Authors: Tamar Myers
For Tessa Woodward
Unlike in Indo-European languages, the plural forms of words in Bantu languages rely on changing prefixes. Thus the words for the name of a tribe, a single member of the tribe, and the tribe’s language, will all have different prefixes, although the suffixes will remain constant.
Baluba—name of Cripple’s tribe
Muluba—a member of the Baluba tribe, e.g., Cripple
Tshiluba—the language spoken by the Baluba tribe (Note: “Tshiluba” was the spelling in 1958; it is sometimes spelled “Chiluba” today.)
Bashilele—name of the headhunter’s tribe
Mushilele—a member of the Bashilele tribe
Bushilele—the language spoken by the Bashilele tribe
This is a work of fiction and, as such, none of the characters are real people. However, many of the incidents are based on childhood memories. I did, in fact, live amongst the Bashilele people for ten years (from age two to age twelve). Both the elephant scenes and the driver-ant scenes had to be tweaked, but very little, to make them adapt.
he gravel pits had been haunted for the past six years, ever since the first white woman drowned. During those intervening years the lives of eight other people were claimed by the pits—or else by the ghost of this white woman, one may pick her truth.
For those who believed the latter, it was important to know that the white woman’s hungry spirit preyed upon anyone, traveler or hunter—always a stranger—who dared to pass near the pits by themselves, or at the dark edges of the day. The victims were first drowned, and then their bodies were stashed between the roots of the great trees that grew on stilts. When the bodies were soft and ripe, and without eyes, they rose to the surface as the white woman’s body had done. At this point a victim’s soul, which had lingered near the pit, was transformed into a demon. Such was the truth of those who believed.
The pits had not always been evil; that was only a recent invention. When the white man came, he found clear streams that emptied into the muddy brown Kasai River and the black tannic waters of the Tshikapa River. The streambeds contained gravel that yielded an extraordinarily high percentage of diamonds, some of them even gem grade. Unlike the famous mines in South Africa where miners had to burrow into the earth, all one had to do here was scoop up the gravel and slough off the waste material.
That is exactly what happened here. The white man scooped great quantities of gravel out of the streams and trucked them just a few kilometers into Belle Vue, but he left behind huge pits, some deeper than a standing man. These pits filled with water, much to the delight of the Europeans, who would bathe in them together, men and women, while still remaining clothed—scantily clothed, to be sure. The nannies and chauffeurs looked away, embarrassed by the sight of a white woman’s knees, but at the same time curious, for it was said that the European was not white all over.
After the white woman drowned, the Europeans ceased to hold their picnics along the banks of the many ponds, and the jungle took over. Therefore it was highly unlikely that a much-respected nanny—a
—should visit the largest pit early one August morning in 1945. That’s what made it the perfect plan.
Last Born Child had no children of her own, yet surely she had a mother’s heart. For nearly two generations she had raised the children of Whites—both Europeans and Americans. As it would have been with her own flesh and blood, not all of them survived their first few years, and often as soon as they were weaned, their real mothers would whisk them off to Belgium. However, there were a few who had returned as adults and had greeted her warmly, and with the respect due a proper mother.
Last Born Child had always put the children first; that fact could not be debated. Now it was time to think of Last Born Child. She carried, wrapped within her headpiece, enough franc notes to buy her own manioc plot back in her home village. The infant in the carriage would be well cared for—of that she had the Mastermind’s assurance. Last Born Child trusted Mastermind with her life.
Still, as she pushed the baby carriage past the building where her employer worked, she could not help but feel some moments of extreme anxiety. Were he to spot her, he would run out and perhaps demand to know what she was doing so far from home. Then she would have to lie and say that she had brought the child for a visit.
must have been with her, for she was not spotted. Her heart pounding wildly, Last Born Child wheeled the carriage the two kilometers down the hard-packed dirt road in the direction of Luluaburg. When she reached the acacia tree with the L-shaped trunk, she took a right turn down a sandy lane that led just fifty meters farther, to the largest gravel pit. Here the going got tough, and Last Born Child would have been sorely tempted to abandon the carriage, had not her orders been so precise. When at last she got to the clearing, her forehead was glistening with sweat and her breathing was shallow. What’s more, there was the urgent need to relieve herself.
