by MIKE ALIX
goyi Kampala looked over his manioc field. The rats had eaten half of his crop. Leaves, shoots, stems, anything green and brown chewed and digested by vermin. He needed this harvest to sell at the weekend market.
Joline, his wife, squatted beside him, eating a burnt plantain. Strapped to her back was their baby, Henri Laurent Kampala, who slept, oblivious to their predicament, in a tightly wrapped blanket under the white sun. Joline shook her head and muttered. "What are we going to do?"
"I can salvage the manioc roots. People need the flour."
"That is not enough," she sighed. "We need money to feed Henri. You must stay out in the field to protect the crop."
"I can’t see the rats at night."
"Build a fire then."
"They will still sneak by me."
"Ngoyi. It is not that hard." Joline glared at him. "We only have half the crop left. You can guard it." She rubbed her bald head, which she shaved for the rainy season. "You don’t care about your son and you don’t care about me."
"Aww. You don’t mean it," Ngoyi clucked. Joline displayed her frustrations by challenging his love and telling their neighbors that she was in an unhappy marriage.
"I should never have married you." She stood up and tromped away.
Ngoyi watched her return to the village and considered his predicament. Last month, the dry season started, which meant no rain for four months. He rubbed his hands on his forehead. He needed to save the rest of his crop for the market to afford food for Joline and Henri.
He figured he did not have much choice in the matter. His crop depleted, Ngoyi needed to talk to the village witch, Matilde.
In the village of Nzaji, Congo, near the Lubalange River, lived farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, loafers, mooches, preachers, con men, and an accused witch, Matilde. She practiced her craft for as long as anyone could remember. The villagers considered her cunning and ruthless. She smoked, drank, gambled at all hours, and proudly displayed her beauty scars cut across her nose and upper back. Matilde lived outside the village in a small hut with geometric designs etched on the mud walls. She had no friends because no one wanted to be seen striking a deal with her.
Ngoyi left a message for Matilde in a hollowed out stump near a muddy seep in a swampy ravine. People said the stump granted wishes and a child was buried under the roots.
He returned to his hut and ate cold fu fu and boiled manioc leaves with Joline. He fell asleep on a woven mat, holding Henri on his chest. That night, in his dreams, the walls of his hut opened up, and yellow eyes stared at him from the darkness.
The next morning, Ngyoi returned to his manioc field and found Matilde standing under the shade of a palm tree. The witch chewed beetle nut. Spit pools pockmarked the dirt. Next to her, a gourd filled with bug laden palm wine sat fermenting in the heat.
Ngoyi squinted under the sun’s glare, "Matilde. Thank you for coming." He fumbled in his cotton bag and presented her with a gift of manioc roots and kola nut. "I am requesting your help."
Matilde shielded her eyes from the sunlight and considered his request. "You need help with your harvest?"
She scanned the field’s grated furrows and looked over the remaining manioc bushes. "I see the rats are killing the roots." She shooed a fly buzzing around her and smiled. "Well. I can help, but when can you pay me?"
"At the end of season," Ngoyi said, scratching his head. "After I harvest the crop, I will pay you 4,000 notes."
"More." Matilde shook her head.
"I’m sorry, I am not interested."
"OK." Ngoyi thought about it. "10,000."
She laughed and shook her head. "20,000 and I will help you."
My God! The amount was a quarter of his crop, but maybe he could skip on the payments. Besides, Matilde's magic may not work; witches were not always accurate. "OK. If your magic works, then I will pay 20,000."
Matilde extended her hand and they shook on it. A green wasp buzzed around her head. She leveled her gaze and spoke. "You need to go out in your field at night and start a fire like your wife asked." She fingered a hornbill skull dangling from a string tied around her neck. "If people suspect something, they may consider your food cursed. The village will turn against you." Matilde stood up. "We are done now. Go tend your field." She waved Nogyi away and shuffled, hunched over a walking cane, straight into the bush, avoiding any village path.
Ngoyi followed Matilde’s instructions and tended his field at night. He lit large fires, which kept Joline off his back because she thought he was chasing rodents. Instead, Ngoyi got drunk off the local moonshine and fell asleep under a papaya tree.
Two nights of faking it passed and an owl moved into a nearby palm tree, which provided a perfect view of his field. It sat on the green branches, silhouetted by the yellow moon, and silently swooped down to prey on the rodents. Nogyi kept far away from the bird. He considered an owl a sign of bad luck.
