CHAPTER 1 Lord Tambo
Nasomi uncovered the basket to admire her work. She inhaled the aroma that wafted from it, reveled in Father’s yet-to-be-given compliments. “This is wonderful, my daughter,” he would say, his mouth full. She’d prepared his favorite: pumpkin leaves mixed with powdered peanuts and dried chili; she’d included a piece of hard bread.
“Nice!” she said out loud, proud of the extra attention she’d put into her work.
“I’m sure it is,” someone behind her said.
She started. “I’m sorry, I didn’t notice you were behind me,” she told the man.
He was dressed in a rich brown sleeveless tunic adorned with patterns of red and green, and baggy breeches fastened at his shins. His sandaled feet were dustless, like he’d walked on the air. All his fingers had rings of copper, all studded with various gems, marking him as a tribal lord. He had searching, teasing eyes and a long handsome face. He had much hair on his head, and although it was unkempt, it suited him well.
Nasomi performed her act of courtesy: she touched her chest, curtsied. “My Chief. Please pardon me.”
“That is good smelling food there.” He returned the greeting by touching his chest and dipping his head. He gave her a sweet smile.
“It’s for my father. I am sorry I blocked your way, My Chief.”
The path at that point was too narrow to let him pass by her. It wound through tall grasses and bushes. She covered the basket and walked on. She couldn’t seem to walk fast enough. His strides were long and he was but a pace behind her.
After a while, he said, “I think the path is now wide enough for us to walk abreast.”
They had gone past the thicker section, and the grass and wild flowers in the sides were easy to tramp upon if more walking space was to be required. She ignored him and tried to walk faster.
“I mean you no harm,” he said.
“Isn’t that what a robber or rapist would say?”
He gave a short laugh. “You’re right. I am sorry. I think I am lost,” he said. “Someone pointed the way, but there are too many forks, I misremember.”
She paused to let him catch up. They were now by the first field and a number of people were in sight. She felt safe enough. “You are a tribal lord,” she said, “but where are your attendants?”
“I didn’t need my own today. I am in my father’s company.”
She didn’t pry. “Where is the lost lord going?”
“To a field.”
“That’s not saying much.”
“All I know is my father will be there, to attend to some dispute.”
“The fields begin here, My Chief. You can go along this path until you come to the one you are looking for.”
He gestured for her to continue walking. “What is your name?” he asked.
She could lie, but she wasn’t a good liar and it was just her name. “Nasomi.”
“Nasomi,” he said, stressing the ‘o’ in a thick accent that revealed he was of the Somebo tribe. “Lovely name. Mine is Tambo Mwanakepe Go.”
“So, you belong to the Kepe clan. It must be nice being the son of a Chieftain.”
“It has its good days… Ah, I see you don’t believe me because I travel alone. Why would someone impersonate a tribal lord?”
“I’d expect a palanquin and at least half a dozen attendants, maybe a singer or two to sing your praise as you move to the admiration of the people.”
“I like walking around alone. Helps me see things I would otherwise miss. Like finding a woman in the bushes talking to herself. Look, my breeches have pockets. Sometimes I put my hands in them to not be too conspicuous.” He demonstrated, grinning as well.
“Your clothes, though. They scream rich and lordly.”
He shrugged. “Not as much as the rings.”
They walked on for a moment in silence. “Some people I know talk to themselves,” she said defensively. “You crept up on me.”
“I didn’t. You were minding what was in the basket to hear me come. I only wanted to ask for directions.”
“But you’re not a rapist?”
He laughed, and so did she. She found herself mimicking his laughter.
“I hate such people,” he said, with all seriousness. “You’ll forgive me for saying this, but if I were a spirit, I would haunt them at night and rip out their innards and let their bodies rot in the streets.”
“So would I.”
There were a dozen more people than she expected on her father’s field. Even the lowest among the strangers looked richly dressed in the manner Tambo was. Her father looked drab against all that finesse, as he argued with another elderly man who was obviously Tambo’s father.
“It seems we were coming to the same place,” Tambo said to her.
She rushed to her father’s side.
“You keep disputing the deed,” Chieftain Go said, waving a parchment in Nasomi’s father’s face. “Would you like me to read it again?”
