Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Kimani woke up at 4.01am. He scrambled to the bathroom and threw up over the toilet seat before he could lift it up. He retched again, tried to lift the seat, failed, and sprayed the yellow spew on his hands. His stomach was wrenching, his head splitting, and there was a ringing in his ears. He swayed, slumped on his knees.

At the same time, a woman screamed.

He looked up, tried to listen. But the room spun and he was lifted off his feet and thrust towards the door. He screamed. Nothing! His voice was dry and taut and soundless. He raised his hands to deflect the onrushing door but it was too late. He floated through it. His hands went through the wood of the door as if wasn’t there. Then his feet. Then his face. He glimpsed the corridor, glimpsed the dark frame of the red rose Lili had hung there.

Then his hands began to disappear. His feet too. They were disintegrating. He could see the dusty, smoky things flowing away from them in a dark, winding Fibonacci stream. Hot surges of pain tore through him. He was burning.

His face disintegrated. Then he was blind. Stone blind.

Something yanked him back into the room before he could completely reach the other side. He was crashed headlong onto the floor.

Glass shattered.

The woman screamed again.

Darkness swallowed him.

His wife was shaking him.

“Kim! Kim, wake up! Wake up! Kim!” She was in panic.

He sat up. His eyes were throbbing, his head too. He was still nauseous. He blinked several times, started rubbing his eyes, discovered his hands stinking and retched. He examined his hands, recalling what had happened to him. How long had he been out?

“What time is it?” he asked.

“Almost seven. What did you do?” she asked.

“I blacked out,” he said and rose from the floor. Pain shot through his skull like a bullet. He grasped the wall, face distorted, teeth clenched.

“Are you all right?” Ana asked him.

A moment passed.

He looked at the toilet seat and then back at her. “I’m sorry about that. I’ll clean it.”

“Who broke the window?” she pressed, pointing at the bathroom window.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you fight with anyone?”

“No. Why?”

“Because there is a dead man in the living room!” she said.

“What dead man?” he asked. He was foggy. He was dizzy. He squeezed his eyes with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. His ears rang and his head hammered.

Ana was searching his face. “A man is dead in our living room!” she repeated.

“What man?” he asked again.

“I don’t know!” she screamed. She jumped as she did and his head hammered harder.

She led the way. She walked briskly. He lagged behind her. She had to look back twice to be sure he was following.

Something had awakened him. Not the sickness. Not the screaming woman. Something else had snapped him awake.

Did I float through the door? Did I float? And what happened to my face?

He saw the dead man and stopped.

The corpse was of a young man no more than twenty.

He had died sprawled near the door. His head was resting on a pool of blood which had since been absorbed by the carpet. His right hand was clutching the edge of the sofa while his left hand had grasped a fistful of the carpet. His left leg was drawn up as if he had tried to get up in his last moments. His forehead was split, nose crushed, teeth broken, and lips split.

A small bloody patch on the wall marked where he had crashed his head.

“No!” Kim muttered. “Impossible!”

He went to the kitchen and splashed cold water on his face. He washed his hands and rubbed his eyes. He drank two glasses of water.

“There is no dead man,” he muttered again. “No dead man.”

He placed his head under the tap and let the water run all over his head. His wife hated that but she might as well shoot him. When he stood up, the water ran into his clothes and he was suffused with the cold. He felt better.

“Kim!” Ana called him. She was on the verge of hysteria. “Kim!

“If there is a dead man,” he muttered. “Ana should know about it. Not me. Not me.”

He returned to the living room.

The corpse was still there.

The kid had been wearing a white Lil Wayne t-shirt, navy blue jeans and classy Opel sneakers. He didn’t seem like a thief.

Kim bent down over the body. He put two fingers gently beside the trachea and felt the carotid. No pulse. He checked the eyelids too. They were stiff. Which meant the kid had died sometime in the night.

“Who was he?” he asked Ana.

“Are you asking me? You are the one who was fighting!” she shrieked. She was glaring at him as if about to punch him.

“I was not fighting!” he yelled back even as he suddenly became aware of his sore nose and lips.

“I didn’t fight with anyone,” he said, his voice moderated. “I don’t know this kid. I have never seen this kid in my life.”

“Then who brought him here if not you?” she accused. “Who beat your face? Why did you touch him?”

Ana!” he yelled again. “How can you even suggest . . . ?”

She burst into tears. “Then explain it,” she sobbed. “Please explain it.”

 “I can’t.”

“But he is dead in our house!” she heaved. “How did he get in? Who could have let him in here? Who else is in this house?”

“You explain it!” he shouted. “You also live here. If I don’t know, you should know.”

Kim!” she shrieked and heaved with tears. She cried louder and he regretted yelling at her.

“Don’t cry,” he said and squeezed her shoulder. “I’m sure it will be okay.”

He didn’t mean that. He didn’t know what was going on.

“No, it won’t,” she screeched, as if reading his mind. She pulled away from him. “How will it be okay when this man is dead in our house?”

He opened his mouth to retort but checked himself in time. She was accusing him of murder while playing victim. She was supposed to know him better than that. She was supposed to be with him in this situation.

“I don’t know how he got in here,” he said. “I really don’t know. I wouldn’t lie to you about something as grave as this. I thought something woke me up. I don’t know what it was. But the instant I was awake, I fell sick. Too sick. I don’t remember ever being that sick. I thought I was going to die. I became blind and fell and didn’t leave the toilet until you found me.”

He left out the part about floating and disintegrating. It made no sense.

She quietened down and wiped her face.

“Maybe they broke the window and sprayed you with something that made you blind and unconscious,” she contemplated. “Then they sneaked in through the window and dumped the body in our house.”

He reflected on that. “Who are ‘they’?” he asked.

“I don’t know!” she screeched and shook her hands in anger.

“What you are saying is impossible.”

“The hell it is.”

“We live on third floor,” he reminded her. “To reach the master bedroom through the back, you’ll need over twenty metres of rope because you’ll be standing on basement level two. And then, after obtaining the rope, you’ll have nowhere to tie it. And if there were a place to tie it, you’d still need to hoist yourself and this seventy kilogram corpse all the way up here. After getting to the window, you’ll need to hang there and wait for me to wake up sick so that you can spray me with a blinding chemical. Not to mention the tight se—”

“Stop!” she snapped. “I was just trying to consider alternatives. Which you can’t do because your whole focus is in negating mine!”

He was quiet. His head was throbbing again.

“I’ll call the cops,” he reported.

“How will you explain it to them?” she countered. “Thinking they will understand is like thinking you can fly to Mars with your own arms outstretched!”

“I have to call them.”

“You will go to jail. And I’m not ready to be the wife of a man behind bars.”

“The cops will eventually be involved,” he reminded her.

Eventually,” she stressed. “For now, go call the security people at the gate to come here and identify the body. Only they can tell us who the kid was, where he came from and how he broke into this house.”

“He doesn’t look like the breaking-in type,” Kim pointed at the smartly dressed corpse.

“But he got in here and you didn’t let him in,” Ana stressed.

“Breaking in doesn’t explain who or what killed him,” he said.

“Go now,” Ana said. She was resolute.

He started for the door but she grabbed his arm. “I’m coming with you. You can’t leave me here with it,” she pointed at the corpse.

“Okay,” he said.

He opened the door but did not go any further. His neighbours were gathered down in the courtyard. Over thirty of them. Looking despondent, whispering to one another.

He shut the door.

“Something is going on outside,” he whispered as if he could be heard by anyone else other than his wife.

“What?”

“A meeting, maybe.”

“Now?”

“It seems.”

Ana started to open the door but changed her mind. She pushed aside the curtains and peeked out through the window.

“It’s weird,” remarked she. “They look so sad. Why would they be so sad on a Saturday morning?”

“I don’t know.”

“You think they know?” she asked, her panicked eyes searching his.

“Know what?”

“That we have a dead body in here.”

“How would they know that?”

“Maybe the boy is from the neighbours and he went missing.”

Kim contemplated that. He saw the possibility of her suggestion and a cold thing seized his bones. If a neighbour’s son was found dead in his house . . .

“But they can’t know he’s dead in here, right?” he asked.

“You still have to go get the security people,” she said without looking at him. “I’ll just stand at the door and wait.”

“Of course,” he agreed but did not move. “I have to go take off my pyjamas.”

He was stalling.

She assessed him, started to say something, checked herself and mouthed, “Okay.”

He was pulling on a pair of jeans when Ana screamed in the living room. She let out a deranged, bone-chilling scream that sent him reeling in the bedroom like a drunkard. He hit the bedpost with his knee, flailed for balance, lost, and thudded on the floor. He scrambled up immediately, but the trouser had sunk around his ankles and he fell again on his stomach.

“Ana!” he shouted. “Ana!”

Cursing, he crossed the room on all fours towards his screaming wife, kicking away the trouser in the process. He started to get up at the door but halfway up, she bumped into him and the impact caused them both to land on the floor with a terrible force.

Kim’s swollen nose met with the back of Ana’s head and pain exploded on his face like a fire cracker, drawing tears and making him yelp like a dog.

“What is it?” he asked. “Ana, what is it?”

But Ana was uncontrollable. She beat at him and twisted and kicked while screaming like a maniac.

He seized her with might and turned her over on her back. He pinned her arms down and held both her legs between his knees.

“Ana, what is it?” he asked again even as his own tears trickled down and fell on her.

“It’s gone!” she cried. “It’s gone!”

“What is gone?”

“The dead one! It is gone!”

He let go of her and stood up. “Gone where?”

“I don’t know!” she screamed and convulsed in terror. “I don’t know!”

“That is impossible.”

He started for the living room.

“Don’t leave me!” she cried and leaped after him. “Don’t leave me!”

She gripped his arm like a vice and looked about her nervously. He put his arm around her and they both went back to the living room.

The corpse was gone.

“Where did it go?” Kimani asked after a moment of confounded horror.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you see it go?”

“No!” she shuddered. “I was looking out the window. When I turned, it was gone.”

“Did you hear the door open?”

“No!” she shuddered again. “Stop asking me as if it became alive!”

He was speechless. He was supposed to be relieved, instead he was more troubled.

Both the blood on the carpet and the bloody smear on the wall had disappeared too. So had the wrinkles on the carpet where the corpse’s hand had been clenched. There was no indication that anything had lain there.

“What kind of day is this?” he moaned in despair.

“What do we do?” Ana was asking.

“I don’t know, Ana. Perhaps we should wait and see if it returns.”

“Aren’t you going to search the house?”

“Why?” he snapped. “Why should I search it? The corpse was not supposed to be here in the first place. It is gone now. Gone back to wherever in hell it came from. Why aren’t you relieved?”

“Kim, if you don’t search this house, I’m not going to live here. I can’t spend one more night in this house knowing that a corpse appeared and disappeared in it. Disappeared in it, Kim,” she emphasized. “That is worse than appearing in it.”

As he listened to her, his head throbbing and his sanity deteriorating, an old song called The Boss of My Life by a certain Jamaican came back to him.

they say she ain’t powerful but see how we livin

see who’s callin em shots

see who’s firin em like bullets

 she grows on me like weed

she grows on me like em cobwebs on the wall

“Okay,” he agreed.

They searched the house. Ana stayed with him all the time, clenching his arm so tight he could feel her nails eating into his flesh. She was still shuddering and panting in his ear, making him more distressed.

“How can a dead man just vanish?” she was asking. “I mean, it was truly dead, wasn’t it? You confirmed so yourself.”

“It was dead,” he said. “The funny thing is,” he added after a moment. “You were alone when it appeared and you were alone when it disappeared.”

She stopped abruptly, jerking him to a halt as well. “What are you implying?”

“You tell me.”

“For clarity, I was not there when it appeared. I found it. I chanced on it. I was looking for you.”

Her eyes were stern. He decided to make light of the conversation.

“Perhaps the kid liked you,” he chuckled dryly. “Perhaps he was your secret admirer and he promised himself he had to see your underwear even in death.”

“Kim!” she exclaimed and tugged at his arm. “Why are you jealous of a dead man?”

“That is not what I meant.”

“You were speaking as if it’s alive. Now I have to fear that it is going to launch itself at us from a corner. With its bloody face, busted head, and smashed nose—it is going to emerge from a dark place in the house, maybe from Lili’s room, grinning at me, its teeth broken, coming to kiss me. Ugh!” she shuddered.

“Why Lili’s room?” he asked.

She pinched him. “That is not the point. The point is, dumbass, you are scaring my panties off.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

She pinched him again and they both laughed. His voice creaked painfully and his face was strained but he managed to relax somehow. He felt her relax too. She hugged him, kissed his cheek.

They were still searching when they heard a low scratch on the main door. It clicked once and opened very slowly.

They were in Lili’s room. Ana let go of Kim and, in a split second, was at the door. She pushed it shut and locked it both in one move. Her eyes were wide and her face twisted as if a scream had frozen there. She leapt back to her husband.

He took her and squeezed her against him. She was shaking violently. He could feel her heart hammering on his chest. His own heart was going to explode.

“It’s alive!” she gasped but there was no sound.

The thing in the living room moved. Kimani heard its footsteps. It picked up something and dropped it on the table. It picked up another one and dropped it again. It fumbled about for some time. Then it made a sound, a strange sound, like when you open your mouth wide and force out air with your lungs. It was loud enough to be heard throughout the house.

“What is it doing?” Ana’s lips moved without sound.

“Maybe cursing,” Kim replied in the same manner.

The thing went into the kitchen but did not linger there. It came out and went into the master bedroom, and there it lingered. After almost two minutes, it made that cursing sound again. This time longer and deeper and angrier. It slammed the door.

From the master bedroom, it pitapatted along the corridor and entered the next room. It took about fifteen seconds in there. Then it came out and paused at the door for a few more seconds.

“Ana!” it shouted.

Ana jumped and opened her mouth but Kim was quick to clamp his hand over it before the sound came out. She had been hugging him but now she was clawing his back.

“It knows my name,” she mouthed soundlessly when he removed his hand. “It wants me. It wants me!” Her eyes were wild, her face contorted. Her tears washed over his hand.

“Ana!” the thing called again and Ana started convulsing.

“Listen,” Kim said, gripping her. “It’s a woman’s voice.”

Ana!

“It sounds like Njeri’s voice,” Kim said, shaking her. “She’s your friend.”

Ana!” The thing was coming towards Lili’s room. It sounded even more upset.

“Susan!” Kim shrieked. His voice was dry, the muscles twitching emptily.

“Njeri!” he tried again.

Silence. Eternity of silence. Then: “Kim?

“Susan! Susan!” he kept calling, sounding more and more like a man saved from dying.

“Kim? Are you in there? Are you alive? Are you okay? Where is Ana?”

“We’re in here and we’re alive and we’re okay,” he rapped. “Ana is here.”

Susan tried the door.

“We’re coming out,” Kim said.

Ana stopped convulsing. She looked at her husband blankly as if she didn’t know him. She went stiff for a moment, then relaxed gradually. She looked at the door.

“Is it really Susan?” she asked. “Su?” she called out in a hoarse, trembling voice.

“Ann?” Susan answered. She sounded relieved.

Ana got up and wobbled to the door.

“Get my jeans,” Kimani whispered. He was still in his underwear.

Ana flung her arms around Susan. Susan was tall and roly-poly while Ana was petite. She held Ana like a child.

“I thought you were dead,” she said. “I didn’t see you outside. I thought you were both dead.”

“We were terrified and we hid in Lili’s room,” Ana explained. She disengaged from her friend.

“Everybody is terrified,” Susan said.

“Why did you think we were dead?” Kim asked her from behind the door.

“People are dead,” she said. “People are dead everywhere.” She paused. “Ann, Chege is dead.”

Kim was astounded. “What do you mean people are dead everywhere?” he wanted to ask but he had to think of Chege. He hadn’t known Chege well enough to mourn him effusively but the little that he had known had been all good. Chege had been reserved, hard to know; some days they had only waved at each other in the parking lot.

“How?” he asked Susan. He started coming out, remembered his jeans. “Ana, please,” he implored. “Please.”

Ana went for his jeans. On her way back, she smiled dryly at Susan, who was looking from the jeans to Lili’s room and wondering why they had both been naked in their daughter’s room. Ana was still in her nightgown, her underwear visible. She did not explain herself.

She pushed the door ajar and passed the trouser to her husband.

Kim pulled on the jeans and left the room. “How did Chege die?” he asked again.

“I don’t know,” Susan said. “I woke up around four and he wasn’t there. His side was vacant. I thought he had gone to read in the living room, but then he appeared. He just appeared, you know. Out of nowhere. He just materialized on the bed next to me. Like a ghost. And he was dead. He was dead and limp. I was scared and I screamed in shock and shook him but at the same time I threw up before I could help it. My stomach was churning and regurgitating stuff and I had no control at all. And my head, oh, my head! I thought my head was going to burst. My house was also moving. My house was going round and round in a terrible circle. It was moving so fast I thought I was flying around in the bedroom. Then I couldn’t feel my hands, my face. I couldn’t feel myself. The next thing I knew, I was waking up from the floor, still sick but alive.

“And my husband was still dead,” she added after a long pause. Her eyes were full of tears.

Ana hugged her, started crying as well. “I’m so sorry, Su,” she sobbed. “I’m so sorry.”

“I heard you screaming,” Kimani said, recalling his own floating sensation. Sensation? It had been real.

“You were awake?” Susan asked. She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands.

“Yes. But sick to death. I blacked out in the bathroom.”

“Did you hear the earthquake?”

“Was there an earthquake?”

“Some people said there was an earthquake. That it shook the houses and broke some windows.”

“Our window broke,” Ana said. Then, to her husband, “Maybe the earthquake woke you.”

“It did,” Susan agreed. “I felt shaken by something. Then I became distracted and didn’t think about it again.”

“Which other people are dead?” Kimani inquired.

“In the whole estate, there is mourning,” Susan said. “Otis said that he thinks everyone who was awake at four o’clock this morning is dead.”

Everyone?” questioned Ana. Her eyes were giant circles.

“What kind of earthquake kills only people who are awake?” Kimani wondered.

“Go talk to Otis,” Susan told him.

“But first, we have to see Chege’s body,” Ana cut in, recovering.

She hurried away to change her clothes and clean her face. Kim went for his shirt. When they returned, Susan led them downstairs.

“Have you called other people?” Kim asked.

“Cell phones are dead,” Susan said.

“Dead?”

“No signal,” Susan said. “The TVs too. They were completely dead two hours ago. Now they power up minus the signal. I found yours unplugged and plugged them. Then I turned them on. But there was no signal.”

“You turned on our TV?” wondered Ana. She looked at her husband.

“Both of them,” Susan agreed. “Otis said it was likely that the TVs that were unplugged when the earthquake happened would work.”

Kim met Ana’s eyes and almost burst out with laughter. They laughed about it later on, with Kim always saying how he had thought the dead man had made the sound with its wide open mouth.

They bumped into Otis on the second floor landing. He was with a group of neighbours going from house to house condoling with the bereaved. Kimani let Ana and Susan continue to Susan’s house. Then he pulled Otis aside.

“Engineer Otis,” he greeted.

“Kim, I’m glad to see that you are alive,” Otis said. “I was disturbed when I didn’t see you at the assembly.”

“I’m glad to see you too.”

“Is Lili well?”

Kim hesitated. Why hadn’t he worried about his daughter? If the cell phones had been dead as Susan had said, then maybe the school had tried to contact him and failed.

“I’ll go see her in school as soon as I’m done helping out with Chege’s body,” he said.

“You should,” Otis said. “Today, the dead are more than the living.”

“What really happened?” Kimani asked. “I heard you may know.”

“I don’t know. I just pieced together some things that may or may not be true.”

“Okay.”

“I talked to the bereaved families,” Otis said. “It seems that those who are dead were all early risers. Three o’clock, four o’clock people. Susan told me Chege used to wake up at four and read Christian books till six.”

“That’s right.”

“First, those people disappeared alive and then reappeared dead,” Otis went on. “Then, those who woke up near four o’clock fell very sick. Finally, those who were asleep were unaffected.”

“I was sick to death,” Kim said.

“Now, imagine how many people are dead all over the world,” Otis said.

“What do you mean?”

“Something shook earth. I don’t think it was an earthquake like people are saying here. And I don’t think it only shook this estate, or this city, or this country. I think it shook the entire planet and killed everyone it found awake. It made them disappear first then brought them back dead.”

“You are describing . . . Jesus! You think so?” he questioned.

“At least here in Kenya most of us were asleep. Imagine what happened in a country like China which is eight hours ahead of the Coordinated Universal Time. 4am here is 9am in Beijing. And it is 10am in Tokyo, 4pm in Alaska, 6pm in Los Angeles, 12pm in Melbourne . . . The list is too long. Almost everybody was awake in those places when the earth shook. They all died.”

Kim pictured a city swarming with corpses. He saw hundreds, thousands, gazillions of corpses, corpses upon corpses, corpses sprawled in all manner of positions along the roads, streets and alleys; all over the highways, parks, homes, schools, beaches, airports, markets, kitchens, parking lots, gyms, clubs, hotels, shops, and restaurants.

He saw dead people in the lifts and on escalators, on stairways and in the corridors, in cars, in libraries, in swimming pools, on rooftops, in tunnels. He saw planes exploding out of the sky like the Devil’s fireworks and plummeting to earth in flaming pieces. He saw multitudes of dead children strewn on playgrounds and in classrooms.

He saw dead animals. Countless dead animals.

“You think so?” he pressed. “You really think so?”

“I have considered it,” Otis said.

“What caused it?”

“The question is ‘who caused it?’”Otis said. “The answer is cliché. Scientists did.”

“What did they do?”

“They have been conducting experiments in the ionosphere. Blasting the ionosphere with high frequency energy, heating it up, and injecting energy into the magnetosphere as well. They have also been attempting to generate gravitational waves artificially . . .”

“Gravitational waves?” Kim interrupted. “I thought those ones could only come from exploding neutron stars, colliding black holes and supernova events?”

“Not anymore. Ideas have been mooted about generating them artificially. Why invest so much in complex and expensive equipment like the advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory detectors and then wait around a long time for signals from black holes that collided several billion light years ago, only to find that the signals are so small they can go almost entirely undetected? It took twelve years to detect the first G waves. And the detected signals moved the measuring equipment by just one-ten-thousandth the diameter of a proton. That is just unimaginably tiny.

“Also, the information provided by the G waves is mostly history,” continued Otis. “By the time they can be measured here, they have travelled millions, billions of light years. Which should make you curious: if humanity can generate those waves at much higher frequencies than they are now and in large, measurable quantities, then we will be sending information into the future. Imagine manmade gravitational waves. Earth’s signature. Imagine everyone on earth sending messages into the future. Your voice is as unique as your fingerprint. If you send a verbal message, it will be your signature that you once lived in this universe. Machines wear out, civilizations crumble, and regimes change; but billions of light years from now, your voice will still be out there, travelling across the universe, to be detected by a future civilization on another planet. It is the ultimate eternal life, something humanity has craved since the very beginning.”

 “I see,” Kim said.

“So that is why scientists have been trying to generate the G waves. For communication with the future,” Otis said.

“I see,” Kim repeated.

But he was wondering if all that was so necessary that billions of lives had to be wiped out for it. Who was going to send the damn messages now that even the scientists were dead? Some corporation must have been behind the idea, already counting the billions of dollars to be raked in when the whole world began sending messages to the future.

“They have been building a machine. An excessively massive and dense machine,” Otis said. “They were going to put it in the magnetosphere and make it spin at the speed of light.”

“Speed of light?”

“When beaming large quantities of energy into the ionosphere and magnetosphere, the scientists discovered a way to harness the high energy protons in the Van Allen belt. They were going used them to power the machine. And I think the machine worked. It generated the G waves but they were too powerful. It may have exploded. The G waves rippled through the earth’s space-time curvature . . . and ripped it.”

“Ripped it?” Kim wondered. “They destroyed time?”

gravitational-waves-1024x576

A depiction of colliding black holes producing ripples of gravitational waves. Credit: NASA

 

“They did,” Otis said. “The manmade gravitational waves caused glitches in the space-time curvature.”

“Okay,” Kim said.

“All this is about time,” Otis motioned. “It is what caused so much death. The glitches disappeared almost as soon as they formed but the toll on life is unspeakable.”

“Oh,” Kim said.

“People were dislocated. Animals too. Both in time and space. Imagine where you’d be, say, nine years from now. Then suddenly you’re there. Having lived through the nine years in a fraction of a second. You would die. Your body would be too shocked to endure. If you were asleep, the dislocation might pass like a dream. If you woke up in the middle of it, you might become too sick and die. Or you might disintegrate. Or you might be transmitted through objects— walls, doors, etc—as if they did not exist.”

“Oh,” Kim uttered again, remembering his ordeal. He did not know what else to say.

He didn’t tell Otis about the dead man. He tried to figure it out for himself. Now that he had an estimate of what had transpired, he knew he could solve the mystery of the dead kid. He had been an avid student of Physics and Mathematics back in his younger days when he believed that showing intelligence in such fields could grant you a great job in Kenya. He now owned furniture shops on Ngong Road and Mombasa Road but he still believed in his understanding of the two subjects.

“I think I know about the dead man,” he told Ana at night.

“What do you know?” she asked.

“He’s going to die in this house.”

Going to die?” she puzzled.

“Yes.”

“But he’s dead.”

“Not yet.”

“He is dead,” she emphasized. “Don’t startle me with the living dead idiocy.”

He related to her the conversation he had with Otis.

“For communication with the future?” she laughed. “That is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“It is.”

“This space-time curvature. Is it physical? Is it made of matter?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

“Then how can it have glitches? How can it be physically affected?”

He mulled it over. “The earth bends it and it forms gravity,” he said. “The deformation of the curvature is what we call gravity. Gravity is real.” He shrugged. “But . . . I don’t know. You will have to ask Otis that question,” he added.

Gravity.5

A depiction of spacetime curvature. Credit: NASA

She was quiet. “So you think the boy is going to be killed in our house?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“By whom?”

“That I do not know.”

“Figure it out,” she said. “Because either you kill him or I do. I can’t kill anybody. I am small-bodied and easily overpowered in a combat. These arms can’t even kill a chicken if I punch with all my might.” She smiled at him. She looked pretty.

“For the record,” she continued. “You are the only man I ever afford to openly oppose and criticize. But that is because I love you. You are my husband, and you are Lili’s dad. And you are a good man by my standards. Also, I have weighed you and evaluated you and studied you and found that you can take my nagging,” she added and laughed.

He laughed too, remembering how some days he wished she would just shut up for a day or two.

“I always love you,” he told her.

“But I have to ask,” she said astutely. “If we already know that the man is going to die in here, can’t we prevent it?”

He reflected on that. “If we could prevent it, the corpse wouldn’t have appeared here,” he said. “Time doesn’t lie. Time is the boss of the universe.”

“Still, we have to do something about it,” she insisted. “We can search for him. We can sketch his face and give it to the security people at the gate. We can ask the neighbours if they know anybody looking like that. We can inform the police.”

“Sure,” he said.

They did all that. But they never saw the young man or met anyone who knew him.

Three years passed. The matter was forgotten.

One Friday in April when schools were closed, Kimani and his wife arrived home late in the evening from an extended family meeting. He was exhausted, and so was Ana. The meeting had dragged on for hours and there had been disagreements. Ana said that she was going to the shower and then straight to bed. She said there were leftovers in the refrigerator. He could microwave them for his supper. She didn’t want food.

She undid her hair and took off her blouse and unzipped her skirt as she went. Instead of heading in the direction of the bathroom, she detoured and went to look in on Lili. She reached the door and knocked.

“Lili,” she called and pushed the door. “Sweetie, how—”

The door swung back on her face and she was hurled across the corridor to the opposite wall. A man emerged from Lili’s room. Ana screamed.

Kim was slouched in the sofa pulling off his socks. He was on his feet at once, running towards his wife. At the entrance from the living room into the corridor, the man jolted him off balance. He recovered fast and lunged forward to grab the intruder.

The man dodged him adroitly and dashed for the door. He kicked the coffee table on his way, lost balance, and flew over it at an incredible speed. He stepped down once but his momentum propelled him forward and he collided with the wall face first.

The house shook from the impact.

The man teetered around slowly, seemed to want to say something, collapsed. He tried to get up, one hand clenching the carpet, the other on the sofa where Kim had just risen. He plunged down again, quivered, became still.

Kimani walked towards the body. He recognized it instantly.

“Oh,” he sighed. “Oh.”

He saw the dented place on the wall where the young man had ploughed his face into.

“Oh,” he sighed again. He faltered back and slumped on the table.

Ana was shivering. “It is him, isn’t it?” she asked. “I knew as soon as I saw him. Lili!” she called.

Lili crept along the corridor and stopped at the living room entrance.

“Who is this?” Ana asked her seventeen-year old daughter.

