Celebrating East African Writing!
At night curious sounds rule the air with impunity. Sounds shrouded in mystery, like the darkness itself. It is these sounds that kept me awake longer than the others. My heart was always beating wildly as these sounds, each one unique, each in succession like a band in a parade. These were moments when I felt alone in the dark, like some mysterious hand had grabbed me and thrown me into a sea of darkness where I was all alone and vulnerable. However, it was neither the shrill chirp of crickets nor the sound of cats prowling the night that made me withdraw deeper into my blanket; it was the sound of the night runner.
Night runners formed part of the many horrors in my nights. We heard about their strange ways from the elders, who told many tales about these mysterious people. They told us how night runners would run around with fire brands, and how fireflies followed them at night. We heard stories about men who had been petrified by night runners such that they were unable to move a limb! Moreover, they told of methods of capturing them, like burning a broom in the night, this supposedly caused a night runner to swell up. However, the differences and apparent exaggerations in these stories only made the night runner seem more mysterious than ever.
One day in the middle of the night, when all of us had eaten and had retired to bed-my younger brother slept over at my parent’s house while my little sister and I slept at our grandmother’s- everyone was asleep except for me. My fear of the night runners kept me awake. At first there was silence, as if a mysterious conductor of the night had just signaled his orchestra to stop. Everything was so quiet, I could hear my own heart beating, too loud it seemed. Then a dog barked in a distance, and then there was dead silence. By this time I was trying as much as possible to stifle my breathing for fear it was too loud. Suddenly the sounds I dreaded the most begun ; it was like the sound of shuffling feet as they went around the house, they sounded so clear, it was as though my ears had gained a supernatural abilities! Then again, silence. My heart jumped into my mouth when suddenly something landed on the roof with a loud bang. The darkness seemed darker, quieter and more sinister.
The sounds of what I thought to be footsteps, running around the house was followed by silence. In the eyes of my imagination, I saw the night runner; stark naked, dark and cruel, picking stones and laughing to himself with glee. I could see him dancing with a jig: celebrating his kingdom; the moonlit night. He raised his arms to the moon, shaking his hips, power and control all in his hands. No one would dare wake up to defy him. No one would dare stand up against the ruler of the night, the holder of fear. I felt small, conquered, intimidated to the point of paralysis.
With fear coursing through my body like an electric current, my mind coursed back to the scary stories I had heard about the night runner. I could remember the night when my baby sister Millie threw a tantrum. She had accidentally spilled her millet gruel on the table. Her face lit by the light from the tin lamp, I could see her contort it slowly into an expression of pain, as her mouth slowly opened to let out a scream. It took around two minutes before her piercing cry tore through the air. My grandmother rushed into the house from the grass thatched kitchen, concern written on her face. Once she had heard what the problem was, she told tried calm Millie by telling the story of the hippopotamus-riding night runner. This night runner, she said, disliked crying children and would come to kidnap Millie in the night if she did not stop crying. Millie immediately kept quiet and looked at me with tear marks still on her cheeks. This narration may have helped grandmother to calm Millie but it planted a seed of dread in my mind. From then on whenever I went out at night I feared I would meet the night runner on a hippo.
Suddenly the sound of sand landing on the roof shook me out of my thoughts. My fear streamed back and sweat poured over my body like water. My head was becoming too heavy for my left arm as I had been lying on my left side, away from the wall, and was becoming fatigued. I knew I needed to lie on my right side but was afraid of making a noise. I did not want the night runner to know that someone was paying attention to his antics. Such awareness, I was afraid, would cause him to come after me. Then, like an answer to my prayer my grandmother started muttering in her sleep. She was talking to someone in her dreams about a goat that got lost three days ago. This had actually happened and I was one of those who had been dispatched to search for the goat. We had named the goat ‘Amila’ meaning “restless”. The animal always seemed to like bushes and lonely places. It never liked the leaves at the edge but instead went deeper into the bushes. So we had spent hours searching for it in deep scrub. Dry acacia trees that grew in the fields had dried up and were shedding their thorns, so my companions and I had to endure pricks from them. It was there that we found a stick burnt at the end lying on the ground. One of my cousins said that it had been left there by a night runner. So when our search lasted until dark, I could not help but look out for a night runner. We later found the goat at my distant uncle’s homestead. I remembered he had let out a loud belly laugh when he heard us calling the goat ‘Amila’, the restless one. I used my grandmother’s muttering as a cover while I turned onto my right side. “When will this end?” I thought to myself. I knew that the night runner was outside, but the silent stillness made me feel like he was right there in the house! Was the night runner real, or was he just a creation of others and disguised in my fears of the night? If he was real, could he hear me in the house? Could he hear my breath or was I giving him the power to hear me? Were my efforts to keep quiet only making me louder? However, the more I thought the more confused I became, the only way to answer these questions was to go outside and verify this for myself.
The previous night had been better than this night. Similarly I had waited in anticipation for the arrival of the night runner. However, I was taken over by sleep before the night runner started his camaraderie. But this night was different; it was as if the creator of my terror had consulted a witch doctor who had assured him that I would be kept awake.
© Rogers Nyabola.