Credits (JA00)

Managing Editor:     Anne Moraa

Associate Editor:   Kate Hampton

 

Poetry Editor:     Clifton Gachagua

 

Marketing Director:   Timothy Kiprop Kimutai

Public Relations Director: Hellen Nyana Kakoma

 

Projects Director:   Nicholas Ochiel

 

Photography:  Marziya Mohammedali

Cover Art:   “One After Another” by Danelle Gallo

Cover Design:   Kimberly Li

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Published by Jalada Africa

P.O. Box 24683, Nairobi 00502, Kenya.

www.jalada.org

<letters@jalada.org>

<www.twitter.com/jaladaafrica>

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Creative Commons Licence
“Sketch of a bald woman in semi-nude and other stories” by Jalada Africa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4hSPK-2x.

PICKET FENCES by Linda Musita

&rsquot;We have one relationship, Arnold. You and me.&lsquot;

‘We have one relationship, Arnold. You and me.’

My friends are like ants. As soon as ants get into your house they are in your head. You cannot think in peace. You will pour hot water on them, fill with iodized salt the little holes they make in your house, sweep, sweep, and sweep but the damn little terrorists will never leave you in peace. They will die and resurrect while you watch. The bottom line for them is that they like being in your house knowing full well that they have not been invited.

One of my friends, Natalie, has bad manners: every time I visit her she is naked or half naked. Even when she comes over to my place, with her it is always “too hot, I need to lose some clothes.”

She is always in the nude because she knows I will not move an inch to catch her big breasts when they bounce all over her chest. Neither will I try to grab her buttocks and fondle her vagina. I am not that straight. But still. That girl needs to be taught those basic things that the rest of us were taught. Those lessons about bare nakedness that were given everywhere except where Natalie was raised.

Take me for instance: as soon as I learnt how to pour water from the basin to my back and oil my legs properly, my parents told me that the only person who should see me naked is me. If anyone tried to take off my clothes I was to scream, kick, bite, free myself, and tell the whole world about the pervert.

At school, if you so as much as lifted your shorts to scratch your thigh, the teachers would beat you then tell you to go get some more from the headmaster.

My headmaster loved whacking buttocks with his bare hands. He made you lie on his table and had the time of his life smacking your little ass sore.

‘Why were you taking off your clothes in class?’ How am I supposed to answer when you are stinging that part of my body.

‘Are you trying to seduce those girls who were seated next to you?’ No, I had an itch right below my groin which I had to scratch.

‘I know you wanted to go and do bad manners with them. I will discipline you properly.’ Maybe you should have asked me why I lifted my shorts first.

‘Let’s see if you will ever repeat that.’ Okay sir, I will never show my thighs to anyone. Stop beating me. Please, this is not fair.

‘Leave my office. And stop moaning like a mosquito. I have barely touched you.’ Yes you have.

At Sunday school we were told that in The Beginning it was good to be naked, until Eve went and ate a very tasty apple and let the Serpent have raunchy carnal knowledge of her. Things changed after that party. No one is allowed to be naked or half naked except those immoral white people. Just them.

One time, I remember seeing a mad, naked man limp around a traffic light. I thought he was beautiful. He looked like a scarecrow without clothes, a stick man with heavy stones in his head. He tilted his head to make the weight bearable—so endearing, yet I felt sorry for him because god was going to have a fit. First, the man was not wearing clothes. Sin! Second he did not seem to care that he was naked. Sin! Third, I could see his pee-pee stick. Sin! Fourth, he was indeed, by all counts, immoral, just by being naked. Sin! Woe and hell were upon the beautiful brown-skinned scarecrow.

Natalie…

I can bet you she does not prance naked around men who like women. Here is where this woman confuses me: she likes men, wants to date and marry one, however she thinks they are predators that cannot be trusted. Natalie ogles men at restaurants, bus stations, and on the streets, dances like a stripper when we go to a club, but when a man tries to make a pass at her she goes mental on me, not him.

‘What does he think I am? A slut?’

‘Natalie, if you look at a man like that and dance on his dick like you want to cream your thong, he will definitely think you want to get into his pants at no charge.’

‘I want a man who respects me. Like you.’

‘I do not swing that way.’

‘Such a pity.’

‘Why?’

‘You treat me well. You are always there for me. You do not try to get me to suck your balls. You are a good man.’

‘I bet you if I were straight I would be a dick.’

‘No you would not.’

‘I would too.’

‘Are you trying to tell me something?’

‘Like what?’

‘I don’t know…that I attract bad men?’

‘No, you just try too hard. Why don’t you try thinking about something else other than getting a man.’

‘What? You want me to start chasing chicks.’

‘I did not say that. You could try finding a hobby.’

‘Like chasing chicks?’

‘Or playing a sport?’

‘Lesbian sports like hockey and volleyball?’

‘Who gave you that stupid idea?’

‘Hockey and volleyball chicks just look gay with all that tone.’

‘Why are you so stupid and annoying?’

‘Stop calling me names. This is a serious matter…Hey do you think guys do not like me because I have lesbian vibe. Maybe it is a kind of message, you know, that I should figure out what I really like.’

‘Such things are not figured out.’

‘How did you know that you liked dick better than pussy?’

‘I do not like dick better than pussy.’

‘Yes you do. I am always naked around you and nothing! Nothing!’

‘I am attracted to men. Pussy is fine. It is just not for me. Same way it isn’t for you.’

‘Maybe I should try.’

‘You cannot change who you are even if you try. You want a man and you will get a man, when you stop trying too hard.’

Then we end up at her place or mine and she has her ritual monologue about how she is so happy to have a homosexual best friend. She makes me paint her toes or massage her feet. Then we sleep on the same bed with her throwing her buttocks at my crotch.

I need to tell this girl that, first, I am not her best friend. Second I am not a woman. I am a man and I hate the smell of nail polish and her variety of scents is too strong. She needs to style up. I also need to tell her that the only person I like to share a bed with is Arnold. Because we love each other, I know I love him, and he cuddles well.

I should tell Natalie that she is an abusive, clingy friend. And I will. As soon as she gets a good boyfriend.


Emma is a church freak. She always has this look on her face, like she has been brain washed and any attempt to make her think for herself will kill her. She looks like one of those dolls. The ones that jump out of a box and say, ‘kuku, kuku, kuku, kuku’. White voodoo.

This ant of a friend is always placing her holy hands on my genitals in prayer. Emma says I am a sinner and her god has forbidden homosexuality. She says her all loving and forgiving god will send me to hell, to burn eternally. Unless I somehow manage to find women attractive, I am doomed.

Sodom and Gomorrah this and that, and I should try to be a normal man.

‘But, Emma, Lot fucked his own daughters after that.’

‘They were women, not men.’

‘That makes it okay?’

‘The Bible says it was okay under the circumstances.’

‘So it is a Christian thing for you to have sex with your father under certain circumstances? Like when he is drunk?’

‘What is the matter with you? Why are you so aggressive towards the Bible?’

‘No, I am not. I like it. It has some good fiction and poetry.’

‘God forgive you.’

‘You too, Emma. Especially for touching my privates in his name.’

‘You will be delivered.’

‘Hey, wouldn’t it be a trip if you found yourself in hell with me?’

‘Why would I be in hell?’

‘You judge me. You are playing god. Isn’t that some sort of treason anyway?’

‘I have never heard of such stupidity.’

‘Go think about that nonsense, Emma. For once just sit down and think.’

To be honest I like Emma because she has very good intentions. She wants me to go to heaven with her when the trumpets call. I think that is sweet. However, I Am Who I Am. I tell her that too. All the time. Then the top of her head blows off because the only I Am Who I Am she knows is omnipotent, omniscient, omniarch, omnivorous, omnieverything including omnibus.  Certainly not omnifarious.

She tells me that life is about choices and consequences. I think life is about caution and condoms.

Emma has made choices for me. Like taking me to church and dragging me to women’s fellowships. I go, with caution of course. My greatest fear is, as a consequence of her choice, someone taking over my brain with glorious tales of a man who had twelve male disciples and was bosom buddies with harlots. I am not one to judge, but hey, look at that. Wasn’t anyone suspicious about the scale of that bromance? I am.

The women at Emma’s church look at me like they know I am homosexual. That little kuku doll outed me. Again, with her good intentions, I assume she figured if she told them they would know the task ahead of them.

The sisters in Christ take turns with me. Some buy me lunch. Others come over to my house to read the Old Testament. They are looking to find a heterosexual husband in me. The bolder ones stay till late and try to seduce me. That is when I turn the tables and slap them with the Ten Commandments, which have nothing specific to do with homosexuals but put us all in three closets of coveting, fornicating, and adultery. That is when they get out of my house, not sure whether to feel guilty or insulted.

Isn’t there a man in church who finds them attractive? I think it is strange how they all take turns, tripping all over their morals, trying to make a homosexual see them as fuckable, marriageable candidates. All he has to do is pray and go to church to burn the Sodom out of his sinful asshole.

