“So you want to work with someone who has lost his mind,’ my mother says. ‘Why would someone just wake up one morning and decide to start building for no reason? Did he tell you who the new huts are for?”
“He d-d-didn’t. Why sh-sh-should I ask him that?”
Then she says almost furtively, “Just throw the question to him.”
I ignore her all the time; she wants me to behave like a woman even after losing my foreskin. It’s the dry season and I’m helping my uncle to build three new huts. This is our third day. We work all afternoon and take very little break. We work quietly most of the time except when I’m moved occasionally to whistle popular evening dance tunes. My uncle is a quiet person, all his words and thoughts hidden in a sweaty brawny body. His dexterity with the mud seems to be his way of speaking and it leaves me wondering how someone insane could do that. Even his action is usually silent. You hardly know when he steps into a compound and, sometimes, when he leaves. When people stop by to greet us, he only hums back. Some walk away shaking their heads or muttering. Others let their faces say, “I’m used to the madman’s aloofness.”
The sun is in the centre of the sky now burning my shaved head. I feel tired and want to do nothing but lie face up on the flat rock under the enormous rifar tree and listen to the birds and dream about Akutse. But I can’t; the men who circumcised us during our izhak warned us against showing any signs of weakness. Let women be women; let men be men. So, in the heat of the sun we mould the mud and see our building grow slowly.
Ada’rin, smallish, charcoal dark, slightly hunched with cotton white hair, would stop by and greet. Even though my uncle remains reticent and only hums in response, the old man doesn’t seem to notice. Today, for the thousandth time, he complains to my uncle about how poor his last harvest was, how lazy and irresponsible his grandchildren are and how stupid the self-acclaimed king in the next village is. “Who struts about calling himself a king because some horse-riding men from where the sun rises says so?!” He laughs, his mouth showing space where teeth used to be. “Are our Deities dead? Are our Fathers asleep in their world?”
My uncle only stares into the distance and hums once in a while. The old man leaves saying, “Please, my son, don’t offend the Fathers. Be who the Spirits made you to be; what has happened has happened.”
I lie amidst the breathing of my brothers, unable to sleep. I just stare into the darkness thinking of that rare moment when I locked eyes with Akutse a few days ago. Then I hear something I knew as a child of about six harvests. Faint izom in the distance. I once asked my father about it and he said I was just dreaming. I knew it wasn’t a dream after hearing it many more times. And I’ve never heard anybody talk about it. I’m surprised that many harvests later the music brought up the same sad feeling. I’d imagine a lonely child leaning by the fat baobab tree along the path to the stream crying and calling out their mother’s name.
Izang rolls over to me and begins to snore. I push him away gently before his kneecap finds its way to my nose or jaw. Then I hear footsteps in the compound. It’s my father. I spring up and fly out. The moonlight makes the granary in the middle of the compound look like a giant about to pounce. I ignore it and walk towards the zuri. My father is there seated in front of a fire in the centre of the room.
“Couldn’t sleep?” he says.
I sit down and look into the fire. It’s dying.
“How did your work go today?”
“It w-w-went w-well; I can b-build you a hut n-now.”
“Did your brothers tell you they got beaten today?”
“Well, they were mischievous out in the field today. Maybe because you weren’t there. The animals were virtually on their own.”
Poor boys, hunting is all they want to do. That will change for Izang in two harvests; I can’t wait for him to be circumcised.
“Why d-d-does Ada’rin s-s-say to my uncle, b-b-be who the spirits m-made you to be?” I ask suddenly. “W-w-what does that m-mean?”
My father clears his throat. Then he’s quiet. He takes a corncob from beside him and throws it into the fire. The fire goes down and rises again slowly.
“Your uncle hasn’t always been this way. He was a cheerful young man. The women used to sing about him, his strength, and even his tattoos. He was outstanding among his mates in every activity. That’s what the old man is talking about.”
“W-w-what happened to him? How did h-h-he lose…?”
