SKETCH OF A BALD WOMAN IN THE SEMI-NUDE by Clifton Antony Gachagua
The motion sun has this pure millimolar thing it does when it settles on the thin layer of dust on the block wood and even before that specks of dust trap the light and disappear into other regions of the air in my mouth-room. Two pairs of eyes in the room dart from object to object and never to each other. The arrangement of shapes and sizes in these rooms is something out of a set in a film written by directed by edited by scored by and produced by a young man in Nairobi with no education and a lot of love and kisses from his mother. Plastic teepee and Tupperware I got as a gift from an Italian man who comes to me in the late night hour, a man who looks at me with blank eyes and offers me his life savings if I can tell him why cold-blooded animals like the shade so much. He often says he loves the sun and he walks for kilometers without water or pauses. He’s third generation Italian-Gikuyu. Once he offered me a story for free. Emphasis on ‘free’. His father, after playing dead in the bloody fields of Wal Wal, 1934, bribed a merchant with silvers and gold to a southern border where he bribed a hunter with anal sex to take him to Marsabit. This man, he likes to spit in my garbage bags, I imagine those who like to spit are hydrated people and I spend nights and days thinking about this. I think about his bad breath and good intentions, his love for highlife benga and the many wrong histories he likes to offer me. I want to be like him, wrong in my convictions and happy as can be. In my garbage cans and in addition to spit are the remains of yesterday where I did things no one has ever done to a vegetable salad and later made that okay with a banana-strawberry-yoghurt splash. A lot of paper has been wasted printing recipes and turning them into manifestos for cats.
The noise of my fruit blender gives me a rush, I can feel it rising in me like a kid in my high school class used to get these spasms and yell that God was building a three-story building inside him. He was always last after the exams. A good kid. He shook like a violent thing and I wonder if I was the only one who was scared seeing his body shake like truly and verily three floors of concrete were about to burst from inside his body. No one wants to build anything inside me since I was a few feet tall but I can still feel the energy rise and I looked for them and I made them pay by reciting things like recipes and the names of cats to them. I waited for them to go to sleep and I made them pay. I didn’t even have to be there. Willpower and faith, God and everything else. That’s how I know, without a doubt, I am terror itself.
My days here have been okay until very recently when the cats put on these pullovers from the garbage cans of young mothers and what I assume to be the garbage cans of my strange octogenarian neighbor who still wears leather pants and has a tattoo of Jomo Kenyatta on the folds of his bicep skin hanging down like hanging gardens; these cats jumped up and down (the cats, not the mothers and definitely not the osteoporotic old man) on trampolines and played tambourines and it’s so much weirder than anything else I have seen in my life here that there was no sound coming from the tambourine even when I could hear—owing to the heightened sense of sound from living so close to terror—the rubber on the trampoline stretch and the glass in the crevices and dark ceilings breathe. Another weird thing but this time not so weird as the many other things I have had the pleasure of seeing, Jomo on the tattoo looks very little like Jomo on the bills and the more the old kickass man (a hero of his time maybe) ages the more Jomo looks like his firstborn son.
Another weird thing but this has nothing to do with cats and tattoos and the singing of young mothers is that I have these two cassette recordings of a song 80 minutes long of a man sleeping and snoring. He is either a very big man who drinks a lot or a child like I was who went playing in his sleep. There’s nothing in this world more wondrous than a sleeping man except a man making a vegetable salad.
Cats used to come to mate in and around my garbage cans. I am not going to make a big fuss about the contents of the cans but I will consider other things for instance who steals my recyclables and who replaces the green bags with the blue bags every time, never mind the vigils I have carefully laid out to catch them with no luck?
The structure of that sentence there is such that I want to mean, and I am very keen on meaning, terror wants itself manifest and manifold and without a doubt well interpreted and well intoned although a speech therapist I met at a convention in Addis Ababa told me it might benefit my course to carefully consider silence as a tool of terror so the structure of that sentence means when I catch the person who replaces my blue garbage bags with green garbage bags (or is it the other way around?) they will be in for a thorough lecture on the history of this civilization being entirely dependent on the color spectra of my garbage bags.
