This is what happens in the morning: Sarah’s breath warms my ear. I made breakfast, she whispers. Her tangawizi-tea breath clings to her, riding on her as she picks up little pieces of yesterday – balled-up socks, torn newspaper pages, crinkly candy wrappers – scattered on the floor around my bed. She moves like a song, the hem of her pleated skirt, a graceless dancer. She rounds the foot of my bed to the window where she whirs the curtains apart, and a burst of bright sunshine draws me by my eyes out of my cozy linen burrow.
Three girls play on the tarred parking lot three floors down, where a garden should be. Together, as if it were carved from lead, they push a white-wheeled pink bicycle around parked cars. Their feet are naked, their ankles painted ash-grey by dust. They all have hundreds of colorful plastic beads woven into their braids, like my daughter. They laugh like her, too, with heads tilted back, faces shining, pearly teeth bared. Like her, they spew out joy and smear it around without apology. I went to my daughter’s school yesterday and noticed, as she leaned her head back without abandon, that her braids had pulled away from her hairline, tugged out by a tight ponytail, leaving tiny white bumps in their stead.
Her school is six red-brick buildings around a square patch of lawn. The dew was barely dried off the grass when I walked in through the gate. I could hear loud music blaring from speakers everywhere from the car park – fast-paced music with deep bass and heavy beats. I walked faster, doing a mental summation of the fees we paid: tuition fees, activity fees, uniform fees – but no party fees. I stood in the middle of the green square and looked around. Through the hand-print stained windows, I spotted my daughter’s beaded head, bowed over a desk, chin resting on her fist, brow knotted in concentration. Her English teacher stood leaning against her table, chalk held between her index and middle finger like a cigarette, speaking calmly through the deafening loudness. She said something, mouthing her words slowly and motioning with her chalked hand, and my daughter laughed politely along with her classmates. The drums’ symmetrical rhythm seeped up my veins through the skin on my arms to my heart. How could she be so still? How could anyone be calm through that much noise?
I looked through the windows around me to all other classes, and in each one was a teacher, commanding attention and pupils, offering it as a sacrifice. The music blared on, the bass reaching down within me, to my heart, clawing out my recklessness so that I had no choice but to wiggle to the center of the green square. Under the shadow of a skinny flagpole, I took my shoes off, raised them high above my shoulders, above my head, and waved them around. I twisted my hips and stomped my legs. I danced until I felt the earth agreeing with my motion, and danced some more, and only stopped when I felt a tug on my dress. My daughter, eyes glassy, stood about my knees, tugging desperately at my skirt: Mama, Mama, what are you doing? Why are you dancing?
There is no music, Mama.
I gathered myself together, cupped my hand to her forehead, pushed her away then looked around. Her schoolmates’ little faces were pressed against glass windows, their noses ironed flat, lips squashed into distortion, round eyes wide open, watching me. I still could hear Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s clean pitch in a tug of war with deep baritones, praising the quality of a magic beer with a click in its name. From the corner of my eye, I saw her teachers peeping faux-discreetly from their staffroom. But the music played on, the beats moving my muscles in their own accord. It took all my strength to stop and lean down to her.
Let’s go home, Mama, she whispered, head bent. Tiny beads of sweat gathered on her forehead. I heard her schoolmates’ screeching laughter over the strumming of guitars. I took her damp hand in mine, still dancing, still waving my shoes over my head. The drums thumped from the back of my head to the front, from my neck down to my toes.
My daughter, the beads in her braids clapping together wildly, pulled me home, her damp hand in mine, and refused to look at me. Look at me, I yelled. Do you not hear Yvonne? Do you not feel her rhythm? But she kept her head bowed down, her little feet dragging me along in determination. The music traveled with me, turning left with me, right with me. There was music, I noticed, but only from within me, from worlds so far inside me that they were outside my five senses, vivid worlds that only I could slide in and out. What does it matter their reality if only I can exist in them?
