Saturday, April 21, 2012

Red Strangers by Elsbeth Huxley

In front of the strangers house was a flat, open sward of excellent grass. When Matu first came there were no goats or cattle on it, and he concluded that it must have been set aside for some very highly valued herd. This idea was confirmed when, during the long dry period before the bean rains, Kichuti ordered six men to carry large cans of water from the river and to pour the contents on to the ground through a vessel fitted with a clever device that turned water into raindrops. Matu was much impressed and wondered with growing interest what manner of beast could be worthy of such preparations.

One day, when he arrived for work, he found a strange contraption with two long horns of wood standing on the pasture. It was moving backwards, and a man gripping it by the horns followed behind. As it moved it made a loud noise, like countless grasshoppers singing by a high waterfall.

At first he thought it must be alive. It appeared to be devouring the grass at an astonishing rate as it moved. In front was a thick sward, ankle-high; where it had passed only level turf, smooth as a grinding-stone, as left. He gazed at it dumbfounded, and would have ruin away if the guard who took him to work every morning had not been there. Surely, he thought, only a beast of enormous magical powers could eat at such a pace.

The creature stopped, and the man with it: the noise ceased. “Come here,” said the man. “You are to take this cord and pull. And do not let the string grow slack, or I shall know that you are lazy.”

Mat approached cautiously, eying the grass-eater with apprehension. He did not know whether it might charge, like a rhino, although it was small. He took hold of he cord but still it made no move.

“Pull,” said the man behind, “you are very slow.”
“I am afraid,” Matu answered. “Does this beast bite?”
The man turned away his head and laughed loudly, shaking all over.
“I can see you know nothing,” he said. “This thing is not alive. It contains knives which go round and round and cut the grass, like many women together cutting millet.”

Matu could scarcely believe this to be possible, but he pulled on the string and felt the object move behind him. Very nervously, and using all his willpower to control his shaking knees, he walked forward. The creature sprang into life and followed with a loud clatter at his heels. Sweating with terror, he increased his pace, but the creature only came on faster. He dared not look round to see whether it was gaining on him. He broke into a jog, his red blanket flapping around his wobbling knees.

“Slowly, slowly,” the man behind shouted, laughing above the noise. “Do you think the Masai are after you” Don’t you know how to walk?”

Matu, with great effort, slowed down, and the grass-eater also slackened speed. As the morning went on he grew more used to it and realized before noon that, as the man in charge had said, it was not alive. Later in the day he was told to sweep up the grass which it had cut and not, apparently, eaten.

He puzzled over the purpose of this device all day. Before he returned to his sleeping quarters he decided to ask Karanja what it was for.

“Outside the stranger’s house is excellent pasture,” he said, “yet no cows have come to eat it. Now the grass has been cut as if it were ripe grain. What is the grass for? Who is to eat it?”

“No one,” Karanja said, “It is to be thrown away.”
“But that is impossible!” Matu exclaimed. “The stranger has taken great trouble to secure a wonderful pasture. I have never seen such rich grass. In the dry weather I and five others carried water to it every day, it grew thick as the finest sorghum, green as young maize. There could be no better grass in all of Kikuyu. You cannot tell me that all this trouble was taken in order that the grass should be thrown away! Does the woman burn the millet she has weeded many times and guarded from the birds for many months? Does a man kill his healthy young she –goat?”

“Nevertheless,” Karanja said, “Kichui has ordered that all the grass be thrown away.”

“Can it be for a sacrifice to God?” Matu asked.

Karanja shook his head. “I have never seen him sacrifice anything to God,” he said. “It is just that he likes grass to be short, instead of long.”

“Then why does he have water sprinkled on it to make it grow long?” Matu asked.

Karanja shrugged his shoulders. “I do not know,” he said. “If you work for these strangers it is useless to ask: ‘Why must I do this?’ They have no sense, and do many foolish things without reason.

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