The black Sports Utility Vehicle cruised along the dusty road towards the village outskirts. The two occupants sat in silence, each deep in thought. Although they were in the same vehicle, the two men had different motivations. For Joe Phiri, it was a quest for power. He had been Member of Parliament for the last five years. Now the elections were coming up and he needed to fight off the competition. That was where this village, particularly the old woman, came in.
As for Sam Mfundo, driving the vehicle, it was really about the money. He had been the honourable Member of Parliament’s right-hand man for a long time, with really nothing to show for it. But, the old woman would change that. The honourable member could have his precious power and prestige. Sam just wanted to find out how he could make a lot of money in a short time. And, by the gods, now would be his time.
The car came to a stop near a grazing field. The cattle and their young herdboys only looked on, curious. Almost all the boys were chewing on some sugarcane, their eyes fixed on the car, a machine they rarely saw in their village, unless elections were close. The cattle quickly lost interest in the car, and returned to sampling the natural delicacies shooting out of the dry soil. Sam got out of the driver’s seat and approached the youngest of the boys, who was closest to the road. He was only dressed in a soiled, torn pair of shorts, and possessively held onto his sugarcane as Sam walked towards him
“I am looking for Gogo Chiyendayekha’s house.”
“Who?” asked the young boy, a puzzled look on his face.
“He means Gogo Chiyenda, idiot!” shouted one of the other boys, perched on a rock, who had apparently overheard the question.
“Oh. Right,” said the little boy, a sheepish grin on his face, revealing a set of yellowing teeth. “Continue on this road until you get to the end. Hers is the last house right before you get to the graveyard. You won’t miss it.”
Sam thanked the little boy and got back in the car. For the first time, the honourable Joe Phiri spoke, his voice reflecting the fatigue from the long trip.
“Are we on the right path, Sam?”
“Yes sir, we are. According to the little boy, we just have to follow this road until we get to the end of it, right near a graveyard.”
“Well, that snotty-nosed kid had better be right. We are supposed to be there before the sun sets. She does not see anyone after the sun sets.”
“Do not worry, sir. We will make it,” replied Sam, gunning the engine into life.
They passed through the village, the fields dry and dusty. Although it was December, it had not rained yet, it seemed. Another year of hunger, Sam thought gloomily. When they finally got to the outskirts of the village, they found more fields with nothing growing in them. And there was only one house standing. A small, grass-thatched house which Sam guessed was Gogo Chiyendayekha’s. There was a woman outside, sitting on what appeared to be a tree stump.
Sam stopped the vehicle and quickly ran around the car to open the door. As the honourable Phiri got out of the car, his mind was on his political prospects but all that temporarily vanished as soon as he saw what was right behind the house. He had seen it when they were coming but now looking at it up close, it was a bit scarier than he had originally thought. All of a sudden, he had an uneasy feeling.
Behind the old lady’s house was an area thick with tall trees. You could not miss those tall trees. With the small house at the front, they really looked like a huge natural fence. What made things worse, however, were the little tombstones beside the old lady’s house. The boy had said the house was near the graveyard, but from this distance it seemed as it was very much a part of the burial grounds.
The old lady had not moved. She just sat there, staring at the two men with curious eyes. She was twiddling a small stick in between her long, bony fingers. She did not say anything but she already knew why they had come. The huge, shiny car and the older man’s clean suit said it all. A few of their kind had come before. And she would help these two men the same way she had helped all the others.
Joe spoke first. “We are looking for the house of Gogo Chiyendayekha.”
“No one has called me that in a long time,” replied the old lady. Her voice was surprisingly clear and strong, considering the frail-looking body which produced it. She tossed the stick aside and stood up. Again, Sam was impressed by how effortlessly she stood up from the stump. “But yes, I am Gogo Chiyendayekha and this is my house. Now, let us go in so you can rest. You must be tired.”
Gogo Chiyenda, as Sam and Joe soon discovered was what she preferred to be called, had a cosy little home. It may have looked shabby on the outside but she certainly took care of the inside. The walls were wonderfully decorated with hand paintings and macramé. The furniture was well-polished. At the far end of the room, however, almost out of sight, was a small table. It took a moment for Sam to realise, with a measure of shock, that the two white objects on this table were small skulls. They stared at him with their empty eye sockets, with a half-grin that appeared to mock him. Sam looked away quickly. Probably from some unfortunate monkeys that crossed the old woman’s path, he thought. The two men formally introduced themselves and the old lady disappeared into another room. She came out again with a large calabash of thobwa, a local sweet beer. The fragrant brew put temporarily thoughts of the skulls out of Sam’s mind. He was resolved to enjoy it, since he rarely had thobwa this good in town. As they drank, she spoke.
“Well, my, sons, we all know that you have not come all this way just to make idle conversation and drink my thobwa. Exactly what is it that you want?”
