Suddenly he falls and rubs in the dust when the policeman unties his hands. He cries aloud. I gasp. I too want to cry. I hold Mama’s blue dress tightly with my hands. I didn’t know that I could see tears on the face of a man almost the age of my father. A married man like my father crying. Crying. The metals of handcuffs hang under the big right hand of the policeman. Their noise cries in my small ears the way everyone cries for the man rubbing in the dust.
‘My husband! My only husband!’ is another noise entering my small ears. I turn and look.
Mama pulls me with the power of her right hand.
‘Fool,’ she warns me. ‘Do you now not see why I never want a child who talks too quickly?’
I can’t look Mama in the eyes. I look at the dust. ‘My only husband!’
It’s the crying man’s big-stomached wife running from behind the stone house where people are looking. That house. My friend Burma’s parents built it for him.
Burma is way whiter than me. Like standing a brown mushroom near a pot.
Burma has been lost for me in the forest of villagers looking at the thing behind his stone house. But now I see him. Burma runs. He’s coming to where Mama and I stand near the police officer and the crying man.
Yesterday Burma told me his Mama said a woman’s stomach is where all babies in the world come from. Burma said that the stomach of the fallen man’s wife is growing too fast.
‘Keep away – everyone!’ the Chief’s voice says. ‘I, the Chief of Odiya, have said all of you keep off now! This dog might not be dead yet – I say keep off!’
The crying man doesn’t want his wife to touch him. He raises his head. His crying eyes catch her. He pulls himself out of the dust and runs like the hare into the cane field behind us. The green arms of cane leaves have welcomed the dusty back of the crying man who’s entered them.
I’m still holding Mama’s blue dress.
I hear the man crying on the lips of the big cane field which Burma told me belongs to his white Mama and black Baba. Burma had told me his Mama is called ‘Mrs. Clementine’.
This morning Mama and I were picking firewood on the small hill. It overlooks our small village. We saw Burma’s Mama’s white Land Rover car crawling like a snake. Till it entered their compound, as the man crying now had stood at the gate saying something. Maybe he’d been telling the dog to return.
Before then my Mama had been telling me something. She said if Jesus visited our village he’d go and stand in Mrs. Clementine’s homestead. Because it’s the cleanest in Odiya. With its lemon, avocado, orange, mango, and pawpaw trees. All round the homestead there’s a long wire mesh lined with okwata thorns. Behind Burma’s stone house is the only point where the good fence is broken. It hasn’t been repaired.
Yesterday Burma told me that a wildcat steals their chicken and runs away through the broken place.
The car looked clean like a white angel donated to Mrs. Clementine by God. It’s a small car Burma’s Mama told us was made in a place called ‘Livapul’.
‘What place is that?’ I’d asked her. ‘In Briten.’
‘The place Burma’s uncles live.’
She’d taken a piece of paper and written: ‘Britain’ and ‘Liverpool’.
I didn’t know where that was. But I once saw Burma’s Mama write at the bottom of her letter to my Baba:
last year, when she wanted my Baba to help make small fat puppy Churchill bark. The dry roots and leaves didn’t cure puppy Churchill.
Burma told me how his Mama gave him that name: ‘Burma’. Because Burma’s grandfather in Livapul went to fight in a war.
I went to see Burma the following weekend. I asked his Mama, ‘What’s a ‘war’?’
‘Many people beating one another.’ ‘Why?’
‘Because they’re angry.’
‘Why are they angry?’
‘People get angry sometimes, child.’
When my Baba’s medicine couldn’t cure puppy Churchill, Burma’s Baba came home wearing his spectacles and talked with my Baba without smiling.
‘Where’re you, dog doctor?’ My Baba said ‘Just here.’ ‘You couldn’t cure the puppy?’ ‘Was too difficult.’
‘It’s not your fault.’ ‘But why?’
‘Dogs carry the spirits of those they’re named after.’
I didn’t understand. But I hadn’t seen puppy Churchill carrying anyone’s spirit on his back.
The man crying in the dust had told me things. That’s long ago when he found me at the stream where our goats drink. He’d said Prof. Gumba went to read books in Britain and came back with a white woman. That’s Burma’s Mama.
These days Churchill is a very big dog. Churchill’s as big as a heifer. He’s bigger than all the goats in my Baba’s homestead. Burma and I can’t carry Churchill with his hairy neck, wide breast, large head, and four big legs.
