We lived in a small town. It should have been a pretty town, it had all the right colours. On most days the sky was azure, on most nights the stars were out. We had old oak and sycamore trees that grew by the roads. And every April, the Nandi flames planted along main street would bloom. We had a quaint railway office built by the British in 1900 on their way to Uganda.
And since it was a farming town, there was always corn or huge swaths of sugar cane plantations swaying in the breeze. But this were just parts, together the ugliness was total. The roads were unpaved and dusty, and the buildings tried hard to blend in with the orange-brown colour of the dust. Sometimes the industrial chimneys of the sugar factories spewed residue from burnt cane so that if you sat in one place for a while, you’d be covered in black snow.
There were no street lights, just a few high-powered glare lights that were placed on four ends of town to make it easier for the council askaris to kill stray dogs at night. The most exciting times were Christmas and election season. I loved Christmas especially, loved anticipating it all year long and badgering my mother for a dress.
I always wanted a white dress, the whitest they could find, with frothy lace and a cinched waist. It would be especially glamorous if it came with a wide brimmed hat and a delicate white purse that I could keep all my savings. And I wanted my hair to be straightened so that anyone who met me would ask my mother, is that her real hair? And I would have to let them pull at it and confirm their worst fear.
I loved that my father would bring a little pine tree in late November and we would decorate it with coloured tissue and since I was the best artist, I would draw baby Jesus and pin him to the top. Looking back, it was probably gaudy and this was especially emphasized by the purple seat covers my mother brought out every Christmas and the mismatched lace that covered much of the wall. But we didn’t care and the best thing about Christmas was anticipating it, because Christmas itself never lived to its expectation, not even once.
The first Christmas I remember was in 1996. My sister was born on Christmas eve so my mother wasn’t home and my father was not going to prepare a feast. We ate ugali and beef and recycled our 1995 Christmas clothes. That was the worst thing that could happen to you on Christmas; eating ugali and wearing last year’s clothes.
I disliked my younger sister for a while. She never cried and I thought I had taken her voice because of how much I wanted her to go away. But she was so small and her eyes were so dark and imploring and my mother dressed her in white dresses and her small feet were always bare. I loved her for a long time. I loved touching her feet, feeling the softness. My mother and I sang tender songs to her on lazy afternoons. And it would get so quiet in her eyes because she looked at us so intensely. She rarely smiled and when she died, all I could remember of her were her eye; a quiet storm.
I lived out every new year anticipating its end. It wasn’t that I didn’t have much fun before December, it was just that school got in the way of interesting escapades my friends and I planned. Our house was on a hill and on the valley below a river was meandering its way to Lake Victoria. My friends and I loved that river as though it was a mysterious friend that beckoned us with its waters to find more about it. I loved it especially.
When it was dark at night and I felt terrified in the abyss of my blindness, the steady confident flow of that river gave me a mooring that I could latch on to. Every Saturday we swam in that river, devised ingenious games that we could play the whole day. Small harmless snakes swam beside you and the reeds that grew by the banks hid flamboyant dragonflies.
It felt like our river and when we learnt in school that it fed the Nile, we made small papyrus boats that we hoped would reach Egypt. When we got home every evening we would be grey and shivering and my mother was always shocked when she saw me.
She would beat me before, but after my sister died she couldn’t do it anymore. I think it was because she felt guilty. The only time she ever really noticed me during those years was when I did something conspicuous. She must have felt bad, seeing me only in my garishness. With mother you have to be a bird of paradise, my older sister often intoned.
And my sister Aketh was that bird of paradise. Her body had an aerodynamic feel, as if it had been made to fly in the blue white African skies. Her circle of friends was big and felt like a secret society. They wore plaid shirts with sleeves too long, long tight skirts with thigh high slits paired with platform shoes and smoky eyes. Every Christmas after she turned sixteen she packed her bags and went camping with her friends in Naro Moru. She wasn’t home the Christmas our younger sister was born and when she came back and that delicate baby saw her beautiful face, she smiled for the first time.
Those years before I turned thirteen my mother’s presence was hazy. I felt like I saw her through frosted glass. My memories of her are rekindled by the objects she liked to wear. Small hoop earrings that glittered when she sat behind the sun, the kerchief that had fleshy frangipani on a green canvas which she tied in a simple knot behind her head, her perfume that you couldn’t smell unless you hugged her and her velvet eyes that saw everything and forgot it all. When those small green snakes swam beside me in the river, seeing them through the water hazy but distinct, felt like understanding her.
I liked talking to her about the first time she came to this town. She would smile then and I never tired of seeing that flash of teeth. “I came in 1985,” she would say. “Back then a passenger train passed here and I was in a second-class carriage. They served me hot scones and masala tea…”
“Where were you coming from?” I would ask.
