Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

I died for three seconds and went straight to Hell. Upon my arrival, the Devil came and took me before that infamous immensity of molten fire, the limitless, unquenchable expanse of mucilaginous horror, which cracked and crackled to reveal its seething white-hot underbelly. The Devil asked me to choose whether to be cast into the squirming hostility immediately or to wait as I watched my fellow humans boil and broil and scream in eternal agony and implacable doom. He said that he often liked new arrivals to just stay and watch on their first day because, then, the horror and affliction of Hell was total and complete and immensely rewarding to him. He added that he was a fair being, for he still allowed us some choices, even when we were utterly in no practical situation to make any.

“I do not want to be here,” said I, whining and quivering in unspoken terror, to which his reply was “That’s not a decision you can make now,” by which he meant that it was too late for me. My life of choices was spent. He proceeded to add, “However, I can return you to earth, but you must choose, from the two ways which I shall offer you, how to spend your worthless time on the worthless pit that you so thoughtlessly love.”

I quickly agreed, thinking I would do anything to return to earth, and escape the hideous, unflinching terror of the inglorious molten sea.

“A short life of three seconds during which you shall be the most intelligent of your species, a genius of a singular kind,” continued he. “Your fame will be unsurpassable, your glory intense and unmatched; three seconds during which all your dreams and whims shall come true. Or a long life of a hundred years spent in savage servitude, of brutal labour and undying humiliation. My demons shall minister to you and shall be your supervisor, and they shall expose you to anguish so great and insupportable it will make what they did to Job of Uz a travesty.”

While I was still pondering over the disparity between three seconds of a minute and a century of years, and increasingly becoming appalled by the wicked irony of this offer, the Devil turned to face me . . . and lo! what a mocking smile on his unfeeling countenance, what a cunning gaze in his deep, bone-chilling eyes! Perceiving fully what fate awaited me, I broke down in desperate yells from the desolate pits of my accursed soul, yells so deranged and inconsolable they startled Hell itself. For an instant there, I thought the everlastingly burning and smouldering souls had forgotten their unequalled anguish and stopped their inhuman screams in order to listen to me.

Enraged that I had failed to take either of his choices, the Devil lifted me by my neck and hurled me, like a tiny rock, into the molten, white-hot vastitude of fire . . .

And I woke up in my bedroom, choking and screaming, red smoke hissing furiously out of all the pores of my skin and the orifices of my body. My hair was all burnt, my night-clothes melted and stuck on my skin, my throat parched as if on fire. My head felt as though it were splitting along several jagged lines, and my eyeballs throbbed endlessly, rife with agony and immortal pain. I was hotter than a cupola; the heat of my body alone set the blanket and sheets ablaze, and soon the entire bedroom was engulfed in unforgiving flames.

I bolted to the door coughing and crying for help, but stopped at once when I heard a man laughing just outside it, a baleful, deep-throated guffaw like the rumbling of the foundations of the earth. Ho, ho, ho . . .

The Devil laughing

lo! what a mocking smile on his unfeeling countenance, what a cunning gaze in his deep, bone-chilling eyes!

I. The Albino Twins

On the nights when neither moon nor stars rode across the sky, when the heavens were black and endless, and you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face, the people of a small Kenyan town called Toi believed that something inhabited the tunnel under the highway. Nobody had ever seen this thing, although it was generally agreed that when you crossed the tunnel on such bleak and dismal nights, a dense feeling of being stalked tightened around you like a noose, and all the hairs on your body stood on end, and, suddenly, you took to your heels and sped like the wind. Sometimes the shadows shifted in front of you just as you reached the middle or the opposite end of the tunnel so that you had an indubitable feeling that something had been waiting for you there. Those who told the stories claimed that it had begun with the electric storm that had wrecked Morris’ old shop.

Even so, nobody had ever seen it. That was the most important thing. It was why what befell the albino twins, and later the university students, was inevitable. People found all manner of ways of refuting these claims: they mentioned superstition and discussed the notorious black spot on the highway just thirty metres from the tunnel. They talked about the perpetual darkness in the tunnel, and, still, some clever ones pointed out the innate nature of human minds to harbour fear of the unknown and to be prominently evoked by stories of horror.

However, these swift-talking, smooth-tongued, fear-evading sceptics could not explain what had made the seventy-year old Kariuki to scream his lungs dry and run a hundred metres in less than twenty seconds before his heart exploded right where he fell; or why a fifteen-year old girl named Njoki had become deaf-mute and pregnant after taking the route alone in the night. (She had become pregnant with something that did not want to be born. It squirmed in the confines of her belly, and she cried horrible, heartrending cries unfit for a child. She was picked up dead one day with her uterus and vagina all chewed up, a nasty hole gaping there, strange teeth marks on her buttocks and legs.) Or why all stray animals had vanished from Toi. Or why the accidents over the tunnel remained gruesome and there had never been a survivor even after the government had hired Chinese contractors to renovate the road and built better rails.

Or what had happened to the albino twins.

Theirs was the most recent incident, and quite memorable indeed it was. It started with an accident. A bus called Modern Highway Express collided with a minibus which was for some unknown reason called The Omnibus Nightshift. They had such a collision that the minibus was first cast skywards before it crashed down with a thunderous force and rolled several times. One of its front tires detached and beheaded a cyclist ten metres away. It also killed the cyclist’s wife who had been riding with him, crushing her chest to pulp, almost breaking her in half.

The bus, on the other hand, burst into unforgiving flames that gutted it like paper. Not a single soul escaped its ruin. It took two days for the police to clear the scene and haul away the wreckages.

However, on the third day, rumours began to spread across the town that a body had been left behind. It had been thrown over the rails and beyond the bush that crept and crawled on that side of the highway. Police had not located it, even after their diligent search. Those in the know explained that it was the body of the cyclist’s wife.

Now, Muguna and Miguna felt that they were very unfortunate kids. They were eleven years old—“eleven years all!” Miguna yelled in the privacy of their shared room—and had never seen a dead person. Because they were albinos, their mother did not allow them to mix freely with the townsfolk. There had previously circulated very dismaying stories about some folk in town who kidnapped albinos and sold them exorbitantly to witches who in turn used albino body parts to make juju potions for improving sexual virility in men. Muguna and Miguna were, thus, incarcerated in their compound, and whenever they were allowed to leave they were chaperoned with such severity that any fun of being away from home could not exist at all.

But they longed to see a dead person. Those two children did, with all the fiery passion in their young hearts! They had seen a dead housefly, a dead cockroach, a dead cat, and a dead dog. But a dead human, no! And they always wondered how a dead person looked like.

“Maybe people don’t completely die, anyway,” Miguna said one day.

“People die! You hear about it all the time!” said his brother.

“Maybe they just hung about somewhere and watch what you do about their rotting bodies: how loud or bitterly you cry, or how happy and cheerful you are. They gauge you.”

“Dead is dead, is dead!” Muguna said with emphasis. “Like the dog at the school gate. It looked so totally dead! Deader than the cockroach you squished in the kitchen or the housefly you burnt with super glue!”

“Do you think that if you look into a dead person’s eyes you will be able to see your reflection in them?” Miguna asked. He was serious, and he looked fixedly at his brother.

“I don’t know.”

“Would you like to know?”

“Sure.”

“Because, if you can see your reflection in them, then the dead person can still see you.”

And so it came to pass that the two boys conspired and sneaked out of their house on the night of the day the town was rife with rumours of a forgotten body near the tunnel. They wore black clothes and masks and gloves so they would fit with some confidence in the darkness without their skin colour betraying them. They also took their faithful dog, Tyke, with them. Moreover, they had a powerful flashlight, of the kind the night guards did carry around with them.

“What about the tunnel?” Muguna asked. His voice quailed. They were getting closer and closer to the hole. It looked blacker than the night itself; a foreboding pit, it was thoroughly revolting to the senses. It was like a nasty, slimy, monstrous thing, silently brooding and calculating.

The Tunnel

The Tunnel: It looked blacker than the night itself.

“What about it?” his brother replied. He sounded bold and defiant.

“You know what I mean! Don’t pretend.”

“I don’t believe any of it,” Miguna said confidently. “Nobody has seen a thing. There is no evidence. I am a scientist. I work with evidence!”

“If Tyke growls or barks or behaves in a funny way, I’m not entering that place. It is a Death Chamber,” Muguna said.

“Coward!”

“Don’t call me that!”

“Coward! If you run away, that’s what you are, will always be.”

“Nothing is as reliable as an animal’s instincts, you know. It saves them from tsunamis and earthquakes while humans die like squished cockroaches!”

“Aren’t you curious to see the eyes of a dead person—if there is any reflection at all in them—if they can see you?” Miguna asked.

“Of course, I am.”

“Today we must know for sure.

“What if we find that they just rot and sink into the skull and become two stinking holes filled with pus and maggots?”

“Like maggot swimming pool?”

“Like maggot soup.”

“Well. No matter. We must find out. Something else I am puzzled about is whether a dead man looks like a dead woman.”

“They can’t look alike! One is a dead man, the other a dead woman!”

“I mean, whether they smell the same, or feel the same if you to touch them, rot at the same rate if they die at exactly the same time. But most important is whether their eyes resemble!”

“Wow! You really should be a doctor!”

