Surviving the Storms (Excerpts)


The cemetery was deserted as Kuro walked through it on his way to see his friend in the adjacent waterside during a short school holiday. So much awe about the cemetery in this city. Even those who pass through it as a short cut to and from their mud and wood and zinc dwellings in the overcrowded waterside practically avoid the short cut once it begins to get dark. Kuro was in deep thought and didn’t realise when he wandered off his track. It was in the evening, the sun was now a big round amber-coloured bulb above and a mild wind was blowing. He yelled in terror when he suddenly realised that he was no longer on his feet but was sinking, and he continued yelling even after his feet were once more on firm ground a moment later, for the unexpected descent was both heart-breaking and neck-breaking. Soon he made out that he was at the bottom of a newly dug grave, which he reckoned to be strangely ten feet deep. Neither the cemetery-keepers nor occasional passers-by were near enough to hear him although he had never shouted louder in his life. After yelling for about five minutes, he shut up.

     Down there it was already quite dark, as the slanting rays of the fading sun didn’t get to the bottom of the ten-foot or so grave, which was swampy considering the high water table in these parts. Using his fingers as claws, he gripped the perpendicular wall of the grave and tried to climb out. He failed. The muddy earth broke loose in his hands, in which he felt slight movement. He opened his hands right before his eyes and looked intently, observing earthworms among the loose earth. He flung off the earthworms and rubbed his muddy palms against each other. He made several more efforts to climb out of the grave, each of which failed again. Eventually he squatted at a corner depressed. He was filled with uncontrollable fear and was unable to put his thoughts together. Now and again, convinced that he was hearing faint sounds of movement on the track along which he was walking before he wandered off, he would cry out for help. But he didn’t get any.

     Well, an hour later Kuro concluded that his situation was rather hopeless until the next morning. The sun must have disappeared, for it was now black as coal down there. If there was a moon or any star in the heavens, neither the bottom nor mouth of the grave gave the slightest hint of it. He no longer anticipated any passer-by on the nearby track this night. He grieved silently for another hour, getting up from his squatting position and pacing the grave from time to time. Sound travels farther in the night than in the day, he recalled suddenly. Then he yelled once more for about five minutes, hoping that the cemetery-keepers might hear him this time.

     At last Kuro knelt down in the swamp at the corner of the grave with his hands clasped and prayed fervently in silence for nearly forty minutes, appealing to God to rescue him through the Saviour Jesus from the dungeon he had fallen into. Something completely unexpected happened just as he was rounding up his prayer. In the opposite corner a figure dropped down with a terribly frightful yell. Kuro immediately realised that his misfortune had befallen another. He decided to remain quiet in his corner for another moment and conclude his prayer. As they could not see each other he knew that the new inmate, who kept yelling in a croaking male voice while trying to climb out, wasn’t aware of his presence. When he finished praying the new inmate had paused his initial attempts to climb out and was sobbing like a maltreated child. Kuro told himself that this was the time to reassure him that he had company.

     “My friend, don’t cry, you aren’t alone here,” Kuro said from his corner.

     The new inmate did not wait to hear the end of the sentence; in an extraordinary spasm of fear, he sprang up and flew out of the deep grave. He shot out of the top like a missile, landed on his feet by a couple strolling with hands held together, and bolted from the cemetery. It is said that when poverty walks in by the door, love flies out of the window. So it seems too when a ghost appears. When the lovers saw the bedraggled male figure gliding toward them in the darkness, they broke off their hands in great panic and ran off in different directions.

     Meanwhile, down in the grave, Kuro pulled himself together, resolving that nothing would ever surprise him anymore this night after the superlative leap of the man with the croaky voice. Nonetheless, only a few moments later, as he was bracing himself for an attempt to leap out of the grave, he was utterly stunned when another figure landed with a shrill cry beside him, grazing his shoulders. He was so moved by the despair in the female voice that he stretched out his arm and cuddled her, trying to calm her with kind words. But convinced that she was right in the hands of the ghost, she fainted.

     Kuro began to shiver, fearing that she might die of the shock. He wondered what time it was and was heart sunken as he contemplated the distress over his whereabouts at that time at home. He yelled once again in desperation but was aware that he hardly had any wind left to get him heard beyond the grave. Shouting himself to exhaustion and thoroughly drenched in his sweat, he fainted, collapsing over the body of the woman by him.

