Danso and the Firefly: An African Vampire Legend.
In the midday heat of Ashanti, the air shimmered in waves before Danso’s eyes. He mopped the sweat from his forehead, licking chapped lips. But the moisture from his tongue was thick and salty, burning the cracks.
He was squatting behind a full bush with his hunting rifle. The sun burned mercilessly on his skin. He formed a fist and bought it to his forehead, two fingers pointing outward like antlers. Then he showed left, and to the front.
“Antelope spotted over there,” the sign announced to the other of the hunters.
Behind him the men acknowledged, ready for action. All eyes moved to the canopy of trees a few yards away. The commander raised a finger, and they rose. Danso, as the one who observed the target first, would be in front. If he failed, the others would step forward and triumph.
They rushed, bodies hunched low to draw less attention. Naked feet made barely a sound. Little wisps of soil raised into the air. Although they had shoes, they believed it great luck to hunt the traditional practice, with skin touching the Earth. Shoes, as their wives, stayed in the village.
Danso’s heart beat with the rhythm of the land, the rhythm of Ashanti. It was harsh and loud and fast. As they drew closer to the antelope, the sweat beaded on his brow and palms. He clung to his rifle, index finger on the trigger and thumb near the safety switch.
Lifting his rifle, he took aim. But the distance between hunter and deer was too large, even with the rifle. Behind him, a twig snapped. The sound travelled to the sensitive ears of the antelope. It lifted its head, looking around. The ears turned as it sniffed the air.
Everyone froze. Waiting. Danso made a note in his mind to punch the hunter responsible.
Then the antelope ran.
He followed, not waiting to see what the others were doing. His wife and child needed this meat. Winter was coming, and the herds would trek south soon. Danso kept his eyes on the fleeing antilope. His knees lifted high with each step, reducing the chances for tripping on roots.
The sweat turned icy on his skin. A mistake meant starvation for his family. With Ejo, his wife, pregnant with their second child, meat was important. The buck stopped, and Danso did the same, going onto his knees. Saying a prayer to the Gods, he pulled the rifle’s butt into his shoulder. Within seconds, the cross mark rested on the beast’s chest. He shot.
The deer shook, as if ridding itself of water on its skin. Then it fell with a loud crashed. The other hunters shouted in victory. Danso ran to the dying animal. With his hand on the animal’s head, he thanked the Gods for providing this sustenance. Then he plunged his knife into the throat, opening the blood vessels and cutting off air supply.
The other hunters gathered around him, slapping his shoulder in joyful celebration. They soon said their goodbyes, moving on with the hunt. He tied the animal’s feet together. It is about half a day’s journey home. By the time he arrives, it will be late afternoon.
He longed to see Ejo, and Kisi, his daughter. She was the light of his life, a bundle of laughter caught up in skin and bone. They knew her as the joyful child who carried smiles in her heart. And soon Ejo will bear another child. Danso was sure this was a son. The baby kicked like a buffalo.
Ejo noticed him from afar. She came running, Kisi close behind. Shouting with joy, they reached him. For a moment he considered lifting the animal from his shoulders, but then decided agianst this. It was enormous. The effort would be too much.
“You look tired,” Ejo said as she kissed him on the cheek.
Kisi tapped his thigh three times. He looked down to see the brightness in her face. Genuine joy shone from her eyes. Other members of the village joined them on the short walk to his home. One by one they tapped his body, always three times.
“Congratulations,” this meant. But none would speak the words aloud. To do so would attract the attention of evil spirits. No-one wanted them to notice Danso’s family.
“Is that all of it?” Ejo asked as darkness crept closer to their hut.
“I think so,” Danso told her. “Why don’t you rest? You look tired.”
“And you don’t?” she said. “You were away for two days. Carried the animal home by yourself. Why didn’t you ask someone to help?”
He shrugged. “Because then we’d need to share the meat,” he explained. “Then we would be short. I don’t think I’ll go on another hunt before winter. Even if they have one.”
Ejo rubbed her rounded belly. “We’d be fine,” she said. “Your brother is the Holy Man, and we have enough charms to ward off every evil spirit in the world.”
He knew she was right. Dozens of charms adorned her arms, neck and ankles. They protected her and the baby against any evil spirit that might attack during the pregnancy or the birth. All this come at substantial cost, though. Their chickens, goats, and cattle herds reduced to almost half.
“This is my son,” he said, placing his palm over her navel. “I want to be here when he is born.”
He didn’t tell her about the darkness that was growing inside him. She would only laugh at him. She always did. But for a week now there was something in his dreams that followed him into the light of day. He didn’t know what it was, only that it was terrible.
Even now, with this triumph of providing meat for the family, that premonition of something evil coming hung over his mind like fog. Danso shook his head.
“I’ll quickly prepare the liver,” Ejo told him. “The porridge I prepared earlier.”
“I can cook…”
She squinted at him, her chin lifting only slightly. But he knew that whatever he wanted to say would be met with resistance. And if he tried to go against her wishes, she would limit conversations for the rest of the week to nods and grunts.
“You can go wash,” she told him. The tone of her voice was higher than usual. Another warning. “And then you can sit down and rest. I will cook the meat like a good wife. And I will bring you a beer.”
“You made beer?”
“Your mother made beer,” she told him. “You were not away long enough for me to prepare anything.”
