:: The Stone Hill of Maragoli
The following day there was a surprise twist. Ombima was appointed to work in the compound and not out in the fields with everyone else. This meant he would be working alongside the women, weeding the banana and cassava crops. Normally, everyone welcome the reprieve, and indeed the rest of the workers would go to any length to get to work in the cook shade of the banana trees away from the sun in the fields. More than that, as Ango'ote fondly put it, they would be working close to the hearth – meaning they would get their food while it was still warm.
But then it was only to the advantage depending on the circumstances. Take this particular day; Ombima was the only man amidst the chatter of village women. It wasn't very amusing. This was because the women were taking this opportunity to throw barbs at him, away from the support of the rest of his men friends. Also, in Ombima's opinion the women worked less and talked most of the time: Abiri did this and that to his wife of ten yeas…Aguvasu's wife, who had been crying the night before, invoked the beating from her husband for refusing to this and that ‘midnight' bidding…Abiri's teenage daughter –that conceited Mmbone in High School, who in the village doesn't know about her? That she had developed a rather suspect posture of late, hadn't anyone noticed…And Abiri himself hadn't he failed to make it to Maneno's beer drinking ceremony Sunday? Did anyone know why? ...blah! blah! Blah!
And worst of all, Ombima found that there was very little he could contribute, being uninitiated in their manner of trading gossip. The long hours they wasted just leaning on their hoe handles prompted him to conclude that bunching a number of women together without a few men in their midst was a sure way of inviting trouble.
It was such a relief finally when the sun started to drop out of the clear late-year sky and the tea picking party was heard approaching back from the buying centre. At the sound of their approach, the women broke from their work and stretched their sore backs. They glanced over their shoulder to survey the work they had done, and one by one they hoisted their hoes on to their shoulders, preparing to depart.
That day, a little surprisingly, Andimi himself was there to give them their pay. He had just arrived from his business safari as they turned into the compound, and he was in a jovial mood too as indicated from the loud laughter that rang out of the bowels of the rambling bungalow. Perhaps he had just successfully wrestled some prime property away from an equally thrifty real estate mogul after coveting it for some time. Such were the man's day-to-day's activities; the villager who hadn't the good fortune to travel beyond the realms of his hill-enclosed home could only speculate.
The labourers sat in a collective bunch on the mown grass in front of the house and waited with bated breath. From a distance, they looked like a bundle of sweat-stained rags left on the expansive manicured grounds by a careless gardener. Above them bees and butterflies flitted busily from one flowering bush to another, in the process disturbing the scent enfolded in the petals so that in a short time the garden was a mixture of the perfume of roses and gardenias surrounding the waiting villagers.
Looming in front of them Andimi's house was an imposing sight. Set up on slightly raised ground, the rambling wings of the awesome edifice seemed to spread on and on in crafty twists and bends. Maximum sunshine flowed directly into the rooms from as many windows as the twisting pen could allow. The walls were painted a brilliant white, almost clinical compared to the smoky grass-thatched hovels of the labourers. Up these walls scrambled climbers of various types now in bloom – brilliant pinks, reds, yellows, and even whites. The roof of the bungalow was made of what the villagers jokingly called ‘baked potlings'; bits of pottery shaped in a such a way that they overlapped one another and baked in a kiln until they were red and hard. This was a completely new way of roofing. The common villager who knew only the abundant grass of the fields since the days of his forefathers; or, if the produce of his farm was particularly good as in the case of Ngoweywe whose bonus pay for the previous year's tea crop had outdone everyone else's in a highly suspect manner, then they went to Mbale and hired the trader, Amugo's pickup truck to cart their iron sheets to the village.
At such a rare moment in the life a villager, a horde of other villagers descended on his homestead to tear down the smoky thatch from his old hut and pass up the shiny sheets of iron to the fundi, who nailed them onto the smoky roof beams using funny-looking nails that had caps on them; as if he never intended for them to ever come off. And all this work for close to naught expense on the proud fellow who would be moving up in the world, for the excitement of it all was pay enough to the more-than-willing hands. Afterwards, the finished product was to stand as a beacon pride amidst the grass-thatched huts that surrounded it, reflecting brightly far and wide all the way to Bukulunya and Chugi, before the weathering mercilessness of the sun and rain rubbed out the bright sheen from the silvery zinc coat and rendered it lustreless, like those old sheets on the latrine beside the tea buying centre in Eruanda which they weighing clerk and the old men of the kamiti used.
After achieving such a roof, a man could stand out on the murram road that passed by the tea buying centre and, rubbing his hanging paunch the way Andimi sometimes did, would point out his home to a friend he was making an appointment with and say: “…tha-at one over the-re, the one between those tall trees; the one with the mabati.”
But Andimi's was in a class of its own. Walking up the crushed limestone drive which snaked up to the solid, lavishly varnished door with a smoked glass plate set in it just at eye level where, the villagers said, it afforded the wealthy man the benefit of scrutinising his visitors in one-way privacy before he let them in. Many a villager was simply awed.
Sometimes they even forgot what business it was that had brought them there and, when the wealthy man finally opened the door to their timid ting-tong from the enormous brass knocker, they often broke off mumbling incoherent things that weren't even within a kilometre of the initial problem. To this the wealthy man thunderously laughed with good cheer. Then the over-awed villager was sent on his way with a dismissive promise to ‘look into that.' When Andimi was in a good mood, the visitor might even be allowed to stand in the entrance hall a while and watch through a window the televisheni picture of the president all the way in Nairobi on the seven o'clock news.
This solid front door now opened and Andimi emerged, garbed in a flowing, delicately-embroidered kitenge robe that he usually wore in the village evenings. His plump, rather feminine, pink-soled feet were planted inside soft leather sandals. He stepped down the polished red step and approached the crowd on the front lawn with a wide smile on his round face, flashing teeth that bit only into soft-boiled eggs and other choice foods. He stopped a metre or so away and stood there a while with his hand raised mid-air as if in a terminated giving gesture, clutching a small white khaki money-bag with was fastened with a draw-string. The other hand was buried in the folds of his robe, oddly caressing the hairs on his stomach. He stood thus; inspecting them a while before he bowled a general greeting in a rich warm baritone that Ang'ote imagined would give wonderful accompaniment to his old lyre.
He went on to deliver his short customary short speech, walking among his employees the way an army officer might do amid a company of fresh recruits, scrutinising their grime and squalor with spiteful little eyes that pretended to proffer friendliness. Andimi radiated only riches from his delicate calfskin sandals which, it was said, were made in London to his own specifications, to his stylish haircut that gave the impression every one of his curly black hairs had been groomed and brilliantined separately. They said that besides owning an unmeasurable tea estate in bits and pieces which scattered far and wide within the surrounding villages, the man also owned a string of all sorts of businesses all the way from Kakamega to Kisumu and back again the other side of the road; butcheries, mills, drinking places, and even a pawn business that specialised in recovering at a fee money and other goods for creditors from debtors who wouldn't pay. All these, together with numerous other petty businesses like a fleet of handcarts for hire in Kakamega town for instance – which could mint money with least investment and hassle. Mind, all these properties of just one man. That, despite his huge mass and rather sluggish predisposition, the fellow was actually a computing wizard who shrewdly kept track of his every cent and what it did at what time. The joke went that you could steal a whole cow and get away with it but not ten shillings from him. He would sniff you out sooner than later. That if you tried to hoodwink him a transaction, he kept up that chubby smile of his to make you feel like he hadn't sensed a thing, but in reality he was giving you the benefit of the doubt. Indeed he was so wealthy none of his children – incidentally all girls – attended the local schools. They came visiting sometimes once in a year, or not at all, from wherever it was they to school far away in another country, no one knew where.
Eventually, the wealthy man came to the end of his small-talk and started doling out their pay which the tired labourers right then needed more than words: words could not keep a hungry mouth fed until the next day. They lined up and receive their share one by one, thereafter making a beeline for the open gates, wide smiles written on their sunburned, sweat-moistened faces. They were like people coming from Holy Communion, but heading right back to their old sinful ways.
Ombima came up in his turn and basked in the brief instant the wealthy man's attention was focussed on him; a common layabout with not a penny to his name who also happened to bloodlessly rob the same provider to keep himself and his family fed. He lived through a brief moment of near glee there as he made contact with Riches and Splendour.
It struck him as interesting that Andimi had to actually come out of his ‘baked potling' palace to give them what was their due, and – he humoured himself – actually took the trouble to keep smiling while at it to make sure that his work force would not desert him the following day for another master somewhere else. For a brief moment, Ombima found himself wondering just what it actually felt like to be rich and famous.
As Ombima left the compound, he noticed Madam Tabitha standing in the open doorway, one of her ‘clan' children playing with a fat white-and-chestnut pussycat at her feet. There was a serene look in her eyes, as if her thoughts were focussed somewhere distant. He wondered what she was thinking about. Or; for that matter, if someone like her had any problems giving thought to at all.
The talk of the menfolk as they walked down the village path was of the beer drinking ceremony that was times for that coming Sunday at Eregwa, the brewer's. Now they were rich men with a week's wages in their pockets they could afford talk of drink and merrymaking.