“From Port Reitz. I had my first job out of college there. And I lived with my father. Have I told you that before? How wonderful it was to live with him? He was a cook before he retired. And he made me delicate pastries that he wouldn’t make when we went to the village.”
“How come you’ve never made them?”
“It’s hard to explain but it was something like a shell you found on a beach that you put on a windowsill or in glass bottle but didn’t look good anymore and so you return it to sea.”
“Was it nice living in Port Reitz?”
“It was beautiful. Our house was close to the sea, enveloped by palm fronds.”
“Was it a blue house or a green one? Was the roof thatched? How did it feel like sleeping by the edge of the sea?”
She would laugh then, a throaty laugh that had her tipping her head back. “You want to know everything, don’t you? It was pink and the roof was thatched and we had a Swahili bed that father had bought for me. He always slept on the floor.”
“He had grown up sleeping on the hard earth, sleeping in a bed felt like drowning to him. He said the sheets were the waves. The one time he tried, he woke up tangled. It was a beautiful place to live, hot and humid.”
“What work did you do in Port Reitz?”
“I worked in an Indian duka. They sold everything.”
“So why did you leave?”
“I met your father. Then I came here on a white and burgundy train, second class wearing my best dress and carrying my father’s beige suitcase that he had bought on hire purchase.”
“He gave it to you?”
“As a parting gift and he gave me that heavy cast iron kettle we use for tea every morning.”
“Did you like this town when you saw it?”
“No, I didn’t. It felt bare. I think it was because most trees had been cut and so it seemed endless and dusty. It felt like a place one should stay temporarily. But we got this house by the river and had you and your sister…”
“And now it’s beautiful?”
“But the river is not the sea,” I said one time and regretted it immediately. I could see it made her sad to hear that and so I never mentioned it in another recounting.
I thought she was sleeping when I saw her. It was a Saturday afternoon, the kind that was expansive and promised delight at every turn. I had had a full itinerary that day. Three hours of hopscotch, an hour of hunting down grasshoppers in tangled grass, we had opened a salon and plaited grass and added bright string to our hair. I’d watched two of my friends fight over a pebble. I had come home for lunch and after that we would have our grand finale, our swim in the river.
My mother was sitting on the veranda shucking corn. Our cat, Linda’s chapel, was curled at her feet. She looked up at me and smiled. Your lunch is on the table, she said. The linoleum was cool to my feet and the house was quiet. My father worked Saturdays. He was an agricultural officer and he visited farmers every weekend. My sister Aketh was with her friends. She was like a guest on a serious assignment and she showed up in the evenings and left in the morning as if she did not want to impose. So that house was sitting by itself, thinking things through and watching me.
I knew my baby sister was sleeping in a cot in my mother’s room, as quiet as the house. She never cried when she woke up, instead she would look around as if searching for something. The food was on the table. I uncovered the plate. Rice and beef stew. The steam, finally free, making a desultory trail to the ceiling. I ate seated on the floor, I wanted to feel the coolness of the linoleum on my bare legs. It was a hot afternoon and I was filled with anticipation at the thought of diving into the river, being tangled in slimy weed at the deeper end and getting a fright so that we scampered out of the water laughing at our foolishness. I ate quickly.
But when I got up to leave, I wanted to see my sister’s face. I had forgiven her for ruining Christmas six months earlier and I loved her protectively. I went into my mother’s room. It was painted bottle green like it was part of a forest. It was still and watchful, the wide bed just so. Her closet door was ajar, the beige suitcase on top of it. The lace curtains were lax against the open window. Everything as still as a painter’s model. My sister’s cot was beside the window and I went to it and looked at her face and thought she was sleeping. Her eyelids thin and red, her dark lashes fanning out like a delicate frond. She had on her light cotton dress, the one she always had on hot days. A hot day dress. Powder blue with a lace trimming. I thought she was sleeping.
I touched her fingers and they felt so cold. I was seven going on eight and I didn’t know what death was. I just knew that something was wrong, knew that it was too quiet. I told my mom that the baby was still. “That’s because she’s sleeping,” she said I made her come and see her. I pulled at her dress and my strength surprised her. She saw the baby and knew and as she clutched her tightly in that watchful room, a breeze lifted the lace curtains as if the wind was also coming in to see what was going on.
I finally got my dream Christmas dress the year my sister died. It was exactly as I had imagined it. My mother bought it out of desperation. She thought it would help her find a way out of the fog that had enveloped her ever since she saw that little white box with gold handles lowered into a dark hole.
She smiled when I wore it Christmas morning. My sister was already in Naro Moru. My father had gone early to church. I liked how extravagant I looked. My hair bone straight and my purse full of savings. I hugged my mother tight so that I could smell her ephemeral perfume. It was especially dusty that Christmas. A loose fine dust that had the consistency of talcum powder. It wound itself in my newly straightened hair, coated my face gently like a good foundation and clung to my white dress as if in a secret communion.