Chinese doll, Russian doll and a mathematician

illustration of african man playing ogene instrument

Chinese doll, Russian doll and a mathematician

Marvel Pephel Chukwudi
Marvel Chukwudi Pephel is a Nigerian writer who writes poems, short stories and other things besides. His works have been published widely. His poetry was selected for the 2016 Best New African Poets Anthology and the Austrian Haiku Association's Lotosblüte 2018. He was shortlisted for the 2019 Sevhage Short Story Prize.

Illustrations by Amalia Alvarez 

"Dig in!" Hector instructed, placing his cowboy hat firmly on his head. "We must find the elephant skull. We are going nowhere without that skull. Do you understand?"

"But sir..."

"No buts." Hector interrupted. "Dig in, Mphalele! Dig in, you lazybone! I need that priceless skull."

Mphalele shook his head frustratingly and dug into the earth with his spade. He was already half-buried in the square hole he had created. He lifted a heap of earth and threw it up, missing Hector's foot by an inch.

"Man, you need to watch!" Hector warned. "Don't throw sand on me because I want that priceless skull."

"Sorry, sir. Didn't know you've changed position." "Alright! Dig, Mphalele. Dig, man! Find me the skull."

"I have been digging, sir. No bony structure in sight yet. My arms are hurting, don't want to be unable to hug my wife when I get home."

"Are you not funny? You see, if I were you, I would sacrifice that damn hug for a million dollars. Hug! Mphalele, let me get another man for this work..."

"Ah, no sir! Never mind, I will keep digging."


"Alright then." replied an impatient Hector. "But I will see if I can get any of the villagers to help. Keep digging, I will go in search of a man."

"Okay." Mphalele replied and lowered his head to dig. Hector began to walk away briskly.


It was believed, mostly by people not of this village, that there were certain elephant skulls that had dolls stuffed into them by diviners, which consequently gave the skulls the ability to heal and to guarantee riches. There was even a certain time that news that made rounds was that the richest man from the village was rich as a result of owning more than one of such skulls.


When he was contacted and interviewed, his reply to the question about how he amassed so much wealth was, I will tell you one thing that's pretty convincing to me, and that is: Chance favours the prepared man. As for the existence of such skulls, I have no veracity of it in my hands. But I wouldn't say God forbid that a lucky one should find any of them. The interviewer simply shrugged and moved to his next question.


As years passed by, talks about such skulls diminished. In fact, certain associations warned that such rumours should not be making the rounds as people might start poaching and killing elephants just to stuff their skulls with dolls so as to prove the existence of such doll-stuffed elephant skulls. Taxidermists were also warned not to be found displaying baby elephants with dolls stuffed into their mouths, as one of them did in a part of the world. By every conviction, elephants were endangered species. Hunting them was just akin to setting their wheels of extinction in motion. Wheels that may go out of control and begin to turn non-stop.


However, as events go, someone who claimed to have supernatural powers purported that the claims regarding the existence of such skulls were correct after all. That they could be found in the East of Jangula. Hence, the reason why Hector and Mphalele must avail themselves of this opportunity of a lifetime. The duo weren't the only people who paid the king of the village to dig their land. Many others did also, and were at their respective sites digging.


Now, Hector was returning with a man carrying things Mphalele tried to make sense of from the hole he was half-buried in. When he came closer with Hector, Mphalele realised he was carrying a kettle, a nylon bag and pieces of wood.


"Mphalele." Hector said. "This is Himerl, he will take over when you are tired. Himerl, meet Mphalele."


The two men greeted each other with a wave of hand. Mphalele looked for a while before he bent down and continued digging. Hector made himself comfortable on a stone and placed his hands on his knees.


"So, Himerl," he began. "You are saying you haven't seen anyone in possession of such a skull in Jangula?"

"Yes. I must be honest." He squatted, having arranged the pieces of wood, and struck a match. "I have always wished they existed."

"What if they did and it just requires someone lucky and patient to find them?"


"I don't know. Believe me, I really want them to exist." He dropped the kettle, gently, over the fire he had built and began to pour things into the kettle.

