July 3rd, 2021
The old man was a fixture at the shore, his brown feet pressed into the ground sturdy like a tree that peered out into the vastness of the sea. He was faithful in his routine, each day at dusk he ventured beyond the limits of the village where the trees gave way to soft white sands. There, he sat in contemplation as the boundless ocean offered him a pity that the old man politely declined. He was not motivated by guilt or shame, his impetus was duty.
One day as the old man sat crossed legged with the wind squeezing between his linen, a local child happened upon him and dug his dark little toes into the sand so that the hold man could not detect him. The boy had watched the old man for days, he had what his father explained as patience. The boy wondered if the old man got it from the ocean. The boy wiped his nose in the v-cut. dollar of his shirt and squatted down not far from the old man. He used his eyes to pry into the old mans mind and attempted to survey his thoughts.
"You do not know what you do not know." the old man said without turning toward the boy.
The boy's body turned rigid but he kept quiet. Maybe the old man was talking to himself. "Why come out here to talk to himself?" the boy thought.
"Kuuliza si ujinga (To ask is not stupidity)."The old man said into the wind.
The boys rigidness gave way as curiosity overwhelmed him, "How did you know?"
"Mtu no watu (A person is people)." he smiled still not bothering to turn to face the boy.
"Why do you come here?" asked the boy.
"Ahadi no deni (A promise is a debt)."
"Bei gani (How much)?"
"Come," the old man patted the sand beside himself "and I will tell you."
The boy put his hands into the sand and playfully kicked the sand while he crawled to him. He sat next to him and mimicked his position, folding his legs, one upon the other he said, "Jina langu ni Jibu (My name is Jibu)."
"Does not matter." The old man said dismissively. "Maarifa is for everyone."
A moment passed between them like mist. In that moment time was not linear, they were not boy and man but parts of a whole. Each of them acknowledged it as it passed. "A long time ago," the old man stared into the eye of the ancestors, "some of us were taken right from these shores."
The boy looked out onto the blue as if he expected to find footprints. "Who took us?"
"Are you here to protect us?" the boy inquired.
"No," the man replied. "Someone must be here when our people return."
"How long has it been?"
"Who will wait when you are gone?"
"Me?" the boy was astonished. "What about the ghosts?"
"The day you see them, run."
Grandfather had a way of telling stories like that. I had absolutely no idea if his intent was to scare me or educate me. Then he'd say, "Fear is education." There was never gore involved in his story but the thought of being taken, thee imminence of disappearing seemed forebodingly familiar. That was my first experience in being haunted. I pictured translucent beings overrunning our streets ad stealing my friends and I from our beds. As I thought about it, my blankets crept above my nose. I silently searched my room for intruders.
My brother laughed as if the story wasn't full of fright. "I know a story way scarier." he said. "And it's true."
All of my brother's stories were based on true events and all were presented with the disclaimer, "I'm not lying." That was our cycle, he lied and I believed him so deeply that it scared the shit out of me. My brother was five years my elder and kind it his moral obligation to cause me to panic and protect me at the same time. I knew that he would lie and I knew that I would still be afraid.
He started in on a story involving our uncle Mason. Mason's picture graced the walls of every family member but there was not much talk about him.
He was a handsome man that "had a way with women." But that sentiment would quickly whittle into silence which I had always thought was out of respect for his memory. My brother worked to suspend that thought.
"Uncle Mason was murdered," he said. "By the same kind of ghosts in Grandpa's story." He went on to explain that the ghosts had come in the form of men that carried fistfuls of fire that they used to find fear."
"Fear?" I gulped, condemned by the anxiety laced breath that I held against my rib.
"Yup," he nodded. "They can smell it. And still everyone was afraid when they came."
"Uncle Mason was afraid?"
"Why do you think no one talks about him?" he shrugged nonchalantly, his detachment indicated disappointment, his way of disowning our uncle on account of fear. "He screamed and cried before he was killed."
"How was he killed?" I heard myself ask.