“I have a deed also,” Father said. He leaned on his hoe and looked eager to get back to the digging. “It has the monograph of the king himself and his scorched symbol. And it says my land extends four gardens, from there to there”—he indicated with a shaking finger— “and five the other way. I’ve had it for five years, My Chief. Five years. Ask Chishala, my neighbor, there. There are beacons set. I was there when they were being laid by the architects themselves.”
“You haven’t shown it to me. My deed here reads that—”
“Yes, yes, you repeat yourself. Your deed describes your land being seven gardens long. A good part of that lies in the farms of Chishala and the other idiot over there. I do not see you harassing them to hand over the land. Why only me? Because I am a poor farmer who has nothing but a few grains to plant?”
“Harassing you? I am here only to claim what is mine.”
Father touched Nasomi’s hand. “Quick, my daughter, rush to the house. Get the deed to this land. It will be folded neatly in the small chest beside my pallet.”
“I am not leaving you alone,” she said.
“I need the deed, Somi. My Chief here seems to think this is his land.” He looked the chieftain straight in the eye.
“Are you saying I am trying to steal from you?” The chieftain was breathing hard, near wheezing.
“Father,” Tambo said, so coolly like tempers were not flared. He knelt before the chieftain.
“Son. Did you get lost like I knew you would?” the chieftain asked as though only just noticing that Tambo was there.
“No. I took a different route.”
“Stand, my son. Now, I want these people arrested and tried.”
“May I propose another way to solve this, Father?”
Chieftain Go sat on the seat of his palanquin. “I’m impatient, boy. What other way is there? This is our land here.”
“Hear my proposal. Let us invite these people to our table and we can examine both parchments, and we can call experts to help us. Perhaps there has been a mix-up, but a good-natured discussion over a meal can set things right.”
The chieftain grunted. “Now they must eat my food as well? A good few days in a dungeon will bring senses to this man.” He pointed at Nasomi’s father, who scowled at the insult.
“I am not an interpreter of the law, and neither are you, Father,” Tambo said. “We need someone to examine both documents. If it turns out we are right, this man here would have no objections about it. And we might even employ him to look after the farm.”
“Or have him imprisoned.”
“And if it turns out we are wrong,” Tambo continued, “we would have not condemned an innocent man. And people will still say good things about us in either case.”
“Good things. Good things! Pa!” the chieftain said bitterly, shaking his head. “I should have come with one of your brothers instead. They know how to act quickly. You talk too much.”
“But you must admit I have talked well.”
His father gave him a long look. “Perhaps you have. Have it your way, for now. Take charge of this dinner yourself, and see that this is brought to a quick end. The sun is hot on me, I would go home now.”
The attendants immediately took their places around the palanquin and hoisted it to their shoulders in a well-rehearsed synchrony. A poet strummed his string instrument, prepared his voice as the palanquin began to move. Tambo gave a small wave to Nasomi and mouthed something she couldn’t make out, then followed after the chieftain.
Nasomi and Father went home without working on the field. When he spoke, it was to mumble about how greedy some people in the world were, how unfair life was, and how this was the work of the Tumina, the spirits beneath the ground. Nasomi had seen him bitter, but this was deep, this was fury. He kicked the dirt and picked stones to throw at trees. He dropped the hoe and Nasomi had to carry it.
At home, he refused to eat, refused to wash, no matter how many times Nasomi pleaded. He muttered to himself when he thought he was alone, and complained to Nasomi and her cousin, Naena, when they were anywhere close to him.
“We've lost everything,” he said. “Everything! All because of some greedy man. He has more than generations after him will need. Why does he want to also get my crumbs?” He coughed so terribly Nasomi thought he'd cough himself to death.
“I can start selling things at the market,” she said. “We can sustain ourselves.”
“What things, if we will have nothing to reap? And what will I do? Sit on my rump all my days till I die?”
“Father, you're being so anxious. What would Mother say?”
“Don't bring her up to try to control me.” He coughed. “You know how hard she and I worked to get that piece of land.”
Nasomi looked to Naena for help, but her cousin, who usually knew what to say, was quiet.
“We mustn't lose hope, Father. I think things will go well. The young lord will make things well for us.”
He sucked through his teeth, and went to his room, muttering to himself.
“Young lord?” Naena said. “You must tell me about him.”
