Felix went to each of the contestants, all three of them, and made them move their right extended feet so that they nearly touched the not-so-straight line that he had made on the ground with a stick. Having made sure that there was no room for foul play, Felix glanced once more at their feet then took his place at the end of the line and raised his rubber tyre from the ground.
“On your mark,” Felix said.
The four boys squinted their eyes, and drew in deep and quiet breaths mimicking the professional runners they had seen on the TV. Now that she was angry at them, Rhoda saw how ridiculous they looked with their hands on their rubber tyres, their backs arched, their chests rising and falling, and their right feet in front of their left.
“Get set,” Felix said, his voice higher.
Their chests beat faster, their fingers grew more rigid against the rubber surface. Then Mutua’s voice broke out: “Wait!” Felix sighed, turned and looked at the troubled face. He arched his left brow—he was the only person in their group capable of this—and awaited an explanation for the untimely interruption. The other boys, Chege and Tom, relaxed their grips on the tyres and turned to the other end of the line where Felix and Mutua stood.
“How come you get to start the race while you’re racing too?” Mutua said.
Mutua had not been present when Rhoda, who was the starter of these races, had formally quit her position, swearing never to start any races until she had her turn with one of their tyres since she didn’t have her own, and, keeping to her word, stood at a short distance from the boys, eyes glaring and arms folded.
“Because someone I shall not name has decided she’s become too good for it,” Felix said, gesturing with his head in Rhoda’s direction. Chege and Tom snickered. “I just have to be the starter.”
Mutua looked at Rhoda standing barefoot in her faded white dress, threads dangling from the sleeves like small tendrils, and opened his mouth as though to speak, then closed it. Rhoda met their gaze and held it.
“We are wasting time, let’s just race,” Chege said. A sentiment that Tom readily echoed and the boys took to their positions again, bent over their tyres.
After Felix had yelled, “Go!,” the tires went rolling down the road, driven on by their palms and the tips of their fingers. Once or twice a tyre took a course of its own leaving the racer running after it. Rhoda walked unhurriedly towards the line that marked the end of the races. The boys had finished their race and were quarrelling. “It is just not fair!” Chege shouted. “It is easier for you to win because you started the race.”
Mutua, beside him, nodded, while Tom, still catching his breath, remained silent. Felix, whose celebration was cut short by this accusation, grimaced as though having taken a bite of food with too much salt. “But we all started running at the same time,” he said.
“No, no, it’s just not fair,” Chege said.
Rhoda stood with her arms folded, a smile on her face.
“Fine then let’s race again while you’re the starter,” Felix said to Chege. The boys were appeased by this and passed by Rhoda as they ran towards the starting line. They had decided not to give Rhoda a turn with one of their tyres, even if it meant disagreeing the entire day.
Rhoda looked at their retreating figures and decided she had had enough and began walking to her mother’s kiosk. She would show them that she did not care for their dirty tyres anyway. At the kiosk, her mother was speaking to a lady while putting loaves of bread in a brown bag. Behind her mother was her younger brother, Dennis, chewing on a biscuit.
“Greet your people for me!” her mother said, waving to the lady as she left. Rhoda then walked to her mother, who frowned upon seeing her bare feet.
“How many times have I told you not to walk around without shoes, Rhoda?” Rhoda lingered at the door and looked down at her dust-covered feet. Her mother shook her head and went inside the kiosk, leaving Dennis staring up at Rhoda and calling “Oda” to her. But Rhoda was not paying attention to her brother. In her mind, she saw a tyre, black and rolling. “But where can I get one?” she said aloud. She paced along the cement-floor verandah, Dennis chased her giggling. Trying to keep pace, Dennis tripped, tried to clutch onto Rhoda’s dress, but missed and fell. Rhoda reached out; Dennis began to mumble a cry but quieted when he saw the indifference on Rhoda’s face. Small folds of scrapped skin and traces of blood collecting in the wound made her wince. Dennis, who kept scanning her face, sniffling, searching for signs of sympathy, saw alarm and let out a sharp cry. Rhoda picked him up and held him to her chest, bobbing him up and down, cooing in his ear and promising him something good if he kept silent. Just as Dennis was calming down, their mother appeared and he began crying again.
