Stab here with index before you tuck into foul feast.
Hour at which the blind see, when night unfurls her wing and goes out, silent as shaft of moonlight. Hour of the witches’ feeding; on primal pain, on corrupt love, on toothless cherub child.
Circle the table crone, with your face uncovered. Lay the boy upon the cold rock and draw a line with split tongue, from throat to belly. With your talons, pull out his entrails. Ignore his hollow screams, his squirming body.
The skeletal boy is crouched on flat red earth in the middle of a brotherhood of mango trees. In their shadow, he moves a stick across the damp ground, stabbing at something unseen. Across his back, there are welts redder than the ground his feet rest on.
Beneath the tree trunk nearest, there is a mound of mangoes; some milky green, some yellow with black sores, buzzing all over with the dizzy orchestra of housefly wings. He had woken before the sun emerged soft from inside the ground, and swept every inch of the compound clean of leaves. He had then piled all the mangoes that had fallen from the trees overnight into a heap for Mma. She would pound and use them to make a spiced gruel for dinner, along with some garri, honey and pepper.
He continues to push the stick across the red earth, drawing small uneven shapes as he unfurls the intestines of the large grey rat he had found, the one he was sure had burst from eating too much bad fruit. Its innards are like a clump of thick strings and bulbs at the tip of the short stick. Once in a while, a string of dark fluid shoots from the entrails he has hypnotized himself with, into his face, the rotted gut juice touching the tip of his lip or the insides of his nostrils.
He doesn’t stop stirring. The rat rolls along for the ride, the ribbed cave of its insides murmuring with every pull of the stick like a mouth speaking curses. He is in a state of deepest concentration.
Apart from the hut that he stays in with Mma, which hulks silent behind him, holding secrets in its smooth walls; there is nothing else around but busy weaverbirds flitting through fruit trees, grass that sometimes comes alive with startled duck, and wild corn. Five hundred running feet before him is the hanging curtain of the Forest. Dense mats of creeping foliage pour from the tops of the tall trees that ring the entrance, glowing and rippling in morning light as a pungent air pours out of it, air fit to turn the roughest wrestler into a slobbering animal on his knees.
Mma told him to never go within reach of the forest, but she had spoken too late. His fear of dreaming had driven him in more times than he could count; to listen to the gurgle and whistle of bottomless mudpits, and the cackling of the birdwomen who slept on their feet in the hollows of dead trees, to the chorus of a submerged hell and the wails of sacrificed babes that made his insides spin and his head fog with red, but he returned over and over, seeking out death, trying to get forever lost.
Mma had told him to never go within reach of the forest, after he had brought the devil home with him.
“When are you going to do it?”
“Today. When she returns from the market.”
“It has been today for two moons now. I am tired of waiting for you to grow testicles and do what needs to be done. I must return to the Fire Below soon.”
“Give me some rest. They took of me again last night, as they have for all the moons since I have been born. If testicles meant strength then I should have done it. My body can barely take care of itself, and you expect it to be strong enough to destroy another body.”
“You have the knife I gave you. It has mind. Lift it against her with purpose in your heart. Do you not want to be free?”
“I am tired.”
“You must do it. Or you will no longer be tired. You will be dead. You will be trapped in that pot boiling, and for as long as they are alive, they will use your soul as seasoning when they eat the flesh of coming babes.”
“I want to die. After you, I am no longer afraid to die. The first time I saw you, the shock took all my fear away. You should have left me to continue suffering, maybe by now I would have died. I want to spend my afterlife in a pot boiling in the realm of the coven till my mother dies. Maybe when she is done with her wickedness in the world, I will truly be free.”
“I came to you because when you breached one of the Gates with your feet, I smelt your suffering. It sustains me differently, much differently than that of the souls that wander the Fire Below. Their pain is like water, freely available, but yours, yours is like wine. The way you distill, finding beauty and dignity in such raw evil. It makes me want to never let you go.”
“You’ve started talking like that again. It is part of why I want to die. Why will I be attracting a forest spirit with skin like blood? So is it this same pain that you drink, the pain that overwhelms me and prevents me from ever leaving the grounds of this place when I want to run into the village?”
“Yes. And again you cannot leave, because an effigy of you is stuck into the ground with a needle inside her room. Take the knife from inside the hole where you hid it and face her, even if it is the last thing you do, even if you die.”
“What happens if I succeed? If the knife succeeds?”
“You will be free. You will be the greatest farmer for as far as the land feels herself to be yours. You will find a wife and many funny friends and you will stop dreaming of being eaten by witches and start dreaming of the Fire Below, where I will make you one of my many Conquerors.”
“I want an end to this that is why I will try. I want to leave this body! My bones are too tired. Some part of me wants her to win. I cannot feel joy anymore, so why should I continue living? To become a great farmer? If she kills me, will you still make me a Conqueror?”
