“WHO is the guy with the spear?” said Maddison.
“He is the village elder.”
“So where is the witch-doctor?”
Ndembe lifted the binoculars and scanned the villagers who were sitting in a circle a hundred yards across the parched scrubland. The man with the spear was addressing everyone around him, gesticulating forcefully with both hands on the shaft of the spear, as if affecting some kind of ritualistic dance. Ndembe shook his head.
“I can’t see him.”
Maddison was unimpressed.
“I didn’t come all this way to take pictures of a village idiot wielding a rusty spear.”
“Village elder.” It was Ndembe’s turn to be unimpressed.
They were both lying flat among the sparse low brown grass that afforded little cover and this was as close as Ndembe felt safe without being seen. He’d been hired as Maddison’s guide. Maddison’s camera clicked and whirred and Ndembe was sure the noise would carry. But Maddison didn’t care. He hadn’t wanted this assignment in the first place. He had travelled for three days to get to his remote village, on the promise of capturing an image for the magazine he worked for, of the infamous death ritual performed by one of the notorious Babu’s of the region.
“Keep quiet,” said Ndembe, “that’s him.”
An impressive figure wearing what looked like a coat of animal skins and an enormous ferocious looking mask walked into the circle. Maddison tried to focus his lens on the witch-doctor who was murmuring incoherently while waving something he held in his hand.
“What’s that?” said Maddison.
“He’s going to slit its throat. It symbolises the victim. When he kills the chicken the spell is cast. Then someone will die.” Ndembe spoke slowly and without irony. Maddison looked at him.
“You don’t believe this crap, do you?”
Before he could answer, they were jolted by the sudden explosion of shrieks and screams coming from the villagers. The witch-doctor was pointing across the scrubland directly at Maddison and his guide. They had been spotted. Ndembe got to his feet as the angry villagers, led by the witch-doctor, began to walk towards them. Ndembe was terrified.
“We need to get to the jeep. Quickly.”
To his astonishment, Maddison took a step forward and continued to take pictures.
“Look at that costume. And their animated faces. These will make the front page!”
The tribesmen halted some 30 yards from them. The witch-doctor was in front still holding the chicken that was flapping about wildly in his grip. He began to speak and the men fell silent. Maddison continued to photograph the angry mob. He had been in war zones and this didn’t faze him.
“What’s he saying?”
“He is asking you to drop the camera. He says you are stealing his soul by making these pictures. We should leave the camera and get into the jeep.”
“Are you kidding!?”
Then, with a knife that had been concealed until that moment, the witch-doctor lifted the chicken and severed its head in a masterful clean stroke. Maddison, with all his own expertise captured the moment head and body were no longer one, capturing too for posterity, an impressive arc of blood hanging in the air.
“What’s he saying now, for chrissake?”
“He has cast the spell on you.”
It was dark by the time they reached the village where they had spent the previous night. Maddison was euphoric but exhausted and needed to sleep. His head was banging with all the excitement and he felt like he was coming down with a fever.
He woke three hours later, rambling loudly in his sleep, twisting and turning until he sat bolt upright with wild staring eyes. Ndembe came into the room and tried to calm him.
“What a bloody nightmare,” said Maddison rubbing the top of his head as if trying to erase the bad dream, “something had me in its grip, and…and…”
“What was it?”
Maddison shook his head,
“I bet you think it’s your bloody voodoo man.”
Ndembe said nothing.
“But it wasn’t. It was just me. And a voice calling out to me. For god’s sake don’t look down! That’s what woke me.”
Ndembe nodded gravely and said, “Better try not to look down, then,” And he left.
In the morning Maddison had a fever and was unable to travel. Reluctantly he would spend the day resting and continue their outward journey the next morning. But Maddison’s fever grew worse throughout the day until, by nightfall, he was drenched with sweat and complaining his head was getting worse.
He woke, again, in the middle of the night.
“For god’s sake don’t look down!!! That’s all I can hear. But I can’t see anything, I’m in total darkness. And I’m pushing against an invisible force that won’t let me look. And just when I think I’ve got it beat, and I’m about to turn my head to see, I wake up dammit!!!”
Ndembe’s face was a picture of despair.
“Whatever you do, you must not look down. A bad thing will happen if you do. It is the curse.”
“Damn the curse!!” shouted Maddison, “I don’t believe in mumbo jumbo. Can’t you see I’ve got a fever?”
Ndembe nodded miserably.
“Yes. I can see very well you have a fever.”
Maddison remained in his bunk for the rest of the day; when he tried to get up he was unsteady on feet and overwhelmed by nausea unless he lay flat.
On the final night, Maddison was exhausted and fell asleep quickly. He was soon moaning loudly and Ndembe tried to wake him. But the nightmare had him locked in. The voice was there, again urging him not to look down, but he still felt the compulsion to strain every muscle and fibre to glimpse what he was being warned was forbidden until, finally, he turned and saw what was there.
There was an instantaneous realisation and release that were both beautiful and shocking to Maddison, now weightless and floating upwards, able to see clearly the bunk below, the tangle of bedsheets wrapped around his body, whose open eyes, now at peace in their death stare, were fixed on the ceiling of the room.