My quick tour of the important facilities within the village now complete, it was time to visit the mysterious Grandmother Touré.
To my surprise, Mr. Harris’s hut was not the largest hut in the village. As it turns out, that belonged to Grandmother Touré. She was accorded this additional space because half served as sleeping quarters for herself and Liwaza. The other half was used to store the foodstuffs that couldn’t be kept in the granary.
“Is it wise to have Liwaza live with an old woman?” I asked. “I get the impression from everyone’s reaction to her that she can be quite dangerous.”
“Moms brews up this tea that helps keep her calm. Aside from Bunmi, she’s really the only one who can deal with her 24-7,” Dave said. “Besides, Liwaza likes helping Moms with the cooking.”
“I’m rather surprised that Mr. Harris hasn’t sent Liwaza on to London so the Council can help her,” I remarked.
Dave stiffened. “I know if Harris could, he would.”
“I can’t imagine why he believes it’s not possible.”
“This is something you have to ask him about. If you don’t bring it up, I know Harris will because he really wants to talk to you about this before you file anything with the home office. All I’ll tell you is that he was told by Mr. Giles in no uncertain terms to not only keep her far, far away from London, but to also hide the fact she even exists.”
I looked sharply at Dave, partly out of surprise, partly because I didn’t wish to believe him. However, I could see from the look on his face that he was quite grim about the issue. It appeared my only option was to confront Mr. Harris about it.
As the issue of Liwaza was as settled as much as it could be at the moment, Dave went back to the subject of Grandmother Touré. “Moms does most of the cooking in the pits in back and the girls are on a regular rotation to help out with the food. They’re also responsible for washing their own plates and cups. The communal bowls get taken care by Moms and whoever’s on schedule.”
“I don’t believe I saw anything more than a cup in my hut,” I said.
“Hit Moms up for the fine bone China later on, then,” Dave replied.
When we reached the hut, Dave stood outside and clapped sharply a few times.
I held my breath.
An old, hunched-over woman came to the door. Her glittering black eyes shined with the kind of amusement that would not be out of place on Miss Rosenberg’s face, but that was where the similarity ended. Her wrinkled face and toothless mouth did not give her an air of gravitas or wisdom as one might expect, but one of mischief. She didn’t seem to walk so much as she bustled and I wondered just how quickly her hidden feet moved underneath the acres of skirt that occluded her thin form from the waist down.
“Moms,” Dave bowed as he reached for her hand and naturally kissed it. “I need some of that home-style cooking of yours, s’il vous plait.”
Grandmother Touré was not immune to Dave’s considerable charms. She smiled widely at him and patted his wrist like he was a favorite grandson.
“This,” he presented me with a sweeping gesture, “is Miss Swithin here to present herself.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
She smiled her toothless grin and waggled a bony finger at me before bustling back into the hut. She soon reemerged with two cups. Liwaza trailed behind her bearing a pot of tea. She handed the cups to Dave and myself, before taking the pot from her elfin helper and pouring the tea with her own hands.
Dave elbowed me with a grin before drinking the tea down with gusto. He loudly smacked his lips when he was done to show his appreciation. “I rate the welcome tea most excellent. You’re in fine form today, Moms.”
Since Dave had not, as Mr. Harris charmingly put it, “turned into a frog,” I tentatively brought the tea to my lips and sipped. I experimentally licked my lips. It was herbal in nature, just as Mr. Harris said, but it lacked the overwhelming sweetness of the tea that had been served to me in Djenné. It was quite good, in fact. I bowed and, using Dave as my role model, I gulped it down, and smacked my lips to show her that I, too, appreciated her hospitality.
Just as I was about to hand my cup back to her, Grandmother Touré grabbed my left wrist and pulled it toward her as if she were about to read my palm. I looked at Dave for guidance, but he only answered me with a shrug.
Whatever Grandmother Touré saw in my palm caused her to cackle. I stiffened in response, partly out of fear, partly out of uncertainty.
