Copyright ©2017 by Anthony Mugo
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems – except in the case of brief quotations in articles or reviews – without the permission in writing from its publisher, Anthony Mugo. firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
When Mukaru’s marriage to Simane collapsed he retained custody of their children, Njorua and Antonnina. He married Mutana who had a son, Mutuiria. She bore him Sarah. Mukaru dies leaving behind a will that tie his beneficiaries together for four years. A week is hardly gone before Sarah is kidnapped forcing the family to disregard the will. Who would demand a million shillings from a family that is down to its last cent? Will Njorua and Antonnina sacrifice their inheritance in time to save Sarah? Blame it on the Stars affirms Anthony Mugo’s place as a master storyteller.
I hoped the nightmare would end sooner than later, that when dawn finally came it would bring a bright day.
“Muthuri Mukaru was loved and respected by all for his wisdom and integrity,” the eulogist was saying. “He stood for truth and justice. Above all he embodied righteousness so resolutely in him we saw God’s ways. The angels must be happy to have him in their midst as we speak. We loved him but God loved him more.”
Now, that was ridiculous. God loves us nonstop and blessing us with a new day is proof of His love. Could the opposite hold?
The speakers recited everything ever said in a funeral of a great man. And Muthuri Mukaru was a great man. The pastor challenged all present to live the values and ideals that the diseased had held so dear. “What shall be your story when your turn comes?”
A part of me was inside the black casket. The extent of our loss was reflected in the humanity that had brought Mung’etho to a standstill to pay homage to Muthuri Mukaru.
It shall be a wonderful place, that home, wonderful place without death. The gloomy songs dragged on. We shall live with Him for all eternity.
The emcee summoned family members to the grave ‘to throw soil.’ I dreaded this part most because it is when the bereaved lose it. They wail, they cry, they collapse. Throwing dirt at a loved one marks a point of no return.
Sarah, sobbing silently to my left, let go of my hand and nestled closer to Mother. Across the grave Njorua and Antonnina were sad statues staring into the hungry pit. Between them was Ascar Simane, their long lost, now found mother; a thin, brown woman in cheap stiletto, a tank top, a red miniskirt, a wig and dark dragonfly-eyes sunglasses. I have seen you before, I told myself, but where? To shut out the tragic reality unfolding before my eyes I tried to figure out how Simane got wind of Father’s death in time for the funeral. Why shun him for two decades only to appear at his funeral? How could she manage to cut the image of a widow?
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” the pastor emphasized each word by throwing some soil into the pit. Until today the pastor’s words were just words people recited. Now they had a heartbreaking weight about them. Death is so crushing, particularly that of a man like Muthuri Mukaru. I scooped a handful of earth, splashed it on the coffin and retreated fast. All the while I willed myself not to break down.
Our home recorded heavy visitor traffic in the run-up to the burial with mourners keeping us company until late in the night. On the day of the burial dusk found only four of us home; Mother, Sarah, Antonnina and I. Minutes were like days, hours like months. Had there been a ‘forward’ button I would have leapt forth a few months. Mother, Sarah and Antonnina hit the sack at seven. Njorua arrived shortly after nine, drunk. He rummaged his pockets for his keys, gave up and dropped on my bed. He was snoring like a stuck caterpillar in no time.
In the morning Mother had done her best to cultivate harmony in the family. “How is everyone holding up?’ she had begun. ‘Personally I would rather have it differently but, as it were, God has the upper hand. Who are we to question Him? Today we grieve but tomorrow we walk tall like your father taught us. We should never let the world forget that we learnt from the best. The journey is far from over; this is but a bump on the road.”
One would have wrongly read Mother’s smile as celebration of her husband’s demise. Heavens knew how she managed to smile in the face of a calamity. Much as her optimism was assuring facts pointed to a bleak future. A little history will explain my pessimism. Father’s marriage to Ascar Simane, mother to Njorua and Antonnina, didn’t work out. He married my mother thereby adopting me. Mother bore him Sarah. Think of a mosaic family. To Njorua and Antonnina my mother cost their mother her marriage. Father, an owl of repute, had strived and succeeded to a good extent to induce rhythm in the family. With him gone the going just got tougher.
“We are a member down,” Mother went on, “but we are still family. A family is like a forest; it looks dense from outside but once you are inside you see that each tree has its place. We all have a place in this family; let no one put that in doubt. Let no one punch holes in our boat.”
I had to commend Mother for her forethought because Njorua and Antonnina needed constant reminder that this was their rightful home. The fact that Mother had brought them up as her own did little to endear her to them. The adage that only another woman’s child’s yam spoils the fire holds true until you meet my mother. I could be biased because, well, you can’t expect me to join the world in stoning my mother. Nonetheless, I honestly believe that each of us had received as much punishment and commendation as they deserved. The duty rota revolved around the four of us. But for Sarah who was still in Form Four we were equally educated.
