Grandpa stood silhouetted against the vast orange horizons of the setting tropical sun; neither calls of the wild, of the sweeping sound of wind whistling through trees, nor the call of the tamed; bleating billy goats retiring home after a long day in the veld – tampered his revered quiet. He stood with the patient devotion of a tombstone. Unswayed. Unbroken. Casting one last piteous look in the direction of the eternal blankness, he turned away.
Wrinkles played upon Grandpa’s long sinewy arms. His shoulders, slightly bent by the ravages of time, still had vestiges of youthful broadness. The only thing age had left unscathed were his eyes; tiny and teary, and lively and brown.
Grandpa dragged his feet to the main kitchen and hummed greeting to his grandchildren.
‘Ba, that pipe will be your death.’ opined his daughter-in-law. Emphasising the words with unmasked agitation. The grip around his pipe instinctively fastened.
‘Will an old man not smoke in peace without being reminded about his fast approaching death?’ He mocked endearingly.
‘Grandpa you promised!’ Cried a young child wistfully. Grandpa cleared his voice, extinguished his pipe and begun…
Many millet seasons ago, (that’s quite a long time to begin with,) a time before the prominence of dates, before these numbered things you call calendars littered the walls of our huts; there lived a man, humble and jolly. Full of life, full of gusto.
Like any other, he took upon life’s solo voyage, seeking true bliss in these rather wretched lands. Atoo, (for that was his name) lived in a world few fathom. A world filled with sounds and scents and nothingness.
He had lost his sight when he was little. At the height of the sowing season, cold breezes rising from downstream had summoned Atoo towards the little fireplace inside his mother’s kitchen. The little boy watched tongues of fire devour the wood’s dryness, contemplation written upon his face’s every crease.
Outside, above in the heavens, the lamp of heaven shone dimly; stars like lazy giant fireflies upon the inky vastness subtly flickered.
Within the main kitchen walls, a large earthen pot darkened by generations of soot sat on three moderate sized boulders. Beneath the pot, flames; the yellow shade of wilting sunflower, kissed the pot’s bottom.
The boy sat, curled up like a little hedgehog, besides the warm fire, inches from the range of roast.
His bright eyes scanned the roof, his gaze lingering on the dry maize cobs that dangled from the roof off sisal strings and the miniature gourds which dotted the roof.
Atoo loved the moonlight. He was oblivious to the weakness he felt whenever the moon sat at the sky’s zenith; full and bold and beautiful.
Tales, some tall as jambula trees have been told of the mystical connect, binding the moon’s grey rays to certain Earth-men; accursed earth-men. Atoo was such kind.
Atoo felt a certain dizziness overwhelm him, an intense sense of helplessness entombed him, he opened his lips but no sounds came.
Little Atoo was thrown to the cold earth in one quick movement, violent curtains of spasms engulfed him, he writhed in a fit of throes on the grass-less ground. Unbeknown to him nor kin, he had suffered an epileptic seizure.
The fall dislodged the open light source, alighting a nearby broom. A streak of fire flowed through the broom to the pile of straw brooms that rose to the thatched roof. Before long the roof was ablaze. Unconscious the little boy lay, oblivious to the impending inferno.
A blood curling shriek tore through the quiet environs. It was Min Atoo; Atoo’s mother.
‘Fire! My kitchen is on fire.” She bellowed.
The fiery storm raged rapidly on the kitchen roof; tongues of fire lashed out violently at the dry wisps of grass. The grass thatch was rapidly reduced to smouldering ash.
Min Atoo scanned the children’s excited faces, illuminated by the fire in the courtyard. Atoo’s was missing.
Where’s Atoo? She cried! Where’s Atoo? She reiterated in a louder tone. Her eyes narrowing into slits of concern.
‘He complained of the cold and went to find a place where he might warm himself.’ replied a small boy.
Min Atoo bludgeoned her way through the mass of bodies to what was left of her kitchen.
She held her thoughts within her breast, she knew no sane elder would permit it. They’d certainly employ the same old line.
