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Gujama

Odd footprints tracked the dirt, their deep impressions shining as though sunk in with grease. They went through the rotting innards of the house and far into the fields.

It took long to gather the courage to leave the house and see what wilderness they emerged from. The house had the sick, death-suffused air of an evil man’s deathbed—the tree-dark horizon was the shadow a dead man might watch uneasily, what he sees crouched in the corner of the room, invisible to all visitors.

A foul and devilish companion, vulturous and patient.

Panga in hand, I waded into the sisal sea. I’d have felt more comfortable bleeding out in shark infested waters, knowing at least what circled beneath me had hunger within nature. Every step I took, something unseen caressed my shadow.

I watched my feet, cautious of snakes, wild sisal’s pointed leaves nicking at my trousers—something had broken through already, and then there, the glassy gasoline steps turning the hard earth to mud where it had touched.

Sweat-licked, I had then in the middle of that field, the vivid feeling that I was a schoolboy in the starchy uniform; the feverish, dry friction of shirts… and suddenly I was a schoolboy, spit-lashed from underpaid teacher’s yelling, knuckles stinging with hard fire, freshly rapped. I tried to make a fist, to test the pain of it, the agony inflating to burst me. My machete trailed lower, lagged back by recall. Fingers broke-up, knuckles cracked through; a shattered paw.

Sweat sped into my eyes. Woozy, I swayed back into path, staggering after the large, black prints in the earth,cradling my smashed fist gingerly against my chest. What was wrong with me? I knew something was wrong. Dislogic suffused me, the way it came to me often at night when I slept unwell,—brain firing awake, I’d count my fingers and snatch at dust motes. It was why I’d never been good company, why I had to have my own room. When I woke from my nightmares, I’d spill forward, not-intelligent, but alert and animal-awake, wild and restless, punching the dark or begging it to stay back.

Now my mind was a river, sweeping and rolling me like a stone. In the night hours I had no methods on how to come to wakefulness, nor true understanding of what was to happen next. I’d have to return, bashing through the savage maze, to find the remains of sleep. Only when I woke in the morning would I remember the senseless interruption I’d never been able to muddle out of, the way I was wild and hardly real.

My mind would get away. Didn’t hallucinate so much as feel the method and intent of all sleeping objects around me, as though they themselves were of the living.

Ever since we came to this house, I’d been having nights of dreamless sleep. It was Moraa who thrashed and turned, it was as though we had switched places. Baba’s will had felt like that too. I had spent my nights well-rested, and it made me afraid. Peace made me suspicious. It was my daytime hours that turned me wild.

Real; me, this atrocious sun scalding me, the farm-weapon in my fist, my unshattered fist. The house behind me, real. The danger ahead, waiting.

The footsteps were real. I followed, yes. Large, sunk into the earth—sisal leaves snapped from where the thing had marched, giant enough to disrupt the foliage. I walked in the wake of something that felt more creature than man, my waking brain knew it was likely a man, but my sleep-fever, odd-in-the-daylight-brain, told me that this was a beast. Was I not a child of the deep country? They could beat me an education, pound my head with church-bells, but there are some things we know, we sense, when they lie in wait for us. Like how Mama had known that her husband would die before her. Like how her grandmother could sense death when she tasted salt in a stifled breeze.

Finally out of the sisal, the footprints led into a shaded stream. Muddy trickle, man-made, some feeble irrigation attempt long-forgotten. So poor, not even famished crows would lick at the splatter.

The steps ended there. Right at the pebble-speckled lip. I dropped my machete arm, lowering myself against the earth to press at the sticky sunken-soles and soon the water’s tin-smelling, bracken rattle began to drain the wilderness from my head.

Back chafed shirt-raw, I lay down against the ground like an animal. Cheek cooling against earth, I sighed in the shadow of the trees.

The sun had lashed me; feeble and drowsy, I rested a rest that felt to me as comfortable and nostalgic as childhood. I had had a holiday-childhood in these fields, before sisal had grown wild over the grounds.

Baba had been a salary man, immensely satisfied with his purchase of this plot from owners who’d looked no better than squatters. They were unusually eager to be rid of the property at my father’s calling price.