“Jeff,” Lili said. “My . . . friend,” she added timidly. “You stayed out for so long I called him to keep me company.”

“In your bedroom?” Ana asked resignedly, feeling overwhelmed. She never would have seen it coming.

Lili looked down, said nothing.

Kim opened his mouth to speak, choked. He tried again and croaked unintelligibly. It was a while before a word could climb past his throat.

Police did not come for the body until seven in the morning.

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                                                                                                                                                                                      I.

My father was a violent man. He liked to beat people and destroy things. All the chairs in our house were broken, so were the tables and the glasses, all spoons bent. And when he had no one else near him but you, he could punch you so hard you’d forget that he was your dad and begin planning your revenge. He used to punch my brother like that. And my mother. He used to pound her as if she were a nonliving thing.

I remember one day meeting her coming out of the bedroom with her head all bloody and dripping, her clothes soaked, eyes punched shut, and deep cuts all over her face as if it were some steak to be roasted. I stared at her in confounded horror and just then recalled a story my brother had told me about a woman who had been beheaded by a flying windshield when two cars collided down on the main road. He said she just kept on walking to the market as if nothing had happened to her, although she did not have her head anymore and blood was spurting forth from her neck like fountains. I thought my mother was like that woman, dead but walking, and I ran out screaming in terror as loud as I could. She was saved by neighbours who rushed to investigate my screams. They took her to the hospital but she died the next day from those wounds.

My brother and I went to live with our grandmother. Some days my father would come for us in the evenings and he would flog my brother and punch him on the way for no reason. My brother would wail and moan like a dying cow and I would cry too because I didn’t want him hurt like that. My father never beat me like he used to beat him or other people. I don’t know whether it was because he reckoned I was still too young to withstand his mortal blows and had decided to save me for the future or whether he saw me as nothing but a cushion for pinching. He used to pinch all the living hell out of me whenever I was within his reach. He would grab me and pinch me in the buttocks and stomach and neck, in the arms, legs, and face. He would pinch me everywhere and leave me writhing in hot bubbling pain as if I had boils all over my body.

I fled from him one day but he pursued me with long strides and kicked me in the butt. I flew against the wall and saw darkness. When I awoke, the house was very dark and I was alone in it. I yelled for my brother to come for me but he didn’t and I began to cry. He had told me about some demons called Nyawawa that loved darkness. He said they comprised dead people and they beat drums at deserted funerals in the lonely hours of the night to waken the corpses and invite them to join the party. He said they scattered everywhere at nightfall in search of funerals and dead people, and sometimes they stole children to replace in the abandoned coffins.

I sprinted out of the house like a mechanical thing and headed for my grandmother’s. I was wailing so hard and running so fast that my lungs burned. Some tall weeds caught my foot and I fell almost as hard as I had hit the wall when my father kicked me. I did not pass out but I inhaled something from the weeds that gave me a lung disease that never quite healed. It made my lungs grate as if they were full of sand. I became sick for days and I hated my father for it. I never forgave him. And when he died, I was glad he did.

He died three months thereafter. He beat up a strange woman and she cursed him. He had been drinking with her husband who, drunk, told him that his head resembled that of a cow and his eyes were on the sides of his face. He became very furious, but instead of settling the matter there and then, he went to the man’s home and pounded his wife good and proper.

However, in his drunkenness, he forgot that the woman was from a region known as Kamenya, reputed for its voodoo. It was said that their voodoo was so potent it could kill a bird in midair, especially an eagle if it stole their goat or chicken. It could make it rot completely before it even reached the ground. And if a thief went to steal from them, they made him stick on the wall as if some invisible glue was holding him there and did not release him until he had starved to death. But if they particularly disliked you, they could turn you into a log and use you for cooking. It was said that the place was very bushy but most of the trees were people.

So the woman said to my father: “Son of Rombe, why do you invade my home and beat on me like this? Do you want to kill me like you killed your wife? Your arms are very strong, I admit. But tonight I will use your shadow to view the moon.”

I will use your shadow to view the moon. Those words ring in my head to date. She said it in Dholuo, my mother tongue, and it sounded awful, like something that could keep you awake at night in cold sweat for the rest of your days. Especially if you knew where she came from.

My father began to grow thin. He was not sick and he did not complain of any injuries either. He still drank like fish and beat up people. But day by day his weight vanished. He had been a colossal creature, towering too high and as wide as a bus. The first time I watched the King Kong movie—the 2005 one directed by Peter Jackson—I thought the gorilla was him. I was nonplussed. I don’t know whether he looked that huge because I was too little then to judge correctly or whether that was truly his size. I can see how he used to bend over me—he always had to bend too far down to reach me—his giant hands hovering over my skinny body like outsized mosquitoes looking for a vulnerable spot to bite; I can feel him pinching my stomach and bottom as if he meant to skin me alive with his bare hands, which were as rough as neglected heels. His face was hairy and wide, and circular, and it twitched crazily when he was pinching me, his inimical eyes misaligned on the diameter (they were on the diameter!). He had a forest of beards and moustache and sideburns and just about anything else that could grow on his face, so that he was very frightening in aspect without being vast and cruel. He used to grunt and swallow, and his Adam’s apple would creak like a tight rope. Some days, I thought he wanted to eat me.

hyde

He looked worse than this guy. I thought he would eat me.

He became so thin that by the time he was buried his coffin was like that of a ten-year old. He was just dry bones and skin. Even his eyes had withered and disappeared in their sockets, his tongue shrunken like a dead leaf. Yet he died within seven days of the curse.

                                                                                                                                                                                  II.

A different kind of hell began to brew soon after his death. I had thought I would be fine without him. I’d been wrong.

I was left with my brother, who everybody said took after my father. My grandmother said that Jumbe was a replica of my dad when my dad was young. Except that Jumbe was slender in built; he was tall and gangly and he ate too much. My grandmother said that when he sat down to eat, food travelled from his toes to his hair which was way too long a distance for one person. He was also more outgoing. My father had been moody and taciturn all the time, preferring to speak with his fists and legs instead of his mouth. But Jumbe was usually as glad as the Devil. He liked to laugh, but his laughter was a precursor of pain and as loud as the pain itself.

He used to sit under a tree and watch girls’ underwear when they climbed up to fetch fruits. We had plenty of fruits then and anyone who wanted could come and eat to their fill. Guavas, lemons, oranges, pawpaw fruit, pineapples, mangoes, avocados, bananas, loquats, passion fruit, and many more that I knew only in my mother tongue were all over the area. They grew by themselves from discarded seeds and parts and blossomed into some terribly healthy and mellow things.

But those girls were scared of the snakes and lizards and caterpillars and monkeys that also benefited from the trees. So they would come to our home and ask my brother to help them, much to his especial pleasure.

Instead of just singling out any of the rich trees and having them harvest it, he would escort them around from tree to tree and from bush to bush while charming them with stories. He had a great deal of stories to tell all of which were fiction. He told them, for instance, how he had seen a certain girl by the river whose face resembled a bad donut and how she had had buttocks so big that she did not need a chair to sit on, and when she sat on the ground she was still elevated high enough to be able to fold her knees as if she were on a real chair.

For some reason the girls liked his stories which, ironically, always consisted of disparaging of other girls. They would laugh and chatter and frolic like the monkeys of which they were afraid. They always flocked him when they came, and even when they passed some trees that were so laden that the fruits fell down to be squashed underfoot, they did not stop him and had to wait until he declared which one was the best for the day. By then they would have laughed so much and been so happy with him that they would not question his decision to remain on the ground looking up at them.

“This is it,” he’d declare while hugging the tree with his long arms. “I’ve been saving it for all of you. No snakes, no monkeys, no lizards, no caterpillars!”

I learned later—very much later indeed when I began to think of girls myself—that he did not choose the trees on that basis. He chose them because many of their branches were low enough for all the girls could climb up at once.

He would then sit down and enjoy the various views afforded him. He would pretend to direct them from branch to branch for better fruits while all he really wanted was for them to open their legs as they leaped across. Sometimes he would be enthralled.

I used to sit by him and watch them too. He told me that the best thing in the world to look at was a girl’s underwear when she was wearing it. He said it could make you very happy if you were very sad. He said God had put something wonderful there so that it was the only thing your eyes craved to see whether you liked it or not.

But when I looked I did not see anything special to captivate my attention. They were an array of dreary colours on restless thighs; you could look at the tree itself and attain a better level of happiness. Some days I would be so bored I’d sneak away to go shoot birds. The only peculiar thing about the strange adventure was how the girls reacted when they caught him staring. They would start and shut up in midsentence if they had been talking; some would clamp their legs together and stand still until he looked away while others would sit down on the branches and stuff their skirts between their legs. I did not know why they did that, and it was why I always returned to watch. If it could provoke them, then it had to be good.

One girl, particularly, came to pique my interest. Her name was Seri and she favoured yellow panties. I did not know whether she had many of them or just one pair but every time she came she had yellow ones on. I marked her because she was the first person to make me realize that those panties concealed abundant hair—which, at first, I thought was the wonderful thing Jumbe had said God had put there. She had a rank growth and it straggled out like stray grass.

There were seasons when caterpillars filled the trees and consumed all the leaves. One variety was dreadful. We called it Ombemo because when it made contact with your skin, it left a swollen track of searing pain similar to that caused by fire. The pain could last you even up to two days, the swelling much longer. It was six inches long and had a black head and a black underbelly. Its hair was black and thick like that of a human. It was also aggressive; when provoked it could climbed up a branch almost at the speed of a lizard, its long bristly body undulating in the most frightening manner. If you went too close to where it was feeding it would stop and brood as if scheming against you. We were too scared of it and some people set trees on fire to keep it away from children.

That girl, Seri—her underwear seemed packed with millions of that caterpillar. It was terrifying to meditate.

                                                                                                                                                                               III.

One evening on our way from school, I saw her alone ahead of us and ran after her. I do not know what drove me. I think by then I had acquired a certain degree of disrespect from my brother. She was much older than me, although I did not know how old. I did not know how old anybody was those days. Not even my brother.

When I had her attention, I shouted: “Seri Ombemo!”

She stopped and regarded me curiously. Then she asked me why I’d called her that.

“There is Ombemo in your panties!” I told her.

She flared with indignation and rage as if she understood at once what I was referring to. She picked a stick and chased me with it towards my brother, who took my hand and inquired concerning the matter.

“He insulted me!” she said. She was a short girl with a lot of curves, round buttocks and full breasts. She was heaving as she stood in front of us. Droplets of sweat had formed on the bridge of her nose. Her uniform was stained green at the armpits.

Jumbe asked me to explain myself and I told him what I had seen when she climbed up a guava tree on Saturday. He laughed when I said her pubic hair looked like abundant caterpillars. I knew by his laughter that he had himself deliberated about it.

“Is it true?” he asked her with a jeering grin.

“Is it true what?” returned she, all flushed and heaving harder.

“Is it true you have that much hair?”

She hesitated and looked away from us in no specific direction.

“Ah!” Jumbe pretended to sigh with displeasure. He still had his jeering grin. “Why do I even ask? I know the answer already. You are too young to have anything on you, and Dani here is just a little boy. What does he know about such matters? Girls your age are as smooth as chicken eggs!”

She said nothing. But her eyes had fixed on some two boys about to catch up with us. She became too nervous and she shifted her feet constantly.

“Go home,” he said with a caustic undertone. “I don’t want your father beleaguering me for ruining his little hairless baby. If you had any hair, I’d have let you come with us and I’d have given you some passion fruits that I hide for just Dani and myself. They are the sweetest in the hill. I keep the best for the two of us.”

She said nothing still, her alarmed eyes never leaving the two boys. They were Ochola and Opalo, my brother’s best friends. Together they were the most notorious students in school. A while back they had threatened to discipline a teacher who had punished them for reporting late. They found her alone on the road some three weeks later and fulfilled their threat. They whipped her with sugarcane until she ran like a little girl. On Sundays they gathered by the roadside and laughed at pregnant women who passed by to the market, asking them if the sex had been good and whether they had had it in the bush or in the house.

Seri saw those boys coming and I think she knew what would follow. Jumbe would tell them that she had no pubic hair and they would never leave her alone. They would pursue her and taunt her until she dropped out of school. They had done that to a girl named Akoth who had declined to dance with them at a funeral party. She had had to quit school and go live with her uncle very far away.

Opalo!” my brother shouted, seeing how frightened she’d become.

“I have hair!” she blurted.

“No, you don’t!” Jumbe said.

“I do!”

“You don’t!”

“I do!”

“You don’t!”

“I do!” she emphasized and they both broke out with laughter. She laughed with a tight face and a tight mouth, quite uneasy.

“If you did, you’d show me,” he said.

No!” she said.

“Opalo!” he shouted.

“Jumbe, please,” she begged him.

He laughed cheerfully. “I don’t mean all of it. Just pluck one and bring it to me. One is enough. Then we will all treat you like a grownup.”

She thought about it for a hasty moment and agreed that she would go pluck one and bring it to him. Meanwhile her eyes stayed with Ochola and Opalo who were now running towards us, too eager not to miss the opportunity.

“I will be waiting at home,” Jumbe told her and she ran off.

We tarried with Ochola and Opalo and arrived home an hour and a half afterwards. She was waiting for us. She was panting. Her armpits were wet and the drops of sweat on the bridge of her nose had multiplied.

“Here, see!” she said, handing it to him. I stepped closer so as to see for myself but saw by the way she flinched that she did not want me to do that. I looked nevertheless.

She had wrapped the strand in a torn piece of dry banana leaf. Jumbe removed it and stretched it between his fingers. It was a long thing, maybe five centimetres, and curled several times. He laughed.

“What?” she asked.

“You are lying!” he said.

“No,” she said, shaking her head with severity.

“This thing is from your head!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

“No!”

“Yes!”

No!” she yelled and they both laughed. She seemed to relax.

“What I mean is,” he began. “If it were truly from down there, you’d show me.”

She blenched as if he had struck her. “No . . .” She glanced at me and trailed off.

“Show me.”

“I will not show you anymore,” she said. She was greatly distressed. “Give me the fruits now. I have shown you what you wanted.”

“I don’t want to see all of it. Just a glimpse. One glimpse is enough. And don’t worry about the fruits. They are all yours.”

She started to say something, thought better of it and glanced at me again. My brother noted and asked me to go shoot birds.

I took my catapult and whistled uphill, although I really wanted to see what she would do when she discovered that the promised fruits did not exist.

He raped her that day. He dragged her into the sugarcane plantation and raped her till she became pregnant. She died eight months later due to a complication that caused the foetus to come out one hand first. The midwives attending her did not know what to do about it, so they kept yanking at the hand until they twisted it out of shape and broke it at the shoulder. It almost came all the way off. Seri went into shock and never woke up. She was buried with the foetus inside her, the hand dangling obscenely in her shaggy crotch, waving at the world, mocking it, mocking.

                                                                                                                                                                                IV.

I would have ended up like my brother. Everything pointed that I would (and should). My grandmother even said that the firstborn son usually takes after the father while the subsequent sons emulate the first. I had nobody else to emulate but Jumbe, with whom we hung out like the door and the lock. I sat with him and his friends down by the main road and jeered at the pregnant women who walked by to the market on their own, and I had acquired the sort of vocabulary that would scare the Devil back to hell if he ever came out of it. I could call the region between the anus and the genitals in my mother tongue. It was gruesome and almost no one ever used it. It could render any sensible person deaf by just the sound of it.

But there was a girl. Her name was Jacklyn and she saved me—although in a way that hurt a lot of people and resulted in several deaths. She was the lastborn daughter of a pastor over at the Ranen Seventh-Day Adventist Church. Her mother was a clerk there. She was very small and had a broody aspect; she had a way of looking at me so that I never told her any bad jokes or became too playful around her. When I had grown up, I understood that she had had deeply perceptive eyes; I felt that she saw something in me deeper than my lies—that she saw me, beyond the superficiality and hypocrisy, that she even knew what I had made my brother do to Seri—and it made me so nervous I gave up all levity and untruth around her.

She used to come for fruits too. But, unlike the other girls, who were much older than her, she came alone. She was always alone even at school. Before she came for the first time, she approached me on a Friday evening and said:

“Dani, can I come for fruits at your home?”

I said sure she could if she wanted.

“Will you help me?”

I said yes.

“I will come on Sunday.”

Sundays were the days we spent reclined by the roadside laughing at pregnant women. I did not want to miss any. So I fabricated a lie about how we would go to the hill with my brother to set a trap for a certain porcupine that was destroying my grandmother’s cassava. There was indeed a porcupine my grandmother had complained about but we weren’t going to trap it that Sunday, or any immediate Sundays thereafter.

I opened my mouth to tell this lie, as I had told many others before, but when I met Jacklyn’s eyes—the way she was looking at me, that piercing, knowing, contemplative look—I nodded and said yes she could come on Sunday.

And so she came. She wore a chequered wraparound skirt and a white Winnie the Pooh t-shirt. I did not take her around from tree to tree like my brother used to do to the other girls. Loquats were in season then and they were what she wanted. I led her straight to the richest tree. We never spoke until I began to climb.

“Can I climb too?” she asked.

I said yes she could.

But then I thought of her panties. My first instinct was to climb back down and let her go up by herself. I stared down at her preparing to climb, shaking off her slippers and skipping towards the tree. A frail thing! What a frail thing! She was so tiny you’d think she was a big insect. A housefly. At that instant, the prospect of looking up at her underwear filled me with revulsion. It was a strange feeling and I didn’t know where it came from, but it was there and it sat heavy on my heart like pain.

“Don’t climb,” I said.

She looked up. “Why?”

“There are caterpillars.”

“I can’t see any.”

“They are on the branches. They are brown like the tree and flat like the leaves. If you can’t see them, you’ll squish them with your hands.”

She uttered the equivalent of “Yuck!” and began to put her slippers back on. I continued up. I plucked the fruits and dropped them to her.

“Can I eat them here?” she asked, scrutinizing them.

I said yes she could.

“Aren’t they dirty?”

“We eat them like that.”

“We always have to wash fruits in our house.”

“It rains on them up here.”

“What about the caterpillars you said?”

“They don’t eat fruits.”

She looked at me for a few seconds and began to eat. I went on to pluck and drop some more, and she ate until she complained that her mouth was too sour and her teeth hurt from the acid. She packed the rest in a small woollen bag she had carried with her and went home. She told me thank you. My brother’s friends never told him thank you.

                                                                                                                                                                                   V.

She came back the following Sunday, and the next, and the next after that. She just kept coming and I obliged her every time. There was always one fruit or another in season and she came for it. Jumbe asked me where I went and I told him it was to shoot birds up in the hill. I didn’t want him to know that I was hanging out with a girl.

One day Jacklyn came with a rope. I’d have thought she was going to fetch firewood with it after she had gathered her fruits but she was not the kind of a girl who did such jobs. She had a soft constitution and was too clean. So I asked her what it was for and she said: “You’ll see.”

But after she had eaten two giant avocadoes and packed six others in her bag, she tied the rope around the tree and asked me to swing it for her. She wanted to jump.

I couldn’t do that. It was bad enough that I was hanging out with her; it would be awful if I began playing feminine games. Somebody might see me, specially the boys from the village, and they would go report in school how they had seen me skipping rope with a girl. It would be so shameful I may have to avoid school until they forgot all about it.

So I turned Jacklyn down. For the first time I did. And it didn’t matter whether she tore open my heart with her all-seeing eyes and read me like a book or not. I just couldn’t play with her. I shook my head and shrank back from the proffered rope. I did not look at her as I refused; I was looking at the sky, which happened to be a healthy deep blue with some white feathery clouds floating on it.

She said, “Okay” and untied the rope. She folded it back into the bag. She did not seem angry or disappointed and she still gave me a generous “thank you” before she left.

That incident stayed with me. It bugged me for the rest of the week. She kept returning to my head with the rope in her hand and I couldn’t shake off the memory of refusing her request. I was feeling guilty.

On Monday, I saw her at the school gate and went to her. I wanted to see if she would still talk to me. She did; she was jovial to see me and she even offered me some slices of bread she had carried to eat during her class break. It was as if she had no memory of my rejection. It was a big relief, and I became so carried away as I ate those slices that I suggested she should bring the rope the next Sunday.

She brought it and we went to the hill. I knew a place where trees were tall and massive and grass and other undergrowths were almost nonexistent. There were no puff adders or black mambas to bother you either. There we played. I tied the rope on one of the trees and swung it for her. She frolicked and laughed without a single care in the world. She jumped until she was too tired to continue and I was bored too since my arm had begun to hurt at the shoulder from swinging the rope for too long. She said I should jump as well but I declined, still thinking it was shameful for a boy to play girls’ games. She persuaded me, but when I did jump, I was clumsy and kept stepping on the rope and having it hit against my ankle. I did not have Jacklyn’s grace and alacrity, and although I wasn’t fat or flatfooted, I jumped as if I was both. Jacklyn taught me how to do it. She described it at first and then swung the rope slowly so I could pass.

“Now up, now down, now up, now down,” she iterated.

Afterwards, we left the forest and found a guava tree at the edge of the hill. I climbed up to get the fruits while she remained down to gather them into a heap under the tree. She was scampering about happily and my own heart was thumping with excitement, my head quite light. She waited until I’d come down before she could start eating. We then sat side by side and ate too much of those fruits to allow us contain ourselves. She broke wind, releasing such a foul stink you’d think it could cause cancer. But before she could be embarrassed, I answered with a deep incredible BOOOO and we both laughed aloud until we rolled on the grass. We talked about school as we ate, about teachers and students, the ones we liked and the ones we didn’t like.

“Are you going to grow up to be like your brother?” she asked.

I said I didn’t know. “Why?” I returned.

“I don’t like your brother,” she said.

“Why?”

“He is frightens people.”

“He frightened you?”

“No, but he looks so—”

“So what?” I interrupted and she trailed off.

I was quiet for so long she turned to me with concern. I did not like people saying bad things about my brother. I did not care whether he frightened them or not. He was my brother and nobody had the right to opine maliciously in regard to him.

As if to pacify me, Jacklyn changed the subject.

“Why are you called Dani and not Dan?”

I said I did not want to be called Dan.

“But your name is Daniel Rombe!” asserted she.

I said sure it was.

“Then you should be Dan!”

I shook my head.

“My mother calls me Jack,” she said.

I told her Jack was a boy’s name.

“I know. But my mother calls me so.”

“Tell her it is a boy’s name.”

“You should call me Jack too.”

“You want me to call you by a boy’s name?”

“My father does. And my sisters and my brother and my aunt. So should you. Then I will call you Dan, not Dani.”

I gave up trying to dissuade her from calling me so and said it was okay she could if she wanted. It took me several years to understand that she had put me in the category of the people she trusted and loved. I think it was why she never forgave me.

In view of what followed thenceforth, that Sunday remains the happiest day of my life to date. How we laughed and rolled on the grass, how we enjoyed those fresh fruits and played without reservations, resignations, or requirements. Jacklyn never hang out with me again, and I, in retaliation, became a bookworm to avoid people. I read too much. I devoured books. By the time I lifted my eyes from them and looked around, the world had become severe, so severe indeed that people sold jokes for a living. And the fruits were foul and not free anymore.

We paid to laugh. The fact which itself should have been funny. And when we bought the jokes we couldn’t laugh as we had laughed when we were children, as I’d laughed with Jacklyn up there in the hill under that guava tree. We couldn’t be truly happy; we had too many restrictions, too many worries, and too much guilt about the state of the world. We felt judged and accused all the time. We laughed as if only to account for our money, the kind of laughter that hurt the jaws and overstretched the lips while the eyes remained hard and glazed with mocking tears. Instead of health, we got sad wrinkles in return. We said we had fun, yet we laughed at absurdities and foolishness that should have instead made us cry. We laughed at ourselves.

                                                                                                                                                                                VI.

Monday was 1st June, Madaraka Day, when Kenya celebrates its first self-rule from the British. We didn’t go to school and I thought Jacklyn would come. So when my brother left to go hang out with Opalo and Ochola, I told him I’d go shoot birds.

I waited for Jacklyn in vain. Instead, it was one of her sisters that showed up. Alora. Her second eldest sister and the third child in her family. I should have known when I saw her that she was trouble. She brought an end to a lot of things, even herself.

“Are you alone?” I asked her, hoping she was with Jacklyn.

“With whom do you expect me to be?” was her cutting reply.

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“Can you show me which one of these trees has no snakes in it?” she asked.

I told her that the mangoes, the guavas, and the pawpaw tree were likely to have either black mambas or green mambas in them, since the mambas liked birds and birds loved those fruits. The oranges, the avocadoes, the pineapples and the lemons were safe while the loquats and the passion fruits were most likely to conceal small brown and green snakes that were rather harmless. But the most important thing to remember was that the black mamba was unpredictable. It was a vicious hunter and it could be anywhere.

“Are you afraid of snakes?” she asked. She was looking down on me in a patronizing way. I was nervous.

I said no, I was not afraid of snakes, though if they bit me I’d die just like anybody else.

“Then follow me,” she said and began hurrying away.

I followed her along the hedge where she ate some fruits we called awach, which were as small as millet grains and grew in tight clusters. They matured from green to purple and continued to darken until they were sweet like wicked things. Most of us, however, left them for birds because of their size and their thorny trees. But Alora took so much time there that I began to fidget. I was bored and I wanted to leave her by herself. She was unfriendly and I was just standing there like a bodyguard of some sort.

In the end, she moved to an avocado tree and my boredom took leave. When she had climbed up, I lay down to watch her underwear. She had red ones on and they were extremely neat, as neat as her thighs were smooth and pale. I chuckled and she looked down.

“What are you looking at?” she demanded.

“Your panties,” I said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. They are very clean.”

“Do you want to see my vagina?”

That word. It made me start. It was my first time to hear a girl using it and I thought she was abusing me. Ever since I first heard it, it was used to abuse. Even when I’d become an adult, it was still used to insult people—who then took offence with bitterness. I did not get it. I thought the vagina was a singular phenomenon. Like gravity. Something that could move a planet with an unequalled force in a single direction all by itself. It moved the hearts of men like gravity moved earth. They lusted after it with a unique single-minded desire, yet, simultaneously, they used it to assault one another. It was ironic.

My brother had even taught me that the fastest speed in the world was the speed with which a man’s eyes followed a woman’s crotch. He said it couldn’t be measured by any devices.

But women were an ill-fated lot those days. They were the butt of all ill humour and the object of every conceivable indignity. They bore the brunt of all forms of male stupidity. Any moron with a joke had to spice it with something about girls in it in order to make people laugh harder. There were boys who could abuse your grandmother till you wept in horror and shame. They did not attack you personally even though you were the one who had offended them. They attacked your sisters, mother, grandmother, and any other woman related to you. They could say things you thought could never be said: taboos, abominations, and madness. One boy named Ogur Tindi had abused an elderly schoolteacher that her buttocks were shrunken like an old man’s mouth.

“Is it a good thing?” I asked Alora concerning her vagina.

“If you see it, you will go mad,” she said.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Is that why all girls hide their panties?”

“Yes. And it is what drove Odengo mad. He saw it when he was too young. Like you.”

Odengo was a madman by the roadside. He used to have a dirty plastic cup that he pushed at people and asked them to spit into. If you passed without spitting, he would beg and implore you with all his heart. He would even cry. But after he had collected enough spit for himself, he drank it like water. He said it was medicine and it would cure him. He said it could cure all diseases in the world. Mostly it was children that gave him their saliva, even though a few malevolent adults did not mind hawking their own phlegm into his cup. We were warned to avoid him because if he found you alone he could make you drink it too.

“I don’t want to be mad!” I blurted out, thinking of Odengo and feeling mad already.

“Then don’t look at my panties!” Alora said.

So I closed my eyes the rest of the time she was in the tree. It was the last day I ever sat down to look at those girls’ underwear.

But before she came down, I said the worst thing under the circumstances.

“Your panties are cleaner than Jacklyn’s,” I said with my eyes still closed.

“Where did you see Jacklyn’s panties?”

“When she was jumping rope in the hill,” said I.

“Who took her to the hill?”

“Me!”

If I had opened my eyes then, I would have seen the furious blaze in Alora’s eyes.

                                                                                                                                                                            VII.

On Tuesday at class break, Jacklyn came to me in the field where I was the goalkeeper for my classmates playing football. She was incensed and her eyes were swollen and red. My first thought was that somebody had hurt her and she needed my help. I began to feel an uncontrollable burning in me and I think I would have attacked her offender regardless. I had a lung disease that did not require me to exert too much, but I also had a crazy brother who looked after me with a villainous eye.

“What did you tell my sister?” she asked, accusing me and taking me by a whole hell of a surprise. “What did you tell Alora?”

I did not know what she was referring to, so I said, “Nothing” and shook my head.

“You are lying to me!” she trilled suddenly and stamped her right foot. “You are lying to me!” she repeated and began to heave and cry.

