THE GENTLE MAN FROM ITEN by Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere

“In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere”

In the hilly town of Iten, there is a man named Kipkirwok who runs a small pharmacy squeezed between a hair salon and a retail shop. He is known by his nickname Tala—the gentle one—and he is fastidious with his work. He is an early riser, getting on his Yamaha bike as early as 6 AM to go to work when Iten is still shrouded in darkness and the only sounds are those of barking dogs and crowing cocks begging for the sun to rise and of the steady tap tap of athletes running on tarmac. He squeezes through a narrow corridor between rows of tiny concrete constructions to get to a field of stinging nettles, creeping nderemia and tall Kikuyu grass where the building with his pharmacy stands. He might admire the proliferation of plants in the field for a while, but that is only when the field has not been cleared, the clearing happening once a month. When the field is bare apart from short-cropped grass, he parks his bike and opens his shop without looking.

He has the best wishes of many. Mothers speak of him fondly and the born-again ones dutifully pray for him before they sleep. Those old enough to be his parents say “kararan weron man” and they might point at their aged ankles and knees, which previously ached with “aartritis”, and wiggle them around, declaring how Kipkirwok’s prescriptions have helped them manage the pain. Some go to him straight when they feel ill without passing by Iten County Hospital where nurses with maringo might look at them with bad eyes. He is aware of all these good graces he has with people and, when patients walk into his shop, he listens with exaggerated keenness—head cocked to one side, mouth a bit stretched as if in a smile, his tongue dancing over his teeth as he acknowledges each symptom with an almost imperceptible nod. He has mastered the complex names of similar drugs, always mentioning the higher priced one, waiting to see if the patient hesitates before recommending a cheaper generic version. He avoids extending credit.

Kipkirwok is anal about putting everything in its proper place. He cleans the pharmacy every day at lunch time when he closes for an hour and again in the evening before he goes home. His friends look at him uncomfortably when he states that his wife is a seretan and that one day he is going to clean their house by himself.

One Friday, the medicine packets shining bright from the shelves, a woman walked in. She wore long yellow socks with green rings stretching all the way to her knees. She had on a red pencil skirt and a black jacket, both of which were splattered with mud, and her squelching shoes left muddy footprints on the floor, though there was no rain that time of the year and even the stinging nettles outside were wilting. The sight of the footprints on his extravagantly clean floor was like painful pinches all over Kipkirwok’s skin. He had not yet accepted that his patients would not adhere to his shop’s level of cleanliness.

The woman did not even look at him. She waddled to the extreme right end of the shop to sit on a worn-out wooden bench placed next to the wall, just under the window sill. She gathered her elbows with her palms, as if retreating into a shell, and began rocking her head up and down.

“Mwawo so, imache nee?” Kipkirwok enquired. “Tell me, what do you want?”

She stopped rocking her head, squeezed the edges of the bench with her palms and tilted her head upwards, staring at the roof. Kipkirwok tried what most people of Iten did and tried to match the unfamiliar face with the families around, searching for a common feature. But there was something distinct about the formation of her nose, the way it seemed to have slid down the slope of her face, squeezing her mouth downwards and causing her cheekbones to protrude. It was unlike any other he had seen.

“Why don’t you say something?” Kipkirwok enquired again. “You cannot just sit there. Are you lost? I hope you can find your way out.”

The woman turned and cast doleful eyes on Kipkirwok. Her lips were moving, though no sound emerged, and there was urgency in the rise and fall of her breath. Her gaze became more questing, her eyes widening until they finally focused on a part of Kipkirwok’s face. He could not tell which part it was but he felt his ear tingle. He shifted his position behind the counter. Her eyes did not follow him.

“It will be necessary for you to leave,” he said, his breathing ragged. “You will have to go if you are not buying anything.”

Her gaze turned on him again and Kipkirwok’s heart leapt. He was hooked by some invisible force and could not move. Her breathing was even more urgent now, and a necklace of beaded sweat glistened round her brow. She sang.

Twathiaga tukenete, tugacoka tukenete iii

rugendo rwitu rware rwega tugithie

Na tugicoka. Tukenete…

A wave of cold passed through the room. He understood the words even though they were sung in Kikuyu, not his native tongue Keiyo.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

He did his best to retain an impassive face though he felt himself shaking. He tapped a biro furiously on the glass counter. When she finished singing, calm settled into her face and her eyes took on such power as to dismiss the shabbiness of her appearance. She kept on looking at Kipkirwok, smiling gently as if she knew what was going on inside him. Then she closed her eyes, placed her palms between her thighs and stretched her legs. The room seemed to yank itself forth like rubber. Kipkirwok found himself short of breath and for a moment thought he was going to faint, but he leant against the counter and stood still.