“What did you do to him, huh?” she said, taking Dennis who was flailing his arms towards her and wiping his face with the end of her blouse.
“All I did was try to help! But everyone is ungrateful and no one sees what I do!” Rhoda said.
“Check your tongue girl! So now I am one of your playmates, eh?” The tone in her mother’s voice stifled some of the rage she felt. She brushed the tears from her face with the back of her hand. “Go home,” she said to Rhoda. “When I come back we will talk about this.”
Rhoda waited and looked at Dennis who was back to chewing on his biscuit, then she began walking. “And don’t go playing in the streets!” her mother shouted.
The heat, as Rhoda walked home, was so great that the neighbourhood dogs lay underneath parked and broken down cars. Sparrows stood on sagged electricity wires as though in formation. Only vendors in their stalls and kiosks and a few buyers moved, as though half asleep.
The tyre came to her mind, a consolation, rolling and bouncing on the road. It would not be new, which meant it would not have been stolen from a car, and it would not have worn out, which meant it would not have wires that pricked hands.
The sharp shout rooted her out of her thoughts: “Out of the way!”
Rhoda made way quickly. The first of the boys with the tyres nearly hit her, then the rest went past her like a gush of wind and did not even look back, then she heard a thud. She turned back and a tyre came rolling to her feet. Close to her, the last of the boys had tripped. Swiftly, she hurled the tyre underneath a nearby car, startling and dislodging a dog. The boy who had tripped got up crying and dusted himself. His friends long gone, he jerked his head left, then right, trying to locate his tyre, but only saw a barefooted scrawny girl looking back at him with big eyes, her hair dark and thick as though soaked in tar.
Both children stood silent and watched. Had Rhoda been as young as or younger than the boy, he might have threatened her with a beating and even followed up on the threat, but as matters stood, as did they, Rhoda was taller and older than the boy. Aware of this advantage, Rhoda pressed it home with a daring gaze and soon the boy moved some steps forward, inching himself past Rhoda and running in the direction his friends had taken. Rhoda breathed deep and stilled the urge to reach out for the tyre immediatey; so she simply watched the boy running and looking back at her.
When the boy was out of sight, Rhoda crouched under the car to retrieve the tyre. Certain that the boy would return with his friends, she ran with it.
When she saw the familiar houses of her neighbourhood, Rhoda slowed down, savouring the feel of the zigzag dents of the tyre brushing her palms. She pressed her fingers to the tyre firmly, to make it stop, and looked around for her friends. It was lunchtime and they had most likely been called home; her older sister, Tina, must have looked for her as well but she would not go home until she tyre-raced.
Rhoda dropped the tyre and bounced on the sidewall; the rubber underneath yielded, absorbed her weight, and catapulted her inches into the air. She laughed and went on jumping. Her limbs soon tired and she sat on the tyre and waited, running her fingers over it, feeling its tread.
She could no longer wait for the boys, she decided, and got up. She would run around with the tyre and come back to see if they had come out. Steering it along the road, she looked back and smiled at the small billows of dust she made.
Down the neighbourhood hill, ahead of Rhoda, a large crowd had gathered. The crowd was living, moving like a whirlwind. Two thieves had been caught. In this crowd were people who had been working, but who had left whatever they had been doing and come running at the mention of “thief.” Most were men. Some were jostling into the center for another kick at the men lying down.
Women and children had assembled at the fringes, staring. There was a sense of time-bidding that could be felt. A coarse voice called for tyres, petrol, matchboxes. A tyre, a jerrycan half-filled with petrol, and matchboxes were provided within minutes. The crowd parted, one of the men was forcefully raised, and the heavy black amulet was placed around his neck. “We still need another tyre,” someone yelled.
A search commenced, Rhoda watching in quiet shock. A man walked to her, his clean-shaven head glistening with sweat, and snatched the tyre from her. Rhoda watched as they raised the second thief and placed the tyre around his neck. It looked strange around his neck, like a reptile coiled, asleep.
ABOUT THE WRITER
RAUL BIMENYIMANA is a Burundian writer living in Kenya. When he is not reading or writing, he is watching cat and pup videos on the Internet. His work has appeared in The Kalahari Review.