The falling tears splashed onto the dusty feet and streaked down to the somewhat tattered slippers. She dug her clenched fists between the cushions of the sofa, her slight frame racked by sobs. The setting sun cast red, probing fingers deeper into the room turning her face crimson in its light. Involuntarily, she smiled wryly as childhood memories jerked her back in time to another place.
The early morning air was crisp and silent. Nothing stirred outside the hut. She lay awake listening to her sister’s gentle snores and staring at the cloudy sky through a gaping hole in the sisal mat that served as a door. A crouching figure shuffled past the hut leaning heavily on a thick wooden stick. Recognizing her grandmother, she rose quietly and followed her past the bamboo granary to a fresh mound of dirt.
Her grandmother stood looking down at the new earth. Her free arm gripped one of the beams of the makeshift fence that had been put up around her late husband’s grave to keep the goats away. She came up behind her and crawled under the barbed wire so that she was standing right in front of her grandmother. A sudden wetness on her shaven head made her look up and she realized that the old lady was crying silently.
“You are crying dani! Why don’t you dry your tears?” she asked, with the impudence characteristic of her seven years. A gnarled hand caressed her face. The tears continued to fall.
There was a long silence, and then the old lady sighed deeply and replied hoarsely, “My little Apiyo, I wait for the sun to dry them. The sun always rises my little one, and its light heals the wounds of the heart.”
She was jarred from reverie by the slamming of the door. She rubbed her sleeve hurriedly across her face and turned to face her eldest son. He strolled distractedly into the living room and stopped short when he saw his mother.
“Oimre?” The typical traditional greeting seemed to have been wrenched from him. When she did not reply, he stared down sullenly at her, bracing for a fight. Instinctively, his brow furrowed and he shrugged his shoulders. The gesture evoked a cascade of emotions. Already the spitting image of his late father, Olang’ had uncannily picked up his habits as well.
“I found them here again when I came home,” she said. “They said they would be back.” The words had the ring of a question to them. He studiously avoided her searching gaze and said nothing. Clearing his throat nervously, he walked over to the sofa next to hers and sat down. He stretched out his long legs in front of him, his eyes rooted to the carpet.
Despite his abstracted air, her tear stained face had affected him more than he cared to let her see. She bit her trembling lower lip and sunk back into the sofa. Her shoulders drooped as she watched him, a sense of defeat etched across her features. She looked up at the wall where her late husband’s photo hung. Okello had never been photogenic and his face bore an expression akin to a grimace.
Tears swam in her eyes as forbidden memories invaded her mind. The last text he had sent her on the phone, “Good Daddy is taking the kids out. Left Olang’ at home.” “Good Daddy!” It was the endearing term their four younger children had used whenever they wanted to wheedle something out of their father.
She remembered the watchman at her school rushing into the staffroom with the news that there had been a huge explosion at the Utogo Mall. There were rumors of a terror attack. The voices of the security men echoed in her ears, “There were no survivors in the restaurant.” “Do you remember what they were wearing?” “It’s better not to come nearer Madam, no physical identification will be possible.” Warped images spun in her mind, the funeral and the burial, five coffins- two symbolic.
Four months had gone by. The grief that gripped Apiyo and her son, rather than bringing them together, seemed to drive a wedge between them. The rift had further widened, when a month earlier, he began to spend whole nights out of the house.
She had initially given it little importance, remembering Okello’s outrageous tales of his teenage exploits. Later, she started to worry when the police began to question his whereabouts and to cast aspersions on his supposed new friends. She had pleaded with him to confide in her in vain, her entreaties to be careful about his companions falling on deaf ears. Frustration welled up within her and waves of despair engulfed her. A lunatic had taken away her husband and all but one of her children. Now, she watched helplessly as he slipped inexorably away from her.
The silence was shattered by a loud knock. The front door creaked on its frame as the visitor let himself in. “Good evening Madam, Olang!”
The uniformed torso loomed large in the doorway as the policeman waited to be invited into the room.
“Good evening Officer Mutiso. Come in and sit down.” Her voice seemed dry and empty. For an instant, pity for her flickered across his face but by the time he had taken the seat facing her, he had regained his usual stoic air, his countenance as if hewn from granite.
“I regret my mission here Madam,” he began, “Especially because your late husband was a friend of mine.” He watched with satisfaction as the boy flinched at the mention of his father. He had hoped he would be able to goad him into a confession.
Apiyo sat listening, a wooden expression on her face. The reference to Okello both soothed and hurt her. He continued, “We have had three robberies in the neighborhood this month. We suspect a couple of young men, who have been very friendly with your son lately. I have come to warn you Olang’. Sooner or later, the law will catch up with the thieves. I would advise you to come clean now. Your age and cooperation will be taken into consideration.”
The policeman puffed out his chest with an air of eager expectation. The youth sat forward in his seat and, oozing defiance with every syllable snapped, “I am not a thief.” He stood up quickly and walked towards the door. Suddenly, he turned around and hoarsely declared, as if as an afterthought. “I would not take anything that did not already belong to me.” The door banged behind him with an air of finality.
The policeman took his failure in stride. He felt it would only be a matter of time. The boy’s companions were a pair of jail birds. Expressing his sympathy once more for the widow, he took his leave.
Apiyo went through the routine of preparing supper for herself and her son. She did not know if he would return that night. As was her wont when Olang’ was absent, she had her meal alone as she watched the evening news. She sat through the headlines, changing channels whenever any footage of the terror attack was shown. She had earlier heard that what was left of the Utogo Mall would be levelled and a memorial park would be set up.
Determined to await Olang’s return, she dozed off on the sofa. She slept intermittently, a victim of the mosquitoes which brazenly attacked her bare legs and the nightmarish visions of the past months which daily haunted her sleep. The counsellor had told her that these dreams could be therapeutic. She had concurred disbelievingly, politely declining his offer of a little bottle of pills which would help her rest better.
The mosquitoes got the better of her and she stumbled to her room to fetch a blanket to wrap herself in. Her bedside table seemed to totter under the weight of books and printouts from her friends and relatives. She was constantly bombarded by advice on how to cope with her sorrow and ‘move on’. None of it did her any good. Perhaps she did not want to move on, she reflected. Three weeks ago, her parish priest had approached her one Sunday under the pretext of giving her a message about the choir.
“Are you any better?” He had finally asked, admitting with a resigned sigh, that she probably knew more about the latest brainwave of the impulsive choir master than he did. “I would be better if they could all come back to me!” she had replied, reading his face to see whether she had shocked him with her impious reply.
He met her eyes and nodded, “I understand.” He had said slowly. “I really do.” She replayed that conversation often in her mind. It gave her more solace than everything else anyone had said to her.
She woke up with a start. Her stiff neck protested as she turned to look at the clock. It was half past five. The morning air was rent by shouts and screams. It was the commotion that had awoken her. Her heart pounding, she realized that they seemed to be coming nearer. She ran to the kitchen and peered out of the window. The sight chilled her blood.
A mob of people armed with clubs and sticks, surrounded three young men who seemed to be trying to defend themselves. One of them raised his hands as if to protect his already bloody face. It was Olang’.
It took her a split second to reach the irate throng and push her way to her son. Her presence brought some of the men to their senses and they lowered their sticks. She gathered her trembling son into her arms. Her hands probed his wounded face and arm seeking to stem the bleeding. A siren pierced the morning chill. The police car screeched to a halt a stone’s throw away from the crowd.
When the crowd made out the burly figure of the Chief Inspector, a myriad of explanations were hurled at him. It was well known that he frowned upon mob justice and was just as to likely lock up a criminal as the mob baying for his blood. Finally, the taxi driver’s loud voice carried the day.
“Well sir, you know the troubles we have been having here. We decided to set up a neighborhood watch group to see if we could catch the thieves.”
“On hearing a few hours ago, that there was a violent robbery in the estate across the road, we called out our members. As you can see, our efforts were rewarded. We found these three sneaking back in through the playground fence. They must have stashed the loot somewhere.”
The inspector’s beady eyes seemed to bore through the three delinquents. They came to rest questioningly on Apiyo, who still held her son’s bleeding arm protectively.
“I am his mother!” she said, “My son is not a thief.”
The Inspector’s mouth curled into a sneer. He had met mothers of hardened criminals who believed implicitly in their children. “Indeed!” he agreed sardonically.
Officer Mutiso who accompanied the inspector whispered something to him and directed himself to Olang’, “Young man, this is quite serious! You must know that robbery with violence carries a life sentence. These two have nothing to lose. Think of your mother and the memory of your late father!”
The crowd murmured in agreement. Olang’s accomplices had until then seemed indifferent to the proceedings. One of them now turned to him and Apiyo heard him mutter, “We will not betray you, but I doubt you will like the juvenile jail.”
She stiffened. The words of the young man sowed a doubt in her heart about her son’s innocence. She turned to face him in utter dismay, “Olang!” She implored, begging him to defend himself. The boy shook off her grip and thrust his wounded hand into the pocket of his faded jeans. He pulled out a knotted handkerchief which he began to untie with shaking hands.
Tears streamed down his face, and his voice broke as he spoke. “My friends have been helping me to get into Utogo. I was looking for this.” He turned to his mother, “I thought you would like to have it.” From the creases of the now bloody handkerchief, he produced a simple golden band and put it into his mother’s outstretched hands.
Time seemed to stand still for Apiyo. She turned Okello’s ring over reverently in her hands, running her fingers over the spiral design at its tapered center. Her tears ran unchecked. She raised her eyes to look gratefully into her son’s. He smiled his father’s crooked smile. The Inspector watched as mother and son embraced. He turned a baleful eye on the shamefaced group of men.
Before he could speak, Officer Mutiso, who had just received a radio call, whispered urgently into his ears, “They have just caught the thieves on the Matenzi road block!”
An orange orb blazed in the horizon as dawn broke. The gentle rays of the early morning sun bathed Apiyo’s face with light. She smiled through her tears. The healing had begun.