He shouldn’t have believed his luck. Should have had more honour to substitute it, should have asked, should have cared to give them a price that would have bettered those people instead of giving the least they would have taken.

He would have laughed at me, to see me question his ethics. Told me this was why I’d never be a real businessman—because of mboch mentalities, too soft.

I am soft as jellyfish, beached and boneless on a shore that yields nothing and asks for less. He is rotting in the earth and I am living still. His things are mine now. The summerhouse he secured for his wife and children.

Land no one wanted—in this country, they fall upon land with more teeth than the lion, land is always being teared and partitioned and stolen. Land no one wants is a cursed bride.

Moraa had always been liked best by my father; they  laughed at the same jokes. She had slyness he liked to think she’d gotten from him, a kind of man-ruthlessness that I lacked. She’d had the nerve to be surprised when the will marked me as the new landowner of this useless plot.

“You should sell,” she’d mentioned dismissively. Her nonchalance did not fool me. She did not want the land, she wanted what being given it meant. What she thought it meant.

What did it mean to me? A concession. He had liked her best but he was a father with a son after all. Anything else would lead a dead man to be ridiculed. He had treated her like his heir, but I was his only son. At the end of it all, this was less a loving act and more a lip-service.

He would have laughed if Moraa was angry and she would have felt foolish.

No one wanted it. Not even the white men who’d managed to remain the same huge landowners they’d been even before independence. Not expats, not the sisal farmers or the wealthy uppercrust of Kenyan society. Not thieving politicians or benevolent government-position-holding swindlers, not even squatters or wanderers.

It is unusual for anyone to hold land without some dispute about it dragging thirty years in court, especially land this distant and this far removed. Ripe for the taking until ripeness turned to rot, sat here waiting for us like a corpse bloated in the sun. Not even the flies would touch it, not even the wild dogs would eat its flesh.

 “Are you having nightmares?” my sister had asked that morning. She knew that I didn’t always remember.

Over a loaf of plastic crinkled supermarket bread and a mug of black tea, I had felt more confused than anything.

I had slept entirely too well—perhaps it had been exhaustion from fixing the run-down property that the wild had half-claimed, but that could not be. Sleep had ended with childhood, swiftly, quickly.

I didn’t always remember if I had dreams, but I always remembered the awake-interruptions, where I didn’t know why or how I was.

Then, perplexing me entirely, she asked, “Did you come into my room last night?”

Some of the walls needed tearing down, there were bats in the roof, rustling there. I didn’t have the heart to break them out of it. They didn’t bother anyone, didn’t eat from my plate; they nested there. I’d never lived in a house with an attic. It felt misplaced, Western. Like the house was wearing a false-hat.

If anything the presence of bats was a comfort. All that empty space in the fields…at least with the attic, the shapes of what was in the dark there made sense. It was the only part of the house that I could imagine without eeriness.

“You came into my room, Peter”. Pee-tah, the way her accent came out, uncontrolled, weirded me out. Her diction was normally so accentless, so precise. She’d gone to school and made certain it could be proved. “I saw you”.

“Maybe you were having a nightmare.”

She had pursed her lips and said nothing, as though she were letting a lie hear itself and know its own shame. It was still dawn, still dark, we had always been early risers. It couldn’t have been me and no one had come into the house. My sister may have been haughty but she was guarded and each night she always made sure to be the one with the keys of wherever she was resting, so she could know for certain the door was locked against intruders. If she did not have charge of her own protection, then she was uneasy.

The lock of the front of the house was old but secure,  fashioned with a formidable, iron padlock that not even the wilderness had cannibalised with rust.

But the handles of all the doors in the room of the house had been broken, and we discovered when we first visited the property that each keyhole looked like a smashed mouth of broken teeth. We’d have had to call a locksmith. But no one from the nearest village wanted to come to this place. They said it was an unfortunate place.

A lot of the property’s repair we would have to see to ourselves, until we caved in and called craftsmen and builders from the city who would not have the locals foul suspicions to impede them.

That would be expensive, but Moraa knew someone, she was always knowing someone. She was always getting things done. It was why she was here; she had brought herself along, as though to sneer at a poor reward, and to remind me she was more useful than I could ever be. That I needed, needed her. She would help me fix this place up.

Moraa was going through a divorce.

Her daughter was in boarding school in Uganda. Moraa had a way of controlling distance like that, controlling the situation. Moraa’s husband was her equal in every way, he was charming, ambitious, the kind of man who my father would have made a show of pretending not to approve of, only to genially give it later. I’d endured these many rounds of chauvinistic mind-games myself and lost them all.

He was as ambitious as Moraa, and they must have admired each other for their selfishness. Moraa was always the person who thought she deserved better and had soon seemed happily settled, only for her husband to decide he was the person who deserved better.

I think she appreciated his ruthlessness in discarding her, it was a reminder of why she had liked him and lost to him. Moraa needed to win something. If she had come all the way from Nairobi to step on me so she might remember her power, then that was what she would do.

She would help me with the house until she was certain she had stained it with her accomplishing hand, and then leave me here. This easy victory would be familiar to her. Refreshed, renewed, she’d be ready for battle again.

After breakfast, the light was losing its blueness. The floor had become clearer to the eye. We had navigated early night with kerosene lamps, and turned in early to bed. There was nothing much to do in the house at night with no electricity. We had to sleep early to rise early and do our work during the day.

The water itself came from a dark, deep well in the furthest corner of the property, it tasted like a fistful of rocksalt.

When I lived in Mombasa, I would hear the muslims calling each other for prayer. It had helped with time, with knowing when the day was meant to end and start. It should have made me lonely but it comforted me like the bats in the attic. Each Sunday morning the church in town would be wild with voices, with singing—that helped too. The Muslims let me know the time and the Church, the weekend.

Here, I could hear neither church choir nor holler to prayer. You could scarcely hear a thing. Where nature and god are meant to chatter to one another, I heard only the rattle of long-snaking pests in the stonework, sometimes heard the sisal sway, as though suddenly arrested by the rare invasion of a breeze passing through. This is why the bats comforted me too.

Moraa had called me. As the morning was arriving, she could see the floor. “Explain this”, she demanded coldy.

There were footprints, they shone black as polish. Toes facing Moraa’s bed. 

Placing my own sole against the ink, the footprint was large, dwarfing mine massively. I looked at Moraa with big eyes, so she would see the difference. Her folded arms shifted but the clench of her jaw was still stubborn.

“That’s not my foot.”

She walked me, leading and steering me without needing to touch me, to follow the footprints, to know where they came from. Down the corridor we went, past the rotting tea cupboard. She shouldered open the cracked-wood door of the room where I slept. The footprints started at the side of my bed. It really did look like I had sat on this side of my mattress, risen, and walked all the way to her room.

Or it would, if my feet were the size of my head.

I didn’t know what to do except protest. It was a truth I couldn’t do anything about. They weren’t my feet.

Her stubbornness drained away from her face, there was a lack of poise in her then. It made her look younger, a little unsteady, a little lost. “Look under the bed”.

“What?”

“Peter”, she had refound my name, the correctness of her English. Desperately so, but her arms were tighter around her. “Look under the bed.”

The tracks had gone around the house, starting without explanation and without clear direction. The most distinct one came from behind one forlorn shack, going through the sisal and leading to the stream before which I now lay down.

 I didn’t want to brave all that open space in the sisal fields again. Not yet. I had to collect my peace first.

I slept, restful. As though I were safe, an afternoon sleep with my mother in the next room—knowing there was someone who loved me close by. The cool early afternoon sleep with the ceiling fan whirring its drowsy whir, tree branches shaking themselves out like skirts. A childhood sleep, half-peered into the world. It was half-peered like this that I dreamed  half-dreams, and felt the ground tremor with the steps of something heavy, saw the sprouts of grass spasm, and the grey-boned creature lean down into a crouch, corpse-coloured, long-scrawny arms bracing the earth, its ashen, puffy thighs lower, and its domed-head droop into the bracken-stream to slurp at the trickle.

Slurp, hot-smacking slurp. He was too long, not man-made, not god-made. His knees bore his heavy weight into the soggy earth, but his toes pointed upwards into the air behind him.

