A Son's Love
By Evans Kinyua (Kenya)
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At forty-eight James Wanjiru was blessed with a physique that many envied. Time was kind to him and he retained a fitness that few twenty year olds could match. He was tall, robust and carried himself with a confident gait. Perhaps the only blemish on his otherwise perfect mien was the small balding patch on the top of his head.
A well-liked man, James had lived with his mother since anyone could remember. His father was killed in the mau mau war when James was four, leaving his mother to fend for him and his four sisters. Kimani wa Ndun'gu, his father, had taken no photographs in his life, left no memorabilia, and so little James grew up with no link or memory whatsoever with his departed father. Two of his sisters vaguely recalled the man, but he was so long gone that even those vague memories had wafted into tendrils of smoke and finally into nothing.
One by one the sisters got married and moved away to their new homes, and begot their own children, weaved their own lives. When they were growing up their mother Wanjiru broke her back to feed and clothe them. She was the quintessence of the loving mother, denying herself little comforts of life for the well being of her four daughters and only son.
The daughters, perhaps for the lack of a paternal figure, were given to indiscipline, all of them getting into the motherly way before they could reach standard seven. Fortunately, society was still solid then, unlike today when it has fallen apart at the seams. The authentic African culture was still revered, and the fathers had little option but to marry the girls.
Wanjiru was left with only her son, whom she doted on like a hen does its little hatchling. She smothered him with love, spending the evenings regaling him with enthralling stories of a nirvana that they both had never seen, but which tickled the young imagination of little James. They didn't have much in the way of material wealth, but what they lacked they more that made up for in the abundance of love. The sisters, once married, as if by mutual agreement, never once visited their two remaining relatives on the edge of Kapiti forest. They were not missed, however, and James and his mother also never once contemplated visiting them. It was in every sense a symbiotic relationship, each making up for the other's shortcomings to create a self-reliance that was fierce. They had their two cows for milk, a few chickens that wandered about scratching for worms and grasshoppers and providing a sumptuous meal whenever James and his mother felt like it. The little farm provided enough cabbages, potatoes, tomatoes, peas and other crops to sustain them in a happy albeit subsistence life.
James went to school dutifully, at his mother's insistence, but it was only to satisfy her that he did, because he loathed any minute spent apart from her. She was the center of his world. He cared for little else, not the nosy neighbors and especially not his classmates, whose purpose in life seemed focused solely on playing useless games and silly pranks. Despite their being the same age, James stood head and shoulders above them in maturity. His teachers acknowledged this, and wondered how a ten year old could be so mature at such a tender age.
James was neither clever nor stupid. He never came in the top twenty; neither did he tail the class. He was not playful like the other children but on the other hand, he was not a nerd. Nondescript was the correct word to sum up his whole self, and it was a trait that became consistence with him all through his life.
His mother, who was totally illiterate, would ask her son to read to her the magic characters in his books. She would sit across the hearth, opposite him, wide eyed and marveling that her boy could decipher the writing in the books that they both went to buy at the local bookshop.
He performed marginally at the primary certificate exam, and was admitted to the local high school as a boarder. He hated the separation from his mother, and would spend a lot of time crying in private. Other students enjoyed being away from home and the independence from their parents, but for James, it felt like each day was a full year.
James had no ambitions at all, other than being with his mother, and he couldn't understand why she would want to subject him to such exile. It was a question that he put to her one time and the discussion, while democratic like everything else they did together, did not quite satisfy James, making it the first of the two occasions in their relationship that he differed with her.
"Why is it so important to you that I go to school? I like being here with you" James said.
"Because after school you will get a job and earn money for us to spend together," she answered.
"Why do we need money? We have everything we need already," answered the fourteen year old.
"We shall then be able to afford more things, and we shall be happy," answered mum.
"I think that we are already happy. I do not understand why one has to take a roundabout way just to end up where they already are. I am not going back to school ever again," responded James, angry for the first time with his mother. "And a job will only keep me away from home and you even more than school." And thus ended the short education of James Wanjiru.
The next disagreement was triggered by the issue of marriage. By then James was twenty five, already going past his prime marrying age according to his mother. She prompted the discussion thus:
"My beloved son, you should now get a beautiful young wife to take care of you. I have been eagerly waiting for you to bring home a fine lass to introduce to me."
James was taken aback. Not once in his life had the issue of a woman occurred to him. The only woman he cared for was his mother and that was enough for him. Now he recalled, in retrospect, the funny glances that the young ladies around the village threw his way every time he was passing. Fortunately nobody had ever dared broach the subject, for fear of the reaction from the robust, if a little introverted and decidedly weird young man.
"I have taken care of myself successfully so far, mother. I really do not see the point of bringing someone else to do what I already do well enough."
"Fair enough my dear," answered the mother. "But what about me? I need someone to care for me."
"Which I do as well. I cook for you when you don't feel like it, I prepare the garden for planting, weeding and harvesting. I go to the market when we require anything from there. Why do you need someone?"
"Don't you want children if your own?" asked the exasperated mother.
"For them to disappear out of my life like your own daughters? Pooh, no thank you."
That discussion ended there, the mother knowing well enough the limit of reason with her son, and to some extent also respecting his point of view. Mother and son continued their happy if monotonous and humdrum life together.
Nee Wanjiru was a pious woman who religiously attended church and tithed as ordered by the Good Book. She took her faith seriously and ensured that her son did too. She was now seventy years old and was proud that she and her son were true to God's teaching. Both were confident that they would spend the hereafter together in the same bliss they shared on terra firma.
