The Black Bird
Nobody really knew him. Even Wamaitha, who may claim to have been most close to his heart, never understood him. He lived alone. Who, then, could help him?
I remember him well. I remember him as a tall person with powerfully built limbs. He gave an observer the impression that he could have crushed anybody by the mere act of walking on him. His eyes were large and black and bright. There were some moments, though, when those piercing eyes looked imploring, or helpless, like a child’s eyes. They made you feel for him. Or be afraid of him. Sometimes he looked at a wall and he would seem to be sucking in every detail. I don’t know if he was subject to hallucinations but he would frequently start out of a reverie and stare around as if he had been woken up from a strange dream or nightmare.
I first met him at school. Manguo was then the only school in Limuru. And, so, many children came from all over the country to it. He came from Gathigi-ini Ridge which was several miles away from the school. He had to cross a number of hills, valleys and plains before he reached home. At school we called him Kuruma, meaning ‘bite’. Funny, but now I cannot remember why we called him so. His real name was Mangara. He was a tall, athletic sort of chap. He was reckoned to be handsome. Girls liked him; but he shunned their company, as indeed he shunned the company of all. He was good at games and liked the tough kinds of sports like running, jumping and boxing. He especially loved wrestling and he would challenge anybody, even the older boys. If he was knocked down he would try again and though he was put down twenty times, he would never show any anger. At football, he had no equal and was the hero of nearly everybody.
At first I was not much attracted to him. Perhaps it was envy on my part. You see, I was not good at games and I could not shine in any field, not even in class. A chap who was popular, a favourite with girls and teachers, was bound to excite the envy of the less fortunate ones. I hated him. I hated his aloofness and what I thought was proud disdain of all favours or approaches for friendship.
And then I discovered his isolation.
I don’t know what made me first notice it. Was it his eyes? Probably ... It was, I think, at a school assembly that I chanced to look back and saw him gazing as if he was being very attentive to what was happening around him. But I caught him unawares. It was only for a second. When he saw me, he lowered his eyes and shifted his gaze.
Another time I came to school rather early. I strolled in the direction of the cemetery. Mangara was there before me, alone and deeply meditating. I did not speak to him.
My real encounter with him was yet to come.
Nobody went to the small dense wood below our school. The boys had got it into their heads that the wood was haunted. A woman, it was said, was long ago beaten by her husband so much that she ran away, and when she came to the bush, she died immediately.
What drove me there? I suppose I was feeling rather lonely. Anyway, it was during a lunch break when all the other boys had gone home that I found my way through the dense trees and bush and soon came to a large, clear, open place in the very heart of the small forest. There, sitting down all by himself, was Mangara. At first he was startled and annoyed at my intrusion. He glared at me. I stared back at him and so we remained, complete silence between us, till I broke it.
‘What are you doing here?’
He did not answer at once. He looked at me and frowned a little as if he were weighing the question. I was irritated and was going to ask him again, when I saw him open his mouth.
‘I am looking for the Black Bird.’
‘Yes,’ he said, almost in a whisper, and still he looked past me. I turned my head to see what he was staring at. I saw nothing. I was puzzled. I thought his behaviour queer and immediately remembered that morning about a month earlier when I had gone to school and met him at the cemetery.
‘I saw you at the graves.’
‘Oh, did you!’
‘Black Bird again.’
I laughed. He laughed. Then he became serious again. I thought all this was a schoolboy’s fancy.
‘Have you found it?’
I never gave it another thought. But a gradual friendship began to grow from our encounter.
We went through school together. He never mentioned the Black Bird again. He was a clever chap. Though he did not seem to put much effort in his work, when the final exams came, he had done very well and was one of the few boys who went to college. Our ways separated. I found a job with the T. & H. Trading Company at Limuru.
As a medical student he did very well. Everyone, including the lecturers, had great hopes for him.
‘But what’s wrong with him?’ his fellow student once asked me as we were having tea at a cafe in Nairobi.
‘He is always preoccupied with something. So strange ... withdrawn, shall I say? And the way he looks at things ... You might, er, think...’
It was while at college that he met Wamaitha, a girl teacher from Gicororo village. He became very much attached to her. I occasionally met him, and he would talk to me about her. He wanted to marry her. In those years his loneliness seemed to desert him and he looked near what might be called happiness. There was something hopelessly strange, almost tragic in his childlike anticipation of happiness and union with this girl. I met them together once or twice. She was tall and slim with shiny black hair that was always neatly done. She was religious, at least she seemed so to me, and even when she walked, she brimmed with holiness. She was beautiful. Her beauty was not really of the physical kind, but rather came from right inside her and shone all over her.
