THE SUBJECT OF DEATH and burial comes more easily to those who never watched the silence of their own and that moment you throw a handful of soil as a final goodbye. As dust rises with the energetic shovels filling the grave, the mind and soul bleed inwards into a coldness words can’t describe. Then turning your back to a place that forever shall hold captive an entire history of emotional connectedness, leaden feet slowly carry a blinded vision.
That the world respects the position death holds among the living is no wonder. Each person we bury is a burial of a bit of ourselves. And so, in the times of COVID pandemic and the stringent measures proscribed by governments the world over, the communal participation that goes into preparations and final rites of the recently departed has dwindled to a team of ten to ferry the body and bury it; even then, only if the person died of something other the dreaded virus.
And this Friday, poor Joe, his brother Jim and two of their close friends had the unpleasant but noble task of transporting their diseased grandmother a 310-km journey from the city to the rural village. With grand road blocks every 50 km and sometimes less, the inconvenience of the checks had to be borne. The grieving young men in their late twenties and early thirties were not discouraged. They needed to do the right thing by their grandmother.
The foursome made a brief stop over half way through the journey to stretch their legs and stock up on some much needed refreshments. The grandma could not begrudge them a little whisky. Back on the highway and pushing the pedal to get home before curfew hours, the few shots of whisky helped them a great deal. Not so, by the standards set by the highway security monitors who were concerned by the high speed of this van with youngsters with merry eyes and a coffin at the back. They were stopped at the last road block before veering off to the last stretch home.
As usual, the four were asked to step out of the van. Joe was not amused by this interruption and he let the officer know this.
“Officer, if you only find it in yourself to….” He hiccuped, “sorry for that. I am begging you to let us through. If we don’t make it home by 4 pm, the burial will have to be postponed. And that would come with more costs. Please.”
The officer screwed his face and wrinkled his nose before asking.
“Driving a diseased person under the influence of alcohol is not exactly very safe for the living. Now, where are the papers from the hospital and the office that authorized this travel? And one that give you permission for drunk driving.”
Joe’s eyes dimmed and a nerve jacked deep down. With palms up in earnest plea, Joe begged the officer to let them continue with the journey.
”Authorization papers, young man”
The other three were beginning to show anxiety in their roaming eyes and the way they kept looking at each other with questions that didn’t leave their lips. Joe got back into the van to retrieve the said papers. The other four officers manning the road block behaved strangely according to the other van occupants. They took positions away from the driver’s side of the van as if they expected Joe to come out brandishing a gun. But all Joe did was get Kshs 4,000 from his wallet and in a low voice asked the officer to stamp the said papers so they could continue with their journey.
The officer looked at the four folded notes and shook his head. Joe thought the officer needed more and added another note. The officer smiled and took the notes ending a scene that was already horrifying the boys.
Joe sang out loud as the figures of police officers diminished.
“That cost me a cool Five-K I say! You guys owe me” he said as he took a swig from the almost empty bottle of whisky.
“You are our hero Joe”. His brother said, “grandmas too!” He added, as everyone burst out laughing. High fives thundered inside the van to the joy of this major success.
The celebrations of the escape started in earnest on this last stretch of home. Two more bottles of whisky were uncapped and swigs followed in earnest. Mid swallow, Joe saw a major road block a mere half a kilometer ahead with a police van lighting the early evening with its revolving blue lights.
“Damn!” he hissed.
The road ahead was completely blocked and the only other side they would have made an escape through is where the police van was parked. That the police had two well-fed dogs shivering with excess energy did not help any of the boys to entertain the thought of escape. The one who flagged them down did so with such urgency in his gestures the four were worried even before Joe silenced the engine.
“Out!” shouted one fat officer behind the spiked bar that made passage completely impossible. The boys stepped out on shaky feet. The bottle of whisky that Joe’s brother had retrieved off Joes hand when they saw the roadblock, rolled out from between his thighs, fell down on the edge of the tarmac and spilled its contents.
What followed was a nightmare on an early evening.
“So these are the poachers and smugglers of rhino horns that everyone has been looking for?” the officer who flagged the van down exclaimed.
“No sir! Sir, we are not!” Joe started to protest before he was cut off
“All of you lie down! Legs apart, hands behind your back”
The four boys did not wait for another order. The police dogs that were restless and crying for a piece of action were a more deterrent measure than the orders of the fat officer.
The four were quickly handcuffed and pulled up to their feet. Then the fat officer opened the back of the van and the dogs were let in. Their grunts were very intimidating. But not worse than the sight of the opened casket.
“So who do we have here?” the fat policeman asked
And the second horror of the evening started in earnest as journalists with cameras popped out of the police van and started covering the unfolding drama and the question and answer session that was going on.
The papers that told the purpose of this journey revealed an anomaly. The chief who is supposed to have given the travel permit had no idea what the officer was talking about not even the police post that had signed the travel permit. That the casket was empty except whisky and canned foods was as shocking to the media as the viewers watching this live feed.
For the purpose of beating lockdown in the city, four young men had hatched an escape to the rural area where curfew was less stringent causing a tragic drama to normal life. That one of the boys was found to have been infected did not help the National anger. He had escaped quarantine in the city and paid heavily to Joe to take him to the village. He ended up at the nearest hospital where five days later, he breathed his last. Joe and the other three were put in quarantine. Sadly, Joe’s brother did not make it. He died on day eleven.
The guilt of lying about his grandmother who was alive and well in the village, the guilt of leading his kid brother to dead by his callous behavior weighed heavily on Joe. The public at home and in the city were most annoyed with him. He spends days in the bushes behind his grandfather’s home back in the village, isolated from society and his own unforgiving guilt, slowly sinking into depression.