The animal whimpered as it limped away from them in vain. Its legs were broken and they were closing in for the kill. Its big brown eyes pleaded for mercy from the hungry lot, but they did nothing to stop the axe from parting its head from its body. They then skinned it, chopped it up well, and balanced its entrails over the fire with the others they had caught.
Down the great steps that circled the altar at the center of the village, all gathered to commemorate the last meal before they would succumb to their hunger pangs. Their shovels were covered in rust, the plows gathered moss in the barns while their oxen had long been relieved of their flesh, leaving only bones strewn across the hard, dry ground.
They feasted on their hunting help, feeding the weeping children who had no choice but to partake of their beloved pets. No one dared chastise them, none had the guile to scold the young ones, for they truly understood their pain.
“My dear, please eat,” one mother urged her daughter with a plate of steaming meat, but all she got in response was her girl’s bloodshot, tear-stained eyes looking up at her from the ground where she sat. She nodded and placed the plate by her crossed legs, turning around to walk away before her daughter chomped on the meat hungrily.
As the sun descended in the distant seas, the children were sent to bed, leaving the adults gathered around the altar, soaking in the heat of the flames that welcomed yet another night.
“What will we do now?” one of them asked, the others not knowing how to answer the burning question.
“We could go back to our neighbors. Surely, they must have some stored up somewhere,” one suggested.
“And how do you suppose we’ll repay? We’re already in debt to them, any more favors and we’d have to sell ourselves as slaves.”
“At least we’d have food to eat,” the first man solemnly stated, the others, nodding in agreement as the thought had crossed their minds more than once.
“What about prayer?” a voice croaked from among them. The others burst into laughter at that suggestion.
“What will that do for us now?” one chuckled.
“If he were really watching over us, then he wouldn’t have let us get to this point,” another bemoaned as the others clapped their hands bitterly.
“Have you bothered to even ask?” the voice continued as they all turned to the old man amongst them. His bones creaked in his bejeweled cloak as he stood, supporting himself with the golden staff firmly held in his right hand.
“I understand your attitude towards the worship, and I won’t try to impose it on you. But do you remember the stories we were told as children, of how the land was teeming with all kinds of food for our ancestors? Wouldn’t you wish the same for you and your families?”
“These aren’t the ancient times,” one man across him scoffed, “this is reality. How do you suppose that will help us now?”
“What other option do you have right now?” he asked them. They turned to each other, desperate for someone to come up with a solution, to no avail.
“Will it really work?” one lady asked him.
“We can only try,” he said. The others exchanged glances for a while, some whispering in hushed tones. Then another elderly man stood up.
“Very well,” he groaned.
“Good. Shall we hold hands then?” the old man asked them. They stood, holding each other’s hands as he walked to the altar, hands raised to the heavens as he cried out:
Hear me from this humble village,
See me with these people,
Find us from the stars you wander,
Come to us with haste and splendor,
As you have taken care of others before,
Do so for us now, and forevermore.
“Okay, you can let go. Tomorrow morning, perhaps it will be a better day,” the old man spoke, his optimism warming the hearts of the villagers who then dispersed to their homes, leaving the old man at the altar.
“That’s a new one,” one man, Juma, said to his friend Malik.
“Agreed. I may not be as prayerful, but I certainly know how to do it.”
“Oh, you do? Why haven’t you ever led us in any session to the gods?”
“I doubt I’m qualified. Even still, I find his words a bit suspicious. Come to think of it, have you ever seen him here before?”
“Yes, he’s with us in the evenings but he rarely ever talks.”
“No, I mean, where does he live?”
“Over there.” Juma pointed up the steps to the first house on his right, a run down, wooden shack.
“Ah, I see,” Malik continued, “the world is not his home.”
“You sound quite suspicious, don’t you?”
“I have to be. It’s who I am.” They laughed a bit as they ascended the steps, watching others close up their shops and head up another flight to their houses, which circled a great courtyard, and in the center of it a magnificent oak tree that had been there for eons.
“Don’t you find it strange that he doesn’t live here with the rest of us?” Malik asked him, looking back at their local priest.
“He has nowhere else to stay. And like you said, shouldn’t he be free of these…temptations?” Juma said, pointing to a buxom woman strutting past them.
“I…I don’t know, Juma,” Malik sighed as Juma ran to the lady, offering to help her carry her things to her house, while he kept looking at the priest…
As the village dreamt, one little girl, Rehema, was woken up by what sounded like thunder. Sensing the rain, she ran to check her parents’ windows, which were sealed shut. She then walked back to her bed to ensure her window was shut, right before the thunder cracked louder, followed almost immediately by a bright yellow light that pierced through the blinders.
