It was nightfall. As the darkness crept silently over the village, the last embers of dusk retreating fast into the west, a nervousness took root in the hearts of the locals; a general, fretful unrest that could be felt all over. Drying clothes were brutally pulled off the clotheslines and rushed indoors; goats and sheep were herded clumsily into their pens, pots and pans gathered noisily from the compounds.
By the time the darkness engulfed the entire village that unrest had turned to fear. The dogs were growling uneasily; the goats and sheep shuffling timidly up and down the pens. A few fires had been lit in a few huts but, for the most part, everything was dark.
Even the moon declined to show her face on nights like this, with just a few stars braving the ambience. A twinkle here and a twinkle there. The frantic din of conversation and chatter had died down to hushed murmurs.
It was always so on nights like this. It was said the night always came with strange and frightening horrors this time of year. And on this very night, Kari woke up to the glare of pitch black in the hut she had been resting in. It was actually their kitchen, built by her father’s own hands a couple of years back, but when she wasn’t doing anything she usually made it double as her napping place.
She was a bit delirious when she awoke, thinking, at first, that she had gone blind, since she could not make out anything around her, but realising soon than it was actually night time. How long had she slept? A couple of hours, at least, since it had been bright outside right before she had lain down to enjoy some afternoon shut-eye.
She stretched and yawned, becoming fully awake in the process. The dead silence all over made her wonder where everyone had disappeared to. And suddenly – as suddenly as one gets a startling, daunting realisation – she became afraid. It was normal for an eight-year-old like her to dread the dark, especially when alone, but this fear was more than that: it had dawned on her what day it was.
Before she could process these feelings, she suddenly felt everything go even quieter. Her ears felt heavy and numb as though the air of the place had gone solid, as it were, as if there were absolutely no sound being made anywhere in the world. She soon realised this was because the crickets had gone silent.
As she got up off the dirt floor of the hut, scared and hurrying to get out of there as quickly as she could, the silence was broken by a peculiar sound. She thought it sounded like great, big wings. The sound drew closer, approaching from above, and hovered above her hut. It soon ceased and she heard what sounded, and felt, like footsteps ruffling through the mass of dry grass that sealed the hut.
Fear now turned to terror.
What is that? Her heart raced. Could it be?
She needed to get out. Now. She needed to get to the family quarters at the opposite end of the compound; to the safety of their family hut. She slowly made her way to the entrance of the hut, soundlessly placing one foot on the ground, then the other, in a slow, pained motion reminiscent of a cat stalking its prey. Whatever it was that had just flown onto the roof of the hut wasn’t to hear her – wasn’t to know there was anybody in there.
She stood at the entrance and held her breath. What was it that was perched right on the roof? That had flown with the sound of great big wings? And, slowly, she let her mind wander. Wander back to the stories grandma told them every night, seated around a gleeful fire, a few splinters breaking into red-hot particles that looked like stray fireworks – of the sort she stared at in childish astonishment every new year’s eve after the vigil at church. Occasionally one of these miniature fireworks landed on one of her exposed legs as she sat there on the dirt floor, causing her to scratch quite a bit. Usually, by the end of the night, her legs would be whitish with long, vertical stripes where her fingernails had dug into her skin. These stories grandma told were always disturbing. She always said never to go out at night during the month of the locusts, especially on the third day…like today.
She said on such nights a creature called the makhuma that dwelt in a cave between the two hills came out to snatch children and take them back to its lair where they were never heard from again. She said in the last ten seasons four children had gone missing, always on the third day of the month of the locusts. She claimed to have seen this thing take one of her friends when she was younger and described it as a “man-like” creature that wore a long, black shoal to cover its charcoal-black body and that could fly straight into the air when it had to move. Her father always said such stories were nonsense although, strangely, he too finished his business early on these days and retreated to the bedroom quite early after supper like most of the other villagers.
Kari roused herself from all these thoughts and focused on the task before her. She had to get to the doorway facing her from the other end of the compound. It was dark outside but she could see quite well thanks to the few stars that had managed to show face. There was a narrow foot-path in the lush grass that connected the two huts, about fifty meters long, and this was her only road to safety.
Suddenly, as she was counting down silently to herself – 5…4…3… – she heard a sound in the dry papyrus that thatched their roof. Something had moved up there. The sound was so abrupt it zapped her out of her mental countdown and she sprang from the threshold of the tiny hut and ran. She ran as fast as her tiny legs could carry her. And, as though whatever was resting on that roof had been waiting for this exact moment, she heard it fly. More out of curiosity than fear, she looked back. She wanted to see what was chasing her. She wanted to look at her pursuer.
It was just as old grandma had described it. At first it looked like a giant bird: a dark, avian silhouette against the scantily lit night sky. But as it swooped down magnificently and glided towards her, Kari could make out the shape of a man – or what looked like a man – nestled between two incredible wings. She could not make out the features on its face but she could see the two red, round glows that were closing in on her.
She looked ahead of her and saw that she was almost there. A few more meters. She dug in. Hard. She bit her lower lip, closed her eyes and worked her legs so hard it felt like she was floating. Soon, she looked up and saw the gaping, rectangular, black hole that was the doorway of their tiny family hut. Beyond the darkness, on the other side, standing right behind the threshold, was her grandma. She could make out a few other shapes as well. They’re waiting for me, she thought. Her grandma’s arms suddenly shot out, as if to embrace her. As if to welcome her back from this deadly encounter. As if to hold her and reassure her, comfort her, tell her she had made it.
Her grandma’s arms shot out to catch her. But it was too late.
The hands that took hold of her from behind were strong and firm. They lifted her off the ground effortlessly, like those of her father whenever she ran out to the fields to meet him. She heard her grandma make a bizarre noise that sounded like a squeal and she thought how funny it was for an old woman to squeal like that. The doorway of the hut zoomed in briefly and for a moment she thought she could touch her grandma, but then it receded fast from her sight as the makhuma soared upwards and away from the compound, carrying its prey, at a blinding speed. She stretched her arms out to grab her grandma, who was now about a hundred meters below her, and shouted out. Her grandma did not answer back.
A strange calm came over her suddenly, and she was not afraid anymore. She felt like she would wake up any minute and realise this was all just a dream. She saw from on high one hut turn into four, and four into a cluster, and that cluster into her village.
I’m dreaming, she told herself. I’m dreaming. I am still asleep in the kitchen hut. She closed her eyes as clouds started to appear below her feet, knowing that when she opened them grandma and the rest would be there with her, telling some more silly stories about the makhuma.
Meanwhile, up above the two hills, a great big bird swooped in from above, flying majestically, its red eyes glowing like hot charcoals, bringing darkness with it, and gliding regally into the big cave with a sleeping human child cradled between its talons.