Featured in Colorado Review
The Night RunnerFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2017
The Class Six girls were bad, and everyone knew it. All the teachers at Butula Girls’ Primary School had a Class Six story—the time the girls locked a female instructor in the boys’ toilet overnight; the time they staged an insurrection after being fed githeri for ten days in a row and led the school in a sit-down strike; the incident with the goat in the supply closet.
After they learned that the new American Peace Corps volunteer, Aaron, had been assigned to Class Six, all the teachers gave him sympathetic looks when they passed him in the hallway, and one of the younger ones felt so sorry for him that as she was talking with her colleagues about his dilemma in the lunchroom she burst into tears.
But when Aaron begged the teacher for hints about how to deal with the girls, she could only say, with a fatalistic sigh, “There is no dealing with those ones. The devil is in them, and there is nothing to be done except”—she whipped her hand through the air to demonstrate—
* * * * *
Everyone at school had served their time with Class Six. Of all their put-upon teachers, though, only Aaron was afraid to drag them outside and apply a switch to the tender backs of their calves. As a result, he could not even turn around to write on the chalkboard (The HIV virus is transmitted // are transmitted in the following ways . . .) without the girls’ endless bubbling mockery boiling over into full-fledged chaos.
The girls mimicked his voice when he spoke, squeaking at him in high-pitched, nasal tones. They flicked things at him: not only chalk, but bits of spit-sodden paper, corn kernels, bobby pins, and flaky, greenish balls made of snot. Once, after he’d handed back a set of exercises, Roda Kudondo sauntered up to his desk and shoved her notebook in his face, mumbling in a slurred mishmash she intended as an imitation of his Texas drawl. The class exploded in laughter, and Aaron, not understanding, ordered her back to her seat. But she only repeated what she’d said and jammed her index finger deep in her mouth, poking the inside of her cheek so that her face bulged out. She was propositioning him, and the joke of her offer to take him back behind the classroom and suck him off in return for a higher mark left him red-faced and stunned, while she strolled back to her desk amid cheers.
And then, one humid afternoon in December, Linnet Oduori trailed Aaron out of the school gates and back to his house, meowing like a cat all the way. Linnet was the smallest girl in Class Six, as pretty and fine-boned as the bird after which she’d been named. Until then, Aaron had made her into a kind of pet, praising her at every opportunity and holding her mediocre work up as an example to the others—a lazy, unearned favoritism for which, that afternoon, she exacted her strange but effective revenge.
* * * * *
“It is because of your eyes,” Aaron’s friend Grace informed him that evening, when he described what Linnet had done to him, and how the other children they’d passed on the road had all enthusiastically joined in, until he was surrounded by a pack of children all crying out meow, meow in high, teasing voices. “Your eyes resemble a cat’s because of their color,” she continued, as though this were an obvious fact.
Aaron thought Grace’s eyes looked more catlike than his, which were only an unremarkable blue. Grace was a local Luhya girl, and she had brown eyes, of course, but they curved up witch-like at the corners and bulged out a little, so that when he looked at her from the side, he could see the curved, clear meniscus of her pupil, like a thimbleful of water about to overflow.
Grace had adopted Aaron during his first week in the village, arriving at his doorstep one evening bearing a warm Coke and a scorched chapati as an offering. With the slick rash of pimples across her forehead, her dark-gummed, gappy smile, and her air of free-floating disdain, Grace would have blended easily among the girls of Class Six, though she was nineteen, older than any of them. Early on, she’d asked Aaron where exactly in America he was from, and when he had answered, she’d flicked her eyes over him said, coolly, “Me, I thought all Texans were large, cowboy-type people, but you are not large. You are only . . . ordinary sized.” Grace had attended Butula some years before, and she responded to his stories of the goings-on at the school with a stubborn refusal to believe he could tell her anything she didn’t already know.
As soon as night fell, Grace would stalk inside Aaron’s cramped, sour-smelling house, conveying with every shallowly drawn breath that she was here on sufferance, that spending time in such a hovel was beneath them both. Once, she’d come right out and asked him, “Why you come all the way from Texas to live in this small-small house? Don’t you know that even the cook at that school has a nicer house than this?”
