The Witching Hour won in the short story category of the African Speculative Fiction Society 2019 Nommo Awards.
I stood balanced at the top of the oldest palm tree, the one that grew at the south end of the village. I was in my element — pitch black night. This was my dawn. The murmurs of glowing spirits mixed with the chitter of living insects.
The hoot of an owl reminded me there was work to be done, battles to be fought — silent, undeclared, but raging all the same. And old Mama Ishaka was on the other side of them. With a sigh, I leapt from the tree, fell free, and caught one of the power lines that led to a human spirit. The link was strong. The call of this spirit sang the music of its soul to me. It called me back home.
We sat in my hut, bare as it was, Eijiro and I, on the even barer floor. The kerosene lamp hung from a nail on the wall, its flickering yellow light the only illumination. I didn’t need much, being a creature of the night.
I had chosen my apprentice for her goodness. Shy and quiet, she was my sister’s child. Like other old world witches I was glad to recruit from family, where they were cut closest to us. Blood was more than just a symbol.
She was still learning to manoeuvre the delicate currents of the other side.
I rubbed the ori ointment on her eyes to ease the transition and make visible the other realm – the beauty of it along with the denizens that drive normals mad with fright. We moved freely among it all — the souls of sleeping humans, shining shapeshifters, headless spirits drifting along upside down.
I took hold of her hands and invoked the deep black sleep that let us travel to the other side. Our bodies slumped, and we passed over. We floated, translucent and unbound by gravity. We had power in this state. A power that was intoxicating.
Eijiro moved towards the door. I smiled and pulled her toward the wall. I flowed through it and she followed. Outside the protection of my hut we felt the pull, the dreams, the thoughts of sleeping normals. Those souls connected to us pulled the most, sending out strong lines of power.
We had set out to find one of these souls. I had established a connection with her in the physical world and could see her soul cord faintly shimmering. And now we flowed along it, shifting shapes — I an old brown owl and Eijiro a nightjar. We sailed swift and sure, alighting on a palm tree beside a darkened house.
I shifted back and floated to the roof. My fledgling followed. We sifted down through the thatch. I looked at Ejiro. She turned and her eyes caught mine and realisation dawned upon her. She nodded at me and threw a shroud over the sleeping occupants of the homestead, to keep them still until our work was done. She fastened on their sleeping forms. We could hear faintly their struggles within as they choked and gulped for air, struggling vainly to wake. In the morning they would struggle even more to understand what had happened in the night. But all they would ever know – or think they know – was that they had been pressed.
I drew close to the girl we had come to help. She was eleven. As I neared her, she began to toss and turn. The energy of the other side had begun to sip into her but she was unable to wake to it. I slipped my hand into her chest and cradled the pulsing spirit heart of her being. She gasped. I gathered my energy and pulled. Her body convulsed and she held back, too frightened at the pull to cross over, though this crossing was only a hair’s breadth width, not the faraway world of the ancestors.
I pulled again. Her body heaved, its hold on her loosening. Again I pulled, firmer than before. Her body’s grasp slipped away and her translucent spirit form emerged. The initiation was successful. The newly freed form floated gently, casting curious glances at us, its liberators.
My spirit energy was depleted, a danger especially as I rarely fed on others. I glanced at Ejiro. She was flushed and glowing faintly, having, without her conscious intention, drained energy from those she had subdued. She had not yet mastered the art of fastening and holding without feeding. She started guiltily when her eyes met with mine. But I smiled in reassurance.
We sifted up through the thatch, leaving the newly awakened one floating quietly about the house. She needed the freedom to explore the new realm we had opened her to. But we knew we could only leave her alone for so long; before a coven found her we would be back to teach her and bring her into the fold.
We flew on, owl and nightjar. We awakened other young ones along the way. With each awakening, I was left weaker. I have had no replenishment in a long time, but I was reluctant to lose myself in the energy of the life around me. Not so with Ejiro; she unintentionally drank in life energy and spirit consciousness. I knew that if she drained too much their spirit flames would be extinguished, and they would die. And the guilt would be mine as her spirit teacher.
Dawn was near. And we were far from our bodies. We could not survive long here without the clear spiritual focus the night imbued us with. Weak and tired, I set a course for home.
We glided along the spirit currents. Now totally drained of energy, I didn’t notice I was falling until I hit the ground and rolled roughly. The nightjar alighted beside me, shifting into the shape of a wild cat. She picked me up in her jaws. She could so easily have crushed me, leaving my contorted body bereft of spirit. But she was careful and bore me safely home.
