It is only a few minutes later that Chiku comes hurrying back with her brother and the women in her wake, but mzungu is fast asleep.
Kesi puts her hands on her hips and bursts out in a mixture of frustration and relief, ‘You mustn’t lie to us! He’s sleeping like a log – kulala fofofo-’
‘-it is not good to speak the untruth!’ her grandmother Jina joins in, looking at her with disappointment.
‘-you know must not interrupt your elders in their tasks!’ her mother adds.
‘It is very rude of you,’ iNyanga Amne says in a reproachful tone. ‘I’m sure your mother has taught you how to behave.’
‘Of course I have,’ Kesi defends herself. ‘I don’t know what has gotten into her. Maybe the imimoya emibi has taken over my daughter? I knew it was bad luck to let him stay.’ She quickly makes a sign to ward off evil spirits and throws a worried glance at the unconscious young man.
‘Of course not!’ Jina sputters. ‘She is not possessed. She has a strong spirit, that’s all. Like all priestesses in our lineage.’
But Kesi won’t let go this time. Anything is better than being accused of having raised a rude child.
‘There is no other way to explain her behavior! I have done what is right. I always have. The ancestors can testify to it-’
Chiku doesn’t really listen to the adults. They are all talking at the same time and it is only criticisms anyway. She stares at the immobile man in disbelief. Could she have imagined it all? No, she is sure of what happened.
‘But I did wake him up!’ she states, adding proudly, ‘all by myself!’
‘How come you woke him up when no one else could?’ Elewisa says, pushing past his mother into the room. He was on his way to play with his friends when he heard the upset voices and intrigued decided to return home to check out what the commotion was all about. He is a little jealous of the attention his sister is getting even if it is negative.
‘Wait! Let’s get this straight. I haven’t really tried to wake him,’ Jina mutters on the defensive.
Kesi turns her attention back to her daughter. She puts her free hand on her hips and looks sternly at her. ‘How come you were here, in the hut with mzungu, and not out fetching wood, like you said you were?’
‘I was going to. I just stopped on my way to the forest…’ Chiku mumbles.
‘Your grandmother specifically told you not to come in here,’ Amne adds. ‘It was for a reason. You must understand it is dangerous for a child to be close to evil spirits that are not contained.’
‘Imimoya emibi!’ Kesi raises her hand to ward off the evil eye. ‘See? I told you, too. You mustn’t go in here! Look what happened to you. You are being irresponsible and you tongue is saying the untruth.’
‘But I’m not! I promise you I’m not saying the untruth! I can explain…’ Chiku looks from her mother to her grandmother then to iNyanga and back to her grandmother again. They are all looking expectantly at her but she thinks the old priestess is the one who is most likely to side with her. So she puts on an imploring expression and clears her throat.
‘I didn’t do anything wrong. I just stood on the chair and I used the staff and nyanya’s magic words and – bam! – he woke up. Just like that.’ She illustrates her words with large gestures and her little face is alive with her will to convince her audience.
‘Just like that?’ Enam crosses his arms over his chest, defiantly jutting his chin out.
‘Uh-huh. Just like that.’
The women look at each other, not knowing what to think. Jina opens her mouth but before she has the time to speak, Elewisa challenges his sister.
Suddenly the hut is very still. Chiku frowns, thinking hard. Then she lights up, smiling excitedly.
‘His eyes! I saw his eyes!’ she says fiercely. ‘And you will never believe it, but mzungu’s eyes are the color of the sky. Bluu.’
‘Nyanya, how is that possible?’ Elewisa looks at his grandmother for support but to his despair she nods, giving his sister credit.
‘I have seen them too. And iNyanga has also seen them. Bluu.’
Amne nods and hums. ‘Naam. Bluer than the sky at midday.’
‘See?’ Chiku beams at them. Finally they believe her. She adds excitedly, ‘And they were glowing too! Scared me so I fell off the chair-’
Chiku mistakes their skepticism for surprised approval and continues, eager to impress, ‘And he was speaking in tongues – “Whoa whoa yoo whewe ammai” he said!’ She dramatically taps her right hand on her heart. ‘I swear on the ancestors-’
‘Enough. You are making a fool of yourself,’ Kesi cuts her off.