Her reaction was to simply pat my hand in a most reassuring manner. She nodded, grinned, and once more waggled a bony finger at me, as if I had been a naughty child but she would forgive my impudence simply because my antics amused her. She then signaled Dave to stay put before she and Liwaza retreated into the hut.
“What just happened?” I asked.
“Got me. Moms’s ways are mysterious,” Dave answered. “She refuses to learn Klingon and her French is barely comprehensible. She usually gets across what she means. Sometimes she doesn’t. Sometimes she doesn’t want to. That’s Moms for you. You just learn to live with it.”
Grandmother Touré reemerged from the hut, this time bearing two bowls of a delicious-smelling meaty stew. Liwaza bore a jug of water, two cups, and a scrap of cloth draped over a forearm. These items were handed to the pair of us and it took some juggling on both our parts to accept everything. Once the feat was accomplished, Dave thanked both Grandmother Touré and Liwaza, before jerking his head back to the school to signal that we’d eat there.
“I’d invite you into my guest hut, but I usually end up crashing at Harris’s when I’m here,” Dave explained apologetically.
The now too-familiar feeling of a sinking heart made itself known. “So you’re friends.”
“Well, that’s a hard question,” Dave said as he settled on the edge of the platform and began arranging himself to his satisfaction. “I’d say, yeah, we’re friends.”
“Mr. Harris would disagree,” I said as I followed Dave’s lead. I absently scratched my left wrist.
“Noooo,” Dave said as he balanced the bowl in his left hand. “It’s just that Harris is a tough guy to get to know. Me? My life’s pretty much an open book. Harris keeps a lot of things close to the vest. Now, I can give you the rundown on his life here, probably in pretty good detail, but all I can give you is facts and figures. As for how he thinks or why? I’ve got no clue.”
I stared helplessly down into my bowl as I tried to ignore the itchy feeling on my left wrist. “I seem to be lacking silverware.”
“Eat with your right hand. We got enough water to wash up,” he said as he demonstrated the local eating custom for me.
“Rather wished you mentioned it before,” I grumbled as I set the bowl aside and began scratching my wrist in earnest. “I’d like to wash my hands before I eat.”
Dave put down his bowl and nodded at my hands. “Problem?”
“Yes,” I stopped scratching long enough to look at my abused skin. It looked red, slightly swollen, and was hot to the touch.
“Let me see,” Dave offered.
As he was sitting to my right, I had to twist around to let him look.
Dave drew in a sharp breath through his nose.
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said warily.
He shook his head with a smile. “Nah. Bug bite. You didn’t put on the DEET, hunh?”
“Ahhh, yes,” I cringed. I felt positively foolish about failing to follow that basic precaution. It wasn’t that I expected that any disease-ridden pest could hurt me. I was more concerned that I hadn’t done what was expected. “I packed it, but we were in such a rush this morning to leave the Tapama that I failed to put any on.”
“Next time, take your time and do it,” Dave chuckled as he reached for the cloth and poured water from the jug over it. “No point in tempting those nasty mosquitoes into taking a taste.”
“Indeed.” I took the now-damp, cool cloth from him and thanked him as I began wiping my hands with it.
“Wrap it around your wrist,” he suggested.
I did as Dave bid and the itching immediately subsided. “I’ll have to remember this trick,” I said.
Dave shook his head. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I wouldn’t count on it working all the time.”
“Back to what you were saying,” I said as I reached for my bowl, “I was rather curious about what you knew about Mr. Harris.”
Dave answered between chews. “I know he’s from Southern California and that he was one of those stoner surfer boys that got scared straight after he nearly got eaten.”
“Mr. Harris told you that?” My surprise caused the question came out much sharper than I intended.
Dave paused and a frown line appeared between his eyes. “Y-e-e-e-e-e-e-s-s-s-s-s-s,” he said slowly. “Why?”
“He didn’t tell you anything else, say, where he came from, or how he became a Watcher, or why he came to Africa?” I pressed.
