Conrad Mulondo slouched into Kisendi one hot Wednesday when the red dust stuck to the sweat of knees and napes and the blue turaco called raucously from the thorn tree. His wife, Star, hadn't seen him in weeks. She blinked at the shine of his black shoes in the sunlight, the glare of his white dress shirt.
Conrad always wore nice clothes when he came back to her. They hugged and Star felt ashamed of her scruffy pink gomesi and cropped hair. Conrad let go of her and sat on the sofa, his hand smoothing the doilies Star's mother had given them for their kwanjula. He cast an eye over the cement walls he'd been promising to paint, the wheelbarrow full of baked-mud bricks.
"Been moving round trying to make a shilling so you can fix this place."
"Kulikayo, Conrad. Thought you were lost," said Star and walked to the cupboard of a kitchen.
She'd been calling Conrad all the names God didn't like her using, but as she emptied the sachet of powder into a jug, she hummed under her breath. There was a mirror sticker on the side of the clapped-out fridge. She peeked round and saw the blue-black sheen of her cheeks, her straight white teeth.
Over the scent of hot earth and burnt grass, Star could smell roasting maize. She kicked the back door open, waved to the bicycle vendor blaring speeded-up Uganda gospel down the potholed main road. Her boys kicked a saggy football across the scrub-grass yard and the baby wailed in a washtub.
"Joyce, rinse the soap from her eyes!" shouted Star to her eldest girl.
Star would take a jerry can bath then spend the afternoon making love to Conrad. That's what hot days were for. She stirred the orange soda with a spoon and pulled two Daffy Duck glasses from the washing tub. With a glass in each hand and her big toe curled round the edge of the living-room door, Star stopped like lizard caught in torchlight.
"I need to change for tonight," said a woman's voice.
"Well, keep your bum there and gossip with her while I get the money."
Star bit her lip and walked into the living room. Conrad started up when he saw her then sat back slightly away from the girl Star recognized as Mukasa Olive. She pushed one glass into Conrad's hand, pushed the other at Olive who looked down in disgust at a fly creeping round the rim.
"Hello, Mrs. Mulondo," said Olive. Her smooth, brown face was framed with crisp curls of fake hair, silver-beaded at the scalp. Conrad saw Star looking Olive up and down and smirked.
"She's beautiful out of her school uniform," he said.
Star held her back very straight as if she might get taller by doing so. Conrad set his drink down on the table next to him.
"Can I wash my hands, Star?"
A baby cockroach slurped at the sweat balling off Conrad's glass.
"If you can find the tub."
Conrad usually fought with Star, but she'd seen him be polite to dupes. She wilted onto the edge of the armchair and Olive started in.
"We're taking that place across from you so Conrad can be near . . . "
"I'd better find him some soap," snapped Star.
He wasn't in the bathroom, but belly down on the dirt floor of the messy bedroom. The lid of their money tin clunked and he wriggled from under the bed. Star sat down on the bed and began to cry.
"I can't even afford matoke, Conrad."
He sat next to her and hugged her awkwardly while she wiped at her eyes.
"Life's tough, Star. Robert hasn't paid me yet . . . "
"You said there's cash in Kisendi for those in the know . . . "
Conrad laughed. "That's true. Give me time." He kissed her on the nose.
Star took Conrad's face between her hands and kissed his mouth. She lay back on the pink, plush coverlet with Goofy stitched into it and pulled him on top of her. He kissed her, pushed his hand between her thighs. She tugged his shirt up and stroked his back.
"Conrad!" shouted Olive from the living room.
"I have to go," said Conrad. He tucked in his shirt. "Welaba, Star."
Star lay where she was, her skirt round her hips. The wind-up radio was gone. Olive's shrill giggle sounded through the window. Star reached under the bed for the tin. It was empty. Her family would go hungry tonight. Conrad had left her six times and given her a child on every return.
"This time he won't come back. And he won't pay me back either."
Star went to the kitchen and found a Royco jar with the label half washed off. She dumped the beef powder into a 5 sh bag and stuffed it in the rusted metal rack with her tubs of this and that spice.
"You'll be better off in here," she said.
