Changing the rat’s bait was Dei’s idea. Mine was just a supporting role. Or so he thought. It wasn’t even the first time he had gotten into trouble. His was a long history of late night beatings; howling, like a trapped dog, into the wee hours.

Everyone around Riverside knew him…and his screams. It was common back then to hear a mother warning her kid to quit whatever mischief he/she was up to… “Kana urare ukiuga mbu ta Nderitu…”

The idea of spending the night screaming was not only enough to make the kids toe the line; it inspired them to draw a revised line several feet from the original one. Just in case, you know?

Yes, his full name was Nderitu. Wherever Dei came from, we knew not, but he liked it and so we had to.

Dei was the tallest one in our gang. He was also the dumbest, the roughest, the smelliest and the leader. Tough combination there. It was like he was the last one in the creation queue and got stuck with all the qualities everyone had rejected, including his mango-seed shaped head and flipper-like feet. The latter came in as an advantage when swimming down at the river, then the opposite when it came to football. He was also my best friend, largely because I did not have much of a choice.

At seven, I was a year younger than him, living right opposite their door in the miserable two roomed iron-sheet shacks. My mother hawked mitumba, his washed and cleaned for the people in the better side of town: across the river. My father was a driver-for-hire. He drove this bus to a burial today, that tractor to plough tomorrow. A truck ferrying tomatoes to Meru this week and a lorry with a load of lumber from the Mt. Kenya forest the next. I rarely saw him; only catching snippets of his presence in the late hours he arrived and the few Sunday afternoons he spent snoring, but I was better off. At least I knew how my dad’s feet smelt like.

Dei had never seen his.

To explain it, he claimed to have been conceived like Jesus, down at the Maasai settlements. You know that entire manger hullabaloo? We did not believe him. No one ever believed a word Dei said, not even his mother. This sucked if his testimony was the only thing that could get you out of a mess. Plus everyone, apart from him, knew that the Maasai grazed their cattle and engaged in no manger business.

So this one Saturday we were, seated on some old tires my dad kept outside the house, folding paper jets. I had discovered this tactic of making little vertical folds along the far edges of the wings that made them fly higher. We were retailing our premium product at a shilling each and the sales graph was off the roof; majorly because other kids were too dumb to see my changes or too lazy to make the folds, but who cared? Soon we’d afford the Delta-force movie inspired water guns we were saving for.

I was putting the final tweaks to air force number 27 when Dei started packing them in a polythene bag.

“What are you doing?”

“Putting them in a paper bag.”

“I can see that… Stop it. You are going to mess up the wings.”

“No I won’t.”

Shida yako ni kuwa kichwa ngumu.”

“And your problem is thinking you know everything.”

There was no way you could argue with Dei and win. He would rather make you cry than lose.

“Why are you putting them in there anyway?”

He gave me this mischievous smile he saved for the rare moments he knew something you didn’t.

“Because there are rats in our house.”

“So?”

“My mother says that the small pieces of paper one swallows tie up his intestines and kill him slowly.”

He had a habit of folding pinches of sugar in small bits of paper and chewing them for hours. Needless to say, that was a source of many howling nights. I did not see how that was related to anything we were doing then though.

“And?”

“If I, being this big, can be killed by papers, how about a rat?”

“I don’t know, now just stop… we’ll put the jets in our house.”

“The rats will cross over!”

“You are really annoying man. I thought you had a rattrap.”

“We do, but the rats aren’t eating the ugali we use as bait. Mother says it is only a matter of time but I know it won’t happen. Everyone hates her ugali.”

“Who is everyone? There is only the two of you…”

“Quit asking questions kamwana, those rats ignore the ugali even when it is not on the traps.”

“Clever rats… now leave the jets alone.”

The rats in Riverside were misplaced bourgeoisie characters in a ghetto, they generally ignored food. Not just Mama Dei’s ugali. She was a horrible cook, no doubt about that, but the rats were too selective even for good cooks like my mother. She said that God couldn’t let us live in such poverty and send rodents to thin out the scarce source of nutrition. The furry things feasted on our clothes instead. I guess God did not care much about our fashion. The rats did not give a hoot about ink covered paper either, but Dei was too stubborn to see that. He stared at me, unblinking and I braced myself for the idea I knew would soon come out of his mouth.

He rarely got ideas, my mate Dei, and when one lost its way and found itself in his head; you could see it from a mile away. He would sit, a vein throbbing on his temple… waiting… agitated… then it would hit him! Like a sneeze. Some got lucky and swerved away before he claimed them. And those were the majority.

When he broke his stare, I started breathing easy, watching him leap on the biggest of the tires, spread his ass around and start swinging his legs; popping the left knee repeatedly.

“I just wish we could make helicopters. The ones with guns. Like those that came to save Arnold Sosnigga in ‘Commando’.”

“We cannot. And they did not save him; he was done when they came. Kwanza his name is not ‘Sosnigga’, it is Swasnigga.”

“It can’t be that.”

“Whatever! We’ll go check the tapes later on.”

“Sawa, why is he called nigga anyway? He is not a black American”

“I don’t know.”

“Any way… wouldn’t helicopters be awesome? Ta imajini flying them around the house, shooting those stupid rats that eat our clothes…”

“They eat clothes?”

“Yes, my mother is really angry about that…”

“How about baiting them with what they eat?”

“… she says that there are no rats where she goes washing. The cemented floor’s cold kills them.”

