'A Killing in the Sun' is a collection of speculative fiction from Africa. It draws from the rich oral culture of the author's childhood, to tell a wide variety of stories. Some of the stories are set in a futuristic Africa, where technology has transformed everyday life and a dark force rules. Others are set in the present day, with refugee aliens from outer space, ghosts haunting brides and grooms, evil scientists stalking villages, and greedy corporations creating apocalypses. There are murder mysteries, tales of reincarnation and of the walking dead, and alternative worlds whose themes any reader will identify with. This collection is deftly crafted, running along the thin boundary of speculative and literary genres.
"A Killing in the Sun is a truly stunning début collection by Dilman Dila. One that will not only stand as an underivative keystone in the new wave exploration of Science Fiction and Fantasy by African writers, but keep you riveted from the first page till last with his magnificent worlds and deeply fascinating characters with compelling stories, all firmly rooted without compromise in our highly unique African perspectives and mythologies."– Ivor Hartmann, writer, editor, publisher at AfroSF (GoodReads)
"Dilman's writing style flows off the page and I lost myself in each and every story."– Muuka, blogger
"Dila, an award-winning Ugandan filmmaker, is also the author of what may well be the first single-author collection of African SF."– Mark Bould, Los Angeles Review of Books
""Memorable. Well plotted, well edited, with a cool Afro flavor in each story."– Zukiswa Wanner, author of Hardly Working: A Travel Memoir of Sorts, publisher at Paivapo
A Killing in the Sun
The trial ended, but the firing squad could not proceed. The doctor was missing. After thirty minutes without word of his whereabouts, the sun became furious. It suspected the soldiers were only putting on a show and would release Mande when public interest in the case evaporated, so it tried to execute him.
In defiance to the sun, Mande did not sweat. Even after standing for three hours in the heat, the only sign that it troubled him was the frown on his face. You could mistake it for fear, especially when he eyed the prosecutor who stood directly opposite him.
He loathed the prosecutor's uniform, that plain green shirt of educated officers. The symbol of girly soldiers who spoke English instead of Swahili. The mark of cowards who had no experience in battle. Of fools who returned from exile to assume powerful military positions. Idiots who owed their existence to the President's insane plan of 'professionalizing' the army.
He liked the three judges. They sat to his right, at a desk borrowed from the primary school; the court martial was hosted on its playground. The three giant potbellied frogs squeezed into a tiny desk built for children. Still, they were real men. They were brave fighters. They brushed off the irritations of the terrible sun and appeared to be relaxed. Though they had sentenced him to death, Mande hoped they would let him go. They were true soldiers. Like he was. They wore battle gear, not plain shirts. They also hated the prosecutor and they despised their new roles as judges even more. Mande could see it on their faces, hear it in their voices, smell it in their sweat. Each minute that passed without sign of the doctor increased his hope that it was a trick to save him.
When the President launched his 'professionalization' campaign, he had made it clear that no execution should occur without the public present to witness the eradication of 'bad soldiers.' To prove to the skeptical civilians that it was not a charade, a doctor they trusted had to be present to verify the death of the condemned man.
In the beginning, the whole village would come to watch these court-martials. But when the situation did not improve, when army savagery seemed to increase rather than diminish, most people lost interest. Less than a hundred had turned up to witness Mande's execution. They stood in a horseshoe enveloping the court, waiting for the doctor. But they would not endure the sun for long. A few wore straw hats. Two carried worn-out umbrellas. Mande could see that their patience was wearing out. They shifted about, uneasy, as though they did not know what to do with their feet. Another thirty minutes without the doctor and they would walk away to escape the heat, forcing the soldiers to call off the execution.
The prosecutor could not ask them to wait in the classrooms, for that would be tantamount to dismissing the court. He too lacked the stamina to wait in the sun. His uniform was already dark with sweat. He frequently removed his cap to wipe his forehead with a dirty and soaked hanky. Much sooner than Mande anticipated, he crumbled to the ground like a tree felled by an axe. He lay in the sand, facing the sky, fanning himself with his cap.
Mande's hopes flared. The judges grinned in open contempt. The four soldiers who stood on guard behind Mande sniggered.
With the prosecutor down, the civilians let out an angry murmur. Some began to walk away. Behind them, four army jeeps crouched. The firing squad lay underneath these vehicles to
escape the sun. Mande knew they too were not happy with the job. When they heard that the prosecutor had collapsed, they hurried into the jeeps, anxious to get away.
Mande watched his enemy the way a vulture eyes a starving child. He was a little dismayed when the prosecutor stood up again, but it refreshed his hope when he noticed that the officer's knees wobbled like a blade of grass in a strong breeze. Something other than sweat shone on the man's face as he scanned the horizon for the doctor. Something that Mande recognised as panic.
He followed his gaze, past the vehicles toward the school. The hospital lay somewhere behind the gaunt and abandoned classroom blocks. Even from this distance, the wounds of war were clear on the walls. The doctor had to come through these buildings. Being a Saturday, not a pupil was in sight. Neither was the doctor.
