After the small war our fringes were painful like a ripe boil. And then he became the eye of our palpitating pus. When he ruptured and leaked, Odiya village fetched a bale of spider nests and covered him with the soft silk, the way I’d seen all boils cleaned and dressed. It was Mama Tabu who uttered the magical words. She was unique in ways I didn’t understand, and her mud hut was the poorest in our entire neighbourhood. The female drunk with bare gums was also the tiniest woman in Odiya, but her voice boomed deeper than most men’s. Her small female body was brittle and light-skinned, nearly all her teeth had waved farewell to her slack lips because of the tobacco she chewed and the illicit liquor she sipped on stream banks every evening, but on the day the whole village descended on his hut with stones, matchboxes, Sodom apple fruits, and cow dung, it was Mama Tabu who saved him.
In the small years when we children looked after goats but not cattle, my elder brother and I met him at the stream where he’d come to water his father’s many goats. Their trip of goats was as uncountable as the grass and the billy-goats were the most spectacular. Their long beards, the loud braying; and the constant kicking of ripe udders of the does which the he-goats were burning to mount.
The boy cut an asawo branch, whose leaves the goats loved more than I did chicken gizzards, and the trip came running. He sometimes brought a kind of climber leaves which he said made the does to hatch quadruplet kids.
We stood looking on as the goats ate. The boy told my brother:
‘This is the real bull.’
He pointed at the billy with the longest beard, the widest breast, and which was also the smelliest. Under the billy-goat’s hind legs hung a pair of ripe mango fruits knocking against the walls of male thighs.
My brother asked, ‘Which one?’
‘That one – the dark-red one.’
‘Ah, how can you call a goat a ‘bull’?’
The boy replied, smiling, ‘But even a man can be a ‘bull.’’
‘You must be sick.’
As the two spoke the stream giggled behind us, the water sliding over large clean rocks, whispering as it stole away with the debris of nyamanduklu crab-eater’s shit which the water had swept from rocks.
As onjinyo wagtail birds flew upstream with noise, the boy peeled off his shirt and colourful underpants, and flew into the water, ducking the rocks. He stood in the water and wiped his face, laughing with white, even teeth like a girl’s. I just looked on. I don’t know if he wanted us to notice certain things in him. His smooth skin, the even teeth, his rounded chin and dimpled cheeks, the sparkling face above it, his curved eye-lashes and – when he finally came out of the water and stood on the rock to dry – the way his scrotum was big and much longer than the penis. My brother used to mock him, saying the boy’s scrotum was a broom on any girl’s anus.
My brother laughed.
‘Why do you laugh?’ the drying boy asked.
‘The underpants you left on the rock.’
‘What of them?’
‘Your underpants are always pink.’
‘Is that wrong?’
‘No – it is all right. But you are a future husband wearing such girly colours!’
The boy said as an innocent afterthought, ‘I like the pink colour.’
That was true. If he did not wear pink underpants he had purple or red ones.
Downstream we saw the one called Ombam crossing at the wooden footbridge. Everyone knew the big-bodied Ombam. The village said his wife had fled to her own people since he could not give her a baby or two…
And then we became teenagers.
The next time the boy came was a Sunday, many months afterwards, and we’d started looking after father’s cattle. My brother knew the boy would come with the goats and so we began preparing for his arrival.
We had been plucking and eating ripe onunga fruits near the stream as the cattle fed. My brother knew – and I did too – that the boy loved the fruits because of their pink and purple colours. The boy never ate them the way we did. I had seen him pluck the small fruits and carry in his smooth hands. And then, one by one, he held between his thumb and index finger and squeezed the juice. His tongue lolled out. Soft. And the purple juice dripped on his tongue. He licked and smacked his lips for us to see.
‘Look,’ my brother whispered to me before the boy arrived with the trip of goats. ‘We must have a ceremony.’
I asked, ‘What ceremony?’
‘A mock ceremony for visitors and a chief guest.’
‘You will see when they arrive.’
He said, laughing devilishly, ‘The one about to come with goats – bring three stones!’
My brother ordered me.
I carried and brought three stones. He had heaved a big one along, planting it where the stone looked like a rugged table. He then arranged the three I had brought so that they were chairs round the big stone.
I knew ongalo nettles. Their orange, mango seed-shaped outlines used to dangle from green climbers wrapping themselves onto stems of tall trees on the banks of our stream. I had just seen my brother hold a wreath of them then, before he sent me to go turn the herd this way, but was not very keen and so I returned to find him without the nettles and forgot to ask where he’d thrown them.
As I beat the herd Kiriko passed halfway behind the bush. He held his Bible. He was walking along the path with a single conviction, to the place behind the shops where I’d seen the white roof of the tall church. I knew Kiriko preached. He called out and told me:
‘Look after God’s cattle well, child.’
I said yes.
I ran back to my brother. He was smiling devilishly. I saw the stone table laid. Large milusia leaves carried purple onunga fruits like mother’s tray at home. The three stones I’d brought were now brown chairs.
