Online Exclusive Fiction: The Drum

Illustration by Gladys Lou

The Drum

by Taaha Ali

The individual dwellings were scattered about and incredibly rudimentary, forming a village. The women were all busy nurturing children, stringing cloth, or cooking the meat the men had brought several stages of sunlight earlier. They sat about in contented rest as they awaited the meal.

    There were four men lounging about in the grassless clearing near the centre of the village. One was searching his hair for bugs, another was sleeping. One was playing with a bone they had removed from that fresh, large kill, no doubt thinking about the sustenance it would give them in the coming days. The fourth was lying on the ground with his head resting against a hollow log. He stared at the sky with half-closed eyes and listened to the sound of the women working around them mingled with the gust of the wind and the lively brush.

They did not communicate much in tongue. Language was still unrefined for them — a series of recognizable symbols formed orders, and a general, indisputable, knowledge of how the world worked and should work dictated their lives. The fourth man suddenly opened his eyes and pulled himself up. The others watched him curiously as he turned around and left, but none of them uttered a sound.

He was suddenly impatient. He wanted to see the meat being cooked. He wanted to see their catch again. It had been so large. He felt wordless pride for it. He came around to where the women were butchering the kill and watched quietly, leaning against the wall of a hut as they worked. There were three women standing around the gigantic carcass. One of them gave him a haughty, appreciative look and even said something that sounded a lot like “Go” but meant a kind of thanks. He watched as they shaved and skinned the animal using shells and sharp stones. They had fished it from the ocean, and it was like nothing they had ever seen before. But the meat was quite good — red and full of fat and vitality. They were removing so much fat that it had to be put in jars. He picked up one of the bones and looked at it, mute.

Later that night they were alive with celebration. The large animal had been torn into many pieces and they were eating it under the bright canopy of quiet stars. They grunted and made sounds of pleasure and laughed. The meat was tender and sweet. Blood ran down his lips as he ate it. It was incredibly wholesome and they had more than enough for everyone. Normally they would be conservative with such fine flesh by leaving most of it to be dried and rationed, but that night the moon was shining full, a sign for festivities. They all had a merry sweet time eating and feeding; everyone from the youngest ones to the old were full by the end of it. Even then there were enough leftovers to preserve.

When he woke up the next day, this fourth man exited his rudimentary hut to find the village space returning from the levity of the previous day back to structured and dutiful life. People walked about, getting to their business. Soon he would get ready and he and the other men would go for another hunt. He was delighted at the prospect.

But at this moment everything was still picking up and he had some time to himself. For no real reason he wandered into the village clearing and sat down. He gazed about at all the food and traces of food; the signs of disarray. Nearby, a woman he was particularly sweet on was walking with a woven basket filled to the top with red berries. He called to her and asked her, in broken and simple terminology, to come to him. She did so, and he took one of the berries, rolling it in his mouth. He motioned for her to sit with him. With an expression of disdain, she communicated that she was needed elsewhere, yet she slowly relented and sat beside him. She was quiet and still, watching him with wide, entranced eyes that were almost childlike, as if she could not comprehend what she was seeing.

He broke into a smile, staring at her, and helped himself to another berry. As he did that her eyes softened and she began to smile, too.

A shout interrupted them. He looked over her shoulder in the direction it came from to see a woman exit one of the tents. In that tent lived, normally, one of the elder women. She was a wise and respectable old woman, and everybody loved her. He had not seen anyone leave the tent since he came out of his, but this woman had gone inside to find that the elder woman was dead. She stepped away, her face pale and sad as a man came and communicated with her in a few curt, rough expressions before looking inside.

The girl that was sitting with him had turned around to see all this, and now she turned back to him again. He was still looking there and seemed not to notice her. They were already bringing the old womany out. Of course, these things were perfectly natural. But he would miss her, undoubtedly. She had been familiar to him since childhood, and it made him wonder about when he would, eventually, become like that. Old and frail and loved by everyone. He hoped he would find himself in a place equally bright and meaningful wherever he went, though of course he did not have the words to affirm it.

