Dust

Hardcover, 369 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $25.95 | purchase

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  • Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor

NPR Summary

The violent murder of her brother on the streets of Nairobi triggers long-untouched memories and unexpected events for his grieving sister, Ajany.

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Excerpt: Dust

Massive purple clouds rush in from the eastern coast. Ambushed by a warm wind in Nairobi, they scatter, a routed guerrilla force. At Wilson Airport, a qhat-carrying eight-seater plane weaves its way off the apron. The last small plane out of Nairobi without top-level permission for the next week. Above the airport din, egrets circle and ibises cry ngangan- ganga. Father, daughter, and son are going home.

Dusk is Odidi's time. In the contours of old pasts, Ajany retrieves an image: She is sitting on a black-gray rock, spying on the sun's descent with Odidi. Leaning into his shoulder, trying to read the world as he does, she stammers, "Where's it going?" He says, "Descending into hell," and cackles. She had only just learned the Apostles' Creed.

The plane lifts off.

The coffin and its keepers are nestled amid bales of green herbs. Straight-backed, stern, silences reordered, Nyipir is a chiseled stone icon again, an archetypal Nilotic male. But there are deep furrows on his forehead. She can paint these, too. Trail markers into absence. Ajany had once believed Baba was omnipotent, like God, ever since he had invoked a black leopard to hunt down the mean and red-eyed inhabiants of her nightmares.

She trembles.

Nyipir asks, "Cold?"

Baba's baritone, Odidi's echo. Dimpled handsomeness. The Oganda men were gifted with soft-edged, rumbling voices.

Ajany turns. The light of the sky bounces on her thin face, all bones and angles. Fresh bloodstains on her sleeves. The frills of her orange skirt are soiled. She is tinier than Nyipir remembers. But she had always been such a small, stuttering thing, all big hair and large eyes. More shadow than person, head slanted as if waiting for answers to ancient riddles. He clears his throat. From the gloom of his soul, Nyipir growls, "Mama ... er ... she wanted to ... uh ... come to meet you."

Ajany hears the lie. Sucks it in, as if it were venom, sketches invisible circles on the window. Stares at the green of coffee and pineapple plantations below.

"Yes," Nyipir says to himself, already lost, already afraid. He shifts. The dying had started long ago. Long before the murder of prophets named Pio, Tom, Argwings, Ronald, Kungu, Josiah, Ouko, Mbae. The others, the "disappeared unknown." National doors slammed over vaults of secrets. Soon the wise chose cowardice, a way of life: not hearing, not seeing, never asking, because sound, like dreams, could cause death. Sound gave up names, especially those of friends. It co-opted silence as an eavesdropper; casual conversations heard were delivered to the state to murder. In time neighborhood kai-apple fences were urged into thicker and higher growth to shut out the dread-filled nation. But some of the lost, the unseen and unheard, cut tracks into Nyipir's sleep. They stared at him in silence until the day his disordered dreams stepped into daylight with him to become his life:

They had pointed a gun to his head.

Click, click, click.

He had fallen to the ground, slithered on his belly like a snake, hissed, and vomited, because he had forgotten how to talk.

Today.

Sweat on palms, heartbeat quickening, Nyipir swallows. A groan. Ajany hears a father's leaching anguish. She scratches an ache where it itches her skin, gropes inside-places as a tongue probing cavities does. Expecting to be stung.

Today.

The past's beckon is persistent.

From the air, Nyipir peers down at an expanding abyss. His country, his home, is ripping itself apart. Stillborn ballot revolution. These 2007 elections were supposed to be simple, the next small jump into a light-filled Kenyan future. Everything had instead disintegrated into a single, unending howl by the nation's unrequited dead. This country, this haunted ideal, all its poor, broken promises. Nyipir watches, armpits damp. A view of ground-lit smoke. Dry lips. His people had never set their nation on fire before.

On the ground, that night, in a furtive ceremony, beneath a half-moon, a chubby man will mutter an oath that will render him the president of a burning, dying country. The deed will add fuel to an already out-of-control national grieving.

Nyipir turns from the window.

He is flying home with his children.

Yet he is alone. Memories are solitary ghosts.

He lets them in, traveling with them.

Excerpted from Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Copyright 2014 by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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