A Free Man

 

He makes his ways through the dusty pathways of Bula Adaan to the house where she had lived, hoping to find her. She had has been invading his thoughts since he came out of Garissa Prisons a month ago, slowly gnawing at his sanity, like termite at wood, as though the small lifetime he had already spent mulling over her and what had happened was not enough. His able right leg carries most of his weight and stomps the ground. He lugs the slightly shorter left leg, and it lightly scratches the ground. He limps. Stomp, scratch. Stomp, scratch. The call for dusk prayer rips the windy August evening apart. It is loud and raspy. In the semi-dark, he comes upon the gate. The familiar orange gate.

Inside, there is a house with the lights on. A hose snakes around the compound, choking small trees, coughing up water, a throaty cough, like a sick cat. The blunt wind blows hard. He walks towards the house. He stands at the open door. He sees her.

Sh…Sh-Sh…Shukri, he stutters. He walks inside.

Sharmaarke? She covers her mouth with her hands. How did you…? How did you find me?

Y-y-you still l-l-live in the s-s-same place.

It’s been a long time. I didn’t expect to see you.

T-twenty y-y-years is a l-l-long time.

She sits on the edge of a chair.

The room is sparse. It has a small red cupboard and an old sofa set. A torn linoleum is stuck to the floor. The air inside is musty. Dust clings to surfaces. A moth is trapped in a spider’s web.

He realises she is a woman now. It hits him, this realisation. Hard. In his mind, she’s always been the dark-skinned girl with the narrow eyes. In his mind, she has not aged a day. He had come seeking that girl. But now he finds a thin and angular middle-aged woman. He too was only a boy of sixteen when he’d last seen her. He is no longer that boy anymore.

 

 

When she first came to the bula, Sham was immediately taken with her. He would sit by the window of his room and watch her pass by in the evenings on her way home from school. Every day at five. She would walk by. Clad in white uniform. A few kids trailing her, shouting names after her: madhoobey! Turkana! Sudanese! Her skin was dark as the hanqaas the kids used to write the Quran with, dark as the roasted coffee beans—the buun—his mother served to give thanks to God on Friday mornings. No one had seen something like her.

He’d never seen a creature more breath-taking that she was, though. Sometimes he’d catch a small detail about her in the evening glow and his eyes would water with pleasure. (He was, except for his bashfulness, something of the Byronic archetype—contemplative, discerning, broody, unlucky in love, yet sizzling with intense affection.) For instance, he would cry over the small birthmarks that freckled the slope of her nose. Or the golden eyes like two pieces of burning coal on a speck of snow. Or her neck: its differential nature; its oblique gait; its supple roundness; its ambivalent temperament, simultaneously bashful and ostentatious. Or the little downy hairs glimmering on her skin. Or the throbbing tenderness of her hands, the animated pink of her delicate fingers. And at night he would dream of a dark angel with white wings. And every day he’d watch her pass.

Then he met her. On a rainy August day when he was sixteen. He was in the town centre sitting inside his uncle’s car, watching the pelting of the raindrops on the windscreen and the flapping of the wiper. He was waiting for the Canter that delivered the jerry cans of milk that his aunts sent daily from the town of Bura, the milk that his mother sold near their home. Then he saw her walk towards the car. Her damp dira clung to her—the outline of her brassiere showing—trying to contain the cautious contours of her body. She jumped into the backseat thinking it’s a taxi. His heart seized. He forgot about the milk and started driving her home.

She recognised him and started talking to him. He was amazed by the ease with which she spoke. She doled the words out of her mouth, in a steady sequence, like the way the beads turned in his mother’s rosary. Her voice was husky, breaking every now and then, lending her speech some languid lewdness, some poignant playfulness, some seriousness, like the voice of the musician Saado Ali whose cassettes his grandfather used to listen to. When they arrived, she sauntered away into the orange gate.

He sat outside the orange gate, dizzy. He recalled the teasing at school. The boys laughing. Him angry. The volcanic bile burning its way up. And his mother saying, What, do you have a vagina plastered on your forehead? Talking was difficult for him. No matter how much he tried, it felt awkward, stunted, like driving a car with the hand break on. Since he was a child, he was uncomfortable around people. But all he ever wanted was to feel recognised, to have no inhibitions, to be comfortable around people, to be somebody, to be free.

 

 

Sham paces about the room.

Stomp. Scratch. Stomp. Scratch.