I ought to ask Emma about this, tick her off till she whips me out of church.  Emma, WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? I suspect he would make me a disciple. More special than Simon Peter. Sweet blasphemy!

On a random day, Emma will change her argument and rap about homosexuality not being African.  It happens so many times I wonder how stupid she is and why she won’t pick one side. Because, you know, before Christianity, Africans were all buffoons and pagans. Monkey see monkey do. Ooga booga. Last week she told me African culture and history has no trace of or tolerance for homosexuals. I asked her where she read or heard that. She said she just knows. Well, there is ignorance and then there is that sixth sense that allows Emma to know exactly what happened hundreds of years before the white man decided the whole world was his common wealth.

I told her about the Kabakas in Uganda and the Azande in Congo. But she gave me that kuku doll look. So I dropped it.

‘It is still unnatural and in every way not African. You need to change your ways. Choices and consequences, man. I keep telling you.’

‘I suppose the blonde weave on your head is naturally African. Hey, why don’t you get a sisal skirt, toss your suede boots and walk around bare-chested until your tits sag, you bleach-yellow as a mango African queen? Go on, do that.’

‘Why would I do that? I am civilised.’

‘Because your hair, clothes, phone, and even your missionary boyfriend are all not African.’

‘What does that have to do with your being a sinful homosexual?’

She was so annoyed her eyes were rolling out of their sockets.

‘Nothing, Emma. Nothing at all. I was just being a selective bigot.’

‘Are you calling me names?’

No. I am loving you, my neighbour, just as I love myself.’


And then there is Christine. She loves music, shopping, and rich men. She is a social climber turned upper middle class wife. I like her better than Natalie and Emma because she tries to read. It does not matter that she only reads about Heidi Klum and that spicy lollipop, Victoria Beckham.  

Every time Christine goes shopping she calls me. Sometimes I feel like her porter but I like her best. She bleeds her husband’s money in high-end multi-purpose type boutiques: where attendants welcome you in with a glass of nice but suspect champagne. They have low calorie bitings and little chairs for all the size zero women who shop there. The attendants are extremely good-looking men who are always willing to roll their clients around in the “power-nap room” at the back.

I help Christine choose all her clothes. I am the last word on everything from her lingerie to her hair clips. Like all woman, maybe except for lesbians, she has it in her head that every gay man knows everything about fashion. I do not. I have no clue about colours and how they should block.

But she trusts me when I tell her to wear the red skirt with a green top and purple shoes. And everyone in the boutiques agrees with me because well… ‘He is gaaaaay’, Christine tells them.

‘He knows these things. Don’t you darling?’

‘I suppose.’

Sometimes she buys me gifts just to thank me for my help. Mostly music. She has never asked me what kind of music I like. But she has bought me Adam Lambert, Elton John, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias because ‘birds of a feather must flock together’. I have also gotten Celine Deon, Cher, and Tina Turner because they are good for karaoke practice. She believes that I love to cross-dress and play pretend that I am Celine, Cher, or Tina.

Christine is a shell. There is a lot of air inside her and a lot of her ego, which she enlarges with plastic surgery almost every year.

The good thing about her is she never looks at me like I am a puppy or a freak-show.

Natalie thinks I am her pet. Emma, well, she is on a futile mission. But Christine, as empty as she is, has a different kind of obsession with my sexual orientation. She knows I can keep a secret. I kept mine for a very long time. She trusts me with all of hers: Brian, Tim, Oscar, Ngunjiri, Toby, even Cynthia.

When she is not telling me about her secrets and I am not thinking of how I can use those phantasmagoric descriptions of her various orgasms for a porn flick, Christine turns into this poetic shithead with very weird disjointed thoughts.

‘The body of a baby boy has been retrieved from a page in a newspaper.’

‘Christine?’

‘Yes darling.’

‘What did you say?’

‘Oh. I said the body of a baby boy has been retrieved from a page in a newspaper.’

‘Someone found a foetus wrapped in a newspaper?’

‘Nope. The baby was dead. His parents were looking for him and they found him written all over a newspaper. It was so sad. You should have seen it. Broke my heart.’

‘I see.’

‘Speaking of seeing things, did you know that dreams were initially used by our creators to find out if their experiment was working?’

‘Our creators?’

‘Yes?’

‘Once again is there something I should know about your mentals?’

‘They are fine. As I was saying, human beings are someone else’s Frankenstein. Unfortunately that person, most likely people, used the dreams to find out if we are really viable. You know, to record our activities and then sit and watch. But then the dream system broke, nightmares happened, the creators saw crazy things in our heads and we were abandoned.’

‘Very inconsiderate of them.’

‘Absolutely, darling.’

‘You are special.’

‘So are you, my happy friend. Remember, on dark days, hold your own hand, cry on your own shoulder, and die until the sun slaps you to life.’

‘I will remember that.’

Sometimes I think she is from another place. Other times, I think she needs to see a shrink. She has some unresolved issues.

‘Hey, have you ever had sex with a sixteen year old boy?’

‘No, Christine.’

‘Well, I have and I will do it again if I can. Ask me why?’

‘Why?’

‘Because he is mostly beautiful, not yet handsome and the dick just stands when it sees me. It knows a lady from a tramp. We should do something together, the three of us. I want to know you like that. Naked and with a beautiful little boy inside me, you inside him. Everybody in paradise.’

‘What makes you think he will like it?’

‘What does it matter? We all never liked it at first but we kept doing it anyway. And it grew on us. Now we cannot get enough of it.’

‘Speak for yourself.’

‘What, you liked it from the word go?’

‘It is not always about sex.’

‘You shameless liar. You can be such a girl, darling.’

‘And you, Christine are a vampire and I need a crucifix and the sun to kill you.’

‘No, you mixed it up. It is die until the sun slaps you to life. Not the other way round.’

‘I think I should break up with you.’

‘No, you cannot, we are friends for life. Remember?’

‘I do not remember.’

‘Darling, does it smell like poop when two men fuck?

‘How should I know?’

‘You want me to state the obvious?’

‘That you are a gold digger who at first did not like it but now cannot get enough of it?’

‘Darling, the thing about working in a goldmine is that you can never stop. There is always the hope of getting something bigger than what you got today.’

‘I will say I understood you just so you can leave me alone.’

‘Now, tell me, does it smell like poop after all the thrusting and dipping? How disgusting does it get?’

Ants—Christine is the mother. She bites. And no matter how hard I crush her big head she always lifts it up as if to tell me I should aim at her waist and cut her into two.

I put up with her because I think she needs me. Aside from her secrets and her husband, she has no one else but shop attendants.


Arnold loves me but he does not like my girlfriends.

He says they are three witches with different charms trying to make a potion that keeps exploding in their faces and making them more ugly with every try.

I never argue with him.

He says they think that all gay men do is fuck each other in the anus 24/7.

‘They think that, like their relationships, ours are based on bumping and grinding all day.’

‘We have one relationship, Arnold. You and me.’

‘Yes. Of course. You know what I mean, don’t you?’

‘I know.’

He never wants to be around them and when he is he throws powerful expletives at them. Only Christine sits through them. Natalie and Emma, never. They walk away. Together.

I am always curious about what they say to each other after suffering Arnold.

Jesus whore. Insecure tart.

Pentecostal demon. Stinky panties.

Delusional fanatic. Hood rat.

Jezebel. Medusa with syphilis.

Arnold does not like women. If there ever existed a misogynist as great as Arnold, I would be utterly surprised. I do not know where he got the idea that he is better than any woman in the world and we would all be just fine if they never existed. Sometimes I wonder if he gave birth to himself.

If a woman upsets him, he will insult her and if no one is looking, slap or shake the daylights out of her and dare her to prove that he did. He will not open doors, pull out chairs for, or engage in conversation with a woman socially. Neither will he make way on the roads nor stop hooting when the person ahead of him in a traffic jam is a woman.

He is an investment banker, very good with money. He refuses to work with women or their groups because they are plain stupid and idealist with their little rabbit projects. His boss knows that, everybody knows that. They suffer him, just like I do.The problem is that his macho madness attracts women. Some of the few he has slapped won’t stop inviting him over to their house. The ones he insults think they can tame him. They take his madness because Arnold is so darn good looking. I could look at him all day and be happy but he gets weird when I do that. He gets so angry when I stare. Especially in public. Well, I do admit that my eyes do get wet and light up like bulbs when I set them on him, so obviously in love am I. But he hates them on him.

‘Why are you looking at me like that? Are my balls hanging from my nostrils?’

‘Who is looking at you? Me? Are you out of your mind? I hate looking at you. I cannot stand your ugly face, Arnold. Get over yourself.’

‘Just don’t look at me like that again. Especially not out here. People will see you and start talking.’

Arnold has never told anyone he is gay. I am the only one who knows that. And despite the fact that he says that he loves me deeply and truly, meeting him or going to his house can be tricky.

