Skin Magic by Phenderson Djeli Clark. A Griots Story
Makami stumbled, almost falling. The orange-colored cat he had nearly run over went still, the hair on its back raising. Its eyes reflected in the night, seeming to ask what bit of chance had caused their paths to cross in the sand-ridden backstreets of this small town, which only rats and shadows should have called home.
The answer came at the sound of heavy footsteps from somewhere far too near. Makami resumed his run, turning a corner while daring a glance back. The empty streets did not fool him; he was still being hunted. Who his pursuers were and their purpose in this mad chase was what baffled him.
He had noticed them earlier, like two jackals creeping after prey. They kept their distance, but their intent was too obvious. Makami had been a thief once—in fact, a rather good one. He had followed those he marked whole days, tracing their routines until he could predict their every move, waiting until they were most vulnerable and distracted to take his prize. It was done so seamlessly, most were not aware of the theft until he had long departed. Others however were not so artful—choosing to cudgel their victims senseless or leave a blade between their ribs, before seizing what they wanted.
Still, wrapped in torn and tattered clothing, Makami could find little to mark him as worthy prey. Unless these thieves were so desperate they now took to robbing paupers and beggars, these men hunted something more. But what? Had some merchant gotten wise to food he daily snatched at market? Unlikely. He could manage such simple sleight-of-hand in his sleep. Besides, the scraps were barely noticeable--certainly not enough to keep his belly from crying to him each night. No, these jackals were after more. He only wished he knew what.
The pain was sudden. One moment he was running, the next he was on his back. Bits of light danced before his eyes and he scrambled to get his bearings. Lifting a hand to his brow he felt something warm, trickling from where he knew a wide gash had opened upon his dark skin. Blood. Something had struck him as he rounded a corner, right across the face, with enough force to send him crashing down.
Dazed, a dark form took shape in front of him. It was a man—a very big man. His rounded head was cleanly bald, making it look as if his entire body were covered in one sheet of ebony. He gazed down with a scowl, pulling his spread out features closer. Bulbous and stocky, he had shoulders like an ox and meaty arms that Makami guessed were just as strong. In one hand he held a misshapen staff of wood crowned with a thick knot. Long dark cloth encircled his waist, covering his legs and coming to his ankles. His torso was left bare—save for two hide straps that crossed his chest. Up to three knives were tucked inside, their blades gleaming like sharp teeth. Little doubt about it, Makami thought grimly, this was definitely a jackal.
“Stay down,” he growled, lifting his cudgel threateningly. His breath was labored and his massive chest heaved with considerable effort. “Should hit you again for putting us on such a chase.” He looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps. “Over here! I have him!”
Still too dazed to turn around, Makami waited until the new arrivals came into his field of vision. Two more men. The jackal pack was complete. One was muscular, dressed much like his larger companion. He paced the small space, dull yellowish eyes threatening danger. The third man bent to his haunches, his dingy tunic parting just below the knees as he balanced his slight weight. He ran a hand across the triangular patch of hair atop his scalp, smooth brown forehead furrowing in thought. His bright inquisitive eyes remained fixed on Makami—as if trying to discern something. After a moment he broke into a grin, displaying perfect white teeth unnaturally large for his wiry frame.
“Now that wasn’t so hard,” he said. “Good thinking Ojo, leaving you out here ahead.” He continued to grin at Makami, which seemed even brighter than the gold-hooped earrings he wore in each ear. “Didn’t know there were three of us eh?”
Makami didn’t answer. This was gloating, not a question. These men were decidedly not thieves. They all spoke trader’s tongue, each tinged with differing accents. So they weren’t locals either.
“Still say we should have waited,” the big man grumbled. Makami noted something in his voice. Was it…worry? “We were warned—”
“Oh stop your old woman talk Ojo,” the smaller man said impatiently, coming to his feet. “Doesn’t look like much to me and we took him easy enough. We’ll keep him locked tight for the next few days.” A new light came into those bright eyes, reminding Makami of a ferret. “Or, maybe we might get more for him ourselves….”
Makami frowned. Get more for him? Were these men slavers?
“I don’t know Matata,” the big man said. Yes, there was definite worry there. “What do you think Jela?”
Their silent companion only shrugged, those yellow eyes trained on Makami. “Matters not to me.” His accent was so thick it was obvious these lands were foreign to him. And for the first time Makami glimpsed his teeth—each of them filed to sharp points, giving his mouth the appearance of a shark. “Whichever one brings us the greater payment.” He pulled one of the knives strapped to his chest, aiming a deeply curved blade directly at Makami. “You. Show it to me.”
Makami stared up at the man perplexed. Show him? He shook his head, not understanding.
“I will not ask you again,” the man warned, his voice betraying an edge as sharp as his cruel-looking blade. “Show me what lies beneath, what is on your chest—I want to see it myself.”
The blood drained away from Makami’s face at the man’s words. How could these men know about what he had taken such great effort to conceal? And if they did, to ask such a thing, were they mad? Beads of sweat broke out across his skin as for the first time, he truly became frightened.
The man scowled deeply, displaying his sharpened teeth. With his free hand he delivered a blow, snapping Makami’s head back and filling his mouth with fresh blood. Suddenly numerous hands were upon him. A blade flashed and there was the sound of cutting cloth. Summoning what strength was left in him Makami attempted to twist away from his attackers. But the big man was true to his earlier threat, rapping the back of his skull once with the cudgel. The blow crumpled him, leaving his head dizzy with new pain. Listless, he felt as the shirt that covered him was pulled and ripped until it lay at his waist in tatters. He was left on his knees, chest now bare as his captors stepped back to admire their handiwork.
“Oja!” the big man exclaimed in his native tongue. “Curse my eyes! Are they moving?”
Makami closed his eyes, not needing to look down at his chest to know what the man was talking about. They were markings, crimson lines and arcs etched into a circle upon his dark skin. And like always, they were moving—sliding across one another in a chaotic dance, spinning about a hollow center as if searching for order. He could feel them, whether awake or in slumber, always moving just beneath his skin. They had become a part of him—his own never-ending curse.
The muscular man, the one they called Jela, came forward, pointing the edge of his blade directly at the markings.
“No,” Makami pleaded. “Please. Do not….”
“See here Jela,” the smaller Matata laughed. “He thinks you will gut him like a goat.”
The muscular man grunted. “He is worth more alive than dead. Only wanted to see what all this trouble was over.” His dull yellowish eyes followed the crimson markings that continued their peculiar dance. Grabbing Makami by the chin, he lifted his head until their gazes met. “How did you come across such a thing?” he asked. “How do you make them move?” Getting no answer his tone became derisive. “Cease your trembling. We are not the ones you should fear.”
Makami glared back at the man. Fear them? No, he did not fear these men—he feared for them.
Already the markings etched into his chest had begun to move faster. They burned now, the pain building quickly until it felt like hot irons seared his skin. The arcs and lines were coming together, placing themselves into a pattern like a puzzle. His captors stared at the markings, mesmerized by the display. He tried to speak to them, to warn them to run, but the agony that now consumed him stole his speech. As the markings finally settled and went silent, he knew it was already too late.
“What is this?” the muscular man whispered. He brought the tip of his blade to touch the new symbol that the markings had formed onto Makami’s chest. The knife pushed through the pattern with ease. What should have been human skin rippled as if it were water. The man quickly pulled his hand back, those yellowish eyes going wide. And then the nightmare began, again.
Makami felt the thick tentacle shoot from his chest, and watched as it wrapped itself around the man’s neck. This part was always painful, and he screamed out now. More of the tentacle pushed out of him, a dull grey fleshy mass that reminded him of an octopus, only much larger. It squeezed tighter around the man’s muscular neck, lifting him off the ground. Those yellowish eyes bulged as he dropped his knife, fingers clawing in vain at the coiling appendage while his legs kicked wildly. Behind him, his companions only stared in horror, backing away slowly—none daring to come to his aid. The doomed man let out a choked gasp of spittle and blood which was followed by an audible crack. His head fell to one side, hanging limply, looking like a swollen bit of rotten fruit. The rest of his body twitched in spasms as if celebrating its sudden and short-lived freedom, before going still.
Makami watched as a second tentacle emerged. Another quickly followed. And then another, until there were more than he could count. They pulled and heaved, making their way out of his chest in a constant stream, piling onto the ground before him. When the last of them flowed out of him he fell back, weakened and delirious with pain. As he lay there on his side, he gazed up at the nightmare he had given birth to.
The many tentacles were part of one being, a monstrosity that was only now rising to its full height, towering high above the remaining witnesses in the deserted alley. Nothing so immense should have been able to come out of his small body, but it had. Its many appendages writhed about, twisting and turning on themselves, burying away whatever lived within the horrid mass. The dead man in its clutches was pulled deep into its fleshy center, disappearing to whatever fate awaited him.
The smaller man, Matata, seemed to decide he had seen enough. Without a sound he turned, breaking into a run. As if sensing his movement a tentacle shot towards him, catching him by a leg. He cried out as he went down, his face hitting the ground hard. As he was pulled towards the writhing mass he tried to grab onto something, but only the dusty street gathered beneath his fingers. Between his bloodied and broken teeth he began to whimper, calling out a desperate prayer in an unfamiliar language to unfamiliar gods. Makami remained where he lay, listening to the man in pity. He himself had prayed enough in the past weeks for them all—and to no avail. Either the gods did not hear, or they did not listen. He watched as the hungry tentacles enveloped the small man, silencing his cries forever.
Only the big man was left. He stood there, his weapon dangling uselessly at his side. His eyes were wide, his mouth hanging open as he stared up at the great monstrosity before him in awe.
“Are you a god?” he whispered.
His answer came as the swarm of tentacles came crashing down upon him, burying him within.
Makami shut his eyes, unwilling to watch any more. He knew he had nothing to fear. Moments from now, the nightmare he had unleashed would return, through the very way it had come. The pain would be so great he would black out. And the symbol on his chest would break apart, returning to the circle of crimson arcs and lines that would again begin their constant movement. That was the way it had happened before. And it was how it would happen again.
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