I am not sure why the story appealed to me. Ichabod Crane, the superstitious schoolmaster in the story, amused and irritated me. I was living in a town full of superstitious residents and their assortment of legends. Even at ten, the idea that an itch in the middle of my palm was a herald of coming wealth seemed totally ridiculous to me. I knew that people had to work to get money. At least my mother had to. As for Ichabod Crane, I was certain that if he had been smarter than superstitious he might have won the heiress, Katrina, whom he adored.
I preferred Brom Bones, the other guy who, though not as schooled as the esteemed Mr. Crane, was smart enough to up his game and win the battle for the girl. I would re-read the story for a few more years to come, every time I thought I was losing my battles. It always reminded me that it was up to me to be smart enough to survive. So I tried extra hard to be both smart and a survivor.
At ten, I had already fought a few battles. In fact, the kind Khalid Kassim had come into my life precisely because I had almost lost one particularly terrible battle just before my 10th birthday. On March 20, 1992, I was rushed to hospital after ingesting a few dozen quinine tabs – quietly lying down at a corner in the school playground, waiting to die.
After the initial treatment to save my life, the doctors turned to my mother in hushed frenzy trying to figure out why a 10 year old could be suicidal. At this point Khalid Kassim appeared. He was a pediatrician with an affinity for psychology. Dr. Khalid Kassim. He said I could call him Khalid Kassim. So I did – and still do. He took me up on a no-charge basis.
My bi-weekly trips to Khalid Kassim’s clinic in the Mombasa town centre were very much anticipated. The first time I went into the clinic I was totally fascinated by the wooden paneling and the pictures hanging on the wall. I was taken in by the hanged scenes of a pride of lions, snowy mountain peaks, still jade-blue creek waters and flowers in bloom. The receptionist at the clinic was a nice, matronly woman who wore a navy blue dress with pink flowers. She spoke kindly to my mother. I liked her.
Khalid Kassim was kind to me. I didn’t talk to him at first – not at the hospital where he visited me several times and not at his clinic for the first four visits. I just wasn’t talking to anyone, not even my mother. Khalid Kassim would sit in his chair and watch while I did everything but not talk to him. Everything my mother had taught me thus far about being polite and well behaved pretty much dissipated in Khalid Kassim’s clinic. I can still see my mother tense up every time I knocked things over. Khalid just watched and I guess they had a previous agreement not to scold me. Occasionally he would say something to draw me out. I had nothing to say. Not really.
I loved Khalid Kassim’s library. He had an entire wall full of books, everything from Puss in Boots to Mekatilili and Nancy Drew. The wall fascinated me. The first four visits to Khalid’s clinic were spent kneeling in front of the wall flipping through books, but not reading really. However, on the fifth visit, I found the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. So I spoke.
“Can I read it please?”
Khalid Kassim nodded, “Of course, you can. But you must do something for me in return. You must write a story for me to read next time you come.”
Khalid Kassim told me I could keep the little book. I did. After reading it several times over, I wrote him my story.
In my story, there was a little girl who lived in a sleepy town by a creek. The town was pretty with flowers in all colors against the beautiful jade colored waters. The women in the town made pretty mats and baked sweet pastries to sell to people in the next town. The men built beautiful houses thatched with palm fronds and then went out to fish for supper. The children played on the white sand and in the creek water on clear blue sky days. Everyone was happy until…
One blue-sky day, while everyone was busy having their mid-day meal of spicy minced meat on chapattis and hot bitter coffee, a little girl disappeared. Everyone noticed that she was missing but no one cared to go and look for her. They all went on baking pastries, building pretty houses and playing on the sand – all, except the little girl’s brother.