One vacation preceding his final term at college, he unexpectedly turned up at our home. I stared at him with disbelief. The haunted look was back in his eyes. He was now old and weary. The brimful happiness had gone. I feared that Wamaitha had left him. But I thought it wise not to allude to the subject.
There was a small room in our house which I loved, and we used to sit there having our meal, or reading or chatting. One evening, soon after we had eaten, we sat round the table, as was our custom. The lantern was possessed of a devil and burnt excitedly. Nothing passed between us. I was reading a book - I cannot remember the title. I was not even concentrating. Mangara was more withdrawn than ever.
‘You have not heard of the Black Bird.’ I almost jumped. I remembered him as a boy in school. Our encounter in the ‘haunted’ wood came back to my mind.
‘The Bird you were looking for at school?’
‘Come on! You are not serious.’
‘I have never been more serious in my life.’ He stopped. I wanted to laugh but the tone in which he said this completely forbade me. And then, sighing as if he had held his breath for a long time, he said, ‘Oh, I have been haunted all my life.' He then looked at me and continued.
‘You are not superstitious. I know you say you are not. Then you’ll think it strange that a medical student should be. But I tell you it is not superstition. It is - do you ever think of the past?’
‘H’mmm. Not very much.’
‘You do not, for instance, think that the past can run after you and hunt you to death, in vengeance?’
‘How?’ I was puzzled. And afraid.
‘Let me put it this way. Do you believe that something that happened long ago to your grandfather or father could affect you?’
‘In what sense?’
‘Ah, in every sense ... Your father was cursed. Can that curse pass on to you?’
‘The sins of fathers being visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation ... eh?’
‘That is it, precisely.’
‘Why, no! It is preposterous!’
He sighed. Then, talking to himself, he said, ‘Oh, I do not blame you. But now I know that Wamaitha won’t understand.’ I was startled. It was the most pathetic tone I had ever heard from anybody.
‘It was a Sunday evening,’ he began abruptly. ‘I was on my way home from a distant relative whom we called “Grandmother”. I was then young. The moonlight lured me to wander aimlessly over the Ridge and so it was late in the evening when I finally reached home. My mother was there. My two brothers were playing on a bed that was near the fireplace. They all looked happy. Father was not present. That was rather unusual as my father was not in the habit of being out late. Even when he went to the religious gatherings where he sometimes conducted prayers, he usually came home early. So, after a time, we all began to be anxious.
‘I had just finished my food when there was a thunderous bang on the door. In a moment a ghostly dark form stood at the door. This dark form was my father. His usually neat and well-kept hair was dishevelled. His eyes were bloodshot. He stood there at the door for a moment without speaking, as if surveying the scene before him. Then he collapsed in a heap on the dusty floor.
‘We all screamed in terror because we thought he was dead.
‘Actually he was not dead. When mother sprinkled cold water on his head, we saw him slowly open his eyes. He seemed surprised to see us all around him. The terror took possession of his being so that he trembled a lot. He whispered something and the only words I could catch were “the Black Bird”! Nothing more. He slept again and did not wake till the next day.
‘That was the first time for me to hear of the Black Bird.
‘My father did not long survive the shock and died a month or so later. There was a lot of talk about his sudden death, for my father had been a very successful man, well-known for his religious fervour and honesty.
‘He was followed to the grave by my two brothers who died of pneumonia. And so I was left with Mother. We sold all we had and ran away from Kiambu. We came to live in Gathigi-ini. It was then that my mother told me the whole story as far as she knew it - I mean the story of the Black Bird.’
Mangara paused and drew a breath.
‘You see, the whole thing goes back to Murang’a. That was our original home district. We owned a lot of land there. My grandfather was the first of the young converts to the Christian faith brought by the whiteman. The new converts were full of zeal; they came to believe that what was in their people was evil. Every custom was a sin. Every belief held by the people was called superstition, the work of the devil. Our God was called the Prince of Darkness. My grandfather and the others like him considered themselves soldiers specially chosen by the Christian God to rescue a lost tribe from eternal damnation. Nothing could harm them. Christ was on their side; and so they went through the hills, treading on the sacred places and throwing away the meat that had been sacrificed to Ngai under the Mugumo. Soldiers of Christ fighting with Satan!
‘Now, there was an old Mundu Mugo who had won much respect from all the people in the land. He could cure many diseases and he fought with Arogi and other evil men. It was said that he could even see into the future. His magic was very powerful and he used it for the good of all the people, especially in times of drought and war. To this man my grandfather came. With great zeal, he destroyed the old man’s things and burnt them all to ashes. After that he began to preach to him. The old man had not at first believed what he saw. Then in a terrifying voice, he told my grandfather that he would live to pay for this outrage. The old man disappeared from the land.
‘Years later he came back. As a Black Bird. My grandfather died and was followed by his children and wife. Except my father. And they all said before they died that they had been visited by a Black Bird. My father fled from Murang’a and came to Kiambu. As you know, the bird followed him.’