I just watched her. I did not know what to do. I could not recall what I may have done to fill her with such a spirit of acrimony and belligerence. I became aware of some boys who had assembled around us and were sniggering at us. The burning thing in me was replaced with embarrassment.

Jacklyn heaved one last time and quieted. She swallowed and wiped her face with her hands. Then in a controlled, meaningful voice and said: “I didn’t know you were like that!

She then stood there and stared at me for a few more seconds before turning away.

I remember that stare vividly. It haunts me. I can see her standing there behind the goal while I am hugging the goal post with my left arm, dumbfounded and stiff with embarrassment. She looked betrayed. A child betrayed. It occurred to me much later that there had been a chance I could have made it up for her. The few tense seconds during which she stared at me in quiet had perhaps been her way of offering me that chance. I should have seized them and made amends. But then, I had never heard anyone saying sorry, least of all my brother. He never apologized for anything, never regretted. Besides, I did not know the cause of the conflict.

I determined to find out. I left the goalkeeping to another student and went to search for Alora. I did not find her. She was in Standard Seven and their break did not coincide with that of lower classes.

I found her at four during the last break before we departed for home. She was with a group of girls but that was no hindrance to me. I walked up to her and said,

“What did you tell Jacklyn?”

“Go away!” she said and pushed me. “You are a wicked boy. Wicked!

“What did you tell her?” I demanded.

“Wicked!” she said and pushed me again. “Wicked, wicked, wicked!”

She shoved me one last time and I fell on my back.

There were girls in school those days that could beat a boy like mad. They were tall and strong and extremely pissed off. They did not fight in any orderly manner; they did not ball their hands and calculate where to punch you. They flung their huge hands at you anyhow and rained blows on your head like hailstones. They screamed as they bashed you so that it seemed they were the ones in need of help. Sometimes they could lift you up and crash you down like a nasty load. Before you knew it, you’d be in the air and on the ground and being pulverised.

Alora was one of those girls. She stood over me and I stayed down. It was unacceptable to surrender to a girl; it was worse if she beat you. Some boys, after they were battered, tried to be save face among their peers by declaring that they had been only considerate of their attacker. “I could have tackled her!” they’d exclaim. “But she’s just a girl! Just a girl!” However, if you had witnessed the nature of pounding they had received and how defenceless they had been, you’d laugh yourself till you bled in the stomach.

So I stayed down in defeat. I did not want the situation to get any worse. I imagined Jacklyn somewhere nearby watching me engaged with her sister. I imagined my friends all looking at us and wished that Alora would leave and go back to her friends. But she was stupid. She could have saved herself an eternity of horror. Instead, she proved to be worse than a black mamba. I had seen the mambas fight back home. They did not fight like human beings or dogs. They were the most fearsome of all snakes in the area, yet, when they fought, they did it like civilized creatures, with decency and honour, without killing or injuring each other with impunity. The one whose head was the first to fall beneath the other crawled away with its head still down. I had seen it several times to be certain that it was their culture. Yet the clever human had to hurt you irreparably.

Now, although I was on the ground and crawling away from that tall girl with her long arms which she could swing like clubs, she advanced towards me and kicked my legs while calling me wicked. She kicked me again, and she was prepared to kick me a third time when my brother and his friends arrived and surrounded her. And at that instant, her fate was irreversibly sealed.

                                                                                                                                                                         VIII.

“Why are you beating my brother?” Jumbe asked her. Opalo and Ochola were with him and two others, Odek and Gonde, appeared shortly.

You should have seen Alora’s face when she saw them. She had been daring and tough, kicking me with impunity, but now she cowered like a beaten animal. I rose and moved back a few paces from them.

“Why?” Jumbe pressed. His voice was raised and he looked really deadly. I had noticed that his eyes were constantly red, his face darker, and his lips remained dry and peeling even after he had eaten and drunk a lot of water. The tips of his fingers were bulbous and burnt, nails yellowish and hard. Sometimes he smelled funny, of a mixture of vile, unnamed things. So putrid you’d think he was all decomposed inside. He smelled like my father used to.

“He did bad things to Jacklyn,” Alora said in a fluctuating voice.

“Who is Jacklyn?”

“She is our lastborn.”

“How old is your lastborn?”

“She is seven years old.”

“What did Dani do to her?”

“He took her to the hill and did bad things to her.”

What the hell? I could have asked as I goggled at her in brutal shock. That was what she had told Jacklyn that I’d said. Unbelievable! Preposterous! Maybe she had reported it to her parents as well. Ah, what a confounded liar!

“You are lying!” I yelled at her. “She’s lying! Liar! Liar! Wicked liar!”

She glanced at me only once. She did not attempt to defend herself.

“What did he do?” Jumbe demanded as if he had not heard what she’d said. “This little boy, what can he do? Does he look old enough to you? Do you want to see his penis?”

Alora shook her head.

“Does your lastborn even have a vagina for any penis in the world to penetrate? Does she?”

Alora shook her head.

“Then why do you beat my brother?”

Jumbe was becoming increasingly incensed as he spoke. He had an evil air about him that he wore like a suit. I recalled Jacklyn saying that he frightened people and agreed with her without a doubt. Those red eyes were excessively intense and diabolical. They burned. You could see that something was missing in them. Something that was in most people’s eyes: recognition. They lacked recognition. They were empty, like holes, and when he focused them on you, you doubted if he could really see you. My father’s eyes had been like that.

“Do you know that this boy is an orphan? Why do you bully orphans?” Opalo said. He was as tall as Jumbe and equally menacing both in outlook and appearance.

“Dani is like my son,” Jumbe said with emphasis. “I am the only one he has for a father-figure. And no father should witness his son bullied like that. Do you understand how I feel? Do you?

Alora nodded. She was an embodiment of terror. I could tell the palpitation of her heart by how her breasts surged and throbbed like boiling water.

“Since she is a witch that hurts orphaned children, why don’t we rip off her clothes and send her home naked?” Opalo suggested.

“She is a witch! We should rip off her clothes and whip her naked skin until she bleeds like the sky,” Ochola chipped in.

“Or burn her,” my brother said. He produced a matchbox. “Let’s burn her hair!”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes!” was the chorus from the rest of the devils.

“Opalo, grab her head!” Jumbe ordered, and Opalo reached forward to obey.

Alora jerked back but could not escape their tenacity. She began to whimper. Opalo got her neck in a chokehold. “Burn her!” he ordered.

But Jumbe, instead of lighting a matchstick, burst out with laughter, startling even his friends. He laughed aloud as if he had just witnessed something particularly humorous and uncommon. His neck tightened, bulged, his face a picture of distortion, and violent ripples shook him. After a moment, his friends followed suit although they had no clue whatsoever as to the cause of his hilarity. Together, their laughter was a chorus of the deranged. Hollow, inane, violent and dead; it was also discordant, raucous and hellish.

Alora became confused. She stopped whimpering. She was flushed and she wiped her face.

Heeeey, I am a benevolent guy!” Jumbe announced, still laughing. “Don’t cry like that! I can forgive you. Do you want me to forgive you?”

She nodded.

“Then I forgive you,” he proclaimed.

Opalo let go of her neck. She did not relax, though. She knew something worse was to follow and viewed her enemies with dreadful anticipation.

“However,” Jumbe began, “you have to reward us for our kindness.” He surveyed her up and down and added: “You are very pretty today. Do you know that?”

She said nothing.

“As a matter of fact, so pretty that I think you are bleeding or about to bleed—are you?”

She looked at him as if to say “What?

“You know,” explained he with a slight hesitation, “the way girls bleed. Our science teacher said that if a girl is suddenly very pretty, it means she is bleeding or about to bleed. Are you?”

“No,” Alora said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t believe you. Convince me.”

“Yes. Convince us!” Opalo stressed.

Show us!” Jumbe said.

“Yes. Show us!” Opalo reinforced.

She stared at them in confoundment, as if she did not believe what they were asking of her. I did not know what kind of thoughts went through her mind then, but I saw how stiff she became, how helpless. Once, my brother and I had set a trap for a gazelle that used to destroy my grandmother’s groundnuts. We found it caught the following day and its eyes, when it saw us, were completely abject and without even a shimmer of hope burning in them. Alora’s eyes now resembled those of that animal. Despair had vanquished her.

There was nothing she could do to save herself. She was the most miserable thing you could ever see. Those were men that ambushed teachers on the road and battered them. They were not school bullies. They were hardcore criminals.

Jumbe grasped her hand and towed her towards the classes. She followed like a cow to a slaughterhouse.

“You just have to show us,” he said. “Don’t make a big deal of it.”

They raped her. They raped her repeatedly in turns. All the five of them. But she never talked about it. A lot of girls got raped those days and they never talked about it. You heard of it from the men themselves when they boasted of their adventures with such and such a girl or so-and-so’s daughter. They spoke with such vigour and heroism that they won admiration in the eyes of the younger generation, who then emulated them. The cops were just as useless as your own neighbour in such matters. They could beat you to death if you insulted the president but they could not save your daughter from a rapist. A certain man named Agai whose lastborn daughter, Ruth, had been raped by three men in a sugarcane plantation went to the police in Rongo and Kisii but followed the case for ten years in vain. He eventually gave up and died of severe ulcers.

Alora became pregnant and dashed to a local abortionist before her parents could find out. But it backfired on her and she lost her uterus in the process. She hanged herself in the forest the next day. Her body was picked up all bloated and green, her eyes eaten by birds, and maggots swarming her sockets like humans in a city.

                                                                                                                                                                                IX.

It turned out that she had had a secret boyfriend in the village. Relationships among the youth were well-concealed matters then, revealed only at a time of crisis by those in the know. Teachers did not tolerate them and parents liked them even less. They could earn you indefinite suspension from school and a deadly beating from your folks. Moreover, the villagers were snoopy; they would not shut up if they thought you were engaged in the slightest sexual misconduct. Especially if you were a girl. But people like my brother went unreported because their retribution was worse than the excitement of spreading the rumours. They could set your house on fire, for instance, or rape your daughter and torture your son to death.

Alora’s boyfriend was a man named Atoti. He had finished Standard Eight but declined to proceed to secondary school for reasons of which I was not aware. He worked in the farm with his father who owned a small factory for grinding sugarcane and heating the juice into solid blocks of sugar meant for brewing local drinks.

He was also Seri’s brother.

Until we found him hiding behind a thicket by a lemon tree waiting to ambush us, I had never thought him a menace. He used to be a mild-mannered person, taciturn, almost mute, with an unremarkable face and sheepish eyes. He was muscular from exerting too hard at work, though his left shoulder was tilted much lower than the right, making him noticeably ungainly.

He came out of the bush so suddenly that we could not take off. We were petrified. My brother had been telling me a crazy story about an ancient monster that used to come to the village and eat old women. He halted in midsentence as if his brain had been switched off like a bulb.

Atoti had a hippo-hide whip with him.

“What do you want from me?” he asked Jumbe. He was charged with rage and his face twitched as he spoke, his hands shaking. I remembered a teaching I had heard about the quiet ones being the worst to offend and knew that we were in serious trouble.

“Jumbe, what do you want from me?” he repeated. “First, you make my sister pregnant so that she has to leave school.” (Seri was still pregnant then.) “And then you take Alora by force to make her kill herself. You killed her! You killed her! And I want you to tell me why! Tell me why you hate me so much as to scheme my ruin! Tell me what I did to you!”

My brother was still in shock, his heart belabouring him. He was breathing so hard he could not speak. He had never reckoned with Atoti when he injured Seri and Alora. He had never considered the consequences of his actions on other people than himself. Yet there he was beside me, face-to-face with his last mortal enemy, motionless, speechless. And to make it worse, Atoti had made everything personal, making it impossible to placate him; he was not asking why Jumbe had hurt Seri and Alora; he wanted to know why the harm had been done to him, and he wasn’t allowing for any chance that Jumbe might have had nothing against him.

Jumbe turned and regarded me thoughtfully. I thought it was because he felt the need to protect me, but now I know what I saw in his eyes:  he did not want me to think him a coward. Maybe he had been thinking of fleeing. He was silent for a few more seconds, and when he could speak, he said:

“What do you want to do about it?”

Atoti launched himself at him with the whip and began flogging him. They struggled. My brother fought back the best he could, but Atoti was older and stronger and more muscular. He was also quicker and the more furious. He lambasted Jumbe the way my father used to, with zero remorse and absolute wrath. The whip was narrow and heavy and it cut the flesh like a razor. At last, Jumbe bolted towards the main road. Atoti gave chase and whipped him on the back. Every lash was like lightning.

I did not like him beating my brother like that. He was not a policeman, nor was he our father. Nobody had ever beaten us since my father died, and I still hated my father deep in my heart. I still hate him even as I tell this story. Some people had sympathized with me for being an orphan. Teachers were especially tender with me because I was also something of a genius in class. But if my father were to return I’d have wished him back to hell without a mote of hesitation.

I ran after Jumbe and Atoti. I saw that if they reached the main road, people would see my brother’s humiliation, my humiliation, and they would talk about it for the rest of their living days. They would not fear him anymore. They would be pointing fingers at me when I passed by, saying “It was his brother that was beaten like a thieving dog” and the boys at school who did not mess with me because I had a bigger brother they all feared would now take advantage, thinking that their own brothers could handle mine. I was incited by these thoughts and I screamed Atoti’s name. I had a shrill voice, sharp as a whistle, and I kept screaming his name until he stopped whipping my brother. He turned and regarded me with hostile eyes and I thought he would come for me too. But he did not. He proceeded towards the main road.

We went home.

                                                                                                                                                                                   X.

We did not talk on the way. Jumbe was brooding. He was bleeding all over his back and arms and his uniform was shredded in several places. My own lungs were grating like sand from screaming too much. I was in my own terrible hell.

Grandmother took care of us. She knew all sorts of roots and leaves that cured all sorts of wounds and diseases. My lungs, however, worried her; she didn’t know what kind of poisons I had inhaled in the night to make me so mortally sick, and she could only suppress the infection. We had been to the hospital at Ranen Mission but the doctor had referred us to a bigger hospital in Nairobi. Nairobi felt like an entirely different planet then, unreachable, unthinkable. So we relied on her concoctions for the time being.

She was actually my great-grandmother; she had raised my father’s father.

I had noticed that whenever Jumbe was in trouble she did not ask him how he had got into it. She knew in her heart that he was the cause. I was the one she usually chided and it was because of the good reports teachers gave her on parents’ days. They told her that I was very clever and could one day have a great future if I had proper guidance. I was also still too young to be just abandoned to the demoniacal madness in the family. Sometimes she talked to me with bitterness and anger, saying that she had already buried way too many people and if there were God, he would spare her just one. “Just one!” she’d stress with tears. “I’m not asking him for two or more! Just one!” She said that between Jumbe and I there should have been four children, making us six in total, but my mother used to get pregnant and my father would punch them out of her.

She was heartbroken whenever I stood by Jumbe, and in those instances she felt the cruelty of the vanity of her endeavours and she went to her bedroom and prayed for hours on end. She had resigned to the madness in the family and had seen enough of it to know that nothing could take it away. It was passed on regardless like a genetic anomaly, dominant in firstborns and recessive in the rest. She had told me that my father had been like my grandfather who had been like my great-grandfather who had been like my great-great-grandfather, and so on. She said that marriage in our family was a beacon for death. We murdered our wives. She herself would have been dead if it had not been for a black mamba that had killed her husband when he was pursuing her with a knife in order to cut off her head like a chicken. In his blind fury, he stepped on the tail of a particularly pissed off fourteen-foot long black mamba that had been crossing the path. It coiled on his leg like a python and raised itself to stare him in the face like an equal. Then it bit him four times on the forehead, cheek, neck, and mouth. He died in twenty seconds.

Jumbe never went back to school. I stayed home for two weeks then resumed when the grating in my lungs had subsided. I told his friends that he had gone to Sigiria to visit an aunt who lived there. He had made me promise him never to tell anyone what Atoti had done. Not that I would have told if there had been no promises.

When he had recovered, he brooded a lot and did not speak his mind. He was different and I thought it was because he was afraid. He had realized there were tougher people than him who would not spare him if he crossed their lines. I was soon proven wrong.

It happened on Sunday 13th December 1992, the last day I spent in his keep. I was eight going on nine. We had closed school and a violent furore had spread across the villages due to an oncoming general election. People were exalting FORD-Kenya while shouting the equivalent of “Fuck KANU!” My grandmother had gone to the Catholic Church at Ranen Market and I was home with my brother. Ever since Atoti punished him, he did not go out as frequently as he used to. He went in the evenings to hang out with Opalo and Ochola who had also quit school on his account. We were planning to go to the hill to set the trap for the porcupine that was ravaging my grandmother’s cassava. We had never got around to doing it and the damage had become quite extensive.

Suddenly, out of the blue, as if the Devil was guiding his footsteps and Death tugging him with a noose, Atoti appeared. He was headed for the hill with his two dogs. He was carrying a sickle and a sisal rope and I knew he was going to harvest grass. He saw me and waved at me but I did not reciprocate the gesture. I could not tell whether he intended to make peace with us because he was crossing our land or whether he would still have greeted me if I had gone to his home.

To my bewilderment, my brother, who was standing beside me, urged me to wave back at him. I did but stiffly. Jumbe did too and they began inquiring apropos of each other and chatting like old friends. Jumbe even laughed aloud at some joke Atoti made about his dogs being frightened of birds. He told Atoti that we were about to leave for the hill ourselves and we’d find him there. Atoti said it was fine and continued uphill. We let him lead by fifteen minutes then followed.

                                                                                                                                                                                XI.

It felt wrong. It was wrong. My brother did not have the heart to forgive. He was cruel. I remember him once telling Opalo and Ochola that if anybody ever messed with him, he would go to Nyamenya—the woman who had cursed my father—and obtain a voodoo doll of that person. He would then wait until the person was walking around unawares, maybe playing football in school or buying something from a shop, or even sleeping—he would wait till then and pull off his limbs one by one.

He was very excited as we climbed uphill. The vein on his forehead was pulsating and there was an odd sheen in his dead eyes, his strides too long. He told me a story about how the hare once duped the python to swallow his own tail, and when the python had done so and could not retract fast enough to save himself, the hare called the hyena to come and eat him.

Now, to catch a porcupine with a rope is a tricky business. If it is caught, it just cuts the rope with its teeth and continues to destroy your crops. You can use wires but the wires are chancy; it takes forever to catch anything in them. I used to think that the animals in our area were intelligent enough to interpret the wires as traps but too foolish to see the same about ropes. However, if you had to use a rope, you had to find a tough pole—so tough that you couldn’t bend it by yourself without some help and just flexible enough to bend only to a certain level. That way, if anything had the misfortune of being caught in the trap, the pole would spring back up with such a mighty force that the poor victim might die in midair before it ever even knew what had hit it.

We had set one like that before for a certain antelope that used to damage our potatoes. It had been male and it used to jump over the fence we had put around the farm to keep it off. It could have been three hundred kilograms, with big winding horns and a nasty smell. When we found it in the morning, it was hanging high up on the pole, which had sprang back to an erect position, with its leg so broken and wrung that it dangled only by its skin. The animal had passed out from the pain.

We found the open spot where the porcupine used to enter the farm. Several quills had fallen off there and small footprints in the shape of a baby’s hands were all over the place. Jumbe dug two holes and then left to fetch a suitable pole. I remained playing darts with the quills against a tree trunk. It was quiet in the hill except for some birds and Atoti’s dogs which were barking at them. I could see the main road from up there. It was swarming with loud campaigners who wore FORD-Kenya t-shirts and paper hats and carried Oginga Odinga placards. They were singing about President Moi being a chronic land thief and a dickless freak.

Jumbe returned with a twelve-foot long pole. He sank the bottom end of it into a four-foot deep hole and buried it with skill and dedication. It stood up erect and stable and you’d think it could never bend. It was then that he called Atoti who was cutting grass nearby.

“I need to bend this thing,” he said.

Atoti agreed without demur. I discovered afterwards, when nothing could be reversed, that he had been a good person. My brother had provoked him exceedingly to have him turn violent, but, all in all, he had been one of the kindest men in the area.

He went behind the pole and started pushing it forwards while Jumbe pulled it down with the rope which he had tied thirty centimetres from the very top. The rope had been made by my grandmother who performed her tasks the old African way. So strong was it that ten grown men could hang on it simultaneously and it would still hold. The two men applied all their might and bent that monstrous pole. Their muscles stuck out like roots, and where they stood, you could see the soles of their shoes digging the ground for purchase. As the pole became lower and lower, Atoti moved forward gradually to increase his effort distance and make his work a little easier. He was straddling the pole and using his weight to press it down.

On Jumbe’s end, there was a hole two feet long, a foot wide and a foot deep into which he had sunk two hooked pegs to hold down the pole via a smaller round peg on a string extending from the middle of the main rope. A looped end of the rope with a slipknot would be spread over some vulnerable sticks laid above the hole. The loop would then be hidden with grass and debris. If an animal stepped over the hole, the sticks would give in and disengage the smaller round peg, thereby releasing the pole. The slipknot would tighten as the pole kicked up, sending the animal straight to hell.

However, my brother did not reach for the hole. I had become bored of the quills and came to sit down near him. I saw in his eyes what he intended to do. But it was too late. He had a knowing grin on his face and his eyes shone brilliant with mischief. He waited until Atoti had come to the end of the pole and was springing on it, waiting for him to engage the pegs and keep the pole down for good. Instead, he released the rope . . .

I gasped.

There followed the sound of the pole returning to its original position. It was sharp and fast and loud; you would think the air was a fabric and the pole was tearing through it. It was almost like the sound of the military jets which usually saluted President Moi on public holidays.

I saw Atoti in the air. Up, up, up, and up he went. Until he started becoming very small and I thought he would never come down. That pole could have hurled away a three-hundred-kilogram antelope as if it weighed nothing at all. Atoti was not even a sixth of that and he was hurled like a little rock. I thought he’d keep going until he vanished in the clouds. But then, he stopped and came back. He came back as if the sky itself hated him and had flung him down. He fell on a rock and the back of his head exploded like pawpaw, his brain scattering about like the insides of the fruit. His eyes popped out and dangled on bloody tendrils where his cheeks had been. He broke his spine and ribs and hips and shoulders and just about every other bone in his body. He fell like a wet thing. He did not bounce, did not roll. He stuck to the rock like a magnet. He became part of the rock. When they came to collect his remains, they had to use their machetes to scrape off his flesh from the surface. The pole had shattered his scrotum and crashed his testicles and penis to bloody pastes.

I do not know for how long I was frozen in shock. When I came to, I let out the loudest scream my lungs could endure, such as I had done when I met my mother bleeding like hell out of the bedroom. I screamed for my grandmother, for anybody. I could not stop even after my lungs began to grate like sand.

Nobody came, though. They thought I was campaigning.

                                                                                                                                                                            XII.

My brother disappeared in the bush and I never saw him again.

Unlike most people who gave up on such kind of injuries, Atoti’s father pursued it with a vengeance. He had a lot of money from his business and he used it to bribe every cop he could find so as to have Jumbe arrested. But the police had too much on their hands at the time due to the inevitable violent eruptions concomitant to the campaign. It was not until late January that they came to talk to my grandmother. She told them that she did not know where Jumbe was but he consumed too much food to live with anyone who was not his close relative. So they could go look for him at any of our relatives out there. She gave up their names and the places where they lived.

We heard that he was arrested in Sigiria and later transferred to Awendo Police Station, then to Migori where he stayed for years on end. In those days, the government could keep you in remand for even a hundred years if it wanted to and you could do nothing about it. Most institutions were as the British had left them and the government was too busy plundering resources and murdering opponents to improve anything. The leaders made laws only to protect the president and then spent the rest of their greedy days digging deep into his rectum with their sharp unashamed tongues, calling him “Baba, Baba!” and making  his asshole sparkle like strange glass.

So they locked up Jumbe and forgot all about him. He had to kill another man in prison to prompt the magistrate to hand him a life sentence. Apparently the man had been one of the hardened inmates known to torture others. He thought he could terrorize Jumbe too. He wanted Jumbe to pay him rent for sharing the same cell with him. Jumbe said he had no money and was assigned the duty of emptying the bucket of shit that they used as a toilet for the rest of his remand days. He refused the job.

“Do you know why I am locked up in here?” he asked the inmate.

“I don’t care! I don’t care! We are all locked up in here and you happen to be locked up with me!” were the man’s final words.

He attacked Jumbe who got the better of him and sank his head in the bucket of shit, thereby drowning him to death.

“I am locked up in here because I killed a man, and I will not hesitate to kill the next!” my brother announced to the goggling inmates as he stood over the twitching body.

He died in 2007 at Kodiaga in Kisumu. By then I was in the third year of my course at the University of Nairobi. I had become so different from the child he’d left behind that sometimes I wondered if I even knew myself. I shunned his funeral because I didn’t want to remember.

Atoti’s death shook many people. It was then that I discovered how much he had been liked, respected, and loved. He had been good to a lot of people, even my grandmother. She said how she had met him on the road one night after a downpour detained her at the market and he had walked her home just to ensure she reached well. When Jumbe could not be found, I was the one people looked at to identify him. I’d been afraid they would point their fingers at me and say, “It was his brother that was beaten like a thieving dog”; now they were pointing fingers at me and saying, “It was his brother that murdered Atoti.” I felt worse.

I did my best to shun people. At school I was scared of the bullies who would now take advantage of my brother’s absence. I was also worried about the people my brother had assaulted who might want to avenge themselves on me. Several girls had finally found courage to report the abuse Jumbe had inflicted on them at night parties, and now that he was nowhere to be found, every one of his enemies expressed a horrid desire to get hold of him and shred him to pieces. A story began to spread of a boy named Sedi who had vanished without a trace sometime in 1988 but whose remains were later unearthed by a ploughing tractor from South Nyanza Sugar Company in mid 1992. It was said that Jumbe and his friends had chopped him up and buried his remains in the plantation. It was a true story, for as soon as it was revealed, Opalo and Ochola took off and never came back.

However, my brother’s enemies never did anything to me. I was hard to find. I reported to school the first and left the last. I ignored those who attempted to talk to me about him. When grandmother needed me to help her with a task after school, I’d be the first to leave, running all the way home. At class breaks, I remained in class and read.

Yes. I read. Of all the things that saved me, reading was the best. There was a small library that the government had begun to stock but quit when it realized that education of the people was its number one adversary and that a country dominated by ignorance and illiteracy was the politician’s paradise. It had very old books some of which could sometimes be too difficult to read. I borrowed every single one of them nonetheless and read and reread them all. The teachers made me the librarian and the timekeeper due to my adamant punctuality. It was as though they had given me carte blanche to cut out all social contact. I hid in that library whenever I had no class in session. I cleaned it and repaired the books and the shelves and rearranged them. I even asked the headmaster to buy more books to which he replied that he would consider it although he never did.

I saw Jacklyn last on Monday 10th August 1998 at about 1pm when we were called to an impromptu assembly to be told of the Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi which had occurred the previous Friday. It was the day we were first introduced to Osama bin Laden, the name that would haunt us for the next thirteen years. We were quiet and tense and several gasps could be heard when the headmaster said that over two hundred people had been killed. I noticed someone staring at me from behind and when I turned I saw that it was Jacklyn. I looked away immediately to avoid her but she continued to stare at me for the rest of the meeting. She had become bigger and her breasts were showing. She was very pretty, a wispy thing with pristine grace and large absorbing eyes. I imagine now what we could have had if my brother hadn’t taught me to look at women’s panties and my heart fills with poignant regret. I’d never even had the chance to call her ‘Jack’ as she had wanted me to. I knew she was still angry with me and would never forgive me. She had blamed me for what my brother had done to her sister and for days I had wished to explain to her that her sister had lied. But then, I told myself that the fact that Alora had lied could not justify what Jumbe and his friends had done to her.

My social skills deteriorated. People talked about themselves and expected me to do the same. Whenever I looked back at my childhood, I saw my brother’s face. I saw a malign spirit, a dark thing in a dark place. I saw the devil that had been behind it all. I heard his diabolical laughter when he was about to commit an atrocity. He was everywhere and I remembered that I had been his accomplice. I was the reason he had hurt Seri and Alora and Atoti, and even the inmate. I was the reason for his death. I wanted to scream and hang myself. I wanted to set myself on fire and burn to ashes. Some nights I lay awake and tossed about like a terminally ill person, with only the awful night and the empty room for company. I saw my father bending over me, pinching my buttocks with his monstrous paws while his noisome breath washed over my face. That gigantic horror, that abortion of humanity, that grotesque mockery of God’s work! I remembered that I was carrying his genes and I was suffused with darkness and rage, I was transported with hate and loathing and I howled till my lungs grated like sand and my throat was full of blood, cursing that he had begot me, cursing that even something like him could desire children, cursing, cursing . . .

