Dan lay in bed wide-awake for a long time. He was tired from the day’s work, but his enthusiasm and anxiety regarding the future kept his sleep at bay. He squirmed and tossed, until the next dream crept in, hiding in the shadows of his fitful sleep like a noxious fog.
This time Thanai told him that he, Sam, and Evan had made a mistake at the river by lighting only one fire instead of three. He added that the great python was king to the Shadows and came out of the river to protect them against Dan and the boys.
They were to return and repeat the preparations by doing the twenty-one white crosses and three fires. When Dan finally got everything ready, and the moon was bright, they watched at midnight as multiple eruptions of geysers occurred in the middle of the river. The colobus monkeys picked up their eerie chattering chorus. Seven black figures rose out of the water, their bright white skeleton teeth shining and snapping menacingly against the bright moonlight. Each had a scythe in one hand and a black shield in the other. They stepped up on the water and rushed Dan and the boys, screaming and whining like wild animals. When they saw the fires, they slowed down and taunted the boys from the near bank.
“Attack!” Dan yelled and threw his spear into the nearest one. The spear seemed to fly right through it, but the black figure fell down screaming and thrashing, then rolled into the water and vanished. Evan and Sam threw their spears and struck down a black figure each. They too fell on the bank and seemed to evaporate. The other four black figures stood shaking their scythes at the boys. But the boys had no more weaponry to fight with.
“Get fire brands!” Dan yelled again. They ran back, grabbed burning sticks from the fires and turned against the four advancing figures. The shadows retreated quickly, dove into the water and vanished. Tall geysers erupted where they fell, the water shooting over twenty feet into the air. The monkeys stopped screaming suddenly and an ethereal silence engulfed the riverbank.
Dan woke up as the water settled again on the river. He was sweating and breathing hard. Sam was fast asleep. Dan hadn’t yelled this time, but sleep had vanished again, the vivid activities of the dream still very clear in his immediate memory. He was still breathing fast and hard from battle. He peered around in his dark room. Faint light from the starry skies outside showed through the cracks around the wooden window frame.
He padded softly back to the kitchen and sat on a stool, stirred the ashes and found a few live coals. He broke some twigs and laid them on the coals and blew until a small flame caught, then placed a little water in a kettle for tea on the stones, always careful not to wake Ma Tango or Sam.
He wandered back in his mind to review the weird dreams, and got regaled by their clarity, pondering their significance. No dreams had ever riveted and rocked him so hard in his life.
He didn’t hear Ma Tango come into the kitchen until she was standing right next to him, almost startling him off his stool.
“Oh, Ma!” he said, standing up. “You startled me. I didn’t know you were up.”
“I know, son,” Ma Tango said. “I know you only slept for a couple of hours. You are having trouble sleeping like me, aren’t you?”
Ma Tango sat down and looked at Dan across the fireplace. Dan didn’t answer her. He dumped tea leaves into the kettle and sat back looking at his mother.
“What is bothering you, son?” Ma Tango asked. “You shouldn’t worry too much. God will take care of everything.”
“I’m not worried, Ma,” Dan said as he lifted the boiling kettle off the fire. “Just had a couple of bad dreams, that’s all.”
“Is it about the Shadows?” Ma Tango asked, startling Dan again with her objective directness. He wondered how she had known. One could dream about ten thousand other things.
“How did you know, Ma?”
Ma Tango was quiet for a minute. “Your father used to have dreams about the Shadows,” she said, looking into the fire, as if trying to read from the chronicles of past dreams in the red embers. “He had plans just like you once, to plant tomatoes and work with water from the river. He dreamed of becoming rich from the crop, raising chickens and several milk cows. He was quite enthusiastic about the possibilities and talked a lot about it with two of his friends. One tried to discourage him, but the other one was good to be a partner in the work.
“A week after that your father began to dream about the Shadows. Once he told me that the dreams were like a story told in parts, as he dreamt. The dreams were strong, and kept him awake a good while for about a month. They didn’t go away until he stopped talking about his projects.
“Soon after that, his would be partner friend was killed by a python in his own back yard. The python had been after his goats when he walked near the goat shed and stepped on its tail on a bright moonlit night. His wife found the python still trying to swallow him early the next morning.”
Dan felt the hairs on the back of his head turn hot, as if electrified by lightning.
“Then what happened?” Dan asked after a long, quiet minute.
“Neighbors were called and cut up the python and extracted the man,” Ma Tango said, still looking into the fire. “He was already dead, and had many broken bones. After they buried him, a cross was planted on his grave with his name, date of birth and death engraved on it. The morning after the funeral, they found his cross substituted with a black cross. No one knew who did it.”
Dan sat very still, and had no more taste for tea. His hands trembled, and his mouth felt like hot metal. Everything around the room suddenly appeared unreal. The lifelong familiar smells of the kitchen turned obnoxious.
“The tea is cooling,” Ma Tango said as she picked up the kettle. “I will pour some for you.”
Dan took a tin mug of the hot tea from Ma, but didn’t drink it for a while.
“Ma, who was the other friend whom dad had talked to about his plans,” Dan asked.
Ma Tango took a few sticks from a pile of dry firewood behind her stool and added them into the fire, arranging them carefully from the three gaps between the stones. A few sparks flew as the dry sticks caught, and a small flame leaped up gently, lighting up the kitchen more brightly, and causing shadows in the room to jump and dance on the mud walls.
“It was a neighbor of Thanai’s,” Ma Tango said after sitting back on her stool. “And since that time, your father’s friends stopped coming around to visit with him.”
Ma Tango stood up, said she had to lie down and catch some sleep, and urged Dan to try and sleep also, saying the evils of tomorrow would be enough thereof, but God leadeth those who believe in him.
Dan sat alone for a while pondering the weird tales and dreams, trying to connect them as well as construct some meaning out of them.
What had the dreams meant to his Dad? And what did it mean to him now, or what was he supposed to do? His Dad, from all he could deduct from Ma Tango’s story, had been discouraged by the dreams and death of this friend by a python as well as the weird black cross story. A couple of days ago Dan could have drawn a very clear line in his mind between superstitious believes and weird reality, and would have won in any contest against the beliefs that weirdo’s performed in real life to control remotely or telepathically the lives of other people. Now he was no longer sure.