He removes a pack of Sportsman and a matchbox from his pocket. There are only two sticks left inside the matchbox. They are like little heads on little sticks. In a little cage. They remind him of him and his cellmate Shire lying in their tiny cell. They remind him of prison: human heads on sticks of bone walking about, dead inside, yet carefree. His hands shake and he drops the matchbox several times before it lights up. He draws in the cigarette and his hands stop shaking. He blows smoke rings into the air between him and the woman. Her face becomes invisible behind a cloud of smoke.

He had started smoking when the man first came. The man that had resided inside him. The one that did not like the boy. The one that whispered bad things into his ears. The man that came that gusty August night in his fourth year in the hole. Sham was cowering in the corner of his cell, beneath the charcoal sign NO WOMAN NO CRY a previous occupant had scribbled, sobbing silently into the wall. He had just been beaten by a prison bully for refusing to wash his clothes and clean his shoes. Little boys wash after real men, the bully had said to him. Sham had lost it and lunged at him, the anger of a lifetime flaming within him. But the bully had smashed him onto the ground and beat him senseless.

The man had said that he had come to teach him how to be strong. If you want to survive here, the man said, you need to get rid of emotion; emotion is a dangerous thing. But first, the man continued, we need to get rid of the boy. Sham agreed. He hated the boy. He fucking hated the boy’s guts. Or his lack thereof. It was all the boy’s fault: his imprisonment, his fear, his anxiety, his discomfort, his misery, everything. The man ordered Sham to kill the boy as the first ritual to celebrate his new life. So Sham procured a pocket knife from the man and limped across the yard—stomp, scratch, stomp, scratch—dragging the boy behind him. He stabbed the boy in the gut, the blood flowing all over Sham’s body and on to the ground. Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop. The more the blood trickled, the more powerful he felt. He limped back, leaving the boy seething, scarlet sap seeping into soil, under the moon.

The following morning, Sham took a cigarette from Shire’s hands and started smoking. He liked the cigarette’s draw, its buzz, the rush of dopamine lighting up the gloom in his brain. His heart kick like the engine of the rickshaws that choked the town. He felt alive. Shire, (a man convicted of armed robbery, who was drowning in his own ego and spoke through his nose with a sardonic tone and who did not like people in general) smiled. A congratulatory smile. The man smiled too. Sham noticed a stark resemblance between Shire and the man. It was almost like the resemblance of identical twins. A real man must have a vice, Shire said. As the roofs creaked in the wind that morning, Sham was reborn.

He carried the knife with him after that, tied a red bandana around his head, dangled a toothpick nonchalantly between his teeth, walked with a jailhouse swagger, gained some muscle and formed a gang with Shire. They used other prisoners to do their chores for them. They hurt anyone they did not like. They became the merchants of khat and cigarettes and any other contraband that would sell in prison. But the boy never died; he would come whenever the man was not around and would lurk in the background, pale and blood-stained, like a zombie. But Sham never let the boy come back. He kept him at bay.

Sham runs a finger down the length of the woman’s thigh. I h-haven’t t-t-touched a woman in t-t-two decades, he says. He reaches for the loose wisp of hair framing her face and tucks it behind her ears. He runs the back of his fingers down her cheek in tender strokes, all the while looking into her eyes. In prison, his jerked off compulsively. Initially, it started as a way of feeling good, feeling high, feeling alive when the kick of the cigarette wore off. Then, just like the smoking, it became another prison, another tight fetter around his ankles. He would masturbate at night, in the mornings; sometimes he would do it in the ferment of noon. He’d do it lying in the darkness of his cell after lights out. He’d do it on the mossed floors of the latrines. His core, his essence, trickling out. Drip. Drop. Drip. Drop.

I’m sorry, she says. But you are a free man now. You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to hurt me. You have your whole life ahead of you.

 

 

A few days after he came out, Sham stood across from their house. The thatched house was where he was born. The only place on earth he used to know very well. Other than prison, he had spent more time in this strip of land than in any other place, in this space between the house and the kitchen, the latrine and the concrete water tank, the neem trees and the chicken pen. But the house seemed to have grown into a life of its own. It was more of a feeling than a place now. A feeling of indifference, of cold, awkward distance. Like meeting a good old friend whom one was once close to, but from whom one had grown apart.

Out in the neighbourhood, everyone looked alien, except for the occasional familiar face. He could recognise the men who were once his childhood friends, men who would look away and walk on. The women would whisper to other women and would keep their distance.

