For Simaro Massiya Lutumba – thank you for all the music.
For my final escape, plotting to get to his house was not the most pressing of my worries. What worried me most was what I would say once I got there, that very important first set of words.
Now, many years later, important as it was then, I can’t remember what it was I said, and what he said in return. Maybe it wasn’t as important as I’d imagined. Instead of the words, all I can remember is the music that was playing, Simaro Lutumba’s Eau Benite, coming from somewhere near his living room window. A soft shock of sound, of pleasure, as gentle as the warmth of the pale yellow of the room, and the light whose origins were not easy to determine. To me, this was a hymn of redemption, of resolution.
I did not know whether to consider it surprising that this was how I’d always imagined that room would look, that that was the song that would welcome me. Even down to the delicate white curtains that fluttered against the wall, the tall window it covered, whose upper limits I could not see, the light sifting through it – I had once pictured it all. Despite it, amongst everything that I should have considered sacred, even untouchable, that song was the only thing I believed to be sacred at the time. It lifted the moment in which I walked in and dropped it through the window. The moment crashed at the bottom, so that it would be unidentifiable when we went to look at it later. Maybe that’s where the words we said went.
Today I sit with him on the balcony, our legs dangling off the edge. We are swallowed by the last delicious rays of the sun, its deep yellow flare, its warmth, its dust. I want to say something, or everything, of what I had been thinking of the years before I came; I had been thinking about the matching of our skins, how I imagined them thick and dark and sun-speckled, and how it had been confirmed. I had been thinking about stripey cats. I had also been thinking of the inevitability of hope, the spaces that time refused to fill that I filled instead with a dark longing that brought me here at last. I want to tell him about what I lost, the things I had tried so hard to recover, the words I should have said, the trumpet manucode’s tape. That last one had been bothering me, even if I was supposed to have forgotten it by now, and this, in turn, this remembering, bothers me too.
We emerge from that extended breathtaking moment in which we search for other words for time, knowing we were beyond it now. That moment is playing over and over in my head, to the silent music of the sun, its rays in a celebration on our backs, shadows fluttering into our lazy clothes and all around us where we sit on the balcony looking down at the earth below. Now, Eau Benite plays. Almost by default, he looks at me with those eyes as the memory of that day swirls behind them. I can almost hear the question he doesn’t ask, and what comes after, quieter: You’ve got to do something about it. A pause. I will help you.
That first day, years before, I decided to walk the entire way to his house, kilometres away, many hot and blister-footed kilometres. I carried a dead bird, one that I had killed, and its dead song, both heavy, in my backpack. Of course, there would have to be a sacrifice, and fitting or not, death is death; whether my own, or that of the bird.
I looked at people as I passed them and wondered where they were going, if they were going places like my own. I noticed something: the watchers were here, on this road, coming from where I was headed. I saw three of them: they had on the same kind of sweater – bright orange, a dull blue stripe running through its middle. The people wearing them looked less half-dead than the rest of us on that highway. They also seemed to be glancing at everyone a little longer than necessary. Watching. That was one of the things I noticed that I would never have noticed if I were returning after this escape. The recklessness of my earlier days was gone; in its place a small, pulsating sensitivity.
Another thing I would have missed: the eucalyptus trees on the side of the highway, the small church painted white nestled into them. There was a striped cat sleeping beneath its front window, which made me smile. If this was a signal that everything would be alright, then I would be alright, for sure. I imagined a priest, in the middle of ritual, colours from the stained-glass windows falling over him. I imagined the gentle loneliness of the moment, his own endless longings for God, how they would end with his own mortal deliverance, his own redemption, his own sacred song and fluttering curtains. I remember thinking that his time too, would come, and it probably wouldn’t be any different from mine.
