This had always been my favorite spot to think, or just be. Although right now, I just wanted to be diverted from the pain, its ribbons of fire twirling around my abdomen, which felt gaping and empty at the same time.
“The painful token of childbirth will not leave your body alongside your baby,” my mother had said with her guttural voice, altered by years of smoking tobacco with her old, cracked pipe. “You better get used to it, Magar. The pain will be here for a while.”
For some reason, the women in my bloodline always have difficult pregnancies. Being married for almost ten years, I myself had almost given up hope of getting pregnant, but last year, the miracle happened. The pregnancy had been riddled with complications, and I was still recovering, three days after giving birth to my son.
I turned and looked at him, my mouth curving into a weary smile. He was sleeping, my sweet boy, liberated into this ruthless world after causing me so much worry. However, just looking at his angelic face, hands tightly clenched in his sleep, I realized that all the pain, mood swings and fearful tears were worth it.
With a deep sigh, I fiddled with the sachet I was holding in my right hand, my thoughts going to my mother’s words when she gave it to me.
“Don’t play the little toubab with me, Magar, not this time,” she had said, the day we came back from the hospital. She held out three twigs taken from a broom, a chunk of charcoal and rolls of black twine. “Keep this close to your boy, especially where he sleeps at night.”
My mother would often use that word—toubab—to taunt me, since it referred to people of European lineage, or anyone speaking decent French, really. Neither she nor my little sister Astou had gone to school, but I was able to finish college and was teaching math at a public school nearby.
I had told her, “Yaye, you know I don’t believe in this stuff. We’ll be just fine without it, I assure you.” But I should’ve known there was no use arguing with Yaye Awa Diedhiou when spiritual stuff was involved.
In the small town we lived in, people still visited her from time to time, asking for protection charms and ritual baths. Her ancestors had been the spiritual protectors of our kin, and I was sure she knew more about the old arts than she let on. After she retired from the army she came back here to fulfill her role, like her mother did before her.
Yaye Awa had expected me to do the same, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with all that hocus-pocus. Astou, on the other hand, was thrilled to play the chamberlain, and meticulously organized the appointments that Yaye Awa assigned. My mother would pass on a few bits of knowledge in exchange, and, of course, would never miss an opportunity to tell me how delighted she was that my little sister was her worthy heiress, unlike the good-for-nothing toubab that I was.
“My house, my rules,” she had concluded, forcing the charms into my hands with a stare, challenging me to persist in my rejection.
Nope, I was not suicidal. Therefore I accepted the offering, already planning to throw it in the trash can, hoping she wouldn’t notice.
Now, without a second glance, I got rid of it before taking my phone to call my husband. Ismaïla emigrated to the U.S. before we were married and had been working there ever since, returning to Senegal only twice a year. This time, he was coming back for the special occasion, and I wanted to hear from him before he got on the plane.
We spent a few minutes talking, even if it was mostly me listening to him repeat how excited he was to meet his son. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing how much he had wanted this to happen, but he still managed to stay patient and caring with me, as much as he could despite the distance. I knew his parents (uptight, conservative people they were) wanted him to marry a second wife. I was concerned that he might not be able to resist them forever, and could already hear my sister’s dry laugh.
“Senegalese men are all the same,” she’d say. “Your charms are withering, or you’re not laying children by the minute? They just find a younger, prettier co-wife.”
Putting aside those silly thoughts, I hung up after he wished me a good night, asking me to kiss his son for him, but the weariness looming over me became more difficult to ignore. I changed into an old shirt and baggy sweatpants before going to bed, and covered my loose cornrows with a head scarf.
Tomorrow will be an ecstatic day, I said to myself. Ismaïla was coming back, after five long months, and he would finally meet his son.
The tepid lilac sheets, courtesy of my thoughtful sister, were a blessing for my sore muscles. Wrapping myself even tighter, I inhaled the rich smell of gowé incense that impregnated the sheets. Soon enough, the steady song of cicadas and the purifying breeze shrouded me in a peaceful sleep.
