Radio Lung’aho’s whisper rose from the darkness, barely audible over the hissing of cicadas outside in the Kenyan night.
“Are you awake? Do you like fishing?”
Mark lay on top of his bed, sweating in the night’s heat. Somewhere near his ear a mosquito whined. His eyes were open, but the night was so black he could see nothing but a ghost of netting draped around his bed.
He didn’t immediately answer his friend’s questions. He was tired after a full afternoon of playing in the rainforest. Now that his father had tucked the boys into bed and turned off the lights, Mark was sleepily replaying in his head their after-school adventures: chasing one another along Busara Road in the dust of a passing lorry, descending steep paths into the cool of a jungle ravine, and swinging together on a vine high above the forest floor with their bodies tightly entwined.
His friend was sleeping over for the first time. Mark had freed some space in his room by pushing his small desk to the corner along with dirty clothes and half-read books scooped from the cement floor. His father had made a nest of sofa cushions taken from the living room, and Radio now lay atop them, curled beneath the mosquito net the two boys shared.
Mark had never invited a friend to stay over before, not even back in the States. He was an only child, and he felt comfortable alone. His bedroom was where he went to get away from people, not a place to share. But Radio had pretty much invited himself, and now Mark was surprised at how glad he was to have his friend lying on his bedroom floor.
“I enjoy fishing very much,” Radio continued without waiting for a reply. He pronounced the word ‘feeshing.’ “I have fished at Dar es Salaam. It was very good fishing. And swimming, too. When you were in America, did you fish and swim in the ocean?”
“Sure,” said Mark. “Lots of times.”
“I only did one time. When I was seven. My father took me to Tanzania – Tanganyika then. We were on holiday at the coast. I will never forget it.”
“Why? What happened?”
“This is what I am telling you. We were fishing in the ocean in a canoe, a very big canoe carved from a giant tree with a…how do you call it, on the side? Ngalawa…”
“Not a drawing. To stop from falling over. What do you say…an outrig canoe?”
“No, an outrigger.”
“Yes, good. An outrigger. But very big. With a sail. Big enough for my whole family, but only my father was fishing with me. And my sister Rose. And my sister Grace. And the two fishermans. My mother and my sister Ruth, they did not like fishing. They only wanted to shop in Dar es Salaam for shoes and dresses. My father woke us in the morning, early early, and all was dark and the fishermans were waiting at the boat and saying, “Hurry, you sleepy ones! The fish are hungry for your hooks!’ And they asked my father, ‘Where are your fishing poles?’ But my father said to them, ‘Why would I have a fishing pole? I live on a mountain.’ I think the fishermans thought we were crazy. But we did have fishing lines, because my father was smart to buy some, and we had our fishing hooks that he bought also, and we had blocks of wood that we borrowed from our host, and we tied our hooks to the lines, and we wrapped the lines around and around the wood blocks, and we said, ‘Ready to go!’”
Mark’s attention was wandering. He enjoyed the cadences of Radio’s voice, but sometimes Radio could go on and on about nothing. This sounded like one of those times. There were some occasions, though, when Radio shared the most amazing tales of growing up at Kwetu Quaker mission. Mark had only lived there a few months, but Radio was born there, delivered by his own father, the mission doctor. Mark’s father was just a teacher, not nearly as exciting. Still, Mark was proud of his dad. Kenya had been independent only a couple of years, and his dad was training teachers for the new nation’s schools. His dad had taken the job with the Quakers after Mark’s mom died. “We must be like Kenya,” his father had told Mark when he announced the news. “We must learn to start anew.”
Since moving to Africa, Mark had already experienced a lot that was entirely new to him. Like playing in a thatched hut with his neighbor, Lily Alongo. Like exchanging kisses with girls at the mission school. He’d even chopped the head off a chicken with Chege Ndegwa, who was not only his cook but, after Radio, Mark’s favorite friend in Africa.
But Mark’s adventures were nothing compared to the tales that Radio could weave, stories that a ten-year-old American boy could barely imagine. Radio had told Mark about watching a leopard kill a monkey in the jungle just feet from where he was hiding in a tree. And he had told of sitting in the dirt of a village hut while an infant died of malaria in his arms.
