THE NEIGHBOUR'S BOY
If you stood on top of Vai, an escarpment in Nsombe, you could see Pabayi river and beyond. Vai stood in isolation from hillocks. Pabayi river wound through the hillocks and ledges like a trail of distant smoke. The rush and roar of Pabayi river would start to fade as it meandered into the plains of Antebeyi and Wayiyi. And if it was in the evening, the sky above would glint with balls of orange-purple clouds. The horizon on the East of Pabayi would glimmer with hazy Antebeyi city lights. When the glimmer died, the horizon would look like a black hole.
An evening breeze would rise with gentleness and touch your tired skin like a young lover. The smell of decaying grass on the river banks would hit you like chaff, and waver on. To the West, stood Mapaye forest, a dark forest. Beyond Mapaye forest, on its fringes, Patemayi village stretched, winding and blending into Afaneye the land of the evil one.
Patemayi was a dry plateau with Shrubs which dotted here and there. Although not dry like Ayiwayi or Magiyi and not as dry as the Adakeyi, but dry. The smell of that dry earth sent your face puckering, and laughed at you the moment you stared at it. A score of paths cut through the shrubs waving in disarray into saisal farms that stretched and thinned into the distance.
Nsombe now lay behind. Nsabire fastened his black jacket around his waist and drove his cattle towards Patemayi. His Machete and club in his hand. He had to be home before his wife and before darkness swamped Mapaye forest. A man lost his life two weeks ago in Mapaye. The police said it was an isolated incident. He didn't understand the term and it didn't ease his fear for Mapaye. The giant trees that stood in silence sent him quivering. And when the twigs rustled, they sounded like someone was stalking him. He would panic and murmur to the whisper of wind kissing the giant trees.
As the sun sank to Afaneye the land of the evil one, Nsabire reached Patemayi. Dusk had started to mingle with the dry shrubs. One or two birds flapped up to the tree branches. He strode, his heart pounding. Was he late? Was his wife home yet? He thought. He feared his wife, a reprobate and wretched woman. She tried to choke him with a kerosene lamp in his sleep.
Two or three cows ran towards the shrubs on his left. "Shh, shh." He hissed and whistled to the stray cows. The cows ran further. He left the other cows and chased the stray cows. He was reaching the thinned homes along the hem of the village. "Shh," the sound reverberated. Sweat rolling down his face, he threw his Machete in the direction of the cows. Silence broke into moans and groans. Then changed into crushed wheezes. Nsabire's body stiffened. He fought not to tremble, so he slowed down on his pace. His face was painted in fear. Blinking, he reached the spot.
A musty smell hit him. Nsabire's heart skipped. His eyes bulged out of their sockets. And his mouth dropped. His Machete had driven through a young boy of about eleven years. Dusk glared as panic gripped him. He heard tree branches creak—a few yards from him. Then he heard muffled footsteps. He crouched and held his breath. His eyes fixed on the shrubs where footsteps came from. Hazy light flicked peering through the shrubs breaking the darkness.
"He couldn't have gone far..." A voice said.
"Yes, goats are up the path, the boy should be behind." Said the second voice.
"He never wanted to come in the first place!"
"Do you think he used a different path leaving the goats behind?"
"I don't think so. If he did, his mother would surely kill him."
The flickering of light stopped. The voices fade out, only Nsabire's ragged breath.
The time was between the first and the second cockcrow. The cattle were in the kraal, and the moon was shining casting its ghostly glow on the house. The penumbra shadows spread out in shimming pools across the parched earth. Nsabire stood lurking in the shadows staring at the main house contemplating what to do. He sighed with despair and felt sapped to the core. He could make out voices in the house. And saw the light moving and floating in the rooms. He put his hand on his mouth, debating within himself on whether to meet his wastrel wife or disappear to Afaneye. Nsabire was covered in dust, head to toe; from the grave he dug with his Machete. He looked much like a madman.
