“Your father is a Mchawi?”
The young girl’s voice barely carries over the roar of the river.
The boy in the middle answers, his legs dangling over the river’s bank where they are seated.
“A real witch doctor?”
“So, he wears animal skins and shakes charms around in empty calabash shells like we see on tv?”
The boy to the far left tries to seem absent-minded as he eavesdrops on the conversation.
“Yeah, you know that big mūgumo tree on the other side of the forest, that’s where we usually receive customers.”
“And after each session, you sacrifice a goat to cleanse the area of spirits.” Her giggling possesses the forest behind them like the playful laughter of a faun.
“No, that would be wasteful, spirits aren’t usually dangerous.”
“You’re the one who asked me what my father does.”
“So, he can make people go mad or eat grass or whatever?”
The boy smiles and uses a long stick to make ripple trails on the surface of the flowing water by dragging it through the river in long curves.
“No, he just helps people get money or jobs and things like that. I usually help him out.”
“It doesn’t scare you that he’s a witch doctor?”
“What’s there to be afraid of, none of it is true.”
“So, your father isn’t a witch doctor?”
“He is, but he doesn’t have any powers. I’m the one who does most of the work.”
The boy on the left grabs the other boy’s stick from his hands and starts prodding the water like he was.
“Find your own, Brian.”
Matthew forcefully takes back the stick from Brian.
“But I want this one.”
He grabs the stick again.
“Brian, give it back,” Julia yells.
“I will give it back if you come over to this side and sit next to me.”
Matthew gets up, goes back a couple of meters and comes back with another stick.
Julia puts her tongue out at Brian.
“Brian, have you finished doing the holiday assignments?” She asks after a while.
“I haven’t. Why? Have you?”
“The holiday is almost over and you haven’t done your homework? We invited you to do it with us in the first week but you never came,” she says looking at him with her head slightly tilted in order to look past Matthew.
“I told you my mom was taking us to our grandparents’ that first week.”
“In that case, you can come stay with me for a night and I could let you copy ours,” Matthew offers.
“My mom would refuse.”
“Even if you told her that it’s for school?”
“She wouldn’t even listen to me, if I insisted, she would just assume I want to do something bad and beat me.”
Brian drops the stick in his hand in the water and Julia and Matthew follow it with their eyes downstream.
“Can’t you ask your dad?” Matthew asks after the stick is out of sight.
“He only comes home during the holidays and he hasn’t even arrived for Christmas yet, have you ever even seen him?”
Matthew shakes his head.
“See, maybe if my dad was around and my mom wasn’t, my life would be as good as yours is.”
“What are you talking about? Every time your father comes home, he leaves you a mountain of toys, my dad tells me to carve images in wood and use those as toys. And I’ve never even met my mom, my dad says she loved me even more than he did, I wish-”
“But you usually top in exams, and the older boys fear you.”
“Brian, I’m sorry your mom beats you too much, but stop trying to prove you have bigger problems than Matt, the same goes for you too Matt,” Julia mediates the situation before the smoke she has become so familiar with sparks into a full-blown fire.
“But you have to admit that they are super-rich,” Matthew continues, “I mean you and your brother both have a PlayStation each.”
“It’s not like that money is mine, and you beat all my high scores, my name isn’t even in the leaderboards anymore.”
“You’re heartless,” Julia says to Matthew and nudges him with her elbow.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know it meant that much to you.”
Matthew touches Brian’s shoulder trying to comfort him.
“Leave me alone, maybe you are a Mchawi like your father, that’s why you are so lucky.”
“Brayo!” The girl exclaims.
“I’m going home, I forgot to do the dishes.”
Brian runs off.
“I’m sorry about that, I don’t know why he reacted that way,” Julia tells Matthew.
“It’s okay. Maybe he has been carrying it inside him for a long time.”
They sit in silence for a while taking in the riverside ambience. Invisible frogs croak over the wash of the jostling river, punctuated by the chirps and tweets of birds in the trees around them. The river sparkles with orange glitter made so by the light of the sinking amber sun which also stretches long shadows from one side of the plumage of the trees while bathing the other in its amber light. Their skin roughens at the caress of the cool breeze following the valley of the winding river while their noses relish its smell scented so by the river whose surface it kisses and the thousands of trees it has rustled its way through.
“We should also go home,” the boy says and stands up.
“Can’t we stay here for a bit, maybe catch some fish. I know how much you love fish,” she looks up at him while still seated on the river bank.
“It’s starting to get cold, and you get sick easily. I don’t want your mom to yell at me again.”
She stands up.
“Aiii? You don’t want to fish just because you might get yelled at? Then walk me home at least.”
He looks at her for a second.
