Time for another first on my website. Having just read Robert Aickman’s fabulous collection, The Wine-Dark Sea, I went through my old files in search of some of my own ‘strange stories’ (as he called his dark, often haunting short stories). This story is based on a true incident that happened to one of my friend’s colleagues, who was working for an NGO in Zambia.
1. Five Months Ago
Mimi loved the Munyati’s plump black dog Baba with its stumpy uneven legs, which made it waddle when it walked.
She and Zabaida did funny impressions of it, swinging out their hips and bending over and folding their arms over their heads like ears. Mimi thought Zabaida was the best, she could tip her head down and make a deep little woof just like Baba, but Zabaida thought Mimi was better, she did the lazy roll of the eyes just right.
So when Mimi spotted Baba snuffling through the gutter across the street she shouted the dog’s name and ran out towards him.
And got hit by a car, one of those big four-wheel drives made by a Japanese company.
The four-wheel drive is deemed the car of necessity for those businessmen, safari operators, and aid workers who must traverse the poor infrastructure of Zambia. The roads are too rough, too gouged by potholes and scoured by the rains for the low chassis of normal cars. It is too easy to become grounded, too easy for weedy tyres to blow out on sharp stones. A four-wheel drive, with good air-conditioning and tinted windows to stop the sun’s glare is best. With a cattle bar to protect your radiator from collisions with livestock in the countryside, and fenders in Lusaka.
The cattle bar struck Mimi at a speed somewhere around twenty miles per hour. There was a loud crack and the child bounced loosely back on to the side of the road.
The driver of the car, an aid worker named Joseph, screamed and slammed on his brake. The tyres bit deep into grit, sending out billows of brown-red dust. Joseph looked into his rear-view mirror, instinctively turning down the tape of UB40 that filled the cabin with a bass-heavy thump. Through the swirling dust he could see the child lying still on her back.
‘Oh Lord, no, please…’ he whispered.
He looked across at the glove compartment, but it took a few seconds before his confused eyes focused on the white cross in a green circle.
Joseph reached over, unfastened the latch, and pulled out the First Aid kit. He drew the kit across, grabbed the door handle, and turned to open the door –
And stopped, confronted by a large face barely an inch away from his own.
Oddly, the first thing he noticed was a series of beige blemishes and pocks on the man’s cheeks. Then he saw the eyes, which appeared to be making small circular movements, like a high-powered drill. For a moment Joseph was fascinated, almost hypnotised, like a snake before a mongoose. The man’s eyes were amazing, the most amazing colour – almost yellow, sand-yellow, with a band of green around the edge of the iris.
Then Joseph’s foot crushed the accelerator down on the floor. With a crunch and squeal, the car surged forward.
The man at the window shouted in surprise, but didn’t let go of the door handle. Instead he began to run alongside the car, trying to yank the door open. But the motion of the car meant that, wild with anger as he was, the man could not pull it outwards.
Joseph checked the rear-mirror and found his fears confirmed by the sight of at least a dozen men and women running out from their huts to pursue the vehicle. He shouted, some garbled sound, and shouted again when he looked back at the road and saw an elderly villager in front of him, spreading his arms as if to catch the car like a cow.
Joseph braked and swerved, narrowly missing the man, then threw all of his strength into wrestling the door shut because his clinger-on had used the moment of deceleration to widen the opening.
‘Get off!’ he shrieked, once again flooring the accelerator.
This time the crazy man could not hold on and, in the mirror, Joseph watched as in the midst of the dust cloud he nearly fell over himself trying to slow down. And then Joseph was out of the village, speeding along the open road.
In Zambia, due to the not-so-infrequent incidents of drivers being pulled from their vehicles after such occurrences and pummelled to death, it is perfectly within the law to drive on and report the accident at the next settlement. So when Joseph presented himself at the local police station, the superintendent calmly proceeded to take his details. Then, after allowing Joseph a call to his employer, the policeman locked him in a cell for the night.
He thought he’d been awake all night, rotating the furious faces of the villagers round and round in his mind, but the sudden start Joseph felt upon hearing shouts outside made him realise he must have slipped off for a short while after dawn.
The hatch in the door allowed the only light into the dim cell. Hearing shouts again, Joseph rushed to the door and looked out through the small opening.
Outside a policeman whom he had not seen before was in front of the door, bending over and calling for help.
‘What is it?’ Joseph whispered.
The man looked up at Joseph’s face, which was pressed against the single bar that divided the hatch. The policeman’s face was ashen.
‘Look,’ he said, and stepped out of the way so that Joseph could see what he had been leaning over.
For the second time, Joseph saw Mimi.
Below her small face, so gentle she could be asleep, her body was twisted sideways into an impossible position. Her legs and arms flayed out at differing angles, making her look inhuman, like some huge flattened spider.
