Monsters from below terrorize a community.
“Above” by Megan Baffoe.
Narrated by Georgia Mckenzie.
Audio production by Davis Walden.
Executive Producer and Host: Tonia Ransom
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Hi. I’m Tonia Ransom, creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives from all over the world.
This week, monsters terrorize a community.
But before we get to things that live below us, I want to take a moment to say thanks to our newest patron, Jordan. Thanks also to Eric for increasing your subscription amount. NIGHTLIGHT will be produced year-round thanks to the NIGHTLIGHT Legion, and now, we’d love to bring you new episodes every single week. Just go to patreon.com/nightlightpod to join the NIGHTLIGHT Legion and get a shoutout on the podcast, ad-free episodes, and occasional bonus content. And don’t forget, NIGHTLIGHT merch is available and you can support us by sporting NIGHTLIGHT-branded gear. Just go to merch.nightlightpod.com to get your t-shirts, hoodies, notebooks, and more!
Now sit back, turn out the lights, and enjoy “Above”, written by Megan Baffoe, narrated by Georgia Mckenzie.
I was nine years old when my best friend Ashantee moved away.
The morning I found out was a Saturday. Every weekend I ran to see her, feet kicking against my thighs with a child’s energy, all the way to her house. That day thirty-odd people had beaten me to it. The men were standing about, hands on their hips, brandishing guns and knives, but they weren’t using them. An old lady was praying; the rest of the women were gathered in a circle, tutting with Bibles clutched in hand.
‘Hey!’ That was for me. ‘Hey!’
I looked up at the woman. She was tall and fat, with broad shoulders and strong arms, and a heavy cross necklace lying flat against her chest. I had seen her before – recalled her name, even, Naomi – but never with so serious an expression.
‘You’re Martha’s girl?’ she continued, not waiting for me to acknowledge the first shout.
I nodded weakly. She kissed her teeth, flung a hand to the side. ‘Get home now, go on. And you tell your mother that there’s a circle on the Kyei’s door.’
I craned my neck to try and get a better look at the house, but one of the men, noticing me, stepped in front. ‘The youngest girl’s just her age,’ I heard one aunty say. There were murmurs, sympathy – ‘were you good friends with Ashantee, dear?’
I nodded a numb yes. One of the men looked over to me, his hand clasped around his knife. I didn’t like his eyes. ‘You know, they say it travels from person to person–’
‘Ay, Joshua,’ said one of the women, interrupting. ‘Leave that baby alone.’
‘I only mean –’
‘Enough,’ said Naomi, casting a silencing glance behind her. They all were quiet at once, even the men, and when she swung back around to look at me, I understood why. There was the strength of a leader in her set face.
‘I said, now, go on! This isn’t a place for children. You remember what you have to say?’
I nodded. I wanted to repeat her words back to her, to prove it, but I still felt struck dumb. It was the feeling around the house. Grief, for sure, but not the kind you’d have at a funeral – like the difference between a dead tree and rotting fruit.
‘Go on then. Run back like you ran here. Don’t stop for nobody, and – more than anything –don’t you dare stop for Angela Kyei.’
Although I knew that Ashantee’s older sister was called Angela, I could barely remember what she looked like. She was a lot older than I was. Still, I nodded again. I had never had any previous reason to fear or avoid her, but, for some reason, I trusted Aunty Naomi, and – even at nine – I could read an atmosphere well enough. Once I started running, Balaam’s donkey couldn’t have got me to stop.
‘And don’t you come here no more,’ one of the men yelled, when I was almost out of sight. ‘You hear me? It’s not safe!’
I didn’t answer him.
My mother was in the kitchen, when I burst through the door; my brother Joshua, at the counter, unshaved and bleary-eyed. He groaned at the noise of my pounding feet.
‘It’s early, Dhakirah.’
‘There were so many people outside Ashantee’s house,’ I said, all my words all tumbling out in one breath. ‘A woman told me to run back here and not stop for anyone, especially Angela Kyei. She said, she said there was a circle on the Kyei’s door.’
Joshua swore, eyes still swollen but suddenly alert. My mother – worryingly – didn’t rebuke him. Colour had gone from her cheeks, and she was wringing her tea towel between her hands. It took a while for her to speak.