                                                                                                                                                                         XIII.

But I lived. And recently I met a girl. Her name is Subira and I’m in love. She is one of those girls that if you let go, then you shall be a colossal fool for the rest of your life. She said she had been watching me for a long time and wondering why a young man with a great job, an intelligent face and a rather handsome physique prefers to walk alone like the Devil in Paradise Lost. She said I was always so withdrawn I did not seem to notice anything else. She thought I did not exist on earth at all. We had a date—my first date in thirty years!—and she talked about herself while I tried to keep the conversation on Paradise Lost, a book we both liked. At length, I told her some things about myself which instigated the bad memories. I went back to my house and for the first time pondered over what else to do about them other than shutting them away. I decided that I should write them down. I had heard that writing heals the mind and I had read enough books to delude myself that I could write. I hope it does.

I have also learnt that genes are a function of the environment, so that I no longer have to be afraid of my children taking after my father or of my marriage becoming a beacon for death. Children are as they are raised, where they are raised. All energy comes from the environment—the fact which proves everything on earth is linked to one another, so that I still haven’t figured out how killers like my brother can live to kill again, knowing what they have taken. I think life is a sanctity. If you consider the biology, the chemistry, the physics, the mathematics and everything else that makes it possible—the magic of how a single microscopic cell can begin to communicate its neighbour and continue to do so until, out of the union, a seemingly impossible, almost otherworldly phenomenon is achieved, one that has never been formed before and can never be duplicated again—it is so complex, so mysterious, so awe-inspiring and so beautiful that to destroy it is unspeakable.

My grandmother died in 2009 at a hundred and twelve years old. She was happy that I had outlived her. She said God had answered her prayer. She was also glad that school had transformed me, although she said I’d never live to be as old as she was. She said to be that old I had to know the old African ways, which did not exist anymore. I had my lungs treated in 2003 and when I told her about it she was beside herself with joy. She just kept on singing some old songs even after the night had settled and the village was quiet. She told me that since I could now exert I must use my strength wisely, that I must never lift my finger against the mother of my children, unless I thought it desirable for my children to have no mother. I told her that I hated my father so much I’d never do anything he used to do. I wanted to be the irreconcilable contrast of everything he had been. I will keep my word and I know she will be proud of me wherever she is.

The End.

I.

There was a place in Karen where the Devil sometimes came through to Nairobi. It was an open field of about a quarter of an acre with a few tall trees, sporadic thickets, and patches of stunted grass. The trees and the thickets had yellow, sickly leaves and the grass was mostly burnt. But a building usually appeared there just moments before the Devil stepped out of a wall. It was an enormous building and it disappeared as soon as the Devil was gone.

I had thought once that perhaps I should set traps there with massive chains, hooks and barbed wire—or even with a modified rat trap intended for something his size—and catch him unawares and torture him until he surrendered my soul. But I did not know what could hold him. He was a gigantic thing, and as heartless as only he could be. If he overcame the traps, he’d find me and squish me underneath his feet. Or worse, he would give my soul to Moloch. He had said that if I did not fulfil my end of the bargain, he would give my soul to Moloch.

He had, however, been the first to dishonour the deal, and I now had to contrive to obtain what he owed me.

I crossed to the spot where the house usually materialized. The temperature was much higher at that point, though the heat was clearly not from the sun. It was also still; but for the miserable vegetation, I had never seen any other living thing in the area.

I waited.

I had seen how the wall cracked before, how it gaped like a jagged, sinister, monstrous mouth. If I could flit through it before the Devil noticed me . . . If I could do that!

But what if he already knew my plan?

Ah! That could bear imponderable consequences. I began to sweat and shake from its very prospect, and my heart hurt. I turned my thoughts away from it, wondering who owned this property that the Devil used as a gateway. I had asked the same question before, though in vain. Somebody in Nairobi owned it and knew the Devil used it often. If they didn’t know, they would have developed it already. People were hungrier and greedier for such property than ever before. Prime Property, the dealers called it, and then charged astronomical costs. Yet here it was, unfenced, unattended, a dead, deadly plot, a doorway through to Hell itself. I imagined the owner had neighbours, friends, family. Did they know that he had allowed his property to be utilized by the Devil as a gateway from Hell and that he probably benefitted immensely from the agreement? I imagined him drinking and laughing with his friends, having sex with his wife, maybe trying to be a good father to his children, even succeeding, while behind them all, he had made the evilest, vilest deal with the evilest, vilest being ever conceived. People could be frightening.

Where the Devil went or what he did while about town I did not know. But there were disappearances. Adults, children. Random indiscriminate unexplained disappearances. The Daily Nation had done a story on them once. The list had been too long.

Those, plus the souls that I’d given him. Given him in vain.

If I could just go through the wall without . . .

And I was calm. I had distracted myself enough to be calm when the house appeared at once and the wall exploded.

Shit!

I was thrown back, into the air and further back, but before I could hit the ground, I was flung against the ceiling and pinned there like an insect.

“Where do you think you are going?” demanded he. He was pinning me with his index finger, pressing my ribs too hard.

“None of your business,” I groaned.

In response, he drilled a hole through my heart to the ceiling. Blood flooded his finger and ran down the rest of his hand. I twisted and slid down, becoming stuck at the swell of the middle joint.

“Your business is mine,” he said. “You forget that all your business is mine.” His voice was like that of a man whose throat is clogged with oil.

“Give it back to me,” I moaned. “Give back what you owe.”

“You still owe me.” He released me and I fell hard on the floor. Dust and debris flew about and the house vibrated.

“Answer the phone and get back to work,” he said, and vanished.

II.

I rose. To my dismay, the wall had returned to its original state. Seconds later, the house faded into nonexistence, leaving me in the open. I was standing on dead grass.

Blood was gushing out of me. The hole in my heart was gaping at the world. But I did not care. It didn’t matter. I was overwhelmed by the futility of my ambition, the stark impotence of rage at the undying. Distress came upon me, despair. I did not move.

“Three souls,” he’d said. “Bring me three souls and you will get yours in exchange.”

Later, he’d changed to thirty-three, then to three hundred and thirty-three, six hundred and sixty-six, nine hundred and ninety-nine, and, finally, just one. The one that I could not get and he would not explain. Two thousand one hundred souls already! I had surpassed his target. All this accomplished in ten years. He had robbed me of ten years of my existence.

Yet he withheld the reward. How fitting of him!

The Devil. Lucifer. Satan.

Ah!

I’d been running from the cops when I bumped into him at this very place. He had been exiting, out for what I later learned was his once-a-month trip to Nairobi, while bullets zinged over my head and cops came steadily on my trail.

Suddenly, a house grew around me. A bungalow. Many-walled. Many-roomed. It came out of nowhere. I braked too unexpectedly and the momentum propelled me forwards, into someone, or something, that hadn’t been there before.

The impact knocked me flat on the floor. I immediately scrambled up. Confused, things spiralling out of view, going dark, too many inputs, too few interpretations, something clutching my stomach, my own heartbeat too fast—I started to flee, but at that critical moment, that decisive life-and-death instant, my strength failed me. My knees wobbled. I flopped.

Later, I realized that I’d wanted to flee in the direction of the cops. I also realized that if the Devil hadn’t been there at precisely when I ran into him, I’d have fallen through the crack into the unforgiving, implacable dark beyond and the unflagging fires of Hell.

He grabbed me, raised me. He was hot like a burning thing and I jerked away from him without a thought to spare. But he held on to my head. His hand was so wide it covered my head like a helmet, the fingers reaching far past my jaws, my neck. I was a little doll in his hands.

“Watch your path!” he said and shook me. “Human!” he spat. There was profound contempt in his voice when he did it. His breath was steam. It scalded my face.

I could not speak. I could not move. Neither could I take my eyes off him. He was a colossal thing that could easily weigh over a tonne. Hardy, rugged muscles jutted all over his immortal body, and his skin was like the bark of some ancient cursed tree that had stubbornly withstood the agonies of living in a cruel death-riddled world; it was hardened and rough-edged, excessively wrinkled and stained with the corruption and profanity of eternal Hell. A strange crackling sound was issuing from his eyes, as if they were roasting and might suddenly pop out, and reddish blue tongues of flame spewed out of his ears.

Lucifer.2.

The Devil

“You are about to die,” continued he, deadpan. “I can see it all over your face. What are you running from?”

When I didn’t answer, he said, “Can’t you speak? Or would you like me yank off your tongue so that you never have to speak again?”

“Cops,” I said. It was a faltering whisper.

“What is it you possess that they hanker after with such fiery passion?”

“They think I am a terrorist.”

The Devil grinned. A sinister grin that made the corners of his lips to curve like horns. The pupils of his eyes floated towards his nose and gathered there so that they seemed crossed. The irises glowed yellowish with tinges of red sprinkled all over. I could see my image in them: a distorted thing with a scalded, skinless face, eyes terrified beyond reason. I looked only once and shut my eyes.

“Are you?” he asked.

“No! My friend is.”

He seemed disappointed. I could tell by the way he sighed and squeezed my head.

“What difference does it make, anyway?” he said. “You are on the run for your dear soul. And they are going to kill you in two and half minutes. A bullet is going to shatter this skull like something for target practice. Are you ready to die?”

I shook my head within his stupendous hand. “No!”

“What difference does it make?” he asked again. “Dead or alive, you are all the same. All of mankind! The living ones exert too hard in order to die. The dying ones exert too hard in order to live. The living fight the living with a vengeance, yet mourn the dead with bitterness. It is pathetic. Stupid. However, there is a place where you can be both dead and alive simultaneously. It is the perfect place for mankind. Do you know it?”

My eyes were still closed and he shook me. I opened them just in time to see the wall shut itself. The edges met with the impact of jaws clamped together. What now faced me was its discoloured, ruined, ancient surface. It seemed to have been there for tens of thousands of years.

I had glimpsed what was on the other side of it: the black, hollow desolation that set the bladder loose and the bowels running by its very presence. A pit without an end; yet a scream had emanated from it, a deep, senseless, horrid cry from a truly wretched soul.

“Do you know it?” the Devil repeated. He was glowering at me.

Unable to speak, I shook my head.

“Well, then. You are about to find out. I’ll just wait for them to gun you down and then call Moloch.”

He removed his hand from my head, and I could again hear the police outside. They were too close. I could hear the sound of their running feet. One of them fired and the blast shook the house.

It occurred to me that I was truly caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Quite literally, between the Devil and the crazed gunmen. Death awaited me on both sides. It was a catch-22.

However, if the cops got me, they would triumph over my death and announce to the world that a terrorist had been eliminated. The world would rejoice and continue with its fancy delusions of safety. I was not a terrorist. I was an innocent man who had been at the wrong place at a wrong time. But that did not matter anymore. I saw my parents’ humiliation upon receiving the news, their shock, horror, the stigma that would haunt them for the rest of their lives. They were Seventh-Day Adventists proper, and frowned upon the consumption of something as simple and ubiquitous as tea. To discover that I was a terrorist would surely finish them off. I saw my mother weeping in quiet, felt her anguish, my father by her side, wiping his agonized face. My heart sank deeper.

The cops would never relent.

“So then,” thought I. “Why not disappear from the earth altogether?”

“Take me,” I blurted.

“Take you?” the Devil frowned. “I don’t do pro bono.”

“What do you want?” I pursued.

“I deal in souls.”

“Take mine.”

“I can’t take it like that. I don’t work like that.”

“Why? How do you work?”

“I don’t take willing souls. I don’t deal in free will. You have to do something to make it warrant my keep.”

“Take it!” I shrieked when another shot was fired.

“A condition has to be duly imposed if I have to take it under these circumstances,” he said. “You will work for me, and continue to work for me, until such a day as shall be judged suitable by myself to set you free from servitude, whereupon you will have fulfilled the number of souls required of you.”

“How many souls?” I asked.

“Three souls,” he said. “Bring me three souls and you will get yours in exchange.”

I wanted to ask him how I would still be able to live and work if he took my soul, how I would be able to see and extract the other souls, and where I would find him if I had them, but before I could speak, he raised me to his level (about nine feet high) and put his mouth against mine. With a single draught, he sucked out something.

A period of utter darkness passed during which I could not tell whether I’d been awake or asleep, or dead. I did not see what he had taken out of me, though I did understand that I had lost something, an essence. It was as if he had undressed me; I felt naked, cold; I felt unnaturally light and empty. When I breathed, the air seemed to flow right through me. I did not feel my presence; my substance, my person, had disappeared. I was not there; there was no I, no me. I was nothing. I looked at my hands and could not recognize them, could not tell what they were, or that they were mine. I was a stranger to myself.

The Devil brought his mouth back to mine and blew something into my mouth. Fire. He blew fire into my mouth. My awareness, my memory, returned at once with the heat. I was burning inside and I stretched and thrust against him. Flames and smoke came out of my orifices, and I thought my eyes would explode. I was sick, dying. I was dead.

I did not know how much time passed. When I came to, I was still hanging in his hands.

“The fires of Hell blaze your veins,” he said. “They are thirsty and they never die.” He lowered me. “And we have a deal. You owe me three souls.”

“Do I bring them here?” I asked. My voice was different. Harsh. Objective.

“When you have them, wherever you are, a gate will open for you. Hell has many gates. Enter the gate and Moloch will find you. He loves souls. He so loves them.”

He then left, and the house followed him.

I saw that I had wet my pants and my underwear was heavy with the weight of faeces. My face was badly burnt, blistered and swollen in several places, skinless and bleeding in others. My head hurt too where his hands had gripped, my hair singed, scalp peeled. Yet such terror had he put me through that none of it had drawn my notice.

But it didn’t matter now. Not the pain, not the deformity, not the horror. I felt nothing. Except the fire within me. It blazed. It consumed whatever was left of me.

The cops were still on the property. I did not know why they had not broken into the house. Maybe the Devil’s presence had kept them away. When the house vanished, they started screaming and running helter-skelter, scattering like little birds when the hawk came down, but when they saw me, they turned and began firing. They shot me several times; they shot me in the head, in the chest, and in the stomach; they shot me everywhere. It seemed they would not stop, could not stop. They were terrified. But when they could not shoot anymore, when they thought I was dead, I got up and I killed them. I broke them one by one and stamped their heads under my feet like mud.

III.

But the Devil had lied. That treacherous bastard!

With aggravated bitterness, I trudged away, head lowered. The day had grown gloomy. The sun was peeping down through an ominous stretch of nimbus, and thunder rolled occasionally.

I had scarcely stepped out of the spot where the house had been when my phone rang. It never worked within that spot. It would go off by itself as soon as I got there.

Several messages now reached concerning attempted calls by Stig. I remembered the Devil instructing that I should answer the phone and get back to work.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I need your help,” Stig groaned. “Come now!”

That jolted me back to activity. It meant more souls to be traded. I might even chance upon the special one the Devil wanted so as to release my soul for good. Stig had been helping me with the work. He crucified people on the walls of their bedrooms. Whole families, nailing them side by side from the father to the lastborn. He was the terrorist the cops had been looking for when they found me at his place. They had never caught him. After disposing of my soul, I had gone back and saved him.

He had acquired a new house after the raid and now holed up in a secluded compound off Forest Lane, surrounded by a dense growth of trees and a seven-foot tall wall topped with alternating lines of razor and electric wire. The gate was of steel, as tall as the wall, and had a metallic sign welded on it with the words ‘PRIVATE! ENTRANCE BY INVITATION ONLY’ in red, bold uppercase letters.

The gate was open. It was always shut.

Alarmed, I tore across the compound into the house. I found him sprawled in the living room, the floor around him teeming with blood. I thought he was dead.

“Stig?”

He raised his eyes. He was so weak I thought he might pass out any minute.

“My leg,” he said. “It’s gone.”

His right leg had been sawed off just above the knee. I could see his thighbone gleaming white against the spurting blood. A bit of marrow had oozed out of it.

I removed his belt and tied it around the wound. Next, I obtained a large bed sheet and wrapped the thigh into it. But neither the belt nor the sheet was of much help. He had lost too much blood and was certainly going to die since he would never risk going to the hospital.

“You are going to die,” I stated.

“Fine,” he said.

“You want to die?”

“Not before I get my leg back,” he said. “Go get my leg.”

“Where is it?”

“That bitch took off with it,” he said. “She sawed it off and took off with it.”

The bitch in question was Anther, his girl. When I first met them they had been a duo of budding musicians calling themselves Stigma & Anther, he being Social Stigma and she Alpha Anther. They had dreamed of introducing a version of European Rock into the Kenyan market. One of their choruses had gone thus:

I fell beyond bounds and made a deal with the Devil

Coming quietly in the dark, knocking on my bedroom door, he said

“In three days, I will raise you to a higher level

On the fourth day, I will walk off with your head.”

It was the song that had drawn me to Stig. I had loved it from the very first moment I heard it, more so because of the asphyxiating Christianity at home. However, Stigma &Anther had had almost no fans. Songs like that just did not do well in a country where the worship of God still dominated consciousness. But they had lived lavishly. A home in Karen, two Range Rovers, two Benzes, a BMW, parties every weekend, and trips to Europe where they said their music was more appreciated. I never asked them where the money came from, although it was doubtless the music did not make it. I had learnt not to ask such questions around here, where people were apt to flaunt oodles of cash yet investments were few and development retarded.

The parties, however, were my favourite, because of the hordes of university girls that always came. They were young and pretty, and ripe. And they liked sex. Stig slept with one of them while drunk and that was when trouble began. Anther took it bitterly. She attacked the girl and broke her arm. In the morning, the police came and took Stig and Anther for questioning. Thenceforwards, things precipitated from bad to worse for the couple, until the CID linked Stig to the Al Shabaab terrorists of Somali. Apparently, he was the Nairobi region coordinator of terrorism and piracy. He oversaw the distribution and investment of the money obtained from the acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean. He also owned the warehouse in Industrial Area where the terrorists hid before and after launching attack on Kenyans. The music was a subterfuge. When the police came for him, I was there, and I ended up trading my soul with Devil.

“Why did Anther cut off your leg?” I inquired.

“We had a deal.”

“What deal?”

“We were fighting over who really fucked things up that day the cops came so that now we live like prisoners. She said it was me and called me a fancy faggot. I beat her up. She cried and said she was leaving me. I told her she had nowhere to go. Cops will be up her ass the instant she walks out the gate. That really made her furious, saying I fucked up to imprison her. She said she hates me and would rather go to the cops than live with me. I got scared by that, man. I got scared bad . . .” He trailed off, coughing. I ran for water and when I came back, I sat him upright against the sofa near him.

“I begged her to stay, went on my knees, promised never to strike her again,” Stig went on when he could. “But she said she wanted proof of my word. ‘What proof?’ I asked. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Proof or I leave!’ She made me desperate, man. It didn’t matter how much I assured her. She is all I have in this prison. I don’t know what else I can be or do without her. So I told her to cut off my right leg. She did. But then she took off!”

“And she carried the leg with her?”

“She was supposed to keep it in the fridge,” Stig continued. “That was part of the deal. But she took off with it. I want it back. I need my leg! That’s why I called you.”

“Where did she go?”

“I think to her sister’s. Karen Road. We’ve been there with you.”

“I’ll get your leg,” I assured him.

He squinted at me. “And what happened to you, man?” asked he. “You are all smoking like you’re smouldering inside. Your face is burnt. Is that a hole in your heart?”

I related what had transpired between me and the Devil.

“So he already knew you were waiting for him?”

“Somehow.”

“But, man, you go to Hell all the time yet you cannot find your soul!”

“That’s because the Devil keeps it in his private chamber. I cannot access it unless I go through that goddamned wall.”

“I told you not . . .” He started coughing again and drank more water. “I told you not to be tormented about a soul. It’s of no use. Look at people who’ve got it and show me the difference! If it mattered the world wouldn’t have been like this. Myself, for instance, I have it but . . .” (Cough) “. . . I crucify people on the wall. I blow people up like pieces of paper. I only wish the Devil had taken me like that—like you.”

We had had a similar conversation before. He thought my life had more meaning than his. I worked for the Devil, and, therefore, was part of a known eternal entity. He said that those who worked for God seemed abandoned and were victims in perpetuity. By default, he said, whether in the world or wild, the call to Hell was impossible to turn down.

Stigma did not understand my anguish. There was fire in me and it glowed and blazed. It would never die. It flowed through me like lava under the earth, churning with great agitation, devouring me, always ready to explode and spew forth its wrath and misery all over the world. The pain was unimaginable. The Devil had replaced my soul with fire. He had given me a piece of himself. And I now understood what Milton had meant when he wrote: “Which way I flie is Hell; my self am Hell.”

“I want my soul back just as much as you want your leg,” I said. “Look at people with legs and show me the difference! They are embarrassed of them. They don’t want to be seen walking. There is even a bias against those who have legs but no cars or shoes. Yet yours you so dearly desire, though you’re dying.”

He tried to laugh but coughed instead. He then inhaled so deeply I thought it would be his last. But he said, “I don’t think you’ll get back your soul. If the Devil honours his promise, then he won’t be the Devil. Will he?”

I didn’t want to contemplate that. So I went to the kitchen to fetch him sugar. I found a five-litre bottle of orange juice, almost two-thirds full. I poured it in a jug and gave it to him.

“Drink that if you wish to see your leg again.”

“Go on and fetch it, then!” he said. “Why are you still here? Plus, I think you may just find that special soul you’ve been looking for after all.”

I left, remembering to shut the gate.

The compound on Karen Road was full of cops. I arrived just as they were leading Anther to a waiting vehicle. She was carrying Stigma’s leg in a plastic bag. She did not show any signs that she was under arrest. No handcuffs. No undue stress. Her face was as pleasant as ever.

“Anther!” I shouted.

I had leaped over the fence at the back and was now standing by the main house. When she saw me, she jumped back shrieking, “That’s him! That’s him over there! That’s Obel Sibuth! Stigma’s partner!

He works for the Devil!”

I knew then that she had made a deal with the cops. Maybe she had told them that she had disabled Stigma so as to get him arrested. And she would be granted leniency.

The cops charged me. Like dogs. Three, four, five. Six of them. Oh, how I hated them! They had made me lose my soul.

A surge of rage overtook me; revenge beclouded my eyes; hate propelled me. The fire within me grew. It grew and grew. It blossomed, swelled, multiplied. It became denser, deadlier. I was burning. I was a pillar of fire. The agony was exquisite. It was uncontrollable. I was uncontrollable.

The first three cops to lay hands on me blew up like matchsticks. The other three, too rash to slow down, also pounced on me and burst into flames, hungry, predatory flames that wolfed them down in seconds. Just like matchsticks. What remained of them were charred shrunken lumps that might as well have been cat carcasses.

The remaining eight or so opened fire. It was a single-minded furious discharge from hands that shook with terror and hearts that beat too hard. A volley of bullets hit me. And kept hitting. I was lifted me off the ground and hurled back. My chest exploded; so did my stomach and back, organs ruptured, shredded, spilling.

I saw Anther running into the house with the leg and pursued her.

“Anther, give me the leg!” I yelled at her above the fusillade. She kept running.

I pursued her across the room and past the chairs. I pursued her along the hallways and over the stairs. I pursued her through the bedroom and into her lair.

“Give me the leg!”

But she was paralyzed. Seeing me like that, face shattered, body in shreds, blood, smoke and fire leaking out of me. She appeared dead. I made to grab the leg but touched her hand instead. Matchstick!

I couldn’t touch the leg in my present state without vaporizing it as well. So I stood over it and waited for the fire to cool.

I was still waiting and trying to relax in order to speed up the cooling when I heard the most unlikely sound under the circumstances issuing from one of the bedrooms. A baby was crying. I remembered Stig telling me that the special soul may come of this mission and excitement flushed over me. I followed the sound.

But in the hallway, the cops started firing again. They had followed me. How adamant! I did not want to heat up again, though it was difficult with those cops shooting me like that. I struggled to squash the rage, thinking only of the baby, my salvation. Succeeding, I went back into the room and took Stig’s leg. I gripped it firmly. My weapon. I faced the cops. I whacked them with it good and proper. I broke their skulls, necks, jaws, ribs, and every other vulnerable bone in their bodies. By the time I was done, they were dead in a pile, all ten of them, and Stigma’s leg was damaged beyond repair. I dumped it. He was dying anyway. I went for the baby.

The woman was slinking in the closet, the baby in her arms. Like her sister before, she became immobilized when she saw me. She could see through me like a shattered a window, yet there I was, not dying, not living—both dead and alive.

“The baby!” said I, my hands extended.

She blacked out.

I took the child before she could fall. It was a girl, maybe two months old, her eyes still bluish. A chubby thing, she smiled a lambent smile.

I bound her with a sheet and took her to Hell.

IV.

“Obel Sibuth!” Moloch exclaimed. “You bring me a bundle of joy!”

“Indeed,” I said. “It is for your master.”

“Nonetheless, I will receive it.”

He took the child. He was the demon in charge of torture. Inside his chamber, he had an enormous sewing machine which he used to sew people like clothes. He also took care of entertainment. He had invented a new game which involved randomly selecting two fat people from the suffering lot and smearing their bellies with glue (Hell’s glue). They were then stuck together and two demons yanked them apart to see whose stomach would burst first.

Moloch.1.

Moloch

“Obel Sibuth!” Mulciber said. “It looks like your body needs repair!”

“Indeed,” I said. “It is your master’s doing.”

“My master is good at his job.”

Mulciber was the architect. He superintended the construction and maintenance of all the infrastructures in Hell. He also had a talent for “patching up”—as he put it—people. Some days he worked with Moloch to boil people in a giant boiler containing molten, gluey, white-hot fire. After they had boiled for what seemed to be eternity and were in pieces like cooked beef, Mulciber sieved them out into a different vessel, where he then patched them up neatly—reassembled them like motor vehicles, that was—and cooled them down till they were whole and well again. But just when they thought the ordeal was over, and were a little relieved for the moment, he threw them back into the boiler.

“Obel Sibuth!” Beelzebub greeted. “How gleeful is my heart!”

“Indeed.”

Beelzebub was the second in command. He ran Hell. He was the one who had told me that my soul was in the Devil’s private chamber which I could only access through the mysterious house in Karen.

“Can I get my soul now?” I asked him.

“No,” he said. “And you won’t.”

“Why is that?”

“Because that is how it is.”

Shock. Anger. Rage. Fury. All at once. I was ablaze.

“I was promised!”

“We don’t keep promises here.”

“Lucifer wanted a special soul! I delivered it! That baby is a special soul!”

“Certainly, she is.”

“Then give back my soul!”

“We don’t give souls. We take them.”

“This is utterly unfair!”

“If you want fair go to Heaven.”

I groaned and swore with vehement acrimony.

“No need for further affliction,” Beelzebub said. “Mulciber will repair your wounds and Mammon will give you food if you direly crave it.”

Mammon dealt in (and with) matters of material value. He bragged about how he alone had colonized the soul of mankind and, by virtue of his “irresistible offers”—as he put it—brought in the largest number of people to Hell.

“Also,” Beelzebub continued. “I lied when I said your soul is in the private chamber. In truth, Lucifer ate it.”

“I am leaving!” I swore. “And I will never come back! I will never come back! All work stops forthwith!”

“You are not going anywhere,” Moloch said decisively. “You belong here. You belong in Hell.”

At this point, I gave vent to my frustrations and howled. But that was all I could do about my situation. I was defeated. Ten years of toil. Yet this!

Oh, damn you Lucifer! Damn you! You chronic, pathological liar! Father of lies! Damn you for tenfold the space of eternity! How deserving of Hell are you! The infernal fate! Ah! And how foolish of me to dream of life in your unpitying care, to trade my soul for enduring doom and relentless anguish! To pursue your mission and injure the innocent! Oh, how hopeless have I become! How destitute! Remorse consumes me. Grief besets me. Pain my everlasting companion. And fire. Chthonian and absolute, the tormenting inferno ravages me from all sides. I am doomed.

Truly, as it is written, thus it is.

I waited.

I waited patiently.

I heard clothes falling in the grass. I heard the click of a belt buckle and the buzzing of a zip being pulled open. I heard a scuffle in the grass and a cold current of air swept by me as a cloth was spread on the ground. I heard the whispered complaints of grass and weeds as a big body was laid down on them, breaking them, crumpling, crippling. Then there were impatient grunts and fluttery sighs. The woman cried wordlessly; and the man replied with a mournful quiver as though he was freezing. Then there followed a curious, sucking sound that was particularly wet and tremulous. And disgusting. A squelching sound; it was like that of feet stomping in mud; or of the tongue hammering against the inner wall of the lower lip; or of a finger when plunged repeatedly inside an overripe pawpaw. They were very close to me, these shameless adulterers, these cold-blooded murderers, and I heard everything.

I was as patient as God; still as a dead thing.