“Well,” began honourable Joe Phiri, “as you may know, I am a member of parliament. My popularity has, however, dropped in my constituency in the past year or so. And, to make things worse, there is a young man who is going to contest against me this time around. I need you to help me become popular again. I cannot lose this election. I’ve been promised a cabinet position if I win.” He spoke with emphasis, as though he had rehearsed this little speech, waving his arms and making fists to stress the urgency of the situation.
“I see,” said the old woman. Then she turned to Sam. “And you, my son? What is it that you wish for?”
“Mine is quite simple, gogo. All I want is money,” spoke Sam, quite enthusiastically. “I already have everything else. Money is what will make me really happy. It will help my family live the good life. That is all I want, gogo. And I will do anything to get it.”
Gogo Chiyenda was silent for a moment. “Everything you wish for is possible, but you must have courage. And you must be sure that it is what you want. Do not look at me and ask yourselves why I am not rich and yet I say can make people’s dreams come true. I am very happy with my life. Quite content, actually. I do not need anything, except my little house and my village. They make me happy. But, obviously, that is not the case with you. So I ask you, my sons, are you sure that these are the things you wish for? And do you have the courage to get them?”
“Yes, gogo,” answered Sam and the honourable Joe Phiri in unison.
“Very well then,” said Gogo Chiyenda. “We shall wait until nightfall.”
They spent the next hour or so talking about the village, the weather and a bit of politics. Gogo Chiyenda was very impressed by honourable Phiri’s ideas and, to a certain extent, humbleness. She wondered why his constituents did not like him anymore.
Honourable Phiri could not stop thinking about the graveyard, which Gogo Chiyenda said had been there for generations. Yes, graveyards were generally scary but this one was a bit extreme. It was only then that he remembered something else. All the fields had been dry and dusty and the trees leafless and dry on their way here. The trees he had seen at the edge of that graveyard were thickly covered with leaves, all green and, well, healthy. Of course, there could be a logical explanation for that, Joe thought. But something about that graveyard still bothered him.
Sam couldn’t be bothered with such details. The skulls had given him a bit of a jolt but he had long since forgotten about them. This was his chance. The chance to live the life he had always wanted. He liked the honourable Member of Parliament, but Sam did not want to be his servant for the rest of his life. It was a bit of luck that they had been together when a close friend of honourable Phiri had told the Member of Parliament about Gogo Chiyenda. As to how the person himself had come to know about it, Sam could not say. But now, here they were. Each on the verge of getting what they wanted.
“Okay, it is time,” said Gogo Chiyenda, her face quite grim. “I will get straight to the point. If you are brave and do exactly as I say, you will achieve your goals tonight. And you will have to work together. There is a specific grave which you must get to in the graveyard behind my home. Dig up the coffin, get whatever it is you find in it and bring it to me.”
“Wait, gogo, not only do you want us to go into THAT graveyard but you also want us to dig up someone’s grave?” asked Joe Phiri, almost at the top of his voice.
“Is there a problem?” replied Gogo Chiyenda, with a slight trace of annoyance.
“Of course there is a prob-“
“There is no problem, gogo,” said Sam, cutting his boss short. “We shall do as you ask.” Sam glared at the honourable Member of Parliament who clearly wanted to say something else.
“Alright. Come with me, my sons,” said the old woman, opening the door. “Leave your keys in the car, in case you lose them in there. Do not worry. No one will touch it. When you come back, I will be waiting right here by the doorway. May the ancestors be with you. Now go.”
“Wait, gogo,” said the honourable Joe Phiri. “You said we are going to dig up a grave. How exactly are we supposed to do that? We have no tools. And are we not supposed to get permission from the chief before we go into the graveyard? I do not want this to land us in trouble.”
Sam paused. His boss was right.
“You will find the tools at the site,” replied the old woman. “If you do not, then you were not meant to fulfil your dreams today. And do not worry about the chief. He will not know and even if he did, he would not dare cross me. Now, be on your way. Just go straight, do not turn until you reach the grave with the pearl-white tombstone. Pay attention to nothing else. Nothing else. Just get whatever it is you find in that grave and bring it to me.”
And with that, they left. Sam led the way. They did not have to go far, the old lady had said. The unease that the honourable Member of Parliament felt had not left him and it was even stronger now. And, he could have sworn that as they were leaving and he had turned around to look at the old lady, he had seen her praying.
They walked among the thick trees and wild bushes. The graveyard was very quiet, save for an owl’s hoot here and there. They did not speak until they reached the gravesite. True to the old lady’s words, they found two hoes and two shovels. A good sign, in this case.
“The old lady knew what she was talking about, eh, boss?”
“I am not sure. Something about this does not feel right,” replied honourable Phiri.
