A beastly cry tore the morning silence. Kurui’s hand froze on the bookcase in the living room. He walked outside, with his face unwashed, and still dressed in the faded black polo shirt and grey flannel trousers he had slept in. He stood for a while on the square, earthen depression surrounding the house and looked around. Another cry came along. A human one.
He climbed up the depression and walked across the narrow stretch of kikuyu grass that made the rest of the compound to the home’s horizontal plank fence. Stepping on the purple hearts clustered against the fence, he held onto the planks and looked across the road.
On the other side was Chepkuto, standing next to her hut and dressed only in a tattered skirt. Her naked breasts hung low and still, hibernating like toads, even as she flailed her arms about and kicked clods of earth into the air. She had hurled her faded, Aztec-print blouse on the ground and stomped on it. It now lay crumpled and soiled on a patch of grass next to her. Kurui found it hard to imagine that it was what he mostly saw her in, especially in those evenings they would pass each other along the road as he walked down to the valley.
“Murenju bo Kapsio weeeiii!!! Come and save me from my son Rerimoi. He has stolen all my maize.”
Her voice soured. She staggered to the maize field next to her compound, which was surrounded by a low fence of dry wattle tree branches tangled with vines. It was now empty, apart from a sparse spread of Mexican marigold weeds and three stacks of recently harvested maize stalks. Chepkuto bent and clutched earth in her hands, then hurled it towards the field. The dust flew back in her face.
“I have beer for you brave men, beer for you to drink and garner strength to beat up that devil with seven legs.”
The land stirred. Three men appeared from the east, emerging from its cover of siriek and komolik trees. They looked like spiders from a distance but turned more human as they came closer. They were incredibly thin, almost collapsing under the weight of their over-sized, dirty, brown coats. Another wave of men tumbled down from Iten hill. They congregated on the road and streamed about like ants. One man repeatedly slapped a metal bar on the ground while letting out a high-pitched acknowledgement of his fury. Warrior cries began, clawing the air with ear-splitting sounds. In a lull between the chants, Chepkuto hissed out his name, clear enough as if whispering it in his ear. Kurui sat down on the grass as cold scales crept up his back.
Hunched on the grass, he was surprised at how still the world was. His family’s cows, in the paddock down the slope, were in deep rest; their only movement the sudden tail twitches to ward of incessant flies. Even the blades of the Ugandan grass in the field were unmoving, poking into the air like toxic green swords. The sky was bare; the sun revealing everything. Kurui crawled closer to the fence, afraid of being seen.
It had been different in April, when he first met Rerimoi and admired in secret his soft lips and the devilish glint in his eyes. Back then fog had poured thickly over the land. Feeling cold, Kurui had hidden in the house for a week, unwilling even to herd their cows in the narrow tracts of pasture that divided their cultivated fields. He had been drinking tea and poring over Horse Husbandry, familiarizing himself with Appaloosas, when he heard a knock at the door. He got annoyed immediately. It could not be a friend. Not in April. At best it would be a laborer asking for work, hands clasped in front in pitiful humility. He hated the strength it took him to be firm, to repeat “hakuna kazi” even when the poor, shivering soul suggested that their vegetable garden needed weeding. But it was Rerimoi standing outside, dressed in typical farm laborer fashion, at least to the waist, with his beaded akala shoes and faded green polyester trousers that were rolled up to his knees. Above his waist, he had a polka-dotted cloth, too thin and torn up to be a shirt. It kept billowing to the wind like a flag, revealing his well-rounded chest.
It was the manner Rerimoi looked at him that startled; the gaze settling softly on him, like fog condensing on tree leaves. Kurui looked down at the grass, unwilling to lift his head. For a moment, he wished he was an ant, wandering about in insignificance. Rerimoi asked again for his mother. It took Kurui a while to answer. His voice had shoved deep in his belly.
