You watched as the road swallowed Mummy back into the city. You imagined how it wound in and out of the shaded hills, like it chose to rest from the sunshine before deciding to go on. Kaaka’s scaly palm scratched your soft one as she told you to turn around and head back to your new home. Eyes still fixed on the patches of the road, you half turned, wishing that sometimes roads would just stop so people wouldn’t have anywhere to go. If that happened your mother’s figure would reappear and she would tell you the road to Kampala, like her journey had ended.
The decision for you to stay in the village for more than the Christmas holiday had been arrived at like all the others in your life; a statement told to you by Mummy like she was trying to beg you for something when you actually knew she wanted you to know that you didn’t have a choice because you were the child and she was the adult.
“But Mummy, why can’t I come to your school?”
“It’s for adults and there are no children allowed.”
“Because there are no children there.”
“But children are everywhere.”
“Not there, they have no beds to sleep in and no one to look after them so they stay with their grandparents. Besides, I will have a lot of homework to do.”
“I’ll help you Mummy, you help me all the time.”
“Mine is complicated, you won’t understand it.”
“What does comp-li-cated mean?”
“Something very hard.”
“So who will help when my homework is complicated?”
“Your new teachers.”
“Is there another aunt Naiga?”
“I don’t know, we’ll see when we get there.”
You opened your mouth to ask more but changed your mind when Mummy pressed her lips together and stared down at you.
Complicated. Your mother is complicated. Why do adults make you do things? Why can’t you just do what you want? Why do they force you? You have to do it because you are the child and they are adults and they look after you.
Grandmother tugs harder at your hand,
“Let’s go Pati, do you want the big big snake to find you? It will swallow all of you.”
There’s no ‘i’ in your name but your grandparents add it anyway. Mummy says it’s because they don’t speak English, so they turn whatever they are saying into Runyakore. Still the way they say it spoils your name.
You pull your hand away from Kaaka and walk a pace in front of her. That way if the snake comes from the front you will see it first and turn and run through the mist while calling out for Mummy to wait for you and she will change her mind because she will know the village is not a safe place. If it comes from behind it will reach Kaaka first but won’t be able to swallow her because she is three times your size and you’ll have seen it and you will run round the bend and up the path that cuts through the coffee plantation and the smoky kitchen with a grass roof will be before you and Grandpa will be seated by its door on his low one-legged stool bent over a basin as he douses his face and grey chin with hot water from the black oblong tin that boils it’s water by the small fires that spill from the three cooking stones as Kaaka’s big saucepan of water for lemon grass tea boils. He will be there and you will be safe.
You look at Kaaka over your shoulder. How did the woman know you were thinking about snakes? You shake your head at her as she says,
You’re already thinking about the last time you talked with Mummy and you know you will not hear her voice for a long time. But remembering makes it seem like she’s still there.
‘When will I become an adult?’
‘When you are eighteen, then you can do whatever you like!’
‘But I am only six years, that’s so far away!’
Mummy smiles and hugs you. She smells sweet like chocolate and you feel a mixture of sadness and happiness that makes your chest want to burst like a balloon. She will visit often, and fetch you once she’s done with her school. School is important. Something you have known since the day Mummy spanked your behind because you ‘forgot’ to wear panties to school (but remembered to stuff them in your mattress cover) so that Aunt Naiga would send you back home like she did all the bad girls who forgot to wear their panties. Mummy had dragged you back to school and told you even if you didn’t feel like it, you had to go to school.
So maybe Mummy doesn’t feel like going away to school but she has to all the same, even if it means leaving you in the village with Kaaka.
Her humming makes you turn to look at her. You want to ask her if the only songs she knows are church songs because that’s all you’ve heard her sing. You want to tell her church songs are for Sundays only, but you know she will only laugh, and tell the story to her old friends when they sit round a circle to weave baskets on Thursday afternoon.
Soon the weeds with dew at their tips flicking your ankles disappear and the path widens. Kaaka is still following closely behind you. The coffee trees thin and you’re in Shwenkuru’s compound. He is seated on his one-legged stool washing his face with steaming water from the oblong blackened tin. Every morning Kaaka fills this tin with cold water, then sits it in the ash between the cooking stones as the tea saucepan is boiling, so that the same fire can heat the water. You ask him why Kaaka doesn’t heat another tin of water for you as well. He tells you cold water keeps a young mind awake.