“I’m going to be a Medical Examiner! Isn’t that cool?”

“Yeah, cool!”

Tyke did not growl or bark or behave in a funny way when they entered the tunnel. But when they were almost through with crossing, shadows began to shift in front of them in manifold forms and all the hairs on their bodies suddenly stood on end, erect and stiff and prickly, and that was when Tyke did everything Muguna had said it might do. It growled and barked and leaped about in a funny way. But it was too late.

The flashlight burst and Muguna shrieked in pristine terror. Neither of them lived to tell of what bred within the tunnel. Miguna was found on the following day, drifting purposelessly on the other side of the tunnel. He was moribund, his eyes inside-out, eyelids shrunken like burnt leaves. His stomach was excessively distended—he looked pregnant!—and he was choking on something stuck in his throat.

By the time they got him to the hospital, he was dead. Upon examination, his body was found to be stuffed with the remains of his brother and their dog. He had been choking on Tyke’s intestines.

Where they buried Miguna, a curious incident occurred several hours later as the day faded to a grey evening and the sky became clouded and overcast as if with grief. A young girl named Nkatha, while playing hopscotch nearby with her friends, happened to glance cursorily in the direction of the town’s cemetery. Her attention was immediately arrested. A column of smoke, black as that of a factory chimney, was rising from Miguna’s grave. It wreathed heavenwards and then bent and flowed away.

Unbeknownst to the little girl, who was now irretrievably enthralled, the smoke flowed against the wind, and it flowed in the direction of the tunnel. Silently, lost in thought, goaded by strange forces, she followed it, and that was the last time she was seen.

Miguna’s coffin lies empty even as this story is told.

II. The University Students

That was almost three years ago. There was a media-blast about it and people gasped with horror. But memory fails people, fails them tremendously.

By the time the university students crossed through the town, the furore had died down and Kenyans had other businesses to mind. No one warned them of the tunnel. It was assumed that they knew about it. The townspeople had managed to keep off that route and believed that a person would have to be stark raving insane to use it. The tarmac was dull and littered with papers, rocks, silt, dead leaves and sticks from adjacent trees. Grass had overgrown the edges and now began to creep over it.

What’s more, the students were feared in these parts. They were a daredevil lot; openly rude and incautious, they believed life owed them a debt that had to be paid regardless. They viewed life in the manner toddlers did, resorting to violent tantrums, abuses, and causing irreparable damage to both domestic and commercial property. Shops were closed and entire roads avoided when they rampaged.

The group’s destination was not clear, but Morris, who was watching them cautiously from his shop window, ready to shut down if they should begin their characteristic frenzy, decided that they must have sought a shortcut to the Arboretum in the deep woods two kilometres beyond the highway. It was Sunday, the day the greatest number of people visited the Arboretum.

They were young, probably still in their first year, their faces bright and carefree. Young people in the prime of life, adorned in the gloriously beautiful but painfully transitory garb of youth, ripe and sweet and elegant, savouring life for the all the delicious things it offered, their indefinite futures still holding before them a plethora of choices. They chattered and laughed boisterously as they hurried down the road, gay, pert, and bold, adventurous and rash, full of erotic energy, all out to have fun, pure, unspoiled fun, unaware that fun came in multifarious facets, and that sometimes, if not most times, the onlookers had the greatest fun.

Morris was relieved when the tunnel swallowed them without incident.

Over the rails above the tunnel was perched an intrepid teenager named Kiama. He was flabbergasted when the rollicking group of girls and boys came out on the other side without incident. He heard their riotous laughter when one boy remarked: “I told you guys! Didn’t I? There’s nothing in that tunnel but superstitious gibberish and misplaced fear!” to which a girl, her voice musical, added: “When you don’t believe in superstition it has no influence over you!”

When his confoundment had subsided, Kiama contemplated the sky. A silver sliver of moon rode across it in a lonely subjugating gloom, and flocculent clouds scattered from it as if repulsed. The moon would vanish soon. The heavens would be dark. And there might be an incident. Kiama, who was fascinated by the thing in the tunnel, decided to wait for the students to return. But when it was almost seven o’clock and they had not appeared, he decided that they must have chosen a different path. So he went home, disappointed.

Soon afterwards, a keen scream brought the townspeople rushing headlong out of their houses. It was the girl who had remarked that superstition had no influence over those who had no belief in it. She seemed stricken insane. Her voice cut through the stillness of the night like a hot knife through butter. You couldn’t remain where you were after hearing that scream.

She came careering towards Morris’s shop which stood by the road. She was a wispy thing and did not seem to touch the ground at all when she moved. Long hair, slender neck, quick, graceful limbs, as agile as a reptile, she flew into Morris and seemed to perch on his chest like a bird. Such was her weightlessness that he did not feel her impact.

But she was raving mad. She would not calm down. She was shaking violently like one with paroxysms, and there was a great volume of foam spraying from her mouth. Her eyes were shut and she was uttering rapidly and incoherently, as if inspired with glossolalia.

The first thing heard, through all that unintelligible gabble—and it seemed a long time before anything could be made out—was: “Swallow!” Morris had to listen carefully because the word came out sounding more like “Sallow”. “Sallowed them!” she shrieked. After several other useless words and phrases, it became clear that the girl was saying “Swallowed them! It swallowed them! The earth swallowed them!

My head!” she cried and clutched her ears with desperation. “My head!

Her ears began to bleed, and there was a greater profusion from her eyes and nose. “It is in my head. Something is in my head!” she cried, before her mouth became an overflowing dam of blood. There was a tightening around her head, her forehead bulging forwards, the sides extending. The sound of her bones and flesh tearing apart was excruciating. Suddenly, her head blew up like a squashed fruit and most of her brain fell on Morris’ face.

For a wild, turbulent second, he discovered that the brain is rather too smooth in the mouth, damn easy to swallow, and a tad too salty. Or maybe it was just the girl’s brain.

Smoke was now pouring forth from all over her body. It seemed her brain had been boiling.

The townsfolk, who had been gaping speechlessly at Morris and the girl, turned and shot like arrows back to their homes. They careered back faster than they had come.

But that night, Kiama found one of the boys from the girl’s group—the boy who had said something about superstitious gibberish and misplaced fear—lying on the roadside not far from the tunnel. His eyes looked like the eyes of a dead fish, his face ghastly and twisted like a demon’s mask. His mouth was open and he did not have any tooth left. His teeth seemed to have been uprooted one by one, his gums swollen and ruptured all through, discoloured even, seeming ploughed by a lunatic farmer. Clotted blood coated the lining of his mouth, his tongue a massive chunk of grey flesh. His stomach was bloated and grotesque; there was an appalling putrescence all about him.

Kiama, overcome with curiosity, picked up a stick and prodded the impregnated belly with it, thinking that this one too may have been stuffed with the remains his friends, as the albino twin had been. The stomach made a squelching sound and then burst like a balloon, spraying foul stuff all over Kiama.

The university boy suddenly became alive and cried: “Ah, you! Ah!” He seemed angry that Kiama had disturbed him. He reached out with his hands to grab Kiama’s legs, his glassy dead-fish eyes shifting about crazily, but Kiama jumped back, his own shriek stabbing the night like a rusty blade.

His flashlight went off. He shook it. Nothing! He shook it again, hitting it against his left hand. Nothing! He started walking backwards, cautiously, his plucky spirit finally dissolved. He turned and fled.

The dead thing got up and chased him towards the town. Kiama ran as he had never run before. He wished he could fly. He wished he had stayed in bed. He wished he had paid better attention to the story about the fabled cat murdered by curiosity.

The thing caught up with him just as he was about to reach Morris’ shop. He screamed once, fell headlong, and it landed on top of him. It was cold, very cold. It was creepy, and wet, a most repulsive thing crawling on him. Its burst intestines, now hanging like torn ropes, wrapped around Kiama. They bound him like an insect in a spider web. He was dragged into the tunnel.

III. The Invasion

The disappearance of the university students had a greater impact on Kenyans than did the previous events that had taken place in the town. Twenty two students did not (and could not) just vanish like that.

A violent furore gripped the university and a mob of students invaded the town. They crowded around the tunnel and stopped traffic on the highway. When they couldn’t see any peculiarities about the tunnel, their anger increased greatly and they started a riot.

“People cannot sublime like iodine,” the student leader announced. “We must find our comrades. We will not leave before we know their whereabouts. Somebody lied to us!”

With this last proclamation, missiles began to rain upon the traffic. Traffic lamps, posts, and shop windows suffered irreparable damages. One student brought a hacksaw and began cutting the rails over the tunnel.

Looting began. Morris shut down his shop and begged God to ward off the marauders. It seemed God answered his prayer. But that was probably because he sold foodstuff. The students craved electronics the most.

Then there were journalists. The self-righteous seekers of truth. Theirs was a different kind of riot—the media riot. Antagonistic, opportunistic, importunate pessimists, where would they be without bad news? They came in hordes. Talkative vipers with reddened inquisitive faces warped with vindictive passions and strange prejudices, anxious eyes roving about in search of deformities.

They interviewed everybody they met: children, adults. Hell, they would have interviewed dogs if there had been any! (Ever since the tunnel turned wicked, animals did not live long in the town, unless they were indoor pets). They wanted the story told and they wanted it done by any means, all means. The nature of their inquiries revealed that they thought someone or some people were behind the disappearances. Just like the students did. It was unbelievable.