In the living room, their faded wedding photo was the one ornament. There the happy couple stood: Star in her gold changing dress and Conrad in his blue suit that everybody said looked smart. Star laughed as she lifted the photograph down, felt happy yanking the picture from its frame and ripping it in two. She made small tears around Conrad's body until she had a jagged cut out of her husband. He fit perfectly in the Royco jar.
With the old T-shirt of Conrad's she used as a dish rag, Star rubbed at the white bottom of the label till the jar came clean and she could see her husband's wedding day face.
For the other ingredients, Star had to wait until night when her children were jumbled together in bed. Odd sighs and belly rumbles told her that none of them were really asleep. They hadn't eaten more than posho for a week and the smell of Mama Esther frying chicken next door had them drooling on their bed sheet.
Star took a black plastic bag and crept into Esther's unkempt sorghum patch. She caught a grasshopper—more by luck than skill—and dropped it cricicring into the bag. Nearby, a white stone shone in the moonlight, so she picked that too, then a pinch of red clay, a chicken feather, a henna flower crushed between her fingers 'til it bled.
On the smoothed-mud doorstep she swept so carefully each morning, Star made her mother's recipe: the cricicring nsenene (like a tiny chicken when you roasted it), the chicoco feather smeared with orange henna, the white stone blooded with red earth.
The thorn tree in her yard had snared the moon.
"Don't feel stressed," Star told it, "you always slip out of that tree."
It was an old moon, half chewed down. Beneath it, Conrad once bit her ear and told her he loved her. Star took Conrad from his glass house and ran her thumb over his face. A sob shook her by the ribs and the last ingredient fell into the Royco jar, bitter and salt. She put him back and screwed the lid shut.
"What's Tata's picture doing in there?"
It was Joyce. She sat down next to Star and pulled her nightshirt over her knees. Star wiped her wet face on the sleeve of her t-shirt and thought. At thirteen, Joyce was in the church choir and loved Jesus like a brother, nothing like either of her parents.
"Tata left us again," said Star.
She pulled Joyce's beaded braid, but the stubborn girl moved her head away.
"Promise you're not going to hurt him, Mama?"
"Of course I won't hurt him, Joyce. I love him," she replied, aware that her mother had spoken those very same words the week Star's own Tata died.
Star waited until Joyce was back in bed. She didn't want to hurt anyone, but the rent was overdue and Conrad would be too busy with Olive to find food for them. He was always bragging that there was a pile of money to be found in Kisendi and rubbing the side of his nose to show he knew where. He just needed a push. She fished in her bra for her last 300 sh and placed them on the lid of the Royco jar.
Clutching Conrad and the shillings to her breast, Star went round the back of her house where bitter tomatoes grew wild. She dug down to the roots and in a shallow grave, buried the money and the jar.
"Draw him to money," she told it.
The image she held in her head sent chills through her guts and made her heart pound.
Conrad and the boys were outside the one-room police station playing poker on a fold out table. Clumps of black hair blew across from Sandra's Salon and gathered at the belly of a dog dying in the middle of the dirt path. The mutt's demise was the closest thing to action since the pool hall caught fire. Conrad had a book on how long the corpse would stay there.
There was no crime in Kisendi because two years back Paddy the thief stole Robert's TV and ended up gut-shot in the swamp. No-one stole after that except for Robert. It was said he kept wads of bills down the toilet and hidden in his roof. He was Chief of Police, so he took what he liked from the villagers. Right now he was doing the bribe-rounds on the Celtel shacks that mildewed the main road.
Conrad thought about Paddy's body, the sour papyrus stench, how the bloated face gleamed when their torches flicked over it. Robert told them where to start looking and arrested no one for the crime.
"He would've got burned anyhow if he'd stayed in Kisendi."
Conrad shuddered. The words gut-shot and swamp made him shit himself. Since that night Conrad and Jackson fenced the odd radio but mainly they just played cards. He stole a look at Jackson's hand—well, well, a pair of Queens! Jackson had been in the toilet for hours and he was holding up the game. But these days he was edgy, up to something for sure and not sharing it. Maybe he knew where Robert kept his stash. God knows, Conrad could use the money what with six kids and a new wife. Everybody seemed to get a piece except for him.
