I choose to watch this from a distance while holding my patience:
Some boys are taking digs at my son, Tuntu. The tone and the phrases they use are pretty trying. Little Tuntu is just standing there, absorbing every dig. He seems smart and unmoved, something I could not have done. I could have already picked up a fight and broken the curvy block they have built on his way. Tuntu does not think like me. His head in the purple hat stands tall with no sign of a teardrop. They call him names. White Ghost, Human Gold, One Million Dollar, Martian, and all sorts of names. But he is just standing there looking them up into their eye sockets. He is like a baobab in the Chiperoni winds. Unshaken.
‘I’m sure you are an apology letter from a condom factory!’ A suntanned boy mocks, this one more stinging than the previous.
‘Did your Mama bear you? Eeeh she spat you, with no love lost right? Hahaha.’ An ebony boy with trespassing front teeth now mocks and they all laugh. Very annoying.
It is enough, I decide to end this. I take a step:
The boys finally see me. They start to run and Tuntu doesn’t know why. I hear him shout, ‘You’re all wimps, and I’m smart like an Englishman. You say all that because I beat you in everything at school.’
‘Yes you are! You are Little English. Henceforth.’ I pat his shoulder and he is both surprised and happy that I’m here. He is smiling. I know why: I have just approved and modified his moniker- the Englishman.
Little English screams before waking up. A bad dream again. Number eight this week. Quickly my wife pushes my arms. She does not mind getting fully dressed. She rushes for Little English as I’m left cooling. Soon I hear Little English and his mother in a conversation behind the old curtain. He is telling his mother that he was chasing a lion and, all of a sudden, the lion stopped and turned to face him. That’s why he screamed. Interestingly, he says he still wants to catch the lion when he sleeps again.
I quickly rise, reach for the kerosene lamp and get to Little English. My wife does all to avoid the light and goes back to bed. It’s only me and Little English. His twin brother’s snore sounds like that of an exhausted truck. I am out of lullabies:
I say to Little English, you want to catch the lion? You do not follow footprints of a lion with swift footsteps. Every step you take ought to be methodical. Unhurried and sturdy. Your heartbeat has to knock hard with its palms on your chest. That is customary when following a deadly thing. It is adventurous. But when the lion’s trail of footprints starts to show the warped heart-shape and the four flying dots vague and blurry, the matter of life has to be considered seriously. When the footprints disappear, it’s either you turn back or you charge in your next move.
‘Do you turn back, how far do you chase a lion?’ Little English asked.
How far do you chase…?
Today. This night. Now. It is different and practical:
My limbs are at war with gravity. I’m running, moving fast like a spear propelled by a stout warrior. But what is ahead of me must have a bizarre mileage. The way it is scuttling through the woods cannot be true. It trims the leaves and snaps over hanging branches of small trees with implausible velocity. It makes me feel like I’m chasing a tornado. Very fast and aggressive.
What is ahead of me?
The sky is pale; the moon is deep orange like a firefly ball. But not enough to help my eyes make out what is ahead of me. I’m still running after it. I do not need to know whether it is a lion, or whatever it is. It does not matter. What is ahead of me has my Little English either clutched on its strong arms or pinned by its fangs. Rescuing him is enticing.
Not even a puny voice from my little boy each time I call. But I’m still running to save him. The zippy breaths from my nostrils smell of fresh blood. In my chest, somebody seems to be burning coals. My body is getting hefty. I’m lagging behind. Whatever is having my boy is stretching the lead further, and close to ending the chase.
I imagine Little English’s wonderful pink eyes crying and his precious white skin in pain. I get pushed. Running to save him.
The Mbwenu Woods is quite a scary place at midnight. People say this place is frequented by ghouls, and that no one passes through it at night and lives. I can only admit to what my eyes and ears are witnessing now – the ugly darkness and the unnerving sound of hooting owls and croaking frogs. But I’m running, chasing for my son’s life. Little English will live. He will grow up and fly an airplane from Lilongwe to Lagos, Ankara to Kiev, and around the world as he has always wished. He will prove wrong all those who say that people like him never grow into adults. People will see Little English and face each other and say, “Ah, look who is there!”
Little English will live.
