I know what Baba thinks about each time the cock crows and wrinkles of guilt fall on his face like rain. He leans the back of his head against the chair, his white beard pointing upwards, and pretends to sleep. I know it isn’t sleep that makes him put his white beard like that. It must be the memory of our foreman who went away three decades ago.
It is the cock that makes my Baba turn like that. Yes, the cock’s crowing says ‘time is up.’ It reminds me of what Teacher Apul used to tell us in class about the cock crowing and Simon Peter disowning Jesus Christ three times. Stealing looks at my Baba pretending to sleep under this mango tree, I know that his ‘time is up’ like the rusty tractors standing in our yard. No one drives them to the sugarcane factory anymore. They’ve aged just like Baba, including their trailers which used to carry cane and deliver to the cane factory.
I can’t forget our foreman Mr. Khan, even though I can’t tell where the winds of thirty years have blown him to. Perhaps he returned to India or Pakistan, wherever that may be, for it wasn’t clear which of the two countries his dead parents had come from, to build the Kenya-Uganda railway. He can’t be in Kisumu or Nairobi.
Mr. Khan must know Simon Peter and Jesus because he was the only Asian to discard his religion and adopt Christianity. Baba used to say how the foreman publicly disagreed with Mr. Patel in Muhoroni, which is our nearest town. That was the shopkeeper Khan had been working for. Mr. Patel made Khan earn his money by cleaning other Asians’ toilets.
And then Khan rebelled. A wifeless man, he left Muhoroni town and came to our sugarcane estate in the villages. He was our foreman because he knew how to deal with tractors. But now he’s been gone for thirty years and my Baba’s ageing…
It’s because I haven’t known Baba deep enough to be able to put my hands on the eye of his ageing mind, and feel the texture of how what he’d done to Khan those years are now grinding his soul, preventing Baba from going to meet God and Jesus while looking into their eyes with courage. I can see through my other eye that the burden of Baba’s sin is now literally pulling him into the grave. And I am sad. I can’t trace Khan. Or perhaps he’s died altogether, and gone to heaven, a journey for which Baba is now preparing.
I can’t tell. If I’d a way of knowing that the foreman is still alive in our world, I’d have travelled and gone to bring him so Baba can begin apologising again. But, certainly, Khan has died already. I feel it in my lungs. When he’d left those years, the foreman had grown a stooping gait. I see him in my mind’s eye; in his brown corduroy trousers and the red sweater when we’re gathered near the sugarcane factory during the border war. That’s where all people sleep for months on end.
After days of waiting under the sun for peace to return, Khan takes his small polythene bag and walks away without telling us anything. Of course Baba is not here in the fields with us. So we children expect the foreman to tell my Mama that he’s leaving. But Khan doesn’t. He uses the border war as a pretext, his chance to leave because Baba had bitterly wronged him two years before. It’s something I understand even if I’m still just a thirteen-year-old child.
‘Khan?’ Mama calls him.
‘Where are you going to, Khan?’ Mama repeats.
Only Khan’s cracked, bare feet thump on the dry road. His left arm strangles the mouth of the gunny sack he’s carrying away. His long right arm swings beside him. We look on as the foreman walks and walks, dissolving in the mirror-like mirage which the black tarmac has spread for him to walk on. He disappears…
I know how the foreman’s pain began. That year, when I’m eleven years old, my real Mama dies. It’s the biggest death I’ve ever experienced as a child. I see how the death has shaken even Baba. He doesn’t seem to be himself. He’s red-eyed, explosive, and the feeling stretches with him long after the burial. He can box you if you joke.
Khan has been diligently looking after the tractors as the funeral period wears on, telling the drivers to deliver cane to the factory. They obey his word.
The funeral ends. The pain is gone. I’m regaining my sanity after the wound-like storm death has caused in my soul. Each morning we run to the maize fields to weed, I and my cousin Kuku. His Mama, my aunt, has left him behind so he can keep me company after Mama’s death. We return home late morning. Lunch comes in the hot afternoon. After that we run to the river to bathe.
