The whole way back upcountry to the farm, Lily gazed unconsciously out of the window at the passing landscape from the backseat of the car. She had not been to the city since her first-born son, James, returned home, his studies abroad unfinished. Her weeklong trip, the first in a year, was taken to sell the city house. Before that, she had traveled there once or twice a month, the drives blurring into one endless journey. The hills in rain, the hills in fog, the pervading highland chill that absorbed to the bones when they stopped to buy produce by the highway – plums, pears, potatoes, arrowroots, yams, peas, carrots in clear plastic bags slung on wooden racks.
A group of boys who patched up potholes with gravel stood on the side of the road with spades in their hands. The tallest one with a captain’s hat saluted as the car passed. The car stopped a short distance away and a young boy ran for coins the driver held out of the window.
The hills passed quickly, they barely registered. It seemed to Lily she had just looked at the first peaks, and when she surfaced from her thoughts hours later, the land was flattening out into grain country. They descended swiftly from the highlands.
“Don’t sleep because now the road is smooth,” Lily said as they picked up speed.
The driver laughed.
Loaded lorries painfully climbed the steep gradient of the Rift Valley wall. It appeared the slow forward-turning action of their wheels was in danger of reversing. Engines strained, hitting deep timbres, and exhaling soft dark plumes of diesel exhaust. Like a spectacle observed from far, Lily watched the ascent of two lorries side by side. One took up the climbing lane. Lights flashed to indicate the driver of the oncoming vehicle on their lane had seen them and the vehicle slowed and disappeared behind the lorries. The driver continued without slowing and she breathed carefully to calm herself.
Only on reaching Maili Saba did Lily feel like she was home. Even though it was still half an hour to the farm, the land had settled into familiar gentle undulations covered with maize. They slowed for a long line of cattle crossing, perhaps coming from the cattle-dip. A herdsman wearing a shuka with a long stick across his shoulders brought up the rear. It appeared to be one of those herds that grazed in the buffer swath of grass between the tarmac and the barbwire fences marking farm boundaries, their owners landless, or lacking sufficient land. In the three years that Lily had lived on the farm, she had seen them pass on the path that skirted the northern edge of the farm on the way to the slaughterhouse some distance away.
Tall blue gum trees standing above the maize marked the road to the farm. The trees were almost a black mass at dusk, loosing definition of branch and leaf. The car bumped on roots: sudden, grating bumps.
“What kind of driver are you. And you are not looking at the bumps,” said Lily in an irritable tone.
“We are going through the tree roots right now.”
“Still… You are driving like how?” Lily looked out of the window.
If the darkness were complete, the arc of light from the full beams would sweep the sky like a powerful searchlight, yet still fall woefully short of the stars, safe in their darkness. It was twilight; the lamps glowed softly, in balance with the last light the sunken sun sent over the edge of the earth. Among the first things Lily noticed when she came back was how numerous and loud the stars were, like deafening silence after an explosion, shards of glass moving outward, pressing against the eye, or the almost imperceptible vibration of a tuning fork. In the city, a light-fog covered most of the night sky.
The driver opened the black metal gates and drove inside the compound without Lily, who got out of the car, stretched for a moment, and started for the direction of the paddocks. She had moved upcountry to prepare for retirement while her husband remained in the city to complete his last years in the civil service. It was hoped that the pension plan would still be in place when his age reached. The husband, John, came to the farm on a few scattered weekends when work permitted.
At first she went back to the city frequently, but when James came back she couldn’t leave him on the farm alone. He had been sent overseas at great expense to the family, but it was borne with great hope and quiet pride. One day while Lily was on the phone with him, she noticed a silence deeper than the usual dead spaces time-delay caused after each sentence – those spaces that would never let anything worth saying get said, as it seemed the two people on the line were having parallel conversations. James returned with the thought he was to recuperate, go back and finish his studies. But she slowly came out of thinking that this was a phase that would pass, and the platitudes from her mouth had stopped.