Leji feeds the dog. He’s the only servant Burma’s Mama says she trusts. He’s a very good man. Burma told me Leji doesn’t steal meat meant for the dog and carry it to his hut near the stream the way the other servants used to. I know Leji. He loves Burma and me. Burma says if Churchill is Jesus Christ then Leji is Simon Peter to cut people’s ears. In class, Madam Sandra said a man called Simon cut the ear of someone who wanted to kiss Jesus.
Leji says about Churchill’s big legs every time I find him at the gate telling the dog to return to the wooden kennel:
‘O-Only the B-Bible knows who sh-should have f-fat limbs like th-this dog C-Churchill.’
I ask him, ‘And who’s that, Leji?’ ‘V-Virgins only.’
Leji doesn’t know how to talk well. Burma and I sometimes laugh. ‘Who’s a ‘virgin’?’
‘A g-girl who has n-not known t-too much.’
‘Y-yes – a girl who h-has not slept.’
‘And a boy who hasn’t slept?’
‘Th-that is also c-called a v-virgin –’
‘But a boy isn’t a girl!’
Leji says, ‘W-well, you know, th-the only important th-thing here is n-not sleeping; w-wearing a brassier or n-not is not enough f-flour to b-boil porridge with – it is not a b-big matter in th-this case.’
I ask, ‘Churchill hasn’t slept with a dog girl?’
Leji is laughing. He turns his face the other side. I know the first time he turned like that. Burma had asked Leji why the girl who went to live in Leji’s hut near the stream last year had begun growing a big stomach. Leji had said his wife was eating too much roasted cassava and drinking cold stream water.
Leji tells me, ‘Unfortunately Ch-Churchill does not t-talk or b-bark. So, we c-cannot know w-whether he h-has slept o-or not. And that is d-dangerous.’
‘Yes d-dangerous,’ Leji says. ‘Remember the t-two big snakes n-near the stream. They c-can catch and s-swallow you and any d-dog. To be h-helped, a dog n-needs to c-cry when a p-python catches h-him.’
Churchill doesn’t bark. He hasn’t in all the months I’ve gone to see Burma. I visit every weekend. When Burma and I play in the clean compound Churchill runs after us without giving out one sound. It’s interesting.
In Odiya, only Burma and I go to the Academy near the sugarcane factory. The rest of Grade 3 children in our village go to the primary school near the small hill where Mama and I were collecting firewood this morning.
Burma told me his Baba read many books in Livapul. That’s why people called him ‘Prof.’ Because his head could ‘pro’-duce all things in the world.
But when I asked Burma’s Mama why Burma’s Baba couldn’t cure the dog, she laughed and said,
‘My husband’s a professor of history – he knows nothing about barking dogs.’ ‘What’s that?’
I said, ‘The thing you called ‘istori.’’
‘Well – what’s the meaning?’
‘What happened before you were born.’
‘And what’s that?’
She’d said, ‘Two people weren’t asleep’ and turned her face the other side so I couldn’t see it.
Burma told me his Mama gave up for good when a dog-treater from the next village entered their compound with two wasps and ugali corn bread. The treater said he’d put the wasps in the corn bread and make the dog swallow. The insects would sting Churchill’s insides. The dog would bark. Burma and I laughed till our stomachs ached.
Mrs. Clementine chased away the dog-treater faster than a cock could swallow maize seed.
These days it’s Leji who’s searching for a bush cure to make Churchill bark. Leji’s the best of friends with the dog. If Churchill is sick, Leji also gets sick. When Leji leaves, the dog walks with him to the gate. Leji waves at Churchill. Telling the dog now go back to your kennel I will see you tomorrow my friend.
The way he did this morning when Mama and I stood looking from the hill.
But now our village gathered around their homestead that hot afternoon because the dog couldn’t be found. Burma’s Mama was crying.
‘Where’s our dog? Where’s my Churchill?’ she searched.
Burma’s Baba walked with her, begging her to please cool down. ‘Maybe Churchill hasn’t gone too far, Clementine.’
‘But where’s he? He’s never done this before!’
‘Might be the first time, you know?’
Burma saw me in the crowd. He came running. ‘Churchill is lost.’
I whispered in his ear, ‘When did he get lost?’
‘But we saw Leji with the dog in the morning –’
‘Shut up!’ my Mama cursed at me in her blue dress. ‘I will cut these two lips –’ She caught my lips and pulled them hard.
Burma’s Baba left the gate. He searched along the road. Burma’s Mama followed him. She was still crying. The breast of her white sweater was wet. Tears.