Last Born Child regarded her surroundings for the first time. The big gravel pit was really a pond. There were trees growing along the far bank now, as well as some in the water. The morning mist had yet to rise in its entirety, or was that, perhaps, the spirit of the hungry white woman? Last Born Child was well acquainted with the stories of ghosts and demons that were said to haunt this place, but she would have no truck with them, for she was a Christian. Still, it was one thing to only hear of a place, and quite another to see it with one’s eyes.
Now the urge to relieve herself was compelling.
“Think clearly,” Last Born Child said aloud. “It is the hasty move that results in trouble.”
The baby mewed as if in response.
“I am early,” Last Born Child said to the baby. “I will hear the approaching truck well in advance. All will go well for us.”
Satisfied that she’d solved her problem, Last Born Child backed into some nearby bushes and undid the colorful cloth that wrapped around her thickening waist. But in her haste she did not see the mamba that coiled on an overhanging branch. The deadly poisonous snake struck, attaching itself to Last Born Child’s neck just above her left clavicle. Last Born Child jerked, her body becoming momentarily rigid with pain. Within seconds her eyes began to glaze over, even before the serpent detached itself and fell to the jungle floor. The last thoughts that went through Last Born Child’s conscious mind were not of the infant in her care, nor were they of her precious Jesus; they were of the
—the ghost of the drowned Belgian.
For the ghost of the white woman had come out of the water and taken Last Born Child’s hand in hers. Together they walked down to the pond’s edge. Last Born Child was not afraid; she was merely curious. There were those who would say that she was even eager to see her new home.
When Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck stepped into the clearing to retrieve his arrow, he was but a boy, despite the hair that had recently begun to grow in the damp parts of his body like a tangle of black moss. This was as far as he could come on his mission—too far, actually; his father would not approve were he to find out. Not that he ever would. For who was there to tell on him?
This path along the pits, along the man-made ponds that were off the main road, but yet where there was fairly regular foot traffic, this was the perfect place for Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck to perform his task: that of taking a human life—a man’s life—so that he himself could become a man. Only then could he return to the tribe as worthy of taking his place on the council.
Of course there were rules one had to follow. In order to prove that he had taken a human life, Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck had to return with a part of that man’s body, ideally one that could henceforth be worn around his waist as a sign of his manhood. In this case, the boy decided on an ear. When dried it would resemble a fig, nothing more, and should the Belgians raid the village, he might escape a lashing from the infamous hippo-hide whip.
His people were not cannibals; they would not eat human flesh, no matter how loud their stomachs growled. Leave that to the Bapende people and some of those river tribes up north. However, the skull of the unfortunate individual would forever be the personal property of Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck. The skull would have to be cleaned, of course—stripped of all flesh, then boiled—after which as a newly elevated man he would drink his palm wine from it, using it as a mug, as his father had done, and his father before him.
These ponds—dug for the removal of diamonds—were said to be haunted by the spirit of a white woman. A Belgian. Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck was not worried about this ghost; around his neck now hung a monkey-skin bag containing a potion especially created to protect him on this quest.
These ponds were a good place for they drew game, and game drew hunters of other tribes. Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck was allowed to kill a man only from another tribe; for to kill a man from his own tribe was taboo. Murder.
But the boy was hungry, for he had come a great distance on his quest. In the clearing was a strange beast that, despite having been shot with his finest arrow, did not move. What manner of beast was this, for it appeared not to have a head, and although it had four legs, they were round, and thus totally useless?
Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck advanced slowly on the strange animal, his hunting knife drawn from its antelope-hide sheath. Suddenly the beast began to cry out in pain. The boy had been taught by his father never to let any creature suffer. Summoning all the courage available to him, the young hunter leaped in the air, before landing with a startled cry of his own in the sand at the beast’s feet.
There’s a child inside! The beast is eating a child.”
