In Ask the Stars, Titus Mutuiria remembers how at the age of ten he seemed to lead a normal life of sibling rivalry with Njorua, Antonnina and Sarah until some events from their past threaten to rewrite his life. Njorua and Antonnina learn that Mutumia Mutana, the mother they have always known is not their biological mother while Titus learns that Muthuri Mukaru is not the biological father of himself and Sarah. What follows is a gripping story of jealousy, fear, loyalty, friendship and love as the siblings grow and confront an array of challenges as the family forge solutions to the troubles that beset them. The story of young love between Titus and Joan and the actions of a lurking rapist in the village bring added dimensions to the story, showing that things are not always what they seem. Eventually, the teenagers and their parents must nurture a love that strengthens their family and that also brings sanity to the village.
Ask the Stars won the Burt Award for African Literature in 2014. Below are sample pages.
“Since you love fighting so much, bring a stick each. I will give you a chance to fight.”
I looked at my father in disbelief. He never minced his words and I feared his judgment. Without doubt we were in for a thorough beating. Within ten minutes we were back with the sticks.
“So this tells how much you hate one another,” he said testing the sticks. He said that we would fight following simple rules. We would cane each other in turns until the two sticks got broken into pieces. I was the first one to work on Njorua, my elder step-brother. I raised my stick and brought it down with force. His hands ran to his buttocks as we exchanged positions. I hated Father’s rules forthwith because it meant that I had to receive as much punishment as I administered. There would be no winner. By the third round I was ready to surrender.
“I don’t want to fight,” I said.
“Then take his position!” Father hissed. “Fighting is about inflicting pain, fighting is about maiming, even killing; fighting is no fun!”
“I don’t want to fight!” I wailed.
“We don’t want to fight,” Njorua said amid sobs.
“Are you cowards now? Are you so jerry? Fight!” I raised the cane with my two hands and brought it down with force. Njorua was all too eager to avenge himself. He caned me so hard I thought my short had got torn.
“Please forgive us,” I said crying. I shouldered the biggest burden of pleading with Father because by caning Njorua the punishment would go on. “We will never fight again.”
“Now, why were you fighting?”
“He called me omera.”
“What did he call you?”
“He called me bastard first.”
Father regarded us coldly for a long, disturbing Moment, then ordered us to look each other in the eye.
“Now that you have fought, what has changed? Possibly, you now hate one another more for inflicting so much pain on you, but you are still brothers. Why don’t you learn to live, why don’t you learn to co-exist? I am the law here and I say no fighting. If you must fight, join the army. Then you will have a worthy cause to fight for and get paid for your troubles. If you are willing to obey the law, I welcome you to your heaven on earth.”
Father ordered us to deworm the calf, which entailed tying it to a post, one person wedging its mouth wide while the other poured the dewormer down its throat. We were also supposed to fetch banana stems from the garden for the cattle. The wheelbarrow had a wobbling wheel necessitating one person to pull while the other pushed it.
I was resting after executing the tasks when it hit me. After ensuring that we have beaten the hell out of each other Father had cunningly ensured that we worked together. There was no way one person could de-worm the cow or ferry the banana stems. It required the two of us to agree and physically execute the tasks.
The animosity in the family had started two years before. We had just cleared supper when our father said, “I am so proud of each one of you; Stanley Njorua, the little hero, Titus Mutuiria the artist; Antonnina Karuana and Sarah Mwihaki, the little angels and of course my big-hearted beauty queen here. You make me whole. It has not been so easy, considering. We should have had this conversation a long time ago. Maybe you have heard what I am about to say. I take the blame.”
I had heard so many things I couldn’t figure out what Father was about to say. I waited with baited breath.
“I was married before I met your mother.”
That was news to me and my two sisters and brother judging on their expressions. I was ten years old, Njorua, being the oldest, was twelve. Antonnina was eleven and Sarah seven. I wondered why father considered it important.
“As fate would have it, my first marriage did not work. Nevertheless, God blessed it with two wonderful children. After the collapse of my first marriage, I met Mutumia Mutana and we decided to live together. She vowed to treat everyone as her own child. To this day, she has lived her promise and I greatly respect and adore her. Thank you my love. I cannot express strongly enough how proud of you all I am. We are family.”
Father stopped as if debating with himself whether to continue or not. He had our full attention now. His discourse meant that two of us had a different biological mother from the one we knew.
“Njorua, Antonnina,” Father went on, “I am sorry if you have heard this before. Your biological mother is Ascar Atieno. That is no cause for worry; Mutumia Mutana here is as good as your real mother. She cannot replace Atieno, but she can help you grow. It is God’s noble plan that we are family.”