‘ A lone blade of grass isn’t the recipe to a leaking roof.’ You’ll sire another child, you needn’t risk your life for a single child.’
Min Atoo stormed the furnace like Abednego! Fanned by the winds, the flames roared and cracked wildly in response. A gush of heat charged at her like an injured rhino, clouds of smoke rose to meet her, stinging her eyes. The elements seemed hell-bent towards frustrating her efforts.
She felt around the floor and touched something animate. It was the cold body of Atoo, she held her son to her breast and felt for the exit. Ashes and smoke rushed through her lungs, choking her. Less hot air sought out her flesh, she followed the lead, out of the furnace. A whirlwind of nothingness consumed her. She blacked out, in the cold air.
Min Atoo, a bubbling young woman, with moderate sized diastema between her upper front teeth, was the envy of the village women. Her swarthy skin; fair as the oiled bottom of a newborn baby had wasted away. Her hair, once raven black, stood unkempt and knotty like dry goat droppings. Her neck, long and graceful in holding her nose up in the air, above human folk now supported her dropped head. Her eyes hitherto milky and clear were angry flashes of grief. The courtyard once filled with startling mirthful laughter, was but an empty tomb.
Min Atoo, had been reduced to a bitter grumbling wreck, cursing the earth about its lack of conscience.
What had befallen the once beautiful woman who now bore close semblance to a savage witch? Keeping beautiful sounded so alien, a preserve for younger women upon whom the wind of suffering hadn’t blown. It was the nadir of her life.
Min Atoo awoke with a start, in the depth of her eyes was certain unbridled fury.
‘Owls are here, I’ll not let them rob me of my son.’ she cried.
Her voice, a blend of worry and urgency filled the little hut.
‘Owls,’ mostly imagined was all she said, all she heard, all she saw. She hated owls. Min Atoo struggled unsuccessfully to worm out of her husbands restraining arms.
Each night she saved a burning ember, one she would hurl at them.
‘Owls, Won Atoo, don’t let them take him, he’s all I have.’ she moaned.
He tightened his embrace around her like each night. Her waning mumbles subdued into the pitch blackness.
Won Atoo was a calm man, strong armed and broad shouldered. He had gained a solid stature from his relationship with the earth, through which the granary was filled and famine averted.
‘I pity the owls, no woman’s bitterness matches my wife’s.’ remarked Won Atoo, in between deep swallows of fresh sorghum beer.
‘Tell me, jal Ocol, do you believe in the owls talk, that their hooting invites death, that their presence softens the earth to ease the grave diggers’ work?”
His calm eyes, the deep brown shade of roast coffee studied the men around him. He furrowed his brows and stared into the blank space before him. Save the soft thud of the straws hitting the beer pot’s bottom, he received impotent silence.
‘The gods have been unkind to me, did I perchance default on my offerings?’ Won Atoo spat a generous amount of phlegm, bitterness evident in every drop.
Atoo awoke; groaning. His little eyes wouldn’t open. He heaved loudly. His feeble fingers grasped an armful of the feather filled mattress. Wasn’t that enough to prove he wasn’t dead? He tried to haul himself out the horrendous dream yet his eyes failed him.
‘”Ma, why is it so dark in here yet the cockerels crow in defiance?’
Atoo’s probing questions were met with sobs that rumbled the walls of the mud and wattle hut.
Atoo rubbed his eyelids with a certain wistful tenderness. Warm crystal beads of the salty kind streamed down his cheeks, to the curve of his lips.
A hired healer paid Atoo visits, he mixed mildly repulsive concoctions. Honey, whose scent nauseated him was spread on his burns.
‘The honey will hasten the drying of the burns,’ chipped Min Atoo in the kindest of voices. She missed her old bubbling son.
‘You must drink boy, before the next moon descends upon us. I didn’t cross streams to listen to childish banter.’ barked the healer. Atoo clenched his eyelids, and poured the slimy stuff down his throat.
‘Atoo jal we’ve brought you acuga and pigeon eggs.’. Chorused his friends with the characteristic chatter male adolescents are known for.
A boil etched upon Atoo’s throat every time his friends brought him wild fruit, he craved reliving the colour of maize crop after the rains. He missed the rhythmic juggling of rainbow beads upon the waists of larakaraka dancers. Everyone loved the dancing.
The passing of the seasons bestowed upon Atoo considerable height. He often looked forward to the dance festivals, nodding his head to the drum beats like a drunk guinea fowl. He enjoyed the thud of dancers’ angry feet upon the bare ground and the clatter of amulets.
‘Oh mighty soil, how many more will you swallow, before your thirst is quenched?’
The mournful song betrayed their emotions, their sweat drenched bodies glowed and gleamed in the hot sun.
Ojok’s sharp voice tore the air of solemnity as he helped himself besides Atoo under the shearnut tree shade. Atoo thought the voice was akin to that of an angry calobus monkey protecting its young. He didn’t like the voice much, nor its source, yet he seemed stuck with both. Ojok mumbled greeting to Atoo who nodded in acknowledgment. Both were chained onto the tree by their infirmities.
A scalding sensation tugged at Atoo, he felt someone’s eyes drill into him. Memories of his mother’s unwavering stare swept over him. He opened his mouth and spat.
“Didn’t your mother forget to remind you that staring is rude?”
Ojok was jerked out of his trance. He’d been studying Atoo keenly.
‘But, but.’ stuttered Ojok. He made as to defend himself, an embarrassing stammer is all he managed.
‘I always know when men stare pitifully at me, their footsteps slow, their lips freeze. I seek no pity.’ Atoo’s voice; was laced with surprising sternness.
The same corrosive bitterness synonymous with women of age, spawned by years of unyielding wombs had built a nest beneath Atoo’s tongue. He lashed out like a cornered serpent. He was at peace protecting his dignity which he refused to trade for sympathy.
Ojok was peculiar, it was said he was from the South, he’d been found during a hunting escapade. Wrapped in an old hare skin placed within a large calabash shell, left to fate.
‘I remember that day like the previous moon.’ Gumeri, an elder begun, in a nostalgic voice.
‘The bundle whined like a wounded rabbit, its voice feeble and weak like the light of a tiny star. Okot, the youngest of the pack had panicked to hurl a projectile at the source of the sound, the spear had flown through the air like a frightened sparrow, landing a few inches from the baby’s head.’
‘This child shall live, it’s an omen from the gods.’ Ladwar had said. Ladwar was the pack’s leader, a short fellow blessed with the wisdom only age brings. Ladwar’s skin was littered with a plethora of scars; scars that tattooed every inch of his body. A large scar sat on his left thigh, a charging injured warthog had gored him when he was younger.
‘We thus have reached the hunt’s end, without meat but a gift from the gods, Ojok he shall be named; of the gods, he will be my son, my first son.’ continued the old hunter in a wise, deeply contemplative voice. The younger hunters avoided Ladwar’s bloodshot eyes with which he regarded them. A close examination revealed why the foreign woman had dumped her baby. It was crippled.
The lack of a son had always been Ladwar’s greatest tragedy. He went to bed misty eyed. Ojok slept soundly across, oblivious to the infectious sun his existence was to Old Ladwar.
In Ojok, Atoo found companionship, routinely sharing the Moo-yaa tree shade at the dance arena swept the last vestiges of resentment he had stored from their first encounter.
Ojok was tad too small for his age, possessing skin rough as the bark of a young pine. He wasn’t exactly what one considered good looking. His hair was brownish and thin, his tiny eyes sparkled with a glint entirely suggestive of mischief. His front teeth were large maize grains. His lips, tiny and often pursued seldom rested.
Atoo, often mocked Ojok about his shriveled features.
‘Oh cursed one, what fine ugliness you possess, my dark vision tells me thus.’
Ojok, in a spat of mock anger would sneer back.
