THE SMELL

Dark clouds gathered and metamorphosed the sky from bright blue to dark gray, almost black. I feared the prison guards would herd us into the rusted trucks and ferry us back to the prison, foiling my plan to escape. We had just arrived at the farm, a two-hour drive from the prison facility in Masaka district, owned by a prison officer. We were brought here once a month to work. I didn’t want to go back to the prison with its small cells built for four inmates but housing fifteen of us, where our feet touched if we stretched them out, where time came to a standstill during oven baked afternoons when there was no breeze and the sweat of our bodies mingled.

During the drive we had stood, chained to each other, in the back of the truck. If it were not for the truck that threw us up in the air every few minutes as it hit potholes, people looking on from the roadside would have thought us a bunch of dead bodies. We were not permitted to talk, and even if we had been allowed, we’d have remained silent, reluctant to breathe in each other’s old sweat and urine that clung to our clothes. Even the fresh air could not blow away these odors. Small pieces of paper, plastic bags, and dry leaves danced in the air above our heads. The prison guards, perched on the roof of the truck, waited for one of us to give them a reason to shoot.

The guards lined us up on the road in front of the farm with their old cocked AK-47s, and threatened to shoot if we tried to escape. Once, a prisoner fell as she climbed off the truck. She tried to get up quickly, but with her hands cuffed with heavy chains and the wet slippery soil, she kept falling down. One of the guards walked up to her and shot her. We watched, too terrified to do anything, as she writhed in the puddle of water and then went still. Fear rooted my feet to the ground.

“You don’t want to be the next one,” Maina had whispered and pushed me forward.

She had seen me shaking. I could still see that woman’s body on the ground, in a fetal position.

This was a year ago. It was the first time I had been taken to the farm. That night, as I sat in the tiny dark prison cell, waiting for my turn to sleep, my legs folded because there was no space to stretch them out, afraid to die in prison, afraid for my children, I hatched my plan to escape. It was a simple plan. I’d get the guards at the farm to beat me. It had to be just enough to make me unconscious so they’d leave me behind for dead. I had to make sure they didn’t shoot.

“Why would you risk your life?” Maina had asked when I told her about the plan and asked for her help.

“My children,” I said.

She squeezed my hand.

Threats out of the way, our handcuffs were unlocked, and we were marched single-file through a thick bush to the maize plantation that started at the bottom of the hill we were supposed to weed. The guards watched as we struggled to make our way through the thick shrub. They didn’t allow us to protect our bare skins from thorns that scarred our faces.

A patch of light filtered through the clouds. The rain had passed. I smiled. I was getting nearer my plan.

Digging was back-breaking work and we had to dig nonstop in the sun as well as in the rain. If one of us stopped to stretch our back, the guards would attack with their batons. Still, I relished being on the farm, cherished the solitude of farming, the monotonous sound of hoes and pangas. Sometimes a flock of Lesser Flamingos would fly through, their excited songs momentarily filling the sky. Some prisoners complained about the hard labor, about not being paid. I did not. I filled my lungs with fresh air, retained the smell of lemons, mangoes, and papayas, and memorized the bright blue sky just before the sun disappeared and we were returned to the prison.

Away from the dirty prison walls covered with patches of yellow paint, and my fellow inmates whispering over and over the details of how they’d killed their husbands, my memories would flow quickly like water running from a tap.

The first thing I learned about my husband was that he was nothing like my father. He didn’t possess any of my father’s charm, kindness, gentleness and hatred of violence. The second thing I learned was that my husband was a chameleon. One second his face was broad as he laughed; the next moment his eyes narrowed, his nostrils widened, and his forehead creased in anger. His anger was quick, deep, dark as rain clouds. He couldn’t control it even if he tried, but he rarely tried, at least not with me.

The first time he hit me was a few months into the marriage. He came back at around three o’clock in the morning and asked for his supper.

“Under the bed,” I told him. Next thing I knew he grabbed me by my braids and thrust me at the door, which cut my forehead.

I lit the charcoal stove and warmed his food.

He slept.

