by Dilman Dila
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Finally the green rock at whose foot our town lay came into view. The sun, thinly veiled by gray clouds, was no more than a dull white spot in the sky just above the little mountain, near the v-shaped crater that gave the illusion of a fish’s mouth. The rain had just stopped. The trees stood still. The leaves wept.
“Which part of town are you going?” the professor said. We hadn’t exchanged a word since starting the journey four and a half hours ago.
“Near Total,” I said.
Silence returned. The groan of the engine sickened my heart. We’d be in town in another twenty minutes. The professor drove slowly. The ride should have lasted three hours, not five.
I watched the water roar in the gutters. Musa and I had enjoyed every downpour as kids. We’d run into the rain, kick in the puddles and put little boats in the runnels. Now Musa lay in the bed of the truck in a cheap coffin. The rain had beaten him. The police had shot him dead. He stunk.
The professor wasn’t Musa’s relative, or mine. I hadn’t met him until Musa died. The university bosses, afraid of association with an anti-government demonstrator, had said a coffin and truck would be ready in a week’s time, when the body would be rotten beyond recognition. But opposition sympathizers bought a coffin, and the professor offered his car as transport.
Musa wasn’t a relative either, or even a close friend. We just happened to have grown up in the same street in the garbage-flooded alleys of Rock Street. We belonged to a gang the Indian headmaster called 'the Rock Street Boys.' We hunted lizards, stoned madmen and played at being American or Vietnamese. We attended the same university. Now his parents were relying on me to bring his body home.
It was he who had killed our childhood friendship. By the time he died we spoke merely to be polite to each other. He had been prefect at school, a ‘wiseacre’ who reported us to teachers and parents whenever we sneaked out of the dorms for a smoke or a drink or a dance. He didn’t watch movies or listen to rap music, things he still referred to as ‘capitalist luxuries’ fifteen years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. He read all the time. He liked politics. He wanted to end up a mayor like his father.
We passed the Limbo, the dishonorable, public burial grounds reserved for the homeless and very poor, where they’d soon put Musa. His father, 'the Mayor,' was a Rwandan refugee who had settled in our town, married a local girl, didn’t teach his children Kinyarwanda, cut off all relationships with his home country and insisted he was Ugandan. We natives couldn’t think of him and his family as part of us, therefore no one would sell to him customary land where he could’ve buried his family with honor. A married woman like Musa's mother doesn’t belong to her father’s line. So she and her children can’t be buried in his cemetery. That left the Limbo as the only graveyard available to Musa.
We reached Total's one service station, with roads branching off to the right and left.
“Which way?” the professor asked.
The car snaked onto a dirt road slick with the morning rain, then crawled into an avenue where rich people lived, right at the bottom of the little mountain.
I pointed at a crude wall. "That house."
The mansion was very different from the other houses in this street. The Mayor had used bank loans to build it (as well as several others) because he wanted people to believe he was among the richest men in town. He thought once elected MP he'd earn enough to pay off the loans. He believed he'd end up MP because he'd beaten his main opponent, Mande, three times by a landslide in the mayoral campaigns. My dad said townsfolk only voted for him because Mande was UPC, anti-government. But during parliamentary elections, nobody wanted to send a foreigner to parliament, so they forced Mande to turn Movement, pro-government. This time, the Mayor lost terribly. This campaign also left him penniless. The banks took over his property and businesses, leaving him with nothing but this house.
It had a crude fence for a wall, no gate, an overgrown lawn and unplastered walls. Only part of the roof was tiled. Most of it had rotting iron-sheets with huge stones kept it on the house. A big wind once blew away these iron sheets. Moldy plywood stood in place of glass in the window frames. One half-expected to find lizards and monkeys living inside.
The car stopped on the drive. Something was wrong. There were no mourn- ers in sight. The house looked deserted.
“Is this the right house?”
“I called my dad and told him I was coming with the body just before we set off,” I said. “He said the mourners had gathered here.”
“Probably they’re in church,” the professor said, his fingers drumming on the steering wheel.
“Not without the body. Let me check inside.”
I ran to the door and pushed. But it was locked from the inside. I knocked. No reply. I knocked louder, then stepped away from the door, not sure what to do next. I knocked a third time, and this time got a reply.
“Who are you?” came the Mayor’s characteristic roar when he was in the worst of moods.
“Jim,” I answered in a quavering voice.
I heard him thump to the door. He pulled it open and glared at me. Then he spotted saw the car in the driveway. Without a word, he spun around and marched back inside. I hesitantly followed.
He fell onto a worn-out sofa, picked up a newspaper and put his legs on a stool, trying to give the impression of a rich man at rest after a long day’s work. But the tension was visible on his face. His wife sat next to him, knitting, a hobby she’d picked up to keep food on the table. The room was bare, save for the worn sofa and four stools. Basins and bowls lay on various parts of the floor to collect the rain that fell from holes in the roof, their drippings making for a loud, inappropriate music.