She let one slat down to see the source of this light; the village was bathed in its warm, yellow glow, and the nocturnal animals were fleeing the incoming day. Slowly, she got off her bed, tiptoed to the central room, and carefully pulled back the door, her head poking outside to the entrance of the courtyard.
The light fell from the sky like a waterfall to the altar, striking her eyes with its brilliance, like a hammer to hot iron, forcing her back inside. She covered them with her hand and peeked outside again, trying not to look at it directly, but closer to her eye level. Then, she opted to sneak out, tiptoeing to the entrance to get a better look.
When her eyes were well adjusted, she realized that it seemed to terminate abruptly. It highlighted some strange glowing symbols that ran across the sky, reducing in intensity when they got farther from the center to the edges, where she saw them curve upwards; the pale moonlight showed the curve of the magnanimous object that hung above the houses. She then looked down to see the man who lived closer to the entrance hobble down the steps to the altar towards it, rather excitedly.
Her heart wanted to call out to the man, but her brain told her to wait a bit; for, in a rather amazing moment, she watched the man float off the ground, hands outspread. Higher and higher he went until he was suspended in the air, basking in the light’s glory. He started rotating in that position for a few seconds, then stopped abruptly, at which point his chest started opening. The pain must have been too much for him, as something came up from behind him and covered his mouth…
She darted back to their house and ducked under her bed, her heart thumping so loud she had to grip her chest to keep it in place.
“Mama…mama…” she choked, hoping her parents would wake and see the light as well, but they slept on, unaware of the horror their daughter had just witnessed.
Mustering courage, she crawled from underneath and to her parents’ chamber.
“Papa…please wake up. Please,” she whimpered, shaking her father furiously. She forgot how much of a heavy sleeper he was. When that failed, she tried her mother, but just as she was to cross over, a shadow walked past the window, slowing down at her parent’s chamber and then walking over to hers. At this point, she snuck onto her parents’ bed, snuggled right in the middle and lifted her head to see the figure still at her side, opening the blinds, and closing them, after which it went back to the light, which then vanished abruptly. She went back down, covering her mouth and shutting her eyes, hoping that this was all a bad dream.
Before the break of dawn, the boy scampered from door to door, banging so loudly that some were ready to skin him alive when they emerged from their homes.
“Come quickly! Come and see!” he sang repeatedly, jumping about as he ran around the courtyard. The people, all looking grumpy, dragged their feet down to the altar, the boy leading the charge. There, the priest who led their prayers the previous night stood, smiling from ear to ear.
“Brothers and sisters, our prayers have been answered!” he said, pointing to the steaming hot platter sat on the altar, its aromatic smell lulling the hungry villagers who almost tore it into pieces before the priest controlled them.
“Everyone in a line! There’s enough to go around,” he instructed as the old men and women were served first, followed by the men and lastly the children. Oddly enough, the meat didn’t seem to run out as many more went for seconds. All but Rehema, who stood atop the steps leading to the altar, her eyes glued to it. The memory was still fresh in her mind, and she couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the priest last night, or if it happened at all.
“Maybe it was just a bad dream,” she mused, trying to convince herself that all was well. It almost worked, were it not for the sight of a man leaving the ramshackle dwelling, almost like he had been examining it. He walked over to the unnoticing crowd, where his eyes met Rehema’s.
“Hi, Rehema,” he greeted while approaching her, as she curtsied in respect.
“Hello, Bwana Malik,” she mumbled, still staring at him as he squatted to her eye level.
“How…how is everyone at home? Are they doing well?”
“Yes, they are fine – we are fine.”
“Sir, if I may ask?”
“Go on, my dear.”
“Why were you at the priest’s house?”
The question shocked him. Their eyes were fixed on each other’s, confirming their initial suspicions.
“I was looking for him. I wanted to check if he was okay.”
“Why wouldn’t he be okay, sir?” she boldly asked, almost certain he knew something.
“Yes, well. I wasn’t sure he had slept well,” he retorted, playing to the girl’s tune. He saw her face go dull as her eyes widened with fear.
“You saw it, didn’t you?” she whispered. He looked around to see if anyone had heard them, then spoke softly to her.
“Yes, everything! I was awake.”
“So was I!”
“The priest. He was …”
“He was opened up!”
“Yes, I saw what happened. It did that to him.”
“What? What do you mean…it?”
“Well – Baba Rehema! How are you today?”
She turned to see her father walking up, hand in hand with her mother, who held some food on a plate.
“Very well, Malik. I see you’re keeping Rehema company,” he responded, shaking his hand firmly.
“Yes, she was telling me her wonderful stories.”