In the morning, he told me of the troubles he was having at the secondary school where he had taught for countless years.

The beatings reduced when I was pregnant, and he stopped drinking and promised to clean up, even get a better job to provide for us. During those months I glimpsed his tenderness, and saw brightness in the future. That was before he found out the baby was not a boy.

The worst beatings were about money. He told me early into the marriage I was to give him all the money that came into my hands from odd jobs, which I did. In the beginning, he would set aside some of it for food, but as his drinking escalated, he kept all of it.

The day I remembered was a Friday. A market day. It was early in the evening. The sky was striped with yellow, orange, and pink. In the dirt street, children played dodge ball, their skirts and dresses tucked into their panties, their bare feet caked with dust. They looked like they wore long brown socks. It had been a very long day of ferrying and loading sacks of rice on trucks and haggling over prices at the market. My head was spinning from fatigue.

I sat on the bed in the small room I shared with my husband and two children in the Kweka slum on the outskirts of Kampala, and counted the money from the rice sale. Our room was one of a dozen partitioned from a rough structure haphazardly built with red bricks. Its iron roof jutted out at awkward angles; its slanted walls were supported by poles. It was the kind of building that gave you the feeling strong winds would make it crumble. I finished counting the money and tied it with a string. A small bundle I was supposed give to my husband.

“Why are you crying?” my oldest daughter, who was five years old, asked me. She had opened the green cotton sheet that separated the bed I shared with my husband from the rest of the room.
“I am not crying,” I said as I shook my head and wiped the tears rolling down my cheeks with the back of my hand.

She stood on her right leg and sucked her thumb. I knew she was waiting for the right moment to ask me something. On good days her hearty laughter would ring throughout the slum as she played with her friends, but I hadn’t heard her laughter for days. I briefly looked at her face, round like a pumpkin, smooth like a papaya leaf, and thought how I had failed her. My hands tightened around the bundle of money.

“Baby-will-not-stop-crying,” she finally said, carefully and slowly. “I tried to give her water. She wouldn’t drink it. I mixed it with salt. She still didn’t drink it.”

“What did you do that for?” I asked.

“I thought-I thought-I thought,” she stopped and concentrated on breathing before she continued, “if the water had taste she would drink it.” Her eyes blinked quickly. It’d be easier if she cried. I would know how to comfort her.

“What happened to her milk?”

“The milk woman refused to give us more until you, sorry, we pay the money we owe.”

I looked at the money on the bed and knew I would not give it to my husband.

As soon as my oldest left the room, I walked over to Baby who lay on a mat on the floor next to the second old piece of furniture we owned, a lame wooden shelf. Her nappies were soiled, her puckered lips dry. Tears had left marks from her eyes to her mouth, the way a snail leaves a trail everywhere it glides.

I put my pinkie into her little hand. She did not grasp it. Baby was ten months old. She should have been crawling. She was yet to sit.

I paid the milk woman, stacked the room with supplies, and fed Baby. The little money that remained, I wrapped in a plastic bag and buried at the back of our building.

“Where is the money?” my husband asked as he scanned the bed, pulled me off it and searched under the mattress, tore my blouse and checked inside my bra. My oldest sat next to the lame wooden shelf rocking Baby. I signaled her to run to the neighbors.

“Where’s it?” he asked again, his voice louder.

“I bought milk for Baby,” I said.

“What did you do?”  He narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips together. “You-spent my-money-on-your-child? W-wh-ee-re-is-Baby?” He stammered and paced around the room, randomly throwing plastic cups, plates, clothes. Then he stopped. He had seen the shopping.

He grabbed a bag of sugar and poured it on the floor. I ran and tugged at the sack, but he pushed me away, and I fell on the hard cement. I dragged myself, leaned on the wooden chest drawer, watched him fold his shirtsleeves, and plug a flat iron cable into an electric socket. I must have wondered what he was doing, but before I grasped what was about to happen he had pinned me on the floor. What I remember most is the smell.

