[The below is an excerpt from Asylum, A novella by Olivia Kidula, available in 2020 from Will This Be A Problem]
The journey up the hillside is treacherous and unforgiving, but she does not slow down. She goes around a bend in the path and is soon out of view. He quickens his pace to catch up to her and soon they are far enough ahead and can no longer hear the screams of the dying.
They are almost running, moving at a pace she finds more fitting. They trudge through the mud and soon the path bends upwards into a more vertical terrain, brushed by banana trees, the leaves sloppy and serrated. A low sinister fog rises between the trees, giving the green a dead faded look as if the rain had drained most of the forest’s colour into the soil. The trail is soaked, the mud deep and grabbing, but everywhere the path is crosshatched with roots, which they use as footholds. They jump from one root to the next. Priscilla is relentless. She does not slow down nor does she use her hands to steady herself. They have to get away.
Priscilla pauses momentarily, long enough for Jomo to catch up and scrape the mud off his shoes. As she helps him adjust the rucksack that contains all his worldly possessions, Priscilla stares at her son like she has never seen him before. The newly formed dark circles under his eyes make them look sunken, giving his face a sallow and pitted look. He frowns deeply as he fumbles with the straps, and the lines make him appear even older. She licks her thumb and rubs at some mud caked on his cheek. She is mildly disappointed when he doesn’t struggle – usually he fusses and puts on a huge show of resisting her, only for them to end up on the floor giggling. This time she receives no childlike peals of laughter or half-hearted pleas to stop, only an empty look that damn near breaks her heart. She has a feeling she will not be hearing the sound of his laughter for a long time. Not after what happened.
“Tuendelee Baba?” she tries to ask beguilingly, but the unshed tears have put a strain in her throat and the question comes out like a gruff order. Jomo winces at the term of endearment – she also calls, called, his father that – but nods anyway and moves past her back onto the path. She watches him go higher up into the hill and waits for him to go out of sight before bursting into tears. She attempts to muffle her sobs, but the harder she resists the louder they become. She knows she has no time for this emotional outburst; they have to get going, have to keep going, but the helplessness and grief wash over her in violent unrelenting waves.The trauma from her actions swarms inside her like a disease and it eats away at her insides. Dark green bile rises up from her belly and she retches violently into the undergrowth.
Up ahead, Jomo watches helplessly as his mother weeps. He begins to walk towards her but decides against it. He does not know how to comfort her; he is still a child, he wants so badly to be comforted. Instead, he sits on the forest floor and hugs his knees to his chest in an attempt to quell the shivering. He pulls his father’s jacket closer to his body, but the chill is bone-deep. He shakes his head in an attempt to chase the bad memories away but it does not work. Try as he might, it is impossible to shake the final glimpses of his father. Of his eyes, so dark and bottomless they don’t even hold his reflection, as if Jomo doesn’t exist, as if it wasn’t his own flesh and blood he was trying to choke the life out of it; and of his mother standing over his lifeless corpse, the back of his head a pulp of split flesh and blood.
He is much better than his mother at crying quietly.
Musyoka takes a deep breath and rushes into Father Martin’s office, mumbling his apologies when he sees the man’s slightly bemused expression.
“Apologies Father for bursting in like this. I have the report you requested.”
Musyoka is smiling as he hands over the papers, but Father Martin can tell from his body language that he is mildly agitated.
“Something bothering you, boy?”
Musyoka is actually quite bothered, more than usual. He has come to tolerate, if not ignore the yellow stains on Father’s shirt that form an almost circular pattern under his armpits, as well the overpowering stink of stale sweat. However his nostrils can’t help but flare; he notes a newer, faintly unpleasant odour, one that reminds him of damp socks and tickles the back of his throat. He stifles a cough.
Father Martin scrutinizes the little man’s features for signs of resentment or contempt but finds no trace. Satisfied, he opens the green file. He rifles through the pages, his eyes dully flitting over the projections and assessments, the graphs and figures. It is a good, capable piece of work: thorough, painstaking and professionally put together. He tosses it to the side and rubs his eyes.
“Is this up to date?”
“Yes sah, all the projections are based on what was available in the store this morning. All we need is your approval and signature.”
“Musafa, before I even sign this document, do you understand just why these people thought to come to The Church when times are tough?”
Musyoka suppresses the urge to scream. All he wants to know is if the report is satisfactory, a simple yes or no would suffice. Instead of screaming, he opens his mouth to give what he thinks is a generic yet satisfying answer.
“Because the Lord will always be a shining light in tough times?” Musyoka ventures.