An abomination stared at me, crouched right where my baby was supposed to be.
A body, furred and bulky like that of a gorilla, giving off a pungent smell of wet excrement and rotten corpses. A face, slowly losing the humanity it usurped, with red and wild eyes fixed on mine. A mouth wide opened, filled with sharp, irregular teeth which sunk deep into the flesh above my right clavicle when the creature pounced on me, and scarlet rivers of blood splattered across the sheets.
I howled, tears of shock filling my eyes.
Answering my distress call, the door opened violently. Yaye Awa was in her night outfit, an old shirt like mine and a loincloth. She pointed her old rifle at the creature drinking my blood as I lay paralyzed with terror. It stared back, turning away from its gruesome meal, but with steady hands and unflinching eyes my mother fired, and hit it straight in the stomach.
Thick blood oozed from its wound as the creature screeched and jumped away from me. At a speed near-invisible to the human eye, it escaped through the window, leaving me bloody and horrified.
My mother leaned through the window, peering over a courtyard immersed in darkness as she tried to see where it went. Giving up, she ran to my bedside and began to examine my wound.
“Thank God, that bastard didn’t cut too deep,” she said, tearing up the sheets and using the shreds to apply pressure on the wound.
“Yaye, where is my baby? What the hell was that thing?” I asked in a tremulous voice.
My sister walked in, rubbing her eyes and rearranging her loincloth back in place. At the sight of all the blood covering me, she slapped her hands over her gasping mouth.
“Bring the green sunguf from my chest,” Yaye yelled, “quick!”
Without a word, Astou ran to the living room where my mother received her clients, and came back a minute later carrying a jar filled with some green powder.
“Brace yourself, daughter. This is going to hurt.” She poured some powder into her palm, muttering words in dioula, her native tongue, before she sprinkled it over my wound.
I couldn’t contain a cry when the substance met my exposed flesh, but the scorching pain was brief. The powder absorbed the coagulated blood and the demon’s saliva, not closing the wound as you’d expect a strange magical powder to do, but drying it up and leaving a protective residue like green salt crystals. While Yaye was working her charms, Astou had removed the sheets and threw them in a corner of the room. When our mother was finished, she helped me change into new clothes, and before I knew it, a cup of water was slipped into my hand.
“Yaye, where is he?” I asked again.
“You didn’t leave the talisman I gave you by his side, did you? Stupid toubab girl,” she sputtered.
“Please!” I cried. “Where is my son?”
“That thing who attacked you was a demon,” she finally said. “A changeling, so to speak.”
“You heard me well. It wasn’t some rabid animal, but a djinné, traded for your son. Obviously it was a child too, or all of us would be dead already.”
Her words sounded like complete gibberish to me, but part of me knew they were true. All the stories she used to tell us when Astou and I were little, that I was too afraid of and that later, my logical mind couldn’t see as anything other than old woman tales. This was a nightmare come true. What kind of mother was I to let my son be abducted? In my own house?
“It still doesn’t tell me where my baby is. Yaye, what if he’s in danger?”
“Is this who I think it is?”Astou asked, ignoring me.
Yaye nodded, her flat nose wrinkling as if she smelled something particularly foul. “It’s Ciré, that old hag. Heard she was messing with djinné now.”
“Why would she take my son?” I shouted, fear now entangled with rage. “I don’t even know this woman!”
Yaye took a deep breath, her black, deep-set eyes avoiding mine. “I might be responsible for this. She is the one person who hates me enough to try and hurt me or my family. And she might have the power to break through the barriers I raised around the house, allowing the djinné to enter while she took your baby. Around sunset, I did have a slight feeling that they might’ve been disrupted, but I didn’t give it much of a thought. I am getting old.”
She sighed. “Her beef is with me, Magar, and she’s always liked to prey on the weak.” She scowled. “To think that she and I were friends.”
Without giving me time to react, she got up on her feet, and handed the gun to Astou. I was more than flabbergasted to see my baby sister handle it with an expert touch, her delicate fingers tinkering with it in a way far beyond my understanding. “Yaye taught me,” she said with a little smile in reaction to my widened eyes.