“If you didn’t make a batch of beer, it means only one thing.”
She turned her warm brown eye to his. “Yes, no-one allowed me to leave the village to fetch water. Like you told them too.”
“It was for your own good,” he told her. “You need to rest more.”
“I rested all day.”
“I am too tired to call you out on that lie.”
She chuckled at the victory. “Go wash, husband. I’ll have the liver ready soon.”
The night was dark and windy. The air pushed angrily at trees and huts. It screamed through the village like a woman on the warpath. Kisi woke up screaming. Not in fear of the sounds outside. She was in pain.
Nothing comforted her. Hour by hour she cried, the neighbors clicking their tongues in annoyance. In the morning, when the sun’s bright light shone down, Danso found the two little marks on her ankle. His body became ice cold as winter. Fear grabbed him by the throat.
Adze. The shapeshifter.
He lifted Kisi out of Ejo’s arms, and ran all the way to his brother, Kobina, the village Holy Man. At first, he did not believe the news that Adze was walking. Only after seeing the bite mark did he roll the sacred bones. The Ancestors confirmed Danso’s words.
“He came into your hut"?” Kobina asked.
“He bit Kisis,” Danso answered. “You saw the wounds.”
“If he wanted too, he could have drained her.”
“But he didn’t.”
Kobina’s hands flew like a flock of birds, gathering this and that from the rows and rows of pots and bowls behind him. He added a pinch of this and a piece of that to the mortar in front of him.
“You make that sound like a bad thing,” Danso said, his eyes firmly on the growing pile of ingredients.
“Don’t worry about this,” Kobina said. “This one is on me.”
Danso nodded. He didn’t even want to think about how many goats this will cost.
“And why are you making this expensive medicine?”
“Because it’s clear that Kisi wasn’t what he wanted. That is why.”
“Adze longs for innocent blood.”
Danse frowned. “Innocent blood?”
Kobina nodded as he lifted the pestle to stamp the ingredients.
“Well, I would never call myself or Ejo innocent.”
“Neither would I.”
Danso frowned. “Then who?”
“What can be more innocent than a newborn baby?”
“No,” Danso whispered.
Icy fear crept over him. His son was not even born yet, and already in danger.
“Fetch a goat,” Kobina told him. He was still pounding the mixture in the mortar. “I’ll be at your house within the hour. We need to purify it and call the Ancestors to protect your family. Adze will kill all of you to get to the child.”
That night and the next, Danso did not sleep. He walked around the yard looking for the Shape-shifting Firefly until his eyes were red and scratchy. But the yellow dot of light did not appear. The Firefly shifter did not come to their hut, but he visited others in the village. Several children cried until the morning. All over the village people woke to the sound, but none dared to leave the safety of their own homes.
Only Danso patrolled. But he didn’t find Adze.
“He is thirsty, this one,” Danso said to the Kobina on the morning of the third day.
They were sitting outside the hut, in a tree’s shade. His grandfather planted it on the day of his marriage. The sun was already fierce, even though it was early in the day. Soon Danso would have to go down to the river with buckets to carry water to the fields. This was a woman’s work, but no respectable man would let his pregnant wife walk alone with Adze around. Not even in the day.
“It must be a feeding frenzy,” Ejo said. “Maybe the elders were right when they talked about the dangers of the dam all those years ago.”
Danso looked at her, and without a word tapped her on the head three times. He would not say it aloud, but she was brilliant, for a woman. His daughter was brave. Not once during the night did she scream out. But to tell either how proud he was would attract the attention of evil spirits. And they had enough trouble already.
“He is going to be back every night,” Kobina said. “In a frenzy Adze can drain a child completely, drinking all the blood.”
Ejo shivered and hugged Kisi, who was sleeping. “We were lucky,” she said.
“Those charms protected us,” Danso added.
“Not enough,” Ejo whispered, softly rubbing my thumb over the two marks. “He should not even have gotten this close.”
“We could put out palm oil or coconut water,” Danso said. “Shapeshifters love that.”
“Not when they are in a frenzy,” Kobina told him. “Then they only want blood. Human blood.”
“Maybe an elder would feed the monster.” Danso made a short list in his head of the oldest members of their village.
“If one is willing,| Ejo said. “We should try. It’s worth the effort, I think. I’ve heard from grandfather it was a custom in the old days.”
“Not always,” Kobina said, shivering at the idea. “He said sometimes they only want children’s blood.”
“Innocent blood,” Danso said, a shiver running up his spine.
“I wonder if our wrongdoings leave a sour taste,” Ejo asked. “Do you think the blood of the guilty tastes horrible?”
“Maybe,” Danso said, clenching his hands into tight balls.
“Look,” Ejo nodded to the village center where they gathered for market days or celebrations. “Everyone is gathering. You should hear what they say, husband.”
Sighing loudly, he rose. He wished she would come along. The lack of sleep made his head slow, and he would need to pay special attention to everything said in this meeting.
“They are a bunch of fools!” he shouted as he entered the hut, slamming the wall with a fist.
Ejo pulled the Eland skin tighter around Kisi and glared at him with eyes that spat fire. “Sjjjjtt,” she whispered. “You’ll wake her.”
He shook his head from side-to-side and rolled his eyes upwards. She rose, poured him some beer, and waited until he drank it in large gulps. Filling the pot again, she waited for him to finish drinking and to calm down.