On the way, I contemplated the theft of various items: money, phones, food, handbags, wigs. I’ve always wondered how I’d look with a wig on, and this was my last chance, since I wouldn’t be coming back. I stopped, the thought leaving me breathless and anxious, to enjoy one last pleasure of a kind, and lit a cigarette at a bus stop. There was a child and his mother there, and he started to yell, his cries providing a tangible angst for my mood. I willed him to stop crying – I’d start crying too, if he didn’t stop. Even if I knew no one could actually see me, somehow, his mother could. She was saying something to me, but I couldn’t understand her. I wondered why. Her voice was low, soothing, coloured with a lightness that stood in sharp relief against her child’s cries. At first, I thought I couldn’t understand because she was strikingly beautiful, in a delightful old-fashioned way. She looked familiar; like someone on the cover of a nineties album; eyebrows plucked thin, face powdered to perfection, flowered low-cut shirt embroidered in a shiny green. She smelt like expensive soap, yellow; like the sun. But this was not the reason, which I soon came to know: first, from the way her lipstick had smeared unevenly against the outline of her lips, then from its plum shades that reminded me of the feathers of that particular bird sitting dead in my bag. As soon as I realized this, the words she said immediately resonated as the playback of the record I lost of the bird in my bag, the record of the trumpet manucode.
That was another way the haunting of the trumpet manucode came to me: through this woman. I had thought I’d be done being followed by the bird, making this escape. My troubles with the manucode started many years before this. This bird sat peacefully in its tree in a distant forest and sang its song. Someone taped its call and sent it off to The Ornithological Institute, and the recording found its way into my hands, and I was meant to deliver it to a professor who’d made a career of such things. I was a student there at the time, working on the evolution of plumage coloration in certain families of birds. I held the box in my hands, knocked on his door, and I don’t know how, but the box vanished right as he told me to come in. I didn’t know how to tell him I had lost it – or worse still, how.
And as he looked at me, the disappointment made a shape of his eyes beneath his glasses, made a shape of his mouth, and he said: This is the stuff bad scientists are made of – the inability to give a record.
After this, I made the first big escape of my life: away from the Ornithological Institute. And in between then and now, several others.
The woman kept on talk-singing the record for longer than she should have; she did not stop, and I felt we were trapped in that moment for longer than it existed: me, leaning against the old bus stop, the paint long peeled off, the sweaty skin of my shoulder blade exposed against its grimy steel, the lit cigarette dangling between my fingers. There was a man, watching, in one of those orange sweaters with a single blue stripe (these colours are now remembered, by both me and him sitting on the balcony, as the aesthetic of dusk, as the aesthetic of ending – displayed in this sweater uniform), sitting somewhere near my feet on a small wooden crate. He kept glancing up at us: nervously or nonchalantly, I couldn’t tell. He was brushing a sunglassed man’s shoes. Then there was the child, tears on his cheeks – and his mother, holding his hand, singing to me. She had a nice wig on, but the urge to steal it did not materialize. I did not wish to hurt this woman.
All of a sudden, we left the moment, the woman walking away with her son, carrying with her the endless record that fell out of her mouth in loops. There was something familiar in the music-words, and it was not because I knew of this bird and its songs, but because I had heard this woman talking before, and the song coming out of her mouth was tinged with the timbre of her voice. The voice echoed throughout my past, sliding down its walls, passing through the cracks, shining through holes in the roof.
I looked to my side and watched the man in sunglasses stuff manucode feathers back under the neck of his shirt as he paid the sweater-man-watcher before walking off. Another haunting. That was when it hit me: the hauntings were not hauntings anymore; on this journey, they had turned into a reality of sorts, viewed at a bent angle. Even if it disturbed me seeing the feathers on this man’s body, and while an odd thing, it was only subtly so compared to what I expected, knowing what I knew about these pictures and how they would come to me. Instead of their crashing horror, a haunting had just come to me through a fascinating, familiar woman, no harsh overtones, subdued, almost dream-like; beautiful. But––
would the manucode follow me forever? Even as I thought I was leaving for good?
Another slightly disturbing shade of difference was that that recording which had been playing soundlessly all around me, elusively, following me, hidden, was at that moment suddenly alive as it came out of that woman’s mouth. The song was finally facing me, not trailing me like a specter of unrecognizable mistakes, or those that vanish before they are known.
