My father was a violent man. He liked to beat people and destroy things. All the chairs in our house were broken, so were the tables and the glasses, all spoons bent. And when he had no one else near him but you, he could punch you so hard you’d forget that he was your dad and begin planning your revenge. He used to punch my brother like that. And my mother. He used to pound her as if she were a nonliving thing.
I remember one day meeting her coming out of the bedroom with her head all bloody and dripping, her clothes soaked, eyes punched shut, and deep cuts all over her face as if it were some steak to be roasted. I stared at her in confounded horror and just then recalled a story my brother had told me about a woman who had been beheaded by a flying windshield when two cars collided down on the main road. He said she just kept on walking to the market as if nothing had happened to her, although she did not have her head anymore and blood was spurting forth from her neck like fountains. I thought my mother was like that woman, dead but walking, and I ran out screaming in terror as loud as I could. She was saved by neighbours who rushed to investigate my screams. They took her to the hospital but she died the next day from those wounds.
My brother and I went to live with our grandmother. Some days my father would come for us in the evenings and he would flog my brother and punch him on the way for no reason. My brother would wail and moan like a dying cow and I would cry too because I didn’t want him hurt like that. My father never beat me like he used to beat him or other people. I don’t know whether it was because he reckoned I was still too young to withstand his mortal blows and had decided to save me for the future or whether he saw me as nothing but a cushion for pinching. He used to pinch all the living hell out of me whenever I was within his reach. He would grab me and pinch me in the buttocks and stomach and neck, in the arms, legs, and face. He would pinch me everywhere and leave me writhing in hot bubbling pain as if I had boils all over my body.
I fled from him one day but he pursued me with long strides and kicked me in the butt. I flew against the wall and saw darkness. When I awoke, the house was very dark and I was alone in it. I yelled for my brother to come for me but he didn’t and I began to cry. He had told me about some demons called Nyawawa that loved darkness. He said they comprised dead people and they beat drums at deserted funerals in the lonely hours of the night to waken the corpses and invite them to join the party. He said they scattered everywhere at nightfall in search of funerals and dead people, and sometimes they stole children to replace in the abandoned coffins.
I sprinted out of the house like a mechanical thing and headed for my grandmother’s. I was wailing so hard and running so fast that my lungs burned. Some tall weeds caught my foot and I fell almost as hard as I had hit the wall when my father kicked me. I did not pass out but I inhaled something from the weeds that gave me a lung disease that never quite healed. It made my lungs grate as if they were full of sand. I became sick for days and I hated my father for it. I never forgave him. And when he died, I was glad he did.
He died three months thereafter. He beat up a strange woman and she cursed him. He had been drinking with her husband who, drunk, told him that his head resembled that of a cow and his eyes were on the sides of his face. He became very furious, but instead of settling the matter there and then, he went to the man’s home and pounded his wife good and proper.
However, in his drunkenness, he forgot that the woman was from a region known as Kamenya, reputed for its voodoo. It was said that their voodoo was so potent it could kill a bird in midair, especially an eagle if it stole their goat or chicken. It could make it rot completely before it even reached the ground. And if a thief went to steal from them, they made him stick on the wall as if some invisible glue was holding him there and did not release him until he had starved to death. But if they particularly disliked you, they could turn you into a log and use you for cooking. It was said that the place was very bushy but most of the trees were people.
So the woman said to my father: “Son of Rombe, why do you invade my home and beat on me like this? Do you want to kill me like you killed your wife? Your arms are very strong, I admit. But tonight I will use your shadow to view the moon.”
I will use your shadow to view the moon. Those words ring in my head to date. She said it in Dholuo, my mother tongue, and it sounded awful, like something that could keep you awake at night in cold sweat for the rest of your days. Especially if you knew where she came from.
My father began to grow thin. He was not sick and he did not complain of any injuries either. He still drank like fish and beat up people. But day by day his weight vanished. He had been a colossal creature, towering too high and as wide as a bus. The first time I watched the King Kong movie—the 2005 one directed by Peter Jackson—I thought the gorilla was him. I was nonplussed. I don’t know whether he looked that huge because I was too little then to judge correctly or whether that was truly his size. I can see how he used to bend over me—he always had to bend too far down to reach me—his giant hands hovering over my skinny body like outsized mosquitoes looking for a vulnerable spot to bite; I can feel him pinching my stomach and bottom as if he meant to skin me alive with his bare hands, which were as rough as neglected heels. His face was hairy and wide, and circular, and it twitched crazily when he was pinching me, his inimical eyes misaligned on the diameter (they were on the diameter!). He had a forest of beards and moustache and sideburns and just about anything else that could grow on his face, so that he was very frightening in aspect without being vast and cruel. He used to grunt and swallow, and his Adam’s apple would creak like a tight rope. Some days, I thought he wanted to eat me.
He became so thin that by the time he was buried his coffin was like that of a ten-year old. He was just dry bones and skin. Even his eyes had withered and disappeared in their sockets, his tongue shrunken like a dead leaf. Yet he died within seven days of the curse.
A different kind of hell began to brew soon after his death. I had thought I would be fine without him. I’d been wrong.
I was left with my brother, who everybody said took after my father. My grandmother said that Jumbe was a replica of my dad when my dad was young. Except that Jumbe was slender in built; he was tall and gangly and he ate too much. My grandmother said that when he sat down to eat, food travelled from his toes to his hair which was way too long a distance for one person. He was also more outgoing. My father had been moody and taciturn all the time, preferring to speak with his fists and legs instead of his mouth. But Jumbe was usually as glad as the Devil. He liked to laugh, but his laughter was a precursor of pain and as loud as the pain itself.
He used to sit under a tree and watch girls’ underwear when they climbed up to fetch fruits. We had plenty of fruits then and anyone who wanted could come and eat to their fill. Guavas, lemons, oranges, pawpaw fruit, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, bananas, loquats, passion fruit, and many more that I knew only in my mother tongue were all over the area. They grew by themselves from discarded seeds and parts and blossomed into some terribly healthy and mellow things.
But those girls were scared of the snakes and lizards and caterpillars and monkeys that also benefited from the trees. So they would come to our home and ask my brother to help them, much to his especial pleasure.
Instead of just singling out any of the rich trees and having them harvest it, he would escort them around from tree to tree and from bush to bush while charming them with stories. He had a great deal of stories to tell all of which were fiction. He told them, for instance, how he had seen a certain girl by the river whose face resembled a bad donut and how she had had buttocks so big that she did not need a chair to sit on, and when she sat on the ground she was still elevated high enough to be able to fold her knees as if she were on a real chair.
For some reason the girls liked his stories which, ironically, always consisted of disparaging of other girls. They would laugh and chatter and frolic like the monkeys of which they were afraid. They always flocked him when they came, and even when they passed some trees that were so laden that the fruits fell down to be squashed underfoot, they did not stop him and had to wait until he declared which one was the best for the day. By then they would have laughed so much and been so happy with him that they would not question his decision to remain on the ground looking up at them.
“This is it,” he’d declare while hugging the tree with his long arms. “I’ve been saving it for all of you. No snakes, no monkeys, no lizards, no caterpillars!”
I learned later—very much later indeed when I began to think of girls myself—that he did not choose the trees on that basis. He chose them because many of their branches were low enough for all the girls could climb up at once.
He would then sit down and enjoy the various views afforded him. He would pretend to direct them from branch to branch for better fruits while all he really wanted was for them to open their legs as they leaped across. Sometimes he would be enthralled.
