The Place You Call Home
© Dora Achieng’ Okeyo
Shakespir Edition, 2016
Thank you for downloading this short story. It’s been a while since I published something and this story came to mind at the right time. Enjoy your reading and do share your thoughts, I’d love to know what you make of it!
Our journey started long before my feet could meet the ground. It must have been past nine o’clock at night when we heard the chants outside your parents’ house. Your Father, Omutete, stood up and approached the door but it was your mother who knew it before they begun. She pulled me aside and said, “You have to promise me that you will protect our daughter, listen, I know people think you are lazy and a drunk, but she needs a Father and you are the only one I trust. Do not even mention my people, because ever since I came here they have not bothered to visit me or send their best wishes. My own mother has forgotten me, but what would you expect of them given that I married beneath their expectations? Now, listen, I have wrapped some ten thousand shillings in this lesso and packed a few clothes for Maria. You have to go with her and protect her. I will not ask anything of you again, and Juma, you should not come back here. These people will take everything away from you when you can have three meals in a day.” She placed you in my arms and threw the strap of the bag around my neck and pushed me out of the house through the small back door that led through the cow shed. I stood there for what seemed to be my whole life, thinking of a cold glass of busaa and a few women singing my praise. How could I have told you the truth then? For years, I went back to that night wondering what happened but nothing comes to mind. So, I held onto you and walked away carefully making my way through cow dung and maize fields until I got to the road where I boarded a matatu to Kisumu. They said that my brother and his family were burned alive and their property destroyed by cattle rustlers, but I know that those were not rustlers. They were Omuchai, my brother’s rival, and his men out to avenge a business deal gone wrong. Weeks later I heard it on the radio that they believed I was also killed in the fire because I had gone to visit my brother that afternoon. Maria, I told you that our journey began long before my feet met the ground, but I was never prepared for the life of bitterness that followed.
The bravest man is the one assured of his death. Wakoli, the village cobbler, was such a man. You never met him, but Wakoli could look at your shoe and stitch it in one motion, but the same hands could not hold a woman’s hand without his knees shaking. It came as a surprise when he suddenly said that he wanted to return to his father’s land. We sat with him as one of his hands went into the shoe and the other the needle, pulling and fastening and fixing. He would say, “A man has no friends in this world,” every time he talked about his ancestral home. He would pick another shoe, look at it and smile. “You can tell a lot about a man’s shoes. How he takes care of the things that protect his feet as he leaves footprints on the earth. Some shoes speak of love, others, misery, but my Father’s home is awaiting me.” Wakoli was not a day older than your Father, but his back was bent from all the stitching he did. He carried his sack of shoes waiting for his clients to come for them. The sack was old and torn but never did a shoe fall from it. Wakoli was the wind. He came and went as he pleased. Everyone at home knew him, but even so, he was the only one who saw me beneath the busaa. No, that is not true, he was one of the few who saw me, your mother- Nyanam, was the other. She was the only woman who could carry ten pots of water and not complain of a stiff neck come dusk. She would laugh until you felt as though Heaven was with you. When she cooked, the food would warm your soul, and she never let me sleep hungry. She would come to the busaa den looking for me, “Shemeji, you have to eat what I made today, you know you are the only one who appreciates my cooking, eh? Now how about a few mouthfuls then you can continue quenching your thirst?”
When she returned home, your Father would be waiting by the door, his rage making him look ten times his size. She would start singing praises of him. He was her one and only gem. He worked day and night to keep her young. He gave her before she even asked. She would sing and praise his looks; his handsome face, strong hands, big feet, big heart and she would go on until your father shrunk back to his size. Who knew that the devil was slowly warming up the hearts of those who saw his effort pay? Maria, one thing is certain, I will never be my brother, but let your ears listen my child, for the devil is not that creature with horns you see in books. He is you and I. He is your friends and in everyone you see. Let me be. You do not know the devil until you have to flee your home. You do not know how evil he is until your family is burned to ashes and you are not there to hear their cries, or wonder why those who lit the fire pretend to hear them.
