Return of the Mother Goddess

By Brandon P. · Aug 19, 2022 ·
Archaeologist Latonya Coleman is on a mission to return a stolen idol to an ancient temple deep in the Ivory Coast of West Africa. She must contend with not only the local wildlife, but an old nemesis as well.
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    Latonya Coleman lifted her eyes from the yellowed parchment map in her hands to gaze through the jeep window. The grassy plains of the northern Ivory Coast spread beyond her, reaching all the way to the horizon beneath a gold sky. Every so often, she spotted herds of wildlife cavorting through the tall grass, as well as the occasional cluster of thatch-roofed mud huts in the distance. Latonya wondered if any of her ancestors, before they were captured and shipped across the Atlantic in chains, would have called at least one of these little villages home centuries ago. Like so many of her people, she had little if any way of knowing for sure. Even genetic tests were not always as reliable as their advertisers claimed.

    She went back to studying the map, comparing it to the landscape in front of her eyes. So far, despite its medieval age and the stylized depictions of people, trees, and animals populating it, the old document of Malian origin had so far proven accurate regarding the position of settlements, waterholes, and other features of the region. In truth, it was a historical treasure no less priceless than the artifact Latonya had tucked in her knapsack. Once she was done with her mission, she would donate the map back to Timbuktu, where it belonged.

    “We are coming as far as we can get,” the driver said with a thick Ivorian accent. “Any further and the road curves away from the ruins. Shall I accompany you to them, Mademoiselle Coleman?”

    “No need for that,” Latonya replied. “I’d rather you stay here and guard the jeep.”

    “Très bien, then. You stay safe out there. There might be predators about, or worse.”

    “Which is why I always bring these beauties with me.”

    With a proud smirk, Latonya pulled out both of her pistols from her thigh holsters and twirled them in her hands. The driver chuckled, more out of admiration than mockery.

    After the jeep decelerated to a halt, Latonya hopped out and landed in grass as high as her waist. She scanned the surrounding savanna for any signs of life, human or animal. Given her line of work, she had to watch out for both, but even more so the former. Many men and women would be after what Latonya carried in her knapsack — and would kill for it. Some, she knew, already had.

    Once Latonya was confident the coast was clear, she waded through the grass toward the hills on the horizon, holding the map out as she walked. If she read it correctly, it indicated that the ruins lay somewhere on the other side of the hills. She could already see a thin, finger-shaped silhouette sticking up from one of them like a monolithic marker. And, indeed, the map portrayed an obelisk of sorts standing right on that very spot.

    Despite the waning evening temperature, it remained humid enough for perspiration to slather Latonya’s dark sienna-brown skin quickly, wet spots spreading on her crop-top and shorts. Even the breezes that blew across the plains were too warm to provide any relief. As the sky darkened to deep red, the crickets and other nocturnal creatures began chirping and hooting songs of farewell to the sun and greetings to the rising moon. If there was anything that made Latonya feel slightly chilled at all, it was the knowledge that many of the savanna’s most infamous predators preferred to hunt at night.

    An hour later, she reached the pillar on the hill. Though shaped like a slim cylindrical column, it had lines of glyphs chiseled down its sides like an Egyptian obelisk. It could have denoted the ancient city’s territorial limits, or maybe a milestone like those the Romans installed along their marvelously engineered roads to mark distances. Latonya turned on her phone flashlight and took several pictures of the inscriptions, which she would ask Scott Jones to look at once she returned to their university. If anyone could help Latonya decipher them, it was her attentive boyfriend.

    She unslung her knapsack and opened it for a moment to reveal the artifact within. “You’re almost home.”

    A high-pitched whooping cry, almost like a laugh, shot a chill up Latonya’s spine. She unholstered her pistols, gripping the guns tight with cooling damp hands. Her heart thumped while the grass around her rustled and shook, parting in several places to make way for hunched doglike forms speeding toward her, laughing with predatory zeal.

    They were spotted hyenas, the marauding wolves of Africa. Within moments, they surrounded her, their instinctive knack for herding and then attacking their prey playing out in front of her.

    One of the beasts jumped at her with jaws open, baring sharp blood-stained fangs. She fired one pistol round into its mouth, dropping it to the ground. Another hyena lunged at her from the side. After sidestepping out of its reach, she swung her arm hard onto its skull, dazing it, and then finished it off with both guns. A third animal grabbed the cuff of her shorts with its teeth and pulled her until she kicked it off with the heel of her boot, losing a mouthful of cloth in the process.

    More hyenas attacked, and Latonya banged more rounds at them. Even after she killed a few of the spotted monsters, they kept up their onslaught, forming a ring of snapping bloodthirsty jaws which tightened around their prey until they closed the space between her and them. They would not relent until they wore the fight out of her. Or until she ran out of rounds, whichever came sooner.

