A Killing in Zimbabwe

Michael M. Pacheco
Lorenzo wasn’t a tourist in Harare, Zimbabwe, but he sure felt like one at the airport. A few commuters whisked in and out of gates, babbling what he presumed to be either Shona or Ndebele, the native tongues of the region. He thanked God English was one of the country’s official languages.

He stiffened at the sight of submachine guns dangling from the shoulders of Zimbabwe soldiers. Their shoulder patches read Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe, but Lorenzo saw in their faces the disciplined look of military personnel. Video documentaries played back in his mind the Mugabe regime massacres that had taken place in this country not more than a few decades ago. He took a deep breath and tried to calm his heightened uneasiness.

Lorenzo’s destination was St. Joseph’s, a Catholic Church to the north of town, near the city of Chinhoyi. His assignment: to teach native children the basics of English. This was to be the last hurdle before taking his final vows and becoming fully-ordained in his own church back in the States.

A lanky black man in a gray suit held a placard against his chest. In bold letters it read <i>Father Lorenzo Alvarez</i>. He bowed at the waist when he made eye contact with the man wearing the Roman collar.

Lorenzo smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Lorenzo Alvarez.”
“Yes, Father. Welcome to Zimbabwe. Come with me, please.” He nodded toward the conveyor belt. “Someone else is retrieving your baggage.”

Lorenzo felt an urge to explain he was not yet a fully sworn man of the cloth, but he remained silent. He looked around. A musty odor hung heavy in the air.

Less than a hundred people milled around the small airport. He’d expected the place to be buzzing with hundreds of travelers. This was, after all, an international airport. Yet, his plane turned out to be the only one unloading passengers anywhere in the terminal. As he climbed into the back seat of a black Lincoln Towncar, Lorenzo saw his two luggage bags being loaded into the trunk. “Should I tip the baggage man?”

The gray suit man smiled at Lorenzo through the rear-view mirror. “No worries. He’s a volunteer at the church. I already took care of him.”

The Towncar pulled away from the airport and meandered through the urban center of Harare as Lorenzo’s driver pointed out landmarks. Lorenzo was impressed with the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the Africa Unity Square and other points of interest. The flower merchants lining the square reminded Lorenzo of the vendors back home in San Antonio.

As they left the busy streets of downtown behind them, Lorenzo began to admire first-hand the expansive savannah plains he’d seen only in brochures and books. He loved the aloes and wildflowers but was most impressed with the towering cactus-like euphorbias that resembled the Saguaros back in Texas. And yet - he wasn’t going to tell anyone - his disappointment in not going to Victoria Falls, the majestic waterfalls on the other side of Zimbabwe.

The lush plants whizzed by as they headed northeasterly on the A1 highway toward Chinhoyi. In half an hour, they reached the outskirts of a city which Lorenzo assumed was Chinhoyi. The driver pulled into the parking lot of a small church with a towering steeple topped with a tiny cross. A diminutive white-haired man in black slacks and Roman-collared shirt like Lorenzo’s awaited them. He stood by a one-story building next to the chapel which appeared to be the rectory.

When the driver opened his door, Lorenzo alighted from the car and stepped into a wall of humid, tropical air. “Father O’Malley, I presume?” He extended an arm to the padre.

“Yes, Lorenzo, Welcome, welcome,” he said with enthusiasm, shaking his hand. “Come inside. It’s cooler in the rectory. Comfortable trip, I hope?”

“Oh yes, but it was over nine thousand miles. This place is a bit out of the way.”

“Indeed it is,” said O’Malley as they walked into the air-conditioned rectory. The room was large and while the ambient air wasn’t cold, it was better than standing outside. “That was one of my first impressions of this country when I arrived here five years ago.”
Lorenzo arched his eyebrows. “Wow! That’s a long assignment.”

“It is a long time by some standards, but it’s not an assignment. It’s a choice I made after Father Marzini died. May he rest in peace.”

Lorenzo tilted his head. “Was Father Marzini the local priest?”

“Yes,” said O’Malley gazing at the floor. “Yes, he was. He was a good man and a faithful servant of God.”

When Lorenzo saw O’Malley cross himself, he did the same. O’Malley appeared to have the quiet stillness of a man in complete control of his body and emotions. His strong lived-in face and quick, intelligent eyes seemed to miss nothing.

O’Malley continued. “He was my mentor when he fell and broke his hip. He never did recover. By that time, I was familiar with the congregation and requested to be placed here on a permanent basis and the bishop granted my wish. But enough about me. Tell me, are you excited about your forthcoming vows? I understand you’ll be taking them soon after you return to the States.”

“Actually, yes. It’s all I’ve thinking about for quite a while. Sometimes I worry that I concentrate too much on it, you know, the age-old problem of hubris.”

“Ah yes. Pride and humility, two necessary, but dangerous virtues. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine once you start ministering and find out how we are humbled daily by the creator’s works all around us. When I get too big for my britches, I need only to study a rose in full bloom to recall that my work is a pale reflection of true creation.”

Lorenzo accepted a bottle of water handed to him.

“Thank you. By the way, Father, what is the name of village where I’ll be teaching?”

“You’ve been assigned to Denga, a small village of maybe five hundred people outside of Chinhoyi. They don’t have a church there yet but rumor has it the Methodists are trying to build one before we do.” O’Malley smiled. “I think the Jehovah’s might actually beat us all. They’ve intensified their presence throughout all of Zimbabwe.”

Lorenzo took a swallow of the cool water, and then cleared his throat. “Are we trying to beat them in building a church?”

“Oh no, son,” said O’Malley. “It’s not a competition. At least I don’t see it that way. If I recall correctly, our mission, whether teaching, preaching, giving the sacraments or praying for the Society, our voices should be to promote corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Whether Catholic or some other denomination, there must be one message: to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

There it was, thought Lorenzo, the mantra of the Jesuit. That was why he joined the ministry, all for the greater glory of God. As a son of a medical doctor, Lorenzo had proved a learned, devout priest who shunned the many comforts of his American homeland for a deeply religious life.

He chatted for another hour with O’Malley and learned that in rural areas, Africans live in villages and on farms in housing mainly of brick or mud and stick construction with thatch or metal roofs. O’Malley said the villages were mostly small (except for the massive protected villages), with fewer than 100 inhabitants.

Lorenzo would live in a brick building with running water. There would be a swamp cooler, but no air conditioning. He would teach in the same building. The instruction format was entirely up to him.

And so it was when Lorenzo’s driver pulled up to a group of huts thirty miles away. A large group of people stood lined up in front of the only four brick buildings in sight. This was, no doubt, Denga, Lorenzo’s new home.

Lorenzo opened his own door as the driver retrieved the luggage from the trunk. Once again a gust of tropical, humid air swirled around him. He guessed it must have been around one hundred degrees. He stood erect and surveyed the crowd. Most were smiling at him. A few, expressionless men on the fringes of the group had rifles slung over their shoulders.

The driver shook Lorenzo’s hand and wished him luck. “I’ll be back with Father O’Malley in one week.” He pointed to the tallest man in the waiting crowd. A young, attractive woman in western style jeans and a tee shirt stood next to the man. “That’s Roger. It’s his English name. He’s the leader of this clan in Denga. He’ll show you around.”

With that, Lorenzo stood and watched a dusty rooster tail rise behind the car as it sped away. He turned and Roger was now standing next him.

“Welcome to Denga, Father Alvarez. My name is Roger.”

“Really? What was your given name at birth?”

He tilted his head and smiled at Lorenzo. “Mashama Sibanda, that is my given name.”

“Good. Then, that is what I will call you, Mashama.”

Mashama grinned. “Thank you, Father. Follow me, please,” he said pivoting and heading for the largest and closest brick building.

As he walked behind Mashama, a little girl walked up to Lorenzo and offered him a small bouquet of flowers. “Welcome to Denga,” she said. The group behind her smiled in unison and nodded as if to affirm Lorenzo’s welcome.

“Thank you,” said Lorenzo, nodding and accepting the flowers. When he came to the threshold of the building he felt a wave of cool, moist air soothe his face.

“This is the main room,” said Mashama, moving his hand from left to right, “where classes are normally held.” Desks, chairs and tables filled the center of the room. A stack of catechism books sat on the floor. “Your living quarters are over there,” he said, pointing with a long finger toward a doorway on the left.”

“Where’s the restroom?” asked Lorenzo.

Mashama gave him a puzzled look, as if he was unsure whether Lorenzo was serious or trying to be funny. He glanced at the living quarters area and pointed in the same direction with his chin. “There’s an outhouse about thirty meters behind this building. It serves several families.”

Lorenzo felt a tingle in his cheeks, realizing his face was probably crimson red in embarrassment.

Mashama pretended not to notice. “There’s food supplies in the kitchen, Father, but let me know if you need anything else.” He bowed his head slightly and rolled Lorenzo’s luggage bag to the threshold of the living quarters. As he brushed past Lorenzo to leave, he stopped in his tracks. “Oh, I almost forgot. We have a welcoming dinner for you tonight, right after sunset. I hope that’s all right.”

Lorenzo beamed, “Oh my! I’d be delighted. Thank you, Mashama.”

He watched the thin clan leader close the door behind him. All the men of this village seemed lanky and sinewy. Lorenzo was six feet tall, but most of the men here were taller than him.

The women weren’t much different, lithe-looking and smooth-skinned, though they did possess an alluring mystique. Lorenzo was especially impressed by the women’s penetrating look. The young woman who had been standing next to Mashama had an expression that made Lorenzo feel as if she knew some of his most private secrets. If he hadn’t taken the Holy Orders and vows of celibacy long ago, he could see himself falling for one of these ebony beauties.

His living quarters consisted of two rooms, a living room/bedroom and a kitchenette. The place was immaculate and smelled like minty soap, as if someone had barely finished cleaning. His mind replayed the video he’d received from the bishop’s office in San Antonio regarding local illnesses and hygiene in a tropical environment like Zimbabwe. He flashed back to the water bottle Father O’Malley had given him and wondered about the quality of the local drinking supply.

Lorenzo spent the next hour unpacking his clothes and toiletries. When that was done, he peeked out the window and saw only a few persons walk quickly from one shaded area to another. This place was either quite serene or he was quite fatigued. Everything seemed to have slowed down. He smoothed out the blanket on the single bed and eased himself onto it. He thought he heard a wailing scream in the far distance. Within seconds, he fell asleep.

A soft tapping on the door of the main room slowly pulled Lorenzo out of his deep sleep. He rose and realized he must have been dozing for a long time. The sun’s slanted rays were slicing through the kitchen window.

He opened the front door and noticed the temperature had dropped at least ten to fifteen degrees. He was pleased to the see the face of the young woman who had stood next to Mashama. She was now wearing a red wraparound skirt with a brightly-flowered loose-fitting top, earrings, and a head dress.

“Hi, I’m Jendaya.”

“Nice to meet you, Jendaya. Is it dinner time already?” asked Lorenzo.
“Almost, but I’m here because my father, Mashama, said he would like to see you immediately, if that is possible.”

Lorenzo’s face took on a somber look. “Is everything all right?”

The young woman gazed downward. “I’d rather have my father explain.”

“Yes, of course,” said Lorenzo, as he reached for his small attaché case. He had planned on carrying it everywhere he went. His bible and stationery were in there as well as a pocket book of translation from English to Shona, though he figured he probably didn’t need it, having heard the fluency of Denga’s people in the English language.

He followed Jendaya past a few grass and mud homes similar to the adobe homes in Mexico and southwestern United States. The next large structure was a cinder block building with an oversized window in the front. He glanced through the glass as they walked toward the door and saw burlap sacks of grain or corn stacked against the walls.

“Is this your family’s store?”

“Yes, Father. It’s the only one here but there’s a new one to be opened soon by some of our new village residents at the edge of town. They have family connections to farmers nearby and they want to start their business here. In fact, this afternoon they’re pouring cement for the foundation.”

“That’s good for the consumer, isn’t it?” He noticed the blank stare on Jendaya’s face. “Friendly competition, I mean.”

She flashed him a modest grin. He could tell she was being kind, having no idea what he was talking about.

They stepped into the store and Mashama greeted Lorenzo with a worried look on his face. His hands were trembling.

“Mashama, what’s going on? You look troubled.”

“Yes, Father, I’m terribly concerned. Our village has been terrorized.”

Lorenzo put a calming hand on Mashama’s shoulder and pointed to a couple of nearby stools. “Please, sit, take your time and tell me what terror has been brought upon your people and by whom.”

Mashama sat down. “It’s that little girl who gave you flowers upon your arrival. She’s an orphan found by our men during game-hunting. Someone found her this afternoon not far from the village.”

Lorenzo had a feeling this conversation was heading for dour news indeed. Fleeting images of the little black girl holding out the flowers to him and the wailing scream flashed through his mind. He encouraged Mashama to continue. “And what condition was she in, when she was found?”

Jendaya had been listening, but at this point, when Mashama had paused, she hurried back outside. Mashama’s eyes pooled with tears.

“She was dead, Father. Her chest was cut open and her heart was pulled out of her. We have her wrapped in a sheet behind the building. Someone is guarding her,” he said, as if someone could still harm her.

“Dear Lord!” said Lorenzo. He straightened his back and looked around at the empty store. “Who would do such a thing?”

“I don’t know. I honestly don’t know.”

Lorenzo set his attaché case on a nearby counter, opened it and reached for a cell phone.

Mashama put his hand over Lorenzo’s holding the phone. “What are you doing?”

“I’m reporting this to the authorities. Isn’t that the proper thing to do?”

Mashama nodded. “Yes, that is what the authorities want us to do, but we have to bury the little girl within twenty-four hours. That’s our custom and tradition. We’ll deal with whoever killed her later,” said Mashama matter-of-factly.

Lorenzo relaxed his hold on the cell phone and Mashama removed his from Lorenzo’s.

“There’s still some daylight left. Would you be prepared to bury her this afternoon?” asked Lorenzo.

Mashama’s body shook as he began to sob.

This time Lorenzo reached for his bible and Mashama did not interfere. “Let’s go see the poor child.”

Lorenzo had presided at last rites ceremonies before, but each time was just as difficult as the first. He heard the tribal women ululating even before they reached the mourning group and notwithstanding the heat, a shiver ran up his spine. The small child was wrapped in a white sheet like a mummy with its face uncovered for viewing. The cherub-faced girl looked at peace with her eyes closed and her facial muscles relaxed.

Apparently, the girl had been found several hours earlier but no one had summoned Lorenzo because somehow the people of Denga knew he had fallen asleep upon his arrival. They also had taken the time to clean the corpse and search the area for the killers. The only remnant of the perpetrators’ existence was a blood trail leading away from the village for a few meters, which then ended abruptly.

Four men gently lifted the corpse and placed it on a flat board with long poles on the sides which reminded Lorenzo of the beds pulled by the Plains Indians back home. The large crowd marched quietly to the cemetery. The ceremony was brief. It ended when an SUV with a government logo painted on the door pulled up.

A man in khaki pants and shirt walked up to the little girl’s body and glanced at Lorenzo. “Is this the deceased called in?”

Lorenzo wasn’t sure who had called it in, but it didn’t seem to matter. “Yes, yes it is.”

Mashama gave the man the girl’s name and birth date and the man wrote the information in a small tablet. He gave an official-looking form to Lorenzo.

“Fill this out and get it back to the coroner’s office within a week,” he said. He pulled the sheet over the girl’s face. “That’s all I need.” He glanced at the women sobbing behind Mashama. “I’m very sorry.”

After the government man left, Lorenzo led the group in prayer. A local female traditional healer led the group in a chant in a language which Lorenzo did not understand. The girl was then buried and the procession returned to the other brick building in the village. There was no doubt in Lorenzo’s mind. His welcoming dinner had now morphed into a wake for the orphan girl.

In the building, there was an assortment of food assembled on four long tables, two on each side of the room. One table held bowls of something akin to cornmeal cakes surrounded by smaller bowls of relish or thick and rich porridge that smelled like chicken soup.

Jendaya was standing next to Lorenzo. “That’s sadza, made from maize,” she said pointing to the larger bowls. “The little bowls are nyama. You can pour it over the sadza or eat it by itself. I think you’ll like it.”

“Yes, I’m sure I will,” said Lorenzo, wondering what better mood these people would have been in, had there not been a murder only hours before. He was amazed at the variety of food on the tables. At the end of the table there was a person dishing out slices of what appeared to be beef, though later he learned it was shoulder of impala. On the other two tables he saw platters of peanuts, sliced cucumbers, butternut squash, boiled beans, gem squash and corn on the cob.

Lorenzo thought there were a lot of mismatched chairs in this place. Maybe every spare chair had been brought here. Tables, on the other hand, were in short supply. Most of the attendees served their food onto their plate and filed outdoors where it was now dusk. One table indoors apparently had been reserved for Lorenzo as a guest of honor. He waited till the majority of the people had been served, then stood and said grace.

Jendaya was right. The food was delicious. As he finished the main meal, Lorenzo glanced around the room and noticed not everyone had eaten as voraciously as he had. Perhaps due to their grief and sadness, many of the adults had only eaten a little. The children too, were subdued in their behavior. Jendaya approached Lorenzo with a small paper plate in her hand.

“Try this. It’s mapopo, papaya candy,” she said.

Lorenzo was already full, but as a courtesy he accepted the plate. He toyed with the dessert as Mashama explained to him the tribal traditions of cleansing a corpse and the quick burial rituals.

“It’s a matter of hygiene as much as it is religious,” he said. “With this heat and humidity, it’s not good to let a body sit out long.”

“Yes,” said Lorenzo. He leaned toward Mashama. “But what could possibly be the motive? The method used to take the victim’s life was unthinkable and she was just a child.”

Then, to Lorenzo’s surprise, a hoarse female voice whispered from behind. “It was revenge!”

Startled, Lorenzo twisted around to find the woman healer leaning close to his right ear. They looked at each other momentarily without blinking and without a word.

“This is Rotina, Father,” said Mashama. “As you saw back there, she’s our healer.”

“Hello, Rotina,” said Lorenzo. “What makes you think this awful act was done out of revenge and revenge for what?”

“I don’t know yet, but I will find out. What happened to the little girl is not a normal killing. Oh no.” She raised a finger in the air. “What happened here was retaliation for a spiritual wound inflicted upon someone.”

Rotina stared at Mashama then gazed into Lorenzo’s eyes. “It’s witchcraft!”
Mashama forced a smile. “Come, come, now, Rotina. Not everything is the result of witchcraft.” He patted Lorenzo on the shoulder. “Besides we have the protection of a stronger force. We have God on our side. Isn’t that right, Father?”

Lorenzo wanted to be fair. While he represented a western god that had been accepted by these African people hundreds of years ago, he knew traditional religious beliefs still held a stronghold in their culture. Rotina could be of benefit if she knew something to help the Denga identify the murderers.

“God <i>is</i> on our side,” said Lorenzo with as much confidence as he could muster. “But I was hoping Rotina could help us figure out who committed this crime, using her expertise in these matters.”

Rotina straightened up and tilted her head. “You are?”

“Yes, I am.

The healer shook her head. “But you don’t believe in witchcraft. Are you mocking me?”

“Not at all, Rotina,” said Lorenzo. “I believe our powers come from God himself, mine, yours, Mashama’s, everyone’s. So by that measure, I wouldn’t rule out that you can divine certain things. I would only qualify my remark by adding that your abilities are God-given.”

Rotina stared at the floor, shot a look at Mashama, then hummed something while she stared at Lorenzo. She waved a feather over their heads. Everyone in the room stopped eating and no words were spoken as she marched out of the building.
Lorenzo broke the silence. “What happens now?”

Mashama looked at Lorenzo as if studying his countenance. “Let me know if by tomorrow, you start losing your hair and your teeth start to ache. It could get ugly.”

“Are you serious?” asked Lorenzo.

Mashama looked away.

Jendaya had been listening and now she walked up to Lorenzo’s side. “My father has a strange sense of humor, Father. He’s joking with you.”

With that said, Mashama burst out in loud laughter and those sitting nearby joined him with a nervous chuckle. Lorenzo joined in the laughter, realizing that in those few heartbeats, Mashama had succeeded in causing Lorenzo to question his most fundamental religious belief, that there is only one god and that He reigns supreme.

The next day Lorenzo set up his classroom and accepted forty students into his class. Many more were disappointed when he said there was no room for additional pupils.

He divided the group into three sections, the beginners, the advanced and those falling somewhere in-between. Jendaya volunteered to be his assistant which he gladly accepted. He noticed Jendaya was a take-charge person, requiring little guidance on what to do, much like his own mother. But unlike his mother, she was tall and exotic. He noticed her even more at the end of the first day when she gave him a gentle hug.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” she said.

He wasn’t sure why he didn’t push her away immediately. Maybe it was her generous bosom or her warm caress, but something made Lorenzo’s heart go aflutter. “So am I, Jendaya,” he said, finally easing back from her.

They talked about the students and the people of Denga. Lorenzo told her about his life as a young boy in San Antonio and the rigors of becoming a Jesuit priest. Eventually, she gave him a smile, turned and walked toward the door. When she looked back, she caught him with his eyes still fixed on her.

In the days that followed, they worked out a routine for the students. The beginners were the biggest challenge. They had no concept of the English alphabet and had it not been for Jendaya, Lorenzo might have given up on them entirely. The tweeners were learning to string sentences together and increase their vocabulary. The ten advanced students practiced reading and discussing passages from catechism books left behind by the previous priest.

At the end of each day, Mashama would come by and report to Lorenzo on the details of his investigation into the orphan girl’s murder. And each time it was another day without a clue.

After a full week, Lorenzo and Jendaya still hadn’t run out things to say, and by then they’d begun to brush against each other’s shoulders and give each other gentle pats on the back. Their friendship grew until there was an unspoken bond which was at times awkward and at other times tantalizing. In the spirit of educational levity Lorenzo had told Jendaya their week had ended with a comma, not a period.

He knew it was wrong. He was disrespecting his oath. But unlike his high-school girlfriends, Jendaya had no power over him. Yes, she was beautiful and charming, but above all, she was someone who’d remain in Denga when he left. If he left and never saw her again it would hurt neither one of them. If she died of cancer in a few years he wouldn’t even know it. But if he did know, what then?

