She always sat outside her house early each morning. She would take out her favourite chair and sit in the sun, talking to people who passed by. Nobody carried that chair for her. It was absolutely forbidden. She carried that wooden chair herself every morning and evening. She would sometimes sit outside all day, with that tired smile on her wrinkled old face.
They said my grandmother was one of the oldest people in the village. And she was one of the wealthiest too. She had cattle, goats and chickens aplenty. She also had a lot of land, on which she grew different fruit trees and other crops. Whenever I was hungry, there was always something to eat. And, being the youngest of her three grandchildren, I was always treated well.
My siblings and I had come to live with our grandmother after our parents’ death. Her only child, my mother, had been killed in a car accident together with her husband, my father. My father’s relatives had taken everything, not bothering to think about how we would take care of ourselves, three children alone in the city. Grandma had taken us in, adding to her late husband’s nephew, Atupele, whom she already stayed with. He was a year younger than me. The transition from city life to life in the village had not been easy. My two elder sisters particularly had difficulties adjusting. But, eventually, we settled in.
Grandma was a pleasant person to live with. This is why I found some of the stories about her to be rather untrue. Some of my friends kept making fun of me, calling me the grandson of a well-known witch. They said my grandmother used black magic to steal other people’s farm produce. That she had killed her own husband. Usually, such talk by my friends ended in a fight. I did not believe my grandmother was capable of such things. She was a Christian, and certainly had not taught any of her grandchildren witchcraft. At least, as far as I knew. Such outrageous accusations were not to be tolerated and I would fight any friend of mine who even dared speak of it.
There was a particular incident, though, which I still think about. It happened a few weeks after my parents died. I was ten at the time and we had just settled in our grandmother’s home. I was sitting outside the house with her one day when Che Bakali, our neighbour who lived about a mile from our home, passed by.
“Good morning, Che Bakali,” my grandmother called out.
“Good morning, Abiti Matola,” replied the old man in greeting. “How are you today?”
“I am not well, Che Bakali. I am a sad old woman. I now have no children. You have a lot of children, Che Bakali. Give me one of yours.”
Che Bakali let out a short laugh. “You have children of your own, Abiti Matola. You have your grandchildren now.”
“Two of them are girls and, apart from that, they are all too young. I need grown children to take care of the fields and look after my livestock. Please, give me one of yours. You have eight children, after all.”
Che Bakali took a few seconds before replying. “I am sorry to hear that, Abiti Matola. But I cannot help you. They are my children. I need them.”
“Very well then,” replied my grandmother, not moving from her chair. “We shall see.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
But my grandmother did not reply. She just sat back in her chair, that familiar smile back on her face. Che Bakali went on his way and I forgot about the incident, dismissing it as a joke between the two. After all, the eldest in our family was seventeen now and my other sister was fourteen. Grandma did not need children. Although, as I should have remembered at the time, my grandmother never joked about anything.
Che Bakali lost a son the following week. My grandmother and I were again seated outside when one of the members of the chief’s council passed by and told my grandma the news. Word was the man had complained of a headache for only a day and then he died. Such a blow to Che Bakali, the councillor said. The old man relied on that particular son for a lot of things. My grandmother did not say much. After the councillor had left, she only kept on telling me about the time she walked over ten miles with my mother to the hospital.
Che Bakali lost another child about a month after his son died. But this time, we did not hear it from a chief’s councillor but from Che Bakali himself. He came over, his breathing heavy and his feet dirty, wearing a pair of worn slippers. His bald head, usually covered by a skull cap, was bare and glistened with sweat, his face contorted with a combination of grief and pure rage.
“You! You did this! Another child gone! And she wasn’t even sick! Just fell and died while we were out at the farm! Was this what you meant when you said we will see? Was it?!”
My grandmother only stood up from her chair, something she had not done since that morning, she fixed Che Bakali a stare that I had never seen before.
“Asaukaje, go inside. Now,” she said to me, her stare not leaving Che Bakali. I obeyed. I remember the shouting that came afterwards but not what was said. When I looked out of the living room window, I saw Che Bakali being dragged away by passersby, still talking at the top of his voice. My grandmother went off to one of her fields to inspect her cotton crop. She did not come back until that evening. She picked up her chair and came into the house. We did not speak about the incident again.
Che Bakali buried his daughter the following day. And, ten days later, the whole village showed up at Che Bakali’s funeral. They say he never recovered from losing two of his grown children under inexplicable circumstances. His heart simply gave in. However, a few fingers were also pointed at grandma. People remembered how she and the late Che Bakali had argued, how he had accused her of bewitching his children. But, nobody dared say that in her presence. Even my sisters now started calling me the witch’s apprentice when she was not within earshot, since I spent a lot of time with my grandmother.