I have to go over to his place during the day on weekends because if I sleep over the neighbours will talk. I cannot say I am his brother because that will be a lie and he does not lie.

Well, look at that elephant in the room. His entire life is a lie.

Mine is a black hole. To be honest. But I like how I never get to the bottom. I just drop eternally.

I am insecure with Arnold.

I think he is the way he is because he cheats on me.

‘I am not being funny on you.’

‘So why all the unnecessary secrecy?’

‘Some things should be private.’

‘All right, I suppose. But I feel like I am always hiding when I am around you. The problem is you never quite tell me what I am being sneaky about. Does the secrecy turn you on?’

‘You are an insecure pile of shit.’

‘Me or you?’

‘This has nothing to do with me. I am okay with how things are.’

‘I think you are abusing me emotionally.’

‘Who did you get that from? Christine?’

‘Christine is my friend.’

‘Is she now?’

‘Yes, she is. Look who is talking. I have never seen or met your friends. Which means you do not have any or you are ashamed of me.’

‘You are such a woman.’

‘Seriously, tell me. Who are your friends?’

‘I would rather have none than have a bunch of idiots who want to change and misuse me. I came out of my mother’s womb alone, I can live in this world alone.’

‘Tell me about your mother.’

‘Have I ever asked you about your mother?’

‘No.’

‘Do me the same courtesy.’

Arnold is difficult. I could tell you why I love him but I cannot put a finger on anything.

One thing though, he is right about my friends. And I cannot tell why I put up with them either.

But Arnold is not a bastard and I do not deserve better.

I take what life gives me. There is a reason for everything. That is the gospel truth.


Linda Christabel Akhatenje Musita (@ivorypunk) is a writer, editor, and lawyer.

She works as a literary agent at Lelsleigh Inc. in Nairobi and is an editor at The Star newspaper.

Linda began writing when she was fourteen years old and her first story was published in an anthology, African Children Speak, published by Thomas S Gale.

Her fiction has been published on the Storymoja publishers’ blog and the Daily Nation. Linda has also written some pieces on literature and art in Kenya, which have been published on the Daily Nation, The Star and Brainstorm Kenya.

She is an avid reader and her favourite authors are David Maillu, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, David Mitchell, Aravind Adiga and Michael Logan. She reckons the best book/novella she has read so far is “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Marquez.

Linda is currently working on her first novel, whose working title is “Papoose”.

She is a Storymoja Hay Festival 2012/13 fellow being mentored by 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlisted author, Lily Mabura, and assistant mentor Michael Don. Linda and other fellows in the program are working on several short stories and ideas for novellas.

BIG PIECES, LITTLE PIECES by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma

 

jacarandas

“The cemetery is an ugly place for the Jacaranda”

Father was very particular about his belongings. Take the time when Mama burnt his Che Guevara shirt, the frayed one with a black and white man who looked liked somebody called Bob Marley but without his dreadlocks. You had always thought that shirt was a sweaty-smelly thing because Father wore it only when he went to some place called Jim which made him sweaty-smelly. But the way he smashed Mama’s Philips iron against the wall and screamed What kind of nincompoop destroyed something so revolutionary? made that shirt as good as new. Ever since then Mama had always tried the iron on a cloth first, then carefully pressed his clothes, hesitantly, as though she expected, at any moment, the smell of roasted fabric to waft to her nostrils.

And the time Jabu spilled dye on his trousers. The way Father cupped Jabu’s face and gave him a double clap left your ears ringing and it felt as though it was you he had clapped and not Jabu. When he was gone, you hugged Jabu and you both cried and you told him it was going to be all right. Later, when the bruise at the nape of his neck was just a black patch, you laughed at him and asked him what he had been trying to do, stealing Mama’s dye. Didn’t he know that Jesus didn’t like children stealing? That was when he stuck his tongue out and told you that Jesus was just some story made up to colonise black people’s traditions.

“You don’t even know what the word ‘colonise’ means,” you said.

“Oh yes I do!” he shot back.

“Really? What does it mean?”

He began to stammer, the way he always did when he was lying or nervous or guilty, and you laughed. That was how Jabu always got caught.

“Do you know what it means?” he asked finally.

“Yes I do,” you replied, giving him that what-do-you-expect-look.

“What does it mean?”

“I don’t want to tell you.”

“Ha! There, you don’t know!”

“Yes I do!”

“No you don’t!”

“Yes I do! I just don’t want to tell you.”

“Well, Father said it so it’s true, so there!”

You couldn’t argue with that, so you pushed Jabu and told him again how stupid he had been to steal Mama’s dye. Auntie Tshithsi had said never to argue with Father, he was the head of the family and knew what was best for everyone. Mama had stood up then, lifted her dress and petticoat to show Auntie Tshitshi the blistering red stripes on her thighs.

“Is this what is best for me, eh?” she screamed, tears running down her cheeks. “Answer me! Eh, I ask you, is this what is best for me!”

Auntie Tshitshi looked away and chided Mama for being such a cry baby. “Baba used to beat Mama up and she took it like a woman. It’s a good sign, sis’ wakhe, it shows that he loves you. Look, he disciplines the children, why, because he loves them. Lo yiwo umendo sis’ wakhe.”

“So this is married life,” Mama repeated, shaking her head. “Well, I am thinking that if this is married life then I must take the children and return to my people.”

Auntie Tshitshi threw her hands in the air. “Heh! You forget, don’t you, Grace, the cattle that shrivelled up our herds and fattened yours when you came into this house! You forget your bride price! If you want to shame your people go ahead, but my brother’s seeds shall remain where you bore them, right here, in this house.” She stood up and stomped her feet on the carpet.

“Sisi, please, you are his sister, he may not listen to me but maybe he will listen to you. Talk to him, please, tell him to stop this…” Again she raised her dress “…before he kills us all.” Mama held out her hands.

Auntie Tshitshi snickered. “I have never seen such a woman, honestly! Is it my fault that you do not know how to appease your husband, that you anger him all the time? I will say it again, lo yiwo umendo.”

That was when Mama saw you leaning against the doorframe. She wiped her tears abruptly and ordered you to fetch a glass of water for Auntie Tshitshi.

You only wished Mama wasn’t so careless, that she didn’t make Father so angry all the time. Mama was wasteful, Father always said. People who did not go to work did not appreciate the cost of things, the way he did. You remember he said this sadly, swinging the knobkerrie in his hand as Mama tried to gather the broken glass bowl from the floor. That was when Mama said quietly that it wasn’t her fault that Mrs Sibanda had called them in because you had drawn those pictures.

“After all, you teach your children to tell the truth. Let them speak the truth.”

You began to tremble because you knew that Mama had said too much. Father clutched the knobkerrie so tight that his knuckles shone. His face seemed to be swelling, swelling like it would burst. Any moment now he would do his tantrums. The fist of the knobkerrie would land on Mama in dull thuds, dig black bruises into her skin.

He grabbed the pot on the stove, the huge black one that Mama used to boil water on the coal stove whenever ZESA cut the power and the lights went out. You heard Jabu’s wee-wee splashing on the floor before the water hit Mama. She was doubled over with the glass bowl pieces wrapped in newspaper in her hand, her face tilted towards Father, her eyes wild. The fan sputtering overhead seemed to be spinning very fast now, making your head spin fast too. Mama’s scream made your head spin faster than the whirring blades. It screeched in your ears long after it was gone, diluted the angry whrr-whrr of the blades so that you thought your head was bursting, and haunted you for many months after that. The kitchen was falling. The walls were coming at you. Her cheeks were peeling off, exposing the white inner flesh, the skin peeling off the way skin peels off from potatoes just after you boil them. Jabu buried his face in your neck and you put your arms around him and held on tight.

You wished you hadn’t drawn those pictures, the ones of Mama and Father. Maybe then Mrs Sibanda wouldn’t have frowned the way she did, called Miss Greene to come and see the pictures and, later, Mama and Father. And maybe if Mama hadn’t dropped the glass bowl, Father wouldn’t have burnt her with the water.

And so the day you dropped Father’s beer mug you felt the world stop. He had told you, hadn’t he, to leave it in the sink, but Mama had made him do his tantrums again and you thought you would do something to make him smile. You climbed the chair and put the mug under running water. You marvelled at the way the water made the mug shine. It was so big, made of heavy glass that weighed a tonne in your chubby hands. You ran the soap lovingly over it, your fingers lingering on the bright red label that read ‘CASTLE LAGER’.

You’d seen the label many times on Father’s beer bottles. You were always careful to watch Father. You knew that he drank Ingwebu more than any other beer, but whenever the Pattersons came for a visit Mama would rinse the little glasses and Father would take out the bottle of Jack Daniel’s. You frowned when you remembered that even Mrs Patterson drank Jack Daniel’s. It wasn’t right for a woman to drink. Father had said so. You remember he had been unbuckling his belt as he said so, asking Mama if she thought it was proper for a woman to drink. Mama slowly went down on her knees, saying over and over that she was sorry.