I had heard a lot of things said about people having sex. I had heard of the smells and the sounds and the screams and the spasms and the desperate thrusts and groans. I had heard of the intenseness of the orgasm—the point at which a man was forced by forces beyond his control to disembogue his seed inside a woman. In my school these things were discussed freely and openly by boys and girls of various ages. Even my age. Mostly they insulted one another by such references. A girl would, for instance, be told that she talked like a person experiencing an orgasm, or that she walked as though there was a penis perpetually stuck in her crotch, or that when she had an orgasm she cried like a cricket; and a boy would be told that his penis was so puny that when he slept with a girl he had to put in his testes as well, or that he had been born with an erect penis and it had grazed his mother’s vagina and given her an orgasm, whereupon she had farted him out like diarrhoea, or that his saliva looked like semen, that he spat semen from his mouth. Once, a long time ago, a grown man with a wife and children had been told that his penis was nonexistent and that his semen came out of his anus, so that when he had sex with his wife he had to turn around the other way and shitted the sperms into her, like what a cock did to a hen, except he didn’t climb on her back and bite her hair. That man had split his abuser’s head into two with an axe.

The stories of sex and sexual matters were picked from rivers like Ochido and Otuodo where adults and children shared bathing points, but especially where men and boys bathed together. The men always discussed women and sex and penises and vaginas; they discussed them dishonourably; and the little boys learned the same from them. But most, if not all, of the knowledge so imparted was despicably wrong and misleading: for example, they said that sperms were manufactured in the buttocks and stored in the spinal cord; that women urinated from the same orifice where men dipped their organs; that a woman’s vagina led straight into her stomach where food went—and that was where babies were made; that when a woman was sexually excited and there were no men about or she was afraid of sex, she drank a lot of water in order to cool herself off, since the water passed right through her vagina; etcetera, etcetera. I did not know what the women discussed on their side of the river, but judging from the intensity of vulgarity of which the girls in school were capable, I could tell that the nature of the education by the riverside was just about the same.

Here, children were spared nothing. They experienced, as did the adults, the full blast and impetus of life, unhindered and uncensored and smutty such as it was; unprotected from all the vulgarism and violence and seediness and pornography of an uncultivated and outrageous existence.

For these reasons I thought this place would never change. In any society, children were the future; when they rotted as they did here, the future rotted along with them. It was a future too untoward to look forward to. It was often said that after the rain came sunshine; but here it always rained. It had always rained. And the rain consisted of woe and folly. It was a downpour, accompanied by thunder and tempest.

I sprung to action when Ogutu’s groans and grunts started to become more and more frenzied. The woman, Sela’s wife, was agitated too, but the sounds she made were not as urgent and violent as those of the man on top of her. I knew they were approaching a climax and I intended to catch them at it. I had heard that people were most vulnerable during orgasm; that the brain almost shut down in that time. I was about to find out for myself.
I had planned to use my sword on them. But I saw the machete. The machete was there! It was an evil thing even by the look of it. It looked like something that may be used by the Devil to behead people in hell, or to cut off their testicles. Its sharpness and the way it shone and gleamed even in a place with feeble sunlight as this made it a singular and particularly hair-raising weapon in the entire village. It reminded you of the fangs of a black mamba, not by its shape—it was broad and slightly curved backwards towards the tip—but by its purpose—you saw it and knew it would kill you. It was something meant to kill.

I tiptoed and picked it up. Ogutu, in a frantic hurry to quench his fleshly yearnings, had dropped his precious possession slapdash on the ground. It was not very heavy for me, and just by holding it in my hands I felt small vibrations travel along my arm and I was inspired with confidence. I was energized and my heart kicked with anticipation. I had discovered that I was attracted to sharp things: to knives and machetes and swords and spears and arrows. I was attracted to weapons. It was a behaviour I had inherited from my father. He had been like that. Often did I regret it (I did not want at all to be like my father); but if it did help me to defend my mother then at times I had to work with it.

Ogutu heard me when I shuffled close to him. (The grass was too high and the weeds too long to allow for a perfectly soundless tiptoeing.) The confusion he felt, the shock, the terror, combined with the pain and the pleasure of his orgasm, turned his face into a hideous and distorted mask of wrinkled flesh, his bloodless eyes gawking, goggling, his thoughts wild and uncontrollable, a section of his brain shut down, and his mouth open like horrible wound. But worst of all his woes at that moment was the horror of seeing me there, me, his archenemy, his murderer, me with his dreadful machete in my hand, and he unarmed and utterly helpless. What always killed them fast, before I even lifted my arm to strike, was the horror of seeing me there, there where I was not expected; for up to then they had not known who their true enemy was. They terrorized my mother and ignored me, having judged both of us defenceless and prone to their ruthlessness, thinking that they were safe and untouchable and we were not, then they found out the truth just a split second before they died in my capable hands, when it was too late to do anything about it. The horror, the astonishment, the incomprehension, the sudden madness and alarm on their faces was always the same. I found it overly rewarding.

I swung the machete and beheaded him. I swung it with both hands and with all my might, and I imagined I could hear it tearing through the air as if the air were a fabric, making a definite arc. I could hear its premonitory whistle as it arced downwards towards the target. It passed through the neck as if his neck were made of nothing—I did not feel the impact—and continued down until it sliced the top half of the woman’s head, exposing her brain and freezing her scream. The machete stopped when it hit the ground, and that was when I felt its impact. Ogutu’s head jumped and kicked about in the grass. Blood spurted forth from his jugular and carotid like two waterfalls; his body jerked spasmodically; and a roaring sound was escaping his severed throat.

I kicked the body aside to expose the woman. I kicked it very hard in the ribs. Then I discarded the machete and took up my sword. I sank down on my knees for efficiency. And I started stabbing her on the chest. I was powered by a strange force, great and unequalled, and once I began stabbing I could not stop myself. I was helpless to halt. Images of my dying mother displayed before my eyes: images of Sela beating her; of him pinning her on the ground and punching her face as if she were a man like him; of this woman shouting and shrieking for my mother to die; of Nyadoo inciting her son to kill my mother; of Ogutu chasing my mother down towards the road with his hellish machete; wanting to cut off her lips, wanting to eat them, telling her he would cut them off and eat them; of Oulo, the man they had brought to finish her off; of those children yelling at me, calling me the son of Oulo; of my father carving off my mother’s face, wanting to remove her eyes; of him wanting to remove her breasts; of a certain tall man named Abud colluding with Nyadoo and Sela to plan my mother’s death . . .

I was transported with rage; with fury was I electrified; and vengeance stood by me. I could not stop; even after the woman was dead and limp I could not stop. I stabbed her thoroughly. Tremors of impact shook my arm; warm blood splattered my face; and my heartbeat was thunderous. Where her left breast had been, there were now jagged ribbons and scraps of flesh and a large hole fit to conceal both my hands. I saw her heart through the hole. It was shredded. Pieces of it were floating in a dark red pool of blood. Her lungs and liver had also been reduced to ragged tatters of flesh. But, I continued to stab and stab her, to puncture and pierce and lacerate, glutting myself, soaring with the bloodthirsty gory glory of the moment. Vengeance was mine. It was sweet, bittersweet; it was pungent and savoury, hot and cold, like I imagined an orgasm would be. I stabbed, stabbed, stabbed . . .

She fled. He pursued.

She was screaming.

She ran like a rat and he would have exploded with laughter if her threat had been but a little less grave. She was running in the wrong direction yet too terrified of him to see it. He caught up with her deep into the forest where overlapping canopies and cuddling branches blocked sunrays and the ground was damp and rich with worms and insects and pungent-smelling dead things. He flung his leg at her, caught her buttocks squarely in midair, and she flew like a wounded bird, fell face-deep onto the mushy ground. He had an instant to hope that she’d broken her neck. But she rose, wobbling like a drunk, and there was a worm on her face writhing its way into her nose while her previously wide mouth was full of rotting things and mud. He stood in front of her, axe in hand.

“I can’t let you do that to me, you know,” warned he.

“I won’t,” she begged, spitting debris from her mouth, her eyes glistening in the scanty light, wet, distorted. He watched as she attempted to brush off the worm but squished it instead, decorating her upper lip with a smear of whitish gelatinous moustache.

“But you will,” said he. “You are just like your mother. A lot of mouth and no head. If you threaten me like that, I have to be really nasty,” he added and swung the axe before she could protest. The top half of her head flew off like a hat that had been carelessly removed.

“Nobody needs a head that can’t think right,” he told her.

A thin blade of light penetrated the canopies and fell on what was left of her left eye. She was still staring at him although most of her brain had spilled onto the forest floor and mixed with mud. She jerked about for some time, dying slowly, blindly, bleeding unmanageably, like a beheaded chicken.

As she thrashed about, her skirt withdrew upwards and exposed her thighs; young, ripe, untouched, they appealed to him, and he became aware of the frenzied throbbing of his penis. He could sleep with her now and finish what he had begun while she was still warm and kicking, her spilt brain notwithstanding. There was a man who slept with dead women in the village during an old ritual that ensured widows did not take their pent-up sexual cravings into the ground with them. If they did, they would return as ghosts and ghouls and rape men in their sleep. Morris could do that now, although it would not really be the same thing considering that the girl was not yet completely dead. He got hold of her panties and yanked them off. He then stepped into the space between her straddled legs. He was reaching for his penis when a peculiar thought made him freeze: if she died with him inside her, he might get stuck there. And he might then have to spend the rest of his life with a corpse hanging on his penis. Or his semen might bring her back to life whereupon she might exact her revenge by sucking out his energy through his penis until he was all withered and old, a skeleton, yet alive, draped in a revolting, cadaverous skin.

He jumped back from her with a low squeal.

He did not touch her again until she had stopped bleeding and he was certain she was totally gone. He gathered the scattered chunks of her brain and returned them into her skull. He replaced the top of her head too, tied it up neatly with a piece of bush-rope, passing the string below her jaws and around her neck. Finished, he agreed that it was a pretty fine work. He felt good about it. Her face resembled that of a severe clown.

Next, he carried the body to the edge of the forest where there stood an abandoned six-foot tall anthill, beneath which was a deep tunnel dug by the aardvark. He pushed the body inside headfirst. It could, however, enter only up to the knees, and he had to pull it back out and hack off the legs, like a butcher, before returning it in and placing the limbs on either side of it. Once it was hidden, he embarked on covering the hole. He worked up loose soil with the help of the axe for the purpose. It was mid March and the rainy season had just come to an end, the land still moist. Morris had thus a relatively easy task. The aardvark had also made a considerable mound of what it had dug from the anthill. Morris pushed it all into the hole. When he couldn’t get anymore loose soil, he collected debris—leaves, sticks, barks, clods, rocks, even the quills of two porcupines he had once hunted at the hole—and dispersed it over the grave. Finally, he decided to use some branches . . .

And that was when a very odd thing happened to him.

He found a tree with low branches and started hacking at one of them. As he worked, the picture of the girl’s thighs returned to his memory: how ripe and inviting they had been, how he had almost explored the sweet softness between them, thereby becoming the one to pollute the unpolluted, to tame the untamed. She had been unshaved, yet too young and jejune to give shaving a priority. He recalled how he had later chopped off those thighs when they couldn’t fit into the tunnel, how the axe had devoured them, her meat ripped, bones shattered. He had contaminated her then. He had befouled her delicate flesh. The chopping had been analogous to sex, destructive, mandatory, good. It was like cutting this tree. This tree had never been cut. It was young, naive, a virgin, all its branches, roots, intact. He was the first to cut it, to explore its virginity and expose it to unaccustomed pain, to the relentless brutality of life. He was breaking it. He was taking something from it. He was plundering its innocence, its life, its essence. It felt good to do that. It felt sooo . . .

His brain exploded. Like a volcano. An orgasm. Right inside his head. So fierce and savage in manner, so furious and rash, yet so sweet and irresistible that he let go of the axe and clung to the tree with desperation, wanting to scream, to bark, to moan, to say something, yet breathless, weak, his spine ruptured.

He hadn’t even realized he had an erection.

II.

He collapsed under the tree and rested awhile thereafter.

“It seduced me,” he said with amazement. “The tree seduced me.”

And he burst out with laughter at the thought. A hollow, deranged, lonely squeal that tore to the depths of the forest and made leaves curl. A flock of weaver birds nesting in a nearby tree took off. A lizard darted to the safety of dead leaves while its mate ran up a tree as if being chased by fire.

He noticed that he had experienced the orgasm at the exact moment the branch had begun to fall. It must have been the tree, then, for the girl was surely dead. The tree had charmed him with its sex appeal.

“Sex appeal,” he noted, and convulsed harder.

The laughter stirred his bowels and he looked for a place to relieve himself. He chose the grave, thinking it would be an added distraction to any overly curious faces. When he was done, there was a monstrosity there, a guard, so abominable it obviated the need for any further concealment. If the girl somehow awoke from the grave now, that thing would send her back forthwith. The stink was enough to grant her second death.

Still curious about the tree, he began cutting a second branch. He was careful this time. He sought to understand its magic, its power to grant such fevered orgasms. However, somewhere in the process, he became diverted—though how or with what object he knew not—and the only thing he understood thence was that he was dealing with the girl, the little sweet-sixteen, ravishing her, ravaging her ripeness, her mellow, untainted riches, harnessing her adolescence, her femininity, craving her, sinking deep into her . . .

And then there was fire.

And electricity.

He was ablaze.

At once.

“The second baptism by fire,” mused he, amused.

He could have lived in the forest and cut the tree his entire life, but he had to go home. He threw the branches over the grave, left.

III.

His children had returned from school and they rushed to him. The four of them, jolly little angels. He picked up the lastborn, tickled her, blew her belly, tossed her up three times, and then put her down. She went on to frolic about, chortling, beside herself with contented joy. The second lastborn tugged at his trouser and begged to be treated in the same way, which he did. The remaining two, ten and twelve, girl and boy, respectively, just stood by and watched with good-natured amusement. He rubbed their heads and flicked their cheeks. He then left them before they could be too close to smell the semen in his trouser. They still didn’t know what it was, but they would know someday—and woe unto him when they remembered.

“Where is your mother?” asked he; but he knew she was in the kitchen and he hurried to wash himself lest she should think he had been with another woman, something he had never done since marrying her. What had happened in the forest, him wanting to have sex with Kiri’s daughter, Gita, was merely an imprudent impulse turned sour, as most such impulses were apt to do. But what an experience it had been! Aha!

“A person needs experience,” his father had been known to say.

“Can I give you some experience?” he’d asked the girl but she had been stupid and threatened to report him to her father, who was his best friend and workmate. He had had no choices but to protect the friendship. It was a good friendship.

He washed also the clothes he had been wearing. When he came back out, he saw that his eldest son, Juma, had taken the axe and was swinging it at the mango tree by the house.

“Hey, put that back!” ordered he, frightened, his voice sharp. “You shouldn’t touch that by yourself; it is too sharp,” he added in a placatory tone. But what he meant was that it was a murderer’s axe. It had spilled the blood of a child they knew. Morris was still unsure whether Gita had cursed him with her last breath to have sex with trees or his discovery of the pleasure of cutting trees was just a serendipitous result of murdering her. Whichever it was, he didn’t want his son following suit.

“How was work?” Achi asked him over dinner.

“Fine,” said he, smiling at her. “And how was it at the market?”

“Fine,” she said, smiling back. “They are looking for Gita,” she added. “They said she came to the forest. Did you see her?”

“Yes. She was looking for her father,” Morris explained. “I told her to go ask Josi.”

“Josi?” asked Achi, frowning. “How is it so?”

Josi was their neighbour. He was also a thief. He stole chicken with a hook and a grain of maize attached to it, catching them like fish. His family was cursed, his elder brother being the one that slept with dead widows. He was a jailbird.

Achi loathed him. He stole her cock once and Morris had to go over and demand that he either paid or got killed for it. He had paid. But he had been shocked by Morris’ reasonableness and he had had to pay ten times the approximate cost. If it had been another family he’d have been dead by now. Most people across the village wanted a piece of Josi, a bloody piece of him for that matter, ripped from him, not cut. However, unbeknownst to them, Morris had intended to kill him that day. He had been fed up with Josi. It was one thing to be a declared thief; it was a different thing altogether to target your immediate neighbours. Only a foolish thief steals from his neighbour. And fools die fast.

“He has a tree he wants us to lumber for him. Kiri went to look at it,” Morris said.

“Then he must know where Gita is!” exclaimed Achi, rash in her conclusion, but who cared? It was best that way.

“He certainly does,” agreed her husband, who was full of secrets.

Around eight-thirty, Kiri came over to inquire concerning his daughter’s whereabouts. Morris directed him to Josi’s home.

By nine o’clock, there was a crazed blood-thirsty mob thronging the thief’s compound. By ten o’clock, he was dead, pounded, shredded, limb from limb, tissue from tissue, his head bashed in like a deflated football. Two dogs were fighting over his liver, another one dragged away his intestines, and a fourth licked his brain and ate whatever broke loose from it. His mother was wailing sick, his wife insane.

IV.

Afterwards, bored, there being no one else to murder, the crowd dispersed. It consisted mainly of young men from the village. Morris returned home with his wife by his side. He hadn’t personally touched Josi, though he didn’t feel bad about what he had done to him. The world was ugly and it was not his fault. He had found it so, and so he’d leave it. He thought people like Josi were as important to the society as were presidents and pastors. The world did not need justice or any of those things that were rammed down your throat every now and then. The world needed an enemy, somebody to collectively dislike, hate, revile, jeer at, and fear. Unity, justice, along with attendant virtues, would establish themselves once the enemy was known. The negative emotions were plentiful in the heart and more powerful than the positive ones; consequently, they needed to be expended often, even as the latter were retained. Where people had no adversary, they tended to turn on one another, or, worse, on themselves, which was the commencement of a societal fiasco. But they did not know this, and so they destroyed their adversaries and proclaimed victory. What victory? They were fools.

“If you kill him, how will you know where your daughter is?” Morris had asked Kiri.

“He killed her! I can feel it! He killed her!” Kiri had answered with passion, repeating himself like a dork.

“But don’t you want to find the body?”

“He buried it! I can feel it! He buried it!”

“What if he didn’t—if he just dumped it somewhere?”

“Then there will be a stink! We will find the stink!”

Morris had then watched as his best friend sicked young men to butcher innocent Josi. Kiri’s wife had been there, enraged, vengeful tears in her eyes, sicking her husband. She was a big ugly woman whose buttocks hung like two breasts. If she were Morris’ wife, he’d go mad and most likely die from thinking that she was married to him.

Night settled. A breeze blew. Cold and foul, ferrying the muted cries of the innocent dead. The voices of Josi’s mother and wife could be heard; they mourned like wolves.

While his family slept, Morris worked. He was a carpenter by night, a lumberjack, a charcoal trader, and an occasional hunter by day. He invested six hours of every night in carpentry, going to bed from around two when Achi was dead to the world. He had put up a house for Juma but turned it into a workshop, the child still too young. He was the only carpenter within a three-kilometre radius, which meant that the business was good and he could have made a decent living from it alone. However, he needed to work at night in order to avoid sleeping with his wife.

When he first saw Achi, she’d been one of those girls that made you wonder what they were doing on such a sickening planet as earth. She had been like a flower, a beautiful rose, growing amongst garbage; you could only gawk at her, popeyed and foolish, your breath gone, your lungs squeezing emptily, asking yourself how something like that could come out of something like this, yet unable to touch her, forbidden from her, for you were part of the garbage, you were waste, rotting wretchedly underneath her while she soared skywards undeterred, a blooming rose, and you became paranoid and irate at the world for mocking you like that, and you cursed God in your heart for being such a sadistic comedian as to tease you with a rose while you were dirt, even less than dirt: still, even as you craved for her, there was guilt in your heart, for you were loath to be the one to vitiate her, to introduce her to the corrupting aspect of this monstrosity called life; you wanted her as she was, with her freedom, beauty and purity, yet you wanted her for yourself. It hurt.

She had been such a woman. When she walked past, the whole world would consist only of her. Even Morris himself would cease to exist. It had taken him three years to get her to escort him up to their gate—only up to their gate. The first of those years had dragged by while he thought of something to say to her, even as jealousy jaundiced his mind of an imaginary opponent far much better than him sweeping her off to a faraway land; he would meet her and he’d freeze, speechless as a tree, dumb to the core of his soul, which was an awful thing to occur because the girls in the village regarded such behaviour unworthy of a man, a signification of inherent weakness, for they were too stupid to conceive of their very influence over you.

He married her, gifting her father enough for ten other girls. And he was happy; hell, he was the happiest, proudest man in the world, he was special, especially against his age mates like Kiri, who had married earlier, and whose wife’s mouth resembled the vagina of cow that has just given birth.

But life is a joke. A cruel joke. It is itself a living thing, working to stay alive, to survive and continue, its existence complete with duties and hobbies, its foremost hobby being to tease you with death by always sending you in the wrong direction, its duty to lavish you with pain so as to kill you.

Just when Morris’ head was the biggest in the world, his ego the size of an elephant, life decided to have its primary hobby on him: Josi, his thieving neighbour, got married. He married a pretty woman. Not as pretty as Achi, not even close by a thousand miles, but prettier than most other girls Morris had come across. Pretty enough, as a matter of fact, to make him wonder: “Why would a girl like that agree to marry a thief?”

After days of pondering over this question, he decided that the girl either did not know what Josi did for a living or, if she knew, did not care about it. She was in love with him. Morris wanted to accept the former reason (Josi had been such a man that if you asked him what he did for a living, he’d answer “I just live.”) but he convinced himself that the girl must surely know that Josi was a thief. Anybody who knew Josi knew also that he was a thief. He was built like a thief: tall, slender, long legs, long arms, long face, a suspicious disposition, and disconcertingly piercing eyes that constantly searched his surrounding, missing nothing. Which meant that the girl was in love with a thief and she knew it, which was odd, because there wasn’t enough love in the heart of a thief to inspire a reciprocating love.

With this disturbing conclusion, the matter would have nevertheless rested. But life wasn’t done yet with its hobby—is it ever done, anyway? Around that time, there was a story in the papers about a certain Miss Kenya who had married a politician—the very same politician who had afterwards incited an internecine war that had resulted in over a thousand deaths, with almost a million other Kenyans permanently dislocated from their homes. He had in person supplied the youth with the weapons for the massacre. Now, why would such an outstanding woman agree to marry such a devil? Morris worried.

“Achi, why do you love me?” he asked his wife one night in bed.

“I just love you,” she said.

“Is there no reason?” he pursued.

“What are you talking about? Do I need a reason to love my husband?” she replied and then squeezed tightly against him until his buttocks were on her pubic hair, her nipples pressed on his back, knees folded in his hams, arms around him.

She was happy. He was sad.

It meant that all his efforts were worthless. All the toil he had put in from the very first day he saw her, first in gaining her love and thereafter in making her happy, had gone unappreciated. It meant that he was not special after all. It pained him.

One day, while making love to her, he was struck by a ridiculous idea that it could have been somebody else doing what he was doing and she would not have minded. It could have been a thief or a homicidal politician, or the worst fool on the planet, but, still, she would not have minded. This thought scared him to hell and he rolled away from her, rejecting her for the first time in over ten years.

With time, the fear grew, and all his desire flew out the window. Not just for her, no, for any woman. It couldn’t be love if it depended on your capacity to please; anyone could please anyone if they wanted to. A thief could, or a wicked politician, or a witch. You couldn’t be made to work hard for three years to please a person who didn’t care about virtue. There had to be something more, a substance, a singularity, an eccentricity that couldn’t be found anywhere else on earth, except in you. Something, like a magnet, that drew the two of you—only the two of you—together from wherever you were. And once you met, you both felt the love without either of you having to say a thing, having to please. But there wasn’t.

Thenceforwards, Morris had elected to abstain from sex.

What had happened this evening in the forest with Gita had been a culmination of months of suppressed desire. Life is selfish; if you do not voluntarily obey its designs, it forces you to. It is sadistic. Despite his resolution, Morris had been no exempt from the tyranny of sexual appetencies. He’d attempted masturbation and succeeded twice. On the third occasion, however, he’d pictured himself naked with his penis in his hand, his face a perverted grimace, eyes shut, lips snarled, mind lost, a sad lonely man having sex with himself. A very unsettling picture indeed. To aggravate it, he had imagined God watching him at that very instant, seeing what he was doing and pointing a warning finger at him. He had never tried it again.

But now there were trees.

Tree Hugger.2.

V.

He went to bed after making two windows and repairing a sofa. His wife would give them out to the owners in the morning.

He slept.

In the morning, he returned to the forest and found Josi digging up the remains of Gita with a spade. He was bent awkwardly over the grave, his tall wiry form almost curled into a loop. He did not look up when Morris approached. “I know what you did,” he was saying. His voice was clogged with blood and it bubbled when he spoke. “I know what you did and they also will know it. I’m digging her out and I will show them what you did. What you did. What you did! Do you know what you did to me?” he asked and turned around, raising the spade as if ready to strike Morris with it. His face resembled the work of a blacksmith with a nasty case of nerves, all bashed in and deformed, as if with a sledgehammer. His forehead had burst and a white substance was oozing out of it. The crack zigzagged down his face along the ridge of his nose, splitting his jaws and shredding his lips, his teeth sticking out like nails. Moreover, his left eye was twisted and turned inwards, facing the right, while the right one was glaring straight ahead at Morris, sharp and fierce and bloodshot, unblinking, accusing as well. Morris ran from him but not so fast. He was whacked on the head with the spade and fell into the grave. Gita crawled out to allow him space. She was covered all over with grave-worms. She smiled at Morris, her eyes watery, her tongue blackened, her teeth looking like frozen droplets of pus, and said, “You can rape me now, Morris. I am much tastier now. Don’t you think?” But the top of her head had fallen off again and maggots swarmed what was left of her brain. One maggot rolled down and Morris watched it with terror as it began to crawl into his nose. He beat at it but it was too slippery and soft and quick and it had a motive. At the same time, Josi began to pound Morris’ head with the back of the spade in order to fit him into the grave . . .

VI.

Achi wakened him. He had been threshing about and groaning like a dying person.

He assembled his tools and left for the forest in a hurry, baffling his wife who was yet to start a fire for his breakfast. He told her he had business with a certain tree before the sun came up. Which really wasn’t a lie, though the first thing in his mind was to inspect the grave to ensure it had not been tampered with; wild animals might have dug up the body during the night. It must be what the dream had meant.

He was startled to meet with Kiri’s mother, Sida, at that hour. She was standing in the middle of the path. From her posture and disposition, she seemed to have been there for a very long time. She was seventy years old and wrinkled as if a large animal had eaten her and spat her out for being a witch. Her grandmother, Kiri’s great grandmother, had been a witch, and was the one that had cast a malevolent spell on Josi’s family. Morris wondered if Sida was a witch as well. Things like witchery ran in families.

“Too early, Sida,” he greeted, giving her a wide berth; but he’d startled her too and she goggled at him, wordless. He did not like her eyes, though; they were startled in a manner suggestive of a peculiar discovery. He imagined that she had come here to cast a spell in order to catch her granddaughter’s true killer. Maybe she had not believed that Josi had done it. Maybe she believed that a petty thief could not be a killer. And so she had cast a diabolical spell that the first person to come along would be the one. And Morris had just done so.

“A guilty conscience needs no accuser,” Morris sighed and went on.

He found the grave intact. No animals had come by it, no footprints. He exhaled deeply, his shoulders dropping, and was surprised by how tense he had been. He climbed the anthill and broke a quarter of it from the top, rolled it carefully onto the grave. The aardvark must have eaten the queen, for all the ants had migrated. Next, he squatted and took a fresh crap beside the previous one, stationing another monstrous guard, as rank and vile as the evilest thing. It was funny how everybody loved good food yet the stomach abused it so.

Done, he went to his tree. “My tree,” mused he, feeling ridiculous, nevertheless happy. He lopped off two branches for two mighty orgasms, resting in between, each time hugging the tree like a lover. He rested awhile afterwards before moving to the side of the forest where Gita had found him the previous day. He had felled some trees there that needed to be turned into logs. Kiri would bring some bulls with him to ferry them home to be made into timber.

Morris worked for five hours nonstop before going back to his girlfriend (girlfriend?). In that duration, the sound of his chainsaw drowned out everything else, yet he never for a single second let go of her (her?) memory. When he felt the need, he took the axe and went to her, to be with her. He ejaculated less and less with each destroyed branch, and it was good. The less the ejaculate, the headier the orgasm. It was a sweet pain, intense and rich, the best thing in life, yet pain could not be absent from it. “The monster loves pain,” mused he, amused. He wondered what Achi would do if she found out that he was cheating on her with a tree. Would she feel pain? Would she be jealous of a tree? Ha-ha!

Over the course of the next week, he annihilated his girlfriend, chopped off all her arms and legs. In the last days of her life, he climbed her, for her last arms were too high for him. When she was no longer beautiful and productive, he used her to burn charcoal.

