An Open Heart
by Harry Kraus
Jace Rawlings, MD, sat in the damp Kenyan jail with his back against the stone wall. He leaned forward, his once-defiant posture erased as he slumped in defeat. He looked at his watch. His fall from prominence as a much-sought-after cardiothoracic surgeon in Virginia to the sweaty holding cell in equatorial Africa had taken exactly thirty-seven hours, twenty minutes.
Another inmate, one of some thirty-odd men in a fifteen-foot square cell, leaned against him and smiled through green juice dripping from his chin. Jace recognized the man’s striking mix of Arabic and African features – he was Somali, and his vice was Khat, the addictive stimulant plant chewed for pleasure.
Jace counted. He was one of thirty-four men being held in this cell at a Kenyan police station in Uplands, a town on the edge of the Great Rift Valley. Perhaps he should be thankful for the crowded cell. The sun would soon set, and at their present altitude, just under eight thousand feet, human flesh would provide the only defense against the cold.
The Great Rift Valley etched a ragged scar from the Middle East through the top half of the Dark Continent, parting Africa in much the same way as the corrupt politics, tribalism, and poverty divided its people into haves and have-nots. Renowned for its rich animal life, Africa spread a veneer of beauty over a landscape of blood, military rebellion, and HIV.
Jace averted his eyes from a man relieving himself into a bucket in the corner of the room. The overpowering odor indicated the single waste bucket was at least half-full.
Not half-empty as his estranged wife would have seen it. He winced as he thought of her, and in spite of being an ocean away, he could feel her judgment over his current predicament. Always trying to save the world, aren’t you, Jace? Well, look where it’s gotten you now.
There was one window in the cell, a good eight feet from the ground, opening to a sky colored by the setting sun. The walls were unpainted stone, drab gray except for a brown section of mud beneath the window. Jace heard a whistle outside and the unintelligible sounds of a tribal tongue. Two prisoners jumped to their feet. One stretched high and grabbed the window bars, trying to see out as his feet scrambled up the muddy stripe on the wall.
A moment later, the prisoner dropped back to the ground, holding a small black plastic bag retrieved from the other side. He ripped it open and smiled as he pulled out fresh chapattis, the fried-bread staple famous in Kenya.
A fist dissolved his smile. The man dropped to his knees as a flurry of blows bloodied his face. The chapattis now belonged to a muscled man whose wild look of determination warded off any challenge. Jace studied the new owner of the bread. He wore a shuka, the traditional dress of the Maasai tribe. His earlobes dangled, pierced with holes large enough to accommodate a plump carrot. The man sat against the wall next to Jace. I must look like the least likely threat to his prize.
The occupants of the room seemed to be settled along tribal lines. The dark-skinned, wide-nosed Luos gathered at the far corner. Others with lighter skin and sharper features kept to themselves. Jace recognized them as Kikuyus, the tribe of Kenya’s president. Jace, the room’s only mzungu, or white person, huddled in a corner with the rest of the minorities: a few harsh-tongued Somalis and the chapati-bearing Maasai.
He closed his eyes. Think Jace. How are you going to get out of this?
If-onlys crowded out hope. If only he’d upgraded to first class, maybe he wouldn’t have arrived so sleep deprived, and his reactions would have been quicker. If only he’d let someone else pick him up at the airport instead of agreeing to drive a friend’s Land Rover. If only that last goat hadn’t tried to cross the road. He slipped his hand into his suit-coat pocket and closed it around a small wad of shillings, the local currency. If only he’d been willing to pay the bribe, he could have avoided the whole mess.
He should have known that the crowd that gathered around his Land Rover would have sided with the locals. “He was speeding,” they had all agreed. Kikuyu mamas with colorful clashing sweaters and headscarves. Barefoot children pushing roasted corn beneath his nose, hoping for a sale. An old man on a donkey cart had rubbed his gray chin-stubble and nodded with apparent wisdom. “Shouldn’t race on our roads.” Everyone claimed it was Jace’s fault.
The goat had broken from the herd on the side of the road at the last moment. Jace, who knew his speed was slow compared to the matatu drivers who had passed him on the road, had had no time to respond. He’d slammed the brakes, but nailed the goat. Crunch. An unforgettable sound.
