by Philip-Todd Franklin
Cape Town, South Africa, February 23, 1987:
I was in South Africa for the environmental rally, and I’d been promised that it would stay peaceful. Yeah, right — peaceful in a country that could never know peace under Apartheid. The weather was nice, and the sky was a clear crystal blue as I stood on the stage waiting for my turn at the mike. I kept on thinking back to the events that had led to my being here and the even stranger feeling I had. It was just this sick feeling that something beyond my understanding was about to happen, and I knew I’d rather be elsewhere when it happened.
The leading speaker that day, Mr. Zembuba, continued talking for a little while, going on and on about the environmental impact a proposed factory would have on the region. But his accent was so strong that, at times, I had major trouble following him, even to the point that I nearly missed my cue to come to the mike. Walking to the mike dressed in the familiar blue and orange costume of Animal Man, I looked out over the many citizens of Cape Town and began unconsciously noting the different types of folks, from both race and cultural origins, as I tried to get my thoughts together before I spoke. That was when I finally heard Mr. Zembuba finish introducing me. “Please welcome, one and all, the American environmentalist hero, Animal Man!” As I finished walking to the marked place behind the podium, the crowd of people began applauding and cheering wildly.
Just a couple of years ago I couldn’t have imagined getting this kind of reception anywhere. Back then I was just one forgotten hero in a group of Forgotten Heroes. We were an oddity, but not very newsworthy. But my time as a member of the Conglomerate, even though that was now over, had garnered me a lot of fame and influence that I’d never had before. That fame, combined with my growing — and admittedly recent — involvement in environmental issues, had helped me to make a difference in ways that super-heroes alone never could.
For a few seconds I held my hands up to get the crowd to calm them down before I tried to begin speaking. “Thank you for having me here. I was asked to come here to speak on the potential effects that an industry could have on the animal population,” I said, watching the audience, which was focused on me. Never had I spoken to a crowd this large.
Taken the mike in my hand, I slowly walked out from behind the podium as I continued to speak. “First I want to point out that not all industry should be considered evil in and of itself.” At those words, a few folks in the crowd looked shocked, but I ignored them and continued. “In fact, some industry can be a real blessing to an area and its people.” As I kept speaking, I looked out at the many different people, some dressed in flawless three-piece suits, some looking like the common city dwellers, and several tribesmen who had come to make their concerns known.
Slowly I paced back and forth across the stage, speaking on the pros and cons of industrial growth, and on how uncontrolled pollution could affect the environment. Then I turned to the main topic of my speech, beginning to talk about the types of animals who inhabited the same lands as the people, and how industry would impact their lives and the environment in which they lived. I was so involved in my speech and the reactions of the crowd, in fact, that I nearly didn’t spot the young man running towards the stage as if the devil himself was after him.
That young man was dressed as a tribesman, wearing only a simple animal hide cloth covering his nether regions. Undeterred by the guards who stood blocking his way to the stage as he ran, the young man performed a series of flips and tumbles to evade the guard, the likes of which I’d only seen once before. He continued running till he was standing before me, then began to speak quickly in his tribal language, which I couldn’t understand in the least.
The shock of his sudden appearance on stage had stunned me so much that I’d forgotten my place and just stopped and stared at him as he tried to very animatedly get his point across. All I could do was shrug and let him know I didn’t understand him, so he tried again. Halfway through his speech and movements the second time, the guards finally arrived on stage and tried to take hold of him, even as Mr. Zembuba was shouting orders at them.
Turning to me as the guards took hold of the young man, Zembuba said, “I am deeply sorry for what has happened. Sometimes the savages forget their place, even here.” On his face I could see a look of deep apology, but was it my own imagination, or was there something hidden even deeper behind his words and expression that I just wasn’t seeing?
“It’s OK, Mr. Zem,” I replied. “I’m used to that kind of response from all kinds of folks.” He laughed and smiled at my words, then turned to speak with one of the guards for a moment. After an exchange of words, the guards began to drag the helpless young man away, even as he continued shouting in his tribal tongue, trying to get my attention. I really felt bad for the guy.
Before returning to my speech, I took a moment to ask Mr. Zembuba, “If it isn’t too much to ask, what was so important to the young fellow that he figured he needed to talk with me now?”