He was saddened by the loss and he mourned for some time. It had been a good tree. His father used to say that the surest measure of a good thing is how much you wish to destroy it: “If you can’t help destroying it, then it is good. It is requisite. People destroy what is good them.” Which meant that people destroyed themselves, which was an irony, because people thought they were saving themselves when destroying things. Anyway, at first, Morris thought that the tree’s ability to grant orgasms was unique to her; he was soon proven wrong when he discovered that others of different tribes (tribes?) possessed the quality, even better. He’d never been gladder.

He learned that trees gave orgasms freely. When he saw a tree, he thought of sex. And he wanted to cut it down. When a different person was doing the job, he felt jealous. It was a chance for good sex going to waste. He thought the man such an imponderable fool and resented him. He made a deal with Kiri to be the one felling all the trees while he, Kiri, only converted them into transportable logs. Kiri did not mind.

Morris felled so many trees, burned so much charcoal, sawed so many planks of timber that he had a stock like never before in his career. He was unshaken of the Ministry of the Environment, whose officials believed that they could save the world by torturing people almost to death. They did not understand that the relationship between humans and the environment depended on the relationship between humans and one another. No one could save anything in this world by hurting people. The world was people. But that was what they did. They were fools.

Morris had found pleasure in work, a pleasure like no other. And nothing would take it away from him. Some people took pride in their jobs and boasted about it to the world; well, they were lucky they had never met him, or heard of him. He would have told them a different story and they would have shut up in shame and begged to join him. It was ironic that he had had to kill a little girl in order to discover something so potent and supreme yet to which the world was still blind. The irony was insignificant, though, since irony was just one of life’s sadistic hobbies. He was a pioneer. He was a trailblazer. He was the husband of all trees.

VII.

One afternoon, when they had taken a break for lunch and settled down under a tree for it, Kiri advanced the issue of his friend’s newfound vigour.

“You are too happy and strong these days,” said he, casual.

“I didn’t know that I was too sad and weak before,” replied Morris. He was crushing a small bone with his teeth while Kiri was peeling a slice of pawpaw and mixing the peels with those of the boiled potatoes he had eaten. The mixture was repulsive. The pawpaw was overripe and looked like yellow diarrhoea. The food had been brought by Abela, Kiri’s wife, who was a better cook than Achi. Achi was all beauty and bad food. Morris did not hate her for it, though. No one could be too thin or too fat. When something was added, another was taken away, and vice versa. It was how it worked. Nature was fair.

“That’s not what I meant,” Kiri said.

“It is what you said, or didn’t say,” Morris told him.

“The thing is, while you’re too happy and strong your wife seems too sad and lonely.”

“How do you know that?” Morris blared, startling Kiri, who then smeared the pawpaw all over his lips, nose, moustache, and cheek. Morris sat upright, his face rigid.

“Hey!” cried Kiri in complaint. “Don’t do that! Don’t shout!” He was speaking with the yellow diarrhoea pawpaw in his mouth so that his tongue looked like an enormous red maggot writhing in it. “It is apparent,” he went on after calming down. “A sad lonely woman is just as noticeable as a happy strong man.”

“Why do you look at my wife with the intention of judging her like that, huh? Why do you examine how lonely she feels—do you want her?”

“That’s not what I meant,” Kiri reasoned. He was wiping the pawpaw from his face with his shirt.

“You are perverting everything I say,” he added.

“I’m not perverting anything! I never speak of your wife like that. Because, if I did, I’d tell you to squeeze her breasts till they shrink to ordinary size—those nasty whopping tanks of baby-milk containers!”

Kiri got up so fast Morris readied for attack. But he only took his axe and walked away with it towards the belly of the forest.

“You eat my wife’s food and insult her like that!” he shouted once over his shoulder, his voice strained, incensed.

Morris did not care.

When Kiri was angry with people he could not bring himself to hurt, he took a walk. He had learnt that from living with Abela, who could drive you so mad that you wished to break her neck every single day. Instead, he chose to walk until the vindictiveness wore itself out. When he couldn’t walk, maybe due to the alterations in the weather or some other reason, he did something that required extreme exertion, like chopping firewood, logging, digging, etc. It helped to refresh him.

He walked now. He was filled with outrage. It was one thing to tell a man that his wife seemed lonely; it was an entirely different thing to insult his wife to his face. Like what Morris had done. It was disrespectful. It was evil. At one time, he’d thought that Morris was his best friend, a true friend. Morris had had good Christian parents who had instilled a sense of responsibility in him (as opposed to Kiri, whose father had been a chronic drunk that battered his wife like a snake). He had dropped out of high school but almost everybody did that in these parts. Still, he was better than most other people across the village: he neither drank nor smoked and did not quarrel with his family or cheat on his wife. He also worked very hard—and honestly—for his family. Kiri had thought there couldn’t be a better friend.

He doubted that now. Morris had changed lately. The way he insisted on felling all the trees by himself, for one, and the way he didn’t like Kiri to watch him while he worked. One time Kiri had arrived at the forest before him and decided to clear some trees so that Morris would have an easier task. It was what workmates were for: to lighten work for one another. Instead, when Morris arrived, he had been vicious. “Don’t you ever do my work for me again!” he’d warned, his voice laden with contemptuous hate, his eyes shiny, vacant.

Kiri had decided that true friendship was in fact rarer than true love. The whole world bemoaned true love, speaking of heartbreaks, of lies, of pain and disillusionment, yet true friendship was nonexistent. If there were true friendship, there would be true love. But they thought they had found true love because they were horny and deluded and terrified; sooner or later, though, they wished they had first been true friends.

Kiri walked. He crossed deep into the forest where trees were tall and sunlight did not reach the ground. The floor was almost clear, the undergrowth stunted. Here and there, climbing plants wound their way up the big trees. It was still.

Baba!

He thought he heard a whisper. A young girl’s whisper to her father. He looked around but there was nobody else. It was also hard to pinpoint from which direction it came. It was carried in the wind. He walked on.

Baba!

Again. He stopped. This part of the forest was scarcely visited. The trees were protected by the government and the officials from the Department of Forestry were nothing less than pissed off black mambas. If they found you here, logging or not, they flogged you without pity and made you carry a huge log by yourself to the main road, which was miles away, before taking you to prison.

Baba!

Kiri listened. He thought the voice was familiar. Ah! Strange.

It was coming from the opposite edge of the forest where trees were shorter and the undergrowth was a little more prolific.

He went to investigate.

But there was nobody. Just a broken anthill and some branches piled near it. He waited for the voice to repeat but it didn’t. For a second there, he’d thought it belonged to Gita. How strange. Guilt, he decided. The guilt of failing his daughter’s security and also not retrieving her body for proper burial. Morris might have been right: maybe her remains had been discarded somewhere to rot forever and become plant food. Or maybe it had been chopped up to bits and fed to dogs so that there was nothing left to stink and draw attention. He had been impetuous, reckless, and he did not deserve to be forgiven.

He climbed the anthill, about four and half feet of it, and paused at the very top, adding his own five feet eleven inches to it so that he towered beyond ten feet. It felt good to be up there, so lofty and proud, the air cooler, fresher, filtered by the numerous trees. He saw the villages far beyond the slope of the forest, iron sheets sparkling in midday sun. The sky was a vast blue canopy, cloudless and pure. His eyes swept through the forest, saw no one.

Baba!

It came from directly below him. He saw a footprint, then two, hidden by the branches; he recognized the patterns, gumboots, Morris’ gumboots. Morris had relieved himself there, not too long ago. He’d then concealed his excrement with several branches. Why? Why here? Why come this far?

There is something under this anthill, decided Kiri.

He climbed down, cleared the branches and the faeces, and began digging with the axe. After a few strokes, he prepared a stake and used it to dig, the axe being inefficient. He scooped away loose soil with his hands.

And what he found! Oh, what he found there!

He slumped down, unable to rise. He was in hell.

“Oh Gita!” moaned he.

Several minutes passed before he could focus.

Kikulacho ki nguoni mwako, he reflected, which was Kiswahili for That which eats you is within your clothes. Your worst enemy is the closest to you and will hide in the last place you will ever look.

“Oh Morris, why? Why?”

Kill him, thought he. Kill him now!

He got up.

VIII.

Morris had taken advantage of Kiri’s absence to have sex with a tree. He knew Kiri had gone too far; Kiri liked long walks when he was furious. The tree was coming down and Morris was coming with it. The crack, the creak, and the whoosh—like a groan, a moan, and a sigh—turned him on beyond hope, and he exploded forth, like thunder, squirting semen in his underwear like a teenager undergoing wet dreams.

He turned to dispose of the saw, which was still running, but then . . . Oh, shit! Shit! He collided with Kiri, who had been rushing towards him with his axe poised as if for attack, his face all fire and brimstone. “What are you doing?” Morris wanted to ask but he could not speak because of the orgasm which was shaking him out of control, unable to stop the saw. It was tearing Kiri’s insides to shreds.

He stopped it when he could, by which time there was a gaping hole through Kiri’s stomach to his back, his ribs shattered, lungs torn, and intestines hanging loose. He was looking accusingly at Morris, wanting to say something, yet no breath. He fell.

Morris was transfixed by what he’d done. He stood over the body, goggling at it. “What is this?” asked he, when he could, his mind whirling. Of all people, how could he kill Kiri? And what had Kiri been thinking coming too close to him like that? This was ugly. This was irreparably ugly.

Abela was still giving birth, being too stupid to stop by herself. And Kiri hadn’t wanted to discuss it with her, for fear of her unstoppable corrosive mouth. She had six children, her lastborn barely three months old. She was also lazy, a slumbering housewife, unlike Achi who ran a charcoal and timber depot at the market. Now Abela was a widow, thanks to Morris . . . and when she died . . . aha! When she died Josi’s brother would sleep with her, appalling as she was when alive. What about when she was dead? She’d be bloated and putrid, her breasts bursting like overripe pawpaw, tumbling down her chest . . . but he would still sleep with her.

Morris flinched at this idea. Without Kiri, Abela’s life would be horror, and would end with the most gruesome horror.

But Morris could not help with any of it. Done was done, and the dead . . . The dead are better than the living, his father had said after his mother’s funeral. We do not mourn that they are dead. We mourn that we are yet living. We mourn ourselves.

With this memory recalled, Morris stopped regretting Kiri’s death. Kiri was better now. He’d no longer have to put up with his shrewish wife, for one. Now all Morris had to do was . . . He saw that Kiri’s hands and boots were coated with red soil—the soft kind that could only be found at an anthill. So that was it. Kiri had found the anthill and dug up the grave. How had he found it? But that was neither here nor there. What disturbed Morris was that . . .

“He was coming to kill me!” he said aloud with astonishment. “He was coming to axe me but I sawed him first. How timely the orgasm! Thanks to my tree. Thank you all the trees. I love you all. You’ve just saved my dear life.”

And he was glad that he had found the singular treasure in the trees. He would never stop.

Still, “Death and burial are like fire and smoke: you cannot have the one without the other,” said he, quoting his father. He had to dispose of the body. But he couldn’t dig a grave. It would arouse suspicion. There also were no more aardvark burrows in the vicinity. What would he do?

“Charcoal,” said he, musing. He would chop up the body and use it to burn charcoal.

IX.

An hour later he was done. He had heaped enough wood over the pieces to burn for ten days. The kiln looked like a small house. His customers would be inhaling the fumes of Kiri’s remains from that charcoal. He couldn’t wait to give it to them.

In the evening, he returned Abela’s utensils with which she had brought them lunch.

“Where is Kiri?” inquired she.

“He’s gone to Medi,” Morris said.

“What for?”

“To buy things, of course! What do people do at Medi?”

“That fool!” she swore. “He didn’t tell me about it! I could have sent—”

But Morris did not wait to listen to the rest.

In the morning, she came to his house while he was sharpening his axe. Her face was puckered with worry and she looked most unlovely.

“He didn’t come back,” she reported.

“He will come back,” he assured.

“But he didn’t!”

“He will.”

She left with a melancholy sigh.

At midday, she came to the forest with lunch.

“Have you seen him?” asked she.

“No.”

“Where did he go?”

“He went to Medi.”

“Ah!”

She was about to cry. He could see her bosom heaving heavily. It was like her buttocks when she walked in front of you.

In the evening, she was waiting for him. He saw that she’d been crying, her face puffed, her eyes red.

“Is he back?”

“No.”

“Now where is this Kiri?”

“I don’t know.”

“But he didn’t say he’d go anywhere after work. He always says.”

“He always says because if he doesn’t you fight with him,” Morris told her, hard. “You are stark raving mad and you drove him insane too. As a matter of fact, he told me that one day he’ll just walk away and never come back. And nobody will ever know where he’s gone. You made him do it, and do not bother me anymore.”

She broke down with mourns and ululations, yelping like a wounded dog. She was the epitome of desolation and misery.

X.

But somebody knew what Morris had done.

After two episodes of orgasmic ecstasy for “Good morning, my lovely darling trees”, he began preparing the previous day’s logs for towing. It was a slow laborious work and he was thinking that he had better get a new workmate soon or he’d die of exertion when he became aware of eyes on him. He was being watched. He rose, twirled around, and there, three metres from him, was Kiri’s mother, Sida. She was composed and unmoving as though she’d been there since the day before. So close, it chilled him.

“What are you doing here?” asked he. She had come too far from home though she was as ancient as the Pharaohs. She was bent at the waist as if she wanted to pick something from the ground.

“Your colour is growing darker and darker,” she said in her rasping, phlegm-coated voice. “I know what you do to the trees. I have seen you with my eyes.”

He was unable to speak.

“The trees are whispering about you,” continued she. “They are crying. They hate you. They are cursing. They call you an abomination.”

“Go away!” he squealed, but he himself stepped back from her. He was shaking and he did not like his voice. It was hollow. Like a damaged reed. He was piping.

“And you killed them,” declared she. “You killed my Kiri and my Gita. You killed them both. I saw you in my mirror. I saw what you wanted to do with Gita, who was named after my mother. She took after my mother. But you killed her! You wanted to rape my mother and you killed her!” she barked suddenly and Morris jumped back again. Her withered, grotesque form reminded him of the monsters he’d imagined as a child.

“I should have yelled at you that morning. I knew what you’d done. I should have told the world what you’d done and saved my son. But I doubted my findings because I thought you were a good man, Morris son of Gogo. You were friends with my Kiri from the time you were children. I attended to you when your mother was away. What spirit has stolen into your heart? I looked again in my mirror today. And I saw you.”

She is a witch, affirmed he. He had been right about her that morning when he found her standing on the path. She had cast a spell for Gita’s murderer to come forth. He should finish her now before she cursed him. She had a malevolent curse with her, like the one her grandmother had imprecated on Josi’s family so that Josi’s elder brother slept with dead widows. Her curse would never relent; it would follow his lineage forever, right from Juma to the very last one, passed on like a genetic anomaly. He picked up the axe.

She did not move. Nor was there fear in her eyes—her squinty, rheumy eyes.

“Take one step towards me with that thing and I will turn your children into weeds!” she barked.

He took the step, paused.

“I will turn your children into weeds!” yelled she.

He approached her head-on.

“I will turn your children into weeds! I will turn your children into weeds! I will—”

He stuck the axe to her forehead, quieting her instantly. The impact shook his arm and warm blood splashed his face.

Another one for his charcoal.

XI.

When he got home at sunset, Juma ran to him.

“Baba, Sida was here. She was looking for you.”

Morris stopped dead.

“When?” was all he could ask. There was a cold thing in his stomach. It was churning and making him sick. He had killed Sida in the morning when Juma was in school.

“Just now,” Juma said. “She was dancing at the door with her stick and puffing red dust into the house.”

Morris looked for Achi, who was in the kitchen.

“Did you see Sida?” he asked.

“Only when she’d left,” she replied. “I was in here when she came. I heard her, but she was gone before I could come out. I saw her figure receding towards her home.”

“I must go see her, then,” Morris decided. He wanted a confirmation. Surely, the witch was dead. He had split her head in two.

“Don’t!” Achi snapped, who scarcely raised her voice.

“Why?”

“I don’t like that woman. And I don’t like what the children said she did at our door. Besides, if she had business with you, she’d have told me about it.”

Morris did not go, though it did not lessen his tension and terror. Pieces of Sida’s corpse were right now smouldering to ashes in a kiln up in the forest.

He woke up at dawn from a dream in which his wife and children had become weeds crying to him to save them from the chicken that were eating them in the garden, while across from him, he could see Sida’s silhouette croaking a jeering chant and pointing her walking stick at him: “I turned your children into weeds! I turned your children into weeds . . .

He sat upright, wet with sweat. And noticed that Achi was not beside him . . .

“Achi! Achi!” he screamed, running out in his underpants. “Achi!

But she was in the garden behind the kitchen. “What is it?” she asked.

“What are you doing out here at this time?”

“I dreamt that my children were weeds and they disappeared here.” She pointed at the garden.

“Where are they?” Morris asked. He was going mad.

“They are sleeping,” Achi said.

Relief. A surge of relief. He exhaled so deeply his wife frowned at him.

“What is wrong, Morris?” she asked, studying him. “I have been meaning to ask you for a long time now. You are different. You are a foreigner.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he told her.

“Even your dreams have changed. It is all nightmares now. Something is chasing you in the dark and you know what it is. What were you dreaming just now?”

“Nothing about you.”

“What did Sida want here? Where is Kiri?”

“I have neither answers,” he said. “However, I can go ask Sida for you what she wanted here. I’m going.”

He dressed and left. He was unafraid. The witch was dead, wasn’t she? Her whole face had shattered like glass from the impact of the axe.

Her door was ajar but the inside was dark and featureless. He had an instant to consider that door and discover that an open door is in fact scarier than a closed one. He did not want to go in.

“Sida!” he called out. “Sida! Sida!”

But she is dead, thought he. What am I doing? I should just go in. There is nobody.
He started to go in, but then . . .

Whoosh!

Movement. Behind him. He spun around like a wheel, emitting a breathless shriek. A single squirt of urine leaked into his underwear. It felt like an ejaculation.

There was something. But it was . . . What the hell is that thing? . . . a small tree? A shrub? A weed? Maybe a person squatting with a big weed on his back, squatting right there in front of Sida’s house where there had been nothing before. But it couldn’t be a person. It had no arms, no legs, or head; it was full of leaves, a plant, a weed, perhaps with fibrous roots and . . . It moved.

It moved!

Morris ran. He ran like a crazy man. And the thing charged him.

He ran towards his home but, somehow, in that frenzy of terror and panic, decided not to lead his pursuer to his family. He took the path that led to the hill. He could hear the thing close behind. No footsteps, no breath, just leaves, branches, vibrating, susurrating and whooshing in the wind.

He kicked a rock and flew, landed on his belly hard enough to think it had cracked. The thing fell on his back. It was a plant. Nothing human about it. Morris cried out once but leaves filled his mouth, tendrils tightened around his neck, and branches crucified both his arms and legs to the ground. And there was something in his trouser, a cold, wormy thing, wriggling in the crack of his buttocks, seeking his anus. It slithered up his rectum. Up up up. A new breed of terror seized him, murderous and deranged, and he fought without thought, only to get out alive. But he was overpowered by his rapist.

Thereafter, he recalled nothing more.

XII.

“There is something in our garden. It is talking,” Juma said. The poor boy was in shock. He had arrived nearly flying and alarmed Abela herself.

“What is it?” Abela asked, touching his head to comfort him.

“I don’t know. There are voices, and they are saying ‘Juma, help us! Juma, help us!’”

“Where is your mother and sisters?”

“I don’t know. There is nobody at home.”

“I’m coming with you,” Abela decided.

“I’m not going back!” the boy cried and cringed from her.

“Okay, you just stay here. I will go and look.”

Abela left her home for Morris’. When she reached, she was greeted by quietness. It was rather too early for Achi to have left for the market. The sun was yet to rise and as usual she should be preparing children for school while Morris prepared his tools. It seemed he too had left.
“Achi!” Abela called out. “Morris! Achi!”

When there was no response, she repeated their names. Still, nobody answered. Yet for some odd reason, Abela felt as though somebody was watching her. The door was open and she went into the house. But it was empty. The beds were unmade, which surprised Abela, knowing how neat Achi was. Maybe one of the girls had fallen sick and Morris and Achi had to rush them to the hospital. But how could three girls become sick all at once? That too was odd.

Anyway, Abela decided to leave. She had her own Kiri to worry about and nobody was on her side. Everybody said she was to blame for his disappearance.

“Abela!” The voice was from the garden by the kitchen. It was Achi’s voice.

“Achi!” Abela replied and went that way. At last there they are, thought she. But when she went behind the kitchen there was no one.

“Achi!” she called again, searching.

“We are here!” the voices cried. “We are weeds! We are weeds! We are—”

There were four alien plants strewn at random at Abela’s feet. Each about a foot high, they had black stems and branches but ashy leaves and gray sooty flowers shaped like mouths and ears. They were speaking.

Abela shrilled and took off, leaping away like a wild animal, overtaken by superstitious terror. She weighed over two hundred pounds but at that moment it was her life at stake and the weight did not encumber her.

Word soon spread around the villages and people came to witness the talking weeds for themselves. No one, however, left Morris’ home happy with the testimony; they all left tongue-tied, their hearts weighed down with terror. Some of them ran to their pastors and preachers; others to witch doctors. A woman, who had come by herself, had a heart attack, though mild, and had to be lifted away. It was an unspeakable thing, what they had witnessed. But people are puzzling creatures and many others kept coming. In the end, the stream dwindled until only children came by sometimes to scare one another. Morris’ home became desolated. Weeds swallowed it. The voices moaned and mourned at the passersby, forcing them to change route.

Juma went to live with his uncle. He dropped out of school because students would not stop making derisive jokes at him. They mimicked his mother and sister’s voices crying in the garden and wished him to become a weed as well.

“Your mother is calling to you. Why did you abandon her?” one would say.

“One day you will wake up and you will be a plant too!” another would say.

“Today after school, I am taking my goat to eat your mother!” yet another.

“How do you think it would taste if their leaves were boiled as vegetable?” yet another.

He couldn’t stand it.

When he was fifteen, he took up his father’s job. He had an axe and a chainsaw. The saw was unwieldy at first but there were older school dropouts with whom to handle it. Ten years later, when he had a wife, a son, and a daughter, he discovered, by a kind of warped serendipity, really—he never had to kill a little girl for it—the pleasure only his father had known. He became married to the trees . . . and polygamously so!
He had been spared for a purpose after all.

XIII.

Several days later . . .

The sun. The glaring flaring flaming orb hanging, as if by magic, above the earth but never quite falls down on it. It shines into his bones. It infuses his flesh. He is fascinated by it and can look up at it forever without shielding his eyes. It permeates his body, even his eyes, to the very last cell and he’s convinced that he lives only by virtue of its existence. He is stark naked and can feel it piercing him, probing his vitals, diffusing. The sensation bites, tingles, thrills feverishly. It is bracing. And something happens in him. Something is happening to him. A change. A great unalterable change. There is a seed in him. He is becoming.

Water. He needs abundant water to go with the sun. It is the reason he elects to return home. He is parched to the bone; the change he experiences exhausts his water reservoir too fast and he needs a constant undiminished replenishment. He recalls his home and walks in the direction. On the way, he happens on a puddle. It is milky brown and thick and shiny at the top. Mosquito larvae swim in it, dead houseflies float on it, and tiny insects jump off when he approaches. He steps into it with his bare feet without knowing why, without anticipating the act. He waits for something to occur. When nothing does, he lies down on his stomach and drinks it all like a cow.
He is eating the mud and crushing earthworms with his teeth when he feels the ground vibrating and looks up. But the man is still too far away to be seen. He is a big man and makes the ground vibrate too much. Morris runs and crouches behind a brush. He can see the man but he cannot be seen.

“Morris! Morris!” the man shouts, looking here and there. When there is no response, he sighs, “Ah! I thought I saw him coming this way!”

He is carrying a machete and it sends chills down Morris’ spine. The man can cut him with that. It’s what humans do. They cut you. Humans are no good for the trees. You give them shade and fruits and flowers, and, most importantly, oxygen; you purify their air, which they continuously fill with enough toxins to wipe them out, and when you’re dead, you give them wood for fire; but all they do is cut. Cut and cut and cut. They think you do not feel pain. They think they know and understand. How can you not feel pain when you grow and excrete and heal your wounds? The old humans understood and made buildings with rocks that have lasted to date; the new ones think they understand and marvel at the buildings while making love to the trees with sharpened blades. They won’t rest until you’re broken and dead. But they burn their rubbish, and hide their faeces, and bury their corpses too deep in coffins that do not rot, or cremate them and sprinkle the ashes in the sea, so that trees do not benefit from humans at all. Humans are a curse to the trees. When you see one, take off if you can. But there is no way to take off when you are a tree. There is a joke that trees tell themselves to mock their situation. It goes like this: “Why do humans worship Jesus? Because he was a carpenter!”

When the intruder is gone, Morris darts back into the hill. He must keep away from humans. He searches for water and hastens further and further into the forest until he finds a dank place that never dries. It smells rich and sweet and he feeds without a thought to spare. The corruption, the putrescence, the death—it fills him; he converts death back to life; he consumes the perversion of time and rejuvenates earth. He is the resurrection. He is the life after death.

But he needs the sun and he must move while he still can. The seed is growing and soon he will not be able to move. As he hurries downhill, a bird lands on his shoulder. He is fascinated and he doesn’t send it away. He likes it right where it is. It is beautiful and alive, and when it speaks, its voice is mellow and pure, healthier than anything in his memory. “Is it going to rain soon?” it asks. “No,” he says. “Will there be an earthquake any soon?” “No.” “Are there any eagles, kites, or snakes nearby?” “There is a black mamba in that tree yonder, and a kite has a nest in the fifth one north of it,” he says and points at both trees. “Do you think I should build my nest around here?” “If you can put it very high,” answers he. “I cannot put it very high,” says the bird. “I am a small bird. I must look for a new place. But thank you so much. You have helped me so,” it adds and flies away happily. He is full of wonder. He is knowledgeable without trying. He knows the language of the birds, of the trees, of everything. He has acquired the memory of trees. Trees know multitudes of things. They know all the history of the world. The seed has imbued him with knowledge.

He stops near a broken anthill. He can feel the sun. There is also a good smell and he searches for it. It emanates from a human corpse buried (or inserted, really) in an aardvark burrow. It invites him. His first real meal will be a human corpse. Now isn’t that something? He climbs onto it and becomes very still. He waits for something to happen.

Time . . .

Then something happens. The transformation begins. His toes burst and roots emerge forth from them. It pains him but the process is essential. His feet become the main roots from which the small ones break out. His legs fuse, thighs clamp tightly, as if glued by God or the Devil, and his genitals vanish. Ribs shatter and rejoin, bones coalesce, melt, and stiffen, spine stretches straight like a rod, skin hardens, spreads, and covers his face, teeth rattle, break, and fall out of his mouth, jaws merge in perfect stillness, and his arms become branches, facing the sun. His hair, ears and fingers become shoots, and up they shoot.

For months, he is in so much pain he cannot help screaming. He wants to scratch somewhere but there is no way to do it. He weeps nonstop.

Then the pain goes.

He has become . . . IT

But it can still see!

***

Several years later . . .

It sees the young man coming and recognizes him at once. So grown is he, so robust. Just like the father before. But there is a corruption about him. He is rank with perversion. And he walks like a wicked man. He is carrying an axe. It gleams in the sun like a serpent’s tongue. It makes the leaves curl in fear and the roots moan with dismay. He comes too close and climbs the father. The father screams for him to stop. The father senses what he is about to do. His eyes say it all. And the front of his trouser is bulging forth as if with a potato. The father screams abomination. He wails. But humans do not hear what trees say. Humans think trees do not talk. Juma therefore continues to climb undeterred, and when he is satisfied with the height, he ensconces himself and begins to lop off a branch. His axe is sharper than a witch’s razor and his excitement grows with each strike. He is frantic when the branch breaks, and he clinches the father in a violent embrace, shrieking like a barbaric thing. The father, racked by pain and horror, wishes the world would come to an end right away . . .

—The End—

I.

At six o’clock, her usual time, Laurie locked the house and began running. The evening was warm, though the sun had sunk and darkness was quickly diffusing around. It was November and nights began slightly earlier than usual.

She was going to run four kilometres around the estate, starting left on Elgeyo Road for about five hundred metres, a kilometre on Kilimani Road, two more on Kirichwa and Muringa Roads respectively before returning to Elgeyo for the last half kilometre. It was Sunday, the best day to run on Nairobi’s narrow roads; traffic was thin and there were few pedestrians to be bumped and dodged. She maintained a moderate speed, though she could run faster. Twice she had done it in less than thirty minutes, and Jowe had asked her if she was planning to compete in the Olympics, else she didn’t have to try to kill herself if she was running for leisure. She needed only to keep a steady pace, build stamina, he’d said. But steady pace meant that she would finish in about forty minutes. Not that it was too bad. She would have plenty of time to freshen up before he even showed up from Karen.

