Karen jerked awake to screaming cats and a bullhorn. She stirred from sleep and pressed a hand over her ears, only realizing she was in a car and the dreadful sound were of children crying inconsolably. The seat beside was empty and Karen swiveled in her seating position, finding Clement with his arms around two wailing children that sat on his lap. The other three sobbed uncontrollably in the backseat.
She blinked in confusion. “What happened?”
Concern etched in his features, Clement didn’t look up at her. Instead, he smoothed a hand over one of the girl’s scruffy hair. “They’re awake.”
“I can see that,” Karen said, unbuckling her seatbelt. “The tranquilizer’s wearing off?”
“Been worn off an hour ago.” Clement finally looked up at her. “Give me a hand?”
“You don’t have to ask.” Karen pushed open the door and stepped out.
Moments later, Karen was running out of ways to console the two girls. They didn’t take well to physical touch, probably because of the abuse they suffered under their captors. She had to keep their hands still or risk a black eye or a broken tooth. And the racket of their desperate wails aggravated the pounding headache. She winced as one of the boys screamed from the backseat. “What now?”
Clement groaned. “He’s trying to get out of the car.”
“Maybe that’s what they need.”
Ignoring his puzzled expression, Karen continued. “Seriously we’ve been cramped for hours, not to talk of them being stuffed in a dark van for days. It’s obvious they’re still traumatized and think this is just another prison.” She moved her head back as the girl swiped a hand at her face. “I think we all need to get out for a bit and stretch our legs.”
Clement looked conflicted.
“Let’s take turns so we can keep track of them.” Karen gave him an assuring smile. “Ladies first.”
Minutes passed and the boys calmed down, staring out the window as Karen walked up and down the road with the girls’ hands in hers. Clement watched with growing worry, eyes volleying between the two girls. Though Karen was heads taller and pounds heavier than both girls, he wondered how long she’d be able to keep them from running away. She’d assured him that her grip was firm, but he still worried.
“Be careful!” he called out, alarming two of the boys and suffered a kick to his gut. Trying to hold the three boys to keep them from hurrying out of the van was increasingly hard.
“We’re fine,” Karen called back and looked down with a smile at the younger of the two girls. The girl only stared at her with those innocent black eyes. If she was well-fed, her heart-shaped face would be like that of Karen’s niece, Priscilla. Her heart ached for both girls.
She sighed softly and slowed to a stop. The girls had no choice but to stop also, their eyes steady on Karen’s face. Then she lowered herself to the floor and tugged on their hands, willing them to sit beside her on the asphalt road. “How about I teach you a song I learned…”
Clement craned his neck and so did the three boys, all interested as to what Karen was doing. His brow furrowed as the wind carried Karen’s song to the car. The boys stretched to see, growing increasingly curious about what happened outside. Relenting, he loosened his hold.
As though entranced by the song and rhythmic clapping, the boys remained still. Not letting down his guard, Clement eased out of the car and held the door open. It took only a minute before one of the boys; a scrawny kid with brown hair cropped very low to his scalp, the one who had struggled the most in Clement’s hold earlier, turned to see him standing there. His expression was one of suspicion and Clement quietly gestured toward Karen and the girls.
Nudging his two friends, the boy gestured to the open door. They glanced once at him and then at Clement, then at the girls. Clement blew out a breath of relief as the three filed out of the car and came to stand beside him. No running off, no kicking him in the shins… just stood there, glaring at him. It marveled him that these three boys had once been almost lifeless and docile hours ago. Then again, the tranquilizer could make even a fierce lion defenseless.
Silent in his thoughts, Clement started toward Karen all the while hoping the boys would follow.
Karen contained her smile as the girls reluctantly followed her clapping, their eyes steady on her as she kept singing the nursery rhyme learned from the children of Kampala. “Emu yamama, emu yatata, emu ya kalenzi kato*…” she slowed as Clement settled beside her, the boys slowly trailing behind.
Once her gaze lowered back to Clement, he winked and copied the clapping pattern. The girls paused to glance his way. Karen sang on, a smile on her face. “Akalima munimiro. Baa baa akaliga, kalian ebyo ya…”
Clement grinned, recognizing the melody of the Baa Baa Black Sheep nursery rhyme and began humming a soft bass to Karen’s alto. The boys inched closer, cautiously perching near the two girls. Merely watching the adult duo singing and the girls clapping happily, they didn’t join along until the girls tried at singing along. Then the three boys, one after the other, joined in the clapping and humming with Clement.
“One for the master,” Karen and Clement sang in harmony. “One for the dame and one for the little boy who lives down the lane!”
