My addictions often look like my mother. I am three years old and they are holding me away from her. They are saying my weak eyes will be the reason my father won’t make it back. I am five and in my dreams my father is running. Away. Almost as if something in my direction is chasing him. I am seven and my father comes to steal me away. I am a confusion growing like a cancer in the head inside my head. My mother is a sorrowful flower garden full of gardenias no one is allowed to pick. My sister is a dozen prayers knitted together from the gardenias inside my mother’s head. She is the reason our pastor won’t let us into church anymore. She is the reason our prayers are stuck to the ceiling. We are a montage of otherness.
It is 1998 and minding our own business is what my sister and I do best. We are hopscotch, hide-and-seek kids. We are adventurous, searching, finding. We are storytellers, composers, writers and dreamers. We are five and twelve years of age and my golden bush of curls runs all the way down my spine and sometimes I am called muzungu. I have come to love this alienating name. I have come to associate it with betterness. Otherness.
My father despises it. He says it gives him nightmares he would not talk about in the brightest of lights. We believe him. There are some things that happen in the darkness of our house in spaces that no light is ever supposed to enter. There was a secret once that lurked in the floorboards of our house. On my fifteenth birthday it grew wings and flew out of my parent’s room with such violence that there was an earthquake within our minds and a tremor within the palms of our hands.
Once upon a time, I am unborn. Uncreated. And my mother has not conceived. She is married two years and the in-laws are talking. They are demanding their mahari back because they were sold “damaged goods”. My mother works as the personal assistant to the white man living at the bottom of their street. Mr. Aspen they called him. My father is the man people refer to as teacher. I have never known him to teach. But he is a learning man.
My mother is not a small woman. She is a mountain that moves things. On other days, she is a volcano. Erupting. Setting things and people on fire without meaning to. My grandmother says that’s what happened that night at Mr. Aspen’s house. She says my mother set Mr. Aspen on fire and he forced his fire inside her until it turned to ashes and there was me. I was fifteen when I found this out. I knew nothing of forest fires then, knew nothing of how they could burn through whole generations of families. My father went looking for my mother that night. He found her sitting in the dark street, her face an army of fallen soldiers who even years after I was born had not risen.
I am five years old and my father is leaving. He does not know how to communicate with fallen soldiers. For four years he was trying to build victory into their spinal chords, attempting to bring life back to them. When I was born my father, knowing I was not his own, held me to his heart knowing I came from his own and therefore I was his regardless of how I came to be within her. He did all he could to make a queen of her, to rid her of the rags and dirt she thought she wore. I am five years old and my father has given up turning paupers and beggars into queens. He walks away in the night and my mother holds me away from her saying my weak eyes will be the reason he will not come back.
My father has been back for seven years. He is now a learning man. We are fourteen and seven years old. There is a knock on our living room door. My father’s shame stands in our doorway in the form of a ten-year-old boy. I am told he is my brother. This news is fed to us like leftovers thrown out to the dogs. We take no offence and receive this news with as much grace as one can muster at the age of fourteen. We have lived long enough to know when not to ask questions, when to disappear in a room full of awkwardness and potential death from falling secrets.
My mother is unaccustomed to falling secrets. Gravity possesses her and her body is a limp noodle. My father is a storm of fear and worry. My grandmother is the avalanche that started it. She is seventy-five and will not die without a son to carry her husband’s name. She is a detective that finds what she is looking for even if it may not exist. She is a wolf that locates the scent of her family’s seed in the city my father inhabited when he left us. She is the tidal wave that pours this awkward boy into our living room at an ungodly hour.
The boy that is my brother is a vessel of strangeness. Otherness maybe. We tiptoe around him for the next few days as he tiptoes around my mother, aware of the heaviness he has become in the semi-lightness of our house. The neighbors give him a name that means “bastard”. He likes that he has his own room, with his own bed. He likes that our bathroom contains a toilet that is not a hole in the ground. We know this because we see the look on his face. Also, he tells this to my younger sister. They have become friends. I conclude that he is the child of a woman with breast milk for ammunition and a welcoming vagina for armour. A struggling but perhaps a surviving woman.
A great man dies and my grandmother sits in the ashes of our second kitchen as she attempts to explain his greatness without breaking. The brother who wasn’t my brother until a few months ago points out that greatness needs no explaining. Somehow he dares to have a voice in a place that is still shifting and making room for his accommodation. He dares to assume the position of someone whose opinion, let alone whose existence, matters.
My seven-year-old sister punches him in the stomach and tells him to be quiet. At her age, she understands the holiness that outlines storytelling, great or small. She sits by the ashes with our grandmother, comfortable enough with discomfort. She will be the one to later narrate this story to her dolls and cats as she plays school with them.
My brother, who is now referred to as my brother, is friends with boys who sell little gods that come in sachets you can buy from someone who knows someone. I know this because I have seen them in the midst of their “temple” at the back of the schoolyard bent over in a tight circle as if in prayer. I should report this temple to my parents. I should tell them of the incense burnt there and the lack of godliness in my brother’s eyes as he attempts to make his way home.
But I do not say anything to my parents. He is a boy embodying intelligence. He is an aspiring mathematician. He is nice to my sister. Also, I am old enough to understand the dull ache that comes from being the one brick in the wall that does not fit right. I understand the need to be rebellious. The hunger for importance.
My sister walks home one day like falling crescendos. The music in her voice box is at an octave so low only my mother can hear. She holds her close to her chest and lets her body move to the sound of music only she can hear. I accidentally walk in on this dance and I immediately know a war has started at the meeting of my sister’s legs. Eleven months later my sister evolves into a poem I find underneath her pillow and confuse for a suicide note.
There are no pictures on the walls of our living room. My father says they look like bloodstains on our white walls and sins should never be put on display like that.
