Celebrating East African Writing!
Written by Ombongi Neyole
The moonlight slipped between the thick iron grate of the cell window. It split into strands and draped the back of the cell.
He sat in the darkness, out of the moonlight, his head rested against the wall.
With a sudden jerk, his hands went to work over his stomach, scratching furiously through his shirt. The bites itched so bad, he thought his body was on fire. It was the same cycle, just when he was getting used to the fleas, they doused him with powder and boiled his clothes. He had to work up his immunity all over again.
After a while, he came to look forward to the visits from the fleas. If he laughed, if he cried, if he screamed, the walls laughed, cried and screamed in cruel mimicry. He was tired of his own voice. Nothing else seemed to stir inside the cell. Once a day, the harsh scrape of the metal bowl sliding under the cell door jarred his silent world. His ears would ring while he swallowed the cold porridge in the bowl. No words, no questions, no answers. Now, he prayed to be interrogated, just so that the silence could stop crushing his skull. He came to look forward to the visiting fleas.
Each day, he folded his shirt carefully: don’t want to crush them, he told himself. In the daytime heat, they were rather inhibited. But as moonlight streaked the cement walls of his cell, they fell upon him and reduced him to paroxysms of scratching. In the chilly air, he was warmed by the exertions. And he quietly thanked the fleas for their interest and concern.
Then the cell door would clang open with a clatter of keys and a whine of protest from the door hinges. And suddenly he would be blinded by light as they dragged his sleep-drugged form out into the corridor, through another door and into the hard stone bathhouse.
And they attacked him with cold water, and doused him in powder and watched as he meekly folded himself into another set of worn prison shorts and shirt; identical to the ones he had just taken off, but somehow…lacking. They had killed his fleas.
And, flung back into his cell, teeth a-chatter, he wept to himself. The silence rose and fell, like waves of sickness. He was frantic: he thought that he was going deaf. The harsh scratching of the metal plate sliding under the door relieved him of his worry. After a few days the fleas came back. They sank their teeth into him and he manically scraped his skin, and squirmed in the moon-lit floor, drunk with euphoria.
Sometimes, in the darkness, he thought he could hear the fleas jump.
In the morning, he stared at the raw skin of his torso and his arms and his legs- scratched white during the night. He began to laugh, a terrible, silent laugh.
“Sign here please.” The interrogator said, tapping the piece of paper twice. The sound of another voice was stunning, he felt like he was hearing words for the first time in his life. He gave the interrogator a baffled, happy smile.
The interrogator frowned, “Did you hear me?”
Quickly, he nodded. He glanced at the paper. He had trouble reading after spending so much time in darkness, the words were blurred and it took all his concentration to get his eyes into focus. He could not help admiring the interrogator’s beautiful, girlish handwriting. He finished reading and said nothing.
“Do you understand it?”
“No” he wanted to say. He did not want the interrogator to stop talking. He was hungry for the voice, to hear the wondrous beauty of another human being speaking. But he was afraid of the beatings. Afraid that the interrogator would bring back the electric motor, and the wires.
“I sign, and nothing will happen to them?” he ventured.
“Yes, yes.” said the interrogator.
“Well, I am not interested in them.”
The interrogator drummed his fingers.
He tried to remember his wife’s face, his little daughter’s pouting face- so heavy and warm in his arms as he fed her. He could not. It was like trying to peer through a thick veil. He almost sobbed out loud when he realised that he had forgotten their voices
The pen was awkward in his clawed hand, but the interrogator paid little attention to the scrawl, barely waiting for him to finish before snatching back the pen and paper.
“Guard.” The interrogator barked out as he stood up.
He waited patiently, watching the interrogator slide the signed paper into a slim folder. He felt strong arms around him and let himself be led back to his cell. That evening, there was more thickness to his porridge than usual. He scratched his leg and thought of his wife.
Now he is in a restaurant by the side of the Nakuru-Naivasha road. He is wearing the blue and off-purple uniform that drivers of the shuttle company are required to wear. He is gulping down hot chips and washing it all down with bubble-gum pink yoghurt from a white carton.
He is thinking of his metal plate and about how the dingy restaurant is too noisy.
Some of the shuttle-vans have been left running. They sit parked by the gravel strewn entrance.
The passengers are also swiftly shovelling down their food, others have remained in the vans, reading newspapers or stubbornly dozing.
A waiter standing right behind to him screams out an order for ‘Ugali sosa’. He has to fight the urge to turn around and punch the waiter in the stomach. Why can’t people just shut up, let me eat in peace? He asks himself.
And someone walks past and puts a pink slip of paper on the table in front of him, next to the now-empty carton of yoghurt. The paper is printed, in neat handwriting from a blue ball-point pen, with the price of his meal.
He feels a stab of fear in his chest. He knows that handwriting. He has dreamt about the curls in those ‘r’s and ‘f’s. He stares wildly around, looking for whoever put that pink slip on his table.
Slowly the pressure in his chest recedes and he begins to feel stupid. What would I do anyway? He asks himself. Do I expect the man to recognise me after all these years? Am I waiting for his apology? Will I kill him if I see him?
He suddenly remembers where he is, looks up and sees the passengers are already seated inside his shuttle. They are eyeing him meaningfully. He gets up, praying that his legs are steady, and walks to the door of the minivan. He opens it, sits down, turns the key in the ignition and slowly eases the vehicle out of the car-park.
The sunlight is bright and cruel. It causes the highway to shimmer in the distance and the air to ripple like a flag.
But he feels safe in his minivan, shuttling the tired and bored people behind him to Nairobi. Then he will get into another vehicle and shuttle people back to Eldoret. He will pass through that restaurant many times. And one day, he will meet the man again.
The man who wrote his confession then handed him a pen to sign it- in exchange for the lives of his family.
They had a lot to talk about. He smiles to himself.
No more silence.
© Ombongi Neyole 2010
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