‘God be with us,’ was what she finally said. Joshua murmured his assent. ‘She said Angela Kyei?’
‘She said I shouldn’t stop for her.’
My mother nodded. Once, twice, three times, as if she didn’t understand herself. And then, ‘Dhakirah, do you know what the circle means?’
I shook my head. She sighed in relief.
‘Bless, a child’s innocence will save us. All you need to know is that that lady was right to tell you not to stop for Angela Kyei. You see her, then you turn around, you rebuke the Devil, and you run back home. You don’t stop running nor reciting your Bible verses until you’re back through this door.’
‘Even if you miss Ashantee, I don’t want you to think about this again. And you don’t go to the house again, you understand? Even if you miss her, even if you want to walk that way. You don’t ever walk past a house with a circle on the door.’
I nodded again.
‘You should explain it to her,’ Joshua mumbled over his breakfast. ‘Properly.’
I nodded more fervently, this time. ‘Mama, I don’t understand.’
‘And that might save you,’ she said, flinging a glance at Joshua. Her voice was sharp, but her face had softened and saddened at the same time, like a sinking cake. ‘You’ll understand when you’re older, Dhakirah. And then, you’ll have to promise me something else.’
I would have liked to argue more, but there was something sombre in my mother’s eyes; that same strange, sweet pain that I could smell at Ashantee’s.
‘Promise me – if you ever see her, or any other one of Them, you will never look at the eyes.’
Joshua wouldn’t tell me what happened to Ashantee. I resorted to hiding in the kitchen during my mother’s Bible study, but although I overheard some rumours, none of them helped me piece anything together. One woman said that she heard that the Kyei family had moved to a friend’s in a neighbouring town; another disagreed, saying that from what she knew, they had gone to stay with Mrs Kyei’s sister in the city. I thought, then, that maybe Ashantee was okay, but afterwards they all started wondering if the family had taken anything more than the clothes on their backs.
‘No cards or cash, for sure,’ I heard one man say. ‘No bodies in the house.’
‘Of course not,’ someone replied. ‘Akwete was a smart woman.’
‘She wore gold earrings on her wedding day,’ someone said, voice soft with judgement. I heard a gasp. ‘Beautiful, gold earrings. A necklace too. She probably thought, just one day …’ There was a sigh, but even without seeing her face, I didn’t think it was genuine. ‘Such a shame.’
And then more tutting, and more sighing, but, it seemed, no indication that I would ever see Ashantee again. And I didn’t understand why, until I was thirteen, and saw Aunty Naomi for the second time.
It was my routine that year to walk home from school with my new best friend Esther. We went by the Kyei house every day, despite my mother’s warnings. It was quicker, we told each other as our reason, but the truth was that at that age, we were all strangely drawn to the house. I think it is because none of us really knew what had happened. The walls were burned black, the ground beneath it charred, and – although they didn’t dare step foot on it –some men had poured salt all around the walkway. There was barbed wire set up around the salt, and a big circle made of black ribbon. Some people had left flowers; others, angry graffiti – saying it was an evil house, a dark place. Full of greed and lust, witches and whores. Much of it was targeted at Angela, whose face I still could not remember.
‘I knew Ashantee Kyei,’ I remember telling Esther, as we walked by. She always seemed more worldly than I was, and I must have thought that my connection to it might impress. It did not. In fact, she sounded aghast; ‘that doesn’t mean you have to say her name.’
I frowned, confused.
‘My papa says that’s how the Below gets you.’
That night, I made my bath water boiling hot, with extra soap; I scraped the skin of my arms near bloody, in some strange effort to be clean. Below. It felt like a bad word. Esther had been unable or unwilling to explain any further, but I knew my mother wouldn’t want me to even hear it. She would be angry that I had kept walking by the Kyei house.
But all the scrubbing in the world wouldn’t stem my curiosity, although cowardice tried. There was no point in asking my mother, for sure, and Joshua wouldn’t want to upset her, but I could try Esther again. Three days later, I did.
‘What is the Below? Do you know?’
She just shrugged her slim shoulders; out of the same guilt that plagued me, or genuine ignorance, I wasn’t sure. Esther spoke to boys, and had her period, and even had sips of alcohol here and there – it didn’t seem implausible that she would know more than me, but she was also a very good deflector when she didn’t want to share.