So this story about a fishing trip sounded boring.
“That’s stupid,” Mark said. “How can you fish without a pole?”
“But we did!” Radio sat up on his cushion. “At first the fishermans laughed at us because they never saw something so funny. ‘Have you ever fished before?’ they asked my father. ‘Oh no!’ my father said. ‘I am a doctor, not a fisherman!’ That made everybody laugh, and one fisherman said ‘A doctor is good luck.’”
Radio paused, as though waiting for Mark’s encouragement to continue.
Mark complied. “How’d you get there?” He sat up too.
“To the boat? We borrowed the automobile of our host. A friend of my father’s. A doctor too, with a new Peugeot, very fancy.”
“No, I mean how’d you get to Dar es Salaam?”
“Oh, that is another story! We took the train from Kisumu. Three days to the coast – what a snail that train was! But it was a very good train ride. All of us in one cabin, and at night we folded our beds from the walls. Three beds on both walls, and my mother slept in the top bed on one side, and I slept in the top bed on the other side, and my father and three sisters slept below. I tell you man, that was a slow train! One day I saw a hippo running beside the train. I think if a hippo and a train are racing the train should win, but I would be wrong. The train was huffing and puffing and chugging and chugging and everything was creaking and rocking back and forth and the rails were clacking and clacking and we went so slow even my grandmother would win the race.”
“I thought your grandmother was dead.”
“She is!” Radio giggled at his own joke. “That is how slow the train was! And at every stop, many, many people are selling things. Chickens and shirts and fruits and sugar canes and Fantas and anything you want, so when you come to a station you must only lean out the window and grab whatever you desire. My father would put coins into people’s hands and somehow, like a miracle, the right coins would find the right hands.”
Radio lay quiet. Mark stared into the darkness, waiting.
“Night time was best,” Radio continued. “The lights would go out and I would sit on my father’s bed and I would rest my chin on the window, and if the track curved a little I could lean out and see the engine car far away in front and the sparks shooting out the chimney and climbing up, up in the sky. Finally my father would say ‘Go to bed I’m trying to sleep!’ and I would climb over him and over Rose and into my bed with my nose almost touching the roof and I would lie there in the dark and imagine I could see right through the roof into the sky, all the way to heaven where the sparks turn into stars.”
Radio paused again. Mark leaned over and could just make out the boy’s shape in the darkness, the ridge of his bare shoulders catching the hint of light that seeped beneath the closed bedroom door. His friend was now on his stomach, gazing out the window as though searching for sparks in the night.
“Stars don’t come from sparks,” Mark said.
“No? Then where do they come from?”
“The kitchen. You make ’em with a cookie cutter.”
Radio laughed. “Yes, like Christmas cookies! Did I tell you about the kitchen?”
“At the doctor’s house. What a house! Not a house, a mansion. With a driveway that went around in a circle, and palm trees and banana trees and everything was white plaster and blue tiles. And when I entered the house, the temperature dropped like an ice box! What luxury. And that kitchen! Bigger than your whole house, I am not joking. That is where we cooked and ate my fish.”
“I’m telling you! That’s my story. I caught a fish! Not just a fish. They called it a changa. What a monster! Bigger than my arm. And with only my block of wood and fishing line, eh? The fishermans were jealous of me. The biggest fish of the day, and caught by a boy with a block of wood!”
“I caught a halibut once,” Mark offered. “In California. It was so huge I thought my hook was caught on the pier. My dad had to help me pull it in.”
“Yes, like that! The changa was so big the fishermans had to help me too. One of them pulled on the line, and I wrapped it around and around my block of wood. I could see the line cutting the fisherman’s hand when he pulled, and when the fish decided to fight some more, the line would slip through his fingers and more blood would flow. My father helped pull too, but he was smart and wrapped his hand in a handkerchief to protect it. But my sisters? They were no help at all, squealing and getting in the way. Everyone was having a great time. Except the fish.”
“How’d you get it in the boat?”
