Maribelle woke with a start. A nightmare, already fading in the morning light. Something about yellow eyes in the darkness and claws and teeth. Maribelle let it go. It wasn’t something she cared to remember. Blame it on Judi’s bedtime stories, she said to herself.
She sat up on her blanket, pulled aside the gauzy mosquito netting and looked out through the door of the hut at the village. Several fires were going and the air smelled like
smoke. Maribelle wondered what the Warumbi would be preparing for breakfast. She thought of all the rations she had decided not to bring along. Those pre-packaged meals were not the most tasty, but she might wish she had them back, and sooner rather than later.
Rustling behind her, a yawn.
“Good morning, darling,” Judith said. “Did you sleep well?”
“Short but hard,” Maribelle said.
“Hmm. Sounds like my last marriage.” Judith stood, stretched. “You hungry?”
“It depends,” Maribelle said. “Any chance of a bath first? I’m getting a little funky.”
“A bath? Oh, yes, of course.” Judith began to pull on her trousers. “You’d be surprised how soon such things take on a diminished level of importance. I suppose that’s what they mean by ‘going native.'” She laughed. “I expect I am getting a tad ripe myself.” She went over to one of her bundles piled in the corner of the hut, unzipped one of the bags and began to rummage through it. “Ah.” She pulled out a white bar of soap, sealed in a Ziploc bag. “From my private stash. Environmentally friendly.” She held it up for Maribelle to see.
From beside the hut Judith took a five-gallon plastic bucket, handing it to Maribelle to carry, and a heavy walking stick. Maribelle fell in step behind her as she headed out of the village.
“Keep your eyes on the ground,” Maribelle said. “You’ll step on a snake if you’re not careful. They’re hard to see.”
“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Maribelle answered. She’d read up plenty on the locale before arriving. There was a snake called the puff adder in these parts with enough venom to kill half a dozen people. And even her knee-high boots couldn’t guarantee her protection. Puff adders could strike their entire body length. Maribelle thought about that as she looked down at her naked thighs.
They followed a narrow footpath through a little patch of trees. Some Vervet monkeys chattered and scolded as they passed. Maribelle laughed as they hopped from branch to branch. They want a hand-out, she said to herself. Well sorry, we have no bananas today.
The day was already getting hot, with the sun boiling away the mist left over from the previous night. Maribelle swatted a bead of sweat on her neck. Hot, but out here the air smelled fresh and pleasant, the dry scent of the grass, the faint musk of animals. Maribelle drank it all in. At that moment, for just a moment, she felt content. All was at peace.
Then she thought of the previous night’s conversation.
“You said that the creature has killed fifteen people?” Maribelle said, following behind Judith. “I had no idea.”
“I left it out of my reports,” Judith said. “No sense making things look worse than they are.”
“The Warumbi sent two hunting parties to kill the creature,” Judith said over her shoulder. “Six men each time. None of them came back. They didn’t understand that they were hunting a being as intelligent as they were. I guess the creature assumed that all men were enemies at that point,” Judith continued. “The next three victims were all alone at the time. Two men, one woman. The Warumbi stopped hunting the Blackmane then and started leaving presents for it. Baskets of food and the like. They decided it was a demon and couldn’t be killed so they wanted to appease it.”
“And it worked?” Maribelle said.
“It’s been over four months since the last attack,” Judith said. “So it would seem the Warumbi have undone some of the damage, at least. I expect the creature just changed his mind about people, decided we aren’t all out to get him.”
“Good thing for you,” Maribelle said.
“Very much so.”