    Latonya fired more double rounds into the circle of gnashing fangs. She then burst through the opening she had punched out and raced down the hill, the beasts giving chase. As Latonya ran, she shot back at the hyenas, whittling away at their numbers until only a small fraction of the original pack remained. It was at that point when they turned to retreat, their whooping and fierce yellow eyes giving way to panicked yelping as they disappeared into the distance.

    Latonya leaned against an outcropping of rock to catch her breath and rest. She felt a pitted texture on the rock and shone her flashlight on it, illuminating more inscribed glyphs like those of the monolith on the hill. This time, the glyphs were on a stout pedestal that supported a tall sculpture, humanoid in body shape, but with a monstrous crocodile- or hippopotamus-like head that yawned with a mouth of gleaming iron teeth. She recognized it as one of two colossi that guarded an opening in a stone rampart that was as high as a giraffe’s head.

    Latonya did not need to look at her map again to realize that she had found what she was looking for: the ancient city, known as the City of the Mother Goddess, which many dismissed as little more than legend. They’d done the same to Timbuktu, too, until it was excavated and dated to the 12th century. Yet the City of the Mother Goddess was standing right in front of her, ready to receive what had been unjustly stolen from it.

    She drifted through the gateway in the city wall and entered a wide avenue overgrown with tall grass. Terraced stone platforms supported the eroded walls, columns, and sculptures that had once formed monumental buildings, presumably the homes and workhouses of the bygone people who had built and lived in this city centuries if not millennia ago. Latonya could not help but wonder if their descendants remained in the region, or if her own ancestors were among them. Maybe they were related to the local Senufo people?

    As much as this ancient heritage needed protection, it could not hurt to study it some more. Study, not plunder.

    The avenue ended before the steps leading up to the tallest structure within the city, a towering rotunda. It was capped with a stepped dome so enormous that it could put the Pantheon in Rome to shame. Columns inscribed with more of the cryptic glyphs framed a high portal in the edifice’s front wall, with the lintel bearing an image of the Mother Goddess herself in relief.

    This had to be the temple she sought within the city, the Temple of the Mother Goddess.

    Latonya passed through the portal. A silver moonlight beam shone down from a circular aperture at the peak of the domed rotunda, falling upon a pedestal in the middle of the interior. Switching on her flashlight, Latonya could make out the portraits of forgotten deities mounted on the inner walls, the gazes of their unblinking eyes converging on the central pedestal. She did not need to read the gold-flecked inscriptions on the pedestal to guess that something was supposed to lay upon it.

    Walking up to the pedestal, Latonya opened her knapsack and pulled out the one object the hallowed temple needed to again be complete. In her hands, underneath the moonlight, glistened the gold flesh of the Mother Goddess, her arms cradling a swollen stomach bearing the world and all its inhabitants, her onyx eyes twinkling with love for what she would bring into existence. Looking down at the Goddess’s plump face and full-lipped smile, Latonya thought it resembled her own mother.

    A tear crept into her eye. “Welcome home, Mother Goddess,” she said as she placed the gold idol onto the pedestal. After it landed with the gentle clink of metal touching stone, the click of a cocked gun followed. Below the ends of her braids, the tiny hairs on the back of Latonya’s neck prickled.

    Another woman stepped into the temple, her high-heeled boots clipping on the mossy stone floor. A khaki jacket and trousers hugged her slender, barely tanned figure, with wheat-yellow hair flowing down from beneath her wide-brimmed hat. Her eyes blazed like sapphire flames as she pointed her revolver at Latonya, her thin lips curling into a sneer.

    “Well, well, if it isn’t Latonya Coleman, the ‘Tomb Savior’, at last,” Karen Cunningham spoke, her accent posh English. “I must admit, my swarthy old friend, you’re jolly good at stealing things from me, whether that be priceless artifacts…or men.”

    Latonya bared her teeth in a snarl. “For your information, Scott was never your man. And neither were those artifacts ever yours. Certainly not this one. Like all the others, I’m putting it back where it belongs!”

    “I admire your commitment to defending people’s heritages, Miss Coleman, I really do. But the people who made that old idol don’t even exist anymore. In which case, I’d say it’s ripe for the taking. You know how it goes: hand it over, along with the map, and nobody gets hurt.”

    Latonya whipped out both of her pistols and aimed them at Karen’s head. “You’ll have to try harder than that!”

    “Very well. If anything can talk louder than gunshots, it’s money. How about my father and I personally fund every expedition you’ll ever go on? As you know, we’ve plenty to spare.”

    Though Latonya still had her guns drawn, the tension in her arm muscles relaxed. Funding for her archaeological endeavors had never been easy to come by, and then there was rent and other expenses she needed to juggle back home. She needed every cent she could collect, wherever it came from. Furthermore, the Cunningham family had gathered as much esteem for their philanthropy as they had their business success. Connecting with them could benefit Latonya’s department in more ways than simple finances.

    The Mother Goddess watched from the pedestal which Latonya had placed her. Was protecting the idol worth it if it flew in the way of riches and prestige? Was it even worth having a billionaire’s pampered daughter shoot at you, especially right after escaping a pack of ravenous hyenas? What was it worth, anyway? Maybe the old hunk of gold did deserve to collect dust somewhere in an English manor, little more than yet another piece of exotic décor. Like so many other treasures pillaged from the peoples of the world, being reduced to trophies and tokens of First World domination.

    The glint of determination and reignited fury returned to Latonya’s eyes. “No matter what price you name, no matter what pain you inflict upon me, I will never let you steal any people’s heritage,” she said forcefully. “People like you and your family have raped and robbed the world for far too long, and the world still bleeds from it. Why, families like yours owe almost their entire fortune to the blood and sweat of the Global South, and that’s without accounting for all the ancient treasures they like to ‘collect’ for their own vanity. Well, sorry, Karen Cunningham, but other people’s heritages are not yours to exploit for your own gain. And I will pay with blood to defend them if I must!”

    Karen’s sneer widened into a haughty grin as she tapped her finger on her revolver’s trigger. “So, a duel it is, then.”

    Latonya smirked. “Unfortunately for you, I brought more guns than you did.”

    She pulled both her pistol’s triggers. They did not fire, but instead clacked empty. She had used up their magazines on the hyenas!

    With a mocking cackle, Karen fired her revolver. Latonya ducked, the bullet grazing a red streak across her shoulder, and crumpled to the temple floor. She covered the wound with her hand as she rolled her body toward the shadows on the far side of the rotunda, escaping another of the Englishwoman’s shots. As Karen banged three more rounds at her, Latonya maneuvered all around the chamber, dodging not only bullets but also chunks of masonry that the missed shots broke off from the walls.

    The last of these was part of a god’s bust which plummeted onto Latonya’s back, filling her with intense pain while cutting her skin with its sharp edges. Karen laughed with cruel delight as she strutted over and pinned Latonya against the floor with her boot while pointing the barrel down at her victim.

    “Any last words, my Negroid nemesis?” Karen asked.

    Latonya heard more laughter. It was not the Englishwoman’s, nor was it human at all. It was more like a shrill whooping echoing from outside the temple, accompanied by pairs of glowing dots rushing toward the entry portal.

    “I think your gunshots have invited some company over for dinner, Miss Cunningham,” Latonya said. “Or supper, as you Brits like to call it.”

    After the pressure from Karen’s boot relaxed, Latonya rolled herself free, sprang back onto her feet, and whacked Karen onto the floor with a swipe of her forearm. The heiress to the Cunningham corporate empire scrambled to get up while the hyenas were pouring into the temple, their eyes glowing yellow with infernal hunger over their glistening wet fangs. The beasts’ laughter gained a diabolical reverberance within the rotunda walls.

    Karen’s complexion turned white as alabaster while she held up her gun with a trembling hand. When she pulled the trigger, it clacked empty as Latonya’s pistols had earlier. She could only whimper and scream as the horde of beasts descended upon her.

    Latonya frantically dug within her knapsack for another magazine so she could shoot the hyenas off her adversary. As much as she hated Karen and everything the Cunningham family stood for, it did not seem right to let the woman die. And if the Englishwoman’s arch-nemesis could save her, possibly she would have enough sense of honor to withdraw her pursuit of the idol as a token of gratitude.

    By the time Latonya had her hand on a spare magazine, it was too late. She had already heard Karen Cunningham’s death rattle beneath the ripping of flesh and the crunching of bone.

    Latonya hid in an alcove on the far side of the rotunda and waited until the pack had finished their meal, not daring to look at the pile of gore they left behind when they exited the temple. Horrifying as her antagonist’s death had been, it might have been a small mercy for herself that the beasts had eaten their fill and were showing no interest in seconds. It was a tragic shame that someone had to die to bring about peace here, but that would always be the price of imperialistic greed.

    Before she left the temple and headed back to the jeep, Latonya Coleman took one last look at the Mother Goddess on the pedestal. If there was anything that would bring her peace that night, it was the knowledge that she had done her job, and that the Mother Goddess had returned home at last, right where she belonged.


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