     The woman’s lover had dashed straight to the gatehouse when the “ghost” tore them apart, twice falling flat on his belly before he reached it. He met three cemetery-keepers lounging under a tree in front of the gatehouse, which was illuminated by electric light. Stammering as he gasped for breath, the man told them that a ghost had just separated him from his lover on their way to his residence at the waterside. The cemetery-keepers, however, appeared untroubled by the news.

     “I can take you to a spiritualist that would help you if you want,” said one of the cemetery-keepers with facial marks of two almost parallel, horizontal lines on each cheek.

     “Where is he?” asked the man impatiently.

     “At the waterside.”

     “Let’s go then.”

     They reached the spiritualist’s shortly. It was a zinc shack at one end of the waterfront settlement, by some mangrove.

     “Chief Priest!” called the cemetery-keeper at the front door, which was adorned with various types of marine shells.

     “Who are you?” a sepulchral voice immediately responded.

     “We-we,” replied the cemetery-keeper.

     The door opened a couple of minutes later. The cemetery-keeper led the man, who seemed still in a daze, into the shack. They stepped into a room bizarre as a shrine. A red electric bulb was aglow in the room. The spiritualist, a wiry, bearded middle-age man in a red robe, showed them to chairs and sat down on a stool. The cemetery-keeper then implored the man to tell his story.

     “You’ll have to make an offering that I’ll take into my temple,” said the spiritualist after listening to the man’s stuttering narrative, pointing to the calabash on the coffee table.

     The man dipped his hand in his hip pocket, pulled out some coins and dropped them into the calabash. The spiritualist picked up the calabash, contemplated the contents for a moment and moved into the adjoining room. Soon afterwards, the whole shack was reeking of some strange incense. He reappeared about ten minutes later with the empty calabash, placed it back on the coffee table and returned to the stool. Facing the man, the spiritualist cleared his throat and said in his sepulchral voice:

     “Your woman was attacked by a witch working for a man who desperately wants to win her over from you and marry her. He has invested a lot of money in engaging an occultist to help him achieve his ambition. Right now your lover is in the hands of the witch who attacked both of you, so you need to act fast before she is delivered to the occultist who sent the witch to get her. I would gladly help you to save your woman from the evil forces if you can play your part. I’ll immediately go to the cemetery to rescue her from the witch once you meet the meagre demands of my temple: a white cock, a dozen fresh eggs, three bottles of local gin, a piece of white cloth and a token one-shilling coin. Because of the urgency of this matter, you shouldn’t wait till daybreak to buy the items. If you can put together the cash equivalent of the various items in addition to the token one shilling right away, the better your chances of getting back your woman.”

     The man was beside himself with astonishment. He looked at his watch: it was twenty minutes past midnight. He decided to get all he really had at the time from his apartment in the neighbourhood. It was barely enough to meet the demands of the spiritualist’s temple. The spiritualist asked him to put the money in the calabash and once again moved into the adjoining room with it. He returned about fifteen minutes later with a crucifix that looked like a sword and directed them to follow him to search for the man’s lover.

     In the grave meanwhile Kuro awoke with a start from a nightmare: mourners gathered at the mouth of the grave, hardly able to see the dark bottom because of its depth, were lowering a coffin into it. It was most unbearable for him to be buried alive. With the greatest energy he had ever mustered in his life, he sprang up and had his biggest surprise of the night. He landed on his feet by the track along which he was walking at dusk before he missed his way. Not sure whether it was reality or a dream, he at once ricocheted off the cemetery.

     When he sprang off the grave from on top of the woman over whom he had collapsed, the impact awakened her. She however found herself alone and cried out for help in her shrillest voice. The search party of the spiritualist, her lover and the cemetery-keeper heard her voice shortly afterwards. Her lover began to shake with fear. The spiritualist who was leading the search party paused on noticing the man’s state, brought out a small bottle that he claimed contained holy oil from the pocket of his robe, quickly opened it, dipped his forefinger into it, and marked a cross on the man’s forehead with the oil on the finger. Having calmed the man somewhat even though he was still totally confused, the spiritualist led them to the spot her cry was coming from, where he switched on a torch the man had not noticed he was carrying, beaming it at the bottom of the deep grave.

     “Stop crying, we’ve come to free you—the witch can’t harm you anymore,” the spiritualist soothed the woman who was cringing with terror in a corner down in the grave. “Come forward and see her, she’s alone and alive—the witch has run away!” he urged her lover, who was standing behind him and the cemetery-keeper.

    The man stepped forward hesitantly. Sighting his lover from the mouth of the grave he at once dived in, embracing her in a pin fall.

     Meanwhile Kuro got back home safely to the great relief of his parents and siblings who had all been awake agonising over his whereabouts.