“Just harambee! and over the side. But getting that hook out? No way, man! That hook was a wrong hook, I think. My father bought the biggest hooks he could find in the shop. Too big, but it was a lucky mistake. That hook went into the fish’s mouth and back out its eye, so there was no way that fish was getting loose! But also no way that hook was coming out either. So one fisherman was sitting on the fish and he was calling to the other, who was steering the boat, and he was shouting in Swahili, ‘Bring me a knife! Bring me a knife! Kisu! Kisu!’ And when we were telling the story to my mother at dinner, Grace said it sounded like he was shouting, ‘Kiss! Kiss!’ Which is funny, because that’s what they did.”
Mark was already struggling to follow the thread of Radio’s story, but this last comment threw him.
“Who?” he asked. “Did what?”
“Kiss,” said Radio, seeming to enjoy Mark’s confusion. “The fishermans.”
“What do you mean?”
“On the way to shore. We had gone far out to sea, and it was a long way back, so we passed many small islands and one of the fishermans said, ‘Let us stop for lunch and a swim.’ So he sailed up onto the sand and we ate the food we brought and we drank our Fantas and my father said I’m taking a nap, and my sisters went walking one direction and I went walking another direction and then I went swimming and, oh man! The ocean was blue like the sky. You put your head under the water and too many fishes! The water was so clear you could see to the bottom. The bottom was like a jungle in the ocean with giant plants with long arms to catch you and fishes everywhere, hundreds all swimming together, first one direction, then another, swimming in the ocean like birds in the sky, like big, beautiful flocks of fishes.”
“They’re called schools of fish.”
“I don’t know, they just are.”
“Schools…” Radio tasted the word. “Schools of fishes. I like it! Schools of fishes all the colors of the rainbow. Wait! Did I tell you about the rainbow?”
“Another story! In Dar es Salaam I saw a double rainbow. Did you know there was such a thing? I did not. One afternoon, it was sunny on the doctor’s patio, and I was looking over the ocean where it was raining, and between here and there I saw them: two perfect rainbows reaching from ocean to ocean, one rainbow inside the arms of the other rainbow like a mother and a child.”
Mark had never heard of a double rainbow, and it sounded cool, but he just wished that Radio would stick to one story at a time.
“What happened with the fishermen?”
“C’mon Radio. What do you mean they kissed?”
“That’s what I’m telling you. I was out looking at fishes, and where I was swimming I could still touch my feet on the bottom of the ocean. I could stand on my toes and keep my nose above the water. I could put my eyes right on the surface like the top of a table and I could look across the water forever. Above me the sky was bright blue and filled with flocks of birds, and below me the ocean was blue also, with schools of fishes flying through the underwater forests.”
He laughed. “I know, I know. You want to hear about the kissing, yes?”
“No, I just want you to finish the story.”
“Be patient, brother! So I am standing on my toes on the bottom of the ocean, like this.”
Radio swept the mosquito net aside and stood on his toes on top of the cushions. His skinny body was a shadow in the darkness. Mark could make out the white of Radio’s underwear against his black skin.
“You better get back in bed before my dad catches you.”
“Let me finish my story. So my eyes are looking across the water and what do I see? The two fishermans come walking down the shore and they are holding hands and I am thinking: That is nothing, men are always holding hands. But then they stop and they are hugging, and I am thinking: So what? Maybe they are just good friends. And then what do you think? They are kissing!”
Radio paused a moment, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “You would not believe your eyes! Kissing like a husband and a wife! Like the fisherman is a …I don’t know how to say it in English. Shoga? Msenge? Basha? What do you call your cook, Chege?”
“What do you mean?”
“When a boy likes a boy, or a girl likes a girl?”
“You mean queer?”
“Is that what you say? Okay, this fisherman is queer like Chege.”
“Of course, man.”
“No he’s not.”
“You don’t know this? It is a secret, but everybody knows. Even so, you must never tell anyone or he will be in very big trouble.”
“He’s not queer.”
“How do you know if he is or if he isn’t?”
“How do you?”
Radio laughed. “Okay, forget about Chege. This is my story, not his. So I see these fishermans kissing and I am thinking they must not see me or they will beat me. So I got out of there fast! I go under the water and I swim and swim until I am going to die and then I come up to breathe and I am far away and out of sight.”
“Did you say anything?”