She ran. A small svelte girl, twenty-eight, five-four, brown hair, grey eyes, shapely, firm, fit as a fiddle. And she had great legs, her virtues, trimmed by dedicated exercise. Jowe had told her she had the best legs he’d ever seen, the finest in the world. “The best thing is that you know how to take care of yourself, and that in taking care of yourself, you take care of me. I do not know what’s better than that,” he’d said, enthusiastic, his voice booming.

She ran. She liked to think that she ran for him, that in running for him, she ran for herself. It was a good thought, lovely. It invigorated her.

Shadows pooled around her. Darkness gathered like a fabric. Vehicles now turned on their headlights. Pedestrians vanished one by one. Over her headphones, an overplayed collection of Mazzy Star played to the beat of her feet.

She was almost done with Kilimani Road, its intersection with Kirichwa Road coming up about ten or so metres ahead, when she ran into somebody. She bumped him hard and was thrown back in surprise and shock, her arms thrashing about uselessly, legs wobbling, body tilting. She was certainly going to hit the ground. But the man grabbed her arm, steadied her.

“Thanks,” she said, flushed, taking off the headphones, catching her breath, trying to smile at him. “And sorry I knocked you,” she added light-heartedly, although she felt that he should have been the one to apologize, and that she was really the one who had been knocked. He had been standing on her path. He must have seen her coming. She hadn’t seen him. It was as if he hadn’t been there at all. But he was too big to miss and it wasn’t yet too dark. Perhaps she had been too preoccupied.

His face was dispassionate, untouched by her smile and apology. He was still holding her arm and she gave it a small jerk to give him the signal that it was time to release it. She did not want to appear rude. However, he did not release it. She tried again. No.

She looked up at his impersonal face and tried to smile instead of screaming. She said, “You are gripping my arm, sir,” and chuckled uneasily. When he seemed not to have heard her, she said, “Is there a problem, sir?” Her words came out with a slight tremor, betraying the turmoil building inside her. She was beginning to feel that the situation was wrong. Perhaps she hadn’t bumped him by accident. Perhaps he had been waiting for her. The way he had just materialized out of nowhere like a spook. Where had he come from, anyway? Certainly he had not been there seconds before she collided with him.

“There is no problem, Laurie,” he said in a voice so deep it startled her.

He knows my name! she thought wildly. Terror flared up in her like a matchstick.

“How do you know my name?” she cried and twisted her arm.

“Is it a secret?” mocked he. “We all know your name, Lauren Sanders.”

And now Laurie fought to free herself. She yanked, twisted, and kicked with all her might, screaming “Let go! Let go of me! Let go of me! What do you want?”

But the man was gigantic. He was like the trolls from The Lord of the Rings: towering height and massive limbs, muscles jutting out like rocks, solid as a column. Laurie’s struggles did not even shake him; she was weightless in his grip; she was like an insect buzzing its wings to be freed from the hand of a human.

The section of the road was flanked by tall buildings on either side. Usually there were guards at the gates. But not today—not today of all days when Laurie needed them to be there the most! How wicked! She was suddenly struck by a chilling revelation that you were always alone; no matter how many people were on earth, you were always alone; when tragedy visited, when your death came, it always found you alone and unguarded. It wanted you, only you, and alone you’d go, as alone you had come.

The pedestrians had vanished as if swept onto another road; the vehicles had stopped passing, as if consciously avoiding Laurie’s trouble.

“Get in the car, Laurie,” the man directed.

Car? He wanted her in a car! He was kidnapping her! He was abducting her right here on open road between residential buildings! She screamed for help. She screamed with desperation and madness.

Needless to say, no help came. But even worse was that her kidnapper did not flinch at her screams. He let her scream all she wanted.

Then it occurred to her. There was no car. There were no cars anywhere on the road. What car had he mentioned, then? Maybe he didn’t mean to abduct her. Maybe he just wanted to see what she would do. Or maybe he had parked at a different place and was planning to drag her there. She would not let him. She would continue to fight all the way, and if she got the slightest chance, she would outrun him. She could run like the wind if situation called for it. He was too enormous to catch up with her even if she did not put in full speed. Besides, if he dragged her along and she kept fighting, somebody would happen by and see them. Surely the whole world couldn’t just disap . . .

And then there was a car. Right beside them was a car. A Mercedes Benz W222 S600, brand new, immaculately white and sleek, with tinted windows and . . .

And it wasn’t supposed to be there. It hadn’t been there. There was no way it could be real.

What was going on? While Laurie’s mind reeled from too many strange inputs and too many questions, while terror bored at her bones like a ravenous worm and her heart squeezed erratically like a broken pump, she was carried up like a child and tossed into the waiting car.

II.

She was instantly assailed by the stink of rotting meat. She gasped it in—gulped it down, actually—and was unable to breathe again. It drew tears from her eyes and she yelped, shrieked, gagging, choking, feeling as if her throat had been cut, her lungs afire, her mind foggy, swirling; in her disorientation she did not see the three men inside the vehicle. She fought to get back out, kicking and wriggling her small body in the crack between the troll and the door. She almost made it; she was agile and crazed. The troll was either two slow or he had determined that she could not escape and thus relaxed. When he saw her scrambling out, he rushed to shut the door, but her legs were pressed against it and she pushed hard. It banged on his knees and he moved off a little. And—bless heaven!—her legs were out. On the ground! Now all she had left to do was pull her torso out of the car and take off like the wind. Run as if there was a nuclear shockwave after her.

But bad things happen to good people. And no objectives are ideally fulfilled. In the decisive split second when Laurie’s right hand was holding the door back from closing on her while the left pressed against the back of the driver’s seat for support, propelling her forwards, something bit her. Teeth!—she felt teeth!—a row of warm, sharp, hideous canines digging ferociously into her left arm. It stung like nothing else she had ever experienced, and she retracted her arm without really thinking about it. But the teeth held on, as tenacious as death. She turned around jerking her arm as if she intended for it to break off at the elbow, but, to her horror, it was the driver gripping her arm. He was gripping her arm with his hand.

Even as her mind battled to make sense of this craziness, the troll shoved her into the car. This time he followed immediately after her and shut the door. She became trapped between two men, one white-skinned, the other black. The troll was black and probably Kenyan. The driver was white as well, his passenger black. The car was all fine leather inside, and could have been opulent and luxurious at a different time, but it was ghastly now, charnel, reeking of the breath of death, a tomb. The stink was asphyxiating Laurie and she began to heave frantically with anti-peristaltic spasms. There wasn’t much to be disgorged from her stomach, though, being a “scant eater”—as Jowe liked to put it—and, instead, bile and acidic stuff washed up into her mouth and she spat it all down on the Mercedes floor without a tittle of care, thinking that there was no escape now no matter what she did, thinking “Screw your car and screw you all deranged depraved kidnappers!”—not that her captors would have cared if she had shouted her thoughts; they didn’t seem the kind to do that, else they would have cleared the stink from the car. They were strange creatures to inhabit such an atmosphere and force people into it; they were ghouls.

The driver, without looking at her, turned on the air conditioner. Fresh air rushed in, a welcome relief to her respiration, though in no way relieving her from her prison and imminent doom. The rest of the windows remained shut.

Quiet lingered for some minutes. It was tense. It was intense. Laurie felt what animals must feel when they are about to be slaughtered—absolute fear and helplessness. Those few minutes might as well have been years on end to her, whose mind now raced faster than the clock. Gradually, she became aware of the pain in her arm where she had been bitten. It was searing, itching. There were several tooth-prints on it. The regions around the depressions were darkening and the hue was spreading outwards. Like venom. She rubbed at them in vain. She was beginning to rot. She knew it. The stench in the car was as a result of victims who had decomposed like garbage while seated exactly where she was. These people fed on decomposed bodies. But how could anyone decompose when they weren’t dead, explode spontaneously with maggots, bloated and putrid, their flesh falling off their bones as they watched in flabbergasted horror? It was going to happen to her.

But the vehicle did not move. They did not speed off. Which disturbed Laurie greatly, because if she had been abducted, they would have been driving away like hell right now, not parked at the same spot where she had been found. Who were these people? What were they? Where had they come from? Why weren’t they frightened? She recalled how she had yelled her guts out yet the troll had done nothing about it at all, not even so much as “Shut up!” They didn’t seem to consider that anybody could have heard her screaming and might be coming to investigate. It was weird. And it chilled her further.

“Take time to get used to your situation, Laurie,” the driver told her casually, still not looking at her. He spoke as if he knew her quite well. What’s more, or worse, his voice was familiar. Another weird thing. She did not know any of these men. It was familiar in a rather distant way, though, stored somewhere unreachable but present; at the very sound of it, her memory conjured up images of TV, computers, DVDs, magazines, pictures hung on walls, and Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman? Laurie did not understand this association. It was absurd.

“Your tradition dictates that we introduce ourselves,” he went on calmly. “I am Than. And this is Thun.” He pointed at the man next to him. “Behind me is Thicke, like the singer,” he said of the troll. “And on your left is Thicko. We are brothers, all the four of us.”

Than, Thun, Thicke, and Thicko! Oh, yeah, I’ll be damned, Laurie mulled. I am damned, she amended. This couldn’t be happening.

“This is not happening!” she ejaculated. Her voice shook.

“It is, and it is happening to you,” replied the one called Thicko, but it might as well have been Than speaking. Their voices were exactly alike. It startled Laurie and she recoiled from him. Since entering the vehicle, she had not looked at their faces, scared as she was. She did now.

To her consternation, the man sitting to her left was Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise? Yes, it was him, the Hollywood actor, the way he had looked in that Kubric movie Eyes Wide Shut when the camera focused on his face at the point where Nicole Kidman was telling him how she had almost slept with the Navy man. Laurie had pinned the face on her bedroom wall. She had been thirteen. She was still a fan of Tom Cruise and she had watched him enough to recognize his voice. That was it, then; that was the association between these . . . but who were these kidnappers? Even more confounding was that the driver, Than, was a thorough lookalike of the Tom Cruise man. And Thun, the one on the front passenger seat, was a duplicate of Thicke, the troll. Doppelgangers.
It was like two men each split into two! And they all wore executive suits.

This is not real! Laurie cried, punching her knee with a fist and pinching her thigh. They are screwing with my mind! I am not here. I am dreaming. Wake up! Wake up, Laurie! Wake the fuck up, you dumb sleepyhead!

But no. It was real. As real as it gets.

“You are not real,” she moaned. “None of you is real!”

“And are you?” the driver derided, smiling. He seemed to be the spokesperson of the group. “As far as I am concerned, Laurie, you exist only in my mind. That makes you only as real as my mind is.”

“You are not Tom Cruise!” she moaned.

“I didn’t say I am,” he replied and shrieked a mocking laughter.

The car began to move. The feeling was that of floating.

“Where are you taking me?”

“Where everybody goes.”

It meant they were going to kill her. “You are going to kill me,” she voiced.

“Do people get killed or they kill themselves?” he jeered, and then met her eyes. She saw how his eyes travelled from her face down to her breasts and crotch. They tarried on her crotch and thighs, a hard, piercing gaze, before shifting to her legs. She had on tight shorts of light material and she imagined he could make out the protrusion of her vulva. She clamped her legs together.

“Nice shorts,” he said, and turned to steer the car. “Better legs, even,” added he with an aura of mystery.

“You are you going to rape me,” she concluded.

“Rape?” he wondered. “You can’t stand being raped by us, Laurie. You need your ass more than your legs, you know. Besides, we could rape hippopotamuses, if we wanted something to rape. If we raped you, Jowe would weep like a little girl and kill himself like the coward of the universe.”

“You do not know Jowe!” she defended spontaneously.

“If you love him that much, you should tell him to take his balls to the doctor. He may still have a chance.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He shrugged. “It smells all over him like a perfume.” He paused, looked at her again, went on: “But that’s not why you are here. You are here because of your legs.”

“What?”

“Your legs, Laurie,” he said meaningfully. “We want them. They are ours . . .”

III.

“Laurie. Laurie. Laurie!

The sound was coming from too far away. Like a dying echo. The owner was invisible. She was being shaken. When she came to, she saw that she was shorter than usual. The ground was very, very close. Her legs . . .

She shot up like a missile . . . and bumped into someone. A man.

Again! Him! Them!

She pounced on him and pounded his face. Punching. Pinching. Slapping. Pushing. Clawing. She wanted to bite, thrash, crash.

“Hey!” he kept saying. “Hey! It’s me! Hey, stop that! Stop! What’s wrong with you?”

She did not stop. She was hysterical.

He finally managed to grab her hands and hold them behind her.

“Laurie, what is this? It’s me! Hey!”

She struggled for a few more seconds before she could see things as they were.

“Jowe?” said she, bewildered.

“Yes. It’s me, baby, and you’ve whacked my face like I am a devil. What’s wrong?”

She flung her arms around his neck and began to sob. “They cut off my legs. They cut off my legs, Jowe.”

“Who cut off your legs?”

“Four men in a Mercedes. I was kidnapped on the road. I went to run.”

He clasped her in a protective embrace, sighed. “Laurie, your legs are intact.”

It was then that she saw them, felt them. Her legs, strong legs. She must have wrapped them around him while pounding his face because that was where they were.

“But they cut them off!” she said and cried harder.

“They didn’t . . . whoever they were.”

“They wanted my legs.”

He took her into the house and sat her down. He then brought her water and sat with her as she drank. Afterwards, she laid her head on his lap and he dried her tears with his handkerchief.

“I was abducted,” she said when she’d calmed down considerably. He did not prompt her, so she went on narrating.

“Tom Cruise?” he interrupted her when she reached that part.

“Yes. And the other men were also like identical twins. But something was wrong with them. I think they didn’t actually look like that; they were faking those looks.”

“You think they had masks?”

“I don’t know. But they had Tom Cruise’s voice. They couldn’t fake that, could they? It was perfectly his voice. I know. And the other men did not have hair. They were neat to the scalp. I don’t know if there are such masks.”

Now Jowe knew all about Laurie’s teenage obsession with Tom Cruise. She was also a budding writer of weird fiction, constantly honing her skills. She was currently working on a book she intended to self-publish. A book about a man whose sexual orientation made him cut down trees. He cut them at every chance, felling them, or just hacking off their branches. The trees feared him but could not escape his insanity. In the end, they called on their tree-god to save them. The tree-god imprecated a malevolent curse upon him, and one day, when he went to the forest with his sparkling razor-sharp axe, he became a tree. Roots emerged from his toes and heels; shoots sprouted from his ears, eyes, nose, tongue, fingers; his arms became branches, even as more branches sprang from his ribs and spine. His legs fused into a trunk and his hair became several buds. Five years later, when he had grown and was enjoying being a tree, loving the sound of birds, the weight of their nests on his branches, the dewy scent of the morning, the song of the wind, the beauty and wealth of the sun, and the soothing light of the moon—just when these things delighted his senses the most and he bemoaned destroying so many trees in his previous life—he saw his son coming towards him with the same gleaming razor-sharp axe that had belonged to him.

Jowe, who read Laurie’s stories, called them mad and unworldly. He believed she had two personalities: Laurie, his girlfriend, and Laurie, the writer. The writer was wild and always out of her mind. When Laurie was writing, he left her alone, because it was a different Laurie. When he left today to inspect the construction of their new home in Karen, she had declined to go with him because she had wanted to finish a chapter of the book. He thought now that he might be dealing with the writer stuck in her quixotic world of people turning into trees and Tom Cruise materializing in Nairobi to kidnap young girls with the purpose of dismembering them. He was scared for her.

“Laurie, were you dreaming about Tom Cruise, or have you just been carried away by one of your stories? Did you even leave the house today?” he asked.

“You don’t believe me?” she shot and pulled from him, got up. “You don’t believe me! I was kidnapped, Jowe, and you don’t believe me? What if they had hurt me? What if they had cut off my legs and made me decompose spontaneously? Would you believe me, then? Is that what you want? You want evidence, huh? Well, then, in this case it’ll be me without legs, dead maybe, rotting! And you won’t know because they will have taken me too far away.”

“I didn’t mean it like that,” Jowe said in a peaceable tone. “I found you squatting at the door, abstracted almost to unconsciousness. You couldn’t hear me until I shook you, as if you were dreaming. How did you escape your kidnappers, if they indeed were there? How did you get back?”

“I don’t know,” she said, her tone lowered, wondering. She had completely no idea of how she had ended up squatting at her door. What had they done to her? She could not have been dreaming. She had gone running and she had been abducted.

She examined her shoes. They were coated with fresh dust.

“Look,” she said, pointing. “I went running.”

Jowe studied the shoes in silence. They were usually spic-and-span and he’d taunted her once that she kept the cleanest running shoes in the world. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.

“Take me to a doctor. I want to be examined. I don’t know what else those men did to me. They may have injected me with drugs or poison to mess up my mind.”

“Okay,” he said. “To the hospital we go, baby.”

As they were leaving, she remembered part of the ordeal she hadn’t yet told. “They bit me,” she reported and hastened to show him her arm. The tooth-prints were visible. But the dark matter which had been emanating from them had vanished, diffused all over her body by now, maybe.

“Grown men just bit you?” Jowe puzzled. He looked lost and Laurie became distressed more for him than for herself.

“It was the driver. He bit me with his hand,” she explained.

“With his hand? How?”

“I think he had teeth in his hands, Jowe. He had a lot of teeth in his hands.”

He had a lot of teeth in his hands

He had a lot of teeth in his hands

IV.

At The Nairobi Hospital, it took a while to explain to the physician the events that had taken place. The Tom Cruise part was the worst. It rendered everything doubtful. But Laurie maintained the truth. She had a physical and a blood test; she was healthy, nevertheless.

“I was scared,” she told Jowe as they exited the building. “I was so scared.”

“You are fine, sweetie. You are fit.”

“How is your face?”

“No damages. None that can be felt, though I swear I didn’t know you could fight so mean,” he said facetiously and she chuckled.

“I’m sorry I punched you, and for shouting at you,” she said. “I wanted you to believe me. I couldn’t believe myself.”

“It’s okay. You had me worried out of my skull.”

They got into the car.

“I’ve been thinking,” Jowe continued. “Why don’t we buy you a treadmill so that you don’t have to run around the estate and get nightmares?”

“I like to run,” she said. “I like the flow of wind against my face and in my hair. I like to see buildings and people moving past me. I like the blacktop. I like to see distance. It is not the same on a treadmill.”

“You still need it,” insisted Jowe. “Just so that you have an option and in case someday you don’t feel wholly happy about taking on the blacktop.”

“Fine.” She buckled up. “And, Jowe, thank you for understanding.”

“If I fail to understand your needs, then of what good am I?” he said and she laughed delightedly.

“I love you, Jowe,” she said. “I think you are the best man in the world.”

“You think so?”

“I know . . . And, oh, they . . . Jowe, they said that if I love you that much, then I should tell you to take your testicles to the doctor—that you may still have a chance.”

Jowe, who had been about to start the car, froze. Laurie saw how his hand retracted from the ignition. “What?” asked he, his face distorted, shocked.

“They said I should . . .” Laurie began.

“No. How did they know?”

“Know what?” asked she, now agitated. “Know what, Jowe?”

“I’ve been feeling strange around my penis.”

“Strange how? Pain?”

“Maybe a little. Mostly that something isn’t right down there.”

“Cancer?” asked Laurie. She felt the jitters.

“I don’t know. But if it were in my testicles I’d know. There’d be lumps, some pain, an extra load, suchlike. I’d know by myself.”

“Well, we’re still at the hospital,” Laurie said, unbuckling. “We just go back and find out. Then we go to the cops. Those people know us. They have marked us, Jowe. They said it smells all over you like a perfume, that disease, whatever it is.”

“They smelled it on me?” Jowe wondered. He was lost again and Laurie felt a pang.

“Yes. It means that they have been close enough with you to smell it. Or have you told anybody about it?”

“If I was going to tell anybody, I’d tell you first,” he assured her. “But, Laurie, if they can smell it on me, how can they be human beings?”

Something crept up her spine at this discovery. The kidnappers were not humans. No wonder they had materialized out of nowhere. And they could rape hippopotamuses. What in this world can rape a hippopotamus?

The oncologist ruled out testicular cancer after examining Jowe. He advised them to return the following day for advanced tests. He said he was considering the possibility of prostate cancer, but they shouldn’t worry about it; it was “something for old people.” Jowe was thirty-three.

Four days thence, he was found with prostate cancer.

Those creatures are real and they know us more than we know ourselves, mused Laurie upon hearing this news. They are stalking us. They have us marked. They will come back.

V.

They came back.

Laurie did not go out by herself for a long time. She waited for Jowe and they drove or walked. It was safe that way. The ghouls did not come when she was with him. At first she feared they would not care, that they might harm him as well, but after four weeks she established that for some reason his presence hindered their course. She, however, constantly caught herself searching her surrounding for them, she was especially alert and anxious when a white Mercedes drove by, and was excessively frightened if Jowe left her alone in public for longer than a few seconds. They were hand in hand majority of the time.

Life indoors was not regrettable, though; she was a writer, and writers know the value of silence in a locked room. She finished her book, The Curse of the Tree-God, rewrote it five more times and had it proofread, edited and reedited online. She was designing the cover.

In December, there was a story on TV about a man’s arm that had been found at a dumpsite. Just an arm, the owner unknown, unfound, most likely dead. It terrified Laurie because she knew the culprits were her abductors. Because she had successfully evaded them so far, they had vented their ire on a different person. Was that what they had wanted to do with her legs? Discard them at a dumpsite? So cruel! So unfeeling! How could you live knowing that your legs would one day be disposed of at dumpsite to be discovered by stray animals? And how would she run without her legs? It was an appalling prospect. The police were clueless. But around here they were almost always clueless, unless they had some poor thief to shoot in the back, then they became exceedingly excited and fierce. When Laurie and Jowe went to report her case, the cop in charge had laughed at them. “Tom Cruise? Alikuja hapa akakuteka nyara? Sasa hii ni uwazimu ama ujinga tu?” he’d scoffed in Kiswahili. (Tom Cruise? He came here and kidnapped you? Now is this madness or just stupidity?) He’d then burst out with gales of side-splitting laughter, doubling over, choking, teetering about like a sot. He had let them record a statement but no investigations were yet going on. Of course.

Nine weeks after Laurie had been kidnapped, in late January, a national event to raise money to save heart patients was organized by The Nairobi Hospital. It was called The Kenya Heart Run: Run for a Heart. Jowe registered Laurie and himself. Multitudes joined the race and, for once, Laurie was not afraid to run freely. She had missed that feeling of being on the road, of the tapping of her heels on the blacktop, of being caressed by the wind, of seeing distance. She didn’t care about the awards but she was certainly going to give the winners a run for their cash.

The race started well at eight o’clock. Laurie stayed within the crowd, Jowe beside her, cleverly gauging the runners for the one to take on. But they had scarcely covered two kilometres on Mombasa Road when everything went to hell. Traffic had been diverted for the purpose of the race. But there was this one car. One daring, presumptuous car. A white Mercedes Benz S600, brand new, spic-and-span. Nobody knew where it came from. The police officers spread along the road to provide security did not see it either. Suddenly, the runners at the front were dispersing and shouting and cursing. Some people were ululating. Laurie was at first blocked from seeing what was happening, being not so tall and jogging deep within the crowd. When she did see what they were cursing and giving way, it was too late. Too late.

Only one thought flared in her mind: Run!

She turned back and fled. She had a powerful, insane, furious conviction that the troll had got out and was on foot with her, making enormous strides, reaching for her, while the rest crept up behind her like a crocodile in their incongruous stinking Mercedes. She was tempted to glance back, yell, yell for help, but no! There was no time. It would slow her down. After all, she was being seen by the public. She sped, accelerating like a supernatural force, flying, leaping, her hair scattered in the wind, trailing.

But they had a car and no matter how fast she ran, they were always near, one or two feet behind, her heels almost knocking the bumper. She could feel the ground vibrating from the weight of the car. They were enjoying the chase, comfortable in the knowledge that she would soon be tired and they would just grab her and go with her. And cut off her legs.

At last, they did just that; the car swung to her right, closed in, and the troll extended one of his gigantic arms and grabbed her by the waist. He did this even as the Mercedes rolled on, his abnormally long fingers curling around her small middle as though she were a doll. He put her between him and Thicko as before, precluding escape.

She was breathless. She was maniacal.

To the observers, that car just vanished off the earth after taking Laurie. It vanished as unexpectedly as it had appeared. It simply sublimed. As though it had never been.

Jowe chased it in vain while shouting his girlfriend’s name like a madman. When the Mercedes disappeared, he felt something that could not be specifically described. It was a mixture of many unpleasant emotions, the foremost of which was despair. It was worse than death. He plunked down on the tarmac and could not speak or move by himself for more than an hour. Such was his loss.

VI.

Laurie looked back and saw Jowe running after them. Inspired, she started kicking and twisting, waving her arms and calling him, though her voice was weak. The ghouls did not attempt to stop her. In fact, the driver stopped the car, and she twirled around, wondering at this. She caught him smiling at her his sardonic smile.

He said, “Laurie, you just go on calling Jowe like that, but if he sees us, we will surely cut off his arms. We’ve spared him for too long for no great reason. If anybody sees us, we cut off something from them. We cut hard.”

Laurie stopped, collapsed, despair conquered her heart.

Things got dark thereafter, the road, everybody. Not a sound could be heard but the humdrum humming of the Mercedes’ interior. She had a feeling the car was floating through a vast expanse of bleakness.

“Where are you taking me?” she demanded.

“Where everybody goes,” she was told.

“And where is that?”

“Nowhere.”

She considered this answer and decided to let it go.

“You killed that man?” she accused.

“What man?”

“The one whose arm was found at the dumpsite! You cut off his arm.”

“Oh, that one,” the driver said. “He saw us.”

“Do you just go around cutting off people’s limbs?”

“We have targets. Then there are the unlucky ones. Collateral damage, you might say.”

“What do you do with the limbs? What do you want with my legs?” she asked and was chilled by the prospect of the answer.

“We don’t know yet,” he said. “We might just dump them in a garbage pit somewhere. We’ll determine once we have them.”

“How can you dismember a person just to throw their legs away in a garbage pit?” she accused, her tone hysterical.

“It is a big deal to you, isn’t it?” jeered he. “To us, it is like a kid pulling off an insect’s legs or wings. The kid just throws them away. Have you ever wondered what an insect thinks of such an act? I’m sure you do now. But we have good news for you: we will eat yours.”

Good news! How callous!

“Don’t worry about how to get back to your house. We’ll take you there and you won’t know when or how. Just like last time. We let you go because we like our targets to get used to the idea of the inevitability that awaits them; none of them ever does, though.”

“You are nothing but a bunch of pathetic cannibals, then?” accused she.

“I don’t know if we are cannibals, Laurie. I don’t know what we are. We don’t know. We just are. Forever and ever, we are. At first there wasn’t; then there was. It is like an age-old rock abruptly becoming aware of itself, its existence, its environment; moving, breathing, feeding. What would it know about its life, itself, but those functions that it performs from connate impulses whose origins it cannot discover?

“But yes, we eat humans,” he continued after a pause. “We just look for the tastiest one and cut off their legs or arms. Animals sense us from afar and take off. Humans do not, and cannot, even when we are face to face with them and sniffing their cancer. Until we reveal our presence to them, by which time all escape is ruled out, they do not sense us. So much for your acclaimed intelligence. But the cancer is the worst. It smells repulsive. And most of you are sick with it or some other malignancy. It’s why we prefer your legs and arms. They do not carry diseases. Sometimes, however, the limbs are outwardly appealing but the flesh is too salty, tasteless, watery, fat, or too smooth and foamy in the mouth; we discard those. Not all humans are edible.”

He paused again, faced her, said, “And now . . .”

At this time, they gave up their disguises and became their true selves. They were old things, ancient things, with crinkled cracked faces and runnels of rotting leathery skins draped over their gaunt bodies; discoloured bloodless eyes, scanty, withering hair, and sparsely planted spearheads of grotesque teeth. They were neither black nor white; they all looked alike, suppurating, malformed, gruesome things. They were the cause of the stink in the car.The Creature

And they had teeth in the back of their arms.

Laurie . . . she died.

“I read that book, you know,” the driver was saying, his voice a low bubble as though it was full of oil, an awful sound. “The one you are writing: The Curse of the Tree-God,” he went on. “I like the axe in it. How it glints eerily in the moonlight, keen as a witch’s razor. Ah! I like that one. I brought one just like it. Look!”

And he produced an axe, a crazy-looking, hair-raising thing that belonged in Hell.