As for the women, they were all about the market day the following day at Mbale and the mitumba clothes they would purchase for their children. They talked of purchase of meat and all those coveted condiments for their stew pots which, had they had mouths, would have complained about the watery vegetable soups they had been doling out every other day. One in the group also talked of a new pair of rubber sandals and another of a bottle of orange juice to stow away for the children in early preparation for the approaching Christmas. They all talked of a great deal of things, some that they could afford and others well beyond their reach, all in this deceptively delightful moment of reprieve for the wage-earner. And they could afford to do so, for today was pay day; the tireless wage-earner's short-lived paradise.
Ombima, feeling it was still early to go home, decided to accompany his friend Ang'ote to his old den for a bit of manly chat to while away the rest of the time before the day died. They passed by Mama Sabeti's compound on their way, where Ang'ote maintained a daily supply of half a pint of milk, having no cow of his own – and no children to send for that matter.
Ang'ote's house was a mess. First, one had to be careful on entering lest one got oneself a nest of termites all over the hair! The roof was low and the thatch rotting and literally crawling with weeds, a patch of wandering jew ravenously setting colony at their striped apex, as if they meant to conceal the naked poles there which were now at the mercy of the weather after a storm had ripped off the top thatch. That was on the outside.
Inside was the real hazard because one couldn't really see where one was going, there being no opening other than the single front door that let in all of God's light; and kept it out as well. Stools and implements were strewn all over the floor; old hoes and used tins of cooking fat that Ang'ote meant to clean out and use for drawing water, and which could cause grievous harm to a foreign toe stepping carelessly about. There were dented old pans that he had inherited from his doting grandmother as a parting gift and a particularly dangerous twisted band of metal that he normally used to lift the sufuria off the fire, and which lay on the floor, rusty and weird looking. It was chaos.
“Make yourself comfortable somewhere, bwana.” Ang'ote had been watching his visitor all this while he had been surveying the hut, a bemused expression hovering on his face, as if he was wondering what the other man could probably be thinking. “You waiting for God's good angel to show you a place to sit?” He was trying to locate a matchbox, not sure where he had left it, even though he was doubly sure he had one. He soon gave up. Instead he stood on his toes and pulled some dried grass out of the thatch which he stuffed in the cold fireplace. Using his finger, he groped about in the ashes till he found a live ember.
Dragging up an empty plastic barrel that normally stored water, he sat himself down and to work fanning the fire, feeding it with broken piece of twig, as if it was the most delicate task he had ever performed.
There was little water in the chipped pot in the corner and so it had to be used with the utmost care. Washing of hands or any such fancy use was anathema. All the same, one noticed some recent attempts at cleaning up. The floor was swept and neatly arranged and the dry maize stalks stacked in the corner. But then, it appeared as if whoever had taken the trouble had been one effort in vain, for everything was quickly reverting back to its old familiar disorder.
“Ang'ote,” said Ombima with a twinkle in his eye, “why do I see the hand of a woman in this place? I mean, I hope I'm not mistaken …But I can certainly…?”
Ang'ote had been piling pieces of wood on the glowering fire and he paused, his ears cocked.
But Ombima was not to be dissuaded so easily.
“You could at least persuade her to fetch you a jerrican of water from the river, don't you think?” he carried on, knowing he was treading on his friend's sensitive ground from the way Ang'ote reacted. “Yeah?” said Ang'ote, all suspicion. “And just how did you know this woman you speak of was here?”
“Now, now, don't you pretend, Ang'ote,” Ombima decided to be frank with him, figuring it wouldn't hurt anyone to bring the matter into the open. “Everyone knows that you and Rebecca have got something going, and that there's definitely more than the rest of us are supposed to know going on lately; now, you know that is true, Ang'ote. As a matter of fact, I happened to see her coming in this direction last evening. She was carrying a packet of flour and some milk, I think…” he broke off to glance with incriminating casualness at the half-used packed that was on the food-rack against the wall. “Now, don't you pretend, Ang'ote. It's an open secret, the flame that burns between you two, however discreetly you might try to be.”
“I'm not pretending about anything, Ombima”, Ang'ote suddenly retorted with a flash in his eyes. “Indeed, I'm not pretending in the least that I enjoy being spied on by any of you.” He made a grating noise at the back of his throat and spat on the floor, rubbing the spittle in with the heel of his foot. “Tell me, Ombima, just what is it that is your business in whatever might be going on between me and Rebecca?” There was a new tone to his voice which Ombima had never heard before.
“Look, I sure touched on some tender sport there, my friend,” said Ombima, backing down. “I'm sorry.”
For a while Ang'ote glowered, something that must have anger flashing deep in his eyes. And then he shook his head and bent back to the task of lighting the fire. He found a sufuria and placed it on the roaring fire, pouring in a splash of water which hissed angrily on contact with the hot metal. He sat back on his haunches and broke dry maize stalks one by one on his knee, feeding them into the fire which now lit up the whole hut in bright orange. The crack of the dried twigs and the roaring of the ravenous flames was accentuated by the heavy silence that had fallen in the hut. The orange-blue flames lapped over the sides of the sufuria and soon the heated metal started singeing, the water erupting into hundreds of air bubbles which rose from the bottom of the pan and broke up on the surface, sending off scalding steam that mingled with the pale blue smoke and rose in a lethargic twist towards the apex of the hut.
