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Tokoloshe

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The amaPondo seemed more amused than challenged by my teachings. On a typical evening I would sit among the village elders in a wide circle outside the headman’s hut, passing around their harsh snuff and talking far into the night. Our talk was not all of religion, indeed they loved to hear of the metal wonders of our world, and when one night I borrowed a magic lantern to show them slides of locomotives and the great iron tower in Paris they were stunned to rare silence. But always we would return to our theologies and Lwazi, the headman, used to love to tease me with philosophical dilemmas. He would sit, his back straight and his hands painting pictures in the air, mocking me gently in a wheezing tone that flattened the music of his strange tongue.

“Komfundisi, you tell us that we must expect no reward from your God, yet you also tell us that we must live our lives in righteousness so that we will receive our reward in heaven. We already have many spirits who trick us; why do you offer us another?”

He sat back, clasping his hands across his large belly and exchanged a look with his fellows that appeared suspiciously close to a wink. I struggled to assemble the words to answer him, forcing my tongue around the unfamiliar syllables and quietly praying that I was making the correct choice among the many classes of their language. Clearly I was unsuccessful, for the circle erupted with laughter. Women appeared from huts and the elders turned to share the monstrous joke with them; hands reached to thump my back and shoulders with gentle good nature.

Finally, Lwazi wiped his eyes and leaned forward to pat my forearm. “Ah, if we could do such a thing with our spirits, then that would be reward enough!”

The circle dissolved into even more powerful paroxysms, and the shrill laughter of the women joined to quiet even the sibilant night insects. Within seconds it seemed that the whole village was crowding around us, telling and re-telling my hilarious faux-pas. I tried to ask the old man what mistake I had made, but he could do no more than wave his left hand at me, while his right hand covered his streaming eyes.

As the laughter began finally to subside I started to hear the cries of infants from the surrounding dwellings, their sleep disturbed by the noise. To my surprise the women, usually so solicitous of their children, made no move to return inside. Instead they seated themselves around the outside of the circle, leaning forward to hear more from this hilarious white man who nightly traded his madness for the headman’s wisdom. One by one the babies fell silent, and the village was peaceful again within two minutes.

Choosing my words this time with more care, I asked Lwazi whether the children were trained to be quiet to protect them from the wild beasts. He took a moment to regain control and then shook his head.

“No, they are safe inside the village once the fence is closed for the night. They are soothed back to sleep by the tokoloshe.”

Now I had heard the names of many demons and monsters, of the ghosts, goblins and night creatures that populate the superstitions of the African, but this was new: a creature that charms fretful babies to sleep. This was a myth that would be embraced by mothers throughout the Her Majesty’s Empire, should it be even tenuously substantiated.

“Please tell me, what are the tokoloshe?”

“The tokoloshe are the good fairies who visit our houses and bless us with a loving home and contented children. They are wise and gentle, and the children do not fear them. Pondo women are good mothers and so the tokoloshe love and help them. They know that it is hard work to be a mother and so they calmed the babies so that the women could enjoy their moment of laughter. Does your god not help good mothers?”

I knew enough not to expose my beliefs and teachings to further ridicule, however good-natured, and so I answered only that Jesus loved children. This seemed to satisfy him and our talk moved onto less difficult matters.

*

Bishop Callaway’s residence in Kaffraria was modest but comfortable. He leaned on the rail surrounding his veranda, looking out at the distant mountains. “So, Robert, what do you think of the amaPondo?”

“They’re very kind and friendly, but I wonder whether I can ever bring them God’s word.”

He thought for a moment, one hand stroking his great white beard. “Why is that, do they not listen?”

I smiled as I thought of Lwazi’s fascination for the stories I read to him from my bible. “Oh, they listen, Henry. They listen so hard that I feel my words being sucked into a deep whirlpool. And then they ask questions that I don’t have the wisdom to answer.” I shook my head. “I think they find me amusing.”

The Bishop nodded; he too was smiling. “They are simple people, and simple people love to laugh. Is that such a bad thing?”

“No, of course not. But simple isn’t the same as stupid. Lwazi, the headman, asks questions more penetrating than any I heard in the seminary. He keeps showing me contradictions in my belief, and then points out that there are no such contradictions in his.”

Bishop Callaway came over to where I sat and put his hand on my shoulder. “Logic was ever the enemy of faith, Robert. Satan himself tempted our Lord with logic, and Jesus’ only answer was ‘Get thee behind me!’ He had the wisdom not to argue against logic. There is your lesson.”