Then she sat down next to Kisi and patted on the grass mat next to her.
“Come sit here,” she said. “And tell me what they said.”
“They are going to call the holy men from the other villages,” he said. “And ask them to do a protective spell.”
“That will not keep him out forever,” she whispered. “And it won’t stop him. He’ll just go to another village.”
“See,” he told her. “When I said that, they all looked at me like I was not thinking clearly.”
“They must either feed it so that the children will be safe, or catch it.”
“They are too scared to catch it.” He waved a hand through the air, as if sweeping the idea away. “They have no bones within them. They fall like sacks of meat at the whisper of Adze.”
“What if it comes back tonight?”
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “There is no chasing it away. Not really. Either feed it something or catch it and force it to shape shift. While it is a firefly, it is impossible to kill. Everyone knows this.”
“That would be horrible!” Ejo shouted, then clapped her hand over her mouth.
They both looked over to where Kisi laid, but she was sleeping soundly.
“It’s the only way to stop it feeding on our children,” he said. “It’s nine so far. At least none died, yet. Last night he drank from three in one night.”
Ejo folded her hands over her swollen belly. The child stirred within as if he understood everything that was being said. Humming a lullaby, she rocked back and forth. Danso watched her. It won’t be long before the child’s born-day. His boy.
“If the Adze comes for him,” Ejo whispered. “He will die.”
“That…” Danso poked an angry finger at the door. “That beast will not come near our son. I won’t let him.”
“You say this,” she said. “When he was at your daughter not so long ago? You cannot stop him, Danso. If he wants our son, he’ll have him.”
He opened his mouth to protest, but he knew it was futile. Ejo was right. If Adze wanted the boy, nothing would stop him. He rose, pacing up and down in the confined space. He was tired and angry all at the same time. But most of all, he worried about his family.
“You need to sleep.”
They jumped at the words spoken from the door.
Turning, Danso found his father at the door. He sat down slowly, filling the doorway.
“It’s not dark yet,” he said. “You need to rest before the sun goes down. I’ll wait here and wake you when it does.”
“Father…” Danso said.
“Don’t fight me on this,” his father said. “You are weak now. If he comes tonight, there won’t be anything you can do in your state.”
“There is nothing we can do anyway,” Ejo said.
“That is not true,” the old man said, smiling at her. “There is a way, but we will need to be strong and fast. And right now, neither of you are.”
“Are you going to sacrifice yourself?” Ejo asked. “There are others who are much more suitable for that.”
He waved a hand at her. “Stop speculating. Go sleep and give me time to think of a plan.”
“I thought you said you already knew what to do,” Danso said.
“I said we can stop it,” father told him with a stern look. “Because there are stories of this evil from the time before. Your grandfather was on the council when they started talks about the dam. He heard the stories of the burial grounds. The Elders insisted they must not disturb the graves. Everyone there heard it, but still they ignored the warnings. The promised progress that the dam would bring far exceeded any old tales or warnings.”
“But that was years ago,” Danso said. “Building is going well. It will be completed soon. Ten years they blasted into the mountain and build that wall. Why now?”
“They started blasting upriver,” Father said. “To open underground reservoirs and divert streams to all run into the river that will supply the dam. Maybe these new blasts awakened the monster from his prison.”
“Prison?” Ejo asked.
“Yes,” Father explained. “They imprisoned Adze. Almost fifty years ago. I was a young man then. Now it’s back and we will have to fight it again. And you will have to come with me, Danso. So stop talking and start sleeping.”
Danso laid down between Kisi and Ejo. He thought it would be impossible to sleep under the circumstances. But he was wrong. Within moments after resting his head on the grass sleeping mat, he snored.
Danso woke with a start. He sat up straight, darkness surrounding him.
“Ejo,” he whispered.
There was nothing but silence around him. Reaching out, he felt along the floor, but Kisi and Ejo were both gone. He rose fast, fighting the urge to scream, and looked toward the door where his father was before he fell asleep. There was no one waiting there. A waning moon shed dim silver light into the hut.
Ducking low, he stepped out into the dark night as quietly as he could. With two enormous leaps, he was standing against the tree his grandfather planted. He looked around the yard. Ejo kept her knives sharp and at the foot of the tree. His fingers closed around the wooden handle of her largest carving knife. He lifted it slowly, and finding nothing out of place, moved to the fence.
With great care, Danso crept along the edge of the property, inspecting the yard. On this night no children were crying, no grown-ups whispering, and no guard walked outside. The village lay in silence, unmoved by the fear that gripped his heart.
It was only him, alone in the night, in the village, in the world.
In the village sqaure, feet had disturbed the ground. Household items laid scattered: blankets, clothes, and cooking utensils. He stopped and stared at the chaos. They obviously left in a hurried bundle and decided that all these belongings were not worth the effort of carrying. Slowly he walked through, looking for anything familiar that would show Ejo and the children were with the rest of them.
But even after doubling back, he could not find a single sign. His skin became icy cold, his mouth dry.
Stomping his feet, he did another trip, but all this accomplished was to make his heart beat faster, and his neck and shoulder muscles tensed up even more. He tried to fight back the fear. It was his biggest enemy right now. It would tire his body quickly. It would make him weak.