His mother, Magdalena, came out of the house without Kurui having to call her. She stood and tilted her head, looking tired. Only after Rerimoi introduced himself did she smile and point out the vegetable garden, where the well was to be dug. They started off to work carrying the tarimbo, ladder, spade, hoe and rope. Rerimoi walked in front, marching with ease through the hardened earth track that wound through the vegetable garden. The little sunlight available fell on his shoulders, accentuating his muscles.
To clear space for the well, Rerimoi took down the fence at the corner of the vegetable garden. He pounded the earth around its strong posts loose with the tarimbo, then shook the posts slack before pulling them out with a quick heave. Kurui tried to remove nails from the posts that held the barbed wires taut, but he was too clumsy and slow. Rerimoi took over, his hands a flurry of such activity that soon enough the tough barbed wire was rolled off to one side like a ball of cotton. The garden was now unrestricted, a grass-covered field beginning at its former edge and going all the way down to the river at the bottom of the ridge. Kurui couldn’t stop staring.
The next day when Rerimoi came, Kurui hid in his room. He tossed and turned all morning, unable to read like he used to. In the afternoon, when the fog had slid off the land, leaving it to steam, Magdalena called him. She wanted him to take tea to Rerimoi. He walked to the living room to see an enamel tray laid on the living room table, bearing a tea kettle, a china mug with a Virgo sign (his) and a rusty small plate with bread slices smothered with peanut butter. He immediately froze. He cringed at the thought of carrying it to the vegetable garden, then having to walk carefully through the tangle of posts, wires and earth, to find a spot to lay it gently down. It would be too uncomfortable to do all that with Rerimoi staring at him, in that leisurely manner of his, with one hand rested on a spade. Though, when he walked down to the well-digging spot, Rerimoi didn’t spare him a glance. He simply walked to pour himself tea, asking why Kurui didn’t bring himself a cup too. He insisted that they eat the slices of bread together.
Later, Rerimoi led him down the unfinished well to do the last evening dig. Kurui was unsure about his grip as he descended down the footholds and was relieved when he finally stepped onto the soft, clay floor. In the darkness, Rerimoi told him to listen to the water sing from below the clay. Kurui couldn’t hear a thing, but he kept still.
Kurui hid next to the plank fence, still shaking because Chepkuto had called out his name. He did his best to listen to the crowd that had now left the road and sat outside Chepkuto’s hut. The only thing he heard was the rupturing laughter. The endless sunshine and stillness turned intolerable, and he stood up and walked inside the house. There was now more sunlight in the living room. It splashed down the bookcase and lapped on the bases of the yellow sofas. The sofas seemed eager to be sat on. Nevertheless, he opened the door to his bedroom and threw himself on his bed, with one arm up so that he could rest his head in the crook of his elbow. He waited for the solace the posture always brought him. But the blankets were itchy with heat.
Finally, frustrated by his inability to settle his thoughts, he rose and walked back to the living room. He picked up his father’s empty mug and a half-full kettle of tea from the stool and walked to the stuffy kitchen. The windows were unopened, limiting fresh air, and dirty utensils were cluttered in basins on the floor. He rinsed his father’s mug with water from a jug, eager to pour himself the already cold tea. But when the cup was clean, with clear water stripes running down its sides, it looked forbidding. So he piled the utensil-filled basins onto his arms instead, and tottered outside, opening the kitchen’s half door with his hips.
He scuffed through the grass slowly, so that by the time he reached the wooden utensils rack, his arms were tired. He proceeded to wash the utensils with an alien fury, unmindful of the hot water that splashed his arms. The only defeat he faced was a soot-glazed sufuria, which was caked on the inside with ugali. It didn’t soften with the hot water. He scrubbed its grainy hardness with steel wool till his hand hurt. Enervated, he rested his arms akimbo.
