The H.G.Wells Festival, Short Story Competition. 2010.


By Len A.Hynds

The Reverend Peter Jackson carefully edged along the narrow gang-plank to board the small steam launch which was to take him down to the coast, back to the comparative comfort of his own mission station. As the senior missionary on this part of the East African coast, it was his duty once a year, to visit those mission stations along the great river, stretching hundreds of miles into the interior.

As he boarded the boat, and the gangplank was pulled aboard, he turned to wave at the young man who was standing on the verandah of the thatched bungalow in that jungle clearing. The young man he had brought to this mission station just three weeks before, whilst on his way up-river.

The young man waved back, and then picking-up a cup and saucer, held the saucer at chest level as he sipped his tea, exactly as he would have done in a vicarage garden at home, whilst surrounded by ladies of the parish knitting circle.

Picture of Africa Peter thought, “How could they have sent me such a missionary, a young man so ill-equipped for the rigors of life in the African jungle.” He wore pebble glasses and was short sighted. He lisped, even when speaking Swahili, which Peter had to admit, he had taken great pains to learn before coming to Africa. Most of the missionaries that had been sent in the past had previously been padres in the army and knew how to look after themselves. “But this young man is almost effeminate and would have been more suited to the placid life as a vicar in an English village”. Peter knew that he came from a long line of priests and it was rumored that his godfather was a Bishop. “That was probably the reason he got through the selection board.’”

Peter had just spent the previous night at the mission, on his way down-river, and the young man had been so excited, when he announced that, in two days time, he was to baptize six lapsed Christians. “They’ve lapsed alright,” thought Peter, “A little bit of inter-tribal warfare, if what I’ve I’ve heard is right.” He didn’t want to dampen the young man’s enthusiasm so said nothing, but at the same time thinking, “This very naďve young man is due for many disappointments.”

Sitting on the verandah after dinner last night, he had asked him if he had yet met the witch doctor, who traveled from village to village, keeping his patients in a state of fear and subjugation. The previous missionary had met him on a jungle path, and the porters had fled in terror, at what might happen between the two men, who were from such powerful different religions.

The missionary had later been found dead on the path, with no visible wound, but smothered in a white powder, and by the look of terror on his face, he had died of fright. The new missionary had said that he had never met him, but that he was looking forward to meeting such an important member of the community. Peter warned him, that the witch doctor was not a person to be trifled with, and tried to impress upon him the absolute importance of taking the utmost care.

The young man, the Reverend Cyril Beasley, squinted at the reflection of the sun, as the launch turned a bend in the river passing from his sight. He went into the bungalow and started to write the sermon for the important service the following day. He knew that the villagers had been without the benefit of clergy for well over a year, and yet within a matter of weeks, not only had he got all the villagers to attend the services in the clearing outside the bungalow, but he was actually going to baptize six of them.

He felt a warm glow of contentment as he fell asleep that night, after his normal bible reading to his houseboy Thomas. He had asked him about the witch doctor and the houseboy had become visibly scared at even the mention of the name, whispering, “He’s a bad man.” Cyril had smiled and said, “Can he make people better?” and when Thomas had agreed that he could, Cyril told him, “He must have taken the Hippocratic oath Thomas, which all doctors have to do.”

Thomas had come from the coast with the previous incumbent and he pondered the word Hippocratic. He knew that an oath was to swear, and a Hippo was what the white people called the river horse. The enormity of what he had just learnt suddenly struck him, and he looked at his new master in wonderment. "These white people knew the magic of the witch doctor’s after all. All they had to do was to stand on the bank of a river hurling oaths at the river horses. Those bad-tempered beasts must be so overcome that they give up all the magic spells they learn from the river gods."

Cyril overslept the next morning, and upon awakening realised that this was the day of the baptisms. With Thomas, he carried out into the clearing, the table that was used as an altar, and covered it with a purple cloth, and put the candlesticks on it. He stood back and said, “It’s a pity we have no flowers,” but Thomas knew where there were some wild orchids growing, and went off into the jungle to find the spot and collect them.