His feet were facing the wrong way.

I was not afraid for I was sleeping a restful sleep. It slurped, teeth sucking, saliva-glands wheezing. It drank and drank, and it was a wonder that the water did not stop, that it did not run dry.

I lay there, immobile but fearing nothing. I was like the grass, inconsequential, not needed to act upon anything.

I woke up. What had I been dreaming of? I didn’t remember. But I was well-rested. I walked quickly back through the odious, hostile sisal.

I wish I could have laughed at her, I resented that suddenly I couldn’t. She was being strange.

A little clumsily, as though gravity only half-held me, I stumbled to knee. The floor was still gritty, no matter how many times I swept it. The roof and walls always rained little rock, the floor turned dusty whenever the house shivered. The grit bit its blunt little teeth through my trousers.

I peeked beneath like she asked.

“What”? she asked a little shrilly.

“It’s just dirty,” I said finally. “There’s nothing under here, Moraa.”

She didn’t say anything. I got up. “Moraa, were you having nightmares?”

“Don’t stand over my bed.”

“I didn’t do that,” I said. It wasn’t like me besides. It was the kind of sick powerplay she’d have made, and she knew it. “And I’m not pranking you.”

“The same steps, they’re around the house.”

“It might just be animal tracks.”

“What animal, Peter?”

She was unnerved, snappy—it was unfamiliar to her, being scared like this. I didn’t like it. Moraa was never scared. I’d had all the fright in the family and she, all the belonging.

I came back to Moraa cutting open a plastic pack of viennas before the gas-burner. “Before they rot in the cooler box,” she said, without looking up. “I’ll go into town to get more stuff. Write what you need.”

“I can go.”

“No,” she said it too quickly, then she covered it up with an odd laugh. “I wanted to pick up some women-things.”

My brow wrinkled. “I doubt it’s that complicated. Let me come with you, then.”

“No.” Usually I wouldn’t argue, but something about it rubbed me the wrong way, made me want to. I opened my mouth, but she’d already moved on. “Isn’t it weird that I don’t really remember much about this place? Every time I try I just get very vague impressions, like it’s an acquaintance of an acquaintance I’ve never met, and only heard of.”

“We used to come here every year.”

“Was it always this run down?”

It was strange. As though there were a fog around the memory of it. I couldn’t remember how long we’d been here, or what day it was. The sausages in the cooler box are still good enough to eat, some part of me whispers, quiet enough to bat away. There was that sun-glare around my head, too bright to see through, baking my memory. 

I felt her watching me eat.

I continued my work in the house, stripping at the wallpaper; swollen and blistered from summers of heat and monsoons. Moraa took long to return, and when she did she seemed surprised to see me. She’d come back empty-handed, except for half a pack of cigarettes. She went outside and sat in the dark, and smoked it all.

I don’t know what troubled her. Was it her marriage or her daughter? She was usually so precise, she’d never have allowed a lapse in her control or her composure. I lit a kerosene lamp and sat next to her after the sun had set, and not even a little red remained in the sky. In the dark, the sisal was a sea of spiky shadows. They worried me, the way they sat so still… like they were lying in wait. But I was worried for Moraa.

“We love each other, don’t we?” she said to me. The lamp shone between us. I was beginning to feel close to her before she said these strange words. “And we’ll forgive each other anything, right?”

“Moraa, are you alright?”

Her smile was sad but her gaze was determined; she had made a decision. Her hand travelled halfway to me but it was only to switch off the kerosene lamp. Darkness fell between us and night rushed in,  and all the light swam out. I couldn’t see Moraa anymore.

Quietly we went back into the house. I left her to lock the bulky door. I was too troubled to sleep, I tried to hold onto the rustle of bats roosting and yet sleep came swimming quickly for me.

Come into the kitchen, Peter.

Only Mama could have commanded me like that, a gentle order. The corridors of the house floating the words to me like the aroma of a feast. Even on Sunday mornings, eyes stuck with sleep, I’d follow it. The way little Pepe the dog would, exhausted, trot down the hallway, the metal of its collar like two chainlinks agitating one another. A tinkle that would have been accompanied by yapping, any other hour of the day.

