by Sharon K. Reamer
Who knows what can happen when love and magic face the power of hate?
Kwame waited at the bus stop. His only company was a bristly brown-haired dog on a leash attached to an older woman with equally bristly gray hair. She stared at her shoes to avoid looking at him and concentrated on keeping her toes pointed together underneath her drab beige umbrella. She tugged on the dog’s leash periodically to pull it away from Kwame. A cold September wind laced with raindrops made him huddle further into his thin jacket. The bus was late.
Kwame would have liked to stay in his tiny student room in Berlin and concentrate on his studies, but he had promised his family he’d visit Kujo Boate, his distant cousin on his mother’s side, once a month. Boate had married a white woman, had gifted her with two children before she left him. Kwame’s sister told him that his cousin was a good man but not very smart about women.
He heard them two minutes before he saw them and immediately wished himself invisible. Impossible in that part of the country, that part of town, and that economic climate. The harsh voices speaking German made Kwame shrink into himself. They spoke the same language as their countrymen but failed to give their speech any of the music Kwame had heard within his mind as he read the words of the dead German poets.
His mother had always told him that a language spoken without music was a language of evil. Hearing their voices, Kwame believed it. The first two came around the corner, their bravado bolstered by their identical uniforms of Doc Martens and shaved heads. One had a can of beer in his hand and the other a lit cigarette. They spotted Kwame and altered their course to walk in front of him.
The dour-faced woman sidled energetically away from them as she scooped up her dog and stuffed it into an oversized cracked plastic shopper. She signaled her collaboration with what was to follow by facing away from the newcomers. Kwame tried to assume an air of looking into the distance.
“Hey, Axel, look what washed up on shore.”
Axel pretended to think. “A piece of coal?”
“Nein, mein Freund, coal has some usefulness. That looks like very dark Dreck to me.”
Shouts from the rest of the pack as they joined their companions chilled Kwame much more thoroughly than any winter wind. Kwame cried out as hands reached for him and the first boot reached his groin. An elderly couple hurried by, trying to look away. He fought back with his fists at first but was quickly reduced to shielding his body with arms and legs and imagining himself into another place.
The older couple must have had a touch of conscience as the green and white police car that cruised up a few minutes later dispersed the skinheads as though swatting wasps away from a honey cake. The police car slowed as Kwame pushed himself to his feet. It didn’t stop. No one came to his aid. His sides ached, although he didn’t feel like anything had been broken. Blood ran from his nose, and his face felt like it had been trampled by stampeding cattle.
The bus arrived before the angry wasps could return and, just as he finished wiping blood from his face, Kwame stumbled up the steps and showed the bus driver his pass. The driver examined it closely and gazed at Kwame with suspicious and unfriendly eyes. Kwame nodded to him and made his way into the full bus past averted gazes and blunt frowns. Kwame stood near the middle doors, holding onto his sides.
His aches hadn’t lessened by the time he got to the dorm where Boate lived. Kwame opened the door after knocking and was greeted by his cousin and the thick smell of simmering beans redolent with peppers and ginger, spices that reminded him of home.
Kujo Boate worked for a small construction company just south of Rostock, deep into the territory of the former GDR, whose borders had been open for almost five years, two years before Kwame came of age. His cousin lived with a few other “guest” workers in a container made from thin plastic walls fortified by metal frames. The universally accepted shelter for people whose lives were on hold, Kwame bet it had acquired its permanently grimy look within minutes of its construction.
“What happened to you?” Boate looked at him and as their eyes met, Kwame knew that he didn’t really need to tell him the answer. They talked over the incident in low tones that, due to the cramped space, did not exclude Boate’s roommates.
“Next time we will meet you at the bus stop.” Boate angled his head at the others, and they voiced their eagerness to stand by Kwame’s side.
Kwame shook his head and spoke in an even quieter tone. “No. Please. I have to learn how to take care of myself here. And you have enough to worry about.”
Boate shrugged, but his anger at Kwame’s reluctance to fight back was obvious in his jutting jaw. After a meal of beans and rice, one of his cousin’s companions, a short man, spoke to Boate. He was old, but Kwame could not judge his age from looks alone. His comments were clearly meant for Kwame.
“There is only one thing that can help against them.”
Boate had said he was a newcomer to the group, and the others shied away from him, as far as was possible in the close quarters.
