Papa told me it was our divine duty to imagine and create. And he loved to repeat himself, as though he immediately forgot what he told you just when he said it. He would click and click, watching me. In my moments of meditation, I sat in my studio like a lazy skunk, ignoring the voices. He never knew it was the lining of the green mountains surrounding Imaginum I thought about all the time, the mystical universe that lay beyond them.
I looked like a stupid statue sometimes, with that sustained gaze into the deep blue of the skyline. And the words of Papa returned to me over and over. You are made for more, son. Don’t just sit there like a caged chimpanzee. And Hell, I thought. But for Papa’s sake I tried a million times to sit at my desk, to immerse myself in the joys of creating myth and such shit on the page.
Every night little noises of Papa’s thoughts rose through the walls from the basement and kept me awake. It was the tap of his pen on the wooden desk, the stamp of his feet ascending the stairs for a midnight coffee, the cough that came in sudden persistent bouts. Once in a while he laughed, on his own.
Each time I tried the same I found myself abandoning the studio and the empty pages on the table. I followed the small trail at the back of the house to where I hid my bicycle. Sometimes it was at one in the morning. I then rode like a maniac, looking back as though someone was chasing me. I would only stop and breathe when I arrived at the three thousand foot tall tower, which I climbed using the light speed lifts with stolen passwords and astronaut suits. From the very top, surrounded by bullet-proof crystal clear glass, I could see all of Imaginum, a city that stretched a thousand miles each direction.
The alleyways and cobbled streets. Cathedrals that stood distinct with crosses illuminating them with bluish white light. A light that grew brighter when looked at. A river ran from the north and meandered through the middle of the city to form an estuary in the southwestern sections. The boat men still cast their nets, and outside resorts bonfires were lit, men dancing around them. The concrete jungle was mostly in Nobel Central where the mayor’s office stood. There were many interspersed gardens of mythical beauty, growing the roses, almonds, lilies, daisies and other delicate plants that ran instinct in the other world where beauty and art were banned.
It was the revolving lights in the distance that made me come to that tower. We were never allowed to go near them. I desperately longed to be there. Close to the outer edge of the city. They shone bright like miniature suns, blinding anyone that went near these outer walls. Only a handful of people knew what that wall was made of. But stories went around. Saying it was made of impenetrable glass a hundred meters in width. The secure world that fed illusions to those outside, kept Imaginum invisible. For outsiders Imaginum could be anywhere. They searched the depths of the Sahara, under the Indian Ocean, and sent satellites even in the sky.
I sat there for hours, day and day after, watching and imagining what lay across the margins. I did not know that a girl was always looking from her balcony with binoculars. And inspired by what seemed a legitimate ambition, fell in love with me.
Her name was Maya.
Sometimes when I sat in the tower, I closed my eyes and declared she was mine. She would not stop making endless jokes about my large eyes, saying that they looked as though they would pop out, staring into nothing so infinitely. I did not comment about her rather long arms. I liked to concentrate on the suppleness of her perfect lips, the way her voice rose in a seductive tone, the craft of her lies that engulfed your being like a witch’s charm.
“What are you always staring at, out there?” she asked once.
“The world,” I said.
She smiled, as she always did, and mumbled something.
“What?” I asked, moving closer.
“The world.” she said, “the dying world, as the old people tell us, the dying world.”
And she pecked me on the cheek.
Maya’s house was a mile away from mine, living along Fadhili Williams Street, just off the Daudi Kabaka road. To get there I needed to take the bus, which never really operated past midnight.
I jumped from my window one night and sneaked out into an empty street. Achebe Estate in the city of Imaginum looked like a habitation of Ghosts at that hour. A night runner walked with his bare ass hunched backwards and danced in the middle of the dimly lit Laing Street. Trees whispered in the wind. Footsteps followed me in that low light. They stopped when I stopped. Ghosts occasionally swayed in the wind and called out my name. A gasp escaped me. I walked faster, thinking hard.
It was twelve minutes past one. Beyond me lay the empty street. Behind me was our house where Papa sat downstairs. He always unconsciously touched his long white beard. He once said he could recreate even the sound of our breathing in his tales. Sometimes he thought out loud, wondering what we could be if we were still the outspoken citizens of the other world. He liked to talk about the citizens of Nairobi and their undying love of twitter rants, but for some reason his eyes dropped when he spoke about the history of the gays of Kampala.
Papa’s shame is borne of the secret history of President Taguka, for which he was the primary scholar and chronicler. Taguka led a continent-wide assault on demonic practices and lynched men like Papa’s great grandfather. When he wrote Taguka, The Two Hundred Year Old History Of Shame, Papa broke down to an emotional wretch. He remembered his great grandfather as the man who started the revolution, a unified call that rose from the creative spirits of the nations. Men ready to die if only to free their imaginations. And all open minds joined in and went away to found Imaginum.
I found the journal in Papa’s chamber by chance. In it I read about my great grandfather. He lived at around AD 2015 when the city of Imaginum was still a dream.
He writes that technocrats were then consumed about Konza and other tech and science cities, “worlds built on the basis of a singular, noble idea.” An idea that was so brilliant that when it came to fruition the continent was the center of the world. Papa circles and circles grandpa’s description of the hanging gardens and manmade lakes built in the leader’s homes, as if he wanted to force bits of that history into eternal forgetfulness.
They sat in their offices and demanded that if Karanja married Mutiso they should be hanged. If Maria was found in Shiru’s house sitting on the sofa and eating cornflakes as they watched boring Mexican soaps and petted each other’s hair they should be imprisoned for life. It seemed like something that would be borne of a superior imagination, one able to create and recreate dystopia and add some bile into it.
Maya’s house appeared in the distance. My feet hurt from all the walking; the cold sent tiny shivers up my body. Upstairs, a single room was lit and faint piano keys floated out into a street lined with trees that stood still in that windless night. It filled the dreams of sleeping men with beautiful music. I stood there for a moment, looking back and forth. What would a fifteen-year- old boy, in the middle of the night, do to speak to a thirteen-year-old sleeping girl at one in the morning? Knock the damn front door?
In the mornings when I came up here I needed only go up the terrace and usher myself in if the front door was open. I would shout my greetings to Maya’s mama, Mrs. Rishi. Then I would run upstairs to her room. Sometimes I would stop by the music room and say hello to Papa Rishi. He smiled, mostly. But exuded a kind of disconnect, lost into his world, eager to make the music we exported to the outer world. His long and firm fingers were perpetually on the keys and his ears open to the intricate combinations of sound and emotions. Sometimes Maya would be asleep, and once in a while I kissed her on the forehead, touched her hair, and gently woke her up. After a while she started to fake her sleep. She wanted to hear me slowly turn the doorknob, tiptoe to her bedside, watch her for a moment, and then kiss her forehead. One day I bent down to kiss her but instead tickled her. She screamed. I have never seen anyone so sensitive to tickling. She cringed to a self-hug, laughing, eyes welling. I drew closer.
“It’s ok, I’m sorry.” I whispered.
“What were you thinking, Nzomo, you naughty little fool?”
I smiled, “Why were you pretending to be asleep?”
“Because,” she regained her composure, looking away, “because I just, you know, just wanted you to kiss me.”
I looked at her. At her eyes that made me believe. That though we were told that books like the Bible and the Koran were fantastical tales of baseless myths, an untrue history, there must have been a truth about immortality. In her eyes there was the look of an eternal depth, like a vast sea that silently swallows everything into its infinite and blue mystery.
“Now, now, you man. Why are you staring at me like that?”
I raised my hand to her, felt the back of her neck, and pulled myself to her. The touch of her lips to mine made my body weak, transformed, illuminated. My conception of the world and my place in it changed. I felt a sudden release of imaginative force, the realization that beyond me lay incredible depths of joy. Things that could only be experienced if shared.
“Oh my God!”
“If mum opens that door to this…”
In an almost unbelievable coincidence the door opened. Her mum stood there. In her hands was a breakfast tray. The sweet aroma of coffee filled the room. My heart was racing.
“There is a reason we are in the city of Imaginum,” Mrs. Rishi said. “We believe that thought is superior to power and control. We teach you to overcome shame and guilt by being right in your mind. What is the sin in kissing? You hide it like it is something disgusting.”
She sat beside Maya on the bed. I rose.
“No, sit back down Nzomo.”
I sat back, still breathing heavily.
Mrs. Rishi’s voice remained firm, as she told us that there is no sin in doing that which causes the purest of feelings. She did not seem to think that we would not understand. She was blunt and forward about it, like teaching ABCs to kindergarten kids. Her hands held the coffee pot firm, and she poured it like she was performing a ritual, talking with a voice that was softer than her usual self.
“We make love,” she said, “to experience the depths of the depths of our spiritual beings.”
Her voice attained a different tone, emphasizing that love must be free and given in light of the greatest freedom. She loved the idea of truth and again and again she repeated that every lover must hold true to the act.
“They must decide for themselves what they want,” she said, “why they want it, and follow the hearts that guide them in purity.”
She still did not look at us directly.
“Mum,” Maya said.
Mrs. Rishi moved closer to Maya, whispering the word “darling,” touching her hair as she looked into the girl’s face, searching as if to discover something new.
“Listen, Maya. You are but twelve, and so a child.”
“No I’m not a child mama.”
“I can tell you for sure that only regret will follow an act done at your age,” Mrs. Rishi said, as though she did not hear her protest.
“Your mind, Maya, and your soul have not risen to the point of maturity. That which you do, the experience of it, will only be a sensation of the flesh. When thoughts mature and your soul longs for a deeper meaning in experience, you will look back and regret. I hold nothing from you. But consider my words.”
“Mrs. Rishi, it just happened.” I said. “We –”
“I know. I’ll tell you something children. We, Rishi and I, lived in Kinshasa before moving to the city of Imaginum. When my mother found me kissing your father in her backyard, she shot him on the leg. He has limped since then. The war had torn her soul to pieces. She had watched my little sister murdered. She had been thrown into a kitchen house and was assaulted by twelve men. And now she considered this another attempt at destroying the only purity that was left, me.”
“Listen, Maya. The time will be right for an experience so pure you will mingle with the stars while at it.”
My heart rose in longing for that moment. The three of us sat there, talking about the beauty of Imaginum. I recall everything she said about Nairobi, Kinshasa, and all other cities she had followed Rishi in his continent-wide tours. Papa says that all of them were now advanced cities but lacked soul. You know, he says, beautifully wrapped skeletons, skeletons and nothing but skeletons. Since when did a city require a soul? I wouldn’t ask Papa for details, he is like a floodgate when asked for information. I longed even more to be able to go there and see for myself. I would be a hero to all little beings in Imaginum that had been born here and never needed to explore. It became like a disease, this incurable desire to go beyond, to even see just what the outer walls of the city looked like, what made them produce that blinding light.
Maya wanted it more.
Round the house at the shed was a ladder that I could climb up Maya’s room. Her phone was off and I could not get her otherwise. Together, we would make history tonight. She had said she knew how. I could see her tucked beneath her blankets when I climbed up the window. I knocked lightly but she did not turn. The light in the hall came on. The music stopped. I listened.
“Come to bed honey,” Mrs. Rishi shouted from the hallway, “you will complete that thing in the morning.”
“But I have to record all this and have it ready by ten.” Rishi’s voice was soft but audible. “I got a message saying that if we do not export any music to Lagos the Mayor will have no choice but to attack the city of Imaginum. He will capture some of the best creative minds before destroying the rest of the city.”
“That’s bullshit,” Mrs. Rishi said. “They have their computers, let them generate whatever music they want from them.”
“Computers cannot create, for God’s sake. Even in the least they have to be fed with information. They need the minds of men, and the minds of men must be creative.”
“Rishi my love, not all creative people have escaped to Imaginum.”
She said it just the way mama used to say it, with a casual tone as though it meant nothing. And Papa, with his customary zeal to narrate, had gone on to tell about the gory details of how all artists who didn’t make it to Imaginum at the beginning were rounded up and shot. And, how, only too late, the cities out there, Cape-town, Blantyre, Nairobi, and others found themselves starving for original works of art. “Nearly everything they have,” Papa had said, “was imported from the west.” Mr. Rishi, on the other hand, did not indulge our ears with this history. Perhaps something more pressing was on his mind. Soon, I heard him say, “There’s some bad news.”
A door opened, and footsteps ran up the corridor.
“After a hundred and fifty years of searching, they have finally been able to navigate our security system and have found the location of Imaginum.”
“But how? Everyone that comes in is screened for years before entry, and no one has ever gone out. Our security systems are the greatest ever imagined. We are on earth but no one has ever found where we are located. It took the finest minds and a hundred years of more work to imagine and bring to effect the walls that surround us, that make this city invisible to their world. And knowing our location is not enough, you know that.”
“I know, and please stop shouting.”
“What are you talking about Rishi?”
“Come, I’ll show you.”
Suddenly Maya’s bedroom door opened. The lights came on. I jumped down the ladder in fear that they would think me an obsessed pervert. On the ground my feet landed on something crude. They were scratched so bad I let out a scream. Someone knocked a door open and banged it closed. Uneven footsteps ran down the wooden staircase. I rose and tried to run, but the pain was so sharp I fell to the ground and bit my tongue not to scream some more.
Papa Rishi flashed his torch on my face.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to…I came to see, see Maya.”
He grabbed my hand, limped his way, leading me back to the house. Could he not see that I was in deep pain? Mrs. Rishi, the single most sensitive person in the universe, did not even seem to notice me. She prodded Rishi, dragging him by the hand and leading him to the kitchen. She attempted to be level headed, trying to calm herself and speak in low tones, but it all spilled out as a scream.
“Where is Maya?”
Maya? I had seen Maya on her bed when I climbed up the ladder. She was there, asleep.
“Calm down,” Rishi said. “Calm down.”
“Stop telling me to calm down,” Mrs. Rishi shouted. “Where is our daughter?”
“She went away.”
“What do you mean she went away? And what the heck were you thinking piling pillows on her bed instead of telling me she is gone?”
Mrs. Rishi was now seated on a small plastic stool in the kitchen. She looked up at him with tearful eyes.
“Just tell me where my daughter is,” she said.
“She escaped Imaginum.”
I rose. I was no longer thinking about my numbing ache. How could Maya do this? We were partners; we were supposed to do it together.
“When?” I rushed into the kitchen asking, “when?”
Mrs. Rishi rose and came towards me. She breathed her words into me.
“Did you know about this? What are you even doing out here in the middle of the night?”
“When did Maya leave?”
Mrs. Rishi lifted her hand and swung it toward me. When it struck my face, my head rolled and twinkling lights filled the air around me. Her hand seemed to possess a sinister life of its own, an incomparable strength.
“Nzomo, I asked you a question,” Mrs. Rishi screamed over me. “Did you know that Maya was leaving?”
“Yes. We, we were supposed to, supposed to, escape together.” I barely knew what I was saying. “We planned to escape – no visit Nairobi because she said that was the nearest city.”
“Who the heck told her that?” Mrs. Rishi continued screaming. “Only twelve elders know where we are in the globe. Not even the best among us have been able to figure it out because of the security systems in place. How could Maya even think that we are near Nairobi?”
Rishi looked at his wife for a moment. He then looked away. His guilt seemed to weigh him down. I thought Mrs. Rishi would pounce on him like a furious cat. But she remained motionless for a moment, glaring at him. Then she began to descend, slowly and slowly till she sat on the tiled floor. Rishi moved towards her and tried to help her up. She pushed him away and soon she was up on her own. She went out into the street, sobbing. He followed her, calling her back.
“Don’t call me you traitor,” she shouted, “You have betrayed the last remaining bit of humanity. Your father isn’t even dead a year and you have insulted the trust laid on you. I am ashamed to even think that this city once looked at you as among its finest. I curse the day they even thought of giving you your father’s role as an elder.”
“Darling please.” He reached out and held her.
“Let go of me.” Mrs. Rishi pushed her husband away, “I am ashamed to even call myself your wife.”
Rishi tried to hold her again. She screamed even louder. Lights were coming on one by one across the street. People were emerging from their houses. A crowd was drawing near the enraged woman. The siren sounded and the city mayor, the leader of the council of elders, appeared down the street in his unmistakable car, painted a disgusting gold all over, only bits of its wheels blue.
The mayor’s voice was a sharp shrill when he ordered Rishi arrested. Rishi was locked up in a pick-up car with cages and paraded down to a nearby city square. News reached every corner of the city. Imaginum was under threat.
From the police car Rishi shouted: “She is my daughter. Barely a teenager. I was teaching her the truth. I told her who we are and where we are. I did not know what was in her mind.”
And the live-stream echoed his voice into every single inch of the city.
They mayor fumed, “You fail us by exposing our security system to an untrained mind. She has launched herself to the outside world through our export and imports channel. She is in Lagos. The mayor there demands that we must surrender ourselves and offer back our creativity to the control of states.”
“No. No. No,” screamed a thousand voices.
“They undermined and killed us when we lived among them.” The Mayor’s voice rose. “Now they can’t live without us. They crave for our creative minds. To tame and control.”
“Noooo.” The voices rose like a wave, “no, no, no.”
