The Man Who Fishes Dead Bodies
She doesn’t walk to him to inquire what has happened. It is a taboo for pregnant women to see drowned bodies otherwise the spirits roaming the river would enter her womb and inhabit the unborn.
On a thin wooden plank across the river, two women exchange pleasantries, muffling laughter in the drizzle. Both carry akala sandals on their hands and walk bare foot to avoid slipping into raging waters. Min Akinyi repositions her basket, shifts her weight to pass and crosses the bridge. The bend towards the rapids is unusually quiet for a Saturday afternoon. Min Akinyi wonders where the children have gone. She takes the narrow footpath lined with siala on either side. At a point where the height of siala is no more than two feet, she catches a glimpse of the man who fishes dead bodies. He is tugging a bundle wrapped in wild banana leaves. She doesn’t walk to him to inquire what has happened. It is a taboo for pregnant women to see drowned bodies otherwise the spirits roaming the river would enter her womb and inhabit the unborn.
She rushes under the cover of foliage. “Who drowned this time round?” She asks. “This river eh awuoro!” She pities the man. He does it, each waking day, when the currents are high, when the currents are low, when harvest is nigh and weaver birds swoop low to pick pearl sorghum and farmers plant scarecrows. He does it when cows moo, strutting from the milking shed to the pen. He does it when the village retires with the sunset and children circle grandmothers for yet another rendition of the days of locusts when every wheat sheaf was desecrated and fathers bowed their heads in grief between swallows of busaa.
Asingo was brought up by his father, Janam, after his mother, Nyasiro, died at childbirth. Nobody knew the wiry child, born with umbilical cord around his neck would survive. His father named him Asingo, as a kind of oath to Obong’o Nyakalaga — the giver of children. Back then, Janam was the only fisherman in the village. When a person drowned or a body was seen floating past, the chief sent for his advice and expertise. Before he knew, he had become the man who fishes dead bodies. Asingo was apprenticed by his father, a stout amiable man with an ochre beard. One day his father was called to retrieve the body of a woman. But it had rained in the hills and his efforts to untangle the body from trunks of bao branches came a little too late and he was swept away.
For days Asingo scoured the bottom of River Nyando looking for his father. On the third day, he found a puffed up body, red like sheep struck by lightning, covered in moss and algae, on the delta where rice canals silt.He buried Janam that same evening, behind kiru, where he was taught all the tactics of fishing bodies. Later he went to search for the woman, who’d dragged his father to death, but the waters were too cloudy. The night’s downpour flooded the banks, extending nearly a mile into the marsh. He had almost given up when he found the body of a woman washed up on reeds. He turned the body so it could face up. He did not know the woman but the dress had a recognizable print. It was the same print grandmother used to wear. The same prints at Atwech Tailors. She was slender and tall with a tuft of gray hair at the top of her skull.
“A dead person you don’t leave like that,” his father used to say, “if you leave it don’t ever talk about it with anybody.” “Do you know that the dead can see? Look here, your mother Nyasiro died even before you tasted her milk but she still talks to me today. If I did not keep her well, I would not be a peaceful man today. If you find a dead body in the river, do not leave it like that. You have to remove it from the water, put it in a higher place and tell the village elder. If you leave, it will come back and haunt you.” The body was decomposed and falling apart. Even if he went and reported, the chief would simply shrug it off. But why did he care? Was this not the woman who had dragged his father to death?
He went home and never talked about it.
That was years and years ago. Now he sits by the boulders, a fishing pole in hand, a bait dancing and dashing, signalling a catch at the end of the hook. If it were a fishpond, the ngege on his basket, would have been eighteen months old. He can tell from the sizes. Bigger hooks only catch mature fishes. It is best to let smaller fishes grow. A drop of rain lathers his forehead. He looks up to find a gloomy sky. Vultures circle the river.
He covers the basket with a manila bag and walks down the river towards the spot vultures have perched. A young girl lies dead on the sandy banks. He does not know what has killed her or when she was washed up here. It is a season of short rains and momentary floods are rare. Asingo picks ochok, squeezes the fruit, and applies its juice on his arms and forehead to ward off evil spirits. He rolls the body in wild bananas leaves to preserve it. Upstream, children play on rafts made from banana trunks and sisal ropes.
River Nyando begins to ripple from slight showers. Where is this body from? He has not seen such a face in this village. He walks up the river bend to collect his basket and fishing pole and head to the village to inform the chief. Nobody pays him for this. He barks a warning when Otieno swims to the deeper ends. Their parents, as one may expect, are thankless idiots. Take for example, Min Akinyi, whose fish is so delicious, that it keeps you smacking your lips long after the pots are washed and left in the sun to dry. Min Akinyi whose sianda has caused many fights at the busaa den. Min Akinyi whose rich and loud laughter hides a thankless heart. Akinyi almost died last year and had to be resuscitated and what did he get? Not even a thank you. He squeezes onyoso with his big toe. Onyosos have a big sianda like Min Akinyi’s. Grandmother said onyosos were a delicacy during the days of locusts.
Asingo gets to the children, splashing on the sandy banks and careful not to swim far from land, except Akinyi, who to show prowess, had gone farther down the river. “Akiiinyi! Akinyi!” He calls. But another call interrupts his voice. Where is the voice coming from? He wonders. “Akiiiinyiii!” the voice calls. It’s an old woman’s voice. Then he sees the caller. Wrinkles have rolled from her forehead and collected in a jowl at the base of her chin. Her head is a white tuft of gray hair.
Asingo is transfixed.
“Akiiinyi!” she calls again. With each summon the child swims faster down the river. The old woman’s hands are outstretched waiting to clasp the child’s hands. Asingo tries to call but no voice escapes him. She smiles, a thin smile on her pursed lips. When she calls again, she opens her mouth very wide to capture an exaggerated width of ‘A’ in Akinyi. “Get away from the woman!” Asingo finds his voice. “Get awaaaaaaaaay!” He screams. His voice is barely recognizable to his own ears. It is also barely audible. He doubts whether it carries that far out into the river. But still he calls. “Akinyi, come back to the shore!” When the old woman calls again, it ripples like thunder from a hollow pit. It echoes and echoes and echoes. Akinyi acquires a sudden burst of strength, cutting through the water like mumi.
“The man with the shovel thumb is coming,” says Otieno as Asingo nears the children. His thumb is wide and flat and it has earned him the name. Children can get away with anything. They shriek and run towards the rocks where their clothes are hidden. “Akiiiiiinyi!’ he calls again. The old woman turns and what he sees tenses him. Where had he seen that dress? As his memories latch onto the body of a tall woman washed up on reeds, the woman’s hand start growing towards Akinyi. Her other hand grows, at a much faster pace, towards him. Asingo screams but his voice is gone. He tries to run but his legs are sinking into sand. The long hand strangles and yanks him off the sand and flings him deep into the river.