It would be funny to sneak up on Jackson, see what he was up to. Conrad didn't usually play jokes but today the urge was irresistible. He stuffed his cards in his pocket and went round the back. There was a row of cubicles with wooden doors and padlocks. The sow lived in one, her farrow making a motorcycle-engine noise every feeding time.
The toilet cubicle was next door to the pigpen and the door was ajar. Conrad drew out his revolver and used the muzzle to nose it open. A billow of flies hit him in the face but the cubicle was empty. Jackson must have taken a long call because it stank more than usual in there and he'd left the padlock on the ledge, the toilet roll unfurled and soaking piss from the floor. Robert would kill them if he found the place like this.
Conrad bent to pick the roll up and saw a flash of white down the squat hole. He set his gun on a plank and hunkered down to look closer. He could still hardly see it in the stinking dark, so he shut his mouth and pearl-diver-like ducked his head parallel with the hole. It was a Capital Shopper Market bag hanging from the back plank of the latrine.
There was his piece.
He reached in the hole and yanked the bag free. His foot slipped in a smear of shit and the gun flew in the hole with a splash. Conrad laughed at the sound. He felt drunk and later when he found himself up on the iron roof of Robert's barn, he giggled. This was a bold move and about time. He crawled over the corrugated metal slowly by slowly, listened to it tick as the heat of day drained away. The banana leaves whispered to him and a gust of warm wind peppered his face with dust. There was another bag of money hidden in the storm drain. He peered at it, reached down.
Back at the house, Olive had her feet up in front of the TV. She was watching a Nigerian movie while the pink paint on her toenails dried.
"You're late," she said, "and you're filthy. Where've you been?"
"I dunno," said Conrad and began to cry like he sometimes did when he was badly hungover. He nuzzled the neck of her dress.
"Are you cheating on me?" Olive landed him one on the ear.
"Don't hit me. My head is paining!" he moaned.
Olive pushed him away with a cluck of disgust and switched off the TV.
What had kept him out 'til 10 o'clock? He struggled to sort his head out but couldn't make out more than an image here and there like strobes on dancing bodies in a karaoke club. He saw his fingers brrr a Nightjar's song through worn green bills. He teetered on a roof one minute and the next fell on his knees in the bush to dig.
Conrad looked at his dirty nails. Something else was horribly wrong. He groped his trouser waist.
Where in Jesus' name was his gun?
The next morning, Star woke with a nervous feeling. She didn't dress or even put on her flip-flops, just ran barefoot to the bitter tomato bush. With her hands, she dug around the roots. There, sure enough, was the black plastic bag full of money. She held it to her face. It was dirty, but she kissed it.
It rained for weeks after that. The wet charmed mosquitoes out of the papyrus swamp, drove the white ants from their hills and into the village. Men snatched ants from the air, pulled off the wings and ate the sweet flesh. Star's children caught them in cupped hands for her to fry.
Star pulled a yellow bag over her head to protect her new braids and went to the patch of dirt where green plantains and charcoal lay in sloppy piles. She bought coal and matches so she could light her burner without begging fire from Mama Esther. At the take-out shack, she got a bag of chicken and chapattis. When the power went out for load-shedding, they sat around the paraffin lamp and let it burn while they sucked the faintest flavours from thighbones.
Star wasn't in the habit of saving and most of the tomato-bush-money went into school fees. The first day her kids left for school, Star had time to make herself sweet porridge, feed the baby and scrub the step. She put on her new red dress with the patent leather pumps. Why not brag a little now that she could? She was tying the baby round her waist when a woman's voice shouted from the yard.
"Let me first come!" called Star.
"Eh, eh. I have all day," grumbled the voice.
Star finished the knot at her waist and went out. There in a blue plastic chair sat Olive. She was playing with a mobile phone Star recognized.
Olive looked over Star's red dress and shoes and clucked.
"I know he's paying you, Star. Your kids have new shoes while I can't get money for lard. You've fooled him and I'll find out how."
"What I have, I earned," Star retorted. She padlocked the door and went to the shops.
When Star returned a few hours later, Olive was in the blue chair drinking a can of soda. She'd placed the chair under the thorn tree to shade herself.
Star set her charcoal burner out and brought out the blue tub, a bag of potatoes and her knife. Olive watched Star peel with eyes half closed and the neighbours peered around their net curtains. The baby crawled over to Olive and played with the strap of her sandal. Olive wasn't used to babies. As the moon rose, she stretched from the chair and stuffed the phone into her bra.
