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I hadn’t heard of ‘Pesa Mesa’ until Jabes, the shamba boy mentioned it one evening as we played draughts outside the little house I had inherited from my elder brother.
“It is money that you pay to a Maragoli girl’s family when you formally introduce yourself to her people as a suitor” he explained. The place where we lived, Chamkombe Hill, was surrounded by pockets of Maragoli, some who had lived there for generations.
“Why did you ask?”
He didn’t speak for a while, watching the board.
“Do you remember Agnes?” he asked.
Agnes was a Maragoli girl my elder brother Joseph had unsuccessfully courted about the time I left to start my first year of campus. I moved a draughts piece, he took it. He had beaten me easily every day for the month I had been home.
“Yes, what happened between her and Joseph?”
“They moved,” he said, “Right after your brother had paid ‘Pesa Mesa’ and started the negotiations. Her grandmother refused the marriage and asked for her to return to Magina.”
“Sometimes things don’t work out the way you hope,” I offered.
He gave the small patronizing laugh they reserve for those who have returned from school in big towns and forgotten how things work back home.
“Why didn’t she ask her grandmother before ‘Pesa Mesa’ was paid?” he asked, making his next move. He was on the attack.
“I don’t know,” I replied, blocking one of his pieces.
“Do you remember her mother?”
I had first met Agnes on the uphill path that led to our homestead. She was walking a distance ahead of me, a pail of river-fetched water on her head. There wasn’t much space on the path and in order to pass her, I had to ask her to step aside. So she had moved to the side of the little path, pail on her head, waiting for me to pass. She was wearing a flimsy shirt and the water had spilled down the pail to wet her hair, her face, her bosom. I must have stared because she frowned and clicked with impatience.
“This thing is heavy so please pass quickly if you intend to pass.”
I hurried past, a bit ashamed, suddenly aware of my own raw desire. I already knew that my brother was interested in her and that knowledge worsened my guilt at the feelings that looking at her had stirred. I’d gone just a few metres ahead when she called out;
“What were you looking at? Have you never seen breasts?”
I hurried on trying to escape her taunting.
“Stop, I want to send you to your brother.”
I had always been scared of my brother. He used to beat me when I was little, for trivial things like not having his bath water ready when he came from football practice. High school had saved me from that and I dreaded to think how shameful it would be if he started again. I stopped and waited for her, keeping my eyes down, away from her breasts.
When she caught up with me, she put her pail down and simply said,
Then she headed off towards a small sheltered clearing close to the road, leaving her pail right there by the path. When we got to the clearing she looked around to see if anyone was within sight and then walked right up to me, until she was less than a foot from my face.
“Look but don’t touch” she said.
Then she undid the buttons of her blouse until her breasts lay bare, wet and quivering with excitement. I couldn’t take my eyes off them; nestled there in the crook of her arms. A cool breeze was blowing from the gaps between the trees and I couldn’t speak. We both noticed my growing embarrassment. I turned away to hide it and she burst out in shameless peals of laughter as I ran from that clearing, her laughter chasing me up the hill all the way home. I didn’t meet her again until I left for campus.
We had been playing in silence for a while and he seemed impatient to continue our conversation, so I obliged him.
“Agnes used to live with her mother, didn’t she?”
“Yes, and you’ll remember that neither of them had a job.”
“They lived in a rented house, right?”
He had abandoned the pursuit of my crowned piece and was trying to use his king to get one of his other pieces past my defences. We were now in a race for kings.
“How do you think they paid for their house, food, and clothes?” he asked.
“Her mother used to go to the market every day, didn’t she sell vegetables or something?”
“Yes, but it was not enough money to pay for that house.”
“Are you saying that Agnes was… you know?”
“ Not exactly. Your brother courted her for half a year.”
“Yes, I know.”
“He paid for that house during most of that courtship” he announced.
My brother, that immutable piece of rock had done such a thing. I moved my pieces, only five left on the board; my two kings against his three.
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“The year after you visited, a man came here on a motorbike looking for them. He was from the other side of town where they had lived before they moved here.”
“I though they lived in Magina.”
“Not at all. They lived in Kadika for two years before they moved here. She was young, beautiful, the man fell in love with her. He treated them as he would his own family as arrangements were made to hold the first round of negotiations that would see him officially have her hand in marriage.”
“The first round of talks was successful, thirty thousand shillings ‘Pesa Mesa’ he paid in cash. He was to be told when to pay the rest and get his bride. Instead, in January that year, the village woke up to find Agnes and her mother had gone in the night. Everything gone and nobody in the house.”
I had next met her when I was in second year, a more seasoned youth than the one she had shamed. She would visit my brother in the small house we still shared. Evening visits to which she would come in her best clothes and he would send me to Koyiengo, the closest shop with refrigerated soda.
I tried to avoid meeting her. I would roam the homestead with a novel as they talked, the door shut, peals of that familiar laughter leaking out from time to time. Sometimes there were long silences that unnerved me, made me want to creep close and eavesdrop. After, when my brother walked her down the path and I remained to clean up, I found myself looking for something incriminating. Something to explain those silences and allow me to break off my obsession cleanly. I never found anything.
She knocked on the door of the small house one afternoon. My brother was not due until the next day and my mother had gone to the market as usual. She brushed past me as soon as I opened the door and sat on the edge of the unmade bed.
“Why have you been avoiding me?”
“Avoiding? I buy those sodas you and Joseph drink every time you come here.”
“And yet you have not spoken to me.”
“I didn’t think it would be proper.”
We kept silent for a while.
“You’ve been with girls since the last time we met.”
I didn’t answer. She was standing up now, coming over to me.
“School girls,” she spat, “did they make you think of me?”
Then she took off her blouse and bared them again, and I couldn’t speak. Not playthings between children now but a full-grown woman’s gifts.
It was as if ever since that first time in the clearing, we had been waiting for this moment. In the heat I found her softness, felt her warmth, and it enveloped me, hungrier, fiercer than my fervour. Little things fell from the trees and made small noises on the iron sheet roof and cows lowed as playful children led them from the river, their voices carrying into the room like sounds from a far off dream. The sun was almost lost over the rim of Chamkombe Hill when I finally lay beside her and for the first time that afternoon, thought of my brother.
“Will you marry him?”
“What if I’m in love with you?”
“You are too young for me” she said smiling, and I didn’t know if she was joking or not.
Outside, I could hear my mother in the kitchen, preparing supper. Agnes didn’t speak again until she was dressed. Then she came over and ran her hand over my face. She seemed suddenly sad.
“Don’t leave until it’s dark or your mother will know.”
It was the last time I ever saw her.
Jabes had completed his trap, his kings stood on both sides of mine, every move bound to be my last so I moved, and he finished it.
“That’s how they were living,” he said. “Promising her to suitors and getting the most out of each one before moving on. After your brother paid ‘Pesa Mesa’ they disappeared. And when he went to Magina he was told they had never lived there.”
I laughed, and Jabes laughed with me as he set the pieces for the next game.
©Alexander Ikawah 2015
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