On most Sunday afternoons, she walks down the path lined with sedges, blackjack and blades of napier grass towards the shore of the lake. She finds a secluded spot hidden behind the foliage of trees and sits on a rock. From there she can wait for the sunset while watching the high school boys smoke weed and play the guitar; she shakes her head in judgment but does not bother them, knowing so well none of them belongs to her. She knows they do not see her and so she relaxes her shoulders and listens to the music from the guitar while watching the sun slink slowly into the water. She loves how the hippos open their mouths wide as if they want to swallow the sun, how the white egrets perch on the grey backs of the hippos and peck on the flies, and how the cool breeze blows westwards and caresses her skin. She closes her eyes, opens them slowly, and she wishes this was her life on all the other days. She is filled with a longing, a yearning to live the rest of her days in this peaceful way.
Two years have passed.
And yet time seems to have stood still.
The sun is half-submerged in the horizon, the bottom half resting inside the lake, and the scene with the streaks of red and orange could as well be from a painting Sila once drew for her on the back of his mathematics book. She sighs and watches the nimbus clouds that stroke the sky with broad brushes of gloom, and she knows it is time to go back home. She leans on the rock and wishes she could close her eyes just for a fraction of a moment—one more minute, one more—and trap the image of the sunset behind them. However, she gets up slowly, adjusts her dress by pulling the sides and walks away from the scene, taking comfort in the fact that she will be back next Sunday.
She branches to a different path on her way back home, one that will take her a longer time to get to the house. She passes through the small fishing village and sees women gutting fish with blades that glisten in the dark; she can smell the intestines spilled on the ground. She strides past the men (shirtless with their tar-black torsos exposed) getting their nets ready for a night of fishing for omena using a wicker lantern. She stops briefly to watch the children running half-naked in a game of dai—one of the children hides behind her skirt so the others cannot find him. She walks on, unbothered by the cheekiness of this child who reminds her so much of Sila, but she cannot allow herself to think of Sila. Not today. Not now. She rests her hands on her lower back and clasps them together, changing her posture to a drooping one.
Some thoughts, she has taught herself to lock behind closed doors.
A song in her heart that has turned into a hum stuck in the throat.
A not-so-large coffin lowered to the ground.
The choir humming, “The same God who gives, is the same one who takes.”
Her body jostling forward, a clump of wet soil in her fist, the priest urging her on, “Let it go.”
The night is thick and the air dense as if she could touch it if she wanted to. Droplets of rain fall on her skin as she walks into the homestead and hears the cough that comes to her like an unoiled engine or a faulty generator. The cough grows louder as she walks towards the door where the light from the lantern is visible. As she gets inside the house, she hears the clattering of pots and plates followed by the pleading sound: ‘Mama, where have you been?’
It is an image she must tell herself is not real, cannot be real even if she wanted it to be, but still, it recurs so many times she has started to think perhaps there are things forever stuck in the space between real and unreal, the things you can hear, touch, feel, but not see.
The house still smells of him, of his newness the day she brought him home, and of his sweat when he hit puberty. The air inside the room is damp as if soaked in misery, and it feels as if she will suffocate to her death if she continues to live inside this house. She stands by the door, waiting for something to prompt her to leave, to walk away and never come back. Sila’s voice is growing louder, and outside the dogs are singing beautifully. She feels as if she is trapped in a trance of her own creation.
To live in the present is to let go of the past, to anticipate the future.
She would never want to live in a present without Sila. What would it even mean to live?
“You have to let him go,” Alphayo had said to her.
“He was all I had, brother.” She had cried with her head lodged between his neck and chest, sniffing like she was short of breath.
“You have yourself.”
“It’s not enough. It’s not enough.”
Memories of Sila come to her in waves that wash over her. Her whole body shudders and her skin feels tight against her bones.
She remembers. She forgets. She wants to forget.
He could sing more beautifully than any other person she knew, and he had told her, “Mama, one day I’ll be like Lucky Dube.”
Had she laughed then, at the ridiculousness of his dreams, or had she simply shrugged and gone back to plucking the feathers from the chicken or sorting out the grains?
She wishes he was here so she could tell him, “You will be bigger than Bob Marley.”
The cough splits through the silence, and she sees Sila clasp his chest and lean forward. She wants to reach for him—for her baby—but she knows it’s all in her mind. She looks intently at his fading edges; he is still in the clothes he wore that day when they brought his body back to her. She remembers now as if her memory is no longer clogged, as if there is no longer darkness there. But she won’t allow it to overwhelm her.
“We told you to have many children,” Alphayo had told her.
