Thema is born and all the animals sing.
Their voices swell from the jungle. The insects sing too. That’s how everybody knows that Thema is a magic child.
When Thema is three she picks out a guitar and a lei and a bit of surfboard from the objects the village shows her.
The crowd whispers.
“It’s him,” they say. “It’s him.”
They gather around. They touch Thema on the head, on the hands. They lift Thema up.
“She is Elvis,” they say.
“God is great!” someone cries out; and one of the young girls faints.
“She is Elvis. She has come to us from the land over the sea.”
They raise the child on rock and roll. They have an old record player. They play some of Elvis’ hits. They are scratchy. But they are Elvis’ hits.
They sing songs that they have heard of, that their record player cannot play.
When Thema is old enough to understand they tell her the reason for her birth.
“Elvis is ours,” Nthanda says. “We paid for him. Everyone in the world who did not live in riches, we paid for him. With our sweat and our pain and our backs we lifted up some few into prosperity. So that Elvis could be born.”
Thema knows about this payment.
Many of the people of the village have died in just the few years of her life. Many others are sick, or maimed. She can imagine it, a land of milk and honey buoyed on this sea of war and suffering and work.
A land of rock and roll.
“He was ours,” Nthanda says. “So we claimed him. We worked our spell. We said, ‘his next life should be here.‘”
“But what about the other people?” Thema says. “The other villages?”
She names a place not far from there, up the river.
“What about them?”
“We gave them Buddy Holly,” Nthanda says.
And Thema hums a tune.
After a while, Thema says, “Am I to learn hip thrusts and guitar? Am I to sing for the productivity of the mines?”
“Am I to grow up and have some man take me and say, ‘Huh, Elvis.’ as he—“
Here she founders, looking for words.
“—as we do the jailhouse rock?”
Nthanda shakes her head.
“This is the secret of the world,” Nthanda says.
Her words are like the brass of an orchestra, like the thunder, like the sea. Everywhere that is outside the reach of Nthanda’s words seems darker. Everything in the space where Nthanda speaks to Thema seems filled with light.
“In times of tragedy,” Nthanda says. “When all hope is lost; then she who is Elvis will play a chord on her guitar.
“And though there is no orchestra, an orchestra will rise around her.
“And though the hearts of men are hard, a joy will come to them.
“And though the world is dark and its colors are dim, a brightness will come to them.
“And all will sing together, and all will fade down to silence, and somehow—even if it seems to be impossible—everything will work out okay.”
And Thema closes her eyes and she falls asleep, her little hand closed around the neck of her guitar.
When she is ten, men come to the village.
They are angry ragged men. They are bandits. Their purpose has drained from them and the scars on them are deep.
They are cruel men and they have guns.
They are shouting their anger, their tiredness, and their anger is made of gunshots and their tiredness accentuated with knives.
Nthanda is dead.
Many people are dead. Others are suffering.
Something happens that she does not understand and there is blood on her face and something wrong with her hand and a man who is looking at her with a coarse hunger, a rough desire, a yearning to bleed off his pain into somebody whom he can imagine is not human.
He moves towards her.
“It is too much to ask,” Thema says.
Her eyes can see only horror. Her body feels like she is in a salt shaker. Her mouth is dry and her face is wet.
She pleads: “It is too much to ask!”
But she is a magic child. She is Elvis. She is a precious gift.
Before he touches her she pulls up her guitar before her like a shield and she wrenches out a chord.
She sings a faltering word, “Nthanda—“
And all around her rise the instruments of the band.
All around her rise the instruments of the band, and the sound of gunfire melts into it. And smiles light on the faces of these strange and angry men, and on the faces of the men and women huddling in fear, or crouched beside the dead and dying.
And the song of Elvis, who is King, and Thema, who is the King Reborn, rings out through the jungle; and unexpectedly, so very unexpectedly, everything works out all right.
“Thank you,” Thema mumbles. “Thank you verra much.”