I remember it because the quiet fisherman was walking from the stream past our homestead that evening, the hook-and-line sleeping on his shoulder, the small opanga machete clutched in the left hand that held the bottom of the line, the small aduda basket which carried his fish dangling beneath the right arm…
At her age, my sister Nyako already knew what Mother meant each time she reprimanded her daughter with the two threatening words, ‘muma ochami’. I did not. But the two words made me wonder, for they meant ‘the bible has eaten you’. And yet I could see with my two eyes that the bible we carried to Mama Dorina’s Sunday school every seven days had no teeth. Mother spat out the two words whenever Nyako failed to carry out in time the chores she had been given before Mother left for the market, an odheru tray dancing on her head with yellow bananas peeping under the green scarf used to cover the fruits. Mother did occasionally return from the market and found the plates and sufuria pans still resting unwashed.
“I was sweeping the floor of our hut, Mama”, Nyako would plead.
Mother would cut her short:
“This whole village knows your weaverbird beak spreads lies like millet seeds. God Himself would wonder if He really created this one”.
“It is true!”
“I was sweeping, Mama”.
“My small hut is these days bigger than the whole of this homestead, Nyako!” Mother would beat her own palms and wonder ironically. “I left this hut before the sun touched the navel of the sky. You have been sweeping the floor till now”.
“The stream also… I went to the stream for water”.
“Today you made one hundred trips to fill our small pot”.
Cornered, Nyako would remain silent. Later she accepted and said, “You should forgive me for the last time, Mama; today only”.
Then Nyako would continue to sip from the calabash of water which she had just dipped in the pot.
She was a cheeky girl. Her tongue dripped with clever lies. Drinking from the calabash that evening, before our village sun ducked under the western sky, Nyako badly choked herself with the water. Mother promptly said:
“You see? Muma ochami. You were lying to me”.
That evening Mother was right, and on many other occasions. Nyako had been playing the whole day. But on a few other days, what looked to me like the eye of the sky conspired with Mother’s voice and successfully smeared thick guilt on Nyako’s face even when I knew she was innocent. All she needed to confirm her ‘guilt’ was an unconscious smile which arrived naturally.
* * *
It was Nyako who told me why the widow, our neighbour, was called ‘chi liel’. The woman was a ‘wife of the grave’. I asked Nyako why Oremo’s mother was a widow and she told me that our neighbour’s husband had died before I was born. I asked where the husband was even after that death.
“In the soil”.
Nyako knew many things. She told me about the National Party badge Father pinned onto the lapel of his coat and how the government decreed every grown citizen to wear one wherever they went. It was something like a bottle top with a small safety pin under its belly. Nyako said the badge was the bottle top of a special kind of soda given to fathers and mothers in the villages by the President who lived in Nairobi, to show that they were truly married and they had given birth to clean or dirty children like us.
We would run to the steep place near the stream and scoop wet clay with our hands after the rain yesterday, and I used this to mould bulls with jutting horns. Nyako invariably moulded babies, all of them daughters with plaited hair, and bulging breasts which were bigger than their mother’s. I thought God had bound the babies’ mother with an everlasting gender curse. Sometimes Nyako pretended that her baby girl was crying. She wrapped her in many warm rags. She went further and suckled the child on the small, pinched skin she called her breast.
Seeing the two prominent breasts of her moulded grand-daughter one quiet day, Mother once advised Nyako,
“I agree that this is really your baby. But looking at the great milk gourds on the small chest of my grand-child, it is the child’s mother who ought to demand for milk from her baby”.
* * *
We were seated near the granary that afternoon. Nyako and I saw him. Mother did not. So we both whispered simultaneously:
“Mama, see Oremo. He is coming”.
Mother heard us and raised her eyes out of the raffia-grass odheru tray where the green cow pea leaves she was preening lay.
“Is that you?” Mother said to him in way of greeting. She then thought quickly and added, “Ah, I must be bothering you for no good reason, child of my friend. This is your usual hour of returning home from the stream”.