Back to the cats making that splendid and eerie children voice that freaks me out secretly. They mate all night. I can tell each individual sound, trust me I can. And it goes on for the entire night. Myself, I can do a maximum of 15 minutes and make a young woman cum with the exception of this young Kipsigis girl who said for some reason, some weird damn reason, obviously she had a problem in the system of her body, the universe and alignment of things only made her cum after 120 minutes, 15 seconds. Come to think of it she had the eyes and grace of a cat. It must be hard to sustain grace for that long. I had to let her go after two weeks. I imagine it was because of emasculation but the truth is she did not know when to add the lettuce to the vegetable salad. And I know, secretly I know, I’m sure I do and I can bet all my money on this irrefutable fact: I know she talked to the cats at night.
I have never seen the cats during the day. Small animals I don’t trust. I want to be around the bigger animals, beast of the southern wild kind of monsters, beautiful beautiful beings created by the master when the son was not watching, the ones you can see approaching from a distance, the ones small children dream about before adolescence. I want things like caricatures of naiads and masts of power so high I can see them from Stendikisa. A huffing and puffing animal is a beautiful thing when considered from a distance, a cat not so much. I even hate cats more because of Murakami. I’ll say something about the man who sells me Tupperware and his connection to the Japanese and Wal Wal and twisted history, no doubt an ingenious tool in narrative—thank you Vladimir Nabokov, thank you so very much, my in-law—someday I will, I promise. Back to heat cycles and mating cats, Mating and Conception in Cats (Obiero Nainanai). Not forgetting those sounds they make when the moon is out looking so slush luminescent like a slice of the book of secrets taken together with cheese dipped in more cheese—oh how I hate blue cheese—and finally, you can see this in the cats’ compound eyes, the moon unfurls like a happy butterfly and turns into a kite and the string is tied all the way down to the so pink cat paw, those beautiful paws like like like like the penises of stillborns. When they are looking up like that with their eyes closing so unconventional-like and they are just there kicking back, making sounds, tired from mating and seeing distant galaxies, witnessing for the first time the event in Orion, the birth of new stars, the O so beautiful evolutions of nova, God how so beautiful you are when naked, and being friends with the dogs that make it to heaven—are you ok, Elizabeth, with all your love handles, dining with Dante Alighieri? For I don’t trust Italians. I don’t even know how the cats make it to the window sill because I live three floors up, there is no way of getting there without looking stupid and like you have a lot of free time.
It did not bother me so much, at least not like the way you sit at Hamdi amid the rich Dagodia and poor city dwellers and order chips masala (only for the lettuce) but the waiter lady brings you a lot of chips and no masala. Do they imagine little gland-men under my tongue construct masala? The cats just sit there and look out to the big wonderful sky. Some of the small ones lick the windowpanes like they want to do me a favor by cleaning the window panes and I wonder if I should pass them some old newspapers to get that extra sheen, wonder if I should get a surgery to elongate my tongue, split it into two for special effects so that I can kiss them too or call the Kipsigis girl. Then I remember I don’t like it when I draw the curtains and the first thing I see is cat tongue. Myself, I used to look up the sky so I get why that is important in an animal’s life. I’ve had three night skies in my life: Koch, Juba, Maseno. The most beautiful night skies. Truth be told I never quite got beyond Auriga and Perseus.
What bothers me most is not the sound as I have said, it’s all that crying they do.
So a few days ago, there is no telling how many for sure when you live in a room like this, I laced the fish remains with cyanide, imagine a perfect eyeball soaked in cyanide for 48 hours, 15 seconds. Vigils and questions about the existence of man, elegies, fields of salt, remembrances of dead poets. The whole nine yards, brother. Now there are no more cats in and around my garbage cans. I thought I would open up my mind to the idea of cats like Murakami told me to but I just couldn’t. I just can’t stand the noise they make when they are mating. When he was going deaf—the classical musician, he told me this in a dream—it was because he did not want to hear the sounds cats made when they were mating. Why can’t they be quiet?
I am wise enough to be quiet during my variations of mating with friends, strangers and new confidants and even when salsa dancing with parts of myself by myself in and through the marrow bone of myself in front of the music of light-emitting diodes and fairies who eat each others wings.
You see the cats are now making me talk about innuendos I want to save myself from. Not that I am that terrible in certain respects, I am just, let’s say, like a connoisseur of variations, like—thank you Elizabeth and thank the dry fields in Botswana, thank you garden vegetables, Mama—this might be a stretch, but like I feel Shostakovich. Let me not talk about that. My mother taught me well too, she told me everything I know about commas and semicolons, and it’s the fault of those cats I am getting this way.