I dropped the cigarette to the ground, extinguished it, and continued walking to his place.
Before I got there, right at the field before the gate, there were tents in the grassy field behind the rows of apartments. Around the tents, children played and laughed, oblivious to the tents’ presence. I don’t think anyone could tell whose children they were; they’d have been silenced if they knew. Or could they even be heard? Or seen? I did not know how this new place worked. The child I saw with his mother was there, but he stood silently at the outer corner of one of the tents, looking at me with eyes so devilishly like my own, watching as I came, as though he had been waiting for me. I saw his mother sitting on a chair close to him inside the tent, and he tugged at her sleeve. She turned to look at me, and also begun to watch me as I walked in that direction.
When I got close enough to see and hear, I saw the coffin on its small platform, bunches of white roses around it. There was also a hole dug a couple of meters away, three young men with rolled up trousers standing around it, holding the spades over their shoulders, watching the ceremony from afar.
On the balcony, he is telling me a story. Eau Benite plays on from the living room. It takes on the grandeur of an organ in a church, except I know that I describe it this way only because I have never had the on-earth experience to give me the words to describe the splendor of certain sounds, and as they come together in that song, at that moment, this word-finding becomes even more difficult. But here, in this place where words are not always what they seem, the words for it come to me through what he says.
So the big house that grew and shrank and changed directions, in a way I believe it was my father’s. Not because of anything tangible, but because of its distance in time and space. There we saw those telephones – flashy and brand new, but anachronistic, too. We saw women, beautiful by any standard, but beautiful because of things like Vaseline, and Fair and Lovely, and Ponds, and face powder, and thin eyebrows. And of course, lipstick. They had the power, of course, to be beautiful even today. They had the power to be beautiful in any place, because they existed outside of these to occupy the one which my father was in too. Which is how I knew he was a powerful man.
Now here’s the thing about beauty –– it’s often odd. Or strange, yet at its deepest points, even offensive. I find the awkwardness of certain skins, on their own or in contact with others, extremely beautiful. The softnesses of others that they are not often aware of. The awareness is distilling, everything is lucid held up against it. What a beautiful woman means, in short, is our latent ability to be attracted to absurdities. Which is why it was easy to forgive my father.
In its strangest form, disease comes to us, as a further abstraction of our most devout fears, having strayed from the realm of nightmares. There are nights that have borne witness to the shining faces, adorned in color, of some of these beautiful women, who have understood from various secret places the way to a nearly obscene beauty. I would talk of the thoughts hidden in their displays, I would talk of what that thing we, quite slipperily, cannot grasp, why we can’t explain to children what beauty is before a certain age.
The first time I touch a girl’s skin, it is my cousin’s. The awkwardness of our skins was hard, cracked, grey. Useless.
This was the era of hair, my black hair. This was the era of blue Hair Glo gel, and Dax, and Pink Lotion, and Sulphur 8. Doing things with my hair was one of the first ways I realized there are many ways to alter myself. I still change things about myself to date, and become frustrated when I cannot. Right now, I listen to the Lijadu Sisters, and I remember those sunny playful days, listening to them then, I remember my cousins, and how now I can only see sinister, worldly meanings braided into everything we did, though playful and benign they were, and still are so, in some ways. This was also around the first time I realized that Uncle Dominic existed.
This is when he looks at me, saying inaudible things with his eyes. The seconds fragment as he turns his eyes away from my face, and in these broken and rearranged pieces of time, the funeral scene from all those years back rearranges itself on the ground, meters beneath our feet in the evening sun. Even the children, weaving their way around the tents.
He looks at me, I have done it for you, and I go back downstairs. I make my way to the tents, and the children all stop and watch me curiously as I walk into the funeral. People are starting to stand up, going to view the body one last time before it is lowered into the grave. I follow, get to the coffin, and look down into it.
There lies the man in sunglasses from the bus-stop. I’m sure if I were to open the entire length of the coffin, his shoes would be shiny, glossed just a few moments before. And I can see the feathers peeking out again from around his neck, iridescent purple and green. On the table next to the coffin, I see the man’s portrait, serious and unsmiling. Beneath it in bold lettering are the words Dr. Dominic, The Ornithological Institute.