I sit on the edge of my bed and, with Sarah’s help, put on my yellow and black striped Adidas sneakers. I shake my head no to breakfast, even though she has set it out so beautifully on the dining table, with red vinyl placemats and matching cups. I leave her standing by the table, weaving her hands, and walk out of the door, down the stairs. Fourteen steps down, with a landing on every seventh. Thrice. Down and down. Two uneven steps at the end, just before the parking lot, where the three girls, bicycle lying forgotten, crouch over a red ant trapped in a crack on the pavement. One of them, the one with my daughter’s skin, has her pursed lips just about kissing the pavement, blowing on it, in a cute attempt to shepherd it out and off to freedom. Her friends alternate between cheering her on and begging for a turn.
The blower, lips still pursed, jerks her head to see me standing over them. Her eyes widen and whiten, and without looking up, as if they can feel her fear, her friends pick up and scatter, tearing the air with sharp screams.
Mwendawazimu! they scream, a warning to others playing nearby, who pick up the siren.
Mwendawazimu! they peal, over and over, stopping for nothing but little sips of air.
Mwendawazimu: a knife to my gut, twisted.
A burly, uniformed guard, whose sole job is to roll open the gate to the apartment block for tenants, intervenes, wrapping his hand around my wrist and whispering; never mind them, Mama, Nairobi children, they know nothing about respect. He walks me to the big black gate, holds the gate open for me, and utters his familiar words: Remember, Mama, go in a straight line so that I can keep my eyes on you. Do not make any turns. No right turn. No left turn, just straight; straight, straight. He speaks slowly, with deliberate omission of syntax. I know he talks that way to me because he thinks I am stupid. His black boots are big and shiny, dotted with silver studs that catch the sun and bounce pieces of it into my eyes. I see him sometimes, through the window, sitting on a white plastic chair by the broad black gate, polishing his shoes, using a piece of ragged old clothe to rub back and forth obsessively, even though they look perfect. He must be at least some amount of stupid.
I stroll away from him, away from the children’s screaming, soaking in the headiness of just-trimmed cypress hedges, and count my steps. The trees on either side are old, with gnarly roots that stick out of the paved path. They have orange flowers that look like deformed lilies fanning out to the sky. Tiny flowers are dark orange, the largest ones almost yellow. Some are too heavy to look up; they sigh towards the ground, waiting to fall. Some have fallen and lay wilting. Others, having been flattened by feet, are a sad orange smudge. There are not many people walking around. My daughter moved me here before she became a doctor, just yesterday after her father died.
Yesterday morning, he tried to kill me, her father. I saw it in a look he gave me, across from the kitchen table, where we sat, he, sipping tangawizi tea, I, folding laundry. Half his face, up to his nose, was covered by the Weekly Review, leaving open his slanted eyes with a wrinkle that looked like a comma between his thick brows. Goat stew hissed furiously out of the vent hole in the lid on the pot on the stove and wafted pungent steam our way.
I counted, over the edge of my laundry basket, the number of times he and his wrinkle looked up at me from his reading, and when they got to ten, he stood up abruptly, screeching his chair sharply against the tiled floor, and left the kitchen without a word. Ten; the number of years we were married. Ten; our only daughter’s age. Ten; the number of lily stems that stood, white and glorious in a ceramic vase on the table between us. He was planning to kill me, I concluded, and life was giving me a sign.
I immediately abandoned my laundry and went around our farmhouse collecting every sharp object I could find: cutlery, knives, a bread knife with a broken handle, a broad farm ax, eighteen garden hoes, a machete whose blade was worn thin from overuse, a pair of rusty shears, a long slasher with a flat edge, a yellow screwdriver, seven wooden stakes with which to draw planting lines, eight cow horns, short and long. Everything that looked like a weapon, I gathered into a large blanket and pushed under our bed, far against the wall. I kept away from him all day and went to bed early in the evening, feigning a headache.