I slept for two days, waking only to gulp down water and a morsel of food.
I awoke in my hut. A blanket covered me. Beside my mat was a cup of water and food covered in a clay bowl. The hut was swept and arranged. I smiled. Ejiro took great care of me. Although I wondered sometimes at the rightness of what I did, if I was any better than those we battled, Eijiro did not doubt. Perhaps I could trust the innocence and goodness of her heart if I couldn’t trust my own. I took a long pull of water and felt it crawl into my being.
I stretched and got up. I had business to be about. My small farm was waiting for me to tend it. We all had to work in the day too, our nocturnal life notwithstanding. Like everyone else we needed to survive in the physical world. This was why Ejiro was with me, to help me survive in the physical world, or so I made my sister believe. My sister thought her daughter helped me tend my farm. Well, she did help me cultivate – only not just the farm but souls.
Ejiro had gone to our food stall in the marketplace. The market was a good place for recruiting, and mothers often warned their young ones not to touch or take anything from strangers. But recruiting mostly came through relatives.
Every young child had a tendency toward the spirit realm that waned as they grew and got more settled in the physical world. But giving them food saturated with the substance of the other side strengthened the connection and in sleep the spirit strove to break free from its body and re-join its natural home. Often, the help of an initiating witch such as myself was needed to liberate the spirit.
I wondered sometimes if it was right, taking them this young, without their consent, as I had been taken by Mama Ishaka. She had been a family friend. She liked her recruits sweet and kind and young. So did I. But our motives were as different as palm oil from groundnut oil. You could fry with both but only one was good for yams. The old one exulted in corrupting innocent apprentices, warping them into bloodthirsty hags who fed for the pure joy of the misery they inflicted.
Witches like Mama Ishaka had a craving for evil, and came to it of their own strong and iron will. Such ones allied themselves with like-minded dibias and medicine men, prophets and healers, the strongest of the othersiders. They lived in both sides and with keen balance accessed either sides at times and ways that made us feel like normals. The dark dibias sometimes sent their witch allies to carry out assassinations and other suchlike works. My time with Mama Ishaka left me prey to the pull of their ways and in moments of remembrance, I fell it tugging at me.
Another haunt. A night for Ejiro to train in practices of power and acquire the skills to help turn the tide in our silent battle. I let out a hoot to signal the haunt’s start, sending shivers through the spines of any beings still awake, setting the devout and perceptive of them into prayer.
We sailed through the night in our favourite forms of owl and nightjar. We could take any shape we conjured, but we remained in these forms because the more time we retained one form, the more powerful we grew within it. I led the way, swerving to avoid a copse of trees – a coven’s meeting place, surrounded by a haze cloaking the coven’s activities from other creatures and night users — prophets, healers, even worshippers of the white Christ. They each followed their gods or god, and drew power from the other side. Just power. Like a knife, it was what you did with it that mattered. But I knew what many did with their power.
The nightjar’s call drew me out of my thoughts. We had arrived at our first stop. We perched atop a mango tree beside the house. Normals knew a tree beside one’s house might bring hauntings from creatures of the night. But few of them bothered to keep trees far from their houses.
I led Ejiro through the art called sendings. She fed to the point where the soul’s hold was tenuous, at the cusp between life and death, then I helped her establish a spiritual connection, to see this person’s life threads and move them gently, guiding their fate and fortune to their benefit in the waking world.
I learnt the art of sending from Mama Ishaka. To those she taught this art she haunted with terrible sendings, torturing them with nightmares and visions. Sometimes she toyed with them, gave helpful sendings they came to trust, imagining them from ancestors or kind spirits. Then she sent visions pulling her victims down to ruin and death. The likes of Mama Ishaka were the reason why witches and dreams were feared.
Mama Ishaka did not always take the time to be creative in her ploys. At times she would simply feed on her victims until their heart gave out or their organs failed. The more one fed, the more powerful one became, helping one to see further into the future and to take the shape of more powerful beasts and have more influence on people and events. It gave longer life. This was why some of our oldest witches radiated more powerful malevolence.
Mama Ishaka took immense pleasure in corrupting her apprentices, whom she chose from amongst the goodliest and kindest hearted. These were the ones she enjoyed breaking, pulling the good from their souls. On our haunts she pushed me to feed until our quarry’s life force gave out. But I would not. She would tell me that I was a most difficult one to corrupt among her apprentices, then cackle as if amused and fly off in search of our next victim. Yet feeding is addictive and my craving grew for it grew in spite of myself. She was a patient one. She knew it was a matter of time for me to be drawn to her side.
