VISITING ANGEL GABRIEL by Moses Kilolo

Visiting

“I had entered the wrong matatu”

For a whole week Kanini woke up at five, took an hour to freshen up, and went out to the front yard to wait for Angel Gabriel to visit.

I watched her one morning. She was facing the high wall and rolling electric wires that surrounded the compound. They secured what was inside and kept out what was outside. Sometimes she drew close and touched the climbing plants. She examined their leaves as they shook tenderly in the wind. She played with the rays of the sun which shot through the leaves, giggling to herself like a child.

She rarely noticed the magazeti man as he limped into the compound early each morning, making a painstaking effort to hide his uneven feet. But she liked that he always tucked Papa’s Daily Nation under his arm and the way he lowered his fake spectacles to level with his nose like the professor he’d once dreamt of becoming. When he arrived that morning from Westlands, he stretched his jacket straight, walked over and greeted her.

Instead of greeting him, she stretched her hand and touched the empty air. She rolled her hand as if gathering the rays into her open palms, mumbling.

She turned to watch Malenge’s ever-open mouth form into a smile. This afforded him the happy chance to be distracted from his gardening chores. Legend has it that his extra-large lips were attacked by little insects. His face contorted as he walked towards the newspaper man to snatch the paper from him. He never liked this magazeti man, and he liked Kanini even less. One day the inquisitive magazeti man asked Malenge why Kanini always sat there like that. Malenge merely pointed his first finger to his head, rolled it, and nodded his huge head to concentrate on the paper’s front page.

But Kanini was unconcerned with them or their world. She prayed, over and over again, gathering the rays, waiting for Angel Gabriel to answer, to show up: I am waiting Lord. Let it be done to me according to thy will.

On the first day, Angel Gabriel did not come.

Mama came out to the front yard. She stood behind her daughter, her right hand resting briefly on Kanini’s shoulder. She said nothing at first. They sat down next to each other. They might have been twins in another lifetime. Mama maintained her figure through time. Nothing in her appearance showed she was in her early fifties, with a hard earned PhD under her cap. They sat there together, chatting. Mama’s laughter rose free and untroubled into the air. Kanini laughed too, but hers were forced sounds strained by a different desire, a desire to be believed.

It was a Saturday when I first met Angel Gabriel.

Pa and Ma had gone to fight Pa’s brother over a piece of land, so they were not there to witness a miracle.

At around one on Saturday morning I awakened. Kanini was knocking so lightly, the little sound almost seeped into my dream.

I rose and dragged myself to the door. When I opened it, Kanini pushed me back in and sat on my bed, holding her finger to her lips as though someone might eavesdrop. I was drifting, my head heavy with sleep. I was used to Kanini’s late night interruptions.

Sometimes she played alone in the staircase past midnight, singing songs nursery school kids found great pleasure in. One day she complained the house was being submerged in water, and crawled on her belly out the door, swimming against the current.

Our visiting cousins carried the rumor to our people in the village. They said she had inherited Susu’s witchcraft and the whole village shifted with dread. They whispered among themselves the story of the old lady. Tobacco was always rolled somewhere on Susu’s leso and she chewed with a religious zeal. No one cared for that detail. To them black saliva was the vomit of a demon. The memories of how she sliced herself with blades and stepped on red hot charcoal and spit saliva as black and thick as coal settled into village lore.

Susu’s troubling demon was prayed for by the internationally renowned Bishop Mutangili. The bishop had come to Susu with holy water and a twig from the Mtalakwe tree. He did not say the water was from his tap, or that the twig was from the tree close to Susu’s gate. Everybody knew these miracle aids had come from the Holy Land. He had visited Israel after twelve months of weekly harambees. In the end the Lord provided. The people lost their cows and goats, having sold them to get money for the fashionable harambees, but the bishop returned with miracles.

He beat the old woman long and hard, uttering a stream of commands in the name of the Lord, and the demon screamed and wreathed. It cried, it shouted, it lamented that it would come back. The villagers said it was back, that terrible demon, and now it had chosen those in the city, beating past their financial immunity with ruthless impunity. It chose the most beautiful, rendering her a useless, witching insomniac.

Kanini is fifteen years older than me. That November, she would be celebrating her thirtieth birthday. True to rumor, she perfectly resembled her mother and grandmother before her, even in their love of the night.

“Skiza nikuambie,” Kanini seemed frantic, as though what she was about to tell me was a matter of life and death.

“It’s late Kanini,” I said, pulling her hand towards the door. “You need to go and sleep.”

“No Maundu, you have to listen to me.”

If I had learned one thing in my life, it was that the easiest way to get rid of Kanini was to give her what she wanted. Satiation bored her almost immediately. It was as though she wished to have something to need at all times, a constant hunger. If I was to go back to sleep any time soon, all I needed to do was listen to her, nod and nod and fall asleep on her lap if need be. She was my big sister by birth, and I was her big brother because I took care of her where others tired. When I told her this, she poked me on the face and called me a silly fifteen year old. I listened. I listened, drifting, dozing.

“Tomorrow,” she continued, “Mama and Papa are going to Uncle Muinde’s home. You know that, right?”

“Yeah,” I nodded, shifting my sleepy head this and that way, and said again, “Yeah.”

“Then tomorrow is the day.”

“For what Kanini?”

“I will go looking for Angel Gabriel.”

I sat up immediately, willing my mind not to accept Kanini’s childlike faith, her innocent longing. I had been a believer in angels for most of my childhood, but now my teenage confusion made them useless myths treasured only in art and literature. You grow up and you begin to sense so much lie, like the whole system of your faith is one big, twisted lie, fashionable only when applicable.

I looked at Kanini and saw the wry smile of a little lost girl who believes she is very clever. I could not understand what she was thinking.

As far as I knew, Angel Gabriel lived in heaven. In any physical sense, he was the one to seek her, and not her him.

“You can’t do that,” I told Kanini. “Angel Gabriel visits those whom he chooses, and not anybody can decide that they will go out and look for him.”

“But I met him!”

I stood up and went to the window. I wanted to go and ask Mama if it was all coming back now. How Kanini sometimes just lost it. But something was different this time. Kanini seemed to have found something to believe in, something she was convinced to the depths of her heart was true, and that she could find it. Whether or not it was there, this was something I could not steal away from her. I had to help her keep believing.

“Where did you meet Angel Gabriel?”

“I met him on the matatu in town,” Kanini whispered, looking around as though afraid someone else was listening to her big secret. “I had entered the wrong matatu.”

“And you met Angel Gabriel there?”

“Yes, like I told you I had entered the wrong matatu and I suddenly realized that it was heading in the wrong direction so I turned to the gentleman seated next to me and asked him where the matatu was headed and he told me it was going to Kibera but as he spoke I forgot what he was saying because I saw the halo all around his head and his eyes were a bright flame and his lips glowed and he had muscles that moved on their own and his blue shirt looked like a reflection of the deep vast skies and he told me, he told me, I heard it well, very well, when he told me that his name was Angel Gabriel.”

“You met a guy called Gabriel?”

“No, silly, Angel Gabriel. And then he helped me find another matatu to take me back into town.”

“And he told you that he would come visit you?”

“You don’t believe me?”

“Of course I don’t. No random man you meet on the road is an angel, and they do not come visit you with the rising of the sun, Kanini. You say you see angels descend from heaven each morning, carried in the rays of the sun but that can’t be true. You know that, don’t you?”

Kanini stood up, her face suddenly coming to life with that childish look she often wore when offended. The last thing I wanted was for her to begin crying. She was inconsolable when she did. She almost became a little child again. I took her into a hug, my big sister, and on my shoulder she quietly wept.

“I saw him; please don’t say I am crazy. I saw him and he was an angel. He is not just a man that is so good I would call him an angel, but this man was Angel Gabriel himself. He had become a man to come meet me in person.” Her weeping grew more intense. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes I do, Kanini. Yes I do,” I said, and rocked her a little more. “Come, lie on the bed and sleep.”

In a minute Kanini was sound asleep on my bed. I thought about going to sleep in her room, but I hated her room. She kept it extremely clean some days, while on other days everything was thrown in every wrong place, worse than a rat’s play place. So I took a blanket and went down to the living room where the TV was still on. Genevieve Nnaji and Ramsey Noah’s lips were locked into an awkward kiss, but soon she was up in arms, accusing him of infidelity. I switched off the TV.

Upstairs I could still hear some noises – Ma and Pa fully engaged in a quarrel during their dreams or something. It had been hard for me as a little boy, but I had grown into this family and learned to accept many things.

When I woke up there was a small note on the table. Ma and Pa had gone out to visit Uncle Muinde. Our grandfather had died, and there was that issue of the three thousand hectares of land to be sorted out. So they would be back later on in the night. Do not wait up, the note said. After supper make sure that Kanini has her medicines.

In the dining room breakfast was already set. Kanini sat at the table dressed in a smart blue dress. Her face looked like Peter Marangi had used the thicket brushes to paint purple on the eyelids, and a dark red on the lips. I should have jumped back but so many things had happened over the course of my growing up nothing shocked me anymore.

“You are up?”

“Well, yes,” Kanini said, standing. “I was up at four getting myself ready to go meet Angel Gabriel. How do I look?”

Truth be told, the dress was gorgeous, but those silly things she applied to her face could make a man run. Even an angel would pull back. My head felt fluid and heavy watching her like that. I imagined people on the streets of Nairobi tapping each other on the shoulder, pointing at her; kids screaming when she bent down to say hello. She loved children very much. Sometimes she still cuddled her teddy bear and sang it lullabies. In the streets she claimed to know the sons and daughters of strangers, and was infinitely tender when giving them sweets and ice-cream.

“You look beautiful, Kanini – the most beautiful girl in the world.”

“Do you think Angel Gabriel will love it?”

“Yes, if he comes he will be stunned.”

“No, he’s not coming. I am going out to find him.”

I grabbed a piece of ngwasi from the table, rather too quickly. I always hated sweet potatoes.

“What do you mean?”

“I will go to Kibera and find him. He said he lives in Kibera. If I go there I will see him and I will tell him that I have missed him.”

It scared me, thinking of Kanini wandering around among hundreds of thousands of desperate men, looking for some supposed Angel Gabriel. Rows and rows and rows of shanties, mothers seated outside rusted iron sheet doors with screaming babies attempting to suck from dry breasts. Hundreds and thousands of idle youth walking up and down, building castles in the air and scaring even their own neighbours. For a moment my mind became that of an important overseas reporter ‘sympathetic’ to the African condition.

“Do you have his number?”

“Number? No, Angel Gabriel does not have a number. He will know that I will be there. And he will come out and meet me. I know it. He will come out and greet me.”

I went to the bathroom and took a long piss. As a little boy Ma and Pa used to lecture me about Kanini’s condition. “Times will get hard,” they would say, “but she is our daughter and your sister. We must be there for her, you understand?” But they never were. They ran to the phone every time Kanini shone too bright or dimmed too dull. It could happen without warning, so they learned to quickly call Doctor Matayo. I had never known a different Kanini than the one who would be extremely happy one day, and sink to the depths of depression on the other.

But in all these years she had never shown a childlike faith in something like she did that morning. If anything, she seemed to think the world was against her most of the time.

I went back to the dining room but she was not there and her mug of tea was untouched. I called out to her, running to her room upstairs and to all the rooms. I couldn’t find her. I called out to the cook, but again got no response. I ran downstairs and went out to the compound where Malenge was trimming down the grass. No, he had not seen her. I went back to her room and opened her cabinets, something she had warned me never to do, and dropped inside were pills: valium, antidepressants, vitamins. She had taken none the whole week.

“Maundu!” I heard her call.

At first I could not guess with accuracy where her voice was coming from. I felt waves upon waves of relief. Only God knows what she could have done to herself now that she had not been taking her medicine.

I ran downstairs and found her in the study, looking at a Google map of Nairobi from Ma’s computer. She was giggling with excitement.

“I know where he is,” she said, coming towards me. “I know where he is. I am going there.”

“Kanini, have you been taking your medicine?”

I held her hand the way one might hold that of a small child who has erred, preferring to talk sense into them rather than punishing. Kanini stopped, gazing at me, tears beginning to well in her eyes. “I don’t want to take those little devils. I want Angel Gabriel.”

“But you have to take your medicine all the time to be okay, Kanini. You know that.”

“No. I can’t. I want to go visit Angel Gabriel. I don’t want those little devils.”

She shoved me aside, ran out of the door and locked it from outside. I was left in there calling, “I am sorry Kanini, I did not mean it. I am sorry.” But she did not come back to open the door.

I sat on the floor and looked around. In here, Ma had locked herself up for the better part of the last three years, studying day and night towards her PhD. They said she set a record for the fastest doctorate earned at the University of Nairobi. But whenever Kanini was sick she just dialed Doctor Matayo and had the man deal with her daughter. Had she grown tired? I often wondered. Why had she stopped making sure that Kanini was taking her medicine? I could not remember when the two girls had gone out together, just to spend time as mother and daughter the way they used to. Even worse, Pa left before seven in the morning and was back just in time for the primetime news during which interrupting him was sacrilegious.

Even I had my own things to do. Many times I was tempted to think there were better things for a teenager like me to do than hang out with my twenty-nine year old sister. For one, I had lost a few girls I was interested in because they could not understand Kanini. Some openly taunted me about how psychotic she was. One day I cried because I was just about to get my first kiss and Kanini showed up. Kanini made so many rough jokes about us the girl told me never to talk to her again. On days like that day the temptation not to care was intense in me, like a living, whispering little devil.

I rose up and called Kanini again, but she did not answer.

I fumbled in my pockets for my phone, but remembered I had left it on the dining table. I had no way out, locked in this tiny room full of nothing but books and a computer. Brenda Fassie’s Vulindlela was playing on the computer. Her voice rose with pure sensuousness, but I found no joy in it. I began to call out to the gardener, but he never answered. He was a half-deaf moron. Where the hell had the cook gone?

It would be what seemed like an eternity later when the door opened. The cook looked at me as though the world outside of that room had been plunged into chaos.

“Where is Kanini?” I asked her.

“Sss, ss, she, she, she went to, went to an, n, ngel.”

“What?” Sometimes her stammer made me want to slap life back into her. “What are you saying?’

“Sss, she, she, t, t, took, took, the car, car, go a, n, ng, ngel Gabriel.”

Kanini was not allowed to drive. We had a standby driver for any home emergencies, but both she and I felt public transport a better option most of the time. It was our way of escaping middle class pretensions. Pa thought it ridiculous, of course. He had never been in a matatu in his fifty-six years of Kenyan living, learning to drive the government cars at his childhood home when he was only fifteen.

Kanini was driving. The mere thought scared me. I rushed to the dining room and searched around for my phone but I could not find it. I asked the cook for hers and tried calling Kanini’s and my phone but both were mteja, that cold, matter-of-fact recorded voice telling me she could not be reached. I called Ma and explained the situation. Many such incidences had occurred and our parents had sort of resigned themselves to the possibilities. After all, Kanini always came back home safe.

“She’ll be back,” Ma said. “She’s old enough to take care of herself.”

“But Ma, she has not been taking her medicine.”

“I will call Doctor Matayo.”

And with that she hung up.

I could not figure what was best: to go to a place so vast, and somewhat so dangerous, or to just sit like a duck and wait for Kanini to come back. A few minutes later I picked up my small backpack, threw in a dose of Kanini’s medicine and took some money. I called the car tracking company and asked where she might be at the moment. At first they refused to divulge information, as the car was not stolen. I called again and again until the lady said it was parked somewhere in town and hung up.

I hated the loud music of the matatu as it sped through the forested road from Kitusuru through Westlands and to town. Those forty minutes were torture. I thought of Kanini hurting herself. I fidgeted on the seat, looking out into Spring Valley, the high-rise buildings of Westlands, and the constant fluid movement as we arrived in town.

The car was parked next to Reinsurance Plaza, just as I’d been told by the car tracking company. It stood there like an abandoned wreck, clamped by the city council for parking without a pass. I peered in and saw both our phones lying in the front passenger seat. In a fit of panic I ran around looking for any hint of Kanini. I asked the taxi drivers, the people idling around, and the charity sweepstakes seller in his lonely booth, but most looked at me with a blank expression. Nothing.

I went over to Railways and took a matatu to Kibera. When I alighted, I felt like I had been dropped in the middle of the jungle, lost in my search. In every face I saw the possibility of knowledge. Perhaps mama mboga by the dusty earth road saw Kanini, or that man brushing people’s shoes, or even the kids playing soccer. In everyone, even the slightest nod gave me hope.

I began to ask around. People seemed kind, and though some felt I was their easy ticket to a free meal, they did offer their thoughts freely, masking the immediate recognition that I was an alien in their midst.

I made many friends by evening. But darkness fell and I could think of nothing more to do but just go away. I had called home from a simu ya jamii and been told she was not there yet. The friendly faces I saw started seeming sinister.

I began to pray. For a moment I mentioned the Angel Gabriel, guilt and disbelief weighing heavy on me, asking him to keep her safe. I could not guess whether Ma and Pa were searching, trying to call, doing everything they could to find both of us, or if they were just seating in the house in front of the TV watching the news. Thinking of the latter made me teary.

Around 8:30 I was walking towards the stage when I saw Kanini holding the hand of a tall gentleman. You could see the discomfort in his movements, his frequent observations all around him, that nervous ‘hello’ to an acquaintance or other. I ran towards them.

“Kanini,” I called. “Why did you just leave like that?”

“I told you Maundu. I told you I would go and find Angel Gabriel.”

“Did you find him?”

“Yes, here he is.”

The man did not say anything at first, just turned and looked at me. He seemed rather confused. I took him aside and told him not to mind her, that she was sick.

“I know,” he said. “I did meet her in a matatu once, and after we’d talked I knew she was not alright. But I could not believe it then. She seems so normal.”

“She has to take her medicine to be okay.”

Kanini came over, took his hand again, and hugged him. He shifted uncomfortably.

After a little hesitation he led the both of us to a small garage just a few meters from the stage and explained to me that he works as a mechanic. He stood beside me as we watched Kanini explore the workshop afresh.

“I saw her immediately when she alighted from the matatu,” he said, “and before I could think of what I was doing I found myself calling out to her.”

He turned to me and, smiling, said, “When she saw me she ran out calling, “Angel Gabriel! Angel Gabriel!”

