Engraved in Stone (Originally published in Afreada Magazine) 

Kandake’s dead, her body was found hanging from a tree, blood streaming between her thighs and cuts on her pale breasts. It was Kumkani, her twin brother who discovered her and after untying her rigid body, letting it slump onto him and holding it for a long time, he finally let out a piercing cry that woke the village. It was early in the morning before the sun had risen and before the cock had smoothed its throat to crow. The two pale bodies appeared as one, as if death had swallowed both, blood stained on their skin like a red pattern finding its position on a clear canvas.

Their mother, Mira fainted and their father Baba Kifeda stood far from them like one of the observers who distanced themselves from the ordeal. It was their uncle who jumped in to detach the young man from his sister. Anticipating a fight from the clinging boy, he was surprised to feel the lightness and limp body of Kumkani when he separated him from the dead body.

“Let go, my son,” said the middle-aged man who had been more of a father to the boy than his brother had ever attempted.

There were no tears in the light brown eyes, their brightness were misplaced in a face that sank from the gravity of misery and pain. His eyes rested on his father whose own fell to the ground in shame, yet he stood rooted to the spot unable to embrace his only son or mourn the death of his only daughter.

Kumkani was prepared for the verdict of the elders, they had already made up many of their lives’ decisions, especially with their father recently joining them as a junior who was allowed to sit in on their meetings but not yet qualified to have a voice. A forty year old treated like an errand boy. It was an honour to his father, his whole life had been a collection of efforts to get to that place, to be one of the many who made all the decisions for the whole village. The minority that had the majority on a palm.

The body was left for the local grave diggers who also worked as morticians, to carry it to isolated huts where dead bodies where prepared for burial. However, there was confusion as to where that particular corpse would be placed considering the sensitive issue that was attached to it. The girl was past her marriage years, she had committed the virgin’s crime, she had committed suicide, and the biggest two were that she was a twin and she an albino one at that. The matter was delicate. The elders whispered in one of the grave-digger’s ear and the body was carried towards the deserted fields on a hill where an old half-burnt hut was banned from use or visit. She would be buried the same night.

***

Mira refused to eat or speak to anyone. She oscillated from blackouts to raw consciousness that replayed the image of her children slumped under a tree, one dead and the other clinging on to her as if by doing so long enough death would accept the offer of a bonus body. The traditional healer was called, an old woman who claimed the spirits spoke to her and to her only. She claimed her back was bent so that her ear could be closer to the grounds to listen to the voices that vibrated under the earth’s skin, that her one blind eye was so because to see what everyone else couldn’t see required a different kind of vision, and that her arthritic hands were done so by the burdens that she carried from all the maladies that she had cured. She was to visit the mourning room three times; she had already smeared red mud with cow dung on Mira’s feet while she had passed out, at noon she arrived to soak the feet in a nasal burning concoction that was a mixture of different roots that were picked only at midnight, and she was to later wash the feet in clean water and smear hot oils on them.

“Why is all of this necessary? Will it bring back my child? Huh? Will it spit her out from the belly of death?” Mira spit near the old woman’s feet.

Low incantations drummed from the old woman’s throat.

Without looking at her she spoke in a calm voice, “This will help you walk away from the path of grief, in no time your heart will have forgotten the burden.” With that she left, leaving behind a heart insulted by the belief that a few roots and oils on her feet would mend her broken heart. Her husband was not allowed in the mourning room because men and women did not grieve the same way, he was to carry on with the logistics of the burial and show no weakness by crying. It was the woman’s job to cry on behalf of the whole family, it was her burden to carry.

In the opposite hut, Kumkani sat on a grass mat in an empty room with thick black blankets covering the windows. He was to sit in there until the burial. No one was to approach the room lest they wanted to inherit the curse that he carried. The great curse; Kumkani thought about the illogical meaning of it and how they had been told they would live until the age ten and thereafter the curse would come collect what belonged to it through death.

The curse. The twins were born on a strange afternoon – the day the moon passed between the sun and the earth, interrupting the normal course of life. The old healer was the one who had explained their skin colour with the eclipse and that because of the strangeness that had come with their birth, one child had become two. It was said that albinos were bad luck and that they would carry the curse of death with them until they reached ten, and by then only death would take away the curse. Their isolated upbringing had been decided upon by the elders, the only thing that their mother had been allowed to do was name them. It was a mother’s duty to name her children so that if she gave a bad name the burden of its consequences would fall into her hands.

Kumkani – her king. Kandake – her queen. She said she had gotten the names from a dream where a part of her travelled the world and she had come across Kandake while in the neighbouring lands and Kumkani when she travelled to the South. Baba Kifeda detached himself from the children from the very moment he saw two pale bodies wrapped in sheets, their orange hair resembling the sun and their eyes a colour that he had never seen on any one before.

***

“Gentlemen, the gods have thrown a challenge at us but if we put our heads together and agree to what we know must be done, this will be a simple procedure,” a croak from one of the oldest men in the village spoke. A ninety-year old man with eyes too youthful to belong to his wrinkled face addressed the congregation of ten decision-makers of the village.