The one who leads us to the river is called Omol. He’s also Baba’s servant like Khan. Except that he’s been employed to weed maize and cane fields, while Khan only takes care of the tractors. Kuku and I are still just children. But I can tell that Omol doesn’t like Khan. Perhaps he doesn’t because Khan is my Baba’s age mate, and so Baba and the foreman occasionally sit to talk about political events in the country; whether the one-party president will let the constitution be changed to allow for multi-party democracy. Omol thinks Khan is gossiping about him.
In the evening, when ten fingers of the orange sun bid everyone farewell, bean pods are lit to warm the dogs which guard us at night, and we children surround the big fire, singing and jumping. Kuku tells me how God’s fire is bigger than this fire and all sinners will be thrown into it, and you will burn forever without dying.
One evening we return from school. There’s a case in the main house. Omol says he’s lost three thousand Kenyan shillings. That’s three months’ wages. He’s been pooling the money so he’ll return to Kisumu and start a business. Baba has been aware of the plan. But someone has stolen his money.
‘So, Omol,’ Baba asks. ‘Whom do you suspect?’
‘It must be Khan –’
‘Aaah, not me! N-n-not me –’
‘Khan shut up!’ Baba roars. ‘Do not talk. You will be given your time to defend yourself – did you hear me, Khan?’
‘I d-d-d-d-did, Mzee Sir,’ the foreman obliges.
‘Why do you think he took it, Omol?’
‘He saw me counting one day.’
‘He saw you counting?’
Omol says, ‘Counting the notes, yes.’
‘What do you have to say, Khan?’
‘B-bb-b-but Omol is n-n-n-not speaking the truth, Mzee Sir. N-n-n-nowhere d-d-d-did I see him c-c-c-counting, Mzee – in truth n-n-n-n-nowhere in the name of G-G-G-God. I have never s-s-s-s-seen with my b-b-b-b-bare eyes.’
The truth is this: we know Baba to be a very good judge. He’s always whipped you only after he’s confirmed it’s you who yanked cane stem and chewed, not anyone else. Baba is famous for making fair decisions.
What spoils it is that, in defending himself, Khan stammers. His lips shake. He trembles. And Baba has always maintained that only the guilty stammer. It’s a mentality he’s carried over from the days of colonisation, when almost everything depended on how good you were at being cock-eyed and bold.
‘Khan?’ Baba addresses him.
‘Here I am, n-n-n-near you, Mzee Sir.’
‘Do you hear how you stammer?’
‘Even so, Mzee Sir, I d-d-d-did n-n-n-not see the m-m-m-money. In t-t-t-truth I did not s-s-see, Mzee S-s-sir.’
Baba says, ‘Speak the truth, Khan. Can you swear?’
‘The only t-t-t-truth it is, Sir – I svear in the n-n-n-name of G-g-g-god.’
That’s what we children know about how Khan speaks. Apart from the bad stammer, his ‘w’s become ‘v’s. When he’s helping us with English homework, his ‘I vonder vhy Mary drank vater’ becomes our ‘I wonder why Mary drank water.’
Kuku and I laugh. Our village hasn’t known anyone with bigger eyeballs than Khan’s. There are rumours that our foreman smokes what we don’t know. People think it’s weird for someone of Khan’s age to remain unmarried. But he’s whispered to Kuku and I that he abandoned his religion and became a Christian because the laws of his people prevented him from marrying the woman he wanted in Muhoroni. That was Mr. Patel’s daughter.
Omol says Khan had asked him to lend him money.
‘Yes I d-d-did,’ the foreman stammers. ‘B-b-b-b-but I did not st-t-t-teal your m-m-m-money, Omol.’
‘How can I tell?’
‘You did not t-t-tell me where you k-k-k-keep, Omol.’
‘It is enough that you knew I had money.’
‘That is n-n-n-not true, Omol.’
‘How can I tell?’
