She straddles my head between her thighs, strong thighs, which she uses to turn my head this way and that as she plaits my hair, overpowering it to uncomfortable neck-breaking positions. I breathe in the light smell of Imperial Leather soap and the outside kitchen.
A disconnect; you wouldn’t register strength from her voice as she narrates, high pitched, accented with hmms and ahaas, telling me what the boy told her, how she cannot pay him any attention. I want to ask her—but Aida, why then talk about him for an hour, a smile dancing in your nostrils, lips taut—but I don’t.
Another disconnect; I know her high words are the sheath of a fragile secret. A pride, a longing that she entrusts to me, too heavy for her to lay bare. That she, too, can like. Saying, it is probably sinful, and I refuse to be. But I am. I desire. I am.
When she thinks she has talked about him enough, and her soul is satiated, she shoves me a small hand mirror. See, she says, waiting for her compliment like it’s a borrowed dress she urgently needs back.
I look at my hair, turning my head from left to right, up and down, to fit into the frame. Neat tight Swahili braids trace the curve of my scalp as they snake through. They pull in my baby hairs, delicate baby hairs that I save for her, don’t allow the salon lady to touch, for they may break. They stretch my forehead and eyebrows, and briefly, for a day, I’ll be beautiful. Beautiful like only she can make me.
I tell her, Aida, this is amazing. Thank you, my sister. A little too heartfelt for her, a fearful strangeness, so she shifts in her seat, her eyes dart to the olive oil hairspray and back at me and she advises me on how to take care of my hair. I listen.
Some people, many people, fall in love through laughter. Those little things about it; moistening moustaches and quivering lips, an unhidden bad tooth, or a careless roar. But when you are to fall in love, and you’re offered only tears, then you fall in love with the tears. The tears, not their stories, which you don’t know.
She is beautiful.
You notice the small things about the tears. The moment when the strength, carefully tied in the nose and mouth and chest, breaks. It comes out with a breath. The eyes, filled with tears, still held in, hoping.
This is when she is most beautiful. The breathing in. The vulnerability, the defeat. Then the fall. Head pushed back slightly. Forward. The expected first drop, falling unexpected from the left eye. Perfectly in the middle. Then the right eye. The waterfalls. Silent waterfalls. Sudden deep breaths that sound painful. You love her. You want to hold her.
You want to tell her—it will be alright, believe me, dearest sister. But you don’t lie to those you love. You don’t, if you truly, deeply love them. So, you say, let me bring you a glass of water. And you bring a tumbler of cold water. You find that if not for her red eyes, you couldn’t tell she’d been crying. She takes the water and cracks a joke. You’ve learned to laugh deeply at these jokes. For you are happy she can joke. And when you love someone, every joke is funny.
Aida hatches a plan, her solo plan, to go catch nsenene. She tells me how she once collected three full polythene bags of the bush crickets. Three green bags. And I say no. No way. She tells me, wait till you see how many I bring back. I beg her to take me along. I will help remove the wings and fry the nsenene. Funny thing, with the lights that lined our perimeter wall, giant striking bulbs that left no part of the compound unlit, which dad inspected every evening, thinking some were dim, failing, thinking they’d be noticed by thieves too. We could have found the nsenene, now in season, clutching onto the walls, blinded. But no, we didn’t see them. Or maybe I would have joked that I was craving ruspolia diiferrens, at the table, to show off what I’d studied, and when asked I would tell them it’s nsenene, or what they preferred to call grasshoppers, a name wrongly attributed to the bush crickets. Dad, laughing, would be sure to send the driver for some. It was November after all, the month when the green and brown insects, with wings that looked like sharp blades of grass, descended upon every crevice in the country. Seemingly from nowhere, they hinged themselves upon every windowpane and shrub and field during the day, and then every bulb or anything that dared emit light at night.
I begged Aida, please, as if I couldn’t walk out of the gate alone. I wasn’t allowed, but I could. And between my excitement and the fall, she chose me. My eyes got larger when she told me I wouldn’t exactly enjoy it, that it could get dangerous.
Just before supper, I had a mood swing, angry at everyone, in a way that my family knew not to talk to me. I almost took my plate of food to the bedroom, but that would’ve warranted a late-night talk from mom. I had dinner in silent protest, unable to laugh at my brother’s jokes because I was supposed to be angry. I finished my meal early, waited a few minutes in awkward silence, and left knowing it would put everyone at ease.
I was out of my room at eleven and found Aida waiting just outside the kitchen door. She looked at my t-shirt, almost smiled, then told me to go put on a jumper. You would think she was my senior the way she led me in quiet afterward, hushing me and my excited murmurs. She opened the small door by the gate without any sound of a screech and left it open.
What if thieves came? I asked.
No one would dare. There are no monsters outside this fence. She told me.
I fell silent as the fear crept in, and I worried. At that moment I knew that if anything happened, I would be the one that got in trouble. Aida could just pack up and leave. As I was trying to find a way to tell her that maybe we should turn back, she told me we are here.