Each morning, the owl disappeared, and Ngoyi found pellets of rodent fur and bones scattered around the palm tree. He buried them in his field and wondered if Matilde turned into the owl at night.
After a few months, the owl took out all of the rats and disappeared. The manioc plants flourished and grew into waist-high, light green bushes. The crop’s rapid growth exceeded Ngoyi’s expectations and he shared the news of the turnaround with the village. They praised his hard work but expressed unease about the rapid turnaround. No one had heard of manioc growing so fast.
The following week, Ngoyi made a trip to the market town of Kabinda, porting his manioc leaves and roots, palm oil, and peanuts on the back of a bicycle. He sold all his goods and returned with a bike caravan full of soap, formula, and canned meat. He kept a portion of the formula and meat and sold the rest to the other villagers for a profit.
In the early spring, Ngoyi cleaned his manioc field. Wearing torn work clothes and a straw hat, he tilled the soil using a metal hoe and pick fitted with a shaved wooden handle.
In the center of the field, a manioc plant had matured into a tangled shrub. Surprised to see the plant, he grabbed his machete and chopped off the leaves, which would be ground up and mashed for dinner. Then he hacked and dug around the roots. Once Ngoyi loosened the root, he looped a rag around the stem and a branch and pulled until his shoulders ached. The root popped out of the ground. Dirt showered over him and he rolled backwards.
Dusting himself off, Ngoyi picked up the manioc tuber and noticed it had a human shape. His heart palpitated. The bottom of the root had split in two, which looked like crude legs. Two growths, which sprouted from each side of root’s body, appeared to be arms. This was witchcraft.
He heard laughter and the comment, "Ngoyi, I like your farming skills."
He turned around and faced Matilde.
She wore a flour sack dress and smoked tobacco rolled in notebook paper. Her bald head gleamed in the sun. The scars along her arms looked like cracked crocodile skin. The hornbill skull fetish dangled from her neck. "I believe you owe me payment."
Ngoyi considered this. "I have not forgotten."
"Come by my house tonight with the 20,000 you owe me." She blew a smoke ring. "Or I settle the score."
"I will need more time. The money is tied up in products and planting the field."
"You made a deal," Matilde frowned, picking her ear. "I don’t have much, but you have a son." She paused and spat a glob of beetle nut on the human-shaped root. "I hope he doesn’t get sick."
"I will be by tonight with the payment," he lied. Ngoyi could not raise the funds, but perhaps there was another way to deal with this problem.
In the evening, Ngoyi lied to his friends that Matilde had threatened his son over protection money. "She told me she would salt my fields and sicken my son if I don’t pay her."
As soon as his friends heard this, they roused the other men in the village and the mob headed over to Matilde’s hut. They dragged her outside, tied her to a chair, and beat her as she screamed curses. The men burned her hut and destroyed the mud walls with wooden mallets and cold iron hatchets. The mob watched as a green flame enveloped Matilde’s dwelling and destroyed whatever contents were inside. Ngoyi heard things pop and fizz in the smoldering rubble. A local priest blessed the earth to cleanse it from evil.
The mob left Matilde unconscious, tied up, and unguarded for the night. They returned to the chief’s hut to decide her fate. The witchcraft charges hung over her case and the village leaders decided she should be hanged.
The next day, the villagers returned to an empty chair. Her hut, reduced to charred rubble, smoked in the morning sun. There was no sign of Matilde, no footprints, nothing.
Three months following Matilde’s disappearance, the villagers of Nzaji breathed a collective sigh of relief, thinking she fled to another province, but the peace did not last.
It started with the chickens, which were picked off in their wooden pens; an explosion of feathers marked where the fowl made their last stand. Then Nzaji’s emaciated dogs disappeared. At night, the animals howled and yelped in terror, but the following day, no tracks were found. The villagers grew worried and a hunting party went out to search for a lion or large cat, which they believed to be the culprit of the attacks.
While at the local market, Ngoyi heard the hunting party had returned. He purchased a jug of orange palm oil and went home. Joline was next to the hut, pounding manioc leaves. He asked her if they found the big cat.
"No," Joline said. "But they found remains and brought them back."
"Where are the remains?"
"The chief has them. We can go and visit him and you can see."
Curious about the content of the ‘remains’, Ngoyi and Joline went to the chief’s hut. They saw a group of villagers gathered outside, pointing at a large brown object the hunting party had found in the grasslands.