“Yay!” Karen cooed, clapping her hands. “Very good.”
Clement watched with an amused grin at Karen’s joyful smile. He knew it took everything in her to keep from rejoicing too much that the girls gazed up at her with their big black eyes dancing happily. His eyes swung to the boys watching Karen with open curiosity. Their slender shoulders had lost the guarded and taut starch, and he could relax a little. The five children seemed at ease.
A stomach growled amongst the seven of them and Karen glanced up at Clement, her smile easing away.
He held up both hands. “Wasn’t me.”
“Of course not. Do we have food?” her brows furrowed with concern.
He ignored the need to smoothen the wrinkle and focused his attention on the five children looking at him with expectancy. They didn’t understand English, that much was certain, but it seemed they understood that he was in charge of them for the time being.
Ready to please, Clement nodded. “Bought some food before getting to Finch’awa. I’ll be back.” He was careful to stand slowly, not wanting to alert the children who had just begun to relax with them.
One of the boys stood with Clement and started after him before Karen could think to do anything. She watched as the other two boys followed and sighed with relief when they stood in front of the van, watching Clement rummage in the trunk.
She returned her attention to the girls whose eyes watched her carefully. It seemed their suspicion was slowly returning, so she began clapping again. “Hmm, let’s see. New song…” She managed not to frown as she tried remembering the other nursery rhyme from her stay in Kampala.
Clement’s lips twitched a smirk as Karen slipped on a word. He lifted the bags of bread and fried meat from under a plastic tub, nudged the trunk door close with his hip and turned. He paused, realizing that the three boys waited for him. It was clear that they didn’t completely trust him yet didn’t think to run just yet.
Thankful for small mercies, Clement held out the bag of bread to one and the bag of meat to the other. They dutifully accepted the offering but didn’t move, gaze steady on him. The remaining boy with empty hands blinked at him.
“Water,” he said, pulling the backseat door open and pointing to the bag of water bottles.
The boy didn’t move at first, sizing Clement from head to toe. He had to be about seven, and resembled one of Clement’s nephews, Tomas. They even had the same doubtful gaze, although Tomas’ was from having to stay alert in response to his twin sister’s mischief. This young boy had experienced failure and hurt from people that were old enough to know better.
Lifting the bag onto his shoulder, Clement gestured for the boy to carry it. Instead of following his friends’ lead, the boy shook his head and hurried back to the girls and Karen.
“Tri-li chi-li tri-li chi-li,” Karen sang on, her alto becoming a wavering soprano.
Clement grimaced as he and the other two boys reseated themselves. “You okay?”
“Hush,” Karen rebuffed, not missing a beat. “Nange bwe nyi..uh—nyimba bwento—tyo.” She too grimaced, glancing once at Clement who clapped, encouraging the children to clap along with him. “Okay, I’m pretty sure I didn’t sang that well.”
Chuckling, Clement unpackaged the food and lay it before the children. “Belu…”
The five of them glanced up in recognition of their native tongue. Then when he lifted a meat jerky to the youngest girl and she shyly accepted it, the rest readily followed suit.
Karen watched with a wistful smile as the children tore at the meat and bread. Then she glanced Clement’s way. “What did you say to them? How’d you know they were from here?”
“I told them to eat. Since they didn’t recognize your songs, I figured they might be from here…”
“I wish I knew a little.” Karen pouted as she picked at the bread in her hand. “All I know is hello and my name is Karen.”
He nudged her shoulder. “I’ll teach you. Seems you pick up on languages quickly.”
She smirked, pleased with his compliment and promise. “Works in my favor since I want to be a missionary.”
Clement paused, his smile waning. “No kidding.”
Karen’s smile turned shy, pinching off a morsel of bread to her lips. “Uh-hmm.”
His gaze lowered to the morsel of bread and it quickly swung upwards. “I see.” He abruptly stood, forgetting to be careful not to alert the children. Thankfully, they were too busy stuffing their faces with the bread. “I’ll… be right back.”
“Okay…” Karen said after him, watching Clement amble back toward the van. Then she shook her head and returned her attention to the children, flashing them a bright smile. “Belu.”
By the time Clement returned to her side, Karen held up her half-eaten kebab and paused instantly. Upon sighting the guitar in his right hand, Karen gawked at him.
Just when she thought he couldn’t get more attractive, he surprised her with an acoustic guitar. Karen swallowed the meat and the groan stuck in her throat. Mentally scrolling the list of qualities for her perfect man, knowing how to play an instrument was one of them. Karen stifled a sigh; she was a goner.
