Published on 2011/04/17

The Nganga's Nkisi

P. Djeli Clark

Lumba ducked a kola nut aimed for his head. Diblo was slower and he cried out as one struck his nose. The two scurried for cover behind a tree while their tormentor laughed wildly.

“This is your fault!” Diblo groaned, rubbing the sore spot.

“How so?” Lumba dared a peek and was rewarded with a kola nut to the forehead.

“Don’t worry Diblo,” his friend mocked. “We can use magic to do our chores Diblo. It’ll be easy Diblo.”

Lumba narrowed his eyes at the boy, who did the same in turn. Both wore their heads shaved with only a tuft of hair in the front. Their gangly bodies were bare, save for brown kilts at their waists and colorful beads about their necks. At first glance strangers might have mistaken them for twins rather than apprentices to the local Nganga, Ngouma.

“I didn’t see you trying to stop me,” Lumba retorted. “Besides, I wasn’t the one that chose that thing.”

Diblo grunted, unable to form a reply. The two peeked from around the tree to where their assailant stood perched on a giant termite hill. Carved of wood in the shape of a small man, the Nkisi was no taller than their shins—if that much. Its body was studded with bits of metal, hair, shells and other items. The dolls were used by sorcerers to carry out varied tasks. As it was, Ngouma saddled them with endless chores and rarely showed any magic. They’d thought bringing the Nkisi to life might solve both problems. But it hadn’t quite worked that way. The thing had gone on a rampage. They’d spent half the day chasing it around the village, finally cornering it out here on the savanna.

“Maybe you sprinkled too much magic dust on it,” Lumba muttered. The Nkisi had taken to hopping up and down on the termite hill, whooping loudly in an odd dance. The thing was crazed.

“I put as much as you told me!” Diblo retorted. “When Ngouma finds out about this he’ll switch us for sure! Or worse…”

Lumba winced at the thought.

“We’re going to get that Nkisi back,” he said. “Now!”

At his word both bounded from the safety of the tree. The Nkisi waited until they reached close and then jumped, sending both boys flying directly into the termite hill. The two went down in a heap of reddish dirt and soon came up howling from angry termite bites. The Nkisi cackled wildly, stopping to do a little dance before fleeing into the tall grass.

“Don’t let it get away!” Lumba cried, plowing after it.

The Nkisi led them over scorched earth and through sharp thorny bushes. It seemed they ran forever, sweating under the hot sun, trying to ignore their itching welts, scratches and burning feet.

“Wait,” Diblo huffed finally. “Need. Rest.”

Lumba agreed wearily. Both stopped, stooped over and taking ragged breaths—until an odd grunting broke the silence.

“What was that?” Diblo asked.

Lumba shook his head. The grunting came again, closer. There was a sudden rustling and something big bounded from the grass directly for them. Both boys cried out, breaking into a run.

It was a bush pig, one of the biggest they’d ever seen, with bloodshot eyes and gleaming tusks. It squealed and grunted angrily as it chased them. The Nkisi rode atop it, gripping its black mane and crying out a wild charge—all the while hurling kola nuts.

“Where does he keep getting those things?” Diblo panted as one struck his head.

Both ran frantically, trying to escape the Nkisi and the enraged beast. But they weren’t fast enough. A sharp butting at their backsides sent each flying, right into a thick pool of mud. Laughing, the Nkisi jumped from the bush pig and danced in front of them, kicking up bits of mud before running off again.

“I hate that thing,” Diblo sighed, wiping mud from his face.

It was dusk when the two trudged back into the village. Sore, dirty and tired, they ignored the many glares and laughs. Reaching the Nganga’s house, they braced themselves before walking into the small circular space. Heads hung low, they knelt before him and recounted their deeds. Master Ngouma listened calmly, sitting on a stool and wrapped in green-patterned cloth, lips pulling casually from a lengthy wooden pipe.

“Now that is a tale,” he said when they’d finished, stroking a bushy beard and blowing out rings of sweet-smelling smoke. For a moment his face became stern. “I hope you’ve both learned a lesson.” Then just as quickly it settled. “Only…I own no such Nkisi.”

Both boys stared at him stunned. Turning, they glanced to a space filled with statues and carvings. It was where they’d gotten the Nkisi this morning, right next to the traded kola nuts he so fancied. Could the Nganga have been mistaken?

Lumba was wondering exactly that when he noticed tracks of mud on the floor. They were little, much smaller than their own. Oddly enough they ended with Master Ngouma, whose bare feet were also uncommonly covered in dried mud. The Nganga met his gaze silently, dark lips smirking as if at some private joke.

As the two turned to go Lumba’s mind was in a daze. What he was thinking was impossible—wasn’t it? His thoughts were broken by a sharp cry, as a kola nut struck him in the back of the head.

P. Djeli Clark resides in Brooklyn. A mild mannered doctoral candidate by day, he manages to escape his humdrum existence whenever possible through his writing. Fantasy remains his favorite genre, and his influences range from Robert Jordan to Steven Barnes. Djeli has been published in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Everyday Fiction, Daily Science Fiction and will be included in a forthcoming anthology, Griots set to be published in late 2011.