“My God, it must have been embarrassing.”

“It made many people stop. Almost like a movie scene. I liked it a bit in the beginning but could not understand why she could not stop calling me Angel Gabriel. To distract her I took her through my work here in the garage, and she was very happy to help.”

“She must have broken a million things.”

“Not really, she was very careful. But we spent most of the time at the kiosk having lunch. She confessed she had never been to a kiosk before. And she was so joyed to have chapati and madondo that others stopped eating and began watching her.”

“My God! But she has chapati all the time at home?”

“They were looking at her expensive dress and jewelry. I think they imagined what invaluable thing they could have done with the money used to buy them. They whispered and stared.”

Kanini was walking towards us now. I looked at him and saw the smile on his face. It looked like he was at perfect peace in his world, watching her walk towards him.

“And to imagine earlier in the day I wanted to get rid of her?”

“You would have been silly,” I said, smiling.

Kanini took the padlock and helped Gabriel close his workshop. She held his hand as he led us to the small kibanda down the road. There were about three other customers seated on small round tables. Gabriel bought us cheap tea which tasted like lukewarm water and ordered a mandazi for us each. This was his dinner sometimes, though he preferred some matumbo with ugali. He declined any money saying that since Kanini had come to visit it was only proper for him to take care of things.

I had not known a single person who had been Kanini’s friend for more than a month. She got them quickly and lost them even quicker, whether boys or girls. I was already afraid that Angel Gabriel would tire of her in a night.

As he led us to the matatu stage, he invited Kanini and me to visit his workshop anytime. Parting was not easy. Kanini begged Gabriel not leave her, but he spoke to her tenderly until she agreed to come some other day. Now that he knew, he spoke to her about her medicine. She promised him that she would take it before coming to him.

And she kept her promise when we got home. Ma scolded me, as I thought she would. But I did not have time to tell her that my fears had been real, or even that a man called Angel Gabriel had finally materialized in Kanini’s life. When I woke the next morning Kanini had already left. The first thought I had was of Gabriel’s garage. I went to the road and took a matatu to town. I arrived at the garage two hours later, having beaten Nairobi’s goddamn traffic which had been made worse by roads closed for the president’s cars.

I entered the garage without calling out. They were there, seated on a small mat and eating sandwiches, albeit a little shy with each other. Gabriel waved at me to come join them.

“Your sister surprised me with breakfast this morning,” he said. “She was here before I opened shop.”

I immediately felt fear: the fear that Kanini had found something she instantly deeply treasured but was going to lose in no time. But that image stuck with me for a long time. I held on to it dearly like a frail treasure. An image so dear to me I feared it would grow blurred and disappear, even on their wedding day. I would later remember it when I visited Gabriel’s home for my niece’s first birthday.

The picture of Kanini serving another cup of tea to her Angel Gabriel in the garage, touching him ever so tenderly on the shoulder, asking him to take another sandwich. After all she had woken up at four to make it for him. And she would always do so for as long as she lived. For in his eyes she saw eternity.


Moses Kilolo (@moses_kilolo) is a freelance journalist who lives and works in Nairobi, Kenya. An avid reader and a lover of libraries, he is most interested in contemporary African fiction.

THE GENTLE MAN FROM ITEN by Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere

“In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere”

In the hilly town of Iten, there is a man named Kipkirwok who runs a small pharmacy squeezed between a hair salon and a retail shop. He is known by his nickname Tala—the gentle one—and he is fastidious with his work. He is an early riser, getting on his Yamaha bike as early as 6 AM to go to work when Iten is still shrouded in darkness and the only sounds are those of barking dogs and crowing cocks begging for the sun to rise and of the steady tap tap of athletes running on tarmac. He squeezes through a narrow corridor between rows of tiny concrete constructions to get to a field of stinging nettles, creeping nderemia and tall Kikuyu grass where the building with his pharmacy stands. He might admire the proliferation of plants in the field for a while, but that is only when the field has not been cleared, the clearing happening once a month. When the field is bare apart from short-cropped grass, he parks his bike and opens his shop without looking.

He has the best wishes of many. Mothers speak of him fondly and the born-again ones dutifully pray for him before they sleep. Those old enough to be his parents say “kararan weron man” and they might point at their aged ankles and knees, which previously ached with “aartritis”, and wiggle them around, declaring how Kipkirwok’s prescriptions have helped them manage the pain. Some go to him straight when they feel ill without passing by Iten County Hospital where nurses with maringo might look at them with bad eyes. He is aware of all these good graces he has with people and, when patients walk into his shop, he listens with exaggerated keenness—head cocked to one side, mouth a bit stretched as if in a smile, his tongue dancing over his teeth as he acknowledges each symptom with an almost imperceptible nod. He has mastered the complex names of similar drugs, always mentioning the higher priced one, waiting to see if the patient hesitates before recommending a cheaper generic version. He avoids extending credit.

Kipkirwok is anal about putting everything in its proper place. He cleans the pharmacy every day at lunch time when he closes for an hour and again in the evening before he goes home. His friends look at him uncomfortably when he states that his wife is a seretan and that one day he is going to clean their house by himself.

One Friday, the medicine packets shining bright from the shelves, a woman walked in. She wore long yellow socks with green rings stretching all the way to her knees. She had on a red pencil skirt and a black jacket, both of which were splattered with mud, and her squelching shoes left muddy footprints on the floor, though there was no rain that time of the year and even the stinging nettles outside were wilting. The sight of the footprints on his extravagantly clean floor was like painful pinches all over Kipkirwok’s skin. He had not yet accepted that his patients would not adhere to his shop’s level of cleanliness.

The woman did not even look at him. She waddled to the extreme right end of the shop to sit on a worn-out wooden bench placed next to the wall, just under the window sill. She gathered her elbows with her palms, as if retreating into a shell, and began rocking her head up and down.

“Mwawo so, imache nee?” Kipkirwok enquired. “Tell me, what do you want?”

She stopped rocking her head, squeezed the edges of the bench with her palms and tilted her head upwards, staring at the roof. Kipkirwok tried what most people of Iten did and tried to match the unfamiliar face with the families around, searching for a common feature. But there was something distinct about the formation of her nose, the way it seemed to have slid down the slope of her face, squeezing her mouth downwards and causing her cheekbones to protrude. It was unlike any other he had seen.

“Why don’t you say something?” Kipkirwok enquired again. “You cannot just sit there. Are you lost? I hope you can find your way out.”

The woman turned and cast doleful eyes on Kipkirwok. Her lips were moving, though no sound emerged, and there was urgency in the rise and fall of her breath. Her gaze became more questing, her eyes widening until they finally focused on a part of Kipkirwok’s face. He could not tell which part it was but he felt his ear tingle. He shifted his position behind the counter. Her eyes did not follow him.

“It will be necessary for you to leave,” he said, his breathing ragged. “You will have to go if you are not buying anything.”

Her gaze turned on him again and Kipkirwok’s heart leapt. He was hooked by some invisible force and could not move. Her breathing was even more urgent now, and a necklace of beaded sweat glistened round her brow. She sang.

Twathiaga tukenete, tugacoka tukenete iii

rugendo rwitu rware rwega tugithie

Na tugicoka. Tukenete…

A wave of cold passed through the room. He understood the words even though they were sung in Kikuyu, not his native tongue Keiyo.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

He did his best to retain an impassive face though he felt himself shaking. He tapped a biro furiously on the glass counter. When she finished singing, calm settled into her face and her eyes took on such power as to dismiss the shabbiness of her appearance. She kept on looking at Kipkirwok, smiling gently as if she knew what was going on inside him. Then she closed her eyes, placed her palms between her thighs and stretched her legs. The room seemed to yank itself forth like rubber. Kipkirwok found himself short of breath and for a moment thought he was going to faint, but he leant against the counter and stood still.

That was when Kiptum walked in.

Kiptum walked in with a swagger, as if he was meant to be there and nowhere else. He took large steps and in a moment was slamming the day’s newspaper down on the counter. He was a tall, dark man with a pudgy face and a thick expanse of fat which grew steadily from his chest to settle like an immense gourd around his waist.

“Amu kra boiyot,” he greeted Kipkirwok. There was an ease in his baritone voice which overwhelmed the room and cut short the intricate mysteries at play.

“Tala, you look stressed my friend. What happened? Or is Chemeli bringing you her usual dramas?”

Chemeli was Kipkirwok’s wife. She stood only as high as his chest but had a habitually spiteful look on her face which could trickle into her voice making guests, according to Kiptum’s testimony, leave their house in haste.

“Anyway, just reading in the newspaper today about these IDPs in Nakuru. Can you imagine they turned down 10 acres of land in Kajiado? Saying that it was too far from their original homes. You know what they say about beggars not being—”

Kiptum turned round, squashing his belly against the counter, to stare at the woman seated on the bench. There was a look about the woman now as if the world was sitting on her shoulders. She was mumbling to herself, her eyes cast down at the floor.

“Who is she?” asked Kiptum, pointing a weak finger at her.

“She just walked in,” answered Kipkirwok, not too eagerly. Kipkirwok grasped the newspaper and began turning it. Kiptum looked at the girl—the way her face was frozen—and back at Kipkirwok—the way he pretended to be reading the newspaper—and laughed.

“You people, you have to tell me what has just gone on.”

You people. Kipkirwok was reassured by that statement. It meant Kiptum had not yet noted the extreme mystery about the woman; that to Kiptum she was just another person.

“But surely,” said Kiptum, fondling his beard with his fingers. “Kwani, where is she from? Cheptoo, why do you have mud all over your clothes? Where did you fall?”

The woman kept quiet and turned her face to the other side, her mouth pursed. A line of hair, as fine as felt, stretched down her cheek like a sideburn.

“Is she deaf?” Kiptum enquired quickly, ready to apologize.

“I do not know who she is,” said Kipkirwok, a bit too aggressively.

“Then what is she doing here?”

“She just walked in. I mean the door was open and she just walked in like that without speaking. I think she is.…”

Kipkirwok could not bring himself to say mad so he surreptitiously pointed his finger at his head and turned it around in a circle.

“Yes, all the wires in her head do not seem properly connected,” said Kiptum, assuming a low tone. Kipkirwok straightened his shoulders and rubbed his eyes.

“But still Tala, there is something you are not telling me.”

There was a mischievous twinkle in Kiptum’s eyes.

“She is not talking, Kiptum,” Kipkirwok insisted, keeping distance from Kiptum’s accusations.

“Well very well,” said Kiptum. He swaggered towards her and bent down, his arms on his knees, to look at her.

“Cheptoo, iamu nee?”

Her mouth moved about, but she did not respond.

“You will need to talk my friend. I mean, God gave you a mouth. Stop acting about as if you are deaf. Are you mad?”

She shook her head.

“Good, then talk! Tell us what you want, or what you are doing here.”

Kiptum’s words were forceful. She shook heavily and sputtered out a name.

“What did you say?” asked Kiptum, but Kipkirwok had heard her perfectly.

“Wangari.” Her voice was soft, ever so soft, and she pronounced her name as only Kikuyus can, with liquid consonants.

“And what do you want here?” Kiptum slowed down his speech, as if addressing someone infinitely stupid.

“I am looking for my baby,” she said, her voice staggering as her cheeks swelled.

“Well, there is no baby here,” said Kiptum, matter-of-factly. “Maybe you could look for your baby elsewhere. Sawa?”

She began rubbing her palms over the back of her hands in turn. Her skin was fairly smooth, albeit in need of oil.

“Sawa?” Kiptum repeated. “Your baby is not here. So you will need to leave this place.”

He turned to Kipkirwok.

“This one must be a thief. Have you not seen her eyes? She is not mad. She is planning something. You see the way she is so rude that she cannot even respond to my questions?”

“Msichana,” Kiptum held her jacket collar with his fingers, “you are getting out. Do you understand me?”

“What is going on?” a concerned voice shouted. It was Chemaiyo, the salonist next door, a squat, buxom woman who walked about in a cloud of suffocating perfume.

“We need to get this mad woman out,” said Kiptum. Wangari slapped Kiptum’s fingers from her jacket and Kiptum pushed her head back with the edge of his fist, till it knocked on the wall.

“Chei le murenju,” shouted Chemaiyo, walking into the room. “Is that how you treat people surely? How can you handle a woman like that?”

Kiptum’s eyes flickered with embarrassment.

“You do not understand these things Chemaiyo. You never know who these people are.”

Chemaiyo was not even listening. She moved and sat next to the lady and asked her, in her gentlest voice, who she was.

“Her name is Wangari,” said Kipkirwok. He had stepped out from behind the counter to stand beside Wangari. “She is looking for her baby.”

“Tala, bring her a soda,” Chemaiyo said. “Maybe she is hungry. Bring her Coca Cola.”

“You people are crazy,” said Kiptum, but Kipkirwok moved past him, stepped out into the strong morning sun and bought a bottle of Coca Cola from the tiny shop on the left. He did not bother to look for a bottle opener, tearing off the cap with the edge of his teeth and handing it to Chemaiyo who gave it to Wangari.

Wangari’s face was mechanical as she drank, her neck muscles over-emphasized and her eyes popping out. She did not place the bottle down until she had drunk the last drop. Kipkirwok exchanged puzzled glances with Kiptum.

“You people are crazy,” repeated Kiptum lamely.

“Wangari,” said Chemaiyo in the gentlest voice she could muster. “Since you have now taken a soda, don’t you think you should now leave? I mean you can see this is not a good place for you to stay. “

“They burnt my house, everything,” said Wangari, swiping her finger over her mouth. “I held the clothes I had up in my hands.”

She raised her arms up.

“Wangari, you should go to your people. Where are your people?”

Wangari began singing another song, faintly this time, about how everything ended the day Jesus was at Calvary. Chemaiyo found a hundred shilling note in her purse, took Wangari’s palm and folded it around the note.

“You need to go now, Wangari.”

Wangari opened her palm, stood up, let the note fall on the floor, and walked out, singing her song.

“My goodness, these are wonders that are greater than the ones Moses saw in Egypt,” said Chemaiyo when Wangari’s voice had faded off.

“I told you she is a mkora. There is something ex-Kamiti prisoner about her. You should have allowed me to handle her with force,” said Kiptum, staring out of the door. “Such people should be dealt with a firm hand.”

Kipkirwok said nothing. He was staring at the light filtering through the window into the room, how it hurled itself inside, like a hundred glass lances breaking into dazzling shards as they hit the floor. He played his palm over one of the light columns and it felt so warm, the rest of his body yearned to feel it.

*

Hours later, Kipkirwok, all alone in his pharmacy, sits on the floor. He has locked the door and shut the curtain over the window and sent a text to Chemaiyo stating that he has walked out briefly. Nostalgia has called upon him and he has responded meekly. Sadness curls him like a worm, stoops his back, one shoulder higher than the other, the left leg bent, the other laid straight on the floor where it trembles. He slips into a dream.

In the dream he is lying on the grass somewhere, beside a hut. The dry grass stalks prickle his thigh while the sun gently heats it. His grandmother sits close to him on a stool. He shuts his eyes so as not to see her, but listen to her voice instead. She speaks with an effortless tact and grace that Kipkirwok finds compelling.

“There were flowers in Limuru,” the grandmother says. “Beautiful white flowers which spiraled up and up, on long stems, almost to the height of my shoulders. But you had to be careful about the flowers, for they retreated to the ground as soon as you stopped looking at them. Never to return!”

Her words wrap him in a cocoon, twirl him around. He feels his legs lengthen and his shoulders broaden.

“I was in the forest you know. We sang many songs, songs that your grand-father had no idea about; songs that I stopped singing the moment he placed his dark, Keiyo hands over my head and let me rest on his chest, that very moment when I knew I was going to leave Limuru and follow him to Iten. Love can make you stop singing. But I will sing for you since you listen. Since your blood seeks to know.”

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

He wants to know the song. He wants to understand the words. His head aches.

“Tala, my brother Njoroge taught me the song, whenever I would take him food in the forest. He told me we should not be afraid since we wear our death on our bodies like clothes. You are already dressed in your death, Tala, so do not be afraid of life.”

She stays silent for a while, and they listen together to the other sounds buzzing in the air.

“Your grandfather taught me about love. He placed Keiyo words in my mouth, one by one, and taught me to slide those words down my tongue as if I was born with them. I cannot wait to join him in the East where the nine-legged daughter of the sun lives. When I die, bury me next to him—let the world know that I loved him with all my heart.”

Kipkirwok is afraid of the love she is speaking about, so he thinks about Njoroge instead—Njoroge and the forest. He sees the heart of the forest, men gathered under a mugumo tree canopy, light trickling in like liquid jade, falling on their heads, making their dreadlocks glitter.

Kipkirwok stands up and looks at the grandmother. He is braver now and wants more answers. But the old woman is turning smaller, as if retreating to a shell. She no longer sings and remembers no flowers. The space before him disintegrates into brown pixels that pop and fizzle.

Kipkirwok wakes up.

The room seems to stare back at him. The rows of well-arranged medicine packets on the shelves call on him, urging him to rise, to proceed with the usual movements of his life. Still, something holds him on the floor, as if a dead animal is lying on him.

He closes his eyes and tries to sleep. He hears his heart beat instead, like a ticking clock, loud and insistent, an invading force that seems to surge out of him to reverberate through the room in waves. It is a relief when the sound is interrupted by the thud thud of approaching footsteps outside. He opens his eyes and his nose picks up the irritating scent of dust.

The approaching figure passes across the curtain-drawn windows and the silhouette shows that of a woman, an elderly woman with a bent back.

“Tala, weei,” she shouts. “Are you in?”

She bangs at the door.

“Now where could this boy of mine be?”

It is the voice of Gladys, Gladys who has diabetes. Gladys whose sons spend their lives in drinking dens; who wishes she had a son like Kipkirwok and does not hesitate to tell him so.

“Gladys iamu nee?” Chemaiyo interrupts.

“I am fine my daughter. Have you seen Tala?”

Chemaiyo begins her half-mumbled explanations, heightening the drama with sounds of mock disbelief and a clapping about of her hands. Kipkirwok yawns and rubs his hand over his temple. He sleeps as if he is drugged.

The phone rings. At first he thinks it is a distant buzz, but it keeps on with its ring. He had slipped all the way down from the wall. A drool of saliva is in a neat, small circle on the floor. He musters the will to rise and tears himself away from his misery, leaving it on the floor. The caller on the other end is his wife Chemeli, and her voice is worried.