I used to sit by him and watch them too. He told me that the best thing in the world to look at was a girl’s underwear when she was wearing it. He said it could make you very happy if you were very sad. He said God had put something wonderful there so that it was the only thing your eyes craved to see whether you liked it or not.
But when I looked I did not see anything special to captivate my attention. They were an array of dreary colours on restless thighs; you could look at the tree itself and attain a better level of happiness. Some days I would be so bored I’d sneak away to go shoot birds. The only peculiar thing about the strange adventure was how the girls reacted when they caught him staring. They would start and shut up in midsentence if they had been talking; some would clamp their legs together and stand still until he looked away while others would sit down on the branches and stuff their skirts between their legs. I did not know why they did that, and it was why I always returned to watch. If it could provoke them, then it had to be good.
One girl, particularly, came to pique my interest. Her name was Seri and she favoured yellow panties. I did not know whether she had many of them or just one pair but every time she came she had yellow ones on. I marked her because she was the first person to make me realize that those panties concealed abundant hair—which, at first, I thought was the wonderful thing Jumbe had said God had put there. She had a rank growth and it straggled out like stray grass.
There were seasons when caterpillars filled the trees and consumed all the leaves. One variety was dreadful. We called it Ombemo because when it made contact with your skin, it left a swollen track of searing pain similar to that caused by fire. The pain could last you even up to two days, the swelling much longer. It was six inches long and had a black head and a black underbelly. Its hair was black and thick like that of a human. It was also aggressive; when provoked it could climbed up a branch almost at the speed of a lizard, its long bristly body undulating in the most frightening manner. If you went too close to where it was feeding it would stop and brood as if scheming against you. We were too scared of it and some people set trees on fire to keep it away from children.
That girl, Seri—her underwear seemed packed with millions of that caterpillar. It was terrifying to meditate.
One evening on our way from school, I saw her alone ahead of us and ran after her. I do not know what drove me. I think by then I had acquired a certain degree of disrespect from my brother. She was much older than me, although I did not know how old. I did not know how old anybody was those days. Not even my brother.
When I had her attention, I shouted: “Seri Ombemo!”
She stopped and regarded me curiously. Then she asked me why I’d called her that.
“There is Ombemo in your panties!” I told her.
She flared with indignation and rage as if she understood at once what I was referring to. She picked a stick and chased me with it towards my brother, who took my hand and inquired concerning the matter.
“He insulted me!” she said. She was a short girl with a lot of curves, round buttocks and full breasts. She was heaving as she stood in front of us. Droplets of sweat had formed on the bridge of her nose. Her uniform was stained green at the armpits.
Jumbe asked me to explain myself and I told him what I had seen when she climbed up a guava tree on Saturday. He laughed when I said her pubic hair looked like abundant caterpillars. I knew by his laughter that he had himself deliberated about it.
“Is it true?” he asked her with a jeering grin.
“Is it true what?” returned she, all flushed and heaving harder.
“Is it true you have that much hair?”
She hesitated and looked away from us in no specific direction.
“Ah!” Jumbe pretended to sigh with displeasure. He still had his jeering grin. “Why do I even ask? I know the answer already. You are too young to have anything on you, and Dani here is just a little boy. What does he know about such matters? Girls your age are as smooth as chicken eggs!”
She said nothing. But her eyes had fixed on some two boys about to catch up with us. She became too nervous and she shifted her feet constantly.
“Go home,” he said with a caustic undertone. “I don’t want your father beleaguering me for ruining his little hairless baby. If you had any hair, I’d have let you come with us and I’d have given you some passion fruits that I hide for just Dani and myself. They are the sweetest in the hill. I keep the best for the two of us.”
She said nothing still, her alarmed eyes never leaving the two boys. They were Ochola and Opalo, my brother’s best friends. Together they were the most notorious students in school. A while back they had threatened to discipline a teacher who had punished them for reporting late. They found her alone on the road some three weeks later and fulfilled their threat. They whipped her with sugarcane until she ran like a little girl. On Sundays they gathered by the roadside and laughed at pregnant women who passed by to the market, asking them if the sex had been good and whether they had had it in the bush or in the house.
Seri saw those boys coming and I think she knew what would follow. Jumbe would tell them that she had no pubic hair and they would never leave her alone. They would pursue her and taunt her until she dropped out of school. They had done that to a girl named Akoth who had declined to dance with them at a funeral party. She had had to quit school and go live with her uncle very far away.
“Opalo!” my brother shouted, seeing how frightened she’d become.
“I have hair!” she blurted.
“No, you don’t!” Jumbe said.
“I do!” she emphasized and they both broke out with laughter. She laughed with a tight face and a tight mouth, quite uneasy.
“If you did, you’d show me,” he said.
“No!” she said.
“Opalo!” he shouted.
“Jumbe, please,” she begged him.
He laughed cheerfully. “I don’t mean all of it. Just pluck one and bring it to me. One is enough. Then we will all treat you like a grownup.”
She thought about it for a hasty moment and agreed that she would go pluck one and bring it to him. Meanwhile her eyes stayed with Ochola and Opalo who were now running towards us, too eager not to miss the opportunity.
“I will be waiting at home,” Jumbe told her and she ran off.
We tarried with Ochola and Opalo and arrived home an hour and a half afterwards. She was waiting for us. She was panting. Her armpits were wet and the drops of sweat on the bridge of her nose had multiplied.
“Here, see!” she said, handing it to him. I stepped closer so as to see for myself but saw by the way she flinched that she did not want me to do that. I looked nevertheless.
She had wrapped the strand in a torn piece of dry banana leaf. Jumbe removed it and stretched it between his fingers. It was a long thing, maybe five centimetres, and curled several times. He laughed.
“What?” she asked.
“You are lying!” he said.
“No,” she said, shaking her head with severity.
“This thing is from your head!”
“No!” she yelled and they both laughed. She seemed to relax.
“What I mean is,” he began. “If it were truly from down there, you’d show me.”
She blenched as if he had struck her. “No . . .” She glanced at me and trailed off.
“I will not show you anymore,” she said. She was greatly distressed. “Give me the fruits now. I have shown you what you wanted.”
“I don’t want to see all of it. Just a glimpse. One glimpse is enough. And don’t worry about the fruits. They are all yours.”
She started to say something, thought better of it and glanced at me again. My brother noted and asked me to go shoot birds.
I took my catapult and whistled uphill, although I really wanted to see what she would do when she discovered that the promised fruits did not exist.
He raped her that day. He dragged her into the sugarcane plantation and raped her till she became pregnant. She died eight months later due to a complication that caused the foetus to come out one hand first. The midwives attending her did not know what to do about it, so they kept yanking at the hand until they twisted it out of shape and broke it at the shoulder. It almost came all the way off. Seri went into shock and never woke up. She was buried with the foetus inside her, the hand dangling obscenely in her shaggy crotch, waving at the world, mocking it, mocking.
I would have ended up like my brother. Everything pointed that I would (and should). My grandmother even said that the firstborn son usually takes after the father while the subsequent sons emulate the first. I had nobody else to emulate but Jumbe, with whom we hung out like the door and the lock. I sat with him and his friends down by the main road and jeered at the pregnant women who walked by to the market on their own, and I had acquired the sort of vocabulary that would scare the Devil back to hell if he ever came out of it. I could call the region between the anus and the genitals in my mother tongue. It was gruesome and almost no one ever used it. It could render any sensible person deaf by just the sound of it.