Mr. Zembuba turned back from the audience towards me, and for just a second I thought I saw a look of anger flash across his face that quickly disappeared before he spoke. “It was nothing, Animal Man,” he said with nearly none of the sincerity that his voice proposed. “Just the misplaced desires of youth. Please just place it out of your mind.”
I reluctantly nodded my head, but filed the event away as something to figure out later, and then I once again picked up the mike and returned to my speech. I continued speaking for my whole hour before leaving the stage to greet people and sign autographs.
As I took a moment to shake the hand of an ancient-looking old tribesman, he pulled me closer, then fixed his gaze on me and said, “Your help is needed. Otherwise, an evil of unspeakable magnitude will be released. At midnight, come north of the city, and all shall be revealed.”
Then, letting go of my hand, he turned and disappeared into the crowds, leaving me puzzled.
That night I flew north of Cape Town and landed on the outskirts of town between the coast and the mountains. After several minutes of waiting I began to feel a bit foolish, not only because “north of the city” was a pretty big area, but I thought someone might be playing a prank on me.
Just as I prepared to fly back to my hotel, someone approached me and spoke. “Are you the American hero Animal Man?” he said, speaking in the same accent of the area.
I turned towards the voice. “Yeah, that’s me. How can I be of help?” I asked, trying to cut to the chase.
The man walked out from under the shadow of a tree and slowly approached me. He was a black man in his late twenties or so, and I could see he was dressed in very faded blue jeans with a pair of what looked like elephant skin boots, along with a blue Izod shirt. “As you were told,” he said, “a great evil is about to be released into the world, and only you can stop it.”
Taking a few glances around me to make sure I wasn’t being led into a trap, I tried to size up the man. “So, exactly what is this evil you’re talking about, and who is about to release it?” I asked, wishing he would stop being so cagey.
“Straight to the point, I see, Animal Man. I like that. It does make things easier,” he said, smiling slightly before continuing. “The evil is called Two Arms Death by the tribes in the area, and I’m afraid I can’t talk more about it here — too many people may be listening who do not believe,” he said, and when he spoke that name, his voice had almost lowered to a whisper. “Are you willing to come to my village with me to learn the rest?” he asked, still whispering.
“How far to your village?” I asked, speaking just as softly. “I admit — my curiosity’s piqued.”
Glancing at his watch, he quickly turned and began walking away from the city without responding to my question.
I stood there like an idiot for a few seconds, then turned as I heard several vehicles driving towards me. With a shrug, I ran off after the man at a jogging pace, since he was moving rather quickly. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that it wasn’t safe to be seen standing in full costume outside the city at this time of the night.
Avoiding the roads completely, we walked for the next few hours away from the coast, through the mountains, and into the veldt. Finally, just as the sun started brightening the sky at dawn, we entered a small village of mud and reed huts there in the veldt. My guide had been completely silent during the whole trip, and I couldn’t help thinking I could’ve saved us both some time if he’d just told me where we were going.
“You will go to the large hut in the middle. The tribal elder is in there waiting for you. He will answer all your questions.” Having said that, my guide then turned and headed for one of the smaller huts that we’d already passed.
As I reached to the hut, the reed curtain was pushed out of the way by a young boy about ten years old. Without speaking a word, he motioned for me to enter.
Walking inside, I found the inside to be cool and comfortable compared with the humid air outside. Shadows played on the walls, caused by a small fire blazing in the pit at the center of the hut. The village elder sat upon a large wooden chair wearing the same cloth covering of the other men of his tribe, but he also wore a long, flowing cloak of deep brown and had a headdress covered in animal skins and feathers.
As I approached him, I tried to show respect by kneeling before him. But as I got a good look at his face, I was surprised to find he was the same ancient man who had approached me just after my speech the previous day. I almost asked him how he’d gotten there before me, before I realized he must’ve gotten a ride by car or bus.
Nodding, he said to me, “Please, young man, either stand up or sit, but do not kneel before me.” His accent was strong, but he had a strong command of the English language, and I was able to understand him. He stood and slowly walked over to the only table in the hut and sat down on a chair, motioning for me to join him at another.
“Thank you, sir, but as I told my guide, I’d really like to know what this evil is — this Two Arms Death,” I said pointedly.
As I sat down, the elder held forth an old book. “All is in there. Read, and I shall try explaining, if I can,” he said, and I could tell he wasn’t used to his demands or wishes being denied.
