The hooting of the owl from father’s thorn tree woke me up. It was eerie, foreboding, almost esoteric. It tugged at my heart strings, jar at my sides and unsettled nerves. I lay on my bamboo bed, panting. I have heard the hooting of owls before. Father said it brings an ominous message from the gods. The owl should not hoot on anyone’s tree. That morning, it chose father’s thorn tree. My nerves were boiling.
I opened the wooden window, to wish it away. It continued to call, in a slow, measured cadence. The owl was calling my name. Its large eyes were slightly shuttered like it was in a trance. It trained its eyes on me.
I prayed for the gentle sound of leaves kneaded by the wind on balmy mornings. I prayed for the streaks of lighting that accompany belching thunder to force it to leave our compound. I prayed for the pata pata sound of the rain beating on aluminium roofing sheets, stripping flowers of infant petals and gathering puddles along bush paths; any other sound but the eerie call of the owl at dawn.
I gazed at the fading hue of the grey clouds as they moved in unruffled symmetry. It was like the uncanny movement of mourners in final rites. A wisp of fresh air caressed my face, blotting it with droplets of dew. I loved the emerald scent of dew. But for six days now, the dew at dawn only delivered the threat that was day.
All the days that started with the owl’s call didn’t end well. The day Amina ran away from her husband’s house after slitting his throat with a rotten sabre.
But Amina was not a cold-blooded murderer. Oval-shaped face, evanescent smile, bright almond-shaped eyes and a voice like that of a mockingbird in all its glory; Amina would be a saint if the world was sane. He raped her every night, her forty-nine year old husband. He would batter her about the face and head. One day, she decided she couldn’t take it any more. She was only fourteen.
It was also on a day like this, that we found Zainub weeping under the neem tree. We were on our way to the stream, when the agony in her voice took the will out of our legs. Six of us, girls been readied to meet their husbands. She clung to a worn wrapper, dabbing away around her thighs. She had given birth to two children in two years of marriage, both had died. The Mission sisters said she had been ripped apart by the childbirth. They said that for a girl of fourteen, this was one pregnancy too many. They said she might leak constantly until help arrived. Help never came. Her husband couldn’t take the foul smell any more He sent her away and threatened a feud over his bride price. Only her own parents didn’t want her too.
That’s why I know the owl is singing my requiem. Its voice holds a thread of agony surreal as nightmare. I will be given in marriage to a man who had been weaned before my father was conceived. I am only twelve. I hadn’t even seen the first shoots of what would be called breasts. They collected me from the Mission school six days ago and kept me in a relative’s home to prepare me to meet my husband. I cried all through the night but the glint in mother’s eyes said that my tears didn’t rank as ominous.
While they plaited my hair, fitted brass bracelets to my hands and feet, played the waka all night and wined and danced, I felt like a guest at my own funeral.
This is why I am running away. If a man must make a woman of me, he should at least wait till I become a woman.