He returned to the hut, gathering his spear, bow and arrow, and long knife. His father’s footsteps crisscrossed in front of the hut. Dad fought Adze, or at least tried to. He followed these around the corner of the hut to the back. Here they circled several times before zigzagging across the backyard to the fence. Keeping the knife ready, he climbed the fence.
He cussed. How did he sleep through everything? Why didn’t they wake him?
On the other side of the fence, Danso found his father’s footsteps and followed it into the forest. He needed to see if there was a fight, and who had won. His hand reached up and closed around the charms of protection. Adze came to feed. If father frustrated his desire, Adze might eat from him.
But maybe his dad had it trapped? Then they could join Ejo and Kisi, knowing it was safe to bring them back home His heart beat like a village drum as he ran, expecting to hear calls or cries. But the night was silent around him. Even the animals were too scared of Adze to declare their presence.
He came to a place with the footsteps left the path. For a moment he stood, contemplating what to do. They cleared the path often. It was an open space with good visibility. But to leave the path was risky. The jungle at night held more dangers than Adze.
Should he follow his father’s path deep into the forest, or should he return to the village and look for Ejo and Kisi?
He turned back to find Ejo and Kisi. If they were still alive.
Back at the village, he tied a blanket around his neck like a cape and tugged a rolled up bundle of rope under his arm. He did not take food; only an ostrich egg filled with coconut water. He turned to the village square and found the place where many footsteps crossed each other. Keeping his wife’s knife in hand, he ran, following the trail.
At least there was no blood or bodies in the village, or along the path they traveled.
He took a deep breath, feeling the grip of fear release somewhat around his lower spine. The group kept to the path leading down to the river. There was no bridge to cross the water, but none was necessary. His people did not like to go into water. The spirits of evil people waited there. If you bump into one, it would attach to you and follow you home.
Only once in the Kingdom’s history did they cross the water. His parents’ generation had done so, according to the stories told around the campfire many a night.
He knew there were shallows through which the strong could wade and carry the weak. It would be difficult at night, but not impossible.
At the crossroads he turned left and made his way to the river. Soon he stood amid a thousand footprints on the river’s bank. They left several items here before crossing the dangerous water. His mother always said that in times of trouble you learn what is the most important in your life.
To him it was Kisi, Ejo, and his unborn son.
At the edge of the river he bowed his head, saying a prayer to the God of the rivers and the fish for safe crossing. Then he mustered all his courage and slipped into the water. It folded around his feet with icy hands. He fought the feeling that made him want to turn around. Humans did not belong in water. He took another step and then another and another until the water reached his hips. If his family could cross this water, so could he.
On the other side of the river, he shook himself and then followed the footsteps. They would go into the caves high in the mountain. His jog turned to running. His heart was beating faster now. Fear grew in him like a dark boulder. Heavy. Hard. He did not know how long he was asleep, or what had happened since then.
He wanted to find his family. He longed to hear their news. What made them leave the safety of the village? At least huts protected them better than the forest. He wanted to have this night end. A blood-sucking monster was on the loose.
The path rose and he could hear voices now, so he added speed to his steps. Up the mountain he ran, swerving this way and that to avoid trees and boulders in his way.
The sound of the villagers’ voices became louder and louder. He ran faster and faster. Sweat stung his eyes, and he wiped it away with his hand. There was no wind, no sounds of animals, none of the night noises that belonged in the forest. And suddenly his feet on the ground sounded like mountains rumbling. His breathing became the northern wind.
They were close, Ejo and Kisi. He longed to see them, touch them, hold them in his arms.
Because he realized, suddenly, that father did not win the battle. They would not have continued this far up the mountain unless they could see that Adze was still alive. A sadness, unlike any he knew before, swept through him. The force of it overcame his joyful expectation of seeing Ejo and Kisi.
Don’t you cry now, you’re a man, not a boy.
But even as the thought entered his mind, he felt the pain throb in him.
And then they were right in front of him. A whole cluster of people gathered in a circle. Shouting. Screaming. Fighting something unseen with flailing arms. Their eyes turned upwards, roaming the sky.
“Ejo!” he shouted. “Ejo!”
No answer came. He ran around the group, looking for his wife and child.
“Kisi!” he shouted. “Kisi, where are you?”
The group had settled in a clearing, children in the middle and the men and women around them. He could see the fear in the faces, could hear it in their voices. The monster was near. There was no getting away from the shapeshifter.
It had followed them. Adze would follow them, no matter where they went.
He ran around the group of people in a large circle, looking up, but he could not see the yellow light surrounding Adze. Neither could he see Ejo or Kisi.
He took the ostrich egg out of his bag. Using his thumbnail, he opened the clay, which sealed the hole. This kept the coconut water from spilling. He put the egg down next to his feet and took off the rope, the weapons, and his cape. Free from unnecessary burdens, he rose.
There was no time for thinking. This was the time for doing.
His father said that they had fought this monster before. And won. He knew that they could win again. He pulled together all the courage he had, lifting the ostrich egg above his head. Some coconut water splashed onto him.
“Adze!” he shouted, “Adze, here it is!”
His voice sounded tiny compared to the villagers’ screaming. He stepped closer to them, dancing with knees lifted high and heart beating wildly.
“Adze, here it is!”
The villagers closest to him saw him dancing. They stopped screaming, then turned to those around them, calling for silence. Soon the only sounds came from the terrified children. Mothers and fathers lifted them, cuddling them close.