‘Oh tottering blind man your lifeless eyes indeed are a spawn pool of senility, have you not heard the girls whisper my name or are your ears equally blind?’
Physically not endowed to fling sharpened iron at small prey, lacking the strength to till the ground, the duo lived off handouts from the fruits of generosity that the societal tree bore. The societal tree like all trees was seasonally fruitful, on many an unkind day, starvation descended upon them like hawk upon fowl.
Is it not true, that the demands of the flesh not even the gods fathom?
‘How blessed you are, lame one that your fingers sire snares, tell me Ojok, where you learnt this sinister art that brings untold misery upon little creatures?’ wondered Atoo.
‘The offspring of a monkey is certainly a monkey. I’m a kinsman of the house of Ladwar, the art of snares flows within every vein in my arms. For the hare that lives besides a red ant-hill borrows its red shade.’ Ojok sneered coolly.
‘Pity little creatures and you’ll surely starve to death.’ he added.
A little flicker of orange was visible at the horizons when the two returned home.
‘What vital ventures keep you from my sight all day that only cricket songs announce your arrival? I’ll not clean the bottom of any foreign child you are on the quest of bringing here I warn you.’ Snapped Min Atoo
Ojok and Atoo chuckled in response.
That night, while crickets sang songs of the night and owls hooted away at distance safe from flying embers and the rain dripped off the thatch onto the ground. The trees’ howling and dancing to the wind’s song, and earthen arousal wafting from the rain-soaked soil kept Atoo awake. He finally slipped into the land of his ancestors, where dreams are embroidered.
He saw the Blind and the Cripple set out, that cold April morning, seeking the joys of fresh meat upon their lusty tongues. All snares were empty save one, where a young hare, oblivious to the cunning ways of mankind, lay; tired from his struggles for freedom.
A well-timed blow to the hare’s head ended the hare’s earthly woes, it writhed a little before giving in to its struggles. Ojok skinned the animal with the dexterity of a butcher. A large fire was soon made. What was left of the little hare lay upon a stake, an unwilling recipient of gentle fire.
It is said from the days of the first sin, evil lurks in the hearts of men, an old lifeless snake lay nearby, charred and scorched by a recent wildfire. Ojok in a spate of dark un-watched humor, picked and placed the serpent besides the fire.
He handed the charred serpent to Atoo, whose sense of touch had been blinded by desire. In anticipation, Atoo bit into the meat. He bit hard. Blood stained his teeth, a strange sensation snaked down his head through his spine to his feet.
The impact between the rocky serpent and Atoo’s teeth snapped the threads of flesh masking Atoo’s eyes; restoring life to his eyes.
The frustration spawned out of years of blindness flooded Atoo’s mind. He took bold steps towards Ojok. Steps that seemed to probe;
Ojok was taken aback by the sudden twist of events, he turned and in the blind man’s eyes was a blood rage only a betrayed friend could muster!
‘Please Atoo, terrible joke I know…’ whimpered Ojok.
Atoo, in a quest for vengeance bundled up Ojok and tossed him into the fire. Helpless, hapless. He expected to be wholly consumed by the flames.
The flames kissed his stiff muscles, relaxing them, like wax upon warm water. Ojok felt a warm sensation race through his veins. It was the tingling feel of life only a cripple might decipher. Ojok jumped out of the fire, and excitedly exclaimed,
‘Look! I can walk!’, excitement banished the threat of fire from his shrilly voice. Ojok ran towards Atoo who expecting to be struck, was instead wrapped in embrace. He hesitantly wrapped his hands around Ojok. Out of their evil intentions, good had been born.
Atoo lay long in his bed, taking in the strange dream. He tried opening his eyes. They remained tightly shut.
‘So children, the creator’s ways, mortal man can never fathom, for even in the most evil of deeds, goodness resides.’ Grandfather looked at the blank faces of the children around him and continued.
‘It is said that on a quiet night if you listened keen enough, above the singing of crickets and croaking of frogs, you’ll hear the Blind man and the Cripple hysterically laugh, in mockery of their different ails!’