“Do you think it’s proper for a woman to drink?”

“Please Baba, please, you saw how Christine kept shoving the glass to my lips—”

“If a woman must drink what must a man do now, eh? Is she a man now, eh, that she must drink?”

“No no please but you said I could take a sip—”

“So it’s my fault now, eh, that you are loose, heh?”

“No no please please—”

Down the belt went.

“Do you want to be like that stupid woman, eh!”

Like a whip,

“Tottering all over the place like a whore!”

the way you’d seen the cattle boys crack their whips on the donkeys’ backs whenever they pulled the cart too slowly.

“Next you’ll be wearing trousers in my house please like those shebeen whores, eh!”

Mama didn’t go to the doctor. You hid behind the doors and watched as she limped all over the house, a wrapper bunched up around her legs, whiplashes of dry tears zigzagging down her cheeks. And Father was nice after that, the way he always was after he did his tantrums. He brought Mama presents wrapped in nice paper, shiny glittery material with balloon decorations that you would take afterwards to make wedding dresses for your barbie doll.

“It’s your fault,” he said, over and over. “You shouldn’t make me so angry.”

Mama said nothing.

“I’m sorry.”

She took the present and still said nothing.

“I love you.”

But she did not smile. She dragged her feet wherever she went. You wished she would smile, wished she would sweep the courtyard with a spring to her step, the way she used to. The house was heavy when she did not smile. She made Father do his tantrums more when she did not smile.

You stood in the shadows of the hallway and watched as she cried, sniffling into the phone over and over that she could not go to the doctor because this time he wouldn’t believe her if she said she had fallen down the stairs.

So you were rinsing the mug and thinking how proud of you Father would be. You should have placed it on the sink then got off the chair, you knew you should have. Instead, you tucked it in the nook of your little arm, thinking how heavy it was and how strong you were, gripped the chair and began to climb down. You felt it slip from your arm, you felt it and your limbs fought with the air. It seemed to fall in the slowest of motion. Then kpa!, the deafening crash and the pieces were skidding across Mama’s tiles, big pieces and little pieces. All you could think of, as you got off the chair, were Father’s burnt shirt and dyed trousers. You were crying as you tried to gather the pieces. You thought if you gathered them all you would piece Father’s beer mug back together. You didn’t hear his footsteps but you saw him there, his huge sandaled feet by the doorway.

You wanted to say sorry but the snot kept choking you, bubbling from your nostrils and popping like little balloons. When you saw the blood on your hands you screamed. It wasn’t so much the pain of the shards digging into your skin as it was the sight of the blood that made you scream. It was just like the blood on Mama’s sarong the day Father kicked her and she lost the baby.

You knew the blows were coming. Father was screaming and you were screaming, then Mama was screaming. You were trying to say sorry, you would find every piece and stick them back together, please. But Father kept on pummelling you, kicking and yelling and swearing.

“You stupid. Your fault. Stupid like your mother. Stupid. You stupid!”

Sharp pain burned you wherever his blows landed.

You saw Mama rushing towards you. Father struck her and she seemed to be flying, flying right across the room. Her head hit the corner of the coal stove and she fell face down, a sick crack crack with each bounce. You could no longer see her, but the blood was following the lines of the tiles, crawling towards you. You screamed but you didn’t, because no sound came from your mouth. Jabu’s wee-wee reached your lips before the blood did, warm against your tongue. Then you tasted Mama’s blood, salty blood that made you want to vomit.

*

The cemetery is an ugly place for the Jacaranda. You used to associate the Jacaranda with happy times, happy places, because you thought the purple bloom of its leaves in October was such a beautiful colour, better even than the trees with the reddish-orange leaves. Your road is littered with them. There is a huge one next to your gate, its branches are spread out like an umbrella. It used to be nice, pressing your face against the window in Father’s car, taking in the purple blur as you drove past a string of them. You remember how Khulu Mlambo never came to the city when the Jacarandas were in bloom, because they made his eyes watery and his nose run. But he is here now.

You hate the Jacaranda, ever since the morning you saw the Waneka Bird. You heard it warbling beneath the Jacaranda tree by your window, squatting over the jagged pieces of its eggs. Its red fluffy chest was puffed up, the way Jabu’s jaws swelled when he had mumps. It darted about its eggshells, the yolk glazing the purple confetti, flapping its black wings. Its cry was mournful, and when you squinted you thought you saw the glint of jewels in its coal black eyes. It warbled and warbled, pecking the eggshells. When it was gone, you ran out into the cool morning air. The grass wiped its dew onto your feet, making your patapatas muddy. You crouched over the broken eggs, and you felt sorry for the Waneka Bird. Its nest sat skewed on a branch overhead, now empty. You wondered if it had been a Daddy Waneka Bird or a Mummy Waneka Bird, and if the Daddy would beat the Mummy up for the broken eggs. Now you wish you had never touched those broken eggs, surely they were bad luck, because later that day you broke Father’s beer mug.

The man who drove you to the cemetery has a nose just like Father’s. It used to be such fun, sitting cross-legged in front of Father’s sofa, clamping your hand over your mouth so he wouldn’t hear your giggles when he began to snore, because it was funny the way his nostrils blared open each time he snored. You used to stare in wonder at that nose that used to fill up Father’s face, squint at the tufts of hair peeking from those blaring nostrils, and worry that if they continued to grow they would block Father’s nose.

You miss the happy days, the times when Father would sweep you into his arms. It always felt like flying, swinging in those arms. Even when Father made as if to let go you never feared, because those strong arms felt so safe. You would place your little hands on that wide face, place them on Father’s cheeks, and marvel at the leathery feel, the contours that appeared when he smiled. You would look deep into those kola nut laughing eyes, see yourself in them, and begin to chuckle. Round and round you would go, the ribbons in your hair fluttering over your face, the wind lifting your dress and whooshing around your legs and tickling your heart. Then he would put you down and it would be Jabu’s turn.

Mama’s grave is so small. The flowers have shrivelled up and turned an ugly ashy brown. You place your bunch on the mound. The rose is the most beautiful, you think, just like Mama. It’s blushing, the way Mama used to blush whenever Father would tell her how beautiful she is, how her skin made him think of bathing in a stream of coconut milk. The way Jabu blushes whenever anyone pinches his cheeks and smiles that smile that tells him to smile back and fusses over what a pretty boy he is.

It was raining the day they buried Mama. Thick heavy sheets, Jabu says, that soaked him despite the umbrella. It was the same day when the doctor came with the bad men. The same men who came to talk to Father when the Factory Manager reported him, you could tell from their ugly brown uniforms, the shiny badges on their jackets. The government had almost taken Father’s business license then. You had felt sorry for the government. Didn’t they know that if they made Father angry he would do his tantrums, beat them up the way he beat the Factory Manager up?

You thought the doctor was such a nice man, the way he brought you sweets when he came with the bad men. Auntie Tshitshi told you not to tell them anything. She grabbed your hand and said the doctor was bringing bad people to talk to you, that you must say absolutely nothing to them. You nodded vigorously so she would stop squeezing your hand so hard.

You didn’t want to say anything, you really didn’t, but the doctor was so nice, he gave you a sweet and smiled so nicely and asked you what had happened.

First, you said you fell down the stairs. One of the bad men was scribbling furiously on a notepad, the fat one with the wart on his face. When the doctor persisted you asked for your lawyer, the way you’d seen them do on those American movies. He laughed and gave you another sweet and promised you that everything would be all right, just tell him.

You began to cry.

What happened, what happened, the doctor kept on asking.

You didn’t know, please, your head hurt, you wanted to sleep.

Okay, but first, what happened. Don’t be afraid. I’m your friend. What happened.

So you told them. Everything.

The Jacaranda is right next to Mama’s grave. It is crooked, as if someone has twisted it to one side. You hate the way it has sprinkled its purple leaves on Mama’s grave.

You squeeze Jabu’s hand. He is trying to be strong, you can tell. Khulu Mlambo chided him for crying on your way to the cemetery. He said he must not cry, patted his shoulder and smiled that old man’s smile of his that always made you grimace because you would see the yucky green sappy pieces of the medicinal leaves he is always chewing dangling from his brown teeth. He smiled and told Jabu to be strong because he had to be a man now, the one who should look after you. You looked at Jabu and wondered if that meant he had to beat you up too.

His face crumbles. You hold him and tell him that everything is going to be all right.

Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.

You shut your eyes tight and drag the snot back up your nose. Your little face is wet. Because it’s all your fault. Mama wouldn’t have died, and they wouldn’t have taken Father away, if only you hadn’t dropped that beer mug.


Big Pieces, Little Pieces was first published by StoryTime in 2010 in a publication titled African Roar: An Eclectic Anthology of African Authors.

Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, from Zimbabwe, is the author of Shadows (Kwela, South Africa 2013) – a collection of a novella and short stories. Her short fiction has been published in anthologies which include Bed Book of Short Stories (Modjaji Books, South Africa 2010) and Where to Now? Short Stories from Zimbabwe (‘amaBooks, Zimbabwe 2011, Parthian Books, UK 2012). She won the 2009 Yvonne Vera Award, Zimbabwe’s short fiction prize, for her short story You in Paradise. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she is a Maytag Fellow. Visit her online at www.novuyotshuma.com.

RABIES by Idza Luhumyo

there is a certain age in a girl’s life when she has to be protected from other girls.

“there is a certain age in a girl’s life when she has to be protected from other girls.”

Bibi usually tells me that if you do something very wrong, Allah will not hesitate to strike you dead. He will call you by name, just like he did to my sister Latifa. She was barely three years old, Latifa. When she died, she almost carried my mother’s entire happiness to the grave with her. After the burial, Ma had my other sister Amina leave for Lamu as soon as she could walk on her own two feet. A visit every Ramadhan, but no more.

“Your mother did not want to tempt death with the two of her remaining girls so she had Amina go to your aunt in Lamu,” Bibi told me.

We were born three girls, one after the other. Ma often says I was the first one to come but Ba says no, it was Latifa. Bibi doesn’t remember. She was the only one with Ma during the delivery, her bad ears being her shield against the screams. Bibi, perhaps drained out from Ma’s seventeen-hour labor, put one stroke on Latifa and one stroke on me so that they could never know who the first-born was.

“It is not easy to give birth to three girls,” Ma usually says.

“It is not easy to give birth, that is all,” Bibi answers her.

Ma barely lives. She is sad and has infected both Bibi and me with her sadness. So we walk around with a certain natural heaviness in us which, once very foreign, soon became familiar. I learnt long ago how not to lose myself to laughter, lest it cause Ma more pain. Even when the times were joyful, like during Ramadhan, I had to be careful to approach happiness with the stealth that Ma and Bibi approached it with.

“Don’t tempt fate,” was Bibi’s favorite reproach.

I do not blame Bibi. She does not have much with which to resist the sadness. Her husband, my grandfather, never came back from Dubai where he went to work more than ten years ago. Two of her sons soon followed to look for work and to know what happened to their father. It has been five years since we heard from them. The last of Bibi’s sons, Uncle Ali, wants to go too. Bibi will not have it.

“Isn’t it enough to kill me three times?” she says. “Let me die first, then you may go. It won’t be long now.”

But Uncle Ali will go, I know it. I can see it in his restlessness. Sometimes I see it in the way he looks at us like someone who is about to go on a journey. Other times his intentions reveal themselves in how he sighs when anyone mentions Dubai. From time to time, he comes home and whispers into Bibi’s ears about his plans: stories of a new agent he has found who charges only half what his brothers paid and many promises to call when he gets there.

But Bibi shakes her head no so vigorously, you’d think she was about to go mad.

“Isn’t losing a husband and two sons enough?” she says.

“You have not lost them. Do we take other people’s lives before we know they have died? They will come back. Insha’Allah,” Uncle Ali says. “Have faith Ma.”

“I know it. I know their sweat does not fall on this earth anymore,” Bibi says.

“But what are my sisters for? They will be with you and they will take care of you.”

“Your sisters have their hands full with their husbands, can’t you see? They don’t own even the hair on their heads. Don’t go, I plead with you.”

I think of my sister Amina. I try to imagine her life in Lamu. I wonder whether she says her prayers every day or if she forgets like I do sometimes. Does she get lazy sometimes? Ma has a photo of her in her bedroom. Save for the broad nose and the kinky hair, she doesn’t resemble me at all. Even less now I presume for I was told that she has relaxed her hair. Mama would never allow me to do that to my hair. Everything to her is haram. Sleeping is haram. Laughing loudly is haram. Eating is also haram.

I fear Ma. She looks at me as if I’m a ghost.

“You look just like her,” she says.

“But how, Ma? Wasn’t she three when she died? I am ten now.”

“What kind of questions are these?” she asks, her cold eyes revealing her anger. Much, much later she adds, “I know because I am her mother.” This is her apology for her outburst and I gladly accept it.

Ma wears her sadness around her like a colorful hijab, inviting everyone to notice it. I have not yet learnt how to drown myself so completely in sadness like her, but I know how to be quiet. I have perfected the art of quietly doing things, a way of adopting a busy presence like that of birds. Nosy neighbors insist that I was not raised by Ma, that it is Bibi who deserves that credit.

Ma has nightmares sometimes. I dread the days when she has them for I am always the victim. Before Uncle Ali put a lock on my bedroom door, Ma would come into my room and pull at me, screaming, thinking me to be Latifa.

“May Allah curse whoever dug that well. May their feet have worms and may their children be beggars all their lives. May Allah shorten the days of their lives!”

“She would never hurt you,” Bibi assures me after leading her away. “She just thinks you’re Latifa.”

I don’t know what to believe. Mama wakes up the next morning as if everything is normal and doesn’t notice the red marks. At lunchtime she asks what happened to my face. I run to my room and cry quietly. Mama doesn’t like tears. She prefers her sorrow dry.

In the late hours of the afternoon, when Bibi is taking her afternoon nap and Ma is reading the Quran, I sneak away to the two adjoined rooms that Grace’s family calls their home. Ours is a Swahili house, built in the fashion of Arabic houses. It is a rectangular house with a long corridor. It has nine rooms facing each other on either side of the corridor. Our part of the house, the front part, is separated from the tenants by a grill door which is never closed. On it hangs a curtain through which we can see the tenants but they cannot see us. Bibi says it is good this way: the tenants must not feel like they can get away with anything in a house that is not even theirs.

“Remember the camel and the tent?” she tells Ma.

I know she is talking about Grace’s father. Bibi cannot stand the loud prayers that he has in the middle of the night, every night. He is a pastor. Sometimes he will not stop praying till the small hours of the morning. Mama is reluctant with the eviction notice, however. Apart from being our oldest tenants, they are the only ones who pay rent on time.

”Allah knows how much we need it,” she says.

It is Grace’s mother that Ma can’t stand. She has forbidden me from going to their room. She says that they touch, cook, and eat pork all the time. I know this is a lie because I asked Grace, and she said that they only eat cow meat, and even then only on the last Sunday of every month when her father hosts the church elders in their room.

I sneak away in the afternoons when Ma is busy with Allah and Prophet Muhammad. Sometimes she keeps reading her Quran until the shadows on the walls have disappeared and Grace’s mother has lit the lamp.

The teacher’s strike is on so Grace didn’t go to school today or the past week. Her two brothers are in school because unlike Mtomondoni Primary School, where Grace goes, Greenfield Academy is private.

“Are your teachers on strike too?” Grace asks when she sees me.

“No. Have you forgotten today is Friday?”

“I wish we also had a free weekday like you people,” she says. I notice that her mind is elsewhere.

She asks me if I am doing anything. I tell her, as she can see, I am not. She suggests a walk and five minutes later, after a reluctant nod from her mother, we are on the road leading to the Chief’s offices.

“Didn’t your mother tell you not to go to the Chief’s place?”

“When is Amina coming?” she asks, ignoring my question.

“Not far, it is Ramadhan soon.”

“I can’t stand Amina.”

“Why?” I ask as if I don’t already know.

“She thinks she is better.”

“Better than who?”

“Than me and you. What did you think?”

I don’t like this side of Grace. She reminds me of a picture my English teacher had on her phone. A neck had three heads sitting on it and the hair of each head was tied into a bun at the top so that it looked like the hair belonged to all of them. I asked Teacher Leila how this was possible.

“Is she a jinni?”

“If it is a jinni then we must all be jinnis,” she said. “We all have many sides to us. Let no one cheat you that they are always wise or happy. Some days one is happy, some days one is sad. Those are the many heads we all have.” I did not understand her.

When we get to the Chief’s place we find that we cannot go in because the watchman is there.

“There will be no swinging for us today,” Grace says. “Let’s go.”

“Where to?”

“Come!” she says in an excited whisper. She grabs my hand and starts running. I am forced to run along with her. She leads me to the place where I come for my madrasa classes. It is empty today save for three boys in green kanzus who are playing pebbles. One of them is screaming, “Haram! Haram!” incessantly as if he was rehearsing a chant. We walk past them without a word.

“Let’s go in,” Grace says when we get to the door of my classroom.

I say no. I don’t want to seen by the Imam, who thinks I am the best-behaved girl in class. Grace ignores me and walks inside. The room has a raffia carpet spread from wall to wall, and a few books are scattered all over. Grace walks up to some of them and reads the names written at the top.

Leila.

Shaman.

Nuru.

By this time I am worried because soon there will be a call for prayer and the compound will not be as deserted.

“Grace, let’s go home.”

She signals at me to go to the back where she is now sitting cross-legged.

“Is this how you usually sit?” she says. “So that the boys get a little glimpse of your thing?”

