Three in the morning. A quarter heavy with sleep, heaving its groggy way into the sunrise. Little Tatu lying on her bed, eyes open, heart racing. Then she hears it—the hum soft and low, like a slight breeze in the air. And then there she is, the dead girl, alive.
She only comes to her when the moon is full and the tide high enough to throw her out of the water. Tatu can always tell when she is close: a shudder in the air, a hum in the wind, furious waves beating against the rocks by the sea. She will become restless Tatu, her feet on pepper. Ta-Ta-Ta, goes her brain. Scatter-scatter, quick to anger. And to be angered. And then after the dead girl is gone, the sea quietens, and the moon wanes, and Tatu’s calm returns.
She opens the window slow. My, that moon. There it is staring at her through the open window, and there are the stars winking at her from the past, and there is the sea blowing in the monsoon that blows Kasicha into the room and into Tatu and then off into the night they fly. Now, they are two, and together, and free.
First, as a rule, her mother’s house. They swoop across the velvet of the sky and go three houses down the road. They find an open window. The babies are always the first to hear them come in. They fuss in their sleep, reach out for their mothers, scream out the fear. Then the bleating of the stupid goats, the moaning of the stray cats. Today, it is M’ake Kasicha and B’ake Kasicha and the newborn between them. Kasicha can’t do much when her mother is surrounded like this: nestled close to the one who loves her more than anything; and the one she loves more than anything. So she glares at her, throws an eye at her father, and ignores the baby. Then she turns to Tatu and gives her that heartbreak of a smile. It is their cue to go.
Some have an ear into the second world. They hear the two girls traipsing across mtaa wa saba’s sky. Wawe Tatu on her knees beside her bed, fury in her prayers, cursing the evil of the spirits. Zuhura in her bed in that house at the edge of the quarter, turning and moaning and turning and moaning. Bi Kizee somewhere close to that heaving mass of water, her eyes an iridescent green, chanting the evil away.
Some awake from the spell of nightmares. They place hands on chests to temper racing hearts; they find the lesos and kikois; they put on sandals. Something says to them: go. So they go to the edge of the quarter and then down the cliff. The sea beckons. They find the shimmering water to be a clouded secret: dark and daunting and deathly. Quiet, too. Then something says, touch the water. They do. Then there, by the water, they see a woman. Is she easing in or out of the water? No, they can’t quite tell, so they move closer to the sea, to see. Hair on top of the head like a crown. Sparkle skin. And is that a chant? The woman slowly rotates on the surface of the water, sending dance ripples far, far back—there where sky and sea confer. Then she turns and looks straight at them. Wallahi tena, those are not eyes. And now the fear is back, wherever it had gone to. The men and the women in their lesos and kikois run across the beach like possessed fools. They run up the cliff. Behind them, voices in hot pursuit, something like the excited chatter of little girls. The scared men and the scared women pant across the sleeping quarter, reach their houses, and collapse into their beds, shaking. They wake no one. There is nothing about this night that they trust. And outside, as the black of the night begins to dilute into a clear morning, two girls perch on the sole baobab tree in mtaa wa saba and clutch at their ribs, dying, dying with laughter.
The little dead girl wants to fit all of mtaa wa saba into three hours of night. It has been about a year since she went but still, the quarter is a spell she can’t shake off. She has become the haunted haunter. And now fodder for them—every window open, every door unbolted. The two girls fly into rooms all over mtaa wa saba, wreaking havoc. The targets will wake up in the morning to find themselves curled like balls in odd places of the houses, in nooks and crannies that even they did not know of. Clothes taken out of metal boxes and gunny bags and thrown onto cement floors, the buttons and zips yanked off. Coconut oil mixed with water and poured into kerosene stoves. Wheat flour and maize flour mixed in bowls and spread on the threshold of doors. Here, a mirror broken; there, a perfume bottle collected on a long-ago trip to Zanzibar opened and turned on its side, the treasured treasure left to leak into the night.
Always, it was the same people who woke up to the disarray: their carefully-coiffed hair knotted into tufts uncombable; their arms and legs marked in mysterious black and white; their voices turned into shadow sounds—trembling whispers that one could barely hear.
There was the woman who had once cut M’ake Kasicha in the line at the communal freshwater point. In the ensuing wordfight, she had reduced M’ake Kasicha to tears, what with shouting that she was nothing but a girl inside the body of a woman, that it was maggots instead of a brain in her head, and that she pitied Kasicha’s father, who had married a rag not even fit for the pit latrine’s floor—a woman known all over mtaa wa saba for selling to whoever was willing to buy. For this woman, no peace on full moon nights. There would be sounds of people marching on the ground right outside her window; and the shrieking laughter of two little girls; and all night long she would be stuck in nightmares where all she would do is fight one lot of bees after the other.
