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It is always cold. No matter how many fires I build, the halls remain frigid. Flame-light licks the walls like phantoms preying in the night—the only show I see down here. The smell and taste of dampness is like poison in the air I breathe—and it never departs. Though the labyrinth twists through the earth, I know the way out. But I cannot leave. I always feel their eyes watching, quizzing and burrowing into my soul.
Sometimes I hear them through the walls, like they slither, their powerful tails raking the dirt as they go—tails which should only serve them in the currents. It is only because of the fires that I can even see the pale ghosts. Fires they don’t want, and which they quickly extinguish when they care less than usual for my comfort.
It is not sentinels that keep me down here, nor their glaring regard. The place is ancient—nothing any scientist could ever understand—protected by spells. Sometimes I feel the darkness fill my flesh like I am becoming one of them. Is that not why they imprisoned me? Is that not why I tested them?
I must have been down here almost a week. I don’t know how deep under the lake and how far in the earth. When I dare come close to the entrance to this place, all I see is a wall of water cascading like a turbulent river.
It is the only place that comforts me. When they finally leave me alone, and when I fail to sleep, I come close to the entrance and imagine myself under a waterfall. I close my eyes and feel the light on my face. All I need do is reach out and see the sun again, the green again, the blue of the sky again. For a moment, I feel the darkness depart.
But then, their eyes impale and their feet shuffle. Even my mind is then sucked into the darkness around me. One time, I opened my eyes to see one of them staring at me—almost as tall as the very high ceiling, impassive face, skin as pale as marble and just as smooth, and jet black hair, flowing like the water they cherish and gleaming as silken thread.
You hear the stories, but nothing prepares you for them. Nothing happens like you think.
I was drawn to a place that no one dared talk about. I fancied myself an educated man—above folktales. My grandmother only spoke to me about the tranquil lake as a warning. When I was a kid, I believed her. But then I grew up, read a lot and went to university. Her wisdom became no more than the tackiest superstition.
When my twenty first birthday rolled out, I dared two of my college friends to go swimming and drinking at the mystical lake at my grandparents’ home town. Tapiwa, ever the cautious and more superstitious of us, expressed his apprehension. After Tonde and I asked him to choose between spineless wimp and ball-less coward for his new title, he agreed to come on the trip.
Tapiwa drove, whilst Tonde and I strangled beer bottles all the way to the lake. Tapiwa wanted us to pass by my grandparents’, but I refused. I told him we would see them after the lake. All a lie—we would probably be too drunk to remember our way to our own homes, let alone to my grandparent’s place.
Maybe Tapiwa wanted them to discourage us from going to the infamous lake. But I was not in the mood to be roped into a long conversation in the smoky kitchen, and with a breakfast of sweet potato and black tea.
Talking to old people is like reading an ancient book—half the time you want to fall asleep, and the other half, you nod as if you understood the incomprehensible language. And god knows the smoke from that kitchen has stung enough tears from my eyes, over the years, to fill a bathtub.
So the warning never came, and we drove to our doom. When we got to the lake, the mid-morning sun was already scorching—just another hot, October day. But the view was breathtaking. The water gleamed in the middle of the greenery. Birds and dragon flies skimmed over the lake. It was quiet, but not in an eerie way. It was peaceful. I imagined I could spend the whole day and night at that place, maybe even star gaze.
When I got into the water, it felt cool on my feet. My shorts made sure I could feel the waves caressing my legs. How could anyone have thought that place was dangerous? The nasty rumours were only keeping people away from a beautiful place. Where else could the villagers have gone that was more picturesque or serene?
“Where are the damned njuzu,” Tonde had shouted as he followed behind me into the water.
“Show your slimy selves.”
As usual, he had downed more alcohol than the situation demanded.
“You’re drunk,” I had told him.
“Get out of the water before you really drown.”
He ignored me, gulping the last of his beer. He then threw the bottle into the lake. Even that took me by surprise.
“Stop being such an ass and respect nature.”
He only bellylaughed like a deranged toddler.
“Idiot,” I muttered.
