Mama Cynthia was huge. She was like a gigantic black idol, almost as big around as she was tall. She didn’t look fat, just big and formidable despite her bright green and yellow dress and the red stone bead necklaces spread over her enormous bosom.
Her face matched her body, a round black moon under the brilliant yellow of her headscarf, which she wore like a turban. Her nose and lips were thick, her brows heavy, and her eyes like wet black stones. Only her ears were small and unexpectedly delicate, whorled like roses.
She sat on a small stool covered with a white cloth, behind a low table on which there were arranged animal bones, jagged rock crystals, and other things Dingane couldn’t identify. Sticks of incense burned in holders set in the wall and filled the room with eye-watering smoke, and he had to fight down a cough.
“Sit down.” Mama Cynthia’s fingers were thick around as bananas, and beset with rings bearing stones of many colours. They flickered in the light of the bulb that burned in the ceiling. “You come to see me early. I don’t usually see clients at this time of the morning.”
“I beg your pardon.” Dingane sat down on the low chair Mama Cynthia had indicated. “I had to see you. It’s a matter of importance.”
“Tell me.” The big woman leaned over the table, her bosom brushing the bones and crystals. Her eyes bored into his face. “Tell me what is bothering you, and omit nothing.”
By the time Dingane had finished describing his dream, Mama Cynthia was leaning back in her chair, her fingers laced under her small chin. “What do you want me to do?” she asked.
Dingane blinked. “That should be obvious. Free me from the dream. I want you to make it so I’m not troubled by it anymore.”
“You want to be exorcised of the dream. I understand that.” Mama Cynthia looked down at her bones and crystals, and moved some of them around. “However, my young friend, it’s not as simple as that.”
“It isn’t? I thought you could do anything, Mama. I’ve heard so many things about you.”
“Yes, I can make love potions, and I can cast spells that will cause wayward men to return to their wives. I can dismiss evil spirits that sit on men’s shoulders and drive them to harm themselves, and others. I can do all that. But this is different.”
“You’ve been out in one of the haunted forests?” Mama Cynthia tapped a bone on the table for emphasis. “You’ve been in the war. So you know what I mean. Have you been out in the haunted forests?”
“No,” Dingane said. “I haven’t left the city since the end of the war. But I’ve heard of them, of course.”
“Quite naturally. Everyone’s heard of them. You know how the spirits of the restless dead haunt the forests where they died? Not even the most powerful witch doctor of the clans has power over them.”
“What does that have to do with me?”
“This dream. It’s not something that can be pulled out, burned to ashes, and buried in the ground outside.” The big woman looked up at Dingane, her eyes flat and hard. “There is big juju that makes this dream. You will have to find the person who set the juju. Only that person can lift it and only that will make you free.”
“Who? Who set the juju?”
Mama Cynthia looked back at him across the table, with not the slightest trace of sympathy in her eyes. “The little girl,” she said. “The little girl you pulled from her mother’s breast. Wherever she is, whoever she is, you must find her.”
“Someone used her to set the juju?” Dingane asked, his throat dry.
“No,” Mama Cynthia said, preparing to rise. “She did.”
Dingane could afterwards not recall a single detail of his drive back home. It seemed to him that one moment he was still in Mama Cynthia’s room, searching for his wallet to pay her, and the next he was parking the car outside the house he shared with Stellah. He didn’t know what time it was until he saw her come out, dressed for work. She said something to him, and he responded automatically, not thinking of what he was saying. She was still trying to talk to him when he gave her the key and walked into the house.
He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about what Mama Cynthia had told him. “You have to find her, even if she is dead. Even if it is her spirit that set this juju on you, you have to find her. There is no other way that you will find peace.” She had paused, deliberately. “For the wrong you did her, she has never forgiven.”
“I was only thirteen years old!” Dingane had protested.
“I know nothing about that. I have only told you what I know.” Mama Cynthia had held out a beringed hand, and the contents of Dingane’s wallet had vanished into her purse.
“Where do I look for her?” Dingane had asked.
“Where does the wind blow? How can one say? She could be anywhere. Or nowhere. I cannot help you with that.”
“Suppose I do find her. What should I do to make her take the juju off me?”
“She will want something. What, I can’t tell you, but it will be something you must give her. If you can, she may lift it. If you cannot...” the fat shoulders had shrugged.
