She knew they had finally come for her when all the cows – the ones who had calved too – went on heat. A strange morning, even to her who had orchestrated many like it in her witching years. To the east, grey clouds ringed with streaks of amethyst. Westward, the full moon waning, stark-grey. The breeze whipped with now-warm, now-chilly hues, normal enough to deceive, but the elements unsettled her energy. What went on in the kraal, coupled with the incessant barking of dogs sounding as if rising from a deep, unnameable abyss, were enough to set her chest reeling.
She had not been to her nightly witchcapades for almost four weeks. She’d worried about her fate – which she could now read all bare and clear, there in the rumbling in the wind and the restless milling of the cows. A liquid, wallowing worry that swam in her heart, metamorphosed and lassoed around her throat.
Liziwe knew that she was dreaming. “I must be dreaming,” she assured herself in the dream. Being a person of her vocation, she knew the language of dreams, their metaphors, their ciphered meanings, beyond the physicality of the dream, beyond its spirituality, she knew their ramifications upon the waking world of the flesh. Though she had known that they would come for her, she never expected it to be this heavy, though could have expected for it to be this way. She had hoped for a little mercy.
Who could expect mercy
from a brood of angry,
She realises that she had been waiting for them. Still enshrouded in the prickly blanket of the dream, she howls and screams and kicks. “Come!” she hails.
Her voice wavers, falters, wanes.
“Your day is coming,” one of them had promised her before her banishment from the coven. Was it Mala, that notorious agent of devilry?
Now the signs: the heifers, all of them, mad with lust. They mounted each other, insatiable, the bull and the oxen nonchalantly watching with lazy-tailed abandon. Then there was a gurgling sound, low and distant. Water. How dare they come by water? No one, not even the most powerful witch ever escaped a spell bound in water. She couldn’t tell where it came from or where it was going.
So, she knew, it must be the wicked women witches of the coven – the Sebeni Coven, Gwadana A – that had cooked up the spell. The men were too angry with her to do anything, save for one, the one who must have given the green light. The men would get her in another way once the women were done with her. For the men, the fetching of Liziwe would have been short, quick, stripped of theatrics: they would’ve come and be done with it; possibly end her on the spot.
The girls had decided to have their fun. They took their time, twisting and poking at her mind, provoking for a response, a test to see how far she would go to save herself. And from the flying sparks of her fight, they would find one to blow ablaze, a weakness they had always known she had in her.
Liziwe saw them now, heard their laughter – poor thing, what have you done? Come thus, come to us and we’ll grant you the mercy you so yearn for, forgive the silliness of your sin.
In Sebeni, and the villages in the vicinity, the amaXhosa who lived there believed cattle to be significant beings in dreams. But, witches, working in the rugged black blanket of night, could twist and toss and turn that narrative however they wanted to.
She tried jolting herself awake from the arresting hold of the dream, but—
It wouldn’t budge! Can you imagine?
it gained its strength,
grew its hooks,
dug into her soul,
and drew her further into its depths.
Run! Run, now!
Liziwe finally awoke and, to her horror – standing at the window of her quiet house, her head leant on the cold windowpane, the curtain slightly pulled back – realised that the dream was as true as the feet she stood on. There was the restlessness of the cattle in the pen. They weren’t bellowing or fighting; just all over each other’s backs, with the exception, of course, of the bullock and the three oxen. They knocked against the logs of their enclave, the gate shook and almost fell for the mayhem. They frothed at the mouth, their udders as black as tar from the manure, their ears reared, eyes, as far as she could see, red as sunrise.
Banished from entering the coven since the beginning of the month when the moon was blue and new, and she had to make her decision by the time it was full, or they would finish her. Now she saw the fullness of the moon, round, grey and pregnant with the promise of her demise.
Her mother had no power to fight for her beyond the grave. She must have still been in purgatory, having not crossed over to the Realm of the Spirits yet – after eleven whole years! “That’s the kind of price a witch pays, Daughter,” she would tell Liziwe. “You will suffer for all your sins and the sins of your mothers and their mothers’ before them. And then, just when you feel you are about to give up the fight, the First Witches will come for your judgement. That’s as far as I know it goes. So better be prepared.” Now her mother’s words rang in her ears like the looping sound of the witches’ snake cum airbus. These were the words her mother had said to her on their first night out together, before they climbed on their to-be-nightly-witching-snake together, naked as the day they had been spat into the waking world.
Liziwe’s first official lesson.
She was seven years old.