But there was a girl. Her name was Jacklyn and she saved me—although in a way that hurt a lot of people and resulted in several deaths. She was the lastborn daughter of a pastor over at the Ranen Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Her mother was a clerk there. She was very small and had a broody aspect; she had a way of looking at me so that I never told her any bad jokes or became too playful around her. When I had grown up, I understood that she had had deeply perceptive eyes; I felt that she saw something in me deeper than my lies—that she saw me, beyond the superficiality and hypocrisy, that she even knew what I had made my brother do to Seri—and it made me so nervous I gave up all levity and untruth around her.
She used to come for fruits too. But, unlike the other girls, who were much older than her, she came alone. She was always alone even at school. Before she came for the first time, she approached me on a Friday evening and said:
“Dani, can I come for fruits at your home?”
I said sure she could if she wanted.
“Will you help me?”
I said yes.
“I will come on Sunday.”
Sundays were the days we spent reclined by the roadside laughing at pregnant women. I did not want to miss any. So I fabricated a lie about how we would go to the hill with my brother to set a trap for a certain porcupine that was destroying my grandmother’s cassava. There was indeed a porcupine my grandmother had complained about but we weren’t going to trap it that Sunday, or any immediate Sundays thereafter.
I opened my mouth to tell this lie, as I had told many others before, but when I met Jacklyn’s eyes—the way she was looking at me, that piercing, knowing, contemplative look—I nodded and said yes she could come on Sunday.
And so she came. She wore a chequered wraparound skirt and a white Winnie the Pooh t-shirt. I did not take her around from tree to tree like my brother used to do to the other girls. Loquats were in season then and they were what she wanted. I led her straight to the richest tree. We never spoke until I began to climb.
“Can I climb too?” she asked.
I said yes she could.
But then I thought of her panties. My first instinct was to climb back down and let her go up by herself. I stared down at her preparing to climb, shaking off her slippers and skipping towards the tree. A frail thing! What a frail thing! She was so tiny you’d think she was a big insect. A housefly. At that instant, the prospect of looking up at her underwear filled me with revulsion. It was a strange feeling and I didn’t know where it came from, but it was there and it sat heavy on my heart like pain.
“Don’t climb,” I said.
She looked up. “Why?”
“There are caterpillars.”
“I can’t see any.”
“They are on the branches. They are brown like the tree and flat like the leaves. If you can’t see them, you’ll squish them with your hands.”
She uttered the equivalent of “Yuck!” and began to put her slippers back on. I continued up. I plucked the fruits and dropped them to her.
“Can I eat them here?” she asked, scrutinizing them.
I said yes she could.
“Aren’t they dirty?”
“We eat them like that.”
“We always have to wash fruits in our house.”
“It rains on them up here.”
“What about the caterpillars you said?”
“They don’t eat fruits.”
She looked at me for a few seconds and began to eat. I went on to pluck and drop some more, and she ate until she complained that her mouth was too sour and her teeth hurt from the acid. She packed the rest in a small woollen bag she had carried with her and went home. She told me thank you. My brother’s friends never told him thank you.
She came back the following Sunday, and the next, and the next after that. She just kept coming and I obliged her every time. There was always one fruit or another in season and she came for it. Jumbe asked me where I went and I told him it was to shoot birds up in the hill. I didn’t want him to know that I was hanging out with a girl.
One day Jacklyn came with a rope. I’d have thought she was going to fetch firewood with it after she had gathered her fruits but she was not the kind of a girl who did such jobs. She had a soft constitution and was too clean. So I asked her what it was for and she said: “You’ll see.”
But after she had eaten two giant avocadoes and packed six others in her bag, she tied the rope around the tree and asked me to swing it for her. She wanted to jump.
I couldn’t do that. It was bad enough that I was hanging out with her; it would be awful if I began playing feminine games. Somebody might see me, specially the boys from the village, and they would go report in school how they had seen me skipping rope with a girl. It would be so shameful I may have to avoid school until they forgot all about it.
So I turned Jacklyn down. For the first time I did. And it didn’t matter whether she tore open my heart with her all-seeing eyes and read me like a book or not. I just couldn’t play with her. I shook my head and shrank back from the proffered rope. I did not look at her as I refused; I was looking at the sky, which happened to be a healthy deep blue with some white feathery clouds floating on it.
She said, “Okay” and untied the rope. She folded it back into the bag. She did not seem angry or disappointed and she still gave me a generous “thank you” before she left.
That incident stayed with me. It bugged me for the rest of the week. She kept returning to my head with the rope in her hand and I couldn’t shake off the memory of refusing her request. I was feeling guilty.
On Monday, I saw her at the school gate and went to her. I wanted to see if she would still talk to me. She did; she was jovial to see me and she even offered me some slices of bread she had carried to eat during her class break. It was as if she had no memory of my rejection. It was a big relief, and I became so carried away as I ate those slices that I suggested she should bring the rope the next Sunday.
She brought it and we went to the hill. I knew a place where trees were tall and massive and grass and other undergrowths were almost nonexistent. There were no puff adders or black mambas to bother you either. There we played. I tied the rope on one of the trees and swung it for her. She frolicked and laughed without a single care in the world. She jumped until she was too tired to continue and I was bored too since my arm had begun to hurt at the shoulder from swinging the rope for too long. She said I should jump as well but I declined, still thinking it was shameful for a boy to play girls’ games. She persuaded me, but when I did jump, I was clumsy and kept stepping on the rope and having it hit against my ankle. I did not have Jacklyn’s grace and alacrity, and although I wasn’t fat or flatfooted, I jumped as if I was both. Jacklyn taught me how to do it. She described it at first and then swung the rope slowly so I could pass.
“Now up, now down, now up, now down,” she iterated.
Afterwards, we left the forest and found a guava tree at the edge of the hill. I climbed up to get the fruits while she remained down to gather them into a heap under the tree. She was scampering about happily and my own heart was thumping with excitement, my head quite light. She waited until I’d come down before she could start eating. We then sat side by side and ate too much of those fruits to allow us contain ourselves. She broke wind, releasing such a foul stink you’d think it could cause cancer. But before she could be embarrassed, I answered with a deep incredible BOOOO and we both laughed aloud until we rolled on the grass. We talked about school as we ate, about teachers and students, the ones we liked and the ones we didn’t like.
“Are you going to grow up to be like your brother?” she asked.
I said I didn’t know. “Why?” I returned.
“I don’t like your brother,” she said.
“He is frightens people.”
“He frightened you?”
“No, but he looks so—”
“So what?” I interrupted and she trailed off.
I was quiet for so long she turned to me with concern. I did not like people saying bad things about my brother. I did not care whether he frightened them or not. He was my brother and nobody had the right to opine maliciously in regard to him.
As if to pacify me, Jacklyn changed the subject.
“Why are you called Dani and not Dan?”
I said I did not want to be called Dan.
“But your name is Daniel Rombe!” asserted she.
I said sure it was.
“Then you should be Dan!”
I shook my head.
“My mother calls me Jack,” she said.
I told her Jack was a boy’s name.
“I know. But my mother calls me so.”
“Tell her it is a boy’s name.”
“You should call me Jack too.”
“You want me to call you by a boy’s name?”
“My father does. And my sisters and my brother and my aunt. So should you. Then I will call you Dan, not Dani.”
I gave up trying to dissuade her from calling me so and said it was okay she could if she wanted. It took me several years to understand that she had put me in the category of the people she trusted and loved. I think it was why she never forgave me.
