The Tale of JmBumba

“They said you’d be this way”

“What way?”

“Mopey. I didn’t believe it but you just look plain old sad.”


“Captain Sayid? Sayid are you okay?” I called out from the fuselage. I unclipped my seatbelt and stumbled towards the cockpit. Aside from my sore back I felt remarkably fine. What hit me harder than the crash landing was the horrible smell that suddenly filled the plane.

Inside the cockpit I found Captain Sayid. “Mr. Jameson, Mr. Jameson its bad,” he said.

I rushed over to the captain who was coated in a wet brown substance and writhing in his chair. “Sayid? Oh my god, are you hurt?”

“No Mr. Jameson, its shit. I’m covered in shit.”

“Shit?”

“Yes,” he spat some out from his mouth. He looked like he might cry. “The plane crashed—its crashed into an outhouse.”

“Holy shi—erm. Did you sustain any injuries aside from… the shit?”

“Not physically, plane’s fine too minus the windshield.”

“Well.” I sighed. “Let’s get you cleaned up, fix the windshield and get outta here. And I told you, call me Marcus.” Without touching the captain, I led him out of the plane. We were on a compound of some sort, with concrete and brick buildings surrounding us. About twenty feet from our landing site was a puddle in the mud. “There,” I said. “Roll around in that for a while.”

A man holding a walkie talkie emerged from one of the concrete buildings and froze when he saw us. The man spoke into his walkie talkie and pulled out a rifle that he had hanging over his shoulder. “Sorry about the outhouse!” I called. Meanwhile, Sayid splashed about in the puddle. “You wouldn’t happen to have a spare windshield, would you?”  A bullet flew in my direction, missing me by a few feet. “Ah shit,” I said.

“You don’t have to remind me,” Sayid said.

More men ran out from the same concrete building holding guns.

Time froze. And something slithered into the background. Behind the men. Behind the buildings. For just a moment I could see it. And I mean that, only a moment. A giant shadowy snake baring purple fangs enveloping the background of my situation. He was there but he wasn’t. The sight of the snake filled me with a feeling of hollowness and melancholy. I have seen this serpent before. I know him, and I felt more fear towards him than the hostile attackers. “Not now,” I whispered to myself. A bullet zoomed just past my ear and afterward the snake was gone. Just like that.

 I sprinted towards Sayid in the water and picked him up by his poopy armpits. “Sayid come on! We gotta go! Now!”

“But we don’t have a windshield.”

“We’ll have to fly without one for now.”

I pushed Sayid into the plane amidst the constant bullet fire. I paused to wipe my hands, but another close-call bullet shot changed my mind. I jumped into the plane which Sayid was already starting up. Bullets clanged against the metal shell of the plane.

As we took off, small bits of fecal matter blew from Sayid hitting me in the face. When we gained more speed even more came spiraling back from the cockpit. The wind pressure coming from the front of the plane was terrifying. Sayid yelled something back to me but I couldn’t tell what it was.

Every second the plane stayed in the air was a blessing. One more second away from the bullets, and one more second to prove that we weren’t going to crash again.

Sayid landed in the nearest city, Lagos, to repair his plane. On the airstrip we observed the damage. “This’ll take more than just a new windshield,” he said staring at all the dents.

“I’ll make sure my financiers wire you something for your trouble. Where are you off to after this?”

“I’ve had enough excitement for a while I think. Probably head back to Morrocco and spend some time with my brother and his children. You?”

“I have an early flight back home, for my financiers to be happy they need to have the Tale of JmBumba written down as well as presented to a group of university professors.”

“Well good luck to you Mr. Jameson—sorry, Marcus.”

“And you too.”

***

I barely had time to prepare what I was going to say on the cab ride over to the university. I stopped by my house quickly and picked up a clean suit. If I were a professor of some kind maybe the university would give me an office, or at least a locker to keep stuff in before a lecture. But I felt no need to go back and get a degree. I was being paid well enough by researchers for my troubles. Awaiting me was a full house, both scholars and commoners alike. I began my lecture by giving a little bit of history about the Taliki Tribe as I had come to understand during my visit.