Then, it had sounded malicious and hurtful and she had shouted at him to leave her house, but she knows what her brother had meant: If you have many children, when you lose one you can console yourself that at least you have some left.
A child is not a cloth. A child is not a cloth.
A child is not a cloth that you can borrow.
In the kitchen, she cooks some sukuma wiki and makes a mound of ugali. She splits it into two plates and balances them on one arm, leaving the other arm free by her side; she uses it to part the curtain as she walks into the living room. Sila is seated on the bed, leaning heavily on his right arm, and she can see his reflection on the wall when the lantern hits the side of his face.
“Eat your food.”
“Mama, I’m not hungry.”
“How do you expect to be as big as Lucky Dube if you don’t eat?”
A low wind blows. An owl hoots outside. A swarm of crickets trill in unison. She looks at the steam slowly rising from the food on the other plate, untouched. She picks the plate and throws it against the wall. The food splatters everywhere and the plate dances on the floor.
An overexposed photo of his cropped face, clinging to a rusted nail on the wall, stares back at her. She remembers when the photo was taken, he was standing next to her. The had to cut her out of the image when he died so they could get a good photo to place on his coffin.
Grief is cruel, and memory is the vessel of that cruelty.
Tomorrow is here but she only wants Sunday. She wishes every single day of the week was Sunday so she could go sit by the lake and watch the sun. Some days, like today, she is tempted to show up at her spot but she has been there before on a different day and she swears the sun wasn’t as beautiful and the breeze blew different and the hippos didn’t yawn as wide. Furthermore, today is market day and she has to go early if she’s to secure her spot. She has seen other women claw at each other when one takes another’s spot.
She fetches water in a pail and washes herself in the bamboo bathroom right outside her house. She scrubs her skin as if to peel off the upper layer, only stopping herself when her nail eats into the flesh on her underarms. Afterwards, she lathers her hair with coconut and lotions her skin. She feels anew. She wears nice clothes, the ones she used to go to church with, as if clothes are capable of covering sadness.
“My sister, you need to come back to church. Our God will give you peace,” the burly woman with a Mother’s Union scarf covering her salt-and-pepper hair had said to her.
“I don’t want peace. I want my son,” she had barked in response.
“God has a reason for everything. Pray hard, come back to His house, and He will reward you.”
She pulled away from the grip and said, “I don’t need your God.”
The motorbike drops her off at the side of Kibuye market that faces the catholic church. She thinks maybe she should go in, apologise to God and ask Him nicely if she can have Sila back. The market swirls around her, like she is an object in a whirlwind. Two large steps and she disappears into the crowd of sellers chanting the price of their wares, her sack balanced neatly on her head.
At the market, she lets the customers wrestle her down for the price of the tilapia fish and tomatoes, onions and ginger. A limping woman with a scar the shape of a tiny mouse across her face walks up to her and starts picking up the biggest fish from the batch. She notices the woman looking at her in a way that she knows other women at the market have been looking at her since Sila’s death. When she mentions the price of her fish, the woman hands her the full amount and does not fight her too much on the price. She has seen the woman before, but the look on the woman’s face makes her realise she must have known about Sila. She glances around, scanning the crowd, feeling exposed, feeling as if all the washing and dressing up did not cover her grief enough.
The market might as well be a chorus of women saying, ‘We know. We understand.’
As she packs the goods in her bag, the woman asks, ‘Has it stopped?’
‘What?’ she asks, but she knows so well what is being asked.
‘You know, my sister, I shouldn’t be the one to tell you since I only lost my baby when he was three months old—he suffocated in his sleep—but I will tell you, they stop coming at some point and life goes on.’
‘No, I don’t want it to stop. I want him back,’ she says.
‘My sister, listen to me…’
She knows where this is going, she has had this conversation before, with different women, different mothers, at this same market, or at the lake, or at the shops, or in Sila’s school.
Still, it hits her like a hammer, like a bolt of lightning.
With one rehearsed movement, she jerks away from the woman’s grip, gathers her wares, scoops them into her brown sack and walks away leaving the woman midsentence. The market noise grows and she wants to go somewhere quiet, somewhere she does not have to listen to anyone, somewhere she can close her eyes and be whoever she wants to be. She takes the dirt road down towards the lake. She can hear the water calling her, beckoning her to get closer and closer, and her heartbeat is linked to the sound of the waves. She walks on, steadily, ignoring the grass and the blackjack and everything else. She walks on, her mind only on sitting in her spot and waiting for the sunset.
Dust to dust.
The clump of soil slipping through her fingers, hitting the coffin like rain. The priest’s words of comfort feeling hollow. Her little boy sleeping peacefully with cotton buds in his nose and tiny beads of sweat on his forehead. A group of birds flying above as if carrying her boy’s spirit to heaven.