"So you love tea." Hector said with a smile.

Laughing softly: "Most of us do. It's like a tradition."

"Are you serious?" Hector asked, casually.


"Yes. The tea is natural, herbs and all. My grandfather had a Jasmine garden just for the love of Jasmine tea. He also grew other flowers which only served the purpose of cleansing the air and making the environment breath-worthy. Here, it's every man to his kettle."

"Interesting." Hector said and picked a pebble. "Are you married?" "Yes."

"Children?" "Eight."

"Are you kidding me?! Quite a number. How do you take care of them? I mean that should be a hard row to hoe."

"I have a cotton farm. They work in the farm. It's a lucrative business." "Quite interesting." Hector said, looking at the pebble in his hand. "How about you?"

"Still searching for the right one."

illustration of african family homecoming nigeria

"No, no. Don't say that." Himerl said and brought out cups from his nylon bag, having heard the sibilant murmur of the kettle. "It's not all about finding them right in terms of hundred percent good qualities. It's about finding them hundred percent lovable in spite of their inadequacies and flaws. You know, a diamond with a flaw is better than a pebble without."


"Impressive. You do have a point. A diamond with a flaw is better than a pebble without. That's profound!"

"I didn't say that; Confucius did." "That's good. You seem enlightened."

He laughs heartily: "Surprisingly, I am. Here's your cup of pure, natural tea. To our health and the Earth's!"

Hector raised his cup with him before putting it down. "Tell me more about Jangula." "Alright, I will." Himerl said. "Care for some tea, Mphalele?!"

"No!" Mphalele answered. "You see, I'm sweating in here."


"Alright, man." responded a cheerful Himerl. "Um, Mr. Hector. You see, here in Jangula, we are mostly vegans. At least, sixty-five percent of us are. And apart from that, we love our culture to the moon and back."

"Interesting." Hector said and sipped his cup of tea. "So, you are a vegan?" "Hundred percent environmental vegan. It's ten years now."

"Impressive. Actually, I'm not into any three of the arms of veganism. I, for one, love animal products."

Himerl, smiling: "Won't hold it against you, brother."


"Thank you." Hector replied and turned towards Mphalele. "Seen any skull?!"

"No! Nothing in sight yet."

"Do you really believe there is such a skull?" Himerl asked, taking a sip from his cup. "I do. I don't know why, but I do absolutely."

"Good luck then." Himerl said and gulped down the remaining tea in his cup. "Let me tell you a story. It's about a man named Buleng."

"What about him?" Hector asked, with a tone of interest.


"In those days, he was a warrior. Conquered and left many villages breathing in the captive hands of Jangula. He was a respected warrior. But he was not only good with spears and swords. He was good at something else."

"What else?" Hector asked.


"He was good at dancing." Himerl said quietly. "And man was the best dancer of Jangula. And as facts go, when a man is good enough to win the heart of the Queen mother, he could be king. But Buleng lost it all when he left his wives and started masquerading around as the lover of Tintin, the daughter of a conquered king."

"So what happened?" Hector asked, eager to know.


"Yes, something happened." Himerl said and poured himself another cup from the kettle. "Like a dry bough of song, in deep dumb darkness, above a sea of sleep, he fell with a thud into an arena of waterproof chaos nests. And chaos in its varied forms quickly took flight, each singing an enchanting song as they woke from their slumber."

"I don't get it." Hector said and gulped down his now-cold tea.


"Well," Himerl said and produced a stick of herb from his nylon bag. He put the stick into his cup and continued. "If land could talk, it would have warned Buleng to take caution lest he walk himself into damnation. His world suddenly started revolving around Tintin. He suddenly started losing interest in all the things that excited us as a people, tradition and all. He was ever ready to hack down a tree on Tintin's say-so. Sooner than later, our village started to lose its green-ness. Our people suddenly found themselves at the risk of facing the effects of climate change and deforestation. He looked like he was never going to stop, so the king sent strong men to capture him. He was eventually captured and tied to a baobab tree where he stayed for thirty days before he was released. It appeared he learned his lesson, because he immediately left the trees alone. But then, he continued to take Tintin to the beach for the love of seashells. A love that was not his; it was Tintin's. She seemed to have an insatiable hunger for these seashells. And it would be safe to assume she would have sold Buleng if he was equivalent to a rice-bag of seashells. He was eager to please his ever-demanding Tintin, and, quite often, looked like he was dead as well as alive."