Dave seemed taken aback. “Said he grew up in some town not far from Santa Barbara. I’m sure he mentioned the name and I just forgot,” Dave said. “As for how he became a Watcher, he said he knew a Council member who was willing to sponsor him and champion his application for a job. He said he came to Africa because a lot of the Council’s worldwide network got taken down by some ‘big bad’ that wanted to take over the world and that’s why he was pretty much on his own down here. Since he was up for some traveling outside of the Western world, he picked this assignment.”
Not precisely a lie, but not precisely the truth. “As a bare statement of facts, that is true.”
I felt uncomfortable under Dave’s intense scrutiny.
My suspicious mind was at work again, and I hazarded a question. “Did he tell you about the history of Slayers?” I asked.
“Way back in history at the dawn of mankind, these girls were given special powers to protect humanity from demons,” Dave said. “They’ve been around forever and operating in secret, and somehow no one managed to notice they were around. The Watcher’s Council had the job of finding them, telling them who and what they were, and then training them if they were willing to shoulder the burden—”
I found myself staring into my stew as I realized that Dave had absolutely no idea that before May 2003, the Slayer was the Chosen One, and not One of the Chosen. Mr. Harris had informed Dave of the new paradigm, but hadn’t bothered to tell him about the old one.
“—so that’s why the Council’s got a problem. After the attack that took out your network, not enough Watchers for all the Slayers in the world.”
I swallowed hard. Mr. Harris had deliberately misled Dave. Why? I couldn’t say. Given Dave’s recitation, it was clear to see that Dave didn’t know about the spell that made Slayers out of all Potentials, regardless of whether the power was welcome or not. While I couldn’t say that Dave’s ignorance of Mr. Harris’s past was indicative of anything, it pointed to the possibility that no one in the village, with perhaps the exception of Alexandrienne and Radar, knew anything about Mr. Harris, let alone that there was a spell and that he had played a part in its casting.
I suspected that Mr. Harris’s notable practicality had factored into this web of half-truths, although I couldn’t quite figure out the purpose behind it. It seemed to me that he had deliberately rejected a tactic to ensure the loyalty of the Slayers he brought to the village. Until I knew more, I thought it best to simply go along and leave Dave in the dark.
“Well, you do have the basics,” I said.
Dave let out breath. “Good. The Qualifications Subcommittee just forwarded my application to become a Watcher to the full Council.”
“What?” I asked. “I wasn’t made aware of this.”
Dave cringed. “Whoops. Jumped the gun. I wasn’t supposed to tell you that because they haven’t decided whether to call me in for an interview.”
“Well, now I know,” I said. I was shocked. Very clearly Mr. Giles knew more about this village than the records he sent me let on. “Going by what little I know of your qualifications, I can see why they might be interested, but— How did this happen?”
“Where do I start?” he asked as he shook his head.
I paused to think about my answer. I could just ask about the application process, but I decided I might benefit from hearing the history behind Dave’s ‘hush-hush’ application. I didn’t have much hope for an answer, but there was nothing lost by trying. “You could start by telling me how you fell in with Mr. Harris.”
“Oh, well, now that’s a story,” Dave said as he shook his head with a smile. “I’ll do you one better and start a little before that.”
I nodded, tentatively stuck my fingers in my bowl of food, and began eating.
“I’d been running around the Dogon towns at the base and lower part of the Bandiagara Escarpment. Research, you know. I just got there and had been around for a week, maybe two. It was May 2003. I know because it was hot — and in this country hot is hot, like stick your head in a 400-degree-oven hot. What we Yankee Doodle Dandies have a habit of calling ‘Africa hot,’ but only hotter than that.”
I couldn’t resist. “You seem to be hinting that the weather was rather warm,” I said with a grin.
Dave laughed. “Yeah, when I get going about the weather around here, I keep on going. I will never, ever complain about muggy New England summers again. Anyway, I start getting these dreams. Nothing spectacular, right? Just this young girl, maybe 11 or 12, all dressed in white, and standing in front of one of those Dogon homes in the rocky terrain around the escarpment. She’s not saying anything, just watching me.”
“Perhaps a girl you’d seen in your travels and the memory stayed with you.”
“That’s what I thought, but I’d always wake up in this panic like I was supposed to be somewhere and I wasn’t where I was supposed to be. Couldn’t tell you where that was, but that was just the feeling I had.”