My muscles loosened. The hoe felt lighter as I raised it over my shoulders and then lowered it into the waterlogged soil in which my feet were submerged. I removed my sweat-drenched shirt that used to be white, but was now the color of soil, and threw it on a mango branch to dry, frightening away flies.   My stomach grumbled with hunger, and I wished I had drunk the maize porridge with weevils we had been given for breakfast. Oranges hung a few meters ahead of me. My mouth watered and I prayed I’d be able to last till later in the afternoon, when I would have to draw the attention of the guard balanced up on a branch in the mango tree, watching, and waiting.

I used to be shy, but that was the first feeling I became numb to. How could I continue to feel shy, when during the two years I’d been in prison, there were many days and nights I had to pee in a bucket in front of fourteen women. In the beginning, before the tears dried, before the numbness wore off, before I could feel, before I could think again, prison felt safe. The wardens and guards with their guns were there to protect us. That was before I collapsed from hunger because I hadn’t eaten for two days, before I demanded to see a lawyer, after waiting for a month, because I had been promised one. The warden, dressed in a khaki uniform that shone from ironing, did not stop chewing his toothpick.

He said, “She wants to see a lawyer. I think she has too much time on her hands. We must give her something to do, to keep her busy.” He kicked me towards an anthill. “Clear it, it will keep your mind off lawyers.”

Maina whispered in my ear that evening. “You must learn to live here.”

“I am only asking for my rights,” I said. “They promised me a lawyer.”

“We have all been promised lawyers, but you will only get yourself killed if you keep asking. Prison cuts away at your body and soul, piece by piece, and before you know it you’re a living shell.”

“I have to get back to my children.”

“Where are they?”

“I don’t know. Maybe with my mother.”

“Then you must stay alive,” she said.

The baton sliced through the air before it tore my skin. I hadn’t seen the warden climb down the mango tree. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three. I stopped counting, fell and breathed in the muddy water mixed with small pieces of dry leaves. The thrashing stopped; his footsteps receded. Slowly, I picked myself up. I had been lucky, only a few lashes for lagging behind.

Up, down, up, down my hoe went again. The blood from the wounds trickled to my breasts, and I watched the drops fall on the brown hoe and into the muddy water. I couldn’t lift the hoe to the small of my back now. The pain was sharp, raw. Yet I knew it wasn’t so bad and I had to pick up my pace if I was going to survive.

A plane went by leaving a trail of smoke in the sky. A prisoner struggled to pull a stubborn white and black bull up the hill. Monkeys sat in acacia trees and readied to eat maize, and a herd of goats and sheep ran down the hill to look for water. I didn’t see the guard until he was right in front of me. I fell before he touched me. I heard the sound of his gun. A burst of energy that flowed in my veins.

“You better work faster,” he said.  His voice a growl.

The last time I saw my mother was the day after my husband ironed me. We sat under a mahogany tree at the back of the red-bricked family home. It was early in the morning, but the sun was already hot. Baby lay next to me and looked at the sky. My older daughter swept the compound. She had already learned to keep out of the way. Dry pine leaves fell on the spots she swept, and she started all over. Hens and chicken roamed about searching for grains and insects. My mother had boiled water and cleaned the wounds. She now rubbed oil on my skin.  Her rough hands were gentle. I didn’t think about how much I had missed her.

Before that day, I had seen my mother only once, a few months after she married me off at the age of fourteen to a maternal uncle much older than I and twice my size. I know I saw him many times when I was very little, but I don’t remember much about him before the marriage, except his wide smile that showed all his teeth. If he was in the sun, I’d see his teeth from afar, conspicuous in a face as black as ink. His smile never tempered his serious demeanor. I used to think it had to do with the shape of his face. A face shaped like a rat’s could not look kind. He smiled from the mouth, not the soul.

My mother called me one evening as she mingled ugali for supper. I had been skipping with my older sisters. She kneeled by the fire and added new pieces of firewood. The kitchen was full of smoke.

“Your uncle is coming to take you with him,” she said.

“Take me?  Where to?”

“To his home.  It’ll be for a few days.”

“For a few days?”

“Yes,” she said.  “For a few days.”

