“Ot Maduong’” by Alvin Kathembe
It was three days after the funeral. Philemon Okeyo stood at the gate and watched as the last car—Julia’s—drove away. She’d insisted on staying an extra night—the rest of the family had left for Nairobi the day before. The two of them sat up till late in the night, talking about the past, about their loss. She held him and cried into his chest, asking over and over what now, daddy? What now? Will we be OK? He never answered. He had never lied to her. He did what a father does—he swallowed his own grief and comforted her.
He watched until Julia’s car disappeared over the hill, whose rim was coloured golden by the sun rising behind it. Then he turned back to the house. He was finally alone.
There would be no relatives bustling around in his sitting room, eating his food and drinking his tea, talking and living and laughing as if the world had not come to an end, waiting for him to emerge from his bedroom and hold court. The horde of women who had clogged the kitchen—cooking, washing up, gossiping and bickering—had left. The children who had filled the house with games, and laughter, and dirt, were nowhere to be seen. Gone, too, were the surly teenagers who’d bunched around the few power outlets, arguing over whose turn it was to charge their phone, the expression of mild horror and disgust on their faces making no secret of the fact that they would rather be back in Nairobi with their friends and Netflix and Wi-Fi.
It was a big house, by any standard; in Bondo it was an allegory, a legend and a landmark. Children were admonished to work hard in school so they could one day build their parents a house like the Okeyos’. Directions were given with reference to ot maduong’—The Big House—and Don Hotel, the two buildings proving sufficient for the triangulation of any other location in town. It stood two stories tall, had eight bedrooms, and sat on four sprawling acres littered with cowsheds, chicken coops, flowerbeds, and gardens of various herbs. Over holidays the Okeyos would gather at the Big House from all over—Kisumu, Nairobi, Mombasa, and beyond. Last Christmas Philemon’s brother, Moses, flew in from Norway and drove up in five taxis he had hired from Kisumu packed with luggage, gifts, a white wife, and four blue-eyed additions to the Okeyo extended family. Their motorcade snaked up Sinapanga Road slowly, so everyone could see him handing out largesse from his window like Mansa Musa returning.
The house was built by Philemon’s son, Lwanda, who had contested, and narrowly lost, the Bondo constituency parliamentary election in 1997 on the ruling party’s ticket. He was appointed Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture the next year. The newspapers speculated that he was Moi’s new favourite, and was being groomed to be KANU’s man in Nyanza. He was the first—and last—Okeyo to hold public office: the house was meant to serve as a monument to his family’s new political power. Then on a Tuesday in April 2001 he learned, along with the rest of the country, via the one o’clock news, that he had been fired effective immediately, and replaced by Ochieng’ Ochieng’. He went missing the next day, last seen in the back of a Flying Squad station wagon. Work on the house was well underway by then, and the house was only a few months’ work away from completion. Philemon’s other children—Julia, Hannah, and Mwaniki—chipped in with the funds required, and in mid-2002 the house was finished. Philemon and his wife had lived there ever since.
Philemon and Kavengi first met at Kisumu Boys’ High School in 1968, where he taught Mathematics and Kavengi was the pretty, young English Teacher-on-Practice recently posted from Makueni as part of the Ministry of Education’s National Integration Initiative. Philemon was 25, the only other African teacher at the school. Back then he had an afro and a motorcycle and played in a Benga band—Kavengi couldn’t help but fall in love with him. They were married the next year. Lwanda was born soon after. When Philemon was posted to Nyamira Girls’ Secondary School in Bondo two years later, Kavengi requested to follow him. They ended up the two longest serving teachers at the school—when Philemon retired from his post as Principal in 2003, Kavengi succeeded him, working for the next two years before she too turned sixty and left the service.
They complemented each other: he was the fastidious and scientific one, with a plan and a routine for everything, while Kavengi was a kind and spontaneous spirit, possessed of an otherworldly calm and wisdom. She was venerated in the town as some kind of shaman, with her garden of healing herbs, roots and tubers (‘the earth is all the healing we need,’ she’d say); and her white hair plummeting like a waterfall past her shoulders down to the small of her back. She liked to say that in their relationship, Philemon provided the exactitude, and she provided the metaphor. She was always saying things like that, her speech peppered with the similes and proverbs she had taught for thirty-seven years: ‘all that glitters is not gold’, or ‘as fresh as a daisy’— that sort of thing. Philemon and the children loved to tease her, inventing outrageous ones, or mixing them up in hilarious ways. (Lwanda’s cheeky riposte to a long lecture on the evils of staying in bed too long—’the early bird catches a cold’—was a running joke in the family for years afterward.)
They had been married for forty-eight years. Then on Wednesday two weeks ago, Philemon had tried to wake her and she wouldn’t stir. Sudden Cardiac Death: not uncommon in women her age, the doctors said. And that was that, they were satisfied with that explanation; that a heart as big as hers just upped and refused to work one morning.
