The Healer

Marek Vadas

Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

Ike felt he had finally turned a corner. He asked a street wood carver to make him a round stamp with a lizard image that said “Ike Ngoma—Soul Healer”. The words didn’t have quite the right ring but it was so hot he couldn’t think of anything better. Then he gave a chicken and three hundred francs to an official who issued the permit on the spot. Ike was now ready to launch his practice. People are always happy to reward those who get them out of trouble. They will bring you some fruit, yams or sugar, even if they have nothing to eat themselves.

One morning Ike went to the marketplace as usual, and made eyes at a young seller until she treated him to a piece of fufu with meat sauce free of charge. Ike had been out of a job for nearly six months, ever since his boss sacked him from the warehouse. He had claimed that some crates of coke and beer had gone missing even though Ike was prepared to swear he’d never as much as closed an eye when he was on guard. And he was quite sure that the owner had invented the missing goods just to get rid of him and give the job to some rascal relative of his who’d just arrived in town. But everything would be different now. He had a dream, which had given him a brilliant idea. In the dream he saw himself passing through a crowd of cripples. They clasped their hands imploringly and he healed them with a touch of his hand. He would place his hand on their brow, rub their temples or touch their half-closed eyelids gently. People came to him with festering ulcers, with white larvae swarming inside holes in their faces, men without noses and children with bloated bellies. People flocked to him in an endless procession—he couldn’t even tell if they were walking or floating. They moved as if they were riding the escalator he’d seen a year ago in a department store in Yaoundé. Rain poured down their faces. It was raining so heavily that the earth became one with the sky. Red drops rose from the ground and vanished in the grey clouds. The eyes of the people in the crowd stared ahead into the distance, as if they had lost all hope and accepted the inevitable end. As he touched them mumbling a four-line verse an old man had taught him when he was still a boy, life would reignite in their glassy gaze and blood would slowly drain from the whites of their eyes. Ike was sure that his dream gift would also work in reality. He knew it because the voices he trusted told him so.

He came to a bar and mingled with the customers until he found an unfinished beer bottle. He stood there sipping the beer slowly and watching the men play dice. Suddenly he felt someone hitting him on the head with a stick. His vision blurred and the pain made him hunch over. When he recovered and turned around he could see nothing suspicious behind him. In the street women balancing pots on their heads slowly swarmed towards the marketplace and no one took any notice of him or the people standing outside the bar. Ike rubbed a wound on the crown of his head and looked at the palm of his hand. It was covered in blood.

He went to the kitchen to rinse it off and tried to figure out what had happened. He wasn’t even sure if he was more angry or bewildered. He’d been in many fights, often come home with bumps and grazes as an adolescent. But this pain was quite different. There was something chilling about the blow. 

Ike had bought spices and collected herbs, mixed them together and packed them into small bottles he’d found on a rubbish dump behind a hotel. He’d numbered the bottles using his own system and divided them by the source of the disease—mental and physical, the latter subdivided into external and internal. 

Right at the beginning he was lucky to run into a few old women who were obviously in need of medicinal charcoal or herbs for dysentery. Any beginner would manage that after a few days’ practice. Ike could additionally rely on the incantation he’d learned as a child, a few magic words that helped his practice get off to a smooth start. News of his achievements spread fast although he could boast of only a few successful cases. In a small town such as Bamenda the word of an old woman is sacred.

His services soon earned Ike a carved chair that he placed next to his bed and he could buy a new pair of dancing sandals. He was able to swap some eggs for dried fish at the market and could afford beer without getting into debt. His life improved.

One day a desperate shrivelled man came to his shack. He said Ike had to heal his sister. The girl was in hospital but the doctor didn’t know what else he could do to help her. She’d had two operations already.

Ike went to the hospital. There he found a pale young woman who was lying motionless with her eyes open, surrounded by bright, blood-red walls. The desperate man dragged him inside and he sat down facing the doctor. 

The girl had been brought to the hospital screaming with pain. The doctor found it wasn’t appendicitis but an advanced case of snail fever. They operated immediately and pulled out half a bucket of threadworms. Her condition improved miraculously for two weeks but just as she was about to leave the hospital her legs gave way and her pulse was virtually gone. All the doctors came running in and when they cut her belly open they found her bowels were again full of swarming, thin worms about twenty centimetres in length. They removed over five kilograms of them. Since then the girl had been in agony and the doctor couldn’t think of anything more to do apart from morphine injections.

Ike staggered back and went out into the fresh air. It was noon and sweat stung his eyes. He was choking at the mere idea of this case. He wanted to go back to the wretched man and apologize. But as he took a few steps and was about to cross the threshold of the hospital, he felt another blunt blow to his head. This one was much fiercer than the first, and Ike collapsed and fainted.

