Posts Tagged ‘Weird fiction’

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 . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil laughing

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

My mother had a certain peculiar friend when I was nine years old. It was a woman named Odote, who was so bent at the waist that she walked as if she wanted to pick something from the ground. She was not very old; I remember now that she might have been at most forty, five years older than my mother. She used to come to our home in the sombre evenings when a pale sickle-shaped slice of moon dangled over the western hill before fading away soon after sunset as if frightened of darkness. In those days, my mother’s crude alcohol would be ripe for distilling. Odote did not drink the distillate, though; she preferred the thick, dirty, yellowish brown liquid which she slurped down her throat with the same sound a dog makes when lapping at a puddle of water. It was a strange thing about her because everyone else I knew was disgusted by the unrefined substance. Sometimes there were dead snakes in it. Though my mother covered the pot in which it was fermented, more than once I had seen her removing dead black mambas and green and brown snakes from it with a stick, and there were always lizards and insects that floated on top of it. But Odote did not mind. She would order five litres, two of which she’d filter with a bundle of dry grass and then suck with a small pipe that now reminds me of a disused IV line. The rest she’d take home with her.

I used to watch her while she slumped on a stool slurping her vile drink. She would be abstracted, her face pensive and sad, but sometimes she would look up and notice me and rebuke me with a scowl on her depressed, wrinkled face.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she’d ask, and I’d run away giggling and hide behind the house. Presently, I’d return to peep at her from a corner.

I wondered what her children thought of her. I thought that if she were my mother I’d go mad. I’d run away and hide from her and never disclose to anyone, who did not already know, that she was my mother.

“Why is she so bent, Ma?” I asked once but was so excoriated for making a disrespectful remark concerning my elder that I never raised the subject near my mother again.

But one evening several weeks later, coming from school with my elder brother, Jumbe, I saw Odote ahead of us with a basketful of potatoes she intended to barter with my mother for the drink. She was more bent than ever, weighed down by the load, which she carried at the back of her head. She was tottering up the hill, the basket bobbing up and down like an object on water.

“What is wrong with her?” I inquired tentatively, fearing reproof.

“Gwati beat her up,” Jumbe replied.

Gwati was a withered, scarecrow-looking old man from the village. He was known to make weird supernatural sounds when the sky was dark and gloomy and clouds cast funereal shadows over the villages. He would shriek and sigh and curse and groan until another old man or woman elsewhere died of arthritis or heart attack.

“He just beat her up and she bent like that?” I wondered.

“Yes,” Jumbe said. “He beat her up with that black walking stick of his. It is not really a stick, you know. It is the hand of a corpse. And it’s spread like this . . .” My brother stretched his right hand towards me and fanned out his fingers. I stared at it and imagined a shrivelled, blackened, rotting hand cut from a dead person. I flinched.

“If he slaps your face with it, your head will turn all the way round until you can see your back,” Jumbe went on. “A hundred and eighty degrees!” he emphasized. “But you will not die and you will walk backwards for the rest of your life. If he slaps your back with it, you will never stand straight. Like Odote. He slapped her back with it.”

“What if he slaps both your face and back with it?” I asked.

Jumbe stopped to look at me. He was a tall person and looked at me the way my father usually did when I was holding his hand. “You know the answer to that,” he said in a quiet voice, which I found to be foreboding.

“But Gwati is sick,” I reminded him. “He is old, and he is weak, and sick. He cannot beat anyone.”

“You just don’t know,” my brother said. “You are still young. He gets well when he has somebody to beat, because he gets to transfer his evil and disease into that person. He has many evils and diseases. Like when he is ill, and he howls and curses and cries in the dead of the night, and, in the morning, somebody else wakes up with his illness and dies afterwards. Meanwhile, he lives.”

I was tongue-tied the rest of the way.

Overhead, on a rapidly darkening, scantily beclouded sky, the pale horned moon looked like a half-closed, winking eye of a dead man. It seemed to wink at the bending woman, mocking her.

I went to Gwati’s home after I had taken off my uniform and donned my home clothes. Some uncanny curiosity overcame me and I wanted a keen look of his walking stick. I wanted to know if it was perhaps made of skin and if the fingers were visible. He was sitting on a rock by the granary, his usual resting place, stooped as if he was in great agony. His hands and wrists were swollen with arthritis, so were his knees and feet. I skulked behind him, but, somehow, he sensed my approach and, grunting, reached for his weapon. I took off like the wind.

The following day in school, I asked Ooko, his grandson, about the stick.

“It is called The Hand,” he said. “If my grandfather wants it, he says, ‘Ooko, bring me The Hand.’ And I just do.”

“Does it feel like a real hand when you touch it? Does it have skin and fingers on it, for instance?” I asked.

“The fingers are invisible. But it feels like the dried tail of a cow when you touch it. It is really a hand. You can feel the softness of the skin. Subtle, though, it is. The wrinkles are prominent. When Grandfather touches it, it twitches and attempts to grab something. One day, Grandfather called to send me for his pipe, but I didn’t want to go because I was playing. Grandmother came out of the house and shouted, ‘Ooko, mind your grandfather now and do not make him mad! Or else, he’ll make you deaf-mute!’ If you make Grandfather very angry, he points The Hand at you and says something, and you become deaf-mute. Deaf-mute!” he stressed, his eyes ablaze with excitement.
“Did he beat up that bending woman, Odote, with it?”

“Yes! She was quarrelling with my grandmother over some money Grandmother owes her, and Grandfather told her to get lost and never return. When she turned to leave, he leaped after her and whacked her quickly on the back!”
It was crazy and it disturbed me for days. From then on, I perceived the old man as a terrible entity, a witch and a devil. I never went within a hundred metres of his home.

One afternoon, however, when schools were closed in December and the children of the village were gathered at our home to play, Ooko picked a fight with my little sister over the skipping rope, and he smacked her face and pushed her hard to the ground. She fell on her buttocks and wailed, jerking about while looking at me, begging me to avenger her, and I, without thought, grabbed a rock and chased her assailant with it towards his home. I struck him once and he screamed:

“Grandfather! Grandfather!”

I stopped dead. But it was too late, too painfully late, for then I could see the old man standing and pointing his walking stick at me and muttering crazy things that sounded like: KABALAKUBALAVADIKALADIKAKABAHAHAKA . . .

I think I became insane from the terror that seized me. I remember nothing else that transpired between that moment and when I bumped into my mother on the way. She was anxious and distressed, herself terrified for me. I could not talk; neither could I hear her. I’d been running too fast and shaking so badly that each heartbeat was a massive explosion. In answer to whatever she was saying, I pointed back from where I’d come and she stormed forthwith in that direction.

I tried to stop her; I tried with desperation and madness, yet in vain. She could not hear me. I thought Gwati would beat her up with his stick and she would be bent forever like Odote. As I watched her go, it dawned upon me that I’d become deaf-mute. It was too much to take. Darkness pervaded me.

When I came to, my mother was standing a few feet from me. She was bending like Odote. I stared at her for a few seconds hoping that she would rise erect, wanting her to, willing her, but she did not. She never did thenceforwards. She was weeping, her voice hoarse with hopeless anguish, her head turned backwards—a hundred and eighty degrees!—so that she was facing me with the back of her head.

She was bending forwards but her head was facing backwards.

That horrible Gwati, that devilish old man, had slapped her face and beat her back with his stick.

I howled, making a sharp, wretched, strangled unintelligible sound that made me black out again.

Around us, the rest of my playmates stood still and goggled at us, aghast.