Nsabire was a tall, evenly built man of about fifty years. Dark, his lips round and thick. His eyes were naturally calm. He was still looking good at fifty. He worked from sunrise to sunset. Although he had been all over the map recently. Not so much like a teenage boy but all the same. He had lost his job as a site foreman for giving his boss' wife a pregnancy. The worst thing was that his boss, the engineer, was his neighbour. And although the engineer's wife lost that pregnancy through miscsrriage, things went out of hand, of course not for lack of experience but rather being all over the map. His wife Adayi, a small business owner, almost chased him out of their home.
Nsabire was Afaneye by tribe. And Adayi like their neighbours, Antebe. Antebe people were known for their unforgiving hearts. But strikingly beautiful. And warm from the outside. Tall and brown. Thin and athletic. Endowed with kind eyes. This reflected well with Adayi. She was a true Antebe. With the five children they'd, she still thought ill of him from the work incident. Something that happened two years ago.
He married Adayi from Antebeyi city. Everyone including foreigners here knew that Antebeyi city belonged to the Antebe people, the majority. She never forgot to remind him of his homeland and somewhat dangerous Afaneye—the land of the evil one. How could she when her first born was rumoured to have died from the same evil spirits hovering Afaneye?
"We're not going to spend a sleepless night"-- Adayi said, standing in the doorway, her hands akimbo. "Because again you neglected a simple job." Her tone was aggressive and deliberately pitched.
Nsabire hesitated. You don't face her like that, he thought, quivering from the biting night. Every now and then, he stole a glance in the direction of the neighbours. He feared bumping into his former boss, now his nemesis. Adayi was a know-all good-for-nothing. He cursed. Why was all this happening to him alone?
"This is becoming a trend," Adayi's voice startled him. She turned to go. "You're lucky Nkatu milked the cows. If you want to sleep out, well it's your choice."
Adayi entered the house shaking her head in a way that showed discontentment. She wasn't expecting any reaction. She wasn't sure if Nsabire was there in the still night. It was her intuition, wife—mother like.
"This man will never grow up…" she said sitting on a sofa facing Nkatu who was dozing.
Nkatu like Adayi was Antebe but originally from Nsombe. Short and dark. Serious, all business like. No one knew his age for sure but rumours circulated rounds that he was about fifty years old. Something he would deny. For he loved to be addressed as a young fellow. One thing people didn't know about him was harbouring grudges. A good pretender.
Nkatu could be trusted on serious issues excluding money. On the latter, his friendship with Nsabire had almost broken up. Nsabire gave Nkatu four cows to auction in Antebeyi. To which, Nkatu did but never brought the money to Nsabire. Nkatu lost track of Patemayi until Nsabire called on him. After then, they talked on other serious issues but never again on money. It was a misguided feeling of long term friendship that still kept the two together.
Nsabire crept from the shadows and entered the house. Panic gripped everyone in the house. They jumped. Nsabire looked like a dusty town on a dry day. Adayi moved forward towards him and grabbed him. Nkatu squinted his eyes as if the light streaming inside the sitting room was vague. Then he moved and disentangled them.
"Oh, no, ooh, my God not again," Adayi howled. "Which one now? Not that woman again?"
"What's wrong? What happened?" Nkatu stammered.
"Nothing happened. It's his usual mannerism. Not mannerism...! Wome-" she slapped him. Nsabire staggered.
"Ah! Adayi, Adayi calm down. Let him explain." Nkatu demanded, irritated.
Nsabire's gaze was fastened on the door. He was indignant. This wasn't a women related affair. This was something beyond human pleasure. His heart ached.
"It's nothing to do with human pleasure." His face was a combination of fear, pain and despair. Adayi stared at him. The way he had spoken was very apt. Adayi had never seen him speak like that before. She moved a step backwards.
"The neighbour's boy." He stammered and stared at the door again. "I killed him." He looked like he would collapse anytime. He quivered.
Adayi sat down on the floor, "the neighbour's wife?" She said, her breath came in gasps.
Nkatu turned in his seat. He felt blood pressing his veins. He always felt that way. Now he felt a dark invisible force falling down on him like fine pebbles of dust. A little sweat formed on his hands. He remembered how he found the cows. He glared at Nsabire.
"The neighbour's boy," Nkatu corrected her. "The Engineer's boy!"