She then starts laughing. Her laughter is like my mother’s anger. It starts low, as if it is apologizing, then gains speed and rises up her throat until she has tears in her eyes. I sit next to her. This close to her, I catch a whiff of a smell that tells of a skipped shower.

Bibi says that a woman can be lazy in anything but not her body. She takes long, hot baths at night and prescribes them as medicine for any sickness. Bibi’s bath is an event in her day. Sometimes I think it is all she looks forward to. She fills her basin with half hot water and half cold water. She then adds all sorts of things in it. Once, when I asked her why she only puts a few drops of olive oil in her bath-water, she said, “We don’t waste gold, do we?”

“Grace, you have not showered today,” I say.

“What’s the hurry for? Today is not over.”

“But a girl is supposed to shower in the morning and at night before sleeping. Cold bath in the morning and a hot bath at night.”

“Who said?”

“Bibi.”

“I will shower later, you don’t worry.”

We sit in silence for a while, and I am afraid I have offended her. I start to tell her that we should go because I cannot hear the voices of the boys who were playing pebbles.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” she asks.

I laugh and tell her no. “Do you want Bibi to kill me?”

“And you?” I ask.

She shakes her head. She then stretches her legs in front of her before crossing them at her sides as if to put them away. Then, watching me, she brings her bent knee slowly, slowly as far as it can go between my legs. Her gaze holds me captive so that I am both here and not here and I am afraid of moving even the slightest inch. My stillness registers as assent to her because she is now moving her knee further in with the urgency of someone who really needs to pee. I find myself opening my legs further apart, keenly aware of a thrill that is building up in my middle part. I surprise myself by sighing when Grace’s knee goes just short of grazing my panty. I move my body slightly near her and push my legs further apart. Grace gets up, scans the room quickly, and gets on top of me. I barely register this when we hear the sound of laughter coming from the windows. I quickly throw her off me and look towards the window. I see nobody.

Grace recovers first. She stands up and makes for the door. It takes me two, three seconds to join her on the murram road that leads to home. Neither one of us says a word to each other.

The next day, Ma neglects her Quran in the afternoon to attend to the more urgent task of going to the market. Bibi has a visitor. I stay in my room the whole time, bored and looking out of the window, counting the people walking. There used to be a dog I would play with, a dog Baba had, whenever I would get bored. After a while they said it had rabies and that it had to be killed. Baba said that the dog had bitten one of the tenants and because of that bite the tenant might die. The dog had to go.

The front door shuts and I hear Bibi call my name. She tells me to go to her room and wait for her. I step in and marvel, not for the first time, at the darkness. You would not guess that the sun shines in its entire splendor just beyond the curtains. But this is how Bibi has always been. She has her own way of doing things. Bibi walks in soon after and wipes her hands on a towel. She is not the cleanest person in the world, at least not like Ma who washes her bed linen every day. Bibi’s bed is rumpled, yet in this room there is a sense of organized mess. Bibi takes my hand and leads to a mat placed beside her bed. I sit down and wait for her.

“Did you know the Imam was here today?” she asks.

“Yes, I heard him,” I say.

“He wanted to speak to your mother but he didn’t find her. Why she went to the market at this time, I don’t understand,” she says. “The best time for the market place is when the sun is either coming out or going down. Never at two o’clock in the afternoon.”

I smile and nod. Bibi talks of Mum as if she is an errant child.

“Mariam,” Bibi says.

“Yes?”

“Allah was so kind as to bless me with three girls, just like your mother. The seed of girls has been planted in our wombs. Even in you, I’m sure. If there is one thing I have learnt when bringing up girls, it is to watch them very, very closely. Nothing is lost on girls at your age. Especially if they are clever like you. Do you hear?”

“Yes,” I say.

“My dear girl, when Allah created humans, he had ten pieces of desire in His hand. He gave nine pieces to women and only one piece to men. My mother’s sister, Aunty Khadijah, once told me something important about girls. She said there is a certain age in a girl’s life when she has to be protected from other girls. At that age, the company of other girls is dangerous. There is a type of madness that moves around in their bodies like blood, and they pass it on to each other like a disease,” she says.

She goes silent for a long while and I soon realize that she is using the silence as a weapon, just like the women in our family have been known to do. It is my cue to start crying. As the tears start falling, Bibi continues talking.

“Be careful of other girls, do you understand me?”

I nod my head. I now know that the Imam must have seen.

She continues, “At a certain age, when a girl starts to notice boys, and wants to be noticed by boys, she is veered towards forming friendships with girls. But never, ever earlier than then.”

“Mariam, the Imam told me he saw you and Grace yesterday at the madrasa. If it is true, I am afraid I will not allow you to speak to that girl again,” she says.

I break out into loud sobs. Bibi seems shocked at this but I no longer care. I am incapable of keeping my sorrow dry. For some reason I remember Baba’s dog, the one that was killed. After it was killed, everyone waited for the tenant to die. The tenant never died. It seemed that the dog had never had rabies in the first place.


Idza Luhumyo (@idzah) is a 20 year-old Kenyan writer. She is a student at the University of Nairobi. She has been writing for a couple years and she uses her writing to find herself. She occasionally blogs at Lavignetteur.

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.

SKETCH OF A BALD WOMAN IN THE SEMI-NUDE by Clifton Antony Gachagua

"Terror itself"

“Terror itself”

The motion sun has this pure millimolar thing it does when it settles on the thin layer of dust on the block wood and even before that specks of dust trap the light and disappear into other regions of the air in my mouth-room. Two pairs of eyes in the room dart from object to object and never to each other. The arrangement of shapes and sizes in these rooms is something out of a set in a film written by directed by edited by scored by and produced by a young man in Nairobi with no education and a lot of love and kisses from his mother. Plastic teepee and Tupperware I got as a gift from an Italian man who comes to me in the late night hour, a man who looks at me with blank eyes and offers me his life savings if I can tell him why cold-blooded animals like the shade so much. He often says he loves the sun and he walks for kilometers without water or pauses. He’s third generation Italian-Gikuyu. Once he offered me a story for free. Emphasis on ‘free’. His father, after playing dead in the bloody fields of Wal Wal, 1934, bribed a merchant with silvers and gold to a southern border where he bribed a hunter with anal sex to take him to Marsabit. This man, he likes to spit in my garbage bags, I imagine those who like to spit are hydrated people and I spend nights and days thinking about this. I think about his bad breath and good intentions, his love for highlife benga and the many wrong histories he likes to offer me. I want to be like him, wrong in my convictions and happy as can be. In my garbage cans and in addition to spit are the remains of yesterday where I did things no one has ever done to a vegetable salad and later made that okay with a banana-strawberry-yoghurt splash. A lot of paper has been wasted printing recipes and turning them into manifestos for cats.

The noise of my fruit blender gives me a rush, I can feel it rising in me like a kid in my high school class used to get these spasms and yell that God was building a three-story building inside him. He was always last after the exams. A good kid. He shook like a violent thing and I wonder if I was the only one who was scared seeing his body shake like truly and verily three floors of concrete were about to burst from inside his body. No one wants to build anything inside me since I was a few feet tall but I can still feel the energy rise and I looked for them and I made them pay by reciting things like recipes and the names of cats to them. I waited for them to go to sleep and I made them pay. I didn’t even have to be there. Willpower and faith, God and everything else. That’s how I know, without a doubt, I am terror itself.

My days here have been okay until very recently when the cats put on these pullovers from the garbage cans of young mothers and what I assume to be the garbage cans of my strange octogenarian neighbor who still wears leather pants and has a tattoo of Jomo Kenyatta on the folds of his bicep skin hanging down like hanging gardens; these cats jumped up and down (the cats, not the mothers and definitely not the osteoporotic old man) on trampolines and played tambourines and it’s so much weirder than anything else I have seen in my life here that there was no sound coming from the tambourine even when I could hear—owing to the heightened sense of sound from living so close to terror—the rubber on the trampoline stretch and the glass in the crevices and dark ceilings breathe. Another weird thing but this time not so weird as the many other things I have had the pleasure of seeing, Jomo on the tattoo looks very little like Jomo on the bills and the more the old kickass man (a hero of his time maybe) ages the more Jomo looks like his firstborn son.

Another weird thing but this has nothing to do with cats and tattoos and the singing of young mothers is that I have these two cassette recordings of a song 80 minutes long of a man sleeping and snoring. He is either a very big man who drinks a lot or a child like I was who went playing in his sleep. There’s nothing in this world more wondrous than a sleeping man except a man making a vegetable salad.

Cats used to come to mate in and around my garbage cans. I am not going to make a big fuss about the contents of the cans but I will consider other things for instance who steals my recyclables and who replaces the green bags with the blue bags every time, never mind the vigils I have carefully laid out to catch them with no luck?