The fisherman smiled and stood looking. He said, “Today I left the stream early. The fish are very cautious. Someone must have told them how I was going to catch them with my hook this day”.
He was a very quiet man, ruminative like a tethered sheep chewing under the sun.
At his age Oremo should have been married. But he was not. Village women were already whispering reasons why his wives regularly ran away:
“Ah, this one is too quiet for an ideal husband”.
“Wololo, he is so silent he can kill his wife”.
“With this love for fishing, the wife who misplaces Oremo’s olowu hook-and-line somewhere in the hut is sure to be beaten to death”.
“Very soon he will begin cooking his own meals and tasting them, awuoro!”
“And then he will not marry”.
“Never! His tongue will never forget the way his fish soup used to taste before the wife arrived”.
“His mouth will miss the quantity”.
“He still eats in his mother’s hut”.
“This one will not marry”.
I do not know if he really knew what they were saying about him. Every next day we would see him walking to the stream carrying his opanga machete, the small aduda basket, and the hook-and-line, his head drooping. The fisherman’s face and eyes were eternally pinned onto the ground he walked on. They used to say he was choosing the place on which to step.
Much later, I heard that his dead father was the one who came from the place nearest the lake, Nam Lolwe, when people arrived to live in the new government settlement scheme at independence. The fisherman had been in his late teenage then, and the appetite for fish seemed to have migrated with Oremo, the bachelor now.
Mother resumed, “I see you have had enough of the stream”.
“Enough”, Oremo replied.
“I see you did not waste the day”.
The fisherman smiled.
The mysterious aduda basket which rested in front of him was woven with red and green raffia grass. The container had a loose lid. He never left it behind. It was the fish in the basket, mixed with the wet smell that made its bottom look sagged and distended that afternoon.
Oremo opened the lid. Nyako and I peered in. Many fish lay in helpless coils, slimy scales, and round mouths. They had no eye-lids and they smelled like the river bed. One fly or two came to witness. The fisherman calmly chased them away with his hands.
He took the fattest fish and said to me, “Take”.
I feared. I did not like the wetness and the slime. It was a very big fish, the species they called ‘fuani’. It looked like ngege, tilapia.
Mother laughed at me: “Look at him. He cannot be said to be a man. – His sister,” she was referring to Nyako in the third person. “Why can you not take the fish for your cowardly brother?”
Nyako took the fish.
“You did not thank the owner,” Mother said and looked at me.
Nyako thanked the fisherman.
Mother joked, “But the coward will not eat.”
“I will,” I protested. “It was given to me –’’
They all exclaimed: “But you did not take!”
“Yes,” I said, “but Nyako carried for me.”
Mother said, “I now see that I have two daughters.”
The fisherman left. Mother thanked him a second time. Oremo walked out of our yard in his akala tyre shoes with the promise to greet his mother, widow Rusalia.
He was the woman’s only son. He must have been forty. His hair was thick and black. It whitened remotely at the edges, like the brown blades of grass on the edges of a patch of dry ground burned by fire. One round head possessed a thick forehead that I never saw more than ten times in my childhood. His eyes were forever pinned on the ground as he walked. There was the rumour that Oremo was the most energetic man in the whole breadth of Odiya. Every day before midday he would grab his machete, hook-and-line, the red-green basket with a lid, a tin of earthworm for bait, and then we watched him regularly walk to the stream when villagers were returning home from weeding their sugarcane farms. He had married, remarried, remarried and remarried a third time – and failed again. Even when the tragedy visited his mother’s homestead, the fisherman was without a wife. And so there was no ready witness to speak for him.
