Content warning: gore, violence

“I’m looking for Pelagie.” 

No one on the veranda stirred. It was as if they were all trying to think, their eyes diverted up toward the ceiling fan above.

“Pelagie?” repeated Samson.

Koffi cupped his chin in his hand, rubbing the grey stubble of his beard back and forth. It was like sandpaper, three days post-shave. He winced: it was his mouth again.

Angelica, next to him, let her feet dangle off her stool. Back and forth they went like pendulums. She breathed out long, as if she’d exhausted all her mental capabilities trying to comb her mind for any remnant of that name. She said nothing, just shook her head no.

The ceiling fan continued to spin slow, as if it had been turned off a minute prior and had yet to stop.

Samson exhaled and shook his wrist free of his shirt cuff.

They could have done more to seem of use: he wore a real tailored suit, one that hadn’t been bought cheap out of a bundle of thrift store rejects from across the Atlantic. His watch wasn’t a showpiece either: it was worn tight, halfway tucked under his shirt sleeve up until a second ago.

“An old woman, with cataracts?” He’d already used those descriptors, and they’d already given him blank stares. He’d held out a photo from long ago.

They studied it, then shook their heads again. Angelica took a sip of her coca-cola. Glass bottle and it was still cold from the humming fridge behind her. A fly landed on the rim and she blew it away.

Samson looked toward the road, dug his hands into his pockets, then gave the group a quick nod. 

“If you think of anything.” He held out a card, its gloss catching the sun and sending it straight into Koffi’s eyes. He squinted and reached out for it.

Then Samson walked back toward the road, turned left, and followed the curve up until he disappeared from sight.

“Pelagie?” asked Thierry. He hadn’t spoken during the whole exchange, but apparently he’d been thinking hard.

“We need to tell him,” said Angelica. She took another sip then picked up her phone.

Koffi scratched his head. His hairs were still growing in tight, but they’d turned white years ago. He tried to clamp his mouth shut, but pain suddenly burst through it and a hot liquid seeped into his mouth: one of the sores must have popped. 

Meanwhile, Samson had walked a kilometer up the road. She would have had to be somewhere around here. He looked in the ditch on his side of the road, narrowing his eyes, squinting for the sign of a body. His stomach turned. He’d been eight the last time he’d seen her.

Deeper in the forrest, tucked in between two giant palms, sat a cone-like hut. 

“Four more.” 

The man had just come out of it, shirtless with a lion tooth dangling from his neck.

“I need four more,” he shouted.

The fire was almost ready. He just needed four more.

From inside there came a sound like that of an injured animal.

The man turned.

“Give them to me.”

The sound came again.

The man dropped the massive log and ran back into the hut.

Thwap, thwap, thwap went something inside.

The cry of an injured cat, still in the fight.

Then a low gravely sound, as if something were being dragged across the dirt floor.

“Give them to me.”

There was another cry, muffled, from near the entryway.

A moment later the man appeared through the doorway, dragging a leathery-skinned woman , half-naked, behind him.

“Noooo!” she howled. The injured animal.

“Now give them to me!” he cried. 

He launched her forward. She landed in a pile in front of him, her lips bloody.

For a moment, she did nothing. It appeared she might be dead.

Then, without waiting to see, the man went up to her and pried her mouth open.

Immediately she groaned and snapper her mouth closed, over his fingers. He kicker he hard in the stomach.


Her very bones felt as if they were being pulverized, smashed like the cassava she’d used to pound as a girl.

“Open your mouth” he shouted again.

Another kick. Her bones crunched against one another.

If I were to die now…she thought.

She clenched her mouth shut and looked up: the faint light above her, was it the sun? She squinted, but it remained nothing more than a white mist. 

“You good for nothing!” the man shouted. His lion tooth hit against his chest as he launched his leg forward in another attack.







She went sprawling.

If only I had not gone to him for help, she thought. 

She remembered the day she’d bargained with him. It was the day after her daughter had died, the day Angelica had come to her. The day they’d run her off. She’d been dumped at the outskirts of the village, then picked herself up and felt her way along the tree line, all the way onto the big paved road nearby. That’s where she’d crossed paths with Wodun, the healer. That’s where she’d begged him for mercy,

But instead, he’d offered a trade.


His hands reached for her mouth. One on her chin and one smashed into the bottom of her nose. They pulled.

“Give them,”


“to me!”

Her head swam, as if she were entering a world in between. 

“Get me out of here!” she screamed.

Her teeth.

The last of them. 

It was their deal, or it had been.

Her eyes watered, the faint light she saw above her blueing into a marbly soup.

“Give them,”





The woman felt her jaw release, as if in great relief and exhaustion. She screamed out as one of her remaining four teeth was yanked out from the root, blood welling up in the hole left there.

“They know,” said Angelica.

She was breathing hard into the phone, the coca-cola bottle forgotten on the table in front of her.

The man pulled the phone away from his year, touched the lion tooth and looked at the woman lying flat in front of him.

Blood was pooling around her mouth, as if it were her last will and testament.

“Who knows?” he hissed.

He looked at the fire. He looked at the pot, then he looked at the sun. 

He needed at least until nightfall.

“The family,” she repeated.

The man swore. 

He pulled off his lion tooth and threw it on the ground, then picked up the woman by the arms and started to drag her out of the clearing.

It had been a fortunate day, one week prior, when he’d crossed paths with her. It hadn’t exactly been a coincidence, though.