Aaron had informed her that he was a volunteer, that the house had been provided by the school, and that therefore there was nothing he could do about it, though in fact he’d complained vociferously about his living situation to his Peace Corps supervisors as soon as he’d arrived. Indeed, when he’d crossed the threshold for the first time, a smattering of dusty bat droppings had rained down on him from the doorframe, and later he’d found the desiccated corpse of one of the culprits, itself resembling nothing so much as a brown baked turd, trapped inside the disconnected stove.
Despite her obvious distaste for their surroundings, Grace often stayed at his house past midnight, sucking her knuckles and eyeing him across the lantern-lit table. Aaron suspected she would eventually proposition him, and he spent a lot of time thinking about how he would respond, but so far she hadn’t done so; at the end of the evening, she would only stand, yawn, and casually rearrange the bra strap that had slipped out from beneath the shoulder of her dress.
The night of the meowing incident, though, Aaron accompanied Grace to the edge of his compound and lingered. Impulsively, he reached for her, but instead of yielding, she lifted his hand off her waist, placed it back at his side, and laughed in his face.
“Very bad,” she teased, wagging her finger under his nose.
Now Aaron had this embarrassment to add to the litany of humiliation that kept him lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling and dreading the arrival of morning.
* * * * *
Not long after he finally fell asleep, Aaron was awoken by a knocking at his door. His lantern had gone out, so he blindly untangled himself from his mosquito net and stumbled through the darkness to the front of the house. “I’m coming!” he called, but the knocking continued unabated. His visitor was so insistent that he wondered if there had been some kind of emergency, a terrorist attack or a rebel invasion, and people from the Peace Corps had arrived to helicopter him to safety. The possibility was both scary and a little bit thrilling, but when he finally unbolted the door, no one was there.
Confused, he ventured out into the compound. The night air smelled of charcoal and manure, and its chill sent gooseflesh prickling down his skin. The last knock had come only seconds before he’d opened the door; it seemed impossible that a person would have had time to run. But in the moon’s dim light, he could see that the yard was empty, the gate barred, and everything around him still.
“Hello?” he called out, but heard nothing in return except his own heaving breath.
He went back inside, rebolted the door, and rearranged his mosquito net, tucking it carefully under the corners of his mattress—but as soon as he was beneath the covers, the knocking began again. Three times he flung open the door and saw nothing. Once, he snuck out the back and tried to creep around the house to catch his tormenter in the act, but as soon as he stepped outside, the knocking subsided into silence. He returned to his house and sat with his back wedged up against the wall as he tried to keep himself from succumbing to panic. That was when the knocking began once more, the hammering on his metal door deafeningly loud. “Go away!” he screamed, his hands pressed to his ears. “Go away! Toka hapa! Go away!” But—madly, impossibly, mind-numbingly—the knocking kept up all night long.
At dawn, when his eyes were burning and his thoughts twitchy from lack of sleep, the door at last went quiet. Thinking his harasser might have left some clues that would be discernible in daylight, Aaron stumbled outside, only to confront a steaming pile of shit coiled snugly in the center of his porch.
The fresh, intimate stink of it made him gag. He flung his arm across his nose, ran back inside, and slammed the door shut, but even so, he was sure he could still smell it. Later, he drank two bottles of warm Tusker beer for courage and gathered the feces between the pages of a newspaper, its slithering warmth radiating through the thin pages. Then he ran through his yard with his arms outstretched and flung the crumpled ball over the wall and into the street.