And then that other woman Riziki, whose only mistake had been to allow Kasicha’s father to talk to her, there at that junction between murram and road, right there where little girls were sent by their mothers to buy kerosene, and where Kasicha had seen her get on a motorbike with Kasicha’s father, going to god-knows-where, both of them laughing like fools. For her, full moon nights would bring itches all over her body—itches that started in the evening, and then lasted throughout the night, so that she would not get one wink of sleep Riziki, and she would have to stay up and listen to the petrifying sound of two girls laughing into the night.
She steps out of the water and shakes off the sea. Her voice is hoarse from all the chanting. But the little girl’s evil has been diluted and now, mtaa wa saba can sleep on. Tonight, they are more who have heard than have seen. And in this place, those who hear remember longer than those who see. They are luckier, those who heeded the call of the sea, for when they wake up in the morning, they will remember nothing of this night: not the chanting woman easing into the water, not the fight she waged against the fury of the sea, and certainly not the eyes terrifying in their piercing green.
They are all women, all old, who have heard the exploits of the two girls.
First, Bi Kizee, who they say is half-sea and half-woman, easing out of the water, dragging her massive coils of knotted hair across the length of the beach, and walking towards the dawn.
Then Wawe Tatu, grandmother to the disturbed girl, Jehovah always ready on her tongue. Her arsenal? Rabai Bible verses and sugar-water fasts and prayers in tongues. For every occasion, a forceful shindwe pepo. Every night, her little granddaughter Tatu reads her a chapter or two out of the Bible. And then tucked in bed, the melancholy of voyani mumalaro mundagerwa to lull her to sleep. And yet: the black amulet lying quiet within the folds of her waist; and the hooded night visits to that sea-woman Bi Kizee; and sometimes, the oily soot on her forehead and arms and ankles. Wawe Tatu. She is a woman who—knowing how many they are, the ways one could be—has settled on two.
Then Zuhura, there in her riot of a house, standing tall at the edge of mtaa wa saba, as if hemming in the quarter. They asked her to stop with the cigarettes, so she keeps her pouch of spiced tobacco close, folded inside one of her lesos. Nowadays, she spends her days listening to the sickness making its steady way up her body. She is a woman all grown: old enough to be set in her ways and confident enough to turn her back on the world. She keeps her windows open Zuhura, and the sticks of incense alight, and the door to her room always slightly ajar. Her one curse is her memory. She remembers everything. And on this full moon night, as she lies fully awake in her mwakishu bed, she remembers that cursed month October, and that cursed wind monsoon, and that surely-cursed woman M’ake Kasicha, she who snake-like writhed on the ground, with her leso coming undone, and the pain in her voice screaming niueni niueni niueni, when the group of fishermen came back without her little girl Kasicha.
There is a man who rents a room in kina Zena’s house, on the back of which he has put up a shed, from where all of mtaa wa saba buys their charcoal. How much the man tries, and fails, to get the black out from his hands. And so it is hurried handshakes that he gets from mtaa wa saba’s residents—if at all—for no one wants to touch his hands and leave with all that dark. Charcoal man, they call him. His shed is a mass of gunny bags full of charcoal. And there he will be on a typical day charcoal man, seated on a chair outside the shed, working out his accounts on one of those square-ruled Kartasi brand exercise books.
But he is transformed in the evening, with the faint smell of Eve soap hanging about him, and a fresh wrinkled shirt, and the signature baggy jeans, out of which peeps a bundle of khat. He does not so much as walk than bounce, painting the picture of a man who knows exactly what he is doing and exactly where he is going. Because he is Luo, he sidesteps the coffee parlours where the men with red-orange beards sit in kanzus and kikois; and he sidesteps the stoops where the feisty women fry viazi karai and hold forth; and he sidesteps the maskanis where old tires are half-buried into the ground, and where young men sit on rickety benches and pass the listless afternoon hours, waiting for something to happen.
Instead, charcoal man goes towards the other maskanis, there where everyone has his very own spot, and where older men wear the jerseys of their favorite football teams; and where they sit on folding chairs and hmm and aah to the sparse conversation. All night, the khat, the Big-G, the chewing and chewing and chewing. Sometimes, accompanying the silence will be a transistor radio, and oozing out of it the BBC World Service, and then the banter of radio presenters, and then a football game or two. Here, unlike at the coffee parlours, and unlike on the stoops, and unlike at the young-men maskanis, talk is low, to the point. You don’t say the obvious; you keep your platitudes to yourself. You merely watch the goings-on of the quarter from the corner of the eye and store it all in the attic of the mind.
