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28# A curse in a bucket

DAY – Kianga, Congo Free State – 1885.

BAM! The blow threw Nsala to the ground. His head heated; black spots floating around. “TAKE OUT THE GOATS!” ordered Mamu. She stretched the goatskin over the bucket and hid it outside the hut. Nsala lay on his side, a steady tone rang in his head. He rubbed his ear with the warm fluid. “NOW” shouted Mamu from the door. The sight of her pink-speckled hand terrified Nsala. He covered his head and scurried to the pen.

Nsala swung his spear at the indifferent goats. The oldest, with its long red beard and lazy eyes, was the last to move. Nsala tapped his spear and shouted but the old goat paid him no mind. Angry, Nsala grabbed the old goal by the beard and pulled it out of the pen. It grazed apart from the flock. Feeling guilty, Nsala followed it on the ocher plateau.

Nsala relaxed on a large boulder. His head did not hurt anymore. The white fluid turned to slime. It stuck to his face, palm, and shaft. Nsala scraped it off in bits and laid it on the flattest part of the boulder. It smelled sweet. He tasted a chunk and spat it out, grimacing at its bitterness. The bits looked like tousled chicken feathers. He observed them up close. The wind stopped to watch. The bits were moving.

Last year, a villager called Mamu a witch when her skin began to change. She said Mamu shook the devil’s hand, and that it was a bad omen for the village. Mamu threatened to curse her barren if she did not go away. The bucket is cursed, he thought. Nsala clustered the bits into a hard pebble and threw it against the rock. The pebble bounced back. Surprised, Nsala reached for his spear and yelled the fear out of his chest. The goats ignored him. Nsala herded them down the hill, back to the village.

The men of his village gathered around the chief’s hut. Facing them, a dozen men with red crowns stood in a line. They carried weird spears. The strangers had skin covering their whole bodies. They exchanged buckets with the villagers. A white man was with them. He had a crown, round, and white like an egg, and a long red beard. "The white man comes from the river", those were Mamu’s words. He pictured a man, white like milk, riding the back of a giant hippo. This egg-headed man with hair on his chin looked like Mamu's old goat. He giggled.

Nsala pushed the goats into the pen and stood in the way, daydreaming. BAM! Another slap to the head. “WHERE WERE YOU?”, shouted Mamu. Nsala covered his head as Mamu’s speckled hand beat him to his knees. “BAD NSALA!”, she pushed him over the goats and closed the gate. Hurt and confused, the boy sobbed on the hay. A brown kid hopped on and rubbed its small head against his shoulder. Nsala stroked its fur and weeped.

  • “Nsala! Wake up.” Mafuta poked him and laid the cocoa pod by his head. “Mamu was really worried,” she said.

  • “But I didn’t do anything!,” he protested.

  • “Mamu said do not touch the bucket but Nsala never listens,” she sighed.

Her voice was lost in the smell of manioc, cassava, and mango. Nsala finished his plate and saved a piece for the goat. It licked the cocoa pod, leaving its shell hollow and clean. Nsala picked up the empty pod and walked up to his mother.

Mamu was drilling the bow to make a fire. Nsala approached, head down in the shy morning. She patted his forehead. “Son, take the goats to drink and get me more wood,” she said. Her hand was warm, soft and tender with remorse. Nsala nodded and entered the hut. He saw the bucket of white liquid in the corner. It was empty. Disappointed, Nsala grabbed his spear and chased the goats to the stream. Done with his first task, he strode to the forest.

Big cocoa pods bent the branches and hung low on the tree line. Nsala picked up a hollow one and sat against the trunk. He blocked the pod between the roots and maneuvered the spearhead. Following its edge, Nsala poked with skill and accuracy. His face lost its childish glow. He frowned at the pod with admirative curiosity, like an old cynic secretly in love with his art. He carved a deep continuous line on the pod’s contour, tapped, and twisted it open. Inside, the dried pulp unpeeled. Nsala scratched it off its shell and pushed the two parts together. The pod's perfect symmetry filled his heart with joy. The sun was high in the sky when Nsala sauntered back to the village, spear in a hand and pod in the other.

Mamu was not in the hut, neither was Mafuta. He scoped around and reached for the bucket. It was covered and heavy. Nsala removed the goat skin and emptied the bucket inside the pod. He filled and closed the pod with the other half. The white liquid sealed the gap. He placed the goat skin on the bucket, carried his pod, and ran to the forest.

Far from sight, he pulled the pod apart. The white slime stuck the shells together. Nsala opened it with the spearhead and placed it in the sun. Every time the liquid became too thick, he stirred with his finger. The slime turned to a paste. He detached it from the shell and kneaded it into a ball the size of a mango. Meticulous, he inspected over and over, poking every imperfection into the perfect sphere. The white globe felt dense and heavy.

Nsala played with his new toy. He bounced the ball on grass, rock, sand, and swamp. The white ball turned brownish with the stains. He rubbed berries on the ball. The pink and brown speckles looked like Mamu’s hand. "I’ll give it to Mamu", he thought. With his present under the arm, Nsala walked to the hut. A fire was burning, but the hut was empty. There was no Mamu, no Mafuta, and no bucket. Nsala slept alone that night.

The strangers returned to the village the next morning. They stood in line and exchanged buckets with the villagers. The white man with the red beard was with them. He held a larger bucket, but his was not covered with goatskin. As he paraded, Nsala caught sight of Mamu for the last time. Her pink speckled hand ruled all the others, even there, in the white man’s bucket.

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