“Now you have found your mouth?”
“What did you want me to say, Somi? You’ve seen the mood he is in. Just tell me about this young lord.”
CHAPTER 2 The Walk
Nasomi and Naena were scouring pots the next morning when Tambo appeared at the gateway. Naena was the one who saw him and she nudged Nasomi. They both stood and wiped their hands on their wrapping cloths as he entered. He was smiling.
“I found the place,” he said, looking quite pleased with himself.
“My Chief,” Nasomi and Naena said together, curtsying.
“You came here, My Chief?” Nasomi asked. She became conscious of her and Naena’s appearance: unoiled skins, undone hair, wrapping cloths with sodden patches. And also, the small drab house, the unremarkable yard with a falling fence around it. Two hens chased another right past Tambo’s feet, clucking too loudly.
He returned the compliment. “Ladies.” He didn’t seem bothered by the poor surroundings. “I asked around for a farmer with a daughter called Nasomi. I got lost through some of the ways, but I persisted.”
“You have to forgive us, we didn’t expect this,” Nasomi said. “We were going to come to your home this evening for the meeting.”
“I told you I’d come to find you. There’s no need for the meeting now. I have set things right.”
“You mean the farm? It is ours?”
“Yes. Entirely. I convinced my father to let the matter go. We have more than enough land, and it was a matter of inquiring about the deed. Is your father home?”
“Let me get him. He will be glad of this.” She rushed into the house and found Father dozing on a stool next to his pallet. He had said he needed to pray. It seemed he needed sleep more.
She knelt before him. “Father?”
He lifted his head to look at her like he’d been expecting to see her there. “Mhmm?”
“Father, Lord Tambo is here. He has some news about our land.”
He opened his mouth and paused, as if not comprehending. “Lord Tambo? Who is...? He’s come here? He’s outside our house?”
“Come, Father.” She took him by the hand and led him outside.
“My Chief,” Father said, touching his heart and dipping his head.
“The Mara bless you,” Lord Tambo said, gesturing for the man to be at ease.
“When my daughter told me there was a lord at the door, I thought it was your father. Where are your attendants, My Chief?”
Tambo stole a glance at Nasomi, gave a dismissive laugh. “I sent them on an errand. I thought to personally bring this news to you. The land…”
“Yes?” Father shuddered.
“It turned out our deed was old and invalid. We didn’t realize my great-grandmother had gifted the land to the king and somebody forgot to get rid of the deed. When Father stumbled upon it… Well, he thought we had land no one had reminded him of. But it is all yours now.”
Father did a stiff dance of wiggling his shoulders and pumping his fists. “Ahhhh! This is so wonderful! I don’t know how I can thank you, My Chief.”
“No need,” Tambo said. “My father was quick to understand and leave the land in the hands of a hardworking citizen like you. I have also provided you with two workers to help you with the season’s growing.”
Father couldn’t help but take Tambo’s hand in both of his and shake it. “You are a good lord. Nasomi, I will go to the field now. The weeds won’t pluck themselves.”
“But you need to eat first, Father.”
“You will bring me the food. The sun won’t wait. Give Lord Tambo some cornwine.” He dashed back into the house.
“You have brought joy to Father,” Nasomi said to Tambo. “He was sick and worried.”
“I’m only happy to.” A moment of heavy silence fell upon them, the three exchanged looks.
“This is my cousin Naena. She is the daughter of my mother’s young brother…”
Naena nudged Nasomi in the ribs. “You don’t have to say everything, Somi. You will bore the lord.”
“Please, you can tell me everything,” Tambo said with a laugh. “I wouldn’t mind listening to your family history.”
“Sit for some cornwine,” Nasomi said. “I will bring it shortly.”
“No, no. Don’t trouble yourself. I’ve had a lot to eat already.”
Another bout of silence.
“I will go now,” Tambo said.
“Thank you, My Chief,” Nasomi said. “For this gift. It is a good thing.” Naena gave her a disbelieving look, as if to say, Are those the best words you can speak?
He smiled and turned. He walked away slowly, deliberately. He was in no hurry. He placed his hands at his back, turned his head left and right and skyward to study whatever caught his attention. A man with few troubles in his life, Nasomi thought.
