EVENING TEA WITH THE DEAD
She did not know where to find god. Maybe he was inside the cockroaches that trooped in her house at night like an army ready for war, or in the souls of the crab lice that sucked her blood in the darkness of her blankets causing her to itch thoroughly.
For he was certainly not in her blackened sufurias, or her odd collection of wood, torn mattress, carton boxes, paper bags and stale clothes that made up her bed. Maybe god was not as big and almighty as to be all over the village, watching over everyone as the priest claimed. Maybe he was just small, small enough to fit into the tiny heart of a crab louse. She pursued a particularly vengeful crab louse under her arm-pit with her fingers, plucked it out and crushed it.
But she knew when Kiprotich was around. It was he who sang in the morning, in haunting interposes with the birds, with nothing but joy in his heart. Or sometimes she would walk outside her hut in the morning and stumble on a bottle of milk at her doorstep that Kiprotich had dropped by in secret.
The day he died she knew he would rise and come back to take care of her, and that is why she did not weep. Instead, she made a big sufuria of tea, full of milk and just a sprinkle of water, lay two tin mugs beside it and waited.
He came at night, a moonless, cloud-covered one it was, in the form of a small black dog with horns and with the hands of a baboon. She had squeezed herself into a small ball of fear against the wall but Kiprotich walked to her and told her not to fear, that it was him and that the dead walked in the land of the living in many forms, some of which were fear-evoking.
She leant forward with her neck and peered closely into his eyes and found out that it was him. They were the same Kiprotich’s eyes that had remained an impossible milk-white despite a good twenty years of wiping chalk dust from old, torn blackboards at Mindililwo primary school.
She fanned the fire to warm the tea again for it had cooled. And in the warm darkness of her hut, they drank tea sugared with long stories till it was late. He spoke of many things. First that she should tell his only son Kipyego that he should not cry but take care of his mother and sisters for he was now the man of the house. In addition, he added that Kipyego had to apply himself to his studies for the father had looked into the future and seen that Kipyego could only end up as a doctor or as a lawyer.
Then there was an update on some of the people she knew who were dead. She did not want to know about her parents for they were too long gone for her to remember even how their eyes looked like. But she was keen to take note that Rebecca, the pastor’s wife who had died of AIDS, had confessed a list of lovers she had infected, the chubby and jolly headmaster of Mindililwo primary school included. Then there was something about Simaron, whose liver had shrivelled to the size of a peanut before he died (the result of changáa drinking), hovering at night in a certain lonely road in the village with a ghostly knife ready to pluck out livers of unsuspecting pedestrians.
These were the things she actively and endlessly talked about during Kiprotich’s funeral and people knowing her to be old and soft in the head let her be. Like a broken record she played, first to the village women who came early to peel potatoes and steam rice. She told them about Kiprotich’s visit for hours on end till they finished their duties and moved on elsewhere, leaving her by herself. Not satisfied, she sought audience from the young men slaughtering bulls for the funeral and digging the grave, but the men were too engrossed in their manly tasks to put any pretences of endearment towards her tales, and she moved on, targeting an easier prey.
And that is why a few minutes later, under the shade of a wide eucalyptus tree, she had gathered an entire bus-full of children, who moments before had been content flitting up and about the compound with the randomness of butterflies but were now cowed into sitting beside her in silence, exchanging shy smiles and plucking grass stalks, as Taprandich volleyed out more refined, precise and suspenseful versions of Kiprotich’s visit.
Her tale became too much for all to bear when later in the day, as the priest swung a censer over the casket to bless Kiprotich’s remains, she stood up and began addressing the solemn crowd, telling them in detail what Kiprotich had said about Rebecca’s confession.
A buxom woman whose eyebrows had knit in irritation walked to her and calmly dragged Taprandich’s weightless form away as the latter incessantly prattled, past the crowd and the tents they walked and through the narrow corridors between two wooden houses till they reached a freshly-harvested shamba, devoid of all plant life but the toughest of weeds.
