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The Implements of War

By M.W. Kimani (Kenya)


 

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The Implements of War

 

By M.W. Kimani

 

The implements of war hung on two rusty nails – hammered, one next to another, onto the left side of a weathered and beaten cupboard, within an arm’s reach of father’s big chair.

The brown leather belt was thick and heavy…but frayed from constant use. Next to it hang a long, sleek, rubber whip; black as night.

Each implement was specific in its use. The whip – was for my brother and I, for one does not spare the rod, if they seek not to spoil the child. The belt was for my mother, employed behind the bedroom door… to keep her on the straight and narrow.

The rules of engagement probably existed somewhere; I never quite learnt to read them. And father’s violent and disorganised raids often fell upon me at the most unexpected moments, taking me by surprise and leaving me bloodied and wracked with pain.

And just when I was developing a better instinct about these things – learning to watch for the twitch on my father’s temple, the throbbing that replaced the twitch, and the restless fidgeting that almost invariably preceded an attack, a mistake rescued me from the battlefield; a youth folly - teenage pregnancy and early marriage – at age 16.

If my marriage did not turn out too well, I suppose it was because the child was stillborn. That, in turn, was probably the result of the heavy blows that had landed upon the 8 month bump when, two weeks after a rushed marriage, the hapless father and I, his parents being too poor to help, had the impudence (and inanity) to go home and ask for assistance in meeting the costs of the impending birth.

 

A broken rib and busted lip in need of ten stitches quickly disabused the young man of the notion of helpful in-laws.

 The child came two days later, unexpectedly and accompanied by a gushing of blood and more pain that I had ever thought could exist in the absence of a whip. But her tiny heart didn’t beat, and she had the hue of crushed blueberries. We let the morgue bury her alongside the bodies of the unclaimed.

My young man; having been forced to leave school and find manual work so as to provide shelter for his then expectant wife, now found himself trapped in a marriage forced upon him by need, and hurriedly done to ensure that a bastard birth did not outrage the normal order of things.

He failed to take kindly the shackles that remained after the child’s demise, and took to drinking and staying away for weeks on end. Under threat of starvation and eviction, I made haste to find work, and was hired to clean the floors at the missionary hospital. I didn’t mind too much then that he didn’t come home often, nor when he finally ceased to show up at all.

 

Not so lucky was my brother. Seeing as it is that men do not, in general, get pregnant, and being tender of years, three less than I, he remained under father’s heel.

And father, having lost one quarry, decided that my brother’s un-spoiling required a double portion of the whip. That is until my brother grew too big and tall for the whip and father failed to conquer him with his fists. He finally ordered him out of the house, aged 17.

 

That school was free was probably the only reason that father had ever deigned to send us there, since, he figured, we were much better utilised in the farm and house.  

It also probably helped that the chief had personally called. I was approaching 9 years and my brother 6, and we hadn’t had a day of schooling and so the chief threatened fines. Thus it was, that we had managed to get some schooling. But, even there, in that so called place of knowledge and instruction, my brother and I never quite escaped the implements of war.

 

The ones used by the school masters were, I admit, different, and rarely drew blood. Wet, sap-filled sticks were all the rage, and preferred especially by the nuns.

 A caning to the backside stung and often left you unable to sit proper, a caning to the hands left them puffed and red, useless for any writing or working - inevitably begetting another round of punishment for the unfinished assignments.

 Still, the rules of war were at least clear, and neatly printed at the corner of each black board with wet chalk so they wouldn’t rub out. Ten strokes of the cane for lateness, six for talking during prep-time, five for using vernacular instead of English, fifteen for talking back. The nuns had a fancy name for it – corporal punishment. It was really not our bodies they punished though, that much I have since understood.

 The sin of fornication, a crime for which the nuns imposed permanent suspension, had ended school for me. But I missed learning, and when Dr. Martha, the white medic at the missionary hospital, hired me to watch her children, I took to riffling through their school books, reminding myself of the things I had been taught, grasping for new things that might have escaped me. She caught me doing it one day, and offered a lesson every week in exchange for adding house cleaning and garden maintenance to my chores.