I am always afraid I will run into the cats at night, them holding spikes and rakes, firebombs and condoms, regrets and sacrifices, come out to burn my ass and make me eat the cyanide I made or force me to sleep and eat from the garbage can, if I think being a cat is so easy, and I can see myself running so fast but more cats are just ahead of me waiting and what’s that thing they are doing, laughing and laughing and making more children voices, doing the tap dance, speaking in tongues and, more specifically, speaking like Hollywood stars. This fear goes away sometimes but I know it is there, it’s under the bed waiting, its lifeline maintained by my drool. If terror has taught me anything it is that to achieve long-term memory symbols and iconography are necessary and that’s how come I am so afraid of the cats because so perfectly I can see their lips and whiskers and tongues and you know that’s not all, O God that is not all, I can see the voices rising from their mouths like smoke, like curtains in an abandoned house. Well not abandoned, just that the third-generation owner died and his children are caught up in a court battle. I am good at things such as fear and measuring its intensity as it travels from one corner of the body to the next even until when—excuse me, O dear God you’re all I have now—even until when it goes outside the body and is forced to take a material form like khanga in the wind at a festival or a facade with leaves falling but there is no tree. No tree there at all.
Enough about cats.
This is about a semi-nude woman. It is really about this one moment she stood in my bathroom, barefooted, taking a shower. I know that’s not especially breaking news, the listening post on Al Jazeera would not be interested in that. Unless she videotapes herself and calls it citizen journalism but what she really means is that it is a noir film called citizen journalism and she goes on to win a Pulitzer for a newly created category. The special thing about this girl is that she was standing in my bathroom using my hot water, it’s possible to see how the water touched her pale skin, and she was standing there and the bathroom door was open.
An open bathroom door.
Her hair the color of crematorium ash.
I don’t know if this is true for you, but I find bathing a very intimate thing. Bathing is like sleeping, that’s why I was so in and out of my head with those cats making their awful noise. Bathing and sleeping, forget about the motions. Think deep tissue. Just like I like to sleep alone, uninterrupted and with no one and no sounds and no light in the room, I also like to bathe in private. I believe people should also bathe in private. I want to treat people as I want them to treat me although I am giving this mantra up because no one really knows me, no one knows about the masala men under my tongue, no one knows the girl with the bald head and the sketches I made in my sleep, O God no one knows. Bathing is just one of those things, you know. You want to do it in private. Just you and God. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what psychoanalysts think about a notion like that but I’d sure like to find out some day. Maybe they might even explain the thing about the cats too.
Cats haven’t always been a pervasive and recurring theme in my life but for the past few weeks they have terrorized my sleep. It bothered me so much, their oblivion did, it made me angry they were not aware they were keeping me up.
The most striking thing about this girl is the way her soul is in the striking curve of her big toes. They are the biggest and most beautiful toes I have seen. On both women and men. Just like everything has a center, everything must also have a soul. Check in the digital library of any place and you will see.
I was on my desk trying to work and this girl was in the shower, her toes on the linoleum not afraid of the fungus even though I have expressly warned her—by way of fifteen brands of scouring powder—but like with everything else she does the opposite of what I say, with the bathroom door wide open, O God just wide open like Noah’s door in the preceding hours and there she is peeping even when the door is open and there is soap almost getting into her eyes, foam inside her ears and collecting in the bellybutton, foam in the middle, foam picking apples in between her youknowwhat where she is all naked, O God all naked like betrayal in Golgotha, I don’t have the proper tears or the proper education, and trying to tell me things. I don’t know why she thinks she has to tell me things. Why? I’m a fair man. I don’t assume she always want to hear things and that’s why I am always silent even during the sex doing and undoing, church mouse if you want, I just nibble and nibble with all small teeth and language mapped on my lips but the cells have collapsed because they are the towers of Babel and little men in charge of time (previously accused to be in charge of masala) are in conversation with her lips from mine and I’m just silent while she is taking photographs of my neurons and sexing me like she had just watched mick jagger, that splendid god even in small letters, and I am inside her while at it and I am rediscovering that while inside her is like a remembering of the rules of a childhood game, a remembering of my mother walking on glass and cussing, coming out is like waking up in the body of an elephant. And silence. If she looks into my eyes during sexing, and I highly suspects she looks, she finds nothing there. “Nothing there” is so much I’ll not get into that. Thank you. She finds nothing there in the sense that night is nothing and color is not color until the sun is out making its way through flecks of dust and human breath in the air. Nothing is silence. A void is a silence and when you make sex with silence this is truly terrifying.
