Friday, September 13, 2013

70. Tales of Superstition

There is an undercurrent of mysticism in everyday African life, and an abiding acceptance of witchcraft and magic.  It's not a system of belief, or a church, or religion.  It's an understanding, and a way of life.  Magic just is, and witchcraft exists.  It's an inextricable element of life in the village.

The people of Zobue don't expect me to believe it.  As an A'zungu, I'm exempt.  This isn't my culture, and they understand that.  And I think that most of them know, to some extent, that it is their belief in the magic that lends it such power.  But how can they just abandon their culture?  They can't, and therefore, the magic prevails.

In Africa, most magical stories feature witch doctors and their familiars.  These three stories are no exception, although they follow the pattern in differing ways.  Two of the following stories are mine.  One of them is borrowed.  All three are disconcerting, but again, in different ways.

 The Black Cat Story

It was after midnight, and I had just finished writing in my diary.  Dan was asleep next to me, and we were both safely tucked within the confines of our mosquito net.  I had just laid back on my pillow and was starting to close my eyes.  Then I heard the faintest whisper of a noise.

At first, I couldn't make it out.  I lay very still and listened.  In the midnight silence, the sound clarified.  Nothing.... nothing.... nothing.... there.  It was a gentle scratching at the foot of the bed.  

I sat bolt upright.  

A long rectangle of light illuminated the room, from a light that I'd left on in  one of the back bedrooms.  As I watched, the room was still.  Nothing moved.  Nothing scratched.  I sat upright, waiting.  

Then, there was a sudden rush of motion through the rectangle of light.  Suddenly, I saw a black cat standing on the table.  His form was clearly etched against the wall.  I caught his eye.  He arched his back and showed his teeth, twitching his tail once, then twice.  He jumped away from the stove and landed silently, disappearing into the darkened central room.   

Without taking my eyes off of the electric stove where the cat had just been, I slid a hand backwards to try and wake Dan.  

"Dan," I said.  "Dan.  Wake up.  There's a cat in the house."  To his credit, Dan sat up and was lucid immediately.  Silently, we both rolled out of bed.  

"How did it get in?"  He asked.  

"I don't know," I said.  

I looked around corners and doors, while Dan started pulling out the furniture.  He searched under the bed in the back room, and behind the couch in the living room.  He even looked under our own bed, in case the cat had doubled back to hide.  Nothing.  

Fifteen minutes later, we had every light in the house on and burning.  We checked behind the boxes in the spare room and behind the pots and pans.  We looked underneath the table and on the chairs and in the folds of the clothes in Dan's closet.  Nothing, still nothing.  There wasn't any cat.  

There simply wasn't any cat.  He had disappeared. 

You'd think that this story would have a satisfying ending, but, like many real-life mysteries, it just doesn't. Dan, for his part, shrugged his shoulders and crawled back into bed.  He doubts there ever was a cat.  I, on the other hand, have never been more certain.

When I mentioned the story to Seni, he didn't even blink.  

"Hmm," he said.  "And did it disappear?"

I admitted that it had.

"Of course," he said.  "It was a witch.  And she was spying in your house."

He didn't seem the slightest bit ruffled.  I still was, of course.  I didn't like that there had been a mystery cat in my house in the middle of the night, and that nobody had been able to find him since.  But apparently, things like this happen in Zobue all the time.

The Owl on the Rooftop

Mozambicans don't like owls.  There are several plausible reasons for this, but the most likely is the fact that they consider them to be soul-stealing omens of magic and death.

"If an owl sits on your roof and hoots," says Romao, "Then someone in the house will die."

And while I didn't share in that superstition when at first I heard it, I did find it intriguing.  I've always been especially fond of owls and, unlike Mozambicans, I want to see them closer.  On the rare occasion that I do hear them in Zobue, I run to the window to find them.  They always pass by quickly and are gone again in moments.  

On this particular night, I was asleep when the owl woke me up.  The strangled hoo-hoo punched into my dreams and forced me up out of bed.  Sleepily, I ducked out of the mosquito net and peered the the window.  An owl was perched on the crooked electrical pole.

He stared lengthwise across the width of our yard, then hooted softly and spread his wings.  Silently, he alit on the grass roof of a neighboring cottage.  He continued to hoot, softer and softer, standing immobile on the peak of the roof.  To my surprise, he didn't fly.  He simply sat there, calling.  After a few minutes, I moved away and climbed back in bed.

"Strange," I thought.  A distant hoooo was the last noise I heard.

The next day, we awoke to human voices and the muffled blur of howling.  I opened my front door to see that branches and boughs had been laid upon the path.  Our yard and the neighboring quintals were crowded with throngs of grim-faced women.

Romao was standing on my front porch, watching the movement of people.

"What happened?" I asked.  I lowered my voice and glanced at the scene.

"There was a falecimento last night."  He said.  "A death."

"Where?"  I asked.  But I thought that maybe, I already knew.  Romao lifted a finger and pointed.

It was the grass-hutted house on which the owl had sat, hooting.

The Witch in the Countryside Village

Once upon a time, in the tiny village of Tchessa, a witch was stalking the local population.  

Word of her presence was spread slowly, as families started to recognize strange things that were happening.  The milk was going sour faster than usual, they said, and the crops weren't producing.  A snake was spotted lying in the road.  An owl built a nest in a tree above town.  A baby goat went missing when his herder fell asleep.   

But the real indication, and the true sign of trouble, was a problem with the children in the small town of Tchessa.  These children, said their teachers, especially the first, second, and third graders, were unnaturally tired.  "They're too tired for school," said the teachers.  "They can't stay awake!"

According to the villagers, something was very wrong.  

Parents were ordered to send their children to bed early, but that didn't help.  The children still came to school tired, sleepy and unable to focus.  

"Witchcraft," said the town.  "Witchcraft, indeed."

Someone theorized that a witch was taking the children out of their homes, and forcing them to do work at night.  "It stands to reason that they'd be tired, then," said this person.  "They aren't getting a lick of sleep."

So the children were interviewed, one at a time.  One by one, they were asked the following question:

"What happened last night, after you fell asleep?"

And one by one, they were unable to answer.  

"Of course," said the town.  "They've been drugged.  The witch must disguise her identity."

Their questions got rougher and their tactics, intense.  Finally, they found one boy on whom the magic had worn off.  Miraculously, he was able to speak of his ordeal.  

"It was Teacher Sheila," he said.  "From Sunday school.  She has only been posing as a religious woman.  She is the one who has been taking us from our beds.  She has been forcing us to learn how to fly!"

And so an angry mob stormed to the house of the witch-Teacher Sheila, and cast her away from the village.  She was pushed around and cursed, but escaped with her life.  She is now living a life of banishment in her home country of Malawi.

And though it might seem like this story has arrived at a conclusion, there is a complication.  Rumor has it that there were two witches in town all along.  The first witch is gone, say the people of Tchessa, but the children are still tired at school.

Hmm.  Witchcraft and magic, indeed.

On a personal note:
Dan is traveling this week, which means that I'm alone.  In some ways, I like this better-- I feel very independent, and I find much greater peace in writing.  But I do not like the night, and I find that I get anxious about dark windows and corners.  

In this regard, I decided that the Black Cat Story seemed especially appropriate for tonight's daily post.  The time was right for the Tales of Superstition.  Only after writing did I realize that today was Friday the 13th.

Perfect.  Super extra perfect.

After all, we're all a bit superstitious, aren't we?

No comments:

Post a Comment