‘You will sit on this when the guest of honour comes,’ he pointed.
‘And you?’ I asked.
‘I will sit on that.’
‘The guest of honour?’
‘The main “chair” is his – this one,’ my brother pointed, hiding malice.
The first billy-goat to arrive was the dark-red one the boy had called a “bull” those days. The goat’s beard was still thick and he smelled like sweat and virile urine. The horns jutted backwards. Behind him was the ripe pair of mango fruits dangling.
‘We have a ceremony as you can see,’ my brother welcomed the dimple-cheeked girly face, pointing to the “table” and “chairs.”
‘Is that true?’
‘But you can see for yourself.’
‘Ah, where did you harvest so many onunga?’ the boy asked, his lips sizzling to establish contact with the ripe-purple fruits. I saw his lips crave for the fruits.
Yet I thought something was wrong. My brother kept hiding his face, smiling small, and egging the boy to sit on the main stone the table facing the boy.
Behind us water giggled downstream. I heard crickets. The damp smell of trunk roots and stems came. I thought of wet crabs pressed onto rocks, hiding from nyamanduklu crab-eater. I imagined shiny-black nyamilmil insects, the ones that went round in circles on the water and the boy said could bite your breasts swelling them quickly like a young girl’s.
The boy sat with gusto, swallowing saliva.
My brother and I followed.
As the chief guest, the boy picked a fat onunga fruit between his thumb and index finger, squeezing, the purple liquid oiling his red tongue. I swallowed one. My brother picked gingerly and took to his mouth, but giggled briefly when he saw the boy take a hand behind and scratch his own buttocks. I sensed something odd.
We ate the fruits.
The boy took his hand again and scratched his pair of buttocks.
My brother giggled.
‘What is it?’ he asked the boy.
‘An itch? Where?’
‘Just on my buttocks,’ the boy replied.
My brother giggled again.
The boy shot up and said, ‘Piercing my buttocks just like ongalo nettles!’
This time the boy did not squeeze the fruit he held between his two fingers. He swallowed quickly and bent to look at the stone. I went and stood by, helping him peer at the stone. Now he openly rubbed, scratched at his buttocks, almost beginning to cry.
My brother burst out laughing, looking the opposite direction, just when the boy and I noticed little red needles lying on the stone. I looked at the pair of shorts the boy wore, where he’d been scratching, and saw many red needles – tiny sharp blades of ongalo nettles which clung onto his purple pants, and were burying into his buttock skin!
‘Nettles!’ I screamed.
‘Really?’ the boy asked.
‘Nettles! Nettles!’ I repeated.
‘Who put them here?’ he asked.
So my brother had scattered the nettles there. No wonder I hadn’t seen him carry the nettles when I’d returned from turning the cattle this way.
The boy began crying. The right hand squeezed into the waistline of his pants. The left hand followed. He madly scrubbed at the skin of his buttocks. He ran to the lip of the water where Mama Tabu and other village women scooped from the running stream. I ran after him feeling sorry, hating my brother for spreading the nettles on the stone – for cheating us that there was a ceremony for a guest.
My brother ran after us, still laughing, but starting to fear for what he’d done.
The boy peeled off his purple pants in the water. He rubbed his buttocks, madly washed with water. I entered the water and helped him. The skin on his buttocks broke bleeding. The boy cried.
My brother sped away because, at that moment, Mama Tabu appeared from nowhere with her water pot and shouted at my brother ‘You are a wizard! You are a wizard to put ongalo nettles on your friend’s buttocks! I will tell your mother!’
When we next grouped our cattle with his goats he and my brother had become young men discussing Washington and Nairobi and Johannesburg. I was still a boy.
Before that we had heard a rumour. He had fallen from the branch of bongu tree he’d been axing near the stream and when my brother and I arrived to see him in his mother’s house we found the village masseur dealing with the young man’s leg, where the patella had slipped and gone directly behind the patient’s knee. The young man had been sweating and crying, turning on the floor even, and at one time I’d seen his pink underpants as he turned there. The skin on his face was soft as usual. His girly fingers had held onto the masseur’s arm. His tooth gums were the clean purple of a ripe avocado.
And then, slowly, day by day, he’d healed, sometimes waving at us from the yard of his mother’s house where he’d been learning to walk again, and we were going to school.
But now here they were, talking about those cities.
‘I like America,’ the young man said.
My brother asked, ‘Why?’
‘America is a man; he is a man.’
‘Why do you call America a man?’
‘Look,’ he explained, ‘George Bush has said Africa must have multiparty elections. And we in Kenya are going to have them soon. Our President Moi cannot disobey – Don’t joke: America is a man.’
He talked about Johannesburg in the same way.
‘Have you heard?’ he asked, wearing a pink shirt which he said his mother had bought for him.
My brother asked him, ‘What?’
‘Mandela is leaving prison – Don’t joke: Mandela is also a real man.’