I sat quiet for some time, thinking. A house boy came out and filled our glasses, bowing slightly to Bishop Callaway as he retired. The Bishop swirled the sherry in his glass and laughed quietly.

“Listen to me, pontificating like Solomon instead of helping you as you ask. Give me an example and I’ll try to suggest a course of action.”

I eagerly told him of the incident three nights before when, supposedly, the Tokoloshe fairies had quietened the children while their mothers were laughing.

“Lwazi was as kind as always – there’s no malice in him,” I explained. “but he could not be shifted in his belief that these tokoloshe were real. ‘You tell me to believe in a world that is unseen,’ he said. ‘And yet you deny the world that I see with my eyes. If the tokoloshe do not exist, how can they be seen? How can they be spoken to?’”

The Bishop looked up abruptly. “You mean to say that he’s seen these spirits?”

“Not since his own childhood, no, but he says he remembers them when he was small. He believes they nursed him when he was very sick. His wives all attest to their reality, and say that their lives would be far harder without the fairies to help them.”

“And what do they look like?”

“He says they are like small, skinny and hairy men, with heads like baboons and long curving fangs.”

“They are all male then?”

Very male, Lwazi said. He said that it was good that they were so ugly, or the men of the village would quickly become lonely.” I looked up sharply at the Bishop, feeling my face flush at the memory. He smiled for a moment and then sat quietly, his finger tracing the pattern cut into his glass.

“This could be a dangerous myth, Robert. Does it occur to you that the description of these creatures sounds demonic?”

“You think they’re demons?”

He shook his head, smiling again. “No, of course not. But many such folk stories have their roots in what we’ll call a race memory; a memory that is peopled by demons. And a strong superstition  can open pathways in the human mind. Pathways that can lead to base acts; to satanic practices. Even to possession. The African mind turns easily to darkness, Robert; this belief in good fairies is a belief in the Devil.”

“Henry, I said something similar to Lwazi, and he said what was an angel but a good fairy?”

“Then surely you pointed out that angels are beautiful, not ugly; that they are androgynous, not ‘very male’,” said the Bishop. “I see you nodding; what did he say to that?”

“He said how did I know. Had I ever seen one?”

*

Some weeks went by without the Tokoloshe troubling our nightly conversations. Lwazi was as kind and infuriating as ever, somehow managing to find a convincing, and diametrically opposed, meaning in every lesson. He was baffled why the Samaritans should want to be accepted by the other, clearly evil, tribes of Israel; he asked why God tested Abraham – surely he already knew the outcome, so what was the purpose of so cruel a test? Yet he would never pursue his arguments to their end; when he saw me becoming distressed he would stop, pat my arm and say something like, “Clearly, your umkulunkulu has his reasons.” Then he would turn to the circle of elders and say, “This is the wisdom of the white man’s god, that we are too lowly to understand.”

One evening we were sitting as usual in our circle outside Lwazi’s hut. The headman was quiet and troubled; his youngest son had a fever that threatened the infant’s life. I had offered what skills I’d learned in my missionary training and my offers of medicine had been gratefully received, but I was under no illusions that I had achieved any great stride towards the child’s recovery. It was Weziwe, the tribe’s ancient wise woman, who seemed able to reduce the worst fevers and still the violent agues with her brews and smokes.

On this evening, as Lwazi sat with his eyes downcast, tracing circles in the dust with a small assegai, Weziwe emerged from his chief wife’s dwelling and put her hand on the headman’s shoulder, leaning forward to whisper in his ear. Lwazi nodded emphatically and scuttled into the dark doorway, moving rapidly despite his girth. Weziwe looked across the dust at me and smiled.

“The fever has broken. The chief’s boy is sleeping peacefully. I thank you for the help you gave in saving him.”

I replied, truthfully, that I had done little. It was Weziwe’s healing skills that had nursed the baby through the crisis. The old woman inclined her head in acknowledgement and hitched her bundle of medicines higher on her shoulder. “I go now to sleep at last, after many long nights. The tokoloshe will look after the child.”

I slept uneasily that night, troubled by half-dreams of small man-like creatures that skittered and chittered in the thatch above my pallet. Eventually I sat up and lit my candle to drive away the shadows. The amaPondo had built a pleasant cabin for me near the main gate of the kraal and most nights I found it peaceful and comfortable. Tonight, however, it was airless and stiflingly hot. I drank some water and went to open the door to allow the night breeze to blow in.