"Hmm. Some form of Schrödinger's cat." Hector said, casually. "Well, one day my people went and saw the beach water no more." "What happened?" Hector asked.

"My people aren't so sure, but they believe Buleng found a way to leave the beach dry in order to please his Tintin. And, of course, my people suffered."

"What became of him?" Hector asked.


"Nobody knows. I'd say he disappeared from the face of the earth." "Hmm. And the chicken came home to roost."



"Hey, hey! Mr. Hector! Mr. Hector, run! Come over here, I think I have found the...the elephant skull!" The voice was Mphalele's.

illustration of african father and son talking under a tree

The two men charged from where they have been sitting towards the hole. And when they got to the hole, they looked down with great expectation. Inside the hole was Mphalele pulling a tusk.

"Good, good!" screamed Hector with mad joy. "That's my baby, that's my Holy Grail! Good work there, Mphalele! Easy on it! Dig it out! I want that skull whole! Don't break it!"

"Easy." Himerl said to Hector. "Give him some breathing space. He knows what he is doing."

"Really? Better if he does. I don't want that skull broken."


"Calm down a bit." Himerl said to him and began to pace around. "So there's got to be a doll in that skull, right?"

"Right, my friend!" Hector replied, clasping his hands. "And as far as dolls are concerned, the most notable are the Chinese and Russian dolls. So I wonder which one could find in such elephant skulls."

"Does it really matter the kind of doll one finds in such a skull?"


"It doesn't. But it does to me. I have always heard about how intricately woven Russian dolls are. I want a Russian doll in that skull."

"Alright, whatever you say."


"There, baby!" Hector screamed. "That's my elephant skull! I can't believe my eyes! So it wasn't a myth after all! Come up the ladder with it, Mphalele. We can help."

"Wow." Himerl said softly. "Now that you have the skull, what are you going to do?"


"Himerl, I am going to get rich!" Hector answered. "I understand how you are feeling. Yes, I came to your village and I am leaving with a skull you guys never knew was down here. But please don't envy me, okay?"

Himerl sighed. "I'm not envying you. Let's get the skull up here."


"Alright, man." Hector replied. The two men bent over and took the skull from the hands of the strong Mphalele. Excitedly, they dropped it on the ground and stared unbelievably.

"Oh, Himerl, I am going to be rich!" he chattered. "Let's say,". He began to count his fingers. "Two, three, four or five years I'd be stinking rich. Rich enough to buy a country."

"Don't be silly." Himerl said to him. Mphalele was now out of the hole.


"Have you checked for the doll?" Mphalele asked, panting slightly. Mud and sweat all over him.

"No. Let me do that." Hector replied.


"Be careful." Himerl warned. "If the stories are anything to go by, this is no ordinary skull."


"I understand. I do understand." Hector replied and dipped his hand, thoughtlessly, into the mouth of the skull.




"What?! Are you kidding me?!" Hector shouted. "Who is kidding you?" Mphalele asked.

"There is no doll here!" Hector cried.

"Are you serious?" Himerl asked. "No doll?"

"I can't..I can't touch anything in here." Hector replied, sadly. "What does this mean?" "Allow me." Mphalele said. "Let me check."


Hector stood from his squatting position and gave Mphalele the chance to check. Mphalele held one of the tusks of the elephant skull and tilted the skull a bit. He saw an orifice by the side of the skull and dipped his hand inside. And he did not dip his hand in vain. Lo and behold, a soft woolly thing greeted his fingers! And when he brought the thing out, the two men saw him holding a white doll. Hector held his chest, while Himerl knelt down and praised the heavens.




