This excerpt is from the unedited version of Chapter One
When the smoke cleared he realised dimly that some time must have passed. The light had changed. He looked again for the girl, but the face he discovered was not hers. It was much older; still female, but this time extravagantly filthy, the skin grey where hers had been golden-brown and the eyes black stars gleaming from deep pits. This one truly looked like a demon, if you believed in such things.
‘The fever is down,’ said the woman, jabbing him on the brow with one finger. ‘But it has not broken. It will return.’
She had rubbed herself over with ash, he realised, and darkened the hollows of her eyes with charcoal dust. Black ropes of hair framed her ghostly face, where the only touch of colour was the red of her lips where the ash had been licked away.
‘He has lost a part of his soul,’ the woman continued, ‘and a fever spirit has taken its place. I will ask my spirits how it is to be called out.’
Either because the heat in his blood had abated somewhat or else because the room was much less dark, he now managed to watch her even when she stood and walked away from him. He could make out the walls of the room too, the close-set bamboo poles outlined in light. The younger woman was squatting a little way off, red dress pulled tight over her thighs, her gaze fixed on her filthy elder. He was even aware that he was covered to the waist by a cotton sheet that was plastered to his skin. But he saw it all as from far way, down the length of a tunnel, as if he had somehow fallen into a pit below the room.
I am still in hell, he thought, but I can look through a chink in the wall, back into the living world.
The woman stood back, shrugged her dress from her shoulders and let it hang from her waist as she reached for a deep-bodied drum. He saw that she had rubbed ash down her breasts too, so that they seemed luminous against the darker skin of her torso and her broad nipples were only outlines against each orb. He tried to swallow, unable to take his eyes off those breasts. Big enough to overflow his hands, he thought. Big enough to slap together and form a tight cleft for a hard prick. The younger girl took out a drum too and laid it in her lap. She was watching the older woman as if waiting for a sign.
The ash-witch struck her drum with the heel of her hand and the sound went through his skull like a spearpoint. She struck it again and cried out in a harsh voice, her head thrown back, as if calling across a great abyss. Then her hand descended in a rain of blows, picking up an insistent driving rhythm that thudded in his breastbone and made him twitch with discomfort. He could feel the skin on his belly jumping to the drumbeat. The noise was horrible; it felt like an assault. He realised the younger woman was drumming along too. But the girl kept her seat by the wall, while the older woman began to dance, her body twisting to the heartbeat of the drum, her matted locks swinging about her head, her breasts bouncing and swaying as her feet stamped.
No, he groaned silently. What's happening?
Then the panther walked into the room. It came through the wall, passing through the bamboo poles as if they were smoke, and for a moment he could not believe that it was real. But then he saw the gleam of moisture on its nose and tongue and teeth, saw the silky darkness of its black fur and smelled the carrion stink of its breath, for it came straight to his bed and stared down at him, its golden eyes more beautiful and more terrible than any nightmare could ever be. He stared helplessly into the black mask of his death. Then the cat turned away with feline contempt. It went over to the witch and she flung her arms about its neck, her bare breasts leaving ash-streaks upon its jet pelt. It rubbed it face ecstatically against hers.
Sweat ran into his eyes. He had to shut his eyes against the salt sting. The drumbeat pounded in his head, the darkness spun in a circle around him - but when he opened his eyes again there was silence. He and the women were alone in the room.
The witch came over and knelt by his pallet, breasts till heaving from the exertion of her dance and little streaks of moisture tracked through the ash like fingerprints. He could see her nipples were hard under their grey dusting. She smiled to herself and patted her thigh, signalling to the girl who laid aside her drum and joined her. Both women stared down at him.
‘My spirits tell me,’ said the witch, ‘that the fever spirit is a red centipede. It must be sucked out of him. With his seed.’ She looked slyly sideways at her companion. ‘They said that you should do it.’
The girl made an 'o' with her mouth and shook her head, her eyes suddenly unable to fix upon the supine body before her.
‘Tch,’ clicked the witch with her tongue; ‘you're too old to be afraid of men, Mehetchi. If you weren't my apprentice you'd have been married by now.’
‘I'm not afraid - I just don't want to,’ the girl said, wriggling. ‘He's a foreigner.’
‘A man is a man. There's no difference to speak of. Anyway; his hands are tied: what are you worried about?’
He then realised that the pressure he'd felt across his back was a length of cord attached to either wrist. A cold stab of fear ran up his belly.
The girl hissed between her teeth. ‘I don't … I’m not ready for this,’ she muttered.
The witch made an ugly noise in her throat. ‘Don't give me that, girl. You are training to be a spirit-talker, so don't tell me you're squeamish. You do what the spirits instruct.’