And the day I lost the trumpet manucode’s recording comes back to me, Dr. Dominic comes back to me, telling me that I am a bad scientist. But if I were one, would I have kept the trumpet manucode all these years? Would I have kept the manucode all these years? Can you explain that? I am shouting at the coffin.
That day at the bus stop, as the woman’s voice of the manucode swirled around our heads I realized why she looked so familiar, too familiar; a woman like myself – my mother. She was formless, shapeless, faceless, and eventually all that remained were those eyes looking at me like she had lost a bird, or its song, too. As soon as I realized, I wanted to ask her what happened to her voice, replaced by the record I lost, but this is not what I really wanted to ask, because I already knew. Instead, I looked into her eyes. Instead, when I opened my mouth, something that was not a word, or anything like a word, or anything at all, fell out and hung in the space between us, trying to cover the long distances between.
Now, at this funeral, I know what I didn’t have the words for when I met my mother, precisely because there are no words to make up for lost time.
I rush at Dr. Dominic’s coffin. You’ve always taken it for granted, the unseen signals of the bird’s green wings. Even with all you know about the color green––the feeling, itself never visible, and yet here you are, asking for evidence of the birds. Well. Here we are. Take a look and do not forget. This is the feeling I used to get with my mother. All the green in the world could never make up for this particular lie, and how I wish it weren’t so, how I wish I could go back to the days of obsessively painting everything green, buying everything green, trying to erase the incident at the Institute and the colors that swallowed it, eventually, only, green.
People rush at me, pull me back. The coffin tilts over, and so does Dr. Dominic. His sunglasses fall off. Behind them, one last haunting; his eyes are glassy red orbs, those of the trumpet manucode, the dead bird that was in my bag, that was––
On my shoulders as I walk past the funeral then as I come in from a wild interaction with a woman; I am now wondering about the children running all over. I watch as my bag shifts in jerky movements on my shoulders, as I take it off and unzip it, as the dead bird flies away, never to be seen again. I turn and look at Dr. Dominic, watch his eyes as they fall closed, and I cannot tell if they are still red, but all the feathers, they disappear from around his neck. They just aren’t there anymore, as if some god is taking him piece by piece back to where he belongs. Death is the final what is; it separates us from what isn’t, and what isn’t yours, what you are not, does not die with you. And you cannot, ever, own a bird, or understand it. Even when it haunts you through your imagination, even when it dies.
When I go back to the apartment, he is still talking, as if he hadn’t stopped since I’d left, as if that dead man of birds had not become a simple man again. As if we hadn’t reclaimed lost time, lost years, and the lost science of the bad scientist, the science that was responsible for the wings that now rested on my shoulders, covered in the manucode’s smooth, shiny, purple- green feathers that I now stroked gently.
And suddenly, I remember what I said the first time I came to him, and what he said in return. But before anything, I lay down my words – I’ve lost them once before. I leave them for my mother to say when she shall join us. She already knows what they are; she had sung them to me on my way here that first day. And the child with my eyes shall look after her. For now, I listen as he speaks, and strokes the stripy cat that hops onto his lap from beneath the church window.
Whenever we come here, I am not aware of who I travelled with. Whether Uncle Dominic, or my father, and when I realize they are the same person, when I realize the car has always been white, the music played, selfish, it all stops to matter. Yet my father, as himself, no other names, hovers somewhere in the clarity of being my father, the clarity that only he, and always he, has; – but
now, he disappears, he escapes.
then, I am there, and the music, this music, Eau Benite, falls over us like a waterfall. It falls around my shoulders, around the other man’s shoulders, and we are warm, sparkling. It is the music of the rain, of the grass, of the children, of those who have died before us; it is the music of the earth – it is the music of the birds.
Michelle K. Angwenyi is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She was shortlisted for the 2018 Brunel International Africa Poetry Prize, and for the 2017 Short Story Day Africa Prize.
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher