Mouwane and The Witch Next Door

Itumeleng Molefi

When you could still remember all the things that she did to you, you used to want her dead. Do you still remember? What you did not understand back then is that there are far worse things that can be done to someone like her. All you have to do is bring her spirit to Us now. We will make sure that she, just like you, will never find peace and rest in the afterlife.

Go to her now. She is on her deathbed and there is no one there by her side. Go and bring her spirit to Us before she goes to join her Ancestors.

*

You do not remember this, but your mother named you Mouwane after you hatched, because, just like the mist does not survive the morning sun, she did not think that you would live longer than a few days. You see, the chicks that she hatched before you did not survive beyond a week. Try as she might, your mother’s chicks did not want to live. You had 19 siblings who came before you.

Unfortunately, you ended up with the same affliction. You named your 13th chick only after she had been alive for a month. You named her Monyebo because you hoped that she would bring you happiness. The day that you explain all this to her, is the one day that you forget to warn her about The Witch Next Door.

“Do you see that house next door?” you would have asked your daughter on any other day before you went out to find food to feed her. “Do not go there! A witch lives there. She will do terrible things to you. And once she touches you, you can never be untouched by her. The pain and the trauma stays with you forever.

But on that day you do not warn Monyebo. No. On that day you are too happy that she has stayed alive for this long. She had grown strong enough for you to start teaching her how to fly. On that day, instead of warning her, the two of you sang the song that you had created together. A childish composition, really, but it meant so much to you. You would sing to her:

 Monyebo, ngwanaka                                                 
                                                                      Mama!
Monyebo, ngwanaka                                                 
                                                                       Mama!
Monyebo, ngwanaka                                                 
                                                                       Mama!
Nna ke ya go rata!                                                             

In turn, she would sing to you:

Mouwane, mme wame                                     
                                                            Nna we?
Mouwane, mme wame                                       
                                                              Nna we?
Mouwane, mme wame                                        
                                                                Nna we?
Nna ke ya go rata!                                                                                

Then, the two of you would sing to each other:

Wena o kabelo ya ga mma                                         
                                                                        Nna, ke kabelo ya ga mma
Wena o kabelo ya ga mma                                            
                                                                        Nna, ke kabelo ya ga mma

If a witch was not living in the house next door, your daughter would have had a long life, learning everything that you had to teach her about surviving in the world. She would have grown up eating well from the apricot tree that your nest was in; the worms and the bird-feeder from the park nearby would have fattened her up; and the neighbourhood’s gardens being watered would have ensured that she would never want for water to drink.

But you forgot to warn her that day. And she needed to be reminded not to do something that she had repeatedly been told not to do. Just like a human child, she needed experience in order to learn about the many dangers of the world.

*

Humans like to think that they are inherently good, Mouwane. For some reason, they seem to think that goodness is an essential part of being a human being, even though their history shows otherwise. They see what they think is bad in others and use that to make themselves feel better about themselves. They like to demonise those they believe to be witches because they do not want to recognise the forms of witchcraft that are in themselves. You see, Mouwane, small acts like holding grudges and wishing bad on others are also a form of witchcraft. Bringing an innocent child into the world and evading the responsibility of taking care of them is just like hexing someone because you are jealous of them. And not accepting the humanity of others is exactly like sacrificing a human life in order to advance your position in life.

Another mistake that these humans make, Mouwane, is that they think that witches are supposed to look a certain way. They seem to think that only women can be witches; that old women are the most powerful and dangerous kinds of witches; and that it is especially old women who live by themselves in run-down homes that are witches. They do not realise that even the most respectable of their kind can do unspeakable things.

Look at this witch’s house, Mouwane. She takes such good care of it. You would never think that she does the kind of things that she does. Every two years, without fail, she repaints it using bold contrasting colours like purple and yellow or green and pink or red and green. Her beautiful garden is well-tended. She tends the herbs like mint, wormwood, sage and camomile herself. The local drunk takes care of her lawn, her flowers and her trees. Not even he realises all the things she does in her spare time.

But you saw through her from the very beginning. Somehow, you knew back then that she was not to be trifled with, not to be trusted. And you were right, Mouwane: look at what she has done to you. But you are going to get back at her now. You are going to get her spirit for Us so that We can exact revenge on her on your behalf.

*

By the time your daughter realised that someone else was in control of her, The Witch Next Door had already touched her and she, like you, started to understand human language. She only realised this much later. She could not make the same sounds that come out of their mouths, but she could understand them, and in turn, the humans who associate with the spirit world understood her.