‘Mama! But I swear it’s true!’ Claiming her honesty, Chiku tries to free her arm from her mother’s hard grip as the latter forcefully steers her towards the door.
‘It is time to prepare dinner. You didn’t finish your chores and now you must pound fufu. Show everyone that you are a good and obedient girl or you shall draw shame on our household.’ She can’t hide her irritation with her daughter’s recklessness. As usual her mother in law has encouraged the brazen girl in her antics and lets her get away with almost everything. But most she is annoyed with the stranger who has succeeded in turning their calm household upside down with his sole presence. The ancestors alone know what will happen when he wakes up.
Jina and Amne follow them but hesitate on the threshold.
‘We best let Hami stay with mzungu for a while. Just in case,’ Jina declares. ‘Go and find your father, Elewisa. He is probably having tea or something else manly in the village.’
‘But I can watch the prisoner,’ Elewisa says, reluctant to leave.
‘It’s out of the question. You’re not a man yet,’ his mother adds drily over her shoulder. She shakes Chiku’s arm to underline her words, making the young girl yelp with pain.
‘Aïe! Mzungu is not a prisoner. Nyanya said he is a mgeni – a guest,’ she protests, but her mother shakes her again and tells her to be quiet.
Later that night, after the children have unenthusiastically gone to bed, isangoma Jina and iNyanga Amne visit their patient. The healer takes off his blanket after checking the temperature with her hand on his forehead. The poor man is shivering with fever and he looks even paler than he did before. Maybe he won’t last the night after all.
Hami has been dozing off on an uncomfortable chair in the corner. He stretches and yawns.
‘Mzungu has been mumbling in his sleep, but I couldn’t understand what the muttering was about. I’m sorry, Mama.’
Jina nods. ‘It is not your fault. A sick man’s mind travels where we cannot follow. His words would make no sense even if they were in our language.’
Kesi doesn’t want to be left out so she has followed the two old women back to the sick man’s hut. She hoovers on the threshold, hesitating to step inside.
‘Maybe he tried to curse Chiku, mama katika sheria?’ she says, not willing to let go of her theory explaining her daughter’s sudden bad manners. She raises a hand with her fingers spread to avoid the evil eye.
‘Nonsense.’ Jina throws a glance at her daughter in law. She does not want her to think that she might believe her. She reaches for the bowl with magic powder next to the bed and sprinkles some over the sleeping man. One can’t be too sure… ‘He is mgonjwa –ill. Not evil.’
‘He is bad news!’ Kesi splutters. ‘He is hexed by an umthakathi! Maybe he is sent by Akili Busante of the Husuni tribe!’
Both Jina and Amne draw their breath at the mention of the unfamous banished sorcerer.
‘Akili Busante’s powers can’t reach so far into the jungle,’ Amne says quietly, but without real conviction. She glances at her friend for help.
Jina looks sternly at her daughter in law. ‘Even if mzungu was hexed, he isn’t anymore. I am isangoma of this village. I have the power to help the soul. I have cleansed mzungu’s soul and it is not dark anymore. Mzungu is just mgonjwa.’
‘But he speaks in tongues like a demon,’ Kesi insists. ‘Chiku says so and Hami heard him, too!’
‘Siyou. Mama’s right,’ Hami breaks in, trying to calm his superstitious wife before she goes too far. ‘Mzungu was problably just speaking a white man’s language. Kiingereza. Or Kifaransa.’
‘Ndyo, mwana – yes, son.’ With a huge smile, Jina adds, ‘Kiingereza – English. Let’s hope it is Kiingereza. I speak Kiingereza very well.’
‘Kumpeleka mbali – send him away.’ Kesi hoovers by her husband’s side, showing her ill will by glaring at the unconscious man. ‘He has the evil eye. Your granddaughter said so – glowing blue eyes. A demon. What if he opens them now and you look?’ She gesticulates at her own eyes. ‘Lost. You will be lost and hexed and cursed like he is-’
‘I’ll see to it he won’t look at anyone before we are completely sure, Kesi,’ Amne says without looking up. ‘Now go. Kwenda mbali.’