Until many years later, when at forty-eight, something happened that was to change his life completely, and the lives of the other inhabitants of not only Kapita village, but also those in the neighboring ridges. The story is still told in hashed tones fifteen years later.
As the economic recession worsened and unemployment soared (although mother and son were unaware of these far off events), crime rose in tandem. The rural population had risen threefold, and the idle young men spent time abusing illicit alcohol, planning and executing all manner of crimes, including violent robbery, rape and even murder.
The day in question was a cloudy, very dull and rainy day. It started to pour in earnest at around 9.00 PM, just when James and his mother were finishing their supper. Such were the days when James truly enjoyed his sleep, the rain beating the corrugated zinc iron sheets steadily, luring him into a deep sleep that was better than other nights. Rain was considered a heavenly gift for it provided water from the roof, which was stored in plastic drums for use during the dry weather. It was also good news for the crops, heralding a bountiful harvest. It was therefore with a smile on his face that James bid goodnight to his mother and repaired to his bedroom. The old lady was also drowsy, and she too went to bed not long after.
If there was a gift endowed to James, it was the ability to dream. He always dreamt good dreams most of which he couldn't recall the following morning. But they were always happy dreams, a testimony of the harmony and peace that he enjoyed with the vicissitudes of life.
But tonight, the twenty third day of March 1975, James had an uncharacteristically bad dream. In his dream, something was trying to break down the door to their two-roomed house and making a terrible racket in the process. It (they) were using a heavy object to ram the door, making these terrible thuds that shook the flimsy building built of wattle and hardened clay. He didn't like this dream; especially when the door started to splinter and the latch came off with a loud report. The latch found the target in a sufuria that they had only recently used to cook their supper, creating an even louder racket. His reaction was to burrow even deeper into the beddings, which were already twisted as he writhed in violent reaction to the nightmare. Whatever it was managed to gain access to the sitting room, which also doubled as the kitchen.
Ominous footsteps pounded the hard packed earth, as whatever creature(s) entered. He could now hear them clearly, speaking (if it was human speech at all, he wasn't sure) in guttural animal sounds. This dream was not a happy one, alright. He couldn't tell what time it was but soon he will awake to milk the cows and forget this bad dream just like he forgot even the good ones.
But this dream refused to end. James and his mother never locked the doors to their respective bedrooms. Nothing had ever happened to make them do so, which was why he was not surprised to hear the screech of un-oiled hinges as the door to his mother's (or was it his own) bedroom being pushed open. All these noises sounded terribly loud in his dream which they must have been since the rain was still pouring relentlessly and therefore any noise heard above the gurgle and splutter of the rain must have been loud indeed.
The guttural speech of the creatures of the dream continued through the now open door of the bedroom- his or his mother's he still wasn't sure. He hated this dream, and struggled to escape the clutches of sleep, tossing and turning in a bid to get a grip on reality and disconnect with the nightmare. He was now in that nether land between deep slumber and half wakefulness.
He thought that he heard his mother's voice, at first speaking in her clear and authoritative tone, asking whatever it (they) were and asking them to identify themselves. Then more guttural sounds, this time louder than before. James was succeeding in wrestling the grip of sleep, and was now only half awake, where things were not quite clear but a small percentage of reality was beginning to slip through.
He was able to tell clearly that the uninvited guests were not animals but people, and the guttural sounds were actually his own kikuyu language that was distorted and garbled in the din of the rain pounding the roof. But what did they want, at this time of the night? Never before had they ever had visitors this late in the night.
His mother's voice rose in anger, higher and higher, and it seemed certain that she was just about to scream, in fear it was becoming apparent. That realization galvanized James out of the remaining sleep and he became fully alert. It occurred to him that this was no dream, the details of it coming back to him in full clarity starting from the first moment he thought the sound of the breaking door was part of the dream.
James kept a torch on a stool next to his bed, a kind of simple metallic contraption that ran on alkaline batteries. He quickly reached for it, finding it in place, which was lucky because he sometimes forgot it in one place or the other within the house. Today it was there, and he grabbed it, switched it on without a second thought, and jumped out of bed, whose rusted nuts grated noisily under his shifting weight. Even before his eyes got used to the sudden light, he charged for the door, the foremost concern in his mind being the security of his mother. He was out of the door in a flash, his own safety the furthest thing on his mind. It was just as he reached the small corridor separating the two bedrooms that he heard a scream that chilled him to his soul. It was his mother's voice, yet it wasn't. It was a sound that he had never before heard in his forty years on this earth. An animal sound with the tiniest but unmistakable hint that it was his mother groaning. A sound from hell, which stopped him in his tracks, to let his system accommodate and analyze the implications. The two seconds that he stood as if rooted to the bare earth floor seemed like eons, eons in which his still baffled mind tried to come to grips with the macabre sound of his mother's haunting wail. Very slowly the realization of what was happening thudded into place in his mind like a bear trap- they were killing his mother.
This new piece of intelligence froze his being. He suddenly felt cold all over, a kind of numbness that spread like a live thing into the deepest recesses of his mind. One could say that his mind snapped, but that just isn't enough. It shattered into tiny smithereens like falling stars in a cloudless and moonlit night. It wasn't the genial James Wanjiru who charged drunkenly through the door to his mother's bedroom. It was an entirely new being completely consumed and enveloped by a rage never before witnessed, not even in a wild animal. At six foot four, in that mood, anyone and anything in his path was in great peril indeed.