I did not pay attention to what the people said. I loved my grandmother. She took us in when nobody else would. She was looking after four children in her old age. She never really got mad at my cousin, sisters and I unless, of course, we lied to her. Or stole from her. Which was exactly what the two boys from the pastor’s family did.
It was one of those rare days when my grandmother decided to inspect her orchard. I accompanied her on the short walk. The pears were ripe and they were one of her few indulgencies. Which was why she was not too pleased when she found two of the local pastor’s sons in one of her pear trees, eating some pears right in the tree and stuffing some in a sack they had brought along with them.
“What are you doing in my orchard, you sons of dogs?” Startled, the boys dropped their bag of ripe and delicate pears to the ground. They took one look at my grandmother then jumped about seven feet from the tree, grabbed their bag and started running. But that did not stop my grandmother from talking.
“So people who follow God’s commandments steal too? Yes, I know who you are! Do not eat the seeds too! Plant them so you can have your own trees and stop stealing from others!”
I just stood there, stunned, while she went on and on even after the boys had disappeared. I looked around and there was no one in sight, which was a good thing. One, no one could hear the obscenities now coming out of my grandmother’s mouth. Two, when one of the boys suddenly went blind and the other lost the use of his left arm, no one blamed my grandmother. The boys did not say anything about what happened at the orchard, I’m sure. And neither did we.
It is only now, when I am seventeen years old, that I have a clearer picture of who my grandmother really was. She died about five weeks ago. But before she did, she left instructions. And those instructions she left to me when she called me to her room the night before she died. The way she timed the whole thing, one would swear she knew she was going to die.
“Asaukaje,” she started, “I may not be around for much longer. Both your sisters are married now and I will need you to take care of all that I have when I’m gone.”
“Yes, grandmother,” I answered.
“Now, you have to listen to me very carefully. There is a shoe box under my bed. Take it and hide it when you leave this room. It has all my money in it. Do not show it to anyone, not even Atupele. Do you hear me?”
“Yes, grandma. Is the money meant for me?”
“Of course,” replied my grandmother. “Your sisters have husbands who look after them now. That money is yours. You will need it to take care of yourself and Atupele. You will also need it when you start a family of your own. Now, there is also the matter of my burial. There are a few things that need to be done.”
“But grandma,” I started. “You should not be talking like that. You are not going to die. You-”
“Do not interrupt me, child. Now, this family does not have elders left. And right now, in this village, you are the only blood relative I have. Your sisters are townsfolk now. So listen carefully to what I tell you. Then you can tell the chief and his council later.”
Reluctantly, I agreed.
“When you are about to leave the house for the graveyard, make sure the coffin is taken out of this house through the back door. Are you listening, Asaukaje?”
I was puzzled. “Grandmother, why do you want that to happen? Why do you want to be carried out through the back door?”
“Because bad things will happen if you do not,” she replied. “Make sure that you follow every instruction to the letter.”
It was at that point that fear began to grip me. The other incidents that happened when I was younger came rushing back to my mind. But, I listened on.
“When I am being lowered in my grave, make sure my head is not where the headstone is. It should be at the opposite end.”
This time I said nothing. I only nodded. My grandmother just looked at me with the familiar clear eyes that I had grown fond of. “My last instruction is for you. It is very important so pay close attention. Asaukaje, are you listening to me?”
“Yes, grandma, I am listening,” I replied, my voice shaky.
“As I have already said, this is for you. On the way to the graveyard, you should not walk. You are going to lie on top of my coffin until you get to the graveyard. On this, you have to insist.”
I almost fell off the little stool I was sitting on. I looked at my grandmother for signs that she had made a joke for the first time since I had met her. But it was clear that this was no joke.
“Grandma, I cannot do that! Why must we do all this anyway? Why? Are you a witch or something? Were all those people right? I refuse to do it! I refuse!”
My grandmother suddenly sat up and grabbed my hands. Her fingernails dug into my wrists and I felt a sharp tinge of pain. Her cold hands did not leave mine as she spoke again.
“If you know what’s good for you and this village, then you will do exactly as I say. Do not miss a single detail. It is important that you do not. Is that clear?”
Terrified by the intensity in her voice, I agreed. She then let go of my hands and spoke for the last time. “Remember to keep in touch with your sisters. Family is very important. And please look after Atupele. You may not be related by blood but he is still your family. Now, get the shoe box and go to bed.”