He pulled harder, twigs breaking under the weight of her body. The other deal: it had been standard, a standard practice, although a hard one. The sores on Koffi’s mouth had spelled death, almost certainly, and he’d known only one remedy.

He thought of the pot starting to bubble, the one tooth he’d thrown in. He pulled harder. Better to get it over with, dump the body, pull the teeth, cover up the blood, scrub it out of the dirt, then finish the concoction. If anyone came by, they’d have no idea. They’d have…


His head jerked up.

There was a man blocking his path. 

Wodun dropped the woman’s arms.

“What do you want?”

He made sure his body was standing up to its full height, hiding everything.

“What’s that?”

How had he come here?

Wodun stepped forward. The lion tooth.

He reached for it.

Just as he snapped it off the necklace the man lunged forward.

A second later, Wodun had plunged it square into his right eye.

Ouuuuuch! the man shouted.

He let go and jumped backward, both hands clasped over the bleeding eye.

Wodun aimed again but missed.

The man had whirled around, two feet away.

He fumbled now with one hand in his pocket.

Wodun aimed again.

Something flashed.

Wodun lunged forward.

He shrieked. Pain exploded in his stomach. More and more and more.

Something was being jerked around in his insides.

Then it was pulled out, and Wodun felt the empty hole, felt his body being twisted backward, felt himself falling, hitting against something like bones. 

Then, the world went black.

In a second, Samson had sat Pelagie up. Her mouth was still bleeding where her tooth had been pulled. He dabbed at it with his shirt.

“It’s me.”

She looked at him. She didn’t see anything but a darker shadow in the midst of grey. 

“It's me, Samson.”

She looked harder. Had she heard right?

He reached his hand up to his eye. Blood was still oozing out. Pain was throbbing out of his forehead.

From behind them there were angry shouts. They were back at the hut. Not long thought Samson.

He winced in pain and lifted Pelagie up, balancing her crosswise over his shoulders.

“Samson?” she asked.

“Shhh,” he said. Then he stumbled forward, trying to keep his balance as he picked over twigs and tree stumps, through vines and around palm fronds.

“This way!” It was Koffi’s voice. He was thrashing through the underbrush, twice as fast as them. “My potion! My mouth!”

Samson stumbled faster, as fast as he could. 

Snap went the twigs under his feet.

And then, all the sudden, his foot caught on something and he felt himself go sprawling forward. Pelagie went flying through the air above him.

They landed with two thuds. He struggled to stand, lunged forward for Pelagie, got her in her arms and stumbled forward again.

But just then there was a tug on his arm and he and Pelagie topple backward onto the ground.

“Stop there.”

He looked up.

It was the grey-haired man from earlier. Samson’s eye throbbed. Something glinted in the man’s hands. 

“We need,”

He seemed to be gasping.

“The other three.”

Behind him Wodun was being helped forward, Angelica and Thierry on either side of him. 

Samson looked.

Pelagie was lying right in front of him, easy prey.

He reached down, ever so slightly.

Koffi looked toward Pelagie.

Neither of them made a move.

Then, all the sudden, Koffi reached out for the old woman, and quick as a flash, Angelica, launched herself toward Samson.

Their heads collided with a terrible crack. Pain rang through Samson’s skull as he reeled backward.

Pelagie. He struggled to stand. Angelica was down, but Koffi was already reaching something glinting into Pelagie’s mouth, and from a very distant place Samson could hear her wails.

With all his strength, he launched himself up in the air. In a second, his blade had sunk into something soft, and he could feel the writhing of a body beneath him. 

“Stop!” he shouted. He twisted and turned the knife. The body writhed like an octopus.

In a second, it was still. He give it a push and it toppled over.

In front of him lay Pelagie, her lower lip cut down the middle.

“Noo! Noo!” he cried. Her eyes were wide open like saucers.

With all the strength he had left, he lifted her up, stumbling forward through the forrest.

Angelica didn’t run after him, nor did Wodun, nor Thierry, who was already bent over Koffi’s lifeless body wailing.

Samson fought through the trees, fast feet stumbling forward, pain searing through his head.

Suddenly he came to a clearing. He stopped for breath. Pelagie whimpered as she lay splayed across his shoulders.

“Hold on,” he whispered.

Pelagie took in ragged breaths.

He started running again.

Then, right after the clearing turned back into trees, they popped out, somehow back onto the main road.

“Almost there.”

Samson labored toward the car hidden in the underbrush. A minute later they were both inside, Pelagie sprawled across the leather in the back, making a mess of it with her blood.

“Almost there,” he continued. He put the car in reverse, then sped forward, down the long twisting road back to Lomé. They’d never make it in time. He felt his throbbing eye, his vision in the other eye blurring, then clearing, then blurring again. 

He cast a look back toward Pelagie. Her breath was coming in spurts, her lower lip was big and bludgeoned-looking and oozing blood. Her eyes, still clouded over by cataracts, looked toward the sound of his breathing.

“Samson,” she repeated. 

Samson’s heart shot through. A memory flashed into his head, him at eight, running toward Pelagie’s open arms, then being yanked from her grasp, pulled backward toward the shiny polished car. At first, he’d been forbidden from coming here again, then he’d simply not bothered…up until he’d heard about his mother’s death. 


“Samson,” she repeated.

She reached out her hand toward the sound of his voice, sitting up enough to reach for his cheek. She caressed it for a moment, then fell backward onto the seat. 

“You came,” she whispered.

Samson set his good eye on the road, pressing the gas all the way down. 

October 29, 2021 19:43

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