Nor could Jace dislodge the image of the goat. Gray and brown splotches over a base coloring of white. A gray patch in the center of a brown circle. Right before impact, Jace had thought, Looks just like a target.
He shouldn’t have stopped.
Stopping had caused all the problems.
A boy claiming possession of the goat had demanded ten thousand shillings. Jace wasn’t aware of the current market price for goats, but he was sure that the boy had jacked the price at least fivefold after seeing the color of his skin and the newness of the Land Rover. At that point, Jace let his determination – a quality his wife called stubbornness – rule. He wasn’t’ about to cave in to that kind of extortion.
A police officer arrived. “I am authorized to mediate a solution.”
Jace shook his head. “His goat should not have been in the road.”
The officer smiled. “Give him something for his trouble.” He eyed the Land Rover. “My mediation fee is two thousand shillings.”
Jace shook his head again.
The officer drove Jace’s Land Rover to the Uplands Police Station.
If only Jace had paid the bribe. If only.
He slumped against the wall as the chill and his fatigue began exacting a toll. But despite his predicament, he steeled his resolution. He had right on his side.
But his was Africa. As they say, TIA. This is Africa. He smiled. Yes. Africa. After twenty-two years, he was home.
Mzee Simeon Okayo’s forehead wrinkled beneath a white afro. Behind him, a four-story hotel under construction dwarfed his small duka advertising herbal cures for HIV. As a town elder of Kisii,Okayo was respected and feared.
For more than fifty years, Okayo had practiced traditional witchcraft, serving a clientele both common and elite. He feared he might need to move his shop soon, but so far, the large Nairobi construction firm responsible for building the hotel next door had been unwilling to cross him, fearing a further slowing of their progress. If you could call the inertia surrounding the five-year project progress. He looked at the trees lashed together, forming a tenuous scaffolding that surrounded the building site, a curious mix of traditional and modern. He shook his head. Another worker had fallen to his death just last week. No surprise to the witch doctor. They should have been paying him for protection.
He’d spent most of the day planning a cleansing ritual. It seemed the body of a Kisii tribesman was refusing burial. Two hearses carrying the body had attempted the one-hundred-fifty-mile journey from Nairobi, heading for Kisii, a bustling town nestled in the hills of southwestern Kenya. The first became hopelessly mired in mud. The second was sideswiped by a speeding matatu—a bus—and ran into a ditch, dumping the red, black, and green casket onto the roadside in the process. Okayo planned to chant, dance, and sprinkle a secret mixture of herbs over the colorful coffin to pacify the soul of the dead.
But a call from a minister of parliament in Nairobi had diverted his plans, demanding that he assist in another more urgent matter. A matter to be managed with discretion. He smiled. At least this business could be accomplished from his shop. He would not have to change into business attire and work in the presence of the minister. Although he moved with ease between the two worlds, he much preferred the simplicity of animal skins rather than a three-piece suit.
He moved about his one-room shop with methodical slowness, selecting seeds from one large basket, bones from another, and a dark liquid from a hollow gourd. His “office” appeared disorganized to others, but to Okayo, everything was in the perfect place.
Behind a glass counter lay his most valuable medicines. On a marred wooden table, a note was fixed to the back of an aging cash register: “Current prices set by management.”
The outside of his little duka was coated with a thick slathering of orange paint. Green lettering on the wall next to a solitary window advertised the most frequently used services. Communication with the dead. Relationship consultation. Cancer treatments. Cure HIV. Break curses. Send curses.
Across the street, a woman selling soapstone carvings cackled over daily gossip and hoped a white tourist would buy. “Looking is free. Come into my shop. Special price for you.”
Okayo spent several minutes mixing a dark powder and then poured it into a glass bottle. He rolled a newspaper photograph and slid it, too, into the bottle. He inserted a cork and lowered himself onto a stool in front of his shop, leaning forward over a small charcoal fire. He muttered a series of words in his mother tongue, then heated the bottle, waving it above the glowing coals. When the powder began to smoke, he screamed and threw the bottle against the rutted clay roadside.
A curious tourist across the street fidgeted with a large bag and began to lift a camera—but halted when Okayo met her gaze.
He turned his attention back to the mess at his feet. “Be free,” he whispered.
