OKOTH’S STRENGTH

It was fine rain – the sort you see, but can’t feel. The sort that makes you wonder if the clouds are filled with dust and the collar of your coat is sprinkled with ashes. The sort of rain that comes to its own in the light, compelling you to question your anatomy. It was, I suppose, what we could call ephemeral rain, drifting to our mortal world and confronting us with the origins of creation.

It was the first rain of the season, which brought much relief to the villagers. There had been no water on the ground for months and no moisture in their air either. Our tongues stuck to the roofs of our mouths, staunching our laughter and contorting our expressions into grimaces. We were all grumbles and sticky sweat. The crops shrivelled, the animals lolled and even Old Man Wambua couldn’t summon enough spittle to launch the bitter kernel seeds he chewed at the fala! children who played pranks on him daily.

But then the rain brought the ghost child. The ghost child was hailed from an unknown land, for her skin was soft and white like winter snow, and her eyes clear. And when the ghost child looked at you, she swallowed you with her gaze.

I was the first to meet the ghost child. First, I heard a sound. I was on the edge of the village, crouched in the undergrowth, sharpening a stick with flint, so I could go fishing in the river.

A thin, mewling noise cut through the mist and I followed the noise until I reached the edge of the Kowling River.

Then came sight. The ghost child floated towards me in a basket woven from bark. When she saw me, she stilled. I remember an intense feeling of ‘peace’ washing over me. I use the term ‘peace’ with no trace of endearment; had I known the child’s powers and the true effect she would have over me, I would have kept on walking. But as it was, I reached out to her, my feet slipping on the riverbank. I saw the child had been provided with a blanket which was threadbare and ugly to look at. I pulled the basket towards me, watching the water’s surface shiver.

The mewling noise had not come from the child. Tucked beneath the blanket was a starving, babe-wolf. I rescued the babe-wolf from the basket first. Perhaps because the ghost child seemed content to wriggle chubby toes in the air, but the babe-wolf was squirming impatiently. Its long snout buried itself into the folds of my coat; most likely the creature was comforted by my coat’s fur. The babe-wolf’s skin was matted and I could feel its bones through its fur. Tears filled my eyes.

Next I scooped the child into my arms awkwardly, for I had never held a child so ungainly before, or so silent.

I took them – both child and wolf – back to the hut that night, and presented them to my wife. Abeni merely smiled and said,

“The gods have answered our prayer.”

Abeni and I fed the ghost child and she gurgled and clapped her hands. The sky cracked. And the next day it rained heavily, and the day after that, until the fields were plenteous and the animals grew round and happy, and the farmers in the village began to smile as they said ‘Habari!’

So we called the ghost-child Okoth, for her name means ‘rain.’ We adopted her – and, of course, the babe-wolf, for the two were inseparable. I am quite sure that what one felt, the other did too. I will never forget the time when my wife – in a fit of rage justified only by Okoth’s obstinacy – smacked our darling ghost child on the arm. As Okoth cried out, so did the wolf, who was curled up by the log fire in another room entirely. And so it came to be that the wolf was named Achen, because she and Okoth were so close they were almost twins. I mean not twins in the traditional sense; but there was a tacit consensus among us that Okoth and Achen were, somehow, birthed from the same mother, if only in spirit.

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