In view of what followed thenceforth, that Sunday remains the happiest day of my life to date. How we laughed and rolled on the grass, how we enjoyed those fresh fruits and played without reservations, resignations, or requirements. Jacklyn never hang out with me again, and I, in retaliation, became a bookworm to avoid people. I read too much. I devoured books. By the time I lifted my eyes from them and looked around, the world had become severe, so severe indeed that people sold jokes for a living. And the fruits were foul and not free anymore.
We paid to laugh. The fact which itself should have been funny. And when we bought the jokes we couldn’t laugh as we had laughed when we were children, as I’d laughed with Jacklyn up there in the hill under that guava tree. We couldn’t be truly happy; we had too many restrictions, too many worries, and too much guilt about the state of the world. We felt judged and accused all the time. We laughed as if only to account for our money, the kind of laughter that hurt the jaws and overstretched the lips while the eyes remained hard and glazed with mocking tears. Instead of health, we got sad wrinkles in return. We said we had fun, yet we laughed at absurdities and foolishness that should have instead made us cry. We laughed at ourselves.
Monday was 1st June, Madaraka Day, when Kenya celebrates its first self-rule from the British. We didn’t go to school and I thought Jacklyn would come. So when my brother left to go hang out with Opalo and Ochola, I told him I’d go shoot birds.
I waited for Jacklyn in vain. Instead, it was one of her sisters that showed up. Alora. Her second eldest sister and the third child in her family. I should have known when I saw her that she was trouble. She brought an end to a lot of things, even herself.
“Are you alone?” I asked her, hoping she was with Jacklyn.
“With whom do you expect me to be?” was her cutting reply.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged.
“Can you show me which one of these trees has no snakes in it?” she asked.
I told her that the mangoes, the guavas, and the pawpaw tree were likely to have either black mambas or green mambas in them, since the mambas liked birds and birds loved those fruits. The oranges, the avocadoes, the pineapples and the lemons were safe while the loquats and the passion fruits were most likely to conceal small brown and green snakes that were rather harmless. But the most important thing to remember was that the black mamba was unpredictable. It was a vicious hunter and it could be anywhere.
“Are you afraid of snakes?” she asked. She was looking down on me in a patronizing way. I was nervous.
I said no, I was not afraid of snakes, though if they bit me I’d die just like anybody else.
“Then follow me,” she said and began hurrying away.
I followed her along the hedge where she ate some fruits we called awach, which were as small as millet grains and grew in tight clusters. They matured from green to purple and continued to darken until they were sweet like wicked things. Most of us, however, left them for birds because of their size and their thorny trees. But Alora took so much time there that I began to fidget. I was bored and I wanted to leave her by herself. She was unfriendly and I was just standing there like a bodyguard of some sort.
In the end, she moved to an avocado tree and my boredom took leave. When she had climbed up, I lay down to watch her underwear. She had red ones on and they were extremely neat, as neat as her thighs were smooth and pale. I chuckled and she looked down.
“What are you looking at?” she demanded.
“Your panties,” I said.
“I don’t know. They are very clean.”
“Do you want to see my vagina?”
That word. It made me start. It was my first time to hear a girl using it and I thought she was abusing me. Ever since I first heard it, it was used to abuse. Even when I’d become an adult, it was still used to insult people—who then took offence with bitterness. I did not get it. I thought the vagina was a singular phenomenon. Like gravity. Something that could move a planet with an unequalled force in a single direction all by itself. It moved the hearts of men like gravity moved earth. They lusted after it with a unique single-minded desire, yet, simultaneously, they used it to assault one another. It was ironic.
My brother had even taught me that the fastest speed in the world was the speed with which a man’s eyes followed a woman’s crotch. He said it couldn’t be measured by any devices.
But women were an ill-fated lot those days. They were the butt of all ill humour and the object of every conceivable indignity. They bore the brunt of all forms of male stupidity. Any moron with a joke had to spice it with something about girls in it in order to make people laugh harder. There were boys who could abuse your grandmother till you wept in horror and shame. They did not attack you personally even though you were the one who had offended them. They attacked your sisters, mother, grandmother, and any other woman related to you. They could say things you thought could never be said: taboos, abominations, and madness. One boy named Ogur Tindi had abused an elderly schoolteacher that her buttocks were shrunken like an old man’s mouth.
“Is it a good thing?” I asked Alora concerning her vagina.
“If you see it, you will go mad,” she said.
“Is that why all girls hide their panties?”
“Yes. And it is what drove Odengo mad. He saw it when he was too young. Like you.”
Odengo was a madman by the roadside. He used to have a dirty plastic cup that he pushed at people and asked them to spit into. If you passed without spitting, he would beg and implore you with all his heart. He would even cry. But after he had collected enough spit for himself, he drank it like water. He said it was medicine and it would cure him. He said it could cure all diseases in the world. Mostly it was children that gave him their saliva, even though a few malevolent adults did not mind hawking their own phlegm into his cup. We were warned to avoid him because if he found you alone he could make you drink it too.
“I don’t want to be mad!” I blurted out, thinking of Odengo and feeling mad already.
“Then don’t look at my panties!” Alora said.
So I closed my eyes the rest of the time she was in the tree. It was the last day I ever sat down to look at those girls’ underwear.
But before she came down, I said the worst thing under the circumstances.
“Your panties are cleaner than Jacklyn’s,” I said with my eyes still closed.
“Where did you see Jacklyn’s panties?”
“When she was jumping rope in the hill,” said I.
“Who took her to the hill?”
If I had opened my eyes then, I would have seen the furious blaze in Alora’s eyes.
On Tuesday at class break, Jacklyn came to me in the field where I was the goalkeeper for my classmates playing football. She was incensed and her eyes were swollen and red. My first thought was that somebody had hurt her and she needed my help. I began to feel an uncontrollable burning in me and I think I would have attacked her offender regardless. I had a lung disease that did not require me to exert too much, but I also had a crazy brother who looked after me with a villainous eye.
“What did you tell my sister?” she asked, accusing me and taking me by a whole hell of a surprise. “What did you tell Alora?”
I did not know what she was referring to, so I said, “Nothing” and shook my head.
“You are lying to me!” she trilled suddenly and stamped her right foot. “You are lying to me!” she repeated and began to heave and cry.
I just watched her. I did not know what to do. I could not recall what I may have done to fill her with such a spirit of acrimony and belligerence. I became aware of some boys who had assembled around us and were sniggering at us. The burning thing in me was replaced with embarrassment.
Jacklyn heaved one last time and quieted. She swallowed and wiped her face with her hands. Then in a controlled, meaningful voice and said: “I didn’t know you were like that!”
She then stood there and stared at me for a few more seconds before turning away.
I remember that stare vividly. It haunts me. I can see her standing there behind the goal while I am hugging the goal post with my left arm, dumbfounded and stiff with embarrassment. She looked betrayed. A child betrayed. It occurred to me much later that there had been a chance I could have made it up for her. The few tense seconds during which she stared at me in quiet had perhaps been her way of offering me that chance. I should have seized them and made amends. But then, I had never heard anyone saying sorry, least of all my brother. He never apologized for anything, never regretted. Besides, I did not know the cause of the conflict.
I determined to find out. I left the goalkeeping to another student and went to search for Alora. I did not find her. She was in Standard Seven and their break did not coincide with that of lower classes.
I found her at four during the last break before we departed for home. She was with a group of girls but that was no hindrance to me. I walked up to her and said,
“What did you tell Jacklyn?”
“Go away!” she said and pushed me. “You are a wicked boy. Wicked!”
“What did you tell her?” I demanded.
“Wicked!” she said and pushed me again. “Wicked, wicked, wicked!”