I glanced over at Tapiwa, who was at the edge of the lake. He only shrugged. At least, this time, Tonde was not embroiling us in a bar fight with five, larger men. Before I could shout at Tapiwa to grow some balls, I felt something brush against my feet. It was the lightest of grazes, like a piece of water weed. The sun was so hot, it was making me woozy. Pair that with the alcohol, and it was clear I was imagining things.
But then I felt it again, and I saw a flash of silver in the water. My whole body shivered like it had been wrapped by long, cold, dead fingers. I immediately knew I had to get out of the water. I turned back to run, but everything happened in a sickening flash.
What looked like a blade of water leapt at Tonde’s throat before melting back into the lake. I saw the pain riddled all over his face before he clutched at his throat. Then the blood gushed out, seeping through his fingers. I felt like a part of my soul had died in that moment.
Tapiwa froze where he stood, with his mouth agape. Then he looked at me, past me, over me. As he moved away from the lake, I felt it behind me like a wall risen from the earth. As Tonde knelt and died, tinting the water crimson with his blood, I turned to face what had come.
My heart leapt to my throat like it meant to strangle me. Even if I wanted to run, my body was stiff as granite.
A wall of glistening grey crowned by a torso white as milk towered over me. The hair was black as coal and the eyes, the palest hazel. The stunning creature glared at me for no more than a second before diving back into the lake, its large, powerful tail coiling like a spring, with muscles catching the bright daylight.
Relief washed over me, before I fell face first into the water. My feet were tied by a live rope. I could feel it coiling tighter like a python constricting its meal. Then I knew all was lost.
The water jabbed my eyes, pushed into my nostrils and flooded my gaping mouth. When I gulped for air, dirty lake water filled my lungs. A fire was kindled in my chest. My torso burned and my mind screamed. As I was dragged, as my face skimmed the water, I thought it would be pulled off my body, the flesh torn off like I had been raked by an eagle’s talons.
When my body submerged, I thought I was already dead. But then the fire was extinguished and I could breathe again. I opened my eyes to see the silver glint of fish racing before me. But the light was diminishing and it was getting colder. I could see nothing of the njuzu, but a grey mass that began around my ankles.
Death would have been a sweet escape.
What was the creature planning on doing with me? Torture me? Feed me to its children? Was I to become their play thing in a sadistic game? But one thing was certain—njuzu kill.
The water vanished as I was thrust onto damp earth. The flames of a large fire danced along the walls like wraiths taunting my very existence. As I cowered near the entrance to a cave, I saw the njuzu in all her stunning glory. She wrung her raven hair with long, delicate fingers, allowing it to glint in the firelight. Her smooth, eel-like tail lapped the waterfall at the entrance. But I knew I couldn’t jump out, I knew I was their captive until they let me go or slit my throat.
Like smoke blown by a gust, her tail vanished to reveal two long, elegant legs. I remained crouched and shivering like a new born as more of the pale creatures appeared around me.
I shivered as they picked me off the floor, as they carried me through the dizzying halls of the labyrinth, as they threw me into a cavern, as they ripped the clothes off my body and threw them in the fire and as I saw the last pieces of my life turn to ash. But not a whisper of complaint passed through my lips. I had been stupid before—never again.
Follow all the rules, lest they kill you, my grandmother’s voice had rung in my skull, even at the points I thought I would pass out from the cold and terror.
Do as you are told, with no objection or complaint.
Do not mourn your old life or resent your new one.
Eat what they eat and be glad for it.
When I broke the rules, Tonde bled.
When the creatures left me and the fire had died down, I cried for him. I had brought him to the lake, I had killed him. I hoped beyond hope that Tapiwa had escaped. I recounted that morning, torturing myself all the while, but just to make sure I saw Tapiwa run away from that place. Whatever else happened, he would be fine at least.
But what of me? If my family mourn for me, they will be rewarded with my corpse. I have not seen any children. Am I their new “child” to be reared and brainwashed; to be locked up until the centuries erase my memory; to never see the sun until my skin also turns ghostly pale; to one day grab a child of my own from the surface?
My questions are only met by the unending silence.
Every time one of the creatures comes into my cavern, I stick to the wall like it can swallow me whole. Has my mother finally cracked, my sister or my brother? Has it come to slit my throat? I see Tonde lying in a pool of his own blood again, and I know I may not be wrong.
But then the creature stares at me blankly and offers me a clay plate full of raw fish.