At that moment, two drunken men walked up the road. One of them talked loudly about Rerimoi, calling him a motherless calf that deserved to die. Kurui threw down the steel wool and jumped up, his body straight and rigid. He dashed at high speed across the compound and tore through the hedge fence that separated it from the vegetable garden. Inside the garden, he kicked a kale plant so strongly it tore off the soil and rose up high in the air. He then looked glumly around, staring at the sparse spread of kale, kisakya and cabbage as if they were little, oddly-shaped people he could talk to.
Rerimoi called out to him then. In that rough way a strong voice becomes when it strives for tenderness. He turned to see Rerimoi crouched in the shade of two avocado trees. It was hard walking up to him, for his legs felt as heavy as a pile of bricks. Even when he stood before Rerimoi, he couldn’t hide the slight shake in his hands. Rerimoi stood up with a proud posture; a man strangely at peace with a world rising against him. He was still spare of fat and looked very decent in his fitting white shirt, black trouser and fake crocodile skin shoes. Yet when he spoke, it was with the voice of a drowning man.
“Save me Kurui. They will finish me”
Maybe it was the almost imperceptible lifting of Rerimoi’s eyebrows or the manner in which the air between them crackled. Nevertheless, Kurui reached over and grabbed Rerimoi’s palms. Kurui remembered how those same palms had scooped water from the well when it was found, and held to his mouth to drink. He remembered how precise the water tasted. He took his time to steady his feet on the soft soil and spoke with the best normal voice he could muster.
“Perhaps you could stay inside our house for a while, that is until all the craziness subsides.”
A moment followed which Kurui wished would have lasted forever. Sunlight fanned over his back and Rerimoi’s hands pulsed warm. It was a moment in which the sounds of the land; the rustling leaves and the whistling wind, turned clear and distinct. But Rerimoi drew his hands away, squared his shoulders and curled his mouth. Kurui turned to walk back to the house, clinging to the desperate hope that Rerimoi would follow. He did, walking in a gracious manner, unlike Kurui who kept looking about at the fence, the gate and even the sky, as if Chepkuto and the crowd of men would fly in and find them.
As they entered the living room, Kurui did his best not to look at the sofa his father normally sat on. The cushion was still sunk in from his father’s weight and that disturbed. That sense of heaviness lifted off him though, when they walked to his bedroom. It was Spartan. Nothing more to it than a metal bed with thin blankets, a chair with folded clothes and a metal suitcase under the bed. But when Rerimoi sat on the bed, the room seemed filled up. He possessed it with his casual mannerism; leaning his elbows on the bed, and with effortless grace, spreading his legs out and tapping his feet on the floor. Kurui kept standing, shoulders stiff. After a while, he told Rerimoi that his parents couldn’t find out that he was here. Rerimoi nodded, lifted his legs off the floor to the bed and dropped his head on the pillow.
Kurui walked out and saw dirt as soon as he was back in the living room; tea stains on the floor, cat hairs on the sofa cushions and even a dry ugali crumb on the Horse Husbandry book that lay on top of the bookcase. He scrubbed and dusted, till his knees ached. Even when all was clean, he was unwilling to rest and he picked up the unusual task of cleaning the windows, some with dust so thick the name Rerimoi stood out clearly when he wrote it with his finger across the glass pane.
He finished sooner than expected. More sounds flowed in; the distant rumble of dark clouds gathering like artillery to the east, the rippling river at the bottom of the ridge, children laughing somewhere, their voices sharp and sudden. Then he heard Chepkuto’s distinct bellow.
Eager to hear more and unwilling to walk back to the horizontal plank fence, he walked down to the well which was now sealed by a round, white-washed concrete wall. He sat on its cold edge and turned his ear to Chepkuto’s home. It was Chepkuto alright. She was now mumbling in the detached, abrupt manner she did when they would meet along the road, when her head would be tilted to the side and her eyes squinted.
He pitied her. She was alone once more. The crowd had moved on. Kurui walked back to his room.
“Why is she so angry with you?” he asked.