Night crept into our room like a stranger and nestled itself snugly in the cracks and crevices. If it weren't for the moonlight shining through the window I wouldn't have been able to see my brother's face. He sat up and stretched his scrawny frame and slipped his feet into his slippers.
"Where you going?" I asked.
"T'get something to drink."
Not to be left alone with my frightened imagination I kept out of bed and followed him. He stopped at the door and listened for mom and dad. Ten steps was the measure and one side step, to avoid the creaking floor panel. We navigated the minefield and stopped near our parents' bedroom door. No light shone from underneath, we heard dad's snore. Though distracted my fear had not gone, it had subtly morphed into the very real fear of being caught.
We tiptoed the edge of the stairs closest to the rail, that was the way to avoid irritating the old house's sore spots and causing it to groan. Our house was grumpy like that. It reminded me of my grandmother who seemed to detest movement of any kind.
In the house, she told us to sit down, in church we were to be still, and any movement toward the rickety wire-hanger for an antennae, she would toss a shoe at our heads with miraculous precision. Every time the house squealed my brother told it to "shut up."
We made it to the kitchen where my brother poured us both a cup of peach Nehi pop. "Cookies?" he asked.
For what seemed like an eternity we chewed and gulped unable to enjoy our snack because we had to keep an ear out. When we were done my brother flicked the light on to check for evidence—no crumbs, we were good. We navigated the maze of maladies that was our home and made it back to our bedroom without being found out. We emitted muted giggles at the success of our crime.
"Hey," my brother called as he held up two generic toaster pastries.
This time I nodded emphatically. He tossed me one. "How?"
"Stash," he smiled slyly.
I stashed mine beneath my mattress.
"You don't want it?"
"Later." I said. We were back in our room and my fear had kept the bed warm. "What happened to Uncle Mason?"
"Nah, man." He shook his head. "You don't wanna know."
Maybe I didn't but at my age, the only thing worse than fear was a half-told story. Children are fueled by curiosity and I was sure to suffer some collateral death if not satiated. "Tell me bro!"
"Alright, Alright." he said. "Keep it down."
My brother exhaled, his big brother exhale. The kind that signaled both exasperation and warning. "You asked for it."
"The ghosts came during the night. Their fires burned bright against the emptiness of their eyes. They called for uncle Mason but he would not go. Instead, he hid. He his in a woman's closet among her undergarments. When he refused to come out they entered the home and stole them both away."
"They ate his soul," my brother said grimly. "Do you know what that feels like Rashard?"
I shook my head.
"Worse than having your skin peeled off." He stared off at the moon that dangled above the trees outside our window. "They strung his body up on a tree just like that and burned him alive. I heard aunt Geraldine say that smell of his flesh stained the neighborhood for days. The family had to identify him by his gold tooth he had on the left side of his mouth."
My stomach churned at the thought of being taken and tortured. I sat on the edge of my bed frozen.
"But when they went to move his head to check his mouth," he paused for effect, "his jaw disconnected and fell at Grandma's feet. That's why no one talks about it."
I could feel my mouth opened. The horror with which my uncle died, disbelief, and imagination made for a cocktail that filled my bladder.
"You know what the worst part is?"
"What?" asked my stupid mouth.
"They cut off his peter."
That was it. I wasn't at the age that I void fully grasp the importance of a peter but I knew it was important. I grabbed mine and ran into my parents' room. I dove in between them like a dolphin, the impact jarred them both awake.
"What the?" my dad.
"You little mother," said my mom. "What are you doing in here?"
"Ghosts. White people. Fire. Burned. Cut off Uncle Mason's peter." I rambled.
My mother petted my head softly, "It's okay honey."
My father let out a hearty laugh, "Young Aesop has been telling tales again hasn't he?"
I nodded sheepishly.
"Boy, don't be afraid," my father said, confident that not being afraid was an option any of us had.
"I knew it wasn't true," I whined.
"Of course not," my father assured. "There's no such thing as white people."