Ash to ash.
‘My son is not ash. He’s flesh and bones and blood. Not dust, not ash!’
They hold her by the waist, wrap a leso tight around it until she feels air leaving her—they tell her that is where the pain manifests the most because that is where the child came from.
We return where we come from.
‘Why won’t he return to my uterus then? At least there I can have him with me.’
In this world we are just visitors
Passing, passing through like lost wind
This world is not our home
We don’t stick here for long.
The sound of the guitar reaches her first, then the whiff of the bhang follows. She stops in her tracks only realising now that she’s close to her usual Sunday spot. She drops her sack to the ground and her insides rattle as if she is possessed. The strum of the guitar reaches again through the slow breeze and she closes her eyes, listening to the uncoordinated plucking of the strings. She cannot see the person playing with their back turned away from her but she knows it is one of the high school boys she saw yesterday. He is shirtless and his spine is arched like a crooked semicircle, with knobs of vertebrae visible from his back. His skin is tar with blotches of red and scars that look like branding marks. She watches him intently, and she is reminded of Sila.
This is what she imagines he’d look like if he had grown.
If he’d lived.
Just two more years, Sila.
When the voice comes, it is different from the croaking she heard the previous day, and it feels as if it is coming entirely from a different being and not this skinny boy sitting here smoking bhang. He sings Lucky Dube’s Remember Me, and his voice is husky and cracks when he sings the line “wherever you are, remember me.” The song and the voice consumes her, and she tries to remember when she last heard that kind of rawness in anyone’s voice. The sound makes her cry and her face is damp with tears, but they are not the tears that leave her with an unbearable kind of sadness. She stands there, no longer irritated by the boy’s clumsy strumming, not disturbed by the waft of smoke curling above the boy’s head, no longer angry that he has taken her spot.
The image—boy strumming, woman watching, sun setting—could be something from a painting done and forgotten about.
The song stops abruptly, as if the boy has forgotten the words, and she walks away before he can turn and see her. She walks home feeling light and no longer weighed down by the icy sadness that had clogged her heart. She hums the song over and over again until she gets to the house. She makes the food and splits it into two plates as usual for old habits die hard. She lets the song spread through her, lets it take over her, and her body feels anew. It feels as if the boy’s singing has reached out and pulled a song from deep within her. She remembers all the other songs she used to sing as a girl, all the ones she loved, and they all unfurl and bloom.
Her heart feels rejuvenated, as if emptied of its sorrows.
When she is done with her food, she takes the other plate away and throws it for the dogs to eat.
That night, she dreams of nothing else but the singing boy and his guitar.
In the morning, she bundles herself out of bed before the first rays of sunlight leak into the house. She eats breakfast then busies herself with cleaning, going through every corner of the house except Sila’s old room. She hasn’t cleaned this house since Sila died and there’s a thick film of greasy dust everywhere, with cobwebs hanging from her roof. She pours Jik and Omo on the floors, scrubbing with a brush until her fingers turn white and the skin starts to break. She sings every song she has stored in her heart. She tries again to sing the boy’s song. She has forgotten the words to the song and she hums the parts while trying to remember what the missing words made her feel like.
‘Ma, will you buy me a guitar when I become number one?’
‘Why do you want a guitar?’
‘Because I want sing like Lucky Dube.’
‘I will buy you one when you get to class eight.’
‘But that’s far. I’m still in class six.’
‘It’s just two years, I’ll have time to save for it.’
The house smells of newness and deadness at the same time, the kind of musk found in hospitals, a smell that spreads so wide and covers so little. She sits on the floor and sorts through the clothes, separating the old from the long gone. There is silence all around her. She cries when she remembers the first time Sila wore a shirt, or when he tore the knee of a trouser, or a vest that clung too tight too his stomach. She throws them by the door, watching the pile grow as if to remind her of things she ought to have forgotten.
When she is done, she puts them outside on the patch where the grass has dried and she empties the paraffin from the wicker lantern over them. A flick of a matchstick and the flames leap high as if they want to burn the sky. She hums a song. The flames dance. The memories burn. She sings. Everything is gone. Ash to ash. The fire dies down. Her chest feels as if an axe has been lodged in the space where the ribs branch out. The world spins.
This is letting go.
The fire sinks to the ground, the black smoke waving goodbye.
The sleep is long and dreamless. When she wakes, she can hear children shouting outside and she parts the curtain to watch them. They are standing around the ash, prodding it with sticks as if to wake it, as if a fire will burst out in anger. They sing. They dance in a circle. For a moment she thinks one of them is Sila, risen from the fire, formed anew from the bundle of old clothes, but the child turns to face her and she remembers that Sila is gone.
