Easter Saturday,1988.It was a muddy day, wet than a widow’s handkerchief. The mango season was over so there were no succulent mangoes tempting us to steal them. Our mango shaped ten year old heads had to come up with mischief to keep us busy all Easter weekend. Thus my cousin and I decided to go and hunt for wasps for Carlos our dog. Now Carlos was like our second self-a pillar of canine benevolence.His spaniel eyes made everybody feel like buying him a year’s supply of steak for his palate and shampoo for his matted hair.We lived for Carlos who loved us more than he loved himself.
The idea of wasps had been hatched a few days earlier in school. Back then, boys were endowed with certain inalienable rights: among these were right to life, liberty and right to own dogs. You could also add right to all the succulent mangoes that hang in the village mango trees like earrings on a beautiful ladies face. Thus to fully exercise this right ,my cousins and I had motley of dogs between us. They were perpetually hungry creatures-some stray, some tame some wild- that always followed us like shadows. When we ate, they ate. When we swam in the treacherous Mathioya River, they swam. Sadly, when our scrawny backsides got whipped for stealing mangoes or whichever fruit had tempted us, they too took a beating.
There were dogs,and then there was Carlos.He was the compulsively friendly mongrel we had named after the famous terrorist-Carlos the Jackal. Of course we got the name from Mr.Munderu our history teacher after Socrates,our previous favourite dog died. We told other boys that Carlos’ mother was a leopard and his father a mountain lion and that he had jaguar aunties and puma uncles. But Carlos was no more than bag of bones with fleas enough to infest a small village to pandemic levels. His tail was permanently between his thin legs. He was not living to his famous billing. We had to do something to redeem his image.
To us, Carlos was more than a dog. In our journey in the village lanes towards becoming men, Carlos was our benefactor; our dumb constant north. He had this existential angst in his eyes which other people took for a lonely stare but us boys knew better.His primordial instinct helped us to know where the juiciest avocados were ripening. When we wanted to cross the often moody Mathioya River and get sugarcanes beckoning to be eaten by us the other side, Carlos guided us on the safest place to do so.Many a day, when we became too wayward and our mothers denied us food, we shared our last stolen avocado with Carlos, knowing too well that he will repay us not with a similar avocado, but with unfaltering loyalty. He gave us our first lessons in loyalty, in swimming and many other vitals skills of boyhood. Carlos lived for us; one woof at a time. His bark was his honor. But his meekness troubled us a lot and we had to get a solution fast.
Thus we approached Eutychus- the boy who had repeated Class Four three times and sported a nice beard. At some point we had applied paraffin to our chins so that we could sprout a beard and be like him, but it didn’t work. That was our first lesson in scams.Eutychus was the brightest of them all; he always had a solution for all our boyish problems tucked in some corner of his guava shaped head. He loved us because we were very obedient-we diligently delivered the perfumed letters he used to write to our elder sisters. We didn’t deliver them because we loved our mean big sisters that much, but because we respected Eutychus more.
At the price of two stolen sugarcane sticks, Eutychus advised us to feed the meek canine on a meal of wasps three times a week. Henceforth, Carlos would scare even the devil himself. I tell you this boy was genius.
Every dog has its day-that’s how Easter Saturday found us hunting for wasps for Carlos’ problems. We took the bushy footpath towards Boyo, the gurgly river that washed our villages’ sins downstream. The guava trees around the river had plenty of wasp nests. Several wasp stings later, we decided that the best time to catch them was at night and abandoned the mission altogether. This meant that we would be idle until nightfall when we would embark on the wasp job.
Girls will always be girls, always trying to enhance one or other aspect of beauty. In the village then, grapevine had it that if you took a specific water beetle that used to thrive in the rivers and made it bite your titties, they would bloom big enough to cause an eclipse. This knowledge had been passed down from mother to daughter to granddaughter, long before the Americans came up with silicone implants for the same purpose. Thus we decided to look for water beetles and sell them to the progressive village belles later, each at the price of one chapati. Our heads were always teeming with brilliant ideas those days.