Whenever I walked past widow Rusalia’s homestead, Oremo’s hut saddened me by the graveyard dampness which so heavily sat on its sullen roof. There was an ocean of mud in front of the small door. I saw the widow’s ducks celebrating in that mud whenever it rained. I had never seen anywhere else the flowers I saw there. They were unnaturally red. Or they would be variegated, but with a screaming scarlet being the base colour of their serrated leaves. Others were falsely broad and large. The smell of a particular flower which bore all these extremes inflicted in me a rough idea about the smell of hopelessness, a parched desert of immeasurable dimensions, the endlessness of suffering, vast infinity, one suffocating universe where everybody was begging Death to do what it pleased (I later learnt that these strange flowers had been plucked from the ageing homesteads of the white settlers who were blown out of Odiya by the wind of independence). For this reason only – the smell of the flowers – I feared widow Rusalia’s mango fruits. Her mangoes were cold, damp, and over-ripe. Her fat, big pawpaw fruits were ripe and wasting away, a whole world of the long-tailed oluru bird feasting and bubbling there like maggots. I even thought, in my own childish foolishness, that it was these odd smells of hopelessness that drove away the fisherman’s wives in haste.
Then the fisherman leaped into a brooding period. They rumoured that he assaulted a trespasser with a whip. Oremo found a villager bathing in a dark bend of the stream where the fisherman occasionally brewed kangara liquor. He sped after the bathing man with his big ojalo machete clutched in his grip, till the terrified, naked man disappeared behind the other side of the village.
Many days after Nyako and I had received fish from him that afternoon, I stood a barrier between our calf and Oremo’s maize crop when a sudden beating of wings burst in the grass behind me. I turned and saw the nyanyodhi sunbird flying away. That was when I saw him standing there. He said coldly:
“I see you are tending the calf.”
“Eee,” I agreed.
“It is well.” He said this and whistled a double melody. Then he let his eyes roam over the green crop like a proud farmer.
Lastly he said, “But the calf must not touch one leaf of my maize.”
He walked away and disappeared amongst the green leaves which surrounded him.
I said to myself that this was not the same charitable fisherman who had given me his fish those days in the past. He became as reclusive as Ombonya, the lanky tree of a man who had just set foot in Odiya, and was living in a dead man’s house somewhere in the sugarcane plantations.
No one else was taller in the whole of Odiya. The visitor’s hair was long, thick, and dirty. A drunkard who could not have been helped even by God Himself, Ombonya weeded your cane crop, but he refused to be paid in money. The man in tight pants and a thin, yellow t-shirt wanted only food, which he requested to eat in your hut. They said he insisted so.
* * *
I was walking home from the fields where boys tended their herds. I carried in my hands many osaye and guava fruits which our herds-boy, Ayub, had plucked for me. I had tied them in one bundle in the front part of my shirt. I was walking past widow Rusalia’s homestead when I heard her voice.
“My husband – I’m the one calling you. Come.”
It was the widow herself seated on the ndiri mud mound in front of her hut. She was weaving a basket and sewing it. A length of ready material lay on the ground in one huge coil. Near her were piles of brown raffia leaves. Some patches were painted with many colours which widow Rusalia loved.
I walked to her.
“Come – greet your wife,” she urged me.
I held my right hand across. She grabbed and shook it. “Or – young man – do you not know this is your wife? Mm? – Do you not? Do you not? – Eh? He is looking down! My husband is looking down! What a cowardly one I have!”
My head fell. When I raised it, in that brief instant I realized that Rusalia’s headscarf bore loud but sad colours of the flowers in her yard. The headscarf concealed her grizzled hair half way, and a small stem of tobacco which was stuck between the left side of her head and her left ear was slowly sending smoke up her head.
“Now tell me,” she said again, “where are you coming from?”
“The fields,” I said.
“What did my husband go to do?”
“He can herd? – Who did you leave behind?”
“And now you are going home?”
“What are you carrying?”
“Now let me see.”
I loosened my grip to let her see the fruits.
Leaving everything behind, she entered the hut and emerged with three ripe mangoes. She gave them to me.
“Take these too,” she said. “– My husband must feed well.”
I grabbed all the mangoes from her hand even though I knew I would not eat them. I remembered Nyako. She would happily suck them. Then Rusalia gave me water in a tin. I drank. She said I should go well as I walked home.
I had hardly left her doorstep when she asked,
“You will greet your mother for me?”
What followed was a pause which she calculated inside her head. She resumed by asking me:
“Who greets her?”
“You,” I replied.