Repeatedly, they were directed to the tunnel where they took imaginative photos of it, of both interior and exterior, and from all perspectives conceivable. But they were in the end dissatisfied with the absence of any remarkable features about it; they found it to be only a plain tunnel, dingy, dank, sporting mottled walls reminiscent of ancient puerile graffiti and a fractured, crevice-strewn floor, left unrepaired and unpainted for decades, now languishing in a sorry state of slow decay and desuetude.

They scurried back to the town centre to harass people with their numerous questions. Such was their cleverness that they inveigled even the most honest of the townsfolk to reveal more than was true. Their main goal was to get somebody to admit, even subtly, that there was nothing amiss or mysterious about the events in the ill-famed tunnel; that the students had been indeed victims of a diabolic scheme.

A woman named Jane said: “In the beginning we didn’t believe that there was anything wrong with the tunnel.”

“What is wrong with it now?” she was asked.

“I don’t know,” she said. “But it is—” She was cut off.

Morris was trapped in his house by thirteen reporters. Word had leaked out that the girl with the boiling brain had died in his arms. He was surrounded, his home infringed on, left with nowhere to run, to hide. He was greatly rankled. Normally, he was a reserved person who scarcely minded other people’s affairs. But distraught, as he presently was, he became tight-lipped. He had told the reporters everything he had seen, but they still wanted more from him.

“So you admit that she just died in your arms?” he was accused. “Where it gets unclear, is where you say the girl evaporates immediately after her cruel death in your hands. Would you clarify that again?”

The questioner was from Q-TV. He was thirty, had a shiny forehead and desultory eyes that seemed to see nothing. Morris ignored him.

The girl had vaporised. She had turned into smoke, consumed by something that had been inside her. Her stench had been evil, purely evil; so corrupt that Morris had almost become insane from inhaling it. It had attacked his respiratory tract and knocked all oxygen out of him, making him double over, clenching his throat, gagging, coughing, unable to breathe, to talk, to think, a man confined in a dark, unknown place reeking of death and damnation.

Morris had later told his wife that if Hell stank like that nobody would worry about fire, unquenchable or otherwise. That stink watered the eyes, corroded the nostrils, and poisoned the lungs. The black smoke had writhed its way, slow and worm-like, into the tunnel.

“The tunnel is a bad place,” he said finally. “People disappear there. Sometimes corpses are stuffed inside people. And sometimes the corpses awake to take you with them into the tunnel. Something evil lives there, something so evil that it can cause glass to crack without touching it. It has found a way through to this town. Maybe it rips opens a portal within the tunnel and takes whoever it finds.”

The reporters left him alone, though clearly disappointed. Morris, relieved, decided that such careers, as did numerous others, fed on catastrophe, grew fat on the carrion and turpitude of humanity. He was struck by the futility of warning.

“What is the point of warning anyone?” wondered he.

The police also came. But they had a different mission. While the General Service Unit officers battled with the rioting students, detectives swarmed the town. They needed culprits, and in Kenya, if the police want culprits they obtain them aplenty. They obtain them by any means, all means.

One inspector remarked that they should arrest every Toi resident they could find and lock them up at the station to be interrogated later on. His colleague praised the idea, but added that the station could not hold them all. So they went from house to house asking questions. It was a gruelling option but they had a cruel devotion. They wanted to know how each house made a living, the breadwinner and all.

Now, in any given Kenyan town, the unemployed are countless, street children are a must, and school dropouts as fish in the sea. The police made a bountiful harvest that Monday, their reasoning being that idlers are the most vulnerable to crime, are in fact criminals. It was a handicapped view, indeed, typical of the unproductive system they served.

Morris was arrested and cuffed alongside a forlorn teenager with whom he had never before had a chance to make acquaintance. His wife wept and pleaded with the cops to spare him. She said he was an honest man, kind even, an altruist who had never hurt anyone on purpose ever since she married him. “He has never even slapped me!” she shouted. But, of course, her pleas and implorations could not convince the authorities. Morris’ story about the university girl simply did not make sense.

It was evening and the sky looked mournful. Clouds hung low, dense and fecundated, casting an ominous shadow over the town. A chill breeze blew, and the families of the captives nestled outside their houses weeping in dejection and quivering in the cold as they watched their friends and relatives wrongfully taken away from them. A woman named Nyoruko who sold tomatoes and onions at the market expressed her regret for having lived in the town for too long. She should have abandoned it as soon as the first misfortune happened in the tunnel. Other families expressed the same sentiment.

The tunnel was built by the British in the 1920s. But the history of its wickedness began about five years ago. There was an electrical storm after which a fog enveloped the town for two days. A thirteen-year old girl named Soni became its first victim. The police were involved, but when their efforts did not fructify, it was decided that she had been kidnapped. The second was a construction worker with a family of four to feed. It happened on the same day. In total, seven people vanished before the question of the tunnel was even raised. When three high school boys went through it one evening and did not come out the other end, it was only then that it began to receive attention and rumours spread of an invisible monster hiding within it.

IV. Stupidity Unqualified

Once, not too long ago, two philosophers were discussing the human condition.

The first, a cynic, said: “People do not understand a situation if it’s not happening to them. You can explain it till your throat turns red, dries like sand, and cracks like clay, but they will only act as if they understand. This characteristic makes pain and suffering requisite, because, pain is the unqualified detergent of the soul and suffering evokes thought and compassion.”

The second, dispassionate, said: “The human, unique and uplifted above all animals, was bestowed with all the important faculties that every animal has. He was given them in moderation so that it is up to him to cultivate and nurture them. It means that man has the capacity to be the most intelligent animal on the planet, or the most stupid. It is up to him.”

***

The reporters lingered in town—and wonders of wonders, they were inside the tunnel! Many students had mixed with them to escape the GSU officers quelling the riot, so that the hole was packed. They were waiting to see for themselves what the thing did when darkness fell. They were chatting very loudly and laughing at the top of their lungs.

At the farthest end of the tunnel, where some light penetrated and the din was a bit tolerable, a man named Onyi, who worked for KTN, was hitting on a European woman named Sara, who worked for BBC.

“Why do women eat soil when they are pregnant?” he was asking.

“I don’t know,” she said, uninterested. “You can Google it.”

“Google kills conversation. I’m trying to build a conversation right now.”

“For what?”

“My mother used to eat salt when she was pregnant with me,” he said.

Salt?” she frowned, interested now.

“Yes. Table salt,” he said. “Sodium chloride. She’d eat whole packets of it. 2kgs, 4kgs, 10! Scooping spoonfuls after spoonfuls, ladles and ladles. She would dissolve a whole packet in a bowl of water and drink it like soda. She craved salt.”

“And you survived?”

“Standing right here loving your pretty eyes!” he said and grinned. She blushed, looked away for a moment, and returned to him.

“Well, that is very strange,” she said.

“What is?” asked he. “Surviving the salt or loving your pretty eyes?”

“My pretty eyes have been loved before,” she said, her tone a notch defiant. “For your information,” she added as an afterthought. “But the salt thing is alien. Did you become sick?”

“Healthy as a horse!” exclaimed he. “I was—and still am—preserved by salt. I am salty. So salty that when I was fifteen, I kissed a girl and dried her mouth by osmosis. She had to consume three litres of water afterwards in order to restore herself.”

“Lol, you are lying!” she said, laughing.

He liked the way she laughed. He liked even more that he was making her laugh like that. He stepped closer.

“How can you tell?” he asked.

“I don’t believe it!”

“I am literally a walking pillar of salt.”

“I don’t believe you!”

“Would you like evidence?”

“Yes!”

He stepped forward. “Kiss me,” he said, and something in his voice made her pause and regard him differently. He thought she would refuse and hastened to add: “I’ve been thinking about your lips ever since I first saw you here. I can’t help it.”

“That’s it then!” she broke out, laughing harder. “You’re hitting on me! You’ve been hitting on me all along! Oh my God, I should have seen it! You’re such a clever over-winding prick!”

She did not move when he took one more step and closed the distance between them.

“Can’t this be done another time?” she said, flushed, looking around warily at the rest of them.

At that moment, Onyi proclaimed himself a winner. He felt such a hot rush of triumph that his penis bulged like a rock outcrop. His heart was on fire.

He was beginning to hum “win some, lose some” when a strange shadow fell over him. He turned, spinning like a wheel, all his winsome charm and proud heart at once gone. The tunnel had become darker and ominous. There were strange movements in front of him. Shape-shifting things, incomprehensible things, amorphous things, shadowy, real. He smelled something foul, a bitter, asphyxiating corruption of flesh. He saw something like a wing. He heard a rustle of hairy, leathery things. He saw something reaching for him. It looked like a giant claw.

Onyi ducked and Sara let out a chilling scream. He had forgotten that she was there. The thing—the claw or whatever—struck her and her head went flying against the wall, bounced, and rolled on the tunnel floor. He made to rise up but her headless body fell on him and pressed him down. He could feel her blood burning his back, spurting forth like a crazed fountain, while her hands and legs jerked madly. He pushed her away with great might, scrambled up, but was suddenly covered in a horrible embrace with what he now confirmed were wings. Leathery, hairy wings, yet so large that he was lost within their eerie confinement. They tightened around him, the claws clasping his ribs, digging in, ripping his spine. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out. Instead, his eyes exploded, blood gushed out of his ears, and his teeth fell off like faulty ball bearings.