That was when Kiptum walked in.

Kiptum walked in with a swagger, as if he was meant to be there and nowhere else. He took large steps and in a moment was slamming the day’s newspaper down on the counter. He was a tall, dark man with a pudgy face and a thick expanse of fat which grew steadily from his chest to settle like an immense gourd around his waist.

“Amu kra boiyot,” he greeted Kipkirwok. There was an ease in his baritone voice which overwhelmed the room and cut short the intricate mysteries at play.

“Tala, you look stressed my friend. What happened? Or is Chemeli bringing you her usual dramas?”

Chemeli was Kipkirwok’s wife. She stood only as high as his chest but had a habitually spiteful look on her face which could trickle into her voice making guests, according to Kiptum’s testimony, leave their house in haste.

“Anyway, just reading in the newspaper today about these IDPs in Nakuru. Can you imagine they turned down 10 acres of land in Kajiado? Saying that it was too far from their original homes. You know what they say about beggars not being—”

Kiptum turned round, squashing his belly against the counter, to stare at the woman seated on the bench. There was a look about the woman now as if the world was sitting on her shoulders. She was mumbling to herself, her eyes cast down at the floor.

“Who is she?” asked Kiptum, pointing a weak finger at her.

“She just walked in,” answered Kipkirwok, not too eagerly. Kipkirwok grasped the newspaper and began turning it. Kiptum looked at the girl—the way her face was frozen—and back at Kipkirwok—the way he pretended to be reading the newspaper—and laughed.

“You people, you have to tell me what has just gone on.”

You people. Kipkirwok was reassured by that statement. It meant Kiptum had not yet noted the extreme mystery about the woman; that to Kiptum she was just another person.

“But surely,” said Kiptum, fondling his beard with his fingers. “Kwani, where is she from? Cheptoo, why do you have mud all over your clothes? Where did you fall?”

The woman kept quiet and turned her face to the other side, her mouth pursed. A line of hair, as fine as felt, stretched down her cheek like a sideburn.

“Is she deaf?” Kiptum enquired quickly, ready to apologize.

“I do not know who she is,” said Kipkirwok, a bit too aggressively.

“Then what is she doing here?”

“She just walked in. I mean the door was open and she just walked in like that without speaking. I think she is.…”

Kipkirwok could not bring himself to say mad so he surreptitiously pointed his finger at his head and turned it around in a circle.

“Yes, all the wires in her head do not seem properly connected,” said Kiptum, assuming a low tone. Kipkirwok straightened his shoulders and rubbed his eyes.

“But still Tala, there is something you are not telling me.”

There was a mischievous twinkle in Kiptum’s eyes.

“She is not talking, Kiptum,” Kipkirwok insisted, keeping distance from Kiptum’s accusations.

“Well very well,” said Kiptum. He swaggered towards her and bent down, his arms on his knees, to look at her.

“Cheptoo, iamu nee?”

Her mouth moved about, but she did not respond.

“You will need to talk my friend. I mean, God gave you a mouth. Stop acting about as if you are deaf. Are you mad?”

She shook her head.

“Good, then talk! Tell us what you want, or what you are doing here.”

Kiptum’s words were forceful. She shook heavily and sputtered out a name.

“What did you say?” asked Kiptum, but Kipkirwok had heard her perfectly.

“Wangari.” Her voice was soft, ever so soft, and she pronounced her name as only Kikuyus can, with liquid consonants.

“And what do you want here?” Kiptum slowed down his speech, as if addressing someone infinitely stupid.

“I am looking for my baby,” she said, her voice staggering as her cheeks swelled.

“Well, there is no baby here,” said Kiptum, matter-of-factly. “Maybe you could look for your baby elsewhere. Sawa?”

She began rubbing her palms over the back of her hands in turn. Her skin was fairly smooth, albeit in need of oil.

“Sawa?” Kiptum repeated. “Your baby is not here. So you will need to leave this place.”

He turned to Kipkirwok.

“This one must be a thief. Have you not seen her eyes? She is not mad. She is planning something. You see the way she is so rude that she cannot even respond to my questions?”

“Msichana,” Kiptum held her jacket collar with his fingers, “you are getting out. Do you understand me?”

“What is going on?” a concerned voice shouted. It was Chemaiyo, the salonist next door, a squat, buxom woman who walked about in a cloud of suffocating perfume.

