This was the last place I wanted to be.
Sparks fled the fire we had lit in the clearing, fading into the night, and I wished I could do the same. Not back in town with my wife and daughter, no. I was tired of her endless crying because this marriage had not been the love-and-butterflies she had been sold. The child couldn’t yet understand why her mother was always shouting and shaking her unmoved dad’s chest, but she wasn’t happy either.
How could they be, with the empty husk that I was?
My comrades babbled around me, talking over the crackling fire as if they owned the forest. The flickering light shone on their brown skins, gleaming with sweat. My own drenched my armpits, my faded shirt — even the back of my knee as my right leg bounced up and down.
I was suffocating.
A few steps away, the nyansun whispered among themselves, careful not to be heard of us. Some silently cried, missing their families.
I knew how they felt. The soreness between my legs after they had cut it, all the duck walks and white robes. The slightest rub would send agony down my wound. But I had to be brave, they said. If only a whimper were to escape my mouth, shame would fall upon my family.
So I had bit my lips until they bled, and remained silent.
The voices grew louder, as was the heat inside my chest.
“Tumaani, where you goin’ man?” one of them asked as I spurted. “We’ll be starting soon!”
“Nature calls,” I lied. “Don’t wait up.”
He’d forgotten me already, and I trotted away from them. They were too loud, arguing about sports and women. I had left my own family more than once — chasing after a meager job at Dakar and finding sweet solitude instead. My wife said that I had changed since then, that I was useless and cold and never the husband she had dreamed of; I couldn’t hear her.
She was right, of course. Even as we taught the boys, deep in the Sacred Wood, I was alien. I had forgotten the rules that my own initiates had carved into my child body, molded into my muscles. Songs and dances. The essence of life, what it meant to be a man.
I didn’t know anymore. When the circumcisions had neared, I had only been called home because my father was the chief of our small village. But what could I teach those boys? I had forsaken the values of family and community, realizing now that they were my prison. I had lost myself, drifting in the heartless night.
I had lost my roots.
The forest welcomed me, slow noises of nocturnal animals drowning the human voices. A shy moon guiding my path, I lit a cigarette. Inhaled the poison as it melted my anxiety.
It had been a week since we entered seclusion. A week of secrets whispered around night fires, that they were sworn to keep if they didn’t wish to die — or worse. Nothing got out of the Sacred Wood.
Stopping under a fromager tree, I leaned on the trunk and let its rough bark anchor me.
Breathe. This will be over soon.
Humidity weighed against my eyelids as silence fell. Tilting my head, I crushed my cigarette against the bark.
Something wasn’t right.
A hoot rang from behind me, not far from the fire — and the circumcised. It shouldn’t have been surprising for someone to hear an owl, in a forest at night.
But I wasn’t just anyone. I was still an initiate. And I had prayed I’d never hear that sound again.
I picked a stone from the ground. Moisture made it slippery, as if the forest itself wanted to leave me defenseless before what was coming.
My leg muscles tight as rubber, I faltered. Circumcised boys were vulnerable, waiting in that threshold between boy and man. Only one creature would target them, in the deep of night.
Inhumane eyes in an old man’s face, shimmering beneath a branch. It had the body of an owl, ghostly wings flapping under alabaster, dirty feathers. Worse, the other initiates were too deep in their conversation to notice.
I was the only one standing between the powerless souls and the sutamo — for that’s what it was. Night-flyers, witches that would devour you from the inside, leaving only agonizing sickness.
And children were their prey of choice.
I threw the stone, missing by a few inches. My throat went dry as its big yellow eyes glanced at me. Its smile was of the foulest evil, twisting charred lips.
I ran, and it went after me. Diving into the dark forest, stumbling upon roots. Both the land and it were my enemies, burning to eradicate the stranger that I became.
My chest heaved as it left the canopy, howling in anticipation. For the moment it would dig into my flesh and leave me dead.
I ran, all protection litanies absent from my mind. Reliving it all — the sutamo hunting the terrified boy that I was, ten years past.
I ran, my heartbeat deafening.
The witch pierced the trees as I crashed on the damp earth, my ankle caught between two rocks. It laughed in victory, and I waved desperate arms to keep it away from me. Its twisted talon slashed up my elbow, yet something else drowned the scream building up underneath my throat.
There was a faint movement to my right, strings of red tickling my vision. Glowing crimson, like the Devil’s fire. That too I knew — but was too afraid to remember.
It was the being that had kept the sutamo away that night.
“Not this time.” A voice older than life rang inside my mind. It shuddered with power, almost taunting as I ran for my life. “You will have to save yourself.”
The sutamo’s talons were an inch from my panicked eyes. I couldn’t run anymore. “How?”
Pestilence reeked from the witch’s breath. The being chuckled.
“Remember, Tumaani Konte. Remember.”
And I remembered.
Scalding pain, as concealed memories roared, tore me apart. My initiation. What the elders had carved underneath my skin, yelled inside my ears. What made me.
The fire disappeared into my burning chest. Fibers, slithering outside my body, pulsed red. The crippling fear evaporated as it filled the empty, and the being hummed.
Only fire remained, burning with rage and maddening drumbeats.
We were one.
We swiped the sutamo aside, the red fibers of our body writhing. Two machetes held tight against my fingers, heavy with otherworldly judgment.
We were a masquerade. Tall as skies, loud as thunder. Dancer. Protector.
The sutamo attacked with a shriek, failing to recognize our might. It had already lost the battle — our machetes caught its chest, thick blood oozing from the wound. No child would be threatened by them anymore.
Talons ripped our fibers from behind. Under the red strands, Tumaani hunched with pain as they tore the obsidian skin underneath.
We rotated, meeting another sutamo usurping the face of an old woman. Companion of the one we had just slain, its patches of white hair on a bed of putrid scabs.
Tumaani was bleeding out, one foot grazing the Afterlife.
The fibers protected him as we fought the other witch. It was fast, launching itself into the sky and away from our thirsty blades. Its teeth grinned with fury; ours was superior.
Ours was the roar of a dying man who had ultimately found himself, and the silence of a slayer beneath the Veil.
We burned, lighting the woods aflame. And we ripped it apart. We lacerated and hacked at its limbs until nothing remained but a lump of rot.
Only now alerted by the noise, the initiates ran toward us. We stood, blood dripping from our blades.
And they knelt. They knelt even as the masquerade left and there was only me. Shivering, skin as hot as embers. Dying and being reborn, as my blood sang with new knowledge.
I remembered, and I understood.
Weeks later, as the village welcomed its new sons with clapping hands, I danced for them. Carrying my little girl on my shoulders, under the unsmiling gaze of my wife, I screeched and laughed, danced like never before.
The witches knew my name. They might hunt me down.
But I danced harder, all fear burnt away.
The Kankurang was in me.