“You like them?” her mother asked, genuinely surprised.
“Oh, yes! She might be invited to court one day to entertain the king with such. I was also telling her one of my own, right before you came along.”
“Oh really?” her mother asked again, “Please, entertain us too.”
“Well, one particular night in a certain village, there was a strange occurrence. There was thunder and lightning, but no drop of rain. Then came a bright light that came out of nowhere, and a certain man was carried up in it.”
“Carried up? Sounds like sorcery to me,” the father chimed in, as they chuckled.
“It seemed so as well to two people, a young girl, much like Rehema here, and another man, who had his sleep cut short by this strange phenomenon. This man got out to behold this amazing sight, wondering if the other was a son of the gods, but he saw something.”
“What did he see?” Rehema queried, wide-eyed.
“A strange creature had caused this man to float, then tore him open from his chest.”
“What?” the mother started, “that’s disgusting. Is this what you planned on telling my daughter?”
“Fret not, it wasn’t to kill him.”
“It wasn’t?” Rehema asked, her interest fully piqued as the man knelt beside her and locked eyes with her as he said:
“It placed his hand in his chest then removed it, and put him back together as it floated back up to the light. The man then went back down and into his home, as the other man sneaked back into his own, even checking on this girl to ensure she was safe.”
“I see,” the father spoke, a concerned look on his face, “do you normally sit down and come up with these things, Malik, or are you naturally crazy?”
“He’s not crazy!” Rehema snapped, her parents startled a bit as they both laughed.
“Ai, don’t beat me, Rehema,” her mother quipped as she shared a laugh with her
husband , her daughter sulking away.
“Anyway, here’s some food for you. Eat while it’s still hot,” she said, handing her the plate. Rehema looked at it for a while before devouring it hungrily, as Malik waved bye to go look for his friend, Juma, who was down at the front, laughing with his fishing friends.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” he started.
“What?” Juma asked.
“Let’s take a walk. Hopefully it will come back and you’ll see for yourself,” he said, leading his friend away from the crowd right before the priest called out to them.
“Friends, have you not seen your prayers answered right before your eyes?”
“Yes!” the crowd cheered.
“Now do you believe? The Creator was always watching; he only wants you to come to him and ask, and as you can see, he does not disappoint.” The crowd cheered again as he quieted them down for his remarks.
“Now, this was only one day. Would you like your bellies to be forever satisfied, to never know hunger till the end of your lives?”
“YES!” they resounded. They arraigned themselves on the steps.
“Very well. Close your eyes and I will call out to them,” he ordered. They all stood and their eyes sealed shut as the priest led them:
Hear me from this humble village,
See me with these people,
Find us from the stars you wander,
Come to us with haste and splendor,
As you have taken care of these today,
Come once more, and let it be finished.
Malik had stood near Rehema and her parents, and his eyes were darting across the bowed heads in the crowd. They met with hers, telling her that what happened yesterday might happen again today. He then looked down at the priest, whose hands were outstretched. Though his fingers seemed to be pointed outwards; one hand to where Rehema stood, and the other to him, but this wasn’t as unsettling as the priest’s ghoulish eyes piercing right into his own, a cold smile cracking on his face as he said:
“Wait, he was floating in the air?” Juma asked
“And there was a creature that opened him up, then put him back together?”
“It was unreal, Juma.”
“Ah, I see.”
“You do? Please, tell me you do,” Malik went, his eyes expectant with hope.
“I do – the heat finally got to you…”
“Oh my god,” Malik groaned.
“…and you’re seeing things. I don’t blame you. But that’s all over now. We prayed yesterday; food came today. We pray some more, hopefully, more will come tomorrow.”
“But from where? Have you asked yourself where it came from?”
“It was from the Creator himself! How dare you!”
“Think about it: it came out of nowhere and it just happened to be…”
“Malik, come on,” Juma interrupted, his hand on his hysterical friend’s shoulder, “this is a good thing. You and I have scoured these lands, gone deep into the waters, and have found nothing. Now that it comes, and literally from up above, you dismiss it so easily? Can’t you just be grateful to have something in your belly?” Malik realized that he might not be able to easily convince his friend of what he saw, so he told him:
“Tonight, leave the door unlocked. I’ll find you and you’ll see for yourself.”
“The flying man?” Juma joked.
“Just be ready,” Malik stated with finality and headed back home to start his day, leaving a confused Juma standing in the street, wondering what was wrong with his friend.
