“Scent of the Moonflower” by Sitawa Namwalie
It’s settled. Wednesday is the day I will poison my father. The book says it takes three whole days for the effects of Datura poisoning to wear off. Three whole days, ha!
When you think about it, Wednesday is the perfect day for a crime. For one, it’s a school day; I will remain innocent. This is between my father and me.
By now I know the tell-tale signs of his latest indiscretion. The women wear it like an oozing sore. This new one, Mama Melphena, is following the same well-trodden pattern.
Four months in and Mama Melphena has taken to invading my mother. She faces her with a full frontal threat. Hands on hips, eyes blazing, her face set in stone. Mama Melphena the quiet shadow has disappeared.
I can only guess at what my father whispers to her in exchange for her favours. What does he promise her to summon such an attitude?
I watch the tug-of-war between the two women who are now unlikely almost co-wives and wonder how this war will end.
But her fall came swiftly. It wasn’t at the hands of my mother, no. Let’s just say it was a daughter helping out her hapless mother, a mother who now spends her time moping and at the mercy of these two people, my father and Mama Melphena.
This is how she caused her own demise.
By the sixth month, a layer of dust had settled over the whole house as Mama Melphena did less and less. Clothes were no longer washed clean or ironed to perfection. Too often the rice was desiccated from being left too long on the stove. Mama Melphena was hooked, her eyes and face grew soft; her body gained in girth and became more and more lush by the day. She walked, swaying, expanding, filling up the space around her, as if she owned the whole universe.
My mother, in contrast, shrunk as she lost battle after battle. There were days when Mama Melphena refused to work. My mother did her work, even coming back early from her office to cook and clean. I still remember the first day my sister and I came home to find my mother washing clothes. My mother looked up from wringing a white bedsheet, her arms covered in soapsuds.
“Hello girls, take your uniforms off and bring them over to me,” she instructed.
“Mama why are you doing the washing? Where is Mama Melphena?” Rachel sounded older than her six years.
“That woman! Don’t mention her name; the fool claims she is sick.” Mama Melphena opened the door of her room and strolled out wrapped in a bright lesso, the picture of health; she looked at me with a small defiant smile, sat down on a chair and started to comb her hair.
After the washing, my mother cooked dinner. She knew she couldn’t fire Mama, my father wouldn’t allow it.
It wasn’t surprising that my mother walked around wearing herself inside out, in a state of acute embarrassment, raw and easily provoked. My very existence seemed to incite fits of anger; she lashed out at us, my sister Rachel and me.
By the eighth month, Mama Melphena had grown careless from winning. She turned her defiance on me.
“Mimi sijui, ulisa mama yako, kwani mimi ni mama yako?” She shrugs, her hard eyes looking through me as if I am not there. The fat under her chin has grown, it dangles when she moves. For the first time, I wonder how old she could be. Is she twenty-eight, thirty-eight or forty-eight? Mama Melphena stands with her hands crossed over her large bosom, as if she is the owner of things.
She walks off, mumbling under her breath about spoilt children and how they expect one woman to do everything for them and how it will break her and how it is too much.
“Mama Melphena, una sema nini? Nime kuliza swali, ile t-shirt yangu ya shule ya red iko wapi? I need it. I have a hockey match tomorrow. Don’t tell me you don’t know. You washed it!”
She ignores me and turns her mouth down in that tasting-sour-things grimace she usually reserves for my mother.
“Mama Melphena!” I shout from the chair in the dining room where I am doing my homework. I turn to watch her.
She twists her mouth even more, makes a hissing sound between her teeth, and leaves.
I watch her retreating bottom in the blue and white maid’s uniform, swaying, her feet slapping the floor softly in a careless shuffle. She no longer wears the blue uniform headscarf, preferring to expose her long hair, her best feature, neatly braided in corn-rows.
My parents were not married, there was no formal union. They didn’t know I knew the truth. The only thing mother could point to was a piece of paper, an affidavit, signed by a long deceased chief. That paper looked like their marriage, tattered, stuck together with yellowed peeling cello tape. My father had torn it in half, scrunched it and thrown it in the dustbin, once, in a fit of anger.
His hard, black lips uttered words meant to break my mother again and again.
“What a mistake I made, to stop that day!”
