In the Forest of Talking Animals, by Makena Onjerika


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The girl watches the forest taking over the street and changing buildings, people, and rubbish into trees, bushes, and animals. The world elongates, darkens, and gains shades of green, brown, and burnt orange. The girl is crouching on a heap of quarry stones near her older brother and his best friend, Sammy, who are trading insults in a game of mchogoano. Unaware that they are changing into trees, the boys rub their hands together, each giving the other maniacal grins, each proud of his scathing cleverness: “You are so black, when a stone is thrown at you, it goes back to the thrower to ask for a torch.”

“Only that? You are so ugly, when the devil sees you, he says ‘Jesus.’”

Their foreheads are wet with the sweat of vigorous gesticulation and luminous in the sun drifting down to the land of the dead. The girl watches their heads grow into majestic crowns on thick-barked necks, but they cannot see the old woman sitting on her back, sucking out her spirit.

“Kim,” she begs.

Her brother is too immersed in his game to hear her.

Across the street, Eric from upstairs is counting against the wall of Building Four and growing branches through his ears, and the other children who live on the street are startled antelopes, running in zigzags and trying to find good hiding places.

“Kim,” the girl tries again.

The old woman whispers a stale breath against her cheek. “You have only me now.”

The little girl shakes her head to clear her vision and regains pieces of the world: Kim and Sammy, half a building, a fishmonger sitting on a stool nearby, dropping whole tilapia into the dark, wide mouth of a pan full of sizzling oil.

Then the old woman cackles and spits towards the boys. Suddenly, they are no longer playing: their faces harden, and their bodies bend to war. Kim throws the first punch; they fight like lumps of clay pounding each other into shape, and the old woman laughs and digs her nails into the girl’s shoulders.

“What are you doing?” shouts the tailor from where she sits inside her shop in Ebenezer Shopping Center, her feet spreading roots into the cracked concrete floor. In her hair, yellow weaver birds go in and out of their nests. The little girl shakes her head again.

“Nyinyi,” shouts the tailor as she throws an empty tin at the boys. They stop and consider each other, surprised at their actions. Then Sammy flashes his pink tongue at the siblings and runs off to play hide-and-seek.

“Only me, only me, little girl,” says the old woman, pushing the girl’s head aside to attack her neck again like a calf coming to its mother’s tit for the first time. She is gelatinous in the girl’s head, poisoning her with visions of the forest.

“Kim,” cries the girl.

“Stop disturbing me. Just go home if you want.” The girl’s brother kicks a rock, sticks his hands in his pockets and longingly watches Sammy, who is now at the center of the hide-and-seek group across the street.

When the sky opens, phosphorescence bounces off the muddy water of a disturbed pothole nearby, and a bush grows. The girl’s eyes blur; she is evaporating. She has been evaporating since Saturday morning, when she saw her Daddy for the first time in almost three years, on the front page of the Nation Newspaper, standing under the headline “Doctors Strike Again!”

That afternoon, her brother stole the newspaper from their mother’s bedroom and brought it out into the street to show off. While the girl crouched at the swamp just past the shops, dropping pebbles into the black waters to scatter tadpoles, the other children who live on the street besieged her brother and gushed, “Waah.”

“I am going to be a doctor too,” he said.

Frog eggs lay like strings of mucus on the swamp’s turfs of grass, sparkling, and the place smelled of rotten egg. The girl reached her hand into the murky waters, caught a tadpole, and squeezed it to death. When a still, small voice called her name, she shot to her feet thinking that a neighbor had caught her red-handed, playing with dirty water, and would tell her mother.

But it was only an old woman, who challenged her to a riddle: “Kitendawili?” she said.

“That little voice. That is the devil. Do not answer it,” her mother has said often.

The girl should have wondered at this stranger knowing her name, but the world was a nauseating color that afternoon, and the girl’s Daddy had missed three of her birthdays and had not bought her any new Christmas dresses. And so, although she noted the woman’s short stature and her shriveled skin and her small head full of thick black hair and her too-white teeth and the sticky-sweet smell wafting off of her, the girl answered, “Tega.”

“When it goes out, it cannot be brought back in,” said the old woman.