Aaron knew that if he didn’t go to school that day, he would lose any chance he had of ever gaining control of Class Six, but he couldn’t make himself do it. He lay on his couch, sweating, his face covered with blankets, and tried to identify the most likely suspect for the night’s attack. Delicate, meowing Linnet? Vulgar Roda Kudondo? Or someone less obvious, like pretty Mercy Akinyi, who’d once turned in an exam sheet that consisted of nothing but the words I love Moses Ojou over and over again? Maybe it was Milcent Nabwire, who, last week, had raised her hand during a lesson and asked, “Mwalimu, is it—is it—is it true that—that wazungu—is it true that . . .” and then, in a great stuttering burst: “Mwalimu, ni ukweli kwamba wazungu hutomba wanyama?” In an attempt to mask the slowness of his ability to translate, he’d pretended to consider the question carefully, frowning and furrowing his brow so that only when he finally unlocked her meaning (Teacher, is it true that white people fuck animals?) did he realize how perfectly he’d set himself up to be the butt of her joke.
Or perhaps it was Anastenzia Odenyo, one of his class’s many orphans, who served as the head of household for five younger siblings. She came to school so rarely he had trouble remembering her face, although he would sometimes pass her in the village, looking tired and harassed, a basket of shopping balanced on her head, a child clinging to her hip. He’d once offered to pay for the handful of onions she was buying at the market, telling her he hoped she’d be able to return to school someday soon. She’d accepted the handful of shillings he’d given her, then pointed to his iPod and said something in Swahili he didn’t understand.
“To hear music,” she’d said in English, each word enunciated carefully. “I like to listen to music.” Requests for his belongings were common but always awkward for him.
“No, Anastenzia,” he told her. “I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” she said. She shushed the child she was carrying, who’d begun to cry. “Maybe later. Thank you for onions, Mwalimu. Good-bye.” He’d been halfway home before the sickening possibility occurred to him that she might not have been asking for the iPod as a gift, but simply to listen to a song.
Yes, it could have been Linnet or Roda or Mercy or Milcent or Anastenzia . . . but it could also have been Stella Khasenye or Saraphene Wechuli or Veronica Barasa or Anjeline Atieno or Brigit Taabu or Purity Anyango or Violeta Adhiambo. The truth was, it could have been any of them because they all hated him, every single one.
* * * * *
The headmaster came by the house in the midafternoon, and Aaron said he was sick. The headmaster warned Aaron of the dangers of malaria and offered to send one of the children to bring him some Panadol, but Aaron declined politely and crawled into bed. Later, Grace arrived at her usual time, and, lonely and shaky, he invited her in. “What is wrong with you?” she demanded as soon as she saw him. He told her an abbreviated version of the night’s ordeal, though he couldn’t bring himself to admit that someone had taken a shit on his porch. Like Roda’s vulgar proposition, its insolence somehow shamed him, the victim of the act, more than it did the transgressor. He expected that Grace wouldn’t believe him when he told her the knocking had kept up until sunrise—he had trouble believing it himself—but when he finished his story, bracing himself for ridicule, she only nodded and said sagely, “Ah. It is a night runner.”
“A night runner?” he echoed.
“They did not teach you about night runners at your Peace Corps school?”
Early on, Aaron had mentioned the eight weeks of Peace Corps training he’d completed before arriving in Butula, and ever since, he’d had the sense that Grace believed he’d spent months in a classroom being taught every possible detail about Kenyan life, from the right way to greet a grandparent to how to properly slice up a mango. She acted astonished at even his smallest mistakes, and sometimes appeared truly offended by the extent to which these imaginary teachers had failed him.
“Night runners are a very common thing among us Luhya people,” she told him. “They cause too much trouble by running around naked anyhowly.” Perhaps inspired by Aaron’s boggled expression, she lowered her voice into a masculine range, furrowed her eyebrows, and elevated her explanation into performance. “They come around, boom boom boom, making noises like this”—she demonstrated by pummeling her fists against the air—“and they will rub their ninis against your wall”—she poked out her ass and pointed—“and if you are very unlucky, they will leave you a little present.” She giggled and concluded emphatically, “Yes! That is the night runner.”
