Maribelle closed her eyes. They burned behind the lids. Trying to read the printout by the weak light of the electric lantern, putting too much strain on her eyes. She would have to turn off the lantern soon, anyway. It was drawing every bug in Africa. The DEET seemed to be keeping the mosquitoes off her but the other insects seemed to have developed a taste for it. And they must love her shampoo, the way they kept getting in her hair.
It had gotten cold in the hours since sunset. Maribelle sat wrapped in a blanket, cross-legged on the dirt floor of the hut. The village outside had gone quiet, but not the world surrounding it. Even for a country girl such as herself, it was disconcerting. Maribelle wondered if she’d be able to sleep at all.
In her bundle on the floor, Judith rolled over and opened her eyes. “You’d better get under this mosquito net, girl,” she said. “You don’t want to end up like our friend John
“I’m sorry,” Maribelle said. “Is the light bothering you?”
“No, sweetie. My arthritis, that’s bothering me. Reminding me of my age. Can’t you sleep either?”
“I haven’t tried,” Maribelle said. “Who’s John Speke?”
“Victorian explorer,” Judith replied. “Partner of Sir Richard Burton. Of course he wasn’t a ‘Sir’ yet, hadn’t been knighted. Burton, that is. Speke was never knighted. Served him right, too, the way he stole all Burton’s glory. They discovered the source of the Nile, you know.”
Maribelle nodded, listening.
“A beetle crawled into his ear one night,” Judith said. “Nasty bit of business, started eating through his eardrum. He had to jab a pen-knife in his ear to kill it.”
“Eww!” Maribelle said. “You could have so not told me that story.”
The older woman chuckled. “Just remember to cover up before you go to sleep,” she said, “and you’ll be fine.”
“Don’t worry, I will,” Maribelle said. “Judith?”
“That man today, he said the Warumbi didn’t kill those missionaries.”
“I can see why it’s not something they’d be eager to admit,” Judith said. “I expect it was the work of one individual, or a handful at most.”
“It’s awful,” Maribelle said. “His only friend.”
“What’s that, dear?”
“The creature,” Maribelle said. “They killed his only friend.”
“Oh.” Judith sighed, shifted positions, adjusting the rolled-up blanket she used for a pillow. “Yes. It is sad.”
“I can’t imagine how alone he must feel,” Maribelle said. “He must be the loneliest thing in the world. No wonder he reached out to you.”
“Darling,” Judith said, sounding sleepy, “this is Africa. Don’t start feeling too much. Your heart can’t take it.”
Maribelle smiled. “They told me before I left to stay ‘detached.’ ‘Careful not to let your emotions out,’ they said.”
“Good advice,” Judith said. “And you must keep reminding yourself of one thing, my dear. Something I must remember every day.”
“What’s that?” Maribelle asked.
“He isn’t a man,” Judith said. “No matter how intelligent he may be, and no matter how tempted we may become to think of him as one. He isn’t a Human being, and should we expect him to behave as one, well, I fear we would be setting ourselves up for a great disappointment.”
“I’m not sure I follow you,” Maribelle said.
“What I mean, darling,” Judith said, “is that we must make no assumptions. Just because you are feeling compassion for him,” she said, “do not presume that he would have any for you.”
“But you said you felt safe around him.”
“And so I do. Perhaps too much so. As I said, I must always remind myself. The creature’s previous behavior is no guarantee of my safety.”
“Sound ominous,” Maribelle said.
“I meant it to be,” Judith said. “After all, the Blackmane has already killed fifteen people.”