“There are rats in Kioko’s house, and his floor is cemented.”

“That is not cement, it is plaster.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Cement is smooth, plaster is rough…”

He kept popping that irritating knee, maddening me, while staring at a lizard that was making its way across the roofing frames, on the hunt. When the lizard was about to make a move on a fly, he froze and looked at me; his face lighting up – it was the sneeze moment.

“Njue, our rats don’t eat ugali, right?”

“Yes.” I replied, rather impatiently. We had already established that.

“They are eating clothes, right?”

“Yes.”

We had established that too.

“Wouldn’t the trap work if we baited them with pieces of cloth?”

Honestly, if I had discovered face-palming then, I would have grown an extra pair of hands in that instant and buried my head in them.

With that, Dei leapt off the tire and headed for their door, remarking about how much of a genius he was. I waited till he got to the door to remind him we weren’t supposed to get in the houses before lunch. Saturday being both our mothers’ busiest day, we spent the day alone, our lunch in their house, since we owned a set of glasses and my mother wouldn’t risk getting one broken. I was in charge of keeping Dei in check; which basically meant protecting our butts from a walloping. We were only to get into the houses in two occasions: to get lunch or when one of us was in life threatening situation and could only be saved by something inside the house. Dei wasn’t the biggest follower of rules of course.

“Ah! No one will know, unless you tell.”

“I can’t tell, but you do know your mother has a way of noticing things.”

“She won’t.”

He slid into the house and I kept folding Airforce-30. A moment later, he appeared, with an old black t-shirt and a filthy sock.

“Which one of these will they like?”

“I don’t know man; it’s your idea, your rats.”

Tiga waana nawe, just offer your opinion.”

I thought about it for a second, we were screwed already, what harm would a little fun do?

“The t-shirt is too old, the sock is too dirty”

“AAH! Mother has some new clothes!”

He jumped back into the house. I could hear him rummaging through their metallic boxes and was shocked when he emerged at the door with two colourful dresses and a blazer. Certainly not the type of clothes anyone in Riverside wore. Dei answered the question even before I phrased it.

“The people she washes for give her clothes as part of payment… those people are rich as hell! Me mbia ta ngoma.”

We couldn’t cut those kinds of clothes, I told Dei as much. But he could hear none of it, instead, he pointed out that they were two sizes bigger than his mother, so she’d never wear them. That did not do much to convince me as he had already tore half the collar off one of the dresses and it was too late to talk him out of it, so I held on and pulled. The other half wouldn’t give. Dei positioned his foot on a door frame, I did the same on the opposite side and pulled some more. It came apart with a loud rip and we thudded onto the ground, right as two cars screeched to a stop behind us. Dei has plunged into the gap between two of the tires and stuck. I rose, wiping dust of my aching backside and limped to help him.

The first car was a white Peugeot 504, the second one was the typical police truck; a blue, weather-beaten Land Cruiser. A fat, light skinned woman waddled out of the passenger side of the Peugeot. Whoever was driving her stayed inside. I had never seen such a fat person before. It was also the first time I had seen someone in a kitenge too tight for them. She was dressed in a green one that looked like a locust’s thorax; her armpits were drenched with sweat, whitish deposits marking the edges. She turned to the Land Cruiser, from which two policemen were alighting. Her skirts zip looked ready to come apart with every step she made. Her buttocks moved in opposite direction in a weird rhythm, I kept expecting one to fall off. My attention was wrecked when Dei finally managed free himself from the tires and gasped. That’s when I looked past the fat woman and noticed Dei’s mother stepping off the back of the truck, her hands cuffed in front of her.

“Yako ni ipi?” Asked one of the police officers behind her.

Everyone’s eyes followed her finger as she pointed towards her house… towards us. We stood there like steady scarecrows – staring at them. The fat woman’s eyes stuck on me for a second, the wrinkles around her eyes growing in number as she squinted in disgusted wonder, then something behind me caught her attention. She stooped a bit and charged at us. Her body and Kitenge bogged her down but it was evident that her brain was sending running instructions – which got executed with more resemblance to jogging than running, the piles of fat under her skin shaking with every step as she approached. I’ve always remembered that scene in slow motion: the policemen starting after her, Dei’s mother screaming something couldn’t hear and the house’s walls vibrating as she thundered in our direction. She looked like an ogre ready to feast – that must’ve been what made Dei squeal and run off… my bladder gave up; throwing its hands up and letting go of everything.

The woman stopped right next to me and picked up the two oversized dresses. She lifted them up and turned to the policemen, wheezing and panting.

“Evidence… (Gasp) here is the evidence!”

Dei’s mom’s face fell as they escorted her back into the pick-up. We later heard that she charged her for armed robbery, which didn’t make any sense, and she got a ten year sentence. She didn’t rat my mother out, who used to take the dresses to her tailors for resizing and then sell them. In return (more because of a guilty conscience I think) she took Dei in for a month, and then his grandmother came for him, accompanied by two mkokotenis. They swept everything from their house and loaded it into the donkey-cart before disappearing.

I’m now eighteen, we moved from the slum to Nanyuki. I stumbled into Dei earlier today – he was headed for Nyeri to see his mom for the first time in a decade. His school wouldn’t give him permission to go out so he snuck out between watchman shifts – he said that laughing. He hasn’t changed a bit.

© Ngartia Bryan
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