"It isn't a myth after all." Himerl said, arms crossed upon his chest. "You are finally going to be rich, Hector."

Hector smiled, still speechless.

"Let's make a wish then." Mphalele suggested.


"No, no! Not here nor now." Hector objected. "I will have to take it home first." "Alright! Whatever you say, boss." Mphalele replied. "I'm freaking excited."

"I suggest you pull yourself together." Hector said. "Considering the number of hours it took us to arrive here, it implies we have a long way home."

"Alright, gentlemen." said Himerl. "What am I going to get?"

Hector, smiling: "Easy, big guy. Don't be in a hurry. Everyone will get something, I promise. Just don't be in a hurry."

"Alright." said Himerl. "I won't be in a hurry. But you are going to give me three hundred dollars."

"What did he say? Did I hear you well?" Hector asked. "Yes. Three hundred dollars."

"Because you did what for me? Because you dug the hole and found the elephant skull? I don't understand. What would Mphalele demand then?"

"Listen, you are going to be stinking rich."

"I am not yet, okay? How sure are you that it will even work?"

"It will. I'm sure it will. If we could find the buried skull and also find a doll inside it, then it's ability to give wealth cannot be a myth."

"Whatever. But I am not giving you that amount. Is it on the basis that the skull was found in your community or what?"

"Maybe." Himerl said with a shrug.

"Well, you won't get that." Hector replied. "You never will."

And while he still argued with the villager over how much he was going to give him, he saw a figure that left him breathless. The figure was lithe, her sandalled feet small and smooth and almost out of this world.

"Who is that woman over there?" Hector asked, almost stuttering.

The woman, with her pitch-black hair that touched her back, turned slowly. "She's a foreigner." the villager replied.

"From which country?" Hector asked. "Um, I can't remember now. Pardon me." "She looks Asian." Hector said.

"Looks like one, right? Well, she is. She's here on an environmental research basis. My father offered her a room in our family house. She's friends with my younger sister."

"Let's have a deal now." Hector said with a smile.

"Good. What's the price?" the villager asked, serious for business. "You get the money, I get the woman."

The villager stood silent for a moment before suddenly bursting into laughter. "Are you serious?"

"I have never been more serious in my whole life. There's something about her that tells me we are a perfect match. I will give you the three hundred dollars. Deal?"

"I can't believe this." Mphalele muttered. "How do I even do this? She's not my sister."

"Talk to her. That's all you need to do. I believe she will listen to you, and your sister too." "Okay, I will try. But I don't want the money anymore."

"What?! Are you sure?" Hector asked, surprised. "Yes. I want a new deal."

"What's it going to be?"

"That I get the skull if it works out between you and her." "Are...are...are you okay?" Hector asked.

"I am. I am perfectly okay. Deal?" "Come on, you are being too greedy. I..." "Deal or no deal?!"

"Okay! Fine, you will get the skull if I win her heart. It's a deal."

"And what about me?! What about my hardwork? This is totally unfair! Have you gone  nuts?!" Mphalele cried. 

"I will pay you, Mphalele." Hector answered, not paying too much attention to Mphalele.

Himerl, immediately, began to call out to the woman. Hector followed him with brief steps.

"When? Now?" Mphalele asked.

"Yes. Please go close up the hole. These vegans won't be happy if you injure a human or animal. Keep the environment safe."

"Really?" Mphalele replied, with not an iota of smile.

"Now," Hector said and dipped his hand into his small bag. "Here's your money. Here's extra for transport. Safe journey."

"Sir, you have gone bananas? I, apologies!"

Hector looked at him and shook his head. "Healthy bananas. I'll call you."

"Okay." Mphalele replied and began to walk towards the hole. "Oh, my! Could this be love?"

When he turned again, he saw Hector kissing her hand in a kneeling posture, revealing his bald head for the first time. "Oh, it's unbelievable! So I came here for a special elephant skull, found it and left without it?" Mphalele said to himself as an afterthought. He sighed. "With which mouth does one tell this kind of story? How does one even begin?"