The dusty space in the centre of the village was pure white in the moonlight, the dark buildings around the perimeter casting sharply etched shadows. I stepped outside and looked up at the peppered splendour that nightly reveals itself when the charring star that gives us life slides below the wide African horizon. Standing for many minutes, lost in this wonder, I became aware of the chill after the warmth of my hut and turned to go back inside. As I did so the corner of my eye caught a movement at the far end of the kraal, near the headman’s dwelling. I turned back and peered into the black shadows. Nothing was visible for several seconds, then, as I turned away once more it came again. It seemed that the dark edge of the door to the chief wife’s hut had bulged slightly on one side. I stared so hard that my eyes blurred with tears, and when I blinked them away I saw that the edge was straight again.

It was then that I noticed the silence. The African night is never quiet, with the constant twitter and clicking of insects, the mocking bark of the hyena or occasionally the distant grumble of hunting lionesses. But tonight all was as still as an empty church.

Forgetting the chill, I started towards the cluster of buildings, stepping quietly and keeping in the shadows cast by those on my side of the kraal. It was a small settlement, no more than a hundred paces across, so within a minute I was able to conceal myself in the doorway of Lwazi’s hut, with a good view of his wife’s dwelling some thirty feet away. The moon was behind it, and the bright, beaten earth of the open space before it made the shadows around the doorway impenetrable. Yet I fancied I saw shapes, black within the blackness, that moved slightly around the opening.

“There are some who would wonder why the white teacher should hide by the Induna’s door.”

I spun around in alarm. Weziwe was standing within a yard of me, a shaft of moonlight illuminating the mocking smile on her seamed face. She squatted by me and patted my upper arm. “You puzzle me, komfundisi. You do not believe the tokoloshe exist, yet you hide in the shadows to watch them.” She chuckled almost silently. “Stay here and we’ll test your disbelief a little further.”

She stepped out into the full moonlight and took something from the bag that rested as ever on her shoulder. Then she walked slowly towards the head wife’s hut, holding whatever it was forward in offering. I heard her singing quietly, a low ululation that contained words in no language I recognised. She stopped and sank to her haunches, proffering the bundle and singing softly.

From the darkness came a small, stooped figure, its back bent in a humped bow so that it walked on all fours, its front legs, or arms as may be, touching the ground lightly with long, slender-fingered hands. It appeared to be about the size and build of a famished wild dog. The chest was deep, with a narrow ribcage jutting forward between stick-thin arms. Below the ribs the belly was concave, narrowing to powerful hips and strong back legs similar to those of a hunting dog. The head was hyena-like, with strong jaws, held open to reveal long, curved fangs. The creature stopped frequently, darting its narrow head from side to side, its chin almost brushing the ground.

I shifted to ease my cramped calves and must have made a sound, for the beast came fully upright and turned towards me. Its eyes caught the moonlight and I felt myself transfixed by its colourless stare. As it stood I realised that what I had taken for a stubby tail was in fact a penis of absurdly exaggerated dimensions.

Seemingly satisfied that no threat was hiding in the shadows, the creature resumed its bent-backed, cringing approach to Weziwe’s outstretched hand. The old woman had finished her singing and now spoke softly in the musical Xhosa tongue that was becoming as familiar to me as my own. “Come,” she whispered. “You have done well. Take your reward, for we are grateful.”

The tokoloshe, for there was now no doubting that this was what I was seeing, took another dozen halting steps and then reached uncertainly for the gift that Weziwe held out before her. Its nerve failed as it touched the bundle and it sprang back a couple of feet. Weziwe laid her offering on the ground, and I now saw that it was a large hare, partly skinned. The tokoloshe crawled forward again and picked up the gift. It crouched there for a few seconds, its eyes locked to the old woman’s, then it turned and yapped a sharp, muted bark over its shoulder. From the shadows came two more of the emaciated creatures, both much smaller and less powerful than their leader, though both just as conspicuously male. They touched the dead hare and a babble of low growls passed between the three creatures. Mere animals they were, yet it seemed as though there were words in those growls, and I even fancied that I recognised in those sounds the very syllables that Weziwe had sung when first she approached the visitors.

In a moment the spell was broken. The leader snatched up the offering and the three of them scampered away, clearing the thorn fence of the kraal in a single powerful leap. Weziwe stood slowly, her joints cracking, and beckoned me from the shadows. “There, komfundisi, if you believe in your world that is unseen, do you now believe in ours, which is all around us?” Then she turned and walked rapidly back to her hut.

I wrote to Bishop Callaway the next morning and waited eagerly for a runner to take the letter to him. I had spent the night in some confusion, for I had no doubt now that the tokoloshe were real. That they could be supernatural seemed laughable in this bright morning; the dark continent reveals new and more marvellous species almost daily, and clearly I was possibly the first white man to see this one. But the fact that the Pondo people believed them to be fairies was troubling, and the thought that they might leave their children unattended with such clearly carnivorous beasts was wholly alarming.

Some days passed and my impatience grew, until finally I approached the headman to ask if any reply had been received from Kaffraria. I struggled to hide my annoyance when Lwazi produced my letter. “I am sorry, komfundisi, no one has yet gone that way to take your message. Tomorrow, probably, if not then the next day for certain.”

By now I was accustomed to the amaPondo’s unhurried attitude to the world. They have a saying, “Tomorrow’s rains are the same as today’s, but even more welcome.” Nevertheless I had to hide my frustration. I felt that a great tragedy threatened and craved my superior’s advice on how to teach them of the danger to their children that their trusting nature engendered.

“Grandfather,” I began haltingly, “You know that some nights ago I saw the tokoloshe?”

Lwazi smiled broadly. “I know this, my young friend. I worry that you have had to ask your god to make room in his creation for our good fairies.”

I smiled back. “God made room before he made the world, grandfather. But he also made room for evil, and I fear that these creatures mean you ill.”

“Why would they mean us ill? We are friendly towards them, and they love children. They are gentle and kind. How is this evil?”

I thought rapidly for a way to turn this kindly belief aside, not just to bring Lwazi and his people closer to God’s Truth, but also to take away its danger to their young. “Grandfather, does not the world contain many tricksters? Brother Rabbit, who tricked the great spider Ananse himself, is he not able to fool we humans?”

“Assuredly, that is true. But the rabbit is mischievous, and mischief is not evil.”

“Yet mischief can beget evil. Remember, chief, that these tokoloshe are left alone with your wives and children. Can you trust their mischief?”

Lwazi was silent for some time. “What mischief do you think they might do?”

“I fear that they may do worse than mischief. I believe they are demons as deadly and changeable as the Hyena Men. They have tricked you for many years, hidden their real purpose. But now I have seen them I recognise them. I have heard what they do. Grandfather, they are terrible and vicious.”

For the first time, Lwazi seemed troubled and doubtful. “You recognise them? From where?”

In my mind I whispered a prayer for forgiveness, for I was about to tell a great lie.

“Chief, I believe these creatures are the tikoloshe. I was struck by the similarity of the name, but it was not until I saw them that I was sure that they were one and the same. They have the power to appear weak and pitiful, but in truth they are as great, strong and vicious as the baboon. And they covet your women.”

Lwazi was quiet, clearly thinking over what I had said. Then he shook his head and smiled. “Komfundisi, you are wise for such a young man, maybe too wise to be understood by an old man like me. You tell me I should trust in your god, but you tell me that he has put demons among us in the guise of good fairies. Well I trust in my uQamata, who put these good fairies among us.”

“But according to your lore, uQumata put the hyena men among you.”

“Young man, you should understand the Pondo spirit creatures. They exist because we put them there. You tell me that this thing you call faith has power to move mountains, but I do not understand the difference between that word and belief. The hyena men, Ananse, Mamlambo, the tokoloshe, they all exist because we believe in them, not because the umkulunkulu created them.”

“So your defence against their evil is simply your belief?”

Lwazi chuckled and sprang his trap, “That is exactly our defence, yes. Our faith is our shield. You see? We do just as you do.” He patted my arm kindly. “But I will think about what you say and ask my ancestors for advice. And the village council will meet to discuss the matter.”

There was no need to assemble a meeting of the council as they met every night outside Lwazi’s hut. After the snuffbox had made its rounds, Lwazi explained my concerns to the ring of elders. There was much nodding and individual discussion, but the matter was quickly dealt with when old Bulelani pointed out that the tokoloshe had done nothing but good for the hundred years of his life, nor the two hundred of his grandmother’s. If they were playing a waiting game, then they had more patience than a jackal.

