Before it happened and we saw the animal crying, it was the earth that began dancing under our feet. We stood on the mat after eating the night meal. The whole world was shaking. Mama cursed. Baba remained quiet. My sister Esi and I were scared.
The following day when the ground trembled again, Baba had been squatting with a tin in his hand. He was pressing milk from our cow’s big breasts. My right hand gripped the stubborn calf. The black calf kept jerking and pulling because it wanted to suckle.
When it happened Mama screamed where she stood at the laro patio, running to beg for help by holding onto the walls of our small house, which seemed to move away from her. The dancing ground calmed and Baba wondered how Mama could have felt had the house she was running to for help refused to be touched, or come down and buried her dead. I was thinking about Mama and the house.
‘Yes,’ father said, rising from where he had squatted milking. ‘Now war has begun.’
‘War?’ I asked.
‘Yes – war.’
“War between Bush and Saddam.’
I waited for the worst to happen. When the ground stopped dancing I looked inside the enclosure to see with my own eyes if our two bulls were fighting the way they always did. But they were not. Both lay sleeping inside the cattle boma.
I said, ‘Look – Baba – they are sleeping.’
‘But I do not mean the two bulls –’
‘Who do you mean, Baba?’
‘The Bush of America and Saddam of Iraq – they are fighting.’
‘They want oil in Kuwait – don’t you know?’
‘Yes,’ Baba said. ‘Oil like this milk I’m now giving you to take to your Mama – now go because you talk too much. You might never marry.’
‘Eh, Baba! I will not marry?’
‘Men who talk too much never marry,’ he said, giving me the tin full of milk.
‘That is true!’ Mama shouted from near the house onto whose wall she still held. ‘Because of his quick tongue, I fear this one might never find a woman to share a house with.’
I felt my head grow big on top of my neck. My two cheeks fattened. Shame fell on and covered me like the blanket Esi and I used on the mat. I kept quiet.
‘Boys like you must not talk too much,’ Mama warned me as she grabbed the tin of milk from my small hands. ‘Did you hear, omera?’
‘What did you hear?’
‘I must not talk too much.’
I said, ‘Because girls will run away.’
Mama turned her face away from me. I saw her body shake, including the tin of milk. I heard Baba laugh near the fence where he had gone to tie the cow and her calf. The bulls still lay sleeping.
Baba had bought our two bulls, Bush and Saddam, across the border. Those had not been their real names. He had named them afresh because he said he wanted them to forget where they had come from on the other side of the border. Baba had picked their names from the radio. Our radio kept saying that America and Iraq were going to war.
Mama mixed porridge with milk. We drank. At midmorning our dogs were barking. Esi and I looked. The hunters had arrived from across the border. They carried spears, bows, and arrows. Their dogs were as many as the grass. Baba had invited them to chase away the colony of bushbuck that was eating our bean fields near the stream.
‘I’m happy!’ Esi tapped my shoulder.
‘Why?’ I asked her.
‘I want the hunters to kill all the bushbuck. The bad bushbuck herd has eaten all the beans Mama planted. Bushbuck is as greedy as hyena. And they live right here in Baba’s cane field.’
‘And me,’ I said, ‘I want to see the big one killed and slaughtered.’
Esi looked at me. She asked, ‘Why?’
‘Don’t you think his meat is very tasty? It is his meat I want.’
I said to Esi, ‘Ah, and the soup!’
We had all seen the bushbuck bull. He was big. His neck competed in thickness with the necks of our two bulls. But his horns were coiled and twisted backwards. They were so sharp that they reminded me of the knife Mama used to cut vegetables, and the long pole the devil was using to spear sinners and throw them into the fire in hell.
We had seen the bushbuck bull one morning the other month. We were going to weed our bean field near the stream when we saw him eating the leaves. There had been three animals – the black bull and his two brown-skinned wives. As soon as they saw us, the animals had sprung, leaping into Baba’s cane fields nearby, their white dancing tails coiled upwards. The bull had bellowed like our two oxen. Hearing the roar in his deep voice that day, I feared that the bushbuck bull could have gored me to death.
At midday Mama, Esi and I stood in the laro patio again. The ground was dancing under our feet for the second time. I feared I would fall. Mama said:
‘Piny yiengni! Piny yiengni kendo!’
Her shouting that the world was shaking again made Esi and I fear. Mama rushed and held the wall of the house. Esi scampered and joined her there. Both were laughing, their hands clinging onto the wall. Under our feet the whole world was dancing, trembling. The pawpaw and mango trees were moving away. The granary was running.
Baba came out of the house and asked Mama:
‘And do you know why the earth is shaking?’
‘But how can I tell? Earth used to shake even in the times of our great-great grandparents.’
‘That is true,’ Baba told her, ‘but now those are bombs and missiles Bush is throwing at Saddam in Kuwait where the two are fighting. When those bombs and missiles burst, they tremble the earth up to here in Odiya – don’t joke: “Amerka” has very powerful weapons!’