“We need to get this mad woman out,” said Kiptum. Wangari slapped Kiptum’s fingers from her jacket and Kiptum pushed her head back with the edge of his fist, till it knocked on the wall.

“Chei le murenju,” shouted Chemaiyo, walking into the room. “Is that how you treat people surely? How can you handle a woman like that?”

Kiptum’s eyes flickered with embarrassment.

“You do not understand these things Chemaiyo. You never know who these people are.”

Chemaiyo was not even listening. She moved and sat next to the lady and asked her, in her gentlest voice, who she was.

“Her name is Wangari,” said Kipkirwok. He had stepped out from behind the counter to stand beside Wangari. “She is looking for her baby.”

“Tala, bring her a soda,” Chemaiyo said. “Maybe she is hungry. Bring her Coca Cola.”

“You people are crazy,” said Kiptum, but Kipkirwok moved past him, stepped out into the strong morning sun and bought a bottle of Coca Cola from the tiny shop on the left. He did not bother to look for a bottle opener, tearing off the cap with the edge of his teeth and handing it to Chemaiyo who gave it to Wangari.

Wangari’s face was mechanical as she drank, her neck muscles over-emphasized and her eyes popping out. She did not place the bottle down until she had drunk the last drop. Kipkirwok exchanged puzzled glances with Kiptum.

“You people are crazy,” repeated Kiptum lamely.

“Wangari,” said Chemaiyo in the gentlest voice she could muster. “Since you have now taken a soda, don’t you think you should now leave? I mean you can see this is not a good place for you to stay. “

“They burnt my house, everything,” said Wangari, swiping her finger over her mouth. “I held the clothes I had up in my hands.”

She raised her arms up.

“Wangari, you should go to your people. Where are your people?”

Wangari began singing another song, faintly this time, about how everything ended the day Jesus was at Calvary. Chemaiyo found a hundred shilling note in her purse, took Wangari’s palm and folded it around the note.

“You need to go now, Wangari.”

Wangari opened her palm, stood up, let the note fall on the floor, and walked out, singing her song.

“My goodness, these are wonders that are greater than the ones Moses saw in Egypt,” said Chemaiyo when Wangari’s voice had faded off.

“I told you she is a mkora. There is something ex-Kamiti prisoner about her. You should have allowed me to handle her with force,” said Kiptum, staring out of the door. “Such people should be dealt with a firm hand.”

Kipkirwok said nothing. He was staring at the light filtering through the window into the room, how it hurled itself inside, like a hundred glass lances breaking into dazzling shards as they hit the floor. He played his palm over one of the light columns and it felt so warm, the rest of his body yearned to feel it.

*

Hours later, Kipkirwok, all alone in his pharmacy, sits on the floor. He has locked the door and shut the curtain over the window and sent a text to Chemaiyo stating that he has walked out briefly. Nostalgia has called upon him and he has responded meekly. Sadness curls him like a worm, stoops his back, one shoulder higher than the other, the left leg bent, the other laid straight on the floor where it trembles. He slips into a dream.

In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere, beside a hut. The dry grass stalks prickle his thigh while the sun gently heats it. His grandmother sits close to him on a stool. He shuts his eyes so as not to see her, but listen to her voice instead. She speaks with an effortless tact and grace that Kipkirwok finds compelling.

“There were flowers in Limuru,” the grandmother says. “Beautiful white flowers which spiraled up and up, on long stems, almost to the height of my shoulders. But you had to be careful about the flowers, for they retreated to the ground as soon as you stopped looking at them. Never to return!”

Her words wrap him in a cocoon, twirl him around. He feels his legs lengthen and his shoulders broaden.

“I was in the forest you know. We sang many songs, songs that your grand-father had no idea about; songs that I stopped singing the moment he placed his dark, Keiyo hands over my head and let me rest on his chest, that very moment when I knew I was going to leave Limuru and follow him to Iten. Love can make you stop singing. But I will sing for you since you listen. Since your blood seeks to know.”

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

He wants to know the song. He wants to understand the words. His head aches.

“Tala, my brother Njoroge taught me the song, whenever I would take him food in the forest. He told me we should not be afraid since we wear our death on our bodies like clothes. You are already dressed in your death, Tala, so do not be afraid of life.”

She stays silent for a while, and they listen together to the other sounds buzzing in the air.