“But who am I?”
I was quiet. I did not know her beyond the baskets.
I said, simply, “Mother of Oremo.”
“A long tick in class,” she laughed. “Say to her ‘Mother of Oremo’ greets her. Say I will come and visit her before that half-moon in the sky gets finished”.
With that I walked out of her yard and took the main path home. It was the same footpath out of which we never wandered to pluck any fruit for fear that the angels who bedecked us at the Sunday school in Dorina’s hut might remain in the bush. Mother Dorina warned us so. I walked past the minya and ombasa climbers sagging heavily under a branch that was refusing to give way. The wind blew. I could see many blades of obuya grass dancing in the wind. A black oseng’ bird went and perched on one blade. The grass sank with him. The bird rose again, flying away with the sound of shaking dry sand in a gourd. In the distance, I saw another long-tailed oseng’ chasing her women with a dance. They used to say that the long-tailed oseng’ was the best polygamist in the world of the birds. He wanted to seduce, marry, and sleep even with birds who were not oseng’ like him. Above my head, a thick humanity of weaver-birds was running away from Dorina’s maize farm, scared away by our Sunday school teacher’s son, Amin. All the birds fluttered away. Their yellow wings beat till they went and perched on the unassuming orembe tree which we circled and left without looking back every season onding’o mumps swept across Odiya and tears came to our eyes when we remembered sour lemon and oranges.
* * *
Many days after she sent me to tell Mother she would visit, Rusalia appeared in our yard one evening. She was jolly in her full dress of red and green, and the usual freckled head-scarf. Three raffia baskets dangled neatly under her left arm. She was smoking her tobacco.
“Greet my hand – oh my small husband!” Rusalia said, laughing.
I gave her my right hand.
“Now, tell me: you did not say to your mama how I sent you?”
I remembered quickly when I had walked past her yard.
I said, “I did.”
“How did I send?” the widow asked again.
Mother pretended. She busied herself at the hearth, looking the other way.
“To say you would visit,” I replied.
“Well, say to me who sent you.”
I replied, “You.”
Rusalia said, “Eee, but who am I?”
I said, looking at the floor, “Mother of Oremo.”
Mother laughed near the hearth.
The widow laughed too. She jerked my right arm which she held in her hand. “Now you are my husband for saying my name – are you not – are you not?”
I looked down.
Mother said, “Now take porridge.”
She gave me the calabash and I sat on the floor.
“It is good you carried the baskets,” Mother said as Rusalia sat on the mbero. “It is as if you knew I was in need of two. You are such a magician, woman-like-me!”
“How can I not laugh? But these have owners!”
“Then tell me when mine will be woven.”
“Give me porridge, girl!” widow Rusalia said. She held and fondled the stomach of her calabash.
“Your baskets are under the roof of my hut”, Mother laughed. “The owner of a hut decides what can leave and what cannot leave the hut. You reminded me: You harvested your cane crop well.”
“But not so well,” Rusalia replied. “They gathered two truckloads only.”
“It is not very bad. You are only two in the homestead – you and your son Oremo.”
The widow replied, “The cane field will do well on the second harvest”.
They sat and gossiped, and talked, and laughed all through the evening. Nearly thrice I saw Mother wiping tears of laughter from her eyes. As darkness fell, Rusalia grabbed my hand again and greeted as Mother led her out of the yard into the only path that led to the widow’s homestead behind the stream and a gathering of three bushes. I saw Rusalia walk into the evening darkness. The baskets dangled under her left arm. I could see only the white on her dress and headscarf. Mother returned…
* * *
Nyako and I were cleaning our faces when dawn arrived like a jocular messenger.
“Mama, do you hear the cry?”
Mother interrupted Nyako, “Be quiet!”
Three or so tearful voices were weeping behind the three bushes. The cry sailed in the cold, morning air into our hut.
Father hurried away.
Clad in her gray dress and blue headscarf, Mother grabbed her pat kira shoes and slipped out of our homestead.
“I want to go, Mama!”
I needed not reply. I fell down on my buttocks and wept on the wet dew.