He had borne it, the endless stream of visitors shaking his hand and mouthing condolences, saying things like ‘she’s in a better place now’, ‘she’s gone to be with the Lord’, or, Jesus Christ, ‘everything happens for a reason’. At the funeral, the priest told them to be encouraged, to take heart, to be hopeful, for she would surely rise again and they would be together once more. They sang and cried and threw bouquets of flowers onto the coffin as it was lowered into the hole. The gravediggers covered the coffin in five feet of dirt, and then they mixed up cement and gravel in a big drum, and began to shovel the mixture in. Philemon, half-mad with grief already, confronted them, screaming, and his children had to hold him back. Julia explained, sobbing, that they had to do that because graverobbers might come back and dig up the fresh grave—to steal and resell the coffin, and do God knows what with the corpse. Of course, Philemon had seen it done dozens of times before, at all the other funerals he had been to, but he never imagined that they would do the same to his Kavengi. The priest had just been talking about resurrection and hope and together once more; and there they were, burying her so deep, and so fast, as if they didn’t really believe. They buried her in a little patch behind the house, next to the flower garden, which was her favourite spot in the whole grounds.
That was three days ago. Everyone had left and Philemon now had the house to himself, and he knew what he must do.
He locked the gate and walked back to the house. Once again, as he had done countless times over the last fifteen years, he marveled at the sheer size of it. It never intimidated him though, Ot Maduong’ had always been a refuge and a sanctuary. He walked through the front door, and everything was as it has always been, as familiar as a lover’s bosom.
Kavengi was everywhere, her essence interwoven with and inseparable from the very walls of the house. She was in every piece of furniture, and in every stitch of the spotless white antimacassar that covered it. He could feel her. She was there, with him that very moment, but at the same time lost to him.
Over the years, Kavengi and he had constructed an elaborate mythology around the house, attributing to it little whims, moods and caprices that gave it a distinct personality of its own. Kavengi jokingly called it her co-wife, and pretended to begrudge her the time and affection she had ‘stolen’ from her husband, who was always tinkering with that, installing this, or repairing and renovating some section. The house was very much the third entity in their relationship, especially since Hannah, their last born, married and moved off to the city ten years ago. They come to rely on each other—man on wife, and wife on man, and both of them on the house. Ot maduong’ became a purpose and a challenge—Philemon found daily fulfillment and pleasure in ensuring she was in perfect condition—every faucet running, not a board loose. Kavengi’s joy lay in decorating the various rooms, and making sure everything was spic and span (or tidy as a pin). She loved to put on gloves and an apron and visit her various gardens, spending the day weeding and manuring, or discussing with one of their neighbours’ wives the best way to treat and ward off yamo. She was Philemon’s personal herbalist, prescribing and preparing a decoction of ogaka when he had an upset stomach, or of kuogo when he had a headache. They never spoke of it, but it was their way of honouring Lwanda, keeping his name and legacy alive: their brilliant baby boy, their first-born, who, they both knew, they would never see again. He was only thirty-two when they took him: unmarried, no children. It was all that was left of him, that magnificent house. And now she was gone too.
In a corner of the living room sat his tape deck. In 1969 he had spent two months’ salary on a shiny new Grundig TK246 imported from Germany. Every night between 10 and 11 he would tune in to VoK’s The Late Date and record the latest songs from The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, or James Brown. On Sunday afternoons, after church, Kavengi would visit him and they would listen to the recordings, twisting away to the music. He remembered how she would sing along, how she would move, how she felt pressed against his body.
He tried to think of her, but all the Kavengis he had known began to agglomerate in his memory. Was she the tall, lithe girl with the afro whose smile had stolen his heart almost fifty years ago? Was she the woman who had stood with him at Julia’s bedside in the maternity ward, whose eyes had welled with pride and joy as they welcomed their first grandchild into the world? That grandchild was twenty now, a grown man. Was she the silver-haired matriarch who had lain beside him four days ago, the stories of countless triumphs and defeats etched in every line of her face? Or was she that pallid, shrunken little thing they had shown him before they sealed her in the ground? That was the thing that had struck him, that horrified him the most. How death shrinks you.
He stood there in the living room, listening to the sounds of the house. He imagined it as an old woman just stirring from sleep, her bones cracking and crackling as she stretched: in bed still, maybe, stretching one tentative toe out into the morning from underneath the covers. On the wall near him hung two pictures that Kavengi had painted. One was an admittedly not bad portrait of the house from one of the gardens. The other was what she called an ‘action painting’—she’d loaded some paint into water guns and sprayed indiscriminately at the canvas. Across the centre of the painting was a single track of chicken feet: one of their fowls had walked across the canvas where Kavengi had laid it out to dry. When she came back and found it, it tickled her so much that she decided to hang it up. She called it ‘The Road’, declaring it her masterpiece. It was a little crooked, he noticed, straightening it. It was also covered in a thin film of dust, accumulated, no doubt, during the wholesale cleaning exercise which had taken place the day before, undertaken and supervised by Julia who had hired some women to clean up after the departing guests.