For the rest of the evening, Aaron tried to get Grace to confess she was making this up. She’d told him wild stories of the supernatural before—one about a man who’d been cursed so that every time he urinated he crowed like a rooster; one about a witch who’d cast a spell on an adulterous couple so that they got stuck together while having sex and had to be brought to the hospital to be surgically taken apart—but always in a way that seemed like a tease, as though she knew he wouldn’t believe her and was daring him to defy her. Of the reality of the night runners, however, she seemed utterly convinced. No—they were not spirits, they were actual people, driven to run by a kind of demonic mental disease. Their identities were secret because if the community found out you were a night runner—whoa, you were in for it then! Once, three towns over, a night runner had been caught and almost lynched before it was discovered that during the daytime she was the well-respected wife of a pastor.
His skepticism slowly eroding in the face of her conviction, Aaron asked how one went about ridding oneself of a night runner’s harassment. Grace began telling a convoluted story about how the best night runners did their work in pairs, the elaborate joint rituals they performed to keep themselves from being caught, but then she interrupted herself and shook her head in despair. “No! The real problem is these night runners are too difficult to stop because when you chase them, they can become something like a cat or a bird or even a leopard, so how can a person catch up?”
“Grace!” Aaron cried as she burst into snorting laughter. “You’re not funny!”
Grace said, “Wrong. I am funny. Your problem is you are too serious. ‘Oh no, a child is meowing at me!’ ‘Oh no, someone is knocking on my door in the night!’ There are worse things in this world than being meowed at. So you have your troubles—that means a person can’t laugh?”
“I just think you could be a little more sympathetic,” Aaron said morosely, as he drank down the rest of his Coke.
* * * * *
The next morning, fortified by a good eight hours’ sleep, Aaron decided to venture into campus. Instead of going to his classroom, though, he presented himself at the headmaster’s office. The headmaster’s feet were propped up on his desk, the bottom of one of his shoes blackened with a smear of chewing gum. “Mwalimu Aaron!” the headmaster exclaimed. “How is your malaria doing today?”
“It wasn’t malaria,” Aaron said. “And I’m a lot better. But I need to talk to you about the Class Six girls. Their behavior is out of control.”
As the headmaster listened, rocking back in his chair, Aaron launched into a litany of Class Six offenses. They threw things at him. They imitated him. They asked vulgar questions. They refused to do their assignments. They failed to treat him with the proper respect. When Aaron recounted the story of Linnet’s meowing, the headmaster began to frown, but when Aaron described the assault on his house, the headmaster dropped the front legs of his chair to the floor with a clatter.
“No!” the headmaster declared. “This is too serious. With harassment like this, how can you sleep? Someone coming to your door, banging, banging, banging, all the night long!”
Aaron was about to agree, but before he could say anything, the headmaster continued, “This is not just a nuisance, no! It is a real problem in our community, this nasty habit of night running!”
Aaron slumped back in his seat as the headmaster burst into a wide smile, showing off a mouth full of damp, shiny teeth. He clasped Aaron on the shoulder. “My friend. If you want your class to have discipline, you must discipline them! The next time a small-small girl meows at you—pah!” He whipped his newspaper through the air. “Do so, and I think you will not be visited by this night runner again.”
Defeated, Aaron returned to his classroom. On any other day, the girls would have gone wild in his absence, but today they sat primly at their desks, their ankles pressed together, their hands clasped in front of them. A hundred brown eyes tracked him as he crossed to the front of the room. As he cleared his throat and prepared to speak, he allowed himself a moment of hope. Maybe it’s over. Maybe they finally realize they’ve gone too far.
“Good afternoon, girls,” Aaron prompted the class.
The sound of shuffling feet and squeaking desks filled the air as Class Six rose, as one, to greet him.
In the ensuing hysteria, Aaron grabbed the arm of the girl closest to him: Mercy Akinyi, the one who loved Moses Ojou. Mercy shrieked and dug her fingers into his hand, but he yanked her forward, forcing her toward the door. They were almost to the courtyard before the rest of the girls realized what was happening, and when they did, they followed en masse, enveloping him in a shrieking maelstrom. Spit and paper and shoes flew around him, but Aaron focused only on keeping control of his one writhing charge.