Here Taprandich smiled sweetly at the buxom woman, for she knew the latter to be from the House of Lelei, whose bloodline was renowned for kindness and generosity of spirit. But the buxom woman hardly noticed. Instead she shooed away at Taprandich, her arms waving about frantically in despair, only slackening when Taprandich turned on her heel to walk away.
That same evening Taprandich sat by her bed and decided that the villagers thought of her as a cow too old and dry to give milk and fit only for the butcher.
There was another one she missed more than Kiprotich. A woman called Tapkigen with whom they shared memories older than all the wooden and brick houses in the villages. Memories older than her hut which, just to say, had not been built yesterday.
An earlier time of young flesh, soft as butter and skin unwrinkled by the dryness of life. An earlier time of lying on their backs staring at a sky full of birds-swallows and turacos, hornbills and wood-peckers, francopalins and kilelges, crested cranes and chemogombes.
How times had changed!
Today as she looked at the sky, leaning against a hollow in the earth (she could no longer lie flat on the earth because of her arthritis), all she saw flying in the clear sky was just one lone crow and it did not fly so high but was low enough to be at the same height as her hut. It seemed old and tough; as if it had weathered many storms over the years to the fullest till the years ran out of the capability of effecting any change on it.
A feather trailed down the crow’s tail end, drifted down and landed on Taprandich’s lap like a gift.
She gently ran a knobbled finger over the feather, staring at it as if it was a mystery. And when it revealed nothing, she turned askance and spat.
She wondered what Tapkigen was doing at that moment. The last she had heard of the woman was a stroke that slightly paralysed the left side of her body. So most likely Tapkigen would be lying on a mat outside her kitchen waiting to be served lunch by one of her numerous grand-children. Or maybe she too had fled from the villages like the birds, leaving only the old crow and her to remember the past.
She smiled at the thought and held the feather beside her neck as if it was a friend.
“Kogo,” the voice was like a splash of cold water to her sunny thoughts.
She turned to see the buxom woman who had shooed her away at Kiprotich’s funeral many days before looming large over her.
Chematya sat down, her brows woven in a fresh design. She was the mathematics teacher at Kobil primary school as well as the treasurer of the local parish’s women’s group and prided herself, in gait and speech, for her no-nonsense ways.
“Kogo how have you been?”
Taprandich almost kept mum but something in her softened.
“I have been well my daughter, well enough for someone who is old and dying and has been abandoned by everyone.”
“Am sorry my grandmother. I did not mean to chase you away but some of the things you were saying, they were a bit embarrassing. The villagers had decided to keep you away from every ceremony but someone made a special request….”
Chematya licked her lips professionally. Taprandich noticed that the skin at the edge of Chematya’s forehead was peeling like the scales of a snake. That thought made Taprandich smile. May be Chematya was a snake that walked on two legs, pretending to be human.
“Kogo you are old now and need to stop living alone in your hut. Your co-wife’s children welcome you to their homestead. They have an extra room and you do not need to cook your own food…”
“My chicken and cows need me.”
Just at that moment, Taprandich’s two heifers advertised their hunger by giving out powerful bellows.
“I have to go now and feed them Chematya. Thanks for the visit and may it be well with you.”
There was an urgency in Chematya’s voice that made Taprandich take her seriously for the first time. She reclined against the hollow.
“Your friend Tapkigen who is my beloved grandmother sent me to you. She understood your stubborn ways well and told me to tell you that you should at least listen to her if not anyone else…”
Taprandich broke into a laugh that excavated something with horrifying sound off her throat.
“I am not listening to that old crow,” she said spitting the thing out.
“She is dead Kogo. She is to be buried tomorrow at her farm in Kobil. She wanted you to attend the funeral and she wished that you would be on your best behaviour.”
The world went very still. It was as if the sky, the trees, the grass and even the worms burrowing in the humid soil underneath had stopped to listen.
“There was something wrong with her heart. It happened so fast but she welcomed it with joy. We were all hovering around her in panic while she lay in such calm. She winked at me and I leant close and that was when she told me that it was good she was dying surrounded by her brood. She wished the same death for you Kogo.”
