The secret is out. I am not a real artist.
She is sketching again, the pencil held lightly between the thumb and two fingers of her left hand, the sheet of paper large and white with smudges of mud here and there. She squats awkwardly, an array of mobile phone covers spread out in front of her, laid out on a sack slit open at its seams. Drawing like this makes her hands tremble. The studio at the university was much better. It’s drizzling but she is aware of it only as one is aware of insignificant things from a faded past. A jutting roof protects her and her goods.
She hears the sounds of the Asr prayer coming from the mosque. It’s 4 o’clock already. She pauses to listen when she realises that it is a child doing the chanting. It’s young and delightful, the voice from the mosque, and the boy must be no more than 10 – just a child like the child who was once hers, the one who now belongs to the gods of the sewers. The squat that time was not dissimilar to the one now. When the four rak’ahs are complete, she bends over her drawing once more. She replays the sound of the boy’s voice in her head to keep out those memories.
There is a woman a few metres away from her. The polyester of the woman’s blouse pretends to be silk, its lustre interrupted where the folds are darkened by sweat stains. The woman, sitting next to an array of slim, brightly coloured belts on a plastic sheet, watches her and explodes into loud, mocking laughter. She pauses again from her drawing but does not notice the laughter. She is thinking of corpses and the possibilities of shrouding death in art.
Art is dead, is dead, is dead. Art is ghost.
Passersby look at the two hawkers and hide smiles beneath unnecessary umbrellas. The people in the shops behind them gaze at their backs. They are all the same – they would enjoy the shedding of blood on the street provided they were safely behind their counters.
Other hawkers are spread out all along the street, some distance from the two women. In between, the big cracks in the pavement spell stagnation and hope and resignation and the fact that necessity makes any kind of work dreary and exhausting.
Callers are reciting the prices of goods in alteration, their voices loud and monotonous, the repeated sounds blending into the street until there is no difference between them and the hooting of car horns, the shuffling of feet, bits of bland conversations or the snivel of a baby on a hawker’s back.
The great migration begins slowly, taking its place like a person with a designated seat entering a room. Hawkers gather their wares by pulling together the four corners of whatever the goods are spread on, and putting the bundles on their backs. They march away from the city council askaris sighted at the far end of the street. Sometimes there’s barely time to run into the narrow alleys at the end of which the friend of a sister’s neighbour might allow you to hide in his shop. This time, however, there is enough time and they move away slowly. The two women remain where they are. The commotion is so silent and unhurried that they miss the signs.
Outside the city centre, seventeen kilometres to the west, it is raining, not just drizzling. There is a boy in a house. Drops roll off the gutter on the roof, fall into the puddle below and leap back up as many tiny shards of themselves. The scene repeats itself again and again. There is a patch of haze on the window where the boy’s breath communes with the glass while he watches the drops. He stands, chewing on his thoughts, a small living portrait framed by the window. It’s unusual for one so young to stand still for so long.
In the distance, he can see the undulation of the tiled roofs of two houses down the hill. They are very close to each other. One has a flat roof and the other slopes steeply. The houses below the roofs are magnificent and yet sharply different. He is drawn to them, and their refusal to be average roofs of average houses. He doesn’t like in-betweens. There is something attractive about extremes. Perhaps it’s because he has experienced so many extremes in his short life. Extreme fear has been the most pervasive. Even watching the raindrops and seeing the roofs makes him anxious. He is afraid that, any time now, this new silent beauty he has found will be stolen from him. If he was older, he would realise just how apt it is to think of such things as being ‘stolen’. For now, he is just afraid.
The boy hears footsteps behind him and instinctively leaps away from the window. He sits in the corner of the room, his arms hugging his knees. He waits. He is afraid to breathe lest his breathing be too loud. He wishes he had no heart because it beats so loud and fast. He wishes he could disappear, or spatter into a million inconsequential pieces like the drops of rain. Then there would be nothing left of him to hit or spit at.
The door flies open suddenly. If the thudding in his chest was less thunderous he might have heard the bang when the door handle hit the wall behind it. A man, his father, walks in. The boy tries to push farther into the wall, as if that were possible.
“Where the hell is your mother?”
The boy knows that it will not matter what answer he gives, or even whether he answers or not. He closes his eyes and waits for it. He is not disappointed. The two kicks land at exactly the same spot on his left hip. A bruise just below that spot is still fresh and raw. He can hear his father’s voice but doesn’t hear what else is said. The pain takes over. Soon his entire left leg is throbbing. He is lucky today. Only two kicks. Perhaps he should say thank you. He sees his father pause at the door and look back at him. He hears the door banging shut behind his father. He stands slowly and goes back to the window, rubbing his hip. There is something comforting about the constancy of the raindrops. Tap-tap-tap-tap. Like the tears falling from his eyes.