The structure of that sentence there is such that I want to mean, and I am very keen on meaning, terror wants itself manifest and manifold and without a doubt well interpreted and well intoned although a speech therapist I met at a convention in Addis Ababa told me it might benefit my course to carefully consider silence as a tool of terror so the structure of that sentence means when I catch the person who replaces my blue garbage bags with green garbage bags (or is it the other way around?) they will be in for a thorough lecture on the history of this civilization being entirely dependent on the color spectra of my garbage bags.

Back to the cats making that splendid and eerie children voice that freaks me out secretly. They mate all night. I can tell each individual sound, trust me I can. And it goes on for the entire night. Myself, I can do a maximum of 15 minutes and make a young woman cum with the exception of this young Kipsigis girl who said for some reason, some weird damn reason, obviously she had a problem in the system of her body, the universe and alignment of things only made her cum after 120 minutes, 15 seconds. Come to think of it she had the eyes and grace of a cat. It must be hard to sustain grace for that long. I had to let her go after two weeks. I imagine it was because of emasculation but the truth is she did not know when to add the lettuce to the vegetable salad. And I know, secretly I know, I’m sure I do and I can bet all my money on this irrefutable fact: I know she talked to the cats at night.

I have never seen the cats during the day. Small animals I don’t trust. I want to be around the bigger animals, beast of the southern wild kind of monsters, beautiful beautiful beings created by the master when the son was not watching, the ones you can see approaching from a distance, the ones small children dream about before adolescence. I want things like caricatures of naiads and masts of power so high I can see them from Stendikisa. A huffing and puffing animal is a beautiful thing when considered from a distance, a cat not so much. I even hate cats more because of Murakami. I’ll say something about the man who sells me Tupperware and his connection to the Japanese and Wal Wal and twisted history, no doubt an ingenious tool in narrative—thank you Vladimir Nabokov, thank you so very much, my in-law—someday I will, I promise. Back to heat cycles and mating cats, Mating and Conception in Cats (Obiero Nainanai). Not forgetting those sounds they make when the moon is out looking so slush luminescent like a slice of the book of secrets taken together with cheese dipped in more cheese—oh how I hate blue cheese—and finally, you can see this in the cats’ compound eyes, the moon unfurls like a happy butterfly and turns into a kite and the string is tied all the way down to the so pink cat paw, those beautiful paws like like like like the penises of stillborns. When they are looking up like that with their eyes closing so unconventional-like and they are just there kicking back, making sounds, tired from mating and seeing distant galaxies, witnessing for the first time the event in Orion, the birth of new stars, the O so beautiful evolutions of nova, God how so beautiful you are when naked, and being friends with the dogs that make it to heaven—are you ok, Elizabeth, with all your love handles, dining with Dante Alighieri? For I don’t trust Italians. I don’t even know how the cats make it to the window sill because I live three floors up, there is no way of getting there without looking stupid and like you have a lot of free time.

It did not bother me so much, at least not like the way you sit at Hamdi amid the rich Dagodia and poor city dwellers and order chips masala (only for the lettuce) but the waiter lady brings you a lot of chips and no masala. Do they imagine little gland-men under my tongue construct masala? The cats just sit there and look out to the big wonderful sky. Some of the small ones lick the windowpanes like they want to do me a favor by cleaning the window panes and I wonder if I should pass them some old newspapers to get that extra sheen, wonder if I should get a surgery to elongate my tongue, split it into two for special effects so that I can kiss them too or call the Kipsigis girl. Then I remember I don’t like it when I draw the curtains and the first thing I see is cat tongue. Myself, I used to look up the sky so I get why that is important in an animal’s life. I’ve had three night skies in my life: Koch, Juba, Maseno. The most beautiful night skies. Truth be told I never quite got beyond Auriga and Perseus.

What bothers me most is not the sound as I have said, it’s all that crying they do.

So a few days ago, there is no telling how many for sure when you live in a room like this, I laced the fish remains with cyanide, imagine a perfect eyeball soaked in cyanide for 48 hours, 15 seconds. Vigils and questions about the existence of man, elegies, fields of salt, remembrances of dead poets. The whole nine yards, brother. Now there are no more cats in and around my garbage cans. I thought I would open up my mind to the idea of cats like Murakami told me to but I just couldn’t. I just can’t stand the noise they make when they are mating. When he was going deaf—the classical musician, he told me this in a dream—it was because he did not want to hear the sounds cats made when they were mating. Why can’t they be quiet?

I am wise enough to be quiet during my variations of mating with friends, strangers and new confidants and even when salsa dancing with parts of myself by myself in and through the marrow bone of myself in front of the music of light-emitting diodes and fairies who eat each others wings.

You see the cats are now making me talk about innuendos I want to save myself from. Not that I am that terrible in certain respects, I am just, let’s say, like a connoisseur of variations, like—thank you Elizabeth and thank the dry fields in Botswana, thank you garden vegetables, Mama—this might be a stretch, but like I feel Shostakovich. Let me not talk about that. My mother taught me well too, she told me everything I know about commas and semicolons, and it’s the fault of those cats I am getting this way.

I am always afraid I will run into the cats at night, them holding spikes and rakes, firebombs and condoms, regrets and sacrifices, come out to burn my ass and make me eat the cyanide I made or force me to sleep and eat from the garbage can, if I think being a cat is so easy, and I can see myself running so fast but more cats are just ahead of me waiting and what’s that thing they are doing, laughing and laughing and making more children voices, doing the tap dance, speaking in tongues and, more specifically, speaking like Hollywood stars. This fear goes away sometimes but I know it is there, it’s under the bed waiting, its lifeline maintained by my drool. If terror has taught me anything it is that to achieve long-term memory symbols and iconography are necessary and that’s how come I am so afraid of the cats because so perfectly I can see their lips and whiskers and tongues and you know that’s not all, O God that is not all, I can see the voices rising from their mouths like smoke, like curtains in an abandoned house. Well not abandoned, just that the third-generation owner died and his children are caught up in a court battle. I am good at things such as fear and measuring its intensity as it travels from one corner of the body to the next even until when—excuse me, O dear God you’re all I have now—even until when it goes outside the body and is forced to take a material form like khanga in the wind at a festival or a facade with leaves falling but there is no tree. No tree there at all.

Enough about cats.

This is about a semi-nude woman. It is really about this one moment she stood in my bathroom, barefooted, taking a shower. I know that’s not especially breaking news, the listening post on Al Jazeera would not be interested in that. Unless she videotapes herself and calls it citizen journalism but what she really means is that it is a noir film called citizen journalism and she goes on to win a Pulitzer for a newly created category. The special thing about this girl is that she was standing in my bathroom using my hot water, it’s possible to see how the water touched her pale skin, and she was standing there and the bathroom door was open.

An open bathroom door.

Her hair the color of crematorium ash.

I don’t know if this is true for you, but I find bathing a very intimate thing. Bathing is like sleeping, that’s why I was so in and out of my head with those cats making their awful noise. Bathing and sleeping, forget about the motions. Think deep tissue. Just like I like to sleep alone, uninterrupted and with no one and no sounds and no light in the room, I also like to bathe in private. I believe people should also bathe in private. I want to treat people as I want them to treat me although I am giving this mantra up because no one really knows me, no one knows about the masala men under my tongue, no one knows the girl with the bald head and the sketches I made in my sleep, O God no one knows. Bathing is just one of those things, you know. You want to do it in private. Just you and God. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what psychoanalysts think about a notion like that but I’d sure like to find out some day. Maybe they might even explain the thing about the cats too.

Cats haven’t always been a pervasive and recurring theme in my life but for the past few weeks they have terrorized my sleep. It bothered me so much, their oblivion did, it made me angry they were not aware they were keeping me up.

The most striking thing about this girl is the way her soul is in the striking curve of her big toes. They are the biggest and most beautiful toes I have seen. On both women and men. Just like everything has a center, everything must also have a soul. Check in the digital library of any place and you will see.

I was on my desk trying to work and this girl was in the shower, her toes on the linoleum not afraid of the fungus even though I have expressly warned her—by way of fifteen brands of scouring powder—but like with everything else she does the opposite of what I say, with the bathroom door wide open, O God just wide open like Noah’s door in the preceding hours and there she is peeping even when the door is open and there is soap almost getting into her eyes, foam inside her ears and collecting in the bellybutton, foam in the middle, foam picking apples in between her youknowwhat where she is all naked, O God all naked like betrayal in Golgotha, I don’t have the proper tears or the proper education, and trying to tell me things. I don’t know why she thinks she has to tell me things. Why? I’m a fair man. I don’t assume she always want to hear things and that’s why I am always silent even during the sex doing and undoing, church mouse if you want, I just nibble and nibble with all small teeth and language mapped on my lips but the cells have collapsed because they are the towers of Babel and little men in charge of time (previously accused to be in charge of masala) are in conversation with her lips from mine and I’m just silent while she is taking photographs of my neurons and sexing me like she had just watched mick jagger, that splendid god even in small letters, and I am inside her while at it and I am rediscovering that while inside her is like a remembering of the rules of a childhood game, a remembering of my mother walking on glass and cussing, coming out is like waking up in the body of an elephant. And silence. If she looks into my eyes during sexing, and I highly suspects she looks, she finds nothing there. “Nothing there” is so much I’ll not get into that. Thank you. She finds nothing there in the sense that night is nothing and color is not color until the sun is out making its way through flecks of dust and human breath in the air. Nothing is silence. A void is a silence and when you make sex with silence this is truly terrifying.