“Tapkigen was soft in the mind. She knows very well I have no children. They all died as soon as they were born-TEN OF THEM-“
She held up her fingers.
“It was as if I had been touched by an evil hand, but life brought me Kiprotich, that boy was more than a son to me. Whatever help I needed? Whether my fence needed repair or I had to mill flour, he was there to sort it out. Do you know he never went to school each morning without passing by to check on me?”
Chematya sat in artificially cultivated silence. Taprandich’s nose wrinkled.
“My cows need my company more than you now Chematya. May the day be will with you!”
“I will make sure someone comes early tomorrow to pick you up,” answered Chematya.
Slowly, with all the strength she could muster, Taprandich stood up and walked into the afternoon heat, till she disappeared into a grevellia-enclosed compound, where her cows were.
Tapkigen’s coffin resembled an overturned cockroach roasting in the sun. One of her daughters-in-law sprayed it with Doom. No sign of grief was palpable on her face, she sprayed with the same casual way one sprays pesticides on a carrot garden.
Tapkigen’s family sat in straight, clean rows on a shed on the opposite side. They seemed as numerous as a gathering of ants on a sugar lump, only that they were human and bigger. Taprandich marvelled at Tapkigen’s birthing ability.
Someone stood and called everyone’s attention, a young preacher who had not seen the wonder of the village before the brick and wooden houses were built.
Do you still remember? She wanted to ask dead Tapkigen.
Back then, the village river was wider and clearer, surrounded by a palisade of the thickest trees now long cut. Secret lives lurked underneath-leopard, python, dikdik, colobus monkey, hyena, squirrel and many more, and one could not fetch water in the evening if they wanted to keep on living.
She remembered the last dance, just before the young children disobeyed the old ways, and sought schools and church instead.
Then Tapkigen was the prettiest maiden under the sun and even several miles above it.
Her neck stood long and imperious, garlanded by a necklace of yellow beads that jingled when she walked. Her head was shaved and smeared with ochre and sheep fat in a pattern that even made her more enchanting.
And the way she walked, the way she danced. Taprandich wished she could melt back from the present to that day. The last day when they were happiest.
“I will make you tea Tapkigen,” she spoke loudly, but no one noticed, they were all busy looking at Tapkigen being lowered to her grave. “I will make you tea my friend, with two spoons of sugar and just a sprinkle of water in the milk. We will talk of our days. We will share the jokes only we can understand.”
Someone was weeping, a son or a daughter or grandchild. Still Taprandich’s spiel was a decibel higher.
“We shall hold hands Tapkigen and do the circle dance under the light of the stars. We shall call back the baboon howls and hyena giggles…”
She closed her eyes and a small tear ran down, drying up before it reached the crook of her nose.
And for a while she thought that the world had ended, the sun had blown off and the sky had collapsed to shatter like a blue glass bowl. For she felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing, she did not even feel when Chematya held her hand and led her to a car to drive her home.
She did not hear Chematya’s long-drawn speech of how her co-wife’s children were willing for her to move into their mother’s house the next day, so that she could be surrounded by warmth and love for her remaining years.
She only came to her senses when she was back in her hut and looked upon her blackened sufuria and her two tin mugs.
In a frenzy of energy, she gathered up wood shavings to a stock of firewood on her fireplace, lit it up and fanned the flame to a huge bonfire. The milk boiled in less than two minutes due to the intense heat. She tried to put in the sugar carefully but her hands were shaking and the whole packet flopped in. She accepted that and threw in a handful of tea powder to complete, and then took the sufuria with messed-up tea aside to cool.
Now it was not only her hands shaking but her whole body too. Now her tears were flowing freely.
She left her door open and stared intently, waiting for Tapkigen to appear. She waited for Tapkigen to come materialized as anything-a crow, a cow, a lizard, even a cockroach.
But the doorway stayed empty hours afterwards and it dawned on her that Tapkigen was not going to come. She took the sufuria of tea and walked out, pouring the tea on the grass, and there she knelt, praying for death from a God whose majesty she had stopped believing in.