“So you mean your old mind is asleep?”
Shwenkuru shakes his head and turns to Kaaka. She laughs and heads to the kitchen.
“No, my mind is not old. Or asleep. And that’s because I always bathed with cold water when I was young.”
The next day you go with Shwenkuru to the pineapple garden. Before you turn onto a smaller path you’re on the one you took yesterday while seeing Mummy off. A long pumpkin vine has stretched across the path. You don’t remember seeing it yesterday. If it had been there you would have tripped over it.
“Shwenkuru, who put this thing here? It wasn’t here yesterday.”
“No one, my child. Pumpkins grow everywhere in this village.”
“Do they grow overnight?”
He breaks into one of his grins, the one that decides to stay on one side of his face.
“I suppose so, don’t you think that’s why the village is named Lyakanshunsha?”
“But that means where there are many pumpkin leaves, not so? I haven’t seen any pumpkin leaves on the coffee plants, the banana shoots, or any of them without the rest of their plant …”
“Oh my little wife, he pauses and ruffles your hair … the ideas in your head … but you’re right, except that sometimes words can’t explain everything.”
“So what explains things better than words?”
“Knowledge Pati, knowledge.”
“But we still need words to understand.”
“I didn’t say we don’t, but sometimes they aren’t enough. Like the name of the village means a place where pumpkins grow in plenty.”
“Hmm … if you hadn’t told me I wouldn’t have known and that’s not fair to all those who don’t know.”
“You’re still young Pati, there’s time for you to learn many things.”
“You mean when I am eighteen I will know everything?”
He laughs, “Even I with all these grey hairs on my head, I am still learning, I don’t know everything in the world, I learn something new every day.”
“Like I just learned what the village name means?”
“Yes Pati, tomorrow you’ll probably learn something else, and the next day, and the next one after the next day.”
For every day after that you learn something new about Lyakashunsha. At first it is the children crying in the night. When you open your eyes the bedroom is so dark that you widen them to be sure they are still not closed.
“Kaaka! Babies are crying outside. Who left them there? Why did they leave them out in the dark?”
You whisper, until she replies like she’s in a deep dream.
“Cats, Pati. Nothing but cats, go back to sleep.”
But you fail to sleep until the morning birds begin singing. Then you sleep for what seems like days and when they wake you up, it is time for lunch. Shwenkuru sits you on his lap,
“They were only cats, sometimes they are restless, and they cry through the night.
You shake your head, you heard babies, and you’re convinced they were babies. But you say no more to your grandparents and dig into the cassava and beans katogo on your red plastic plate.
The next night you hear the babies again. You’re about to call Kaaka when you see them. They are numerous, small and pink like the baby mice that fell from the grass thatch on the kitchen when the kite flew past. They lie on the jagged brown stones in the compound where the coffee and beans are spread on wicker mats to dry. But there’s no sun or light. There’s only cold and darkness and the babies shiver. You also know the unkind stones that knocked out the nail of your third toe will cut their smooth skins till they bleed. You look around for their mother but she’s nowhere in sight.
You run to the kitchen but it’s empty and there’s no fire in the hearth. You go around it and ran past the mango trees and the latrine but only its odour welcomes you. You run back to carry the babies to the house but the place where you left them is empty and only their white sheet with brollies and teddy bears remains. You snatch it to your chest and for some reason look up.
In the dark sky the kite is carrying away the babies. They hang in each foot, gripped by the kite’s large talons. The bleed and they wail. The bright drops of their blood and the tears from your eye pool in your palms. You brush them against your nightdress and when you look up, the kite and babies are gone.
You cry because you know if their mother had been with them she would have shooed the kite away and it would not have been able to snatch the babies. You cry because you know Mummy left you in this place where a big snake can come and swallow you any time it wishes and a kite can snatch you from your sleep any time it wishes. You cry for the babies and you cry for yourself.
Some evenings Shwenkuru takes you along on his walks. You like that as he passes by each home he introduces you to everyone and they all look at you as if they wished they could be you. One time you reach Bwengye’s household. There are more than ten children running around. The women touch your curly hair, move your head this and that way, and say,
“Bambe! This child is surely her mother’s! How lucky you are Mungyereza that you have started to see your grandchildren.”