They were in the bedroom with the door closed. I stood with my ear pressed against the door. Silent, holding my breath. Sound seeped out of the crack between the hinge and the jamb.
My father had come home in a fury. I could tell from the controlled way he drove the car into the gate, forcing it in through the narrow gate with calibrated precision. The tyres crunching the gravel driveway warned me. It woke me up and I started my vigil. The determined clomping of his feet on the gravel magnified and reverberated in my brain against the silence of the night. I jumped when he started to bang on the door, demanding to be let in.
He never carried a key.
My bed ejected me and I found myself bumping into my mother in the corridor as she scurried to open the door, to let the monster into the house.
“What are you doing?” Her face quickly erased the look of horror it had worn when she first saw me.
“Go back to bed. Come on, it’s too late for you to be up.” Her hand gripped my shoulder.
The banging increased in tempo.
Bang, bang, bang! Bang, bang, bang!
I started to back away, turned and went back to the bedroom I shared with my sister who was fast asleep. As I climbed back into my bed, I looked at her and wished I too could sink into forgetfulness. I lay flat on my back, the blanket pulled over my head. My stomach churned.
It was going to be a long night.
Silence. He was eating now. I could see the familiar scene without being there.
She opens the door to let him in. He does not deign to acknowledge her, as he pushes his way into the house. She takes his briefcase and scurries like a rat to stash it away in their bedroom, then rushes back to boil water to make fresh steaming ugali. She warms the rest of the food for him. I can see him sitting there at the dining table, ignoring her trembling uncertainty.
“Is it OK? Not too much salt? I went to the market today, I found beautiful kunde, fresh and young. Not too stringy, is it?” He ignores her and goes on eating, elbows on the table. My father ate like an African, with zest. His teeth ground the smoked meat stew, the green kunde cooked in munyu mukherekha, the ugali made of freshly milled maize with its nutty flavour. For him this was food. He had not wavered from this tradition even as he climbed career ladders, encountered new worlds and new ways. His ugali had to be freshly made no matter the time of night. Silence. And then the scraping of a chair as he got up and clomped into the bedroom. My mother stayed behind to clean up and wash dishes. Another of my father’s rules, the dishes had to be washed clean, no waking up to ugly dishes left in the sink, with bits of food clinging to them. I don’t know why this was important. He was hardly ever at home.
It started as a muffled noise. It always did. And then loud bumps as though big heavy books were falling to the ground. I lay in bed, clutching the blanket over my head. The sounds from my parents’ bedroom escalated and even though it was all the way at the other end of the house, I could still hear them.
Boom. Muffled voices.
The slap of an open palm on bare skin. Chaa! UuuH! A strangled sound.
Fear. It felt as though a bed sheet was being twisted and wrung out in my stomach. Rachel stirs in her sleep, and mumbles incoherent words, as she often does.
The respite is short-lived.
Boom! A loud, sharp voice. A shout. “AAH! No!”
I jump back into my bed and cling to the blanket.
Silence. I strain to hear. What is he doing to her? It has stopped. Now I strain to hear through the silence. What is going on?
“Aaaah Nooo. Don’t, Nooo!”
“Are you telling me what to do? Are you telling me what to do?”
‘Walter, no, no, no.”
I waited; nothing, nothing. The silence stretched on, endless. Now I wanted the sounds to start again. Now what was going on?
More silence. I jumped out of bed, and stood stock still. I strained my ears, trying to hear what was going on in my parents’ bedroom. All I can hear is my sister’s even breathing. Hmmm, hmmm. More silence. I creep towards my parents’ door. I shuffle into the corridor. There is nothing but darkness.
My parent’s bedroom door bursts open, and my father stomps out, his breathing heavy, his eyes wild.
My mother scurries after him.
“Walter, no don’t leave, don’t walk away, come back here!”
I step back into my bedroom and close the door. I stand and listen to my mother’s running feet.
“Walter, no don’t leave, don’t walk away, come back here!”
The only time she spoke assertively seemed to be at times like this, when she seemed to be demanding that my father finish the job of beating her.
I sink to my knees on the floor. I stuff my fist into my mouth. Rock back and forth. When will it stop? The front door bangs shut. My mother begins to cry.
