‘Kill her, Kill her. Kill her!’
The words from her spectators echoed in her mind as she tried to shake herself out of what she desperately wished to be a nightmare. But there was no waking from this. The heat from the sun scorched earth reminded her of just how real her demise was. She had seen the execution ritual before, but never in her lifetime did she imagine that one day she would be one on the other end of the machete. As a spectator, it was all too easy to be detached from the reality.
‘We bring before you a lair, a whore, and she is not even one of us. What shall we do with her?’ The executioner raised his machete in the air.
‘Kill her, kill her.’ The crowed echoed.
The little girl tried to speak, but with a mouth gagged and muffled with a boiling stone, she just about managed a whimper. She wore her desperation in her eyes but no one cared to read them. In this very moment, she wanted to be anywhere, anywhere but here; but who wouldn’t? The executioner proceeded to ripping off her raffia palm dress for the entire village to see her nakedness.
A man screamed from the crowd before throwing a rock that connected with her forehead.
At this point she was too frail to fight. Her body was weak, her spirit broken. She felt both numb and heavy. Her ears hushed with a buzzing sound and her vision blurred to complete obscurity as the executioner read the charges against her for the very first time. Before he could finish, the crowd cheered even harder for her head. As he was about to swing, she raised her head for one last time. In that moment she experienced a glimpse of clarity. At first she could only see the hate filled eyes and hear the blood thirsty screams. Then a strange silence greeted her ears, and rather than looking at them, she was looking past them.
Some of these faces were familiar to her. The market woman she occasionally bought tomatoes from, the fisherman that once gave her a ride on this boat across the river, the palm wine tapper; then they all became just faces. Even before they had heard the charges against her, in their eyes she was already guilty, guilty enough to be executed. This was the nature of jungle justice. It didn’t matter that no one was present at her hearing in the King’s court. For the most part, they just wanted a spectacle to behold. Her mother had often told her that the wickedness in the hearts of men was actually a symptom of their own unhappiness and lack of fulfilment. It took her head near the blade of a machete to understand what the old woman had tried to impact in her for so many years.
The crowd did not care who she was, what she had done, or if she deserved to die for it. They just wanted a break from their own unbearable lives and if it took her execution to make them feel better off than someone else, then that was exactly what they were going to cheer on for. Before the machete came down, she connected with one little boy in the crowd. He was the only one that seemed to be in shock about the entire drama unfolding before him. When he caught her looking at him, he buried his head. She wondered what he felt; fear, weakness, shame? What did it matter? Before she could phantom another thought, she ceased to be.
Just like that, with the thud of a head, it was all over. The cheers, the whistling, the finger pointing, the maniacal laughter, all of it. With the swing of a machete, the village executioner sliced the little girl’s head clean off her shoulders before an on-looking crowd of overly excited villagers.
The New Moon was always a time for celebration in the village. The promise of rain that came with the moon held the future of the village in its hand. If the moon came with few rains, it was going to be a year of famine and misery. But if it came with rain in abundance, the harvest would be bountiful bringing joy and happiness. To call on favour from the gods, the villagers organized an annual New Moon festival where they would usher in the first full moon of the year with sacrifices to the goddess of the skies.
Huts were empty, streets deserted, but the sound of celebration filled the air. Drums and screams of excitement pierced the silence of the night as a large bonfire blazed away in the village square where calabashes and goat skin pouches were getting emptied of palm wine as fast as they were being filled up. Young maidens danced around the fire and the men cheered them on in between swigs of their drinking horns.
Children gathered in circles to hear great stories from the village elders. Tales of war and history, horrors and mysteries. On this particular night, a tension like none they had known before hung in the air, even if the villagers for the most part refused to recognize it. No one wanted to talk about it but like a foul stench polluting the fresh evening air, it lingered.
‘Oh this is the night. I pray you all are ready for her vengeance!’ The village Mad Man shouted so loud his voice echoed around the square.
‘What is he talking about papa?’ A boy that was no more than nine rains asked.
‘Pay no mind to the words of a drunkard.’ The old man dismissed the warning, regarding the words to have ensued from a deluded mind. But there was something firm in the speaker’s tone that caused even the greatest of doubters to pause for thought. The events surrounding the little girl’s death was still something for debate within the village. Over the rains it had been told and retold, garnished with a new twist at every turn. Ironically, the one storyteller to claim having an eyewitness account turned out to be the one person they all thought to be insane.
‘I know what I saw and believe it or not, you are all going to pay for the blood of the innocent.’
