Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Occult · #1599664
Speculative fiction based on the prompt: I CAN STILL SEE HIM BURNING.
Shohnee tilted his head and gazed with heavy-lidded eyes at the rough burlap sack dangling from a low branch of a corkwood tree. It twisted and heaved with the frantic movements of its occupant, then went still. A growl that sounded like a laboring woman’s moan issued from inside. Shohnee’s black lips curled into an impish smile, pulling creases around his twinkling eyes. He raised the stick from the fire and touched its smoldering end again to the sagging bottom of the sack. The sack lurched; peaks rose and fell along the surface of the material as what was inside struggled to escape. Shohnee giggled.
The sound of voices carrying through the jungle distracted Shohnee and brought the boy’s father, Koto-Nzapa, to the door of the hut. Koto-Nzapa raised his chin, sniffed the air. Without leveling his head, his eyes darted to Shohnee.
“Release that cat immediately,” he ordered in a quiet, resonant voice. “The villagers approach.”
Shohnee’s shoulders fell and he banged the stick into the red dirt, staring at the scorch mark it left.
The menace in his father’s voice pushed him to reluctant action. In one motion, Shohnee pulled the sack from the branch and released it, letting it drop four feet and land with a dull thud on the hard-packed dirt below. He drew a knife from the woven leather sheath hanging from a cord around his waist and glanced over his shoulder. His father had his back turned, lifting a heavy necklace strung with painted wooden beads, metal amulets and bone. He thread his head carefully through the center of the dense hangings, until it draped across his bare chest.
Shohnee turned back to his task. The high equatorial sun danced off the silver blade, making him squint. Gripping the ivory handle, he gave the sack a playful jab with the point of the blade. He smirked at the cat’s yowl, then sliced through the cord binding the sack’s opening. He stood and gave it a kick. A caramel and chocolate colored calico dashed from the sack, ears pinned to its head. It dove into the shade of a massive fern at the base of the corkwood.
The voices were louder now, nearing. Shohnee walked to his father’s side.
“Why are you dressing, Father?” Shohnee nodded to the path leading to the village. “What do they want?”
“I expect they are upset about Miss Keti WALI.” Koto-Nzapa placing a colorful headdress of braided fabric and copper wire onto his shiny, hairless head.
Shohnee looked into his father’s coal black eyes and felt a shiver run down his spine. He glanced into the jungle again; the voices sounded angrier as they got closer.
“Shohnee, you have lived ten rainy seasons. When I was a boy your age, my father began to show me the ways of the Mambo. Stay at my side. Your training begins today.”
Shohnee smiled broadly, revealing two rows of large, sharp teeth. His father turned a stony face to where the path to the village opened into their clearing. Shohnee’s cheeks fell, dissolving his smile. He straightened his small frame and puffed out his chest. Aping Koto-Nzapa, he trained a hard gaze as a small mob emerged from the jungle.
About twenty-five men and women filled the clearing. The bright fabric wrapped around the women punctuated the emerald green of the surrounding forest with vibrant color. All were barefoot except the short, wiry man in the lead who walked stiffly on leather thongs, holding a hollowed out gourd in front of him. He came to a stop in front of Koto-Nzapa and bowed his head. The others fell silent and lowered their eyes.
“Bara ala, Koto-Nzapa,” the man said to the ground.
“Bara mo, Félix,” said Koto-Nzapa. His eyes fell on the crowd behind Félix. “Bara ala, kwe.”
The others raised their eyes and murmured greetings. After a moment, Koto-Nzapa raised his hand and silence fell again.
“So Félix, what can I do for you, Chief of Lee-wa?”
Félix raised the gourd, sloshing the water that filled it. “Keti WALI, an esteemed member of our village, has disappeared. Her family has come to me with this.” He held the gourd up higher. “They tell me you, Great Mambo, have taken Keti’s spirit and imprisoned it in this water.”
A defiant murmur spread across the throng. Koto-Nzapa shifted his weight. The tingling of objects striking each other in his heavy necklace stilled the crowd.