“Let go, Martha,” she whispers to herself.
She gets out of bed and ties a leso around her waist. Briskly she walks out of the compound, down the dirt road, past the silent fishing villages, to the lake where the water froths and the waves slap the shore. With each step, she feels lighter, as if the breeze from the lake is carrying her—drifting, floating—as if unburdened from the yoke she has had around her neck all these years. The sun is high up in the sky, but the clouds are dark as night.
When she gets to her spot, she sits on the rock but it feels unnatural for she has never been there at any other time apart from sunset. She discovered the spot accidentally when she passed by just when the sun was turned a low orange and has always been there only when it’s around that time. The beauty is no longer there and she covers her eyes so she cannot see it. Without her sunset, from this exact spot, the beauty of the world is no longer there. She starts crying and wails loudly, sniffing and hiccupping at the same time until she hears the rustling of leaves as they are crushed beneath someone’s feet. She wipes her face and turns to find the boy with the guitar slung across his chest. They stare at each other, neither saying a word or moving.
She gets up to leave, muttering under her breath, apologising for letting herself be seen this way. When she walks past the boy, she catches the whiff of his strong adolescent sweat and it stings her nose in the way Sila’s clothes had started to smell. She walks a few paces then stops, turns and finds the boy staring at her.
‘That song you were playing the other day, could you play it again?’ she asks.
The boy appears confused, and she realises he probably didn’t know she was watching him.
‘Uhm…I don’t know the song you are talking about,’ he says.
‘The one about remembering.’
‘Ah Remember Me? It’s by Lucky Dube. I’m just learning it. I’m still not so good at playing it.’ He appears nervous, fiddling with the neck of the guitar, running his fingers on the strings.
‘Just play it. Please.’
He sits down on the rock and rests the guitar on his lap. He sets his chin on the top and looks at her one more time as if checking whether she is certain. She moves three steps closer to where he is; not too close but also not far. He strums, slowly at first then more steadily. He starts to sing then stops, apologises and starts over again. He stops for a second time and tells her, ‘I’ve forgotten the lyrics.’
She starts to weep. She shades her eyes and tilts her face away from the boy. She looks at the water, at the sun watching over the lake, and she sees her boy gasping for air, fighting against the water, flailing his arms and calling for her. It feels like a knife to her gut and she bends forward, grabbing her stomach as if to stop the blood from gushing or her intestines from falling.
Her boy is bloated when he is brought to her, seaweed and rotting hyacinth clinging to his ashen skin. They were swimming. They were happy. They died.
‘I have to go.’ She turns and starts walking.
‘Will you be okay?’
She does not respond. She walks faster. He follows. They walk in silence until they get to the road where the motorcycles are parked. They pass the riders and walk on to the main road. At the junction, he turns to her and asks, ‘Why were you crying earlier? Did something bad happen?’
‘My son died,’ she says with a voice as normal as the one she would use to ask for a glass of water or tell a seller at the market to give her the freshest tomatoes.
‘Wah! Sorry aki,’ the boy says, shock registered all over his face.
They walk in silence again. Cars zoom past them. Music from the shops spill out on the streets.
‘I need to get a matatu to Mamboleo. I’m going to stay with my brother,’ she says.
‘Really? Oh I live in Mamboleo too. Let’s get this coming bus then.’
Inside the matatu, the boy tells her that he wants to become a musician; he does not want to be a doctor like his mother wants her to be. ‘I want to be just like Lucky Dube.’
The bus conductor snaps his fingers and she removes the one hundred shillings tucked in her bra and hands it to him. She tells him that he is paying for the boy and herself. He hands her the change—dirty coins that clatter on her sweaty palm—and she keeps it in her fist.
At the next stop, she alights and the boy tells her that he still has two more stops to go. She bids him farewell and as the matatu jolts forward, the boy asks for her name.
‘Martha,’ she shouts to the wind, unsure that the boy—who told her his name is Lawi—has heard her. She whispers the boy’s name again and again until she gets to her brother’s black gate.
She walks into the house and hugs her brother. A smile on her face, she tells him, ‘I saw Sila on the bus today.’
About the Author:
Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and editor. His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Doek!, Wasafiri, Johannesburg Review of Books, AFREADA, Ebedi Review, Nairobi Noir, Caine Prize Anthology (Redemption Song & Other Stories), Kalahari Review and Transition among others. The winner of the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize and first runner-up in the Black Letter Media Competition, he has also been shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, the Brittle Paper Awards, and nominated for the Pushcart Prize.
He holds an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from the University of East Anglia, where he was a recipient of the Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Lolwe.