She shoved me one last time and I fell on my back.
There were girls in school those days that could beat a boy like mad. They were tall and strong and extremely pissed off. They did not fight in any orderly manner; they did not ball their hands and calculate where to punch you. They flung their huge hands at you anyhow and rained blows on your head like hailstones. They screamed as they bashed you so that it seemed they were the ones in need of help. Sometimes they could lift you up and crash you down like a nasty load. Before you knew it, you’d be in the air and on the ground and being pulverised.
Alora was one of those girls. She stood over me and I stayed down. It was unacceptable to surrender to a girl; it was worse if she beat you. Some boys, after they were battered, tried to be save face among their peers by declaring that they had been only considerate of their attacker. “I could have tackled her!” they’d exclaim. “But she’s just a girl! Just a girl!” However, if you had witnessed the nature of pounding they had received and how defenceless they had been, you’d laugh yourself till you bled in the stomach.
So I stayed down in defeat. I did not want the situation to get any worse. I imagined Jacklyn somewhere nearby watching me engaged with her sister. I imagined my friends all looking at us and wished that Alora would leave and go back to her friends. But she was stupid. She could have saved herself an eternity of horror. Instead, she proved to be worse than a black mamba. I had seen the mambas fight back home. They did not fight like human beings or dogs. They were the most fearsome of all snakes in the area, yet, when they fought, they did it like civilized creatures, with decency and honour, without killing or injuring each other with impunity. The one whose head was the first to fall beneath the other crawled away with its head still down. I had seen it several times to be certain that it was their culture. Yet the clever human had to hurt you irreparably.
Now, although I was on the ground and crawling away from that tall girl with her long arms which she could swing like clubs, she advanced towards me and kicked my legs while calling me wicked. She kicked me again, and she was prepared to kick me a third time when my brother and his friends arrived and surrounded her. And at that instant, her fate was irreversibly sealed.
“Why are you beating my brother?” Jumbe asked her. Opalo and Ochola were with him and two others, Odek and Gonde, appeared shortly.
You should have seen Alora’s face when she saw them. She had been daring and tough, kicking me with impunity, but now she cowered like a beaten animal. I rose and moved back a few paces from them.
“Why?” Jumbe pressed. His voice was raised and he looked really deadly. I had noticed that his eyes were constantly red, his face darker, and his lips remained dry and peeling even after he had eaten and drunk a lot of water. The tips of his fingers were bulbous and burnt, nails yellowish and hard. Sometimes he smelled funny, of a mixture of vile, unnamed things. So putrid you’d think he was all decomposed inside. He smelled like my father used to.
“He did bad things to Jacklyn,” Alora said in a fluctuating voice.
“Who is Jacklyn?”
“She is our lastborn.”
“How old is your lastborn?”
“She is seven years old.”
“What did Dani do to her?”
“He took her to the hill and did bad things to her.”
What the hell? I could have asked as I goggled at her in brutal shock. That was what she had told Jacklyn that I’d said. Unbelievable! Preposterous! Maybe she had reported it to her parents as well. Ah, what a confounded liar!
“You are lying!” I yelled at her. “She’s lying! Liar! Liar! Wicked liar!”
She glanced at me only once. She did not attempt to defend herself.
“What did he do?” Jumbe demanded as if he had not heard what she’d said. “This little boy, what can he do? Does he look old enough to you? Do you want to see his penis?”
Alora shook her head.
“Does your lastborn even have a vagina for any penis in the world to penetrate? Does she?”
Alora shook her head.
“Then why do you beat my brother?”
Jumbe was becoming increasingly incensed as he spoke. He had an evil air about him that he wore like a suit. I recalled Jacklyn saying that he frightened people and agreed with her without a doubt. Those red eyes were excessively intense and diabolical. They burned. You could see that something was missing in them. Something that was in most people’s eyes: recognition. They lacked recognition. They were empty, like holes, and when he focused them on you, you doubted if he could really see you. My father’s eyes had been like that.
“Do you know that this boy is an orphan? Why do you bully orphans?” Opalo said. He was as tall as Jumbe and equally menacing both in outlook and appearance.
“Dani is like my son,” Jumbe said with emphasis. “I am the only one he has for a father-figure. And no father should witness his son bullied like that. Do you understand how I feel? Do you?”
Alora nodded. She was an embodiment of terror. I could tell the palpitation of her heart by how her breasts surged and throbbed like boiling water.
“Since she is a witch that hurts orphaned children, why don’t we rip off her clothes and send her home naked?” Opalo suggested.
“She is a witch! We should rip off her clothes and whip her naked skin until she bleeds like the sky,” Ochola chipped in.
“Or burn her,” my brother said. He produced a matchbox. “Let’s burn her hair!”
“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” was the chorus from the rest of the devils.
“Opalo, grab her head!” Jumbe ordered, and Opalo reached forward to obey.
Alora jerked back but could not escape their tenacity. She began to whimper. Opalo got her neck in a chokehold. “Burn her!” he ordered.
But Jumbe, instead of lighting a matchstick, burst out with laughter, startling even his friends. He laughed aloud as if he had just witnessed something particularly humorous and uncommon. His neck tightened, bulged, his face a picture of distortion, and violent ripples shook him. After a moment, his friends followed suit although they had no clue whatsoever as to the cause of his hilarity. Together, their laughter was a chorus of the deranged. Hollow, inane, violent and dead; it was also discordant, raucous and hellish.
Alora became confused. She stopped whimpering. She was flushed and she wiped her face.
“Heeeey, I am a benevolent guy!” Jumbe announced, still laughing. “Don’t cry like that! I can forgive you. Do you want me to forgive you?”
“Then I forgive you,” he proclaimed.
Opalo let go of her neck. She did not relax, though. She knew something worse was to follow and viewed her enemies with dreadful anticipation.
“However,” Jumbe began, “you have to reward us for our kindness.” He surveyed her up and down and added: “You are very pretty today. Do you know that?”
She said nothing.
“As a matter of fact, so pretty that I think you are bleeding or about to bleed—are you?”
She looked at him as if to say “What?”
“You know,” explained he with a slight hesitation, “the way girls bleed. Our science teacher said that if a girl is suddenly very pretty, it means she is bleeding or about to bleed. Are you?”
“No,” Alora said.
“Are you sure?”
“I don’t believe you. Convince me.”
“Yes. Convince us!” Opalo stressed.
“Show us!” Jumbe said.
“Yes. Show us!” Opalo reinforced.
She stared at them in confoundment, as if she did not believe what they were asking of her. I did not know what kind of thoughts went through her mind then, but I saw how stiff she became, how helpless. Once, my brother and I had set a trap for a gazelle that used to destroy my grandmother’s groundnuts. We found it caught the following day and its eyes, when it saw us, were completely abject and without even a shimmer of hope burning in them. Alora’s eyes now resembled those of that animal. Despair had vanquished her.
There was nothing she could do to save herself. She was the most miserable thing you could ever see. Those were men that ambushed teachers on the road and battered them. They were not school bullies. They were hardcore criminals.
Jumbe grasped her hand and towed her towards the classes. She followed like a cow to a slaughterhouse.
“You just have to show us,” he said. “Don’t make a big deal of it.”
They raped her. They raped her repeatedly in turns. All the five of them. But she never talked about it. A lot of girls got raped those days and they never talked about it. You heard of it from the men themselves when they boasted of their adventures with such and such a girl or so-and-so’s daughter. They spoke with such vigour and heroism that they won admiration in the eyes of the younger generation, who then emulated them. The cops were just as useless as your own neighbour in such matters. They could beat you to death if you insulted the president but they could not save your daughter from a rapist. A certain man named Agai whose lastborn daughter, Ruth, had been raped by three men in a sugarcane plantation went to the police in Rongo and Kisii but followed the case for ten years in vain. He eventually gave up and died of severe ulcers.
