Saturday, April 3, 2010
(By Monica Cheru)
John was a policeman whose wife had gone back to her home to deliver their first child. John had left her there months previously and was now going to check on whether he was now a father or widower.
The letter that John’s wife had asked a teacher at the local school to write for her, informing John about their bouncing baby boy, was still en route, caught up somewhere in the laborious Machinery that was the postal service. So poor John traveled in apprehensive ignorance of what awaited him at his destination.
John dropped off the bus in the early evening and set off for the eleven-kilometer walk to his wife’s parents’ home. A short way on, he came across an elderly gentleman. A short conversation revealed that the two were headed in the same direction, so they set off in amiable companionship.
The village was far and the path was mostly through a dark forest which would have to be traversed at night. A traveling companion was heaven-sent and John was not about to examine the mouth of his gift horse.
Soon it was nightfall. They walked through a forest only occasionally broken by fields. There were absolutely no homes on the way and they did not meet a single other soul. Owls hooted, hyenas laughed and a host of other eerie sounds serenaded the travelers on their way. John was glad that he had a companion who did not seem to fear the dark. He told himself that it was because if he had been alone he would have lost his way in the dark.
“It must be very confusing for one who did not grow up in these parts to negotiate this forest during the day, never mind at night like this. I am very lucky to have come across you, father.” John remarked respectfully to his partner.
“Yes my son. Even tomorrow you must thank your ancestors for protecting you. They are very strong and they fight for you.” That was the somewhat ambiguous answer.
John had the disquieting sensation that he was missing a very important point, if only he could figure out what it was. The two walked on talking about famine, education and the fickleness of women.
At one point they saw a pillar of fire right in front of them. John almost turned tail and fled but his companion stopped him and warned: “Do not run away or you will be lost. Just walk on as if there is nothing in your way. Forces of the night feed on fear. Believe me, I know. Walk right behind me.”
They walked into the pillar of fire and John felt deathly cold and clammy. It was as though he had been covered in the skin of a reptile.
The elderly gentleman did not seem affected at all and kept on chatting even in the middle of the chilling fire. When they were safely past, John fumbled in his pocket for some tobacco and a piece of newspaper to roll a smoke. He really needed to calm his nerves.
“Do not light that thing!” thundered the old man. Startled, John hurriedly put back the offensive item into his pocket but was too afraid to ask what taboo he had been about to break.
Eventually, they came to the river, which was just before John’s destination. Even in the dimness of the night it was possible to distinguish the outlines of the huts that made up his father-in-law’s homestead on the other side. So near and yet so far. John could have wept. The river was wide and deep. The canoe used to cross was on the other shore. It seemed too cruel to be forced to sleep hungry on the water’s edge while warmth, food and love waited on the other side. Surely the ancestors could not be so unkind?
Noting John’s woebegone expression, the old man chuckled and said, “Don’t worry my son. Today your ancestors are with you. Good fortune is smiling at you more than you appreciate right now. I will get the canoe and row you across.”
John was perplexed. Surely the old man was not planning to swim across more than thirty meters of crocodile-infested water! John did not want the old man’s death on his conscience. His whole family would be plagued by the man’s avenging spirit. The old man just laughed again when John vocalized his concern. He said there was no way John could ever be held responsible for his death as it was impossible for him to die that night.
While John was still trying to absorb that last statement, the man pulled up a few tufts of grass from the riverbank and rolled them into a coil like the ones used by women to cushion their heads when carrying bundles of firewood. Before John’s disbelieving eyes, the old man placed the coil of grass on the water, sat atop it, legs neatly folded under him as though he was in a hut full of his social superiors, and sailed straight across the darkly gleaming surface.
John rubbed his eyes and blinked several times but the mirage remained. The old man reached the far shore and disembarked from his marvelous sail-craft. He then put the canoe in the water and rowed back. As if in a dream, John got into the canoe and was rowed across. On the other side of the river, the elderly gentleman carefully stowed the canoe and got back onto his grass coil and sailed off into the night. With a wave he called over his shoulder, “Tell your in-laws that Chidume brought you home.”
As he the old man disappeared into the forest, John thought he saw the man silhouetted in flames. John rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the old man was no longer visible. The darkness had swallowed him totally.
John marched to the homestead still in a dreamy state. There the sight of his new son soon made him forget his queer experience. It was much later that his father-in-law wondered, “How did you get across? We brought the canoe across when we came from Mai Chenje’s beer party late in the evening. No one went across after that.”
When he heard John’s answer, the father-in-law was flabbergasted. “Your traveling mate was none other than Chidume, the evil spirit of the forest. He was a robber who was murdered by some angry villagers. His body was dumped in the forest and no cleansing rituals were ever held for his soul. He usually leads his victims to a lion or to a leopard. But once in a while, he takes pity on a stranger and leads him safely past the forest. Your ancestors must be very strong to make you one of the very few lucky ones. But it’s a mixed blessing. From now on, no ghost or any other supernatural manifestation can ever scare you. The only problem is that when you die, you too will become a wandering soul and there is nothing that you can do to avert that. It is the price for receiving a favor from one of the powers of the dark.”
At that point, John, the lucky fellow, the feared burakwacha (black watchman, as African cops were called then) fainted. He had learnt in the hard way why mothers always tell their children never to talk to strangers.
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