Magic Skin

Michael C. Keith

"Is not this a lamentable thing, that of the skin of an innocent lamb should be made a parchment." — Shakespeare

Mbeya Road connected the village of Kisessa to the city of Mwanza. It was a patchwork of riven asphalt and rutted soil on which Huru Mohubi ran for his life as the moon drifted in and out of arid clouds. The stumps of the two fingers severed by the witch doctor’s men throbbed but did not slow his flight to Mama Lweza. If he were caught, all of his body parts would be harvested and marketed to bring magical powers and instant wealth to others. Since his birth, Huru’s bleached white skin had been a curse rather than a blessing –– it certainly brought him no good fortune. Life as an albino had been a misery, and now at eighteen he was as close as he had ever come to being hacked to death because of the color of his flesh. While the white hippo was revered for its uniqueness, his human kind were feared and slaughtered because of their uncommon pigmentation.

Mama Lweza had saved his life before, as she had other African albinos, and if he could reach her, she would save him again. Her small brick and tin hut was perched on Lake Ukerewe’s edge on the northern fringe of Tanzania’s second largest municipality. Stopping to catch his breath, Huru calculated that he must travel nine more kilometers to evade the fate his would-be butchers had in mind for him. There were five of them on his trail and at one point he could see their machetes as they caught the moon’s beams. To Huru, they looked like a swarm of fireflies dancing on the dark horizon. As a boy he loved to collect the flashing insects in a jar and watch them blink on and off. Like him, they, too, were thought to possess magical powers, but unlike him, they were valued alive. So many times Huru wished he were a lightning bug, instead of a poor ghost boy.

“The Lord made you from fire as well. You are as the flying sparks …a shining boy of the stars. So special on this earth, my sweet child,” comforted Mama Lweza, who had cared for Huru after his parents abandoned him, fearing him possessed of the wicked shatani spirit.

At sixteen, Huru had left Mama Lweza’s care to work alongside her brother Abasi in Kisessa, gathering sisal for rug makers. It was hard work, but Huru felt pride in supporting himself. Lweza’s younger sibling was kind and defended him from villagers who mocked Huru when they went to market. When Darweshi, the local witch doctor, declared him the cause of a long drought, it became increasingly difficult for Huru to accompany Abasi to the center, so he would remain inside their modest hut until the older man returned. On two occasions, strangers had approached the hut while Huru was alone, but Abasi had returned in time to chase them away.

A month after the second encounter, Huru was finally abducted by the albino hunters and taken to the dwelling of Kisessa’s prophet. It was there that Huru’s fingers were lobbed off in order to be ground up and placed in amulets for sale to those that could afford their high price. The rest of his body would fetch millions of shillings, boasted the men that brought him to the witch doctor.

“An arm worth 100 thousand shillings. A foot 50 thousand, brothers,” declared one of his captors, enthusiastically.

“Oh, but the ghost’s head …it be worth 300 thousand!” shouted another, and they all cheered and swung their blades high in the air.

It surprised Huru that he was not chopped to death immediately. Instead he was deposited in a tiny shed next to the witch doctor’s house. In the suffocating heat, he removed his shirt and wrapped it around the bloody remains of his right hand after attempting to cauterize the ragged incisions with a mixture of clay and saliva. He could hear the incantations of Darweshi and the cadenced responses of his assistants as the night deepened. Then silence followed, and Huru made his escape by tunneling under the thin Mukwa planks that comprised the leaning outbuilding. He was only a few hundred feet away when he heard voices shouting that he had disappeared.

“Look, I see the shadow of the ghost boy!” exclaimed someone from the direction of the oracle’s compound.

At once, Huru knew he was in a race for his life, and he sprinted across the dusty terrain like the Masai tribesmen he had seen on the Serengeti. He felt he had extended the distance between himself and his predators only to realize they were within striking distance when he felt the sting of a rock against his bare shoulder. He left the road and zigzagged through a maze of shanties in an attempt to confuse his trackers.

“He has tricked us again with his black magic,” observed one of the hunters, as Huru hid only a few feet from the group.

When they left the area, Huru set out as well, but with a new found determination to deprive them of their prized bounty. The words of Mama Lweza rang in his ears and gave him renewed purpose.

“You are different but that is what makes you one of the Lord’s special children.”

Huru quickly recalculated his course by locating the brightest star in the western sky. Unlike most albinos, his vision was unimpaired, and he used his good eyesight to his advantage all his young life. He now ran parallel to the road only using it when its shoulder became obstructed by rocks or fell away due to erosion. At his current pace, he figured he would reach Mama Lweza before the sun rose behind him and made his presence easier to detect by Darweshi’s henchmen.

Huru’s heart pounded harder when he arrived at the rim of the great lake, which meant that he was nearing his destination. He had not detected his pursuers in a while, and it increased his hope that he would reach Mama Lweza’s shelter before they could catch him. As he moved up the hyacinth choked shoreline, two figures suddenly appeared from the brush. When he looked to his rear, he found two more men advancing toward him. As he was about to escape into the thicket, a fifth person emerged, and he knew he was trapped. The only open route left to him was the water, and Keeza could not swim. Still, he waded into the thick grassipes thinking he would rather drown than be hacked apart.

With each step Huru took into the lake, his stalkers moved closer to him, swinging their machetes and speaking in unison.

“No more evil ghost boy. No more devil tricks. We will take your powers.”

Huru was waist deep in the water when a piercing metallic ring split the air and a brilliant light appeared from beneath the lake’s surface. It was like a million fire flies were submerged a few feet from him.

“Devil come!” shouted the men surrounding him, who now stood frozen in fear.

A vast shining dome broke the surface, and a soft, beguiling voice beckoned Huru.

“Enter and be spared their swords. Live beyond their deeds. Come now,” and he stepped inside the sphere of light.

Darweshi’s huntsmen screamed and fell to the sand as the object shot into the air and vanished. Within the rapidly ascending object, Huru floated in a vacuum that relaxed him and made his eyelids heavy.

“Why do you take me?” he managed to whisper before succumbing to a deep sleep.

“Because you are special,” replied a disembodied voice “A most rare Earthling.”

In Huru’s dream he held hands with dozens of fellow albinos in a field of orange and yellow azaleas, while Mama Lwesa led them in a popular Swahili song of exultation.

Eh Yakobo,
Eh Yakobo,
Walala?
Walala?
Amka twende Shule
Haya njoo,
Haya njoo,

After the first stanza, everyone began to sing, forming a wide circle and dancing. The once hostile villagers entered the field from all directions and joined the joyous activity, kissing and hugging the young albinos. Never before had Huru felt such happiness and love, and he awoke with tears of joy running down his cheeks to his ears. When he attempted to wipe them away, he found that his hands were secured to a table on which he lay. He then noticed his entire body was fastened to it as well.

“Why am I shackled?” he inquired, anxiously tugging at the restrains.

“You are special,” replied a monotone voice.

“Why are these lines on my body?” asked Huru, surveying his torso as best he could, barely able to raise his head.

“We want your parts,” came his answer.

Huru’s screams were lost in the sounds of several swirling blades closing in on him from all directions.


About the Author

Michael C. Keith is the author of numerous books, articles, and stories. He teaches communication at Boston College. www.michaelckeith.com. His story collection Hoag's Object will be published next year by Whiskey Creek Press.