“If he marries, maybe he’ll be normal. All that energy without an outlet can’t be good for him,” he said to himself as he walked past the empty courtyard and into his house to gather his tools for his shop. Instead, he saw something lurking about his house, and when he got a good look at the being, he screamed…
The children learned underneath the great oak tree, where the elders sat, as their parents attended to their duties for the better part of the day, not needing lunch due to the copious amount of meat they had that morning. It was unlike anything they had ever tasted before, and they were dying to have some for dinner.
As the evening sun sunk, they wrapped up their activities while the children scampered about, all eager to have a piece of that delicious meat. They found the priest at the altar, raising his hands to the sky.
“Friends, I know some of you may not believe that miracles exist. Some of you may even doubt my credibility, but I stand before you today to show you that your faith in the Creator is not in vain. Behold!”
As soon as he said this, lightning struck the altar with vengeance, leaving behind a whole other platter of meat, well cut and prepared just for them. On seeing this, the villagers cheered as they lined up again to be served, leaving Malik behind them, looking for Rehema. He saw her hiding behind another smaller tree, the sight being too much for her.
“It’s not like last night,” she said, hugging the tree tightly.
“I didn’t expect that at all. Look, find your parents, and stick with them. I’ll do some investigation tonight. And please do not leave your house. We don’t know what, or who we’re dealing with.”
With all that, she nodded and joined the rest of the village as Malik snuck away to the houses, looking for Juma, who he missed during the priest’s address. He went to his house but didn’t find him there, although he saw one of the windows broken and stained with blood.
“Juma?” Malik asked, stepping out and back to get a better look at the whole house. On the right, in the alley between it and the next house, he saw something moving. Then he heard a noise, like a hammer on a nail.
“Juma? Are you there?” he asked again, his heart beating rapidly and his legs shaking. He slowly walked over, hoping to see his friend. Indeed, he did, but he was kneeling, mouth wide open and eyes bulging out like he had seen something.
“Did you see that?” Malik interrogated his visibly shaken friend, “I told you there was something off about him. How does food come in a lightning strike? And what happened to your window? Did you cut yourself? Juma, are you even listening?”
He shook his friend, but his hands were covered in a thick paste, one that he saw covered Juma, his skin glistening. He waved in front of his face to wake him up from the stupor, but he seemed too lost in his own world. His eyes were still protruding, and upon coming closer, he saw the iris as a different color, a dark grey, almost like the priest earlier today, turning to look right at him.
“Oh no,” Malik gasped, backing away from his friend in horror. He turned to run, but a shiny hand covered his mouth and dragged him back, his body being thrown to the ground. Juma straddled him, his grip strong around Malik’s mouth. His soulless eyes examined his friend for some time before he looked up ahead of him. He then forced him up, held him in a vice grip and made him look at the being right in front of him, also examining him, then raising its hand. It turned into a sharp blade right before his eyes, and as his screams were muffled, the blade was driven right through him…
“Rehema, what are you talking about?” her father asked the distraught girl.
“There was a bright light, and then the priest floated, and he was opened up, and the thing covered his mouth…”
“The thing? You mean like the story uncle Malik told you today?”
“It was not a story! It actually happened! I’m not lying, it’s true!” Rehema shrieked, much to the shock of her parents. They exchanged glances, then the mother nodded to her father, who sat on the bed with her, speaking gently.
“Okay, we believe you.”
“You do?” she asked, her face lighting up.
“Yes, we do,” her mother added, kneeling by her daughter and caressing her face.
“So, Malik says it might happen again tonight, so we shouldn’t leave the house. Maybe there are many of them.”
“And you say this started with the priest?”
“Okay, Rehema. Why don’t you sleep and your father and I will see what to do, okay?” her mother cooed, comforting her daughter as she lay in her bed.
“You promise?” Rehema asked, holding her hand.
“We promise, sweetheart,” the father reassured as they snuffed the flame of the lamp and walked outside with his wife.
“This thing is bothering her a lot,” she started.
“Clearly. We need it to stop. I love her stories, I really do, but if I have to hear about floating men one more time, I don’t know what I’ll…”
“Ah, she told you as well?” Malik interrupted as he walked past them.
“Malik? Where are you going at this time?” his wife asked him.
“And what happened to you?” she asked him, pointing to his bloody cloth.
“A minor accident, I’m better now. See?” he said, opening it to reveal smooth skin.
“There’s no scar,” the father said, eyeing him suspiciously.
“Yes, well, I’m better now. I’m doing a bit of reconnaissance for tonight. Juma and I plan to investigate the strange event of last night. You’re welcome to join us; we could use a lot of manpower in case things go sideways.”
“Um, let me think about that. I have to talk to my wife for a bit,” the father said, backing away from him.
“Alright, we’ll be up as the moon looks between the trees. I’ll knock on your door, and we’ll sort this thing out.”