“Tala, what is going on? Why did you close the shop? I just received a call from Gladys.”

“Gladys,” he says unconsciously. A weight falls on his shoulders. He thrusts his shoulders up and down to relieve himself of it.

“Yes, Gladys. She came like an hour ago, needing medicine for her diabetes. When both she and Chemaiyo could not find you, they called me.”

Kipkirwok’s brow quivers. He wonders if he is shaking.

“No one knows where you are, Tala. Not even Kiptum. Chemaiyo is worried. She says you started acting funny after a woman came to our pharmacy this morning.”

A woman who sang Chemeli, he wants to say. A woman who sang grandmother’s song!

“A Kikuyu woman,” Chemeli continues. He can tell that she wants to say something but she is restraining herself, waiting for him to respond. He doesn’t. He only listens to the heaviness of her breaths through the phone. They seem separate from her voice, those breaths, as if emanating from two separate beings.

“Where are you, Tala?”

“I…I am…I went for a walk. A small walk. Just to clear my head.”

“Has it started again?” There is that strain in her tone again. “Tala, just open the pharmacy and let people in. We need the money, especially after all the chaos we had in January. We are building a new house, and you know our daughter has not healed properly after the surgery. God, she is only five years old.”

The words pound on him, chafing away all his thoughts.

“Ok, ok, my love. I am opening. I am opening.”

He disconnects, walks through the waist-high side door which leads to the counter and pushes away the curtains. Light falls inside the room and gives him an instant headache.

*

When Kipkirwok locked the grilled door with a heavy padlock tied with chains, he felt as if he was locking a demon inside the pharmacy. He was relieved to be going home. He had not displayed his usual patience and good listening habits with his patients that day, and many had left puzzled.

Yet the night was a relief. It lay softly on the land like crepe paper, darkening trees, houses and streets. It was a gentle night, as if it could be picked off easily by a delicate hand and torn from the land. It felt as if something pristine and free of sin lay beneath the night’s cover.

As Kipkirwok walked up the incline of the field outside where his bike was parked a sharp wind rushed rudely past him, pressing cold hands all over his legs. He almost stumbled as a sudden fear seized him. But he turned to look up and next to the fence was the familiar podo tree, seen a hundred times before during the day and at night, but today looking as if it stood on holy ground and as if its branches, high up and thrashing about, beckoned him to a place of favour.

Kipkirwok got on his bike and started it, riding in expert smooth lines down the slope, through the narrow corridor and onto the street. He felt enervated by the people moving in the distance like ghosts, the bike lights trailing over tarmac, and, high above, stars that did not blink.

But when he reached the junction of the main road, which headed to Kapsowar, and turned right, a sense of mystery welcomed him. Close to Saint Patrick’s High School—that section of the road bordered on both sides by massive cypress and podo trees which barely opened to let someone through—he felt a lifting in his soul as if angels hovered around him, trailing their fingers on his hair, and he hated that he had to hold onto the bike’s handles. Such was the power of this new feeling that he stopped noticing the road, the way it twisted and how it was interrupted by bumps and potholes. Exhilaration rose like a song from his belly, steadily rising upwards, turning the world around him into mush and he rode over a road bump without braking. At first he thought he was being flown to heaven, but reality hit him when the bike landed, skidded on the tarmac and twisted around, moving as if by its own accord to the side of the road where the immense tangled roots of the cypress trees lay exposed. By the time the bike stopped, he had lost his shoe and gotten painful scratches and bruises on his hands and legs. He placed the bike against a tree and limped back to the road to look for his shoe.

That was when he heard the voices. At first he thought they were only the insistent urgings of his mind but, when he stood still, he clearly heard the distinct hum of familiar voices. His grandmother was here, walking about, with others. They were concentrating around him, singing to him songs of the forests, and the language that they sang in, which he never grew up with, became familiar. He was stirred to sing as well, but when he opened his mouth and uttered the first sound, the congregation of the mysterious fell apart, and he was all alone on the road without his shoe.

Kipkirwok revived, looked frenetically for his shoe, and found it hidden under the overhang of the collapsing edges of the tarmac. When he started his bike, riding slowly now and very much aware of the road, other thoughts came. He remembered how the crowds moved about the streets last December, like a single evil beast, flowing like molten lava. He remembered the noises, the piercing screams that cut through the thick air like swords, and then the columns of smoke, huge as houses, rising to the sky, black at first and turning greyer as time went by. He remembered how faces became indistinct as if some alien virus was contorting faces.

Then he remembered the feeling of the voices congregating about him, turning a section of the road where evil had once walked sacred and, as he turned onto a dirt path to the right of the road which went up a grassy incline to home, a final memory came to him. That of his grandmother, sitting on a stool next to a jiko, scratching her parched legs and speaking to herself in Kikuyu, steadily forgetting Keiyo, giving directions in Kikuyu which no one could understand, except on that one evening when they were alone, and she bent her head towards him and spoke to him in Keiyo.

“Will you be my Jesus when I grow old? Take care of me since you carry my blood.”

And he had wished to tell her a story about a beautiful girl growing up in Limuru, but instead the utterance of the word ‘Jesus’ had swelled up within him, filling his mind with ideas.

*

Kipkirwok’s house, as simple as it was, stood like a jewel upon the hill. Kipkirwok loved the way it stood like a model turned to her side so her whole figure could be captured on camera. It had been hastily built in the usual fashion, walls made out of bars of wood coated in black tar and the roof painted blue. He was building a brick one now, since his friends had insisted that a progressive man like him should have a brick house to his name, and it stood a few paces away, large and grim, forbidding even in the nighttime. There was a tiny, corrugated-iron-sheet shed next to the wood house where he parked his bike. As he walked to the house, Chemeli opened the door and walked out with a lit torch.

“Tala, where have you been? I was worried.”

She bobbed the torchlight up and down his frame and it hurt his eyes, making it hard for him to respond.

“Oh Lord, what happened to you? Were you beaten up by thugs?”

The next moment she was holding his arm, dragging him to the house. The sitting room was very much occupied by five-seat sofa sets of fading yellow fabric that the low wooden table in the middle of the room had to stand askance to fit in. She took off his shoes and socks, then walked out of the room to the kitchen and began rummaging about.

He sat still, gathering his thoughts, wondering what he should tell her, wondering how he would tell her. He switched on the television, an old model on a narrow wooden ledge in the corner, a viable distraction. Its rude noises and appearances of strange, far away scenes, numbed his concerns. Chemeli returned to the living room with a basin of steaming water, Dettol and a white face towel. He let go of the remote control. She looked perplexed, her small face grey and sullen, her heavy bosom quivering as she walked.

“Tala, what happened?” she asked softly, placing his leg on her thigh, rolling up the trousers and wiping away at his scratches with the wet face towel. He gritted his teeth and held on to the edge of the sofa.

“Did the fundis come in today?” he asked, trying to deviate from the heaviness of her question, the way it made him scour his mind and heart for the right answers.

Chemeli breathed in deeply, sighing, as she rinsed the cloth in the sterilized water and began her quest for more scratches.

“Yes, they did. They started on the roof frame today. But they said they need more money. Those fundis are going to fleece us to death.”

“Well, I brought some money…,” he stated timidly.

“You still have not told me what happened,” she cut in.

“I also have scratches on my arm.”

“So you are not going to tell me what happened, Tala? Why did you fall?”

He hated the aggression in her voice. He wondered who this strange woman was, who wiped him so tenderly but asked questions so rudely.

“Were you thinking too much? Were you thinking about that mad Kikuyu woman?”

“No, no Chemeli.… It is just that…what do you think of? No, it is nothing.”

“Tala,” she placed down his leg, took up the other one and began rolling up the trouser. “Tala, we are one. When I became your wife, your thoughts became my thoughts. We became one flesh.”

“Well, do you remember how it was in January, the violence, how people walked about stating a rejection of the new government, urging those on holiday from Nairobi not to go back to work, but to stay home instead and wait for—”

“Tala, get to the point,” she said, her nose swelling. She placed his other leg down. “I need to cut your nails.”

Chemeli stood up, walked to the narrow wooden ledge where the television sat and retrieved a nail cutter from a small basket.

“I remember once going to Iten and there were all these women and children standing in a circle in the showground. They were so fearful and so tense, it was obvious even from the road. Someone was talking to them—a policeman perhaps—and after a while they began walking up, towards the police station. I remember watching them walk, and feeling….”

She had his leg up again and was gingerly cutting his nails while giving him withering looks.

“I have to get that woman back to Limuru, Chemeli. It is the littlest I could do. I walk about with so much guilt.”

“Guilt?” she spat back.

“If it is guilt, why do you not feel guilt for my sister? My identical sister, Tala!” Chemeli said, letting go of the nail cutter. It fell to hide in the sofa’s interstices. She began patting her breast with her hand and he grew afraid that his leg was lying on her lap. He tried to pull it away but she held it back and retrieved the nail cutter from where it fell.

“She lost everything in Naivasha, Tala. Everything. Those Kikuyus who you love so much burnt her grade chicken and divided everything she owned amongst themselves, right before her eyes. One even held a machete to her neck and she would have died had she not pleaded with him in his tongue. Do you know she sat on a coffin with a corpse in it, all the way from Naivasha to Iten? You have only visited her once, Mr. Caring and Concerned.”

“But I send her money.”

“Yes, to you money solves everything. Bring up that other leg. Do you know she will not get compensated because she had no land? To the government, only land-owners merit compensation. What about loss of…”

She looked up. Her cheeks were quivering. He thought he would run away if she began to cry.

“Let me tell you about these people you care so much about, Tala. I mean, both my parents were Keiyo. We grew up in Keiyo lands. But our town was called Rurigu—a Kikuyu name which no one understands. Can you even fathom a town in Nyeri being called Chebarbar? I totally hate them and that is not a lie.”

Kipkirwok felt his flesh retreating from his skin. He felt himself growing smaller.

“Anyway, this is what I will tell you, since you are my husband. Remember you have to take care of me and your young daughter. Remember that my sister has to start from square one and pay school fees for Chirchir. If you keep caring so much about other people and their misfortunes, you will drain our life away. Worry about your life and let Jesus worry about others.”

Her face drew back and grew strangely still as she was sucked in by the force of her secret thoughts. Her eyes were furious and Kipkirwok felt pinpricks all over the leg that lay on her lap. His bladder swelled with urine.

“Jesus. Jesus is the way,” he said, hoping the statement would reach out to some higher power, but now the mention of the name seemed stupid, carrying none of the uplifting feeling he had at the road.

“You can finish cutting the rest of your nails, Tala. As you can see it is late in the night, and I need to warm your food.”

*

If Chemeli had not come to the shop with him the following morning, the day would have been easier for Kipkirwok. She disrupted his routine with her flippant manners and took over the cleaning of the pharmacy—his sacred task. She asked him for his keys, opened the door herself and entered the pharmacy first. That was sacrosanct. She was over-eager whenever a customer walked in, rushing about to write things down and asking him about the medicine enquired for, as if he could not handle it by himself. She had none of his calm and steadiness and, by mid-morning, as he sat on a stool in a corner holding a newspaper in one hand and flipping idly through Facebook on his phone with the other, he felt himself bristling with anger.

“We should start an M-pesa shop here,” Chemeli said abruptly.

He tried to respond but his vocals seemed to be shoved deep down in his belly, needing some time to be retrieved.

“I wonder why we did not even think about it sooner. It will boost our income.”

He hated it when she spoke like that, as if she was business savvy when all she had to bring to the table was a high school certificate from Kessup Girls.

“Anyway, where is Kiptum today?” she asked, twisting around to stare at him, smiling. She looked beautiful, he had to admit, an ideal wife: short-cropped hair, matching blouse and skirt and easy manners when calm. There was a fullness in her figure and robustness in her spirit that made people say, “Chemeli is a woman and a half.” Her beauty settled him into a space which he was hopelessly unprepared for, and made him uncomfortable and worried. He was expected to be the doting husband, charmed by her beauty and full of admiration of her grace.

“I do not know,” he said. He could have stopped at that, he wanted to stop at that, but some inner obligation towards completing the conversation made him proceed. “He usually comes at around this time. I wonder what happened today. Maybe he just got too drunk and overslept.”

Chemeli pursed her lips, her eyes peeled away from him and focused on the counter.

“He is a decent man. I heard him speak at a cousin’s wedding. He is not a man to let his thoughts wonder. You know, as a man, it is wise to restrain your thoughts.”

“What is it that you know about being a man?”

Her shoulders seemed to droop and she breathed in deeply.

“Let me go see if I can get some tea from Chemaiyo,” she said, finally finding a statement to salvage her wifely graces. “You look like you need some tea.”

That was when the song began, rushing into the room with the power of a storm. It propelled out Kipkirwok’s thoughts and worries like dust scattered by the wind. Chemeli chafed around the edges like a worn-out sculpture. He concentrated on how the sound invaded him, warming his blood.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all

Light from the window fell on Wangari as she walked in but in a manner to suggest that it illuminated from within her, casting away the dimness in the room. She came between Chemeli and the light and shadows skittered all over Chemeli’s face. Wangari wore an oversized, nondescript sweater but the red pencil skirt and long yellow socks with green rings were the same, except they were now clean. There was an awareness in Wangari’s gaze that day that made her seem less disturbed. She headed for the bench as before.

“Where do you think you are going?” Chemeli shouted.

Chemeli stormed through the counter door and stood before Wangari, then pushed her back with such unbelievable force that she staggered. Wangari zigzagged backwards a bit but found her stance and again walked towards the bench. Chemeli kept pushing her back and Wangari leant forward and resisted as she sang louder, her mouth wide open, saliva sticking out like stalactites from the roof of her mouth.

“You will not sit in my bench. Do you think you were the one who bought it?”

Chemeli cast her sandals aside and set her legs astride, searching for a strong centre of gravity. Then she grasped Wangari’s waist with her hands, like an ant snapping its jaws, but in a surprising flurry of quick movements she had lifted Wangari off the floor and was carrying her purposefully out of the door. Wangari dropped the pained expression from her face and her cheeks danced slightly just before she bent her head and bit into Chemeli’s shoulder. Chemeli screamed and dropped Wangari then ran back to the counter, hastily looking for an object that could give a good hit, while muttering statements to the effect that Wangari was going to die and be buried that day.

“Jesus,” it was Kipkirwok shouting. He stood against the counter door, so Chemeli could not walk out with the stout broomstick in her hand.

“Move!” Shouted Chemeli, pushing her way through, warm breath blasting on Kipkirwok. She hurled herself with fury at Wangari, beating her all over with the broom.

“Jesus, stop it,” shouted Kipkirwok, running after Chemeli, encircling her waist with his hands and dragging her back. Her fury eventually subsided and, when Kipkirwok let her go, Chemeli stood with her hands akimbo, snorting like a donkey.

A twinkle rose in Wangari’s eyes. Refusing to feel pain and ignoring her bleeding head, she stood straight. She let out a sound that somewhat resembled a laugh and began singing again.

We left happy,

We will return happy,

Our journey was easy,

Getting there and back…

“I have said to stop singing that song. Stop singing it right now,” screamed Chemeli, her voice choked with tears. “And you are still singing, eh? Kumanina wewe. Today you will know why cows do not give birth to twins on Christmas.”

Then began the whole business again—Kipkirwok’s hands encircling Chemeli’s waist—only that this time she was stronger and more furious and kept skidding him across the floor as she pounded her fists at Wangari.

“My people, what is going on here?” a heavy bass voice asked. Kiptum stood in the doorway.

“It is nothing,” answered Kipkirwok, still holding onto Chemeli’s waist.

“What do you mean there is nothing? You guys are shouting as if the shop is on fire. Now why are you holding onto her waist? Let her talk.”

Chemeli spat on Wangari who, squeezed against the wall, tried to cover herself with her torn sweater.

“Get that demon out of our lives.”

Kiptum grew larger as he looked at Wangari. The strong muscles beneath his shoulders became more apparent.

“It is you again. Did I not tell you not to come here again?”

His eyes were popping. Wangari curled her shoulders and slid down the wall to sit on the floor.

“Get up,” he pulled her up with her sweater, tightening it round her bony frame.

“I said…”

A massive slap resounded across the room.

“never come back…”

Another sound—a slap or a fist blow.

“to this place…”

This time a slap missed her face but hit on something hard instead.

“again.”

There was a pause after that, everyone breathing in patterns which did not match, with Kipkirwok noticing the crowd staring through the windows and the door. Then Wangari let out a scream like that of a tortured genie and ran out the door, the crowd parting to let her through. Kipkirwok felt as if his faculties had been lacerated. He wanted to say something but only a ragged sound left his mouth. The floor rose steadily to meet his face.

*

Kipkirwok had to find Wangari. He had to; otherwise, he thought he would die. He asked strangers—people who walked about pushing mikokoteni and never failed to recognize a face in Iten. He threshed through thick grass and felt as if the air had turned into a viscous gel.

Wangari stood next to the wall of a dilapidated mud house whose iron roofing had rusted beyond comprehension. It was surrounded by thick bushes tangled with vines and trees that extended their branches towards it, hiding it from view.

Kipkirwok walked towards her, afraid she would run away like a wild cat, but she kept still. The morning sunlight had dripped around her like syrup. She had purple bruises all over her face, like flowers about to bloom.

“You need to go back to Limuru. Go back to your uncle. I have transport for you.”

Wangari breathed in deeply and her eyes became sorrowful. Kipkirwok hoped she would cry for then he would hold her, rock her. It would change everything.

“I have money.”

She spat. The saliva did not volley out as she had intended but dripped down her lip. She wiped it with the edge of her sweater sleeve.

“If you were a man, Tala, you would take me to your place and keep me in your house. You would feed me and I would grow fat. But you are weak. You are just like a girl. At least the men who burnt my house were men.”

