Many years ago, as the animals were told by their forebears, what they knew now as a little oasis had been a huge ocean with its shores as wide as the borders of sight and as deep as the very soul of the once-lush plains, a repository of the past in history, mystery and fossils long calcified. There were many stories of the oasis and each of the species of animals had its own side to it: predators- of prey in flight; prey- of death, fear and fright. Notwithstanding, the watering hole was the common bond they all had as each kept its distance from the other. Hippopotamuses were generally regarded by all as the custodian of the waters and the other animals came to quench parched throats and stare at their reflections in the water. It had been that way until the dark mass appeared in the watering hole, seemingly from nowhere, and the body of the head of the lioness’ pride was found mercilessly hacked to shreds by the banks of the pool the morning after the dark mass appeared.
No one knew what it was, how it had got there, or how the lioness had died. They only knew that the ‘thing’ floated ever so often and it had two slight knobs that bulged above the water surface and looked like two eyes half buried in the watering hole. All the animals had turned to the only witness to the brutal murder- a vulture that kept vigil that night on a tree overlooking the watering hole. For weeks after the slaughter, she narrated the stories to the animals as they gathered beneath the boughs of her perch with their kind to listen casting a fleeting glance to the pool anytime the vulture reached the part of the story when the ‘thing’ came out of the water. Even though the story had been twisted, warped and convoluted by each messenger mouth, the common thread had not been lost. According to the vulture, she had been perching where she perched today watching the night sky, when she saw the lioness appear from the thicket to take a lick in the pool. According to her, what kept her awake was a sign she saw in the sky that night; of stars that drew the eternal palms of fate on a moonless but starry sky.
She told of how the signs warned that there was ‘death in the air’ (something the orangutans interpreted as ‘death in the hair’ and thereafter began defoliating themselves after they had heard the stories). Not that death on the plains was alien: it was an everyday part of their lives. But the signs the vulture claimed she saw that night was a more fearful sign that would bring death to most animals on the plain over time and it had only started with the lioness by the watering hole. She said that that night as she looked down at the leisurely advance of the lioness and the seriously grave signs in the sky, she had absolutely no idea what it meant until she saw a huge crocodile lunge out of the pool in a flash of lightning and grab the lioness’s neck; and like Njonjo (black magic), other crocodiles began to appear from deep within the pool until they covered the struggling cat and the entire surface of the of the water, shielding the doomed predator-turned-prey from her sight. She said they were monstrous and their large canines gleamed like tusks in the starlight that night. She told of their leader whose tail lashed out with such ferocity, it split the lioness’ spine like flax. After the massacre, the crocodiles had simply slid back, leaving one roving eye to watch for the next prey to breach the placid surface of the pool.
This story ran through the plains with frightening speed, cradling fear in its embrace. The morning after, no one dared approach a mile of the watering hole. Every of the animals kept a safe distance as they grazed farther away from it, preferring to munch on dry grass even though greener ones grew closer to the oasis. Even though, the question that seemed to linger on every animal’s lips was, ‘where did the crocodiles come from?’ Some of them, particularly the birds knew of crocodiles and their unruly ways from their migration but there had never been a crocodile on the plain before- not one; at least not until now. From the vultures’ eye witness account, other stories started to metastasize: of animals that had disappeared into the pool and never came back, ritual crocodile dances at midnight around the watering hole, and many more images beyond the reign of thought and wily words. All the same, the twin eyes in the watering hole remained, roving and watching their every move. The still surface of the oasis broken slightly ever so often by the winds, sends almost imperceptible ripples across the face of the water- breaking into waves of fear across the plain as all the animals inched a step backwards. Ripples meant air, and air meant breath- subterranean breath.
After a few days of giving berth to death hidden within the watering hole that once gave life to them, the animals realized the dilemma of their position. The watering hole was the only water source in the plain and sooner rather than later they would all die without water and the signs the vulture saw would come to pass. So as they stared at the still waters all day none with the nerve to go near, the conundrum tossed them between death by daring; and death by resignation to fate- in either case, death was certain. Unfortunately, death did not wait for them to consider the options as he started to graze the plains; and the words of the vulture, the words of the stars, started coming to pass. With each passing day, animals fell to the earth and simply died of thirst; others who could, began to migrate, leaving in droves, some falling by the wayside as they spent their last reserves ‘exodusing’ a place they had called home since the pterodactyls roamed the skies above the plain.
However, some, whom had spent centuries on the plains and had nowhere else to go had simply hung on- waking early to watch the roving eyes, hoping it would disappear as the sun ran its course across the skies; the changing shadows, the dying heat and the fulfillment of the prophecy of death, the only telling signs that another day had passed. When the thirst reached unbearable limits some of the monkeys had gone nearer the oasis but the vulture had shrieked an unexpected warning cry from her perch that sailed the wings of the winds through every bough and hide, as the whole plain fled an unseen evil spirit let loose in the piercing cry.
The vulture, looking down from her perch, sunk her head deeper into her hunches as she remembered the echo of that warning cry and the daring monkeys she had cried to warn. Spread across the plains was the sweet smell of decaying flesh and she knew that the longer the animals held out, the more likely there would be more carrion for the feast. She was a bird and she could fly away into the distance where she could get water but the other animals could not. As the roving crocodile eyes shifted position slightly, it drew a ready retreat from a family of bison that chewed dust half a kilometer away. The vulture could not help but marvel at how fear could hold the entire plains to ransom.
As she looked at the floating barklike eyes in the watering hole she remembered how at first she had thought it was a crocodile too, only to find out it had been a log. But the ruse had not formed in her mind until the night she saw the half bloodied body of the king of the forests, mutilated by poacher. If only the animals had been able to find out that the roving eye was not a crocodile; or if they had been knowledgeable enough to interpret the bullet wounds on the lioness as that of poachers that roamed the plains, maybe they would have found out. But she knew they would not, for animals were just like humans in that regard- all you need to do is give an ignorant people a story for the taking, and they would shackle themselves with fear eternally.