“No problem,” he said as Malik waved and headed down the street to the altar, leaving the man and his wife at their doorstep.
“There’s no way you’re going anywhere…” the wife began before her mouth was covered.
“He didn’t have a scar on him, but that blood looked fresh.” She pushed his hand away.
“I noticed that too. You think he killed someone?”
“No, it’s too far a leap.”
“No, tell me. Or what?”
“If, and I’m stretching it here. If what Rehema is saying is true, then maybe he – I mean, he could have gone after the priest.” Those words hung in the night air as the two pondered on the possibility.
“I…I don’t want you involved in this,” the wife said with her palms on his face.
“I’m not planning on it. Let’s wait up today and see for ourselves.”
“Yes, in the safety of our home.”
“Of course. I don’t know what is happening, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to find out a bit too late. But I’ll take my spear, just in case.” He watched the lights go off one after the other in every house, save for theirs.
“You know…” his wife began.
“I know what we can do to pass the time,” she purred, gazing into his eyes and tugging at her top. His face lit up.
“Oh, do you now?” he said, pinching her backside.
“Come in and I’ll show you,” she said as she pulled him back inside.
The moon looking between the trees was approximately the middle of the night when the moon was directly between the two trees that sat a few meters away from the altar, where the entrance of the village was. Sure enough, a shadow passed their home, followed a rap on the wooden door. It stood there for a while, as the father pointed his spear at it, ready for anything. The shadow stood there for a few more minutes before walking past, leaving the father sighing in relief as he put the spear down.
“I think he’s gone,” he whispered to his wife, who sat on their bed, covered only with sheets.
“Should I follow him? I think I should follow him. What do you think?” he went on as he joined her. Her back was against the wall, and she held on to the sheets on her body with one hand. The moonlight came through the blinds, showing a mortified expression on her face as she pointed behind him.
He stood at the edge of the bed, his feet planted in the ground, heart palpitating and sweat trickling down his face. He realized he hadn’t locked the door at all, and it creaked open to reveal it, lurching on all fours, towering over them. Then, thunder boomed in the sky and a bright light bathed the village, revealing the disfigured creature that bared its fangs and lunged at them as the wife screamed in horror…
The noise startled Rehema. The light was there amidst the thunder in the sky, and she saw her parents’ bed unoccupied and the door wide open. She slowly got out of bed and walked briefly around the house, past her father’s spear and to their room, where she saw blood splattered on the walls.
“Mama…Papa, where are you?” she asked, gasping for breath as she backed away from the wall and to the door. She wanted to walk out, but she remembered Malik telling her to stay put, but her parents’ absence worried her.
“No, please!” she heard someone cry out, the voice sounding too much like her mother’s. She decided to just peek out as she did yesterday, a decision she would later regret. For in the center of the courtyard, right before her eyes, her mother’s neck was in between its teeth, her body spasming as blood gushed onto her naked body, and finally going limp as her soul departed, slumping onto the ground next to her father.
Her frightened heart couldn’t take it anymore, so she let out an ear-piercing scream, which was cut short when her mouth was covered by a slimy hand. She turned to see Juma and the priest standing there, and Malik smiling down at her with dead, grey eyes, as they all looked at her. In one singular fashion, they shook their heads at her and put a finger to their mouths, then they faced the beings before them, who now looked at Rehema.
Their hands turned into blades that slid across the skin, peeling it off like an orange, from top to bottom, some of which Rehema couldn’t bear to watch as she covered her eyes. Then, two of the beings stood upright. She watched their bones breaking, bursting through its leather-like skin, and changing color as its face also contorted, after which they seemed to put on the flayed skin and transform into her mother and father, who then ran towards her.
“Oh, my dear, are you okay?” she asked her, her eyes as grey as the others.
“Not to worry, Rehema. We’ll take good care of you,” the father said as he smiled eerily.
“Please don’t kill me,” she mumbled.
“I would never kill my daughter. How can you say that?” the father scolded a very terrified Rehema.
“You look hungry. Would you like a plate from the gods?” Malik asked her. They turned to take a plate from one of the beings, piping hot as usual. Her mouth was forced open as her ‘mother’ forced a piece down her throat.
“We promised you that you would never go hungry for the rest of your lives,” the priest started, walking ahead to the other being, whose bulbous eyes were fixed on Rehema. She was pulled towards it by her mother, who then held her firmly as the being’s teeth shone.
“Now, you never will” her final words were spoken to her as her mouth was covered, head pushed to one side and neck exposed, the last thing Rehema seeing was the being lunging at her…
This story first appeard in The Words of a Dying Flame.
Edited by Marie Ginga.