It was night. It was day. Small white bulbs had been accosted onto long poles like hooked stars with reclined iron sheets set behind them reflecting the bright lights, and then they were placed to stand in tanks and drums. Kids were running everywhere, shouting. Nsenene were flying and zooming, intoxicated, some falling like hailstones. The nsenene would fly to the lights, knock themselves against the reflecting iron sheets and slide down into the drums.
Whose children are these? I asked, confused.
What? The noise was too much, too alive. Aida didn’t answer, pulled my hood up, and shouted in my ear that the only rule was not to scoop any nsenene from the tanks and drums. Those belonged to the owners of the lights and drums. But the rest we could pick. From the air, from the ground, from your clothes when they clutched onto them. I noticed a market lady and the butcher’s son. There was no one else I knew. Did all of these people stay in our neighbourhood?
Aida tells me about the boy. All the foolish things he says and does. And I laugh. And she tells me more about the boy. But suddenly she stops, her eyes light up, and she mumbles a two-word litany. Afterward, she says she saw a shooting star. But she’s not supposed to tell me when she sees it. I tell her I’ve seen a few. That the shooting star is a distant sun dying.
Aida finds me standing with my green polythene bag, swatting the air around me. She asks where my nsenene are. I tell her they are in the polythene.
But it’s empty, she tells me.
There are some, I say.
Three. Four. You have at least ten clutching onto your clothes. We did not come here for nothing. Aida hands me her bag, there is a riot inside, shifting and stretching like it’s holding an imprisoned animal. I’m not afraid of bugs and insects, but in there bundled together, alive, I’m not sure what I am holding. So, I keep it at an arms distance, afraid for it to graze my thigh or tear through. She takes my bag and says let’s go. As we are leaving, she nears a drum, tells me to shield her. She does not look around to see if anyone is watching. I stand in front of her.
Don’t look. She notices my eyes dashing around in search of unwanted witnesses. Aida throws the polythene in the drum, and with one arm she scoops nsenene, putting them into the bag. Three scoops. She does not lean her body in, keeping her other arm akimbo for anyone looking to see its innocence. Just as she goes for another scoop, we both notice a young boy looking at us, frightened. He looks at one of the drum owners. I don’t wait for a cue. We both run and run, our faces dripping with sweat, our necks wet; our breasts, mine, too heavy at seventeen, are killing me under the jumper, hers, tiny at sixteen, leave a wet patch between them on her dress.
I tell her a shooting star is a star splitting into a million fragments. That one of the pieces will carry her wishes.
After the night of the nsenene, which Aida had fried and served fresh for breakfast, even saving some for the boy, I started sneaking out of the house, to her quarters, at night. I would leave the backdoor in the kitchen open just to ease my movements. It would have angered my parents less knowing Aida had been the one doing the sneaking, not me, but it was more permissible for me to go to her quarters than for her to come to my room in the main house. Luckily, they never found out.
The times I snuck to her room we talked all night. I told her how I hoped to study law and become a lawyer, though I loved math and physics and would have to drop them. Aida never told me of her dreams or wishes. She would talk about the boy, whom I now know she loved, about hairstyles, or which couple in the neighbourhood had fights in front of their children. I would tell her about the proud girls at my school, the mean ones, and the boys’ school that we would be going with for prom next year, breaking tradition, just because the head girl had a brother in that school who had got her a boyfriend there. And before long, we would hear the noises of morning even while it was still dark. A loud bang, a car honking from afar, and I would run back to the house.
There was only one time that I was almost caught by my father. I’d been nearing the kitchen when his belly, leading the way with a white towel shabbily wrapped around it, startled me. Hey daddy, I’d said immediately, startling him, too, as he came out of the kitchen. When he asked what I was doing downstairs this time of night, I told him I was working on something and needed a cup of tea. He mumbled something and left. I made the cup of tea and went to bed.
The last time, not long after, that I snuck to Aida’s room, it was a quarter past midnight and I just couldn’t sleep. I went to the kitchen, lingering, poured two glasses of juice, drinking mine by the fridge and carrying the other to her room. I thought I heard a voice, not Aida’s, continued toward her quarters. As I got closer, I heard a grunt, rhythmic, old. And still I went closer. I felt a coldness set on my skin and thought, I should turn back, but then I thought, just one small peak. Just one.
He lay under her, Aida’s legs kneeling on either side of him, knees and toes digging into the mattress, towel carefully folded onto one stump of the bed. My heart was leaping, threatening to rip out of my chest. My hands and forehead were sweating, and my legs weakening, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away. She faced the door, near the curtain-less window, so I could see her entirely. Her small breasts, small chest with a stomach that dropped in a surprising pouch, like it belonged to a bigger person, were one with his belly, large, streaked with scattered grey and black hairs. She was moving slowly, neatly, the way she did everything. Her face, dark with large eyes, small nose and full lips, was empty, resolute, the way she was when sweeping the compound or doing laundry. Then I noticed the glass I was holding, shaking, and I swallowed deep. Amidst his grunts, and her breathing, I thought I saw her look my way. I turned, my head aflame, went back to the house, placed the glass in the sink, and climbed the stairs to my bedroom, holding onto the walls. I was listening for every sound, trying to run, yet still wrapped in shock and confusion. I got in bed but did not sleep that night. I did not cry.