The temperature in the room went several degrees lower. Apparently, the impact of Father’s speech had eluded Antonnina because she continued staring at him vacantly. If she had understood him then she did not reveal any adverse effect on her person. But Njorua was shaken to the core. He turned to my mother with tears welling then, without warning, bolted through the door. Our father followed in hot pursuit.
Jealousy invaded me. Why should anyone joyride on my mother? My step-siblings did not belong; they were unwelcome intruders. Why did their mother not take them along? Could my mother not find a man without a burden? Why had she played cheap? I felt betrayed.
I wondered whether Father, a prudent man, had not foreseen the backlash that followed his ruinous revelation. Ours was no longer a family but persons entwined by circumstance. It was no longer a home but a battlefield. The easy, jovial atmosphere had vanished, succeeded by a charged aura full of mistrust, suspicion and veiled acrimony between the children. Njorua became withdrawn, irritable and overly possessive of his sister. He dealt with the rest of us only if and when the situation demanded it. My hatred intensified each passing day as I imagined life without the ‘joy riders’.
Our father, a gifted troubleshooter, did his best to repair the rift caused by his disclosure. He came up with a duty rota to induce interaction and to avoid what he called servitude. During holidays and over the weekends we cooked, did utensils, milked and grazed the cattle in turns. We were all trained to execute different chores at an early age. There were two teams that alternated. Father paired me with Antonnina while Njorua teamed up with Sarah. He assumed an autocratic stance to ensure the rota worked. In his own words, it was his kingdom and toeing the line was the only way.
Supper came at nine and was always taken at the dining table. Through the years each family member had acquired a customary sitting position. At the head of the table was Father. Going clockwise there was myself, Njorua, Sarah and Mother, Antonnina. We prayed for the meals in turn. Sunday school was a must.
To instill a sense of responsibility father bought two rabbits each for Njorua and myself. I hated the little creatures because of their gluttonous trait; they were ever eating, day and night. To make matters worse, I was expected to feed a dozen more in the 4K Club project at school. On his part, Njorua was so passionate about his new enterprise he had twelve rabbits within four months.
The school percussion band had made quite an impression on me and I came up with makeshift instruments; an overturned plastic container, an old sufuria, a plate and a rid stuck on a stick. On this day, I was busy hammering the instruments trying to produce an elusive rhythm when Njorua accosted me.
“Why did you do it?” he asked angrily trying to counter the clatter I was making. I kept the pot boiling, unperturbed, and he kicked my implements away. I sprang to my feet and faced him. Being older, he was taller and more energetic.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“The question is why did you kill my rabbits?”
“Are you out of your mind? I don’t give a hoot about your rabbits, dead or alive.”
He hit me, a powerful jab in the stomach that made me double in pain. He planted his elbow on my back and I sprawled on the ground writhing in pain. I struggled to my feet crying. But my troubles were just beginning because Njorua stormed the kitchen and emerged wielding a machete. He looked savage and I knew he meant business. I bolted towards the gate shouting for help with my step-brother hot on my heels. I turned left and bumped into Father.
“Are you insane?” Father asked.
“He killed my rabbits and I will kill him,” Njorua shouted hysterically.
“Hand over your weapon,” Njorua handed over the machete, “and follow me,” Father ordered.
We walked to the location of the hutches. Despite Njorua’s attack on me, Father was characteristically collected, walking in long, powerful strides. Njorua’s rabbits, twelve of them, lay strewn about the small hutch, dead. Evidently, he had just arrived with a fresh load of herbs that was discarded on the ground. Father removed the dead rabbits from the hutch one by one, and laid them on the ground. He proceeded to remove remnants of the herbs they had been consuming and embarked on combing through them carefully. No one talked. Father’s attention went to the search compounding the silence. Finally, he got what he was looking for; a remnant of wandering jew.
“I usually check for that,” Njorua said rather too quickly, simultaneously pointing an accusing finger at me. “He introduced the herb.”
Father regarded him for a long Moment then turned to me.
“Why would I …”
“Yes on no?”
He turned to the fresh bunch of herbs discarded on the ground. He went on his knees and began searching through. Anyone not privy to the problem at hand would have thought he was enumerating them. He stopped halfway, having found the object of his search. This time he beat Njorua into talking.
“I know,” Father said with good humour, “you were going to check. Son, you are industrious, enterprising and passionate about your undertaking. My only worry is that you presume perfection. Error is to man, so they say. I appreciate your loss but you can’t just suspect and declare a death sentence on your brother. Only courts of law send people to death after thorough investigations and concrete evidence. Incidentally, what informed you of his guilt?”
“He hates me,” Njorua hissed.
“Did you see him introduce the herb?”
Njorua shook his head. “I was mad.”