A steady stream of survivors trickles through the church doors. There seems to be an unknown enemy attacking villages in the east and north, and the few that survive forge their way up the hillside and through the forest, and end up coming straight to the church, an intentional design. Musyoka is in charge of the situation – he meets all the new arrivals, provides them with food and shelter, as well as a listening ear. Not that they have much to say. No light left in their eyes, the survivors sit in eerie silence, shaking from a chill that even fire cannot soothe.
As usual, Father is not interested in hearing anyone but himself speak. The old man is infamous for his long, winding speeches, which miraculously come to him at the precise moment that someone is leaving the office or asking for assistance. Musyoka looks around the office, and for a second visualizes himself flipping over the rickety furniture and making a run for it.
Instead, he sits down and braces himself for one of those ones.
“They come to the church for various reasons. Because of guilt. They have lost hope. They have been betrayed. They don’t know where else to go. They feel worthless. Because the person they are isn’t the person they want to be. They have questions. They have doubts. They believe in a forgiving God yet feel disconnected from Him. And I am the one to provide that connection.”
“They come and sit in front of me. Some hesitate and grasp for the courage to say out loud what they have been hiding inside for days, weeks, or years. Others almost run in. They spill their stories even before I have a chance to sit. They’re anxious to clear their conscience or announce their doubts. Each one is different. For hours every week, I sit and listen. I did not ask for this opportunity. I never considered I might someday have an office in a church. I have no professional training for this position. I am not a scriptural scholar. I have not walked through vineyards with robe-wearing monks. All I did was answer a letter, show up for a couple of meetings here and there, and nod when asked if I would serve. I don’t sometimes wonder why me. I always wonder why me. And yet they come. Share their stories. And look to me for wisdom. “
Musyoka feels a sudden desire to weep hot tears of frustration. It is his fault, he tells himself, he underestimated his superior’s ability to make every little thing about himself.
The number of displaced people keep rising, and Musyoka’s nerves are beginning to fray. He is losing sleep over the lack of food; there are too many mouths to feed and resources are quickly running out. For now they will make do with the donations left over from Christmas, but from his projections they will be over in five days’ time. Musyoka asks himself for the umpteenth time that week why he feels so compelled to help these people.
“…no other explanation really, than I am chosen for this spiritual work. And as I choose you, you are also bestowed with a duty to me, and by extension, God. Very simple.”
“Yes sah,” Musyoka says, looking intently at the framed portrait of Her Majesty on his office wall. “Absolutely. No question.”
Musyoka continues to nod sagely throughout the whole speech, a brief but foul chant of rage running through his brain. He watches as Father Martin stands and walks to the coat rack where his robes hang. Under his sweat-stained shirt he wears khaki shorts, beige knee-length socks, and well-polished brown brogue shoes. That, Musyoka decides, is another thing he despises about him: his affected old-colonial attire. He particularly detests the sight of his fat little white knees peeking out at the hem of his shorts and the top of his socks like two bald, wrinkled babies’ heads.
‘Don’t you agree, Musaka? Astonishing how these biblical parallels happen? Always trusted you to get my drift, boy. Between me and you, you’ve always been one of the smarter Africans around here.”
Father Martin heads to the window to observe the sombre bank of dense purple-grey clouds looming to the west. He stares out over the sleepy village swallowed in a murky mist. What a dead-end place, he thinks, as he always does when he contemplates this view. The largest village in a small county in a not-very-significant African country: the religious posting of a lifetime! He sneers – you couldn’t even call it a backwater.
Like Rome, the village is built on seven hills, but that is where all similarities end. Every building is roofed with corrugated iron in various advanced stages of rusty erosion, and from the window of the church – established nobly on the highest hill above the town – Father Martin can see the roofs stretch before him, an ochrous tin checkerboard, the paranoiac vision of a mad town planner. Few buildings reach higher than two stories, most are crumbling mud-walled houses randomly clustered and packed alongside narrow pot-holed streets lined with deep purulent drains.
Apart from the claustrophobic proximity of the buildings to one another, and the cloying stench of rubbish and assorted decomposing matter, it is the heaving manifestation of organic life in all its forms that Father Martin detests about the place, amplified even further by the steady stream of refugees. Entire generations of families sprawl outside the mud huts, wizened flat breasted women and pot-bellied babies frowning in concentration as they pee into the gutters. Deformed leprous beggars with knobbled blunt limbs stagger, hop and crawl along. Scrawny dogs scavenge every rubbish pile and accessible drain-bed in search of edible scraps. All so disgusting and undeserving.
He hands the file back to Musyoka and looks at his watch.
“You off home now?” he asks, trying to sound interested.
Musyoka smiles. “Yes, sah.”
“How’s the wife… and the baby? Boy, isn’t it?”
“She is well, sah. But… I don’t have children,” Musyoka reminds him gently.