The piece that the scholars in the room were waiting for was the Tale of JmBumba. An ancient myth passed down through oral tradition by the tribe and until now undocumented in the halls of mythology. Only the literature and anthropology professors were interested in JmBumba. A mighty Taliki warrior who defeated the malevolent Serpato so that his people could see the sun again. The Serpato drained the Taliki of their lust, their joy, their smiles, by obscuring the sun with a fog made from his shadowy scales. A thrilling tale to be sure, which is likely why the professors only made up a third of the lecture hall. I knew that everyone else was hoping to hear if I would go off on a tangent and talk about the latest of my adventures. Daring deeds, close calls, and strangers befriended. These were the tales that my audience really wanted to hear. The tales of an exciting Indiana Jones lifestyle.

“And before I take my leave for some much needed rest at home,” I said, “I’d like for us all to have a moment of silence for Professor Hems from the University of Johannesburg, my translator, who gave his life to our research.” After a few moments, “Thank you.” With that I left the stage and the onslaught of questions shouted in my direction began. People saying stuff like “Tell us about the time you got the creation myth from the east central Aboriginals!” or “What happened on your trip to record the apocalypse myths from the scattered tribes in the far north!?” I didn’t want to talk about it. And for a moment as I pondered how to make my escape, I thought I saw the shadowy snake from Nigeria in the audience. But on a second glance he wasn’t there.

I wanted to go home and sleep. All I felt was tired, but nobody would let me rest. Sooner or later a professor from some South American university or whatever would contact me asking for my help in documenting whichever “long lost oral tale” that their published works depended on.

Outside I waited on another cab to pick me up. I stood on the sidewalk hoping that no lecture attendants would think to meander a few blocks away from the university. I checked my watch impatiently and grimaced. My back stiffened and I froze when I heard the faint words in the distance—“Daddy, it’s him! Look, it’s him!”

I turned to see a little boy running up to me. “Mr. Jameson! I knew it was you Mr. Jameson!” The boy hopped up and down clenching his fists together and smiling wildly. “You are the coolest! I can’t believe I am actually talking to you!”

“Hey, kid. Howsit going?”

The boy’s father approached apprehensively and apologized for his son.

“No worries, always nice to meet a fan of my work.”

“How do I become like you when I grow up?” the kid asked.

I felt pained by the sentiment. The boy knew nothing of the real me, just National Geographic gossip. For this kid to grow up to be like me…

“Don’t ever,” I said, “and I mean ever stop moving forward. That’s what you need to do. Keep shooting for the next thing you are achieving and when you achieve it quickly pick something new to search after. Don’t stop to ponder. If you stop and think about it all, you’ll realize the futility in the journey.”

The boy’s father coughed into his fist and escorted his son away. The taxi pulled up shortly thereafter.

***

Despite my best efforts, some sun shone through the cracks between the curtains. I rolled over in my bed and covered myself with the comforter. I dreaded leaving the protection of the blankets but knew it would become too warm underneath it for my taste. The air would feel warm when I breathed it in and that would make me just slightly too uncomfortable and then I would have to release my head to the cold air outside. It would feel good for a moment but then I would have to deal with the brief sunlight again, as well as the shadowy serpent that had taken the form of my curtains.

The phone on my bedside table rang. It could be a number of people: the university, a prospective researcher, my mother. I let it ring for a few moments deciding I was just going to let it run its course but then the ringing became a bit of a nuisance. I picked it up and immediately hung up.

I lay there in bed trying to convince myself to get up and do something. I wanted to want to do something but couldn’t quite muster the desire. The Serpato made sure to that. What I hated most was waking up and feeling this way. It was like my body decided that hopelessness was the new default state. After each night I would wake up as a blank slate, ready to feel hopeless.