“Keti WALI was a thief,” he answered in a deep voice. “Her employer came to me for help. He feared she would not stop until she stole everything he had.”
Cries of dispute erupted. Shohnee’s face remained fixed, but his eyes had grown rounder and sweat glistened on his dark forehead. He dared not steal a glance at his father. Félix’s voice drowned out the others.
“Keti WALI has worked at Mr. Nyama’s plantation since she was a child. According to the law, she is now entitled to an adult’s wages, but Mr. Nyama continues to pay her the child’s rate. When she asked for more money, Mr. Nyama refused. When she demanded it, he hit her.”
The crowd became vocal again, but Félix raised his hand for silence. He said, “Keti WALI only took what was owed to her, what she had earned.”
Koto-Nzapa raised his chin, letting his gaze run down his nose and spill over the crowd. Then he nodded. “Powerful joo-joo is necessary to reverse this Mambo. I will agree to bring Keti WALI back, restore her spirit from the water. But at a price.” He waited for the restless crowd to calm, then he said, “Ten thousand cefas.”
Shohnee forgot his bravado. His mouth fell open as his head snapped to his father’s face. The reaction of the others was the same. Only Félix maintained Koto-Nzapa’s icy stare. Tense moments passed before Félix offered a stiff bow then placed the gourd of water on the three legged stool nearest him. He straightened and faced Koto-Nzapa.
“We will deliver payment before the sun sets tomorrow.”
Félix turned, and the silent crowd parted down the center to allow him room to pass. The others fell in behind him and the group disappeared down the path, as if the jungle had swallowed them whole.
Koto-Nzapa turned to his son. “We must leave at once.”
Shohnee blinked. “Where, Father?” he asked in a small voice.
“To Mr. Nyama’s plantation, of course.” He regarded Shohnee’s confused face and laughter bubbled up from deep in his throat. “You see, I will demand fifteen thousand cefas from him to keep the spell in place. What a good day to begin your training!”
Understanding spread across Shohnee’s face like sunshine from behind a moving cloud. He shared in his father’s laughter, and Koto-Nzapa looked pleased. With his arm around the boy’s shoulder’s, he led him to the far side of the clearing and up the path at the that led to Nyama’s Plantation a mile away.
In the pervading silence, the cat poked her head out from under the wide fern at the base of the corkwood. She ducked back into the safety of her hiding place, and then darted her head out again, further this time. She sniffed the air. Crouched low to the ground, she took a few tentative steps into the empty clearing. The calico sat on her haunches and stretched a leg forward. She licked the spot on her hind quarters where the boy’s knife had poked her. It hadn’t broken the skin, but she ran the soothing roughness of her tongue over the spot again and again.
She stood, rocked back and stretched her front paws until her chin grazed the ground, and then arched her back. She trotted past the fire pit with her head low, stopping at the three-legged stool beyond. She sniffed the ground, looked up, and leapt onto the seat next to the gourd. Catching her reflection in the surface of the water, she ducked down, and then peeked in again. After a couple more sniffs, the cat lowered her head and began lapping up the water.
The late afternoon sun cast long shadows across the clearing when Koto-Nzapa and Shohnee returned. Their jubilant conversation and lazy strides halted abruptly when they spotted the slender figure tending the fire in front of the hut.
“Who are you? What are you doing there?” Koto-Nzapa shouted.
A woman stood and turned to face them. Immediately she bowed her head adorned with intricate braids of black hair woven with unusual locks of light brown and blonde. “Bara ala,” she said in a silky voice.
“Who are you?” Koto-Nzapa repeated, but his voice had lost its hard edge.
“Forgive me for intruding. I am Vingansa.” She paused, her gaze straying as if reading something in the air. She blinked slowly, then continued. “I come from the north in search of my family. I’m traveling with the M’Bororo whose cattle are grazing for the night not far from this place.”
“The nomads are here?” Shohnee asked with excitement. He lowered his eyes from the reprimand in his father’s look.
