The Barbarian’s Marriage Proposal
The Cook Communications Winner for the London 2012 Caine Prize
Short Story by
A P von K’Ory
February 1967. This was probably the last day of Khira’s life, and, knowing her family and how they solved situations, it would be a violent end. Probably for Auntie too. An adoption was out of the question, a marriage completely alien.
But love had its own Justinian Code.
Half orphaned Khira, Erik and their entourage set out for the journey shortly before sunrise. They drove through the majestic Rift Valley and the Escarpment, past people already displaying fruits and vegetables, colourful woven trays and beadwork, for sale on the roadside.
Vendors and buyers alike waved to them. A woman with a generation’s worth of children, one turning her into a dromedary, the others sorting out fruits and vegetables on makeshift tables, delegated duties to them. A boiled-eggs-seller was so eager at his profession he thought it in order to share half the road with the vehicles, making Joseph, the chauffeur, almost swerve into the oncoming traffic. A mile farther, in a dangerous s-curve, an ancient bus had broken down, the fact announced by green branches strewn on the ground several yards from the bus at both rear and front.
Vast carpets of luscious green tea plantations for tens of miles, shining under a cloudless blue sky, until the land rose into the undulating dense equatorial forests of Naru Moro hills. Thirty minutes later, the Uasin Gishu terrain alternated between thickets, shrub land and carefully cultivated eucalyptus, fir and pine forests.
Joseph, with Auntie in the passenger seat, targeted a lot of ruts that belched dust smoke especially in the wake of lorries or country buses that barged about and had no intention of giving anybody any right of way. These vehicles stopped in helter-skelter groups to scramble for passengers which included domestic animals and poultry; strictly excluded dogs. Humans, animals and birds were yelling simultaneously at the top of their voices. As Joseph manoeuvred his way through, a few people pounded on his window offering a couple of extra Shillings for Joseph to take them on as passengers. Through the darkened windows, they couldn’t see Khira and the two bwanas in the backseat, a fact that would have saved Joseph all that pounding.
He and his élite passengers consumed pints of juice and water. Erik swore often and excused his language to Khira. Auntie ranted on and off , and wholly distanced herself from the purpose of this drive, in between reading her Bible and mumbling prayers. Her duty was to be Khira’s duenna. That other parts of the Bwana’s body decided on marriage instead of adoption was nothing she could control. Khira was sixteen after all, men men.
Khira herself felt wonderful; for the immediate future looked forward to impressing the daylights out of everybody at her family’s farm in Kipkarren – arriving in a limousine with a uniformed chauffeur and two bwanas. Jean-Marie, the obligatory companion for a Luoland marriage proposal visit, sat in a pensive mood studying the terrain, except when Joseph’s soliciting passengers posed personal threats to the Frenchman. But if you worked for Erik Lindqvist, be prepared to go into orbit any time.
When the limousine rolled to a stop in Grandfather’s compound, Auntie was the first one out, determined not to be associated with the entire maneno. She hugged and kissed swarms of children who milled noisily around the car and the strangers, half awed, half thrilled at the rare occasion of touching a car.
Grandfather Solomon, looming large in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved scarlet shirt, approached the car, commanding the children with mock threats to step aside. He was well groomed as always, his snow-white hair emphasising his complexion.
“I’ve brought guests, Grandfather. But there ends my responsibility.”
With that, Auntie walked away cooing to three children in her arms.
Erik stepped out and helped Khira after him. Rahab, Khira’s favourite cousin, fiercely hugged her.
Jean-Marie came out and stood next to Erik who was busy surveying the compound, his brain in overdrive.
Khira, her arm around Rahab, approached Grandfather and shook his hand – very delicately. She introduced Erik to him, “This is my…ah…Migosi Lindqvist, Grandfather.” She didn’t introduce Grandfather to Erik.
The man with a battalion’s worth of children and still marrying young girls, thought Erik.
Khira spied her mother a distance away, as that tongue-twister of a name tried to uproot Grandfather’s tongue. She skipped off quickly, squealing and grateful for the convenient escape, dragging Rahab with her.
Joseph remained behind the wheel, re-checking his handbrake for the sake of the million crawlers around the wheels.