“You gonna stay here in case Ismaïla comes back before we do,” my mother said to her, “or in case that thing comes back.”
Lord, I had almost forgotten about my husband. What was I going to say to him? New tears threatened to come forth at the thought of everything going wrong, but I kept them at bay. Tears would not bring my baby back, now was time for action.
Eyes heavenward, I fervently prayed Allah for no harm to come to my baby, then I turned towards my mother, my fists clenched. “What are we going to do?” I said.
The corners of her mouth quirked up in a devilish smile, and Yaye walked out of the room, beckoning me to follow her.
“I’m gonna change into something more suitable, and we are getting your son back. Nobody messes with my family. It’s time to teach that hideous goat a lesson.”
“Do you know where she lives?” I asked.
“I do. But I have to warn you, Magar. The road to her den is filled with deceptions.” She grabbed my neck and hugged it. “I’ll need you to be brave and to keep your head straight. For the sake of your son.”
I nodded, a lump in my throat as I followed her lead. Yet I couldn’t help but resent her for what was happening. If I were not her daughter, wouldn’t my son be at my side, safe and sound? Still, our priority right now was rescuing him, there would be plenty of time to begrudge her later.
Leaving our block, she took a fork to our left. There were fewer and fewer houses, and soon we had reached the forest edge. Different types of trees loomed over us, Flamboyant and Neem, threatening our very presence in these woods, making us feel unwelcome. The sounds of small animals grew louder, as if they were angered by our nocturnal intrusion.
Yaye looked unconcerned, but so soon after a creepy supernatural encounter I was terrified by every dark corner, every shadow that my mind saw moving. Stumbling on an insidious root, I would’ve fallen on my face if it weren’t for Yaye, who stabilized me with her hand.
“Watch your step,” she growled.
Breathless, I took a second to catch my breath, leaning against the rough, hostile trunk of a baobab tree. How could my life have become this madness? I was a teacher, a mathematician, my husband a man who flew across oceans by plane—how could I now be a hunter of demons, beside a woman whose magic I’d long since stopped believing in?
“Come on, girl,” this same woman snapped, “or are you too tired already?”
As we walked, I remembered the story Yaye told us for the first time when our father was dying. With tears in her eyes, she spoke of the man who once trapped a female djinné, stealing strands of her hair, hence binding her to his service. Yet despite him being the master, he fell in love with the djinné and after a couple of years freed her from her bond. The djinné left him, returning to her realm, and he died of sorrow soon after that.
This was the place for magic, in stories to distract children from the imminent tragedy awaiting them! But here I was now, terrified for my son, the most precious thing in the world to me. I’d shed blood and tears to bring my child into this world, and now he was in the hands of an evil, unknown woman. An evil, unknown witch.
“What’s your history with this Ciré anyway?” I asked as the trees closed in on us like a vegetal prison.
“She was my best friend, back when we were little girls,” Yaye said, after a reluctant moment of silence. “We played together, ran around like headless chicken, even passed initiation together. I believed nothing could tear us apart.”
“What happened, then?”
“Jealousy happened, Magar. I was better in every domain, a virtuoso in the old arts. I was in line to inherit my mother’s role as our spiritual guardian, and she had twenty and one brothers who preceded her. I was the apple of my mother’s eyes, the pride of our ancestors, Mother used to say. But Ciré’s parents couldn’t even see her for the talented girl she was. Perhaps I’m partially responsible for what she became, considering the fact that I drifted from her, from everyone really, in order to find my own path.”
“You feel sorry for her,” I realized.
“I did. After that, from the way she interacted with me when we occasionally saw each other, I knew she blamed me for everything. I received spiritual attacks, curses meant to cause a fatal disease, or make me barren. Of course, I shooed them away like mosquitoes, but now she takes my grandson? I can’t afford to feel pity towards someone who harms the innocent.”