“Magda, has he gone?” I looked up to see Rachel standing over me.
It was that night. My mother retrieved the paper, when she thought no one was there to witness such a wretched act. She sat on the dining table, un-creased it and stuck the two uneven halves back together. She sat on the edge of their bed, after my father had stormed out. Her back hunched, her hands at work, gently straightening the paper, taking care not to hurt that paper.
The whole time I peeped through the corridor door. A silent bystander to this the latest act of wretchedness, which, like so many others, I should never have witnessed.
The things you need are always at hand. I am in the kitchen. The ingredients for making my Datura poison are laid out neatly along the black terrazzo kitchen counter. Two pairs of yellow plastic gloves provide maximum protection for my hands and the mask will prevent me from poisoning myself with any fumes that might escape as I make the poison. The exercise book with the instructions is propped up on the kitchen counter next to the mortar and pestle, three test-tubes, three pipettes, a small vial of methanol, a roll of clear plastic and rubber bands; all of which I borrowed from our well stocked school chemistry lab. Old newspapers and a sheet of black juala cover the counter. All the Internet sites were clear, the poison could be lethal and I didn’t want to kill anyone by accident, I just wanted to frighten Mama Melphena and my Dad.
I cut up the four moonflower blooms and placed them in the mortar. The intoxicating perfume fills the kitchen, quickly dispels as the flowers disintegrate under the pestle. I add one gram of Datura seeds to the flower mixture; I read somewhere the seeds multiply the poison’s potency. It is 11 pm; I am alone in the kitchen. The household is asleep, except for my nocturnal dad who will not be home until around 1 am.
I don’t know how he does it. He comes home way after midnight, more often than not drunk, almost every day of the week and still manages to be up early in the morning to get to work by 7 am. He must have the constitution of an elephant!
I stumbled on the poisonous properties of the moonflower quite unexpectedly during a history class at school. The potential of that beautiful flower came back to me soon after Mama Melphena brought her fight to me. As I made my plans over the next week, I smiled every time I thought of the effects of moonflower toxin ricocheting across the untidy mix of our life here at home.
For a whole week, I watched Mama Melphena swell with pride as she grew in confidence, refusing to take instructions from me and Rachel, who she sent off crying by refusing to wash her uniform without telling her and then forcing her to go to school in a dirty uniform. Gentle, sweet Rachel, who repeatedly won prizes for being the neatest girl at school, was distraught. That time, I watched Mama Melphena for so long, with my upper lip curled in such open disdain, that she became uncomfortable and asked me what my problem was.
“Nothing.” I replied.
“You children, I don’t know who you think you are. Too spoilt,” she adds.
“Are we spoilt like milk gone bad?” I replied.
Mama Melphena stared at me, her face twisted, and then stomped off, slippers slapping the ground.
My laughter whipped the air behind her.
History class was boring. The teacher, Mr. Odera, droned on like a bee about how old Africans disciplined their children as if I cared. I was trying not to fall asleep when I heard his customary signal as he veered off into the land of anecdotes.
“Truth is stranger than fiction!’’ Mr. Odera declared, putting down his notes, signalling that dry history had ended and a story worth staying awake for had begun.
“This one is the very true story about Brugmansia, also known variously as the moonflower or angel’s trumpet.”
I sat up, sensing a gem.
Mr. Odera got into his stride. “Brugmansia is a close relative of the highly poisonous Datura, nightshade, and the wholly edible tomato, peppers, potatoes and eggplants. Stranger than fiction, who says God doesn’t have a sense of humour!” he declared.
“But that’s not what’s interesting about this plant, it’s what people did and still do with it that makes it interesting. Some of you may have this plant in your gardens. It is quite beautiful. How many of you have it at home?”
Mr. Odera opened a book and showed us a picture of a small tree with beautiful hanging pure white trumpet flowers.
A forest of hands went up. I recognised the small tree that flowered in our garden. I loved to sit near the perfumed tree.
“How many of you have heard of the poison Scopolamine?”
No hands went up.
“Well Scopolamine is a toxin that packs a powerful punch. You find it in this beautiful moonflower, together with other poisons, atropine and hoscyamine.”
“And do you know what these poisons can do?” Mr. Odera asked. “They turn people into real life zombies!”