This witticism brought general laughter and the matter was closed. Yet I saw doubt on the faces of some of the younger counsellors and knew that my cause was not yet lost.

*

My reply from the Bishop called me to Kaffraria and I was surprised to see anger concealed under my superior’s usually benign demeanour. “Robert, you have overstepped yourself. It is our mission to teach the true faith, not to invent demons.”

“I’m sorry, Henry, that wasn’t my intention, but I was at a loss for how to proceed. This belief is very strong, and the Pondo are leaving their children alone with these creatures. I greatly fear an attack.”

“But they never have attacked. We must gently turn the Pondo away from their belief in fairies, but these tokoloshe seem as gentle as they say.”

“With great respect, Henry, how do we know that? They believe in a pantheon of demons that steal children, and from time to time the hyenas and jackals manage to take a baby. How do we know that these fairy beasts are not equally to blame?”

“They may be, they may be. But lies will never show the way to God.”

I bowed my head, knowing that he had the true word, and apologised, promising to lay this new myth on my return.

“It may not be so simple, Robert. Your myth is gaining ground. I had to write a sharp note yesterday to Hetherington from Gomitogo. It seems he’s heard of your heresy and added it to his own teachings.” He saw my alarm and smiled. “I’m sorry, I’m becoming enthusiastic. Heresy is too strong a word, but you do see that we must use only truth to win the faith of Africa.”

*

It was evening when I returned to Xolobeni and the thorn fence was being dragged across to seal the gate for the night. The two men performing this task saw me approaching across the plain and sat down to wait for my arrival. I apologised for detaining them and led my weary horse through the gap to drink thirstily from the half-barrel I’d set up in the shade of my hut. As I turned to go inside I saw that one of the gate-closers had followed me. I recognised Siyaya, one of the younger men, who proudly wore his new warrior’s headdress even when performing the most menial of tasks. He stood uncertainly, eyes downcast, and scuffed the dust with a toe.

“What is it,Siyaya?” I asked.

“Father, may I speak to you about a matter?”

“Of course. Sit down and I’ll bring us some beer.”

The watertight basket of sorghum beer by my door had been recently replenished and I dipped two cups into the pinkish foam. I drank to clear my trail thirst and the sour fruitiness cleaned my dusty tongue and throat. Having refilled my cup I returned to where Siyaya squatted in the dust. He thanked me politely and drank deeply, smacking his lips in appreciation. We then talked for ten minutes while we reassured each other on our health and that of our extended families. After the period demanded by Pondo manners I asked the youth how I could help him.

“My Father, I wish to ask you about the tikoloshe.”

I noted the changed pronunciation and pondered how to undo my myth-building. “Ask me anything, my son, but my knowledge of your creatures is not great.”

“Komfundisi, I have seen how they look at my wife and my child. I have come to fear them, Father. I believe that you are right, they are demons.”

“Siyaya, they are not demons, simply wild beasts. They are creatures of God just as we, but we would not entrust our children to jackals. No more should we trust the tokoloshe to be gentle.”

“But Father, I heard of what happened at Gomitogo. One of the women there was picking grain near the river when a great black tokolosh jumped at her. It was as tall as she, and it pursued her at great speed when she fled for the village.” I noticed that he was trembling and saw tears on his cheeks.

That night it came into her hut and killed her children while she slept. Then it ravaged her. Her husband heard the noise and burst in. He tried to kill it with his assegai, but it cunningly turned his strike aside and he pierced his own wife through the heart. Then it vanished. The husband opened his neck and died alongside the bodies of his family.”

Now I saw the mistake I had made in trying to trick the Amapondo. My demon myth had found fertility in the African soil and spread like the grass fires of summer. Instead of turning them from their folk tales and legends I had created another.

“Siyaya, these are but stories, told around the fires at night by old men who drink too much beer.”

I patiently pointed out the inconsistencies in the tale. How could anyone know what had been seen when all of the witnesses were dead? Why did no one see the tokoloshe when the woman ran, terrified, into the village? Slowly the youth became calmer, but I could see that he was still frightened and disturbed. Then he said something that made my heart quicken.

“My Father, I have seen you at your prayers. Will you give me your blessing to protect me?”

In the midst of my anxious confusion I saw how God had moved to bring the first of the villagers to him. Now with tears on my own cheeks I placed my hands on the young warrior’s head and asked for His blessing on this, his newest servant. He stood, thanked me quietly, and padded silently away into the gathering dusk.