Ngoyi led Joline through the gawking crowd. In the center of a woven mat of banana leaves, lay a large, tightly compacted boulder of fur, bones, and desiccated meat. It was as high as Ngoyi’s waist and the bones of the missing animals were smashed together inside the ball.
"It smells horrible." Joline held her nose.
"We should bury it," Ngoyi said. The large ball of dried bones and skin seemed familiar. It reminded him of the owl pellets from his field, except much larger. Could it be? Did Matilde have something to do with this? He considered the size of the owl that could leave this kind of giant pellet and shivered.
In two weeks, the pigs disappeared and the village grew desperate. People slept with their animals to keep them safe and warned children never to go out in the bush alone. Their huts became crowded and messy.
The chief dispatched men to talk to the provincial governor for military help. Soldiers were sometimes unreliable and dangerous, but they had guns, which was better than the hoes, shovels, and axes the villagers used for protection. However, the messengers never made it, and like the animals, they disappeared.
Soon, people vanished at night, without a sound, swept into blackness. The villagers despaired and feared for their children. They kept them locked up in their huts, warning them never to leave. They made crude deadbolts for their wooden doors, stayed up all night, and slept in the daytime. Food became scarce and trade with Nzaji came to a halt. People tasted copper fear in their mouths and prayed for a miracle.
One night, locked in the hut, Ngoyi and Joline ate fried termites. Joline had been quiet all day, giving Ngoyi bitter looks. She bit into a termite’s head and spoke. "There is talk."
"What kind of talk?"
"That Matilde is seeking revenge." She swallowed the termite and grabbed another.
"Did you enter a bargain with her?"
Ngoyi chuckled and shook his head. "No, you would have to be crazy to deal with her." He frowned, made a ball of fu fu, and swallowed it without chewing. "Why would you think that?"
"This reeks of foul magic and foul magic starts when someone makes a bargain and doesn’t fulfill it because they are weak." She stopped eating and stared at him. Ngoyi started to sweat and rubbed his hand across his forehead.
"The village is talking about hurting you," she mumbled.
"They are scared and talking foolishness."
"Their foolishness can hurt you." Joline stopped eating. "They may hurt you, me, and Henri."
"I will talk to the chief tomorrow."
"Are you so naïve? You have to fix this. If you do not, then I will tell them that you are the cause of all of this pain."
Ngoyi wanted to say something to Joline, but he held back. He could make things worse for himself. Joline was his wife, but she would protect Henri and herself. She had him cornered. He had to do something. Matilde had come back and would destroy the village. He needed to find the witch and convince her to stop. It was his fault she had returned. If the village found out the truth, they would kill him for sure. He felt trapped and his best way out was to find Matilde and convince her to stop.
A rooster crowed and Ngoyi awoke in the murky pre-dawn. He ate cold fu-fu for breakfast and wrote a note for Joline. In the note, he informed Joline that he needed to find the creature terrorizing the village and kill it. He placed the note on a rickety table and held it down with a sardine can. He packed a gourd of water and dried, salted fish and snuck out of the hut into the dark.
He cleared the village boundary without waking anyone and walked on rutted, hard clay paths. As he passed a row of knotted trees, he felt the wind rush overhead and looked up. Matilde’s yellow eyes bore in on him. Her body mottled with feathers and her sinewy fingers formed wings. She had transformed into a giant, grotesque owl. Matilde swooped down, knocked him over, and picked him up in white claws.
He cried out in shock and grappled with the massive talons, "Matilde wait," he panted. The scaled talons squeezed tighter, constricting him. "Do not to do this. Leave our village alone." He lost his breath and felt something crack. "Please. I will make it right. I will do anything." A dark ring formed around his vision.
Ngoyi regained consciousness at the base of a gigantic tree. Giant boulders of compacted skin, fur, and bone surrounded him. A pile of dried skulls lay on the ground and a rotting smell permeated the air.
Above him, Matilde perched naked in a blackened tree. Her stomach bulged at an impossible size. A digested victim’s hand pushed outward against her belly, creating a grotesque imprint. She appraised him with eyes the size of dinner plates.
Ngoyi stared at her. He had heard of witches turning into owls, but never trusted the stories until now. This creature perched on the limb, smiling at him. It made him ill. "Matilde," he stammered.
Her jaw unhinged and a massive owl pellet of human skin and bone fell to the ground.
"Matilde. You must not kill everyone in the village."
Matilde rotated her head at an impossible angle. Her throat twisted and she hacked. "Ngoyi, this is your doing."
"But you are the one killing them."
She preened herself, using her talons, which inserted at her knees. "I helped you, in trust of a reward. You violated it with violence. The spell came back to me. My Gods demand that I take revenge. I have little freedom of choice in this matter."
"How do I undo it?"
"I need a blood sacrifice."
"And this will stop the slaughter?"
"Yes and I will decide when to collect." She swiveled her head and listened.
"What do you demand in return for my betrayal?" Ngoyi bowed his head and fell to his knees.
Matilde told him what she needed: his son, Henri, for final compensation. Flapping her malformed wings, Matilde adjusted her massive body on the tree limb. "Ngoyi, you must be careful of your wife, Joline. Although she seems distant, she will fight for the child."
Ngoyi found his way back to the village and told everyone he had defeated the creature and brought back Matilde’s feathers, which were the size of man’s forearm, to prove it. Some people were skeptical, but most of the villagers were ecstatic. He spent the day celebrating and drinking sour palm wine. The chief offered a meal of fried palm grubs and fresh fu fu.
Ngoyi said goodbye to his friends and headed home to his mud brick hut. The sun had started to set and a buzzing sensation entered his head, followed by strange thoughts, which turned into a voice reminding him to fulfill his pledge, to give Matilde his son.
He entered his home and saw Joline breastfeeding Henri. She sat in a slatted bamboo chair. A large spider crawled on the wall near her head. The sight of his son, alive and sucking, sent a wave of nausea through his stomach and he gripped his side trying to stop the sensation.
Joline opened her mouth in surprise. "Are you alright? Are you drunk?"
"I defeated the creature," he said.
"I ran her through with a spear."
"You don’t know how to fight with a spear. Only our grandfathers could do it."
He smiled at her. "My grandfather taught me."
Joline looked up at him. "Oh? Your grandfather the drunk?"
"Yes and he was a warrior."
"He sold vegetables at the market." Joline looked him over. "Your clothes are pretty clean. I believe you are lying."
Ngoyi shrugged, "Believe what you want." He stared at his child and the thoughts returned to him. He must take Henri to Matilde for compensation. The words repeated over and over in his mind, an unstoppable thought. His face contorted with anxiety and desperation at the image of Henri being offered to the witch. Joline saw the malice in his face and hugged Henri tighter until the child started to fuss.
Ngoyi reached out, but Joline pulled away from him. His hands trembled.
"Something is wrong." Joline glared at him. "What is wrong?"
She stood up and held Henri close. She headed for the door.
Ngoyi grabbed her shoulder and Joline shook him off. He closed his hand around her tricep and she yelped in pain and pulled her arm free. She turned and faced him. "I will scream and everyone will come to save me."
Ngoyi backed off, put his finger to his lips, and made the universal symbol of quiet. "No, please. I think Henri is sick," he said, inching towards her. "Look at Henri. There is a crust on his eye and his whites are yellowish."
Joline looked down at the child and this brief distraction provided an opportunity. Ngoyi ripped Henri out of her hands. He held on to his child, knocked Joline down, and burst through his door. Joline screamed for help as he ran to the bush carrying Henri.
Ngoyi sprinted through the tall grass. The dried blades cut his legs and obscured his vision. He had to make distance between himself and the village. A posse might look for him and get Henri back. He needed to get far into the bush and hide until nightfall.
Henri cried. Thick tears flowed down his cheeks and Ngoyi stopped and tried to shush him. The child wailed louder and Ngoyi feared the villagers would hear and locate him. If they caught him, they would crucify him. However, if he explained to them what happened, how he needed Henri’s life to save all of them, they would forgive him and make him chief.
He cradled Henri and rocked him back and forth. How did it come to this? The witch would kill everyone, including him. The entire village wiped out because of Henri. His son had done nothing and did not deserve this. Nevertheless, he had to fulfill his part of the deal. This is what Matilde wants and he must follow through.
Ngoyi wandered through the bush until he found a trail that led to his manioc field. The sun had set and the moon lit up the footpath. There was no sound as he followed the path to his field. The tilled field was visible in the gray moonlight and Ngoyi saw his iron hoe on the ground. Matilde would come to his field to claim the child, the place where all this madness started. Ngoyi sat under a palm tree and waited for the witch to come. Henri fell asleep in his lap.
Later in the quiet night, he heard the flapping of Matilde’s wings, which stirred the palm fronds and grasses. The witch descended onto the manioc field. Her shadow blotted out the moon and when she landed, a cloud of dust burst upward. On seeing her, Ngoyi realized he had made a mistake. No one in his or her right mind would sacrifice a child to a witch. What was he doing here? He decided to run. Take the child and run and maybe the witch will take him instead? Why had he come out here? He heard the child cry and realized he had already placed Henri on the ground in front of the monster. He did not remember doing it. He backed away slowly and considered that his actions and thoughts no longer belonged to him.
Matilde’s yellow gaze appraised the child and she shuffled closer on her claws. Feathers dropped from her body and she bent down to inspect the boy.
"I want to make sure it is your child and not an imposter," Matilde said. She opened her mouth and an orange beak emerged and stretched her jaw out until her eyes became slits. A thin red tongue extended from her maw and caressed the head of the sleeping infant.
Ngoyi saw enough and decided to stop her. No village was worth his child. He moved towards Matilde, intent on ending this. Her silhouette loomed over him and he felt like a small corn husk doll. He cleared his throat. "Matilde. You will not have Henri," Ngoyi said. "You have cast a spell on me and tricked me to bring him here."
Matilde looked bored. "You are powerless to stop me."
"I wronged you, but I will not let you take the child." Ngoyi picked up his hoe and turned it so the sharp pick faced towards Matilde.
The witch chuckled. "What are you going to do?" She puffed out her body and feathers and she grew to the size of a transport truck.
Ngoyi gulped and held on to the pick. She was immense and he wanted to run, but he dug his toes into the dirt and held his ground. "Give me back Henri." Ngoyi shook his head and then looked at the ground. "I am weak. I failed my child, my wife, my village."
"You are braver than I thought," she murmured. "Perhaps there is another way."
There was not response from Ngoyi.
"Pledge yourself to me." She stared at him.
Ngoyi looked at his son, who was trapped under Matilde’s foot. He watched Henri laugh and play with the monster’s twisted claw. The witch’s spells were influencing the child. It was obscene. Henri deserved better than to be food for a witch and Joline deserved her son.
"The magic demands a sacrifice. Instead of giving me your son, you must pledge yourself to me." Matilde moved closer to Ngoyi. "You will sacrifice your life in servitude and I will spare your child." She caressed Henri with a claw. The child giggled.
Ngoyi nodded his head and dropped the pick.
Matilde overlooked Ngoyi’s work butchering the pig. She smoked a corncob pipe and held a woven pond frond parasol to keep off the sun.
Since pledging himself to Matilde, Ngoyi now followed her. They had left the village of Nzaji and dropped Henri off, wrapped in banana leaves, at a chief’s hut in a neighboring village. After a month of wandering, they settled at the outskirts of the city of Gandajika, providing spells to the surrounding villages for money or barter.
Make sure you get all the blood in the cup." Matilde glared at Ngoyi. "It will make good sausage."
The pig’s blood drained into a bowl and Ngoyi cut the meat. A grateful village had provided the pig for a successful fertility rite conducted by Matilde.
"You are doing it wrong. Fool." She smacked the back of Ngoyi’s head. "You need to cut the meat properly and use a sharper knife."
Ngoyi bristled and wanted to take the knife to Matilde, but something in his mind held him back. Ever since he agreed to serve her, he could not lift a hand to harm her or run away. Something was missing. A piece of his will had left him.
"I know what you are thinking." Matilde pointed to her face. "You see this scar." Her finger rested on a thin cut going from her eye socket to her ear. "It is from when your friends beat me." She moved her face closer to his and blew smoke on him. "You are cursed to serve the person you tormented. You will always want revenge and never be able to take it." She laughed to herself and sucked at the pipe. "It isn’t that bad. You will probably learn a few tricks."
Ngoyi wished he had never met her and agreed to anything. He spent his days tending to Matilde, cooking, cleaning, sweeping, wondering how his child was doing and his wife. He wanted to see them, but could never go because Matilde took his will away. He turned towards Matilde. "How is my child doing?"
She snorted and stuffed more tobacco in her pipe. "I saw in my dreams that your son is doing well, but he is afraid of owls."
Mike Alix currently lives in Missoula, Montana. He worked overseas in the Congo and Guatemala and has two published short stories on online publications: "Kekong", published in Hello Horror #8, and "The Right To Bear Teeth", published in Unlikely Stories, Episode IV Fiction.
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