“Of course it does not feel right, sir. We are digging up someone’s grave,” said Sam with a laugh. “Put your fears aside, boss, and let us start digging.” He was clearly amused at the thought of his stoic employer whimpering like a dog.
They had almost struck the coffin when honourable Phiri stopped again. This time, it was not because of what he was thinking about. Rather, it was what he was hearing. He looked at Sam. Apparently, he had heard it too.
It sounded like people singing, chanting. Almost like a whole village. And it sounded like it was getting closer and closer. Honourable Phiri could not hear what they were saying but they certainly sounded like the people from horror movies his son loved so much. This time when he spoke, there was an unmistakable trace of fear in his voice.
“Sam, do you hear that? It sounds like people coming! Let’s get out of here!”
“No, boss. We’re almost done and we have come this far. You heard what the old lady said. Pay attention to nothing but this. Ignore them.”
“Sam, are you mad?! Listen! They sound really close now! Listen, what we need to do is-“
“What you need to do is shut your trap, boss. I have come this far and I am not going to turn back now. I need this and so do you. So do me a favour; shut up and help me open this thing. We’re done.”
Honourable Phiri was stunned. Sam had never spoken to him that way. Not once. But, he did as he was told, although the chants were quite loud now. They grabbed what turned out to be an extremely light coffin, brought it up to the surface and opened it. As soon as they did, the chanting stopped. It was all quiet again.
Honourable Phiri took a step back in surprise. Inside the coffin was a baby girl, not more than a year old. And it was alive. It started crying, forcing Phiri to move back further. Sam was a bit frightened himself. How that baby had survived six feet underground was beyond him. But, he had to be strong. His boss was scared out of his wits, he could see that. So it was up to him to take charge. This was his chance.
“So, boss, I guess this is what the old lady wanted. We have done it.”
“Put it back, Sam. Put it back and let us get out of here. I have a really bad feeling about this,” said Honourable Phiri, visibly shaking.
“Do not be ridiculous,” said Sam, shaking his head. “The hard part is over. Now all we have to do is go to the old la-”
He never finished that statement, for an ear-splitting roar came from behind him, interrupting. It sounded like a cross between a lion and a hyena. He slowly turned around, already shaking, but not before he had seen the look of absolute terror on the honourable Member of Parliament’s face.
Honourable Joe Phiri could not move. He couldn’t think. All he could do was stare at the hideous thing a few metres in front of him. It was over seven feet tall, with the basic form of a human; head, two arms and two legs. But the resemblance ended there. It was charcoal black, its eyes fiery red. Its mouth was a wide split, showing a set of fangs. The rest of its huge, muscular body was hairy and had spikes protruding from it. Honourable Phiri stood still, petrified, and watched as the thing grabbed Sam with one of its huge hands, this time uttering a small cry instead of its loud roar, almost purring like a cat.
Sam, though, was not as calm. He screamed at the top of his voice. Never in his life had he ever wished for God’s help as much as he did now.
“Help me!!” Sam shouted, directly at his boss, who just stood, helpless. The honourable Member of Parliament stared in horror as the thing started to bend Sam like a piece of metal. It was at that point that Honourable Phiri wet himself.
“Help me!! Please!!” cried Sam in agony.
The thing that held Sam only purred some more.
Honourable Joe Phiri heard something snap and that brought him back to his senses. The snap. Sam had stopped screaming. Sam was dead. That’s when the honourable Member of Parliament turned and ran. He ran, leaving the broken body of his liege, never looking back. The chanting had begun again, but he did not care. He reached the edge of the graveyard, stumbled out into the open. Only then did he realise that he was soaked. It could be his sweat. But no. It was raining. Rain was falling, but only in the graveyard. He covered the few metres from the graveyard to the old woman’s house in seconds. She was at the door, like she said, but Honourable Phiri ran straight to the car, got in and sped off, leaving a cloud of dust in the night.
The old lady stood by the door, watching the car drive off in the distance. She had a sly little smile on her face. Two had gone into the graveyard. Only one had come out. And it was raining. Rain was falling in the graveyard. A good sign. The ancestors had accepted the sacrifice. Her people would be saved. She knew the man who had sped off in the car might come back, this time most likely with the police, but of course, they would not find anything. Besides, she thought, they would want to know what he was doing, trespassing at the graveyard in the first place.
She had not lied to them. If they had brought her what she had asked, they would have fulfilled their dreams. She just did not tell them everything, that’s all. That one or both of them may not return because a sacrifice needed to be made to the ancestors. She knew about the thing which lived in the graveyard. The thing which had served her ancestors for generations. But she had to think of her people. The fields were dry and something had to be done so that they would not experience a food shortage that season. And it had been done. The ancestors were happy. Gogo Chiyenda took one last look at the sky, and then slowly walked back into her hut.
It rained heavily the following morning.
IMAGE: Owen Byrne