Over the following days several more of the Pondo approached me and I found myself speaking regularly to a small congregation who were eager to learn. We would meet by the cattle enclosure outside the kraal, choosing the mornings before the day grew hot. They would chatter among themselves when a new concept baffled them, and I soon came to understand that they learned best when left to discuss and turn the paradoxes in their quick minds. I had come to Africa expecting to speak in simple terms to savages; instead I found startling intelligence that found belief no challenge.

Lwazi was unconcerned by this new turn in his people’s faith. “Our beliefs shape our world, komfundisi. We choose our world by choosing what we believe in. If my people want to believe in your Jesus man, then your Jesus man is real. He was undoubtedly a good man, and his bravery is impressive. It is sad that he failed, but we have believed in worse. I see no harm in making him real for you.”

About a fortnight went by. I was busy but happy with my little flock of maybe a dozen men and women, mainly fairly young and always eager and interested. Then one morning I was sitting waiting for them to arrive when I heard a loud wailing. A group of women approached me, supporting a younger girl of around seventeen or eighteen. She was wailing and beating her forehead while the women around her groaned and wept in sympathy.

I ran over to meet them. “Daughter, what has upset you so?”

The girl shook her head and pointed back towards the kraal. She sobbed louder and tore at her hair. The eldest of her supporters took my arm and led me away a short distance.

“Komfundisi, her baby has been taken. The tikoloshe came in the night and stole it.”

I comforted the girl as best I could and then joined a small crowd of villagers who were clustered around the doorway of her hut, which stood next door to my own. They stood back as I arrived and let me step into the dim interior. Near the back wall was an overturned crib. Crumpled next to it was a blanket that, even in the twilight of the room, glistened with black blood. Scuffs and dark streaks marred the carefully swept floor, leading to the bright light of the doorway, now ringed with anxious faces.

“This is the work of a wild beast. Were the thorns dragged across the gate last night?”

Siyaya, my first convert stepped into view. “Yes, I closed it myself, my father. It was secure.”

“Then something jumped the fence, or dug through it. It should be checked immediately.”

“Father it has been done. But we knew there were no gaps. We are careful of such things. And no beast can jump it; it is wide as well as high.”

I knew that this was so. The closely woven thorn brush was higher than a leopard could leap, and stout enough to resist an elephant stampede. “Then I’m afraid the gate must have been left open, at least a little.”

Siyaya was distraught. “No, my father. It is my job to close it. I am careful! I would never leave it open! This was the tikoloshe, they are not held by gates or fences. I cannot close a gate to them!”

That night, being unable to sleep, I walked around the inside of the fence, coming at last to the thorn barrier that closed the gate. It was closed firmly and latched into the crossed poles that prevented any animal from dragging it away. I stood for a moment, looking out across the plain, which glowed faintly in the moonlight. The cacophony of chirruping insects filled the night and I heard the distant yip of a jackal.

Then, as had happened on the night I saw the tokoloshe, all fell silent. I crouched down in the shadows beside the gate and looked out. Presently I heard a snuffling noise and the fence by my elbow creaked. Alarmed, I realised that some large animal was pushing against it, possibly trying to gain access to the village. Regretting that I had no sort of weapon I stood to run back and raise the alarm. It was then that a black shape emerged into the moonlight outside the fence. At first I thought it was some huge monster; the moon glinted in its small eyes and shone on its great tusks. Then terror relaxed its grip sufficiently for my eyes to decipher what I was seeing. A sizeable warthog was rooting at the base of the gate bush, no doubt hunting for grubs or the few remaining leaves on its sharp branches.

I crouched again, laughing silently at my own fear. The warthog is a formidable opponent when at bay, but here it was an innocent part of the night’s commerce, eking out its living in the harsh abundance of the dark continent. I watched it for some time, until a change in the wind bore my scent to its snuffling nostrils. It stood for a moment, quartering the area, and then trotted away to its next food stop. I stood, easing my cramped muscles and turned to return to my hut. As I did so I thought something flickered in the corner of my eye. I turned quickly and looked, but all was still and quiet. Shaking my head I returned inside and lay down.

I lay for maybe half an hour, but sleep still escaped me. Then I heard what I thought was a muffled cry. I sat up and listened; the insects had not resumed their noise, but the blood rushing in my ears drowned out any other faint sounds. I was about to lie down when I heard the cry again. It was faint, as though stifled by blankets, but it sounded much like a cry of distress. Then I heard a rustling; to my racing imagination it sounded as though someone was struggling or fighting in a nearby hut.