“The Americans have refused to offer their technology to find a city they call a myth. The French and the Britons have offered scientific examination of the girl’s mind. The Africans are marshalling an army.”
The mayor was contemplative for a moment, his face multiplied a million times in all manner of broadcast screens. “There is no immediate solution at hand,” he said. The city had to change the system and lock out Maya’s mind from possible access. If she remembered she would remember only that which was. If they searched it they would find that which now had changed. And they would see nothing.
Maya would be lost to Imaginum. She would be a lab rat. She would be lost to me. I was responsible for her being laid out on the table of a lab in London, a hundred wires sunk into her body and connected to silly machines.
“Why is it that the export channels never provided a link for their science to find Imaginum?” I whispered to myself. “How is it only through her mind?”
“Because,” I turned to see Papa beside me, “because nothing has paralleled imagination. God created out of imagination. Science proved only the product. If imagination was never there nothing would be, you hear, son, nothing.”
“What must we do Papa?” I touched his hand. “If we do not save Imaginum everyone will be made a slave, and the city will be destroyed. If we do not do something for Maya she will be lost to us forever. I don’t know what to do Papa. I planted the idea into her head.”
Papa took me by the hand and led me away from the surging crowd. The mayor’s voice rose through the city, broadcast on every radio channel and every television station. We found a moment of peace down by the riverbank. I sat with Papa, listening to the flow of the water and the occasional loud rings of the loudspeakers from the city square.
“We made this possible through imagination, you hear, imagination,” Papa said. “For two hundred years no science, no military might, no authority, has ever defeated imagination. Only suppressed it. No one can defeat Imaginum. Only Imaginum can bow to defeat. What I hear back there is fear, and fear is the only thing that will obliterate imagination. Son, Maya is not dead to you.”
“What Papa? You expect me to just imagine and everything will be ok, back to normal?”
“What you do not know, son, is that I am an elder. And there is only one way out of Imaginum, only one key that opens the screen that shields us from visibility from the outer world.”
“What is it Papa?”
He opened his bag and pulled out a writing pad. He then gave me a pencil and rubber. He looked at me and smiled.
“What Papa. This has nothing in it.”
“You have seven days.” Papa said. “Make it five so it can be proofread and printed. We need to make a copy for the queen of England.”
Papa was gone from me for two days. I could think of nothing to do with the book. I could burn it, throw it away, or exchange it for a dime. But Papa wanted me to write something in it. And my mind was blank. So I wrote about the streets and the world of Imaginum. I described the city and its people. I wrote about the elders, about little shared moments with Maya. Every little truth I knew about myself and my world. I stayed in Papa’s study for two days without a break. When he came down I was asleep on the desk, saliva drooling on the writing pad.
“What did you write?”
“I know you want me to tell you I imagined about Jupiter and shit, but I just wrote about myself and Maya.”
“What do you mean perfect, Papa?”
“It’s going to print immediately after I edit and describe the export and imports channel.”
Three days after the little book was out, a war plane landed in the Imaginum airport. Then the mayor immediately switched the channel and the security system was changed. It was reported that the other planes, which had been following that plane into the city and started to fly towards it, found nothing but a barren patch of land, falling victim to even more advanced illusions.
The pilot of the first plane later told me he had never seen anything so beautiful; he was overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia. Everything that was destroyed in his world lay here in iconic stature, the structures of museums and walled cathedrals. He had seen the open spaces of the parks. He marveled at the combination of the woodlands, meadows, ponds, and streams in their manmade glory. He was so taken by Imaginum he forgot he was in a war. It evoked in him that tender feeling of entering the core of a real-life fairy tale, and he could not stop saying so. The four soldiers with him put their guns aside, stepped down and kissed the earth.
The pilot took Maya by the hand and escorted her down the military chopper. She saw me from the distance, and ran towards me.
“They were too greedy,” she said to me. “They wanted you alive and I told them only I could identify the source of such powerful literature. They wanted more, so they wanted you captured.”
I held her hand.
“You escaped,” I said, smiling.
She hugged and kissed me.
“Yes,” she laughed.
“You went alone.”
“Yes. Girls in Lagos lie to boys all the time. I hear in Nairobi they are worse.”
She ran off to embrace her mother.
Moses Kilolo (@moses_kilolo) is the managing editor of Jalada, a pan-African writers’ collective. He lives and works in Nairobi, from where he also runs the affairs of the collective. His fiction and poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in Kwani?, Story Moja and Poetry Portion, among others.