*Why is she squinting? The sun is behind her.
She turns to face the sun and starts walking. He follows her and catches up. He trips over a rock and bumps into her causing their hands to meet and their fingers to intertwine. He panics and is about to withdraw his hand when their eyes meet. She’s pretty, she has always been pretty but right now as the touch of her fingers tickle his and her eyes seem to be the centre of the universe he feels something, something he didn’t want to admit he felt, the reason why he is so afraid of being alone with her. How can anyone look that sincerely at someone, laying out their entire soul through their eyes? How can she be so kind and happy and warm all the time? How can she cause this rush of emotions without actually doing anything? Is she aware of what she does to me? Is she aware that she is torturing me? Deep in the blackness of her eyes, he seeks answers but it seems… she too is searching for an answer in his. They both realize what the other is doing. They both squeeze the other’s hand in reply. They both blush and look away. They both don’t know what’s going on.
“I knew I’d find you here.”
They quickly break contact.
“Can’t you see I’m on my way home, John?”
In their silent commingling, they hadn’t noticed Julia’s elder brother approach. How much had he seen?
“So, if I call mom, she will tell me you have already arrived back home? Matt… how are you, I just came to get my sister.”
Not much, he hadn’t even recognized Matthew who he’s terrified of.
“It’s okay,” he says to the brother and turns to Julia, “Just go with your brother, we’ll see each other again here tomorrow anyway,”
And the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that… The illusion of the immortality of childhood. If only they’d have known…
“Okay, bye,” she says, her voice tender.
“Bye,” he says but continues standing there. The brother cautiously pushes his sister away from him and they continue walking into the sunset. He only starts strolling away when they’re out of sight. A long winding path later, he arrives at his own home.
“Have Julia and Brian gotten home safely?” His father asks while sipping a cup of tea.
“Julia’s brother came to get her. Brian left earlier, he was kind of angry,” he says as he walks to the kitchen.
“He said that I have a good life because I’m a witch doctor.”
His father starts and tilts the cup he’s holding too far pouring its contents on his chest. Matthew perceives this with his spirit vision and brings him a towel to clean himself.
“Baba, what’s wrong?”
“You showed them?” he asks, more concerned about his answer than the tea burning his chest.
“No, I just told them you’re a witch doctor and then Brian got angry because he says you are better than his parents and then he called me a witch doctor…”
“I told you not to tell them!”
“You told me not to show them, was I not supposed to tell them either? I told them it wasn’t true afterwards. Will something bad happen?”
He looks at the boy’s face. He’s just a child. The three of them are just children. Who would take their make-belief seriously? But Brian’s mother…
“I hope not… “
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Matthew’s father rolls off his bed and goes to answer the banging at the gate in a robe. This isn’t the first time this has happened, there’s probably an emergency and someone needs his help. He had also asked a neighbour to drive them to a clinic when his wife had been in labour. Such is village life. He opens the gate and sees a group of about fifteen people.
The first face he recognises is that of Brian’s mother.
“Habari yako mama Brian, what is going on?”
“My son came home today with a very funny story,” the tall woman says without returning his greetings, “he tells me that you’re a witch doctor.”
The banging had also roused a drowsy Matthew who peeks through the window of his bedroom to see what’s going on. He hears his father laugh.
“Aah, is that what this is about? They were just playing. Matthew told me all about it. You know how children are.”
“Brian, come here!” The woman calls.
Brian slowly makes his way to where his mother is. His eyes are red from crying, his shirt is torn at the side and he has red lashes on his arms and a prominent one on his face.
Matthew instantly sobers up at the sorry sight of his friend.
“Tell him what you told me.”
“Matt… told us that you are a witch doctor and… you do it at the mūgumo on the other… side of the forest,” the boy says trying to hold back his sobbing.
“But he said he was joking, don’t you remember?”
“Baba Matthew, I have asked around and no-one seems to know exactly what you do for a living.”
“I’m a... businessman. I have some rental houses in Nairobi and I do some other things around the city. It’s like if I asked you what your husband does in Nairobi, it’s very hard to explain-”
“Don’t even try to drag my god-fearing husband’s good name into your shady activities!” She says pointing a thick finger at him, “So if we go to the spot that Brian has mentioned we won’t find anything?”
“How should I know. I told you the children were just messing around. If we find something there, they could be the ones who put it there.”
“Take a good look at this child.”
She grabs Brian by the arm and drags him forward.
“You are trying to tell me that after the beating I have given this child he still has the audacity to lie to me? Eeh! Get out, we will all go together. Today we either catch a liar or a witch. Let’s go!”
They forcefully shove him into the street and lead him towards the forest. Matthew gets out of the house and sprints at a distance away from them towards the forest.