Unaware of the turmoil he’d stirred, Clement sat cross-legged before the children who now watching him curiously. Strumming the strings, Clement started to hum.
Karen’s pulse skipped a beat. The girls and boys sat up as if they recognized the tune.
“Eshururu ruru, eshururu ruru,” Clement sang in his soft baritone, fingers adeptly plucking the strings. His gaze softened on the children, stealing Karen’s unsteady breath. “Yemamuye enate tolo neyilete…”
The older of the two girls whimpered, tears gathering. The boys lowered their heads. Only the youngest girl kept her gaze on Clement, although her eyes brimmed with tears.
“Eshururu ruru, eshururu ruru.” Clement lowered his head but kept on strumming, the melody sorrowful.
Karen watched helplessly as the girl kept on crying, and a boy swiped a hand over his runny nose. She looked back at Clement. “What are you doing? What song is this?”
Clement didn’t answer at first, humming the melody. “Wetetun beguya… dabowun bahiya yizechilete.” His fingers moved expertly over the strings, and he bobbed his head in tune until the strumming slowed and softened. “Eshururu ruru…”
One of the boys, the one with brown hair, sang along with Clement. The other boy followed and so the youngest girl. “Eshururu ruru. Yemamuye enate tolo neyilete.”
Ending the song on a refrain, he regarded all five children whose eyes shone with tears. His own glimmered and he offered the children the warmest smile he could muster. “It is well…” he said gently.
Tears streaming down her own face, Karen gazed at him. She’d fallen irrevocably for Clement Teka.
Clement raised his gaze to the rearview mirror, sneaking yet another peek of Karen and the children sleeping in the back. She sat with the two girls who rested their faces against her bosom, her arms wrapped loosely about their thin shoulders. The boys slept behind them, heads dropped back and mouths propped open, snoring loud without a care in the world.
Smirking, Clement returned to Karen’s sleeping face. Full lips parted, her snoring was soft compared to the thunderous yet rhythmic snores behind her. Her sleeping habits revealed that this sabbatical adventure had indeed worn her out to complete exhaustion. She would need time to recuperate.
He knew he should let her rest, but this was the only time they could talk. Still, he debated to wake her, content to watch her sleep. There was a softness about her now than when she was awake. With the afternoon sun casting a warm light on one side of her face, Clement found himself admiring the gentle curve of her cheek and the soft swell of her bottom lip.
His phone vibrated loudly on the dashboard where he’d been charging it. Clement jerked his gaze back to the front and with one hand, reached for the phone before it woke everyone. “Hello?” he whispered.
“Brother,” Ejigu sighed with relief. “Thank God you’re well.”
Clement smirked, leaning into his seat. “All is well.”
“You had me worried.”
“No need to be. God is with me.”
“I don’t know for how long,” Ejigu grumbled, earning a soft chuckle from Clement. “How did you do?”
“Only five, but I plan to go back.” He glanced once more at the mirror, recalling Karen’s insistence to join him. His brow furrowed, not sure he could risk that chance with her. “What’s up?”
“Are you on your way back home?”
“I am, but only until I know where the children live. We barely just calmed them down. It might take a day or more before they trust us to take them home.”
“Ah yes,” Clement recalled his promise to Karen about her friend’s whereabouts. “Could you do me a favor? Are you still in the capital?”
“I am until sundown. I will arrive at the church by midnight.”
“Okay, good. Could you call the Nairobi airport and check on something for me?”
“Ah Brother, I don’t think it will be easy to find your lady friend. It will be like finding a needle—”
“Never mind about finding her. She found me.” He noted that Karen’s face turned to lean her cheek against the youngest girl’s temple. His lips twitched a smile and returned his attention to the road.
“What do you mean she found you? Is she part of the ‘we’?”
“Uh-hmm. I’ll explain later. It’s too long for a phone chat. Can you help me search for a cab company?”
“Can’t wait to hear this story. What cab company?”
Clement frowned. “Hmm.”
“Are you asking about Ashon?”
He looked up at the sound of Karen’s voice, gaze darting to the rearview mirror. “You’re awake?”
“Uh-hmm.” Karen was careful to ease from under the girls’ hold and leaned forward. “Is it about Ashon?”
“It is. Can you remember what company you called?”
She paused briefly, then shook her head. “Can’t remember the name but there was a tree logo on the side.”
“A tree logo?” Clement echoed with a frown.
“Uh-hmm, right near the passenger’s side. Like an oak tree?”
“Brother, is that her? Is that your lady friend?”
“Wait, Ejigu.” Clement watched the frown wrinkle Karen’s brow. “Anything else you remember?”