I looked at the book and noticed that it seemed old, but not nearly as old as the elder. Carefully I opened it up, glanced at a few words, and muttered, “This is in English!”
The elder just nodded at my words, but didn’t move to reply. Slowly I began to read the book, taking care not to damage the ancient text.
The old tome was a recounting of legends from the local tribes going back to a time long before recorded history, each legend centering around a mysterious cavern whose location was a closely guarded secret. This cavern was known by a number of names, but it was most often referred to as the Cave of the Stranger.
Long before it had that name, it was known as a place where a tribal shaman could learn the dark arts that had been forbidden by the tribes for many centuries, and for good reason. The cavern was said to be a gateway to the underworld, where a powerful spirit lived who could grant immense power in exchange for a certain type of blood sacrifice. For many centuries the cavern had been referred to by names like the Cavern of Blood for all the blood that had been spilled at the mouth of the cave in order to please the dark god who dwelled therein. The spirit’s thirst for blood was nearly insatiable, so that even kidnapping people from other tribes to be sacrificed was no longer enough. The tribes soon began to sacrifice their own newborn babies and children to their dark god in exchange for power.
Finally, there came a point when too much blood had been spilled, and the tribespeople seemed to come out of the spell they’d been under for so very long. They tried to put a stop to the sacrifices, but it was no use. The dark god of the Blood Cavern wouldn’t let them go. He demanded even more sacrifice, more death, more killing. And when they didn’t comply, he would release some kind of supernatural force they called the Two Arms Death, devastating the land and killing everything in its path. The people were unable to break themselves free.
That was when the Stranger arrived. He’d heard their cries from a faraway land and arrived wearing strange dark clothing. With the tribes backing him, and the tribal shamans pledging to break their ties with the dark god, the Stranger agreed to help them. There was a long battle, and many people died, but the Stranger had ended the blood sacrifices, containing the dark spirit in a blood red gem hidden deep within the recesses of the cave. The people were grateful to their savior, and they began to worship him as their new god until he begged them to stop, telling him that their worship was misplaced. He did, however, give them a sigil that would be placed at the mouth of the cave in order to keep the dark god contained within the cavern. Hence the Cavern of Blood was known from then on as the Cave of the Stranger.
The Stranger left them after this, but he left them with a warning that the dark spirit, though weakened, would return once each generation in order to test their resolve. And so, every fifty or so years since then, the tribes would unite to contain the spirit in the cave, or fall prey to the Two Arms Death that would blight the land and the people. It came to be known as a kind of proving ground for many generations, and while countless warriors and shamans proved worthy to resist the dark god’s return, others were not so fortunate. Whole families and even whole tribes were destroyed in the course of containing the dark spirit, sometimes due to being found unworthy, but usually because the dark god had grown too powerful. Yet great heroes and leaders became even greater through their tribulation in the Cave of the Stranger, and their individual stories of heroism and tragedy filled most of the pages of the ancient book.
I became so enthralled with the book over the next few hours that I didn’t even noticed when food was brought into the hut and placed before me, nor when the elder had come and gone. Later that evening, I felt a hand on my shoulder that shook me back to my senses, and I slowly turned to see the elder staring at me.
“You have gone without rest for nearly two days, young man,” he said to me. “You must have some food and sleep.” As if on cue, my stomach began to rumble. I turned to him and was about to say something, but he cut me off and said, “Eat. Then rest. The text is not going anywhere.” Gently, he slipped the book out from my grasp. Once it was out of the way, a young girl began bringing me the evening meal, which the whole tribe had taken their share of.
When she set a plate of cooked meat before me, I shook my head and motioned that I wouldn’t be having any of it. She didn’t seem to understand, so I shrugged and said, “Sorry, honey. I don’t eat meat.”
She still didn’t understand, but the elder said something in their language, and after another moment she took it away.
As I began to eat the remaining food set before me, I turned to the elder and said, “Thank you once again. I haven’t eaten meat in a long time, and I don’t want to start again now.”
He nodded and took a seat at the table. “I have known a few others who will not partake of meat, so I am not surprised,” he replied.
I looked at him and nodded as I took a bite of bread.
He then stood to leave, but stopped and said, almost as an afterthought, “We must hurry. Time is of the essence, young man.” And with that, he slowly left the hut, leaving me puzzled and with even more questions than I’d started with.