Read Part I here: Footprints In The Water, Part I
“Kasayi, why are you hiding back here?” Taata Chali calls me out from some hidden place. I know he’s not here; my mind’s playing tricks. But I swear I feel his presence, hear his hearty laughter rustle in the trees as the kids he raised slip and stomp in the mud of his backyard. “How can you let Bwanika overtake you? Hahaha!”
“I’m not hiding, Taata, I’m strategising.”
“You’re strategizing; meanwhile they’re stealing your Katima!”
“She’s not mine, Taata Chali,” I spy Hawa in the distance, her dress half-soaked, the sun glistening off wet arms and smooth legs, her head thrown back in the joys of yesterday. “She’s not mine.”
“But Kasayi, stop fooling around,” He urges, squeezing his hairy-knuckled grip into my shoulder and laughing as I twist and squirm to get loose. “Hahaha, Kasayi, fooling around just.”
“No fooling, Taata Chali,” I contort my shoulder to escape his vice-like grip and when I finally come free- It’s just me and the light breeze haunting the trees of the perimeter fence.
My cohorts get loud again, shoes are soggy and I realise there’s mud on my cheek. Slipping a hand into my pocket to fish out a hanky, I’m intercepted by the warm clasp of familiarity.
“Auntie Anita! I-I-I was just-”
“I know, Ronnie, it’s okay,” Maama Chali reassures, newly widowed but eyes as gentle and steady as the time she caught Hawa and I playing “doctor” in the outside kitchen and led a terrified Hawa off to discuss “womanhood” while I scoured the hills for a tall tree to live in rather than face the wrath of my parents. “He would be happy to have you tear up this backyard one last time.”
So for a few peaceful moments, we stand there unseen, watching a mature cast act out my childhood; the civil servant and the engineer’s wife, mothers and uncles themselves now, floating through the sun shower mirage of an afternoon’s folly. It’s like flipping through an old album, recognising hints and shades of the voices behind the smiles and poses, shades of who I once hoped to be and now latch onto the warmest of those memories before they’re forever washed away.
“You know, this house has had running water since before you were born,” Maama Chali muses.
“No, I didn’t know that, Auntie Anita.”
“He used to… hehe…,” she loses herself in wistful nostalgia for a moment, smiling at some private joke, then continues, “He would spend an hour each evening emptying half those jerrycans back into the water tank.”
“Well he couldn’t just waste all that water, Ronnie,” Maama Chali adjusts her mourner’s veil as she makes her retreat to the main house. “He didn’t believe in that kind of foolery.”
“But… but if he didn’t need the water, why have us trudging through this muddy mess, day in, day out, to fill his shed?”
Maama Chali pauses by the side gate to share one last piece of her beloved husband’s old haunt before we all send him on to the next place. A sudden swell of tears surges to the brim of her matriarchal gaze but it’s the kind of sorrow that cleanses and calms the soul.
She smiles softly, “The man liked to laugh.”
And then I’m alone again.
I shouldn’t be surprised one bit; in fact, I’m laughing too, now. Laughing at myself, at all of us, for being unknowing participants in Taata Chali’s finest joke. I can hear him now, watching us through the dining room window as he sifts through the crossword section. Yelling pointers through the burglar proofing, baffling us with his motivational idioms:
“Seeing the pattern is not the same as knowing the design!”
“One does not follow footprints in the water!”
And then I imagine he’d duck behind his newspaper and enjoy a good chuckle at our expense. The man kept this up for years and never once let on that he was less than serious about keeping his shed full. Can you imagine the resolve it would take to sustain a gag so exhausting and unnecessary? And yet, knowing Taata Chali, this elaborate prank folds comfortably into the cloak of his delights. He’s probably laughing now, in a room we can’t see, in a place we’re not yet ready for. Sharing his stunt with those around him and-
“Hey are you okay?” Hawa’s suddenly hovering over me; not sure when I descended to the ground. “It sounded like you were laughing at first but…”
She’s waiting for some explanation and I’m a bit lost in the moment. “But what?”
Hawa hesitates for a moment then gently and deliberately, swipes her index finger across my cheek and lands it softly on the tip of her tongue. She doesn’t press me any further and I realise that I’ve been crying for some time now.
The game has wound down in the clearing; I can hear Enoth enthrall the others with tales of power struggles in his mid-level office, as we all start to transform back into who we grew up to be. There’s a few muddied jerrycans scattered about the yard, giant sploshes of the day’s activities with small waves still swaying outwards. Hawa’s resting in the grass next to me, gulping down large breaths of this soon-to-be-forgotten air.
Hawa, the one I should have given my all to marry.
Kasayi… just fooling around.
I want to share Auntie Anita’s revelation with Hawa but I’m not sure I see the point to potentially rewriting her entire childhood. Besides, Taata Chali preferred to keep this one secret joke to himself; no sense in me ruining it. No, we’ll wash our hands and our feet, and lay in the sun until our clothes dry. We’ll make sure every last jerrycan is stored away and that the shed is secured. And then we’ll shut the tap off forever, and return to the family and friends converged in the main house to say a final farewell to a man respected in his village and loved by those who knew him.
Then we’ll go on with our lives, never returning to these hills, and our footprints in the water, never leaving.
For Uncle Ed, who loved nothing more than to make everyone laugh. Rest Well Unc.
Rich Wagaba is a self-published writer who’s dabbled in short story writing here heretus.blogspot.com, a sort of novella here thebeautifulscars.blogspot.com and a picture book for adults here htlawf.blogspot.com