He walked through the sitting room and into the adjoining dining area. How many meals had they shared together here? Mealtimes were sacred in their household. Kavengi loved to cook; her specialty, and his favourite, was shepherd’s pie. She had an old cookbook with hand-written recipes she’d learned in school—‘back when school was school’—and she liked to try a different one every weekend. He ran his palm along the table surface, feeling for the residue of the warmth of a thousand lovingly-prepared meals.
When he lifted his palm, the table rocked, just a tiny bit. He did it again, and the same thing happened. He walked around the table, testing for stability, and discovered that one of the legs was maybe a half a centimetre shorter than the others, causing the rocking. He could only guess that it was the consequence of rough usage over the last couple of days.
He wandered into the kitchen, admiring the surfaces where Kavengi had rolled chapatis and chopped onions and ground up her mitishamba in that little pestle and mortar of hers to make him some disgusting and wholesome elixir. He opened one of the drawers and considered its contents.
The thing with knives is that one has to do it properly. There are two arteries in the wrist—the ulnar and the radial, that simply have to be got to to do the trick. They’re tough to reach, nestled as they are deep in the arm, under layers of muscle and cartilage. You simply must cut deep enough. Another mistake people make is to cut horizontally, across the wrist, instead of up, lengthwise along the artery. Philemon had no intention of being one of those cats who have to kill themselves nine times before they get it right—he intended to get it done the first time. However, the other problem with knives is the mess—he could only imagine the scene. Julia had arranged for a woman to come by to cook and clean and whatnot every two days. To be found in his bed with his sleeves rolled up, stewing in a pool of his own blood? He didn’t want to be remembered like that.
As for hanging, it’s supposed to be quick and painless, if done right: the neck snaps, followed by immediate unconsciousness and rapid brain death. If you mess it up, however, you end up suspended by your neck, suffocating over two to three minutes, a horrible way to go. Also, the idea of being discovered limp and strung up like that, like a criminal, was distasteful to him. It smacked of cowardice, of indignity. That was how Judas died.
Jumping was out of the question, too. He would not leave behind a broken and mangled body. He was in great shape: he stood ramrod straight, and his eyesight and hearing were excellent. He had taken good care of his body for seventy-three years, and he wasn’t about to betray it now. Besides, what if he survived and ended up as some vegetable, tethered to life by a bunch of beeping machines that he was too weak, or broken, to turn off? No way.
He had spent quite some time thinking about it over the last couple of days, even doing some quiet research in the few moments he’d had to himself. He’d considered some of the more sophisticated methods, carbon monoxide poisoning chief among them. What you do is, you take a pipe of the garden hose variety and plug it into the exhaust of your car, then take the other end and feed it into the cabin through a rear window, open a crack. Then you seal the top of that window with duct tape. Then you set the engine running, get into the car, and drift off slowly and peacefully. It sounded promising, but had too many moving parts: something was bound to go wrong. Besides, they didn’t have a car—never needed one, their groceries were delivered straight to the house weekly by Cajo Supermarket in town, paid for via M-Pesa by his children. He doubted they hired out Ubers for that kind of thing. He could always, he supposed, put his head in the oven like that poet Kavengi was always talking about; but then again, was that the image of himself he wanted to leave behind, him bent over in the kitchen like he was checking on a roast, or a batch of cookies? They might think it a mistake, like maybe he was trying to cook something but got his head stuck down there, somehow, like a fucking idiot. No way. First impressions are important, last impressions doubly so.
Kavengi had always had trouble sleeping, and the problem had gotten worse over the years. None of her herbs would help, neither would any amount of meditation or exercise. She had even tried a two-week experiment with marijuana—half a joint before bed. She would toss and turn well into the small hours of the night, and even into the big ones of the morning, finally blacking out for three or four hours, waking up exhausted and cranky. It had started slowly—a quarter Valium would do the trick, in the beginning, and then that wasn’t enough so she’d take a half, and before long she was taking a full pill, then a pill and a half, then two. They’d had countless fights over it, Philemon visited all the pharmacies in town and asked them not to sell her any sleeping pills, but she always found a way. After a while he gave up trying. Upstairs, in a little pill bottle, in a cabinet in the master bathroom, was a couple months’ supply of Dormicum.
He closed the drawer and was about to leave the kitchen when he noticed that the tap was dripping. He reached over and shut it as tightly as he could. Drip. Drip. Drip.