I ran from my cabin to the dwelling next door, pausing outside to think. This was the home of the girl whose child had been taken the previous night. No doubt she was weeping over the loss; it was not my business to intrude, and my presence in a hut of women would be improper in the extreme. If she cried loud enough then one of the other women who shared her quarters would no doubt wake and comfort her.

As I turned away I heard the cry again. This time the distress and urgency were undeniable, and the rustling so violent as to be impossible to mistake for the restless tossing of a grieving mother. I pushed back the door and ran into the hut, falling over a bundle of clothing that lay just inside. I picked myself up and my hands touched warm, sliding wetness. I was sprawled across a woman’s body; in the dim light of the single flickering fat lamp I saw her and recoiled to see her throat torn away. Blood soaked her face and clothes and darkened the beaten earth.

I pulled myself up to hands and knees and looked to see the source of the noises of scuffle. There on the bed I saw a great black shape, its back arched and rocking rhythmically. From beneath it came the stifled cries I had heard, and occasionally a hand reached up to tear ineffectually at the creature’s head and shoulders. Either side of the beast’s hips, two slender legs waved and kicked in hopeless struggle.

I cast around for some weapon, seeing two other still and bloody forms sprawled on the beds around the walls. My eyes fell on a long knife of the kind used by the women to chop the corn. I grabbed it and darted for the heaving bodies at the back of the hut, calling out “Help me! Help me now!” in English as I made my attack.

Alarmed by the sound, the beast looked up and our eyes locked. It was similar to the tokoloshe I had seen a month before, but much larger, and its fur was jet black rather than the paleness of the timid creature that had accepted Weziwe’s hare. It snarled at me and sprang to its feet, dragging the young girl with it, holding her against its breast with one long arm. Her head lolled but her hands still reached to tear at her attackers face. It swiped her a great blow with the back of its free hand and began to advance, snarling as it came. As it approached I saw that the girl was still impaled on its vile phallus, and it continued to pump in unbroken rhythm even as it came towards me.

I stepped around the room, brandishing the knife and praying that aid would burst through the open doorway. Outside I heard shouts and movement, but still too far, too far away. Here I was, facing the evil tikolosh that I had invented for my own purposes.

I continued to circle the beast, holding the knife out before me. It made a grab for the blade and I pulled it back, striking a supporting post as I did so. The creature was taller than I, with broad, powerful shoulders that bespoke great strength. Its arms were long, more than half again the length of my own. The left still encircled the girl, who had ceased her struggles and dangled loosely in his grip. The right reached for me with dagger-fingers. Foam sprayed from its jaws as it roared its challenge and sprang.

I had already drawn back the knife to elude its grab, so now I swung it down and around with all my force, grabbing my right wrist in my left hand to lend power to the blow. I felt the blade slice through flesh to jar on unseen bone as I collapsed under suffocating, stinking fur, drowning in scalding blood as my senses fled away.

When my eyes could again focus I saw that the hut was full of men and women. The place was filled with the light of many lamps and I became aware that someone was bathing my forehead with a cool cloth. Before me on the ground was the young girl whose grief had filled the morning before. Her face was turned towards me and I saw a great bruise that spread from her ear to close her right eye. Her legs were spread wide, as though disjointed from their attachments, and blood stained her clothing. Her body was twisted slightly, raised off the ground by the handle of the machete which was embedded in her side, opening a wound that revealed the severed ends of ribs and the dark shine of ruptured organs. Of the creature there was no trace.

I was feverish for many days. The Amapondo were kind and solicitous and old Weziwe attended me night and day, nursing me back to health. When at last my senses returned I feared I would be blamed for the girl’s murder, or even that the tikolosh had been a creature of my imagination, that I had indeed killed her in my madness. But instead they were sadly grateful for my attempt to save her. That it was my blow that had proved fatal was undeniable, but was this not what the tikoloshe did? Were they not known for turning the spears of those who sought to kill them?

As I grew stronger the Pondo came in greater numbers to thank me for my bravery, bringing small gifts to aid my comfort. And every night, when they left me, I wept and called out silently to a God who no longer listened to me. The teacher had received his lesson. Faith, truly, shapes our world. To the Pondo, belief is no different from reality. Their gods exist because they put them there. And so too do the demons that I invented for them.

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