Nsabire nodded. Rubbing his hands against his trousers.
"Wife and son?" Adayi cried. It wasn't sympathy she felt. It was something else undefinable. Rage maybe. Her breath was still uneven.
"Why, Nsabire, why? How did you...?" Nkatu asked, licking his lips. He was feeling a different kind of sensation. But he was sure it wasn't fear. He stood up as if he had remembered something of great importance.
"It was an accident. So abrupt. It was the cows--"
"Where is the body?" Nkatu asked, his tone subdued. "Where is he?" He leaned forward with a gesture of urgency.
"I buried him in Nsombe," Nsabire said. "I wanted to throw him into Pabayi river but-"
"But what? You thought about your wife—his mother?" Adayi shouted, resting her hands on her head. She turned suddenly as if something had hit her. "When will all this stop. Nsabire?"
Nsabire sat down and put his head between his legs. He was quivering. He wasn't thinking straight. His head was a junkyard.
"Don't talk like that!" Nkatu said, looking at Adayi. "This is no time for wrangles." He turned and looked at Nsabire,
"You need to bring the body here and bury it in the kraal. If a thorough search is conducted chances are they will find the body where you buried it." He swallowed. "Nsombe is bad. It was a bad idea." He Slummed down on the sofa and stared in the blank space.
Nsabire murmured. Stood up rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand. He made for the door.
"Where are you going?" Adayi asked.
"To bring the body," Nsabire said. "Before Dawn."
"I think it's wise," Nkatu added. "The man murdered in Mapaye plus this boy might cause huge fears in Nsombe."
He looked concerned. Apparently not with Nsabire or Adayi but with Nsombe.
Nkatu stood up with his hands on his head. He pressed his lips. He wasn't decided. His mind was blur. He felt his pressure raising. He knew Nsombe and Pamaye forest.
Could he go with Nsabire, was it safe? An accomplice, he thought. He slumped back in his seat. Nsabire was out in the darkness.
The skies were dark-grey from horizon to horizon with little flickering. It looked like it would rain anytime. The smell of the barren earth rose with the wind and hung in the air. Afternoon was dragging into evening. Nsabire sat heavily on top of a small ant-hill. He was here in Patemayi. By the edge of the village. He avoided Nsombe ever since that fateful incident. He lost weight. He stared in space—beyond where the cows grazed.
Nsabire's mind was clogged with fear and despair. He lost appetite, he only drank water and milk. He had thought of seeing the neighbour's wife but decided otherwise; for many reasons among which fear and agony were the most vividly painted on his face. His wife Adayi and the engineer's wife would've known. They might have read his mind like some sophisticated software. And he thought people did. Recently, his mind, thoughts and fears were open and transparent; easy to decode. But he wanted to see her. The engineer's wife, to find out what she knew about her son's death.
What if someone saw him? What if she somehow knew? He thought, clutching his fist. He hadn't slept for some time now. His mind kept wandering, hard to tame inside himself. He couldn't afford to lose her—the engineer's wife. Not now. She was the only Central pillar to his existence. Half of his being, his self worth was into her. He knew it the moment he touched her. Not Adayi. Adayi was a disenchantment to him. Were all men entwined with such heartless companions like Adayi?
Nsabire had also noticed a change in his cattle. They lacked meat. Their abdominal bones were open. They shuffled as if they would collapse any minute. Their tummies had shrunk like the cheeks of an old man. Not that he didn't know their lack of grass here in Patemayi—but he feared Nsombe.
The police and the local people had searched for the neighbour's boy for three weeks. On the last day of their search they saw something. He was relieved but puzzled. A grave for an elderly woman was discovered. Nsabire was there, swallowing hard all the time.
Nsabire led a group of men in a different direction towards Afaneye. Damn it, they made him sweat. At one time he felt dizzy. He had remembered the smell of the boy's blood. He thanked God, he had that black jacket that day. He wrapped the motionless boy in that jacket. Avoiding blood spelling over his clothes. He had smeared the dead boy with dry soil. Then carried the body to Nsombe. But what about the elderly woman and the man in Pamaye forest?