Danso continued to dance. Around and around and around the circle he went. He called the monster by name, daring him to come. And as the others fell silent, his voice grew louder. If nobody else would sacrifice themselves, he would be the one.
For Ejo. For Kisi. For his unborn son.
“Adze,” he called.
The silence was deafening.
“Adze,” he called. “Here it is!”
He danced and danced around the circle. Soon he knew the terrain well enough to close his eyes. He was no longer afraid. He was angry. But not the crazy angry of the day before. No, inside him everything was quiet and focused on the task at hand.
The villagers hummed to the rhythm of his feet on the sand. It was a soft sound in the enormous world. But it encouraged him and he felt the power pulse through his veins, strong and ready.
“Where are you? Are you afraid?”
There was a buzz around his head, like a group of mosquitoes. But this was no mosquito. This was Adze, the Shapeshifter. He came, as always, in the form of a Firefly. Danso opened his eyes.
The Adzo was large, his body ridged with thick veins. His tail was like a bony hand, closing around the orb of bright yellow light that gave him his name. Fire that flies. He was not only fire. He was also hunger. He was also death. Just behind his back were four large wings. Covered in veins, they shone silver in the moonlight. He could not see a face, but he knew it was there. So were the two sharp, long teeth. But he knew for now it was behind the lips, hiding.
“There you are,” he said. “I’ve been waiting.”
They watched each other, two hunters in the night. For a moment Danso felt the fear creep up his spine again. But he pushed it down. He could not let it win. Not now. Not again. He made his way around the circle one last time. Adze followed. The monster must be hungry, or thirsty, or ready for something else than blood.
Danso shook the ostrich egg, splattering coconut water all over the sand. The Firefly screamed. It came down on the loose sand and licked where the drops were seeping away. It was hooked. Coconut water was its favorite food when it was full of blood. And it was full of blood now.
He shivered, thinking it must surely be his father’s blood.
He dribbled the coconut water in a line behind him as he ran. The monster followed. Shrieking. When he reached the tree line of the forest, he threw the egg against a nearby tree. It shattered, spraying the water all over the trunk and nearby plants.
The Firefly rushed past Danso, hitting him on the head with silver wings. He ducked, stepped to the left and reached beneath the leaves of the large fern. The rope was waiting where he left it. Adze was now at the tree, clinging to the rough bark with his six legs, slurping coconut water.
Behind him it was so quiet that he would have sworn the village people either left, or stopped breathing. He stepped closer to the shapeshifter, unrolling the rope in readiness. Adze was so busy sucking the coconut water that it did not hear Danso’s approach.
He proceeded with great caution until he smelled the creature. It reeked foul and moldy, like an old antelope skin left outside in the rain. Shaking his head, he drew the rope tight between his hands, and then pushed Adze against the tree with his left shoulder. Hard. He slipped the rope around it and then the tree, reaching his arms out to encircle both.
He swapped the rope at the back of the trunk, crossing it as he struggled to keep the creature pinned. It was stronger than it looked. Two of the wings had escaped. Adze used them like arms, hitting Danso on the head and face.
Minor cuts appeared, beaded with blood. The shapeshifter became frenzied at the sight and smell. His lizard tongue reached out. It felt cold and wet as it touched Danso’s skin, licking from his left ear across his cheek to his nose. Danso almost stepped away in disgust, but he fought the urge. He could not stop the shiver that ran through his body.
There was no turning away; it would break his hold. The shapeshifter screeched loudly, its entire body pushing and shoving against him. The tail part was loose and reaching up to touch Danso’s thigh. It was not a hard punch at all. It didn’t need to be. The light orb was hot, burning into his flesh.
He screamed in pain, then in fear. The smell of burning flesh filled his nostrils. He shivered at the idea that it was his flesh. For a moment his attention diverted, and Adze renewed its resistance. The wings beat fiercely, and Danso had to turn his face aside.
The shapeshifter pushed hard against him, and his feet lost their grip. His shoulder slid down, allowing the other two wings to escape. Danso grunted and pushed even harder against the creature.
Ignoring the beating wings, he crossed the rope and tied a knot. Then he looped it around the tree a second time, just to be sure it couldn’t get away. There was a sharp screech, and then it turned into an anger-filled scream. A very human scream.
Adze also knew fear.
Beneath him the rock hard body of the shapeshifter changed, softened. He almost pulled away, thinking he must have broken the exterior husk of the body. He wanted to shout out in joy. But when he looked at the monster, it was no longer the Firefly he saw.
It had changed.
He tied two strong knots before stepping away. It was not exactly human. At least not entirely. The shape appeared human. From afar, in the night, any person who sees it would assume it was human. Tall, with two arms and legs and a head. Its back hunched forward peculiarly. As if there was a bundle resting high on the spine, but under the skin. It was blacker than night. Blacker than the shadows of the night. He had never seen skin that dark before.
The arms were free and reached out to him. He stepped away easily enough from the talons with brutally strong nails. The creature shrieked again, and the sound cut into his head like a knife. He covered his ears against it, but did not turn his back to the creature tied to the tree.
“It changed shape.”
He jumped at the words. A hand touched him on his shoulder, pulling him away.
“In this human form it can release its spirit into a person,” Manu said.
The man was a friend of his father. He was old and wise and grey-haired.
