A Little MumbaJennifer Michael Hecht
In two billion years the expanding sun dries the oceans, meanwhile, life has been around for more than two billion years. Thus, life on earth is at least half over. There is not a lot of time to get this figured. Three geographers hike an unknown South Sea Island, raising little mountains on their field maps. Suddenly they’re pounced on by a hidden tribe, grimacing and wild. Brought before the tribal council, a chief expounds their choices: death or Mumba. The first says, I don’t know Mumba, but death is bad. So Mumba. The crowd, elated, yells Mumba!, throws the geographer into a pit and goes in after. Hours later, out staggers the stranger, naked and deeply rearranged. Does not respond to any name. Tribal council asks the second: Death or Mumba? Again, the answer comes Mumba; again the crowd hip-checks the outsider, plunders-in after, voracious and obscene. Again, after many hours, out crawls the map-maker, bedraggled, strained, and chewed. Tribal council asks a last time, Death or Mumba? Geographer looks into the pit, up at the stars, and says I want to live, but I am not as strong as they. I must choose death. The crowd is silent. A wise decision, says the chieftain, Death by Mumba. Right. It is hard to get through without deciding against human interaction. What stings we feel are ferocious, inadmissible, unseemly. They linger and steam. Thus the right-thinking runt shuts them down, apes the machine. But in the end, friends, it’s either Mumba or death by Mumba, so Mumba’s better. But oh my life, the Mumba of it all. The unyielding Mumbasity of life, of life with others, in particular, oh my time. What are you so frightened of? Of what are you so frightened? The universe, for instance, has clusters of galaxies, we are not jealous of their cliques: and these galaxies are so big that they make the difference in size between us and a fly, well, negligible. The chatter has so little to do with anything that is the matter. You’ve got to figure: they planned this trip together, the three geographers, Hinty, Luce, and Spoon, since June, and now it’s April and they’re on this island measuring and counting, mapping and sleeping in a little canvas tent and out comes this thoroughly other from the bushes. Then it’s the bum’s rush to the tribal council, wide eyed and terrified. You hear yourself say, Mumba doesn’t sound so bad, and then you are lost to it, drawn in, engaged in battle, though you hate to wrangle, there you are. A long time later, the onslaught abating, your resistance subsides as they do, and once alone, you crawl in the powdery dirt toward the lip of the pit. One of those against whom you struggled grips your elbow, lifts you over. You hug the earth as vertigo hugs her after a stint in the tower. From this supine state you watch Spooner and Luciotta as one makes the same choice you made, and the other goes in for the other. A fly goes by, in its minor role of fly. There is a great deal of action, but you are out of it now, not yet certain whether you will live through this or die. You do not know when anyone at home will notice that your trip has gone awry. You think of your front yard, all the effort of youth, the apologies. Perhaps you will die now, and all that work come to nothing, come to Mumba on a mild night, alone. You’ve got dirt in your mouth and on a whim, instead of spitting, you stick out your tongue and taste the soft, cool earth beneath you. You roll yourself over; stare up at the ten-thousand stars. Crushed between the galactic world and all these atomic particles is so much emotion: anger, pity, relief and this emotion, though emanating from such an inconsequential thing as you, is as large a total as is the universe, and as elemental as a subatomic charge. Neither black holes nor spider nets await us. Other webs do, but we are not the size of solitude either, so must accept them. It is good to remember that our troubles only obtain on this median scale of play; elsewhere is unaware of them. All, then, we’ve ever needed is a minute change in scale. One of the wild ones is a poet, whispers in your supine ear to confess and to remind: My love has me lolling around a crater on the moon, sucking wheat stalks. Your bruised heart overtakes your senses. I don’t know whether you want to hear it or not, but the next night everyone is dancing, the babies and the crazies and the flies, under the spangled, leaf-framed sky, and you can’t help it, you join in. That’s how good dancing is.
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