Rerimoi smiled and sat upright.
“She can’t send the men here Kurui. This is your father’s house.”
He said the word father with a certain emphasis.
“You have not answered my question.”
Rerimoi smiled. His teeth were clear, unstained by tea or tartar.
“I didn’t do anything to her,” he began, and continued with a low voice, his hands cupped between his thighs. He told Kurui about the maize he had planted with earnings from his well digging, even testing the acidity in the soil to determine which fertilizer to use. He told him how Chepkuto would let goats into the maize field to nibble on the sugary stems of the young maize plants. His voice thinned as he told about a morning, when Chepkuto staggered drunk into the hut and finding him asleep, cursed him, stating that lightning should strike him so that he could die like his father and leave her in peace. He shivered as he spoke about how he rose up, pulled a hoe beneath the bed and walked out to the field without a word, and weeded it for hours till his palms blistered.
“I want to go far from here Kurui,” he said. “Kapsio is a jungle that knows no love”
It was evening. Light filtered through the window, trapping motes of dust in slow spirals. Kurui stared at the swirls as if they held salvation. When the gate creaked open, he skittered outside and met Magdalena walking in. She was gasping, as she clutched a heavy bag close to her bosom. Once, she had been rotund and now the ghosts of her former kilos hovered around her form. She stared at Kurui from the corner of her eye and walked into the kitchen. Kurui followed her in.
“Your father is coming home today. I am making rosemary chicken with garlic roast potatoes.”
She took chicken out of the bag, as well as other ingredients; scallops, garlic, bell pepper, tomatoes. She began dicing as she sang a song about how there was only one narrow road to heaven. Kurui cringed at the manner vegetable juices dripped off the cutting board to stain the kitchen table that he had thoroughly cleaned in the morning. He felt pressed to start a conversation, to have her turn her head and look at him. So he decided to tell her the case of Chepkuto screaming in the morning, but found himself rushing over the details.
“Oh, what shall we do now?” was all she said as she kept on cutting the scallops, the slices falling onto a sufuria beneath. Later, as she poured oil onto the sufuria and placed it on the jiko, she asked who Rerimoi was. Kurui walked back to the living room and sat on the edge of the sofa, a disintegrating feeling inside him.
In the late evening, they sat in silence around the table. His father, Ambrose, had joined them. Ambrose stared only at his food, his eyebrows thickly gathered on his face. He chewed in loud disharmony with the buzz of the electric bulb. An old Bible was at his side, opened. The pages were marked in purple. He kept reading it between mouthfuls with utmost attention. Then his eyes flickered and settled on Kurui. Immediately, Kurui looked down at his plate, noticing how clean the spaces untouched by food were.
“You read too many books. They can spoil your mind. The only safe book is the Bible. It has all the answers to life.”
He waved the Bible up. A glob of chicken gravy flew from his hand and hit Kurui on the cheek. He wanted to wipe it away but couldn’t. He ended up gritting the nail on his thumb with his finger.
“A boy your age shouldn’t sit around the house all day long, minding chores. You should be moving about, seeing the world. I want you to come with me tomorrow. I want you to see what I do.”
He thought of walking up the road tomorrow with his father. Ambrose would be in a suit as always, loudly quoting and expounding on verses from the Old Testament and wafting off a faint hint of sweat. Kurui looked up at Magdalena, seeking compassion in her eyes. But she kept staring at the wall, eating slowly, as if she had wounds in her mouth. She had changed into a burnt orange maxi dress that had forever lain folded in her wardrobe. It now hung clumsily on her, unused to her thin frame.
“Are you alright son?” she spoke finally.
“I don’t think so. Maybe I should get some rest”
As he stood up and left, Ambrose told him to make sure he prayed and added on the Devil prowling in the night like a lion, looking for someone to devour. Kurui didn’t hear him properly. He had already entered his bedroom and closed the door.