“Your grandfather taught me about love. He placed Keiyo words in my mouth, one by one, and taught me to slide those words down my tongue as if I was born with them. I cannot wait to join him in the East where the nine-legged daughter of the sun lives. When I die, bury me next to him—let the world know that I loved him with all my heart.”

Kipkirwok is afraid of the love she is speaking about, so he thinks about Njoroge instead—Njoroge and the forest. He sees the heart of the forest, men gathered under a mugumo tree canopy, light trickling in like liquid jade, falling on their heads, making their dreadlocks glitter.

Kipkirwok stands up and looks at the grandmother. He is braver now and wants more answers. But the old woman is turning smaller, as if retreating to a shell. She no longer sings and remembers no flowers. The space before him disintegrates into brown pixels that pop and fizzle.

Kipkirwok wakes up.

The room seems to stare back at him. The rows of well-arranged medicine packets on the shelves call on him, urging him to rise, to proceed with the usual movements of his life. Still, something holds him on the floor, as if a dead animal is lying on him.

He closes his eyes and tries to sleep. He hears his heart beat instead, like a ticking clock, loud and insistent, an invading force that seems to surge out of him to reverberate through the room in waves. It is a relief when the sound is interrupted by the thud thud of approaching footsteps outside. He opens his eyes and his nose picks up the irritating scent of dust.

The approaching figure passes across the curtain-drawn windows and the silhouette shows that of a woman, an elderly woman with a bent back.

“Tala, weei,” she shouts. “Are you in?”

She bangs at the door.

“Now where could this boy of mine be?”

It is the voice of Gladys, Gladys who has diabetes. Gladys whose sons spend their lives in drinking dens; who wishes she had a son like Kipkirwok and does not hesitate to tell him so.

“Gladys iamu nee?” Chemaiyo interrupts.

“I am fine my daughter. Have you seen Tala?”

Chemaiyo begins her half-mumbled explanations, heightening the drama with sounds of mock disbelief and a clapping about of her hands. Kipkirwok yawns and rubs his hand over his temple. He sleeps as if he is drugged.

The phone rings. At first he thinks it is a distant buzz, but it keeps on with its ring. He had slipped all the way down from the wall. A drool of saliva is in a neat, small circle on the floor. He musters the will to rise and tears himself away from his misery, leaving it on the floor. The caller on the other end is his wife Chemeli, and her voice is worried.

“Tala, what is going on? Why did you close the shop? I just received a call from Gladys.”

“Gladys,” he says unconsciously. A weight falls on his shoulders. He thrusts his shoulders up and down to relieve himself of it.

“Yes, Gladys. She came like an hour ago, needing medicine for her diabetes. When both she and Chemaiyo could not find you, they called me.”

Kipkirwok’s brow quivers. He wonders if he is shaking.

“No one knows where you are, Tala. Not even Kiptum. Chemaiyo is worried. She says you started acting funny after a woman came to our pharmacy this morning.”

A woman who sang Chemeli, he wants to say. A woman who sang grandmother’s song!

“A Kikuyu woman,” Chemeli continues. He can tell that she wants to say something but she is restraining herself, waiting for him to respond. He doesn’t. He only listens to the heaviness of her breaths through the phone. They seem separate from her voice, those breaths, as if emanating from two separate beings.

“Where are you, Tala?”

“I…I am…I went for a walk. A small walk. Just to clear my head.”

“Has it started again?” There is that strain in her tone again. “Tala, just open the pharmacy and let people in. We need the money, especially after all the chaos we had in January. We are building a new house, and you know our daughter has not healed properly after the surgery. God, she is only five years old.”

The words pound on him, chafing away all his thoughts.

“Ok, ok, my love. I am opening. I am opening.”

He disconnects, walks through the waist-high side door which leads to the counter and pushes away the curtains. Light falls inside the room and gives him an instant headache.

*

When Kipkirwok locked the grilled door with a heavy padlock tied with chains, he felt as if he was locking a demon inside the pharmacy. He was relieved to be going home. He had not displayed his usual patience and good listening habits with his patients that day, and many had left puzzled.

Yet the night was a relief. It lay softly on the land like crepe paper, darkening trees, houses and streets. It was a gentle night, as if it could be picked off easily by a delicate hand and torn from the land. It felt as if something pristine and free of sin lay beneath the night’s cover.

As Kipkirwok walked up the incline of the field outside where his bike was parked a sharp wind rushed rudely past him, pressing cold hands all over his legs. He almost stumbled as a sudden fear seized him. But he turned to look up and next to the fence was the familiar podo tree, seen a hundred times before during the day and at night, but today looking as if it stood on holy ground and as if its branches, high up and thrashing about, beckoned him to a place of favour.

Kipkirwok got on his bike and started it, riding in expert smooth lines down the slope, through the narrow corridor and onto the street. He felt enervated by the people moving in the distance like ghosts, the bike lights trailing over tarmac, and, high above, stars that did not blink.

But when he reached the junction of the main road, which headed to Kapsowar, and turned right, a sense of mystery welcomed him. Close to Saint Patrick’s High School—that section of the road bordered on both sides by massive cypress and podo trees which barely opened to let someone through—he felt a lifting in his soul as if angels hovered around him, trailing their fingers on his hair, and he hated that he had to hold onto the bike’s handles. Such was the power of this new feeling that he stopped noticing the road, the way it twisted and how it was interrupted by bumps and potholes. Exhilaration rose like a song from his belly, steadily rising upwards, turning the world around him into mush and he rode over a road bump without braking. At first he thought he was being flown to heaven, but reality hit him when the bike landed, skidded on the tarmac and twisted around, moving as if by its own accord to the side of the road where the immense tangled roots of the cypress trees lay exposed. By the time the bike stopped, he had lost his shoe and gotten painful scratches and bruises on his hands and legs. He placed the bike against a tree and limped back to the road to look for his shoe.

That was when he heard the voices. At first he thought they were only the insistent urgings of his mind but, when he stood still, he clearly heard the distinct hum of familiar voices. His grandmother was here, walking about, with others. They were concentrating around him, singing to him songs of the forests, and the language that they sang in, which he never grew up with, became familiar. He was stirred to sing as well, but when he opened his mouth and uttered the first sound, the congregation of the mysterious fell apart, and he was all alone on the road without his shoe.

Kipkirwok revived, looked frenetically for his shoe, and found it hidden under the overhang of the collapsing edges of the tarmac. When he started his bike, riding slowly now and very much aware of the road, other thoughts came. He remembered how the crowds moved about the streets last December, like a single evil beast, flowing like molten lava. He remembered the noises, the piercing screams that cut through the thick air like swords, and then the columns of smoke, huge as houses, rising to the sky, black at first and turning greyer as time went by. He remembered how faces became indistinct as if some alien virus was contorting faces.

Then he remembered the feeling of the voices congregating about him, turning a section of the road where evil had once walked sacred and, as he turned onto a dirt path to the right of the road which went up a grassy incline to home, a final memory came to him. That of his grandmother, sitting on a stool next to a jiko, scratching her parched legs and speaking to herself in Kikuyu, steadily forgetting Keiyo, giving directions in Kikuyu which no one could understand, except on that one evening when they were alone, and she bent her head towards him and spoke to him in Keiyo.

“Will you be my Jesus when I grow old? Take care of me since you carry my blood.”

And he had wished to tell her a story about a beautiful girl growing up in Limuru, but instead the utterance of the word ‘Jesus’ had swelled up within him, filling his mind with ideas.

*

Kipkirwok’s house, as simple as it was, stood like a jewel upon the hill. Kipkirwok loved the way it stood like a model turned to her side so her whole figure could be captured on camera. It had been hastily built in the usual fashion, walls made out of bars of wood coated in black tar and the roof painted blue. He was building a brick one now, since his friends had insisted that a progressive man like him should have a brick house to his name, and it stood a few paces away, large and grim, forbidding even in the nighttime. There was a tiny, corrugated-iron-sheet shed next to the wood house where he parked his bike. As he walked to the house, Chemeli opened the door and walked out with a lit torch.

“Tala, where have you been? I was worried.”

She bobbed the torchlight up and down his frame and it hurt his eyes, making it hard for him to respond.

“Oh Lord, what happened to you? Were you beaten up by thugs?”

The next moment she was holding his arm, dragging him to the house. The sitting room was very much occupied by five-seat sofa sets of fading yellow fabric that the low wooden table in the middle of the room had to stand askance to fit in. She took off his shoes and socks, then walked out of the room to the kitchen and began rummaging about.

He sat still, gathering his thoughts, wondering what he should tell her, wondering how he would tell her. He switched on the television, an old model on a narrow wooden ledge in the corner, a viable distraction. Its rude noises and appearances of strange, far away scenes, numbed his concerns. Chemeli returned to the living room with a basin of steaming water, Dettol and a white face towel. He let go of the remote control. She looked perplexed, her small face grey and sullen, her heavy bosom quivering as she walked.