Your mother was a woman who saw beyond the sun. When your Father would come home talking of how hard it was to convince his people that working hard was the best way to change their lives, she would soothe him by asking if they could leave for Kisumu. Oumuteche was not one to listen. His feet belonged on that soil his Father left him. He knew how to farm and his yield was always the best. He had his shop at the center. He also had his position as a Chairman at the local church. When he bought his first pickup, he was attacked on his way from work. They stole his pickup, his money and left him for dead in a sugarcane plantation. It was a woman who had no peace because of diarrhea that screamed when she saw him there. Were it not for her diarrhea, he would have bled to death surrounded by sugarcane and in a pool of his own blood like a slaughtered cow. Your mother did not utter a sound when they carried him to her doorstep. She knelt beside him and lifted her eyes to the sky and said so many things to God in a language only the two of them could understand. When she was done, she took the water she had been boiling for your bath, and slowly started wiping off the blood off your father. She then asked the men to help carry him to the local health center. For twelve days she took care of him until he could open his mouth to talk. On the thirteenth day, he was discharged from the health center. When he got home she prepared him some food and we ate. I had not tasted a drop of busaa for all those days. When he had finished eating, she asked him, “are you feeling better now?” My brother, not knowing the calamity he had brought on himself answered, “Yes, much better.” It was then that she went to their bedroom and came back with her black suitcase packed and hoisted you on her back and told him she was leaving. He asked, “Why?” and received an earful of words so much so that his ears disappeared into his head. She spewed all her anger, pain and disappointment and like the raging fire that burned within her, nothing your Father could say could get her to calm down. And when she finished, she sat on the floor, with you on her back sucking your thumb, and said, “do you know what I thought when those men brought you to me? I will tell you, because you haven’t known for thirteen days, Omu, I thought you were dead. In fact you were dead and for twelve days you could not talk, and I kept asking why would God bless you only to kill you? See, God does not kill, people do. What did I tell you that day you insisted on meeting with farmers at the place Omuchai said? But, you did not listen. You saw me as a simple thing, and told me to stay out of mens business, so tell me, Omu, is my business death that I should await your corpse? I will go to my Father’s house. He has been angry at me, but I know even there, I will not sleep hungry. Omu, why do you want me dead? Ei! Mayie Nyanam, Nyowila, Jaber chuny min. NyarOkumu Engineer madhumo Kisungu to pod mako kwer! Ei!” And so it was that her love for your father made her stay. She stayed and even when word was sent to her village two days after the fire, not a soul came for her. Neither her Father nor Mother stepped into that land, for they had warned their daughter, but her folly had worked against her. But, how would I know for I have never looked back, and who knew that of my Father’s sons, it is the drunkard who would heed a warning? When I arrived in Kisumu, it was almost midnight and so I went to the only place I knew. The watchman at the gate helped me set you down on his jacket and we stayed up thinking of how evil could befall even the harmless of men. He gave me one cup of strong tea and told me to speak. When I stopped, the sun was in the sky and the lights in the Priest’s house had just come on. He took me to the Priest and introduced us. You were still sleeping, sucking your thumb, unaware of the arms that held you. Your mother’s cheeks and hands were all I saw when I looked at you. “What is the child’s name?”
“Come inside and we can talk as I prepare for the morning mass.” I followed him inside. If that Priest were to tell me to walk backwards today I would, for he looked at me and prayed for me that morning and simply said, “Even Abraham had to leave his home for a land he did not know. Bless you my Son.” He was the third person to see the good in me my child and never ever forget this. You can forget me, or your parents, or your home, but never forget this man Maria. As I say this, I know that it was not easy staying with him, but he gave me a chance and whenever it felt too much for me he encouraged me to keep on. Wait, I seem to be running and squatting, but there is something about being rained on till your body grows warm that I am aware of. I was twenty seven years old. I could take any two wires and light things up but who would want to hire a man without a certificate? My brother tried to tell me this, but each word was drowned in busaa. Every time I sniffed a busaa den, my troubles left me. They would find me once I stopped drinking, but even your Father could not understand the bliss of exorcising demons; nothing scared him, nothing pleased him. He was a man with a heart like the soapstone; you had to chisel away, day and night, to find the sculpture within. Father Nicodemus never asked for my story. He did not ask for my understanding or demand an explanation, but he saw the cruelty of life on my face. Years on he would tell me that he saw pain, a bottomless pit of pain and misery in my eyes. He was raised by Priest and just like you; his Father appeared at the doors of their local church asking for help. Was it his Father he saw in me? No, his father walked away, but the way I held onto you that morning was proof that I would never let you go. You frown like your father and smile your mother. Your ears are round and fitting like my mother’s. It is the old man, my father that is yet to be seen in you. Tell me, how could I walk away from a promise I made to my shemeji?
Sometimes I wonder why is it that the good people suffer while those who are evil are left to celebrate their victory. Omuchai still lives. He is the richest man from that area, but those who can still wag their tongues remember that there once lived Omuteche. Your mother’s bravery haunts me in my sleep Maria. There I go again letting my mind squat, forgive me, but you asked me once ‘who are my people?’ It was the day you came home from school with that girl whose eyes look towards her ears. You dropped your bag on the floor and rushed to me with a mango in your hand. You asked ‘who are my people?’And I answered, ‘I am your people.’ You laughed and said, ‘No, I mean like where are we from, you see like Daisy goes to ushago to see her grandparents, she knows where her people are, but we never go to ushago, so, who are my people Daddy?’ I looked at Daisy and smiled, but what I was thinking of was how to make her eyes face me. She had a mouth like a sharp stone; always right. So, you want to know who your people are. I am your people. I am the only family you have left and were it not for some envious people, then you would be with your parents and I would have either died of drinking busaa, or would have married some young village girl and made her stomach swell every two years. The truth is I am afraid of what it would mean if I were to tell you about the place you would love to call home. Whenever I think about it, it feels like the chief and his askaris have walked into a busaa den! It would mean going back to that night and the thought of it scares me Maria because I never shook my brother’s hand that night.
The battle between Omuchai and your father did not start that night. It did not start when your father got the Councilor to visit his home. It started when we came to be. Sometimes I think that there was only room for one rich family in our village, but what would they say of me now? I wonder, what would they say if they knew what had become of the village drunk?
You asked me who your people are and I thought my answer was right until I remembered running in the dark with a baby in my arms.
Wakoli neither spoke ill nor well of his ancestral home. It always called unto him. He never shared with us his reason for fleeing from his home, but sometimes when he spoke of it, his eyes would become half their size and he would shake his head. Maria, the place you call home is the place where you are can breathe. Home is the place where laughter and good will reigns. As I write this, I am certain that my version of events will never be enough, not until you have stepped on the soil that consumed your parents’ ashes. You will travel for miles seeking answers and you will wash away the pain with your tears, but in your anger never forget the two men who helped me when we had nowhere to go. You may be angry and choose not to talk to me or see me, but never forget the watchman and the priest who saw the good in me, at least, talk to them first. Maria, always remember that the place you call home is where your light shines bright.
About the Author
Dora still loves coffee and cake.
She’s currently working on another African Series story.
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