They stepped back, out of the way of the reaching creature. Soon they were standing as far as they dared, but not far enough to not see it struggle against the rope. Other hands touched him now, softly on his head and shoulders. Each villager communicated the same message: three taps in a row. We are proud of you. You did well.
“Can we kill it?” he asked Manu.
“No,” the old man said. “But we can keep it in this form if it’s tied, or trapped in a cage. It’s weaker now.”
“But its spirit can jump,” Danso said, his voice sounding tight. “That is dangerous. What if it comes into one of us?”
“Not just into one of us,” the old man said. “It can go into any animal that comes close.”
“Which means we cannot leave it here.”
“No,” Many mumbled. “You will need to move it.”
Danso stepped back and took his eyes off the shapeshifter to look at the wrinkled face of the old man.
“Do you see any other brave men here?” the old man asked, chuckling.
“Maybe I’m not brave,” Danso hissed. “Maybe I’m stupid.”
“Either way will work tonight,” Manu said with a broad smile. “But you need to hurry, because the sun is coming.”
Danso looked to where the village laid in the valley. He heard the birds singing. Morning was on the way.
“Don’t look into its eyes,” the old man said. “The spirit jumps through the eyes.”
“Take some younger men,” Danso said. “Go up to the caves. Seek one that is deep into the mountain. Then use branches to build a cage there. But make it in a place to hook the ropes through. I’ll bring it to you.”
The old man turned around and shouted the names of several men, telling them to bring their long knives and their courage. Danso turned back to Adze. It had stopped screaming, but it fought the ropes. Muscles swelled beneath the skin.
Danso walked back to it, making his plans. There would be no time to waste. And a single slip of the hands or feet could mean the death of them all.
The death of Kisi and Ejo and his soon to be born son.
He came to the creature and lifted the end of the rope that hanged loose. Slipping it around the shifter’s shoulders, he tied it twice. It struggled against him, but did not scream again.
“They are making a place for you,” he said. “I’m taking you there now.”
“Do you have to?”
He stepped back in surprise and almost looked into Adze’s eyes. Almost.
“You heard me,” it whispered. The voice was human and female. Thick and sweet like honey. “You don’t have to do this, you know.”
“I do,” he told her.
Not her. It.
“That’s what your father said too, the last time I was here.”
“You know my father?”
“He was the one that trapped me then,” she whispered. “That’s why I came to your hut first. I knew he would come to protect you, and that was what I wanted.”
“You killed him, didn’t you?”
“His liver tasted wonderful.”
Danso’s heart went weak with pain. He sat down in the grass with a sigh. His limbs felt soft, like porridge. All his strength drained from him, running into the sand like water. A tear dropped from his left eye, rolling over his cheek until it came to the end of his jaw. It hung there a moment and then plopped down onto his hand.
He looked down at the little wet circle as if he didn’t comprehend what it was.
He cried for his father, who was dead, killed by this monster. No funeral rites. No sending off to the Ancestors. His spirit still roamed this world, instead of joining with those of his ancestors that have passed before him. The tribe could never connect to him in the ceremonies. This wisdom lost forever. Danso bit his lip, balled his hands into fists, and rose to his feet.
“If you let me go, I’ll spare you,” Adze whispered. “And your family.”
He looked up at her, but kept his eyes away from hers. Without a word he rose, finding the first knots he made, he undid them, and the second set too. Now the shapeshifter was no longer tied to the tree.
“Yes,” Adze said, lifting its hands. “Now, undo these too.”
Danso reached up, looped the rope he held in his hands around the creature quickly. It screamed in anger as he tied another knot and then repeated the action.
“They are all my family,” he said. “The entire world is my family.”
“If you allow me to take you,” it whispered. “I can make you strong. Stronger than you’ve ever been. Immortal too. You can live forever, Danso.”
He chuckled and pulled on the rope. It was tight enough.
“You don’t seem strong to me,” he said, smiling.
“Not now,” it said. “But when I’m a firefly…”
“You’ll never be a firefly again.”
“Don’t fool yourself, human,” Adze said. “I will get out of these ropes again. I have done it before. You can put me anywhere you want. Eventually someone or something will come close enough. And then my spirit will enter them. And I’ll be free again.”
Danso did not stop walking. The darkness was receding. He could feel it in his bones. Tugging hard on the rope, he stepped up the pace. Time was running out.
“Keep up,” he said. “And shut up.”
“You’ll die first when I escape,” Adze said.
They reached the row of caves. Manu waited at the mouth of the second one, directing the men on what to do. Danso tied the shapeshifter to a nearby tree, not wanting to endanger anyone else.
“This one is better,” the old man said. “It is closed at the back. There is also a secure place where we can tie it with a rope. Let me show you.”
Inside the cave, the men had made a strong wooden wall of thick branches. They had already filled the holes with grass and leaves.
“There are too many gaps here,” Danso said, touching the wall with his fingers. “Insects might get through.”
“I thought we could spend the rest of the day packing it with clay. The woman and children can carry it up from the river, and we men can make this wall strong.”
Danso nodded. They entered the doorway one-by-one. The cave was dark and dry. The walls were more stone than sand.
“Here,” the old man said, pointing to a rock shaft close to the back wall. “See, it goes from the floor to the roof. It’s strong too.”
Danso inspected the shaft of rock, pulling and kicking at it. It did not move or even tremble at his attack.
