Andaraza made the pit shallow. He rhythmically lifted the hefty hoe’s handle, hurling lumps of energy into the hard ground, barely pausing between the steady exertions.
His face was damp with a salty mixture of hot sweat and settled dust particles. He led his left arm and with the back of his hand, he mopped his forehead.
The sun was scorching. The prolonged dry season rendered the ground rocky and cracked. Trees all over had scanty leaves which hung flaccidly, casting patches of alien shades on the ground.
Andaraza needed something to quench his thirst. He felt sweat glide down the bridge of his nose to the corners of his cracked lips. Thrusting out his tongue, he licked the salty mixture and spat out murky saliva. He let his tongue dance a few circles on his dry lips as it returned to his mouth.
His palms were red and sore but he dug on.
An hour later, the irregular grave was the height of his waistline down.
The body. His breath buffed over a lump in his throat. His lips quivered.
Walking the narrow footpaths of Ikumo village at night gave one no more than mere chills. On moonlit nights little bushes took human forms in the eyes of a frightened night stroller. Occasionally, leaves on trees that lined lips of a footpath would nibble on one’s ears and whisper eerie sounds. Aside that, no harm was intended. At least not in the two years that Aireni had been married in Ikumo village.
Her own village was different. The other day, her mother had called her, relaying terrible news. Khamati, who owned the only butchery in the village square, had been found dead in his compound. His robbed and torched house gaped at his body when it was bundled out in the morning dew.
Mother said he had a slit throat. Aireni shuddered at the thought.
“Who is there?” Aireni burst out.
“I have heard you.” She trusted her ears to have picked a scuffle behind her, yet she saw no one.
“Curse you little demons!” she yelped as a little boy sprang from the bush and shot past her, followed by at least four others. Their little giggles exuded triumph.
“I will tell your mothers!” Aireni called after the little boys who had taken a bend, still chuckling. She knew none of the boys. Neither did she have the intention to tell on lads who were no doubt at the height of glee without harming any one.
This was no novel game to Aireni. She had thrived in it too, in company of her friends as a child, instilling chills in lonely strollers and making their knees buckle.
Without Zena the house was lifeless. The images on the wall and her absence fought to fill the magnificent person that the house had been accustomed to.
Andaraza’s blurred vision was fixed on a particular beautifully framed snap in which a man and woman, no doubt at the height of their affinity, leaned on each other. Part of the image’s mis-en-scene defined an array of leafy trees intentionally planted on the same day to lack competition in height.
It was in the scanty shade of the now almost leafless trees that Zena’s remains lay in a shallow grave. Andaraza fought to envisage her alluring smile but his efforts only pulled at pressed lips which formed a tight line that arched downwards, hugging her chin into her stiff chest.
It was painful. No woman deserves pain.
The red skirt and black chiffon blouse in the image that Andaraza now fingered tenderly against the wall had been perfect to capture the first day she moved in with him.
But for the torn dress she came home with… dying Andaraza’s lips shuddered.
It was proof that Zena had been raped, stabbed and left for dead. He had only managed to promise her, amid sobs, that he would avenge her death. Now it hit him that he had given assurance to not just a dying person but to the only woman he loved. It was for Zena he had fought with his friend. Perhaps for her he would deny his current self and plunge into a new fight, a battle that would free him from his friend and his men. They had dared bring war to his doorstep.
Balancing an old suitcase on her head, Aireni hurried on past the mammoth olusolia that reminded her how long she still had to go. She still had to cross River Musikoolo which bid one into Lukwanda village. She would then take on the slightly steep footpath that went all the way to branch in her mother’s compound.
She reached down and grabbed the left corner of her skirt which she pulled up, tucking it in the skirt’s elastic waistband. This way, she would walk faster uninterrupted. Fear was creeping in her and pulling at thoughts that made her walk faster, her heart picking an atypical race.
First, she recalled bits of rumours she had picked earlier in the day at Esibuye market. A woman had been heard screaming somewhere around Musikoolo. One woman dismissed the rumour before it got ablaze. The other five women who had formed a circle at an open place in the market were left with wagging tongues, rudely cut out of what would have been the most enchanting piece of gossip.
“Must have been Muhonja. The woman who drowned in Musikoolo last month. Remember Muhonja?”
At this suggestion, the other women suddenly went mute. No one volunteered to chip in a discussion that involved Muhonja. None of them wished for nightmares.
“She was probably lamenting her unripe death,” Fulumena offered the numb women, licking her lips. She was evidently reveling on their awakened trauma.
Aireni thought Fulumena was as weird in person as her wobbly hut which stood a few steps away from one of the lips of Musikoolo. She lived there alone many years after her husband died. She had refused to be married again. Fulumena’s hut never went under the river even with the heaviest downpours, frail as it appeared.
Yearning to push away thoughts about Muhonja, Aireni thought about Imbiya, her husband and sighed.
Imbiya had suddenly become alien to her. He lost rage at the slightest change in what he saw and heard. Only today, she had for the first time stepped out in a pair of jeans trousers he had bought her. She hoped to allay his demons.
Aireni would never put on trousers at will, it was against the principles her mother had instilled in her. But she ached to make her husband happy.
She held her breath as she stepped gaily, swinging her wanting hips. All the while she searched for the familiar adoring smile. Her husband’s brown belt was tied around her waist.
Imbiya’s distant chortle was replaced by a straight face and bloodshot eyes as he strode towards his wife.
“Where were my two eyes when I chose you?” he whispered, only loud enough for Aireni, who stood an arm’s length from him to hear.