Later you ask if Mungyereza is Grandpa’s other name but he says they call him that because before your mother was born he worked in Kampala building houses with bajungu. The men shake your hand, and ask you who your mother is, then add like they have just remembered,
“What about your father?”
You usually say nothing, until Grandpa comes to the rescue,
“He is in bulaaya minting money. He will come when he will come.”
Then there are the children. The first time they look at you with faces turned to one side, feet on top of each other, fingers probing their noses. Each person has two eyes, but having ten of theirs on you feels like they can see your koko so you look down to check that you’re still wearing your red and green skirt. You look up expecting them to laugh that your Mummy has left you in the village. But they only ask if they can touch your beautiful skirt and wear your sandals just for a minute. You say it’s fine, as long as they can chase and catch you. Most times you run faster than them and hide.
They look behind the houses and up the short mango trees and beneath the granaries but they never look far off in the banana plantation. There you find heaps of red soil scattered between the banana shoots. You crouch behind one. This is your favourite hiding place but you get tired of hiding without being found so you make your way back to the noisy compound. You let the children touch your dress and wear your sandals.
Then they teach you their game of catching stones; you throw a stone with one hand in the air and pick up another with the other hand. You keep playing until grandpa puts down the calabash of tonto and gets off the folding wooden chair. He says sleep well to the adults although the orange colour of the sun is still in the sky.
“It’s time to go home, Pati.”
“But it’s still early Grandpa! One more time, just one more time! Please?”
“This child of mine thinks this is the city where lights shine like the sun even in the night. Pati, this is Lyakanshunsha where we go to sleep when the sun goes to sleep.”
That night when you sleep, you find yourself in your favourite hiding place in Bwengye’s plantation. You hope this time your friends will find you because if they don’t, the red mound of soil will sink and gape and gape until it swallows you. You try to stand but a heavy weight like a huge bundle of firewood sits across your shoulders. You try to scream but the red soil fills your mouth and you see that you’re already inside its gaping mouth in the ground.
It’s dark like the night until you see small balls of light. You run towards them and as you get closer they widen into two solid human shapes. One has breasts and the other has a flat chest. They are beautiful and clean and you want to ask them how they remain clean and untouched by the red soil. You pull at the woman but she shakes a fleshless finger at you,
“You think I would leave my babies in this cold desolate place and go back with you? I wouldn’t! I’d rather die for the tenth time than leave them all alone.”
She points to a place at her feet and even before you look you know it will be the two babies that the kite carried away, “I tried to shoot the kite but it scratched me. Where were you when it was taking them? I looked for you! Everywhere! I looked for you!”
“I was dead! I was already dead,” her voice is quiet, like the rain falling on a dead morning.”
“What about him? Their father! He should have protected them”, you turn to where you last saw him standing but there’s only darkness.
“Do you see him there now? He came before me”, she adds like she is used to saying it. “You should leave our home now, your mother will not like it if she finds that you have left your Shwenkuru’s house.”
“Then why did she leave me all alone here? It’s not a good place for a child, is it?”
“It’s not so bad, but she left you now so that she could be with you longer, so go back to her parents.”
“But they are not my parents!” You move your shoulders up and down to show you are going nowhere.
But then you blink and find yourself in the banana plantation with its mounds of red soil. There is a cross made of sticks on each mound. You wonder why you never saw the crosses before, and why you’re sure you shouldn’t be there.
You break into a run. You’re about to reach the house when something holds both your legs and you crash into the wet soil and crushed weeds. Whatever is holding you has hairy fingers and they are moving up your legs. In moments you’re on your back, lifting your head to see what’s wrapped around your legs. There are just pumpkin vines so you relax, you must have stepped into their thick foliage.
But then when they wind up to your knees you realise they are determined to eat you up. You kick and thrash with all your might. As your hands work to disentangle you from their hold you feel the sting of the hairy vines burn your fingers. But you don’t stop until the last one is lying at your feet, broken and lifeless. You run again but soon your chest burns and your legs get heavier with each step. You’re about to fall when the houses come into view.