“Please just pack so that I can take you to the stage. There are flowers in Limuru waiting for you, flowers white and entrancing. They curl when it is dark and spread when the sun is out. My grandmother told me about them. They are called—”

“There was a baby.” She did not sob but the sound that came out of her was like a tremor. “There was a baby. I remember his cries. They say that I am mad and say that I say things that make no sense—”

“Wangari, let me just take you home. It is the least I could do—”

“I would have raised him up to be a killer. Just like other sons kill for their mothers, he would kill for me—”

“Beat me up Wangari, take that stone and hurl it into my head. Take out your sorrow on me—”

“I would feed him with milk, fish and beans to make his bones strong, force out strong muscles from his shoulders…”

Kipkirwok pulled out a few thousand-shilling notes from his pocket. Wangari glanced at the notes and the slight movement at the corner of her mouth was almost like a smile. He realized that she knew his intention, that he could no longer bear to look at her. Her leaving would wipe the slate clean, leaving space for fresh scripts, quiet mornings of riding to work, sincere smiles to patients who walked into his pharmacy. He knew she would not take the money but he could not put it back in his pocket, so he hurled it at her feet and turned around to walk away.

That was when Wangari sang, and her voice rose up with the air and the gliding movements of the trees. There was no mockery in her voice, no intention to leave a reminder, yet her song embedded itself in every particle around her, twisting itself around every fiber of Kipkirwok’s being.

We left happy

We will return happy

Our journey was easy

Getting there and back

We were able to bear a lot of punishment

And a lot of suffering

We resolved not to be afraid

Strength leaves the body eventually

Death will come to us all


Kiprop Kimutai (@tirobon) is a writer haunted constantly by his ancestors who demand to have their stories written. He was the second runner-up for the inaugural Kwani? Manuscript Project 2012/13 and his novel, “The Water Spirits”, will be published in 2014. He has also attended Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Farafina workshop in 2013. He periodically contributes feature stories to the Daily Nation, and keeps sanity by regular jogging and climbing. His favourite author is John Steinbeck and sometimes fantasizes, that he too, was born in Salinas Valley California.

HAGIA SOPHIA by Wambui Wairua

the drawing hand is now moving in a sort of frenzy

“the drawing hand is now moving in a sort of frenzy”

The secret is out. I am not a real artist.

She is sketching again, the pencil held lightly between the thumb and two fingers of her left hand, the sheet of paper large and white with smudges of mud here and there. She squats awkwardly, an array of mobile phone covers spread out in front of her, laid out on a sack slit open at its seams. Drawing like this makes her hands tremble. The studio at the university was much better. It’s drizzling but she is aware of it only as one is aware of insignificant things from a faded past. A jutting roof protects her and her goods.

She hears the sounds of the Asr prayer coming from the mosque. It’s 4 o’clock already. She pauses to listen when she realises that it is a child doing the chanting. It’s young and delightful, the voice from the mosque, and the boy must be no more than 10 – just a child like the child who was once hers, the one who now belongs to the gods of the sewers. The squat that time was not dissimilar to the one now. When the four rak’ahs are complete, she bends over her drawing once more. She replays the sound of the boy’s voice in her head to keep out those memories.

There is a woman a few metres away from her. The polyester of the woman’s blouse pretends to be silk, its lustre interrupted where the folds are darkened by sweat stains. The woman, sitting next to an array of slim, brightly coloured belts on a plastic sheet, watches her and explodes into loud, mocking laughter. She pauses again from her drawing but does not notice the laughter. She is thinking of corpses and the possibilities of shrouding death in art.

Art is dead, is dead, is dead. Art is ghost.

Passersby look at the two hawkers and hide smiles beneath unnecessary umbrellas. The people in the shops behind them gaze at their backs. They are all the same – they would enjoy the shedding of blood on the street provided they were safely behind their counters.

Other hawkers are spread out all along the street, some distance from the two women. In between, the big cracks in the pavement spell stagnation and hope and resignation and the fact that necessity makes any kind of work dreary and exhausting.

Callers are reciting the prices of goods in alteration, their voices loud and monotonous, the repeated sounds blending into the street until there is no difference between them and the hooting of car horns, the shuffling of feet, bits of bland conversations or the snivel of a baby on a hawker’s back.

The great migration begins slowly, taking its place like a person with a designated seat entering a room. Hawkers gather their wares by pulling together the four corners of whatever the goods are spread on, and putting the bundles on their backs. They march away from the city council askaris sighted at the far end of the street. Sometimes there’s barely time to run into the narrow alleys at the end of which the friend of a sister’s neighbour might allow you to hide in his shop. This time, however, there is enough time and they move away slowly. The two women remain where they are. The commotion is so silent and unhurried that they miss the signs.

*

Outside the city centre, seventeen kilometres to the west, it is raining, not just drizzling. There is a boy in a house. Drops roll off the gutter on the roof, fall into the puddle below and leap back up as many tiny shards of themselves. The scene repeats itself again and again. There is a patch of haze on the window where the boy’s breath communes with the glass while he watches the drops. He stands, chewing on his thoughts, a small living portrait framed by the window. It’s unusual for one so young to stand still for so long.

In the distance, he can see the undulation of the tiled roofs of two houses down the hill. They are very close to each other. One has a flat roof and the other slopes steeply. The houses below the roofs are magnificent and yet sharply different. He is drawn to them, and their refusal to be average roofs of average houses. He doesn’t like in-betweens. There is something attractive about extremes. Perhaps it’s because he has experienced so many extremes in his short life. Extreme fear has been the most pervasive. Even watching the raindrops and seeing the roofs makes him anxious. He is afraid that, any time now, this new silent beauty he has found will be stolen from him. If he was older, he would realise just how apt it is to think of such things as being ‘stolen’. For now, he is just afraid.

The boy hears footsteps behind him and instinctively leaps away from the window. He sits in the corner of the room, his arms hugging his knees. He waits. He is afraid to breathe lest his breathing be too loud. He wishes he had no heart because it beats so loud and fast. He wishes he could disappear, or spatter into a million inconsequential pieces like the drops of rain. Then there would be nothing left of him to hit or spit at.

The door flies open suddenly. If the thudding in his chest was less thunderous he might have heard the bang when the door handle hit the wall behind it. A man, his father, walks in. The boy tries to push farther into the wall, as if that were possible.

“Where the hell is your mother?”

The boy knows that it will not matter what answer he gives, or even whether he answers or not. He closes his eyes and waits for it. He is not disappointed. The two kicks land at exactly the same spot on his left hip. A bruise just below that spot is still fresh and raw. He can hear his father’s voice but doesn’t hear what else is said. The pain takes over. Soon his entire left leg is throbbing. He is lucky today. Only two kicks. Perhaps he should say thank you. He sees his father pause at the door and look back at him. He hears the door banging shut behind his father. He stands slowly and goes back to the window, rubbing his hip. There is something comforting about the constancy of the raindrops. Tap-tap-tap-tap. Like the tears falling from his eyes.

The boy doesn’t know that something haunts his father the way his fear haunts him. He doesn’t know that the memory of guilt can be more debilitating than present fear.

*

In the city centre, the drawing hand is now moving in a sort of frenzy. The long smooth strokes have been replaced by quick short ones. The lines are taking form. In another place, at another time, someone walking past might have stopped to marvel at the drawing and to say art-savvy things about it. Instead, people are a little less than careful about not stepping on the paper and making the edges even muddier. Still, she draws.

Curtains are drawn over her mind so that only those thoughts and sensations evoked by the action of drawing are let through. She will only fraternize with the exterior if there is novelty in the way something makes her feel, like that grand moment as a little girl when she realised that her father was neither omnipotent nor omniscient and she knew a new fear. It was new and new is always good. She likes the newness of being on the street, drawing on the ground. Perhaps there’s even something in the newness of being a mother without being a mother.

The other woman has stopped laughing. Mockery can only be savoured if there is a victim for it.

The two city council askaris descend on them silently. They are not wearing any uniforms. They kick the sack and the plastic sheet and toss insults at the women, their actions coloured with the indifference of men who do what they do as a passive acceptance of duty. Belts and mobile phone covers are strewn all over the street. The other woman is screaming and one of the askaris is roughing her up without decorum. The other askari looks at the drawing for a long moment. He grabs it and crumples it up before throwing it. It tumbles onto the road. The artist dives after it. Rubber screeches against tarmac, but the driver has stepped on the brake pedal a moment too late.

The paper is flattened under the car tyre. It’s now both crumpled and wet. She picks it up anyway. Her companion is trying to salvage what she can of her belts. The askaris, amused, watch the woman who has just risked her life for a stupid muddy drawing walk away.

It’s a sign. The re-death of false art.

She walks unhurriedly; not like one whose life has been interrupted. Just before she rounds a corner to the place where she will take a bus home she stops. There is no jutting roof at that point. She does not feel the drizzle falling on her, caressing her, dampening her clothes and skin. Her oblivion is not unlike that of the female driver who just sped past her, having hit a man a hundred metres back. They are linked in their disregard for the things that others might call ‘living’.

She is staring at a cream building with burgundy pillars, the one that houses the National Archives. The colours remind her of the beginning of her sins, the time when she began to run away from herself. It’s the way they are somehow indefinite, cream running away from being yellow and burgundy from being red. She licks dry lips and lets her tongue linger over the place where there is slight bleeding, enjoying the taste of it. She takes out a piece of paper from the little leather cross-shoulder bag resting on her left hip and replaces it with the crumpled one she rescued. This one is smooth except for the creases along the folds. She opens it up carefully and fingers the lines and the curves. Her finger pauses for a long time where the arch of the dome intersects with the rest of the building in the picture. Her mind is brought to thoughts of her childhood, to that time when she spent a night lying on her back on the veranda of the high-school dormitory because it was a beautiful night and she wanted to watch the stars; to the punishment she got afterwards when she was accused of conspiring to spend the night alone with the night-guard and to the realisation that she would always be suspected and misunderstood.

The Hagia Sophia. If only I were a real artist.

Later, she won’t remember how long she stood there, or how she eventually walked to and boarded a bus. She won’t remember the things she saw outside the window during the seventeen kilometre ride, or even the people who sat near her, but she will remember a girl’s dress with straight and curved lines printed on it. She will remember wanting to take that girl’s hand to kiss it, so that the girl would know how beautiful it is to don art and become one with art and not be aware of it. She will remember wanting to rip off a bit of the dress at the hem, to put it in her bag next to the folded paper. She will remember reaching out to touch it and stopping just before she did because she felt a stare and nothing destroys artful moments like stares.

She waits at the door and steps out of the bus before it comes to a complete stop. The conductor shouts a warning at her, one about how women must not lengthen their strides. She smiles without turning to look at him.

Here, she cannot ignore the rain. The heavy drops make her squint. She is drenched in just a few seconds. She cares only that the pieces of paper in the bag are spared from the rain.

One must be genius to be a real artist. I am no genius.

As she walks, she sees a child at a window of one of the houses she is passing. She cannot tell whether the child is a boy or girl. She squints some more but the rain blurs everything. She does not notice that the child sees her looking and waves at her hesitantly. He thought she was smiling at him.

She arrives at the gate and rings the bell. A watchman opens and greets her, then closes the gate behind her. She has to walk round her sister’s car to the front door because the car is parked badly, the wheels still turned to the side. She can hear movement inside but she lets herself in. She is not eager to be assailed with questions.

Inside, the smell of fried fish hails her. She’s not hungry. On the way to her room, her brother sees and greets her. She mumbles something. He asks her how her day was, but by that time she has reached the stairs and is already ascending. This time she does not bother replying. He watches her until she is no longer visible and, for a moment, looks as though he will follow her.

“Why have you stopped using your car?” He knows she can’t hear him.

“And school? Why won’t you go anymore?”

He asks her often if she is fine. The first time she said yes, she just needs to find her muse. These days she just looks at him.

The wet, crumpled piece of paper goes into a bottom drawer along with dozens of others. There are more in the wastepaper basket. Nobody is allowed to empty that bin. It’s not a place for wastepaper to her; just a different kind of storage space. She thinks she might find her muse in there.

Don’t fear. There is nothing to find inside you; nothing that could be called art.

The following morning she does not return to the city centre. She needs something new. She walks for a while and finally finds a shaded spot next to the road. She sits on the curb, her legs stretched out. She takes out her pencil and paper. There are packets of artificial serenity around her, put there by the people who had the houses in that place built, packets meant to justify the houses’ prices. She has no use for such packets.

Every so often, a car horn hoots as the driver swerves to avoid her outstretched legs. Sometimes she looks up but most time she does not. She only stops drawing once, after about five hours, to walk across the road to a kiosk. She buys something for her headache, a bottle of mineral water and a small packet of biscuits. That’s all she eats that day.

At 4:04, a school bus stops a few metres away. A boy alights and walks towards her, his school bag bouncing on his back. She hears his soft footsteps and looks up. She wonders what connection her mind is trying to make about this boy. He is looking straight at her. She wonders whether the deep sadness in the boy’s eyes is imposed by her own imagination. He stops right next to her. She smiles at him, although she is hoping he will not interrupt her drawing with the sort of endless chatter that children often spit out. He sits next to her. He doesn’t say anything. She resumes her drawing. After a while, he takes out a book and a pencil from his bag. He flips to the back of the book and he too begins to work, glancing up regularly to look at her and see the face one should wear while working. They don’t speak.

When some time has passed, she leans over to see what the boy is doing. When he catches her looking, he moves closer and shows her. The words ‘A STORY’ are scribbled on the top of the page. His letters are wiggly, as though his hand quivers when he writes. Below the title there are a few sentences. She reads them with the eagerness with which he shows them to her.

Once upon a time their was a mighty warrier. He was tall and big. He had big hands.HesHis legs were tall. One day he wanted to know a song. It was a love song. His friend to teach him. But his vois wasraufrough. He did not know how to sing. But he want to sing. One day

The words end. She reads them several times. There is a peculiar melancholy hidden in the words, as if he is trying to express something beyond him. She sees in the child a sad thoughtfulness. She gives the book back to him and he resumes his writing. She bends over her drawing. She can’t get the child’s story out of her mind. The words dance in her mind and before her eyes. She sees L for love when she draws a slightly curved line and, in another line, the long straight legs of a warrior.

I want to be a child again. Children are art. I was once art.

That is the day she finishes her drawing, months after she began it. That day, with the warrior’s love song spinning in her head, the parts of her drawing that have always refused coherence find their natural meeting places and fuse smoothly into each other.

Art must be the thing at the intersection of the disparate.

The boy has been looking at her drawing for some time now. He is awed as only a child can be. She does not stop to marvel at her creation. She folds up the large sheet, puts it in the bag she always carries and takes out the other piece of paper, which is always there. She has always wanted to create her own Hagia Sophia, her very own piece of unmatched beauty.

She is still looking at the picture when a beige car stops in front of them. A man in a charcoal suit steps out and shuts the door. The boy’s little hands clutch onto her arm. The boy cries out and she hears the fear in his voice. He drops his pencil and it rolls and rolls and rolls down the road. The man looms above them, glaring at the boy. The boy is crying, squeezing his head into her underarm. She puts an arm around him. He whimpers. The man looks at the person who dares shield his son from him.

He gasps and moves back, puts out his hand and leans on the car. It’s the eyes. Her eyes. Those eyes! He remembers them, young as he was then. How could he forget? He can still see them looking up at him from the ground, that look preceded by a hollow cracking sound when the little body slipped from his hands and the little skull met the concrete. Koh! And now the eyes were looking at him again, from the face of a stranger who could not possibly be related to the little corpse.

The weight of the memory pushes down on him and he slides down the side of the car to the ground. He starts to weep, his cries more pitiful than those of his son.

There is a strange beauty in sorrow. There is art in tears.


Wambui Wairua (@wambuiwairua) is a Kenyan lawyer and a writer in search of the exquisite in the mundane. She is fascinated by the 3-strand braid that is law, writing and development.

THE GOD WITH TWELVE HANDS by Alexander Ikawah

He is riding Bayi’s bicycle as well as Bayi’s wife.

“He is riding Bayi’s bicycle as well as Bayi’s wife.”

“Toto! Toto!”

The fleshy Indian woman doing the yelling was at the supermarket counter, her head wrapped in a green sari, a set of gaudy bangles and chokers jangling as she shouted. The man her remonstrations were directed at was half-hidden behind a pile of boxes, pretending to dust something on a low shelf. Shoppers paused to stare at the scene, some clucking their disapproval, others suppressing their derision. It had become a staple of village gossip in recent days.

“Toto!” she called again.

The man took his time; he knew what she wanted. It was almost half past one, her time to feed the demon child. He walked over to the counter. The Indian woman was locking the cash register.

“Angalia customer, mimi iko enda lunch.”

She opened the metal door behind the shelf with electronics and batteries and disappeared into the back. The boy was already banging his tin plate on the floor. The screaming was going to start soon.

*

Before Bayi set up shop in Migori, Indians were mythical figures. Their sightings, whenever one or two drove through the dusty one-street town from Kisumu on their way to the border at Sirare, sent little children into frenzy.

“Chuti! Chuti!” they would shout as they chased the car until they could see it no more.

Then one day a Suzuki Vitara stopped in the middle of town and an Indian got out. He casually walked up to a telephone booth near the post office and began to place a call. When he finished and came out, there was a crowd in front of the post office that could have filled half the local showground. An excited babble went up, punctuated by loud shouts and laughter.

“Come Anyango! There is an Indian in that telephone booth!”

“You always wanted to see a Jaindi—here is one.”

The Indian casually lit a match and a hush fell upon the crowd. He lit the cigarette, took a deep drag and blew the smoke out through his moustache. The crowd burst into laughter.

“Look at his moustache; it looks like a rat on his face.”

More laughter rent the air. The crowd moved closer; a brave man leaned forward to inspect the dot on the Indian’s head.

“Javan, is that a hole on his forehead?”

“No, this looks like ink.”

“Why does he have a tach on his head? Should I get him a water pot?” asked a woman close by.

There was more laughter from the gathered crowd. The Indian, now a bit unnerved by their enthusiasm, ventured to wave his hand gingerly.

“Habari ya vatu ya Migori?” he said in broken Swahili. Javan jumped back in surprise and the crowd roared with laughter.

“Mzuri jaindi!” some people chorused in reply.

“Javan, what are you scared of?” asked another young man, laughing.

“What a strange kind of human,” a woman at the back of the crowd whispered to her friend. “Who would sleep with such a person?” A friend of theirs standing close by overheard them and turned, a twinkle in her eye.

“The fellow has not been in town five minutes and you two are already thinking of sleeping with him,” and they all laughed again, patting each other in their mirth.

The Indian tried to say something again but the babble overrode his words, so he took another drag on the cigarette. Javan, eager to redeem himself, took matters into his own hands.

“Shhhh! Hey! Quiet, I think the Indian wants to say something.” The crowd quieted, their eyes on the Indian.

“Jina langu Jamubhai, na mimi nasema kwamba… naenda kuja ishi hapa Migori na nyinyi hivi karibuni,” the Indian shouted in his loudest voice.

“What has he said?” shouted a drunk from the back.

“That his name is Bayi and he wants to come and live here in Migori very soon!” Javan shouted. The crowd went quiet.

Just then, a government landrover drew up and two policemen jumped out. The crowd scattered in an instant. The District Commissioner came out of the car and went to shake Bayi’s hand. Migori had an Indian. Soon it would have its first supermarket, occupying its first building with more than one floor.

Five months later, the supermarket was completed under the supervision of the District Commissioner himself. Migori woke up one day to find the building occupied. Bayi’s rotund wife Archana was brushing her teeth on the balcony which faced the street, and the village women who were on their way to the market insist that when they greeted her she looked down the barrel of her nose and aimed a large gob of toothpaste at them.

The supermarket occupied the ground floor of the single-storey building and the Bayis occupied the first floor. The notice for help wanted was stuck to the door the next day, and when Javan walked in to try his luck Bayi hired him on the spot.

“He is a popular man,” he explained to his wife. “He will bring us lots of business.”

“Don’t go making friends with these people,” she retorted in Hindi.

“Now Archana, I will be away most of the time taking care of the business in Kisumu. Please try to get along with everyone.”

She didn’t reply. Her gaze, when it fell upon Javan, was that of a surgeon regarding a fly in the operating room. Despite Archana, Shivling Supermarket was soon thriving and it was not all due to Javan’s shame. Rumour had it as well that the Indian man, Bayi, had sacrificed his youngest son to ensure success for his supermarket.

“They are devil-worshippers.”

“No, they worship an Indian god with twelve hands. If you go to the supermarket and look on the wall above the counter you will see a picture of him.”

The chatter would subside when Javan passed near them and bubble up as soon as he was out of earshot.

“And where do they put the demon child?”

“He sits in the back room all day, playing with toys and soiling himself.”

“That is no child. I have heard he is almost 16 years old.”

“My god! What about the older one?”

“A girl, lives in Kisumu with her father. I hear he has business there too.”

“Twelve hands! That must surely be a demon.”

Later they would troop to Shivling Supermarket to count the demon god’s hands.

*

The door behind the counter led to a small room with a set of stairs under which the boy’s bed things were spread. The rest of the space was full of boxes, an unofficial storeroom.

The commotion of feeding could be heard from Javan’s side of the door every lunch time. He had reconstructed the scene playing out behind the door many times from the smells and sounds alone. The boy would shout through mouthfuls of food and spit if he did not like what he was fed. When he spat, the sharp voice of Bayi’s wife would ring out through the door, “Haku!” followed by the sharp report of a slap and then a keening that rose into a full-throated bawl despite her desperate soothing exhortations. A few minutes later, she would open the door hurriedly, her sari stained with gruel.

“Toto!” she would call out, “Patia mimi sweeti mbili hapo haraka.”

Javan would pass her the bowl of tropical mints and she would pick two and quickly return, locking the door behind her. Soon, the boy would be silent.

“Toto!” Archana called now as she re-emerged from the enterprise, “Enda tupa hii. Chap chap!”

She was holding out a green polythene bag, its opening tied shut. Its contents, though concealed, emitted a cloying fecund odour. The boy had soiled himself. Javan looked around hoping no shoppers were witnessing this new humiliation and then took the bag between forefinger and thumb and headed out the front. Behind him, Archana counted everything she had left on the counter audibly, so he could hear her as he went. When he returned, he found a tin cup of hot black tea and four dry slices of white bread on the counter—his lunch. He took them and went to sit at the entrance.

“Javan may be earning good money at that supermarket, but how does a full-grown man allow a woman to call him by a child’s name?”

“She treats him like a thief and a beggar.”

“Why does he stay?”

“I hear Bayi promised him a lot of money if he stayed until his return.”

“When is that?”

“In three months; December.”

“He won’t last one; have you seen the way he looks at her?”

“Toto!” Archana shouted irritably from behind the counter. Javan had hardly been eating for five minutes. “Maliza lunch yako chap chap! Iko kazi hapa!”

Javan poured out the remainder of his tasteless tea and headed back into the supermarket.

*

A hush fell momentarily upon the crowd at Kamumbo when Javan walked in that evening but the babble resumed immediately. Mumbo had spotted him and was wading through the drinkers with a jug and the sort of half-litre mug the locals called a pobop. Shivling Supermarket had killed his small shop within a month of opening and, after an unsuccessful foray into the hotel business, he had resorted to this. Though at first he had resented Javan for taking a job at the establishment that had ruined him, he had found Javan a faithful customer and now exhibited an open friendliness towards him.

“Omera, don’t sit so close to the door as though you are unwelcome at my establishment.”

They shook hands and laughed as Mumbo filled the mug with his wife’s special brand of moonshine. Then he was pulling Javan to the back room where only selected drinkers were allowed and where, at nine every night, his children spread their mats and slept, right in the middle of the revelry.

“Come, let me introduce you to my wife’s cousin Ogwel. He is from Kisumu, and he is as tired of Indians as you are.”

Ogwel was already tipsy, gregarious from the drink. He greeted Javan as if they were old friends and began talking as soon as they sat down.

“They call everybody “Toto.” In Kisumu we are used to it.”

He took a long swig from his pobop and waited for Javan to do the same.

“Let me tell you something,” he continued. “In Kisumu, an Indian like Bayi does not talk where other Indians are talking. It is the reason he has moved here.”

“Why?” Javan asked.

“Because he is a nobody, a small Indian. In India, men like him wash the feet of other Indians. That’s why the other Indians have refused to marry his daughter.”

“They have? What does she look like?” asked Mumbo, appearing out of nowhere to fill their mugs.

“Like her mother,” Ogwel spat.

“In that case, Bayi is an unlucky man,” said Mumbo.

“If you marry a crocodile don’t be surprised when she gives birth to a monitor lizard,” Ogwel added, and the men laughed and drank. Javan was beginning to feel tipsy. Mumbo was speaking to him now.

“Omera, when are you leaving that god-forsaken job?” he asked.

“December—I promised Bayi. He said that he’ll bring me a bicycle,” Javan confessed.

“It won’t happen,” Ogwel declared, looking at Javan over the rim of his raised mug. “If you think an Indian will take money out of his pocket and give it to a black person, promise or not, you’re in for a rude shock.”

*

“Toto!” Archana called from behind the counter the next day. Javan was at the far end of the first aisle and he walked over, unhurried. There were no customers in the supermarket. The clock on the counter read half past one. Feeding time.

She clanged the door behind the counter shut and disappeared into the house beyond. The boy must have been hungry today because he had been banging his dish since noon. She had left an Indian magazine on the counter and Javan leafed through it lazily, waiting. Younger Indian women, it seemed, smiled a bit more than Archana. There were recipes—one for something that looked like a big green shit. He winced in disgust at the sight of it on an expensive-looking dinner plate. He could hear her coming down the stairs now and the plate clanging got a little louder. She shouted something at the boy and he stopped banging the plate and then there was silence.

A customer walked in, one of the market women. She sold deep-fried fish and sun-dried whitebait. She was looking for cooking fat, the cheap unbranded one that came in polythene-wrapped mounds. He pulled down the box with the cooking fat, took the woman’s money, and watched her leave. As he came back to the counter, he thought he heard a scuffle but he paid no heed to it. He returned to the magazine and opened another page. It was eerily quiet though. The boy usually made a fuss every time he was fed. An Indian man and woman were dancing on the page—now that would be a sight!

He heard it again, the distinct sound of scuffling bodies, and this time it was followed by a scream that ended short. Something was wrong behind the door. He banged it and tried to listen. First nothing, then the sound of body against body, cloth against cloth, bone against floor. A woman’s cry this time, and something struck against the door from the inside. He looked down to see what it was. It was Archana’s set of keys. She was yelling now as the sound of blow after blow came from behind the door.

He bent down and pulled at the bunch of keys, dislodging it from the bottom of the door. He was trembling slightly when he fitted the key into the door and opened it. The boy was a sight to behold, his eyes wild and his face splattered with food. He sat astride his mother, striking, striking, and trying to find purchase on her bejeweled neck which she protected fiercely with her hands. When she turned her face towards Javan, he saw that she was bloodied around her nose.

Javan grabbed a raised wrist and the boy’s rage turned on him. Screaming and flailing wildly, the boy came at Javan who struck without thinking like one fighting a wild animal. His fist caught the boy across the temple and threw him over his mother’s prone body and onto his makeshift bed where he stayed whimpering softly. His mother cried out with the blow, as though it were her own body Javan had struck. She struggled to sit up and Javan, seeing the boy neutralized as it were, turned his attention to her. Her neck was bruised as were her arms and shoulders and she was still bleeding from the nose. He helped her to her feet and up the stairs, to the house nobody had yet been invited to, and sat her on a sofa from where she signaled to him that his help was enough. He returned downstairs, the boy hiding his face when he passed, and went back to the counter and the magazine. The clock on the counter read a quarter to two. It had all taken about ten minutes.

He worked alone the entire afternoon. At about three, he heard her come down and give the boy a bath. There was no commotion. An hour later she emerged and took over the counter from him. Only when they were closing did she finally speak to him.

“Thank you, Jaban.”

*

Four months later, on a hot January afternoon, the Suzuki Vitara pulled up next to the telephone booth near the post office and an Indian got out. He walked into the telephone booth and began to make a phone call. A couple of children drew close, mischievous grins on their faces; they wanted to hear first hand the strange intonation of the Indian’s speech that they had so often made a joke of with their friends. The Indian shooed them away with his loose hand, frowning when they repeated phrases of his speech to each other and bobbed their heads exaggeratedly. Occupied by their mirth, they didn’t notice the man on the brand new Raleigh bicycle stop behind them and pluck a sprig of lantana camara. He left some green leaves on the tip of it and caught them by surprise, lashing out left and centre as the children squealed with excitement and scattered. It was just another part of the fun for them.

“Don’t let me catch you bothering Bhai again!” he shouted at their retreating backs, but there was a smile in his eyes.

“Wachana na sisi, Jaban,” the children teased, mispronouncing his name in the same fashion as his masters did. Bhai stepped out of the phone booth and walked to the car. He opened the boot and lifted out a large polythene bag with some difficulty.

“Peleka hii kwa mama,” he said to Javan, handing him the bag. The other man slung it across his shoulder and turned to leave. Bhai would be away for another month, taking care of his businesses in Kisumu. In his absence, Javan would work the till, run errands for Archana and endure the gossip of the market women.

“Has Javan been here today? I sent for cooking fat from the supermarket ages ago.”

“You know he’ll only come after two o’clock, when the demon child has been fed.”

“The demon child that tried to kill its own mother?”

“The very same.”

“What a terrible thing.”

“What do you think happens behind that door when he’s in there with her?”

“Awino stop being ill-mannered.”

“No, I heard it’s true. He is riding Bayi’s bicycle as well as Bayi’s wife.”

“Nonsense!”

“How can anybody have sex in there, with that demon on the wall?”

“What demon?”

“Don’t you know? The child’s master, the god with twelve hands.”


Alexander Ikawah (@filmkenya) is a writer and film maker living and working in Nairobi, Kenya. He fell in love with stories as soon as he could read, and has always loved to write, recently being shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story prize in 2013. Though he mostly works on short stories, his intention is to write the next great African novel. When he is not writing or reading, he watches and talks about films with a small but growing community of young Kenyan film makers and script writers.

THE EASE WITH WHICH ONE DIES by Anne Moraa

Her butterflies remained, but turned black and white except one: chlorine blue.

“Her butterflies remained, but turned black and white except one: chlorine blue.”

She said it aloud, in her mind she thought, but her lips moved.

AN OBSERVATION ON THE PLACE THAT WAS RUINED

I have coffee there.

Had.

The table was far too busy laughing falsely to notice her running her words over and over again. She barely registered their laughs herself. She was writing a poem. She had to write a poem.

She used to be a poet. That’s what she used to call herself: Poet. Not pretentiously, not arrogantly, not in public. Subconsciously, in the corner of her mind where one names oneself and says, “This is who I am”. She hadn’t written since. She only drew the letter r and saw a broken cup and thought these thirteen words and grew thin (all food had ash in it) and grew weak (all thoughts had him in them) and did not smile. She had not written and it was ruining her.

Her name, to the world, is Beatrice.

She sat at the end of the dinner table, trying impossibly to ignore her family and attempting to be disengaged. She wished she was bored. No one ever writes of boredom, the richness of it, the heavy weight of it, the comfort—like a blanket—of having nothing to do and time to do it in, of flipping channels or dozing in a lecture hall or on school holidays. Boredom is the space in which inspiration is found. She missed those moments in childhood when time stretches into the distance ahead of you, when you cannot decide which game to play and you needn’t decide just yet. Words used to run to her then and she would run with them, catch them as one does butterflies and pin them to pages. Millions of butterflies would flit past her eyes in that endless moment just before she fell asleep, forming patterns and swirls, poetry, delirious boredom. Here she was instead, forced out of her boredom, forced to half-listen to awkward small talk, all of them but her unwilling to accept that they were bored of each other.

She ran through “An Observation” a few more times before she sighed and let it go. Those words were a bird with a broken wing: weak, dying and fighting. Those words dipped their ends in red: a pool of it, caused by, coloured by, iron. Those words were printed on a moth’s wings: brown, dry and lonely. The butterflies of before had yet to come back. Her butterflies. Black and white butterflies—words would come to rest on her mind, her tongue, on her fingertips.

The table was set beautifully: red table-runner, beaded place-mats, slender candles on wooden candlesticks sculpted in generic ‘African’ form to impress the mzungu. Thin smoke from candles. Wide steam from serving dishes. Oodles of food that they “ate everyday” specially bought and cooked to be ethnic enough to be different yet still palatable to his white tongue. Conversation that jumped in fits and starts as people gulped at a momentary change of topic, dying for something interesting, running towards it, celebrating it, only to find it as dry and fleeting as the last.

She could not find words in this. It was not true boredom: there was effort here, pauses filled with awareness, with a fear of silence, a desire to obliterate silence. It was exhausting. It would have been much simpler really if she could have said, “This is boring”, sat silently, and they joined her in the silence.

He, the mzungu, sat at the head of the table—of course—laughing loud American laughs. The delicious colonialist placing of a white man at the head of the table was lost on everyone but her. She didn’t mind him as such; he left her alone after the first few tepid conversations (in which he talked and she nodded deferentially). She later overheard him whisper to her sister, “She’s different”.

Her mother sat on his right hand—of course—and added story after story, eager to make him feel welcome, alternating between her warm we-have-guests voice and cold disappointed-in-you-voice. She kept the latter in Kiswahili, saved it for whenever he, her daughters, her maids or her husband displeased. “Kwani ulimwaga chumvi ndani ya sukuma au nini?” A tart comment to her sister hidden, for the mzungu’s sake, with a smile.

“Sorry Mom, I have to remind you again, David doesn’t speak Swahili.” Her sister’s thick, put-on posh accent was framed with the same smile. Anita (daughter) and Lucy (mother) smile wide at each other, each sharp white tooth cutting into the other’s skin. Anita: Her mother’s daughter.

“No, no, don’t worry. I am learning. Kwe…no…kwa…‘kwa-ni’? Means ‘what’, right?” Loud American laugh.

“Yes babe, she was just asking if I poured all the salt into the kale. Oh Mom, I just thought I’d give it a little flavour.”

Lucy’s sharp-toothed smile broke into a sharp-edged laugh. “Oh Anita, you. We don’t make it like this always you know, we are very health conscious here. “Me, I never use salt unless I absolutely have to,” she told the mzungu.

Beatrice tasted on her mind’s tongue the bland ugali of her youth, complemented by bland bitter greens and no meat. Her mother was using a truth she learnt just the other day, when she got satellite TV for the first time and found chefs to justify her bland cooking.

Not for the guest though. For him, steam wafted from beef stew and chicken masala.

Beatrice watched her mother and sister fight, the sort of fight that happens through the scraping of a knife across a plate, or a pause between words meant and words spoken. They were far too similar and despised each other for it, which is why they were so close, speaking almost every night on the phone before Anita moved in with the mzungu. Their banter continued, but Beatrice couldn’t catch their words and so chased her own.

She stared at the moth wriggling beside the plate. She tried to change its words. Had. No. Have. I have coffee there. Will have. Will. I had coffee there. Will. A future implied, a determination. A choice. She had coffee there, she will, she chooses.

It’s been a year. More than. After.

She went by around two weeks later with a press pass. Passed empty stores and holes in ceilings, walls. Walked through the café where she had had coffee. It was ashy and broken. It was too big to clean. It was too hard to clean. Of the many shards and shattered glass, of the broken lives and raided shelves, she focused on a sliver of a white cup sticking out from a pile of rubble. The letter r sat on the sliver, proud and comfortable, not worried that it was all alone, a sliver of a broken cup. She took a photo of it for her article knowing it would not make it to print, but she didn’t care what made it to print. She never wrote the article anyway. The words, her butterflies, were scared off during. She saw them fly away and hide beneath a table. She couldn’t chase after them. She had left them behind. She took another photo. She had to capture that r before it was brushed away. It was a beautiful r.

“Rather riveting really”. She snapped back into the room. The r again, by the American. “The way numbers work has always fascinated me. I almost couldn’t help becoming an actuary. I’m just a math geek honestly!” Loud American laugh. She heard a snort in there, a snort she imagined became a snore in the night. Sis laughed too, icy, a laugh to prove that he was funny, that he was a good one. “An Acturial Scientist”, they would say at the wedding. “An Acturial Scientist all the way from America for our Angel Anita”. Seven years away and she came back with an Actuarial Scientist. Rather riveting really.

Beatrice’s father cringed at the laughter. He ate politely. He stared down at his plate, meticulously cut and portioned each bite, chewed methodically, swallowed at regular intervals. He always ate with some deliberation but today each bite served as distraction from the dinner, each bite had purpose. Poet saw it in the dead set of his clenched jaw, clenched even when he opened his mouth to eat. He was irritated by his darling wife’s insistence on using the fine cutlery they had received as wedding presents all those years ago, gifts which had not merited opening even once before. He was a thinker, years in a small flat, stringently and diligently saving for his house, working and scratching the left side of his head with his right hand, a tic repeated in thought. He worked in years not moments. Moments were fleeting, passed easily, but years sneak up on you. You can find yourself walled in by years, brick by brick. Then you’re stuck in place. Plan, he said, at the small desk in the corner of the two-bedroom flat. Plan, he said, at the large study filed with books and stature.

She scratched her left temple with her right hand. She, Beatrice, felt sad. She knew that she, with her half-dead smile and empty notebook, broke his heart a second time (after the first when her brother broke it) when she couldn’t move on. They planned. She, Poet, felt nothing: her plans were shot during, bled to death on the floor slowly, died instant deaths, were crushed by rubble, hid in corners, couldn’t hide, not even after they escaped. They failed.

He failed.

He, with his plans and thoughts of years, was never bored or inspired. He, who thought himself brave, never thought to tell his wife that he hated her cooking.

“What do you think?” The American was asking her about…something. Everyone looked at her.

I’m sorry, she thought, but the words caught in her throat. She raised her right eyebrow and turned her head slightly to the left, quizzical. Her mother interrupted, protective. “She was lost in her own world, weren’t you sweetie? Such an artist, this one.”

An artist. Poet, artist. Painter. She of the Painter. Her brother. He died before it. He died before the words fluttered away, when they were children, when she would write letters and he would colour them. Finger paints. It was an accident. She doesn’t remember. She choked chlorine water too. A murky water, blue-green. Her brave father saved her, his daughter. His son broke his heart. Her butterflies remained, but turned black and white except one: chlorine blue.

Then they all left: blue, black and white. They left when their wingtips touched red. He would have liked that red. A painter’s red. It was deep and rust filled. It turned black quicker than she had expected. Perhaps because of the ash. Perhaps because of shadows. Perhaps the colour simply drained. It didn’t turn black. It turned brown. Moth brown. She choked salt water too. Her own. When he landed in front of her, eyes open, red. During.

“…artists. Could never be one myself—don’t have a single talent me!” Loud American laugh. “It must be amazing to get so absorbed in thought, inspirations. Must help you deal with.…” The last sentence slipped from his mouth without him knowing; the last words were caught by Anita’s sudden strong grip of his thigh.

with

She heard it. Poet felt the word leave her mouth. Beatrice heard herself say it. It was out loud. Beatrice/Poet watched a butterfly fly from between their lips, quivering, surprised by the light, by its existence. She said it again.

“With?”

A long pause. She wondered how the conversation got here from (too) salted kale. She imagined a shift from the literal meaning of “sukuma wiki”—“push the week, imagine, it was so cheap then, it was survival”—to the cost of food, to economics, to politics, to art, to her, to the yet to be stated during. She imagined her father’s tight lips getting tighter as the conversation grew more serious and her mother’s loud voice getting brasher to cover her ignorance. Her sister would pretend to be uninterested, gently stroking the American’s thigh, feeling the rebellion coursing through her fingertips onto his khaki trousers, trousers bought special for the heat he imagined he would find in Africa. Poet was grateful for him. He brought it up.

“Well, with?” More confident. The butterfly landed on the tip of his nose. He replied, hesitant.

“I…er…I meant.…”

“He just meant with your work, that’s all. She is such a marvellous writer, so gifte—”

“I was.” She felt a breeze. Butterfly. Butterflies. Two. More appearing. Many wings fluttering. “I was…” A confession. Brutal. Cathartic. “…a writer. I haven’t written. Not one word. Not since.”

They stared at her, surprised. Her voice was strong.

“You know this.” Poet to Mother. Poet to table.

A challenge.

Subtext: Tell me you didn’t know. A year on. Dad, the moment you came to visit, to see why I couldn’t pay my rent, when you saw the tossed papers in the bin, scribbled with jagged lines, crowded r’s. When you threw them away and didn’t say a word. When I came home. Mom, a year on, more than, when you feed and clothe me like I am a baby those moments when a glass breaks or the sky is too cloudy or I overhear whispered shouts from your room. Or smell coffee. When you drink tea. Sis, when the American came and you laid out this dress, said we are having dinner. When you rush past me and pretend I am introverted, not broken. When we pretend I am good. When we pretend I am writing a novel. When you all talk so loud that no one notices I talk hardly ever. You know this. Tell me you don’t.

No one responded.

Poet, “Let him say it. With?”

“Sis, B…he doesn’t know.” “Let him say it. With?”

“Sis—”

“No.” Shout.

“Let him say it.” Silent.

Silence.

A tableau was presented: a mother, eager to please, buries her worries beneath the table-runner; a sister, who knows she doesn’t know her sibling Baby B anymore, realises she can’t even speak to her; a father, aware that waiting for an answer may be too much to ask but too afraid to speak; a man who let four words slip and wishes he could swallow them whole; Beatrice/Poet, surrounded by butterfly letters, wings grazing her face and hands, finally they are back, they are finally back, after.

Silence.

A crash.

In the kitchen.

The maid had dropped a pan into the sink and broken a glass. A glass she had polished repeatedly during the morning. It was to be washed and rinsed and dried out before dinner, after fresh mango juice had filled it at tea time, so the mzungu would find a clean kitchen. She reached into the suds floating in one half of the double-sink and pricked her finger on a shard. She felt the prick and winced, not from the pain but from the thought of what Madam would do to her when she found the broken glass.

A crash.

In the café.

During.

He grabbed her. He dropped her notebook. They ran. They hid behind a table. They held hands for the first time. Their eyes met as glass breaking in the window rained on the floor. Thick shards, neat breaks. They seemed to fall soft, like snow. His eyes were like a painter’s, the Painter’s, her dying Painter. He saw the colour in her skin. He could colour her words. One flitted by, a gentle purple, one of sunsets and sunrises. It was shaped like his name. She can’t say it. She’s scared. She’s heard of these things. Distant things. The occasional grenade in a backwater church. Not today. Not when her shirt is open one button too low. Not when he’s saved up to take her here, where she deserves. Not when they talked every night for days, for lifetimes. He moves. He falls. She can’t remember how or why. She remembers red by a coffee cup, a pool. It seemed to turn black fast. Maybe coffee. Maybe mixed. She remembers it like she remembers the glass falling, individual memories like individual raindrops. Not rain, raindrops before they land and cover the earth, a flood. She thinks he was shot. They said so after. She can’t remember being told to go by the shooter. She remembers showing her Painter her notebook. He was smiling. He read it aloud and she saw them gain life, wrestle free from the pins on the page, no longer monochrome. Full Technicolor; neon and pastel; acid and jewel tones; bright. Most died in the blast and the rapport; fell in the rubble; were stampeded by survivors; simply gave up and died, easy. Some remained. Those hovered over him. She left. She called to them. They refused. The neon faded back to grey, except one. It was rust red. It was angry. Except another. It was purple. No soft sunsets and sunrises. The purple in the centre of a flame. They were angry. Except another. Chlorine blue. It knew she would leave. They, at least, were loyal. They, at least, were brave. They smelt of coffee. She didn’t see him breathe his last breath. They did and they loathed her for it. They punished her with the brown moth. “An Observation” observing her for them.

The crash in the kitchen.

The table was grateful for the crash.

“Eh, kwani nini imefanyika jikoni jamani?” her mother said, pushing her seat from the table in that hurried exasperated manner saved for the help. She caught herself and smiled. “Please excuse me, let me see what’s happening in the kitchen.” She hurried off, swearing to herself.

The American turned to her sister and whispered something. They talked in hushed whispers, glancing, with poorly executed discretion, at Poet. Father’s knife scraped against his plate. It was dinner. A planned dinner. He was eating according to plan.

There were butterflies everywhere. They came out after that question, the unfinished “with”. They wanted to answer. They couldn’t feed on his spilled red, on his open eyes anymore. They had observed. Their spy told them she had few words left. Nearly none. Only the ones he carried on his bent wings. She was tired. They were sorry they left. He called them back; he, with his unfinished question, called them back. They filled the room and begged her to spell them out, to say them out, to write them out; to say how his eyes were the Painter’s eyes, how she can’t remember either day (chlorine blue and rust red) but she remembers both their eyes; to say she was happy he coloured her words again, that she missed the purple of sunrise and sunset; to say his name.

She was overwhelmed. She without her brother, without her love, never had a chance to love, both gone, one to chlorine blue, one to rust red, both of whose eyes burned purple fire; she, abandoned by words; she, without a family willing to speak; she, who had a mother who hid the photos of her dead son in the store; she, with a sister who didn’t speak of it, got a scholarship, left and seven years later returned only to flaunt her American; she, failing a father relentless in his pursuit of perfection, a father who failed to factor in something as obvious as death; she, who used to have her dreams, her poems, about him, her love; she, who imagined the feel of him, used to touch his hair, in her mind, a coconut oil slick on her hand as it rested on the back of his head when they kissed, a kiss that never happened; she, Beatrice, Poet without words, without butterflies, with a dying moth writhing on her tongue, was overwhelmed.

She could not do it.

She could not speak. She did not want to.

She was done.

With all of it.

Done with the smell of chicken stew and beef masala, with awkward conversation and even more awkward silences, with the side steps and avoidance, with the hanging question she almost answered. She would have answered before the crash in the kitchen. Before the crash in the café. Before the crash in the swimming pool.

Not after. The moment was gone.

The butterflies filled the room. They were real. Not distant images, not translations of a process. Real. Millions. Billions. She breathed in powder. She felt wind from their flight. She smelt ink, coffee, chlorine, rust. All black and white save for three: chlorine blue, rust red and fire purple. She felt tears. They were leading the others. They were dancing. Swirls and patterns of letters moved in the air, shifted. His eyes. Their eyes. Painters both.

She was done.

With the before and after. Before and after the crash in the kitchen. Before and after the crash in the café. Before and after the crash in the pool. During. Her life was cracked during. She was done. She didn’t want the words. Not anymore.

They were hurt.

She refused to care.

They flooded. They swarmed in. Her mouth, her nose, her ears. They flooded in. They rejected her rejection. How dare she? She choked. She felt them rush down her throat. The wings beat against her, within her, violent, sounded like thuds, felt like cuts. She felt them flutter in her lungs, one on top of the other on top of the other, filling it up like the smoky ash had, like the blue-green water had. She felt them bore into her ear canal, digging, antennae poking through her ear drum, wriggling, digging, boring through her brain. She didn’t cover her mouth, her nose, her ears. She took them in and felt herself, the little tiny corner of her, the back of her mind that called itself Poet, leave to make room for them.

Her father watched her lips part, barely, and shut. Again. Again. Silently they parted, as her mother shouted softly in the kitchen at the maid. Anita and David were too busy whispering to notice. He called her.

“Beatrice.” A long pause.

He heard her sigh. Saw her blink. Slide slightly in her chair. She was alive.

Surface.

“Beatrice!”

Beatrice sat in a room alone. It was filled with butterflies, all black and white except for three: chlorine blue, rust red, fire purple. The room was well lit. Bright. Huge. She was bored witless. She stared at the swirling patterns they made. Perhaps they were poems. She was indifferent. In her hand she held a moth. Brown. It wriggled. Almost dead. She smiled a little. Accepting of it. It was easy. She crushed its body between her fingertips. She did it carefully, let its wings stay unbruised. Its body released a gush. She felt it ooze onto her palm. Ink. The letters on its wings changed. Slightly.

She didn’t notice.


Anne Moraa is a creative writer and performer. Her poetry has been commissioned and performed at venues including the Festivale CulturElles at Alliance Francais to name but one. Her interest in all things ‘writing’ led to her work as an Editorial Assistant at Kwani?, and current Editor at Jalada Africa. She is presently studying for her Creative Writing (MA) in Fiction.  Find her on <a href="http://twitter.com/tweetmoraa“>@tweetmoraa.

JUST BECAUSE YOU DIDN’T WIN by Nyana Kakoma

Maguja made off with a chunk of my leg

“Maguja made off with a chunk of my leg.”

You will know you have reached Kiwamirembe Trading Centre when the taxi turns around and makes as if to take you back where you came from. By then, you will most likely be the only passenger in the taxi, the others having gotten off one by one at busier towns along the way. There will be a road sloping down to your left and a slight uphill climb on your right. Take the big, dusty road on your right.

Because you are new to the place, all the shop-keepers at the trading centre will stop what they will be doing and unashamedly stare. Some will whisper questions under their breath about who you might be and wonder who you could be looking for. If you so much as stop and allow your eyes to dart around in confusion Maama Dhikusoka, in a shrill voice which startles more than assures, will call out and ask how she can help you.

“Have you lost your way?” she will ask.

Your eyes might dart around some more, shocked by the attentive audience, but your brain will hopefully remember and allow your mouth to say, “I am looking for the village hall. I have a case to hear there.”

There will be a moment of conspiratorial silence. They will hesitate to help you, an outsider, called in to judge one of their own. But then they will remember the grudges they have against me and they will tell Maama Dhikusoka to give you directions. “You go on straight ahead. It’s the unfinished building with brown bricks. There is even a big guava tree in its compound. You can’t miss it.” They will then all close their shops and follow you to the village hall.

You will go past a dog tied to a tree like a goat. That is Maguja, the village bitch. If it is a cold afternoon, she will be lying down on her side, her huge, dirty tits cluttered in front of her like shoes outside a mosque. She will be deep asleep or her eyes will be half-closed bargaining for sleep. If it is a hot day, she will be howling like a wolf and trying hard to tear herself away from the tree.

These people believe my problems began the day Maguja bit me. It is always about a bitch after all, isn’t it? Maguja used to roam around freely, zigzagging across the road like a man in a drunken stupor. All the children knew her – she was there for as long as they could remember – and so she was never the kind of dog they were afraid of. Shop owners grudgingly threw her the scraps remaining from the little they ate.

At one time we were the best of friends, Maguja and I. Whenever I went out to the nearby forest to collect firewood or to the nearby swamp to collect clay to make bricks, Maguja went with me. It always felt like we were up to some huge hunting expedition. People got so used to seeing us together that when I was not seen with her they asked, “Did Maguja also finally get tired of you?”

The morning Maguja bit me is one that confuses me to date. People say I drank so much the evening before that I urinated all over myself. If I were you I wouldn’t believe that story. People here say all sorts of things about other people. I do remember, though, that for every step I took after downing my last glass of waragi the ground whirled under my feet and with every step I took the ground asked me, “Why bother?” I was determined to get to my bed but my head could not take the whirling and, eventually, the ground won. And so I lay down in Maama Mangada’s compound and tried to sleep. But sleep goes to people who are nicely tucked in their beds, their dreams warm and secure, so I ended up spending most of the night swatting mosquitoes away and begging Maama Mangada to let me into her house so I could sleep better. As soon as the sun came up I asked Seruyange, the boda boda man near Maama Mangada’s place, to take me home. After making me promise that I would indeed pay him his 500 shillings upon arrival, reminding me how hard it had been for me to pay him the last time, we set off.

It was a warm morning and Maguja was roaming around, begging for breakfast from the shopkeepers with her eyes. It must have been the rev of the boda boda that interrupted her begging because, overcome with what could have been a thousand demons, Maguja began to howl and chase after the boda boda. It was funny at first, seeing her not leisurely trotting but, for once, running full throttle like a real dog. I lifted my legs and taunted her, “Oh, look who can run!” Some shopkeepers sat up straight on the benches on their verandas, craned their necks, while others ran to the roadside and cheered Maguja on. Their cheers must have encouraged her because Maguja and her demons then grabbed at my pants and began to tear me off the boda boda. Seruyange tried to go faster but Maguja had me. “Maguja, Maguja, Maguja!” I tried to sternly call off her madness but she had me. Seruyange tried to go even faster. I jerked backwards, lost my grip on his waist and fell off the bike, hit my head on the dusty, hard road and Maguja made off with a chunk of my leg. Howling like I was possessed by Maguja’s demons, I cried out for help to a stunned crowd. When they finally shook off their shock, they thought of ways to get me to a doctor. Seruyange, more annoyed about his money than the mad chase with Maguja, first refused to take me. Who wanted to ride a man as cursed as I obviously was?

“Seruyange, consider this your service to the Virgin Mary and take the poor man to hospital.”

“No one invites problems onto themselves. This could have been anyone.”

“Waaaaa! This could never ever be me. I do not drink whatever little money I have!”

“Let’s deal with the man’s problem now. He shall pay the debt after. How will people from neighbouring villages hear that we abandoned a man who had been bitten by a dog?”

After they collected money amongst themselves and handed it to Seruyange, he agreed to take me to the nearest health centre 6 kilometres from Kiwamirembe. Maama Dhikusoka offered to go with me. The entire way to the health centre, she reprimanded me for my alcohol breath and ignored the fact that I could not feel my leg. At the health centre, my wound was cleaned and I was given something to relieve my pain but they said they did not have the medicine that could protect me from Maguja’s demons. Back home, Maama Dhikusoka reported everything as it had happened and people began to watch me closely, looking for signs and waiting for the moment I would get possessed by Maguja’s demons, stick my tongue out and howl like a wolf.

This is the story you will probably hear as they walk behind you to the village hall. It is one they tell each other over and over again.

You will see the unfinished building with brown bricks after a short walk. There will be children playing under the guava tree and a couple of people will have gathered in the hall already. You will greet them and they will answer you in a unison of unintelligible mumbles. The hall, which is just a handful of benches, will, despite being unfinished, be stuffy with all those people trying to fit in at once. There, at the table in the front of the hall, I will be seated, waiting for my trial for having tried and failed to put myself into a sleep I could not wake up from.

A throng of gossiping villagers in your wake, your eyes scurrying around nervously, the village elders will rush to your side to welcome you, excitedly pumping your hands in greeting and only later will they remember that you are here for a solemn occasion.

Is this the first of its kind for you? They do this sort of thing, our elders. Calling in an outsider to come and help them decide whether the naked man who was found carrying a neighbour’s bunch of bananas ought to be sentenced to manual work for as long as they see fit or if the woman who starved her stepson should be banished from the village market until she finds her soul. I doubt though that all those sessions prepared them for the day I was found kicking and choking, my bed sheet around my neck.