When we had collected enough water beetles to turn our village into big boob’s fetishist heaven, hell broke loose. A loud helicopter loomed on the horizon, its steel blades cutting the rarified village air into pieces.
A Lancia Delta Intergrale, loud enough to wake the devil from his afternoon siesta, came charging at us from the road that led to the next ridge. In one brief moment, my brief life which was largely consisted of episodes of mango stealing flashed before me. I tried to say the Lord’s Prayer, which I only knew the Kikuyu version, but gave up the idea altogether when I reckoned that Jesus was a handsome white man who didn’t understand Kikuyu.
After the rally car passed us, we followed it down the muddy path watching it skid with glee. Carlos followed the car too, salivating at the Farmers Choice sausages emblemed on the car’s sides. Carlos had never tasted a single sausage all his life, but all in all he knew sausages existed. Just like we human beings have never been to heaven, but we know it’s up there. Dogs got canine faith too.
For us boys, we were following the rally cars for a different reason; the big spare tyre at the cars back could make a nice wheel for our carts. We had to pinch it.If we could steal old lady Jerusha’s mangoes without her detecting us, we could steal the big spare wheel behind Kirkland’s Car No.9 without him noticing.
The Safari Rally -the greatest duel between man, machine and time- was underway. The wasps and water beetles could wait!
After the Safari Rally was over, we managed to feed Carlos on a buffet of wasps enough to sting a whole village to death. Red wasps, black wasps, big wasps, small wasps-he was spoilt for choice. We waited for him to get braver than ten lions, but instead he got very sick and in a short time acquired the pale hue of death. Eutychus, the wise fellow who had advised us to feed Carlos on a meal of wasps to make him brave told us that we had overdosed the poor thing with wasps. But we suspected he had bewitched our lovely dog with his evil eye.
Days rolled into weeks, Carlos didn’t get better. Each day he had a new ache, much stronger than the previous one. We knew this because we felt the pain too. He was always in brute grief, so pained that even the fleas that infested his skin deserted him like rats running away from a sinking ship. Like a father watching his son bleed in the battlefield, we watched Carlos handle his grief like gentleman. You see, to call Carlos a dog hardly served him justice. He may have had four legs and a tail, but to us who knew him well, Carlos was gentleman. More refined than some men we knew, but we didn’t dare say that aloud.
By and by, his bodily features betrayed how life had wronged him. Mortality weighed heavily on him, like unwilling sleep. We touched his coat, wishing that some of his pain could be transferred to us, and thus be shared. It didn’t happen. But Carlos bore his pains stoically, raging against the dying of the light, without yelping like some mangy mongrels who lacked pedigree.
One day, with the single-mindedness of boys with a dog life to save, we approached Chege our cousin to come and pray for our dog. Chege was older than us and never missed Sunday school. Thus he was fluent in the saying ‘The Grace’, and such prayers. When he heard our idea, he laughed so loud that we thought we could see the githeri he had taken for his lunch in his stomach. Then he dismissed us.
With that, it became clear that Carlos death was imminent. He sat on the evening veranda of his life-reminiscing about famous hunts we have had back in the day. He ruminated on many a juicy avocado we had stolen together, and the swims we had in the River Mathioya.
Then one day, around that time when the Berlin came down, Carlos soul went up. God’s fingers touched him, and he slept eternally. He became one with the wind and joined other dog souls. While the whole world was celebrated the fall of the Cold War, we mourned the death of Carlos.
However, my mango shaped head refused to accept that Carlos had died. Maybe he had taken one of his long naps. Or he was in some dog coma from which he would come from if we stole some bones from Kuria the mean butcher and ran them over his nose. To protect his lifeless body so that we could bring it to life later, we hid him by the old muiri tree which was said to have powers to turn a boy into a girl if one run round it seven times. But why would a boy want to turn into a girl while boyhood was so much fun? Anyway, if that tree could do that, it could revive Carlos form his coma since to us, he want fully dead. Denial.