The boy doesn’t know that something haunts his father the way his fear haunts him. He doesn’t know that the memory of guilt can be more debilitating than present fear.
In the city centre, the drawing hand is now moving in a sort of frenzy. The long smooth strokes have been replaced by quick short ones. The lines are taking form. In another place, at another time, someone walking past might have stopped to marvel at the drawing and to say art-savvy things about it. Instead, people are a little less than careful about not stepping on the paper and making the edges even muddier. Still, she draws.
Curtains are drawn over her mind so that only those thoughts and sensations evoked by the action of drawing are let through. She will only fraternize with the exterior if there is novelty in the way something makes her feel, like that grand moment as a little girl when she realised that her father was neither omnipotent nor omniscient and she knew a new fear. It was new and new is always good. She likes the newness of being on the street, drawing on the ground. Perhaps there’s even something in the newness of being a mother without being a mother.
The other woman has stopped laughing. Mockery can only be savoured if there is a victim for it.
The two city council askaris descend on them silently. They are not wearing any uniforms. They kick the sack and the plastic sheet and toss insults at the women, their actions coloured with the indifference of men who do what they do as a passive acceptance of duty. Belts and mobile phone covers are strewn all over the street. The other woman is screaming and one of the askaris is roughing her up without decorum. The other askari looks at the drawing for a long moment. He grabs it and crumples it up before throwing it. It tumbles onto the road. The artist dives after it. Rubber screeches against tarmac, but the driver has stepped on the brake pedal a moment too late.
The paper is flattened under the car tyre. It’s now both crumpled and wet. She picks it up anyway. Her companion is trying to salvage what she can of her belts. The askaris, amused, watch the woman who has just risked her life for a stupid muddy drawing walk away.
It’s a sign. The re-death of false art.
She walks unhurriedly; not like one whose life has been interrupted. Just before she rounds a corner to the place where she will take a bus home she stops. There is no jutting roof at that point. She does not feel the drizzle falling on her, caressing her, dampening her clothes and skin. Her oblivion is not unlike that of the female driver who just sped past her, having hit a man a hundred metres back. They are linked in their disregard for the things that others might call ‘living’.
She is staring at a cream building with burgundy pillars, the one that houses the National Archives. The colours remind her of the beginning of her sins, the time when she began to run away from herself. It’s the way they are somehow indefinite, cream running away from being yellow and burgundy from being red. She licks dry lips and lets her tongue linger over the place where there is slight bleeding, enjoying the taste of it. She takes out a piece of paper from the little leather cross-shoulder bag resting on her left hip and replaces it with the crumpled one she rescued. This one is smooth except for the creases along the folds. She opens it up carefully and fingers the lines and the curves. Her finger pauses for a long time where the arch of the dome intersects with the rest of the building in the picture. Her mind is brought to thoughts of her childhood, to that time when she spent a night lying on her back on the veranda of the high-school dormitory because it was a beautiful night and she wanted to watch the stars; to the punishment she got afterwards when she was accused of conspiring to spend the night alone with the night-guard and to the realisation that she would always be suspected and misunderstood.
The Hagia Sophia. If only I were a real artist.
Later, she won’t remember how long she stood there, or how she eventually walked to and boarded a bus. She won’t remember the things she saw outside the window during the seventeen kilometre ride, or even the people who sat near her, but she will remember a girl’s dress with straight and curved lines printed on it. She will remember wanting to take that girl’s hand to kiss it, so that the girl would know how beautiful it is to don art and become one with art and not be aware of it. She will remember wanting to rip off a bit of the dress at the hem, to put it in her bag next to the folded paper. She will remember reaching out to touch it and stopping just before she did because she felt a stare and nothing destroys artful moments like stares.
She waits at the door and steps out of the bus before it comes to a complete stop. The conductor shouts a warning at her, one about how women must not lengthen their strides. She smiles without turning to look at him.
Here, she cannot ignore the rain. The heavy drops make her squint. She is drenched in just a few seconds. She cares only that the pieces of paper in the bag are spared from the rain.
One must be genius to be a real artist. I am no genius.
As she walks, she sees a child at a window of one of the houses she is passing. She cannot tell whether the child is a boy or girl. She squints some more but the rain blurs everything. She does not notice that the child sees her looking and waves at her hesitantly. He thought she was smiling at him.
She arrives at the gate and rings the bell. A watchman opens and greets her, then closes the gate behind her. She has to walk round her sister’s car to the front door because the car is parked badly, the wheels still turned to the side. She can hear movement inside but she lets herself in. She is not eager to be assailed with questions.