“What is that?” Boate asked him.
“What do you mean strong?”
“You need the right fetish,” he said. “It will work, then. Forever.”
Kwame shook his head, smiling ruefully at his cousin. “I don’t have any monkey claws with me, cousin.” Kujo Boate shrugged his shoulders, sharing the joke.
Kwame rode to a different bus stop on his next visit, even though it meant a long and convoluted walk to get to his cousin’s place. Afterwards, the darkness that had already ladled itself into the horizon caused him to quicken his steps to reach his stop. He passed a couple of skinheads on the way, loitering near the kiosk just a few meters away from the covered waiting area. Before the bus arrived so did the rest of them, drawn as if by the scent of prey, but Kwame was lucky enough to get on the bus before they could attack him.
Kwame fought back harder the next time, his anger for allowing himself to get caught spurred him on and nearly overshadowed his rage at his attackers, but seven against one was too many. He tried reporting it to the local police in the small town near where his brother lived. They took down his report and checked his papers carefully as well. They promised Kwame to look into it but were skeptical of finding any witnesses willing to speak out. Kwame had received a gash to his forehead that his cousin treated with a cream the old man gave him. The strange little man began a soft singsong as Boate applied the cream.
His cousin spoke in jerky, terse sentences as he questioned Kwame about the attack. The other men shook their heads. Kwame knew that if he gave in to them, there would be trouble. That was the last thing he wanted. That and their protection. Kwame was the youngest of four brothers and one sister and had never been able to escape their vigilance back home.
“Hey, old one,” Kwame said in a respectful tone. “Are you a holy man?” His mother had taught him to always show respect for his elders, even or especially if he thought they might not possess all of their wits.
The man did not answer but continued his song for another minute. Kwame felt strangely better after he finished, numb to the pain and more relaxed. He shook his head. Probably only mumbo jumbo, he thought, a nice placebo but he was glad for the relief.
As he got up to leave, the man spoke. “The right fetish. If you find it, bring it to me.”
Kwame was prevented by mid-term exams from visiting his cousin the next month. At least his bruises had time to heal. He had made friends with one of the German students he met in a class on philosophy and poetry. Kwame had always been a lover of words – now he had a chance to study not only the German poets but also the philosophers and their ideas. His friend, whose name was Heinrich, had introduced Kwame to the local tea culture. The two of them drank tea in Kwame’s room while taking a break from studying.
Heinrich studied music and philosophy and played classical guitar. In his hands, the guitar produced many types of music, some of it also pleasing to Kwame’s ears. He also had the gift of putting music into his language so Kwame knew that he could not be evil. Heinrich played one of his own compositions for Kwame, a haunting song that told of strange lands and fantastic people. As he sang, Kwame saw a beauty in the man despite his pale skin.
Heinrich questioned Kwame about his bruises. Kwame had not wanted to discuss the attacks with any of his fellow students, but Heinrich had a way about him that encouraged Kwame to talk. He was also curious what Heinrich’s reaction would be. Kwame tried to make it seem less serious than it had felt. He knew many white people did that when they talked about their lives, made everything seem so easy and unimportant. Kwame had trouble being light-hearted. His family in Ghana had made many sacrifices so that he could study here.
After Kwame finished his tale, Heinrich bowed his head, and Kwame was afraid that he had offended his new friend. It was not the reaction he had been hoping for.
“I am sorry for that, Kwame. I will go with you the next time you go to your cousin’s to visit.” Heinrich’s words and the glint of anger in his eyes showed him he was mistaken.
The skinheads were absent that day so Heinrich’s presence as witness had not been needed. Kwame was not disappointed about that. Kujo Boate welcomed them but was reserved in Heinrich’s company. The strange old man stared at his friend, though, with glittering eyes. Heinrich returned his appraisal, unafraid, even though Kwame felt uneasy. Heinrich spoke to the old man in English and they talked together for several minutes. Kwame was surprised by some of the things they said.
Heinrich closed his eyes for a moment. They were a startling deep blue color that Kwame had never seen before in anyone, black or white. “The right fetish. I will have to think about that one.”
The old man spoke to Boate in their native tongue. “I told him to bring it to me. I will make your cousin a strong magic.” The man smiled widely as he addressed Heinrich. “You will know. I can tell. You have strong magic, too.”