Alora became pregnant and dashed to a local abortionist before her parents could find out. But it backfired on her and she lost her uterus in the process. She hanged herself in the forest the next day. Her body was picked up all bloated and green, her eyes eaten by birds, and maggots swarming her sockets like humans in a city.
It turned out that she had had a secret boyfriend in the village. Relationships among the youth were well-concealed matters then, revealed only at a time of crisis by those in the know. Teachers did not tolerate them and parents liked them even less. They could earn you indefinite suspension from school and a deadly beating from your folks. Moreover, the villagers were snoopy; they would not shut up if they thought you were engaged in the slightest sexual misconduct. Especially if you were a girl. But people like my brother went unreported because their retribution was worse than the excitement of spreading the rumours. They could set your house on fire, for instance, or rape your daughter and torture your son to death.
Alora’s boyfriend was a man named Atoti. He had finished Standard Eight but declined to proceed to secondary school for reasons of which I was not aware. He worked in the farm with his father who owned a small factory for grinding sugarcane and heating the juice into solid blocks of sugar meant for brewing local drinks.
He was also Seri’s brother.
Until we found him hiding behind a thicket by a lemon tree waiting to ambush us, I had never thought him a menace. He used to be a mild-mannered person, taciturn, almost mute, with an unremarkable face and sheepish eyes. He was muscular from exerting too hard at work, though his left shoulder was tilted much lower than the right, making him noticeably ungainly.
He came out of the bush so suddenly that we could not take off. We were petrified. My brother had been telling me a crazy story about an ancient monster that used to come to the village and eat old women. He halted in midsentence as if his brain had been switched off like a bulb.
Atoti had a hippo-hide whip with him.
“What do you want from me?” he asked Jumbe. He was charged with rage and his face twitched as he spoke, his hands shaking. I remembered a teaching I had heard about the quiet ones being the worst to offend and knew that we were in serious trouble.
“Jumbe, what do you want from me?” he repeated. “First, you make my sister pregnant so that she has to leave school.” (Seri was still pregnant then.) “And then you take Alora by force to make her kill herself. You killed her! You killed her! And I want you to tell me why! Tell me why you hate me so much as to scheme my ruin! Tell me what I did to you!”
My brother was still in shock, his heart belabouring him. He was breathing so hard he could not speak. He had never reckoned with Atoti when he injured Seri and Alora. He had never considered the consequences of his actions on other people than himself. Yet there he was beside me, face-to-face with his last mortal enemy, motionless, speechless. And to make it worse, Atoti had made everything personal, making it impossible to placate him; he was not asking why Jumbe had hurt Seri and Alora; he wanted to know why the harm had been done to him, and he wasn’t allowing for any chance that Jumbe might have had nothing against him.
Jumbe turned and regarded me thoughtfully. I thought it was because he felt the need to protect me, but now I know what I saw in his eyes: he did not want me to think him a coward. Maybe he had been thinking of fleeing. He was silent for a few more seconds, and when he could speak, he said:
“What do you want to do about it?”
Atoti launched himself at him with the whip and began flogging him. They struggled. My brother fought back the best he could, but Atoti was older and stronger and more muscular. He was also quicker and the more furious. He lambasted Jumbe the way my father used to, with zero remorse and absolute wrath. The whip was narrow and heavy and it cut the flesh like a razor. At last, Jumbe bolted towards the main road. Atoti gave chase and whipped him on the back. Every lash was like lightning.
I did not like him beating my brother like that. He was not a policeman, nor was he our father. Nobody had ever beaten us since my father died, and I still hated my father deep in my heart. I still hate him even as I tell this story. Some people had sympathized with me for being an orphan. Teachers were especially tender with me because I was also something of a genius in class. But if my father were to return I’d have wished him back to hell without a mote of hesitation.
I ran after Jumbe and Atoti. I saw that if they reached the main road, people would see my brother’s humiliation, my humiliation, and they would talk about it for the rest of their living days. They would not fear him anymore. They would be pointing fingers at me when I passed by, saying “It was his brother that was beaten like a thieving dog” and the boys at school who did not mess with me because I had a bigger brother they all feared would now take advantage, thinking that their own brothers could handle mine. I was incited by these thoughts and I screamed Atoti’s name. I had a shrill voice, sharp as a whistle, and I kept screaming his name until he stopped whipping my brother. He turned and regarded me with hostile eyes and I thought he would come for me too. But he did not. He proceeded towards the main road.
We went home.
We did not talk on the way. Jumbe was brooding. He was bleeding all over his back and arms and his uniform was shredded in several places. My own lungs were grating like sand from screaming too much. I was in my own terrible hell.
Grandmother took care of us. She knew all sorts of roots and leaves that cured all sorts of wounds and diseases. My lungs, however, worried her; she didn’t know what kind of poisons I had inhaled in the night to make me so mortally sick, and she could only suppress the infection. We had been to the hospital at Ranen Mission but the doctor had referred us to a bigger hospital in Nairobi. Nairobi felt like an entirely different planet then, unreachable, unthinkable. So we relied on her concoctions for the time being.
She was actually my great-grandmother; she had raised my father’s father.
I had noticed that whenever Jumbe was in trouble she did not ask him how he had got into it. She knew in her heart that he was the cause. I was the one she usually chided and it was because of the good reports teachers gave her on parents’ days. They told her that I was very clever and could one day have a great future if I had proper guidance. I was also still too young to be just abandoned to the demoniacal madness in the family. Sometimes she talked to me with bitterness and anger, saying that she had already buried way too many people and if there were God, he would spare her just one. “Just one!” she’d stress with tears. “I’m not asking him for two or more! Just one!” She said that between Jumbe and I there should have been four children, making us six in total, but my mother used to get pregnant and my father would punch them out of her.
She was heartbroken whenever I stood by Jumbe, and in those instances she felt the cruelty of the vanity of her endeavours and she went to her bedroom and prayed for hours on end. She had resigned to the madness in the family and had seen enough of it to know that nothing could take it away. It was passed on regardless like a genetic anomaly, dominant in firstborns and recessive in the rest. She had told me that my father had been like my grandfather who had been like my great-grandfather who had been like my great-great-grandfather, and so on. She said that marriage in our family was a beacon for death. We murdered our wives. She herself would have been dead if it had not been for a black mamba that had killed her husband when he was pursuing her with a knife in order to cut off her head like a chicken. In his blind fury, he stepped on the tail of a particularly pissed off fourteen-foot long black mamba that had been crossing the path. It coiled on his leg like a python and raised itself to stare him in the face like an equal. Then it bit him four times on the forehead, cheek, neck, and mouth. He died in twenty seconds.
Jumbe never went back to school. I stayed home for two weeks then resumed when the grating in my lungs had subsided. I told his friends that he had gone to Sigiria to visit an aunt who lived there. He had made me promise him never to tell anyone what Atoti had done. Not that I would have told if there had been no promises.
When he had recovered, he brooded a lot and did not speak his mind. He was different and I thought it was because he was afraid. He had realized there were tougher people than him who would not spare him if he crossed their lines. I was soon proven wrong.