It was too much. Ang'ote's scowl broke suddenly and before he could stop himself, he burst in a fit of laughter that saw huge tears jump into his eyes. Only he could laugh that way – the way only people who've never shouldered any responsibility in their lives are capable. And Ombima just couldn't help joining in.
“You sure feel like a couple of teenagers, the two of you,” said Ombima when his laughter had subsided. “You are too fidgety all of a sudden.”
“And there's another reason for it,” said Ang'ote, rubbing his stinging eyes which had now gone red from blowing in the fire. He leaned closer to his friend as if he wanted to confide an intimate secret. “There's reason to indeed, my friend Ombima. That woman you speak of has surely bewitched me. One thing I can say of her, and it isn't a lie,” he held up a finger as if speaking in the strictest confidence, “she sure knows how to take care of an old bachelor. I must admit I feel like sunshine whenever she is around. Aaah…” he took in a deep breath, sitting back on his heels, “that I must give to her.” His eyes glowed briefly in the orange light, as if he was at the moment experiencing a deep inner peace. And then a shadow crossed the boyish calm that had settled over his face. “Only one thing I wish she would stop, though; her ranting.” Yet again he reached over his shoulder and spat into the shadows. “It would get to anyone's nerves the way that woman insists on drumming order into almost everything she touches,” he threw his hands in the air as if in exasperation. “Don't do this, Ang'ote; don't do that...Ah!”
“And she she's sure got reason to, if you ask me. You really can be quite a mess sometimes, Ang'ote.” Ombima helped himself to some left-over cold cassava in a bowl on the food-rack which he well knew had been at the mercy of the rats and roaches the whole day. He speculated a while over a couple of fine groove marks that ran at one end of the cassava and decided they possibly couldn't be poison, put it into his mouth and bit off a large mouthful.
“Why don't you just marry her, Ang'ote?” he spoke over the chewing.
“Oh, that,” Ang'ote scratched the side of his head. “The woman just wouldn't hear a word of it!”
And expression that was almost sorrowful flashed on his face as he spoke, catching Ombima a little by surprise because in all the years he had sat with Ang'ote, he had never known him to express grief or sorrow. Even when his late grandmother had passed away, something everyone had expected would affect Ang'ote especially badly given she had almost been his entire life, they had been wrong. It had come as a shock, but then Ang'ote hadn't spent his days mourning over it. Instead he surprised everyone when he led the mourners in making merry all through the entire week of mourning, as if it was someone else's funeral at which he had been hired to entertain. It was always that flippant sneer that said the world for us all, and the devil and his own, as he cracked off in his jocular, carefree manner. But now here, gloom showed itself.
“I've lost count, my friend,” he carried on in that low mournful tone. “I've lost of the times I've tried to persuade that woman to stay over for the night, let alone move in permanently.”
Ombima felt slightly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking. And so, meaning to draw his friend out, he said lightly, “Don't tell me you haven't…”
“Haven't what?”Ang'ote glanced up, not knowing what his friend could be inferring.
For an answer, Ombima averted his gaze as casually as he could, turning towards the unmade bed on the far side of the hut against the wall which was covered with what looked like the skin of some animal, but which was actually an old blanket perhaps come down from his doting grandmother too. It was all too obvious what he meant.
“Oh, that?” Ang'ote broke off stirring the tea. There was a faraway look in his eyes which were trained on the floor between his feet. Then he shook his head and said softly, “She is a nice woman.”
“Huhh? You want the bare details?” He offered Ombima a boring, owlish look.
“I just imagined, well, she might be a bit..er..rusty in the hinges, you know…” Yet again Ombima found amusement in his own words.
“…A bit ‘rusty in the hinges', - what a choice of words!” Their laughter was so loud it must have been heard by people passing on the path outside. “No, my friend, you imagined wrong,” Ang'ote finally said when he had regained a bit of his composure. “She does well, yes. You know…”
He was going to elaborate, but then changed his mind. “Some other time, my friend. It is late and you can see I don't want to invoke the memories, having to spend the night alone, like my fate is.” The tea was served in chipped old tin mugs with a grassy smell about them. The two friends lounged back against the smoke-stained walls and sipped in silence. Between them, the fire ate up the bark of the dry maize stalks and leapt up in thin tongues of flames which momentarily threw the hut into orange light, making their faces shine like those of animals caught in a forest fire in the night – enthralled by the savage beauty of it against the dull night sky, not knowing it could speck their own death. It was quite dark by then, and in the cracks in the walls the crickets and other night-time chirpers had taken up their call. A fat grey rat scuttling up in the roof paused to regard them. In its unhurried pose, the tiny red eyes glowed brightly, shining with unprovoked menace.
