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Waters so clear, what lurks down there?
In the distant past, when all creatures spoke the same language and magic flowed through the air as water flowed over the riverbed, there was a cave. In more modern times it would be called the cave of Chinhoyi, for the brave leader who sheltered his people from adversaries in its labyrinthine depths, but in those far-off days it had another name. Chirorodziva, the people whispered in the still air of the night. They sang of it in the days when the fires of the sun burned hot and bright and lit torches by the entrance as the moon rose.
Now, it so happened that in a nearby village there was a young boy training to be n’anga. His skills with herbs and poultices was not great, although that is not to say that he was unskilled. He could heal a wound well enough, although he would never match his mentor in such physical healing. However, this boy had a great connection with the mudzimu, the ancestral spirits of the villagers. He could foretell the future and interpret omens through the entrails of a goat or in the way the leaves fell unseasonably from the trees. None but he had such skill in calming malicious spirits and appeasing angered mudzimu, and although he was young he was often sought out by other n’anga to give advice and counsel.
One day, the boy asked his teacher how he could improve his healing abilities. He struggled daily to remember how to create the mixes to guard against disease, to impart energy or to bring relief from pain. The boy feared that, when his mentor passed, he would not be able to look after the village on his own.
With infinite patience, his mentor told him that he had a great gift of communion with the mudzimu, and that they and their helper shavi would lend him their aid if he ever was truly in need of it. He could heal the spiritual wounds of the village, and in the wake of such healing physical ailments often quickly receded. The boy needn’t worry that he was perhaps less than perfect with herbs, if only he remembered how to care for the village using the skills that he had.
Months passed, and the boy’s younger brother fell sick. His spirit withered and dried as if burned by the fierce summer sun, and likewise his eyes grew dim and his breathing harsh and difficult. Sores festered on his skin, weeping even as a fever cracked and blistered his skin. The boy, still training as n’anga, drove away the spirit that afflicted his brother but to no avail. His brother died, coughing and burning with a fever that refused to abate no matter the lengths the boy went to.
Sometimes, said his teacher, sickness and wounds could not be healed.
Sometimes death came to those who were not ready.
Sadness sank into the boy’s bones and made a nest in his heart. Now whenever someone passed away he could not help but see his own aching loss mirrored in the eyes of those they left behind, and the void fed his desire to do better. Be better. He would learn all the secrets of the body, all the arts of healing that man knew and then all those that still remained mysterious.
But however hard he worked, he still lost people. His father and mother both faded away, old age claiming them within a year of each other. Cousins, aunts, uncles, friends and even lovers, all passed before his eyes and if he had not lost them yet he knew in his deep, cracked heart that it was only a matter of time. He was simply not good enough, and he did not possess the intrinsic gift for the physical understandings that his teacher had.
The boy listened to the whispers of the spirits, to the songs sung by the trees and the unending nattering of the birds. The stories of his people sank into his skin like water into drought-stricken ground and wound through cracks and crevasses until they were as much a part of him as the air he breathed and the food he ate. And in what he heard, he found a solution.
Within the caves lay its namesake, a pool so deep that none had ever reached the bottom yet so clear that the floor was clearly visible from the surface. It was said that those who had attempted to reach the bottom but had failed, failed only to do so with life remaining in their bodies. Their remains littered that distant floor, gleaming white in the dark.
Those who avoided the cave whispered other tales, stories of njuzu, what some might call mermaids. Spirits of the water and those who were lost in the depths, they could be vengeful to those who disturbed their dwelling places. They also possessed healing powers beyond the grasp of mere humans and were known to sometimes take worthy humans to live with them, for a time. Not a short while; many, many years could pass between a person entering the waters and stepping out, but invariably they emerged changed. Carrying with them the knowledge of the njuzu they were healers of impossible skill and great renown, and people called them shavi renjuzu, possessed by the water spirits that had taught them.
The cave was chill, his footsteps echoing against hollow stone as the boy entered the cave. The pool glittered in the light, for glow worms made the moist caverns their home, and it was as though the boy hung suspended in the middle of the night sky with stars all around him, burning cold and distant.
A ripple broke the still surface.
The boy slipped below the water’s surface, keeping his eyes open wide lest he miss the njuzu. His did not swim, and indeed did not know how to, but simply allowed the weight of his body to bear him downwards. As his drifted ever deeper, faux stars twinkling above him and darkness beneath him, he called out with his spirit for the aid of the njuzu. He needed their help; only they knew how to cure disease and halt death itself. He could not bear to lose anyone further, he had to learn how to save everyone.
The njuzu clustered around him. They were shadows in the water, brushing against his skin with silken fingers and tugging at his clothes as he fell. The boy looked around him, seeing them thronging so thickly in the water that they blocked out all light, but he could make out nothing more than that they were vaguely human-shaped. His mouth formed his plea, and his escaping breath spiralled up and away in a silver stream.
His family did not cry for him, for to weep would condemn him to eternity with the njuzu. They waited for him to emerge from Chirorodziva, the Pool of the Fallen, with dry eyes and hopeful hearts that he would bring great healing to the village. He has yet to return, and to this day they wait for him, knowing that he will bring an end to all sickness when he eventually steps from the waters filled with the njuzu’s knowledge.
Author’s note: Please be aware that this is not my culture and that this story is a complete fabrication on my part. The Chinhoyi caves do exist, as does the pool, and are extremely beautiful, although I don’t know if glow worms live there. The water is really that clear and deep. Some brief research informed me of the name of the cave, the healers, the water spirits and the ancestral spirits in the Shona language. I attempted to be reasonably true to the information I could find (the part about not crying is true, so far as I know) but my sources were not verified and the research was extremely cursory. I apologise if I have grossly misrepresented any aspects of this culture in an offensive manner; it was not my intention to do so, and I would like to be informed if that is the case. I hope that I nonetheless created a compelling fairytale that can be enjoyed by everyone.