Phone conversations from the past few days came back to Lily as she followed a new length of barbwire fencing. Shiny newly threaded wire in the posts where the young bull had pushed the milkman against the fence contrasted with dull older portions. The milkman’s square wooden house with corrugated iron sheet roof stood quiet and still. She knocked but it was empty. The young bull, already stocky and thick, white with red markings, was now isolated in its own paddock. It stood at the edge of the fence, small horns sprouting, as if the rest of the horn waited painfully underneath the hide to emerge. While bulls were usually sold for beef, this one was being kept for breeding. Resting her hand on a post, she thought, perhaps even a future champion in the Agricultural Show.
Lily felt a familiar bitterness that the family had not been able to break their dependence on the land. They were bound and tethered to it. Yet in the end they had a piece of land, their own patch of earth to go back to. Given John’s impending retirement, and the unsure nature of the government pension, the farm was now projected to be their sole source of economic sustenance. They bought it shortly after they were married. It had been a place they visited for a few days every Christmas; a place that provided some additional income; an ancestral home to live in when they were old, because they were from the generation that could never consider themselves to be from the city. Now she found herself tied to the farm’s cycles, which deferred to those of nature and needed her constant presence during the long growing season, making the arduous six-hour journey to the city that was an ironic reversal of others she had made in the past.
The dark, solid house exterior loomed ahead. Clusters of light from the other compounds shone in the distance, framing the pulsating stars and magnified sounds. Crickets were waking, humming, chirping, along with other crepuscular insects with shrunken bellies waiting to fill with blood. Seventeen ferocious dogs that protected the compound had started their nighttime howling, anxious to be let out. If asked why she had so many dogs, Lily simply pointed to the far distance of the neighbor as if that answered everything. She did not speak of her fear of the interminable dark country nights when she was most vulnerable to the solitude, the loneliness and the thoughts this farm was all the family had. The dogs spent the day in a large kennel at one corner of the compound. When let out, they crowded around for their evening meal, which contained mashed vitamins, and ran energetically along the fence perimeters all night, escorting anyone in or out of the compound with a loud stream of barks.
Lily noticed a new lively growth of climbing vines that had sprouted in the week she was away. She would have to get it cut down the next day since vines harbored snakes. As she entered the kitchen, a pot hissed, boiled over, and the smell of scalded milk filled the room. The cook passed her hurriedly and carried the pan from the fire.
“I didn’t see you. I didn’t see you come in. Now the tea is burnt,” said the cook.
“Do not worry about it,” said Lily.
She still wondered at his ability to lift things from the fire without a cloth to protect his bare hands. Not a quick contact that could be borne with a momentary steeling, over before it was transmitted, but a sustained contact of hands to hot metal without grimace. He deposited the pan in the sink, turned on the tap, and came back with a sponge to scrub the stove.
Lily looked out of the window, a little distracted, “Is James in his room?”
“I think so.” The cook stilled for a moment, and then resumed scrubbing the crusted stove. “I think we need sugar and cooking fat.”
“I brought some. What else do we need? Soap?”
“I don’t think so. Also the freezer might need to be fixed. The goat we slaughtered last week is going bad already.”
“You don’t know how to use it. It is not meant to be opened all the time.”
“Things can break.” The cook paused, “I can make more tea.”
“It is all right.”
Even though the cook had worked there since she moved permanently to the farm, the wariness he exhibited in the beginning had only deepened. He had been left behind by an old colonial who had gone back home to die, as African dust was no place to rest the bones. A nervous man of indeterminate age, his shock of white hair lead people to believe he was old, then the unlined face forced a reexamination. He could have been anywhere between fifty and seventy. Because he was the only one in the house during the day, staying indoors and resting when he was not preparing meals, the responsibility fell to him to report James’s activities to Lily. Somewhere she knew, but did not admit to herself, the source of the cook’s deepening anxiety was the watching seemed to have turned into complicity. Blame fell on him for James’s actions, not directly for them, but for failing to act to prevent them, though he could only have a marginal effect.
