Maria Nwosu wiped the sweat from her face as she waited outside the village, a strong breeze blowing her colorful skirt against her legs. She shaded her eyes as she looked across the veldt, trying to spot any plumes of dust forewarning of visitors, expected or not. The fellow from the U.N. was already two days late, and she was beginning to worry that he had been waylaid somewhere along the way.
After a few more futile minutes, Maria sighed and turned back towards her tent. Or rather, the Foundation's tent. It was still somewhat strange to her to be part of such an odd NGO. When they had come through her village months ago and asked for volunteers to help translate, she had stepped forward. Other non-governmental organizations come through her area many times, vaccinating and providing food and livestock, but there was something different about this one. She felt a sense of… otherworldliness from the woman who asked for helpers, as well as a sense that these were special people. Maria already knew all the local dialects, as well as French and a little English, and when they offered to pay her to come with them to translate, it was the final piece to push her decision. She never expected that small step to lead her on such a long journey, but such was life.
She pulled back the tent flap and was unsurprised to see a pair of small boys suddenly thrust their hands behind their backs with guilty looks on their faces.
"And what are you two troublemakers up to today? Have you already grown bored with teasing the goats?"
The boys glanced at each other, and the slightly smaller one on the left said, "We were just looking for you, Miss Nwosu. Our mama is making bread and we thought you would want some."
"Mhm. I see. And when you saw I wasn't here, Enitan, you decided to wait for me?"
Both boys nodded eagerly to this question, and Enitan replied, "Oh yes, Miss Nwosu! We were afraid you would get hungry if you didn't know about the bread!"
Maria gave them a look well-practiced by all older sisters and said, "Such kind-hearted boys. There wouldn't be any other reason you stayed, would there? Maybe something behind your backs?"
The slightly larger boy looked guilty and opened his mouth to say something when his brother nudged him with an elbow. They quickly and quietly whispered to each other, before slowly bringing their hands out in front of them. In each hand they held a wooden triangle, each of which had a different complicated squiggle roughly carved into it.
Maria sighed again and pointed to the table at one side of the tent. "Enitan, Amadi, put them back. The charms are not ready yet, and you shouldn't be playing with them even if they were."
The brothers reluctantly put the pieces of wood on the table, and the larger boy glumly said, "But Miss Nwosu, we just wanted to see them so we could make some of our own."
"And they're not ready yet, so you wouldn't be able to make more right now anyway!" Maria wiped her forehead with the handkerchief again. "If you two want to help, go keep guard for anyone coming to the village. I'm expecting someone to come help me, but he's late. If you spot him, I might let you watch while we finish the charms."
The smaller boy perked up at this and raced out of the tent, dragging his brother behind him. "Oh yes, Miss Nwosu! We'll go look for him and bring him straight to you!"
As the tent flap closed behind them, Maria smiled slightly and muttered under her breath to herself, "Ah, little boys are all the same. Make a chore sound exciting and they run right to it."
"Indeed they do," said a deep voice from behind her, in French.
Maria startled and spun around to see a man standing in what she was certain had just a moment ago been an empty corner of the tent. He was dressed in safari gear similar to what most Westerners wore when they came to the area, but his were all a variety of grays rather than the usual khaki. Almost involuntarily, Maria half-thought "He looks like a troubled sky, about to turn into a storm."
"And who are you, to appear unannounced?" she demanded.
"My apologies, Miss Nwosu. I'm here to provide you some help. Your supervisors may have told you about me; I believe they call me Joe Benefactor." The strange man gave a quick grin when he said his 'name'.
She squinted at him suspiciously. "I may have been told such a name, but why should I trust that you are he? You have already shown yourself a trickster, stealing in so sneakily."
The man smiled again. "You're more right than you know, Miss Nwosu. Very few people realize that so quickly. I'm impressed." He switched smoothly to the dialect of her home village, speaking it without any accent, like he had grown up beside her. "I will swear upon whichever gods or spirits that you choose that I mean you and those you serve no harm."
Maria again felt startled at this, but hid it this time, choosing to scowl at the man instead. She continued in French, "I don't trust a trickster to keep his oath, no matter whose name he pledges it on." She paused briefly. "Unless perhaps it is his own. Will you swear on your own name, stranger?"
The man took a moment, as if considering the request, and told her, "I can't do that, for reasons that have nothing to do with you. But perhaps a demonstration of good faith will suffice."
The man turned to the charms the boys had left on the table, and looked them over. "These are warding symbols, to stop disease and parasites. Bury them in the center of the village and everyone would stop getting sick."
Maria stalked over and scooped the pieces of inscribed wood out of the man's reach. She glared at him and said, "Yes they are, and I won't let you destroy them."
He tilted his head and looked straight into her eyes, his light brown meeting her dark. "I don't seek to destroy them, but to give you improved ones. The beings who gave your superiors those designs are… not entirely familiar with how human biology works. These will certainly stop sicknesses, but they won't eliminate them. Any illnesses or parasites or germs will be… paused while someone is within their range of effect. Symptoms might not manifest here, but as soon as someone leaves this village, the sickness that was stopped within them will start again."
Maria's gaze grew distant as she thought about the unusual aid workers she had met during her orientation and training for Manna Charitable. "…Yes, I can believe that. They are well-intentioned, but not always fully knowledgeable." She refocused on the man, crossed her arms and resumed glaring at him. "And what do you propose instead?"
The man pulled a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and presented it to her. "Here are a few corrections to these symbols, that would actually cure most local diseases instead of just pausing them. I've also included directions on the correct way to inscribe them, as well as which materials would work best. Feel free to check these with your sponsors before using them, of course."
Maria carefully took the paper from him and put it down on the table, still folded. "What do you get out of this, stranger?"
He momentarily looked slightly lost and dispirited before resuming his air of mild affability. "Among all the unusual organizations I must deal with, yours is the only one that solely seeks to improve people's lives. I admire that, even if I can't live up to that same credo. So I help when I can, in whatever small ways I can."
"Hmm. You do know that I will not even open this paper until it has been tested."
The man smirked and sketched a bow. "Given your strength of character, I would expect nothing less from someone seeking to improve, rather than destroy, these people's lives. You should probably go retrieve it from those boys, though."
Maria glanced at the empty table, then behind her to the closing tent flap. She darted over and pushed it open to see a small black body dashing away.
"Amadi, get back here!" she yelled after him.
She called over her shoulder to the man, "You stay here until I return. I want no more tricks out of you!" then chased after the boy, sweat already starting to bead on her own smooth black skin in the noonday sun.
The man sat in one of the chairs beside the table, amused at the child's antics, and said, in the language of the village, "You can come out now, Enitan. Your brother has made his escape."
A pair of dark eyes opened in a corner of the tent; the same corner that the man had appeared in. Suddenly, the small form of Enitan had always been standing there in plain sight. "How did you know I was here?" he asked, with innocent curiosity.
"I shouldn't recognize my own tricks? I'm impressed that you copied it so quickly."
The little boy beamed with pride. "Amadi and I are the best boys in the village! I am the most clever and he is the most brave!"
The man smiled widely. "Yes, and quite clever you are. Tell me, how did you do it?"
Enitan happily answered, "I heard the words that the big one said to make you appear, and said them backwards so I would disappear!"
The man looked curious. "The big one… you understood what he said?"
Enitan looked a little embarrassed and said, "No… but I knew they were big words because they came from the big one, so they must be important!"
The man kept smiling. "Yes, they are. Did you know that the charms have some of the big one's words on them too?"
"Oh yes! That's why I want to see them! I want to know what they say!"
The man shook his head in amusement. "You are too young to understand them all yet, but I think you and your brother just might learn when you're older. Call for me when you think you're ready, little one." With that, the man stood up and pulled aside the tent flap.
"Wait!" shouted the boy. "What is your name?"
The man looked over his shoulder at the boy. "Look for it. And when you find it, let me know what it is." He then stepped outside, grinned at the boy one more time, and let the flap fall closed.