It happened on Sunday 13th December 1992, the last day I spent in his keep. I was eight going on nine. We had closed school and a violent furore had spread across the villages due to an oncoming general election. People were exalting FORD-Kenya while shouting the equivalent of “Fuck KANU!” My grandmother had gone to the Catholic Church at Ranen Market and I was home with my brother. Ever since Atoti punished him, he did not go out as frequently as he used to. He went in the evenings to hang out with Opalo and Ochola who had also quit school on his account. We were planning to go to the hill to set the trap for the porcupine that was ravaging my grandmother’s cassava. We had never got around to doing it and the damage had become quite extensive.
Suddenly, out of the blue, as if the Devil was guiding his footsteps and Death tugging him with a noose, Atoti appeared. He was headed for the hill with his two dogs. He was carrying a sickle and a sisal rope and I knew he was going to harvest grass. He saw me and waved at me but I did not reciprocate the gesture. I could not tell whether he intended to make peace with us because he was crossing our land or whether he would still have greeted me if I had gone to his home.
To my bewilderment, my brother, who was standing beside me, urged me to wave back at him. I did but stiffly. Jumbe did too and they began inquiring apropos of each other and chatting like old friends. Jumbe even laughed aloud at some joke Atoti made about his dogs being frightened of birds. He told Atoti that we were about to leave for the hill ourselves and we’d find him there. Atoti said it was fine and continued uphill. We let him lead by fifteen minutes then followed.
It felt wrong. It was wrong. My brother did not have the heart to forgive. He was cruel. I remember him once telling Opalo and Ochola that if anybody ever messed with him, he would go to Nyamenya—the woman who had cursed my father—and obtain a voodoo doll of that person. He would then wait until the person was walking around unawares, maybe playing football in school or buying something from a shop, or even sleeping—he would wait till then and pull off his limbs one by one.
He was very excited as we climbed uphill. The vein on his forehead was pulsating and there was an odd sheen in his dead eyes, his strides too long. He told me a story about how the hare once duped the python to swallow his own tail, and when the python had done so and could not retract fast enough to save himself, the hare called the hyena to come and eat him.
Now, to catch a porcupine with a rope is a tricky business. If it is caught, it just cuts the rope with its teeth and continues to destroy your crops. You can use wires but the wires are chancy; it takes forever to catch anything in them. I used to think that the animals in our area were intelligent enough to interpret the wires as traps but too foolish to see the same about ropes. However, if you had to use a rope, you had to find a tough pole—so tough that you couldn’t bend it by yourself without some help and just flexible enough to bend only to a certain level. That way, if anything had the misfortune of being caught in the trap, the pole would spring back up with such a mighty force that the poor victim might die in midair before it ever even knew what had hit it.
We had set one like that before for a certain antelope that used to damage our potatoes. It had been male and it used to jump over the fence we had put around the farm to keep it off. It could have been three hundred kilograms, with big winding horns and a nasty smell. When we found it in the morning, it was hanging high up on the pole, which had sprang back to an erect position, with its leg so broken and wrung that it dangled only by its skin. The animal had passed out from the pain.
We found the open spot where the porcupine used to enter the farm. Several quills had fallen off there and small footprints in the shape of a baby’s hands were all over the place. Jumbe dug two holes and then left to fetch a suitable pole. I remained playing darts with the quills against a tree trunk. It was quiet in the hill except for some birds and Atoti’s dogs which were barking at them. I could see the main road from up there. It was swarming with loud campaigners who wore FORD-Kenya t-shirts and paper hats and carried Oginga Odinga placards. They were singing about President Moi being a chronic land thief and a dickless freak.
Jumbe returned with a twelve-foot long pole. He sank the bottom end of it into a four-foot deep hole and buried it with skill and dedication. It stood up erect and stable and you’d think it could never bend. It was then that he called Atoti who was cutting grass nearby.
“I need to bend this thing,” he said.
Atoti agreed without demur. I discovered afterwards, when nothing could be reversed, that he had been a good person. My brother had provoked him exceedingly to have him turn violent, but, all in all, he had been one of the kindest men in the area.
He went behind the pole and started pushing it forwards while Jumbe pulled it down with the rope which he had tied thirty centimetres from the very top. The rope had been made by my grandmother who performed her tasks the old African way. So strong was it that ten grown men could hang on it simultaneously and it would still hold. The two men applied all their might and bent that monstrous pole. Their muscles stuck out like roots, and where they stood, you could see the soles of their shoes digging the ground for purchase. As the pole became lower and lower, Atoti moved forward gradually to increase his effort distance and make his work a little easier. He was straddling the pole and using his weight to press it down.
On Jumbe’s end, there was a hole two feet long, a foot wide and a foot deep into which he had sunk two hooked pegs to hold down the pole via a smaller round peg on a string extending from the middle of the main rope. A looped end of the rope with a slipknot would be spread over some vulnerable sticks laid above the hole. The loop would then be hidden with grass and debris. If an animal stepped over the hole, the sticks would give in and disengage the smaller round peg, thereby releasing the pole. The slipknot would tighten as the pole kicked up, sending the animal straight to hell.
However, my brother did not reach for the hole. I had become bored of the quills and came to sit down near him. I saw in his eyes what he intended to do. But it was too late. He had a knowing grin on his face and his eyes shone brilliant with mischief. He waited until Atoti had come to the end of the pole and was springing on it, waiting for him to engage the pegs and keep the pole down for good. Instead, he released the rope . . .
There followed the sound of the pole returning to its original position. It was sharp and fast and loud; you would think the air was a fabric and the pole was tearing through it. It was almost like the sound of the military jets which usually saluted President Moi on public holidays.
I saw Atoti in the air. Up, up, up, and up he went. Until he started becoming very small and I thought he would never come down. That pole could have hurled away a three-hundred-kilogram antelope as if it weighed nothing at all. Atoti was not even a sixth of that and he was hurled like a little rock. I thought he’d keep going until he vanished in the clouds. But then, he stopped and came back. He came back as if the sky itself hated him and had flung him down. He fell on a rock and the back of his head exploded like pawpaw, his brain scattering about like the insides of the fruit. His eyes popped out and dangled on bloody tendrils where his cheeks had been. He broke his spine and ribs and hips and shoulders and just about every other bone in his body. He fell like a wet thing. He did not bounce, did not roll. He stuck to the rock like a magnet. He became part of the rock. When they came to collect his remains, they had to use their machetes to scrape off his flesh from the surface. The pole had shattered his scrotum and crashed his testicles and penis to bloody pastes.
I do not know for how long I was frozen in shock. When I came to, I let out the loudest scream my lungs could endure, such as I had done when I met my mother bleeding like hell out of the bedroom. I screamed for my grandmother, for anybody. I could not stop even after my lungs began to grate like sand.
Nobody came, though. They thought I was campaigning.
My brother disappeared in the bush and I never saw him again.
Unlike most people who gave up on such kind of injuries, Atoti’s father pursued it with a vengeance. He had a lot of money from his business and he used it to bribe every cop he could find so as to have Jumbe arrested. But the police had too much on their hands at the time due to the inevitable violent eruptions concomitant to the campaign. It was not until late January that they came to talk to my grandmother. She told them that she did not know where Jumbe was but he consumed too much food to live with anyone who was not his close relative. So they could go look for him at any of our relatives out there. She gave up their names and the places where they lived.
We heard that he was arrested in Sigiria and later transferred to Awendo Police Station, then to Migori where he stayed for years on end. In those days, the government could keep you in remand for even a hundred years if it wanted to and you could do nothing about it. Most institutions were as the British had left them and the government was too busy plundering resources and murdering opponents to improve anything. The leaders made laws only to protect the president and then spent the rest of their greedy days digging deep into his rectum with their sharp unashamed tongues, calling him “Baba, Baba!” and making his asshole sparkle like strange glass.