Those multiparty elections caused the small war at the border between our tribe and the president’s people. They said we should leave the border because we wanted to vote out their man, their president chosen by God to reign over the country.
It was the small war that went with my brother. For a barbed arrow was aimed at his left armpit, it threw him in the air, and pinned him down. Those who went to the battlefront said my brother trembled like a bird before he died.
After the small war our village Odiya was dramatic but also painful like a ripe boil. Small things made people quarrel and fight.
The first development was that my brother’s girly friend got married. I often met his wife going to grind sorghum cereals at the posho mill behind Odiya shops. She was a beautiful woman. The basket stood on her head without being held.
But a new visitor with a small nose also arrived at the shops. He was called Ogecha. First there was a silent rumour that Ogecha was sleeping with my brother’s girly friend. People laughed in Odiya. I laughed and asked how could it be? Sleeping with him how? What of the girly man’s wife? Many villagers dismissed the interesting rumour with a blowing of the nose and a wiping on the grass as you move on with your journey.
Until one Sunday morning, that day, when the whole village, led by pious Kiriko and wifeless Ombam, poured in and gathered round the girly man’s hut. Many were waving twigs and carrying stones and cow dung and guava fruits and several shook the matchboxes they carried, dancing in the clear morning sun. I branched from my path to church and went to witness. I looked behind and saw Mama Tabu following me, tobacco smoke pouring out of her mouth every time she opened it, because she’d swallowed the burning end of the stick into her mouth the way most women did in our village. And I thought Mama Tabu was drunk. She was staggering in her red dress, but not too much – just enough.
Dogs were barking at the huge crowd. The girly man’s father stood at the clean yard in front of the main house. He looked angry.
‘Get out of my homestead! I don’t want to see so many people standing in my homestead in the morning like that – get out all of you!’
No one wanted to leave.
‘I say get out!’ the girly man’s father warned again.
No one moved.
‘Don’t these people hear me?’
‘Woman,’ he called his wife. ‘Get me my panga at once!’
His wife grumbled from the small hut where she was cooking, saying something about the needlessness of harming people with a machete. But she did ask aloud why the crowd had come to bother about one man sleeping with another.
‘We have come to treat your wayward son for you,’ I heard Ombam’s voice shouting in the crowd, ‘and here you are, threatening us with a small panga! Come and we will castrate you.’
A voice added, ‘As if we do not have pangas ourselves!’
The angry father did not answer back. He stood looking. One of his cows mooed aloud. His cock crowed. Dogs continued barking. One of his big ducks strutted heavily across the clean yard, the flesh around its nose red and dotted, going to inspect if a piece of the broken pot where they usually drank from still had water.
‘If you do not come out of your own volition we will come for you,’ I heard Kiriko’s voice.
Ombam and his group pushed the door and emerged with two people: Ogecha, and the girly man. The crowd wondered where the girly man’s wife was.
‘Sit here!’ Ombam ordered, and a loud slap rang on Ogecha’s back.
‘Let me sit,’ the victim begged.
Several hands pushed the girly man onto the grass.
‘Now, Ogecha!’ pious Kiriko called.
‘Don’t you have a house at the shops?’
‘I do, Sir.’
‘And why are you in this house so early in the morning? Tell us, Ogecha: does it mean you slept in this house, Ogecha?’
‘I did, Sir.’
The crowd laughed.
‘And why, Ogecha?’ the preacher asked.
Ogecha did not reply.
‘Where is your wife, omera?’ a voice asked the girly man.
‘She went to their home.’
Those who had tree branches hit their backs. The girly man looked dry-lipped, his face innocently terrified – the way it had been that day my brother had made him sit on the nettles near the stream those years.
Kiriko asked, ‘How can a man be sleeping with another? Sin! Sin! Sin in the name of the Lord!’
A cheeky voice cried somewhere in the crowd: ‘Beautiful as women are in this world, I don’t understand what’s wrong with men who follow other men’s buttocks!’
‘The same way I keep wondering!’ Ombam’s voice interjected.
The crowd burst out laughing.
The beating was heavy. By nine in the morning their two bodies were bruised, bleeding, but alive. They clung onto each other. The girly man’s clothes had been badly torn. He remained in pink underpants. The sun was sharp. The girly man’s mother stood by, begging. Strong arms were pushing her away. When her husband tried to come, he met whizzing stones, and fled back to his house, shouting there that he was going to call the police.
It was Ombam who wanted to strike the matchbox and burn the girly man’s house.
‘Mh, and you, Ombam, it is as if it is not you,’ I heard Mama Tabu speak with a booming voice from where she stood, just near the keyo tree. ‘You want to burn people’s houses, but where is your wife? She ran away because you were and still are not man enough.’
I saw Ombam freeze before our eyes.
‘And you, Kiriko,’ the woman spoke again. ‘You preach in church. But you have never told anyone whether the God you croak about like a toad has a wife called Mrs. God! Who was Jesus’ wife, Kiriko?’
I saw Kiriko turn with a fallen face and look at Mama Tabu.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed