Before Neighbour arrives with an angry breath and shouts across the fence we are feeding our eyes on the black-red patches on our ox’s strong hide. They are blood marks. Baba has just tethered the animal onto the toughest cedar pole he’s used to build the cattle boma, and he stands looking at the black bull, both his hands resting akimbo on his waistline. The sun dips. It smears an orange-red, bloody colour onto the sky it leaves behind it.
‘People are happy – happy indeed!’ the intruder’s angry voice breaks in through the fence, rasping and tearing at the thick ring of lantana camara branches which shield our homestead.
Baba turns to see whose voice it is. Mother and I look on.
The voice resembles Patel’s. The whole village knows only he has the habit of making such noise nearly every day, telling us children that although his mother was black, his Asian Baba had been the wealthiest person around our little village up until the bridge was built during The War. There’s no single tooth in old Patel’s mouth. He remains only with gums from drinking bitter liquor which a widow brews downstream. Patel says he doesn’t care for all the grass in the world even if his black mother disappeared to no one knows where, and his Baba left and went to Birmingham when the country got independence.
I know Patel. He lives in a wooden house near the primary school. I fear he might just surface again and say he’s happy with the way the fight ended at the bridge.
But it isn’t Patel speaking across the lantana camara fence. It is someone else and I can guess in my mind exactly why he’s come. Maybe I’ve a powerless hand in his bereavement and Baba might beat me with small twigs the way he loves to.
‘Now you are happy!’ Neighbour shouts again.
Baba speaks back, ‘And who is that?’
‘You, Gilo, are happy!’
‘Whom are you telling about happiness?’
‘You! You! Those who own strong oxen must be happy indeed –’
‘Sadap – bladiswaini!’ is the way Baba says ‘Shut up – bloody swine!’
‘Swaini is you – the Chief must know –’
Baba dashes into the house, to re-emerge with ‘it’ – the big-headed club whose stem he grips firmly in his right hand every time he wants to punish a wayward villager.
The intruder knows what must follow. Baba’s weapon is the reason Neighbour Jakobo turns in spite of his bitter grief, rounds the path’s bend, darts past his own hut behind our homestead, his wife screaming ‘Old coward – big coward running!’, and the man melts between harsh rows of cane crop stretching to the stream where, at the steep place just under the orembe trunk which we children round and sing whenever we contract mumps, Baba had disgracefully beaten and humiliated the fleeing man those months now, when Jakobo had hit his wife with a plank of wood till Nereya fell, crying.
I’m tense this evening. Any brief mention of the bridge downstream makes me anxious. I don’t know how Baba will resolve my having spent half this day right there watching the fight I couldn’t stop, at the space where all the village cattle drink, near the tough, huge, metallic bridge. I know how it started.
10:00 this morning:
Baba’s herd is grazing near the primary school where we all go to. I look after the cattle. When the herd doesn’t risk trampling Ombisi’s field of young maize crop, they have to remain alone as I run, climb the pawpaw tree, pluck the ripest fruit, and hurry back before the old woman starts cursing me for disrespecting the many years hidden in the punitive arc of her stooping back. Old Ombisi frightens me the way she swears God will punish boys who let cattle destroy old women’s crop fields.
An ox bellows near the government hill. I look. Two animals are coming down from the hill. Their owner wears a red sweater and I know that’s Neighbour Jakobo. The sweater is his trademark. Mother loves to say Jakobo has one sweater like the lamp of a train. Baba has always nodded that’s true, though he never says anything more than that. Only Jakobo has the habit of driving his cattle uphill very early in the morning and climbing down around midday. He says the government hill is rich in fresh grass and he doesn’t want his cattle to stray across the boundary between Baba and him. The last time his cattle crossed into our plot of land and ate Baba’s grass, Jakobo ran away like a child as Baba pursued him. Nereya had laughed even then.
Jakobo’s ox bellows again. They’re coming now. From here I can fully spot the long sharp horns of Neighbour Jakobo’s big bull.
Patel comes out of his wooden house. He stands at the door bare-chested. I laugh inwardly at his small, thin chest – narrower than his wife’s. Maybe he’s heard the two bulls making noise. Patel loves bull fights more than fireflies do a dark night. He waves at me, laughing, and licks his lips.
A big woman lurks behind him. She’s sweeping the small patio with a long broom. It’s Patel’s plump wife called Asha. She wears a mauve skirt. Above that there’s nothing – just a pair of red brassiere. Patel’s thin waist and Asha’s occasional yawns make me suspect that all those rumours about sex at midday could be true. Thank God Asha’s not come to sit astride the brick slab under the jacaranda tree in front of their wooden house the way she usually does, and people whisper interesting things about her, namely, that Asha’s just finished having rib-cracking sex with Patel at midday, and the woman is exposing her thighs so the wind may cool her delicate regions. I don’t know the truth about the wooden house.
It’s still just the two of them – no baby. The child the whole village has been waiting for all these years hasn’t come.