He walked out of the kitchen and back into the dining area. A door from there led into a little corridor along which were three rooms—the two on the right were guest bedrooms, the one on the left was Philemon’s study, which could be converted into another bedroom in a pinch. Last night, after Julia had gone to bed, he’d sat in this study and written the letters, one after the other, addressed to each of his children and grandchildren, the last one addressed to his lawyer. He peeked in—the letters were still neatly stacked on his desk. He closed the door, and the action seemed to galvanise him somehow, as if the click of the latch was some kind of resolution. Before him, he could see the staircase that wound up to the top floor, to the master bedroom with the bathroom, and the bathroom with the cabinet, and the cabinet with the little vial with the little blue pills. It was fitting that he should pass away quietly in his sleep, like she did.
How many pills would do it? Ten? Eleven? Best take the whole lot, to be sure. Would it be quick, or would he lie there paralysed and terrified, unable to breathe or move? Would he recognize that split second when he transitioned from sleep to death? Was it scary? How do you clean a painting?
The floorboard on the twelfth step was slightly loose, creaking. Was it the twelfth? He counted backwards, reversing his steps down the stairs until he was back on the ground floor. No, it was the thirteenth. Up he went again.
He knew in his head that he must walk up and put on his best suit—the grey one with the crisp white shirt and the blue necktie and the shoes polished to obsidian perfection. That was how they would find him, peacefully dreaming of the lithe afro’d girl, the silver-haired matriarch, his lover, his partner, twisting away into eternity.
He stepped into the master bedroom. There were more pictures on the walls, some she’d painted and some they’d bought. At her side of the bed was a nightstand, and on it, a lamp; a picture of the two of them, taken on their wedding day all those years ago; and a book, face down to keep the page—Lola Shoneyin’s ‘The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives’, forever unfinished.
He sat in the bed. The sheets had not been changed, they still smelled like her. He buried his face into the pillow and took a deep breath—argan oil and shea butter and a faint touch of coconut. It was like giving her a big hug, and burying his face into her scalp. It was too much for him, he broke down. The sobs racked his body in surges, grief gushing from his body like a dam bursting its walls.
‘How could you leave me like that?’ he whispered. ‘How could you do this to me? What am I supposed to do now?’ No-one answered. He was completely, utterly, inconsolably, alone.
After a while he stood up. He fished a handkerchief from a drawer and wiped his face and nose clean. He took off the blue pyjamas he was wearing, folded them neatly and put them in a drawer. He stood up and went into the bathroom.
Above the sink was a mirror, which opened into the medicine cabinet. He stared at his reflection a long time. The red eyes, still wet with grief. The bald head with tiny, struggling wisps of grey stubble. The deep furrows across his forehead, gullies dug into his face by worry and time. The thin nostrils, now flared, now relaxed, inlets and outlets of life. The thin, determined mouth.
He opened the cabinet and there it was, the vial. He opened it, and spilled the little blue pills onto the palm of his left hand. With the index finger of his right hand, he counted them, heaping them into piles of five. Five piles in total.
He stared at them a little while, then he raised the lid of the toilet, chucked them all in, and flushed. He watched the blue whirlpool twist and gurgle away into oblivion. He walked back into the bedroom and opened the wardrobe. There: the grey suit on one hanger, the crisp white shirt on another, the blue necktie on a third. He stared at them for a long moment.
Then, from one of the compartments of the wardrobe, he took a pair of faded blue overalls and put them on.
The first thing he needed to decide was whether to trim the other three legs to the size of the short one. No, that was silly. The way to do it was to shore up the short leg—glue and a small wedge of wood should do it. Some trial and error might be necessary in order to get the size of the wedge right, but that was OK. Next was that leaky faucet—he could have sworn he fixed that only a few weeks ago. No worry, he had a wrench and some duct tape in his toolbox. As for that loose floorboard, that was a simple hammer-and-nail affair. He hadn’t the faintest clue how to clean the painting though; he would have to call Hannah and ask her to look it up for him. He knew perfectly well how to use Google himself, and his children had bought him a shiny new smartphone—but he would ask her anyway. It is good for children to feel like they are useful once in a while.
He sat on the bed, and listened. All around him, ot maduong’ was silent, at peace. As silent as a mouse, peaceful as a dove. He smiled to himself.
He put on his work boots, and went downstairs to find his toolbox.
Alvin Kathembe is a writer from Nairobi, Kenya. His poetry has been featured in Dust Poetry Magazine, The Short Story Foundation Journal, Poetry Potion and other publications. His short stories have been published in Omenana, Brittlepaper and Digital Bedbugs, available on Kindle. Find him on Twitter @SofaPhilosopher, and on Medium https://firstname.lastname@example.org
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