“Dreams can mean a lot of things,” I pointed out. “Perhaps the girl represented someone or something you left behind or thought you’d lost.”
“Very Freudian of you.”
“Anyway, this goes on for a good two, maybe two-and-half-months. At night I’m getting these dreams, by day, I’m Dr. Johnson, intrepid explorer of the depths of the evolving Dogon soul,” Dave said. “I finally hit this village and I come across this whole new rite for the dead. One I hadn’t seen among the Dogon before. The people in the village had recently started beheading people right after they die.”
This got my attention. “Vampires?”
“Give the lady a kewpie doll,” Dave nudged me. “’Course, at the time I had no idea what they were talking about. All they said was that the spirits of the dead were angry because this village had engaged in sacrilege.”
“Yeah. They had started putting on a tourist version of the Dama. The Dama’s their sacred dance that’s only supposed to happen under certain conditions, like after a good harvest and because the Hogon — that’s sort of like the village pope, except more important than that — says you can. Anyway, the people in the village were hoping to draw some of the tourists from the other towns by putting on ‘demonstrations.’ They figured if they did an hour-long version this day-long celebration every evening, the town could rake in some money from the tourists who’d buy some millet beer and stay the night.”
“Clever,” I acknowledged.
“The Hogon ranted and raved against it, but for the first time in memory, the town pretty much voted to go ahead against his wishes,” Dave continued. “So, they start and not more than a month later, according to them anyway, ‘the spirits of the dead got angry.’”
I leaned forward. This was positively riveting. “Go on.”
“According to the villagers, people would die, but they wouldn’t stay dead. Their spirits would re-enter their bodies, and because they were taking vengeance for defiling something sacred, the faces of the animated corpses were deformed and their eyes would glow yellow.”
“Gets better,” Dave said. “The dead would then kill their entire families before escaping up into the cliffs. Sometimes they’d come back and rain down more death and destruction. Usually they’d move on.”
“To cause misery elsewhere,” I added.
“These people didn’t know that. All they knew is that one day they were a sleepy little town lusting after tourist dollars,” Dave said. “The next day they had the tourist dollars and the dead were coming back to life and killing them because of it. They had no idea where the dead went after they were done.”
“I hardly see a cause and effect,” I said.
“Don’t be too sure about that.” Dave pointed at me. “Harris has noticed that wherever there’s an itinerant population, you tend to find a lot of vampires and more than a few of your nastier demons. Places like refugee camps, war zones, large cities, and, you guessed it, tourism hot spots.”
“In other words, areas where your prey is not at an advantage and isn’t well known locally,” I said thoughtfully. “In a war zone, it would be difficult to tell how your prey was killed, which would nicely mask your activities. Furthermore, if you kill someone who’s been torturing the local population, no one would truly care how they died nor would anyone bother to investigate the death. In a refugee camp, especially one where you have people entering and leaving on an ad hoc basis, there’s a very good possibility your prey wouldn’t be able to effectively fight back due to hunger or illness. A large city is rather self-explanatory, I would think, especially if you have large population of people from the rural areas wandering the city in search of better paying jobs. In a tourist area, you have a lot of prey that are merely passing through the area that would not be intimately familiar with likely routes of escape. Tourist areas would be more attractive than, say, a refugee camp simply because the people would be healthier. If you’re a vampire that prefers the hunt over the easy kill, you would also have more sport.”
Dave blinked at me.
“Sorry. Thinking out loud,” I muttered as I concentrated on my bowl of food.
“This is a Watcher thing, isn’t it?” Dave asked. “The whole calling people ‘prey’ and talking about hunting people for sport? I hate it when Harris starts talking like that when he’s trying to figure out what some vampire or vampire group is going to do next. It’s very, very creepy.”
I could hardly call Mr. Harris heartless for doing so, especially since I had just done the same thing in a completely unthinking manner. “It’s a way to understand your enemy’s mindset,” I weakly explained.
