The tiny hole in the roof let in a solitary ray of sun. It struck my fraying blanket at the foot of the bed. I could always estimate the time from the angle and position of the beam of light. I was late. Illuminated dust specks danced in no apparent direction as I crept out of bed and slowly opened the door anticipating the loud creak of hinges followed by my mother’s voice. Thankfully, the latter didn’t come. I shut the door, tiptoed stealthily, and ran out of the gate.

“I had to do something for my mother,” I lied.

Miigua and Kaggia’s eyes bore holes into me. They couldn’t come home to ask for me. My mother can sniff a lie a thousand kilometres away. They hid in the tea bushes across the road from my house and waited in as the cool morning breeze blew. My once-white t-shirt had a gaping hole where the collar had long separated from it but ‘Jacko Badd’ and a man with wavy hair posing on the tips of his toes were still visible. My shorts revealed a bit of buttock.

We took the road towards the river, staying on the wooded side lest we be spotted by someone and the news relayed to our mothers. 

With our customary nugi — an improvised paint-can used to carry hot coals — swinging from his hand, Miigua asked, “So what did you have to do for your mother?”

The sarcasm laced into his voice was not lost on any of us.

“There’s always something with my mother.” This part was true. Sensing I didn’t want to get into it, Kaggia walked on, plucking a leaf and a bud from Mzee Waithaka’s manicured tea bushes. He chewed absent-mindedly as our bare feet matched in rhythm, him leading, Miigua and I trotting behind. We snickered and pointed at the state of his shorts, caked in mud, seams coming apart and a different colour patch just managing to hold on for dear life by a few threads.

We ran the last few hundred metres to the bridge, beating our way through maize, slapping them out of our faces, their heads dancing above ours, bathing us in pollen.  We were safe in the knowledge that nothing could come between us and that first dip in the water — not even my mother. Upstream, the river was quieter, slower, before it made its way past the culvert under the bridge and from there, even the good Lord couldn’t save you from certain death by drowning.  We had a favourite spot where the banks weren’t too steep and as we came up to it, the fight was on to see who could get their clothes off the quickest.

Kaggia was the first to jump in followed quickly by us sluggers before he could shout any warning. The water completely took my breath away. It had never been this cold but then again, we’d never attempted a swim this early in the morning. Gasping for breath, I cursed Kaggia for suggesting we do this at this ungodly hour. It was apparent the sun still hadn’t visited the Aberdare Mountains where the river snaked from. Any initial grudges were soon abandoned as we pulled with our arms and kicked with our feet, our small bodies quickly adjusting.

Kaggia had this game where he went under the water unseen and dragged one by the leg. Our protests over the years hadn’t yielded much and so when we couldn’t see his bobbing head, I knew what was coming. Head above water, Miigua and I called loudly, close to tears, for Kaggia to stop the foolishness, under threat that we were not playing and wouldn’t be letting him anywhere near us any time soon. When no pull on the leg came, Miigua and I exchanged concerned looks before starting a frenzied call.

Miigua dove under. Tears were streaming down my already wet face and I was sobbing loudly over the sound of the river. When Miigua came up for air and dove back down a second time, my cries grew even louder. I was the weakest swimmer of the trio and if the water could take Kaggia, what about me? I put my face just under the water’s surface momentarily and quickly came back up spitting. I couldn’t see a thing while under there. Miigua came up a third time with no Kaggia and this time I panicked and swam furiously for the bank lest a drowning Kaggia or the ghost of him try to pull me under with his mortal soul. I’d heard that no one has a stronger grip than a drowning man, or boy.

Horrific memories of Kanyungu on the wrong side of the culvert gulping mouthfuls of water and gasping for breath came flooding back. Someone had thrown him a bunch of sweet potato vines and that had been his saving grace. I couldn’t see any vines in my panic.

Miigua was now scampering off the bank, desperately calling Kaggia’s name. We didn’t care who else heard us. I sat on the bank crying and thinking what Kaggia’s mother would do to me, and worse, my fate with my own mother. A brushing sound came from the maize plantation. Miigua and I held our collective breath.  Help at hand after all.

Kaggia!

He was holding some maigoya leaves in his hand and was wiping the remnants from a shit he had gone to take and forgot to inform either of us.

“What’s gotten into this one?” said Kaggia, none the wiser in reference to my teary face.

I lay on my back, not caring whether my friends would tease me on the size of my then, justifiably, shrivelled thing and cried some more. I’d never been happier to see anyone than I was at that moment. Miigua was not having it and in a moment of rage, forgetting what Kaggia had just come from doing, charged and crashed into Kaggia’s stomach and they both tumbled in a tussle.