Heinrich nodded. “Yes, but not that kind of magic.”
Kwame did not see his friend during Christmas holidays. Heinrich had said he needed to visit his family. Just after classes started back up, Kwame came back to his room to find Heinrich waiting for him. He invited him in. Heinrich laid out a package wrapped in white silk on the bed.
“What is that, Heinrich?”
“It is the right fetish, Kwame. We should take it to your priest.”
Kwame did not want to touch it, afraid of what it held. “He is not my priest. I think he is just an old man, possibly a little crazy.”
Heinrich’s look was thoughtful. “Don’t worry, Kwame, it cannot do you any harm. Trust me.”
They brought the package to the strange little man. He and Heinrich took it over to the man’s bed. They looked at it together and spoke in hushed voices. The old man danced and sang over the object that Kwame could not clearly see from Boate’s bed. Kwame watched them anxiously, and Boate craned his neck to get a glimpse. The ritual frightened him in a different way than the skinheads with their hard boots.
The funny man put the object into Heinrich’s hand. He then sang some more. He spoke in Heinrich’s ear as he held his dark hand closed over Heinrich’s lighter one. Heinrich closed his eyes as he listened to him. After the old man had finished, they wrapped the object in its silk covering again and Heinrich put it into his jacket pocket.
Heinrich and Kwame waited for the bus home to Berlin as clouds full of snow gathered in the darkness above them. The skinheads came only three strong that day. He and Heinrich watched their approach; Heinrich appeared a little afraid. Kwame could well understand that feeling.
Heinrich was dressed in faded jeans and running shoes and had his guitar in a brown leather case slung across his shoulders. The skinheads had on long-sleeved tee shirts with gothic lettered slogans and their painful black boots. Heinrich stood with pride and stared them down as they swaggered towards Kwame. He stepped in front of Kwame as they walked up.
They showed Heinrich no respect, and jeered at him in their scratchy raw voices. Heinrich answered them in German, and one of the skinheads made a quick move with his arm, too quick for Kwame to follow. Heinrich blocked it just as quick and rotated his other arm in a swift movement into the man’s side. Heinrich’s guitar case hampered his movements, and he slipped it from his shoulders. The three jackbooted men backed off and ringed Kwame and Heinrich.
Heinrich’s fear seemed to have been replaced by a firm resolve. Kwame stepped forward and prepared himself to fight at his friend’s side. At least they stood a chance this time. He felt anger rise from his stomach, sour and hot.
But Heinrich turned to him and laid a hand on his arm. “Promise me not to fight, Kwame.”
“I can’t do that.”
“You must. I ask you as my friend. Please. It’s very important.”
Heinrich pushed his guitar case into Kwame’s arms. “Hold onto this for me, Kwame. It is one of my most valuable possessions.”
Kwame took the case, hugging it with both arms, but his unease made his hands shake.
Heinrich moved in front of Kwame quickly. He stood straighter, holding his arms loose at his sides. He kept his legs ready, reminding Kwame of a wildcat poised to strike. Then Heinrich did a funny thing. He turned sideways, presenting himself to the three men, his arms folded across his chest. They fell onto him and he let them, not trying to defend himself.
They threw Heinrich to the ground. One man kicked him while the other two pounded him with their fists. Kwame started forward, still holding onto the guitar case but trying to kick at the men to get them to back off. Heinrich held up one hand at Kwame. He opened his other hand and let the fetish fall out, onto the pavement. One of them bent to pick up the silk. They gave Heinrich one last kick and looked to see what he had dropped.
They took out the black metal swastika, and their faces took on puzzled expressions, as of men who have found a treasure where they least expect it. They asked Heinrich questions in their harsh voices. He answered them very softly. They looked around as if afraid for the first time. One of the men started to kick Heinrich once more, but the others pulled him away. All three ran off into the night, taking the swastika with them.
Heinrich sat up, holding his sides.
“Why did you do that, Heinrich?” Kwame lent him a hand up while cradling the guitar case with his other arm.
“That was what your holy man told me was necessary to complete the magic,” he answered, groaning. “The right fetish.”
“I do not understand.”
Heinrich took his guitar and slid it across his shoulders, a wince of pain crossing his face. Blood flowed from his nose and clotted on his upper lip, and he had a cut across his cheek.