“Why… What are you talking about Imbiya?” Aireni was cut short in her movement.
“You are the ugliest woman anyone ever lay their eyes on. And to think it is I Imbiya, the lion that commands the Secret Forty that had to live with you!” Imbiya was now crying. His wife stared at him, too stunned to speak.
“You are not her. Nobody can be her because she prefers death to me.”
Ugly! The word kept clawing at Aireni’s belly. In the evening, she packed a few of her clothes in an old suitcase, her husband mutedly staring in an empty space past her searching face. Perhaps a few days with her own mother would make her missed and, who knows, fetched.
Something has happened to him. Something huge and foul, but I can’t lay a finger on any of it. Aireni thought her mother would find fault in her daughter’s womanhood. She would think Aireni unfit to count herself among married women when she knew none of what ailed her husband. Aireni had nonetheless resolved to whine and it would be her mother to hear her case.
Someone coughed. Startled, Aireni looked back but was surprised to see no one. In the bright moon which fooled one for day, Aireni would not miss a figure.
Surely someone coughed.
“You tiny rascals again?!” Aireni feigned a steady voice which exuded severity. She could not lie to herself that the low rugged coughing belonged to a boy.
“Did they scare you as well?”
“Wooi!” Aireni’s scream was arrested at her throat. A man had appeared and was standing by her side, reaching into her length.
“Who are you? Move on!” She now demanded, thinking better than either taking to her heels or screaming. Both moves would drive the man into action when he had possibly intended no harm. She would play calm when panic was nibbling at her core.
“The little boys,” the man’s voice was rusty and pressed. “Game or no game, how dare they frighten a woman! What man scares a woman?”
Okay then, that is settled. You may go your way, and me, mine.
“True. No boy should scare a woman. I will go ahead now.” Aireni affected a composed voice.
“We are driven by the same wind. I cannot let a woman cross Musikoolo alone again. I hear the river has a lot of secrets”
I will not allow myself to fall for guardian angel tricks, miracles or not. Aireni’s distrust for the man did not budge. She, however, walked on, carefully sticking right behind the stranger. It was the man who talked on in a rusty voice as they walked. Aireni’s gaze at him did not flinch. Tall and hooded, he appeared a little bended at the shoulders, like those zombies that Aireni saw in scary movies.
“And it amazes one to imagine it is here in Ikumo that they turn into little night rogues. A snake never lets out poo in its own cave.”
“Eessuu! They are only boys.” Aireni thought the man was overstretching the matter. Gradually, she became at ease with the man. She was warming up for a chat, glad that she had found company. She remembered her folded skirt and quickly untucked it, dropping it down her knees.
“You should not take their game so seriously. If you are not a liar, you will agree with me that you frightened a couple of people yourself before you outgrew the stage.” Aireni giggled.
At this, the man burst into a strident laughter that pierced the quiet night. He gave such a hearty laughter that Aireni instantly retreated into intense fear, reaching for the left corner of her skirt.
His laughter instantly spilled out his identity. When he turned, Aireni saw him. He was Imbiya’s friend. The two served in Chief Omongo’s guard. Chief Omongo always walked around with strong men. His own guard outnumbered the President’s escort that Aireni saw on television on national celebrations.
“No. I will only be a liar if I denied that I do much more than merely scare people at night, but not until I cross Musikoolo.
Andaraza sat quietly, listening to frogs that croaked in unison to pierce the still night. All the night creatures joined in the eerie melody that lacked human input.
Peculiar, was Musikoolo. It was on nights like this one, Andaraza thought, that the water leapt into life, jabbering jumbled up utterances against rocks, roots and drowned or discarded bodies. The water beckoned on anything on its way, wanting badly to tell about the evils it witnessed.
It, however, ran still during the day, one would think it was with the rising sun that the river went to sleep.
On other occasions, at night, Musikoolo threatened to sweep away the two strong logs that pressed hard on its lips, denying it speech. Chief Omongo and his men had placed the logs there to bridge its lips.
“You too are partner in this!” Andaraza whispered, smiling faintly. Even though you are only passing water.
He squatted carefully, peeping into the face of the motionless woman.
“And your husband, when he rinsed the knife soaking with my wife’s blood in Musikoolo.”
“Please let me go!” Andaraza watched the woman try to catch her breath. He ignored the woman’s pleas, and offered to jaw at her incessantly, only punctuating his monologue with hollow bits of laughter.
“It is here that we turn into animals, tossing all humanity into the flowing water. It is animals that your mother’s village has known, yet your people have no idea where the barbarians hail from. It is us, the Secret Forty, led by Imbiya.”
But not anymore.
Grinning, he watched her as she tried to keep her mouth open like a chicken struggles even with a slit throat. Fresh blood was oozing from the corners of her mouth as a result of his iron hands that had worked to lock the scream at her throat.
“And we rinse our machetes in Musikoolo and come home as men without blemish. Musikoolo knows all this but will not tell. But it was never to come back to me. Imbiya stabbed me in my back.”
“Pl…ease…let me goo…” Her voice was waning. Sprawled on the ground, she went silent. Her face was bruised and sore. Andaraza chewed on his enlarged lower lip. The woman’s teeth had dug deep as she fought to free herself from his grip.
“He killed my wife.”
Andaraza anticipated a familiar face as he sprang to his feet, stepping away. Pressed lips forming a tight line that arched downwards.
He knew Musikoolo would never tell. Its raging waters would neither report on evil nor justice.
The justice that has been served tonight.
Image: Espen Klem via Flickr