Briten is the biggest ox in Baba’s herd. But it’s not as big as Jamani, Jakobo’s reddish-brown ox which he named so because he’d bought it just after The War. ‘Look at this one – foolish!’ Mother tells me Baba had abused Jakobo then. ‘He puts on his bulls the names of losers!’
Every villager takes his cow to be mounted by Jamani when such a cow is on heat. Everyone wants a big heifer. Only Baba doesn’t. Mother whispers to me Baba swore he couldn’t allow a bull with cursed sperm to Baba his calves. Baba send me to the veterinary people instead, who come to do Artificial Insemination on our tethered cows.
Baba’s black ox looks where the sound has come from. It gives a rough, rich, contesting reply, the way bulls love to do. Its tail goes up. I watch. Huge trunks of dung go down in thudding beats. Briten walks to the nearby anthill and digs the ground with its stout, sharp horns and neck. Long ago, Baba roasted sweet potatoes and made his bull pierce them with its horns. Briten’s horns became very sharp.
The bull comes back, red earth soiling the coat of its neck. I know there’s a fight brewing between the two oxen.
Jakobo’s ox comes straight to my Baba’s herd. I know it wants War. I see its long horns and big neck. They’re as scary as our ox’s, and I’m afraid. Patel looks on. Jamani approaches one of Baba’s cows and goes to put its big nose under the tail of the cow so as to smell the sweet water. The cow tries to bend and pour little yellow urine. Briten, who’s been bellowing again, goes to meet Jamani before Jakobo’s ox has even smelt the urine properly. The two oxen tackle briefly; it’s a rough tackle calibrated with jostling, the sound of rattling horns, and tense breathing. Push – retreat – another push – another retreat – indecisive truce…
Jakobo rushes forward in his red sweater. He separates the animals, telling me, ‘But your Baba will not like it.’
‘My Baba?’ I ask.
‘Your Baba, young man. Eh, don’t joke with him – in the whole of this village he is the only one who went to The War and returned. People fear him. Only I can dare challenge him.’
Patel shouts from his yard ‘Ah, ah, ah, leave bulls to sort out their grievances like strong men!’
Neghbour Jakobo waves away the advice. He doesn’t even look at Patel’s direction. He only replies: ‘And where is your bull, Mr. Strong Man?’
Jakobo is driving his cattle to the stream. That’s where the whole village waters its herds at the metallic bridge. We children love the bridge because we go down on our small knees, every time we are dead thirsty, and suck water with our mouths the way our cattle do.
I’m thirsty. I run to Patel’s wooden house and ask for water. He and his wife are eating. Asha tells me sit and eat with us but I refuse. The cattle will stray into Ombisi’s crop fields. I’m hungry but I fear. God is powerful enough to beat me. I don’t want His curse to fall on my back.
I’ve also just seen with my own two eyes the difference between Patel and his wife. The husband is small, light, and with a skin way too lighter than mine. The hair on his head can withstand two hundred years of life on earth. His wife is different. The woman is big. Dark. Heavy. I write in my head:
Patel + Patel + Patel = Asha.
3Patels = 1Asha.
Therefore, one Patel is not enough. You need three Patels to make Asha sit on the brick slabs for the wind to caress the skin on any part of her body.
I’m still thinking about it when Patel comes running.
‘Ah, where!’ Asha shouts under the jacaranda tree. ‘And where are you going now, Mr.?’
He says, ‘To the stream of course.’
The head above Patel’s shoulders falls. He’s looking at his fingernails. I know how it feels to look at one’s fingers. You feel as small and weightless as I did the day Madam said my collar was dirty and the whole Class 2 laughed at me.
‘O.K. you can go,’ Asha tells Patel. ‘But I should not hear that bulls fought.’
‘Yes thank you.’
The man walks towards me.
We begin driving the herd. Patel is always good. I don’t have to beg him to help me lead the cattle to the stream where they will drink at the place the road passes over the bridge. Patel hasn’t had a child with Asha. But he’s happy. He’s telling me about the bridge we’re going to.
‘Do not joke – your Baba is a great man.’
I ask him, ‘Why?’
‘He is the only one who saw The War.’
He says, ‘The bridge we are going to see was built during The War – war between Britain and Germany.’
‘The two men were fighting?’
‘Yes but they are not human beings.’
‘What are they?’
‘Countries – just call them ‘those things.’’
‘Why were ‘those things’ fighting?’
‘But who knows?’ he is asking me. ‘Maybe my Baba did. You see, he and Engineer Osborne built the bridge we are going to see – a very strong bridge. Do not joke with my Baba.’
‘Who is your Baba?’
‘Engineer Singh is his name.’
I observe, ‘I have not seen him – have you? Do you know your Baba?’
‘I don’t know him but I know my mother.’
‘Where is she?’
‘She got lost but I know my mother’s mother.’
‘Where does she live?’
I tell him, ‘I know Muhoroni – my Baba took me there.’
‘What your grandmother does there.’
We come to the bridge as Patel looks at me, smiles, and says I’m not telling the truth. I don’t mind. I point at Neighbour Jakobo and his cattle. They’re still drinking water. His big bull bellows. The echo of Jamani’s voice is carried downstream.