The girl was the best riddle-solver of all the children who lived on her street, and this was the easiest of riddles. “A word,” she said, before she saw the trick.

That was all the consent the old woman required. She leapt onto the girl’s back, and before the girl could gasp, she planted her lips on the soft, young neck. The little girl felt the hurt of seeing her Daddy in the newspaper leave her, suctioned away. Such relief. She thought she would not mind being emptied.

“I have given you everything. Please,” the girl says to the old woman now.

“Yes, but you must give me something even better.”


The old woman is pointing a thin finger at the girl’s brother, who has just kicked another rock and is now seemingly weighing whether or not to go beg his friend to come back to their insults game. He looks so much like their daddy with the widow’s peak, the broad nose, and the small eyes.

There were other men standing near Daddy in the newspaper, holding placards, and wearing lab coats, but their faces and bodies were turned away. Only Daddy looked straight into the camera, as if knowing the girl and the boy would shove each other to look at him for the first time since their mother moved them from the bungalow in Kahawa West to Building Ten here in Zimmerman. The boy passed his hand over Daddy’s face. The girl cried; their mother thought it was because she missed Daddy.

The old woman fills the girl’s mouth and speaks, “Kim, let’s go see Daddy. I know where our old house is.”

“No, don’t,” the girl tries to say, but she has been relegated to a small person inside herself.

“We can go and come back quickly,” the old woman says. “No one will ever know.”

When her brother leans in, curious, the little girl knows there is only one way to save him. She must take the old woman far away. She runs over the sharp, uneven stones studding the murram road to the market. Past the bare-chested men hammering the stones into the road to fill potholes. The little girl runs as fast as she can with an old woman on her back and even faster when she hears her brother shouting after her.

Coming down the road from the market is the milkman who sells milk in plastic bags to the families on the street. He slows his bicycle and grabs the girl’s arm.

“Where are you going, kaschana?” he asks, standing on one leg to keep his bicycle, and the plastic bucket tied to its carrier, upright.

His fingers are gnarled twigs, his eyes are river-smoothed stones, and from his mouth darts the long, curled tongue of a chameleon. The girl pulls away sharply, almost tripping him and his bicycle over.

“Wait,” he says.

The girl runs past the market, past the vegetable stalls, past the plastic items seller and the madman who lives under a tree near the butchery, past the butcher, and the cassette tape hawker of gospel music, past the mini supermarket that throws out a net of clean new smell to trap her, past the shoe repairman, and a porter pulling a mkokoteni piled high with sacks of potatoes. Someone calls her name, but she must take the cackling old woman far, far away and keep her brother safe.

Only when forest suddenly engulfs her in a rush of trees and undergrowth does she understand that the old woman has tricked her into walking across the divide between worlds. The forest of the underworld grabs the girl into its darkness, and for a long moment there is nothing but her scream. Then there are birds twittering, a stream babbling to itself, insects quarrelling, and the wind shaking down leaves like a cascade of seeds over the dry reed-casing of a kayamba. A wet spider’s web traps and breaks the sunlight. Decay and dampness fill the girl’s nose.

But she is no longer herself. She is shriveled, bent over, and barely able to carry her weight. Her mouth tastes of dirt. She is devoid of some concrete beingness.

“Thank you for bringing me back home, little one.”

The old woman is no longer old. She is taller, smoother, standing on strong legs, and wearing beaded calfskins.

“Give it back,” cries the girl.

“You don’t need it.”

“It’s mine.” The girl does not know what ‘it’ is, but she knows it is important.

The woman lifts her by her neck. “Ungrateful little animal. I have helped you, I have saved you.”

She begins squeezing, and the girl kicks her legs and struggles. Then something catches the woman’s attention, and she stops to listen and scan the trees. She suddenly drops the girl and takes off in a sprint. Something jumps out of the dim and chases after her: a long-toothed beast with bright eyes.