Later that night, I awoke to vibrations that ripped through the bed and thought, this is how I die: my husband stabs me through the heart during an earthquake. The vibrations started from his side of the bed and traveled in waves through the mattress towards me. I lay still and waited in hopeless surrender because, I thought, that is what life is – the waiting in between happenings, so it seemed to me that death should be but the end of the waiting. I waited, willing myself to be still. I waited for ten seconds, a minute, ten minutes, but nothing happened, so, cautiously, I turned on the light. There he was, hidden underneath the tangled sheets, curled in a ball, with his arms clutching his stomach, laughing so hard no sound came out of him. I untangled the linen to reveal his face, wrinkled in a grimace, mouth opened wide, gasping for air. I need water; he mouthed between gasps. His eyes were tightly shut, swollen with unshed tears. He waved half a free hand about hopelessly, motioning toward the nightstand. I passed him a tall glass, half full, from my nightstand and watched him struggle to sit up, wading through the sea of bedding, face glistening with tears and sweat. The glass rattled against his teeth when he tried to drink from it. He could not get in more than two little sips.
So, he began, his voice a squeal. So, you thought I might kill you, and your only solution was to gather everything sharp and bring them into a locked room you share with me? Then he bent back into a comma and laughed and laughed until he fell off the bed and landed on his head, and I began to laugh too. When the sun broke in through the gap where our pair of curtains met, it was impossible to remember why I had been afraid.
He fell ill yesterday morning, my husband. I spotted a pimple near his shoulder blade, at the point where his armpit ended and his back began. It was Saturday, and he was slumped over a turned-around chair, arms folded along the edge of the backrest, leg on either side, while I stood over him with a razor to shave his hairy back. Old newspaper pages were strewn on the floor to catch falling hair. On the radio, on the counter, besides the dirty breakfast dishes, was Fred Obachi Machoka, playing his favorite zilizopendwa tunes, ranking each one according to how much he loved it. I glided the razor down his neck, over his back, and stopped when I hit a bump. He had pimples on his back, my husband. Large, juicy pimples that I loved to squeeze. They were all usually hidden, a treasure for me to find on shaving Saturdays. But this pimple was different. It was yellow and ripe, more prominent and rounder than anything I had ever seen, so I put down the Gillet razor and pinched it between my nails, but it gnarled at me and darkened with anger. I tried to soothe it with ice, to befriend it, but it would not stop growing. He brushed me away, standing back up abruptly and tugging his shirt back on, and would only let me inspect it after a lot of pleading. Every time I checked, it turned out bigger. I monitored it weekly at first, standing behind him on my tiptoes, and peeping down his collar, then daily, waiting for him on the kitchen door as he came home from work, then hourly, until this one expanding growth on his back became my whole life.
My daughter moved home from medical school with books, heavier than her on the mahogany dining table, books with ribs ripped away on the kitchen floor, books stinking damp in the bathroom lined up next to the tub, books with tearstained pages in her bedsheets sleeping with her. Books everywhere, yet he died. After the funeral, when the red earth sat completely over my husband and relatives I did not know I had wailed on my lawn; she held me by my shoulders and said, Mama, I cannot leave you out on this large farm alone. She declared it, more than said it. It seemed that my husband died, and my daughter became an old woman on the same day. On the morning after the funeral, with her aunties milling about our living room in yesterday’s crinkled vitenge, she held my hand and said, Mama, we will sell all this and move you with me to Nairobi. She said it without tears, without a strain in her voice. It was as if my husband forgot to take his voice along with him to the grave. But I did not want to live with her. Or to live at all. So, the aunties dried their eyes and adjusted their head wrappers and held a meeting. It was decided over my head as if I died along with my husband. She would move me to an apartment down the road from her medical school. Then came Sarah. Sarah wakes me every morning. She always has a starched white headscarf that sits on her head like a cap with a tail. Her dresses are long and clean and stiffened against her hips by skinny knife pleats. I am at the end of the street. In his jungle green uniform, the guard looks like a smudge against the iron gate.