“Your father loved each one of us equally,” Mother went on. “His will states and I read: in the event of my death it is my wish that four years following my death the benefactors herein should inherit my estate equally; my dear wife Mutumia Mutana, my sons Stanley Njorua and Titus Mutuiria, my daughters Antonnina Karuana and Sarah Mwihaki.”
She folded the paper from which she had read.
I couldn’t help smiling. It was just like Father to throw in a catch; we were joined in the estate for four years! It cannot be said that Mother dropped a bombshell considering Father’s believe that boy or girl all children deserved equal treatment.
“I agree with your father to the extent that if all what is left is a bean each one of us owns an equal share in it. I will defend his wish to my last breath.”
I regarded the snoring heap on my bed wondering where I would sleep. Njorua and I had shared the bed while young and most were the days I woke up to find his legs across my body. I doubted he had changed. I was still racking my brain for a way out when the wails cut the night air. The general source of the wails was east. I put on a heavy jacket and walked out of the compound. An hour earlier the moon had shone proudly against a bright sky but now ash-grey clouds had blanketed it. I joined a couple of men who were hurrying past our compound, a torch beam tracing their way. By now the howls were louder and the word ‘fire!’ was discernable.
“Who is so unlucky?” I asked.
“We will know soon enough,” one of the men said.
We were a sizeable group by the time we got to the tragic spot. A cabin belonging to Jimmy, a former classmate, was afire. Thirty or so men were busy fighting the fire as women and children shouted encouragement. The fire seemed to grow with every effort to contain it, its yellow tongues dancing menacingly into the night. The village neither had trained fire-fighters nor fire fighting equipment. Nonetheless, the men’s determination was phenomenal. They scooped soil with sufurias and buckets and shirts. A drunken man was urinating on the fire shouting at it to die out. Jimmy’s mother and sister stood at a distance crying their hearts out. At one point Jimmy’s mother threatened to toss herself in the fire. “My son! My only son!” She cried.
A woman handed me a bucket and I joined in the effort to bury the monster. It was one scolding, invincible inferno that made me shudder at God’s tool for the ultimate punishment. Despite a strong resolve to kill the fire we retired one after the other. Eventually we all stood helpless watching the destructive frames dance merrily into the pinch-dark night. Finally, with nothing left to consume, the fire smouldered down leaving skeletons; of a lantern, a metallic bed – and Jimmy.
I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite for breakfast either. The stomach-churning image of Jimmy’s charred remains had embedded itself on my mind. When Njorua learnt of the tragedy he was devastated.
“You should have woken me up,” Njorua said.
“You were half dead,” I said. “Besides, nobody could have done anything.”
“What caused the fire?”
“I don’t know.”
The new police Land Cruiser drove into our compound at eight sharp. Policepersons form such an odd subset of humanity I always find myself considering an escape, or a plausible story, the moment I see the blue uniform. Forget that they are your kin; they just can’t be trusted. The moment they train their lenses on you it doesn’t matter that you are an angel who has just landed from heaven. If they are humane they appear more suspect.
Either we were shoot-first-explain-later criminals or the officers were out to impress with their guns. The first officer’s face was so creased he didn’t require an AK47 to intimidate. His eyes were stone marbles lodged between static eyelids. I couldn’t imagine his companion carrying his bulk in pursuit of a suspect. I guessed an officer his size would use his gun faster than run after a suspect.
I did a quick soul audit whose finding was a snow-white conscience. That could only mean one thing: Njorua was in trouble again. Little wonder he was fidgeting!
“What is it this time?”
The officers were upon us before I could get an answer. The two took their time to study us.
“Titus Mutuiria?” the burly one said.
“My name,” I stammered struggling to my feet. Njorua sighed audibly.
“You will accompany us to the post.”
My vocal cords went on strike. Now this had to be a mistake, or a sick joke.
“You will know soon enough.”
I was painfully aware that resisting arrest was a crime in itself. As I walked to the Land Cruiser I did a quick re-audit of my soul. Still I couldn’t lay a finger on any cause to haul me to the police post so early. My mother was walking through the gate as we were driving out.
We got to the police post after the longest ten minutes of my life.
Originally Mung’etho was a ranch. Twenty or so years before the owner decided to sell it. Some enterprising individuals bought it and sold it off in small parcels. The effect was a removed settlement – twenty five kilometres from Kiaro, the nearest town- because adjoining ranches were still operational. The new landowners built homes and churches, enterprising ones set up businesses; the government built a school, a health centre and a police post. Full allotment of available land did not prevent the influx of newcomers who encroached on the vast Mutitu Forest to the east. At the entrance to the village stood the chief’s office, a modern version of the traditional hut, with the builders having stolen the design but substituted building materials with galvanised iron sheets. A strip of the national flag colours ran round, with the Court of Arms gracing the front door. The chief, together with four Administration Police officers attached to his office, represented the face and hand of the government in the village. The chief and six village elders formed the local court that met every Wednesday to try cases. Cases that the court could not handle were forwarded to Kiaro Law Courts.