“It is wondering who you are,” said Ang'ote, following his friend's gaze. It doesn't know you. Only Rebecca is known to them in this house.”
“I see. So what happens to me if I am found here at night without you?”
“You can figure it out for yourself,” Ang'ote answered jocularly. He made some clucking sounds at the big mother who appeared like she carried a sizeable litter in her ripe belly and she scampered away in the thatch.
“They can give you a choice, you know? If they like you, that is. It is either they gnaw you a bit at your toes, or nibble off part of your ears. If you kick them, they get irritated – rather easily, I must say – and might carry it a bit further. But then, they really are not that nasty as you think. We've got a sort of code made up between us; I supply them with leftovers from my meals, and they look after the place while I'm away. Sound reasonable, don't you think?”
“Don't you have a lamp in here?” There was a baffled look on Ang'ote's face. It's gotten too dark in here – and rather creepy too. Why don't you light one?”
“Why don't I light one?” Ang'ote savoured the words on his tongue for a while, the way a seasoned drinker might taste brew made from new grain. “Why don't we just say I don't need it. Nevertheless,” he held up a finger, as if he wanted to make an important insertion, “if you really need one, you are at liberty. There is one that hook over there against the wall.” He indicated a cobwebbed spot above Ombima's head and, as he rose to bring it down, hastened to add, “I hope you brought along your own kerosene.”
“You mean…”and then Ombima caught the inference of Ang'ote's words. By then Ang'ote was rolling over with laughter.
“I say, what kind of life do you live here?” Ombima shouted, astounded. You mean you cant even spare a few coins for kerosene?”
“You know I'm try to keep it simple as I can. With the pieces of commodities that keep going up, who knows, a bit of prudence could save the day when they eventually shoot through the roof – way beyond the reach of ordinary folk like us.”
“But you got your pay only this evening! I mean…”
“You are right,” said the other man calmly. “But then, let's just say I've got other uses for it.”
They were silent a while, Ombima twirling the tea ground at the base of his cup idly, and Ang'ote scratching half consciously at an itchy toe on his right foot which he had drawn up onto his seat atop the plastic water drum. A cool breeze blew in though the open door and stirred the dying coals in the hearth. A wisp of smoke curled lazily up from a dry stalk on the floor just out of the red core of the fire. The curl of the smoke crackled into a thin long flame which danced delicately in the breeze, a languid fluid motion, like a nubile Akamba dancer. Together, with the hollow sound of the wind coming in through the open door, they were like two strangers sitting around a witch-fire in some underground place in a story. The darkness was all of a sudden pregnant with words that needed to be said. Outside, the tall cypresses encircling the hut could be heard whispering in the breeze.
“Ombima?” It was Ang'ote who eventually broke the silence.
“I've been thinking.”
“About Rebecca. I want to propose to her.”
A smug expression which, thankfully, Ang'ote could not see in the dark appeared on Ombima's face. “I see,” he said simply.
“I'm serious, Ombima. She had been on my mind almost al the time lately. I think I'm blind in love with her.”
“Well, why don't you tell her then?”
“I tried to. Yesterday. But, for some reason, I found that at the crucial moment, the words deserted me.”
“Why?” Ombima tried to exude mild surprise, although it was all that he cold do to keep the shock of the pronouncement from coming out in his voice.
“Why? I suppose its because I'm afraid she's going to laugh at the whole idea.”
There was another uncomfortable silence. Ang'ote cleared his throat. “Do you think we really can marry, me and her?” There was a strange note in his friend's voice which made Ombima realise he was listening to a man's most tender feelings pour out.
“I can't tell you for certain,” he said after he had mulled over it. He really didn't want to commit himself, mostly because he considered himself an amateur in such matters. “You know, Ang'ote, I'd suggest you talk over the matter with her, preferably as candidly as you can make it. Don't hide anything from her, also let her not hide anything from you.”
“Yes, you are right.” Ang'ote scratched his right cheek vigorously, and it sounded like the skin of some lizard in the silence of the dark hut. He poked about in the fire, trying to revive the dying embers. Then he raised his face and stared at t appoint in the obscure corner where broken pots and other bric-a-brac here heaped. “I want your honest opinion, Ombima, man-to-man. What do you really think?”
Ombima sat up straighter, regarding his friend from the corner of his eye. In the dim light, a strange look clouded the other man's eyes. They were almost sad and pitiable. Ombima decided to be straight with him. Clearing his throat to rid it of an uncomfortable phlegm that had formed there he said, “Ang'ote, honestly, I think she's too old for you.”