In frustration, the prosecutor cursed and lit it up a crumpled cigarette. He paced about, puffing, wiping sheets of sweat off his face. One by one the civilians began to leave. Soon, there would be no one left but the soldiers. And then, even if the doctor did show up, there would be no execution.
But just as Mande started to bask in the thought of cheating death, someone in the crowd shouted, "Daktari!"
Mande looked up to see a figure in an oversized white robe whizzing through the classroom blocks on a bicycle. For the first time since they arrested him, he realized he was going to die. He turned to the judges, to plead, but the sun shoved a ball of fire into his throat, blocking his airway, making it difficult to breathe. He did not see any hope in the eyes of the judges. He only saw pity. He licked his lips with a parched tongue. His mouth tasted like stale oranges.
Reluctantly, the firing squad stepped out of the jeeps and cocked their guns. The civilians scrambled back into a horseshoe around the court, jostling each other for a good viewing spot. The prosecutor's strength returned. His knees no longer wobbled. He threw his cigarette onto the sand, and slowly crushed it as he grinned at the judges in triumph.
"Let's proceed," he said.
The four guards took Mande by the arms. He did not protest. They escorted him to a tree fifty meters in front of the court martial. The only tree in a radius of two miles. It stood sixteen feet high and had a trunk twelve inches thick. Tiny branches grew out of the tip of the trunk and stood naked against the blue sky. Only a few dust-caked leaves struggled to survive on the withered bark.
Each step Mande took seemed to make the tree shrink. In the past year, more than two-dozen soldiers had died here. Executed. It had become a symbol of the President's 'professionalization' campaign. Mande wondered why they chose a tree hidden behind a school. There was a very big mvule near the barracks, visible from a mile off. It would have been a better symbol. He knew seeing that tree everyday would've stopped him from pointing the gun at that priest.
When Mande stepped into the thin shadow of the tree, his legs froze. A wave of dizziness made him sway like a drunk. He thought he could hear the roar of a fast running river. He stared at the trunk as though he expected it to burst into flames and talk to him. The guards did not push him to keep walking.
Less than a minute later, the doctor dropped the bicycle and ran the last few paces to the tree. He stood uncertainly before the prosecutor. He looked ready to kneel and ask for forgiveness.
Sweat dripped off his chin. Mande thought he could hear the drops splash on the ground.
The prosecutor turned to Mande, "Before you die, we can grant you anything you wish. Anything within the law."
Mande could not speak, so he pressed a fist against his crotch, pointed a finger at the ground and made the sound of urine jetting into the sand.
Puzzled, the prosecutor asked, "Is that all?"
Mande nodded. He gulped. Thirst tore at his throat. He wanted a glass of crude waragi. But that's what he killed the priest for. It would not look good if he asked for it.
The prosecutor nodded at the guards. They took Mande a few paces away from the tree. He stood with his back to the court and eased his bladder for a long time. The sound of urine jetting into the sand reminded him of the priest.
When he finished, the four guards used white ropes to tie him to the tree. He blinked, and then squinted. His cap had fallen off. The sun shone fiercely right into his eyes, as if his punishment was not enough.
"Remain a man," one guard said, securing the last knot. "Don't cry."
The guard placed the cap back on Mande's head. Now the condemned man could see again, and he saw that the judges were not seated anymore. Everyone stood still, everyone but the six armed soldiers marching through the haze of heat toward him.
"Safe journey," the guard said, walking away.
"A priest," Mande tried to say, but the sun scorched the words before they could leave his mouth. His lips merely parted with a thirsty, sucking sound. He had to say his prayers without a priest. He closed his eyes. Hail Mary, full of grace—and that was all he
knew. He tried again. Our father, hallowed be thy heaven—and he could not continue. His head dropped in a resigned bow. There's no priest. I killed a priest. I cannot pray. God cannot forgive me.
No. He recalled the Sunday school tale about the thief crucified with Jesus. God can forgive anyone, but how do I ask for forgiveness? How many Hail Marys should I say?
He opened his eyes. They were brimming with tears. He noticed that his fly was open, revealing a clean pair of white boxers. He had bought them just last week after he got his salary. All those people were looking at his pants! He wanted to zip up, but could not. His hands were bound. He struggled with the ropes, in vain, and that released the tears.
A whistle blew. He looked up, in time to see a blur of soldiers pointing guns at him. He felt it more than he saw it, the fingers snaking around the triggers, squeezing, the bullets shooting out of the barrels — he jumped for cover.
For several seconds, he thought he had indeed escaped. He had the sensation of falling into a deep hole, somewhere far below the ground where the firing squad could not get him. He thought the judges had secretly dug this hole to hoodwink the prosecutor and the civilians.
His feet touched soft ground. It was so soft that he looked down in curiosity, and saw that he was standing on water. Like Jesus. It then struck him. He was in the world of the dead. In a kind of alley. Ahead and behind lay deep darkness. Light from an unseen source lit up two gates. One stood on his right — a big, red, stone beauty. The other lurked on his left — a very small and ugly door made of rotting wood. Both were ajar.
