Sunday, January 18, 2015

"The Bride of Death" by Ellen Lynn

The Bride of Death
Ellen Lynn

My name is Boswell Granger, and I am a scientist and explorer. Most of my work takes me to Africa and it was while I was in a remote little village inhabited by a particularly primitive tribe that word reach me by runner that my daughter, Rima, was born in New York. That day the tribal drums boomed louder than usual and soon I knew why. For I came upon a strange ritual around the birth of another little girl, Lali. She had been born with a wondrous mark on her thigh—the clear outlines of a flame.

Word had spread rapidly through the village of this momentous event. The mother, Hahni, was summoned to appear before the Chief. Hahni had often helped me in my work during my sojourn near that little village. She had picked up a small working-stock of English from me and with my little knowledge of the native tongue we were able to make ourselves understood to each other and had become friends. When her baby was expected she indicated a wish that I be around; she had confidence in my knowledge of medicine. I warned her that the witch-doctor would be angry—but she was quite a courageous person and had insisted—"Want—babee—born—Good, healthy."

I waited impatiently for Hahni to return from her conference with the Chief. What did he want of her? And why had they sent a woman to get the baby, Lali, and bring her to the pow-wow? Suddenly there were loud outcries. I rushed out of Hahni's hut and saw practically the whole tribe milling about the Chief's "palace." Hahni stood with her hands covering her face. The Chief stood next to her—his face expressionless. Near him was the old witch-doctor holding the baby, Lali—completely nude—high in the air on the flat of his palms. He was singing, or droning—and his voice reached a high treble pitch like a thin scream.

It wasn't until the next day when I returned to the village that I discovered the meaning of that disturbing scene. Hahni, in tears, told me that the mark on Lali's thigh had been interpreted by the witch-doctor as a sign from the gods of the tribe. Lali had been chosen by the Fire God to be his bride. When she reached the age of three she was to be married to the volcanic god.

"I—want—babee—so long time! Lali—must—be mine always." Hahni was broken-hearted.

I felt a sense of guilt. By teaching her so many things outside of her world of the primitive village, I had created a rebelliousness in Hahni that was leading her into unhappiness and trouble. Repugnant as it was to me to think of this little human being taken from her to be hand maiden to the witch doctor to these primitive people such a choice was a tremendous honor. The family thus selected achieves many privileges. Those were the customs and beliefs of this primitive tribe—and it was the place where Hahni had to live. I had upset all these things for her.

My words to her were halting and forced. "Hahni—you are much honored. Your daughter will be a bride of the god of fire. You will be very important."

"No—no!" she cried, much like a western mother, "I—love—little—babee."

"What is the mark on Lali's thigh?" I asked.

"Like—fire—flame," Hahni answered. "Here, see—this!" She showed me the amulet she always wore around her neck. It was of stone and a crude image of a pointed flame had been carved in its hard surface.

A tall bronzed figure stood in the entrance of her hut. His face looked unfriendly as he pointed straight at me. "You—come," he demanded. I looked at Hahni and she nodded, her eyes fearful. I thought it was best to comply. From the beginning the chief of this tribe and the witch-doctor had been quite hostile toward me and I had to make numerous presents to them.

They were waiting for me in the Chief's kraal. I knew this was not going to be a pleasant talk. In fact, when I gathered that I was being asked to leave the village, and never return, I was almost relieved. There were some bad moments when it looked as though I would never get out of the place—alive!

On my journey "out" I tried to analyze the whole episode. Of course, Lali's birthmark, to these highly superstitious people, would quite normally be a sign to them—its odd shape, suggesting a pointed flame, indicated a message from the all-powerful god of Fire. But could it be that the witch-doctor felt his position of all-wise, final authority being shaken by my presence? Hahni was the first to flaunt him—refusing his herbs, his stones and incantations to bring the baby to birth. Others might follow. Undoubtedly, he worked on the Chief and his advisers to get rid of me. I felt lucky to escape.

But the whole episode soon drifted from my mind. The Museum for which I had taken this expedition had sent a call for my immediate departure and the prospect of seeing my new daughter—superseded all other thoughts. Occasionally Hahni and her baby came before my mind but as the distance away from Africa increased, so the sharpness of that experience dimmed. After all, I was quite accustomed to the primitive ways of these tribes and only my personal friendship with Hahni stirred a keener sympathy for the plight of a mother who was going to lose the personal keeping of her child. Eventually I forgot the whole thing.

The next two years were spent close to my family. Then in 1948 I had to return to Africa on a short mission. I bade my wife and adorable daughter, Rima, goodbye, happy in the thought I would soon return. The night I arrived near the jungle I went to my tent early. A brilliant moon half-lighted my tent and in the shadows I saw something move. I made out a native woman—standing with one arm outstretched in a gesture of appeal. Softly, she called, "Doc-teur—help me,—please!"

"Why—It's you, Hahni! What's the trouble?"

She burst into tears. Her story of her little girl, Lali, brought back to me that strange ritual—yes, it was almost three years ago! Quite a coincidence that I should have returned here at this time!

"I prayed—you—come—help me. Two more weeks—Lali become bride of Fire God—but they want to throw her into volcano!" Her sobs—those of a broken-hearted mother—moved me deeply.

"Oh no! I thought they gave up that practice long ago." I tried to console her. "Your people consider that part of your religion. What can I do? They would tear me apart if I interfered."

"I—like—your—religion. Your one God is—not cruel—would not kill little babee..." Hahni amazed me with her answer. An idea occurred to me how I might help her. It was a bold plan and its failure might spell death for Hahni and me. The courageous Hahni was, of course, ready to risk everything.

I took out a small kodak camera from my bag and gave Hahni a lesson in how to use it. She was an apt pupil. I loaded it with color film and told her I would return to her village with her at once and she would secretly take a picture of Lali. Then we would return as quickly as possible.

I got in touch with a friend of mine—a well-known sculptor—and told him my plan—that he was to make a life-sized reproduction of the little Lali, whose picture I would give him. He was intrigued by the dramatic story though he cautioned me of the danger. I was, of course, only too aware of that. Everything went according to plan. Hahni took an excellent picture of Lali—a beautiful, dark child with enormous black eyes—Gallon, my sculptor friend, went to work immediately and created a vivid likeness. Now we were ready to try to save Lali. The day arrived when the "Bride" was to be sacrificed to the god of the Fire. Gallon and I were tense the whole day—wondering whether Hahni had succeeded in substituting the reproduction of Lali for her own little girl. It was the next night she came to me—and she had Lali with her! She was excited—and happy. And so was I. She had hidden Lali and then had carried the sculptured figure to the volcano herself. It was dressed in bridal array and the witch-doctor had made his incantations over it then swept it from Hahni's arms and hurled it into the flame of the volcano. We decided to put Lali into a convent where she would be raised by the sympathetic sisters. Hahni was elated.

We said goodbye and that was the last time I ever saw Hahni—alive.

It was a long four years before I came to Johannesburg again... this time with my wife and daughter Rima. I was visiting Gallon, when suddenly I thought of Hahni. "Whatever became of them?" I inquired. Somehow it came as a shock to learn that Hahni was dead. The story Gallon told me was that in the course of the past four years the village had been struck with many disasters. Nothing the witch-doctor could do with his magic could stop the tragedies that befell the natives. He had always been suspicious of Hahni, and he finally got a confession from her of her substitution. "What happened then?" I urged Gallon. The whole village was aroused to fury. The god of fire had been defrauded of his bride and had cursed them all these years. Another girl, the same age as Lali, must be given to appease the angry god. I shivered when I heard this. "And—and—what happened to Hahni?" I asked. "They stoned her to death," was the horrible answer.

What happened afterward is difficult to tell. In the night my wife came crying to me—"Rima—I can't find her—where could she have gone?" An ancient native had been playing with her. Then I knew. I took my friend, Gallon, with me. Some natives paddled us to the village. My blood turned cold when I saw the ritual being conducted at the mouth of the volcano. A child, whimpering, was being held aloft in the arms of the witch-doctor. Horrible to say—it was my own daughter, Rima. I couldn't think—but my hand automatically reached for my gun. I knew it could not save her, but—then an amazing thing—a miracle?—happened. A woman with flowing black hair and a white gown suddenly appeared behind the witch-doctor, grabbed Rima in one arm and plunged a blade in the back of the old man. With a piercing shriek, the old man fell into the volcano.

A hush fell on the crowd of natives. They fell on their knees and after a while slithered away. I rushed forward—Gallon at my heels. I picked up my little girl—mercifully they had given her some drug and she was only half-conscious. Holding her close to my breast, I kneeled down to pick up something gleaming on the ground. It was Hahni's amulet—with the flame chiseled in its surface! Had she come back to help me? But from where?

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