That was when he saw the pot with the skin. There was some skin on it from the animal last night. Somebody had used a piece of string to tie it on top of the clay pot, almost like a cover. It was quite ingenious, and he suddenly had the urge to look more closely at it. Walking over to the pot, he picked it up. It was large, large enough that both his hands could fit on the top. He brought it back to where the girl was still sitting and set it down.

Finally a shout came, and the girl stood up and left, looking at him one more time. When she was gone he brought his attention to the object in front of him, still not knowing what he had brought it over for. He touched the covering with interest and stared at it from head to toe. The skin had, through the cold night, turned into a material that was quite strong. It bent under pressure but did not seem to tear. If anything, it stretched. Whenever he applied pressure he felt the slight repulsive force of its hollowness. It was an interesting feeling, and he kept pressing it, feeling the tight air inside and the resistance of the material pushing his hand back out.

Then he gave it a tap with his finger and the strangest thing occurred. A hollow sound came when he hit it. He did it again. The sound was distinctly different from anything he had heard before. It was a sharp pronounced tap. He could feel it coming from the hollowness beneath the skin rather than the skin itself, although how he did not know. He hit it with both hands now, and without knowing it, started something like a beat. First he just slapped it with one hand and then the other, creating a one-two pattern he took great pauses between. Then he hit it a few times with one before swapping to the other hand. Finally, he began to hit the lid with both hands rapidly at the same time or in the silences between beats. The sounds were not completely alien to him. No, the sounds were not as alien as the strange feeling that came with them. There was something pleasing in the order and volume of them. There was something interesting in the way he could make the beat however he wanted — and yet wanted to stick to a certain rhythm that sounded best to his ear. He was soon making rudimentary music.

The others stared at him like he had gone mad. They did not understand what he was doing at first. For a while it just seemed like he was making a mess of sounds, completely random and meaningless taps. But as they listened, some of them began to realize it for themselves. Didn’t those series of taps have something like a personality? Didn’t they seem to almost be living things? Those taps, those strings of sounds he was making, became independent creatures of their own – creatures made not of sight or touch, but of sound. They seemed to move and writhe of their own accord, full of intention and personality. Yet when he stopped hitting the object they vanished. It seemed they had gone back to wherever they came from. It was like the drum had shut its mouth.

Then he played it again, and they returned. Where was this timeless place they lived? They seemed somehow beyond the world of trees and plants and animals. People were beginning to be very intrigued by him and his drum. A crowd had surrounded him. He felt his heart beating and his breathing was fast with excitement.

But all the men in his hunting group were waiting for him now, and so he put the drumming to an end. He told himself, in a wordless way, that he would return to playing it when he returned; that he wasn’t done with it yet. He would use it again, some other time.

The hunters departed for the day. Though they still had plenty of rations from the previous night, they did not consider abandoning their duties. They went inland, following the morning sun on its upward path to the sky as they moved through the dense, intangible forces that furnished their world: The soft streams of translucence they drank from, the different greens of varying heights, some with nothing, some with delicious, juicy bounty, and some with stubs of vibrant colour. It was customary for them to switch hunting zones after extreme bounty had subsided – a token of gratitude to the land that had given it. As they walked, the drummer found that his mind was elsewhere. He thought about the woman with the berries. He wondered what happened to life when it faded from eyes, or music when it vanished from the air.

His group sighted a herd of great hairy beasts, the largest bigger than two or three men together. If even a few of them fell like the last hunt’s prey, they would have rations for an entire winter. But they weren’t the only predators in the area. With the hunters distracted, nobody noticed the drummer separate himself from the group until he had walked into the bear. The drum, waiting for him in the village tent, sat silent.


Taaha Ali is an engineering student at the University of Guelph with a passion for literature. When he isn’t reading, writing, or diligently making a library at home he loves to play the piano and go on long walks.