This south-east African story comes from Ruth Manning-Sanders’ collection A Cauldron of Witches and starts off by introducing us to a woman with a delightful little boy called Moti-katika and a less delightful husband who is described as being ‘rather teasy-tempered’ and by that I think she means he’s a nightmare. One day he takes himself to bed and makes a lot of noise about being ill, but when his wife brings him water from the well he knocks the pitcher right out of her hand and insists that it is contaminated by frogs. So his wife goes to a nearby lake and brings a new pitcher back to her husband’s sickbed. He smashes this one too. “How can I drink such water?” he demands. “Don’t you know there are toads in the lake?”
His wife takes a third pitcher and presumably a very deep breath and goes off to a different lake in the hope her husband might drink from this one, but no, apparently it reeks of reeds. The woman is now running out of options. She leaves the house for the fourth time, with a fourth pitcher in hand, and walks for a long time, until she comes to a third lake. This time she takes in the state of the water with enormous care. No frogs, no reeds – could this water actually be acceptable? The woman fills her pitcher and out of the water emerges an enormous water witch. She wants to know who has the NERVE to go stealing HER water.
The woman spills her story, explaining that her husband is in need of the purest water and no water seemed more pure than what is in this lake…When this cuts no ice with the water witch, the woman pleads that her husband and son could not manage without her, which is undeniably true. The water witch is intrigued by the mention of a son. “Is he sweet, is he toothsome, is he beautiful?” she inquires. You’d think that the word ‘toothsome’ would alert the woman to what this question is really about, but she gushes unthinking praise for her boy’s beauty. The woman herself is very thin, not an appealing meal; the witch decides to let her go and come tomorrow to collect Moti-katika in her stead. She instructs the woman to cut his hair and place a necklace of white beads on him so that the witch will recognise him, because she knows that if she goes about eating random children then the village will exact retribution. “And I do not choose,” she tells the woman loftily, “to have my peace disturbed and my lake sullied by a mob of village hooligans!”
By the time the woman gets home, her husband is bored of staying in bed and downs the water without argument, announcing himself cured. When Moti-katika returns home from school his mother tells him urgently that he must hide the next day or else a water witch will eat him up. He is not concerned in the least, because Moti-katika has a secret. A while ago, he was picking wild berries and gave everything he had found to an old woman struggling past through the woods. She was really a fairy, as passing old ladies so often are, and in gratitude for his gift she gave him five bones. If he lays them out on the ground and speaks to them politely, they will show him what to do.
So, with a witch on her way, Moti-katika lays out the bones. He considers the row. “This bone is my mother,” he decides, touching the first bone. The second he calls his father, the third the witch and the fourth himself. The fifth is the bone that will tell him what to do about all of it. The bone bounces off the grass and whispers its answer straight into his ear. Moti-katika packs up the bones, goes inside and asks his mother to cut his hair.
She cries the whole time and is crying the next morning as she puts on the white bead collar specified by the witch, but her son is perfectly calm. “There is no need to cry,” he informs his mother. “Water Witches are very stupid people. But I am not stupid.” And indeed he’s not. He gathers up every boy in the village, gives them white collars, cuts their hair and gives them directions in Operation Defeat Water Witch.
Very soon the wind picks up and the ground shakes and the witch is stomping towards them. “Which one of you is Moti-katika?” she demands and every boy sings out that it’s him, can’t she see it’s him? She does not dare eat up all the children of the village so she has to leave, but she hasn’t given up. She corners Moti-katika’s mother and menaces her. The poor woman, who must be used to impossible people after dealing with her husband for so long, placates the witch by inviting her into the house for a pot of maize. The witch proceeds to eat the literal pot. While she’s busy with that, Moti-katika’s mother frantically hisses at her son to run and hide.
He does, but only to quietly consult with his bones. The fifth bone leaps up, bumps against against the boy’s shoulder and transforms into a bee. It buzzes right off and stings the witch’s nose. Moti-katika’s mother hastily assures the angry witch that her son will be here in the night, he will be in this bed right here, so if the witch returns she will get her meal. The witch believes that this downtrodden woman will give up her child that easily and comes back after dark. What she doesn’t know is that mother and son have put a big stone in the little bed, wrapped in a quilt, so when the witch comes barging into the house and snatches up what she thinks is a boy, she is actually swallowing down something that even she struggles to digest. It’s the beginning of a dreadful stomach-ache. “Boys, boys,” she wails. “If this is what comes of eating boys, though I should live for a thousand years I will never eat another!” And, we are asssured, indeed she did not.
This story would be charming just for the ‘I am Spartacus’ moment with the village boys but I also love Moti-katika’s mother, who is underestimated by the witch from the moment they meet but never for one minute plans to give up on her son. As for her husband, he’s a footnote. He’s a backstory. He is irrelevant and the story knows it, because he does not feature at all in the happy ending.