I remember the first time my twin brother and I saw a dead body. It was an uncle of ours, our mother’s brother. Our father, having been recently widowed and not trusting anyone to look after us well, decided to travel to my mother’s village with us. It was the greatest adventure of our lives as we had never left our village before. The banana plantations beside the road looked like they were chasing the car we were in and, while the older people cursed the driver under their breaths, my brother and I competed to claim whatever other car we saw on the road as our own. My brother was faster and so he ended up owning two or three cars more than me that day.

Having found his dead body hanging in his bedroom, our uncle’s family and other villagers rid him of his clothes and wrapped him in bark cloth to make an example of him. We got there when all the men were still getting ready to make this example. My father, before anyone else could and without hesitating, grabbed a cane from a bystander and went into the house to flog some sense into the dead body. It could have been because he had recently lost his wife and could not understand how one would widow another so willingly or it could have been because he did not get on so well with his deceased brother-in-law. My brother and I stood where we could see everything. Our dead uncle’s tearful wife stood at a distance surrounded by other women as she fought so hard not to be seen crying for a man who obviously had not valued his life. We were at first amused by the whole thing. The body lay still when the beatings began to rain down on it but, as the men raised their reprimanding voices, it bounced around with each flog. We stood with our hands held together in mortification, half expecting the dead body to ask for forgiveness. But no plea for forgiveness was heard, even when the bark cloth in which the body was wrapped began to tear. The men only stopped when their sweaty shirts clung to their bodies.

The buzz in the hall dies down and they all stare at me. The men cannot stop shaking their heads. “I have seen him arguing with himself!” Lukwago tells his friends, who shake their heads as if what happened is just too inconceivable for them. The women clap their hands and turn to each other in utter bewilderment.

Senkantuuka, one of the village elders, calls the room to order and, with face drawn, introduces my case.

“Kato here tried to take his life. This very dear gift of life that Our Almighty God granted us this Kato tried to take. By God’s mercies, he was found hanging in his hut before he was successful and I believe the Almighty wants to make an example of him. I ask a few people in the audience to say some few words and then we shall proceed.”

The crowd breaks into loud murmurs but I cannot make out what they are saying. They turn to each other and ask questions whose answers I think I have. In the first row I can see Byenkya’s wife, Maria, in a faded yellow VOTE NRM shirt. On it a faded picture of our beloved leader in a hat stares at me and, from his smirk, I wager to think he does not judge me. Byenkya is the richest farmer in our village. A self-made man, a man of few words, they say of him. Of his wife, well, we call her the bowl on account of all the men she has slept with (and is willing to sleep with). Men point at her and say, “Yiiiiyiiii! Even me, she gave me and I took. It is only children who have not dipped into that bowl.” Others have called her ekigaali, that make-shift bicycle that young boys use before they learn to ride a real one. With a rich husband and the most beautiful face it puzzles all of us why she is the village bowl. Some men have been known to grudgingly sleep with her because, they say, “Surely her husband’s cobra must be dysfunctional, otherwise why would she so freely give?” Maria looks at me and smiles a taunting smile. She probably thinks she is the reason I tried to put myself to sleep so I could not wake up.

You see, Maria offered herself up to me three days ago. I was seated at Maama Mangada’s, drinking my sorrows away. They were great sorrows and I was on a mission to drown them. Maria sat next to me, grabbed my hand and started running it up and down her thigh. I pride myself in being one of those men who quickly notices when God sends me something that even I didn’t know I needed. A woman would be perfect to drown my sorrow into, I told myself, and thanked God. I asked Maama Mangada to get the woman anything she wanted to drink and, a few minutes later, I excused myself to the pit latrines. You see, I had noticed that my cobra, untempted by the free prey in front of me, was dead asleep. Ah! These were big sorrows indeed because, as much as I begged, my cobra refused to rise. As I angrily walked out of the latrine I found Maria waiting for me, smiling sheepishly. She walked towards me. “Go away! Why do you never keep your legs together?” I angrily asked as I walked past her. My rejection must have puzzled more than annoyed her. Because who am I to have walked to the well and rejected waters so sweet no other pot could dare resist? And now there she sits with a glint in her eyes, obviously amused at what she believes my rejection of her led me to do.

Her husband stands up to be the first to speak. He hands over his last born son (a child who we have all noticed looks like his neighbour Senkandwa) to his wife and straightens himself up.

“I get extremely annoyed when I see young men like this one here take their lives and fortune for granted. You all know me – I have seen quite a bit in my lifetime and very few things annoy me but this recklessness extremely infuriates me. As you all know, I had nothing and well, now, Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin have given me some few things. But look at this man with all the energy we all wish we had squandering it! It must be these things they drink, these children. And the grass they chew like goats. In our day we didn’t do that and look at us now. This grass is altering their thinking! What a disgrace! What a waste of youthful energy!”

His disgust joins the others’ and my shame is presented to me, naked like a man on the day he is born. Maama Dhikusoka stands up quickly to follow. She clutches her chest and says how her heart breaks when she sees me.

“I saw this boy just here the other day. When his poor mother died we, the whole village, chose to take him and his brother as our own children. I raised them with my own Dhikusoka. I saw them just here the other day, running around naked and urinating on sand, rolling the wet sand after into balls they pretended were mandazi. Just the other day, here, I smacked them for their foolishness when I caught them peeping over the bathroom as my neighbour’s daughter bathed. Just the other day.”

Her voice begins to shake and her disgusted eyes well up.

**“Your poor father must be turning in his grave for bringing such shame to his name!”

She suddenly seems to remember that she is perhaps not one to judge. After all she is the mother of the village outcast, Dhikusoka. She lowers her voice and the disgust leaves her eyes.

“Maybe we can’t blame him. He grew up almost alone. His father died when he was barely a man. Maybe Kato should not be blamed.”

Senkandwa immediately rises and waves his hands wildly.

“No. No. No! Is he the first orphan? Is he the only one who has known the sorrow of growing up alone? He isn’t! We all move around with sorrows that burden our hearts so much that, if we were not men, we would not even stand before you. And yet we try. We show up every day. In our gardens, in village meetings, to our shops, we show up! This boy is just a useless woman!”

As Maama Dhikusoka takes her seat, her head bowed, I remember her story and smile to myself. Eh! That woman tried to beat the idiocy out of us. The day we were caught peeping over Nantongo’s bathroom as she bathed should have caused her to worry more about her son than us because, while my brother Wasswa and I stood on our toes for a good look, Dhikusoka stood away from the bathroom, uninterested in seeing what Nantongo hid beneath her skirt. He talked like a girl, between his teeth as if he was afraid to hurt the words that came through them. He thrust out his chest as he walked and hung his hand at the elbow as if holding a rotten fish. When Nantongo’s breasts began to rise on her chest we waylaid her on the way to the well and stared at them, longing to touch them and still Dhikusoka remained uninterested. Before long the village was talking, calling him a misfit, a thing, a curse that wanted to devour men. They called him dirty and prayed to God to deliver him. They pitied his mother, the poor widow – maybe the death of his father had led him to that. One day the village woke up to no Dhikusoka. His mother, in feigned excitement, told everyone who could hear that she had sent him to the big city to make a life for himself. We grew weary of asking about him and he became that thing that was never talked about.

I cannot tell whether Mama Dhikusoka now cries tears of joy, relieved that her son’s shame pales in comparison with mine. I catch Maama Namu speaking.

“…even Mzee Kityo, just down the road here is ailing. That man is so old some of us have never seen his back straight and yet he fights for his life even now, now on his deathbed.”

This makes me laugh – a loud jovial laugh which makes all of them go quiet and confirms my madness. She speaks of him as if he’s a stranger. Of course I know Mzee Kityo. He was a friend to my father. Since he got ill I have been visiting him, helping his granddaughter fetch water from the well as she cannot leave him by himself. Just last week he asked me why they would not let him go. He is tired. He has lived his life so why are they letting him die in shame? Treating him like a child yet he was once a man who had looked after himself. “Why won’t they let me die?” he had weakly croaked. I wish I could repeat this conversation to them but I am so amused by all this that I just clutch my stomach and laugh.

My laughter dies and, when I look through the crowd, I see Wasswa at the back of the room. He showed up, for the first time since he’d left, the afternoon our father was buried and disappeared shortly after. We did not speak at all that day; there was nothing to say. Wasswa left home a long time ago, while we were still boys. My father always said it was because he had failed to look after us that Wasswa left. I stayed and worked on our farm and yet, with each passing day, our father failed to acknowledge that I had stayed. He said Wasswa may have found a way out for us, a better life, maybe in the city and he believed that he would come back for us one day. That did not happen and our father died of a weakened heart because his beloved son left him and I was not enough.

For several days now, Wasswa has been coming to our home more often. At first I refused to acknowledge his presence, of course. Why was he suddenly interested in the life he himself had abandoned? Why was he showing up after our father had died of a broken heart? I chose to ignore him but everywhere I went he followed me, telling me how useless I was and how he blamed me for not looking after our father’s land. He asked that I sell it to a more deserving person who would develop the land and make a fortune for themselves. To the garden, to Maama Mangada’s and once to the village meeting he followed me. Three days ago, after a bitter exchange with him, I sat in the doorway of our house and thought about my father and how Wasswa’s departure had slowly killed him and how his reappearance in my life was beginning to kill me. That is the day the desire to put myself into a sleep I would never wake up from was born in me.

I hold Wasswa’s gaze at the back of the hall, looking for any sign of shame or guilt in him. He stands, unmoved and unnoticed. I startle you as I point him out to you. Surely, let him for once not get way with the pain he has caused me. You follow where I am pointing and ask what I am pointing at. “It’s Wasswa, my brother!” I say. “He is the reason for all this.” I see the confusion in your eyes and watch it spread to the rest of the room.

The moment the confusion in your eyes turns to pity, I figure out what you are going to tell me. It is something I have heard people say when strangers ask about my twin brother. You are going to tell me that he is dead, that he died beside me when we were 11 years old while we slept. That our father found us, one twin dead while the other slept soundly through his brother’s death. And yet here he stands, unmoved and unnoticed, getting away with all the pain he has caused.


Nyana Kakoma (@nyanaKakoma) has worked in the media industry in Uganda since she was in college as a reporter, columnist, sub-Editor and Magazine Editor. She is now on sabbatical from the media to concentrate on the fictional stories she needs to tell. Her work has previously been published under the name Hellen Nyana.

PLEASE DON’T KILL THE BABY by Orem Ochiel

"Fate is this child."

“Fate is this child.”

A room stands in the middle of a man so bare, it and he appear vacant. The sun bends through curtains, the curtains bend back, each bend a blade of fire grass reaching in to ray and reclaim the house. The morning cold rises heavy like lost sleep. The world is turning. Everything is still.

There is a life beating heart in this house. Its butterfly wing sound reaches the man and rests on the nape of his neck: the tentative motions of a heard child body, the hesitant early life exertions which are always a surprise to witness, the discovery of a familiar waking child.

He glimpses a moment of his childhood: he is lifted into the air, weightless ascent from the ground, a secure flight away from the acuteness of limited childhood; that rising up into sun and light felt like immortality and had within it the believable thrum of possible flight. Now, everything is weight, laughter has to be dredged from heavy depths and yet there are smaller joys, more profound, less palpable.

The man is always on the verge of tears, unable to tell if he is about to have a nervous breakdown or an orgasm. He attributes this to his advancing age. The baby waking up across the hall is in a moment of indecision: to coo, to scream, the wall unable to contain either. The weight of the choices is slung between needs—all of them urgent, two at most—and the determination of which one is most intolerable. Already the man feels that he has lost a battle and, even though he expects it, the scream is alarming and sleep shrinks from him in dazzled shadow. The morning makes a cold upright block of his body. Creeping light brings no heat in the dead dawn.

While nothing is done, the baby goes unfed and bawls as the man lingers, reluctant to begin the day and watch it immediately slip away. Life—the man says the child—has such rage in it, for it to survive against continuous impossibility. Such survival—the child says the man—the power of it, is, could only ever be, the child.

This house: inside it he can’t remember its outside, and on some anchorless days he thinks that it might have changed, they might have moved, or shifted, and that they did so with him all the while within it, his life completely housed. They cannot have lived in the same house all these years, not in the same place for all this time, or else it would mean that he had walked only these halls, only these rooms, all for a time imprecisely remembered.

He hears the flowing of water, a subterranean seesaw susurration awoken after long dormancy. With each earth breath, water sluices through the house, casting pool water shimmer shadows which are cold to the touch and have skin thin, reflective, doorway transparency. He dries his hands repeatedly with his shirt, changes it several times a day but feels wet always, drenched cold by the ever running stream beneath the house, misted over by its churning spray.

Attending to the child, he finds her urine is warm. Like the pitch of her scream, her liquid warmth is unexpected, body borne, held in that round body form as though in a flask, warm, not boiled but baked under an insufficient source of heat. Warm and cooling, warm and unpleasant, sickly when cool, pungent when drying, the urine has a smell that is deadened only by the persistent application of furious bleach and, even then, it lingers. There is no bleach that can attenuate the child’s scream. Even after she goes silent the scream remains, echoic in ocular space.

Changing a diaper is no magic trick: towel, place baby, undo flaps, lift baby-bottom, remove diaper, clean baby-bottom, dodge the spurt of well timed baby-urine, place clean diaper, wrap flaps, dress baby, throw away dirty diaper, consider throwing away towel, consider throwing away baby.

The home is in the man all day. The baby gazes, her mobile eyes on a journey of discovery, her fragile body demanding constant care. Within mere hours of painting an egg, the embryo contained in it begins to perish. There is always one more thing to do to secure the child’s comfort. He hands the child a warm bottle loaded with formula, gunpowder in water. The child, with her barely formed strong fists and arms, is a drunken human gulping from a massive barrel, her gaze wandering. In the royal court of Zamunda, court jesters were decorated in gold paint and they died within hours.

Towels, cloths, clothes, all laundered. Wrung dry by the sun, fate is still young.

The baby reaches soft arms towards all life. He steps away. Fate is this child. Her body is a constriction of space, a narrowing of time, a channelling of all energy. She will grow and he will be shackled to her until she deigns to be free. Self giving him until her then. He is wracked by terrible pain guilt when he imagines a life without her, when he imagines leaving the house and cutting the day air with quick sun steps.

He feels the child to be no part of him. He doesn’t question the fact of paternity, merely its lubricious possibility—the how of it—which seems so well stuck in the past and too mechanical an act to be obvious. Masturbation, always innocuous, gives no hint that this stuff spilling here could form that child warbling there. The child is every part of him. Convalescing from a vehicle accident—thirteen dead, only two survivors—many years before, the child mother described her memory of lying down in the dark with hundreds of newborn babies crawling all over her, holding her, comforting her.

He wants to be the child’s friend. Her small elf self, her clear eyes, her pursed lips with their sheen of buttery drooling: all these make him want to be this child’s confidante. Other parents: their invent-and-narrate relationship with their babies, their convoluted no-sense songs, their infantile glossolalia. Baby clenches fist and we must analyse this movement because somewhere, somewhere, there is a planet she has set in motion.

The child’s filth forces the man to come to terms with his own unconsidered body of filth. Shitting becomes a structuring event: he times his day according to her predictable bowel movements. His ordered day is further broken apart by unforeseen, inevitable eruptions. Thus she punctuates his life, one burp at a time.

After cleaning the baby and washing his hands, he finds that faecal matter has somehow settled on his own cheek, or his lip, or is in his hair, or wedged between his toes, or is staining some part of his shirt. The continual cleaning after her is a dirtying of all of his life. Cleaning oneself after cleaning her becomes tedious: if they are to live in filth then all this washing, a level of hygiene that he has never demanded of himself ever, becomes absurd. Like the medical student who learns to take his meals in the morgue, the man feels that a bit of shit on his hands, or a bit of urine or vomit soaking his shirt throughout the day, won’t kill him. Each of his shirts has an oval discolour patch as though his heart were slitting luminous through him.

A baby can survive an astonishing amount of neglect. In a book, a baby survived a week alone, but for severe malnutrition, and went on to become a great biologist.

The man decides he himself can survive anything.

Every day, as the child mother leaves home for work in the city, she reminds him, “Don’t kill the baby.”

The child mother is now a collection of unfamiliarities. Her sight body refracted through the birth. Her life body mutated through pregnancy. Her skin smeared, dried, a luminous body shield. Her shape along line seams, seals her within herself, an emotion of self swelling out of herself. New postures attain her new body, new urgency of step and speech, a new hardness of stance and stare, a visible completeness of day end fatigue. She is a disparity of body being. Familiar ways of holding her become clumsy offences.

When the baby was born. Nurse arms whisk away birth egg. A nursery confusion, so many, which mine, call out, blood hearing answers back shout, him, it’s a girl, so her, alien eyed, trauma small, incubatum, mouth open persisting shock, poor thing. Children are wealth.

The man walked into the room, a zone, echo of many births, reverberation of many deaths, a couple exiting weeping, the other room, joy or grief, grandmother yet not, or maybe, shouldering an emotional son. The child mother’s face was ashen, lined, stern, her eyes defiant but vulnerable. Sweaty, bedraggled, hair string wet tissue, the bed air sewery, dense, violent. Having ventured so close to death and survived, the very continuity of her existence posed a question in the face of a universal affirmation. Our lives are changed forever. He saw and wondered what he had done, how he could have done something so irreparable. A wheeled table askew, sheets creased and bunched, her pillow stained grey black, Sangita braids melted in natal heat. He alighted on the smouldering aftermath of a great struggle.

A moment unadorned, a recovery intercalated by his unknowns. They were completely alone, the man and the mother, the man, the mother, his mother’s strong long gone presence alive. Of what is a baby aware? Women of every era birth with such ardent ferocity, such grim grit. An intensity of collected memory, his own, others their own, a vague yet close-by recollection in edge light extremis. Her, a newly greater thing, her substances oozed, oozing, undiminished, substantial. Nurse shoes left flat efficient steps in birth canal hallways. Cleanly outfitted doctor sounds, a world beyond in motion, in recovery, scrubbed and recovered, a mothered child mother, a child who never before existed, a mother more of a being, more to be, and him attempting comfort as simple as, I am here. Here he is. Here she is. Her, always a mother now and then, now and before, always. Always her. Her place in the world fortified, yet her body lying weak, like a baby.