The university student leader, who had also sought refuge in the tunnel and had been listening with amusement as Onyi pulled a trick on Sara, broke into a frenzied, terror-inspired run when he saw what happened to the two. But something like a giant stinger stabbed him in the stomach, injecting strange fluids into him and paralyzing him there and then. He was digested inside out, becoming a small pool of brown liquid.

One Ciku, who worked for NTV, on seeing the complexly shifting images in the tunnel, did not wait to investigate. She had been thinking that the entire Toi community could not be so wrong. They couldn’t tell the same story as if they all knew one another and had discussed it. That man Morris, for instance, had not been lying. Yet there had to be an explanation for the events in the tunnel, which was why Ciku had elected to linger in it.

She fled now. But instead of coming out into the open, she fell into a hole which hadn’t been there before. She fell forever. It was dark. It was eldritch. It was endless.

The rest of the group fell after her. Some of them almost made it out but they tripped on the brown liquid, which, only a few seconds before, had been the student leader.

The cops heard the chaos and hurried towards the tunnel. They brought the prisoners with them. They could see from afar that there was nobody in it. All the journalists had vanished. But the cops were unafraid. They were the ultimate authority and they had guns. The prisoners now consisted also of unwatchful students who had been collared. The ones from Toi, however, were frightened. They knew just to what scope the tunnel could extend its malevolence. But there was nothing they could do to save their skins. If they disobeyed the police, they would be shot dead without hesitation. If they got into the tunnel, they would never make it out alive. They were herded in like sheep.

Morris had hung back from the moment he realized they were going into the tunnel. There was now just a single policeman behind him. As the others began to stream in, he stopped altogether. The policeman promptly kicked him on the butt. The next few seconds saw him flogged and dragged and pushed and called all manner of names. Needless to say, he did not budge. He had the will of a mule.

He held on to the edge of the tunnel with his free hand. He realized that he was much stronger than he had always thought. He was in fact stronger than the policeman. The problem was the kid with whom he was paired; instead of helping Morris resist the cop, he was pulling Morris towards the hole. He was also crying. A struggle ensued for sometime, but the officer, losing, began to grope for his gun.

At the same time, a great tumult erupted within the bleakness of the tunnel. Somebody cried out and a gun went off. A stampede ensued. Morris could see them coming back, running and tumbling along the tunnel, tripping on the floor, falling and trampling one another. But none of them was coming out. They were vanishing somewhere between the middle of the tunnel and the end where Morris and the boy were.

They looked vague, distorted images moving blurredly before being taken by mystery, into mystery, almost as if there was a barrier between Morris and them, a constantly shifting farrago of shadows and real images. Then there was a hissing sound, and a high-pitched diabolical cry like that of a furious cat. Something flapped like wings and a cold volume of air exited the tunnel in a gusty rush.

The cop was still distracted. Morris let go of the wall and kicked him in the stomach. The gun flew away from his hands and Morris pushed him into the heartless darkness, where something like a tentacle stabbed him and he rotted instantly. His tongue fell out and his eyes sunk into his skull.

Morris tugged the boy out, who fell hard on the stony pavement, yelped like a dog, but Morris ran, towing him aground.

He stopped after about thirty metres. His shoulder was hurting from pulling the kid along. Most of the boy’s face was bruised, lips shredded, and knees skinned. Nothing that couldn’t fixed, though. Morris scooped him up and hurried away. No one else left the tunnel after them.

V. The Thing

It is. It just is. In the supreme unknowable dark, where no light can reach and neither meaning nor logic can be found, where emptiness reigns unbound, it abides, and has abode, forever, and ever.

I.            Déjà vu

Almost twenty-four hours before the dead man appeared, Kimani was afflicted with a sense of déjà vu so keen and deep, so detailed and distinct, that he did not just have the feeling that the events he was experiencing had already taken place, but he in fact saw himself performing or witnessing them in the past.

It started in the bathroom. He was reaching for the towel, he could just feel the wet tips of his fingers coming into contact with its velvety softness, ready to grasp it and pull it down from its holder, when, in a flash, he was overwhelmed with vivid memory of the action. Involuntarily, he jerked his hand back, as if the towel were too hot for him. Then he wiped his face in one quick, anxious motion of his hand, and stared at the towel with a confounded expression. But it was still just hanging there on the wall, impotent, quiet, not even shaking from the slight touch he had given it.

“Strange,” he said, blinking rapidly to clear water from his eyelashes.

He had seen an image of himself, with his dripping arms extended, seizing the towel; even the way it had felt against the tips of his fingers had been oddly familiar. He tried to recall if it was memory from the past, when he had showered in the same place and used the same towel. But no. The image could have been from the past, for all he cared; yet the feeling put it in the present, this very morning, this very moment. It shook him.

After nearly two minutes of fruitless reflection, he took the towel and dried himself.

From then on, it became a nightmare for him. His life was on a replay. It was as if that Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009, were happening for the second time with meticulous accuracy. The way he dressed, the clothes he chose, which leg got into the trouser first, which one into the shoes, what he said to his wife, his position at the breakfast table, his posture, the sight of the food, the arrangement, the taste, his daughter’s appearance, her fork, her plate, her Weetabix, the conversation they had, her voice, etc—everything was as though rigidly foreordained, and he’d been through each and every one of them this very day. It was eerie.

His daughter, silently studying him, asked, “Dad, what’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing,” he said, starting, meeting her brilliant eyes. He smiled at her. “I’m all right, Lin. Thank you for asking,” he added; but there was déjà vu in both the question and the response.

“For a moment there you looked weird,” Linda said, still studying him. “You looked disturbed.”

“I think I’m experiencing déjà vu,” he said.

“Is déjà vu a disease or something?” she asked.

“Or something,” he replied, and she laughed aloud. “Dad!” she exclaimed happily, her fork hovering about her mouth, her eyes luminous.

He got up, left the table. “I’ll just be outside,” he told her.

“You didn’t finish your breakfast,” she announced after him.

“It’s all yours,” he said.

“Over my full belly!” she exclaimed and laughed at her own joke.

He stood on the balcony. Standing there, too, seemed to have occurred beforehand. He saw his neighbour taking out garbage in a black plastic bag, felt that he had seen her do that before, although he hadn’t, for it was the owner of the house herself, not the maid, which was out of place because the maid always performed the task. If it was the maid, he would have concluded the sense of déjà vu associated with her was no more than a recurring image from an event actually witnessed before. It caused him to ponder over the causes of déjà vu. He remembered coming across a long time ago information to the effect that déjà vu could be a result of a screw-up in a person’s memory banks, when the long-term and short-term banks got their data interchanged. But that, he reasoned, explained a single instant of déjà vu. Not several hours of it, or the entire day. Wouldn’t he have to be utterly mad if his memory banks became so corrupted that the whole day appeared to be reoccurring, right up to the subtle nitty-gritty of it, like smells, sounds, gestures, greetings, and desultory thoughts? Was he becoming mad?

Or perhaps he was developing epilepsy. Did he have epilepsy? Déjà vu could also be a disorder of the central nervous system linked to epilepsy. It chilled him to contemplate the slightest possibility of that evil torment.

When he was in high school, there had been a boy with epilepsy in his class. Gony, his name; when he was attacked, he’d be convulsing and stiff at the same time, his mouth twisted and drivelling profusely, his eyes wide, unseeing, staring fixedly at something invisible on the roof, and strange, loud, revolting, gargling, strangling sounds would be coming from his throat.

Epilepsy, being a long-term disorder, could be the only explanation for the sort of déjà vu Kimani was experiencing.

He pictured himself in Gony’s place, prostrate, paralyzed, convulsing, seeing the Devil or maybe death itself on the roof, while his twisted mouth emitted oodles of vile spittle.

Epilepsy, he thought with sudden panic. “I have epilepsy!” he cried in a shrill terrified voice, and fled back into the house, tripping over the door rug and momentarily losing his balance in the process.

“Kim, what’s the matter?” asked his wife, who had joined Linda at the table and was polishing off Kimani’s left-over breakfast. She started to rise immediately.

“Dad?” shouted Linda with concern.

“I’m okay,” he lied, his voice shaking. “Just remembered something.”

He ran into the bedroom and locked the door behind him. Unconvinced, for they knew him, Grace and Linda were soon shouting outside, but he did not let them in. If he went to the hospital, he would be put through so many so expensive tests at the end of which he would be advised to return for more. The doctors in the current economic system did not compassionately care about their patients; money was their chief concern; and there were always stories that they were bribed by the pharmaceutical companies to prescribe drugs, so that they gave you drugs that would not treat you, would perhaps kill you, or just worsen your painful condition, but they did not give a damn.

So Kimani called Otis, his long-time buddy and business partner, with whom he had been in the University of Nairobi studying Physics and Mathematics. Otis knew things. His opinion would be reliable. Thirty-nine, same age as Kimani, yet a bachelor, he read for a hobby and he’d read one too many books. Kimani had advised him to enrol for a master’s at the campus but he’d said: “What’s the point, when I can make all my money by myself and still read every damn book I want, without some perverse, grumbling, underpaid lecturer telling me what to read, and what not, for an unnecessary piece of paper at the end?”