His words echoed with ominous clarity across the large pond, which was now clear of its fog. But his words returned to mock him, for a fog was lifting in his brain as well. Although he had never in his short life seen such a beast, he did recognize some of its individual parts. What a strange species of animal this was!
Was this part not metal? And here, surely this was metal as well. Ah, and the body of the beast, did it not comprise a substance very much like cloth, only stiffer—like palm-fiber cloth, but of the color known as dark. This, then, was not truly an animal, but a white man’s invention.
What, then, about the child? Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck had seen many albino infants, and they had appeared similar, but at the same time not so similar. The difference was hard to explain. Of course there was always the possibility that this was not even a child, but a trick devised by the white woman’s ghost—or it could be the ghost herself—the possibilities were endless. If it had not been for the fact that the boy’s best hand-smelted iron arrowhead seemed to be inextricably embedded in the bunched fabric, where a head might have been positioned, Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck would have simply turned on his heels and retraced his steps. As long as he did not mention the incident to anyone, it was the same as if it had never happened.
But then he heard the sound of the truck. It too was something new, although in this case, there was nothing with which his brain could compare the sound to—except perhaps to the rumble of an elephant cow, one whose calf had been threatened. Judging by the sound this enraged elephant was making, it was headed directly this way.
Perhaps it was because he was still just a boy—and not yet a man worthy of his skull—that Born-With-Cord-Around-His-Neck did what he did next without even thinking about it. Or perhaps it was because there had been many other children born after him to the same mother, all of them with their cords wrapped snuggly around their necks, and not one of them surviving. Even now their mother sat grieving, her breasts full of milk and aching. Whatever the reason, the boy—still not a man—scooped up the strangely hued infant and slipped back into the surrounding bushes.
He did not see the body of Last Born Child for she was hidden by other bushes some yards away. And anyway, had he seen her, he would not have stopped. Something inside the youth—perhaps something called destiny—compelled him to run all the way back to his village. It was a journey of many kilometers across savannahs and the occasional riverine forest. It was a journey to a world left behind by modern times.
It was supposed to have been the perfect crime because it followed a foolproof plan. Last Born Child—known to Driver as Baba—was supposed to have delivered the infant to the largest gravel pit at precisely eight o’clock in the morning. Driver knew that Baba already kept a cheap tin clock, manufactured in Japan, in the cubicle in which she lived at the rear of her master’s villa. However, just to make sure that she was on time, he purchased a second clock for her.
When Driver first spotted the perambulator parked prominently in the middle of the clearing, he whooped with relief—arguably even joy. But where the hell was that damn woman? And what the Flemish was an arrow doing sticking out of the pushed-back hood? What the hell was that supposed to mean? Because in Africa,
meant something. Driver left the truck idling, with the door open, as he approached the slain buggy cautiously.
The Africans were full of rhetoric these days. Angry stuff about retribution, getting back at the whites for all the misery that they’d caused the natives ever since they’d first set foot in sub-Saharan Africa centuries ago.
, it was true, but Driver was a native as well. He’d been born in Luluaburg, not more than one hundred kilometers away. The only difference was that—oh hell, there were a thousand differences, he’d grant you that. He was white, for starters. But that wasn’t his fault. And it certainly wasn’t Driver who’d caused the Africans all this misery, which they couldn’t let go of; Driver had been far too busy making his fellow whites miserable.
But that was water over the falls, was it not? What mattered now was—
Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!
” Driver’s screams rang out across the string of placid ponds, returning to him as distorted echoes courtesy of the forest along the opposing side. His anguished cries enraged a troop of baboons that had been resting in the limbs of a dead ebony tree a football field’s length away. The baboons barked like dogs and ran up and down the tree’s bare branches as they vied for a better look at their new enemy.
Driver realized that the only smart thing to do now was to get back on the main road and drive south as fast as possible to the neighboring colony of Angola. Once across the border, Driver could look into the possibility of taking a train to the port city of Luanda and ditching the truck.
, a train! The Portuguese were so much more civilized in the way that they ran their colony; then again, hundreds of thousands of them had actually made their permanent homes in Angola. To them it was not just a game of take, take, take.