Again Nsabire's mind drifted to the Engineer's wife. O God, a masterpiece, he thought she was dependable. Her inner beauty was reflected in her mannerism. She spoke with her teeth, not out of habit but character. It wouldn't have been him killing her son. The mere thought sent him quivering. Did anyone see him? The forest and Nsombe had many herdsmen. He shook his head, tears forming in his eyes.
The woman was always ready to listen. She was caring and consoling. Something beyond his comprehension kept pushing him towards her. He loved her as a matter of fact. He longed for her. She had recommended him to her brother's construction company but her husband found out. He threatened to throw her out and kill Nsabire. Then Adayi forced him to herd. He rubbed the tears in his eyes.
Now, he shifted his gaze to the cattle. They were going towards Pamaye forest. He jumped from the anti-hill and ran towards them. He felt pain, he had given two of his cows to his wife Adayi. She needed more capital. Stupid Adayi gave the cows to Nkatu for dealership. Nkatu never brought the money. Adayi waited until she gave up. She turned back to Nsabire and warned him not to be shocked if she sold more cows.
"Let's get this sorted out," Adayi shouted, pulling on her long dress that was sweeping into dust. "I warned you."
Nsabire turned, startled, "couldn't you've waited for Nkatu?" He asked, desolate and shaken. He shifted his gaze to the gangling young man with Adayi.
"Nkatu is your problem not mine," she protested. "This is the buyer." She turned. "Those are the cattle you can choose."
"I'm Kombo. Kombo from Antebeyi," the gangly youth said, giving his hand to Nsabire. "Your wife... your wife reached out to us for help. So engineer told us."
"Engineer?" Nsabire asked, ignoring his hand. "Engineer asked you to help my wife?" He looked at Adayi questioningly.
Kombo cleared his throat searching for the right words. Nsabire gave him a questioning gesture with his hand.
"Yes, when the engineer sold us his livestock, he mentioned that Adayi was also looking for a trusted livestock dealer." Kombo found the words with difficulty.
"Kombo pays cash," Adayi said reassuringly.
Nsabire brushed off with his hand. He was appalled. He wanted to probe more into the engineer's affair but feared his words could be wrongly interpreted. He felt a slight headache. Engineer sold his livestock?
"Kombo choose any two we don't have all day here," Adayi tried to block the cattle with her hands spread out.
Kombo hesitated surveying Nsabire's face, "Nkatu reassured us, you're not hard to deal with." He stared at the cattle. "They're in bad shape compared to engineer's. But still we have a good offer." He giggled.
"I need some time alone with my wife," Nsabire said, moving forward towards his wife. "We need to talk." His tone was harsh.
"If it's about Nkatu no, go find him at the police station," Adayi shouted, moving half a step backwards.
"Hmm! Nkatu? Police station?" Nsabire muttered, panic gripping him. "For what?"
"Go find out for yourself," Adayi said angrily. "Kombo do what brought you here."
Kombo searched for the cows.
The evening wind rose, blowing fine pebbles of dust through the dry land of Patemayi. The collected dust moved in a circle like a tornado. It stood up dancing causing trees to rattle. Nsabire's shirt and trousers swelled at the violence of the wind and pulled him towards the direction of the wind. He didn't move or stir. He stood there silent, his heart aching. His mind flooded with thoughts from his cows, engineer's affinity with his wife, to Nkatu being at the police station. What else didn't he know? It seemed to him so much was going on without him, he felt invisible and useless. He didn't even notice Adayi and Kombo going with his cows.
When the wind was almost ceasing to stab the dry earth, and the air was thin with dust, Nsabire saw a ghostly figure a few metres from him. He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand, shocked. It was a woman's figure. The figure seemed to float, throwing its feeble hands towards him. His mouth dry, he moved backwards intending to run.
"Nsabire, Nsabire," a faint voice called.
Nsabire hesitated, he was trembling. He knew the voice.
"I've been looking for you for some time now," the Engineer's wife said, looking over her shoulder. She was panting.
"Is everything right," Nsabire asked, shaken. Why was she out here in the wild? Does she know? Has the engineer sent her? "Are you fine?"
