Celebrating East African Writing!
Martin repeated the name and in response fingers were pointed; thin, gaunt fingers on one side of the river, where the houses were single storey constructions of wood and iron sheets; fat, healthy fingers on the other where indefatigable guards manned strong and opulent gates. Despite the stark difference, they all pointed in the same direction, up and up, to where the river began.
Martin got back into his rented Land Rover, a battered old jalopy that ran as much on voiced motivation as it did on diesel. He pointed the way forward to the driver, who frowned at the sight of the ruts along the chosen path, but spurned the vehicle on anyway.
Behind their jeep, the funeral van followed meekly. Locals stopped by the roadside and stared curiously at the coffin within, and Martin knit his brow when he saw their faces sag in confusion. The message was clear; surely none of them had departed recently. This dead person, whoever it may be, was an outsider, a traveller simply passing by.
The semi-urban sprawl came to an abrupt end with the emptied husk of an abandoned kiosk. Now the trees lining the road were visibly older, thick and tall like giants’ fingers. They closed in quickly; soon the road had narrowed to impassability. The driver brought the car to a halt at a copse of eucalyptus, and Martin stepped out onto the dirt.
“Wait here,” he told his driver. He gestured to the van driver to stay put, and delved into the shade of the narrow footpath leading further into the thicket. There was no indication of civilisation further on, but these were indeed the directions he had been given. Up and up. Flies and beetles took to the air as he passed, buzzing madly in his ear. Presently he heard the gurgle of water; somehow, he had once again found the river.
He emerged in a clearing, a low wooden fence barring his way. Beyond this was the house he had been looking for. Low and of wooden construction, it seemed so comfortably in place that he could have sworn it had not been built, but grown, fed by the river that glimmered beyond it. Outside the house’s small door was a well worn cushioned seat, and beside that a low table with a fly whisk lying on it.
The elderly man appeared from behind him, surprisingly quiet. At his appearance Martin clenched his fist. They looked so much alike, Amelia and he. The roundness of their features and the sharpness of the eyes. But what should he say now? Hello sir, your daughter is dead. I have brought her back to bury her. If you will follow me I will lead you to the corpse and we can get to work.
No, that would not do.
“Hello, sir,” he began. “My name is Martin Were.”
Recognition flashed on the elderly man’s face. He leaned back and frowned, his wrinkles cracking in the sun. It was not a good reaction.
“You!” he said. He shook his head and meandered to his house. “I do not know anybody by that name.”
“I married your daughter.”
“There was no marriage,” he said matter-of-factly, settling heavily in his chair. He took the whisk in hand and swatted at the turgid flies that had settled on the table. “I did not even have a daughter.”
“Sir, this is no time for…”
“Sir? I am Mr. Mwangi. I don’t know who this ‘sir’ is. It is not me.”
Martin passed through the small gate in the fence and stood in front of Amelia’s father. “Mr. Mwangi, your daughter has passed away.”
The old man stared up at him, uncomprehending. The wind passed over them, the river gurgled on. Suddenly the old man’s lip began to quiver. He looked away, down into the running water.
“I have lived here all my life,” he said. “This was my father’s land and my grandfather’s land. I have buried my wife there-” he pointed into the trees with his whisk “-with my mother and my grandmother. There is nobody left to bury me.”
Martin could only stare past him.
“What do you want?” Mr. Mwangi asked.
“I have come to bury her here, in her home.”
“Wambui. Her name is Wambui. I don’t know any Amelia.”
Mr. Mwangi stood up and whisked away more flies. “Take me to her.”
They walked slowly back to the vehicles, where the drivers were both asleep in the Land Rover. The coffin sat alone in the heat of the van.
“So she has returned in a box,” Mr. Mwangi said, edging close to the van windows, fogging them up. “I do not want to see her.”
“Are you sure?” Martin asked, concerned. It was not what he expected from a parent.
“I am sure. My wife said that she does not want to see her again.”
“When she heard that her daughter was married, she cursed the child that went to the city and did not return. She even said that she had never birthed.”
Martin stood in silence; he could not deny it.
“I am willing to pay the dowry,” he said, realising the depth of his theft. Perhaps the old man wouldn’t be alone if he had paid up. There was no way to know. “Amelia…er, Wambui said he did not want to be paid for.”
“How can you pay for a cow after it has died? It cannot produce milk. Will the payment be measured on a weighing scale, or by the freshness of the meat? Besides, I do not have a daughter anymore. I will put this person you have brought in the ground and that will be the end of it.”
“Do you want to know how she died?”
“It was the curse that killed her,” Mr. Mwangi said with finality.
No, Martin wanted to say. It was the cancer.
They spent the afternoon digging. Martin folded his shirt and placed it on the table outside the old man’s home. He was not used to the physical demands of manual labour, and after going down a few feet, his muscles throbbed and an unnatural heat spread in his bones. The old man finished the job.
“I do not want to be cursed,” Mr. Mwangi said. “If I open the coffin, the curse will kill me too. I know my wife is here watching me, waiting to spit on me if I do it.” He wiped off his sweaty brow with the back of his hand. “We cannot even sing a song, but I will pray later.”
Martin watched from the edge of the deepening grave. The old man was a short, sinewy creature. He excavated the hole expertly and efficiently, and Martin could only hope that is was not out of experience that he could do it so well. Sweat dripped down and mixed with the fresh red soil. Looking closer, Martin was not completely sure that all the drops were of perspiration. A lot of it seemed to come from his eyes.
“You have to bury them away from the water,” Mr. Mwangi said as they lowered the coffin. “The water can dig better than we can. It can carry away the bodies from below, without leaving a trace of its thievery on the surface. Much like you.”
“I did not know that,” Martin said, ignoring the scathing remark and throwing soil into the hole.
“When I die, I think the river will bury me. I do not have any more descendants to do it. Do I?”
Looking up into the old man’s expectant face, Martin shook his head sadly.
“It’s all for the best, I suppose.”
They stood for a time beside the freshly turned soil.
“We will need a grave marker,” Martin realised. He looked around the compound, at the trees and at the house in the distance; at the locations of the other graves. There were no markers there either. Just trees.
“Leave it,” Mr. Mwangi said. “Something will grow.”
“If she is of this family then something will grow. If she is forgiven then something will grow.”
A year later a roaring Land Rover climbed up the hill. Where the road ended, a suited man stepped out and made his way through the trees to the abandoned house besides the river. The man looked around the home, but there was no sign of the old man. The chair was gone, as was the table. The door stood ajar. Within there was no sign of habitation. The man proceeded past the house into the patch of land where his wife was buried. He walked right up to her grave, but was stopped before he could walk over it.
A young pine poked out of the ground, tender branches reaching out.
Martin stared. There was another plant growing besides it, a few feet away, a tiny thing that he could have crushed to nothing with his boot heel. But it was undoubtedly there, growing.
Perhaps the river could dig after all.
©Peter Gumbah 2015
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