The dark fog before him parted and a huge black bird appeared. It landed on his belly and its huge eyes scoured Ike’s face. It was the doctor who’d carried Ike back to the hospital to treat his wound. Still lying in bed, Ike propped himself up on his elbows and saw an invisible man sitting next to the doctor and the desperate shrivelled man. The invisible man's legs dangled from the bed and he played with a long stick that looked like a hoe handle, intently watching Ike as he regained consciousness. Then he gestured to indicate that he was there incognito. He was invisible to the doctor and the other man; Ike was the only one who could see him.
Later that day the invisible man came to his house and casually apologised for the blow, admitting he’d rather overdone it. He walked around the shack, all the time swinging his stick and tapping the furniture, the bed and the damp paperboard walls. Sometimes he frowned, then he nodded in appreciation and mumbled something under his breath as if appraising a property he was planning to buy.

Although he spoke to Ike in a friendly tone, calling him “my dear friend”, he didn’t appear to be kind. Ike didn’t like his harsh, cadaverous eyes or the tone of his voice as, instead of ordering him to do something, he’d softly say something along the lines of “no doubt you will agree”, “you know yourself that this will be best for you” or “I’m sure you won’t refuse”. Ike listened to him as if spellbound and unable to resist, he agreed he would go on treating the girl whom the whole hospital had written off. The invisible man promised to be at hand and help if needed. As he’d done before, unbeknownst to Ike.

The visitor stayed until dinnertime. They shared a meal of fufu with fish sauce, washing it down with home-brewed beer from a stall across the street. Then the invisible man waved his stick by way of goodbye and vanished into the darkness. 

When the door slammed behind him, Ike was relieved. He felt as if his body had done nothing but the bidding of the man with the stick all day long. Only now did he realise that the man had him completely under his control. He wondered what to do in this situation. He checked his supplies of herbs and kept reciting the childhood incantation over and over again. He dressed his wound, stretched out on the mattress and closed his eyes.

He dreamed of the girl in the hospital. Her body was swathed in huge worms. The worms dragged her towards a foaming brown river. She tried to hold on to sharp rocks sticking out of the road but the worms kept biting her hand. The clumps of grass that her fingers grasped slithered out of the soil of their own accord, without resisting. Ike stood on the riverbank with wild beasts and other creatures, watching her hopeless struggle. His legs were made of stone and his tongue had turned to wood. Before he could reach out to her the worms had dragged her under the water for good.

He woke up gasping for air and drenched in sweat. A night storm was raging outside and the air in the shack was heavy and musty, as if someone had scattered corpses all over the place. The wound under the bandage was still festering and the pain would not subside, not even special bandages would help. Ike screamed the most horrible curses he could think of into the roaring thunder. He was gripped by impotent fury against the invisible man who’d punished him for no reason, all the while pretending to help him. Ike had sacrificed all his strength to heal the sick only to be dealt a blow from which he couldn’t recover. He ran out into the rain and started to walk down the long street towards the marketplace. He didn’t know why but he felt compelled to leave his house whose walls were pressing down on him and made him feel ever smaller.

A single lantern flickered in the wind in the middle of the square. In the flooded road the potholes in the tarmac were covered by water. Ike stepped into a few potholes and hurt his ankles because he’d just slipped on his dancing sandals as he ran out of the house. When he half closed his eyes the streams of rainwater merged to form a dark pane of glass. Behind he could vaguely make out the outlines of figures from the first, old dream in which he had seen himself as a healer. He saw the old women suffering from diarrhoea, the child lepers with amputated limbs, the desperate shrivelled man and a herb seller from the market. Some nodded a greeting while others stood still, the whites of their eyes shining into the darkness without moving.

He didn’t know how he ended up in front of the hospital building. The sound of rain drumming on the tin roof was deafening and the small flame of an impromptu campfire shone in the corridor. The invisible man emerged out of the dusk and led him towards the girl. She was lying on the floor next to the fire. Ike realised that the rain was coming down in torrents under the roof just like outside. He knelt down in a puddle, mechanically following the invisible man’s orders. He rubbed some oil into the girl’s moist belly, quietly repeating the magic incantation from his dream over and over again. He heard monotonous voices reciting incomprehensible prayers behind his back. He felt weaker and weaker and didn’t even notice that blood from his head wound started dripping onto the girl’s shiny skin. The blood mingled with the oil and he went on rubbing it ever more slowly. His vision clouded over and for a moment he thought he saw black strings before his eyes.

The worms slowly began to wind around Ike’s hands. Soon he was unable to move them. He was kneeling above the lifeless girl in the middle of a small clearing in the woods out of town. All he could see was the smouldering fire. Then the hand of the invisible man gently touched his forehead. He was overcome by faintness, then burning heat. He collapsed head down onto the woman’s bare breasts.

As his body shuddered in its death throes he tried to summon all his remaining strength to mouth a sentence. His lips formed the incantation that had helped him so many times before, taught to him by someone in the forest when he was a little boy:

You who have no body

I beg you: let me feel no pain.  

You who take the dead 

I beg you: let me wake again.

translated from the Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood