My people say when a husband dies, a part of his wife should die with him. That for her to continue living as before, existing as though whole, is insulting to his spirit. That if she loved him, surely, she must want to send him off with a memory of herself. A widow ought to bury her sexual desire in her husband’s coffin, and she may not retrieve it until the mourning period ends. They leave this expectation unspoken.
When my Jack died, I endured the funeral rites. God forbid they accuse me of celebrating his death. I sat still as they shaved me bald, exposing my almond-shaped head which he so loved. What use was hair without a husband to admire it? Screams tired my vocal cords, competing with the hired mourners jumping around our compound. My compound now, with the four-roomed brick bungalow standing proudly at the center of the eighth-acre piece of land he bought with his pension. It stood, blue iron sheets reflecting the sunrays, glistening from early morning raindrops as though it were grieving too. Because I could not allow them to say people starved at my Jack’s burial, I stirred sufuria after sufuria of ugali for the visitors—friends, neighbours, strangers—while dressed in a black, loose kitenge which took the shape of the wind, a fault not of the garment but of my scarecrow appearance.
How freely the tears flowed, how blurry my sight, when I stood in front of my Jack’s open coffin, memorizing his gray face one last time, promising to mourn him forever. If you had asked me, then, why I was closing myself off from love, I would have told you that some fingerprints are impossible to erase, like the ones of my Jack around my heart. That all the love he gave me was enough to live on until we should meet again. That he was the one, the only one. That was before I found the boy.
I call him the boy because I do not know his name. Not yet. He came to my door with a friend a week ago, knocking loudly, talking obnoxiously. I ignored them, snuggling deeper inside the duvet on the couch where I was napping. It was a quarter past two and I had no intention of entertaining any visitors, especially uninvited ones. I set my alarm for three hours later when I would wake up and sweep the homestead. The windy season was upon us, though months earlier than usual, and banana leaves littered my verandah daily. I liked to think it was my Jack blowing through our village, afraid to leave me alone before he was sure I was strong enough.
The knocking stopped after a while. As I adjusted myself on the sofa, appreciating the silence, my wooden window swung open with a thud, and a fist-sized stone flew in. It landed in the middle of the basket of peas, which I was keeping for supper, dispersing them like tiny bullets. I shook off the duvet and stormed outside. The boy was dancing as his friend laughed. It must’ve been the way he was dancing, one foot atop the other, pointy toe, raised heel, twisted ankle. It could have been nothing else. He was skinnier than John, but taller than Amos with Asha’s pimpled cheeks. Maybe it was because he had similar features to my children, making him seem familiar. Whatever it was, this skinny, tall, pimpled boy made me wonder how long the expected mourning period was.
“Ugly widow,” his friend called out when he saw me, “Aren’t you ashamed of walking around with an egg-plant head?”
The boy said nothing, he just gawked at me, shoulders hunched. I beamed back.
“What are you looking at? If anything happens to us because of your juju eyes, my father will kill you! Look at her, husband killer!”His friend poked him in the ribs.
“Why are you quiet? Don’t tell me you are afraid of her?”
“You-you-you’re so ugly your husband died to escape your calabash face,” the boy shouted, with such little conviction that my heart went out to him.
Then they ran off, a whirlwind of limbs and giggles. I thought about him as I swept the compound, smiling at the spot where he’d stood moments before, sniffing the air for his scent. The smell of my unwashed body shocked my nostrils instead. I dropped the broom in a panic, wondering if the boy had noticed how filthy I was, if he cared. Since my Jack died six months ago, I bathed only for the market, which was once a week on Friday. I used to clean up for church too, but I stopped after the women’s guild said my husband died too young for it to be natural;that a praying woman would have anticipated her household was under attack and waged spiritual warfare to ward off misfortune. As if I could have predicted that a normal day on the farm would end in a fatal scorpion sting for my husband. I decided it was time for a shower.