The girl stuck out her lower lip but didn't reply. Her colour was high. He was not capable of imagining what she was feeling, but he knew he didn't want this at all. He was too weak to protest, but his muscles clenched in painful cramp. This was not how he wanted it; not tied down and helpless, nor picked over by two witches like a couple of vultures on a corpse. He tried to protest, but came out as a bestial groan.
The witch poked his right nipple sharply. ‘Don't be impatient, you,’ she admonished. ‘Now Mehetchi, pull that down. Take a look. It won't bite; this is a serpent without teeth.’
He felt a cooler flutter of air as the girl reluctantly turned down the sheet over his thighs. Thin trickles of sweat crawled over his hips and down to the small of his back.
‘Hey, girl. It's not so bad, is it?’
The younger witch made a face. ‘It's lumpy and ugly. Not sweet and smooth like a woman's.’
This drew a bark of laughter from her elder. ‘It's sweet enough, girl! And soft and smooth most of the time, the tenderest part of a man until he starts to imagine somewhere even more tender to put it. Now this one though, he's already thinking on your plump lips, Mehetchi.’ She flicked his cock with one long nail; he couldn't see his own reaction but he could certainly feel it. ‘Hee! Look at it jump! The fish are biting tonight!’
Mehetchi's eyes widened.
‘This is stuff you have to learn, to be a spirit-talker,’ the other told her. ‘I’ll tell you. Now go on; put your hand on it.’
Mehetchi obeyed slowly, her cool fingers circling his cock. He squeezed his eyes shut.
‘How is it?’
‘Hot. Every bit of him is fevered.’
‘Not so soft now?’
Her hand hefted his flesh uncertainly. ‘It's getting heavier. It moves in my hand like an animal,’ she observed.
‘Ah; you must pet it like an animal then. Stroke it. Rub it gently. Yes; like that.’
Her apprentice was wary. ‘What will it do?’
‘It will get harder still.’
‘I don't like it hard. It was nicer before. Look: it's too big and ugly already.’
‘But it must get as hard as it can before it will spill its seed. Harder than a length of mahogany. See how much bigger it is now?’
Mehetchi sucked in breath; he could see her teeth gleaming pale in the shadows. ‘Where does the length come from?’ she complained. ‘It kicks so strong in my hand!’
The witch nodded. ‘Ah; he may be weak with fever, but his flesh is still charged with life.’ She raised a finger. ‘Listen, child; you must understand that a man feels desire just as a woman does, but there is more than one spirit at work in his flesh. The prick of a man has a spirit of its own that moves it without his intention or his knowledge. It brings flesh into being from the spirit-world. It makes him rise even when he has no thought of lust in his heart. When he sleeps, the prick-spirit stirs. When he wants to piss, it won't let him. It can be very strong, very cunning. More cunning than the man's own spirit. Look at that serpent - has it any eyes?’
‘No. Only a mouth.’
‘There, you see; a prick-spirit is blind. To it all women are the same. Old and young, pretty and ugly. A prick is as happy with the arse of a goat as with that of a girl. Heh! - a man will fuck mud when his prick is in charge. He will do anything to obey it. That's why they are dangerous.’
Mehetchi made a face of disgust and squeezed him savagely until his spine arched.
‘This spirit is treacherous, child. It can trick a man into believing he desires a woman, when really he finds her repulsive. He will say anything to win her when he is under its command - you know what the young men in the village are like. Only when the prick-spirit has had its way will he realise that he never wanted this woman.’
Her pupil nodded.
‘And then, when he approaches the girl he lusts after the most, the prick-spirit may abandon him, and for all his desire he then will be unable to stiffen for her. When you are a full spirit-talker, you will find that many men, or their wives, will come to you to complain that their prick-spirit has fled. It will be your job to search out the spirit wherever it has hidden and bring it back to his body.’
‘Where do they go?’
‘Into the Underworld. I will show you the place later. I will teach you a song to call them, and another to send them back, if you ever should need such a thing.’
‘And what about those below?’
‘Go on; touch them. They're nothing to fear. They are soft like ripe fruits.’
Mehetchi knelt forward to apply both hands to the task. ‘They're wrinkled like they've hung on the stem too long then! Ugh!’ She giggled, her eyes flashing with alarm. ‘Are all men as hairy in those parts?’
‘No - he's a foreigner.’
He felt the humiliation writhe in his belly.
‘Those are the source of all his seed. The spirits of all his descendants wait there, anxious to see the light of life. Often they are too eager and they pour out when there is no womb to receive them. That is your task now. You must draw his seed out and hold it in your mouth; the fever will come with it.’
The girl licked her lips nervously, and even that sight sent a spasm through his helpless flesh.
‘The serpent's mouth is wet! Is that his seed?’
‘Hah!’ the older woman snorted. ‘No - he is just eager for you, child. His prick drools like a toothless old man before his dinner. Suck it.’
‘No,’ he said, but his voice went unheard.
Copyright Janine Ashbless 2007