“Do writers need legs?” he asked cheerfully, thrilled. “I thought no. They need only their fingers, their heads, and their buttocks to put on the chair . . . maybe their thighs too to balance the laptop. We won’t touch those. But we need your legs, especially those calves, an athlete’s calves. Elegant. Ripe. Toothsome. They are ours.” He broke briefly, as if for effect, and then shouted, “Hold her!

The two creatures on her sides grasped her slender arms and the one on the passenger seat stretched her legs in the space between the back and the front seats. The driver leaned forward, swung the axe, he swung hard, with fury and craze, brought it down. She heard it whistling against the air, slicing it, as it arced towards her, its unforgiving tongue thirsty for her bones . . .

The clock struck 3.00AM and Casper sighed like a man intending to commit suicide. He felt hopeless studying alone at this hour, a lone lonely man stuck in a pit of shit, a pit of frothing shit accumulated over the previous endless shitty centuries of shitting humanity. He was stooped over his notes like a wicked child hovering over helpless ants with a piece of burning plastic in his hand. His notes looked like disorganized ants skittering bewilderedly to and fro, back and forth, over the pages. It was awful.

He yawned, making a low hollow howling sound and scaring himself in the process so that he groaned aloud. The silence in the Architecture and Design Building was palpable, bordering on ominous. Even the extremely rowdy Architecture and Design students who usually played vulgar hip-hop music aloud at this odd hour had left. A cold breeze seeped through a broken windowpane and stung Casper’s back like a bullet, but he did not wince, for it was the breeze that really kept him awake. Apart from his sheer determination to study through tonight, he also needed the sharp, biting edge of the breeze to frighten sleep off his eyes. Determination stoked by the fear of failing in an examination rather than the desire to meet a solidly set objective could crumble down rapidly to shit like an evil cookie baked by the Vice Chancellor himself, especially in a long, sad, frightful night as this.

The Vice Chancellor was a witch. In the moonlight of quiet vacant nights, he swam stark naked with crocodiles and rode happily on their scaly backs and allowed them to also ride on his fat, meaty back, but they did not eat him. In the dead deadly dark of the night, like tonight, he stuck a rugged bundle of ostrich feathers in his asshole and flew over the university buildings like a bat-spirit, spying on Casper, cursing him, spellbinding him with malevolent charms in order to make him flunk his course.

Not that Casper was that afraid of exams; since his first year in the campus, however, he’d learnt that it was as easy to fail in an examination as it was to tell a lie, whether you were bright or dull, a dux or a dunce, whether you wished to shoot the VC or just hang on to his ass like the crocs and the feathers. There were things that made studying in university so hard, distractions against which one had to fight so badly if one was to achieve anything at all: girls, music, movies, parties, friends, freedom, drugs, etc. Casper thought that it was in university where one actually discovered one’s potential to parry away temptations. He had, however, long since realized that he was rendered weak and disabled when it came to rejecting offers, and that was why he was lucubrating tonight; usually he ignored his work until exams began to make their abominable sinister hooting and honking sounds in the near distance. But there was a little comforting voice at the back of his mind telling him that he wasn’t the only one overpowered by the savage temptations life in university offered with depraved generosity; gazillions of students were worse than him out there, although not all of them were studying Electrical & Electronics Engineering in a department that specialized in murdering dreams and turning students into academic robots, where Engineering was studied in theory, a department ruined by the horrible witch VC who danced with the crocs in the moonlight and stuck ostrich feathers in his ass.

If you studied Electrical & Electronics Engineering it the University of Nairobi, you’d wish to shoot the VC dead in the head, right between his wicked witching eyes! CLICK-CLICK BOOM-KAPOW! Unidentified witch dead on the highway, the newspapers would report.

While he was waiting for admission to the university, Casper had heard incredibly wild and sweet stories about campus life. When he joined first year, he had lived the life described in those stories. The result was that he had flunked nearly half the units in his course, and that was when he began to hate and curse exams for turning an irresistibly enjoyable life into a mean, bitter, poisonous beast. He had yet been in school for nineteen years, and had only one more to acquire his first degree, yet he still did not understand why there ever had to be exams anywhere on earth. They were always so, so brutally inhuman, the real killjoys in life, especially in the UoN, which was the pit of frothing shit in which he was diabolically stuck, where lecturers showed up in class in the last month of the semester, hurried you through the course and then announced they would set exams. The question of moment was: how could you be examined and graded in a course you were never taught? It made you want to shoot the VC, blast his witch head off his croc-screwing body. That witch boasted an ISO 9001:2008 certification while classes rotted wretchedly under his malicious witch-watch and academic levels plunged irreparably into the hellish lightless abyss of mournful illiteracy. The equipment and devices applied for the study of Electrical & Electronics Engineering in the University of Nairobi were left there by the British colonialists in 1963. Unattended, unrepaired, decrepit, they were now deader than any dead thing, which brought to Casper’s mind another momentous question: how much had Electrical & Electronics Engineering changed between 1963 and 2008?

(Interlude)

SHOOT THE WITCH BURN THE WITCH
(A play by Casper Gasper the Ostrich Man)

ACT 1: SCENE I

(The University of Nairobi graduation square looms ominously before the audience. The witch has been captured by soldiers and is being dragged on the ground like a log. He is to be executed by a firing squad. Multitudes of students are chanting “Shoot the witch! Burn the witch! Shoot the witch! Burn the witch! Shoot him dead in the head! Burn him till confirmed dead!”)

Major General Casper (to his second-in-command): Are the troops ready?

Brigadier Fatty (saluting): Yes, sir! Troops ready, sir!

Major General Casper: Fall in! Fall in!

(Soldiers fall in)

Major General Casper (issuing a stern command): Aim! Fire!

(Gunfire erupts suddenly as soldiers begin to shoot: TOOP-TOOP-TOOP! BOOM-KAPOW! BOOM-KAPOW! BOOM-KAPOW! Firing continues until the witch’s head hangs limp as a boiled noodle.)

Major General Casper: Cease fire!

(Soldiers stop firing.)

Major General Casper (looking at the witch): Is he dead?

Brigadier Fatty: Yes, sir! I think so, sir!

Major General Casper: Confirm, Brigadier!

Brigadier Fatty: Yes, sir! (Moves forwards, views the witch’s limp body, and then looks back at his superior.) His eyes are still open, sir!

Major General Casper: Fuck it! Fire again! Fire until he burns!

(KABOOM-POW! KABOOM-POW! Firing goes on ceaselessly for hours until . . .)

Somebody dragged a chair carelessly in the adjacent room and routed Casper out of his deep thoughts. He jolted, sat upright. So I am not the only student in the building, he thought. The other ones most likely to forgo sleep were medics, although they were no better than the engineers; they were fucked up worse because they killed patients at Kenyatta National Hospital and safely and contentedly got away with it. The next room shut with a bang and footsteps pitapatted randomly toward the room in which Casper was brooding. It turned out to be a night watchman.

“ID yako?” the man asked adamantly in distasteful Kiswahili. He wanted to see Casper’s student identity card.

Casper regarded him coldly and obstinately. The watchman probably thought that he was not a student and had no accommodation in the campus, which was why anybody would choose to mug up in a lifeless deserted building at half past three in the morning.

“What is the worst you can do if I do not have it with me?” Casper asked.

“ID,” the watchman said slowly with contempt. He sounded as if he was talking to a very thick learner. He had obviously decided that Casper was not a student. Don’t I look like a student to this dumb shit? Casper wondered. The university watchmen had problems with their self-esteem. They felt that students despised them, which wasn’t entirely the case. When they had a chance to victimize an unfortunate one, they did it with utter desperation and vile enthusiasm. If they caught a non-student person in the campus premises, especially in the prohibited places like classes and ladies’ halls, they made a field day of torturing him until he became irremediably mad. Deciding instantly to play it rude, Casper said he had no ID.

“Basi toka nje!” the watchman ordered authoritatively. Then get out!

“I won’t!” Casper snapped.

“Nimesema utoke!” I’ve said leave! The watchman started walking confidently towards Casper.

Casper stood up abruptly, so abruptly the man was startled to a halt. He seemed uncertain now. Casper was taller than him. In fact, Casper was taller than most other people. Six feet seven, a broad chest, a small waist, long arms, long legs, a long neck, and a disproportionately small head (a classmate and a friend with whom he often shared a bottle of beer and a roll of weed had once pointed it out to him that he was built like an ostrich), Casper overhung his victims by both stature and attitude; he carried himself with condescending confidence and had a delicately bloated dignity. Pride was in his heart, arrogance aloft in his soul.

“Listen, you piece of shit in a pit of shit! This is not your house, okay?” he spat with venomous disdain. “I am a student here, okay? I have exams next week and that’s why I’m languishing in this pit of shit horror instead of relishing the comfort of my room, okay? I study a very difficult course and I am stressed right now, okay? And you’re here to stress me further, okay? Listen, you can never do the course that I do, not even if Jesus Christ himself adds you a brand new sparkling brain, okay? So you just drive your despicable watch-manning illiterate butt away from me and go on and fuck yourself sour and sore, okay? And don’t you fucking bother me again, okay? Or else, I will cut off your head and shit down your gaping throat! You are an idiotic stupid horrible barrel of frothing shit, okay? You understand, okay?”

Later, after Casper’s inexplicable death, the watchman remembered him vividly and described his voice as high-pitched, grating, and hysterical, like the sound of a hacksaw grinding whiningly against steel.

“Kweeee-kweeee-kweeee-kweeeeee . . .” the watchman had gone on to demonstrate.

Irritated, rendered inferior, defenceless and speechless as well, the watchman clicked his tongue and left. At the door, he turned once and told Casper that he was going to lock the door from outside and report him to the other security guards. They would frogmarch him to the Student Welfare Authority Security Office for discipline.

“Yeah, go the fuck right ahead, okay?” Casper said. “Lock the door and insert your dick in the keyhole, okay? Lock and fuck the keyhole!”

“Okay? Okay? You are very stupid, okay?” the watchman mimicked with a violent sneer and scurried away.

“Fuck you!” Casper cried hysterically after him. “Fuck the keyhole! Fuck the VC! Fuck the VC! Fuck the VC!”

But the watchman did not lock the door; neither did he summon his fellow security guards.

***

Around a quarter to four, Casper dozed off, the biting breeze notwithstanding. He was woken up by a movement so swift he did not comprehend it at all. Somebody must have entered the room and then left too quickly. All a long there had been a big black rucksack at the far corner of the class. It had sat there since six the previous evening when Casper first came in. He had presumed it belonged to one of those mean selfish faggoty-maggoty students who usually left their books behind on their favourite reading tables long before they arrived at the rooms so that nobody else occupied those particular tables. Now the rucksack was gone. Whoever had come in while Casper dozed off had taken it. But how fast! Casper was sure he hadn’t dozed long enough to enable even the most surreptitious thief in the institution to intrude upon him. His first reaction was to confirm if his property was intact. The University of Nairobi bred such slick remorseless diabolical thieves that it was as if it offered a singular excellent course in stealing. It had better thieves than academic professors and doctors. They were so uncouth and heartless and obscenely bold that they stole your wet underwear from the bathroom while you soaped your face with your eyes closed. An institution for thieves, and you wondered why the Vice Chancellor made love to crocodiles in the vulgar moonlight and stuck ostrich feathers in his ass!

Casper thought he should rush outside and catch whoever had sneaked in on him, but decided it could have been the owner of the rucksack himself or someone else of no consequence to him. He went on with his studies. Sometime into four, he dozed off again, and became alert when a pencil rolled on the table where the rucksack had been. It was a HB pencil, with black and red longitudinal stripes along it, brand new, sharpened once for the first time. It had not been on that table a few minutes before. Casper contemplated it and could not understand where it could possibly have come from. He was thinking only of Miva, his girlfriend, when he picked it up. Miva liked to calculate her rough work in pencils. He would tell her that he had bought this one for her, especially for her. She would be pleased and she would promise him things, sweet things that lived only in women. To test its sharpness and efficiency, he used it to sketch electrical circuit diagrams in his book. What transpired between the circuit sketches and the writings that he saw afterwards among his rough notes, he did not know and could not explain. While holding the pencil, he must have drifted into sleep or lost his consciousness completely, because he could swear with his neck in a noose that he did not write the following words:

RETURNMERET URNME RETUR NME RETURN MEEENOOOOWWW

Return me? Return who? Return what? What is this? Casper asked. This was wrong. He must be exhausted, his memory growing vague, fatigued. He decided to end his studies, go to his room, and catch an hour’s worth of precious sleep.

He met Miva in class at eight and gave her the pencil. She was genuinely pleased in a huge way, and she kissed him in a huge way. She promised to go to his room after classes, where only special, delectable delicious things could be expected to happen, and he had gruellingly slow hours of delightful anticipation the rest of the day.

In the evening, though, she returned the pencil to him.

“What the hell is this thing?” she asked in panic.

“It is a pencil,” Casper replied politely, although his first thought was to tell her that it was a dick, any dick, even the VC’s dick, particularly the VC’s dick.

The VC’s dick must be covered with scales to fuck crocs, he thought hilariously and nearly burst out with terrible laughter. He was checked by Miva’s pained face.

“I bought it especially for you,” he told her, and then considered her puffed face if she would stop grimacing at him and be pleased. Jesus, how he wanted to fuck her!

“It doesn’t write,” she stated.

“What does that even mean?” he asked.

“It doesn’t write,” she repeated.

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, baby,” he said and lovingly brushed her hair. “Of all the crazy, weird, uncanny, impossible, improbable, supernatural things that can happen in this pit of shit world (like the VC sticking ostrich feathers in his ass and flying like a bat-spirit over the campus, he thought but did not say), a pencil cannot not-write. A pencil writes. That’s what it does. As a matter of fact, I used it before I gave it to you. I tested it.”

His hand had slid stealthily to her neck, from where her breasts were next. He could feel his penis rising steadily like the morning sun.

“See what it did to me!” she exclaimed and raised her skirt. There was a deep wound on her thigh.

“Holy-crapping-Lordy-Jesus-save-us-all!” he cried and jumped back like a missile.

She had stopped bleeding but the wound was frightening. Gaping, red, unhealthy, fat, it shook Casper badly, who usually shuddered almost superstitiously at the sight of blood, to the core. In a quick flash, it crossed his mind that he could not say for sure where the pencil had come from.

“How did that happen?” he asked, pointing at the yawning wound (it yawns like the VC’s ass packed with ostrich feathers, he thought crazily but did not say), pretending to be calm while inside he was near hysterics. He stepped back close to her.

“I was writing a report and this pencil couldn’t draw. So I put it on my reading table and fetched another. When I was done, I started to get off the chair, but I fell instead. I fell on this pencil.”

“How did you fall on it? You said you put it on your reading table. It was on your table, was it not?”

“I don’t know how it got to the floor,” she said uncertainly. “It was on the table all right. I know it was because I put it there myself and I could see it. But when I fell, it was on the floor and pointing upwards. Believe me, it was pointing upwards. And when I fell, I felt like something was pulling me down forcefully to the floor. I was being pulled downwards.”

“I’m sorry,” Casper said, too confused to think of anything else. After some silent seconds, he added, “I’ll take you to Sick Bay,” which was the student dispensary and where you could easily be overdosed to death or treated for gonorrhoea when you had malaria. One of Caspar’s classmates had been treated for brucellosis for three good months while he had been slowly wasting away and dying of tuberculosis, spreading it around the campus in the meantime. Yet the university trained doctors and nurses and pharmacists and the rest of their ilk.

The Vice Chancellor knew this and it pleased him immensely.

“Keep it. After all, it doesn’t write,” Miva said, giving back the evil pencil.

Evil pencil, Casper thought. Holy shit! He took it. “It’s alright. I’ll get you another.”

“I saw some words in my book, but I didn’t write them. RETURN ME RETURN ME RETURN ME NOW . . . Only they were almost misspelt, with bad spacing and all. I didn’t write those things, but they were all over my page. I don’t even understand what they’re about!”

Casper remembered the words he had seen all over his rough page, and was chilled.

“Do you recall them?” Miva asked, studying his reaction, and wincing from the pain in her fat thigh.

“No,” Casper lied; “just thought it’s weird.”

“They were written in a HB-pencil. That much I could tell. The one I had before you gave me this one is a 2B. But this one doesn’t write, so who wrote those words?”

“Let’s take care of your leg first. We’ll sort out the rest when we come back.”

“I’m scared.”

“Of what?” asked he with a boldness he did not feel at all. “Of a pencil?” mocked he. “But that is truly absurd, my dear. Don’t be scared. It is only a pencil. Perhaps one of your friends did write those things.”

“I was alone in the room and I had the book all along.”

“You’ll remember. No need to panic.”

Casper remembered and was shaken. He could feel a repulsive mixture of confusion and panic churning within him. Whose pencil was it, and where had it come from? Had it been in the rucksack? But it couldn’t possibly have dropped when the unseen intruder grabbed the rucksack. It had not been there shortly after the intruder was gone. It had not been there. It must have come from somewhere else. Otherwise how long would it take a pencil dropped on a slanting reading table to start rolling across it? It surely would do so immediately. This one had started rolling after some time.

When the stupefied faggoty-maggoty quacks and charlatans at Sick Bay had finished dressing Miva’s wound with hell-knew-what medication and prescribing to her a couple of painkillers, which, for all Casper cared, could easily have been ARVs for treating HIV/AIDS, he escorted Miva to her room in Hall 13, all the while bitterly regretting his forgone opportunity to screw her. He swore sorely at the pencil.

When he got back to his room, he took the pencil and examined it the way he would examine a faulty electrical circuit, with keenness and astounding scrutiny. But it was nothing more than a Staedtler Tradition Graphite HB pencil, made in Germany. Was it evil? Could it be harbouring evil powers? “An evil pencil?” scoffed Casper loudly. “Oh yeah, and next time there will be an evil sharpener or Biro or book or whatever! What a shitload of frothing crap!” There was that US writer who crapped up horrible shitloads of garbage about evil pissed off cars that killed people by their own free will. What was his name? King Kong? Miva had one of his books about an evil car named Christine or Christina or Christ n Tine or Tiny Christ. Aha, fuck him! Casper did not give a mosquito’s balls about him. A malevolent pencil would appeal to his morbidity and diabolism, though.

Casper was an engineer, and not just any engineer but an electrical engineer, which meant that he was categorically in the category of the most intelligent of engineers in the whole world who dealt with physical sciences. Engineers were sane. They made the world go around. They were the backbone of human civilization. So what was this shit about a pencil that hurt people and wrote on its own? He would be damned to admit it. He fetched a clean foolscap and made sketches on it with the pencil. It worked. “Now what was that bitch saying about the pencil not writing?” he asked wonderingly, not minding for a second the reference to his girlfriend as a bitch. “Ah! Women! They all have degrees and Masters and PhD’s in making complaints about anything and everything, even pencils! Which writing instrument is more reliable than a pencil in this pit of frothing shit universe? A pencil cannot just stop writing and can be used anywhere regardless of variations in pressure, temperature, or some other shit.” The pencil was fine, as far as Casper could tell.

The picture of the Pencil

But it was nothing more than a Staedtler Tradition Graphite HB Pencil.

He was still making sketches of complex circuitry when the pencil stopped working altogether. He scratched the paper with it harder and harder but it stubbornly made no more marks on it. And everything he had drawn suddenly disappeared, erased by invisible hands. This was plainly unbelievable. Devoted to make some sense out of this uncanny phenomenon, he decided to break the graphite and re-sharpen it. He tried three times, pressing it down on the tabletop and the bedstead, scratching it hard on the floor and the wall, and finally trying with his teeth, all to no avail. His teeth started to hurt. It was like biting steel. The graphite refused to break. It dug a hole on the wood of the table and the bedstead and left a groove on the floor and the wall. Resolute for once in his campus life, Casper told himself he had to get this one thing done right. Having no sharpeners in the room, he fetched a pocket knife and settled down to business. Holding the pencil in his left hand with its tip protruding between his thumb and forefinger and most of its length folded in his palm, he made a powerful stroke with the knife . . .

But the pencil moved back on its own just in time and he cut off his thumb like a roll of sausage, slashing it off diagonally at the first joint all the way through to the front where it dangled perilously, like a wounded bat, on a thin strand of pale skin. For the first few seconds, Casper was too stunned to feel the pain; hell, he did not even comprehend what had just happened. He stood still in his confining two-by-three metres room, the knife in his right hand, the pencil in his left, and the ugly wound in his thumb. He seemed to have lost his mind; he seemed mechanical as he looked at the knife, then at the pencil, and then at the wound. He dropped the knife, switched the pencil to his right hand, gripped it firmly, and spread his left hand, fingers apart. He did not know it when he raised the pencil and stabbed forcefully his wounded hand, the pencil piercing through the palm to the back and remaining stuck across it. Blood sprayed liberally from the severed thumb.

And now Casper screamed. His thoughts returned at once and he saw what he had done. He made a shrill sharp abrupt metallic squeal, like the sound of a bat. He was bleeding uncontrollably. His thumb was damaged and the artery in it was squirting forth blood disgustingly, frighteningly, in pulsating jets. And there was an ugly hole through his hand. The pencil had made him stab himself. Terrified, enraged and in pain, he yanked out the pencil and carelessly dumped it away. He rushed for tissue from his closet and tremblingly unrolled a handful. As he moved around the room struggling to stanch the blood, he did not see that the pencil had moved from where it had fallen and was now pointing upwards on his path. He stepped on it and it penetrated full length into his right foot.

It did not snap as would have been the normal case in view of the fact that Casper’s sole was hard like carapace and his weight was stupendous. More out of terror than out of pain, Casper opened his mouth widely and yelled like a retarded child. He slumped down on the bed and continued to cry. His roommate absent, there was no one to assist him immediately. He tried to pull the pencil out of his foot but the pain was too unbearable. It had lodged deep into his nerves, and even if he survived this maddening torment, he would limp for the rest of his life.

While he cried and moaned, helpless and tortured, the pencil came out of his foot by itself. It came out fast as if pulled out by something. It was certainly pulled out. There was something else in the room with Casper, something that he could not see, and it was controlling the pencil. This realization drove Casper mad and he got off the bed abruptly and limped towards the door. But he lost balance and fell like a bag, hitting his head on the bedstead and landing on his back hard enough to shake the room. He scrambled up, staggering, befuddled, his vision bleary, his head throbbing. He saw the pencil. It was coated with a profusion of blood. He grabbed it and cursed it and threw it into the trashcan. Let it stay there until he could return it to where he’d found it. Yes, return it. He had to return it. The words that had been scrawled on his rough page and in Miva’s book suddenly made sense to him. The pencil was alive, haunted or bewitched or just fucked up. It was probably a voodoo pencil. The dark forces that roamed the universe every night had trapped him with it. And they were here to torture him to death unless he hastened to return it to them.

Maybe it belonged to the VC! Yes, that made much sense! The pencil belonged to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi. The witching son of a bitch must have been flying over the campus with his ostrich feathers stuck in his ass when he heard Casper cursing him aloud after the watchman. He must have then sneaked in on a dozing Casper and trapped him in the room with the voodoo pencil. It was the VC, no doubt. Nobody else could have pulled off this much diabolism but that corrupt shit-kicking ghoul who painted walls beautifully and grew costly lawns and flowers around the university while lecturers were severely underpaid and academic levels decayed like corpses and classes were thoroughly empty of knowledge. It was him.

This knowledge gave Casper some hope. He now knew his adversary. It was scarier and more agonizing to deal with an unknown, unseen thing intent on demolishing you, but the fear and the agony became much reduced when the enemy was known and visible. He could call people and inform them of what was happening to him. If he died, at least they would know the truth. And they might be inspired enough to pursue justice. Stepping firmly on a rug with his left leg and grimacing tearfully, he returned to the bed and collapsed down on it. He reached for his cell phone from the reading table and called Miva. He called her three times but she did not answer . . .

. . . because by then she was herself dying horribly: the VC’s whacky-quacky relatives at Sick Bay had given her drugs which suppress colorectal cancer, and not painkillers. In addition, the nurse who’d handled her, after cleaning the wound with hydrogen peroxide, had ended up contaminating it anew with a used cotton wool. Miva’s pain and agony had thus accelerated astronomically. Then the evil, perverted, bewitched pencil had poisoned her with its darkness and paralyzed her entire body. She was now lying mortally on her back, straight as a corpse, her body devoured with a blazing, living, wormy pain. She could not speak or cry, for her throat was stiff. Only her eyes could move in their agonized sockets, rolling, swimming, rotating uselessly this way and that. She was dying and she knew it. What had Casper done to her? she wondered woefully.

Next, Casper called Fatty, the friend who had once told him that he was built like an ostrich. Fatty was obese and perpetually mean-tempered and cantankerous. He had once insulted Casper—over a crate of cheap beer and a roll of second-hand weed, of course—that Miva walked like a pregnant duck. Casper had told him that he was fat like ten people, to which he had reacted by calling Casper a preposterous moron and then went on to adlib a song titled Casper Gasper the Ostrich Man. Casper had then called him a quagga. “What’s a quagga?” he’d asked thickly. “An extinct zebra,” Casper had said, uncertain, yet pretending to be confident. And Fatty, annoyed, had chased Casper upstairs with an empty bottle of beer in his right hand and a thick glowing roll of weed in his left. After five steps he had sat down panting, his overworked heart almost exploding.

Fatty was always drinking or munching something. Like all of Casper’s classmates, he did not know any practical engineering; he thus found consolation in some form of obscure poetry called Haiku about which Casper did not give a cockroach’s ass. Fatty plumed himself on being the only student in the university who knew Haiku, as if it mattered. He had once written one to describe Casper and it had read like this:

Tall ugly shithead
grinning like a fed doggy
over cheap shit food

Casper had retaliated by writing one to describe him:

He a buttsteak
Like a steak of butt
He an asshole
Like a hole of ass
Fat ass

“That’s not a haiku!” Fatty had cried.

“Fuck haiku!” Casper had said.

“And fuck you, Casper! Fuck you! Fuck you till Jesus returns to burn your ass!”

Casper had informed him that he had the lead IQ in a mob. “What does that mean?” he’d asked thickly. “It means that if you join any mob, everybody there will end up with an IQ the size of yours, it being the dumbest in the world,” Casper had explained patiently, and Fatty had sworn that in the future he’d rather die than spare an atom of piss to save Casper if Casper was burning to death.

As he sat on the bed, swathed in insufferable pain and bleeding generously, Casper thought that Fatty should have been the last to call, in light of the fact that he was clumsy and hateful, a humpty-dumpty clodhopper with a bad attitude. But Casper had no other friends in the university; the institution teemed with abused students who also abused themselves while foolishly defining the abuse as life—“that’s life,” they’d say—yet so contemptible that death-row inmates seemed like transcendent angels.

If two Kenyans are picked randomly from across the country with the only difference between them being that one is a high school graduate with an outstanding A and the other is a hard-knocked criminal tough as nails and grim as death; if it further happens that the student is enrolled to study electrical engineering in the University of Nairobi while the criminal is sent to jail, then at the end of five years the two will have equal IQ with the difference being that one of them has papers claiming that he has a degree which he really doesn’t have.

To Casper’s utmost horror, the pencil jumped out of the trashcan and flew towards his face. He cried aloud and wet himself like a baby.

Fatty, despite his worrisomely colossal weight, despite having sworn to rather die than spare an atom of piss to save Casper if Casper was burning to death, responded to the call and arrived at his friend’s room thirty minutes later. It took him that long to climb the stairs from first floor to third floor. He moved like an exceedingly fat worm, seeming to roll onwards rather than walk, his enormous body undulating as if he were an alien maggot, like that monstrosity that sucked out someone’s brain in Starship Troopers. He pushed open Casper’s door. He was starting to sing Casper Gasper the Ostrich Man when he took one look into the room and choked dangerously on the Strawberry yoghurt he had been slurping down his oily throat. He jerked backwards, wobbled, doubled over to cough out the yoghurt but his heart exploded forthwith and he spew forth a copious supply of dark-red blood.

But not before his strangely poetic mind formed a Haiku to describe his dead friend:

Face frozen plastic,
eyes open, dry, unseeing
in eternal still.

The pencil was fixed deeply into Casper’s forehead. His bed was awash with blood. He was dead, with his eyes open, his mouth twisted, gaping.

There was another mysterious death in a different room one floor above Casper’s. A student had been strangled by a black rucksack. It was the thief who had stolen the bag and ruined Casper’s dear life.

In the Architecture and Design Building, the following notice hung askew on the notice board:

IF YOU TOOK A BLACK BAG FROM ONE OF THE CLASSES OR IF YOU TOOK ANY THING THAT WAS IN IT, RETURN IT INSTANTLY OR YOU WILL DIE!

Picture of the warning

Hanging on ADD building notice board.

The pencil had been in the rucksack!

The End.