“We have to wait now to see what will happen.”
Kwame made a strong tea for Heinrich and offered to look at his cut. Heinrich motioned him away. “Don’t worry, I have some excellent salves from my uncle that will help.”
“You uncle is a doctor?”
“No, but he is a healer, like the medicine man who lives with your cousin.”
Kwame waited for Heinrich to say something more, but Heinrich just drank his tea. Finally, his patience deserted him. “Why did you give them that, Heinrich? That is the symbol for their prophet, is it not?”
Heinrich’s gaze grew sharp, and he finished his tea before speaking. “Thank you, Kwame, that was a very good cup of tea.” He sat up straighter and folded his legs under him. He reached beside the bed and took out his guitar. Kwame took the cups to rinse them in the small sink in the corner while Heinrich carefully tuned all the strings.
“That is interesting that you would call Hitler their prophet,” Heinrich said. “To me he was just an evil man, but you have just given me a better understanding of what will happen.”
Kwame turned back to his friend, drying out the cups. “I don’t believe anything will happen, Heinrich. You don’t really believe in magic, do you?”
Heinrich played a soft, slow tune. “Depends on how you define magic. There are many kinds of magic in the world. Another uncle of mine once told me that only a fool closes his mind to the magic that is available to him.”
Kwame was not sure what Heinrich was talking about. “Where did you get that swastika? Did that belong to you?” Kwame remembered his queasy feeling as the men had unwrapped the swastika and was not sure it was a good idea to talk about it now.
“It belonged to my great aunt Kathe. She used it to get in and out of the camps. She saved some children during the war, brought them to a safe place,” he said, and the music he played became sadder.
“What happened to her?”
“She got caught one time,” he said. “They executed her.”
On the next trip up north, Heinrich and Kwame waited alone at the bus stop. No angry men came to trouble them. Heinrich had brought a present to the old man, two jars of creams from his uncle and some dried herbs wrapped in brown paper. The man sniffed at the creams and nodded. “Good medicine,” he said.
At the bus stop on the way home, a young man came around the corner. Kwame was not sure if it was one of the men who had attacked them before. He was dressed in the same black boots and T-shirt that Kwame recognized, but his skin looked unhealthily pale in the light of the streetlamps. The stubble on his once bald head had grown in patchy. He stood some distance away and only stared at them. His eyes had a haunted look. He turned away from them and left as the bus pulled up.
Heinrich did not talk on the bus. Kwame waited until they got to his room. “Was that one of them, Heinrich?”
Heinrich nodded, going over to make tea for the both of them. “Yes, I think so. The juju is working it seems.”
“I still don’t understand,” Kwame said.
“The symbol of the swastika is very ancient,” Heinrich explained as he worked. “The Nazis only perverted it for their uses. For centuries it signified a reverence for the sun. My ancestors even attached its meaning to one of their goddesses.”
Kwame thought about Heinrich’s words. “My mother prays to the river woman. She also prays to the Maria. Old and new together. It is the way of our people.”
“There’s nothing wrong with being inclusive,” Heinrich said with a smile. “As I said, a man – or a woman – would be a fool not to use the resources available to her.
“What do you believe in?” Kwame asked.
Heinrich thought for a minute before answering. “Hope. Love. And duty.”
Kwame nodded. He understood well the first and the last. He had yet to experience the second. “Do you have a girl, Heinrich?”
Heinrich shook his head, again smiling. “Not yet, Kwame. But I understand some things about love. Especially the part about it being the opposite of hate.”
Returning from their next visit, they waited again for the bus. Heinrich hummed a tune. It sounded a little like the funny old man’s type of singing. He wondered if he had taught it to Heinrich during their visit. The days had grown progressively longer, and spring was not far off. Classes had ended until after the Easter holidays, giving the students time to catch up on their reading and to relax. Kwame was glad. The cold, dark winter in Germany had made his heart ache for home.
The man came around the corner hurriedly, startling Kwame. He did not have on his black boots any more, but Kwame thought he recognized him now. The hair on his head had sprouted out an inch longer. The man approached them, hesitant. Heinrich stepped up to the man and held out his hand. Kwame noticed for the first time how young the man was, not much older than Kwame. He no longer looked angry. His eyes had dark circles under them, and he had cuts on his face. They looked like shaving cuts but deeper.