 Staying home initially seemed to help my brother somewhat – that is, with regard to the schooling strictly. I say initially because in the end he never made it to high school.

He told me that his body hurt throughout that last year of school; fists had long replaced the whip. The war had continued right up to the day of his exams, he had held on, just to be able to finish school.

He failed his exams - in that there was no surprise. A month later, father finally gave him his marching orders.

 We never went back to father’s house, my brother and I. Not until after the accident. But then, neither did father ever ask after us. Death claimed him two years later.

 An avid church goer he had always been, and on that day, like all other Sundays, the congregation, having left mass, met in groups of two and three, exchanging news and gossip and finally, four of the congregants had found themselves standing near the bus stop outside the church’s gate, bidding farewell to each other. The van had come, seemingly, out of nowhere, lost control and careened into the group. Three had died instantly, including father and mother, another had been seriously injured.

When I heard the news, the thought came to mind that maybe, after all, even God has a limit as to how much false piety he is willing to entertain in his premises.

 The estate that fell to our hands was modest to say the least, just one acre of land on which mostly Napier grass grew for animal feed, a home and a large storeroom.

In the house we found an envelope of father’s money, and with this buried them on the lot, a distance from the house but directly facing the door where one could see the twin graves while sitting in the living room.

The belt and the whip we stuffed into his coffin, my brother and I, and said nothing of them to the relatives that came over to mourn. We had never told them anything of what happened in the house, but we figured that mother’s sisters had probably guessed enough from the scars on her body, or from the rumours about my still-born child. In any case, it didn’t make sense to start talking about it then.

 We agreed that I would move into the old house. My brother couldn’t bring himself to even step inside. He opted instead to re-organise the store room and make it into a home. Father’s house I cleared, sold every item of furniture that had been there and asked a workman to repaint all the rooms. I turned the living room, that old battle field, into a storeroom. My parent’s room I made a visitor’s space, and the visitor’s space I turned into my own.

 

And so it was that I tried to wean the spaces of their menace. I never quite succeeded, for I could still see, as if from the corner of my eye, the cabinet that had once stood there, the implements of war hanging from its side.

 Five years thus passed, and after sitting an exam, Dr. Martha’s lessons yielded a school certificate completing my primary studies. She promised to walk me through the secondary school course work, and I committed to continue to work her garden, clean her clothes and watch her children, now in their puberty.

 It was about that time that my brother brought home a thin little girl by the name of Naima, sweet and demure, and no more than 17. Her eyes darted around like a frightened rabbit’s.

 Her swollen belly spoke eloquently of the problem, a late term pregnancy. I said nothing about it, and offered them all an evening meal, after which they retired to what would now be their home, my brother’s converted store-house. He would have to expand it soon; that much was for sure.

 Two months later at the missionary hospital, helped by Dr. Martha, Naima bore him twins, a boy and a girl.

 It was then that it came to me that burying father so near may not have been such a good idea, for it seemed as if his spirit reached out with the birthing of these children, unleashing something deep inside my brother.

 He stopped coming home early, and drank a whole lot more. He shouted so loudly I heard him all the way from my place. And as the children grew, so unfolded a world I knew all too well. However, there would be no whip and no belt in my brother’s house, he dispensed entirely with such implements; for my brother was big and tall, and preferred the use of large hands and fists.

 When the children were 7 he broke Naima’s jaw and the boy’s leg. We made our first trip to the hospital where I lied to Dr. Martha and said a branch had fallen upon them. When he broke her ribs and the daughter’s hand I said they had been gored by a rampaging bull. It was then that Dr Martha called me aside, and told me that domestic violence kills because of those who cover up the perpetrator. That night I called Naima to my home, and told her she must leave because my brother would never get better.

 

“But where do I go?” she’d asked me plaintively.

  “How about your parent’s home?” I had suggested, and immediately realised the stupidity of the suggestion.

  “They will think I can’t keep my marriage,” Naima answered, even as I thought the same thing to myself.

She did not have to explain. What was I thinking? I asked myself then. How was this young girl of little or no schooling be able to feed her twin children without the help of a husband?