Perhaps a shower would be nice. The snake lashed out and bit my ankle through the sheets. The issue with the shower was that I had no plans of leaving the house for the day, so would it be worth it in the end?

I rolled off the bed and landed on the floor where I was constricted by the shadowy body of the Serpato. I stayed for a minute before picking myself up. Down the hall I made for the kitchen to find something to eat even though I knew nothing I had in the fridge would seem appealing.

A pile of letters grew larger each day on my dining room table. They were all unopened, save for one. On my first day back from Nigeria I decided I would remain productive and start by opening fan mail. But I never got past the first letter. It was from a kid in Oklahoma. It had the usual hero worship, but it ended in one single question. The question wasn’t “can I come with you on your next great adventure” like normal, it was simple yet more complex. “Is it okay to feel sad?” After I read those words the snake slithered his way out from the envelope and slapped me in the face with his tail.

The letter sat open on the dining room table where I had left it. I had gone to pour myself a drink to think it over but found myself hard-pressed to return.

The phone rang again. This time it was far enough away that I felt I could properly ignore it.

Further past the table of letters were a collection of notes I had composed. They were lying at the foot of the couch in the living room. I had wanted to put together a collection of the oral stories that I had acquired on my travels abroad to publish them. It wasn’t that I felt the world needed a compilation of my studies, but more that I wanted a project to work on. Something for me to feel like I was “self-actualizing” and not just withering away. It would help me feel better. Maybe I would work on it today. Before I could even finish the thought, I was then bitten again by the snake and my stomach growled.

The thought process went like this: I can’t very well do productive work if I am hungry—but there is nothing to eat or at least nothing that I wanted to take the time to cook—so I cooked some popcorn in the microwave—and one cannot just sit down and eat popcorn at the dinner table (especially not mine)—so instead I would turn on the television and see what’s on—I always preferred having something to watch while I ate anyways. That is how I ended up spending my day lying on the couch with my notes at my feet watching a marathon of crime documentaries.

When the doorbell rang, I groaned. I shuffled over to the front door. I thought for a moment about changing out of my pajamas but decided I was presentable enough. At the door was a small man with round glasses and a baseball cap that was far too big for his head. “Mr. Jameson? Yes?”

“Yep.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you at your home but I have been trying to call you and…”

“Right, right. Hello. Sorry I am quite busy, what is it you want?”

“Of course. I am Dr. Leo Troute from the University of Pennsylvania. I was hoping I could inquire your help in a new research opportunity.”

“Yeah… okay. I’ll listen to what you have to say but I am a very busy man and so I can’t guarantee that you’ll walk away from this successful.”

“I thought as much, may I come in?”

“Uhh.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and rubbed my chin. Behind me the snake slithered quickly into a closet. His moonlight eyes stared at me through the door which remained cracked open. “How long do you think this’ll take?”

“Not long.”

“Uh, alright, sure.”

Dr. Troute followed me into my house. I led him to the living room and gestured to an armchair by the couch. He sat down and made a quizzical face. “This isn’t what I expected the house of Marcus Jameson to look like.”

“Well this is it, what’s your pitch?”

“Yes, right. There is a small island in the South Pacific. Known formally as Yaferza. It is the home of a tribe that from what has been gathered by trade ships so far hold all insect life to be sacred and worship the lightning bugs in the sky—stars. Anyways, nothing is known about their folklore and beliefs beyond that point. I think they would have a wealth of—“

“Well maybe they don’t want to share their story? Maybe we don’t need to know.”

“Mr. Jameson?”

I sighed. “Is your university going to finance this?”

Dr. Troute shifted in his seat. “Well no, the grant was denied. But I have found a financier. A brother of the man who runs the BannanaGo Fruit Company has agreed to finance the trip. But only if we find his ex-wife who he claims has run off and married somebody else on a nearby island. Uh, Gran Palma. It’s a popular vacation spot.”