Solomon shook hands first with Jean-Marie since he was obviously the older of the two half-humans, then with Erik. Solomon’s sons and adult grandsons shook hands with the scorched-skinned creatures, followed by the older children who were not too distracted by the limousine, but then skipped straight back to it immediately. The maidens and womenfolk did not shake any hands: they were either married or betrothed maidens of good breeding, never to have any physical contact with strange men, not to mention strange half-humans.
“Come with me, guests, and be welcome in my compound and house,” Grandfather Solomon told the half-humans in Kiswahili. “What about your friend there,” he pointed at Joseph. “Come, guest, and be welcome in my home. Come.”
Joseph joined the group walking to Solomon’s house.
“Forgive us, Solomon,” Erik said, making Solomon stop in his stride, “But we are not discourteous guests. The journey had to be made as we have done it.” Erik had rehearsed this with Khira dozens of times. He had spoken in Dholuo. And, although he spoke politely indeed, he also deliberately broke the first code of conduct – he addressed Solomon by his first name before it was established whether to addressed each other formally or informally.
Erik the wily Viking, knew Solomon would interpret this as masculine fearlessness.
“Then you’re no strangers, alien friends,” Solomon gave Erik one of Luoland’s convoluted language. As Khira had warned him, out here nobody quite called a spade a spade. “Accept what you find before you in my home, however humble or sumptuous.”
Erik entered Solomon’s house feeling pleased with himself. When the four of them plus Solomon’s son Samuel were seated around an unpretentious table covered with a colourful cotton cloth, Erik again beat Solomon at propriety and introduced his companions to him and his son. True to his kind, Erik was forever aware of time, a thing as distantly existent in the conscious perception of the likes of Solomon – whose clocks were significant events – as their taste buds or skins.
Solomon sat on his faded old armchair while the others sat on the three-ply chairs. He introduced himself and his son Samuel, as tall as his father, but darker in complexion. Erik noticed that Solomon was even lighter-complexioned than Khira. But she had his eyes – enormous, almond-shaped, lambent and mink-coloured.
Erik’s mind rattled away. Etiquette. He enquired about the health of the children, the health of the mothers of the children, provoked lusty laughter when he said the health of the maidens only got ruined by strutting bucks. He didn’t ask about the health of the men. Males were never sick, however sick they got.
Solomon talked to Erik in Dholuo – a privilege rarely accorded any jamwa – while Samuel interpreted.
Presently Doreena, the latest of Solomon’s young wives, brought in spiced tea made from half milk half water with freshly pounded ginger. A special Luoland treat. She demurely served the guests after a general verbal greeting.
When Erik sipped his tea, he found it too sweet to drink. Disregarding his host, he addressed the man’s wife directly and in Solomon’s presence, in Kiswahili – and thus eliminating Samuel’s interpreter role as well.
“The tea is too sugary. Make me some fresh one without any sugar.”
This one was straight out of Freud’s centrefold. Doreena sweetly smiled and apologised to her husband, not to Erik, and hurried off to make the tea.
“You have a very pretty wife. I almost envy you.” Erik The Knife In Wound Twister.
It was enough for Solomon. Who did this jamwa think he was, arriving unannounced like the uncultured creature he was and now being liberal with his barbarism even to his own wife, ordering her around in his own house? Did he feed, house and sleep with her for him? Well and they were indeed half-humans, this one of the half-plant variety. Judging by the colour of his hair and eyes. They have ears but they never hear correctly. And with these animal eyes that kept shifting colour like the composure of a greedy courtesan or a faithless wife, the Old Wise Ones’ stories say they never see anything like human beings should. They say one thing and do another. And vice versa.
Solomon now did exactly what Erik had angled for: he came to the point. Erik had no time for niceties, The Lindqvist Group waited to be expanded.
Vexed, Solomon turned to his son and said, “Ask these mwache about the purpose of their visit. Their course is turning more barbaric and the sooner I get rid of them the better.”
Samuel interpreted, editing out the last sentence.
“I came to inform you that I love Khira and I’m going to marry her.” Erik had noticed the dark rage on Solomon’s face and was now determined to shove him overboard, make him lose face. Face loss out here was worth suicide.