Naena poked her. “How can you be so dim, Somi?”
“He wants you to follow him.”
“That can’t be right.”
“Don’t be silly. Learn to understand the clues. Go after him, now, or I will.”
Naena took two steps forward. Nasomi grabbed her hand.
“I will go. Stubborn you.”
She trotted some of the way, walked the rest. When she was almost upon him, she felt so stupid. I shouldn’t have come, she thought. When he turned and saw her coming, he stopped. She would tell him she was going to see an uncle and walk past him.
“Nasomi,” he said, sweetly and without surprise. “Have you seen the new aqueduct being made?”
“Glimpses of it as I move about the city. I have meant to take a good look one good day.” She lied. She didn’t care about construction.
“Today is a good day then,” he said.
“Well, I can’t go like this.”
“I will wait.”
She hesitated, thinking he was jesting. But he smiled reassuringly. “I won’t be long,” she muttered, and she ran back. She rushed past Naena even as her cousin asked why she was back so soon. She went to her room with Naena in tow.
“What are you in a hurry for?”
“He’s taking me to see the aqueduct.”
“Ooh. Let’s get you dressed properly.”
Nasomi chose a supple seamless dress, the fabric brown from years of being worn. It was her favorite, and she thought the fading made the dress look better. Naena was about to comment when Nasomi gave her a look that said, I am wearing this!
Naena shrugged. “Your hair.”
“Have you seen his?”
They both laughed. “Let me do something quickly,” Naena said. “And wear my sandals. Yours will break before you take five steps.”
“They never break.”
“Wear mine still. You know they’re better.”
Nasomi tied the sandal straps around her shin as Naena worked on her hair. Naena gathered and wound Nasomi’s hair into a high chunky bun. “You look like a tree. A tree in love.”
Nasomi poked her. “It’s only a walk. Don’t be too quick about things.”
Father called from the living room that he was going, singing and whistling as he went. Nasomi waited for him to get to a good distance before dashing out. At the gate, she called back to Naena, “Take some food for Father in case I am gone for long.”
Naena scowled and folded her arms, but Nasomi knew she would do as asked.
She fell in by Tambo’s side. With his hands in his pockets most of the way, they walked through the streets and alleys of the district. Ninki Nanka was a middle-class district, the abode of farmers, merchants, fishers, workers of cloth, and messengers. Although she had lived her life there, Nasomi thought it was a good place to stay. Even as she and Tambo walked into the next district, Mokele, the differences were obvious: Mokele’s streets were narrower, winding and cutting and veering in undefined patterns; the huts were smaller, clustered; and every few paces, a vendor was trying to sell them something: fresh mangoes, sweet potatoes, sandals, goats, chickens, “sticks that catch fire quicker”.
The new aqueduct passed over the edge of Mokele, held thirty feet in the air by towers that were being constructed twenty feet apart.
“It goes higher as you get closer to the North Gate,” Tambo said. “It is more stable than the old one, longer even by fifteen gardens. When it is complete, they will set to renovate and extend the first one.”
Father used to take Nasomi to the first one numerous times when she was young. He lifted her onto his shoulders, told her to look up. The aqueduct had looked like it would topple on her, and the dizzying effect was excitingly terrifying when he spun her around. Beneath a part that leaked, she had held her mouth open for a drop of water that fell every four heartbeats. Most of them hit a part of her face other than her mouth, and she enjoyed adjusting her position in the hopes she would get ingest the next drop.
“Imagine climbing up there and going all the way to the wall,” she said.
Tambo raised a brow. “Who would want to?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know. I am just imagining things: people are chasing you, the gates are locked, and that’s the only way out.”
“I'd go to the parts of the wall with gaps, try to squeeze myself through one.”
“The gaps are being guarded by soldiers. Soldiers who have been bewitched to do nothing but kill you.”
“That person should be brave then, climbing so high and going against the water flow. And you do have quite an imagination. I like it. If only we were younger. We would have tried it.”
As her eyes followed the winding of the duct, her hand brushed against his. She flushed, but when she looked at him, he didn’t seem to have noticed.
“The whole thing has needed over five thousand bamboo trees, fifty-six gallons of tar, miles and miles of timber, I-don’t-know-how much stone-weights of rocks, and the rope required could be thirty-eight miles long.”