“Is it?” There was surprise in the other man's voice.
“You asked for my honest opinion, remember?” said Ombima, now not quite so comfortable with the topic.
“Okay. But then, you don't suppose I'm exactly young myself, do you?”
“Frankly speaking, Ang'ote, I don't know exactly how old you are,” Ombima answered lightly. He resisted the urge to laugh.
“You mean?” Ang'ote too should have been laughing, only this matter sounded too grave. “I'll tell you. And you had better believe me because it's coming off a troubled man's lips. That woman, for all her grandmotherly appearance, is only twelve years older than I am, Ombima – she told me herself.”
“Twelve, do you mean?” This time Ombima did not know whether to laugh or be shocked.
“Are you surprised?” said Ang'ote, trying to find his friend's eyes in the dark.
“But that's too…”
“That's too what? Go on.”
“Ang'ote, don't you think you need to be older than her? I mean, don't you think men need to be older than their woman?”
Ombima paused, weighing his words. He slapped at his upper arm where a mosquito was just inserting it's needle. “I think it's only natural. I mean…”
“Oh, so you say! But, while you're at it, do you stop to consider what if the two of us love each other, eh? What if we are just comfortable in each other's company? What has age go to do with that? Answer me that.” Ang'ote was quite charged by then. “You want my opinion, Ombima? I think age has got nothing to do with matters of the heart; not at all!”
“Phew!” Ombima took a long hard look at his friend. “I can see that,” he said, rather resignedly. “But then why then are you getting so hotted up about it, Ang'ote?”
Ang'ote sat up straight on the plastic drum, now aware that the argument could be slipping away from him. “Look, Ombima,” he said rather irritably, I don't think I want your opinion anymore.”
“Only because I am stepping on your tail, isn't it? Well…,” he shrugged with indifference, stretching his foot to ease a cramp in his muscle, “you are not paying me for my opinion, anyway. So why should I bother?”
The two friends regarded each other for a while. They were like two people with a delicate problem hanging over them which neither of them could solve. Then Ang'ote, shaking his head, said, “You know what I think, Ombima? I think you're envious.”
“Is it?” Ombima was quite surprised at this new turn. “And just why should I be?”
“Search me. I have no idea.”
“Ang'ote, you must really love this woman,” Ombima, shaking his head slowly left to right. “You've become immensely suspicious all of a sudden. You were never this way.”
“You think she has cast a spell on me, perhaps?” asked Ang'ote, more the way a child might ask after a big bug they found that they are told will spell a bad omen should they insist on keeping it in a tin under the hen house.
“Perhaps she has,” said Ombima, seeing that his words obviously were not going to make the other man alter the course he had opted to travel.
Ang'ote bit his thumb thoughtfully, the glow of the fire reflecting off his sloping forehead. Then a look of comprehension slowly crept into his tiny eyes which were focussed at a point on the floor. “In that case, my friend, I think I wouldn't mind her adding yet another spell,” he said decisively. “Honestly, I've never felt this good with myself before.”
“Are the two of you truly happy together?” Ombima asked, more from curiosity. Ang'ote's eyebrows rose as he mulled over this question. A smile played at the corner of his mouth as his face lit up.
“Come to think of I, we never quite…er…happy the few times we are together. Indeed the truth is we are forever arguing over every little thing. You know, I never really thought about it until you brought it up.”
Ombima laughed, trying to visualise his friend and the elderly Rebecca fanning it up over whether to eat their chapatis as they rolled off the pan, still hot, or wait for them to cool down and pile up so high that they should sit at table in a more decent way.
“I think that is an indication of love, Ang'ote.”
“Is it?” There was a puzzled look on the other man's face, not certain if his friend was just flattering him.
“I think so. If you argue most of the time like you say, then it is an indication that you are comfortable with each other. If you ask me, it's deceptive if any two people truly serious with each other have everything going smooth for them. It might just show that the both of them are afraid to let their true feelings show, and that what they actually are doing is working hard at keeping their ugly sides hidden from each other.”
“So, in other words, you are actually telling me that I am on the right path?”
“I'm not pretending to be some expert in such matter, am I?” Ombima said.
“You know what, Ombima?” Ang'ote wore a thoughtful expression, as if what he was about to say was a conclusion that had been forming in his head over a long while. “ I think I am going to propose to her tomorrow.”
“Is it?” Ombima was mildly surprised. “And while you are at it, let me just remind you that will also be taking on her full responsibilities as well – I mean, all those grandchildren…'
“Yes, I know that!” said Ang'ote, his voice straining in a slight snap. “I know fully well what I'm taking on, my friend, Ombima – do you think I don't?” Ombima new Ang'ote too well to know when he was lying to himself; and was fully aware of it while he said it too. “You know what, Ombima?” the other man suddenly burst out in a fit of heavenly spirit, “I am going to buy you a drink at Eregwa's tomorrow; just keep that in mind!”
By the time Ombima took his leave, the full moon had climbed up in the sky. A rectangular pattern of its silvery light was imprinted on the floor through the open door. Upon this lit spot big-headed ants were frolicking left and right, searching for a morsel to eat among the unyielding debris littering the floor, quite oblivious of the tentative issue bothering the two occupants of the room. Ang'ote walked his visitor up to the path, as was customary, even though Ombima's own compound was just a stone's throw away.
Outside the once familiar country was now awash in the dazzling loght, the scenic landscape softened into barely perceptible folds and curves. Some of the silhouetted shapes on the hazy periphery were etched sharply against the dull grey backdrop, quite in contrast with the smooth curves of the rest of the sketch. They were like thin flying buttresses that held by the expansive night sky. Yet other shapes were more rounded and softer, like balled up porcupines crouching amidst the towering shapes, ready to discharge their darts at the slightest provocation.
It was hard to imagine that there had been a downpour just the other day. The sky was now so clear, and there was hardly any winde blowing at all. The air was turgid and warm, the deep grey November sky spangled with a million stars amidst which majestically hung the immense yellowish ball of moon. Floating in this stillness were the murmured voices of the village children who came out to squat in the dappled shadows thrown by the moon, conversing in whispered tones, too awed to go to sleep. It was a warm dreamy night which made one feel young again.
“I cant go any further than this,” said Ang'ote when they reached the entrance to his compound.
“Is it?” But have have barely stepped on the dew, my friend. You could at least get me round that bend.” Ombima offered his hand, which the other declined to shake.
“Hey, people don't shake hands at night. I don't know if in your clan you turn into witches when darkness falls, you know. You go in peace, my friend. And also,” he paused as he was turning back into his compound, “do remember that what we just talked about is strictly between you and me. I trust you not to forget that. I don't want you talking me around, you see.”
“Oh, I can understand your nervousness, Ang'ote,” said Ombima turning to go. “I was that way too when I was courting Aradi's mother.”
The two friends parted with a good laugh that ricocheted far in the still night. Ombima walked on down the path , a low whistle coming to his lips as he reflected over the events of the evening. As he drew closer to his compound, he notices someone on the path ahead, coming in his direction. It seemed like whoever it was had just emerged from his compound, although he wasn't certain of it because he had been walking with his head down, lost in thought. Whoever it was came closer and he saw that it was a woman. She wore a white woollen shawl about her shoulders, and her stockiness of build was familiar.
“Ombima, is that you?”
That voice was unmistakable. Madam Tabitha wore a light perfume sometimes after she had taken her evening bath, the scent was unmistakable in the wind along where she had passed, mostly because no other woman wore the same. In fact, no other women in the village wore perfume, anyway.
“The day is old, Madam,” Ombima said in salutatation, a little surprised to meet her that late.
“Yes indeed it is, Ombima.”
Standing this close to her in the soft moonlight, Ombima could clearly make ot the outline of her soft rounded plumpness. More so, in the desrted stillness of the moonlit night, there was a radiance about her that only the very wealthy carry about them. It was this that overwhelmed Ombima a little.
“I was just leaving. Indeed it is good that we met.” She had come to a stop just about a metre in front of Ombima and her voice, for some reason, sounded soft and relaxed, quite different from the domineering one of her tycoon husband. The contrast made Ombima feel ill at ease.
“I came by to ask a favour of you, Ombima.”
Ombima waited, unable to imagine what someone like her might come all the way from her warm house to ask of him at this time of the night. But then, what Madam Tabitha said next almost knocked the breath out of him.
“I've been going around my garden this evening, Ombima, she said, raising a polished fingernail to scratch a speck on her cheek, “and I must say I am rather disturbed. Someone, it seems, is stealing from the garden. There is obvious evidence of this, although it's not too plain because whoever it is seems to be doing it carefully. However, one can tell if one looks closely.” She paused, frowning. “There are places in the vines where a pumpkin or two are clearly missing, while I don't remember harvesting any lately; or some tomato plucked, a banana tree felled. Now, Ombima, I don't have the vaguest idea who this might be, although I must say I'm quite disturbed that anything like this should be happening at all.” She was talking with calm, the way an employer might address a most trusted employee. “I've been thinking that it cold be one of the women who started working for me last week, especially that lot from Kivagala – they've got this look about them. One wonders why they should come all that way to look for work this way. However, it could be anyone else. Now, I'd like you to keep your eyes open as you work alongside – especially that Kezia of Mwelesa's, and listen for any clues which might lead us to the thief – you know, like a careless slip of the tongue in conversation, or such. Could you please do that for me?”
Ombima gasped, afraid for a moment that is drawn in breath would tell. And then he stammered, “Most obligingly, Madam.” He was standing partially in the shade of an old mtiva tree which grew outside his compound. He hoped she couldn't see the expression on his face. “I wonder who that could be, doing such a thinkg, tch! tch! …” he broke off in a mutter.
“Please do that for m; I'll be most grateful. The whole thing is really a bother because it has never before happened in the garden. Er…could you report to me anything you come up with, say, on Monday after work.”
“Even earlier if I should find out, Madam,” said Ombima eagerly. “You know that this news is a shock to me as well. I would like to find this ungrateful person for you, Madam.”
“I'm sorry I'm putting you to the trouble, but I feel that I can trust you to do it for me, Ombima. Please do be careful, though, as you go about it. You know that any thief will naturally turn dangerous should they find out they are about to be uncovered,” she said with a soft laugh that revealed a glimpse of her shiny white teeth, her dark eyes sparkling briefly with mirth.
Ombima mumbles a not-to-worry as she turned and prepared to depart, hugging her shawl closer about her shoulder. He watched her walk away, casting a figure of easy elegance in her unhurried stride. And as he watched, it didn't escape him the way the shawl wrapped about her, causing her dress to dip at the base of her spine. He let out his breath slowly and turned into his compound, his thoughts suddenly scattered all over inside his head.
A heavy cloud of loneliness hung over Ombima the whole of the following day while at work. It seemed as if, somehow, the other workers had discovered that he was there to watch them, and that every one of them was suspected of the random disappearance of garden produce. They treated him with a reserved coldness that was not outright rejection but quite close to it. They exchanged niceties whenever he within earshot, that that was just about all. He felt like a stranger in his hometown.
The hours dragged on. They were working in a section of the garden under pineapple ad it was tough work because the sharp-edged leaves sliced through the skin however cautiously one moved between the lines, and into the cut, given the hot sun , soon seeped some sweat. This stung quite.
There was also very little fruit, harvesting having been done just the other day, and so there wasn't enough to steal. This meanst that they could only gaze at the fez unripe pineapples left and imagine how the soft flesh indside would have melted on their tongues, were they ripe.
Of course not a single one of them cold cross his her heart and claim, never at one time, to have stolen something form the garden. Be it a cob of maize or a guava or a fallen mango furit, at least everyone of them had secretly pilfered one of these as they left aft the end of the day when on one was looking. Because of this feeling guilt from these petty thefts, no one dared cast the first stone. And indeed, it was a silent rule on the farm that on one ever reported the misdeeds of another. It was this that bound them together as workers.
Yet now one of them had broken the unwritten protocol and all the pieces were falling asunder. All of a sudden, the sense of brotherhood which had prevailed was replaced with caution and suspicion. Everyone was watching their back, expecting heads to start rolling soon. And they all kenw how hard regular work was to come by in these times. One would find work for maybe a day or two, and then for the next two or so days the family would have to make do on those little earnings. Maybe one find a farmer who paid well and also took good care of the workers, but then, as investment went, no-one had as yet proved more generous than Andimi. No one had more land and crops.
Ombima was pretty confused. He had been given the responsibility of catching the thief, meaning he had been set upon himself, and was expected to submit a report at the end of the day. So, just how did one catch oneself? He really wondered.
And there was the possibility; could it be a ploy? Did Madam Tabitha know who the thief was, and in reality was she just extending him the opportunity to reform?
But as much as it was confusing, there was this other angle to it; he was in the clear, at least in the partial sense, to continue with his activities. He could, of course, always heap it on someone of his choice. There was Musimbi, that loathsome, dull woman who was always getting warts all over on her hands and feet and whom no one wanted to work side by side with. Ombima thought she made an inviting option. He decided he would give it some thought, present her name as one of the suspects. For Musimbi, he had no misgivings, given he hadn't much to lose by her dismissal anyway.
Besides Musimbi, there was a host of others to choose from. There was Kidavasi, the old man who trapped termites and whose son had just the other day been stung near to death trying to steal from Iduru's hives down in the valley. Everyone knew that the people in Kidavasi's family line had light fingers, and it was not something that had started yesterday. For him, Madam Tabitha would have little doubt.
Then there was that woman, Debra, with one a few bolts loose in her head who had chased her husband with a club the previous year for drinking the money he had traded their goat in Mudete for. This one too was known to pick up people's things and stash them down her rinda. Ask any village woman and they would tell you that they wouldn't spread out their washing next to Debra's when they went laundering down the river. The woman was known to pack up someone's else's shirt or two among her own things. And perhaps the most curious things was that that particular shirt would never be seen again in the light of day. Her son didn't wear it to the evening football matches, her her father when he came visiting. And neither did she sell it to anyone. So one was left wondering exactly where the stolen garments disappeared to. – pg 59
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