She didn’t look at me or stop making the ugali. Neither did she mention that I was getting married.  I said nothing, had no questions, only thought about my father, whom I missed dearly. Things had changed after his death ten years ago. Now I was being sent away. Only a few days, I reassured myself. Smoke stung our eyes, which filled with tears. We both looked as though we were crying. I was the only one crying because I was going to miss my sisters. I never thought to ask why my sisters weren’t coming with me.

Within days of arriving, my uncle gave me the news. I was his wife. I told him I wanted to go home, but it was impossible. He had paid my dowry.

“He is a good man. You’ll learn to love him,” my mother said when I raised it with her during my visit. Once this sank in, I never wanted to have anything to do with her.

“Ah…Rose…you must have done something for him to do this to you,” my mother now said.  She wasn’t horrified or angry. She didn’t ask how I felt.

Did it matter what I had done?  How could a man iron my body as though ironing a pair of trousers?  I wanted to ask.

“He beats me all the time,” I said.

“You must have done something,” she insisted. “No human being in their right mind would do something like this unprovoked. Your uncle, he’s a kind man. After your father died,” she sighed, “when everyone was fighting for the property, he stood by me, made sure I kept the house.” She tightened the kanga around her shoulders. The sun had come out, but she looked cold. Her face, which was shaped like an egg, had grown longer. Now as she talked, her double chin danced, almost touching her neck. She called my oldest to bring her smoking pipe, then struggled to light it. Her hands were trembling.

“You mean my husband,” I said. “His mind isn’t right.  He never has been.”

“Are you sure he did this without any provocation?” she asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Without any provocation,” I said as I pulled off my kanga and showed her the burns again.

She looked away. “It’s not possible,” she whispered. “Your father’s family wanted to marry me off again. Your uncle, he put his foot down. He is a good man.”

“Look,” I shouted.

She could not.

“I want to come home.”

“No…no…” she said shaking her head, her fat cheeks moved along from side to side.  “That wouldn’t be possible. You’re now a married woman. It wouldn’t look good, you coming back here.”

“What do you mean?”  I asked, though I knew what she meant.

She shook her head again. I took a sip of lukewarm tea. A few flies helped themselves to the particles of sugar on the tray. One fell in my tea. I fished it out with my fingers as my mother fanned the others away with her feather fan.

I looked at her and thought: I would not have chosen you for a mother. And in that moment I longed for my father as I fought the tears that lingered beneath my eyelids.

“Please, come and talk to him,” I begged.

She nodded quickly without looking at me.

I knew I was on my own.

 

The day I stopped thinking about the lawyer was the day she turned up. Joan. I was certain she was older than me, but she looked much younger. Her face exuded youth. It didn’t have any of the physical scars and the haunted look wedged in my eyes.

“Have you talked to anyone about his death?” Joan asked.

“My mother,” I said.

“Mistake number one,” she said. “Don’t talk to anyone about his death.”

I nodded.

“You have a chance, a good chance, at freedom,” she said after inspecting my body, which was riddled with swollen scars, and after she learned I’d reported my husband to the police, and after she’d written down my age. “We just have to get the right judge. A female judge, a survivor of domestic violence, but we have to be patient, very patient. Where’s your mother?”

“At home.”

“I mean, where was she when all this was taking place?”

I didn’t tell her that my mother was married off at the age of twelve and had her first child the same year, that after a heart attack killed my father, my mother spent her days waiting for death. I just hoped that my oldest would turn out to be like this lawyer even though I didn’t know what she was like.

“One more thing, when we get our day in court, you have to look remorseful, very remorseful.”

“I would kill him all over again if I could,” I said as I looked at the scars. “My father would have killed him,” I said, even as I knew my father had abhorred violence.

“Best to keep that to yourself, the killing him again. You must look remorseful.”

“When will I go to court?” I asked.

“I’ll be in touch,” she said as she put my file in her bag and left.

For the next six months I checked every morning for my name on the board. Had I seen my name before we left for the farm, I wouldn’t have gone through with it.

