My mother had a certain peculiar friend when I was nine years old. It was a woman named Odote, who was so bent at the waist that she walked as if she wanted to pick something from the ground. She was not very old; I remember now that she might have been at most forty, five years older than my mother. She used to come to our home in the sombre evenings when a pale sickle-shaped slice of moon dangled over the western hill before fading away soon after sunset as if frightened of darkness. In those days, my mother’s crude alcohol would be ripe for distilling. Odote did not drink the distillate, though; she preferred the thick, dirty, yellowish brown liquid which she slurped down her throat with the same sound a dog makes when lapping at a puddle of water. It was a strange thing about her because everyone else I knew was disgusted by the unrefined substance. Sometimes there were dead snakes in it. Though my mother covered the pot in which it was fermented, more than once I had seen her removing dead black mambas and green and brown snakes from it with a stick, and there were always lizards and insects that floated on top of it. But Odote did not mind. She would order five litres, two of which she’d filter with a bundle of dry grass and then suck with a small pipe that now reminds me of a disused IV line. The rest she’d take home with her.
I used to watch her while she slumped on a stool slurping her vile drink. She would be abstracted, her face pensive and sad, but sometimes she would look up and notice me and rebuke me with a scowl on her depressed, wrinkled face.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she’d ask, and I’d run away giggling and hide behind the house. Presently, I’d return to peep at her from a corner.
I wondered what her children thought of her. I thought that if she were my mother I’d go mad. I’d run away and hide from her and never disclose to anyone, who did not already know, that she was my mother.
“Why is she so bent, Ma?” I asked once but was so excoriated for making a disrespectful remark concerning my elder that I never raised the subject near my mother again.
But one evening several weeks later, coming from school with my elder brother, Jumbe, I saw Odote ahead of us with a basketful of potatoes she intended to barter with my mother for the drink. She was more bent than ever, weighed down by the load, which she carried at the back of her head. She was tottering up the hill, the basket bobbing up and down like an object on water.
“What is wrong with her?” I inquired tentatively, fearing reproof.
“Gwati beat her up,” Jumbe replied.
Gwati was a withered, scarecrow-looking old man from the village. He was known to make weird supernatural sounds when the sky was dark and gloomy and clouds cast funereal shadows over the villages. He would shriek and sigh and curse and groan until another old man or woman elsewhere died of arthritis or heart attack.
“He just beat her up and she bent like that?” I wondered.
“Yes,” Jumbe said. “He beat her up with that black walking stick of his. It is not really a stick, you know. It is the hand of a corpse. And it’s spread like this . . .” My brother stretched his right hand towards me and fanned out his fingers. I stared at it and imagined a shrivelled, blackened, rotting hand cut from a dead person. I flinched.
“If he slaps your face with it, your head will turn all the way round until you can see your back,” Jumbe went on. “A hundred and eighty degrees!” he emphasized. “But you will not die and you will walk backwards for the rest of your life. If he slaps your back with it, you will never stand straight. Like Odote. He slapped her back with it.”
“What if he slaps both your face and back with it?” I asked.
Jumbe stopped to look at me. He was a tall person and looked at me the way my father usually did when I was holding his hand. “You know the answer to that,” he said in a quiet voice, which I found to be foreboding.
“But Gwati is sick,” I reminded him. “He is old, and he is weak, and sick. He cannot beat anyone.”
“You just don’t know,” my brother said. “You are still young. He gets well when he has somebody to beat, because he gets to transfer his evil and disease into that person. He has many evils and diseases. Like when he is ill, and he howls and curses and cries in the dead of the night, and, in the morning, somebody else wakes up with his illness and dies afterwards. Meanwhile, he lives.”
I was tongue-tied the rest of the way.
Overhead, on a rapidly darkening, scantily beclouded sky, the pale horned moon looked like a half-closed, winking eye of a dead man. It seemed to wink at the bending woman, mocking her.
I went to Gwati’s home after I had taken off my uniform and donned my home clothes. Some uncanny curiosity overcame me and I wanted a keen look of his walking stick. I wanted to know if it was perhaps made of skin and if the fingers were visible. He was sitting on a rock by the granary, his usual resting place, stooped as if he was in great agony. His hands and wrists were swollen with arthritis, so were his knees and feet. I skulked behind him, but, somehow, he sensed my approach and, grunting, reached for his weapon. I took off like the wind.
The following day in school, I asked Ooko, his grandson, about the stick.
“It is called The Hand,” he said. “If my grandfather wants it, he says, ‘Ooko, bring me The Hand.’ And I just do.”
“Does it feel like a real hand when you touch it? Does it have skin and fingers on it, for instance?” I asked.
“The fingers are invisible. But it feels like the dried tail of a cow when you touch it. It is really a hand. You can feel the softness of the skin. Subtle, though, it is. The wrinkles are prominent. When Grandfather touches it, it twitches and attempts to grab something. One day, Grandfather called to send me for his pipe, but I didn’t want to go because I was playing. Grandmother came out of the house and shouted, ‘Ooko, mind your grandfather now and do not make him mad! Or else, he’ll make you deaf-mute!’ If you make Grandfather very angry, he points The Hand at you and says something, and you become deaf-mute. Deaf-mute!” he stressed, his eyes ablaze with excitement.
“Did he beat up that bending woman, Odote, with it?”
“Yes! She was quarrelling with my grandmother over some money Grandmother owes her, and Grandfather told her to get lost and never return. When she turned to leave, he leaped after her and whacked her quickly on the back!”
It was crazy and it disturbed me for days. From then on, I perceived the old man as a terrible entity, a witch and a devil. I never went within a hundred metres of his home.
One afternoon, however, when schools were closed in December and the children of the village were gathered at our home to play, Ooko picked a fight with my little sister over the skipping rope, and he smacked her face and pushed her hard to the ground. She fell on her buttocks and wailed, jerking about while looking at me, begging me to avenger her, and I, without thought, grabbed a rock and chased her assailant with it towards his home. I struck him once and he screamed:
I stopped dead. But it was too late, too painfully late, for then I could see the old man standing and pointing his walking stick at me and muttering crazy things that sounded like: KABALAKUBALAVADIKALADIKAKABAHAHAKA . . .
I think I became insane from the terror that seized me. I remember nothing else that transpired between that moment and when I bumped into my mother on the way. She was anxious and distressed, herself terrified for me. I could not talk; neither could I hear her. I’d been running too fast and shaking so badly that each heartbeat was a massive explosion. In answer to whatever she was saying, I pointed back from where I’d come and she stormed forthwith in that direction.
I tried to stop her; I tried with desperation and madness, yet in vain. She could not hear me. I thought Gwati would beat her up with his stick and she would be bent forever like Odote. As I watched her go, it dawned upon me that I’d become deaf-mute. It was too much to take. Darkness pervaded me.
When I came to, my mother was standing a few feet from me. She was bending like Odote. I stared at her for a few seconds hoping that she would rise erect, wanting her to, willing her, but she did not. She never did thenceforwards. She was weeping, her voice hoarse with hopeless anguish, her head turned backwards—a hundred and eighty degrees!—so that she was facing me with the back of her head.
She was bending forwards but her head was facing backwards.
That horrible Gwati, that devilish old man, had slapped her face and beat her back with his stick.
I howled, making a sharp, wretched, strangled unintelligible sound that made me black out again.
Around us, the rest of my playmates stood still and goggled at us, aghast.