Her father, dead, was now a zombie in the Dark Forest that lined the nether perimeters of Gwadana A – her sacrifice to the coven for her initiation. (Curious how unmoved she had always been whenever she saw his face, there. Why had she never cared for him so?) After all that had happened, the witches were now coming for her only son. Either him or her. The old man was of no use in the coven, thus his relegation to the back alleys of the Dark Forest. Couldn’t even be taken into the choir that sang and sang and sang, or enlisted into the water fetching force, or for woodcutting. What could the witches do with a tired old fool like Fafi, there?
They needed new blood—
Liziwe had made just the slightest, most consequential of mistakes, and—
Here she was—
A mistake could mean a life lost back into the Realm of the Living just when the witches had snatched it for the plans they had put forth for that specific soul or one of its ilk. It meant immense, irretrievable costs to the coven. Mistakes like that could never be forgiven.
For Liziwe’s sacrifice, her son was the only one left.
Blood, blood, we want blood!
She heard them now as she stood by the window, pondering and mulling and summoning her strengths and that of her mother’s and her mother’s mothers before her.
Blood! Blood! We want blood—!
New blood for the Anointing Oil. For woodcutting, water fetching. For feeding on. For new skills, for new inventions. A new voice for the choir, a new face to look at, a new face to admire. For somebody to take her place, somebody to transform the place – perhaps?
For – well, Mala could not do anything with a seven-year-old, he was too young.
Nascent sun to the east. Sky a milky, darkly grey with that hint of a pensive violet underscoring the mass of cloud. A lone blue flash of lightning shot through in accompaniment of the sun’s rays gleaming blandly behind the murky clouds. She’d seen this before, in someone else’s dreaming, right before she and her troops closed in. And, oh, she had seen much in her twenty-years of witching! From mounting Mamlambo the night-snake-cum-airbus, roving, flying over the homesteads, on to distant lands, even an overnight trip to America once, hunting for souls. Those souls commanded out of the bodies of men and women and children, done in so immaculate a manner that those who noticed what was happening to them, deep in their sleep, only did so when it was already too late to fight, not that fighting would have helped in any way, and they would find themselves waking in the company of the zombies of the coven, veteran and new, without a pinch of a clue of their whereabouts, where newcomers were welcomed and baptised.
The Welcoming and Baptism involved a series of rituals where new souls were blown back into physical bodies, copies of the ones they once belonged to in the Realm of the Living. This – the Welcoming – could take a few minutes, depending on
– how nubile
– and elastic
a soul was,
its fighting spirit.
Days, if it proved
difficult to budge.
Months, at most.
Once the right body received the right soul – that breath of life! – the person lived in the coven, a Welcomed and Baptised soul. Forever. Ha ha ha, the witches of Sebeni rejoiced when the Welcoming was complete. Sikufumene! We have got you! And golden goblets would overflow with blood wine. On the long tables were toenail-encrusted kidney pie, heart and lung soufflé, small intestine soup, pumpkin roasted over sizzling skin, brain chunks sautéed with dried blood crumbs, a thigh on a spike, pit-roasted, femur and all. To these gatherings or feasts the choir was summoned to entertain, their voices ringing louder than the Singers of Belmar, a cacophonous harmony never to be contended with.
Then the Baptism began. A delicate undertaking not performed by just anyone, for accountability was paramount: should something go wrong, a witch would pay with his or her soul, and trust Mpiyakhe – that one who must have given the green light for the girls to come for her – a witch never wanted that. The Baptisms were to be performed only by a select troop of witches, those women whose powers could not be questioned. The ones whose stare bore holes into your skin.
Liziwe was in training with the twelve Baptism Witches. Part of the reason for the circumstances she finds herself under today was that she had, during the last stage of the training, got cold feet – literally! – and she turned back. That was her second mistake, the turning back. Shirking the duties of a trainee, whether out of a lack of knowledge, or in her case, fear, was as unforgivable as losing a soul.
A soul was lost that morning. Luckily it belonged to a boy who tended to be spatially ignorant, never had the mind to take in detail, always, always in some sort of trance or other, such that there was no chance of telling, when he went back to, was retrieved by his family, what he had seen, for, had he seen anything at all?
The witches of Sebeni, Gwadana A were livid.
“You bwitch! You stupid bwitch!”
Liziwe had missed the boy right when she had to finish hammering the nail into his forehead. Just one, two, three last hits and it would be done.
“I can’t do it,” she cried. “There has been a mistake. I did something wrong.”
“What do you mean you can’t do it? What do you mean? Do it! Do it now!” shouted Mala. She was one of the fiercest of the brood. Mala never missed a single nail – as the years went by and she honed her skills, it only took one aim and one hit on the nail, quick, efficient – and once she hammered it in, it never, ever came out. (Was that why she was a favourite? Was that all it took? Of course not, Liziwe snorts as she shifts from the window back to the bed where she sits.) Sangomas, amagqirha, tried to bring those souls back to the Realm of the Living, but if Mala had held the hammer , they all failed.