I sank my face into my hands. A strange part of me felt like crying but I willed the tears to stay inside. Another adventure to find another story that will become a “neat article” in an issue of Times Magazine. I would put all his effort in, and the man in front of me would clearly wind up dead at the hands of some cultural misunderstanding. I could hear myself uttering “A moment of silence please” at the lecture about it. The glory would be nice but in the end I too would die someday and what good would the glory do me then? What good does doing anything really do? All I really needed to do was eat, drink water, and sleep every night until my body would be unable to do so anymore. At which point I could call it a “successful life.”

The back of my mind told me that there was joy in my life too. Fun memories of people like Captain Sayid covered in shit rolling around in a mud puddle. But where was that joy now? Why can’t I feel that all the time? Where exactly is the happiness button on a man? I glanced to the hallway closet where the Serpato stared at me.

“You know,” Dr. Troute said. “They said you’d be this way.”

“What way?”

“Mopey. I didn’t believe it but you just look plain old sad. Strange. I just figured it was all lies cause you lead such an exciting life you know.”

“I’m just some guy, a regular man no different from you. And you are in my house. I think maybe you should leave.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean to sound condescending. I really am a huge fan of yours. Will you consider my request?”

“Probably not but leave your card. Get out.”

Dr. Troute scurried through the living room and out the front door. I sat on my couch staring at the ground. I knew I would probably take Dr. Troute up on his offer. It would give me a purpose again. A treasure to seek. For now, I just had to wallow in the darkness. The Serpato slithered over to me and hugged me gently. One day I will wake up and he would be gone. He always leaves, but I never believe it when I try to remind myself. The Serpato constricts, devours, and ruins me—then one day without warning he would slither away. As if to say, “I’m full now so you can get back to it…but I will be hungry later.”

I hated feeling like a slave to him. That there was nothing I could do. I wanted to go to my notes and compile a manuscript. Bite. Hell, if I could just manage to take a shower that would be a step in the right direction. Bite.

I made for the kitchen to find myself a drink. I got as far as the dining room table before needing a break. I leaned on the table. I was so tired. Maybe I would just go to bed. I could see the letter from the Oklahoma kid on the other side of the pile. If I could find it in myself tomorrow, maybe I could write him back. The snake lolled about on the floor, laughing at me in his own way.

I slammed a foot down on the Serpato’s tale, just to see what would happen. He wrapped himself tightly around my leg and pulled me to the ground. Tears swelled in my eyes and the Serpato lapped them up with his cruel forked tongue.

Quietly I reached up one hand. The Serpato continue drinking my tears, and with a quick strike I grabbed him by the neck. I squeezed as tight as I could and stood up. With my other hand I formed a fist and punched him in the face. He wiggled about and opened his mouth to bite me. Instead I reached in and ripped out one of his purple fangs. I then threw him to the ground and approached the dining room table.

Using the fang as a pen, I began writing a letter. Addressed to the kid, I wrote: “I had a long time to think about it and the answer is yes. It is okay to feel sad. It just sucks in the meantime. Getting caught in a moment where you aren’t moving forward makes you stationary and that is scary. But being stationary is fine as well. And it won’t last forever. In that same vein feeling perfectly fine and invincible won’t last forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and in its absence the moon rules the darkness. But the moon sets as well.” I turned to look at the snake who was already slowly slithering his way back toward me.

I set the letter down and made a mad dash for the closed curtains of my bedroom. The Serpato chased me the whole way. Without giving it a second thought, I opened the curtains revealing the burning bright sunlight. The snake recoiled in the light and dissipated into the air.

I returned to the kitchen to find an envelope for the letter. I sealed up the message and wrote the kid’s address for a destination. Then I decided then that I should start poking through my notes and coming up with an outline for my collection. I noticed on the couch Dr. Troute had left his business card.

I took it to my bedroom picked up the phone. My room looked different with the sun shining in.

Written by Adam McDonald

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