“Tala, what happened?” she asked softly, placing his leg on her thigh, rolling up the trousers and wiping away at his scratches with the wet face towel. He gritted his teeth and held on to the edge of the sofa.

“Did the fundis come in today?” he asked, trying to deviate from the heaviness of her question, the way it made him scour his mind and heart for the right answers.

Chemeli breathed in deeply, sighing, as she rinsed the cloth in the sterilized water and began her quest for more scratches.

“Yes, they did. They started on the roof frame today. But they said they need more money. Those fundis are going to fleece us to death.”

“Well, I brought some money…,” he stated timidly.

“You still have not told me what happened,” she cut in.

“I also have scratches on my arm.”

“So you are not going to tell me what happened, Tala? Why did you fall?”

He hated the aggression in her voice. He wondered who this strange woman was, who wiped him so tenderly but asked questions so rudely.

“Were you thinking too much? Were you thinking about that mad Kikuyu woman?”

“No, no Chemeli.… It is just that…what do you think of? No, it is nothing.”

“Tala,” she placed down his leg, took up the other one and began rolling up the trouser. “Tala, we are one. When I became your wife, your thoughts became my thoughts. We became one flesh.”

“Well, do you remember how it was in January, the violence, how people walked about stating a rejection of the new government, urging those on holiday from Nairobi not to go back to work, but to stay home instead and wait for—”

“Tala, get to the point,” she said, her nose swelling. She placed his other leg down. “I need to cut your nails.”

Chemeli stood up, walked to the narrow wooden ledge where the television sat and retrieved a nail cutter from a small basket.

“I remember once going to Iten and there were all these women and children standing in a circle in the showground. They were so fearful and so tense, it was obvious even from the road. Someone was talking to them—a policeman perhaps—and after a while they began walking up, towards the police station. I remember watching them walk, and feeling….”

She had his leg up again and was gingerly cutting his nails while giving him withering looks.

“I have to get that woman back to Limuru, Chemeli. It is the littlest I could do. I walk about with so much guilt.”

“Guilt?” she spat back.

“If it is guilt, why do you not feel guilt for my sister? My identical sister, Tala!” Chemeli said, letting go of the nail cutter. It fell to hide in the sofa’s interstices. She began patting her breast with her hand and he grew afraid that his leg was lying on her lap. He tried to pull it away but she held it back and retrieved the nail cutter from where it fell.

“She lost everything in Naivasha, Tala. Everything. Those Kikuyus who you love so much burnt her grade chicken and divided everything she owned amongst themselves, right before her eyes. One even held a machete to her neck and she would have died had she not pleaded with him in his tongue. Do you know she sat on a coffin with a corpse in it, all the way from Naivasha to Iten? You have only visited her once, Mr. Caring and Concerned.”

“But I send her money.”

“Yes, to you money solves everything. Bring up that other leg. Do you know she will not get compensated because she had no land? To the government, only land-owners merit compensation. What about loss of…”

She looked up. Her cheeks were quivering. He thought he would run away if she began to cry.

“Let me tell you about these people you care so much about, Tala. I mean, both my parents were Keiyo. We grew up in Keiyo lands. But our town was called Rurigu—a Kikuyu name which no one understands. Can you even fathom a town in Nyeri being called Chebarbar? I totally hate them and that is not a lie.”

Kipkirwok felt his flesh retreating from his skin. He felt himself growing smaller.

“Anyway, this is what I will tell you, since you are my husband. Remember you have to take care of me and your young daughter. Remember that my sister has to start from square one and pay school fees for Chirchir. If you keep caring so much about other people and their misfortunes, you will drain our life away. Worry about your life and let Jesus worry about others.”

Her face drew back and grew strangely still as she was sucked in by the force of her secret thoughts. Her eyes were furious and Kipkirwok felt pinpricks all over the leg that lay on her lap. His bladder swelled with urine.

“Jesus. Jesus is the way,” he said, hoping the statement would reach out to some higher power, but now the mention of the name seemed stupid, carrying none of the uplifting feeling he had at the road.

“You can finish cutting the rest of your nails, Tala. As you can see it is late in the night, and I need to warm your food.”

*

If Chemeli had not come to the shop with him the following morning, the day would have been easier for Kipkirwok. She disrupted his routine with her flippant manners and took over the cleaning of the pharmacy—his sacred task. She asked him for his keys, opened the door herself and entered the pharmacy first. That was sacrosanct. She was over-eager whenever a customer walked in, rushing about to write things down and asking him about the medicine enquired for, as if he could not handle it by himself. She had none of his calm and steadiness and, by mid-morning, as he sat on a stool in a corner holding a newspaper in one hand and flipping idly through Facebook on his phone with the other, he felt himself bristling with anger.