Mama whistled. Esi and I marvelled at those bombs and missiles.
I told Baba, ‘I want to ask you, Baba.’
‘How many questions will you ask now?’
‘Only two,’ I said.
‘Not more than two, my great weaverbird talker?’
‘Only two, Baba.’
Esi and Mama laughed.
Baba said, ‘Ask, then, my only son.’
‘Saddam does not have “mbom”?’
Baba replied, ‘He has small ones called “skad.”’
‘He does not want to throw “skad”?’
‘Saddam throws, but his “skad” cannot match Amerka’s “mbom” – did you want to go and throw for Saddam?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Let him throw by himself – but why doesn’t Saddam make big “skad”?’
Baba looked at me and said, laughing, ‘No, my osogo weaverbird, you promised to ask only two questions. Please allow me not to answer that one.’
Esi and Mama laughed.
After midday our dogs barked again. We hurried out and looked behind the sorghum field. The hunters’ many dogs were running after the bull bushbuck. Baba said the animal was speeding as fast as a wizard. The hunters must have just woken him up from the lair. They were shouting, weapons still held in their hands, panting after the dogs and the animal. The chase disappeared towards the hill, where the sun used to wake up smiling every morning.
I started loving the bull bushbuck as I saw him run. He seemed to run on a soft spring. His black skin looked clean and shining. His white tail danced like a flywhisk. His ears stood alert, and I thought that Baba had decorated them for him, the way he had cut and patterned the ears of our two bulls, Bush and Saddam.
Our neighbours were washing in the stream. I heard them scream as the bushbuck crossed and headed for the hill. Mothers dragged away their children. They abandoned the clothes they had been washing. They ran away.
Baba craned his neck. He looked at the stream and shouted that the people washing there should give way. He thought quickly and said no – the bushbuck was not yet tired. Baba said only a tired bull bushbuck was dangerous. Not this one that was still speeding like the wind.
I asked Baba, ‘A tired bushbuck bull is dangerous?’
He replied, ‘Very dangerous, my osogo.’ I didn’t mind Baba calling me his weaverbird.
‘But it is tired, Baba!’
I observed to him, ‘Me.’
‘What about you?’
‘Can I not beat a tired man?’
‘Yes you can,’ Baba told me, ‘but you cannot beat a tired bull bushbuck.’
‘Because bushbuck is not a human being, my child.’
‘A tired bull bushbuck kneels down.’
I had heard hunters say that many times.
I asked, ‘Kneels down?’
Baba confirmed, ‘Yes, my weaverbird.’
I said, ‘I can wrestle to the ground a man who is kneeling down – it is easy to push to the ground a bushbuck that is kneeling.’
Esi and Mama laughed noisily. Baba looked at me. I looked at him.
He said, ‘Yes, my weaverbird. It is very easy to push him down with your mouth.’
‘With my mouth?’
‘Ah, get me drinking water before I push you down!’
‘Ah, Baba, you want to push me down?’
‘Why shouldn’t I, with the granary of words you diarrhoea through your beak like a bird? Get me water, my friend!’
Esi laughed at me.
I returned the cup to Mama.
Baba touched my head when I returned. I looked at him. He said a tired bull bushbuck kneels down to fool stupid dogs. The dog that attacks him from the front climbs his sharp horns without knowing it. The bushbuck pierces and throws the dog behind – dead.
The earth trembled again while we stood in the laro with Baba. Trees were running. This time I left Baba and ran to support myself on the wall of our house the way Mama had been doing since morning. Esi ran out of the house and found me clinging onto the wall for protection. She too held the wall as we laughed. Baba looked at us.
‘A house is very good!’ Mama shouted inside the house.
‘Why is a house very good, Mama?’ I asked her when she came out to see how Esi and I were holding the walls.
She said, cleaning the basket she carried, ‘How can a house be very bad? We eat and sleep in our house. Children who eat too much like the hyena – I am talking about you – fart in it every night. See how my two children run to the house for safety when the whole world threatens to collapse with them – is a house not good?’
Baba was laughing. He bent down and plucked a blade of grass. He chewed.
He said after a while, ‘I wonder how my children would feel if that same house told them, “Do not hold me for support,” when the world begins trembling again.’
When the sun passed the navel of the sky it was afternoon and dogs were barking again. The hunters were shouting, running with their weapons. The chase was returning from the hill. The bull bushbuck went past our sorghum field, its mouth now half-open. Esi said the animal was getting tired – the way my small chest did every time we were told to go round the school field three times in the burning sun.
The hunters’ dogs ran after the bushbuck. I wondered why the dogs were not tired like the animal. What had their owners given them? My lungs started crying for the bushbuck.
‘Ah, they will catch him,’ Baba said as he marvelled at the size of the animal.
I asked, ‘You said they will catch him?’
‘Yes they will.’
‘The dogs or the hunters will catch the bushbuck?’ I asked again.
‘Both,’ Baba said quickly.
‘Why? But the bushbuck is running!’