The blue night-time slunk, shadows like paper cutouts, angular, falling flat where they had been thrown. I stepped careful and cautious, like a child walking over a broken mirror, like something soft enough to be hurt.

It was placed at the table. Ugly and garish as a mask made in mischief. Like It had misremembered how to make a human face and was too amused to hazard at an accurate attempt. There that grin, hooked back, as though its corners were tied to the back of its long, ghoulish ears.

Its skin was the grey of death, of drowned men blued from the water. Its arms were thin and long, the length between wrist and fingertip so extraordinary, half of the digits curled off the table like thin strips of sisal, like dark flicking rat tails.

It smiled at me through the steam of a tin mug.

It had always been smiling at me, from before I came into the room, from before I was even born. It had been smiling when I followed Its cursed footsteps backward, It had been smiling from beneath the bed, keeping Itself elongated and stiff, desiring the column of my spine through the rotting boards, through the thin little mattress. As I had turned in the dark, so had It, my breathing shadow, my smiling monster.

Its swollen belly, bloated with hunger, swarming with noxious gases ballooning outward. Even Its eyeballs pushed out from the confines of their sockets, like the fit of bone was too small.

The shadowy underbelly of the table creaked as one monstrous, twisted ankle scraped across the floor. His feet faced the wrong way.

When I traced the soles into the sisal, I thought they were tracks that were going to show me where It was coming from. I thought It lived in the stream, in the godless wild. But It lived in the very house, under my bed, in my mirror, invisibly lying in wait. No one was breaking into the house at night, It was inside with us. All this time, smiling.

It was always smiling at me, the air of It deepened; as mischief deepens into malice, or rather the way malice throws off its pretence.

Its twisted heel had kicked out the chair nearest to It.

Sit.

I said. “This is a dream.”

His teeth disappeared as his lips met. The smile did not cease. It was his version of a contemplative frown perhaps. “I wonder if your sister is having the same dream right now.”

I blinked at the demon. Its teeth reappeared, slow and teasing, like the coy draw of a glove.

Sick, woozy, I sat. Like a boy who has done something wrong.

“Why,” it floated back to me, gone a long time, “would Moraa be having the same dream?”

“Perhaps I am asking her a similar question.”

The footsteps had led from my bed to hers.

Now I knew, they were facing the wrong way. Its body twisted the wrong way. Moraa thought that a beast was standing over her as she slept. Now I knew all along that the beast had come out from under her bed to walk to mine.

“Choose.”

“What?”

Who.” It should have had a voice like gravel, or the borehole that led into hell. Or something syrupy, hissing, like the cunning snake.

But It had the devil’s diction, a kind of teasing, a fullness. A depth of wit. A voice that knew it charmed, a voice that knew wishes and fears, that could menace the most godly of men.

It sounded like a man I wish I was, cleverer than me.

“You will walk into hell or into me, decide. Either takes courage, not cowardice⁠; to love yourself too much, or hate her more. Or love yourself no more, and hate her just enough. What do you think your sister would choose, herself or you?”

“Why?”

“Do you think your sister is half as philosophical?” It asked.

“I can’t remember you in the day,” I said. “When I sleep, I see you. But when I wake I don’t remember.”

“Your sister remembers.”

“My sister doesn’t believe in monsters.”

“Didn’t she look surprised when she came back from her trip? When she asked you to look under your bed?”

No, Moraa would never do that.

“Wouldn’t she? What about you, why did you lie?”

“I wasn’t standing over her bed.”

“When you looked under your bed, you told her you didn’t see anything.”

“I hadn’t.”

“Didn’t you?”

My waking self had not been able to digest it. But my night-time mind knew now; the memory came back with clarity, sharp. The ogre grinning at me under the mattress, Its fingers flat on the floor. Its eyes bulgy and slimy as passion-seeds, the iodine-brown around each pupil, like the eyes of a fruit-bat. My night-time mind saw what my waking one had not dared perceive. I had looked and not allowed myself to see.

I remembered.

I’d had this same dream every night, hadn’t I? Was that why Moraa was so off-balance these days, because she remembered?