On my way back, I stand patiently, waiting for my mind to settle back. It fell off while I was walking. It does that sometimes when I let it go, like a dog off its leash. My thoughts scatter like a kaleidoscope. I cannot tell which perceptions are mine and which ones are distortions. I know how to bring it back though, I learned it on my own. I coax it back like a puppy. I trick back to its leash with patience. It is simple. I count my steps, and my mind crawls back to me. I recite the movement of my fingers, the breaths I take, and my mind bows down before me, ready to be leashed. It is funny that all the doctors with a thousand theories and two thousand pairs of frameless glasses, but nobody knows something as fundamental as the existence of thought. Is it substance, something tangible? No. Well, is it a wave whose movement you can measure? No. Is it a pulse, a signal, quantifiable in any way? They do not know. All they know to do is mute. Numb the mwendawazimu. Make her feel dead inside. What use is a mwendawazimu to anyone? Give her pills to bind her will so that she moves as little as possible, and we can all go on with our lives. I never take my medicines when Sarah hands them to me on a flat plastic tray with a glass of water on the side. I spit them down the toilet and flush, standing over them as they swirl away.
I find my daughter, at the end of my walk, leaning against the gate, legs crossed at the ankles, hands in each pocket, waiting for me. I can smell her angst; I can see it in her twiddling thumbs and her bitten-red lips. I can feel it, in its sweetly decaying fullness, like a bouquet of white flowers two mornings later. It is my muttering to myself that swells it. I walk to where she stands and only stop when my toes touch hers. I am not not sane, baby, I remind her. There are just a million worlds I am privy to, one more vivid than the next. I want to stay in yours, baby, so I follow the light of my experience. Whoever this body belongs to must be your real me. I count my steps whenever I walk. I watch my hands and recite out loud what their actions are. Now my right hand is touching my left; now my left fingers are drumming against my chest, now my fingers are intertwined and cold to touch. You must understand, my baby. I am not less, but more, and more is always a good thing.
She turns and, as if on second thought, hugs me from behind, circling her arms around my waist. Come, she says, we will count together. Two uneven steps up. Fourteen steps, with a landing on the seventh. Thrice. Up and up. She pauses in front of my door, leaning away to pry her one shoe off with her toe, then the other, her hand still clinging to my waist. When she kneels, proposal style, to unlace my sneakers, I go down on the opposite knee so that we interlock like a jigsaw and ask, do you know how hard it is to prove sanity? We are both startled out of our pose by the screaming loudness of my voice. Her dark eyes – like my husband’s, so dark I cannot tell pupil from iris – remain steady.
My daughter says nothing but walks in after me, closing the door softly behind her. It was her wedding with an ivory veil over her head and a river running past just yesterday morning. A wedding on a bridge, and I seated on the first row, so close I could touch her. White chairs with tall backs arranged in rows along the deck behind me. Eucalyptus trees, unapologetically tall and straight, with roots dipping into the waterbed, perfumed the air. The trickle of the water against swollen roots sounded like giggling toddlers. My daughter wore a backless gown that dipped down below her waistline. She had her hair knotted into a bow that sat on a bed of pearls. Her hands trembled as she handed over the bouquet of white roses to her bridesmaid for the vows. Her only bridesmaid had a sweeping gold-colored gown and cornrows plaited so intricately; they looked like a crown over her head. In front of them, with a bible over her breast, the minister had on pumps so high that she had me worried she might fall over. My daughter married a man whose height is up to her bosom, but when he laughs, his belly bobs, like her father. She has only one dimple, my daughter.