Yaye didn’t say a word after that, and it was only then that I noticed the sudden silence, far from the inimical murmur of earlier. This late-night trek did nothing to alleviate my claustrophobia, especially with moonlight unable to penetrate the canopy anymore. To elude the deafening darkness, we had nothing but our feeble flashlights. Uneasy, I was about to ask her if we had arrived when the ground gave way beneath me.
The earth swallowed me whole, like a starving grave, and I fell.
I screamed at the top of my lungs, calling for my mother, my deceased father, Ismaïla, anyone. The darkness itself was a monster, clawing at my soul and whispering unholy words to me, unspeakable phrases coming straight from the bowels of Hell. Feeding off my every fear and torment, the tunnel coiled around me as if it were a python and I its prey.
I began to suffocate, mouth and nostrils full of decaying dirt, heart overflowing with dread, when something like a tree branch wrapped tightly around my waist and dragged me from the clutches of death.
It was Yaye’s old pipe, planted in her palm and slowly absorbing her blood, thus becoming an extension of her arm.
But I could barely see any of that, because the moment I stopped coughing from all the dirt I swallowed, the screams kicked in. I wailed like a wounded animal, and in that instant I had no control over my own mind.
My mother held my head between her hands as she wiped my face with her sleeve. Then she slapped me, hard. “Daughter, get a hold of yourself!”
At last I stopped screaming, my throat as sore as if caught in barbed wire. I clung to Yaye, desperately longing for a semblance of human touch after this near-death experience. She allowed me to, vigorously rubbing my back before I pushed her away, gulping down air like a drowned woman.
“I just gave birth to you a second time,” she snickered as she helped me up.
I sniffed. “Yaye, you slapped me.”
“Oh, but you’re welcome,” she said, all sweetness.
I couldn’t help but smile, picking up my flashlight and turning it back on. The aftertaste of tainted soil stuck in the back of my throat, and I thanked the Lord that it wasn’t the rainy season at this moment, or I would’ve ingested bacteria and all their cousins.
“What was that?” I asked. “The tunnel felt… alive somehow.”
“It was. She booby-trapped all the perimeter surrounding her house, and this pitfall was spiced up with djinné magic. But look. We’re here.”
She pointed her finger to a hut that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It was partially hidden by scary trees, so contorted and shriveled our mango tree back at home paled in comparison. I couldn’t see any other traps, but now I knew they would be there.
Yaye went ahead of me, silently indicating the spots I had to avoid putting my feet on. We slowly crossed this minefield that way, in the dark, given that the moon refused to light up this wretched place.
It was 5:00 a.m. by my watch when the decrepit door appeared within sight, but Yaye pulled at my sleeve, motioning me to stop. She buried her hands inside her satchel before taking out her powders, stuffing a small quantity of them into her pipe and lighting it. She inhaled the fumes deep into her lungs, then with a shiver she turned the pipe over to me.
“There’s no way I’m smoking that,” I whispered. “What if it’s drugs?”
“What if it’s drugs,” she said mockingly. “These are just magically enhanced herbs. Besides, I crushed them myself, don’t worry.”
“That’s what a low-class drug dealer would say.”
She rolled her eyes and shoved the pipe into my hands. With a sigh, I inhaled the strange smoke, which smelled of dried basil and kola nut—a surprisingly balanced combination. Then strangest thing happened: it was like lightning bolts ran through my veins like raging steeds, starting from my neck all the way down my limbs. I coughed, my eyes stinging from the smoke, and what could only be magic running through my body.
“What we just inhaled will protect us against any curse that goat could throw at us,” Yaye said. “But I’m gonna need you to do something.”
She murmured instructions into my ears, and my shoulders tightened, beads of sweat tickling my upper lip. The consequences of her strategy could be dangerous, but I knew that to get my son back I was ready to risk everything. We both were.
At last, she took out her ceremonial knife, a rusted blade with a handle covered with several strips of red cloth and centered by a single cowrie shell. With it, she drew a cross in the air, and I distinctly heard the sound of fabric being torn. Without a second’s hesitation, she busted down the door and we walked in.