On his first Sunday in Denga, Lorenzo arose with a special excitement in his heart. On this day, he would perform mass for the villagers. It would not be his first time, but it would be his first in a foreign land.

In the mid morning, he approached the mirror above the kitchen sink and studied his face in the bright sunlight shining in. He smoothed his eyebrows and plucked a stray hair from his shoulder. Then he straightened his roman collar under his clerical black shirt and gave himself a nod of approval. He pulled out a shoebox-sized container from his writing desk and headed for the door.

Outside under the shade of the musasa and mopani trees, about one hundred fifty seated people awaited him in the same mismatched chairs he’d seen during his welcoming dinner. He strode to the front of the crowd where there had been placed a small podium behind which was a tall, wooden crucifix. Father O’Malley was scheduled to perform alongside him but as yet had not arrived. Lorenzo glanced at his watch and procrastinated by shaking hands and greeting as many persons as he could.

When he came to Mashama and his wife in the front row, Lorenzo tried not to show too much affection for Jendaya who was seated next to them.

“Are we ready to start?” asked Mashama.

“Yes and no,” said Lorenzo. “I could begin but it might be awkward to have Father O’Malley drop in on us in the middle of the mass.”

Jendaya smiled. “What if he doesn’t show up soon? We might be waiting all day.”

Jendaya’s mother scowled at her. “Jendaya! Where are your manners?”

“That’s all right,” said Lorenzo. “I, too, would like to get started and I suppose we could. But one little thing concerns me.”

He tapped the box he was holding. “We have about one hundred wafers for the holy Eucharist portion of our service. It appears there may more than one hundred people here.”

Jendaya was about say something to Lorenzo, but faced her father instead. “May I ask Father Alvarez something?”

Lorenzo answered. “Certainly, Jendaya. What is it?”

“I could get bread from our store. You can cut it up in small pieces.” She looked at her father. “If it’s all right with you, of course.”

Mashama shrugged, as if he had no objection.

“Very thoughtful of you, but I’m afraid that won’t help us.” Lorenzo straightened up tall, realizing many of the attendees were listening intently to him. “As many of you know, I’ll soon be taking my final vows to become a fully-ordained priest.”

A mild wave of applause rose from the crowd.

“Thank you,” said Lorenzo, bowing slightly. “But until then, I cannot do what is called a consecration. When I say <i>consecration</i> I am speaking of the act by which, in the celebration of Holy Mass, the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. The fancy word for it is <i>transubstantiation</i>. Therefore, I can say Mass up to the consecration and conclude with prayer. I can distribute the pre-sanctified Eucharist but I cannot sanctify more.”

He looked at the crowd and the adults were nodding in apparent agreement, at least that’s what he hoped they were doing. In the distance he saw a cloud of red dust moving in their direction. It was Father O’Malley’s Lincoln Towncar.

Upon O’Malley’s arrival, he and Lorenzo held mass and completed it without a hitch. As if by pre-ordained destiny, there were exactly one hundred Denga parishioners who accepted the Holy Ghost that morning.

Father O’Malley and Lorenzo strolled into Lorenzo’s building and sat in his living area. Lorenzo fetched two bottles of water and handed one to his mentor.

“Any word on the orphan girl’s killers?” asked O’Malley.

“No, sad to say, but some villagers believe the wrongdoers might not be from outside this clan.”

O’Malley’s eyebrows arched high. “You don’t say.”

“It may be they simply ran out of leads and turned their inquiries inward.”

O’Malley nodded. “It stands to reason, I suppose.” He took a sip of his water, and then looked at Lorenzo. “Any suspects?”

“Not really, no.”

Lorenzo changed subjects and briefed O’Malley on the progress of his English classes and told him about the invaluable help Jendaya had provided. He tried not to speak of her effusively for fear he might appear smitten with her.

Before O’Malley left, he told Lorenzo he was doing a fine job and he appeared to be adjusting well to the people and culture of the locals. Lorenzo had agreed. This place was feeling like a new home for him.

The next day, Monday, he and Jendaya settled into their routine, a morning prayer, an early class, and then lunch break followed by an afternoon class to end the day. What was not routine was how his feelings for Jendaya seemed to be deepening.

Lorenzo decided he should sit Jendaya down and tell her he had acted inappropriately for a man preparing for the priesthood. He waited till the end of week so as not affect their teaching regimen during the schooldays.

Jendaya did not seem surprised when Lorenzo asked her to remain after all the students had gone home. He took her by the hand and led her to one of desks. She sat and batted her long eyelashes. If he wasn’t in Africa, he would have found it hard to believe they were real.