  I had offered her money then, realising that I would have to take my brother’s place. I’d made sworn promises to send her more wherever she chose to settle. But despite all my entreaties, she declined, for she loved my brother.

 He was pressed at work, he had told her, and was always sorry about the beatings, and cried when he apologised, she told me. He was a good man at heart. Surely as his sister I knew that? Naima had countered.

 It was then that I removed my blouse and pulled down my skirt, and turned away from her so that she could see my backside. She had recoiled, as I had known she would, at the sight of the scars and scabs that littered my back, buttocks and thighs. I knew she had seen similar scars on my brother’s body.

  “War is the only life my brother knows,” I told her then. “He doesn’t mean to hurt you or your children. I know it wounds him deeply when he explodes, and he hates the thing that moves him to harm you, but trust me when I tell you that he cannot help himself, and if you stay, this will be your fate and your children’s fate,” I told her.

 

But she would hear none of it. She would not leave. I had said it myself, she reminded me. He didn’t mean to do these things…maybe if she was more patient, less demanding…, she suggested.

I shook my head in despair, realising it was no good trying to talk her into leaving. So I urged her to at least move into my place with the children, at least for some time, with the hope that my brother wouldn’t attack them while under my care.

This she accepted at last, and moved in. It seemed to work… for a time.

 

Within a year the violence that had overtaken my brother appeared gone, the war over. The man we both knew and loved, now himself again. And the necessity of living with me now grew irksome to Naima. Why stay on with me when the man she loved was peaceful, jolly, and loving, greeted his children with laughter, and chided us with good humour about the living arrangements?

 

So it was that I came home one evening to find her gone back to his house.

 

I was apprehensive at first, but after a year, grew complacent for nothing amiss happened.

 

When it finally happened, the act was not intentional. He wasn’t even in a fit rage; he was just a little bit upset with her, and unthinkingly, had banged her head onto the concrete wall just a little bit too hard, and cracked her skull.

 

The scream that tore through her lips carried all the way to my door as it had done so many times before, but this time there was a chill to it, for it came through only once, and was followed by a deathly silence. And though I rushed to save her as I had done numerous times, I could already feel my heart sink as I made my way to my brother’s home.

 

I found him dazed, standing helplessly over her limp body, his children staring at him in taunt silence, not daring to utter a word, just as we had done growing up.

And when he saw me enter, my brother crumpled, and for the first time since childhood I saw a little boy cry; heavy, wracking and agonising sobs made his huge adult body heave. He looked desperate and unhinged, so I pulled the twins aside and urged them to rush and call some neighbours, not daring to leave myself, lest he did something to harm himself.

 

“I …kille...d he...r Doti…I fi….nally… kill…ed her,” he wailed, and a wild look entered his eyes. I feared then I that I could not restrain him, and when neighbours came, it was all we could do to contain him until the Police arrived.

Thus it was that I ended up with these two, these children of my brother.

How they shrink at the slightest raising of the voice.

 My brother was never going to come home. They intended to ask for the death sentence, that much I understood. I sat through the trial every day and looked often into my brother’s eyes. We listened mutely as the prosecutors made their case against him. Each time they spoke of my brother’s cruelty we would both start to weep.

 I visited him often in the jailhouse. We talked somewhat, but never about Naima, never about that day, always about father, and the implements of war and the things the war had broken inside.

It still came as a surprise when they told me he had hanged himself. The court was kind enough to give me his body. I put him next to his wife, near his store house, as far away from my father as I could place them.

But too late. Only in death have I been able to keep my father away from him. And maybe not even then, for I find now and then, when I look at my wards, that some infraction or other will come to my attention, and a blind flame of rage will course through me and leave me quivering with imminent violence, just as it must been in father, just as it must have been in my brother.

 

I swallow it down hard and write it down in a notepad, so that I can talk to Dr. Martha about it in our weekly meeting. It is working thus far.

 Nevertheless, time and again, when I look outside my home at those four graves out in the yard and see what the implements of war have wrought, I pray to God long and hard that I don’t end up passing the scars on my back to these two. This time I hope he is listening.

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