A! The scorched-skinned had an excrement of a nerve! “So. To inform me. I suppose in his blindness he hasn’t seen that Khira is a Luo maiden – my granddaughter.”
“I love her, Solomon.”
The creature was arrogant and courageous. He kept on insulting his sensibilities. But Solomon had to be dignified as befitting his position in this house and compound.
“Khira is my granddaughter and already betrothed. She’s a Luo maiden.”
“I’m good enough for your granddaughter, Solomon, and I also happen to be the man she loves.” Go ahead and yell your head off in your own house at a guest.
“Khira is betrothed to a proper Luo buck, by the blood of my ancestors!”
“Not since Saturday morning, Solomon. Now she’s betrothed to me.”
Joseph sipped his tea calmly. Jean-Marie’s eyes continually darted to the spears, shields, arrows in quivers, bows and a scimitar in an ancient leather scabbard, which were arranged on Solomon’s walls. He wished he could say something, particularly warn Erik to control himself.
“I choose the man who is worthy of marrying my granddaughter,” Solomon talked to Erik through his son although Erik talked to him directly. “And by the blood of the ancients he shall never be a scorched-skinned excrement of…”
Samuel interrupted his father who now came near disgracing himself in the teeth of his vexation. “Bahba, please be civil.” He then told Erik the first half of his father’s sentence.
Erik thought: Got you going now. I’m a super–savage descended from a bunch of savages going back thousands of years and, believe me, my lot had not enough sunshine to make them continue living up trees for shade or dozing under fruit trees with piths and peels piled around them, their bellies full. “Solomon, you chose for her when she was an infant. Now she is a young woman and can do the choosing for herself. I happen to be her choice.”
Solomon sent for Khira. Since when did Khira, since when did a daughter, know how to choose a husband for herself? Just see what she had come up with!
Samuel poked his head in the doorway and bellowed, “Khhiiiraaaa!” then sat again.
Doreena brought in her sugarless tea and served her half-plant guest.
“Asante sana,” Erik thanked Doreena. He left his tea untouched, had another brainstorm. He got up and said he wanted to stretch his legs. He was a guest, his wishes a command. He went outside, thinking of another version of Freud’s centrefold. He stood with his hands in his pockets surveying the compound again, eyes searching for Khira. Divisions of babies and children were crawling everywhere, even at the wheels still and on the bonnet – wobblers, crawlers, skippers, toddlers, you name it. Older children up in the fruit trees. Twenty-five to thirty houses of mud and brick and of various sizes and shapes, with corrugated iron roofs and tended euphorbia hedges between them singly or in groups, marking individual territories of husbands and wives – a permanent variation of piss-boundaries. Several young, older and old ladies fiddling with their hair, combing and braiding under shades of the trees or the eaves and awnings. Complexions of the entire range of blackness – from that false black-brown to nut-brown, from bronze-brown to yellow gold. Skins smooth as mirrors, not a pimple even on pubescent faces. Most crawlers and toddlers in nature uniform, male and female. Some huge randy red cock worrying a dilapidated cockerel while ignoring the plump hens. A pregnant nanny-goat stealing towards a vegetable garden but being shooed away by a top-less nubile beauty (breasts still just cherry-sized implants under the skin), with such grace that it appeared to be a choreographed Hellenic ballet. The entire compound seemed to be a harmonious ballet from a future past. A dozen or so very pregnant ladies going about their chores like ships rocking in anchor on calm waters. They made babies here like it was about to be prohibited. Survival of the busiest.
Khira came out of the hut with her mother who looked more like her twin sister. The twin sister saw Erik smiling at her and quickly retreated her steps back into her hut.
He met Khira halfway, took her hand and said, “You made a pretty fast disappearing act back there on our arrival, my soul, hmm?”
“I know, heart. Had to be done like that.”
“Uh-huh.” He held her to him. “Your Mamma is a beauty and looks younger than you.”
She made no comment on that. Instead she asked, “How’s it going, my life?” She was very anxious, her eyes darting around, head swivelling, because he had his arms around her in the open in broad daylight and in Grandfather’s holy kingdom of well-bred maidens. The women who saw them hurried indoors. The children romped and laughed and waved at them. Some of them were up on the branches of avocado and mango trees. Khira waved back. The men were nowhere in sight.
That did not signal a friendly atmosphere.
Erik grinned rakishly down at the nervous Khira, answered, “Difficult to say yet. A few thrusts and parries. Think I look good. Will you stop trying to wiggle out of my arms, princess, you’ll break yourself.” His six-foot-four frame swallowed her.
She whispered, “Heart, I told you it’s more than rude and indecent to hold me like this in public. It’s in fact taboo to…”
“Who’s stopping me?”
She puffed out a resignation sigh shaking her head.
He led her back into the house and stood with her, an arm around her waist.
Grandfather got apoplectic. “Khira! Tell that half-plant creature to keep his hands off you – especially in front of me! This is not a sleeping chamber! Don’t they teach the creatures any manners where they come from?”
If only he was not in his own house, if only the matter didn’t involve what it involved! But Solomon had the entire clan’s face to save.
Erik thought: Smart, addressing your granddaughter. To her you can scream your head off without losing face.
“Grandfather,” Khira began, determined to dole out fire for fire as she’d promised herself. “He has a right to hold his future wife in front of anybody. It’s acceptable in his culture.”
The “future wife” appellation was Khira’s first tongue of the flame.
Grandfather looked at Khira and fear gripped his chest. This couldn’t be Khira. Suddenly he felt like an antelope catching the whiff of grazers who were not antelopes. The tail whipped around in nervousness. Neck compassed the savannah. Nostrils dilated.
“Khira, he’s in my house now, and his barbarism is unwelcome here.” Controlled calmness. “What’s that I hear about future wife? What did the two of you do and where, to make you choose the creature for a husband? Can’t you see what the creature is?”
“I see nothing else but what he is, Grandfather. An honourable man who has acted with befitting propriety and come to ask for the hand of the maiden he loves.”
The fear tightened in Grandfather’s chest. They’ve made her vile, the jealous ones! Khira did not even look at him like a female, did not talk like a maiden of her breeding! “Khira, do you imagine I would allow you to give me scorched-skinned great-grandchildren? This thing is a half-plant. I don’t want half-plants born in this family. Look at him.” Khira eyes remained on Grandfather. He continued, “Look at the colour of his hair and those animal eyes, endlessly changing like the petals of the simbia flower on a moody day! Like the eyes of a night beast! You would end up with offspring…!” He could see the little monsters in his mind’s eyes.
That’s when Solomon t decided to consult the potent witchdoctor.
His fear squeezing his heart, he became even softer of tone and asked, “My pearl, have you perhaps disgraced yourself with the creature?”
Here Khira’s eyes wavered from his face to her feet. Well, we didn’t do anything disastrous. The family’s precious commodity is still intact. “We only declared our love for each other to each other, Grandfather.”
“So! You simply stood there like two mountain rocks who could at least talk and hear each other. Khira, did you let the creature fool around with you?”
Khira shot back, annoyed, “I haven’t let any man touch me, Grandfather. I’m my father’s daughter!” She fought hard against the invading visions of their embraces at the weekend.
“Good. Then you’ll marry your betrothed, Kwoyo’s son. Tell that uncultured creature to take his arms off you and forever keep them off you.”
“No, Grandfather. With all my worshipping love and respect for you, I shall never marry Barry. I’ll marry this uncultured creature. He alone shall be my lord.”
So. She’s prepared to elope with him. Was she perhaps already with child? He sent for Auntie. The stupid duenna had failed the whole family, the entire clan!
Courtesy of her age, this time Samuel didn’t bellow but went out to get Auntie.
Jean-Marie cleared his throat discreetly, unable to take another sip of his sweet tea. He had followed the proceedings with Joseph as a whispering interpreter. He wished Erik would at least sit down. But Erik and Khira remained on their feet with Khira whispering to him about what had gone on between her and Grandfather. And of course she would never mention intact hymens to Erik. Omission, however, was no lie.
Samuel returned with Auntie who, as soon as she was through the door, was delivering mitigating factors and exonerating herself.
“Well, I wrote two letters when the world began and the Gods had their sunrise meal, and said that the child was now a woman and needs the embrace of a husband. And I wrote, crying, that I will not accept being held responsible if she succumbs to such embraces with a crocodile in the grass. I wrote…”
“Sit down first, Dacha. I haven’t opened my mouth so where is your executioner or even prosecutor?” Solomon’s brows were furrowed, his heart filthy, his soul a heap of yesterday’s excrement, his liver made of bile. He remained silent, thinking. His great-aunt took a seat – as far away from him and as near the door as possible.