“Zombies? Zombies are not real, stop trying to kid us,” someone shouted from the back of the class, causing laughter and buzzing support.
“Relax, people,” Mr. Odera continued. “History points to this plant, which originates from South America, as the likely source of the Zombie story, but that is a faraway story. Let’s bring Brugmansia home, here to Africa.” Mr. Odera had changed approach again. He spoke in a loud stage whisper, and suddenly I was listening with my soul.
“Imagine a time long ago, when giants still roamed this part of the world. There is a boy. He is lazy. When other boys are waking up at the first light of dawn, this young boy is curled up suckling the sweet milk of sleep. His mother has grown tired of waking him every morning.
Even when he does wake up he drags himself around like a lazy fool. Out in the shamba, his job seems to be to avoid any form of exertion. Just imagine him. Throw your mind back to 100 years ago; it is early in the 19th century. A child is born and quickly learns how to survive. Not like today when children do nothing. His mother is desperate.”
Mr. Odera stopped and looked around the class as if looking for something. We stared back spell-bound.
“So now you have the picture of our young boy. Let’s call him, Wafula. You see in those days, there were very few people and each one was precious not just to their immediate parents but to their whole extended family, to their clan. Their birth was not a small joke, but a momentous event. Each one had to survive and here was this young boy threatening his own survival.
“This is where Brugmansia comes in. It was known as the drug of last resort. Wafula’s whole family decided to poison him to save him. So a renowned witchdoctor was brought, an auspicious day chosen and a ceremony held to hand Wafula to the ancestors. Only his ancestors could discipline him now that he had refused to heed all earthly warnings.”
As the story progressed, Mr. Odera, jumped in and became the story.
“On a dark night with no light from the moon, Wafula is woken from his deep blameless slumber and kidnapped by strong hands, masked faces and a humming discordant melody. He wails and cries out for his mother, for his father, for his brothers and sisters, calling each one by name, but no one heeds his cries. He is held down, as tough cords tie his hands and legs together. Hands lift him up in the air; place him on a warm back. A crowd of people invisible and visible at the same time surround him. Despite the darkness, the man and the crowd run swiftly through the sleeping village and deeper and deeper into a forest.
“Wafula bounces up and down as they run, shouting for help. At last they stop in a forest clearing surrounded on all sides by tall dense trees. Wafula is thrown to the ground. Terror attacks him in waves, his heart beats as if it will leap out of his chest, tall shadows loom in the dark, ebbing and flowing. He abandons hope and falls silent, waiting for death.
A voice speaks out of the shadows. It does not address Wafula. Something foul-smelling and even more foul tasting is poured down his throat. He chokes at the bitter poisonous taste of the liquid. Firm hands hold his mouth shut to stop him succeeding in his desperate desire to vomit.”
“What were they doing to him, sir?”
I looked up at Mr. Odera and watched him as he is pulled back from an engrossing journey.
“Let’s go back and see what they were doing and then you can judge. Shall we?” Mr Odera looks around the class as if waiting for consent.
“Where was I? Wafula has drunk the concoction. He is lying on the ground. He is conscious but not in this world. He is surrounded by shadows, different from the ones which kidnapped him.”
Speaking quickly at first, Mr. Odera returned to the interrupted rhythm of his story. “He notices that the dark night is no longer solid black. Streaks and arrows of light illuminate it. Wafula makes out many formless, morphing, shadows, surrounding him. He tries but his eyes cannot hold them and make them solid.
“He tries to stand but his legs are still tied; he ends up kneeling. The night hums and emits incessant whispers. At last he gathers the courage to speak.
‘Where am I?’ Wafula speaks into the shadows as he feels the worms of fear crawling all over him. He is afraid to move or speak. What’s happening to him? ‘Help!’ Is that him whimpering like a frightened animal? ‘Help, me, please help me!’ Silence.
‘Help me, mamayooo… help me, mayi’…Sound leaps and bounces off the darkness, reverberating back at him, mocking him.
A reedy voice speaks from nowhere. ‘Are you lazy?’
‘What?’ Wafula asks, although he has heard the question perfectly.
Another voice. ‘Why are you lazy?’
‘Hmmm?’ Again, Wafula is confused by the simple directness of the question.