Inside, the smell of fried fish hails her. She’s not hungry. On the way to her room, her brother sees and greets her. She mumbles something. He asks her how her day was, but by that time she has reached the stairs and is already ascending. This time she does not bother replying. He watches her until she is no longer visible and, for a moment, looks as though he will follow her.
“Why have you stopped using your car?” He knows she can’t hear him.
“And school? Why won’t you go anymore?”
He asks her often if she is fine. The first time she said yes, she just needs to find her muse. These days she just looks at him.
The wet, crumpled piece of paper goes into a bottom drawer along with dozens of others. There are more in the wastepaper basket. Nobody is allowed to empty that bin. It’s not a place for wastepaper to her; just a different kind of storage space. She thinks she might find her muse in there.
Don’t fear. There is nothing to find inside you; nothing that could be called art.
The following morning she does not return to the city centre. She needs something new. She walks for a while and finally finds a shaded spot next to the road. She sits on the curb, her legs stretched out. She takes out her pencil and paper. There are packets of artificial serenity around her, put there by the people who had the houses in that place built, packets meant to justify the houses’ prices. She has no use for such packets.
Every so often, a car horn hoots as the driver swerves to avoid her outstretched legs. Sometimes she looks up but most time she does not. She only stops drawing once, after about five hours, to walk across the road to a kiosk. She buys something for her headache, a bottle of mineral water and a small packet of biscuits. That’s all she eats that day.
At 4:04, a school bus stops a few metres away. A boy alights and walks towards her, his school bag bouncing on his back. She hears his soft footsteps and looks up. She wonders what connection her mind is trying to make about this boy. He is looking straight at her. She wonders whether the deep sadness in the boy’s eyes is imposed by her own imagination. He stops right next to her. She smiles at him, although she is hoping he will not interrupt her drawing with the sort of endless chatter that children often spit out. He sits next to her. He doesn’t say anything. She resumes her drawing. After a while, he takes out a book and a pencil from his bag. He flips to the back of the book and he too begins to work, glancing up regularly to look at her and see the face one should wear while working. They don’t speak.
When some time has passed, she leans over to see what the boy is doing. When he catches her looking, he moves closer and shows her. The words ‘A STORY’ are scribbled on the top of the page. His letters are wiggly, as though his hand quivers when he writes. Below the title there are a few sentences. She reads them with the eagerness with which he shows them to her.
Once upon a time their was a mighty warrier. He was tall and big. He had big hands.
HesHis legs were tall. One day he wanted to know a song. It was a love song. His friend to teach him. But his vois was raufrough. He did not know how to sing. But he want to sing. One day
The words end. She reads them several times. There is a peculiar melancholy hidden in the words, as if he is trying to express something beyond him. She sees in the child a sad thoughtfulness. She gives the book back to him and he resumes his writing. She bends over her drawing. She can’t get the child’s story out of her mind. The words dance in her mind and before her eyes. She sees L for love when she draws a slightly curved line and, in another line, the long straight legs of a warrior.
I want to be a child again. Children are art. I was once art.
That is the day she finishes her drawing, months after she began it. That day, with the warrior’s love song spinning in her head, the parts of her drawing that have always refused coherence find their natural meeting places and fuse smoothly into each other.
Art must be the thing at the intersection of the disparate.
The boy has been looking at her drawing for some time now. He is awed as only a child can be. She does not stop to marvel at her creation. She folds up the large sheet, puts it in the bag she always carries and takes out the other piece of paper, which is always there. She has always wanted to create her own Hagia Sophia, her very own piece of unmatched beauty.
She is still looking at the picture when a beige car stops in front of them. A man in a charcoal suit steps out and shuts the door. The boy’s little hands clutch onto her arm. The boy cries out and she hears the fear in his voice. He drops his pencil and it rolls and rolls and rolls down the road. The man looms above them, glaring at the boy. The boy is crying, squeezing his head into her underarm. She puts an arm around him. He whimpers. The man looks at the person who dares shield his son from him.
He gasps and moves back, puts out his hand and leans on the car. It’s the eyes. Her eyes. Those eyes! He remembers them, young as he was then. How could he forget? He can still see them looking up at him from the ground, that look preceded by a hollow cracking sound when the little body slipped from his hands and the little skull met the concrete. Koh! And now the eyes were looking at him again, from the face of a stranger who could not possibly be related to the little corpse.
The weight of the memory pushes down on him and he slides down the side of the car to the ground. He starts to weep, his cries more pitiful than those of his son.
There is a strange beauty in sorrow. There is art in tears.
Wambui Wairua (@wambuiwairua) is a Kenyan lawyer and a writer in search of the exquisite in the mundane. She is fascinated by the 3-strand braid that is law, writing and development.