“Your uncle is not a madman; he’s a broken man. He and his twin were one soul. Things changed since he lost his twin. They were nineteen harvests when it happened.”
Suddenly there are steps outside. It’s Isha, Ada’rin’s youngest son. He always returns late from the next village on their market days. He’s said to have quite a crowd of friends there with whom he’d drink and chatter until nightfall when he’d have to drag his drunken self home through the groves and across the hills. However, stories abound that he actually changes into a bird to make his journey home.
“My greetings,” he says when he notices our fire.
When he starts talking about red men attacking and capturing distant kingdoms using their magical fire-sticks, I know that I cannot hear anything further from my father. So I slip away to our hut. I close my eyes and try not to pay attention to Isha’s loud slurred words. The izom has long stopped. I think about Akutse, her eyes when mine met hers, and fall asleep.
The following day after work, after a cursory wash at the lonely stream, I decide to go to my uncle’s compound. He’s seated on a stone in front of his zuri sharpening a long stick with a knife. I think he’s making a kind of spear. My mother says nobody ever knows what he’s up to. His wife is seated in front of a pot placed over the fire. Azi, their son of about two harvests, is seated on the ground, his mouth all sandy. Everyone in their world.
“Oh, your mother must have sent you to me,” my uncle’s wife starts saying apologetically.
“Oh n-no, I just came to p-p-play with Azi,” I say.
When Azi sees me, he stretches out his arms towards me. I sweep him up and swing him round two or three times. He laughs excitedly. I put him down to avoid the temptation of putting him up on my shoulders since it’s reaching dusk, the time the Spirits fly around. I go to sit on a stone near my uncle. I greet him and he hums back. I watch him sharpen and cut the sticks carefully and familiarly. I watch his face. The tiny tattoo carvings on his face remind me of what my father said the day before. The faultless arrangements of many tiny straight lines across his cheeks make him look like a Deity.
“W-w-what are you making?” I ask.
He says nothing.
“S-s-so you were a t-twin?”
He doesn’t raise his head or speak a word. After a moment, he rises, bundles his sticks and disappears into his zuri. I begin to blame myself for coming. I turn to Azi and sing him a silly song. He grins, showing the two teeth in his mouth. My uncle’s wife’s eyes meet mine, and she smiles sympathetically. Then I hear noise of things being moved in the zuri. I spring up, Azi crawling after me, and enter the zuri. My uncle is trying to make a fire. When the little flame rises, I sit down and carry Azi on my lap.
“T-t-tell me ab-b-bout the Elephant W-w-war,” I ask.
I only want to hear his voice. Of course, I know about the war. About the elephant that was killed and our village stole the elephant’s head and there was a seven-year war. At the end of it, there was a compromise and water from the elephant’s belly formed the river that divided our villages. My father has told me this story hundreds of times.
“W-w-were you in the w-war?” I know he wasn’t. Nobody knows who was.
“The war was unnecessary,” he mutters reluctantly. “It was just an elephant’s head.”
I see something shaped like an izom on the wall.
“D-d-do you p-p-play that as w-well?” I say.
He glares at me.
I leave quietly, swearing to myself he’d not see me at the work site the next day.
But I couldn’t fail to come to the work site the following morning. I go round the first hut, which is the zuri and observe how the bricks lie perfectly on one another. It’s my uncle’s careful work. This is our fifth day and already we have a structure above my shoulders.
While I wait for my uncle to come, Ishun, my little brother comes panting. He has mucus smeared above his upper lip like a moustache.
“Clean that m-m-moustache,” I say.
He quickly rubs the mucus with the back of his left hand and, instead of being cleared, it moves to his left cheek. I laugh and say I would never eat with him again.
“F-f-father said the missing g-goats couldn’t b-b-be found,” he says. “Iz-zang and Idoh couldn’t find them.”
I’ve been excused from grazing the animals these few days because of this work with my uncle. I know Izang and Idoh were carried away by their hunting games and forgot to be watchful.
“That’s a-a-all right, I’m c-c-coming.”
When my uncle comes, I tell him about my father’s message. He doesn’t look disappointed. He just stares into space for a while and then says he’ll come along with me. I’m surprised, but he’s serious. We set off immediately on the pathway that leads toward the Sacred Grove and take the bypass uphill amidst browning grass and lumpy rocks. We cross paths with a few women singing and chatting loudly on their way to the stream. They greet my uncle and me; he mutters in return.
When we reach somewhere on top of a rocky hill, we find the goats eating grass. Two of them together. I feel annoyed because we’ve found them before our search became active.
“L-l-lazy b-boys,” I curse.
My uncle sits on the rock that overlooks a stretch of farmland surrounded by more rocks. I sit down beside him. After a moment of awkward silence, he points at the rocks afar and says he and his brother used to want to go over there. He is speaking to me in a different voice, one I hear for the first time: clear.
“We’d say, that’s the land of the Deities somewhere there.”
He chuckles and tells me about their wrestling and hunting competitions. About how he and his brother killed a leopard. I look at him. There are dimples in his cheeks and a light in his eyes.
“Do you love a girl?” he asks.
I laugh and say no! He laughs too.
“D-d-did you ever f-f-fight with my m-m-mother?” I ask.
“No, why? She’s such a lovely woman.”
“She says all kinds of stuff ab-b-bout you.”
He laughs and says, “It’s normal for siblings. She only feels bad for me. It wasn’t always like that.”
We hear a noise from behind us. I turn and there are Izang and Idoh looking all flustered.
“You d-d-d-didn’t l-look for the goats, you l-lazy idiots,” I scold.
They look at each other, both hurt and incredulous.
“We did,” says Izang, the impudent one.
“W-who s-saw you?”
“You can ask the hills, the trees and the rivers,” he says. “They saw us.”
I take a stone and aim at him, but I miss him. I catch my uncle smiling as he looks away. The boys quickly drag the goats away.
“And p-p-please, bring Uncle’s izom f-f-for him!” I say after them. My uncle only smiles.
“S-s-since we’re not w-w-w-working today, you’re going to t-t-t-teach me the izom,” I say. “You’d h-h-have to teach me now b-b-before the rains come and you’d have n-n-no time. I must p-p-play it as skilfully as you d-d-do.”
Maybe Akutse would love me for that.
I’ve never been good at running or wrestling. Who knows, I could be a good musician and sing about the most beautiful girl, about the Elephant War and its heroes, about the woman who chased away the horse-riding warriors from the North. I think I could sing.
The sun is getting more overhead and hotter, but I don’t mind. My uncle is staring ahead into the distance and seems to have forgotten I’m there. When Izang and Idoh return with the izom, they also come with a calabash of large pieces of boiled yam. It’s my uncle’s wife’s message: she thought we would be hungry. My uncle is not hungry. So he says.
I eat the warm yam while he picks on the strings of the straw instrument and turns it into a living thing that speaks. His wrist-band of cowries dangles along with the rhythm. I want to ask him why he doesn’t sing to the music, but I can’t. I don’t want to miss a moment of his performance.
He suggests we move farther away after I’ve eaten the yam. He leads the way in the sandy paths where long grass caresses our legs. And then we’re up another hill. This hill overlooks part of the Elephant River. My friends and I have swum here. There is a neem tree stuck between rocks; we sit under it.
My uncle starts to show me how to hold the rectangular board and strum the strings with my thumbs. He says the fatter strings on the left side of the board would make certain regular movement, while the thin strings on the right side could be played randomly or to create a recognizable melody. I thought this would be hard, but I’m learning fast and he’s happy.
We keep at it until the sun begins to fall and redden the skies.
“My brother died here,” he says suddenly. “The Spirits took him away from me. So I thought.”
I throw a stone into the water and it ripples widely.