The intruders had heard him, and the one nearest the door had turned to address this danger. Which is why the first thing that James saw when he reached that point when he could see into his mother's bedroom was a man in deep shadow, barely visible but evidently turning towards him. By the light of the torch the man was holding, which cast an eerie light up the walls of the room, he was able to catch a glimpse of his mother. Her forehead was wide-open, torrents of dark blood gushing out and flowing between her eyes. Her eyes were still open, and apparently she still retained some cognitive ability, for she recognized her son even in the dark, and called out his name in yet another blood cuddling wail that, if at all he retained some semblance of sanity, sent him tumbling over the precipice and into purgatory itself.
The man above her was holding the instrument of his deed, a short thick machete whose blade was horned sharp, dripping with blood, splinters of bone still stuck to it.
James hit the first man in midriff, expunging the air out of him with a loud whoosh. Both men fell to the floor, with James riding the attackers midriff. Such was the blinding rage driving James that the man below, while putting up the fight of his life, was no match for James, who barely noticed when he lifted the man's head and cracked it open like an egg on the bed post, splattering brains and gore all over himself and on everything else.
By this time the other intruder had recovered, even as James was turning his attention to him. The blow that he had aimed with his ugly machete at James's head collided with his shoulder, but the blow was dulled by James's quick movement and his own blow that caught the man in the crotch, doubling him over in searing pain. But that blow was still strong enough to render James's shoulder and the entire right side useless. With his left hand, James clawed at his attacker, pummeling him with quick blows to whatever part of the body he could find; with only the left side functional, he couldn't do much damage. Before the man had fully recovered, James, in his frenzy, came across a broken leg of a wooden stool lying on the bedroom floor. As the man lifted his machete for another blow, James, in one fluid motion, swung the broken leg of the stool in an arch, the jugged edge catching the intruder full in the face. James was a strong man under normal circumstances. In his current state, he was an animal. The attacker's nose split up to the bone from the upper lip, for a few seconds making him look like a grinning clown. The machete fell out of his fingers in slow motion as he toppled over the bed to lie across the inert body of the woman on the bed.
James also fell on the bed, next to his mother, now his late mother. She was lying on her side, her beautiful eyes still open. Her head was still pulsing small rivulets of blood, adding to the already coagulated pool on the old mattress. Her wounded and weeping son tried to call out her name, seeking any little sign of life from her in vain. He cradled her upper body in his active left arm, swaying from side to side in absolute shock. They stayed like that for a long time, the only sound to be heard the rain on the roof and the wind rustling leaves in the trees that surrounded the compound.
He snapped out of the trance when morning approached. It was the birds chattering their morning call that brought him back to reality. Slowly he lowered his dead mother gently on her bed and contemplated the scene around him. It was still dark enough not to recognize the faces of the two men. The one in the deeper shadows , his brains spattered on the walls, and on his own old sweater with holes on the elbows that he normally slept in. Very seriously and truly dead. The other, showing no signs of life, but on touching his neck, still alive from the thin pulse of whatever little blood was left in his veins.
James picked up the torch that he had come in with (the thug's torch was more handy as it was nearest but he couldn't bring himself to even touch it) and flicked it back on. The yellow light made the ghastly scene ghastlier, so he switched it off to contemplate further the situation.
Not good. Not good at all. Dreadfully frightening. James started to sob, a sniff at first, and soon a torrent of anguish that racked his huge frame, emanating from the deepest recesses of his soul. Half an hour he cried for his mother, beseeching the God to whom she and him had always prayed to for protection, and willing him to bring her back to life. In his profound grief, he expected God to do as he asked.
When God remained silent and noncommittal, he cursed him and apologized in the same breath. The he remembered the teachings of the Good Book. "He helps only those who help themselves." And that was the time that he decided to help himself.
James reasoned, correctly, that there was no chance that any villager or neighbor had heard the goings on of the night, what with the driving rain, thunder and the wind howling in the trees. Good. In any case he and his mother had never been too close to the neighbors, therefore it was unlikely that any visitor was coming any time soon. Time enough to do what he had to do.
James got hold of the arm of the living man under the armpits and hoisted him onto his shoulder, grunting under the supine weight. He carried him out of the bedroom, through the sitting room- cum kitchen and out into the still drizzling compound. The birds were out in full chirp, although the first light of the day had not yet broken. Muttering under his breath, he carried the man towards the granary where they stored farm products such as grains, potatoes and green bananas and other paraphernalia such as hoes, machetes and old bric- a -brac like gunny bags and broken chairs.
That granary had a lot of space to spare, and it was far enough away from the compound where no visitors ever went. He lay the man on the ground, none too gently, and opened the padlock with the key that always hang on his old belt. He pushed open the door, and he laid the man on a pile of gunny bags. Then he looked around for an old piece of clothing, balled it and roughly put it into the man's mouth. Next he looked around for a rope, found a taut sisal one. Splendid. Then he proceeded to gag him, in that slow and methodical manner typical of James Wanjiru. Another piece of rope he used to tightly bind the man's feet together, as well as the hands, behind his back. Then he locked the granary and walked , in what one could mistake to be a drunken, weaving manner, back to the house. His right shoulder was burning from the blow he had received, but he barely felt it. He was helping himself, as God commanded.