I have some thoughts on how bodies, in the sense of living tissue breathing and occupying space and weight and questioning the evolution of new stars, are violent and I will use my body to show you how. I have a sexy body, that has your attention, no doubt. Not to say I will hurt my body in the way those parking lot kids did in that film Red Hill, not listening to the warning of their fathers and mothers, videotaping this for a world waiting to see teenagers hurting themselves in abandoned parks and scenes of protest and further getting off, both the teenagers and the world getting off is what I mean. This has nothing to do with that kind of visceral exhibitionism mounted in front of a steadycam—that’s a phrase I learnt from arguing with a Zionist and a Legio Maria with a penchant for eating termites from Stendikisa’s underground tunnels—nothing at all to do with that.
I think for me the only way bodies can be truly remarkable is when you pick your nose in private. Picking one’s nose is up there in the spectrum of things, together but not too close to cats crying in the night. The true meaning of things.
I volunteer myself. O God, Elizabeth [Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi—Danke, Elizabeth, Goddess of Fish, Goddess of the Moorish Idol].
I was on my desk working and she was interrupting me telling me these things while the water was running down her pale skin. The sound of the water when it fell on the tiles was loud, the sound of water when it touched her skin was even louder and all I wanted was to listen to these synthetic 50% polyester silences because in their unnaturalness and inaudibility they can be silences if you search long enough, if you listen hard enough, O god if you long long enough.
[Sound + Time = Acoustic Light]
You know I just wanted the water to keep falling and for her to please shut up (I say shut up with a lot of respect), a fountain in an expensive Guinness World Record breaking, and most importantly shut the bathroom door to protect me from that gross act of intimacy she was taking part in by herself. I do not wish to be privy to other people’s intimacies, both for their sake and mine. That’s why I had to poison the cats. I was protecting myself from the doors they opened when they were searching for their cat-god. The importance of a door is to offer one individual intimacy while offering the other person the happy ignorance of being not intimate with anything.
I stood up, opened the tap on the sink to hear some more dripping water but still she would not stop talking. I played my beautiful long dead Shostakovich and still she would not stop talking.
The voice of a woman in the shower has this closeness to Marian paintings I have seen from these modern kids (they call themselves cats) who paint sound with their naked bodies in the other ghettos of Dandora and you can hear Jesus crying when the Mother is carrying and nursing him and papering his bottom.
What was she saying? She was saying something elaborate and inconsequential and truly beautiful-sounding like when Red plays the harmonica, talking about evolutionary biology, and her term paper was long overdue, now they had no choice but to fail her mostly because she stopped to read classic philosophy and never turned back.
You know now that I think about it I wanted that door closed for some other selfish reasons. She was talking about the selfish gene.
Now, I am not a chauvinistic pig like my father was and to prove that I will quote something my father the man himself in flesh and light rhesus negative blood group O said. My father himself said, “Son, you are not a chauvinistic pig.” So when I tell you about this girl standing right there in the shower, the sun settling on her skin and thinking possibly it has found the place it is always looking for and a cat passing behind the translucent glass just above her head, when I talk about her I know what I’m saying and I am a sensitive man.
I did not say much about my father, I want to protect myself from my intimacies and, although I can use his story and the strange music he played, the music of true failure, I know enough to know when to stop. Embarrassment, fear, anxiety and other material ways of making sense out of nothingness; truth be told I am also afraid that one day my end will come by way of an unstoppable train of terror that I let loose me myself on the line, line number 3 at the Railway Museum, a terror that grows and mutates and becomes something completely different from its origin. I am starting to get afraid of the music my father played.
I have said how much the disturbance of silence bothers me, this brings me to the second point and me being truly glad I have someone to listen to me. If anyone is standing in my bathroom, regardless of their sex, and the person decides to bother me and bother the working of my head with sounds that are organic and originate from inside the person, if they decide to take this liberty then it is very pertinent they must and absolutely must be saying some true things about philosophy and evolutionary biology for those are subjects dear to me. You better get your facts right. Nothing makes me more terrified and repulsed than telling a lie as hearing a lie.
I am going to illustrate this by telling you a funky analogy she gave me as way of illustration. Don’t misquote me and tell your friends I do not want to be misquoted.