Dingane moaned. His head was hurting. He wished now he’d never gone to Mama Cynthia, never had even taken the car out this morning. He should have stayed home and let Stellah make love to him, and they would have been the better for it. But it was too late for that now.
Dingane had seen much of the witch doctors during the war, and afterwards. They were fearsome presences in the back of his mind, men – and a few women – who could kill with their juju, could make you invulnerable to bullets and bombs and then take away that invulnerability on a whim, people whom it was absolutely lethal to cross. Why, even the General had never done anything without first getting a witch doctor to strengthen him. The witch doctors’ influence spread everywhere; nobody was, or could be, immune from it. Even his boss at work, a bible-carrying Christian, whispered when talk turned to witch doctors and to their juju.
No, he couldn’t put aside Mama Cynthia’s pronouncements as nonsense. Dingane massaged his head with his fingertips and thought back to what she’d told him. He had to find the girl and get her to lift the juju. But how could he find her? He had no idea whether she was even alive or dead!
It was getting on time for him to go to work. Pushing himself up, he took his uniform from the hooks on the wall and began to change. The uniform was grey and had gold-braided epaulettes and a peaked cap with a multicoloured badge on it. It made him feel ridiculous.
He decided he wouldn’t say anything to Stellah just yet. In many ways, she was completely Westernised, and would probably mock him for having gone to a witch-woman, as she would refer to Mama Cynthia, rather than to a psychiatrist. It would have been useless to explain that the fat woman in Goodtown could look into him and tell him the real reason for his troubles. She wouldn’t believe him, and the last thing he needed now was a fight.
He took a minibus to work, as usual. It was a converted truck, colourful and noisy, with benches down the sides for people to sit, and was always crammed to overflowing. Today he was lucky, because he knew the driver, and the man squeezed over to allow him to sit in the front, his legs on either side of the gearshift.
“Something on your mind?” the driver asked, over the grinding of the engine.
“I asked if there’s something on your mind. You look distracted.” The driver removed his cigarette from between his lips and held it out to Dingane. “A puff?”
“No, I’ll be all right.” Dingane watched the hood of the bus. A small butterfly was clinging to the metal, its orange wings fluttering in the wind. “What do you do when the past comes calling?”
The driver laughed. “I can’t afford to think of the past, my friend, or of the future. If I can make enough to feed and clothe myself today, that’s good enough for me.”
“Some of us aren’t so lucky,” Dingane said without thinking.
“You call that lucky?” The driver glared at him out of the corner of his eye. “Try staying a night or two without food because you had to spend the money for a doctor, because your kid’s got colic, and see how that works for you. Lucky!”
Dingane bit back a comment about having spent years in the bush without knowing how many days would pass before his next real meal. “That butterfly’s getting a free ride,” he told the driver instead. “Wonder where he wants to go.” Even as he said that, the butterfly flapped up and was carried away by the wind.
“You shouldn’t have talked about giving it a free ride,” said the driver, scowling. “What’s wrong with you today, friend? I shouldn’t have let you sit here in the front.”
“Sorry,” Dingane said.
“No,” said the driver, shaking his head. “From next time you can stand in the back if you can’t find a place to sit.”
“I said I was sorry,” Dingane snapped.
The driver was still shaking his head. “I shouldn’t have taken you aboard today at all.”
After his shift at work ended, Dingane went to visit Jandu. He hadn’t met the other man in well over a year, and when he walked up the narrow flight of stairs to the third-floor flat where Jandu had lived, he wasn’t altogether surprised to find someone else in residence.
“Is he in trouble with the police or something?” The new occupant, a tall man with tribal scars on his cheek, had peered suspiciously at Dingane with his cross-eyes.
“I just want to get in touch with him,” Dingane had explained. “I’m just an old friend of his.”
After some coaxing, the cross-eyed man had finally admitted he knew Jandu’s new address, and had given it up. “If he isn’t in trouble with the police yet,” he’d said, “it’s because he’s bribing the entire force. The kind of low-life I have coming here looking for him, you wouldn’t believe.”
The evening was warm, the streets of the city filled with a thousand smells, when Dingane finally arrived at the address he’d been given. It was in one of the newer residential districts that had sprung up around town since the war had ended. Jandu had come up in the world.