He went back to the bedroom, and sat on the bed, his feet resting on the stomach of the dead man. It was now six o'clock; just around the time he and his mother woke up to start their daily chores. But not today. Today the routine was not going to happen, there were no daily chores to be done. He sat with his mother until 9.00 AM, praying for her soul. There would never be another normal day in the rest of his life
At 9.00AM, he left the house and limped five kilometers to the house of the village headman, Mr. Joachim Mungai. He told the story in a matter of fact way, composed and unemotional, much like the James of old. But unknown to Mr. Mungai, who commiserated with him and expressed his profound shock, this was not James of yesterday. The old James spirit was gone, the new one in charge. James told him everything, except the number of the attackers. He said that it was only one.
Thereafter, events took place much as they would after such an episode in the village of Kapita, where lately they had witnessed, sadly, a couple of similar incidents. Gloom fell over the village. Someone was sent to the police, fifteen kilometers away, who came back two hours later with the local medical officer in tow. Back at the Wanjiru compound, the medical officer, after a perfunctory check of the man on the floor, pronounced him officially dead, same as with James's mother. All the while James stood there stoically, the sadness showing on his face but nary a tear falling from his eyes. The village women wailed and the men marveled at his self-control, especially given the very strong bond that had existed between mother and son.
For several hours of that day, a number of neighbors and villagers stayed with James, to share his grief with him in the typical African way. Some were friends of James and his late mother. Others he did not know well, acquaintances that he saw around the village and the surrounding ridges. In Africa, during situations like these, grief is shared by the non-bereaved.
A funeral committee of sorts was elected, and the first meeting was held on an impromptu basis. The funeral date for the late Wanjiru Kimani was scheduled for three days later. The police were to notify the relatives of the dead man, who was recognized by one of the villagers as a lay-about from one of the nearby villages. There would be no retribution for the Wanjiru's, both the living son and the dead mother, since the attacker was dead anyway. "what a sad affair, nowhere to turn to for justice", muttered the villagers.
Two men were dispatched to alert James's sisters of the tragedy. The emissaries left Kapita immediately, since the sisters were married a long distance away, and all in separate locations. Thus the preliminaries dispensed with, the villagers left James to his misery, although one old woman, a close friend of the late Wanjiru, promised to return later to stay with the bereaved son overnight and console him.
James needed that break. For as soon as the visitors had left, he set about organizing a curious collection of items. A basin full of warm salt water, soap, disinfectant and some rudimentary bandage material torn from his old beddings. These he carried to the granary, where he found the second attacker now conscious, albeit very weak from loss of blood, and possibly shock. "Good for him", thought James icily. "But at least he has his own doctor, unlike I". He proceed to clean the wound, the disinfectant and the salty water making the man cry out from the sting, which was muffled by the cloth in his mouth and the rope that tied his jaws tight. His eyes were wide orbs in fear, but he needed not have feared because James was very gentle. Maybe he was more scared of the gentle treatment than if it were violence. But James carried out the task in absolute silence, his face betraying no emotion at all.
When he was through the man, whose face was as unfamiliar to him as the dead one, looked presentable and almost healthy, save for the bandage that covered the bridge of his nose. That done, James went back to the house and cleaned out the gore in the bedroom. Finally it looked the way it had the day before this nightmare began. Then he waited for the old woman to come, for it was getting late.
His mother's friend arrived at 6.30 PM as promised, lugging with her a container with warm food and a thermos of tea. They sat together in the sitting room- cum kitchen, warming themselves on the hearth that she helped light, speaking little except numerous condolences that she offered and numerous acceptances that James responded. Both ate little of the food, but the hot tea they drunk in copious quantities, given the usual cold of Kapita. It had also started raining again. She stayed with him until 9.00 PM, when she bid him goodnight and limped away to her home, a kilometer away. James was left to his own devices.
He spent the night lying awake in his bed, thinking furiously as if to make up for all the years that he never taxed his mind too much. By the time the sun rose he had finished putting the final details in the plan that had started to formulate soon after the violence of the morning before. When he got out of bed, he felt whole again, eerily calm and ready to go on with the funeral.
Upon waking up he went about his normal duties as if nothing had happened.
He milked the cows whose udders were swollen with accumulated milk, the cows mooing their displeasure. He gave them fodder and let out the chickens. The milk he boiled and carried a giant cup of the warm liquid to the granary. The man was awake. Evidently he had also spent the night awake. When James carried the milk to the granary, in his right hand he was also carrying a machete, sharpened to a gleaming glint. For the first time he had a conversation with his patient. Not a conversation really, for it was one sided, a quiet monologue, delivered in a calm and very controlled voice.
"You must be hungry, so I thought to bring you a cup of milk. I do not think that you are ready for solid food yet after your injury, so this is all that I am going to give you now. At least that is what I see them do in hospitals"
The man remained silent, not just because he was securely gagged, but also from sheer surprise at the good treatment from the least expected source.
There was no response, so James continued with the one sided conversation. "I will take care of you, although you are aware that you are a bad person and you don't deserve it. Do you understand ?" Technically the man could not respond, but his eyes did, and that was good enough for James.
"I am now going to remove your gag so that you can take this milk. You would like that?
A nod. Very good.
"But I want to warn you, and I will do it only this once. See this machete?" he displayed the equipment like a mechanic showing a client the defective component. "It is a lot sharper than the one you used to kill my mother. If you make a noise, I will cut your neck clean through with one swipe. If you try to wriggle out of your bonds, the same fate will befall you. I will be only too happy to oblige. You observe the rules and we will be friends, at least as much as the circumstances can allow".
With the rules laid down, he quickly untied the ropes and removed the gag. James watched him keenly as he worked his jaws to get the blood flowing again, his hand caressing the machete in anticipation. But the man had understood the rules and that was all the movement he attempted. James did not show any disappointment. He lifted the cup of milk and fed the man, who drank ravenously. When he was finished, James asked him to lift his head and replaced the gag, without protest.