Earning my freedom would require giving in to that which I hated and feeding until the victim died. But this owl outplayed her twice over. When I saw souls in difficulty, as I had their life threads stretched before me, glowing white lines leading towards good, darkened lines pulling them toward misery and ignominious decease, I went down their white threads, through a cascade of images and gave them positive sendings, visions, and warnings for the future. I set many on a safe path out of the claws of Mama Ishaka.
And from another witch I learned a second way to earn my freedom – wake a new witch, create my own apprentice. Mama Ishaka had been enraged at this revelation and tormented the one who taught me this means of freedom.
So Eijiro and I followed power lines, sailing swift and sure, agents of the night, searching out the wretched of the earth, the ones that most needed good in their lives. We provided them their needs while feeding on them – an unholy exchange, rendering help to these ailing ones through a power feared and known only for misery and death.
Eventually dawn neared, and we needed to return to our bodies to cross the veil back to the world of normals. We flew for home. And into an ambush. The nightjar was pounced upon and sent careening off to slam against a tree. I was held fast in the strands of an otherside web. A spider’s web. Large and thick and strong enough to hold a goat. Only an old witch, with much power could do this. And there was something familiar about that aura…
The spider dropped down before me, its huge head twisting and writhing into the shape of a human face. It was she, the one who had initiated me, opened me to the other side. Mama Ishaka.
She swung around me cackling, hanging upside down with her full glare on me. Even with a human face, her maw was rich with venom that flew out, scathing and burning me. I would wake sick and wounded, if I woke at all.
She lunged for my throat and pulled back, toying with me. Then she held her pincers to my head, and in that sharp vice a tunnel of dark visions and memories swallowed me. Her memories. Of people. They looked familiar. I stared. They were the people I had helped while I was her apprentice. But she had found out what I did and carried out her revenge on them, tormenting and killing them.
She laughed, shrill and mocking laughter of the victorious. She had undone all I had devoted myself to, all that allowed me to live with the evil I felt inside me. My anger was a fire. I tore free of the vision.
She slid a claw down my cheek, telling me that now she was content to finally let me go. “Or,’ she said, “maybe I’ll stay close, watch you save spirits, watch them flourish, then pull them apart, rip them to pieces.” A crooked smile laced her face and she turned to sidle up her web.
But the old one made a huge mistake that night. Perhaps to her goodliness only meant weakness. Perhaps she underestimated the value of those souls to me, underestimated the power of my rage, failed to see I might freely do what all her power had never forced me to. I struggled in her web of body and heart and mind, and broke free. As a lion. Fangs, claws, wings, power. I shredded her strands like gossamer. She turned to face me and I leapt upon her. My claws tore into her as she tried to transform, tried to cast me off. But I held fast. I held tight with the power of my hate, my grief, my love for what she had destroyed.
Eventually she fell still. I felt the tremors from her body ebbing in the physical world. Her spirit form floated away and came apart, dark dust in the wind of the nether realm.
I shrank down into an old, sad owl and flew to my wounded apprentice. I transformed and cradled the small body. I wept. I had lost myself and everything I had tried to build. The old one had triumphed. She had made me what she wanted in the end. I had run away from death-dealing all my life, never knowing I was running straight to it. I wept, Eijiro’s broken body in my hands, my hated enemy regrettably dead, and the dawn closing in on me.
One could be a certain thing, but not be bound by it so long as one never gave up fighting it. I would keep fighting this thing I was, this evil Mama Ishaka saw in me, that she tried so hard to make me live out. Evil never wins until you stop fighting it.
Eijiro survived that night. I recovered my heart and resolve.
We stood at the top of the oldest palm tree in the village. The night was alive around us. Two realms were open before us. I meant for us to change things. Two women, one almost too old, the other maybe too young and inexperienced; two witches against the world, to set the way of things as we wanted. But we were all there was and if we failed it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.
My apprentice looked to me.
“Perhaps good can never win,” I said. “But maybe evil not winning is enough. Enough to keep us going each day. I will train a cadre of good witches. You are the first.”
Eijiro nodded, and without prompting we leapt off, following the call of souls, connecting to the lines of power, soaring into the living blackness to carry out a dark goodness.
Image: Karin Henseler via Pixabay.com