fig tree when I heard a hissing sound. I couldn’t locate the source of the sound and so I continued shaking the branch so it could drop figs on the ground. For a second I took my eyes to the ground, to assess the takings shared by the tree. And that’s when I felt a searing pain on my ankle. To my horror, I saw a black snake right next to my left foot. Fear gripped me. I had been bitten by a snake. I lost all sense of control. It’s not a good idea to lose it when you’re on top of a tree. Next thing I knew, I was bouncing off several branches on my way down. Death was certain. Out of nowhere, there was Apollo, standing directly below me, with his arms wide open. He caught me.
“A snake bit my leg.” And I passed out.
When I came to in hospital, my little ten-year-old self thought I was dead, so I started screaming. Look, everything around me was white: the sheets, the light, the walls – I even had a white gown on. Staring right down at me, was a middle-aged white man wearing a white gown. I really thought I was dead.
The white man seemed pretty pleased that I could scream. He motioned with his hand and people started surrounding my bed. My grandmother had tears in her eyes. Our school principal was there too, so were my uncles, nieces and nephews. Even Apollo was there.
“We must be thankful for this young man’s quick thinking,” said the white man, with his arm around Apollo’s shoulders. “Were it not for him, little Nyiko here would have died for sure.”
It turns out that Apollo tore off his shirt and tied it around my leg to prevent the venom from spreading up. He had then lugged me over his shoulder and ran to the nearest road where the school principal was fortunately driving along. They had loaded me into the back of the bakkie and headed for the hospital. The hospital kept all sorts of antidotes because the local white population always had encounters with snakes on their hiking missions. Apollo was a hero, my life saviour.
It was a while before I could go cattle herding again. My grandmother refused, but eventually relented because it was the way of the village. It was weak boys who didn’t go out to the grazing fields, and she wasn’t raising a weak boy.
When Apollo saw me, he beckoned me to his side. For the whole afternoon that’s where I stayed. He even gave me more attention than his most favourite dog, Bobby. The other boys and Bobby were jealous, but what could they do? I was Apollo’s favourite.
And so it came as no surprise when he took me hunting on my own one afternoon. Just the two of us and the dogs. Although it wasn’t hunting season, I couldn’t say no. I owed Apollo my life. So off we went. The shrubbery was not high enough or green enough, and the dogs we struggling to catch scents of the wild animals anywhere. We walked for quite a while and when I pronounced myself tired, Apollo took me by hand and led me to a smooth boulder. It was quite warm to sit on in the early evening sun. Apollo took off his shirt and lay it down on the smooth rock and invited me to lie down on it alongside him. The bulge in his short was at odds with the time of the day again. His willy thought early evening was morning.
He didn’t force me to do anything. He asked nicely.
“Nyiko, please squeeze my nipples.”
When I took time to think about it he took my hand and placed it on his nipple and pressed my fingers. I couldn’t say no. When he took down my shorts and turned me over so I lay on my tummy, I couldn’t say no. I simply froze into submission. And when he directed his morning willy into a place on my body where I was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to go, my mouth couldn’t find the voice to say no. Apollo was the village hero. He was my saviour, my protector. And besides, he was older, he knew what he was doing. Even his favourite dog Bobby didn’t bark. He just stayed and watched the entire undoing.
I’m not sure how long it went on for , all I knew is my hero was hurting me, badly. And when he collapsed on top of me with a throttled scream I thought he realized he was hurting me, because his motions had stopped. Bobby walked away. I’m no animal whisperer but I sensed disgust on Bobby’s face. When Apollo finally stood up, my physical pain could not let me do likewise. The pain was written in liquid red on that on smooth rock.
“Askies, my boy.” He said sorry with a hint of regret in his voice. I finally managed to get up and tried to walk. It was torturous. He carried me down to the stream and washed down the evidence of my pain away. It looked like I was still bleeding because the slow moving water by my feet still had a tinge of redness. He was gentle with me. Even used a bit of dirty cotton wool to try stem the blood.
When I got home that evening my grandmother took one look at me and declared:
“You’re not going out there again tomorrow my son’s son. I did say it was too early and they all thought I was crazy. Look at the trauma on your face. I’m sorry my boy. Askies.”
I hugged her tight and cried. Rivers of tears. I wanted to tell her about Apollo my hero but I couldn’t. The words wouldn’t come. This was Apollo, the young man who saved my life. The one who protected me from bullies. He didn’t mean to hurt me. And hurt me he did. Not just back there but somewhere deep inside. I had this lump in my throat that would not go away, and it was painful. It felt so much like three years before when my grandmother told me that my dad had gone to heaven and was never coming back. It was painful on the inside but I could not touch a place to soothe the pain.
When I drove into the village twenty years later I wondered about Apollo’s whereabouts. My worldly success had allowed me to shut everything out. When my grandmother passed away when I was in first year I had decided that that was it for me and the village. I would bury Apollo’s ghost in my books and the money I would make on graduating. No one could look at a doctor and tell that something that terrible had happened to him.
I drove slowly when I passed what used to be Apollo’s homestead. There was a little boy playing in the yard of this modern house with its white picket fence. I looked at the boy and when our eyes met, his seemed hollow. I had seen those eyes somewhere, a long time ago before this boy was born. It was in the mirror of my grandmother’s dressing table. Those eyes belonged to me after my encounter with Apollo in the bush.
I finally got to my aunt’s house and got warm hugs.
“My brother’s son. The doctor.” My aunt said these words with pride. But my eyes were moist with tears. I wanted to do something to Apollo.
“Where is Apollo?”
“Haven’t you heard?” My aunt looked at me like I had missed news about a World War. “His brother caught him doing despicable things to his six-year-old boy two years ago. He cut off his manhood and left him for dead. But the scum survived and is now serving a life sentence. You drove past his brother’s house on your way here. The one with a white picket fence.”
I immediately drove back without saying another word to my aunt. I made a stop at the house with the white picket fence. I looked at the eight-year-old boy with the hollow eyes. I could tell that he knew that I knew. I hugged him. He hugged me back very tightly. And in that long silent embrace, a voiceless plea for help was made. The plea was greeted with invaluable promises of a better day to come. In that silent embrace, in that solidarity, a battle raged against the monster we had both once loved. Apollo’s power was brought to its knees that day. And in all the senses of the word, I truly felt his emasculation.