"I will be back to change your dressing," he promised as he locked the door and went back to the house to wait for the stream of people who would undoubtedly come to console him.
Many people did come. He spent the whole day with them, mainly keeping quiet as they repeated their condolences. The last visitor left at around seven P.M. after the funeral committee had reported that all arrangements for the funeral were ready, and that his sisters had been notified, which did not interest him one bit since it was many years since he had seen them.
He got busy as soon as they left. All his thoughts were on the patient in the granary. He prepared another collection of remedies, included some well-known herbs, which he used to treat the wound and thereafter changed the dressing. This time they didn't speak a word.
The following day the villagers started streaming in early. The funeral committee arranged for the grave to be dug. There were no black garments to be worn by the bereaved, instead James wore the old brown suit that he always wore when he accompanied his mother to church. The funeral service begun at 12.00 O'clock presided over by the Revered John Gitau, under whose jurisdiction the Kapita Presbyterian Church fell, and who was known to both the deceased and the bereaved. As a regular churchgoer, James was not unknown to the Reverend. The Reverend commented on how composed James looked , and thanked the Lord for giving him the strength to persevere this tragedy.
But it could have been delayed reaction. Or it could have been something else. We don't know. But we know that James's mind was elsewhere. He was preoccupied with a great many things, all of them revolving around the edict that He helps only those who help themselves.
The Reverend underscored this teaching even further by reporting that the courts of the land, and the police, had been known to release criminals on spurious grounds, which pointed to questions of compromise, perhaps even duplicity, hence denial of justice to the people. James mentally nodded his agreement.
Halfway through the service, his sisters made their dramatic entry, looking more like they were on holiday than attending the funeral of their mother. They made a great show of grieving with their brother, which the latter accepted in silence. The service ended and the gathering moved to the graveside where, after a few more words of the sermon from the Reverend; the dust to dust routine and the God-be-with-you-til-we-meet again song, the ceremony ended and the people started to stream out of the compound.
The sisters remained behind for an hour or so, going through the sole album of the family, making a racket as they recollected memories, with little of bereavement evident in the mood. James was civil with them and their children that they had tagged along with them. He endured them with his characteristic patience, inwardly wishing them to depart as soon as possible. Shortly they ran out of pictures in the thin album and granted him his wish. He didn't see them off, and there were no promises to visit. James was now alone, which he didn't mind not one bit. No. Not quite alone. He had a patient to take care of. He warmed some food, which had been brought to him by some sympathetic women from the village, and took it to the man recuperating in the granary.
"The funeral is over. You must have heard the ceremony going on. I haven't gagged your ears so I presume you participated as well. Did you enjoy it?" he asked as he put the food down to remove the gag.
No answer. Just the same wide-eyed stare.
"I know you probably don't have much to say. Neither do I, really. Just take your food and go to sleep for the night. I have diluted it so that it is not so difficult to swallow in your weak state.
The man ate his food, all the while staring in horror at Wanjiru’s son. But it seemed like he was getting over this bizarre situation. After he had eaten James again bathed his wound, which was healing quite nicely. “You are doing quite well. I think tomorrow we can have a decent discussion,” James informed him, before retiring to the house.
The house was now quiet. Much too quiet without his mother who liked to chatter on and on about the cow, the chickens, the ……….. “stop it James”, he chided himself. “That is history; you must face only the future. God helps only those who help themselves.”
He had his supper, only a few bites, for his appetite had not yet returned. Then at 10.00 P.M he left the house. This was uncharacteristic. James had never left the house after 9.00 P.M before. But he had a mission.
He armed himself with a sturdy crowbar, and headed in the direction of he next ridge. Because it is at the next ridge that the local health center was located. It was closed for the night, which was okay with him. In fact that is exactly the way he wanted it. The clinical officer, who lived some kilometers away and only opened between 9 am and 5.00 pm, would long be gone. There was no night watchman. The whole village was asleep, not a single lamp to be seen in the pitch-black night. Perfect.
Upon arriving there he didn’t waste much time setting about what he had to do. He knew the layout of the building by heart. He went round the back of the wooden structure and approached the window, which he knew was directly behind the clinical officer’s chair in the diagnosis room. Using the crowbar he broke the wooden shutters, not minding the noise, for it had started pouring again and in any case no one lived nearby.
Once the window was open he used his long legs to gain access into the room.
He took out his faithful torch from his trouser pocket and shone it on the wall where there was a cabinet with a few old medical books. He took one of them, and opened the door to the other room, which had a flat bed and a green plastic cover on it. The examination room.
In that room was a cabinet made of wood, which he proceeded to break into. It broke easily. There were row upon row of bottles and packets of medicines, but he knew what he was looking for. There was a time when he had come to the medical center after cutting his toe very badly while preparing fodder for the cows. It had required twenty stitches, done under general anesthesia. He vividly recalled the bottle from which the clinical officer had pulled the liquid into a syringe. How could he forget? He had barely walked for three weeks, that’s how terrible the cut was. But save for the injections, he had felt no more pain until he reached home.
Aah, there it was. Just like he had remembered it. In fact, there were two of them, better still. These he put in the pockets of his coat. Then he rummaged around some more, and found a box of syringes and needles. Ooh, lovely. Next he took five rolls of bandage and some other powder that had been used to sprinkle on his toe before the dressing. And yes, the gauze. Do not forget the gauze.