As outlandish as his claims were, the Mad Man had been peddling the same story since the incident, thirteen rains ago. To the rest of the village, the little girl’s headless corpse had simply disappeared from the village square, vanished into thin air. After she was decapitated, in line with the village customs, her head was taken to be buried in the Ingiga Forest. It was believed that evil spirits dwelled and collected souls for the underworld in this forest, a head buried there will never know peace. It was in the same forest that twins were left to die so they could never return to earth or haunt their parents. Before the undertakers could return to dispose of her body, a rain like none the village had ever seen before broke out with a storm so powerful it left so many huts in ruins. When the calm returned, the village square was as it was, but the little girl’s body was nowhere to be found. Since then, all sorts of stories and myths floated around as to how the body came to leave the square when she was clearly dead. Some said so great was the evil in her that as it rained crows, wild dogs, and vultures feasted on her corpse down to the very bones. Some said her body was carried by the great storm straight to the gates of the underworld. There was even a version that claimed she grew out another head with the power of her black magic and escaped to another village.
‘You all think I am crazy, perhaps it is this village that is crazy. I am telling you what I saw. I saw the ghost of a woman emerge to collect the little girl’s corpse. She appeared burned like she too had been killed in an execution. On her wrist I saw marks left by the ropes she had been bound with.’ He motioned to his own wrists.
‘You weren’t even born when this village saw its last burning.’ An old man shouted.
‘I know what I saw old man. And tonight I shall be vindicated. Children, just pray to the gods it isn’t one of you she comes for. Oh yes, she is coming. The burnt woman said she would.’ His eyes widened to inspire fear in the heart of the young.
‘Pay him no mind. Only the unwise challenge the words of elders. Now be gone let me teach these children something worth their learning.’
With that last dismissal, he was gone to where he came from, muttering indistinguishable words under his breath.
The children mocked.
It wasn’t till the flames of the bonfire reduced to embers that the High Priest made his entrance with the village masquerade. It started with the sound of a powerful drum. At the sound of the first stroke, children broke into a sprint to get off the walk path and village square. The adults hurried in their steps pretending to chase the children to safety while evading the square themselves. The masquerade runner appeared in the midst of the celebration in a frenzied dance, lashing out his koboko whip in the air. Anyone on his path or within the whip’s reach was asking for a good lashing. The drum grew louder as the masquerade got nearer, and soon, other instruments followed.
The crowd watched the masquerade dance in a practiced mixture of fear and excitement. Children were led to believe the masquerade was a creature in its own right, possessing all sorts of powers. The most frightening being the ability to capture the spirit of whoever looked into a small mirror it wore on its chest. Most of the children refused to look at it directly in fear of this fate. For the adults, they waited in anticipation for the High Priest’s prophecies for the coming rain. On this occasion, he spoke of abundant rain, but he also warned of an approaching darkness in the vaguest of terms. It didn’t matter that he gave the same reading almost every New Moon, and that he had been wrong more than a few times. It was believed that he held the keys to the spirit world where he journeyed to see what remained unseen to mortal eyes. His words were received with the same level of faith and anticipation every year. It wasn’t till he had left with the masquerade band that the King and his Queen graced the square for the annual royal parade. As custom demanded, the King was escorted by the entirety of his guards, which formed the largest faction of the village army. After they halted from their march, he ushered the Queen to deliver the annual speech. She was a people’s favourite, soft spoken, beautiful and elegant. She spoke of the village’s accomplishments in the past year, praised the priests and General, and just before she left, she announced that a seer had foretold the coming of a prince. The news was greeted with cheer and excitement. The King smiled quietly behind the scene and with a slight nod, he dismissed the parade.
It was only after the King turned his back on the crowd that the drinking and dancing could continue, even if poisoned by an underlying fear of an approaching darkness as predicted by the priest. By the end of the celebration, the square was deserted save a few drunks too weak to find their way home. Silence befell the village and sleep followed.
The fisherman slept hugging his drinking horn inside his canoe on the shores of the water by the edge of the village. He lived only a few paces away but had a habit of sleeping in his anchored boat for the rocking sensation the water brought. Somewhere between the unconscious state of sleep and conscious state of wakefulness, he found himself trapped in something like a dream but vividly different. There were no words to speak of his demise. A demise so painful he wouldn’t wish it on the worst of his enemies.
‘He was right, the Mad Man was right!’ The town crier banged on his gong running through every street in the village.
On the village’s shore, the lifeless body of a fisherman laid in a pool of his own blood with a missing head and what looked like teeth marks around what was left of his neck. Scratches etched deep into the wooden boat and bloodied finger tips told a story of a struggle most couldn’t even begin to imagine.
‘I guess gold even in the hands of a fool still glitters.’ The Mad Man was sure to have his last word. It might have taken thirteen rains, but he had been vindicated. Perhaps next time they would heed the message even if they discarded the messenger.