I see the bridge is heavy, solid, and very big – it carries the whole road on its metallic shoulders – strong like the winner in a fierce fight. People walk over it on their way to the shops. A heavy tractor bearing burnt cane to the factor rumbles over it with dust but the bridge doesn’t tremble. It’s firm. My eyes catch the colony of swallows who have built mud nests underneath the bridge. Some dip in the water as they kiss worms that have followed our herd to the stream.
Briten, my Baba’s black bull, bellows and crosses the water as soon as he has drunk. I run forward in panic to turn him back. But I’m late. Neighbour Jakobo and I are both too late to prevent the two animals from washing down their anger and letting it go downstream with the water. Patel is happy but I’m afraid. The two animals are a pair of black and reddish-brown colours dancing, slipping, and rolling on the wide space on the lips of the stream.
A large group has gathered. They’re men returning from cane fields where they’ve been weeding and cutting cane the whole day. They’re black and dirty with the chimney smoke of burnt cane leaves. There are pupils older than me, returning to school on Saturday since they’re in the upper classes. Some are women going to the shops to grind maize into flour. Terror has entered my stomach. I’ve climbed over the bridge and stood where the group does. Only Neighbour Jakobo and Patel are down there, looking at the dueling oxen. Patel claps happily. There’s a glitter in his eyes. Something tells me this is why he’d helped me drive Baba’s cattle here, quick on the heels of Jakobo’s herd. He’d yearned to see the two bulls fight.
The War refuses to end. The two oxen breathe heavily but refuse to leave each other. They slide over rocks and mud, nearly falling, but each is strong – a match for the opponent. Their hooves are wet and muddy. The roots of their horns bleed. Sometimes they merely stand panting. Their long sharp horns are locked. Each weighs the weight he has to push to carry victory. Both remove green dung which falls into the water from under their tails. When this happens, Patel cries out, jumping bare-chested in happy sweat after stripping his yellow shirt, ‘Let the men fight! Let them fight! Each bull has stored anger in his chest for far too long!’
Many in the group agree. Others laugh. We look on. I hear a female voice ask, ‘Eh, why do men have to fight like this? Thank God I was created a woman.’ A cane cutter replies near me, ‘You never know – they could be fighting over a woman.’ The group of on-lookers bursts out in laughter. And my mind remembers how Jamani had gone to smell yellow urine under the tail of Baba’s cow at midday.
It’s not the first time the animals are fighting. They have many times before, and Briten has often lost reluctantly. That’s because Baba told me our ox is two years younger than Neighbour Jakobo’s. Jamani is slightly bulkier than Briten. Now that I see his face down there, I know Neighbour Jakobo must be happy waiting to see his bull beat Baba’s. And yet, right now, there’s no difference. Our ox knows how to push as much as his ox does.
The water space is slightly slanted towards the bridge. That’s why the water runs. Rocks jut and show their heads above the water. I’m worried: Jakobo’s bull has Baba’s on the lower side. He pushes roughly. Briten slips dangerously backwards. He tumbles on a rock – nearly rolls over. I want to cry. I fear Baba will ask me what happened. People shout. Others clap. Patel jumps. Neighbour Jakobo wants to laugh. But Baba’s bull steadies himself. Slowly, he gathers his opponent and leads him upstream. Green dung falls into water. My heart is beating. I’m thanking God.
The two oxen return to the empty space again. They raise horn-pregnant heads, briefly taking respite from each other. Let this fight end, I pray silently. Let it end – Briten, let’s go home it’s getting late and Baba will beat me.
Suddenly horns rattle. Something falls in the mud. I see Neighbour Jakobo. He wants to cry. I’m happy – his ox’s left horn is broken. Its root pours blood. Jamani wants to turn and run. Briten raises him wholesale, giving him no rest, and pushes towards the saltlick hole. People cry and shout. Jamani slips, falls, rolls. He gives a roar. We see the reddish-brown ox lying on his neck. The right sharp horn of Baba’s ox is a long knife plunged quickly in the armpit of Neighbour Jakobo’s. Blood. People curse. Others run away as Patel yells, helping me put the herd on its way home.
5:00 evening with an orange sun:
Mother and I stand on this side of the stream just behind our homestead. Baba’s far away near the orembe tree at the steep place. It’s only today Mother whispers to me that she knows why Baba once pushed down Neighbour Jakobo the day Jakobo beat his own wife, Nereya.
‘What will your Chief do?’ Baba asks angrily, still pursuing Jakobo.
‘He must arrest you,’ Neighbour Jakobo shouts across the stream. ‘I must report that your black ox killed mine in a fight.’
‘Wait for me, then – coward –’
We’re walking back home this evening. Mother whispers something to me. She asks if I know I’d have been born in another man’s homestead had Nereya remained faithful to Baba – had Nereya not stolen the warmth of her thighs and carried it to Neighbour Jakobo’s bed when Baba was away fighting in The War. Mother says that’s how Baba left Nereya and married her.
I stare at the blurred outlines of the two men. My eyes dance and smut, crying to me that the world is always only about who can beat whom.
Image: Pixabay.com remixed