At last he said, “Dacha, look at my pride of a jewel and tell me what you see.”
“I see what you see,” she answered promptly. Her great nephew was called Solomon, but she didn’t read the Bible for nothing either.
Khira stifled a giggle. Top of the class, Auntie!
Solomon now spoke calmly, almost reverently. “So tell me of one remotest person in the whole land whose daughter would have a half-plant crooking its arm around them, let alone that it’s done in front of all and sundry.”
“Well and how can I tell you any such thing when none of the daughters had had a half-plant coming to ask for their hand in marriage?” She sat regally, nose up. She had absolutely nothing to do with the entire unpleasantness, oh, no.
“Because that’s my headache. Some snake-hearted vermin has gone and cast an evil spell on Khira. Her looks has brought us a catastrophe.” He had his knees apart, palms clamped on each knee, elbows jutting out as if he was about to raise his rear and engage in Sumo wrestling.
Khira was seething inside, embarrassed no end. For Erik. She knew what was coming next. For the millionth time she wished she were Joyce, her girlfriend, with Joyce’s modern, civilised, European-high-society family. Why, had she been Joyce, she and Erik would’ve simply telephoned around, invited the family and friends over to glorious Gothenburg Mansion to celebrate their engagement, then she’d have an engagement ring on her finger just like in the Brönte novels, and the following day she, Erik, the family and friends would have gone for a sumptuous picnic at the Arboretum, strolled around it reading names of the trees and flowering shrubs and bushes – in Latin, you! But here she was with a pack of Mesozoicians quite definitely thinking of consulting another dinosaur who wears monkey skins. She, the Princess of Gothenburg Mansion in person, who’d come in a limousine with a chauffeur and two bwanas believing she’d impress the devil out of everybody. Blushing with embarrassment, she had no choice but to translate what was being discussed to Erik in whispers, taking great care to be a magnificent editor. Erik must never know that she still had an intact hymen.
Solomon gave orders for his son Mordecai to go fetch witchdoctor Wach who lived four miles away.
“A great decision, Nephew. The uncultured creature even keeps a lion.”
“A lion,” said Solomon. “What’s a lion doing in Nairobi City?”
“Ho, haven’t I said this one even sleeps inside the house on its own bed?”
Ordovicians! thought Khira as she told Erik what the discussion was about. But she continued being the perfect editor. Intact maidenheads were for the heathen.
Erik only hoped that when the witchdoctor arrived he would not be asked to leap over fires in the nude while ululating. But if asked to utter war cries he’d give them a booming rendition of HA! SVENSKA!
“Khira, child, why this uncultured creature? There are hundreds of Luo men who would kill for you, if you don’t want your Barry.”
“I can never love another but him, Grandfather. And there’re hundreds of Luos married to Europeans. Europeans are human beings… ”
“Nobody from this family nor this clan is! We’re an upright folk jealous of our homogeneity! If other Luos choose to act in despicable manners, I don’t intend to disgrace myself by joining in!”
“Then I’ll be the pioneer. From your teachings, Grandfather, there’s such a mixture of blood in the family going back to the Nile…”
“Hold your tongue, child!” Solomon turned to his great-aunt. Khira was too full of this evil for any arguments. “Dacha, do you think that the jewel’s now an alloy?”
“She’s conducting herself like one, isn’t she?”
“Woman, you witnessed her conduct, I didn’t. You were her duenna!”
“Well and what I witnessed is what we’re all witnessing now.” The woman, for her own safety more than for the safety of her ward, chose not to mention adoption considerations, and any kisses. Solomon’s temper was cheek-by-jowl uninviting.
Khira too, inundated with her acquired city-girl affectations, whispered everything to Erik but chose not to say the state of her maidenhead was what was mostly in question. Ironically, though, Erik was the one forever endeavouring to disrobe her of her ravelled, misguided convictions in the meaning and relativity of civilisation and culture. Yet she still didn’t want Erik to think of her as such a real African, and not as sophisticated as Erik’s ex-mistress Frances, the woman Auntie first mistook for the bwana’s wife.