His pockets full, he started to leave but remembered one more item. But he stood to think about this awhile, went back to the cabinet and rummaged some more. He took some weird looking stitching needles and some thin thread that had been used on him. From that one incident, thanks to his good memory, he had accumulated an admirable amount of medical expertise.
Thus equipped, he switched off the torch, swung gingerly out through the broken window and made the journey back to his house. He arrived at 12.30 pm, stored the precious items under his bed and went to sleep, the gleaming machete under his pillow within easy reach just incase the friends of the man in the granary decided to come and finish him off.
The next morning he performed the usual routine for milking the cows, feeding the chickens and preparing breakfast. He took his breakfast alone, as he contemplated the coming day. He was in no mood for the usual chores on the farm. But he had a discussion to have with the man in the granary. But first, breakfast for him too. So he took him breakfast, which the man ate with that same wide-eyed terror. But today there was some spark of life behind those eyes. James brought his machete with him, so that the man could see how close it was in case in thought of liberating himself. Then he dressed his wound, which was healing well.
After that, James sat down opposite the man, staring at him intently.
He looked at him thoughtfully for a long time. Not in anger, without any emotion, just looking.
“I mentioned to you yesterday that we needed to talk. Now the time has come. Answer my questions as clearly as possible, and as concisely as possible. Do not raise your voice.” The man nodded his understanding.
“What is your name?”
“My name is Njoroge.”
“Why did you kill my mother?”
“She resisted, we only wanted to steal.”
James pondered the answer for a minute. “Why steal from us. My mother and I have never stolen from anybody.” The man was silent.
“Okay. Forget about that one. You know your friend is dead.”
The man nodded.
“But I am not going to kill you. But I want to know who else you planned this with.”
“We were sent by Mukaru.”
“Who is Mukaru?”
“Mukaru? You don’t know Mukaru?”
“No. You and your kind are not people that I could possibly be familiar with.”
“He is the rich man who lives on the third ridge. He sends his men, people like me, to steal and then we take the spoils to him, and he gives us a percentage.”
“Why do you have to do that for him?”
“First of all because we are poor. Secondly, if you do not, he will send others to hurt you, or even kill you.”
“I see, interesting. O.k. That is enough for today. We shall talk later.”
James returned the gag, locked the granary and went back to his house to think things over.
For a guy who abandoned school at an early age, seeing no use for education, James spent the day reading like an exam student. He read in one day material that he took one year to read in school. Though at school he was an average student, he was amazed at how much he could grasp with proper application of his faculties. He read about basic surgery, the instruments used, the dosage for (local) anesthesia, the dressing and the medications used. So engrossed was he that he hardly realized when the day had passed and darkness had fallen.
Today was a special day. He slaughtered a chicken and made a sumptuous meal for himself and his patient. He ate his first. Then he prepared his instruments and carried them on a tray, together with the meal, to the granary.
The captive ate his meal quietly, eyes straying questioningly towards the tray of surgical instruments resting on top of a sack of dry corn. The business of eating concluded, James proceeded, very deliberately and methodically, upon the next task.
The first thing he did was apply the local anesthesia, according to dosage prescribed in the stolen medical books. On second thought, he added a little more, for he was a compassionate man. A few minutes to let it circulate. Then he picked up the hand saw and started cutting. The knob of the knee, he discovered, is a pretty difficult area to cut through. The bone starts right there under the skin. He exerted more force, but little progress was made. Dust-like pieces of bone appeared on either side of the bone but the bone was hard and stubborn. The patient wasn’t making it any easier, thrashing about violently, trying to get away from the surgeon. Although he was tightly bound, it was inconvenient. So far there wasn’t much blood, and that was good. He had sawn through two inches of bone when he decided to stop and re-evaluate. He placed the saw back on the tray and sat on the sack of corn, thinking. The captive’s terrified eyes regarding him in trepidation; and a hint of hope that the operation had been halted.
He untied the leg, and the hint of hope in the patient’s eyes improved to palpable relief. But his relief came too soon, for James undid only the ankle straps, and twisted with great force the leg, until the patient’s torso twisted upwards onto it’s side, straining against the other restrictions. The tendons of the back of the knee stood out like cords against the strain. He tied the ankle to the other one to maintain that position.
It was now easier to cut. The tendons were little tough at first, but the first one snapped as the saw cut through it. Visible below it was a huge vein, gorged and pulsating with blood en route to and from the femur and foot. He sliced through it like a knife through butter, and crimson blood spurted like a jet, drenching him. Despite his fear of blood from childhood, he was surprised that it did not make him cringe. Brow knotted in rapt concentration, he was now a true surgeon. It even felt good. He continued with renewed vigor.
The ease with which the kneecap separated surprised him. He had been a fool to start with the front. He will remember it next time, he told himself, when he does the other leg. Now he was almost through the knee. He jerked it up. Still stuck to the thigh by thin strips of fresh. He put down the blood spattered handsaw, pick up the knife and severed those stubborn strips of skin. The leg, from the knee down, separated from the thigh. His face was , expressionless, immobile.
After a short while he resumed the rest of the business; suturing the still pulsating vein, applying a shot of disinfectant, dressing the wound with. gauze, and injecting the patient with morphine. The patient had long slid into unconsciousness, and he was lucky for that.