Khan is quiet. His eyeballs are big. His lips are dry. He licks them. Something tells me that guilt is a nice suit anyone can wear.
At home, only Mama suspects that Khan hasn’t stolen Omol’s money. Omol starts to say that people have to be careful about Asians who work for Africans, when everywhere else in Kenya, it’s the other way round. Why is he not like them? He must be a witch. Reemaht and Harjit Singh are both wealthy, and have countless tractors which deliver cane to the factory. They employ hundreds of Africans. What happened to this particular Khan?
Kuku and I start believing that there’s something wrong with Khan. It enters our heads. I feel that I now fear Khan. Kuku laughs at him the following day when we return from school and find Baba has tied Khan’s hands and attached the rope to our meshed-wire fence. The sun is hot. I don’t think Khan has eaten anything. He’s sweating. He cannot swat the flies that perch on his wet temple, and he looks at me as we run back to school. I want to cry for him, but every time I’m close to doing that, Kuku says that Khan has really stolen Omol’s money.
When we return from school in the evening, we find Khan’s hands have been untied. He’s walking about. He sees us and feels guilty. He does not want to greet us.
Omol comes and whispers to us. He goes to Khan and tells him that whoever stole his money will never sleep till the money is found. Omol says he has jinn ghosts which he inherited from his Baba, and they’ll never let anyone sleep, who steals anything from Omol.
At night, when we begin to sleep, Khan is kicking the blanket and scratching himself, complaining. He can’t sleep. Omol is shaking a tin. He incants and pretends to talk to his jinn ghosts. He says they are the ones punishing Khan for stealing the money.
The truth will emerge later: Omol went to the stream and plucked nettles. He smeared them on Khan’s blanket. That’s what’s making the foreman to scratch himself that way. Khan rubs himself and turns till morning.
When we wake up, we see him tired. He hasn’t slept. I look at him and see weary eyes. He doesn’t want to look at us. He doesn’t answer back even when I greet him this morning.
The week after this will be terrible for the foreman. One night the moon will shine clean like a coin, and it will be as bright and nude as Omol’s desire to get his money back. Kuku and I will be playing under the moon. We will hear Khan mumbling near the fence. It will be around the time the foreman’s hands are usually untied, for him to get something to eat and then proceed to his nettle-infested bed.
Baba will come out of the house and roar, standing there like the lion he’s always been in our eyes. Omol will come from the workers’ quarters and, to scare Khan in their last-ditch effort to find the money, Baba and Omol will lead the foreman to the forest near the stream, telling him they’re going to slaughter him if he doesn’t produce the money. Baba and Omol will be joking, but of course the child in me will take the act to be serious business. I will be worried. I know Baba’s degree of seriousness in everything he does, and I will swear that they’ll really be going to slaughter the big-eyed foreman.
They will untie from the fence the rope binding his hands. Mama will give Khan a little porridge in a calabash. He won’t be able to hold it properly because of his bound hands, yet Khan will manage somewhat, and hold and drink because he’ll be as hungry as minyuru, a mother who just gave birth. When the porridge will be over and the calabash empty, Kuku and I will see the convict licking his lips under the naked moon.
Baba will say, ‘That is for you not to die hungry; for you not to reach heaven without food in your stomach.’
‘You are r-r-r-really going to k-k-k-kill me, Mzee Sir?’
‘But since when did I joke, Khan?’
Khan will beg, ‘You have n-n-n-n-never joked, Mzee Sir, b-b-b-but I did not take the m-m-m-money.’
‘We cannot tell,’ Baba will reply.
And then the trio – Baba, Omol, and Khan – will leave through the gate, the convict following behind as his hands are still bound, while Omol pulls him along, silent behind Baba, and they walk to the forest. Baba will be carrying a panga machete in his hand.
I know the trees in that forest near the stream. They have strange names. But the strangest in our ears is called ‘oturo bam.’ Kuku and I usually laugh at that name because it means ‘the breaker of a thigh.’ I don’t know how Kuku feels, but I know that I feel as if Baba and Omol are going to break Khan’s thighs.