The air inside the hut was stale and overwhelming, making my skin itch. The light of a fire with dancing greenish flames allowed me to discern the configuration of the place. The first thing I saw was my baby who, thank the Heavens, looked unharmed. He was lying on a shabby bed in the corner of the room, the edges of its sheets way too close to the fire for my taste. There was an entire section of the wall in front of me covered in wooden statues, representing unknown deities with long, eerie faces and protruding abdomens, side by side with stylized animals. A chill went down my spine when I realized that blood still crusted some of them.
My inspection only lasted a few seconds before the owner of the premises, rummaging in an antique iron chest, noticed our intrusion. She was short and seemed frail, younger than I expected, although her constantly scowling face didn’t make her look very good. She wore an ankara dress that had seen better days, and her ashy feet were bare.
When she saw my mother, she screamed, veins popping out and hatred in her eyes.
Good, because I too had hatred to spare. That woman abducted my baby, and judging by the various sharp instruments at the foot of the bed, she was about to hurt him. It took every ounce of my willpower not to immediately rush to my son, but I had to trust Yaye to dismantle the situation quickly.
Like an angry goat, the woman jumped at my mother’s throat, sending a trail of stinking smoke in our direction. Yaye shrugged it off and advanced on her opponent, but I instantly fell to the floor, motionless. As useless as I was, I could only watch as the two women argued, blood ready to spill.
“Give me my grandson back, Ciré,” my mother warned, promises of ghastly murder exuding from her voice, “and I might consider breaking only a few of your fingers.”
“You’re in no position to negotiate!” Ciré said in a grating tone. “I will suffer no interruption, your turn will come soon enough after I’m done with the baby.”
I hissed at the mention of my son, and the woman gave me an unfaltering, dismissive glance. “What were you going to do with him, huh?” I managed to say.
“His blood will reveal all your mother’s secrets to me, and I will curse her whole bloodline, until the last descendant. The only thing that remains to be done is for me to harvest the first ray of sunlight. At dawn, Yaye Awa Diedhiou, you will be done for!”
“That’s low, even for a powerless crone like you,” my mother spat as she wielded her pipe, which transformed into a gnarled, full-sized staff. “This folly ends now.”
“Not so fast. Didn’t you hear? I have a new friend now.” Green flames illuminating her gaunt, demented face, Ciré brandished what looked like strands of hair: glossy, purple locks held together by a scarlet string.
“Djinné hair,” my mother gasped as the woman blew thrice on the locks, stepping back with an evil grin. Not a second later, the air in front of Yaye rippled, as if we were seeing it from underwater. A great gust of wind blew across the room, heralding the approach of something otherworldly, and my baby began to cry.
A shadow appeared before my eyes, its curves becoming clearer and clearer. It was a female being, more than seven feet tall, with dark, naked skin and broad shoulders. Her bulging eyes were surmounted by hirsute eyebrows, and her luxuriant hair was so long it trailed on the dusty floor, matching the locks Ciré had in the palm of her hand.
Ciré had perverted that sad but beautiful tale my mother told so long ago by doing what she did, and I didn’t need to be a master in the old arts to know what. And in that moment, I heard my mother’s voice in my head.
“That vixen thinks the world revolves around her, so just pretend to have been thrown out of the equation, even though you’re magically protected. She’s working with dangerous forces above our reach, so you’ll have to be the one who takes her out. All her attention will be focused on me, so I’ll be your distraction. Just trust me, and wait until the right moment.”
“Because of you, I never had anything in this world,” Ciré was ranting. “Everyone turned away from me and looked up to you, their precious pupil. Now, I have the upper hand, and I say this ends now.”
Pointing at my mother, she howled at the djinné in a strange language of cackles and hoarse sounds. Seeing the last spark of sanity leave the woman’s eyes and replaced by sheer madness, I knew what those words meant.
As instructed, the djinné charged my mother, lifting her off the ground as easily as a twig. Yaye struck it with a resolute blow of her staff, aiming for its flank, but it only bounced off its thick skin. The djinné growled at my mother, baring fangs very much like those which its offspring had sunk into me. There was no going back from what was about to happen, and the djinné buried its claws into her right flank.
My mother cried out, and I felt for her as Ciré’s eyes lit up with ferocious delight—but I’d awaited the right time. And now it was.
I dropped my act and hurtled towards Ciré, the only thing she saw coming was my fist right in her face. I heard a satisfying crack when my punch broke her nose, sending blood flowing down her face, though my knuckles probably broke in the process.
I ignored the stinging pain and pulled the locks of hair out of Ciré’s grip, oblivious to her cries of pain as she held her face. The djinné dropped my mother to the ground to confront its mistress’s new assailant, but I threw the locks into the impatient green flames and they were immediately consumed, breaking the bond enslaving the demon.
With a roar of triumph, it leaped on top of Ciré, piercing her chest with its claws. Both of them vanished just the way it came, leaving nothing but Ciré’s shrieks of terror fading on the sudden wind. Then it and they were gone.
“Go see to your son,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “I’ll be just fine.”
I nodded, tears of relief streaming down my face as I got up and ran to my baby. He was breathless, eyes puffy from all that crying, and right now I was no better. Calming myself by slowly inhaling his sweet scent, I tried singing the lullaby Yaye used to sing to us when we were upset, and I heard her chuckles when I shamelessly butchered the dioula words. Fortunately, it worked, and he fell asleep between my arms.
Yaye got up, residues of the healing powder on her fingers and her bloody clothes.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“Takes more than a couple of scratches to overcome me, girl. We need to get out of here, it’s dawn.”
I frowned, realizing that it would be complicated to carry my baby through the uneven path back to our home. But as always, Yaye was one step ahead of me. Without a word, she pulled out the bed sheet, for lack of anything better, and tied the baby securely against my back.
“That, little toubab, is how it’s done.”
We exchanged a smile as we got out of the hut into the rising dawn. It was incredible how just a little more light could make a place look less frightening, and the way back was nothing like the hellish track we had to face earlier. The forest was awakening, and listening to the reassuring sound of birds chirping, it occurred to me that people back in town would be awake too, women pounding millet and sweeping courtyards.
Not once did we turn around to look at the old hut, but we were both thinking about Ciré.
“What do you think is going to happen to her?” I asked, as we sneaked behind houses, careful not to raise too many questions about my disheveled look and Yaye’s bloodstained clothes.
“She messed with the wrong forces, and now she’s paying the price,” Yaye said, her voice saddened. “Djinné are proud creatures, and this one sounded way too eager to claim retaliation. We may never see Ciré again.”
I was expecting that answer, but I didn’t feel sorry for her, not in the slightest. She had an awful ending, but she brought it on herself. That’s where a life of hatred led her, and evil could only appeal to evil. I knew my mother felt remorse about what had happened to her, even if she wouldn’t admit it. It wasn’t her fault though, and neither was my son’s abduction by a bitter, vengeful woman. It would be unfair of me to still blame her, especially after she put her life on the line to save my baby.
When we finally got home, Astou was clearly relieved to see us back in one piece—to a certain extent—and she immediately tended to my mother’s wounds, assuring me that they were not severe.
She also told me that my husband had left me a text message, saying that he had landed safely and would be here in a few hours. He arrived in the early afternoon and found us all seated in the living room. Yaye, smoking her enigmatic pipe; Astou, making tea while humming around whatever mbalax song was trending at the moment; and me, breastfeeding our baby as if nothing had happened.
It was only in that moment, when Ismaïla held us both close to his chest, his eyes tired but gleaming with all the love he had for us, that I allowed myself to ignore the decaying scent prowling around our home.
Because there was one side to the stories that my mother never told us before, and that she finally revealed to me right when we arrived at our doorstep, dirty and exhausted.
“Once a djinné gets a taste of your blood, my little toubab, it will never stop coming after you, not until he drinks it all. One day, that little djinné baby will return to feed again.
“But when that time comes, we will be ready.”
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