So they locked up Jumbe and forgot all about him. He had to kill another man in prison to prompt the magistrate to hand him a life sentence. Apparently the man had been one of the hardened inmates known to torture others. He thought he could terrorize Jumbe too. He wanted Jumbe to pay him rent for sharing the same cell with him. Jumbe said he had no money and was assigned the duty of emptying the bucket of shit that they used as a toilet for the rest of his remand days. He refused the job.
“Do you know why I am locked up in here?” he asked the inmate.
“I don’t care! I don’t care! We are all locked up in here and you happen to be locked up with me!” were the man’s final words.
He attacked Jumbe who got the better of him and sank his head in the bucket of shit, thereby drowning him to death.
“I am locked up in here because I killed a man, and I will not hesitate to kill the next!” my brother announced to the goggling inmates as he stood over the twitching body.
He died in 2007 at Kodiaga in Kisumu. By then I was in the third year of my course at the University of Nairobi. I had become so different from the child he’d left behind that sometimes I wondered if I even knew myself. I shunned his funeral because I didn’t want to remember.
Atoti’s death shook many people. It was then that I discovered how much he had been liked, respected, and loved. He had been good to a lot of people, even my grandmother. She said how she had met him on the road one night after a downpour detained her at the market and he had walked her home just to ensure she reached well. When Jumbe could not be found, I was the one people looked at to identify him. I’d been afraid they would point their fingers at me and say, “It was his brother that was beaten like a thieving dog”; now they were pointing fingers at me and saying, “It was his brother that murdered Atoti.” I felt worse.
I did my best to shun people. At school I was scared of the bullies who would now take advantage of my brother’s absence. I was also worried about the people my brother had assaulted who might want to avenge themselves on me. Several girls had finally found courage to report the abuse Jumbe had inflicted on them at night parties, and now that he was nowhere to be found, every one of his enemies expressed a horrid desire to get hold of him and shred him to pieces. A story began to spread of a boy named Sedi who had vanished without a trace sometime in 1988 but whose remains were later unearthed by a ploughing tractor from South Nyanza Sugar Company in mid 1992. It was said that Jumbe and his friends had chopped him up and buried his remains in the plantation. It was a true story, for as soon as it was revealed, Opalo and Ochola took off and never came back.
However, my brother’s enemies never did anything to me. I was hard to find. I reported to school the first and left the last. I ignored those who attempted to talk to me about him. When grandmother needed me to help her with a task after school, I’d be the first to leave, running all the way home. At class breaks, I remained in class and read.
Yes. I read. Of all the things that saved me, reading was the best. There was a small library that the government had begun to stock but quit when it realized that education of the people was its number one adversary and that a country dominated by ignorance and illiteracy was the politician’s paradise. It had very old books some of which could sometimes be too difficult to read. I borrowed every single one of them nonetheless and read and reread them all. The teachers made me the librarian and the timekeeper due to my adamant punctuality. It was as though they had given me carte blanche to cut out all social contact. I hid in that library whenever I had no class in session. I cleaned it and repaired the books and the shelves and rearranged them. I even asked the headmaster to buy more books to which he replied that he would consider it although he never did.
I saw Jacklyn last on Monday 10th August 1998 at about 1pm when we were called to an impromptu assembly to be told of the Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi which had occurred the previous Friday. It was the day we were first introduced to Osama bin Laden, the name that would haunt us for the next thirteen years. We were quiet and tense and several gasps could be heard when the headmaster said that over two hundred people had been killed. I noticed someone staring at me from behind and when I turned I saw that it was Jacklyn. I looked away immediately to avoid her but she continued to stare at me for the rest of the meeting. She had become bigger and her breasts were showing. She was very pretty, a wispy thing with pristine grace and large absorbing eyes. I imagine now what we could have had if my brother hadn’t taught me to look at women’s panties and my heart fills with poignant regret. I’d never even had the chance to call her ‘Jack’ as she had wanted me to. I knew she was still angry with me and would never forgive me. She had blamed me for what my brother had done to her sister and for days I had wished to explain to her that her sister had lied. But then, I told myself that the fact that Alora had lied could not justify what Jumbe and his friends had done to her.
My social skills deteriorated. People talked about themselves and expected me to do the same. Whenever I looked back at my childhood, I saw my brother’s face. I saw a malign spirit, a dark thing in a dark place. I saw the devil that had been behind it all. I heard his diabolical laughter when he was about to commit an atrocity. He was everywhere and I remembered that I had been his accomplice. I was the reason he had hurt Seri and Alora and Atoti, and even the inmate. I was the reason for his death. I wanted to scream and hang myself. I wanted to set myself on fire and burn to ashes. Some nights I lay awake and tossed about like a terminally ill person, with only the awful night and the empty room for company. I saw my father bending over me, pinching my buttocks with his monstrous paws while his noisome breath washed over my face. That gigantic horror, that abortion of humanity, that grotesque mockery of God’s work! I remembered that I was carrying his genes and I was suffused with darkness and rage, I was transported with hate and loathing and I howled till my lungs grated like sand and my throat was full of blood, cursing that he had begot me, cursing that even something like him could desire children, cursing, cursing . . .
But I lived. And recently I met a girl. Her name is Subira and I’m in love. She is one of those girls that if you let go, then you shall be a colossal fool for the rest of your life. She said she had been watching me for a long time and wondering why a young man with a great job, an intelligent face and a rather handsome physique prefers to walk alone like the Devil in Paradise Lost. She said I was always so withdrawn I did not seem to notice anything else. She thought I did not exist on earth at all. We had a date—my first date in thirty years!—and she talked about herself while I tried to keep the conversation on Paradise Lost, a book we both liked. At length, I told her some things about myself which instigated the bad memories. I went back to my house and for the first time pondered over what else to do about them other than shutting them away. I decided that I should write them down. I had heard that writing heals the mind and I had read enough books to delude myself that I could write. I hope it does.
I have also learnt that genes are a function of the environment, so that I no longer have to be afraid of my children taking after my father or of my marriage becoming a beacon for death. Children are as they are raised, where they are raised. All energy comes from the environment—the fact which proves everything on earth is linked to one another, so that I still haven’t figured out how killers like my brother can live to kill again, knowing what they have taken. I think life is a sanctity. If you consider the biology, the chemistry, the physics, the mathematics and everything else that makes it possible—the magic of how a single microscopic cell can begin to communicate its neighbour and continue to do so until, out of the union, a seemingly impossible, almost otherworldly phenomenon is achieved, one that has never been formed before and can never be duplicated again—it is so complex, so mysterious, so awe-inspiring and so beautiful that to destroy it is unspeakable.
My grandmother died in 2009 at a hundred and twelve years old. She was happy that I had outlived her. She said God had answered her prayer. She was also glad that school had transformed me, although she said I’d never live to be as old as she was. She said to be that old I had to know the old African ways, which did not exist anymore. I had my lungs treated in 2003 and when I told her about it she was beside herself with joy. She just kept on singing some old songs even after the night had settled and the village was quiet. She told me that since I could now exert I must use my strength wisely, that I must never lift my finger against the mother of my children, unless I thought it desirable for my children to have no mother. I told her that I hated my father so much I’d never do anything he used to do. I wanted to be the irreconcilable contrast of everything he had been. I will keep my word and I know she will be proud of me wherever she is.