His mother and other women sold milk outside the line of shops that served as the neighbourhood shopping centre. They looked sullen. The wind swept dust into their faces. The crown of their hijab—sun-bleached to wheat-flour white—looked like the ice caps of little mountains.

On the day he came out, his mother was the only person who came for him. (She was also the only who would visit him while he was inside.) She had stood outside the prison gate, looking too old for her fifty-five years. She looked pale and wrinkled. When he embraced her, she smelled of heat, incense and decades of loneliness. She spent her time mostly by herself, except when one of her sisters would visit occasionally from Bura, Her in-laws hardly ever come since Sham’s father died. (The father had died in South Africa three years after Sham’s conviction, where he emigrated to do business but was killed in one of those persistent waves of attacks against foreigners.)

Once, Sham decided to start selling his mother’s makeshift grocery stand next to her milk shade, but the women stopped coming. Walking back home, aimlessly, he came across askaris patrolling the area. He thought of prison guards. The anxiety of having uniformed men hovering in the background gripped him. He felt the fear of an ex-con. The disquieting nervousness of an institutional man. They stopped him and said, Waria toa kitambuilsho. He removed an old copy of his identity card from his back pocket. They looked at each other and laughed. You are joking, my friend, one officer said. They hoisted him by the waist and shoved him onto the back of a navy blue police Land Cruiser. The idea of being back in a cell so soon shook him. It was too quick to process. He paced about the tiny cell, head bent low. His head spun. His hands shook. But within hours, his mother came to get him out. She had to give them a week’s worth of milk money.

A few days later, Sham boarded the bus to Mombasa. His cousin who had a store there had asked him to go work for him. When the bus came to the bridge that hoped over the Tana River, people got out and lined up in the sun. They held their identity cards and passports in their hands. The police officers checked them one by one. The officers hardly glanced at the documents of the non-Somalis, the ones from ‘down Kenya,’ the real Kenya. When it was his turn, Sham produced his birth certificate and a copy of his identity card. The officers rounded him and a few other people—teenagers who looked like high school students, people with waiting cards, those who had copies of IDs, those who had forgotten to carry their documents, those who had IDs but couldn’t speak fluent English or Swahili. Most dug into their pockets and paid for their freedom in kind. Beneath the bridge, the bronze river ran free. Sham and a few others were taken to the police station. The bus disappeared beyond the bridge as he fingered the wrinkled card in his pocket. He was back home to a cell, again. He realised how close the distance between freedom and imprisonment was for him.

Downtown, the heat was like a breath from hell. Scorched sand steamed in the sun, giving the illusion of a floating water mass. The residents, clad in gray kanzus and leather sandals that slapped against their cracked heels as they walked, clustered in the shacks and shops, where henna-tattooed girls served juice and tea. All over, people were glued to their phones. A man lay outside. Bare-chested, hair sand-baked and depraved of all awareness, shackled by the iron chains of insanity. A corpulent man lumbered nearby. He sloshed and wagged, weighed down by his weight, caged in his vessel of a body, a whale in a moving aquarium, a slave-ship in shoes. Young men on eccentric motorbikes and creaky rickshaws were bound to the lure of a dream. A woman wearing a black veil begged by the side of the road, fettered to a hand forever extended out. The town seemed to move between myth and reality, between the interesting and the prosaic, between tradition and change, between devout asceticism and capitalist consumerism, between freedom and imprisonment.

 

 

Sham looks out of the window of the house into the night. He watches the people walking about. He wonders whether these long dusty roads are just another version of the prison yard.

Look at this prison sahib, Shire once said to him. (Shire liked to address people as sahib—friend—even though he did not consider anyone as his friend.) The two of them were sitting out in the prison yard, sitting on a bench, watching some prisoners watering small trees. The guards, all of whom were non-Somali, hovered in the background. Shire had talked with his characteristic drawl, waving one hand about, the other holding one of those musty philosophy books he gorged on, the preacher delivering his sermon, facing away to stare into the distance, narrowing his eyes to a contemplative, sardonic chink. Pausing. For dramatic effect. Look at this, Shire said, hundreds of Somalis being ordered around by a bunch of Kenyans with rifles.

Y-you d-d-don’t consider yourself K-Kenyan? Sham asked. He had always been curious about what the people of this region thought about their identity, whether they thought about it at all.