“Perfect,” he said. “I’ll bring it. Will the men be brave enough to close the gap we came through?”
“They made a door of wood already. It is waiting outside for you to push in.”
Danso reached out and tapped the old man’s head three times.
“Let’s get this done,” he said.
“Not us. You.”
“It has always been us,” Danso said. “Together.”
He returned to the tree. The shapeshifter looked tired and weak. This has been a long and difficult night for everyone, it seemed.
“Back again?” Adze asked.
“Still waiting?” he asked as he untied the knot keeping it to the tree. “Come on, time to see your new house. We built it especially for you.”
“This is your last chance then,” the shapeshifter whispered. “Choose wisely.”
“I have made my choice already,” he said.
In the cave, he bound the creature. Even if it somehow broke the rope, the wall would still trap it. And every day in human form it will grow weaker and weaker. Soon it would be too weak to move.
“But not too weak for a spirit jump.”
Danso shook his head. It could read minds.
He could look into Ejo’s eyes and read her mind too. And Kisi’s. And even when he put his hand on his wife’s belly, the unborn son kicked and kicked at him. And he knew the boy was impatient with the waiting. It wanted to be out of the prison of its mother, and be born into the wide, open world.
Anyone can read another. All it required was patience and perception.
He turned away from the shapeshifter with a smile. Outside the wall, the men stood with the door they made. He took it from them, and pushed it into the hole, making sure it fitted well.
“Bring the clay,” he said.
It was late one night, three months after the day his son was born. Ejo was at the river, fetching water. Kisi was watching her baby brother within eyeshot of Danso’s mother. She was sitting in front of the hut. Alone. But there was a smile on her face. There always were when the kids were close.
A strange man walked down the path, stopping at their gate.
“Are you The One?” he asked.
“What one?” Danso answered.
Danso did not answer. He observed the man, noting the tired face, the slumped shoulders and dusty skin. His chapped, dry lips. He had travelled far and fast.
“Why do you ask?”
“We need the slayer,” the man mumbled. “There is a shapeshifter at our village.”
“You are looking at him,” Mother said, nodding to Danso.
She had walked up to them without Danso being aware. Opening the gate, she motioned to the man to step inside.
“Sit,” she said. “Talk. I’ll bring you water and some meat to eat.”
Danso smiled. She had him trapped, and she knew it. If he told the man to leave now, he would disrespect his elder. The evil spirits would descend on him faster than the speed of a running leopard.
He nodded to the man, who sat down slowly.
“Did you come from afar?” Danso asked.
The man looked at him with vacant eyes for a moment. Then he sighed and shook his head from side to side.
“You look like you’ve been on the road for quite a while,” Danso said, his eyes now carefully examining the man.
“I can’t remember much about the journey,” he said.
“Where are you from?”
The man turned his face away slowly to where his mother was plating some food from the pots under the kitchen tree. Ejo, back from her chore, came out of the hut where she laid the kids to rest. She bowed to them.
The hair on Danso’s neck rose as he watched a gleam come into the stranger’s eyes. The man’s entire posture changed at the sight of Ejo. Suddenly he looked awake, more aware than before. He sat up straighter, wiped at the dust on his face and neck, and smiled.
But the smile was all wrong. It looked… hungry. Yes, hungry.
A shiver ran through Danso, and he turned his head slightly to look at the two women, but still kept the visitor in his peripheral view. The smile got weirder, more inappropriate.
“Ejo,” Danso called.
“Yes, husband?” She was a dutiful wife, always had been.
“Would you go see where father is?”
The two women did not look up in fear, or said anything about father being dead. He could see the slight pause in their hands over the pots and plates. Not long enough for the stranger to notice, but they understood the message behind his words.
Something was wrong, and they needed help. Divine help. Ancestral help.
“I think he is still with your brother,” Mother said.
“Then you should go fetch him,” Danso told her. “You know how much he loves getting all the latest news from travellers. And anyway, he was the one who told us how to fight off Adze.”
The stranger’s smile stiffened. Slowly he turned his head to look at Danso. Mother did not waste time at all, but ran out of the gate to Kobina’s hut.
Once they returned to the village. Adze sealed up in the cave, his brother sacrificed two goats and a strong bull. Speaking to the ancestors on behalf of the people. They told him about a drink that would make a shapeshifter half asleep. If he changed in this state, it would be slow. Grandfather said that they could kill it with fire, but only while it was in between changes.
“You did not say where you are from,” Danso said. “Or did I miss the name of your town?”
He has too many teeth in his mouth. Why didn’t I notice this sooner?
Ejo brought a wooden bowl of water, and a small skin for washing. She placed it at the feet of the stranger without trembling.
“The meal is almost ready,” she told them. “Why don’t you wash up before we serve?”
The man licked his lips, and this time Danso could not suppress the shiver running up and down his spine. Coldness reached out from his gut to cover him from head to toe. He leaned down and washed his face, feet and then his hands and arms. Maybe the man did not see his fear. Maybe he would attribute the goosebumps on his arms to the cold water.
I should kill him here and now.
Mother returned, carrying a calabash of liquid. She held it above her head with a genuine smile. Not once did her hands shake, or her body give any sign of fear. Danso was very proud of her, but did not tap her on the head at that moment. No need to make the stranger aware of their secret conversation.