The three women sit in Zuhura’s room, doused in the smoke from the cinnamon sticks. One of them still has her hands folded, bearing the memory of prayer. One sits up on her bed, quietly livid with the pain journeying up her body. And another slowly wraps her coils of hair into a long, green scarf, humming a song all three know from childhood.
Kasha langu la zamani, kasha lisilo t’umbuu
Kasha langu la zamani, kasha lisilo t’umbuu
Kitasa ndani kwa ndani, na ufunguwo ni huu
Alofongua n’nani, amelivunja maguu
They all have small pins in their noses. All three have been married before, and now all three are not. And what many, many lives they have lived these three women—these soft-spoken women who speak low and slow, with soft whispers in place of voices. But for the lesos wrapped around the waist, or tied under the arms, or thrown around the shoulders, everything that they wear is white. They favor the linen and the silk, fabric out of which the blood gently eases, for even at this old age, they are bleeding women. They share a scent: something somewhere between tobacco and sandalwood and the udi the Bajunis in mtaa wa saba burn in the afternoons. And even though each woman in the room looks to a different hill, even though each women asks for help from a different source, all three have both their feet in the first and second world. And all three—only these three—can hear the evil hovering outside.
One of them whispers: “She is back.”
Two return whispers: “Mhn, she is back.”; “As always, only during a full moon.”
“That poor child.”
“And she will not stay down. Not without blood.”
“You are her grandmother.”
“She is harmless. When Tatu wakes up, she remembers nothing.”
“Even with all of this flying about? And her mind?”
“And the other thing, does she remember?”
“Not even a little. You took away all of it.”
“Who does the dead girl want?”
“Not the mother.
“Never the mother.”
“The charcoal man?”
“He was the one with the mother.”
“Will it end with him?”
“If we can push him to do it.”
“Then it will all be forgiven.”
For several weeks now, no one at the maskani has seen the charcoal man. The charcoal shed remains bolted; the folding chair at the maskani empty. But isn’t he a grown man? No one worries too much. But what they do not know—the other fellows at the maskani charcoal man frequents—is that there was once an October afternoon, and once a bolted charcoal shed, and once a room with someone’s wife and someone’s daughter. The woman’s husband was away in a hotel in Diani, trying to work his way up to the position of Chief Chef. And so between the charcoal man and someone’s wife had passed a smile, knowing. And between charcoal man and little Kasicha passed a ten-shilling coin, and the little one’s Barbie doll, and a request, soft, for little Kasicha to step out of the room. It was the last time they would see her, dead or alive.
And now he does not sleep. Not that he can. The taksin and Kahawa No. 1 help to keep him awake. By the time the two girls fly into his room, ready to set his mind askew, his mind is already a riot, a maddening expanse, and it is not until he takes two, three swills from the sachet of alcohol that the wind in his head calms, and the dust settles. Hey, hey, no need to cry, he tells himself. If you start now, who is to know whether you will ever be able to stop? So he laughs, charcoal man. He laughs and laughs and the tears safely stay away. The neighbors are jolted awake by that hysterical laughter. In their sleep, in their beds, they shake their heads and think to themselves: jamani, charcoal man has gone mad.
The birds rousing. The ebony sky turning into something pink. The darkness seeping away. It is morning. It is also time for Kasicha to go, till the next full moon. The two girls are back in Tatu’s room. Tatu—formless and shapeless—hovers above her sleeping body, waiting for Kasicha to get out of her. Then something happens. At first Tatu sees her body right there in the bed, but then it is getting up, and the it is out of the bed, and then it is walking towards the bedroom door but wait, how will it get through the bolted door, but then it is outside her mother’s house and it has only a night-dress on, and no shoes, and is that Bi Kizee ahead of it, and wait, is that Tatu’s wawe, and is that Zuhura they are supporting between them, and why, why is Tatu’s body going to that spot on the cliff, that spot from which Kasicha jumped, isn’t that spot now forbidden to children, and why is charcoal man standing at the edge of the cliff, and why is it not night anymore, and is that Tatu, and is that Kasicha, and is that the barbie doll they are fighting over, and isn’t this a day she has seen before, and oh my god, what a wind there is, and look, there is Kasicha, there she is in her dress but look, now she is freefalling into the water, and was it her who pushed Kasicha and look at her body swallowing all that water, and why is it so dark and there is charcoal man but wait, what is he doing did he just jump off the cliff did charcoal man just jump—
The sea falls quiet, and the moon starts to wane, and the muezzin Kasicha leaves, and Tatu’s calm slowly journeys back to her.
In the morning, the people of mtaa wa saba will wake up to the news that somewhere during the night, a man died. What they will not know is that somewhere during the night, a man had to die, for a girl to be forgiven.