Suppressing his agitation, Kimani inquired, “Is déjà vu a symptom of epilepsy?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“But certainly I recollect seeing an article about the connection between some form of epilepsy and déjà vu,” asserted Kimani.

“No, that’s not true,” Otis said. “What you saw was most likely a conjecture. There is really no established cause for déjà vu, inasmuch as I can tell. Epilepsy is a broad term for neurological anomalies, Kim; now, if you view déjà vu in the same way, maybe as a disturbance in the memory circuit, audio, visual, or tactile, etc, then there you have your connection. But it’s all just an educated guess.”

“Okay,” Kimani said, and sighed loudly with relief.

“What’s wrong, Kim?” asked Otis, carefully, after hearing the relief in Kimani’s voice.

“I thought I had epilepsy.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m experiencing déjà vu,” Kimani explained.

“How can an experience of déjà vu lead you to such preposterous conclusions, Kim?” Otis asked. “An epileptic person manifests recurrent convulsive seizures, not déjà vu!”

“You don’t understand,” Kimani said. “Everything is re-happening. The whole day is reoccurring, as if I’ve been through it before. Even this conversation, the things you say, what I say; even when I scratch myself, it’s like I’m repeating it.”

“That’s interesting,” Otis remarked.

“Indeed, because it feels as if you’ve said that before, and today,” Kimani answered.

“I can give you an explanation, but it’s just mine,” Otis said.

“Go ahead. I’m listening intently.”

“Do you remember that course on Quantum Mechanics?”

“Professor Akumu,” Kimani said. “That old neglectful bastard; he didn’t seem to have an atom of idea what he was talking about!”

“Quantum Mechanics hypothesizes that there exists more than just one world . . .”

“Parallel universes, alternate realities,” Kimani interrupted. “I remember that one.”

“In those other worlds, or realities, or universes, our past, our future, our present have happened, are happening now, or will happen sometime in the future. Our history may be the same one or entirely different. What you did, or could’ve done, or was done to you in the past, say, in the year 2000, has been done already, is being done right now, or will be done in, say, 2014, or 15 elsewhere. Time is simultaneous across the universes. The year 2009 here can be concurrent with 2015 or 2030 elsewhere. Sometimes there is a glitch between two worlds, like a temporary short circuit, and particles known as tachyons cross back and forth carrying with them energy from wherever reality and whichever time they come. If such is the case, and your data particularly is transmitted, then you experience the sensation of what has happened to the version of you on the other side. That’s déjà vu.”

“I’ll be damned,” Kimani said and chuckled. “You’re saying that today, Wednesday, Dec 23rd, 2009, has already happened to me elsewhere, and I am simply re-experiencing it here!”

“Something of that sort, yes,” Otis said.

“Ha! I like that one,” Kimani said pleasantly. “It sure is more comforting than thinking I’ve got epilepsy.”

“You are fine,” Otis reassured. “Déjà vu only means that you’re still alive and kicking out there somewhere in a separate, disparate world. Enjoy your Christmas, Kim, and pass my sincere love to Grace and Linda.”

“Will do,” Kimani said. “And thanks, man.”

“No problem.”

He felt much better afterwards, elated, cheerful, happy, although those feelings, too, were quite familiar. He did not care much any more. He spent time playing Scrabble with Linda, let her win three out of five games, much to her jubilant amusement and inspiration, before she left with her mother to go to shopping at Nakumatt Junction.

Alone, bored, unwilling to leave the house due to his déjà vu, despite not considering it a threat any more, Kimani went to the bedroom, lay down on the bed, and slept after half an hour or so.

II.            Someone in Linda’s Room

The bedside clock was reading eleven minutes after six when he awoke. For some time, he thought it was in the morning, until he recognized that the orange rays pouring in through the window were from a setting sun. The general texture and tone of the day had changed; there was less noise without and the evening had acquired a velvety feel. Kimani struggled to reconcile himself with the fact that he’d slept for over eight hours.

He went to the toilet to urinate. As he was finishing, it occurred to him, abruptly, that he was no longer experiencing déjà vu. He paused in the process of zipping his trouser to scrutinize this revelation. He recounted his movement from waking to the toilet. It seemed true. To be absolutely certain, he concluded the zip, lowered the seat, rinsed his hands, face, dried them, washed his mouth, stepped back, opened the door, and exited slowly, all his senses sharply alert to any abnormal sensations. But there was none; no interfering memory; no déjà vu.

Glad, encouraged, a harsh burden lifted from his heart, he hurried smilingly towards the kitchen where he knew his family was now getting ready for a six-thirty dinner. His feet were light; his gait graceful; his mood evincing great exhilaration. He attempted to whistle yet in vain. The endless episode of déjà vu had taken its cruel toll of him; he realized the extent of strain it had caused him. It had been poignant, though no more.

As he was passing outside Linda’s room, suddenly, out of nowhere, he felt that there was somebody else other than her in there, and he was brought to a jolting, trembling halt. His skin prickled; his hair rose; his heart gave a forceful jerk, and then accelerated steadily. It was a powerful feeling, brutal, poignant, like a confirmation of bad news, as if he was convinced beyond doubt of the presence of the stranger. A stranger—he knew it was a stranger, and a man. He knew. Impulsively, he stepped forward, grasped the lock, but let go of it. He had a split second of reflection to realize that if he went in with such a frame of mind, he would frighten her badly. He needed to relax. He should relax. He must relax. He noticed that his hands had curled themselves into hard-knotted fists. He uncurled them. He shut his eyes. A few seconds elapsed. He took deep breaths.

She was twelve; an only child, her mother had suffered the ugliest, most excruciating, wickedest possible case of obstetric complications, what the doctors had called placenta percreta, in which Grace’s placenta had become completely lodged into the uterine wall. She’d had to lose her uterus in the operation; which meant that there would be no more children for Kimani; which meant that Linda was special, more than special; indeed, she was extraordinary.

“Lin?” Kimani called and knocked once. His heart was still thumping, though the deep breaths had calmed him a little.

“Come in, Dad,” she said. Her voice was sweet, pure; innocent.

He went in. She was sitting on the bed surrounded with plenty of books, a pen in her hand, and a calculator beside her.

“Hi,” he greeted.

“Hi, Dad,” she said happily. “Are you really okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Then why did you sleep for such a long time?”

“I don’t know. I meant to wake up when you and Mum returned.”

“But you didn’t,” she said, gesturing. “Today, you’ve been truly weird! Are you hiding something from us? Mum said you might be.”

“There is nothing to hide, Lin,” he said. “I had a curious case of déjà vu. I told you in the morning. But that’s all. I’m fine now. Are you alone in here?” he asked after a pause. His tone was conversational; yet he was subtly looking around.

“No,” she said.

His heart leaped. “I can’t see anybody else,” he remarked, hoping the excitement in his voice was unnoticeable.

She laughed. “Dad, you’re also here! Can’t you see yourself?”

“That’s funny!” he exclaimed, and they both laughed. His laughter was tense. “Do you talk to yourself, then?” he asked, thinking he should dispel any suspicions. He did not want her thinking later on that he had been convinced there was a man in her room. It would give her wrong ideas.

“How can I talk to myself?” she asked.

“I heard you,” he said.

“You’re just being weird again,” remarked she. “I was studying Maths. And you can’t do anything else when you’re studying Maths. You lose concentration.”

“You’re studying Maths on Christmas day?” he teased.

“Dad, it’s 23rd! Besides, Uncle Otis said there is no bad time for reading. Any time is fine.”

“Uncle Otis is a genius,” Kimani said.

“He also said that I should strive to discover things for myself and not always wait for the teacher to show me.”

“That’s an excellent advice.”

“And, guess what, I think today I discovered something that is not in our books!”

“What’s that?”

“It’s about number nine,” she said, looking up with radiant eyes. “Do you know that nine plus any other number can be reduced to that number?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” her father said.

“Like nine plus six can be reduced to six!”

“Nine plus six is fifteen.”

“Yes, but one plus five is six. Nine plus eight is seventeen; but one plus seven is eight. It works for every other number added to nine.”

“What about nine plus twenty?” Kimani challenged.

“It’s twenty-nine, which is like two plus nine equals eleven, and one plus one equals two.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be twenty?” Kimani asked.

“Twenty reduces to two plus zero, which is two! Same as twenty-nine!”

“Whoa! That’s amazing!” Kimani praised, genuinely delighted.

“You think it’s an important discovery, Dad?” she asked, seriously.

“It’s extraordinary,” he said. “Tell Uncle Otis all about it. He’ll be thrilled. It’ll be like a Christmas present to him. And he’ll tell you where the concept can be applied.”

“Can I tell him now?” asked she, her face lighting up with anticipation.

“Of course,” he agreed and gave her his cell phone. “Come for dinner when you are done,” he added, and left.

Feeling guilty, embarrassed, he questioned his motive for going into her room. How could he have been driven to think, let alone believe, that there was a man in with her? It was absurd. It was wrong. She was but a twelve-year old kid, innocent, genius, full of love, trust, freedom, honesty, virtue; an angel. Yet he had been powerless to resist the feeling about the stranger. He told Grace about it.