He didn’t switch on the lights. A bit of moonlight was drifting in, falling on Rerimoi who had spread across the bed. Rerimoi had bent one leg and the act scooped up the blankets, revealing his glistening upper torso. Kurui let down his trousers. For a moment, he held onto his shirt, unsure whether to unbutton, but he let go eventually and sat by the edge of the bed. Only later, when his parents switched off the living room lights and went to sleep, did he enter the bed, lifting Rerimoi’s leg ever so gently to create space for himself.
For a long time he lay stiff on his back, hands over his chest, pressed in by the density of the room, as if the darkness was composed of something more than just the absence of light. Finally, he moved his hand towards Rerimoi, telling himself he was only seeking warmth. Rerimoi grabbed his hand and he curled his toes. Rerimoi took his hand further down, to the point where his boxers held his waist tight.
“You have always wanted this, haven’t you?”
Heat rose. Kurui shifted his body, searching for cooler spaces in the sheets. Rerimoi was too quick, parting Kurui’s legs with a strong hand and pulling him closer. He then bit his ear and shoved his legs further apart with his knee. It was a tight hold and Kurui couldn’t move. Suddenly, the tick tock of the old beige clock in the living room became loud.
“Relax,” said Rerimoi. “It will be alright. I won’t hurt you.”
But Kurui didn’t close his eyes, even when Rerimoi gave him quick, brutal kisses down his chin and neck, all the way to his chest. Rerimoi eased up on his hold and slithered up Kurui, his tongue dancing like a butterfly over his skin. When their eyes met, he looked deeply into Kurui and trailed a finger over his lips.
“If you close your eyes…”
He didn’t finish the sentence for their lips met. Rerimoi’s nimble tongue played inside Kurui’s mouth, awakening titillating sensations that grew feet and walked down his throat. Kurui’s resistance melted and the world turned silent. Soon, they rocked together in an ancient rhythm, more profound than the bed they slept on. It took long for them to become separate human beings. Even then, they lay intertwined, sweat trickling down their bodies and collecting in the grooves of their knees.
Much later, Kurui rested his head on Rerimoi’s chest, listening to his heartbeat and thinking about the edge of the valley in the evening, when one couldn’t look away from the blue hills on the horizon. He wanted to tell Rerimoi how many times he wished he was brave enough to walk to those hills. He imagined them covered in soft grass; a place he could lie down and stare at a ladybird unfurling brittle black wings or watch an ant carry a piece of leaf. He wanted to tell him that perhaps those hills had Arabian horses he could ride all day long like a Persian prince. But when he lifted his head, he saw that Rerimoi had fallen asleep and turned his head to the side. Kurui sighed and closed his eyes. It took him a while before he could sleep. His whole body kept tingling with excitement, as if it had just been lent to him for that night.
At five, when Kurui woke up, Rerimoi was gone. Not even his body heat remained. The floor looked desolate without his clothes scattered about. The door was ajar. Kurui wrapped himself in a bed sheet and walked out of the house in the vain hope of finding him. All he saw outside though, were dark shapes of trees and houses. He thought of going back to bed. He thought of dawn; how the sunlight would crawl inside his room and prod under his blankets, till he unfurled himself. He thought of Magdalena waking up and searching for her slippers, ready to go milk their cows. Then much later, when the dew was gone, his father stepping out to the living room, already dressed in his grey suit and tie, expecting to find a cup of steaming tea on a stool next to the sofa.
Kurui walked back to his bedroom and put on dirty jeans, a white shirt and a grey zipper jacket. He pulled the metal suitcase from under his bed and took out his wallet. He counted the two thousand shillings he had saved and slipped the wallet in his pocket. He put on his shoes and walked outside. For a while he stood, the ground gripping his feet, and stared at the ghostly silhouettes of the eucalyptus trees far ahead that marked the beginning of the road. He closed his eyes and breathed in deep, then walked out into the dark.