A similar hut to that of the chief but for a strip and emblem of the Administration Police stood twenty metres away. Two bigger huts that housed the AP stood next to it, two sharing one. By and large Mung’etho was a jolly place to be in during fair-weather; serene, easy, natural. However, dry spells brought dust and rainy ones made it muddy. A battered public van called Mung’etho Airbus ferried people between Kiaro and Mung’etho, two trips on Monday and Thursday, being market days, and one trip on other days, except Sunday.
Once at the post the officers ushered me into the OB.
“This should be brief,” the boss said. “A young man called Jimmy Gasike died yesterday.”
I nodded. “I answered the distress call.”
“Did you know him well?”
Jimmy and I weren’t that close. We had a brawl while in standard six which, thanks to the timely arrival of the class teacher, did not get to eye gorging or knocking off some teeth. Jimmy belonged to the ‘high class’, a group of students who considered themselves too civilised, signified by truancy, fancy haircuts and cigarette smoking.
“He was my classmate,” I said.
“Did you see him yesterday?”
“When did you two meet last?”
“I can’t tell. We were not that close.”
“You once fought in class.”
“That was years ago.”
“Why did you fight?”
“Jimmy had confiscated my book. Look, if this is the reason I am here we sorted it out.”
The officer was not to be hurried. “According to Jimmy’s mother he planned to see you before he was killed.”
Did he say Jimmy was killed? “That is news to me.”
“Why would he want to see you?”
Six eyes fixed me, expecting.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” I said.
“Where were you between seven and nine?”
“Who can vouch for you?”
I gave the names of my mother, Sarah, Antonnina and the two men I had accompanied to Jimmy’s home.
“What tells you he was killed?” I asked.
“His mother heard an explosion before the house caught fire,” the officer said. “For now you are free to go.”
I walked out wondering why I had to undergo so much drama.
“His blood is on you! It will haunt you forever!”
The high-pitched voice caught me off-guard. It belonged to Jimmy’s mother and was directed at me. She had cried a lot and slept little judging from the red eyes. Her brother did his best to cut her off but she still managed to curse and abuse me severally. For a moment I was hypnotised. What was my crime?
My mind went back a decade before. At the entrance to Jimmy’s homestead stood a quaver tree. On this day we were walking from school when Jimmy said we could have the inviting fruits. He led the way up the tree. We threw our bags on the ground, six boys in total, and competed up the tree. There was no time to eat; we just stuffed the fruits in our pockets. Our party was cut short by the arrival of Jimmy’s mother. Anger shook her. She yelled and flung anything she could lay her hands on at us. As we raced down the slippery tree one of the boys tumbled and dislocated his leg. What followed was an ugly tussle. The injured boy’s parents demanded medical care for their son; Jimmy’s mother’s demanded payment for her quavers. To her, we were thieves since Jimmy was in no position to give us the quavers. “It is upon every parent to tame their kids’ greed,” she said. Everyone at the chief’s court had their jaws dropping. We were wrong but her reaction suited a graver offence. And how could she think of quavers when a victim of her wrath was bedridden? The court ordered Jimmy’s mother to meet medical expenses of the injured boy. Our parents would pay for her quavers.
And now I stood in her line of fire.
A scene at the bus stop caught my eye. Antonnina was talking animatedly; Njorua was pacing to and fro, his fists clenching and unclenching; their mother was fighting to calm the two down. Simane spotted me and waved.
“Titus, right?” Simane said.
“In the flesh,” I said joining the three.
“I had to spend the night,’ Simane said. “Transport in this place is a mess.”
“I hope you enjoyed the night.”
“I did. Njorua has just told me about your arrest.”
I turned to face my stepbrother. “I wouldn’t consider it an arrest. Apparently, Jimmy, the boy who died in a fire, planned to see me.”
I lifted my shoulders and dropped them.
“What is the connection between his wanting to see you and the fire?” Njorua asked.
“The police think he was killed,” I said.
“Why?” Antonnina asked.
“There was an explosion before the fire engulfed the house.”
“It could be the Laughing Gang,” Antonnina asked.
“Laughing Gang?” Simane said.
“It is a gang of three members which wears a mask with a laughing mouth,” Njorua said. “It has been terrorizing the village for a while now.”
“Look,’ I said, “I’ll give you room to catch up.”
“If you must,” Simane said.
News of my ‘arrest’ had done the rounds and I rushed home to avoid the nagging questions. I ran into my girlfriend, Joan, on the way.
“Why are you running against the traffic?” Joan asked. “The Music Junkies concert is a couple of hours away.”
Heavens, I had forgotten the concert! Music Junkies was not only my favourite band, it was the hottest act at the time. Their triumph over drug abuse had inspired the nation.
“I’ll just freshen up,” I said.
“I’ll be waiting for you.”
I could not tell when or why Joan and I started drifting apart. For a long time I had to play cat-and-mouse with her father who disapproved of our affair but now I was doing my best to avoid her. Whereas feelings insisted I stay the course reason was screaming, ‘Flee!’
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