“Do you think I am crazy? They are very big men and could snap me in two pieces! But I told my sisters. It was very funny at dinner! My mother cooked the changa and my father told the story about how I caught a big fish with just a block of wood. Then he came to the part where the fisherman is calling for his knife, and my sister Grace said in a high voice, “Kiss! Kiss!” and we are laughing so hard my mother and my father think we have gone completely mad!”
At this, Radio burst into laughter himself. He wrapped his arms around his bare belly and collapsed, giggling, on the cushions.
A click at the door sent both Radio and Mark scurrying under their sheets. A sliver of light widened to reveal Mark’s father standing in the doorway. His red crew-cut glowed from the living-room lamp behind him.
“Boys? Time to settle down. Mark, do you hear me?”
“We’re just telling stories.”
“I know, but enough’s enough. And Raymond? Can you get back under the net, son? You’ll get eaten alive.”
“No sir, I can’t.”
Radio hesitated. “I’m sorry. It does not reach.”
Mark’s father opened the door and a pool of light spilled into the room. He went to investigate the mosquito netting. He stretched it out over the cushions where the boy was lying on his back. The net fell short of reaching the floor.
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I did not want to trouble you.”
“And you’d rather get sick? That would be a fine mess, wouldn’t it? Sending the doctor’s kid home with malaria? You’ll have to get on the bed with Mark and share. We are not fooling around with mosquitoes. And boys…?” Mark’s father paused in the doorway. “Knock off the horseplay, it’s time to sleep.”
The door closed and the room returned to darkness. Mark listened to his father’s footsteps fade. Somewhere near his head a mosquito whined, closer and closer, until it buzzed right near his ear.
“Shit!” Mark slapped at the net and bolted upright. “Damn it, Radio! You’re going to let the mosquitoes in!”
“Such curses from a Quaker boy! Shall I tell your father?”
“Just shut up and get on the bed. Hurry!”
The boy lifted the net and slipped beneath the sheet. His body was warm next to Mark’s.
“Do not be afraid like I am a fisherman,” Radio whispered.
“What’re you talking about?”
He put his mouth near Mark’s ear. “Kiss! Kiss!”
“Shut up, Radio.”
“I am Chege, come to cook your food. Kiss! Kiss!”
“I am only joking with you.”
“It’s not funny.”
“Yes it is. ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’”
“Shut up!” Mark gave the other boy a shove. It was meant to be playful, but he pushed harder than he intended. He turned his back on his friend and stared at the wall. Mark was keenly aware of Radio’s body so close to his in the darkness. He wondered, was it true about Chege? Mark had certainly heard about men kissing men, but he’d never known anybody who actually did it. Chege was his friend. The cook hugged Mark everyday when he got home from school – what did that mean? Did it mean anything that Radio told Mark about the fishermen and held him so close on the jungle vine? And was it weird that they were now together in the same bed? For a long time Mark lay without moving, feeling the warmth of his friend’s body and listening to the cicadas outside.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Mark finally announced. He still didn’t move.
“Okay then,” Radio replied. He rolled away from Mark and onto his side. The boys lay with their backs to one another. Radio’s breathing slowed, and after a while he yawned and curled his legs into a ball. The sole of one foot brushed against the back of Mark’s calf and rested there. Mark’s impulse was to pull away, but the foot was cool on his skin and he let it remain.
Drowsiness gradually overcame him. His thoughts quieted. His breathing matched the slow pulse of cicadas and the rhythm of Radio’s breaths. His friend’s story lingered, softened, and its images finally carried Mark toward sleep: a canoe slicing through crystal waters, schools of flying fish, stars rising like sparks over a slow-swaying train, and a perfect rainbow held in another rainbow’s arms.
David Sanders has had his short fiction published in journals and anthologies that include Baltimore Review, The Laurel Review, Sycamore Review, Schuylkill Valley Journal, Philly Fiction, 2000 Voices, and others. He was a winner of the 2006 Third Coast national fiction competition and a finalist for the Crescent Review’s Renwick-Sumerwell Prize, the SLS International Fiction Contest, and the New Letters National Fiction Award. Excerpts from his novel-in-progress have been published in literary journals and broadcast on WXPN?s ?Live at The Writers House,? and his short plays have been produced by InterAct Theatre Company and Brick Playhouse. David lives with his wife in Queen Village.