I don’t know sabib. I mean you are born in this arid, far-flung corner of the world. You grow up to a staple of camel-milk tea and anjeera and the music of Hassan Aden Samatar which your parents danced to when they made you. You grow up around uncles and cousins chewing khat. You grow up wearing a kikoi pulled back to the knees, a wooden miswak in your mouth. You grow up listening to the BBC Somali, constantly hearing of Somalia and Somalis, of civil war, famine, immigration, refugees and humanitarian crises and TFGs. You speak only Somali, you eat Somali, you dream Somali and you fart Somali. You are Somali. And then suddenly you are a bit older and you realise Somalia is your biological mother and you were yanked out of her breast by your adoptive mother. But your idea of this adoptive mother is distant and vague and unpleasant.

Sham nodded with recognition as Shire spoke. He felt as though Shire had expressed in words what had always been going on in his mind. He always had a strong recognition of Somalia and everything Somali, a strong connection. But he could not understand where this recognition and connection came from, aside from the fact that his ethnicity was Somali. But after Shire’s speech, it seemed as though he finally understood, because he did not know that this region was initially part of Somalia, he did not know the effect the BBC Somali has had on his identifying strongly with Somalia and Somalis.

Sham thought about how he did not understand Kenya. For him, Kenya was nothing more than the Kikuyu teacher who had a weird name such as Mr. Wang’ombe. Or the Kamba construction worker who built houses. Or the paunchy Luo civil servant who rode around town in a G.K. Land Rover, who called his people “waria” derogatively. Or the man with the big boots and heavy military insignia, who often torched his people’s houses and raped women, who killed their camels, who slaughtered his people in an airstrip in Wajir and in Garissa Primary. He knew his adoptive mother did not like him and he did not like her either because she did not like him. But he knew he was a part of it. And it was all confusing because he did not know exactly what or he was.

You are the man on the margins, Shire said. A man destined to live in two places, two opposing cultures, and whose conscience is the place these two cultures crash or fuse. That’s what this American dude called Robert E. Park says anyway.

B-but d-don’t you t-t-t-think we can be t-t-these two things?

Maybe only superficially. Listen sahib, think of it like this chip of glass. If I break it into two with a stone I can bind it together with glue or something but I can’t make the fracture disappear. You get me?

Sham nodded. Moist leaves sparkled in the sun, suffused with water.

H-h-how did w-w-we g-g-get here anyway?

I don’t know sahib. Why does bad shit happen? For example, why are you limping like a sick hyena huh? Why did a teacher pinch a child in the sheen so hard he severed an artery and give the child a wound that would later disable an entire leg? Why can’t you get the rights and freedoms you are entitled to? Why can’t you get access to the same shit other citizens have access to? Why is that you resemble your crime before you commit it? Why do countries bomb each other or people slaughter each other? Why did Hiroshima happen, or Rwanda, or Somalia? Or the Holocaust? Why is Iraq happening right now?

I d-d-don’t know. I g-g-guess fate. Or p-politics m-maybe?

It’s not fate sahib. Bad shit doesn’t just happen to good people because of fate. God’s omniscience is not the absence of human free will. And it’s not politics either. No, no, it’s not politics sahib. Politics is just licence for bad behaviour. It’s because we are animals, selfish cruel animals. Plain and simple. We attack anything that does not look or speak like us. The human is infinitely individualistic and his mercy and good will rarely extends beyond his kin.

Sham was not surprised at Shire’s view on human nature. He knew Shire was a self-confessed misanthrope. But somehow his assertion made some sense in explaining misfortune. Yet, he could not refute God because he was brought up a Muslim and to be a Muslim is to believe that both good and evil are from Allah and that both happen through His will.

From over the wall, Sham could hear the movements of people. And when the gate opened to let cars and people in, he could see the people in the streets, free people. He wondered what it would feel like to walk free again.

D-d- you t-t-think we would be more f-f-free out there than w-we are h-here?

Shire had talked about a man called Isiah Berlin and the two concepts of freedom. About negative freedom being the absence of restraints on the individual. He talked about Rousseau and positive freedom being the freedom of the individual and his or her community to have the tools they need to determine their own affairs and achieve self-actualization.; he talked about how independence is not necessarily equivalent to positive freedom, how freedom entails having a strong civic feeling so that one’s individual interests conform to ‘the general will.’ He talked about how, otherwise, one is not free because one is forced to live by laws one does not affirm. There is no real freedom out there sahib, Shire concluded. These people walking out there beyond these walls are not any different from us. Not by far anyway. What they have is prison yard freedom too.