“Did James eat lunch?” asked Lily.
“A little.” The cook opened the fridge and took out a jug of milk, “You traveled well?”
“Yes. Very well… Has he been eating?”
“Not so bad,” the cook tilted his head in a gesture that was not quite affirming. “How were the roads?”
“Hmm…” She paused, “In some places… but some places not bad.”
“I brought the food in from the car,” he pointed with his chin to the plastic bags piled on the counter that she had not noticed before.
“Oh yes… pack up some potatoes and carrots for the neighbor. I will visit them tomorrow.”
Lily looked out of the window in the direction of James’s room, an anguished tone creeping into her voice, “I don’t know what demons pursue him. I want them to stop.”
Rushing tap water filled the silence.
“Maybe…” the cook began hesitantly. Lily looked at him intently, compelling him to continue, “You know boys wake up late, the girls start early but the boys it takes a while for them to take responsibility.” He now stood silent, like he feared he had said too much.
“Maybe I spoilt him when he was young,” she said.
He gave a noncommittal grunt and continued working.
“The tea is fine. Do not worry about it.”
“I will probably need to make some later,” the cook murmured softly.
Lily left the kitchen, her thoughts increasingly absorbed by the upcoming chores. If it was not a tractor getting stuck in the clays by the river, it was a harrow with broken tines that needed to go to the garage. On the street lined with garages, she had became a familiar sight, barely noticing the bald-headed marabou storks defending their refuse pile territories, shaking flaccid neck-pouches, ruffling magisterial feathers and regarding activity on the street with the contemplative look of wise old men. The mechanics would wave to her when she passed amid the clank clank of metalwork: soldering, smelting, welding sparks like brief terrestrial stars, trailing then swiftly dying.
Soon after she arrived, a few women from the area paid Lily a visit. They sat down to tea in flowered dresses, embroidered sweaters and patiently knotted headscarves. Lifting teacups carefully balanced on saucers, they looked around without appearing to. They asked how many acres she was growing that year and spoke about the benefits of Napier grass in the dry season. Long silences followed. It was apparent their overtures were not equally reciprocated. Undaunted, someone mentioned the changes to the house. Lily showed them the recently planted courtyard flowerbeds and the bars on the windows, black, curving, almost arabesque. They looked up from examining the window bar moorings buried inside stone walls to find Lily staring at them impassively, so made goodbyes that regretted how soon they had leave and welcomed her to their houses very soon.
The new iron grillwork replaced thin mesh-like wire, which had barely protected the windows before. One night, Lily almost had her vindication when she heard urgent shouts coming from the milkman’s house. Awakening from sleep to terror in an instant gave her the strength surge to push a large dresser against the door. She spent the night alternating between absolute terror and calm reassurance that the dogs did not seem particularly agitated. Each hour increased the possibility it was nothing or the robbers were biding their time. Morning and a tentative knock on the door revealed the cat had jumped from the rafters in the dark and frightened the milkman, who, faced with the seeming cowardice of his reaction, swore that the cat had fallen with the weight of a man.
The house stood in the middle of the compound. It faced inward, built around a courtyard where she grew roses with two-toned petals in various shaped beds. The rest of the courtyard was covered by gray porous stones that transmitted the warmth of the midday sun unbearably and had to be sprinkled when the flowerbeds were watered. Lily would wander the rooms, weaving through connecting doors and out into the courtyard like it was a maze and think, the maize, the lorries, the cows, the son, the children still in school. Now she had time to read newspapers cover to cover, but news of political wrangling, sports achievements, the controversial new airport seemed far removed, with little of the immediacy she had felt in the city.
