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Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2236316
Of pots and zombies.Winner of SCREAMS!!! October 27 2020.
A Campfire Tale

“A Dutch oven?” said Van, “And what in the name of almighty is a Dutch oven?”

“Well you ought to know,” replied Millie as she attended to the stir-fry on the stove top. “You’re Afrikaans and they’re just Dutchmen who settled in South Africa.”

“And why would that make me know what a Dutch oven is? We haven’t been Dutch for a long time, you know,”

Millie turned to smile at him. “Four hundred years. Yes, I know. But I just thought… Oh, never mind. A Dutch oven is a cast iron pot with a tight-fitting lid. It’s used for cooking all sorts of things.”

“Does it have legs?”

“What?” Millie’s brow creased in surprise. “A pot with legs? That would be a bit surreal, wouldn’t it?”

Van laughed. “Not proper legs like we’ve got. Little stubby legs to stand on.”

“Oh, I see. I just had a really weird picture of a pot running about the kitchen.” She laughed and then went on, “No, a Dutch oven doesn’t have legs. Just a flat bottom so you can use it on top of the stove. I think camping versions have short little legs but that’s all.”

“Ah, then you’re talking about a potjie. It has a round bottom and legs so you can stick it in a fire to cook the things inside.”

Millie looked puzzled. “A… A pockie?”

Again Van laughed. “Your Afrikaans is terrible. It’s potjie, pronounced pot-kee. Means a little pot. And anything you cook in it is called potjiekos.”

“So you’ve actually used one?”

Van shook his head. “No, but I’ve heard of… Never mind, just a silly folk tale that people tell round the campfire at night.”

Millie took the skillet off the stove and transferred the contents to the plates on the counter top. She brought them to the table, set them in the two waiting places and sat down opposite Van.

“So tell me this folk tale,” she said.

Her suntanned, blond boyfriend gave her a narrow look before shaking his head and transferring a forkful of stir-fry to his mouth. Millie waited until he swallowed, then renewed her appeal.

“Oh go on, do you think I’m frightened of an old ghost story told on dark nights? I’m well past that, you know.”

Van looked up at her. “Well, it’s not really a folk tale. I just said that to change the subject. This really happened.”

“All the more reason to tell me then.” Millie crossed her ams as though refusing to eat until he told the tale.

Van sighed and answered, “Okay, but let’s eat first. Your stir-fry’s getting cold.”

After the meal, they took their wine glasses to the living room and sat in the armchairs around the fireplace. The blazing fire in the hearth was a fake but it kicked out enough heat to make the place quite comfortable. After settling in, Van began his story.

“This was when I was a game ranger for the Parks Service. I was doing my rounds and was out in a remote part in the hills when I began to hear worrying tales from the locals. There were only a few that lived in that desolate part but all of them seemed to have heard the same thing. Apparently there was a zombie on the loose. They have their own word for the walking dead but it’s too long and hard to pronounce for me to use it here.

“Their zombies are different, however. They’re supposed to be dead people brought to life by an umthakathi - meaning a witch or shaman. But they’re not stupid like the movie zombies. They move quickly and can use things just as they could in life. This one was particularly bad and was being blamed for all sorts of mysterious disappearances in the area.

“Well, part of my job was to keep the locals happy so I had to make a show of hunting this thing.”

“You mean you believe in their zombies?”

Van rubbed his chin. “Not at the time, I didn’t. But, you know, I had to make a show of hunting for it. And now, I’m not sure at all. There was certainly something out there that was killing people.

“Anyway, I went out that night with a powerful torch and my elephant gun. One of the locals gave me a little bag of herbs that was supposed to protect against the dead and I kept it, although it didn’t seem to have helped those who’d gone missing.

“Found nothing that night, nor the next, but, on the third night I heard that a man had disappeared from a village ten miles away. I headed for that area and began searching.

“You know, it’s pretty spooky out there in the hills on a dark night. I had any number of scares with animals suddenly starting up in front of me. Late in the night I smelled something that I wasn’t expecting. It was the unmistakable scent of a campfire, that mix of burning wood and cooking meat. As far as I knew, there wasn’t anyone out that night but me so I tried to follow the smell.

“It led me to a clearing in the low, scrubby trees that grow on the hillsides in that area. It was just an open space with the grass trampled down and the glowing ashes of a fire in the centre. In the middle of the fire sat a potjie but there was no other sign of human habitation. No tent, no supplies scattered about, nothing.

“I had a good look round and, in the end, nearly fell over a body in the low grass at the edge of the clearing. It was the guy who’d gone missing. There didn’t seem to be a mark on him but the top of his skull had been removed as neatly as though done by a surgeon. There was no brain inside the skull.

“I turned and looked at the potjie. The air was still ripe with the scent of cooking flesh. I’d not lifted the lid to look in the potjie yet.

“It had to be done. I walked back to the potjie and, using a handkerchief to protect my hand from the heat, I grabbed the lid and removed it.

“A human brain lay in the bottom half of the little pot.”

There was silence for a while as Van paused in his story. Millie said nothing, apparently too shocked for words. Van eventually explained how he stayed awake all night and left the area the next day but Millie was still unable to comment.

In the end, she announced herself unable to sleep, they packed up and returned to the city.

Word Count: 1,123
For SCREAMS!!! October 27 2020
Prompt: A Dutch Oven.

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