As I washed, I let my fingers linger on the unused parts of me, the parts which belonged to my Jack, the parts which I now wanted to belong to myself so I could have permission to give them away. To him, the boy. Thinking about him in that way scalded my skin though the bath water was cold. What would people say if they knew I was dreaming about a boy? What would the boy say if he knew I was dreaming about him? He liked me; I could tell. There was a longing in his round eyes when he looked at me, like the look my Jack would have when I undressed. There was a yearning in the place I’d saved for my Jack, before our wedding and even after his funeral, a tingling, tantalizing, tightening ache; a blazing fire, burning through my conscience. Instead of extinguishing it, I embraced it, relishing it as it engulfed me. When it was over, I was on the bathroom floor, a lump of glowing coal amid ashes. Ashes of my promise to my Jack. Ashes of my commitment to mourning. Ashes of my people’s expectations. That evening, I took a shovel and exhumed my right to pleasure.
The next day, I found him waiting outside my door when I returned from the latrine. Scarred knees jutted out of his skinny jeans, his untucked shirt flapped in the wind. Wonky knees wobbled underneath my blue dera, my loose headscarf grazed my neck. Up close, the pimples overwhelmed his face, save for his nose, long, shiny and flaring. They appealed to me, those pinpoint circles, reminding me of the ‘connect-the-dots’ newspaper puzzles I loved. My Jack would walk to the shopping center each morning to get us a copy from Nika’s shop.
“Are you here to insult me again?”
“Aunt Nyakio sent me. She said to invite you to Bible study at her house tomorrow.”
I sifted through my memories of Nyakio’s family to find the boy. He was missing. Remembering her pretentious show of friendship—check-up phone calls where she encouraged me to bare my soul, then shared it with the rest of the guild—had upset me so I stopped going.
“Eh, I see. Aunt Nyakio sent you? You mean she could not even bother to come herself?”
“She wanted to, but I told her to send me.”
The way his thin fingers stroked his beardless chin, the way his parted lips widened in a grin, the way his eyes—slanted black balls of tainted innocence—studied my open mouth: I melted inside, desire leaking out of my armpits. Foolishness muddied my brain, staining the clear lens I was using to remind myself that the boy was little more than half my age.
“I’m sorry about what I said. Your face is not calabash. It is beautiful. You are beautiful,” he said.
The loquat trees beside the chicken shed shivered. My hand snailed out to caress his blemished face but sense slithered back.I slapped him instead. Hard. His eyes revolted, rolling and blinking as he shielded his injured cheek. Then he ran. I wanted to call out, but did not know his name, so I stood there, rewinding his voice in my mind like a cassette player, whirring at the point he called me beautiful. Flabby arms, loose abdomen, arthritic knees; that is what I knew to be true about myself. Beauty was something I used to own but lost and now only borrowed for weddings and parties. My Jack would be glued to me on such occasions when I strutted around in block-heels with a drawn face.
I dreamed of the boy that night. Swollen-cheeked, he hissed at me for hitting him, calling me a shosho. I knelt before him and pleaded. He must’ve forgiven me. Perhaps that is why he was at my doorstep in the morning. I spied him through the window when he knocked. Five minutes later, a purple flowered dera and matching headscarf hiding my unkemptness, I ushered him in. My apology froze on my lips when I saw the blue herd of women surrounding him.
“Dafina, so you are alive? How are you my sister?” Nyakio asked, insincerity raising her voice an octave. The eight women beside her looked at me with plastered smiles.
“What are you doing here?”
“Ah, is that how you welcome your friends now? Look at this one,” Nyakio said, pushing past me into the living room.
The boy remained outside, defenseless against the wind lashing his bare arms. We spoke with shy eyes, which sparked from the friction in the air between us. Nyakio’s babbling lubricated it away: “Stop wasting time! Bring in the packages!”
I stepped aside to allow him in, carrying the brown cardboard boxes with tins of cooking fat and bottles of concentrated juice peeking out. While he stacked them in the corner next to the TV, the group glared at me, waiting for appreciation. I watched them, a splatter of dark blue clashing with the bright green sofa they had crowded on. Nyakio was at the center, leaning forward, golden-ringed fingers tugging on the silver chain choking her. None of them were welcome in my home. But to chase them was to bid the boy goodbye, too, and I was not ready for that yet.