Whatever is ahead of me is soon to be out of reach. It shows no sign of exhaustion and still retains extreme focus. It simply knows where to set a foot, when to jump and what turn to take while getting through the trees of this long and narrow woods. I force my limbs to show some staying power. My lungs pump and my heart thumps. My mentality stirs to electrify myself. I push my back and speed up like a horse paced to escape danger, but I do not see the tall blue-gum tree coming…
I now see men in fuzzy shapes. They are carrying clubs, pangas and bows. One or two of them are holding sticks of fire, providing a bluish light in the ugly darkness. Indistinctly, they talk to each other as if they have just finished a long demanding fiscal meeting. None of them seems to be aware of my reawakening. That makes me feel dead. I decide to cough for their attention. No one turns to look at me. I try to lift up my head, but without success. It remains down as if closely pointed by spikes. I’m sad to realize that my forehead is kissing my nose. Anxiously, I check and count my teeth with my tongue. No tooth is missing from the earlier clash. I cough again, this time like I’m trying to get rid of a fishbone in my throat. Loud enough.
“Give him some water.”
“Take it easy, Dada”
A breathy voice has said the first sentence. A husky voice has uttered the second, authoritatively. A stentorian voice has freed the third. Still, I’m not acquainted with the speakers – excuse my waking brain. I let out a strangulated shriek of fright at the end of every sentence.
“We-we-we-goooot-your-back brotherman.” The stammering voice is familiar though. It is Banda the famous stammerer in the village. He has stirred my consciousness. I’m relieved to find myself among fellow clansmen.
Banda bends his knees as if making a subtle genuflection to a god. He helps me swig the water from a gourd he is holding. I take the swigs with impatient breaths until I choke. He showers my face with the water remaining in the gourd, and rises up.
“You saved him?” My wraith of a voice has managed to make the sentence sound like an emotional question. The question probably goes to all these men standing before me like that bronze statue in Dakar. Bold but seemingly not helping.
They just stare at each other and stare back at me – no answer. Silence is equal to grief here. I let out a loud scream. Tears fall like I have been holding them back all day. My joints feel weak and I cannot help trembling. Soon, I will give in to sobbing.
“It is not that he is dead.”
“We arrived late.” Khutcha is a bold man but the words have fled from his mouth.
A deathly silence builds and the arrival of four other familiar men follows. They join the station with hurried steps and panted, carrying clubs and sticks of fire as well. Their heads are covered with beanie hats and fedoras, so that they almost look like participants in the Black Mass.
“Nothing new.” Zimba, the tallest of the four, reports, facing the men standing like The African Renaissance Monument.
I’m like a tripwire ready to go off at any time now. I feel nothing beyond this terror. Memories of my little boy have already started playing in my head. Memories that can never go on ‘repeat’. Is it last week Monday when I took a ride with him on my Ngolo for the first time? Did we not laugh when teaching him how to pull a catapult? When the school teacher came with his school report, didn’t I throw a Little English feast? Was that his last?
I still lay low on the ground like an ice block set in the sun to melt. Tears now impossible to be contained.
Mungoshi, who is the eldest of all the standing men, bends to ask me if I saw what has taken my son. I don’t know. He asks me again if I’m sure. I did not see what took my son. Only a lion can run like that though. He rises while moving his head side to side and then speaks again.
“We go back home; a wild animal does not dine its catch within touching distance. Banda, rush and wake up the village with your bell. We are mourning.”
I hate him for saying that but I think it is so true and brave. It has to be a wild animal. Lion or any of the cat family. The other day I tipped Little English how to catch a lion but this night disqualifies me to offer tips. I have failed Little English. I have failed.
The man who had just converted me to Christianity three weeks ago preaches about miracles, but in this case? Well, he talks about faith and the living God as well. My son might be alive. Little English is too smart to die just like that.
“He might be alive! God is saving him. You don’t have faith.” My outburst surprises everyone here.
“Then I can ditch my gods for your God.” Mughogho, the thickest of the group, says in a jokey, sinister manner.
“Mwalwanda, we are talking about a five year old here. Miracles know limits.” Mungoshi speaks again. I think it is so true and brave again. I hate him.