‘Stop going on, Dhakirah. In fact, let’s not even walk that way today. I heard from my sister that they’re selling things on the long road today. Selling jewellery.’
I stared, wide-eyed. This, my mother would rather I was dead than know. All my life, I had never seen her in a necklace or earrings. There was one woman who wore jewellery to Church, and nobody except her own family would sit next to her on her pew. My mother would glare at her with such vehemence that her whole face would tremble, gripping my arm if she or any of her family ever came close, but sometimes we’d be in the row behind. The words of the sermon would sound like nothing to me; I would just sit there, staring, at the silver clasp at the back of her neck. One year, a girl in my class wore a pair of gold stud earrings to school. She took the marks on her palms proudly, and it seemed to me that the lines of the teacher’s cane – pink and raised, like scars from some great beast – only made the gold glisten more.
I had never dared ask for a pair of earrings or a necklace for my birthday. One time, Joshua came home with a gold chain – it wasn’t gold, not really–it would probably go rusty in the bath–but she’d ripped it from his hands with a violence I had never seen before. ‘Don’t you dare bring such items into my house,’ she said, with a voice like venom. He never did again. Her convictions were growing stronger with age; now she even didn’t like the wooden bands some women wore to modestly indicate engagement. She refused to talk to women who wore jewellery – all of her circle did – and she had come to despise Aunty Naomi, with her big sparkling cross.
There were pendants even bigger than that, at the market-stall.
Men were shouting at the sellers. Women, too, hiding their children’s eyes and quoting verses. I remembered how when Ashantee left town, the women talked about the earrings Mrs Kyei had worn on her wedding day, and something began to turn in my head. ‘We don’t need none of that here,’ someone was repeating, over and over again. ‘None of that here.’ But some people were still buying, and the sellers didn’t seem too worried.
‘If you don’t like it, move along,’ the sellers said, over and over again. They didn’t seem surprised by the hostile reception, or even frightened. I wondered if they had come here before.
A girl darted forward. ‘How much are these, sir?’
The crowd began to admonish her. ‘You’re pretty enough without none of that,’ one of the men said. I couldn’t imagine how much older than her he was, but he was tall and well-built, imposing. He looked around the crowd impressively, hands on his hips, and then his eyes landed on me and Esther. ‘And you two! Just children.’
We were younger than the first girl was, less self-assured. We took a step back.
‘Yes, just children, Caleb,’ someone said back to him. I knew, even without turning, who the voice belonged to. ‘Easy.’
‘You of all people know what will come from this, Naomi,’ the man – Caleb – spat back. But his strong posture had sagged a little; although his eyes darted to it, he didn’t seem to feel able to comment on the necklace lying across her chest. A few of his friends moved menacingly to his side, but mostly, the crowd had fallen silent. Respectful. Just like before, when I was little.
I stared up at Aunty Naomi, with her sombre eyes and her broad back, and wanted to be her when I grew up.
‘I’ve told you all plenty times,’ she said, placing a large, reassuring hand on Esther’s shoulder, making me feel irrationally jealous. ‘Nothing’s going to come from these damned knick-knacks. In fact, it would suit you all to buy some.’
There were mutterings. A woman shook her head. But nobody argued.
Aunty Naomi kissed her teeth. ‘Blind killing the blind,’ she said. Someone flinched. ‘But I won’t let you kill these little babies. Hey you two, come here. Show me what you like on this table.’
‘Martha won’t like that,’ someone said, but their voice was muted. Aunty Naomi paid them no mind.
‘Girls! Which one?’
Esther was bolder than I. She pointed to a necklace. ‘That one.’
‘And you?’ Aunty Naomi looked at me. I swallowed. I knew what I wanted; a pair of ornate hair-clips, set with orange gemstones. But my mouth felt both too wet and too dry; I could feel the oppressive weight of the disapproving crowd, see in my mind’s eye the way that my mother had snatched the necklace from Joshua.
‘Nothing,’ I said, with a mouth that felt disconnected from my body. She gave me a shrewd, assessing look. I was terrified that she would argue with me.
But she didn’t.
‘Okay then, Sir. I’ll take this necklace, and then these clips for myself, if you don’t mind.’