Joseph’s vomit came mostly through the window, spattering the man’s shoulder. ‘Sorry,’ he said, as he stumbled back into the cell, wiping his mouth.
The superintendent arrived, and the two men carried the child’s corpse into one of the other cells.
‘Who did this?’ Joseph heard the superintendent ask.
‘The villagers must have brought her over in the night,’ said the other man.
‘They’re going to make him pay for this.’
Joseph’s employer Sarah arrived later that morning with a lawyer.
At a meeting in the police offices, the superintendent explained that Joseph was free to go but, as was usual in these cases, he would have to pay compensation to the family of the dead child. He would be summoned to a local tribunal to establish how much within the next few weeks.
As they were leaving, the man who had discovered the child came up to Joseph.
‘I found this on her body,’ he said, pressing something into his hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
Joseph looked at his hand and felt his stomach spasm with fear. It was a snake’s skull.
2. Five Weeks Ago
Sarah sat at her desk staring blankly at the computer screen.
It was past sundown and the heat in the office was unbearable. She stood up and went over to the window, but the air coming off the street was thick with diesel and she felt her chest constricting, not expanding. She decided she couldn’t work much longer, she would have to get up early to finish her report.
As she was turning away from the window, she noticed a man coming down the street in a strange fashion, shuffling and hunched up as if he were carrying more than just his head on his shoulders. He was scurrying left and right, keeping as much space between himself and passers-by as he could. At one stage he stumbled into the path of a motorbike, which swerved swiftly to avoid him. After getting back on to the pavement, the man looked up at the office, and she realised who it was.
She rushed downstairs and out of the doorway to catch him.
He was hurrying away through the crowd, stiff across the shoulders, not looking back.
He stopped, and turned around slowly as she walked up to him.
‘Are you OK?’
‘Yes. OK. Yes, I’m sort of…’
‘Joseph – what is it?’
He frowned. ‘I’m not so good, Sarah. Actually, I have a bad head. My back is stiff, I can’t sleep properly. I keep waking up, there’s something wrong with me, I know, I can’t sleep…’
‘Have you been to the doctor?’
‘A doctor is no good.’ There was something about his eyes, an unhealthy effervescence. He looked somehow haunted – or hunted. ‘How can you sleep when sleep is a breeding ground for monsters that rise up and terrorise you next day?’
‘How long have you been like this?’
‘A while now.’
‘Has this got anything to do with the accident?’
For a moment she thought he was going to cry.
‘I need your help, Sarah.’
‘What can I do?’
‘Come back with me. To my flat. Please. I have to show you something…’
He lived in a small block of flats near the centre of town. When they got in he seemed to relax a little.
‘Thank you for coming. Would you like a drink?’
‘Yes, please. Some water.’
He brought a bottle from the fridge, poured her a glass, then walked over to a set of drawers.
‘Will you look at these, please?’ He pulled the bottom drawer out slowly.
Inside were a variety of unusual things, feathers, bones, and small dolls, which he proceeded to take out and show her one by one. Some of the items seemed to be daubed with blood. Sarah knew at once what it was. Witchcraft.
‘Where have they come from?’ she asked.
His face creased again. ‘She’s been sending them for three months now. I send her money every fortnight, every penny we agreed, but still she sends them. She doesn’t care for the money, she only wants to kill me, it’s a life for a life, that’s how these people think, they want to kill me, they won’t be happy until they’re standing on my grave, you must help me, Sarah, please…’
He looked down.
‘Lend me the money for a more powerful witch.’
The woman sits on her stool, gazing out across her yard.
Her face is split by lines of age and worry, and her eyes have a rheumy shine. Occasionally, she raises her hand to her cheek, pushing it inwards so she can bite on soft flesh.
She is watching the chickens peck about for seeds and scraps, but she is thinking about something else, biting her cheek, stroking her brow. Her eyes shift about on the surf of some restless inner reasoning.
Suddenly, her name is called. She looks round, sees a cousin approaching. He has been to collect post from the town, and she is expecting her next payment. He leans inside the door and, instead of the usual envelope, hands her a parcel, then walks on.
The woman studies the brown box, which has her name and address – some of the few words she is able to recognise – written on it in neat blue ink. Her fingers, already swollen with arthritis although she is not as old as she appears, slide the string over each of the corners and lift up the lid.
Inside she finds cotton wool padding, which she pulls out slowly, one thick wedge at a time. And then she freezes.
From its white nest, a small cotton doll of a child with tiny agate eyes stares up at her. The cotton is unbleached, a dull grey colour, but there are red stains on its head and torso.
For a moment, incomprehension shows on the woman’s face. Then, realising that the monster of her grief now has no way to turn but inwards, she screams and gouges at her forearms with her nails. The weak skin tears and blood blooms from nothing.
Outside in the street, the villagers hear the cry. They turn towards her house and stare.