“An Empty Wall” by Moses Kilolo
All you want to know is what I am looking for in my memories. You interrupt every moment, when I sit by myself on the rooftop to watch the expanse of the city. The dots of a million Nairobi lights. The number of souls that rest under roofs which have popped up and multiplied like the city is in demand for greater density. I want to map out the spiraling paths that exist in those spaces, from the posh rows of Garden Estate to the chaos of Githurai. Places where I once walked hand in hand with Tezra.
You have formed the habit of standing beside me. Sometimes you let the silence take us into different dimensions of nostalgia. You hand me a cigarette, I take it into my mouth and hold it without inhaling the smoke. I sit here in the silence because the more I listen to the emptiness of this city at half past one, the clearer I can hear Tezra’s voice and the better I can defeat its charm. If you must know, your own voice is not a welcome accompaniment to my reverie, nothing in its drab silliness tickles my fancy. My desire is that you go away, tear yourself from being me. But you won’t, because we both suffer the same insistence that veiled my eyes from the first moment Tezra stood at my balcony, and looked away from my intended kiss.
“Do you want me to walk you out?” she says.
It’s the only time that she has looked at me for many weeks now, past my large spectacles and into eyes that have grown dim even before I can attain the prime of my youth. Eight months have gone by, and she has learned to shift her eyes in different directions, as though holding my gaze was a task too heavy to bear. Today she looks at me, with a cold distance that pauses my heart. I walk away.
“I have never felt better being in an empty church before,” she says.
I do not know the shape of my own smiling face. Some people have said that it’s large and round, not dimpled as I would hope, but slightly distorted by my uneven teeth. A self-awareness that makes it hard for me to radiate warmth when I smile. I turn to the sacred images of the Catholic doctrine on the rounded wall of the empty church. The images of holy saints look down on me with love and hope, and I feel every crease that ever formed in my facial muscles relax. I place my hand against hers, the first time I feel their softness, and want to burst into an inexplicable joy. We had met only the month before, on a long bus ride with friends and strangers to the cold slopes of Mount Kenya for a camping trip. And no words of affection, or even lone moments, had been spend together then. And now that we find ourselves together in an empty church, the heart tells me its usual lie. She is the one. She has never felt better, she has said. And the silence that follows, which absorbs me into its depth, is interrupted by the footsteps of the cleaning lady, noise that is transformed into music when she turns and winks at me, squeezing my hand.
“You hung up!” she says.
There is five hundred miles between us. Like all Kenyans true to the cultural core, we have abandoned the city and gone upcountry for Christmas. We both go different directions, to those days when family is all there should be. She once made me consider a vegetarian life when she called Christmas season the days of massacre, one awaiting goats and chicken, poor creatures that must suffer the wrath of human appetite. We do not care much for the family gatherings. All we want is to talk, like we have done the past four months, an incessant part of our knowledge of each other. And she texts me, in sentences with semi colons followed by brackets, that her observant mother says its unhealthy, this tap tap tap on the phone even when she is eating. Even that hiding out in the veranda for voice conversations lasting hours on end. But we are like little dogs on heat, unleashed to destroy each other through the provisions of technology. WhatsApp is our favorite, and though she will never know, its ringtone has turned into an emoticon in my brain, a conditioned ring that brings her voice and touch even into the weary days of her absence.
Sometimes her network connectivity is awful, she says. And I have to wait minutes on end for my declarations and longings to reach her, neatly articulated in words that need no edits, coming straight from the bubbling core of my heart. I look at them later and knock my own head against my desk, on the pen and paper into which I have bled sentences that have become art. But she replies anyway, as though she is reading not the tiny markings on the small screen, but the careless and sexy whispers of my heart. I tell her I want to come to Turkana too, that I cannot bear to be without her. And she calms me as only she could, promising such a visit in the next October. And she reminds me it’s almost morning, on Christmas Eve. Safaricom must have rewarded us with a lot of bonus airtime, she comments amid a laugh that seems to come from elsewhere. Our usual disconnections, my rushed navigation of the Mpesa menu, purchase of more credit, has not happened tonight. I just do not tell her I’d bought a thousand shillings worth of airtime. And so she says the words, you hung up, her voice dropping in pitch, as my heart melts.
“This place is only safe for melancholic contemplations,” she says.
Only a few minutes ago, we had wondered why there was this lone shed by the edge of the Indian Ocean. Mombasa is our affordable alternative to where we really wanted to go. Her to her long anticipated trip back to the Cape of Good Hope and I to the fantasy world of Tangier and the Strait of Gibraltar. I’m not the Swim-across-the-Ocean-to-get-to-Europe-type-o-brother, and she knows. Morocco is the sweetest country name one could mention to me, like a secret code to my private happiness. I tell her often of the longings implanted in my young brain by Paul Bowles, my reading and rereading of The Sheltering Sky over a dozen times, words that made the desert an aching beauty. And yet here we are, in Mama Ngina beach after exploring Old Town, and she keeps looking up at that lone shed. It occupies a mysterious space, with a plume of smoke rising in defiance of its source and surrounding. It’s partly hidden by sea side mangroves. And when we get there we are met by a naked man, who immediately brandishes a panga at us, screaming slogans of the Mombasa Republican Council. But he never leaves his spot, like a barking dog that won’t bite. His shaking hand plays a perfect jig with his erect penis which is partly lathered with soap, an embarrassment he tries to cover with his left arm, and yet Tezra does not flinch.
Arnold, a boy we have picked up from Mama Ngina Drive and who now takes charge as a self-appointed tour guide, waxes lyrical in his near incomprehensible Kiswahili. The naked man calms down, all elongated parts of him deflating. The man goes back into his makeshift home by the sea, and returns only a few minutes later, a cigarette in his mouth, his still shivering body covered in a surprisingly well embroidered Kanga. Maybe I should have known her more than the two months before going on this trip with her. Neither the man, in his rage and nakedness, nor the weed he hands over to us, seems to scare her a bit. We sit on a rock, all four of us, and I watch her smoke a blunt. Her eyes never lose their focus on the large ship that grows ever smaller as it moves towards the horizon, carrying its Kenyan wealth to the lands of the East, soon to return with Chinese trinkets.
“I love you!” she says.
We have never learned the art of being together. We find easy interruptions necessary to the intensity of our seeking minds. And she rises to my desire with a passionate hunger to satisfy her own. Boyhood plays on the screen, the TV light dimly casting its shadows across the room. She sits on my laps and begins to move up and down, her head tilted backwards as the sighs escape her. She rides with urgency till she collapses on me and stays still for a long long minute. The silence of the midnight hour is not interrupted by the arrival of messages on her phone, it being on silent, but the flashing screen screams with intent. And when I turn and touch her she mumbles, I love you, as the words enter into the interwebs for an audience of one across the city.
“We are, now,” she says.
I have preserved the wall in front of my desk for a work of art, sewn in the imaginative genius of her soul. For the weeks that have gone by, when the spaces in her world are filled with responsibility and time for only one other, I stare at that wall and imagine the image that would have been. The first and only promise I took to heart. I think it could have been a tiger, or the headless body of a Kenyan soldier in the war against Alshabaab, things she never cared about. And yet sometimes I think it could have been a portrait, of the lover she had always felt for, the man whose eyes stare back at mine, with the half smile of calm victory when she says, we are, now. And the select memory of all the nights of flashing lights with her body next to mine become the narrative of my pain.
There you go again, interrupting me with the bullshit of chronology and the lament that my thoughts are like scattered phrases. That you are me does not force a timeline in memory. How can one know that what was said is what was meant, I ask you. And your response is silence. I go back to the intricate nuances I missed. I’ll reach into my pockets and pick out the blunt, and I will stare into the sleeping city in silence as the smoke rises from my mouth and nose, a fallacious elevation of the soul.
Read “Umduli Ongelalutho” Ilotshwe nguMoses Kilolo a Ndebele translation by Junior Moyo
Moses Kilolo (@MosesKilolo) 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.
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