Moraa had talked of love. Loving each other means forgiving each other anything. There’s nothing we could do to one another that could undo blood. We have to forgive one another.

She had a daughter, a future, a life. A career. I was Peter, a freelancer with little to my name and even less to show for the life I’d lived so far. It hurt me still. I wasn’t given a fighting chance.

The ogre was giving me one now.

“Oh poor Pee-tah, sister with all the unfair advantages in life.” the creature murmured, “It must have been hard to live in your sister’s shadow…”

Temper flared in me, sudden as the bite of a hidden serpent. “You think I’ll betray my sister because you pour poison into my wounds?”

“She told me, make him forget while I make up my mind. But a woman like that will never have a problem making up her mind.. She left you alone in this house, defenceless, ignorant.  Then she sent you hunting for me. Do you send the hare after the leopard? But I’m a fair monster, aren’t I? I have loved the taste of your kin for generations. Your sister remembers everything except…”

I hated to ask, but the ugliness of my own hope despite my hatred, despite my despair, was irresistible.“Except?”

“You’re the only one who has seen my feet.”

If she had asked me to sacrifice myself perhaps I’d have agreed, I defended myself to myself. I would have made myself useful to her and consented to be eaten for the sake of her and her daughter. She and I might have figured out an escape, could have perhaps attempted it. But that was laughable, wasn’t it? For all our lives Moraa had made a fool of me, and then a sacrifice. She did not trust my courage or my competence, to be a willing sacrifice or a useful accomplice.

She had sent me to look for it, sent me to be slaughtered.

“Wake up, Peter.”

My eyes opened to kaleidoscopic daylight, my sister humming dance-gospel in the kitchen. My cheekbones were damp, tears spilled from the corners of my eyes. I let out a gasp.

I had slept the worst sleep of my life. My joints ached, for some unholy contortion had happened beneath my skin as I slept and held me and held me.

Moraa flipped eggs in a pan, she beamed at me as I entered the kitchen. She was sunny, happy in a way I’d never seen. Moraa had always had sly smiles or a certain smugness, as though her delight had to be interesting and intellectual. There was a girlishness here, not practised, conjured or calculated.

I had missed dawn and she had risen without me, full of pep. Spring was blooming in her heart, and mine had turned to winter. I asked her how she’d slept and though I already knew the answer, I flinched to hear it. “Like a baby,” she said, then interpreted my grimace as something else. “Oh Peter, did you have a nightmare?”

I swallowed. I knew now that restfulness had meant forgetting; it had all been a spell, an illusion from the monster. My sister had slept restlessly because she awoke remembering her dreams and I had slept soundly because I awoke with no idea of mine.

But today it was my turn, the monster had made me remember and her forget.

“We love each other, don’t we?”

Moraa frowned, her concern was sweet, and so unfamiliar I felt it like a knife being twisted into my heart. “Was it a very bad dream?”

“Yes. I dreamed that you betrayed me. That you gave me away to an ogre.”

She smiled, heartbreakingly sweet. She really didn’t remember. “I’d never do that.”

“This house is strange,” I said. “Something about it muddles my memory. I remember Baba buying it cheap, but then, I also remember that maybe it’s been in the family for generations and generations. Do you remember what’s real? Do you remember yesterday?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I was so tired from repairing the fence, I went dead-asleep.”

I nodded, jaw tightening.

“Peter, I finished the eggs. You should really go into town for some.”

“I thought you went yesterday.”

“Did you hit your head?” Moraa grinned. “I think I’d remember.” She went back to rustling about the kitchen.

“Big sister.”

She hummed.

“Did you come and stand over my bed as I slept?”

“Why the hell would I do something so bogus?” But she didn’t laugh, because my face was serious.

“Big sister,” I said, “would you come please?”

“I’ve just made breakfast.”

“I don’t mind,” I said. “Would you please come and look under my bed?”

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber

Khadija Abdalla Bajaber is a Mombasarian writer of Hadrami descent and the 2018 winner of the inaugural Graywolf Press Africa Prize for a first novel manuscript. You can find her work at Enkare Review, Lolwe, and Down River Road among others.