"I can't answer that with confidence," she said between her breath. "It's urgent that we talk." She sat down under a small tree. Again she glanced behind her back with a wrinkled face.
Nsabire sat a few metres from her. He looked at her intently.
"Don't look at me like that, Nsabire," she said.
Nsabire stared down for a few moments.
"Are you sure you're not calling trouble upon us? Nsabire asked, taking turns peering in the direction the engineer's wife came from.
"We're fine," she said. "The engineer went to Ayiwayi…" she trailed, held her chin, and stared in space and then added. "You look terrible."
Before Nsabire said anything, she said, "but I can't stay for long."
"Yes, I don't expect you, it's not safe here."
"I'm sure you've heard!"
"No, heard what?"
"Oh, I thought you already knew."
"From the look of things, your wife Adayi and the engineer are talking way too much," she shrugged and added. "My dear, find out for your sake."
"Oh, ok, yes."
"Engineer reached out to Nkatu when looking for the livestock dealer," she started. "Nkatu came home, but when he had finished seeing the livestock, and had gone, Adayi, your wife, warned my husband not to trust Nkatu." She stared at Nsabire. "My husband being non committal, he went on with Nkatu until something terrible happened."
"Engineer saw Nkatu?" Nsabire asked not fully awake from the shock. "And they talked?" His reaction was blank.
The engineer's wife watched him, "Yes, they did." She said, confused. "That's not what brought me here, though." She looked away. "We're relocating to Ayiwayi." Her mind was far away.
Nsabire stood up, "Is it why the engineer sold the livestock?" He swallowed the lump in his throat. "You must have made him."
"No!" He decided after we lost our boy." She muttered, put her head in her hands and cried quietly.
"The boy," Nsabire murmured, lowering his gaze. "I'm sorry It's a big loss." After a few moments, he looked at her.
"I'm not going to Ayiwayi," the engineer's wife announced, sadly and firmly. "I'll stay with you. I'm not telling you to decide for me or to advise me, I have already made up my mind." She started crying again.
"Don't cry, please don't cry," Nsabire's mind was barreling.
Nsabire wasn't sure if he wasn't dreaming. He stood there motionless, silent. He wanted her to say it again. His heart thumped with mixed feelings. He wanted to scream for everyone to know. His lips parted with a little smile.
"My advice is, stay," he moved close to her and ran his fingers in her hair. "It's the right decision." He kissed her hair. But stopped momentarily, this might be a trap, he thought.
"What kind of trouble is Nkatu in?"
"Not quite sure at the moment, but the engineer knows."
"I need to find out. And I think we need to meet up again," he said, holding her. "We're going to relocate to Antebeyi soon."
"Ah, I thought Nsombe," she said, breaking loose. "It's safer there, no one knows me in Nsombe."
Nsabire's face crumpled like a paper. His face went dry pale. He hadn't thought about Nsombe.
An intense heat and sickening odour permeated the evening air of the sixth week—still the police and the villagers hadn't accounted for the whereabouts of the neighbour's boy. At least things had been that way until today, when the police showed up at Nsabire's home.
A heap of red soil stood at the center of Nsabire's kraal. Now a gigantic crime scene. Nsabire was still under the dark pit shoveling red earth onto the top. The pit was now nine feet deep. At the edge of the pit, near the red heap, stood the police chief of criminal investigations, Saddu.
Saddu was Antebeyi by tribe. With an air of importance and, being Antebeyi was more important to him than being chief of criminal investigations. That sense of belonging and feeling of self worth and satisfaction wasn't to himself alone, but to all Antebeyi people—the herdsmen. Proud and evenly arrogant. It wasn't a secret that he treated Antebeyi people differently, accorded them much respect compared to Afaneye, Ayiwayi, Adikinyi and other minority tribes. He took great pride in bloodline. Though educated within the White man's system, he deliberately exhibited the highest degree of ethical and social deviance.
Next to Saddu, to his left, sat a pile of dirt-brown carcasses. An angry but quiet crowd stood in anguish peering through a pile of dry wood fastened together with rusty barbed wire. That big circle of dry wood formed Nsabire's odorous kraal which was a hundred or so yards from the main house.