She was dead the morning after our little chat. Atupele was the first to notice that she had not got up at her usual time that morning. The village chief and the village elders were immediately notified. My sisters and their husbands arrived that evening. It seemed the whole village had shown up for my grandmother’s funeral. I did not know if the people came because she was popular or because they just wanted to confirm that she was gone or they were obligated to do so by virtue of living in the village.
It was cold outside that night. We slept around a fire built outside my grandmother’s house. The women and church choir were inside the house where my grandmother’s body now lay. The rest of us slept outside. I half listened to the stories being told by the boys around the fire, while my mind tried to assimilate the instructions my grandmother had left. I did not know how the chief and the village elders would take it. And I had not told my sisters yet. The church to which my grandmother belonged would not like it one bit. The pastor and his choir were singing hymns with vigour tonight, one of their members gone to be with the Lord. Owls hooted. Hyenas could be heard laughing all through the night, as if taking pleasure in my predicament.
There was one thing which really bothered me quite a lot. I was only seventeen years old. I was going to live in this village for a long time, God-willing. Lying on top of a coffin all the way to the graveyard was not going to help my social standing in any way. I would be ostracized. It was for that reason that I was careful to leave out that part of the instructions when I told the chief and my sisters of my grandmother’s wishes.
Both my sisters vehemently protested. What I was suggesting, grandma’s wishes or not, was borderline pagan. Not to mention what the rest of the village would think of the family after the funeral. My sisters did not want to be branded as witches. The chief only sat there, looking at me thoughtfully. Then he finally spoke, his deep voice booming across the room.
“Are you sure you have told us exactly what she told you?”
“Yes, chief, I have,” I replied, worried that the chief may have noticed that I was hiding something.
“Then we shall do as she asked,” said the chief, glaring at my sisters who clearly wanted to say something. They kept quiet and he continued. “I have lived on this earth for a long time and I have seen what happens when you do not follow instructions left by the dead. Only, do not tell the church members. They are certainly not going to see it like I do.”
It was agreed by all of us that the church should be kept out of the loop. They noticed the coffin being brought out through the back door, as did everyone else, but neither the priest nor the other church members said anything. The funeral ceremony went on without any problems and we proceeded to the graveyard. I walked immediately behind my grandmother’s coffin, foolishly hoping that the act would make amends. She was buried in our family’s reserved site, between my mother and grandfather. Her feet were at the headstone, just as she asked.
The village first heard about the beast from one of the chief’s herdboys. This was about a month ago, a week after my grandmother died. He came running to the chief’s compound, out of breath, to tell him that something had grabbed one of his prize bulls. The chief did not wait to be told twice. He gathered the village’s strongest young men and, armed with spears and machetes, they went looking for his lost bull and the beast that had taken it. They found the bull a few metres from where the herdboy had said the cattle were attacked. It was dead, but its carcass was untouched, except for its head and hooves. Those were missing.
The beast has been on a rampage since then. It has killed goats, pigs, cattle and sheep. In each case, only the head and hooves of the animals are removed. And then last week, it attacked humans for the first time. A man and a woman were coming from the neighbouring Chikwati village where they had been visiting relatives. The man had tried to hold the beast off while the woman, whom we now know to be his wife, ran for help. When she finally came back with help, her husband was dead. His head and feet still have not been found.
I have not told anyone yet, but I have been having a rather strange recurring dream ever since the beast first showed up. The people who claim to have seen the beast give different accounts of what it looks like. The herdboy said it looked like a hyena. Others said it looks like a lion while some say it is a combination of both. I do not know what it looks like because I have never seen the beast. The beast does not feature in my dream. My grandmother does. In that angry tone I heard when she caught the pastor’s children stealing, she accuses me of putting the lives of all the people in the village at risk. She goes on to say that we shall all suffer because we did not follow all her instructions.
Meanwhile, the attacks on people continue. Four more people have been killed now, all in the same manner; no head, no feet. Some people have fled from their homes to the neighbouring Chikwati and Mbaluku villages. The chief is under pressure from his people. They want him to do something because clearly this beast is a result of some kind of black magic. They want him to invite a powerful witchdoctor to the village. My dream is more recurrent now. Last night, I awoke from this nightmare to the sound of light scratching against my bedroom window, coupled with the sounds of what seemed like a huge cat purring. I did not dare take a look outside. I told Atupele about what I heard during the night and he thinks it was just my imagination. I sincerely hope he is right.