“Then come – fool!”
I ran to her side wiping my tears. Nyako closed the door and ran ahead of us.
“Now you must walk fast,” Mother demanded of me.
I did not mind her pushing the back of my head with her right hand. I was not going to mind even if she pushed me till I fell. The loud wail that all dogs cough out after they are beaten for stealing a large bone is never a genuine one; it is usually only a matter of justified procedure.
“Now walk fast,” Mother said again. “You wanted to go. Walk!”
I did not protest.
“Wipe that dirty nose!”
I did. Some child-mucus had come with my false tears. We walked fast. I breathed hard. I ran ahead of Mother. The cries of the birds wore a dullness of their own.
Many women were weeping in widow Rusalia’s yard. Others stood clumped in groups, in headscarves to keep them warm and sad arms folded across their breasts. They murmured in disbelief. Mother pulled one of them aside after greeting a group. They conferred. I clung to Mother’s dress. Then something happened. Mother became unusually calm. Her right hand rested limp upon my head. I felt her heart beating. Near the huge mango tree, widow Rusalia’s door seemed tightly closed. The hut had a low window. That window was open. Its wooden frame hung. Mother walked to the window as one woman held my hand. I cried. I bit her rough skin which tasted of salt. I was loose. I ran after Mother and caught up with her standing at the low window. She was looking at something in Rusalia’s bedroom. I stood on my toes and looked inside too. The body lay there like a log, a long, purple tongue overflowing out of the mouth.
“Mama, what is that?” I asked.
A heavy hand fell on my head.
“You!” she said angrily. “You follow your mother everywhere!”
I did not cry.
She pulled me out of the window. We walked back to join the gathered group of murmuring women. Something warm fell on my head. I looked up and saw Mother crying.
* * *
Having tied both his hands, the party youth wingers brought Oremo to the space under the huge mango tree. The Chief and the Village Elder were also present. Oremo did not hide his face. He did not cry either. But he could not talk.
Standing there beside Mother, clutching at her dress, I caught dancing on the fisherman’s face the same shocked smile which used to run on Nyako’s face when Mother accused her. The same benevolent man from whose hands I had received fish caught in the stream that evening, the fish that my sister Nyako had handled on my behalf!
The Chief said, authoritatively, “Oremo. It is true: You killed your mother.”
The man did not reply.
“I repeat,” the Chief said again. “Oremo. You killed your own mother.”
Again the fisherman did not reply.
For the third time the Chief spoke, “Oremo. It is undoubtedly true that you murdered your own mother Rusalia.”
Oremo said, simply: “Chief Matieka. But how do I kill my own mother?”
“You know it. She harvested her cane crop only recently.”
“People,” the fisherman asked bravely. “But how do I murder my own mother even if for sugarcane money!”
“But who would tell?” Chief Matieka posed mockingly. “Besides, you were heard calling her in the depth of the night.”
“That is true – I – I do not deny it”, Oremo stammered. “But I had gone to tell her to put out her nyangile tin lamp which was burning late.”
“That is enough. We cannot tell what happened next,” the Chief said. “Indeed, you live in this one homestead. Here is your hut, and that is your mother’s. If I were you, and even if I were deaf, I would still have heard my mother being murdered in that hut.”
In that thick crowd of villagers, not a single heart doubted Oremo’s guilt. His tied, limp hands; his uncertain, stammering speech; his guilty sweat, and the hopelessness of his gestures and body language encased him in a public coffin of guilt, as if the naked eye of heaven was glaring down at him, mocking him.
I wanted to tell Nyako, “Look, ‘the bible has eaten him’”.
* * *
The government kept widow Rusalia’s body in the mortuary for months. When the corpse finally arrived in Odiya under an angry sun one dusty afternoon, in the company of worms and ploughing maggots, Oremo arrived too, the whole cloth on his breast wet with tears, and Odiya was sorry for him. Mother told Nyako and me how the courts in Kisumu convicted Ombonya of the widow’s murder.
IMAGE: Summer Skyes 11 via Flickr