Sham had sat silent for a while.

But you know what? Shire stared into the distance. His forehead creasing. There’s freedom here.

H-h-how?

Think about it sahib. This place is designed to kill power and subjectivity, and where there is no power there’s no responsibility, no giving a shit about anything. There’s freedom in that sahib, a twisted kind. The happy soldier is the one who doesn’t fight. Think about it sahib.

 

 

Stomp. Scratch. Stomp. Scratch.

Sham hobbles about the room, his hands in his pockets. Circling the woman. He pulls a knife out of his pocket.

She gasps. Please Sham. Don’t do this. I know you are a good person.

Y-you don’t know m-m-me, he says.

You don’t have to do this. All you have to do is put the knife down. Please.

I r-r-really have to, he says. If I d-d-don’t do it, he will k-kill me.

Who will?

The m-m-man. He has helped me in p-p-prison. He helped m-me chase away the b-b-boy because the b-b-boy is not s-s-strong but the b-boy is good but b-b-bad and the m-m-man is b-b-bad but g-g-good.

Listen Sharmaarke. It’s just you and me here. No one is going to kill you.

Sh-sh-shut up! He waves around the knife. Just sh-sh-shut up! You d-don’t know that. You d-don’t know the m-man. I know him.

Sham squats in front of her. The man squats in front of her. He runs the knife down her face. Stops at the neck. He place the tip of the knife in the cleft where her pulse thumped. Thump. Thump. Thump. She sits still. Her pulse. Stops. For the briefest of moments. His hand shakes. The knife chafes.

Then Sham catches a reflection of his face in the mirror attached to the cupboard behind the woman. He sees his face. For the first time in years. In the broken mirror. The fractured mirror. He sees the boy. The blood-streaked ghoul. He looks away instinctively. Then he looks back again. I’m s-s-so s-sorry, the boy says to the woman. He doesn’t look at her in the eyes. I s-shouldn’t d-d-do this. The boy looks at her and recalls how she had once swabbed a kiss on his neck where his pulse throbbed. How she’d breathed life into him. But the man says to the woman, you deserve this, you need to pay for ruining my life. He doesn’t stammer. He stares cold into her eyes. The knife chafes again. He presses hard. It was all a lie, the man says, what we had. You didn’t love me. I k-know you l-loved m-m-me, the boy says. The man presses the knife harder. The man is furious. The boy is scared. The man wants to slice her throat open. The boy feels as though she is the only one who has ever truly saw him, who has ever known him, who had ever seen him, truly seen him. I hate your guts, the man says. I l-l-loved y-you, the boy says.

Flashes of images flicker in the boy’s mind. The boy’s reflection becomes clearer. Images. Ruddy ground. Open fields. Sunsets Little hills. The images grow clearer and clearer, images and thoughts the man had forced the boy to lock inside. He recalls the times they had spent together after their first meeting. Those evenings after school. They would walk to the outskirts of the bula and sit on the ground where the land lay prostrate, where the sand was deep as the shades of dark on her skin, where dried sticks and crunchy foliage clothed the red earth. They would sit in this place—the two of them, two lonely kids— him for being too uncomfortable around people, she for being too dark-skinned to comprehend.

She would talk and he would nod, avoiding her eyes. He would smile. She would talk about her life back in Gilgil. About the good schools and the nice weather. Oven of a town, don’t you think, she’d ask. (She didn’t know Somali; she would speak really good English and Swahili, something he was not still capable of despite being close to finishing high school.) He’d smile and nod, even though he’d never been out of Garissa his whole life, never crossed the bridge. I miss my life back in Gilgil, she would say. I feel trapped here.

She would talk about her father serving in the military, how he’d developed PTSD and he’d spiralled into the dark, precipitous whorls of alcoholism, how he was let go instead of the state giving him psychiatric help, even though he had served his country, how he’d been abusive to his wife and his children. Here, her voice would break. She would stare into the distance, where the setting sun threw golden glitter on the soil. He could almost see the tears threatening to break out. Like a sea of raging waters almost cracking open a filmy layer of ice.