When he realized that his sister was missing, he went frantic with worry and tried to get everyone to help him look for her. No one, not even the little girl’s mother and father bothered to help. He searched everywhere… he even dove in the creek hoping to find something of her. He wondered at the frothy bubbles in the middle of the creek. Finally after 3 days searching, he emerged from the mangrove overgrowth next to the creek, paused to consider where to search next and saw her sitting at the edge of the creek. He ran to her yelling, crying, scooped her into his arms and searched her for any injuries. She seemed fine, so he took her home. But he soon found out what was wrong. The creek monster had taken her heart and kept it for himself, replacing it with an ugly empty box in her chest. Without her heart, she would not eat, play, or laugh. He was scared that soon she would die, too. Who can live without a heart?
The little girl had no idea what to do. He wanted his sister to have her heart back. But to do that he would have to find out where the creek monster lived, then approach it for a negotiation. First, he decided to set off to the other side of the creek where there was a Wiseman. He hoped the Wiseman would give him advice on how to go about the situation. The brother decided not to cross the creek by boat but instead to go around it, which was a journey of many days. Finally, he arrived at the Wiseman’s home. The Wiseman listened to the young man’s dilemma, and then offered his advice which was brief and simple.
“You must go back to the creek and fight the creek monster. If you kill it, you will get your sister’s heart back. If it kills you, both you and your sister will be lost.”
The brother went back to the Creek and goaded the monster into a fight. The monster killed the brother with one swipe of its ugly paw. From then on, the creek monster stole a child’s heart every year. Soon there was no child left who had a heart.
I still remember Khalid Kassim’s expression as he read the end of my story. He frowned. I thought his graying hair turned white. His eyes definitely drained of the burning emerald, turning grey and flat.
“Are you sure, Juliet? Are you sure that nothing can be done to stop the creek monster?” Khalid Kassim asked.
I shook my head, “No one can stop him.” I declared this sadly.
“What about the little girl?” Khalid Kassim demanded, refusing to give up like I had. “I think the monster left a tiny little bit of the girl’s heart in her chest. She can use that to defeat the monster. She just needs a little bit of help. The Wiseman can help, don’t you think?”
“Why should he?”
Khalid Kassim’s eyes filled with color, “Because he wants his heart back, too. He fought with the monster a long time ago. He knows how it fights, but he has just never been strong enough to fight it again. Now he can help the little girl defeat the monster, don’t you think? Besides if we let the monster keep stealing the children’s hearts, they will all grow to be monsters like him. We can’t let that happen can we?”
So it was that for the next three years, every Friday at 4.30pm without fail, I went to the clinic to plot with Khalid Kassim the best way to defeat and kill the Creek monster. In 1998, I won my first battle against the creek monster. He was jailed for 3.5 years. Since then I have discovered that the creek monster has relatives and friends of his species who also steal children’s hearts. Khalid Kassim and I still plot battles from time to time. I won my second battle in 1999 when I completed high school and a few more when I turned 18, 21, and then 25. I will be winning yet another battle in a few months’ time when I earn my degree in Early Childhood Development.
I still haven’t killed the species of monster that destroys children’s lives. I need a lot more help from everyone.
Yesterday, Khalid Kassim and I sat at a City Café, sipping coffee and laughing at some of my teenage antics. Dr. Kassim’s hair is white now and his back is slightly bent from 70 odd years of life. His eyes still burn with color and feeling as we talk about life. I get angry still and work myself into frustration. He placed his wrinkled warm hand over mine to still me. His éclair brown skin contrasts against my chocolate brown. He can hush me and make me listen just like he used to when I was 12. And now he smiles, gently, “Princess, you know by now that battles cannot be fought alone. Not all battles are fought the same way. Even in the same battle, there are different kinds of regiments; attackers, defenders, decoys, routers, medical aid and so on. In a regiment there are different kinds of roles for each troop.”
“I know that,” I say quickly. That has always been my flaw: thinking I could go it alone.
Khalid Kassim laughed softly. He knows me better than I know myself.
“You’ve come along way, kitten. Use the lessons you’ve learnt. Do your best but don’t do it alone. You need all the allies you can get, even if some of them just come along to make noise. Remember, the creek monster hates it when people make noise and talk about him.”
I remember. I guess it’s time I rewrote my legend. Khalid Kassim smiles, and the emerald floods his eyes.