I have some thoughts on how bodies, in the sense of living tissue breathing and occupying space and weight and questioning the evolution of new stars, are violent and I will use my body to show you how. I have a sexy body, that has your attention, no doubt. Not to say I will hurt my body in the way those parking lot kids did in that film Red Hill, not listening to the warning of their fathers and mothers, videotaping this for a world waiting to see teenagers hurting themselves in abandoned parks and scenes of protest and further getting off, both the teenagers and the world getting off is what I mean. This has nothing to do with that kind of visceral exhibitionism mounted in front of a steadycam—that’s a phrase I learnt from arguing with a Zionist and a Legio Maria with a penchant for eating termites from Stendikisa’s underground tunnels—nothing at all to do with that.

I think for me the only way bodies can be truly remarkable is when you pick your nose in private. Picking one’s nose is up there in the spectrum of things, together but not too close to cats crying in the night. The true meaning of things.

I volunteer myself. O God, Elizabeth [Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi Oi—Danke, Elizabeth, Goddess of Fish, Goddess of the Moorish Idol].

I was on my desk working and she was interrupting me telling me these things while the water was running down her pale skin. The sound of the water when it fell on the tiles was loud, the sound of water when it touched her skin was even louder and all I wanted was to listen to these synthetic 50% polyester silences because in their unnaturalness and inaudibility they can be silences if you search long enough, if you listen hard enough, O god if you long long enough.

[Sound + Time = Acoustic Light]

You know I just wanted the water to keep falling and for her to please shut up (I say shut up with a lot of respect), a fountain in an expensive Guinness World Record breaking, and most importantly shut the bathroom door to protect me from that gross act of intimacy she was taking part in by herself. I do not wish to be privy to other people’s intimacies, both for their sake and mine. That’s why I had to poison the cats. I was protecting myself from the doors they opened when they were searching for their cat-god. The importance of a door is to offer one individual intimacy while offering the other person the happy ignorance of being not intimate with anything.

I stood up, opened the tap on the sink to hear some more dripping water but still she would not stop talking. I played my beautiful long dead Shostakovich and still she would not stop talking.

The voice of a woman in the shower has this closeness to Marian paintings I have seen from these modern kids (they call themselves cats) who paint sound with their naked bodies in the other ghettos of Dandora and you can hear Jesus crying when the Mother is carrying and nursing him and papering his bottom.

What was she saying? She was saying something elaborate and inconsequential and truly beautiful-sounding like when Red plays the harmonica, talking about evolutionary biology, and her term paper was long overdue, now they had no choice but to fail her mostly because she stopped to read classic philosophy and never turned back.

You know now that I think about it I wanted that door closed for some other selfish reasons. She was talking about the selfish gene.

Now, I am not a chauvinistic pig like my father was and to prove that I will quote something my father the man himself in flesh and light rhesus negative blood group O said. My father himself said, “Son, you are not a chauvinistic pig.” So when I tell you about this girl standing right there in the shower, the sun settling on her skin and thinking possibly it has found the place it is always looking for and a cat passing behind the translucent glass just above her head, when I talk about her I know what I’m saying and I am a sensitive man.

I did not say much about my father, I want to protect myself from my intimacies and, although I can use his story and the strange music he played, the music of true failure, I know enough to know when to stop. Embarrassment, fear, anxiety and other material ways of making sense out of nothingness; truth be told I am also afraid that one day my end will come by way of an unstoppable train of terror that I let loose me myself on the line, line number 3 at the Railway Museum, a terror that grows and mutates and becomes something completely different from its origin. I am starting to get afraid of the music my father played.

I have said how much the disturbance of silence bothers me, this brings me to the second point and me being truly glad I have someone to listen to me. If anyone is standing in my bathroom, regardless of their sex, and the person decides to bother me and bother the working of my head with sounds that are organic and originate from inside the person, if they decide to take this liberty then it is very pertinent they must and absolutely must be saying some true things about philosophy and evolutionary biology for those are subjects dear to me. You better get your facts right. Nothing makes me more terrified and repulsed than telling a lie as hearing a lie.

I am going to illustrate this by telling you a funky analogy she gave me as way of illustration. Don’t misquote me and tell your friends I do not want to be misquoted.

Terror can use propaganda effectively and this topic has been exhausted by people who know the true mechanics and diabolical nature of stuff but my terror is genuine and it therefore must separate itself from misrepresentation.

I realize some paradox oxymoron. I promise I will be nice by way of illustration of what this girl was saying. I don’t want to preempt a lie. I am a very objective man and have made all the right choices in my life by choosing restless sleep over the lives of cats. These things she was telling me involved Lake Victoria fish and this is so interesting as it reminds me of a cat and fish story I have (and also an argument as to whether a lake is a feminine or masculine thing). I might return to it. I will also tell a story about a cat and a fish in Stendikisa.

This is what the girl was saying (now, I wish I could just endnote and footnote my feelings of utter revolt as I listened to her lies but that would be biasing, from one lie to another, and I promised not to interfere and, being who I am, lies have no place in my life).

She said, “Consider a school of fish…”

Now I don’t want to be a bad man here to interrupt her but in all of my life no girl has ever told me to consider a school of fish. This is not something your parents prepare you for. As a man who deals with color I know that imagination is real and useful but never once have I ever imagined a school of fish. My face was total unknowing at the time she told me which collaborates my evidence and who will one trust, a naked woman in the bathroom with the door open or a man who will set one free if one chooses the right answer?

Choose the right answer.

I respect a person who understands things. Such a person will live longer which is sadly something I cannot say for the cats because I asked them a question not unlike the one I have just asked you and they chose the wrong answer. To imagine a school of fish is to imagine let’s say a lake (feline). When I imagine a lake it is very probable that I will imagine a canoe with sails in the wind and the silhouette of a man looking to the distance and a moon curved from Manila paper of the silver leather color. So to imagine a school of fish means for me to forget. That’s one thing I find difficult. So some revolt registered on my face as she continued to talk.

“Consider a school of fish, blue in color, living at a certain depth of the lake…”

I find it very difficult to understand what this girl wants from me. I have given her everything I can without taking anything in return either from boredom or for penance but here she is still wanting more. How do I give after giving all I have?

I’m going on about the fish. It’s hard as it is to consider a school of fish, it’s even more improbable to consider a school of fish blue in color. What’s happening here is that the workings of my mind cannot distinguish between what is really blue, the fish as individuals or the school as a collective. I know this to be true because of the story am going to tell you about the fish and the cat.

I fail miserably to imagine a school of fish, I find it unbearable to focus on just one individual fish and why because it is hard for me to imagine the event we call blue as just belonging to that one fish. Fish don’t know anything so fish cannot be blue. That is what us as people have done to the earth and it is my work to remind myself. Fish is not blue. Fish is just minding their own business.

Friends of mine, this being a time when I had lots of friends, have told me not once not twice, cats are nimble, they do not like an audience. This is not entirely true and I had to lose some friends because I just cannot stand liars.

When she’s done bathing she walks into the bedroom. It’s a small house: movement is didactic. This time she closes the door behind her. I can picture her, wrapped in my towel, taking it off, drying herself from her head to the spaces between her toes, O that big toe, pausing at the middle (and not the bellybutton), considering if she should dry herself there, deciding she should, one leg on the bed, the other on my needlefelt rug, drying herself with my towel, wondering if there is a camera hidden there. She has more hair there than she does on her head. She’s in there, in my bedroom, door closed, looking around for lotion and finding none, cussing me, regretting why she is here, eventually missing me, missing the full implications I bring to the table, missing a man who smiles like someone she used to know. She opens the door slightly to tell me to buy some lotion soon. Closes it shut. I consider her words, take apart the sentence, examine it carefully like a zoologist with a new animal on the table, seek out the subtleties, find none, decide she wants me. Yes, that’s our sex language. She wants me and she wants me. I decide I will not go in, not after she has used my towel.


Clifton Gachagua (@CliftonGachagua) is the winner of the inaugural Sillerman Prize for African Poetry, 2013, awarded by the African Poetry Book Fund. His poetry book, “Madman at Kilifi”, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press and Amallion Publishers (Senegal). His chapbook, The “Cartographer of Water” (Seven New Generation African Poets), if forthcoming from Slapering Hol Press. He has completed a novel, “Zephyrion”, which was recently longlisted for the Kwani? Manuscript Project. His works have been published in literary forums including Kwani? 06; Saraba; AfroSF. Gachagua is currently working for TV broadcast shows as a scriptwriter.