Drawn by the commotion, the rest of the schoolchildren flooded outside, their curious teachers making no effort to stop them. With the entire school looking on, Aaron frog-marched Mercy into the middle of the yard and then, as was the custom, lifted her hands above her head and placed them on the flagpole. Mercy’s blue-and-white plaid skirt rose over the backs of her knees, exposing her smooth, brown legs. Beneath them, dozens of thin sticks littered the grass, remnants of earlier beatings. Aaron snatched one up and pressed it against Mercy’s leg. A plump calf muscle twitched beneath her skin.
Aaron’s stomach had gone oily and cold. He thought he might lose control of his bowels, but he raised the stick to strike. As he did, Mercy cocked her head and smiled faintly at him.
“Meow,” she whispered.
He couldn’t do it. He threw the stick on the ground and walked home. Grace didn’t come that evening, but the night runner did. The next morning, Aaron opened his door and was briefly surprised to see an unsoiled porch, until the stench hit him and he turned to see the clumped brown streak smeared at hip height in an unbroken circle around the white walls of his house.
Aaron went inside and called his Peace Corps supervisor. He said that he had been the target of harassment in his village, that he no longer felt as though he had anything to offer his community, and that he wanted to go home. He expected her to try to talk him out of it, to reassure him that what he was doing was valuable, but she did not. The Peace Corps had left him almost entirely alone at his site, but as soon as he wanted to leave, it was as though he’d pulled a lever and activated the workings of a complex, implacable machine. His supervisor asked him only if he felt unsafe in the village, or if he was considering doing harm to himself. When he said no, she told him to come into the office the next day to begin filling out his separation paperwork, and that was that. It could not have been easier. He was done.
When he got off the phone, Aaron filled a bucket with warm, sudsy water. He knotted up an old T-shirt, went outside, then got down on his knees and scrubbed his walls until they shone. He felt no disgust or revulsion, just a kind of deadened disdain. It was a choice they’d made, to drive him out. Like beating children was a choice. Like having unprotected sex was a choice. They chose this, he said to himself, and the words were like blood in his mouth.
* * * * *
As the sun set on his last day in the village, Aaron walked into town for the final time and bought himself a chapati and a Coke, and then, after some thought, a second chapati and Coke for Grace. He wondered what she would say when she found out he was leaving, and he heard her shocked voice again in his head: They did not teach you about night runners in your Peace Corps school?
No, Grace, he thought. They didn’t teach me anything I needed to know.
That night, there was no Grace, and at first no night runner, only a suffocating heat that crawled into the house and stubbornly refused to leave. Struggling to breathe but afraid to open the windows, Aaron sat in his underwear, dabbing his soaked forehead with a T-shirt as he squatted on his mattress. On his lap, he held a tool that he’d taken from the shed in his compound, one of the long, flat blades that people around here called grass cutters. He’d told his supervisor the truth—he did not feel unsafe in the village. But he felt scared and humiliated and helpless, and he was tired of feeling that way.
* * * * *
The knocking began just after midnight. Knock knock knock, first at the door, then at the window. Knock knock knock. Door, window, window, door, until the whole house was surrounded by a fluttery, girlish knocking. Surely no one person could move that fast. Maybe all of Class Six had come to visit, here on a sadistic class trip. Again, Aaron saw Mercy with her hands around the flagpole, squinting up at him. Even when he’d been angry enough to beat her bloody, she hadn’t been afraid of him, and now here he was, crouching in his house like a coward. I came here to help you, he thought. He stood hooking the grass cutter over his shoulder like a baseball bat and crept toward the door as the knocking spread around the house like unfolding wings.
Aaron flung open the door. Two bare brown legs floated in front of him, naked toes wiggling, and then one of them kicked out toward his face, five pearled toenails scratching down his cheek. Shrieking, Aaron swung the grass cutter wildly, sending it whistling through the air—but the legs slid up and away, leaving him staring at a blank doorway and the chill, black night, the metal blade launched into the crumbling wood of the frame.
Aaron buckled, gagged. He spat bile onto the spot where, if blade had met flesh, a girl’s severed leg would have tumbled to the floor. The shock of what he’d almost done whiplashed back to him, and curled, electric, around his spine. To think if he’d hit her. Imagine it. The crunch of bone. The screaming. The gushing surge of dark red blood.
But she’d escaped. She was on the roof now, the knocking replaced by a whispery rain of tap tap tap. He stumbled out into the yard just in time to see a small, dark shadow creep across the pitched rise of the roof. She was out of sight but trapped because the wall on that side of the compound was far too high for any girl to climb.
“Mercy?” he begged. “Linnet? Roda? Come here and talk to me. Please.”
From the other side of the house came a soft thud as if whoever’d been on the roof had tumbled to the ground. Aaron loped toward the sound, cutting off the path to the exit. Impossible that she could have crept around the house without him seeing her—and yet the next noise came from behind him, a soft giggle followed by a whispered taunt. “Meow!”
The anger he thought he’d exorcised surged up in him again. He spun and dove to tackle her, but she slipped past him and he gave chase, out the gate and into the road, forgetting he was barefoot, forgetting he was dressed in nothing but his underwear, forgetting everything but his rage.
She ran down the night-darkened road, and he could make out nothing but the smudged outline of her shadow—first the size of a child, then as large as a man, then as small as a cat, and then the size of a girl again. He ran after her down empty streets, past shuttered houses and locked stores, into low, dew-damp shrubbery that scratched and tore at his ankles, through a grove of higher trees that grabbed at him, tangling in his hair and leaving thin bloody streaks like whip marks on his chest. He ran and ran, past a church and a junkyard and into a cornfield, the young plants sharp as razors slashing at his legs, and finally up and over a wall, where he tumbled into a compound brilliantly full of firelight.
Blinking, Aaron shielded his eyes with his hand. At first, he couldn’t distinguish people from shadows. What he took at first to be a tall, emaciated man wavered and resolved itself into a flagpole. He blinked again, and realized that the yard was familiar, the building behind it even more so. Clustered around the fire pit, which blazed now as it always did at celebrations, were the girls of Class Six. Beside them were the girls of Class Five, Class Seven, Class Eight. Many held Cokes and Fantas. Their mouths shone with the grease of the goat that had been roasting on the fire.
It was a party, celebrating the end of term. Aaron crouched before them, panting, and as the girls caught sight of him, their eyes widened, and then one of them pointed, her face contorted with horror, and let out a tiny whimper of fear. Aaron spun to look behind him, and in that instant of turning, he believed in all the creatures of Grace’s stories before he saw the blank wall at his back and remembered himself to be pursuer, not pursued.
A few of the smaller girls began to cry in keening, frightened wails, but then Roda Kudondo called out boldly, “Eh! Night runner!” and the sobs gave way to hooting jeers.
Aaron looked down and saw himself as they did: a ghostly apparition, cat-eyed stranger, mushroom pale. Boxers shredded and covered in dirt, twigs and leaves clinging to the hair between his legs, his skin lit by a rising flush of shame.
Brave girls, he thought suddenly, as their laughter rose up protectively around them. Brave girls to laugh and fight and rage instead of cry.
“Sssst!” came a whisper from the far corner of the courtyard. “Aaron!”
He looked up to see a figure wreathed in shadows. At first, he thought she was just another schoolgirl, but then she grinned, and he recognized her long legs, the gaps in her smile.
“Sssst!” the whisper came again. She beckoned, mouthed a Swahili phrase.
Run with me.
Grace, who did not fear him. Grace, who laughed at him and told him stories. Grace, who instead of crying or raging—ran. Tomorrow, he would begin the long trip home, but tonight, Grace sprinted naked across the yard, unseen by anyone but him.
Lithe as a cat, he ran after her.
Kristen Roupenian served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya from 2003 to 2005. She earned an MFA from the Helen Zell Writer’s Program at the University of Michigan, where she was the recipient of a Hopwood Award.