“Jesus, Kim, what’s wrong with you?” she admonished strongly. “You can’t do that to Linda. It’s awful. It’s immoral. Your imagination is farfetched. You’re paranoid. You’re overprotective.”

“I’m not,” he said weakly.

“Do you know what happens to overprotected girls?” she continued. “They grow up screwed up. You are not going to screw up our only daughter. All those strict religious rules and principles and bullshit my parents made for us! I will not allow you to put my only child through them.”

“But, Grace, she is a genius! She has just showed me a concept in Mathematics that I don’t remember meeting anywhere in Kenya’s curriculum. And she found it by herself. We have to protect her or some half-witted, opportunistic idiot will take advantage of her.”

“That’s quite irrational!” Grace exclaimed. “I am not discussing this any more!” added she in an astringent reproachful tone.

Kimani started to protest but then remembered how his hands had curled themselves into hard-knotted fists at Linda’s door. He stopped.

III.            The Dead Man (1)

In the morning, there was a dead man in the living room.

Grace shook Kimani awake. She was terrified and in panic.

“What did you do?” she demanded.

“What?” he asked. Everything was misty. He rubbed his eyes.

“What did you do?” she shrieked, shaking him harder.

“I don’t know what—”

“There is a dead man in the house!” she cried. “There is a dead man in our house!”

He shot out of bed like a bullet. The sheets and the blanket flew after him, caught his legs, and he floundered, staggered, fell, got up and ran out in his underwear. His head was ringing, his heart rapidly gaining momentum.

“Oh, Kim,” Grace cried, following him.

The corpse was sprawled on its belly about three feet right of the main door, with its right hand clutching the edge of the sofa nearest to it and the corresponding leg folded and drawn up as if the owner had tried to get up in his last moments. The left hand had pinched a fistful of the carpet, apparently in distressing desperation, and there was a depression smeared with clotted blood and peeled skin on the wall where, evidently, the man had banged his head, which had continued to bleed on the carpet. His head lay on its cheek; the forehead was split, the nose crushed, lips and teeth shattered. The man had been no more than twenty years old.

“Who is this?” Grace asked.

Kimani, tongue-tied, thunderstruck, confounded, shocked, did not respond, could not respond.

“Who is this man?” Grace pressed agitatedly. “Who is he, Kim?”

“I don’t know this man,” Kimani said slowly, eventually. He had to be dreaming. He definitely had to be dreaming. His mind was whirling.

“Did you do this to him?” Grace asked. She was hysterical. “Did you kill him?”

“I don’t know this man,” Kimani repeated. It was all he could say.

“Oh, my God, Kim! Who is this? What happened? Who is he? What do we do?”

“I don’t know,” Kimani said. “I have never seen this man in my life.”

He was thinking about the déjà vu. He was thinking about the long sleep he’d had and how he had felt that there was a man in Linda’s room. What had happened? Had there, indeed, been a man? If so, who had killed him? What had his déjà vu to do with it?

“Grace, do you know him?” he asked, looking at his wife’s horrified countenance.

“No!” she said, shaking her head and spontaneously stepping back from the corpse. “I have never seen him before,” she added vigorously.

“Was the door open when you found him?”

“The door is still locked, Kim. Can’t you see?”

“Then how did this man get in here?”

“You’re asking me!” she exclaimed. “You tell me!”

“Can you go ask Linda?” he suggested; but Grace stiffened at once, as if paralyzed, wounded, gave him first a perplexed, questioning stare, then, remembering something, most likely their discussion the previous night, turned defiant, accusing.

“Don’t!” she warned, moving backwards, stern, her eyes hard as pebbles. “Don’t, Kim! Don’t! She’s out of this. Keep her off it.”

She went to Linda’s room and directed her not to come out.

“We have to go to the police,” she announced, coming back. “I’m going,” she declared. “Don’t touch it. Don’t touch anything, Kim,” she added.

He nodded, too confused and overwhelmed to comment.

She took in deep breaths, settled a bit, faced him, and said, “Kim, Linda is too young to have a man in her room. You know that yourself. You are a reasonable person. And she just can’t. Even if she could, she wouldn’t. She is a good child. I don’t know what’s going on here. But I do know that you didn’t kill this young man. You can’t kill anybody, Kim. I know you. You didn’t wake up at all till now. And there is no way he could have got in here. He doesn’t seem like a burglar to me. Moreover, to reach this house he’d have to pass through the rigorous security at the gate or climb the stone wall and fly over the electric fence at the top. And then, still, one of us had to let him inside. Whatever this is, it’s very strange. But we’ll solve it. We’ll be all right.”

But there was repressed hysteria in her voice and her chest was heaving too rapidly. She was fighting to take charge, though scared witless. She left for the police.

Kimani looked at his hands. The back of his right hand was bloody, the knuckles were swollen, and his arm was aching at the shoulder. He had punched something, someone.

IV.            In Custody

A terrifying chill coursed through him. He felt insane, disoriented; sick. Once again, he thought it was all but a dream. He hoped it was all but a dream. He had no memory at all of the killing. Had he sleepwalked? He had never sleepwalked in his life. He never sleepwalked. Had he suffered memory loss? If so, then when, why, how? What had the déjà vu to do with the dead man? Why had he felt that there was somebody in Linda’s room, when there had, in fact, been none? There had been none.

Four policemen, armed, found him slouched wearily on a sofa, weeping, his darkened, distorted face in his hands, his elbows on his knees. He was still in his underwear.

“Kim?” Grace called at him, distraught, scared.

He looked up hopelessly, depressingly, and showed her the back of his right hand. She started to cry.

For the cops, the case was pretty much self-conclusive. There was a corpse in Kimani’s house whose owner had clearly been beaten to death and there was blood on Kimani’s hands. All they needed next was a confession in order to determine his motive. When they were finished with their petty investigations around the scene, they allowed him time to dress, and then took him with them to Kilimani Police Station.

The body was taken to the city mortuary where it vanished soon afterwards, without a trace.

There was no court session till Monday, Dec 28th. Kimani spent his Christmas and the following two days wasting away in a cold, squalid, lightless, vile prison cell, alongside lowlife criminals, some of whom must have been rapists and homicides, the lot amongst whom he had never thought he’d ever spend a single second of his dear life. Grace and Linda came to see him but all they did was cry, and cry some more, inconsolably. They felt like victims of a scheme impossible to comprehend. They felt wretched, hopeless; doomed.

On Monday, before a Kibera Court magistrate, after the mentioning of his case and his pleading not guilty, his lawyer requested bail but was denied. The prosecutor argued that since, according to police reports, the body of the victim had mysteriously vanished from the mortuary, and was suspected to have been stolen, allowing Kimani bail would be most inappropriate, for it was suspected that he had colluded with those who had stolen the corpse, and he’d, thenceforwards, interfere with investigations respecting its whereabouts. His lawyer started to object but instead began to stutter badly, shocking everybody, for he was not a stutterer. The magistrate, herself seeming distracted and somewhat lethargic, bored, announced that bail was denied and set pre-trial hearing for March 22nd of the following year, 2010.

Kimani saw his family in court, but it was a sight too melancholy and heart-wrenching to behold. He felt for Linda, especially Linda, wondering how she was coping with all of this, what she now thought of him, what she thought would happen to her, if she had grasped the magnitude of the events that were unfolding, like her not having a father to look up to, among other horrendous consequences. She was a clever pupil, talented, inspired, industrious, and she needed proper nurturing. In view of Kenya’s ineffectual academic system, Kimani had planned to send her out of the country as soon as she was done with high school. In Europe or America, she would be favourably cultivated and improved. Her outstanding talent would be nourished by greater talents. But he was now in prison, charged with murder. Found guilty, he would serve a sentence of at least fifteen years, by which time his daughter would be twenty-seven, maybe even married. And he could easily be found guilty. The system was sloppy, incompetent, dangerous, steered by thundering, overwhelming morons on the wheels of venality, prejudice, and perversity; sick, sickening men from the fiendish belly of hell itself; they were already speaking of murder yet nothing about the victim had so far been established, not even his name.

Overcome with the enormity of his imponderable fate, Kimani wept in his cell like a demented child.

Otis, who had gone to his rural home for the holiday, returned to Nairobi urgently when Grace told him what had befallen his friend. He came to see Kimani. He brought with him chips, chicken, and soda, which Kimani regarded with revulsive loathing and everlasting distaste, having lost his appetite a thousand years before.

“That’s quite complex, man,” remarked Otis, in his own puzzlement, after Kimani had narrated to him the events subsequent to the episode of déjà vu.

“You are the genius, figure it out,” Kimani said. “All that Quantum Mechanics stuff, what does it say about waking up to find a dead stranger in your very house and going to jail for it, huh?”

“I don’t know,” Otis said. “The concept of the multiverse, or multiple universes, is hypothetical. It can be used to explain some phenomena, like déjà vu, but . . . this, Kim, I don’t know what this is. Even if I knew, who’d understand it? Will the judge release you? I doubt it. This country is run by people who don’t even know why they shit, let alone why they wipe their asses backwards!”