In the near dawn light you recognize Bwengye’s compound. You’re at one corner of the kitchen. There’s no one outside, you hurry to the main house but stop when the wooden door flies off its hinges and Bwengye rushes out dragging his wife Gaude by one arm. He is shouting at her,
“What sort of woman are you? Clearly not mine! No woman of mine spends the night out of my house. Karanzi meeting! Praying the whole night! What sort of god doesn’t know you have a husband? Meeting indeed! Do you people meet at the meeting of your thighs? Is that it? Is that why you go there every night? Since you spent there the whole night you might as well go back! Have you forgotten about the graves in our backyard? And all these orphans your children left behind? I should have known you and your children were cursed. Cursed to think about nothing but the fire in your groins!”
Then he is punching her face and she’s bleeding from her mouth and nose. You wonder why she doesn’t make a sound.
You shout but it’s like you’re yawning with so much energy. You know this is not something you should be seeing. Grandpa couldn’t have left you here. You took a walk with him and stopped at Bwengye’s and he sat on the folding chair and he drank from the calabash and you played hide-and-seek and then the game of stones with your friends. You let them touch your pretty skirt and wear your sandals. Where are your friends? Why are they not helping their grandmother? And what is Bwengye talking about? You know if someone doesn’t stop him he will kill her.
So you run to the direction of Grandpa’s house. Soon you’re on the path that cuts through the coffee plantation and you can see the white sand walls of the main house. You’re about to reach when a pumpkin vine begins growing across the path. It’s a strange sight because even if plants grow, no one ever sees them grow. Until then you had imagined that plants grow in the night and the next day they have added a leaf, a flower, or a fruit but it’s not something you had expected to see with your own eyes.
As you watch, the vine grows and grows and before long, its dark green, white-haired leaves are as wide as saucers and they have covered the entire place around you. You know when you lift your foot they will not let you and indeed, they hold on to you and grow up your legs, stomach, and chest. They tickle your racing heart and stop at your throat as if they are considering letting you go. The last thing you remember before passing out is the end of the vine growing into the forked tongue of a snake and you know they had a plan all along. The big big snake and the pumpkin vines in the place where pumpkin leaves dwell knew they would just come and swallow you anytime they wished, and they had decided that that time had come.
When you wake up Kaaka is looking at you. She smiles and shouts over her shoulder, “She’s awake!”
There’s a wet cloth on your forehead and you’re in her bedroom. When Grandpa reaches your bed you pull at his arm.
“The snake and the pumpkin vines want to swallow me, they want me. You have to stop them, cut them with the panga.”
“You’re sick Pati, it was just a bad dream, and you have malaria. The nurse said the medicine would do that.”
You sit up in the bed and look at your grandparents.
“Really? What about her?”
“Gaude! Bwengye was going to kill her.”
“I was coming to find you when the pumpkin vines and snake found me. I tried to stop him but he couldn’t hear me, and I was scared he would kill her, then beat me up as well.”
Kaaka and Grandpa say nothing, they just look at you like you’ve lost your mind.
“I saw him! And Grandpa, why didn’t you tell me those were graves in that banana plantation? I found their parents there.”
“My friends at Bwengye’s house, their parents were in the grave with their twin brothers. They were the same heaps of red soil like the ones in their plantation, except they had crosses on them.”
“Child, you’ve been asleep for two days, it’s all the dreams confusing you. Maybe I can bring some food?” Kaaka asks as she gets up.
You nod even though you don’t want to eat. Grandpa follows her.
You follow them when you start thinking about all that you saw. You’re about to enter the kitchen but stop by its half open door. Kaaka’s voice is a loud shaky whisper, “How can she know about that? All those things happened before she was born! She never knew Gaude, and true, Bwengye hated her faith and used to beat her up! That family went to the dogs when all their children began dying and leaving them orphans to raise. But how can she know all that when she wasn’t even born yet?”
You turn and go back to the bedroom. When they bring the food you refuse to eat. You tell them you’ll eat when your Mummy comes to take you home.
Lillian Akampuria Aujo is a Ugandan writer. She’s is a lover of words, and she hopes to move the world with them. Her stories have appeared in Suubi, an online magazine by the African Writers’ Trust, and ‘A memory this Size’ The Caine Prize anthology 2013. Her poems have appeared online in ‘The Revelator’, and Bakwa Magazine. Her poem ‘Soft Tonight’ won The BN Poetry Award in 2009. She is a member of FEMRITE, and some of her work appears there as well.