The Headless Torso
By Lawrence Kadzitche
They called it the headless torso. It stood menacing, like an angry gorilla about to pounce on its tiny adversary. It was naked, as if all types of vegetation were terrified to dress the abominable trunk. Sweat running down the barrel chest glinted in the morning sunshine. The mouth of the acephalous body snarled from the huge chest like the open jaws of a crocodile about to snap on its prey.
Naught could sway the chief or the guides to go any further. They were all sweating and panting with exertion. But it was not the tiresome effort of climbing up the mountain that made them refuse to go on. The mountain top was flat and that is where the peak stood. It was a gigantic rock with a gaping dark cavity and water trickling down its crevices.
It was into this cave that the chief and guides were refusing to venture into. The wind swirled into the hole as if it was being sucked in by some unseen force. From the inner recesses of the cavern came sounds like those of wailing women. The effect of these sounds combined with the black hole with the rock spikes that looked like the mouth of an animal of prey, was unnerving.
“Why must you do this?” asked the chief plaintively.
The tall heavily built young man smiled. “Because I want to change the legend.”
The chief shook his head. “It’s not worth it, Captain Katani. We’re happy that one of our sons is a captain in the army. We don’t want to lose you.”
“You’re not going to lose me, chief,” replied the captain, laughing. “As I told you yesterday, the legend is what it is -a myth and nothing more.”
The village chief was silent for a moment. “Well, what does it matter if it is true or false? Forget about it, boy.”
“Chief, I want to prove that there are no evil spirits in the cave,” the captain said seriously. “I want to prove that one can go into the cave and come back.”
It is happening again, thought the chief. He remembered three separate occasions when he had met stubborn men like the captain. Men who had been determined to go into the cave to prove that there were no evil spirits resident in it. They had gone in and never came back. Only that on those occasions they had been strangers. Now it was one of the sons of his village!
“For the last time, I beseech you, Namoni Katani son of Namnyama not to go into the cave,” pleaded the chief.
“You disappoint me, chief,” Katani’s voice was taunting, mocking. “How can a grown-up man, let alone a chief like, you believe a stupid tale like that?”
The jeering by the army captain alarmed the village headman. Katani had always spoken to him with great deference. To see that respect go away over this matter meant they had crossed the line where the young man could be coaxed to turn back. He had seen men in this state, men under evil magic spells which compels them to commit suicide. Katani was already a zombie and nothing could prevail upon him to change his mind.
“All right, suit yourself, Captain Katani. If you do not return in a month’s time, we shall hold the funeral rites of a person who dies without his body ever being recovered,” the chief said with the finality of the last nail being hammered into a coffin lid.
Despite himself, the captain shivered. But he was not going to let an old man’s fear melt his resolve. “Ok chief. I promise you this. I’m going to go into that cave, and I’ll come back.”
Captain Katani adjusted his backpack and set off. The cave had always fascinated him since he was a small kid growing up in Kande village at the foot of the mountain. The elders said that evil spirits lived in the chasm and if one dared to go into it they ate him. Because of this legend, no amount of persuasion could induce people to go near the cursed void.
The story was strengthened by the fact that three white men who had gone into the hollow on separate occasions never came back. Now, at thirty-five and a captain in the Malawi Army, Katani wanted to explore the cave himself. Soldiers of the Malawi Army were among the best trained militaries in Africa. And Katani himself had been trained in Israel and Taiwan. Trained by the best, he was also one of the best. At that youthful age he had already seen fierce combat fighting RENAMO insurgents while guarding the Nacala Railway line in neighbouring Mozambique. Such a man was not to be scared by made up tales told by senile old men.
He came to the orifice of the cave, which was partly hidden by an overhanging rock that looked like a swollen upper lip. The entrance was big enough for him to go in walking upright. It was very dark in the cave, and he turned on his torch.
He started walking slowly into the cave. After walking for about thirty minutes, the cave began to get narrow. At first, he crouched, and then he had to walk on all fours. Now and then he flashed the torch at the walls and the ground. It was just solid rock- no paintings or anything to show signs of human or animal habitation.
The tunnel began to slope downwards and twist. He snaked along the tunnel. As he went on, his heart began to beat faster. If the cave ended in a cull-de sac, he was done for. He realized that it was not possible for him to go back as he could not twist backwards. Was this the reason the others who had gone into the cave had never returned? His heart began thudding like a drum. He stopped for some time to calm his nerves. There was no point in worrying himself to death. He was going to find a way out of the cave.
His confidence was rewarded. For an hour later, he saw a light at the end of the cave. So, the cave was just a long tunnel with an exit at the end. He would have raised a triumphant fist but there was no space to do so. A triumphant laugh was all he could manage. He would now change the tale in the village.
Now the channel was so small that he could hardly move. Flat on his stomach, he squeezed on. The floor of the passage was also becoming very steep. By the time he reached the opening of the tunnel his body was inclined at a dangerous angle. He had to hold to the sides of the passage to avoid plummeting out.
He stuck his head out of the opening. His heart sank. The tunnel ended into an abyss! He could see villages in the distance. But the only way out was by plunging down a cliff of more than five hundred meters. Bones were scattered about a ledge just below the hole. And more importantly three skulls!
A year later, one evening, chief Kande sat around a fire outside his thatched mud house with a group of children popping maize in the hot ash of the fire.
“Chief, please tell us the story of the army captain who went into the cave and never returned,” the youngest of the children requested stuffing the popped corn into his mouth.