She once talked about an episode in an old television show about a young girl who is made to undergo a surgery to make her look normal. Her eleventh and last legally allowed surgery. Her final chance. The doctor and nurse, whose faces are not shown, describe her as extremely hideous, pitiful, gross. After the procedure, the girl has bandages covering her face. The success or failure of the procedure can only be known when the bandages come off. The girl badgers the doctor to remove the bandages and he gives in. It turns out the procedure has not worked. The camera captures her face. She is a beautiful girl. But she is sad that the procedure has failed. Distraught that she’ll always be ugly and abnormal. She runs through the hospital and the camera reveals the faces of the doctor and nurse and all the people of this society. They have wrinkled skin, large noses, swollen lips, hollow eyes, and large brows: they are hideous creatures.

When she finished the story, she said, I feel like the girl in that story. I have always felt like her. I go around thinking I’m ugly. I keep trying to look better. If for once I could stop and look at others, perhaps I would see that they are the problem, not me. Looking at him, she said, Maybe we are all hideous creatures in masks judging beautiful things, things we don’t understand.

Then one day, he started talking to her. The words, caged in for so long, poured free, unrestrained, like a dam that has broken its banks. He told her that liked the sciences, especially biology. That he had always loved trees and felt a connection to them. That he thought they were capable of feeling. That he heard them wail when cut with an axe, sing when it drizzled in a sweltering afternoon. That he thought trees are wise. That they know how to stand still and listen to others, that they are generous and understanding, unlike human beings. He told her that he read Darwin religiously, that he was awed by the man’s genius. That he wanted to study nature to obtain the secrets of the world. That he would get out of this town and do marvellous things.

He told her about a time in his childhood when his mother would take him with her to their farm up in Sankuri, on the steep, winding banks of the river. The mother would walk; he would ride in the donkey cart. She would name all the trees they had seen: pines, cacti, willow acacias, oaks, gum trees, asparaguses, aloes and so on. On their way back from the farm, they would rest under this large oak. She would pray in its generous shade and he would crack open a watermelon. When the oak’s bark had gathered some dead skin, he said, mum would run her hands down the length of its bark. She called this ‘shaving the oak,’ he said. The girl laughed. Very apt, she said.

He laughed too, a genuine laugh, as he’d never laughed before. Perhaps, he thought, she was tempering the oak of his psyche, getting rid of the dead skin—the scab of insecurity, the squalor of inadequacy and fear—and with each movement of the hand bringing out the shine within.

He looked over at her. For the first time, he looked at her. She leaned over. Swabbed a kiss on his neck, where his pulse throbbed. He reached over and squeezed her hand. Tight. She laid her head on his shoulder. Behind an acacia, a red murram traced a queue of shrubs and then stopped. They made love. A dust-cloud rose amid a returning herd of goats. A tall shepherd moved in a shadowy speck. Later, lying on her lap, he glanced up at her face. It was dark but he could swear he saw a glimpse of the future in there. He felt as though he had, like a snake, shed his old skin and was born anew.

The following evening, he was sitting at the same spot waiting for her when two police officers approached. A moment later, he was in a police car, handcuffed. On the way out, he saw her. She was standing next to a man. Her face was swollen and bruised and beaten. The man was shouting, You raped my daughter you filthy bastard!

 

 

The boy says, I l-l-loved you S-s-shukri. I l-loved you. I c-couldn’t help it. It w-was not my d-d-decision. All I wanted was to b-belong. To a-a-a-a place I could call my own. A r-real ground where I’d want to s-stay. All I wanted was s-s-someone who understood m-me. I f-found that s-someone when I f-f-found you. But you b-b-banished me to p-prison. To that c-corner where t-time is s-s-stagnant and p-people are not really p-people but h-heads on sticks, w-walking about, f-forgotten. A p-place where one is s-subjected to v-violence, where p-p-people are abused, where people c-cannot move freely or get the t-things they need, a p-place where p-people j-just survive. You f-forgot about me while you went on with your l-l-life.

I’m sorry, the woman says. I’m really sorry.

B-b-but w-why? the boy asks. Why do it? W-why? W-w-why? W-why?

She remains quiet.

Maybe there is no reason, he thinks. Maybe Shire was right. Maybe bad shit just happens to good people. Maybe some children just get wounds that end up becoming crippling disabilities. Maybe states just attack each other for no reason. Maybe people just kill each other. Maybe some people just end up in prison. Maybe some communities just end up living in the margins and their children just become marginal men, men whose ankles are forever fettered to the chains of the past. Maybe Shire was right, he thinks, the world is a place not governed by justice or moral order but only by cruel selfishness, by the instinct for self-preservation.

It was my father, the woman finally says. Back when we were living in Gilgil. After he was forced to retire, he was a total mess. He’d fight with people all the time. He’d beat us constantly. And he’d drink like he breathed air. Within a couple of years, he’d drank all of his pension. When my sister was fourteen, she had befriended this boy. He used to come over to our house and they would study together. One day dad claimed he saw the boy rape her. The boy was arrested but soon the elders of the two families did maslaha and settled the matter. Twenty camels.

Sham sat still.

Soon as my sister finished high school, she says, she ran away with another boy. She wanted out, away from father. They got married and they went away to live in another town. I was left all alone with him. And then the moving began. Nairobi, Thika, Isiolo, Wajir, Hola. A new town once every few months. The two of us, hopping from town to town. We had just moved here when I met you. My father saw you with me several times. A great opportunity, he’d said. You must do it now, he’d said. Or soon, we’ll have nothing to eat. You are a loose girl anyway. I’d told him to go to hell.

The curtains swayed. A sheep bleated in the distance.

When I came home that night, she says, he was sitting outside. He scared me more than ever before. I was not scared for myself but of the thought that he could hurt you somehow. I had been unhappy all my life. But there was something about you that sparked something in me. Some light. I felt happy for the first time in my life. I told him I wouldn’t do it. That I’d rather starve, that I’d had enough, that I’d report him. Then he threw me down and pinned my hands on the ground. He was heavy. I’ll actually do it to you myself if you don’t, he’d said, to teach you a lesson. Said I deserved it for being a stupid, stubborn girl. For destroying him by killing his wife when she was giving birth to me. He beat me, bruised me all over. The following day, he dragged me to the police station and he got some cops and we came looking for you. It’s just to scare the boy’s family to settle the matter, he’d said. But things got complicated. The cops wouldn’t let it go. I couldn’t say anything or visit you because he’d hurt me if I did.

The little moth has untangled itself from the spider’s web. It’s flying and buzzing around, free.

Sham notices a framed picture of a young man sitting on the cupboard. The young man has an exact copy of his nose and thick brows.

The k-k-kid, Sham says, looking over at the framed picture. Where’s h-h-he n-now?

He’s in boarding school.

D-d-does he k-know about m-m-me?

No.

Your f-father, what h-happened to h-him?

He died two months ago. Liver problem.

 

 

Out on the main road, hardly anyone walks. The shops have closed. Sham walks down the road. He realises he does not fear the man now. He throws away the knife onto a pile of garbage and walks home.

The following evening, he walks to the outskirts of the bula looking for the place he and the girl used to sit. The field is not there anymore. Just a little thorny clearing surrounded by houses. There is a little opening at the western end through which the sun is visible. He sits down on a little rock in the middle of the clearing. He sits there for a long time. He sits in this place that was the gateway to both his heaven and hell. The place where his dream had simultaneously sprouted from and died. The same spot where as a boy the feeling of freedom and exhilaration first stirred in him.

The setting sun burns behind little brown hills that look a wave of camel humps. Where the sun used to throw golden glitter there is a small shopping centre in front of which women sell milk and bike riders wait for customers. He feels constrained in this small space. He knows even though he can walk free within this town, he is not free enough to move forward in life. He knows he is stuck in the same place he was twenty years ago, and the world has moved on. He is held by the chains of time and a criminal record and to the collective disadvantages of his ethnicity. He feels, even in these skies that are big and everywhere, as though he is walking within the narrow confines of a prison yard. He misses Shire and his sardonic gesturing and the things he used to say. He wonders whether prison would be better for him than out here as Shire thought.

People walk about. They don’t recognise him, not knowing that they are him, and he is them. In their unknowing, in their insensibility, they are less free than him, he thinks.

Sham realises there is no real freedom in acceding to imprisonment. He knows that the happy slave is not a free slave. He knows that freedom is not free; it is attained. It is taken. The sea fights to rise above its chasm and pushes its shoreline, though only slowly. He resolves to struggle to cross that bridge, to hack at the chains one stroke at a time. Darkness comes. The sun has given way to a filmy half-moon. Out in the night skies, it limps, breaking free of a blanket of dark, galloping clouds. He hobbles back home. Stomp. Scratch. Stomp. Scratch.

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