Again Mangara paused. Then in a tired voice that made me look up, he said, ‘My mother died soon after we came to Gathini-ini. She too had seen the Black Bird. I thought hard; why should my father and my mother have died for a sin they never committed? Why? Why? I then vowed that I would for ever be on the look-out for the Bird. I have prayed and yearned to come to grips with it. But all in vain. You may not believe it, but to me, even then, the Bird was real. All through school I looked for it. Then I went to college.
‘I met Wamaitha. I forgot about the Bird. And all this time I have been thinking of how to get on in the world so that I might marry her. And, fool that I was, I thought I was becoming successful. For it was success, success that I was after now. Perhaps I thought this would rest my soul ... and the thought of the Bird never crossed my mind, or if it did, I tried to fight it away by diving with greater vigour into my studies.’
He paused. He put his two hands across his head and leaned back against the chair. He stared across, past me. Then he said:
‘I have now met the Black Bird.’
I stood up and looked fearfully round the room. The fluttering shadows on the walls were the incarnation of evil. I sat down again and felt ashamed.
“It was last week. You know I did not come here directly. On Sunday I went for a walk with Wamaitha. I had never been happier in my life. For the first time, I seemed to have escaped from my past. I was a new man in a new world inhabited by Wamaitha and myself. We joked and laughed. Dusk was coming. We sat on a hill and played like little children. Wamaitha left me for a while and I lay on my side looking at nowhere in particular.
‘The Bird was staring at me. I cannot describe the effect this apparition had on me. I felt nothing. I could not even shout. I just looked on, a little surprised at myself. Here I was, face to face with the Bird that I had always prayed to meet, and yet I could do nothing. The Bird was black; a blackness like soot ... perhaps intensified by the dusk... But its eyes were large and... and... looked like a man’s eyes.,. they were red... eh... no, NO. It was gone, and I had not moved.’
Mangara was greatly shaken by the recollection. I also trembled in spite of myself. I rushed to the door and frantically shot in the bolt. Then I went to the window and closed it, pulling the curtains to shut out the ominous darkness. Then I came back.
‘Did you tell Wamaitha?’
‘No! I did not. I told her I was not well. She could see me trembling. She thought I had caught a cold ... How can I drag her into it all? In any case, she won’t believe my story. Even you...'
I hastened to protest. But in my heart, perhaps to fight away the weakness I had displayed, I thought it a shame that he, a medical student and a man brought up in the European religion and ideas, should believe in such nonsense.
‘I know you don’t. Had it been somebody else telling me this, I wouldn’t believe him either...’
Later in the night, as we were going to bed, he called me and said:
‘You know, my grandfather should have gone for cleaning under the sacred tree. My mother said something of the sort before she died.’
That night I found it hard to sleep.
Mangara went back to college for his final term. I did not hear from him. I had now a better place in the Company and they sent me to Tanganyika to be in charge of their depot. I was flattered, for I was the first African to hold such a post in the Company.
I was in Tanganyika for six months before I returned home for a short visit. Limuru had not changed much. A new site for building a trading centre had been measured out but the old Indian Bazaar was still there. I went through the Bazaar and came to the small path that would take me home. It was there that I met Wamaitha. She had changed. She was thin and tall and her face wore a haggard look. The dress she wore had not been washed for a week. Strange. Where was her bright, holy look? Where was Mangara?
‘How is it with you?’ I said as I shook her thin hand.
‘How is Mangara?’ I cheerfully asked.
She stared at me. I stared back. My question seemed to have hurt her.
‘Haven’t you heard?’
‘He failed his exam. So, people say, he committed suicide ... Oh! Oh! Why could he not trust me? I would have loved him all the same...’
She cried freely, as if the death was still fresh in her mind. I did not know what to think. How could he have failed the exam?
A week later I went to see Dr K., also a graduate of that college, because I had a pain in my chest and was coughing a lot The change of climate, I suppose. We talked a lot. The talk drifted to Mangara’s death.
‘People say he committed suicide because he failed. I don’t believe it. That man was strange. He was bright, though. None of us could measure against him. But in the last term he neglected all study. He grew thinner day by day. In the evening he would be seen round the college chapel. He seemed to have no life. But during the exam his eyes were strangely bright as if he was seeing something beautiful and exciting ... When the results came, he had failed. He learnt about the results here. I was with him. I tell you he was not in the least shocked. It was as if he had known this all along. A week later he was found dead under the sacred tree. His eyes wore a strange look of peace, you know, as if he had accomplished a difficult task. The look you sometimes see in the revivalists.'
When I got home I went to bed straight away. But for a long time I only stared into space, unable to decide whether to put out the light or not.