Beneath his feet, smudged with black powder and laying among the shards of glass, was a photograph cut from Nairobi’s largest newspaper, The Standard. A man wearing a white lab coat. A caption read, “Dr. Jace Rawlings, US heart surgeon, to return to Kenya.”
Jace awoke with a start, his face stinging. He touched his cheek and looked into the face of his attacker, a large Kenyan with his hand raised above his head.
Jace covered his face with his arms and felt himself being lifted to his feet. There was something wet on his lip. Jace touched his nose. Blood. He tried to focus. More blood dripping on the floor at his feet.
A bare light bulb hung from the ceiling behind his foe—a dark, menacing silhouette with breath worse than burnt rubber. “Take off the coat.”
Jace slipped his hand into his pockets. The shillings were gone, no doubt stolen while he slept. He hesitated. Too long. The shadowy figure hit him again, knocking him back against the wall.
He heard laughter. No one would come to the rescue of the rich mzungu. “Here,” Jace said, pulling his arms from the coat sleeves.“Take it.”
Jace slid down the wall, his face throbbing. He pinched his nose, feeling the grit of bone against bone. The ache was horrible, but he needed to stop the faucet that painted the floor between his feet.
A few minutes later, with the flow reduced to a few drops, Jace looked up to see the man modeling his new jacket, grinning through crooked teeth like he’d won the lottery.
Don’t they even give a man a phone call in this place? You can’t be jailed for an accident, can you?
There had been no arrest. No judge or magistrate. Simply an angry officer bent on leveraging some jail time for a bribe.
Jace thought about his luggage in the back of his friend’s Land Rover. At the last minute before leaving the airport, he’d covered the three large trunks with an old carpet fragment so they wouldn’t attract attention. In Kenya, anything of value visible in a vehicle was fair invitation for thievery.
He closed his eyes but couldn’t sleep. The pain that enveloped his face had robbed him of that. He eyed the bucket in the corner. Soon, he would have to take his turn. Jace didn’t want to think of that. How could he relieve himself in front of these men?
A few minutes later, he had a new problem. Cold. Without his jacket, he’d begun to chill. He looked at the lone window. The sky was just beginning to lighten. Hopefully, the day would warm up once the sun cleared the horizon.
He hugged himself as footsteps echoed from the hallway beyond the holding cell. An officer appeared, this one younger and slimmer than the one who’d brought Jace the night before. He read from a clipboard. “Mr. Rawlings.”
Jace struggled to his feet. He stared for a moment at the man wearing his coat, a vain attempt to call attention, hoping the officer might notice. He knew the rules of this place. Treat the police like they were the bosses. Don’t resist. “Yes, sir,” he answered.
The officer slammed a club against the bars at the front of the cell, hitting the fingers of an old man clutching the bars. “Back away. All of you,” he said. The old man stumbled away, wailing and holding his hand. “You,” he said, pointing his club at Jace. “Come here.” BR>
Jace nodded and stepped forward. The officer unlocked and opened the door.
“You’re free to go.”
“I can go? What about—”
“The matter has been settled.”
Jace wouldn’t argue, though he didn’t understand.
The officer handed Jace his keys. “Your vehicle is parked behind the station.”
Outside, cool air greeted Jace. The sky to the east was brilliant with orange and purple hues.
Jace found the Land Rover, and his luggage was undisturbed. Amazing. He was just starting to drive across the nearly deserted lot when he saw a Kenyan boy running across the parking lot toward him. He braked to a stop. The boy carried a goat, which he set down just before arriving beside Jace’s vehicle. The goat scampered off a few feet until the rope the boy held drew tight. Jace stared at the goat. White with gray and brown splotches. A gray patch in the center of a brown circle. Like a target.
Jace’s mouth fell open. “What the—”
Now Jace recognized the boy. The one who had tried to charge him ten thousand shillings for a dead goat.
The boy’s eyes were wide with awe, a clear white section completely visible surrounding the dark iris. “You touched my goat.”
Jace shook his head, trying to remember. Yes, he had knelt over the goat at the scene. The goat had been bleeding from the nose and mouth and had taken one last gasp before jerking into the stillness of death.
The boy reached out to place his palm against the window next to Jace’s face. “You are a magic man.”