“You have to try,” Kimani said. “It will at least give me a little peace of mind to know why I’m here, what kind of quantum mechanical devils I pissed off. And, man, I’d like to know why they say the corpse vanished. How could the corpse just vanish into thin air? If stolen, as they say, who did it? It’s so convenient! Everything fits so well but in a diabolical scheme intended to demolish me!”

“Don’t break down. It will be over. And soon,” Otis consoled.

“One last thing, watch out for Linda,” Kimani said. “She shouldn’t feel exceedingly traumatized by all this and despair. She might mess around with some unintelligent, opportunistic pests.”

Otis left a few minutes afterwards, promising to do everything he could to get Kimani out of his unfathomable quagmire.

V.            Investigations and Eventual Discharge

Police did their investigations. They grilled Kimani endlessly, and with as much mercy as crocodiles have for their victims. They wanted him to confess. They wanted him to reveal the name of the young man, his association with him, and where his body had disappeared to. They believed Kimani was the key to all the answers they sought. Their methods of interrogation included, but were not limited to, deadly flogging, coercion, intimidation, dragooning, and hair-raising threats. Yet at the end, they had nothing, nil. Kimani stuck to his truth. He had nothing else to tell.

Next, they turned their unflinching attention to Grace. She told them the truth as she knew it. Kimani had been strange the day previous to the appearance of the dead man. How strange, they wanted to know. Disturbed about something, even looking sick, she answered. What thing? She didn’t know. He’d said it was some chronic form of déjà vu but she did not understand. In the evening, he’d felt there was somebody in Linda’s room but there had been nobody. What kind of ‘somebody’? A man, she said. Like a boyfriend? She didn’t know. He’d started to explain but she’d cut him off with a rebuke because she’d not liked what he’d been implying. Did he get such feelings often? No. He had an overprotective instinct—he loved Linda too much—but nothing like that had ever happened. Did she think that if there had been a man in Linda’s room, Kimani would have killed him? No, she said. “Linda is twelve. There was no man in her room. And Kimani cannot kill anybody.” Did he have any enemies? No. None that she knew of. But even if he had an enemy, she wondered, why would it be a child of twenty? Did he tell her everything? Yes. Mostly. Eventually. Yes, mostly, or eventually? Yes! Did she know the young man who’d been killed? No. She’d never seen him before. Ever? Ever. Was Kimani a violent man? He was docile, meek, amenable; he was generous, loving, a good husband, a perfect father. He had his moments of flaring rage, just like everybody else, but he hurt no one. As a matter of fact, she was the more belligerent one between them, controlling, inflexible. Was Kimani capable of killing? No. Not even a cockroach if he could help it. “What if he couldn’t help it?” one cop whispered coldly, grinning like a reptile, his eyes shining like polished steel. He could always help it, she replied.

They questioned Linda, too, until she broke down and cried for her mother.

“Dad, there was nobody in my room,” she told her father tearfully when she came to visit him. “Why did you think there was a man in my room?”

Kimani, ashamed, dejected, pained beyond rescue, apologized to her; but damage had been done. A sprinkle of distrust had been sown in her heart and he feared it would germinate and proliferate. He felt like taking his own life.

Otis, when questioned, tried to explain the many-worlds interpretation of Quantum Mechanics to the cops, who were no more than high school leavers and did not even understand how the heart functioned. “We ni professor kutoka university gani?” they demanded in pathetic Kiswahili. From which university are you a professor? Before he could answer, they decided he despised them and pounced on him with their fists and boots. Then they informed him, matter-of-factly and with genuine spite, that they could certainly find a way, if they so wished, to make him Kimani’s accomplice and lock him up forever. After all, he was his business partner.

However, by March 22nd, the cops still had nothing. No whereabouts of the deceased, no name, no relatives, no motive for his killing: in fact, the young man might not have existed at all in the first place. But there had been a murder, and justice had to be done. The magistrate had no qualms whatsoever setting the second hearing date for October 26, 2010, in order to allow ample time for investigation. Again she seemed distracted and apathetic, almost as if Kimani’s case was an imponderable burden she would rather die than contemplate.

Kimani’s lawyer understood the case no more than did the police, or anybody else, for that matter. He believed Kimani was telling the truth but thought that it was truth that felt like a lie. He started to stutter again before the magistrate, acquiesced quickly with her decision, and glibly informed Kimani that it was the best thing to do.

Hearing did not take place on the third date. More inquiries still needed to be done. It was as if something wanted Kimani in the custody of the police, something unknown, dark, diabolic, a monstrosity, contriving evil behind the curtains and manipulating all that was involved, blinding, stupefying, and rendering them intellectually debilitated and sluggish, thoughtless and mystified beyond words. It turned the magistrate against him, causing her to exhibit distraction, apathy, and stupid boredom whenever his case was presented before her. It made his lawyer to stutter and appear bewildered in court. Kimani was desolated.

The next date was promptly, hastily—as if musing on it for more than a few minutes was murderously burdensome and hurtful—shifted to July 18th, 2011; later to February 24th, 2012; further to August 29th of the same year; then to May 20th, 2013; eventually to December 23rd.

Four years! Four full years! On remand! Cursed, cursed the system! How wicked! How unjust, criminal, evil; the magistrate was stupid, cold-blooded, inhuman; the police, and rest of the authorities involved, were devils, demons, and ghouls. It was one of those instances when you became so furious, so frustrated and embittered that you wished to sell the entire soul of your country to the Devil for a single, damn shilling! Kimani felt broken inside. He no longer cared for what was taking place. Half of the time he was too dazed and detached from his surrounding to mind anything. Harassment from the implacable cops, vulgar, sadistic inmates, sordid existence, the constant postponement of his case, the fact that he knew almost nothing of what had got him into jail, that there could have been an all-powerful evil mastermind behind all this that none of them could handle, that his family was alone without him, that his daughter was growing up without him, that now she scarcely visited him, and when she did, she scarcely spoke, was reserved and aloof—these things haunted him and wiped out his dreams and hopes, and left him in a permanently exhausted, abject state of mind, too far-flung from the real world.

Otis and Grace, still hopeful, though fatigued, fired the first lawyer and hired a new one. A thirty-five-year old cocky, bold, intelligent Kenyan, with just more than a dash of arrogance, named George Olum. He had a meeting with the prosecutor and the magistrate in which he argued that Kimani had been unlawfully, and inhumanly, held in custody for four years for a crime that was never committed in the first place. No law had been infringed. No one had been killed. Period! No body, no victim, no name, no relatives seeking justice, no reports of missing person, nothing! If in truth Kimani had committed assault on a young man, then the victim had merely been unconscious when police found him. He had presently regained consciousness and walked away, failing to report the offence.

George argued that Kimani had never had a criminal record prior to his arrest, had been an upright, law-abiding, upwardly-mobile citizen and taxpayer, with a prosperous business of his own, and a family that he loved too much; yet all of which now faced disintegration and utter collapse due to the false, unverifiable charge brought against him and the painful, nightmarish years of his unsympathetic incarceration. As a matter of fact, he deserved to be compensated by the State, and George himself would see to it.

That day, for some intriguing, mysterious reason, the magistrate was alert, smart, and helpful. Shock registered subtly on her quinquagenarian face when George presented the details of Kimani’s suffering. It was as if she were hearing his case for the first time. Consequently, the charge against Kimani was dropped forthwith. And he became a free man.

It was December 23rd, 2013. Something, the thing, the monster, whatever, required him back at the house. Linda was sixteen years old.

VI.            The Dead Man (2)

They drove from the court premises three minutes to one. Otis was driving. Kimani and Grace sat at the back.

“Why didn’t you come with Linda today when I am released?” Kimani asked. It had been quietly nagging at him.

“She didn’t know you’d be released. We didn’t know either,” Grace said. “I wonder we never thought to hire George Olum before,” she added wistfully.

“She doesn’t hate me?”

“She wouldn’t hate you, darling,” Grace replied. “Your absence took its toll of her. She loves you. Whatever happened, it was four years ago. She’s all grown up now.”

“She’s a teenager, Kim,” interjected Otis. “Unpredictable, delicate, troublesome. Going to Form Three, though, and top of her class as ever, only better. You know, in Form One she used to tell me that half the Mathematics syllabus was a repeat of Standard Eight. It disheartened her. ‘I’m not learning anything new in Maths, Uncle Otis. It doesn’t feel like high school,’ she said. So I told her to quickly finish the Form One book by herself and start on Form Two. Guess what now? She’s going to Form Three but she’s finished Form Four book!”

“That’s extraordinary,” Kimani remarked, pleased. “You’re quite the uncle!” he told Otis.

“She’s a singular student,” Otis said. “Now that you’re out, you have to work your ass extremely sore to get that genius out of this failed country. We’ll be at it together. If she goes to any of the universities around, it’ll be the ultimate demise of her genius.”

“I love that child,” Kimani ejaculated spontaneously, out of his heart. He felt a deep, profound, irrevocable love for his daughter. It wrung his heart, like anguish.

“We all do,” Grace said and took his hand into hers. She squeezed it.

“We all do,” Otis seconded enthusiastically. “She discovered digital mean by herself in Standard Six! That day before you were arrested, Kim,” he continued. “That’s what she called me about, and I was thrilled. The first time I came across that concept I was in the University of Nairobi and about to graduate!”