The day at school was longer than a week in a hospital bed. We couldn’t wait for the school bell to ring our way to freedom and rush out to go check out on Carlos. When we finally arrived home, we found ants crawling on his matted skin. We ran the bones we had picked form Kuria’s dustbin over his nose, but Carlos didn’t as much raise a paw. My cousin Tony took a long stick and started beating the ant trail all the way to the hole they came from.Myself,I took to stoning the birds that chirruped above in the tree, oblivious of our sadness which hang on the whole place like a sad shawl. Anger.
Deep inside, I wondered why God has taken away Carlos and not the other less colorful dogs in the village. Why couldn’t he take all those useless village cats-all meows and airs-and leave our dog alone? We could even add Him ngunu-the old angry cow that was always itching to gore our bottoms. God, please take even the only donkey in the village and leave our dog alone.Bargaining.
For the next week, grief and despair descended on us fighting for a piece of our hearts like two jealous Naija wives. We wore a cloak of grief that was too heavy for our boyish heads. We no longer stole avocados-stealing them with Carlos not around meant nothing to us. We stopped going for the Sunday football jamboree by the river. Who could enjoy a football match when Carlos was dead? Or better, who could enjoy life in the absence of Carlos? The whole village was teeming with men and dogs, but the loss of one dog made it look empty and bereft of life.Despair.
Soon, we started reliving the times we had with Carlos. We talked about that day when he saved us from Wamatangari the village madman when Carlos appeared from nowhere when he was chasing us cracking a nyahunyo behind our backs. We reminisced on how one day Carlos led us home after we followed the Safari Rally Cars six villages away till it got dark and we got lost in some coffee bushes. We recalled how Carlos had nurtured many a dog to life by licking their lives wounds. In short we decided to celebrate Carlos life. We let Carlos dog soul rest, not because we loved him less, but because we cherished the moments we had with him more. After all, Carlos had blessed us with a thousand tail flicks, which were more honest than the handshakes we had gathered in our lifetime. Though the world was full of suffering, it was also full of overcoming that suffering. The world had just overcome the 40 year long Cold War, so we could also overcome the death of Carlos. Acceptance.
Its only when we came to this stage when we buried him under the ancient avocado tree down by the gurgling river. We called our cousin Chege to officiate as the padre since he was holier than us as he didn’t steal mangoes and avocados like us. Granted, he used to touch our sisters breasts but he didn’t steal them unlike us who ran away with every mango that our fingers touched. The burial was a solemn affair where Chege intoned in some Latin words he borrowed from the local padre. Where he lacked words, he filled the spaces with Kikuyu words or mumbled along.
After the burial, I waited to see Carlos’ soul ascending to heaven. It didn’t see it happen so I imagined him there. I saw him seated on the right side of the Light in some dog heaven where there were no strays or mongrels or mangy dogs with fleas since every dog was a thoroughbred with heavenly pedigree. In the dog’s heaven, it rained steak every morning and sausages every afternoon and avocados at dusk and the heavenly choir howled some dog ballads all night long. It’s only when we imagined that Carlos was in heaven that our minds found peace and started looking for another dog. By and by, we adopted another stray dog who remained nameless. However, he never replaced Carlos, but only expanded our hearts.
In our little minds we knew that this life isn’t fair to dogs-and maybe this also happens in the next world. Thus Carlos might have been locked out of heaven since he wasn’t washed by the blood of the Lamb. My cousin and I swore that if Carlos wasn’t in heaven, then when we die, we want to go where Carlos went. But if heaven really goes by merit and not favour, then Carlos is there, howling eternally while jumping up and down the golden stairs by the crystal shore.
Losing Carlos was painful for us ten year olds because we never pretended to love him-we loved him more than we loved ourselves. Thirty years down the line, I hardly recall the fall of Berlin Wall in October 1989 since that’s the time Carlos died. But I vividly recall Carlos since he left paw prints in or hearts no age can erase. This is because a loved one is not truly forgotten until he or she is no longer remembered. Carlos lives in our hearts, and like all things ever enjoyed can never be lost, but is a part of us.
When Carlos came into our lives, he taught us about love. When he left, he taught us about loss. No Professor, however well read, will ever teach you that.