“Jambo...Jim,” Musa’s mother said, smiling over the cloth she was working on. “How's school?”
I bit my lips. Hadn’t these people heard that their son was dead? Musa's fate had topped the headlines for two days running. Why were they behaving like this?
“I brought his body.”
Musa’s mother responded by pricking herself with the needle. Then she threw down the needle and the cloth. A ball of thread rolled across the floor and rested against a basin. Musa’s father seemed to be pretending he hadn’t heard what I’d said. He scarcely seemed to be breathing. A vein thumped on his forehead.
Suddenly his wife jumped off the sofa and fled from the room.
“I brought his body,” I said again.
The Mayor jumped to his feet and flung down his newspaper as if he was going to attack me. He pointed a trembling finger my way. "Don’t tell me about that dead fool,” he hissed in barely a whisper. "You go and burry him yourself, if you want. But don’t say a word to me about him. Do you understand?” He shook a fist at me. “Do you understand? Now, get out!"
“He’s your son,” I heard myself say as if it were someone else talking.
“Eh? Nini? Did you come here to tell me who my sons are? Do you know how many children I have? So what if one is dead?”
The door opened behind me, but I didn’t turn around.
“Excuse me,” the professor said. “I still have a long way to go.”
“Go away with that rotten thing!” the Mayor yelled. “Don’t leave rubbish in my home!”
“Are you sure this is the right house?” the professor asked.
“I’ll count to ten!” the Mayor said. “If you’re still here I'll kill you!” He snatched a club from behind the sofa, raised it above his head and started to count. The professor muttered something and walked out.
“Seven! Six! Five!”
“Daddy,” his wife said, coming back into the room in tears. “Please, don’t.”
“Three! Two! One!”
The Mayor rushed at me. I stood still until the last moment when he swung the rungu, then ducked. As the club swished over my head his wife tried to jumped onto his back.
“Get off me! You, woman, get off me!”
He threw her off and kicked her. She picked a stool and swung it at him. They were always fighting or, rather, he was always beating her. I left the house in a daze.
The professor was trying to get the coffin off the truck. It was too heavy to lift, so he simply dragged it from the bed of the pickup and let it fall with a thud to the driveway.
The Mayor burst out of the house, probably to finish me off but, seeing the coffin on the driveway, he turned instead towards the don, who had hurried into the truck and was firing up the engine.
“I said don’t leave that rotten thing on my property! Take it away!”
He took a big swing and shattered the windscreen. I think he also hit the professor, but the pickup didn’t stop. The Mayor pursued it down the driveway, denting it with more blows, until he and the vehicle disappeared behind the wall.
His wife came out sobbing, her face bruised, her nose bleeding. She tried to calm herself when she saw her son’s coffin lying in the driveway.
“Why is he behaving like this?” I said.
“I don’t know,” she said, fighting the emotion that threatened to overwhelm her. “Just let him do what he wants. We all loved Musa. But we – he – ” She wiped her nose with the edge of her lesu. “He wants us to pretend we’ve never heard of Musa. My son, Musa. He started acting like this when your father told us you were on the way with the body. He chased away everyone who’d come to mourn. He beat those who insisted on staying. He even broke your dad’s arm.”
The Mayor was a tyrant. He never talked or laughed with his children. He was always shouting or beating them. They feared him so much that they wouldn’t even bury their own brother if he didn’t want them to.
She had no time to reply because her husband was stomping back up the driveway, still wielding the rungu and muttering curses. His wife dove back into the house.
When he reached the coffin the Mayor grabbed it by the small end and started to drag it away. The lid fell off and the body began to slide out. He pushed it back in with his foot.
“Where are you taking him?”
“Out of here! He's not my son.”
“He died because of you.”
That stopped him. He stood above the coffin, his blood-red eyes burning me. I thought I’d finally brought him to his senses.
“He was angry with the Movement. He said it let you down, that you were supposed to be MP, not Mande, you who supported Museveni ever since he came to power.”
The Mayor laughed. “He said that? I told him that. He had to believe it. But,” he pointed the rungu at the coffin, “he betrayed me. He demonstrated against the government. What does the government have to do with cholera in the hostels? They are dirty places and that’s why people fell sick. But he –” He kicked at the coffin, then resumed dragging it away.
He was referring to the time Musa organized two thousand students to demonstrate when cholera attacked their hostels. Someone told me he had said, "We are poor because of corruption. We live in overcrowded hostels and eat in slums because of corruption. It's corruption that brought cholera."
