Dial 31 is running…
When the boneshaker truck finally came to a stop, shuddering and moaning miserably, we were shrouded with darkness.
I saw lanterns and crude lights all around, and I realized we had arrived at Etwe-Pe-Kote, a strange land to me. I jumped from the truck, aching all over. It had been a most tiresome and arduous journey.
A crude wooden step was pushed against the side of the truck to aid the passengers from getting down, but I noticed that the witch was rather getting down over the back of the truck.
“Hey, woman, you can get hurt!” I said as I sidled near. “Why don’t you use the steps?”
She looked down at me, and in the flickering lights I saw how strained her face was.
“I’m not supposed to use it,” she said quietly as she carefully turned on the tailgate of the truck, holding on tightly as her foot searched backward frantically for a hold.
I sighed, and then I reached out to help her.
“Hey, stranger, stop it!” the driver’s mate said in a scared voice. “She’s a witch! Don’t touch her! You’ll die!”
I gave him a dark look, and then I wrapped my arms around the witch and lifted her clear. As a ladies man, I spent more than a generous amount of time inside the gym toning up my muscles, and so I was pretty fit. However, after lifting and putting her down, I found out to my horror that I was breathing fast, almost out of breath!
And then it dawned on me…I was getting old!
When she gained her feet she moved quickly out of the confines of my arms and stared darkly up at me, her face looking so lost and confused inside the folds of the cloth.
“What do you want from me?” she murmured in an unsteady voice.
“I’m new here, and I don’t know where to go,” I replied.
“Go to the palace and you’ll be given a place to lodge for the night, stranger.”
“It seems to me you need more company than the king,” I said.
I was aware that there were a lot of people around now, staring at us. They were murmuring in undertones, obviously shocked by the way I had drawn close to the witch. Looking around, I could see horror on the dark faces of the citizens from the village, who were keeping a safe distance from the woman and me.
“Please, whoever you are, just leave me alone,” the woman said, and then turned toward the truck again. She reached under the seat and pulled out a bag which was quite heavy. She balanced it on the edge of the truck, hefted and put it on her head, and then she turned and trudged in one direction.
Quickly, and with curses, the people in the shadows moved hurriedly away from her, pointing fingers at her and muttering with expressions close to hatred.
Standing there, looking after her, surrounded by the inky blackness punctuated by the lanterns and small fires, illuminating dark hate-filled faces, it struck me suddenly that this witch, whoever she was, indeed was a very lonely woman.
At that moment, without a second thought, I hauled my duffel bag cross-wise along my body, and then I followed her.
I could see the people around me talking louder now, peering closer into my face, trying to figure me out. The woman was almost lost in the shadows so I had to run after her, and a few moments later I caught up with her.
We walked between clay buildings, down wet alleys, and finally the buildings began to peter out, and there were long stretches between buildings. She was now stopping frequently to rest, obviously being weighed down by the heavy load on her head.
I sighed quickly and closed the gap between us, and then I reached for the load on her head.
She stopped, turned and looked at me.
“What’s the matter with you, gentleman?” she asked in an unsteady voice. “You’re not on a mission to kill me for ritual or some other purpose, are you?”
I could not really see her face well in the gloom, but I spoke directly to her.
“I know how to be alone, madam,” I said softly. “And I know how to be hated and rejected. As I stand right here in front of you, I’m running away from my loneliness.”
She was quiet for a long time, and then she sighed.
“So what do you want from me?” she asked finally.
“A place to spend the night, some food, if you have it, and then we’ll see what the morning will bring,” I replied as levelly as I could.
She sighed tremulously for a moment.
“I stay across the river, stranger,” she said in a very sad voice. “I’m not allowed to live with my own people. I have one house, built by a hunter who is long dead now, just a room. If you stay, you’ll have to sleep on the floor because I’m not sharing my bed with you, and you’re not having sex with me.”
I scowled darkly in the darkness.
“Hey!” I was getting angry. “I don’t sleep with old women!”
“Well, then you must be a paedophile, awengaaa, a dirty old man, and I don’t entertain such in my house!” she stated hotly.
“I’m not old, madam,” I said, my voice now sad. “I’m only twenty-six. I am growing old because I slept with the daughter of a fetish priest, and ignored her. She killed herself, and her father has put a curse on me. The curse is making me grow old, and when I’m old enough, I’ll die. That is the reason why, in my desperation, I left the comfort of the city and came to this godforsaken village. I’m alone, and I’m afraid, and I’m seeking answers.”
She was quiet for a long time, and then she sighed again.
“Come with me,” she said finally. “Seems to me you need a friend. I don’t have any friends either.”
“You believe me?” I asked incredulously.
“I’ve seen worse things, my son,” she said.
The relief I felt was so complete and so unexpected that for a moment tears came to my eyes. She made to walk on again, but I held her bag.
“Please, let me help you with this,” I said, and without a word she pushed it onto my head.
I almost regretted immediately.
It was such a heavy load.
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“Hey, witch, what do you have inside here?” I asked with sudden trepidation. No wonder she had been walking so tiredly. She was stronger than I had given her credit for. “Do you have children inside here?”
“No one sells anything to me here,” she said sadly. “Every month, I go to the towns to buy the supplies I’ll need. Come, let’s go. It will rain soon.”
I toiled behind, but thankfully we didn’t walk long. Suddenly, we came upon a pool of water that shimmered in the darkness.
“Wait here a moment, please,” she said, and descended down to the banks of the river.
I waited anxiously, but a moment later she called out to me, and I joined her at the edge of the river. She was standing near a huge canoe, and she asked me to put the bags in the middle of the canoe.
I placed them at the end nearest the river, climbed in, and dragged them to the middle of the canoe. She took a long, stout pole and placed it inside the canoe. She removed her slippers and placed them in the canoe, then she hoisted the edge of her long skirt over her knees, tied it on one side, and the she shoved the canoe with me still in it!
“Hey!” I shouted in alarm as I almost fell into the river, and then I sat down hard in the canoe.
The witch was strong indeed! She had the canoe inside the river in a moment, and then she waded through the river and clambered on board. She stood at the end, and using the long pole, she pushed into the river and pushed, driving the canoe across the river.
Sitting at the other end in the darkness, listening to the river whispering along the length of the river, I admitted to myself that this was the very first time I had been in a canoe.
And, watching her dark silhouette standing tall at the end of the canoe, lifting the pole and driving it first on the right side, then left side of the canoe, rowing us across the river, I realized for the very first time in my life, that women were much more capable in other areas than opening their thighs.
This aged woman, abandoned by a whole village, shunned by her own people, driven from among them to live at the other side of the river, alone, sad, hated…was still standing strong and defiant, facing the world with a pole in hand, surviving from one day to the next.
Grudgingly, painfully, for the very first time in my life, I indeed admired the inner strength of a woman.
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