‘Who does your work when you will not work?’ A female voice, high and fluty speaks.
‘Why do you think it’s Ok for you to be lazy?’ Yet another voice, this time deep liquid.
At last, here is a question he can engage beyond the earlier yes, no questions. Wafula is eager to please the voices. ‘I don’t think it’s OK to be lazy, it’s never OK to be lazy!’
‘Then stop.’ A pleasant melody of voices speak together.
An encounter like this with the spirit world was all it ever took. The child either got it or did not.” Mr. Odera ends his story and looks down at us.
“Aaaaaaaaaaah, Mr. Odera!” Several students protest the inconclusive end of the story.
I felt like a witch as I ground the seeds and flowers into a pulp against the rough grey stone of the mortar. And then, using a long stick, I scooped the dense dark pulp into one of the waiting test-tubes. I measured six ml of methanol with the pipette and squirted all of it into the test-tube. I followed the instructions I had written in my exercise book and shook the mixture, making sure nothing splashed out. After five minutes, I stopped shaking the test-tube and stood in the kitchen examining my handy work.
I listened to night sounds; the choir of furious barking dogs was loud and relentless. During the one hour I was in the kitchen, the barking faded and rose again, but never stopped. How did I normally sleep through such noise?
Pipes in the roof gurgled and hissed as air and water rushed through them. I was familiar with the sound of rats scurrying above me in the ceiling on the many nights I lay awake, unable to sleep as I listened to my parents fighting in their bedroom. A cricket chirped, inconsistently, falling silent and taking up its irritating song just when I thought it had gone away. Faraway traffic hooted and skidded in the distance; I imagined drunken fathers rushing home to aggravate their sleeping families.
I shook the test-tube some more. I looked at my watch; twenty minutes had elapsed since l had started making the extract. Slowly, the methanol turned a clear yellowish colour. I knew in three days the bitter poisonous taste would be almost eliminated. My concoction would be ready for use. Just on time.
“Magda, what are you doing? What is that you’re holding?” It was Rachel. Looking at her, I suddenly felt guilty. I turned to see my little sister standing barefoot in the doorway. Her demure white and pink nightdress grazed her ankles, her eyes bright and large in the moonlight streaming through the glass kitchen door.
“What are you doing, awake?” I asked.
“I’m thirsty, I need water,” she answered. Rachel walked into the kitchen and took in the counter-top with its carefully laid implements. “What is this? Why are these things here? What are you cooking so late at night?” She looked at me for answers.
“It’s my chemistry experiment, I forgot all about it, so I woke up to do it. We have to make a tincture, distilled from the common vegetation from our environment,” I added, knowing that the words I had chosen would be too complex for her to remember. “Pour yourself some water; I don’t want to touch anything with these gloves.” I held my hands up as I spoke. “Drink the water, go back to sleep, it’s really, late. You don’t want Dad to find you wandering around, do you?”
The threat worked. “Oh, no I don’t want to hear. I hope they won’t fight tonight.” She replied, her voice soft.
Rachel took a plastic cup from the cupboard where they were kept, poured herself water from the water jug and gulped it down.
“OK Magda, I’m finished,” she said, putting the cup into the sink.
“Please take me back to bed.” she implored. “I’m scared.” She looked up at me with her large luminous eyes.
“Oh, kid sis, I can’t just now, be brave. I have to finish this experiment and then I will come to bed.”
For two months I had watched. I had watched Mama Melphena and my father. Their comings and goings, their habits. At night I waited until my father came home, stopping myself from falling asleep and then following him, creeping down corridors, slipping into the darkness, I followed my father outside into the servant’s quarters. On cool nights, I hid behind walls. Their laughter goaded me. I avoided nights with the full moon, the shadows it cast longer than those of the sun would have given me away.
And I saw plenty. I saw their signals, found their routine; the habits Mama Melphena and my dad had formed to hide their liaison. Wednesday night was the one night of certainty, all others were opportunistic, occurring when fate allowed. The other certainty was the tea they drunk together in their facsimile of a relationship. I saw all of it, looking through cracks in windows, watching in broad daylight, listening to words that escaped and those formed intentionally. I watched week after week, disappointment in my father swelled, my anger grew into rage. I walked around my tongue clenched in my teeth.