There is a commotion, a cacophony, then deathly silence. The girl backs away until she is against a tree. All is menacing shadow. The trees are the same, their barks ribbed and crisscrossed with termite mud tunnels, their trunks rising far above the girl’s head, where a patchwork of leaves shutters off the sun. The forest is speaking, trees leaning in to whisper to each other about the girl and shake their heads. Oh, she sees them. And she can hear the scratching of insects and the beat of butterfly wings from where she sits in a broken body, so far away from home and joy. Birds startle into noisy flight in the canopy. Monkeys screech, scurry, and leap. But nothing comes near her. Hours or days pass.

“Poor child,” someone says, startling the girl.

An Antelope emerges from the trees, then a Hyena and a giant Tortoise. A Hornbill caws, “Intruder. Trespasser,” as it lands on a nearby branch.

“It is much too late,” says the Tortoise with sympathetic clicks of its tongue.

The girl is full of screaming: She has gone mad.

“What are we to do with her?” asks the Hyena. “She is but an empty shell now.”

This is how adults talk about the girl sometimes, as if she were too small to hear them. She lets out her scream. The Hornbill jumps and spews curses.

“I am full of things,” she says.

The Hyena looks about to laugh. “But no heart,” he says.

“No heart, no heart, no heart, empty.”

The girl’s hand goes to her chest. True, there is no ndu ndu ndu there, nothing to mark her as alive.

“Where is it? Where is my heart?”

The Hyena barks laughter. “You gave it to the Trickster.” The pity in his voice makes the girl want to curl into a ball.

“No, no, no,” she refuses his words, waving her hands, then out of the trees jumps a Leopard to silence her shouts.

Resplendent in the majesty of a spotted coat, his golden, slitted eyes shine even in the forest’s dimness. His muscles stretch and tense under his fur, and the bones of his shoulders articulate in their sockets as he steps forward.

“The Trickster escaped,” he says.

“You would not have caught her anyway,” says the Antelope, stripping a young sapling of its bark with tongue and teeth.

The Leopard growls, setting the girl aquiver.

“We must kill her,” he says. “She is an evil, emptied thing. If she remains here, she will infect the whole forest with her emptiness.”

“Evil. Evil. Evil,” caws the Hornbill.

The girl comes to her knees. “Please. Please, take me home. I will go away.”

“It is a mercy, little one. You will die cruelly otherwise,” says the Tortoise.

The Hyena laughs again. He has found an old bone on which to gnaw. The girl searches her whole landscape for an escape. She is painful joints. She is a heavy head full of thoughts. She is a hungry stomach.

“Help… help me get back my heart, please. Help me kill the Trickster.”

“The Trickster does not die. We banished her, but you helped her return,” says the Antelope around a mouthful of bark.

“Traitor. Traitor. Traitor.”

“I will make it right. Please.”

“Impossible!” yells the Leopard.

“Please,” she says, although even she knows she is too tired. If she could only lie down and sleep for a while. But a strange thought comes to the girl, alighting upon her mind as indifferently as the leaf that touches her shoulder before slipping to the forest floor to be one among very many. She considers the five animals more carefully.

“I know you,” she whispers. The animals all fall silent. The Hyena drops his bone, the Tortoise’s neck shrinks towards its shell, the Leopard’s eyes burn, the Hornbill knocks his bill against a tree.

“I know you,” the girl says with the force of certainty.

“But how…” whispers the Antelope.

The little girl is the best riddle-solver on her street, after all, and here is a riddle. The answers come to her fast.

To the Antelope, slender and long-horned with a wet nose, she says, “In the hadithi our teacher tells us at school, the animals always mean something.” She cocks her head, feeling very clever. “Antelope, you are Hope. Because of you, I will search for the Trickster everywhere.”

“Liar, cheat, imposter,” screams the Hornbill.

The girl points at him. “I know you too. You are Confusion and Doubt. I will have to kill you to win.”

“Murderer. Murderer. Murderer,” caws the bird.

“Enough, Hornbill,” says the Tortoise.

“You, you are Wisdom. You know how to find the Trickster.”

“Ke ke ke,” laughs the Hyena.

“You are Cunning. You know how to kill the Trickster.”

“It does not matter what you know. We will not help you,” protests the Leopard.

“You are Strength. You will help me run faster and fight her.”

The trees of the forest shake their branches in clapping. The air thickens with an excitement of insects. The girl smiles up at them to thank them for the leaf of inspiration.

“Help me find my heart,” says the girl, feeling stronger. “Help me, and I will take the Trickster away from the forest.”

“The Trickster does not give back what she has taken,” mutters the Hyena.

“But she has solved the riddle. She is clever. She can trick the Trickster,” argues the Antelope.

The Leopard growls and leaps up onto a branch and stretches out his body. “If I cannot kill the Trickster, how can this child? Going there is only another way to die.”

“Dead. Dead. Dead girl.”

“Not if we help her,” says the Tortoise. “Not if we show her the way.”

The Leopard swings his tail. The Hyena smiles greedily. The Hornbill pulls a worm out of the wood of a tree. The Antelope nods her head as the Tortoise explains: Long ago, the Trickster poisoned part of the forest so that only she could enter it. There, she traps and feeds on the spirits of those who seek stories to hide away from their troubles.

“But she was foolish to leave you alive,” says the Hyena, “because she left a little of herself in you, and you can enter her part of the forest.”

The Tortoise plucks out her eye, which is a lurid marble of colors. “It will help you see the truth.”

The Antelope pulls out one of its horns. “Hold it in your strong hand and stab.”

The Hyena hacks out a necklace of bones. “They won’t protect you from the Trickster’s power for long. You must be clever and fast,” he says.

The Leopard jumps from the branch and slashes his leg with a long claw. “Drink,” he says.

The girl drinks his blood and feels her young body return, her bones grow strong, her skin renew.

“This will not last. You have little time to take back what the Trickster has stolen. You will fail, and I will kill you,” says the Leopard, then he stalks away.

The girl and the other animals look up at the Hornbill.

“I must kill you. You are going to tell her I’m coming,” says the girl.

“Catch me. Catch me. If you can,” he caws, taking flight.

The girl is fast. She launches the Tortoise’s eye and strikes the Hornbill in the head. It falls with a thud.

“Madness,” coughs the Hornbill, before the girl breaks its neck.

How much time passes before she finds the river?

Bringing trembling lips to the cold water, she feels she has walked longer than she has lived. A large forest pig and her piglets watch her. Baboons emerge from the trees to gawk at her and whisper, “She is the one.” Curious eyes follow her, but only the elephants further down the river bank trumpet when she begins wading through the water.

“Don’t go,” they warn.

She is being called to the opposite bank by a scent she knows too well: of the Mwea Pishori rice they eat at home.

Seeing the bungalow again, even with a tree growing through one of its walls, brings a lump to the girl’s throat. The tiles on the roof of her old home are of black clay and overgrown with moss, and the metal door has axe marks from when thieves tried to break in. Her Daddy’s old Peugeot 504, inherited from his own father, is parked outside the house. Its white and blue paint is peeling.

The little girl now understands. They left—her mother, her brother and her—they left, and everything died.

Daddy went for Mass that Sunday morning and returned to find men loading furniture onto the back of a pickup Toyota. The girl sees his face now more clearly than she did then. He spoke calmly to the pickup men, and supervised the loading, but his eyes were small behind his spectacles.

“Daddy,” the girl says, breaking through the sheer curtain at the door.

But there is no Daddy, only an empty sitting room and the switched-off Great Wall TV reflecting the little girl’s face. Daddy’s slippers are standing at the foot of his favorite sofa, and some of the pages of his newspaper have fallen to the floor. The cushions of the sofa have taken the shape of his body. Has he been here all along, waiting for their return? The girl’s head aches. She must find him and ask all her whys.

But the Tortoise speaks in her mind: “Is this the truth?”

Her heart kicks when she sees footprints through the marble eye. They cross the dusty floor toward the inner rooms of the house. They are too large to be Daddy’s. The girl knows that the Trickster is here too.

She puts on the Hyena’s bones and creeps along the walls and into the kitchen, holding out the Antelope’s horn. There is a pot of rice bubbling and jumping on the stove, and the food in the store is rotting. Onions and potatoes in a makuti tray have grown into a small garden. Flies are hopping here and there, stopping to drink juices off the rotting pawpaws, oranges, and tomatoes, then rubbing their feet together with glee.