“Impressive,” Nasomi said. She touched one of his rings with her finger, feeling the texture of the ruby gem.
He looked at her and smiled. “The amount of labor is staggering. It has needed three hundred men and women, thirty-seven oxen, forty horses. The wagon that brought the largest boulder - for the pillar over there - was so long it had a dozen pair of wheels—”
And I thought I was the shy one, Nasomi mused. She gave him a slight pinch on his arm above the wrist.
He reached out to her and she evaded his hand. He reached again and she jumped out of his way.
“Oh, you think you’re clever,” he teased. He lunged for her. She ran, he chased. When he caught her, she was giggling like a little girl. He pinched her and she chased him through narrow streets of clustered stalls, among mud houses, and through a throng of workers hefting planks. Some of them spouted curses, but upon realizing Tambo’s status, they gave the gesture of respect, saying “My Chief.”
He pretended to be tired, to let her catch up. He took her hand and in silence, they watched the raising of a massive scaffold.
“It’s lovely,” Nasomi said. “The structure.”
He escorted her home and went his way.
Later in the night, after a hearty supper of corn pap and cow trotters boiled in beans and pumpkin leaves, Nasomi and Naena sat outside to watch the moon and stars. All the four stars of the Bowl were bright tonight, signaling the advent of the rain season. The moon’s splotches were vividly gray against its luminescent silver. As Father snored loudly in the house, Naena, poking her teeth with a stick, said, “You just have to tell me what happened.”
“We talked and walked and saw the aqueduct. Then I came back home.”
“That’s not saying much, you. What did you talk about?”
“He knows all these things about the aqueducts… you should have heard him talk. Numbers and all that. On our way back, he asked me about my family. I told him about you and Father. I told him Mother died four years ago from ulcers. He asked me if I had been close to her. I said ‘Yes, very. I enjoyed it when she carried me on her back and sang for me when I was ill.”
“‘Sounds like a wonderful woman,’ he said. ‘I said she was.”
“He talks sweetly, doesn’t he? One word at a time.” She mimicked his speech: “‘Sounds like a wonderful woman.’ I can just imagine you there by his side, falling for his voice.”
Nasomi shoved her. “That’s just his accent. They all talk like that.”
“But he does it so well. What did he say about your eyes?”
“He didn’t mention my eyes.”
“Oh, swallow him! How can he not talk about your eyes?”
“Watch your language, Nae. How is he supposed to notice my eyes on the first day?”
“Second day. Your eyes are the first thing everyone loves about you. Is he timid?”
“You asked about his family?”
“Yes. He has two brothers and a sister. I can only remember her name, Teeyana. The other two I forget. He’s firstborn, and will inherit the lordship.”
“That’s too shallow. Give me the intimate details.”
Nasomi shook her head as she laughed. “What surely can I know in just a day about someone?”
“You’re afraid of asking questions. Take me along next time and I’ll show you how to talk to boys.”
Nasomi pushed her again. “He’ll get bored with me.”
“It shows that he likes you. He must be on his lordly bed right now looking at his ceiling and thinking of you.”
“I doubt it, Nae. What have I got to offer?”
“Well, let me count.” She brought her palm to Nasomi’s face and folded the first finger. “First, your eyes.”
“What with you and my eyes, please?”
“They are lovely Nasomi. So brown and shiny.”
“And my face? The rest of my figure?”
“Look at you saying figure. It is not so bad, with your thick hips and tall legs. Good enough to attract a lord.”
“You’re full of teasing, Sister.”
“Second, you cook well. Who doesn’t like good food? Third— What’s with your face?”
Nasomi was squinting at the gateway. “I’m having that feeling again like I’ve dreamed this before. It was exactly like this, you and me talking, and at the gate, a small cat passed.”
Naena looked at the gateway and back at Nasomi. “And third is this,” she said, making a sweeping gesture with a hand of three folded fingers. “This weirdness of yours. He’s going to love that, I tell you. You and your deja vus.”
Nasomi shrugged. She yawned, and so did Naena. “You’ll do my hair tomorrow?”
“Of course. First thing in the morning, before your boyfriend comes.” Naena escaped from an impending pinch.
“He’s not… Ah, there’s no convincing you.”