Karen sighed. “No, I’m sorry. I was in a hurry and it was dark. But…” she paused.
Her eyes lifted to his. “His car was the only one standing out there when I stepped out.”
“Only car out there,” Clement relayed the message to his friend. “What time, Karen?”
“It was literarily right after I hung up on you.” Karen gnawed on her bottom lip. “Will that help?”
“Let’s see. We chatted around 2 so around 2 to 3 AM. Ejigu, will that help?”
“I can ask security for the CCTV around that time. What is this about, Brother?”
“I’ll explain once you get back to the church.”
“When will you get there?”
Clement squinted at the road sign they approached and sighed. “Not for another seven hours.”
Karen had no idea what Clement was saying but she marveled at how easily the foreign language rolled off his tongue as if it was his native speech. Besides her budding attraction for the man, she admired his ability to leave all that was familiar and make a life for himself in a strange new country. If nothing else, she wished to know how he’d made the decision to become a missionary in a foreign land.
Once Clement bid his friend farewell and replaced the mobile phone on the dashboard, Karen tapped his shoulder. “Teach me.”
He chucked softly and glanced her way. “Now?”
“Right now. Everyone’s asleep. We’ve got plenty of time.”
“That’s true. What do you want to learn first?”
“That song you sang earlier… what did it mean? Why did they cry?”
He glanced at the sleeping children before letting out a soft sigh. “It’s a lullaby that says ‘hush a bye, hush.”
“Eshururu ruru means hush-a-bye, hush?”
“Essentially.” He flashed her a smile. “You’re a quick learner.”
“Seems easy.” Karen smiled gently. “Continue.”
“The next says ‘Baby’s mommy will come return, on the donkey’s back with bread and milk in her arms.’”
“Oh Clement…” Her heart ached, realizing why the children sobbed in response to the song.
“It’s one of the first songs I learned at the church. Dula’s wife sang it to the younger ones whenever they had difficulty sleeping. When she was pregnant and on bedrest, Dula and I took her place.”
Her lips twitched a wistful smile, imagining Clement cuddling a baby in his strong arms. She promptly shifted her focus back to him. “It’s a beautiful yet sad song.”
“Hopefully we’ll be able to return the children to their parents soon.”
“We’ll as in you and me?” His gaze snagged hers for a second and she held her breath, hopeful.
“I have no choice.” One corner of his lips twitched upwards. “I’m stuck with you until further notice, remember?”
Karen’s only response was a smile and once Clement returned his focus on the road ahead, she rested her chin on the leather seat and listened to the engine’s rumbling as they made their way toward Bichena.
A small welcoming party awaited Clement and his entourage as he pulled up to the church seven hours later. Dula stood with one arm around his wife Wubit’s shoulders, while she carried a drowsy Meko in her arms. A perturbed Priscilla stood on the opposite side of Dula, watching the woman that helped the girls out of the car. And finally, a teenager that living with them wore a welcoming smile.
It was a quarter past ten, which meant Clement had missed the children’s bedtime by an hour and a half. He swallowed his disappointment at not being there to see his children’s bright smiles and bask in their joyful laughter, and instead stepped aside to give the boys room.
“Welcome back, Brother Clement,” the teenager greeted with a warm smile.
Clement smiled in return. “Thanks, Eddie. These are our guests.” He hesitated briefly before placing his hands around the boys’ shoulders. Thankfully, they only stiffened briefly before loosening under his light touch.
Wubit offered the children a gentle, maternal smile. “Beautiful children. Do we know where they are from?”
“Not yet. But we will.” He noticed that Dula and Priscilla were staring at the woman at his side. So he willingly placed a hand on her shoulder. “And this is Karen Wells, my very good friend from America.”
It was hard to miss the furrow that wrinkled Priscilla’s brow and the smile that formed on Wubit’s face. Dula looked amused and the teenager looked curious.
Karen dipped her head slightly. “Salam. Nafekachuhen…”
The silence was brief when Priscilla suddenly burst out laughing loud and hard. Wubit squeezed her lips together to hold hers and the teenager giggled softly. Dula tried and failed to keep a straight expression.
Befuddled, Karen sought out Clement for help. “What did I say?”
He too struggled to hold back his mirth, though his gaze was soft on her. “Hello. I miss you.”
Karen inhaled sharply and held both hands over her mouth. “Oh no. I’m sorry!”
“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning close to whisper near her ear. He then slung an arm over her shoulder, instantly dissolving Priscilla’s mirth. “I’ll teach you.”
Dula and Wubit exchanged pointed glances when Karen gave Clement an unabashed, adoring smile.