His work finished for the day, he carried his grisly burden to the house, taking care to lock the door behind him. The leg was surprisingly heavy. The blood oozing from the veins and congealed into a thick dark brown goo But to James it was not horror. It was just part of his duty to his dear departed mother. Vengeance, he reasoned, is the highest form of justice. Once inside the house he stood around, undecided where to store it. The sitting room was obvious. Prying eyes of neighbors coming to commiserate with him might see it. So he carried it to the bedroom, and hang it on a hook on the wall. Just like they used to hang meat with his mother, to let it dry in order to keep long
The following morning at 6 am he checked on his patient. The man was now conscious, only dimly awake, mumbling and tossing his head from side to side, delirious. James gave him a shot of liquid antibiotic (you never know with infections, especially in the dirty granary). Then he bathed him with cold water, shortly after which the patient slowly came to. James collected his surgical instruments, whistling a carefree tune as he carried them back to the house and washed them clean, taking care to use disinfectant.
He then sat down to make breakfast. A nice broth for the patient and tea for himself. For broth he sliced one onion, some tomatoes, and a piece of the patient’s leg, ensuring that part of the bone was included. Cutting the bone was hard, but he managed well using the hack saw. He boiled it thoroughly, until it was cooked just like the goat soup that he and his mother used to make. Bone marrow is splendid for recuperation. He then took it to the patient, who drank it with relish, and that was good.
Having ran out of groceries, James took some money out of the safe (a wooden box they kept under his late mother’s bed and had used for years) and walked to the village shop two kilometers away. He met villagers on their way to their shambas to start the day. Many hailed him and again offered their condolences, gladly informing them that they were praying for him to get over the untimely demise of his mother. The shopkeeper, a hearty man of fifty who James and his mother had been friends with for a long time, welcomed him to the shop and, having offered his condolences, began to chit chat about the usual mundane goings on in the village.
“The rains look like they will be plenty this season, James. You better plan to start planting early,” Wilfred the shopkeeper said.
“Yes, it looks like it will be a good season.” James acknowledged.
“The maize and beans will flourish. I am not so sure about the potatoes. Too much rain and cold gives them blight.”
“One has to know what to plant. As for me, I was only worried about fodder for my cows. When they get hungry they don’t produce milk.” James said.
“Yeah, that as well. By the way, let me offer you a kilogram of sugar for the house. What else did you require?”. Like most of the villagers, Wilfred was a true friend, believing in community values in the old African tradition. Putting other’s needs before his own, especially in times of grief.
“I was hoping to buy some sugar actually. Thank you Wilfred. Also some salt, a matchbox and some paraffin.”
Wilfred gave him the items, which James paid for with the money he and his mother had made from the sale of a sack of maize only the week before. He winced as he handed it over to Wilfred, who did not notice as he chatted along.
“You will be coming to church this Sunday?” asked Wilfred.
“Yes I will.”
“I hope they catch those bastards who did this and lock them in for a long long time.”
“I hope they do. But even if they don’t, may the good lord forgive them and have mercy on their souls.”
“That would be too kind. They deserve a terrible punishment. Such a good woman. You are too kind to talk of forgiveness. You have always been such a meek one James, you know?”
“Sometimes you have to let fate take it’s course. May be it was God’s will. Thank you Wilfred; see you on Sunday.”
With that, James walked back to his lonely house, his small bundle of purchases slung under one huge hand in a paper bag.
James did not do much work on the shamba. He loafed around the house, doing a little of this and a little of that but mainly taking care of his patient. One could say that service at the James wanjiru medical centre was excellent. He bathed him frequently, turned him to avoid bed (sack} sores, and for tea break, fed him some more of the broth, spoonful by spoonful.
Lunch was already planned. He happily went about cutting the meat into palatable pieces, which he fried medium rare. When his mother was alive James had been the one who did most of the cooking, and a good cook he had become. He prided himself in his acquired culinary abilities, and now he put even more effort into their perfection.
The meat was fresh, the aroma enticing. To go with it he made some ugali, the staple Kenyan meal of maize meal. The sumptuous meal he carried to the granary. This time they ate together; both enjoying it, and his patient looked like he could even favor him with a compliment as he washed it down with a glass of water.
Dinner went more the same way.
The following day, a Thursday, wasn’t as good. The meat was going bad, and that wasn’t so good. Some more meat was needed. Time to get some more. Ditto, out came the tray of his surgical tools and off to the granary. This time he did the other leg, which was consumed up to Saturday. But then patient was showing signs of distress. By Saturday he was slipping in and out of consciousness. He was never awake more than a few minutes, the tender care he was receiving notwithstanding. James read more of the medical journals, and learnt new ways of treating his patient.
Sunday came, and James dressed in his best Sunday wear, just like the days when they went to church with his mother. He picked up his bible which was worn with years of use. The bible they shared together. The way to the church passed through Wilfred the shopkeeper’s shop, and as agreed, he found Wilfred waiting for him. Together they walked to the church, talking about this and that.
The sermon that day was about forgiveness. The pastor spoke about forgiving your enemies. He listened with rapt attention, as always showing deference to the pastor and his immense wisdom. During time for community prayers someone suggested that they pray for the soul of his late mother, God rest her soul, and may the good lord forgive those murderers who had done that awful deed. James agreed with him, especially the part about resting her soul in eternal peace. The pastor said that “We shall meet her again in that good place, for she was a good woman and a servant of God,” and James had no doubt that it was so. It was as if the priest was reading his own mind.
Even about forgiving he believed, but he also believed that one must help themselves before God could help them. He couldn’t remember the book or verse where that was written but he did know that it was in the good book somewhere. “God helps those who help themselves. Yes, that was it. He was helping God to help him. Wasn’t that what a good Christian did?
James gave his tithe, like always, and he even gave for his mother as well, just as if she was there with him. Or maybe just some additional insurance to ensure that she was looked at with favor up in the place of eternal joy.
There was much camaraderie after the service between the villagers like it happens every Sunday. Friends exchanging pleasantries with friends, swapping stories of children’s activities and the progress of crops in the fields, and always, of course, about the rain which they prayed for every Sunday.
Everyone dispersed for their homes, content in having communed with the lord and looking forward to another happy week. James whistled his favorite tune, “Rock of ages,” as he went home, in his kikuyu vernacular.
First task was to do the ward round. The patient had deteriorated, his face pallid, eyes closed , torso deathly still. Yes, torso of course. The former energetic and violent murderer was now unlegged. Cold water bath, no response. But he was still breathing, and that was a good. Heart beat was a little slow, but what can you expect from a legless man? No need for a fast heart beat with such short distance to pump ha ha ha.
Back in the house James busied himself at another peculiar task. He first removed all furniture from his mother’s bedroom and piled it in the kitchen/sitting room. Then he spent the rest of the afternoon digging right there in the bedroom, exactly under the place where the bed stood. Dimensions of the hole he was digging were slightly narrower than the breadth of the bed, but the same length. He carried the displaced soil far into the shamba, scattering it around widely. Dig, carry, scatter, back to the house. By six o’clock he was finished.
A keen mason and carpenter in his former life, James collected some sand from outside the compound, the remains of an old objective to build a brick house. Then the half sack of cement from the store, which had crusted over on it’s way to going bad. The cement went towards his new project.
He plastered the hole he had dug under his mother’s bed carefully, both bottom and walls. The hole was not level all the way to the top. He created a ledge just below the surface. To fit in the ledge he fashioned a cover out of wood, slightly larger than the hole so that it closed it entirely. On this cover he drilled a small round hole, into which he fitted a pipe. Then he left the plaster to dry.
Another ward round. Patient still comatose. Damn. He needed someone to talk to. Frustrated, he cooked some more meat for himself, with beans this time. He really was getting used to this new meat. Then he slept for the night.
Six o’clock, before sunrise found him awake and doing the first check on his patient. He was still asleep but James, determined to wake him, splashed him with a whole bucket of cold water.
The patient came awake, coughing and spluttering very weakly. James regarded him thoughtfully for some time. Then he went and cooked him some more broth. Today was Monday, and the second leg of meat was already going bad. So the broth wasn’t too nice. He was at a loss what to cook his patient for lunch.
He decided at 11.00 am. So he cut off his right hand. Not much wriggling today. Either the patient was getting used to it, or he had given up on forgiveness. Unfortunately the patient again slid into unconsciousness and James had to eat the hand himself. There wasn’t much meat on it. Less than a small chicken. So he ate the other arm.
When by supper time the patient had not woken up, James left him to his darkness
after administering lovingly to him. They both slept, one dreaming happy thoughts, the other in a dark, dark place where nothing moved and darker shadows lurked.
James checked on his patient first thing the following day, even before he performed his ablutions. His breathing was labored, heartbeat faint. He cleaned the wounds again, and changed the dressing. The first stump was healing nicely, the second fairy well but the arm stumps were stubborn. Maybe his friend was running out of white blood cells. Or was it red? Doesn’t matter.
The bones in the house, remnants of a week of good eating for both of them, he threw into the pit latrine, where the acids and gases fermenting will hopefully dissolve them.
He stayed close to the patient through out the next two weeks. Just like an intensive care unit.? He even sang and cajoled him out of slumber, and it seemed to work, for on the third day, the man woke up, demanding water. James gave him water, and next time he woke up he gave him more soup, this time chicken soup because he had ran out of man soup, and he had realized that any more meat harvesting would surely kill him, an eventuality that was certain but one he wished to delay because he had other plans for him.
And now it was time for phase two. Since the patient was up, and, if not sprightly, at least looking stronger. He carried the man, torso actually, to the house, into his mother’s bedroom, and ever so gently lowered him into the hole, laying him on top of the blankets that he had laid at the bottom of the rectangular hole. He fit in nicely of course, with room to spare. He was maybe two feet shorter, what with the missing legs.
The man’s face was a rictus of fear. James had never seen such fear on a man’s face. And that made him happy. Profoundly happy. For while he feared living the rest of his life without his mother, the lucky murderer need not fear years and years of loneliness. He was actually getting a favor, a good turn.
But maybe he wouldn’t be so lonely. In fact now they will always be close to each other. James in the bed above, the murderer in his bed below, and his mother’s spirit hovering about. Splendid.
James covered the hole with the cover he had made, fixed the pipe through the hole he had drilled- a breather- and covered it with the fresh earth he had not taken to the shamba, as the man wailed weakly and tried pathetically to crawl out.
That night the two of them slept soundly. The next day James exhumed his roommate to check his condition. He cleaned and fed him again, and returned him to his resting place. James would talk to him at night, castigating him on his bad ways, but consoling him that he had now learnt his lesson and paid his dues, and that he could now rest in peace. Unlike other people, he even had the advantage of experiencing his final resting place.
His patient died after two weeks, and James covered the hole permanently, ensuring that the soil was hard parked as before. By stamping on it until it was hard, spreading ash on it to look like the rest of the house. For the rest of his life, the three would always be together. The murderer who was below, his beloved mother whose spirit would always hover around in her bedroom, and her son who had exerted his vengeance.