The sky was sprinkled with yellow, the farm glowed, birds rested in their nests, I felt the wind on my neck and rubbed sweat from my face before I dropped the hoe and stood up. There was a collective sigh in the air, and I felt all eyes on me even though all the prisoners continued with their tasks.  My death would give them something to talk about: my insanity.  I stretched my arm to pick an orange that almost touched my head but the sound of several guns cocked and heavy footsteps approaching stopped me. For a few seconds I held my breath and waited.

“My prisoner,” the guard who had been watching me all day shouted as he jumped from the mango tree, frightening the birds from the tree. The birds hovered above the mango trees before settling back. A plane flew by.

“My prisoner,” he repeated. I heard footsteps walk away.

This is the moment I had rehearsed several times in my head. The guard would hit me for a few seconds before I fell down.

I hadn’t anticipated the force of the first blow. I instantly fell on my knees. He kicked and flogged as I begged for mercy.

I wasn’t supposed to move once I hit the ground, and I would position my nose so that I could breathe.

On the ground, I writhed in pain and couldn’t move my head to breathe. I panicked and tried, but all I breathed in was mud.

And then it was darkness.

Years later, I’d try to understand what pained me the most in the days that followed; my broken body or spirit. After the fog lifted, and I breathed in the smell of my blood, and felt my clothes stiff with clay, the realization that I was back in prison hit me like a wave. The first face I saw was that of Maina. Sun rays streamed through one of the cracks on the roof and fell on her face. She had found iodine which she poured on a cloth and cleaned my wounds. She had also found me a clean dress, collected pieces of clothes, put them in a kanga and made me a cushion, and convinced the women to huddle so I could have a bit more room.

“I begged the guards to allow us to carry you to the truck,” Maina said when she realized I was awake.

“Why?”

“Do you want to die?” Maina asked.

“I was going to escape,” I said.

“You wouldn’t have made it,” she said, tears in her eyes.

I tried to cry. There were no tears.

Maina cajoled and reminded me about my children. “You promised to get back to them,” she whispered, until she forced the porridge and water into my mouth, as I tried to forget my children, for what was the point of remembering their faces.

It might have been weeks or months or a year, I don’t know. Once I was stopped from leaving the room, I lost track of time. As soon as the women left to carry out their chores, I’d station myself under one of the beams in the room and try to discern the sounds of life outside. Sometimes I’d hear the happy chirping of birds as I longed to smell the dust, feel dewdrops and watch the skies open, their orange colors making everything glow, just before the day woke up. Sometimes I heard laughter, which faded into my daughter’s hearty laughter.

And then, one day, the warden shouted my name several times before I realized he was standing in front of me.

“You have a visitor,” he said, and escorted me to the empty visitor’s hall where I sat on the bench and waited. I heard her high heels before I saw her.

“This isn’t Rose,” Joan said to the warden as she stared at me, my hands across my chest, my head tilted to the side.

“It’s her,” the warden said.

“Dear God, what have you done to her?”

He shrugged.

“Now you can’t talk,” she said.

“What happened?”

What could I say?

“Has she seen a doctor?”

The warden looked at her.

“She has rights, you know,” she said more to herself, and sat on the bench, a little too far from me. Had I been her, I’d have done the same. She pulled out my file and leafed through the papers. “A date has been set for your hearing, six months from now.”

I wanted to smile. I couldn’t.

“Are you scared?” Joan asked.

“Is there a chance I will be found guilty?”

“We have a strong case. We have the right Judge, but you must be repentant. It’s very important.”

And I was.

 

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3 Responses to “THE SMELL”

  1. C

    This is a hauntingly beautiful story that will stay with me for years to come. It is about a woman with few choices in life who is subject to a tragic turn of events. It is also about a deep and unrelenting love a mother can have for her children in the most desperate circumstances. The author conveys a richness of detail in very few words, and brings to life a world that I know very little about. She has the voice of a poet. I look forward to reading more of her work.

  2. Nitisha

    Strong narration – look forward to more such stories from Ruth!

  3. Brendah

    Great and captivating… let me try and find out where Kweka is….

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