“Rightly so,” Father said. “My advice is, never make a decision when you are mad. Apologise to him.”
My step-brother turned towards me fighting hard to face me in the eye. He couldn’t. “I am sorry,” he said mechanically.
“Good!” Father exclaimed. “To mark and celebrate the truce, we will have Korongo for supper.” Korongo – so called owing to his long, bow-legs – was the biggest cock in the homestead. After locating him, the three of us surrounded him to force him into the kitchen. He must have sensed his end was nigh because he clucked in alarm. Through sheer determination, he slipped between Father’s legs. The knowledge that we would have him for supper was enough to pump up adrenaline and Njorua and I fell hard on his heels. Sarah joined the chase and, a while later, Karobia, Njorua’s best friend. Korongo, in a spirited fight for dear life, flew over the fence, ran behind the house and into the garden begging for mercy. But the world had suddenly become too small for him. There was nowhere to hide and we finally netted him.
“That is the power of oneness,” Father said.
Korongo was pop-eyed, decidedly struggling to understand why we had suddenly become tormentors. He had never realised that our care, generosity and all was only meant to prepare him for this moment. A part of the compassionate me pitied him. The very thought of one’s death being a cause of merriment was fearful indeed. Little wonder there were vegetarians and animal rights activists. However, as I detached his head amid cheers, the festive part of me was dominant.
A blood jet landed on Sarah’s white dress and she cursed loudly, simultaneously releasing Korongo’s legs. Korongo was convulsing violently from pain. Now, with enough room to wriggle, he kicked the bowl holding his blood splashing it on my face. I wiped my face only to get a shocking scene. A headless Korongo had taken off! Having no sense of direction, he kept a straight course. He hit against the wall of the kitchen and lay still. The whole team, Father included, was dying of laughter partly because of headless Korongo’s stunt and my red painted face. I ran to the water tap to clean up.
I was just in time to see Tiger, the mongrel from the neighbourhood, dragging Korongo away. I raised the alarm but I was time bad because Tiger and Korongo disappeared through an opening in the hedge. We ran round the fence but Tiger was nowhere to be seen.
Emotions ran high as we came to terms with our loss.
“Next time Tiger steps in this compound I will kill him,” I said angrily.
“Shall that give back Korongo?” Father asked emerging from the house.
“He should die!” Njorua said.
“Shall it give back Korongo?” Father repeated more emphatically. The answer was obvious and it felt silly to respond.
“I thought so,” Father said. “Instead, our neighbour will seek revenge for his dog and the chain of revenge will carry on. Just learn to keep your eye on the prize.”
Father left to relieve Mother at the café.
I accosted Njorua and Sarah. “Why did you leave him?”
“I went to boil water to use to pluck his feathers!” Sarah said all eyes turning to Njorua.
“I was seeing my friend off,” he said defensively. In my view, Njorua was to blame for our loss. Instead of bonding us Korongo had opened a new battlefront. However, with my recollection of Njorua charging at me wielding a machete still fresh in my mind, I decided to bow down.
At supper time spirits were low as we ate kale and ugali at a time when we would have been eating chicken and ugali. Only Father and Mother ate as though nothing had happened. After eating to his full, Father belched.
“Thank you for a delicious meal,” he said and Mother beamed.
“I hope the following story will lift up your spirits,” Father said. “There once was an old lady who lived in misery. Her husband and two sons had been killed in land conflict with the neighbouring tribe. She was returning home late one day when she looked down and saw a coin. I am a lucky old woman, she thought. Her heart was full of joy as she bent to pick her prize. However, on picking it, her heart sunk. It was only a bottle top! ‘I am a cursed old woman!’ she lamented flinging it away. What she did not realise was that an enemy had been hiding in the bush plotting her death. As she bent to pick the bottle top, the arrow passed over her head. Was she lucky or unlucky? Don’t let Tiger weigh you down. It could have been worse.”
“Tell us another story,” Antonnina said and Father smiled.
“Several years ago, on a cold morning, a six month boy lay in a plastic basin gazing vacantly at the breaking dawn. He was drained, tired and red-eyed from crying because of hunger and fear that his mother would never return. His mother, a woman who did not deserve the gift of motherhood, had covered him warmly and left him at the dumpsites in the dead of the night. Only the moon and the stars had witnessed her repugnant act. Close by, two stray dogs rested their muzzles on their paws deep in thought, guarding him.”
Father consulted his watch. “It is getting too late. We will pick it from there.” With that he stood and left for bed.
We were walking out when Njorua accosted me. “He is not your father, Mr. Have-it-all. Yours ditched your mother when she got pregnant.”
Buy from Amazon:
Buy from Ekitabu: http://shop.ekitabu.com/ask-the-stars.html