Suddenly Cyril began to feel quite light-headed and slightly dizzy. He realised that he had forgotten breakfast in his excitement, and quickly entered his humble abode to find the bottle of glucose in the bedside cabinet. He had discovered that he was a diabetic whilst in training at the seminary, but had managed to keep it secret from everybody, knowing that he would be asked to leave.

He reached out for the bottle, but the attack took control, and he fell onto his bed his arms and legs thrashing about, until it wore off, and he lay perfectly exhausted and unconscious, flat on his back, his body slowly recovering

Witch Doctor The villagers were beginning to gather outside, with the six converts sitting in front of the altar, awaiting the appearance of their priest. Suddenly there were shrieks of horror from the people at the back, as the witch doctor entered the clearing, glaring at all of them. He was the very embodiment of evil, wearing animal skins and bones, with his face and those parts of his body exposed, painted white, in an almost skeletal design. He was carrying a short spear in his right hand, and a whip-like thing in his left, with numerous thongs that appeared to be made from monkey’s tails with white tufts.

The villagers prostrated themselves before him including the converts at the front, all of them moaning in fear, as he slowly did a stabbing dance towards the door of the bungalow. He stood outside the door screaming threats, whilst sprinkling a white powder which he had taken from a pouch at his belt.

He then kicked the door open and entered the gloomy interior, and saw the white man lying on the bed, apparently dead. Elated, he thought, “He must have died of fright like the other one.” His chest filled with pride that his magic was so strong. He had only to chant a few magic words and spread the powder! He went closer to the body and thought he had better make sure, especially as some villagers were peering in through the doorway.

He chanted more magic words, sprinkled some more powder and pretended to stab the bare chest several times, but stopping within inches. He went outside and everybody fell down before him, and in his dance of victory he kept putting his foot on the heads of those who were groveling at his greatness.

Cyril came out of his diabetic coma, and hurriedly took some glucose, and on hearing the terrible moaning coming from outside, thought “My goodness I’m late for the service. That noise is dreadful, the sooner I start the church choir the better ” He washed and realised that he was covered in some sort of white powder, thinking, “Those naughty village children, playing a trick on me whilst they thought I was asleep.” He smiled at their cheekiness, but thought it a good sign that they knew they could come into church at any time.

He finished washing, and took from his trunk the pure white vestments with gold edging, thinking to himself, “This will surprise them, they have never seen me in white before.” Carrying the baptismal bowl and the holy water, he stepped out onto the verandah, and the effect of the sunlight on his white robes and gold edging was truly amazing. Everybody turned to face him, and fell to the ground with the most dreadful moaning. “The sooner I start that choir the better,” he thought. The only person still standing was an elderly gentleman, who had been entertaining the congregation with some native dancing, which Cyril had seen. “I must remember to thank him for that, but I must tell him that it’s not quite the thing to do to come to church all dressed like that.”

Cyril beckoned them all to gather in front of the altar, with the converts in front, which they did, all shuffling forward on their knees. The old man was trying to shuffle backwards out of the clearing, but Cyril spotted him, and with a special smile beckoned him to join the congregation. The old man, visibly trembling, shuffled forward, with eyes closed, clasping both hands together as the others were, until he was actually in line with the converts the front.

The witch doctor knew that it was only a question of time before retribution would strike, and that his magic was not strong enough to save him. He felt the priest’s fingernail cut open his forehead twice, and felt his own blood trickling down his face, and knew that shortly he would be dead. The blood trickled down the side of his mouth, and as he touched it with his tongue, he realised that more magic had been performed, as this powerful priest, who had come back from the dead had changed his blood into water. Was he saving him for something too horrible to contemplate, and he shuddered at all the possibilities.

It was this time that Thomas re-appeared with an armful of orchids, which he put on the altar, and looking at the converts saw the witch doctor, trembling with fear. He could not believe his eyes, and whispered to Cyril, “Baas, that’s the witch doctor.”

Cyril went to the old man, pulling him to his feet, and shaking his hand, saying, “Sir, all your patients are my parishioners, and we must have so much in common. We must get together."

Turning to Thomas, he said, “I must have this gentleman for dinner one evening.” The witch doctor fainted.