95. The Gift

AT FIRST, THERE WERE only rumours: a young girl, still in school, a girl who could barely write her name, the youngest of a family of sixteen - not including the miscarriages and stillbirths and infant deaths - this girl was said to have the gift. The gift for what wasn't made entirely clear - they always referred to it simply as the gift - but it was understood that they meant the gift of prophecy. She'd always had it, it was said, from the time she'd learned to talk: visions, premonitions, sometimes good tidings, other times ill. Her parents, her siblings, all close to her soon learned to ignore her. For to call it a gift was a mistake: it was a curse, as is well-known.

At a certain age - some say it was when the girl was eight, others insist it occurred when she was younger - something happened, precisely what is unclear. Some say she was given a beating by neighbourhood thugs, others that she fell ill with malaria, but at any rate what is clear is that she was left for dead. She curled up in a corner of the family's hut and stopped eating altogether. It took a couple of days for anyone to notice. That much at least I am prepared to accept - a family of sixteen, after all... But thereafter she changed. In body she made a full recovery, but in spirit, she was now solitary, angry, outspoken. She began making her pronouncements on an almost daily basis. Predictions, prophecies, whatever you want to call them. That dog will soon be rabid. That woman will be murdered by her lover. That man rapes his daughters. That tree will fall with the next rain. The drought has only just begun. A rich man will win the lottery. The football game is fixed. And so on.

Where her family had long wearied of her, others came to listen. Some took notes. Foreign journalists visited. She appeared on television and radio. She had her supporters and detractors. Word spread further and further, and as her popularity grew the nature of her prophecies also changed. A minister is receiving money to keep his mouth shut. War is coming. The mining company is polluting the water. The famine is being caused by chemical companies.

An attempt was made on her life. She was paralysed. Now almost every word she spoke was in a prophetic trance. She slept most of the time, sitting up, and once or twice a day would open her eyes and begin to prophecy. But her pronouncements became dense, impenetrable. The lion will fall on a bed of dandelions. The monsoon will be divided in three. The spider will desert its web. Acolytes gathered around her. She had acolytes. Some specialised in writing down her pronouncements, others in interpreting them.

Soon the girl attracted the attention of the municipal government. She was ordered to desist, charged with creating a public nuisance, fined, tried for slander, threatened with imprisonment. Still the crowds grew, ripples of her abilities widening further and further. Finally it reached the corridors of power. The governor's wife, burdened with a secret grief, resolved to see the girl. An unofficial visit, of course. She took three friends along. They considered the girl a curiosity.

When they arrived, the girl's eyes were shut. She may well have been asleep. The crowd around her was large and restless. It threatened to collapse in upon her at any moment. Suddenly she opened her eyes very wide, as if terrified. Still she said nothing. The crowd froze in expectation. Finally she opened her mouth. She opened it wider and wider until it could be widened no more. Then she began to scream. She screamed and screamed, and the crowd erupted in panic. Others also began to scream. Some shouted, many jostled. The crowd began to collapse upon itself. Among the many victims were the governor's wife - not to mention, of course, the girl herself.