Was there a baby? Was the baby well? His worries multiplied when he saw the blasted, damaged, splayed, open-hipped woman body. He wept. She sat quarter then half-way up, her body useless and unmoving from her diaphragm down, except to leak, drip, expel, expunge, and recover. Hollow, carved out, emptied out, eviscerated, liquefied, and poured out. Grief from him and an urge, with her legs so spread, her pelvis so broken, to slide onto the blood bed and make love into birth her. Asleep already, her incubus.

The man takes to sitting on the floor in the baby’s room, awaiting its next need, moment by moment, attending silently to its impermeable child mind, attuning himself to its gentle movements, its brief energetic bursts of arm and leg, its raucous implacable raging at a world it already senses is unjust, its gasp at each new discovery and each remembered thing that confirms the solidity and stability of this still born universe.

The bars of the crib pose her life’s challenge and as she leans towards them he finds himself hating them and so the only way to make the moment tenable is to hold her in his arms, against his chest, her head in the nook of his neck, the both of them, child and father, waiting, the child more patient than the father, the child ready to wait for the growth to come and the life to be, the father sad because the peaceful joy of this moment means that there is no room for him in the future in any form other than this one. He sobs, sometimes, while holding the baby. The house is large and safe around them. It is also inescapable. He doesn’t want to go anywhere.

During periods of her infantile discomfort, he finds himself licking her shit from his fingers thinking he can discern, from its taste, what ails her.

The bead of sweat at the back of her neck, a perpetual warmth at the base of the skull, hotness under the collar, and he retrieves a pill which he gently introduces up her bottom then waits half an hour for it to calm her incipient fever.

Each illness she weakens him. He knows illness and will know it ever more intimately as the years cart him along. He scrutinises every inch of the child wondering if by some dreadful illumination something already bristling within him will be exposed as blooming underneath her skin. A child, a new emergence into a seething existence, a formation and a formulation of the earth, of the cosmos—or perhaps not of the cosmos—a physical being that has come from the life of death that encircles the earth of life, a force exuded into life, a life intruded into body, a child. This child was battling death even before it had embraced life.

The child mother also plunged into risk, plunged against risk, marched into the headwind of time—and yet, when the risk is death, one is really relying on faith—to be saved by the years and bodies of labour that were all concentrated into a multitude of pills and an assortment of professionalised hands. The pills saved her, dissolved into nothing what poison he had flowed into her. The pills reached chemical tentacles into the foetus she had, ripped away from its cells what inheritance he had forced upon it. This was the salvation the child mother promised him. He would be reincarnated as this child, he would die too soon but live on in this child.

He attempts to grasp the suffering world of which he is a remote part. Stories join each other and become an uncharted expanse. A white lifeless sea stretches before him in all directions. He reads studies on children raised by imprisoned women, accounts of brutal violence in far corners flung from near country. He wades through detailed land acquisition records. He highlights and collates reports on fertility rates in university campuses. A country forms under his eyes. He feels he is coming upon a great knowing. What he wants is the flow feeling against alone current, upstream swim away from desolation. He listens, wary hunted, eyes wide to visible sound to see the crumbling sands of life within him. Suburban silence entombs warmth.

The child mother, free of the gravid burden, moves with a slightness and quickness that he can’t recall her ever having had. She has deposited a hefty load and in depositing it, has reclaimed an urgency for life which he never knew she had. While he, thin and weak, feels immaterial, on the verge of fading away altogether, she remains, flourishes. When she moves in any room, he is shadowed by a mobile change in light. She is breathing down his neck from the kitchen, opening and closing cupboards while she is showering.

At four o’clock in the morning, the bed is a slow twisting, heavy heaving which births him into a frigid world. The house is moving through other rooms, animating the dark, giving it a strange life, an absurd source of no light, the child mother navigating by second memory, or perhaps by second sight. She is the home. He and the baby are safe within her. He hears her voice from a distance, cooing to the child, then with great severity, talking to someone, possibly on the phone, then her voice is above him, wishing him a good day.

At night, the child mother returns home and her perfume, its edges dulled on accumulated sweat and dimmed in the heavy light of the day, settles throughout the house. Her dress, as she moves, and as she takes it off, sounds like a trawler’s fishing net hauled out of water and dragged across a vast stretch of sand. This is her hour, when she inspects the baby. The house opens itself to her shadow, slowing down, then settling, warming up, then embracing. She talks to the man through a backlog of her own fatigue and he feels happy that he can manage this aspect of her life for her, allowing her to have a measure of peace. For the first time in his life, he feels that he is useful to someone. Her words slur and peter out into a weakened snore then a mute deathliness. An hour later, her breathing becomes audible and regular. The house is vague, its walls thin and heaped around her sleep.

He lies down next to the child mother, he closes his eyes, he rises into a hectic wakelessness. The world uncurls itself into a fluid unfurling and the man rides a wave, slips down its crest, swings up its trough. He is perched on the world, arms aloft, leaning back like a boxer sitting on his rear leg, and he is surfing through space, through time, descending while moving forward, ascending while moving backward, moving. The world grows small as it curls. It shrinks beneath his feet. Soon it will shrink to zero mass or density and he will have landed on the shore of his destination, at a point.

Tomorrow is not a new day.

The man cannot recall the last time he left the house. He opens the front door, looks out into the oppressive absence of night. He feels a surge of energy. He hears the child cry. He reminds himself to go outside, to walk in the small patch of grass between the house and the street, to smell a flower if he can find one. The day is so hot that he can hear the rays of the sun burning through the air as they make their earthward descent. Static electricity frizzles in the distance, flies sizzle in mid-air.

The baby has taken to sucking the man’s fingers. He lets the child grip his palm and select a digit. The man recalls that he has not sanitised his hands. The child gnaws bare gums against knuckles, staring at him the whole time. He attempts to pull his finger away but the child holds fast, moans in anger, then bites down, and this hurts with such intensity that his wrist goes limp. When the child releases him, her lips and tongue are covered in blood. The tiny cave of the child’s mouth is the inside of a plum.

The blood drips fast from the man’s hand and stains everything from the baby’s cot to the floor between the child’s room and the kitchen. His blood is a plasmatic watery gruel tinged scarlet. He fears that he might be so weak as to bleed to death from a cut finger. He returns to the baby’s room to find the cot soaked in blood. He lifts the baby from the cot, checks the baby for injuries, undresses the baby completely, and checks everywhere for a wound but there is none. He bathes the baby and flushes all of the reddened water into the toilet, fearing that if he pours it into a sink or the bathtub it will clog the drain.

His hand aches and the aching becomes worse over the course of a few hours. The baby is silent once bathed and fed, her bedding and clothing changed.

Now, the moon is a mark in the sky throughout the day and the night. In the night, it hangs outside the window, a bright hole in a quilt of darkness. During the day, it is a thumbnail error in the perfect limpid blue above.

At times he glimpses the baby and sees her entire future in a facial expression. He sees the young woman she will be, the multitude of new bodies she will occupy at different stages, the life that will stalk and claw at her being. In that future, she looks nothing like her mother when she is a young woman but in small moments a suppressed laugh at a boy’s poor joke gives away the strength of her lineage. On some days he can’t locate the baby in the house and thinks perhaps that she has grown up, that twenty years have gone by, and that he is old, alone, and confused.

Love for this child takes the shape of colours that flow in streams. He resists thinking of her as angelic but her room is hallowed ground. Its walls, which he papered, story-tell an imagination both his and not. He feels her space and her time, he sinks within her presence as an ant burrowing into the ground to be saved from a storm. How can he think of twenty years hence when he has no future. All that he is, here is.

The child mother talks to him in the same cooing tone that she uses with the baby. Cooing, she allows him to be silent. Restfulness comes in dulcet waves, memories of something outside of memory—how do babies remember. A mind so plastic that it remains unable to take the shape of reality, reality that moulds souls into forms. His own mother: so vivid are his dreams of her the more he thinks of his own death. Men in battle—boys in battle—are said to call upon their mothers at the moment of dying: blood-spattered, fingers with greased veins curled around triggers, bayonets carving no futures, and mothers called upon. Holy mother, Birth mother, my mother. Dying men call.

See: the world wide, unformed within therefore unformed without. A glittering of questions, the safety of kindred arms, sounding out the world by trusted heartbeats, navigating my heartbeats, all sounds incomprehensible except for the heartbeat. This heartbeat, mine, tiny, strong, constant, resonant. Heartbeat speak says synchronous sounds are worthy of trust, like me, beating, thus this is another body, like mine, larger, arms around me, communicating hearts, sotto voce.

Sound scratches linger dissolve barriers between thought and sound, heard and felt, outside becomes inside, in the bowl of his her inner ear, alive. Where is the border that marks one life begins and another. Texture straddles the border between sight and touch, the basis of faith, of healing, of love. How to love a person one can never touch. Hate most potent in the lack of touch and yet in that video, the man watched two loving men beaten to death by a hateful crowd, each member of the crowd inflicting a touch. Love and hate textured rough, smooth, other-ways. The television advertisement that would have unmade now showed studded condoms. That was before condom advertisements were prohibited on public television. Rough love, smooth sailing.

Having heard sound refracted in-utero, all sound is clay-form, shifting half-forms, amorphous echo-forms. Trans-amnio radio sending life through to floating ovum-space. To locate oneself when one cannot tell where one is. Who to ask. A life so completely contained, shrunken, rounded off. Horror perhaps to know that this is the entirety of existence: liquid, small, dark, distant, half-audible, alone, and lost in space but for the warmth.

When the man hears the patter of feet, he turns to face his door, expecting the baby to be standing there, watching him.

He does not know how to tell the child mother not to treat him like a baby. She touches him and the prospect of their intimacy seems like an outrageous humiliation of which she wants him to be the victim. Such touches are interrupted by her sleeping and he is relieved when her exhaustion wins. He wants to tell her to take the baby away from him for a few hours, maybe a few days, or at least a week. The prospect of the baby being gone scares him: alone, he will discover himself to be non-existent.

The baby cries.

The baby whimpers.

The baby is silent.

The baby screams.

The baby is hungry.

The man’s stomach rumbles. He brings the child a feeding bottle. He pours the contents of the bottle into the child. The child stares at him, reaches up her arms, vices the bottle between her fists, takes charge, takes the bottle. The man feels rejected. A strange impulse to violence, like a knot of twisted muscle lodged under his ribs. Such a voracious child, loud thirst, she will grown up to eat green salad and drink human blood.

The child has not yet mastered the mechanics of swallowing. Her drink pours from her mouth as though her tiny body is only the size of the bottle and is already overfull.

The man is dying on the vine, his body withering around his spine.

He is clinging white-knuckled, wind whistling dangling feet, and that to which he is clinging is dissolving in his hands.

A long drop and a sudden stop.

The baby gulps short breaths, her eyes glazed. Can so soft a thing—too soft—get injured? Can a pillow? The child moves less, and winces when replaced in her crib. Silent tears and panic leak from her eyes. She looks at him, at an angle, as though frightened, shocked out of complacent trust. He feels her limbs, massaging them slowly, and feels what were strong baby bones within her. She doesn’t move her head or her neck. Her soft spine is broken.

“Please don’t kill the baby.”

This child and me are one and the same, tethered to life, and to this space, by one another, anchored against each other, but it is this child who has the pull towards life, dragging me towards death. The child wrapped in a body cast is like a small vase.

The man thinks of his empty bank account, frozen by the bank because it has lain idle for so long. He thinks of his single pair of shoes, worn down into the shape of his foot so that they are not much better than wrapped cloth. This child demands too much from him; she demands an entire future; when will she release him? Old mechanical thinking: what does he want with a future. There is no need to invest any more in himself. His blood boils and what it contains is eating him alive. The ultimate telomeric truth: within the man’s cells is contained the promise and means of his destruction.

This child has imagined him. How did he come to be here? The man wants this child to remember him but he can hardly remember himself, his own life, his own past: erasure catching up to the present, photographs fading into now, now also fading, no tomorrow, repetition and rote to create an eternal present in the plague years, the plague era of no future.

The most he can recall of his childhood is his mother’s smile. Vast years, blank spaces, her smile.

What to do with a broken child.

The neighbour wife brings men to the house over lunch and the man can hear her screaming like a creature of the wild. For her, sex is screaming, the entire suburban estate evacuated to let her yell. Does she know the man is there? That the hurt baby is there? A lover would be frightened by such screaming if without warning. The female of mammalian species controls the male’s arousal and triggers his orgasm by her deployment of sound. The females of the animal kingdom are always patient and nonplussed, perhaps contemplating grazing, as the hyperactive male works on them. Human beings scream. The child hasn’t screamed in so long.

What does the woman think in that blind vertiginous second within a second unspoken question moment before the all answer door slam lover into lover—the moment that hovers and then plummets as her lover above or behind her. The space to be the tween of their bodies is nothing more enduring than the gap between desire and breath. Lovers, pressing to like god’s clay kneading palms against each other, silent claiming and reclaiming of lacustrine love body, this movement an inexhaustible secret whispered for life length. The man and the child mother, the child conceived so quietly that the moment might have been dream.

The neighbour wife speaks to him with a sneer even as she packs her garbage bags between his. She is sexually complete, the world vigilant around her. His starved dog desire of zero wattage is visible and repulsive to her. A man who lets a child come to harm in his custody is worse than a murderer.

There is another man in the house. The man is sure of it. He has heard his partner walk in, heard her shuffle out of her heels, and in the swish of skirts he has heard the rubbing of sturdy trousers around male thighs. He steps out of his study and watches the heel of a stockinged leg lift and disappear through a doorway. The air in the hall is a haunting of the ghosts of flowers.

Whispers disappear into the malicious space between the floor boards and from them, cutting splinters emerge. A shut door breaks a conversation, seals it away. The unwillingness of the child mother to take him out to dinner this month or next month. The baby’s defiant mouth, shut when he must feed it, open when he must sleep. His own body, its quick untraceable sharp pains reminding him that he is breaking down, cracking from within, dissolving into inner crevices, crumbling along flesh fault lines. There is hostility everywhere.

The man can hear them; too much motion for her to be alone; too much sound for one person; the creak of the couch is too heavy, too heavy; she’s walking too eagerly; the opened tap jets water thirst urgency—the solidifying sound of a glass water, hollow then filling then filled; radio, music, a television channel, a notch too loud for the hump of the week, a notch louder than the sound she prefers, why have the radio and television both on at the same time; more steps, baby, more, baby steps, then the door shut a bit too emphatically; a conversation—maybe she’s on the phone—too mixed in with music and the beginnings of rain to be audible.

No words appear on the white paint of the wall. Any sound, no matter how slight, is a jolt. With a twitching ear and a crick in his neck, the man attempts to catch a sound. He walks to the door, then to the far wall, then back to the chair. Rain drops chatter as they fall, the space of them erupting, for a moment. A laugh like that. In need of a pretext, he makes a searching walk towards the baby’s room, opposite hers. Her door is shut in the resolute way of locked things. He can smell the shadows moving within. He leans through the door, glances at the baby, and rushes back to his study before she can start cooing.

Time through, backwards, walking, is he, him. Touch anticipated by tenderness. Making into, unmaking out of; the things of love, gathered, piled; a heart heaped, hearts heaped in the past to be transported away; hand-cart to hell. Send hope into the future to make a home where we will live. Send hope into the past to retrieve that dream. Put our heads together to form a roof under which hope will find a home. Curl up under the roof, against hope, against each other, make a notch in space to scar space, make a kink in time to stop time. Time bent extends the coursing of us into infinity, the grinding of us against each other like the sands of flowing, piled-upon time. If he were not to die, the man thinks.

Her door opens. Conversation. Conversation? The man hears conversation. Her walking, barefoot, sticky against floor panels, light as air, rain pounding. Did she open the door, or lock it, or did he. She patters back to the bedroom. The rain roars, an engine replies the challenge, call-response, need in between, squeals of tires crunching gravel like glass. Is she asleep already?

The man wakes up at noon. He walks to the child’s room. He can hear screaming, its swollen welling rising to jostle for zenith-space with the sun. When she, baby, screams at her loudest, the sun goes dark, defeated.

He wants to be created by a lover, but such creation collides against walls which do not move or break.

The past year and a bit: a reclamation of the eroded space of his heart, a process of acquiring trinkets of feeling and storing them inward, acquiring scraps of hope and collecting them neatly in intercostal nothing, one future day to build his soul into something solid.

The bit of the past that has no justification is the present. Knowing that he is dying of the incurable, why does she keep him around. Knowing that his path to death was broad and able to spread beneath the feet of anyone who walked beside him why did she urge him to create with her a child. On bad weeks he requires more care than the baby does: unspiced and unsalted meals studiously boiled, a conveyor belt of expensive pills and potions, a medicated massage several times a night to quell both the sores and the hacking, pneumonic coughing that is worse with each relapse. Their wordless home-making is for her an act of self-fortification. He weeps, thinking of the relief that awaits the both of them on the night when nothing is left of his breath.

Erasure remains untold. The letter that recounts the moment tells of the future not of the end but of the consequence. Implicit: By the time you read this. Also implicit: As I am writing this. Explicit: Remember me even after I am erased. Totality: I am doing this because, now I am writing this, for when you read this, you will—a desperate inscribing on all time.

How can a disease so large roam in a body so frail, fragile, and small. Once the body is consumed where does it go, this disease, as the body goes into the earth. This plague is desire made cellular, incapable of reining itself in, it destroys itself in an inferno. Why worry about the nothing that will be left.

The sun is an orange protrusion against the curtain. Evening is so far away. He makes a weak wish to be saved. Blood pulsatile bursts. He holds his breath and it slows. Release of exhale and more blood flows. His body is dissolving in waves into the sun. He can’t tell what the child is doing. Then the child is moving, waddling. Good girl. Bones are crunching all around him, the sound of a strange dense fireworks, a run through thicket breaking, the first twig step into the other wild. There is no pain.

Parts of his flesh as they are tugged torn away. Parts of himself were always missing.

Pieces of his body in pieces.

The long feel of his legs long gone into painful stillness. Below his neck, an empty store of life. Arms at the hands of which hold heavy invisible bricks. His jaw hurts. His body pours down the drain. He falls asleep and waits for the child to consume the rest of him.

The world is still. Everything is turning. An infinite depth supports a surface of floating day. The sun cracks through curtains, each razor ray cutting in to reclaim the man’s life. He is lying in the middle of a room vacant even of himself.


Orem (@nochiel) is a lapsed mathematician and perspiring writer from Kenya. He blogs inconstantly at Life As Fiction.