I gritted my teeth, wondering if I had looked at them too long. Aunty Naomi’s smile said that I had. She started walking, her strides long, and the crowd parted around her like the Red Sea. We could still hear them talking as we followed.
Aunty Naomi paid them no mind.
We walked in near-silence, following a route neither of us had seen before. The area was strange; I could hear Esther’s steps slowing, reluctant, but mine didn’t. I would have followed Aunty Naomi to the ends of the Earth, even before she spoke.
‘Now. You girls know what that was about?’
Before I could shake my head, Esther volunteered.
Aunty Naomi nodded, her face tensing into that strange seriousness again. ‘Yes. I bet neither of you have heard it put in plain terms, though?’
Neither of us said anything. Aunty Naomi grimaced, but it wasn’t us that had disappointed her. ‘If ignorance was going to work, I think it would have by now. So you two, listen up.
‘The Below isn’t just a place, or just a beast.’ Esther and I glanced at one another, expecting some kind of joke, but she kept on talking. ‘It’s both. Sentient, but I’d be willing to bet that there’s a whole ‘nother world inside its stomach. Some people say that that’s Hell, although I didn’t see any fire. To tell you the truth, I didn’t see much of it. Just its eyes – they’re more like fingers, really, or hands. They move towards you like the eyes of a snail. They rattle and shake like an old cart, and they have teeth.’
‘The eyes have teeth?’ I didn’t know how Esther was asking questions, especially with that note of teenage disdain in her voice. Beneath the disbelief, I was nothing more than numb; Aunty Naomi’s words sounded like nonsense, but I could see in her face that she wasn’t telling a joke. She believed what she was saying.
‘I don’t know what it eats, but thankfully it isn’t us,’ she continued, as if she hadn’t even heard Esther. ‘The Below only interacts with this town through Them.’
I swallowed. Heard my promise to my mother ringing in my head. Ignored it. ‘Them. Like Angela Kyei?’
Aunty Naomi gave me a piercing look. ‘Yes, God save her soul.’ When she said that, she briefly touched her necklace. ‘Nobody knows how, or why, the Below takes hold of people. But it starts with the eyes. They go pure white, and soon you’ll see that they aren’t human eyes at all. They protrude in thin lines, the same way that the Below’s do, and they move like it too.
‘The only thing that one of Them wants – and I don’t know if it’s what the Below wants, because to be honest I can’t imagine what it would do with it – is money. Items of value. They’ll slaughter anyone in what they consider their territory, if they try to keep them from what they want. Cash. Cards. A car. A bike. Expensive jewellery.’ She tapped the cross, this time more consciously. ‘There’s no convincing that crowd out there, but the truth is that you won’t get your throat ripped out by one of Them for some’ so cheap you can find in the market. In fact, it might even save you.
‘My best advice if you get attacked, is to take hold of something that wouldn’t sell for much, but you have a good strong memory attached to. Because the Below doesn’t understand anything like that, and Confusion is the death of the Below. The pain of it will injure the host, have them too busy with themselves to think about attacking you.’
Esther screwed up her mouth, unconvinced. ‘But what if you have to defend yourself? Physically?’
Aunty Naomi cackled, but not unkindly. ‘You sound just like that boy out there. I’m telling you straight – you’re not to fight unless you have to. Even if the host is just a tiny little girl, it won’t feel pain nor mercy. And you can’t shoot or stab one of Them through the head or heart, because they’ve got no mind nor love left to kill. That’s why we burn them.’ Esther frowned, unconvinced, and she sighed. ‘If you have to attack, you fight with fire, or you go for the stomach. That’s where they’ll feel it. But even that’s just killing the host. Nobody can kill the Beast.’
Esther wrinkled her nose, but said nothing. In the end, it was me that broke the silence.
‘Where is the Below?’
She smiled at that, and tapped the ground with her foot. I flushed, embarrassed.
‘It’s not such a stupid question as you think, child. But the only way you’ll ever see it is through the eyes of the host.’
I wanted, then, to ask if Aunty Naomi had ever seen the beast like that, but it seemed like another, semi-stupid question. We all already knew the answer.