***

 After a swim, we always helped ourselves to a few maize cobs by the river. Due to the regularity of our swims, it would soon become evident to the owner that someone was up to no good. We started a fire with a few twigs and the coals from the nugiand though my cob wasn’t cooked through, it tasted divine. My tears and snot added to the flavour as I chomped down hungrily having had no breakfast before coming down. We threw the husks and any evidence of our transgressions into the river. Miigua took a step into the river, cupped some water and put out the last embers of the fire before sweeping the warm ash into the river as well. With a bit of soil from the garden, we covered our tracks, wiping the crime scene clean before heading on our merry way.

Sometimes we remembered to bring some oil for our skins after the swim, most times not. Miigua’s house was the next best option as his parents were always labouring somewhere on people’s patches to bring home some food for him and his poor sister. My skin was crying out for nourishment, taut against my body, crusty from the fresh waters of the river.

After complaining about the smell of the milking jelly at Miigua’s and him saying we could go home without, we teased him a bit but eventually rubbed the smelly stuff on our palms and onto our bodies, of course only on the parts that could be seen while dressed. I laughed out loud at how Kaggia had oiled only the front part of his face, his ears and jaws dry as bones.

Soon, the whole incident at the river was forgotten and we chased each other around the compound in a game of tag. There was a big black polythene sheet next to the granary, laid out to beat the beans out of their pods. I ran around the granary in a bid to escape Kaggia’s hand that was closing in on me and cut across the polythene sheet. I slipped and fell hard. Two sets of feet suddenly stopped, their eyes on me, waiting for a yelp and when it didn’t come, they rolled on the ground laughing. I felt something move underneath, a slight noise, as I was getting myself off the polythene sheet. Two chicks lay dead. I lifted one up and his neck, broken, fell back in my hand.

“Look,” I started, scared as Miigua advanced on me, “It was an accident, man!” I didn’t mean to do it. Where’s their mother anyway?”

“It’s my mother you should be more concerned about you silly goat!”

Kaggia was eventually able to hold Miigua away from me long enough for him to come back to his senses. His face magically turned from anger to fright.

“It was obviously an accident. There was no way to know the chicks were underneath the thing,” said Kaggia.

I wasn’t talking. I let my lawyer lay the case on my behalf.

“We…you can tell your mother that you were beating the beans and then heard the cry of the mother hen…”

“What do I do with the corpses?” asked Miigua.

“Will you hold your mouth!”

“We’ll throw them in the latrine, she will never know,” I said.

“Will you two idiots listen to me!” Kaggia shouted. We both fell silent.

“Now, we’ll help you beat a few of the beans to show your mother you were at least doing something, some work.” Kaggia held his chin in thought before continuing. “You were beating beans out of their pods when you heard the mother hen clucking loudly and before you could wave the stick at it, a big hawk came in and picked the chicks up. Right? Right?”

“One hawk took two chicks in one swoop?” I was thinking the story needed to be watertight.

Kaggia was angry at me for poking holes into the alibi we were trying to weave. “You tell us then, murderer. What should he say?”

“I don’t know, maybe a mongoose came and grabbed the two. Maybe you say you were beating beans out of their pods and don’t know what happened to the chicks. We’ll throw them into the latrine, no one will ever know.”

“Except us. We know.” Miigua said in a hushed voice as he started towards the main house throwing the door open. The milk cow in the shed chewed cud standing deep in her own filth. She wouldn’t tell. Miigua’s sister was also not home. There was some relief there. She must have gone with their parents.

We first heard her singing a hymn before we saw her. Looking down into the ridge, there was Miigua’s mother, a heavy kiondoo load on her back. The strap on the top of her head meant that she could only walk with her eyes to the ground. Miigua’s sister followed closely behind with a load of napier grass tied tight with rope. Their father must have sneaked off for a drink of muratina in one of the dens but that was the least of our concerns at that moment. We all scampered for the gate before Miigua actually remembered that he lived there.

Kaggia and I ran through Mama Elijah’s tea bushes like our lives depended on it. Our backsides for sure did. Some ripe loquat fruit dangled invitingly from one of the many trees, but we had pushed our luck enough for one day. Coming up from the tea bushes, there was a whole section that had been pruned to make the next crop heavier for the scales. The branches were sticking out dangerously, sharp as blades from the precision cuts whoever pruned had delivered. I felt something cold drip down the inside of my left lower leg and knew immediately that I had cut myself on the tea branches.

“Wait, wait!” I gasped sitting down. Kaggia was a few paces ahead of me as usual. He stopped and looked back, panting and holding his knees.

“What now?”

“I think I cut myself in the tea.”