“If that happens, your soul will belong to her to do as she pleases.”
“Death will break that bond. Will you still make me a Conqueror if I die?”
“First, lift the knife.”
Mma walks in from the market, a basket of produce balanced on her head. She sees him babbling to himself again. He is now always crouched under the trees, with his mournful eyes looking up at nothing. He has his hand wrist deep in the earth when she calls his name. Her big voice rises above the trees like a clarion. The boy puts the knife into his waistband, letting its black blade line up with his spine as he walks through the trees, around to the front of the hut. His mother is seated on a rock beside the door, chewing dried fish head.
“What have you been doing since I left?”
“I sweep the yard and collect all them mango, Mma.”
“What of water? Have you fetched water?”
She is beginning to rock back and forth on the rock, like she does when she is about to do the thing. If she doesn’t do it once during the day, then he is sure she has done it to someone else’s child. Her eyebags are heavy, black with sleepless blood and the face they hang from is wrinkled. Its left half is heavily scarred. Strands of raw pink flesh have squirmed to the surface from under deep brown skin by trauma of either fire or claw. He doesn’t know how it happened.
She barely speaks to him like she bore him. “Why did you not fetch the water? It is your piss that I will use to cook the food that you will now open that your mouth to come and eat abi?” Always she fires words at him. “Fruitless child. Even the dung hill rejected you when I threw you in there after you were born.” She does not love him, and does not hide it. Hate lives in the corners of her mouth and turns every click and echo she speaks at him into bullets. “You are the one tying me down here. I have places in the world calling to me, but I want to see what you will do with this your half-life. That is why I am waiting. I want you to prove to me that you are not a thief like your shadow of a father.”
He cannot talk properly, he never learned to communicate with anyone except her and she never spoke to him like she expected him to speak back but when he speaks to the devil, their voices touch in a place in his head, a place beyond mouths.
As she shouts at him, spewing thoughts that only serve to feed her rage, her feet are moving towards him. He doesn’t see the skinless coconut until it is an inch from his right eye. There is a hollow thunk! burning through the meat of his head as it hits him, then he is falling.
The pain makes his eyes roll back; a pulsing thing with teeth deep in his cranium. The boy feels the knife slip out of his waistband as he writhes and groans on the floor, limbs too limp to touch the sore spot. This pain tugs at his brain, pulling at it with jagged white heat and making him cry out loud in soft groans till his belly aches.
She stands and watches him. Not making any motions with her face. Just watching him with beady eyes that twinkle through that mask. It is the way a man will watch broken game die.
The boy stops groaning and twisting, blood has clotted around his temple and cheek in a shiny red flap. Mma bends down to see if there is a pulse at his neck. There is one, fighting against his throat as he sinks deeper into unconsciousness. She spits chewed fish on the ground beside his head and stands up. He will wake up and come to her for care when the night comes biting.
When she turns her back, the boy rises, black knife held over his head. He drives its length into her back. There is a wet crack inside her body as it breaches bone. He tries to pull it back with his fist but it is lodged too tight. He staggers backwards as she staggers forward. She tries to reach for the handle but her arms can’t touch it, she hits her toe on a rock and falls, first on her elbows, then on her chest, splaying against the earth graceless as spittle. The only sound she makes is an inward whistle of air, like one who has eaten food that is too hot.
The boy watches her go quiet, waiting for freedom to bubble in him, and set him dancing about her body, but it does not come. The devil appears on top of the hut, yellow reptile eyes smiling. His tail ebbs sinuously behind him. “You did it.” He says, this time moving his mouth to reveal rows of stained needle teeth. “Now set fire to the hut.”
The boy shuts his eyes to ease the ache running through his brain. He opens them. The devil is gone. His mother is dead before him, a pool of blood, dark as hate is spreading. He is going to burn the hut.
He takes a step forward and she moves with a little jerk that sends him running backwards. He watches as the wound in her back swallows the knife. After swallowing the knife, her body disappears, leaving behind a heap of the clothes she had tied around her body. The boy turns around in the dark. Night has fallen. His instincts get the better of him and he calls to her with the voice of a lamb surrounded by wolves. Once. Twice.
“You thought a simple demon knife would kill me?” Her voice is on the wind, taunting. “You actually believed in a thing so low. Do you really believe he followed you because of your sweet suffering.” She laughs drily. “You are like a pawn. They’ll use you to pick their teeth and throw you away after.”
He falls to the floor, chest to the dust. His head still aches, and he can see nothing but fireflies. “Mma, please!”
She appears before him in a body of dripping black mud three times bigger than her old one. It is caked with slithering serpents and writhes with sheets of angry, buzzing insects and many red eyes that cluster and glow like coal. Her head is gone. This is how the boy knows that he will die.
Stab here with index, try harder to resist the Devil inside you.