‘Now.’ She handed me my clips. ‘You don’t let anybody see these. And you’ll be smart about that, too, because your mothers will probably already know I bought them for you if those gossipers at the market have had their way.’ She smiled, brilliantly, and it felt like ascension. ‘Treasure these, and they’ll keep you safe. Associate them with being young, being free, each other, whatever. Love them, and they’ll look after you – so you do them the same favour.’
I accepted them like Communion. Held them tight in my palms, and thought about her.
I still do, when I hold them. Now nineteen, I keep them in my pockets.
They weren’t always there. I hid them out on the side of the road, first, in case my mother had already been informed about the incident at the market and would try emptying out my bag. Then I kept them behind my school-books, and then inside a loose pillow-case. But none of my possessions are safe places now. My mother is now a creature possessed; the Below is all she talks about, and her theories are wilder and wilder. Everyone’s theories are wilder and wilder. It has been sixteen years since the Below has last taken a host, and that, the Elders say, means that it will for sure take one this year.
It is an especially hot summer. The humidity is oppressive and the rain is vicious; the heat, almost too much to bear, the Sun burning bright on the rich leaves of the trees. Everyone is more prone to anger, and the earth between us and everything Below seems thinner. People scatter salt outside the doors and rub their wrists with Holy Water. Some have even placed pre-emptive circles on their doors, although others argue that this is in fact bad luck. The churches are stuffed full, but they preach little of the Bible.
People talk about the Below less and less, these days; many believe that is how it chooses its victims. The young men and their weapons have become an official group, a village army of sorts. The man – Caleb, who is younger than Aunty Naomi but older than me – leads them, and they call themselves “the hunters”, although what they’re hunting, I don’t know. Their main advice is that civilians should keep their silence on all matters pertaining to the Below; attend to the Scripture; and destroy, without mercy, any expensive décor and jewellery.
Esther says they’re nothing more than thugs. Joshua, that they’re nothing more than afraid. It is becoming dangerous around town, now; only Aunty Naomi still wears her cross openly on her chest. Many of us still look to her; others, despise her. The house of the woman that wears jewellery to Church was raided – her box, stolen and burned. One of the thugs beat her across the face.
‘What was she expecting?’ was all my mother said, pursing her lips over her knitting.
I disagreed with her, but silently. I am not a man or a preacher or Aunty Naomi, so I’ve decided that for myself, silence is the loudest movement. And more than that, it is the safest, because I also have a jewellery box.
I worry, sometimes, that I probably shouldn’t keep it. But the hunters, after all, have their expensive guns. The town is full of bikes, and cars, and even some of the Hunters wear expensive watches that could be traded in for cheaper. My jewellery box is worth far less – and, still, far more; it is private, precious, a diamond-studded dream world. In it, Aunty Naomi and I are saints, heroes, prophets. We wrestle with the Below, punch and tame it with ring-adorned fingers.
I worry about that dream, too.
The next Sunday, when the congregation has cleared, the Hunters stay. So does Aunty Naomi, my mother, and her group. I know that this will be about the attack on the jewellery woman, so I pretend to leave and then slip back into the hall.
‘The people look to you,’ Aunty Naomi is saying to Caleb. Her arms are folded, and though her face is placid as always, her voice is cold.
‘And you,’ he responds, with fire. There is resentment, in that; he wants to be the only one. The hunters behind him make noises and murmurs of assent.
‘I am not feeding them false information, nor am I stoking violence. If you do not condemn the attack last week, we will see more.’ There are more murmurs – quieter, though – of agreement. ‘There was no need for them to attack her. There was no need for them to be in the house at all. The Below does not prey on Beauty. I have told you before, many times, that it does not even understand it.’
Caleb sneers. ‘What does it prey on, then?’
‘It preys on the mind,’ she says coldly, and I do not think that the way her eyes sweep over him is a coincidence. ‘And the heart, and then it takes over the body. That much, we all know.’
Caleb grinds his teeth, but he does not say anything, and she pounces on the silence. ‘The best advice you can offer to people, as I keep reiterating, is to carry with them something of little value but great worth. It doesn’t have to be jewellery. It can be a letter, a lock of hair. A sentimental gift.’
As time goes on and the fear grows, people begin to take this advice. Rarely do they choose decorative baubles like my hairclips, but they begin to invest in treasured items. Some attach them to their clothes, like talismans; others copy Aunty Naomi and wear them on strings around their necks.