The next day, I told myself I never saw a thing and forgiveness isn’t mine to give.
We talk our long talks. I tell her I now know better. I sneak to Aida’s room, we laugh, gossip. I tell her I did not get a date for prom, that I overheard two boys making fun of me.
She is there when I get my first car, is the first to sit in the passenger’s seat when I drive. Aida congratulates me on my degree, and then for passing the bar. She calls me Madam Lawyer. Ah-ah, counsel, I tell her, Advocate of the High Court of Uganda, and all subordinate courts thereto, I laugh. But also, I cry.
We sip wine. This is my new home, I tell her. I light a joint while seated on the balcony, a much-needed rest on a Friday night. She listens to my tales about my narcissistic boss who has only achieved success because his father is a retired judg, that one of these days I’ll get the guts to quit and won’t give him any notice. We talk about my engagement. The Maldives. I swear I did not expect it. Who is taken to the Maldives just to chill? All my friends ask. Of course, it was coming. I tell her I considered saying no, for a second, but wasn’t foolish enough to say it. He is the kind to leave you stranded.
Aida misses my dad’s funeral. I’m alone when I grapple with words like legacy and family that people throw around. Although I believe I loved him, my eyes are dry. I question that love, its existence and deservedness. All these things she knows but go unsaid between us.
Aida doesn’t judge me for my divorce. I don’t want to talk about it. Not to anyone, not even the judge. I’d already moved out of the house two years earlier, but he’d constructively deserted me, so that was the grounds.
She understands when I smile. We are taking it slow, my call, I tell her. He seems genuinely amazing.
But these, these are only the fragments of a dying star.
The next day, just before lunch, I watch from my bedroom window, up, looking down at Aida as she rolls her black suitcase. I can tell that she saw me watching. Mom watches her from the compound. She does not know. My brother tells me that Aida said she must attend to her sick mother. It’s urgent. Aida has brushed her hair to the back; it is brown, shining with an extra sheen of hairspray. She wears a long green dress that I’ve seen her wash but never wear, and I can tell she feels proper, smart, without looking at her face. The dress makes her look taller, thinner. She looks like herself again.
She slows down, taking the suitcase from her right hand to her left. I remember the time she bought it, showing it to me as I sat by the door of her room. She unpacked her clothes from a blue metallic case into the new suitcase, one by one, in her usual neat fashion.
I see her counting her steps, thinking she wants to turn and look up at my window, and then finally, she does. Aida turns while raising her right hand. I know she can’t see me from the outside, with the burglar-proof bars and mirrored windows, but still, I dart to the side, so I don’t see her face. I run to my bed, hear the door by the gate screech loudly. I know what that means, and I cry, I cry.
I tell myself that I hate her. That she isn’t my sister. That I never loved her. I tell myself that all of her tears, the stories behind them that she never spoke of, were just a show. I feel something scourge up my insides, deep, punching up and back down. It’s hatred, I tell myself. Betrayal. But then I cry, and don’t know how I fall asleep with all of the small scattered things in my mind.
I did not speak to her again. But I wanted to ask her, as she rolled her suitcase, What about the boy? Why not the boy you love? Why him? Don’t you know, that sisters don’t have sex with their sister’s father? Why, Aida?
I don’t know why I thought it would be different. Maybe I should have told her, warned her that she wasn’t the first. That it wasn’t her fault. I don’t know why I thought it would be different. I should have told her.
That there was Maria. That mom found out and the entire house swirled in a silent tornado. Jitters filled the floor, the air, and I was afraid to turn in my bed at night.
That there was Namazzi, that my brother saw, his five-year-old self innocently narrating his sights over dinner. That the house, the home, caught fire, and the heat, like a wave from a bomb-blast, threw each of us in different directions. That we now smiled over dinner and went to church together, held birthday parties and, once, a wedding anniversary. But still, the jitters, the heat remained.
That now there is you, Aida, my dear sister. Who I found home one evening when I was fifteen, you would’ve been fourteen? There is new help, mom told me, and I found you in the kitchen.
Juice please, I’d asked.
In the fridge, you replied. And I smiled.
You just stood there. Hard legs, unwavering eyes. Later, I would learn how kind you really were. And I loved you, fell hard. It was a sisterhood, no, family, all wrapped up in you. Maybe I burdened you, I hope it never broke you. You were always wiser.
Maybe I should have told her the truth. I knew it was a meteor, the wishing star. Not a star splitting. Because if you truly, deeply love someone, you tell them the truth.
That it’s a piece of solid rock, burning, moving faster than any winds could carry it.
That she, the watcher, was unaware of its origin, itself unaware of its destination.
That it could crash, burn, dig. A meteorite. It could go past this earth.
About the Author:
Charlie Muhumuza is an emerging writer and lawyer living in Kampala. His short fiction has been published in Jalada, Ibua and elsewhere. Charlie was awarded third prize at the inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition in 2020 and was longlisted for the 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prize.