He was about to go through the red gate when he remembered another Sunday school lesson. 'The road to Hell is smooth, big, and beautiful.' So he turned around and walked through the small, ugly door. Into a very narrow street that reminded him of Shauri Yako, the famous trading centre of a dozen mud buildings with grass roofs. This street looked exactly like that stinking corridor where, two evenings before, he had killed the priest — only, this one seemed endless.
At first, he did not see anybody.
There had not been anybody when he found the priest urinating against the mud wall. He asked the man of God for a coin to buy a glass of waragi. The robed man refused. So Mande pointed his gun at him, not to kill, only to threaten. And the priest said, "If you want the drink so badly, why don't you point your gun at the barmaids?" Before he could reply, Mande heard the whoosh-whoosh sound a gomesi makes when a woman is running. He turned to look. Alas! In that movement, he pressed the trigger. An accident. He did not mean to shoot the priest.
Then, he noticed the women in the shadows, toothless old crones in hooded black cloaks that reminded him of a cassock. In the dim lights of dusk, they appeared as a dozen replicas of the woman he saw running away when he pointed his gun at the reverend. The sole witness of his crime. He became aware of the skulls piled against the mud walls, conjuring the picture of that building they set up to remember the war. The useless building the President said was for peace. As he watched the skulls, and the hags, the evil of the place rose out of the ground like thin mist.
"Welcome!" One crone grinned at him. The hood pressed so tightly against her head that he feared it would eat into her skin. Her face was severely pockmarked. Her teeth were funny, not like human teeth, more like long shards of yellow bones. He cast
another glance at the skeletons and started to think of cannibals.
"No, don't go away." The witch continued to grin, closing in on him as he backed towards the gate. "You have nothing to fear..."
The words his wife told him a long time ago, just before the war broke out, to convince him not to flee the country. He stayed, and she died two days later when government soldiers stormed their home. They tied him up and forced him to watch as they killed her and his children. A week later, he roamed the streets with a band of rebels.
He darted out.
He dashed for the other gate. The big, beautiful, red gate. It would not open. The crone with the pockmarked face stood behind him, grinning, saliva drooping from her wrinkled lips. In panic, he burst into a run. He fled down the tunnel. The woman chased him. Her cloak made the whoosh-whoosh sound. The same music the gomesi had made. It prompted him to run faster. The darkness seemed to part around him, as if someone kept a searchlight on him. He desperately searched for other gates. Saw none. His fleeing footfalls echoed. The whoosh-whoosh of the witch's flapping cloak pursued him, tormented him.
Suddenly, a big church stood right in front of him. It looked exactly like the one he went to when he was still a boy, long ago when the world was so peaceful and innocent. When all he wanted to be was a soccer star. He ran towards the church and he had a strange sensation that he was running towards that golden age of his life, that the years were falling off and he was becoming younger, and younger, until he was just a little boy racing his brothers to Sunday school.
The whoosh of her cloak reminded him that it was an illusion. That he had just been in a corridor between two mud walls,
pointing a gun at a peeing priest. He ran faster.
He outran the witch. He sped into the church. The pews were full. A priest stood at the altar. Only this priest was not preaching. He was urinating as the congregation watched in silence. The witch gained on him. Her whoosh-whoosh sounded louder than ever. He had nowhere to run. She leapt on his back, and they tumbled on the aisle. She had him. A darkness overwhelmed him.
He had the feeling he was on the ground, his face felt hot, something heavy was pressing him, and someone… The witch? Only she sounded different, was saying, "His heart is still beating."
He opened his eyes but could not see clearly, just vague shapes and shadows in the brilliant world, but he knew he was back under the tree. Its branches hung above him like strange dark clouds in a white sky. He felt more than saw the doctor stepping away, but heard him say, "Amazing. All those bullets and he's still alive." Some of the bullets had severed the ropes binding him to the tree and he'd fallen into the sand. He lay on his back. "He'll be dead in another minute."
"I can't wait another minute," another voice said.
A vague shadow stepped into sight. It looked down at him. From its aura he knew it was the prosecutor, and he was pointing something at him. A pistol. It flashed three times. Mande did not feel the bullets hitting him, but he knew they drove into his skull.
The prosecutor's shape moved away, and the doctor's aura flooded in until his kind cloud was all that Mande could see. Its warmth comforted him.
"A priest," Mande said. "Please bring me a priest."
But the shadow moved away from him, and once again all he was looking at was the shapeless, withered branches of the tree.
"He is now dead."
Mande heard the lone footsteps of the prosecutor hurrying away, his boots crunching the sand. Everything else stood still. Though Mande could not see it, he knew the prosecutor was avoiding the eyes of the true soldiers. He knew they were glaring at him. He heard a car door open, the imposter zooming away. Then he heard the faint shuffling of dozens of feet, the civilians departing. Within a minute, he remained alone with his fellow soldiers. Their shadows gathered around him. He could feel them staring down at him as though they did not know what to do with his lifeless body.
Mande wanted to smile, to tell them that the trick had worked. He was not dead. They had saved him. But he instead said, "Please, bring me a priest."
They did not hear him. They just stood there for a long time, very still, in silence, their caps off their heads. He knew they would give him a three-gun salute when they finally lowered his cheap coffin into the grave.
He wished they could know that all he wanted was a priest.