“Your mother was one of the fiercest and strongest witches we have ever had here. What do you mean you can’t do it? Did she never leave you with anything? Did she never teach you anything? Are you as stupid as you seem? How can you miss such an important step?” Mala writhed with fury and the eleven other witches, and the three other initiates with them, reeled too with fury at the anticipation of the trouble that was surely coming.
They huffed and snorted and clapped their hands in disbelief and anger.
How could she—!
Then as sudden as Liziwe’s balking from the body-copy, blew a roving, leaf-blowing breeze from the Black River below the Dark Forest. The trees swayed, seeming on the brink of cracking.
“Now look! Mpiyakhe is on his way here,” said another, Notho, standing next to Mala, staring at Liziwe with green, lizard eyes. “We better get these zombies finished quickly or else… you do know of his punishments, no?”
He’d never punished Liziwe in all her witching years, but the stories her mother told her, the exhibitions of his punishments for the whole coven to see, made her blood rush and her shins melt, her heart sink to the floor of her soul’s core.
She picked the hammer and nail and went again towards the boy tied to a tree trunk, the mngcunube tree in the middle of the Dark Forest, a sole tree in a circle of a clearing where dry leaves crackled and floated with the whipping winds. This is the only tree where the ritual was to be performed. “Stay!” she shouted. “Stay seated!”
The boy fumbled and struggled, crying ugly tears for fear of the black and the white hissing, slithering ropes holding his body onto the tree trunk.
She had forgotten that one should hit the nail three times and she’d already given it two blows. She placed the five-inch rusty nail in the middle of the boy’s forehead, tapped it in with the rock-and-femur hammer and the boy shrieked as it bore and cracked further into his skull. The zombies in the coven stirred and grunted and cried in response, loud feral cries that rose to the heavens but could not be heard by anyone else – Tabitha and Hecuba could have flown all the way from Maine had it not been for the intervention of the masking spell by the Baptism Witches thrown up to the tree tops and spread like a spider’s web, closing in the noise, closing out all external interference, concealing all business here. Witches elsewhere could tell the strength of the zombies of a certain coven by the strength of their cries, and the Witches of Sebeni, Gwadana A could not risk losing any of them, for other witches could invade and kidnap some. For the first time in a hundred years, they were regaining the strength of their coven as was originally gifted by the First Witches but had been sucked, little by little, cunningly, by the Witches of Auchi, all the way in Lagos, years ago, with that sly Doreen leading the pack, now turned all saintly and helpful to humanity, ugh, that two-faced bwitch!
The zombies had been in the boy’s position before, they knew what happened, but for the invisible spider-web-thread shackles that held them back from any heroic action, they could not come to his aid, their skulls emptied of the essential functions of the brain save for controlled movement (by the witches, of course), drinking, eating – for one had to be sustained somehow – and singing, oh the singing!
For the second time Liziwe hit the nail and it went in three quarters of its length and the boy writhed silently with intermittent grunts and painful moans. But at the third time, she remembered that she had not, before the hammering, dipped the nail in the Anointing Oil of fresh blood and herbs that was kept brewing over woodfire behind the mngcunube tree. She was forced to pull the nail out, she thought, and—
That’s when the mistake was made.
The witches shrieked and hailed: AHLILILILILELELELELE AHHH! WENZANI?!
“You stupid bwitch, wenzani?”
Mpiyakhe inched closer to the lot then, and observed the blunder quietly.
That was a definite loss. Panic and fear – of what? making exactly the kind of mistake she had? – had made her forget, firstly, the Anointing Oil. Fear made her want to do things right, took from her mind the knowledge that they had the power to fix these things, for a small price, a sacrifice of a lamb or an old ewe from her kraal. But she had none of these; she only had cattle, her legacy, her inheritance.
The witches were hysterical!
She knew what she had to do. Those sounds were spelling it out already. In some way, the witches were trying to protect her, a kind of mercy, for they knew what would happen once Mpiyakhe, who still stood by quietly, left the scene. Havoc would follow, already they could hear the winds whipping through the treetops, felt it pelt their faces, turning up a whirlwind of the dry leaves on the ground.
Hence the mad cows, now, amok with hormones—
Now a sole, lucid and elongated ‘S’ of lightning like a snake in languid motion, flashed to the east, tore through her thoughts like a sickle. It was a glaring red; it only meant her demise. Who will I leave my son with? Who would take care of him? I have not given him—
His father was unknown to her or to the boy. Like Jesus, he came out of nowhere, out of a ghost. But Liziwe was no Mary. Mary knew, at least, was told who the father of her son was.