On the Wednesday of the poisoning, I came home, extracted my tincture from its hiding place and used the hive of routine in the hours before the family retired to bed, to slip into Mama Melphena’s room in the servant quarter adjacent to the kitchen. Her small single bed was squashed up against the wall. A table with a green embroidered tablecloth sat next to the bed, whilst an old worn sofa discarded by my mother filled the rest of the room. I stood for a while taking it all in and the smell of paraffin and stale food which clung to the walls like a rude memory.
Cups, plates, a red thermos, pans and assorted utensils were neatly arraigned on an old wooden chest in a corner of the room. I took the thermos, opened it and from my small brown medicine bottle, poured one teaspoon of Datura extract into it. The dark liquid still had a hint of the smell of something noxious and intense. I closed the lid and quickly stepped out of the room and back into the bosom of my family.
I lay in bed racked with doubt. I was no longer sure I had taken the best approach. What if she found it? What if she decided to clean the thermos first before making tea, surely she would smell the whiff of evil and become suspicious. The Datura tea was so obviously a poison it was impossible to think of it as some accidental other thing. And then if they found it, my mother would be the obvious guilty party. My gentle, guileless, victim mother would become a victim for real, blamed for an action too big for her to contemplate. And then what would happen? I was haunted by visions of my mother being arrested, handcuffed and dragged to jail.
Morning. I sit up; anxiety gnaws at my insides like a rat chewing on a maize cob. I peer at my phone: 5 am. I feel cold. I lie back down, not wanting to do anything out of character. I pretend to sleep, waiting for someone to wake me.
6 am: nothing. I can’t hear the normal noises that usually accompany Mama Melphena as she goes about her morning chores; opening curtains, shuffling sandals, boiling water, metal hitting metal, hissing oil and the released smells of frying eggs and cooking porridge drifting into the bedroom, joining the effort to wake me up.
I grind my teeth. 6.10 am. Nothing. All I can hear is the even breathing of my sister Rachel, who is still deep asleep in the bed next to mine.
6.15 am. My mother’s bedroom door squeaks open, her feet resound in the anxious silence. The screeching curtains resist being pulled open. Light floods my room, chasing away the lingering night. I sit up.
“What’s going on, where is that woman? Where is the breakfast? I suppose she’s sick again.” My mother’s voice is loud.
I count slowly to ten and then, walk out to find my mother. “What’s up Mum?” I ask.
I look around me at the empty dining table. “Haiya, where is breakfast. It’s 6.20 am.” I start to worry I am being too precise.
But my mother is too preoccupied to notice. She has started to make breakfast, water for tea is boiling in the electric kettle, milk is on the stove, she carries mats and cups to set the table.
“Finish laying the table.” she says, “and then wake your sister and go get dressed. I have no idea where Mama Melphena is, but we can’t wait for her.”
Rachel walks into the kitchen, yawning.
“Mum, what’s up?” Rachel asks. “Why are you making breakfast?”
“Don’t worry about that, you just go get dressed, sweetie, let’s not be late”. My mother speaks to Rachel with the softness she keeps just for her, when her mood allows.
“Mama Melphena,” my mother’s voice is sharp and loud. “Mama Melphena,” she calls out again. No answer. “What are you doing?”
I stop to listen, pulling sound towards me, trying to hear what my mother is seeing. I pull on my red school sweater, finish dressing and rush back to my mother in the kitchen. My mother is standing at the kitchen door, looking outside into the dhobi.
I join her at the door. I am stopped by the sight of Mama Melphena standing with her back to us, in a corner in the dhobi. She is dressed in her dark blue night gown made of a heavy warm fabric. Her feet are bare and so is her head. Untidy braids stick up all over her head like feelers on an insect’s head.
She stretches her hand out, “come, come to me, my child. Come.”
She turns abruptly and lunges as if she is trying to catch something.
Now she is facing us. Her face is staring intently at something. She stops and reaches out again, this time with both arms outstretched.
I am looking for the tell-tale signs of my success. A sharp sound escapes; too late my hand tries to silence my mouth. Mama Melphena’s pupils are huge moons. I glance at my mother, but she has noticed nothing, she too is lost in the drama of the moment.
