Nthanda

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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“No.”

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.”

9 thoughts on “Nthanda

  1. A radiant light of hope? I don’t think so. I mean, people are still dead and dying; more harm has been halted for the moment, but how can everything work out all right, except by changing the definition of “all right”?

    This legend seems to me to pick up exactly where Ink’s last legend leaves off — with the King of the Jungle and the surrounding tension around growing up. While Thema’s magical gift stops her from being sexually assaulted as a child, it also is going to block her from the same adolescent sexuality (no “doing the jailhouse rock”) that Elvis was an icon for. She’s split off into her special role, like a Hitherby god, or an alter.

    Perhaps through synchronicity, I’ve been listening to The Residents’ The King & Eye: RMX quite a lot the last few days. It’s a techno remix of Residents covers of Elvis songs, with the covers having the same lyrics but somewhat mutated emphasis and arrangement that focus on the dark aspects of the pop dream. It only takes one bass chord and tone of voice change around “Put a chain around my neck / And lead me anywhere” to foreground “Teddy Bear” into a B&D themed song, for instance. “Jailhouse rock” as song about prison homosexuality is only the most well-known of them; by the time this comes up it’s cringe-worthy. It’s quite a good look at the American dream through Elvis (though people should probably try the first, non-techno, version, The King & Eye, before the later one).

  2. A radiant light of hope? I don’t think so. I mean, people are still dead and dying; more harm has been halted for the moment, but how can everything work out all right, except by changing the definition of “all right”?

    I don’t think we’re using different definitions of “all right” so much as different definitions of “hope”. For me, hope is the veil that separates one world from a darker one. It’s the opportunity to survive, to heal, and to continue on to greater things. Yes, there is pain and suffering on the way – but hope exists only when there is something greater to be strived for.

    I got the sense that that much was still there.

  3. Well, “when there’s life there’s hope”, sure. But that just means that any story in which everyone doesn’t die at the end is inherently hopeful. I liked this story, but I see it differently.

    Here’s how I read it. It’s significant to me that it ends with Thema mumbling “Thank you verra much.” When Elvis said this, he was thanking the audience for enjoying his music. When Thema says it, what does it mean? She can’t really be thanking the bandits for stopping, or the villagers for assigning her a magical role that she doesn’t really want. But thanksgiving is a mode of prayer, a way in which we are supposed to address God. It’s what makes the story deeply satirical, perhaps even bitter, to me — a comment on the cruelty of “pray, and everything will work out all right”.

    I was once looking around for who Martin might have been named after, and thought, of course, the pessimist in Voltaire’s Candide. (Rebecca commented briefly to disavow any direct connection, I think.) Candide features characters who go through various horrible events and tortures, only to be continually assured by Dr. Pangloss that everything is for the best, and that they live in the best of all possible worlds. “unexpectedly, everything works out all right” seems like a somewhat more subdued varient of this.

    Voltaire’s criticism of the religion of his time seems implicit in this story, to me. The promise of “a land of milk and honey buoyed on this sea of war and suffering and work” is a bad one. Better, as Voltaire ends Candide, for people to tend to their gardens — to take actions intended to lessen the number of bandits in this world, to lower the sea of war and suffering and work, rather than to make it OK with a religious savior afterwards.

  4. I like that the King is appropriated by the downtodden world, and ensorcelled or gifted to be reborn as a part of it, from high to low, but still special, with a special sort of purpose; and that it isn’t grand, but it works out okay.

    I like that the King is born again to be defiant at an important time, and bring hope.

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