They all wore bright white kangas around the waist and green and yellow striped ones to cover the upper body. Long fabrics were used to accommodate spilling bellies that came from large pots of traditional beer and roasted meat. There were murmurs and coughs all around. Baba Kifeda was not allowed since the delicate matter concerned him and his family and they did not want his interference with the decisions that would be taken. Although kept out of the large round room where important matters were discussed, he knew what they were discussing and what the outcome would be. While they chose when and how the arrangements would be handled concerning his daughter he sat under a mango tree, deep in thought, regret picking at his thoughts like a vulture does at the discovery of an unfinished carcass.

There was a law against virgins spreading their legs before marriage. If a girl was found to have broken that law she would be confined to a far off place for a month without seeing her family, only the elders knew what was to be done to her. No girl who had ever been there had ever spoken of her punishment, there were people who had their suspicions but no one dared challenge or question the elders. Kandake was a rebellious child and chose to do as she pleased with her body, at eighteen she and a boy from another village had been discovering intimacy in the bushes until they were caught and she was brought before the elders. When she returned a month later she spoke up but no one would believe her, her own father thrashed her for speaking ill of the most respectable men throughout the whole region.

“But Baba, they took turns…”

Thrash!

“I’m begging you Baba you have to believe me, those rapists…”

Thrash!

Her father had beaten her until raw flesh showed and her pale skin turned blue, black and green. A week later and he was sitting there begging the gods for forgiveness. The image of her daughter with the message she had left for him to see; the blood between her thighs – “They did this to me,” she was reminding him. If only he had done something. He had always been a follower, always nodded to the things that his heart asked him to disagree with but what could he have done? Go against tradition? He would have had dire consequences to face. Now he was to face another decision taken by the elders, a decision picked from the unwritten laws of tradition, not to be twisted or changed in any way, he would have to agree for that’s how things had always been done.

He watched the men pour out in different directions, to drink and rest before the burial. It had been decided, he could tell by the way all of them ignored his presence and avoided looking at him. He sat there in silence and defeat, as always.

***

The women’s voices could be heard from a distance as they led the burial to the grave. The grave was dug in an isolated place, away from the rest of the dead. The elders followed in mud red robes, carrying calabashes and ahead of them was the elders’ mouthpiece who delivered their messages, promoted their propaganda and spoke at funerals. Behind them came a group of large, rock-hard men who were the guards of the village, guards of the elders to be exact. Seven of them carried shovels on one side and machetes on the other, while six of them carried the cheap box that had the deceased. Behind them was Mira, her husband and Kumkani in the middle, holding his mother’s hand. His uncle couldn’t be found anywhere.

As soon as they reached the grave the singing came to a halt and an eerie silence swept over them. The sun said its last goodbyes and darkness was dressing the sky. The speaker, in a long white robe, beads around his neck and a long thin stick in his hand, asked everyone to bow their heads. He spoke to the gods in a language no one knew, so fast that his tongue could have been caught between his teeth.

When he finished his invocations, his voice unsure and shaky, “Er…we all know that the twins are born attached to the same umbilical cord.”

Behind him, on a grass mat sat the family. Mira’s shoulders trembled but her cries were quiet. Baba Kifeda didn’t blink. His Adam’s apple moved up and down his throat, so sharp it looked as though it were about to pierce his neck. The veins on his neck were of serpentine shape, his jaws were hard and his fists clenched in his lap, nails digging the flesh of his palms.

There was a heavy silence, the wind swept the soil and a brown cloud rose in the air.

“People, the gods cannot be kept waiting,” the speaker said as the body was lowered into the grave. There was only the sound of the box hitting the sides and the men’s grunts as they made effort not to drop the coffin. The grave was much deeper than they had anticipated, unusual for a burial but given the circumstances they understood. The elders looked towards the family and an old man with a white beard, known to be feared by all waved to the boy to stand up. Kumkani trembled.

“It’ll be okay,” came the words of his father, his large hand on his shoulder. The first time he had ever spoken that softly to his son. Mira held on to him and pleaded to her husband with her eyes but to no avail. Two men came and freed the boy from his mother’s grasp.

“Young man, if you do not touch your sister’s grave, the cord will remain intact and soon she will pull you to join her in the land she now dwells in. Get in there, stomp your feet four times to leave the dust of your bond with her and then you shall live in peace.”

Kumkani was helped into the grave, he stomped his feet four times and stretched his hands towards the men to help him back up.

The old man with the long white beard nodded to one of the men and as quick as lightning the men had their shovels and were thrusting soil into the grave. The boy screamed his mother’s name but she and her husband were held back with machetes. The people of the village stood back in horror, their bulging eyes asking questions towards the elders but the set, hard faces of the elders dared any of them to interrupt. No one did, especially with machetes drawn in front of them. The boy screamed, the mother’s screams could have raised the dead on the other side. Deep in the grave, Kumkani was overpowered by the weight of the earth, and was finding it hard to breath and before anyone could swallow what was taking place, a heap of soil covered the grave. It was done. The only sound that penetrated the air was Mira’s agonised howl. Some of the women of the village let their tears fall but they knew nothing could be done.

In darkness, long after her wife had been carried away after her attempts to unearth her son, after everyone had returned to their homes to have their meals and pretend nothing had happened, Baba Kifeda sat under the tree where his daughter had died. His jaw was in a twist, the side of the face contorted and numb. His eyes looked as though they were permanently staring at a ghost and his ears rang as he listened to the piercing sounds of his screaming wife. There was nothing he could do, tradition had spoken.

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