Terror can use propaganda effectively and this topic has been exhausted by people who know the true mechanics and diabolical nature of stuff but my terror is genuine and it therefore must separate itself from misrepresentation.
I realize some paradox oxymoron. I promise I will be nice by way of illustration of what this girl was saying. I don’t want to preempt a lie. I am a very objective man and have made all the right choices in my life by choosing restless sleep over the lives of cats. These things she was telling me involved Lake Victoria fish and this is so interesting as it reminds me of a cat and fish story I have (and also an argument as to whether a lake is a feminine or masculine thing). I might return to it. I will also tell a story about a cat and a fish in Stendikisa.
This is what the girl was saying (now, I wish I could just endnote and footnote my feelings of utter revolt as I listened to her lies but that would be biasing, from one lie to another, and I promised not to interfere and, being who I am, lies have no place in my life).
She said, “Consider a school of fish…”
Now I don’t want to be a bad man here to interrupt her but in all of my life no girl has ever told me to consider a school of fish. This is not something your parents prepare you for. As a man who deals with color I know that imagination is real and useful but never once have I ever imagined a school of fish. My face was total unknowing at the time she told me which collaborates my evidence and who will one trust, a naked woman in the bathroom with the door open or a man who will set one free if one chooses the right answer?
Choose the right answer.
I respect a person who understands things. Such a person will live longer which is sadly something I cannot say for the cats because I asked them a question not unlike the one I have just asked you and they chose the wrong answer. To imagine a school of fish is to imagine let’s say a lake (feline). When I imagine a lake it is very probable that I will imagine a canoe with sails in the wind and the silhouette of a man looking to the distance and a moon curved from Manila paper of the silver leather color. So to imagine a school of fish means for me to forget. That’s one thing I find difficult. So some revolt registered on my face as she continued to talk.
“Consider a school of fish, blue in color, living at a certain depth of the lake…”
I find it very difficult to understand what this girl wants from me. I have given her everything I can without taking anything in return either from boredom or for penance but here she is still wanting more. How do I give after giving all I have?
I’m going on about the fish. It’s hard as it is to consider a school of fish, it’s even more improbable to consider a school of fish blue in color. What’s happening here is that the workings of my mind cannot distinguish between what is really blue, the fish as individuals or the school as a collective. I know this to be true because of the story am going to tell you about the fish and the cat.
I fail miserably to imagine a school of fish, I find it unbearable to focus on just one individual fish and why because it is hard for me to imagine the event we call blue as just belonging to that one fish. Fish don’t know anything so fish cannot be blue. That is what us as people have done to the earth and it is my work to remind myself. Fish is not blue. Fish is just minding their own business.
Friends of mine, this being a time when I had lots of friends, have told me not once not twice, cats are nimble, they do not like an audience. This is not entirely true and I had to lose some friends because I just cannot stand liars.
When she’s done bathing she walks into the bedroom. It’s a small house: movement is didactic. This time she closes the door behind her. I can picture her, wrapped in my towel, taking it off, drying herself from her head to the spaces between her toes, O that big toe, pausing at the middle (and not the bellybutton), considering if she should dry herself there, deciding she should, one leg on the bed, the other on my needlefelt rug, drying herself with my towel, wondering if there is a camera hidden there. She has more hair there than she does on her head. She’s in there, in my bedroom, door closed, looking around for lotion and finding none, cussing me, regretting why she is here, eventually missing me, missing the full implications I bring to the table, missing a man who smiles like someone she used to know. She opens the door slightly to tell me to buy some lotion soon. Closes it shut. I consider her words, take apart the sentence, examine it carefully like a zoologist with a new animal on the table, seek out the subtleties, find none, decide she wants me. Yes, that’s our sex language. She wants me and she wants me. I decide I will not go in, not after she has used my towel.
Clifton Gachagua (@CliftonGachagua) is the winner of the inaugural Sillerman Prize for African Poetry, 2013, awarded by the African Poetry Book Fund. His poetry book, “Madman at Kilifi”, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press and Amallion Publishers (Senegal). His chapbook, The “Cartographer of Water” (Seven New Generation African Poets), if forthcoming from Slapering Hol Press. He has completed a novel, “Zephyrion”, which was recently longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project. His works have been published in literary forums including Kwani? 06; Saraba; AfroSF. Gachagua is currently working for TV broadcast shows as a scriptwriter.
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