Let everything be a surprise to him.
“Your brother sent this,” she said. “It is a special drink for weary travellers, but we can all have some. They’ll be here soon.”
Ejo brought a drinking calabash for each of them, and mother poured the golden liquid out.
“It smells wonderful,” Ejo said with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes.
The stranger did not notice these small little signs of fear and apprehension. He took the calabash mother held out to him, but waited until they each had one.
“To new friends and a successful hunt,” he said.
“To new friends,” Danso said.
The women both nodded, and then the stranger and mother drank. Ejo’s eyes found Danso’s and for a moment their eyes locked. Then he lifted the calabash and drank deep. It tasted mostly of ginger, but he knew there were more ingredients. What precisely, he didn’t care to know. He drank it all and then sat down.
The two women returned to the cooking. He wanted to rush into the hut, grab the children, and run. But he sat down again, fighting his instincts. For now.
“You have a nice family,” the stranger said.
“And you, do you have one too?” Danso asked. “In your village… hey, where are you from again?”
The man turned his head to the left, looking at the gate. “You father will come soon?” he asked, slurring.
Mother looked up from her work with a smile, but then turned away before the man could see. The stranger swayed and then reached out and grabbed at Danso’s arm. He did not quite manage this, because he toppled over onto the ground. His face changed then, becoming angry and ugly and somehow larger. Less human; more monster.
Danso leaned forward.
“I see you,” he said. “You cannot fool me. I have seen your face before. I will recognize it anywhere.”
The stranger reached up to him, his hands clawing at Danso’s neck. But he was groggy and missed. He shrieked, and even this was familiar to Danso’s ears. The hands changed then from human to talon, the nails long and sharp as it flew at him. This time he was too slow to move away, and it cut deeply into the flesh of his forearms.
Blood squirted out immediately. Not a lot, but enough to send the creature into a frenzy. The red life force dribbled down, falling onto the stranger’s face. It changed even more now, and the long thin tongue slithered out to lick.
Danso reached up, cursing himself for his foolish confidence in the monster’s face. His family were all here, and if he died, they would be defenceless.
“Bring a rope!” he shouted. “Before it transforms completely.”
As he spoke the words, the creature’s arms turned into wings. He fell down, forcing his shoulder into the stranger’s chest. It stopped screeching abruptly. But the wings, powerful sharp weapons, attacked Danso’s face and neck. There was no way to turn, no retreat.
“It’s getting stronger,” he said when Ejo appeared with the rope. “Get mother and the children and leave.”
She shook her head from side to side and stood her ground.
His mother stepped up, taking Ejo by the arm and pulling her away with words of comfort and encouragement. She nodded at Danso as they left, and he knew that she understood the danger, and would keep Ejo and the children safe.
He was bleeding more now, from wings beating and talons clawing. Taking one end of the rope, he gathered the fighting wings together and tied it neatly. The effort made the wound in his neck bleed, but he ignored this, and lifted the possessed man. Looping the rope around the shifter’s body, he made two strong knots.
He could feel himself become weak, but there was no time to waste. He had to kill it with fire.
Danso grabbed the stranger by his feet and started dragging him to the kitchen where his mother had stoked a beautiful fire. The half-man, half-creature rolled and kicked. But he kept changing his grip each time. They reached the flames shortly.
He rolled it into the fire-pit and used a long ladle to keep it there. It fought for a bit, but then the pain became too much. Instead of fighting Danso, it began flailing its legs and tied wings. The rope caught fire, and Danso cursed.
Where was everybody? It’s going to escape unless I have some help.
There was no answer. Danso kicked the creature back into the fire. At the gate there was movement, and he looked up with expectation. But what stood there wasn’t his uncle. It was dim, almost like smoke. Greyish against the dark shadows of the night.
“Help me!” Danso shouted and kicked at the creature again.
And then the shape was next to him, and he stepped away with a cry of fear. It looked like his father, but made of mist. A ghost.
“Let me help you, son,” it said, and laid down on the struggling creature, pinning it inside the fire. “Bring more wood. You need this fire to be bigger.”
Danso did not think about what was happening, but stepped away to where the chopped wood laid, and started throwing pieces into the fire. The effort made the wound in his neck bleed again, and soon he had to stop to place a hand there.
The creature looked more and more like the stranger who came to the gate. Father was holding it down well, and Danso sat down carefully to watch. It took longer than he would have expected, but when the birds started their morning song, the stranger was quiet.
“You have always been the one we can rely on,” father said as he rose from the fire.
Danso smiled, too weak to speak.
“I am so proud to have you for a son.”
“And I’m proud to have you for a father.”
“I am watching over you,” Father said. “You are never without my presence.”
Danso’s eyelids grew heavy, and he closed them. He leaned his head back against the tree Grandfather had planted. Family was everything. His children would grow in the shadow of their Ancestor’s love. Generation after generation.
Protected by wisdom of ages.
Finally, he slept.
Rita Kruger lives in Gauteng, South Africa. She surrounds herself with what enriches her body, mind and soul. Family. Friends. Nature. Great food. Good wine. Mountains of books. She writes novels challenging major themes of her life in the genres of fantasy and gothic horror, which she loves.
She wears several hats. Writer. Publisher. Author services.
About the Author:
S. K. Gregory is an author, editor and blogger. She currently resides in Northern Ireland.
“Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.”