"You keep the ring, Star, I'll keep the man. I'll get that money back, too."
Olive kicked the soda can so hard it bounced off the step and hit the baby in the arm. Star cradled her and made soothing noises. She picked up the coke can and crushed it with her foot. In the bedroom, she laid the baby on the coverlet, then pulled out the jar and pressed her cheek against the cool lid.
"Your Olive is a bad woman, Conrad. She came to my house and hurt our baby."
The soda can had a coin-shaped flatness.
"Draw him from Olive," she told the jar and slipped the can underneath it.
She held a very pleasing image in her head.
When her children caught the matatu to school, Star went to the timber lean-to where Margret sold onions and green peppers. Later she would make a stew and cast into the pot the small bitter tomatoes that kept her pressure down.
Mama Esther was there before her, buying bread slices and gossiping with Margret.
"Did you hear? He found her with another man and beat her so bad she had to limp home to her parents' house in Luwero!"
"Are you sure?" asked Margret.
"Oh yes, Olive and Conrad are broken up. No doubt."
When they saw Star standing there, they turned to her and smiled. It was a bad look, as if Conrad would run straight back to her, as if she should be happy that another woman was hurt.
Star walked up to the soda kiosk. She'd just paid 300 sh for powdered milk when Conrad appeared with a bag of empty coke bottles. His eyes were puffy and he had a cut on his cheek. He was wearing the ragged old jeans Star had washed so many times.
"How are you, Star?" he asked in a dull voice.
"I'm well," she smiled.
"You look pretty," said Conrad, eyeing her new red dress and shoes. "You must be eating."
As she walked away from him, Star smelled waragi on her husband's breath.
"If only he had a woman to take care of him . . . " she whispered to the baby.
The truth was, Star missed the old dog and their nights together before the children were born. Now her house was almost empty. His too. She unlocked her back door and put the food away. The baby was fast asleep in her sling so Star laid her down on the mattress.
From the jar, the picture of Conrad seemed to wink at Star. She hiked her red dress up and pulled down her new polka-dot underwear. White stretch marks wriggled across the smooth black skin of her belly. She stroked them for a moment, then stepped out of her knickers and dropped them over the Royco jar. The leg-hole slid down the glass until the gusset framed Conrad's face.
"Draw him to me," said Star and held a familiar image in her head.
She walked through the bush until she came to the coffee plantation where Conrad's family was buried. Star liked graveyards and she'd hinted as much to Conrad, but the idea of making love a few feet above his ancestors' bones made him retch.
When Conrad emerged from the trees, a sprig of green beans in his hand, Star didn't waste time on sweet-talk. She pushed the dusty plastic flowers from his Grandma's headstone and stretched out to take him. His eyes were milky when he kissed her, like that half-wit with the cataracts who begged in the dust on Namirembe Road. He tugged her dress over her head and nuzzled her breasts, whispered Star in her ear as he bit her lobes. She'd been ready for him for weeks and when he entered her, she fastened on like a limpet.
Star walked to the yard where her kids were playing. Rose ran up and wrapped her arms round her mother's waist. Star ran a hand over her daughter's short hair and leaned to kiss her.
"You have a good Tata, don't you? He's even sent you to school. You think we'd be happy if he came back to live with us?"
"Yes!" said Rose, "Tata!" and ran back to her game.
Star went to the bed and reached for Conrad but the jar was gone. Her bedroom stank of body odour and toilet flies buzzed over the pillow. A hand closed round Star's throat and a cold circle pressed her temple.
"You're looking pretty pretty these days Star," growled a voice from behind her, "Looks like you're spending someone else's shillings. I heard your kids are even in school. I just went to find your idiot husband . . . where's he gone?"
Conrad had gone for soda but somewhere along the way, the empties vanished. He found himself leaving the bush with his flies undone and scratch marks on his upper arm.
"I must've been in a fight," he thought, "and got knocked out, maybe. My head is paining."