She motions for Jina to help her hold up mzungu’s head. ‘There is only one way to make sure he won’t look at us with the evil eye.’
‘You are not going to blind mzungu, are you?’ Hami asks.
His wife nudges him with her elbow to silence him. ‘That would take care of the problem – forever.’
Amne looks at the young woman with an astonished expression. ‘I’m iNyanga. I’m a healer.’
‘A stitch in time saves nine,’ Kesi says haughtily.
Kesi looks down her nose at the old healer. ‘Sometimes it is better to mend a hole before it is too big. It is better to blind him now than heal the whole family later. Or the whole village-’
A piercing shriek interrupts her. It is Bakari who is hungry, again. Against her will she has to leave the hut to take care of her baby son.
Amne grumbles something under her breath and goes back to what she was doing.
Jina rolls her eyes, giving her friend a “see-what-I-have-to-endure” look. She waits for her daughter in law to disappear before she pulls up a chair to the bed. She helps holding up the unconscious man’s heavy head so the old iNyanga can fasten a thick bandage covering both eyes.
‘There…’ iNyanga nods with satisfaction. ‘Mzungu’s eyes are hidden and to no danger for anyone.’
‘Clever.’ Hami nods his approval.
The old healer chuckles. ‘I must sleep now. I am not needed here anymore.’ She stands up and smooths down her skirt. ‘It will be a long journey tomorrow, but certainly more comfortable than on horseback.’
Hami nods. Kamili Balala has agreed to drive the old iNyanga back to her village in his cart. The wheels are all new and made of thick rubber and the seats are stuffed and covered in velvet. Red velvet. Hami thinks the rich merchant shows off his fortune, but he is glad that there is at least one cart in their secluded village. He has seen cars and motorcycles in the Husuni tribe, but the path up in the mountains where they live is too steep and not made for motorized vehicles at all. He doesn’t think the cart will pass neither. Much too dangerous. But that is probably why Kamili Balala has asked him and two other strong men from the village to accompany them to the river. They will have to carry the cart part of the way…
Jina interrupts his thoughts.
‘Now go about your tasks, mwana. I shall sit here for a while and read the Koran for mzungu. Go.’
She gestures for her son to follow iNyanga but he hesitates when he sees his mother starting to unwrap her head dress.
‘Mama, you shouldn’t uncover your head in the same room as a mgeni – stranger.’
‘Hami, mwana. Ni lazima tusimamishe hili – we have to stop this. Mgeni -the stranger- is far away, somewhere he can’t see me even without his eyes covered. Now go and calm your wife. Make me another grandson.’
Hami scratches his head, confused about his mother’s words. How come she knows where mzungu is? Sometimes his mother scares him with her mystic priestess’s powers. He finally leaves without further comments, but not until he is sure his mother has covered her head again.
He reaches for her hand. Forcefully, his legs kick to go deeper, faster, but without finding any leverage. Arms desperately clawing at the water, he struggles towards her but he’s out of force and she is receding faster and faster into the obscurity of the deep. The water pushes down on him from all sides, crushing him, engulfing him in blackness, preventing him from fighting. Her mouth forms around his name as she urgently reaches for him, her gleaming green eyes holding his in a silent plea. Bubbles are escaping from the corners of her mouth and nose. Her dark hair is swirling around her pale face like seagrass. He knows she is crying. He is crying himself. Their salty tears mix with the water as he watches in desperation how her face recedes into the distance as she sinks deeper and deeper until she fades away into the darkness.
She is gone.
There is nothing left for him to fight for.
His lungs burn for air, and even though he knows he will get none, he opens his mouth and draws a deep breath…
With a gasp, Derek sits straight up and draws in his breath. He’s not surrounded by water but he is nonetheless gagging. The hot and humid air makes breathing laborious, like withdrawing oxygen through a damp cloth. He draws in his breath again and winces in agony. Every breath sends a hot flash of pain through his chest, preventing him from filling his lungs, and it makes him wheeze and panic.