“Miracle happens all the time, that’s why they call them miracles.” I cannot just give up on Little English, he is more of a friend than a son and means my happy world. But maybe I’m being a coward and not being realistic.
Little English is taken. I do not know what has taken him. I’m already cursing myself. I should not have allowed him and his twin brother to sleep outside my house with their mother last night. Perhaps I should have run even faster when I heard my wife’s scream from outside. Perhaps people should have heard my call for help and joined me in the chase quickly enough. I’m more grieved.
People are flocking to my compound now. They are making a silent noise that is stamping grief on my compound. Just as I approach my hut with the men I hear two women whispering.
“Whose fate is this?”
“One of the litoo twins now”
‘Ah don’t tell me. I saw them driving chingelengele at sunset. Him sick?”
“Remember they don’t die. They just psuuuuu!”
The scorn from the whisper is yet another bitter pill; I have to take it with a wink tonight. I have lived with people’s digs on my little albino twins, now it is the old wicked phrase I have to endure on the day I have lost one of them. They don’t die. They just psuuuuu!
I’m now sitting with the village elders just outside my hut. They have come here as quickly as a dose of salt. The terror has hit the village. We are heaping ourselves on stones I dragged from the river, encircling a log fire. People have almost filled every space of my compound. They have leaned against the pig house, sat on my grassless ground and stood near the trees clustering my place.
Soon there will be traditional dances, the beginning of a long and weird mourning ceremony. Little English’s elder twin brother has already been taken to his grandpa in the next village. At the death of one of the twins, the remaining one must be isolated for his survival. The constitution of this saying rests only on our forefathers. This belief is older than my clan and too dark for me to understand.
Well, I’m seeing my wife for the first time since the nightmare. She is being taken to the mourning hut with two old women holding her as if she is a heavy cripple. The two old women are carrying Mvunguti, a fruit deemed magical and of multipurpose use, probably to give my wife. It has to be beside her all night. That is part of mourning the death of one of the twins here. The remaining has to live.
My wife weeps. Her weeping explains her immense sorrow in high definition. Everyone can help her cry. Ever since she bore me the twins, her life has been a mockery and a series of pain and rejection. People have mocked her that she had slept with a white man. People have called her twins ‘the ghosts of European colonialists’. People have treated her twins like nzukwa. Now she has lost one of them. In her cry you will hear a thousand curses cast upon people. She must have been told it was a wild beast which has taken Little English, but I understand the subjectivity in her grief. Silence succeeds soon after the two old women get her into that hut with a crisp earth-tone there.
The man by the name of Bvumbi arrives where I’m sitting with the elders. He is nicknamed The Immortal for his countless escapes from death. People almost buried him alive when tuberculosis got him scrawny like a line of silk.They had numbered his days when a bull pierced its horn on his scalded belly. They had broadcast his death when a black mamba bit him on his amputated right leg. But he lives on. Bvumbi just refuses to die. The scars are always fresh on his body and tell stories of his continual survival. He is not my son unfortunately. The first time my son finds himself in danger, he is gone. But why could God and the gods not save Little English like Bvumbi? Or did he not deserve to live as many in our village claim that such people like Little English are born as a result of a curse? Last month it was Jere’s toddler whom we buried without her white body. I’m sniping myself with questions and at the same time attending to rhetorical sayings of our elders.
“Is the well in our eyes never to dry? My fathers?” Bvumbi is neither a grandee nor a village elder but he often squeezes himself into any gathering of the elders with his poetic voice that carries enough persuasion to steal anyone’s attention. Half of the elders do not like him and his involvement in their businesses; the other half see him as a veritable nuisance.
“This has hit the village between its thighs. My fathers!” he is yet to be responded to since his arrival.
I feel a pat on my left shoulder. I turn with a fine reflex. It’s the man of God. The preacher of miracles, faith and the gospel. He has smuggled me from the elders. Out of respect, I follow him to where he wants to have a word with me. Yes, I respect him with the way he scares me with his God who is now mine.
‘I have just heard. Brother this is a test of your faith. Now faith is substance of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen, says the scriptures in Hebrews 11 verse 1.’ His thin deep hoarse voice reminds you of your sins and the urgent need of repentance. I usually let him do the talking each time we meet.
‘God is keeping your son safe. Eeh wait and hear me brother… You cannot let these pagans kill your son with their worldly mouths. The Bible, in 2 Corinthians 5 verse 7, is saying we walk by faith, not by sight. All we need is a prayer and prayers, not this mourning. Eeh hear me first brother… We must be praying for your son! Brother, remember you are now a child of God, you are different from these pagans. The God is full of miracles.’ I wished I had faith like that of this man.
‘But man of God, my son Tuntu is only five. He can’t fight a wild animal?’ I manage to submit my perception this time.
‘You of little faith! Have faith brother! God says in the book of James, when you ask, you must believe and not doubt…’ He produces a low but powerful shout, ‘pray with me and stop this mourning.’
I expected to listen to what he would say to God in the prayer but I’m not sure what language he is using. I assume it does not exist.
* * *
It is sunset.
Ah morning. A misty morning.
I lift my head skyward. A raindrop falls right into my eye.
Ah a drizzly morning.
I attempt to dry my eye with my thumb. I cannot. My hands are chained to a beech. My fat belly too. I’m chained? What happened?
Well, there is a rod on my left side and an adze on my right. Some stains of blood on the rod. That explains something.
I became a wolf last night. The man of God turned me into a wolf with long tusks. Violent and aggressive. Soon after he prayed I was like his wolf, unchained to upset. I quickly went to the crowd and shouted that my son is alive and that my compound was no place of mourning. People just looked at me with sympathetic eyes. That was less effect than my shout intended to make. I quickly went into my hut and took a rod and an adze and came back outside. I was aiming at everybody, chasing them away while shouting that my son is alive. And then, I went too far, chasing the village elders. My aggression was short-lived. Young men, less built than me but with more energy to burn, turned to contain me. They used the same rod and adze I was carrying. I really got beaten up. They almost made another dead last night.
“Good morning villain.” A young man with a childish voice said. He seems to have spent the whole night taking a watch over me.
“You are just on time. The Ng’anga from the north hills will soon be here to cast the bones. It’s almost over, fugitive!” Another young man, another annoying voice. They have never fathered any children, so they have never lost their first son. They don’t know how it feels.
“I guess you are ready to let your bull go to the chief and save your stay on the land.” Another bloody stupid young man.
I’m not smart like Little English. I’m absorbing this with pain. I’m crying. Feeling sorry for myself and for Little English.
Four hours ago I was taken from the village to this police station. 60 kilometers away:
It feels very good to see Little English again. But his sight in the black briefcase is another bitter pill. This time it stuck in my throat. I do not blink. You face a smart friend with a smart face. I do not move my eyelids down. Oh Little English. The freckles of melanoma now shine bright on his skin. His hand with my bracelet gift leans on his belly. His foot on his back. His heart sleeping beneath his neck and shoulder. He carries a smart infinitesimal smile on his sharp face. And just like a white person, he sleeps with his mouth shut and quietly. He does not snore like an African does. He stays as smart as he is. Super quiet.
“Are you sure this is your son?” A short man in a police uniform looks for a confirmation.
“That is him. Smart Little English.” I reply straightaway.
“I’m saying that is him. That is my son.” I tried to sound smart but my voice has betrayed me. I break into tears. A police woman offers me a towel. I don’t want to dry these tears.
“Much to our regret, we failed to apprehend the one who did this. But we have established a lead that will help us get to him. We believe he has crossed the border to Tanzania, his usual gory market place. He has been the most wanted albino hunter for a year now.” I faintly hear the police officer say this while I ask myself many questions with a bruised heart:
Must we now paint our children’s hair with black powder?
Must they live while hiding?
I’m taking Little English back home. His mother is waiting for him. The whole village is waiting:
There is a crowd outside the police station. A quiet crowd is always strange. They all respect Little English, I guess.
I keep my head down as I join Little English in the van:
The crowd. As the van takes off, the crowd starts to dance and sing songs. Placards are lifted up now. Had I known the alphabet better I could have read what’s written on them. But when the van speeds up, I faintly hear a voice say, “stop finding their bodies and save them!”
I ask myself many questions:
I let it go. I should concentrate on getting Little English home smartly. How helpless he looks in the bag!
This story was previously published on africanwriter.com