Kuku and I stand here. We stand in the large yard facing the direction of the forest. Bat wings are beating over our heads. Fire-flies beam dim lights, halfway invisible because of the bright moon.
The moon will cross the navel of the sky, and darkness imprison us. Bat wings will still beat. We will hear an owl hooting behind Baba’s homestead, deep inside overgrown cane fields. Kuku will ask if I know that owls can carry away kittens and puppies, to eat. I will confess my ignorance. Mama will say yes, adding that an owl carried away Omol’s money.
At that moment a dark cry will rend the night air, scaring us. It will sound like the voice of a desperate human being, a fully grown man.
‘What was that?’ Mama will ask.
Kuku will say, ‘I don’t know.’
I will add, ‘Mh, Mama, perhaps Omol is killing Khan in the forest.’
‘They dare not kill him,’ Mama will tell us.
Towards midnight the trio will emerge out of the darkness. Baba will be leading the way, his spotlight burning. They will arrive in the large yard and stand. And then Baba will direct the light to Khan’s face. I will see tears and mucus running down the foreman’s face. He will be sobbing. His hands will still be bound; he in his brown corduroy and the red sweater.
‘This is the thief!’ Baba will say.
Mama will ask, ‘Really?’
‘But he accepted!’ Baba will add.
Omol will nod happily, supporting Baba, ‘Khan accepted that he stole the money the day I went to the river. He did.’
Mama will hear all, but she won’t be fooled. She will ask, ‘And what was that big cry?’
‘It was the bull coward,’ Baba will tell her. ‘He fears death. Just when Omol took the panga to his throat, Khan wept like a child, saying he is ready for me to recover the money from his three months’ salary, and surrender to Omol.’
(Pah!) Mama claps both her hands in disbelief. (Mk!) She does, producing not the two letters, but the sad sound realised when the back of the tongue connects with the roof of your mouth, and then sucks and leaves suddenly, scrubbing.
Baba ties the convict near the fence for weeks. Khan complains and says that he didn’t take the money. He says he accepted having stolen the money that night, but only because he had been terrified of death; he had feared that Omol was going to cut his throat, and he would die so far away from India and Pakistan. He talks to himself. He cries even, near that fence. He’s hungry. His spirit wants him to continue protesting but his body is weak.
We hear that Khan has given his national identification card so Baba can keep it. The foreman will continue working. His three months’ salary will be given to Omol. After that the foreman will be free to go away if he likes.
He’s brave. He works the three months. He’s thin. All the salary has been duly given to Omol…
And then, one evening, Kuku and I were happy to see Aunt Truphena come through the entrance. It wasn’t many days since my cousin had returned from Awasi, where his parents lived. He’d come in new shoes and clothes and pairs of trousers and everything I’d really longed to have myself but Baba hadn’t bought for me. Schools were going to open the following day and Kuku had told me his Mama bought all those things for him. And now, as Aunt Truphena entered, I saw Kuku shocked to see his own Mama. I wondered why.
‘I came to thank you,’ Aunt Truphena said when all of us sat in the common house that night.
Baba asked, ‘And why are you thanking me, my sister?’
‘Eh, but look at how many good things you bought for my son Kuku!’
‘Eh, what did I buy?’ Baba asked, looking at Mama.
Kuku sat tense beside me.
‘Ah,’ Mama beat her hands. ‘Did this child not tell us that you bought for him all these new things?’
Khan was there with us that night. He fainted within seconds of witnessing the revelation come out eventually. He was inconsolable the following morning. I’d never seen a grown man weep like that, but understood his pain, the pain of being falsely guilty; the pain of guilt being a suit which anyone can wear…
I look at Baba seated under this mango tree. He’s still knocking the back of his head against the chair when the cock crows – ‘time is up.’ His white head and receding hairline and beard. I know he fears that Khan’s case awaits him in heaven.