His body aches. And it is so dark. No, not only dark. It is a total absence of light. Is he held captured somewhere? He passes his tongue over his teeth. They seem to be all there. A little wry smile draws his dry lips upward and it hurts. He can taste blood and when he touches his mouth his finger comes away wet. A cut, probably. No big deal. But the other thing he felt is.
A bandage. He traces the cloth with numb fingertips, urgently and spasmodically. His face seems all right. A little bruised maybe, and there is a line over his cheek that must be a cut. He swallows. The bandage is not for his face.
The room is not dark. He’s blind.
Shocked, he lies back again. Blind… What will happen now? The relief he had first felt upon realizing it was just a dream vanish and is replaced by something close to panic.
He swallows hard. He has never imagined himself going blind. Tears are burning and he tries to blink them away.
His eyelids scrape against the cloth, but it doesn’t hurt. Even though his head aches like hell, his eyes feel as usual. Normal. But he has heard of ghost feelings and maybe there are just two empty sockets sending a faulty message to his brain.
He has to know. He has to get rid of the bandage. It can’t get much worse anyway, if he’s already blind.
He fumbles at first, but soon gets impatient with his numb fingers and tears it off. The warm air feels almost cool on his face after the damp sensation of the dressing. He blinks. He is definitely not blind, thank God.
Breathing in short, sallow gasps, he turns his head and takes in his surroundings. The room is small with rudimentary wooden walls. Wooden ceiling. Wooden floor. His bed is made of wood, too. And the little table and the chair. He has never seen so much wood in the same space. And it all seem to come from the same species of tree. So he’s not in a hospital…
What is that? A horse? He scrutinizes the little sculpture on the chair next to the bed. He can see faint worn off stripes and draws the conclusion that it is rather a zebra than a horse. Judging from the heat, he could be in… Africa??? What the Hell is he doing in Africa?
Something bad has happened to him. But what? He holds his hands up and scrutinizes the bandages that are bled through in places. He curls and uncurls his fingers, amazed at the pain shooting through his whole arm. He touches his chest, wheezing for air.
If he should judge after the bandage covering it, he is probably in for some broken ribs as well… He must have gotten a really bad beating. Or maybe he was in a car crash. But… in Africa?
A sudden thought ices his blood. What about his legs?
He struggles up onto his right arm to get a better look, fighting the pain that seizes his chest. A great weight lifts from his chest when he sees the outlines of both legs under the thin green sheet. Tentatively, he wiggles his feet, but only one is moving. He rips the sheet to the side and sighs with relief when he sees the clumsy cast covering his right leg from the knee and down. So he has a broken leg as well as broken ribs. It must have been one hell of an accident to explain why it feels like he has been mangled by a steam roller.
He pushes his hair away from his eyes. How long has he been just lying here? His hair is so long. Much longer than it has ever been. He sends a grateful thought to the “someone” who must have shaved him regularly or he would probably have sported a Robinson Crusoe like beard. But, gosh, it is hot in here. He is sweating in the warm little room and he could kill for a shower and a glass of water.
Where is everybody?
He listens hard, but he can only hear the sound of birds and chicken. A dog is barking in the distance, otherwise it is all calm.
He has to lie back again, exhausted by the pain and the effort of leaning on his arm. With a groan, he lets himself fall backwards onto the thin pillow, a grunt of pain escaping his lips. He is not used to feeling agony like this.
Why isn’t he healing?
What has happened to him? And where on earth is he? Definitely not at home. Thinking about his situation only seem to heighten the pain, making him feel nauseous.
He tries to fix his gaze by staring at the rapidly reclining ceiling, but it only worsens the nauseating feeling of drunkenness. He has to close his eyes and give in to the feeling of freefalling…
He whispers her name and she moves towards him. Slowly. Gracefully. Her green eyes lock with his. They pull him in like a drowning man and he can’t for his life look away. She stops just a few inches from him and he can hear her heart race, matching his own. A lock of silky raven hair is falling into her eyes, and she draws her breath when he gently pushes it behind her ear.
God, she is beautiful. Reverently, he traces her jaw with his thumb, willing the moment to last. Her skin is so smooth…
Eagerly, she melts into his arms and he hungrily pulls her closer, his eyes flickering from her eyes to her full, taunting lips.
She opens her mouth slightly, showing the tip of pearly white, razor sharp teeth.
Surprised, he takes a step back but she just laughs…
Breathing hard, he opens his eyes. It takes a few seconds for him to realize where he is and what woke him up.
There it is again. Faint, but definitely laughter. Slowly he turns his head towards the source of the sound.
What was that? Someone is calling.
‘Deeerek…’ The faint, familiar voice makes his heart beat faster.
He eases himself up to a sitting position, breathing laboriously. Moving is a struggle, but this time he knows that he is hurt and can anticipate.
A wave of nausea overwhelms him and he stays for a while on the edge of the bed, waiting for his head to clear enough to continue.
As soon as the world stops spinning, he staggers through the tiny room. He stops a short while, leaning against the doorjamb, before he continues out onto the landing that connects the family’s huts.
He has to hold on to the walls to keep him upright, his broken ribs making breathing a torture. Trying not to put too much weight on his broken leg, he lets go of the wall and limps the few steps towards the little railing at the edge of the landing.
The bright sunshine surprises him and for a short moment he is blinded. He has to shade his eyes, and even then it is hard to see anything.
His eyes hurt as he forces them open in the blinding sunshine, making him blink furiously and squint.
Where is she?
His eyes scan the surroundings. A few scrawny fruit trees in a little garden and something that looks like corn or maybe sugar cane. Some chickens are hacking away at the dry dark dirt and he vaguely wonders what they can possibly pick so frantically at. A low stone wall with a rickety gate is separating the house from a dirt road and more, identical huts.
She is standing barefoot on the dusty road on the other side of the fence with her back to him. Her long raven hair is hanging loose, reaching the small of her back, and he recognizes her favorite blue dress, the one she used to wear as a kid. A warm surge of relief replaces the pain, and he smiles at the sight of her.
She has come to get him.
Everything will be all right.
Her long dark curls bounce around her smiling face as she turns and looks straight at him over her shoulder, as if beckoning for him to follow her.
‘Taïga… Wait…’ he croaks, hope filling him and giving him wings. Without hesitation he takes a step forward.
His arms flail in the hot air for support but only encounter empty space. For what seems like an eternity he floats in limbo, moving as if in slow-motion…
… and then there’s just blinding pain mixed with the faint echo of Taïga’s mocking laughter, before everything fades into nothingness, once again turning his world into a black, empty void of soothing darkness.
Mbwa, the Madi’s dog, is barking sharply, alerting the household. Jina comes rushing from the backyard, where she and her daughter in law have been processing fresh cassava for cooking.
She stops at the top of the stairs and takes in the scene. Mzungu is sprawled on the ground, face down in the mud and she can see that his wounds have reopened. Dark patches of red are slowly spreading like macabre flowers on the white bandages.
‘Is he dead?’ Kesi asks hopefully, rocking her crying son in her arms.
‘I certainly hope not. And you should, too. A violent death is bad for our household.’
Jina gathers her long dress and hurries down the steep stairs as fast as she can.
She pushes the whimpering dog away with her foot before kneeling next to mzungu’s inert body. Hesitatingly she touches his neck for a pulse, concentrating deeply.
Kesi joins her at the bottom of the stairs. ‘He looks dead to me… Maybe it’s for the best… Imimoya emibi -evil spirits- are influencing his life and might do us all harm.’
‘Be quiet, Kesi, and help me get mzungu back to bed.’
‘But he’s much too heavy, Mama Jina. And I’m holding little Bakari.’
‘Well, get Hami. He’s strong enough. And heat up some water to clean mzungu up a little. Amne Mponyaji told me about the importance of heating the water, and now mzungu’s body is muddied and so is his soul. Aïe, aïe, aïe… And I think he has hit his head rather badly…’
Kesi hurries away, muttering to herself. Her mother-in-law is losing her spirits, probably to the evil that inhabits the stranger. Wash away the evil spirits. With water. Absurd! She’ll bring the Koran, so isangoma can put a page or two in water to sanctify it.
Part II – End of Chapter 47