“I came here every day for seven days to look for him. I swam to the bottom. I sat and waited all day for seven days. He never showed up. I didn’t know what it meant to live as one person; I only understood the world of two. My brother and I would sit here and talk about whatever might be behind those distant hills. We would argue. I would say the red people and he would laugh and say only the horse-riding people. We had heard that there was a group of red people who were taking over places because they had a fire-stick that no one could withstand. Just one of those idle stories, of course. My brother and I would argue about it. He would say it was all lies, but I would say it was true. We played the izom and sang.”
After a pause he says, “Do you love a girl?”
I’m quiet. He only smiles and continues, “I did love a girl. My brother and I would talk about her eternally and he wanted to help me reach her. I was the quiet one and he was the brave one. She was the fairest of women; I almost believed she was a Spirit. It happened that she loved me too, and the best day in my memory was when I married her.” He looks at me. “After mourning my brother, she disappeared,” he says.
He’s quiet. I can’t look at him. I imagine that his eyes are tear-filled.
“I went to the atsi to inquire about these misfortunes. He said, ‘Son, just let it be,’ and never told me anything again.”
I rub my fingers gently against the izom, which lies on my lap.
“D-d-do you think Ak-k-kutse would d-d-do that to m-me?” I say.
“We all have different stories. Your story will be different from mine.”
He picks the izom from my lap and starts strumming. He clear his throat and starts singing. It’s about a man who has to learn to see that the treasure he has sought all the while in faraway places has all the while been hidden in his compound, and it takes him over ten harvests to know that.
“Did you also hear about the journey I undertook to look for my missing wife?” he asks after a pause.
“M-my m-m-mother says that’s the j-journey that m-m-made you insane,” I say. “You stayed away f-f-for two har-v-v-vests.”
“Two harvests, my son. And truly it made me insane. I know.”
“Sh-sh-she says w-w-when you came b-b-back you never told anybody anything. You stopped talking to p-p-people.”
He smiles and nods ruefully.
“I’ve never told anybody this and it’s tortured me for years. I started with the nearby villages. Some people laughed at me to my face. They said I should forget about a woman who had left her husband. But I loved her. I kept moving farther away from here and entered zones of other tribes. I stayed for a whole rainy season in one village and farmed with them. I made friends with a son of the house where I settled. I told him my story and he vowed to help me in the search as a show of his gratitude for my help.”
He takes a deep breath and says, “Do you know that I found my wife in the next village?”
“W-w-what?” I think I feel sweat surfacing all over my body. “And sh-sh-sh-she didn’t come b-back with you?”
“She didn’t. She was so shocked to see me. And she was pregnant. I asked why she had to do that to me. She started to cry. Then her husband came out from the back area, and I felt a fierce head thump and tears filled my eyes.”
He takes the izom and begins to play. It is the melody of the night—that one that used to make me think about a lonely child. I think I hear him sniffle. When he drops the instrument, he says, “It was my brother.”
“N-no!” I hear myself shout.
“We stood looking at each other in shock,” he continues. “I thought he’d disappear, the ghost that he was. He didn’t. He was just jittery. When I came back to my senses, I turned to go. I’d been defeated. By my own brother. He ran after me and kept saying he was sorry. I didn’t turn to look at him, because I thought if I did I’d kill him. I walked back through the lonely wilderness to my friend’s village crying like a baby for days. I stayed with him for long before I returned home. And became insane.”
There’s a fire in my heart and a river waiting to flood my face. “So who are we building the new huts for?” I ask. “My m-m-mother says it’s f-f-for your f-f—first wife.”
He looks at me and says, “For the woman who has loved me all these harvests. She is teaching me how to love. Again.”
He picks up the izom again and sings about the man with the treasure hidden under the stone by his door-mouth.
Doug Kazé is a singer-songwriter and an aspiring writer. He is currently studying for his PhD in English at Rhodes University in South Africa.