The hunters do what they can to discourage this practice. They resent, more and more, her influence.
When the summer’s heat begins to wilt, the Below feeds. The people gather, screaming and crying, around Caleb’s house.
It is Esther who comes and tells me, her necklace still tucked beneath her shirt. Her eyes are wide. ‘It was Caleb. The host, I mean. Both children, dead. He ripped one boy’s head nearly clean off his body. They can’t even identify the wife; he beat her to nothing, they think she tried to stop him attacking the babes. What do you think will happen?’
‘Something, for sure,’ is all I can muster. I can’t see any sense in trying to predict when I look around at the scene; gossiping, angry, people, the hunters setting up the barbed wire, prickling with violence and grief. Relatives stand to the right; Caleb’s sister-in-law is wailing like a ghost.
‘Burn it,’ one of the hunters orders, voice heavy in mourning. ‘Burn him.’ The group bristle at the change in management, clutching at their useless weapons; the only real authority there is Aunty Naomi, so they end up looking to her.
I do not like the violence in their eyes.
Neither, I think, does she; she is holding her body more tensely than usual, and, when she finally speaks, her voice is strained. ‘Burn it,’ she assents. They follow the order, although their movements are like those of tin-men in their distaste for her.
I watch the house go up in flames, although few of the hunters stay to do so. It is only once their numbers have almost completely dwindled that she addresses me. Her voice has less direction than usual – her words, too.
‘I have to check for bones, once the fire is out.’
I wait for what she’s going to say next, but she just keeps looking at me. So I speak.
‘What if he – it – is still alive?’
She smiles – a twisted, sardonic thing. Not like the brilliance of before. ‘He won’t be – not if he was inside. The house is burnt to a crisp.’
I flinch, catching her meaning. ‘You don’t think he’s there?’
She shrugs. ‘They rarely leave what they consider their territory. But the Below is only as ignorant as its hosts, and Caleb led the hunters. It should at least be able to comprehend that it is in danger.’ She sighs, squatting down, and I suddenly wonder how old she really is. ‘If Caleb has fled the house, we’re in trouble.’
I nod – really, it’s all I can think to do – and she laughs.
‘Quiet girl. You’re going to have to get louder. D’you think I’ll last forever?’
‘Yes,’ I say obstinately. She rolls her eyes.
‘Now I know you’re cleverer than that.’ Although her words are harsh, the voice is not unkind. ‘This town is getting tired of me, them boys especially. The Below isn’t what they’re hunting. It may not be long before the people need a new guiding hand.’
It can’t be me, I think, panicked, but I’d hate to see her disappointment then. Aloud, I say, ‘I don’t think they could kill you.’
She smiles again, briefly. There is some of her old shine in it. ‘You’re sweet, child. But you’ll need to sharpen that sweetness if you’re going to survive. I could gut one of those boys like a deer – more, even. But not twenty of them.’
We are quiet, again. And then, I decide to be loud.
‘What happened so that everyone listens to you, Aunty?’
She is silent, for so long that I think I must have overstepped. And then, she responds.
‘There was a girl. Not much older than you, back in those days – she became one of Them. I loved her very much, but it wasn’t her anymore. So I stabbed her in the stomach with a meat-knife.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, once the silence felt inappropriate.
‘Don’t apologise for sins that aren’t yours.’ She shuffles. ‘She had already killed the rest of her family, besides a sister who – understandably – cannot bear the sight of me. So there was no life for me after her loss. I decided to devote myself to the town, to spend every season of the Below trying to limit the casualties.’ I frown, watching the movement of her hooded eyes, the way her dark skin is lit by the flames. She is looking away; into the past, I think, or maybe into an alternate future. ‘It gets more difficult every passing year. Hard times turn weak minds to superstition, and this town knows nothing but hardness.’
‘Maybe you can make them stronger.’
She doesn’t speak, for a while. And then, with another strange smile – ‘when you speak with fire, you remind me of her, Dhakirah.’
That was the last time I ever spoke to Aunty Naomi. She was – as always – right. The hunters are all dressed in white as they carry her corpse through the town.
She is not the only one dead. There is the woman that was known for her jewellery, whose name I never learned; they have cut off her hands and ears and sliced through her neck, as if to deny her the joy in the afterlife. And another woman, young and pretty, that I do not recognise. Her dress is on inside out.