He was avoiding the police station. Robert had been paranoid since his secret stash went missing. All the boys took a beating. Suspicion had first fallen on Jackson as the biggest liar and the most shifty person all round. Hadn't he been up to something secretive for weeks? Jackson's body turned up in the swamp near where they'd found Paddy's and deep down in Conrad a feeling of relief bubbled up with a pop like his friend's last breath.
The scratches on Conrad's arm were fresh. When he touched them he had such a strong image of Star in a hot red dress that he stopped in the road.
"I can even smell her," he muttered.
Star's scent reminded Conrad of the way it used to be on lazy Sundays when they should've been in church. He turned round and looked towards his old house. His kids were running about with some unreeled cassette tape tied onto a sheet of paper, pretending it was a parachute. The woman at the Dairy had said they were all in school now except for the baby, that God must have blessed his family with a windfall. He thought of his wife alone in her house in that red dress.
"Maybe I could visit her." He looked down at his ragged jeans. "I'll have to change first."
Conrad pushed open the back door of his house and walked into the kitchen. He hadn't tidied since Olive walked out and there were pans covered in flies and pools of milky scum by the freezer. A rotten stench, too, like old Nile Perch mingled with sweat, Robert's smell. Since Jackson's disappearance, the Chief was always slumped in front of Conrad's TV watching football. It would all change if he moved back in with Star. She liked to keep their lives in order. Conrad undid his belt, dropped his jeans and pulled his shirt over his head.
A cold circle jabbed Conrad's back.
"My latrine filled up, Conrad," said Robert. "You know how it gets when it rains and you have to call the shit-suckers in to drain it out?"
"Yeah," said Conrad, his shirt wrapped round his head. He stood there with his penis out, feeling a hazy terror. "So the latrine's back to normal now?"
"The latrine is. But some other shit I thought I sorted weeks ago is overflowing, 'cos you see some idiot dumped something so big it broke the drainage machine."
"What could do that?" asked Conrad and turned round to blink at Robert through the cotton of his shirt.
"Well maybe it's this thing in your back."
Star shook so badly she could barely think. She could still feel the imprint of Robert's hands on her neck. But worse, the jar was missing. Surely Robert wouldn't have taken it. Dumbly, she looked in the fridge. There was no Royco, just soda and onions.
"Have you seen a glass jar?" she asked Joyce.
Joyce paused, her hand an inch away from slapping Joseph's face.
"You mean the one with Tata's picture in it?"
"Yes!" said Star, trying to keep the panic from her voice.
Conrad kneed Robert in the balls. Robert doubled up and puked. He dropped Conrad's gun wrapped in a 5 sh bag, the only piece of evidence Robert had collected in his career. Conrad yanked his t-shirt over his head and went for the gun. He brought it down hard on the back of Robert's neck.
"Maama! Baby has the jar," called Rose and pointed to the culprit.
The baby sat with one buttock in a mud puddle, gurgling at the open Royco jar. Her fat little fist was around her father's paper head.
Conrad slid in the sick and across the floor. He landed under Robert. Robert punched him in the face.
"You idiot," he growled, "You're going to the swamp to join your friends, Paddy and Jackson . . . "
Conrad kicked Robert's gut and he fell to the floor on top of Conrad.
"Bad baby!" shouted Star.
The child wailed and reached for Star's dress, but for once, Star left her there. She picked up the jar and screwed back the lid, dusting the dirt from its grooves.
"Baby, I thought I'd lost you!" she said, cradling it.
Rose stood in the doorway and stared at her mother, her mouth slack. Star sat down in her plastic chair and placed Conrad on the dirt between her feet.
"Draw him home," she whispered.
Robert smashed Conrad's head against the floor. He pushed a thumb into Conrad's eye-socket. The gun was between them. Conrad's hand closed over the barrel just as Robert found the handle.
"Wrong end, my friend." growled Robert, "Your poor wife's going to miss you."
Star waited for the familiar image but none came. The kids kept their distance, playing quietly now with the baby. Star knew that behind her back they exchanged worried looks, wondering if Mama went mad when Tata left, whether she could manage. The sun set in a pink haze and kites circled overhead. She watched them then leaned down, her lips bent in a kiss. The Royco jar burst with a loud pop and the contents ran out in a blur of blue and brown. As the new moon rose over the thorn tree, all Star had left of Conrad were brightly coloured blotches that bubbled as the red earth swallowed them.