*If I hide the things, they won’t have any evidence.
As he approaches the spot, he perceives the presence of people among the trees.
*They are already here!
They have the area surrounded, hiding behind the trees.
*It’s a trap.
“Ehee, icio ni ndu!(Kikuyu,Ehee, what are those!)” The woman says and pushes him into an opening in the trees which he is familiar with.
“What do you have to say for yourself, witch.”
He dashes across the opening only for people to appear from the bushes in front of him and throw him back.
“Where do you think you’re going? Do you think I only brought ten people?” She raises her arms in a grand gesture, “The whole town is here.”
Matthew’s father looks around and all he can see are faces behind faces behind even more faces. People who he considered friends, people who he had helped and asked help from, the teachers who taught Matthew at school, the shopkeepers he never passed by without greeting, all here with rocks and canes in their hands ready to lynch him.
“My family died in a car accident,” says one of the faces, “not two kilometres from here. No-one knows what happened. But you do, don’t you?”
He tries to defend himself but another voice starts before he can speak.
“I have been trying to get pregnant for the past nine years. The doctors keep telling us that nothing is wrong with either me or my husband. But if I recall correctly, you moved here nine years ago, right?”
“My mother prayed every day. There has never been a person more pious than her. So, I thought that it was unfair that she had been battling cancer but she won, twice. And then one day after taking tea made from milk that she always bought from our good neighbours the Mugo’s, as she had been doing for the past five years, she died. A tumour blocked a blood vessel in her head. I thought her god had failed her. But today my faith was restored. I was wrong.”
He looks around at all these people each of whom he could call by name. He has become an instant stranger due to one obscure detail that they know absolutely nothing about. They are all baying for his blood all in the name of destroying evil. Evil? They will orphan my son! That’s what’s evil! In this kind of situation people usually pray, but which god will hear him? The god of his would-be murderers? What about the gods that gave Matthew his powers? Pray to the gods cursed his son? Never! What kind of god would burden an infant with something that even a grown man is afraid of? These gods are all unreliable. They’re all selfish. They took his wife and now they’re going to take his son’s father. These gods might kill him, he might be powerless against them but his son… My son!...
Suddenly, the frame of his vision disappears. He recognises the sensation. He has turned invisible.
“Jesus Christ! Where did he go?!”
He feels a small hand holding his wrist. Speak of the devil.
“Baba, let’s go,” says a boy’s voice.
“Go where they are everywhere.”
“We can’t stay here, they will beat us.”
“Can you hear those voices?” One of the faces in the crowd wonders.
“They only want me.”
Their eyes adjust and they start seeing the wavy transparent thing that is Matthew and his father. They start approaching them.
“Run, go hide somewhere. I will take care of myself.”
Someone charges and tackles them making Matthew drop the chameleon rune. His spirit runes turn off before anyone sees.
“You thought you could hide from us! Our god is more powerful than you!” Brian’s mother shouts from among the crowd.
“Is that Matthew?”, “Where did he come from?”
“Mtoto wa nyoka, have you come to help your father?” Brian’s mother takes the reins.
Matthew’s father quickly gets up and goes in front of her, “No, it’s me you want. Leave him alone.”
“Maybe you have taught him some witchcraft too-”
“If you touch that child, even if I die today, I will come back and take your children down to hell with me. Be they grown up, be they infants, I will take ALL OF THEM!”
They all fall silent. The only thing that can be heard is the snapping of twigs as the crowd steps back in fear.
The man looks at his son and smiles the smile of a father trying to reassure his child. The moment is interrupted by a rock colliding with his head.
“Did you hear that!” Brian’s mother screams, “he confessed!” She picks up another rock. “He has confessed to being an agent of the devil! Ua! Ua shetani! Ua! (Kill! Kill the devil! Kill!)” She throws it but he dodges but then he gets hit by another rock in the back.
They start pelting him with rocks, someone hits him with a long pole behind his knees forcing him to kneel.
Matthew jumps in and covers his father but gets hit by one of the rocks.
They momentarily stop throwing stones.
“Baba, they will kill you,” his voice is shaking.
“Don’t worry about me Mugo, go or they will beat you too.”
“Someone take that child away from here before my patience runs out!” Brian’s mother commands the crowd.
Someone grabs at Matthew and yanks him off his father. He turns around and pokes the eyes of his attacker and kicks the shins of another who comes to back him.
“You’re being beaten by a child,” Brian’s mother comes to take care of him herself.
She tries to slap him, he dodges and kicks her shins and then punches her throat. Someone grabs his arm and as he is distracted trying to free himself, it’s too late when he sees a rock coming directly at his face.