My Mama held her cheek. The other women did too. Men helped comb the lips of the cane fields facing the road in case a tractor had ran over Churchill. They searched. Till the sun was hot and burning.
Burma’s parents returned. Burma’s Baba ran to the Land Rover car under the mango tree. He drove out and sped to the Chief’s.
They returned immediately. The police officer in brown khaki uniform jumped out of the car before it could stop properly. The Chief and Burma’s Baba followed. Their feet stepped hard on the dust. The Chief was swollen and fat. He’d a great wide back.
He asked: ‘And where is that Leji who was the last person seen with the dog this morning?’ He was shouting.
Everyone agreed that Leji must know where Churchill was. Burma and I nodded in silence.
The Chief’s black cap was tilted left. Can’t he wear it properly? I asked myself. On the front side of the cap I saw the lion and shields. At school Madam Sandra had said the lions stood for the government. The Chief carried his nyaruga. That’s the short metal-and-leather stick.
The Chief turned. He began walking. Mama whispered something to her friends. Many lips curled upwards. They were laughing. Two hills of meat were rising and falling as the Chief walked. Mama said siandane susore ka oduma – that the Chief’s buttocks were disintegrating and falling like maize seeds abandoning a cob.
The Chief ordered: ‘Leji must be able to answer. Go for him –!’
The police officer in brown khaki followed the footpath. He ran toward the stream. Sugarcane leaves swallowed him.
I saw three people. Leji’s hands were tied in handcuffs. His face was fearful. His wife followed behind him. She was begging, breathing hard.
‘He did not take the dog – my husband did not – I would have seen him arrive home with it…’
Burma said to me that the woman’s lips were dry. They cracked. Her growing stomach pushed up the green dress she wore.
I was happy. I wanted Leji arrested by the police for stealing Churchill.
‘Leji?’ The Chief spoke.
‘Y-y-yes Sir, Ch-chief.’
Everybody laughed at the way Leji spoke.
‘Please give us the dog.’
Leji’s closed lips opened. They hung. ‘W-which d-d-dog, S-s-sir?’
The Chief laughed.
‘Of course, you know it is Churchill – your master’s dog.’
‘T-to say th-that I l-left the d-d-d-dog here in the m-morning – after f-feeding him, S-sir.’
‘Well but now he is not there. And you were seen standing at the gate with Churchill. Just as the car entered this morning.’
I saw Leji search for the faces of Burma’s parents. Burma’s Mama lowered her face. She went on crying.
Burma’s Baba looked back at Leji. I saw his eyes behind the spectacle. They pierced Leji like thorns from two bees.
‘D-d-did he n-not return, S-s-sir?’ Leji asked Burma’s Baba. ‘I t-t-told Churchill to r-r-r-return. He n-never goes b-beyond the g-gate anyway.’
Everyone was laughing.
Burma’s Baba said, ‘Well, that may be true, Leji. But once a long time ago the dog managed to escort you till you took your path home. Only then did you chase Churchill to return. Isn’t that also a fact? All my small family asks for is truth only, Leji.’
‘Speak the truth!’ the Chief cried out. ‘Even that small hill knows tomorrow is a dogs’ market day in Kimwani. Do you intend to sell the dog there?’
Leji’s eyes poured out more water.
Burma held my hand. I looked at him. Madam Sandra had said in class that only guilty people cry. They stammer too.
Leji’s wife went. She stood near him: ‘My husband. Is it true that you did not steal the dog? Is it?’
More tears fell on Leji’s crying chest.
Yes. Now I knew he was the thief. Leji was the bad thief. Shame on him. He’d stolen Churchill and tied him near the stream. Our eyes stung Leji like a crowd of bees.
The Chief said Leji must be taken to the police station in Tamu that evening.
Until Burma was hurrying behind his stone house to pass water. He cries and comes back running. ‘Here! Here!’ ‘What? What, Burma?’ I’m running to meet Burma. Everyone runs behind me except Leji and the police officer. The Chief’s hills of meat are maize seeds disintegrating and falling past me. Right there – yes! The big snake hidden under thorny okwata leaves. Where the fence is broken. It has swallowed Churchill’s head and chest. Tail and hind legs are stuck outside. I’m scared! I’m running back to the gate where my Mama is. Burma’s Baba runs for the gun. Burma’s Mama is crying. The Chief says, ‘You can untie his hands then, police – I see he is not the guilty one who took the dog.’
Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash (modified)