“Oh yes. Of course. Silly of me.”
Silly indeed, considering Father Martin spoke at the burial.
In his eagerness to leave Musyoka almost knocks over the tray that is being brought in . Kioko momentarily struggles to catch his balance and lets out a string of curses under his breath. Before Musyoka can apologize he notices the two dirt mantled figures in tow. The woman is wearing a filthy leso and her hair is caked with orange mud. She stands before Musyoka with wide unblinking eyes that seem to stare right through his soul, but when he stares back he sees nothing but desolate emptiness. He turns to look at the boy – one tooth had been knocked out of a face that was unremarkable only for eyes as brown and as sorrowful as his mother’s. So much dirt clings to a deep scratch on his exposed left arm that he thinks it must surely be infected; the skin bears a red angry look. Musyoka feels a sudden powerful bond of sympathy with the pathetic pair. Kioko on the other hand is greatly agitated; the words pour out of his mouth in tight staccato bursts once he sets the tray on the table. ‘Father, Musyoka, this woman and child came from the forest. The woman… I think there’s something wrong with her…’ he is cut off by the loud guffaw that comes from Father Martin.
“Oh, I’m sure there are at least ten things wrong with her,” he snorted. “Look at her!”
“Yes but sah you don’t understand…this woman… and this boy…”
‘Are a miracle in difficult times. A rose amongst the thorns! No, no, better yet, honey in the jaw of a lion!’ Kioko and Musyoka stare open-mouthed as Father Martin begins to pace excitedly. He scoffs at the two of them when he notices them exchange confused looks.
‘Don’t you see lads, don’t you see! Of course they don’t Martin I don’t know what you exp… If anything, we need her to testify that even in the face of certain danger she turns to the church! This is exactly my point! Kojo, bring them some food as well, chop-chop, she must testify in the evening prayers… Mousafa, you can go home, no need to write up a service, she will tell us their story…’
Musyoka is baffled by Father Martin’s words. How obtuse can this man possibly be? She is in no state… nothing that is happening makes any sense and he makes to intervene. However, he stops and thinks, what good has that done for me so far? He thinks of his wife who is waiting for him to come home, and her gravelly voice when she greets him. Her voice is weakening, her days are rife with strained conversations, sometimes trying, sometimes failing not to get the story of her child’s death caught in her teeth.
Father Martin is still gesticulating wildly, and Musyoka sighs and leaves him alone with his two new hostages.
At first the boy eats timidly, almost as if suspicious of the generosity, but the way his eyes watch the steam of the pot, the concave arch of his sunken belly, the layer of grime over his scratched and stung skin – this all speaks of days wandering the forest with only mosquitoes for company and grubs for nourishment. Father Martin gestures for him to help himself, and Jomo falls on the food like a filthy little dog, shovelling handfuls into his drooling mouth.
Suddenly Priscilla grabs Jomo’s arm and squeezes tightly. Rice still spilling from his tiny fists, he turns to observe his mother and his stomach lurches at the crazed look in her eyes. It is one he has seen before.
She stares unblinkingly at him, spittle dribbling from her cracked lips, hostility emanating from her body in a palpable heat. Jomo painfully swallows the last of the rice which has turned to an iron ball in his throat and looks to his mother in great confusion.
There is something in his fear-stricken face that catches Priscilla and throws her off. She seems just as confused as her son, and she relaxes her grip on his wrist. Jomo pulls away from her and backs away from her into the corner, rubbing his wrist but not taking his eyes off her. Priscilla shakes her head and tries to think clearly… why is she grabbing his wrist? She starts to cough, and wishes she could drink some water. Her head hurts and she falls to the ground.
Father Martin watches all this with a mildly interested look on his face.
Jomo also begins to cough. The weird scratching sensation at the back of his throat now is the same dank smell that choked him awake five nights back. Mild but unmistakable. It is impossible to forget that musty tang, distinct in its uniqueness even as it mingled with the scent of blood and petrichor the morning his father tried to kill him. He could feel it in the enveloping fog that hung in the forest air, that coated their skin and seemed to want to pull him and his mother back into the forest. The thing that they could not see or touch but from which they tried to create as much distance between them. Now Jomo knew that they had failed to get away, that whatever they were trying to elude was impossible to escape.
A growing mist fills the room, and the smell is even thicker than before. Priscilla crawls toward Jomo. There is intent and direction in her stare as if she can see something there; something no one else is aware of, something only she can make out. Jomo screams again as she lunges toward him.
Above the sound of hard flesh squishing against soft wetness, Father Martin’s voice rings out, he repeats a verse from memory, even after the pounding has stopped.
“Out of the eater, something to eat;
out of the strong, something sweet.”
To be continued