Yesterday was Sunday, but we could not attend the morning service for the thunderstorm, keeping us marooned in our farmhouse. We made our little church in the bathroom, my daughter and I, blasting Tanzanian gospel choir tunes from a small radio on the windowsill. She sat cross-legged on the floor beside me as I bent over the bathtub to hand-wash her uniforms. I washed, rinsed, and put the clean but wet laundry in a giant red bucket, ready for the hanging line. She sat on the floor, by my feet, petting an orphaned week-old white lamb that she had recently adopted. I was about done when I felt a lump in one uniform pocket. I reached in and fished a handkerchief out. A handkerchief knotted in many ways – a white one, with a blue ribbon stitched to its borders. The knots were in a series, a predetermined pattern; first around the corners, then the middle pulled in and gathered, so it became a puzzle, hard to solve. I turned to her, lifting her chin with my wet hand, and asked, why would you want to ruin such a beautiful hankie? Didn’t your grandma buy you this one?
She looked me in the eye and said, I love you, Mama, but every time you are around me, I am afraid you will do something, and people will laugh at me. Every knot is a prayer, Mama, a prayer for your sanity. I let her chin go. I sat on the edge of the bathtub and wrung my hands. Soapy water dripped down her neck and soaked through her collar. Her pet lamb bleated and wrested in a futile attempt to be free from her hold. And me sitting behind my daughter on her wedding day over a bridge around whose rails are tied blue ribbons, so pale they look silver, dancing in the wind. My handkerchief is plain white, with thin scalloped edges. The knots on my handkerchief are stained brown from being overdone. My daughter is glowing; her shoes are flat and blue; I can smell the cocoa butter on her skin.
She walks barefoot around the apartment, flinging windows open, peeking into the fridge, looking into my meal containers, running her finger on surfaces. How is Sarah treating you? She asks. I say I do not want to complain, but she cut too many pineapple slices yesterday for my ten o’clock snack. I sat there all day, looking at a mountain of too-sweet pineapple. Why would anyone eat that much pineapple? Please talk to her, I say, looking cautiously toward the bathroom, where I can hear Sarah clucking about. I lower my voice to a whisper; I do not mean to be a snitch, but she should know. Nobody can eat a whole pineapple in a day.
She laughs, my daughter, in her tilted-head way. From the back of her throat, through my stomach, to my heart, I feel her laughter like a vibration. She says: grandma, you are funny. You make me laugh, grandma. That happened years ago before I was born when my mother was training to be a doctor in uni. She holds my hand and rests it on her heart, our fingers interwoven. But you talk about it every day, grandma. And she laughs with her head back, and her mouth opens into a perfect circle. She has on a red dress that falls just above her knee. Her legs are gleaming with too much oil. Before I even say it, I know that I will warn her that too much Vaseline on her shins will stain the hem of her dress. It occurs to me that I might have repeated that many times also. Instead, I hold my words and laugh along, my laughter joining hers like a stream into an ocean.
When she leaves, the apartment explodes with laughter. It dances around the walls, settles inside the heavy wood cabinets, rides up along the chandelier, ending high up against the ceiling where I cannot reach it. I run to my window, fling it open and yell out to her, asking when she will come back to me. I wait for my voice to travel down three floors to her, then she turns to look back up at me, the sun bouncing off her high forehead. Baby, when will you come back to me? She cups her hands around her mouth and shouts that she will come tomorrow, first thing in the morning.
Everything happens in the morning.
About the Author:
Noel Cheruto is a Kenyan writer whose work has appeared in Transition Magazine, The Boston Review, Strange Horizons, Oscilloscope Literary Magazine, Hotel Africa anthology, Yellow Means Stay Anthology, Johannesburg Review of Books, Kikwetu Journal, On the Premises Magazine, and elsewhere. She won Silver in the Short Story Day Africa Contest. In addition, she was named a finalist in the Aura Estrada Short Story Competition and longlisted for the Afritondo Short Fiction Contest and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Noel lives in Nairobi.
Feature image by Tracy Haught