The girl continues her search in the bathroom that is also a toilet. Then she checks the room where their house girl slept and where she left behind an old bra hanging in the otherwise empty wardrobe. The girl checks under the bed that is mysteriously still here and made, although also in the new house in Zimmerman. She does the same in the room she once shared with her brother. Their small beds stand side by side, and the room smells faintly of urine from all the times they wet their bedding. When they moved, their mother took nothing that Daddy had bought but said they could take their toys, that he was still their Daddy. The girl left the teddy bear Daddy had bought her. It is still here.

And now the last room. The room she hates most: her parents’ bedroom, into which she often snuck in the afternoons to play with her mother’s malachite necklace, a green snake among the bottles and jars on the dresser. This is where the girl stole and spritzed her mother’s perfume. This is where she wore her mother’s clip-on earrings and looked at herself in the dressing table mirrors. This is also where her mother told her and her brother the truth one night, three years ago: “Your Daddy has another Maami and another Kim and another Kendi,” she said.

They were sitting on either side of her, and she had her arms around their shoulders, hugging them to herself, just the same way Daddy is now holding her brother. The girl watches them through the crack between the door and its frame. Daddy’s laugh and the softness of his eyes behind his spectacles makes the girl ache to fly to his side. She discovers she has never hated him. Missing him has worn a hole through the middle of her. But the Tortoise eye shows her the truth: Daddy never looked back, never missed them, never wanted them back. Here sits the Trickster, feeding on her brother’s spirit, and so much more powerful, she does not need to bite his neck.

Her brother is crystal-eyed in the curve of the Trickster’s arm. Even hidden from them, the girl can smell his happiness: Daddy’s mixture of sharp Lifebuoy soap and gentle aftershave. The sound of his happiness is Daddy’s even, lulling voice. But it is the texture of his happiness that terrifies the girl most: its neediness and vulnerability.

She pushes the door open and points the Antelope’s horn at the Trickster.

“Give him back, and my heart too.”

The Trickster smiles Daddy’s smile and says, “Your brother loves you. He followed you here, to save you. Look what love did to him.”

The girl’s brother does not seem to see her. He continues his languid drawl: “Dad, will you take me to Uhuru Park to ride the boats on the water and to eat ice cream and drink Fanta?”

The Trickster pats him on the head. He is two years older than the girl but now is so shrunken that his clothes hang on him.

“Will Kendi and Maami come to live with us and all of us be happy again?” he asks.

The girl pleads with him to wake up.

“Run, little girl, run,” the Trickster says. “When I am done with him, I will correct the mistake of letting you live. Those Hyena bones will not save you. There is nothing you can do.”

This is true. The girl makes herself sore from pleading with her brother. He only looks up for a moment then leans back into the Trickster’s embrace. Finally, she rushes forward and stabs the Trickster in the heart. She does not expect the Antelope’s blunt horn to actually sink into flesh and burn a hole. She does not expect her brother to scream and the Trickster to laugh. The girl drops the horn and stares at her hands. Has she killed her brother?

“Poor child. They did not tell you the cost, did they? They did not tell you who you would have to kill?” says the Trickster, brushing a hand over the girl’s wet cheek.

“Kim, please.”

“Shuush, little one. This is his peace. Let him be. He does not want the truth, he never will,” says the Trickster.

But the girl must try. She wraps her body around her brother. She pours remembrance into him. She calls him, “Kim. Kimathi.” She whispers about things they have done together: moments of disobedience, the cat they stoned a few months ago, games of mchogoano and banoo, the times they have ganged up against some of the other children on their street. But her brother does not break from his stupor.

Days or years pass. The Trickster laughs and laughs and mocks and feeds on brother and sister. And the house continues to decay around them all.

Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing and was shortlisted for the 2020 Bristol Prize and the 2022 NOMMO Award for Short Fiction. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Fireside Magazine, Adroit Journal, The Year’s Best in African Speculative Fiction, Professor Charlatan Bardot’s Travel Anthology to the Most (Fictional) Haunted Buildings in the Weird, Wild World, Isele Magazine and others. This story belongs to a same-titled novel-in-short-stories that blends the real and the speculative. An ADHDer, Makena lives, works, and engages in too many side hustles in Nairobi, Kenya.

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