And so my brother isn’t really my brother.
He is a photo that we put down so the neighbours would not feel embarrassed when they come to borrow some sugar.
He is a full stop to a sentence no one has the courage to finish,
so it just hangs there.
My mother is a praying woman who understands that her eldest son is a preying man,
so she knows God will understand if she chooses to omit his name over prayers,
or if she chooses to kill him in conversations with the neighbourhood women.
I wear his shame like a loosely fitting maternity dress,
like abortions have been chasing me all my life.
And I have nothing but pictures of pregnancies that I cannot hang on walls to prove this.
And my youngest brother isn’t really my brother,
he looks like my father,
but so does my older brother.
I have known people to kill themselves over a bar of soap. I have known people to kill themselves with a bar of soap. The man next door attempts to fix leaking water pipes with his adulterous wife’s bra straps. The man next door to the man next door walks out to find the bra straps he once bought his mistress being tied to leaking water pipes. He confuses them for her tears. This is the randomness that is my mind.
My brother does not come home that night. Or the night after. He shows up two weeks later looking like one of the thieves on either side of the lord’s cross. He was away long enough for my mother to piece two and two together in order to get betrayal. She knows a thing or two about math, my mother.
My grandmother was the wind that shook the family tree that dropped my brother. Her need for a grandson has made a battlefield of our house. She walks along the shadows of our house at night and fakes illness that requires her to be asleep or alone in her room in the daytime. My father starts searching for gods that will explain life to him. I do not know if he ever found them. I doubt he ever did.
Yesterday the phone rings at three in the morning and I am in a dream where it is three o’clock and it is the devil’s hour and he is telling me of how my brother just died. I am awake and I am attempting life. I am attempting movement and questions. I am asking questions I know answers to, like “What do you mean my brother? Which brother?”
I attempt lighting a cigarette to calm the tremor within my fingers. I am failing. And I now understand how earthquakes can deactivate whole bodies of land. I am calling airlines to book the earliest possible flight back home. I am on a flight home.
I am home and my brother is not there to receive me. My sister is here instead. She appears to be a rock in a land where everything is sand or liquid or fluid. She hugs me tightly and I hold on maybe a second too long before I let go and throw my bags in the back of her car. No words have been said in the time it takes for me to appear at the airport and disappear into her car. I believe there are none. Until she parks at the side of the road and faces me.
“Dad killed Twazi. It was an accident. He was sneaking back into the house late at night and dad thought he was a thief.
Did they tell you how he died?”
“No. I did not ask. How did he die?”
“It was a panga. He was jumping in through the windows at the back. I figure he was out hanging with those sinful men at their temple. The alarm went off as soon as his head was in.
When dad got there he only saw a head and a body attempting to make its way into our house. So he took a panga and cut the head off. I didn’t even know we had a panga. But you know these house robbery things. They robbed us a couple of months ago. They scared the living daylights out of ma. Papa thought it was them coming back again.”
She does not wait for me to respond. She starts the car and we are driving through once familiar roads and streets and houses. I am silence. I am nothing that can make a sound. I am calculating, finding averages and percentages on the chances of my sister being wrong. I am a mathematician after all. I believe in the validity of numbers when it comes to assessing a situation.
In my parents’ house there is strangeness on top of the strangers and gossip-searchers disguised in the clothes of mourners. The media holds no respect for our family as they try to sell tabloids of the man that mistakes his own flesh and blood for a thief, and the radio anchor on the evening show wonders, “Is it not our flesh and blood that steal from us?” I turn off the radio and focus on the mourners that are mourning for a man they never knew.
I stumble upon an argument amongst the relatives. The question of where to bury Twazi’s body is somehow contingent on whether he died inside or outside the house. My father’s eldest brother argues that his head fell into the house and the head is the source of all functions, therefore he died inside. My father’s second eldest brother counters with “the heart is more important”, so he died outside because that is where his body fell.
My father’s silence is an argument he is having on his own.
“Inside-Outside. That is where he died. Inside-outside”, I say and evacuate the room.
I have dared to have a voice in the presence of men. I have dared to have an opinion. The silence that is their voices, or shock, follows me as I make my way to our little orchard at the back of the house to have a cigarette and maybe some peace of mind. Some numbers. Some calculations. Just anything solid and unchanging that I can rely on and hold on to.
The family pastor requires a member of the family to say a word or two before the burial. My grandmother surprises everyone including herself by hobbling up to the front of the room. Her voice box has been missing for years and we sit up in our seats anticipating the mimic of a mime. She turns to face the rest of the room and says, “There is something about hope that resembles a game of Russian roulette”, before she breaks into song.
We are sitting in my kitchen the night before your wedding. We’re a happy mess filled with wine and dreaming of the future you are going to have with a man no one understands why you love. Maybe you have had one too many. Maybe I have too. But it doesn’t matter.
You say to me, “Remember the night Twazi died?”
Of course I remember. No one forgets. But I do not say this to you. I nod my head instead.
You say, “Well, it was me. It wasn’t dad who killed him. It was me. It wasn’t an accident either. I hadn’t planned it. But I saw the opportunity and I took it.”
Lydia Kasese (@Ms_Lilly_Py ) is a Tanzanian poet in her early twenties. Having been raised in four other African countries, she is multilingual. She studied Industrial and Economic Sociology at the University of Rhodes. She currently works as a writer and journalist, among other things, in Dar es Salaam. Her Writivism mentor was Clifton Gachagua, and wrote On Skeletons and Tea and Inside-Outside under his guidance. Inside-Outside was longlisted for the 2014 Writivism Short Story Prize and included in Fire in the Night and other stories: the 2014 Writivism Annual Short Story Anthology.Follow @JaladaAfrica