Unless the other children were home from boarding school, she was alone in house with the cook and the driver until James returned. He was now a fugitive presence across the courtyard, marked by a lighted square of window and blue electric glows when he watched television late at night. When James first came back, everyone was careful around him. They heard there was a girl when he was in school. He abandoned his studies to pursue her. In the end her brothers came to his house and beat him. A friend of his called the hospital.
Since he returned, John believed he should be put to work as soon as possible, saying:
“You should give him so much work that he doesn’t have time to think about it.”
After a week at a clerical position in the city, James had disappeared. He came back ten days later haunted, gaunt, skin indented above eyebrows. John, whose rage was stumped by what he viewed as James’s passivity, had now left most direct salvation efforts to the mother. In more bitter moments, he accused her of coddling and spoiling James when he was a child. He was sent to the farm when his withdrawal seemed complete.
Lily crossed the courtyard, gray stones cool beneath her feet. James leaned on the wall outside his room and smoked. His lungs bellowed in his thin frame. The cigarette tip glowed with each inhalation; the paper retreated from the fire, leaving cooling gray ash. Lily moved under the eave next to him, removed her headscarf and wiped her face with it.
“I talked with your father when I was in the city,” she said.
“Mmm…” he murmured.
“Try at least,” she said, trying to temper the urgency in her voice. To prod without too much pressure, the pressure that James said he couldn’t stand anymore.
“Yes,” he said, nodding slightly.
He had a way of agreeing with everything that made her very much want to believe him sometimes, sometimes to smash his face. He was thin, taking after John’s side. His face was always narrow but he had the thinness of someone who drank. His face, long with fine bones, was marked by three scars. When he had just learned to walk, he wandered into the chicken house and the big orange rooster with a high red comb like a lopsided hat pecked him in the middle of the forehead. It bled very little but the white underneath the broken skin scared her more than blood would have. She now thought the image of the rooster’s immense black-tipped wings flying over him was an extrapolated memory. What was clear and certain was the bony beak and drooping comb lying on the ground among plucked wet feathers when it was slaughtered for that night’s dinner.
Lily rubbed her face again, “The jobs in the city may not have been right, they might not have worked but you have to try. You have to move quietly, eh? Without much noise. You could have gone about your business, study, finish.”
James stared impassively at the ground.
“Your father may have found something different for you. He has spoken to some people, but it can only help if you try. Quietly, slowly… not to go chasing after foreign girls.”
James did not know her trip was to sell the house in the city and put the money in the farm. John would live in a small apartment for a few months while completing work. Lily feared the small advantage while John had his position, that proximity to the right ear to ask for their children placement in a certain school or job, would be lost.
She laughed, “You know when your Uncle Ben was your age, he took the tuition your father gave him and bought a camera. I have never seen him so angry.” She smiled a little bitterly, “And you what happens we give you everything. Anyway I won’t talk anymore… But we give you everything and what do you do? You people nowadays. Anyway get ready. He will call and want to talk to you.”
It seemed she was finished but she started again, “Even you… It is getting harder you know. Your father cannot do this much longer. The work is finished. We thought we could depend on you. What did you do while I was away apart from take the milk?” She paused and frowned, “Yes I know you are helping me with the milk at least. I don’t know what we will do if you disappear again… maybe you wont find us here.”
She trailed off and looked at him. She spoke briskly, “Tomorrow the lorry tires need to be replaced you will come with me. If you disappear again… I swear, so try, eh?”
James looked at a small termite swarm that had emerged after the rain. They flew around the light. A few were singed on the naked bulb.
Lily followed his gaze. “I saw Julius a few days ago. He is doing well. He is doing very well. They say he is coming to work at the Chartered Bank. You were in the same class?”
“He is doing well. Working at the bank, he was visiting his parents when I went to see them.”
James’s face shifted a little. “A true professional,” he said softly.
“Why do you talk like that?” Lily breathed, her anger withdrawing.