The students picked up the slogan. Corruption brought cholera. They marched into town in a peaceful demonstration, waving anti-government placards, chanting, “Corruption brought cholera.” The riot police were called in. They didn’t like anti-government demonstrations. They cleared the streets within ten minutes. There was one casualty, riddled with bullets.
“Yes, because of you,” I said. “He supported the Movement until he saw you fail in the campaigns. He thinks Mande rigged elections. He thinks Mande dished out a lot of cash. He doesn’t believe you lost because you’re a refugee.”
The Mayor didn’t want to listen anymore, but I followed behind him.
“He thinks – thought – Mande engineered your downfall. He wondered why Mande’s cousin took over your shops in Rock Street and why Mande’s brother became the sole supplier of posho and beans to all schools in the district and why Mande bought all your property. And he thinks – thought – Mande ruined you to ensure you don’t oppose him again. He says the government supported Mande even when it saw what he was doing to you. They supported a man who’d opposed them all along and dumped you – ”
“Nyamaza!” the Mayor screamed, and let the coffin fall, splashing mud on his feet. “Whatever you say doesn’t explain why he decided to waste my money. Do you know how much I spent on his education? Do you know his brothers and sisters no longer go to school because I was spending all my money on his school fees? Do you know what I could have done with that money?”
Musa had wanted to study social sciences, but the Mayor, thinking about his own reputation, eager to restore his pride, insisted he should study law, which cost him millions of shillings a semester. He had boasted all over town how his son was going to be a lawyer.
He dragged the coffin out to the road, far from his house. I still followed behind. He was panting and had started to stagger. I thought, He will soon give up this madness.
“You look at everything in terms of money,” I said. “You even think of your children in terms of costs and benefits. You force them to work at the age of ten – for money! For you! You think of nothing but money!”
“I ran bankrupt because of him!”
“You ran bankrupt because you were too greedy!”
He threw down the coffin and charged at me. But he was weak and I easily disarmed him. Then I threw him down onto the dirt. He was an old man and I could have pulped him. But he looked pitiful lying next to the coffin.
“He was our only hope,” he said as if he were going to start crying. “Now look how he has paid us back. After all the sacrifices we made. After all the money we put into him.”
“He’s still your son.”
“He betrayed us.”
“Betrayed you?” I let out a string of four-letter words. “You’re angry because you’re a failure. You failed as a father. You failed in business. You failed in politics. You wanted Musa to be the only area where you succeeded. You wanted the world to respect you because your son was a lawyer. Now that he's dead you have nothing.”
“Did your father tell you that?”
“The town will see you as the father of an anti-government lunatic. You’ll never win political office again. That’s what hurts you. That’s why you’re angry with Musa.”
I don’t know where he got the energy. I thought I’d beaten him down. Probably the madness energized him, or maybe he just caught me off guard. He sprung to his feet, snatched the club and began hitting me on the head. Then everything went dark.
When I woke up it was raining. My head ached unmercifully. A lump had sprout on my temple. I lay alone on the dirt road, beside the coffin. I stag- gered to my feet. The rain was falling hard. The coffin’s lid had come off. I stared down at Musa's swollen face. He gaped pop-eyed, as though not believing cops had shot to kill during a peaceful demonstration. The rain beat down on his face, but he didn’t blink.
I fell on my knees and hugged the coffin, my tears mingling with the rain.
I don’t know how long I lay like that weeping for Musa, but suddenly I realized I was not alone. There they were, all six of Musa's brothers.
“Beat him up!” their father yelled, bouncing up and down by the gate. “Beat him up! Chase him out of here with his rotten garbage!”
“He sent you?” I said.
“Yes,” Jamal, one of my best friends, replied. “He sent us.”
“Are you going to beat me?”
“No. We only want to bury Musa.”
I looked back at the Mayor. He still had his rungu. I stood up.
“Beat him up! Beat him up!”
“Where’s you mother?” I asked.
“Who knows. She’s always on his side anyway.”
“Let’s go,” someone said.
They hoisted the coffin onto their shoulders, three on each side, and marched towards the Limbo.
The Mayor came charging down the drive looking like he was going to kill someone for sure. The boys didn’t stop, though, didn’t even acknowledge his mad screaming. Maybe Musa’s ghost was at work, because the Mayor slipped and fell. When he got back up he took a few limping steps but couldn’t go on. He had to use his club as a crutch.
“You dogs! Never come back to my house! If you don’t put that rotten thing down at once, never come back to my house!”
For the first time, he couldn’t force
them to do as he ordered. He could only stand in the rain, shivering in
helpless angry impotence.
(Dila Dilman loves penning multi-genre stories, especially those about the dark side of humanity. His short works have appeared in local newspapers and a number of online magazines and book anthologies. In 2006, he participated in Mira Nair's Maisha Film Lab, and directed his first short film later that year.)