“Another swallow for me, Anna-Marie. I need to drink a lot of cow-dung off my mind and out of my miserable life,” I mumbled to the bartender as I tossed a cold coin across the stone counter, looking around for my friends, Kutosi, Abenu and Kilistina.
Kutosi was standing in front of a table; his loud voice spinning its usual lies and vulgarity. As always, he was the centre of attraction and it wasn’t because he told good stories. People liked to watch him make a fool of himself whenever he was inebriated. His made-up stories and the incredible way he weaved himself into every single one of them as the hero who saved the day, or the sage who had all the answers, never failed to send his enthralled audience rolling on the floor, even though they weren’t always laughing at his stories, but at him and his stupid lies.
That night, everyone in the bar listened to Kutosi’s tales. Everyone laughed at his foolery, except Abenu and Kilistina. The pair lazily leaned on each other, shoulder to shoulder. The linked elbows—and the way they stared into each other’s eyes saying nothing yet saying everything—confirmed to me that those two had been fooling us all the while they told us they were just friends.
I watched in astonishment as Abenu traced patterns on Kilistina’s buttery skin with the confidence and familiarity of someone who had made the journey to her more sacred parts several times before. Kutosi didn’t notice anything; he was too drunk and absolved in his fish tale. But I did and couldn’t take my eyes off them. I couldn’t help wondering if this was something that had been going on for a while or if it was the effect of all the drinking from earlier in the day.
What they were doing felt like an abomination. I willed them to stop, but at that point I guess they were well past caring about what anyone thought or saw, but I did. It felt wrong for so many reasons and my blood alcohol content hadn’t yet robbed me of my sense of propriety.
Kilistina was more than a friend to us. She had become a sister – one of the boys from way back when we all found ourselves in Mr. Mutesi’s class learning the alphabets and struggling to count from one to ten. Even then, as much as we all hung out and played together in school and in the neighbourhood grounds after school hours and on weekends, it was obvious there was a special connection between those two. In our close-knit group of four, the two of them always took a common position on every issue. And even though Kutosi and I cared a lot about Kilisty, our friend Abenu was extra-territorial where she was concerned and he was pretty obvious about it.
One incident stayed fresh in my memory even after all these years. It was the day we were caught in Mr. Anyole’s yard stealing mangoes. It was a Sunday morning and we had skipped bible lessons because we couldn’t resist the temptation of sinking our plaque-encrusted teeth into those slightly overripe but still succulent juicy fruits. Every time we passed by his compound, we could hear them screaming our names, urging us to set them free from the bondage of staying connected to the chunky branches of the ancient tree when their time was up. The poor things needed to be rescued and we were convinced we were the guys for the job.
Why Mr. and Mrs. Anyole let them get so ripe and inviting we could never fathom. What was even more puzzling was that their children let it happen. We could hardly wrap around our tiny heads how anyone in our age group could live in the midst of such bounty and let it all go to waste. Except perhaps having a preacher as a father had that effect on kids.
Because Abenu and I were the athletic ones; we were able to help Kilistina and Kutosi scale the fence by climbing on our shoulders. Once in, Kilistina attacked the tree with the nimbleness of a monkey let loose in the jungle. Kutosi joined her on the tree; his focus was on the bigger fruits because he wasn’t as swift and efficient as Kilistina. Abenu gathered the mangoes in the tail of his Sunday best as they dropped to the ground, while I stood sentry at the gate in case anyone showed up unexpectedly.
We paid no attention to the main house – there was no need to do so. We were sure the Anyoles were still in church. As the choir leader, prayer group coordinator and assistant pastor of God Be Great Ministries, a small church in the neighborhood that was gradually attracting followership from those who were getting tired of the dogma of the orthodox churches that had strived in the community for decades, he couldn’t afford to stay away from his congregation on any given Sunday.
That Sunday however he did. He had come down with the flu or something just as bad and had to stay home. None of us heard the front door open or notice Mr. Anyole creep in on us, but we heard the bellow of his thundery voice accusing us of trespassing and stealing. He commanded those on the tree to come down immediately and surrender our loot to him.
I was already close to the fence so making the leap across was a no-brainer. Abenu could have done the same, but he couldn’t leave without Kilistina. Even Kutosi who was slow getting off the tree somehow made it to safety but Abenu willingly surrendered himself to Mr. Anyole. He took the punishment meant for all four of us so Kilistina could get away unharmed. That day we knew for sure that he liked her in a way neither Kutosi nor I did.
As the years went by, their fondness for each other grew and we half-expected they would end up dating or becoming man and wife at some point in the future. But Kilisty always laughed at our insinuations. She said they were just friends, friends who had become so close they could never be anything more. Besides, we knew her father would never allow her marry a school dropout whose greatest ambition in life was to inherit his father’s scrawny herd of cattle. But if there wasn’t anything going on between them, what was she doing with Abenu in a bar so late in the night when she should be at home with Wambo and her children?
I heard from Kutosi that Abenu told him that Kilistina said Wambo was a weakling. I wouldn’t know if she really said that, or if that was the exact word she used, but if it were, it would be strange. What did she mean by calling her husband a weakling? Wambo was one of the hardest working farmers in Burungu and everyone knew it. True, he was a much older man, but did that make him weak? True, he was a friend to her father and he had been married twice before and on both occasions the women died before the physical manifestation of any signs of pregnancy. But does that make a man weak? True, the circumstances of the deaths raised eyebrows but Wambo’s watertight alibi and the way he shrunk in grief lifted him above suspicion.
No one made fun of his misfortune because of his candour and willingness to be of assistance whenever it was required of him. And when he offered to help out with her education and that of her two younger brothers in exchange for her hand in marriage, her father called him the messiah of Burungu. But Kilistina hated him. She hated his unkempt hair and the smell of stale bikanjalo that followed him wherever.
They got married right after she graduated from the Teachers’ Training College in Kibuli. That was nine years ago. The marriage was blessed with a set of twins in the first year and a baby every other year thereafter until the last one born two years ago. Wambo was a dependable provider and the father of her children. How could such a man be weak?
Kutosi was on the table now. His stiff posture and the way his hands gesticulated wildly like a traffic warden let loose in the peak of Kampala traffic as he dramatised another imaginary escapade with money doublers in Entebbe made it impossible for me to continue to dwell on Kilistina and Abenu and whatever it was they had going on.
“Hey Kutosi, you want us to believe that the criminals let you go after you had seen their hideout?” I called out to him as I moved over to rejoin the ring of friends and strangers that has gathered around him.
“So you think I’m making this up?” his words sounded slurred but his still frame reminded me of the soldiers who hoisted the Ugandan flag on Independence Day. If I didn’t know him well, I would have thought he was sober.
“The great Kutosi! I can never doubt you. Who am I to doubt you? Have I ever killed a lion or rescued a baby from a burning building or lasted three hours with a woman while doing it upside down?” the crowd burst into another round of laughter as I taunted my friend.
“Bwire,” he started to call my name and then he stopped like he had forgotten what he wanted to say.
“The great Kutosi!” I hailed him again. My tangled moustache kissed the Kwete foam, brewed from behind the hills of Njenga that lay east of our land. I left my place beside a man who looked like he might need help finding his way home. I strolled towards the bench next to Kutosi, dragging my shoes on the floor as I did to signal to my friends that it was time to go home, but they weren’t looking my way. Clearly they weren’t ready to leave just yet.
I tapped Kutosi and pointed to my wrist. Reluctantly he pulled out an ancient looking strapless timepiece from his pocket. He wiped the face of the broken wristwatch with a dirty handkerchief that looked like something meant for cleaning dirt and sooth off kitchen utensils. His lips mouthed, “it’s pass ten o’clock!” but his body language said, “it isn’t time to go home yet.” So I stood up and walked back to the bartender to get a refill.
“Another swallow please, Anna-Marie.” The way she smiled at me I could tell she was surprised I still remembered her name.
“Bwire,” I was surprised she also remembered mine. “You are not getting any more swallow here tonight, I’m afraid. We are closed for the night.”
I didn’t like being shunned, but who was I to complain? She was the goddess of the nameless bar and I was at her mercy.
“But my friends are not ready to leave yet.”
“Don’t let that be a problem for you,” she retorted. “By the time I move my cleaning to their table, they will get the message.”
Intoxicated myself, I had to ask why she wanted us out of the bar. Back in Burungu, ten was way too early to be home feeding the bed bugs! However hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out why a struggling business would send willing and able customers away? I couldn’t make sense of it. It was the end of the month and we all had money to spend, but these people would rather see us go home.
The bar owner kicked us out at midnight. We stood at the bus stop for almost an hour but it didn’t seem like any form of transportation was available to us at that time of the night. We discussed our very limited options and came to the conclusion to begin the long walk to Burungu.
Kutosi helped himself up by grabbing my left shoulder as Abenu struggled to pull Kilistina up to her feet. She glared at me with sad eyes, as if to say she didn’t want to go home. I watched her as she took a swig from the red plastic flask she was given as a souvenir from the marriage ceremony of another childhood friend of ours that took place in Magono that afternoon. I didn’t realise she had filled it up with beer before leaving the bar.
The road we chose was dark and deserted, but we picked it because it was shorter and would get us to Burungu much faster than the more popular route. Our conversation as we moved along was loud and boisterous to take our minds off the possibility of any danger lurking in the bushes. The way we screamed at the top of our voices, it was as if we were trying to outdo the crickets chirping away in a singing contest for the creatures of the dark. Eventually, all four of us fell silent. We had run out of banter.
We had only covered a few kilometers when I noticed the lovebirds falling behind. I didn’t know if it was because Kilistina couldn’t keep up with the pace of the men or because they wanted to be alone, so I let them be. I turned back after a while to look at them again. In the darkness, I couldn’t quite make out their features but I could tell they had linked hands again.
Kutosi was telling me about something his wife did to him some days ago that pissed him off, but I wasn’t really listening. My mind was in a faraway place. It was a season of weddings all around us and mine was coming up in a fortnight. My woman’s father wanted me to see him on Sunday and that journey to his village filled me with trepidation. I hadn’t given them everything on the list they sent to my family and there was no way I would have all the items ready in two weeks. Janet’s father had threatened once before to cancel the wedding and forbid her from seeing me if I didn’t do the right thing. I didn’t like the condescending way he spoke to me the last time and if it weren’t for my feelings for his daughter, I would have walked out on him. I wasn’t a wealthy man, but my salary as a nurse in the government medical centre in Burungu was more than sufficient to meet my modest needs and those of Janet’s if she married me.
“Noooooooooo!” Kilistina’s loud screaming jolted me back to the present.
“That’s Kilistina,” Kutosi reached for my hands. I felt his grip tighten as he spoke, “That’s definitely Kilistina’s voice.”
“How far back do you think they are?”
“Should we go back?”
I didn’t bother replying Kutosi. We had to go back. Ignoring our friend’s distress call wasn’t an option. We called out their names as we raced back to where we thought we heard her voice coming.
The slight wind coupled with the uncertainty of what to expect when we got to our friends brought goose bumps all over my body. I shivered in fear. Stumbling on a twig, I found myself facedown on the dirt-ridden path. Kutosi remembered his phone had a torch and he turned it on so I could untangle by legs and get back up on my feet. I had cut myself and even though I felt no pain, I noticed the blood sipping through my shirt.
I turned to Kutosi. I needed him to help me take my shirt off so I could see how deep the cut was, but he appeared rooted where he stood. I followed his gaze and the direction of the beam emanating from his phone. That was when I saw what Kutosi was looking at and I too became transfixed.
He didn’t flinch. His face was turned in our direction but we could tell he wasn’t looking at us. His breathing was heavy and his tangled hair had a smattering of blood on it like he had used it to wipe his bloodied hands. In his right hand was a machete and on his left hand was a severed head.
“Wambo!” I called his name again. “What have you done?”
“Behold the head of an adulterer and the father of my six children.”
Abenu was dead, but where was Kilistina? He looked away from us to his left, as if reading my mind. The lifeless body of his wife lay sprawled by his side.