Baba said, laughing, ‘Even an unborn child knows how your running mouth cannot see that the bushbuck is tired already.’
The hunt crossed the small valley. It climbed the slope on the other lip of the stream. We saw the bushbuck hop tiredly, the barking dogs nearing him. Everything disappeared in the next spread of cane fields.
A group of elderly hunters who had been left behind in the run were passing our sorghum field. They were sweating, gasping.
‘Look,’ I told Mama.
‘What of them?’
I said, ‘They are as tired as the bushbuck.’
‘And you,’ Mama cursed, ‘teach your mouth to also get tired of talking!’
Before we walked back and entered the house the earth danced again. I remembered the war between Bush and Saddam, and the bombs and scud missiles they were throwing at each other in Kuwait. The ground continued dancing. All of us held the wall except Baba. He looked at the three of us and said how he would have sympathised with us had the house refused to help us, had the house said ‘Don’t lean on me. I’m equally tired.’ I turned and looked at Esi. She and I said we would cry and beg the house not to reject our asking it for help. Esi said she would buy pink sweets and give them to the house. Mama beat her palms and called the name of Jesus. She said she would curse our house because a speaking house must be the work of the devil.
In the house Baba was telling us how the devil was born. He said a good man lived alone in a distant village at the beginning of the world. In those days, all human beings on earth had not yet known how to make spears – except the one man. He grew maize and beans and sorghum and sugarcane and vegetables every year it rained. The farmer kept many cows and goats and sheep and chicken. But on a certain season, drought came and stayed for ten years. All rivers dried. Crops wilted and died. Smelling carcasses of the entire livestock were buried. The farmer had nothing to eat. One evening he stood at his door wondering where to find his night meal. He carried a big spear in his hand – the only spear in the world. At that moment he saw something running towards his hut. The farmer wondered what it could have been, so late in the evening. He looked well and saw a very thin man. The runner was tired. His legs were beginning to fail him. Some distance behind the spent runner, the farmer saw a big python. The big snake was chasing the runner. The fleeing man slowly reached the farmer’s door. Crying and gasping for breath, the thin runner begged the farmer to help him. The homestead owner looked at him and asked what was wrong. The tired man said that the python wanted to swallow him because of hunger brought by the drought, and it had been chasing him the whole day. ‘Here, enter my hut and hide under the bed!’ the farmer shouted to the gasping visitor. The thin man quickly did, gasping for breath, and thanking his God. The python arrived, hissing powerfully. The farmer speared it with his big weapon. The snake died. At night, when mealtime came, the hut owner dragged his visitor from under the bed, strangled him dead, and cooked. He ate the thin man. From that day, the devil was born…
At that moment we heard the dogs barking. It was evening and the sun was crying orange tears. The hunters shouted across the stream, running. We scampered out and faced the sorghum field. Esi turned back and ran to the house because the bull bushbuck was coming. All the dogs in the world were coming behind him. The animal ran slowly. His small eyes were black. I saw long horns bending backwards. His mouth was open. Blood dripped from it. Someone had hurt his stomach with a spear. It was bleeding. Blood soiled his black-red skin. Mama pulled me. We disappeared into the house. Baba said to lock the door while he kept watch behind the mango trunks.
Our fence creaked. Something jumped inside. It was the bushbuck. Our dogs were barking as the animal breathed hard, going round our small house. We looked at him through the window. Before our dogs could attack him, all the hunters had entered our homestead, and all the dogs were on the tired animal, biting and pulling. The bushbuck was too tired to cry. His red mouth remained open. His white tail stayed pointing at the heavens. He tried to kneel down the way Baba had said bushbucks did, but his knees buckled, and he nearly fell and broke his neck. All the dogs climbed on his back. The hunters held his horns and legs. They planned to kill him and begin slaughtering right there in our big yard as we watched. Mama stamped her feet on the floor. Esi was crying beside me. I wanted to help the bushbuck bull.
‘Oooyo!’ Baba shouted from behind the tree trunks. ‘Not here – can’t you see he came here to ask for our help? Take him out if you have to kill him.’
The hunters understood. Before long, they were dragging him away as the bull bushbuck staggered left and right, all the dogs clinging onto parts of his exhausted body. As he stumbled forward I saw tears on both his eyes. When they reached the lips of the next cane field I heard a sound like the muffled, painful braying of a he-goat, like someone begging the world to have mercy on him.
I looked at the eye of the sun crying orange tears. My tongue became tasteless. I knew I could not have eaten his meat, however well Mama had cooked it. When one of the hunters brought us meat Baba told him:
‘Why, when your fence helped us catch him?’
Baba said, ‘He came to this homestead to ask for our help – no one from here can eat his meat.’
Bush and Saddam were throwing bombs and missiles in my dream that night. The ground danced. I hurried to support myself on the wall. Our house ran away from me. I cried bitterly.
When I woke up I agreed with Baba, that it was good not to have eaten the bushbuck bull.
Image: Public Domain via Flickr