The two other scars on his face were hidden, one embedded behind a ragged eyebrow, hidden by the thick growth of hair, and one on the curve of his chin below the lower lip. Little puckered horizontal lines crossed it, marking where it was stitched. Those were from a bicycle accident. He had crashed into a window coming down a steep hill, but told varied truths, like how he had been stabbed with a knife. He was always accident-prone but Lily thought that is when she should have recognized that quality, not quite unafraid, not quite uncaring, more a startling disregard for his self.
That time of year the rain began slowly. Lily walked from the neighboring farm, her calm pace unwavering. Except for the farm immediately to the west, her relations with the neighbors had improved little. She could see a gray mist wall approaching from the facing ridge like an invading front. It would be a while before the heavy sheets of water came down. The first heavy drops pockmarked flowerbeds and roused the earth, emitting a mineral smell that made her want to put clumps of soil in her mouth. She ignored the craving, having succumbed to it only in common soil-eating incidents of childhood and when she carried her children, especially James, who had a particular ferric appetite in the womb.
When Lily reached the compound, the rain was still mostly a stirring in the blue gums lining the road. Long-leafed branches grew high up on the tall trees. Pale spotted trunks stood silent, immobile; branches above swayed, singing in a voice that moved back and forth. The sound started at top of the hill, distinct at first, then swept down the line, source and echo mingling into one voice from many throats. A pleasantly cooling wind blew as she stepped over the roots protruding from the ground. At the gate, she removed her shoes, a ritual shedding of the outside, and walked barefoot across the courtyard stones. She anticipated the storm passing impatiently, as she always felt closed in by the grey wetness.
The cook was waving from in the doorway, “Mama!” He walked fast to meet her in the courtyard and whispered loudly, “I could not let him sit on the sofa. He has no trousers!”
““What?” she asked, thinking something had happened with James.
“I could not let the old man sit on the sofa,” he said, pointing to the house as if to prepare her and expiate himself at the same time.
“What old man?”
“I told him not to come in but he would not leave.”
Lily went into the kitchen and saw an old man with rheumy eyes sitting on a low stool, his legs bent close to him, like he would be comfortable squatting on his haunches for long intervals. He wore a shuka wrapped around him. The edges of the cloth grazed the floor revealing dusty feet clad in old tire sandals. Except for the checked blanket tied around his shoulders, he looked like an older version of the herdsmen that tended their cattle on the side of the road. He was very still and for a moment, she thought he hadn’t seen her. The earnest rain outside was the only sound. The old man coughed, a dry a raspy cough from deep inside his chest then cleared his throat and nodded in Lily’s direction.
“Mzee… Habari,” she greeted him with the deferent title of old man.
“Mzuri,” he answered, clearing his throat again. “It’s good it is raining now. Things will grow.”
“Yes, it is good.” Lily looked at the cook, hovering behind her. The cook shook his head slightly.
The old man reached for his stick leaning on the wall and said, “Yes… like I told the milkman and also him,” he pointed to the cook, “I have come for the cows.”
Lily stared at the old man uncomprehendingly.
“Five cows and one bull.” He turned an open palm toward her and indicated the numbers. “I gave money to your boy. He said to come today.” He appeared sure in his claim, as if he had a receipt. “Today I was supposed to come for the cows.”
Lily made him repeat the details. Five cows. One red-and-white bull that he had seen while walking past the farm. The old man spoke slowly, and what conviction she had flagged in the face of his. She asked the cook to show him to the sitting room and went outside.
“James!” Lily shouted as she walked to his room in the rain, her hair and clothes molding to her. The air was dense and filled with a fermented smell, evaporated remnants of the brown bottles lining the windowsill. The stale air lifted a little, a sharp breeze rushing to displace it. She stripped the covers off the lumpy bed to find piles of clothing. She contemplated the empty bed. It seemed James was not concerned about them finding him gone: the clothing was not arranged to imitate a body, but randomly scattered about.
Lily looked back to the house and could well as see the old man perched on the edge of the sofa drinking tea, the clink of the metal spoon on the side of the cup carrying to her.
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