Thank you. It’s always good to have visitors,” I said, sitting across from them on a wooden stool by the open window. The boy shifted uncomfortably at the door. “Have a seat, please,” I offered, pointing to the stool beside me.
“Ah! Why are you still here? Are you a woman that you want to join our meeting? Silly boy!” Nyakio yelled.
“Sorry,” he mumbled, then left.
“These young ones, it’s as if they have porridge instead of brains. Ai!”
“Is he a relative?”
Nyakio furrowed her forehead, staring hard at me.I froze, thinking she knew my secret, but she snapped her fingers repeatedly, her usual way of jogging a memory, and I exhaled, relieved that I was wrong.
“He’s a nephew from the city, Jemima’s son. I love my sister, but this boy is duller than the useless man she married. Can you imagine he still chases chickens? At his age, imagine.”
The rest took turns narrating tales of the idiocy of youth as I busied myself preparing refreshments. Eight bibles rested on the coffee table, dusty,unopened. Eight women cradled teacups, hot and sweet. They lapsed into the usual hypocrisy, launching missiles of scorn, camouflaged as overtures of comradery.
“I like what you’ve done with the place, so homey,”Nyakio started.
As if on cue, my orange hen charged through the doorway, which the boy had left wide open, fluffing its feathers and clucking, mouth pecking the cement floor. It settled on the maize spread out on the sack underneath the wooden table, inches from Nyakio’s feet. Discomfort flitted across her face, but she caught herself,tightening her lips instead of screaming. When the hen dunked its head inside the sufuria with the floating remnants of last night’s supper, when she realized I would not ensure her comfort, Nyakio resumed her speech.
“We—I worry about you. How are you?”
“I’m fine, lonely, but fine.”
“Listen, we are all friends here. If you need anything—” Nyakio screamed. The chicken had sprung onto the table, tipping her teacup over, darkening the navy-blue cover of her bible. She stood and straightened her skirt, unsteady fingers smoothing the pleats. Though married to a farmer, Nyakio was far from a farmhand, existing in a bubble of opulence, exempt from the banal realities of taming chicken and milking cows.
“We should leave and let you rest. But if you need anything, call.”
The others congregated around her as they always did, puppets ready to do her bidding. I waved them off, then called her back, alone. She came to me, leaning close so I could whisper when the other women cocked their heads.
“Actually, I have a request. Is it alright, do you think your nephew could help me get the house in order? Everything is a mess. I don’t have the time and the children are—”
“Dafina, stop. He will be here tomorrow.”Two air kisses, then she left.
Today. There is a pot of boiling rice on the stove, steam clouding the glass lid pressing down the bubbling. A dab of perfume behind my ornamented ears, a trickle of perspiration underneath my yellow sundress, a hint of a smile on my flushed face; the giddiness from his warmth scatters the ashes of reservation. We are in the kitchen, him and I, on a broken bench leaning on the peeling cream wall. Our hands near then pause, thumb to thumb on the space between our bodies. His thumb hooks mine and I giggle, a momentary burst of happiness, unnatural to me and hilarious to him. Before I can ask his name, a gust of wind whips the kitchen curtains away from the window, the sheer cotton rising to the ceiling. I feel him watching, my Jack, sniffing for the sadness I used to reek of, groaning his goodbye when he smells my contentment. He leaves with the breeze, and though he did not speak, I heard everything he said about the boy.
About the Author:
Peace Mbengei is a Kenyan scriptwriter, playwright, fiction writer and medical doctor. She was long listed for the 2019 Writivism short story prize and her work has appeared in African Writer, Praxis magazine and Kalahari Review and is forthcoming in Ilanot Review and the Halcyone. She caught the writing bug when she was a little girl. Fortunately, they are yet to find a cure and she hopes they never do.