Dave shook his head. “I know. I know. Sometimes I find myself thinking in those terms and it scares the heck out of me. I know it’s necessary, but Jesus. It really does make you want to take a shower when you do. I just haven’t started saying that kind of thing out loud yet because it’s all still too new to me. I’m hoping that 100 years from now it’ll still be too new to me.”
“It can be disconcerting,” I admitted. I mentally added that it was doubly so if you didn’t expect it to come out of your own mouth.
“Well, anyway, the villagers figured out that if they cut off the heads of the corpses before the spirits were able to return and put the head in a different area from the rest of the body—”
“The dead would not rise,” I finished.
Dave nodded. “Well, this all sounded pretty unreal to me. Since everyone in this village was singing the same song, I knew they couldn’t all be lying. I figured that some bandits had decided to target this village and were killing people for money, millet beer, or just for kicks. The deformed faces could be masks. The yellow eyes could be jaundice. Who knew? Anyway, I decided to stay and find out more about this new tradition of beheading corpses.”
I looked askance at him. “You knew it was dangerous, and yet you stayed?”
“I’m down there doing a paper on how tourism is affecting Dogon religious belief, remember?” Dave reminded me. “This was a clear-cut case of a new ritual for the dead evolving directly as a result of tourism. Are you kidding? I was stoked. I thought I had myself an award-winning paper on my hands.”
“Ahhh, yes. The tunnel vision of an academic who believes he’s found a proof for his theory,” I agreed.
“That night, I get my dream girl again,” Dave continued. “Only this time, she’s screaming at me in what was definitely a Dogon dialect. I wake up in a cold sweat and I’ve got this urge to run right out of town and not look back.”
“You didn’t of course,” I remarked.
“Once I calmed down, I figured I was being just a little stupid, so, yeah, I stayed.”
“I believe this is what we call a fatal mistake.”
“Close as I ever want to get to making one, anyway,” Dave agreed. “I’m there for maybe a month, mostly because I’m trying to get an invite to one of these beheading rituals. Another reason is because I’m trying to get more details about what exactly the beheading ritual entails.”
“But they admitted what they were doing to you,” I pointed out.
“That’s because they were spooked,” Dave explained. “I was a new face, so the village elders were all over me to find out if I heard of any other village that was having the same problems. I guess they were hoping to find ‘proof’ that all this blood wasn’t on their heads.”
“That would be a rather difficult question to answer, even if you knew then what you know now,” I remarked. “The vampires were attracted to the increased presence of tourists who would most likely not have been there if it were not for the village’s scheme.”
“Not that my answer of, ‘No, you’re the first village where I’ve ever heard of this happening,’ was a whole lot of comfort to them,” Dave said.
“So, in exchange for justification, they were willing to give you the highlights, but not the particulars of their predicament,” I said.
“Got it,” Dave nodded. “Through this whole time, my dreams about this girl are getting more and more violent. First it’s the screaming. Then, her clothes are all ripped. Then she looks like she’s been beaten within an inch of her life. Then she’s covered in blood. It just kept getting worse.”
“A warning?” I asked. “Some subconscious notion that you were in danger?”
“All in good time,” Dave said. “Anyway, finally I get invited to a beheading ceremony. There was nothing to it, really. Just some prayers asking forgiveness from the angry spirits of the dead before the axe comes down. I linger after everyone cleared out, even though several people told me to get back to the family I was staying with before dark. Well, by the time I was done with my interviews, the sun was almost below the horizon. The people who were there practically pushed me out the door and told me to get going because I shouldn’t be out after dark.”
“Even if you believed the problem was bandits, you should have listened to them,” I said.
“Yeah, I know,” Dave agreed. “But I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, see? I thought I had to strike while the iron was hot and people were still willing to talk. Everyone was so squirrelly about the beheading issue, I thought for sure that come the morning they’d try freezing me out again. Anyway, it gets dark before I’m halfway back to where I was staying and suddenly, lo and behold, the spirits of the dead themselves show up and they are hungry.”
I held my breath. This was obviously when Mr. Harris, Alexanrienne, and whatever Slayers were in their company descended upon the scene and saved Dave from a most unpleasant fate.