 Kaggia walked back to have a look and we both shuddered at the white flesh. The pain came in torrents as soon as I saw the state of my leg. The tears and screams followed soon after.

“Shhh, shut your mouth you little baby! You want everyone running here?”

I couldn’t shut my mouth but at least I stopped screaming my head off enough for Kaggia to explain that he wasn’t going to be caught with me and get himself in trouble.

“If you don’t keep quiet, I’ll run and leave you here, you big baby. You know how fast I can go.”

I tasted snot on my upper lip for the second time in a morning knowing that Kaggia meant every word. I held my leg like it was falling off. Now the blood was drenching the red soil where I sat. Kaggia quickly thought of putting soil in it to stem the bleeding and I begrudgingly nodded my head for him to do it as I couldn’t. He picked up a handful of red soil and slapped it smack onto my injury. It didn’t hurt but I still let out a moan in anticipation, Kaggia putting his finger to his mouth to remind me that his threat was still not rescinded. The remedy worked and the bleeding stopped. Kaggia had to help me up though. I put one arm over his shoulder as he led me towards home and a certain execution.

The idea came to me as clear as day. Kaggia would help me wobble to my grandmother’s house and from there, I would convince my only hope to then take me back home, perhaps with a story that I had been working for her when I got hurt and all would be well. It was a long shot. I would ask her to say I’d been feeding her cow when the panga slipped from my inexperienced hand and did the damage.

“I’ve got my own problems to deal with, man!” Kaggia poured cold water on my new course of action. It was a genius plan and it would save my hide. I don’t know why he couldn’t see it.

“You don’t have to wait. You can just drop me at Cucu’s gate, then you can run on to wherever it is you’re supposed to be doing. Come on, man!” I gave him the most pleading look I could conjure but came to nought.

“I was supposed to have taken the cows grazing hours ago.”

“And you will in twenty short minutes, you can run all the way back. I can’t walk on this leg. Look at it.” The mud Kaggia had plastered on it was now wet with blood and a bit of the red stuff had trickled down and was now a dark brown mark. I picked up some leaves and tried to hide the blood. They stuck on. 

Kaggia was a stubborn as a donkey once he sets his stone-hard head on something. “I’ll see you later. If you don’t hear from me, it was nice knowing you, my friend. At least you have a grandmother to get you out of trouble. Mine’s dead, both of them!”

And with that, he was off, leaving me in a sorry state sprawled on the side of the footpath. My leg had acquired a heartbeat of its own. The pain was almost unbearable but I had to keep moving. Despite being on the back ‘streets’ of our village, everyone was now up and about and the journey to my grandmother’s would be that much harder, rotting left leg and all.

Someone was coming down the road. I had to pull myself on my hands off the track lest I got caught and told on. I fell off a small cliff and into someone’s garden yonder. The land had just been tilled so my landing was soft. I however fell on some young bean shoots that had just fought their way out of the ground. They lay dead under my weight in full view of their owner who was seated a few paces away, taking a break from the hot sun with a drink of what looked like cold tea in a plastic bottle.

“You there,” it was Gakenia, feared by all, loved by none. She was a spinster who’s husband had left her many decades before since she couldn’t give him any children. Her bitterness had multiplied through the years. Her strength hadn’t changed one bit. She looked nothing like the women her age. Us kids used to say she was probably lucky, not having a husband to make her old like the rest of them. Before I could get the soil out of my eyes, she was on me like a wounded cat.

“Don’t you move, you!” she barked. She didn’t know it at the time but I couldn’t even if I wanted to. “You’re the little thieves who’ve been stealing my crop. Your mother will hear about this. Let’s go.” She had me by my collar, ripping off whatever was left of it from my t-shirt even as I protested my innocence which she would hear none of. My feet barely touched the ground which was some relief on my leg. Knowing what lay in wait, I started begging as she got me to the road.

“I wasn’t stealing from you. I hurt my leg and was sitting on the path before I fell back and onto your beans. I can plant them again tomorrow. Please don’t tell on me. I’ll work for you for a week, please!”

Her face softened for a moment before taking on the look we all knew her for. I forgot about my injury and wished I’d have waited for Miigua’s mother and promised to hatch her two new chicks. She would have been more understanding.

I limped into our compound, my heart threatening to shoot out of my throat. Even though I couldn’t run away, my accuser was not taking any chances and was just a step behind me. There she was, her back turned to me. She had a woven tray on her lap and was sorting dried beans – the irony – which would probably be my last meal on this side of the sun. Her headscarf was askew, tufts of greying hair sticking out like a witch’s. She slowly looked from my face and down to my then noticeably swollen limb.

“What happened to your foot?”

I screamed uncontrollably knowing what was to follow.

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