The hostility in the air was clearly visible. The crowd was tense as they stared at the small, raised dais in front of them.
The day was overcast and cool, with a chilly breeze, but none of the men and women seemed to notice. They were too engrossed in their collective excitement and conviction.
Gia stood confidently on the dais, shoulders back, her head up facing them. She looked calm, much to the ire of the crowd. Her big, expressive eyes looked serene as if she were on somewhere else, instead of being tied to a stake, her “trial about to start.
“Gia,” the chief, standing next to her on the raised platform begun, “you stand accused of witchcraft. How do you plead?”
Angry murmurs could be heard from the crowd, they flexed and strained as if trying to launch themselves onto the dais. The trial had only just started, but they’d already convicted her.
The chief raised his arm, silencing them immediately. Respected, feared and loved alike, none of the villagers were foolish enough to defy or test him.
“The accused will be allowed to plead her case,” he said and more angry whispers sounded in the crowd, but he continued, “and so will her accusers. Natalel, step forward!”
A slim woman with hawkish features stepped forward. Her shrewd eyes were far too close together, and her mouth was set in a sly smile.
“Oh great chief! Thank you! Thank you for considering my case!” she said while rubbing her hands together. She tried to look innocent, but she couldn’t mask her calculating expression.
“She,” Natalel spat out pointing at Gia, a nasty look in her eyes, “She cursed my child! She...she gave him an evil eye! Yes,” she continued as the crowd gasped.
“We were in the market when my poor, little boy accidentally bumped into her and she was so cross that she cursed him! He had stomach pains for days, ask the medicine-man, we were forced to call on him!”
Pounding his heavy staff on the wooden dais, the chief called for calm as Natalel’s sensational story raised a commotion in the crowd. Shouts of, “It’s true”, “She scolded the boy, I heard her”, “Did you see how she looked at him?” rang out, and it was a minute before order was restored and the dust settled from the stomping of feet.
The chief looked at Gia. She was still perfectly composed, not a hair out of place. And, there was a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth, but only he could see that, the crowd was too preoccupied to notice such details.
Why was she smiling, he wondered? What did she find so amusing about a trial that could lead to her death? He nodded at her to respond.
“Yes,” she begun, her voice clear over the murmurs that immediately sounded over her admission, “I scolded the boy for running into me and destroying my groceries, but so did Muta the egg seller and Loli the bread-maker.
“Your son, Natalel, is known for his bad manners, and I can name a few more standing here who have publicly disciplined him,” some in the crowd shifted uneasily, “and as for his stomach pains...were you not heard, that very day, lecturing him about drinking water straight from the river?”
Natalel retreated back slowly, the crowd giving way to avoid her as if touching her would somehow bring shame and embarrassment to them as well.
There was a different atmosphere now, still tense with hostility, but not nearly as bad as before. The overcast sky darkened further with the promise of rain, and the breeze now brought with it that sweet aroma of rain.
The chief stepped forward and called for the next accuser.
“Yes, yes,” an unpleasant looking fellow stepped forward. He was medium height with a permanent sneer that revealed his yellow teeth.
“I have suffered grievously. Ever since I rejected her advances, all my other interests have rejected me. It’s clear,” he said while trying to look sad and beaten down, pausing for dramatic effect, “her jealousy cursed me!”
Gia almost laughed out loud. Him? She, interested in him? She stared the runt like man down with her a haughty glare, but she didn’t dare laugh. She knew there were many men whose advances she’d turned down, and she didn’t think it wise to rile them up.
“Come, come now Kofi,” she begun condescendingly, “You made me an offer that I had to refuse because you were drunk and lying in a ditch, if I recall correctly. And,” she continued quickly as he begun to open his mouth in protest, “half this village witnessed what you speak of ...you were yelling out offers of marriage to any woman who walked by. You even asked Loli’s wife and got a beating, remember?”
There were laughs and jeers as Kofi skulked back, melting into the crowd, and slinked off to lick his wounds.
The chief, a fair and intelligent man, had heard enough. He stepped forward and cut the bonds binding Gia to the stake, setting her free. But a few in the crowd weren’t done, they’d come to see a spectacle, and this hadn’t sated them.
“Yes! Her markings, they’re clearly evil!”
Gia stepped forward now, her eyes flashing, authority and anger making her seem taller and bigger than she was. The stunning beauty marks that dotted her delicate skin had long since attracted attention and envy in equal measure.
She’d allowed this farce to go on long enough, and her annoyed amusement gave way to the no-nonsense attitude that had led them to fear her in the first place.
“Which one of you,” she threw daggers with her eyes, and those standing close to the dais involuntarily shifted back, “doesn’t have a birthmark, a single beauty spot or scar?” she said, specifically looking at the women, who looked away; they always bathed together in the river pools.
“Now, excuse me please.”
The villagers shifted uneasily, but seemed still foolishly resolved, until a deafening thunderclap resounded in the heavens above and reverberated through the ground. The overcast day had quietly given way to a thunderstorm. The villagers squealed and scampered.
“Oh no,” Gia said under her breath, now these idiots would think she’d done that. She turned to the chief standing beside her. He seemed to know what she was thinking.
“Sorry, but you’d better get out tonight,” he proffered in a low tone.
“Yeah,” she lifted her face and tasted the first raindrops that were beginning to fall. She would not be sad to leave.