Lorenzo took an admiring look at the blossoming beauty seated before him. He hadn’t asked her but guessed she was between eighteen and twenty years old. “Jendaya, there’s something I need to ask you. By the way, how old are you?”

She smiled. “I’m eighteen. I know. By our standards, I should be married by now, but all the boys around here are afraid of my father, so they avoid me.”
To Lorenzo, she seemed quite wise for a person only seven years younger than him. He figured she must have noticed his fidgeting. He was more nervous than he could recall ever being. He was staring at his black shoes when she spoke again.

“That’s not what you wanted to talk to me about, is it?”

Lorenzo smiled, “No, it’s not.”

“If it’s about the dead orphan girl I only know what I hear through gossip and rumor.”

Lorenzo’s interest was suddenly piqued. “What rumors have you heard?”

“Rotina says the orphan girl was killed by the new store owners on the edge of town. She says there’s a boy buried under a store.”

Lorenzo tilted his head. “What boy? What store is she talking about and why would Rotina say that? Doesn’t she remember it was girl who was killed?”

Jendaya shrugged. “I don’t know, but she’s got a connection to the spirits. Around here, that’s enough authority.”

Lorenzo looked away. If he brought up the subject of his improper affection for her, she might not want to see him again. That would mean he would likely never find the little girl’s murderers. He knew life came with tough choices and right then he intended to do what was best for all of the Denga tribe. There was no future to worry about, there was only today.

Lorenzo wiped the sweat from his forehead with his left forearm. “We have to visit Rotina.”

The next day, Saturday, shortly after lunch, Jendaya appeared at Lorenzo’s front door as pre-planned. He picked up his attaché case, crossed himself and took a deep breath.

“Okay, let’s go talk to our resident healer.”

Jendaya smiled as they walked out the door. “You mean witch, don’t you? It’s all right. You wouldn’t offend me, if you called her a fake.”

Lorenzo didn’t respond but she was right. He didn’t believe in witches but he did view Rotina as a charlatan and con.

The witch resided in a hut bordered by the jungle on the backside. There were no residences or roads beyond the front entrance to her hut. There was no door just an opening. Inside she was sitting cross-legged on the ground by herself next to a small fire.

Lorenzo bent down and stuck his head near the entrance. Before he could say anything, Rotina gave him a come hither wave.

“Come, I’ve been waiting for you,” she said, motioning to a spot across the burning wood.

“Thank you, Rotina. I came to visit you because . . .”

Rotina showed Lorenzo the palm of her right hand, halting his words. “I know why you’re here.”

She stoked the fire. It was only then Lorenzo noticed the difference in temperature between the air outside and the air inside Rotina’s hut. Despite the fire, it was actually cooler inside than it was in the hot sun.

“You want to know who killed the orphan girl,” said Rotina. She shot a brief glance at Jendaya. “And I believe someone has already told you. The people who built the new store last week here in Denga took her life.”

Lorenzo sat up straight. “Then we should alert the authorities right away, don’t you think?”

Rotina smiled. “I see you haven’t grasped the idea of our ways, our connection to the supernatural. It’s real, you know.”

Lorenzo gazed at Jendaya who was staring into the fire, then turned his look back to the witch. If Rotina thought she knew so much, he might as well ask her to reveal what, if anything, was going to happen to the girl’s killers.

Rotina leaned back and picked up some dried bones stacked behind her. She lined seven of them parallel to each other on the ground, then ran her hand over them, rolling them slowly under her palm. She hummed, as she moved the bones back and forth.

Lorenzo hadn’t said anything but Rotina must have read his thoughts. “To see what is to come, we must close our eyes to what is,” she said. Sweat glistened on Rotina’s upper lip.

Lorenzo looked at Jendaya, nodded and took her hand. They both closed their eyes and Lorenzo felt an easing of stress, a light-headed sensation he’d only experienced when he took Demerol to relieve his pain from a broken nose in his youth.

He saw himself viewing a man forcibly taking a small boy and striking him with a large stone. The man then took a knife and cut the boy’s chest open. What happened then was a bloody removal of the child’s heart. The man ran with his prize in a cloth sack and in his vision, Lorenzo saw him throw it into a pit. An awaiting crew covered the hole in the ground with cement. The workers did not question what was in the sack. The man then turned to where Lorenzo got a direct view of his face. It was Mashama.

“Oh my god!” shouted Jendaya. Apparently, she had received the same vision.

Rotina threw a white powder on the fire and it exploded with multi-colored sparks. “So you see, it <i>was</i> revenge.”

Jendaya was gripping his hand tightly. “I think we should go now,” said Lorenzo. “I think this has upset Jendaya.”

