He sat on his haunches and crooned softly, cocking his head on one side like the parakeets of the South Western rainforests. I dared not look him in the eye. I was afraid that if I did, somehow he would see into my soul and then he would know everything. Everyone in the tribe knew his appearance was intended to intimidate; teeth filed into needle sharp points, a bleached white bone pushed through his septum, his gaunt angular face daubed with chalky white clay from the river banks and his eye sockets painted so black that they resembled the tar pits from beyond the valley that occasionally swallowed up careless animal’s that wandered too close.
His name was Zayatu, which means ‘The Unknowable One.’ Zayatu was the Awakani witchdoctor and revered spiritual leader. He communed with the spirits, negotiated terms for the afterlife and rendered judgement whenever tribal laws were broken. But right now no one knew for sure whether I had broken them or not, all except for me.
Spread out in front of him were various objects necessary for him to practice his art. With a flick of his wrist he threw a goat’s liver so fresh it was still steaming into a large wooden bowl and opened it up deftly with an evil looking dagger. The crowd leaned in to get a better look, murmuring noisily amongst themselves.
“Quiet!” growled Zayatu glaring at those assembled. “Or you will anger the spirits!”
His warning obviously terrified them. No one uttered another sound as every single man, woman and child stood anxiously waiting to see what would happen next. This pleased Zayatu greatly and as a result he threw himself wholeheartedly into putting on a spectacular show.
Thrusting his hand deep into the liver he felt around until he found what he was looking for; a hard round mass of some sort. Pinching the gory mass between his finger and thumb he held it up high for everyone to see and nodded knowingly in my direction as if it was absolute proof of my guilt. My accusers attempted to move closer to the front of the crowd but it was hard for them given their diminutive stature.
My husband’s sister barely reached my shoulder and her wizened old mother was smaller still. Both of them insisted that they had heard me making threats against my husband ever since he had captured me from my tribe, the Sunak two months ago. When he failed to open his eyes one morning and lay still as though carved in stone I knew that my continued existence, not just in the tribe but also in the land of the living was more than a little uncertain.
“See! She killed him!” shouted his mother pointing at the supposed evidence.
It was brave of her to speak after Zayatu had commanded everyone to be silent but as she was the mother of the deceased Zayatu seemed willing to let it pass.
As much as I was desperate for it all to be over I was also afraid of what that might mean for me. A strange weakness entered my body, so that just sitting up became difficult. I wanted to lie down and close my eyes; rest for a long time. The thought occurred to me that perhaps he had cursed me already and I gave a little shudder. His wicked eyes gleamed with pleasure at the fear he was instilling. He came closer, scuttling on all fours through the dust like a hideous crab. As he moved his various talismans and amulets rattled in unison with the ostrich feathers that fluttered and danced upon his ceremonial headdress. After raising an upturned palm slowly in front of my face he startled me by blowing into it hard, engulfing me in a cloud of bright blue dust.
I coughed violently and started to shake. The end could not be far away, I thought after breathing in such strange blue dust.
Peering into my face he frowned. I began to get the feeling he was searching for something, probably terror I decided. But mind numbing terror was not a worthy emotion for a member of the Sunak tribe, so instead I tried to picture them in my mind’s eye as a reminder, a proud and strong people with a deep sense of honour and that memory gave me strength. I told myself I must cling to that. The blood of the Sunak ran through my veins too. I could be strong. I will be strong, I told myself.
Gradually my trembling stopped and my breathing became even. I had no choice but to accept whatever fate had in store. Nothing I could do would change it. Zayatu seemed disturbed by this sudden oasis of calm that I had found. It puzzled him.
He shuffled towards his paraphernalia scattered on the ground and carefully lifted a woven basket, holding the lid down tightly. The village fires cast flickering shadows amongst the huts and the moon slid silently from behind a cloud. He bought the basket over and set it down gently at my feet. Then for the first time since I’d known him, he smiled. It was not a friendly smile though. It was the counterfeit smile of a warped mind, one that thrived on all that was twisted and dark.
Stretching out his gnarly hand he tapped the basket with his stick and carefully lifted the lid. Suddenly he made an unexpected grab for my hand and shoved it forcefully into the small opening at the top of the basket. His grip on my forearm was bone crushingly strong and I cried out in pain and terror.
“No! Let me go!” I cried. But it was no use. My strength was no match for his.
The crowd babbled excitedly, wide eyed and mystified as to why I hadn’t died yet.
“Mamba.” I heard one of them say above the din. “Maybe he doesn’t like the taste of filthy Sunaks.” My blood ran cold.
Instantly I stopped struggling. If there really was a black mamba in there it was a miracle I hadn’t been bitten already. My unexpected docility further angered the witchdoctor and he shoved my hand all the way into the basket and just for good measure he gave it a sharp kick.
A loud hiss confirmed the presence of a black mamba inside the basket, sending shivers down my spine. I cringed and sat helplessly waiting for it to strike. Nothing happened. Yet again Zayatu viciously kicked the basket, infuriated at the uncharacteristically placid black mamba inside. Unfortunately for him he put too much force behind the kick and the basket toppled over. Automatically he released my arm and reached out to grab it but just at that moment the snake chose to strike, lunging from the depths of the basket to fasten itself firmly onto Zayatu’s forearm.
I scrambled away as chaos took hold. Panic ran through the crowd until eight of their warriors stepped in and beat the mamba to death with sticks. But they were much too late to save Zayatu. They watched in dismay as the most powerful man in their tribe lay dying. Their eyes spoke volumes. It was all that Sunak woman’s fault.
Ordinarily they would have executed a woman on the spot for such an offense but the magnitude of what I had done held them back. They looked at me half repulsed, half terrified at what I had done, afraid of the power they assumed I must possess.
“Get out of here!” someone shouted. “Go!”
Suddenly everyone took up the cry, chanting loudly into the starry night. I needed no encouragement. I walked past the men holding sticks and clubs and past my former accusers holding my head high. I felt no fear or regret. They had never been my people and they never could be.
I knew deep down that it was unlikely that my own people would accept me back now that I had lived with the Awakani. But I felt content to be walking away relatively unharmed. I might not have a people of my own and I may always be an outcast destined to wander alone and sleep beneath the stars. But the fear that I had faced had made me strong. Strong enough to embrace whatever else lay out there, out in the savannahs, mountains and valleys of Africa’s primitive heartlands.