He wakes up sometime later. Except for the out of place rocks scattered all over the ground, except for the large broken sticks strewn everywhere, except for the smell of smoke and dust parching his throat, he is alone. He tries to stand up but the dizziness and pain in his head causes him to fall onto his knees. He looks ahead of him and sees his father’s robe full of dirt.
He turns on his spirit runes to widen the range of his spirit perception and he sees him in an upright position.
*He’s standing, he’s not hurt?
His eyes turn in the direction of the spirit.
His heart clenches into a rock. Blood rushes down out of the boy’s head. Breath shoves up from his centre through his throat pushing his voice out with it. The forest, the animals living in it and the night itself winces at his scream. A boy mourns his father.
The spirit stands over his father’s mangled and beaten body whose blood is congealing in the dust. The spirit goes down on one knee and tries to touch the boy’s face.
He looks up at the spirit and yells.
“Baba! Baba go back!”
His sobs suddenly halt when an idea rekindles his hope.
*The lizard rune! It will heal his body and his spirit will return!
He runs to the tree, the mūgumo tree where many a laugh had been shared, mocking the superstitious people who had just killed his father.
There’s a fire at its foot burning away his last hope.
He kicks soil at the fire to put it out. He kicks the charred wood around. He finds the circular piece of wood with the four lizards at its cardinal points. It was lying face down. The runes are untouched.
It burns his hands when he picks it up. He runs back to where his father’s body is.
He finds his father’s spirit floating just above the tallest trees and ascending.
“Baba don’t go, Baba!”
He places the rune on his father’s body and pours his soul into it. The pain in his own head and hands keeps diminishing until it completely disappears but his father’s wounds don’t close, his bones are still broken, his eyes still lifeless.
His determination breaks into panic. His panic breaks into sorrow. His sorrow breaks into a tearful resignation.
He can’t heal a dead body.
His parents only wanted a child, a helpless child to raise and mould, a child who would grow up to become a normal person able to fend for himself. They didn’t want to raise a future president, they didn’t want to have a future renown scientist, they just wanted a slobbering clumsy baby whose diapers they would change, who they would teach how to ride a bike, a child who they would be proud of regardless of what his achievements would be. That’s all they wanted, but instead, they got him, an unbearable responsibility that ultimately killed them. What was it worth? What was he worth? Surely not the lives of his parents. Whatever he was meant to be, whatever he was meant to achieve could never make up for losing them.
*Forgive me baba, mom… I don’t know what to do… I didn’t want any of this to happen… I didn’t want you to die… I didn’t want to hurt you…
Of what use is being kind if the world is cruel and indifferent. Of what use are rules if they don’t serve your interests. Of what use is anything in this world if it can’t give you what you want. Spells are divined by listening to the distilled wisdom of everything that has been, but the boy has no use for wisdom, he needs power. If the world shall not listen to him then he has no use for the world. He turns on his spirit runes and speaks, not as the conduit but as the source.
Na roho wakwa wothe ningukuririkana.
Nindarega kuriganirwo niwe Baba,
Ngurega guitikia wi mukuo nginya thi yothe iricukwo.
Ndingukureka ukue Baba,
Ookorwo muoyo niguo urabatara no woye wakwa.
(I will remember you father,
With every drop of my soul I will remember you.
I refuse to forget you father,
I will refuse to believe you are dead until reality itself doubts it.
I will not let you die father,
If life is what you need then you can have mine.
I will remember you…)”
He recites the verse once. He recites the verse twice. He recites the verse again and again. He hears a rustling of leaves, strangely sounding as if it’s echoing the last syllables of every word he utters. It echoes again the next time he recites, and the next becoming clearer with every iteration as if the trees themselves are learning the verse and helping him recite it. He listens closely, that isn’t the rustling of leaves, those are voices! The whispers of the ancestors chanting with him in unison. It's working! The voices get louder and louder. His father’s body starts glowing.
A young man suddenly sits up on his bed, panting heavily, with beads of perspiration dotting his face.
*I try to forget that day but my dreams keep reminding me.
He picks up his phone and sees that it is 3:23 am.
*Of the day I realized how much of a monster I am to them.
He gets up from the bed and wears a hoodie.
*The day when the anger and hate started building up inside and choking me.
He wears the necklace and the watch.
*But now I can control who gets hurt.
He throws the white scarf around his neck and turns on his spirit runes.
*I can give back every drop of pain and anguish to the ones who deserve it.
He goes to the balcony of his house.
*I can give my pain and anger in exchange for peace and justice.
He shoots off into the sky like a pillar of light.
*Through the power that I naturally inspire, the power that haunts me like a shadow, the power of fear.