Solomon turned back to Khira. “So. You have to pioneer harlotry in the family with a scorched-skinned half-plant creature. What drives you to such martyrdom?”
Khira decided that she and Erik had been subjected to enough insults. She turned the flame into a conflagration. “Grandfather, if my beloved is scorched-skinned then I’m pretty charred myself. It’s you who constantly taught us that colour is nature’s secret – one of nature’s secrets – and nobody can swear that green looks the same in everybody’s mind. You said that one person could be seeing in their mind what another, were they to get into the first person’s mind, could very well term red instead of green. But because they don’t live in each other’s minds they’d come to agree on the labels from the time the ancients learnt to use words. I love the colour of my male. I don’t see why his colouration makes him a half-plant. I only see him as a man and a human being, not a half-human creature.”
“How can you do that? You’re my own flesh and blood, Khira! I can’t understand it and will never accept it!”
“But, Grandfather, with all due respect, you also taught us children that one cannot accept or reject what one does not understand.” She was her grandfather’s granddaughter. Let him now have the so-called male side of her that he always admired but thought wasted on her gender.
She’d always come up with words that floored him. Grandfather looked at her as if thinking: See how coarse your behaviour has become. Which female would point out a man’s mistake to him so boldly in broad daylight and before alien company? Besides, I’m your grandfather, by the blood of the ancients!
“Go back to your mother!” Solomon dismissed Khira.
She briefly explained to Erik what had gone on. Then she was gone like thin smoke.
“Vansinne!” Erik mumbled to himself in her wake.
Auntie followed Khira out and both joined Mahma outside her hut where Mahma had been wringing her hands and the hem of her dress all at once. She was a woman, understood her daughter’s insanity over the forty-year-old European. The perfect husband-age for her child, born three months after her Bahba died. Khira needed a father-husband, not some wild young buck with wandering eyes.
“The heart is self-willed, my husband’s beloved, and Europeans are good Christian people,” was her verdict when Khira spoke of her love for Erik.
Inside Solomon’s house, Erik remained standing, his hands pocketed, watching Solomon who’d relapsed into deep thought in quietude again.
Aeons later he said to his son, “Tell this creature I don’t need a column to support my roof.”
Samuel asked Erik to resume his seat.
Erik sat casually, thinking of the Stock Exchange. He hated Solomon’s shilly-shallying, wished the tyrant would do his thinking verbally. He could read Solomon’s mind better when the man talked.
“He’s a difficult man, Monsieur le Patron,” Jean-Marie dared air his views for the first time, talking in French, relieved the giant Swede had sat down at last.
“I’m more difficult, Jean-Marie. I’ll get my girl one way or another.”
The exchange of words between the half-humans brought Solomon’s attention back to them. “Son, tell the half-plant I believe he has touched Khira.” He was agonising over having his pride and dignity injured. A daughter slept with in the grass by a half-plant creature! He wouldn’t know where to bury his head.
“Of course I’ve touched her. I love her. I’ve kissed her, I’ve held her in my arms…”
“And then went no further, when he is supposedly a man and she is a beautiful jewel? Or is something wrong with his virility?”
Erik, sensitive on this subject like all men, exploded, “No, there’s nothing wrong with my bloody virility, Solomon! Your granddaughter will be very content in my bed!”
So, from where does the creature know with such certainty that he would satisfy Khira unless he’s tried it? Like fingerprints, no two women are the same.
A commotion suddenly broke outside from the children.
Khira, Mahma and Auntie, sitting under the eaves of the hut’s doorway, turned to see the arrival of witchdoctor Wach. He was astride the carrier of Mordecai’s bicycle. He looked very impressive indeed in colobus monkey skins, paints from chalk, charcoal to ochre, horns, bones, shells, python skins and each sleeve sheathed in the remains of cobras whose heads formed epaulettes on his naked shoulders. He wore feathers, rattles anklets, beads, heads, claws and teeth of all sorts of beasts and…
Khira stopped evaluating the witchdoctor’s full regalia, looked away.
Wach got off the bicycle, wielding his fly whisks of buffalo and giraffe tails, and was guided into the house of First Wife.