I do not scream, although I want to. I simply feel numb.
The new leader of the hunters steps forward. He is of a similar build to Caleb, tall and broad-shouldered, but he has not yet taken hold of his predecessor’s authority. His body is wired too tensely, the fractures of his insecurity cutting into him as he begins to speak.
‘This looks extreme,’ is what he says, at first. Someone scoffs, pure disbelief; someone else shouts something unintelligible. ‘But it is what we must do, if we are to protect ourselves.’
(Someone screams, again.)
‘Protect ourselves from what?’ Esther says, harshly. I turn, terrified that even the outline of her necklace is visible, but her top has a high neck and a collar. Nobody can tell.
‘From what?’ he mocks, making his voice high. There are a few titters. ‘You people are too soft, and this is why our town is plagued so.’ People begin to quiet, to listen; most, I think, out of fear, but some of them feel known by his message. This town, plagued as it is, understands doctrines of cruelty better than anything else. They’ll forever be trying to catch their flies with stronger and stronger vinegar.
Blind killing the blind, Aunty Naomi says in my head. I let out a shudder of a breath.
‘These women,’ the New Caleb is saying, ‘represent our enemy. The Below.’ The men behind him hiss at the spoken name; he holds his hands up. ‘I understand, I understand. But we must name it. We must put the fear of the Lord in it, and in its servants.’ He thrusts his hand towards Aunty Naomi’s corpse. ‘How is it that she survived when no one else has? Not even been able to put up a fight?’
‘It looks like she gave you quite a fight,’ someone calls, more cheekily, from the crowd. People begin to laugh, noting the bruises marking the faces of some of the hunters, but are quiet at a smack of the New Caleb’s gun.
‘You think this is a joke?’ he roars. An uneasy silence begins to set in, as people look down at the corpses and back at the weapon. He looks around like a timid school-teacher before he speaks again, waiting for everyone to be quiet.
‘I ask you again, how did she survive?’ he repeats. ‘You speak the truth that now, she was a big woman. But she was nothing more than a girl, at that time. Unarmed.’
I remember the way Naomi’s eyes moved, when she told me that sometimes I spoke with fire. And I look down and see, that now, those eyes are still.
‘She told me she used a meat knife. Not that she was unarmed,’ I declare. The mutterings start up again, and he turns his head to me. His eyes glow like coals, dark and furious, and my mother’s burn with them behind me.
‘Dhakirah,’ she hisses. Joshua says nothing.
New Caleb stares at me as if he hasn’t heard her. ‘You were there with her yesterday, girl. I remember your face. Perhaps you are the next vessel of the Below?’
He turns to the crowd, still beating his gun against the flat palm of his hand, and people stand to attention as if he is playing music. ‘You see, my friends, I have done some thinking. My thoughts are why the hunters attacked last night. Why is it, that this woman – a girl, as I have said, when she was “attacked”–’ he rolls that word around in pure contempt – ‘survived, when so many have not? Why is it that after following her advice for how many decades, that this village has continued to face the plague of the Below?’
‘It cannot be killed by man,’ I say. My mother pinches my back, her nails twisting like the claws of the vultures. I turn to look at her.
I see pure hatred.
The New Caleb sneers at me. ‘See how she talks of its power. This is what we must guard against. You think it coincidence that after we began to follow her tutor’s advice more earnestly, that the Below struck? You think it coincidence that it came for her greatest enemy? No. The Below needs its vessels, and we have already struck down three. It is time for this town to start burning its witches and killing its devils.’
People begin to nod in assent. Most are still staring at the corpses – afraid, I think, and in shock. Others seem in genuine earnest. Either way, I am in trouble.
I step back. I know that it will look like guilt, but I know equally that in the eyes of the hunters, I am already guilty. And they, with or without the support of the village, are the ones with weapons.
‘That is not my daughter,’ I hear my mother say, her mouth twisting on the words. ‘That is not my daughter.’
I do not hear her deny me a third time. Instead, I run.
Back to the house first, to collect all the jewellery I have.
I want to go to the Kyei house; to mourn the loss of Ashantee, and my nine-year-old self, and Aunty Naomi. All I can remember, in this moment, is the look on her face as she talked about the girl I sometimes reminded her of. That grief swallowed, and birthed, her life; it devoted her to battle against the Below.