Heinrich did not speak to him at first. The man reached into his jacket and pulled out the white silk packet. Kwame stood up straighter and took a step back. The young man dropped it into Heinrich’s palm. They stared at each other for a few long seconds.
“The dreams will stop now,” Heinrich said. “It is only the first lesson, though.”
The man reeled backwards, an expression on his face that Kwame recognized. Fear and dread.
“Maybe it is enough.” Heinrich wrapped the swastika tighter in the silk. “Time will tell.”
The man nodded once, his lips set in a grim line. He turned and strode off. Heinrich slid the fetish into his jacket pocket.
Twilight reddened the sky as they got onto the bus.
Heinrich waited at Kwame’s door but did not immediately enter. “Don’t you want some tea tonight?”
Heinrich kinked his head. “Yes, I would love some, but…just a quick cup.” He followed Kwame into his room. “I have to leave for home tonight. My brother is returning from a long trip and I need to be there to welcome him.”
Kwame understood. “Your duty to your family.”
“Yes, Kwame. That’s it. But don’t worry. You will not be troubled any more now. At least from those men.”
Kwame busied himself at the sink. He did not think he really wanted to know the truth about what went on. He didn’t know if he even believed in it. He remembered the lost look and the terror that had replaced the anger in the young man’s eyes, and it made him shiver. He had seen that look on the faces of Ruandan refugees.
“Do you know the holy man’s name, Kwame?”
“Boate said his name is Abena Kwesi. The second name, a common name among our people, is also the name of an ancient god who warred against evil, Obo Kwesi. He is one of the lesser gods from forgotten stories and a healer.”
Heinrich stood at the window looking out, and Kwame could not see his face. “A good name. Your people already have it in their dreams. I will work it into the dreams of my people.”
“Into what dreams?”
Heinrich turned back to him and looked deep into Kwame’s eyes with his blue ones, the color of ocean lit from below by sparkling sands. “Just a part of my duty. To guide the dreams that give men hope.”
“Is that what you did to those men?”
Heinrich accepted the tea from Kwame and went to sit on the bed. He waited for Kwame to join him. They drank in silence. Heinrich took his cup back to the sink and shouldered his guitar to go.
“Leb wohl, Kwame. I am afraid by the time I return you may already be gone. You will have your degree soon, won’t you?” Kwame stood up upsetting his cup on the bed. A few drops trickled out.
“You’re not coming back?”
“Probably, but much later. Not until the winter semester.”
They hugged in recognition of their friendship. Kwame felt a sudden dejection. He had not realized that Heinrich’s departure would be so final.
“I am not afraid of them any more, Heinrich. I’ve never stood up to anyone on my own before and it felt good to do that. Even if your magic was what made them go away.”
“That was not my magic, this time. It was Abena Kwesi’s. I just provided him with what he needed to make it work.”
“Why did it work? I don’t understand.” Kwame felt uneasy at the thought. “How did you get that swastika if your aunt died in the war?”
Heinrich nodded at Kwame’s questions. “From the children. The ones that survived. They told me their dreams, the ones that still haunt them.”
“They told you bad dreams? The children? But…” Kwame did know what to think about that or if he wanted to.
“Very bad dreams.” Heinrich saw where Kwame’s thoughts had gone. “But that is a part of my magic. Don’t worry about it, Kwame.”
Kwame stood up straighter. He saw Heinrich now differently. He reminded Kwame of Abena Kwesi, the funny man. He exhaled. “I believe you. I don’t know why, but I do. Like my mother believes in the river guardian.”
Heinrich nodded. “Yes, like that.”
“And the juju?”
Heinrich clapped him on the shoulder and turned to go, speaking in a soft voice the nature of which Kwame recognized; it was the same way one talked to a small child when explaining something that could be frightening.
“Abena Kwesi put the dreams into the swastika. Those men worshipped that symbol and let it fuel their hate,” he said. “But they left themselves open to receive the horror that hate had produced. That’s why it was the right fetish.”
Kwame was grateful to Heinrich for all he had done. He waved to his friend as he walked down the hallway, both sad and partly relieved to see him go.
Reprint © 2008 Sharon K. Reamer
This story first appeared in Allegory, Winter, 2008.