“We should start an M-pesa shop here,” Chemeli said abruptly.

He tried to respond but his vocals seemed to be shoved deep down in his belly, needing some time to be retrieved.

“I wonder why we did not even think about it sooner. It will boost our income.”

He hated it when she spoke like that, as if she was business savvy when all she had to bring to the table was a high school certificate from Kessup Girls.

“Anyway, where is Kiptum today?” she asked, twisting around to stare at him, smiling. She looked beautiful, he had to admit, an ideal wife: short-cropped hair, matching blouse and skirt and easy manners when calm. There was a fullness in her figure and robustness in her spirit that made people say, “Chemeli is a woman and a half.” Her beauty settled him into a space which he was hopelessly unprepared for, and made him uncomfortable and worried. He was expected to be the doting husband, charmed by her beauty and full of admiration of her grace.

“I do not know,” he said. He could have stopped at that, he wanted to stop at that, but some inner obligation towards completing the conversation made him proceed. “He usually comes at around this time. I wonder what happened today. Maybe he just got too drunk and overslept.”

Chemeli pursed her lips, her eyes peeled away from him and focused on the counter.

“He is a decent man. I heard him speak at a cousin’s wedding. He is not a man to let his thoughts wonder. You know, as a man, it is wise to restrain your thoughts.”

“What is it that you know about being a man?”

Her shoulders seemed to droop and she breathed in deeply.

“Let me go see if I can get some tea from Chemaiyo,” she said, finally finding a statement to salvage her wifely graces. “You look like you need some tea.”

That was when the song began, rushing into the room with the power of a storm. It propelled out Kipkirwok’s thoughts and worries like dust scattered by the wind. Chemeli chafed around the edges like a worn-out sculpture. He concentrated on how the sound invaded him, warming his blood.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

Light from the window fell on Wangari as she walked in but in a manner to suggest that it illuminated from within her, casting away the dimness in the room. She came between Chemeli and the light and shadows skittered all over Chemeli’s face. Wangari wore an oversized, nondescript sweater but the red pencil skirt and long yellow socks with green rings were the same, except they were now clean. There was an awareness in Wangari’s gaze that day that made her seem less disturbed. She headed for the bench as before.

“Where do you think you are going?” Chemeli shouted.

Chemeli stormed through the counter door and stood before Wangari, then pushed her back with such unbelievable force that she staggered. Wangari zigzagged backwards a bit but found her stance and again walked towards the bench. Chemeli kept pushing her back and Wangari leant forward and resisted as she sang louder, her mouth wide open, saliva sticking out like stalactites from the roof of her mouth.

“You will not sit in my bench. Do you think you were the one who bought it?”

Chemeli cast her sandals aside and set her legs astride, searching for a strong centre of gravity. Then she grasped Wangari’s waist with her hands, like an ant snapping its jaws, but in a surprising flurry of quick movements she had lifted Wangari off the floor and was carrying her purposefully out of the door. Wangari dropped the pained expression from her face and her cheeks danced slightly just before she bent her head and bit into Chemeli’s shoulder. Chemeli screamed and dropped Wangari then ran back to the counter, hastily looking for an object that could give a good hit, while muttering statements to the effect that Wangari was going to die and be buried that day.

“Jesus,” it was Kipkirwok shouting. He stood against the counter door, so Chemeli could not walk out with the stout broomstick in her hand.

“Move!” Shouted Chemeli, pushing her way through, warm breath blasting on Kipkirwok. She hurled herself with fury at Wangari, beating her all over with the broom.

“Jesus, stop it,” shouted Kipkirwok, running after Chemeli, encircling her waist with his hands and dragging her back. Her fury eventually subsided and, when Kipkirwok let her go, Chemeli stood with her hands akimbo, snorting like a donkey.

A twinkle rose in Wangari’s eyes. Refusing to feel pain and ignoring her bleeding head, she stood straight. She let out a sound that somewhat resembled a laugh and began singing again.

We left happy,

We will return happy,

Our journey was easy,

Getting there and back…

“I have said to stop singing that song. Stop singing it right now,” screamed Chemeli, her voice choked with tears. “And you are still singing, eh? Kumanina wewe. Today you will know why cows do not give birth to twins on Christmas.”

Then began the whole business again—Kipkirwok’s hands encircling Chemeli’s waist—only that this time she was stronger and more furious and kept skidding him across the floor as she pounded her fists at Wangari.