How did I…?” she asked herself. She found herself laying on something soft and blue. She thought that it was the sky. But then she realised that it was not the sky when she noticed that it was under her, and that she could walk on it. Only later when she remembered being at The Witch Next Door’s house, did she realise that the big blue, soft thing she was on was what humans sleep on. What they call a “bed.”

Then she heard a heavy sigh. Then a voice: I knew you were going to be trouble. You ask too many questions. She could not see the source of the voice. She could only hear it.

Monyebo was confused, Mouwane, but to her credit, she did not immediately freak out. She remained calm and did not move. When she was taking too long to get what The Witch wanted, Monyebo felt herself move across the bed. She felt herself fly off the bed, heading towards a big square box. It was the same colour as the trunk of the tree where the two of you made your home. Above this box there was a square from which light was coming in. But this light was different from the sunlight that she was used to. There was not enough light, as if some of the sunlight was missing somehow, like when a cloud floats across the sky and blocks the sun.

Monyebo changed the course she was being forced to follow and headed to the square where the light was.

Where are you going!?

She saw the apricot tree in the distance and flew as hard as she could so she could get home. But when she got to the square letting the light in, she hit her head hard on something that was in her way. What was stranger was that she could not see what was blocking her way.

Come back here!

She felt herself being pulled towards the brown box, but she pulled back. She tried again to fly to the apricot tree but the thing she could not see was still blocking her way. She hit her head hard and fell back on the soft and blue thing.

That was when he peeped into the room. The son.

For some reason, when she saw him, that was when it all came back to her: you leaving that morning; The Witch Next Door coming into the yard to borrow a shovel from the son; The Witch looking up at her in the apricot tree; feeling herself being pulled to The Witch’s house later on; and The Witch forcing her to come to this house to get something for her.

You said that he would not be in the house!” Monyebo shouted. “You said that he does not believe.

And I was right! He does not believe. He is the educated one, the one they call Scientist.

Monyebo started flying around the room. She was hysterical!

But he can see me!” Monyebo flew out of the room.

He cannot see you, you fool. Go back!

No! I have to go back home,” she said, tears flying out of her eyes.

You are not going anywhere.

Monyebo landed on a black box in the other room. It was next to another square that let light through. This light-square was much bigger than the other one. She flew towards this square but hit her head even harder and fell.

The one they call Scientist stood at the door and looked at her.

When Scientist walked towards your daughter, she flew over his head, trying to escape to the next room.

You are not going anywhere!

Monyebo felt herself being pulled back, but she fought back to try and leave the room. This resulted in her flying in circles around Scientist’s head.

“Haibo!” Scientist exclaimed.

He can see me!” Monyebo cried

The boy sees nothing.

She continued to try to escape, but The Witch was too powerful for her. Each time she flew past the door to the next room, she felt her body flying back towards Scientist, circling over his head.

You are not going to leave!

“He bathong!”

Monyebo looked down to see if it really was Scientist who had just spoken.

We are not leaving yet.

Monyebo landed on the black box again. Fighting The Witch had tired her.

He sees nothing! You must go back to the bedroom.

“Can you leave, please!”

HE DOES SEE ME!” Monyebo relieved herself on the black box. The Witch was caught by surprise, and Monyebo managed to fly straight for the door that led to the next room that led her to the outside.

When she got back to the nest, she collapsed and passed out. That is how you found her when you came back with the corpse of a grasshopper. That deep feeling of dread came back. It was like you were falling into an endless darkness and no matter how hard you flapped your wings, you were not able to take flight. You just kept falling. You longed for all the small parts of yourself that had died with all your other children that you would never be able to get back. You thought of the part of yourself that would die with Monyebo and how you would never be able to recover from this loss.

That was when you started to cry. These were silent tears that burnt your face as they rolled down your cheeks. Each time you tried to vocalise your grief, no sound came out of your mouth. Instead, you found yourself struggling to breathe more and more. It was like a human held you tightly in their arms so you would not fly away. The Witch could feel your pain. She spoke to you in the same way she had spoken to your daughter earlier that day. It was a voice that you had not heard for a very long time, but the sound of it scared you even more than that first time you heard it all those years ago.

There is no need to worry: she is not dead. But you have to help me if you want to keep her alive.

*

Mouwane, you must wait here first. There is someone in there with her now. He is an old client of hers – a Son of the Tlhageng Clan – he has been coming to her for many years now. It is unfortunate, Mouwane, but many of these humans turn to witchcraft because they think they have no choice or because they are simply too stubborn.

You see, for three years this Son of the Tlhageng Clan went to see numerous healers because he was not able to find a job despite all the qualifications he had. Every one of the healers told him the same thing: the Ancestors on his father’s side of the family did not know him and all he had to do was to go and seek an introduction. But, he was too resentful of his father who was absent during his upbringing. And so, eventually, he found this Witch, and using sacrifices and  consorting with Us, she helped him become a big man of tenders.

They are in there together now. She is telling him that she is about to die and that he must find another witch if he wants to keep everything that her witchcraft has provided him.

As soon as he leaves, you will go in and get her spirit. Don’t forget that you once wanted her dead. But We are capable of doing much worse to her. Bring her spirit back to Us.

*

“Mouwane, my dear, old friend,” that is how The Witch Next Door greeted you.

When you entered her house, you found her waiting in her kitchen with two small bowls on the table: one with water and one with seeds. She was sitting with a cup of tea on a saucer.

I am no friend of yours,” you shot back at her.

“We are very much alike, you and I,” she said, gesturing to the two bowls on the table.

You did not turn to her offerings. You were right to assume that her food was not safe to eat and that her water was dangerous to drink.

What have you done to my child?” you asked her.

“If you want to keep her safe, you will do everything I tell you,” she said, pouring some tea onto her saucer and blowing on it lightly.

What do you want with us? Why can’t you just leave me alone?

“You must never forget that you belong to me, Mouwane,” The Witch took a sip of her tea from her saucer. “You and I are tied to each other for life.”

Have you not done enough to me?

The Witch’s saucer stopped halfway to her mouth. She looked up from it and took a long look at you.

“You have grown bold, Mouwane. That is good. It will be useful.”

She could see your pain, Mouwane. She saw how glazed over your eyes were, she felt how laboured your breathing was and heard the anguish in your chirping. But she chose to ignore it. All she cared about was how she could use you and your daughter for her own gain. Others had done the same to her, but she could not begin to understand that she was doing the same thing to you. It is an affliction that all humans have, Mouwane: they are only able to see other humans as being worthy of a full and complicated life.

You returned her look. She was well put-together. Her slender frame sat inside a beautiful white dress with blue flowers on it. What was left of her hair was tied in a black head wrap. The skin on her neck clung to her bones like bark to a tree. She wore glasses with a big frame. Behind these, the skin sagged like it was struggling to hang on to her face. But it was the look in her eyes that unsettled you.

Her eyes were brown and empty. There was nothing in them: no warmth, no fear, no laughter, no uncertainty, no joy, no sadness. There was nothing there but a cold blankness. Her eyes reminded you of the first winter you ever experienced. Your mother told you that it would not be cold forever; that one day, the sun would be majestic once again in its dominance of the sky. She told you that the leaves in the tree where your nest was would return so that they could protect you from the sun. You listened to everything she told you, but nothing she said brought you any comfort. All you knew was that the sun did not have any leaves to contend with, but it was still not able to warm you up. The cold was incredibly painful that year. The Witch’s eyes reminded you of that painful winter.

“You are going to do as I say, Mouwane.” She put the teacup and saucer down and stood up. “I need to finish some people off, and you are the perfect agent to do that. Once that is done, I will release your daughter.”

You looked up at her. She gestured you to the seeds and the water that had been sitting on the table. After eating a few seeds, the last thing you remembered was dipping your beak into the water.

*

Her client has left. You can go in now.

You do not remember, but this is the same kitchen where she forced you into that deal with her. She sat drinking tea at that very table. In the seeds and water she gave you, she put the potion that gave her control of your mind and your body.

Come this way. This is the living room. This is where she took hold of your daughter’s mind and body and tried to use her to finish off her neighbours. She used the same saucer filled with seeds and water. Monyebo thought that she was just a sweet old lady who was kind to all living beings. How wrong she was.

Through that door over there: that is where she is now. Go in and see her. She will be surprised to see you after such a long time. You will catch her off guard but she is a sly trickster that one. She will try to tell you more lies so that you do not get your revenge for what she did to you. You must not believe her. You will keep vigil over her until it is time for her to go. Then you will take her spirit and bring it to Us.

Go in. It is dark, but We will show you the way.

“Mouwane: my dear, old friend. I have been expecting you.”

*

The Witch had you steal a tube of toothpaste that everyone in the house used: that is what the humans use to clean their teeth. Then she poisoned the toothpaste and had you return it to her neighbours. You were very good. No one saw you enter the house or leave with the tube of toothpaste. No one saw you when you returned either. Just after you put the toothpaste back, you were almost caught.

The Woman and the Man came into the room suddenly and you scurried under the bed. Another animal would have panicked and given their presence away. These two would have known that they were not alone in the room. But not you, Mouwane. You were so quiet, you could have been an ant.

“He said that it looked him right in the eye, Sello,” the Woman said to the Man in a hushed tone.

“That is ridiculous,” the Man whispered back. You heard the door close behind him. “Birds don’t look people in the eye.”

“But Sello, first it was the rats, now this.” The Woman sat down on the bed. Any other animal would have run out from under the bed, but you stayed still and did not make a noise. You heard the Woman take a deep breath. “Could it be…”

The Man did not let her finish.

“You need to calm down,” he said.

“How can I calm down” – the Woman raised her voice slightly and the man shushed her. She lowered her voice again – “when we killed a person.”

“We did not kill him.” The Man sat down next to the Woman.

“Then what do you call what we did?”

This time, the Man sighed. “We took from him what he was spending his life wasting. We took from him what he was ungrateful for. He wasn’t going to amount to anything. You know that.”

“But we don’t know that for sure,” the Woman said.

“Masego.” The Man stood up. “You can’t keep putting yourself through this.”

“But, Sello—”

“No! We did what we had to do. It was for this family. And look at us now, we have the life that we always wanted. The business is finally doing well – I mean, you were able to quit that job that you hate so much. We managed to put Thabo through university and we will be able to do the same for Lebo and for Tumi. And once they finish, we can do the same for Rebone and Tefo’s children and maybe even help Zandi. Think of all the lives we are going to change, Masego. If that old woman has figured out what we did, there is nothing that she can do to change it. We can’t do anything to change it. And even if we could, would you want to?”

The Woman shifted on the bed and you heard a soft sound escape her mouth. It was too loud to be a sigh, but too soft to be a whimper.

“Even if you want to change what we did, Masego,” the Man continued. “There is nothing you can do about it.”

There was silence. Neither one moved or said anything for some minutes. Where some other animal would have thought that the silence meant it was safe to come out, you remained silent. You listened carefully, and over all the noise coming from outside – children playing in the streets, cars driving past, neighbours greeting each other loudly – you could still hear the two of them breathing.

“Look,” the Man finally broke the silence. “We can go and see Sekgonosemetsi next week and he can have a look at us and see what is going on. Okay?”

“That will make me feel much better.” The Woman got up from the bed.

From under the bed, you saw their feet move towards each other. They both took deep breaths and you heard them let these out into each other’s bodies.

“I love you so much, motho waka,” the Man said.

“And I love you, moth’wame,” the Woman said.

After they left the room, you returned to the Witch so that she could restore your daughter. By this time, the sun was starting to set and it was becoming dark outside.

When you entered The Witch’s house, it was much darker than it was outside. You could barely see her. All you saw was an outline of her standing by the table.

“You have done well, Mouwane,” she said to you. You heard the door behind you close. The room became even darker. Now you could not even make out where she was in the room.

Now restore my child,” you tried to shoot back at her, but the conviction in your voice was diminished by the darkness.

“I’m afraid it is not that easy, Mouwane.” She sounded like she was moving away.

That is not what you said before!” You flew towards her voice.

“You really must calm down, Mouwane.” Somehow, The Witch’s voice was behind you. But it was still moving away.

I did what you asked me to do!” You turned around and followed the voice. The room had become bigger: you did not hit the wall where you had expected to. “Now you have to restore my daughter, like you said you would!

The Witch sighed like the couple next door had. But it did not have the same mixture of guilt and helplessness. You felt the breath from her sigh push you back until you landed on the table.

“It is not that simple.” Her voice came closer to you.

Why did you not say that before?” Suddenly, you felt two sharp objects pin your wings to the table. “Why is it complicated now that you have to do your part?

“You know better than anyone, Mouwane.” Her voice was now next to the table. “Once a human touches an animal like yourself, you can never really be untouched.” The room was suddenly filled with a blinding light. It was like the walls, the floor, and the roof were made of light. You looked around and saw that The Witch had pinned your wings to the table with two porcupine quills.

The Witch looked at you for a long while like she had done earlier that day. Her eyes were not empty anymore. She knew that she was going to get her revenge for her child: the couple next door would not live long enough to go see whoever Sekgonosemetsi was, so that he could tell them what she had done. She was not entirely happy that she had succeeded. There was satisfaction in her eyes, but it was mixed with a strange determination.

You continued to struggle, rolling and turning your body this way and that way. You felt the quills pierce your flesh even deeper and saw your blood begin to flow. Even if you did manage to break free, there was no way you would be able to fly out of here.

“And even if I wanted to go through all that trouble” – the Witch leaned in to look at you more closely – “why would I let a prize like you go? It would be a waste to—”

Your jerking and struggling worked! You let out a shriek of pain as you flapped your left wing and  the quill flew into The Witch’s eye. The screams that both of you released could have sobered up a drunk. .

It was then that you decided that no matter how you got free, you would have to be the one to go to the Sekgonosemetsi that the couple next door spoke about. Maybe he would be able to help you.

“You are going to pay for this, you filthy bird!”

When The Witch looked down at you, what looked like blood was coming out of one of her eyes. It was not red; it was grey, like a heavy rain cloud preparing to release its rain.

She removed the quill from her eye and threw it at you. With her other hand, she threw another. And then another. With each quill, you screamed in agony. She threw these quills at your body until the entire span of both your wings was filled with them and you were securely pinned to the table.

And that is how you became acquainted to Us, Mouwane.

After she gave you to Us, she killed your daughter.

*

“Mouwane: my dear, old friend. I have been expecting you. I mean to say, we have been expecting you.”

Do not listen to her. She is attempting to trick you.

“Here is your daughter. They have probably told you that I killed her.”

No! She is lying! That is not Monyebo.

“I would never do such a thing Mouwane.”

She did not keep her promise. She killed your child.

“You yourself know that the same thing was done to my own child. Why would I put another mother through that?”

Do not listen to her, Mouwane.

“Come say hello to your daughter. She is all grown up now.”

This is a trick, Mouwane. She killed Monyebo because she had no use for her.

Mother. It’s me, Monyebo.

Are you going to allow yourself to be fooled by this Witch’s trick, Mouwane? Again? You are more intelligent than that. She said so herself. She knows you so well that she knows what is going to fool you. Do not fall for it.

She is not responding.

Good, Mouwane! You are not going to fall for this.

“It’s like I told you before, Monyebo: the Evil Beings have turned her into something that she is not. You are going to have to try harder to remind her of who she really is in order to bring her back.”

They cannot fool you Mouwane. This Witch is never going to trick you again.

Mother, are you in there? It’s me, Monyebo.

Don’t you let her touch you!

Ouch! Mother, she hit me!

“This is not going to be easy, Monyebo.”

You have to kill this imposter, Mouwane. She is no daughter of yours. And this Witch’s tricks are not going to fool you. Never again!

Mother…

Strike her again. Yes! Just like that.

“You must fight back Monyebo. Remember that you are not fighting your mother, it is the Evil Beings that are using her right now. It is them you are fighting.”

This time you are going to pluck her eye – Ah! Stupid bird! Why are you letting her beat you?

Mother please. It’s me. Ow!

“Keeping going!”

But it’s not working!

“You are no longer a small chick anymore. You are stronger than you realise and you may need to beat the Evil Beings out of her.”

This imposter is not strong Mouwane. You are the one that is going to beat her.

Ahhhhhhh! Mother! Please!

Just like that. Fly after her. Do not let her get away. Use your foot and grab her throat. Just like that!

Mother! No!

“Monyebo! You cannot think like that or she will kill you.”

We are going to finish her off. Let us make her suffer for trying to fool you Mouwane. Get her eye out!

Ahhhhhhhh!

Yes! Just like that. Now we get the other – Ah! What was – so…you also want to get some?

“Monyebo! I…will…not be able…to…do…that again. You…must…fight back…”

We will deal with you later.

Come over here, Mouwane. Let us finish this thing that they say is Monyebo—

Mouwane…mme…wame…

Don’t listen to her Mouwane.

Mouwane mme…wame                       
                                            Nna we?

Mother!

No, Mouwane!

“The song…is…working. Keep…singing…Monyebo.”

Mouwane…is not…lying to…

Mouwane, mme wame                            
                                      Nna we?
Nna ke ya go rata!                                        

You cannot…Mouwane!…are letting…fooled…her, again…Listen too…

Nna, ke kabelo ya ga mma                                         

                                         O kabelo…ga mma

Mouwane!

Nna, ke kabelo ya ga mma                                    

                                             O kabelo ya ga mma.

Itumeleng Molefi is a high school educator, freelance writer and moonlighting YouTuber. When not performing for his learners in his classroom, he writes and produces video-essays on African literature with his team for the YouTube channel BOTLHALE. Molefi’s work has appeared in The Johannesburg Review of Books, Kalahari Review, UNIPeriferias and Sunday Times.