“Come, come, let me hold you, I just want to touch you, it’s been so long, so long. Omwana wange, to imagine I am seeing you again. After all this time. Oh you haven’t changed. My eyes, oh my eyes, my heart, oh my heart. Come, come to me, let me hold you just once, I promise I won’t hurt you.”
She stumbles forward towards something that only she can see.
My mother and I are watching her, transfixed.
“No! No!” Tawe! She screams. She backs off, slowly, her head is thrown back now, her body stiff. Her head dodges left then right, in a boxer’s feint.
“Aaaah, ina niuma, aaaaaaaaaaah, nyoka!” She screams. She trips on an uneven paving stone and falls heavily on her bum, shouting. She gets on her knees and hands and starts to crawl to the left with quick movements. “Aaaah, nyoka! Ita ni uma! Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!”
She jumps up and crouches head forward, hands outstretched. She is protecting herself from something, hopping left and right.
“Fisi!” She shouts. I feel sorry for her. “No, no, don’t say that. No,” she sinks to her knees, her face in her hands. “I did not leave you to die. No don’t say that.”
My mother approaches her. “Mama Melphena, what is it, what is happening?”
Mama Melphena backs away from my mother, horrified.
“No, no, my child, Josiah, my child, my heart, I did not leave you to die. No forgive your poor mother… Don’t say that. Forgive me, my child. The world is the way it is.”
She crouches on the bare cement floor and begins to sob. Her back is hunched.
My mother stops, her hand on her mouth. I feel guilty.
“Too late, too late, too late haaaaaaaaa, too late, nimechoka.” Mama Melphena begins to hum in a cracked low tone. “Hmmm, hmmmm, hm, hmmmmm! Too late, I arrived too late. I saw the light fade from your eyes. Too late, Josiah did you see me? Josiah, did you see me.”
“Mama Melphena ni nini?” My mother asks her again. But there is nothing to be perplexed about. Mama Melphena has been clear.
Mama Melphena’s only response is to sink down onto the cement floor and wail. “Aaaah!” she screams. Mama tries to console her.
I wonder if her son Josiah is still with her.
Rachel has joined us outside and is trying to control her giggling.
“What is wrong with her?” I ask. Mama Melphena is hunched in the corner of the dhobi quivering, blabbering and twitching.
I try not to laugh, but I can’t help myself. My sister too starts laughing. My mother joins in and we are soon lost, tears running down our faces.
My mother grabs hold of Mama Melphena from behind, under her arms and starts to drag her to her room.
“Magda, come and help me, we need to get her to her room, there is something not right here. Rachel go and have your breakfast, I know its looks funny, but there is something not right here, try and contain yourselves.”
I help my mother drag the terrified woman to her room. She is heavy, strong and fights us. We reach the stairs to her room.
“Hold her Magdalena; hold her while I open the door.” By now I have given up all efforts at being gentle. I hold onto her as if she were a sack of bucking potatoes. Pushing, sitting on her, pulling and sweating in my effort to keep her still.
“What the hell. What the hell. What……!” My mother shouts.
I let go of Mama Melphena, who scurries back to a corner in the Dhobi, and join my mother at the entrance. My father is sprawled on his back, on Mama Melphena’s bed, dead to the world, or just plain dead. He is covered by a green bed sheet; except for his left leg, which hangs naked off the bed.
“What is this?” My mother asks again. I follow her into the room and stand beside the bed, staring at my father.
“Have I killed my father?” The question hangs in the air, so loudly I am afraid I have spoken it.
“Go, go Magdalena, get out! You can’t see you father like this.”
I have never seen my mother so certain.
Sitawa Namwalie is a Kenyan poet, playwright, writer and performer. In 2008 she staged her first dramatised poetry show Cut off My Tongue, which was later published in 2009. Cut off my Tongue has toured several countries including, Kenya, the UK, Uganda and Rwanda. In 2010 Cut off my Tongue was selected by the first East African Sundance Lab. In 2011 her second show; Homecoming was performed in Nairobi. In 2014 she won Kenya’s Sanaa Theatre Awards for Best Spoken Word and Poetry for Silence is a Woman. Sitawa is based in Nairobi and works as an international consultant.
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