Khira was relieved by that fact. She didn’t want Erik to see Wach.
Solomon was summoned, said to Samuel, “Son, tell this thing that our talks will continue when I come back, and I’ll come back when I come back.” He strode out.
Erik looked at his watch and cursed. “And how long do you think it will take before he comes back?” he asked Samuel after Samuel had translated his father’s last sentence, word for word.
“Can’t say, Bwana. Maybe half an hour, maybe more or maybe less of course.”
Erik responded, “Oh, beautiful. Maybe even a century, what?”
“Maybe, Bwana,” said Samuel calmly, as if stating a universally obvious truth, like sunrise.
Skit! The Stock bloody Exchange, for God’s sake. Erik hadn’t even seen a newspaper this morning. He got up and went out again.
Khira leapt to Erik’s side. He led her to the car that he now had trouble recognising as his usually gleaming limousine. She told him where Grandfather and Mighty Wach were in consultation. They sat in the car with all doors wide open owing to the heat, ate a banana between them. Erik poured himself some water.
“D’you think if I asked arrogantly enough, Solomon would let me join them in their conference?”
She laughed, “Oh, no, heart. Both of them wouldn’t. And you don’t wish to see the witchdoctor, he looks like multi-death!”
“That interesting? I’d like to meet him. He’s not an everyday sight.” He looked at his watch. Twenty to twelve. He’d arrived at eight-thirty that morning. Skit, he’d thought he’d be finished with the family dictator in an hour or so. “Princess, how far is the next telephone around here? I’d like to phone the office.”
“About six miles away. But I’d advise you not to leave to go and telephone, then come back to talk to Grandfather about marrying his granddaughter. He’d ask you whether the telephone rejected your marriage proposal or whether you discovered it was barren and would cheat you out of sons.”
Odin. “Okay, we’ll forget the Stock… ah… the telephone.”
She laughed. “Now that you’ve met Grandfather, tell me what you think of his prejudices?”
“Hmm, yes. He’s racially biased but in a positive sort of way, you know.”
“Heart! Oh, I knew he’d find pearls even in a pig-sty!”
“That’s it, my soul. No pig-sty here. Only tightly closed shellfish. Solomon’s very majestic about his prejudices. If the situation were to be reversed – if you were me and I you – they wouldn’t let us into their home, let alone sit down and talk to us about their objections. In fact in America, they’d shoot you just for looking at me or gather around and lynch you, revelling in it all like a bunch of mediaeval occultists. Now, that’s barbarism, or d’you find that modern and civilised?”
She looked at her lap. “I suppose you’re right.”
Solomon and Wach came out at last. Erik saw them first. He’d been keeping watch. “Here they are at last,” he told Khira.
“Ancestors,” she covered her face with her hands. “Now you see what I meant.”
“För Guds skull,” he murmured. “Not bad. It’s just his version of the couch and the funny-peculiar drawings, all for the good of the clients, my soul.”
He got out of the car.
Khira remained seated, doubled over with embarrassment.
Erik strutted to meet the two men and shook hands very firmly with the dumbfounded Mighty Wach. The witchdoctor winced and looked terrified to death. He had never seen one of the creatures up close, let alone one with eyes behaving like those of a night beast.
Erik said in Kiswahili, chortling, “You look very impressive there, mate. I like your uniform.”
Wach looked at Erik as if the creature spun off the evolutionary balance. When Erik released his hand, Wach hurried off wordlessly, studying his palm and the back of his hand. He was relieved to find the back of his hand still in its original colour. He accepted the randy cock Erik had observed earlier on plus ten Shillings, from Mordecai, as fees for his services. Then he straddled the bicycle’s carrier clutching the cock under his armpit as Mordecai pedalled him away.
Solomon headed back to his house without a word to Erik, who followed in his wake. When they were seated again he told Samuel, “My son, we have to sacrifice Khira. We have to get rid of her. The evil possessing her is from this creature. He may marry her. We have to get rid of the evil so that it will not be grazing among us.” He wiped his face with both hands. “Mighty Wach has judged that she’s bewitched by the uncultured creature.”
Samuel cleared his voice and then translated his father’s words to Erik.
HA! SVENSKA! he almost fisted the air with triumph.