“You know, Otis, you never really got to tell me how my quantum mechanical déjà vu resulted in my spending four years in jail,” Kimani said.

“That one,” Otis said uncertainly. “I have but a hypothesis.”

“Well . . . tell it. I’m all ears, and all yours.”

“You remember I said that your déjà vu was the result of a glitch or a temporary short circuit between two parallel universes, one of which is this ours, and tachyons carrying your data were transmitted across to you?”

“I remember something of that sort,” Kimani agreed.

“Now, that boy didn’t die in your house here in Nairobi. He didn’t die in this universe, but the next one; and the glitch caused him to be transported here.”

“Stop right there, man! What are you saying?” Kimani asked, raising his tone. “You’re saying that I killed him in the other universe. Isn’t that what you’re saying? That he was transported here as part of my data?”

“That’s what I’m saying, Kim,” Otis said. “You killed him elsewhere.”

“I’ve never killed anybody,” Kimani lamented. “I can’t kill anybody.”

“The universes are not duplicates of personalities,” Otis explained. “You’re a different person in each and every one of them. In some of them you might even already be dead; and I may be a married man with a hundred children!”

“Oh, man,” Kimani moaned. He clutched his forehead. Grace squeezed his hand again. “In other words, that boy is probably still alive here in Kenya, enjoying his life, happy, while I was rotting in prison, and he doesn’t even know that he is already dead, killed by me, in another reality?”

“That’s it,” agreed Otis. “It’s heavy, man. Quite heavy. Oppressive. I explained it to the cops and they beat the shit out of me, for presuming upon their stupidity.”

“Damn! I would like to meet that unfortunate young man. If only to see him,” Kimani said.

“Me, too,” Grace said.

Two careless P.S.V. drivers caused Otis to slow down considerably on Kibera Drive near the intersection with Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Several others stopped him totally at the intersection of Mugo Kibiru and Ngong Roads. It took so long that Grace left the car after announcing she could use the time to do an impulsive welcome shopping for her husband. When the roads cleared, Otis drove to Nakumatt Prestige, parked, waited for her.

Eventually, they arrived at Kimani’s Kilimani house at three-oh-two in the afternoon.

It felt good to be home. The relief was profound and unequalled. The air smelled fresh, refreshing, lovely, and the house itself was expansive, cool, wholesome, and welcome, as opposed to the oppressive, muggy, sweaty, stinking, plebeian atmosphere of the jail cell.

Kimani took off his shirt and tossed it in the garbage container.

“So much for prison sweat and stink,” he announced. “Where is Linda?” he asked.

“In her room, of course,” Grace said. “She spends all the time in there with her books.”

“Lin?” Kimani called. “Lin? Lin?”

“Linda, Dad’s home!” her mother announced.

“Maybe she’s asleep,” Otis observed.

Kimani went to Linda’s door. He knocked twice successively. “Lin?” he said. “Lin, it is Dad! I’m back!”

He started to open the door but was violently interrupted. The door flung open at once and a man emerged from the room. He bumped Kimani violently, flew past him, and bolted towards the main door. Otis deftly stepped on his way and caught him by the shoulder. A dark, instinctive rage blinded Kimani and he charged.

Kim!” Grace shouted in alarm but it was too late.

Kimani grabbed the nape of the man’s neck, spun him around, and punched him three times on the face, crushing his nose, and breaking his lips and teeth. Grace grabbed her husband while screaming something, but Kimani hurled the man on the wall, where he crashed his forehead and became still for a moment. The house shook. The man fell. He started to scramble up, gripped the edge of the sofa with his right hand, brought up his right leg, his left hand resolutely clenching the carpet, and collapsed, dead. There was a ghastly wound on his forehead. Blood spurted forth.

“Kim!” Grace cried in horror, looking down at the corpse.

Otis was speechless, astounded. It had happened too fast. Less than five seconds.

Kimani stared at the dead man without any comprehension at all. Then, very slowly, it began to dawn on him that he’d killed a man. And even more slowly, as his composure returned, he took in the dead man’s details.

Such mystifying horror filled his heart that he teetered as though he were standing at the very thin edge of a very tall skyscraper. He supported his legs against a sofa.

“What is this?” he demanded when he could speak. “Grace? Otis? What is this?”

“Linda’s boyfriend,” Grace answered.

“Boyfriend?” questioned Kimani, scowling with disbelief.

“He came around sometimes,” Grace said. “I thought he was a good boy.”

“But, Grace, don’t you see? It is him.”

“Who is it?” Otis asked curiously when Grace’s eyes started enlarging, her mouth agape, and her face cadaverously pale. She was transfixed.

“This is the man I went to jail for killing,” Kimani said. “In exactly the same way, even how he’s lying down there on the carpet. I remember his grey jumper and trendy jeans and those black Nikes. Everything. Every detail. What is this? What the hell is this?”

“And Grace didn’t recognize him?” Otis asked.

“He did look familiar the first time I saw him,” Grace said. “But he said he graduated from Riara in 2011, Form Four, while Linda was there in Class Eight. I decided I might have seen him on a parent’s day, perhaps. How could I know he was supposed to be dead in 2009?”

“What about Linda? Didn’t she recognize him?”

“Linda never saw him dead.”

Silence spread across the room. It was morbid. It was torturous. It was macabre.

“Otis, is this another of your glitches?” Kimani inquired. He had slumped dejectedly on a sofa. “Is he going to disappear again? Am I going back to jail?”

“You can’t be in jail twice for the killing of the same person,” Otis said. “It cannot just happen. Once suffices. And what I think took place four years ago is that December 23rd 2009 and December 23rd 2013, today, occurred simultaneously across the two universes. You just had the worst of it. It seems the boy’s fate and yours were entwined. I can say you were foreordained to kill him, or he was foreordained to be killed by you.”

“Who plans these things?” Kimani wept in anguish, his face in his hands. “How can they be so perfect? Are they random? How can random be so conscious? Of what use am I if I have no control over anything, if all I ever have is an illusion of control?”

At that time, Linda came out of her room, saw her dead boyfriend, and started to wail.

VII.            Thereafter

Kimani was promptly arrested. The detectives grilled him again; though it was, in truth, more of molestation than interrogation. Their cruelty was unchanged, their malevolence devoted and keen. They theorized that since he had been unlawfully incarcerated, when released, he’d, afterwards, sought vengeance and murdered, for good this time, Janis Orechi, the twenty-year old student of Daystar University, whose false death had cost Kimani four full years of his life. This theory made revenge Kimani’s principal motive. However, they blatantly disregarded the fact that Kimani had found Janis in his house, “and not just found him,” George Olum clarified, “but found him purely by accidental coincidence.” When apprised of this error, the cops first scoffed at that phrase accidental coincidence, and then went on to reason that Kimani must have had an accomplice who had known the whereabouts of Janis Orechi and had sought him out and brought him opportunely into Kimani’s residence on that fateful day. They suspected the accomplice to be either Otis or Grace, with Linda not to be entirely discounted.

Enraged by this flagrant lack of imagination, George asked them one last question: “If Kimani’s friends knew all along the whereabouts of Janis Orechi, why did they abandon him to decay in a putrid prison cell for four full years, especially in light of how they all were traumatised by his imprisonment?”

The detectives started talking about the fact that Janis Orechi had dated Linda. They dug backwards to find out if he had met Linda four years previously.

“These guys are so dumb their brains must comprise dust and soot!” Otis remarked.

Janis’s parents wanted justice for him. But they did not (and could not) appreciate that Kimani had already spent four full years in police custody for killing their son. It made no sense at all. Four years ago, they said, Janis had been sixteen years old and in Form Two at Riara. He had known neither Linda nor her father. However, on the night of December 23rd 2009, he had dreamt that he was dead and had woken up yelling like an eccentric man. He had woken up around 7.15am, which was about the time the corpse had inexplicably vanished from the mortuary. In the dream, he had been killed because of a girl he was dating. He had had no girlfriend then.

Otis, when testifying in court, presumed on the rare occasion to explain his Quantum Mechanics theories and hypotheses in public. Nobody really got a thing.

The truth was that everybody was tremendously befuddled by the case. Even George Olum, the bright, cocky, bold, arrogant lawyer, did not really know what was going on.

However, arguing that Kimani had already been in custody for four years for the same crime and that it was unthinkable and impossible to kill the same person twice exactly four years apart, he managed to have the case dismissed.

The Orgy

Posted: 2014/01/26 in Erotic, Fantasy, Poetry

A flash of flesh, a wink of pink,

pale thighs, surging bosoms,

undulating bottoms,

and lips against lips,

and eyes,

steamy, needy,

aglitter, agleam,

ripe, rife

with erotic radiance,

and heat, and passion,

and charged desire

like batteries.

 

We danced like drunkards

drunk of love and lovemaking,

and the music!

 

Inflamed souls sank

between long legs,

and behind bended bottoms,

grasping necks stretched

and hairs wild;

breathless screams

and impassioned grunts

escaped gasping mouths

and taut muscles

sweaty in the random,

blinking,

shadowy fluorescence.

 

The music played,

the moment seethed,

and we boiled!

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:

“Grandfather! Grandfather!”

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.