“Yes, take care of her. She is good for you,” said Rotina.

Lorenzo and Jendaya stepped out of the witch’s hut and were shocked to discover it was now dark outside. Somehow, they had managed to fall under the witch’s spell for hours when it had felt like minutes. He walked her to her family’s home without discussing their vision, wondering what he should do next.

He returned to his building and his quandary was rendered moot when his cell phone rang.

“Hello? Oh, greetings, Father O’Malley.”

O’Malley’s voice was subdued. “I’m afraid I have mixed news for you, Lorenzo. The bad news is you have to leave Denga tomorrow to return to the States. The good news is that the date for your final vows has been moved up to next week. Your plane reservations have already been made. I tried to reach earlier, but you must have been out attending the flock.”

“My goodness! That is a mixed bag of news and yes, I didn’t have my phone with me this afternoon.” A moment of silence followed, then Lorenzo added, “I’ll inform the village of the news, Thank you Father.”

Lorenzo walked to Mashama’s store and found him there. He gave him the news and a big hug, apologizing for the abruptness of his impending departure. Was he hugging a murderer? wondered Lorenzo.

‘We’ll miss you,” said Mashama.

“And I you,” said Lorenzo.

The next morning as Lorenzo reviewed his packed bags to assure he had not forgotten anything, he heard a familiar soft tap on his front door. He opened the door to find Jendaya standing there with swollen eyes, as if she’d been crying all night.

“Don’t go, Lorenzo,” she said. Somehow he was not surprised or shocked to hear her call him by his first name. “We need you here in Denga. Everyone likes you. Even the witch, Rotina, does not hate you. I never told you this, but all the other priests who came here before you became her enemies. But not you. You’re different. You’re . . .”

Lorenzo put a finger to her lips. “That’s enough. I believe you, all right? But I still have to go.”

He saw her eyes begin to well up. “I represent the Holy Roman Church. It’s my moral compass and I must follow where it leads me. I don’t know anything else.”

He had thought nothing existed between them but a fortuitous meeting and a mild physical attraction. She was fun to be with, yes. He wouldn’t deny that, but something told him nothing more would have happened between him and Jendaya but for the fact that they’d been thrown into their teaching situation. And yes, he knew his eyes had captured her physical beauty. But eyes can only see. They have no ear for duplicity, no sieve for filtering out mistakes of intent.

Lorenzo knew any wife or husband or altar boy could be fooled by what looked like the sincerest of smiles and the kindest of eyes. Was she playing with his emotions?

He didn’t have any gift more special than anyone else’s, no innate way to recognize subterfuge in another human being. And yet he had always sensed and been told by his mother that his gift of compassion conferred on him an uncanny sense of intuition. Did he still have it?

Just then the Lincoln Towncar pulled up to Lorenzo’s building. Lorenzo leaned into Jendaya to kiss her cheek and she surprised him by cupping his head with her hands and drawing him toward her. She planted a long, moist kiss on his lips which he did not resist. Her arms then went around him and she held him wordlessly. And so he stood there, clinging to her, both of them swaying to a mild breeze, as if at that moment, each was all the other had in the world. When the car finally pulled away from Denga he felt as if Jendaya had cut <i>his</i> chest open and ripped out his heart.

Was it possible he was questioning his calling? He had given himself to Christ, body and soul, and yet this beautiful innocent woman had found a secret passageway to his heart. This was starting to feel like a serious transgression.

At the airport, Lorenzo checked in his bags and received his boarding pass. Before continuing on to the skywalk, he paused, turned and gazed back toward the glass doors at the entrance to the terminal. He wasn’t sure what he expected, maybe Mashama, maybe Jendaya, maybe no one. He turned forward again and boarded the plane.

Ten minutes later, Lorenzo’s plane was taxiing down the runway, and then lifting into Zimbabwe airspace. The air in the plane was cool as he gazed out at the jungles below. He became aware of the grit of the leather bible in his hands, of the tense muscles in his legs and stomach beginning to relax, and of the sharp sting of loneliness. He scanned the countryside, wondering how many healers down there were pulling their con jobs, and moments after, he was awed by the majesty of Victoria Falls.

<td> <img class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-5127" src="http://southernpacificreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/michael-pacheco.png" alt="michael pacheco" height="250" /></td>
<td><em>Michael Pacheco was born in Mexico and raised in the Pacific Northwest of the US. He is now a retired attorney immersed in writing fiction. Michael just completed his fourth novel and is working to polish his fifth. He has been published in over 27 literary journals and various legal journals. In his free time, he writes stories and plays the guitar (though usually not at the same time).</em></td>


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