She started praying to the First Witches—
Oh, Great Ones, who came before. Great Mother, Great Aunt, Great Father. You who give us life and bless us with flesh, blood and soul. Spare—
The flash came again. Stronger in strength and brighter in colour, with a blue streak alongside it, accompanied by a single ear-shattering bolt of thunder.
A vision of drowning
in black water.
Ah, they had arrived.
Her head slipped
into the beginnings
of a haze.
She held her balance. She turned her head, the rest of her body still, and the whole house was simmering with white mist from the floor rising incessantly to the rafters.
She knew how this went.
Hayibo ndiyathwetyulwa, she thought, they are bewitching me, but
and, before the sound came – which would be any minute from now – that unmistakable sound of the snake-airbus, a sound like a wire string turned and roved over and over and over three hundred and sixty degrees a thousand times per second. She would choke on the mist. It wasn’t the witches’ doing, though she could trust that evil bwitch Mala to be in collusion with the cooker of this spell – unmistakably Mpiyakhe’s spell, this.
The mist, the black water, the whipping wind outside—
He had armoured the girls with the gift of his spell and sent them out hurtling, hunting. How manly of him, how chivalrous, to let the girls have their fun with her.
How angry must he have been to choose this course of action, not to come do his work himself? Again, the answers come to her mind with Mala’s face: she must have cooed her way into being assigned the task with her girls, seduced him to let her do it.
Black Water brewed outside the house, filling the whole yard, in small trickles, little streams and puddles, pooling to a brooding ocean, as dark and broody as the sinking feeling of foreboding that panged in the pit of her spirit. She could hear the gurgling, soft as a lullaby, but rising like the mist inside the house, to swallow her whole, not to leave a single loose strand of hair.
The cows broke the gate to the pen and leapt out of their sacred enclave in twos and threes, impatient, impenitent, and danced in the yard, stewing mulch, kicking up mud, roving chaos.
Ah, the witches had arrived. She felt them in her flesh, in the chill of the marrow in her bones.
Meanwhile, the river that had sprung from the belly of the earth was slowly welling up around her yard, yet never leaving its boundaries. If the mist inside the house would not make it easy for them to catch her, the water would take her right to where she was supposed to be. In a moment, she would find herself tied, inextricably, to the trunk of the Baptism tree with the moving, hissing, angry ropes, for they, too, knew when a witch had fumbled and was up for retribution, the eternal and irreversible kind.
She was never told what Mpiyakhe had said or done when he left the scene on the night she took the nail out of the boy’s forehead, but she knew in her gut that she could no longer go on nightly witchcapades with any of the deployed troops for a minimum of seven days, let alone set foot, show any of her three faces, at the coven.
They came to her instead.
“Liziwe,” Notho had started. It was exactly midnight when they’d arrived, not a second longer, that first night following her mistake. “We have been left no choice but to take you to the Chambers where you will stay with the rest of those stupid weaklings who befouled the sacred Baptism like you did.”
The ten others had grunted and hissed in agreement, save for Mala, who stood staring Liziwe in the eye as Notho spoke, unlike the rest who hovered in the air, their legs crossed in front of them. Her belly flesh sagged, her breasts sucked lifeless by the serpentine zombies she was known to fuck whenever she felt famished, quiet as it was kept.
Liziwe had never been to the Chambers. Her mother had neglected, it seemed, to let her in the know about what happened there. It seemed, now, that her mother never loved her as much as she had claimed to. Why had she hidden so many things from her? That could not have been out of love, could it?
“There,” Notho went on, smirking, shaking her head, trying to find her voice, but quickly recovered. She looked at Liziwe with her green lizard eyes. There you will sit in benches of fire, with no water, no food, and only the breath of Dlazonke for air.” Dlazonke was the oldest and, in his day, fiercest witching snake of the coven, but now he spent his days in the Chambers with the witches who had soiled the sacred tradition , licking them wherever and whenever he desired. His breath, trickling from the tiny pores in his skin only five times a day, and on some days never at all, was as putrescent and as hot as an atomic bomb.
“Notho, Mala, my great witching ones,” Liziwe had pleaded, “I—”
“You will have to hand over your son as a sacrifice to save yourself,” Mala declared. “That is the only request the coven makes.”
“Are you insane? Not a lamb, like everyone else?”
“You decided to run away rather than stay and help us finish the job. You know the price for that.”
“Or does she?” cackled one of the witches.
“Does she ever know anything?” chimed another, and they shook their hands in the air, reeling with laughter.
“I gave my father just three years ago—”
“For yet another mess.
The laughter rose again.
“You know your father is a useless old rag. Can’t even turn serpentine like the other old men we took over there. Shut up and give us your baby.”
Everyone kept silent, their eyes exchanged looks, knowing looks.
Of course, you would say that, Liziwe had thought.
“I am not giving up my son,” was Liziwe’s final word. “I am not! ”
“Have it your way then. We have been instructed to convey this message: Should you not give us the boy, don’t even think of setting your wretched foot in that coven. Your judgement will be in four weeks,” Notho had said. “Godspeed.” For somebody who was Liziwe’s age, she was as fierce as Mala (or at least pretended to be), as loved and praised as if she were a first descendant of the First Witches, as respected as Mpiyakhe, but not as feared as any of them. But on that morning, when they had come with the news of her banishment, Liziwe felt hot blood dripping from the base of her skull, a single trickle coursing down her spine. That was when they had started executing the spell. Notho had kick-started it, Liziwe knew.
They had mounted Mamlambo, naked and dancing and chanting their Disappearing Witch Spell, an invisibility spell that rendered them out of sight in seconds, and just like that were out of Liziwe’s home.
Why had she never thought of protecting her boy? Arm him with a spell, even if it were a flimsy, sketchy thing to keep trouble away from him? Had she inherited from her mother that silly streak of negligence, one that would cost her at the last minute? Just like how the old woman had remembered the minute before she took her last breath to tell her that Zim-Zalabham meant that she could put on her second face and no witch would be able to detect her anywhere, let alone defeat her in a fight, if only the spell was said right, and followed by a licking of the right thumb and small finger and a bite-and-quick-chew of white chalk. When she discovered this secret, by way of a slip of the tongue from Notho, that duplicitous bitch, and wore its truth like the armour it was, it was easy for her to discover her third face.
Now, when she remembered the spell, so simple yet so powerful, it was too late. The water welled up on all sides of the house, the floor inside was a swamp, and the whole house was like an ominous hot spring, water underneath, mist and smoke atop, cloudy, milky, darkly grey. Outside the cattle were frenetic, amok all around the yard. The sun shone with a magnificent brilliance but very distant, so distant she longed for its heat. In her yard, it was cold and dark, the clouds down to a few meters above the roof of the house and an ominous brooding rumbled through them, her name called by something, somebody she could not see, a voice she did not know.
She waded the water, struggled at the main door on her way outside. She would leave the boy sleeping. She would rather die and be damned for eternity than see him in that coven. He would drown if he drowned. And if they got him, she knew there was no chance that they would see each other at the coven. Besides, once they had her, they would never come for him because they would not need him anyway. Once a witch was in the Chambers, he or she never came back, Mala had informed her, with a sweet delight on her rotten-tooth face that morning. But how could she trust them?
She could see the bolt coming.
so it wouldn’t be the mist
or the water,
but the lightning
and the water.
The mist was to get her out the house. How could she not figure it out all this time? She finally accepted how much she didn’t know; how gullible and naïve she had been. A product of being ‘protected’, of utter ignorance and neglect. Her mother had hidden so much from her, all in the name of love, and now look! She looked to the corner of the garden where the graves of her parents were and could not see a thing, the clouds, now merged with the blackness of the water, had closed the world off from her.
She started running, wading water, towards the gate, on her way to seek refuge. She slipped and fell on her chest, her breasts pattering with a thud on the mud. Alone, sliding in the black mud, the cattle kicked at her head and her body. She slid down the slope of the yard towards the source where the water now sprang up as if from a fountain, down there by the gate.
Wasn’t it sacrilege for a witch to utter that name?
The bolt, now orange, blue and red, flashed and struck her, sliding, sliding, the cattle now laughing audibly, laughing as if possessed, like a troop of Jokers, accompanying her to her eternal damnation—
She opened her eyes, and the world was as clear as the first rays of summer light, all the cattle sleeping peacefully in their pen, all four calves by their mothers. She saw Bhongo, her son, with his hands now cupped at his window, now beating at the glass, screaming,
Liziwe was as quiet as midnight, the only sound in her head coming from the gurgling in her ears; and there was the insistent sting in her eyes, the black water pulling her down, down, deep into the belly of the well.
Anathi Jongilanga is a teacher from Ngqeleni, South Africa. His writing has appeared at Transition, Lolwe, The Kalahari Review. His essay Return to Art appears in the anthology Through the Eye of a Needle, published by Praxis Magazine Online. He is the founding editor of The Blood Beats Series, whose second anthology Something in the Water is out at Brittle Paper.