“My people, what is going on here?” a heavy bass voice asked. Kiptum stood in the doorway.

“It is nothing,” answered Kipkirwok, still holding onto Chemeli’s waist.

“What do you mean there is nothing? You guys are shouting as if the shop is on fire. Now why are you holding onto her waist? Let her talk.”

Chemeli spat on Wangari who, squeezed against the wall, tried to cover herself with her torn sweater.

“Get that demon out of our lives.”

Kiptum grew larger as he looked at Wangari. The strong muscles beneath his shoulders became more apparent.

“It is you again. Did I not tell you not to come here again?”

His eyes were popping. Wangari curled her shoulders and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.

“Get up,” he pulled her up with her sweater, tightening it round her bony frame.

“I said…”

A massive slap resounded across the room.

“never come back…”

Another sound—a slap or a fist blow.

“to this place…”

This time a slap missed her face but hit on something hard instead.

“again.”

There was a pause after that, everyone breathing in patterns which did not match, with Kipkirwok noticing the crowd staring through the windows and the door. Then Wangari let out a scream like that of a tortured genie and ran out the door, the crowd parting to let her through. Kipkirwok felt as if his faculties had been lacerated. He wanted to say something but only a ragged sound left his mouth. The floor rose steadily to meet his face.

*

Kipkirwok had to find Wangari. He had to; otherwise, he thought he would die. He asked strangers—people who walked about pushing mikokoteni and never failed to recognize a face in Iten. He threshed through thick grass and felt as if the air had turned into a viscous gel.

Wangari stood next to the wall of a dilapidated mud house whose iron roofing had rusted beyond comprehension. It was surrounded by thick bushes tangled with vines and trees that extended their branches towards it, hiding it from view.

Kipkirwok walked towards her, afraid she would run away like a wild cat, but she kept still. The morning sunlight had dripped around her like syrup. She had purple bruises all over her face, like flowers about to bloom.

“You need to go back to Limuru. Go back to your uncle. I have transport for you.”

Wangari breathed in deeply and her eyes became sorrowful. Kipkirwok hoped she would cry for then he would hold her, rock her. It would change everything.

“I have money.”

She spat. The saliva did not volley out as she had intended but dripped down her lip. She wiped it with the edge of her sweater sleeve.

“If you were a man, Tala, you would take me to your place and keep me in your house. You would feed me and I would grow fat. But you are weak. You are just like a girl. At least the men who burnt my house were men.”

“Please just pack so that I can take you to the stage. There are flowers in Limuru waiting for you, flowers white and entrancing. They curl when it is dark and spread when the sun is out. My grandmother told me about them. They are called—”

“There was a baby.” She did not sob but the sound that came out of her was like a tremor. “There was a baby. I remember his cries. They say that I am mad and say that I say things that make no sense—”

“Wangari, let me just take you home. It is the least I could do—”

“I would have raised him up to be a killer. Just like other sons kill for their mothers, he would kill for me—”

“Beat me up Wangari, take that stone and hurl it into my head. Take out your sorrow on me—”

“I would feed him with milk, fish and beans to make his bones strong, force out strong muscles from his shoulders…”

Kipkirwok pulled out a few thousand-shilling notes from his pocket. Wangari glanced at the notes and the slight movement at the corner of her mouth was almost like a smile. He realized that she knew his intention, that he could no longer bear to look at her. Her leaving would wipe the slate clean, leaving space for fresh scripts, quiet mornings of riding to work, sincere smiles to patients who walked into his pharmacy. He knew she would not take the money but he could not put it back in his pocket, so he hurled it at her feet and turned around to walk away.

That was when Wangari sang, and her voice rose up with the air and the gliding movements of the trees. There was no mockery in her voice, no intention to leave a reminder, yet her song embedded itself in every particle around her, twisting itself around every fiber of Kipkirwok’s being.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all


Kiprop Kimutai (@tirobon) is a writer haunted constantly by his ancestors who demand to have their stories written. He was the second runner-up for the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Project 2012/13 and his novel, “The Water Spirits”, will be published in 2014. He has also attended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina workshop in 2013. He periodically contributes feature stories to the Daily Nation, and keeps sanity by regular jogging and climbing. His favourite author is John Steinbeck and sometimes fantasizes, that he too, was born in Salinas Valley California.

One thought on “THE GENTLE MAN FROM ITEN by Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

  1. Pingback: Sketch of a Bald Woman in the Semi-Nude and Other Stories | Jalada

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