A great sea of police officers made two, inner and outward rings around the kraal, Nsabire's house, and up the hill where the roads running from Antebeyi and Nsombe conjoined, all silent and dusty.
To the left of Nsabire's six bedroom house, stood the engineer's mansion. It was exactly two hundred yards away. Fourteen point seven yards of no man's land divided Nsabire and the engineer. The no man's land was meant for a village road, but the engineer refused by fencing it with barbed wire.
The entrance to the Engineer's Mansion was on the extreme left where you couldn't see when you stood at Nsabire's house. Beyond, the eyes ran into shimming waves of mirage dancing as far as the dry shrubs and saisal farms. The shrubs and saisal farms in turn wandered down the slopes and into Pamaye forest.
Nkatu clutched his hands and lowered his head avoiding the inquisitive eyes of the angry crowd. Black dusty clothes clung on his sticky body. His face was bruised. His mouth was thick, red and swollen. His mind raced within, the world around him buzzed with intensity. He felt like he was floating in nothingness.
On the contrary, Nkatu wasn't disquiet, remorseful or regretful. He was just himself, Nkatu. Even now he felt that sensation he had felt when strangling her, the elderly woman and it was the same feeling of total gratification he felt when strangling the lonely man in Pamaye forest, almost two months ago. It was their fault, he thought, if they'd not demanded and pushed him to pay them; nothing would've happened to them.
Adayi sat there with her back toward Nkatu. She was utterly indifferent, exhibiting absolute selfishness. Her eyes darted around the crowd with contempt. At some moments, she would make a face and then drop the act. The crowd watched in awe.
The engineer stood motionless opposite Saddu.
"These bones," Saddu said, indicating with his indix figure. "Aren't for a human being." He stared at Nsabire who sat close to Adayi.
The crowd murmured and whispered and whistled, but still angry.
"Do you realise we've been here since morning?" Saddu asked, his voice gaining momentum. "And here we're with bones that belong to dead cows?"
Nkatu stared blankly in space. Adayi was silent and sullen. The engineer cleared his throat,
"Something is awfully wrong," the engineer said angrily. "Nsabire killed my son and buried him there. "I need him, I need my son's bones for a proper burial." He was shaking all the time.
"Nsabire how did these bones reach here, in the kraal? In a grave?" Saddu asked.
"Nsabire is a good man we have known him for ages," one man from the crowd shouted pushing through the crowd.
"If I killed my son, where is the dead body?" Nsabire protested quietly. "I have never killed anyone."
"Did you say your son?" The engineer asked angrily.
Nsabire said nothing.
"Poor man Nsabire." The crowd murmured. "He is innocent." Another person shouted.
"I killed those cows because they were infected with brucellosis," Nsabire interjected calmly. "I couldn't have thrown their carcasses. The possibility of infecting other cows and the neighbours was high, so I buried them."
The crowd applauded. "We said Nsabire is a good man. How can you say he killed your son?" They turned towards the engineer apprehensively.
"We're going to need more evidence?" Saddu motioned with his head at one of the police officers. "Take away these bones."
"Engineer, you blocked our road with barbed wire," the angry crowd shouted. "Because you have money, now you're here accusing an innocent man."
The crowd's murmur grew steadily. "You can't accuse our people of murder because you are rich and because you're Antebeyi."
People started jostling. They shoved the kraal. "You're not taking Nsabire anywhere."
Nkatu swallowed hard.
Saddu waved at the crowd to keep silent. They didn't, they kept jolting and bumping and shouting and cursing,
"Nsabire saved us and our livestock," The crowd shouted. "He sacrificed his cows. Could you have done that engineer?"
Someone from the crowd threw a stone towards the engineer. Then the second and third stone. The crowd pushed the barbed wire and broke the dry wood. And stood on top of the dry wood and ran for Nsabire and lifted him up.
"This is our man." They sang.
The police went for the engineer and took him away from the angry crowd.
The neighbour's boy was still buried in Nsombe on Vai escarpment.
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