He was at home when Dingane knocked on his door, and peered at him for a moment through the peephole before he opened the door. “Well, it’s you. It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, hi, Jandu. I had to go to your old home to track you down here.”
He’d changed, Dingane noticed at once. Not in a definable way – physically he was the same as when they’d last met – but the lines of his face had shifted and hardened, and his voice had changed too, acquired a smoothness it had never had.
“And I suppose old Squint had things to say.” Jandu stepped somewhat belatedly aside and motioned Dingane to enter. “I see you’re still working for the same people, and came here directly from work by the looks of it.”
The living room was furnished with sofas, lamps on tall stands, and the floor was covered by a leopard-pattern carpet. A girl sat up from one of the sofas as Dingane entered and looked at him from under hooded eyelids.
“Lilian,” Jandu said. “This is Dingane. A friend from long back.”
“Hello.” Lilian was very beautiful, far prettier even than Stellah, but there was a studied languidness about her movements and speech. Dingane wondered if she was on something. Considering Jandu’s line of work, it was more than likely.
“So, what brings you here?” Jandu asked without ceremony. “You’ve reconsidered the offer I made last time, have you? It’s still open.”
“No...no. Stellah wouldn’t like it.” Jandu made what was obviously a good living as a narcotics distributor, though he had investments in prostitution on the side. He’d offered Dingane a job in what he’d grandly called his “organisation” the last time they’d met. When Stellah had heard about it she’d almost hit the roof.
“Well, it’s your business.” Jandu wasn’t pleased, but apart from a tightening of his lips, his expression didn’t change. “So, since it’s not about the job, what exactly can I do for you?”
Dingane glanced at Lilian. She’d swung her legs back up on the sofa and was leaning back, examining her fingers with deep interest. The lamps threw the shadows of her hands, distorted, on the walls.
“You can talk,” Jandu assured him. “She’s not going to be a problem.”
“All right. You remember back during the war, when we attacked that village that was burning? We killed the men and women, but we spared some of the kids.”
Jandu stared at Dingane. “I don’t even remember my own name half the time when I think of those days,” he said. “Forget about any particular village. What about it, anyway?”
“Nothing. I’m trying to track down one of the kids we spared. For...personal reasons.”
“And you thought I could help? Sorry, my friend...” The old Jandu would never have called anyone my friend. “But I don’t remember anything about it. Whereabouts was it anyway?”
“It was a Giro village,” Dingane said, “on the other side of the Black River. That’s about all I remember about it.”
“There you go. Half the war we spent attacking villages the other side of the Black River. How d’you expect me to remember which?”
“Well, who might have any idea where we were those days? The General?”
Jandu laughed. “The General’s trying his hardest to forget he ever was a general, ever since he’s joined the Unity Government. The last time I saw him, he was fat as a pig and oily as a politician. The last thing the General will admit is that he knows anything, even if he does.”
“I suppose I’m wasting your time then,” Dingane said and began to rise.
“No, wait a minute.” Jandu held up a hand. “Why do you want to find this kid? Is it very important?”
“It is to me, but it’s personal, as I said. Never mind. I’ve got to get home. Stellah will be wondering why I’m late.”
“Do you love her?” The voice from the sofa startled both of them. “You seem to be thinking a lot of what she thinks.”
“Love whom? Stellah? She’s my girl.”
“You could do better than her, whoever she is.” Lilian went back to examining the shadows her hands threw on the walls, and giggled. Jandu gave Dingane an embarrassed look.
“I’ll do something,” he said. “I’ll ask around, among the people I know. Some of them fought along with us back in the war. They may have an idea.”
“Yeah, thanks. I’d appreciate that.” Dingane glanced once more at Lilian, who ignored him totally. “Good night,” he said anyway.
At the door, Jandu suddenly grabbed him by the arm. “I haven’t really changed that much, you know.”
“It doesn’t matter. You have to do what you have to do.”
“It does, actually.” He looked acutely unhappy, and for a moment the mask slipped and Dingane could see the old Jandu back again. “I try and keep from remembering the past as much as possible, you know? Because all the ghosts are there.”
“I know what you mean,” Dingane said, and touched his hand. “But my ghosts aren’t locked safely away. Not all.”
He glanced back over his shoulder at the top of the stairs. Jandu was still standing at his door, staring after him.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2011