And she fought hard, although she lost. In her memory, I walk – unsteadily, because I am sobbing, and shaking, and barely remember the way – back to the house of Caleb the Hunter.
It is all ash, and he stands in the middle of it. When he sees me, the white flesh of his eyes bulges out like spilling blood; flowing, forming two strange, probing lines.
My first instinct is to recoil. But then I decide to deny my mother back, and I meet them.
The Below is grotesque. All pale flesh, bloated with tumours and blisters, it moves slowly, numbly, as if it is crawling through treacle; the teeth that snap at the end of its eyes are not to eat, but to bite. They curl up into thick, pus-like tendrils, seeking prey. It bucks under the weight of the Earth and rebukes of scripture; it is sentient, but barely; vicious, but I don’t think it even particularly understands why. It is something like a worm, and something like a snake, and – when it opens its mouth – something like the pits of Hell.
Aunty Naomi is right, though. I do not see the Devil in it more than I see man. It stretches its jaw even wider, and then Caleb snarls and pounces towards me.
I hurl a hair-clip at him.
He stumbles. And I understand, truly, that Aunty Naomi – again, God rest her soul – was right, blissfully right. I lay out a protective circle around myself, a salt-line of glass gems and fake gold, and it keeps the thing back – because, as she said, it seems to find it painful. His mouth splits open, and the flesh hanging from his eyes rolls and spasms. He howls, and shrieks. The Below knows what he knows, I realise. Including that he has an army.
I swallow. Tears prick my eyes. But I do not – cannot – move from the circle.
When the Hunters arrive, most of them are distracted by the sight of what was once Caleb. Their new leader, however, has his eyes set on me. I am his enemy; he has no thought to right, nor wrong, nor to the actual value of the power he seeks. There is only ignorance, blind bigotry, greed.
Out of instinct, I look back to Caleb – searching with intention, this time, for the Below’s ugly mouth. It is rancid, scraps of rot dripping from sharp, wriggling teeth. And it is not just open, but chewing.
I see it swallow, and the eyes of the Hunters begin to change. I wonder if my jewellery will keep this many of them away. I fear that it won’t. So I just grip the handle of my knife, simultaneously awaiting and dreading the coming footsteps of the townspeople.
Caleb cannot speak for himself, anymore, but they still despise the sound of my voice. I begin murmuring scriptures, just as I was taught; I can feel my heartbeat in my fingertips, my stomach, my throat. The world around me begins to dim. I hear the clatter of footsteps – more people, more noise. They’re here, I understand, but my thoughts seem distant.
Joshua moves forward, shouting in defence of me, but two others push him back. Shoves are exchanged, but both seem wary of punches. Esther, too, cries out, brandishing her necklace. She moves to unclasp it and throw it to me, but someone grabs it. He pulls it hard, against her neck; she writhes, struggles, but he holds her fast.
She’s going to die, I realise dimly.
My mother’s mouth twists. With regret, or more bitterness, I do not know. Her eyes are dead.
Some of these men still have guns.
‘I’m not sure for how long the circle will confuse them,’ I say. My voice shakes and trembles, but fire, too, is unsteady. ‘You have the chance to shoot them now.’
They don’t want to.
‘We have lost our strongest because they were taught to have their minds beat as one,’ I say, trying to inject that fire. I’m not sure that’s how it works. ‘This town can move away from this. You have the opportunity to move away from this.’
A man’s hands tense around his weapon. I dare not meet his eyes. I remember, again, that I’m supposed to be saying my Bible verses, and start mumbling through the Our Father.
Before I can ask for my daily bread, he has shot me in the stomach.
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Audio production for this episode by Davis Walden.
And to thank you for listening until the very end, we have a creepy fact for you.
Ritualistic human sacrifice has been a tradition of many cultures over the millennia, however, a recent study showed that the more inequality a society had, the more sacrifices they performed. Researchers believe that sacrifices were used to essentially keep the lower class in line, and grant the higher classes more power. Luckily, ritualistic sacrifice is no longer commonplace, but the 1% have found other ways to preserve their power.
Join us next time for a brand new story…and be sure to leave your nightlight on. You never know what might be stalking you in the dark.
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