“That doesn’t explain why you are here,” Koto-Nzapa said to her.
Vingansa smiled, but her eyes lost their focus for a moment. A scowl darkened Koto-Nzapa’s face.
A bird landed in the corkwood tree. Vingansa’s head snapped around at the rustling sound. When she spoke, she seemed to tear her attention from the bird. “The M’Bororo are making their camp. I don’t understand their language, and I can only talk to my traveling companion. She is busy with the others, so I took a little walk into the jungle.” She made a sweeping gesture with her hand. “Your home reminds me so of mine.” Her voice trailed off.
“Father,” Shohnee said, “I’ve never seen a real M’Bororo before.” He turned to Vingansa. “Is it true they’re giant people, tall and skinny as a papaya tree?”
Vingansa’s raised her eyebrows as a large smile warmed her face.
“And Father, aren’t they the people you told me scar their young boys in a ceremony before they become men in the tribe?”
Koto-Nzapa grinned despite himself. “You remember my lessons well, son. Yes, when an M’Bororo boy becomes a man, he must first endure a rite of passage that includes receiving a series of black lines tattooed across the forehead and down the nose.”
“And three black dots across each cheek, one for the god of the animals, one for the god of the grass, and one for…” Shohnee screwed up his face in concentration.
“One for the god of justice,” intoned Vingansa, “who punishes men who are cruel by making the cattle sick or causing drought so the grass they feed on will die.
Koto-Nzapa nodded at Vingansa. He looked down when Shohnee tugged his arm.
“I want to see the M’Bororo!” He turned to Vingansa. “You’ll take me to see them, won’t you?”
Koto-Nzapa shook his head. When Shohnee protested, he explained, “Shohnee, it will soon be nightfall. The jungle isn’t safe after dark. How far away are they?”
Vingansa crept forward on silent feet, her smile never wavering. “The camp is just over the hill to the east of here. I only walked five minutes when I found your house.”
Shohnee pleaded with his father in the relentless voice that always broke Koto-Nzapa’s will. When he reminded Koto-Nzapa that he’d said Shohnee was old enough to learn Mambo, and that meant he was old enough for other privileges too, Koto-Nzapa sighed.
“Okay Shohnee,” he conceded. “You must be back here before dark. Do not disappoint me. Remember, I will treat you in the future according to how you act tonight.”
He turned to Vingansa. “I charge you to look after my son, that no harm befalls him.”
“As you said,” she purred. She loosened the green and blue patterned wrap at her waist and pulled it tighter about her, rolling the top edge to secure it again in place. “Ready?” She smiled at Shohnee, who waved over his shoulder at his father as the two heading up the east path.
Several minutes had passed, enough time for Koto-Nzapa to store the gourd of water safely in the house and to assemble the ingredients for the tonics he would sell in the morning market. Suddenly, Shohnee’s screams reached his ears. Koto-Nzapa sprang to his feet, arms wide as he spun left, then right. The cries were disorienting, seeming to come from every direction. He wrestled down his panic and remembered they’d taken the path to the east. He sprinted after them.
The setting sun was too low to penetrate the dense canopy and Koto-Nzapa found himself running in near darkness. Twenty feet into the jungle, the acrid smell of smoke hit him. Branches clawed at his face as he tore along the path, forcing him to squint. He saw the fire minutes before he reached it. By the time he did, the corkwood tree was engulfed with flames. Horror etched Koto-Nzapa’s face as he dashed toward the large green and blue patterned bundle hanging from a low branch, swinging to and fro from the frantic movements of the boy inside. Shohnee’s screams echoed in Koto-Nzapa’s head as he fumbled for the knife at his waist.
Vingansa turned at the top of the hill and looked down on the scene. Her excellent night vision was not necessary; from the glow of the conflagration she could still see him burning. She smiled. One more stop to make tonight…
She turned and slinked deeper into the jungle along the path to Mr. Nyama’s plantation.
(WC = 2280)
Written for Round Two of: