The village, when they got to it, didn’t look like much. Not that Maribelle had expected it to. It had a few constructions of rusted metal and plywood hammered together into small domiciles, interspersed with more traditional native huts, all laid out in irregular circles surrounding the heart and lifeblood of the village, its well. All the land around them looked dead for want of water, even the tall brown grass. A few leafless trees poked out of the ground like twigs stuck in the mud by the hands of giants.
“I’ll say this much for your doctor friend,” Hamm said as he braked to a stop. “She’s got bigger balls than most men.” He paused but Maribelle didn’t respond, so he continued. “The Warumbi killed the last six missionaries that came out to save their heathen souls.”
“But I thought the Warumbi were Christians?”
“Some are, a few,” Hamm said. “Most of ’em are, on the surface, but they hang on to their tribal hoodoo, you know? Fetishes an’ ancestor worship. Shit like that. But the missionaries tried to make ’em give it all up.” He snickered. “Reckon they wasn’t ready to do that.”
“God,” Maribelle said.
“Of course those killed were all men, an’ all African,” Hamm said. “Black on black violence, nobody gives a shit. But it’d be a whole lot a’ shit to kill off a couple a’ white women. American white women, at that. An’ the Warumbi know it, too, so you an’ the good doctor are pretty safe. Besides, you an’ Doctor Mocker ain’t concerned ’bout savin’ souls.”
Maribelle opened the door of the truck and slid out. The two men who had ridden in the back of the truck jumped down and started talking with some of the Warumbi. Maribelle couldn’t understand a word. She went to get her bag from the rear of the truck. Hamm lifted it out for her.
“Follow me,” Hamm said, handing her the bag. From somewhere—Maribelle had no idea where—he had produced some kind of rifle. “Just for show,” he said when he saw
Maribelle looking at the gun.
The Warumbi were all staring at them. The women wore short skirts of leather or dark cloth and were all topless; the children went naked. Some of the men wore loincloths and nothing else whereas others had on bright T-shirts and jeans. Maribelle noticed one of them wearing a baseball cap.
“Get on, now!” Hamm made a gesture to shoo away the gawkers. He went up to one man and said something in the native language. The man, one of the few Warumbi with a beard, jerked a thumb towards one of the huts.
As if the gesture had been a summons or a clanking bell, Judith Mocker stepped from the hut. Seeing Maribelle she beamed, throwing her arms wide and rushing over. She looked to Maribelle like she’d stepped from her own flower garden back home. Her gray and blonde hair stuffed under a bonnet, with a colorful paisley blouse and khaki shorts, a gardener’s apron. And of course those coke-bottle glasses that were as much a part of her as her permanent smile.
“I’m of a mind to put you over my knee!” Judith said, releasing Maribelle from a hug. “What part of ‘do not’ did you fail to comprehend?”
“I had to come,” Maribelle said.
“Pish!” Judith said. “You had to do nothing of the sort.”
“This is the opportunity of a lifetime,” Maribelle replied. “You said so yourself in your letter.”
“That didn’t mean for you to come,” Judith said. “It’s too dangerous here.”
“You sound just like Dad.”
“Your father is a wise man,” Judith said. “Sometimes, anyway. You should have listened to him.” She shook her head, still grinning. “Well, you’re here now, so no use arguing over it. Come here!” She gave Maribelle another hug, held her close.
“You look great,” Maribelle said.
“Oh, the wilderness agrees with me. I’ve even come to appreciate the local cuisine. Zebra steaks and caterpillar mush! Can you imagine?” She chuckled.
“Have you seen it anymore?” Maribelle asked. “The creature?”
“Have I, indeed! Oh, come on, you’re sharing my hut with me. Let’s get you inside where we can chat. Are you thirsty? I have some water. You mustn’t drink this banana beer the Warumbi like. It doesn’t bother them, as their systems have built up a tolerance for it, but it would give us botulism!”
The hut, she saw as she entered, was as small as her dorm room back in college. But then how big did it need to be without a kitchen or a bathroom?
“Sit, sit, sit!” Judith said. Grabbing a folding lawn chair from against the wall, she opened it for Maribelle, taking another one for herself. Judith picked up a notebook from the floor.
“The Warumbi thought I was insane at first,” she said. “Now they’re convinced I’m a witch.” She flipped open the notebook on her lap. “I’ve kept careful records,” she said. “I have seen the creature now on five separate occasions! Twice at close range, no less!”